- oD 50.50
About Kanishk Tharoor
Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy. His writings on politics and culture have also been published in the Guardian, The Independent, The National, The Hindu, The Times of India, The Telegraph (Calcutta), the Virginia Quarterly Review, Foreign Policy and YaleGlobal Online. His appearances on radio and TV include BBC's Today programme, BBC News, BBC Radio Scotland and the Colbert Report. He is a published and award-winning author of short fiction. He studied at Yale, where he graduated magna cum laude with BAs in History and Literature.
Email him at kanishk [dot] tharoor [at] opendemocracy [dot] net.
Articles by Kanishk Tharoor
This week's editor
En Liang Khong is openDemocracy’s assistant editor.
No to TTIP
A war of words over compensation for rape victims has overshadowed the real issue, of violence against poor women
**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.
The Congress party returns to power with a clear mandate, a privilege it should not squander
Robert Kaplan genuinely wants to edify, not provoke. But in his bid to become the American world of letters' chief interpreter of south Asia, he has quite successfully got under my skin
What should outsiders pay attention to, beyond the platitudes, as the "world's largest democracy" heads to the polls?
As a day-long rebellion dies down, the fledgling democratic government in Dhaka claims to have weathered its first real test
A new exhibition of contemporary photography reveals the depths of the seemingly mundane in modern India
(This article was first published on 27 November 2008)
The dust has yet to settle on the unfolding tragedy in Mumbai. At the time of writing, hostage situations persist in the Oberoi Hotel and the Nariman House, and commandos are still clearing the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Officials have not fully agreed on the chronology of events that have left at least one hundred people dead (including the city's anti-terrorist chief Hemant Karkare) and injured hundreds others, but the verdict is already in: this is the worst attack India has ever seen.
The Obama campaign pioneered the use of 21st century social networking in American electoral politics. Its My.BarackObama.com website was a small miracle of technology and tact, building a platform that at once spread information, enlarged the supporter base, directed energy and, most importantly, raised money. Barack's Twitter feed kept thousands of supporters (and foes) abreast of his latest speeches and rallies. Obama's campaign even deployed text messages on its path to victory, considerably defter and more modern than McCain's much maligned robo-calls.
I got my last "tweet" from Obama on the morning of the 5th: "We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks". My.BarackObama.com now offers it services as a blank and vague portal for "local organising"; activity has slowed markedly on the site. Electoral victory put an end to the campaigning purpose of such tools, which in the previous months had been meticulous in their direction. Once the means achieve their desired end, they end themselves.
Yet the President-elect rolled out a new website, Change.gov, aimed at making the process of transition more transparent. A noble intention, of course, but when that intention is bolstered by such saccharine and cringe-worthy blog posts as this, it seems risible at best, propagandist at worst. We don't need the organ of the President-elect to tell us that "Words like 'brilliant,' 'sharp,' 'energetic,' and 'visionary' are coming from across the political spectrum in praise for President-elect Barack Obama's choices to lead his economic team." As a friend pointed out, much of the site reads like official Chinese Communist Party newspapers.
It is disappointing that the energy and dynamism of the previous months seems lost on Change.gov. In the hands of Obama's campaign, the internet was perfectly harnessed to build momentum and galvanise support. His new venture on the internet is on the path to becoming a reminder of the stultifying effect of power.
Following in our footsteps, a New York Times editorial today forcefully argues for the abolition of the electoral college in favour of the popular vote. There are numerous reasons to dispense with the creaking, archaic system: much of the initial rationale of the system lay in slavery; it is unconscionable that the presidency can be awarded to the candidate for whom fewer Americans vote (as happened in 2000); and the electoral college exaggerates the importance of votes in "swing states" like Ohio and Florida, while diminishing their significance in "safe states" like New York and Texas.
But most importantly, in my opinion, the system reduces the diverse political landscape of the country into monochrome blocks. It creates the crippling sense of a "red state" vs "blue state" divide. If a popular vote was in place, this perception would not have room to flourish. As the editorial points out, over 40% of voters in deep red Alabama cast their ballot for Obama, while 4.5 million Californians voted for McCain (equivalent to the number of votes the Republican got in Texas). If Obama is serious about transcending red-blue fissures, he should welcome the burgeoning national movement for the popular vote.
The New Yorker's recent issue boasts a particularly arresting cover (pasted below). Obama's "O" moon waxes high over the Lincoln Memorial, casting a pale reflection in the pool beneath. Still months before his inauguration, Obama finds himself in the longest of shadows, that of the president who steered the United States through bloody division and great crisis. It's a mantle that Obama has, in effect, placed upon himself. He quoted Abraham Lincoln extensively throughout his campaign. And in his first interview since the election, Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft that he'd been preparing for the months ahead by returning to the works of Lincoln: "I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."
The reflection of the memorial - eerily reminiscent of the pillars of light that all too briefly replaced the World Trade Centre after 9/11 - tells a cautionary tale. Even the brightest alabaster of presidential grandeur has its dark side. He probably knows this. Obama's performance on 60 Minutes was low-key and almost pedestrian, belying the tremendous anticipation weighted on the President-elect. On display was not only Obama's famous calm, but his deep respect for the office and the moment he has risen to. Perhaps he has imbibed the "wisdom" of Lincoln. The "greatness" expected of him, Obama knows, will only materialise if it ultimately draws from a deeper reserve of modesty.
Hat-tip to BAGnewsNotes.
Elsewhere in openDemocracy, Anita Inder Singh explores the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which poses one of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the next president. Singh paints a bleak picture: "The Taliban now control at least one-third of the country; President Karzai's fledging elected government struggles to extend its authority beyond the capital Kabul; and wracked by growing divisions and doubts, NATO seems to be at risk of losing a seven-year old war." Read the rest of the article here.
Ahead of a 30-minute "infomercial" to be aired across most US TV networks tonight, Obama spoke rousingly in Ohio yesterday. Billed as his "final argument", the speech mixed the older, loftier rhetoric of the primary season with the more measured and earthly tone of recent months. Not once did Obama allow himself a smile. This was a totally sober speech, concluding with the now familiar invocation of "Hope" as its grim battle cry.
He placed the flailing economy at the fore, consistently abstracting the crisis above the candidates themselves (in clear contrast to the McCain campaign's plunges into the personal). Obama repeated his commitment not to make "a big election about small things". Yet he responded to the more absurd attacks on his supposed "ideology" by strongly defending his platform.
"Government should do what we can't do for ourselves," he said, in arguing the great role government has to play in engendering prosperity in the country, before really sticking to his guns: "John McCain calls it socialism, I call it opportunity." But there is more at stake in this election than vying policies. Showing that he could meld the political scrapper with the high-minded orator, Obama returned to his rhetorical best towards the end of the speech. "In one week, we can come together as a nation and as a people and choose our better history." As ever, Obama was finely aware of the power of narratives in this election. Both McCain and Obama have drafted stories of themselves as individuals and leaders. But only Obama's campaign has appealed to a renewed narrative of Americanness that in its craft and warmth has that strange (and often dubious) power to inspire.
At least one person in Europe isn't going all soft and misty-eyed for Obama. The irascible Melanie Phillips recently penned a fevered attack against the presidential hopeful, warning that Obama "will take an axe to America's defences at the very time when they need to be built up." While The Spectator may not be regular fare across the pond, equally frenzied denunciations of Obama have become common in the last few weeks in the US. Evangelicals beseech their co-religionists to vote for McCain in order to stave off a "far-left agenda [that] would take away many of our freedoms as a nation, perhaps permanently." Elected Republicans try to tar and feather Obama as a radical: "With all due respect," Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, said, "the man is a socialist." In terms that echo the shrillest of these fear-mongers across the pond, Phillips claims an Obama victory would invite apocalypse.
For a hack who imagines the end of western civilization around every corner, Phillips unsurprisingly finds the most self-destructive instincts of the west in him. "Obama stands for the expiation of America's original sin in oppressing black people, the third world and the poor," she writes. "Obama thinks world conflicts are basically the west's fault, and so it must right the injustices it has inflicted."
According to Phillips, Obama is the epitome of the guilt-ridden, multicultural self-hater. His inevitable failures as president would not only be those of diplomatic compromise, but of cultural and historical surrender. Overreaching minorities will be coddled within their obliging societies. Terrorists will become objects of politically-correct sympathy. Iraq and Afghanistan will be evacuated. Israel will be sacrificed to the Arabs. Obama will strip the US - and ultimately, the "West" - of the right to assert its identity and strength. Under an Obama presidency, there will be no safe buffer zone - political and psychological - between the west and the rest.
