Keeping Sydney Open (and the Bastards Honest)

If you’ve been inside a Sydney nightclub at any point in the last decade (or locked outside one more likely perhaps) then you are probably already familiar with Keep Sydney Open (KSO).

The grassroots movement sprung up in opposition to the Baird government’s ‘lockout laws’, which imposed a state-mandated curfew on licensed venues in Sydney’s CBD and primary entertainment precincts following an alleged spike in alcohol-fuelled violence.

KSO has been successful in engaging an often apathetic and self-indulgent generation of Millennial Sydneysiders and throwing some impressive parties, rallies and protests along the way.

Unfortunately, it has had far less success in forcing a repeal of the legislation (though there have been some minor concessions and exemptions from the government).

And so, having failed to force change via traditional lobbying and advocacy, the movement is now considering a tilt at the NSW Upper House, evidently adopting the maxim ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’.

Sydney’s small business owners, hospitality workers and nightlife patrons have much to gain from a more politically influential KSO, but the organisation should heed the mistakes of other passionate single-issue parties.

It need look no further than the Australian Greens.

Having emerged in the early 1990s as a well-intentioned organisation to safeguard the country’s natural beauty and promote the benefits of sustainable development, the Greens subsequently morphed into a generic socialist party with a range of policy positions that are out of touch with mainstream  Australia and  were pretty well discredited in the 20th century.

While most Aussies would probably be warm to the idea of protecting Tasmania’s old growth forests or stopping the endangerment of koalas, they are less likely to support the multitude of Greens policies that expand the role of the government, such as the Renters’ Rights Plan the party proposed in Queensland which effectively does away with private property (a cornerstone of our legal system).

Hence why the party’s support hovers at around 10 per cent of the national vote and is pretty much confined to the inner cities (far from the bush it claims to protect, it must be said).

Keep Sydney Open faces a similar challenge in assembling a policy agenda beyond the lockout laws.

The most compelling argument against the lockouts – and the one likely to have most sway with the MPs in marginal seats KSO will need to have the laws revoked – is that the intervention is an unwarranted foray of the state into the affairs of small businesses.

Mandating the hours of licensed venues means reduced opportunities for these businesses to employ members of the community and to stimulate the local economy. It takes decision-making powers away from business owners and customers and puts them in the hands of politicians – something the Liberal Party and many voters traditionally have little stomach for.

This line of prosecution, supporting the rights of small business and the hospitality industry as well as their patrons, will be the key for KSO to eventually achieve its policy goal.

And yet, I have seen many Keep Sydney Open supporters and volunteers advocating other causes that are akin to the lockout laws in that they give government the power to control local small businesses, such as the notion of banning poker machines and of course, the can of worms that is penalty rates.

If you are against the government dictating opening hours but for the government dictating wages and products then you are part of the problem.

Politicians forcing small businesses to pay their staff certain penalties is quite literally one of the primary issues keeping Sydney closed.

Similarly I have seen KSO posts indicating support for state-funded and state-run cultural initiatives which are also logically inconsistent with opposition to the lockout laws.

KSO should be commended so far for building a follower base from across the political spectrum, standing up for the rights of businesses and citizens and consulting with the public about whether to take this next step.

But if it becomes another movement hijacked by anti-business and trade union interests, nothing more than a hollow receptacle of fashionable but

economically irrational positions, then it will never gain the legitimacy or influence it seeks and deserves.

KSO has my admiration in considering putting its hat in the ring to contribute more formally to the policy process and keep the bastards honest.

It might yet have my vote as well.

Why conservatives should vote Yes

Statistically, some of you reading this will be thinking of voting No in Australia’s same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Of those, a small number simply don’t like gays and don’t want them to be happy. Hate can’t be reasoned with, so if that is an accurate description of your worldview you might as well stop reading now.

But unlike some in the Yes camp, I know there are other No voters who aren’t just bigots and homophobes but have genuine and rational concerns about religious freedom and legal precedent.

A common argument I hear (whispered, rather than proclaimed, so as to avoid social media ostracism) is that if we allow same-sex marriage to occur, then we will set a precedent for government to force private religious institutions to adopt the secular position and reduce religious rights in the country.

Well I agree with you that a church or mosque or temple should not be forced to marry same-sex couples, nor should an evangelical pastry chef be forced to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

But the government is not a business or a private religious institution. It has to treat taxpayers equally and should not be allowed to discriminate.

Arguably the government should play no role in marriage at all, leaving it to be a private or religious matter rather than a revenue-raising opportunity for the nanny state.

Again, I agree in theory. But it’s too late for that. Now that it is a function of the secular state it needs to be applied equally to all people.

If conservatives don’t like that, they only have themselves to blame.

It isn’t widely known that the Marriage Act 1961 never actually specified that marriage should be confined to heterosexuals. That didn’t come until 2004, when the Howard government amended the Act to align it with the traditional definition.

If the Christian lobby feels so strongly about the definition of marriage, then it never should have let its mates in Parliament get involved. Instead, it supported and lobbied for Howard’s redefinition.

Or, to put it another way, it supported government intervention and regulation – something conservatives usually oppose.

If ‘crony capitalism’ is the state doing deals with corporations in contravention of the free market then this is ‘crony culturalism’.

Getting the government to protect the definition of marriage to the exclusion of others is no different from getting the government to protect a certain industry or sector of the economy.

It enhances the role of the state in peoples’ lives and allows politicians to pick winners and losers.

This sets a far more dangerous precedent than allowing same-sex couples to marry ever could.

The idea that religious freedom needs to be protected is sound. But that is not the question we are being asked.

Voting Yes is not only the right thing to do on a moral level. It is the right thing to do if you believe in limited and accountable government.

Author’s note: This article has been amended to remove the phrase “just as a Jewish deli should not be forced to make a sandwich for a Nazi”. It was not the author’s intention to in any way equate gay people with a murderous, fascist regime.

Thanksgiving thoughts

Los Angeles, California 

As a kid, I spent a lot of time indoors surrounded by books, as anyone who has seen me attempt any outdoor pursuits will implicitly realise.

And chief among them was a Rand McNally encyclopaedia of American states.

The rich history and geography of this diverse place – imagery of bears and bison, cowboys and Indians, pioneers and pilgrims – were just as magical to me as anything conjured up by Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.

Later, as a student of political philosophy, I became acquainted with America’s founding fathers not as the fabled men with powdered wigs and pink cheeks in my picture books, but as some of the most important writers and thinkers ever to advance the causes of liberty and freedom. 

As a result, travelling this vast land – meeting its people and reconciling what I had read with real tales of my very own – became a life goal.

Sitting here at LAX about to depart for home, turkey sandwich and cranberry juice on the table before me in a nod to tradition on this Day of Thanks (or as close as I can get in an airport lounge), it is a goal I can satisfyingly say is now firmly achieved.

In particular, I am thankful for the following highlights:

  • Driving more than 20,000 miles from east to west, north to south.
  • Listening to speeches by a Pope, two Presidents and a President-Elect
  • Jumping and jiving at SXSW, Lollapalooza and Burning Man
  • Spectating multiple college football, NFL, NHL and MLB games
  • Taking in the serenity at Yellowstone, Yosemite and Arches National Parks
  • Cheating death while hiking in the Rockies (and tailgating in College Station)
  • Mustering cattle in the Texas Hill Country
  • Hunting for gators with swamp guides in the Louisiana bayou
  • Off-roading (by accident) in the desert expanses of Utah
  • Door-knocking for a political campaign in rural Montana
  • Testifying at an African-American church in Natchez, Mississippi
  • Picking cotton and listening to blues in the deep south
  • Hosting a conference of Aussie execs in Silicon Valley
  • Covering the Libertarian National Convention with MegaCon nerdfest next door
  • Hours of live action from the gallery while working in the US Congress
  • Observing the Olympics and Super Bowl from a very different vantage point
  • Chronicling Colorado’s thriving recreational marijuana industry 
  • Live-blogging the final 72 hours of a presidential election
  • Ingesting more sugar, salt and plastic orange cheese than should be permissible by law
  • Hanging out with childhood chums in New York City
  • Spending quality time with my great aunt, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

These are just a few of the delightful memories of a year and a half well spent, some of which made it into this thread, while others were overshadowed by opinion pieces and political rants which I hope have been of value.

On that note, sincere thanks to all of those that read these posts over the past 18 months, your continued clicks made all the research and effort (not to mention significant debt and pending litigation) all the more worthwhile.

And sincere thanks also to my dear American family and friends. For all of the conclusions and analyses contained throughout this thread, one is more certain than all of the others:

American hospitality is alive and well.

Happy Thanksgiving and cheers for having me.

merica

Pilgrims’ Partners

Plymouth, Massachusetts

When, in 1620, the pilgrims disembarked the Mayflower on this salty outcrop of New England, I’m sure they couldn’t possibly imagine the global superpower that would one day sprout from their quaint little colony.

Given that their mission was to establish a puritan utopia morally superior to the perceived debauchery of the Europe they fled, I wonder whether they would be proud or ashamed of the nation they gave birth to.

On the one hand, the United States has been immensely successful – and what parent doesn’t want to see their offspring achieve financial independence and maturity? It has also kept up with many of the protestant traditions and moral inquiries the ‘Brownist separatists’ – as the pilgrims were known at the time – inspired, at least compared to their godless cousins in Old Europe, and has often come to the aid of neighbours and allies facing hardship or oppression.

On the other hand, it is also home to Kim Kardashian and Kaitlyn Jenner, and just chose a casino and beauty pageant mogul to be its leader.

Regardless of whether they would be proud, it is clear that many Americans are proud of them and of the history that followed. Putting to one side the problematic issue of relations with the indigenous population – which I wrote about this time last year – the pilgrims reflected that very American proposition that individuals determine their own destiny and excellence should always be strived for.

Here by the famous rock where those first settlers once stood, I am struck once again by the fact that Australia’s founding could not be more different.

Bound in chains as convicts or simply carrying out their orders as officers of the British Empire, the first European settlers of the Land Down Under were not interested in establishing a nation of any kind – let alone one that was morally pure.

Should they be given the same opportunity to assess the performance of their descendants, they would probably respond with a characteristically Aussie shrug of the shoulders, though they may indeed be proud that we haven’t lost our appetite for gambling and booze (not sure they would approve of Baird’s lockout laws however).

The importance of these very different foundational stories cannot be overstated. It explains much about our respective national characters – like how Aussies are suspicious of overly successful people and cringe at singing their own anthem, while Americans do not flinch at reaching for the stars or reciting a daily pledge of allegiance.

These differences can lead some Aussies to a knee-jerk anti-Americanism at times, put off by the strong sense of American identity, the religious adherence and devotion to traditional values from much of the population and the steely focus on work and money.

We saw that sentiment on display often in the past weeks, as foreign observers denigrated Americans for their election gamble. This came not only from social media but even from Australia’s alternative government.

Shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong suggested that in light of the Trump victory a pivot away from the US alliance might be warranted.

She could not be more wrong.

Since federation, Australia’s security in the region has been largely reliant upon its alliance with the world’s superpower. Australia’s instinctive apathy and easy-going lifestyle makes it easy to forget that, as a relatively small population inhabiting an island blessed with an enviable honeypot of natural resources (and with far more populous and less lucky neighbours to consider), security is not something we should be complacent about.

Embracing and engaging our Asian neighbours is smart policy, but ultimately we share more with the United States culturally than almost any other country.

We are inherently New World nations, where parentage and accent matter less than character and ability. We believe inherently in people power and democratic rule, even though that conviction may be under threat.

Moreover, even where we don’t see eye to eye, it wouldn’t hurt for Australia to adopt a slightly more American attitude on some issues.

For example, a greater focus on risk-taking and entrepreneurship would do wonders for our global competitiveness and the health of our business community and living standards. A greater scepticism of government would unleash the power of voluntary, charitable and community endeavours and enrich Australian society.

This doesn’t mean we need to swap our surfboards for shotguns, or rush out and cancel Medicare, but there is much we can learn from the US if we look beyond the caricature and our instinct to cut down tall poppies.

In 2015, former Australian PM Julia Gillard proclaimed that we are entering the ‘Asian Century’, with the subtle implication that the post-WWII age of American hegemony is over.

Over the past 18 months, Donald Trump echoed this fear of decline with his successful ‘Make America Great Again’ mantra.

But overall, my assessment is that while the fears are real and palpable – aided by a hysterical US news media – the outlook is far more positive. America’s culture of innovation, its creativity and dynamism remain unrivalled and its global influence will endure well into the near future.

Pilgrims and convicts are fundamentally different, but they can still be mates. I hope that mateship will continue, irrespective of electoral ups and downs and united in the belief that the world is a better place when it is both brave and free.

Now that is a goal worth pledging allegiance to.

Image source: J Russell Janishian Gallery 

Published on 23 November 2015

Campaign Conclusions

New York City

On election night a week ago, I tried hard to stick to the facts, with no shortage of opinionated content available to those following at home. But I’d be lying if I said that as the result became clearer I wasn’t overcome by a sense of unease.

Unease because the man just elected to the world’s most powerful office is untested; unease because he has consistently demonstrated poor character; and unease because I’m not convinced this is the solution to the deep divisions I have documented throughout this thread.

These are the reasons I would not have voted for Trump. But obviously my sense of discomfort was mild compared to the sheer hysterics that would follow the announcement – the social media meltdowns, the cancelling of classes for “traumatised” students, the hyperbolic comparisons of Trump to history’s greatest villains.

Some of this response is understandable, given the aggressive campaign the president-elect ran to get there. But it is also based on myths, generalisations and even prejudice, fuelled by a news media and political elite that was desperate to maintain its grip on power.

The most common of these is that, having voted for a man that has made inflammatory remarks regarding illegal immigrants and Muslim Americans and often treated women disgustingly, his supporters must therefore also be racists and misogynists.

The charge is both untrue and offensive to millions of people. Like every country, there is a racist element within American society and that niche group of people with abhorrent views was vocally supportive of Trump. But they are small in number and largely inhabit safely Republican states. It was not these people that made the difference in Tuesday’s election.

Instead, Trump’s victory hinged on working and middle class people in northern (non-Confederate) states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – people that voted for Barack Obama twice.

I realise the definition of racism these days is broad and subjective, but people who vote for a black man to be their president are quite simply not racist.

The misogyny thesis is also unsupported by the facts. According to Pew Research, 42 per cent of American women voted for Trump – that is only two percentage points lower than Mitt Romney received in 2012 and roughly on par with the support Republicans usually get. I know it is difficult for many liberal, city-dwelling women to comprehend, but that is millions upon millions of adult females who knowingly voted for an anti-feminist pariah. Surely true feminism requires us to respect the independent decision making processes of these women and try to understand it, rather than accusing them of hating themselves and being pawns for the global patriarchy.

Finally – and most disturbingly – a common explanation has been they simply must be stupid. I have heard no shortage of comments suggesting if only we could raise education standards then maybe these silly, ignorant, downtrodden fools would become enlightened and vote correctly. It displays a shocking lack of respect for the values and intelligence of millions of people – especially since so much of this argument comes from people that claim to be advocates for the working poor.

So the question is: if they are not racist, sexist or simply ignorant, how then did rational beings vote for someone with no political experience and an endless list of scandals and controversies?

The answer is threefold.

First, considerable blame can be placed on the alternative ticket. Hillary Clinton is an impressive woman who has worked tirelessly throughout her life to achieve the things she has and has put some mighty cracks in the glass ceiling. But she is also symbolic of America’s permanent political class. When voters went into the polling booth on November 8 they didn’t see gender – they saw Hillary Clinton and the corrupt political machine she and her husband lead.

While the international press portrayed this election simply as ‘psychopath against female’, the American people were forced to do their own journalism and look more deeply at the person who would be the first woman president. For many, her suspicious destruction of classified information and her acceptance of millions of dollars in donations from foreign dictators and Wall Street bankers (despite her stated feminist and Keynesian ideals) was all too much.

They ultimately made a call that corruption is a worse crime than offensive speech – something the media would have once agreed with.

Second, that frustration was not only with the Clintons, but with the cult of power they belong to. Trump was unprecedented in a number of ways but perhaps the most significant was that (despite being a billionaire) he disproved the theory that money is king in American politics – with significantly fewer campaign resources than his opponent.

The people are fed up with crony capitalism and professional lobbyists, with media bias and collusion, with pork barrelling and paper bagging  – with the “swamp” that Trump said needed to be “drained”. So much so that they were willing to roll the dice on an outsider (even one with so many apparent flaws).

Third is the culture of political correctness, which has reached new heights in university lecture theatres and media boardrooms. While I dispute that most of those that cast their vote for Trump would privately endorse his more unsavoury views, I wage that almost all of them enjoyed his nonchalance about the verbal norms imposed by the intelligentsia and support his right to be a pig. Unlike Australia, the United States (or at least a thin majority of it) still believes in freedom of speech, including offensive speech.

These factors go part of the way to explaining the result and, while they may not be reflective of the values of New York City (where I currently write and where morale is visibly low) or those of the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, they are a still a rational and legitimate way to vote.

And yet, there are thousands of people just a few blocks from the Lower East Side apartment where I type that are assembling right now to protest the election as illegitimate. Protest is their constitutional right, but the implication is that they oppose the validity of their own democracy.

I saw this same sentiment rear its head often this past week, as those who supported Clinton and feared Trump publicly questioned whether the system needs to change and whether democracy itself is flawed.

I don’t remember these dissenters having a problem with democracy on November 4, 2008, when Americans voted very differently to elect their first African-American commander in chief.

On that historic night, millions of people around the world publicly rejoiced and the TV reporters could hardly hold back their tears. Then a student, following from the other side of the world, I’ll admit that my cheeks were also wet and salty with emotion at that time.

But many Americans were not feeling elated. They felt uneasy and dejected – nervous that their compatriots had just elected someone who would take their country in a direction they did not want. Not because he was black, but because his outlook is inherently internationalist and his trust in big government solutions is out of touch with the common folks and their culture of volunteerism.

Last Tuesday the same system that elected Barack Obama gave the other side of the culture wars a win. In four or eight years, the pendulum will likely swing back the other way, just as the founders – in their wisdom – designed.

This election is no more significant than that.

Memes and statuses comparing Trump to Hitler are shockingly disrespectful, not to Trump (who deserves all he gets) but to the victims and survivors of genocide. To compare campaign trail rhetoric to the systematic murder of men, women and children shows just how detached from reality so many commentators and consumers now are.

They also reflect a lack of historical understanding.

If Trump turns out to be a tyrant and monster – and I too fear there is a chance – the US constitution is equipped to deal with this in a way the Weimar Republic’s laws were not. This should give comfort to all of those experiencing distress.

There is much about Trump that is worrying, but far more worrying is the undercurrent of anti-democratic sentiment and lack of mutual respect that has accompanied this election. 

Mark my words, that is the fight yet to come – between those who believe the people are capable of choosing and those who believe the educated and ‘enlightened’ should make decisions on their behalf. It is a fight that will make this election look like a schoolyard scrap by comparison. 

In the meantime let us hope Trump can adopt a more statesmanlike tone and the media will at least allow him to briefly govern before judging. The cohesion of these United States depends upon it.  

