The Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night was excruciating. I love movies, and I fear the Oscars are only serving to further alienate the film industry from the American public. I realize I’m starting to sound like a commentator on Fox News, and that really isn’t my intent. But for Pete’s sake. They get a script about a woman falling for a fish, make a movie out of it, and it wins the Oscar for Best Picture. I sent out a tweet a few months back after I saw The Shape of Water. I think I said something like it was beyond me, and maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get it. Of course we all get it. It’s about inclusion, acceptance, being warm and fuzzy in the Era of Trump. (Everything’s targeted to the Era of Trump these days.) It was so transparent, in fact, it’s banal. Inclusion and acceptance are hardly new themes for film. It’s been done many times before, and better.
The ratings for the show continue to plummet faster than those for the National Football League. This year’s ratings were 20 percent below the show of 2017 and the worst ever for the ceremony. The show itself is widely panned, the monologues aren’t funny, the entertainment quality of the show is marginal at best, and, oh yes, the show is way too long and way too filled with Hollywood types trying to affirm their own self-importance. And how many breathless, worthless red-carpet interviews do we really need to sit through? A bunch of films to which the public had little commercial response are awarded, and the people in Hollywood continue on their parallel universe.
There were a few tidbits of justice mixed in with the nonsense. Frances McDormand won Best Actress and Sam Rockwell Best Supporting Actor for superb performances in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. For my money, Three Billboards was the best film of the year. Gary Oldman won Best Actor for a masterful portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, a film that seemed to lack any real punch. And who can argue with James Ivory’s Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name? Aaron Sorkin was also nominated in the adapted screenplay category for Molly’s Game, an entertaining and well-paced film in which Jessica Chastain gave an excellent performance as a leading actress that the Oscars somehow didn’t notice. Also largely overlooked was The Greatest Showman, a lively film loved by the public and that was a huge commercial success. But it was too simple and straightforward for critics and the Academy. The Greatest Showman received one Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, and lost.
I noted earlier that inclusion and acceptance have been done in films many times before. I could name a number of films, but for reference see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, released in 1967 and that earned a Best Actress Oscar for Katharine Hepburn. The film also starred Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy in his last movie. Tracy died just days after filming ended. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is recognized by the American Film Institute in its 100 Years…100 Movies list. The movie also contributed significantly to an ongoing and badly needed discussion of race in America. Maybe I’ve just missed it, but I haven’t detected much of an ongoing discussion or even a need to discuss relationships with fish.
My friend and former Houston Chronicle colleague Dudley Althaus is retiring today. One of the smartest things I ever did was to approve his hiring as Mexico City Bureau chief for the Chronicle while I was managing editor. He was already based in Mexico City, and he had wonderful and detailed institutional knowledge of the country and its government. After budget cuts in Houston, Dudley went to work for The Wall Street Journal. His detailed reporting and elegant prose have ceased to be published in U.S. journalism. I hope that is only temporary, but having communicated with Dudley recently I fear his retirement will really mean retirement. It’s a shame. His last story appeared today in the Journal. Sam Quinones today has published a very nice blog item on Dudley in which he describes Dudley’s role as the leader of the Mexico City press corps. I share Sam’s concern that newspapers have cut budgets to the bone. Democracy will suffer. Unfortunately, international coverage has been among the items editors have found easiest to cut. What has happened to news media and, specifically, newspapers, is one of the great tragedies of journalism history. I hope, somehow, a recovery will be made in the ongoing transition to the Digital Age, but I doubt it.
Dudley was like most great writers I ever worked with. He fretted every detail. He was meticulous in fact checking. He was always concerned with fairness. He developed a deep and abiding love and respect for the people of Mexico and all of Latin America. He lamented the poverty he saw daily. He taught me a great deal about Latin America and helped stimulate my own learning and love for the Latin American culture. At the Chronicle, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on the cholera epidemic in Peru. Back in the 1990s, the Chronicle had resources to allow Dudley to travel widely. He loved the job, and I gave him wide latitude. He never failed to produce journalism of relevance and interest to our readers in Houston.
On my last day of work at the Chronicle, in late May of 2003, Dudley happened to be in Houston, and I was honored to have drinks with him when I left the office. I always have a room for you in Dallas, my friend. And, as you know, I keep a nice supply of tequila for such special occasions.
The news today is full of accounts of a White House meeting yesterday on immigration. Trump, apparently after becoming agitated, made strong comments about some nations, including Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries. Early news accounts said he referred to the nations as “shithole countries.” In a follow-up story today in The Washington Post, Trump seemed to deny the use of the profane term. My very proper Methodist mother, were she alive, would say that she would like to wash the president’s mouth out with a bar of soap. Democrats and some Republicans are understandably outraged by the remark, if it were made. Rights groups have also condemned such comments. The pattern of Trump’s harsh language and insulting references to people, including some world leaders, unfortunately continues.
Democrats have been floating for months the idea that Trump is unstable, possibly suffering early Alzheimer’s, and in any case is unfit to be president. Their fantasy involves some scenario, impeachment or possibly the people in the White House uniting in the effort, where Trump would be removed from office. Any such scenario seems a remote possibility, at best. The Trump presidency continues to be erratic and at times irrational, despite regrouping at the end of 2017 to pass a major rewrite of the tax code. Democrats are fearful that the tax cuts will turn out to be popular with the public, which they probably will.
Nonetheless, Trump damages his presidency and his own standing by the crudeness of his language. Several months ago, his rant against NFL players who won’t stand for the National Anthem is such an example. His desire to “get that son of a bitch off the field” is just not necessary. And this was well after the release of audio recorded before his campaign in which he referenced grabbing a certain women’s body part. Now, I try not to be a prude about language. The level of profanity used by both young men and women frequently strikes me as vulgar, disrespectful and unnecessary. Trump is not only setting a bad example, but he plays into the hands of opponents who believe he has brought a mean-spiritedness to the White House. Whether mean spirited or not, Trump displays a rude and crude nature that is unbecoming of a president.
Bruce Sanford, partner at BakerHostetler in Washington, D.C., presented the 18th annual Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics last evening on the SMU campus. Bruce is one of the top First Amendment and media lawyers in the United States. The title of his lecture was “Trusting the Media in the Age of Trump.” A complete text of his lecture can be found here: 2017 Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics
Bruce has represented the top news organizations in the United States on a variety of matters including libel defense and freedom of information. I have known him for many years, and he is a passionate and articulate voice for government transparency as well as professional and responsible news reporting. It was a challenging lecture for journalism students, and honestly a bit more optimistic that I am regarding the future of news media. But he gave several excellent examples of innovative journalism that have created new avenues for accountability and integrity in news reporting.
We remain in a strange and difficult time in American politics, and the relationship between the government and the media has shifted significantly in the last 20 years. These changes have been chronicled in the mainstream press, academic work, and also in this blog. As Bruce noted in his lecture, confidence in the news media is at an all-time low. And often with good reason. “The sobering reality about the public’s relationship with the media is that, like an ugly divorce, there are contributions to the unhappiness from both sides,” he said. “As consumers of news, there are some things we bring to the dysfunction that only we can change.”
We didn’t reach this fragile place overnight, and no doubt both our political environment and the news media will require long-term repair. From the media standpoint, the digital age has wrought change no one could have imagined at the turn of the millennium. And the only certainty is that change will continue at a rapid pace. Thoughtful and reasoned consideration about a free press and its function in democracy will be needed from both our political class and our leaders in news media.
Today we mourn the passing of the legendary Dallas journalist Vivian Castleberry. She was 95. The Dallas Morning News marked her death with a beautifully written story on her career. The piece noted but some of the skepticism, sexism and discrimination she experienced when beginning in the newspaper business at a time when it was dominated by men. The story caused me to reflect on the handful of women I knew and worked with at the Houston Chronicle who had come into newspapers at the same time Vivian did. It was a group of women who graduated from college in the 1940s and entered the workforce in the era immediately after World War II. Vivian graduated from high school in 1940 and was awarded a scholarship at SMU. She studied journalism, and served as editor of The Campus, the student newspaper.
I never met Vivian until I began teaching at SMU in 2003. But I could tell she was cut from the same cloth as the women I had known and admired in Houston. They came from a time when women in newspapers were generally limited to work in the Women’s News departments. The sections they produced were dominated by news of homemaking, fashion, child rearing and the basic domestic responsibilities thought to belong to women in those days. But what they proved over time, and Vivian was certainly in this group, is that they were damned fine reporters. They brought a different perspective to the stories they covered, the questions they asked, and how they wrote. Ultimately they won the highest awards in journalism. Many went on to become fine editors, and the newspaper business, slowly but surely, changed for the better.
