Sea Monkeys: how Harold von Braunhut took the USA’s pocket money and gave it to Neo-Nazis (and got away with it)

Sea monkeys were so big even the Simpsons did them (and South Park, and Arthur…) That the USA’s most famous family paid homage to the postbox pets, well after their heyday, shows how enshrined in pop culture this odd little hobby became. 

Like many 20th century American kids, Bart loved ordering junk out the back of comic books  (where’s my spy camera?) junk that would take weeks to be delivered, building up anticipation (WHERE’S MY SPY CAMERA?) before arriving, underwhelming. Harold von Braunhut’s Amazing Sea-Monkeys were the queens of this trade. But, behind the cultural phenomenon was an inventor who funnelled his time and money into far-right activity, and did so with the broad consent of US business. The story of the sea monkeys is much like the little shrimps’ reveal to the once-excited child – what was really in the package is unlike anything you’d thought it would be.

Source: SimpsonsWiki

Sea-Monkeys are brine shrimp, with a genetic twist. As the name suggests, they really like salt. Anyone who has ever kept fish know that fish really like to eat them. They aren’t particularly eye-catching or entertaining, though that is largely because they are miniscule. Those big enough to see resemble writhing skeletons. So how on earth did they become a thing?

RING TOSS

Like most US traditions, you can find your answer in the carnival and the comic book. As Jack Hitt wrote in the NYT, sea monkeys were soaked in the art of humbug. Harold von Braunhut was not a carny, but was a savant in its methods. “What made Braunhut’s work so edgy, so American,”  Hitt said, with astonishment nearing on admiration, “was how wickedly far he’d journey – far past the product itself, into the fictional.” Von Braunhut had learned much from sideshow entertainment during his time racing motorbikes as the Green Hornet, dabbling in magic, and representing a mentalist whose act was to dive off a high platform into a 1ft deep pool. In his younger days, Harold hobnobbed with daredevils, tricksters, hucksters and cheats, getting where water could not, always looking for the next big idea. 

His next swindle lay in the booming post-war market of children’s toys. Victory in war had led to babies – lots of them, and US businesses were on a mission to turn them into tiny consumers (or tiny marks). Things were on sale wherever kids looked, and if you could get them to buy whilst their parents weren’t looking, you could make an honest buck. 

X-Ray Specs advert. Source IMDB

Nowadays, we know all about how advertising can lead to us owning a host of mass-produced crap we didn’t want. But von Braunhut was an early exponent, and his secret weapons were the great Carnival tricks of humbug and illusion. One of his most infamous hoodwinks was “X-Ray Specs,” marketed hard at the perverts of tomorrow, promising pubescent boys the chance to see through women’s garments. Of course, they were just cheap blurry glasses. 

Better yet, there was the “Invisible Fish (Do Not Feed)”, which involved von Braunhut literally selling a big bag of nothing to kids. But magic relies on both the show and the audience believing what everybody really knows isn’t true. Most kids (I hope) knew on some level that their purchases were phony. But so was a Buzz Lightyear or a Tracy Island set – von Braunhut’s wares were toys, and it was the marketing that sparked imagination and enjoyment, so long as no-one broke the spell with a “You know it’s fake” reveal. 

INSTANT LIFE

Von Braunhut, however, knew that to truly siphon away America’s pocket money, he needed to flog something a little more tangible than the invisible goldfish. The greatest humbugs, after all, have a grain of truth at their heart that hooks the mark. He needed something real that could inspire imagination, that had just enough about it to compliment a marketing campaign and go universal. Inspiration came from Uncle Milton’s Ant Farms, which promised children a micro-civilisation of pets in their own bedroom, at a reasonable cost. 

Source: Pinterest

Von Braunhut aimed to go one better with his new product, “Instant Life.” He came across across the humble brine shrimp, who made their home in harsh salt lakes. The shrimp’s eggs had adapted to their hostile homes by developing the ability to lie without oxygen – essentially in suspended animation – for years, waiting for the arrival of briny water in which to hatch, in a process known as cryptobiosis, or “hidden life.”

The idea was this – sell the static eggs in packets that also contained powder that salted the water enough for the shrimp to hatch, and – hey presto – Instant Life. Children of America – you have the power to play God for just a dollar 25!

Two problems stood in von Braunhut’s way. Firstly, brine shrimp are weird. Children wouldn’t have any idea what they were creating. These skeletal, diminutive shrimp weren’t “life” in a familiar way as, say, ants were. The second issue was that the concept had already been discredited by the Wham-O toys debacle just months earlier. Like von Braunhut, Wham-O were inspired by the potential wonders of creating life itself, and settled on breeding a type of African Killifish as their product. The eggs of this fish used a similar process to the brine shrimp to wait out the dry season. Trouble was, this fish – a complex vertebrate highly entuned to its environment – did not produce enough eggs to fulfil the sales promised to investors, and those that appeared were very difficult to hatch, and even more difficult to keep alive. It was a disaster. 

No promoter would dare touch “Instant Life” after this debacle, so von Braunhut turned to the back pages of comic books to market them himself. That way he could go straight to his marks – children – without retailers and parents getting in their way with logic and the cautionary tale of Instant Fish. Both the product and the message needed improvement, however, before kids would start emptying their piggy banks into von Braunhut’s open palms. Brine shrimp were underwhelming enough as it was; they’d disappoint even more if they all dropped dead before they grew large enough to see. As it stood, this was just Invisible Fish but with a bigger comedown. 

SHRIMP, JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

Von Braunhut transformed the toy with three important changes. The first aimed to make the shrimp live longer, and so he and biologist Anthony D’Agnostino termed up to create some new life themselves. Through selective breeding, they developed a new type of brine shrimp that was more likely to survive cryptobiosis and live longer in an artificial environment. The new species was named Artemis NYOS, after the New York Oceanic Society, whose laboratory they used. 

Alongside, they changed the set-up procedure so that two sachets were included, mislabelled in a sleight-of-hand bi-proxy to enable the illusion. The first sachet, named “water purifier”, promised to precondition the tap water, but it also contained eggs. The second sachet, named “Instant Life”, did contain some (more) eggs but its most important ingredient was a dye that amplified the existing shrimp, making them visible within a minute, and “thereby giving the impression” (as the patent read) that they appeared as if by magic. Instant life. 

Clockwise from top-left: Harold von Braunhut (source: Mental Floss), Dr Anthony D’Agnostino (East Hampton Star), Joe Orlando (Wikipedia), & Yolanda Signorelli (NYT)

The last change was the most decisive, and saw von Braunhut once more team up with a specialist; this time, a master of comic design. Joe Orlando would later take leading roles in both DC Comics and MAD Magazine, but made his name building the sea monkey lore. The word “shrimp” would not be uttered again, for these aren’t shrimp, they are Monkeys of the Sea – tiny intelligent creatures who got up to all sorts of adventures; they were just too small to see what exactly they were. 

Von Braunhut and Orlando took the elongated tails of Artemia NYOS as their grain of truth. It could be said, with a leap of faith, that they resembled a monkey’s tail. That was enough. From there, Orlando birthed anthropomorphic cartoon characters that had elements of primate, fish and sea monster, but also took notes from Hannah-Barbara. In the era of the Flintstones and the Jetsons, it did not take much imagination to envisage a tiny family at the bottom of the sea that cavorted and capered its way through life.

This was the ingenuity of the marketing strategy – you could see the sea monkeys and you could see their tails. You could also see the characters on the box. What you couldn’t perceive, due to their size and the underwater barrier, is what they were up to in the tank. That’s when the imagination kicked in. “I think kids are pretty clever at finding ways to have fun,” said Patricia Hogan, of the Strong National Museum of Play, to Mental Floss, “even with something that may disappoint them because they’re not exactly as they appeared.” Von Braunhut encouraged this by next flogging a myriad of accessories and add-ons with which the sea monkeys could make their adventures, such as the “Aquatic Speedway,” which he patented in 1973.

The Amazing Sea-Monkeys were a hit. The money started streaming in, as wave after wave of brine shrimp travelled to (and quickly perished in) millions of American homes, lasting just long enough in their tiny tanks to make an impression upon a whole generation. 

Sea-Monkeyspast and present (Source: Mental Floss)

ENTER THE NAZIS

Harold von Braunhut was now rolling in it like Scrooge McDuck. He and his new wife, the ’60s bondage film star Yolanda Signorelli, moved into a sprawling ranch south of DC, which they started turning into a wildlife reserve with part of the sea monkey fortune. Some of the rest, however, soon found its way into the coffers of the far-right.

Many sea monkeys info pages note this connection as a quirk of von Braunhut himself – an example of the lore of mad scientist inventors – while Hitt notes it as the thing that denied him everlasting glory in the annals of American business. Few, however, really explore how the business world’s enduring consent, amidst von Braunhut’s unceasing far-right activity, allowed the inventor to still fill fascist coffers with sea monkey profits. 

It’s unclear when Harold von Braunhut started funding Neo-Nazis, but his affiliation with the Aryan Nations (AN) alone certainly spanned decades. Notably, he was born not with “von” in the middle of his name but with Nathan; Harold was born Jewish. In later life he told a reporter that he changed it to make his name sound more German. Von Braunhut’s concerning connections first came to the attention of the American media in 1979 when he was arrested trying to board a flight with one of his 193 patents – an item, it transpired, he was advertising in far-right publications. Sadly, it wasn’t Invisible Fish. It was a weapon.

USP 3554546A: the “spring whip defensive weapon”. Source: Google

USP 3554546, the “Spring Whip Defensive Weapon,” was a spring-loaded baton that wielded enough force to incapacitate – von Braunhut marketed it to the AN for “if you need a gun but can’t get a license.” The K5, as it became known, was no parlour trick (it worked) but instead a chilling reveal of for whom this weapon was designed. It was also no one-off; von Braunhut updated the patent a few times, and his 1984 edition included the justification “that the need for defensive weapons continues to rise with the crime rate,” particularly chilling as von Braunhut seemed to adhere to Manson’s “Helter Skelter” belief of an impending race war. 

Yet von Braunhut’s reputation went unharmed, however, until 1988 when the AN encouraged members to buy the K5, as some of the proceeds would go to the legal fees of AN leader Richard Butler, who was facing trial for the minor infraction of sedition (inciting insurrection). Following the trail, the Washington Post released an exposé of von Braunhut’s past and present, revealing a $12k loan he gave to the KKK in 1985 so a Grand Wizard could buy 83 guns, and his Jewish origins. The Nazis, for the most part, weren’t fussed about the latter, so long as he kept supporting them. Elsewhere, the Amazing Sea-Monkeys partners Larami continued to market and distribute the product, despite public outcry. 

SEE NO EVIL

Nothing changed. This was Reagan’s America after all, where no hateful affiliations need get in the way of a good profit. In fact, if anything, in the early 1990s, sea monkeys underwent a revival. The original duped children were now adults, and many decided to passed on the tradition with their own kids. Some felt like it was a strong part of their youth they wished to share with their progeny; others? Maybe they thought it worked well as a lesson that life is full of disappointment.

Other members of that generation – now in the creative industries – started stocking sea monkeys back into pop culture as nostalgic throwbacks to their youth. Nobody did this better (worse) than Howie Mandel, who produced a TV show called Amazing Live Sea Monkeys. The plot was excruciatingly early-90s – a trio of sea monkeys (of the advertised variety) are ripped from their microcosmic underwater life after a mad scientist (played by Mandel) zaps them with a growth ray. It was pitched to the network as “the next Ninja Turtles” in an accidental nod to the shrimp’s humbug origins. The network somehow allowed it to proceed for 11 episodes before canning it. 

Part II is also on Youtube, if you really want it

Meanwhile, von Braunhut continued to support the AN, addressing rallies and meetings on multiple occasions (even “lighting the cross” on at least one visit), and writing nasty, near-genocidal op-eds under the unsubtle and even-more-Germanic moniker Hendrik von Braun. Business continued as normal, but anti-racist campaigners like the Anti-Defamation League worked hard to monitor von Braunhut and pressure his partners. Larami got antsy. 

Larami was not known for its strident moral stances, having spent much of the ’80s marketing hyper-realistic water guns of such aesthetic that von Braunhut might have designed himself. New regulations saw them forced to remodel, out of which came the runway success of the Super Soaker. Under increasing pressure, in 1994 Larami stopped distributing Sea-Monkeys. A cynic may note that Larami only dropped von Braunhut after the soaker went viral. Indeed, von Braunhut himself towed a similar line. However, Al Davis of Larami told the Los Angeles Times in 2000 that he’d confronted von Braunhut on his views, to which the inventor replied “Hitler wasn’t a bad guy. He just received bad press.” 

His next supplier, Basic Fun, swiftly dropped Amazing Sea-Monkeys again because of von Braunhut’s fascism, but he quickly found another. The sea monkeys contract was just too lucrative. Many of von Braunhut’s partners continued to work with him after rectifying their cognitive dissonance, choosing to believe his claim that he was not Hendrik von Braun (whose correspondence address matched that of the Amazing Sea-Monkeys enquiries address), and his insistence that he was just another guy who’d just received bad press. This series of relationships and rationalisations were documented in detail within another landmark investigation into von Braunhut, this time by Tamar Brott in the LA Times in 2000. Brott pressed one partner on why he believed von Braunhut and he replied “all I know is I have to believe him… Or else how could I live with myself?” 

What is remarkable is that it took another groundbreaking journalistic investigation to once again bring von Braunhut’s associations back in the spotlight and that still, despite this, the sea monkeys trade continued to flourish. Harold von Braunhut could not be cancelled and essentially until his death in 2003 some of the profits from his greatest humbug, the sea monkey, lined the pockets of the Aryan Nations, with the broad consent of Corporate America. 

PILFERING A LEGACY

The sea monkeys’ association with Neo-Nazism appears to have died with Harold von Braunhut. Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut has addressed her late-husband’s associations only with silence, but – according to Hitt’s interview with her – she does not appear to share von Braunhut’s active pursuit of far-right causes. Instead, a committed vegan and animal rights campaigner, Signorelli von Braunhut has dedicated herself to the maintenance of the wildlife reserve, and sees the sea monkey as an important way to teach children about the sanctity of all life. 

I get this, although a quick read on any sea monkey forum can make you sceptical – some of those shrimp have come to unfortunate ends, from the father who came home thirsty from the pub and accidentally necked a glass of his kid’s sea monkeys, to the guy who thought they might hold the key to the sustainability crisis (they don’t) and started farming them. 

After Harold’s death, Signorelli von Braunhut signed a contract with Big Time Toys to market and distribute the sea monkeys. However, in 2013 the toy giant returned to Yolanda and claimed that what she thought was a licensing fee was in fact a down payment on the rights to the Amazing Sea-Monkeys, and so the Artemia NYOS, the secret “water purifier” and “instant life” powders, and all the legend that went with them, were now property of Big Time Toys. Signorelli von Braunhut responded by refusing to send them anymore of the NYOS shrimp, and then sued them for breach of copyright. 

Present day, Big Time Sea-MonkeysⓇ

As of January 2020, the case appears to have stagnated – one can only assume it has yet to be settled (apparently there’s a documentary on Signorelli von Braunhut’s struggle in production, suggesting it’s ongoing). Big Time Toys, however, have adapted to the conflict in a manner of which Harold himself might have been proud, were it not against his own grift. Signorelli von Braunhut sued Big Time because they continued to sell Amazing Sea-Monkeys after she began her embargo; the company started importing masses of regular brine shrimp eggs from China and stuffing them in the sachets instead. Signorelli von Braunhut accused them of selling knock-off products as the real thing.

Big Time responded accordingly. How can we sell something falsely if it does not exist? NYOS are, after all, not one of the seven recognised species of brine shrimp – they aren’t real, and whatever it says on the packet – “hybrid” or “secret formula” or whatever – doesn’t matter – everybody knows it’s only an illusion. Sam Harwell, owner of Big Time, is just being the know-it-all in the playground shouting “the rabbit was in the hat the whole time,” so as to take all the spoils for himself.  

SEEING ISN’T BELIEVING

This is how the sea monkeys tale ends. NYOS may die with the von Braunhuts, but it doesn’t matter now. Perhaps Big Time will try and breed their own species, but they don’t seem to care too much whether what they’re selling is any good; it’s only sea monkeys after all, sustained by the nostalgia market, mainly purchased nowadays as pulp presents. The wonder of creating a miniature underwater civilisation is not the draw it once was, for whatever reason (kids these days/video games/cheaper goldfish, who knows). The profits from the imported shrimp will go to Sam Harwell who, for full disclosure, is married to Beth Harwell, a prominent Tennessee Republican politician and avid Trump supporter. If you must buy decorative Artemia, you could instead splurge on one of the myriad of knock-off versions around nowadays – Aqua Dragons, Swamp Monsters, Prehistoric Life – and fund whatever horrid things their owners support. 

