Friday, 18 September 2009

In defence of Daniel Hannan

Regular readers will know that Next Left will yield to nobody in its intellectual engagement, challenge and serious scrutiny of the exotic creed that is Hannanism.

But I must report that the exotic, Peruvian-born, Brussels-based and Iceland-obsessed hero of the British Conservative grassroots and American libertarians has been unfairly treated today by the Daily Mirror - and also by those who have followed this up, including my friends and allies Alex Smith of LabourList and Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy.

The source is this post on Hannan's Telegraph blog, which the Mirror report badly misrepresents.

While I would characterise the protests at Obama's health policies rather differently to Hannan, the basic argument of his post is sound: it is that the right should acknowledge that there is some racism in the opposition to Obama, as is obviously true, and that the left should acknowledge that not all of it is, as you might think equally self-evident.

None of this would be worth stating had Jimmy Carter not made the questionable claim that "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American".

Had Carter confined himself to saying that the "birther" conspiracy is racist in motivation and effect then he would be right - and making a valuable point about this rabid nonsense.

Yet Carter's claim - that "overwhelming portion" - goes too far.

And it is bad politics too. The last thing that Obama needs is a debate polarised around the question "is it racist to oppose Obama on health?". The answer to that is obviously no - though there are some racists who oppose Obama on health and everything else.

Hannan is basically conceding part of Carter's point, while warning against the over-generalisation.

Yet Hannan is being attacked for going on to suggest that some of those who are not straightforwardly racist are somewhat uncomfortable with Obama's difference and have a sense that he is not a "regular guy". The charge is that he suggests these views are understandable or natural - yet he also goes on to state that they lead to "disreputable" attacks, such as the "birther" controversy.

Acknowledging the existence of racism, or discomfort about race and difference, is not to excuse or support it. I think it is simply to misread Hannan's column to suggest that this is what he is doing. Racism exists and certainly should be challenged strongly. But doing that effectively surely depends on making that serious charge very carefully - and I see no case whatsoever for implying that this is Hannan's meaning or motivation here.

And I am sure that political opponents can find plenty to challenge, contest and debunk in the content of actually existing Hannanism without attributing to him bogeyman views without providing any decent evidence that he holds them.

Moreover, there must be something in this analysis of reaction to Obama too. This was, after all, a major issue for the Obama campaign, precisely because it could not succeed if the candidate were to become defined primarily by his race, and because the candidate and his campaign are aware that America can not be described as a post-racial society.

The Obama campaign refused to discuss this during the campaign - beyond saying that the campaign was not defined by the candidate's race - but their strategy for dealing with the issue was dissected in an excellent and informative post-election piece by Stephen Ambinder, Race Over?, in the Atlantic last January, (and briefly reported here on Next Left a the time:

The Obama campaign faced a fundamental challenge: it had to make those pilsners of the Democratic electorate—true independents, Reagan Democrats, and working-class whites—culturally comfortable with Obama while simulta neously increasing African American participation. To do this, Obama would have to decouple a century’s worth of political antagonisms. Because whenever the political engagement and intensity of African American voters have grown, so has racial polarity among voters
Belcher’s polling confirmed that culturally anxious whites were willing to vote for a black candidate so long as they did not meditate on the candidate’s blackness.

Indeed, Obama succeeded in defining his personal story as a very American narrative (as Hannan acknowledges), where Dukakis and John Kerry (and perhaps Al Gore) had failed to rebut the (rather disreputable) charges that they were in various ways - too liberal, too multilateralist ('French'), too smart - somewhat unAmerican.

Where I disagree with Hannan is in his characterisation of the protests of the US right, as a civically motivated concern about the role of government.

Of course there is a legitimate argument about healthcare, the role of government and much else. But a great deal of the US right is prosecuting its argument in a highly irrational and disreputable way, with very little interest in the difference between fact and fiction.

That is why intelligent conservatives such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan are in despair about the Palinesque debasing of basic standards of political reason among too many American conservatives, with the latter asking why the US right does not have "a functional and serious conservative movement in this country - instead of a Poujadist mob of cynical know-nothings"

But this shift in the US right may have less to do with Obama's race as his politics.

The growing polarisation of US politics has seen an increasing willingness to disregard any sense of the basic respect due to the institution of the office of the Presidency, which is something conservatives have tended to think important.

This was a marked feature of the Clinton years - and of the extreme right-wing rage at Hillary Clinton too.

The right might well argue this was fully reciprocated under George W Bush - and they would have a point - though the nature of the 2000 election and the sheer administrative incompetence might be pleaded in mitigation.

Obama aspired to transcend this polarisation. Right now, that seems an excessively audacious hope. Still I wouldn't be surprised if he does turn out to have changed the tone of US politics if he governs until 2016. He might even have changed the way Americans think and talk about race too - and some of that might have an impact on this side of the Atlantic.

But it is coming to something when former Speaker Newt Gingrich had to emerge as the voice of reason to calm a right-wing frenzy claiming that an entirely non-partisan Obama speech to school students amounting to Communist indoctrination.

So is it because he is black?

Surely, sometimes, part of it is.

But, perhaps somewhat more often, it is because he is liberal.


Complexities said...


Leslie said...

Excellent blog post. Daniel Hannan is too easy a target for those looking to accuse the Tories of being racists.
See Young Contrarian on the issue: