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Charlottesville, Donald Trump, and the dark side of American populism

Todd Landman, University of Nottingham

Charlottesville, Virginia is home to the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson; he was a slave owner, but today stands as a symbol of the US’s egalitarian ethos and political myth. But on August 12, some seven months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Charlottesville saw a far uglier side of the US on display: a Unite the Right rally bringing together people and organisations who resented the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Civil War general, Robert E Lee.

On the eve of the rally, the university’s Charlottesville campus became the site of a march of torch-bearing white supremacists, evoking the Klan rallies seen throughout the 20th century. Tense clashes between marchers and counter-protesters ensued, and the next day, the rally itself turned violent.

Radical right marchers turned up along with citizen militia groups (their guns on full display thanks to open carry legislation) and clashed with anti-fascist and other groups who stood up to them. Then 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr ploughed his car into a group of protesters, and has now been charged with the second degree murder of Heather Heyer, who died after he ran into her.

The context for these events is as old as the US itself. The country was borne of violence: a revolution that overthrew British rule, violent suppression of the Native American population, a violent Civil War that took over 600,000 lives, and a philosophy of “manifest destiny” that expanded the American nation across a continent.

Much of this violence was social and political. The Civil War has been seen as the true American revolution; it pitted a social and political order based on rugged individualistic capitalism against one of plantation economics and strong social hierarchy, including the system of slavery. The southern model was defeated, the slaves emancipated, and Confederate leaders and sympathisers left to mourn their project as a “lost cause”. But the culture of white supremacy was far from defeated, and radical right-wing social movements and organisations have troubled the US ever since.

The most notorious group, the Ku Klux Klan, was borne of Southern Democrats’ resentment of emancipation; over the years, it has been invigorated by other radical right groups founded on a powerful ideology of “Christian Identity”, a commitment to the racial superiority of white people and a mission to secure white power and dominance. (The Southern Poverty Law Centre has spent decades documenting and mapping their prevalence, discourses and actions across the US.)

To this day, there are strong social elements in the south and elsewhere that resent the the outcome of the Civil War and the consequences of reconstruction. To them, those consequences include the enfranchisement of women, the Civil Rights movement, Supreme Court rulings such as Brown v Board of Education (which desegregated schools in 1954) and Roe v Wade (which legalised abortion in 1973), and the overall advance of a progressive social agenda – one that to them culminated in the election and presidency of Barack Obama.

This politics of resentment gathered steam during the Trump campaign, and as the events in Charlottesville demonstrate, it’s now flourishing under his presidency.

Fanning the flames

During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s rhetoric was caustic and divisive. He described differences between groups as if they were essential and irreduceable; he named Mexicans and Muslims as having special attributes, lesser qualities, and who were in need of special measures, such as a “complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the US and a 2,000-mile border wall to keep out Mexican “rapists and murderers”.

His rhetoric also legitimised interpersonal violence more generally. He boasted that he could shoot someone and not lose votes, and encouraged participants at his rallies to use physical force against dissenters.

Now he’s president, Trump is trying to follow through on this rhetoric with executive orders and new legislation. This essentially gives licence to the US’s radical right elements to pursue their ends more zealously – and tellingly, Trump’s initial response to the events in Charlottesville was muted and non-specific.

Trump failed to name the right-wing violence as white supremacy, or to specifically condemn it; instead, he lamented the violence on all sides. The job of denouncing white supremacist racism was left to his daughter Ivanka and his vice-president, Mike Pence, who used much stronger language. After something of an outcry at his vague words, he finally took to Twitter to rail against “all that hate stands for”.

Many asked why Trump did not unequivocally condemn the events. But to explicitly condemn these groups would alienate a significant portion of his electoral base – something specifically pointed out to him by former Klan leader David Duke.

The protesters in Virginia, who came from across the US, closely resemble many who attended Trump rallies during the campaign – and much as he did post-Charlottesville, when asked by a journalist to specifically condemn the violence at those events, Trump declined.

The ConversationWhile many of grievances Trump issued during the campaign are legitimate – the decline of the manufacturing, steel, and coal industries, decaying infrastructure, and so on – the rhetorical framing of the campaign galvanised a right-wing populism that had been in abeyance for much of the 1990s and early 2000s. In mid-2017, this dark side of populism is clearly very much awake.

Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Social Sciences, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rolling Back Rights

Jenna Reinbold. Seeing the Myth in Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 208 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4881-4.

Reviewed by Todd Landman (University of Nottingham)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Rolling Back Rights

On May 3, 2017, Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, briefed staff at the US State Department on how the new “America First” policy of the Donald Trump administration should be interpreted for the planning and implementation of foreign policy.[1] He declared that there should be a decoupling of policies from values, where interventions carried out under the auspices of “America First” would not necessarily be done so on the basis of an appeal to American values such as democracy, freedom, and human rights. He claimed that even though values remain constant, policies change and the pursuit of American interests during the Trump administration will supersede American values. In other words, he was articulating a realist and pragmatic approach to foreign policy that concedes the importance of American values at home, but does not insist on those values being at the heart of its policies abroad, nor should such values be seen as a sine qua non of US foreign relations with other countries around the world.

Such a position represents a significant break from the past, where at least ostensibly, the United States has always sought to align its foreign policy to such values. Even though there is a long history of the United States ignoring human rights abroad, including recent revelations in the CIA torture report, the Abu Ghraib torture photos, and the use of extraordinary rendition, the United States has long been seen as a defender of freedom and a supporter of democracy. Indeed, the Millennium Challenge Account as part of USAID has human rights and other governance conditions that need to be met before third countries receive overseas development assistance (ODA).

In the debates during the recent general election in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May led moves to abandon the UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act, which since coming into force in 2000 brought the full protection of fundamental rights set out in the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. The result of the June 23, 2016, referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union provided additional leverage to the prime minister’s argument; however, her official positon is to wait until after Brexit is complete before looking at the protection of human rights in the UK. These anti-human rights sentiments stand in stark contrast to the United Kingdom’s history of rights that not only reaches back to the Magna Carta of 1215, but also includes British leadership in the forging of the European human rights regime.[2]

The Tillerson and May positions on human rights come at a time of rising criticism in which human rights are seen as impediments to strong government, economic efficiency, and national and international security. The “War on Terror” since 9/11, the consolidation of anti-terror legislation across many Western democracies, the rise of “illiberal” democracies, and the return to authoritarianism in countries such as the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte have seen significant efforts to roll back human rights protections and to undermine what has been a gradual, consensual, and increasingly inclusive promulgation, legalization, and proliferation of human rights.[3]

Ever since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the world has seen the establishment and subsequent growth in the international law of human rights, which includes major international and regional treaties, institutions, and organizations. Many now describe this collection of bodies and law as an international “regime” of human rights, which has grown in depth and breadth, where an increasing number of human rights have been given express legal protection (i.e., civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights) and an increasing number of countries have ratified human rights treaties.[4] More countries in the world have formally committed themselves to the human rights norms and values originally set out in the UDHR, and such formal participation in the de jure protection of human rights has been shown empirically to lead to an improvement in their de facto protection and realization.[5]

Over the last year and a half, I have been talking to human rights scholars and practitioners as part of the Rights Track podcast series (http://www.rightstrack.org) in which we have been discussing how systematic research on human rights has developed and how human rights organizations carry out their work to advance human rights. Our discussions have revealed two very important and common themes: (1) trends in the perception and protection of certain human rights are actually much more positive than we had assumed or believed before starting the podcast series; and (2) human rights are fluid, contested and “made” by collective struggles from groups at the domestic and international levels. Demands for rights create opportunities to extend rights protections that have already been promulgated in principle or to promulgate new rights protection and expand the law of human rights. The gap between “rights in principle” and “rights in practice” becomes a space for contestation that is often used by human rights NGOs and other collective actors to seek redress from states and international actors.[6]

In the face of such positive developments and importance of human rights, the Tillerson and May approach finds significant traction in mass publics and represents a more nationalistic and isolationist turn in international relations and politics. Nativist and populist elements in the United States propelled Donald Trump to power in part due to a deep skepticism about “globalist” ideas such as human rights and fears that international governance curbs the sovereignty of America. Theresa May famously declared that “to be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of nowhere,” and Brexit campaigners traded on a similar set of discourses evident in the US that created fear of the other, suspicion of supranational governance, and strong dislike of human rights.

Beyond the rise of May and Tillerson, academic work has also seen recent books such as The End of Human Rights by Costas Douzinas (2000) and The Endtimes of Human Rights by Stephen Hopgood (2013), which are critical of the ways in which human rights have been colonized by particular sets of elites who have taken away the power of human rights from those who most need their protection. These critiques see a yawning gap between the practice and discourses of the elite international human rights lawyers in New York and Geneva (what Hopgood refers to as “Human Rights,” with large capital letters) and the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people who demand rights and basic protections (what Hopgood refers to as “human rights,” with lowercase letters). Douzinas claims that the struggle for human rights has moved from the barricades to the barristers, while Hopgood argues that human rights language has become sacralized (and is guilty of its own form of social magic) and even dedicates a chapter of his book to a critique of the architecture of human rights buildings in New York, The Hague, and Geneva.[7] Skepticism and critique of human rights such as these are not new; many people have doubted the foundations of human rights and have seen them as serving the interests of particular segments of society, but the return of strong critique and recent political developments suggest that once again human rights are under threat.

In this current climate, Jenna Reinbold’s Seeing the Myth in Human Rights is a welcome defense of human rights. In the absence of agreed philosophical foundations for human rights and despite the many positive advances that have been made in their promotion and protection, there is still a need for strong arguments about why we have human rights, why they are important, and how they have come about. Her argument reaches far beyond consideration of the pragmatism of a human rights approach that only focuses on the law, or concerns over administration or enforcement, and delves into the deeper sense of what “we mean when we speak of human rights” (p. 7). She grounds her argument in the idea of “political myth”; that unifying set of narratives that have parallels with religious beliefs and discourses, but that also encompass secular, modern, postmodern, and post-traditional notions of a binding set of ideas that become legitimized and reified. For Reinbold, myth is not fantasy or fiction as it has been traditionally understood, but it is a “dense, evocative narrative designed to generate meaning, solidarity, and order for a particular audience” (p. 8). To be effective, such myths must carry “indisputable authority” and “unequivocal assertions.”

She argues that the UDHR, the primary focus of the book, had both of these attributes of myth, and she deploys the idea of the mythopoeic quality of the UDHR: “the deliberate, often painstaking work that Commission members undertook to produce an ethico-political narrative capable of commanding a uniquely realistic status” (p. 8). In this way, Reinbold joins other scholars in examining how human rights are socially constructed, crafted and made through language and action wrapped in a powerful narrative. Her focus on the UDHR is correct in that it begins the modern process of articulating a set of universal rights drawn from historical struggles and the history of thought, and it is not a legally binding document, but a global foundational document that would shape law, politics, and practice in the decades that followed its promulgation. Reinbold’s use of the term “mythopoeic” is very much in the vein of the sociologist and social theorist Emile Durkheim, for whom myth is not valuable itself, but has a larger “sociofunctionalist” purpose. The UDHR, as Reinbold sees it, gave human rights “their capacity to command a particular moral weight within the blossoming international landscape of the twentieth century” (p. 9).

There is a strong “sacralization” logic running through this book, which sees the evolution of a secularized defense of human dignity. While Hopgood sees such sacralization as problematic, Reinbold, in keeping with other sacred arguments about humanity and the person, sees it as crucial for understanding the foundation and enduring appeal of human rights. Her mythopoeic analysis is rooted in religious beliefs and discourses, but in human rights she sees a similar function for “authoritative secular” or “quasi-secular” narratives. Indeed, she argues that the UDHR is an “avowedly secular document” designed to encapsulate a prescription for “human meaning, morality, and solidarity within an evocative, highly authoritative narrative” (p. 11). While she insists on the secular nature of the UDHR, she nevertheless concedes that the document itself is “a true spiritual guide for humanity” (citing Chilean delegate to the Commission Hernan Santa Cruz, p. 11). There is thus for me an ongoing and some ways unresolved tension in this book between the insistence on secularity and the appeal to myth, the sacred, and the spiritual.

Her evidence base for this particular reading of the modern origins and articulation of human rights is an extensive record of the negotiations of the UDHR, the public broadcasts of the framers, their speeches, and many of their essays. The success of her argument rests on three main things, in my view. First, she claims that the framers of the UDHR had effectively narrated into existence the moral and legal landscape that centered on the sacredness of the human being. Second, she deploys a flexible and fluid understanding of myth that breaks from more formulaic uses of myth found in religious studies. And finally, she is keen to demonstrate how this narrative construction of human rights has sought to move the world from one of “barbarous acts” to one of “freedom, justice and peace in the world” (p. 13).

