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Archive for the ‘United States of America’ Category

JOURNALISM’S LOSS: VALE MICHAEL HASTINGS

In Journalism, United States of America on June 19, 2013 at 7:30 am

Speaking truth to power, never backing down, and hunting down a story until there is nothing more to tell are journalistic attributes in hasty decline in this era of citizen journalism, gossip tv and a demanding online news culture. Andy Warhol’s maxim that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame sounds quaint today. The Internet has the ability to make superstars out of all of us, whether we are singers like Justin Bieber or someone with a smart phone and mid-level editing skills. Some people, like the late Michael Hastings, simply seek to tell stories that need to be told, caring little for the trappings of fame that might accompany the task.

hastings Michael Hastings became famous after his 2010 Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal, which ended with the general being recalled to Washington then given the boot by Obama. You can read it here. It is, without any doubt, a brilliant piece of immersion journalism and an extraordinary piece of writing. For obvious reasons, it was compulsory reading for my journalism students in 2011. But he was also a prolific wordsmith; from big stories to small, from wars to politicians. The topic was irrelevant. The search for truth was everything.

In February 2012 Hastings wrote an obituary, published in Rolling Stone of the New York Times journalist, Anthony Shadid, who was killed while covering the conflict in Syria. Now, in a cruel irony, journalists are writing Hastings’ obituary – a life senselessly ended at the painfully young age of 33. Life sometimes has a way of laughing right in your face.

There is little need – or desire – to labour over a lengthy obituary of Michael Hastings. I didn’t know him. It didn’t matter. I knew his work well. I’ve read his books. I read his journalism. I followed his career. He was the kind of journalist other journalist aspire to be, but never quite make it.

His editor at Buzzfeed best summed up the loss: “Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered from wars to politicians. He wrote stories that would otherwise have gone unwritten, and without him there are great stories that will go untold.”

I hope somewhere out there a journalism student is sitting in class, learning and practicing their craft, aspiring to be like Michael Hastings. The world can only hope.

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THE TROUBLE WITH FREE SPEECH

In Australian Politics, United States of America on September 27, 2011 at 3:49 am

Notions of free speech have been debated for thousands of years. At his trial in 399BC, Socrates said: “If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind … I should say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.’”

In 1633 Galileo Galilei found himself before the Inquisition after claiming the sun does not revolve around the earth. He was not the first to face persecution for publicly expressing an opinion and he certainly won’t be the last.

Most of us living in liberal democracies, where free speech is either enshrined constitutionally or has a long legal lineage, would say we subscribe to the kind of free speech it is claimed – albeit without foundation – Voltaire was talking about: “… I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” That Voltaire never actually said those words is not the point. We’re discussing the sentiment here.

I suspect many, if not most of those same people could easily be convinced to recant.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution is taken very seriously. It reads:

            Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or

prohibiting the free expression thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech

or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to

petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This very American ideal of free speech has existed in this form since 1791. Americans believe themselves to be an open and accepting society in which free expression is not only tolerated, but is the right of every citizen. The reality is very different.

On the day after New York’s World Trade Centre fell to the ground, Ward Churchill, then professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote an essay entitled Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, in which he asserts that it was America who first started the violence and as such it really should not be inconceivable that “some people push back”.

It took a couple of years for Churchill’s essay to hit the public consciousness, but once it did the response was predictable, untempered and vitriolic. Media commentators called for his resignation, declaring him unfit to teach. The University of Colorado Board of Regents issued a public apology for Churchill’s essay, which failed to appease those baying for his head. In 2007, Churchill was fired. His unlawful termination of employment lawsuit remains ongoing.

Whether you believe someone has the right – in this case an American, Ward Churchill, under the First Amendment – to publicly suggest America got what was coming to it on 11 September 2001, or not, the point is a line was drawn in the sand by some people who found Churchill’s words repugnant. It’s what American literary theorist and Milton scholar, Stanley Fish, calls a “trigger point”; something, he argues, we all have.

Fish’s argument is simple. He believes that nobody has ever supported free speech because the kind of free speech we understand and enjoy is really what is left over after we have discarded everything we find unpalatable. That is, after we’ve drawn a line in the sand.

Proponents of uninhibited free speech argue that necessity is the excuse offered for every infringement of free speech. In the U.S., they cite the Patriot Act, for example. It’s a nice wordplay, but I wonder if they really believe it. We all draw a line in the sand, even if we do out best to convince ourselves that in defending free speech we also defend the speech of people we hate.

Sometimes our government draws a line in the sand on our behalf. The Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship lists Five Fundamental Freedoms about living in Australia. The first is: Freedom of Speech. The  department’s website says of free speech in Australia’s:

Australians are free, within the bounds of the law, to say or write what we

think privately or publicly, about the government, or about any topic. We

do not censor the media and may criticise the government without fear of

arrest. Free speech comes from facts, not rumours, and the intention must

be constructive, not to do harm. There are laws to protect a person’s good

name and integrity against false information. There are laws against

saying or writing things to incite hatred against others because of their

culture, ethnicity or background. Freedom of speech is not an excuse to

harm others.

This does not seem a particularly offensive goal. But is it free speech? Voltaire, whether he actually spoke the words noted earlier or not, would say no; but it is something closer to Stanley Fish’s understanding of free speech.

The left was quick to come to Professor Churchill’s defense. Rightly so. Academic freedom is an important tenet of the tertiary sector and with the global rise of conservatism in recent years, it appears to be under threat.

But the left was also quick to protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s abhorrent and nasty practice of picketing the funerals of American soldiers. Their hate-filled anti-gay tactics include displaying placards proclaiming ‘God Hates Fags’, ‘God Hates America’ and ‘Thank God For IEDs’. A line has been drawn in the sand by many Americans.

Earlier this year the United States Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of Westboro to picket military funerals, deciding that they could not be held liable for money damages sought by the family of slain Marine, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, whose funeral was picketed by Westoboro. And why wouldn’t it? Americans of all political persuasions should rejoice in the Supreme Court decision. The intent of the U.S. Bill of Rights has been upheld and affirmed.

The Supreme Court ruled it constituted lawful and peaceful commentary on political issues under the First Amendment.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and as it did here – inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”

The lone dissenting voice, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote: “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case … In this case, respondents brutally attacked Matthew Snyder and this attack, which was almost certain to inflict injury, was central to respondent’s well-practices strategy for attracting public attention.”

Margie Phelps, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church and its lawyer in the case, said of the verdict: “The only surprise is that Justice Alito did not feel compelled to follow his oath. We read the law. We follow the law. The only way for a different ruling is to shred the First Amendment.”

In On Liberty (1859) John Stuart Mill argued that “… there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” But Mill also introduced the ‘harm principle’, placing the following limitation on free expression: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Some commentators take this a step or two further, suggesting some forms of expression can be legitimately prohibited by law because their ability to offend is so great. So, to illustrate, in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Israel, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Switzerland, it is a criminal offense to publicly deny the Holocaust or to deny acts of genocide have occurred.

As Australia continues to debate the need and worthiness of a Bill of Rights, we should stop and consider for a moment whether we really want and need the kind of free speech Voltaire may or may not have advocated, with the right of repugnant people to speak their minds alongside the voices of those we agree with, or whether we are prepared to accept the our “trigger point” works to the betterment of society.

Australia, like America, may once have been a tolerant nation. But not any longer. Both sides of politics in Australia over the past decades have seen to that. The kind of free speech wrongly attributed to Voltaire is idealistic, even quaint, but it is no longer – if it ever was – workable in Australia’s less-than-tolerant society.

Remaining free of the constraints of a Bill of Rights might be our saving grace.

