After Trump, the natural hope is that America’s second Catholic Presidency may attract some of the Camelot talent of Kennedy’s first. That looks as imaginary as the Arthurian legend. Jo Biden will be surrounded by bright, successful lawyers like Anthony Blinken, an experienced diplomat in the role of new US Secretary of State. Only in television dramas are lawyers noted for thinking outside the box.
Kamala Harris as Vice-President also brings a sharp legal mind to the White House and Linda Thomas Greenfield, an African-American from Louisiana, brings her considerable diplomatic experience in Africa to the role of ambassador to the United Nations. With Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban-American, as head of Homeland Security, retired- General Lloyd Austin as first black Secretary of Defence at the Pentagon, John Kerry dealing with Climate Change, and Janet Yellen (Polish Jewish) as treasury secretary, Biden has been awarded an alpha plus for diversity.
Not merited though if this diversity is cosmetic or an end in itself. Nasrine Malik in The Guardian (7 December) makes the point. “When people are hired to make a government ‘look’ a certain way, by governing parties with conservative politics it’s usually a way of making changes so everything stays the same – or gets worse”. How probable is it that some sharp black minds in the Biden Cabinet will link up with Black Lives Matter to initiate deep systemic change in US policing? I wouldn’t bet on it given Republican manipulation of law and order issues.
But the value of diversity is not the only message from Biden’s appointments. The other is that fellow Americans are in safe, predictable, experienced hands, the damage and social wounds visited on the homeland by Trump will be repaired and healed, the trajectory of domestic and foreign policy pursued by Obama will be resumed. America’s time of shame has passed. And all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
Well not quite. Both Anthony Blinken and Kamala Harris supported the invasion of Iraq. Neither is on the radical wing of the Democratic Party. No big thinker such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. - who opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 - will be sitting in the Oval Office. Not that anyone heeded Schlesinger at the time. President Kennedy authorised a CIA plot to overthrow Castro with a small rag-tag Cuban exile force which was shot up, mopped up and defeated. We can be confident that Jo Biden will treat US enemies more rationally than Trump and try to get the nuclear deal with Iran, reneged on by the USA, back up and running. That’s hardly radical. He won’t risk easing the damaging sanctions that are crippling Iran and playing into the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It will be back to traditional US Middle East policy.
For there to be more substantial change, the Democrats will require two terms in office. The first to restore the status quo ante of 2016. The second to reach forwards with vision to 2028. The USA has got rid of Trump. It has not got rid of the causes of Trump.
What is the underlying problem, usually dubbed populism, which the USA has experienced in its direst form? Deep seated inequality, ‘truth decay’ and easily manipulated citizens, fears caused by globalisation, a flawed political culture? We are encountering the same phenomena in the UK where thankfully there aren’t more guns than people, nor a Republican Party demonstrating a prodigious level of cynicism and irresponsibility - though some might fear the right wing of the Conservative Party is fast heading that way.
In a period of overlapping crises business as usual is folly. Crises call for a prophetic pragmatism described in Michael J. Brown’s Hope & Scorn: Eggheads, Experts & Elites in American Politics. Cornel West, the philosopher, American activist, Southern Baptist, black intellectual, used the term in 1989 for an intellectual leader, acting as a ‘critical organic catalyst’ in his community. Anyone called an intellectual instantly falls into the popular category of patronising elites. In the UK as in the USA, there is a perennial tension between academics, experts, Booker Prize winners, public intellectuals imagining different worlds, and the premise on which democracy rests: the people - who should have ‘voice’ - as the source of political authority. When the tension becomes acute and a divisive populism degrades public discourse – Trump at one point bizarrely described the American people as the ‘super-elite’ – anti-intellectualism becomes the common sense of the day, a mark of popular authenticity. The trouble is someone has to think outside the box when the box is increasingly liable to flooding, forest fires, tornadoes, demagogues, religious extremism and malign viruses.
The influential Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci - who took the time to talk to Lancia and Fiat workers in Turin where he studied - introduced the concept of the ‘organic intellectual’ (Prison Notebooks 1926-1937). Such a person as part of an organisation of the people, for example trades unions and women’s organisations, was able to overcome the detached intellectual’s democratic deficit, to guide and represent workers, opening up new horizons. Brazil’s Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, for example, advocated adult education through literacy, drawing out the knowledge that came from poor people’s own experience of oppression, allowing them to decide for themselves what action to take.
But in the UK our days of ‘worker education’ are past. Our popular mass media don’t help and haven’t helped. I remember during the apartheid era taking a group of black South African trades unionists up to the Liverpool docks to meet dockworkers. You could spot those who read the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star), they knew a lot about what was going on, asked insightful questions, while those who read ‘The Sun’ knew almost nothing, hung back and looked sheepish. The Press hasn’t changed much. But today’s social media creates many more silos and walled gardens of the soul while the Mail and the Sun still cultivate resentment. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and Extinction Rebellion have rejected ‘elitist’ leadership structures and rely on social media or ‘assembly spaces’ for generating dialogue, ideas and a fresh view of history. No Martin Luther Kings or Cornel Wests here yet.
Where then should we seek Britain’s organic intellectuals? If the USA is anything to go by, in the Churches, particularly amongst theologians who are women and in the black community. In Latin America the liberation theologians took that role and the Argentinian Pope Francis carried their option for the poor, and popular piety, with him to Rome. In UK, Evangelicals such as Reverend Joel Edwards, director-general of the Evangelical Alliance from 1997-2009, led the way into engagement with key social and geo-political issues. David Lammy, now a forthright Labour Shadow Minister for Justice, carried his formation in the Anglican Church into politics. In the future the black Pentecostal Churches, now so distant from secular culture, may produce some surprises. When it comes to thinking outside the box, black lives matter but so do black minds.
See TheArticle 08/12/20