This week's editor

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Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

The US media’s schizophrenic approach to mass shootings

Yet again, the Aurora shooting showed how far away we are from truly "color blind" media reporting on crime. It is time to reflect on how being a white, middle-class male may also be part of the equation.

On bullshit and truthiness: Harry Frankfurt, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Ryan's Convention speech

How do we know when someone is speaking bullshit or talking with 'thruthiness'? In the latter case this is particularly important when it comes to politicians speaking in public, because we are all involved in the resulting compact.  Could this be what radical democracy looks like? 

Uniting States of Americans: We are the 99%!

A year ago this month, 'the 99%' changed the discourse of US politics. But did this call to action for 'American Revolution’ issued by the Occupy Wall Street movement change politics itself? In this first of two multimedia articles, filmmaker and academic Cynthia Weber, introduces us to a range of impressions and reflections in the field.

Empty chairs and hope

Clint Eastwood's bizarre empty chair performance at the RNC in Tampa resonates with a couple's struggle for parenthood - and the very notion of hope that still echoes from the 2008 election.

GOP: Vote for us in 2012, or don't vote at all

The conservative extravaganza in Tampa has been overshadowed by controversy over voter-identification measures taken in some GOP-controlled states. Texas, for example, now regards a concealed weapon license as a legitimate form of identification, but refuses student identification cards. Seemingly limited reforms might radically change the outcome of the upcoming US election.

The Progressive Challenge: taking on robber baron politics

The following is taken from the opening speech at the Take Back the American Dream Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 18

A Personal Primer in Real-World Microeconomics

There once was a high-budget promotional concept ostentatiously labeled by real estate advertising gangsters as “The American Dream”: every family should own a home.

Fallout of News Corp. Scandal in the US?

In the US, the deleterious effect of rampant commercialization is the real scandal. 

Once again, the Tease

As Louisiana braces itself for Tropical Storm Bonnie, Jim Gabour reflects on the current mood in New Orleans.

The United States: democracy, with interests

The members of the United States Congress have gone home without approving Barack Obama's healthcare plan. The president has given the issue so much salience, and the case for reform is so urgent, that it is likely that some more or less satisfactory healthcare reforms will be passed between September 2009 (when Congress reconvenes) and the end of the year. But even if this happens, it is now plain that the result will fall far short of what Obama promised as a presidential candidate and what so many hoped for; it will be rather an intricate complex of compromises, cobbled together to meet the conflicting political and financial needs of  dozens of special interests.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)

"Barack Obama: a six-month assessment" (10 July 2009)

"Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009)

The exact lines of that package of reforms is not yet clear. But already it has offered a highly instructive look at three matters of great importance:

* Obama's growing political difficulties

* The current mood of American politics

* How very different American politics are from the style and substance of politics in other developed democracies.

The magnified madness

The inherently ridiculous affair of the professor, the policeman and the president revealed that, contrary to the "bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn" mood at the time of President Obama's election in November 2008, the United States is still very far from being a "post-racial" nation.

On 16 July 2009, A (white) neighbour observed what seemed to her to be two black men breaking into a house. The two turned out to be the best known African-American scholar in the country, the Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, and his driver; they had gone round the back of Gates's home because the front-door was jammed.

Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police, was sent to investigate and arrested Gates, who - understandably, since he was in his own house - used some unprofessorial language. When asked about the episode at a press conference, President Obama, a personal friend of Gates, said that the local police had acted "stupidly". This is a president who, like most non-white people in America, has personal experience of being "racially profiled", the euphemism for discriminatory harassment by police (see Darryl Pinckney, "Henry Louis Gates Jr: Every black man's nightmare", Independent, 4 August 2009).

With some grace and political style, Obama invited both the tactless policeman and the touchy professor to the White House to have a beer with him in the rose garden.

So much for a silly-season story. What is of lasting significance is the storm of blogs, tweets and other responses the affair provoked, and what they reveal about the political mood. The great majority were furious, not with the policeman, but with the president. The incident has even given new life to the truly mad minority who insist that Barack Obama, a devoted Christian, is a Muslim; or that he is disqualified by foreign birth from the presidency, though he was born in Hawaii; and even that he is a "Manchurian candidate", sneaked into the United States by some Muslim conspiracy to undermine its constitutional-liberties system and Christian faith.

The public illness

What, it may be asked, does this have to do with healthcare reform?

No one, I think, who has read both the bloggers' response to the Gates affair and the chorus of incoherent rage about healthcare could fail to struck by the similarity of their stridency and irrationality.

True, there is one significant difference. On Gates, the great majority were hostile to the president: it looked very much as though only African-Americans and a thin sprinkling of liberals spoke up for Obama. On healthcare, the spluttering rage and wild indifference to the facts have come from both the president's assailants and his defenders.

There is now some evidence that support for both Obama's healthcare policy and his personal popularity are falling. Obama's own standing has (according to a Quinnipiac University poll) fallen from 66% to 50% between early July and early August 2009 (and by a similar margin, albeit to a higher total, in a CNN survey.

Obama's political circle fear that time is against him, and they may be right. They pushed to get Congress to pass a healthcare-reform proposal before Congress adjourned, and failed. The health-insurance industry and the Republicans will used the congressional vacation to bombard vulnerable politicians with even more fear-inducing material. Already the heaviest advertising spending has been in the districts of key members of relevant committees. The closer the 2010 mid-term elections approach, the more congressmen will be reluctant to expose themselves to this barrage.

The political mood in the United States is nervous, edgy, uncertain. In foreign policy, a number of events - the re-election (albeit dubious) of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, the return to power of Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, the continued frustrations in Afghanistan and Pakistan - have shown that Obama has less power to change the world than he, or at least those who voted for him, imagined.

In the domestic arena, against the background of a deep economic recession there is a strange political situation as the president seeks to push healthcare policy forward. A substantial majority of Americans still say they want serious change in this area. But on this as on other issues, Obama's wish to "reach across the aisle" and overcome the sharp political dichotomy (as well as to convince elements of his own side) has not worked; Republican politicians still caricature healthcare reform as "socialised medicine", even if as yet they have derived little political benefit from this stance.

The media story, however, is more sharply defined than the political one. Conservative publicists and pundits, especially on radio and on Fox TV, have recovered their confidence. They shamelessly travesty Democratic policies, and a surprising number of their readers and listeners seem to agree. Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the finance committee and a relatively responsible figure in the healthcare debate, asserted that Senator Ted Kennedy - the veteran champion of healthcare reform, who has had surgery for a brain tumour - would have died by now if he had lived in Canada or Britain.

The interest effect

The United States is a democracy. Its citizens have the right if they wish to spend twice what any other countries spend on healthcare, and receive in return an overall inferior service. But it is worth asking why - since Lyndon B Johnson's introduction in 1965 of Medicaid (for the poor) and Medicare (for the elderly) - the clearer failures in the delivery of healthcare have been so hard to remedy.

An important factor is undoubtedly the extraordinary influence of special interests at several points in the political system. "Interests" - in this case health insurance, pharmaceuticals and private hospitals on one side, and trial lawyers and trade unions on the other  - are able to exert three kinds of pressure (see Joe Klein, "Will Special Interests Stymie Health-Care Reform?", Time, 3 August 2009).

First, they target politicians directly with massive campaigns of televised political advertising of a kind that would not be permitted by law (on account that it skews public debate) in most other developed countries.  

Second, they lean on politicians by contributing large sums to their re-election campaigns, or to those of their opponents. The fact that elections for the House of Representatives are held every two years increases the temptation and vulnerability of congressmen.

Third, the interests can support a vast network of advocacy-groups, foundations, lobbies and  public-relations operations which all strive to frame the debate. This includes the often explicit aim of influencing media reporting. The success here is most blatant in the resulting distortion of Americans' perception of how healthcare works in other countries (for example, the canard that people in Britain or Canada are not allowed to choose their own doctor).

The federal lesson

Most Americans believe that their system is more "democratic" than others, especially than parliamentary systems. There is some truth in this. It is certainly true that "interests" in the United States - special or routine, benign or selfish - have greater opportunities to stall or avert change, even when there is evidence that large majorities desire such change. Many Americans (and others) also believe that the spread of new media in America has introduced an enviable online "people's democracy". The quality of much online debate in the US makes this questionable.

Because the United States has a federal system, there is a wider range of geographical variation. In other respects, too, the American constitutional system makes quick and effective action by central governments more difficult. The weakness of the two parties means that a new coalition has to be negotiated for each major legislation.

The constitution enshrined two principles:

* the balance of powers between the three branches of government (the executive, the legislative and the judicial)

* the distribution of "checks and balances" between them, and between the federal government and the states, in a manner that was intended to defend against a tyranny of the majority. This it has done effectively.

The American constitution has worked well on the whole, and - even if William Ewart Gladstone's description of it as the "noblest work ever struck at one time from the mind of man" may be hyberbolic - it is respected to the verge of veneration in its homeland. Like any human creation, however, it has imperfections. A serious failing is that the constitution makes it harder to reach consensus on the need for change, or on the precise form that change could take, than do the (equally imperfect) political institutions of other nations. When in addition the political atmosphere in the United States has become so febrile and partisan, the result is that the fate of Barack Obama's flagship policy is in the balance.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Letter from Motor City

The ruins of Detroit are no less spectacular, no less heartbreaking, than those of fallen ancient capitals. A beaux-arts railway station, its 18 stories vacant for the last two decades, crumbles under the tread of scavengers and vandals, its tracks pulled up, its windows punched out. A once-grand movie palace, on the site where Henry Ford built his first automobile, lives on as a derelict parking structure. Marvels of industrial architecture bleach in the sun, disappearing under urban prairies, green and garbage-strewn meadows that line the city's major avenues.

The city's disappearing act is matched by its vanishing institutions. For Chrysler and General Motors, these are the days and nights of Chapter 11 - the American bankruptcy code which allows reorganization and repudiation of contracts - while Ford attempts a desperate restructuring of its own. The ingenious legions of bankruptcy lawyers may labor in New York courtrooms (where the process is supposed to be faster, and relatively less painful), but Motor City is the site of the pileup. As bankruptcy loomed over Detroit, I went to take the city's pulse.

Unemployment in the metro region pushes towards 14 percent, the highest in the country, and rising. Municipal bonds are at junk status. The city fathers - those not ousted in successive scandals over marital infidelity, perjury, the death of an exotic dancer, and improper text messaging - grapple with a $300 million budget shortfall. Infrastructure buckles and frays. The population declines: a city of nearly two million souls in 1950 musters fewer than a million in 2009.

Yet in June the Red Wings, the city's beloved hockey heroes, made an electrifying bid for a second straight Stanley Cup. Faith in Obama still ran high among the city's overwhelmingly African-American population, despite the fallout from the administration's "managed" bankruptcies. And over the long Memorial Day weekend in May, more than 75,000 electronic music fans streamed into Hart Plaza on the renovated waterfront, dancing ecstatically in the shadows cast by empty skyscrapers.

Young Detroiters prefer to boast that their city gave the world techno music, rather than harp on the invention of the modern assembly line or on the Nation of Islam (which came into being in 1930, in the city's Linwood Avenue neighborhood). Every year, one of the world's largest electronic music festivals pays homage to the small group of African-American producers and DJs who fused local traditions of funk and Motown with avant-garde European electronica in the early 1980s. Soon the sound had spread to cutting-edge clubs, underground raves, and plucky record labels around the world.

One of the pioneer DJs, Derrick May, described it as a "complete mistake... like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company." Yet this unlikely fusion - ethereal and driving, futurist and vintage, high concept and for the masses - fits Detroit well. Recent standard bearers of the Detroit aesthetic include Carl Craig, who is equally at home remixing Ravel and Mussorgsky or juicing up a dance floor, and Jay Dilla, a hip hop producer who achieved transcendence by discovering obscure soul records and sampling them flawlessly.

Decline and collapse

Like Venice, like the family farm, Detroit has been going under for as long as anyone can remember, making it more symbol than city to other Americans. The official motto is Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes) - an optimism already two centuries old, referring to a city-wide fire in 1805. Likewise, GM's world headquarters are at the "Renaissance Center", a cluster of glowering glass towers, a familiar backdrop from baleful news reports on TV, which was recently redeveloped on the fleeting profits of the Hummer Boom.

Talk of renaissance and rebirth is stale officialese to many Detroiters, but downtown does show signs of life - a renovated theater, a fixed-up hotel, cleaner streets. Still, the city's thousands of homeless wander the few parks; thousands more squat in vacant buildings. A little farther out, the authorities have lavished less attention; whole districts of the city molder half-empty, and condemned towers of public housing await demolition. This may be the ultimate stage of inner city blight: grassy, silent lots and the peaceful ruins of stately homes. No gun-toting criminals, no noxious industry, no overcrowded housing projects--in fact, no one in sight at all.

The pivotal moment, according to many white Detroiters, was the 1967 riots. In the most compelling Detroit novel of recent times, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, those terrifying race riots received extended fictional treatment for the first time. "Oh my god! Is like Smyrna! Like the Turks they are burning everything!" cries Desdemona Stephanides in the riot's early hours, evoking traumatic memories of the horrors that drove the novel's Greek immigrant family to America in the first place. Eugenides depicts the anguish of Detroit's white middle class, heavily ethnic, which fled en masse in the following years. Although polarized race relations had long haunted the city - ever since the influx of southern blacks to the auto factories brought competition for jobs - the fall-out of 1967 signaled a definitive pattern of "chocolate city, vanilla suburbs" and a new atmosphere of ineluctable mistrust.

Keeping up with white flight and moving nimbly for tax breaks, the auto companies inhabit this whole gridded sprawl, first patterned by the Land Ordinance of 1785. Chrysler's headquarters are in the cozy suburb of Auburn Hills, Ford anchors the city of Dearborn, and GM threatened a move to nearby Warren until bankruptcy hit. It was in Highland Park, a now-impoverished black enclave within Detroit, that industrial architect Albert Kahn built the visionary factory which famously churned out Model T's in under a minute; the structure now grows shabby as an unloved storage depot.

In fact, the whole of the original Northwest Territory became a cradle of the American auto industry, with important early ventures by the Studebaker brothers in South Bend, Indiana, and Ransom Olds in Lansing, Michigan, among hundreds of others. The triumph of the Big Three, clustered so close together, took decades - and was a testament as much to business acumen and an era of consolidation as to feats of engineering.

Most haunting of all, in light of this year's bankruptcies, is the memento mori on East Grand Avenue, in Detroit itself: the former plant and headquarters of the Packard Motor Car Company. This massive complex, containing 47 buildings spread over 3.5 million square feet, has been crumbling since Packard's demise in 1956, when the luxury brand succumbed to competition from the Big Three. The site later became a hub of Detroit's illegal rave scene. Today, you find oceans of old shoes dumped across the old factory floor, or the charred remains of a boat, which pyromaniacs brought here for a lark.

Detroit is probably America's best-known example of a shrinking city, and it's still in free fall. This is one reason why the city has little to show for its large-scale, officially-sanctioned renewal plans. The city's bright spots are small-scale, experimental efforts. Immigration - particularly from Africa and the middle east (the city of Dearborn is by now the acknowledged center of Arab America) - is one hope of the revivalists. Bringing back manufacturing - electric car startups, green job schemes, and high-speed rail plants have all been mentioned - is another. To boost local businesses, a new, homegrown currency, the Detroit Cheers, was recently launched.

Mostly in their 20s and 30s, Detroit's several hundred urban farmers, linked by the Detroit Agriculture Network, have their own answer to the shrinking city. Many sell their produce at Eastern Market, one of America's largest and oldest public markets, currently being restored to greatness shed by shed. Some farmers are growing vegetables along Woodward Avenue, the city's main drag, which runs from the riverfront to the suburbs. Others establish community gardens the size of postage stamps wherever they can.

On the depressed east side, Tyree Guyton and other artists have transformed a section of derelict Heidelberg Street into an vast outdoor art project. Dozens of discarded stuffed animals hang from the sides of a boarded-up house. Regiments of defunct vacuum cleaners, waving gloves from their handles, mark out an overgrown garden. Shopping carts defy gravity on an exposed treetop.

The result is more eerie than beautiful, a possible model for the endless foreclosed suburbs of southern California and Arizona. The Sun Belt will soon follow Detroit's lead into decline, say the prophets of doom. And what artistic medium to better savage the American Dream than the single-family home (as artist Mike Bouchet recently demonstrated in Venice)? Yet the Heidelberg Project also points up the limits of Detroit's DIY urbanism, already appearing as neglected and ghastly as the surrounding desolation it critiques. The artists deliver a harangue to accompany the decay, a raging against the dying of the light, but no end to the decay itself.

The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices

A visit by an American president to the Arab world might not in normal circumstances be of great importance to the majority of people in the region. There is still much suspicion towards the United States in the middle east, and this tends to be reflected in indifference to the appearance of a head of state of the country in its midst.

Karim Kasim is a researcher in development and political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC). He has been working on ICT for development in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east. He is involved in a number of local initiatives, including youth work, activism, volunteer work and intercultural learning

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)
But these are not normal times. President Barack Obama's persona had already engaged great interest among Arabs, but his address in Cairo on 4 June 2009 on the Muslim world and the "new beginning" he seeks to forge with it has captivated them. In more concrete terms, Obama's visit has reinforced what has been evident for some time: a feeling of hope that a president with his background will tilt American policy in favour of popular will and against oppression in Palestine, Iraq and the region as a whole. 

There is widespread agreement that the speech is unlikely to be followed by sudden changes; and indeed that no single individual - even the president - can decisively shift American policy. But a space has opened, and - as this brief article shows - Arab Muslims (as well those elsewhere) are filling it with their ideas.

Anticipation

In the days before the speech, Cairo residents were more concerned by the draconian security measures they were sure would be imposed on 4 June. As a result, many opted to stay at home. Yet even then, Obama's message - its timing, substance and likely reception - were very much on people's minds. 

"Turkey did not work, so he is trying Egypt", said Ashraf Qadah, a philosophy graduate. "I am afraid that it is going to be a speech that starts and ends in Cairo. Obama's address will be a public-relations matter that will go nowhere after Obama leaves the city", he added. 

Aseel, a young Iraqi, expressed little hope that things would change as a result of the visit and speech. Her logic was in part that "(Obama) chose to give his speech in Egypt, which is under the thumb of an aging autocrat who embodies the antithesis of hope and change".

Many Egyptians posed a question that reflected Aseel's concerns: namely which Muslim world is Obama going to speak to - Arab Muslim regimes, Muslim societies at large, or opposition political parties (especially those with Islamic inclinations)? Others were unnerved by the fact that the impending message was directed specifically towards Muslims - which set the target audience apart from the many religious minorities that exist throughout the Islamic world, many of whom share Muslims' animosity towards US policies.  This point is underlined by the event's location: Egypt is home to the largest Christian community in the Arab world.

But Adel El Zaim, a Lebanese-Canadian living in Cairo, insisted that the visit itself was a source of hope. The president "has not waited until the end of his mandate to launch a peace initiative, like George W Bush", he said. "The visit is also a milestone in the relationship between the United States and the Arab Muslim world. It will help build the lost trust between the two sides - a first step that must be followed by several others."

There is indeed some surprise at such an early move toward the Muslim world. "I know Obama's attitude towards the region has been quite positive - more so than I expected" said Maha Bali, a technologist at the American University in Cairo. Kismet El-Husseiny, an economics graduate, was more sceptical: for Obama it is an opportunity to make "small promises that are not too hard to keep, but will be delivered in a way that makes them impressive."

Reaction

Barack Obama's speech was broadcast live on dozens of channels throughout the middle east (and was reprinted in full in many newspapers the day after). Life went on: streets across the region were as ever filled with people, and traffic doesn't stop in Arab capitals. But large numbers did listen to or watch the broadcast, often grouped together in cafes or conference rooms. The event brought Arabs from Morocco to Iraq together and captured their attention in a way that is usually reserved for major sporting events - or the start of a war.

The reaction, more uniform than the anticipation, was greatly positive - though with questions about how much change Obama could really deliver. Abdullah, an academic in a Lebanese university, expressed the view that Obama's speech "is a historical opportunity for the Arab region. I wish that Arabs would take an initiative of their own to seize the opportunities that Obama is presenting. What he said is in line with our way of thinking and the initiatives he announced were inspiring." 

On the US president's efforts to build bridges between western and Islamic civilisations, Abdullah added that "Obama gave more credit to Arab and Islamic contributions than Arabs themselves do. He also delivered an important blow to Islamic fundamentalists: whereas previously many Arabs and Muslims were convinced that the west was no ally to them, Obama showed them that in him they have a friend". 

Yasmine, an employee of an international organisation in Beirut, was less impressed by the substance of the speech than by the fact that a president of the United States shared many of her own views and ideas. "We've heard all this before, but not from a president", she said.

What little criticism there was focused on the Israeli-Arab peace process. "He didn't call for the settlements [in the Palestinian territories] to be dismantled. He merely said that construction must stop. How can a Palestinian state be established if the settlements that are already there remain?" asked Hani, a Syrian economics graduate. "Obama has no leeway with the Israelis. They will force him to backtrack", said Samir, a Lebanese resident of Saudi Arabia. 

There is substantive agreement between Barack Obama himself and most of the Arab public that the true test of the speech is whether specific changes in US policy with regard to Palestine and the rest of the Arab Muslim world follow - including the commitments over Iraq. Abbas, a public official in Iraq, sums up the mood of the moment: "Obama's achievement for now is to have opened the door for much-needed change, and to contribute to the efforts of many in the Arab and Islamic worlds to encourage tolerance and understanding". 

What will these Arab voices think in six months' time? We hope to ask them and report on our findings.


Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Kanishk Tharoor, "Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog" (4 June 2009)

The Cairo speech: letter to America

President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 lived up to its billing as an attempt to allay the mutual suspicion between the United States and Islam and chart a fresh course. It went further than many expected in offering two audiences - Israelis and Arab Muslims (in particular Palestinians) a "moral" frame of reference for a hoped-for new phase of engagement. But the speech had a third (and less-noticed) audience: people in the United States itself, especially those who for whatever reason have negative views of Muslims and their religion. 

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006); A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)
This gave the speech an injection of domestic political significance. The president will need the support or at least acquiescence of people at home if he is to make progress with his strategy for peace in the "greater middle east". An attitudinal shift towards the Muslim world in the US may be essential to this effort.

Obama's urge to distinguish his approach from that of his predecessor to an area of vital importance to American foreign policy was plain. Where the crude and polarising rhetoric of the George W Bush administration and many of its supporters served to fuel hostility to the Muslim world (often hardly distinguishing between Islam and the 9/11 bombers, for example), Obama made an enlightened effort to show sympathy and some understanding of Islam.

He several times quoted the Qur'an, and was applauded when he did. He highlighted what a less sensitive and courageous man might have avoided, that his middle name is Hussein. "I'm a Christian", he said, "but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago with communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith."

But perhaps just as important as his address to Muslims, his speech contained a challenge to prejudice - while conveying a message to those Americans troubled by any impression that their president might seem "too close" to his Muslim hosts. So he attacked anti-semitism and repudiated holocaust-denial (knowing that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is far from the only influential Muslim to flirt with that ugly perversion of history); and proclaimed his commitment to America's "unbreakable bond" with Israel.

Moreover, Obama balanced his "outreach" to Muslims with strong words on what they must do if the chasm between Islam and the west is to be bridged. He evoked the "humiliation" and suffering of the Palestinians in explicit terms; but he denounced violence, and singled out the very kinds of violence with which the Palestinians have been especially associated. "It is a sign neither of courage nor power", he said, "to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered".

The speech was full of proud references to America's values and to his belief in their universal applicability. But where his predecessor and the neo-conservatives who defined the George W Bush administration's profile in the world projected the sense that they had a monopoly of belief in democracy, Obama presented America's values as universal in a different way. They were no longer to be understood as instruments that the United States intended to disseminate everywhere (by force if necessary), but instincts that were already shared by people of goodwill, including (of course) Muslims; and which only needed the right conditions to be realised.

The homeland campaign

The way that this theme was elaborated in the second (and perhaps less reported) half of this truly remarkable speech really demonstrated both the breadth of Barack Obama's human insight and his political talent.

Here his focus moved onto four issues so broad that they subsume even the conflicts of political and religious communities across the middle east: economic development, tolerance, democracy, and (with detail and depth) women's rights.

Some of the president's listeners, and not least hardened reporters - accustomed to tired rhetoric when politicians turn to the subject of their ideals - might have missed two important elements of what this second half of his speech was intended to achieve.

First, he was making the point that these issues are of equal interest to the participants in the region's quarrels, as well as to others - that they are, indeed, universal concerns. Second, he was in a subtle way addressing the concerns of Americans about Islam and about the effort he proposes to make to improve America's relations with the religion's followers.

The challenge for the president is that there are large numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere in the west who are (or have become in the course of the 2000s) generically critical of "Islam" or its adherents - and are sceptical about the possibility of improving relations with the imagined "other". They are found, moreover, in all sections of society - and far beyond members of the unreconstructed right. Many American women, for example - perhaps liberal American women even more than conservative - see the Muslim Arab world as a place of irredeemable sexism.

The president went some way to respond to this by connecting his belief in the equal value of daughters and sons, and the importance of women's education, to an unequivocal statement that Muslim countries need to improve the rights and opportunities of their female citizens. In this he was also seeking to offset any worries that, in his effort to reach out to Muslims, he might be tempted to abandon values that are implanted in American society.

Obama's references to democracy and human rights were similarly motivated: both to signal a commitment to his Cairo audience (with an unmistakable if indirect judgment of the brutal regime of his host, Hosni Mubarak) and to meet the concerns of (especially) liberal Americans about the lack of political freedoms in this part of the Muslim world. He was applauded by many of his Egyptian listeners when he pointed out that "there are some who advocate democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others." But the message was for the people at home also.

Many commentators are right to point out that it will take more than even the most skilful of speeches to remove mutual suspicion between the west and Islam, let alone between Israel and the Arab-Muslim world.

This proposal of "a new beginning" did, however, reinforce my conviction that Barack Obama is one of the most gifted and serious statesmen the world has seen in action for a very long time. In Cairo, he showed remarkable insight into the embittered politics of the middle east. Even more, he displayed once again his deep understanding of the many facets - the fears and the ideals, the prejudice and the pride, the caution and the generosity - of the American people.


Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Kanishk Tharoor, "Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog" (4 June 2009)

Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog

**UPDATE** In summary -- Obama began compellingly, but somewhere in the later half the speech began to drag, its thrust lost in rhetoric that was at best earnest, at worst hackneyed. There were other weaknesses: he asked Arabs and Muslims not to be imprisoned by history, but at the same time justified America's support for Israel with evocations of the excesses of the past. Critics will also have expected sterner stuff on women's issues and on democracy in the Arab world, both of which Obama treated swiftly.

Nevertheless, after eight years of arrogance and error, the speech should go some way in convincing many people around the world that Obama's administration is serious about rehabilitating its role on the global stage. Melding ideas and detail with his typical fluency, Obama was the picture of a cool, informed leader. His systematic parsing of the issues also promised an energetic approach to policy-making. Of course, Obama will be judged by his accomplishments more than his words, but as he said early on, the goal of his speech was to shift perceptions. The audience of elite students in Cairo University gave him a resounding ovation; how his speech fared in dustier parts of the "Arab and Muslim world" will be the better measure of its success.

1303 in Cairo Less than ten minutes to go ahead of one of the most anticipated speeches in recent memory (Read Nader Hashemi's build-up on openDemocracy). President Barack Obama has braved criticism from many fronts in his bid to speak directly to the "Muslim world". How will he spin US involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict? Will he make a dig at his host, Hosni Mubarak, and other American-backed dictators? Will he apologise for the gross blunders of invasion and torture? Stay tuned for live updates and commentary.

1310 And we're off in Cairo University. Takes Obama a few seconds to speak in Arabic ("shukraan"). He now parses the history of relations between "Islam" and the "west", and accounts for American Islamophobia. 

1316 "America and Islam are not exclusive... they share common principles." Nation-state is akin to transcendental global faith? Mohammad Iqbal must be rolling in his grave.

1317 Shout out to the Koran! Took seven minutes.

1320 The historian in me is pleased: Obama mentions that it was Morocco that first recognised the independent thirteen colonies. Good detail. Less impressed by paeans to Islamic learning fuelling the Renaissance. Neverthless, this is typical Obama on good form, moving smoothly from rich theme to illuminating fact. 

1323 Obama subtly distinguishes the US from the secularists of Europe; the US protects the veil and the hijab, maintains a mosque in every state, and punishes religious intolerance.

1327 Human history, Obama says, is a record of self-interest, but not anymore. We are now in an era of interdependence, "our progress must be shared". Yet there's steel here: "we must face these tensions squarely". He's warmed up.

1330 He now defends military engagement in Afghanistan, playing a bit to the home audience. Faint echoes of Bush in the evocation of a coalition of "46 countries."

Time for a lovely quote from the Koran: "Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind."

1334 Describes the Iraq war as one of "choice", not necessity. He doesn't apologise or strongly condemn the invasion, but reaffirms commitment to diplomacy and Iraqi sovereignty, and spells out a timeline of withdrawal. All troops out by 2012.

1335 "Unequivocal" about stopping torture and closure of Guantanamo. He's covered most of the bases. Israel-Palestine up next.

1336 "America's bond with Israel is unbreakable." He firmly backs the need for the Israeli state, reminding viewers that he's going to visit Buchenwald after Cairo. A bit too baldly strategic for my liking.

1340 Reaffirms commitment to two-state solution, and like the good doctor he is, lays out prescriptions. Compares the history of African American resistance to slavery and bigotry and nonviolent resistance to apartheid in South Africa to the struggle in Palestinian, arguing that violence is not the way. Many Israelis will bristle at that. Strong of Obama to make the parallel. He's now slamming settlements, and demanding that Israelis must make life more livable for Palestinians. He also demands more compromise from Arab states.

1344  "We will say in public what we say in private." Only Obama can sound credible saying that.

1346 On to Iran. Recognises US involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, and subsequent decades of mistrust. But now it is no time to be beholden to the past: "we are ready to move ahead without any preconditions." Urges Tehran to come to the table.

1350 To the meat of the matter: the issue of democracy ("not an American idea, but a human right") in the Arab world. Are you watching, Hosni?

1351 Takes a dig at both autocrats and neo-cons by affirming that elections alone don't a democracy make. 

1353 He's advocating "freedom of religion", and doing well to mention the religious diversity of the Arab world. 

Delivers another rebuke to the likes of Turkey and France, that would prevent women from wearing Muslim garb.

1355 Excellent move: he separates the issue of women's dress (above) from women's rights. Eat your heart out, Martin Amis, Jack Straw et al. 

1358 "There need not be contradictions between development and tradition." We've returned to opening theme, of moving forward and closer together while remaining rooted (and respecting each other's roots). 

1401 A litany of initiatives and partnerships that will tighten cooperation in a blizzard of areas (lost track) between the US and Muslim-majority countries. Obama does soft power.

1403 We've reached the denouement. Fluffy stuff that rises above the bile of "clash of civilisations", but it's still fluffy. 

1406 Ends with a comp lit lesson; Obama paraphrases the Koran, Torah and Bible, drawing out their common message of peace. He stumbles over his last line; saying "May God be upon you" instead of "May peace be upon you". The audience doesn't care, as students raucously take up an Obama chant.

 

Journalism's many crises

The word “crisis” is overused, as are the anodyne  “problem” or “issue.” (As in the highly flexible, “I have issues.”) Ordinary troubles become inflated into “crises” because crises sound somehow more dignified or electrifying. A problem sounds possibly serious, if hypothetically soluble, but a crisis sounds, as well, critical.

Yet the overuse might lead us to bend over backwards and fall into euphemism - calling a grave matter “a little difficult,” for example, as is common, for some reason, in American discourse today. There are crises. History proceeds by convulsions, not only increments - or rather, increments build up into crises, and before one knows it, the landscape has changed, one is living in a different world, and the world before it changed is barely conceivable and certainly unrecoverable. It was a foreign country; they did things differently there.

Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD programme in communications at Columbia University.

He has written twelve books, among them

The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals
(John Wiley, 2007),

Letters to a Young Activist
(Basic Books, 2003) and

The Intellectuals and the Flag
(Columbia University Press, 2006).

His website is here
In the case of the murky future of journalism, it is fair to speak of crisis - crises, actually. The landscape has changed, is changing, will change - radically. Just because the industry is crying wolf does not mean that the wolf is not nearby.  In the story, when the real wolf showed up, no one was ready. 

Four wolves have arrived at the door of American journalism simultaneously while a fifth has already been lurking for some time. One is the precipitous decline in the circulation of newspapers. The second is the decline in advertising revenue, which, combined with the first, has badly damaged the profitability of newspapers. The third, contributing to the first, is the diffusion of attention. The fourth is the more elusive crisis of authority. The fifth, a perennial - so much so as to be perhaps a condition more than a crisis - is journalism’s inability or unwillingness to penetrate the veil of obfuscation behind which power conducts its risky business.

Circulation and revenue

The surplus of crises has commentators scrambling for metaphors, even mixed ones. The Project for Excellence in Journalism put it this way in a recent report: “The newspaper industry exited a harrowing 2008 and entered 2009 in something perilously close to free fall. Perhaps some parachutes will deploy, and maybe some tree limbs will cushion the descent, but for a third consecutive year the bottom is not in sight.” The newspaper industry in the United States is afflicted with a grave and deepening sense that it is moribund, that the journalistic world they knew is vanishing; that it is melting away not just within their lifetimes but before their eyes.

The numbers virtually shout out that this is not paranoia. Overall, newspaper circulation has dropped 13.5 percent for the dailies and 17.3 percent for the Sunday editions since 2001; almost 5 percent just in 2008. In what some are calling the Great Recession, advertising revenue is down - 23 percent over the last two years - even as paper costs are up. Nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone. Foreign bureaus have been shuttered - all those of the Boston Globe, for example, New England’s major paper. I recently met the Chicago Tribune’s South Asia correspondent, responsible for India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with five years of experience there. Having been recalled to work on the Metro desk in Chicago, she resigned.

There is, in particular, the advent of competition for classified advertising, long the newspapers’ financial mainstay, but now available free online. In the recession, display advertising is way down.  Newspapers overall lost 83 percent of their stock value last year. You can buy a share of stock in the McClatchy papers, which used to be one of the highest-quality chains, for less than the cost of a single copy of the paper. The Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times and several other major papers, has filed for bankruptcy. So have the papers in Minneapolis and Philadelphia. The afternoon papers in Denver and Seattle have closed, and in Detroit, weekday home delivery for both dailies takes place only Thursdays and Fridays only; Monday through Wednesday, only a smaller edition is sold at newsstands.  This article is based on an address prepared for “Journalism in Crisis”, University of Westminster, London

Overall, newspapers remain profitable, in the low to mid teens, but several corporate chains took on enormous piles of debt when they made acquisitions in recent years (The Tribune: $13 billion in acquiring the Times Mirror Corp).  Chain ownership of local newspapers by corporations that trade on the stock exchange undermined them. With expectations of declining profits in the future, investors pursued what is cynically called a “harvest strategy” - bidding up their stock market value in expectation that profits would have to be harvested quickly, before the bottom fell out of their financial value. Profitability, they reasoned, would come from cost-cutting, which meant cutting back the practice of journalism. The chains cut back on coverage in order to try to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue. This has not won back readers. One prominent television commentator recently said: “The New York Times has 60 people in its Baghdad bureau. As far as I can tell, the Times doesn't have that many subscribers under the age of forty.” He was joking, of course. Of course.

Here are some excerpts from another study, from 2008, by the Project for Excellence in Journalism:

Meet the American daily newspaper of 2008.

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.

The newsroom staff producing the paper is also smaller, younger, more tech-savvy, and more oriented to serving the demands of both print and the web. The staff also is under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.

And still revenue plunges, if not so much because circulation is shrinking than because business acumen did. Obviously newspaper companies have made many poor business decisions in recent years, from taking on mountainous debt to establishing a precedent of free internet access. When poor business decisions are chronic and widespread, you have to conclude that the companies have entered a twilight where anxiety has gotten the better of understanding. How stable even the New York Times can remain, given its own precipitous stock decline in the last five years, is unclear. Its two-tier stock arrangement, designed to preserve control within the Sulzberger family, may not insulate it enough if losses continue to mount. The Chandler family of Los Angeles, reduced to squabbling, ended its own reign there, and Dow-Jones’ Bancroft family sold out to Rupert Murdoch a year and a half ago.  The Washington Post Company seemed to have dodged the bullet by buying the testing company Kaplan, re-annointing itself an “education and media company”, and letting the tail wag the dog - Kaplan accounts for more than half of company revenue. But if that expedient has saved the paper, it is a more meager paper. A longtime foreign correspondent who took a buyout a few years ago told me that when he visited the newsroom recently, the old globe that pinpointed the Post’s foreign bureaus was gone - it would have looked too embarrassing.

To limit the discussion to the last decade or so both overstates the precipitous danger and understates the magnitude of a secular crisis - which is probably a protracted crisis in the way in which people know - or believe they know - the world.  In the US, newspaper circulation has been declining, per capita, at a constant rate since 1960. The young are not reading the papers. While they say they “look” at the papers online, it is not clear how much looking they do. We may well be living amidst a sea change in how we encounter the world, how we take in its traces and make sense of them, a change comparable to the shift from oral to written culture among the Greeks and the shift to printing with movable type in 15th and 16th century Europe. 

This shift has been in play, accelerating, disrupting theories of linear progress, or progress through linearity, for almost two centuries - from photography through film and television to the Internet, in the rise of screens and the relative decline of sequential text.

It isn’t my purpose here to try to sum up what might be gained and lost in such a transition—surely both sides of the ledger are active. Nor is it my purpose to lock onto some hard-and-fast black-and-white theory of utter, utter change in sensibility. The newspaper was always a tool for simultaneity (you don’t so much read a paper as swim around in it, McLuhan was fond of saying) at least as much as a tool for cognitive sequence. What if the sensibility that is now consolidating itself - with the Internet, mobile phones, GPS, Facebook and Twitter and so on - the media for the Daily Me, for point-to-point and many-to-many transmission - what if all this portends an irreversible sea-change in the very conditions of successful business? The question is not answerable. But that is exactly the point.  To navigate a business in such choppy seas is no task for the faint-hearted.

The clamor for attention

Attention has been migrating from slower access to faster; from concentration to multitasking; from the textual to the visual and the auditory, and toward multi-media combinations. Multitasking alters cognitive patterns. Attention attenuates. Advertisers have for decades talked about the need to “break through the clutter,” the clutter consisting, amusingly, of everyone else’s attempts to break through the clutter.

Now, media and not just messages clutter. Measured by the criterion of how people spend their time, the central activity of our civilization is connection to media. At work, at home, on the street, in the car, in elevators and malls, commuting or waiting, we spend much of our day in a torrent of images and sounds, navigating through it, filtering it, desirous of it and through it - sometimes immersed, sometimes floating, sometimes wading, sometimes choosing, sometimes engulfed. Success goes to the media, portals, and sites that attract attention.

Accordingly, not only has print circulation plunged, but the amount of time spent with newspapers is also declining. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in 2006, while “the total time that people spend with the news is largely unchanged from a decade ago,” still “the time people devote to reading newspapers is down from an average of 19 minutes to 15 minutes, partially because fewer are reading papers and partially because those who do spend a bit less time at it.” Just under one-fifth of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 claim to look at a daily newspaper - which is not to say how much of it they read. The average American newspaper reader is 55 years old.

Of course significant numbers of readers are accessing - which is not to say reading - newspapers online, but the amount of time they seem to spend there is bifurcated. In roughly half of the top 30 newspaper sites, readership is steady or falling. Still, “of the top 5 online newspapers - ranked by unique users – [the] three [national papers] reported growth in the average time spent per person: NYTimes.com, USAToday.com, and the Wall Street Journal Online.” One thing is clear: whatever the readership online, it is not profitable. 

As for national television news, the median age of evening news viewers is 61. The average age at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is over 65. The average age of all network TV viewers just crossed 50.  The median age in the United States is 38. Cable news audiences spiked up during the 2008 campaign, but then subsided. Even local news, the home of "If it bleeds, it leads", has seen viewership decline.

Media saturation

The undermining of newspapers is the product of many converging factors, which I would summarize under the heading, "media saturation". Media saturation is the product of compound, feverish competition for the attention of persons that is capable of being monetized - and it works. There is, of course, the rise of the Internet. There is the increased time Americans spend working and commuting, which is that much less time for newspapers.

It is true that newspaper websites are gaining readers, or visitors. Unique viewers are estimated to “add 8.4 percent to the average newspaper’s readership, making up most, but not all, of the audience decline.” Still, even online ads fell last year, by 0.4 percent, and add up to less than 10 percent of newspaper revenue. 

As for public television, the situation is equivalent. Public funding amounts to roughly half of the budget of the nightly News Hour; corporations donate the other half in exchange for vanity quasi-commercials.  But in the age of "maximizing shareholder value" over the past few decades, corporate support has declined. Foundations have taken up some of the slack, but their own endowments have taken a beating, and they’ve cut their grants too. Public radio is a bright spot, with 13 percent of Americans saying they regularly get most of their news from National Public Radio (NPR). These are disproportionately the college-educated and older.

The"opinion" blog

Now, the rise of opinion blogs and sites gives reason to think that political discourse is far from dead - even, perhaps, more absorbing, at least for the young, than the old regime of newspapers and television. The 2008 political campaign generated unusual interest from young people, who told pollsters they “get their news” from the internet (although it’s far from clear that their claims can be taken at face value). But it is worth considering that very little of the hard nuts-and-bolts work of reporting is done by internet sites. Almost all current-events blogs collect news from newspaper sites or the handful of internet sites that commission actual reporting (as opposed to commentary, informed or not). The blogs do amalgamate and “connect dots,” and the connecting of dots is a necessary function of a journalism that enables people to intervene in governance.

