As the old Chinese curse goes: “May you live in interesting
times.” The most interesting periods of history are those that are full of
conflict and change: the Norman Invasion, the Russian Revolution, the Second
World War, and so on. It seems clear that we are now living through another
interesting period of history.
You could say it began with the new century and the 9/11
attacks on New York and the Pentagon, followed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then there were the various Arab Springs, which have led to more wars and to
the migrant crisis in Europe. Terrorists have struck repeatedly in France,
killing and wounded hundreds of people. Tensions are high between Russia and
America again after the relatively good relations that followed the end of the
Cold War. And the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president
in 2008 has not led, as many hoped, to the end of racial conflict in the most
powerful nation on earth.
Indeed, race relations there are at their worst since the
1960s. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was formed to channel anger and
frustration over the deaths of young black men during encounters with the
police. Then came the sniper attack in Dallas by a black ex-serviceman that
killed five officers and seriously wounded several more. Now another black
ex-serviceman has ambushed and killed three more officers in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana. One of the dead officers in Baton Rouge was black, like some of the
officers prosecuted in Baltimore for the death of Freddie Gray, whose case has
central to the BLM campaign. Another officer blamed by BLM for the unnecessary
death of a young black male in Minnesota is Hispanic.
Some commentators use these facts to argue that BLM is using
a simplistic narrative of police racism to stoke anti-police rhetoric,
encouraging unbalanced individuals to act out their grievances. They also argue
that BLM neglects the far greater numbers of young black men killed by their
own peers. In short, dialogue seems to have been replaced by a shouting match
between entrenched positions. America is living through interesting times and
some fear that neither of the two contenders to replace Obama as president, the
Democrat Hillary Clinton and the Republican Donald Trump, will be able to calm
matters when she or he enters the White House.
Clinton is a supporter of Black Lives Matter, but is widely
viewed as a fixture of the political establishment and an ally of Wall Street.
Younger people helped keep Bernie Sanders in contention for the Democratic nomination
far longer than many expected. Sanders has now thrown his support behind
Clinton in the presidential election, but tensions remain in the Democrat ranks
that may worsen if she wins the election. If eight years of an actual black
president have failed to move America towards racial justice, would a Clinton
presidency do any better?
Donald Trump, by contrast, is a forthright critic of BLM,
expressing strong support for the police and casting doubt on the idea that
they are waging a racist war on the black community. Anti-Trump commentators
allege that these views are of a piece with his inflammatory positions on
minority rights and immigration. Trump has called for a ban on Muslims entering
the US and for a wall to be built on the Mexican-American border. His rallies
have attracted vibrant and sometimes violent opposition from minority rights
activists and others. They condemn him a racist and xenophobe. Meanwhile his
supporters hail him as a plain speaker who is fighting back against political
correctness and special interests.
So one thing in no doubt: Trump is a polarizing figure,
encouraging strong emotions on all sides of the political debate. If he wins
the presidential election, times may become even more interesting both for
America and for the rest of the world.