Additional reading on the Rise of Trump: 

trump-les

Graffiti as Manhattan comes to terms with its new president amid mass protests.

Published on 14 November 2016

Buckeye bellwether

Cleveland, Ohio

The Chicago Cubs might have narrowly beaten the Cleveland Indians to clinch the World Series last night, but it will not take Ohioans long to become distracted from the pain.

For as long as the Cubs have dwindled towards the bottom of the Major League Baseball ladder, Ohio has been what is known in as a “bellwether state” – home to voters that know which way the wind is blowing when it comes to presidential politics.

Like the Australian seat of Eden-Monaro in southwest NSW, Ohio has an uncanny knack of accurately predicting who the next US president will be. Indeed, in 25 of the 27 elections that have been held since 1904, the candidate that won Ohio also won the presidency.

Given there are only a few swing states in the country– with the vast majority being either safely blue or red – and that there is plenty of superstition surrounding Ohio ballots, both campaigns have been frequent visitors to the ‘buckeye state’ of late.

Earlier this week, I joined a couple hundred Clevelanders and fifty or so roving reporters to welcome the former Secretary of State to town. No stranger to the stump, Mrs Clinton gave a polished speech that took more than a few cues from Bernie Sanders’ campaign, focusing on her student loan debt reduction plan and the shortcomings of her opponent.

But while her supporters probably left buoyed – even inspired – by the up close and personal event, there is no doubt their enthusiasm paled in comparison with that of a different political crowd gathering across town.

About a mile out from the iX Center – Cleveland’s largest convention centre – the Republican nominee’s unmistakable head became visible, glaring down from a giant neon billboard alongside the five letters of his global brand: TRUMP.

Having been knocked back for a media pass (itself a telling difference between the two campaigns), I donned a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap and cautiously joined the 5,000-strong throng, paranoid I would be exposed as a pernicious, foreign journalist at any moment and ripped limb from limb.

I stood silently towards the back, fighting the urge to take notes and hoping no one would be offended by my lack of raucous cheering. The crowd whipped itself into a frenzy as the billionaire’s thick Queens accent began to boom from the stage, vigorously waving signs with slogans like “Women for Trump”, “Hillary for Prison” and “Deplorable Lives Matter” – a response to Clinton’s derogatory characterisation of Trump fans.

Partly the disparity in size and style between the two events has to do with the mundane fact that Trump’s event was primetime, Hillary’s in the afternoon.

Trump’s obvious showmanship is also a factor. I wasn’t the only one refraining from hooting and hollering, with a few other attendees likely more interested in glimpsing the candidate than voting for him (assuming they weren’t similarly cast asunder members of the press).

However, it can’t be denied it may also be a sign that Ohio is leaning Trump. In fact, Real Clear Politics has him leading Clinton by 2.7 points in the crucial state, according to the average of a number of polls taken in the past week, as do most others. Even the Huffington Post‘s poll has Trump up by half a percentage point – a publication likely to be read by very few Trump fans.

Once the global headquarters of the rubber tyre industry, in more recent times headlines about Ohio have told a sad story of economic stagnation and the decline of manufacturing (alongside occasional and very welcome sporting success).

Some have suggested this post-industrial malaise, and the joblessness it entails, is at least partly responsible for the Trump phenomenon, meaning it is no surprise he has a few natural supporters here.

Trump’s pledge to “renegotiate” the trade deals he says are responsible for factory jobs relocating overseas, as well as his more general mantra to revert national life to a previous era, resonate especially with these recently down and out folks.

His lead in Ohio heading into the final days of the campaign is all the more remarkable considering the state’s popular Republican governor John Kasich thinks so little of his own party’s nominee that he essentially donkey-voted, writing in the name of 2008 nominee John McCain instead of ticking the Trump-Pence box.

If the polls stay steady and Ohio stays true to its bellwether reputation, then there is a good chance Trump will be the next president.

But as the Chicago Cubs and their fans will be very happy to remind you, history does not always repeat itself.
Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

Published on 3 November 2016

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