An example from a website, Talking Points Memo (TPM), with which I’m associated. In 2006, seven United States attorneys were dismissed in midterm by George W Bush’s Department of Justice. These dismissals were made known locally. They were unusual. Local reports were amalgamated at the national level by a de facto collaboration of TPM readers who posted such stories, in effect improvising a national newsroom. TPM reporters conducted their own investigations. A pattern emerged: the US attorneys had been fired in order to prevent investigations of Republican politicians or because they refused to initiate investigations that would damage Democrats. Congressional hearings ensued. The upshot was that nine high-level officials resigned, including the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales. Eventually, the Justice Department Inspector General declared that the process used to fire the first seven attorneys and two others dismissed around the same time was "arbitrary," "fundamentally flawed," and "raised doubts about the integrity of Department prosecution decisions."  A necessary condition for this rectification was that an assortment of scattered facts was collected into a larger, more penetrating story. This is a prototype of the practice of journalism.

Very few online sites practice the unearthing of facts. For the most part, they opinionate - which is a useful but parasitic activity. It may consolidate opinion among those who feel the need to have opinions; it may bolster feeling; it may mobilize people into political action. But the circulation of news bits originally gathered by newspapers and other dead-tree journalistic endeavors does not preserve reportorial jobs. It does nothing for the economic viability of the mainline press. It speaks to networks of readers who cluster around the opinion sites purposively. They do not stumble upon the big news having looked into the paper because of an interest in sports, comics, or crossword puzzles. 

Journalistic careers?

The revenue that sustains the online sites comes almost exclusively from advertising. Subscriptions, in general, do not work (The Wall Street Journal is the great exception in the US). Precious few full-time reporters make a living from the internet. Most blogs and other news sites are written by people who make their living in other ways, or are working for vanity owners willing to lose money (for a while), or are promoting their freelance careers. Increasingly, internet journalists will be forced to make their livings with “day-job” careers - like professors.

What this means for journalists starting out is that expectations for journalistic careers are in the process of shifting. It is foolhardy to expect to make a career climbing a single ladder in a journalistic establishment now. Many of our own students at the Columbia Journalism School seem to understand that from the start. As a result, we may recruit more adventurous students - in my view, not a bad thing, though the danger is that adventurousness comes with a steep price of ill-preparation.

What's the business model for serious reporting?

The question that remains, the question that makes serious journalists tremble in the US, is: who is going to pay for serious reporting? For the sorts of investigations that went on last year, for example, into the background of the surprise Republican nominee for Vice President, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Planes to Alaska from the lower 48 states were suddenly choked with reporters from mainstream media. What with the cost of flying nowadays, how many online sites, even the handful of nonprofits supported by public interest foundations, could afford to send a reporter, even if they had the will, drawn in part by the scent of family scandal? A couple of new foundation-supported nonprofit news sites are just starting up to do original, especially investigative, reporting, a development greatly to be welcomed. Voiceofsandiego.org has won attention, with a staff of 11 including 6 reporters and a photographer. Minnesota’s MinnPost.com has a staff twice the size. In Paris, mediapart.fr hopes to sustain itself with a few tens of thousands of paid subscribers. Such enterprises seem to be well launched. What they will amount to is anyone’s guess.

Authority

Arguably the erosion of trust is journalism’s deepest trouble as well as the one longest in the making.  Seen from the public’s vantage point, there is a crisis of authority. Do we believe what we read? Should we? What does it mean if we don’t? Surveys establish that newspapers have been losing public confidence, as have television networks and local broadcasters as well. Overall, CNN is no more trusted than Fox News.The local paper is not viewed much differently than the New York Times. According to one recent study, fewer than one in five Americans say they can believe “all or most” media reporting, down from more than 27 percent - a rather low figure in itself - five years ago. From the news organization’s point of view, there is a crisis of credibility, and attendant anxiety. If the public doubts that objective journalism is possible, on what basis can journalists claim professional status?  On what does their standing rest? In what sense do they matter in the life of the society? Should they fasten themselves to the mast of objectivity or free themselves altogether from its strictures - and in the latter case, how should they proceed?

Journalism’s legitimacy crisis has two overlapping sources: ideological disaffection from right and left, and generalized distrust. Between them, they register something of a cultural sea change. The authority of American journalism has, for a century or so, rested on its claim to objectivity and a popular belief that that claim is justified. These claims are weakening. Americans remain suspicious of political life in the first place. “The pursuit of happiness” is understood as first of all a private pursuit.  As Daniel Bell once wrote, America’s “sociological foundation was the denial of the primacy of politics for everyday life.” Private life deserved to be protected from the State - the American Constitution was founded on that promise. Perhaps the great genius of the newspaper was not simply in the invention of reporting but in the paper’s ability to serve as the great aggregator, so that something of a public sliver or even a polygon if not a sphere was created by the sum of all papers, as incidental readers accumulated into functional publics.

Fragmentation has derailed that model. Insofar as newspapers and television news are forfeiting their authority now, and people who do want more than a smattering of news are increasingly congregating around talk radio, cable television, and online sites that match their ideological preconceptions, we are entering unknown cultural territory. 

What happens when postmodern suspicion becomes generalized?  Pessimists think that the society’s ability to adapt to real-world change is impaired. Optimists, who tend to be younger, think that journalistic refashioning and collaboration can produce a model of “distributed knowledge” convertible into the foundation of a positive political transformation. Whether or not we are haltingly working our way toward a productive “revaluation of values” in journalism, I have no idea.

Deference

No survey of the journalistic landscape, even one this superficial, can omit the journalistic failings that are generated not by particularly poor business decisions, not by technologically-assisted fragmentation and media supersaturation, but by the abiding, classic and characteristic sin of journalism: deference to authorities. 

We have seen in recent years two devastating failures to report the world - devastating not simply in their abject professional failures but in that they made for frictionless glides into catastrophe. The first was in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the major media tossed away skepticism in favor of cheerleading on the question of Bush’s commitment to the existence of a Qaida-Saddam alliance and on the question of WMD. Official mea culpas in the New York Times and Washington Post only acknowledged after the fact how the reporting was sexed up, how “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” because journalists did not hesitate to defer to government officials whose cornering of the national security market and mastery of the manipulation of the objectivity fetish went unchallenged.

More recently, we have the run-up to the financial crisis, where (as a study in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review establishes) the overwhelming majority of articles in the ostensibly critical-minded financial press looked upon the housing-credit bubble as a miraculous achievement of nature. In this case, the authorities deferred to were the bankers, deregulators, and financial analysts whose stake in the bubble was sizable and whose mastery of arcana, and/or ability to obscure the proliferation of nonsensical gambles in the name of unrestrained market rationality, was held to be definitive.

Given these grave failures of journalism even when it was operating at greater strength not so long ago, one might say that rampant distrust is a reasonable and even a good thing. Walter Lippmann famously wrote in Public Opinion 85 years ago that journalism was an instrument of public purpose, an effort “to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” The press’ failure to connect dots, to piece together the facts and meaning of developments in their profusion, broke the crucial link in the chain, the one that Lippmann summarized in the operative words: “on which men can act.”

So even a forthright and broad-gauged address to the crises of circulation, revenue, attention and authority will not restart any Golden Age. It would be foolish to expect it. It is not as though journalism is the only rotten pillar of global society. Journalism cannot be relied on when breakdowns in public trust and intelligence are severe, as long as the political system benefits from institutional myopia, and great fortunes thrive on public ignorance. 

Resolutions

It always warms the heart and calms the mind to follow a discussion of crises with an unveiling of resolutions. The sequence has a pleasing cadence, even when it has to strain for justification. The present case is one of those occasions when talk of resolution is - to say the least - premature.

One reason is circumstantial. The coincidence of crises makes an exit strategy scarcer. How much of the travail of 2008 can be ascribed to the Great Recession, and how much is structural, a function of Internet competition, declining attention, and declining authority all at once? The Project on Excellence’s conclusion is that “roughly half of the downturn in the last year was cyclical, that is, related to the economic downturn. But the cyclical problems are almost certain to worsen in 2009 and make managing the structural problems all the more difficult.”

Notice the reference to “managing the structural problems.” They cannot be solved, they can only be managed. The unavoidable likelihood, pending a bolt from the blue, is that the demand for journalism will continue to decline and that no business model can compensate for its declining marketability. No meeting of newspaper people is complete these days without a call - some anguished, some confident - for a “new business model” that would apply to the online “paper.” The call has been issued over the course of years now. It might be premature to say so, but one might suspect that it has not been found because there is none to be found. 

The repute of journalism as a force for Enlightenment rested heavily on the assembling of what was, in a sense, an accidental public. Even in times of high circulation, the readership of newspapers came through two fairly distinct channels. There was an amalgamation of citizens charged, or charging themselves, with the task of knowing their world better in order to govern themselves. These readers were frequently partisan. In the 19th century, they had their own newspapers. Even in the 20th century, with the promotion of the ideal of objectivity, they were often interested parties. This amalgam was supplemented by a wide array of readers who were drawn to the newspapers to consult features, recipes, comics, sports reports, and movie schedules, and who, having been drawn there, grazed past news of the wider world and became passingly familiar with the actions of governments and other prime movers.

The fact that large numbers, even majorities of the population, were drawn to the news became a resource for reformers of all stripes. Public opinion - which was a phantom, as Walter Lippmann argued - was there to be mobilized because the public assembled itself around the breakfast tables and on railroad cars, reading the papers. With the decline of the newspaper comes the decline of the unitary public as a force capable of being mobilized.

This doesn’t mean that the new media dispensation is a bulldozer set against democracy. The success of the Obama campaign last year in turning the Internet into a force for mobilization makes that plain. Still, the new administration groans under the weight of its obligations, and whether it can sustain that mobilization remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the diminishment of news continues, and much as we are in the business of stripping away our illusions, there is no way this can be good. As the sociologist Paul Starr has recently argued, the coverage that suffers most as newspaper costs are cut is the local- and state-level coverage for which there is the least independent demand. In the chronically corrupt state of New Jersey, for example, there were 50 reporters assigned to cover the state capital twenty years ago; now, 15 remain. The major national newspapers will survive in some fashion, I don’t doubt (much). But the middle levels are crumbling.

Proposals to shore up newspapers, to rescue them from the consequences of their horrendous business decisions, tend to point to to point to two possible sources. Both, in turn, rest on public policy.

One way to go is financial support for nonprofit foundations, charities, the likes of which own newspapers in a few cities, and are, selectively, supporting reporting through nonprofit websites like ProPublica.org and Voiceofsandiego.org.  Of course, the very existence of nonprofit foundations rests on tax policies that advantage their creation. So in the end, it is public policy and only public policy that will determine what kind of journalism survives.  

A few weeks ago, at Senate hearings, Steve Coll, a former managing editor of the Washington Post, proposed that Congress make it easier for news organizations to refound themselves on nonprofit bases and moreover to subsidize reporting now being shut down. Many proposals are circulating: tax subsidies for newspaper subscriptions; new advantages to nonprofit newspaper owners. If there were a national endowment that poured money into serious reporting via local boards dominated by professional (platform-neutral) journalists, it could do a great deal to wall off the journalists from the smothering embrace of the state. 

Or the unregulated, laissez-nous-faire market. Even in the US, we're rapidly running out of alternatives to public finance. Perhaps it can still be said that the experience of the BBC demonstrates that financing can be heavily insulated from control. The US, lacking the license fee, has more trouble.  Still, even in the US, it’s time to move to the next level and entertain a grown-up debate among concrete ideas.

Can a public board give representation to a range of voices, including nominees by Congress, thereby improving the odds that decent reporting survives the ineptitude of newspaper publishers? I don’t know. Are the BBC and Channel 4 models for hands-off subsidy? I don’t know that either. 

What I do know is that journalism is too important to be left to business interests. If there were any doubt as to what newspapers at their best can accomplish for the public good, you need look no further than the British parliamentary scandal.  If there were any doubt that the best American newspaper is worried about the coverage that newsroom shrinkage is preventing, take this headline, from page 3 of the New York Times of May 21st: "Death Row Foes See Newsroom Cuts as Blow"

Leaving journalism to the myopic, inept, greedy, unlucky, and floundering managers of the nation's newspapers to rescue journalism on their own would be like leaving it to the investment wizards at the American International Group (AIG), Citibank, and Goldman Sachs, to create a workable, just global credit system on the strength of their good will, their hard-earned knowledge, and their fidelity to the public good. 

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, as Rahm Emanuel said. I hope my next talk can be called "Building New Foundations from Garbage".

The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech in Cairo in June 2009 in which he is expected to reach out to the Islamic world, part of the continuing work of repairing the ties between the United States and Muslims that were so damaged under the administration of his predecessor. The US's president's address will most likely extend and reinforce the themes outlined in his "remarks" to the parliament in Ankara during his visit to Turkey on 6-7 April: 

"America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy
, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Rodrigo de Almeida "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009) 

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)

Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009)

Achin Vanaik, "Capitalism and democracy" (29 April 2009)

Anna Lekvall, "Democracy and aid: the missing links" (13 May 2009)
We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world - including in my own country."

The overall message is somewhat in vogue these days. In March 2009, a group of international experts and scholars wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to put democratic reform at the heart of the US's engagement with the Arab World (see  "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009). The core advice of the letter - jointly hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) - was the need for Washington under its new leadership to engage with the political Islamic currents in (mainly) the Arab world, as well as to support Arab liberals.

In reply, I suggested that the letter erred in respect of its scope and content. My central argument was that the United States, as a result of its strategic interests in the middle east, is on a clashing path with the Arab world's political Islamic current (see Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" [17 March 2009]).

