Thursday 31 March 2016

Even Cameron contains multitudes

Within a day of the terrorist outrage in Brussels, US presidential candidate Ted Cruz had seized the moral low-ground, suggesting that police should ‘patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods’ in America before they ‘become radicalised’. He was unable to say which neighbourhoods he had in mind, nor how such aggressive policing would encourage the residents to feel more bonded with the rest of society. Meanwhile in Britain, UKIP leader Nigel Farage exploited the attack as an argument for Brexit, as though terrorism is a peculiarly European problem.     

On Easter Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators disrupted a peaceful gathering of mourners in the Brussel’s Place de la Bourse, chanting nationalist slogans, making Nazi salutes and confronting Muslim women in the crowd. To what problem, I wonder, did they imagine this aggressive behaviour was the solution? Britain’s own far right groups, such as the National Front, the English Defence League, the Scottish Defence League, South East Alliance and Combat 18 (so named because Hitler’s initials A and H are the first and eighth letters of the alphabet), have gathered in Dover in recent months to signal their opposition to the refugees across the Channel.  

These are some of the more grotesque ways of missing the point. With a tad more subtlety, David Cameron, responding to concerns about the numbers of British citizens attempting to travel to Syria to join Isis, said earlier this year that there are too many Muslim women unable to speak English. Referring to those who have entered the UK on a five-year spousal settlement programme, he said that ‘After two and half years they should be improving their English and we will be testing them.’ Asked whether those who failed would be deported, he replied, ‘You can’t guarantee you can stay if you are not improving your language.’

Cameron puts a feminist gloss on this new policy, suggesting that it is patriarchal cultures that keep women from integrating. But the discriminatory threat speaks more loudly than the promise of liberation. Risking an Orwellian paradox, he explained that ‘We will never truly build One Nation unless we are more assertive about our liberal values.’

I think of my late father-in-law Irving Zeiger who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Cleveland, Ohio. When he misbehaved at school and his widowed mother was called in to see the principal, young Irv had to translate. Their neighbourhood was full of Jews and Italians, many of whom would have struggled, like Anna Zeiger, to pass a test in English. America didn’t do badly out of that generation of immigrants.

For a more contemporary insight, I turn to British blogger Fatima Rajina, who is keeping a record of a research project she is conducting with fellow academic Victoria Redclift (to whom I am related), comparing communities of Bengali heritage in London’s Brick Lane and LA’s recently established Little Bangladesh (

Rajina expresses anger at Cameron’s linking of the terrorist threat to the linguistic choices and deficiencies of Muslim women. She is grateful to her own mother for making her speak Bengali at home, ‘the only place she felt we could preserve and engage with our Bengali identity’. With proficiency in five languages other than English, Rajina feels that ‘knowing another language is like having another soul’. Time spent in Bangladesh during childhood gave her ‘an insight into the culture, the everyday nuances I would have missed otherwise’. With so much of her work conducted in English, a language which for her ‘lacks animation and is slightly burdensome’, speaking Bengali, she says, ‘gives me life and breathing space; it gives me freedom.’

Fatima Rajina’s experience allows her an unusually wide reach, but her sense of occupying multiple identities is far from unique. In my own family, I see how Jewish and American attachments overlap and conflict.  I know what it is to feel both English and Irish, both British and European, and it isn’t obvious to me that I have more in common with the demonstrators in Dover than with the refugees in Calais.

Cameron’s authoritarian impulses pale in comparison with Cruz’s. But like Cruz he seems to imagine that social cohesion can be imposed by threats and scolding. And he slips too easily into a position of thoughtless privilege, apparently unaware that he himself inhabits social and economic subcultures from which many of his fellow citizens feel excluded. 

For more on minority languages in Britain 

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Name recognition

As a TV star he was known as the Trumpster. It’s an interesting way to construct a nickname. The definite article elevates the subject to guru status, while the diminutive suffix suggests intimacy and affection. Not everyone with a following gets this treatment, but not every name lends itself to the form. Try it with Kasich.

