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.

Now More Than Ever: the Fulbright Program in times of strained relations

The Fulbright Program with China and Hong Kong has been suspended, as part of an executive order on 14 July. Tucked away under section 3 (i), he tells heads of relevant agencies to “take steps to terminate the Fulbright exchange program with regard to China and Hong Kong with respect to future exchanges for participants traveling both from and to China or Hong Kong.”

This is not the first time a Fulbright exchange program has been suspended–it’s not even the first time that the US-China program has been suspended–but to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a US president has used an executive order to suspend Fulbright exchanges.

In the past, exchanges have usually been suspended due to war. The Korean War broke out less than two months after an exchange agreement was signed, and the program was suspended before any exchanges had taken place. The Iran Fulbright Program was suspended from 1953-57 due to a lack of funding, rather than a political cause–that came later, in 1979, when the Iran program was suspended due to the Islamic revolution. The first suspension with China also came with a revolution, in 1949. In 1989, China suspended Fulbright exchanges following the Tiananmen Square incident (the former CAO in China at the time, Michael McCarry, wrote about the contrast between that suspension and the current one here on the PDC blog). Trump’s decision to end the US-China Fulbright Program right now doesn’t fit with any of these precedents.

It also doesn’t fit with the apparent mission of this executive order, which was to end preferential treatment of Hong Kong over mainland China (the argument being that it’s no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant that difference in treatment). Other points in the text align with that purpose–revoking license exemptions for exports, for example–but this does not. It simply ends the Fulbright Program for both China and Hong Kong, rather than, for instance, removing special provisions for applicants to/from Hong Kong (if they had existed). It doesn’t fit, which makes it just seem like a knee-jerk reaction–and therefore typical of Trump’s clumsy foreign policy style.

“The latest move by the White House seems to confirm a transactional view toward U.S.-China relations, in which the Trump administration is willing to sacrifice a source of long-term relationship and knowledge building in a bid to punish current Chinese behavior. Such shortsightedness, however, is likely to damage bilateral ties further down the road by politicizing nuanced vehicles of exchange between China and the United States.”

Eleanor Albert, The Diplomat, 22 July 2020

I particularly liked that description–it captures the administration’s short-term, reactionist approach towards this very long-term, slow-moving activity. They don’t understand its nuance, clearly.

During times of strained relations, exchange diplomacy is needed more than ever. Exchanges offer a way for people to get to know and understand the people of another country–even (and especially) when their governments don’t see eye-to-eye. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that exchanges make long-term contributions to participants’ professional and personal lives, and the lives of those around them in both the home and host countries–their colleagues, peers, students, friends and families. When the “official” situation between two countries is tense, for whatever reasons, these unofficial ties between individual citizens of each nation can offer pathways to understanding and resolution. It’s why the Pew Global Attitudes Survey often finds that respondents around the world have favourable views of “the American people”, even when their view of “the United States of America” has soured. People make a distinction between the country and its people, in part because of exchanges and other opportunities they’ve had to meet foreign nationals face-to-face and get to know each other.

Presidents and their foreign policy agendas come and go, but the Fulbright Program endures–next year will mark its 75th anniversary. I’m confident that this suspension (and many other things about the Trump era) will be just a blip, and US-Chinese exchanges can resume and improve in the future.

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.

Staying locally, Looking globally

At one point in the not-too-distant past, COVID-19 was a relatively minor news item–the virus didn’t even have a name, it just sounded like another SARS, and cases were linked to specific areas. Now, it’s a pandemic and there have been over 1.2 million cases and 60,000 deaths worldwide. Much of the world is now living under social distancing measures, ranging from full lock-down to more voluntary guidelines.

Everything’s changed so quickly–it’s hard to believe that it’s just been a few weeks. In mid-January, our local GP clinic had a little sign up on the door saying not to come in if you had recently travelled to one of the countries on their list and presented the listed symptoms. That clinic is now completely locked-down, with dozens of signs and taped off entrances, and the walk-in clinic and all non-essential appointments have been cancelled. I had to take my son in for his 8-week vaccinations, which thankfully was deemed essential. We had to be triaged on the phone, then they had to unlock the door to let us into the empty waiting room. The nurse who gave him his jabs was in full protective gear, too–I’m grateful for her sake that she had it, when there are so many stories of frontline healthcare staff working without adequate kit.

It’s been a surreal experience, living through this pandemic and its countless impacts. Social media has been a lifeline, enabling interaction with friends and family around the world as we all go through it together, separately. It’s been interesting (and often upsetting) to see how different countries deal with the virus. As an Italophile with friends in and from the country, it’s been particularly heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Italy. This viral video was an excellent example of people-to-people international communication:

When the video was posted on 15 March, we were still living as normal. We were commuting to work, doing the school run, shopping for non-essentials, attending public events, etc. My nephews in Minnesota, as well as family and friends in Washington state, had their schools closed that week, and ours were closed the week after. My friends and family and I are all living under slightly different restrictions and timelines, but we’re all going through this together.

The pandemic is a global experience that truly highlights our common humanity and underscores what really matters–physical and mental health, and interpersonal relationships. This is an opportunity to humanize international relations, not through exchange and face-to-face contact, but through shared experiences on a global scale.

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…

Happy 73rd Anniversary to the Fulbright Program!

On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. As I did in last year’s post, the program’s anniversary is always an occasion to reflect on the program and what it’s achieved over the years.

Thinking back over its 73 year history, one of the things that stands out most to me is the program’s consistency and stability. The Fulbright Program has shown an amazing ability to survive. It’s outlasted political chaos and economic fluctuations, wars and diplomatic crises, and supportive and critical occupants of the White House.

Recently, I was looking through my old archive photos from University of Arkansas trip, and I came across this gem. The clipping was enclosed in a letter to J.W. Fulbright from Arkansas Gazette editor James O. Powell (Fulbright’s reply letter was dated 9 January 1978). At the time, the Fulbright Program was being shifted from the US State Department to the new, reorganised version of the US Information Agency (USIA), the US International Communication Agency (USICA). This Carter-era bureaucratic shift wasn’t an attempt to turn exchanges into propaganda, as the cartoon suggests. The Carter administration was supportive of exchanges, and it was really more of an effort to shift USIA towards two-way, mutual understanding promotion, instead of its original overseas ‘information’ (propaganda) remit. Despite the fact I disagree with this characterisation of the Carter administration’s USICA, I still like the cartoon, because it perfectly captures the tension between the two conceptualisations of exchange diplomacy–is it about education and culture, or is it about persuasion and national images? Are they mutually exclusive concepts, or is there room for both aspects in exchanges?

University of Arkansas Library Special Collections, Fulbright Post-Senatorial Papers, Series 4, Box 22, Folder 2.

Note the “America First” slogan on the eagle, too–Trump didn’t invent the phrase. This attitude is nothing new, and it’s part of a bigger concept of what the US is/does/stands for. I love that it’s opposed to education and culture. That’s appropriate for the current wave of populist politics–cutting public education funding, cutting the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, rejecting climate science and vaccine research, generally anti-expertise attitudes.

Yet, despite all of that, the Fulbright Program carries on, as it has for the past 73 years, quietly bringing students and scholars, professors and researchers into contact with their international colleagues, facilitating the exchange of ideas and promoting mutual understanding. When America’s President is viewed unfavourably around the world, the American people are still regarded in a positive light–and I think it’s thanks, in part, to interpersonal contact.

Pew Research Center, 2018

When you can relate the abstract idea of America to an actual person you know, not just Hollywood, or Coca-Cola, or blue jeans, or Disney, you can get past its leader. This gives some hope for other countries, too–if you know a British person, you’ll know they’re not all like Boris Johnson. My Chinese students are not Xi Jinping, my Brazilian friends are not Bolsonaro, etc. (That said, when you have a leader that’s viewed favourably, it helps!)

May the Fulbright Program continue bringing people together, showing Americans and international participants the realities of life in other countries and cultures, and promoting genuine mutual understanding of international affairs that goes beyond the headlines.

Out now! The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Policy, Power and Ideology

The edited volume with my book chapter is now officially published! It’s listed on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, Google Books, Jstor, and sometimes I’m even listed as a contributing author! I’m so excited to see it in print! I love the cover, too–it has a definite 1960s, retro feel to it, and the ’60’s were the Senator’s prime years.

This book came out of a fantastic conference I took part in at the University of Arkansas, 1-2 September 2015.

I’m hiding away behind Nancy Snow–it was such a great experience to finally meet her, talk about our mutual interests in exchange diplomacy, and share memories of Phil Taylor!

My chapter is much improved after being rewritten a couple of times since then, and it’s not the only thing that’s changed:

9 week old George in our conference hotel room…
Our walking, talking 4 year old George today!

I’m so proud of the editors and contributors for all of their hard work, and so grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in this project. It covers a great mix of biography, history, sociology and public diplomacy. All academic books try to emphasise their originality, but it really does add some new perspectives and insights on the Senator and on his namesake exchange program. My chapter and Alice Garner & Diane Kirkby’s chapter bring a discussion of gender to the collection that, until now, has been ignored in studies of the Fulbright Program. Well done everybody!

Diplomacy and Twitter Rants

A Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, Lijian Zhao, recently took to Twitter to criticise US race relations, in response to US criticism of China’s mass detentions of the Muslim Uighur population. After receiving a degree of backlash, including being called racist by former US national security adviser Susan Rice, Zhao then added further critiques of American culture, including gun violence, migrant family separation, and sexual assault.

Zhao deleted his original tweet but doubled down on his previous point, going on to describe the “living conditions of African Americans” as “worrisome”, and highlighting the country’s “endless” school shootings, and women “living in fear” of sexual assault. “Truth hurts. I am simply telling the truth,” he wrote.

Lily Kuo, China’s Envoys try out Trump-Style Twitter diplomacy, The Guardian, 17 July 2019

So, this is where we are now…global politics playing out in Twitter rants. As a political communication researcher who’s been looking at politicians’ Twitter accounts for the past several months, I feel like I should have something substantial to say here, but when I saw the phrase “Trump-style Twitter diplomacy,” I was a bit lost for words. It’s bad enough he does it–now others are copying him? Sigh.

The argument “Well, you do it, too!” is a weak one. It only underscores the notion that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur population is indefensible. It’s not the first time they’ve tried to use this argument, either–since 1998, the Chinese government has been publishing an annual report, The Human Rights Record of the United States, as a rebuttal against U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record.

It’s also not the first time America’s history of racial discrimination and segregation has been used by critics on the international stage. During the Cold War, race relations in the U.S. were a common theme of Soviet propaganda. According to this piece from NYU’s Brennan Center, Soviet officials identified African Americans as having “revolutionary potential” as early as 1928. During the years of anti-Jim Crow activism, the Soviet strategy primarily consisted of simply reprinting factual news that was damaging to the U.S. image abroad.

Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrative about American racism were undercut by the fact that Soviet propaganda typically involved the reprinting and distribution of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Soviets showcased American news outlets’ photographs of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963.

Patel and Koreh, 2018, New Method, Same Strategy: Russia Has Long Exploited US Racial Divisions. Brennan Center for Justice,

Although they misappropriated the civil rights movements’ images for their own purposes, they were right to criticise US race relations. It was true–America did (and does) have problems and picking up on hypocrisy is something that adversaries do best, while allies might turn a blind eye. Zhao is right to say that the US still has problems with race relations, with school shootings, with sexual assault–but America failing in these areas doesn’t justify China’s treatment of the Uighur minority, or any of its other human rights abuses.

And this is the problem with Twitter rant diplomacy. The platform is simplistic, with character limits and re-tweet features that don’t lend themselves well to reasoned deliberation and fact-checking. That’s why Trump and his supporters like it, and that’s why it has such enormous potential for populist leaders who don’t perform as well in more controlled, nuanced media environments. If you don’t like someone, you can block them–and Trump does, frequently, as one of my favorite bloggers found out before he was President.

The whole thing is doubly interesting when you consider the audience for Zhao’s tweets. They’re clearly not for Chinese audiences. Since 2009, Twitter has been blocked in China, because Twitter wouldn’t adhere to the Chinese government’s requirements for censorship and surveillance (their own microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, does have censorship–and self-censorship). Zhao’s tweets were also written in English, which suggests that anglophone global audiences were the target, if not exclusively American audiences. It’s not directed at Pakistan, despite the fact he is based in Islamabad. It’s for the Tweeter-in-Chief and the US administration and its observers to hear.