Is this the Beautiful Game?

Stuart Anderson-Davis on why we cannot allow Putin to take the heat off Qatar

Germany’s human rights protest

I wonder if the Emir of Qatar allowed himself a smile as he watched the Russian tanks roll into Ukraine?

The ruler and his small desert state were supposed to be in the media crosshairs by now. With the close of Beijing’s Winter Olympics, the spotlight of scrutiny was turning to Qatar and its upcoming football World Cup. Then Vladimir Putin unleashed hell in Ukraine, and now we all have something more immediate and dangerous to worry about than yet another example of sportwashing. However, we cannot allow the horrors unfolding in Ukraine to destroy this unprecedented opportunity to save lives in Qatar.

As someone who worked in PR, I know that the Qatari regime is grateful for Putin diverting unwelcome attention from the build-up to this winter’s World Cup – a spectacle somehow even more depressing than the tournament held in Russia four years ago. Like Putin before them, the Qataris have captured the perfect vehicle to reach an audience of 3 billion people; to project a duplicitous vision of the state that is based on sporting excellence, not the crushing realities of terror, brutality, and prejudice.

Qatar’s two million migrant workers – a staggering 95% of the total workforce – have borne the deadly cost of this sportwashing. Since 2010, nearly 7,000 workers have died building the tournament’s infrastructure in scorching, deadly conditions that endure to this day. There has been no accountability for their deaths, nor compensation for the families – only cover-ups and lies. Today, migrant workers still live in crowded, squalid conditions. The vast majority cannot leave the country or their abusive employers, while many have their passports and wages confiscated.

Workers walk towards the construction site of the Lusail stadium in Doha, Qatar. Photography Kai Pfaffenbach

Across the state, women face gross systemic discrimination, including a “male guardianship” system that requires permission from their husbands or sons to travel or receive medical care. The regime also perpetrates deadly punishments against the LGBTQ+ community, including flogging and the death penalty. Australian Josh Cavallo, the only openly gay man currently playing top-flight football, recently admitted he would be “scared” to play in Qatar. Is this a suitable venue for the pinnacle of the Beautiful Game?

There is one glimmer of hope in this bleak situation. Qatar’s rulers care deeply about their global image and they can be “named-and-shamed” into action. Indeed, public pressure has already brought about some improvements, but much more must be done to give migrant workers a fighting chance. The regime also has a track record of broken promises – not least its deceitful claims to have dismantled the kefala system of forced labor. Unceasing scrutiny and candid (but constructive) engagement are the only ways to compel meaningful change. But with eight months to go before the tournament kicks-off, the opportunity is shrinking by the day. When the final whistle blows, the world’s attention will turn away from Qatar and the chance to protect and enhance millions of lives disappears.

Only those with global profile, political influence or serious financial muscle have sufficient power to shake-up the Qatari leadership. Corporate sponsors that don’t want their marketing campaigns hijacked by protestors. FIFA executives are tired of seeing their “brand” dragged through the mud. And then there’s the players themselves. Take the England team, for example. Manager Gareth Southgate has carefully cultivated an environment in which his young stars feel empowered on and off the pitch. Speaking out about everything from racial justice to children’s nutrition and mental health, the team has made a nation proud by standing up for what is right and calling out injustice. So why are the players so silent on Qatar? Last weekend, Southgate spoke briefly to reporters about his concerns ahead of the tournament, but questioned whether his team would be able to make a positive difference in Qatar. Southgate has promised that his team will “educate ourselves” about the situation, but the clock is ticking and the facts are clear: 7,000 dead to deliver a football tournament.

Norway team

England and its Football Association (FA) are lagging behind Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, whose players and administrators are successfully drawing attention towards abuses in Qatar. Indeed, the German Football Association (DFB) recently adopted a comprehensive human rights policy. The FA and Premier League, meanwhile, have only just admitted that human rights concerns should maybe become a factor in determining who can own an English football club. It took a war in Ukraine to get that far.

It’s not good enough. The FA must support the global campaign for humane labour practices in Qatar. They must also demand a comprehensive, independent investigation into worker deaths connected to the World Cup. In his recent comments, Gareth Southgate stated bluntly that “the building of the stadiums was the first and there’s nothing we can do about that now.” However, the fight to deliver justice for the families of thousands of dead workers is far from over, and the players themselves must use their global reach and influence to shine a light on the forgotten victims of Qatar 2022. The Qatari regime treats migrants as if they do not matter – in life and in death. They think that nobody will care about the thousands who died so they can flaunt their wealth and power. This England team can prove them wrong by speaking up for all of us who love football, but cannot bear what’s happening in Qatar. They must get off the fence and act before it’s too late.

Putin and Qatar believe football has the power to change the world. It’s time to prove them right.

Stuart Anderson-Davis is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia School of Journalism and a former PR executive

The End of This Road

Stuart Anderson-Davis on swapping America for lockdown London, as tensions reach boiling point on both sides of the Atlantic

“Yeah, I had the virus. Well, I’m pretty certain I had it: I mean, I didn’t get the antibody test or anything, but I reckon it was Corona…”

These are not words you want to hear from cabin crew when boarding a flight right now. They are even more anxiety-inducing when delivered by a strapping “air-host” (?), looming over you in an airtight cabin without a face mask.

Being British, I nodded stoically and allowed him and his trolley on their merry way. But inside, my heart sank with the realisation that this journey – the one we had been dreading since first hearing the word “coronavirus” – had somehow become yet more nauseatingly stressful. And let me tell you, when you’re flying from New York City to London – one boiling hot COVID hotspot to another, frying pan to fire – tensions are already pretty high.

It soon became clear that British Airways had decided face masks were an optional extra for their employees. But perish the thought that our national carrier wasn’t taking the whole pandemic thing seriously. Oh no! So concerned is the airline about safety that they have stopped serving any alcoholic beverages on their flights – lest any passenger take the edge off the situation with a Jacob’s Creek miniature. While a more cynical person might view this inconsistent approach to COVID-19 as penny-pinching prohibition, I’m sure BA executives are only “following the science”…

But I get ahead of myself. First, let’s rewind to mid-March and my last dispatch from Princeton, New Jersey. That report ended with a question: what would happen next to this quaint little college town, now that most students had been sent home and we few Remainers were “locked down” in expectation of the virus’ arrival from nearby New York City?