 

POSTSCRIPT – Thursday, 29 September 2011

Yesterday the Federal Court in Melbourne found against ‘journalist’ Andrew Bolt in a case that has become as much about defining quality journalism as it has about free speech. You can read various accounts of the case here, here and here. I won’t delve into the details of the case itself, you can read about it for yourself. Except to say, the decision in this case, in my opinion, is not about attempts to silence free speech, it is about – as I highlight above – drawing a line in the sand and saying, “For the benefit of society, that is going too far.” It is something humans have done since long before Gutenberg’s printing press and it is something we will continue to do. I believe that to be a good thing. As much as I am yet to read anything written by Andrew Bolt that I find palatable, I believe he has the right to freely express it. What he does not have a right to do is distort the truth, lie and pluck ‘facts’ out of the ether in the name of ‘journalism’. Nor should he. Free speech? By all means. Free speech which includes defaming and lying about someone? Never.

If Australia had a Bill of Rights, I believe people like Andrew Bolt, who peddles in little more than shock and fear opinion (as opposed to balanced and productive journalism) would be allowed to continue to offend. And offensive is what he is more often than not. The Federal Court, I would argue, has presented an articulate argument against a Bill of Rights in Australia. Yes, that’s my left-leaning sensibilities coming to the fore. But it’s my blog. Go write your own.

DON’T GET SICK IN AMERICA, OR, WHY AMERICA IS SICK

In United States of America on September 19, 2011 at 11:54 pm

I’ve visited the United States a number of times in my life. I’ve traveled by plane, train and automobile from one coast to the other. I’ve been on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building and I’ve stood in the Jungle Room at Graceland. I’ve looked out over New York City from the top floor observation deck of the World Trade Centre (almost 10 years to the day before it fell) and I’ve been soaked to the bone by water barreling over Niagara Falls. I even turned 21 at a quint little town in Texas: Amarillo, where I wore a stetson and road a mechanical bull – in the lobby of a restaurant! But one thing I’ve never done during many trips to America is make use of its health system. Touch wood, I’ve never been sick while traveling America. Never needed a doctor or a pharmacy or a hospital. I hope it stays that way, because when it comes to health care the U.S. is in serious trouble.

During a recent Tea Party Republican presidential debate, the issue of health care was raised. Before going into detail about the tone of the debate, let me offer a brief summary: if you have no health insurance and you present to a hospital emergency room on death’s door you: a) are worthy of Tea Party laughter and, b) don’t deserve to receive potentially life-saving treatment. America: land of the free, home of the brave!!

During the debate, U.S. Representative Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas and also a doctor, was asked a hypothetical question by the host of the debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. The question: how should society respond if a healthy 30-year-old man who decided against buying health insurance suddenly does into a coma and requires intensive care for six months. The response seems intuitive to me. Any fair and reasonable person would suggest that he receive the treatment he needs. Yes? No, not in America.

Ron Paul – a fierce advocate of limited-government – told the audience it should not be the government’s responsibility. He said, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks.” Ron Paul started to say more but was drowned out by the audience’s robust applause. He finally added, “This whole idea that you have to prepare to care for everybody…” He was interrupted by Wolf Blitzer, “Are you saying that society should just let him die?”

Again, any fair and reasonable person – particularly one hoping to be president of a nation with $14 trillion in national debt – would respond by saying no, of course he should not be left to die. You got it….not in America. At this point in the debate, several audience members shouted, “Yeah!” followed by laughter, in response to Blitzer’s question. Ron Paul finally responded, disagreeing with the audience. “No”, he said, mentioning his time practicing medicine before the introduction of Medicaid (because he is really old!) when churches covered medical costs, “We never turned anybody away from the hospital.” Well, good then. Paul did go on to note that the reason medical costs have skyrocketed in the United States is because individuals have stopped taking personal responsibility for their health care.

The day after the debate, Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry (really America, you want another Texan in the White House?) criticised the audience response. “I was a bit taken aback by that myself”, Perry told NBC News. “We’re the party of life. We ought to be coming up with ways to save lives”.

