It is difficult to imagine the now alternate universe where our lives proceeded uninterrupted by Covid-19. Consider Thursday 7 May 2020. It was supposed to be a rather special day. Londoners were to break from their busy, quick footed trots. Momentarily tearing their eyes from glowing screens or distant, sightless stares to take note of names upon paper. To place their mark before one. They would have cast their vote to determine whom thereafter should have been the Mayor of London. Brexit, transubstantiated via newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s magic this past winter, would have no doubt weighed heavy upon the mayor’s head. Increased knife and acid-based violence was to be top of the list of campaign issues alongside the infinite need for affordable housing, and the merits of a ‘green city’, not to mention the decriminalisation of cannabis. Could the most surveilled city on the planet use another CCTV camera and might Heathrow look good with an extra runway? All this and more would have floated about mental bubbles over the heads of Londoners from Enfield to Croydon.
But this didn’t happen.
Brexit has been usurped as the main, and often only, talking point in 24-hour news and public discourse. This usurper has even forced public discourse to seek the safety of cyberspace. We huddle away in our homes, keeping our distance from those closest to us. Masks and rubber gloves accompany the usual fashion accessories of a coat and brolly before venturing out the front door. A new threat is being slung around out there, commandeering our attention from the threats of acid and knife violence. No doubt, the minds of the electorate were more than preoccupied with the new concerns of our covidy times, and so delaying the election for a year is about as good an idea as what will come out of decisions made during the panicky pandemic. But the question is, can the old issues sit back idly, waiting for us to wade out this storm?
After all, before the civilisational halt ordered by Covid-19, there were indeed various issues of varying degrees of urgency that will require tending to. But, not only has this garden been allowed to run rampant, it has been as shaped by the pandemic as any other element of everyday life. Perhaps the best solution for such a wild garden may be to tear it all up and begin again. Yet, I believe we find that even the soil has been contaminated with the revelations of how unprepared we were that came to light during this nearly global lockdown. Our systems, especially democracy, that supposed perfect realisation of humanity’s ability to govern itself, shines a little less bright, all things considered.
Democracy seems to have a particular problem with minorities. What is represented by the people’s democracy has largely been the interests of white, male, landowners. Later in history, the list of what was to be represented had grown, but only very recently has the representatives elected to represent come from an expanded pool of citizenry. With the rise of female and non-white elected leaders, a new challenge has presented itself. A female leader is not only to represent their constituency, whether or not it is spoken, there is an expectation that they especially represent the women of the constituency and to a certain extent all of femininity in making up for the centuries of repression under the patriarchy. This situation is similar for any elected official from another minority community. And may God have mercy on the poor souls who represent two or more minority communities.
For the incumbent Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, a man notably labelled by a fellow candidate as the ‘mad mullah Khan of Londonistan,’ is caught between Scylla and Charybdis. As this election-that-could-not-be was ramping up questions demanded what Khan was doing for the British Muslim population (as if that community was as united and simply demarcated as the term might suggest). While it is not a new challenge for an elected official to represent their various constituents, especially those of different genders, sexuality, religious identity, nationality, education level, and so on, does a minority leader owe a greater duty to give back to their particular community? And what can we learn from the cruel nature of democracy in attempting this tight rope stunt?
To tease at this particular wickedness of representative democracy it helps if one turns the clock back four years. Khan’s election was a much-needed reprieve from other bewildering electoral phenomena occurring in 2016. Despite the historic milestone of being London’s first Muslim mayor or the son of a London bus driver, supporters were quick to note it was not his appeal to diversity, either ethnic or socioeconomic, but his political promises that saw to his victory. After all, only one eighth of London was Muslim, hardly the force to capture London’s chief office. Yet, many hoped he would reveal the open and accepting nature of the truly international city in the heat of xenophobic accusations following Europe’s response to the refugee crisis spewing out from the civil war in Syria. Khan’s language emphasised the word ‘all’ in reference to those who’s futures he we seeking to better as Mayor of London.
This message of unity would be the stake upon which his opponents sought to burn his career. Whether embarking on dramatically symbolic feats as walking by foot from India to Pakistan or taking to the mosh pit of popular opinion known as Twitter, daring to tweet the word ‘islamophobia’, a cacophony of praise and condemnation would surely follow. In fact, in Tweeting on islamophobia, Khan sought to reassure British Muslims following the tragic attack on the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Following his tweet, which critics claimed should have reassured all Brits, not just one particular group, he went on to write a letter to then Prime Minister Theresa May, pleading that the Tory’s adopt a new definition to islamophobia. Following the Christchurch shooting, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by 593% in the UK. Yet, if Khan did not speak for all of London, he was being less than what his post demanded. If he apologised, or refused to make a statement, he would be accused of being a sell-out, a traitor, or something worse by the minorities for which he stood as exemplar to.
Compounded contradictions. Lose-Lose. What could honestly be expected?
In reviewing Sadiq Khan’s strange conundrum, another example echoes from across the pond. An echo that could not have imagined the narcissistic quality of the United States’ forty-fifth president that would follow. As it was the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama, who faced Khan’s dilemma, but from the black community in the United States. Similar to Khan, Obama’s first speeches after being elected to the Presidency rang to the tune of unity and healing divides within the country, a typical desire after the traumatic event that US elections had become over the last couple of decades. He set himself up as a creation of the romanticised notion of the American ideal. A mixed-race child with a funny name who was not of the establishment, who came from humble beginnings and wanted to see America give opportunity out to others as he was given in his life. Khan also wanted the opportunities afforded to him in London to continue and be able to reach more and more. It is the greatest possible ending to a story of success, when the successor turns around and gives the opportunity he took back to the future, so that others may also succeed. Barack Obama was seemingly plucked from obscurity when he was asked to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Four years before taking the reins of power in the US, Obama said ‘there is not a liberal and a conservative America, there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States of America!’ Then in 2008 he became president and racism officially ended and we all rode off into the sunset. This is the story we wish could be told, but, once again, this was not the timeline we embarked upon.
‘Change we can believe in.’ This was Obama’s campaign slogan in 2008. Change, something so long overdue, especially in an America that had had an eight-year Republican regime driven by two foreign conflicts with no end in sight and an economic catastrophe over a decade in the making with no clear resolution upon the horizon. What members of Obama’s first presidential campaign team didn’t take to mind is that change must come slowly because humans by our nature do not like change, even when we long for it. We are creatures of habit. Creatures of routine. And now a man stood in the White House. A black man. And every day, the 24/7 news media machine reminded millions of Americans that change had happened. Change was the name of the game from the moment Obama hit the ground running. His inauguration, coinciding with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was seen as King’s dream having been realised. The future had arrived. Even the inaugural ball, a typical lovefest of tradition and high-class society, was instead a ‘Neighborhood Inaugural Ball’ that was open to the public. The affair gave off the feel of a block party common in low income neighbourhoods all across the country. Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z performed as the new President shared his first dance with the new First Lady. Black culture was seeing its way into the highest office of the land. Many middle-class white Americans, recently evicted from their homes and finding it hard to get a good job watched the celebration and the continued bail out of Wall Street fat cats. The change that had landed in America for these individuals was not all bread and roses.
