Gary Younge, who served as The Guardian’s editor-at-large and long-time U.S. correspondent, left the newspaper recently, after 26 years as a staff writer and 20 years as a columnist. His political commentary, grounded in his reporting experiences, has offered readers world over clarity and perspective on both key global developments and their local manifestations, while zooming into oppression and exploitation in those societies. The award-winning British journalist and author has now taken up a teaching assignment at Manchester University as Professor of Sociology. In an interview over Skype, Mr. Younge spoke on politics, journalism and the politics of journalism.
When you look back at your reporting trail what would you say were the most valuable lessons professionally and personally?
Personally, one was to always try and add value somehow. On election night in 2008 with [Barack] Obama, [I thought] why go to Grant Park [Chicago, U.S.]. Everybody else is there. What am I going to add at Grant Park? Whereas if I go to a bar in the South Side, a black area, where there are no cameras, then maybe I can add something. So, I went to a bar the night before. I found a guy, and I went and voted with him the next day.
I watched the results come out and I saw how emotional he was. He was a telecommunications guy – and it was when he was explaining his vote that he started crying.
In the bar I sat next to this woman who didn’t believe it was going to be possible [for Obama to win] because she thought America was too racist. I saw some scales fall off her eyes as the night went on. And then I remember this woman said, ‘My man is coming home, he is in Afghanistan’. And I thought, no he’s not. Obama is supporting that war.
You saw the beginnings of this fantasy about Obama, about what he would and wouldn’t do, without really listening to what he was saying. I don’t think I would have gotten all of that in Grant Park. And in any case, the further you are from power, the more you see.
If you travel with Obama’s entourage or Tony Blair’s entourage, you don’t really see anything. I travelled with Tony Blair in 2001 just for a week and I didn’t see anything, because you’re being taken from place to place to see what they tell you to see and the story is going on somewhere else, really. This particular story is really not so interesting, it’s not what I came to journalism to do. There was a lesson about how people experience these things as opposed to the meta story of the politician, the election and so on.
Sometimes the things that aren’t stories should be stories, and the news agenda is skewed towards power and the powerful. Also, the people in the newsroom think if it’s not happening to them, it is not news in the same way.
There is this phrase in journalism, ‘When a dog bites a man, that is not a story; when a man bites a dog, that’s a story’. And I understand that. But sometimes you have to ask yourself: who owns these dogs, and why do they keep biting people, why do the same people keep getting bitten?
One of the other things was learning that there is news in what appears to be banal. And that often what is banal for the people who create news is deeply traumatic for large numbers of people. And so, I try to find ways to make what people think they know new and different.
Long before ‘intersectionality’ became a buzz word, race and class were recurring themes in your writings. You especially emphasise inequality cutting across races — a politics that, in your latest column, you credit your mother for exposing you to. How has class as a framework helped you think and write?
I grew up around white people, working class white people. My introduction to politics was really though Marx and Trotsky, not through Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka. That came later.
On a personal level, there was this wrestling with some people saying it’s about class and others saying it’s about race and thinking, well, I exist as a working-class black man. Those two things don’t stand in contradiction. I need to find a place where those two things can work together, intellectually and socially, where nobody’s asking me to put one of those things at the door.
And I would say, although I am less fluent in the language of this, there was also gender there. I remember as a young man, meaning 16-17, thinking of feminism as something that posh white ladies did. And I found them annoying, when they were saying, ‘you are part of the problem’. I was like, ‘no you are a massive problem, and I see no kinship with you’.
And then when I taught in Sudan for a year when I was 17, I did my reading. I read Women, Resistance and Revolution by Sheila Rowbotham. It was all about gender, class and how they interact and intersect. Almost straight after, I read The Color Purple, which is not a massively polemical book but still, the penny dropped.
Well, yes, of course, either everybody is free, or nobody is free. You can’t have socialism without feminism, you can’t have socialism without ending racism, none of this stuff makes sense unless you include identity in it. The people who try to pit one against the other are not going to understand.
And on ways in which my understanding of class really informed my writing — I could think of a few direct examples. My first big assignment was the first election in South Africa. I was watching and just thinking, so what’s going to change for these people, the poorest people, the people in the townships and who’s going to make out like a bandit here.
Coming back a few years later, I saw this realignment of white capital and black politics coming together at a certain level. There was always a black bourgeoisie there, but it wasn’t moneyed. Seeing it now get money, seeing this rapid transformation of a handful of people — it was inevitable and likely — I felt that this is a way to understand what has happened here. It [South Africa] had reached a certain level of democracy which is not in any way incompatible with massive inequality. That contradiction, given that there was a mass movement, will assert itself — and it has and is.
Similarly, with Obama, I can understand the symbolic value of a black president, but the substantial value will be contingent on the degree to which black people improve, which they didn’t really. The gap between black and white grew. When you have to deal with the contradictions in class and the politics of that, you see that sometimes working-class people support things that aren’t in their material interests because they have other interests.
I remember making a lot of people angry writing about Brexit and saying you can’t just say that people are being tricked because they don’t vote for their material interests, they have other interests. I may not like those interests. I am relatively well off and whenever I vote for a Left-wing party, I vote against my material interest because it’s something else that I want. We shouldn’t think that working-class people are any different. And then, we have to unpick what those interests are.
In Obama’s case, it was a lot of black people — for them the symbolism may not have been enough materially, but it was something. Similarly, there are people who think abortion is more important than anything else, or that the tiny sliver of racial privilege they have is more important than whether they lose or win, or other people get richer. In Britain, it’s mostly about white people who think ‘my sense of being British and Britain being independent are more important than whether this factory closes down, because this is not my factory anyway’.
A class analysis doesn’t necessarily simplify things. It can complicate in some ways, and clarify in others.
Whenever I see people talk about race or gender or sexual orientation or religion, any of those things without a class analysis, I see what they are saying run into the ground really quickly in terms of anything other than a form of fundamentalism really. And I’m against all fundamentalisms you know, of race, class, colour, religion and nation.
Whether in the U.S., U.K., or South Asia, the politics of hate based on identity is on the rise. What could the media do in such times?
Well, the first thing they could do is not make it worse, which in Britain a lot of the media do. And a lot of the media are also fomenting this politics. The media’s role is to inform and tell the truth. I don’t believe in objectivity. I think it’s a farcical notion. Stories demand choices, so it’s not objectivity it’s fairness, clearly.
But there is a responsibility if you are in the media to explain why there are no jobs. And there is no plausible explanation for the economic collapse that involves immigrants and refugees. They did not cause the collapse. Misinformation and disinformation help breed and caffeinate this ‘enemy’ and polarisation. No sane, engaged, respectable, responsible, plausible reporting would lead you to a notion that poor people, immigrants, migrants and refugees caused the economic collapse. And so, if you do that, you’re contributing to them.
I think the media has a job to do in terms of insisting on people’s humanity — not restoring their humanity because humanity never went away — but the media stripped people off their humanity.
Ultimately, we have to stop thinking of the media as being outside politics and society. I am not sure that we can separate the media from the politics and say how does the media remedy the politics, because they are symbiotic. But I do think that if the media followed some basic precepts about factual reporting, curiosity, not ‘I know why that happened but why did that happen’, we would be in a different place.
You have reported extensively from the U.S. (2003-15) and the U.K. From Donald Trump’s election to Brexit, the last few years have witnessed major political shifts in these two Western democracies. Did you see them coming?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t think that Trump would be the nominee. I thought he could win but didn’t think he would. I thought Brexit could happen, but I didn’t think it would. I try not to make predictions in my work anyway, because I think journalists are far better at describing than predicting. Our job is not to foresee the future, it is to make sense of the present. Maybe thereby having a sense of what might happen.
I did see some of the things that made them possible. During the Blair years I did see a disaffection, a disinterest, with politics. There was a lower turnout, and people were alienated. I didn’t know exactly where that would go, but I knew that it was not going to go anywhere good.
While in America, I saw the rise of [George W.] Bush and the war, and the collapse of the war. And there were these moments, like with Obama’s campaign, when you saw how much desire for change there was, but then he was a completely inadequate vessel, that was always clear to me. I didn’t know where the disappointment in him would go among white people, but I knew it had to go somewhere.
I do remember seeing in 2008 the Sarah Palin phenomenon — it was really a precursor to Trump, it was beginning of the cohering of all of that — and thinking that could get really ugly and dangerous.
I did think white people are about to become a numerical minority in this country and they are not going to take that sitting down. I wondered how that would pan out.
The other thing was the completely inadequate neo-liberal social democratic response. Hillary [Clinton] was the worst possible candidate you can put up against Trump. When somebody said ‘Make America Great Again’, she said, ‘America is great already’. But there were all these people in poverty, whose wages hadn’t increased in the last 40 years. And when she was asked how much she got paid, or why she took so much money from Goldman Sachs, she said because that’s what they offered.