In the times I was with Vivian, she was never without that infectious smile. She was unfailingly kind and gracious. And even into her 90s, she had an enthusiasm and an intellectual curiosity that made her the journalist she was. She will be missed, but her contributions to journalism will never be forgotten.
After a few months of debate, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park in Dallas has been removed. The monument was dedicated in 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt. A national discussion is taking place over the placement of monuments honoring the Confederacy, of which Texas was a part, during the Civil War. What has taken place in Dallas strikes me as a bit precipitous and even strange in the sequence of events that preceded the removal. On August 15, Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that he was appointing a task force that would issue a report within 90 days on what to do with the Confederate monuments in the city. In addition to the Lee statue, there is a Confederate War Memorial in downtown Dallas. Yet strangely, only days after the announcement of the task force, Rawlings made a dramatic pivot, and after a 13-1 City Council vote and various stops and starts, the statue has been removed. The removal came only a month after Rawlings announced the task force which, apparently, was never really involved in the process. (One of the delays in the process occurred when a crane to be used in the removal was involved in a fatal traffic accident.) Now, in addition to ongoing consideration about the Confederate War Memorial, there is discussion on what to name the park as well as the possible renaming of streets in the city that bear the names of Confederate soldiers.
No doubt part of the rush occurred after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a Lee statue there. The national debate is a discussion worth having, so long as it’s a discussion and not hysteria, which unfortunately seems to have developed. For its part, The Dallas Morning News editorial page has been strongly supportive of the removal of the monuments. After the council’s initial decision to remove Lee’s statue, the paper wrote an editorial strongly supportive of the decision, then updated the piece to express disappointment that a federal judge had intervened. (That intervention lasted only a day.) The paper’s editorial page somehow makes a distinction on Confederate symbols. In another editorial, the paper said that a decision by the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park to remove the six flags that had flown over Texas was a mistake. One of the flags, of course, is a Confederate flag that many, including myself, regard as offensive when used as a display. The paper said that the display of the flags represented historical fact, not a tribute. Someone needs to explain that distinction to me.
My personal opinion is that if a community wants to remove Confederate monuments, they should be removed. Thoughtful consideration and discussion need to occur, and if there are clear reasons and strong sentiment to remove the monuments, so be it. National polling indicates that a majority want to keep them. But it would seem to me that the monuments should be considered on a case-by-case basis. I have seen no real polling specific to Dallas except for an unscientific texting poll by one of the television stations (with more than 80 percent saying the monuments should remain), but I suspect the majority in Dallas would like for the monuments to remain. For this reason, I believe the mayor and the council acted way too quickly. One thing is for certain: The Lee monument will never be returned to public space in the park. At this time, it’s not certain where the statue will end up.
I think I understand, and can agree with a certain sentiment, dealing with the offensive nature of some of the monuments. Interpreting the presence of such monuments in public space as a vestige of support for slavery can be understood. I fear many of the people protesting the Robert E. Lee statue know little about who the man was. I would be encouraged to know that everyone understood Lee’s reluctance for war, as well as his record of reconciliation after the war. None of that seems to matter. And more than more, there is no national discussion. There is only shouting and anger. A lot of the anger, and perhaps some of the impetus for removal of the monuments, seems fueled by people who are still mad that Donald Trump was elected president. (Advice to those mad about Trump: Get out and work to develop other candidates, including at the state level, who can win elections. Honestly, I’m not sure I see that happening. But that’s a blog item for another day.)
For some time, I’ve had two absolute limits on the removal of Confederate monuments. We shouldn’t remove monuments from historic battlefield sites. The National Park Service has wisely announced that Confederate monuments, including a statue of Lee, will not be removed from the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. And we should never remove monuments related to cemeteries or in anyway disrespect the graves of Confederate soldiers. (For guidance on this subject, see the graves of almost 500 soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany maintained with dignity and respect by the British in the Bayeux War Cemetery in Normandy, France.)
