Time To Retire The Office Of First Lady?

If American meritocracy and egalitarianism is to mean anything (and admittedly it often doesn’t mean much at all, especially considering the key protagonists in the presidential election we have just witnessed) then is it finally time to abolish the familiar but not-strictly-necessary official role for the spouse of the president?

Jack Shafer makes an undeniably persuasive argument in Politico for abolishing official roles or any expectation of service for first ladies (or future first gentlemen) altogether:

Melania Trump has done the nation a great service by deciding to maintain Trump Tower as her full-time residence and not to move to the White House any time soon. But her resistance shouldn’t stop there. Now is as good a time as any to eliminate the ceremonial office of the “first lady,” that abhorrent honorific we apply to the president’s wife, and encourage the first spouse to live like an ordinary citizen. All we need is for Melania to agree.

Yes, defund the ridiculously large staff that currently earns upward of $1.5 million a year serving Michelle Obama; abolish the federally funded bully pulpit from which the presidential spouses have historically advocated for healthy eating, literacy, child welfare, anti-drug programs, mental health issues and beautification of highways. The president’s spouse isn’t a specimen of American royalty. By giving her a federal budget and nonstop press coverage, we endorse a pernicious kind of neo-nepotism that says, pay special attention to the person not because she’s earned it or is inherently worthy of our notice but because of who she’s related to by marriage.

The hairstyles, fashion choices, vacation destinations and pet projects of the president’s spouse are newsworthy only to the mentally vacant. Other democracies, such as the United Kingdom, bestow no such honors upon the spouses of their leaders and are better for it. To use an au courant phrase, the office of the first spouse is a swamp in need of draining. Won’t somebody please dispatch a dredger to the East Wing?

The comparison made by Shafer between the modern conception of the role of First Spouse and the often more significant work carried out by other first ladies in history, particularly Eleanor Roosevelt, is quite stark:

Some contemporary presidential spouses have led active, involved political lives, providing more than a sounding board [..] Eleanor Roosevelt published books, magazine articles and newspapers advocating positions that routinely outwinged her husband, especially on civil rights. She testified before Congress. She had a regular radio program. She gave regular news conferences. She toured the country in support of migrant workers.

[..] But does any of this work require a staff of 15 or more? The spouses of senators and corporate chiefs provide advice and speechwriting help for their husbands and we don’t give them a budget or lavish them with attention. What’s so special about the first spouse that we should give them $1.5 million in mad money to serve as hostess and confidante, White House remodeling consultant, supervisor of china?

Even when it comes to the serious political work, Roosevelt did what she did with a staff of two and probably could have done without. If the first spouses’ causes are so admirable, the president should propose them and get the government to fund them via official channels instead of building a publicity machine for his spouse to advance them.

It is a compelling argument, one which sets the “conserv” and “-atarian” sides of my brain rather at war with one another. On one hand, if one were building the American democracy from scratch, it is hard to imagine that we would create role as wasteful and often patronising as that of the Office of the First Lady.

As Shafer rightly points out in his piece, most other advanced democracies do not feel the need to put the head of state or head of government’s spouse on a pedestal. While Britain, with our monarchy, may be in no position to give lectures on this particular subject, it is notable that there has never really been great public or institutional demand for the spouse of the prime minister to become some kind of supplementary Mother to the Nation.

And while the traditional, dismal obsession with what prime ministerial spouses choose to wear has not yet died away, the fact that Britain now has her second woman prime minister (and male consort) in 10 Downing Street will hopefully start to undermine the traditional obsession with the shoes and dresses worn by female politicians.

In fact, a deadpan article describing Philip May’s sartorial choices in the same breathless manner that the media cover women in politics shows – as well as making an excellent point about hypocrisy and sexism – just how foolish the idea of expecting somebody connected to an elected leader by accident of marriage should also be expected to play a leading role in the life of the nation.

From the Metro:

Stepping into the limelight as First Man, Philip May showcased a sexy navy suit with a flourish of pinstripe.

A single fastened button at the waist helped show off his fantastic figure and a pale blue tie brought out the colour of his eyes.

Round glasses perched on his nose accentuated his amazing bone structure – no doubt one of the assets he used to help him to bag his wife.

The man behind the UK’s most powerful woman looked on fondly as she addressed the UK for the first time as leader.

Oh, and let’s not forget those shoes…

Philip elongated his pins with a pair of black brogues as he accompanied his wife to step over the threshold of their new home – 10 Downing Street.

In this context and these modern times, expecting First Ladies to take on a feel-good, universally popular softball social cause while tarting up the White House at taxpayer expense seems like the anachronism that it is. Yet there is some merit to the tradition, too. And numerous First Ladies have gone on to leave a lasting positive mark on America which otherwise may have been missed. One thinks of Jacqueline Kennedy’s style, Lady Bird Johnson‘s focus on national beautification or Betty Ford and her work for breast cancer awareness, substance abuse treatment and the arts.

If Melania Trump doesn’t want to come to Washington D.C. right away, so be it. As the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson notes, reminding Washingtonians that they are not the centre of the universe is not necessarily a bad thing.

But I imagine that the institutional gravity of the White House will eventually pull Melania into some kind of role, which may be no bad thing. Melania Trump becomes a first-generation immigrant First Lady at a time when many people (rightly or wrongly) are concerned about the impact of a Trump presidency on immigration. With a bit of imagination, that fact could be used to quite a positive, calming effect.



Bottom Image: Marc Nozell, Wikimedia Commons

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Brexiteers Are Not Violent Savages. In Fact, More Brexiteers Than Remainers Strongly Oppose The Death Penalty

Darwin - Evolution of man - EU Referendum - Brexiteers

The BBC uncovers ‘devastating evidence’ linking support for Brexit with being a primitive Neanderthal

The latest act in the BBC’s ongoing effort to catastrophise Brexit and discredit Brexiteers is this delightful article from last week’s News Magazine, exploring the link between Brexit and the death penalty:

Immediately after the vote, commentators said it was about class – about professionals living and working in big cities, especially London (who voted Remain), versus working class people in smaller towns, especially in the north of England (who voted Leave).

So you would think that if you know that someone is working class and has a low income, you’d be able to confidently guess they voted Leave. But according to Stian Westlake, Head of Research at the think tank Nesta, this is not the case.

“If you look at someone’s class status and their income, and you try and use that to guess whether or not they voted Remain, it turns out it’s not that much better than guesswork. It gives you around 55% accuracy, and obviously a guess would give you 50% accuracy,” Westlake says.

His figures come from the British Election Study, in which around 24,000 people were asked about their voting intentions in the EU referendum.

Respondents to the survey were also questioned on their views on other things, such as the death penalty – and this provides a much better indicator of how people voted, Westlake argues.

“If you look at attitudes to questions such as, ‘Do you think criminals should be publicly whipped?’ or ‘Are you in favour of the death penalty?’ – those things are much better predictors, and you get over 70% accuracy,” he says.

“To give you an idea of how good a predictor that is, if you ask someone, ‘Do you think there is too much European integration?’ – which you’d think is a pretty good indicator – that only gets you to the high 70s. So if you can get to 71% or 72% prediction from these questions about traditional values, then it suggests it is that, rather than income or class, that is really driving the vote for Leave.”

So now Brexiteers are violent savages, dangerous authoritarian people who cannot keep their base desire for retribution and “an eye for an eye” under control. Brexit Britain will see a return of the stocks, the scold’s bridle and even the gallows in the town square if we get our way, the BBC is effectively telling its readers.

And of course this fits in with everything that Remainers like to think about themselves, and tell themselves about those who want Britain out of the European Union. To their minds, Remainers are compassionate, progressive, outward-looking, tolerant and fair, while Leavers are sneaky, conniving, closed-minded, inward-looking, highly intolerant and “post-factual”. Remainers want to hug a hoodie. We, apparently, want to bash their heads in with a brick and hang them from lamp posts as a warning to others.

Except that in their haste to demonise Brexiteers, the BBC neglected to mention the percentage of Remainers who also back the authoritarian policies cited in the survey. And there is a reason for this – to some extent, the data actually exonerates Brexiteers, while painting Remainers in an equally bad light, if not worse.

BES - Death penalty - Brexit

This chart plots satisfaction with EU democracy (a reasonable indicator of general euroscepticism given the fact that sovereignty and democracy were given as the primary motivation for voting to leave, according to post-referendum polling) against strength of agreement with the death penalty. The data is taken from the British Election Study, and and can be freely found and researched on their website.

And what we see here is that of those who strongly oppose the death penalty, over 62% are eurosceptic (that is, either very dissatisfied or a little dissatisfied with EU democracy). Of those who disagree with the death penalty a little less staunchly, over 65% are eurosceptic.

Admittedly, more staunch eurosceptics take up a much larger proportion of those who agree or strongly agree with the death penalty. But the europhiles (taken as those fairly satisfied or very satisfied with EU democracy) hardly cover themselves in glory as principled death penalty abolitionists. The proportion of europhiles either against or strongly against the death penalty struggles to break much above 20%.

This would seem to suggest that however much the BBC’s “traditionalist” narrative may play a part, there are also a significant number of very firm eurosceptic death penalty opponents who supported Brexit. That would make sense. This blog is one of them, as is nearly every other Brexiteer I happen to know. But why report on the principled band of anti death penalty Brexiteers when you can just play to the gallery and point at those eurosceptics who want to bring back hanging? It just fits so neatly into the tidy little narrative about primitive, left-behind idiots voting for Brexit against their own supposed interests.

But perhaps if the data tells us anything  at all, it is that people with strong opinions on either side of the death penalty issue (and perhaps other issues too) tended to favour leaving the European Union, while Britain’s army of vague, wishy-washy and noncommittal people wanted us to remain, guided as always by their dithering uncertainty and fear of change. After all, when it came to strongly disagreeing (or even strongly agreeing) with the death penalty, Britain’s EU cheerleaders are almost nowhere to be seen. That hardly fits with their sanctimonious claim to be more open and tolerant than the rest of us.

But that doesn’t quite fit the BBC’s preferred narrative. Far better to concentrate on the spike and declare all Brexiteers to be violent, vengeful authoritarians. That is the narrative the BBC loves to tell and Remainers love to hear, so that is the narrative which we will continue to get.


Abolish death penalty

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Traditions Are The Foundation Of Our Future – We Destroy Them At Our Peril

State Opening Of Parliament - Queens Speech


By Ben Kelly, blogger and editor of The Sceptic Isle.

A healthy respect for tradition and custom is a guarantor of stability and a means of conserving what is good and worth preserving about our country, its culture and its political system. I therefore find it regrettable that so many people pour scorn on tradition or are utterly baffled as to why it is so important. It is of particular concern when these sentiments are expressed by members of the ruling class.

Whenever I hear self-proclaimed “modernisers” lamenting the traditions of parliament such as the rituals and dress I get very nervous. It seems peculiar to me for them to join an institution with such a strong intent to transform it, to tear up its very roots. It isn’t that I fear change or that i’m against reform and refreshment when it is necessary, but I am very much against change for the sake of change. The same resentment of tradition can be seen in all walks of like but it is particularly troubling to see amongst modern politicians tinkering with centuries old traditions without the appropriate reverence.

Nothing pains them more than the awesome historicity of ceremonies such as the opening of parliament and the Queen’s speech. They look around the Palace of Westminster and see too many humbling echoes of the past and the last thing self-aggrandising “modernisers” want is to be humbled. They hate the ceremonial dress, the pomp and circumstance, the rituals that act as stark reminders of what has gone before, from the searching of the cellars to the slamming of the Commons door in the black rod’s face.

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