Antipodean apathy, American angst

Auckland, New Zealand

After the sound of cicadas and faint smell of salt and sunscreen, the first thing you notice about being back in Australia is the deep sense of relaxation exhibited by its inhabitants.

From the moment of disembarkation there is a distinct chill factor, as ‘sirs’ and ‘ma’ams’ are replaced with ‘mates’ and other less deferential nods, footwear becomes optional and swear words flow freely though without aggression.

Even in Sydney – a metropolis that is larger in population than all but a handful of American cities – there are constant reminders that you are clinging to the sub-tropical underside of the Earth and are now on ‘island time’.

My first ever glimpses of New Zealand this morning, as I made the most of a 24-hour layover in sunny Auckland, indicate that the chilled vibe is not particular to its larger neighbour, but perhaps symptomatic of a South Pacific sensibility.

Unless you engage them in a critique of the beloved All Blacks rugby team – a case that unfortunately has been difficult to prosecute in recent years – Kiwis are arguably even more laid back than Australians, similarly removed from the politics and warfare of the Northern Hemisphere and in touch with a simpler, more earthbound existence.

Granted, my brief sojourn Down Under has come at the peak of silly season, amplifying the chilled vibe and general feeling of optimistic nonchalance.

Granted also, I have been watching a little too much Fox News lately, perhaps amplifying my own sense of fear and doom.

But the comparative anxiety among Americans is not something I have picked up from just drinking too much Kool-Aid. The fear and angst is palpable among much of the populace.

Whether the rational and understandable fear of violent Jihadism following San Bernardino and Paris, or the ongoing anxiety over race tensions as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement escalates and people take to the streets daily in many American urban jungles, 2015 has undoubtedly been a year of divisiveness and derision.

Unlike 9/11, more recent incidents have failed to bring the nation closer together and instead have drifted its extremes further apart.

Many would lay blame for the impasse at the feet of a President that seemingly governs primarily for this Democratic base. Others look to a conservative movement and gun lobby that refuses to budge and sees compromise as weakness, if not betrayal.

Whatever its genesis, the feelings of unease experienced currently by many Americans is unhealthy to say the least, shepherding greater unproductivity and allowing politicians to get away with more.

There are downsides to apathy and Australasians should be realistic about the risks faced and problems lingering. As the Sydney siege showed, no amount of chilled vibes will help us be prepared. But having said that, the lack of panic probably helped Australia deal with that challenge, not to mention the national mental health benefits of a semblance of calm.

If Americans desire 2016 to be a year of greater peace and prosperity, perhaps they can look to the example of their ever-relaxed South Pacific allies.

Easier said than done, but a little sea breeze-inspired perspective may be just what the doctor ordered.

aussie pm

Published on 29 December 2015

Teflon Don

Austin, Texas

John Gotti was known as ‘Teflon Don’ for his ability to evade criminal charges, but compared to Donald Trump the notorious mob boss looks more like quicksand.

Trump embodies an unprecedented political phenomenon.  The 24-hour and increasingly hysterical media cycle has made most elected officials overly cautious, condemning them to weasel words and what Orwell called “newspeak” for fear of slipping up and derailing their career.

And yet, the new rules of engagement – where a gaffe could be fatal and the outrage police are always on high alert – seemingly don’t apply to Teflon Don.

Consider a select few of the gems from this campaign:

He inferred that all Mexican immigrants are “rapists”. Regardless of your views on border security, this is vicious and unwarranted description of the grandmothers, children and upstanding citizens – not to mention rape victims – that are no doubt included among the millions of Mexico-born American residents.

He called out former presidential hopeful John McCain as a fraud, despite the Arizona senator’s distinguished record of military service including as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton (a youth starkly at odds with Trump’s own pampered and perfumed Upper East Side upbringing).

