Independence Day 2

Austin, TX

Today the much-anticipated sequel to ‘90s blockbuster Independence Day opens in cinemas around the US, but the event will likely be overshadowed by an independence day of another kind, with the United Kingdom’s monumental decision to leave the European Union overnight.

As you would expect with a vote that was split almost right down the middle (51.9 per cent for Leave, 48.1 per cent Remain), the responses have seemingly been as divided as Great Britain itself. One UKIP-sympathising mate of mine texted me his glee on the way to a celebratory pint before work, while others are in despair, circulating desperate petitions to re-stage the vote and one I even saw to partition London from the rest of the union.

There are very few issues on which I don’t have a loud opinion – and anyone who has heard me rant (often) about Switzerland’s unforgivable cowardice in appeasing Nazism knows I’m not a big fan of neutrality as a concept – but when it comes to Brexit, I genuinely trust the people of Britain to make their own decision, and think some of the doomsday scenarios (while understandable) have been massively overstated.

On the one hand, I can completely empathise with the sadness with which half of the British people, and many onlookers, are viewing this decision. There may be significant implications for the economy, and therefore for jobs and households, and in the immediate aftermath it seems the currency and equities market are already tanking. For those Britons who see themselves as European and as a globally-minded culture, this is truly heartbreaking. Not to mention all of the continental Europeans living and working in the UK whose futures are now more uncertain. The UK may have reduced its standing as an international power, not increased it, and – according to Barack Obama – might have even hurt the “special relationship” (although that was probably one of those ‘heat of the moment’ type things).

On the other hand,  self-determination is one of the most deeply held human desires. In that sense the Brexit vote is a win for localism and democracy. Initially intended as a trade forum and a mechanism for avoiding war between the European powers, the EU has grown to become a bloated bureaucracy, with somewhere between 14 and 75 per cent of laws affecting UK citizens stemming from the EU parliament, depending on whether you listen to the prime minister David Cameron or UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

While it may be based more on emotion than rationality, I respect the wishes of the British voting public (albeit only the majority by just a whisker) to manage their own affairs and not be subject to laws determined by unelected officials of other countries. There will be some short-term economic fallout for sure, but if the EU disintegrates, getting out early may prove to have been the smarter choice financially in the long-term.

Moreover, I know enough about the fall of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, to be inherently sceptical about these multi-national experiments devised by bureaucrats for policy purposes. While these unions may be well-intentioned, the great lesson of the past 24 hours is that in the 21st century, despite the wins of globalism in recent decades, nation states still matter to the people.

The same, of course, is true of the UK itself and those Englishmen and women who support Brexit but not the right of the Irish, Scottish or Welsh to govern themselves are guilty of gross hypocrisy.

No shortage of commentators have suggested that this is the beginning of the end for the EU, but truthfully that writing has been on the wall for some time. The more interesting trend is whether this will also result in a re-ignition of other separatist movements.

In fact, in the last few hours, David Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement has been vocal in supporting the Brits and calling yet again for the resurrection of the Texan republic.

Closer to the action, Northern Ireland voted heavily in favour of ‘Remain’ and may even be willing to heal some old wounds in order to stay in the EU. Should a unified Irish republic be an unintended consequence of this vote, we may all become Brexit supporters yet.

The vote also provides further evidence – in case you needed it – that nationalist populism is now alive and well in the Anglosphere.

Americans and Poms used to make snide remarks as Europe flirted with the extreme Right and Left of politics, but now it’s the moderate politicians in these two countries that aren’t being listened to.

Despite both of the two major UK political parties urging a ‘Remain’ vote, the majority of voters took Nigel Farage’s advice to stick “two fingers up” to the Establishment, just as the Trump supporters are doing here on the other side of the Atlantic.

Both Britain, and its emancipated child, the USA, are suffering from a fear of decline, evidenced by yesterday’s vote and Trump’s “make America great again” slogan. The UK’s is more advanced, having been a superpower long ago now, but many of its people still clearly mourn for the British Empire.

Before living in the UK, I underestimated the sense of loss many British people feel over their former national glory, particularly the elderly generations, who were crucial to the Leave campaign’s success in this referendum. But I saw first hand during the London Olympics how deep the emotion ran, as the nation stacked up a much higher medal tally than expected, as you may recall. Local boozers in the pub that was my home – grizzled old QPR fans that I’d never seen smile, let along sing – were literally standing on table tops crying and belting out ‘Rule Britannia’ as Mo Farah crossed the finish line.

That nostalgia is partly responsible for the vote’s results, along with the immigration panic that escalates whenever a terrorist attack of scale has recently taken place. Don’t forget the people of Britain are likely watching the Donald Trump show too.

Trump himself has warmly welcomed Brexit, claiming the British have “taken their country back” as America is about to. Anyone who still believes he cannot be President should take Brexit as a warning.

In the meantime at least we have Independence Day: Resurgence to distract us from the mess for a few hours.

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Image source: The Guardian

Published on 24 June 2016

Big Sky Ballot

Glasgow, Montana

They say all politics is local, and perhaps nowhere more than northeastern Montana. So much so that even my presence here has been controversial.

Having made the substantial trek to this remote corner of the Great Plains, with the intention of documenting my mate Michael Burns’ attempt to become the next representative of District 33 in the Montana State Legislature, it seemed my reputation had preceded me.

In what had become a heated primary race with a fellow Republican challenger, rumours had been circulating about the Burns campaign’s ties to “suspicious foreign interests in Australia”. Here I was naively thinking an Aussie accent would be campaign gold out here, but instead I found myself the subject of a bonafide scandal and relegated to a more back-seat morale-boosting role (albeit one with a great view, both of the scenery and of American democracy).

The fact that the campaign manager – the very talented, 21-year old political prodigy Gunnar Hardy – was also an out-of-towner (and, even worse, a Californian) only added fuel to the fire, with allegations of influence from a “DC policy house”. That the third member of our campaign team was a Swedish-Croatian theology student took the conspiracy more into the realm of farce. Perhaps luckily, the fourth member  – a gay Canadian – pulled out at the last minute.

The truth of our involvement was far more benign, of course. Having met and befriended Burns while studying in the nation’s capital last year, we were impressed by his genuine love of his adoptive home of Montana, his good humour and character and his pledge to safeguard the private property rights of his neighbours from overreach by the federal government. So we hatched a plan to help out and volunteer our services, indulging in some Big Sky country tourism on the side.

Hardly Watergate!

But while it was embellished to say the least, the opposition’s scare campaign actually tapped into some very real fears in the electorate.

Not too long ago, bringing in “expert outsiders” to consult on a campaign was considered a huge plus. It showed that a candidate was serious about representing the local community and could bring a worldly perspective.  But in the current ‘America First’, isolationist, anti-free-trade climate engulfing both sides of politics here, a carload of volunteering foreigners – however well-intentioned – was possibly more of a liability.

This is Trump territory, and career politicians are held in very low esteem out here. Therefore, using the tactics of career politicians – even tried and tested things like door-knocking and canvassing and making speeches – are considered “Establishment” and met with great suspicion.

And so there was a ‘Catch-22’ at play for us, and likely for local candidates across the country right now, whereby a citizen has genuine intentions of public service and of defending their community against the Washington cartel, not joining it. But as soon as they try to get their message out and garner some support, they inevitably begin to look like a politician and are met with the same cynicism as career congressmen and lobbyists.

We encountered this cynicism regularly, even if it was couched in a rural politeness and hospitality. Partly it is a symptom of the general frustration and anger that has led to the Trump and Bernie Sanders revolutions. But I suspect this part of the country is even more turned off than the rest of it.

The nation’s fourth-largest state by area, and its 48th by population, Montana is as reflective of the old wild west as you will find. At one stage I drove for three hours and didn’t see a single petrol station or store, not even a farmhouse. Just an endless prairie of dinosaur bones and Native American cultural sites and a whole lot of sky.

You get the strong sense that people here love their peace and quiet, and others may even be in hiding, hoping nobody ever knocks on their doors, let alone a Swede, Californian or Aussie turning up unannounced and handing out campaign literature.

