Amanda Palmer
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Amanda Palmer: Playing the Hitler Card

We live in an age of endless, foaming outrage. The only answer is to try to feel empathy for other people, no matter who they are.

“You can’t play the Hitler Card,” said Neil. “Godwin’s law: once you play it, you’re out. Trust me.”

“But it’s different. Hitler’s the example people use. That’s why I’m using him.”

“Don’t do it.”

“You’re missing the point. If I’m talking about people talking about absolutes, I’ve got to use him.”

He looked at me with that polite, British look he uses when he knows I’m wrong.

“If you must use a Nazi as an example, darling, you’d be better off using Mengele. He was the one who did unthinkably gruesome experiments on pregnant women and their babies.”

“Thank you for that lovely image.” I looked down at my swelling belly. “But that’s not a meme. You don’t ‘play the Mengele Card’ . . . Most younger people probably won’t know who that is.”

“He was the villain in William Goldman’s Marathon Man.”

“Don’t change the subject. This isn’t about books. This is about Hitler.”

Neil sighed. I sighed back. This conversation was going nowhere.

 

****

“Playing the Hitler Card”, otherwise known as “reductio ad Hitlerum”, is the point in a discussion “where someone compares an opponent’s view to those of Adolf Hitler or the Nazi party”. Godwin’s law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

Both Neil and I have been engulfed in our fair share of what we refer to as “internet kerfuffles” and we now discuss online PR tactics in the way that other married couples discuss whose turn it is to drop the kids off at school.

“Honey, your blog defending this person’s honour is really noble but if it kerfuffles, do you have time to deal with the three days of Twitter and Tumblr backlash?”

“Not really, I’m insane with deadlines.”

“Oof. Then don’t post it. You don’t have the time or energy to kerfuff this week.”

 

****

Everyone’s tired of internet outrage. It has got to the point where we censor ourselves so carefully to avoid kerfuffling that we might as well get off the internet altogether and go back to plain, old talking in cafés and pubs, because those places are where people can actually be honest. Erika Moen, who draws a sex-positive web comic called Oh Joy Sex Toy, wrote a blog recently about a handful of female celebrities who had had their naked phone selfies stolen and distributed. She wrote a friendly reminder to people that if they wanted to protect their identities from hackers while taking naked selfies, they should consider not including their distinguishing tattoos, or, obviously, their faces. She then got an outraged email from a long-time fan, calling her out as a “face shamer”.

People on the web are addicted to ­outrage. It’s become an epidemic but nobody seems to know quite what to do about it.

I look at Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk about the “price of shame”, the US journalist Lindy West’s befriending of her worst troll and the inexplicable harassment-vortex morass that is Gamergate and I also see a widening conversation about the reality and effects of hatred. If there’s a theme in the backlash to the backlash, it is this: to defuse the Outrage Generation, we need better empathy skills.

A few years back, I endured a relentless ten months of internet controversy and I quickly learned the red flags, symptoms and lifespan of an average kerfuffle. There are two-day kerfuffles and two-week kerfuffles. There are kerfuffles that stay contained on Twitter and those that spill on to the blogs and, worse still, into print media.

The year 2012 began with my Kickstarter Kerfuffle (when I crowdfunded an album through online donations), which evolved a few months later into the Volunteer Musician Kerfuffle. Just as those were dying down, the spring of 2013 brought the Poem Kerfuffle, which started when I sat down to reflect on the harrowing days following the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened a few blocks from my apartment.

After the lockdown, Neil and I drove from Boston to New York and back, listening to the radio news non-stop as the ­horrific manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers crescendoed and exploded. We heard our friends on the radio – one of them had a son who had been friends with Dzhokhar, the younger brother. She had been at a backyard graduation party with him. Both of them had gone to high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near our house.

Dzhokhar was 19.

I wondered how he felt.

The poem I posted on my blog was a stream-of-consciousness sequence that connected the feeling of being trapped in “the bottom of the boat” (the location in which Dzhokhar was ultimately found, not far from the house I was raised in) and my flailing sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain and tragedy. It was about my parents, my inability to
leave Boston because of a friend’s battle with cancer, my fragile marriage and my mundane indecision.

Before I uploaded it, I showed the poem to Neil, my personal kerfuffle filter. His red flags didn’t wave. He recognised the poem’s ingredients and commented on the punctuation and we set off for lunch. I called it “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, posted it and read the first few comments. The readers seemed to like it.

By the time I turned on my phone after lunch, the poem had been discovered by the right-wing news sites and the blog had 1,000 comments. One website said it was “the worst poem ever written in the English language”. Even generally lefty Boston journalists wrote op-eds condemning me for daring to write such an insensitive poem at such a sensitive time. Too soon, they said. Too far. Too much.

 

****

What frightened me about the Poem Kerfuffle weren’t the attacks on my poetry skills. It was the realisation that I was more alone than I had thought in my stance on compassion, expression and how we use art to cope with tragedy. How dare you empathise WITH A MURDERER? My Twitter feed had filled up with hate so fast that I couldn’t even read it all. A television news programme referred to me as “a loser”. Someone told me that I should have a bomb shoved up my cunt. An emailed death threat came in, credible enough for me to talk to the police. One concerned Boston journalist found himself “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”.

Distinctions between empathy and jihad­ist leanings were quickly blurred; I was ­labelled a terrorist sympathiser. Some of my local friends told me that they couldn’t stand by “my support of the bombers”. But I wasn’t supporting their actions. I was imagining their feelings. I wasn’t totally alone, however. Most of my friends shook their heads in sadness about the misunderstanding. And slowly, over the next few days, I received a string of emails and voicemails from local Bostonians who wanted to tell me, in private, that they, too, had felt empathy and compassion and even concern for this 19-year-old kid. But they dared not say it aloud.

“He’s exactly my son’s age,” a friend wrote to me. “I can’t not imagine how he must be feeling. It’s heartbreaking. But you don’t blog those things, Amanda. That’s too much.”

Too soon, too far, too much.

I kept running the phrase in my head: “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”. What’s too far? Is there even such a thing?

I believe that to erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of human progress. Erasing the possibility of empathy also threatens to erase the possibility of art. We watch Oedipus Rex not because we celebrate and condone the concept of motherfuckers and father killers but because it is cathartic to see our worst nightmares exposed in a safe context. We do not cheer when the blade cuts deep. We weep. We empathise. And we put the play on over, and over, and over again. These differences are crucial. Empathy is not sympathy and compassion is not condonation. Stage blood is exactly that. We spill it, on the stage and on the page, precisely because we can do it without harm.

I am, perhaps, an extremist in this regard. But I am starting to think that the only true antidote to extreme hate may be extreme love, a radical empathy. Jihads of compassion. Crusades of kindness. A movement in which we attempt to love our enemy . . . Oh, hold on. Jesus already said all that. Wait – did it work?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that it might. In order to practise extreme empathy, you have to be able to empathise with . . . well, anybody. You have to be able to imagine loving and feeling compassion for the worst of the worst. Last year, this philosophy got me into a bit of a tangle with the various editors of my memoir-manifesto, The Art of Asking, when I drafted a section explaining that, yes, you must feel compassion even for the worst of the worst. For Hitler. There. I did it. I played the Hitler Card. But does it still count if I’m using the card not to tear down my opponent, but rather to point out that neither my debate partner nor Hitler is truly my opponent? My editors shook their heads. Frankly, nobody will care, Amanda. Please, take it out.

They won. I took him out of the book.

It is painful to imagine the ingredients – familial, cultural, environmental and mental – that can lead a person to commit actions so atrocious and so unconscionable that we cannot speak of them. But I think it is necessary. As the world grows more extreme, more violent and more polarised, as we wrap ourselves into ever tighter filter bubbles of news and opinion, as we find it easier and easier to divide the world into black, white, us and them – as these things happen, this exercise in imagination becomes increasingly essential. Not just for the artists, the poets, the musicians and the playwrights. For everyone.

On 13 May, the jury in Boston began deliberating over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt and fate. I found myself thinking not about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty but trying to imagine how it would feel to spend days, months, years in isolation, hearing the screams and wails of the guy in the next cell who mutilates himself with razor blades and swallows nail clippers. Trying to imagine how it would feel to be strapped to a gurney as a fellow human being inserts a death needle into both of my arms. I found myself imagining what it must be like to take the witness stand to explain how I looked down to see my own bloody legs lying on the sidewalk ­beside me. And I imagined how it would feel to be on a jury, having to drive home every night after court, my head hitting my pillow knowing that I must, along with 11 others, cast a vote for someone to live or to die. I can’t imagine I was alone in imagining these things.

The Martin Luther King biographer Taylor Branch recently shared a heart-rending piece of history: the last words uttered by one of the three civil rights activists killed by armed Klansmen during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, as they made a road trip to get folks to register to vote. In the moment before he was shot on a dark Southern highway, he said to the Klansman: “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

Then, bam. Dead. Given that his two friends were also shot and killed, you may wonder how we know. We know because the Klansmen who confessed to the murders shared that phrase in their testimonies. Those seven words apparently haunted them.

Frans de Waal, the Dutch primatologist, says: “Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Here’s the thing: I did not and cannot know exactly how that teenage bomber felt. But I will dare to imagine. I must. I believe we all must. I believe it is only through the flexing of that small, frail, imaginary muscle of empathy that we will build the strength to erect a new human architecture on this fragile, fragile planet – a stronger one, one of connectedness and understanding.

Sir, I know just how you feel.

Wishful thinking. But perhaps. One day.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile