23 May 2013
One of the songs I’m hearing everywhere here in the US is Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” This is no surprise, since it is a top 20 hit and the most successful Daft Punk single to date in America.
It is also their most American single to date. Oh yes, it is unmistakably Daft Punk, in full French House vivant. But it also has Nile Rodgers’s real disco guitar instead of the reconstituted funk of prior Daft Punk euro-dance. And the lead vocal isn’t the faceless vocoderized robot-singing of the duo’s previous singles, but Pharrell Williams’s familiar amateur soul croon. It would be misguided to pretend it isn’t a transatlantic tune, but with two of its most recognisable elements being distinctly American — at a time when America has wholeheartedly embraced electronic dance music — is it best understood as a primarily American song?
(On the other hand, this is the most successful Daft Punk single of all time pretty much everywhere — their first number one in a slew of markets and their second in France, following “One More Time.”)
17 May 2013
Obama's relationship with the nattering nabobs of Washington, according to Politico:
The town is turning on President Obama — and this is very bad news for this White House ... Obama’s aloof mien and holier-than-thou rhetoric have left him with little reservoir of good will, even among Democrats. And the press, after years of being accused of being soft on Obama while being berated by West Wing aides on matters big and small, now has every incentive to be as ruthless as can be.
After suffering hits from Beltway elites for missteps in handling “the perfect storm” of controversies, the West Wing got its mojo back ...
Whew. I bet that was a nerve-wracking 34 hours for the administration.
Meanwhile, Ezra Klein imagines what it would be like if Obama "went Bulworth." I'll suspend my usual distaste for journalists writing political fanfic to make a larger point: if you ever wonder why politicians don't "go Bulworth," read Klein's fantasy press-conference, then imagine how it would be reported by Politico. (Then imagine how it would be portrayed by Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live.)
13 May 2013
Attention everybody! I have a very important announcement! As of right now, if every US state I have ever visited gave me its electoral college votes, I would win a presidential election*. (States in red are ones in which I have visited but not left the airport.)
* Well, if I were a natural born US citizen over the age of 35.
12 May 2013
I wondered in Tallahassee if I had yet properly reached the South. I was in the Florida panhandle, and the cosmopolitan Caribbean of Miami had long receded. The Floridian capital is one of tidy antebellum architecture and broad hanging Southern live oaks — photos of which fail to properly capture the way these vast trees droop over the avenues, as if the heat in the air were too much for them — and that other great American architectural triumph, and of the American South particularly — the strip mall.
Another part of town, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, is less pretty: the strip malls here contain pawn shops and gun shops, and pawn-and-gun shops, and wig stores and auto repair shops and nail salons and car customising services. The product of the latter stands in one of the massive parking lots — the one filled with a continuous soundtrack of soul music emanating from one of the roadside car washes at its edge — a gleaming, salmon-pink sedan with matching oversized pink wheels elevating the car to well over twice its normal height above the ground. Next to this one is another automobile, less magnificent but equally pink. In a CD store selling bootleg copies of mixtapes by Boosie and Mouse and Webbie and Gucci Mane and other less well known Southern rappers, as well as classic albums from outside the South — Illmatic, Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, The Marshall Mathers LP — sits a silver haired man probably in his fifties, dressed tidily in clothes slightly too small for him. He strikes up conversation with me because, he says, he’s the only other white guy in the store. “I’m the manager,” he says, as if to explain his presence. He then clarifies that he hosts parties at clubs with one of the store’s proprietors. “When I first came around, they thought I was the bookie,” he continues. “Because I used to be a bookmaker.”
I’m in this part of town looking for a theatre; the official Tallahassee visitors’ website had advised that this evening would mark the first of three performances of A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a black family in 1950s Chicago who buy a house in an all-white neighbourhood. It was the first show written by an African American woman to play on Broadway. The theatre, when I found it, was in one of those Southside strip malls, in the concrete expanse of an empty store front. About thirty people attended. The performance was enjoyable, though its energy flagged from time to time — always a risk for plays as long as this one. I’m not sure if theatres in America are commonly found in strip malls, but either way, I don’t wish to suggest the production was an amateurish one; it was nothing of the sort. The stand out performance was probably that of Zakiya Jas, who played the long-suffering wife of the show’s hero-of-sorts, Walter Lee Younger, a man in his mid-thirties chafing at the limitations of his job of chauffeuring a rich white man. (Summer Hill Seven handled the lead role capably.)
Tallahassee was where I saw Confederate flags for the first time this visit — on the licence plate of a truck driven by a large and neatly-presented white woman — but I’d also seen Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Virginia. I imagine folks might argue that the home of the University of Virginia has more in common culturally with the suburbs of Washington, DC, than the rest of Dixie. I saw a sign outside a chicken restaurant advertising the “best liver and gizzards in town,” but can a town really be properly representative of the South if it hosts two universities and a state government — and which are the three biggest employers in town? Tallahassee does feel like a college town in many ways. And Tallahassee is unusually Democratic politically for a Southern town (though it probably isn’t meaningful in this regard that even the local paper is called The Democrat).
Outside Tallahassee and further along the panhandle, however, things get undeniably Southern. The vegetation turns thick and lush, the ground swampy. Little in the way of anything lines the narrow highway, save for lone, low, modestly-constructed houses, the odd trailer, and dirt roads disappearing rapidly into the woods. In the distance, the occasional water tower announces the name of a passing town. Churches — small, cheaply but neatly constructed, invariably white and marked by tall, prominent crosses — are a regular occurrence. A handmade poster posted on a telegraph pole reads “IMPERIALIST SOCIALIST BENGHAZI COVER UP.” I guess the author considered it unnecessary to explain the context or object of her complaint.
I’ve seen plenty of country Australia, and this is nothing like country Australia. It’s much greener for a start. The heat is unfamiliar too: not more intense by any means, but perhaps damper? These are preliminary observations. And I’ve left out the parts that could be found anywhere in America: the chain “ale house” I at dinner at last night, for instance, that had hockey and basketball on the TVs that crowded into every possible point at which a person’s gaze might turn and a tantalising selection of craft beers behind the bar. Or the shopping mall that could have been anywhere if not for the quantity of Seminole and Gator merchandise on sale. Or how, now, between Panama City and Pensacola, along the Gulf Coast, Walmarts and hotels and half-constructed pre-fab townhomes are a more common occurrence than rundown shacks.
I have seen little of the South. I will see more.
1. To be precise, while eating a chicken sandwich in a Chick-Fil-A there. I'm sad to report that chicken sold by bigots is delicious.
2. And in California, too.
10 May 2013
I said on Twitter the other day that I hadn't encountered a city to which I was more spectacularly ill-suited than Miami, which sounds like a criticism of the city. It's not though; this is a rather pleasant place. Its streets are walkable, its public transport system is functional — including the Metromover, a free elevated train system that loops through downtown — and the weather has been invariably warm, but not hot. (I can't guarantee it will stay this agreeable into the summer months — or hurricane season.) So Miami is a fine city, albeit one in which I'm a completely alien presence.
Let me explain: I'm on vacation right now, and Miami is a town made for vacationing. There's sun, there's the beach, there's shopping, there's gorgeous art deco architecture and palm trees; there's the ever-present potential to spend your days doing pretty much absolutely nothing at all. And, well, all that makes me feel kinda nervous.
I won't pretend to be a workoholic — lord knows I can be truly talented at goofing off. But there's a reason I'm taking my vacation in the very place I spend every day at work thinking about, and that's because I can't really relax if I'm doing nothing and not thinking anything. Also, I don't like the beach. A friend imagined me here: "I see you standing uncomfortably on the sand in shoes, colourful trousers and striped shirt with 'beautiful' people all around." She was pretty much right! (I will admit that Miami's enthusiasm for applying pastel as plentifully to its buildings as its apparel is one that suits my sensibilities perfectly.)
Miami approaches a weird, blissful, and uncomfortable perfection; its attempt to be America's paradise at the end of its longest peninsula approaches the maniacal. And in true American habit, the form that mania takes is capitalistic and hedonistic. South Beach, particularly, is crazy: due to delayed flights I checked into my hotel here at 2am on a Sunday evening, expecting all around me to be dark and dead. Not so. Dance music pounded from the entrance to my hotel. My room was a dark wood-panelled, chandelier-endowed grotesque. Highly attractive Miamians — the concentration of extremely good-looking members of both sexes, many of whom consider clothing to be optional — strolled the streets as if it were just dusk. Convertibles roamed the boulevards as if they were lost from the set of a rap video.
Across the causeway, in Miami, the atmosphere is less resort-like, but still as effortlessly moneyed. The skyscrapers, filled with hotels and investment banks don't cluster but smear along the long stretch that is downtown. The restaurants at their base are industrial in scale, plush in presentation, and possess the uniformity of upmarket chain-dining. Beyond here is Brickell; a neighbourhood of lush tree-lined avenues and regiments of towering luxury apartment blocks arranged along the waterfront for miles. Miami wears its money more naturally than New York, where it rubs shoulders with broke artists and Bronx brolic, or Los Angeles, where it secludes itself in residential enclaves. Sure, out there in the great suburban expanse of the greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood-etc. metropolitan area is the financial insecurity of one of the states hit hardest by the Great Recession, but here in the city and by the beach, the wealth is so plentiful that it has been synthesised almost imperceivably into happiness.
