The on-going danger of the Muslim travel ban.

The feeling of victory following the decision by a Federal Appeals Court in upholding the restraining order on Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban is deceptive. The rejection of the now notorious Executive Order (EO) could prepare the ground for a future power grab by the autocratically inclined President.

My reasoning is as follows – it is tragically inevitable that at some stage in the coming weeks, months, or years there will be a terrorist attack somewhere in the US, by an individual claiming to act in the name of Islam. There will similarly be other attacks – in all likelihood more frequent – caused by people who aren’t Muslims but who are inspired by some other fanatical belief (such as neo-Nazi terrorist Dylan Roof) or simple insanity.

But the moment an attack happens at the hands of a Muslim assailant (such as occurred in San Bernardino, or the Pulse nightclub in Florida), Trump will cite the rejection of his Executive Order by ‘so called’ judges as to blame for the bloodshed.

It obviously won’t be important to Trump if such a terrorist is found to have been born in the US, or to have come from one of the countries not cited in the EO. All that will matter to Trump as he stokes the fires of bigotry and fear, is that it will have taken place and that it involved a Muslim.

As he has proven in the past, Donald Trump will appeal directly over the heads of Congress and the judiciary, straight to his core base as a way of intimidating those other branches of government to come to his heel. It is easy to imagine how facts, the Constitution and the law will be swept aside In the midst of such carefully choreographed hysteria.

I tend to dismiss conspiracy theories – and clearly the actions and intentions of Trump are difficult to discern at the best of times. But judging by his erratic and impulsive thought process, it is hard to believe that he alone is the architect of such a strategy – although he would benefit from its outcome.

To guess what lies behind the EO, look no further than its authors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Bannon – ex-Breitbart chief now the White House ‘chief strategist’ has expressed his desire to ‘destroy all of today’s establishment’. Miller a senior White House advisor and alt-right disciple of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said only days ago on TV, that ‘the powers of our President to protect our country will not be questioned’ (my emphasis). Miller’s interviews on this subject on the weekend political talk-shows, were a case book example of wannabe totalitarianism in action.

One can only conclude that the specter of the Muslim Ban is being weaponized by the White House to sweep away – when the moment presents itself – the checks and balances on the office of the President.

Knowing this is a possibility, what is the best way of dealing with it?

Firstly, we must acknowledge the terrible fact that a terrorist attack by Islamist extremists is likely to occur at some point and at some place in the United States, despite the best efforts of the security services to prevent such an incident. Recognizing this eventuality is not anti-Muslim or racist. Those ISIS inspired killers who have wielded weapons against innocents in Europe and elsewhere, no more represent Muslims than Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) represented white American Christians. It’s also important to remember that the overwhelming majority of victims of Islamist violence have been Muslims.

Democrat legislators from Chuck Schumer down, must be ready and willing to talk about the possibility of an attack by Islamist inspired terrorists.  But they must do so in the context of emphasizing the anti-democratic intentions of those in the administration who are looking to exploit such an event.

Secondly, responsible politicians and public figures must call out Trump’s manipulations and hypocrisy in ignoring other acts of violence while seeking to highlight attacks carried out by Muslims.  When a far right gunmen shot up a mosque in Quebec killing 6 and injuring 19 worshippers, Trump’s Twitter feed was silent. Yet when a machete-wielding attacker from Egypt injured a soldier in the Louvre in Paris, Trump immediately fired up his account to blame it upon a ‘radical Islamic terrorist’ and warned the US to ‘GET SMART’.

Reminders of Trump’s inconsistency serve to highlight his motivations and hopefully blunt his use of anti-Muslim sentiment as a spear with which to attack established political institutions.

Thirdly, while the immediate danger of a Muslim ban has for the moment receded, there can be no letup in vocal and highly public efforts to oppose it at every opportunity. The spontaneous demonstrations that sprung up at airports around the country, along with the calls by ordinary people to elected officials had a decisive impact in setting back the EO. Any absence of public noise is music to the ears of those seeking to undermine democracy, while legal protest and pressure are critical in repelling autocracy.

Amid all this, those who crave unrestricted power will not give up easily, and they will return, riding on the back of fomented mob rage or in some other form to try to get what they desire. So we must be ready for the next attack, the one after that, and all the others that will inevitably follow.

Living in La La Land

hollywoodFor the past couple of weeks I have been stuck in La La Land – the movie not the state of mind. I’ve already seen it twice, have the soundtrack blasting out from speakers at home, and keep replaying the scenes and tunes on a never ending loop in my head.

For those who have been living under a rock, the Golden Globe winning film, is an old-fashioned musical telling of love and broken hearts alongside the search for stardom.

It is set in present day Los Angeles, with its overabundance of sunshine, and hope.