Shadi Hamid, co-convenor and one of the lead drafters of the open letter, responded in turn to my article by arguing that leading representatives of political Islam in the Arab and Islamic worlds (such as key members of the Muslim Brotherhood) are showing signs of increasing liberalism; for example, by inherently accepting peace with Israel and writing in Jewish newspapers in the United States. Accordingly, America, should seek to find common ground with such currents of political Islam:

"There is an important change underway. In much of the middle east, Islamist groups are aware that gaining power within their countries will remain unlikely, if not impossible, without US encouragement or, at the very least, neutrality....It would be wise for the United States to carefully consider such overtures. After all, autocracy cannot be made permanent. Eventually, the authoritarian regimes of the region will cease to be. An uncertain ‘something else' will replace them. Western nations would be wise to prepare themselves for the change to come. It is better to have leverage with Islamist parties before they come to power, not afterwards when it is too late" (see Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" [6 April 2009]). 

Shadi Hamid's response is in my view based on a flawed and limited framing of the US's relationship with the Islamic world. This article continues the discussion, itself also part of the debate on the future of democracy-support jointly hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy). I develop here the case outlined in my original contribution: that the United States - and where appropriate the European Union and other interlocutors too - needs to frame its view of, and dialogue with, the Islamic world in a different and more creative way. Three dimensions of this proposed change are considered.

Range and complexity

The first dimension is to recognise nuance and complexity, in ways that move beyond the reductive view of reducing political Islam as (at heart) little more than hapless opposition movements in a number of Arab countries.

The United States political outlook with regard to the Islamic world tends to centre around such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Harakat al-Tahrir, Hizbollah, and the multitude of other Islamist movements in the middle east. This reductive tendency to respond to the most ambitious and manipulative Islamist voices rather than the quieter and truer leads it to be drawn into petty, tactical and localised issues and problems (see Ali A Allawi, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization [Yale University Press, 2009].

A more mature outlook would see Islam also as a sort of grand socio-political umbrella of values and guiding principles that can comprise and accommodate many different political currents. It is not the exclusive doctrine of any political movement; it vastly transcends them.

This more nuanced view of political Islam would retrieve the ideas of Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek (1888-1966). In his Islam and the Principles of Government (1925) He argued that the institution of the caliphate (or for that matter any concentration of political power in the name of Islam) is obsolete; that Muslims have graduated from their need for religious chaperoning; and that the separation of the state from the mosque had become effective since the politicisation of Islamic rule at the end of the "rightly guided caliphs" era, only a few decades after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

A perspective of this sort, intelligently undertaken, would seize the initiative and reclaim the agenda from the different political Islamic movements. It would help position the US as the mature, long-term, weighty, and strategic player that it is. Its engagement with the Islamic world could then become part of a serious dialogue between civilisations - shorn of the unfortunate and loaded atmospherics that have surrounded this term. The results might be surprising. In its spirit, for example, Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek's message resembles many of the principles of the US's own "founding fathers".

The adoption of a grander definition of political Islam by the United States would enable many of the reactionary forces in the Islamic world to be seen in terms of their actual and natural (rather than inflated) size. It would also the best way of supporting Arab liberals, and an important departure from the approach of outright backing which all but discredits them in front of Arab populations as a whole. 

Confidence and flexibility

The second framing dimension is to address explicitly and centrally the Islamic - rather than the Arab world and "mind". I argued in my earlier article - "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009) - that the scope of the open letter to President Obama was misleading and over-general. Shadi Hamid retorted that the middle east, the Arab world, and the Muslim world "are all relevant to our call". True, they are all relevant, but choosing which one to address is hardly a matter of semantics.

There are two reasons why the US should formulate its democracy-support policy and its wider policy aspirations in relation to Islamic, rather than Arab, realities. First, Arab nationalism is far from the dominant identity in today's "Arab world"; it is a weak political force living only on the momentum of nostalgia. In no Arab country are Arab nationalists serious political contenders. Islamists have come to dominate the region's social life, and become the sole challengers to the region's ruling regimes.

Second, Islamism is - unlike Arabism - a flexible notion. Arabism is by definition a national and exclusive identity, whereas Islamism is a multinational and inclusive one. The Islamic identity encompasses rich, refined traditions that express the mixing and merging of different cultures that have come together under the banner of Islam. In its healthy and progressive manifestations, the Muslim "mind" draws upon a host of influences and traditions - Persian, Egyptian, Indian, Andalucian, even Hellenic. Such diversity and richness breads progressive, liberal and tolerant thinking.

An important and relevant example is Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Andalucian philosopher (also known as Averroes ). He was confident enough in the great flexibility and moral strength of Islam to shun the notion of al-Jahiliyyah (the era of ignorance eradicated by the advent of Islam - and the term frequently used by militant Islamists in describing the west), and to advocate borrowing from the thinking of al ummam al salifa al saliha (the pious ancient peoples) in a direct and reverent reference to the Greeks. Ibn Rushd also sought dialogue between the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus and their Christian neighbours in northern Spain and western France - as well as to their Jewish subjects in Andalucia itself.

There are more contemporary examples. The United States's and Europe's thinkers should - instead of seeking common ground with the ideas of the Hassan al-Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) or Sayyid Qutb (the leading theorist of rejectionist political Islam) - study the work of the al-Azhar scholar Taha Hussein. In his book Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr (The Future of Culture in Egypt) (1936), Hussein scolded the religious establishment (then the main bearer of political Islam) for its reductive view of the religion and its role in society; and reminded his readers of the immense influence of the Greeks, Jews and Christians on the land of al-Azhar and the Islamic empire itself.

The confidence and flexibility of such thinkers are vastly superior to the insecurity and rigidity of many players in today's political Islam. They are also (again) resonant of the best American and European traditions.

Realism and discrimination

The third dimension is to embrace realism and intelligent discrimination: to abandon the silly and condescending declaration (frequently voiced by George W Bush) that Islam is "a religion of peace", and to engage with those currents of political Islam that have integrity.

A careful study here could, for example, involve a recovery of elements 

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Among Tarek Osman's articles in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film (29 July 2008)

"China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt"  (7 August 2008)

"Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

of the Salafi tradition as embodied in a number of late-19th and early-20th-century Muslim intellectuals. Sheikh Mohammed Abdou (1849-1905) and Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad (1889-1964) for example - the latter arguably the most compelling Islamic thinker in the 20th century - invoked a return to the purity of early Islamic thought to commend modernisation and rejuvenation of the religion's spirit.

In his theology, Al-Akkad explored Jewish and Christian writings with open, confident faith; in his socio-political writings, he argued for free elections, a serious constitutional parliamentary system, free speech, and a system of checks and balances applicable to all powers. Abdou bluntly called for "learning from the civilised societies of Europe", "embracing modernity", and "rediscovering in the core of our religion the elements of rationality that made its societies great and permitted modernity and innovation". Their tradition continues in the writings of Gamal al-Banna, Mohamed Sayyed Ashmawi, and others (many of them inside al-Azhar itself).

The Salafists are interesting because - unlike the organised political movements in the region - they have no specific political agendas; their lack of local political ambitions, their genuine piousness and sense of religious continuity, means that they more closely embody and represent the increasing religiosity of the "Islamic street". In this context, the United States - as the most religious western society - would find greater common ground in forging a relationship with the Salafists than most European states.

A new frame

This is not to promote Salafist thinking or propose that the US embrace liberal schools within Islam. Rather it is to suggest that a sophisticated approach to the Muslim world and democracy-support there needs to discard formulaic frameworks and policies, and rise to the challenge of developing new ways of thinking about and engaging in dialogue with Islam.

This would be a service both to the Islamic world and to the United States and the Europeans - for all "sides" need a more serious and rigorous discourse than is represented by (for example) the mediocre missionary-ism of Amr Khaled, the zealous and somewhat vengeful militancy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, those western leftists and others who indulge and even embrace ultra-reactionary Islamist currents, or those who seek to extend "clash of civilisations" rhetoric into the next decade. 

The drafters of the open letter to Barack Obama are right to suggest that the coming to power of an intellectually curious president could open a new strategy. But that strategy should not involve engaging with mediocre political groups and ignorant, semi-literate reactionaries; nor a public-relations campaign in the face of nihilistic groups consumed with desperate resentment.

Rather, the United States - and the west in general - should frame its dialogue with Islam by seeing both itself and the latter as a civilisation that was (and is) rich and confident enough to adapt, to borrow, to change, to dare and to confront its demons. That is the way to encourage, promote and support democracy, and much else besides.

Barack Obama’s hundred days

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on 4 March 1933. "This nation asks for action", he said in his inaugural address, and he answered the call. By the time Congress adjourned on 15 June, he had sent it fifteen messages and persuaded it to pass fifteen major pieces of legislation. And they were major. They included the Banking Act and the Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking; the Agricultural Adjustment Act to establish a policy to save American farming; and the National Industrial Recovery Act to do the same for industry. He set up the Tennessee Valley Authority and sponsored an international financial conference, passed numerous reforms of the mortgage industry and took the United States off the gold standard.Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008): "America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"
After the G20: America, Obama, the world" (6 April 2009)

These were the famous "hundred days", in the course of which Roosevelt saved American capitalism and - some would say - saved American democracy as well. The period set a standard by which the wisdom and effectiveness of future presidents was to be judged.

In 1961, media judgment of the achievements of John F Kennedy's first hundred days in office was harsh (and the president was no less self-critical). He had been far from inactive. But his successes were seen as having been cancelled out by the catastrophic failure of his attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. Kennedy, asked how he liked being president, answered wryly that he had liked it better before the Bay of Pigs.

Even JFK's humiliation could not compare with the original hundred days, which measured the interval between Napoleon's escape from exile on the island of Elba and his decisive defeat at Waterloo.

Barack Obama approaches the end of his first hundred days in office with a record that lies somewhere between those of Roosevelt and Napoleon. He has been as active as FDR; avoided any disasters; and has certainly not met his Waterloo. This is, then, a good moment to assess how he has performed so far in terms of what he wants to achieve, and what his supporters expect from him.

In the world's eye

For President Obama to do better than his predecessor internationally was always going to be easy. For George W Bush was disliked by huge numbers of the world's people, and an even larger proportion of their leaders; indeed, the degree of loathing exceeded that visited on almost any other American president.

But Obama has not just basked in the widespread relief at his arrival in the White House; he has also acted well. He said on his first day in office that he would close the Guantánamo prison camp, and is working on it; within a few more days he had struck the note the world wanted to hear on Iraq, on torture and on climate change.

His meetings in Europe and Turkey for a series of summits on 2-7 April 2009, and in Trinidad & Tobago for the Summit of the Americas on 17-19 April, were an almost unqualified success. People everywhere liked and trusted him. (The one partial exception was his urging the European Union to accept Turkey as a member: the reaction in Washington if France's Nicolas Sarkozy were to urge the United States to accept Mexico as the fifty-first state!)

Only gradually has it emerged that while Obama may understand the world's anger at the Bush administration's hubris and rudeness, his own foreign policy in many ways is set to continue the established themes of American policy. He might be ready to draw down US forces in Iraq; but only to send more to Afghanistan. He might have appointed excellent regional special envoys - Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross; but with no expectation of dramatic progress in their areas of responsibility.

Obama's public demeanour may be hugely welcomed across the world. But the US under his leadership will still pursue many of America's great-power goals. The fist might open into a handshake, but his remains a project for a new - if less aggressive - American century.

In the domestic arena

At home, as the hundred days end on 29 April 2009, President Obama's record is even more ambiguous. No one doubts his determination to drag the American economy out of the quagmire. Many doubt whether his administration (studded as it is on the financial side with those most associated with the policies that caused the trouble in the first place) knows how to do the job.

Equally, no one doubts the sincerity of his reform agenda. But many doubt whether, given the slowdown of the economy and the ballooning of the budget deficit, he will be able to advance his social and environmental goals: introducing universal healthcare insurance, investing on a significant scale in public education, and reducing America's dependence on imported energy.

Only a fool, said JP Morgan, would "go a bear" on the United States. But a very large number of fools did "go a bull" on a scale that has come close to ruining the world's strongest single economy (and thus, in a globalised economy, to ruining everyone else's). 

Indeed, what President Obama's first hundred days illustrate is the limited ability of the American presidency to respond to the country's real needs. The glamour, the excitement and the appeal of the US presidency were graphically on view at the inauguration on 20 January - but almost immediately the limitations of presidential power were apparent.

This is highlighted by the fact that key offices in the treasury remained unfilled for weeks at the height of the worst financial crisis since the early 1930s - because a constitutional provision requires high offices to be subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, ensuring a slow process at the best of times.

It is also clear in the president's difficult relationship with Congress. The legislative process in the House of Representatives (which controls money bills) is encrusted with the new system of "earmarks" and other special interests that tread close to the borders of corruption. In the Senate, an administration's need (thanks to comparatively new conventions) to in effect win three-fifths of the votes to pass legislation makes the process lengthier. In both chambers, the committee system - cumbersome and exposed to special-interest lobbying - is now closer than ever to paralysis. 

The problems are compounded by the fact that among the many high-minded people in Congress, there are few towering figures. In part, this is because the public sees the political system as dominated by presidential will and presidential action - an illusion that the media (and especially) television has reinforced. The president is portrayed as dynamic, the Congress and other institutional rivals as bumbling. The use of phrases such as "commander-in-chief" and "leader of the free world" for the president, contrasted with the supposed parochialism and self-interest of senators and congressmen, further exaggerates the contrast.  

In the balance

Already, as the hundred days come to an end, older political realities have reasserted itself. The forces of inertia look heavier than ever. The Obama administration acted with decisiveness and energy to recapitalise the banks. The bankers simply took this as an opportunity to strengthen their balance-sheets and keep paying themselves bonuses. The country's manufacturing industry is in such a poor shape that Fiat is seen as a potential saviour for both Chrysler and General Motors. The faint signs of revival on Wall Street contrast with the bleak outlook on Main Street, where real-estate values continue to fall and unemployment continues to rise (see "Barack Obama: end of the beginning", 30 March 2009). 

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama's presidency:

Simon Maxwell, "Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (19-23 January 2009) - reflections from thirty-seven of our worldwide authors

Simon Critchley, "Barack Obama and the American void" (22 January 2009)

Ruth Rosen, "American women's stimulus: voice, agency, change" (18 February 2009)

Jim Gabour, "The redemption game" (20 February 2009)

Plus - regular comment on openUSA

When I travelled across the United States at the time of the inauguration to discuss The Myth of American Exceptionalism [Yale University Press, 2009] - a book that is very critical of aspects of American democracy - I was constantly asked how I could say such things when America had just elected Barack Obama. My reply was two-fold: that the double task of reforming the inequalities and the inefficiencies of American society while rescuing an imploded financial system seemed almost beyond the strength even of the strongest president; and that in any case the presidency did not now have the powers or the influence it would need to complete this task.

The presidency, after all, was far from all-powerful even in Franklin Roosevelt's day. FDR complained that getting the Washington government, and especially the US navy, to do what the president wanted was like punching a pillow. In All Things to All Men: The False Promise of the Modern America Presidency (1980), I showed in detail how Roosevelt had responded to challenges as frightening as those confronting Barack Obama by using a range of instruments - the Congress, the Democratic Party, the permanent government, and the press and radio - to lessen his isolation within the constitutional system. "By the end of his twelve years in the White House", I wrote, "the temporary shift in the balance of power between the President and the Congress resulting from then dramatic initiatives of the Hundred Days had become the way Washington worked."

"For all that", I went on, "he had done nothing to change the rules of the game. He had simply shown how it was possible to win most of the time. In so doing, he had greatly heightened expectations - both in Congress and in the nation - of what his successors would be able to accomplish". FDR's presidential domination is not the way Washington works today.

The fact that Roosevelt was president during a period of unprecedented crisis at home and abroad may have strengthened his authority as well as testing it, yet this still did not permit a permanent change. The six decades since Roosevelt's death have seen all of his successors, several of them men of great force of character and formidable political skill, fail to make the system work as well as he did.

Harry Truman, working with the presidency as Roosevelt had left it to him, did as well as anyone. Dwight D Eisenhower did better, as historians now recognise, than his liberal critics thought at the time. Both John Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, activist Democratic presidents, complained vociferously of their powerlessness and railed against the constraints of the system.

After them, the president's situation became even harder. Richard M Nixon was driven from office amid scandal. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were derided, then defeated. Ronald Reagan came to the White House announcing that government was the problem, not the solution, a belief that did nothing to make government more effective. George HW Bush was an excellent foreign-policy president, but unsuccessful at home and defeated in a re-election bid. Bill Clinton only narrowly avoided ejection and George W Bush became a model of unpopularity.

If the American president has (as the textbooks say) to perform the roles both of an elected monarch and a consecrated prime minister, the record of the past two generations suggests that the monarchical attributes of the office have fared better than its administrative and political fortunes.

Barack Obama has in his first three months confirmed his possession of formidable political skills. The question must be whether they will be enough to help him transcend the very real constraints and weaknesses of what is constantly, but inaccurately, described as the most powerful office in the world.

Torture revelations provoke controversy in US

Dick Cheney today entered the political fray over the US use of torture, demanding the CIA release classified information proving the "success" of interrogation techniques, which, he claimed, yielded "good" intelligence. These demands follow President Barack Obama's declassification of memos proving Bush administration approval of several methods, including waterboarding, which it did not classify as illegal torture because it was not "cruel, inhuman or degrading", a release Cheney has condemned as partial and "disturbing". Recent revelations have unearthed that one suspect, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times and another, Abu Zubayadah, 83 times.

The toD verdict: Obama attempted to minimise controversy and put the American debate on the use of torture behind him, offering concessions such as granting amnesty to CIA operatives and refusing moves to prosecute members of the previous administration, but these efforts now seem certain to fail. Obama wanted to "acknowledge" mistakes and then "move forward", he reassured the CIA during a visit yesterday.

Republicans meanwhile seem likely to continue playing the patriot card. The claim that Democrats and other left-leaning Americans are unpatriotic and do not stand behind the country's armed forces and intelligence services is age-old. Cheney continued the tradition, calling on Obama "to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests". They may find further ammunition should the release of information lead to foreign moves to prosecute US nationals or bring further intelligence to light on the issue, a development which would seemingly set in opposition US interests and outside pressure, which Obama may be accused of kick-starting. 

The White House clearly foresaw the potential of a Republican backlash, but its measures to allay the fears of the American right, such as the call for "reflection, not retribution", have provoked accusations of a whitewash from many of the president's supporters on the left. Thankfully, however, it seems that no matter what the future intensity of the debate in the US, the country will discontinue the abhorrent practice of torture.

Dozens killed as vigilantes tackle Kenyan mafia

Vigilante groups armed with machetes, stones, axes and clubs killed over 24 people in pursuit of the Mungiki religious sect across central Kenya last night. The Mungiki, a religious turned criminal organisation, was banned in 2002 for extortion and its own brand of rough justice; a series of beheadings that prompted a police crackdown now taken into public hands. The night of violence follows days of vigilante action in the region during which one hundred alleged Mungiki members have been publically lynched. Three students and an 83-year-old man were among the victims of the man-hunt which vigilantes claim is endorsed by local police.   

South and North unite for Korean talks

South Korean envoys arrived in North Korea today for the first formal talks after President Lee Myung-bak took office over a year ago with the promise of a hard-line stance against North Korea. Since then, the situation in the region has deteriorated considerably, particularly with the internationally-condemned launch of a test missile by North Korea on 5 April. The two delegations were due to meet at Gaeseong industrial plant, a rare cooperative project between North and South and one threatened by worsening relations. The delegates, however, were forced to postpone negotiations following a dispute over where to convene the meeting, an indication of the far greater uneasiness these talks intend to allay.

Victory for Turkish nationalists threatens Cypriot reunification

The victory of the hard-line National Unity Party in Northern Cyprus polls on Sunday has upset recent progress towards the reunification of the divided island. The party's leader Dervis Eroglu, said that a unified Cyprus should not be the North's only goal. Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan today warned the new government against breaking off or changing the terms of the ongoing reunification talks, which were in turn precipitated by the victory of the Communist Greek Cypriot president Demetris Christofias last year.

Russia threatens walkout of NATO talks

Russia's relations with the west are again under strain over Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Russian-backed South Ossetian authority today detained two of the twenty OSCE monitors patrolling the Georgian side of the border for a "provocative" and illegal incursion into South Ossetian territory, it claimed. After several hours the pair were released. A similar incident occurred last February during which two monitors were also captured and later released.

The tensions parallel developments on the international stage where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday condemned NATO's "dangerous decision" to hold military exercises in Georgia next month. Russia escalated their protests yesterday threatening to call off a forthcoming summit of senior military figures if NATO did not adequately respond to Russia's objections.

China revives gunboat diplomacy

The Chinese Navy's deputy in command, Vice Adm. Ding Yiping, promised to reveal the nation's latest sea-borne military hardware on Thursday as part of the fleet's 60th anniversary celebrations. The newly unveiled vessels will include its latest generation of nuclear submarines, so far hidden from public view, and possibly newly acquired aircraft carriers, all of which are feared to be part of a Chinese bid for technical parity with the US and Russia. China disputes the control of several islands, not least Taiwan, in neighbouring waters and has clashed on the issue with the Philipinnes, Vietnam and Japan. The admiralty and Chinese state media have, however, stressed international cooperation as China's goal, highlighting its recent contribution to policing the Somali coast.

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Smoke over the Vatican

update: the BBC's North American editor Justin Webb has since blogged about this subject here 

Reports emanating from Italian sources earlier this week suggesting that the Vatican has effectively vetoed three of President Barack Obama's nominees to fill the vacant role of United States Ambassador to the Holy See--based on their liberal views on issues such as abortion and stem cell research--may signal the beginning of a cooling in US-Vatican relations under the Obama administration.

Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change

The United States president has prepared for the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago on 17-19 April 2009 by announcing a package of measures that will make easier the movement of people and remittances between the US and Cuba. This may help lift the atmosphere of his meeting with the thirty-three other leaders from across the region, among whom Cuba's is the only absentee. But if Barack Obama truly wanted to make a difference, there is one policy area that more urgently needs his focused attention and brave decision: drugs. Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is at the Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies. He lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America" (29 November 2006)

"Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle " (9 February 2007)

"A Latin American's memo to Bush" (9 March 2007)

"After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)

"The global drug war: beyond prohibition" (4 December 2007)

"Washington and Latin America: farewell, Monroe" (7 October 2008)

"Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela...and Obama" (24 November 2008)

The prospect at this stage is remote. It has not yet dawned on the Obama administration that its decision to wage a "war on drugs" in a new theatre (Mexico) is doomed to the same failure it has experienced everywhere else in the region (in particular, Colombia). It will be a melancholy end to a four-decade effort.

In May 1971, the ill-fated Richard Nixon proclaimed the beginning of this "war". Since then Washington - with wide support among the international community - has comprehensively lost the fight against narcotics inside the United States and worldwide. Between the last failure in Colombia and the coming one in Mexico, the picture is one of unrelieved retreat (see "The global drug war: beyond prohibition", 4 December 2007).

The coercive confrontation against drugs in Colombia has, under any measurable standard - cocaine production, drug availability and purity, the level of drug-related violence, control of narcotics-linked money-laundering, new markets for consumption - been a wholesale disappointment. Plan Colombia, that heavily militarised eight-year effort costing $6 billion, has proved incapable of curtailing the drug phenomenon in this part of the Americas - which extends worldwide.

In the 2000s, Bogota has undertaken a range of actions: forcefully (using chemical agents) eradicating illicit crops over an area approximately two-and-a-half times the state of Delaware, extraditing more than 600 Colombians to the United States, dismantling the traditional big drug cartels (and some of the new, more sophisticated, cellular, less visible, and smaller "boutique" ones). In its own terms, the strategy hasn't worked: the drug problem hasn't been solved, either in the United States or in the immediate region. True, Plan Colombia can be regarded as modestly successful as a counterinsurgency initiative, but as a counter-drug stratagem it has been a complete fiasco.

Yet the same rationale that underlies Plan Colombia is now present in Plan Merida, Washington's project for Mexico. The implementation of a new drug crusade in that country will almost certainly have the effect of making Mexico more of a failed state than it is already (see Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure", 17 February 2009).

The next dialogue

The logic of United States drug policy links domestic and international motives, which are both manifold and sometimes contradictory (see Cornelius Friesendorf, US Foreign Policy and the War on Drugs [Routledge, 2007]). The strategy, supply-driven and highly punitive, has invested immense efforts and monies to reduce the price at the stage of production; improve eradication in order to discourage peasants to cultivate illicit crops; strengthen interdiction in the processing and transit countries in order to decrease the availability and potency of drugs in the US homeland; and enhance seizures at entry-points so as to elevate the domestic price of narcotics and thus deter the entrance of additional potential consumers into the drug market, reducing crime levels as a result.

The outcome has been the opposite of what the US expected and desired. There have been few winners and many losers in a campaign in which Washington now spends $1,400 every second. US citizens have become less safe, with many more victims; while organised criminal organisations (both domestic and transnational) have become richer and more powerful. The Andean region and west Africa are but two areas where the drug phenomenon has created enormous social, political, ecological and military difficulties (see Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope", 13 September 2008). The legacies of the ill-conceived "war on drugs", here and elsewhere, include human-rights abuses, environmental catastrophes, imbalances in civil-military relations, institutional corruption, urban drug-lords' and rural warlords' accumulation of power, and law-enforcement agencies' failures (see Ivan Briscoe, "Lockdown in Vienna: the UN's drugs summit", 23 March 2009).

The Obama administration's extension of the "war of drugs" to Mexico will reinforce these depredations in a country closer to its borders than Colombia. If the United States - Democrats and Republicans alike - want to avoid this fate, it must participate in a new discussion about narcotics in the western hemisphere. The Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago is an opportunity to initiate a thorough, serious dialogue on drugs and their links to organised crime and citizens' insecurity in the continent. The social, economic and political realities in the Americas are already "narcotised". It is time, after more than three decades of a failed "war on drugs", to start a post-prohibitionist debate. It is not too late to rethink.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on the Americas:

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: celebrating democracy" (19 December 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: after the vote" (2 February 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela" (20 February 2009)

Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez: tides of victory" (20 February 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)

Kelly Phenicie & Lisa J Laplante, "Peru: the struggle for memory" (8 April 2009)

After the G20: America, Obama, the world

It is too soon to say whether the Group of Twenty summit in London on 2 April 2009 has brought closer the world economic crisis closer to an end. The effect of the unimaginably vast sums of money (or at least figures) that were declared available to lubricate a blocked credit system will be an early sign. No one knows too whether the plan of United States treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to clear up the vast toxic assets remaining in the system will work. The potential for further damage is ever-present.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the G20:

Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009)

Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (26 March 2009)

Will Hutton, "The G20 deal: power bends to protest" (29 March 2009)

Daniele Archibugi, "The 20 ought to be increased to 6 billion" (31 March 2009)

Stephen Browne, "The G20 summit: a transition moment" (1 April 2009)

Saskia Sassen, "Too big to save: the end of financial capitalism" (1 April 2009)

David Hayes, "The G20 and the post crisis world" (3 April 2009) - with contributions by Paul Kingsnorth, Susan George, Duncan Green, David Mepham, and Ann Pettifor

There is more clarity about the statement by Gordon Brown that the G20  meeting was the beginning of a "new world order" of progressive cooperation. The British prime minister is at least halfway right. This is indeed the start of a new world in international relations, and it is time to look closely at its architecture.

The two-step illusion

What happened in London was in one sense a great step towards a new realism: that is, replacing a G7/G8 that reflects the economic realities of at best the 1970s (if not of Bretton Woods) with a G20 that can claim to represent four-fifths of the world's gross global product and  well over half its population. Even more, this creates a process that almost inevitably entails further moves towards greater "representativity".

It is long overdue. The process of rethinking the distribution of power in leading international institutions is a belated acknowledgment of the changing global balance. China is at its heart. The Beijing leadership wants its country's "peaceful rise" - including a decade and more of 10% annual growth - to be recognised and rewarded. If the Chinese are to make a major contribution to the greatly increased capital of the International Monetary Fund, for example, it will be hard to resist their claim for more than 4% of the IMF's voting rights.

