Lucifer’s gambit

Austin, TX

You know a US presidential election campaign is desperate for headlines when it announces a running mate in April.

This week, Ted Cruz named former rival and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his vice-presidential nominee, confirming rumours circulating in political corners of the Twittersphere for days. The announcement came despite the fact that he is not yet the Republican nominee and that he would have to overcome the seemingly immovable force of Donald Trump in order to be anointed.

While choosing a running mate prior to nomination is not unprecedented – Ronald Reagan announced his veep pick before the 1976 convention (and went on to lose to Gerald Ford) – it is definitely unorthodox. Making this announcement before you are the nominee, especially when you’re not even winning, runs the risk of looking arrogant or pathetic to an already fed-up primary electorate.

But it was a risk Ted Cruz’s campaign had no choice but to take. And, insofar as it removed Trump’s mug from the airwaves the morning after he had a clean sweep of decisive wins across five north-eastern states, it was a risk that seems to have paid off.

Carly Fiorina was a smart play on a number of fronts. Though she was raised here in Austin, she spent most of her life in California, where she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010. Ties to the ‘golden state’ are worth a lot right now, with 172 delegates up for grabs on June 7.

Her personal story is compelling, as a self-made cancer survivor who shattered the glass ceiling in the then-masculine world of Silicon Valley and rose to the very top of a global tech powerhouse.

Her stint at the helm of HP may be contentious, having overseen an expensive merger with Compaq that Fortune Magazine called an outright “failure”, but at least she has a record of business leadership – unlike Cruz and so many other politicians. In a climate where those with commercial experience are favoured and career politicians (regardless of their public service record) are shunned, this is a tick for the new Cruz ticket.

More importantly, before dropping out of the 2016 race, she was perhaps the most effective attacker of both Trump and Hillary Clinton, a truly epic debater that displayed a deep understanding of both economics and foreign affairs.

However, given the steam with which the so-called ‘Trump train’ is now accelerating, it will probably take more than a surprise VP announcement to turn things around for Ted Cruz.

Whatever you think of the Texas senator, you have to feel for him. He has literally spent his entire life fighting what he calls the “Washington cartel”, railing against the now-unpopular party moderates and advocating a platform of solidly conservative principles. Arguably a little too conservative for the purposes of the general election, but this usually counts for a lot in a GOP primary.

In fact, Cruz is so detested inside the ‘beltway’ that John Boehner, former Speaker of the House of Representatives – who is pretty much a cartoon of an out-of-touch Washington elite – publicly referred to him as “Lucifer in the flesh”. You’d imagine that having someone like Boehner have a go at you, in a climate where the party’s base  is more pissed off than in it has been in decades, would be a political Godsend.

And yet, even Cruz is considered too much of an insider in this outsider’s election cycle.

Sure, he went to Harvard and Princeton and worked for George W Bush, but Trump inherited millions, went to Wharton and had the Clintons at his wedding. Both of these resumes seem equally ‘Establishment’ to me.

And herein lies the political genius of Donald Trump. He is able to effortlessly hog the limelight and define the narrative of his opponents in a way that works in his favour, regardless of the facts.

Somehow, he is able to convince people, for example, that it is Cruz that is “Lyin’ Ted” even though Trump’s own campaign manager has admitted his whole persona and platform is nothing more than an act.

Cruz might be “Lucifer in the flesh”, but it will take more than a little devilishness to derail the Trump train.

cruz lucifer

image source: VICE

Published on 29 April 2016

Reefer reflections

Austin, TX

It is 4.20pm on the 20th of April (4/20 in the American parlance) and across the country (and globe) stoners are voicing peaceful demonstrations by publicly ingesting a substance still classified illegal in most places.

The origin of the numbers is contested – often hotly debated over junk food binges in hazy basements and backseats – but whether coined by a bunch of skater punks in California or reflective of some deeper Rastafarian resonance, one thing is clear: this day, and these digits, are now synonymous with marijuana and its international sub-culture.

#420Day is trending heavily on Twitter right now and college lecture halls and workplaces have found themselves inexplicably empty, while 7-Eleven stores are experiencing a momentary boom.

It is dope’s national day.

