Higgins destroys Tea Partier

Irish president goes head-to-head with conservative radio host

Back in 2010, Michael Graham, a conservative American talk show host, interviewed Michael Higgins, president of Ireland. The interview (which you can listen to here) has recently gone viral, perhaps because the President’s indictment of the American right is ever the more relevant as election day looms.

Higgins incited the showdown by saying, “they deserve our support, the people Gaza”. Predictably, this spurred Graham into Tea Party mode. The interviewer retorted:

I wanna ask, why is it that when the withdrawal occurred why is it that almost the next day rockets started pouring into Israel?

The Irish President then went on to accuse Graham of ignorance (a theme that marked pretty much all twenty minutes of the interview)

Well of course it didn't happen that way, I was in Gaza five weeks after the withdrawal. I can tell you, this is the difference, i know the kind of stuff you're on.

To which Graham, rather unaware of the ass-kicking that would ensue, semi-humourously replied:

I’m proud to say it's Guinness

And so Higgins went on:

They should patent it because it's having an effect I've never heard before. The point is, I was in Gaza. I was there with Andreas van Aaght, the former prime minister of Holland, and six others. We had our own translator, our own bus. We spent about two weeks generally in Israel and going into Gaza. And the rockets did not start immediately, not at all. You're talking about Sderot, which I also visited. And in fact for several months before the invasion of Gaza there were no rockets at all. And what people are continually saying now is that you have an equal proportion of violence between supporters of Hamas and Israel. The response of Israel, if you look at the number of Palestinians (they don't 'call themselves Palestinians' they are Palestinians), you're talking about their homeland and you're talking about the West Bank, you're talking about people. And you're right about it, the children of Abraham for example, which include the Jewish people as well, all occupied the same place. But the issue is one of respect for the rights of Palestinian people to live in peace. The particular suggestion that has been around for some time is the creation of two states. You could never have created a state in Gaza. For example, you speak about the withdrawal. The withdrawal didn't include, for example, control over the sea ports, the right to land a plane. It didn't include control over the borders. What it did was it took the road blocks out of the internal part o Gaza and it increased a great deal of security on the border. So Gaza needed to be contiguous and connected to the West Bank, you needed to give that state the right to take its decision that any other state would. And then you'd be getting somewhere.

He concludes that Graham-type ignorance is the bane of US foreign policy:

But frankly, you know what it is - I’ve listened to you very carefully - the contribution of the fundamentalist madness from the United States into the Israelis is probably one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the region.

But Graham didn’t quite get it, and insistently kept asking Higgins “why the people of Gaza” kept “firing at Israels”. Higgins dealt a low blow:

You're onto the Sarah Palin madness now.

Graham took offence, of course, and went on a rant against how the President – and Europeans more generally – are anti-Semitic Hamas supporters. Higgins reacted to the rant by elaborating on the previous ‘Palin’ jab:

Both of you have the same tactic - the tactic is to get a large crowd, whip them up, try and discover its greatest fear, work on that and feed it back, and you get a frenzy. (…) You have one of the most gifted presidents (…) you regard someone that has been a professor at Harvard as handicapped but don't find anything wrong at all with this tea party ignorance that has been brought all around the united states which is regularly insulting people who have been democratically elected.

After being accused of ignorance regarding the Tea Party, the President went on:

I lived in the Midwest, in Willie Nelson country, I was a student there at the end 60s and a professor in Illinois into the 70s. The magnificent, decent, generous people of the United States (…) the difference between them and the tiny elite that are in charge of the warmongering foreign policy of the United States is just enormous. When you go on your picnic around the country you are not representing the decent United States people who are very proud, correctly, of the president they've elected.

Graham insisted on going back to initial issue, asking Higgins about the ships that were captured en route to Gaza with “loads of weapons (…) from Iran". When pressed about which ships, exactly, the interviewer was at a loss… “From Iran”?? Higgins pounced at this:

As you get farther and farther away from the facts you'll be able to increase the number of ships. The ship that my colleagues are on is called the Rachel Corrie. Who is Rachel Corrie? Why is it called Rachel Corrie? Because Rachel Corrie was bulldosed into the ground as a peace worker. But she doesn't matter. You’re not dealing with facts.

Graham replied:

I’ll keep quoting facts and you keep quoting propaganda

This clearly ruffled Higgins’ feathers:

You're talking about ships you don't know the name of, you don't know the number of. You’re really a good student of that kind of journalism that says, 'if I can get away with it’s good, if I can work people up its even better'. This is very very dangerous stuff. For example, how can you say I am in favour of anyone murdering any Jewish people?

Graham then, reflexively, accused Higgins of anti-Semitism, who replied in equal measure:

You're doing your Sarah trick now. Sarah Palin doesn't know where Russia is and she's going to look up at the sky and say 'I’m watching them and they’re coming and threatening you and me and my tea party’s might are going to defend you all. God help America'. (…) This is called the radio of hysterical ignorance. I’ve been in Sderot and I’ve seen the rockets. (…) This is the interesting thing: there were no rockets before the Israeli invasion for nearly nine months. I can tell you the number of rockets that landed in Sderot. Why? Because I went to Sderot and talked to the mayor of Sderot. But you have the neck to say that people like me, who are willing to talk to people and are on each side building peace, are somehow in favour of people who want to murder jewish people. That is an outrageous statement. I am not anti-Semitic, I am not in favour of murder. And unlike you, I make my profession in politics. And I worked in human rights, and I condemn Hamas for rockets. None of that will mater to you. I wish you well - keep drinking Guinness and keep ranting away. But don't suggest that those of us who are working for peace in the heat of the day are somehow interested in murdering Jews.

(…) There’s a man in the United States (…), he represents fourteen Jewish organisations in New York. He organized 45 members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter condemning Barack Obama for giving Mary Robinson the medal of honour. I was debating with him on a program like this. I said to him, ‘how can you conclude that Mary Robsinson is anti-Semitic?' and he said, 'Bishop Tutu, for example, is anti-Semitic as well'. You're going down that road, and really, it is very dangerous stuff. The fact of the matter is that young people form the United States are travelling all over the world again. They’re welcome in Europe, they’re backpackers in hostels. People are talking to them, because the image of the United States  - we've got away from this warmongering - is getting better. There are many mistakes Obama is making. At least 47 million people the likes of you condemned to no health care in a country I was proud to work in. These people are going to have some healthcare.

So therefore be proud to be a decent American rather just be a wanker whipping up fear.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle