DNC & RNC 2020: Watching the conventions abroad

This is my fourth US Presidential election spent abroad, and only the 5th one I’ve been old enough to vote in. My first, 2004, was similar to our current situation–unpopular incumbent (GWB), challenged by a candidate whose party wasn’t really enthusiastic about (Kerry). I was in a red state at the time and feeling miserable over the results, and that experience shaped how I think about electoral politics…It’s not fair, it’s not pretty, and no matter who wins on election night, roughly half the country is always going to be upset about the results.

As an American abroad, the conventions are a major part of campaign coverage that I actually watch. I don’t get to see the ads from either side, for local or national offices. I get clips and highlights from late night hosts’ coverage, but in terms of hearing directly from the 2 campaigns, the conventions are my main first-hand experience.

I always love watching the Democratic National Conventions. I love the fanfare, and seeing how the party wants to position itself, what we’re choosing to highlight this time. I even like the procedure—the nomination that acknowledged Bernie Sanders’ movement, the roll call that gives each state and territory its moment in the spotlight (especially when they use it for weird calamari flexes…).

My favourite part is the speeches. In 2004, I cried over Obama’s speech and when I told my best friend we laughed—it was proof that I cry too easily. It was a beautiful speech, and one that launched a young Barack Obama onto the national stage.

This time, the tears were warranted. Like so many Americans, I’ve struggled to make sense of the Trump years. It’s been hard to watch headlines get crazier and crazier—another unhinged rant on Twitter, another civil rights violation, another scandal, another actual crime he gets away with…It’s exhausting. And that’s just watching it from afar! We’re making our own mess with Brexit and mishandling Covid-19 over here, to be fair, but it still seems excessive in the States.

And so to the RNC…it was certainly historic, in the sense that we’ve never had a party run without a new platform before, and we’ve never seen so much of the candidate—every night of the convention! The sheer volume of Trump family members in the lineup demonstrated just how Trump-centric the party has become. Instead of a rainbow coalition approach, with room for everyone under the circus tent, this was a one-man show.

I watched clips of the crazy highlights—Don Jr’s glassy-eyed fear-mongering and his girlfriend’s shouty rant (I think it was Colbert who called it her “Trump family audition tape”!), but I only watched two speeches in full. Melania is such a mystery to me, and her speech revealed nothing new. I get the impression that she really doesn’t want to be there. Many commentators picked up on her line about the American people deserving honesty from their president—the audacity of her speechwriters! Even nearly 4 years on, when crazy things like that happen, I expect Ashton Kutcher to come out on stage and reveal that we fell for it. It genuinely feels like we’re being punked.

These conventions this year…What can I even say to sum them up? This election is like 2004 on steroids. There are multiple genuine threats to the American people and the world, and the DNC highlighted them and set out plans to address them, while the RNC ignored them and in some cases, flat out lied about them and claimed they weren’t happening. The GOP sees these threats as hoaxes, all part of a conspiracy, whether it’s QAnon or China or “the globalists” or whatever next thing (apparently “lizard people” are a theory that some people actually believe). When non-voters say they don’t bother because “there’s no difference between the parties”–well, this year, there’s a massive difference. I don’t know how ANY voters could possibly be undecided, or not feel inclined to vote. Nobody can sit this one out.

I’ll close with my favorite quote about undecided voters (from 2008, but more relevant than ever) from the brilliant David Sedaris:

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?

David Sedaris, Undecided, The New Yorker, 20 October 2008

Joe Biden is an old-fashioned roast chicken with peas, carrots and mashed potatoes. Not very exciting, and maybe you don’t like peas, or maybe you’re even a vegetarian who’s unhappy with both options, but at the end of the day, you know what you’re going to get with Joe, and it’s demonstrably better than the alternative.

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks–Week 1 task: Time Audit

One of the week 1 tasks is to schedule your writing time and create a plan. The recommended 15 min-2hr/day, 5 days a week sounds reasonable, and the workbook has lovely helpful charts you can use to assess actual vs. planned writing time–but what about situations like mine, with zero dedicated writing time? I decided to start with a time audit.

