Cage Fighting

‘In addressing inequality we should be careful not to wage war on those elite visions of life, such as the Getty Villa in LA, that do so much to alleviate its mundanity’

Art Islam Israel The Outsider's Diary US Politics
The Getty Villa, Los Angeles: An elite vision which benefits all (photo: Bobak Ha'Eri)

Not all news is bad at the moment. The unmasking of the extremist group Cage suggests that the media and civil society might at last be waking up to the nature of the new extremists among us. I have been around the ring with Cage for some years so this wider spotlight on the group provokes a momentary sense of vindication—and the memory of a green room embarrassment.

The last time I debated Cage’s “Research Director”, Asim Qureshi, was on Newsnight last year. He was due to do his usual routine of objecting to a specific terror law and I was due to do my usual routine of pointing out that Mr Qureshi and his ilk are opposed to all terror laws because they do not want our side to win. After being met by the nice Newsnight runner and while being taken downstairs I remembered a stipulation I should have made earlier: words to the effect of, “Can I just say that I really don’t want to sit in the same room as that foul and disgusting apologist. Could you make sure we are in different rooms until I go on?” The slightly startled young lady agreed and showed me to make-up. It was only later that she reappeared and mentioned in passing that Asim Qureshi would be down the line from Manchester. “Who is in the green room then?” I asked. “Allister Heath from the Telegraph,” she replied, with a manner suggesting there were no depths of fratricidal acrimony one might not expect from conservatives.

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Work forces me to the US for a fortnight. I first visited San Francisco in 2000, but each time I have returned I have been increasingly disturbed by the homelessness, which seems to be getting worse. State subsidies and relaxed drug laws, along with generally clement weather across the seasons, seem to have made living on the streets a kind of lifestyle choice.

Of course there is much talk of “inequality” there as everywhere. But a morning at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles reminds me of a problem in this debate. Paul Getty built this magnificent hilltop structure—a replica Roman villa—to make his collection of antiquities available to the public. Today anybody can book and visit free of charge, as I did. At opening time on Saturday morning we all queued eagerly to get in, locals and tourists of every age and colour. Back in the 1970s someone could have said, why doesn’t this unbelievably wealthy man distribute his money differently? He could, for instance, have given a thousand dollars to every family in the LA area. Yet simple quantitative distribution would have done nothing. Would it have made any difference if every family in the area had been able to purchase a new washing-machine or car? Today, and for the foreseeable future, this “elite” idea of a villa of antiquities can be enjoyed by anybody of any class or income bracket because of the “elite” vision of one man. Inequality certainly exists. But in addressing that, we should be careful not to wage war on those elite visions of life which do so much to alleviate its mundanity.

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I am speaking in Washington and squeeze in among the 16,000 people in the Conference Center in DC when Susan Rice, US National Security Advisor, addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). The audience demonstrates that crowds can in fact be subtle and intelligent. At one point in her carefully crafted speech Rice says: “I know some of you would argue we should impose sanctions and just walk away. But my friends, let’s remember that sanctions unfortunately have never stopped Iran from advancing its programme.” The crowd, expecting the second sentence, applauded wildly and gave a prolonged standing ovation after the first. It was a moment of collective genius and a sort of bliss to see a politician have to accept a standing ovation for a point everyone knew she was about to rebut.

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The big event, for which the whole city seems to stop, is Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Being in DC at such moments is enormously exciting, perhaps especially for a Brit. By comparison, much that goes on in Westminster today feels so petty and hollow. Parliament votes on little matters and few members of the public can bring themselves to care.

I don’t think it’s only a Beltway thing; in America there is still a pile of political issues which truly seem to galvanise everybody. Perhaps it is because they are often arguments about first principles. But in Washington everything is also fought over so hard and so viciously because what happens there really matters. I spend a day on the Hill and at the National Democratic Club. The constant frisson you feel there is not just because it is the backdrop for House of Cards, but from the simple fact that DC remains the political powerhouse of the world.