Leave confederate history in the past

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell wants to celebrate confederate history – but it is inextricably linked to slavery

There’s no shortage of events to create uproar in America. A couple of weeks ago it was caused by members of the Tea Party who seemed to forget that this is 2010, not 1965, and took to insulting black and gay congressmen while protesting in Washington. This month it has been Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to cause outrage with his declaration that April is Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia.

As a guest on Rev Al Sharpton’s radio show last week, I listened to caller after caller express their view on commemorating confederate history. Unsurprisingly it is a sore point (to put it mildly) for the many African-Americans whose roots lie in the south. It shouldn’t just be a sore point to African-Americans though – the confederacy was a stain on America’s history. It’s truly a wonder that any American would feel comfortable commemorating something which was the source of so much suffering for others and that created a legacy of deeply entrenched inequality that could be said to be at the root of many of the continued issues that America faces today.

In 1861, just weeks after Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas seceded from the union, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the confederacy delivered a speech which became known as the Cornerstone Speech. In it, he said: “[The] foundations [of the new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Even though McDonnell has now recognised slavery as part of Confederate History Month, the above statement alone should be enough to make him ponder deeply on the merits of commemorating anything from which such assertions came.

States like Virginia only fought so hard for their independence from the union in the civil war because they wished to continue to enslave millions of black people and to maintain the white supremacy that Stephens talked about in the Cornerstorne Speech. Furthermore, not only did confederate states secede from the union in order to protect their interests as slave owners, but their actions were also considered treason and illegal in the eyes of the rest of the union. And all that is the “sacrifice” that is apparently worth commemorating?

A man who called into Rev Sharpton’s show last week said: “What surprises me [about the reinstating of Confederate History Month] is that anyone’s surprised that this is still happening.” His view was that, African-American president or not, in many parts of America there are still people who cling to the notion that America was better in the old days, in the days before black people had the opportunity to do anything, much less become president. It is a shame that these can find allies in people like McDonnell.

While there are clearly progressive, forward-thinking Americans, it has also become clear that there are a number of Americans who are clinging to a very unsavory version of the past. The ugliness that has reared its head from those people since President Obama’s election has also been nothing short of spectacular and nothing short of depressing. It is truly a strange and sorry thing to see.

It is time for all people, Governor McDonnell included, to start looking ahead to the future. The past is gone, and celebrating the olden days in this way is a fruitless exercise which only courts controversy and creates deeper divisions. Politicians who practise divisive tactics like this should not be allowed to remain in office. Society simply has no need for this.

Forget confederate history. It is time for politicians of this kind to be history.

Dalai Lama visit shows US-China flaws

[Originally published in The Guardian]

The Dalai Lama’s trip to DC has seen the US and China acting like a dysfunctional couple. They must find ways to co-operate

The controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House to see President Obama has highlighted the confrontational politicking that can take place as powerful countries attempt to get what they want. China’s way of trying to get what it wants in this situation (ie cancellation of the meeting) is to bully and issue threats, while the US’s stance has been to ignore China and proceed with the meeting anyway.

This dysfunctional, agitating approach to Sino-US negotiations and communications only continues to erode the relationship between the two countries, which has already been weakened recently as a result of US comments over internet censorship and the sale of arms to Taiwan. This should not become the normal way for the two nations to engage, particularly when it comes to bilateral issues.

If China and the US were a couple, a relationship counsellor would have a lot to say about the way they deal with their differences. There’s no doubt the two nations need each other: China is one of America’s biggest creditors, currently second behind Japan, with some $789.6bn in US government bonds, and the US needs China’s support in places such as Iran and North Korea, as well as on issues like climate change. Some argue that, with the amount of money that China has in the US, the US has more at stake than China. Others argue that the creditor needs the debtor as much as the debtor needs the creditor.

It is perhaps in recognition of this mutual dependence that both countries feel able to engage in this passive/aggressive behaviour, since neither can really afford to lose the other. Whichever way you look at it, any successful relationship requires two parties working together. And, as China’s global power continues to grow and Sino-US relations become even more important than they are already, the way in which the two countries deal with each other will become even more crucial since an inability to deal effectively with bilateral issues will have a deleterious impact on their ability to work together to influence international and multilateral affairs.

Are there not more mature, and productive, ways for countries to negotiate and have their needs met without threats, confrontation or, when all else fails, stand offs? How about partnership, co-operation and mutual understanding? Undoubtedly, there are issues – such as Taiwan, and Tibet, which has sparked this current controversy – on which the US and China have very different, and even conflicting, perspectives. China sees the Dalai Lama as a separatist, for example, while in the past few years President Obama has made strong statements in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. However, they must seek an approach that has them working together and looking for and finding common ground.

Partnership and co-operation are what President Obama extended to China from the outset. And, indeed, it appears that his approach didn’t get him too far in the short term: it was China, for example, that damaged the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. Perhaps now, the Obama administration believes that the honeymoon – just one year into Obama’s presidency – is over.

However, being a partner does not mean being soft. Hillary Clinton’s statement that the US would not allow China’s record of human rights abuses to get in the way of dealing with issues such as trade disputes, for example, is not partnership – that is enabling. At the same time, it is understandable that China would find America’s approach contradictory: talking about co-operating while selling arms to Taiwan does not much seem like co-operation. America must find a way to be a partner and work together with China and still stand firm on important issues without turning it into a zero-sum game.
What the Dalai Lama’s visit has revealed is that the US needs to set a coherent and consistent approach to its relationship with China and continue to foster mutual understanding and co-operation especially when it comes to difficult bilateral issues. The world’s biggest powers can do better than acting like a dsyfunctional couple with communication problems.

Opportunity knocks for Sarah Palin

[Originally published in The Guardian]

Individually ridiculed as devoid of substance, together Sarah Palin and the Tea Party could be a powerful Republican force

Sarah Palin may not know that Africa is a continent, but if there is knowledge that she is not lacking, it’s a canny ability to spot, and seize, any opportunity that will propel her into the spotlight.

Palin’s delivery of the keynote speech at this weekend’s Tea Party conventionin Tennessee was a reminder that it was not, and is not likely to ever be, substance nor innovative ideas that characterise her mainstream political career. What gets Palin ahead is her way of maximising and exploiting what are, essentially, gaps in the market for her own gain.

One gap that was open, and seemingly filled by Palin on Saturday night, was leadership of the fledgling Tea Party movement. Both the movement and Palin have been branded, and ridiculed by commentators and politicians, as hollow and devoid of any substance; both are seeking to assert themselves as legitimate political forces.

The Tea Party, at least until this past weekend, had no public face with which to reinforce legitimacy; Palin – not highly favoured in mainstream Republican circles – had no party with which to align herself. Both have now found in each other a perfect partner. Off the back of the speech, the perception that the Tea Party movement is the most dynamic part of the Republican party has grown, while Palin has started to construct her very own base and carve out her own political identity.

Palin’s political identity is neither nuanced nor sophisticated, which made for a somewhat predictable speech. The folksy turns of phrase for which she became known during the 2008 campaign are still in effect. “How’s that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?” she asked mockingly during her speech. She continues to engage in deep partisanship, taking cheap shots at President Obama – who she described as being a “lawyer at the lectern” – and regularly invoking Ronald Reagan, who would have been 99 years old on Saturday.

As during the 2008 campaign season, Palin disregarded factual accuracy during her speech, particularly on sensitive matters such as terrorism and national security. She claimed, attempting to paint the president as lenient on national security issues, that Obama does not use the word “war”, preferring instead to use “overseas contingency operation”, despite the fact that the president said, just after the failed Christmas Day bombing: “We are at war. We are at war with al-Qaida.” Comments that Obama should play the “war card” to improve his chances of re-election in 2010, made during her appearance on Fox News on Sunday, also highlight the cynical and opportunistic approach to politics that Palin is employing.

What is perhaps most fascinating is watching Palin position herself in a similar way to how Obama did during his election campaign. She is now claiming the spot as a leader of a bottom-up, people-led grassroots “revolution”, which she believes that America so desperately needs. And people are buying it. What remains to be seen is just how many people.