Before doing the time audit:

The thought of doing a time audit now, during the Coronavirus when I’m essentially a stay-at-home mom, is hilarious and daunting. We all supposedly have the same 24 hours each day to work with, but it definitely doesn’t feel like I have as much time as I used to, “in the before times.” Off the top of my head, I would estimate that I spend 50% of my waking hours dealing with food (meal planning, shopping, cooking, feeding baby, washing up), and 45% general childcare tasks (teaching George, trying to put the baby to sleep, changing clothes & nappies, playing, singing, etc.), with 5% “me time” that I spend scrolling social media, and working out/showering 3x/week. At the moment, there’s been close to zero writing time, and little reading time (one day I started reading an academic book while we were watching a movie, and George kept telling me to look at the screen!). It’ll be interesting to see what I actually do spend my time on. There may be significantly more social media time than that 5% figure…

How I’m doing my time audit:

-I set up the “screen time” feature on my phone (scariest step of all, because I know I’ve always wasted a lot of time on it, and in quarantine, it’s been my “only window to the outside world”, like the magic mirror in Beauty and the Beast)

-I’m writing down key times/activities with actual paper and pen throughout the day for a week (I don’t always have my phone on me, and besides, tracking it on my phone will only make my screen time sound worse!)

-Once I’ve tracked, I’ll make categories and a chart, and figure out what changes I can/should make.

  • 42% of my time on childcare/housework
  • 19% on meal prep/clean-up/grocery shopping
  • 13% talking with my husband
  • 11% on writing/research
  • 6% on TV/Movies
  • 5% “me time”–workouts, shower, getting dressed
  • 4% “Nursing & scrolling” (“me time” and childcare combined)

My screen time isn’t that bad—just under 13 hr/week. My messenger time includes video calls with my family in the States, which I thought would be about 4 hr/week. Instagram and Facebook serve the same purposes for me—keeping up with news, friends, family, memes, etc. Obviously, though, 13 hours could be reduced, and some of that time could be spent writing or reading.

After the time audit:

This wasn’t an ‘average’ week, because I genuinely tried to fit in as much writing/research time as possible. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I’ve accomplished. I finally downloaded a RMS for my citations (Zotero) and started using it (can’t imagine how much time I’ve wasted without one–I love it so far). I read more academic literature than I have in months–a whole book and a half! I drafted an outline for my article and finally started my formal coding process, moving my data from a mess of excel workbooks into SPSS.

That said, most of my time is spent with the kids–even some of my research time.

When I was categorizing my time notes, I realized just how much my childcare and housework tasks overlap. Laundry and dishes are very conducive to being paused for a nappy change or story time, and restarted later when I get a chance. I combined them in my analysis, because I soon saw how impossible it was to break it down minute-by-minute. There’s some food prep time mixed in with childcare time, too.

I also had to come up with a separate category for my combined childcare and “me time”activity, “Nursing & Scrolling”. At the end of a long day, baby Paul and I relax on the couch, and I nurse him while I scroll on my phone. He often falls asleep, and while on rare occasions I’m able to transfer him to his bouncer and keep him asleep, it’s easier to just let him sleep on me. I love the cuddles, and I know it won’t last forever–and it’s a guilt-free excuse to look at my phone!

Changes to make?

  • Keep working little and often, fitting it in when possible. I got so much more done than usual!
  • Multitasking is great for childcare/housework time, but not for research time. If I can’t focus properly, I might as well just come back to it later.
  • Cut back on Instagram/Facebook scrolling time. Change some of my “Nursing & scrolling” to “nursing & reading” time—even if it’s reading non-academic books.
  • Unsubscribe from e-mail mailing lists to cut down on the amount of time I spend checking & deleting junk mail.

