Monday 29 February 2016

How the GOP's karma ran over its dogma

Apparently the Republican establishment is panicking about the irresistible rise of Donald Trump. I’m not sure who qualifies to be a member of the Republican establishment, but I imagine they’re mainly the kind of rich people who use politics to fix things so they can get even richer.

For decades, popular support for their party has been waning. The Democrats haven’t been great at looking out for the interests of ordinary people, but the Republicans have made it their business to be considerably worse. Their approach to solving the popularity gap has included spreading misinformation through fake news stations and advertising agencies masquerading as think tanks, and using the Supreme Court to remove restrictions on campaign spending. As local and state legislators, they’ve gerrymandered voting districts and passed laws to make it harder for poor people to vote.

The party’s identity crisis goes back a long way. During the Nixon years they courted disaffected southern Democrats unhappy about Civil Rights legislation. Reagan stirred up evangelical groups with anxieties about the traditional family, harnessing their hostility to gays and abortion providers. The party was meanwhile hitching a ride on concerns that the constitutional right to buy lethal weapons was being restricted. More recently, to appease donors from the fossil fuel industry, they added climate-change denial to their list of irrational prejudices. And since 9/11 they’ve stoked fears of Islamist terrorism. It was beginning to look as if only a pro-life, anti-gay, bible-believing, gun-toting, minority-vote-suppressing, war-mongering science-sceptic could survive a Republican primary.

There’s no reason to think, by the way, that the party’s movers and shakers have ever believed in any of this. Beliefs, like taxes, are for little people.

Naturally, all this ideology, accumulated over half a century, brought some ugly baggage with it, baggage that was generally tucked out of sight when TV cameras were rolling. Candidates needed to develop a repertoire of dog-whistles to signal to their base, while remaining acceptable to more squeamish voters, the kind who don’t object to a bit of upward redistribution of wealth but don’t think of themselves as bigots.

Now Donald Trump has set about emptying that baggage all over the stage. Dog-whistling is suddenly a redundant art.

The reason Trump makes the others look like stiffs is because they’ve spent years schooling themselves in the received ideologies, which turn out not to matter half as much as the party establishment thought they did. It’s obvious that Trump himself is only casually attached to any of them. Perhaps he carries a concealed weapon in Manhattan, as he says he does – who knows? His knowledge of the Constitution is so shaky that he refers without embarrassment to George W Bush’s
‘reign’. He’s profoundly unconvincing as a champion of family values and, when it comes to Bible-talk, is laughably inept.

And it seems that his supporters don’t mind, because for them, it turns out, it isn’t the ideologies that matter, it’s the feelings that fuel the ideologies – fear, resentment, humiliation, the experience of being left behind by an economy that works for some but leaves too many struggling, the sense that life hurts and someone must be to blame.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Rhodes not taken

After a period of consultation the governing body of Oriel College has decided that Cecil Rhodes will continue to overlook Oxford High Street from his lofty alcove. Not having been consulted I wasn’t required to form an opinion, so it was only when I heard the news and felt my own disappointment that I knew what I thought. Five minutes reading some of the hair-raising pro-Rhodes comments on the Telegraph website strengthened my sense that an educational opportunity had been missed.

I have considerable sympathy for whoever had to make the decision. They have taken abuse from both sides – from some of the protesters, naturally, for deciding in favour of the status quo, but also from the noisier supporters of the status quo for even entertaining the possibility of doing anything else. But I’m sorry there wasn’t space for a more imaginative solution.

Whatever the protesters were hoping for, and whatever images are lodged in our minds by the words Rhodes must fall, moving Rhodes from his prominent position above the door need not have involved toppling him like Saddam Hussein. A less dominating place could have been found, where his figure might have been joined by representations of some of the victims of his imperialist practices, and a more appropriate gatekeeper chosen for the High Street site. What an opportunity that would have been to commission some new sculptures, providing employment for artists, and engaging students and the public in a greater understanding of the issues!

Some argued that any such compromise would lead to a political cleansing of the nation’s statuary, licensing iconoclastic mobs to tear down images of anyone whose views have fallen out of fashion. Like most slippery-slope arguments, this doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Perhaps there will be a clamour to have Churchill removed from Parliament Square. Perhaps enraged environmentalists will occupy the centre of Monmouth until Charles Rolls is taken down from his plinth. As soon as either of these campaigns is launched, you can sign me up for the opposition. But there’s no universal principle that statues must never be moved, and we should consider the case of Rhodes on its own merits.

People have been saying that we mustn’t rewrite history. But we rewrite history all the time. It’s what historians are for. What we shouldn’t do is erase bits of history and pretend they never happened. That Cecil Rhodes existed, that he donated a substantial amount of money to Oriel College who named a building for him, and that his statue has stood over its door until now are historical facts that should not be forgotten. That shifting demographics in the Oxford student body and evolving attitudes to Britain’s imperial past have brought about a campaign to have this statue removed is also a historical fact, and I hope that won’t be forgotten either.