195. The arc of history – USA election 2008

“It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
— Barack Obama, Chicago, 4th November 2008.

barack-obama-and-family-chicago-illinois-usa-4th-november-2008It’s just three miles and a lifetime’s journey from the South Side of Chicago to Grant Park, and I can remember every step.

How marvellous it was that the US election race this year should find its long-awaited finish line at the same spot as the Chicago Marathon — one of many high points I’ve shared with this incredible country through a relationship that stretches right across my adult life.

I entered the United States late one August night in 1981. Seventeen hours out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, we drove across a bridge and into Maine. Next morning, six hours and a brief stop in Portland later, I stepped wearily off the bus in downtown Boston — completing my journey from England to New England, where the history of this great nation had started.

That visit took me down the east coast to New York and Washington, in an arc via Pittsburgh to Niagara, and then back into Canada for a return flight home.

My memories of America from that trip? Coin-fed TV sets in lonely Greyhound bus stations. The wind on Cape Cod. Looking across the Charles River on a long walk out to Cambridge.

washington-monument-capitol-from-lincoln-memorial-usa-h4num4n-flickrThe view from the Empire State Building. The sound of dusk on Broadway. The New Jersey Turnpike. The Smithsonian. The Capitol.

A quote carved into the Washington pavement —
‘One of these days this will be a very great city, if nothing happens to it’ (Henry Adams).

My love affair with America had begun.

* * * * *

Another journey, a year later and half a world away. A different bridge towards the sunset, this time across the mighty Orange River. Dusk is falling as I pull up at a roadstop to find some food. I’m about to go inside when my colleague shakes his head and walks past the door to a different window.

I can’t go in there, Baas, he whispers, unbelievably. And so I take my food outside, and we eat together in the truck. South Africa — the apartheid years.

Politics had meant nothing to me until that day when a lifetime’s perspectives were transformed inside a moment. I was twentyone years old.

* * * * *

The years since then have shown me a little more of America. South Florida to San Francisco, via three thousand miles of heartland in between.

The Everglades and El Capitan. The Cascades, Tahoe and Yosemite. Great cities. Small towns. Reservations. Freeways. Skyscrapers. Corals, Keys and canyons. Mountains and volcanoes. A blue Nevada sky. The Golden Gate. Malls, motels and convention centres. Deserts, bayous, beaches.

golden-gate-bridge-california-usa-night-by-simpologist-flickrAlong the way I’ve met thousands of people — friendly, welcoming Americans, of every different persuasion and complexion.

I’d come to look for America. And yet on all my journeys since that night in Maine, I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s so much left to see.

Through that time, four Presidents have come and gone, but some things never seemed to change that much. The cities grew, and the downtowns were reclaimed. But take the wrong turning off the freeway, and the world always looked very different. There were places to visit, and Places You Did Not Go.

In 2002 and two days before I ran the Chicago Marathon, I set off for McCormick Place to pick up my race packet. The Metra was closed, and I lost my way on foot. Nightfall, alone, in unfamiliar territory on the South Side of Chicago — as a foreigner and a stranger that wasn’t somewhere I felt safe to be.

Even now, forty years after racial segregation ended, any regular visitor to America knows that for far too long, a different kind of separation has endured.

Economic barriers define racial tensions in cities and nations everywhere, and Britain is no exception. Yet in America, perhaps the visitor witnesses the economic divide more starkly simply because the gap between rich and poor, like everything about this country, is on such a larger scale.

* * * * *

From Chicago’s finish line, I flew to Houston, to renew my acquaintance with the wilds of Texas, and Mexico beyond. And then, just a few months later, America and I had a difference of opinion. If truth be told, the seeds were sown in a retreat from Baghdad in 1991, from the hanging chads of Florida some nine years later, and during Tony Blair’s visit to Camp David in 2002.

2000 was just another election year, we thought. America chose another President, albeit very narrowly. Some things would go well, some not so well. That’s how life is. But this time was different. The world faced new problems.

Somehow, we, the USA and Britain, contrived to take a different view from everyone around us. We distorted the facts. We let our standards slip. Finally, in March 2003 — and I can still recall the moment — we took a unilateral view.

We saw trouble at the gates of freedom, and we looked in upon ourselves to find the answer. We took freedom away, whilst proclaiming an iron will to restore it.

* * * * *

I’m sad to say that my love affair with America has fallen sour, these past few years. It’s been hard to discuss with you when you’ve really not been listening. And frankly, I’ve been cross enough with my own country, through most of that time, to worry too much about criticising yours.

dusks-hues-in-manhattan-new-york-usa-by-midweek-post-flickrI never lost faith in America or her people, but I’ve felt no affinity with her actions, no faith in her priorities, since George W Bush was elected.

