President Xi Jinping’s Visit to the United States – and its implications for U.S. Policy in Asia


Last weekend, on April 6th and 7th, U.S. President Donald Trump hosted a meeting at his golf club with the president of China, Xi Jinping.

Ahead of the meeting, expectations ran high on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

President Xi was expected to affirm his standing as a leader of a great power, and thus cement his power back home; while President Trump was expected to secure a tactical victory over China to please his domestic audience.

It was thought – and I fully believed this too – there would be a deal. China would make some short-term economic concessions for long-term rewards, such as the U.S. turning a blind eye to the tensions in the South China Sea or dropping their support for Taiwan.

So, the meeting was destined to be the front page news.

But in the end, the media coverage focused on Trump’s decision to order a missile strike in Syria.

The Chinese media, however, brushed the effect off quickly. They kept the meeting on the front page and declared the event as constructive and warranting optimism for future relations.

The Syria strike was thought to be just about President Trump flexing his muscles, trying to prove that he dared to do what Obama did not.

Also president Trump made it clear in his concluding remarks that tremendous progress had been made in the U.S.-China relations.

The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, also repeatedly assured that the meeting had been “very positive.”

But what were the actual results of the meeting?
Was there a deal?
Did the meeting set any guiding lines for future U.S. policy in Asia?

Relying on the official U.S. sources, what we know is this:

  • Trump accepted an invitation to visit China.
  • China and the US will negotiate a 100-day plan for trade relations at some later date.
  • Both leaders admitted that the situation in North Korea is urgent and needs to be addressed.
  • A new U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue communication system will be established, which will provide a framework for negotiations on four strategic areas:
    1) diplomacy and security, 2) economy, 3) law enforcement and cybersecurity, and 4) culture and society.

In addition, both sides emphasized the importance of cooperation, mutual benefits, and mutual respect.

This sounds awfully lot like the Chinese concept of “a new model of great power relations.” The main slogans of this policy are “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” It is a sort of transactional, G2-type of approach to U.S.-China relations.

So far, the U.S. officials have refrained from using this concept, but during his recent trip to East Asia, we did hear the U.S. Secretary of State using the slogans. The Chinese speculate that the Trump administration has, in fact, bought the concept.

On the other hand, the Syria strike sent a clear signal to North Korea and China alike.

In interviews, Tillerson has said as much. In his opinion, the strike demonstrates that President Trump is willing to act when governments cross the line and violate commitments they have made. And that, if you become a threat to others, sooner or later there will be a response.

The inference is that this response will be unilateral if China refuses to cooperate, as Trump has warned.

And like in the Syria case, in North Korea “all options for action are on table.”

Tillerson claims that China understands this, and the Chinese have agreed that the situation in North Korea is grave, and “action has to be taken.”

Now, it is believed that North Korea is planning something, perhaps nuclear tests, this week to mark the anniversary of Kim Il-sung, the first leader of the country. Meanwhile, the U.S. has sent its navy strike group to the Sea of Japan, and the Japanese plan to join them. And rumors, which are of course an unreliable basis for any speculation, have that China has deployed troops to its North Korean borders.

So, perhaps, there will soon be some clarification on U.S. policy in Asia.

The U.S. might adopt a go-it-alone policy; or the government might strike a deal and cooperate with China; or perhaps they will find a way to eventually retreat from the region.

Or just maybe, the future policy will be just as ad-hoc, unpredictable, and confusing as it has been thus far.


Henna-Riikka Pennanen



Donald Trump is Now President-elect – Why Did We Not See This Coming?

[Editor’s note: The JMC Current Issues Blog is now featuring a five-part series of posts written by University of Turku students from the “2016 U.S. Presidential Election” course. The final instalment in the series is written by Political Science Student Pirta Päkkilä.] 

Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election sent shockwaves throughout the country and all around the world. Many people are shocked and concerned, if not outright terrified. Many progressive agendas are being threatened, such as U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on climate, the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare,” and the EU-US free trade agreement T-TIP. Moreover, millions of undocumented immigrants might be facing deportation. These are things to be concerned about. But how many of these claims will actually come to fruition will remain to be seen. Many of the election promises will definitely turn out to be much harder to implement in reality. So it is likely that President Trump will go back on several of the things he has said. This has already started to happen with, for example, Obamacare, as he seemed to express a much more positive view on the 60 Minutes interview aired on November 13, 2016. Trump has also voiced that he will have an “open mind” towards the Paris Agreement.

1                                 People protesting against Donald Trump’s presidency                              in New York City on November 12, 2016.

However, no matter what happens from now on and despite the direction that Trump’s presidency will take, the campaign itself will go down in history as the most outrageous and negative that we have ever seen. How is it possible that Trump won with such rhetoric? There has been extensive analysis in the media and elsewhere about the reasons why people voted for Trump and what the keys were to his success. The crucial factor seems to be that white, non-educated, older men in the so-called Rust Belt (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) decided to vote for change. According to CNN’s national exit polls, when asked what candidate quality mattered the most, 39 % of the respondents said that the most important quality was the ability to bring about change. This was especially important for the Republicans, of whom 83 % saw this as important. On the other hand, only 21 % of the respondents thought the right experience was the most important quality, but this was especially important for the Democrats.

The CNN exit polls also reveal that the most important issue in the election was, quite surprisingly after the campaign that we have seen, the economy. More than half (52 %) said that the economy was the main issue and its importance was roughly equal for Democrats and Republicans. Of course, the economy is always on the top three list of most important issues, but this election has been dubbed as the least issue-based election ever. Ironically, underneath all the scandals and outrageous outbursts, we see that what really appealed to the people was criticism of the economic direction of the United States, something that we saw both in Trump’s and Sanders’s campaigns.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism, free trade, and globalism have been able to triumph unchallenged. While the benefits are undeniable, there are also many downsides. In the United States, globalism has hit previously industrial states the hardest. Factories have closed and new job opportunities have been created elsewhere, such as in Silicon Valley, California. These are new opportunities for the educated, whereas for the uneducated, the future looks a lot bleaker now that the well-paying factory jobs are gone. So, at least economically, we are living in two separate realities, as Laura Saarikoski, a reporter for the Finnish Helsingin Sanomat, put it at the JMC’s post-election seminar on November 11, 2016.

2                         Michigan Central Station in Detroit pictured in 2009.                              Detroit epitomizes the downfall of U.S. industrial cities, as the once prosperous, fourth largest city in the Midwest filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Michigan turned out to be one of the key swing states in the 2016 election.

This makes one wonder: if the economy—and the implications of globalism—were such important issues, why was it not discussed more during the campaign? Immigration was the question that got the most media coverage, because the most outrageous comments during the campaign were made about it. Of course, it is the duty of the media report if a  presidential nominee makes racist comments. The sad and perverted truth is that they also make good headlines and, thus, good business. Using racist remarks and offering easy answers to difficult issues sets a vicious cycle into motion, where the most outrageous comment gets the most publicity. It also simplifies the discussion into a narrative of good versus evil, tolerance versus racism.

But how can we, in a free society, tolerate intolerant people? This is the greatest challenge of living in a democratic society. There is no one singular truth regarding immigration. There is no battle of good versus evil, no battle between the good people and a despotic ruler, as in fairytales. If we want to live in a free, democratic society, we do not have to tolerate people who would take away the foundation of that society, but we do have a duty to look deeper. The questions we should be asking ourselves are: Why are these people intolerant? What are the root causes of racism? We have to stop polarizing our society by demonizing half the population; instead, we should really start listening to where all these issues are coming from. The rise of populism worldwide was fueled by the economic crisis. When people are struggling to survive, it seems like a natural instinct to feel threatened by those that we perceive as “outsiders.” After all, people are very much social creatures and feel safe when protected by a community they know. The, however, the challenge is to recognize these feelings and the reasons that have created them. It is only by analyzing the root causes that we can truly start engaging in dialogue that helps people understand other points of view.

This is, however, easier said than done. As Laura Saarikoski aptly framed it at the JMC symposium, this election was the ultimate “bubble election.” Everyone has chosen a side and refuses to see beyond it. It is natural for people to surround themselves with like-minded people and listen to those who enforce our way of thinking. This phenomenon is made stronger by social media, where people like you post opinions you agree with and link articles that enforce your worldview. People, willingly or unwillingly, tend not to interact with those who disagree strongly or have completely different worldviews. This also makes political debate and discussion meaningless. As we saw in the debates, they were much less about issues and much more about the candidates speaking directly to their voters. What the other one is saying is either completely irrelevant or a source of criticism. We cling on to the little things – how things are said instead of what is being said.

I believe that president-elect Donald Trump has already taken the first steps towards presidency by trying to see both sides and ameliorating some of his comments made during the campaign. The main takeaway, then, is that we all follow this lead, address the issues on which people crave change, and make sure that superficial and scandalous rhetoric does not carry on to the next election.

Text: Pirta Päkkilä, Political Science student, University of Turku


Alt-right is Wrong

[Editor’s note: The JMC Current Issues Blog is now featuring a five-part series of posts written by University of Turku students from the “2016 U.S. Presidential Election” course. This post, the fourth in the series, is written by Political Science Student Niklas Tuomola.] 

alt-right-is-wrongFor several years, they lurked in the shadows of the Internet, in discussion forums like 4Chan, 8Chan, and Reddit. They gained strength, but were still marginal. They posted memes to Twitter and Facebook and founded news sites, where facts don’t matter and where hate brews. In 2015, they rose from a shadowy cave, and in 2016 went straight to the most famous building on earth, the White House. The Alt-right is here and we should call them what they are:   racist white supremacists who now have a spokesperson in the most influential office in the world.

Before 2015, the Alt-right was a small group of ultraconservative individuals who were causing troubles on the Internet by trolling and sharing racist comments and memes in different forums and comment sections. Now, it is a movement with a fancy logo and a leadership. It even had a “coming out” party in Washington D.C., where the leaders and white nationalists,  Richard Spencer, Peter Brimelow, and Jared Taylor, talked about the future of the organization, how they must become more professional, and how they want to make a “tremendous impact” on U.S.  society.

And, oh boy, how they have a  chance to make an impact now! Donald Trump was the candidate of the Alt-right. Steve Bannon, the Chief Executive of Trump’s campaign and now the Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor of the President-elect, has been a huge part of the Alt-right movement. He founded the Alt-right news site Breitbart, which has become a massively popular mouthpiece for the movement. It is a site, where hate speech and racism bloom and fake news get wings. Its publications have had headlines like “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?”; “The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple: Women should log off”; and “Data: Young Muslims in the West are a Ticking Time Bomb, Increasingly Sympathising with Radicals, Terror,” to name just a few. All of these exemplify what the Alt-right represents. They are racist, white ethno-nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Feminist bullies. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which fights against hate and bigotry, describes the Alt-right as:

A set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.

This is pure racism and we need to understand that.

When the media and commentators refer to this movement as the Alt-right, they are doing them a favor. That is what they want; they want to be legitimized. They want to normalize racism and they are doing a good job of it. They want to create a society where racist remarks are not forbidden, but are a part of discussion and political rhetoric. They want that it is OK to be racist.

Now it seems like it is. President-elect Donald Trump ran a racist and hateful campaign and succeeded. His remarks on how he will ban Muslims entering the country and how he will build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border became normalized and acceptable to (some of) his voters.  After the election, reports of hate crimes have soared, cars are being covered with racist graffiti, and even kids in kindergarten face racism from their peers. This is what happens when racism is allowed to flourish.  This is reality now.

no_to_racismNo to Racism

The term Alt-right was invented by white nationalist and National Policy Institute President Richard Spencer. The name gives the idea that the Alt-right is an alternative to mainstream right-wing politics and conservatism in the United States. As the Alt-right fights against immigration, minorities, and the Democratic Party, they also fight against traditional Republicans. They want to break out of the Republican Party, which they call “cuckolds” and “cuckservative.” They want to challenge and change the conservative establishment. They want to get “race realist” thinking into the mainstream, and the media and political commentators are paving the road for them.

The term “Alt-right” is wrong. It separates the movement from racism, and sets it up as an alternative to the established right. It makes their actions and statements legitimate and normal. We, as political commentators, as well as researchers and representatives of the media, must start calling the Alt-right out. If we don’t, we give them space to operate and introduce hateful policies to the agenda. This can have abysmal and far reaching consequences, as we have seen in the past. We must learn. It is time to fight back. The Alt-right is all wrong.

Text: Niklas Tuomola, Political Science Student, University of Turku


Obama’s Melancholic Farewell to Europe

[Editor’s note: The JMC Current Issues Blog is now featuring a five-part series of posts written by University of Turku students from the “2016 U.S. Presidential Election” course. This post, the third in the series, is written by Contemporary History Student Eerik Tuovinen.] 

With the end of the Presidential Race of 2016 and the victory of the Republican nominee Donald Trump, the incumbent President, Barack Obama, set out for a final farewell tour to Europe. The sharp rhetoric and controversial campaign of Donald Trump cast a dark shadow on Obama’s last official visit to Europe. Trump’s election has left many people in the world uncertain about the kinds of policies he will pursue as President of the United States. Thus, Obama’s visit can be seen as an attempt to help European leaders prepare for new U.S. diplomacy under the leadership of President Trump.

air-force-1Obama boarding Air Force One

The President began in Greece on November 15th, 2016, where he was received by the Greek Minister of Defence Panos Kammenos and, later, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Soon after arriving, President Obama met with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopolous. During the meeting, Obama emphasized the ties between his nation and Europe, stating that a prosperous and unified Europe would be good for the entire continent, as well as for the U.S.

For Obama, the upcoming change in the White House will most certainly be a challenging one. President-elect Trump has famously said that Europe should carry out its own defence. This is a drastic change from the transatlantic commitments set by the current administration and every administration since the advent of NATO in 1949. Trump’s election win has no doubt been uneasy for Obama, as he endorsed the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton and called Trump “unfit” for the presidency during the campaign.

Trump’s surprising win raises questions for the leaders of Europe: Will Trump go through with reducing his commitment to European defence? Will Trump improve cold U.S.– Russian foreign relations, which have again been soured by the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s continuing involvement in the Syrian Civil War? For now, these questions do not have definitive answers and instead the European leadership can only wait and see what will happen.

cameron_obama_merkel_hollande_renzi_in_2016                      David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel,                          François Hollande and Matteo Renzi

Obama’s visit in Europe was mired by the election results back at home. During his visit, Obama was a mediator, whose job was to explain to the best of his ability, where the United States would be heading under the leadership of Trump. The President warned Europe about the dangers of “crude nationalism,” which he felt was on a constant rise after recent events.

In Greece, Obama gave an important speech on globalization and the nature of democracy itself. He argued that the operating mechanism of contemporary globalization needed reform, due to the increasing inequality, and then went to emphasize the strengths of democracy in its “home country.” Obama quoted the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by stating: “Democracy is the worst system of government excluding all the others.”

Obama’s tour continued in Germany, where he met Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. In Germany, Obama expressed his wish that European leaders to seek ways to find the most productive dialogue with the upcoming administration in Washington, and discussed several issues that the European Union is facing right now, namely the continuing sanctions against Russia and the rise of populist nationalism in Europe.

obama-on-phoneObama handling business on the telephone

Obama’s visit in Europe was ultimately serious in tone. His message was far from the beacon of optimism he has so often offered. His visit highlighted the numerous challenges that face not only Europe but also liberal democracy, more broadly. As nationalist populism has gained significant footholds in the U.S. and a number of European countries, it is obvious that many citizens of the western world reject typical liberal democracy. For them, actions are required; a drastic change must be sought. Liberal democracy, which has been built on the foundations of understanding, tolerance, and moderation, has been challenged by those who desire a blunter and a more direct approach to things. For opponents, the system is too weak to solve issues like immigration, poverty, or changing demographics.

As Obama bids his farewell to Europe, I believe it is time to evaluate his presidency. President Obama has, indeed, been a beacon of optimism. The first months of Obama’s presidency gave hope for a better time, during the gruelling period after the global recession of 2008. Obama ultimately couldn’t bring all the changes he had promised to deliver and he faced significant implementation challenges, like with healthcare reform (Obamacare). In my opinion, however, Obama was an outstanding statesman from the beginning to the end. For many, he was a convincing figure that could inspire people (including myself) to push themselves further and to try even harder. With Obama’s Presidency concluding, we will move to a new era of U.S. politics, where many aspects that we found to be predictable and clear become unclear and uncertain. Only time will tell what kind of administration follows Obama’s wake.

obama-and-michelleFarewell Mr. President. 

Text: Eerik Tuovinen, Contemporary History Student, University of Turku



Tightening the Trump Belt

[Editor’s note: The JMC Current Issues Blog is now featuring a five-part series of posts written by University of Turku students from the “2016 U.S. Presidential Election” course. The second in the series is written by Political Science Student Liisa Sydänmetsä.] 

The acclaimed Finnish journalist Laura Saarikoski wrote an article series for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper right before the election. To really understand the motives behind voters, she travelled across the United States to interview citizens from different backgrounds. During her remarks at the JMC’s “The Results are In: Post-election Analysis” Symposium on November 11 at the University of Turku, Saarikoski mentioned that her greatest challenge—and also driving force—was to write about U.S. voters in a way that Finns back home would truly understand the reasons behind the voting decision.

One of Saarikoski’s articles was based on a visit to Grundy, a small town in Virginia, founded originally by Cherokee Native Americans. Saarikoski wrote that the town reminded her of an abandoned movie set: a town that once flourished from the coal mining industry, now covered in a thick layer of dust. Ray Foster, a sixty-year-old sheriff that was interviewed for the piece, states that “We like Donald Trump, because for us he represents hope.” Eight years ago, President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was based on the idea of hope. So why are these voters desperate for a different kind of hope?

trumpPresident-elect Trump

Alexia Fernàndez Campell writes in the Atlantic on the question of why the Rust Belt has turned red. The term “Rust Belt” is used to describe the region that straddles the upper Northeastern United States, the Great Lakes, and the Midwest States, referring to an area that has suffered from economic decline, population loss, and urban decay due to the decrease in the once very powerful industrial sector.

The significance of the Rust Belt during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cannot easily be exaggerated, since some of the most important swing states–Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio–are all situated in the area. These states have voted for Democratic presidents for decades, but this time they turned red and chose Trump.

These states have a large percentage of blue-collar workers and used to have very strong labor union bases. During recent years, however, Republican Governors in states like Michigan and Wisconsin have signed controversial labor laws. These right-to-work laws allow many blue-collar workers to drop out from labor unions without necessarily suffering from weaker working conditions or losing the ability to bargain for higher wages collectively. This trend weakens the trade unions and decreases the support for Democrats, the party with which they have long been allied.

A weakened labor movement is one of the causes for this shift from blue to red in the Rust Belt states, but surely not the only one. Labor unions have previously fought against the impacts of globalization and automatization, but now have been lured in by a belief in globalized trade. This leaves workers in traditional sectors of industry, such as coal mining, grappling with long-term unemployment and, consequently, community decline. In this dark tunnel, Trump is seen as the one shining light at the other end. His anti-trade, protectionist, and anti-globalization message is translated into hope.

tunnelA coal mine, like those in the Rust Belt

For many in the  the United States, President Obama did bring hope. Saarikoski argues that Obama brought hope for liberals, women, minorities, and youth, but for coal miners, all he brought was despair. During the Obama administration, the price of coal was reduced, thousands of coal mines were shut down, and drug abuse among unemployed coal miners increased. It seems like no wonder this section of the United States has lost its hope in the Democrats and is now crying out for change—a change that was not perceived to be offered by Hillary Clinton.

But will the Trump troopers face four years of improvement, or will their hope be shattered yet again?

Writing for the New York Times at the end of September, Edward McClelland argued that Trump will not save the Rust Belt. Trump had stated that “[Clinton] supports the high taxes and radical regulation that forced jobs out of your community, and the crime policies have made you far, far less safe.”  He concluded: “She is the candidate of the past. Ours is the campaign of the future.” According to McClelland, however, Trump’s campaign is the one from the past, better suited for voters of the 1980s, nostalgic for the years between World War II and the oil crisis, when the auto industry was flourishing.

The jobs that Trump is now promising to bring back were not coming back in the 1980s, and they are not coming back now. In his campaign, Trump claimed that the United States has been violated by trade deals–such as NAFTA– and by China stealing away jobs from U.S. workers. He has talked much less about the major role played by the service and knowledge-based industries today in the economies of states like Michigan. Trump decided to focus on the traditional manufacturing industry, and he clearly had reasons for it.

Trump’s campaign narrative creates a great story. A broken down nation, suffering from unemployment due to external causes and corrupt trade deals, is now on the way to being “great again” with traditional manufacturing jobs brought back and a new thriving economy restored. With Trump’s leadership, the United States will pull itself out of the rubble and prosper again. The idea definitely sounds hopeful, for at least the less well-off in the United States. The question that remains to be answered is: How exactly will Trump do this? How will he save industries in the Rust Belt in fields like automobile manufacturing, where jobs have been mainly lost to automation or to foreign manufacturers in the South? How will Trump revitalize coal towns like Grundy to what they once were? When looking at the bigger picture and realities of the global market, it seems Trump may be facing a mission impossible.

Text: Liisa Sydänmetsä, Political Science Student, University of Turku


Trumping Efforts to Fight Climate Change

[Editor’s note: The JMC Current Issues Blog is now featuring a five-part series of posts written by University of Turku students from the “2016 U.S. Presidential Election” course. The first in the series is written by Political Science student Susanna Kujanpää.] 

One of the biggest losers of this election was our climate. The presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were so focused on the candidates’ personalities and scandals that they simply ignored one of the most pressing issues on the agenda: climate change. Despite global warming affecting the United States in severe ways, it was not addressed in any of the official debates and was hardly raised by the media when interviewing the Democratic and Republican nominees. According to President-elect Trump, climate change is a total “hoax” and “bullshit,” and he has constantly stated his will to trump the Paris Agreement. He has also talked about pulling out from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—and, therefore, also from the Paris Agreement–instead channelling all federal climate change funding into infrastructure projects. His stance has strengthened after the election, as he has named a well-known climate change skeptic and lobbyist Myron Ebell to be the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. One of candidates for Secretary of State is Newt Gingrich, who has stated that the EPA should be abolished. He has also shifted from being a complete climate denier to a believer and back, always depending on the current public opinion. The rest of Trump’s cabinet-in-waiting seems, from an environmental point of view, as depressing as the two aforementioned members.

trump-hoaxDonald Trump Tweet from December 6, 2013

Despite all the bombastic rhetoric used during the campaign, Trump publicly acknowledged global warming being real only a few years ago. Along with other businessmen and his three adult children, Trump hoped for rapid action to stop climate change in an ad published in  the New York Times in 2009. Trump has also asked for permission to construct a sea wall to protect his golf-course in Ireland from “the predicted sea level rise and more frequent storms–due to climate change.” Unfortunately, during the campaign, Trump seemed to be more concerned about the cost of climate change mitigation efforts’ for the U.S. economy, rather than the phenomenon itself. He has also repeatedly affirmed his position on global warming being beneficial to  the United States. In claiming to roll back the environmental regulations hindering the economic growth and to “end the war on coal,” Trump seems to be forming a very fossil fuel-friendly cabinet and encouraging the use of non-renewables. For example, the main contender for Secretary of Energy is Harold Hamm, an oil company executive, whereas  Forrest Lucas, a co-founder of an oil product company, is being considered for Secretary of the Interior. From whichever angle you approach it, Trump’s cabinet-in-waiting seems to be looking backwards to a mysterious, glorified past–and away from a sustainable future.

trump-climate-changeDonald Trump Tweet from January 28, 2014

The Paris Agreement has been politically embraced for allowing participating countries to develop their own national strategies of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Its aim is to engage all countries to take action, despite their differing circumstances, and to keep global warming under 2 °C. However, this agreement has been rightfully criticized for not having targets that are demanding enough. For example, according to UNEP, the Agreement’s current objectives will lead up to 3 °C global warming, which might mean crossing the tipping point and changing our planet’s ecosystems irreversibly. According to its environmentalist critics, the treaty also lacks clearly defined targets and mechanisms for its enforcement. It is entirely up to the countries themselves to implement their national strategies for cutting CO2 emissions and to provide information of the progress. Although it formally takes a full four years to leave the Agreement, now that it come into effect on November 4, 2016, there is really nothing the international community can do if a country chooses not to implement it.

Adding Trump’s speculated energy and environmental policies into this equation means that the world will be rushing towards and above the critical limit of two degree global warming. U.S. emissions could rise up to 16 % in two Trump terms alone, and the long-term effects both in the U.S. and abroad could be even more devastating. The consequences of the world’s second biggest polluter not complying with the Agreement would be most likely damaging to the global commitment on the issue. At the moment, Trump’s future policies can  only be speculated,  but it seems almost certain that the United States of America will not be a front-runner on tackling climate change. Together with the European Union, the world’s biggest polluter, China, has already claimed to take leadership for coordinating the global efforts on combating climate change.

kerry-parisU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with his granddaughter Isabelle signing the COP21 Climate Change Agreement on April 22, 2016

Although Trump’s views on climate change echo those of 51 % of Americans who do not believe that current global warming is mostly due to human activity, there are some reasons for hope. For example, the Earth Guardians, a group of 21 children and teenagers, are preparing to sue the U.S. government for failing to secure their fundamental right to a stable climate. In Oregon on November 14, 2016, the group won the right to sue the federal government for global warming as U.S. District Court Judge Ann ruled in their favor.  Aiken stated that “the defendants’ actions and inactions–whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty– have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.” This is clearly a ground-breaking situation. Although the impacts may be profound no matter what the final ruling will be, the whole judicial process will take years and, hence, it will not have any immediate effects on policy. Luckily these brave kids are not the only ones standing up against climate inaction. Another example is a Californian environmental activist and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has already spent millions on fighting climate change through his NextGen Climate organization. Steyer has vowed to fight Trump’s pro-drilling and deregulation agenda by doing whatever necessary and by engaging citizens around the country.

I believe that citizen-led movements and organizations like NextGen Climate that shape the public opinion about climate change and create political pressure on policymakers are only going to intensify their efforts during Trump’s presidency. Active citizens monitoring their government’s actions and promoting climate-friendly daily choices are the  best hope for a sustainable future – for all of us around the globe.

Text: Susanna Kujanpää, Political Science student, University of Turku


How Are We Doing, Academics? The Politics of the U.S. Presidential Election and Open Academia

The JMC seminar, “The Last Two Standing: Streamlining Bipartisan Issues,” opened the door for critical discussion about the U.S. Presidential Elections of 2016. And there we were, a bunch of intellectual students listening to very intriguing presentations given by the researchers. As always, we were allowed to question and challenge the given points of view and, of course, we got excited about these new ideas. What a great day at the University!

janina_9-9As Dr. Samira Saramo stated, the name of the seminar, “The Last Two Standing: Streamlining Bipartisan Issues,” reflected last year’s anticipation of how the election cycle would proceed – two opposing parties and their policies coming head to head against each other. However, the focus has shifted to the candidates’ personalities, rather than party politics.

The ongoing move toward “infotainment – and its subgenre “politainment” – are clearly evident. Infotainment is generally considered to be a new hybrid genre that characterizes the production of cultural industry, a new mode of making information, or as an indication of change in the routines and patterns of consuming information. Contemporary media has been driving infotainment. In turn, the outcomes of politainment are visible during these elections when the candidates present their personalities instead of their ideas. In addition to the traditional entertainment shows focused on politics, such as American Candidate, we now have a wide range of non-traditional media forms to engage with politics.

Dr. Outi Hakola’s presentation demonstrated how comedy shows, such as Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, are able to promote their political messages by caricaturing the political candidates differently in their skits. This is done by, for example, providing the candidate they support with more opportunities to speak about their policies and by humanizing them. Similarly, Dr. Albion Butters also discussed the ways alternative media sources, such as Alex Jones’s Infowars and the Young Turks, craft portrayals of the candidates to align with their agendas.

hakola_9-9Ph.D. Candidate Pekka Kolehmainen believes that the role of social media in U.S. politics has been to engage voters and to spread differing election narratives. According to Dr. Benita Heiskanen, Internet memes, in particular, have been a source of political engagement and activated those who would not normally be interested in politics. What social media cannot do, Kolehmainen pointed out, is predict voter turnout in the actual election.

Ph.D. Candidate Nadia Nava Contreras described the huge potential of Latino voters in influencing the election outcomeHowever, they are often ignored as a target group, especially when it comes to Hillary Clinton, who appears to have taken their vote for granted. This could lead to potential Latino voters remaining inactive and simply choosing not to vote for either of the party candidates. For many in this election cycle, according to Kolehmainen, the vote is seen as choice between “the lesser of two evils.” During the discussion period, questions about the potential fall of bipartisan politics and the rise of Third Party candidates raised a lot of interest.

For Dr. Samira Saramo, Trump’s speeches can be seen as motivating hostility and violence. In fact, while some of Trump’s rhetoric borders on violent incitement, it is difficult to legally prove against the right to free speech. As for insult politics, Ph.D. Candidate Oscar Winberg does not believe it to be a sustainable tactic, as evidenced by Marco Rubio’s failure to gain nomination and party traction while facing off against Donald Trump. For now, though, there is no shortage of insults being slung as we near the November election.

Meanwhile, the politics of academia have focused on interdisciplinary research and offering new venues for scholarly debate. Open academia is a long-standing concept related to the golden standards and values of universities and scholars, generally referring to academic freedom, transparency, and accessibility. To realize these priorities, universities are regularly offering different kinds of events open to public, such as seminars. The JMC has been a pioneer by running many open “Studia Generalia” lectures at the main library of Turku and has, thereby, broadly succeeded in spreading academic knowledge and broadening critical discussion with the general public. But have academic students forgotten their duty to critique mainstream opinions, instead avoiding participation in discussions outside of campus?

aamupaneeli9-9We would like to highlight criticism as a principle of open academia and emphasize its value in the age of information society. What concerns us is that the Internet, and its forums, are dividing “digital citizens” into their own groups of interest, as they are allowed to choose whom to listen to and follow. In the long run, it means that we end up being completely surrounded by people who share the same opinion as us. In psychological terms, it’s called “group polarization,” and for ensuring unbiased research, as well as uncoloured policies, it’s a risk to be avoided.

Seminars, in contrast, are an excellent practice, as people are stepping out of their closed networks to a space where they are forced to challenge their own mind sets by confronting contradictory opinions. Academics know that they cannot avoid opposing views, but must be capable of handling them respectfully and coherently–not like in the rallies of  U.S. candidates. But we find this ability is too rarely used outside of academic spheres. There are countless platforms that let us participate in debates quickly and succinctly, like creating a meme. The complication, however, always comes down to the melting pot of information and misinformation, and whether people can differentiate between the two, as Dr. Heiskanen has suggested.

samira_yleisokommentti9-9To conclude, we think that these publicly open lectures and seminars are a precious resource during this new era of “infotainment” and “elections of politainment.” Like Dr. Albion Butters highlighted, new voters are mobilized by the need for change and issues of trust. One source of distrust has been big money in politics. Dr. Erik Hieta shed light on how the very rich are able to fund and, thus, influence political campaigns without restrictions. The lack of trust in the political machine and in the news media has paved the way to alternative means for the general public to digest information. But, when they encounter the challenge of sifting through the vast Internet to get reliable information, the work done by academics begins to stand out and offers something trustworthy. We, academics, are doing fine, as long as we are supporting critical discussions and are ready to join in to counter the hate speech and hostile rhetoric present in these elections.

This post was written by Janina Saarnio and Vanessa Michelsson, University of Turku undergraduate students and JMC Event Assistants.

Photos: JMC/Milja Mäkelä


Gender, Media, and the Politics of Storytelling

I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on the relationship between gender and the media at the John Morton Center a few weeks ago. I was impressed with the scholarship that was presented, the work being done at the Center, and the town of Turku. I spent four days getting to know the former capital city of Finland and was entranced by its mix of old and new, urban and rural, past and future. As an historian, what I was most taken with was the way in which every building, every bridge, and every café seemed to have a story. Take, for instance, the story I was often told about the Turku Cathedral, which had been built three times, once because it was destroyed by a major fire.cathedral

Turku Cathedral by Katharine Bausch (2016)

The story I now tell about the Cathedral is that every day that I was in Turku, I could hear its bells ring at noon and that when you stand in front of it, you can see all of the beautiful bridges that cross the river in the center of town. I repeated my personal experience of Turku, along with the tales of locals, when I returned to Canada, making my story part of its story.

It strikes me that the dynamics and politics of storytelling—whose story is privileged and whose story is silenced; which stories are official and which are folk; how a story is marketed and how a story is consumed—is at the core of current studies of gender and the media. This was clearly reflected in the seminar at the John Morton Center.

bell hooks reminds us that, for example, an artist like Beyoncé has so much privilege, despite being a woman of colour in a white supremacist society, that she “can both create images and present viewers with her own interpretation of what those images mean.”[i] In her seminar presentation, “From ‘Anaconda’ to ‘Formation’: Black Feminisms, Body Politics, and the Rhetoric of ‘Reverse Oppression,’” Dr. Katariina Kyrölä argued that meaning-making was precisely what Beyoncé and Niki Minaj do with their music videos. While many critique their videos as anti-white, sexually exploitative, body shaming kitsch, Kyrölä reminded us that both artists are trying to change what Chimamanda Adichie calls “the single story” of black women in America. Regardless of whether or not you agree with their message, Kyrölä contended, these two women have the power to tell their own story instead of being objects of white supremacist imaginations.

This is not the case for all African American women. In fact, most African American women are controlled by racist and sexist structures of power in popular culture, making it very difficult for them to tell their own stories. Dr. Derrais Carter made this clear during his seminar presentation, in fact, when he showed us the casting call for last summer’s blockbuster, Straight Outta Compton:


A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair – no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies. You can be black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: A GIRLS

B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: B GIRLS

C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: C GIRLS

D GIRLS: These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone. Character types. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: subject line should read: D GIRLS

Straight Outta Compton Casting Call by Hamilton Nolan (Gawker, July 17, 2014)

This casting call is an expression of male fantasies about black femininity, leaving little room for a space in which African American women can tell their own stories. Their voices aren’t privileged in this model. They are little more than objects in someone else’s story.

Women of colour, non-heterosexuals, and those outside the middle class are often no more able to tell their stories in popular culture deemed feminist than they are in popular culture more generally. Many of the popular culture feminist icons of the 20th century fit the same mold— white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class women — epitomizing the idealized fantasy of femininity in North American culture. Consider, for example, Wonder Woman, one of our most popular “feminist” icons. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a suffragist and women’s rights advocate, as well as the lover of the niece of controversial feminist Margaret Sanger. Wonder Woman first appeared in a comic in 1941 as an Amazonian woman, sent to earth to fight prejudice and sexism.[ii]

wonder womanHistorian Jill Lepore calls her the missing link between the first and second “waves of feminism,” not only solidly situating Wonder Woman in the story of the fight for gender equality, but also privileging her voice as one of the storytellers.[i]

But seeing Wonder Woman as an icon of the feminist movement continues to privilege the voice of the white, middle-class, heterosexual part of feminism. It does nothing to fill in the blanks between the “waves” of feminism that are occupied by LGBTQ+ peoples, women of colour, non-Western women, disable-bodied women, and working class women. Their story remains untold as their voices are not privileged by North American popular culture.

Also integral to understanding the ways in which storytelling and storytellers are shaped in North American popular culture is acknowledging the role that the capitalist imperative plays.  Popular culture is, after all, for sale in our society. Part of Niki Minaj’s privilege comes from her ability to sell a product. Gender is depicted, then, in ways that are often determined by what people want to consume, or more accurately, what companies want people to desire and consume. Dr. Elizabeth Whitney argued this poignantly at the JMC seminar in her talk on “Shoe Girls: Consumer Seduction and Invisible Labor.” Whitney pointed out that companies use a post-feminist vision of femininity to defend a “woman’s right to shoes.” Empowerment, the story goes, is being able to wear expensive shoes. Equality, the story continues, is being able to pay for the shoes yourself. Like the tale of Carrie Bradshaw, the proclaimed “feminist” icon of HBO’s Sex and the City, the capitalist story of gender equity starts with a purchase.

carrie“A ‘Vogue’ Idea,” Sex and the City Episode 65 (2001-2002)

The relationship between gender and popular culture is not all doom and gloom, though. In recent years there have been multiple audience studies that emphasize its power for make-meanings regardless of the intent of an artist or company. Audience members can take a story and reimagine it to fit their own desires and impulses, ultimately making it their own story. Scholars can also use multiple interpretive lenses to understand a story. Dr. Dr. J.V. Fuqua, for example, posed the interesting question as to whether “animal friendship videos” showing interspecies pairing can be read as queer in their seminar presentation “Peaceable Kingdom or Queer Partners: Interspecies Animal ‘Friendship’ Videos and Gender.” Additionally, Dr. Derrais Carter asked why Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained has yet to be interpreted through a homoerotic lens in its depiction of male on male violence. Both of these propositions demonstrate the way in which popular culture can be read in multiple ways and the way in which the audience is part of the storytelling process.

I left Turku and the John Morton Center, then, with many great impressions of the rigorous work being done in studies of gender and the media; work that is at the core of the study of popular culture in the 21st century. I also, equally importantly, left with the memory of the generosity, beauty, and kindness of an historic city set among the forests of Finland. At least, that’s my version of the story.

Text: Dr. Katharine Bausch, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies, Trent University (Canada)

[i] Ibid, xiii.

[i] bell hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain,” bell hooks Institute (blog). May 9, 2016,

[ii] See Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Vintage, 2015.


Are Super Delegates Undemocratic?

One of the more common complaints about this year’s U.S. presidential nominating race has been that the process is “undemocratic.” While it has been made vocally by Donald Trump on the Republican side, it is most often made by Bernie Sanders supporters and is especially aimed at the so-called “super delegates” of the Democratic Party. The complaints of an undemocratic nomination process are diverse, yet share the basic premise that unpledged delegates are seen as a modern equivalent of the notorious smoke-filled rooms of conventions past, undemocratically concentrating power to “party elites” over the will of the people. Historically, however, this premise is not only complicated but false.

Bernie_Sanders_in_Des_Moines_(21145177954)Bernie Sanders speaking in Des Moines

The current delegate system of the Democratic Party was developed in the early 1980s as a reaction to the unexpected consequences of the McGovern-Fraser reforms of the late 1960s. Prior to the reforms, the nomination was decided at the national convention by delegates selected primarily at state conventions. Selection of delegates through primaries were rare, and seldom binding. Instead, primaries were viewed as beauty pageants, a chance for a flawed candidate to show strength among the electorate. The most notable example of this is John F. Kennedy in 1960, who won the primary in solidly Protestant West Virginia, thereby proving his appeal outside of the Catholic-heavy urban North. The existing process proved unable to withstand the tumult of 1968, a year that saw anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy duke it out in the primaries before Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was given the nomination at the infamous convention in Chicago.

George_McGovern,_c_1972Senator George McGovern

The McGovern-Fraser reforms were meant to shift power from the party elites who handed Humphrey the nomination in 1968 to the electorate. The delegates to the national convention were to be chosen primarily in primaries and caucuses, and bound to the results of these elections. In 1972, under the new rules, George McGovern won the nomination over several more mainstream candidates and went on to a landslide loss to President Richard Nixon in the general election. Four years later, a former Democratic Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, sidelined a wide field of prominent candidates, going on to only narrowly defeat the troubled incumbent Gerald Ford. By the 1980s, the party accepted that the reforms had backfired. The idea of the reforms was to democratize the nomination process. The result, however, had been the success of marginal candidates with an activist organization over candidates with a broader appeal. McGovern in 1972 won only 25% of the popular vote, slightly behind Hubert Humphrey and only barely ahead of George Wallace. His understanding of the complex nominating process and the media narrative, however, guaranteed him an overwhelming delegate count. Carter also failed to win a majority of the primary votes in 1976 while securing a clear win in delegates. Both candidates mastered the new nomination system, yet illustrated the democratic failures of it.

jim huntNorth Carolina Governor Jim Hunt

In the early 1980s, a commission led by Jim Hunt conceived of reserving some delegate positions for Democratic members of Congress and state party officials. The result was what has misleadingly become known as Super Delegates. In fact, there is nothing “super” about these unpledged delegates; they have the same vote as the delegates selected in primaries, caucuses, and state conventions. Though often portrayed as party elites, they are not the result of smoke-filled rooms, party machines, or big city bosses. Instead, they have become unpledged delegates to the National Convention by being elected as Democratic senators, representatives, governors, party chairs, and even presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama are among the roughly 700 unpledged delegates). The idea of the unpledged delegates is to serve the party as a whole, not just primary voters and caucus goers. For example, Maria Cantwell represents the state of Washington in the U.S. Senate, which makes her an unpledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She has pledged to support Hillary Clinton, but is now facing pressure from supporters of Bernie Sanders calling her support of Clinton, in the light of Sanders’ overwhelming caucus win, undemocratic. Considering she was re-elected in 2012 with a total of nearly 2 million votes, the demand that she bind herself to the will of the roughly 19 000 people who handed Sanders the victory in the caucus does not seem to serve democracy.

Hillary_Clinton_(24525869652)Hillary Clinton

The main interest of the Democratic Party is nominating a candidate who can win the general election, which a priori means a candidate with the widest possible appeal among the electorate. Under the unpledged delegate rules, the party has been very successful in this; since 1992, the candidate nominated by the party has won a plurality of the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections. In the United States, political parties are comparatively weak organizations. In stark contrast to the political parties of Western Europe, parties in the United States have historically functioned primarily as election machines. Whatever strength the parties held were the result of assets in the form of fundraising capacity, organizational prowess, and volunteer lists. Modern technology has rendered many of these strengths irrelevant, exposing the parties as perhaps weaker than ever before. Today, with online fundraising, communication, and social media organization, a candidate could emerge from outside the party, appealing only to the most vocal and activist segments of the party base and secure a lead in a splintered field by winning pluralities of only 35%. A strong party, as envisioned by the Hunt commission, could withstand such an attempted hostile takeover. As Donald Trump has made abundantly clear, a weak party cannot endure such a populist assault. The Republican Party, which has no comparable system of unpledged delegates, has witnessed the tyranny of the plurality. Even as Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive nominee − all other candidates have now left the race − far more voters have given their vote to somebody other than the former reality television personality.

CarterandHumphreyJimmy Carter and Sen. Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention, 1976

The nomination process, in the form of primaries and caucuses, is a time-consuming and drawn out process. This may well explain why turnout in these elections is low; only the most engaged tend to take the time to vote. Yet a party is more than those attending caucuses and primaries in a presidential election cycle. It is both those engaged in the party on a deeper level and those only participating in the general election. This is why the reforms of the Hunt commission, introducing the unpledged delegates of today, were so vital. Unpledged delegates are not meant to allow the party to impose its will over the people, but to guarantee that an activist segment of the people do not dictate the outcome over the will of the party. The unpledged delegates exist to protect democracy and to avoid a George McGovern, a Jimmy Carter, or a Donald Trump.

Text: Oscar Winberg, PhD Candidate in History at Åbo Akademi University and host of the Campaign Context podcast.


The Rise and Fall of U.S. Political Cartoons

Butters-Trump_cartoon        “What’s at the End of the Rope?” (2016) by Robert L. Butters, in the tradition of          Arthur Szyk’s famous lampoon of WWII leaders.

For centuries, cartoons have played an important role in the history of global politics. As powerful forms of critique, they have helped lead to the overthrow of leaders and nations. In France, pamphleteers spread scurrilous drawings of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI to undermine public sentiment before the Revolution, and Napoleon claimed that the English cartoonist James Gillray (1756–1815) “did more than all the armies in Europe” to bring him down. Even earlier, however, Benjamin Franklin used a tiny cartoon to unite the colonists against the French and their Indian allies. Published in 1754 in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, the “Join, or Die” map – in the form of a chopped-up snake, consisting of the different colonies – was repurposed with great effectiveness by American revolutionaries like Paul Revere to rally the masses against the British.

Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die“Join, or Die” (1754) by Benjamin Franklin

Given its proven ability to impact people’s views, one might think that the new nation would have banned this type of media. But the principle of freedom of speech prevailed in spite of – or perhaps because of – the popularity of political cartoons. Advances in lithography technology and broader possibilities of distribution led publishers like Currier & Ives and Harper’s Weekly to support artists in a burgeoning trade. Franklin’s snake was picked up again during the Civil War – and used as propaganda by both sides. Abraham Lincoln was a special favorite of caricaturists, again by both the North and the South, in an ongoing battle of images and words. Rather than being dismayed, the President found cartoons to be an excellent recruiting tool for the war. [1]

At the end of the 19th century, however, the work of one artist in particular stung too deeply for comfort. Homer Davenport (1867–1912) was one of the highest paid and most influential political cartoonists of his day, and his attacks on William McKinley’s presidential campaign were so feared that an attempt was made to outlaw these pernicious cartoons once and for all. But in 1898, the New York State Assembly defeated the motion. Davenport had argued successfully, “No honest man need fear cartoons.” (As an interesting aside, Homer Davenport and the power of cartoons to actually shape events feature as part of the metanarrative of a recent graphic novel, The Unwritten.) [2]

No_Honest_Man “No Honest Man Need Fear Cartoons” (1898) by Homer Davenport

In the end, Davenport would indeed play the role of “king-maker.” His iconic illustration of Uncle Sam supporting Teddy Roosevelt did unarguably support the President’s re-election. A decade later, Emily Chamberlin would riff on his image for the Suffragette movement, again with great success.

Fast forward to the 21st century, past the political cartoons of WWII, Watergate in the early 1970s (often called the heyday of political cartoons), and the rise of alternative weekly papers in the 1980s and 1990s. Predominantly due to the shift of the newspaper industry to large conglomerates and online distribution, the number of editorial cartoons today has significantly dwindled. Small surviving newspapers have been forced to let cartoonists go. Some have turned to online distribution portals like Cartoon Movement and even reported success with their “pay-for-use” model (especially with international clients), but the overall trend in U.S. media is increased competition between artists for syndication, which in turn has changed the tone of the cartoons themselves. Political cartoonists must walk a fine line between coming up with original, thought-provoking content and being perceived as too edgy.

An example of this can be seen in the 2008 cover of The New Yorker, which featured Barry Blitt’s illustration of Barack and Michelle Obama dressed as Middle Eastern terrorists. The presidential candidate felt compelled to pause in his campaign to address the issue. Yet as the editor David Remnick pointed out, “It’s not a satire about Obama, it’s a satire about the distortions and prejudices about him.” Unfortunately, that was not clear. As far as political cartoons are concerned, sensibilities in the U.S. have changed. Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University explained in a PBS interview that satire crosses the line “when you have to explain it or deconstruct it:”

I think the reason it’s problematic here is that the bias against Mr. Obama is so, so thorough and so complete and the signifiers out there are so dripping with complicated imagery – for instance, it shouldn’t be a shame that anybody is considered to be Muslim to begin with. But in the culture in which we exist, the signifying of his Muslim identity already is ratcheted up a notch. […] You’ve got so many layers of signification there that the satire is not even clear.

There is no doubt that the world has become more complex. But Dyson’s semiotic assessment of the situation speaks to another issue surrounding the decline of political cartoons today. Rather than digesting the text and subtext of images and words crafted by a professional editorial commentator, today’s public is increasingly being informed by online, crowdsourced memes. In the 2016 presidential election, this has become more apparent than ever. The degree to which memes are actually replacing the traditional editorial model of cartoons is a matter of debate, yet they are doubtless playing similar roles.

shes good enough                  “She’s good enough for me!” (1915) by Emily Hall Chamberlin                             (The Suffrage Postcard Project)

Like the “Join, or Die” snake or Emily Chamberlin’s repurposing of Davenport’s Uncle Sam, memes still riff on known themes and personae, frequently in an extremely irreverent way. And like political cartoons, memes are “sticky”: they are quickly grasped, they tend to stick in people’s minds, and they lend themselves to sharing. The difference is, even though memes often demand an understanding of the current political conversation, as well as popular culture, they do not seem to suffer as much from this semiotic richness. Political cartoons demand a certain level of intellectual investment, but memes are cheap – and easy for anyone to create.

For centuries, cartoons have been the epitome of “low culture” – and yet in actuality they have caused people to really think. The question now is, with memes taking it one level lower, will they have the same effect?

[1] pp. 255–256, Encyclopedia of Journalism, ed. Christopher H. Sterling. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2009.

[2] The Unwritten #32. Mike Carey, Peter Gross and M.K. Perker. New York, NY: DC Comics/Vertigo (vol. 6), 2012.

Text: Albion M. Butters. Dr. Butters received his Ph.D. from Columbia University. With the support of the Kone Foundation, he is currently researching the spiritual import of U.S. comics. He is a member of the JMC Research Network.