Hilloween

Tallmadge, Ohio

With ghosts and jack o’lanterns appearing on front lawns across the country right now, there is more than a little spookiness in the air.  But nowhere is the seasonal fear being felt more acutely than inside the Clinton campaign, which may be about to experience a bonafide nightmare.

A few hours ago, FBI director James Comey wrote to key members of Congress indicating he was re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s alleged mishandling of classified information. “In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation,” Comey wrote.

Just to add a little spice to the already-significant headline, cable news stations are reporting off-record sources within the FBI that say the case in question is that of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner (who was married to top Clinton aide Huma Abedin and is facing charges relating to an underage sexting scandal).

Very little is known at this stage about these mystery emails, and Clinton supporters will likely view this as a last ditch effort to distract voters by what Hillary herself once called the “vast right wing conspiracy”. James Comey was a registered Republican for many years before leading the feds, giving the conspiracy theorists some additional ammo.

But, considering he had already previously decided not to pursue criminal charges against Mrs Clinton for handling classified information on a private server, and that we are less than two weeks out from the election with the whole world watching closely, Comey would have to be pretty damn brave to be intervening at this time without a smoking gun.

Regardless of what these emails may or may not contain, it is a bad omen for the Clinton campaign and goes directly to the lack of trust that many Americans have in their de facto royal family.

The announcement also follows weeks of data dumps by WikiLeaks purporting to come from the hacked personal email account of campaign manager John Podesta. Among a number of embarrassing gems – such as key aides having a go at America’s 70 million Catholics and calling Bernie Sanders a “dufus” – the leaks also provided a worrying look inside the secretive Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

The leaks painted a picture of a much-too-cosy relationship between the Clintons and foreign regimes with less than stellar human rights records, including a $12 million cheque from Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and a $1 million “birthday present” to the former president from the nation of Qatar.

They also indicated scenarios where Mrs Clinton had used her position within the State department to grant favours to prominent foundation donors, and a flurry of eyebrow-raising financial and people-to-people ties between her personal staff, federal government bureaucrats and foreign backers.

Luckily for the Clinton campaign, at the same time that Julian Assange was pressing send on these leaked materials from the confines of his self-inflicted prison in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Donald Trump was being accused by multiple women of sexual assault and a video of him bragging about unwanted advances to women was being played on every channel.

Voters will ultimately make up their own minds about which they think stinks more –  misogyny and assault on the one hand or systemic corruption on the other.

It is little wonder that so many Americans are dismayed about their options.

Trump is already out on the stump making a big deal of these revelations, while Julian Assange has promised he has even more “October surprises” to come.

The Clinton campaign will take solace in the fact that millions of Americans have already voted and millions more have a very unfavourable view of her opponent. Plus Trump could steal the limelight with a fresh scandal at any moment.

But I imagine there are a few inside the Clinton machine’s inner circle who will be having a less than happy Halloween.

hillary-halloween

Hillary Clinton enjoying Halloween in happier times. Image source: Washington Free Beacon. 

Published 28 October 2016

The silent majority

Tallmadge, Ohio

In 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to what he called America’s “silent majority” to secure the keys to the White House, in the wake of a growing and vocal Vietnam War protest movement. The term referred to the great number of socially conservative but fairly-politically-unengaged Middle Americans – regular folks who, when not too busy with work and church and childbearing, can swing a general election.

Donald Trump’s hopes of occupying the Oval Office now largely rest on this same constituency.

Less than two weeks out from D Day, the polls have Hillary Clinton firmly ahead. As of this morning, the Reuters/Ipsos poll has Clinton up by six points in a two-way race (43-37) and the USA Today/Suffolk poll has the former Secretary of State leading by a considerable 10 points (49-39).

Political polls are always beholden to the inherent biases of those asking the questions, answering them and performing the analysis. Most of them involve a polling and research organisation partnering with a media provider to gain access to voters, and in an age where media is becoming more opinionated and political ideology is a more likely commonality among readers of a particular outlet than geography, the chances of biased response one way or the other are heightened further.

But at the risk of agreeing with Trump, in this presidential election, the likelihood that the polls are flawed is especially high.

First, as Trump makes unfair media coverage a central plank of his campaign, it is likely that many of his supporters are tuning out from mainstream outlets altogether – instead getting their news from more Trump-friendly sources like Sean Hannity’s TV and radio programs, booming ‘alt-right’ platform Breitbart and the echo chamber of Facebook.

Second, when it comes to polling via phone or door-to-door canvassing, accurate results require people to honestly self-identify, for which there is little incentive or reward.

Indeed, in this climate of an election between two of the most polarising figures in American public life, few are willing to put up their hand, especially for Trump. Travelling around the country I see few bumper stickers or yard-signs – particularly in battleground states like Ohio where Democrats and Republicans live side by side.

But notwithstanding the relatively few out and proud supporters, I get the sense there are a great many closet Trump fans hiding in the shadows. While they may shuffle their feet and non-committaly mention their mutual dislike of both candidates, their eyes suggest they have already made up their minds – unable to cast a vote for a Democrat, and particularly one with the decades of baggage and scandal that Clinton entails.

Should this ‘closet Trump’ constituency be as large as I suspect, it could be decisive yet, despite the polls suggesting the race is all but over.

Moreover, the opposite is true of a very different constituency. Hillary Clinton is working hard to inspire Bernie Sanders’ army of lemmings and Millennials, enlisting pop stars like Katy Perry and J Lo to hold rallies in her name. But those whose short-term memory is not obfuscated by bong haze will likely not take kindly to being called “basement dwellers” by the Democratic nominee. Considering many of these voters have never voted before – and may have an active social life beyond politics – staying home on November 8 might not be outside the realm of possibility, further aiding Trump’s chances.

By contrast, like kids on Christmas eve, Trump’s hardcore supporters – those that Hillary Clinton accidentally revealed she considers “deplorable” in a rare campaign gaffe – are so excited to vote they can hardly sleep.

In a system where voting is voluntary, the enthusiasm of a candidate’s base (whatever its size) is a hugely important factor.

While there is little doubt a majority of Americans prefer Clinton to Trump, unless they send in an early ballot or actually turn up to vote on the day, their social media rants and time spent filling out surveys will all have amounted to nothing. Something as seemingly trivial as bad weather can have a major impact if a candidate’s support is only half-hearted.

Some have even suggested that Trump’s more misogynistic comments and unforced errors – such as claiming this week he will sue the women accusing him of sexual assault or describing his opponent as a “nasty woman” in the third debate – are not accidents at all but a deliberate attempt by his campaign to aggravate women voters so completely that they literally switch off the TV and go on holidays.

To be clear, I’m not saying Trump will win or even that it is likely. While polls have problems they are still helpful in painting a picture of broad trends, and the trend suggests a more than substantial lead for Clinton.

But as the proverb goes, it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.

Nor the orange man.

fat-lady-sings

Image source: Rinocracy.com 

Published on 26 October 2016

Highway 61 revisited

Clarksdale, Mississippi 

With Bob Dylan named as the next recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is more than a little appropriate that this post’s title pays homage to his classic 1965 album, itself a tribute to the stretch of tarmac also known as the ‘Blues Highway’. 

The famous road runs vertically across the continental United States, almost as significant a geographical landmark as Old Man River himself. Its southern terminus is in downtown New Orleans and from that junction it follows the course of the Mississippi almost to the Canadian border.

In its northern-most reaches you will find a small town called Duluth, Minnesota, where in 1941, a curly-haired Jewish kid called Robert Zimmerman was born. But despite his birthplace being along the route, it is Dylan’s musical heroes for which the highway is better known. 

When you enter Mississippi via the long, wooden bridge from Louisiana, a large blue sign informs you that you have reached the “birthplace of American music”.

The claim is easily justified.

The state was once home to some of the most important names in the nation’s musical history, and particularly to the bluesmen of the river’s delta: BB King, Charley Patton, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to name but a few. 

