Purple America

Jonn Elledge meets the people behind the "Rednecks for Obama" banner, showing that America is a purp

So a girl walks through midtown New York wearing an Obama t-shirt. And a middle aged guy standing outside a bar yells at her, "He's going to lose!"

"I hope not," she replies.

And he yells back, "Vote white, vote white!"

...scared, yet?

This story is a reminder that, for all the talk of red states and blue states, the US simply isn't that simple. There are frustrated Democrats in the inner cities of the south, low-tax Republicans in California - and a few racists at the centre of American liberalism.

And, deep in the interior, there are self-described rednecks campaigning for higher taxes and bigger government. Tony Viessman, for instance, reckons one of the biggest challenges facing America today is creating a healthcare system that actually provides everyone with healthcare. "I'm not worried about socialized anything," he says in a Missouri drawl, "just so long as it's fair."

Viessman and his friend Les Spencer hit the headlines last summer when they started hanging out at Democratic events holding a banner reading 'Rednecks for Obama'. (The Senator, knowing a good photo-op when he sees one, ran 60 yards in the rain to get a picture with them.) They say they were inspired to do it by Obama's intelligence and way with people, as well as his stance on the war.

But what's really motivated them is their disgust with the last eight years of Republican government. During our brief conversation, they find time to express their fury with the Wall Street bail out, the failure to plan for the occupation of Iraq, and the obsession with wedge issues such as abortion. "Bush is the worst president we've had in a long time," says Spencer. "He's taken a lot of the pressure off Hoover."

And middle America, they say, has nothing to fear from Barack Obama. "People say that if you vote Democratic you're gonna lose your guns," says Spencer. "But Obama's gonna support the Second Amendment, there's no doubt about it." Viessman agrees. "There's a few dummies that'll vote because of colour, but we've come a long way in the last fifty years."

These two have attracted a lot of attention, because people don't expect to hear such sentiments from self-described 'rednecks'. But it shouldn't be surprising. Polls show that even in the reddest of red states, Alabama, a third of the electorate will still go for Obama. In liberal Massachusetts, meanwhile, 36% are backing McCain.

In fact, the whole red/blue state paradigm is an invention of the last decade. Bill Clinton won huge swathes of the south; ten years earlier, Ronald Reagan won the liberal strongholds of the north east and west coast.

In the last few days, Barack Obama has extended his campaign to new states such as Montana, North Dakota and even McCain's own Arizona. If he were to do well there, it'd mean the US was a lot more purple than anyone has given it credit for.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.