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: Week 1

This brilliant workbook was recommended to me by one of my best friends, and I’m finally getting around to using it. After reading the introduction and the Week 0 chapter on preparing a draft, I moved onto Week 1 and had so many “Aha!” moments…

The first exercise was to think about your feelings towards writing. My initial thought was that I am “all or nothing”—either it’s flowing and wonderful, or I’m stuck and giving up. I thought about the images I have of being a writer—Ernest Hemingway’s description of his little room in St Germain where he writes in A Moveable Feast, and how the writing would flow some days and he’d write a short story in an afternoon. (Every time we go to Paris, I look up at the top floor windows of buildings in the Latin Quarter and dream of renting a little room to write in like he did…) As a more academic example, I remembered my mentor Phil Taylor pointing at his computer and saying the keyboard was “covered in blood, sweat and tears” after writing his latest book.

So, after writing all of this out, on the next page, I saw that my image of a writer’s life is actually a common myth… Her description is almost exactly what I wrote 🤣

That last line is a key part of it for me. I have always resisted editing. All through school, I was told that I was “a natural writer” and I just didn’t think I needed to revise anything. If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t getting typed in the first place. All of the years of praise for my writing reinforced my ideas about writing being a matter of natural talent, a gift—which also made me dismiss editing. If I’m a gifted writer, my work doesn’t need editing. I thought I was too good for editing and revisions. I even passed my PhD viva without corrections, which just further reinforced my unhealthy attitude towards editing! There are deeper issues here around perfectionism (see Brenè Brown) and being labelled “Gifted” (see this article from a few years ago in The Atlantic), but in terms of writing specifically, this workbook has really helped!

It may take me more like 12 months rather than 12 weeks to get through this workbook, as at the moment, I’m struggling to find time to write–even just for the 15 minutes a day it recommends. I’m hoping I’ll be able to make time in the evenings again soon. But even just reading what I should be doing is a step in the right direction, and it’s more than I was doing before!

Fulbright and Race

A few years ago, I noticed gaps in the literature on educational exchanges/PD around race and gender. It seemed odd, because academics always seem to include those two approaches to a subject, and rightly so. It’s a step towards addressing the dominant white Western male voice and perspectives that are so often the default. Including perspectives on race is often done as an afterthought— Anamik Saha pointed out how textbooks usually include “the bit about race” somewhere around chapter ten. I would love to see a study on the Fulbright Program and race. I’m not qualified to undertake it myself, as I don’t want to be a white researcher trying to add a race lens to their work. I would hate to see women’s experiences in the Fulbright Program ‘mansplained,’ so I won’t do that with race in my work. Here are a couple of potential areas to explore…

1) Senator Fulbright had a bad record on race.

As much as we can admire his ant-war stance during Vietnam, and appreciate his promotion of educational and cultural exchanges, we have to acknowledge his record on race.

Fulbright voted against integrating schools. He claimed it was a matter of representing the views of his constituents—if he wanted to stay in Congress, he had to vote the way his constituents wanted him to. He said they didn’t care about his views on foreign policy—he could vote his conscience on those issues, because his constituents didn’t know or care about them. But when it came to integration, they cared because it effected their day to day lives, and they were outspoken in their opposition.

As an interesting aside, when Johnson and Fulbright fell out over Vietnam, Johnson claimed that Fulbright’s opposition to the war was because he was racist—Fulbright ‘didn’t care about brown people’, whereas Johnson believed in helping them. Fulbright rejected that, of course, and questioned how bombing was helping them.

I always wondered whether it really was a matter of political survival or if Fulbright was racist. When I interviewed his biographer, Randall Bennett Woods, he was an elitist rather than a racist, and his views on segregation and race transformed as his political views shifted towards the left throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

“You know, Fulbright was a segregationist to begin with…But his views changed dramatically. Like so many white middle-class Southerners like my parents, he was radicalized by the civil rights movement. His racism had more to do with class than it did with color. If he was dealing with the elite of Ghana or Kenya or India, skin color didn’t matter. If you were educated and part of the elite, you were acceptable to him, so it wasn’t race prejudice as much as class prejudice. But he even moved away from that.”

28 January 2013 Interview with Randall Bennett Woods

2) Information gaps lead to literature gaps.

The lack of research on race and exchanges might be down to practical challenges for researchers: missing demographic information. Data on race (and gender) hasn’t been collected throughout the program’s history, so it’s difficult to paint a full picture of BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program.

An organization’s decision to collect data on race is complicated, as there are risks involved in both options–acknowledging or ignoring the role of race. National census data collection illustrates this challenge on a large scale. Some countries ask about race/ethnicity, while others do not (this is a very interesting 2017 report about EU countries’ varied practices). France is a well-known example of not asking about race. Race, ethnicity, and religion are all deemed irrelevant to French identity, at least in terms of official statistics. It’s about liberté, égalité, fraternité instead.

But excluding race from data has significant consequences. It can exacerbate inequality, because problems must be seen in order to be addressed. Discrimination can be swept under the rug more easily. In terms of the current fight against COVID-19, for example, France has noted a high number of cases in “poor and multiracial communities,” but because they don’t include race in their COVID-19 data, they haven’t made that connection.

“While the United States and Britain have come to recognize that their racial minorities are dying disproportionately of covid-19, France inhibits itself from making that sort of assessment. Critics say that may limit the country’s ability to identify and protect vulnerable populations, especially in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.”

James McAuley, “How France’s aversion to collecting data on race affects its coronavirus response,” Washington Post, 26 June 2020

The U.S. is currently undertaking a census, and as this piece from the Daily Show points out, when people of color don’t participate in a census, their household might be assumed to be white. I was shocked that this was a thing…I assumed that if a household’s demographics are unknown, they would just be counted as “unknown”, not added to the local majority count. That’s crazy.

What do we not know about BIPOC participation in the Fulbright Program, due to this missing demographic data? We don’t know of people of color are underrepresented in the program. We don’t know whether they apply at the same rates as their white peers. We don’t know the top destinations of US Fulbright students of color, the top academic fields of Fulbright scholars of color, etc. There’s also the more qualitative side of this information–we don’t know their stories, good or bad: their experiences with discrimination, their achievements and cultural knowledge gains. As I mentioned in the recent post about Nancy Snow’s webinar, when exchange students experience discrimination, it’s going to have a major impact on their views of the host country.

3) Some profiles of BIPOC Fulbrighters:

–Ruth Simmons, first African American woman to head a major college or university (Smith College), and the first African American President of an Ivy League institution (Brown University). Fulbright to France, 1967.

–BIPOC Fulbrighters who have been Heads of State, including two Presidents of Ghana: John Atta Mills (Fulbright 1970) and Kofi Abrefa Busia (Fulbright 1954). (Why haven’t I seen a study on Ghana’s Fulbright Program?!)

–John Hope Franklin–Pre-eminent American historian who also played a significant role in the Fulbright Program’s history. He was a civil rights activist, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965–while he was a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships (appointed 1962). Fulbright to Australia, 1960.

–Joy Buolamwini, computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League that tackles algorithmic bias–the failure of facial recognition software to detect the features of people of color. Fulbright to Zambia, 2012.

I’ll close here and publish, as this draft has been dragging on for a month and I never have time to do it justice. I would love reading suggestions re: exchanges and race, or public diplomacy generally and race–I’m familiar with some of the work on jazz diplomacy, but would love to see more. If you have any recommendations, please do get in touch!

Lockdown hits different for Moms…

The lockdown has been strange and difficult for everybody, but one demographic that has been particularly impacted is mothers.

I happen to be on maternity leave, luckily. I weren’t, I don’t know how I could possibly teach online, mark assessments, answer e-mails, etc. on top of caring for my baby, teaching my primary schooler, cooking, cleaning, laundry, dishes, etc. I’m exhausted just from doing the 50’s housewife thing, plus teaching one kid. Doing any research on top of all of that is unimaginable.

It looks like I’m not the only academic mom who’s completely absorbed with childcare/domestic concerns during the lockdown. This article in the Guardian shows how common it is—while journal article submissions from men have actually increased during the lockdown, women’s research outputs have dropped significantly.