Police enforce social distancing rules at Domino Park in Brooklyn. Photography Jordan Gale

Well, fortunately Princeton has thus far been spared the worst of this plague. The foresight and decisiveness shown by the university saved lives – removing students from shared dormitories and communal dining halls just in time to avert disaster. The wider state of New Jersey was far less fortunate, registering the 2nd highest death toll in the United States – exceeded only by neighbouring New York state. We were marooned in our comparative oasis for nearly three months – juxtaposing our own state of tedium with the harrowing tales of FaceTime farewells coming from up the road.

But through these months of virus-dodging there built a growing sense of dread about what lay ahead: namely, our imminent return to London. We had been following events closely on both sides of the Atlantic – watching aghast at the “hold my beer” competition between Britain and America to enact the world’s most inept response to the crisis. From Trump’s chlorine prescription to Boris’ near-fatal effort to shake as many infected hands as possible, there was little to choose between these two countries – just last year identified as the two best prepared nations to confront this type of outbreak.

But leave we must, and so we packed up our flat and started upon the long journey back to South London. The airport experience was surreal. As anyone who’s been to JFK will know, the place is infamous for two things: pugnacious staff and endless queues. This time, however, we were booked on one of only four flights on the departures board – roaming around the ghost terminal without a shop assistant or policeman in sight.

The flight was chaotic. In addition to mask-less staff, British Airways had designated “free seating” on the plane: euphemistic jargon for an absolute bloody free-for-all. We had  strangers sat in the rows behind, in front and to the side. When the lady in front reclined her seat her face was barely 2 inches away – never mind 2 metres. At least every passenger had voluntarily deigned to wear a face mask, while one lady stole the show with a full Chernobyl hazmat suit. I shall never forget her look of abject panic as she finally relented to bowel pressure and headed for the bathroom.

Bournemouth, England, over the Bank Holiday weekend. Photography Finnbarr Webster

Finally, mercifully, we landed at an equally deserted Heathrow. Here, surely, would be state-of-the-art health checks, clear guidance for embarking passengers and the ubiquitous face mask? Instead, we found communal sanitiser and a cryptic warning to “Stay Alert” against an invisible, airborne virus. We breezed through immigration with barely a glance and certainly no questions about our health, where we were going or what we were going to do. Welcome to Lockdown Britain!

Driving through the sunny streets of London-town we were struck by just how normal everything looked. There were only a few people in masks, while others were happily popping into shops, hopping on buses and enjoying convivial picnics in the park. Maybe things weren’t so bad here after all? The next two weeks of (voluntarily) lying low passed in a blur of Netflix and meet-n-greets from the balcony. Starved of social interaction, we lost ourselves in the saga of Dominic Cummings. We marvelled at the Government’s sacrifice of its last vestiges of control and trust at the altar of Dom the Magnificent: doyen of the three-word-slogan and Bozzer’s ideological dynamo.

Cummings and his lockdown busting antics have inspired perhaps the most forensically analysed car journey since OJ took a white Ford Bronco down the freeway back in 1995. Without going over it all again, the key point – blindingly obvious to the 3.7 million people who tuned in live to his press conference – is that Cummings broke the rules set out for the whole country. Any attempt to convince the public otherwise swiftly descended into farce, with the nadir coming as Michael Gove tried to convince us he too had tested his eyesight by going for a drive and seeing what happened. 

As the Washington maxim goes, “it’s the cover up that gets you”. Well, this Keystone Cops effort was so transparently bullshit that it achieved only the complete collapse of public trust in the government – never ideal, but particularly unfortunate during a public health emergency. Last weekend’s return to our nation’s parks of 11-a-side football matches, birthday parties and genial booze ups revealed that for many people the whole affair had been, quite understandably, the last straw.

Potentially even more damaging from a long-term perspective was this Government’s desperate attempts to shift the news agenda away from Cummings and his inexplicable survival. As someone who has worked in politics and media relations, I guarantee you that the decision to accelerate the “unlocking” process – including sending thousands of children back to school and launching a half-baked “Test & Trace” programme – came, at least in part, from a desperation to “change the narrative”. Who knows what damage those cynical decisions will wreak in the coming weeks.

One reason the Cummings saga struck so deep a nerve is that it played into suspicions that were already deeply embedded: a sense that there will always be some people who consider themselves above the rules, and that these rules will always be rigged in their favour. Studies showed that the British public’s trust in their institutions and elites was already at rock bottom before the pandemic – jaded by grade-one scandals like MP’s expenses fraud and the 2008 Financial Crisis. When viewed in this context, it’s a miracle the British people obeyed the government for as long as they did.

In the USA, the unprecedented reaction to the killing of George Floyd seems to play into this same phenomenon: a (much more serious) event that brings home the fact that something is very, very wrong. This tragic death brings home the deadly consequences of racism and hate politics, laying bare the stark realities faced by millions of black people living in America and elsewhere – including in Britain. It is surely no coincidence that the sheer scale of outrage at this killing comes in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed over 100,000 American lives – leaving black people, yet again, disproportionately impacted.

Photography Warrick Page

The horrifying footage of Floyd’s death was the fuse that lit the American tinderbox and has rightly sparked outrage across the globe. Of course, the pitiful and pitiless behaviour of the current President is fuelling this grief and fury. But far more than that, this reaction is driven by four centuries of structural racism, mass incarceration and gross mistreatment inflicted on black Americans – encompassing racism from its most explicit to its most subtle forms.

George Floyd’s killing has led to long overdue soul-searching (or, at least, it should have) about our own beliefs and behaviour – tied to an expectation that everyone must “do more”. But for all the heartfelt expressions of solidarity, many doubt whether the USA can practically implement the radical reforms needed to truly heal its racial and societal divisions. Indeed, the forecast for the months ahead looks stormier with each passing day – with pandemic and protests lining the path to November’s general election.

So what happens next? Well, we now inhabit a world that is socially and economically shattered. For sure, there’s a collective resolution that things cannot “go back to the way they were”, but this slogan means very different things to different people. For Trump, this brave new world means doubling down on “America First”: shutting borders, removing foreigners, escalating tensions and relentlessly searching for scapegoats. For others, there is a more hopeful vision that the trials of 2020 will deliver the rationale and resolve to build a more progressive, just and equal world.

This positive sense of endeavour was the dominant theme of Princeton University (virtual) graduation ceremony this week: a clarion call for students to go into the world and use their skills for good. The challenge has never been so daunting. Every time the world convulses there is a seemingly undeniable demand for change: 1918, never another war; 1945, a new world order and collaborative approach; 1989, an end to tyranny; 2008, building a responsible financial system that works for everyone.

Some things got better, some got worse. Some didn’t really change at all. But if the events of the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that real change – tangible, enduring support for the most persecuted and vulnerable – cannot come soon enough.