Of course, you see none of that when you see the box on the store shelf, or the advert in the back of the comic book, or the popup on your browser. You only see the friendly cartoon faces of microscopic sea people, who you can create to cavort and caper for less than $10. That’s the real story of the sea monkeys – from the child blowing their pocket money to von Braunhut’s partners-in-denial – it is whatever you are able to see, and what you believe that to be.

Mr Bunny Goes to Washington

“May you have as much fun getting to my age as I did…and may you raise as much hell, too.”

DC can on occasion be a cold and cynical place. Yet there’s always one moment, every year, when someone special visits and basks in the city’s weirdness – breaking the dour cruelty that hangs over America’s corridors of power.  

I’m talking of course, of the Easter Bunny.

1969 was a momentous year for the USA. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, the first ATM appeared on American streets, and, most importantly, Pat Nixon invited the Easter Bunny to join the annual festivities that took place on the White House lawn. Now, every Easter Monday, everybody’s favourite rabbit (sorry, Bugs) joins the President on the balcony and draws all looks.

Except, there’s not actually one rabbit who attends nowadays. There are three, and they are wonderful. This is their story.

Which came first? The Bunny or the Egg?

The myth of the Easter Bunny is brought to us by, you guessed it, the Pagans. Probably. There’s a goddess who may-or-may-not be legit who owned a hare who may-or-may-not have laid eggs because said hare may-or-may-not once have been a bird. It’s a confusing, uncertain origin story. The roots of the White House Egg Roll, thankfully, are much clearer.

DC has rolled eggs at Easter since its earliest days. Dolley Madison is said to have organised the first, taking place upon the lawn of the US Capitol. Then, in 1876, those clowns in Congress decided that the sight of children having fun was abhorrently against the spirit of Capitol Hill, so they banned any use of its lands as “playgrounds.” Two years later, Rutherford Hayes (most famous for selling black Southerners down the river so he could become President) moved the Easter Egg roll onto the grounds of the White House. The eggs have rolled there ever since (barring rain) except between 1942 and 1953, when war, shortages and construction work got in the way.

In 1969, along came the bunny. The OG Presidential BouncyBoy™ wore a Peter Rabbit head and a white jumpsuit, and now haunts my nightmares.

“If you should die before you wake…”
AP Photo. 4 April 1972

Various rabbit styles paraded the South Lawn until 1981 when the White House decided to up its bunny game. In a typically efficient policy directive from the Reagan administration, staffers called up the Schenz Theatrical Supply shop in Cincinnati, Ohio on the Monday before Easter. They requested of costume and mascot designer Jonn Schenz a bunny costume that would successfully house a 6ft2 Secret Service agent (how cuddly). He had five days.

“Who left Spiro Agnew in charge of the guest list?”
Nixon Foundation, 1972

Schenz rose to the challenge and created a rabbit that, unlike its predecessors, did not threaten to consume the souls of all those within the District. Part-Loony Toon, part-Alice In Wonderland, it was gentler despite its size and, importantly, had a soft, slightly surprised expression, lacking the assured grin that identifies evil rabbits the world over.

Schenz Bunny version 1.0.
Barry L Thumma/AP Laserphoto

The following year Schenz gifted the Gipper a bunny, and took his nephew to Washington to see his creation in action. “The bunny had a great big green stain on his knees where he knelt down in the grass to talk to the kids,” Schenz recalled to CityBeat, “and the drawstrings were hanging down the back.” His gift was being spurned. Infuriated, Schenz demanded to know who was in charge of the lagomorph. Apparently, no one was. Schenz decided he would take charge, and for the next few years, he himself managed all costumed creations, having added Mama and Junior to the repertoire.

Rabbit Hat Tricks

Schenz wasn’t just protecting his costumes – he was concerned too about the children and the volunteers. That rabbit suit exacts a heavy toll on its steward – as Schenz puts it, “that suit is not warm; that suit is hotter than hell,” and the only way to see is through the mouth. On top of all this, the bunny is not allowed to speak – after all, there is no surer way to chill a small child than to hear the severe tones of a Special Agent emanating from deep within Junior Bunny. For similar reasons, the bunny must not in any circumstances remove its head in view of anybody. In short – they need handlers.

Dan Quayle: “I’m just glad…they’re not using…QUAYLE EGGS!
Mr Bunny:

J. David Ake/AFP PHOTO 1 April 1991

That said, soon the White House started varying who wore the costumes. Ursula Meese, the wife of Reagan’s Attorney General, wore one six times, and as such was dubbed “the Meester Bunny.” Its most notorious custodian was Dubya’s Press Sec Sean Spicer – who revealed in 2017 (after a decade of silence) that he had twice played a rabbity role in the Easter Monday festivities.


Contary to popular opinion, it is not Sean Spicer in this 2008 Mrs Bunny costume but Associate Counsel Amy Dunathan. Bush is here expressing his gratitude that Dunathan had not jumped his sinking ship administration. She remained until the bitter end.
Chip Somodevilla – Getty Images

Keeping Up with the Bunnys

In recent years, the bunnies have found fame. Global social media has beamed images of the Egg Roll across the world. Whilst some memes focus on the familiar Devil Bunny vibe (they should see the early editions), or barrel-scraping furry brain farts (there are young mascots present – cover their giant ears!), there’s a fair few that play on the bunnies’ slightly startled countenance to mock the incumbents. This trend has accelerated since Trump took office.

Jonn Schenz
Jesse Fox/CityBeat. 2016

Schenz makes a point not to get involved in the politics of each administration. They all get three costumes, for free, every year, designed by Schenz and his partner of over forty years Stephan Rausch. But, to learn about Schenz is to learn of a mischievous soul – playful and joyous, with a youthful spark in his heart that is yet to be extinguished.
“May you have as much fun getting to my age as I have,” Schenz told Citybeat,” and may you raise as much hell, too.” I can only speculate, but it is within the realms of possibility that Schenz’ bunnies startled stare is exactly by design, to entice a little mischief from the audience, especially when the cameras are looking.

The bunny is not supposed to talk.
Reuters1995

Surprised or otherwise, the bunnies also bring out a side to the Presidential family that isn’t usually seen, hid as it is behind carefully-crafted set piece “public” appearances. From its Bush’s warm embrace of Mrs Bunny to Bill Clinton’s colourful egg tie that he wore very year, the photos and festivities helped reduce some of the distance the First Families have imposed between themselves and the US public. But this exposure does not always shine a kind light on the powerful. As the memes show, Trump’s blustering hyperbole jars next to a blank-faced gargantuan mascot, showing him more as clubhouse crank than the First-among-Equals he reckons himself to be.

The bunnies are the centrepiece of the White House at Easter, and bring a bit of chaos to a carefully crafted Presidential media appearance. Whether coincidentally or by design, they poke some healthy fun at the most powerful people on the planet, and allows us all to take them down a notch, if just for one day.

But, more than that, they serve as a symbol of the event itself, a gracious carnival of childhood joy – and for one day at least, that jaundiced cauldron of malaise that is downtown DC is brought a little life, like a daisy through concrete.

Small Islands, Big Histories: Diego Garcia

Short dives into Earth’s diminutive islands that tell more than their size suggests

They cleared the island of its custodians and dropped a military base atop of where a society once lay. This secretive base is what Diego Garcia is known for today – it captivates the minds of spy-movie directors and shadow government junkies alike – it’s known for this because that is all there is now on this isolated atoll. This never used to be the case.

Recently, Diego Garcia’s past has at last received more attention for the violent eviction of its settled community – the Ilois – from its paradisiacal shores at the whim of the US and the UK. The history of Diego Garcia is of the forced creation and attempted destruction of a people, of decolonisation and the Cold War, and of how the history of an island is always a story that crosses oceans and continents.

Life is Elsewhere

Describing the island for its new American arrivals, the US Navy’s welcome pack calls Diego Garcia a “lush, tropical paradise.” It was not always seen in this way. In old Maldivian societies, the Chagos archipelago – of which Diego Garcia is the largest participant – was known as the isolated, mysterious place over the horizon met only by castaways and sailors lost.

Diego Garcia. Source: BBC

The lure of the tropics and the crops it might yield eventually brought explorers from further afield to Diego Garcia. In the 1500s, the island was discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered by Portuguese sailors busy building up their oceanic trading networks, and trying to make a name for themselves in the process. The name “Diego Garcia” eventually stuck – a conglomeration of those who’d decided to name the place after themselves or their friends upon landing, and of the saying “deo gracias.”

There was no native population then, fortunately. No population to trade with, to infect or to enslave. There were no major raw materials to exploit, aside from coconuts or crab meat. The Chagos Islands were, for the most part, passed by for more alluring prizes, until colonial competition hit fever pitch in the 1700s. The French and the British East India company both made abortive attempts to settle Diego Garcia, before the French decided instead to play on the atoll’s peripheral status and maroon Mauritian lepers there.

The lure of the land, however, proved too much. In 1793, the French opened a coconut plantation on the eastern portion of the island, and African slaves were spirited away from their homes to toil there. This was the same year that, thousands of miles away in the Caribbean, the slaves of Saint Domingue marched on Cap-Francois to demand their freedom. Their wish was granted and, the following year, pressed to prove that they truly believed in liberte, egalite, fraternite, the revolutionary government in Paris ceded freedom to all the slaves in the colonies.

However, thousands of miles away from the hotbeds of revolution, France’s Indian Ocean islands never honoured this proclamation, and the slaves of Diego Garcia remained in chains. Once again, a major colonial power exploited the Chagos Islands’ diminutive size and isolation to thwart convention and pursue their crimes unheeded. This would not be the last time. 

Isolated at the Centre of Things

1814. Mauritius and its associates transferred to Britain as spoils of war. The slaves remained bound to the masters of the coconut plantation until 1840, but their fate remained tied to the crop for much longer. After emancipation, the freed were joined by indentured workers from India. The population named themselves the Ilois – “islanders” in Chagossian Creole – and mainly settled at Minni Minni, north of the plantations, and across the lagoon at Point Marianne. By 1882 the plantations, still producing copra oil for European machines and lamps, were all owned by one company – the Société Huilière de Diego et de Peros; run in far off Mauritius.


Diego Garcia from entrance to East Point. Surveyed by Commr. F.C.P. Vereker … 1885. Natural Scale, 1 : 24,188. (Southern portion. Natural Scale, 1 : 72,560.) [Admiralty Chart]
Publisher: London. From British Library

In the 20th Century, as the great distances across oceans grew ever shorter, Diego Garcia once more became wrapped up in violent geopolitical struggle. Recolonisation began during the Second World War, when the British set up an airstrip to contribute to the fighting in South Asia. After the war, the increasing calls from the colonies for independence collided with the fallout of Cold War regional destabilisation. The breaking point came in the mid-1960s.

In 1966, the USA expressed interest in establishing a small naval base on Diego Garcia, and Britain was only too glad to discuss terms. The apocryphal tale is that the US picked up the island for a mere fistful of dollars, but the nominal fee masked the real bill; a $14m debt for nuclear secrets, wiped off.

There were still two hurdles for the US to overcome; The fear that the Chagos archipelago may yet fall to an independent Mauritius, and the Ilois, who continued to make a life on the coconut plantations. In 1965, the coalition dealt with the Mauritian issue with the ruthless ease of a gunboat diplomat. If you want your independence, Harold Wilson told Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam , you must cede your control of the Chagos Islands. He duly did and the Ilois were cast off from the Mauritian nation.

Lowland clearings

The US and UK, meanwhile, plowed on with their plans to build a base on an “uninhabited” island. With this mindset, a couple of thousand Chagossians represented no more than overgrowth to be cleared.

The plantations had in 1962 been bought a British colonial company – the Chagos Agalega Company – based in the Seychelles. Its directors took £600,000 of persuasion to relinquish control. The coalition then began a subversive campaign to dislodge the Ilois from their home. The first stage saw the ports closed; any Chagossian who left the island – usually to Mauritius or the Seychelles for medical treatment – was informed that they would not be allowed to return home. Next came a policy of terror and intimidation, designed to rip Chagossian families and communities apart. This culminated in Governor Sir Bruce Greatbatch’s order to massacre of Ilois family pets. Using chunks of meat, British officials lured pet dogs into an enclosure and gassed them.

Still, the British could not dislodge the community of this supposedly uninhabited island. But, mired in Vietnam, by the 1970s US ambitions for the base had grown from a small air strip to a fully-loaded Indian Ocean base. In 1971 the plantations were destroyed and the last of the Ilois were forced onto the beach and marched onto boats, boats that took them to other islands in the Chagos (soon to be cleared themselves), or west to Mauritius or the Seychelles. Boats that were not fit for human transport, boats they were crammed into, sharing a deck with piles of guano. After such scatological nightmares were endured, the Ilois were taken off the boats and abandoned at the ports, their lives in tatters.

These acts amounted to warfare against a people, approximating genocide. At best, the Ilois were Cold War collateral damage. At worst, the community was seen as little more than imperial jetsam. So wrote Denis Greenhill, who seemingly thought the whole thing funny;

“The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee. Unfortunately along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius etc.”

The Footprint of Freedom

An island’s history nestles within its people. The Ilois were the only group to build a free, sustaining society on Diego Garcia. They are the island’s custodians, but since the 1970s the Ilois have been in complete diaspora, scattered across the planet. In 1972 Mauritius appealed for compensation from the UK so that they could provide for the refugees. Britain paid £650,000, for which the 426 Ilois families marooned there immediately sued. The Mauritian government were to cling onto this money until 1978.

Others made a new life in the Seychelles, and a few hundred moved to Britain. The Chagossians were ostracised wherever they went, with different skills, a different language, and a hostile welcome from their new neighbours. David Vine has studied the expulsions and followed the fate of the expelled. He describes lives of sagren – “profound sorrow and heartbreak over being exiled from their native lands.” His friend
Aurélie Lisette Talate told him “I had something that had been affecting me for a long time, since we were uprooted.” Talate died exiled in 2013. Vine maintains that sagren killed his friend.

Meanwhile, back in Diego Garcia, Navy Seebees arrived to build “Camp Justice” and remove any trace that a society ever existed on its shores. Bikku Bitti has gone; Point Marriane became the southern end of the island’s runway. The base is stacked upon the west side of the atoll, a place where soldiers played baseball and tennis whilst nearby prisoners arrived and departed under the yoke of extraordinary rendition.

In 1990, Britain decided to bequeath a flag to the British Indian Ocean Territory, in a strange masquerade that claimed this military sandbox was still a bona fide nation

There are now over 4000 people on the island, more than ever before. They are mostly US military, but there are also contractors – low-level service personnel from Mauritius and the Philippines – and British diplomatic types. None can stay permanently.

These visitors share the island with warrior crabs, geckos, donkeys and birds. The new Navy arrivals are not told of the evictions, only that the “plantations were closed.” They are informed, however, that “all residents make every effort to maintain the ecological integrity of Diego Garcia. As a result, all life forms on the island, including live shellfish, are protected by British law.” The Ilois and their descendants have never known such protection. They are not allowed to step foot on the island.

The British have renamed this ersatz territory the “British Indian Ocean Islands.” The Americans? They prefer the “Footprint of Freedom”.


Sagren has not stopped Chagossians from fighting tooth-and-nail to return home. In 2000 Ilois in Britain managed to get the British High Court to declare their expulsion from the islands as unlawful. The government responded by offering Chagossians British citizenship so long as they rescinded any claim to the islands. This mimicked an earlier policy granting Mauritian Ilois an additional £4m compensation in return to sign away any right to return.

Unfortunately, it’s now known that British citizenship can be made conditional with the stroke of the Home Secretary’s pen. Ilois in Britain have been caught up in the UK’s Hostile Environment policy that has demonised minorities. Their residence here is threatened.

By this time the British government had already betrayed the Ilois twice more. In 2004 the Blair Administration used Royal Prerogative to override the 2000 ruling and ban the Ilois from ever returning. The fight continued, but in 2008 the House of Lords finally settled the matter in favour of the government. The Ilois had lost again.

As if that wasn’t enough, in 2009 David Miliband (allegedly against the instructions of Gordon Brown) moved to declare the waters surrounding the archipelago a Marine reserve, cowering behind green politics to cling onto this fossil of a colony. The idea was to prevent any potential returning population from being able to fish. On this occasion the government were, thankfully, thwarted.