Our work is the first thing to fall by the wayside in a crisis. One thing that struck me in the article, though, was that even an immunologist, somebody whose work has actual relevance for the crisis– who’s actually giving lectures on COVID-19–is facing the same challenges of balancing work and home responsibilities.

She is quick to point out that her husband has taken on a lot at home too, but because she earns less, and can be more flexible about when she works, the bulk of the childcare falls to her.

Anna Fazackerley, The Guardian

When I read that paragraph, it felt like my parenthood/career journey summed up, capturing the conflict between what makes sense and what feels right. I don’t want to complain–like this woman “is quick to point out,” my husband helps, too. I should be grateful–but then I think of the satirical “Man Who Has It All” posts like this:

Man Who Has It All

It makes sense to put my career on hold, to embrace maternity leave and quarantine homeschooling, to do the bulk of the housework, shopping and meal planning, etc. I’m happy to do it, most of the time.

But… I feel like an idiot and a failure for not having an established career—I’ve got a PhD, a few publications, but not a permanent contract or even a full-time post yet. And shouldn’t I be working on that? Shouldn’t the half-finished books and articles and proposals get some attention?

The Mom guilt voice says no, your kids are not going to be babies forever—embrace this time together! Your work can wait! (How unfair that men don’t seem to have an equivalent voice in their heads…)

The lockdown offers a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embrace motherhood (or parenthood) and domesticity–whether you actually want to or not.

Pregnancy for Academics

3 weeks postpartum at PhD graduation–at the party, someone asked how I did it, how I combined research and pregnancy/childbirth. I did it by delaying my graduation ceremony, and finishing my PhD before even getting pregnant!

Between not teaching this term, doing up the new house and being pregnant, I’ve neglected this blog over the past couple of months. I’ve been meaning to post thoughts on pregnancy/parenting as an early-career academic, but it’s a big topic to tackle, and difficult to be reflective and inclusive when I really only have my own experiences to share. My maternity leave officially starts today, so I thought I’d have a go anyway and share some of my favourite pregnancy resources.

1) Pregnant Chicken

As a first-time mom who took an instant dislike to the tone of sites like “What to Expect” and “The Bump”, I was thrilled to find “Pregnant Chicken”. Brilliant, funny Canadian writer Amy Morrison is everything you’d want in a mom-friend–she clearly knows her stuff but keeps the tone upbeat and never preachy or judgmental. She strikes the perfect balance between information and entertainment.

Her week-by-week pregnancy calendar e-mails are the only ones I signed up for this time. My favourite posts are this very accurate sleep guide and this essential reading for new parents who are upset/confused/irritated by unsolicited comments & advice.

2) Evidence Based Birth

On a recent Birth Hour podcast, Evidence Based Birth‘s founder Rebecca Dekker, PhD, explained how the site and its resources grew out of her research into her own first birth experience. It was traumatic, for both her and the baby, and included a number of practices that are not supported by evidence. They were simply presented to her as necessary and “the way things are done,” and as a first time mother, she didn’t think to question them. The site presents evidence from actual medical research in a neutral, fact-based way that does not seek to promote any particular philosophy or approach to birth.

As an American in the UK, it’s been very interesting to me to look into the evidence as I try to work out why the NHS does what it does, and why their outcomes are so much better than those in the US healthcare system. This article on the evidence & ethics on circumcision is a great example–if I’d stayed in America, my sons would have been circumcised without a second thought. It’s “the way things are done” there, yet rare in many other countries. The NHS doesn’t perform them routinely.

3) Ina May Gaskin

I never thought I would go for a “natural” approach to childbirth–I always liked the joke that an epidural is “natural” because it’s natural to want pain relief. Two things changed my mind: 1) watching The Business of Being Born, and 2) reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I first heard about counterculture icon Ina May Gaskin in the documentary, and when I became pregnant I turned to her book to learn more. I donated the book after I had George, to pass on her wisdom to others, and then bought another copy when I became pregnant again. I love reading the positive birth stories–especially because we usually hear horror stories from others and in the media! One of my favourite concepts from Gaskin is the idea that women shouldn’t be afraid of giving birth–our bodies are made to do it, and animals don’t approach birth with fear. While there are plenty of scary things that can go wrong, it’s good to be reminded that most of the time, birth doesn’t require extensive medical interventions to get a healthy mom & baby at the end of the process. I’m not 100% on board with all of the ideas presented, but as they said at La Leche League meetings, “take what works for you and leave the rest.”

From whispers to bricks…

In 2008, when I came to Leeds for my Masters, I loved my department. I loved public diplomacy and political communication and the specific ways my department interpreted them, and I admired and respected the vast majority of the staff members. I found friends and mentors, met and fell in love with my now-husband, and I put together a PhD proposal with an amazing supervisor. Everything seemed to be happening for a reason and it all felt right.

After my supervisor’s death, and my other supervisors’ departure from academia, and other staff leaving the department, things changed. I started to sense some whispers, some clues that I no longer belonged in the department. Our international communication experts were replaced with people who interpreted it very differently, and the department abruptly shifted away from public diplomacy. I kept smiling through it all and felt confident that I would be fine. I wasn’t the only one–there were a few of us who were left behind, studying public diplomacy and propaganda in a department that no longer had expertise in those areas. We joked that we were “propaganda pandas”–an endangered species.

I ignored the whispers. I applied to jobs and didn’t get any after the PhD, and I took up short-term, part-time contracts in my department. I told myself it was worth it, to “keep my foot in the door” of academia, to be able to access the library, to have networking opportunities, etc. Apart from a couple of conferences, I have little to show for these 3 years and 10 months of short-term contracts.

Today I got a brick. Nobody in my department has told me directly that I’m definitely not getting my contact renewed–two weeks ago, I was told that they were still allocating teaching and would be in touch. Today, I saw my name in a departmental staff newsletter under the “goodbyes”, listed as one of the people who is leaving.

I’m pretty sure that’s a brick, from the department that’s changed so much over the past decade. I’m going to listen this time, and say goodbye back.

The Short-Sightedness of “Unshackling” British Diplomacy from Brussels

Once again I’m finding news to be very distracting–between Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to focus (I feel like I’ve been saying that since 2016, though…). But I noticed something in the news today that actually is relevant to public diplomacy scholars–British diplomats are leaving Brussels now, before Brexit even happens.

British diplomats will pull out from the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days, under plans being drawn up by Downing Street.

In an attempt to reinforce the message that the UK is leaving the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, the UK will stop attending the day-to-day meetings that inform the bloc’s decision-making.

The move under discussion is said by UK officials to be in line with Boris Johnson’s first statement in the House of Commons, in which he said he would “unshackle” British diplomacy from EU affairs.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Admittedly, I didn’t watch Boris Johnson’s statement, but it’s not surprising and it sounds just like him. It’s a symbolic move, as the article says, and would just end up hurting UK interests in the end because we’re removing ourselves from discussions that impact us. “Do or die” is the most undiplomatic language to describe foreign affairs–but Boris is a very undiplomatic figure, too.

In dealing with this hot mess of foreign policy, one expert was quoted as saying that the UK would need to invest heavily in public diplomacy, including involvement from the private sector:

Paul Adamson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said the UK government would need to build up its embassy in Brussels after Brexit.

He said: “One of the many ironies of Brexit is that the UK government will have to significantly increase its diplomatic presence in Brussels – as well as in key EU capitals – both to find out what is going on in meetings from which it will be excluded but also to try to influence the direction of EU policy making. Brussels decisions will continue to impact the UK.

“[The government] and its agencies will have to invest heavily in public diplomacy to repair alliances and to forge new ones. The private sector, whether its business, civil society, the think-tank world and the like, will very much need to be part of this exercise”.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Although it definitely makes some good points, this statement reminded me of a key takeaway from Phil Taylor’s Masters class in public diplomacy:

No amount of public diplomacy can make up for bad policy.

It is not a solution for the inevitable problems that will arise if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It’s not an alternative form of international relations, or a consolation prize. Public diplomacy works best as an adjunct, supporting traditional diplomatic relations between states by offering additional (not alternative) forms of engagement. It also includes listening, something that the current UK government doesn’t seem interested in, given this premature disengagement in Brussels.

To illustrate the concept of PD not being a cure-all, Phil Taylor used to use the example of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers’ failed efforts in the Middle East during the Iraq War. The “Shared Values” campaign was a particularly memorable disaster–a commercial-length TV program showing Muslim Americans talking about their life in America.

“Actors in the program talked of tolerance and religious freedom in lines including, ‘In my neighborhood all the non-Muslims, I see that they care a lot about family values just as much as I do. I didn’t quite see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11.’ Several countries in the Middle East refused to air the programs entirely.”

Anna Tiedeman, p. 22

Phil used to point out a major flaw in the “Shared Values” strategy: Middle East audiences didn’t want to hear “how good life was for Muslim Americans” while at the same time their country was being invaded by US and coalition troops, homes were being bombed, and innocent civilians were dying. “Good for them,” he’d shrug, “but what about us?”

These international broadcasting and information campaigns weren’t the only efforts–the US also re-established the Iraq Fulbright Program in 2003, and included other exchange initiatives in its public diplomacy efforts. Teresa Brawner Bevis’s book on post-9/11 US-Middle East educational exchange noted a dramatic rise in Americans studying Arabic and Middle East area studies, as well as studying abroad in the region–but this may have been too little, too late:

“The increase in numbers of Americans studying abroad was good news for policy makers, who for decades had lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, a situation that created shortages of expertise in the military, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps.”

Bevis, 2016, Higher Education Exchange between America and the Middle East in the Twenty-First Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 87

The long-standing, systemic problems in US-Middle East relations, combined with the context of the Iraq War, meant that public diplomacy efforts could never repair Middle Eastern audiences’ negative perception of America. US foreign policy would always nullify any amount of public diplomacy.

Boris Johnson doesn’t care about that, of course, but it’s something the British people and officials should take notice of–crashing out of the EU with a “do or die” attitude will be remembered, and it will matter far more to global perceptions of the UK than any version of a British ‘Shared Values’ campaign.

What I’m Reading: Disarmed

Kristin A. Goss, Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

When I was in high school, my friend Rachael took me along to see Bowling for Columbine (2002) at a little independent movie theater in Mount Vernon, Washington. I wasn’t particularly aware of the gun control vs. gun rights debate before watching that movie, but that movie made me realize that America’s gun culture wasn’t normal. Like Michael Moore’s 2007 film Sicko about the healthcare debate, this movie used a comparative approach to show that ‘the way things are’ in America isn’t the way they are in other countries.

The recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings drove that point home again, powerfully–this doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s not normal. “American exceptionalism” is evidenced in the government’s impotent attitude toward gun violence.

Growing up in the States, I knew people who owned guns–deer hunters, people (white men, to be specific) who wanted them for “self-protection” (which I’ve never understood–protection from what? Why do I feel safe without a gun, even in sketchy areas, but a tall, athletic guy I knew needed a gun to feel as safe as I do?). When I lived in the States, I didn’t think to question the Second Amendment and I took gun rights for granted.

Now, after a decade living in the UK, a country that banned handguns after the Dunblane, Scotland school shooting in 1986, my views on gun control no longer have a place in American politics. Even the most progressive Democrats believe in upholding the Second Amendment. Their current proposals are “the boldest language used in 20-25 years”, but they’re still not banning assault weapons, much less handguns.

Much of the academic literature on America’s gun debate centres on explaining why the NRA/gun lobby is so powerful and well-organised. Goss turns that question around to ask why the gun control advocates are so weak and ineffective. Where is the “missing movement for gun control”, as she calls it? Part of the answer lies in the American policy-making system, which makes national change difficult without large-scale mobilisation–and the necessary degree of mobilisation just hasn’t been seen on the gun control side, to overpower (or even compete against) the gun rights side.

Her book is part of my literature review for the study I’m doing on gun debate discourse post-Parkland, so I’m interested in this idea of mobilisation. The March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018 was, arguably, the kind of grassroots mobilisation that gun control advocates needed in order to get gun policy reform passed. But did it? What has changed since Parkland, in terms of actual policy?

As part of my study, I’ve been coding Congressional Twitter over the month after the Parkland shooting, so I’m familiar with all of the policy proposals that were circulating in those early days and weeks. They were, unsurprisingly, polarized. On the right, it was mostly arming teachers and increasing school security, while on the left it was a range of proposals–Fix NICS (improving the background check system), universal background checks, banning assault weapons, gun violence restraining orders, etc. The STOP School Violence Act passed with bipartisan support, but its proposals were a first step rather than comprehensive reform, and it had nothing to do with gun control. For several Republican members of Congress, their only mentions of Parkland or the gun debate were a “thoughts & prayers” tweet on 14 February, then a tweet about their support of the STOP act when it passed on 14 March. After seeing that pattern, over and over (and some “NRA A-grade” congresspeople didn’t mention it at all), I’m a bit cynical about policy change, and about the state of the gun debate in general.

Goss, however, is impressed by the March for our Lives movement and the current state of mobilization on the gun control side.

“The movement is much broader and better resourced and more pragmatic and strategic than it has been in the 20 years I’ve been studying it,” Goss said.

” One year later, experts say Parkland was ‘turning point’ in gun debate”, 14 February 2019

The same article pointed out a range of new laws and regulations at the state level, in 26 states and D.C.:

  • Seven states enacted extensions or improvements of background checks
  • Nine states and D.C. enacted laws banning the use of bump stocks and trigger activators
  • Five states tightened concealed carry laws
  • Eleven states passed laws to help keep firearms away from domestic abusers
  • Eight states and D.C. passed extreme risk protection order statutes
  • Four states passed new restrictions on firearm purchases by those under 21
  • Nine states passed laws to fund urban gun violence reduction programs

The list gave me some hope. 26 states is a majority, even though it’s a very slim one. I suspect those lefty, urbanised states include quite a lot more than 50% of the US population (I think a lot of people forget how massive California’s population is–one in eight Americans lives in California!). I think Goss’s observation about sustained mobilisation still rings true today, though–gun control advocates need to be as organised, high-profile and noisy as the gun rights side are with the NRA. They have a lot more money and influence of course, but as Goss points out, large-scale grassroots movements have changed things before–the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, etc. The challenge is going to be translating popular support into mass mobilization. In a poll from last week, 90% of Americans support universal background checks for all gun purchases and nearly 70% support an assault-style weapons ban. It’s amazing to hear about that kind of consensus in our divided “red vs. blue” politics. The American people actually agree on some of the major proposals. Now they just need to care about advocating for them as much as the NRA cares about expanding gun rights…

Back Where I Come From

It’s been a very ugly week in U.S. politics, with Trump doubling down on his racist tweets about the four progressive American Congresswomen known as The Squad. It was unbelievable, and yet completely typical of him. This Anderson Cooper clip summed it up nicely, pointing out that Trump’s racism is just who he is:

The argument of “If you’re not happy here, you can leave” goes against fundamental American values. In 1776, unhappy colonists didn’t “go back” to Europe–they fought for independence. In 1861, when the Confederate states tried to leave a country they didn’t like, the Union didn’t let them. Suffragettes, labor reformers and civil rights leaders didn’t “just leave”–throughout American history, progressives have stayed right where they are and made the country better.

For my own part, as a white American with British ancestry living in Britain, I kind of did “go back” where I “came from”…And it’s not as easy as it sounds! It’s been a lengthy and expensive process that will never really be over, even if I live here for the rest of my life. Even after 10+ years, I still get asked where I’m from on a regular basis. People mean it in a nice way, (they’re usually just showing a genuine interest in America because they’ve been there or have family there) but it gets old–and I can’t imagine how painful and annoying it must be for long-term residents who are asked that question in a racist/discriminatory way.