Looking back, eight more years lost in the battle for the environment of this planet, the divisions we’ve sown amongst the brotherhood of nations and the thousands of lives lost — these are missed opportunities we won’t forget.

That’s all history now — that was yesterday, when all was night. And it’s clear that somewhere back along the road, a glimmer of new light began to show. Slowly, through most of last year the flame grew, unseen. In the snows of Iowa, and in the deepest chill of New Hampshire last winter, that fire dared to flicker.

Since last summer, and all through this autumn, beyond America’s shores — we sensed the opportunity for your country, and for our wider world beyond.

Barack Obama had set out the scope for change, but would America really dare to embrace a new world vision, when she’d chosen isolationism for so long?

This morning I woke my kids to tell them that America has a new President. And so the darkest hour really did precede the dawn.

At last the arc of history has bent her bow. The marathon of this election is over, and those few short but eternally long miles from the South Side of Chicago to Grant Park have finally brought their man to reach the finish.

Divided by an ocean we are no more. We stand together again, united in a future. And fresh in the certain knowledge that tomorrow begins today.

One day soon, I’ll come to look for America again. We’ve been apart too long.

195. The arc of history - USA election 2008 : : 195. The arc of history - USA election 2008 : : 195. The arc of history - USA election 2008 : : 195. The arc of history - USA election 2008 : : 195. The arc of history - USA election 2008 : : 195. The arc of history - USA election 2008

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174. The hidden history of Texas – on Buffalo Bayou, Houston, USA


33 responses to “195. The arc of history – USA election 2008

  1. What a magnificent post, roads. As always, you take me on a journey with you but this time, on my own turf, many of the steps are vibrantly familiar.

    So are the steps our nations have taken and we’ve felt the same way. Now, with a new day, one of the first people to congratulate President-elect Obama was Prime Minister Brown. I think the special relationship we heard so much about when Reagan and Thatcher were in power has a chance to flourish again, based on shared respect and beliefs, not mere ideology.

    I have a habit (which annoys even me) of carrying around my own mental soundtrack to life and as I read, two Paul Simon songs came to mind. One is called America and actually mentions the Jersey Turnpike. The other, more appropriate perhaps, is called American Tune. A pro-Obama Political Action Committee used a snippet of it in a very, very effective ad in the final days of the campaign. It’s at YouTube if you care to see it and the tracks are probably at lastfm.

    Thank you again for a marvelous journey in words – and here’s a toast to both our countries.

  2. Oh Roads, this is just beautiful. Thank you for linking to it.

    It’s so not just about us, the United States. It’s global, and perhaps from choosing well this time we can stop looking like the assholes of the world.

  3. p.s. although I had nothing to do with choosing that W character, but it all filters down.

  4. Thanks very much, Ella.

    After a rocky summer, Gordon Brown has found his feet belatedly within the shifting sands of the financial crisis. His style is dour and he lacks charisma — poles apart from Obama — but there’s no doubt that he’s a doer.

    The Special Relationship. Yes, although in recent years I’ve grown wary of that phrase. Airstrip One was George Orwell’s and certainly Maggie’s vision, but the arguments for providing a forward US bombing base closer to the Middle East were never clearly made.

    I’m just the same as you with music, and although American Tune is new to me, my references to America were intentional. I carry that song with me wherever I go, and it was playing in my mind even way back then.

    After the New Jersey Turnpike, I duly boarded my Greyhound in Pittsburgh. And though I’ve not made Saginaw, so far, it’s firmly on my list. There’s so much more of America I’d like to see.

  5. Judy — many thanks to you, as well. You’re so right, that in today’s world it can’t ever be only about us any more. We’re all connected.

    The British people are almost unanimous today in welcoming Obama’s election. National polls before polling day gave him close to 90% support. That astoundingly and historically high figure reflects our dissatisfaction with the course of events these past eight years — events for which the British government, if not the British people, must certainly share the rap.

    All best wishes to you from London, and thank you once again.

  6. I think Mrs. Wagner’s Pies are still being made, for your next American journey, although I don’t see them in New England. They’re single-serving snacks and travel well. (And who sang of New England better than James Taylor with Sweet Baby James and the Bee Gees? So often, my mind’s juke box plays Massachussetts, Robin Gibb sounding like an angel. I’ve always had a crush on him.)