The structure of Reinbold’s argument starts with a deeper understanding of myth, both in its sacred and political dimensions, a theoretical framework which allows her to understand the construction of human rights as mythopoeic and to bring in a fuller and more salient consideration of religion. She moves on to consider the sacred elements of human rights or the appeal to the sacred in human rights. Here, we see the powerful role of the notion of “inherent human dignity,” which can come from philosophical foundations that appeal to God (e.g., Thomas Aquinas), nature (e.g., John Locke), or reason (e.g., Immanuel Kant).[8]

While we often think the notion of the sacred transcends time and space, the particular critical juncture of the immediate post-World War II period during which the UDHR was drafted pits the notion of the sacred against the “barbarous acts” the world had just witnessed across Europe. In this way, the sacred in human rights is socially constructed, as the ideas about human rights interact with the social world in which the UDHR was being framed and crafted. Human rights so conceived do not become “empty signifiers,” but of a time and a place that can be their empirical referents and that can provide them with meaning.[9] The challenge, however, remains in making the appeal of human rights travel beyond these particular conditions in ways that appeal to a global audience.

The mechanism through which human rights have become universalized has primarily been international law, which developed through consultation, iteration, and different forms of social construction over time. The sacredness of human rights articulated in the early sections of the book is then seen through the eyes of the legal world, and the language of the UDHR, while not legally binding, sets out minimal conditions for human dignity that can be articulated through law. For Reinbold, law makes the language of the UDHR “actionable,” but even the law has evolved through further iterations, ongoing jurisprudence, and proliferation over time.

Reinbold culminates her argument through a consideration of the precarity of myth. Indeed, in 1999, New York Times author David Reiff claimed that human rights should be seen as a “precarious triumph,” which has advanced considerably since the UDHR, but which remains continually under threat and never fully realized. Reinbold has given us much to contemplate in this beautifully written account of the mythopoeic origins of human rights. Seeing the myth of human rights is not to dismiss them as nonexistent or fragile, but to show us the genealogy of an idea that has moved from the conceptual to the practical, a journey that requires us to acknowledge the role of religion, society, politics, and law. In the current period, the force of her argument and the power of human rights is now more important than ever.

Notes

[1]. Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks to U.S. Department of State Employees,” May 3, 2017, US Department of State website, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2017/05/270620.htm (last accessed June 19, 2017).

[2]. A. W. B. Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3]. Todd Landman, Protecting Human Rights: A Global Comparative Study (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005), Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), “Rigorous Morality: Norms, Values and the Comparative Politics of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 38, no. 1 (2016): 1-20; and Salidin Meckled-Garcia, The Legalization of Human Rights: Multidisciplinary Approaches (London: Routledge, 2005).

[4]. Landman, Protecting Human Rights, 1.

[5]. Landman, Protecting Human Rights; Beth Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Christopher J. Fariss, “The Changing Standard of Accountability and the Positive Relationship between Human Rights Treaty Ratification and Compliance,” British Journal of Political Science (2016): 1-33, doi:10.1017/S000712341500054X.

[6]. Joe Foweraker and Todd Landman, Citizenship Rights and Social Movements: A Comparative and Statistical Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Thomas Risse, STephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, eds., The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[7]. Todd Landman, “Social Magic and the Temple of Human Rights: Critical Reflections on Stephen Hopgood’s Endtimes of Human Rights,” in Debating the Endtimes of Human Rights: Activism and Institutions in a Neo-Westphalian World, ed. Doutje Lettinga and Lars van Troost (The Hague: Amnesty International, 2014), 25-32.

[8]. Attracta Ingram, A Political Theory of Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[9]. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso Books, 2007).

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Citation: Todd Landman. Review of Reinbold, Jenna, Seeing the Myth in Human Rights. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48884

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Donald Trump’s 100 days of u-turns, bombs and cake

The hundredth day of an American president’s term traditionally marks the end of the honeymoon period – a time to take stock of early achievements, launch new legislation, and set a new direction. But the score card for Donald Trump’s first 100 days doesn’t read well, and the direction for the next four years is looking so new as to radically contradict the premise of his campaign. The Conversation Trump hasn’t commenced the wall along the US-Mexican border, his signature campaign pledge. He has failed (and spectacularly) to repeal and replace the healthcare reforms collectively known as Obamacare, and the courts have thwarted his orders to ban foreign nationals from several mainly Muslim countries from the US. And on a moral front, his compassion for Syrian children killed in a horrific chemical attack was offset by his decision to turn away 10,000 Syrian refugees. The administration is under intense pressure from investigations into the Trump team’s Russian connections and purported Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The resignation of General Mike Flynn and the hapless antics of the investigating committees in Congress have only made the saga more damaging. All the while, American opinion remains divided as ever: Trump currently enjoys the approval of roughly 40% of his people. Trump’s image problem extends well beyond the US’s borders. In the past month, I spent a week in China while President Xi Jinping was visiting Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. I then visited the US, travelling from North Carolina through Virginia and on to Washington, DC. The Chinese are mostly bemused by the new president, who comes in for plenty of criticism in the Chinese media. In the US, meanwhile, the president is at the centre of a perpetual media frenzy, lurching from one decision to the next while providing byplay via his own tweets. And undoubtedly his most dramatic lurch has been away from isolationism and towards outright military adventurism.

Volte-face

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump criticised “crooked Hillary” and Barack Obama for allowing the situation in Syria to deteriorate, but he also declared that he would not get involved. The “America First” philosophy he articulated in his inaugural address combined economic nationalism with international isolationism, and more recently, he reminded an audience of union members that he is “not the president of the world”. But as the makeup of his National Security Council changed, Trump broke out of his isolationist box. He now appears to favour regime change in Syria, and possibly even a direct confrontation with North Korea. Between my visits to China and the US, Trump retaliated to the deadly April 4 chemical attack on the Syrian rebel-held city of Khan Sheikhoun by authorising a direct missile strike on Syrian government airfields – this apparently while enjoying a “beautiful chocolate cake” with President Xi. The attack sharpened the main lines of contention in global politics between Russia and China, who continue to back Bashar al-Assad, and the G7 nations, who oppose him, but who have yet to come up with a coherent suggestion for removing him from power. Trump also said he’d ordered a US Navy carrier strike group on routine exercises to head from Australia to the waters off North Korea, while Pyongyang held a national day of celebration at which it showed off significant military hardware, some of it not seen before. In the days between the announced rerouting of the aircraft carrier group (the truth of which is now unclear) and North Korea’s celebrations, the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used on a network of tunnels in Afghanistan used by the so-called Islamic State (IS). The blast itself is estimated to have killed more than 90 IS militants, while at the same time sending a clear signal to IS, North Korea and others that Trump is ready to use devastating force. China’s Xi has since tried to calm tensions between the US and North Korea, but to little effect; the sabre-rattling continues, and a sixth North Korean nuclear test may not be far away.