On another side of the spectrum, several prominent black thinkers begged a different question. Was Barack Obama black enough to be the first black president. Aside from coming from a mixed family, other elements called into question his credentials as a heroic figure for disenfranchised black Americans. First off, he was raised in Hawaii, a place unlike any other in the US for multiculturalism and in the pursuit of plurality. Then went on to Columbia University, Harvard, and Chicago School of Law. All institutions of prestige and privilege. Despite residing next door to some of the greatest examples of poverty and race/class divide in the country, his degrees gave him the appearance to many as another member of the establishment, primed for the position he would soon take by the powers at be. One did not just rise to influence in a city like Chicago or a state like Illinois. Corruption is more guaranteed than gravity in the Windy City. Then there was the way he talked, the way he walked. The way he held himself. Who was this man really representing? From the first day of his campaign even unto today, he must fight a battle between being both a black man and the representative of the United States, a country whose history has more than once flirted, even bathed in the toxic waste ridden springs of white supremacy. A country so diverse and large and powerful cannot conceivably be properly represented by one man or woman. And for the first time in its over two-hundred-year history, the man in its highest office was asked to do the impossible. To juggle self and nation. To represent the one and the many. The jury of history, if it is wise, will be hung on this issue for many years to come.
Yet, less than a year into his Presidency, Obama faced his first major trial. On 16 July 2009. A black, Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., had just returned home to Cambridge, Massachusetts after a research trip to China. When his taxi dropped him off at his home from the airport, his door was jammed and he was unable to open it. So, Gates, with the assistance of the taxi driver, struggled and eventually opened the door. Neighbours would call the police when seeing two men struggle to open the front door. After the professor had gained entry to his home, Sgt. James Crowley, a white man, of the Cambridge Police Department would arrest Professor Gates for breaking and entering into his own home. In response to this event, Obama made a seemingly innocuous, off the cuff remark, calling members of the Police department involved ‘stupid’. Quickly, the opposition labelled him a cop hater. Worse yet, the Republicans would begin to spin the idea that Obama used his race to weave division into the American psyche. As if he were an evil genius hellbent on a ‘watching the world burn’ type masquerade. Protestors even began wielding signs portraying Obama with the face paint of the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Yet, the night was only to get darker. Obama attempted to quell the scandal by inviting both Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House to share a beer. The press dumbed this the ‘Beer Summit’ and made Obama’s prospect of being able to tackle other diplomatic feats such as peace in the Middle East, Iran, or North Korea as way out of his league. The whole affair went down as a major embarrassment for President Obama and quickly sealed the fate of his new policy on race issues. The controversy and scandal would be much too much and ‘no comment’ was to be the official position. The First Black President simply could not speak on race issues.
This contradiction would number among the scores that occurred during the Obama presidency. The whole Professor Henry Louis Gates controversy was a silly example of something that should not be happening in what was dubbed the ‘post-race America’ that was supposed to have been ushered in with Obama’s election. What analysts failed to see and many of us would not notice until the election of one Donald J. Trump was that America was far far away from post-race, and rather was sprinting headlong into a hyper-racist America. The first black president was too much for a country that was still deeply entrenched in racist tendencies. So much so that a violent backlash was the only result possible. A match had been lit and no one cared to note that we were all standing in a pressurised oil barrel. What could have been expected? Not to mention this fire was given fodder, willingly by a Republican Party who, while licking its wounds following Obama’s election, prepared to engage in one of the most unforgivable sin of contemporary politics. That unforgiveable sins was to use division and lies as a weapon to breathe life into a new age of hate. And, like what one can expect when committing such a vile and accursed act, they had to make a great sacrifice. This sacrifice put the very future of the Republican Party into question. It would be a blood sacrifice.
