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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood