We ain't seen nothin' yet'

The battle between Clinton and Obama has been peculiarly unpleasant. Just wait, says our US editor,

You can't even take your dog for a walk in Georgetown without seeing them. The signs for Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that sprout from immaculately manicured lawns are strikingly simple: the legend "Obama '08" stands out from a dark-blue background, topped by a symbolic sun rising from patriotic red-and-white rays. It's the same in similarly all-white, wealthy DC neighbourhoods such as Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase. But drive a few minutes into almost entirely black or Latino areas of the city, and there is nary an Obama sign to be seen.

Yes, this is a truly complicated election. We will come to the convoluted role race is playing in it in a moment. But it is positively surreal, meantime, to be told by normally rational and informed friends in Britain that America is in the midst of a glorious democratic uprising that is being led by this phenomenally messianic figure called Barack Obama.

Even Jack Straw seemed to have caught this fever when he breezed in to town a few days ago and gushed to a DC audience about "your enviable notion of civic duty". When I pressed him about what he meant by this admirable American trait, he replied: "For example, an obligation to take part in the democratic system." It would not have seemed kind (and I was shut up by the chairman, in any case) to bring Straw back down to earth by telling him that only 70-75 per cent of Americans even bother to register to vote, or that voter turnout averages 76 per cent in Britain and 54 per cent in the US.

Perhaps it will be higher this year. But you know Brits do not fully understand what is going on here when William Rees-Mogg thunders in the Times that it is now "hard to see" who can stop Obama from becoming the next president because, "like Kennedy, he is young and speaks for the new generation of American politics". Eh? Never mind that JFK had won four Second World War medals, served six years in the House of Representatives, eight in the Senate, almost three years as US president, and was dead and buried before he had even reached Obama's present age.

Before we go any further, however, a reality check. National polls indicate that the next president will be . . . John McCain, Obama, or Clinton (in that order, but none separated by more than 2.4 percentage points, and all thus within statistical margins of error). At the time of writing, while the outcome of the Democratic primaries in Hawaii and Wisconsin is not yet clear, the latest amalgamated national polls for the Democrats have Obama at 45.2 per cent and Clinton at 43.2 per cent. The winning candidate must land the crucial figure of 2,025 delegates; last Monday evening, Obama had 1,302 delegates and Clinton 1,235. But it is all wildly volatile.

Clinton's team has been beset by internal squabbling, departures and money problems, sure signs that a campaign is in trouble. But polls (and, yes, they may change) suggest that Clinton is ahead of Obama in the next two critical primaries, in Texas and Ohio on 4 March (which have 389 delegates between them); yet even if she wins both, the Clinton campaign expects her still to be trailing Obama.


But then there will be 12 more primaries or caucuses still to come, the last in Puerto Rico on 7 June. If deadlock remains, the Obama and Clinton campaigns will fight a furious battle over whether Democrats in Michigan and Florida (with 366 delegates between them) should go to the polls again - or whether the votes in those states on 15 and 29 January respectively, which Clinton won by 15.5 and 16.7 points, should stand (but which party rules forbid).

Finally, the decision could be delayed until the party convention in Denver in August and lie in the hands of the 795 "super-delegates" whom both sides are now frantically wooing.

Not least, alas, by financial inducements. The non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics says that Obama has doled out $698,200 to the campaign funds of super-delegates (via his political action or campaign committees) since 2005; 43 per cent of those pledged to support him have been recipients of Obama funds. Clinton's team has handed over $205,500 to super-delegates, meanwhile, and received only 13 per cent of pledges from recipients.

Yet, ironically, the US media is waking up to some of the realities about Obama just as British enthusiasm is peaking. Jake Tapper of ABC likens Obama's supporters to Hare Krishna chanters. Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times says that at first he was mesmerised by Obama's nonsensical lines ("We are the ones we've been waiting for"), but now talks about the "Cult of Obama" and "Obamaphilia". The reality of Obama, Stein concludes, is that he is a politician who is "not a brave one taking risky positions like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, but a mainstream one".

That is the point which so many commentators, both here and in the UK, have been missing. You have to have lived here for a decade or two before you fully understand why the evil legacy of slavery will be extant for generations to come. You just have to read the 1848 "Black Code" of Georgetown to begin to comprehend the sheer wickedness of what was happening in my own neighbourhood 150 years ago.

Crucially, however, Obama is not a descendant of slaves. He is a biracial, prep-schooled Ivy Leaguer whose upbringing in Hawaii was in effect white; his entire political career has been choreographed by David Axelrod, a political tactician described by the New York Times as "post-ideological", from the day they first met when Obama was just 30 (and four years before the publication of his first memoirs).

Fast-forward to the 2008 election. David Greenberg, of Rutgers University, who is at present writing a book about political spin, says of Obama that "no one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's", but that supporting Obama makes whites "feel good about themselves" and their country. "He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever," he says.

In contrast, Greenberg adds, the media barely noticed when Hillary Clinton became the first woman in US history to win a major-party primary. Exit-poll data bears out exactly the bias Greenberg detects. In Virginia - Virginia! - white men voted more for Obama than Clinton, as they also did in nine other states. Yet in racial melting-pot states such as Nevada, California, Massachusetts and New York, it was Clinton who won; it is the whitest states that are the wildest about Obama (such as Idaho, which the latest census figures show to be 96.8 per cent white, where he beat Clinton 79-17 per cent).

Those earning less than $50,000 a year are consistently voting for Clinton, while Obama is scoring resoundingly with the so-called "millennium generation" earning over $150,000; the journalists who have been so starry-eyed about Obama fit neatly into the latter demographic bracket themselves, and seem to have avoided scrutinising Obama's record lest they be accused of racism. Michelle Obama, too, is still being afforded constant favourable exposure. In contrast, it is open season on both Clintons, the most scrutinised couple in history; for Hillary's candidature, Bill and the prospect of his being back in the White House have become her biggest liabilities.

Perversely, therefore, the brilliance of the Axelrod strategy has meant that Obama has become the beneficiary of America's racist history, while Clinton has been the victim of its sexism. The Obama team's deft use of race has also worked magic. Hillary Clinton said on 7 January that Martin Luther King's dream needed to be realised in concert with Lyndon B Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964, and on the same day her husband dismissed Obama's claims of consistent opposition to the Iraq War as "a fairy tale"; an Obama press aide seized the moment and put out a four-page memo that somehow accused the couple of using racist tactics against Obama.

A thorough swiftboating

That label has stuck ever since (although, char acteristically, Obama and Axelrod subsequently disowned the memo); and the African-American vote, which was once solidly Clinton's, swung dramatically to Obama. In what may have been a sign that he has lost his old touch, Bill Clinton later made the fatal mistake of likening Obama's victory in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson in 1988 - a comparison Jackson himself nonetheless thought perfectly reasonable - and the "racist" smear by Obama's camp had stuck for posterity.

Whether McCain's opponent is Obama or Clinton, however, either can expect a thorough swiftboating by the Republicans in the run-up to the 4 November election, just as the characters of Al Gore and John Kerry were torn to shreds in 2000 and 2004. Obama will be slain for his inexperience and for making things up in his memoirs; Clinton for being a "strident" woman (a sexist code word if ever there was one) who stayed inexplicably married to the biggest monster of all time, Bill.

The Republicans held their first 2008 electoral war conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel over the 16-18 February holiday weekend, and Axelrod's nemesis, Karl Rove, was in attendance. This year's battle between the Democrats is already peculiarly unpleasant. But, in the words of the legendary Old Gipper, whose name will be endlessly evoked by every Republican for the next nine months, we ain't seen nothing yet.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

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