What I’m Reading: Disarmed

Kristin A. Goss, Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

When I was in high school, my friend Rachael took me along to see Bowling for Columbine (2002) at a little independent movie theater in Mount Vernon, Washington. I wasn’t particularly aware of the gun control vs. gun rights debate before watching that movie, but that movie made me realize that America’s gun culture wasn’t normal. Like Michael Moore’s 2007 film Sicko about the healthcare debate, this movie used a comparative approach to show that ‘the way things are’ in America isn’t the way they are in other countries.

The recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings drove that point home again, powerfully–this doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s not normal. “American exceptionalism” is evidenced in the government’s impotent attitude toward gun violence.

Growing up in the States, I knew people who owned guns–deer hunters, people (white men, to be specific) who wanted them for “self-protection” (which I’ve never understood–protection from what? Why do I feel safe without a gun, even in sketchy areas, but a tall, athletic guy I knew needed a gun to feel as safe as I do?). When I lived in the States, I didn’t think to question the Second Amendment and I took gun rights for granted.

Now, after a decade living in the UK, a country that banned handguns after the Dunblane, Scotland school shooting in 1986, my views on gun control no longer have a place in American politics. Even the most progressive Democrats believe in upholding the Second Amendment. Their current proposals are “the boldest language used in 20-25 years”, but they’re still not banning assault weapons, much less handguns.

Much of the academic literature on America’s gun debate centres on explaining why the NRA/gun lobby is so powerful and well-organised. Goss turns that question around to ask why the gun control advocates are so weak and ineffective. Where is the “missing movement for gun control”, as she calls it? Part of the answer lies in the American policy-making system, which makes national change difficult without large-scale mobilisation–and the necessary degree of mobilisation just hasn’t been seen on the gun control side, to overpower (or even compete against) the gun rights side.

Her book is part of my literature review for the study I’m doing on gun debate discourse post-Parkland, so I’m interested in this idea of mobilisation. The March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018 was, arguably, the kind of grassroots mobilisation that gun control advocates needed in order to get gun policy reform passed. But did it? What has changed since Parkland, in terms of actual policy?

As part of my study, I’ve been coding Congressional Twitter over the month after the Parkland shooting, so I’m familiar with all of the policy proposals that were circulating in those early days and weeks. They were, unsurprisingly, polarized. On the right, it was mostly arming teachers and increasing school security, while on the left it was a range of proposals–Fix NICS (improving the background check system), universal background checks, banning assault weapons, gun violence restraining orders, etc. The STOP School Violence Act passed with bipartisan support, but its proposals were a first step rather than comprehensive reform, and it had nothing to do with gun control. For several Republican members of Congress, their only mentions of Parkland or the gun debate were a “thoughts & prayers” tweet on 14 February, then a tweet about their support of the STOP act when it passed on 14 March. After seeing that pattern, over and over (and some “NRA A-grade” congresspeople didn’t mention it at all), I’m a bit cynical about policy change, and about the state of the gun debate in general.

Goss, however, is impressed by the March for our Lives movement and the current state of mobilization on the gun control side.

“The movement is much broader and better resourced and more pragmatic and strategic than it has been in the 20 years I’ve been studying it,” Goss said.

” One year later, experts say Parkland was ‘turning point’ in gun debate”, 14 February 2019

The same article pointed out a range of new laws and regulations at the state level, in 26 states and D.C.:

  • Seven states enacted extensions or improvements of background checks
  • Nine states and D.C. enacted laws banning the use of bump stocks and trigger activators
  • Five states tightened concealed carry laws
  • Eleven states passed laws to help keep firearms away from domestic abusers
  • Eight states and D.C. passed extreme risk protection order statutes
  • Four states passed new restrictions on firearm purchases by those under 21
  • Nine states passed laws to fund urban gun violence reduction programs

