Depressing (but necessary) research

After I did my Master’s dissertation on the London 7/7 bombings, I thought I’d pursue a more cheerful subject with exchange diplomacy. Doing content analysis of the press coverage of the bombings was very depressing–I spent the summer coding 826 articles about the attack, and although I found the literature on the media and terrorism fascinating, it’s not very fun.

So I spent the next few years looking at exchanges and reading uplifting anecdotes about scholars who had a brilliant time overseas on their Fulbright grants. I interviewed enthusiastic participants and program administrators who praised it to the hilt and were happy to talk about it to anybody who would listen. I looked through archive boxes full of thank you letters to Senator Fulbright and read about the range of transformational and positive experiences they’d had. Even the most cynical and critical scholar would be persuaded that there must be something to exchange diplomacy after all of that.

But terrorism still exists. Violence is still a pressing issue, and I’m still drawn to researching things that matter to me–right now, it’s gun violence in America.

A few months ago, I started a new project to look at (what I assumed would be) the shifting rhetoric around guns in America in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. I’m presenting my work-in-progress at a conference on Thursday, and I have to admit that it’s way more depressing than my master’s research was. This morning I was reading up on Sandy Hook for some background and context, and reading the accounts of 6-year old survivors is absolutely heartbreaking. I sat in my office and cried while reading–this is just beyond imagination. And America/Congress/NRA/politicians, etc. are letting it happen over and over, without changing a damn thing.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, I thought something had changed. The March For Our Lives movement, led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who survived the shooting, looked like something new, something we hadn’t seen before–a real stand against gun violence, with media coverage and support from (some) public officials.

But has anything changed? I decided to look at legislators’ Twitter feeds over the month following the shooting–all US Senators and Representatives’ verified accounts from 14 February to 15 March, the day after the national school walkout. I’m still coding tweets, but so far, I’m seeing:

  • Cliche “thoughts and prayers” from Congress members of both parties
  • Republicans saying we should heighten school security, arm the teachers and address mental health
  • Democrats criticising Congressional inaction (despite the fact they’re also members of Congress), arguing against arming teachers, and praising student activists
  • Most of the tweets (from both parties) are NOT about guns at all. They’re about tax reform, immigration, Billy Graham’s death and Dodd-Frank banking regulations.

This project is also why I’m particularly interested in the election today. It’s the big test–will voters re-elect politicians who said nothing, who did nothing in the aftermath of the shooting? Will they punish them by voting for change? I’m curious to see what’s going to happen, and I’m very happy for the Parkland survivors who are now 18 and able to vote for the first time.

Advertisements

Election Day

Overlapping deadlines and teaching have kept me away from the blog recently, but I couldn’t let today go by without writing about the election.

It’s always a strange experience to watch the election from overseas–I’ve been here for 3 Presidential elections and today makes my third midterm. Despite having been through so many elections over here, it’s still surprising how much news coverage is devoted to US politics in the UK. It’s on the BBC every day. The BBC Facebook page cover photo features Emma Gonzalez, Gloria Allred at a #MeToo demonstration, and Trump.

bbc facebook

In 2010 I got a taste of comparative grassroots politics first-hand–I interned and canvassed for my local MP in Leeds during the UK general election, then canvassed in the summer for my senator and representative in Washington state ahead of the US midterm. People typically don’t care as much about midterms as they do for Presidential elections–turnout is always much lower, and it was particularly skewed towards older, conservative voters in 2010. Samantha Bee did a fantastic piece on it during the primaries in 2016:

This piece highlights the problem of voter apathy–the feeling disconnected and unengaged, of thinking that voting doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t make a difference.

It’s also well established that certain demographics are far less likely to vote than others, and they track closely with class status. Jonathan Nagler, the director of New York University’s Politics Data Center, told the New York Times last month that more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans turn out to vote, compared with about 40 percent of Americans who do not hold high school degrees.

“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and social policy expert, said in the same article. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”

It’s something my students discussed last week in a seminar on the public sphere. Nancy Fraser‘s critique of Habermas pointed out that some voices don’t get included–when the public sphere is dominated by college-educated, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, male, WASP voices, it’s to the exclusion of other voices–the working class, LGBTQ+, women, people of colour, disabled, immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, etc.

Obviously I have certain causes and candidates that I want to win tonight, but my biggest hope, as with every election, is that people VOTE. I don’t want to see a repeat of this map, created by Philip Kearney. Just look at Arizona and West Virginia…Shocking. And the US goes around the world preaching about democracy…

apathy.png

It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens tonight!

 

The symbolic power of the Nobel Peace Prize

Last Friday,  Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were announced as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

Dou34A1XsAApft4

Before the announcement, there had been speculation that Trump and/or Kim Jong Un and/or Moon Jae-In could win it for their efforts to end the decades-long conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Republican lawmakers wrote to the Nobel committee to nominate Trump, and Moon Jae-In suggested Trump should win it last April. I’m so relieved they didn’t go there. There are so many reasons why Trump shouldn’t be a Nobel laureate–and many of them are highlighted in the laureates who were chosen.

The Nobel committee chose to honor people who campaign against sexual violence, specifically the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Mukwege is a doctor who helps victims, and Murad is a survivor who has spoken out for other victims. Their stories are inspiring and heartbreaking, and they absolutely deserve to be better known–their causes deserve this kind of recognition and publicity.

Looking over a list a previous Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you can see the symbolic power of the prize–how it designates what issues matter, which voices ought to be heard and better known, who we should be paying attention to.

Sometimes it’s very specific, focusing on one country at one specific point in time, such as the 2015 award to the National Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Sometimes it coincides with an anniversary, like the 2012 award to the European Union on its 60th anniversary.

Sometimes, it’s a thinly veiled political statement. We saw that in 2009, when it was awarded to Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. At the time, he hadn’t done anything yet–he was a lawyer and community organizer, a law professor, a State Senator and a junior U.S. Senator, and had only been President for 8 months when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He wrote a couple of brilliant bestselling books, made some fantastic speeches, but in terms of actually taking action beyond words, the award was really premature. The main justification seemed to be that he was an inspiring figure who promoted peace and international cooperation. As much as I loved him, I’ll admit that Obama wasn’t an obvious choice. It was clearly political.

In the same way, the decision to highlight campaigners who fight sexual violence is the Nobel Committee’s way of saying #BelieveWomen. It’s a decision not to celebrate a work-in-progress peace agreement between North and South Korea, but rather to honor the achievements of a doctor who’s devoted his career to helping victims of sexual violence, and to honor a woman who has overcome human trafficking and sexual violence, not just surviving it but speaking out for others affected by it. Instead of honoring a politician who’s been accused of sexual violence (and who’s actually bragged about it in a recording we all heard before the 2016 election), the Nobel Committee chose to honor the victims and those who help them.

Vive la resistance!

 

What the Kavanaugh hearings look like from afar

I’ve been following the confirmation hearings closely this week. As I follow a lot of American journalists & politicians on social media, it’s not surprising that the hearings are the top story everyone seems to be talking about.

What is surprising is the fact that it’s also been a huge news story here. The TV in the foyer of my department always shows BBC News, and I keep seeing live coverage of the hearings when I go to and from my office. Last night I was at an event with a mixed international group of friends (Brazil, Bulgaria, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Chile, etc.) and I spoke with some of the other women about the hearings, and about sexual harassment & sexual assault more generally. Everybody’s watching, and I don’t think Americans are really aware of that.

This morning I saw an article in The New York Times with that very title–a quotation from a reader in Belgium, “I don’t think people in the US know how closely we’re watching this”. My favorite comment came from a New Zealander:

“I have visited America more times than I can count and always loved the country, and most of the people I met were friendly, welcoming and open. I watch in despair as America slides back into the Dark Ages and loses its reputation on the international stage. It is really very sad seeing America implode.”

It feels like the stakes are very high now, in the age of Trump and #metoo. During the 2016 campaign, Trump faced many accusations of sexual assault (there’s even a Wikipedia entry to keep track of them all), and even a recording of him boasting about sexual assault released before the election–and still, 62 million people voted for him.

The #metoo movement has shifted the way (most) media talk about sexual assault, and it’s shaping the way a lot of people think about their own experiences, and those of people they know and love, friends and family members–because when half of the people on your social media feed are sharing #metoo stories, you realize how common sexual harassment and sexual assault really are.

We recently watched Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma again, for the first time in many years. As a child, I loved it–my favorite character was Ado Annie and I used to sing “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” without really understanding what the lyrics meant. I just thought they were funny, because my family always laughed when I sang it!

Watching it now, in the context of #metoo, I found it much scarier and more disturbing than I ever did as a child. When Laurey is sitting in that wagon with Jud Fry, you can feel how nervous she is. The tension is palpable. She’s thinking, “what have I gotten myself into?” and blaming herself because she told Jud she would go to the party with him (before she caught him peeping into her bedroom–another horrible scene). If anything happens (and it did, of course), she only has herself to blame because she put herself in the situation. That’s the story that victims tell themselves, and that’s why victims don’t tell anybody about their assault, for months, years or even for the rest of their lives.

Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell anybody because she was afraid of getting in trouble for being at that party, where no parents were around, for having a beer at age 15, for putting herself in that situation.

When she realized Trump expected her to have sex with him, Stormy Daniels reportedly thought she deserved it for putting herself in that situation:

“I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe… I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”

 

In Oklahoma, Laurey escapes from Jud and finds help at the party–her aunt desperately tries to keep the bidding going when Jud stubbornly outbids everyone else for Laurey’s picnic basket, and Curly, the man she actually loves, sacrifices everything he owns to be the highest bidder. When a grateful Laurey tells Curly about Jud’s attack, he believes her.

He doesn’t say, “Well, you did choose to ride alone with him in his wagon,” or ask “What were you wearing? You were dressed up for a party–don’t you think that you were asking for it?”

Instead, Curly asks Laurey to marry him. He wants to protect her from Jud and prevent anything like that ever happening again (male guardianship is thus presented as the only way to prevent sexual harassment and assault, but putting the patriarchy aside…it’s a nice moment).

The #metoo movement is about honoring survivors’ stories. The new hashtag going around, #BelieveWomen, captures this idea perfectly. Rather than doubting and questioning their accounts, or accusing them of complicity (by wardrobe or drinking or “putting themselves in a bad situation”), it asks us to trust that they are fully capable of accurately interpreting events. They know what happened, and if it’s explained away as “horseplay”, “banter”, “Boys will be boys”, then the terrible acts committed against them are just being reinforced over and over again. The perpetrators are being protected and honored every time we choose not to believe victims’ stories–and there’s no greater honor than a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth.

Montenegro and the role of values & culture in diplomacy

One of the stranger international affairs headlines (apart from Steven Seagal’s envoy appointment) in recent weeks was Trump’s criticism of Montenegro in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. It was part of his criticism of NATO and Article 5 (which has only ever been invoked by the US), but it seemed particularly out-of-left-field, even for Trump.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” (Politico’s coverage)

There are a lot of issues with this, obviously, but rather than spending time picking apart Trump’s bizarre statement, I’d like to highlight the way the UK ambassador talks about and with Montenegro as a point of contrast.

HMA Alison Kemp recently spoke at a panel marking the 140th anniversary of UK-Montenegro relations. In her remarks, she emphasised the role of culture in international relations:  “In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. ” The anniversary celebration events include cultural diplomacy activities, including a Montenegrin art exhibition and concerts in London and a Play UK festival in Podgorica.

Kemp’s speech gave some interesting insights into the Government’s current mindset and approach to world affairs, which have often been obscured by the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, the gaffes that often seem to happen when Brits are around Chinese delegations, and the sideshow of last month’s Trump visit. I also particularly liked her thoughts on the role of culture & values in diplomacy more generally–very much in line with the “humanising IR” approach:

“As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.”–Ambassador Alison Kemp, 27 June 2018

Early Career Academics and the Game

A recent study looked at managerialism in academia, and staff resistance & compliance to “the game”–the competitive regime that pits academics against each other in a race to gain publications, funding and positive performance reviews. The authors used an Australian university as a case study, where the structure had recently changed and the rules of the game had become a bit more intense–many staff left after its introduction, to be replaced with Early Career Academics (ECAs) on fixed-term contracts. The authors found little resistance to the managerialism; most staff quietly complied or left the University. ECAs, they found, were committed to playing the game and focused on accruing capital (publications, grants, etc.) to help themselves perform well in the game.

I read the article and blog post about it on LSE’s Impact Blog, and come away from it wondering what the alternative is. We ECAs are being accused of being complicit in this system, but what choice do we have? I’ve been struggling to play the game, because at the moment I lack the capital (publications) to compete with my colleagues, but I don’t know what else I can do. An academic CV doesn’t look right for jobs outside of the academy, with my extra years spent in higher education leaving me essentially inexperienced and fresh out of university when I was 28.

Why do ECAs play the game?

1) Because we feel that we have to–there’s no alternative available to us at the moment.

2) Because even though academia is changing, it’s still a really desirable lifestyle. It’s worth it.

3) Because we love what we do, and society’s always telling us to do what we love. Again, on balance, it’s judged to be worth it.

IVLP in The Economist

One of the U.S. State Department’s largest, oldest exchange diplomacy programs, the International Visiting Leader Program (IVLP) was profiled in The Economist last week:

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/07/05/americas-amateur-diplomats

The article emphasises the role of host country volunteers–ordinary, everyday people who welcome visitors from other countries, and ultimately influence the visitors’ perceptions of the host country. One volunteer called the experience “surrogate travel”, because you get an opportunity to interact with people from other countries and learn about foreign cultures without actually leaving home. In my own experience, I know I’ve learned a great deal about parts of the world I’ve never visited from my students and colleagues–and perhaps I’ve provided some “surrogate travel” to the U.S. for some of them without realising it!

For more on the IVLP, Giles Scott-Smith’s Networks of Empire (2008) and article on Margaret Thatcher’s IVLP experience (2003) are brilliant.