    We’re still chattering about the appropriateness of Grant Park for the victory speech. Even though Pope JPII held one of his famous outdoor masses there, it is infamous for the anti-war demonstrations which spread to the streets during the Democrats’ convention in Chicago in 1968. It added two terms to our lexicon: the Chicago Seven and police rioting. Now it’s tied to history forever in a far better way.

    And at last we know Obama also took North Carolina. First time a Democrat has done that since Carter in 1976. It’s just amazing. Still sinking in.

  7. I think choosing Grant Park was a master stroke, Ella; an attempt to acknowledge and address those terrible times, to remind us how new life so often springs from scorched earth.

    There was a euphoria of sorts when New Labour got the thumbs up from the UK electorate in 1997. Until hope faded and died, leaving disgust and betrayal where the grinning Blair-wolf revealed his sheep’s clothing, finally morphing into that ugly harridon half-breed, Bush’s Poodle.

    The glow I’m feeling – and it grows still in my chest – is an altogether different thing. It stems from the – almost unbelievable – evidence before us that America has at last woken up and smelt the coffee. I’m delighted that the dreadful Mrs Palin rose from obscurity to scupper the good ship McCain in the choppy waters off both coasts and in the rivers and lakes of the Mid-West. At one stage he had an all-too healthy lead in the polls. I thought his concession speech displayed a class and dignity he might have been better showing in the last desperate days of his doomed campaign.

    I’d like to send a message to you and then one to Mrs Palin. To you, the American people, once again I say, shaking my head and grinning like a fool, ‘thank you’. Thank you for hope, for an alternative future, for the golden glow on a horizon dominated by dark, marauding clouds. Thank you for taking a stand, for showing the lead, for illustrating clearly to every man, woman and child, be they in a mud hut or a penthouse, that they have it in their gift to make a difference.

    And to Our Sarah, the baked Alaskan?
    Come in, Agent Palin; your work here is done.

  8. I’m pleased have been part of electing a president who has made history, and who seems to genuinely inspire his nation’s citizens. But those startling shots of people gazing at him in a kind of joyful reverence, hands clasped as if in thankful prayer and awe … we want to believe we have awakened from our nightmare just by seeing someone hopeful. He is just a man — apparently a capable and willing man, but don’t forget he has inherited a mountain to climb. We can’t expect him to leap it in a single bound. Now that we’ve elected him, it’s up to all of us to try to help him along, step by painful step.

  9. Yes, Ed – the task facing Obama is huge, and it has grown enormously during the last year of the 43rd President’s tenure.

    Watching yesterday’s press conference from a hotel in Chicago, seeing Obama operate without the supporting props of a 100,000-strong crowd, it was all too plain to see this new Messiah as suddenly just a man. That’s what he is.

    And yet, of course, there’s so much more to this week’s events than that. What we have seen is a seismic shift in our attitude to economics, to liberty and equal opportunity.

    Whether we hold that turning point as invested in one man’s undoubtedly finite powers, or recognise it through defining our own minds as the instruments of change is a crucial distinction. You strongly imply the latter, and I too would wholeheartedly endorse that view.

    2008’s financial crisis may prove to have changed the world more than Barack Obama’s election, at least for now. Capitalism – big business, banks, car manufacturers – so many of these corporate leviathans of the modern age are today on their knees, begging governments for help, whereas for so long the world order was defined in opposite terms.

    That balance of power will shift back in time, and of that I have no doubt. But I suspect that even then the world will still look slightly different from before. The emphasis will much more be on the economy working for the benefit of society, and not the other way around.

    Yesterday, Gordon Brown achieved the incredible and unheard-of feat of coercing the British banks into passing on the full 1.5% of a landmark interest rate cut which had introduced by the Bank of England the day before. Never before have the banks felt inclination to show such public spirit in a time of need, but as recipients of a £400 bn government cash injection just last month, they were in no position to disagree.

    Likewise, the next few weeks will surely see a massive US government cash injection into the American auto industry, almost certain to be linked to tough conditions on developing and producing more fuel-efficient vehicles. The lack of progress made in this direction over the past decade is itself surely a reason for the lack of export competitiveness within the industry, and it also identifies the US transportation sector as a top priority target for reducing global petroleum consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

    In so many areas, the new administration suddenly has huge opportunities in front of it that did not so easily exist even a year ago.

    What I am saying is that crisis can be a powerful instrument of change through the opportunities that it rather belatedly presents. What looked unthinkable for so long has now become unblocked as the great obstacle to progress has been removed.

    Just one man, then — yes, you’re right. But a President with the world behind him again at last, and with a longer-term and much broader view. In such troubled times, the scope for a transformational figure, as described by Colin Powell, is surely all the greater.