And therein lies another tool in Palin’s box. To her advantage, Palin has a willing, and fascinated, media who are sucking up her every word. If we were still in the era of print media, Palin may have been a blip on the radar. However, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, all Palin has to do is produce some great soundbites. Palin’s suggestion on Fox News that she may run for election in 2012 if it is “the right thing to do for our country and for the Palin family” created yet more fodder for consumption. Whether or not she actually runs doesn’t really matter. The mere fact that she has hinted at it now guarantees her increased attention.

Sarah Palin’s variety of “leadership” is interesting. While she condemns old Washington ways and purports to be for the people, she simultaneously continues to use some of the most insidious types of political manoeuvring that makes voters so resigned and cynical.

I don’t know if Palin is in it for the people or the publicity. But if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that when opportunity knocks, Sarah Palin goes running. Is this the type of future “leadership” that America wants or needs?

King’s dream meets Obama’s reality

One year in office for a black president was never going to be long enough to cool America’s heated battles over race
Martin Luther King
 Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1968. Barack Obama used the day before his inauguration to honour King. Photograph: Francis Miller/Getty

The past year has provided the world with the opportunity to see whether or not the potent symbolism of Barack Obama’s inauguration has translated into reality. This is particularly so today, a federal holiday in the US to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, on the subject of race relations – a topic so fundamental to America’s history and one unmistakably tied to its present day social, economic and political reality.

According to a recent Pew poll, America’s race relations are in better shape now than they were two years ago. African-Americans are assessing race relations and prospects for the future more positively than at any time in the past 25 years.

Yet others might argue the contrary, that a number of high profile race-related incidents over the past year suggest a lack of progress. Henry Louis GatesGlenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, tea-party goers, the New York Post and, most recently, Senator Harry Reid are just some of those who have been involved in controversial events which have led to questions, criticism and scrutiny about exactly how much racial progress has been made under Obama’s presidency.

Yet, expectations that President Obama could single-handedly overturn centuries-old individual prejudices and systematic racial issues – particularly in the space of one year – was merely setting him up for failure. There have been enough successful and powerful Americans of colour to suggest that one person’s acheivement will not radically alter the day-to-day lives of the rest. Nor should it be left to one person to bear that responsibility. In fact, by adopting the notion that casting a vote is enough and that all subsequent efforts are to be made by the president and his administration, people are absolved of their own responsibility for creating a society that works well for everyone.

The most important question now, going forward, is how to get to the root of the matter – so that the situations which lead to higher than average unemployment rates for minorities, even when there is no recession, and disparities in healthcare, education, economics and elsewhere no longer exist. It is here that an opportunity for something new lies.

Since President Obama’s inauguration, there have been repeated calls for more talk about race as the key to solving issues and improving race relations. However, if there’s anything the past year has taught us, it is that Americans already talk a great deal about that topic. If talking about race were the only, or best, way to end race-related issues, they would surely have ended a long time ago.

Racism – indeed, any –ism – and race-related issues arise from a fundamental, and often subconscious, belief that people are unequal. When Martin Luther King gave his famous “Dream” speech in 1963, he proclaimed his desire to see an America which would hold “self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

Unfortunately having an African-American president does not mean that all people believe that “all men are created equal.” Indeed, some of the views that have been expressed since the inauguration suggest that there are those who clearly still see the president himself as not being equal.

If President Obama is to really fulfil Dr King’s dream, and to make a real difference in his presidency when it comes to America’s race relations, it will be by having the notion that “all men are created equal” come to life as an integral part of American beliefs, such that all America’s systems – educational, economic and the rest – continue to change to reflect that. Until that happens, it is likely that we will see a continuation of disparities that will limit not only minorities but America as a whole.

Who’s the racist, Rupert?