And of course, just this week his latest thoughtful contribution to public policy: a ban on all Muslim travel to the United States – originally including Muslim Americans currently abroad – despite religious freedom being a fundamental theme of the founding documents and moderate Muslims and allied Arab heads of state being absolutely crucial to defeating radical Islam. Even Israeli PM Bibi Nethanyahu, who has spent his life fighting Jihadists while Trump was renovating apartments on Park Avenue, has decried the proposal as ill-conceived.

In all of these cases, and countless more, Trump’s game plan is the same: make a headline-grabbing announcement and then water it down – a flip-flop that would see any other candidate relegated to yesterday’s news.

Compare his treatment with that of Mitt Romney, who, despite being a far more suitable candidate for president, had his shot at the White House all but sunk when he (arguably accurately) explained that 47 per cent of Americans are dependant on government handouts and pay no income tax – a far less offensive and outrageous statement than Trump’s Gestapo-esque proposal that Muslims display ID badges.

The media’s complicity in the Trump freak show is astounding. As other – more serious – candidates are forced to fly around the country making their case to anyone who will listen and fighting for scraps of precious airtime, Trump descends the escalator in his palatial skyscraper and meets his fawning (or at least encouraging) press buddies in his own lobby.

Some of the more conspiratorial conservatives suggest the media pays so much attention because they are hell-bent on a Hillary win and know Trump is damaging the Republican brand.

While this may be true of MSNBC and other Democratic mouthpieces, a more likely scenario is that they are simply enjoying the much-needed ratings, as reality TV fans tune into cable news in unprecedented numbers.

One of the most common praises of Trump is that he ‘calls a spade a spade’. His political incorrectness appeals to many liberty-loving folks, not just in the GOP base.

I’m all for freedom of speech and don’t believe offending people should be a crime, but that doesn’t mean we should celebrate crass and piggish behaviour – like mocking a physically disabled journalist with base-level humour even the most insecure 12-year old class clown wouldn’t laugh at. You can rebel against PC orthodoxy without being an arsehole.

The other often-heard piece of admiration is that he is a “businessman and not a politician”. But this narrative is also problematic. Stacked up against other contenders, Trump hardly epitomises the American dream.

Carly Fiorina rose from secretary to CEO and beat cancer along the way.

Ben Carson was raised in the ghettos of Detroit, broke and fatherless, and became one of the world’s foremost neurosurgeons.

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich all grew up in immigrant households and sought public office despite their foreign names in order to give back to the nation that has offered their families so much.

All of these stories are more emblematic of the American ethic – and the Republican message of social mobility through incentive and ingenuity – than Trump’s own life in an elitist Manhattan bubble, the son of a minted property developer who left him millions.

In some ways Trump is more representative of everything we hate about politicians than politicians themselves: he is a complete egomaniac, has no discernible or genuine philosophical beliefs, is obsessed with the media, out of touch with the everyday coffee-table discussions of Americans and will say whatever it takes to get his manicured mitts on the levers of power.

With all of this in mind, how the hell is he not only still around but leading in the polls?

The only reasonable conclusion is that the voters are not being serious, they are ‘taking the piss’ as we say Down Under.

Sure, there is a distinct group within the conservative heartland that like the ‘tough guy’ persona and the xenophobic message, but this group is not big enough to have him where he is, otherwise there would never have been an Obama presidency.

As I travel around the country I often hear everyday citizens lament the ludicrously extensive 24-month presidential election cycle, and the fever pitch reporting of it.

Perhaps Trump is the American people’s way of seeking revenge – a plaything they can throw to the media and postpone the serious debates between the likes of Clinton and Rubio and Cruz that will surely come.

Or maybe Trump is the real deal and it is me that is out of touch.

I am a dangerous foreigner, after all.

trump dragon

A roadside mural in western Colorado depicting ‘Donald the Dragon-Slayer’. Photo credit: AJ Stolte

Published 10 December 2015

Pondering peace

San Francisco, California

This week the small Californian community of San Bernardino saw what the FBI is calling the “biggest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11”. The slaughter of 14 innocent Americans by their ISIS-admiring co-worker and his wife – for whom they had recently thrown a baby shower – has once again bitterly divided the nation.

About half the population, and its president, have painted this tragedy as yet another example of the dire need for gun control and the rampant influence of the NRA over elected policymakers. The other half say this is an act of war by the ever-growing scourge of radical Islamic Jihad, an evil and organised enemy that firearm reform cannot reach and that the Second Amendment is there to protect against.

Both make valid points. But they are largely partisan points, and have been regurgitated on both sides ad nauseum for decades.

Debates about gun reform and terrorism aside, perhaps the more fundamental question is why violence and hatred occur in the first place – the mental health issues, the family, cultural and religious influences that are fuelling this frightening emergence of home-grown terror, as well as the concomitant school shootings, suicides and gang violence, all of which are on the rise.

Given the alarming local homicide statistics and this latest incarnation of murderous terrorism, it’s hard to imagine that this beautiful stretch of Pacific coast and palm-fronded farmland to the west of the Sierra mountains was not too long ago the global headquarters of peace and love.

Though there are few visible remnants of the late 60s countercultural movement left in San Francisco – beyond the outwardly commercial and somewhat tacky bong shops and nostalgia around Haight Ashbury – this glimmering bayside metropolis was once the epicentre of the Age of Aquarius, synonymous with anti-war protests, love-ins, folk music and flower children.

There are many reasons why the hippies ultimately lost the culture wars.

The “tune in, turn on, drop out” message popularised by former Harvard professor and LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary really underpinned the intellectual basis of the movement. To Leary and his disciples, it was meant as a cry to cast off the ‘shackles’ of social convention and embrace the natural environment over human-invented ‘cultural hierarchies’. In other words, to embrace ‘truth’ and shun Babylon’s materialism and lies.

But to most Americans it was read as ‘drop out of school, smoke pot, take acid, sleep around and abandon your constructive capacity’ – a message starkly at odds with the growth-oriented Reaganism that would come to dominate the next half-century.

The latter was arguably more tapped into deep human needs and desires, certainly the more materially lucrative and undoubtedly the more successful.

But in examining ways to confront the now-seemingly-endless cases of violence not just here in California, but in communities from Martin Place to Montmartre, perhaps the hippie message could be revisited.

Granted, the enemy of radical Islam is vastly different to the one perceived at the zenith of the hippie age. Few if any civilian murders were carried out in Western cities by followers of Ho Chi Minh for example.

Appeasement is not an option against an opponent that hates the West for the very tenets of liberty for which it stands, that believes we deserve to die because we allow women to drive and gays to live.

Moreover, the ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ message is antithetical to the one we should be spreading to disaffected youths, especially young Muslims who are prime targets for nefarious Jihadi recruiters. Instead, we should be counter-indoctrinating and clearly explaining why values of liberty and freedom are more personally fulfilling than the cult of hatred and death. We have to sell the mainstream, not the idea of secluded and separated sub-culture.

It would probably help if they weren’t promised vestal virgins in Paradise for murdering infidels – or if they focused more on the allegedly numerous passages of peace and love in the Koran instead – but, as anyone that remembers Vietnam will tell you, winning hearts and minds is never the easy option.

Putting flowers in your hair or foregoing the restrictive conventions of personal hygiene is unlikely to signal the death knell for Islamic Jihad.

But the philosophy of peaceful co-habitation and unity over division is more powerful than the 60s caricature we give the hippies credit for, and certainly superior to the vile and inhuman bastardry of religious fundamentalism.

Maybe all this sea breeze is going to my head.

The reality is that war is now inevitable whether we want it or not. The threat is too large and thirst for revenge too strong.

Or maybe ‘giving peace a chance’ is not an altogether loony idea.

peace a chance

Published on 5 December 2015