Getting to grips with guns

Charleston, SC and Augusta, GA

Every time a significant shooting takes place in the US – which is all too often, as even casual observers would know – supporters of gun control lap up the political opportunity. In recent days, both President Obama and presidential-hopeful Hillary Clinton have reflected on the shocking murder of a TV news reporter and her cameraman (live on air) as an example of the need for “common sense reform”.

But, while it may be difficult for those outside the 50 states to fathom, many Americans will not change their minds on guns no matter how many attacks take place. If there was ever going to be a straw that broke the camel’s back, it would have happened by now – whether after the horrific slaughter of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook, the infamous Columbine shootings, the Kennedy assassination or any of the countless other cases of gun violence in American history.

This is not because they are unmoved by the tragedies – in all of these cases there are examples of overwhelming community support across political lines, such as the multiracial ‘unity chain’ march that followed the black church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. But rather, because for millions of Americans, the right to bear arms is simply so deeply felt – including many that have never held a gun and never intend to – that it outweighs the inherent human yearning for security.

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The Constitution’s Second Amendment originally included the right to bear arms as a precaution against the maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The idea was that, should the government get too big for its boots a militia of armed and concerned citizens could rise up and thwart its excesses.

So while in practice this has never been necessary (although no doubt some particularly zealous Tea Party members floated this solution in recent years), for many Americans, guns are a symbol of liberty and freedom rather than violence and oppression.

In order to more deeply understand this most American of thorny issues, I took two trips.

The first was to the site of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, one of the country’s oldest and most established black Christian congregations, where in June a disturbed, white kid wrapped in a confederate flag shot and killed nine innocent parishioners.

The hundreds of bouquets of flowers were stark against the salt-encrusted off-white of the old chapel and I was moved by the messages scrawled across the footpath and makeshift banners from all corners of the country. I shared the anger of many here that one racist loon had the power to take away so much life.

But I also visited to the Pinetucky Gun Club in northern Georgia, less than 150 miles from where the shooting took place. Far from the stereotype of NRA members as hateful white supremacists, what I found was a bunch of kindly grandpas getting together at the local clubhouse, more likely discussing football and BBQ than plans for violence and disorder. Taking the adage ‘when in Rome’ seriously, I also fired a few rounds of a beautifully crafted Italian Berretta rifle in a game of “trap and skeet” (clay pigeon shooting) which I thoroughly enjoyed (insert joke about Serbian genes).

On the one hand there is little doubt that had the Charleston shooter lived in a country, like Australia, where guns are less accessible those nine parishioners might still be alive.

But at the same time, I can understand why the blokes at the Pinetucky Gun Club don’t want their deeply held rights taken away by the claws of a faraway bureaucracy or their lives dictated by the murderous whims of an unstable teenager.

Sure, for most Australians reading this, guns are not an integral part of the national culture and therefore gun control is largely uncontroversial. But imagine if our own cherished outdoor pursuits were threatened by government regulation (putting aside the fact that hunting and even fishing are regulated almost to extinction in many parts of Australia).

The ocean is a defining aspect of Australian life and culture. It is also inherently dangerous. In fact, a 2013 UNSW study found that Australians were more likely to be killed by ‘rips’ than by shark attacks, bushfires, cyclones and floods (all of which are very real dangers to Australian lives).

Sure, the 20 or so Australians killed by riptides each year is paltry compared to the number of Americans killed by gunfire, but many of the latter are killed in gangland or criminal wars which gun control will not reach (just as gun regulation has hardly reduced bikie murders in Oz) and the logic of ‘freedom v security’ in both national pastimes is the same.

If the Australian government tried to ban beach swimming due to the inherent riskiness – and given the Nanny State now in full swing Down Under (plain packaging, bar lockouts, fireworks bans etc.) I wouldn’t rule anything out – most of my countrymen would be appalled.

We simply wouldn’t stand for it. We’d probably even wish we had a Second Amendment so we could form an armed militia and storm on Canberra.

Forgive the slightly long bow being drawn, but the truth is that for many Americans – maybe not those we see through the narrow prism of Hollywood, but the great majority that don’t live on either coast and make up the nation’s heartland – guns and gun sports are just as important to them as surfing and swimming in the ocean is to us.

It is easy for an Australian to caricature gun rights supporters as fringe lunatics and for me personally, basic regulations of firearms (such as background checks) make sense.

But next time you are engaging in a rant about rednecks and rifles, just remember how you’d feel if “beach control” became a hot political issue.

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This article was published on 27 August 2015

Cuban missiles

Washington, DC

When it comes to America’s icy relationship with Cuba, all signs are pointing to a thaw. The Obama administration seems hellbent on accelerating the reunion many have speculated would follow the death of the Castros (apparently they’re both still alive).

Just this week, secretary of state John Kerry hoisted the stars and stripes over Havana for the first time in over 60 years, signalling the first step in the ‘normalisation of diplomatic relations’.

Given the scandals surrounding Hillary’s email server and the ongoing Trump show, this historic event has perhaps not been given the media attention you would think.

But despite being overshadowed in the cycle, two recent media-blitzers are unlikely to have missed the news: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. 

