In this wide-ranging interview, I explore the politics and work of award-winning Guardian journalist Gary Younge. This piece was published by Huffington Post UK back in October 2013 and can be found here.
The American government isn’t working.
By a strange quirk of the country’s political system, the Republican Party was able to shut it down and bring the world to the brink of economic catastrophe. All as part of a bid to renegotiate a piece of legislation passed three years ago.
This act was just the latest example of the work of the most unpopular congress in history. A move made by a party, which has never had a lower approval rating, in a country which, according to the majority of its own people, is on the wrong track.
Such is the state of the nation it is easy to understand why many are pining for a bygone era. A time, whether real or imagined, of prosperity, relative consensus and, above all, hope.
It is in this atmosphere that the journalist Gary Younge, author of ‘The Speech: the story behind Martin Luther King’s dream’, chose to re-examine one the most important and optimistic moments in American history.
“I wanted to revisit the moment the speech was given and look at how that moment is interpreted now,” says Younge, who believes that Dr King’s words have been misremembered.
“The speech is open to interpretation and in a sense that was the point. The country wasn’t at a stage where everyone could hear the same things and get the same message. There is something in that speech for everyone to cling to, for everyone to remember.
“For African-Americans it was a speech that is an indictment of American racism, delivered in the black vernacular by a black preacher. At the same time, it’s deeply patriotic. A dream rooted in the American dream, in the shadow of Lincoln, paying homage to the founding fathers and the constitution. So for patriots it’s something to remember. For liberals and the left it was delivered on a passionate day at the end of this huge march. And for conservatives they hang on to one line. It is remembered as a patriotic speech. A speech showing the best of America, at a time when, in many ways, the country was at its worst.”
For Younge, in order for Americans to remember King as an icon, as someone who is worthy of having a statue on the National Mall and a federal holiday in his honour, there has to be consensus about how he is remembered. And that consensus is the ‘I have a dream’ speech.
More controversial elements of his politics, his opposition to American military power and his critique of capitalism, have been largely forgotten. Meaning that people from all backgrounds, conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites, can view King as a hero. While politicians can evoke his memory even when carrying out policies of which he would disapprove.
“It does a disservice to his politics if we only remember him through that speech, but it doesn’t do a disservice to remember him as the man who delivered it,” argues Younge.
“It’s part and parcel of how history works. History isn’t just a collection of the best and the most important stories. It’s a collection of the stories that people want to hear. Part of the purpose of the book is to say there is another story to be told here. It wasn’t a popular march. America was not united behind this man. This was not all Dr King stood for. That’s my contribution to understanding a different kind of history.”
Younge has lived and worked in America for 10 years, becoming the Guardian’s foremost commentator on the United States in the process.
On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, he described his election as “dramatic, implausible and impressive”. More than four years later, his assessment of his record in office is blunt: “I never invested huge hopes in him, so I’ve got nothing to be disappointed by.”
He argues that Obama’s legacy, like King’s, is being contested and misremembered even as it happens in real time.
There are those on the right who call him at turns, a fascist, a socialist, and even the devil. While some on the left claim his election changed nothing and that he is worse than Bush. Like King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, people listen to the President speak and choose to hear the things they want to hear.
“I was in a bar on election night on the south side of Chicago in 2008 and a woman shouted ‘my man’s in Afghanistan, he’s coming home’,” says Younge.
“But Obama never said he was going to stop that war, in fact he said he wanted to escalate it. I don’t know why that woman thought that. She was reading something into his campaign that didn’t exist.”
Younge offers a more sombre, matter-of-fact assessment of Obama’s record. He says the President has governed like the man he always was: a centrist Democrat, and Younge criticises those on the left who have complained about the President, without putting him under pressure to do any different.
“Those who look at him outside of the context he is working in are doomed to misunderstand him,” he argues.
“Obama reveals the limitations of American electoral politics. An electoral politics which is heavily gerrymandered, run by money and has imbalances written into the constitution in terms of who can get elected to the Senate. There was no one more progressive who had a chance of getting elected.”
“I thought his election was a great thing and I wondered about what would happen to the people who supported him. Would they carry on marching? Would they carry on campaigning? Or would they cede their power to him? His campaign had the capacity to become a movement. If this grassroots campaign tied its aspirations to him, therein lies all forms of disappointment. But if it tied its aspirations to the changes they wanted to see, that’s a different thing. Unfortunately, people packed up and went home as soon as he was elected.”