Love (and Life) in the Time of Coronavirus

Stuart Anderson-Davis reflects on the decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall

“But what am I supposed to do now?!”

I heard this helpless question countless times in the last few days, as emotion-filled scenes of confusion, despair and anger played out across Princeton’s picturesque college campus.

Last week, it was announced that all 5,267 undergraduate students had until the end of Sunday to leave the university. Classes for the remainder of the academic year have been cancelled or will go “remote”, while all university events, sports, performances and gatherings have been outlawed. A formal policy of “social distancing” is in operation, apologetically enforced by the campus police force, who’ve been instructed to break up gatherings of people wherever they find them. Princeton’s students – who come from all over the United States and far beyond – had just a few days to pack up, leave and find somewhere else to live until September. The decisions taken by the university have been brutal, but its leadership believes this is the best approach for protecting students and saving lives.

Regardless of the logic, every student at America’s most competitive university has seen their plans shattered by the coronavirus chaos. It’s not just the impact on their academic careers – although goodness knows how they can be expected to undertake fiendishly difficult exams without physical access to teachers, libraries or classmates. But more than that, it’s the tremendous psychological impact wrought on many by the abrupt end to their student lives. Seniors robbed of their last precious months before entering the “real world”. Athletes no longer able to compete for college glory and professional contracts. Actors and musicians banned from showcasing their skills. Friends and lovers denied those final, gloriously sun-drenched days before dispersing forever.

Of course, the impact of coronavirus on a group of elite students in New Jersey is the least of our concerns at the moment. We’re all facing our personal pandemic demons and, whilst there’s something vaguely reassuring about being “in this together”, our collective embroilment doesn’t make the situation any less disturbing. There’s no escaping the one topic of conversation on everyone’s lips, as people seek answers and reassurances that simply don’t exist. Even our daughter’s nursery class picked up on the morbid mood – insisting on playing endless games of doctors and dollies.

However, Princeton’s course of ruthlessly pre-emptive action has been the exception, not the rule. Indeed, bearing witness to events here affords a different perspective on decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall – bringing into sharp relief the comparative lack of decisiveness and coordination. The leaders of private institutions like Princeton, Harvard and Columbia – afforded near autonomy over their college ‘city states’ – have generally acted proactively (some might say drastically) in advance of coronavirus’ arrival. Indeed, at the time of writing no Princeton student has tested positive for the virus. These places – boasting some of the finest minds in the country and the wealth to act without fixating only on the financial consequences – decided to shut up shop for the year to minimise even the potential for an outbreak.

One cannot help but contrast this extremely cautious attitude with that of the Trump administration, which first sought to play down the threat of COVID-19 (a Democratic “hoax”) before finally lumbering into a glacial and largely ineffective response. You can easily imagine what the professors here make of Trump’s bungling inaction and unwillingness to view the pandemic as a threat to anything other than his beloved stock market. Indeed, it feels like these storied institutions wanted to show the President exactly what decisive, responsible leadership looks like.

And make no mistake about it, the US government’s response has been catastrophic. Since moving here last year I’ve heard countless people remark: “thank God Trump hasn’t faced an actual crisis.” Well, now the most unqualified and dangerous President in American history (every 2020 Democratic candidate™) is facing a peril more hazardous than any financial crisis or terrorist attack. The results have been predictably shambolic. From his administration’s calamitous decision to disband the White House Pandemic Response Team to the chronic lack of testing kits, to the increasingly desperate attempts to pass the buck by stoking anti-Chinese sentiment, the world’s richest country has squandered its preparation time and now looks set for unimaginable casualties.

By contrast, the United Kingdom looks to me (from this distance) to have succumbed to a different national character flaw – this time the insistence that any significant event be viewed exclusively through the lens of the Second World War. The result is that every wannabe Churchill is convinced the best approach is always a “stiff upper lip” and “Keep Calm & Carry On” (every Conservative Party candidate ever™). This has translated to a pandemic response not dissimilar to the commuter stuck in a tube carriage with a noisy person: keep your head down, don’t make eye contact and the problem will eventually go away.

Only a country so determined it wouldn’t be accused of “over-reacting” to a crisis could allow 250,000 people to get boozed at the Cheltenham Races during the biggest public health epidemic in 100 years. Cinemas are open. Concerts are continuing. Markets, bars and restaurants remain entirely open. I mean, it took the actual infection of the Arsenal manager before the Premier League decided it wasn’t a great idea to play a full schedule of matches (in front of packed crowds) last weekend. The Tory government has entirely set the tone for this jaw-droppingly chillaxed strategy and now we have a Prime Minister conceding defeat on containment (possibly not his “Finest Hour”) and condemning grandad to the attic – or the scrapheap.

Of course, COVID-19 was always going to bring catastrophic threat to human life and the impact was always going to be devastating. But it’s equally undeniable that many responses to the pandemic – including those by Britain and the United States, two countries with the financial clout and scientific expertise to do better – have not helped the situation, and may even have made things worse. If the fundamental responsibility of a government is to keep its citizens safe, then too many have failed this test.

So then, a jolly choice for the British expatriate in America. Stick or twist? Stay or go? Try to circumvent Trump’s travel ban with a cheeky flight back via Reykjavík? There’s plenty to consider. On the mundane side, there’s the logistical challenges of getting home when the US could stop you leaving or coming back. In fact, many expats fear that Trump will now seize upon this crisis to tighten immigration restrictions yet further in the long-term. But the greatest concern of all is the fear that by travelling home to see your loved ones, you may well be the one who makes them ill.

Truly, these are the most uncertain of times. As I write, Princeton is its same old beautiful, refined and tranquil self. The sun is shining and all is calm, yet everyone knows what is coming and a sense of helplessness pervades. To introduce the inevitable World War Two analogy (I am British, after all) this seems a little like how I imagine Londoners felt during the ‘Phoney War’. This was the period from September 1939 to May 1940, when war was declared on Nazi Germany and then…nothing much. It was a time of huge tension not because of what was actually happening, but because everyone knew what dangers lay just round the corner. That’s the situation facing most Americans today, as the number of confirmed cases rises, the rumours swirl and a deadly virus advances across its great expanse.

So that takes us to the second big question on every Princeton student’s lips: “What happens next?”

Escaping Vice City

Stuart Anderson-Davis tries the time-honoured American tradition of a winter escape to Florida

Completing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the PlayStation 2 was probably one of my finest teenage achievements.