South Beach hasn't birthed it, but, for instance, it is the natural cultural home of the most commercial end of contemporary American rap music: big-sellers like Rick Ross, Drake, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and the like. Bass-augmented beats and tales of an endless disposable melange of wealth, sex, and party drugs (rap's had a recent obsession with ecstasy) make sense here. Miami is America's VIP section, with all but bottle service provided.
These banners, hanging around downtown, and interspersed with ones celebrating another of the city's obsessions, the Miami Heat, the team that used its dollars to seduce superstar LeBron James from hard-scrabble Cleveland and is now tied with the Chicago Bulls in a playoff series closely watched citywide, say two things about America: that it's really old, and that it has, throughout the European portion of its history, been a Latin American place.
Sure, 500 years is young by old world standards, but no European structure in Australia pre-dates 1788. Florida contains the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in America: St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565. (Conquistador Juan Ponce de León first sighted Florida in 1513, hence the 500 year celebration.) I'm not sure about the rest of Florida — I head north to the panhandle in a few hours — but Miami is the most Latino part of America I have visited, moreso than even Los Angeles. I hear Spanish being spoken on the streets almost as much as I do English. The ever-present soundtrack in the city is that of the dem bow riddim, the insistent beat that defines the Puerto Rican–created rap-derived music called reggaeton. (The music of Cuban-American rapper Pitbull also booms in regular rotation from cars and shopfronts.)
In Little Havana, the effect is intensified. This area is not like the ethnic neighbourhoods of other cities, the Chinatowns or Little Saigons that intensify an immigrant culture into a few tightly-packed blocks. Little Havana's Calle Ocho extends for miles. The supermarkets are Latino chains and the advertisements are in Spanish. At a cafe at which I stopped for strong, sweet Cuban coffee, the staff spoke barely more English than I do Spanish. (Mine is mal.) Old men play dominoes in a small park through the day. Refugees from Castro's communism plaster Romney-Ryan stickers on the fixtures. In this part of America, Spanish is the lingua franca, just as it was 500 years earlier.
I must end here. Next stop will be in genuine Confederate territory; the maxim in Florida is that the farther north you go, the more Southern the state gets. I'll keep you guys updated.
6 May 2013
Killing time at a layover here in Dallas, Texas, I took a look at today's Dallas Morning News. On the front page? A story about the "woefully unprotected" limousine President Kennedy was riding in when he was shot in the city in 1963. Half a century later and it's still leading news round these parts, apparently.
I love these serendipitous occasions when I visit a new city and the news lives up to every stereotype you might imagine about the town. The first time I ever arived in Los Angeles, the LA Times had a lead article about a man who walked around the city. Yes, on that day in Los Angeles, "man is pedestrian" was front page news.
6 May 2013
In early 2011, when I returned to Australia after living for more than a year in the United States, the first thing I noticed driving home from the airport in Sydney were the cranes; it wasn't until that moment that for the entire time I'd been in America, since December 2009, I hadn't seen a construction site. This was the aftermath of the housing market collapse and the economic destruction it wrought made visible — the US had stopped building new buildings.
On returning to Seattle this week, the difference has been very noticeable. New apartment blocks are going up throughout the city, which means Seattleites are feeling confident enough to start buying homes and, in the process, spur even more employment. Friday's employment report was a reasonably positive one — 165,000 jobs added — and although there's still a long way to go before the US economy can be described as good, it's obvious just from walking around that things have improved here over the past couple years.
This isn't quite meant to be a bullish "America's back" post — though for that you can see Clyde Prestowitz's cover story in the new issue of American Review — but it's pleasing to see that the country has rebounded a bit from the grim times a few years back.
This is another airport update — it seems to be the best place to get some quick blogging done while travelling. I'm now off to Miami. My next dispatch will be a Floridian one.
2 May 2013
Apologies for the silence round here lately, guys, but there's good reason: This past Friday I left Sydney for the US. I'm currently in the airport at San Francisco, which is well endowed with power outlets and free wi-fi. (Even power and internet can't help the fact that I've already checked the bag with my phone charger in it, however, which is the reason for the above, snatched from Wikipedia, hyper-generic photograph.)
I'll provide some thoughts on San Francisco once I've landed in Seattle, and hopefully they'll be a bit better developed and analytical than a mere "how I'm spending my vacay" communique would suggest. And while I will continue updating y'all as I travel the country (next stop, the South), expect my presence around here to be a bit spotty over the next three weeks.
To make up for it, however, I've invited Centre postgrad Sinclaire Prowse to contribute to the blog while I'm away. She's already done one great post, so keep an eye out for more from her.
24 April 2013
- Montana Democrat Max Baucus is retiring from the Senate. Who will replace him?
The decision by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to retire rather than run for reelection in 2014 casts a spotlight squarely on former Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer, a colorful and popular politcian who sports a bolo tie and often speaks of Washington in very unflattering terms. Schweitzer unquestionably represents Democrats’ best chance of holding the Senate seat in conservative-leaning Montana.
- Baucus's greatest legacy will be the passage of Obamacare.
Baucus’ key contribution to health care reform was the one almost nobody remembers. In 2008, Baucus issued a lengthy white paper outlining a health reform plan similar to what other Democrats, including then-nominee Obama, had proposed. The details of the plan weren’t that important. The signal it sent was. In 1993 and 1994, the previous attempt at health care reform, the chairman of the Finance Committee was the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He had little interest in, or patience with, health care reform—and that ambivalence (some would say it was more like hostility) was a major obstacle to enactment. With that 2008 white paper, Baucus put down a clear marker: He was in. Whatever his reasons—a desire to serve the public, a determination to protect his turf—that decision made possible everything that happened afterwards.
- How Jose Padilla and Dzokhar Tsarnaev demonstrate the difference between Bush and Obama.
The first US citizen, Jose Padilla, was captured on US soil, detained without formal charges, accused of plotting a dirty bomb, and then brutally tortured until he was a human wreck. Eventually, the dirty bomb charges were dropped in the legal process. And there was a serious question about whether, after such brutal torture and isolation, he had been psychologically brutalized by his own government to the point of insanity.
Tsarnaev, in contrast, was formally charged this morning, will be tried in a civilian court, go through due process, and face a weight of evidence against him.
- Will Republicans in 2016 need to choose between Rand Paul and Rick Santorum?
But neither Rubio nor Jeb has the kind of energized base that Rand Paul and Rick Santorum have. The country isn’t likely to be ready for another Bush by 2016, and if Rubio washes out, where does that leave the average Republican presidential primary voter—the guy who voted for McCain and Romney? It may leave him to choose between Santorum and Rand Paul, and the “brand” each represents. And which of those will seem more electable in 2016?
- If characters from American novels were real, who would be their member of Congress?
The rules go like this: We decide where a fictional character lives and then look up who represents them in the House. (See more on the rules here.) We welcome any dispute with our assessments in the comments section below.
The Great American Novel is a relatively easy topic to research — public curiosity in literary characters is so strong that most of the places listed below built tourist industries around these novels’ settings.
- We like American music: The Notorious B.I.G., "Going Back to Cali" (1997)
23 April 2013
- Can George W. Bush's reputation be rehabilitated?
At best, George W. Bush was a well-meaning man who gave the occasional nice speech and was thoroughly overmatched by events. At worst, he was the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era.
- Did America overreact in shutting down Boston for a day to catch the Tsarnaev brothers?
For about thirty minutes late on Friday, during a slightly shamefaced press conference announcing that the authorities had shut down all of Boston to catch a teenage fugitive and then failed to catch him, it looked like there might be a modest media backlash against the decision to put an entire American metropolis on lockdown to hunt a single bomber.
- Americans seem to consider constitutional rights more important than fighting terror.
Defending the civil liberties of suspected terrorists is generally not considered a popular position. And yet, in a bit of a surprise, a new poll released today finds that a plurality worries more about government trampling constitutional rights while battling terrorism than it does about government not doing enough to fight it.
- Why "Why couldn't Barack Obama pass gun control" is the wrong question.
Not because there isn’t a story to tell about the new push for gun regulations, but because Obama isn’t the main character. On broad questions like gun control and immigration reform, the president has a say, but the show belongs to Congress and all of its dysfunctions. The Manchin-Toomey plan for expanded background checks hit familiar barriers—the filibuster, near-unanimous Republican opposition, skittish red state Democrats—and failed as a result. The president can’t “pass” legislation—the most he can do is influence, pressure, and cajole.
- Will Americans soon have to start paying sales tax on their online purchases?
But maybe it's not so impossible after all. In the 1992 Supreme Court decision that prohibited states from forcing companies to collect state sales taxes unless they had a physical presence there, the Court specifically said that its prohibition was based solely on Commerce Clause issues. Thus, "Congress is now free to decide whether, when, and to what extent the States may burden interstate mail-order concerns with a duty to collect use taxes." For the next two decades, Congress declined to take up this offer, but during that time internet sales grew exponentially and states grew ever more jittery about the amount of tax revenue they were losing. What's more, Amazon grew big enough that they were having a harder time avoiding state sales taxes, as their 2011 California cave-in demonstrated. Suddenly, instead of opposing a federal law, Amazon supported one. If they had to collect sales taxes, they were better off if everyone else had to collect them as well.
- We like American comedy: The Daily Show visits Australia to see if it has anything to teach the US about gun control.
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- The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris
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- Ethical supply chains: An executive roundtable
- Jeffrey Schott: Trade policy in the Obama administration and the outlook for Asia- Pacific economic integration
- Race in America, race in Australia: A public forum featuring Glenn Loury, Waleed Aly and Bob Carr
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- War correspondent Mark Danner in conversation with Geoffrey Garrett
- Launch of the Dow Sustainability Program
- Sustainable supply chains
- David Brady: The Obama Presidency and the outlook for the coming year
- US Ambassador meets students at the US Studies Centre
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- Celebrating the launch of American Review
- One year of Obama: A discussion with James Fallows, Paul Kelly, Robert Hill and Geoffrey Garrett
- James Fallows: One year of Obama
- Obama: One year in the making
- Meeting of the US Studies Centre Council of Advisors
- Costello discusses post-GFC financial reform
- Jim Johnson: How is Obama responding to the financial crisis?
- Jim Johnson seminar with US Studies students
- US Politics in the Pub: The rebirth of the Republican right?
- Dennis Richardson discusses the state of Australia-US relations
- "US in the World" High school lecture
- 2009 National Summit: Dinner
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- Thomas Mann: The Obama Administration and its Outlook on the Asia Pacific
- Thomas Mann: The First 100 Days of the Obama Administration
- Robert Burgelman: Leading Strategically in a Turbulent Environment
- Robert Thomson: The Obama Administration and the Actions Shaping the Global Financial Crisis
- Barry Jackson: Evaluating the Obama Stimulus Package
- The Great American Recession: What Does It Mean For You?
- Edward Leamer: The Financial Crisis and the Outlook for the US
- Inauguration Watch: Manning Bar
- Inauguration Watch: Breakfast
- Harry Harding: China in the 21st Century and Policy Implications for Australia, the US and the World
- Christmas Function
- fdgdfsg sdf sdfg
- The President-Elect: What Can We Expect?
- David Brady: The US Under the New President
- Election Day Spectacular
- Michael Parks and Simon Jackman: America at the Crossroads
- 'US in the World' High School Lecture
- Foreign Policy of Obama and McCain: Which is Australia's Gain?
- Mike Chinoy: Global Crisis Points - The War on Terror, Loose Nukes and American Foreign Policy
- James Gibbons: Replicating Silicon Valley - Lessons for Australia
- Vice Presidential Debate Screening
- Visit by the Australian Political Exchange Council’s 25th US Delegation
- Derek Shearer: Obama v McCain - Who Will Win, Does it Matter?
- John Howard Dinner
- McCain's Acceptance Speech: Republican National Convention
- New Horizons: Breaking into the US market
- Sydney Uni Live!
- Obama's Acceptance Speech: Democratic National Convention
- Hedley Bull Book Launch: Address by Bob Hawke
- Great White Fleet Centenary Ball
- Dick McCormack: Global Financial Risk and the Role of Central Banks and Regulators
- Jonathan Pollack: US-North Asia Relations
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- Peter Scher: Will US Trade Policy Change After the 2008 Elections?
- Peter Scher: The Next President's Challenge - Global Trade and the 2008 Elections
- Matt Bai: US Political Journalism - The Next Generation
- Bob Pisano: Positioning Australian Screen Content in the US Marketplace
- Marvin Goodfriend: The Outlook for the US Economy and the State of the Financial Institutions
- American Foreign Policy After Bush: Frank Fukuyama in Conversation with Geoffrey Garrett
- Frank Fukuyama Meets US Studies Students
- Frank Fukuyama: Contemporary Issues Facing America
- Super Tuesday screening at the Manning Bar
- 2007 National Summit: Public Forum
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- 2007 National Opinion Survey: Australian Attitudes Towards the US (Part 2)
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- Role of Arts and Humanities in Building International Understanding: Harriet Mayor Fulbright
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