Trumplandia

A young white male wakes up on November 9th. It’s a big day. By day’s end a woman will be the president elect of the United States. It’s all but assured. He takes the safe bet that things will remain as they are, that the outsider will be left in tatters, that the establishment will reign supreme and that Lady Liberty will recover from the trauma. It was, in many ways, an ordinary morning.

***

When I first sat down and began writing this piece I had a different intention. I wanted to illustrate how sick and tired I was of politics, Australian and otherwise. It’s a notion repeated ad nauseam by many and it comes at no surprise. When Turnbull pulled the grubby rug from under Abbott’s feet I thought okay, things might get interesting, maybe even better. He had been touted as ‘progressive’ and ‘moderate’, at least by his own party’s standards. And man, he wore the sickest leather jacket. But nothing much seemed to change. In fact, things appeared to get worse in more than a few ways. I wanted to write about this and more, that it was all becoming rather boring, because it is expected. Of course One Nation received a not-so insignificant number of votes, and of course senator Malcom Roberts is wasting the senate’s and the CSIRO’s time with climate denial (tip of the iceberg really when it comes to senate shenanigans); of course the president of the Human Rights Commission is made a political plaything; of course coal is said to be important to us for ‘decades and decades’ to come; of course there won’t be a free vote in parliament for marriage equality. Then there is, of course, the continued suffering of those on Manus and Nauru—when did the insufferable treatment of others become so tiresome to think about? Expected evil, I keep thinking.
It definitely has something to do with the political language of our time. Obfuscation, euphemism, polls, slogans (oh, the beauty of template campaigning). It’s become so normative and so insisting that it’s become the same monotoned, garbled mess that hardly seems worth listening to. I even think politicians as a group, especially Australian politicians, have developed their own normative form of intonation, of speech patterns. They literally sound the same. Even the younger politicians like James Paterson sound like their older peers. And Turnbull, once the man of promise, has emerged as one of the most feckless and weakest leaders in a generation. It’s all just so boring and it’s what I now expect. There is, as I like to say, not enough puke in the world…
But something has happened.
When it dawned on me that the UK had voted to leave the EU it felt like a dream. No, I thought, that can’t be right. It was similar to the feeling I had watching state after state fall red on November 9 (Australia being ahead in time). Right up until the Rust Belt was called I thought surely not. But it happened and we now live in Trumplandia, Upside-Down Land. It’s all topsy-turvy and doesn’t feel right, yet there it is. The weirdest of dreams have come true and not even the writers at South Park could’ve guessed it right.
I watched the live updates all day and as Florida fell to Trump my jaw dropped. By day’s end, he was the President Elect of the most powerful nation on Earth, a man who is probably racist, definitely doesn’t read, who has shown very little composure or self-control; he’s a man who is convincingly sexist, a man who warms to authoritarianism… but we know this, all of it. We can all argue about the details of a man who is so obviously unfit for the highest office on Earth, but it’s too late.