Similarly, in Britain, during the Brexit campaign, their campaign was like: ‘If you’re going to vote for Brexit, that’s because you’re stupid’. And people said: ‘Well then, I’m not going to vote for you if you think I’m stupid’. When they did vote for Brexit, they said, ‘You’re too stupid to know what you think’. And people said: ‘In what world do you know my interests better than me? And why do you keep calling me stupid?’
In both cases, the social democratic wing of neo-liberalism had reached such levels of arrogance and disconnection that in hindsight there was going to be some sort of very fundamental reactionary response. And this was it.
In the summer of 2017, you travelled across the States — from Maine to Mississippi — to find out what ordinary Americans were thinking at that time. In 2019, you went on a journey in search of the American Left. Based on these travels, how do you view the ongoing U.S. presidential race and the resistance to the politics that Trump represents?
There has been considerable resistance. The resistance has grown. There have been these movements — ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Me Too’, ‘Extinction Rebellion’ in Britain, ‘Anti-Fracking’, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ — they burn very brightly, and then they fade. And another movement comes along. They do good things, they raise consciousness, but they’re not really movements in the traditional sense. Occupy Wall Street was closer to that.
But it’s not like if you go to Chicago, there’s a Black Lives Matter office, or officer. They have no institutions to sustain them through the lean times. Not everything about the Civil Rights Movement was a march or a demonstration, there was organising, there were letters to be sent, there were structures.
The Unions were very actively involved, weren’t they?
Yes, at the least the union leadership was during the civil rights era. Quite often lower down the union hierarchy they were quite resistant to the hiring of black workers. But yes, people forget that in 1963, it was a march for jobs and freedom. And we don’t have much of a union movement any more. Current ‘movements’ explode, and then they fade. They are caffeinated by social media. They fast-break.
And that produced some of the biggest demonstrations we have ever seen and yet the weakest of, or almost non-existent, actual movements. America has had four of its five big demonstrations during the last three, four years since Trump was elected. And still the primary vehicle for resisting or opposing Trump remains the Democratic Party which I believe is inadequate for the task. It is dominated by corporate interests. Its energies are almost entirely electoral, so nothing that impedes on the next election will be entertained.
Whereas that’s not how Trump came through. Trump came through thanks to the Tea Party, came through a series of defeats actually, but each one raising the consciousness of a certain group of people.
This is true in Britain as well. If you look at Nigel Farage, the head of Brexit, who never won an election in Britain — he won in the European election but in the British election he never even came close — and yet was able to transform our relationship to the European Union and our politics arguably.
In a way more people are involved on the Left politically than they have been for a long time. I covered the 2016 election from Muncie in Indiana. And when I went back a year later everybody who I spoke to who was a liberal was doing something that they have never done before, or more than they have ever done before. Saying, ‘I have to... I have to... I can’t just let this [happen]’. And yet while there is resistance, there is no movement. There is this inability to cohere the resistance and find a home for it that isn’t hostage to electoralism, to corporate interests and to co-option.
I am still grateful for the resistance there is. Who’d have thought Bernie Sanders will be anywhere close? Or Elizabeth Warren, who’d have been unthinkable, for years and two months ago. No one would have thought it was possible and here we are with a man who calls himself a socialist. In whatever way he is going to disappoint us later, here he is, and he is leading. So long as we are looking for this through the Democratic Party, we will be disappointed, it would be compromised. That is not a problem, everything gets compromised in a movement. But it will be compromised in ways which make it far less useful.
The media world, in the last two decades, had some dramatic moments around the sensational revelations by whistle-blowers like WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and the Panama Papers. How did those impact the practise of journalism and how the media is perceived?
I am just thinking of them all. On the one hand, it has shown the power that the media can have, in terms of exposure, making changes. It has also shown the frailty — well look what happened to Edward Snowden, look what happened to Julian Assange — he is a far more complicated figure — still look what has happened to him. Panama Papers and things like that are slightly separate because there was no one individual who could be highlighted, scapegoated and targeted.
But it’s not Watergate. It’s something or somebody going ‘boom! there you go’. In that sense, the challenge for news organisations is in terms of fortitude. Someone’s giving you these things, do you have the wherewithal, bravery and resources to print them and stand by them? Do you have the capacity to convey them as stories? Quite often with these stories, people can get overwhelmed with the process, without really showing people why they matter.
If there has been a criticism of some of those stories, it has been the inability to explicitly insist on their relevance to the ordinary person, which I don’t think is difficult but it is a challenge. And quite often with this journalism people can just get wrapped up in the ‘you know what we’ve got’, and not ‘what this means’.
Given that independent newsrooms world over are thinking hard about their resources, how does the future of sound reportage and storytelling look to you?
It is going to be hard. It is hard. The kind of reporting that I’m interested in takes time. You can’t just walk up to someone with a microphone or notebook and say, ‘what’s going on?’ It takes time to get them to trust you, investigations take time, mounting a legal defence takes time, so you need resources. That is always compromising, where your resources come from.
Advertising models are breaking down. And the fact that advertising models are breaking down is a worry, but I think it’s also an opportunity. Maybe soon for many outlets it is not going to matter what advertisers think, so we can liberate ourselves from that, but people still need to be paid.
Almost antithetically to our Left-wing selves we are going to have to become more engaged consumers. And if you like something, you have to think about how you support it because that is the only model ultimately that is going to work. I do think it is sustainable and that it would demand us doing better work. Work that you can point to and say, ‘if you want it, you got to pay for it’, and getting people into the mindset that it is not free and that they have a responsibility. At the moment, that is the only way I see us continuing with an independent media. I’m not against commercial interventions in the media, I just think we have to be careful about whose terms it is on.
In one of your columns on the British media, you observed that 21st century journalists act not as critical interlocutors but convenient conduits. Arguably, the observation could be applied to many other contexts, including India. What drives these actions that appear to range from silence and self-censorship – in contexts where there is fear - to subservience and wilful alignment with the establishment/ruling class?
As you illustrated, it is different in different places. I am quite sympathetic to journalists who think they are going to get killed unless they do a certain thing, or get out of journalism, but I get that.
In Britain and I think much of the West there are two things – first of all, there is access. If I do this, they will keep talking to me. What is the price of this access? But even tied to that, in a way I think that it was less true before, they are essentially of the same class.
In Britain, the percentage of columnists who went to private schools and Oxford or Cambridge is higher than it is in the House of Lords. Then you have this group of people who know each other, even if they don’t personally know each other. Not necessary electorally, but socially they have the same interests. Where did you go skiing? I went skiing there. Where did your son go to school? My son goes to school there. Where did you study, I studied there. Then there is a kind of collusion. It is all informal, none of it is stated, none of it is written down, none of it is probably even recognised. And yet all of this is fully very clear if you’re on the outside.
So when there are these ruptures — and this is as true for Trump as it was for Jeremy Corbyn in Britain — then they kind of band together, and the journalists become like political actors and as gatekeepers and they become affronted personally by the presence of these interlopers who have been selected by the great unwashed. And they find it much more cozy, comfortable to be in these much smaller cliques that represent quite a narrow band of political ideology.
In this period of polarisation, you have this kind of clumping at the centre and this disdain for the margins, which is not even political opposition to — it is as well — but it is like, ‘where did you people come from; this is our house’. I see that quite a lot.
In Britain with [Jeremy] Corbyn to even claim that this is something that we should try and understand, not support necessarily but understand, and lo and behold, if you said ‘actually I think some of this is good, and he has a point’, it really casts you out of polite company.
So it was a very peculiar few years, the last few years, where, even though overwhelming numbers of the Labour party supported him, and even though in 2017 Labour did get a higher vote share and gain seats, way better than anybody expected, in 2019 they didn’t, it was still considered a kind of a form of idiocy that was career damaging. And who wants to damage their career?
When you have the generation which in its formative years saw the Soviet Union collapse, capitalism is the only thing, the only game in town, [Francis] Fukuyama’s End of History — everything else is childish, and romantic and utopian and ridiculous.
Any opposition to the neo-liberal project is folly. Nobody stamps this on your hand, nobody makes you sign a paper but if you want to go on, this is the way to think. Stop talking about socialism, that’s what silly people’s talk about, it’s finished, it’s gone. They lost.
This is the world these people grew up in and it has collapsed. It collapsed with the crisis and they have really struggled to get their bearings since then. And that is how they become stenographers [putting out] whatever the last powerful person said to them, so long as their power is in some way connected to the neoliberal project.
Social media has changed the media landscape in ways that many of us didn’t imagine. There is a common refrain that social media has made journalists instant, armchair commentators while rigorous, old-fashioned reporting is on the decline. How do you view the relationship between journalists and social media?
I generally use social media to post my stories and insights. Four years ago, when I was covering the caucuses in Iowa I live-tweeted what I was seeing. I thought most people aren’t going to get to the caucus. And most of this is not going to go in a piece, so I thought it would be interesting.
I try not to reply to people... people I don’t know, or don’t care about. And whenever I violate that rule, I usually regret it. I don’t think Twitter is the real world. It is a part of the world, but it is not the world. And I worry, quite a lot actually, about younger journalists, activist-journalists for whom it is their world.
Similarly, you get these stories about a Twitter storm. I think, well, did it rain anywhere else or was it just a storm on Twitter? And it is very alluring. I understand that people can build big followings, big profiles, and I would never say don’t do it. I use it sparingly.
Facebook I mostly use because I have a diasporic family who can see my kids grow up. And if I have a piece up, I put it, or if I want a book recommendation or I’m looking for something. But I see mostly younger journalists get into furious battles and I want to tell them, read a book, take a break, go on holiday. This is taking up too much time and too much energy. You are using it as a proxy for the world. The world doesn’t need a proxy, there is the world so go out.
If you were to give one, crucial tip to journalists, what would that be?
Always be curious. However smart you are, you don’t know the answer to the question you have asked until you’ve gone and looked for it. And some things you assume are often wrong. And even if they are right, they may not be right for the reasons that you thought they were. So, go and find out if you can.
Quite often I have seen something and thought, ‘typical’ and it has not been typical at all and not always in ways that I wanted.
I did a story about a school in Mississippi, where everything was split – there was a black principal, and a white principal. A black cheer leaders’ team, a white cheer leaders’ team, black year and white year – I just thought that’s crazy, that is stupid and of course it is in a way but then when I got there, I found out why. It was that when desegregation happened, in order to make sure that the white kids would go to the school, they said, look, we’ll keep separate things, so it won’t just be a black school. It is not great, but it is better than what happened elsewhere, which is that white kids just moved somewhere else. They said we’ll keep this transitional phase. Then, the area changed demographically, and the black people were in the minority. And then, the white people said, let’s get away with this black principal and white principal, and black people said no, it was good enough for you, why should we not have protection. This is still a racist place and while you’re in the majority, you feel none of this is necessary. Well, some of this is necessary, and that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it was a good idea, but it wasn’t just stupid which is what I thought it was.
Another example. I thought Corbyn was this enormous rise in Left-wing energy. It was in a way. But not in the way I had imagined. I went to these rallies and it really wasn’t. It was just people saying I think we have to get back to more of what we were and that I think that Labour should be more for the working person. I went to three rallies and socialism was mentioned once. Neoliberal globalisation wasn’t mentioned at all. It was far more tame than I thought it was.
I remember covering the tea party in the States, 2010 in Las Vegas. I was trying to find some people to go out canvassing with from the Tea Party and I couldn’t find anyone. That was a revelation that the Tea Party didn’t exist. It’s just a name for a range of right-wing people and groups who hated Obama but it is actually not an organisation. They have the same problem as we do in terms of Black Lives Matter. And all of those things come from a sense of curiosity where you think you know something and then you don’t.
Perhaps an odd question to someone who has told so many powerful stories. Is there one story that has stayed with you and that you carry all the time?
There is, actually. Claudette Colvin. In 2000, I wrote a piece. When I wrote my first book about the deep south I kept coming up with this name of this girl who was kicked off a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, before Rosa Parks, who they decided not to hold up as a symbol because she got pregnant and she was 15.
Any good book on the civil rights era and Montgomery would mention her, but none of them that I read at that time would give you more than a paragraph about her. I was like, who is this, what happened here? When I was travelling through the deep south I asked around and I got a number of a cousin. She had left the town and I called the cousin, and this went on for months. Eventually I got Claudette’s number and she was in the Bronx. I went and I interviewed her.
It is this shocking story of this young girl who is smart and politically active. She is the one, she is kicked off the bus, she pleads not guilty, she has been involved in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], she has letters from all over the country from people saying, ‘thank you, you are so brave’, and then they just drop her. And then, the Rosa Parks story is told in this very American, neoliberal individualistic way — the cross winds of history met at that bus stop at that time. It shows that one person can change the world, and she is just a little old lady who was tired. The story actually denigrates her because she was a political activist, doing work for a long time. She didn’t believe in non-violence, she was more Malcom X than Martin Luther King, so it denigrated Rosa Parks and obliterated Claudette.
It is partly a story about Claudette and this young, smart, dark-skinned woman who gets pregnant, she is not married, and has to leave town because she has taken on the power structure and nobody is supporting her. It is also about how we understand history as individuals and as someone sprinkling magic dust at a certain point.
That is the story I am proudest of because I found her. Since then they have been children’s books and bigger books, but at the time, there hadn’t been a lot of work, she wasn’t easy to find. It comes back to the original question you asked. I felt that I was adding value. Here is a story you don’t know. It tells you quite a bit about how we understand the world. And introduces you to this woman, who you might not have heard of otherwise.