Emma Stone plays a talented wannabe movie star, alongside Ryan Gosling as the moody Jazz pianist awaiting his big break. They sing, act and dance their way through brightly lit scenes filmed against a cloudless Californian backdrop. The whole movie harks back to another era from Hollywood’s past.

In La La Land the streets are clean, there is no racial disharmony or poverty, and even LA’s notorious traffic jams provide an opportunity for good song and dance.

It self-consciously plays up the motif of life as a stage, where people break out a tune while walking down the street or getting ready to go out to a party.

The movie’s escapism perfectly captures one aspect of the current moment in America. On the screen in La La Land there is optimism, innocence and gentleness. Sitting in a darkened cinema for two hours transports you to a happy place where ambitions can be fulfilled and dreams can become reality.

Apart from the wonderful cinematography, acting and choreography, the reason that La La is such a success is because it is the perfect counterpoint to what exists in the America beyond the silver screen.

In the land of real America no-one is dancing in the streets, or filled with melodies.

How can you be uplifted when the news is filled with X-rated allegations of prostitutes, ‘golden showers’ amid the presence of Donald Trump?

How can you believe the soon to be President will act in the interest of the country when he is more concerned about personally profiting from his business interests above all else?

How safe can you feel when he trashes the country’s own intelligence services, comparing them to Nazi Germany?

How can you also have faith that it will all be OK in the end when Congress (with its Republican majority) helps swing a wrecking ball into the checks and balances meant to prevent Presidential abuses?

Truth is certainly stranger than fiction when the Trump declares his respect for the autocratic election-hacker Vladimir Putin, while simultaneously portraying the free American press as public enemy number one.

The current reality feels like a plot line from an overly dramatic film noir movie – with cut out villains in sharp suits, and breathless plot twists following one after the other in rapid succession.

Maybe the best way of dealing with the hallucinatory goings-on is to treat them like La La Land; as a temporary break from reality. But the looming shadow of Donald Trump is all too real – resembling a horror story scarier than anything to be found at the cinema.

Heading home?

heading-home-foreigndaze-2017A new year and a new phase of life has opened up for the Miron household. Nine and a half years after we left London one overcast August day we’re now planning to return in summer 2017.

The reasons are ostensibly uncomplicated, involving a desire to be close to family and old friends. But coming to this conclusion has been accompanied by a rollercoaster of indecision, doubts, second-thoughts, and further prevarication.

Further postings will – among other things – chart the preparations, reality and long journey (in more ways than one) of going back to the UK – no doubt registering the daze of returning ‘home’ having been overseas. They will also reflect upon the time spent in the US and Israel, as well as relate the many experiences yet to be had.

When I established this blog I titled it ‘Foreigndaze’, reflecting the curiosity and periodic confusion of being outside my native country. In the course of the past decade away a lot has happened. My children have grown from infants to young girls – ingesting the languages, accents, customs and ways of the places we’ve lived. For them the UK is not home, it’s the place they go reconnect with grandparents, cousins, and Cadbury’s chocolate.

For me, the UK has also begun to feel foreign. When I go back it feels exotic. I have to remember to look the right way when stepping into the road to ensure I’m not run over, and have to force myself to alter my vocabulary as appropriate (trousers instead of pants).

This most recent extended jaunt away follows a further 7 years I spent outside the UK when I was younger. But returning on this occasion is different and somehow more significant. It feels as if the once familiar world we inhabited has become foreign.

There have been huge changes in the US and the UK in the course of the past ten years. When we left George Bush was on the way out of office having dug the US into a morass in Iraq and Afghanistan. His Presidency gave way to the stunning reality and hope of Barak Obama – the first man of colour in the White House, and a person who – unlike his predecessor – possessed ample intellect and caution.

Back in 2007, the UK was still governed by the Labour Party and wedded to the idea of the European Union. It ruled over a country that seemingly had no problem embracing notions such as gay marriage and understood that immigration was a symptom of a healthy economy and not a malignancy.

Now both the UK and US are unmoored. Two pronouns sum up all that feels unsettling and ominous: ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’. On top of that Israel, a country where I have spent eleven years of my life, also appears to be heading down a similar path where chauvinistic populism is laying siege to tolerance, consensus and basic democratic values.

But rather than just complain and bemoan the fact that the world appears to be going the wrong way down a one way street, I hope this blog will also chart the excitement and challenges of finishing one long adventure outside the UK, and the beginning another within it.

Venturing overseas has brought an array of experiences that my family would never have had if we’d stayed within the comfortable confines of North London. Some of the times have been good, a few truly terrible – but all invaluable.

Preparing to move, to find new jobs, sort out schools, manage finances and attend to all the matters big and small of our transition, are headaches. But along with all of that I plan to ensure that this final portion of time in the US isn’t wasted.

