American Daily: October 3, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

3 October 2014


We’ve become accustomed to the sight of a black President governing through these dangers—ever-present, contextual, and undiminished—in the way that sirens become ambient sound in New York City. This is one of the less frequently noted accomplishments of his Presidency. In 2008, Obama projected calm amid political turbulence. As President, this demeanor has been part of the reason that such fears have receded to the extent that they have. Yet a population that lived through the September 11th attacks can scarcely ever confuse remote likelihoods with complete impossibilities. Dictatorships are measured by the basest actions of the tyrants who control them, but the metric of democracy is the actions of its citizenship. The bipartisan outrage that has emerged this week is not a sign of a political thaw; it’s an indicator that neither party cares to see America reduced by the unquantifiable sum that Dealey Plaza or Ford’s Theatre diminished it.
  • Was Secret Service director Julia Pierson a victim of the "glass cliff"?

Reasonable people can disagree about whether, ultimately, she deserved to lose her job or whether anyone in charge during such an incident would have to resign. But it’s probably not pure chance that Pierson, who held that position for just a year-and-a-half, was a woman. Time and again, women are put in charge only when there’s a mess, and if they can’t engineer a quick cleanup, they’re shoved out the door. The academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam even coined a term for this phenomenon: They call it getting pushed over the glass cliff.

At a time when Beijing is especially paranoid about "foreign meddling" in its affairs, associating Hong Kong's homegrown protest with the United States could make it more difficult for students to win concessions for their local grievances.

This raises some broader issues for "explainer journalism" — an enterprise that includes not only Vox.com, but our own blog, The New York Times’s The Upshot, 538.com and other smaller sites, too. All of these sites have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public. This means that they (and again: that they includes the Monkey Cage, too) are asserting a a claim to expertise. Specifically, they are claiming that their writers understand an issue on a sufficiently deep level that they can explain it. Conventional journalists can quote outside experts and hedge their bets a little by riding on the coattails of these experts’ authority and blaming them if their theories are wrong. Explainer journalism rests instead on the authority of the person doing the explaining.

  • Why civility won't solve Congressional gridlock.

But we also need a reality check here. The bigger problems with gridlock and dysfunction are not because individuals do not trust each other; they are because of larger factors in the political process and the culture.


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The TPP: A stumbling block for Australian innovation

By Tiernan Christensen in Geneva, Switzerland

1 October 2014


Tiernan Christensen is a University of Sydney Arts/Law student who interned with the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia as part of the Centre's internship program. He is in Geneva for the World Trade Organization Public Forum, and is a National Scholarship recipient for Global Voices.  


The Australian $50 dollar note shows the portrait of David Unaipon, the indigenous Australian who between 1872 and 1967 took out a prolific nineteen provisional patents on inventions, including a shearing machine that formed the basis of modern mechanical shears.

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s decision in 1995 to include Unaipon’s image was a clear nod to the early genesis of innovation and entrepreneurship in Australia. Since Unaipon’s time, this culture of invention and innovation has seen Australian scientists and creative individuals invent new-to-the-world goods and services, such as wi-fi, the black box flight recorder, and the Macquarie Bank model for financing public infrastructure projects.

Today, as Australia’s population ages and the mining boom reaches its final leg, key commentators have argued that it is innovation, more than any other factor, that will allow Australia to continue our two decades of uninterrupted growth and remain internationally competitive in a rapidly changing, technologically disrupted global marketplace.

In their 2014 report, Building Australia’s Comparative Advantages, the Business Council of Australia argued "it is is innovation that will allow businesses to access new markets, grow value, and tap into global value chains to bring new products to market."

This is clearly true, with innovation in capital use and labour accounting for 65 per cent of economic growth per capita between 1964 and 2005, according to the Productivity Commission.

To sustain and improve Australia’s innovation system, the government has been deepening trade linkages through bilateral and regional free trade agreements, which aim to attract foreign investment and technology flows into Australia, whilst forcing Australian companies to remain competitive in the face of export and import competition.

However, Australia’s engagement in trade is not entirely positive for innovation outcomes. In many cases, trade can lock in terms and standards that are unfavourable to the development of innovation.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is a fine example of an impediment to innovation. 