Self-styled conservative commentator and blogger (Note: He’s not really conservative), Andrew Sullivan, writing for The Daily Beast’s The Dish, noted that the United States obligates society to save someone in an emergency room. “America, moreover, has a law on the books that makes it a crime not to treat and try to save a human being who walks into an emergency room. So, we have already made that collective decision and if the GOP wants to revisit it, they can”, Sullivan wrote. Sullivan also decried the audience reaction, writing, “Maybe a tragedy like the death of a feckless twenty-something is inevitable if we are to restrain healthcare costs, but it’s still a tragedy. It isn’t something a decent person cheers”.

The moral of the story is threefold. First, don’t get sick in America if you are an American. Second, never, ever, get sick in America if you aren’t American. Third, Americans may be the only people left on the planet who believe America is still a super-power.

OBAMA HAS TWO MONTHS TO CONVINCE AMERICANS

In United States of America on September 9, 2011 at 3:18 am

Below my opinion piece – Obama Has Two Months To Convince Americans – published today on The Drum. On Thursday evening (7pm Wasghington time, 9am Friday AEST), Obama delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he outlined a comprehensive (and very expensive) package designed to – finally – save the U.S. economy and create jobs. With his approval rating sinking and record disapproval of Congress, not to mention that a majority of Americans now feel there is no way he can turn it all around before the next election, Obama has a huge fight on his hands. The Republicans, for their part, are lapping it up.

Some are already suggesting to me that Obama’s day has come and gone. That may well be true. But I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. This package, if passed – the American Jobs Act – is his last chance to save his hide. He has, by my reckoning, just a couple of months in which to convince Congress to pass the bill and sell it to the American people before he must begin campaigning in earnest. If not, Obama is assuredly a one-term president.

Obama Has Two Months to Convince Americans

Two and a half years into his presidency and right before he must devote more and more of his time and energy to running for re-election, the American people are deserting Barack Obama at a rapid pace.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll reveals 1 in 6 Americans believe Obama is doing a bad job managing the economy. His dismal standing in the polls at the start of the primary season has given an already-large Republican field, vying for the right to challenge him at the 2012 election, plenty of ammunition.

In a recent speech in Nevada – a state hit hard by the economic troubles – Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said of Obama’s handling of the economy: “And the reason is president Obama’s strategy is a pay phone strategy and we’re in a smart phone world.”

Even Obama’s spokesperson, Jay Carney, has found it difficult to sell the president’s achievements: “Nobody is arguing that the growth we’ve seen this year is anywhere near robust enough or that the job creation we’ve seen is enough.”

Obama has a myriad of challenges ahead of him, both domestic and international. Most, like Afghanistan and the economy, have been on his radar since the day he was sworn in.

As promised, he has announced the return of 38,000 of 100,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the next northern summer, with the Afghans taking full responsibility for their own security by 2014.

The United States has paid a heavy price in realising its goal of dismantling Al Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power. In the 10 years since Operation Enduring Freedom began, the United States has lost 1,700 lives to the cause and spent $450 billion. But let’s not be fooled into believing that withdrawal isn’t without great risk – both for the Afghan people and Obama personally.

To have any chance of success, Washington will need to work much harder to help Afghanistan build a government that can deliver security and govern effectively without the corruption that is currently rooted deeply within the Western-backed Afghan government. Many Americans I have spoken to are sceptical the Obama administration has a comprehensive strategy designed to assist in the building of a government Afghans would be prepared to support and fight for.

Obama’s two and a half years have been far from smooth sailing. The soaring rhetoric of his campaign and the high hopes placed in him by voters has, mostly, failed to translate into significant policy achievements.

To add insult to Obama’s injuries, a string of centrist appointments, bank bailouts, the debt-ceiling standoff and the threatening double-dip recession have begun to alienate the left.

Obama rode into Washington promising to do whatever it takes to fix the US economy. He’s faltered, if not failed, so far. An American colleague of mine, who voted for Obama, told me that he couldn’t recall ever being this disappointed in a president he voted for. But all is not necessarily lost. Obama has one last opportunity – and by my reckoning about two months to achieve it – before all is irreparably lost.

In a rare speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday evening, Obama proposed the American Jobs Act – a plan pitched distinctly at moderates and independents; the two camps he must court, and bring onboard, if he has any chance of winning next year’s election.

In the opening words of his speech, Obama demanded the Congress immediately pass the package, telling them there is nothing in his jobs plan that hasn’t previously been supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Over and over during his speech Obama called on the Congress to “pass this bill”. This package is a last-ditch effort by Obama to rebuild the US economy and put more money in the pockets of middle-class working Americans, while projecting a focus on fiscal responsibility.

In his speech, Obama proposed to significantly increase spending on schools and major infrastructure projects, and to overhaul social security. Overall, Obama’s proposed $447 billion in stimulus money is considerably larger than many commentators were expecting.

At the centre of Obama’s American Jobs Act is a $240 billion extension and expansion of existing cuts to payroll taxes, cutting the tax paid by employees in half during 2012. In addition, small businesses would receive a cut in payroll taxes and a “tax holiday” for hiring new employees.

Predicting a Republican backlash to his plan, Obama said in his speech, “The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.”

Obama’s proposals must now pass Congress. He can – and no doubt will – blame Republicans if it fails to pass. But with the election in November 2012, Obama’s only hope of success lies in three areas. First, with a continued record disapproval rating of Congress, with 82 per cent of Americans disapproving of the way it does its job, particularly in the wake of the debt ceiling debate. Second, with Obama presiding over some economic growth in 2012, which might fairly be described as a miracle. And third, with the American public continuing to sour in their opinion of the Tea Party movement.

Obama has failed to translate his soaring rhetoric into equally soaring achievements, adding fuel to his Republican opponents’ cries that he never really had the experience needed to succeed in the job.

Failure to reduce unemployment from its current level of 9.1 per cent and failure to turn around the 60 per cent disapproval rating of his handling of the economy – alongside a New York Times/CBS News poll indicating 54 per cent of Americans believe it is unlikely Obama can now reverse his fortunes – Obama is assured of being a one-term president, regardless of who wins the Republican nomination.

In two and a half year he has shown more ‘No We Can’t’, than ‘Yes We Can’. The next two months will determine his future.

UNTHINKING IDEOLOGUES

In Australian Culture and Society, United States of America on January 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Yesterday – the 2nd anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration – I had a piece published by ABC Unleashed arguing that Obama should consider not running for a second term. Although I have only read about a dozen of the 239 comments left online in response to my piece, it is fair to say that most people who left a comment missed my point. It also reaffirms an opinion I have long held: too many people adhere strictly to a political ideology (what was once called Left and Right – definitions well-and-truly outdated) without consideration, reflection or thought about WHY.

The irony of my piece and comments left by readers – many of which are vitriolic and personal attacks on my character – is that they accuse me of being a right-wing-Fox-News-lover  who is merely trotting out the conservative talking n0tes. An ironic assertion, because I am liberal. Not a Liberal, but liberal. Very liberal. I consider myself the most liberal-minded person in my social circle. But does that mean I shouldn’t think about issues and their consequences? Of course not. Does it mean I should only write pieces that reaffirm beliefs and opinions already held by the Left? Of course not. I believe my job is to challenge those who see the world in a similar way to me, in order that we all think about the world around us.

It’s easy to become complacent and convinced of one’s ideological moral superiority. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of it. I won’t do it – not on this blog and not in my published work.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt – once of the great U.S. presidents – was hated bu his political opponents who didn’t understand him. FDR never gave in. He once said, “I welcome their hatred.” Not to compare myself with a great man like FDR, but I can relate to the sentiment.

You can read my ABC Unleashed piece here, and decide for yourself.