The Confederate War Memorial near City Hall is more problematic because it’s a 60-foot-tall column topped by a statute of a Confederate soldier. Moving it will be difficult, and finding a permanent place to house the monument could prove even more difficult. The initial estimates on the cost of moving the Lee statue were about $500,000. Higher costs will no doubt be involved with the Confederate War Memorial.
I have never been certain what is really being accomplished by moving the monuments. The racial issues that have plagued this country since its founding won’t be going away. If removal of the monuments would help even incrementally, I would say that the process and the costs will have been worth it. I also wonder whether there will be a political price to be paid by Rawlings and certain members of the City Council. I have a suspicion that Rawlings and some of the council who voted to remove the Lee statue so quickly didn’t fully understand public sentiment. And I have no problem with Rawlings pushing to move the monuments. I do have a problem with announcing a task force to study the issue for 90 days, then abruptly deciding that the Lee monument should be moved. Let me be clear that I think very highly of Rawlings as a person and as a mayor. I think he has led Dallas very well. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think elected officials should do what they say.
Now there’s a discussion to change the names of a number of Dallas Independent School District schools. Among the famous people “requiring further study” as being appropriate for school names are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Sam Houston. These are in addition to those schools named for Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, William L. Cabell, and Stonewall Jackson.
I don’t know where it goes from here. I only hope that requiring further study produces more thoughtful input and response than was given the removal of the Lee statue.
As this is written, Ezekiel Elliott, star running back of the Dallas Cowboys, and the National Football League are involved in a spat over a six-game suspension given Elliott for domestic violence involving a former girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson. The incidents of violence are said to have occurred in July of 2016 in Columbus, Ohio, where Elliott played at Ohio State. Charges were not brought against Elliott in Columbus. Prosecutors there said there were conflicting accounts of what happened. The NFL, however, having botched a couple of previous domestic violence cases, including the infamous case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, on Aug. 11 announced a six-game suspension for Elliott. In the Rice case, the NFL announced a two-game suspension for an incident Rice’s attorneys had described as minor. Later, a video emerged of Rice hitting his then-fiance in the face and knocking her unconscious. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledge that he blew the decision in the Rice case and then announced a zero-tolerance policy in which any incidence of domestic violence would bring a six-game suspension.
Elliott has attacked Thompson’s credibility. It has been determined that she lied about one of the incidents in question. Goodell said in his findings that Elliott used physical force against Thompson on three specific occasions. When the six-game suspension was announced it was clear that Elliott would appeal. It went through the proper appeals hearing with the NFL, which of course refused to reduce or eliminate the suspension. Now Elliott and the NFL are in federal court going through the process. A federal judge in Sherman, Texas, issued an injunction and said that Elliott had not been given a fair hearing by the NFL. The NFL has appealed in the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. And on, and on, and on. There at one point was sports talk radio discussion of being strategic in the appeal. If the Cowboys think this is their year for a Super Bowl run, Elliott should go through the appeal so that he can play. But if the Cowboys think next year might be a better year, Elliott should accept the suspension and miss the first six games when the NFL regular season begins in a few weeks.
I’m a bit turned off by the whole strategic discussion. Why don’t we focus on what’s right and what’s wrong? My personal opinion is that neither Zeke Elliott nor Tiffany Thompson is going to be a candidate for any citizenship awards. The NFL had evidence, likely not reaching criminal legal standards, that Elliott used physical force. If it’s a zero-tolerance policy, that’s it. The case is frequently compared to New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady’s situation in the deflategate case. Brady delayed his two-game suspension by a year and challenged the commissioner’s authority to make such a decision. The legal question in the Brady case, and perhaps will be also in the Elliott case, was whether the commissioner of the NFL has the power to order such suspensions. The commissioner indeed has such power, as granted by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
The courts ruled in the NFL’s favor in the Brady case, and almost certainly will again in the Elliott case. Elliott has already had a couple of other incidents, including pulling down a young woman’s top to expose her breast while at a St. Patrick’s Day event. A video of that incident is widely circulated. What would be refreshing from Elliott is an acknowledgement of a major mistake in the issues involving Tiffany Thompson and a commitment that it won’t happen again. Don’t expect that to happen. And I also won’t be surprised if there are other incidents that show what many of us suspect: Zeke Elliott is sadly deficient in basic character.