Of course, Phillips has no real interest in looking at Obama seriously. She only wants him to be a woodcut in her shadow world of demons and angels. So it makes sense that her rant impresses other paladins of the clash of civilisations (see the comments below her piece on The Spectator website). It's as willfully deaf to reality as they are.
Unsurprisingly, the New York Times has endorsed Obama over McCain. The pillar of American print media remains the bete noire of a particularly virulent segment of conservatives, convinced that the broadsheet is at the centre of a "liberal, elitist" national media. During the Republican convention, Sarah Palin singled out the paper as an exemplar of high-falutin' coastal snobbery.
It's difficult to gauge bias in such a venerable fixture of the American media landscape, one which in almost all respects is painfully centrist and middle-class in its sensibilities. Yes, the paper's op-ed page is predominantly populated by left-leaning columnists, and its editorials mostly take left-leaning positions. But there is little to the suggestion that the paper in the sum of its parts is somehow "leftist"; it was the New York Times, after all, that resurrected the spectre of Bill Ayers by recently making the ex-radical front-page news.
Were Obama to go on to win the presidency, many grumbling conservatives will fault a "pliant" media for giving the Democrat the edge. As Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal, "The press knows who the press is for, and it isn't generally the one to the right." While Noonan goes on to blame McCain's own failings - not media bias - for his seemingly impending defeat, the image of a press corps swooning for Obama will remain a part of the narrative of this election campaign.
But when only 18% of Americans get their news from print media, the grey lady looks more like a straw man. Talk radio and the explosive mix of news and opinion on 24/7 news channels have steered American discourse clearly to the right in the last fifteen years. In the end, newspaper endorsements don't count for much. And - despite Palin's protestations - nor do the east coast's "liberal" rags.
It seems Islamist insurgents do read openDemocracy's SWISH reports. Just as Paul Rogers urged, a poster on an al-Qaeda-linked website has suggested that a John McCain presidency would better serve the purposes of the jihadist movement than an Obama one. Revelling in the financial crisis gripping America, webby Islamists hope to further drain US resources in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping the US involved in these wars "requires [the] presence of an impetuous American leader such as McCain, who pledged to continue the war till the last American soldier... Then, al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming elections so that he continues the failing march of his predecessor, Bush."
The message, found and translated from a password-protected website monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group, went on: "If al-Qaeda carries out a big operation against American interests, this act will be support of McCain because it will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America till its last year in it."
Neither the McCain nor the Obama campaign have responded strongly to the message, which seems to play quite clearly into Obama's hands. The Democratic candidate's camp would be wise to keep fairly quiet about the message, lest they are seen to be playing politics with the musings of "terrorists".
The McCain campaign seems ready to concede Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa to Obama, focussing its energies instead in teetering southern states - e.g. Virginia - and, bizarrely, in Pennsylvania. Obama is thought to hold a considerable advantage in Pennsylvania, but the state once described as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama between" must seem winnable to the McCain campaign. The gamble makes gory reading for the Republican (map below from Electoral-vote.com).
03:30 Obama returns to his normal line, smooth repetition, and the debate draws to a close. Early verdict: McCain proves wanting. He falls terribly short. Despite a more combative performance, he can't expect to have made the necessary impact. This wasn't even close. Even Joe the Plumber can't save him.
03:28 McCain scores points on vouchers in DC... we're rushed into closing statements. The Republican speaks awkwardly and vaguely, not at all persuasive.
03:23 Sparring on education. McCain retreats to Republican talking points. Obama is more flexible, defending charter schools while attacking the voucher mentality.
03:14 Obama is strong in supporting Roe vs. Wade. Once again, McCain feebly waves at Obama's record. Rebuffed with confidence and clarity.
03:06 The Republican continues to clutch at straws. Deploys strategic Freudian slip by calling Obama "Senator Government".
03:01 Health insurance time: Obama wants people to band together for the greater good. Damn pinko, says McCain. Isn't that right, Joe the Plumber? Healthcare is not American, it's Canadian and E n g l i s h. Yuck.
A New York Times/CBS poll now puts Obama's lead over McCain at 14 points. With his back against the wall, the final presidential debate tonight offers McCain the possibility of clawing his way back into the race. The candidates and the moderator (CBS' Bob Schieffer) will sit at the same table in a debate format engineered to be more conversational. Such a format may encourage more direct exchanges and improvised arguments (both distinctly lacking in the previous debates).