By way of disclaimer, this esteemed thread does not necessarily advocate the consumption of weed. It undoubtedly makes people lazy and could be a factor in thwarting ambition and productivity, in turn potentially leading to more unfulfilled lives. The suggestion that it is a ‘gateway drug’ to more nefarious substances may also have some merit and I defer to the opinions of more medically trained folks on that issue. Bottom line: there are probably plenty of better things the kids could be doing with their time this afternoon.

But on the other hand, the fact that this ancient and global custom is still treated as a crime – punishable in many places (including here in the US) by incarceration – is completely ludicrous. The inhaling of marijuana vapours may not be conducive to healthy lungs or a productive morning but compared to a stint at ‘her majesty’s pleasure’ it will hardly ruin your life.

According to the ACLU, 8.2 million arrests were made between 2001 and 2011 for marijuana-related offences. Of these, 88 per cent were for possession only. Meanwhile, more than half of the 2.5 million-strong American prison population is currently locked up for drug offences, and a good number of these inmates were done for marijuana supply, distribution or consumption.

The law has a disproportionately adverse effect on America’s poorest communities and there is an undeniable racial element. Black and white Americans apparently smoke pot at fairly comparable rates, yet African-Americans are 8.3 times more likely to be arrested for it, according to The New York Times.

Granted, I have relied on some pretty politically-charged sources here but even if you water the numbers down, it still tells a story of unnecessary social disharmony and distress. We imprison drug users, break apart families and then expect their offspring to not make similar mistakes.

This is not to mention the mind-blowing financial costs of subsidising three meals a day and shelter for these incarcerated weed fiends. The irony is that many of those who support the status quo of marijuana prohibition describe themselves as fiscally conservative. That waste could be re-allocated to drug education (something that can’t be done properly while it remains stigmatised and illegal) or put back into taxpayers’ own pockets so they can make purchasing decisions that might improve their lives and make getting high less appealing.

The War on Drugs has categorically failed. A ‘zero tolerance’ policy is counter-productive and only fuels the kinds of conditions that incentivise drug use (and more sinister crimes) in the first place.

Moreover, the role of government is not to save people from themselves and this is just another bullet point on the extensive list of human behaviours the state has taken upon itself to regulate.  We have become much too complacent in being told what to do – and more pertinently, what not to do – on some flimsy basis of a non-existent ‘social contract’.

Many sensible people will no doubt agree, including some inside the world’s legislative bodies that are too cowardly to do something about it. Either that, or the cannabis lobby isn’t greasing enough palms, providing an insufficient supply of medium rare rib-eyes on K Street.

This election, however, could signal a turning point. There is not much on which Bernie Sanders and I agree, but on the issue of drug policy reform I must admit even I am ‘feeling the Bern’. The Vermont senator has been a consistent voice against the War on Drugs for decades, criticising it as nothing more than a culturally-motivated attempt to cleanse society of poor people and hippies.

True to form, Hillary Clinton has held a wide range of views on the topic depending on whom she is speaking to. She is on the record supporting a declassification of cannabis from a Schedule 1 drug (equivalent to Class A in Australia) to a lower grade, as well as advocating legalisation of medicinal marijuana. She has stopped short of supporting full blown decriminalisation of recreational use, but if Bernie’s campaign continues to give her grief don’t be surprised to see this shift.

Ted Cruz has said that while he opposes legalisation and would vote against it in his home state of Texas, that he supports the right of states to determine their own approach, as Colorado has recently done. By contrast, as Governor of Ohio, John Kasich voted down legislation to permit recreational use, but has also relaxed punishments for weed offenders.

Only Donald Trump remains stubbornly against reform. As a man who has apparently never consumed alcohol in his life – a feat that would make him unelectable in the UK or Australia – and warned his kids against drugs every day before school, this is perhaps unsurprising.

But given his infamous temper and admission that he “doesn’t sleep much”, the Republican frontrunner might want to give it a try.



Published on ‘420 Day’ April 20 2016

Straight outta capitalism

Austin, TX

In accepting a historic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction last night, rapper Ice Cube was characteristically emphatic: “You’re goddamn right we’re rock ‘n’ roll”.