Enter Sarah Palin, the perfect candidate to perpetrate this despicable act. That cantankerous and loathsome person had just been jettisoned into the historical permanence of parody by Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live. And she used her popularity to great effect. Her somewhat modest demeanour and acceptance of the perception her ‘simpleton’ accent would give her, allowed her to wage a quiet revolution. She too was not an insider. She began condemning the establishment for their failure made proof positive in the election of Barack Obama. Add a few lies, and before you know it a daft mob of Americans were ready to start pouring tea into the nearest harbour. Obama must have been born somewhere else, look how different he looks. The birther controversy continued all the way through the 2016 presidential election and I’d bet dollars to donuts it will come up again in 2020, despite the fact that Obama had handed over his birth certificate in the run up to his election in 2008 in accordance with regulations. Joining the ranks of Sarah Palin to spearhead the birther debate was none other than Donald J. Trump. And then as Obama staked his legacy on comprehensive healthcare reform, a dream of the democrats since time in memorial, Sarah Palin spewed forth the rhetorical regurgitation of ‘death panels’. Supposed panels of medical professionals who would hold trial over who was to be granted healthcare or who was to take a hike or be sentenced to death. Suddenly, millions of Americans feared Obama’s death panels issuing death warrants to the elderly, those infirmed, or those of special needs. Yet, all along the whole thing was utter nonsense, not at all supported by the text of the legislation. I recall being a student pouring through the text of what would become known as Obamacare. Its evolution and compromise that eventual led to it being the semi-failure we see today in America. Yet, all along, I wondered if 24/7 news pundits had even read one word of the original text, but rather just bought into the lies that gave the impression that America would become a socialist republic, sending doctors to labour camps and giving free drugs to illegal immigrants. Sarah Palin didn’t need Fox News, for she was clever enough to see the early power of social media, taking to Facebook to spread her hate speech. The Tea Party would form as an off shoot of the Republican Party, that eventually, like a cancer has all but overtaken the once, at least somewhat respectable, GOP. Breitbart rose up and went to the depths of depravity which even Fox News would dare not tread to destroy Obama and the, in their eyes, fascist liberal powers that be.
‘If I said the sky was blue, they said no!’ Obama’s campaign of unity and hope from 2008 was anything but as he literally had to fight for survival four years later. There would be no unity in 2012, only bitter descent and abhorrent unacceptance. Change, the oxygen everyone was euphorically breathing had become a poison on which America began choking. The US had always prided itself on freedom of speech and especially of that against its own political leaders. Parody and satire have always had a warm home in American entertainment. And because of that, when it came to Obama, it would appear, the mild racist undertones could be forgiven. But perhaps they should not have been. Obama was often depicted as Hitler. Okay, and so has every president since World War II. While the message is almost always a bit extreme, it was accepted. Yet during his administration, protestors held signs depicting Obama as a monkey or an ape and in a pretty grotesque display of call backs to Jim Crow era insignia. Vehement denial of his citizenship, claims that racism was to be his iron rod, and death camps resided at the heart of the mucky speech of the day. Obama’s middle name, Hussein, fed the lie that he was secretly a Muslim savoir sent to enslave the Christians. But I assure you there is quite a healthy constituency of people in Pakistan whose houses had been drone struck to kingdom come by Obama’s order that would beg to differ. Lies about immigrants, lies about taxes, and lies carried over from the past all swirled together. Any historical analysis of the Obama Administration should begin with a parsing out of the lies surrounding the news which will prove considerably more difficult than sorting the wheat from the chaff. And the result will be something far from unity and a lifting of the race issue in America to a new level.
Yet, one more nail was needed to seal the coffin for a hope of America ever transcending racism. In the lead up to a long campaign in 2012, a shooting took place in the ‘armpit of America’, Florida. Seventeen-year-old Treyvon Martin was walking home through a gated community where his relatives lived when he crossed paths with George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch coordinator. The unarmed black teenager was shot and killed during an altercation that arose between him and the mixed-race Zimmerman. Zimmerman was initially charged with murder of the boy, yet was acquitted claiming self-defence. Racial tensions were again ignited within the country, a debate over the wearing of hoodies turned up old debates of female dress protocols and intent. The black community needed a leader to say something about this grave injustice. Yet, Obama had learned his lesson. He could not win if he dared to engage. So quiet he remained. That is until a throw away question was posed at a press conference. What of Treyvon Martin? ‘If I had a son, he would have looked like Treyvon Martin.’ He said this and expressed his condolences to the family, the shame of a life lost. And once again, the hate machine sprung back to work. Obama the racist, using racism to divide. What of all the other unjust shootings that occur in spite of race or class? Obama doesn’t understand the full story? Obama’s son would wear a preppy school uniform, not a hoodie? He is a racist who knows nothing of race! He doesn’t even know what it means to really be black. And on and on the chorus sings its buzzing buzz. Obama was doomed to fail on launch at any attempt to unite the United States, even for the sake of justice. Especially if race was involved. Even the Sandy Hook School shooting, a case with no easy ties to race, could not work as a tragedy which could unite the United States as 9/11 had but a decade earlier.
