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Las Vegas: the US is racked with impossible divisions over rights and freedoms

Todd Landman, University of Nottingham

In the immediate aftermath of the October 2 Las Vegas massacre – the US’s 273rd mass shooting in 2017 alone – it seems neither President Donald Trump nor his Republican colleagues will entertain a review of current gun legislation in America.

As is the norm at times like this, both sides of the gun control argument will simply trot out their usual pleas. As they did after the Sandy Hook massacre of elementary school children, gun control advocates will claim this new event is surely the tipping point required to finally get a sensible gun policy in place.

Gun ownership advocates, meanwhile, argue that these events are the work of unstable “lone wolves” who simply spin out of control. They will point to reports that Paddock used a device to convert his legal semi-automatic rifle into a fully automatic rifle as evidence that laws controlling ownership do not work, nor prevent people from killing each other. As disgraced former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly said in the aftermath of the attack, many consider this massacre and events like it to be the “price of freedom” in America.

But beyond the gun control debate, something deeper is at work here. I’d argue that between this tragedy, the O’Reilly comment, and several other events in the last few months, the contradictions among the many freedoms to which Americans lay claim are coming into sharp relief. As this highly polarised country enters a seemingly unresolvable moment of crisis, the conflict of rights is not new, but some of the deepest divisions of American society are suddenly on full display.

Speech and silence

The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects freedom of speech, a protection that some might argue the US has interpreted very liberally, even to include what many call hate speech.

Elements within the liberal left argue for tighter limits on the grounds that some forms of speech may make people feel uncomfortable. Some even take steps to enforce such limits themselves: they campaign to have speakers banned from university campuses, and some free speech events are even being forcibly shut down by the so-called Antifa – leading to cries from the conservative right that political correctness has run amok and that the liberal left is intolerant.

Many on the conservative right also argue for limits to free speech, but on the grounds that some forms of speech may desecrate national symbols such as the American flag or show disrespect for those who paid the ultimate price for American freedom. The “take a knee” controversy in the NFL is akin to the famous flag-burning case, where an act of civil disobedience to protest injustice in the US is considered unpatriotic.

President Obama’s reaction to this controversy last year was to show disdain for the act itself, but to understand that upholding the right to protest in this way underpins the very freedom for which the flag stands. Trump, on the other hand, has argued that the NFL teams should fire players for showing such disrespect.

Life and liberty

Then there’s the second amendment, which protects an individual’s right to bear arms. According to the gun lobby’s generous interpretation, this means that there should be no restrictions on the ability for individuals to acquire weapons, the firepower of those weapons, the amount of ammunition that can be purchased, and if new legislation is passed in Congress, the use of silencers. Any attempt to limit access is framed as an attempt to confiscate guns.

The liberal left, by contrast, sees unfettered access to guns as a threat to public safety and point to countless examples that show the benefits of gun control (the UK’s response to the Dunblane massacre, say, or Australia’s gun amnesties) as evidence that such measures reduce gun-related deaths. For many, it’s analogous to road safety legislation: seat belt laws, air bags, and reduced speed limits have all helped curb road fatalities.

Lastly, there’s the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade, which upheld a woman’s right to have an abortion on the basis of the right to privacy found in the US Constitution’s fifth amendment. The liberal left argues that abortion rights are about a woman’s right to choose to have a baby or not – that is, to have control over her own body.

The conservative right, meanwhile, argues that the right to life as set out in the fifth amendment and 14th amendment, in which no state “shall deprive any person the right to life”, is more sacrosanct than privacy or individual choice, and that it extends to the life of a gestating foetus.

Never compromise

On all these fronts, the opposing arguments start from incommensurate positions. As long as both sides come at the debate from those positions, they will rarely if ever agree or reach a compromise. And that sets the US up for years and decades of rancour, deadlock and mutual antipathy.

Arguments over the boundaries of free speech will continue unabated, vilifying civil disobedience and limiting legitimate speech across a wide range of events. The sanctity of guns and the second amendment mean that little to no progress can be expected on gun control, even in the face of the deadliest mass killing in recent memory. Many conservative-controlled states, acting under residual powers accorded to them under the US Constitution, will continue to chip away at abortion access using a wide range of restrictions.

