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Interesting Times

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 In short, dialogue seems to have been replaced by a shouting match between entrenched positions.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.