“A marine park would, in effect, put paid to the resettlement claims of the Archipelago’s former residents”

Reportably said by FCO employee Colin Roberts in 2009 according to wikileaks.

At last, last month, the International Court of Justice told Britain to give Diego Garcia and the rest of the archipelago back to Mauritius, giving a ray of hope to the dwindling population that had once been allowed to call it home. But the odds are still against them. The UK have no obligation to heed the ICJ’s request. Even if they did, there is no guarantee that Mauritius would support the Chagossians, let alone stand up to the USA and demand that the island be returned to their custody.

Source: The Guardian

In any case, the USA has little intention of abandoning their base that serves the global power with a strategic panopticon over East Africa, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. Recent tensions between India and Pakistan have only served to tighten the grip of the American boot stamping upon the footprint of freedom. Many Chagossians are pragmatic about this, and hope that they may instead, like other Mauritians, be allowed to work on the base as contractors.


There is another danger to the future chance that Diego Garcia may once more house a society. The island has a maximum height of 7 metres and is on average just over 1m above the Indian Ocean. A warming planet, bringing rising seas and unpredictable weather patterns, may yet render the island a victim of the anthropecine. And if the past is any measure, not enough will care when it, and its five-hundred years of history, drowns.

“My Homer is not a Communist”

Greetings.

A fine Mahoke to you all.

Yesterday, Ted Cruz decided to join in with a game many Simpsons nerds have played the years, and assign political affiliation to America’s favourite family. But I think he’s been watching it wrong.

With the exception of Lisa, he reckons the Simpsons are all Republicans. Even Maggie, who has yet to speak.

(Looks like those clowns in Congress have done it again. What a bunch of clowns)

Yes, a family that infamously met the ire of Bush Senior, who implored the moral majority to be “More like the Waltons, and less like the Simpsons.”

As The Simpsons, still running, is now widely considered “zombified,” perhaps it is another case where the dead have risen and are voting Republican.

The Republicans are no strangers to fiction, but Cruz’s claim has been met with ire by many Simpsons celebrities, from Yeardley Smith (Lisa), to Bill Oakley (co-showrunner during its greatest era). I think it would be worthwhile, and quite fun, to delve into the classic era to test this claim.

https://twitter.com/thatbilloakley/status/966774831592062976

Let’s start with the one he got right,

LISA.

Yeah, she’d be a Democrat. Aside from her brief flirtation with religious zeal when opposing Homer’s free cable, Lisa has championed progressive causes, from the environment to women’s rights. And, unlike Cruz’s mates, when Lisa goes to Washington and sees corruption rampant, she is serious about taking it down. If you’re in any doubt, revisit her joy at finding a copy of Al Gore’s magnum opus, Sane Planning, Sensible Tomorrow.

HOMER

Yeah, on the surface Homer might seem like he leans Republican. I’m pretty sure he would approve wholeheartedly of Cruz’s cooking-bacon-with-a-firearm technique. He also shows himself suspicious of homosexuality and susceptible to the rantings of Limbaugh-clone Birch Barlow. Yet, when the Republican Sideshow Bob runs for mayor, Homer finds himself a swing voter, torn between his Bart killing policy and his Selma killing policy.

Homer, an uninhibited consumer, is bought over by retail politics more often than not – when Burns is running for Governor, Homer backs him more for personal gain from his boss’s success over anything else.

Much of Springfield is the same. In Bob’s run for office, he wins over the old with the Matlock Expressway (MAAAAAAATLOOOOOCCK), and the young with his clowning. The rest was advertising power, and Springfield were swayed – only Bart and Lisa remain sceptical, based on their previous dealings with Bob. Consequently, they endorsed disgraced Democrat Diamond Joe Quimby, with all the gusto of a Bernie bro at a Clinton rally.

Homer is a reactive soul – he’s quite happy with his hi-fi, his boob tube, and his pizza pie. He’s no activist, and he’s usually roped in to causes. But in the Classic Era at least, he’s got a good heart, and is often won over by friends and family (especially Lisa), fighting to expose the crimes of founding father Jebediah Springfield (the Dastard!), leading successful strike action to keep the plant worker’s dental plan, and taking down Springfield’s No. 1 Cat Burglar among others.

Remember how Homer became Safety Inspector at the plant? He led a Health and Safety crusade and campaigned to regulate the nuculer industry.

Besides, Homer is a communist sympathiser.

 

BART

Poor Bart, his hero and his arch-nemesis are both Republicans. Must be confusing – no wonder he’s an anarchist.

 

MARGE

Marge is conservative with a very small c. Yes, she is Springfield’s vox pop for the Moral Majority, and has been outspoken against cartoon violence, burlesque, and the decline of faith in the community. However, she is as much interested in civic issues as she is fighting the culture war. When Main Street was all cracked and broken, there was Marge. When Moe had lost the will to live, there was Marge.

Marge is a community champion, and when she is locked up for a month, Springfield descends into malaise.

Marge likes a pragmatic, no frills politician, like Governor Mary Bailey. She certainly would not be won over by the brash and bluster of an overblown businessman running for office for personal gain. She does not buy snake oil.

 

MAGGIE

When Mr Burns is maintaining his monopoly, blocking out the sun, and stealing candy from babies, Maggie stops him with lethal force. Some might say she is exercising her second amendment rights, but others might argue that she engaged in armed resistance to protect the people of Springfield against the excesses of late capitalism.

Or, she’s a baby with a gun. What did you think would happen?

 

SPRINGFIELD

Look Ted, Springfield is an American symbol. It stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, encompassing rugged mountains and great rivers, deserts and prairies. It holds everything America has to offer. The classic Simpsons do not represent parties, they hold up the mirror.

Sadly the Republican Party goes beyond a joke these days. Bob’s “no children have ever meddled with the Republican Party…” threat is now chilling when paired with recent reactions to the defiant yoiung survivors of the latest American mass murder. The next time somebody promises to lower taxes, brutalise criminals, and rule you like a king, heed the warnings of Les Wynen. Maybe then we can recommence our twirl toward freedom. And if Trump and Cruz go again in 2020, for Springfield’s sake, back this more impressive Republican for a primary challenge.

A huge thank you to Frinkiac

Obama & I

Everybody develops a relationship with the American President. They enter and influence everybody’s lives in some way or another – from aggressive acts of war, to domestic health policy, trade deals, and speeches you may have caught wind of. For the past eight years, Barack Obama has been ever-present in our lives, whether we noticed it or not. For what it’s worth, this post is about my two terms with President Obama.

In part it’s a response to the global outpouring of liberal grief following the President’s farewell address, which he delivered with vintage oratorical charm. I completely get this reaction. With a Fascist Satsuma waiting impatiently to nest in the Oval Office, I can’t help but look at the future feeling that the floor is about to fall from underneath my feet. But I struggled to truly relate to this sentiment – I have a far more ambivalent and downbound attitude toward the outgoing President – one that is nine years in the making.

*

I remember when I got the Obama bug. I was nineteen – naïve, spotty and meek, living away from home (Birmingham) for the first time. In my first year at university, I was a pale brown kid in a predominantly white middle-class environment that I had not properly experienced before, even though I thought I had. I was seriously confused by the looks, the club security pat-downs, the “where are you froms” and my slow characterisation as an oversensitive chipped-shouldered teenage strop-monster.

It was Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in March 2008 that perked my ears up. It’s curious, looking back on it now, as to why exactly it moved me so much. For the previous few years I’d been affected by post-9/11 racial politics, which had, among other things, made me wary of running for a bus or growing my beard too long. Bush, Blair and Brown had made all of us who were teenagers during the Iraq War desperate to hear something else – a politician who did not acquiesce to the hawkish racial profiling of the Naughties, where anyone not white was expected to behave in a certain manner (….and so it remains). In Spring 2008, as the American political classes rounded on Obama for his association with his preacher Jeremiah Wright – who’d once said “God Damn America” – it seemed as if Obama was to be subject to this policing. I think what I liked most about his response at the time was that it did not feel like an acquiescence, rather it appeared to me that here was a black politician taking command of the debate, channeling his own personal experiences into a speech on race in the USA. He did not seem afraid to take this issue on.

I now believe this speech to be more of a sleight of hand – a nuanced way to disparage Wright, his friend, whilst proclaiming an air of statesmanship. But at 19, struggling to even think about my race without imploding, I couldn’t believe my eyes. At the time, the symbol of Obama’s candidature overrode the underlying crude politics of his campaign. I feel that those who have always been cynical about HopeTM  have missed that some of the fervour surrounding Obama was not of his own making. Here, in front of us, was a confident man, a smart-as-nails spine-tingling orator – in the eighth year of Dubya you can imagine how this must have seemed to desperate eyes. After four centuries (and counting) of Jim Crow and his ancestors, to see a black politician speaking passionately and earnestly about an issue from which white America has always preferred to duck and take cover, it felt so far removed from the vacuousness of Bush and the conniving of Blair. It felt so far removed from the USA.

And so I started rooting for him. I stayed up late to watch the primaries and checked the state-by-state polling obsessively. I also read his book over the summer. The first one, Dreams of My Father. I still wasn’t doing great that July, and it helped me to read of how the young Obama came to understand his multi-ethnic roots. It wasn’t particularly profound stuff and he certainly wasn’t the first person to have ever written about these issues, but his book was the one I read at the time and it made me feel slightly less alone, and slightly more comfortable in my own skin. Even now, that still means something to me. Eight years later, when everything Obama does feels very calculated and deliberate, I wonder to the service of what end he wrote Dreams. It is said he wrote it before he decided he wanted to pursue office. I don’t know what to think.

obama-and-bush
Source: Washington Post

*,

Ending the war in Iraq, closing Guantanamo Bay, preventing drilling in Alaska. Yes we can. Can we? Who’s we? Thousands of miles away, I felt a part of this, and so did many others. A wave of futurism, the audacity of hope. The Nebraska Second District, North Carolina. Indiana. SERIOUSLY? INDIANA? Even the American voters were getting behind this. The President of the USA is black.

Alongside, the Lehmann Brothers collapsed. Over here, Northern Rock followed. The financial crisis had been bubbling away quietly all summer and now it hit hard. It hit us for years, and all of us who graduated straight into the eye of this storm had quite a bit of fun trying to get jobs. Some of us worked for the Disney Store, or the Odeon, or Solihull drinking holes, and I fixed gearboxes for my uncle for a while. Some of us were paid by the hour, zero hours a week. Some of us didn’t work at all. Obama was elected into this global mess, and he began by rescuing those whose opulence, negligence and man-childish irresponsibility had sent half the world up the creek, without asking very much in return.

But still people believed, and they believe still. There exists and remains among many an unusual amount of faith in the US President – and in politicking in general – that far exceeds the constitutional role that a sitting president can take and the historical role presidents have largely played. Obama himself cultured this belief in his presidency especially, and he believes in it himself. He sees himself as a disciple of Lincoln, building behind him a Team of Rivals, for he believed that in debate and disagreement comes good policy and statesmanship.

As for his supporters, many people I know blame The West Wing. It may sound a bit silly, but the show has had a hold over liberal political consciousness over the last two decades. It presents an ideal liberal presidency – a USA run by Jed Bartlett, a genius economist with a strong moral core, ably supported by a gang of beautiful moral geniuses – complete with noble backing music, grand speeches, and rooms full of passionate-yet-civil debates between the absolute kindest representations of DC Republicans and Democrats. The belief among liberals that this is what Washington could be coalesced with Obama and his own self-image of rigorous statesmanship. Obama was as close to the West Wing ideal of the presidency as yet seen. This is more than mere comparison – Obama was the blueprint for Bartlett’s successor Matt Santos, and Obama-brand Democratic politics was certainly an influence on the show.

hope

I was into this idea then. HopeTM got me good. I’ve always been left, but for a little bit I hoped that putting the right people in charge of existing institutions could provide necessary change. I thought about becoming a human rights lawyer and moving myself to DC where things happened (fortunately for me, the world has too many lawyers already). I binge-watched The West Wing in ’08. Like everybody else, I was watching only the veneer of the show. I see The West Wing differently now – likewise I see US political institutions in a very different light. President Bartlett is the perfect liberal candidate, yet in three seasons he transforms from a moral idealist into a stone-faced international assassin, ordering the killing of foreign diplomats from the gallery of a theatre. In eight years he does little but keep the USA ticking over, to the point where on his final day in office he has to be consoled by his wife, telling him over and over that he has done good.

a-world-without-lawyers
Can you imagine a world without lawyers?

Obama, the New Democrat, was always more of a pragmatist. The American President is assigned to preside over the myriad of checks-and-balances scribed within the Sacred Constitution that served to try and keep everybody *important* happy both in 1789 and for all eternity. On the domestic front, the President is Equivocator-in-Chief, a middle manager in an oval office. In 2008 Obama knew this and believed in this. He knew that it was better for his job security – better for the American President – to bail out the financial sector with little consequence. It was better to avert crises, he thought, than risk destabilising US political life for serious change. However, in healthcare policy he bucked this trend. The passing of the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) cost Obama a shedload of political capital, but in doing so, the number of those without health insurance in the USA has almost halved since 2010.

In some cases, Obama’s desire for change was handcuffed by the job, especially after the Democrats lost the House. Obama was clearly frustrated and exhausted by his inability to increase gun control in the face of US firearm culture and a hostile political environment. The USA largely brushed Sandy Hook under the carpet, and there’s quite a company beneath that rug. It’s difficult not to grow jaded in the face of such national carelessness. However, the excuse of presidential powerlessness runs very thin in other examples.

I think often of the black people killed by law enforcement. Crimes that go unpunished. Crimes committed with impunity. When Trayvon Martin was shot dead by neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman, Obama was able to strike a small gesture of empathy, perhaps trying to educate white America as to the daily dangers of being black in public in the USA when he noted that Trayvon could have been “my son” or “me 35 years ago.” Yet Obama’s great “conversation on race” never really proceeded past this point, as the list of names grew ever longer, the executions ever public. When Mike Brown was killed, his body lying in the streets for hours, protests erupted in Ferguson, MO. Where were you then Mr. President? Where the fuck were you? The President could only ever muster some horseshoe centrism about “both sides,” and a plea for “non-violence” as law enforcement donned riot gear and rolled in on armoured vehicles. Obama ducked and took cover.

I moved to DC for six months in 2014, on a fellowship to continue studying Haitian history. I was there when the ruling was delivered that Brown’s killer was not to be indicted, watching the news in a diner on the Hill. They waited until the evening to tell everybody what we already knew, delaying it in an attempt to trigger a response. In the days following, the President stayed true, as he always has done, to vague appeals to “peace,” dialogue and patience following in the footsteps of some fictionalised, diluted version of Dr. King (it recalls also his speeches on gender, which were so often injected with grating “wives and daughters” rhetoric). These seemed like empty words, but in an ever-divided USA, they were a cold shoulder to some of his most faithful constituents. If the President is equivocator-in-chief, Obama increasingly seemed willing to earnestly play this role. It no longer held true that he was simply a man hampered by his institution.

Every major city experienced a massive mobilisation of people protesting this Ferguson hatchet-job. In DC there was a huge march that night, and sporadic marches bubbled up through Washington for the next few weeks. By then, it felt increasingly like the president was not on their side.

*

Then there’s foreign policy. The “Obama Doctrine” fittingly seems to defy definition, opaque to the core. Riding into office on a wave of anti-Iraq fervour, Obama quickly sought a way to continue business-as-usual whilst appearing to have changed tack. The pledge to close Guantanamo – carved out of Cuban soil, that symbol of US hawkish interventionism fuelled by extraordinary rendition – simply disappeared.

Drone warfare suited the Obama Doctrine to a tee, of intervention without deployment. Throughout the world, the USA was to no longer be seen, but always be felt, often with devastating effect. However, this misdirection, coupled with the scaling-back of US boots on the ground, was enough to convince the Nobel commission that we were back on the road to utopia. Yet there have been some changes. Obama has moved to warm relations with Iran and Cuba – moves for which he has been called a traitor and a communist. He received similar vitriol for expressing sympathy with Trayvon Martin over his racist assassin, and when he pushed through Affordable Care.

The intervention with which I am most familiar was in Haiti. In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton personally intervened in the presidential elections in order to place Michel Martelly, a friend of US interests in the country, in a position where he could take power. Ever since, US policy toward Haiti has actively discouraged Haitian democracy from behind the scenes. Clinton receives much of the criticism for this policy, but it was conducted under Obama’s White House and with Obama’s consent. This was an act of harm that continues to harm Haiti, and it upsets and infuriates me still.

obama-and-martelly
Obama and Martelly

*

By the time I made it to DC, the allure of “being there” had long evaporated. The Capitol Building outside my window held no romance in its scaffolding. Inside, its rotunda was adorned with stylised images of the conquest of the New World, and its stewards that November had moved decidedly rightward. But it was a city that captivated me regardless – DC is beautiful, cosmopolitan, and well-and-truly alive with the past and the present. It was here I saw President Obama speak.

20150303_124245
Washington DC: Photo taken by the author

For all of his fame as a great orator, the President gave a pretty strange speech about Jesus, and how the Messiah was basically a stand-up gent. It was a talk that would have fit in well on U Street at 2am. Michelle Obama read “Twas the Night before Christmas” and was, of course, brilliant. It was a weird feeling, seeing the President there in front of me. It was like going to a gig to watch a band you loved as a kid but had long since found them a bit tacky and issue-riddled. It was underwhelming, yet there was still something about them that you’d not lost – that there was a reason you liked them in the first place when you were younger and didn’t think about things so much.

The President on occasion still had the ability to pull my strings and echo the man I used to think he was. When he sang Amazing Grace in South Carolina at the memorial for the victims of Dylan Roof’s mass murder, my cynicism briefly melted away and I burst into tears. But then I think about how Roof was taken for dinner by his arresting officers, whilst police shoot down black kids with toy guns, and I realise this feeling is almost entirely window-dressing.

20150216_172357
Washington DC: Photo taken by author

Of course I’ll miss him. I’ll miss the symbol of a black president in the US seat of power – the influence of which cannot be understated. I’ll miss the days when there was not a vicious, race-baiting kleptocratic sexual predator in the White House, and I’ll certainly miss not existing under the daily threat of global annihilation. Trump is a visceral reminder that the USA – and the world they influence so greatly – can yet fall leagues below its current state.

Gary Younge argues that “judged by what was necessary, Obama was inadequate; judged by the alternatives, he was a genius.” Similarly, by the relative standards of those who have previously served the Office of the Presidency, Obama will surely rank highly. But this isn’t sufficient to give Obama a free pass, and view him solely as a brief period of sanity between two destructive Republicans. These have not been eight years of national and global healing – many of the tensions that boiled in the Bush era have persisted and, in some cases, worsened.

What then, of hope? Was Obama’s dream of a New America just a lie? A simple ruse with which to take the Presidency? These last eight years I’ve definitely changed. My youthful idealism has vanished, and I view the way US Government works with fatigued scepticism. I don’t blame President Obama for this. When the promise is broken, you go on living. He was by no means the sole author of the hope that spearheaded him to power, nor did he co-opt it completely. Any frustration I have now with Obama is not rooted in any feeling of betrayal, rather it’s the result of my concerns with the choices he has made whilst within the office. The hope that I had felt was a product of misunderstanding the role of the Office of the President, believing that Obama was the liberal idealist he presented himself to be, and lastly believing that liberal idealism itself was sufficient to transform the Office of the President. Obama’s presidency helped me learn this lesson. Nowadays, if most of my heroes don’t appear on a stamp, then certainly none of my heroes have been President of the United States of America.

Nowadays, I look elsewhere for my hope. At this moment, we need it to give us strength in opposing everything the 45th president will throw at the world. President Obama’s long-forgotten pastor Jeremiah Wright was right about hope’s audaciousness.

In spite of a being on a world torn by war; in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate; in spite of being on a world devastated by distrust and decimated by disease; in spite of being on a world where famine and greed were uneasy bed partners; in spite of being on a world where apartheid and apathy fed the fires of racism…her harp all but destroyed except for that one string that was left – in spite of all these things, the woman had the audacity to hope. She had the audacity to hope and to make music and to praise God on the one string she had left.

On the worst days, I still hold on to this, tightly.

Decision 1789: A Brief History of Picking US Presidents

 

nixons-back

Today is the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November in a leap year, which means only one thing – it’s the 1463rd day of the US presidential campaign!

Election day, it’s nearly over. Like a sacred Leap Day, or a planetary alignment, this Tuesday is the only day in four years when nobody is running for president. For Hillary Rodham Clinton, said to have been running since at least the day she last left the White House, it is likely* to be the last day she is not President of the United States of America. In kind, in January 2017, Clinton is likely* to become the first woman president.

(*based on 538’s 69% chance of Hillary White House. no sure thing. UPDATE : 4:40am here, looks like Trump’s gonna win)

She would (figuratively) get the keys to her new presidential mansion – creatively named the “White House” after its fair complexion – sometime in the early hours of Wednesday morning, so long as at least 270 members of the electoral college pledge for her instead of her rival, Donald J. Trump.

This manner of selecting a Brand New Overlord dates back to the very first election, when 69 electors gathered in 1789 to pick the first president. Each elector was given two votes, on the understanding that all would give their first vote to George Washington, and the candidate who received a plurality of the second votes would win the prize of Vice President, which went to John Adams.

Of course, there was nothing democratic about this initial selection. Only the states that had ratified the constitution got to take part, with apologies to the indecisive North Carolina and Rhode Island. New York fell out with itself, so wasn’t allowed to play either. No matter, they’d have chosen Washington anyway. Only six of the ten participating states had a popular vote for their electors, of which only free people with sufficient property were eligible to vote.

 

College Dropouts

The Electoral College has managed to outlast many of these old ways, mainly because it has sanctified in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Tomorrow, the US voters indirectly vote for Hill or Donny by voting for pledged electors, “stand-ins,” for their will. Each state gets as many electors as it has Senators and Houses Representatives, and DC gets three too under the terms of the 23rd Amendment. Each state is winner-take-all (except Maine and Nebraska, but let’s ignore them today).

In the old days, there was nothing holding these electors to the vote other than a Gentleman’s Agreement. Reneging was common; it happened in every election from 1796 to 1808, and frequently after that. Such characters were known as “faithless electors.” In 1820, one generous New Hampshire elector gave his vote to his pal John Quincy Adams. How kind – Adams wasn’t even running that year. It wasn’t always intentional. In 1864, Nevada only cast two of its three votes for Lincoln, because one poor soul, on his way to vote, got snowbound in Colorado.

In 1824 John Quincy Adams actually ran, and he set a few records along the way. It was the first election where they recorded the popular vote, and he won with 30.9% of it. That may seem low – because it is. He didn’t win the popular vote. Andrew Jackson got 40 000 more votes (41.4% of the total vote), and even got 15 more electors. However, Jackson didn’t take a majority of electors, and so the decision went to the House of Reps, or more accurately, a dusty, mysterious Washington office – these days the natural habitat of Cigarette Smoking Men leaning on a filing cabinet. There, Henry Clay gave his support (he’d won 37 electors) to Ol’ Quince, handing him the presidency.

Some say Clay did it for the position of Secretary of State, which he duly received. Others point out that Clay was politically closer to Adams, and he thought little of Jackson, proclaiming that “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy” (wonder what he’d make of hosting the Apprentice).

Adams was the only person to win the president through the House, and as the first child of a former President to follow in his father’s footstep, he founded the first Presidential Dynasty, which have become increasingly popular in recent years (google Chelsea 2024, for further information).

Adams, however, was not the last president to lose the popular vote but win the White House, thanks to the wonders of the Electoral College, a system whose beauty is supposedly in its simplicity but hides unending complications.  It happened twice in the post-Civil War era, when there were a series of close elections – marked by mudslinging, shady deals and assassinations, as the USA struggled to reconcile its differences. It happened in 1876, when Rutherford Hayes won the college by a single elector (more of that an’ on). It happened again in 1888, where Grover Cleveland was temporarily evicted from the White House by Benjamin Harrison. Most recently, Al Gore won the popular vote by 500 000 in 2000, but George W. Bush took** Florida by 537 votes and with it came the White House.

(SIDEBAR – It seems a preposterous system in these incidences – but I’m not going to pretend I’m sat on some high British horse – the UK’s current government got a parliamentary majority of just 37% of votes cast, and 24% of those eligible to vote. The current Prime Minister was selected by a grand total of 199 people. That’s just the way of things.)