It is a privilege to be here even during these truly disturbing times. Alongside travelling to far corners of this amazing country, I will also take the opportunity to observe the goings-on close-by: at home, with friends and particularly from a certain Oval Office situated just a couple of hundred meters from where I’m writing this blog.

More than anything I hope my postings will serve as a record of a special time, and that they will provoke interest and reaction among those who come along for the literary ride.

An everyday American tragedy

malcom winfellMalcom Winfell was an everyday hero. The 44 year old father of two was a guy who tried to do the right thing in the wrong place and ended up paying for his actions with his life.

Two weeks ago during lunchtime in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Bethesda, Maryland, he and a friend ran to help a woman who’d been shot in an apparent car-jacking. Winfell ended up getting shot himself and dying.

A short time after, a 65 year old woman who was sitting in her car in a nearby supermarket was attacked and killed by the same gunman. He had also murdered his ex-wife outside a high school the previous day.

I was reminded of Malcom Winfell’s death yesterday while running, as I glimpsed the makeshift memorial of flowers and stuffed toys, which marks the spot where he was gunned down. It’s about a thirty minute slow jog from there to my home.

These kind of violent incidents are a part of daily life in the US, and their frequency has an anesthetizing effect. Maybe Malcom Winfell’s death would have passed me by without notice, had it not brushed close to my little corner of the world.

After the gunman had shot Malcom Winfell and was en-route to his next killing, the schools in the vicinity – including the one my daughters attend – imposed a ‘shelter in place’ order. That meant the building was locked down with no comings or goings, until the all clear had been given.

Apart from relief when the incident had passed, I felt – and continue to feel- angry that such a thing could happen. I was infuriated and that my children along with others were forced to shelter because of the madness that allows anyone to get guns with as much ease as library books. This reality means that my daughters have to undergo routine drills which include hiding in closets or getting under their desks and remaining silent, in case of a rampaging armed lunatic.

For me the ultimate culprits of this situation in which thousands die and millions live in fear are the gun lobby, and the spineless politicians in Washington who do its bidding.

I find myself comparing the situation in the US, with Israel where we used to live, and which also has an over-abundance of weapons along with a heightened awareness of security. At the school my daughters attended, there were also security drills, which included them heading down to an underground concrete shelter when an alarm sounded.

This was in case of missile attack from Gaza, Lebanon or further afield. As a parent it was a terrible scenario to contemplate. The first time my wife saw my elder daughter – then aged 3 – wandering hand in hand with her classmates into the shelter, she was reduced to anxious tears.

But I rationalized this reality, and the presence of guns, seeing it as based upon the intractable conflict between Israel and its neighbors.

By contrast, in the US the security situation exists because of the domestic gun industry’s appetite for profit and its selective interpretation of a line from the Constitution. I know of many, many people here who vehemently oppose the proliferation of weapons but who have become fatalistic and impotent in the face of the National Rifle’s Association’s bullying power.

The gun lobby is cynical in exploiting and fueling people’s anxieties about safety. Every time there is yet another massacre of innocents even more weapons are sold. To the lobbyists even more deadly weapons are the answer the scourge of killings wrought by those same guns. Some are now calling for armed guards at all schools, and for teachers to be able to have weapons.

There is a madness to this which I can’t understand and to which too many in the US remain oblivious. People here are no more intrinsically homicidal than others elsewhere. Yet, thanks to the ready availability of guns, the USA has the highest murder rate in the advanced industrialized world.

Last year, I got into a discussion with a gun owner in Vermont, who insisted that such figures were lies, and those who were dying were mostly criminals. For this man, keeping his armory of weapons was a right to be defended at the barrel of a gun.

I grew up in a country – the UK – where most policemen are unarmed, and almost every gun death induces a newspaper headline. That should be the norm everywhere, not a situation in which guns are sanctified.

I understand that weapons occupy a particular place in American society and culture. But that must not mean gun violence becomes a normal part of everyday life.

I can only hope that greater sanity and sense come to bear on this issue to stem the seemingly endless bloodshed.

Tragically, I doubt that will happen any time soon – if ever, but if it does, it will have come far too late for hundreds of thousands of people – including the family of Malcom Winffel.

A fund has been set up to pay for Malcom Winffel’s funeral expenses and to contribute towards his children’s education. For further details go to:

A cold wind blowing through New Hampshire

What could be better for a politics nerd than spending a few days in the cold and snow of New Hampshire following wannabe Presidents of the United States?

That is how I passed the last few days in the run up to the Democratic and Republican Party primaries which are taking place tomorrow.

There’s a saying that while, ‘the people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents’.  For a small state (45th out of 50 in the US) it has a big role to play in influencing which candidate will represent their party in the electoral contest for the White House.

New Hampshire holds the first primary vote (as opposed to caucus, which takes place in Iowa a week earlier) – and as such is known as a major testing ground for the candidates.

