Archive for May, 2009

I’m about to sit down with M to watch the final of Britain’s Got Talent and just wanted to write my thoughts on “THE SUSAN BOYLE PHENOMENON”. I haven’t actually followed the series and so have only seen clips of the lady herself sing but that doesn’t really matter as the story of the Susan Boyle Saga is the crazy attitudes of both supporters and detractors in a typical example of overreaction to a “celebrity” story in Modern Britain.

The reaction to her initial appearance on the show was obviously manipulated to play on the audience’s preconceived notions of what a pop singer should look like and, perhaps more importantly, our notion of what somebody who looks like Susan plays on modern reality talent shows. So when she opened her mouth to sing, everybody was shocked at how good she was (because as everybody knows, there is an scientifically proven correlation between vocal chords and looks).

So then Susan Boyle became some sort of inspirational elixir to the current ills of society – and that she was able to do all this in spite of her looks made her story all the more inspirational. But even in her triumph, her looks were always considered central to her being – she gained the horrifically patronising moniker “The Hairy Angel”. And stories about what would be done to “fix her up” abounded in the tabloid press.

And then the worm turned fully (as it always does when the British Tabloid Media is involved) as she was accused of a four-letter rant backstage, although this was apparently aimed at a British Tabloid Journalist (something which should be compulsory) and was subjected to scathing criticism by Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revell Horwood, who said “I think Susan Boyle sucks and I’ll tell you why – she can’t sing and that really bugs me. [She] sings as bad as she looks.” There were rumours that she might quit.

So let’s get this straight – Susan Boyle is not The Second Coming, but neither is she a talentless freak – she’s a regular woman who, from what I have heard, has a very good voice and I wish her well tonight and in the future.

Democracy is sometimes described as an inherently European and American ideal, that can’t work in places like the Middle East. This view is peddled mainly two groups – firstly by those who believe in inherent Western superiority over a supposedly inherently backwards East; secondly by those in the Mid-East who gain from maintaining the status quo of Religious Theocracy or Absolute Monarchy. However a brief look at history shows that the idea that Democracy is inherent to and only applicable to Europe and North America is a myth and this provides hope for the spread of Democracy to places where it doesn’t exist.

Firstly, Democracy in the Western World is still a relatively recent development. A little over twenty years ago, all of Eastern Europe was under the yoke of Totalitarian Communism, whereas since the fall of the Berlin Wall, eight of these countries have progressed enough to join the European Union, while another handful have functioning democracies, waiting to accede. In the early ’70s, Spain and Portugal were Fascist Dictatorships and of course the Fascism of Hitler and Mussolini removed democracy all over Europe in the 30s and 40s.

Even in countries who would be seen as having a long unbroken history of democracy, the Universal Suffrage we take for granted nowadays only came in gradually: Universal Male Suffrage only occurred widely in the late nineteenth century; Female Suffrage followed in first half of the twentieth; and of course African-American Suffrage was shamefully delayed until 1964.

And as regards the belief that Democracy is solely a European or American construct, this can be dismissed simply by answering the question: which country is the largest democracy in the world? The answer is, of course, India. And there are numerous other non-Western countries with solid democracies – Japan and South Korea to name two. South America has made a reasonably successful transition from the Military Juntas of the seventies to multi-party elections. Africa’s experience has been more difficult, yet even here there is hope, notably in Liberia where the inspirational Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has overseen her country’s transition from war-torn nation to burgeoning democracy.

I believe that Democracy is a universal ideal, which should be spread across the globe. It gives people the right to choose their own destiny and the opportunity to dismiss leaders who let them down. I feel that we, who live in democratic countries, should support its spread. However, I would warn that the military imposition of “democracy” such as what happened in Iraq, where it is carried out for selfish geo-strategic reasons rather than genuine support for the spread of democratic values, can in the long-term lead to devastating consequences (even here I was moved and encouraged by the Iraqi people’s enthusiasm for voting). The movement towards democracy must originate within a country, if it is to take hold.