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It’s part of something bigger. Grubby populism and isolationism has reemerged. There’s Brexit, there’s Trump, and the growing strength of the Reactionary Right in the West. It’s happening in France with Front National, it’s happening in Germany with a backlash against immigration and it’s happening again here with the reemergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Though there are other world events and trends that have contributed to this, I think something has gone wrong on the Left, which I consider myself loosely a part of. I think it has staled, I think it’s weak and distracted, falling for the same traps. You can see it in the microcosms of our culture, in tiny instances of our social media. A friend posts a status decrying the labelling of all Trump supporters by a group of feminists as all sexist and racist. Another argues the problem of other’s reducing the issue to gender alone. Another offers the nuance of ‘it’s part of the problem.’ Another again vents their frustration to me about the black-and-white nature of the discussion. Because it can’t be true, can it—it cannot all boil down to race or gender. Sure, every racist who voted voted for Trump. But many others who are just as conscientious as you and I voted for him too. Take, for example, Asra Q. Nomani, a Muslim, an immigrant, and a woman, also a Wall Street Journal reporter and a self-proclaimed liberal (small L) who voted for Obama. She voted Trump. Why? She’s sick of a broken healthcare system (or lack thereof); she’s feeling the mortgage squeeze; she’s sick of watching working American’s suffer still, after eight years of an Obama administration; and she’s sick of the double-think involved in omitting Islam, the word and the doctrine, from talk of terrorism. Does she particularly like Trump? Not really. It was a protest vote, of sorts. I think she knows, like many of us, that a vote for Trump was a vote against the status-quo.
This is the Left’s growing problem: a sickly, collectivist status-quo. Take another small sample, another microcosm. The Flight Facilities, well-known electronic music duo, weighed in on the outcome of the election. They talk of how it should stand as a ‘wake up call’ for us all, that rather than ‘kicking and screaming’ we should ask sincerely what it is that led to Trump’s victory rather than ‘pigeonholing’ others who don’t agree with us. They suggest that it is perhaps we, the Left, the progressives, who are the ones really out of touch. What do they call for? Respect, tolerance of others, especially of those with opinions contrary to our own. Fine and dandy, surely.
The response: ‘an uninformed and incredibly privileged take’; ‘it’s easy for white, straight men to shout their opinions at the world, but that doesn’t mean they should’; ‘thanks for the privileged pov’; ‘…you are white males with no understanding of how hard life really can be’; ‘protesting and rioting are two very different things, guys.’ It goes on with most comments hinging on the FF’s whiteness and gender, as if this proves their point. This isn’t to say that racist mantras and misogyny should be accepted but decrying them as the central issues is missing the point (and arguing gender or skin colour as disqualifying is a simple non-sequitur). It lacks nuance. It’s also one of the easiest ways to deflect criticism.
I have mixed feelings about people protesting the results of a democratic election (one that is flawed, I know). Of course people can protest and should do so if they want. It’s important to make it clear to Trump that he has no sweeping mandate—he lost the popular vote. But other than that, what does it accomplish? And I daresay that some of the protests did turn riotous. There was damage done and even some flag burning, something that’s usually the preserve of angry extremists. This is, I’m afraid to say, ‘kicking and screaming.’
This is where the Left is getting it wrong. It’s the incorrect reaction and it’s a reaction that proves the distractions we are laden by. We need a real debate, a discussion, not a continuous protest. The Left needs to reform into something strong and cohesive, not petty and disparate. We can’t always reduce our opponents to labels and we need to kill identity politics. Sam Harris makes this point well, and he does it again and again. One’s argument does not depend on who or what they are. It depends on the argument, it depends on the evidence. Everything else—and yes, I say this as another useless white male—is absolutely irrelevant.
Harris also talks of the need for intellectual honesty. We need to have an honest and open discussion about Political Correctness and how it obfuscates the consequences of a doctrine—Islam. Calling Harris or anyone else an ‘Islamaphobe’ for insisting that certain ideas have material consequences doesn’t actually do anything. In fact, it’s now a very popular form of distraction. It also has an ironic effect, isolating those of the opposing view, creating an echo chamber for real bigots to flourish, for views to flow untempered by reason. How can one honestly debate something properly when they continually face accusations of ‘racism’? (As if race is equivalent to religion.)
There is an urgent need to end the act of silencing: reducing arguments to identity politics, filthying and slandering those who think differently to you, and even protesting or blocking someone from talking. This is cowardice. Any thinking person should take any chance they can to listen to the opposing point of view. Christopher Hitchens made some of the most touching and eloquent defences of free speech I’ve ever heard and read and he made it clear, echoing other greats before him, that the right to speak also includes the right to listen. (A small but energised debate over speech is occurring in Canada. Look into Jordan Peterson’s stance against the legislation of speech by both the University of Toronto and the government.) To curtail the speech of someone else is in effect a knife for your own back. And it’s important to listen to those who oppose you. Speaking of the foul treatment of historian David Irving (a holocaust denier and revisionist), Hitchens suggested that listening to him, like any other heretic, is important because it might ‘offer a grain’ of historical truth, that it obviously took some effort to come up with, and most important of all it forces us to consider what we think we know: how do I know the holocaust happened? How do I know the Earth isn’t flat? Come to think of it, what would I say to a climate denier or to someone arguing the inferiority of women?
If you want to fight your enemies you must know them. Calling 59 million people a bunch of bigots won’t do. Listen to them. It’s the only way you can improve your side of the house. We mustn’t be afraid to listen and we especially can’t be afraid of admitting when things go awry, when we’re wrong. Why is there a political divide between city and country? Are there sections of Feminism that err towards the extreme? Might Islam have something to do with Islamic Extremism? Is it a good idea to legislate our speech?
We can’t keep coddling and insulating ourselves form ideas and things we don’t like. It makes us worry about the wrong things—trigger warnings and weird hate speech laws. These are frivolous exercises that ultimately soften us. It’s a battle of ideas, big ideas, that we need. It’s about culture and economics. The Left is under attack throughout the West and we need to defend it, but we have to change our ways first. It is a battle being fought often on university campuses and for this reason we might be tempted to think ‘bah, they’re just kids, there’s nothing to worry about’, but those that are winning, those outlandish student unions and political groups, those arguing most vehemently for regulating our speech, who represent the worst of the Left (and Right), are winning. And it’s these people who are going to run the place.

This might seem a waste of time, me writing all this. I’m an Australian, not American. I do think we are, at least for the time being, relatively insulated from the populism and nationalism emerging elsewhere. And our politicians are right in saying ‘Australia is not America.’ But it still matters, for whether we like it or not, the West is a community of nations, similar in culture and sharing great values, and what happens in the biggest of these communities affects the rest. I’m not even convinced that the Left is anything more than a name, especially if its traditional core constituents—the white working class—can be so easily hijacked by the demagoguery of Trump. But if it’s still there, like I hope it is, it needs to reimagine itself, it needs to reformulate and articulate something the working and middle classes can get behind, from the economy to free speech to social issues. We need to suggest ways of making government fairer and less vested. We need to form an argument for multiculturalism and globalisation whilst acknowledging what needs to be fixed, where it’s gone wrong.