It is therefore a great place to view American politics up close. All the candidates – Democrat and Republican – rush around the state pressing the flesh, kissing babies and trying desperately to ooze empathy and understanding in a monumental effort to impress upon locals that they are the best man or woman for the job.

In my forty eight hours in New Hampshire I got the full immersive experience seeing three Republican candidates (John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie) at small town hall meetings, and also attending a major Democratic gathering which hosted speeches by both Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

At this time, New Hampshire is crammed – seemingly at every corner – with campaign posters, activists, journalists, and political obsessives like myself who have come to witness the action.

For me, the experience was telling in what it said about both about American democracy , American society, and the candidates themselves.

In no particular order these are my observations:

    • A carnival of American democracy.

Those aspiring for the office of leader of the most powerful nation on earth have to face the voters in small and intimate settings and make their case to be the candidate. I saw John Kasich – Governor of Ohio in a draughty barn take questions for almost an hour on issues ranging from funding for schools, to internet access in rural areas, as well as American involvement in Syria. People had turned up (no invitations necessary) despite the falling snow from throughout New Hampshire as well as neighbouring states, to ask their questions and get a measure of the candidate. This speaks to a facet of American society that is sometimes missed from overseas. America is a society founded on what was in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that leaders are there to serve the people, not the other way around. This streak of accountability still runs deep, and the primaries are a powerful demonstration that this mindset is alive and well. It is uplifting to see this democratic spirit in meeting rooms and community centers of 21st century small town New Hampshire, and is a testament to one of the great strengths of the USA.

  • The meekness of the media

That spirit of holding potential leaders accountable may be observed by ordinary people but it does not seem to extend to the media. Despite the wall to wall attention on TV, there was an almost deferential regard for the candidates. Watching Jake Tapper – one of CNN’s main heavyweight hosts – interviewing Donald Trump was akin to witnessing someone being beaten with a feather. Tapper asked Trump gently about a statement he’d made calling for a return to waterboarding and methods ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’ for suspected Islamist militants – despite such actions being war crimes under US law. The mogul responded with a potted answer about changing the law once he was President, while confirming that he was ‘fine’ with ‘beyond waterboarding’. That answer seemingly satisfied Tapper who then moved to more urgent matters such as the mathematics of the forthcoming electoral battle in New Hampshire. There was no follow up, rather Trump was allowed to run rhetorically riot unchallenged. Tapper’s flaccid interviewing is par for the course with the mainstream cable and network news outlets. They seem more concerned with losing access to the ‘stars’ like Trump than the pursuit of journalistic inquiry (as happened to Fox after Megan Kelly had the temerity to question Trump’s offensive comments about women).

  •  The Republican divide – between right and hard right 

The USA is deeply split not only between left and right, but also within those respective camps, reflecting a deep sense that something has gone wrong with the political system and the society it is meant to serve. On the Republican side, there is a battle between the hard right insurgents and those of the more moderate ‘establishment’. I attended a rally for Ted Cruz – the banner holder for the evangelical and ‘tea party’ wings of the party. In the packed gym of an elementary school, he spent just as much time railing against the Republican establishment as he did against President Obama.  The mood of the audience was angry, booing mentions of Washington DC and calling for Democratic Party opponents to be, ‘put in jail’. There was a sense from these people – overwhelmingly white, less well-off and from outside the main cities – that the America they knew had been taken from them by sell-out politicians from the left and right, and that they had to fight (electorally) to get it back.


  • The Democrats – a battle between the head and the heart

That sense of disillusionment is also alive among Democrats, although not as deeply or angrily felt among Republicans. At a major Democratic Party event held in the city of Manchester, Hillary and Bernie Sander’s supporters sat on opposite sides of an indoor stadium chanting and waving banners for their respective champions. Sander’s followers – overwhelmingly youthful – spoke of him in breathless terms normally reserved by teenagers boy bands. For them Bernie was the real deal, who spoke in simple, uncompromising terms about what was needed to make the country right in the face of growing economic inequality, foreign adventurism and more. No matter that he’s unelectable as President, for them, he is authentic particularly in comparison to Hilary.  When asked what they would do if she became candidate , a group of college students said they would probably choose not to vote. There is no doubt that seeing Hilary in action is also to witness her vulnerability. Her speech hit all the right buttons, but even its apparent passion seem manufactured and market tested. With her experience, polish and power she should have swatted Bernie to one side by now, but instead she is in the trenches of a hard fought political battle – and this is even before she has to face the real opposition of the Republican candidate for President.

  •  The only sure thing is uncertainty

There is a sense in talking to people who have witnessed many Presidential contests that this one is somewhat different. There is a real battle underway about the future of the country – not just about policy but also about its very essence. Moving between Republican and Democratic supporters is to enter different cultural universes, where attitudes – on homosexuality, guns, religion and a host of other issues – sit in direct opposition to each other. Political commentators have been predicating the fall of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders since they first appeared as candidates – and yet these two opposites continue to flourish. The opinion polls which once could be depended upon to provide some guide to what will happen have been confounded by the unpredictability of the voters.

Witnessing the fight for New Hampshire primary is an education in the both the positives and negatives of American electoral contests. It is also an eye-opener on the raw divisions in American society. And while every election is important, this one is highly significant given the uncertainty about the state of the country and where it is heading. So in anticipation of the vote tomorrow and of the others to come, I am fastening my seat belt for the rough and eventful ride in the coming year

Washington DC – Dysfunction in Democracy

Parliaments are the engine rooms of democracies. They are where the (often dirty) work of government gets done. What they look like, and how they function says a great deal about the society in which they operate.

Admittance not guaranteed to all

Admittance not guaranteed to all

Last week, after more than two years in the US I finally made it to Congress to see America’s federal legislature in action. The building sitting atop Capitol Hill looks out grandly upon Washington, stamping its dominant presence upon the national monuments and government offices set out below.

The building was made to impress. Beyond the inevitable security barriers, body scanners and X-ray machines, it’s all neo-Greco-Roman pillars and marble, complemented by classical 19th century European-style interior design. Carefully positioned statues reflect the diverse origins and achievements of the United States, including busts of a Native American chief and an astronaut.

Along shiny, broad corridors are the two chambers that make up Congress; the upper house – the Senate, and the lower House of Representatives.

The Senate chamber which was mostly empty when I visited has a clubby ambience, which is fitting given that it has just one hundred members representing over 320 million American citizens. The grand (and mostly elderly) men and women huddle in groups of two or three, chatting when not delivering speeches from their schoolroom-like wooden desks. The House of Representatives akin to the teenagers table at a family gathering; younger, busier and noisier – with legislators slyly check their phones while chatting volubly with colleagues.

The public galleries were a mix of those who came to be impressed, and those who came to press a cause. There were tourists, grandparents with grandchildren, middle-aged couples, college students and others. There were also lobbyists – many on this particular day coming from AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) which was holding its annual conference in DC. Alongside AIPAC there were others pressing their own causes, including a delegation from the civil aviation industry.

In the US lobbying is seen as – technically at least – an important element within the country’s democracy. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees it as a right. But many ordinary Americans now see the various lobby groups as having tainted their democracy with too much influence and too much money. Recent figures by a non-profit organization called the Center for Responsive Politics show that spending by lobby groups in Congress has doubled since 2000 reaching a total of $3.23billion last year! The same database shows that John Boehner, the Republic Speaker of the Senate received over $17m in campaign contributions in 2014, with substantial amounts coming from groups representing the securities and investment industry, real estate, retirees, oil and gas, and mining.

The US Congress as well as the offices of other elected officials are awash with cash from lobbyists, big and small. All this money has a distorting and corrupting influence upon the workings of the legislature. Senators and Congressmen are dancing to the tune of the donors rather than the voters. This was most sharply illustrated in April 2013, when there were efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers and ban assault weapons in the wake of the slaughter by a crazed gunman of twenty children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Despite polling data showing a majority of Americans favoured these measures, it failed to pass in the Senate, after the National Rifle Association brought its weighty political bludgeon to bear upon wavering Senators, ensuring they followed its diktats – or face the consequences.

All this has translated into disgust and disillusionment by many voters for their elected representatives. In the Congressional mid-terms four months ago, only 36% turned out to cast their ballot, the lowest figure in over seventy years.

Congress - in need of repair

Congress – in need of repair

Apathy is flourishing at the expense of democracy. Ordinary Americans feel disconnected from the mechanics of government. They see politicians as a breed apart, more interested in preserving their own comfortable seats and satisfying their donors, rather than looking to more modest needs of the average citizen.

The Constitution begins with words ‘We the People’ emphasizing the primacy of the populace in the American system.  The founders of the country sought to build a society that protected against the influence of the privileged few, and put government – as much as possible – in the hands of the citizenry. There is thus a sense of tragic irony to the current situation, where the people feel excluded from the engine room of their democracy.

After wandering the halls of Congress I left to admire the grandeur of the building from outside. But in viewing the obscured Dome currently undergoing building work, it was clear that the faults in America’s legislature go far beyond the fabric of the structure.

Finding answers for France’s questions in the USA

France-USIn Paris, the procession of millions has come and gone, and the dead have been buried. Now the hard work must begin for the French Government. It must address the fallout from the murders in the Charlie Hebdo offices and in the kosher supermarket.

The killings have been a body blow to the French, and European body politic – even more so than previous deadly attacks by Islamists in Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005. These latest atrocities demonstrated the violent nihilism of extremist Islamism, and the real and present danger it poses to France and other European countries.

The Paris attacks require responses to a multitude of challenges on security, intelligence, communal relations and more.