The list gave me some hope. 26 states is a majority, even though it’s a very slim one. I suspect those lefty, urbanised states include quite a lot more than 50% of the US population (I think a lot of people forget how massive California’s population is–one in eight Americans lives in California!). I think Goss’s observation about sustained mobilisation still rings true today, though–gun control advocates need to be as organised, high-profile and noisy as the gun rights side are with the NRA. They have a lot more money and influence of course, but as Goss points out, large-scale grassroots movements have changed things before–the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, etc. The challenge is going to be translating popular support into mass mobilization. In a poll from last week, 90% of Americans support universal background checks for all gun purchases and nearly 70% support an assault-style weapons ban. It’s amazing to hear about that kind of consensus in our divided “red vs. blue” politics. The American people actually agree on some of the major proposals. Now they just need to care about advocating for them as much as the NRA cares about expanding gun rights…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Soft Power Reassessed

Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:

From: Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter and Janell Fetterolf, U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership, Pew Research Center, 26 June 2017, p. 4

It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.

Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.

“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”

From: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, Project Syndicate, 6 May 2019

Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.

I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.

What I’m Reading: Rewire

A colleague who studies social media passed this book onto me–I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t realise how surprisingly relevant to exchange diplomacy it would be, too. Zuckerman points to the example of his friend Johan Ugander, who co-authored a paper on international ties on Facebook. As a Swedish-American, he has more international ties than a typical social media user. This has knock-on effects, in terms of exposing those in their social networks to news and other shared content from different places. In exchange diplomacy, this is really part of the ‘multiplier effect’, where exchange participants pass on their knowledge gains post-sojourn to those in their social circles.

“People like Ugander who’ve lived their lives in different corners of the world are likely the key if we want social media to give us a broad view of the world and help us care about people we don’t otherwise know. With a Swedish citizen in my network of friends, I’m likely to be exposed to news and perspective I otherwise would have missed. Whether that exposure turns into interest and attention is a function of my receptivity and Johan’s ability to provide context around the news he’s sharing.”

Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), p. 116

Exchange diplomacy is all about connection and cosmopolitanism. The underlying logic of exchange diplomacy is that connections between people of different nations/groups/ways of thinking will lead to a sense of shared humanity and a cosmopolitan mindset.

Has the ease with which we can connect digitally with others around the world made the face-to-face connections of exchange diplomacy obsolete?

I would argue that it hasn’t at all, because there is a gap between the potential to connect digitally and the actual ways we use these digital tools. We may be able to access platforms that enable discussion with foreign publics, but we don’t necessarily use them. Our online social networks mirror our offline friendship circles, and we develop filter bubbles just as we spend time with like-minded people in real life.

Furthermore, exchange diplomacy processes might be enhanced with the development of social media, not rendered irrelevant by them. As Zuckerman suggests, world travellers might play an important role in broadening online networks and making them more cosmopolitan–if we have a personal connection, a friend-of-a-friend, then news about a distant country we’ve never visited can feel more relevant and meaningful.

What I’m Reading: Outsmarting Apartheid

Before reading this, I already suspected that South Africa would be an interesting case study in the Fulbright Program–their history, politics and culture make their international relationships both challenging and vital, especially during the four decades covered by this book. I also already knew the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbrighter who was tragically killed in South Africa, and I included her in my book chapter on Fulbright women. I could see why South Africa merited its own volume of Fulbright stories, and now that I’ve read it, I suspect there are even more out there just as fascinating.

My favorite interview was with Klaas Skosana, a Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria during the late 1990’s. He has a great perspective and picked up on so many themes that other interviewees (and other studies of exchange diplomacy) touch on, too. In addition to his work at the Embassy, he also went on a short-term exchange to the U.S., a month-long ‘study tour’. I’ve always been a little skeptical about these brief visits, and wondered how much participants can really get out of them. His reflections on that short visit, though, are not in isolation–they are a part of a larger body of experiences and knowledge about international relations and intercultural communication. That brief trip may not mean a great deal in and of itself, but it needs to be understood in that bigger context.

“Personally, I benefited from the study tour, and it was only thirty-one days. But it is like I spent years in the U.S., because I was exposed to various parts of the U.S. I knew that when I was walking down the street of Washington, DC, the chances of meeting somebody who had a PhD were great…I saw a list of people that I sent to the United States and what positions they are occupying today, and I think they all have positive things to say about what they have seen in the U.S. You take what you can from a country. You cannot focus on everything about a country, but fix your brain on a few aspects, and you will remember them forever…I think that the U.S. intervention was commendable, and it did, in many ways, ‘outsmart’ aparthaied because it exposed people to various perspectives.”

Whitman D (ed) (2014) Outsmarting Apartheid, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 296

This book was a long-neglected read–according to my Amazon account history, I bought it in February 2015! It’s been sitting in my bookshelf’s section for “This will be useful for revising and publishing my dissertation” books, and I hadn’t read it because I’ve made little progress on that project over the past four years. But it’s never too late–as my finally reading this book shows, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s always hope for neglected projects.

What I’m Reading

Image result for becoming

Michelle Obama’s memoir was the book of 2018–even before Oprah picked it for her book club, it was a huge bestseller. I added it to my wishlist as a pre-order, and my sister and I both bought it for each others’ birthdays in Nov/Dec! I’m about halfway through, and I adore it. She’s a fantastic writer and storyteller, and her tone is everything you’d expect from her. She’s brilliant yet relatable, down to earth yet Ivy League educated. Her stories of the South Side of Chicago and her youth outreach work make you realise how much untapped talent there is out there, how many brilliant people don’t get the opportunities that would enable them to shine–and how many people like her are doing inspiring, empowering work that never gets heard about because they don’t happen to be married to Presidents.

Oprah once said that whatever you do, to be excellent and “make excellence your brand”. Michelle’s behind-the-scenes account shows that the Obama family did just that–they knew that as the first African-American First Family, they had to be excellent, that one slip could undermine them and that they would be even more vulnerable to criticism than other First Families. The Obamas succeeded. No scandals, no corruption, no slip-ups. Michelle is relieved to be out of the White House, but the millions of people around the world now reading her book can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Obama White House’s excellence.

What I’m Reading

born a crime

I recently finished reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, and it is crazy. He was interviewed about it on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast, so I knew a bit about his story–starting with the meaning behind the title. He was a mixed race baby in apartheid South Africa, which criminalised interracial relationships, so he was “evidence” of his parents’ crime. It feels very outdated, reading about these anti-miscegenation laws today, but it wasn’t that long ago–he was born in 1984! I knew he was young, but I didn’t realize he was quite that young–and I think I also didn’t realize how recent (and crazy) apartheid was. Watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it all felt very long ago–but he only died in 2013.

Trevor Noah’s voice comes through clearly–he’s brilliant, insightful, funny, down-to-earth, and just comes across on the page like he does on The Daily Show. This clip captures a lot of the flavor of the book:

It’s full of stories from his childhood and what they meant in terms of shaping his life and worldview. His mother comes across as the heroine of the story–you find yourself rooting for her, laughing at her sense of humor, feeling amazed at her determination and drive. She’s an amazing woman.

The book’s also made me want to learn more about South Africa. I have a book on the South African Fulbright program, Outsmarting Apartheid, on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to finishing, but it’s a particularly interesting case study. When the US government was distancing itself from apartheid-era South Africa in other ways (i.e. imposing sanctions), they still maintained educational and cultural exchanges. It’s a great example of exchange diplomacy being used to work around the official government channels and reach the people directly.

In my research on Fulbright women, I came across the story of Amy Biehl, a law scholar and activist who worked with the African National Congress during the transition to democracy. She was tragically killed in political violence, and now having read Trevor Noah’s description of the townships, I can better understand what happened and why. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s important to recognise that this kind of violence wasn’t exclusive to Amy. She wasn’t necessarily targeted for being white or American or an ‘outsider’, as I’d assumed. Noah describes widespread violence in the townships, with fighting taking place amongst different groups of locals, too. In-fighting was one of the ways the architects of apartheid controlled the majority population. If you fight amongst each other, you won’t fight those who are keeping you down–a good lesson with continued relevance for class warfare, activist movements, etc.