By backing Glenn Beck’s wild rant that Barack Obama is racist, Rupert Murdoch is as incendiary as his Fox News pundits

When watching the likes of Glenn Beck (or other pundits of his leanings) on Fox News, I’m not just alarmed by the man himself. It takes a big team of people to sustain a daily TV show, so there are producers, writers, researchers and executives who decide there is value in him saying the things that he says. I’m often left wondering who those people are, and how it is that they feel comfortable with trying to pass such divisive and often bizarre ranting off as journalism. It has become clear that the support for Beck’s rhetoric goes much higher than just those involved in his show. In fact, Beck has support all the way from the very top – and it appears that the guy at the top is equally as misguided and ill-informed as he is.

Just this week, Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of News Corp, which owns the Fox network in the US and so many other news entities around the world, told one of them – Sky News Australia – that Glenn Beck was “right” in his assertion that President Obama hates white people. The announcement that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred of white people and white culture” is one of Beck’s most inflammatory and eyebrow-raising statements to date. This incendiary pronouncement, which was followed by a number of advertisers withdrawing their ads from Beck’s show, came after President Obama criticized the policeman in the Henry Louis Gates saga for having acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates just outside his own home.

Murdoch’s interview has, unsurprisingly, caused controversy, with civil rights groups like Colorofchange.org now demanding that Murdoch – whose position on whether or not Barack Obama is racist has changed a number of times this week – settles once and for all whether he agrees with Beck.

Murdoch’s words are indeed troubling. But it’s not even necessarily troubling that he believes that Obama is a racist. He is, after all, entitled to his opinion. In any case, Murdoch’s disdain for Obama is no secret: earlier this year he also described president’s policies as “dangerous”. What is most problematic here, however, is that he is the owner of influential news outlets, which are supposed to provide their viewers with facts, information and the truth about what’s happening in the world. This is an issue of journalistic standards and the future of the media.

When the White House denounced Fox News for acting as a “wing of the Republican Party” many conservatives saw this as the president using his power to silence his critics. However, it cannot be coincidental that News Corps’ news outlets – such as Fox News or the New York Post – seem to appear at the centre of racist or sexist controversies, that their pundits engage in race-baiting, or that the man who runs the company has now come out in public support for the views of the organisation’s most alarming pundits.

This isn’t just about media output but the very culture of at the heart of Murdoch’s News Corp. Currently, Sandra Guzman, a Latina who worked as a senior editor for the New York Post, is suing News Corp and the Post. She alleges that she was fired after she objected to a controversial cartoon published in the Post earlier this year, which made a thinly-vielled reference to President Obama as a crazed chimpanzee. She claims that the Post is a “hostile work environment where female employees and employees of colour have been subjected to pervasive and systemic discrimination and/or unlawful harassment based on their gender, race, colour and/or national origin.” While conspiracy theorists have their own conclusions about what Murdoch is aiming to do with his media empire, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Murdoch appears to be consciously fostering an organisation which has ugly practices and the propagation of a certain kind of ideology at its root.

It is also clear that Murdoch has little regard for the truth. Not only did he misrepresent the president’s remarks in his TV interview – saying that Obama “did make a very racist comment about blacks and whites and so on” but was unable to explain exactly what it was – but at several points he also made inaccurate statements. One of these was his denial that Glenn Beck or anyone else had compared the president to Stalin when there are a multitude of video clips available in which Fox pundits do just that. This is more than just one elderly man’s perspective. It is an issue of journalistic integrity that, it is becoming clear, News Corp’s oputlets appear to sorely lack.

Deliberate distortion of the facts, bias and partisanship in the media are serious issues, especially considering how powerful the media can be in shaping our perceptions and ideas. While some silppage is to be expected, a line must be drawn somewhere. Fox News, in particular, cannot continue to pretend that it is a neutral entity when the very man who owns it is far from neutral in his views.

Just last night, Lou Dobbs stepped down from his position as a CNN presenter, an event long encouraged by protests from civil rights groupsupset that he was using his platform to voice his anti-immigrant statements as though they were truth. The public demands better of its journalists and news organisations. Murdoch owes that much to the public. If he continues along the same path, his staff can expect more reaction of the Lou Dobbs variety.