Joining the four other living members of pioneering ‘gangsta rap’ group NWA on stage at the ceremony, the actor and hip hop superstar – now is his mid-forties – was as aggressive as he and his bandmates had been as local toughs on the streets of late-1980s South Central Los Angeles.

Not all in America’s powerful ‘rock god’ community were impressed. Purists like Gene Simmons of KISS have long publicly criticised the judging criteria, arguing that rap is simply not rock.

In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Cube extrapolated on his acceptance remarks, presenting an effective rebuttal. “Rock ‘n’ roll is not an instrument and it’s not singing,” he said. “Rock ‘n’ roll is a spirit. NWA is probably more rock ‘n’ roll than a lot of the people [Simmons] thinks belong there…We had the same spirit as punk rock, the same as blues.”

If rock ‘n’ roll is about pushing boundaries and subverting the status quo, they don’t come more “spirited” than NWA was.

Emerging at the height of the Crips v Bloods gang wars, the group – whose name is an acronym for “Niggaz with Attitude” – reflected an angry west coast counterpoint to the more innocent word-play that dominated the east coast hip hop of the same era.

With explicit frankness, the five young rappers forced the world to listen to the youth of America’s poorest communities, painting a picture of systemic poverty, police brutality and the tribulations of ‘thug life’.

But even if we were to adopt a more musicological and less cultural definition, it cannot be denied that rock and rap share the same roots.

Classic rock ‘n’ roll of the kind usually inducted into the Hall of Fame might have been popularised by Poms, but it unequivocally started in the States.  In ‘swinging sixties’ Britain, the musically adventurous youngsters of the baby boom became heavily influenced by the groundbreaking African-American music of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Without the gruff poetry of Mississippi Delta blues or the jump ’n’ jive of the American jukebox there is no Beatles, no Stones, no Zeppelin. There is no Hall of Fame.

Of course, rock’s true genesis (and rap’s) can be traced to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and to the folk music of West Africa. Despite the unimaginable cruelty of bondage, these rhythms of the Sahel and ‘Windward Coast’ were carried across the seas, an enduring source of hope and humanity.

Hip hop is not descended directly from rock, but both were forged in the red soil of Africa, fermented in the cotton fields of the American South, and matured in the globalised and corporate cellars of contemporary music.

While its origins are perhaps self-evident (at least to those with a trained ear), the genre is also reflective of another tradition: the unbridled dynamism of America’s business culture.

In 2014, NWA founding member Dr Dre sold his headphone company to Apple for $3 billion. As the brains behind some of rap’s biggest names (think Eminem, Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent), the ‘doctor has become a true titan of the entertainment industry, responsible for almost single-handedly exporting rap into the global mainstream (with some help from his former rivals, New York moguls Jay-Z and Puff Daddy).

With its inherent protest of the War on Drugs and “fuck the police” mantra, in some ways gangsta rap stood as the antithesis of the crime-conscious conservatism of its time. And yet, in one of the many great ironies of America, rap has also been an undeniable – if unexpected – beneficiary of Reaganomics.

From humble (and sometimes impoverished) beginnings, raised on gospel and blues in the brownstones of Brooklyn and cul-de-sacs of Compton, the kids who became rap’s megastars defied their circumstances, claiming success with nothing but their own ingenuity and talent, crafting turntables into musical instruments, beats and rhymes into careers. They turned down the trappings of the welfare state, instead harnessing free enterprise and spearheading an industry of their very own.

Where else on Earth can the musical sub-culture of a disadvantaged people become a multi-billion-dollar global business within a generation?

It is perhaps no coincidence that Eazy E, the late NWA frontman, was once a donor to George H W Bush’s presidential campaign and even a guest at the White House in an age well before Mr and Mrs Obama’s infamous soirees.

Sure, rap’s message has sometimes been violent and divisive, offensive and confronting. And yes, in recent years it has become a poor imitation of itself, synonymous with posers and popstars.

But it has also been one of the most interesting and pervasive cultural influences of our time and, in my contention, ultimately a force for good.

Hip hop has inspired millions of young Americans to believe that their story matters, that the pen is mightier than the gun and that their talent will be their ticket.

One of the lesser-known NWA members, MC Ren didn’t shy away from the limelight last night, also voicing a directive to the haters and naysayers:

“I want to say to Gene Simmons, hip hop is here forever.”

You’re goddamn right it is.


Published on 9 April 2016

No April Fools

Austin, TX

Until about an hour ago, there were probably more than a few staffers in the Libertarian Party’s DC headquarters that worried they might be the the victim of a cruel April Fool’s Day prank.

Tonight, for the first time in history, the front-runners for the Libertarian presidential nomination squared off in a nationally televised debate.

Given the sheer dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties, it can be easy to forget that the US does actually have a minor party infrastructure, even though their representation among elected officials – at least at the federal level – pales in comparison to other countries. Besides Ralph Nader’s high-profile tilt at the White House as a Greens Party candidate in 2000, the motley crew of organizations beyond the elephant and donkey have rarely entered the mainstream consciousness, let alone the news cycle.

Nonetheless, former Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, won a respectable 1.2 million votes in 2012 as Libertarian candidate, which would have clinched him the election in Botswana or Slovenia, but amounts to just under 1% of the popular vote in the last American race.

Unsurprisingly however – given the historically high unfavourability numbers of the two front runners for the major parties right now – Mr Johnson is doing a little better in the polls in his second attempt.

In fact, according to a Monmouth University poll released last week, Johnson – the favourite for the LP ticket – has double-digit support with 11% nationally in a three-way contest with Clinton (42%) and Trump (34%). Sure, it’s not enough to get to 270 electoral college votes but certainly enough to make an impact on the campaign and gain publicity for his public policy agenda (which he actually has, unlike at least one of the major party candidates).

It’s an agenda that could play well with an electorate that is clearly frustrated with the red and blue flavours on offer.

Combining the GOP’s fiscal conservatism and faith in free markets with the Democrats’ progressive attitude on social issues like gay marriage and recreational drugs, the libertarian position diverges from the extremes usually associated with minor parties. In fact, compared with the old school socialism and xenophobic populism being sold by the two majors currently, it actually reflects a refreshingly sensible centrism.

Having said that, Johnson faces some inherent challenges. Despite his two popular terms as a waste-cutting, budget-balancing Governor – and impressive background as a successful businessman who has climbed to the peak of Everest – his resume also features a stint as CEO of a company called ‘Cannabis Sativa’. Even more controversially, Johnson is one of those rare legalisation supporters that actually advocates marijuana use and not just personal choice, telling viewers of the debate that weed is “so much safer” than other narcotics, including alcohol. He’s probably right, but it’s not a message conducive to election landslide.

Before Johnson’s platform can be tested at the polls he must first overcome his two rivals, both of whom are more eloquent (if less politically experienced) than the likeable but somewhat bumbling mountaineer.

And John McAfee in particular doesn’t strike me as someone who lays down without a fight.

The infamous cybersecurity pioneer – known to many of us as the annoying pop-up requesting subscription renewal – has in recent years become a mysterious cult figure after being named as a ‘person of interest’ in a murder case in Belize and embarking on a storied escape through the Nicaraguan jungle. His version is that he was framed by a corrupt Belizian regime, a story that fits conveniently with his anti-state ethos.

With a grizzled appearance somewhere between Bond villain and surfer dad, McAfee projects a wild wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit that could be an interesting counterpoint to Trump should he ever get the chance.

The third hopeful is Austin Petersen, a baby-faced and slightly camp former Fox News producer well-known in libertarian circles. The most articulate and idealistic of the three, Petersen made an impassioned plea for a return to the founding fathers’ vision of limited government that, if an audience beyond hardcore LP supporters and political tragics like yours truly were watching, could really inspire broader support. He described himself as the “anti-establishment candidate in this anti-establishment party”.

The debate reflected an infinitely more genuine dialogue than you will see in any of the mainstream presidential debates in this two-horse town of a nation, with almost none of the scripted spin that turns so many off the whole process.

All three of these gents offer an appealing alternative for those voters that consider Trump a dangerous narcissist, Hillary a deceptive political machinist, Cruz a bloodthirsty ideologue, Bernie a misguided Trotskyist and Kasich a meek-and-mild afterthought.

I suspect there are more than 1.2 million Americans that fit this description right now.

lib debate

Published on 1 April 2016