As he turns to the failure of the left to create a movement to challenge power, Younge becomes more passionate.
“Progressive change is not going to come from the top, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Obama to organise a movement himself,” he says.
“Until America has a truly progressive movement, it will be disappointed by people who seek to be progressive in its place. Occupy Wall Street redefined the economic debate away from the deficit and towards inequality. And the lesbian and gay movement forced the President to come out in favour of gay marriage and repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Those are two areas where popular protest forced some kind of reckoning with the rhetoric that the President espoused. That’s how you do it. You don’t do it by saying that ‘now we’ve got him elected, let’s watch CNN and see how he does’.”
For all his opinions on the state of American politics, Younge is much more than just a political commentator.
His work draws on a number of different areas, his varied interests informing his articles. He is just as confident interviewing South American authors, as he is analysing the workings of Capitol Hill.
Yet as with all writers from a non-white background, his work is often pigeonholed and he is criticised for returning to the same issues.
“There’s always responses to my work on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section saying ‘why do you always write about race?” he explains.
In reality, only 20 per cent of Younge’s most recent work has been about race; this in the year of the re-election of America’s first black president and a high-profile murder of a black child in Florida.
On the night George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, Younge wrote an impassioned and moving piece in which, having asked why Martin was in some way guilty for trying to defend himself when being followed by a man with a gun; he posed the question “is it open season on black boys after dark?”
The piece attracted global attention; going viral in part because the article was taken down by the Guardian shortly after it was published. It was put back up with one minor change a few hours later.
Younge describes the reasons behind the decision to take the article down as “a series of banalities which are difficult to explain on social media” and insists there was nothing sinister about the decision.
Having finished the piece at 1am, Chicago time, he sent it off to a Guardian sub-editor in Australia who put it online.
The newspaper’s Comment Editor then chose to take it down so a British lawyer could take a look at it. As Younge explains “no one wants George Zimmerman suing the Guardian.”
After Younge had got some sleep and when the lawyer’s queries had been answered, the piece was put back online.
“You could argue that we put it up too quickly,” admits Younge.
“But I would say that it was important to put it up as soon as possible. We were working on different bases. If it was an American lawyer, they would have seen it and it would have been fine because they would have been more familiar with the case.”
With regards to the trial itself, Younge says “Trayvon Martin’s murder wasn’t a surprise. In many ways it was just another day in America.”
He argues that what shocked people about it was that Zimmerman was allowed to walk away with his gun, due to Florida’s controversial ‘stand your ground’ law.
I ask Younge, whose six year-old son Osceola was born in the States, about his personal view of the case. He responds with an anecdote.
“Just the other day I was in Boston and I went back to a friend’s house late at night. I knew what number their house was but couldn’t find it on the door. So I walked up to another door to see what the number was. That kind of thing can get you shot in this country. It can get you killed,” he says; adding that the incident has made him question what advice to give his son.
“What do I tell my son? Do I tell him if someone’s chasing you and they have a gun: stand still and don’t fight? Do I tell him to run? Do I tell him to call the cops? What options do we have as human beings when this level of violence is effectively ignored by the state?”
For all his knowledge of American politics and current affairs, Younge grew up in Stevenage, England.
After joining the Guardian shortly after graduating from City University London in 1993, he wanted to be the paper’s Moscow correspondent, having studied French and Russian at undergraduate level.
It wasn’t until he fell in love with his American wife Tara Mack that his fascination with the country really blossomed.
“It’s a big crazy country where people are willing to speak to you,” he explains. “So it’s an easy place to report from.”
As with his work on Martin Luther King, it is the contradictions within America that fascinate him. How the nation’s self-image sits at odds with the way much of the rest of the world sees it.
“It’s great when you go to a small town and you tell them that you’re English and they say ‘why would you come here? No one comes here!’ And yet tomorrow in school those same people’s children will learn that their country is the leader of the free world and that everyone wants to come here,” he says.
“If I hadn’t fallen in love with an American maybe I would be somewhere else, but this is as interesting a part of the world as any. The world is fascinating.”
Gary Younge’s book ‘The Speech: the story behind Martin Luther King’s dream’, published by Guardian Books, is available now.