Tag Archives: USA

“Americanism not globalism”

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The unenlightened self-interest of Donald Trump

When you visit the magisterial Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC you can read not just the words of the 16th US President himself, but also buy copies of all the great speeches made there. Perhaps the most famous being Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech made in 1963. Donald Trump’s oratory in Cleveland Ohio last night, accepting the nomination for US President from the Republican Party (the Party of Abraham Lincoln), will be in many books about speeches – but perhaps not in the same section as you might find Lincoln or King.

Trump’s speech was no less effective than a King speech but its purpose was to divide not to unite. For whenever Trump talking about coming together and making America strong it was, implicitly or explicitly, at the expense of others – Mexicans, Muslims, and – one would assume from his one-sided take on recent violence in the US – African Americans too. For the rest of the world the message was also clear: American interests to come first. But of course, every US President must put their country’s interests at the heart of their policy, but this was not the “enlightened self interest” of Alexis de Tocqueville but a different variety – perhaps more the self interest of Donald Trump himself.

Some today have already compared his effect on the audience to that of European dictators of the 1930s who also rose through democratic systems (no names necessary here). I would not go so far perhaps, but parallels with Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan only take us so far: Trump goes beyond into deeper more visceral territory. That many of his claims are not supported by any facts apparently matters little at all to many of his supporters. We saw some of this in the recent Brexit debate in the UK. During a CNN interview broadcast globally shortly before the speech, Trump’s own campaign manager dismissed the FBI’s figures on falling crime rates, not by providing better figures but by questioning the integrity of the FBI itself. It is a Presidential campaign that has now started to attack the foundations of the US state itself – the police are “good”, federal agents are “bad”.

Such was the hatred directed towards Hilary Clinton that it is almost certain that her security detail will have been reviewed this morning. As we saw in the UK with the murder of one of our own politicians recently, shouting “Britain First” as he plunged the knife, “America First” will have its own looney and violent fringe that now feel increasingly legitimised.

So when Trump says “Americanism not Globalism” it is not really clear what he means – which seems to suit him fine. But it suggests less free trade, less solidarity with other nations and that a Trump administration will be less bothered by upholding international law. Trump’s comments on NATO have already sent shock waves amongst the NATO periphery from Kiev to Helsinki about what might be in store. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that something small and symbolic might happen even next month if Russia is barred from the Rio Olympics.

Trump’s “Americanism” also reminds me of another speech, one made by a head of state in Geneva in 1936 as his country was being bombed and invaded by Mussolini. Haile Selassie begged the League of Nations to uphold international law and save his small country from aggression and invasion. It fell on deaf ears. The USA was not even there to hear it, having never joined the very organisation that Woodrow Wilson had helped create as it retreated away from internal affairs for nearly two decades (1920s and 1930s). So far, Trump has done much to embolden America’s enemies and very little to keep either America or the World safe. The USA has played a very important role in maintaining the balance of power in Europe and East Asia. Trump’s “Americanism” might throw this all away.

Donald Trump: the joke is over

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Sometimes it is best to ignore bad things. A buffoon businessman, who makes silly remarks to enhance his (and yes it almost always a ‘his’) public profile. They exist everywhere. But we are right to be concerned when the buffoon decides to run for the nomination to be a candidate for President of the United States of America. And concern must shift into alarm when he decides to incite religious hatred and propose a discriminatory policy that is the anathema of the values upon which the USA is based. To advocate for an embargo on all Muslims entering the country is analogous to the kind of thing that a silly little Austrian man was banging on about in the 1920s – and many laughed at him then.

I don’t think anyone reading this commentary will be a Donald Trump supporter – so we might feel this is all obvious – best to go back to ignoring the clown. But I propose that his comments of last night have crossed the Rubicon. And more important, it is of all our responsibility to act, even if we are not Americans.

It is unlikely he will be selected as the Republican Presidential candidate but the impact of his remarks will outlive his presidential ambitions. The joker’s legacy will have been to legitimize religious hatred in the eyes of the world – one of the richest men in America, a TV star, part of the establishment. As with Marine Le Pen in France, “Daesh” (also known as ISIS or “Islamic State”) will be delighted – extremists feed off each other. Trump is not genocidal, but he is violating the norms of international law: the very discrimination that the US opposed in apartheid South Africa, Northern Ireland or during the country’s own Civil Rights movement. Has Trump never heard of Muhammad Ali (voted “Sportsman of the Century” by the millions of average Americans who read Sports Illustrated)?