The word Trumpster floats poetically between trickster and dumpster. Now that Trump’s followers are getting almost as much attention as the man himself, it has acquired a new meaning as a term for the true believers, otherwise known as trumplings.

Trump’s name has turned out to be a linguistic playground. Even in its original form it’s richly evocative, suggesting a winning hand, while carrying lofty suggestions of a ceremonial fanfare, a martial summons, or a final encounter with the Almighty as imagined by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: Behold, we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. Less loftily, it’s slang for fart.

Dictionary definitions of ‘trumpery’ are suddenly popular (calculated to deceive by false show, trifles, rubbish, nonsense). Commentators have come up with the term Trumponomics, which is a bit like designing the packaging for some brilliant devise that hasn’t been invented yet. Then there’s the name’s irresistible rhyming potential, exploited by the Dump Trump movement. For some, the Trump Rump is the part of the anatomy from which the would-be president speaks. I hope to see the same phrase recycled for the surviving Donald-loyalists once the Republican Party has splintered irrevocably into warring factions and the body politic is on a waiting list for a trumpectomy. 

Meanwhile, here are a few Trump variations that have not yet entered the lexicon:

Trumpf – a cascade of meaningless words

Trumpkopf – an impressionable voter

Trumpen proletariat – economically disadvantaged people who have not yet worked out that they should be voting for Bernie Sanders

Trumpo – one who suffers from the delusion that in uttering xenophobic slurs he is courageously standing up to the ‘new McCarthyism’ of political correctness

Trumple – to implode after a meteoric rise 

Tuesday 8 March 2016

The othering of Obama

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was a protest against taxation without representation, which sparked the Revolutionary War and led to American independence. The seeds of the modern tea party movement were sown in January 2009. During his inaugural speech President Obama proposed offering aid to homeowners threatened with foreclosure. Ric Santelli, a hedge-fund manager turned financial news editor, didn’t like the thought of paying taxes to support ‘losers’ and called for a new tea party. The idea caught fire.

Americans had paid federal taxes before, and previous administrations had overseen the distribution of funds to fellow citizens in times of hardship or disaster, and there had always been wealthy individuals who objected to handing over their cash. What was so different this time? How come the belly-aching of one rich guy inspired such a groundswell of support?

Meanwhile in Congress, the Republicans were launching an unprecedented campaign of obstruction that would spawn a series of near shut-downs and debt defaults, dozens of unfilled vacancies, and a historically low record of legislation. The latest manifestation of this campaign was the announcement in February by the Majority Leader that, in direct defiance of the Constitution, the Senate would not cooperate during the remaining eleven months of Obama’s presidency in the appointment of a Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia.

This top to bottom rejection of Obama’s legitimacy by Republican legislators and a vocal minority of their supporters doesn’t make sense without reference to race. The party has conspired to treat Obama as an interloper.

It is in this climate that Donald Trump has found his political calling. In April 2011, with his eye on a possible presidential run, he began questioning the President’s citizenship and quickly made himself the noisiest exponent of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory. In May of that year, almost a quarter of responding, self-identified Republicans said that Obama was definitely or probably not a US citizen. In one survey after another, the proportions of Republicans who doubt Obama’s right to be President are alarmingly high.

It’s impossible to know whether all these people genuinely believe that Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake. But I have to assume that, for most of them, saying yes to the implausible story of a hushed-up Kenyan birth or to the related rumour that Obama is secretly Muslim are just ways of signalling allegiance to a vaguer notion that an African American has no place in the White House except as a member of the household staff.

Since soon after Obama took office the tea party has been demanding to ‘take our country back’ and they don’t just mean back from the Democrats. Now Trump, whose presidential campaign has been explicitly racist from day one, is exposing the party’s worst impulses to the world and, more important from the party’s point of view, to decent, moderate Republicans and uncommitted voters. The establishment is reacting to the Trump explosion as though it’s an act of God, but it’s a disaster of their own making.