The influence of these Mississippians cannot be overstated. They popularised the simple folk poems, tales of woe and guitar riffs of this region, sending them upstream to Memphis, St Louis and Chicago, where they were electrified and commercialised and morphed into what became known as rock ’n’ roll. 

Meanwhile, across the pond, their gruff and gravelly tunes were being listened to with an almost religious zeal by teenagers with names like John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. 

Mostly the descendants of African slaves, brought to this place to conduct manual labour in the vast, humid cottonfields, many of these blues music icons started life as farmhands and sharecroppers in the tenant farms that sprouted here following emancipation. 

Some of them went on to become millionaires and travel the globe sharing their craft, while others hardly left the vicinity of  Highway 61, their recordings only to be discovered following their death. 

Their music married the ancient griot and songhai traditions of West Africa with the gospel hymns of American Christianity and their own hard-lived experience of work and play, love and loss.

As Clapton surmised upon Muddy Waters’ induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, “[they] changed my life, and whether you know it or like it, [they] probably changed yours too.” 

There is a magical quality to travelling along this highway and through its quiet, dusty backroads and sleepy townships. The air is filled with history and the faces marked with incredible character and story. 

Stories like that of Robert Johnson – one of my personal favourite bluesmen – who, according to local legend, went “down the crossroads” where Highways 61 and 49 intersect and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for virtuoso guitar skills. 

But there are just as many stories here of hardship and economic depression, with few tourists  – and tourist dollars – for somewhere that has influenced culture around the world.

The introduction of machine cropping in the mid-forties put many of the farmers out of work, forcing them to pack up their families, fables and Fenders and head for the then-booming cities of the north. 

For those that stayed behind, life here remains simple but hard, as it has always been. Many of the shopfronts are boarded up, the existing, faded museums and record stores more a labour of passion than profit. 

That is why, like Mecca for Muslims, those that care about the blues and rock ’n’ roll should consider a visit to this place mandatory. 

It is a pilgrimage that pays homage not only to the music that has enriched so many lives but to the influence that African-American culture has had on modern America and the world, and to the belief that through unspeakable injustice, art and innovation can be born. 

In July, Willie Seaberry, the colourful owner of Po’ Monkey’s (one of the last remaining traditional juke joints, just off Highway 61) passed away. The future of the iconic shack and holy site for blues fans is uncertain, as is the storied culture it represents. 

With so much on offer in this vast land – and so much of it concentrated on the two glittering coasts – it can be difficult for a tourist to prioritise something like the ‘Blues Trail’.

But for those that would love to drive down this particular memory lane, you better get there soon.

‘Cos the times they are a’changing.

Merigold, MS - 3/12/2015 - Willie Seaberry has operated Po' Monkey's Lounge, a juke joint in his home, since 1963. The Mississippi Blues Trail marker on the property reads: "The rural juke joint played an integral role in the development of the blues, offering a distinctly secular space for people to socialize, dance, and forget their everyday troubles. While many such jukes once dotted the cotton fields of the Delta countryside, Poí Monkeyís was one of the relatively few to survive into the 21st century. Initially frequented by locals, Poí Monkeyís became a destination point for blues tourists from around the world during the 1990s."
Willie Seaberry outside Po’ Monkey, one of the last juke joints in the Mississippi Delta. Image source:    Al Jazeera America

Published on 24 October 2016

 

The Land of the Unicorns

Mountain View, California

When venture capitalist Aileen Lee first coined the term “unicorn” for a tech startup valued at more than $1 billion, it was supposed to have that mythical connotation that immediately comes to mind. When that seminal article was published in TechCrunch in 2013, there were few tech companies that fit the description, today, there are close to one hundred.

Notwithstanding the emergence of new tech hubs in the United States, as reflected on previously, the vast majority of these unicorns are stabled in the San Francisco Bay Area, and more specifically in the Santa Clara Valley just outside the city’s limits, better known of course as ‘Silicon Valley’.