The ConversationThere is little on the horizon to suggest how America can find its way through these paradoxes and contradictions. All the while, the level of public discourse, beset by the problems of social media, alternative news outlets, and a cacophony of yelling voices, is descending to a point well below the threshold of reason.

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.

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.

Magic in the Emerald City

Seattle is a seriously cool city!

Just a few blocks from my hotel is the Pike Place Market, which for those of you who have not been to the city is a wooden fish and produce market in the old style. But the fish and produce stalls have been joined by so many other shops and stalls that seem to celebrate all that is good with global diversity and human creativity.

One can get lost in the catacombs of the market and three floors of shops are distributed in a labyrinthine way with many twists and turns. Lunch at the Sound View comprised a fine BBQ salmon sandwich overlooking the Puget Sound.

Around the market are more shops and the original Starbucks. Outside on the street was an amazing blues trio called The Millionaire’s Club, featuring a Dobro player, a double bass, and clarinet…all suitably decked out in trad gear and playing smooth sounds…

The highlight for me, though, was a visit to the amazing Market Magic Shop, run by the talented and mysterious Sheila Lyon. Part magician, part politician, and part roving entertainer, Sheila has a warmth and magical glow about her that is bound to make any one feel special.

I was welcomed into the shop with open arms and before you could say abracadabra, my picture and short blog was posted about my arrival. Nice!

Looking forward to the many other delights this city has on offer!

In the land of Fraser

It is exciting to finally visit The Emerald City!

As an East Coast boy, I never got the chance to travel to the west coast of the US until I was in the UK. The Pacific Northwest looks superb and after a week in Wales, it was cool to fly in over the mountains yesterday and enjoy the drive in from the aiport to downtown Seattle with all the trees and water.

Ironically, I found myself in The White Horse pub last night on Post Alley in The Market area of the city.  This is a remarkable little place full of books, traditional ale, wine, and board games. Great place for magician to find himself!

The ambiance was outstanding last night and a barman that had quite a style about him.

For me, Seattle has always been the city of Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle), Fraser and Starbucks. Years of watching the antics of Fraser and Niles in this city from the comfort of our East Bergholt home has always been fun for my family, but it is great to finally see the city for itself.

I am here for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, which has the overall theme of The Politics of Rights.

I have the honour and good fortune to be taking part in a two round tables (one to celebrate the work of David P. Forsythe and one to commemorate the work of the late Richard Claude who inspired much of my work on human rights measurement), a panel on human rights institutions, and an awards luncheon as Chair of the Committee for the Gabriel Almond Award for the Best Dissertation in Comparative Politics.

It is a welcome development that the APSA recognises the importance of rights as a fundamental concern of political science, as I have long argued that it is possible to have a political science of human rights, where systematic empirical methods can be applied to normative questions such as the relationship between the citizen and the state.

One need only look at the dramatic changes in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 to see the importance of rights, the language of rights being used by many involved in the struggle against tyranny, and the politics of rights as new governments are formed and countries undergo the next phases in what appear to be significant transitional challenges toward more accountable government.

Catching up with great friends and colleagues here, including some of my PhD students from Essex who are now making their way successfully into the world.

It is good to be back in America.

Tabula Mentis IX

I am delighted that Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers is hosting Barrie Richardson, author of numerous mentalist essays, routines, effects and books, most notably the Theatre of the Mind volumes for its Tabula Mentis IX at the Milton Theatre at the University of Huddersfield.

The event takes place 17 April and all details can be obtained by clicking the banner below!

The Arizona Shootings

I was dismayed and saddened yet again that there has been another tragic shooting in America. The investigation after the event shows that the prime suspect had been planning the attack for some time. While it is very difficult to investigate events before they happen through intelligence gathering and monitoring the web, it is possible to limit access to the kind of gun that was used for this tragedy.

The NRA and gun lobby remind us that ‘guns do not kill people, people kill people.’ But weaponry is not irrelevant. Weaponry is a tool that raises the capacity of the attacker and gives him or her the kind of material capability that can lead to death. The probability of death resulting from firearms is much higher than other weaponry. Limiting access to weaponry alongside good intelligence are the two main things that can be done to reduce the probability of events such as this playing out in the ways that they do.

In the UK, handguns for personal use were banned after the Dunblane masscare of schoolchildren, and there was some domestic political opposition, but the logic of the argument was strong and persuasive. It did appear that there was more domestic opposition to the ban on fox hunting with hounds than the ban on handguns.

Does the UK have gun crime? Yes. Do people get killed as a result of gun crime? Yes. But the per capita murder rate by handguns is dramatically lower than in the US.

The 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution protects the right to bear arms. It was written in the 18th Century shortly after Independence as was meant to provide a means for the new American states to raise a citizen militia to defend the new nation. In the 21st Century, America has a modern military, and national guard, police, FBI, ATF among other agencies to protect the citizenry.

Other parts of the US Constitution have been revised through subsequent Amendments, such as the 14th Amendment, which applied the equal protection clause to all states and paved the way for the historic Brown v Board of Education decision that ended formal racial segregation. The 22nd Amendment limits the terms of Presidents to two terms of four years after the fourth electoral victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

With these and many other examples of the US Constitution growing and evolving with technological and philosophical advances, can it not be changed for the access to guns? Yes, the gun lobby is strong and yes some of their arguments about personal defence and liberty are persuasive, but a relatively unfettered access to guns makes events like Sunday’s tragedy in Arizona almost inevitable.

Daniel Libeskind to design the IDCR building!


Visionary architect to design international beacon for democracy

World-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind has been chosen to design a landmark building in the UK to house a new international institute working towards democracy and conflict resolution around the globe.

The new Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (IDCR) at the University of Essex will build on the University’s 40 years of practical and academic expertise in the field of human rights, justice and governance, and become an international beacon for democracy.

It will be the largest purpose-built institute for independent research and policy analysis in these areas, drawing on Essex’s experience as the top ranked University in the UK for social science research.

Daniel Libeskind, who won the competition to design the master plan for the new World Trade Center site in New York, has designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen. He studied for a Master’s degree in the history and theory of architecture at the University of Essex in the 1970s.

Daniel and his wife Nina Libeskind have a passionate interest in work which promotes democracy and conflict resolution, and have pledged their support to the University’s fundraising campaign for the Institute.

Professor Todd Landman, Director of the IDCR, said: “The focus of this newly-formed Institute will be unique in combining rigorous social scientific research and policy analysis with practical experience and attention to democracy, human rights and justice.

“We are delighted that Daniel Libeskind has been chosen to design the iconic building we need to expand and develop our embryonic work. The building will evoke a powerful reaction from visitors, while conveying the seriousness and purpose of an international institute.”

The multi-million pound building will provide accommodation for researchers, training, lectures, seminars and consultancy activities, and at its heart will be a moot court, to enable participants to take part in simulated court proceedings. It will anchor the University of Essex’s new Knowledge Gateway research park, an expansion of its Colchester Campus. It will provide space for organisations ranging from policy institutes, law firms and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to work with academics and practitioners.

Professor Landman explained: “IDCR is already working with international and national partner organisations and developing a profile of work with societies in need of assistance in areas such as parliamentary strengthening and assessing the quality of democratic governance. We can only meet the growing demand for this work by developing purpose-built facilities designed to help organisations to work together to develop lasting solutions.”

Daniel Libeskind said: “I consider it an honor to be involved in a project with such visionary humanitarian objectives. I have always believed that democratic openness and conflict resolution is critical not only in the political sphere but in the making of architectural space.”

Experts from the University of Essex have held a number of key positions in the United Nations including the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, senior adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and member of the UN Human Rights Committee. The University’s legal experts have conducted cases in Strasbourg, establishing far-reaching precedents that have shaped the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

The University’s Human Rights Centre, which was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2010 for its work in advancing human rights, has trained more than 1,500 students from more than 100 countries. They too work for international organisations including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Essex graduates also work in the field in conflict-torn countries including Bosnia, Kosovo, Nepal and Sudan.