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American idol

The roots of Obama's popularity are not hard to find. After eight years of dangerous American nation

The president, we read, is “dashing and attractive”, “quick in thought and admirably articulate . . . eager to hear both sides of a controversial issue before he reaches his own conclusion”. Not Barack Obama, though all those things have been said of him, but Jack Kennedy, the last US president with whom the British fell in love, as reported in the Times in 1960.

The comparison in coverage is illuminating, in part for the many similarities. Like Obama, Kennedy was young and good-looking and had an attractive wife who was recognised as a stylish dresser. The Kennedys also came to power during a national mood swing. Like Obama, Kennedy scored a first – in his case, the first Catholic to occupy the White House – and, like the Obamas, the Kennedys’ glamour earned them an attention that went beyond their politics. As the Times reported in June 1961, when the Kennedys arrived in Britain, crowds gathered in front of Buckingham Palace shouting, “We want Jack,” until their hero appeared on the balcony.

But if the Times allowed itself some coy observations on Kennedy’s “exuberant smile” and his “appeal to the women’s vote”, its coverage remained sedate. In those distant days before Andy Warhol predicted that everyone in the world would be famous for 15 minutes, before the fetid churn of celeb culture infected the world of politics, Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis still took precedence over the assessment of his personal charms or his wife’s shopping habits. Nothing the Times wrote about Kennedy had the breathless quality of its description of today’s president: “Obama steps on to the stage, rangy, handsome and composed, a thin dark knight come to reclaim Camelot . . .”

Britain’s Obamania is shaped in a different context. The roots of his popularity are not hard to find. After eight years of highly ideologised and dangerous American nationalism, the sharp rupture with the Bush years is cause for celebration. The arrival of a president who can speak in complete sentences and who promises a return to reason, negotiation and moderation, and of a black man who embodies redemption for an unhappy America that many had come to loathe and fear, was bound to lift the spirits. That America, grown disillusioned and ashamed of the Bush years, has the chance to make a fresh start can only be a relief. Hope is back in fashion.

In this country, where Obamania broke out as a fully fledged fever, Obama offered the chance to hold on to the illusion that Britain is the US’s best friend, without the stigma that serving as handmaiden to the old regime brought. Perhaps our nearly bankrupt country, scarred and humiliated by Tony Blair’s love affair with George W Bush, could share in America’s rejuvenation and the promise of redemption-by-association. For Labour, it might offer a facelift to an ageing government; for the Tories, a boost by proxy to the idea that it was time for a new and younger face at the top. To a population without much to cheer in sport, with empty wallets and a future that promised little but ever greater indebtedness, Obama held out a rare opportunity to believe in political leadership and the hope that someone could show the way out of the nightmare.

How else to understand the bipartisan gush – untrammelled, it seems, by political reservations – which greeted Obama’s one visit here last year and threatened to break out again as the Obamas arrived on 31 March for Gordon Brown’s G20 summit? Even the Queen appeared to want to be in on the show, inviting the Obamas for a meeting normally reserved for leaders explicitly making state visits. Look, they seemed to be saying, we are putting out the best china. Now you must surely love us.

Yet these are fragile hopes, and their vulnerability showed in the mood swings of the British press. After the Blair years, when Britain embroiled itself in the worst the US can do, politically and economically, there lingers the queasy suspicion that we could be left with the stigma of the Bush legacy while the US emerges from its ritual political cleansing in a new and lovable form. Being the handmaiden of one president has tarnished our sense of self. Is adoring the new one really enough to bring the shine back?

For us, there is no easy redemption by proxy and there are painful limits to the possibilities of vicarious rejuvenation. There has been no political catharsis in the UK and none is in prospect. The electorate may want a change, but the best that is on offer is a change of personalities. Who can pretend that the Tories represent a repudiation of Labour’s military adventurism or financial recklessness, when the traces of their opposition to the most discredited of Labour’s policies are so slight? A change of regime here would merely underline the lack of rupture, a demoralising continuity instead of a fresh start.