First named for the myriad silicon chip manufacturers based here, the valley has become the undisputed global headquarters of the technology industry, home to almost all of the household name titans.

Here to host a delegation of Aussie executives investigating the impact of digital disruption on the financial services industry, I got a rare insight into this high-powered – if dressed-down – American business community.

The Googleplex, as the search engine giant’s HQ is known, spreads over miles of verdant and expensive landscape deep in the valley’s heart. The campus’s approach is signalled by a sea of chirpy-looking employees – or ‘Googlers’ as we are informed they are officially dubbed – atop blue, red, yellow and green bicycles that emerge from the leaves, headphones in and contemplating world domination.

Among the Googlers, there are many factions and sub-cultures, including the rare ‘grooglers’ (grey Googlers i.e. employees over 40) and the very hip ‘brewglers’ (those that brew their own craft beer). Having overstayed our welcome by a few minutes, our tour guide – a very smart and somewhat theatrical Sydneysider working in the AdWords division – calls his boss to inform her he was a very apologetic “loogler” (late Googler).

Beyond the cute internal lingo, the rest of the storied rumours of the superior workplace culture of the Googleplex seem to be true. Googlers luxuriate on banana lounges, feast on free food grown in the campuses garden, speed down slides instead of stairs to get between floors and generally enjoy themselves while diligently coming up with new revenue streams and ways to monetise the significant troves of data they have on us all.

Tech firms like Google and Facebook – with their comfortable grey hoodie work wear and commitment to diversity and inclusion – enjoy a remarkably high level of consumer trust and satisfaction for businesses of their size.

Largely that is due to the fact that they have treated our data with relatively minor abuses. Consumers seem to have implicitly agreed that free access to search engines and social networks, in exchange for being targeted for sneaker ads and holiday packages is a deal that works in their favour.

However, as anyone who works in media knows well, the margins in advertising are only so wide. There has to be some temptation among those here in the Googleplex who, despite their sunny disposition and sweatpants, are tasked with generating profits and shareholder returns to do more lucrative things with our data, like actively selling it off to third parties or even using it as blackmail against us.

Given the relatively benign activity of puppy memes and political rants that dominate social media, it can be easy to forget that these corporate players have inordinate amounts of personal information about us all: they have our private conversations, our search engine activity, everything we have ever done on the internet. And we all willingly gave it to them by way of contract, every time we click that button at the bottom of a legal document we don’t read.

So far the tech giants’ focus on a consumer-friendly reputation has outweighed the strategy of treating our personal information as a goldmine. But the same was probably true once of banks, before they stopped giving a shit and realised bonuses and shareholder returns trump customer satisfaction. As the tech firms inevitably move beyond their traditional realm of entertainment and networking to disrupt more powerful industries like banking and insurance – armed with superior data on customer needs and wants – this possibility will only be heightened. Moreover, in countries like Australia with weak privacy laws, there is really nothing to stop them doing this beyond that reputational concern.

And yet, spending time with the entrepreneurs and idealists – and even the more hard-nosed venture capitalists and investors that make this place a reality – you get a sense that this sort of corporatism is unlikely here.

For while capitalism is absolutely a prerequisite for the innovation and invention of the digital revolution, this is still California, and a part of it once synonymous with ashrams and sit-ins, not mobile apps and data wars.

Inspired by the hippie philosophy which still lingers here, the inhabitants of this valley stress to us their genuine intention to “do good” and not just “do well”, with many flaunting their charitable giving and flexible, worker-friendly cultures.

To a cynical journalist, it still smacks a little of corporate PR not grounded in reality.

But so did the existence of unicorns once.

tech-unicorns-illustration

Image source: The Michael Report.

Published on 13 October 2016

Voters and Veepstakes

New York City

Last night, almost 50 million Americans – and a handful of Aussies slurping canned beer on a high-rise Lower East Side couch – tuned in to watch the two men vying to become America’s next vice president trade barbs on national television. The viewership, as to be expected, was considerably lower than that of the primetime debate last week between the two presidential contenders, but the stark differences between that event and last night’s performance from Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine don’t end there.

Despite being Trump’s running mate, Pence was cool, calm and collected last night, demonstrating patience and reserve that the Republican nominee sorely lacks. Kaine also complemented perceived weaknesses of Hillary Clinton, comparatively combative against his opponent.

Overall though, the debate was more sensible, policy-driven and thoughtful than that of their bosses. Or, as those following on Twitter surmised: absolute snoresville.

Both Pence and Kaine are eminently qualified to be president and commander-in-chief. As current Indiana governor and former Virginia governor respectively, they have strong executive experience of actually governing, not just of doing deals and talking the talk like so many politicians – although their Washington, DC credentials are pretty flawless also.

Like Joe Biden to Obama, they both represent a safe choice as experienced, “presidential-looking” white middle-aged, committed Christians with sons serving in the military. Unlike the wildcard pick of Sarah Palin by the McCain campaign, both campaigns this time around have opted for two large scoops of classic vanilla – and given the high unfavourability ratings of Trump and Clinton it was probably wise to not raise any extra eyebrows.

While as TV viewers, those Americans who watched last night’s proceedings might have been bored – certainly compared to the fireworks of the presidential debate – as voters, many are probably waking up this morning wishing that one of these two vanilla options was about to become Commander in Chief, refreshingly free of the volatility of Trump and the baggage of Clinton.

But in a democracy shouldn’t the people ultimately decide who the candidates for president should be? How is it that voters could possibly be in a situation where they prefer options other than those they apparently already chose in the primary elections?

It is a telling sign of the state of the American political project that the two VPs – who, importantly, were appointed and not elected to their current role as running mate – are arguably more qualified, impressive, perhaps even more popular than the two individuals that might occupy the Oval Office.

Partly the blame can fall to the Twitterati and the 24/7 cable news cycle which has raised the importance of entertainment in politics, playing right into the hands of the likes of Trump and other loud-mouthed celebrities with bucketloads of media savvy.

Voters, however, are not blameless. The United States has open primaries and so anyone can play a role in choosing the nominees. The only reason Trump is weeks away from potentially becoming the most powerful person in the world and not Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz is because he simply garnered more votes than they did. The same is basically true of Hillary Clinton, putting to one side allegations (and WikiLeaks documents suggesting) that the Democratic National Convention rigged their primary in her favour against a ‘Feel the Burn’ movement that challenged their cushy power.

The point is that Trump and Clinton were ultimately chosen by the people. Had nobody voted for them (whether super-delegate or average punter) they wouldn’t be there.

And yet, many of those same voters are now likely thinking their choices inferior to the ones made by some political hacks and apparatchiks in dark rooms for dark purposes.

This sort of thinking is understandable but dangerous.

Sure, Trump and Clinton both have some pretty sizeable downsides and American democracy has some problems –  media and special interest agendas for example or people choosing entertainment over policy prowess for example.

But the alternative is to declare that the people are incapable of choosing, that the choice would be better left to the elites, to the most educated among us – that appointment garners better results than election.

Sometimes this can be true, but the precedent is not worth the risk. Wherever systems based on the principle that the “intelligent” should make decisions on behalf of the rest have been tried – the Soviet Union chief among them – it has resulted not in enlightened decisions but in stagnation, unhappiness or even genocide.

After the UK’s shock ‘Brexit’ decision, social media was rife with those urging reform of the political system to prohibit the “stupid” from having a say. Should Trump win this call will no doubt intensify.

Democracy is an imperfect system there is no doubt. That Americans are now forced to choose between two people they dislike is perhaps evidence of that.

But I’d take elected maniacs over appointed experts anyday and history tells us bad things happen when we allow rulers to choose their own successors.

Bring on the next round of television fireworks.

pence-kaine

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat) and Governor Mike Pence (Republican) square off in the televised VP debate. Image source: NBC News.

Published on 5 October 2016