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_70491739_eifJim Naughtie at the BBC

The lack of scope, breadth and diversity to be found in the corporately controlled TV media these days (yes I am looking at you Fox News) has lead to the revival of an old Victorian ancestor – the magic lantern meeting.  The re-instigation of the railways-across-Africa,-dams across-the-Nile style of great man giving the public talk.

True, blogs are also filling the gap for those who want considered opinion and thoughtful ruminations, but this phenomenon of the Talk with a capital “T” (with or without slides) is sweeping the literary and political world.  The authorial talk remains the province at the moment of the independent bookseller from one end of the country to the other, from Topping & Company in Ely, to The Edinburgh Bookshop, desperate to provide leverage and content and steal an edge against the Amazons of life, and their bigger brother, the Book Festival.

So, that was why Sunday I was down at Lennoxlove House near Haddington, a couthy market town just outside Edinburgh for their Book Festival featuring James (Jim to his pals) Naughtie who was talking about Obama.

23165_0Jim Naughtie is a solid, old fashioned journalist, with whom I may press a slight and unwarranted acquaintance, since in the early eighties he was a star journalist at The Scotsman when I scratched out their Saturday pocket political cartoons.  Ah yes, when the Scotsman was the paper it was back then!  He went on to greater things as Chief Political reporter for the Guardian, and then onto the BBC and the national Today programme.  He may be sceptical, but has never descended into cynicism despite a deep knowledge of America and her political classes.

Naughtie’s opinion was that Obama was one of the great paradoxes of our age. He sees the election back in 2008 as one of the most extraordinary events in American history.  He met McCain after the election who openly admitted that the election of an afro-American was by any consideration exceptional.

But that promise has not lasted.  Obama this week is running between 42% to 41% positive and 51% to 55% negative.  One year to this week he faces his very last election with the 2014 midterms.  He is likely to retire from active politics at 55 with his legacy one of disaffection with his mistakes, a sense of promise unfulfilled.

How does that affect us, those who exist outwith the US?  Well, there is the feeling everywhere that the political superstructure that has supported the West since 1945 is finally given way to something new.

Time magazine, that great barometer of current views has decided that Putin is now more influential than Obama. Strikingly a majority of the US population are held to agree with this view!  In the twentyfirst century Naughtie argues that she is losing the soft cultural power, along with her industrial base, both undermine her effectiveness and willingness to act as the world’s policeman.

Despite his eloquence at the debates, and throughout the election of 2008, Obama has lost his touch and his tongue in office.  He has been, in a word, a disaster.   He fumbles his administration.  He has made a mess of his relations with Congress.  He lacks the common touch and has difficulty managing or persuading people.  He comes over as arrogant or headmasterly.

Europe may have hoped with Obama America had finally got a lot of problems out of its system.  Instead he is adrift and the system is gummed up to the point of sclerosis.  The shutdown is but the latest example.  Naughtie felt that Clinton despite his baggage would have worked the magic to overcome the matter.  Obama simply left it to crash into the buffers.

Now, the right might argue that a shutdown was what the Founders would have wanted, as if we were to imagine Jefferson or Hamilton who designed a constitution to work for people of goodwill to meet to resolve their differences might have envisaged a system set to lockset and shut down rather than debate.

Naughtie then moved to examine the reasons for this.   In this he considered the sweep of time from his own childhood to today.  Back in the 50’s there was far less ideology with both parties seeking to find common ground somewhere in the centre right (the American neutral zone).  Naughtie argued that since Reagan, American became ever more ideologically divided and less and less likely to speak to each other across the new divides.  Added to this Naughtie noted the separation and partisanship of US media – seeking only the promotion of single narrow political policies and that America is today a far, far more separated country. Endlessly reinforcing the opinions and prejudices of each side only entrench matters. Never debating or giving space to another view.  Tracts not journalism.

He added that Gerrymandering, or the redistricting process (as I have noted separately in this blog) meaning that the majority of seats in Congress are unlikely ever to change hands.  Ever.

This has led to a Congress that does not argue debates, and feels no need to feel at risk from what the people think.  The loopier elements – those who think the planet is only 4,000 years old and there is no evidence for evolution, gain ground shutting out the rational.

Naughtie moved to the latest spying row.  His take is that if there ever was a Special Relationship between the US and the UK (a favorite old topic in this blog) was that it was founded not on cultural or family ties to the “Auld Country”, rather to a defence and intelligence alliance.  He baldly told his audience that “our” GCHQ was mostly paid for by the NAS and it always had been, and thus in thrall to the US .

The Intelligence community has now grown so large and so semi independent that it can hoover up 70,000,000 Spansh phone calls in a single month along with 60,000,000 French, and any number of personal taps on Merkle or whoever.  Sure Obama inherited to system but he made no effort to change matters.  That all this has now come out is a major, major embarrassment to Americans personally, and to its government.

The Republicans cannot control their more loony outriders, and until they do there is no hope they can field a sensible candidate for 2016.  If the candidates are to be chosen on whether they believe in evolution or Usher’s dates for the creation, then God help them. And us.

Winding up, Naughtie took us back to Putin and spying.

Will America in the Twenty-first century be a force for civilisation?  Will it be wise, non aggressive, a progenitor of humanity?  Or will it (and one felt from his voice he has fears) become cowed, defensive, aggressive and susceptible to Russian politics?

An excellent afternoon.

Copyright David Macadam 2013