The onus rests on McCain to take the debate by the horns. Will he eschew the negative tactics that have supposedly contributed to his slump in the polls, or will he bring up the bogeymen of William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright? How will he defend his proposed economic policies when a majority of Americans would rather have Obama steering the economy through troubled waters? Can he turn the doddering awkwardness of his last appearance into controlled and comfortable authority?
Obama is likely to continue performing as blandly as he has in the prior clashes, boring his way to a favourable-looking draw. In McCain lies the potential for pyrotechnics. The debate kicks off at 02.00 BST, tune in to openUSA for real-time commentary and analysis on our live-blog.
I have actually grown less convinced by MSNBC's vociferous Keith Olbermann over the course of the campaign, but his recent "special comment" is worth watching. Olbermann has spoken persuasively in the past about the proximity of violence to politics in America, attacking Hillary Clinton for invoking the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. He hits out now at McCain and Palin for failing to own up to their complicity in allowing the tenor of their rallies to reach a bloodthirsty fever pitch. Video below.
At a McCain rally in Iowa on Saturday, Rev. Arnold Conrad asked God to remember "that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November" because "millions of people around this world" - Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims - are praying to their distinctly non-Christian gods for an Obama victory. Conrad concluded: "Lord, I pray You would guard Your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than You." Video from TPM below.
In both presidential debates, John McCain repeatedly invoked General David Petraeus - America's much-praised military chief in Afghanistan and Iraq - as if the general was on his side. The shout-outs were a salvo in McCain's broader offensive against Obama's foreign policy agenda. While Obama supposedly scorned the accomplishments of the troops and sought to negotiate with implacable enemies, McCain stood by the intrepid general who had turned the tide in Iraq. In McCain's world, "victory" - and the search for victory - is a virtue, not a tactical outcome. Petraeus became the paragon of that virtue of victory.
Perhaps resenting being dragged into the rhetorical smoke and mirrors of the campaign, Petraeus lent his credibility to the Obama camp. In recent remarks at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the general insisted that "you have to talk to your enemies." He made much the same distinction Obama makes in defending negotiations, differentiating between "preconditions" and "preparations"; you don't go into talks without an agenda, without a clear objective, and without a strong sense of your scope for compromise.
The glowing tributes afforded Petraeus' achievements in Iraq are, of course, overstated (as we've mentioned on this blog). But his words carry the kind of gravity that will make McCain advisers shiver. The Republican is looking increasingly isolated in peddling his tough and uncompromising commitment to "victory" in the middle east.
A recent piece on Politico takes the temperature of the Republican base, and sees it reaching feverish desperation. The mood at recent McCain-Palin rallies has turned more "frenzied" and "visceral". Examples of this nastier turn can be seen in the video posted on openUSA yesterday. Are such demonstrations of emotion admissions of impending defeat? Or inklings of a last ditch Republican tactical coup? More likely the former. As Tom Ash pointed out this week, negative campaigning doesn't seem to work.
The video below has been doing the rounds in the liberal blogosphere. Filmed at a McCain-Palin rally in Ohio, it edits together the "ignorance" and racism of supporters of the Republican ticket. I find it difficult to watch, in part because I don't know what to make of those filmed (Do they really believe what they say? How "representative" are they?), and in part because of their casual dismissal by those who watch them (see the comments beneath the original posting).
Growing up in New York, I remember thinking of the "hinterland" as a strange and fictitious world (a disease especially common in New York perhaps). Now, I'm made all the more uncomfortable and uncertain when that world (the interior, the Red state) is made "real" to me (to the coast, to the Blue state) in the shape of caricature. What can we take from videos like this, and what shouldn't we?
03:35 It's over. Early verdict: a stalemate leaning towards McCain. Obama's cerebral tone doesn't lend itself to the (stiff) informality of town-hall debates. But the Democrat chose deliberately to speak up to the American public. Will that make a difference? Can McCain's optimism help Americans forget about the economy that threatens to destroy his campaign (first) and then his country?
03:33 "What I don't know is what the unexpected will be" ... McCain lapses into Rumsfeldian prose.
03:25 A veteran raises the spectre of US involvement in an Iran-Israel war. McCain pets the veteran. Yuck. His answer is quite yuck, too.
Obama speaks sensitively about the vulnerable state of Iran's internal energy infrastructure.
03:22 Obama on the Georgia crisis: "We should anticipate these challenges and not just be reactive." Obama-style pre-emption?
03:19 McCain recalls Putin's strange K-G-B contact lenses. Spouts nonsense about the Russian threat. Most Americans will probably soak this stuff up anyway.
03:16 This live-blogger is happy... Brokaw's asking good questions, makes the candidates respond to British defeatism in Afghanistan. Obama hits out at the Karzai government. McCain bigs up Petraeus. Throughout this entire debate, McCain has seemed the optimist and Obama the gloomy pessimist. What happened to Hope?
03:14 Bang! Obama brings up McCain's crazy song about bombing Iran, his desire to attack Iraq, and obliterate North Korea.
03:10 McCain correctly taking Obama to task for his earlier misguided comments about attacking Pakistan. He also slyly suggests that Obama carries a "small stick" (as opposed to Teddy Roosevelt's and his "big stick").
03:08 Best question from the audience so far! Should we treat Pakistan like we treated Cambodia in the Vietnam war? What say you, Barack? Obama quite cautiously emphasises coordination, but promises to "kill" and "crush" al-Qaida.
03:07 Hanoi Hilton, take a bow!
03:03 Brokaw wades in: What is the Obama doctrine regarding humanitarian intervention? Obama: all atrocities "diminish us", but we can't be everywhere at the same time, we have to "mobilise the international community". Taking community organising to the world stage.
02:57 Obama: Healthcare is a right. Government must crack down on insurance companies. Clear, honest and different from McCain. I stand corrected.
02:53 McCain's talking down to Americans in explaining his health care plan, and he's winning. Cerebral and detailed is going to fly over a lot of people's heads (including this sleepy one).
02:50 Obama looks solemn and tired, McCain's much more jovial and casual. This really isn't Barack's debate format.
Ahead of the second Presidential debate tonight, there's food for thought on the New York Times. Three leading economists suggest questions that would best steer debate on the important aspects of the current financial crisis. Joseph Stiglitz, the former Nobel laureate, offers the most left-of-centre frame, while the others take centrist and free-market turns.
Tom Nairn, the eminent Scottish scholar of nationalism, has a provocative piece over on OurKingdom. He revisits Ernest Gellner's modernist theory of nations in which former "imperial" polities - dubbed "Megalomanias" - would give way to more limited, ethnically-delineated states, or "Ruritanias". The transition, for instance, from the Austro-Hungarian empire to the patchwork of states that included Gellner's native Czechoslovakia was that of a single megalomania to a number of ruritanias. So too would the devolution of the United Kingdom - and the rise of small states like Scotland and Wales - follow this trajectory. Nairn goes further, probing how the heartlands of former "megalomanias" are coping with the strains of contemporary globalisation, and in the process he takes a backhanded swipe at Barack Obama.
Globalisation has thus far been cramped and distorted by such left-overs. That is, the residual areas and populations of ex-Megalomanes forced to abandon Bigger-is-Better, but without (so far) discovering any coherent alternative. Ex-heartlands like "Spain" (Castile-Aragon), "England" (United Kingdom minus its archipelago peripheries), hexagonal "France" as distinct from the Bretons, Occitans and Savoiards, peninsular "Italy" (famously distinct from actual "Italians"), Federal-Russians deprived of some of their "other Russias", and Americans less concerned with leading and inspiring Mankind (along the lines favoured by Presidential candidate Obama). Over-addicted to Greatness, such light-house populations (and above all their intellectual elites) find (e.g.) ‘little Spain’, ‘little England’, ‘isolationist’ USA etc. uninspiring. [emphasis added]
The inclusion of America and Obama here is quite unfair. I'm not quite convinced in the first place that the US counts as a "megalomania" in the same way as its trans-Atlantic counterparts (Gellner and Nairn seem to operate with an understanding of the nation and the state mostly informed by the 20th century European experience). But even if we were to accept Gellner's and Nairn's taxonomy, it is incorrect and far too casual to think of Obama as simply some icon of the coasts, the ambassador of America's urbane "light-house populations".
Of course, Obama is incredibly popular in cosmopolitan America, and uniquely mistrusted in the deepest of American ruritanias, the Appalachians. But the very fact that the McCain campaign has already surrendered Michigan - one of the many post-industrial peripheries created by globalisation in the country - suggests that there is real "provincial" substance to Obama. He can win in ruritania. Neither Obama nor McCain exclusively embody the internationalist or isolationist tendencies of American politics. Nor do the hinterlands of America uniformly clamour for some anachronistic separation from the world. To assume otherwise is to fall into that trap - to which Europeans have proven dispiritingly vulnerable - of simplifying American politics and, worse, simplifying American people.