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A High British Horse. Source: dressage-news.com

 

Elephants and Donkeys

The USA has a two-party system. The US has gone through a grand total of six party systems over the years, but the last few have all involved the Republicans and the Democrats. Both were originally founded for a purpose, but have shape-shifted a few times over the years, changing bases and constituencies in an eternal quest for power. The Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Whigs, Anti-Masons, Know Nothings, Bull Moosers, Progressives, Dixiecrats and Reformists have all come and gone, but the long-standing rivalry between the Reds and the Blues has stood firm.

The Democrats, symbolised by the donkey, sprouted from Thomas Jefferson’s now confusingly-sounding Democratic-Republican party. They initially saw themselves as the defenders of individual liberty against the malevolence of central power (embodied by Quince and Clay’s 1824 handshake), but as much as anything it became the very model of a modern political machine.

The Republicans (who claim the Elephant as mascot) were founded as an anti-slavery party in the 1850s, and quickly found support as the Whigs and Democrats pulled themselves apart in the slide towards civil war. Under William McKinley, the Republicans began their courting of Big Business, whilst the Democrats, retaining an element of southern populism, moved steadily towards social democracy characterised by FDR’s “New Deal.” Things changed again in the ‘60s, when the Democrats seceded the “Solid South” after their lukewarm embrace of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon formed a “Southern Strategy” where the Republicans would say thinly-veiled racist, segregationist things to court the Deep South over to their side. Then Reagan came to town in the ‘80s and turned the entire USA over to neoliberalism (twas fertile ground, some might say), before Bill Clinton and the New Democrats responded by diluting the New Deal to incorporate the spirit of the Gipper.

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Republicans in red, Democrats in blue. 1896 and 2004 elections. Source: 270towin.com

So that’s how the parties came to look like how they look now. Sort of. They disagree on a fair few things, such as climate change, abortion, and the name of an east coast NFL team. But on many issues the two parties aren’t too far apart, such as taxes, foreign policy, business, trade, welfare, and the USA’s self-styled status as the “Leader of the Free World.” With the exception of Hillary and Barack, they’ve also tended towards wealthy, old white male candidates.

Their similarity is in part due to the centripetal nature of the Electoral College, and the parties’ longstanding record as efficient, election-winning political machines. It sits in striking contrast to a US society that is once again ripping itself apart; a fact that reflects itself in the electoral map. The USA is growing polarised on the fault lines of race, class, gender, policy and religion, and this is increasingly reflected in the voting habits in states. Swing states are becoming a rare breed. This phenomenon is not unique to the States; it’s happening here in Britain, starkly illustrated by the 52-48 Brexit vote. In the UK, our party system has splintered, but across the Atlantic the hegemony of the donkey and the elephant has held firm.

Sorry, Ross Perot.

Why? Well, US politics is a big money industry. It is difficult for a third-party campaign these days to compete with the big guns. Another reason is because of our good friend the Electoral College. As with much of the USA’s structure, it was designed to ensure that no one area could dominate affairs by racking up huge majorities in specific regions, whilst simultaneously ensuring the interests of regions and individual states are heard through its winner-take-all model. It’s nifty like that.

A successful third-party candidate has to compete across the country, and make sure they have a regional support base somewhere greater than that of the two main parties’ candidates. You need to be flush with cash to do that. Yet the USA has a lot of love for plucky outsiders. Perot did well in ’92, gaining 19.7m votes (19% of the total), but didn’t earn a single electoral vote.

In 2000, there was still a lot of frustration with the “lesser of two” choice that the main parties were now serving up. 2.8m voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in an election where Bush and Gore were separated by just 500 000. In Florida, Bush was given the victory after weeks of recounting – lawyers everywhere – by just 537 votes. Nader had got 97,421 in the Retiree Alligator State. So many things can cause a 0.009% gap in an election. Weather, traffic, the 562 votes cast for the Socialist Workers Party, the “Butterfly Ballot” that supposedly encouraged votes for minor parties, hanging chads, votes denied to 1% of Floridians (and 3% of black voters) on account of being a “felon” including for crimes said to have been committed after the 7th November…buuuuuut for the most part Nader got the blame for taking Gore’s votes. It could be argued that the two-party system is so rigid in the States that Nader and his voters were naïve; myself, however, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that a candidate can take another’s votes, as if a candidate can own a vote before it is cast.

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A Hanging Chad – Chad, Hanging

 

Third party candidates weren’t so popular after that. It’s easier these days to be an insurgent within one of the main political machines, thanks to their fluid ideologies and the Primary system of candidate selection, where anybody with enough cash or support can make an honest run at being a Democratic or Republican candidate for the presidency. It’s what Trump, Cruz and Sanders have tried this time around. Maybe we’ll see more of it in the future, especially on the red side. Once you’ve got the nomination, it seems the USA is so wrought in two that you’ve still got a chance at the White House. No matter how openly megalomaniacal you are, no matter how abusively racist and sexist you are in public and private, no matter how much of a nuclear-fallout-after-a-trainwreck-landslide-Godzilla-attack candidate you are, you’ll still likely do better than Dukakis. That’s just the way of things.

 

The Immortal Jim Crow

The voter suppression tactics that swirled around discussions of Florida 2000 were no stranger to presidential elections. They are no stranger still.

Back to 1876. Rutherford Hayes won by a single electoral vote, having lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden. Tilden had taken 184 electors, but three Southern states, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, were yet to officially declare, amid reports of voter fraud and suppression that particularly targeted African-American voters. Importantly, these three states had Republican governors, and together their electors would see Hayes over the line. Here the Republicans set up “returning boards” to recount the election, root out Democratic voting fraud, and maybe doctor some results of their own.

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A North Carolina red shirt, c1898. Source: Wikipedia

By 1876 the Democratic voter suppression racket was fully operational. The party hacks made allegiances with Southern paramilitary groups the Red Shirts and the White (Man’s) League to intimidate black voters and break up Republican organisation in the South. It was working, and for the first time since the Civil War the Democrats look set to regain the region, sweeping even those districts with massive black majorities. Were there no vote-mangling at all, it is likely Hayes would have carried much of the South.

Unsurprisingly both sides claimed victory, each accusing the other of fraud. It got incredibly heated, and there were fears that a second civil war could erupt. Eventually, it (officially) went to Congress where a Commission voted 8-7 (along party lines) to give the states to Hayes. Secretly, however, in another smoke-filled room, Hayes met with senior Democrats promising a series of federal spending in the South and, importantly, the withdrawal of Federal troops from the region.

This ended Reconstruction, handing a monopoly of Southern violence to racist groups such as the Red Shirts, who would incorporate themselves into state militias. In exchange for a Republican presidency, the party seceded control of the South to their rivals, abandoning the newly enfranchised former slaves. Over the coming years, Democrats constructed a framework of laws alongside a widespread system of intimidation that locked out African-Americans from voting and running for office and denied them a whole host of civil liberties. This was the Jim Crow South, where black people lived segregated from white people in an Apartheid enshrined by the Supreme Court (Plessy v Ferguson, 1896). Although emancipated, ex-slaves in the South were not yet free.

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1876, from the Rutherford Hayes Papers. Source: rbhayes.org

Jim Crow was largely felled by the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (on paper) ended disenfranchisement on the basis of race. Yet, as Florida 2000 shows, it still goes on. In 2016, it appears to be making a strident comeback, alongside the white nationalist fervour of the Trump campaign. Poor, minority areas across the USA generally have fewer voting stations, with less staff. Voting takes place on a Tuesday, and the polls close in the early evening. Those with long, unforgiving jobs may not be able to spare enough time in the day to queue to vote. Voting bans on felons – the USA is the incarceration capital of the planet – take millions off the register and disproportionately affect black people. In North Carolina, over 6000 voters, mostly black democrats, have been taken off the register in a process illegal under federal law. Jim Crow lives. It never really went away. That’s just the way of things.

 

Until Next Time…

Robert McCrum in the Guardian says that many believe the electoral system to be broken, “but it has seemed broken before and somehow staggers on.” Maybe. Maybe it’s worked fine for those it is made to serve. Maybe, like the Second Amendment, the Electoral College is so ingrained into the American fabric first wove by the Founding Fathers that to change it would be considered treasonous. Maybe, as when it was first created, the Electoral College keeps the lid on American tensions and papers over the cracks of this nation. Either way, it isn’t likely to change any time soon, but the way the USA has chosen its president over the last 200 years has had a great bearing on who ends up in the White House, affecting all of our lives from that oval office.

Soon we’ll know who that next person will be. In the meantime, relax. The next election begins in less than twenty-four hours.