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The TPP is a regional free trade agreement between twelve states across the Asia–Pacific region, including Australia, the United States, and Japan. Conducted largely in secret since March 2010, negotiation rounds have aimed to coalesce the members competing interests to achieve a trade block that would cover almost 30 per cent of world trade and 40 per cent of the world’s GDP.

The leaked draft provisions of the agreement reveal that the negotiations are marching to the beat of the hardline US drum, with provisions representing bad news for Australian innovators.

The first concern is the expansion of intellectual property rights, which will restrict medical innovation.

Whilst the preamble clearly states the objective of promoting "technological innovation," the provisions will allow pharmaceutical companies to protect their data exclusivity by preventing competitors from using past clinic data to support new products.

This is a move that would harm Australian innovation, which is built upon the capacity of firms to share knowledge and collaborate to maximise the flow and exchange of resources and ideas. The creation of monopolies for clinical data will mean that potentially innovative generic manufacturers will have either to wait for the data monopoly period to end, or repeat their own clinical trials — a point which the Australian Medical Students’ Association terms unnecessary and inefficient.

The IP provision will allow an extension of patent protection beyond the WTO’s "Doha Minus" 20-year limitation period for companies who patent different aspects of their products. This technique of "evergreening" stifles the capacity of generic producers to innovate and introduce new formulations of original medicines.

The second concern is the extension of terms of protection for copyright and related rights under Article 4, which will limit Australia’s capacity to innovate in the digital economy.

Under this article, copyright protection extends the current Berne Convention rights from the life of the author plus 50 years, to life plus 70 years.

By delaying creative material entering the public domain, copyright extensions clearly serve as a detriment to smaller innovative companies, who often rely on re-using and re-inventing older material into new products and services.

The path from invention to commercialisation will, under Article 4, become increasingly difficult for such companies as key research and knowledge is withheld from innovative use. As Matthew Rimmer from ANU said, "What young, small businesses are going to risk innovating when they have to tread through the complex penalties of the TPP’’

The answer is very few.

This is made worse when you consider that Article 4 will regulate internet rules by preventing the electronic storage of copyrighted material — a notion that runs contrary to Australian law.

In the digital age, using temporary information, or caches, is essential for companies using digital tools and platforms to develop their products.

Given this, the innovative capacity of Australian internet and tech-based services is likely to be eroded by the TPP. We may now be unable to expect clear success stories to emerge such as the Australian company freelancer.com, the world’s largest freelancing and outsourcing website, which allows small businesses to post their project requirements online.

Article 4 would further prohibit the circumvention of technical measures which are used to protect copyrights. This would be without recourse to any exceptions, such as when an individual or firm uses digital content for a legitimate purpose.

Whilst such a rigid article may protect the interests of rights holders, increasing the ambit of copyright by limiting legitimate exceptions to the general rule, decreases healthy competition and provides a clear disincentive to innovate as technologies and services are withheld from their productive use.

Australia would likely become a less attractive market for technology investment and innovation with countries outside the TPP.

Judicial support for these concerns is clear. In their report, Copyright and Digital Economy, the ALRC heavily criticised the hardline approach of the TPP, arguing that copyright must leave breathing room for new materials and productive uses of other copyright material. Instead, it argued that a fair-use exception must balance out stringent TPP copyright provisions.

A final concern is the ability of the TPP to restrict crucial investment and technology inflows into Australia through the inclusion of Investor–State Dispute Settlement Provisions (ISDS).

ISDS grant foreign investors the right to access an international tribunal if they believe actions taken by the host government are in breach of commitments made under the TPP.

However, in Australia, a main reason for attracting investment is the existence of a transparent and non-corrupt judicial system. Compromising this will put Australia at a significant disadvantage in regards to investment from non-TPP nations who don’t support ISDS.

ISDS provisions will also make it harder for Australian governments to enforce decisions that support innovation and broader social outcomes. Indeed, the government’s introduction of plain packaging tobacco laws has already been challenged by Philip Morris Asia under an ISDS arbitral hearing.

Considered together, the ISDS provisions and the strict copyright and intellectual property articles of the draft TPP represent a significant stumbling block to innovation in Australia.