And so to today: the next significant battle for democracy is being waged in the Iranian presidential election taking place on June 12th, where the government has removed Facebook from the internet there, after reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi set up his own page there. So it’s now up to the people of Iran to send a message to their theocratic leaders that this is not acceptable. I hope that you, he good people of Iran (if any of you happen upon this blog, assuming WordPress hasn’t also been removed) to reciprocate America’s choice of a leader willing to talk by electing a president wishing to do likewise, so that the world can move well away from the brink of self-destruction.

P.S.: For anybody who thinks an Irishman living in the UK has no right to tell Iranians how to vote please read my earlier post: Why Election ’08 Matters to Non-Americans as my reasons are similar

OK, everybody else has being doing their reviews of the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency, so why can’t I? No responses to that question please, it’s rhetorical and I’m going to do this anyway. So here goes…

Overall I think Obama has done well, with important steps being taken on a number of fronts. However, there have also been a number of dumb (albeit ultimately inconsequential) missteps:

Important Step#1: The economy – as the banking crisis developed in late last year, Obama must have thought to himself “Damn, why didn’t I wait until 2012/2016 to run?”. But he’s handled the crisis admirably with the passage of his stimulus package. I know Paul Krugman believes that it should have been larger and I understand where he’s coming from but I also acknowledge that quick passage of the bill was an important factor and to get bogged down by trenchant Republican opposition could have been more disastrous for the economy than the package’s imperfections and omissions. So he compromised just enough to appease just enough Republican senators to pass it. As regards Republicans who say there was no compromise, well there’s a significant proportion of tax cuts, which is enough compromise to those who lost and lost badly. The likely Republican solution, 100% tax cuts focused on the rich (If Plan A fails, fall back on Plan A), would have condemned us to years of Depression.

Dumb Misstep #1: Whoever chooses gifts for foreign dignitaries really needs to do better. Seriously, Gordon Brown gives Obama a pen-holder carved from the wood of a nineteenth-century anti-slavery ship and Obama responds by giving him a selection of DVDs! Come on, a little thought please – Gordon Brown could have ordered them to 10 Downing Street from Amazon.com! There is no ban on American movies in the UK! And then Hillary Clinton gives her Russian counterpart a cheap button with the Russian word for “Reset” on it. Could it BE any more embarrassing…Oh yeah, it didn’t actually have the word for “Reset” on it, it had the Russian word for “Overcharge”!

Important Step #2: Repairing America’s relationship with the rest of the world: Obama has worked overtime to signal a change from the arrogance of the Bush Era. He played his part, but wasn’t overbearing at the G20 conference, he explicitly said that America was not at war with the Muslim World in Turkey, he signalled a willingness to use negotiation to deal with Iran, the Taliban, Cuba, Venezuela (not getting fazed by Chavez’ grandstanding) and, possibly most significantly, went over the heads of Iran’s leaders to appeal directly to it’s people. (note-Iranian election coming up on June 12th – come on bloggers – it’s a chance to get rid of Ahmadinejad)

Dumb Misstep #2: Bowing to the Saudi King – The Leader of The Free World should not be seen to be grovelling to an oppressive, unelected absolute monarch. If he wants to show respect for other people’s customs, that’s normally a good thing – for example, a quick bow to the Japanese PM, who in turn bows as a show of mutual respect, is fine. However, this deep bow while King Abdullah looks all smugĀ  was a craven and unnecessary act of deference.

Important Step #3: Signalling the beginning of the end of the worst abuses of the Bush Administration: explicitly saying that America will no longer torture, arranging the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and setting a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq – I’m a little disappointed that it’s slower than he had pledged, but if he sticks to it I won’t be too unhappy.

Dumb Misstep #3: The low-flying “Photo Op” over New York – that was incredibly stupid and insensitive and whoever came up with it should immediately own up and resign.

There are many other aspects of Obama’s first 100 that I could go into because a)the results won’t be known for a while (eg response to Swine Flu outbreak and b) to do so would upset the symmetry of this blog and make it interminable. But overall based on what we’ve seen, I still think there’s plenty of reason to believe that Barack Obama will be a very good, possibly even a great, president. And I’m sure as hell glad we’re not facing this time of crises with John McCain and Sarah Palin leading us.