Britain’s crush on Obama threatens to exacerbate this malaise. The press veers unsteadily between searching for hints that Obama thinks we are special and the fear that he does not. When Gordon Brown became the first head of government to get through the new administration’s door, right-wing commentators did not know what to do first – cheer this reassuring token of Britain’s importance or sneer at the Prime Minister for seeking it.

When the visit took place, the confusion only deepened. Brown was never going to photograph well standing next to Obama, and British national pride at the meeting was haunted by the fear that the contrast between the two men would be a national humiliation. In an exercise in self-flagellation that would have been comic, were it not so mortifying, the meeting was dissected less for its content than for the quality of its tailoring and body language. Did the Prime Minister cross his legs? What did he do with his hands? Was his shirt up to snuff? The Times reported excitedly that “Mr Obama had helpfully reinforced the impression of togetherness by dressing in almost identical fashion to the Prime Minister: dark-blue suit, white shirt, black shoes, blue tie”. Was a 22-minute question-and-answer session for the British media in the Oval Office as good as the twin-flag press conference they had been promised?

When it came to Brown’s address to Congress, the Times was similarly torn between fear and hope as it nervously assessed the Prime Minister’s chances of matching up to the “world’s best orator”. Obama had addressed both houses of Congress “faultlessly, stirringly, pointedly and passionately”. In case Brown let us all down, they advised that “it would be a mistake to reach for rhetorical power in imitation”.

It was over Presentgate, however, that the British commentators really became unhinged, in a collective reaction that brought to mind a dowdy schoolgirl who fears that the most popular girl in the class despises her, but who cannot resist dreaming of being the star’s best friend. Every head of state or government builds up an embarrassing collection of ritual gifts for which no earthly use can be found. In the entrance hall of Windsor Castle, for instance, there sits an astonishingly kitsch metal grasshopper that opens to reveal a cocktail cabinet. It was a gift from a French president to Her Hapless Majesty, who, unaccountably, failed to make space for it in the state apartments.

Such offerings, however hideous or inappropriate, rarely threaten to precipitate a national nervous breakdown, but the British press outrage when the Obamas’ personal gifts to the Browns on that highly charged Washington visit were judged inferior narrowly missed assuming the status of a diplomatic incident. The DVD

collection from Barack to Gordon was “about as exciting as a pair of socks”, according to the Daily Mail, and the Times found it necessary to complain that Michelle Obama’s present of toy helicopters to the Brown sons was “solipsistic” and “inherently dismissive”. For the Daily Mail, it was a chance to humiliate Brown, with the nation’s dignity as collateral damage. The Daily Telegraph, not noted for its unconditional support of the Prime Minister, and which earlier had praised Obama’s “effortless eloquence and, more important, pitch-perfect judgement”, now complained that “President Obama has been rudeness personified towards Britain” and that “his handling of the visit of the Prime Minister to Washington was appalling”.

The imagined insults are the stigmata of the martyred also-ran who still imagines walking with champions, but they are also the product of the cultural shift that has taken place since Londoners gathered to cheer Jack Kennedy’s appearance in 1961. Today’s celebrity industry, with its insatiable appetite for manufactured scandal and synthetic novelty, can make fortunes for those who know how to exact the rent. But it has metastasised so far beyond the gossip columns that it has infected and trivialised the national conversation.

After two decades of conditioning by celebrity culture, we seem ready to live our national hopes and fears through the image of a stranger. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the G20 summit, the Gordon-loves-Barack/Barack-snubs-Gordon game will go on.

Isabel Hilton is editor of Chinadialogue.net

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

Stuart Ramson for Lumos
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“It’s probably the thing of which I am most proud”: J K Rowling in conversation with Eddie Redmayne

The Harry Potter creator talks to the star of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them about her work with the Lumos charity and the urgent need to end the institutionalisation of children.

EDDIE REDMAYNE: Good evening, good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I am so excited that you are excited! Welcome to Carnegie Hall and – thank you! – Welcome to a very what I hope is a very special evening. More than 25 years ago, an author put pen to paper and created one of the most extraordinary stories that the world has ever seen. Her astounding imagination continues to thrill us, it captivates us, it enthrals us, it moves us, and it leaves us wanting more. And tonight ladies and gentlemen. . . there will be more.

But ten years ago, an unimaginable image and an unthinkable story propelled her down a very different path – where the lives of millions of voiceless children would need saving. The author is J K Rowling, and the path is Lumos.

Tonight, we will cast a light on eight million hidden children around the world who desperately need our help. 

FILM – NARRATED BY J K ROWLING: A child’s life is so much more than the sum of its parts ‐ and the love a family brings holds everything together. From the very beginning, a child thrives on individual care and attention. A baby quickly forges a bond with loving parents – and because of this bond the brain develops with remarkable speed and complexity. Within a safe, secure and stimulating environment a child gets the most out of life; in play, education and friendship their personalities develop freely within safe bounds. But this picture of childhood can be a fragile one. Conflict and disaster can destroy the foundations of family life. When countries suffer the effects of extreme poverty, the bond which holds families together can easily be broken apart. In these circumstances, families can feel they have no choice but to place their child into a so-called orphanage, especially if the child is disabled and needs care the family cannot afford. Community support alternatives may not even exist. That orphanages do exist locally may convince desperate parents that there is no alternative. But once a child enters an orphanage, a very different picture of childhood can emerge. A child must now compete for the unique attention they crave. A lack of individual care harms babies and affects their infant brains at a critical stage. Any schooling they receive is no compensation for the parental love they are denied, and children can become cut off from the world. Ill-prepared for life outside they have very poor life chances, and they are much more likely to fall victim to abuse and crime once they leave an orphanage. And we know there are at least 8 million of these children worldwide. But there is hope ‐ and it lies at the very heart of the problem. 80 per cent of children in orphanages are not in fact orphans but have parents or extended families who could care for them, given some support. And by better channelling of existing donations, we can support these vulnerable children at home. By directing funds away from so-called orphanages we can transform systems of care; we can establish community‐based services and prevent these places from ever taking root. Community‐based services are a better investment for donors: they are more cost efficient than residential care and reward children and communities in the long run. Placing children into orphanages is a choice and not a necessity; it is preventable and reversible. And by giving communities options in how they support families, we can change the lives of millions of children and give them strong beginnings ‐ and the futures they deserve.

ER: So now to hear more about Lumos and its life-changing work, please welcome to the stage its founder. Ladies and gentlemen, the extraordinary J K Rowling.

JKR: Thank you, thank you very much.

ER: So here we are!

JKR: Here we are!

ER: This is a big deal. We’re playing Carnegie Hall!

JKR: We are, yes. It’s actually my second time!

ER: Really? Alright, so in a short while we get to show these people our little movie.

JKR: Yeah, which is exciting and a little bit terrifying.

ER: And we will get onto talking about that in a little bit. But first, the reason we’re all here. So we’ve just seen this film – this is clearly a massive humanitarian issue, and a gigantic undertaking. I wondered: why this issue? Why is it so close to your heart?

JKR: Well, I think Eddie said it really well in his introduction – truth is that I saw a newspaper story about a very small boy, he was seven years old and he was effectively being kept in a cage. And I was pregnant at the time and I saw this image in the newspaper, and it was such a shocking image of this child – holding onto wire and screaming – that I went to turn the page. I went to turn the page because it was painful to look at, and I felt very ashamed. As I went to the page, I thought: No, no, you have to read the story, and if it’s as bad as it looks, you gotta do something about it. So I read the story, and it was even worse than it looked.

So to cut a very long story short, I pulled out the news story – which was all about an institution in the Czech Republic where very young children were being kept in appalling conditions. I went home the next day, Monday, [and] I started to write letters to anyone I could think of – MPs, and MEPs, and the president of the Czech Republic. I wrote to everyone I could think of, and that led me to connecting with experts in this field, and the creation of Lumos.

ER: And so there are eight million children living in orphanages worldwide –

JKR: That we know that we know of! See, I think what’s staggering with. . . what was amazing to me when I first began finding out about this these issues, you think how could eight million children be going through this and we don’t know? But a very small amount of thought shows you they are – as you just said – so voiceless. They are literally hidden from sight. So in fact eight million may be a conservative estimate – there may be more children who have been taken from families that we don’t know about, because record-keeping tends to be poor, which is one of the problems.

