Is it just me, or does politics on the other side of the pond invariably seem more interesting?
It is fairly clear that the next Labour leader will be a Miliband, if not an Ed, and I find myself underwhelmed by either prospect, and the contest as a whole. The aftermath of the general election was hugely exciting, but now that the coalition seems to be holding itself together, I find I am less trigger happy with my mouse on British news pages. The ‘Big Society’ interests me at a conceptual level, but it’s a slow burner, and Tony Blair’s biography will doubtless create a media frenzy, but the focus will be on Iraq, and I will be surprised if we learn anything that transforms existing opinion.
Politics in the USA invariably feels more vivid, dramatic and personal, perhaps because of the way it is reported. I got into the habit of watching The Daily Show while I was a masters student in the US, and I now watch it on Channel Four. Rory Bremner is funny, but frankly he is not a patch on John Stewart, who hosts the show with a rare mixture of insight, humour, respect and side-splitting incredulity.
Last week’s main story was the Fox news anchor Glenn Beck’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in which he used the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to ‘reclaim civil rights’ and ‘restore honour’ to America. Neither idea makes much sense to me, but the Guardian’s American editor, Mike Tomasky, frames the issue in a typically astute way:
“Part of citizenship, a crucial part of citizenship, is standing in their(the less privileged/prosperous-JR) shoes for a few moments – as they must stand in yours, and understand your point of view too. The Beck movement is the we-stay-in-our-shoes movement. It’s Grover Norquist’s “leave us alone” coalition.”
Perhaps it is such binaries that make American politics more engaging. Indeed I strongly encourage anybody interested in exploring the mutual incomprehension that lies at the heart of political debate to read Jonathan Haidt’s excellent essay called: “What makes people vote Republican?” Haidt(author the critically acclaimed ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’) contends that the American right has a wider range of moral reference points:
“The second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer.”
Our social brain project is partly founded on building a deeper appreciation for this ‘it’, because the importance of group membership and institutions falls out from our understanding of human nature outlined in ‘Changing the Subject‘. However, ’sanctified and noble’ remains a hard sell in a relatively secular society, and is perhaps closer to Glenn Beck’s motivation, who referenced ‘God’ several times in his speech.
But what of the strange fruit in the title? I also read the New York Times on most days, and I was prompted to blog by one particularly elegant Op Ed by Charles M Blow called ‘I had a Nightmare’, in which he lambasts Beck’s decision to associate himself with Dr. King and refers pointedly to ‘strange fruit‘. This expression rang a bell, but had no emotional impact, until I looked at the wikipedia page above.
If you are not already aware of the poem or the song, made famous by Billie Holiday, I will leave you to discover it for yourself, but be warned that the image may haunt you for a while.
Perhaps American politics seems more interesting because such atrocities are still visceral, and form part of the collective political unconscious there. Our political discourse seems to be relatively bereft of such intense cultural reference points, or perhaps I am missing something?