A key question is whether the process of change will be gradual or sudden. It has become modish in some diplomatic and journalistic circles to speak of a G2 - the United States and China - as a future steering-committee within the G20. This is unrealistic, as well as undesirable. After all, the American economy is now slightly smaller than that of the European Union, and it has long lost the dominance of the immediate post-1945 era. Moreover, China's own economy is now in aggregate roughly the size of Germany's - but the disparity in populations means that it delivers an average income per head around 10% of most western European countries.

In any case, the relationship between China and the United States is very different from a traditional great-power competition, in a way that limits the potential to forge a "duumvirate". It is neither a traditional commercial rivalry nor a military contest, but a novel and in some ways very strange relationship: China is creditor, investor, supplier of cheap consumer goods, ideological and diplomatic competitor. Chinese economic growth has been heavily dependent on exports to the United States (and even more to the European Union).

In addition, neither power has any territorial claims or ambitions of a traditional kind on the other; though in Africa and perhaps elsewhere China aspires to a sphere of influence that challenges American hegemony. China cannot yet remotely threaten American military dominance, though there are signs that the Chinese government is intent on building up its military (including naval) capacity.

There may come a time when the world is divided between Chinese and American alliances, and strategic changes in world politics do tend to come faster than anyone expects. But for the foreseeable future, China will not be a superpower in the way that the United States has been since the implosion of the Soviet Union.

An end to "number one"?

But if the "multipolar world" - long discussed in academic seminars and journals of international relations - is now becoming a reality, what will be the effect on the world's networks of influence?

The United States is in a class of its own in military power. But other countries and groups of countries  - China, India, the European Union, Russia, perhaps some alignments of the Islamic world - are able to resist or divert American power in various ways, or are in a position to help Washington achieve some goals it cannot achieve alone.

The United States now needs help in international affairs. It cannot save its own environment without cooperation. It cannot rescue its own economy without help from Europe and China. It is no longer self-sufficient in energy. Its irresistibly great military power is not in practice much use.

The signs are that President Obama understands this, at least on one level. He has sent clear signals that he wants to leave behind the unwise arrogance of the George W Bush administration and its more intransigent figures - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton; and to seek more cooperative relationships.

But there is a catch. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union the preferred model of the world in the United States - among conservatives and liberals, among politicians and military officers, journalists, policy-makers and a clear majority of citizens - has not been a G7/G8 one or a G20-type one; it is most unlikely to be a G2 one. It has been a G1 model.

Most Americans in these two decades came proudly to embrace the image of their country as the lone superpower. Barack Obama speaks of a new, more tactful and more subtle style of leadership. But he is still an "American exceptionalist". He still takes his country's leadership in the world for granted - even if his speeches during his European tour (in London, at the Nato summit, in Prague, and in Turkey) have been artful in their restraint and appeals to cooperation. The American people too expect him to be what American journalists have long called the president of their country: the "leader of the free world".

This is not an elected title - or if it is, it is a title awarded by an electorate amounting to less than 5% of the world's population. Yet until recently it did represent a reality, one acknowledged by many and perhaps most of the world's other leaders. When Madeleine Albright called her country the "indispensable nation", she was not boasting. She was expressing a perception that was widely, indeed almost universally accepted.

It was not just that no other nation had the strength to compete for leadership with the United States. No other nation then wanted the burdens of leadership. Now this too may - may - have begun to change. Perhaps Americans, while happy to be number one, are now longer willing (even if they are able, which is a big "if" in the middle of an economic recession) to carry the burden of leadership.

A new narrative

In 1999 I wrote an article in which I spoke of the "grand narrative" of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "short 20th century". The breakdown of the uneasy diplomatic equilibrium of the 19th century in 1914 had led to world war and economic catastrophe. That in turn led to fascism, to another world war, to genocide and to the division of the world between an American and a communist power-bloc. That led to the cold war, and in the end to the collapse of European communism.

I connected the end of that grand narrative to "the death of news". Because the citizens of the United States and western Europe were no longer frightened of war, they had turned away from the affairs of the rest of the world and concerned themselves with their own preoccupations and fears: of poverty, failure, loneliness, ill health and death. War, they imagined, was something that happened in "faraway places of which we know little".

It is interesting to ask whether the attacks on Washington and New York in September 2001 would have happened if news organisations in America and western Europe had not sharply cut back their coverage of international affairs.  However that may be, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the crisis in Pakistan and the stalemate in Palestine, and now the economic disaster resulting from the crimes and follies of "Anglo-Saxon capitalism", have the public's full attention.

They sound like the ominous overture to a new and potentially dangerous world in which the United States still sees itself as G1, but may be less able and less willing to carry the responsibilities of a world leadership that is more heavy and difficult than ever.

Can Washington, given its apparently unshakable attachment to Israel's interests, solve the problem of Palestine? Can it repair (or "reset") the breach with that testy and ambitious rival, Russia? Can it save Pakistan for democracy? Bring Iran into the comity of nations? Feed Africa? Halt climate change? Rebuild Wall Street or Detroit?

No American president has started with more personal ability, or more sheer goodwill from around the world, than Barack Obama. But a successful tour of Europe has if anything highlighted the scale of the tasks he faces, and the problems he may have in bringing the American people along with him in the effort.

A new narrative is unfolding. A lot depends on whether the world is nearer the end (1991), middle (1945) or beginning (1914) of the "short 20th century". The plot is still open.

 

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

Barack Obama: end of the beginning

President Barack Obama joked in his press conference on 24 March 2009 that the euphoria of his inauguration two months earlier had lasted only a single day. The hope he had the audacity to proclaim is not yet dead. But - even as he prepares to leave for a trip to Europe that will encompass the G20 summit in London (2 April), the Nato anniversary summit jointly hosted by France and Germany (3-4 April), and visits to the Czech Republic (4-5 April) and Turkey (6-7 April) - the future prospects of his presidency are already in the balance.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the economic crisis:

Willem Buiter, "The end of American capitalism (as we knew it)" (17 September 2008)

Ann Pettifor, "The week that changed everything" (22 September 2008)

Will Hutton, "Wanted: a fairer capitalism" (6 October 2008)

Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008)

Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change" (10 November 2008)

Simon Maxwell & Dirk Messner, "A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008)

Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008)

Krzysztof Rybinski, "A new world order" (4 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world in revolt" (12 February 2009)

Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009)

Krzysztof Rybinski, "There is no zombie free lunch" (18 March 2009)

Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (26 March 2009)

Will Hutton, "A G20 deal: power bends to protest" (29 March 2009)

With great courage, Obama has insisted that he would stick to his promises to tackle long-term failings in American society, even as he struggled to heal the economic crisis. He continues to press for these reforms - in climate-change policy, healthcare, public education, dependence on imported oil, and growing inequality - even as he grapples with the blocking of credit and the terrible unemployment that is one of its consequences.

The week of 23-29 March saw a new twist: the emergence of a deadly dilemma that the president has to resolve. He has learned that he cannot unblock credit without going a long way to appease the interests of the bankers who caused the problem in the first place. At the same time he has become aware of the rising fury among everyday Americans triggered by the huge bonuses paid to executives at AIG, the giant insurance company that in 2008 posted the biggest losses in American business history.

Everyone agrees that the knot that has to be cut is the astronomical quantity of "toxic assets" poisoning the balance sheets of American banks - as well as those European banks (the Royal Bank of Scotland, Paribas, Deutsche Bank and UBS among them), which thought it was clever to copycat every Wall Street fashion.

The plan unveiled by Obama's treasury secretary Timothy Geithner on 23 March hands to the banks the juiciest of "sweetheart" deals to persuade them to buy up what Geithner calls "legacy assets" (the financial crisis has given free rein to American public life's culture of euphemism).

The president's vice

Geithner's plan distinguishes between securities based on truly valueless loans and those whose value has simply been depressed by the economic downturn. It proposes that the treasury and "private investors" - which in practice can only mean the investment banks, commercial banks and hedge-funds which created and invested in the toxic assets in the first place - will buy equal amounts of the unsaleable assets. But private investors will only be able to do so thanks to a far larger injection of money to be lent by a government agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Altogether it is calculated that private investors will contribute 6% or 7% of the money to clean up the banks' balance-sheets. The taxpayer, in the shape of the treasury and FDIC, will put up more than 90%. That, in the good old days before Wall Street collapsed, used to be called "leverage" of perhaps thirteen-to-one. With government standing behind them to that extent, why wouldn't the banks buy trash at prices kited with government money?

Timothy Geithner makes much of the importance of keeping the rescue in the private sector, which it patently is not. He also speaks warmly of the professional skills that will be devoted to the task by the very speculators who brought the economy to its knees.

The liberal economic intelligentsia don't like it. Jeffrey Sachs calls it a "massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to bank shareholders". In a deadly back-of-the-envelope calculation he estimates that the plan will hand $276 billion - even today a not inconsiderable sum - directly from the taxpayers to bank shareholders (see Jeffrey Sachs, "Will Geithner and Summers Succeed in Raiding the FDIC and Fed?", VoxEU, 25 March 2009).

The Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman dismisses the plan as not much more than a revival of the George W Bush administration's plan to absorb the banks' toxic assets: just more "cash for trash". The economist and former labour secretary, Robert Reich, and the Columbia University scholar Joseph Stiglitz are equally acerbic (see Edward Luce, "America's liberals lay into Obama", Financial Times, 27 March 2009).

The co-editor of The American Prospect and respected commentator, Robert Kuttner, says the Obama administration has chosen "the most expensive and risky way of trying to recapitalise the banks, and the least likely to succeed". Kuttner also identifies a point that is likely to be the target of much angry criticism, namely that the president has turned to "the same Wall Street crew" who failed to handle the situation under the Bush administration, and indeed who were largely responsible for what went wrong in the first place: Robert Rubin, Laurence Summers, and their protégés (see Robert Kuttner, "Geithner's last stand", Huffington Post, 22 March 2009).

If anyone had any doubts about who would benefit from the Geithner "public-private partnership", they had only to watch how the stock market responded. Bank shares overall rose by 10% in the aftermath, but the biggest banks that have survived did better than that. Citigroup was up 19%; Bank of America shot up 26% in heavy trading; Wells Fargo's shares rose by 24%, and J.P. Morgan Chase's by 25%.  A day later, however, the wave of market enthusiasm had subsided.

The truth is that Obama now finds himself in a new vice. He feels he needs people from Wall Street to solve the street's problems. That is one reason why it has taken him so long to fill the key jobs at the treasury under Geithner. At the same time he clearly underestimated the rage Main Street citizens feel both at the AIG bonuses and the broader proposition: that while they face losing their jobs and their homes because of the folly and greed of the financial sector, the only people who walk away laughing are the folks who caused the disaster in the first place.

No wonder that questions are being asked about the ubiquitous presence of present and former executives of Goldman Sachs in the Obama administration, just as in the ranks of its precedessor.

A time to choose

Barack Obama showed in his long campaign for the presidency that he is a very skilled politician. He is also by temperament cautious, even conservative. His instinct is to "reach across the aisle" in order to cure what he sees as the excessive partisanship of the years since the "Reagan revolution". He is too a patient man. But now he understands that he has got to move fast if he is to save the hopes of his presidency (see "Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis", 6 February 2009).

In this the president is both beneficiary and victim of larger historic forces. The same event that cleared his way to the White House, the financial crisis symbolised by the fall of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 15 2008, may have made it impossible to govern; or at the least, may mean that he will have to sacrifice at least some of his hopes of long-term reform (see "The week that democracy won", 29 September 2008).

In the short term, in order to heal the financial crisis it looks as though he has had to put the fate of his administration in the hands of the men from Wall Street.

Amid the stock-market panic of 1907, the financier JP Morgan was surprised that President Theodore Roosevelt didn't "send your man to fix things up with my man".  It couldn't be done like that then, and it can't be done now. But the young president and his even younger treasury secretary have nonetheless been taught a hard lesson in political economy.

To govern is to choose, as Aneurin Bevan - the Welsh architect of Britain's post-1945 national healthcare system - said. It is now clear that inviting the poachers to act as gamekeepers was a mistake. Many Americans long accepted the conservative contention that government was the problem, not the solution. That phase of history seems to have ended, and a progressive president finds himself coping with a new wave of populism of a kind that seemed to have disappeared from America politics for generations. He means to govern, and he will have to choose.

 


Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. His books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

France's Obama fixation

It is not surprising that Barack Obama's election has dramatically transformed the way French citizens think of the United States. That story has been told many times before, if not about France than about other countries and their fascinations with the American president. Yet, in an unexpected mirror effect, it is France's vision of itself that is being altered by Obama's victory.  

During the past eight years, the French thought of their homeland as far superior to what they saw as a death penalty-loving bastion of reactionary forces; now, they celebrate the United States for its new-found maturity, an elevated politics that many fear is unattainable in France. The comfort of knowing that a Frenchman with George W Bush's politics would find himself dismissed as a dangerous extremist has given way to an often-voiced anxiety: Could a "French Obama" win a presidential election?

This is not just a rhetorical question; it has real significance in the French context. Obama's French enthusiasts inevitably distort his real profile and platform in their effort to frame his victory for their own purposes. The parts of Obama's story that his admirers invoke and the themes they emphasize provide a window into the glaring shortfalls of French society. Obama is a cipher for the Left's inability to sell its ideas; the rigid structure of political parties and stultifying hold of political elites; and the dreadful lack of minority figures in leadership positions.

A socialist icon

One group of Obama admirers can be found in the Socialist Party (PS). The country's leading left-wing party has not won a presidential election since 1988 and a legislative election since 1997. Asphyxiated in recent years by the hyperactivity of right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy and unable to counter the spread of conservative ideas, the PS has been in survival mode for much of the past decade. 