Our culture of innovation, celebrated on our $50 dollar note, is likely to remain stagnant, or even go backward, as the TPP restricts the knowledge flows, the collaboration opportunities, and ultimately the attractiveness of Australia as an investment destination.

As the TPP negotiations move critically towards conclusion, Australian negotiators must exert a stronger stance and listen to key stakeholders in our innovation system. Doing this may just ensure a healthier relationship between trade and our capacity to innovate.

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Modi checks in but US–India relations are short on deliverables

By Sarah Graham in Sydney, Australia

30 September 2014


Sarah Graham is a postgraduate lecturer at the Centre


 Modi supporters at Madison Square Garden

Indian scientists gave the world’s media a rare good news story last week by putting a space probe into Mars’s orbit. The achievement is notable because no other nation has been able to do this on a first attempt, and because the Indian space program managed the feat on a comparatively meager budget of $74 million — $26 million less than the cost of the film Gravity.

Like the spacecraft Mangalayaan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been in transit over the last week. Having addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, Modi will meet with Barack Obama in Washington on September 29 and 30. His Washington trip is being accompanied by the usual flurry of calls in the media and academic literature for bilateral engagement and the building of a stronger diplomatic relationship around converging interests. These authors are quite right to suggest that closer Indo–American ties could have a significant impact on the world. The problem is, it’s not clear how this process of strengthening ties can really take place without more shared and substantial foreign policy projects between the two governments.

First, some context: this trip is a bit of a personal milestone for Modi. This year the United States quietly reversed its decision to deny Modi, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, a US visa over allegations that he failed to quell communal riots in the state during 2002 that caused the death of more than 700 Muslims.

Concerned about this association with Hindu nationalism, US officials were decidedly cool on Modi during the Indian election back in May. By contrast, Modi is wildly popular at home. His Bharatiya Janata Party contested the election as part of a coalition but won an outright majority by itself.

He is also enthusiastically backed by most of the Indian diaspora in the United States. As the third largest Asian diaspora in the US, and an exceptionally wealthy one that is now finding its feet in the arts of K Street interest group lobbying, its support for Modi’s political agenda is significant. US officials will be taking note of the fact that Indian Americans donated $1.5 million to put on a lavish event at Madison Square Garden and Times Square to honor Modi.

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The helps Modi with the business of addressing the bilateral relationship — business being an operative word, since the possibilities for more profitable Indo–American trade has over the long term helped push both nations towards more solid political ties, and because the slow pace of reforms to Indian economic regulations have increasingly deterred US firms from investing there.

Modi made much of his credentials as an economic steward and reformer during the election campaign, and John Kerry also talked up the possibilities of a massively increased bilateral trade relationship ahead of his visit to India in July. Modi’s scheduled meetings with American CEOs in New York, and his warm welcome by the Indian American community, many of whom are businesspeople, will be useful to this agenda, though Modi must now walk the walk and implement the pro-business policies he has foreshadowed.

So where does this leave his meeting with Obama and the inter-governmental aspects of the relationship? Strategic questions will be a key priority, given that the Obama administration doesn’t have much of a role to play on these economic reform questions. Obama will be keen to hear Modi’s vision for Indian grand strategy and for its key relationships in Asia, particularly Pakistan and China.

Modi has not been bellicose on Pakistan, which Obama will no doubt be happy about. On China, Modi seems to favor a cautious tilt towards the United States, which Obama will also approve of, though the US no doubt wishes India was more forthcoming with its support behind the scenes. At the United Nations, Modi endorsed multilateral efforts to combat terrorism, though, in keeping with the independent-minded tradition in Indian foreign policy, he will be unlikely to offer diplomatic or substantive support to the US-led coalition against Islamic State. As the United States pulls out of Afghanistan, India plans to provide a significant package of aid and technical expertise to the country, a traditional regional ally.

This all seems more like friendly “checking in” than the kind of talks that occur between governments with a deep bilateral relationship. The problem besetting Indo–American relations nowadays is that the two cannot seem to set what commentators call “deliverables.”

In foreign policy terms, I think of “deliverables” as binding or semi-binding agreements, or at the very least what I call foreign policy projects — shared priorities to which both governments can practically contribute, thereby building deeper familiarity, trust, and understandings about how to work together. On those grounds, Obama really hasn’t had the scope to engage India in the way so many commentators advocate. Joint military exercises only go so far.

Take Afghanistan. While the United States and India share the objective of seeing Afghanistan become a stable and democratic state and want to see the new governing arrangements work, their involvement isn’t overlapping. Like ships in the night, India is becoming more engaged as the United States departs. Vague pronouncements about building on “shared interests” by journalists and academics are all well and good, but without shared projects it’s hard to think of the US and India as tending towards a partnership.

With so many other foreign policy distractions, even superpowers must let important priorities slide. Although it is not in America’s interest to do so, and though there may be progress on the economic front, I suspect Obama’s last two years will not see any remedying of this basic problem.

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American Daily: September 27, 2014 (weekend update)

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

27 September 2014


The timeline for this nomination is still unclear. There are rumors that the White House is going to announce it immediately; the NPR article mentioned Solicitor General Donald Verrilli as the frontrunner. But whoever the nominee turns out to be, the process will turn into an opportunity for Republicans to pour all their frustration and anger at Holder down upon him or her. And in a time where opposition to this president on the right has been intensely racialized, no one apart from the President himself stirs those feelings more than Eric Holder.
  • American politicial journalism and the fall of Gary Hart.
As anyone alive during the 1980s knows, Hart, the first serious presidential contender of the 1960s generation, was taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal, a suspected affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the yacht — Monkey Business — near which she had been photographed on his lap. When they talked about him now in Washington, Hart was invariably described as a brilliant and serious man, perhaps the most visionary political mind of his generation, an old-school statesman of the kind Washington had lost its capacity to produce. He warned of the rise of stateless terrorism and spoke of the need to convert the industrial economy into an information-and-technology-based one, at a time when few politicians in either party had given much thought to anything beyond communism and steel. But such recollections were generally punctuated by a smirk or a sad shake of the head. Hardly a modern scandal passed, whether it involved a politician or an athlete or an entertainer, that didn’t evoke inevitable comparisons to Hart among reflective commentators. In popular culture, Gary Hart would forever be that archetypal antihero of presidential politics: the iconic adulterer.
  • Is the Republican Party really thinking about renominating Mitt Romney in 2016?
I think Republican voters understand this, even if some Republican consultants do not, which means that as long as there is somebody else who fits the party-unifying profile — most likely Rubio, possibly Christie, maybe a gubernatorial dark horse — a Romney campaign would lead the polls based on name recognition and then collapse upon contact with political reality. And since, again, I came to admire Romney more than I expected by the end of his last unsuccessful campaign, I hope for his sake that he realizes as much, and finds another, saner way to serve the country he so loves.
Back in 1999, the average household made $56,895 in today’s dollars. That number took a hit when the dot-com bubble burst and never reached the same high note again. It plummeted once more during the Great Recession and has slinked lower through the recovery. That middle-of-the-road household is now making $51,939. In other words, for the past 15 years, a growing economy has failed to translate into rising incomes.

Starbucks may have been a decent signifier of effete urban liberalism in, oh, 1995; but, in 2014, when you can cool off with a frappuccino at the Super Target in Denton, Texas, I’d say Starbucks is pretty Middle American. And, while Chick-fil-A may have a conservative Christian corporate culture—with its president’s public opposition to gay marriage and its longstanding policy that all of its stores are closed on Sunday—it’s hardly an exclusively exurban or rural phenomenon, hence its current plans to massively expand its number of stores in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.


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American Daily: September 25, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

25 September 2014


  • Obama's success in assembling an Arab coalition to fight Islamic State.
The Arabs of the Gulf (Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf, take your pick) have overcome their fear of Obama's irresolution and joined him publicly in this campaign. This has happened for two reasons: One, Obama made a convincing case to U.S. allies that he's in the ISIS fight for the long-term. The Gulf Arabs are exposed, almost existentially so, to the ISIS threat, so they obviously feel that the U.S. is not pivoting away from them (to borrow a term). The second reason is embedded in the first reason: the president was pushing on an open door. Precisely because the Arab states fear ISIS so much, they needed to take a bit of a leap of faith with a man they haven't trusted since the "red line" crisis of last year. That said, Obama's critics will attempt to downplay his achievement in building this coalition. They shouldn't. Getting this set of countries to act in their own defense has never been an easy task.
O’Malley is the most active. He is hiring in Iowa and doing pretty much everything an obscure but viable candidate can do at this stage. Sanders, and now Webb, aren’t doing much beyond talking. Warren denies she is running even as she does candidate-like things, and is pointedly refusing to pledge that she won’t run. And Biden is in a holding pattern: He’s not organizing a real campaign, but has declared himself a potential candidate. We can't know how many of these Democrats will actually be running in 2016, or even in spring 2015.
Octavious Burks was arrested more than 10 months ago in November 2013 for attempted armed robbery, possession of a weapon by a felon, disorderly conduct, and possession of paraphernalia.

According to the complaint, his $30,000 bail — which he cannot afford — was set with no individualized hearing. As such, he has been in the Scott County Detention Center since then. He has not been indicted in all that time.
  • In 1982, the CIA produced a document portraying its most-hated clichés as fictional animals.
Mounting tensions, according to the CIA
Pictured: "Mounting Tensions"
  • What happens to the US border with Mexico when the Rio Grande moves?

The whole point of setting the border between Mexico and the United States at the deepest channel of the Rio Grande was that the river was not supposed to move. That was the thinking in 1848, when, following Mexico’s defeat by the United States and surrender of its vast northern lands, boundary surveyors from the two countries were tasked with reinventing the border. The choice of the river for the boundary’s eastern half had been obvious: its use as a territorial marker stretched back into the region’s Spanish colonial past, and it was hard to miss and often difficult to cross. But even as he filed his report on the completed boundary survey, in 1856, Major William Emory cautioned that the river might be an unreliable partner in border making. “The bed of the river sometimes changes,” he wrote, “and transfers considerable portions of land from one side to the other.”


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The Islamic State and the othering of Islam

By Matthew Phillips in Sydney, Australia

24 September 2014


The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Dr. Sarah Graham. You can see more of their posts here.


Members of IS

Members of IS holding the distinctive black flags of the Islamic State

The recent atrocities committed by members of the Islamic State terror group have reinvigorated the debate in Western nations about the nature of the Islamic faith. Images of the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff are truly shocking and bring the reality of the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria into sharp focus on our television screens.

But what do these images have to do with Islam, a faith with over 1.5 billion adherents worldwide?

Political leaders of pluralistic nations such as the United States and Australia have been at pains to disassociate the Islamic State and radical extremism with moderate Islam. US President Barack Obama recently said that “ISIL speaks for no religion” and that “No just God” would stand for what they do. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stressed that the threat is extremism and terrorism, not any particular community or faith. Even George W. Bush referred to Islam as a religion of peace in the days following 9/11 in an attempt to reach out to American Muslims.

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President Obama

President Barack Obama condemning the killing of James Foley

Politicians are saying all of the right things to promote inclusivity, social cohesion, and tolerance of Islam.

The problem, however, is they are also saying all of the wrong things. Warnings not to associate Islam with terrorism are interspersed with moralistic language that presents IS as an incomprehensible other — a force of darkness in the dualistic world of good and evil. Barack Obama has described IS as a “cancer” spreading across the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry has forthrightly claimed that the “despicable hatred” and “evil” of IS “must be destroyed,” and Tony Abbott considers it to be a “death cult.”

All of the above may be true. But to the average citizen struggling to understand the religious, ideological, and geopolitical complexities of the situation, the messages from political leaders must become somewhat blurred. The use of acronyms such as IS (Islamic State), ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) contain one constant: Islam.

While the intent in political discourse may be to convey that IS is violent, radical, and completely detached from the moderate and peaceful Islamic faith, the association is often formed nonetheless. Islam becomes an ideological other that is associated with the medieval tribalism and violence that have no place in the post enlightenment Western mode of thinking that celebrates liberalism, individual freedom and human rights. 

The negative perception of Islam generated by political discourse and the media is having an effect on public opinion, with a recent poll finding that Americans’ attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims are getting worse. Favorability for Muslim Americans was just 27 per cent following recent events in the Middle East, down from 36 per cent in 2010. In addition, a Pew poll last month found that Muslims were perceived more negatively in the United States than not only all other religious groups, but also atheists.

Pew poll

Pew Research Center: American's Ratings of Religious Groups (July 2014)

The poor understanding of the role of Islam in the contemporary conflict in Iraq and Syria is exacerbated by the consistent use — by both politicians and media alike — of specific religious terminology with minimal explanation and context. So what exactly is a Sunni? A Shiite? An Alawite? A Caliphate? A Jihadist?

It all starts to sound foreign. Alien. Other.

Where is a copy of Islam for Dummies when you need one?

Wait, never mind. Good and evil. That, I can understand.

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American Daily: September 24, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

24 September 2014


  • Assessing President Obama's address to the United Nations on climate change

Like most speakers, Obama highlighted how climate change is already affecting his country: “In America, the past decade has been the hottest on record. The city of Miami now regularly floods at high tide. In our West, wildfire season lasts most of the year. The alarm bells keep ringing.” And Obama nodded to Sunday’s People’s Climate March, saying, “Our citizens keep marching. We have to answer the call.”

What advocates of these candidates and movements never successfully answered, however, is how they would overcome the long list of institutional factors that make a third-party bid so difficult. A third-party candidate confronts the huge organizing and infrastructure advantages of the major parties, the difficulty of securing nationwide ballot access, the winner-take-all allocation of Electoral College votes and the fact that the House of Representatives decides the winner of a deadlocked Electoral College.

  • What the theory of "political time" tells us about Joe Biden's future.
With so few available observations, it’s hard to get a good read on exactly why this is. But we can get some help from the theory of political time. Skowronek’s theory, published in The Politics Presidents Make (first in 1993 and then in 1997), rests on the idea that some presidential politics is a combination of affirming and repudiating the past. Because vice-presidents represent powerful continuity with the outgoing regime, this theoretical framework is useful for us to think about when that continuity might have the best chance for political success. Under what conditions would the electorate welcome more of the same?
Political news abhors a vacuum, and when trying to appeal to a broader audience, it's inevitable that journalists will boil everything down to the question of "who is going to win?" Data journalism isn't changing that. All that's changing is that people are freaking out over fluctuations in statistical models instead of just daily polls.

Last week, a Senate committee held a hearing on the unlikely possibility of D.C. statehood. In attendance were Senators Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat, and Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Along with nine panelists, they were there to discuss the New Columbia Admission Act, a bill that would incorporate the lion’s share of D.C. as the 51st state in the Union, preserve a federal enclave of monuments and buildings within the new state, and grant the District’s nearly 650,000 residents full representation in Congress. Currently, citizens of the nation’s capital are denied voting equality at the congressional level and significant autonomy locally. This set-up makes D.C. an anomaly among American municipalities and arguably relegates its residents to second-class citizens.


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A harbour in the tempest

By Shalailah Medhora in Sydney, Australia

24 September 2014


Shalailah Medhora is the recipient of the 2014 US Studies Centre – World Press Institute media fellowship and is contributing to the blog while in the United States.


Celeste Douglas

MS57 principal Celeste Douglas

MS57 looks just like a jail from the outside.

The concrete façade of the middle school is cold and harsh, and its windows are covered with metal bars. There are no green oases where children can play; in fact, you don’t hear children at all from the outside.

Heavy doors behind spiked fences open to reveal police officers standing guard near the sign in desk. The fellows and I have to show ID and give a signature before we can enter the building.

I must admit, this school in the hard-edged Brooklyn suburb of Bedford-Stuyvesant is unlike any other school I’ve ever visited. I’m a little taken aback.

Until we meet the principal, that is.

Celeste Douglas is nothing like the stern authoritarian you’d expect to be running the place. She’s young, and clad in a bright blue dress accessorised with funky silver jewellery. She greets us with a genuine smile as she takes us up to the main part of the school.

As soon as we’re on the second floor, the vibe of the place changes. There are paintings made by students up on the walls, and the sounds of a Grade 7 dance class are bouncing throughout the hallway.

