Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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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.

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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

Feel the Burn

Preface: Burn Butterflies

Venice Beach, California

23 August 2016

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I first became aware of Burning Man.

As a teenager, inspired by trips to Australia’s hippie enclave in the Byron Bay hinterland, I became interested in the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and the aesthetics, back-to-nature ethos and quasi-revolutionary leanings of that period. It was probably during that phase that I first came across references to the infamous arts festival deep in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, as a vague bookmark of something that would likely appeal to the person I thought I might become.

A few years later, during the life stage Americans call “college” I began to indulge in the kind of youthful expression the hippies placed such value on (albeit inspired more by the nightclubs of Kings Cross than the shawl merchants of Nimbin). It was then that I came across ‘the Burn’ in an altogether different context, as one of the greatest parties on Earth, the location of illustrious dusk-til-dawn DJ sets and tales of weeklong debauchery.

And yet, when the opportunity to actually attend Burning Man presented itself, I needed plenty of convincing, despite the enthusiasm of my former selves.

Seven days of unfiltered hedonism simply no longer sounds like the walk in the park it once did.

First, there is the purely physical factor of surviving in one of the world’s most hostile environments. For whatever else it might be, the Burn is on one level essentially a week’s worth of camping in the desert. If you take away the electronic music, facepaint, feathers, fire and fur, you are still left with the very rational fear of being a city-slicker exposed to the elements for an extended period of time (even with the knowledge that such dalliance with nature can be character-building).

Second, there are some nerves relating to just how substantial this party might be. From some reports the usually quiet desert landscape quickly becomes a canvas for sheer madness and Dionysian pleasure. The idea of abandoning all care for brain cells and career advancement and surrendering once again to the ‘live in the moment’ mantra of youth is frightening for someone who has become accustomed to the suit-and-tie rhythms of the daily grind.

Third, there is a hesitancy that my inherent cynicism will overpower any sense of wonder and excitement – a worry that the whole thing will be kinda lame and I’ll then be stuck for days on end in an experiment I have concluded holds little value and is devoid of the deeper meaning it promises, nothing more than a big dress-up party, some kind of grotesque hippie tailgate.

This particular fear is enhanced by the fact that the Burn – despite its post-materialist claims – is actually really expensive and, in yet another sign that I am perhaps no longer suited to this type of endeavour, I am seeking a return on investment.

Finally, while it may seem trivial, there is a very real and present fear of being off the grid completely, without access to the crutches of modern life: wifi, email and 24/7 information. A few days out from the Burn, and notwithstanding the issues I have just outlined, I am far less worried about anything that might occur at the festival and far more concerned with events that might occur outside in the real world without us knowing: a personal family tragedy, a world-shaking historical event, even just the daily rough-and-tumble of the election campaign.

For some, this disassociation from contemporary trappings would be one of the most refreshing aspects of the Burn, but as someone who doesn’t go an hour (let alone week) without global news headlines, I am quite frankly freaking out.

However, as so often accompanies stomach butterflies, for every nerve, fear and anxiety there is an equal and perhaps greater surge of excitement and anticipation.

This experience promises not only a unique form of escapism but also a refreshing counterpoint to some of our society’s organisational assumptions, namely that hard currency is required for the distribution of goods (money is essentially banned at the festival) and that a coercive government power is required to ensure safety and security (while BM is not completely lawless, it’s pretty much as close as you can get).

It is famous for allowing people to explore hidden desires and identities and truly experience a sense of freedom, one big experiment in “anarchic co-habitation”.

On a personal note it offers the challenging proposition to dwell once again in the present and affirm life through the elixir of experience. Time to drink up.

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Black Rock City from above. Photo credit: N. Kovacs

Baird, Bans and Burn

Tonopah, Nevada

28 August 2016

Taking some brief respite at a roadside casino-motel in ‘historic Tonotopah’ our merry band of Burning Man virgins received the welcome news that the NSW Supreme Court has upheld a challenge brought by Sydney’s Smoking Panda Bar maintaining the government has no jurisdiction to impose its disastrous lockout laws.

The contrast to our current surroundings could not be more stark.

“Excuse me, sir” I inquired of the burly barkeep. “We are celebrating some good news from our homeland, what time does your bar shut?”

“It don’t,” he replied, with a prideful and toothless grin, the sirens and songs of poker machines an appropriate accompaniment to the scene.

It was a reminder that it is no accident Burning Man takes place in Nevada, one of the country’s most freedom-loving states, where prostitution and gambling are legal and the drinks flow freely. The very first Burns back in the mid-eighties took place on a rocky beach in the San Francisco Bay Area (from whence most of the original Burners came). But opposition from safety-mad, Baird-like politicians in the ‘people’s republic of California’ forced the founders to seek out a location governed by folks who would be more sympathetic to their aims.

The Baird government has unsurprisingly appealed the decision but nonetheless we have an extra reason now to clink our cups together (in case any was needed).

Onwards to “Black Rock City”.

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Still saluting the NSW Supreme Court one week later at the Robot Heart stage. Photo credit: S Condell. 

Bumper-to-Bumper Burning

Black Rock City, Nevada

 29 August 2016

Burning Man’s subversion of “civilised” social conventions always provided the potential for chaos.

The process of entering the festival more than lived up to that promise.

Shortly after taking the thin country road heading north from Reno, we hit the convoy of Burners, winding its way through the dark night like a conga line of red taillights, bike racks and palpable excitement. The monotony of the drive was occasionally broken by roadside stalls selling bike lights, gas masks and fur coats (all of which, as Burn virgins, we underestimated the significance of at the time).

Eventually, as the normally three-hour journey neared its seventh, we saw the far-off glow and hum of Black Rock City (BRC) on the horizon, already a beacon of light and energy more than 24 hours out from the official start. We crept passed a simple but slightly ominous roadsign urging us towards the distant lights:

“EXIT PLANET!”

Following the arrow, the RV wobbled off the tarmac for its first encounter with what Burners reverentially call “the playa” –  the great white dust-plain of the Black Rock Desert.

Prematurely letting out some excited squeals, it was many, many hours before we finally reached the festival’s official gates, a seeming eternity of frustrating gridlock spent trying to stave off road rage and adopt a Zen-like acceptance, given our destination.

Suddenly (and not for the last time) the placid-looking desert floor was swept up into a frenzy, the duststorm rapidly rising out of nowhere and engulfing miles of weary travellers. Visibility shot, we inched towards the gates until the kindly faces of a huddle of old Burners emerged from the dust. Among them, a nude man in his 70s with a Prince Albert (a male genital piercing for those blissfully unaware) dangling proudly to greet us.

“Welcome home,” the veteran Burners exclaimed, embracing us in a dusty hug after a quick search for stowaways.

We were then instructed to lie face down in the dust and roll. Having been peacefully asleep throughout the ordeal of arrival (and posing for glamorous photos in Las Vegas not too long before that) most of our crew were more than a little disoriented to find themselves eye to eye with an ancient alkali lakebed at 9 in the morning in the middle of a giant duststorm. The white powder caked to our eyelids, arms, hair and knees, much of it to remain there for the next seven days.

It was a baptism of fire, forcing us to immediately embrace and respect the playa rather than engage in some sort of careful assimilation (baby wipes and sunblock at the ready) that might take days.

For the final step of the ritual we were each handed a mallet and invited to smack it loudly into the centre of a Chinese gong while screaming that we, as festival first timers, were now “no longer virgins”.

With those seven metallic bangs, we had entered this strange new world, ending months of planning and logistics and formally commencing the festivities.

As the storm dissipated, we looked at each other, covered from head to toe in white playa dust, and burst into fits of laughter.

There was no going back now.

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Sunrise over gridlock. Just outside the festival gates. Photo credit: J. Perkins

Burn Beginnings 

Black Rock City, Nevada 

31 August 2016

Despite the chaos of our arrival, it is immediately clear that this place is not a celebration of anarchy, but a functioning metropolis.

With the party not due to start until evening, we arrive at our home for the week – the Rubber Armstrong theme camp within the Tetrix Village – to find a buzzing hub of manual labour. The scene is more akin to an Amish settlement or Soviet co-op than a big bush rave, with Burners jovially hammering and nailing, muttering small talk and making friends as they build dwellings, bars, cafes and art sculptures.

When the dust dies down completely, allowing a clear view of your surroundings, you are struck first by the physical beauty of this place. Surrounded on all sides by the dark, jagged mountains that give the desert its name, the natural environment is truly stunning. But the human environment being quickly established by the minute is equally appealing to the eye, with an endless array of colourful camps, flags, scupltures, art cars or “mutant vehicles” and of course, the incredibly creative and beautiful costumes (or lack thereof) of fellow Burners.

Rather than being free of rules, as I had largely assumed, we are quickly informed BRC has many. Above all, there is a widespread and heavily enforced decree that no foreign substance (no beer, no urine, not even water) must touch the playa’s surface. Littering of any kind on the sacred lakebed is a grave sin known as “mooping” i.e. proliferating Matter Out Of Place (MOOP).

Moopers will be derided with very public shame, having created an obstacle to the festival’s overriding goal to “leave no trace” of anyone having been there at all.

Similar public shaming is reserved for “darktards” – i.e. festival attendees with insufficient lighting on their bikes – as one particular Burner, a solicitor by the name of Perkins, very unceremoniously discovered on the first night.

In this way, the Burn does not foster a culture of unchecked liberty, but rather has simply replaced those of society’s rules it finds unpalatable (legal and moral attitudes towards nudity, consumption of recreational drugs and grooming for example) with equally strict rules stemming from an alternative value system or circumstances specific to this environment.

Inherent to that value system is a “cashless” society. The allocation of goods and services in BRC is determined not by the exchange of legal tender, nor by a barter system but according to two concepts fundamental to the Burn: “gifting” and “radical self-reliance”. It is encouraged that each Burner bring enough supplies – that means all the requisite food, first aid, toiletries, non-motorised transport, alcohol, narcotics and most importantly, water –  to survive self-sufficiently for the entire week. However, given that a considerable number of Burners have financially bankrupted themselves with art projects, costumes or simply the barriers to entry (ticket, travel costs etc.) before the event has even begun, reliance on the greater BRC community for sustenance becomes essential for many. Moreover, it is incumbent on each camp – if not each individual Burner – to provide some personal service free of charge to others.

The fine ladies and gentlemen of Rubber Armstrong chose to offer a free bike decoration service, setting up in a large wooden workshop shaped as a robot’s head (as you do). Beyond this, we found ourselves gifting our food, booze and labour when required.

In fact, had you strolled down the BRC avenue known as ‘Knowledge’ on that first afternoon you might have even seen Yours Truly handling some power tools in assistance of the construction of a shower block, if you can believe it. Unfortunately, said shower block became especially moopy shortly thereafter, as some poor Burner felt the need to vomit on the tarpaulin floor. But it least it didn’t touch the playa’s surface!

Wherever you look, humans are participating and co-existing in harmony and with gusto, whether they be erecting a tent, exploring the playa or not wasting anytime bumping and grinding at one of the myriad day clubs.

Spectating comes naturally to me, as is unsurprising of someone in my line of work. But I must admit all this merriment and community spirit is somewhat contagious. There is a distinct sense that for those that embrace the rules and ideals (at least for this week), the hard work, traffic and monetary investment will be rewarded by what is shaping up to be an experience more profound than I ever imagined.

Guess I will just have to get stuck in.

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Exploring the mid-morning playa. Photo credit: S. Condell

Burners, Benders and Buddhists

Black Rock City, Nevada

Date Unknown

While someone flying overhead would see BRC dominated by neon lights, gyrating Millennials and loud soundsystems pumping out techno, in the laneways, neighbourhoods and canvas tents far from the madness, a kinder, gentler Burn does still exist.

You will find camps offering human activities as diverse as traditional bluegrass music; parenting and relationship workshops; and yoga and meditation exercises; alongside some more sinister-sounding locales such as “The OrgyDome” and “Uli Baba and the Horny Thieves’ Flesh Market”.

Even the playa itself, which between the hours of dusk and dawn is a dystopian landscape of lights and noise and dancing and cycling, has moments of serenity. The large temple, a striking multi-storey Buddhist-inspired structure deep in the playa is a moving monument full of genuine emotion and non-denominational spirituality. Even at 3am, as Burners and gurners scurry about the desert floor, the temple is a place of solemn solitude, many visitors mourning for recently lost loved ones.

Like the harsh extremes of hot and cold temperature that descend on the playa, the temple is but one example of the contradictions of the Burn. Euphoria and anguish are rarely so publicly pursued in such proximity to one another and with such mutual respect.

It comes down to acknowledgement of a “live and let live” mindset that all Burners must agree to, from the bluegrass banjo player with disdain for “doof doof” music to the Burn virgin who would really rather not hug a naked old dude with a cock ring.

And yet, despite this “radical inclusiveness” that is among the Burn’s 10 Principles, another clear contradiction is the obvious, if unspecified, social hierarchy on display.

Multi-decade Burners and those who have contributed most to the creation of this project (artists, camp leaders, volunteers etc.) enjoy the view from the top of the food chain while Burn virgins and frat-boy revellers are at the bottom.

Where the world outside these temporary walls determines hierarchy based on wealth, legislative and corporate influence and so on, here status is determined by factors of creativity, gameness and levels of participation.

But this apportionment of social status – natural to any place where humans gather – doesn’t manifest itself in a divisive or negative way, with old hippies pitted against drunken youths. Instead, there is a subtle acknowledgement, even enjoyment, at the fact that for some Burners – sometimes dubbed “real Burners” – this place holds a singularly important place in their lives.

These BRC citizens are identifiable not so much for their appearance (as most attendees take on a typically Burn aesthetic to varying degrees) but in the subtle sense you get that this is the only week of their year they truly enjoy, their playa identities vastly outweighing their lives of wages and struggle in some flyover middle American town.

For the artists and misfits and peaceniks, here they get to experience that satisfying sense of belonging and contentment that successful and powerful folks feel in the real world. Here, their stories matter and they are a somebody.

Both the Burn and the “default world” ostensibly subscribe to a view that elders should be respected. It’s just a different kind of elder that each world truly respects.

That is partly why so many Burners come back year after year. Perhaps I will become one of them. It seems my social status in this city depends on it.

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The whole city congregates as the Man is about to Burn. Photo credit: N. Kovacs

Epilogue: Battling the AfterBurn

Thousand Oaks, California

12 September 2016

Every night since leaving Black Rock City I have dreamt of the playa, jumbled images of roving art cars, sunrise bike adventures, fiery effigies and beautiful women in desert goggles, hijabs and little else.

Seven nights is a long time to be in any desert, let alone one with 70,000 other people and a whole lot of sensory overload. When the time came to de-moop, pack up our dusty and broken belongings and jump head first into another slow-moving convoy, I was more than ready to leave.

For of course, unlike some Burners, I really rather like the “default world”. I enjoy transacting for goods and supporting businesses and products I deem valuable, settling disputes via the instant gratification of Google and occasionally even committing a little “matter out of place” in a suitable bush on the way home from the pub.

Moreover, it would be foolish to not acknowledge that while legal tender does not change hands inside the festival, ultimately real money (and a lot of it) is required to participate in this experience. Indeed, from the tickets, to the artworks, to the clothes and accessories that no washing machine will make useable again, the entire process is one big exercise in setting cash alight, as much a sacrifice to the playa as the Man himself.

But the principles of volunteerism and gifting that lie at the heart of the Burning Man philosophy are hugely important, and a giant party in the desert is a hell of a novel way to remind people of that.

The default world could learn much from Black Rock City in its insistence that people are inherently good and that collaboration and compassion can survive and thrive even in the absence of “civilisation”.

It is an experience that would appeal not just to hedonists and clubbers and hippies but to anyone deeply interested in the human condition, as evidenced by the wide range of people I saw having the time of their lives, from intoxicated Irish backpackers to Vietnam vets in wheelchairs to toddlers waist deep in playa dust.

Burning Man seeks to leave no trace on the desert floor upon which it stages its temporary community. But the playa enters no such contract in return, leaving what I suspect is a significant (and in some cases life-changing) mark on almost all of its temporary inhabitants.

I guess that’s what we in the default world call a “return on investment”.

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Burners pray, mourn, sing and meditate at the Temple. Photo credit: J. Hardy.

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Burners enjoy hands-on art at ‘The Boar’. Photo credit: C. Forslof.

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Like moths to a flame, Burners flock to watch the Pyramids burn. Photo credit: N. Kovacs.

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Tetrix Villagers enjoy a view over the White Ocean stage and deep playa. Photo credit: C. Forslof

Published on 24 September 2016

Superpower spectators

Houston, TX

By international standards, and as anyone who has been following this thread will know, I’m generally a fairly pro-American fellow. Except when it comes to the Olympic Games.

Perhaps due to a characteristically Australian penchant for underdogs or a desire to experience the pleasant feels of witnessing hitherto unprecedented national glory like Fiji’s Gold in the rugby sevens, whatever the reason, I have traditionally tended to find myself backing whoever is opposing the US, even nations that I would consider geopolitically antagonistic (but I suppose the Olympics is all about putting politics aside).

For the first few events of the Rio 2016 games, currently in full swing, this long-formed habit was fully on display, as I cheered on Egyptian beach volleyballers, Korean archers and Aussie breaststrokers – much to the chagrin of my more jingoistic American friends.

But as the Games has entered its second week, and I have become exposed to hour after hour of enthusiastic and infectious patriotism on the NBC network, I must admit my historical hostility to Team USA has started to dissipate.

Or, to put it in distinctly American terms, I have been drinking the Kool-Aid.

The fact that the US medal tally, even by its own usually-dominant standards, has dwarfed that of any challenger has certainly aided this process (as has the fact that, a good opening night in the pool notwithstanding, Australia’s bling-acquiring efforts have been relatively lacklustre). Michael Phelps has cemented himself as the most decorated Olympian in the modern era, Katie Ledecky smashed the 800-metre freestyle world record and Houston local Simone Biles has led a team of phenomenally talented young American gymnasts who have been spectacular to watch, demonstrating the very limits of human physical and mental achievement as only the Olympics can.

These are just a few of the highlights of the American competitors, who, at the time of writing, have clocked up 86 medals, well ahead of its nearest rivals Great Britain and China, at 50 and 52 respectively.

Watching the world’s greatest sporting event from the vantage point of Middle America offers a telling insight into the national psyche. Witnessing the sheer dominance of the American athletes and the reaction to it – in television studios and in living rooms – creates a greater understanding of the exceptionalism that drives much of American public life and foreign policy i.e. the belief that the US is not just another country, but is in some way special and pre-destined for glory.

Indeed, while there is no shortage of cheers and tears and cheesy TV montages of birthday parties sacrificed and challenges overcome, there is also an underlying expectation of success – a cocksure conviction that ‘merica will prevail because ‘merica, that’s why.

No-one seems surprised that the medal stack is so high, only pleasantly satisfied that the differential between the US and the next inferior challenger is larger than it has been in some time. Meanwhile, from other spectators there is an ambivalence about the Olympics in general, a bemusement with all the hype, as though we were talking about the World Series or Super Bowl.

All of these responsive behaviours are reminders that Americans still very much see their global hegemony as current and assured. And the Rio 2016 tally gives them little reason to believe that they are wrong.

I imagine the Romans felt a similarly unsurprised but unashamed satisfaction when their centurions returned home successful from the latest conquest, or when a British Naval commander inspected a man-of-war superior to any that had ever been built.

It is, quite simply, a symptom of superpower.

When the last of the samba dancers exit stage at next week’s Closing Ceremony, and eyes return to the presidential election, it will be interesting to see whether a medal-induced euphoria and newfound spate of positive national sentiment will have an impact on the polls.

After all, the underlying premise of the “Make America Great Again” mantra is that the United States is in decline, that it’s best years lie in the past and it has entered an economic and cultural malaise requiring an unconventional saviour.

The opposing campaign would do well to recall that well-worn chant of youth sporting events:

“Look at the scoreboard!”

U.S. gymnasts and gold medalists (from left) Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Lauren Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman stand for the medal ceremony. The Americans lived up to expectations, overwhelming their competition.

Image source: Associated Press

Published on 17 August 2016

A Family Affair

Austin, TX

I have an embarrassing confession to make: I might be falling a little bit in love with Ivanka Trump.

The trouble for the Clinton campaign is that I suspect much of the American voting public is too.

The 34-year-old mother of three, entrepreneur, Trump Organization executive and eldest daughter of the presidential hopeful arguably stole the show at the recent Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Securing the most coveted speaking slot at the four-day circus, Ivanka formally introduced the nominee while displaying the very traits of class, grace and humility that her father seems to lack. She described herself as “neither a Republican nor a Democrat” and made the Trump campaign’s most compelling pitch yet to undecided independents.

Her brothers, Eric and Donald Jr. also made primetime speeches to the rapturous applause of delegates. On the opening night, their stepmother, Slovenian former supermodel Melania Trump, made remarks that plagiarised parts of a previous Michelle Obama address, sending the media into a frenzy. But ultimately this is an issue that only journalists care about and she too managed to endear herself to the masses.

Trump’s family played an undeniably starring role in the convention. Critics suggest this is because so few of the Republican Party’s biggest names agreed to speak at ‘Trumpapolooza’, but I think it had more to do with the rising popularity (and political capital) of his three eldest children, who are helping to diffuse many of the strongest charges against him.

“If he is a monster, how did he raise such impressive and seemingly well-balanced kids?”

“If he is a misogynist, how is he held in such esteem by his feminist Millennial daughter?”

These are the questions I’m increasingly hearing from moderate, mainstream conservatives that don’t like Trump’s bluster and bravado, his thin skin or coarse tongue, but are beginning to see his successful parenting as a mark of good character.

Meanwhile, over at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – the city in which the American political project began – family was also a selling point.

Chelsea Clinton (who, awkwardly, is a personal friend of Ivanka Trump’s, having both been raised in the elite confines of the Upper East Side) gave a polished and heartfelt speech introducing Hillary. Though of course, unlike the Trump kids, this was not her first rodeo.

And ‘Slick Willy’ was at his yarn-ripping best, giving the nation a dose of that well-worn Clinton charm offensive. The former president and first lady are now taking their show on the road, bunkering down in a tour bus with folksy VP choice Tim Kaine and his wife. In this they are mirroring their 1992 road trip across America with Al and Tipper Gore (and no doubt hoping for a similar result).

At its very inception, American democracy was a reaction to the hereditary rule and lingering feudalism of Europe. Its revolution forged a new type of representative politics in which merit, not lineage, was meant to be the deciding factor in attaining success.

And yet, dynasty has come to play a powerful role in American politics. Indeed, much of the past two decades have been dominated by just two families: the one that took the stage in Philly on Thursday night and the blue-blood ivy-leaguers turned Texan cowboys known affectionately ‘round these parts as the ‘Bush clan’.

Given that he easily fended off a challenge from one Bush – and arguably the most talented one – and the rest of the party’s “establishment”, Trump has been successful in pitching himself as an outsider. And compared to Hillary Clinton, he undoubtedly is.

But I now wonder whether historians might look back on this most recent GOP convention not so much as an important moment of anti-establishment sentiment – which it may well be – but as the birth of the next American political dynasty.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has maintained that it was his idea to run for office, in order to “make America great again” and that his offspring would take the reins of the company in his absence. But the more I see of the Trump kids, the more I’m convinced it was them who encouraged their old man into the race, easing the path for their own political ambitions.

For three young execs ostensibly running one of the world’s most famous conglomerates, they spend a hell of a lot of time on the campaign trail.

Don Jr, who is now addressing rallies across the US almost as big as his dad’s, has already been asked about a potential run for Mayor of New York, which he refused to rule out.

Eric has become a mainstay of the nightly TV pundit panels, very effectively staying on message about his family’s background as businesspeople and not “crooked DC politicians”.

And Ivanka was reportedly influential over her father’s decision to sack campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, after the controversial politico was accused of physically assaulting a female reporter.

Should The Donald lose to Hillary Clinton in November, and his historic campaign go down the drain, don’t assume his dream of a Trump White House goes down with it.

I know which of the three I’d be rooting for.

trump dynasty

Image source: New York Magazine

Published on 30 July 2016

Context in Colombo

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Between 1983 and 2009, as much of Asia cast off colonial and communist shackles and began relentlessly pursuing peace and prosperity, Sri Lanka was engulfed in a civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Aside from tea and its national cricket team – the ever-determined Lions whom I think it’s fair to say most Aussies have a soft spot for, particularly when they beat India, their giant rival to the north – the island formerly known as Ceylon rarely grabs international attention.

But while it might not have dominated headlines, the decades-long conflict between the native Sinhalese population and the separatist Tamils – who emigrated from southern India during the Middle Ages (hardly recent imposters) – has left visible scars on this otherwise tropical paradise.

Its cities and townships clearly haven’t developed at pace with geographical neighbours and though the Sri Lankan people seem industrious and hard-working, few seem to be enjoying the spoils of economic growth that so many Asians have now come to know.

A disastrous tsunami and earthquake in 2004 made the already-precarious situation notably worse. I was shocked to see the state of the Galle International Stadium, one of cricket’s most storied grounds. Aside from an oddly-placed washing machine and the occasional faded advertisement, its rooms and stands were bare and crumbling, the musky stench of water damage still lingering.

Here to give a speech on the US election, a comparison between the two nations could not be avoided.

Having laid out my assessment – as I do throughout this thread – that the world’s superpower is at historic levels of division currently, some audience members could not help but be cynical.

Dr Sarath, a smiley Sinhalese economist living in Shanghai, was quick to respond.

“Yes I agree, this election is very interesting and a Trump win would have a profound effect on global financial markets,” he opened diplomatically. “But to a Sri Lankan, America doesn’t seem quite so divided.”

I was about to retort that the number of US gun murders between 1983 and 2009 would dwarf 100,000 but thought the better of it, not wanting to get into a tasteless size-up between two atrocities.

Moreover, the good doctor’s point was well made: America might have its problems, but overall its citizens are still richer, healthier and safer than most places on Earth.

It was the kind of important perspective that so often accompanies travel in the developing world.

In his autobiography, the brilliant writer and raconteur Christopher Hitchens explained that he liked to spend some time each year in a country less fortunate than his own, in order to come by these kinds of contextual epiphanies. Upon reading that – in Africa at the time mind you – I was inspired to emulate Hitch’s maxim, something I’m happy to say I’ve more or less achieved so far (thanks mainly to a worryingly laissez faire attitude towards credit card debt).

And having seen a fair bit of the third world in recent years, the one thing that seems to separate those that are flourishing from those that are yet to find their way in the post-colonial age is the strength of institutions and rule of law. Wherever politicians can get away with more, and can more readily intervene in the affairs of the people without accountability, the worse the state of its economy and lower its standards of living I have generally found.

Sadly, this has been the case for Sri Lanka. Too many of its leaders have succumbed to the divisive rhetoric that has postponed reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese, whether out of genuine xenophobia or, more likely, as way of mobilising the masses. Others have stuck their fingers deep into the communal honeypot, plundering without the inconvenient fear of being brought to justice.

Even the man credited with ending the war, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is now under suspicion of corruption and this morning I picked up the local English language rag to see that his son Namal has been arrested on charges of fraud. He will likely be let off scot-free, but even the fact that the police took action against such a VIP is promising.

Every country has its developmental issues, but the notion that rule of law transcends the power of any man (or woman) is central to its ability to grow and provide peace for its people.

That’s why so many Americans are worried about their current presidential prospects, whether it is Hillary Clinton’s lax treatment of confidential emails or Donald Trump’s shock claim that the constitution may “take a back seat” if he occupies the White House.

They would be wise to brush up on recent Sri Lankan history. Or maybe take a little trip to somewhere less fortunate.

sri lanka

Image source: Agence France Press

Published on July 18 2016

Black and blue lives

Cleveland, Ohio

The streets of Cleveland may have been a sea of unity following the Cavs’ historic NBA championship, but signs suggest the harmony will be short-lived. As this majority African-American city prepares to host the Republican Party’s national convention this week, tensions are running high. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement had made clear its intention to fiercely protest the convention and the party’s presumptive nominee in particular (as is its constitutional right). But given the rowdy and sometimes violent nature of anti-Trump demonstrations at less significant events the local cops here are on high alert for the main event.

The situation is not native to northern Ohio. Across America’s cities right now, civil unrest is intensifying and blood is being spilled.

On July 7, five police officers were murdered by a single shooter at a BLM rally in Dallas, held in response to a number of recent police killings of young black males. The very next day, five citizens were shot at a candlelight vigil in downtown Baltimore, as spontaneous demonstrations sprouted – some peaceful, others less so.

And now another three cops have been gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the same city in which Alton Sterling was killed by police last week.

These horrific events have reopened a national sore that has steadily grown more infected. Unrest in the country’s urban centres is at fever pitch, as is distrust between law enforcement and the communities they are tasked with serving.

Over the past year I’ve hesitated to wade into this thorny issue, recognising that having not grown up in this country I needed time to try to understand the depth of feeling and range of perspectives about the dire situation in America’s poorest precincts. Or, to adopt the popular adage of the ‘regressive left’, perhaps I wanted to “check my privilege”.