Like most of my schoolmates, I took great pleasure in rampaging through the digitally reconstructed streets of Miami – or at least a city based on “the capital of Latin America” – putting aside all thoughts of revision in favour of criminal undertakings and general mayhem. The video game, released in 2002, seemed to really convey the energy, swagger and ruthlessness of ‘Vice City’; transporting the player into a world that combined the dodgiest parts of South London with a tropical paradise. Back then, Miami seemed exotic and exciting beyond belief – an American mega city with Caribbean climate and Latin flair!

And so it was with great excitement (and a little trepidation) that last month I visited the place for myself. The circumstances where somewhat different from Grand Theft Auto. Unlike that game’s protagonist, I would not be stepping out alone into this hotbed of intrigue. Oh no, I would be accompanied by two highly-skilled accomplices – my wife and our two-year old daughter, an extremely cunning but hot-headed character who’s never far from trouble. We would be the kingpins of ‘Vice City’ – what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, we weren’t the only family hatching this plan. The winter-time escape down to Florida is a time-honoured American tradition, with sunshine, beaches and the promise of “good times” just a short flight away. In 2018, over 126.1 million tourists visited Florida – the majority coming from inside the United States. From Orlando’s garish theme parks to stunning wildlife in the Keys and Everglades, Florida brands itself as a destination for every occasion. Sure enough, the prospect of escaping New Jersey’s winter desolation proved too much to resist and we packed our bags for a week in the “Sunshine State”.

First stop was Fort Lauderdale – a less-glitzy city up the coast from Miami. The city is named after a series of forts established during the Second ‘Seminole War’ – one of more shameful episodes in American history, during which the authorities sought to “pacify” a group of Native American tribes. Fort Lauderdale itself evokes a strangely familiar feel for British visitors, with a beachside promenade reminiscent of fading coastal resorts like Blackpool or Eastbourne – except with actual sunshine. The city is populated almost entirely by power-walking OAPs. Indeed, if the average age of residents is lower than one hundred then I will eat my visor cap.

From Fort Lauderdale we headed to Miami via the Everglades World Heritage Site – a vast ‘subtropical wilderness’ that dominates Florida’s heartland and houses a formidable collection of beasts, including alligators, snakes and the elusive Florida panther. Unfortunately the weather proved too cold for our lily-livered Airboat driver to take us alligator hunting on the water – much to the fury of our youngest member. Whilst positively tropical by British standards, the weather throughout our visit was deemed headline-worthy for its frigidity. Indeed, local media was filled with reports of frozen iguanas falling out of trees onto unsuspecting Floridians. Rejected by the Airboaters, we settled for the more civilised option of bike rental at the misleadingly named Shark Valley National Park – stopping mere feet away from innumerable sunbathing alligators, each of whom was subject to relentless trolling from the toddler in the child seat.

After surviving the snoozy alligators it was finally time for ‘Vice City’ – Florida’s beaming metropolis which straddles Biscayne Bay and stretches its beaches out along the shimmering waters of the Atlantic. However, we first had to survive one of the most terrifying stretches of driving I have ever experienced. Nobody does fuck-off massive, sweat-inducingly intimidating freeways quite like America. But even by US standards this was scary. High-speed traffic slung out over 7 lanes – complex flyovers densely packed with aggressive drivers overtaking, undertaking, and even trying to drive through in order to shave a few seconds off their precious journeys.

Somehow we reached our refuge from the storm – South Beach Hotel. This Soho House wannabe describes itself as “an exemplar of Miami Beach style and coolness, a place where locals and visitors can think less and play more…chic and boldly handcrafted, yes, but intimate and easygoing too.” The hotel’s nausea-inducing prose was nothing compared to the response triggered when we finally pulled up outside, only to be informed that the car park – sorry, I mean premium “valet service” – would require an additional $40 dollars per night. Not a promising start and it went downhill from there.

It turns out that Miami is infamous for its very ‘unique’ approach to customer service. I will spare you the long-list of grievances (that’s what TripAdvisor is for), but the lowlight came when I tried calling the front desk for the thousandth time without them picking up. Frustrated, I marched to the lobby through the pouring rain (it’s possible the foul weather somewhat influenced my mood…), slipped over and went careering into a wall. Perhaps sensing a lawsuit, the hotel agreed to our demands for a quick exit.

But what of Miami itself? Well, leaving Fawlty Towers early meant we had only one full day to explore the city – walking down South Beach and meandering through its Art Deco neighbourhood. Now, I appreciate that reviewing Miami on this basis is like judging London after a visit to Camden Market and Madame Tussaud’s. However, since I wholeheartedly blame our premature departure on the city’s behaviour I’m afraid that’s the way it goes… Anyway, my first observation was the sheer volume of scantily-clad joggers of all shapes and sizes. For better or worse, body confidence is not an issue here and this sense of brashness seems to cascade across all Miami life.

South Beach itself is a riot of neon signs and pastel shades, with palm trees and picture-perfect sands to appease the most snap-happy Instagrammers. But for some indefinable reason the whole place just jarred. Everything seems fake and the atmosphere had a flat, plastic quality I really didn’t expect. Even the beautiful beach was compromised by the creep of nearby hotels, offering loungers and cabanas at prices that would make the Fyre Festival organisers blush.

In Miami’s defence, it was a pretty dumb decision to bring a two-year-old child to this notorious party town. The final reality check came when we attempted to gain access to the Versace Mansion – notorious as the spot where flamboyant fashion pioneer Gianni Versace was gunned down in 1997. Now a ‘luxury’ hotel, this iconic location not only offered a ghoulish spectacle, but also the promise of a much-needed bathroom. Sadly, we were refused entry by a particularly officious model/receptionist, who took one look at us and decided we weren’t fit for this palace of bad taste.

Enough was enough. Time to escape Vice City for our last hope of holiday salvation. So we began the long, crawling car journey through Miami’s outskirts and desolate satellite towns (wishing we could’ve nicked a Police helicopter or gangster’s powerboat instead) to the Florida Keys – a glittering island archipelago that extends from Florida’s base into the Gulf of Mexico.

By contrast, the island-section of the drive must rank as one of the world’s most stunning. The ‘Overseas Highway’ improbably threads together islands in an impossibly scenic route down to Key West – an island that’s physically closer to Havana than Miami. The road is an extraordinary achievement – as impressive for its feats of engineering (its network of 42 bridges would surely now fail even a Boris Johnson infrastructure assessment) as it is disturbing for the environmental impact of plonking a 113-mile road through paradise. And this is a true paradise; a designated National Marine Sanctuary boasting exotic mangrove islets and the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.