    Or, to put it much more simply, after the last guy, Obama has every chance to appear fantastically competent. Let’s hope he really is.

    Many thanks again.

  10. Hope this works, it’s great.

  11. Darn, that didn’t work. Go to YouTube, search for Robin Williams Obama – it’s parts of a recent stand-up gig hosted by John Cleese. There are a couple of wonderful lines in there including ‘George W comes from a family where the smartest brother’s named Jeb’. The crack about Clinton finding the only Jewish girl who didn’t know how to remove a stain, whilst cheap and a little out-dated, was spot-on.

    Reminded me of how good Williams used to be before the endless Hollywood pap . . .

  12. Thanks, Sweder. Robin Williams is funny. And Frankie Boyle is in a different league at the moment.

  13. The Pres stepped up a geat today in Cairo. One of the finest, bravest and most open-handed speeches on that troubled land.

    Full video here:

    Transcript here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-Cairo-University-6-04-09/

    Lets hope the region was truly listening and the response is as generous and heart-felt.

  14. Thank you for taking the time to post those links, Sweder.

    I’ve just read the transcript and I agree with you — these are some of the most momentous words to come from American lips and some of the most engaging words to reach Muslim ears for a long time.

    I share Obama’s views on all these points — except perhaps on the subject of Afghanistan, where I am more grizzled and less optimistic of a solution.

    But the world must change, and for that to happen, difficult days must pass in Afghanistan as well, if only so that the messages of peace can eventually be heard.

    It will be interesting to read the reactions to this speech, both domestically and abroad. By quoting in such an inclusive way from the Koran as from the Bible, he is setting out the view that there is more than one way to live through God, and in confronting both Israeli and Arab resistance to peace in the Middle East he challenges negative preconceptions right around the world.

    All that takes courage, and Obama consistently demonstrates that quality, perhaps no more clearly than today. Let’s wish him well, and in the meantime, many thanks again.

  15. Here’s one way he is different from other presidents in my lifetime. He said, “No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust.”

    He admits it. He’s willing to try to make a start. He’s not afraid to be the one to reach out first. He lets his brain do his thinking and not some other part of his anatomy.

    There are 700+ comments at the NY Times about the speech. The very first one is typical of the right. It says (and please edit this if it’s too long)

    This is a classic difference between liberals and conservatives – liberals think words change reality – conservatives know that change comes from much deeper wells.

    Obama thinks he’s going to talk Muslims into liking America by denigrating his own country, dismissing our forbears, and using himself as an example of a new day for America and the world.

    He is setting himself up for the hardest of falls. Unfortunately, he will be taking his wholec country with him whe he goes down.

    Good luck Mr. President. I pray you are successful, but I have very little hope of it.

    The commenter just doesn’t get, nor do the 153 readers who recommended the comment.

  16. Thanks, Ella, for that astounding insight into the mindlessness which fans the flames of endless wars.

    When I said that Obama was courageous in his words, it was exactly the American reactions to the speech that I had in mind.

    I could well imagine that the open-handed and balanced assessment of the Arab-Israeli conflict would not go down well at all with the Jewish community of New York or within the Republican Party either, where the carte blanche offered to the Israeli government for excessive use of force brought us Lebanon in 2006 and the humanitarian and geopolitical disaster of Gaza in Bush’s final weeks in power in December 2008. Change is essential on both sides.

    Change comes from much deeper wells. I’m not sure if that’s a reference to Gulf oil or the amount of water required for all that waterboarding.

    A few years ago, I had the privilege of working North Africa for the company I was employed by then. It was such an education.

    When Obama says that the world will not change through just one speech, he is referring to the certainty that negotiations in Arab countries take both commitment and time. Relationships must be built, and co-operation earned. It’s all incredibly polite, but you know that phrase He’s a man we can do business with? It was invented for the Arab world. Trust is won eye-to-eye and face-to-face, and in every case you have to hear a lot of No to ever get to Yes.

    That’s why it’s so important that Obama gave this speech in Cairo. He could have given it anywhere in America, but in Arab eyes that would have been meaningless. He had to go there, and make the effort and commitment to present himself in person.. Likewise, tone is all-important and no amount of table-thumping will ever work in winning over Arab hearts. And that last phrase alone sounds so unusual that it gives immediate insights into just how hard the task will be.

    In choosing an Arab seat of learning as the place to set out America’s new approach, and in referring to the richness of Arab culture and religion, Obama has played his cards appropriately and well. The demonstration of will to progress he has made is perhaps at least as important as the text of the speech itself — although the message he presents is brilliantly, sensitively and astutely framed as well.

    It’s impossible to overestimate the damage done to America’s world standing during the Bush years. It will take decades to win back friends and open minds in the Middle East. But this speech is a wonderful start.

    Many thanks again.

  17. I thoroughly agree with your assessment and will add only how wonderful it is to have a president again who is unabashedly intelligent. His reaching out, the speech and everything surrounding it are in keeping with his “Yes, we can” belief — obviously not a motto — but on a grander scale and in loftier terms. (Iran was listening.)

    I’ve just read a short but incisive analysis of the speech at the Washington Post which gives me a new appreciation for the passages he chose to quote from the Koran. The lede is:

    There was no mention of “terrorists” or “terrorism,” just “violent extremists.” There was the suggestion that Israeli settlements are illegitimate and the assertion that the Palestinians “have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” There were frequent references to the “Holy Koran” and echoes of Muslim phrases.

    The analysis is at:

    When Republican naysayers object on grounds of we can’t afford to lose Israel’s support they are right but conveniently overlook the fact that Israel is the one country on earth that can’t afford to lose us. Period.

    A man we can do business with always brings to mind Thatcher and Gorbachev. Famously so.

    I meant to say in my first post but forgot — Hi, sweder!

  18. Hi Ella. Thanks for the analysis link – always fascinating to read different interpretations of important speeches. I’m still giddy from the rush of optimism I enjoyed on election night. It received a timely boost this week when one man showed us a glimpse of peaceful future. Others have to grasp the nettle but I remember similar intransigence in the island of Ireland not ten years past. There’s work still to be done there but much has changed where many feared it never would. The exclusion of ‘terror’ and its derivatives from the speech was a masterstroke. These are trigger words guaranteed to raise the most sensitive hackles in the region. ‘I am the friend of the muslim world, and so, by association, is my country’ – it’s a stong, positive message that will do doubt draw the ire of his countrymen from certain quarters.

    It seems worlds away from the murky pondlife of current British politics. The irony is that in Gordon Brown we have on the one hand the anti-Barack – outwardly charmless, apparently not waving but clearly drowning – on the other a man guilty of having a warm heart and honorable humanitarian principals. Our media have their talons hooked into his dour countenance and seem determined to let the blood flow until he finally keels over, pallid and bloated, the ugly ticks of spurned backbenchers clinging to his unprotected carcass.

    It’s a breath of fresh air to watch your president throw open doors the world has previously been too timid to look behind. He brings light to my heart and hope for the future of my family, and for that alone I will be forever grateful.

  19. Thank you, Ella, for that link to the Washington Post article. It’s good to understand those references to the Koran within their context.

    I agree with you that it works very much the other way around — but why does America reslly need Israel’s support, apart from making some sections of the immigrant US community feel a little more comfortable in their skin?

  20. Thank you again, Sweder. It’s refreshing to see a politician who is in a hurry to deliver progress and willing to address even the hardest issues.

    It takes two sides to pick a fight, just as it takes two to end one. But more than that, it often takes a decisive and constructive move to bring the two sides together.

    As you say, this was Tony Blair’s great achievement in Northern Ireland — a move for which he received strident criticism from many quarters then. The scale of the problem here is much greater, but the hope to the world that a settlement could bring offers great hope to make the world a better place for all of us to share.

    I’m optimistic here, since in general I’m a firm believer that we have to embrace the risk of failure if ever we are to succeed.

    This President Obama has consummately done. Let’s hope that the protagonists in the Middle East can seek ways to do the same.

    Many thanks again for all your contributions to this discussion.

  21. Thanks, Sweder, for your thoughtful comments — on your forum also. It would have been impossible for W to give a speech with those goals without using the word terror and all its suffixes. it’s just not in his nature and that, to me, is a fundamental difference between the two men.

    The Washington Post had a long piece today about Brown’s situation and it’s quite sympathetic to him, noting (and this is a parapharase) he’s a good man who can’t show it in an effective way. I’ve brought it to my readers’ attention; for anyone not inclined to click across, the article is here:


    Roads – Oil aside, the Jewish lobby and voting bloc here is powerful way beyond its size and unfortunately, many can’t see the difference between supporting Israel as a sovereign state with a right to exist and supporting Israel’s government. I lost a subscriber for daring to criticize Netanyahu in passing last week in the intro to my cartoon. (If any wingnuts are among my readers, they won’t be after today’s ‘toon.)

  22. Oh, this is interesting. I’ve never been much of a HuffPo fan, but this seals the deal. You’ll love (or choke) at around the 1:30 mark.


  23. Thanks for the link to that revealing video, Ella. If that’s the level of debate in Jerusalem, then it’s certainly time for a change in approach.

    Meanwhile following Ella’s hint, here’s a link to Sweder’s post on Obama’s speech in Cairo — both eloquent and inspirational. And so is our Sweder.

  24. Thanks for that Washington Post piece, Ella. It eloquently sums up Brown’s slide from the most popular PM ever in 2o07 to the least popular ever in 2009.

    The tragedy is that Brown has many of the same policies and all of the conviction that Obama has. He’s a leader with plenty of courage, but sadly without the communication skills.

    Panache helps vision go a long way in politics, provided you don’t confuse one with the other. Just ask Tony Blair.

  25. That video was depressing.
    I feel it says as much about modern youth as it does about inter-racial hatred. The streets of my own country run awash with similarly brain-dead youngsters on a Saturday night. Too much freely-available cheap alcohol and not enough stringent parenting, the latter a cause of a good many ills around here.

    Of course the underlying emotions are worrying but I say again, nothing not to be found ingrained in Irish society, even (to a lesser extent perhaps) today. The ‘Real IRA’ continue to ‘wage war’ against the ‘opressors’ (or more frequently those seperated from them by religious allegiance). The difference now is that their former brothers-in-arms, now occupying democratically elected office, are quite happy to assist the authorities to expose their disaffected brethren. A nod, as the Pythhons liked to say, is as good as a wink to a blind bat.


    There’s no clear evidence to suggest that Messrs McGuinness or Adams had any part to play in this latest announcement, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

    As Roads points out the complex situation in the Middle East makes the Irish question seem almost simple. All that means is the aftermath of any nogotiated peace will be peppered by more acts of ugliness and violence purportrated by those who have a vested interest in prolonging hatred, wether through indoctrination or refusal to change. There will be more of them and they’ll be harder to identify, but they’ll be born of the same style of entrenched-view heirlooms, the product of seeing too many friends and relatives wounded and killed over the years, or for the younger ones, hearing fireside tales of demonic infidels stalking the land.

    Roads is right too about our own beleaguered PM. Brown may lack the social skills apparently essential in a modern premier, yet his worth to his people is so much greater than that of slippery Sarkozy or the nefarious Merkl. Gordon reminds me of the Bull That Would Not Die; surrounded by cowardly, jeering Matadors, journalist’s quills hanging from his bloodied nape, sides slashed by glancing Blairite blades, the bull-ring sand spattered with spilled blood; yet still he comes, nostrils flared, determined to root out his tormentors and charge head-long into the global economic fray. Perhaps I could pursuade Ralph Steadman to work that up for the press; he’d do a grand job.

    We’ll have to see how he fares. I for one sincerely hope he survives; we sure as hell don’t have anyone remotely better waiting in the wings over here.

  26. The streets of my own country run awash with similarly brain-dead youngsters on a Saturday night. Too much freely-available cheap alcohol and not enough stringent parenting, the latter a cause of a good many ills around here.

    When did you move Stateside, Sweder? 😉

    It seems as if Brown has survived the EU rout, but lord have mercy, the BNP??? He strikes me as the epitome of a man who’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. And Richard Nixon’s ghost can attest to the importance of image; the majority of people who saw his 1960 debate with JFK on TV (with Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow and perspiration) thought Kennedy won. The majority who listened to it on radio thought Nixon won.

    The Middle East and Northern Ireland are both depressing narratives that have gone on far too long. I certainly have no answers but will fall back on my intellecutal laziness of quoting a lyric: “It started out quite simply, as complex things can do.” Don McLean.

  27. Thanks again to both of you for your thoughtful contributions. Meanwhile, Sweder’s comment caught my eye as well:

    The streets of my own country run awash with similarly brain-dead youngsters on a Saturday night. Too much freely-available cheap alcohol and not enough stringent parenting, the latter a cause of a good many ills around here.

    That’s marvellous, Sweder — you’re not the only one who thinks that way. Take a look at this:

    What is happening to our young people? They are disrespectful to their elders and they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

    Sounds familiar? Yes — and it seems that things really aren’t improving. That’s Plato’s highly perplexed description of the youth of ancient Greece, written in the 4th century BC…

  28. Plato – I’m in decent company at last Roads ; )

    Ella, it does seem a tranche of youth in the so-called civilised world – in the UK/ US in particular – is disenfranchised, out of control and damned. I can’t see how we pull it back. Badly or un-educated parents, themselves often in trouble (with the law and in it’s quaint ‘polite society’ meaning as in a young girl with child) from an early age, are the bulk of the problem. Stir in visual media-driven envy-idols – get-rich-quick ‘reality’ TV, ubiquitous ads showing ‘perfect’ people living the good life without any apparent toil – with a generous helping of teachers bound in red tape and PC directives and you have a wriggling, jiggling sack full of monkeys to contend with. We desperately need YouthManagement 2.0.