It is a topic that touches on some of society’s most difficult considerations – race, criminal justice, violence and mental health, poverty and income disparity, welfare and corruption, the role of the family and state, the legacy of slavery and colonialism – and not a day goes by that you don’t hear a headline, argument, lamentation or jibe trying to make sense of the madness.

On one level, the unrest seems to stem from a tragic and extreme form of miscommunication. Many African-Americans, particularly the youth of the poorest communities, have tried to tell the story of overzealous and sometimes brutal policing for decades. But believing their efforts have fallen on deaf ears, they have now resorted to more militant tactics to demand attention, manifested in the BLM movement, which has grown from a hashtag to an influential cultural and political force in a shockingly small amount of time.

I gained an eyewitness account of the communicative chasm when attending some seminars last year at the Leadership Institute; a DC think-tank Hillary Clinton once famously claimed was at the crux of the alleged “vast right wing conspiracy”. Having remained relatively quiet throughout the morning’s debates and deliberations, Jordan, a young black guy from Kansas City, Missouri – not far from the infamous Ferguson where a BLM protest got very out of hand in 2015 – suddenly found his voice. From the rear of the room, he interjected in a conversation about criminal justice reform to provide some personal insight.

“Excuse me,” Jordan timidly began. “I appreciate all y’all’s points of views but I gotta tell you that I get stopped by the police for no reason almost every day and it can be very frustrating.”

Jordan is not a gang-banger but a Young Republican that works at a bank. His words were not offensive, embellished or politically charged. He politely offered relevant facts of his own personal experience.

And yet, the response he received was as telling as the tale itself.

The room exploded in a frenzy of head-shaking, finger-pointing, cynicism and denial. The message was immediately clear: Jordan was wrong and the other attendees (most of whom were white, upper-middle-class politicos who have likely never been to Kansas City, Missouri) simply knew better. If this was the reaction to a well-spoken, well-groomed, self-identified conservative I could only imagine the brick wall he would have faced, had he been clad in a do-rag and baggy jeans instead. He just wanted to be listened to, and instead left the meeting feeling more dejected and disillusioned than when he arrived.

The point of this anecdote is not in any way to justify or excuse the disgusting and evil slaughter of police officers, but rather to illustrate a real world example of the kinds of everyday exchanges that have fuelled the violent frustration playing out on the streets.

No amount of victimhood justifies murder and much of the anti-cop hysteria is the overblown symptom of social and traditional media hype. But for those for whom uttering the words “black lives matter” is a step too far, perhaps at least acknowledging that the inhabitants of the ghetto might actually be the most qualified people to testify on the subject would be a decent start to fixing this mess.

At the same time, I do understand the concerns of those who will say I’m being too soft on a political movement that has advocated vandalism and violence. For every story of excessive force by a law enforcement officer, there are many more of wanton lawlessness and crime by angry young citizens and of police doing their job appropriately, even heroically. The sad reality is that for many white middle class Americans, their only experience of black youth is the negative memory of a past mugging or burglary (or more likely, the Chinese whispers of a friend of a friend who has had such an ordeal). Focusing on these cases might unfairly taint the other law-abiding members of these communities – those brave kids who turn down the trappings of “thug life” and hit the books or batting cages amid the sound of gunfire – but they do exist and they have helped entrench the battlelines.

Finding solutions to these deep-seated divisions is not easy, but will likely require a combination of criminal justice and economic reform, new approaches to policing and the more important shifts in public sentiment and perception – all of which are easier said than done but now possess some urgency.

What is more obvious is that the status quo in the low income inner cities is not sustainable.

Decades of government funds and programs have failed to improve lives and have arguably made them worse. Rather than its stated purpose to lift people up, the welfare state has created a cycle of hopelessness and dependency that is a far cry from the “hope and change” promised by politicians.

So instead of fortifying their conference this week and sending in the troops, maybe Republicans could instead open their doors to the disenfranchised and downtrodden, and offer them a positive alternative to the failure and corruption they have known, rather than being the “elephant not in the room”.

But this would require them to stop talking and listen, an activity that doesn’t come naturally to the man who will be nominated in Cleveland this week.

blue lives

Image source: DeviantArt.com

Published on July 14 2016

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.

brexit

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.

IMG_2564

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.

us flag torn

Published on ‘Flag Day’, 14 June 2016