So Trump has become not just America’s problem, he is now a problem for the whole world. We might never ever know the first victim of his rhetoric – the frontline of hatred against Muslims is often hidden from the cameras, it might be dark night at a Hungarian border crossing, a fishing village in Myanmar or in the woods of Republika Srpska. But Trump will have delighted Muslim-haters everywhere. The trial of the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Brevik reminds us all that we don’t have to be Muslim for our children to feel the wrath of Muslim-haters. Trump is another face of the new fascism that stains our world. If Trump was a devout Muslim instead of being a devout Christian, which he claims he is, Muslims would be asked everywhere to distance themselves from him. We do not ask Christians to apologise for Trump – and rightly so – but we should not ask Muslims to apologise for extremists that claim to follow their faith.

Any finally, although we might not live in the USA, it doesn’t mean that we cannot take a stand. Trump is a very rich man, and he loves his sports. He loves to buy sport and to associate with his peers. At a time when we are looking at how best to clean up Mega-Sporting Events, lets also make sure we are not tainted by the islamophobe. For those who love their golf, do not play at a Trump owned golf course, be it in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere. One of these, in Scotland, has frequently hosted the British Open Championship – so this is not an academic point. A muslim golf player at this event might feel about as welcome as Jesse Owens did in Berlin in 1936. If you are a sponsor, do not sponsor events held at these courses, do not supply the hotels, the bars and so on. If you are a golf fan, do not attend.

Trump has the right to play his hand in American politics – even if his campaign is now morally bankrupt. But business and sport are different. Not everyone has the right to own a business or a sports club – it requires a certain level of responsibility and due diligence. Trump the politician cares nothing of ethics, but ethics should be concerned about Trump the businessman. I note that one of the websites of a Trump owned Scottish golf course lists Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, Rod Stewart and Jack Nicholson amongst the famous visitors. I suggest they might like to think again before visiting again and perhaps to have their names removed.

Sport is for all, even if the USA is not (according to some).

Climate change offers no moral high ground

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Today, world leaders will be in Paris to mark the opening of the COP21 climate change summit. The world cannot afford another failure, as was witnessed in Copenhagen six years ago. This time, the USA and China seem ready to do a deal and to bring most of the current and future largest carbon emitting nations with them. Yes, it is true that Obama, now approaching his last year in office, cannot bind the US Congress on whatever target he agrees to, and also that China might also struggle to meet its own commitments in the cold light of day. However, the alignment between the stars is much more auspicious than was the case in 2009.

The joker in the pack, and on many environmental and social issues in the G20 these days, is India. It is clear from his opinion piece in the Financial Times (FT) today, that Prime Minister Modi will play the “justice” card over the coming two weeks. This is politically pragmatic for the world’s second largest nation in terms of population (and soon to become its largest). It is a core premise of the climate justice movement that the world’s poor – who are the least responsible for carbon in the atmosphere are also likely to be the most vulnerable when faced by the results of rapid increases in global temperature – from crop failure, unpredictable weather to forced migration. The Pope made a similar point when speaking to the US Congress and United Nations in September.

India has one of the dirtiest energy mixes and is still very reliant on coal for producing much of its electricity. Modi makes the case that even a four-fold increase in coal burning will still not bring the country anywhere near the per capita emissions of most richer countries and so there is plenty of carbon “headroom” before it too needs to converge with the reduction targets essential for other governments to make this week. “The lifestyles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for many still on the first steps of the development ladder”, Modi writes. It is undoubtedly true that two whole generations of global politicians have failed to inject the renewables agenda with the ambition required (a fact in which most voters are also complicit) and that we might indeed have had better options on the table in Paris now if they had. Mary Robinson, and other leaders of the climate justice movement, are right to demand a global agreement on climate change that is not just sound in scientific terms but also socially equitable.

The persuasiveness of this argument comes from its historical perspective. Some in the climate justice movement go further, demanding that the governments of the west, and their companies, have more than a moral duty to change course, they also have a historic debt to be repaid (particularly if evidence of the risks of fossils fuels was suppressed). In such an unequal world, why should the poor of India be denied their own industrial revolution? Most activists will fudge the issue of India’s coal-powered electricity and instead point to the need for much greater investment in renewable energy everywhere, as Bill Gates has also signalled over recent days and Modi himself backs the new “international solar alliance”. There is also much room for greater efficiency within the way power is transmitted within India – the country needs huge amounts of new electrical infrastructure. But Modi will push the question of justice in part to protect the status quo within this own country. Unlike Gandhi (who he likes to quote), he is no revolutionary.