Bedford-Stuyvesant is a disadvantaged area. Most of its inhabitants are African American, and the area has been a cultural hub for black culture for decades. It has spawned rappers and musicians, most famously, Jay Z.

In the 1980s the area experienced a crack-cocaine epidemic. The public schools, which under-performed even before the drug wars, became a hotbed for criminal behaviour.

“When I went to this school, it was gang-infested,” says former pupil Sophia Williams, who is currently the parent coordinator of MS57.

“To be honest, I don’t know how it remained open.”

But remain open it did. And now, it has been transformed, even though the 250 or so students remain largely disadvantaged.

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Ninety per cent are black and the other ten per cent are Latino. The school doesn’t have one single white student.

Few of the students live in two-parent households. Some have parents who are drug addicts, or in jail. Many are malnourished.

The principal argues that poverty plays a big part in young black and Hispanic students playing up in school, and breaking the law outside of it.

“When you’re hungry and angry, certain things happen,” Douglas says.

The small number of enrolments means Douglas knows each child well. She understands their circumstances and often helps out with food, rent or extra coaching and encouragement.

She reminds me of a teacher from a Hollywood movie — the ones where young ambitious teachers get sent to underprivileged schools and end up winning the hearts of the students who were, until she arrived, without prospect.

The difference is, this is real life.

Douglas is open about how her thorough dedication to her work has taken a toll on her life. It’s put a strain on her marriage, finances, and her health. She’s put off having children for a while, admitting she can’t manage childrearing with her current workload.

“It [my work] is my life,” she says. “You can’t do this job properly any other way.”

“The job is — I don’t want to say impossible — but it’s impossible to sustain it.”

Other staff members have noticed the long hours and dedication she puts in.

“Not only did [Douglas] bring the grades up, she was able to create an honours program out of that,” parent coordinator Sophia Williams says.

“I call her an educational skills gangster,” she laughs.

Those skills extend beyond just teaching disadvantaged kids how to read and write. MS57 prides itself on teaching integrity and character, too.

“Grit and perseverance are two of the most important attributes you can have,” the principal says. “Aptitude alone will only get you so far.”

That mantra seems to be working for the middle school.

Around 50 per cent of high school students in New York go on to enrol in college. The average for MS57 students is 65 per cent.

“I want them to be smarter, kinder, nicer, and change the world,” Ms Douglas says.

Looking back on it, maybe the cold concrete façade of the school isn’t about keeping students contained inside, like a jail.

Maybe it’s actually a harbour in the tempest, a place where kids who’ve have a tough life in every sense of the word can come and be the best version of themselves.

“My goal is that they come in here and shut the outside world out,” Douglas says.

So far, she’s succeeding.

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American Daily: September 23, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

23 September 2014


  • The US has begun air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.

Raqqa, an Isis stronghold, was among the targets of the operation, which began in the early hours of Tuesday morning local time. The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, told Reuters by telephone in Beirut that the air strikes hit checkpoints in Raqqa city and surrounding areas. Dozens of Isis fighters were killed or wounded in the attacks, he said.

  • Turkey: America's cautious partner is the fight against IS.

But let's recall that Turkey was unwilling to be part of the coalition during the Iraq War in 2003. It probably has the same concerns now that it had then: too little clarity on the post-war political solution. Turkey has long been critical of the West's handling of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, wanting tougher action against the dictator. Turkey may fear that action against ISIS will strengthen Assad, particularly given that US plans for the endgame in Syria aren't clear. To top it off, the US Senate has only just approved the appointment of a new ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, who will have to manage a delicate and extremely high-stakes negotiation process as he settles in. The Obama Administration will need to appreciate that Turkey is status conscious, focused on what the ultimate political order in its region will look like, and doesn't take a simplistic view about the sources of Islamist radicalism. These are, in fact, eminently reasonable positions for Turkey to take. It will be up to the US to account for them and be flexible and attentive if it can.

