Ode to offense

Ode to Offense

Austin, TX

Those following this thread will know that I’m no fan of Donald Trump. His misogynistic and downright mean tweets about Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, and now Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi, are enough alone to get him kicked off my Christmas card list.

But, like Voltaire, I would go to my grave defending his right to spout his bigoted, mendacious and often nonsensical diatribes.

A laissez-faire attitude to speech was once the cornerstone of Western civilization. The emergence of free thought and expression is what emancipated us from the Dark Ages and gave birth to the Enlightenment and subsequent French and American revolutions.

Women’s suffrage, the African-American struggle for civil rights and the more recent attention paid to disabilities and mental health issues can all credit wins to the ability for champions to voice disruptive and sometimes dangerous ideas.

In this country, free speech is placed at the very zenith of the Bill of Rights, above the right to bear arms, remain silent and have a speedy and public trial when accused of a crime. Free speech as a concept is almost synonymous with the United States itself, deeply ingrained from the founding fathers to the comedy of Robin Williams and the sermons of every Sunday.

And yet, in this most liberal of nations and ages, we are seeing the advent of a new breed of watchdogs policing what Orwell called thought-crime.

Free speech is under threat in the land of the free. And nowhere more so than its institutions of higher learning – ostensibly vessels for education and free thought.

Just last week, Atlanta’s Emory University decided to offer a “safe space” to students who may feel “traumatised” by graffiti scrawled on a campus sidewalk that read simply ‘Trump 2016’.

In February, Williams College in Massachusetts (that most safe space of states) disinvited a number of speakers whose views were deemed in breach of campus protocols – even though they were meant to participate in a lecture series called “uncomfortable learning”.

Across the country, ideas that are not compliant with the ideological positions of faculty are increasingly unwelcome, decried as ‘micro-aggressions’ that could cause the poor students to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Where controversial speakers are occasionally allowed through the sandstone gates, they are compelled to announce “trigger warnings”.  Students are encouraged by faculty to avoid these events and instead seclude themselves in a warm room where they can meditate and finger-paint and pin gold star stickers on each other and generally take shelter from any opinions that might challenge the postmodern orthodoxy they have been fed by teachers and television their entire lives.

Meanwhile, equally extreme ideas such as gender being socially constructed or literature penned by ‘dead white males’ being invalid are not only welcome on campus but often found within formal curricula, without any recourse to real scholarship or opposing views.

It’s not only freedom of speech that is under pressure but assembly as well. A Trump rally in Chicago last week was shut down by an angry protest organised by Bill Ayres, a professor and former leader of terror group Weather Underground and an alleged mate of Obama’s. The protestors argued that Trump’s supporters should be silenced as their views on immigration are “un-American”.

Maybe so, but what could possibly be more ‘un-American’ than opposing the right to free assembly and speech?

Many of the shrieking baby boomers and academics that disrupted the rally are the same people who staged historic sit-ins and marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King in decades past. And yet they fail to see the irony, blinded by their own self-righteousness.

Of course, the Religious Right is just as bad (and arguably worse) with its penchant for deleting evolutionary biology and sex ed from the school syllabus. But we expect closed-mindedness from pastor’s wives and prudes, not from those that have apparently devoted their lives to learning and describe themselves as ‘liberal’.

Acknowledging just how far the culture (and cult) of political correctness has gone in the US is critical to understanding Trump’s popularity.

Trump consistently outperforms on metrics of ‘telling it like it is’. While many of those at Trump rallies are admittedly unlikely to have spent too much time on college campuses and so are probably not reacting to the ‘safe space’ absurdity, they are still exposed to the PC culture that is visible everywhere from primary school assessments to sitcoms to the White House. And they have clearly had enough.

But it is not only Trump supporters that are fighting back against what some are calling the “regressive (as opposed to progressive) Left”. A new cabal of ‘cultural libertarians’ is gaining ground online and on campus, led by figures like LA-based comedian Dave Rubin and flamboyant British journalist Milo Yiannopolous (whose current ‘Dangerous Faggot’ tour through US colleges comes with particularly heightened ‘trigger warnings’).

Other more mainstream comedians such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher – hardly arch-conservatives – have also voiced their frustration with the growing intolerance for intolerance, arguing that humour is suffering from being confined to an increasingly narrow list of acceptable topics.

Comedy is meant to be subversive and challenging, as is higher education.  The authoritarian thought police in philosophy and gender studies departments across the land – as well as their allies in Hollywood and TV network boardrooms – may not like dialogue that could be construed as racist, misogynistic or offensive (and frankly neither do I). But banning these ideas is counter to the tenets of free speech and assembly that are at the core of liberal democracy.