ER: And they are institutions that we are saying are harmful to children – I suppose, I imagine, not everyone agrees?

JKR: Absolutely so it is completely understandable that we – and by ‘we’ I mean wealthy Westerners – we may have an idea that institutions are kind. Kind in that otherwise perhaps the child will be on the street, or the child is alone. That’s completely understandable. We tend to have that image in our minds from movies, like Annie, that orphanages can be kind of fun! Actually, that’s not true – even the well-run ones are proven, as we saw in that short film, to do often irreparable harm. You will know, because he has – you have a baby now, who is five months old?

ER: Yup.

JKR: And you will know, as I know as all of us who have anything to do with small children know: that they are hard-wired to demand love. They just come out looking for it, because that’s what they need for brain development. And as was shown in this movie, we know that children who are raised in institutions suffer developmental delays, they tend to be physically stunted, they normally have psychological trauma… it is just not what nature intended for children to be herded together, and not given individual love and care.

ER: And are there sort of studies and statistics which support [this]?

JKR: Absolutely, so I’m not just saying this – plucking this out of the air to tell you. We have 80 years of research now that shows very, very clearly – all the research agrees – that this is very harmful. And in fact Lumos works with scientists in the field who can show you brain scans, showing the difference between a child that’s come from an institution and a child has been raised in a family.

As the movie showed, one large recent study shows that children who come out of institutions were six times more likely to have been abused;

10 times more likely to enter prostitution; 40 times more likely to have a criminal record.

And they were 500 times more likely to kill themselves. So you see we do have this enormous bank of research telling us that we are allowing or even inadvertently causing children to be harmed.

ER: For me, one of the complicated things get my head round – and, I suppose, for people in developed countries like the US or the UK in which institutionalisation is a thing of the past – one of the things we struggle with is there’s this sort of disconnect in terms of how we view orphanages.

JKR: I completely agree. I think a small amount of thought shows us if you imagine what would happen – God forbid – were a terrible natural disaster to hit New York tonight, everyone I think would immediately think “Well, the important thing is I keep my loved ones close to me, we stay together and we get the support we need to rebuild our business, find ourselves a home”… When we put ourselves and our families in that in that mentally in that position we understand. However, what’s happening across the developed world is disaster hits and families are immediately pulled apart: “we’ll take those children from you.” Now, imagine that, in the wake of the disaster, people come to you and say: “that child will get fed only if you give me that child.” And we keep propping up the system, and it’s causing a huge amount of damage.

ER: And so is that why families are being torn apart? Why do parents give them up?

JKR: Right, exactly – for many people, that’s the key question. So when I tell people [that] 80 per cent of these children have parents, then an understandable reaction is “what loving parent could give up their child to one of these places?” But we know that there are three main drivers into institutions. The biggest one, the overwhelming one, is poverty.

So parents who make themselves literally be starving are told “if you want to feed that child, we will take it to the institution – the child will get food in the institution.” So they literally believe “that’s how my child will be fed and survive – I’ll have to give the child.” The other one is disability. We find in the developed world, and certainly this was the case in Eastern Europe, where we’re doing a lot of work, children with disabilities were not integrated. And so parents again were told “if you want medical assistance for a disabled child, or if you want that child educated they have to go into the institution.”

And then the third driver is natural disaster, and this is where a very nasty aspect of institutionalisation comes in. It is often the case in the developed world, the so-called orphanages are run as businesses, and that effectively children are trafficked for profit because we Westerners are generous and we can we give a lot of money to these orphanages. And unfortunately there are very unscrupulous people, who in the wake of disasters use it as an opportunity to get children and corral children as a magnet for foreign money, rather than putting the money into systems of care that would keep families together. So since 2010, there has been a 700 per cent increase in children in institutions in Haiti. 

ER: So, for me. . . what’s the solution? How does one go about it?

JKR: Obviously this is this is a massive issue, a massive issue. And, as you would imagine, the solution is complex but – I bring you hope! This is an entirely solvable issue. This is entirely solvable, and we know how to do it. Doesn’t mean it’s easy – but we know how to do it. So it’s a two-part problem: first of all we have these children, some of them living in truly appalling conditions, whom we need to rescue.

The other part of the issue is we need to stop children going into those institutions in the first place, ever again. Lumos’ ambition – and we believe it’s achievable – is that by 2050 we will have ended institutionalisation globally. Now, that’s going to be a huge amount of work, clearly, but a lot of us are really up for that. So, first thing is we need to put into place different systems of care, and some very good news is institutions are very, very, expensive to run. And if we just redirected the funds that are being pumped into institutions, that alone would enable better systems of care to be set up.

But you also need a lot of expertise, and what we do with Lumos is, we work with people in country who are already trying to change these systems. So that’s the point I always really like to get across, we are not moving into countries and saying: “let us show you how it’s done.” We are walking into countries because in all of these countries there are experts, who know the system’s wrong, but they don’t have the money and they don’t have the clout, and they aren’t connected with the kind of people who can help them change systems. We can go in and help them do, that so that’s what we do. We go in and we try and affect the change.

We also do things like – I mean, we’ve provided urgent medical assistance to children we’ve found in very, very bad situations and so on. So it’s multi-layered, and then the other thing we do is advocacy, so we work with places like the UN and the EU to change policy, to stop this being the default position when disasters happen.

ER: I think I read that every year, particularly in this country [the US], millions of dollars are being given to orphanages.

JKR: That’s right. I have these notes because I want to get the figures right – because normally I just make it up out of my head, like people say “how many house elves are in the Hogwarts kitchen?” and I just [gestures]. But this is really important – I’m not saying house elves aren’t important, they clearly have been massive in my life, they mean a lot to a lot of people. . .

But I want to get this right because this is this important. So, this is an incredible figure: this is how much Americans give to charity annually – how awesome are Americans? – The answer is $375bn. So I mean that is phenomenal, that’s phenomenal and just warms ones heart to think about the generosity. Now, that money was given with the absolute best possible intentions. There’s not one person here tonight, I know, of any age, that does not want to help a child in trouble. It’s a human instinct that we all have.

We know that that money drove a lot of children into orphanages who probably didn’t need to be – well, no child needs to be in an orphanage. But we know that it created a drive-in. And, so what I would like, even if you never give us another penny – I’m so grateful for what you have given us tonight, we will always be able to use money very effectively because these children have very complex needs.

But even if you never give us another penny, if you just walk out of here tonight and explain to people that donating to orphanages or volunteering and orphanages is sometimes propping up some very corrupt people making a lot of money, and if you give your money to community-based services you can actually help ten times as many children. Just checking my notes – ten times as many children.

ER: You mentioned Haiti – that is somewhere that is obviously in our minds of the moment.

JKR: It is, hugely in our minds. In my mind a lot at the moment because, we know and I have more figures here – these are new figures to me, because obviously there’s recently been an absolute catastrophe there. So we now know that there are 30,000 children institutionalised, and the same statistic I keep quoting still applies: the overwhelming majority of those children have at least one parent, and these are families whose livelihoods have been swept away, these are families who were so desperate that they thought that was the only way they were going to keep that child alive. Which is an absolutely heart-breaking thing to me and I know it will be to you also.

There is a lot of corruption in Haiti, and we know that there are people who are called child finders – not childminders – these child finders are out there persuading parents to give up their children to orphanages, and making lots of promises to them about what they can do for that child in terms of protection and care. And those children are not receiving protection and care – rather the reverse.

We know that a lot of child trafficking is going on, and we also know that for each child in an orphanage in Haiti, currently each child is attracting six thousand dollars’ worth of foreign aid, and that’s why it is becoming a business. So people with the best possible intentions are giving money, and I think they might be horrified to see what’s going on. So what I’m saying to you is, for God’s sake don’t stop giving money, but give it right. Give it to NGOs that are working to give people back livelihoods and to support communities, not to institutions.