In addressing them, the authorities must chart a path that does not give any ground to radical Islam or the far right, but that does not also generate support for either camp. At the same time, France must be unstinting in reassuring those most threatened by this extremism: from the Jewish community to dissenting journalists.

The attacks also raise critically important questions about what France (and other Western European countries) stand for, in terms of value,s and how they should be realized in a way that neither creates social unrest nor dilutes them to the point of irrelevance.

The French Government must find a way to give full expression to the values that underpin its free society while also making all its citizens – of all backgrounds – understand what this means in practice.

By way of a model, France would do well to look to the United States, the country with which it once shared an ideological kinship based on similar notions of liberty, anti-monarchism, and a rejection of state clericalism.

The US may seem like a peculiar example considering that much of the Moslem world sees it (along with Israel) as Islam’s greatest enemy.

But America offers a positive example in terms of its own Muslim population, which fares better socially and economically than communities in Europe. A poll carried out a few years ago revealed that US Muslims reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than their counterparts in Western Europe. It also showed that European Moslems are far more likely to place greater importance on their religious identity rather than their nationality.  In short, American Muslims are more integrated, moderate and successful than their European co-religionists.

There are a number of reasons that help explain the differences including, education, national origins and more. But the main factor marking the variation between Muslims on different sides of the Atlantic is the unapologetic assertion of values in the US, which rightfully puts notions of freedom for all, far above the sensibilities of any particular section of society.

The First Amendment of the Constitution says it all, in prohibiting an established religion while protecting freedom of religion, speech and the press.

This is not an easy proposition in practice, and has caused much division and debate about how such rights should be upheld. In 1978, US courts backed the right of neo-Nazis to march through the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois, home to many Holocaust survivors.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) more used to representing the injured rights of African-Americans, took on the case of the swastika-bearing marchers.

The ACLU’s lawyers (some of whom were Jewish) said freedom had to come first, in spite of the grave offence that would be caused to the people of Skokie. The civil rights of neo-Nazis to express their constitutional rights in marching and voicing their views must be protected. And this is where America has it right and Europe (until recent events) has had it wrong.

Causing deliberate offence is part and parcel of freedom of speech. The ACLU and the courts understood that the right belonged as much to hateful neo-Nazis as it did to everyone else in society.  Europe has in recent years shied awayfrom  such assertions in dealing with materials offensive to Muslims in order to buy (an illusory) communal peace and avoid anything that might fuel extremism. But such tactics are seen only as a sign of weakness by those who challenge such freedoms, provoking rather than appeasing.

The US has demonstrated through its uninhibited free speech that such values must be given life and cannot sit as inert ideas to which lip service is paid, but in reality are absent of tangible meaning.  It has welcomed huddled masses to its shores on the proviso that they take on board – as Americans – the principles embodied in the Constitution. It has promised freedom in exchange for an understanding that such liberties cannot be infringed upon whatever your origins or beliefs.

I have written previously  of the strangeness of seeing my children pledge allegiance to the American flag in school. They stand hand on heart to attention vowing loyalty to the country as, ‘indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. I have also spoken of the prevalence of the American flag and the reverence felt for it by Americans of all political stripes and origins.

Coming from a background which saw the British flag as a threat rather than a promise, I originally found such devotion disconcerting. But as Europe has discovered, if you cannot articulate your views and you will not assert your values of liberty and freedom, they will be progressively challenged, threatened, and weakened.

I feel nervous in viewing France from here, seeing the fears, passions and hatreds unleashed by events of last week.  But just as French Revolutionaries looked across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century to the new United States of America for ideas and inspiration, now the leaders in Paris should the gaze in the  same direction for a way ahead to reinvigorate and protect their society and its ideals.

Listening to the Sound of the Future

serial 3Many others have already said it, but ‘Serial’ – the recently concluded audio podcast originating from WBEZ Public Radio in Chicago is exciting, outstanding, compelling, gripping and much more besides. But it also represents something even more than these superlatives.

‘Serial’ is the future of radio, or more accurately audio, and the probable pioneer in a new golden age of audio programming. The programme also demonstrates that BBC Radio, which has always prided itself on the supremacy of its output, has nothing which compares to the creative and journalistic oomph of this American podcast.

But firstly for those who happen to have been living on a distant planet or have had three month long internet outage, then let me try to sum up the phenomenon of ‘Serial’. It is a non-fiction story told in twelve weekly episodes. The podcast chronicles and examines in minute detail the murder of an eighteen year old Maryland high-school student, Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syded, for the crime.

The case raises doubts about Syed’s guilt, who at age 18 was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.

The story unfolds across the weeks led by an unlikely Sherlock in the form of journalist Sarah Koenig. Her sassy, quirky personality, along with first-person asides drives the narrative. The episodes are filled with a lot of in-depth research, interspersed with Koenig’s personal musings, doubts, and revelations. Along the way we learn a great deal about the case, but also a lot about the reporter herself.