You could feel the collective relief as we moved further away from Miami – replacing that city’s misplaced cocksureness with somewhere considerably more straightforward and chilled. Like Miami, Florida Keys has a strange time-warped quality to it – with diners and basic, low-rise hotels squeezed into the gaps between highway and ocean. As you might expect given its location, the atmosphere is a quirky mixture of Caribbean and Deep South. The locals and tourists, however, are almost exclusively white, middle-aged to elderly and LARGE. Fried fish, beer and spirits dominate the menu and everyone follows the gargantuan consumption philosophy of the Key’s most famous resident and alcoholic, Ernest Hemmingway.

But what the Keys do deliver is an incredibly beautiful destination for good-old-fashioned family fun. The people are friendly and welcoming, while the sight of wildlife like dolphins, pelicans and giant tarpon fish felt strangely life-affirming after the urban chaos of Miami. So as I sat in the hotel’s tiki bar watching a glorious technicolour sunset over the ocean – manly Pina Colada resting in my hand – I reflected that maybe Florida isn’t so bad after all. But unlike the veteran bank robber who can’t resist going back for “one last job”, this writer will certainly not be returning to Vice City.

Finally Falling for America’s Game

Stuart Anderson-Davis eventually comes round to the all-American sport

There’s much to mock about American Football.

From the misleading name (you barely kick the ball) to the hubristic crowning of the best domestic team as “World Champions”, America’s favourite sport has always left me cold. Rugby after a visit from the Health & Safety inspectors, the game is barely recognisable from a British sporting perspective – helmets and body armour bringing it closer to ITV’s Gladiators than any “football” played on Hackney Marshes.

The pace is glacial. Four 15-minute quarters are stretched out to well over three hours, while the ball may only be live for about 11 minutes in total. The game is built for advertising, with incessant breaks delivering hundreds of opportunities for sponsor “messages”. This is sport at its commercial zenith. It’s not uncommon to see pundits discussing a game while sat behind a generous Burger King spread. In-game analysis comes courtesy of Amazon and Microsoft. Even college football – the self-described “amateur” edition – is riddled with product placement. Take the end-of-season “bowl games”, where the nation’s finest colleges battle for prestigious titles at the Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl, Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl and the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. My favourite is the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, in which victors lift a trophy filled with potatoes and the winning coach has a bin of French Fries dumped on his head. Truly the pinnacle of athletic glory.

These are characteristics of a sport that I always felt deserved my ridicule. Indeed, when living in London it was entirely possible to maintain a stance of distant superiority. Of course, self-appointed experts emerged in time for the Super Bowl – bringing farfetched claims to “know all the rules” and copy-paste analysis. But on those occasions when I attempted to watch “the greatest show on Earth” the tedium saw me reliably asleep before the ludicrous “Halftime Performance”. In the morning I’d wake up and forget about NFL for another year.

However, I soon discovered that this superior aloofness was absolutely impossible when actually living in the United States. American Football is everywhere. This is largely because here you cannot escape television – from decent restaurants to barber shops and even the local library – but also because the game is ingrained in popular national culture. Today, I overhear more conversations about Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady than Qassem Soleimani or impeachment. The sport is inescapable.

And so I conceded defeat: taking the decision to immerse myself in “American’s Game” by watching every game I could, but also by committing to one “franchise” from this season until my dying day. Of course, selecting my team was no easy task. I was particularly aware of avoiding anyone too good (like serial winners, the New England Patriots) – the social stigma of glory-hunting was the very last thing I needed. No, I wanted a proper team from the gritty heartland – virtue signalling as an authentic fan, not some Johnny-come-lately Brit bluffing his way into the conversation.

Inspiration struck. I remembered that back in 2012 I’d interned on a political campaign in the great state of Ohio – about as “Real America” as it comes. There, I found myself staying with a supporter who had turned her basement into a shrine to her favourite team. And that’s how I ended up with the Cleveland Browns – a once-great name now firmly established as the biggest basket-case in the NFL, synonymous with spectacular failure and a fanatical fanbase starved of success.

To say the Cleveland “Clowns” have lived up to their reputation would be an understatement. As I write, the team has sacked its coach and its General Manager after another disastrous season – the nadir coming when “our” best defensive player ripped off an opponent’s helmet and smacked him round the head with it. Apparently this behaviour is frowned upon in American Football, and the offender remains indefinitely suspended. No matter, I was hooked and (armed with intel from the team’s 90-minute daily podcast) was soon chatting away knowledgeably about “pass interference” and “dual threat quarterbacks”.

I also noticed my weekend moods darkening every time the Browns lost – a true sign of conversion. This development went down rather badly with my wife, who had implored me not to “support another crap team”. To be fair, I had underestimated the state of the team’s national reputation, with my Browns beanie eliciting daily expressions of sympathy from Princeton passers-by. Regardless, I’m calling it a social touchdown!

I also started going to games. I concede that my first taste of action (Princeton Tigers vs Harvard Crimson) wasn’t the most representative sample – I’ve not yet seen straw boaters and cheeseboards in the NFL. But while I haven’t yet made the pilgrimage to “Believeland”, I twice visited MetLife Stadium – a desolate 82,000 seater home to both the New York Giants and Jets, handily located in marshland infamous for mafia body disposal. Although not helped by the weather and poor teams on display, I nevertheless found the experience of attending an NFL game surprisingly underwhelming.

As someone raised on the raucous atmosphere of South London’s Selhurst Park, the whole thing felt flat – despite the best efforts of the hyperactive resident DJ. Fans sit down throughout the match; clad in ponchos and giant replica shirts, stuffing themselves with exorbitantly overpriced junk food and ‘Light’ beer. The chants ventured were utterly humourless and even the cheerleaders proved incapable of sustaining the crowd’s attention during the interminable breaks. The best entertainment came when the unsegregated rival fans somehow got sufficiently intoxicated to threaten to kick each other’s “asses”.

Of course, American Football has much more serious issues than a lack of atmosphere. Particularly prevalent are fears about the game’s short and long term health impacts on its participants, especially brain injuries that debilitate long after a player has hung up his helmet for the last time.

Another concern raised is connected to one of the sport’s perceived strengths – the link between college and professional systems. On the surface, there’s much to be admired about a structure which requires the vast majority of professional players to collect a college degree before advancing to the NFL. This approach should theoretically help those young men who don’t make the final leap to become professional, whilst better preparing those who do to handle their success and build post-football careers. However, there is growing unease at the positioning of American Football as an aspirational path to college – especially for young black men – given the concerns about the health impact of playing. Furthermore, the attrition rate in college and the NFL is extremely high and job security is minimal. Every season, tragic stories emerge of players who lost their way once cut adrift from the sport to which they’d devoted their lives.

But for all the negatives, it’s undeniable that this sport delivers unrivalled drama and entertainment to millions of Americans every single week. Yes, the matches take hours, but many come down to a last-second field goal or an audacious play that turns defeat into victory. The NFL salary cap and Draft system (whereby the worst performing teams get first pick from the next cohort of college stars) help keep the teams closely matched. The group of teams who make the end-of-year playoffs differs every season and the NFL feels less predictable than rivals like the Premier League, where resources too often dictate who wins.

As with other fiendishly complicated sports, American Football also rewards those who make the effort to penetrate its nuances. The more you watch, the more you understand – whether it’s spotting intricate running routes or appreciating coaching masterstrokes. “America’s Game” mixes detailed tactical play with simple physical brutality in a way that’s completely unique.

So, as we approach this season’s Super Bowl (ahem) “World Championship” I intend to remain conscious to the bitter end. That should provide plenty of conversation-fodder until the new season starts in September. If not, I might have to do something really drastic to save my social life – like watching ice hockey.

The Man, the Marxist

Stuart Anderson-Davis reviews the latest biography on Eric Hobsbawm, the intellectual powerhouse who changed how we view history 

An 800-page book about a dead historian isn’t the most obvious Christmas present.

But while you won’t find Sir Richard Evans’ doorstopper on any ‘Gifting Guides’ this December, his biography of legendary “Marxist historian” Eric Hobsbawm is nevertheless the most interesting book I’ve read in 2019.

Full disclosure: I am a sucker for a historical biography. I can still recall the feelings of giddy excitement as I unwrapped this book as a present from my wife. Hurrah – truly romance is alive and well! But while the gift was somewhat left-field (a reflection of my nerdy tastes, not my wife’s present buying acumen), I devoured this account of an extraordinary and unusual man who revolutionised the way we “do” history.

But why would you bother reading about a historian? Well, books like this can deliver vital insights into an individual’s work and motivations. This is particularly true for someone as important and controversial as Hobsbawm – a man who survived a traumatic childhood to became one of the world’s most influential intellectuals. Bouncing between Austria, Germany and Britain as a child in the inter-war period, he witnessed first-hand the poisonous power of oppressive nationalism and the perils it held for a Jewish family like his. Hobsbawm’s perspectives were largely shaped during these early years – from growing up poor in “Red Vienna” and being orphaned aged fourteen, to reading Marx in his teens and marching with the Communist Party in Berlin. In 1936 this perennial “outsider” eventually settled down to university life in Cambridge – having already packed in more “life experiences” than most of his upper-crust peers would manage in their lifetimes.

At Cambridge, Hobsbawm’s brilliance and scholastic achievements were counterbalanced by suspicion of his unapologetic Marxism. Despite concerted efforts to sabotage his progress (hatched by everyone from conservative ‘dons’ to MI5), he quickly established a reputation for innovative and ambitious work. He demonstrated an unusual ability to present coherent and compelling narratives that were truly global in scope – from studies on Mexican “social banditry” to models of Tunisian peasant labour, researched on a decidedly serious trip that puts modern “Gap Yahs” to shame. This was a polyglot with an outrageous memory. One former student remarked that nobody else could “match his overwhelming command of fact and source… capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staff.”

Hobsbawm is best remembered for his epic ‘Age of…’ series, which explored global historical themes from 1789 to 1991. These four books established his reputation as a writer who both shaped historical scholarship and engaged the wider public. Following in the footsteps of historians like A.J.P Taylor, Hobsbawm used popular journalism (written and broadcast) to amplify his views beyond the academic echo chamber. Indeed, his emphasis on making history “accessible” must surely be viewed within the context of his political mission (a conclusion strangely unconsidered in Evans’ account) – educating and persuading a non-academic audience using Marxist historical explanations.

As Hobsbawm later reflected, “this was a time when British academic historians would have been shocked to think of themselves as potential paperback writers, i.e. writers for a broad public… Many of them even shied away from writing books of any kind, hoping to make their reputations with learned articles in specialist journals and savage reviews of other colleagues unwise enough to bare themselves between hard covers.” This quote epitomises Hobsbawm’s approach: a man unafraid to propose novel or controversial views, no matter the career-limiting consequences.

His principal concerns were originality, interest and authenticity. As he quipped to one doctoral student, “PhDs don’t have to be boring!” This philosophy is borne out in his lesser-known works, including ‘Primitive Rebels’ and ‘Bandits’, which told swashbuckling stories of working class rebellion long overlooked by the mainstream historical fraternity. Indeed, ‘Bandits’ is today the perfect book for student communists and self-satisfied hipsters to ostentatiously peruse over a jar of Kombucha.

Of course, this man of seemingly impeccable principles was far from perfect himself. Although ‘A Life in History’ delivers more colour on Hobsbawm’s personal life than did his autobiography, Evans’ respectful acquaintance with his subject appears to have influenced the parts he chooses to illuminate in this generous portrayal. Evans uses extracts from Hobsbawm’s diaries to reveal a man riddled with insecurities – from suicidal thoughts triggered by a cheating wife to depression about his appearance (not helped by one uncle uncharitably describing him as “ugly as sin”). However, indiscretions are largely glossed over – none more shockingly than in a sequence where Evans devotes just three paragraphs to Hobsbawm impregnating a student, before exploring his interest in jazz over six excruciating pages. The book also suffers from an obsession with the minutiae of the British Communist Party, liberally quoting MI5 transcripts to detail the monotonous internal politics that hampered this organisation’s efforts to rally the British proletariat.

As a fellow historian, Evans is more confident in outlining the criticisms of Hobsbawm the scholar than Hobsbawm the man. Particularly pertinent are the attacks on Hobsbawm’s work from a feminist perspective, with Evans arguing that feminist history made Hobsbawm “ill at ease, because he thought [it] was challenging the labor movement and challenging Marxism”. It seems that for all Hobsbawm’s revolutionary politics, he remained staunchly conservative when it came to gender. Some critics believe that Hobsbawm never fully recognised the role of women as historical changemakers – a flaw that led one reviewer to label ‘Age of Empire’ as “Victorian history-for-boys” – and today his views on women can appear as dated as his politics.

And so to Marxism, the constant tenet of Hobsbawm’s career that would become his legacy’s most enduring feature. He once quipped that “losers make the best historians” and this was just as well because the conclusion of the Cold War did nothing to change his outlook. Indeed, Hobsbawm was fated to spend his later years explaining why exactly he maintained his political beliefs despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the repudiation of everything for which it stood. He became something of a public curiosity – a brilliant thinker inexplicably tethered to a debunked doctrine.

So why does the story of Eric Hobsbawm inspire today? One reason is because he was the complete antithesis of the complacent ‘Ivory Tower’ academic. Hobsbawm pioneered new ways of “doing history” and engaging different audiences. From broadcast journalism and best-selling books to developing progressive institutions like Birkbeck and the New School, he was at the vanguard of scholarship in the 20th century. Hobsbawm championed the concept of “history from below” alongside left-wing peers like E.P. Thompson – rejecting fixations on “Great Men” to delve into the working-class experience and tell stories about “normal people”.

He was also prepared to actually leave his university – a quality rarer than you might imagine in a scholarly grandee. Hobsbawm travelled the world – from the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa to the metropolises of South America – to meet people, gather evidence and develop theses. He understood that the impact of seismic changes like the Industrial Revolution were not restricted to single countries and so wrote history unconstrained by artificial boundaries. This commitment to scale and adventure has inspired countless others to produce better, more innovative works.

Finally, Hobsbawm was a principled activist who proved that historians need not be passive observers of contemporary events. Harnessing his vast historical knowledge, he illuminated the pressing issues of the day – from the Bush/Blair war in Iraq to genocide in the former Yugoslavia. He was adamant that historians had a responsibility to truth and decency. Having personally witnessed the rise of fascism, Hobsbawm urged historians to “resist the formation of national, ethnic and other myths” that empower the opportunistic and malicious. He had seen only too clearly where that path leads.

So as we look back on a particularly wild and unpredictable decade, we’d be well served to remember Hobsbawm’s warning. This was not a perfect man by any stretch, but his principles of truth and internationalism will be needed more than ever in years to come.

‘Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History’ by Prof. Sir Richard J. Evans (London, 2019)

A Day of Guns & Games

Stuart Anderson-Davis examines a microcosm of America – the Military Academy at West Point

Julius Constantine Motal

Imagine a university that covers every penny of your tuition, but also pays you a stipend of up to $525 per month. In addition, this institution boasts the proud record of 100% of its graduates walking straight into jobs – each with a guaranteed starting salary of $53,000, no less. Pretty good, right?

Now consider a university that requires every single student to be out of bed, immaculately dressed and lined up by 6am sharp. A place that demands every applicant completes a series of arduous physical tests before they let you in, then imposes a complete ban on consuming alcohol for the duration of your studies. Not a sports fan? Doesn’t matter; every weekend your attendance is compulsory at matches – standing tall, whatever the weather (and it gets seriously cold here). I’m guessing this place seems a less appealing prospect – especially if you spent your student days, like this author, in a lazy daze of hangovers, naps and good intentions gone awry.

As you’ve now probably deduced (and if you hadn’t, you’re not smart enough to get in here) I’m talking about one place. This is The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York: a prestigious institution formally founded in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson, although the fortress of “West Point” was established by George Washington back in 1778  to train much-needed engineers for the Revolutionary War. Today, the 4,000 “Cadets” live and study on a 16,000 acre campus in the epically beautiful setting of the Hudson Valley, complete with picture-perfect views of the Hudson River straight out of a ‘Visit Norway’ fjord poster. West Point is just 50 miles north of New York City, but don’t even think about sneaking away for a night out.

As you would assume, entrance is extremely competitive – with a 9% acceptance rate and requirements ranging from endurance running and press ups to securing a prized personal letter of recommendation from your member of Congress. Indeed, the latter task is particularly “political” – with ambitious parents scrambling for every highly-sought citation. Traditionally this letter could come at a price, so to speak, although for legal reasons I should state that doesn’t happen anymore…

However, jumping through all these hoops is considered a small price to pay because of West Point’s first-rate record in churning out leaders and “public servants” of distinction. Every graduate commits to five years active service in the Army once they leave, but after that the sky is (not even) the limit. In addition to 18 astronauts, the Academy has produced two Presidents and countless generals, governors, senators and diplomats (including the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo).

Cadets have also thrived, perhaps more surprisingly, in Corporate America. West Point’s curriculum is not limited to practical military skills, but focuses on the broader task of “leadership training” – a skillset highly valued by companies up and down the land. Today, West Pointers can be found in boardrooms across every sector, including leading some of the nation’s most powerful businesses. In a land where the military plays a particularly visible role in daily life (from TV adverts for Armed Forces insurance to displays at practically every sporting event), West Point’s blend of courageous “service” and academic excellence remains a hugely attractive prospect for American businesses.

Indeed, what image could better fit the “strong leader” mould in a corporate environment that historically favours strong, white and male leaders – the traditional and still predominant West Point demographic? (Although it should be said that gender and racial diversity at West Point is increasing and in some areas the Academy already outpaces other US academic institutions, including the Ivy League).

But it’s not necessarily just the perception of leadership: studies have backed up the hunch that military training is useful in the boardroom, as well as on the battlefield. For example, research in 2016 found that US corporations led by CEOs with military backgrounds had outperformed the wider S&P 500, while those CEOs who graduated from West Point (including Alex Gorsky, Chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson) fared best of all. There’s a good reason why you find West Point alumni across the upper echelons of American society – from the White House to Wall Street.

A few weeks ago, I decided to check out this bastion of Alpha for myself – travelling to the Academy on a crisp, sunny autumn morning for the ultimate display of military machismo. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more quintessentially American day out than attending a military parade at West Point, followed by a “Football” match at the campus’ 38,000 seater Michie Stadium. The experience is epic. From all 4,000 Cadets marching in formation past the spectators (including the Secretary of State and his legion of Secret Service agents) to the daredevil acrobatics of West Point’s Cadet parachute squad, to the Army team running onto the field accompanied by full military fly-over. But it’s also apparent from the moment you arrive that succeeding in this place requires discipline and dedication way beyond that of your average fresher. Indeed, to say the West Point way of life “is not for everyone” is a considerable understatement.