A point not fully acknowledged by Modi in his FT opinion piece is that future generations also have a need for justice. He takes Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship as his moral steer and it is a good one to take – it is the essence of sustainability: making decisions today with future generations in mind. But to do so from the concept of justice, is perhaps the most radical proposition that world leaders must reflect on in Paris this week. If unlike human rights and most existing moral codes that deal only with the living, we must consider the survival of our species itself and the rights of countless generations yet to be born, then the inequalities of the past 300 years are not the only issue of justice at stake and should not be the overriding moral argument. In such a landscape, there is no moral high ground for Modi or anyone else to attempt to occupy and that all world leaders will share in the guilt if a comprehensive agreement is not reached over the next two weeks. True climate justice requires nothing less.

Dignity and freedom in the eyes of the law

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Today’s US Supreme Court decision to invalidate same-sex marriage bans has been rightly heralded as historic. On a day when the world desperately needed good news (migrants dying in Europe, tourists murdered in Tunisia, worshipers slaughtered in Kuwait and a beheading in France) it was welcome relief. Freedom has an intrinsic value.

However, when arguing against the ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas defines human dignity only in only its “innate” or “inner core” sense (i.e. something all humans are born with and cannot lose). What then happened to dignity as “freedom” (something which can all too easily be lost)?

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I have written before why freedom matters – on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Fear crowds the mind, it makes simplistic solutions to complex problems seem appealing. This is why it is important to look beneath stones. Not all the US Supreme Court Judges were of the same mind. Justice Clarence Thomas registered “a fervent dissent” to the same-sex marriage ruling and backed his argument by evoking the concept of “dignity” as well as the Magna Carta and the work of John Locke. He wrote:

“Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved… the government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away”

In other words, according to Justice Thomas, those petitioning for same-sex marriage had not lost their liberty, or their innate dignity, “they have been able to travel freely around the country, making their homes as they pleased”. Now I would agree with the Justice that homophobia in the USA, or some other countries, is not at  the level of persecution suffered by slaves, or even the discrimination that many other minorities face in the USA today. Although there are some countries where direct parallels can be drawn. But that is not the point. The point is that the judge wishes to define human dignity purely in terms of being innate and irreducible to the human condition regardless of circumstance.

But there is no single definition of “dignity” in society or even in law. Some scholars  have traced the legal roots of “dignity” back 2,000 years to Roman law, where it meant much more about “status” than any innate sense of human worth. It is true that at the time when the US Constitution was written, leading thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine had started to define dignity more as an essential core within humanity and we owe much to this thinking today. From Emmanuel Kant to Chancellor Merkel, or many of the excellent speeches given by the current Pope, it is a good thing to regard all human beings as being equal in “dignity and in rights”.

But this is not the end of the debate. There is a very honourable tradition, no better represented than Martin Luther King or Gandhi, that has seen dignity as “freedom”. If the USA means anything to world, in its best moments, then it is the values of freedom and liberty. For Justice Thomas to define dignity (or rather not to define dignity at all) purely in its “inner core” sense denies that there are at least three competing definitions in law (“status”, “inner core” and “liberty”) is misleading and is to evoke dignity as a “bedrock” to end all argument, when actually it is the contradiction between definitions of dignity that really matters.

This is what the Supreme Court ruling means. The majority opinion was that same-sex marriage ban was predominately an issue of liberty. This is also a ruling that recognises dignity in these terms. It is true that dignity has a “inner core” sense which must be legitimately argued, but the ruling of the Supreme Court was not one that ignored the true meaning of dignity – rather it balanced the definitions and came to a sound ruling.

Freedom matters – human dignity requires nothing less. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court says it best, in the words of Justice Kennedy:

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

What part of “no” don’t you understand?

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The following is a short reading from my book The Social License I recently recorded for “Author’s Corner” on National Public Radio in the USA. It relates to Chapter Six of the book and the issue of community consent.

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When we talk about an enterprise as having a “social license” what do we mean? I mean it has legitimacy through accountability to the people and not just powerful interests. But cultures surely differ in how they understand this.

As one indigenous leader in Guatemala explained to me: “Companies want to consult with us about their operations. They often want to know how long it will take our community to respond. We tell them that sometimes it will take one night, sometimes it might be a week, or even years. It depends on the question they ask.”

There was once a mining company desperate to open a mine deep within the Australian outback. The challenge for the company was the fact that the mine would sit upon the land of indigenous peoples. Under Australian law, the company needed to gain the consent of the local community before any mining could start. Every month, the company’s anthropologist went to talk to the village elders. One old lady sat there in silence during every visit with her eyes closed, letting the men of the village voice their fears and concerns.

The anthropologist was concerned by the silence of the woman. After two years of visits, the community was still withholding its consent. After one awkwardly long silence, the anthropologist was surprised to see that the woman had opened her eyes. The woman fixed the anthropologist in a long stare and said in her broad Aussie accent: “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

I’m author John Morrison

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