Rick Santorum's baby - a follow-up from Mehdi Hasan

Damian Thompson and others on the right are trying to demonise me for reporting a story that Santorum's baby died at childbirth.

The reaction to my recent blogpost, "10 things you didn't know about Rick Santorum...", has prompted me to write this follow-up. In my original post, I covered some of Santorum's outrageous views (he wants to bomb Iran and dismisses global warming as "junk science"), as well as semi-amusing bits of trivia: for example, he is friends with U2's Bono and he once defended the World Wrestling Federation in court.

I also included, without any supporting comment, criticism or rebuke:

8) When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

We live in an era of faux-outrage and Twitterstorms so, predictably, I've since been attacked by a coalition of indignant pundits and pontificators who couldn't be bothered to read what I actually wrote: from Telegraph columnists to left-wing bloggers to right-wing Republicans across the pond. The levels of outrage (outrage!) are on the rise. Anyone would think that (a) I had criticised Santorum for the way in which he handled his son's tragic death, or (b) that I was the first to introduce this story into the public domain (perhaps having rifled through his bins or having hacked into his personal email account). Neither inference is true.

For the record, Karen Santorum, Rick's wife, chronicled both the pregnancy and the wider US partial-birth abortion debate in her 1998 book, Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum. The book takes the form of letters Karen wrote to her unborn son, including the one where she writes:

When the partial-abortion vote comes to the floor of the U.S. Senate for the third time, your daddy needs to proclaim God's message for life with even more strength and devotion to the cause.

In May 2005, in a New York Times magazine profile of Santorum, entitled "The Believer", Michael Sokolove wrote:

What happened after the death is a kind of snapshot of a cultural divide. Some would find it discomforting, strange, even ghoulish -- others brave and deeply spiritual. Rick and Karen Santorum would not let the morgue take the corpse of their newborn; they slept that night in the hospital with their lifeless baby between them. The next day, they took him home. ''Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!" Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero.

In October 2005, in a Philadelphia City Paper profile of Santorum, headlined "The Path of the Righteous", Mike Newall wrote:

Gabriel Michael Santorum lived for only two hours. The Santorums spent the night in the hospital bed with their lifeless baby lying between them. The next morning they brought the palm-sized corpse to Karen's parent's house. They had their other children pose for pictures and cuddle with Gabriel. They sang lullabies and held a private mass.

On 2 January 2012, New York Times columnist, card-carrying conservative and Santorum sympathiser, David Brooks, wrote:

Santorum does not have a secular worldview. This is not just a matter of going to church and home-schooling his children. When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, he and his wife, a neonatal nurse, spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home -- praying over it and welcoming it, with their other kids, into the family. This story tends to be deeply creepy to many secular people but inspiring to many of the more devout.

On 6 January 2012, ABC News published a long, online feature, on the health section of its website, headlined:

Experts: Rick Santorum Grief Is Typical, But Taking Body Home, Unusual

Yet, I'm now being pilloried and castigated for daring to mention this fact (and, that too, in passing!), which (1) has been in the public domain for more than a decade, (2) was introduced into the public domain by Santorum's wife in book form, (3) may have influenced Santorum's votes in the US Senate, and (4) has been discussed, time and again, not just in newspaper profiles of Santorum, but in recent articles by supportive, centre-right journalists (David Brooks) and neutral TV news organisations (ABC News). The whole thing is bizarre; a classic, manufactured, online controversy. As I said at the start, I went out of my way not to criticize Santorum for the way he behaved after this horrible personal tragedy in his life (despite, incidentally, others having done so); I just reported it. And I did so, you might note, in a blogpost called: "10 things you didn't know about Rick Santorum..." - not "10 bad/evil/crazy/right-wing things you didn't know about Rick Santorum"!

One last, semi-related point: oddball Telegraph blogger and columnist Damian Thompson used his piece in Saturday's paper to accuse me of "exploiting the death of [Santorum's] premature son, Gabriel, to score a political point" and of being "weird and sinister". The words pot, kettle and black come to mind. He deliberately mispresented my blogpost to score his own crude, political point against "Lefties". Oh, and it's a bit rich for Thompson, of all people, to accuse others of publishing "weird and sinister" blogposts.

How about this, from Thompson, entitled, "The Calais 'jungle' and the Islamic settlement of Britain":

How interesting that French police waited until the end of Ramadan before forcibly dismantling the Calais "jungle". That tells us something we really need to remember about a huge proportion of the illegal immigrants seeking to enter Britain: that they are pious Muslims.

Pious Muslims! Outrageous! How about this blogpost from Thompson, entitled:

Indulgence of Islam is harming society

(Btw, can you imagine a headline which read "Indulgence of Judaism is harming society" or "Indulgence of black people is harming society"?)

And in a blogpost on the supposed popularity of the BNP's odious views, Thompson wrote:

The Tories have not made immigration and Islam central to their policies. It's too early to do so, if they want to sanitise their image among middle-class voters. Also, they lack the insight or the courage to recognise that the two issues will soon be indivisible. The tragedy for this country is that it is now, not in ten years' time when our social fabric has been torn to pieces, that voters need a political party to do so.

On second thoughts, "weird and sinister" doesn't do justice to Thompson's persistent Islam-baiting.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change