Like George W. Bush before them, McCain and Graham are militaristic optimists. They want America to bomb and arm its way toward a free, pro-American Middle East. Cruz is a militaristic pessimist. He mocks the Obama administration’s effort to foster reconciliation “between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad” because “the Sunnis and Shiites have been engaged in a sectarian civil war since 632.” Notably absent from his rhetoric is the Bush-like claim that Muslims harbor the same desire for liberty as everyone else. Instead of mentioning that most of ISIS’s victims have been fellow Muslims, Cruz frames America’s conflict in the language of religious war. “ISIS right now is the face of evil. They’re crucifying Christians, they’re persecuting Christians,” he told Hannity.

Neither CRs nor omnibus bills are great ways to legislate. Contemporary politics may demand their use, but lawmakers and their institution surely pay a price for regularly ceding some or all of their power of the purse to bureaucrats. CRs give undue weight to past decisions, even as present conditions change. Omnibus bills may be an improvement over CRs. But even those legislative vehicles undermine congressional capacity, of late in short supply.

The Observer is hardly alone. When The Oregonian quit using “Redskins” and other Native American names to refer to sports teams in 1992, few followed. But as the debate over the name has intensified over the last year, the number of outlets and individual journalists choosing not to use it has grown rapidly, with the Observer, the Washington Post’s editorial board and the New York Daily News the most prominent among outlets that recently to dropped it. TV networks are getting in the game too: CBS, Fox, NBC, and ESPN all decided to give their on-air talent and reporters the option to avoid saying the name during NFL broadcasts this season, and some of their most notable names have chosen to use “Washington” exclusively.


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American Daily: September 22, 2014

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

22 September 2014


Not having the episode “hanging over his head puts him back where he started from,” said Chuck Laudner, an Iowa-based strategist for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign. “He’s still a rock star and a compelling guy, even if he is too moderate for some conservatives. We’re glad he’s on our team.”
WNBC, the NBC affiliate in New York City, reported Thursday that a federal investigation into politically-motivated lane closures last year on the George Washington Bridge has yielded no link to Christie.
A hush fell over the room as some of the most powerful women in the Democratic Party took their seats on a panel to discuss women’s economic security. Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate in waiting and first among equals, sketched out the challenges. Women hold two-thirds of minimum-wage jobs, she said, and three-quarters of the jobs that rely on tips, like waitresses, bartenders, hairstylists. In many states, the minimum wage for tipped workers is as low as $2.13 an hour.
Although a Census report released this week shows the poverty rate declined for the first time since 2006, Clinton said it also found that more women are likely to be impoverished even if they’re working. She urged a “fair shot” for women, and if you’ve been watching the PBS series on the Roosevelts, FDR’s New Deal, and TR’s Square Deal, you can begin to imagine Clinton’s campaign taking shape.
  • A newfound conservative interest in Canada.
You may remember your liberal friends threatening to move to Canada after George W. Bush was re-elected. But something surprising has happened in the last few years: Conservatives have fallen in love with Canada. The conservative journalist John Fund wrote in National Review this month that Canada is becoming “more American than America.” That’s the same John Fund who wrote a 1995 Wall Street Journal staff editorial calling Canada “an honorary member of the third world.” A lot can change in two decades.
  • Conservative trouble in Kansas.
The Thomas Frank vision, of a fighting populist Democratic Party prying working-class whites from the Republican Party with blunt appeals to economic populism, bears almost no resemblance to the events in Kansas. Mostly, liberals have benefited from right-wing self-destruction. To the extent that they have a deliberate strategy, the Democrats are attempting essentially the opposite of Frank’s ­prescription—they are trying to cobble together their base with the traditional, Bob Dole fiscal conservatives. Dole, the iconic Kansas postwar Republican, ridiculed and resisted the wave of supply-side economics when it appeared in the 1980s. Ultimately he gave in and ran for president in 1996 promising sweeping, budget-busting tax cuts like those Brownback has enacted. The old Dole’s brand of fiscal ­conservatism—or the Eisenhower brand, to cite another Kansan—seemed to have expired, but it is taking its vengeance from beyond the political grave.
  • In 1987, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders recorded a folk album.

In 1987, while serving as Burlington’s mayor, Sanders recorded an album of folk classics for the defunct BurlingTown Recordings label. We found it in the archive search for "Bernie Beat," the new digital guide to Sanders' colorful political career that launched today on the Seven Days website.


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