The combination of meticulous research, Koenig’s reporting style and the suspense-driven format melds it into a compulsive product. Without any marketing campaign, ‘Serial’ reached five million downloads on iTunes quicker than any other podcast before, and to date has achieved an incredible forty million downloads in total.

In reflecting upon ‘Serial’ there are a number of points that stand out.

Firstly, it demonstrates the particular stylistic and journalistic strengths of American public radio. Having grown up listening to the BBC and then working for it for 17 years, I was educated to believe that de-personalized reporting with tidy endings was best and right. ‘Serial’ broke many of the cardinal rules of radio journalism that I was taught, with its format held loosely together, through the literal and metaphorical ramblings of the reporter, along with its refusal to come to any definitive conclusions on the subject matter.

The podcast also drew upon the easy informality and personal storytelling which permeates much of American public radio, and which is so foreign to its British counterpart. In the UK there are sharply polished current affairs programmes, along with carefully constructed radio-plays. These are labour intensive products drawing upon the extensive resources of the broadcasting colossus that is the BBC. Public radio in the US has no such riches. It relies upon the generosity of individual and corporate contributors to keep going. But it has made a virtue of its paucity, using less to create more, particularly through stripped-down first person narratives (the best examples of which can be heard on ‘This American Life’ and ‘The Moth’).

The variations between British and American audio output also reflects deeper cultural differences. Americans are generally less formal and more confessional than their UK counterparts both in everyday life and in broadcasting.

The second point about ‘Serial’ is that thanks to the internet, it is charting a new path ahead for great audio programming. Its trajectory is reminiscent of HBO’s success on cable over fifteen years with its on-screen drama serials.

HBO was able to use the cable subscriptions to fund programmes that were too risky or profane to be made by the established networks. Without HBO we would never have had ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Six Feet Under’, ‘Band of Brothers’, and more. And where this cable provider first ventured others followed: AMC (‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’), Showtime (‘Dexter’, ‘Homeland’) and more. Now in the further evolution of on-screen drama, online providers such as Netflix, Amazon and others have got in on the act, producing further dramatic riches including, ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Transparent’. This has all been made possible thanks to technological advancements which have liberated programmes from TV networks, and increasingly from television itself, freeing both the provider and the viewer.

This is where ‘Serial’ may have found a new home for audio programming free from ‘radio’.  It is delivered on-demand, allowing people to listen at their own convenience, on line, on the phone, in whole episodes or in small portions. Additionally Serial fits perfectly with the financial model of American public radio, which is reliant upon on hand-outs to keep functioning. It gives more bang for the contributor’s buck, supporting a specific programme rather than a complete network.

So thanks to new technology and sound journalistic skills, ‘Serial’ has created something innovative, accessible and utterly compelling.

It has also signaled that while the fate of radio may be uncertain, the future of audio (at least in the US) sounds good!

Thanksgiving is no turkey

images[8]It has been two weeks since Thanksgiving and I have almost digested the mounds of turkey meat and accompaniments consumed during the festivity. I have also had time to process the meaning of this most American of holidays.

Its origins go back right to the very founding of modern America in the early 17th century. Specifically, Thanksgiving commemorates the first successful harvest by a bunch of English Christian pilgrims who had come to the New World having fled religious persecution in the old country. They celebrated it their survival amid harsh conditions with the local Wampanoag tribe with whom they’d developed friendly relations. It was a landmark for the embryonic European settlement and also a highpoint in relations between the natives and newcomers, which later descended into displacement, death and disasters for the Indians.

Almost five hundred years on from that original meal, Thanksgiving has grown into a national happening of epic proportions. It’s hard to describe to outsiders what a big deal Thanksgiving is here. In the run up to the day, one half of the nation seems to be en-route – via crammed highways and overflowing airports –  to be with the other half, who are frenetically preparing a monumental feast.

Turkeys are the main attraction (and victim) of this annual eatathon.  According to the American Turkey Federation (yes – it really exists) in 2013,  46 million of these plump birds where eaten at Thanksgiving, compared to 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter. That means one turkey between every seven Americans, equaling a lot of poultry with room for considerable leftovers.  This consumption demonstrates the primary place this holiday has above all others in the national calendar.

Our own Thanksgiving experience with extended family in Long Island, came with all the traditional elements. A long traffic jam en-route to the gathering, vast quantities of great food, free-flowing alcohol, and a post mealtime gathering around the TV to watch the day’s big American football games (which all made sense after my second whisky).

Some things were new and strange, such a dish of baked sweet potato sprinkled with marshmallows, but it was all overwhelmingly American in its warmth, generosity and plenty.