03:30 Biden ends flatly. The debate winds up, families pour onto the stage (Palin's takes longer). Early verdict: it's a draw, with no serious slip-ups (or coups) by either candidate. Vice-presidents are meant to be innocuous, aren't they?
03:28 Post-apocalyptic Palin reverie! Strange monologue about our "sunset years" spent wistfully remembering "those days when we were free". Is this Fight Club? Terminator? Note to Republican advisers: wrong script.
03:26 Palin's never had to compromise on major issues because Alaska is some kind of wonderful bi-partisan idyll. With moose.
03:22 Biden gets real and emotional. Well done. Palin now looks snarky and ever-so plastic.
03:20 "Together, we form a perfect ideal," says Palin about herself and McCain. That's. Kinda. Scary.
Over on our sister blog, openRussia, Patrik Shirak takes both McCain and Obama to task for their simplistic views on this summer's Russia-Georgia crisis. During last Friday's debate, the Republican stuck to his hawkish, cold warrior line on the Kremlin, while Obama declined the opportunity to add much needed nuance to the discussion. Both candidates said nothing of the tortured local history of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a history that lies inescapably at the root of the conflict. The imperatives of great power grand strategy remained self-evident and unchallenged.
Obama was disappointing more broadly in his cautious acceptance of traditional foreign policy wisdom. On the left-of-centre Foreign Policy in Focus, Stephen Zunes catalogues what could have been. I agree with Zunes that the "success" of the surge needs to be questioned. It was the "de facto partioning" of Baghdad into sectarian neighbourhoods, a process underway before the arrival of additional US troops, that contributed most to the reduction of violence in the city. The other achievement of the surge - the so-called Anbar Awakening of Sunni tribal fighters - had nothing to do with the surge policy itself. Obama may indeed be aware of these trivial matters of fact, but the debate showed clearly that his camp was wary of drifting too far from McCain's message of strength.
Last Friday's debate was Obama's to win. While many observers suggest he "shaded it", his wooden performance hardly constituted a victory. If Obama wanted to put daylight between his weathered opponent and himself, he should have been more forthright with his opinions, more honest to his intellegence, and less deferential to the McCain view of the world. Will it be left to Joe Biden in today's VP debate to more forcefully evoke the alternative foreign policy vision of an Obama presidency?
How did political imperatives swing yesterday's fateful vote? The vast majority of "vulnerable" congressmen - representatives occupying seats truly up for grabs in forthcoming elections - voted against the bailout package. According to the political statistics blog fivethirtyeight.com, 85 percent of vulnerable House Republicans voted for the bailout (only 65 percent of "non-vulnerable" Republicans voted against it). Notably, 72 percent of vulnerable Democrats also voted against the deal (only 38 percent of "non-vulnerable" Dems did the same). It's obvious that the deal's unpopularity weighed heavily for those representatives up against the wall in November.
But "vulnerable" reps - all 38 of them - don't really deserve the disproportionate attention that fivethirtyeight.com affords them. It was more than delicate political calculus that tipped the scales against the bailout. The fury provoked by Paulson's package scorched many representatives, their offices flooded with phone calls and letters from their irate constituents.
As this illuminating NY Times map of the bailout vote shows, antipathy to the deal cut across traditional regional divisions, tying the blue northeast to the reddest parts of the midwest. In areas geographically and socially distant from Wall Street, like the rust belts of western New York State and Pennsylvania and the depressed sweep of the Appalachians, both Republicans and Democrats chose to vote against the deal. The bailout predictably found its clearest support in New York City - so closely yoked to the financial industry - all of whose representatives (with one exception) voted "yea".
Amongst the various soundbytes and slogans tossed around during the Republican National Convention, one was repeated more than most. "Country First" emblazoned the podiums, stages and screens of McCain's political spectacle. It was the clearest articulation of the candidate's patriotism, defined negatively against that of his rival; unlike Obama, McCain placed his country ahead of the presidential race.
Such a conceit appeals to the cynic in all of us. McCain claims to place "his country ahead of the presidential race", in effect, to win the presidential race. Only the most blinkered partisan fails to see this. And perhaps McCain himself was inadequately lulled into the suspension of disbelief. His antics ahead of the still uncertain (at the time of writing) first presidential debate not only complicated delicate political negotiations in Washington, but they also betrayed the Republican's fragile confidence in his own campaign.
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