The British Barack Obama?
The unlikely rise of Rishi Sunak — and the American left's staggering silence.
In his inimitable way, Joe Biden this week celebrated the rather remarkable fact the the new Conservative prime minister in Britain is the grandson of Indian immigrants:
As recently as today, we’ve gotten news that Rashid Sanook is now the prime minister. As my brother would say, “Go figure.” And the Conservative party! … Pretty astounding. A groundbreaking milestone. And it matters! It matters!
He got the name wrong, but he’s Joe Biden. He gets names wrong. But unlike many on the left, especially the woke left, and perhaps because he is old enough to remember the after-effects of colonialism, Biden could bring himself to see what a staggering moment it is. It really is. It has gotten a bit obscured in the incredible mess of recent Tory politics. But staring us in the face is a historic shift.
It’s an Obama moment, after a fashion.
The reason Obama’s election was a radical moment was not so much policy as the arc of history: a country that began with the evil of slavery eventually came to abolish it in a horrible Civil War, to regress again in the century afterward, and then to pass civil rights laws, and ultimately to elect a black president — and then reelect him. Even though Obama was not a descendant of slaves, it was his race and history that gave his ascent a real gravity. It mattered. I will never forget when, in a visit to the White House, Obama showed me an original copy of the Gettysburg Address. I felt not a little overwhelmed that America’s first black president was showing it to me.
Britain never tolerated slavery on its own territory and even pioneered its abolition, (though was obviously deeply complicit in it elsewhere in the world). But it was defined by empire in the way that America was defined by slavery, and nothing defined that empire more than India. (Among the ironies, it was the first ethnic-minority prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who clinched the acquisition for Queen Victoria.)
And it is simply a remarkable fact that a grandson of that distant colonized country now runs the former colonial power. Imagine what Gandhi might have thought of that. Or Churchill for that matter. Sunak’s imperial heritage is actually wider: he has roots in Pakistan as well, and his grandparents lived in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in British-run Africa, before they immigrated to the UK. His father, just like Obama’s, was born in Kenya.
Sunak’s family was middle class — his father was a doctor and his mother a pharmacist — and he duly made his way through the British and American meritocratic system — private school (his parents saved to send him), Oxford, Stanford Business School, Goldman Sachs. He became hugely wealthy in part through his own finance career, but also because he married Akshata, the daughter of Indian Infosys billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy. In Britain, the strongest attacks on Sunak have been class-based rather than racial. His wealth may be suspect among class-driven Brits, but he’s rich in a way most Americans used to admire and most still do: he came from a modest background, earned it and married it.
No, Sunak didn’t run an inspirational campaign like Obama. He’s not an orator even close in skill, he hasn’t won an election in his own right, and he didn’t come out of the blue. But he’s even younger than Obama when he took office — just 42, five years younger than Obama when he became president, and, unlike Obama, a slip of a thing and only 5’7”. And, for understandable reasons, Sunak seems much less worried about the cultural and political aspects of breaking the race barrier than Obama was.
Sunak is, for example, an openly practicing and proud Hindu. He lit Diwali lights around 11 Downing Street and took his oath on the Bhagavad Gita. That’s not someone running from his heritage. And he is also a Brexiteer from conviction, and, unlike Truss, a fiscal conservative who’s a realist about what can and can’t be done in a period of extraordinary economic stress for Brits and massive post-Covid debt.
All of this suggests something too many liberals have forgotten. These countries of alleged “white supremacy” have less racism than almost anywhere else in the world. It is hard to imagine a non-white president of France or Germany or Italy — let alone China or Russia or anywhere in Central Europe. It is hard to think of another empire that was deliberately unwound by its architects, and who then, within two generations, installed the grandson of former colonial subjects to its most powerful office. And Obama, of course, was twice elected with more heartland white support than Hillary Clinton.
Sunak has, moreover, been selected by the Tory party — that bastion of alleged bigotry that has already had three female prime ministers in its history, and now also a non-white man, James Cleverly, as foreign secretary, and a woman of Indian ancestry, Suella Braverman, as home secretary. Three of the top four ministers of state in Sunak’s cabinet are non-white. The new chairman of the Conservative party is Nadhim Zahawi. I’m telling you this because the US MSM — who are usually obsessed with racial representation in every single mundane situation — suddenly aren’t that interested, when some of their woke priors are rattled.
This is true of the broader American left. A faction obsessed with racial “equity” cannot take a moment to observe a historical moment of extraordinary proportions. Some, like Trevor Noah, have even completely invented a racist “backlash” against Sunak that simply hasn’t happened, apart from one call on one radio call-in show. (I was on BBC Radio this morning talking to an interviewer who was simply baffled by the projection.)
Noah has the excuse of being a comedian. But the New York Times’ coverage has been almost as ludicrously slanted as its usual coverage of post-Brexit Britain, and it quickly ran two op-eds by British leftists trashing Sunak. Every story that refers to his ethnicity always slams his class “privilege” — i.e. that his parents were middle-class children of immigrants. This morning, the paper ran another hit-piece on Sunak’s wealth. The only benefit of his Indian ancestry appears to be that he will help the Indian diaspora in Britain itself. The incredible arc of imperial history finally coming full circle? Barely a mention.
I suspect this is because all these achievements are on the political right, which the NYT cannot quite compute, and because all these Tory minority figures rose without “equity” schemes, or “affirmative action,” or all the other euphemisms now deployed to describe active discrimination. They rose on merit, not equity. They dispel and disprove the lie of “white supremacy” in Britain and the US. They show instead that the two Anglophone allies are among the countries with the most opportunity for racial minorities in the world.
I don’t know about you, but I’m proud of that, proud of Sunak, proud of America, and proud of my native land.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a reflection on the nature of Halloween; a lovely conversation with memoirist Kathryn Schulz on love and suffering; reader dissents over Trump and “defund the police”; seven notable quotes from the week in news; three Yglesias Awards; 17 links to Substack pieces on a range of topics; a Mental Health Break of Halloween lights dialed to 11; tranquil window views from Tokyo and Washington state; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
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I particularly like that you start off by digging into the background of your guests — it helps to know where people are coming from before getting to hot button topics. Many podcasters skip this interesting step.
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New On The Dishcast: Kathryn Schulz
Kathryn is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she won a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize for “The Really Big One,” about a future earthquake that will wreak havoc on the Pacific Northwest. She’s also the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, and in this episode we discuss Lost & Found, a memoir about falling madly in love while her father lay dying.
For two clips of our convo — on how modern society avoids suffering, and how weddings can be a metaphor for America — pop over to our YouTube page. Other topics: the familial impact of the Holocaust, immigrant resilience, love at first sight, how deep differences enhance a marriage, the assimilation of gays and lesbians, how Americans deal with trauma, and the pitfalls of writing a memoir.
Listen to the whole episode here. That link also brings you to more reader commentary on the woke propaganda of John Oliver and Jon Stewart, as well as the ongoing debates over the New Right and “gender-affirming care,” with a bunch of my own thoughts.
This week’s episode with Kathryn touched on similar themes as the recent one with Frank Bruni, who suddenly went half-blind. Here’s a snippet if you missed it:
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy.
Dissents Of The Week: Trump As Goldwater
A reader writes:
While you are right to lament the Tory debacle and the immediate backsliding to what seems like dead GOP politics, I think you are too gloomy. It took someone as transgressive and narcissistic as Trump to break through the corpo-consultant firewall and advance the New Right’s ideas.
Read the rest of that dissent, and another one on “defund the police,” here. You can always send your own dissent to firstname.lastname@example.org — we’re grateful for the pushback.
Mental Health Break
Halloween lights on steroids:
Wait for the singing pumpkin.
I have to say I’m happy about the resilience of Halloween as a little holiday — even as it begins to morph into Christmas. Puritans of various sorts have tried to cancel it over the centuries — beginning with the Reformation (perhaps the first great attempt at top-down mass re-indoctrination in the West); then, centuries later, the emergent Christianists in the 1980s and 1990s who thought it was all the work of the devil; and now the Puritans’ heirs, the fanatics terrified of the psychological “harm” an ethnic costume might do to a designated victim of color. There’s something about the festival that has always irked those tight of sphincter.
(Read the rest of that 500-word piece here)
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting more than a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as dirty bombs, “undeveloping countries,” and “the moonshot for meatless meat.” Below is one example, followed by a few new substacks:
Spurred by a piece we plugged on assisted suicide in Canada, Bethel McGrew meditates on how “suffering is overcome through the search for meaning.”
Welcome back, Nellie! Dishcast alum Shadi joins la resistance. And major Dish bait: Orwell’s writings are coming to Substack! First up: “Down and Out in Paris and London.”
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The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Below is a sneak peek from one of the entries, to show an example of the range of cultural gems that sleuths share:
One of my all-time favorite bands is Frightened Rabbit, and their lead singer was the late Scott Hutchison. I discovered them when their 4th album was released in 2010. I then went back and listened to their previous albums and they soon became one of my favorite bands.
I am normally interested in the music — not the lyrics — of a song. Good lyrics can never save bad music in a song. But, damn, Scott can write. (I will save my rant about bad music for another day.) I got to see Frightened Rabbit twice when they came through Indy and actually got to meet the band on one of those occasions. My cover photo on Facebook is of that time:
Scott sang about his struggles with depression and in 2018, he killed himself. I’ve never cried over the passing of a “celebrity” except once, when the news broke of his passing. Now I can never replace my cover photo, even though I was 10 pounds heavier in the picture :)
If you want to take a listen to Frightened Rabbit, below are a few songs in which to start. Here’s “Modern Leper,” pretty much their signature song:
“Oil Slick” — amazing lyrics:
“I Wish I Was Sober” — best drums (Scott’s brother Grant is the drummer):
I was making this list bigger because there are just so many great songs, but I’ll stop here. Seriously, there are no bad songs. There are very few bands where I can listen to every song on every album and not skip a song or two. Frightened Rabbit is one of them.
Scott’s former bandmates started a charity in his name called Tiny Changes (mental health non-profit in Scotland). The name of the charity comes from the lyrics in another one of their great songs called “Head Rolls Off.” Some may think this song is a little dark but there is hope in there too.
I’m attaching my favorite picture of Scott. How can someone that looks this happy be so sad?
Sorry if VFYW became a homage to this band, but every music fan should know Frightened Rabbit!
See you next Friday.