State of the Union address inspires mixed political reactions


In this week’s politics roundup, the State of the Union is the source of much discussion and angst. What does it mean for the political year ahead?

State of the Union address

The President of the United States delivered his annual State of the Union speech this Tuesday. It was delayed after still-ongoing disagreements between the Executive and Legislative branches of government over the border wall led to a government shutdown.

The shutdown is over for now, but few — if any — of the tensions have eased. It’s worth noting that the funding agreement that ended the shutdown is due to expire in a matter of days. So far, we have not heard of any agreement that will hold off another stalemate.

In a country riven with intense political divides even before this presidency, the State of the Union is generally a call for unity and bipartisanship. It’s also an opportunity for the President to look good.

Last year, the 2018 State of the Union led some viewers to wonder if the President was finally, you know, presidential. He delivered an address that was reasoned and even-tempered, leading everyone with lowered expectations to think that maybe he could do a good job. That’s the power of a good speechwriter.

This year, things were difficult to smooth over. We’ve had a deeply unpopular government shutdown, migrant children separated from their families, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to the Supreme Court, and a midterm election that showed both record voter turnout and a Democratic wave. Of course, that doesn’t cover the still-ongoing investigations into Russian-led election interference, including the federal investigation led by independent counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

How did the President do this year? That depends quite a bit on where you’re already leaning politically. For those on the right side of the aisle, he did just fine. For those more to the left, it was a speech rife with contradictions (calling for bipartisanship before Congress while calling names on Twitter). Some said it was even strangely “low energy” for someone who so often displays a manic energy.

It was also scary. The speech pushed an image of a future America where things were quite dark, including rampant, uncontrolled immigrants pushing drugs and dealing in human beings if there were no border wall to buy into the idea of a border wall. He also denounced socialism, referencing America’s recent support of Juan Gauidó, the America-friendly challenger to the mostly-recognized socialist president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.

The President took a moment to praise the increasing presence of women in the U.S. workforce, especially in the U.S. Congress. This including acknowledging the many Democratic women in the audience, who stood out for wearing white in honor of early suffragette activists. He also promised to end new HIV infections in a matter of years, though a concrete plan to do so has not yet appeared.

Truthfully, there isn’t always much political substance to speeches like this. The best a State of the Union address can do is lay out a plan for the year ahead. With a muddled message and a history of deviating from the plan, it’s hard to put much force behind this year’s speech.

Virginia officials in hot water

This week, Virginia’s political realm seemed to explode as allegations of racism and sexual assault came out against Democratic politicians in the state. Governor Ralph Northam is dealing with a page in his 1984 medical school yearbook that features two unidentified people. One is in blackface; the other, in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam has gone back and forth on whether or not he was one of the people in the photo.

At one point and against the advice of multiple staffers, he held a press conference. There, he admitted to using shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson costume. That press conference proved to be a disaster, intensifying calls for Northam to resign.

It’s bad enough for a state governor to be embroiled in this sort of controversy, but things didn’t stop there for Virginia’s Democrats. A woman soon came forth and alleged that Lt. Governor Justin E. Fairfax had assaulted her in 2004. Fairfax denies the allegations.

State Attorney General Mark R. Herring has also dealt with his own blackface allegations, except this time he’s confirmed that he wore the makeup at a party, while an undergraduate.

That makes for the three top-ranking state officials, now all in serious trouble. Northam has been abandoned by his party, though he’s still resisting calls for his resignation. Other Democrats in the state are considering their plummeting chances at taking full control of Virginia. The state legislature is currently in Republican hands. Even if things stabilize, it could remain so after the next elections.

Democratic candidate fields grows more crowded

As expected, more and more Democratic hopefuls are announcing 2020 runs for the White House. Everyone seems to be energized by the way the current White House is making a mess of things in their estimation.

Who do we have as of now? We’re approaching 30 candidates, but a few names in particular stand out. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was one of the first to announce an exploratory committee, though she still hasn’t officially declared that she’s running a campaign. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, from Hawaii, has announced an official campaign, along with former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who was widely expected to run, announced his campaign late last week.

The one making the most waves recently has to be Kamala Harris. The California Senator and former State Attorney General announced she was running in January with a sizeable rally. She’s garnered a lot of interest for her progressive politics, not to mention the hope of a black woman in the highest office in the nation come January 2021.

All of that attention has also turned to her past, especially her time as San Francisco City Attorney. During her term, Harris went hard against truancy, going so far as to threaten jail time for parents who didn’t get their kids to school. She is also facing questions about her alleged lack of support, as California Attorney General, for special investigations into deadly police shootings in California.

Time will tell how missteps in any candidate’s past will play out. Still, people like Harris and Booker are already starting to lead the pack, with big fundraisers and carefully coordinated responses to events like the State of the Union address.

And, finally, your palate cleanser

From an American perspective, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in our own culture. We can forget that things we consider to be cultural touchstones, like musical genres, can’t be restricted to a single time or place. When it comes to rock music, there’s no keeping that all to ourselves, even if it arguably started in 20th century America.

There are about a million different ways to follow the path of rock and roll music throughout the world since then, but today we’re going to take a look at a time and place just as the genre was getting going: 1960s Cambodia.

In the years before the Khmer Rouge took over the country and blanketed Cambodia in a paranoid, repressive, and deadly regime, there was a thriving music scene radiating out from the capital of Phnom Penh. Singers like Ros Serey Sothea – widely revered as the queen of Cambodian rock and roll – and the boundary-pushing and genre-bending Pan Ron brought their own takes on the genre.

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Many of these singers did not survive the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, which was eventually found responsible for a genocide that killed an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people. Anything that smacked of Western culture, including modern singers, were eliminated.

Though people like Ros Serey Sothea disappeared and were almost certainly murdered by the regime, the work of fans and academics have helped preserve their music. Learn more about them at The Guardian and through a recent documentary, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten. While you’re at it, listen to some modern Cambodian bands who have helped uphold and develop the legacy of their predecessors.