Empty at the core

Throughout these last 100 days, I have been searching for some sort of signal in all the noise – some core commitment to a programme of change, with a clear set of organising principles and an underlying philosophy. I have struggled to argue that there must be something at the heart of all of this that makes coherent sense and that will genuinely benefit even Trump’s core supporters. Some of those supporters presumably see their president as a decisive leader using the full power of the presidency to tackle enormous domestic and foreign issues. To them, he’s doing precisely what he promised, and given time and space to act, he will deliver real change to America. Business leaders are waiting for his tax cuts to invigorate markets, while the core voters wait for their promised new jobs and cheaper healthcare. But if Trump is right that running America really is like running a business, he should be able to produce an income-expenditure model that indicates more is being achieved with less, with a surplus to show as a result. No such model is forthcoming. Yes, the proposed investments in infrastructure and the border wall are meant to be balanced by cuts to public programmes in science, health, welfare, and even the coast guard. But combined with promised tax cuts and increased defence spending, the books simply will not be balanced – especially with expensive new overseas military adventures now on the cards. In search of a metaphor with which to capture these first 100 days of the Trump presidency, I’ve landed on the Tasmanian devil. The real animal is described as having a “cantankerous disposition”; it will “fly into a maniacal rage when threatened by a predator, fighting for a mate, or defending a meal”. As rendered in cartoon form for Looney Tunes, it’s a swirling vortex of frenzied activity with an empty core.

The thrust and parry of politics is inevitable, as interests and power intersect in complex and contested ways – but actual change is achieved through consensus and compromise. Obamacare was only passed in 2010 after a year of face-to-face encounters, discussions, and compromises forged in committee rooms and caucus meetings. The bill that emerged wasn’t what everyone wanted, but it contained enough of what most of them wanted. If Trump’s first 100 days prove anything, it’s that politics is not business. CEOs and presidents need very different skills, and commanders-in-chief need to think about more than the bottom line. The self-proclaimed master of the Art of the Deal has much to learn if he is to thrive in his first term. Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Social Sciences, University of Nottingham This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Crafting Confidence in a Challenging World

On the eve of the Prime Minister sending the letter that invokes Article 50 to the Council of the European Union, I had the good fortune of spending time in the City of London with current students, alumni, and staff of the University of Nottingham for a networking event. Entitled ‘Nottingham in the City’ we welcomed over 100 guests to the magnificent offices of Berenberg for an evening of talks and mutually beneficial introductions.

My own role was to welcome our guests on behalf of the University and to deliver a short lecture on leadership and ‘knowing people’. I was delighted to revisit many of the themes that I have developed in the past on ‘crafting confidence’ in young people and using analytical frameworks developed at Glowinkowski International.

IMG_1748

I talked primarily about how all organisations are characterised by the complex interactions between people’s underlying predispositions, behaviours, and styles of leadership and engagement, which in turn relate to the climate of the organisation and ultimately its performance. These insights were illustrated through my own version of ‘cerebral prestidigitation’ (or mind magic) working with members of the audience. I predicted a choice of one guest simply by knowing her name (Darinka), her place of birth (Macedonia) and what she had for breakfast (an omelette). I then asked four volunteers to imagine in their minds the four different types of leadership engagement that we had been discussing and I divined their thoughts with 100% accuracy.

IMG_1750

But for me, the real exciting part of the evening was learning how these young people, full of enthusiasm, are embracing the change that they see all around them. I met graduates of law, economics, business, politics, psychology and sociology, all of whom valued not only the core content of what they studied, but the many soft skills that have made them adaptable to the challenging work environments in which they find themselves. Many had started out in one direction and then learned where their real interests were and changed course accordingly.

There evening also included an inspiring talk from business entrepreneur Claire Bicknell from Catena Business Networking, who presented a compelling vision of how company to company and person to person networking benefits all that engage in such interactions. She is growing her business from its base in Nottingham to the whole of the UK with an ever increasing network of companies, organisations, individuals and events.

The deep history of the City was with is last night (Berenberg dates from 1590), but it was combined with youthful and hopeful vigour, which I hope will carry us through the uncharted waters of BREXIT and that real opportunities will be seized in these turbulent times.

What a TV mixup can teach us about preventing fatal accidents

Sarah Sharples, University of Nottingham and Todd Landman, University of Nottingham

When Todd, a professor of political science, was recently invited to appear on the BBC Breakfast TV show, he didn’t expect to be asked to talk about mountaineering. He’d originally been invited on to the tightly scheduled and carefully planned programme to discuss Donald Trump.

But a series of simple mistakes led to an awkward on-air exchange as the presenters realised he wasn’t Leslie Binns, mountain climber and former British soldier from North Yorkshire, but an academic with an American accent – much to the delight of the rest of the press and social media.

These kind of mistakes aren’t rare. Many will remember a similar mixup when the BBC got the wrong guy when it infamously tried to interview Congalese IT worker Guy Goma instead of British journalist Guy Kewney about a court case between Apple and the Beatles.

No individual was to blame for Todd’s mixup. Due to a bizarre set of coincidences and misunderstandings, the BBC researchers and presenters genuinely thought Todd was Leslie Binns, despite the careful planning that had gone into the programme. So why do simple mistakes lead to major errors in such a complicated system with so many checks? Answering this question can provide vital insight into how to prevent much more serious problems occurring, for example in medical operations or air traffic control.

The discipline of human factors can help us here. Studying human factors helps us to understand how we can design products and systems to take into account human capabilities and limitations. People frequently make decisions based on incomplete information, and use rough rules known as “heuristics” to jump to the most likely decision or hypothesis. The problem with the decisions we make using these rules is that they can be susceptible to our personal biases.

In Todd’s case, both he and the BBC staff and presenters did not expect there to be a mix up. This led them to experience bias in the way that they interpreted each other during short conversations before the interview. Todd was greeted by a female staff member saying “Hello, Leslie, you’re wearing a suit”, referring to his lack of mountaineering equipment. Todd interpreted this as meaning “Hello, [my name is] Lesley”, and a conversational comment about his attire. Due to the biases in their perception and decision making, as well as the time pressure in the studio, neither realised a mistake had been made.

Confirmation bias

In systems where safety is critical, the consequences of such biases or behaviours can be much more serious than the mild embarrassment and amusement that resulted from the BBC Breakfast mix up. In 1989, the pilots of British Midland Flight 92 believed that they had received an alert of a fire in the right-hand engine after misinterpreting their displays. When they shut off this engine, the vibration that they had previously been experiencing stopped.

This led to a confirmation bias in their decision making – their action led to the result they expected so they thought they had solved the problem. Sadly they had misinterpreted the information they had received in the cockpit and shut off the wrong engine. The plane crashed on the approach to the airport and 47 passengers lost their lives.

Decision making does not happen in a social vacuum. We conform to social norms and behave in a way that fits in with others within our social or work setting. Just as Todd had to work out how to confront the misunderstanding as he realised it was happening, just before his interview was about to start, we can feel uncomfortable about challenging or discussing decisions in some settings where we feel intimidated, or where others are clearly in positions of authority.

Er, guys, this is a takeaway menu.
Shutterstock

For example, in hospitals, patients and junior staff can sometimes treat senior doctors as infallible. The case of Elaine Bromiley, who died after her airway became blocked during a routine operation, sadly demonstrated the impact that failure in communications in the operating theatre can have. Many factors contributed to this incident, but one that was highlighted was that the nurses in the operating theatre became aware of the problem before doctors had acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, the nurses felt unable to broach the issue with the doctors.

In UK hospitals, effort is now made to ensure that medical decisions are discussed by staff and are more likely to be challenged if someone – even more junior colleagues – thinks those decisions are wrong.

In the Flight 92 accident, passengers heard the pilot announce that there was a problem with the right-hand engine, but could see through their windows that the problem was on the left. Survivors of the crash later said that they noticed this mismatch between what they could see and what the captain had said, but that it didn’t cross their mind that an error like this could happen, or that the action of the captain should be challenged.

When something unexpected happens in a resilient system, we use our cognitive and social skills to respond in a way to try to ensure that no harm is done. This is known as thinking clearly under pressure or unconscious competence. The most resilient complex systems take both human and technological capabilities into account. They are designed to be efficient while anticipating the human behaviours that might occur and incorporating design features that try to prevent errors, such as formal checks and structured communication.

The challenge is to make sure those design features prevent errors without slowing people down or introducing social awkwardness. When we find ourselves confronted with a potential mistake, we need to feel comfortable enough to pluck up the courage to politely but firmly say, “I think you’ve got the wrong guest, sir”.

The Conversation

Sarah Sharples, Professor of Human Factors and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange, Past President of Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, University of Nottingham and Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Social Sciences, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Clear Case of Mistaken Identity

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Last Friday I provided a typical interview on US Politics to BBC Radio Foyle in Northern Ireland. I had appeared earlier in the week and it was great to get a follow up spot. The issue of the week centred on the allegations of Russian hacking and possible interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The formal and public joint intelligence report came out on Friday and senior intelligence officials were in New York briefing President-Elect Donald Trump on their findings as well as the classified information that led to their conclusions about a Russian campaign of influence.

After doing the spot, I got an email from one of the journalists supporting BBC Breakfast inviting me to appear on the couch the next morning for the Saturday show. I accepted the invitation and made my way to Media City in Salford in Manchester ready for the next day’s live broadcast. I was instructed to arrive at Quay House no later than 08:40. I arrived at reception at 08:20 and was given a badge with my name on it and asked to wait. Soon a handler arrived and led me to makeup and then the green room, where I enjoyed a fresh cup of coffee and the Saturday edition of the FT. I had been reading the news all night about the intelligence briefing and Trump’s response in preparation for my spot on the couch.

I was picked up at 08:40 to go the studio. I thought it seemed a bit early, but I am accustomed to schedules changing at the last minute when working with the media and thought nothing of it. So, I waited outside the studio chatting with the floor manager who commented on me wearing a suit (which I thought very odd at the time) and who asked me to remove my badge, as that would not look good on live TV. I was soon seated next to Jon Kay and Rachel Burden and waited for my cue.

After Martin Lewis finished his piece on The Money Box, the autocue started rolling and began to introduce a story about Leslie Binns. I began to get more and more nervous as the story developed and I even looked sideways to see if he had entered the studio, or if there would be a cutaway to video with him on it.

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No.

The hosts turned directly to me, despite a large picture of Leslie behind me and waited expectedly for me to tell them about my next great adventure climbing Mount Everest! For a fleeting moment, I contemplated faking it, referring to the toughness of base camp. praising the hard work of the sherpas, and the struggle up the mountain; however, I played it straight, and simply said ‘I am afraid you have the wrong guest, sir.’

We all sat there for a few awkward moments, where we recovered nicely, and I was whisked away to appear a few minutes later for my actual spot about the Russians and Trump. I spoke to Leslie outside the studio and realised that he was the man waiting in the Green Room with me. He looked very much like an ex-soldier (complete with an army badge) wearing a red jumper covered in sponsor badges for his Everest climb.

This was a simple honest mistake borne of a busy schedule of guests, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and assumptions.

The story got picked up and went viral very quickly, with it being carried in The Evening Standard, The Express, The Daily MailThe MirrorThe Independent in Ireland, The Irish Times, TV New Zealand, AOL, YahooThe Nottingham Post, and even in Nigeria and Ghana. As ever, the Australians added their own sense of humour by focusing on my facial expression, at precisely the time I realised that I was the wrong man. Perhaps the best coverage was in Cosmopolitan Magazine, which says ‘just to reiterate – Todd Landman is NOT a mountain-climbing life-saver. But he does look like a nice fella.’

The next day, the Sunday Telegraph ran the story on its frontages, describing me as ‘a bespectacled and greying professor’ not to be confused with a ‘rugged mountaineer’.  Ouch!

In the end, these things happen, and I have received wonderful emails, tweets, Facebook shares and messages about the event. Today, BBC Nottingham ran a radio feature on the event and framed their morning show around ‘Tell us your story of mistaken identity.’

I now go down in the annals of history as the man who was mistaken for a mountaineer, and was only an academic (and some say, a mighty fine magician!), while the BBC quips ‘you will always be a hero to us.’

 

 

 

The Turn Away From Human Dignity

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Pablo Picasso, 1903, The Tragedy, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

The New Year ushers in a new era for global history and politics. The United Kingdom will officially invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union and will thus trigger the two-year process of exiting the European Union. The new Prime Minister will both trigger and oversee this process, while any legal challenges will focus on the degree to which Parliament and the courts have any formal oversight. She is also keen to revoke the Human Rights Act, which is a piece of domestic legislation that brought rights home; rights forged by Britain in the aftermath of World War II, and with the express purpose of constraining future leaders to prevent us from the worst forms of our own behaviour. On 20 January 2017 Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States; an event that is surrounded by controversy following an unorthodox electoral campaign and an unorthodox period of transition.

These developments, borne of a significant shift in popular attitudes, are likely to have profound implications for the world, and are likely to lead to similar developments in France, Germany and the Netherlands throughout 2017. Far beyond simple electoral outcomes and popular referenda, these developments for me represent a turn away from human dignity. They are centred on an inward view of self that is scared of the unknown and scared of ‘the other’. Diversity, identity, and difference have all been brought under question and positive trends in their formal and informal recognition are being cast aside with a worrying degree of casualness and without due care and attention to the full ramifications that such a course of action entails. The year will require vigilance, courage, tenacity, and hard work to limit the negative consequences that will result from these momentous changes, and it is great to see the green shoots of movement politics taking hold.

Brexit and Human Rights

The political and economic arguments over BREXIT will continue. Remainers worry about the profound disruption to the economy, polity, and culture in the UK and the wider Europe, as debates rage on over the status of EU citizens living and working in the UK, the mobility of people more generally, the status of UK financial institutions, and the net impact on trade, investment, and overall economic performance of the UK. Brexiters remain confident and buoyant about the future, ask for patience during an exceedingly complicated process of extraction from the EU, and promise a golden future of greater prosperity for a more assertive and independent United Kingdom.

Over the holidays I heard similar sets of competing views and arguments expressed at various events. I was struck by the observation from a colleague who said that her analysis suggested a large segment of the British public simply rejected the growth of the EU beyond the original promise made in 1975; the promise of greater economic integration, but not greater political integration. The enhanced political integration was not something many people wanted and the burden and constraints that come with ‘an ever closer union’ were simply too much for many to bear. The young people with whom I spoke are deeply worried as they had never known a world without the EU, and yet turnout within this demographic was remarkably low, and for many, explained why the vote on 23 June went the way it did.

Accepting that Brexit will happen, the task ahead for this year and beyond is to secure the very best outcome from the process and to have a future and outward oriented vision for this country. There are 194 countries in the world, 32 OECD countries, and emerging markets with dynamic economies in need of goods, services, and expertise that in my view are in abundance in this country. Students will continue to flock to our shores for high quality education and our UK students will continue to represent some of the best minds available for solving global problems. Industry, charity, innovation, culture, media, and many other sectors continue to produce world-leading products, ideas and solutions and are likely to do so for years to come.

The deep suspicion about human rights is nothing new. Many of my friends and colleagues raise doubts about the value and purpose of human rights, focus on the negative outcomes of rights challenges and their seemingly ‘over protective’ quality for those less desirable in society, such as criminals and terrorists. In 2000 I attended the launch ceremony for the 1998 Human Rights Act hosted by then Home Secretary Jack Straw along with senior colleagues from the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, including the late and great Professor Kevin Boyle. This event and the act that came with it domesticated international human rights, whose content, nature, and specification had been forged formally through iterative and inclusive processes since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This Declaration and the subsequent international law of human rights, as well as domestic declarations, constitutions, and protective instruments are grounded in a deep commitment to and articulation of human dignity; a dignity that recognizes the sacredness of the human being, whether derived from appeals to God, nature, or reason. From this basic underlying principle of human dignity comes a range of values and principles such as equality, respect, inclusion, participation, non-discrimination, responsibility, and accountability. Given the absence of a written constitution and a slow accretion of statute law and common understanding about rights and responsibilities, the Human Rights Act has served to cement centuries of rights commitments more forcefully into the legal, social and political fabric of British society.

Some argue that we have done very well without the act, but they miss the point that (1) Britain was one of the main architects of the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), (2) Britain remains part of the Council of Europe under whose auspices the ECHR is enforced, and (3) the Human Rights Act is merely an extension of commitments that we have already made, but which fortifies these commitments throughout our domestic legal system. To turn our back now on the ideals upheld in the act and the larger supranational commitments we have made seems folly indeed. These commitments are part of the post World War II settlement for peace and security in Europe, and the ECHR is upheld as the most successful and respected international system for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Trump and America’s Tortured Soul

On 8 November 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by over 2.5 million votes, but secured the Electoral College vote, which officially elected him President on 19 December. The campaign for the Presidency was more of a circus than ever before. Hillary Clinton spent over $1 billion, while Trump adopted a successful strategy of guaranteeing free media coverage through making a range of outrageous statements. Beyond seeing these utterances as pure electoral strategy, I am minded to heed the advice of the late Jean Beth Elshtain, who in writing about just war theory and the fight against terrorism, urges us to take what terrorists say at face value. I will thus take what Donald has said and done at face value.

He has asked us to turn away from human dignity. He has asked us to focus on making America Great Again, as if to suggest that somehow it was in serial and significant decline (the main socio-economic indicators suggested otherwise). He asked us to be suspicious of ‘the other’: to remove all illegal immigrants (many of whom are undocumented and not illegal), to ban all Muslims from entering the country, to form a Muslim registry, to refuse entry to Syrians fleeing brutal conflict, and to build physical and virtual walls around America in ways that will only lead to a decrease in opportunity and further division at home and abroad. He has asked us to congratulate African Americans for not voting, since their lower that expected turnout guaranteed his victory. He has asked to overlook his financial irregularities, multiple law suits, and overt misogyny.

During his transition he has assembled a confederacy of dunces in the true Swiftian sense of the term that is diametrically aligned against almost every policy development from the Obama Administration. Many of the proposed members of the cabinet appear to be the antithesis of the office for which they are being chosen. His casual use of social media and absence of diplomatic protocols would have made Hillary’s opponents howl with rage had she behaved in such a fashion. And yet, there continues to be a quiet acceptance and acquiescence across many quarters to the ‘new normal’ of Trump’s America.

Women’s March and the Work Ahead

Brexit and Trump have framed a new set of discourses that many thought were a thing of the past. Progress on law, culture and politics had begun to remove barriers, to liberate people from oppressive structures, to celebrate difference in all its forms, and to recognize that difference and diversity are healthy for modern societies the world over. Brexit and Trump have unleashed an unfortunate set of trends in hate crimes and racist attacks, the nature and extent of which we have not seen in some time. Brexiters have denied any direct causal connection between the EU Referendum and these new troubling trends, while supporters of Trump willingly embrace the discourse with an alarming degree of enthusiasm.

The first public event, despite its billing, that will challenge Trump (and in my view the larger turn away from dignity) is the Women’s March on Washington to be held on 21 January, a day after the Trump inauguration. In the spirit of Martin Luther King and the many other protest events on The Mall between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial, this march is grounded in a celebration of dignity and diversity.

‘In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.’

Beyond articulating the event in women’s rights terms only, the march challenges the sentiment, discourse, and unease unleashed by the Presidential campaign:

‘The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us – immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault – and our communities are hurting and scared. We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.’

The march is also keen to promote and encourage ‘sister marches’ outside Washington and the United States, where there has been take up of the idea in other US states, Europe, and Oceania thus far.

This one event will not change what has happened, but it is the beginning of a movement that challenges the most negative consequences of Brexit and Trump and rearticulates a commitment to the values and principles that have underpinned so much global progress since the Second World War.

For me, the world has been here before, and the precarious triumph of democracy and human rights challenged oppression, repression, and intolerance. The gains of the post war period will be very hard to reverse entirely, and in my own work, I will remain dedicated to the kind of education and research that appreciates difference, opens minds to new ideas, challenges intolerance, amasses systematic evidence to reveal inconvenient truths, and upholds fundamental values and principles grounded in the idea of human dignity.

SUBVERSION: Politics, Magic and Jazz

 

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This week has seen a fascinating array of my own public engagement. My week began with my lecture on Race, Rights and Justice in the Age of Brexit for the national Being Human Fetsival. Held in the fabulous Galleries of Justice in Notttingham, I set out my thoughts and reflections on the many challenges during the age of what I have called BREXITRUMP. My remarks urged us all to remain mindful of our common humanity and the shared values of dignity, respect, non-discrimination, equality, and inclusion.

The current turn in politics is undermining years of struggle for rights and justice, the legal codification of these struggles, and the many advances that have been achieved in the popular understandings of identity and difference. The rhetoric of Farage and Trump shares many of the same features: a simplification and dichotomisation of society into ‘us’ and ‘them’ in ways that have proved highly divisive, hurtful, and regressive. It has also invited arguments online and offline that appear more vitriolic than ever before.

With these developments at the forefront of our minds, the staging this week of my show SUBVERSION seemed more fitting than first imagined when I conceived of it. The show celebrates the common thread that joins the disparate worlds of politics, magic and jazz; worlds that have been my world since the early 1970s. Each in their own way has moments that have challenged the status quo and moved history forward. I explore these connections through the medium of performance magic, mind reading, and mentalism. Our topics have covered the ideas and achievements of over 50 of my favourite ‘subversives’; our understanding of the notion of free will; Hobbesian thought as expressed in Leviathan; the philosophy and art of surrealism; Said’s notion of Orientalism; the ‘veil of ignorance’; the value of predictions; and my own blend of psychic perfect pitch.

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The show has been well received and well-reviewed, while the proceeds are being used for the Life Cycle Campaign to raise funds for research into the early detection of breast cancer, something that has touched my family and I am certain many other families here and abroad. The Djanogly Theatre at Lakeside Arts provided the perfect setting, while the sound and light crew could not be more professional and supportive.

In the middle of this performance schedule, I had the honour and pleasure of performing to a group of students from the University of Nottingham for a new film project on Academic Magic. They were from all over the world and studying degree courses in chemistry, maths, biology, business, law, finance, psychology, and medicine. After the filming they were full of questions and theories about how I managed to know what they had chosen, thought, or wrote down. It was a wonderful afternoon with the youth of today.

2016 has indeed been an extraordinary year with the death of so many icons of my youth, and significant political developments that will have huge and long lasting consequences. All eyes are on the election in France with the surge in support for Marine Le Pen, the election in Germany, as Angela Merkel seeks an historic 4th term as Chancellor, and in the UK, the Government’s plan for Brexit; the phasing, contours and consequences of which still remain shrouded in uncertainty.

I for one, will remain vigilant, continue to engage, and work hard to defend what I think are the many important principles and rights that have been secured through so many years of struggle.

Trump, Clinton, and the Future of the United States of America

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On 29 September, I delivered a public lecture to over 300 staff and students at the University of Nottingham, where I am a Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences.

I had delivered an earlier version of this lecture at our Ningbo campus in China on 1 June 2016.

My intent with this lecture is to move beyond name calling and popular discourse on the race for the Presidency thus far, and to focus on the data and evidence that sit behind the roller coaster that we appear to be on during this contested time in American and global politics.

My lecture was structured into several sections, including (1) an overview of the electoral landscape, (2) the early primaries, (3) Super Tuesday, (4) the narrowing race, (5) the party conventions, (6) the Great Debate, (7) the shifting demographic, (8) the current position of each candidate, and (9) challenges for the future.

Since the 1950s and the Eisenhower elections, the American presidential electoral map has seen a large number of years and states ‘red’ for the Republican support that they have expressed. The 1964 Johnson election saw a large swathe of blue states, but not until the 1990s with the election of Bill Clinton, did the country see strong patches of Democratic support, mostly concentrated in the East and West Coast, as well as around the Midwest and Great Lakes area. Through the Bush years, the red returned, and with eight years of Obama, we see the same pattern as with Clinton: East and West Coast blue, south and middle of the US is red.

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I stressed in the lecture that these patterns are also based on the population size and an urban rural split. East and West Coast states are very populous and tend to vote Democrat, while county level data shows that cities vote Democrat and rural areas vote Republican. I also stressed the difference between the popular vote (in 2012 Obama won with 51% of the popular vote) and the Electoral College vote (Obama got 332 votes to Romney’s 206; a 61.7% to 38.3% difference). The difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote is crucial to understand the current race: Trump and Clinton have been neck and neck in the popular vote polls over the summer, but the Electoral College vote predictions still favour Clinton. The key to the outcome are key ‘swing’ states such as Ohio (Trump), Pennsylvania (Clinton), Michigan (Clinton), Colorado (Clinton), Wisconsin (Clinton), Virginia (Clinton), Minnesota (Clinton), Nevada (Trump), Iowa (Trump), New Hampshire (Clinton), Arizona (Trump), Georgia (Trump), North Carolina (Trump), and Florida (Trump).

The primaries began with a slate of candidates for both parties, but arguably more for the Republicans than the Democrats, where Trump found himself most challenged by Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich and where Clinton had only really to contend with Bernie Sanders. The early primaries had a strong showing for Trump and throughout the process he gained momentum to win the nomination, despite increasingly deep reservations from members across the party. Clinton’s lead was not a given, as she fought hard through the process. She did benefit from the so-called ‘superdelegates’ and secured the nomination once Sanders conceded rather late in the race. As part of the race during the primaries, it became clear to me as early as Super Tuesday on 2 March that the final contest for the presidency would be between Trump and Clinton, and that the presidency was Clinton’s to lose.

With the primary race over, the two candidates focussed their attention on the party conventions. The Republicans stumbled at first over protest groups not yet ready to endorse Trump and a candidate acceptance speech that painted a gloomy and dire picture of the state of America. This picture was brought into stark contrast by the Democratic convention, which was decidedly more positive and inclusive, but which was not entirely free of controversy, since it was revealed through an email hack that the Democratic National Committee was seeking to engineer the primary process toward Clinton. Trump made a populist appeal to the people – ‘I am your voice’ – and pledged that only he could make America great again. Clinton sought to show how America can work together and that her partnership with America would deliver greater benefits for a middle class that has lost out.

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Clinton enjoyed a post-convention bounce in the polls that was more sustainable than Trump’s slight rise in the polls, but the summer campaign saw her lead slip, and then almost collapse after her health issues were revealed at a 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York. By the time of the first debate on Monday of this week, her lead had all but evaporated and fell within the statistical margin of error. The debate itself was much anticipated and was reported to have had 84 million viewers. Trump came out strong and held his own for the first 20 minutes on issues concerning jobs and the effects of international trade, but stumbled through the second and third portions of the debate on matters concerning race relations, his tax returns, and securing America. Clinton delivered a measured and well-studied performance that saw her hit back with a number of barbed and incisive comments, and the general verdict was that she emerged the winner.

I have maintained throughout the campaign that Trump needs to reach out beyond his core supporters in order to win the presidency. He has been very effective as an outside candidate to work within the Republican Party to convert his populist message into the nomination. He has failed, however, to soften his tone or to garner support from groups outside his base. He repeated the same theme and message at the debate without capturing new support. Clinton is a centre-left candidate who enjoys a larger share of the changing demographic in the United States, with much more support among African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans and equal support among white Americans (but those that are educated and female).

The underlying changes in the demographic patterns in the US have presented a real challenge to the Republicans, who have not developed a strategy to respond in 2008, 2012, and now it looks like 2016. The white population is decreasing in size in America, the non-white population is showing increase in voter turnout, as well voting for Democrats, while America is become more socially liberal, less religious and less Christian. And it is these changes that are currently benefitting the Clinton campaign.

Three days out from the first debate, Clinton’s probability of winning has risen from 57.9% to 63.7% according to Nate Silver on his site Five Thirty Eight. For his part, Trump is facing continued pressure to release his tax returns, explain how his economic plan will actually work, and to answer questions on his financial dealings in Cuba during the period of the US embargo.

The next weeks will see two more head to head debates, more campaigning, and more polls. To win, Clinton needs to mobilise her base, and encourage high turnout from ethnic minority communities, as well as young, educated, women. For his part, Trump needs to mobilise his base and if he continues to stick to that base, then mobilise the ‘silent’ Trump supporters to register and vote.

The race is still very much in the balance, but is now tipping back toward a Clinton victory.

Please CLICK HERE for a PDF of the slides for this lecture: trump-clinton-and-the-future-of-the-usa

Orientalism, Magic, and Subversion

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Western performance magic has long had an historical fascination with the Middle and Far East. The most ancient magic demonstration is arguably the ‘cups and balls’, which some have argued had its origins in Egypt in 2500 BC. The famous Lo Shu Square, which lies at the heart of modern demonstrations of the ‘mathmagical’ powers of mentalists is based on a pattern of dots seen on the back of a turtle in Ancient China.  Many tales of the magical arts (and the accompanying artefacts) speak of magic making its way West to Europe, where early practitioners brought unique forms of entertainment and wonder to audiences across the continent.

Across Europe, but in particular in the UK, as magic moved from the street to the theatre in the Victorian period, there was a competitive market for entertainment and magicians had to craft their performance personas and identities in ways that made them deeply mysterious, superhuman, and exotic. Some magicians turned their gaze Eastward to find inspiration in the Fakirs of India, the alleged secrets of the Pharaohs, and of course the natural appeal of ancient Chinese culture.

Famous London theatres, such as The Egyptian Hall, would be adorned with decorations, hieroglyphs, and images of pyramids to allure their paying guests inside for an evening of magic, wonder, and in many cases, demonstrations of spiritualism. Famous magicians Maskelyne and Cooke ran a successful show there for 31 years and the hall became known as England’s Home of Mystery. Sadly, the site is now home to a Starbucks.

Psychics and mentalists such as Alexander (‘The Man Who Knows’) would often dress as the famous ‘Swami’ and engage in feats of mind reading and divination complete with crystal balls on stage or large glass bowls filled with sealed envelopes containing questions from the audience for which the performer would provide inexplicably accurate and uncanny answers.

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The most famous example of a socially constructed ‘Eastern’ identity for entertainment purposes is arguably that of the magician Chung Ling Soo. Inspired and in competition with magician Chung Ling Foo, Chung Ling Soo toured Europe and the US at the turn of the 20th Century, appearing on a full Chinese stage set, in a Chinese costume, and a long black pony tail, and performed a wide range of effects with Chinese props and apparatus. His act is even featured in the popular film The Prestige. He was in fact, an American by the name of William Robinson from upstate New York.

These uses of Eastern culture, constructed for Western audiences are examples of what Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism’; or the appropriation, celebration, and depiction of peoples and cultures of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. For Said, this practice was both patronising and fictional, which taken to its extreme represented an imperialist project underpinned by Western power to the detriment of ‘real’ Oriental culture. His book has inspired many studies that have sought to deconstruct this misuse of the Orient across popular culture, society, and politics.

Whether magicians were wittingly part of this project, or whether Said is actually correct, remain open questions, but the use of such Orientalist practices continues to this day. Indeed, magicians across the world remain fascinated with Eastern history, artefacts, stories, clothes, and myths that provide countless opportunities to fashion shows that appeal to many different audiences.

In his show An Evening of Wonders, celebrated mentalist Derren Brown performed an extraordinary Swami act, which I had the pleasure of witnessing at The Regent Theatre in Ipswich. He appeared in formal attire, complete with white bow tie, starched shirt, and black tails, as well as a full head turban, along with a glass bowl and sealed questions from the audience. His performance was tongue and cheek, but enough ambiguity remained about how he was achieving direct mind reading that many in the audience exclaimed after the show that he was ‘the real deal’.

Eastern magicians also play to the audience through their own culture in ways that are selective, popularised, and much like their Western counterparts. Magic is hugely popular in China, which hosted the 2009 meeting of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques (FISM), while its 2018 meeting will take place in Seoul, South Korea. Famed magicienne Juliana Chen, originally a foot juggler from China who emigrated to the United States adorns her set with large Chinese umbrellas, silks, and other trappings as a backdrop to her extraordinary displays of ‘cardistry’.

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My own travels to China, Japan, and Mongolia have taught me much about the appreciation of magic in the Far East. I have performed in a street market in Shanghai, private dining rooms in Beijing, a dinner hosted by the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the most amazing whiskey bar in Fukuoka, Japan.

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Beyond magic, I have also noticed that Asian popular culture is vibrant and in many ways subverts its own history in playful and inventive ways. In China, tourists are free to purchase ‘the little red book’ Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and a variety of gifts that are adorned with pictures of Mao and other symbols of the Chinese Revolution. I have a collection of matchboxes, notebooks, and playing cards in this genre, where there remains an ambiguity about the true meaning and purpose of such artefacts.

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In return, much of western culture is appropriated in the East, such that processes of globalisation since the publication of Said’s book in 1979 may have challenged his view of the imperialist and hegemonic western project. Rather, the world has seen remarkable cultural miscegenation and a melange of symbols, images, customs, music, and ways of being that are inventive and in my view, healthy.

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I thus will continue to celebrate this ambiguity and vibrancy of multi-culturalism, and its subversive potential. I have featured Oriental inspired demonstrations in my stage shows over the years, and my new show SUBVERSION will continue to use magic as a means to communicate and frame these larger cultural questions, making us stop and think, while being baffled and entertained.

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