Last night I watched most of a discussion programme “chaired” (I’ll get to that) by Kirsty Wark on BBC2 television, about President Obama and how he is doing. It was something called The Review Show.
Three things struck me about this show.
First, the BBC is finally acknowledging that President Obama is in some political trouble. This is refreshing.
But second, the dominant explanations of why Obama is in trouble are delusional. There is, said Bonnie Greer, without contradiction, a racist backlash going on. Sadly, in BBC-land, if a black person accuses white people of racism, the accusation is still allowed to stand, no matter how unpersuasive it may be, and no matter how unsatisfactory it is as an explanation for whatever is being talked about.
The other dominant explanation for Obama’s fall from political grace, aside from racism, offered by a blond American lady who talked too fast, was that this backlash is “emotional”. Obama, she said, is making the mistake of concentrating entirely on being “rational” in how he responds, and we all know what wins when facts have a face-off with feelings. As for whether there is now a race-based backlash going on, how come those who are now backlashing were forward-lashing when they picked Obama to be President in the first place? For the question here is: what has changed? Why, in the opinion of many Americans, is a man who could do no wrong now doing a lot of wrong? Did a lot of Americans deliberately pick Obama, so that they could later hurl racist abuse at him? Come on. Obama’s presence in the White House is evidence that racism in America is abating. Millions upon millions of Americans wanted Obama to do well and were eager to give him a chance because he is black. But, they are now disappointed. Are they disappointed because he is black? Have they only just noticed? I can believe that racists are now coming out of the woodwork to explain why Obama is now screwing up. But racism as itself an explanation of why Obama is now so much less popular, and so quickly, is absurd. Insofar as race-based feelings are relevant, it was the enthusiastic willingness to see an apparently qualified black man, any apparently qualified black man, become President, followed by the realisation that mere blackness and mere intelligence is insufficient to ensure Presidential adequacy, picking a white man who merely looks and sounds nice being a similarly imperfect way to pick Presidents. No, Obama is now unpopular because, in the opinion of many Americans, he is indeed screwing up. They hoped he wouldn’t, but now, they think, he is.
As for the claim that this anti-Obama feeling is all about feeling, well, yes it is a feeling and many people are indeed angry, but it is also a very potent clutch of arguments. Obama is prioritising, as he did not in his campaign, his widely unpopular plan to nationalise healthcare, and lying about what this will cost. He is increasing taxes and regulations, in particular those based on the excuse of climate change. The idea that the objection to that whole rigmarole is all about feeling and in no way based on fact is, to put it with extreme politeness, a feeling rather than a fact. The idea that Obama is a communist was mentioned, by Bonnie Greer, but only as evidence of the complete irrationality of those now opposing Obama, as an illustration of what a certain sort of deluded white American suspects of all black people. But to a greater or lesser degree lots of Americans do now fear that Obama is something a lot like a communist, and they have plenty of good reasons for such a fear.
My third impression was that the chairing of this discussion was incompetent to the point of being ridiculous. Kirsty Wark should be giving a real talking-to. She was far too keen on joining in the discussion with her own opinions, instead of ensuring that all the other people present refrained from all talking at once. One of the reasons I immediately forgave the blond American lady for talking too fast was that she clearly feared that if she talked any less fast, she would not have made any of her points before others piled in, thereby making all points inaudible. One of the great arts of chairing a discussion is knowing when to stir things up by expressing opinions of your own, and when to concentrate on controlling the resulting flow of opinion in such a way that everyone gets their turn and is heard, and it can all be heard by all present. Wark behaved as if all present were too shy to say anything and had to be aroused with some chairmanly provocation. In fact, they all had plenty to say and needed to be arranged in a queue rather than a unanimous scrimmage. Kirsty Wark should, to use a tranport metaphor, have stopped flying her plane and concentrated on air traffic control.
As a result of this conversational chaos, the programme was hard to follow. So, don’t take my personal impressions as any sort of objective summary of all that was said.
Ironically, Wark’s incompetent chairing only served to reinforce the impression that the entire discussion was dominated by feeling rather than rationality. It wasn’t, or it wouldn’t have been. But that is what it sounded like.