No, for the opposition that had to be opposed and oppose they did. To the nth degree! Now Obama wanted to take your guns. How dare he use the death of children to spread his fascist liberal agenda. One pundit even claimed that the Sandy Hook shooting was an elaborate hoax, set up to win Obama approval points, points he no longer needed as he had already won the election to his second and final term. Absurdity, obliviousness, asinine, ludicrous and all other such states of being were cast to the wind. The sky was the limit, lie until you make it. Lie until you die. Obama, a man of hope, of good change, the realisation of a dream was cast in shackles unable to be the mythical figure the ‘rest’ of America wanted. So, he became the monster we created. Where those who remember the horrors of the Bush Administration (ah another contradiction, for now in the age of Trump, we long for the comfort of the Bush era!), what was needed in its follow up was drastic reform and the diminishing of the powers held by the executive. Yet, with the hate machine running at full force, all Obama could do was use the powers the office had garnered over its last sixty odd years. Obama was mad as hell and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. The imperial presidency reborn. Executive order after executive order. If a cancer ridden Congress was in deadlock, he would let his pen do the walking. Drone strikes, healthcare reform, gun legislation, and much much more. With each stroke, he only made the office more and more powerful. Let us hope we don’t give all that power to someone who might abuse it…
The destruction of Barack Obama and the hope of progress for black America was put to image by the most unlikely of individuals. Michael Moore is a documentarian who has never gone far without provoking a bit of controversy. Yet his greatest enemies in the past have remained George W. Bush, whom you might remember he yelled ‘Shame on you’ during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2003, the NRA, and the Republican Party. Yet, his love for his home, the State of Michigan, which he has acknowledged as a breeding ground for the insane and the dangerous, has revealed a new enemy beside that of Donald Trump. The most unlikely opponent of Barack Obama. In his 2018 film, Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore takes the audience to Flint, Michigan. The town of over ninety-six thousand people, predominantly of African American ethnicity, made destitute from the decay of the American automotive industry and now suffering from an official water emergency since 2014. The water of Flint was toxic and undrinkable and no one in power had any desire to change this state of affairs. Moore lambasted the Governor of Michigan at the time, the less than charming Rick Snyder before putting to screen the disappointment of the nation’s top executive. Flint had invited President Obama to visit in hopes that he would personally see to the resolution of the crisis. He was welcomed with jubilation by a predominantly African American community, many of them representing the record number of black voters that turned up during both of his presidential elections. Yet few other collective jaw drops have ever been set to film like that of the town of Flint when Obama took to the stage with a small glass, filled barely halfway with a clear liquid. Into the microphone, Obama declared that in that cup was water from Flint’s tap. He then took the most pitiful sip from the cup, throwing back the mostly backwashed dripple before forcing a smile to his face before the dumbfounded crowd. He assured them that all was well and that the water was safe, when, in fact, it was anything but. Obama lost his greatest approval percentage over the Beer Summit scandal, yet I can assure you that every hopeful Flint resident in that room would take back both of their ballots if they could in response to that categorical denial of his own community. Treachery does little justice in the face of such a callused slap to the face.
Can we blame him? Have we not seen the monster? Is it not us, ourselves? If but a modicum of solace can be distilled from this tragic tale, is it not something more than the madness of politics? Are our heroes doomed to become villains of another shade? Is hope, as Colonel Mackenzie puts in in the 2019 film 1917, ‘a dangerous thing’? Is this the fate of minority leaders? Must they conform to the fold of normality, lest the opposition haunt their every day and night? The mind boggles when one tries to take social media and fake news into account. Are we all doomed to a horrible cyclical fate? Is this Einsteinian insanity escapable?