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Rubio and Cruz. Source: Breitbart

In my not-so-humble opinion, these are the two presidential contenders that made the most strides in last week’s Fox GOP debate in Cleveland.

Sure, Trump managed – predictably – to steal the headlines, and pundits have suggested the stock has risen for fellow non-politicians Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson (and I agree).

But of the truly plausible contenders for the nomination (i.e. those palatable to the Republican Establishment that will ultimately decide the party’s candidate) the two Cuban-Americans and longtime Castro critics stood out.

A handsome, smooth-talking Floridian, Marco Rubio has what it takes to win elections in the modern game. While he is a traditional ‘Reagan conservative’ – tough on crime and sceptical of government – he is the candidate that is most like Obama (in a good way). 

He has charisma in bucketloads, a positive message and the potential to reach out to non-traditional Republicans, including the youth vote that had such impact in 2008’s ‘hope and change’ campaign. One old school DC operative I spoke to described him as “lightning in a can”. 

Compared with Trump’s divisive and ugly description of Mexicans as rapists and thugs, Rubio’s immigrant story and seemingly genuine intention to ‘give back to America’ is refreshing and reeks of authenticity – a priceless attribute in a politician (despite so many of them having tried to buy it).

He is even an NWA fan, which could potentially warm him to some Democrats and independents, though is hardly a plus with the Republican base. It makes me like him more anyway.

Cruz is the Rubio for those that criticise Rubio as too inexperienced, too Obama-like, even too liberal (despite the latter’s opposition to abortion even in the cases of rape and incest). 

While he has a similar ethnic background, Cruz invokes his father’s staunch Christianity – he was a Baptist preacher – more than his Cuban roots. Cruz is hoping he can muster enough Tea Party support and disaffected Trump fans (once The Donald’s momentum inevitably collapses) to ride into the nomination. In the debate the other night, the former Texas solicitor-general showed he has the eloquence and crowd-raising skills to potentially get it done.

With the unpopular nuclear deal with Iran in the backdrop and the word ‘appeasement’ being thrown around, the normalisation of Cuban relations is sure to rear its head more prominently in the campaign as time goes on.

If their debate performance is anything to go by, the raising of the US flag on Cuban soil may just be the beginning of a new era between the two neighbours, and one of the island’s sons may be headed for the Oval Office. 

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Source: Associated Press

This article was published on 16 August 2015

Tribute to a tall poppy

Springfield, Illinois

It remains a mystery which of the USA’s 38 Springfields inspired a young Matt Groening, but you can safely rule out the capital of Illinois.

Walking from one end of the sleepy administrative hub to the other I didn’t see a single Kwik E Mart, ‘retirement castle’ or nuclear power station. There was, however, an obese and creepy-looking comic book merchant, but I think all American towns might have at least one.

Aside from its ‘horseshoe’ sandwiches – an ungodly mess of ground beef, bread, fries and cheese sauce – Springfield is known for just one thing: Abe Lincoln.

Having practised law and raised his family here for two decades before his election, the 16th US president is ubiquitous, his distinctive beard and brow adorning cabs, pub windows and tourism pamphlets all over town.

Like most US history nerds, I’m a longtime Lincoln fan. There’s a lot to like: born in a dirt-floor log cabin, and having taught himself to read, he became a giant of the newly-formed Republican Party, ending the Civil War and helping bring down the abhorrent slavery of stolen Africans – the scars of which are still healing, as is so obvious on the streets on Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

But while Lincoln is undoubtedly one of the world’s all-time statesmen, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the idolatry goes a whisker (or moustache-less beard) too far.

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One one level, the US is home to a deeply ingrained sense of liberty and equality of opportunity – the “proclamation that all men are created equal” as Lincoln himself surmised at Gettysburg.

The notion of social mobility, that you can change your born status through talent or hard work – rising from the log cabin to the White House for example – is at the very heart of the ‘American dream’. 

The rejection of hereditary and class-based hierarchies is perhaps the single most important cultural attribute that the US and Australia share (compared to our mates in Britain, who – on this matter at least – are more European, whether they like it or not).

And yet, these fierce defenders of liberty create shrines to politicians and mythologise their former leaders to the point of demagoguery.

By contrast, it is impossible to imagine even the most popular Australian prime minister being honoured with a library and personal museum, let alone Hawkie or Pig Iron Bob’s mugs appearing on the side of taxis!

I have enormous admiration for Lincoln, Jefferson and the other creators of modern America – enough to cut a trip to an awesome city like Chicago short in order to pay tribute in person. But they were still pollies at the end of the day, and the almost religious fervour with which they are celebrated seems at odds with the new world vision of the founders, which was sceptical of government and authority.

My classically Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’ obviously runs deep. Aussies might seem politically apathetic on the surface, but underneath there is a profoundly  democratic conviction that no-one’s shit smells better than anyone else’s and that our rulers are there only by popular consent and can (and should) be sacked easily. 

Maybe it’s a convict thing.

Or maybe we’ve just never had someone of Lincoln’s stature handed the keys to The Lodge.

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Published on 4 August 2015