Socialist leaders are now hoping to take advantage of Obama's victory to bolster their own cause and get back into France's political game. To regain power, the PS must learn how to make its platform look more appealing to lower and middle class voters. And what better way to do that than to insist the party's proposals are similar to those of the popular and emblematically progressive American president? Daniel Nichanian is a freelance writer and journalist. He blogs at Campaign Diaries 

"Restoration of the power of the public sector, intervention in the markets, efforts to restrict free trade for the benefit of employment," marveled party spokesperson Benoît Hamon in an interview with the French newspaper La Croix back in March 2008. "Each of these actions is considered archaic in the European Union but Obama demonstrates that they are in fact suited to our times." 

Of course, such an assertion requires the cherry-picking of a few of Obama's proposals that have a progressive cast, portraying them as far more left-of-centre than they actually are. This grey distortion was glaringly evident over the past few weeks, as the PS repeatedly invoked Obama's relatively centrist recovery plan to argue that the current economic crisis demanded a leftist response.  

In touting the PS's counter-proposal to Sarkozy's stimulus, Hamon took pride in the fact that the Socialists' proposal is "in tune with that which Barack Obama is doing for his country;" he also defended his call for the state to take a seat on banks' board of directors by portraying Obama as a strong proponent of nationalization. Meanwhile, party head Martine Aubry called on Sarkozy to follow in Obama's footsteps. "When the issue of capping CEO salaries comes up, Obama is on the move," she said in a recent interview with Le Parisien. "I'm waiting for Sarkozy to do the same." 

Obama's actual policy statements might not be as leftist as Aubry and Hamon's characterizations, and his commitment to saving the capitalist system is probably closer to Sarkozy's vow to "re-found" it. But that doesn't stop PS officials from suggesting that the American rejection of conservative ideas heralds a left-ward shift in French politics.  

The grassroots hero

While Aubry and Hamon strive to depict Obama as a socialist in the hope of reviving France's left-wing discourse, others are more interested in drawing upon the narrative of Obama as an anti-establishment, grassroots candidate to denounce the rigidity of the French system.

France's political life is dominated by a monolithic ruling class - overwhelmingly white, sharing similar resumes, of the same age; most have gone through the same top school, the National School of Administration (ENA). Politicians hold on to power for decades, blocking the renewal of elites and preventing new generations from entering positions of responsibility.  

How could reformers concerned with such stagnation not look towards Obama? Whatever the American president's actual commitment to broadening the democratic process, he inspired millions of first-time voters, defeated better-established candidates and bypassed traditional structures to engage directly with the body public - all feats many worry would not be feasible in France. 

The dispute over which strand of reform to prioritize - policy or process - rocked the PS during its heated leadership fight last fall. One faction, led by Hamon, contended that the party should radicalize its economic platform; another camp, led by the party's 2007 presidential nominee Ségolène Royal, advocated for procedural changes like the expansion of the party's membership base and making primaries open to the public at large rather than only to dues-paying activists.  

Royal's narrow loss in the PS's leadership vote hardened her determination to portray herself as an opponent of the political establishment. Much of this is opportunistic, of course - Royal is a longtime politician who graduated from ENA and served in the governmental cabinet as early as 1992 - and she was mocked mercilessly recently for suggesting that Obama had copied her campaign. But there is indisputably shared parentage between Royal's objectives and some of Obama's rhetoric; she built her presidential campaign around participative and inclusive forums meant to draw voters in and allow them to shape her platform.  

Her proposals found their echo in a 137-page report released earlier this year by Terra Nova, a left-leaning think thank that sent a study group to the United States to observe the presidential election. In obvious awe of Obama, the group issued a series of recommendations aimed at revitalizing French democracy by loosening the organization of parties and improving political communication. For instance, the report called for the constitution of mass parties to replace France's relatively small political organizations, whose power is held by a core group of activists.  

"This would allow political leaders to emancipate themselves from the parties' structures," touted Pauline Peretz, a professor at the Université de Nantes and a member of the study group. "A more direct relationship can be built with party members and with the electorate," she added, alluding to a model of "participative democracy." 

Mass parties have pitfalls of their own, however. Critics worry that dramatically expanding the scope of parties would dilute their ideological substance and intellectual liveliness, risking their transformation into mere instruments of the ambitions of politicians. But toying with party structure is only one of many possible ways with which to reform the system. What no one disputes - and what Obama's victory makes all the clearer - is that citizens must be more directly involved in the political process.  

France's monochrome politics

This is the compromise institutionalized political parties have to make to ensure that they are representative of the country's diversity - whether in terms of gender, class or race. Obama's election offers a unique opportunity to highlight French politics's striking monochromatism.  

Asked whether France could conceivably elect a minority president, Patrice Schoendorff, who runs a pro-Obama organization in Lyon and who co-founded the website Diversité News, did not hesitate. "It's impossible! We are at least 30 years behind," he said. "We might not even have a minority with enough standing to jump in the field. We can't even imagine having a minority as big city mayor."  

This judgment might sound harsh, but one statistic is enough to substantiate Schoendorff's analysis: In the most recent elections, only two minority politicians were elected in the 555 parliamentary districts that make up mainland France. (There are 22 seats reserved for France's overseas territories.) 

The challenges minorities face extend well beyond the electoral sphere. Cavernous socio-economic inequality is combined with France's failure to adequately integrate millions of second and third-generation immigrants; the situation revealed its explosive potential during the 2005 riots in the banlieues, the predominantly lower-class suburbs that house a significant minority population. 

With Obama's victory, French activists believe they have been provided an opening to broach sensible subjects and empower minority groups in France. Alfa'Dev, a neighborhood association based in Argenteuil, a Paris suburb, was anxious to seize the opportunity and installed a giant screen in city hall on the day of Obama's Inauguration. 

The viewing party made for a powerful event. Back in 2005, Argenteuil was the stage of a tense confrontation between Sarkozy and the banlieusards. Sarkozy, who was then Interior Minister, has been reluctant to visits the banlieues since then, aggravating their divorce from mainstream French society and politics. Now, Argenteuil's youth have turned towards a foreign president for the inspiration they cannot find in the French one. 

Michel Sabaly, who runs Alfa'Dev, underlined Obama's appeal in the impoverished suburb. "We want to adapt America's 'yes we can' to say that if Obama could work to become who he is, we should be able to do the same in France," he said. "People from the banlieues who have similar stories can believe that work, perseverance, and seriousness are assets that can lead someone who started out with very little to someplace successful."  

What makes it particularly difficult to translate social empowerment into political change in France is that the condition of minorities is shaped by the country's colonial past and by recent migratory waves. Unlike African-Americans in the United States, French minorities are still often perceived as foreigners. According to Esther Benbassa, a professor at Sorbonne's Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, this limits the possibility of a mass movement like America's campaign for civil rights or of an organization working on behalf of an entire community. "Here, we are stuck in an individualist understanding of power," she said. "Those who come from immigrant families and want to reach influence are fighting for themselves." 

With advocacy groups weaker than they often are in the United States, it is no surprise that political parties have failed to step up. But with the election of Obama, the political class is being forced to recognize how far behind France finds itself. Obama's victory is generating enough pressure to force onto the table thorny issues like affirmation action or the need to overturn a ban on collecting ethnic and racial statistics.  

Neither of these two proposals enjoys the unanimous support of minority rights groups, but they should at least be debated. France's commitment to jacobin values has long prevented ethnicity from being acknowledged as a relevant category of public life and as a potential source of inequality, and the ban on ethnic statistics denies us even a basic knowledge of the socio-economic condition of minority groups.  

When imported into the French context, Obama might only be a symbol - what Benbassa deplores as a "gadget" politicians use to show their commitment to reform - but he is undoubtedly a useful one. He has got the reticent, recalcitrant French finally talking about their own problems.

Jindal only offers more of the same

On paper, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal would appear to be the perfect candidate to help shepherd the Republican Party out of its post-election mire. A Rhodes scholar of Indian descent, who became the youngest governor in the country upon assuming office in 2007 at the age of 36, Jindal possesses the intellect, youth, and philosophical outlook to both satisfy the whims of the party's base and court the interest of young and non-white voters--demographic groups which the GOP has been haemorrhaging to the Democrats in recent election cycles.

As such, it should come as no real surprise that the Republican leadership saw it fit to hand Jindal the fillip of presenting the party's official televised rebuttal to President Barack Obama's first speech to Congress: a perfect opportunity to introduce himself to a national audience, articulate a distinct vision for America's present and future, and lay the foundations for an already-mooted presidential run in less than four years' time.

However, if Tuesday's address truly was the first litmus test of a potential Jindal candidacy, then perhaps he would be better off sticking to his pledge (made on last week's edition of 'Meet the Press') to focus solely on getting re-elected as governor in 2011.

Jindal's performance has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, and rightly so. With the country in the midst of a historically unprecedented economic implosion, and its citizens eagerly looking towards their democracy's political elders for both leadership and solace, the Louisiana governor comprehensively failed to substantively address the Presidential speech that preceded him, or perhaps more importantly discuss the topic of the economic crisis itself in a meaningful or engaging way.

Instead, the GOP's spokesman chose to deliver an oft-heard and well-trodden diatribe on why Republicans favoured a diminutive role for the state in government, punctuated with a catchphrase--"Americans can do anything"--which undoubtedly appeared rousing on paper but was sapped of any inspirational potency by Jindal's awkward, uneven and surprisingly unpolished delivery.

At a time when the vast majority of Americans now face uncertainty and trepidation on a daily basis due to the current economic crisis, those looking towards the Republican Party for leadership or solace on Tuesday night must have been sorely disappointed. The entire country has just experienced a two-year presidential race that was publicized and scrutinized to its last breath by the media--does the GOP really believe that there's anyone in the country in doubt as to what each party stands for? Do they think that voter confusion was the root of John McCain's defeat in the fall? Bipartisan governance is strongly desired by the electorate now more than ever--why shun the possibility of co-operation and return instead to the tired talking points of the last eight years at the very first opportunity?

While Jindal's performance was poor, the content of his message also deserves much criticism. Yes, there is need for stringent oversight on such a large and contrived spending package as the one in question to avoid a return to the pork-barrel politics that has become synonymous with Washington, unquestionably. However, if the Republican Party want to follow Barack Obama's lead and turn this theme into a communications strategy that really resonates with the American people, they first need to dilute down their obvious distaste for large, centralized government. There is an appetite across the developed world for an expanded fiscal role for government that only the most serious of crises can create: however inconvenient it may be, Republicans ignore this sentiment at their peril.

Governor Jindal's speech on Tuesday night did nothing to dispel the perception among liberals and conservatives alike that the Republican Party has become a party lacking in ideas. If anything, it should have sent alarm bells ringing within the party, and forced many who watched it to reconsider whether the comparisons frequently made between Jindal and President Obama are rooted more in superficiality than substance.

The peril of parodying Obama

Last week, Carol Thatcher unwittingly illustrated how an archaic word from a different generation retains much of its racially-charged potency to this day - and rightly drew condemnation for it. This week, it was the turn of imagery to dredge up the unseemly spectre of the past.

A storm of publicity has gathered around the offices of the New York Post, after a cartoon published in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper - depicting the author of the recently-approved economic stimulus as a dead, crazed chimpanzee - was accused of being a not so subtle exercise in jingoism by both commentators in the media and civil rights activists.

Speaking to the media, Reverend Al Sharpton declared that "the cartoon in today's New York Post is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys."

"One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill,'" he added.

A press release was quickly issued by the newspaper, defending its cartoon as "a clear parody of a current news event" - the shooting dead by police of a chimpanzee in Connecticut on Monday after the creature mauled its owner's friend - and denouncing Rev. Sharpton for being "nothing more than a publicity opportunist."

However, with the furore over the cartoon refusing to abate, and a group of protestors converging on the newspaper's headquarters, the Post softened its stance in a Friday editorial, saying that "to those who were offended by the image, we apologise."

Whether simply a poorly executed sketch that was misconstrued - as the Guardian's USA blog rightly points out, the author of the stimulus package referenced in the cartoon would be the Democratic congressional leadership, not President Obama himself - or something more sinister, the controversy surrounding Sean Delonas's work highlights an interesting dilemma: the challenge now facing the professional satirists whose job it is to subvert the image of the first African-American president of the United States.

Distorting facial features as a means of highlighting the excesses and frailties of our public figures has been a staple of political satirists' trade in the western press since Thomas Nast's pioneering work during the Tammany Hall era, providing some iconic and enduring images: from the defiance of Winston Churchill's bulldoggish scowl to, more recently, Tony Blair's unnervingly large and perfectly-formed dentures and the increasingly simian features of George W Bush.

However, as highlighted recently in an article on the Huffington Post, cartoonists in the American press now find themselves in unchartered waters, as they try to tread an increasingly thin line between caricature and stereotype when penning their work: draw President Obama's lips too large, or his ears too big, and an artist may inadvertently face the same charges of racism and xenophobia levelled at the New York Post this week.

As CNN columnist Roland S. Martin succinctly put it: "What could be seen as silly humour if President George W Bush were in the White House has to be seen through the lens of America's racist past."

Tell Rall, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, summed up the difficulty this paradigmatic moment in American history has invariably posed for his organisations' members, noting that, "without a doubt, people are stepping more gingerly. People are tiptoeing their way through this."

The alarm bells should have sounded for many during the general election. Seeking to poke fun at the right-wing media's continued chatter over Obama's "true" religious beliefs and purported affiliation with terrorist organisations, The New Yorker magazine placed on its front cover a depiction of Obama and his wife standing in the Oval Office: replete with turban, salwar kameez, camouflage pants and an AK-47 rifle. The cartoon, while playing on the issue of religion rather than race, was quickly rounded upon by critics who believed it reinforced popular misconceptions about the Democratic candidate - including his own campaign, which denounced it as "tasteless and offensive."

With more than 45 months left in President Obama's tenure, it seems inevitable this issue will arise again; particularly given that interest groups such as the NAACP are set to become even more vigilant in their monitoring of the media's output after this week's incident.

Consequently, political cartoonists now face the unenviable challenge of marrying outrageous and provocative iconography with political correctness: a damning restriction of free speech, which may, ironically, provoke a self-fulfilling creative backlash that results in the production of more vitriolic and jingoistic works.

As decorated American cartoonist Jules Feiffer noted, "outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a good political cartoonist than ill will." American political cartoonists are starting to get tetchy.

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