SMU has been in the news in the last week, and not especially in a favorable light. The controversy began when the university announced a plan to move a student display honoring the victims of 9/11 away from an area near Dallas Hall. The move included other student displays, but it was the 9/11 display that drew the headlines. Dallas Hall is the most prominent and recognizable building on the campus. In the initial report on the move, The Dallas Morning News reported that a policy by the university from July had determined that students had a right to be free of “messages that are triggering, harmful or harassing.” The paper also reported that the policy had been changed, but it was still the university’s intent to move student displays to an area other than near Dallas Hall. SMU immediately issued a statement of apology, noting that the display was an “important campus event” honoring the victims of 9/11. The display has been erected each year since 2010 by the Young Americans for Freedom, a student group on the SMU campus.
Other coverage followed in the Dallas paper as well as some national press, including Fox News. Among the other coverage was a column by Morning News writer Jacquielynn Floyd taking the university to task for the politically charged language of “triggering” mechanisms that has been an issue on several notably liberal campuses. Floyd correctly described the term as “idiotic.” Other coverage reported an exchange of correspondence between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and SMU President R. Gerald Turner. Abbott encouraged the university to continue to allow the display in its place of prominence next to Dallas Hall. Even with the initial apology, it was still the university’s intent to move the various student displays away from Dallas Hall. The university’s position on moving the displays lasted for a week. Yesterday, the story finally came full circle with SMU agreeing to allow the 9/11 display in the same place where it has been. I don’t believe the initial communication to students intended to link “triggering” messages directly with the students’ 9/11 exhibit, but the damage was done.
In a letter to the SMU community dated Aug. 10, the day after the agreement, President Turner outlined the new agreement and acknowledged the mistake in communicating a policy that had not been approved. He said in the letter the error was one “we deeply regret.”
In putting this matter to rest, I’d like to make three points.
It could have been defensible to move all such displays away from the Dallas Hall area for the purpose of maintaining access to space that is the most visible and arguably most important on the campus. However, when the students’ 9/11 display became the focal point of the story, SMU was an automatic public relations loser. Students honoring 9/11 victims by putting 3,000 flags on prominent lawn space? Why would anyone pick that fight? It was an easy target for a conservative governor to make his points, which he did. It was also easy to gather sympathy for deserving students engaging in a sincere and honorable project.
The Morning News was not entirely correct in reporting that the language on “triggering” mechanisms was policy adopted in July. In fairness to the newspaper, the message apparently was communicated as policy. It was language that was communicated to students in error, as we now know. The university, in its apology, said that the language had never been through the approval process. What seems to have happened is that the language had been on some document and ended up being transmitted to the student groups. It was error compounded by error, and embarrassingly so. That the 9/11 display could ever have even been tangentially associated as a “trigger” was absurd and insulting to students and the public. In his letter, President Turner made clear that the decision to move the displays, including the 9/11 display, was in no way connected to the language that was used. The language smacks of a politically correct dogma that has no place on a university campus. I expressed myself on this point as it related to university life in an op-ed piece published online by the Morning News almost two years ago and in other items on this blog.
I have written this before and will do so again. SMU has an excellent record of free speech and open intellectual inquiry, including academic freedom. Beyond the embarrassment of the current case, let’s hope it’s an instructive moment for the public as well as students and faculty. Many seem to believe that because “Methodist” is a part of the university’s name, there are inherent limits on freedom of expression. Most of our students and faculty aren’t Methodists, and one of the strengths of SMU is that we are a campus without religious requirements of any kind and open to all faiths. I am a Methodist, and the tradition of openness to experience and intellectual freedom was established by John Wesley, an Oxford graduate, in the foundation of Methodism in the late 18th Century. That tradition has carried through in the number of excellent universities established by Methodists in the United States. Some of those universities still have Methodist affiliations, and some don’t. There is a famous story, frequently told and written by the late SMU Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry, of a major controversy in the 1950s when a socialist was invited by students to speak on campus. President Willis Tate found out about the invitation by reading The Daily Campus, the student newspaper. Howls of protest emerged from the conservative business community in Dallas, including a columnist in the Morning News who labeled Tate a “pinko.” Tate stood firm, and in the retelling by Terry said, “As long as discourse is civil on this campus, there will be free speech.” The speech occurred without incident. Finally, Jacquiellyn Floyd noted in her column that it was the students, both conservative and liberal, who had come forward and in a statement expressed strong support for free speech and that there was no right to be “shielded” from ideas. The students put it brilliantly. And it was Kylie Madry, the editor in chief of The Daily Campus, who was out front on the story from the beginning. Her original story on Tuesday, Aug. 1, drew a link from The Washington Post.