ER: And Hurricane Matthew has exacerbated that…

JKR: Hurricane Matthew was, as we all know, an absolute nightmare: half a million people lost their livelihoods, we have 900 dead, and it will – unless we intervene in the correct way – continue to prop up this very damaging system. And I will say this because I would like you all to know, that I put my money where my mouth is: I gave a million pounds last week to Haiti to support community-based services. And I’m not saying it for that reason – I kind of cringe slightly as I even say that – because I’m not saying it for that reason. I’m saying that I’m not asking anyone to give where I’m not already giving, but Haiti is a particular catastrophe and I wanted to give extra funds to Haiti right now through Lumos, because Lumos is on the ground right now affecting this kind of change, and really looking out for those children in those institutions.

ER: And recently Bonnie Wright and Evanna Lynch – so Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood from the Potter films – who we love! And I think Bonnie is here this evening – but they are two incredibly dedicated Lumos ambassadors, who visited Haiti, and they not only saw the horrific conditions but also they saw the solution that you’ve been talking about Jo and we actually have some footage from the trip here:

FILM – NARRATED BY BONNIE WRIGHT AND EVANNA LYNCH: “Hi, my name is Bonnie Wright and I’m an actress and director. You may know may know me as Ginny Weasley from the Harry Potter films. But today I am here in Haiti with Evanna Lynch, who you may know as Luna Lovegood. We decided to come to Haiti because we’re concerned about the 30 thousand children living here in orphanages instead of at home with their families. 80 percent of these children have families who would care for them but cannot. I was incredibly shocked and upset to find the conditions at the first orphanage we visited. I’ve heard so much about the work that Lumos was doing and from some of the workers here about what these institutions were like, but I think out of this first visit just highlighted how incredibly important Lumos’ work is here in Haiti. The most important thing that I took away from today is that children really need to grow up in families.”

“Without family and without love, children can’t be children. The most important thing as a child is to be with your family, and you have to do everything you can to keep that family unit in place.”

ER: Those are pretty profoundly powerful images.

JKR: They are, they are but you know… we’re obviously doing a lot of work in Latin America now, it’s an area that does have a problem with institutionalisation. But we are very hopeful at Lumos that we could reach a tipping point in five years or so, where we can we can change policy. We are very hopeful that by 2035 – if we can get the funds – we will be able to stop institutionalisation in Latin America. We believe that.

ER: So it’s solvable?

JKR: It is solvable. It sounds overwhelming when you think of that number of children, and the complexity – I’m not denying the solutions are complex. But Lumos is working with absolute experts in this field. They know what they’re doing, they know how to make it work, and what they need are the funds and the support. And the last thing I would say – particularly to young people in the audience today – I would reiterate: we need to change minds.

We need to change minds, because while people are putting money into these orphanages and while people are volunteering in orphanages, a lot of corruption flourishes around those institutions. There is a sense that we are, as ever with the best intentions, propping up something that’s very damaging. Those children should be with their families, and if they can’t be with families, foster care, or adoption, or supported living in small family-style units are all proven to be the best possible alternatives.

ER: What can we do? Tell us what we can do!

JKR: I think its two-part as I say so number one, I am going to firstly say I could not be more grateful all of you being here tonight. You’ve already done the most enormous amount for us to raise money for us and thank you, thank you. So fifty percent of what you can do: if you want to fundraise for us, I will be forever in your debt.

The other half though as I say is, if everyone who is here tonight walked out of here and said: “I get the issue! I know that institutionalisation is wrong, and in future when I donate, when I hear a friend donating, and saying they want to give some money away at Christmas, I will say “not the orphanages.”” But look, if you want to give it to a child in the developing world, look at community-based services. We’re not the only NGO working in the field, we are one of several, so do a little bit of research and make sure that you are supporting families to stay together.

ER: We will spread the word, we will spread the word. That is our job, to spread the word. And I’ve got to say, having known so little about it before, it’s an extraordinary thing and it’s a complicated thing, but as you say solvable. And you must be incredibly proud of the work that Lumos are doing.

JKR: I am – it’s probably the thing of which I am most proud.

This conversation took place on 12 November 2016 at Carnegie Hall, New York City.

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: wearelumos.org