Can we blame Sadiq Khan for not having done more for British Muslims. Going out of one’s way, to take power for a community that has not been without its own controversy and corruption in the last few decades. What would a Brexit fuelled fearful-of-becoming-a-minority white British population make of Khan? Heaven forbid Khan be falsely labelled an anti-Semite. If the real powers of opposition can make Brexit happen as it did, then what could become of Khan would render Obama’s dilemma as little more than a minor inconvenience. Perhaps we are forced to conclude that this is simply the way of democracies. Plato’s tyranny of the majority may be more real than even the thinkers in Republic could have imagined. So tyrannical, that it even holds power when the majority isn’t in the seat of power. So, for two hundred years of one white guy after another being President of the United States and over eight hundred years’ worth of mostly white Mayors of London to suddenly be handed over to someone of a darker hue, it was almost foolish to think there wouldn’t be at least a little whiplash.
This arc of the pendulum is the great fear of all the Khans and Obamas of the world. It is perhaps why Khan remains as neutral in directly reaching out to his community as when Obama made his few forays into political issues bearing racial undertones, even in their sparing occurrence, the opposition jumped upon him with the fire and brimstone of a woman scorned. And then rose Trump and the Alt-right army. How much fodder does the National Front need? What monsters might the Tories awake in the darkness of nationalistic fear and identity crisis? Lest we forget about British Values!
It should be noted that neither Khan nor Obama desired to be the first of their particular circumstance. They just wish to be great leaders. Along such journeys, where it can help, the use of one’s identity for the sake of upholding diversity of their constituencies can be attractive. Yet, politics is like a medicine. We run to the chemist in hopes of curing our ailments. But, as so often, no one knows the correct dosage and in the chase for a miracle, we over indulge and in our glut we have turned a medicine into a poison. And like all solutions with half-lives, they must run their course through the system before another round could be administered or another treatment attempted. We want change as though it’s something that can be packaged and bought over the counter, completely disregarding the chaos that comes as a side effect in the fine print of the advert, just before ‘bleeding and possible death may result’.
The unfair burden of being a minority representative is played out to comic book proportions in the battle between Donald Trump and a group of under fifty, lefty minority congresswomen dubbed ‘the Squad’. Trump berates the Squad, comprised of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from New York, Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota in a mix of sexist, ageist, and an asinine tonic of socially acceptable racism, often on his favourite battlefield: dearest Twitter. He paints them naïve ‘little girls’ incapable of understanding real, adult politics because they hold views different than his or refuse to tow the misogynist, hateful line. All of these women came to power, having to fight at an unfair disadvantage in Donald Trump’s America, in the 2018 midterm elections. He holds them to fixing the level of crimes in their own constituency before they can criticise him on his policies and goes to school house bullying levels to draw claims on their ignorance on global affairs because, again, they come in conflict with his own.
The already difficult calibration of the scales of representation that minority elects must manage is thrown a curve ball by rampant hate, such as islamophobia. Because of this Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar almost get it the worst. Holding anti-Israeli views, especially concerning the US financial role in Israeli politics, has earned them both the label, as per the parlance of American politics, of being anti-Semites. Labour Party, MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah has had to battle mirrored political gymnastics after a series of Twitter faux pas. Shah has even been held to disciplinary action and made to apologise. Congresswoman Omar faces the full Islamophobic gantlet. Donning the hijab, although an American citizen, she was a refugee of Somali origin, she is young, and she is very vocal in her opposition to the US’s Israeli policy. The Republican party propagated false rumours of her ties to 9/11 while Trump evoked imagery of the destruction that occurred that day to make the point that she can’t possibly understand what 9/11 means to ‘real’ Americans. Whatever that is supposed to mean when all supposed ‘Americans’ trace their own lineages to one refugee community or another. Except, of course, the Native Americans, but they, in the ultimate irony, are not give a voice at the table.