In closing, I send out a special note of appreciation to the leaders of the various student groups who spoke up for freedom of expression. As I’ve noted to several others, it could be we’re doing something right in the classrooms at SMU.
Much discussion is taking place after Jordan Spieth’s win in the British Open yesterday. (I’ll leave for another day discussion of the use of “British” in the name of the tournament.) It was a spectacular closing round, and without question it elevates Spieth’s stature in the game and provokes endless speculation about his future. He has now won three majors at the age of 23, and yesterday’s win certainly would seem to rid him of demons from his meltdown in the final round of the 2016 Masters. He will compete next month in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina. Should he win, he would be the youngest player in history to win the Grand Slam of golf.
Golf commentator Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open winner, had an interesting observation in an interview on ESPN Radio. He said that if you saw Spieth on a practice range with some of the other top golfers today, including Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy, you wouldn’t think Spieth was the best. Spieth isn’t the strongest or the longest. And he will occasionally hit a real foul ball off the tee, as he did on No. 13 in the final round yesterday. But through the end of the British Open, Spieth is second in greens in regulation. He’s third on the PGA Tour in putting with an average of 1.710. That translates to wins. But time has a way of evening out our predictions and our perspectives. In 2014, when McIlroy won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championsionship, there was a lot of betting on the young phenom from Northern Ireland being the next great thing. He may yet be, but he’s been in a bit of a slump.
Part of the discussion now will naturally focus on majors. Jack Nicklaus won 18. Tiger Woods has 14, none since the train wreck of his personal life and marriage in 2009. It seems unlikely that Woods can ever add to that total. Spieth will almost certainly win more majors. But I honestly don’t see Spieth getting close to Nicklaus, and perhaps even Woods. It’s difficult to explain my reasons, but it’s just a feeling. Predicting the next 10 to 15 years for any athlete is impossible. Certainly he would have to remain in good health and free of any significant injuries. And he would have to continue a strong focus and commitment to excellence, despite having extraordinary wealth that is a part of success in professional golf.
Spieth is also just a really good guy. He has a nice family history and knows how to behave, on and off the golf course. But he also lacks a certain flamboyance, and whether he can help the visibility of the sport and golf ratings on television over the long term remains to be seen. I just don’t see anyone dominating the sport as did Woods from 1997-2008. That dominance helped produce interest and ratings. Even before Woods’ fall from public grace in 2009, he had a good image, and his aggressive play on the golf course, together with an extraordinary flair for the dramatic shot at the right time, helped the game and television ratings soar. That will never happen with Spieth. And while it shouldn’t create judgment about his standing in the game, we do tend to assess greatness in a way that isn’t completely data driven.
I have just returned from teaching in our SMU-in-London program, and we had another very productive five weeks. It was a pleasant visit, with the notable exception of the London Bridge terror attack in our first days in London. The SMU-in-London program involves about 40 students, mostly from the communication arts programs. I have for some years taught a course in British media where we look at the history and current state of the news media in London. The newspapers, always entertaining and highly politicized, have given substantial coverage to the Brexit issue that began last year. In June of 2016 the vote was 52%-48% for the UK to leave the European Union. It was a shocking result. Pollsters generally had it wrong in the weeks before the vote, and there was also the shock result of widely perceived anger and populism, agreeing with much of the analysis of the 2016 vote that made Donald Trump president. My British media students studied the issue in relation to the corresponding positions taken by the seven or eight key newspapers in London. The second assignment for the semester was for the students to write a newspaper editorial of 1,000 words either encouraging full speed ahead on Brexit or, if they thought Brexit was a bad idea, encouraging another vote.
In the aftermath of the vote last year, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party stepped down since he had urged a remain vote. His resignation paved the way for Theresa May to become prime minister. In March, she triggered Article 50, which began the formal two-year process for negotiations to withdraw the UK from the EU. This means that by March of 2019, British membership in the EU will end. Various EU officials have made much noise about how much the exit will cost the British in terms of exit fees, and also how difficult the negotiations will be for the UK to maintain any trade or economic benefits from the EU.
What follows are, in no particular order, a few observations from someone who follows British politics pretty closely and has observed the Brexit situation as it has developed over the last five or six years.
I heard much outrage from Americans regarding the Brexit vote. It pretty much paralleled the opinions about the people who voted for Donald Trump. Namely, that they generally are unsophisticated rubes who just don’t understand the larger picture. That attitude is, in my opinion, one of the many reasons Hillary Clinton was such as disaster as a Democratic nominee for president, and a good reason why Brexit is in process. There are many good reasons to have voted for Brexit. Immigration became an emotional issue in the weeks before the vote. The liberal press in London tended to brand the sentiment racist. Yet, the issue is complex, and immigration has created difficult questions for the UK government, especially in London. And it stands to reason, at least to me, that a sovereign nation should be able to make decisions regarding control of its borders, and not have those decisions made by a centralized government in Brussels. The same goes for legal issues regarding the rights of criminal defendants. Now, had I been a citizen of the UK, I would have cast a vote to remain in the EU. But I also would have strongly urged the British government to take back several key issues dealing with sovereignty, immigration among them. My friend Elizabeth Palmer of CBS News in London makes a very good point about how elections seem to be framed these days. Whatever the issue or the candidates, Liz said, “The real question is, ‘Are you pissed off?’ Check. And the candidate or the referendum result that corresponds with that sentiment will usually win.”
I believe the size and scope of government in the United States was a key consideration for Donald Trump’s narrow victory. I believe the size and scope of the EU’s bureaucracy and eagerness to regulate were key factors in the Brexit vote. In the days leading up to the vote last year, the conservative press played up the costs of the bureaucracy. There were some incorrect figures used about the weekly cost of membership paid by the British government. But there were also stories about the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the members of the European Union Parliament and the bureaucrats occupying key positions. Expensive travel and meal allowances are the norm. Generous staffing and office supply budgets, including daily Champagne, were noted. One can easily understand the reasons these luxuries don’t sit well with London cab drivers. Last year one of the many fascinating Brexit stories I saw on the BBC was a piece detailing the EU regulations on strawberries. The piece noted EU regulations that called for very specific size, texture and color of strawberries. There are even regulations regarding the color and size of the stem. Strawberries have been grown in England for more than 500 years. Strawberries and cream were first put together during the court of Henry VIII. And the strawberries in England are superb. Does anyone really need to tell the Brits about how strawberries should look and taste?
David Cameron was re-elected in 2015, promising to hold a referendum on Brexit. After taking office when Cameron resigned, Theresa May held a solid Conservative Party majority in Parliament and did not have to stand for re-election until 2020. However, leading nicely over rival parties in the polls and apparently wanting an even stronger Conservative majority in Parliament, she called a snap election that was held the first week in June. A bigger majority would have given her a stronger mandate to negotiate Brexit on her terms. The campaign went badly, and this is where things got “cocked up.” Cocked up is a fascinating British expression, and for Americans it is generally assumed to have somewhat of an obscene meaning. Not necessarily so, as the meaning and origin of the phrase make clear. In any case, Theresa May ran a campaign about as bad as Hillary Clinton’s. One of the biggest blunders was what came to be branded by the Labor Party as the dementia tax. The current Labor Party leader is Jeremy Corbin, an avowed socialist who had a completely undistinguished career in Parliament for more than 30 years before the Labor Party, in a solid defeat to David Cameron in 2015, took a hard left turn and made him leader. Corbin, to his credit, was bold and articulate in the campaign, completely the opposite of Theresa May. He promised lavish spending, including tuition-free university education and bigger budgets for the National Health Service, that the government could not possibly afford. But no matter. The Conservatives’ number of seats fell short of a majority, and now May has had to grovel for a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. This simply means May will have the 10 votes of the DUP on key votes in Parliament and can continue to govern. May’s grip on the government is tenuous. The Brexit negotiations will be slippery. Another major “cock up” and she could be subject to a call for a vote of no confidence. And that’s where things could really be interesting.
As Donald Trump continues to navigate uncharted territory in U.S. politics as well as historically low popularity numbers, we are not alone in the world. Our best ally is in a similar mess.