Apart from the pleasure of eating and drinking surrounded by great company there was also for me, something deeply satisfying about the holiday itself. It is free of religious dogma, allowing people of all backgrounds to feel they can comfortably participate. Despite the fact that it has become about consumption (and post-Thanksgiving sales), there is an underlying sense that it is about paying homage to America as a country and a society, open to all its citizens.

In the run up to Thanksgiving our local kosher supermarket was stocked with freezers full turkeys sufficient to feed most of the tribes of Israel. For American Jews it’s not just the food that kosher, it’s also the holiday itself. In researching this piece, I was surprised to find backing for Thanksgiving from some of the great orthodox Rabbis.

This holiday is a celebration of American-ness for all people in the country whatever their hyphenations: Irish-American, African-American, Jewish-American and so on. This is one of the great strengths and successes of the USA , that it has managed – even with certain caveats  – to make citizenship here feel inclusive, and also to make people of wildly differing origins want to be able to be a part of this society, without having to give up on their particular background.

Thus, despite my lack of American nationality, I am also beginning to feel the draw of Thanksgiving, and not just because of the prospect of the turkey with all the trimmings.

The huddled masses of modern America

homeless man dcWinter is upon us. The sweltering humidity has been replaced by shivering cold and bare trees. This morning I travelled into the center of the city by Metro, and as usual it was crowded with heavily swaddled commuters bracing themselves for the cold above ground. Except on this particular journey there was a spare seat in the midst of the crowded train carriage. It was empty as the neighbouring space was occupied by a raggedly dressed homeless man, slumped over fast asleep. No doubt he was on the train to get away from the biting chill on the streets.

There are thousands other men and women in DC like him. They live in abandoned buildings, parks, doorways or wherever they can find a place to stay. The most recent figures show that about 7,700 people are homeless among Washington’s 650,000 strong population. That is more than one person in a hundred. By comparison, London with a population of 8.2 million (more than ten times the size of DC) has approximately 2,000 people recorded as living on the streets.

It’s hard to describe what this means in all its cruel reality on a cold Washington day – with the grand monuments, government and office buildings, set against the diminished and ragged destitute for whom these edifices serve as their front-room as well as their back-drop. It’s also hard to explain it to oneself – how there can be so much public despair and need in the capital of the world’s largest economy?

In the morning as I exit the metro a couple of hundred meters from the White House I am greeted by the hulking form of a large middle-aged round-faced African-American man limping between the commuters cup in hand asking for money.

‘Spare a dollar for an old veteran’ he says. Most (often including myself), walk past him eyes guiltily lowered en-route to our comfortable jobs from our comfortable homes. Recently he’s taken to wearing a camouflage jacket either to underline his request or because it was what he got given to replace his old coat.

Veterans are over-represented among the homeless. But in looking at how they are cared for, I learned that only two weeks ago, the very first hostel specifically catering for their needs was inaugurated. The planned building which is just a short walk from Congress will have just sixty apartments to cater for the many hundreds of homeless veterans in the city – leaving many with no chance of finding a space.

Currently the street is a more desirable location than the hostels, even amid the biting cold and rain. The other day I got chatting to Lance, an unemployed navy veteran, who now resides on the doorstep of a major financial institution that lends out billions of dollars around the world.

‘I ain’t going into the hostels,’ he said, ‘they are full of crazies’. He told me how he and his friend Greg stick together at night reading their bibles for comfort.

You can easily find those he is talking about wandering the streets shouting at invisible shadows or slumped in doorways – their demons quelled by drugs and alcohol.

Lance, along with the hundreds of others like him on DC’s streets, represent those who have fallen through the cracks in American society. They may have lost their jobs, seen the break of their family, been struck by a debilitating (and costly) physical or mental illness, or suffered one of any number of other misfortunes. But in the US the cracks are bigger than Europe, and the fraying safety net comes with man-size holes.

The homeless are America’s IDP’s – internally dispossessed people – casualties of an inadequate welfare and health system, and a society which can be unforgiving to those who can’t keep up.

Coming from UK with its comfort blanket of benefits, free and universal health care and much more, it is a shock to see so much human distress co-existing alongside examples of such political and economic success.

Generally speaking, in Britain, the government is perceived in terms of its responsibility to the individual, whereas in the US it is the other way around (as summed up by JFK’s: ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’).

In America there is a sense of can-do, dynamism and individualism grounded upon a work ethic that would induce mass-strikes across the Atlantic. This has brought prosperity and fortune with the US leading from the front in technological and industrial innovations, leaving much of Europe lagging far behind. But when people in the US can’t keep up – for whatever reason, they are faced with a far harsher existence.

At the end of my day in DC, I am confronted with these dual realities as I walk back to the Metro by way of the grand public monuments and the people living on the streets. In doing so, I can only hope that this society which has achieved so much, can also find a way to fully and properly care for those who have found themselves – literally – left out in the cold.