We can often get lost in trying to simplify contemporary politics. But politics of this age has no room for simplicity. It is complex; and assumptions cannot be made that the only place a minority representative has resides within the ranks of more liberal or lefty parties. A real struggle is lived everyday by the minorities who find themselves more politically in line with conservative parties the world over. This is made even more problematic when these very parties have reams of accusations of xenophobia and often draw party lines in direct contradiction with the existential values of their more easily marginalised party members especially as they trend towards the alt-right. Sajid Javid could easily have been the leader of the UK Conservative Party and thus the UK Prime Minister. After losing the leadership election to Boris Johnson in 2019, he fell into the Chancellor of the Exchequer position and was poised to lead the UK Treasury through its transition out of the EU. Javid is an interesting case in representation. While he was raised a British Muslim, he has noted that today he practices no religion and is married to a Christian woman. He has even gone so far as to criticise the British Muslim community for having a hand in, if not just allowing, a rise in terrorism in the last two decades. Meanwhile, he shares the commonality of receiving anti-Muslim hate mail and death threats along with other member of Parliament from Muslim origins. During the 2020 cabinet reshuffle, whatever niche minority specialised community a member of the Conservative Party might hope to represent, Johnson only cared about one demographic. Him. You either prove your loyalty to Boris Johnson, or its good day to you sir. Javid was already on thin ice with 10 Downing Street after Dominic Cummings sacked one of Javid’s aids without his approval. The night before the reshuffle, Javid handed over his resignation when he was faced with the ultimatum stating that in order to maintain his post, he had to sack all his underlings to make way for only proven Pro-Johnson minions. After a decade of ideological and identity negotiating as he rose up the Conservative ranks, his tale resides in the realm of tragedy as he returns to the back bench.
While perhaps less a tragedy, the struggle put on by the Baroness Sayeeda Warsi begs numerous questions concerning the limitations that seem requisite to being a minority representative in a contemporary democracy. The Baroness Warsi rose up quickly in the UK’s Conservative Party to eventually become its chairperson. Under the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, she also became the first female Muslim to sit as a member of the cabinet. Now she resides within the House of Lords and is a member of the Privy Council. She has faced all the same problems alongside her contemporaries. Diverging slightly, she faced the contradictions perceived between her party, her constituents, and her personal views with a sort of grace. She navigated touchy issues as exemplified by her approach to immigration by weighing both sides. She gave credence to the need for upholding law and order on one side while also being considerate of human rights to abide the other. Like Javid, there was bound to be the final straw, a point of no return, where loyalty to party and self could not be reconciled. For the Baroness Warsi, this was Cameron’s stance on Israel and Palestine. She resigned from his government in 2014. She regretted not taking more of a stand on the Palestine question, but would the structures of the UK’s constitutional monarchy have allowed her to represent the views she held to any satisfaction? Most interesting, it was once she was free from the conundrums of representative democracy when she could actually represent her views in British society. Since leaving government she has used her influence in the House of Lords to push for the interests of her fellow British Muslims, most notably in her continued pursuit of a formally recognised definition of islamophobia from the UK government. While this chapter lingers with the anticipation of hope for a happy fairy-tale ending, it still seems like this is incompatible with Western representative democratic systems.
Must the situation be so bleak for representative democracies? Does democracy have a built-in flaw, incapable of being transcended? Must our politicians be damned to the fate of ‘the Sisyphean dreamer’ in Jack White’s song Over and Over and Over? Attempting to be Vitruvian men and women, divided in identity as per the census data of their constituency, spending precise percentages of time pandering to various communities never able to fully satisfy anyone? From one framing of thought: yes, this is the fate of our representatives in this world of extremes we find ourselves in. The age of discontent cannot be satisfied. A look at any comment section on the internet reaffirms this pessimistic notion. So, perhaps the problem lies in the framing. The way we have been asked to think about things brings us to this foxhole of despair. So, it needs to change. But we humans oh so hate change. Despite how we feel about it, there is a brilliant example of when one man changed his mind. He very nearly changed the world.
Compromise and open-mindedness are not the first attributes one would pin to El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X. In some circles, he remains as divisive a character today as he was the day he died half a century ago. But there seems to be so little focus on the last chapter of his life. He was stubborn, no doubt, but if a convincing argument could be made, he admitted, he would change his mind. He was, since his days in Charlestown State Prison, an avid reader and therefore a devoted student, always open to whatever lessons life would throw his way. No doubt, what life had thrown him up to that point only made it appear that there was one way to conduct himself. Black was familiar and white was evil. This permeated his thought and the language he chose to use. It was cut and dry for Malcolm X. He was fighting a war against racism in America. And his only allies were the American black community. Even sympathetic white people were turned away, they would have to work on their own. He was the antithesis of white supremacy in America. Its equal, yet opposite. And so, the two forces would appear entrenched in titanic combat until judgement. As many of my more worldly friends would agree, the only cure for this oh so American mental block is for an American to go to a place beyond the borders of that misguided country.
And what better a place for Malcolm to learn of life outside America than on one of the greatest journeys a human can embark upon. Hajj. When Malcolm X went to Mecca in 1964, he was already a global celebrity but he humbled himself as he stumbled through the various steps along the hajj. As many things are done differently in America, Islam was no exception. Aware of this, he followed one step behind his guide, trying his hardest to follow the strictest adherence to ritual and tradition. While many embark on hajj ready for a truly religious experience, Malcolm had not expected the form his eye-opening moment would come in. ‘I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same bed (or on the same rug) – praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue and whose hair was the blondest of blonde and whose skin was the whitest of white.’ In the dry heat of the sacred city, Malcolm put it all together, it would be through unity that the change he desired could be accomplished. In their mutual brotherhood, endowed by Allah, their ‘whiteness’, a term Malcolm X equated with ‘evil’ was removed. ‘I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour.’
An enlightened man, Malcolm X flew back across the Atlantic on a new mission from God. He would return to America and make his peace with the Nation of Islam. He would partner with Martin Luther King, Jr. and form a strong alliance with other God-fearing black Americans. Their ranks would partner with Robert F. Kennedy’s and his quiet band of black artists. It would have been one of the greatest political movements in history. Racism would be exposed and fought, and relations amongst all Americans would be completely restructured. These powerful leaders would pass laws and shift policy to build an America that was truly of the people and for the people.
But this didn’t happen.
Less than a year after his latest awakening, sixteen shots would pierce his body and end his life. Hate would win the day and the battle would continue. And as per the equal and opposite force, the white grave diggers were not even be allowed to bury Malcolm X at his final resting place. Yet, what was does not have to always be.
We often expect of our politicians what we expect of our celebrities. That they be anything but human, complete with its constitutive limits and flaws. We ask them to tackle unrealistic feats. To change the world, but not too much. And we neglect what is not ‘us’ and cast caution to the wind in pursuing our agendas. If what we are doing is right and true, how can it be anything but good. But the extreme opinions we must hold have their poles and in an age of discontent, how could one even consider ‘going along with it’. Hopefully, there is a silver lining to all the tumult brought on by Covid-19. Have we not had our eyes opened? Even just a bit? Are we not looking at community differently? At humanity and society? Are we not changing the way we live our lives? Concessions and compromise for a greater good is what is taking place, even though that sounds like defeat according to how we thought of things only a few months ago. It hasn’t been easy and it won’t get any easier. We should also be careful as we return to improper, laxed hygienic practices and overuse of hand sanitiser as the miracle fix-all, where, in fact, that may be brewing super bugs for later, when social distancing and quarantine may not be an effective combat strategy. There is no simple solution. And it really needs to be an all for one and one for all effort. But at this moment we have a great deal of potential pathways before us. I just hope the next time we don’t have to say: ‘but that didn’t happen.’