    Nixon – ah, dear old Tricky Dicky, arch-nemesis of my good friend Raoul Duke. Dr Gonzo spoke of the Kennedy debate in his Campaign Trail series. He also wrote a stunning obit for Rolling Stone where he said of Nixon ‘He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.’ In consideration of Nixon being a navy man and therefore perhaps buried at sea Thompson said ‘ He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.’

    As we say in these parts, harsh but fair.

    The BNP result shames all mainstream UK parties. Griffin and his brownshirts didn’t gain votes (there numbers were comensurate with previous Euro MP elections), they scored a higher percentage of the total thanks to the low turnout. That itself was partly in protest at what voters here see as illicit profligacy by MPs at a time of hardship. It’s also,sadly, down to general voter apathy. Oh, how we need a man or woman of conviction to stand up and be counted!

    I pondered the possibility of a maverick rising from the swill when comparisons with the Great Depression were made last January. The 30’s saw dreadful struggles in America and Europe but it was this side of the pond that a visionary stood up and proclaimed a new and righteous future. We all know too well where that lead.

    I’d like to believe that couldn’t happen again, at least not so soon, but if history holds any lesson for us it is that our leaders rarely study – or learn from – history.

    I’ve thought long and hard about donning my rat-suit and diving off the smoking, listing Good Ship Britain. If the BNP make subtantial gains come the ‘real’ election – in the next 12 months – make up the spare bed; I and my loved ones are out of here.

  29. Oh, I meant to say, Brown is no Nixon. That’s not to say he’s not a bully – he clearly is – or at times duplicitous. He’s reached the top of the political tree via a long and arduous route. You can’t make that kind of journey in the UK without climbing over bodies or picking up bad habits.

    But he’s taking on a series of Hurculean tasks, fending off a hostile media baying for blood, a power-crazed opposition who brazenly use the perceived failings of the government to smoke screen their own lack of cohesive policy, a Europe in economic meltdown, disloyalty in his ranks and, what may finally scupper his chances, a public weary, beaten and eager to see someone hung out to dry for their woes.

    Bono, refering to Live8 and their public pursuit of solutions for Africa, famously compared the Blair/ Brown axis to Lennon and McCartney. In 12 short months at the helm Gordon has managed to resemble Ringo. That may actually defame the former Mr Barbara Bach.

    As Roads has said, Gordon Brown is at heart a good man who wants to change the world. Sadly, just at the moment, he looks as if he’s carrying it on his back.

  30. Roads and Sweder – Plato = wonderful and I should not have been surprised by the similarities, although I was. I believe the Bible is where it says there’s nothing new under the sun?

    I could trash Nixon all day, but I will spare you. He was a crook and a criminal and I never thought anyone would surpass him but in my opinion, W did. He was a crook and criminal too but was evil as well. And I don’t use that word lightly.

    I feel sorry for Brown. He really seems stuck between the ole rock and a hard place. What do you both think of his proposed reforms? Is a written constitution needed? I suppose he could live with being Ringo so long as he doesn’t become Pete Best.

    The disenfranchised young, while common to our countries, are also common — dangerously so — in the middle east. Conventional wisdom on this side of the pond is that is why the Taliban were able to make such inroads.

    Mi casa es su casa, sweder, although if there is any luck and mercy in this world (or as we say here, good lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise) I will be back in the Washington area a year from now. So instead of the brutal winter killing you 5 months a year and a hot and humid summer killing you for 2, you’ll have ridiculously hot and humid for 6 months and a few brutal days in winter. Life’s just one big trade-off sometimes.

  31. Ella, Brown’s reforms, almost certainly scrawled on the back of a fag packet round the back of number 10 in the dead of night, are what they appear to be; the last gasp of a desperate man. They won’t win enough support in the House to see then through in this parliament and ther can surely be few (if any) more for GB.

    I embarked on a fruitless voyage of debate with my anarchic Blacksmith brother this week. Jim lives by his own code and has no truc with mainstream anything, never mind politics. He looks to France with their last great European Revolution as the torch-bearers for the future. ‘Look at them’ he said, eyes wide, pupils dilated. ‘They have superb healthcare (Jim broke his back in a terrible car crash in France ten years ago; the radical actions of a French doctor saved his life and, latterly, his heavy-lift career), sensible regulated housing and, if they don’t like what’s going on they all kick off (meaning they take up their pitchforks and roam the streets seeking justice amidst the acrid tyre smoke).

    It’s funny to think now that the French had such influence on the War of Independance. The countries appear at times as chalk and cheese, but clearly their lust for liberty was forged in the same fire. Do France have a constitution as such? Would it be fair to say that the bold words of the US version are now so gnarled and twisted by greedheads and nest-featherers as to render the noble original impotent?

    In Britain we need strong leadership through a consensus of the brightest minds; an all-star team of politicians, law-makers and economists to guide us through this threatening storm and map a route to a more equitable future. I favour an election but not one that sees Browns finally slinking off into the night; rather one that delivers coalition, where the great and the good from all sides come together much as the House did under Churchill in wartime. With the media pressure off him GB might just hit top form, working alongside Vince Cable, soothsayer and truth-weilder of the Liberal Democrats.

    Roads, no one shook their head more violently than I when I heard that goggled buffoon bestow false accolade on the pair I prefer to think of as Laurel and Hardy. Oliver Hardy was always a somewhat doomed figure, wasn’t he? Stan always got the laughs – he only had to toussle his hair in that bemused way of his and we fell about. But Stan’s long gone on the boot-filling circuit and Ollie’s exposed in all his befuddled corpulence, caught in the glare of the arc lamps and working his way through an ever-shifting script with B-list support and an anarchic crew.

    I fear no matter the man’s good heart, those fierce critics in the one-and-nines will soon be shouting ‘cut!’ And then we’ll find out what it’s like to have a man with no plan in the hot seat.

  32. Sweder — Bono’s description of Blair and Brown as Lennon & McCartney was off the mark. I think the sunglassed one must have been following Tony’s own flawed assumption that the best way to influence world leaders was to flatter them. As Blair proved with his zealous courting of Bush, in the end that kind of stupidity leads quickly off the cliff. And much as I enjoyed U2’s performace of City of Blinding Lights in Washington’s Mall for the Obama Inauguration, it’s been hard to take Bono remotely seriously since he recently took the band’s wealth so cynically offshore.

    Ella – I agree with you that alienation of the young is dangerous — in this country the disillusionment of many young Muslims brought us the mindless violence of 7/7, and now the frustration of the manufacturing unemployed has given us elected representatives from the BNP.

    It’s hard to square the widespread acclaim we give to America’s new dawn with our own sunset embrace of fascism. The two stories just don’t add up, but anger is an unpredictable and dangerous emotion, even within a once-rational democracy.

    It’ll be interesting for you on your planned return to Washington to witness how (or if) the city has changed under the new administration. As for Brown’s promise to facilitate sweeping constitutional change and the wiping away of frivolously obstructive Parliamentary anachronisms — please forgive me if I retch, recalling Tony Blair’s finally unfulfilled promises to do the same back in 1997. This is exactly where New Labour came in, and frankly they have lost sight of why they govern. The likely alternatives are worse, but it’s difficult to gain enthusiasm for the re-emergence of such long-misplaced reforming zeal.

    Similarly, much as I do believe in the merits of Proportional Representation, in implementing PR it’s inevitable that this would give us BNP jackbooters in the Wetminster Parliament as well. And, call me a cynic, but it seems uncanny how Gordon Brown is suddenly re-embracing the idea now, exactly when the prospect of general election annihilation for Labour under the existing system once again falls certain.

  33. Thank you, gentlemen, for your insights and willingness to educate an interested foreigner. Roads, his proposals did strike me as desperate; in some ways politicians everywhere are like children who promise to be good (after being bad for the umpteenth time) and to never, ever be bad again.

    Sweder – I understand your brother’s affinity for a nation whose doctors saved his life. I’d be trumpeting their ways too.

    The influence and help of the French in the War of Independence can’t be overstated. Without them, we’d all be speaking with British accents. It’s not by accident that Lafayette is honored directly across from the White House:


    And without Pierre L’Enfant’s genius in laying out our capital city, it would probably resemble the maze of winding, little streets in Lower Manhattan.He wanted boulevards, a la Paris, for grand parades; I think he thought our presidents might be more monarchial or majestic. For whatever reason, the District is laid out beautifully and by statute, no building can be taller than the dome of the Capitol. All eyes lead to it. (He is honored with a plaza)

    Bit of trivia – Constitution Avenue used to be a canal but was paved over in the 19th C because mosquitos loved it in the hot weather and transmitted malaria.

    Thanks again to both of you for a lovely discussion. I’ll just sit back and read for a while.

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