Photography Matt Drinkall

Life is hardest for the “Plebes”, the unfortunate label given to first year Cadets, who learn the hard way about military life. For them, surviving the “challenging” and “stressful” Cadet Basic Training – a 6-week programme known as “Beast Barracks” – is just the start. Every day, Plebes act as human alarm clocks – waking early to sound the morning call for everyone else to form up for inspection by “zero six hundred hours”. At any point an older Cadet can require a Plebe to rattle off the full food menu for the week (all 4,000 eat simultaneously in a cavernous hall staffed by probably the best-drilled catering team in the world) or demand a verbal briefing on noteworthy articles from the morning’s New York Times. Things get (marginally) better as Cadets climb the ladder, but a full-on schedule of physical and mental tasks is demanded every day of a student’s four years at the Academy. There’s good reason Cadets are described as “the busiest students in the country”.

They may be the best behaved too. Central to the West Point experience is The Honor Code , which demands all students “conduct themselves with absolute integrity, both in word and deed”. Transgressions are punished by the Demerit system, which sees an erring Cadet undertake physical penitence for their sins. Typically, this means “walking the area”: a spectacle where individuals march back and forth across a courtyard in full dress uniform (complete with rifle and uncomfortable shoes) for a prescribed number of hours. Lower-level crimes like scuffed shoes or a missing button could result in 10 hours of walking. Something worse, like being caught with booze or nodding off during a televised speech by the President, and you will literally be marching for days.

So is this unique and unusual experience – plus the required military service after graduating – really worth the sacrifice? Sure, these men and women (largely) avoid the debt, liver damage and social media shame that’s the fate of other students. But when can they go a bit crazy, let loose and lie in? Ask yourself honestly, would you have put down your beer funnel or bong in return for iron-clad discipline and stellar career prospects?

As I said before, it’s not for everyone. 

Scholars, Scalp-hunters & Segregation

Stuart Anderson-Davis reflects on the biggest and bitterest controversy in American academia – racial legacy

Empty statue plinths are a strange quirk of Princeton University. Anecdotally, this is because Princeton wants to inspire its students to believe in their potential; to think that if they work hard and achieve great things then they will find immortality through their very own statue. The way things are going, the university probably wishes it had left a few more plinths empty.

Last weekend, Princeton unveiled a 39ft stone symbol to the biggest and bitterest controversy in American academia – racial legacy. Double Sights is a vertical sculpture of two “columnar elements” designed by renowned artist Walter Hood. However, the piece’s mixed reception and the protests at its unveiling result not from its design, but for what critics argue it stands for: namely unsatisfactory compromise and the refusal of the university to fully confront the darker side of its history.

The sculpture stands outside Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, named after the 28th President of the United States and former President of the university. Wilson is best known as the president who took America into the First World War and then led a campaign to establish the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations aimed at bringing international peace and harmony. Alas, his plan didn’t work out (to say the least…) and today Wilson’s legacy is considerably murkier than the idealistic liberal internationalist you might envision.

Woodrow Wilson

It comes down to race. Here, Wilson’s record is very bad, even when judged in its historical context. Most infamously, Wilson’s White House re-segregated the federal government – “destroying the careers of thousands of accomplished black civil servants” in a decision that was at best a mucky political compromise, at worst an “avowed racist” pursuing his prejudices through the power of the presidency.

It’s this other side to Woodrow Wilson that is the rationale for Double Sights: a monument designed to represent the positive and negative legacies of a man who sought world peace, yet actively discouraged black students from applying to Princeton. This is also a stone-carved attempt by Princeton to appease both sides of an increasingly fiery debate about the legacy of its former president, and to head off calls by those demanding Wilson’s name and face be banished from its institutions forever.

Of course, this ‘Battle of Princeton’ is not fought in isolation. In 2015, the removal of a statue to Cecil Rhodes (the British imperialist and corporate titan) at the University of Cape Town triggered a chain reaction of protests around the world. Today, there are countless institutions wrestling with their own troubled legacies and historical connections to slavery, colonialism and segregation.

These protests have pointed the finger at many of history’s “great men” and injected urgency and passion into what would otherwise have been a limited, academic exercise – if it had happened at all. Indeed, the entwining of these campus campaigns with broader societal movements like ‘Black Lives Matters’ has taken these historical debates way beyond the theoretical. These are tangible protests with tangible demands. Put simply, the movement demands the removal of any and all commemorations to men deemed undeserving of that honour.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign started with the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue in South Africa

Unsurprisingly, it’s in the United States – a nation facing very current challenges around race and racism – where the impact of “Rhodes Must Fall” and its spin-offs has been most dramatic. Here, campaigners have already taken many prized scalps. Yale has retitled a college named after James C. Calhoun, a 19th century white supremacist. Georgetown “de-plaqued” two of its former presidents who sold their slaves to clear the university’s debts. Harvard Law School changed its seal to remove the crest of slave-plantation owners. Least controversially, the University of North Carolina agreed to belatedly amend the name of a hall named after a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The list goes on and it’s no longer limited to universities. Indeed, earlier this year Calhoun even lost a Minnesotan lake named in his honour.

Critics of this sweeping wave tend to focus on the unscholarly and (in their eyes) unfair condemnation of long-dead individuals. In particular, the charge stands that the protestors – most of whom are young students at these institutions – are anachronistically judging the behaviour of historical figures by the value-sets and expectations of today. In this positioning, the protests are forcing academic institutions into a corner and many are opting for the simplest option of placation – in so doing, trashing the legacy of those once deemed worthy of commemoration.

However, it’s important to remember that revisiting historical legacy is not some millennial snowflake fad. There is a long record of statues coming down and names being removed as times and tastes change. Indeed, in Ancient Rome there was a process now referred to as damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory”) that went even further. Then, men condemned by the Senate as traitors (including former emperors) could have their statues defaced or removed from public view, or their names erased entirely from public records. At least today we’re having a broader public debate about these individuals and their legacies before we decide to condemn them as disgraced – even if the final decisions still rest with society’s elites.

So is this movement a “good thing”? Sadly there’s no simple answer. Some statues should stand and some should fall, therefore the only acceptable course of action is to judge each individual on their merits by encouraging a comprehensive, inclusive debate – inside and outside the scholarly community. How that can actually happen in this age of outrage is a real challenge. However, we absolutely need a more robust and democratic process than we have currently, where the vast majority of decisions (for or against) are taken in private by fretful academic leaders who are guesstimating the size and severity of each protest movement and what it will take to make them go away.

And it’s hard to know where this goes next. Is every slave-owning figure now persona non-grata and does this mean that Washington DC needs a new name? Likewise, will we see the #MeToo movement trigger an urgent re-evaluation of historical figures who mistreated women, for example, in the same way that ‘Black Lives Matter’ has shifted focus on historical racism? If so, we will certainly witness the fall of many more American icons in the years to come.