Bar a few mildly hostile encounters, the ranch- and town-dwelling inhabitants of these plains are good and decent folks, church-going and child-raising and just hoping to be left alone by far-away politicians and their hollow promises. They value their privacy and their property, as is their constitutional right, and I don’t blame them for tuning out of the political process.

But my concern is that as regular citizens, both here and elsewhere, turn off politics completely, and view all attempts to get their vote with deep suspicion, all it does is diminish the likelihood of good people putting up their hands, ensuring that only egomaniacs and power whores are left to fill elected positions.

This is how we ended up with two of the most famous (and infamous) Americans running for president. They have close to 100 per cent name recognition and so can bypass the sorts of politicking that the electorate clearly has little stomach for right now, instead engaging in Twitter rants and enlisting high profile surrogates.

If this continues, ‘Kanye 2020’ might not be so implausible.

Unfortunately – and despite some hard elbow grease and plenty of miles traversing the dusty electorate in the ‘Burnsmobile’ – our campaign came up short, with a respectable 37 per cent of the vote. Up against a true local with a recognised surname and generations of business and community ties, we knew the odds were against us from the start.

In my humble opinion, the voters of District 33 picked the wrong guy, but again, this is their constitutional right. Burnsy wrote a very gracious and genuine congratulations to his opponent, and will no doubt continue serving his community into the future.

As for me, I gained the kind of political experience that cannot come from textbooks or television, but only from genuine grassroots – handshakes and diners and church pews and slamming front doors.

I took the pulse of the regional American electorate and the blood pressure was ‘big sky’ high.

Looking at those national candidates that need no introduction, I don’t see much of an antidote on offer.

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A brief photo shoot break on the campaign trail. Havre, Montana.

Published on 20 June 2016.

A House Divided

Austin, TX

Today is the official Flag Day of the United States, but while there are still fifty stars emblazoned on the banner, this country is anything but unified right now.

The horrific terrorist attack that killed almost 50 nightclub patrons and police officers in Orlando this week – the biggest mass shooting on a long list of such episodes in American history – could have been a moment of solemn and dignified national embrace.

But both sides of the culture wars have simply dug into their trenches, using this atrocity to quickly justify their respective agendas and move on to their regular talking points.

Cable news, social media and talkback radio – as well as shopping malls and water coolers no doubt – have played host to an even-more-heated-than-usual blame game in the past 48 hours, led by the predictably partisan politicians and pundits.

On the left side of the ring, progressives have sought to swiftly position this as nothing more than another case of “gun violence” proving that firearms are too easily obtainable and that assault weapons should be banned. One Connecticut Democrat even refused to take part in a moment of silence for victims in Congress, essentially claiming that loud, angry ranting is the only appropriate response.

Meanwhile on the right, this tragedy is immediately positioned as a coordinated attack by the global Jihadist enemy, reigniting calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and causing Trump to issue a very distasteful “told you so” on Twitter. The way some are reporting it you would think the Ayatollah Khomeini himself ordered the massacre.

Others see this as the latest manifestation of an often under-reported culture of gay hate crimes, and others still an example of the plight of the mentally ill.

The full facts of the case will not be known for some time, but likely there are elements of truth in all these responses. Not that you would know it from the commentary of the so-called experts and leaders, who seem to think that only one of these hypotheses can be plausible, the others dead wrong.

Given the magnitude of the tragedy, you would think this would be an occasion for conservatives to concede that perhaps a nightclub is not an appropriate place for a AR-15-style firearm or that people on FBI watch-lists might reasonably face some extra scrutiny when shopping for deadly weapons. Instead, they cling to the same old Second Amendment crib notes like a kid whose water pistol is being confiscated.

Equally, you would think that some LGBT rights supporters and left-wing activists would at least now admit there might actually be some problems with Islamist ideology (i.e. it is deadly and evil). Instead, they ludicrously claim the terrorist’s religion is completely irrelevant and the innumerable cases of Jihad-inspired mass murder are all just a silly coincidence.

Whatever your views on Muslims and madmen, gays and guns, if there were ever a common ground to be offered to the warring political factions surely this is it. Surely we can acknowledge that the reasons behind these sorts of abhorrent hate crimes are complex and probably multi-faceted. Surely we can agree that the pithy soundbites of politicians might not be sufficient in the face of such wanton loss of life.

Yes, there have been vigils and prayers and outpourings of support, and likely most Americans are also frustrated by the fray.  But overwhelmingly the reactions, especially by elected officials (or those seeking to become one), have been caustic, bitter and intensely partisan.

There is still a chance that in the aftermath of the anger, politics will give way to peace and some semblance of national unity may emerge, as it did after 9-11.

But given the election is in full swing, and there is an increasingly hysterical 24-hour news cycle to feed, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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Published on ‘Flag Day’, 14 June 2016

Dead presidents

Keystone, South Dakota

The United States of America and the Commonwealth of Australia have many things in common. They share – among a number of unique attributes – a New World optimism and frontier spirit, a fanaticism about sport, some insecurities about their young age, and a strong belief they are inherently superior to their respective postcolonial neighbours (with apologies to our Canadian and Kiwi friends).

But erecting monuments to dead politicians is not one of them, let alone one that is 60 feet tall and took more than a decade to complete.

This world-famous sculpture in South Dakota’s Black Hills is perhaps one of the most fitting and impressive displays of the irony at the heart of this great nation.

On the one hand, Mount Rushmore boldly celebrates America’s independence and the men charged with forging a new and distinct national identity. On the other hand, by meticulously and respectfully carving a giant memorial to these former leaders, America is mirroring precisely the sort of pomp and ceremony associated with the Old World.

Once again, it speaks to the fundamental difference between founding a new country on purpose, as a puritan Utopia, and founding a new country by accident, as a motley collection of immigrants and former prisoners, united not by their vision and philosophy but only by shared circumstance and a strong wish to avoid being put back in chains.

Aussies not only rarely honour our founding fathers, but few can even name the country’s first prime minister (some bloke named Edmund Barton FYI, who even a political history geek like myself knows little about).

So, with the mildest possible disrespect, I allow myself a slight chuckle at the pomposity of it all. It is, to put it in Australian vernacular, a bit of a wank.

But this is not to belittle the majesty of the national monument. Standing before the four chiselled faces, an image I have seen since literally the earliest days of my childhood, I am filled with awe – of the craftsmanship, the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape and the quiet reverence of the American pilgrims disembarking tour buses in droves.

I am in awe also of the four men memorialised here. George Washington, the nation’s first Commander in Chief and father of independence (something we Aussies have yet to achieve); Thomas Jefferson, the great philosopher-president, author of the founding documents, citizen of the world and advocate of freedom; and of course, Abraham Lincoln, whom I have previously reflected on, the person most responsible for ending slavery and unifying this land. While Teddy Roosevelt is perhaps not always included in the same breath as these three national heroes (and in my personal view, was far too fond of intrusive government regulations), he is also an appropriate addition, as the founder of national parks and local champion here in the Dakota wilds.

When I think of the values that we in democracies hold most dear – free speech and assembly, self-determination, accountable governance – I think of Lincoln and Jefferson, not Barton or Alfred Deakin or the English monarchs who still reign Australia on paper.

For that, America should be rightly proud. And if that means carving giant faces into a rock then so be it.

The monument is also characteristically American in its ingenious utility, summoning tourists from across the country to this beautiful but remote place that would otherwise seldom be visited. It’s ability to be easily turned into hats and t-shirts, snow-globes and postcards and exported to all corners of the globe also speaks to the marketing and sales prowess for which Americans are renowned.

It is a hell of a drive from anywhere, and unlikely to be included on the typical coast-hugging US itinerary.

But it is well worth the effort, whether to pay respects to these titans of liberty, take in the breathtaking scenery or snigger at the seriousness with which Americans can sometimes take themselves.

Or perhaps a combination of all three. It is a free country, after all.

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Published on 5 June 2016