If Donald Trump becomes the world’s most powerful man, they will partly have themselves to blame.

Let’s hope they have a ‘safe space’ big enough for us all.

safe space

Published on 25 March 2016

Putting a price on words

Austin, TX

Since 2007, twelve once-proud American metropolitan newspapers have shut their doors permanently, leaving citizens in cities like Cincinnati, Albuquerque and Honolulu with fewer choices (and champions). Countless others, like the San Francisco Chronicle and New Orleans’ Times-Picayune have gone digital only or have been scaled back to such an extent that they are unrecognisable from their formerly Pulitzer-winning selves.

In the UK – undoubtedly the birthplace of the news business as we know it – Fleet Street mainstays like the News of the World and the Tube-friendly mX have been axed and next week The Independent will publish its last paper version.

Meanwhile, back home in Australia, reporters at the Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review and Melbourne’s The Age (many of whom I know personally) have gone on strike, protesting an impending round of 120 job cuts in what the journo’s union reckons will reduce the Fairfax editorial workforce by a quarter.

Eulogies for objective, metropolitan journalism have been thick and fast over the decade since the internet screwed the newspaper business.

Undoubtedly, there is much sadness when any great news institution goes under. Not only are professionals put out of a job and readers out of their routine, but you could argue a legitimate threat to the public is also posed should closure or belt-tightening result in a vacuum of accountability and information exchange.

For example, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia would likely still be ripping off retirees and peddling conflicted bonuses to unscrupulous in-house salesmen had it not been for Adele Ferguson’s brave expose of the “boiler room” tactics at the core of its financial planning operation.

Without the fearless reportage of the SMH – and Kate McClymont in particular (who has endured bricks through her window and goons stationed outside her children’s school) – disgraced former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid would still be profiting off the taxpayer and slaying Premiers in his backbench Macquarie Street office.

These are but two examples of the many public services Fairfax and its staff have offered its readership and the nation.

But at the same time, the company’s board, senior management and indeed its journalists, have also played a role in ensuring its demise.

For years after it had become apparent that the “opinion is news” mantra of Fairfax’s antagonist-in-chief Rupert Murdoch had become mainstream, Fairfax resisted the trend and stuck to its conviction that it must remain “independent always” as the SMH tagline somewhat smugly decries.

While close readers have been able to clearly sniff out the left-of-centre ideological position of Fairfax and its editors for decades, even in the age of opinion, the company continued to defend its objectivity all the while mounting political crusades on issues like climate change and WorkChoices. It refused to concede its obvious biases, pointing to its continued hosting of conservative pundits like Gerard Henderson and Paul Sheehan.

All this did was create a window for The Guardian to enter the Australian market and siphon off a portion of its already-too-small subscription audience.

If you’re not convinced that opinion won the day, take a cursory look at cable news ratings and the success story of Fox News.

The trend is not endemic to the Right either. Longstanding Left-leaning print publications like London’s New Statesman have also remained resilient, not to mention the rise of powerhouse online outlets like the Huffington Post and Mother Jones.

For the true believers, for whom news and opinion must always remain as distinct as church and state, Fairfax’s adamant verbal commitment to impartiality was honourable. But it is also one of the factors that signed the death knell.

The other was resistance to the collapsing of the silos between advertising, public relations and journalism.

Perhaps more so than any other profession, journalists have been sheltered from the elements that make their craft profitable (or, in more cases than not, unprofitable).

As access to information was democratised through the web, advertising revenue had to become more strategic, hence why niche online publications such as those targeted to certain business or social groups (accountants, rugby fanatics, mothers etc.) have thrived and the models of metropolitan newspapers (where audiences are broad and determined primarily by geography) have come under immense pressure.

From a management perspective, many of these new niche titles have benefited from business units that blend editorial, content, technical, design, sales, marketing, PR and events.

On the one hand, this has muddied the traditional parameters between the communicative disciplines, potentially exposing audiences to conflicts of interest.

On the other, it has created more symbiotic work environments where advertising salespeople can contribute to the product itself and journalists have at least some responsibility for engagement and readership, if not revenue and profit.

Fairfax’s reporters have a right to a fair go, but so do its shareholders. Taking industrial action does nothing to help the company achieve profitability. In fact, by contributing to a momentarily sub-par product that fewer will buy, it actually does the opposite.

If they really wanted to save the company they could be inside helping their employers innovate and dominate the new media world, using their skills to advance the more revenue-friendly content marketing and commercial content units.

If they did, there might even be leftover resources to conduct public interest investigations and break the sort of news they want to, rather than brainstorming quizzes and lists of “places to see before you die”.

Of course, your view on the pros and cons of the direction media is heading will largely depend on your definition of journalism.

For me, it has never been about objectivity. Accuracy matters but ultimately the Fourth Estate is a function of free speech and exchange of ideas. Journalism is about holding the powerful to account and not pulling any punches. This can be achieved with an opinion or a profit motivation underlying.

For others the word necessarily connotes impartiality, not only from opinion but from the business model upon which their salary relies. It means providing readers only with the information they need (CBA’s dodgy financial advice), rather than the information they want (cat memes). It means informing and educating but not proselytising.

I have great respect for these professionals, but they will likely have a rough road ahead, finding themselves less often in commercial newsrooms and more often teaching in journalism schools, indoctrinating the next generation into a model that no longer exists.

They could keep striking or they could jump ship to the public broadcaster (which also loudly defends its ‘independence’ despite its very existence being ideological) as many already have done. But the ABC – as with the BBC and PBS – will remain immune from this debate only so long as taxpayers are willing to subsidise it.

Or they could join the innovative and exciting world of niche digital and opinion media.

Their readers, shareholders and wallets would thank them.

But then again, so would Eddie Obeid.

fairfax image

Image source: PerthNow.com.au

Published on 21 March 2016

Vice City

Miami, Florida

To those of us who grew up watching – and re-watching – Scarface, Miami has always held a certain allure. The release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto Vice City years later only cemented the image of Florida’s second-largest city as a playboy’s playground synonymous with sweaty dancefloors, vintage convertibles and high grade cocaine.

Underneath the flashy visage depicted in films and video games, Miami’s headlines have often told of a grim reality. From 1980 to 1981 alone, at the height of the Colombian drug wars, the city saw more more than 1,000 murders, leading to the metropolitan morgue becoming famously full.

With all of this in mind, I had anticipated a full-blown city of sin, with all of the concomitant chaos and crime. What I found was an altogether different experience.

From the endless groves of Roystonea palms, to the shimmer of the Caribbean and fading elegance of the Art Deco facades, Miami dazzles in a way that vastly outweighs its reputation.

More famous for its heaving nightclubs and scantily clad denizens than its water quality and charming suburbs, the city is truly underrated and omits a highly liveable and cosmopolitan aura more akin to Sydney than Vegas.

Perhaps my own yearning for ocean breeze and salty skin has tinted my glasses a little too rosy. Undoubtedly, if you’re looking for narcotics-fuelled, booty-shaking Dionysian pleasure you will find it in Miami without much trouble. But overall the place is cleaner, nicer and more downright pleasant than Narcos makes it look.

Of course, the city has cleaned up its act since those heady days, as the War on Drugs claimed high profile scalps and saw the cocaine trade diverted through Mexico and the ever-contentious Southern border. Moreover, globalisation and a boom of immigrants – not just from Central and South America but from the economically depressed northern US states as well – has seen a more positive economic tailwind in general, bringing with it the comfort and stability that upward mobility provides.

That globalisation is clearly on display in the Lincoln Mall that runs through the thin island of Miami Beach like a lively and mercantile artery. You would be hard-pressed to see more international tourists in one location anywhere else in the United States, as the alfresco cafes and restaurants buzz with laughter and myriad languages. The rhythm of Latin music and waft of cigar smoke are ubiquitous, reminding you that Miami belongs not only to the US, but to the rest of the Americas also.

When I was working on ‘The Hill’ in DC, a young Republican staffer from Tallahassee informed me there was “no such thing as Florida” – an odd statement from someone who works for a Floridian Senator and seemed immensely proud of his state.

“Everything north of Tampa is ‘Southern Georgia’,” he explained. “Everything south of Tampa is ‘northern Cuba'”.

While the sandy-haired speechwriter was gilding the lily ever so slightly, the point was well made. Southern Florida, or at least Miami, is the de facto capital of anti-Communist Cuba – a city that may ultimately be as significant in the island’s history (and future) as Havana itself.

As Latin America continues to cast off the shackles of its socialist inclinations – as we have seen recently in Venezuela and Argentina and will hopefully see in Cuba before long – Miami’s appeal and importance will continue to boom, a crossroads between the English and Spanish-speaking worlds, between ‘Georgia and Cuba’.

And for visitors, it will likely continue to be a spellbinding place, full of colour and life and some of the greatest people-watching available on the planet (its violent past and sinful underbelly notwithstanding).

It seems Pacino was right: when you “fuckin’ wit’ Tony Montana”, you are indeed “fuckin’ wit’ the best”.


A still from the marketing campaign for GTA Vice City. Source: DeviantArt

Published on 14 March 2016. 


Celebrity heads (of state)

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

This morning the American news cycle has taken a brief respite from the now mind-blowingly heated GOP primaries to reflect on Hollywood’s night of nights.

Leonardo Di Caprio won his elusive Oscar – one that those of us who are Baz Luhrmann fans think is long overdue – thereby giving media consumers a more appealing alternative to Trump’s spray-tanned and surly mug.

He used the spotlight to call for action on climate change, describing it as the “most urgent threat facing our entire species”, in a speech warmly welcomed by zika mosquitos, cancer cells and violent Jihadists.

Musician Sam Smith fumbled a shout-out to the LGBT community by falsely declaring himself to be the first openly gay Oscar winner and host Chris Rock peppered the whole evening with (often hilarious) references to the #OscarsSoWhite melodrama.

The tireless foray of actors and singers into the world of legislative advocacy can often be cringe-worthy (if not downright hypocritical), but it’s understandable that those in show business take an avid interest. After all, what is the use in power un-wielded?

The ties between art and politics are as old as time itself. While this year’s Academy Awards were perhaps a little more pointed than ceremonies past, it is Hollywood’s influence on politics (and not the other way around) that is the more noteworthy trend.

Oprah Winfrey’s backing all but clinched Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008, taking the wind of out the sails of the Clinton Machine just as endorsements of Bernie Sanders by stars like Will Ferrell, Danny DeVito and Spike Lee have done  again in this race (although admittedly not to the extent of the Queen of TV, who is so far staying Mum on the 2016 election).

Republicans have also taken a few pages from the winners’ playbook, with a battle emerging early for the endorsement of the Robertson Family, stars of a popular reality TV show about duck hunters in Louisiana (Trump got a nod from Willie Robertson while the patriarch Phil went for Cruz).

And then there is the ‘Orange Menace’ – Donald J Drumpf – as anyone who follows social media is now calling him.

As I write, his face and hairpiece have once again reclaimed their rightful spot on the television screen above me here in the Fort Lauderdale airport.  He has just received an endorsement from a bunch of NASCAR drivers – there go poor Leo’s chances of a climate action groundswell.

Celebrity culture is in large part why Trump is experiencing so much success (for those that are tuning into US politics only peripherally right now, he is killing it in the recent primaries, with a CNN poll now putting his support at more than twice his closest competitors Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz).

Yes, he is tapping into some deeply-held fears and anxieties of the working masses. Yes, he is demonstrating an unexpected political talent, outmanoeuvring the apparatchiks and controlling the news cycle. But he is also just really famous.

Before living here, I didn’t realise quite how famous Trump is. The Apprentice was NBC’s highest-rating show after Friends in its early seasons and his brand is more widely recognised than that even of fellow hopefuls with names like Bush and Clinton.

In a country where voting is voluntary and party primary elections open to the general public, the importance of name recognition cannot be underestimated.

While this is arguably more democratic than the Australian system for example (where candidates are still selected in the smoky backrooms of Chinese restaurants) it also allows for high profile people to attain positions of power with very little policy experience or party support, able to mobilise and motivate large throngs of voters.

Let’s not forget that it was a public primary system that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger elected as Governor of one of the world’s largest economies, and fellow former actor Ronald Reagan before him.

Trump doesn’t have Arnie’s affable nature or The Gipper’s old school charm, but he does have a comfort with the medium of television and, more importantly, a direct relationship with voters that the others cannot emulate.

Even when candidates come from a more traditional politico background, the 24-hour press and a voting public with ever-diminishing attention spans demand they become celebrities overnight, condensing inspiration into 10-second soundbites and selling out stadiums to build precious ‘momentum’. Once considered beneath the prestige of the office they seek, appearing (and getting roasted) on the late night talk shows is now mandatory for presidential candidates.

Had he chosen a different path in life it’s not hard to imagine Obama, for example, making a teary plea for social justice while accepting an Oscar. His telegenic coolness was undoubtedly a factor in overcoming his more experienced but less likeable primary opponent. He mastered Hollywood-style campaigning and by all accounts, it’s here to stay.

Many pundits and GOP elders are up in arms that Trump has ‘hijacked’ their party and the campaign. They claim his newfound adherence to conservative principles is all an ‘act’, the latest ego exercise of a reality TV superstar.

Should he not occupy the White House this time next year (and we all have to acknowledge there is now a chance he will) there’s always the 2017 Academy Awards.

trump oscar

Published on 29 February 2016