We can’t afford to be bored anymore and we can’t keep the same habits. We need to fight the good fight and we need to fight it well.

***

On November 9th, in the late afternoon, a young white male wandered out of his room. Trump’s victory was all but confirmed, the whole of America now adorning his yellow hair and orange skin, Lady Liberty feeling the grab. ‘He’s done it,’ he said to his father. He’s at first confused so the young man repeats: ‘he’s done it. He got in.’

‘Ha,’ his father said, shaking his head, crossing his arms. ‘Cheeky cunt.’

 

Letter to my Country: Filth on the Flag

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I love my country. I love the landscape, the big sky, the size of it; I love my home city, the multitude of peoples, the languages, the complexity of our culture. I think there are many good things we are capable of as a nation, so many opportunities for greatness. I like it here. But as I sit down in my comfortable home, as I enjoy what’s around me, I know there is something spoiling its grandeur, making it sour. Something else is going on and it is rotten.

***

Your person is searched thoroughly. There is a list of contraband that is strictly enforced. You are, with your compatriots, herded into crowded living quarters. It’s hot in the day, cold at night. The food is tasteless. High-wire fences surround you and guards watch your every move. Some might care, but many others take pleasure in the extremes of your discomfort. Others bash you. You cannot return home yet you cannot move on. The locals hate you. Few outsiders are allowed in to see what is happening. Your friends are depressed, anxious, psychotic. You watch people cut themselves, swallow razor blades, drink poison. Children are in despair, contemplating the end. Your sisters and mothers are molested—with nothing else but their bodies in their possession, they become commodities. Mothers talk of ending their sordid lives and dream of taking their children with them into the sea. There is no hope of leaving, no hope in staying. You can smell death.
What am I describing to you? What does it sound like? Is it a prison? Is it a World War II ghetto? Is it a Russian gulag? Is it an internment camp for ethnic or political prisoners in a time of war? No.
You know what it is.
The Nauru files detail heinous conditions for those on the island. The incident reports reveal not only the kinds of abuse, but that there are many more incidents likely to be occurring, unreported, that there are more children in depths of pain you and I cannot imagine. Those who have worked on the island—doctors, teachers, security personal—will tell you it’s the tip of the iceberg, that it is inherently toxic. The files will tell you that incident reports are purposefully downgraded in their level of severity. Those involved will tell you that children cannot understand why Australia hates them so. Anyone with tuppence worth of brains will tell you that this amounts to psychological torture, to leave them stateless and without recourse, that they cannot seek asylum—as our international legal obligations would demand—whilst returning home often means grave mistreatment, or even death. For others, the trauma seen on the island rivals that produced by some of the worst natural disasters and terrorist attacks. It’s almost too much to contemplate. And all the while the world is watching and the world is judging.
Not that the government would have you believe it, but the correct word for this place is something more like prison, gulag, or internment camp. Instead we’re being fed Orwellian terms: ‘Immigration detention centre’ and ‘processing’. We’re told things are done for the sake of ‘security,’ and we’re told by some of the highest ranking officials in the land that these people would take the easy road, would blackmail us with their self-immolation, that they are lying to us about the callous disregard and violence they experience, that comparing this squalid place to Guantanamo is ridiculous. We’re even told that this is somehow not the responsibility of our own government, that it all falls on the Nauruan people. This from the government that has placed upon this poor island nation this squalid mess, that is paying for the system with our money, billions of dollars.
Surely there are alarm bells going off when the fact is that those working on the island face criminal charges just for talking about the conditions there, for letting the Australian people know what is going on. This shroud of secrecy the government seems intent upon is the biggest giveaway, one of the most obvious signs of its wretchedness. The geography is bad enough—Nauru is 3,000 kilometres away from mainland Australia—and journalists are so rarely allowed on the island that we have to resort to footage and pictures taken in secret. Laws have to be broken for us to know the truth, something many of us still aren’t being exposed to despite the admirable efforts of many journalists, whistleblowers and campaigners.
What is going on here? Who is actually believing this government and its sickening minister for immigration?
When did the STASI move in? How long has the Propaganda Ministry been in action? What is happening to my country?
The rationale, unsurprisingly, is irrational. I’ll make this one concession: maybe there is some worth in the idea of turning boats back, maybe the people smuggling trade does need a strict response, and maybe (though my mind doubts this) denying these people a place in our society damages this trade enough. But even if I grant you all that, it is no reason for inflicting great pain on these people. Why do we have to dump them there, these legitimate refugees, in an unforgiving purgatory? There cannot be any point in effectively torturing them on some obscure pacific island when we could deny them asylum in much better, safer conditions on the mainland. Denying them a chance to live among us is deterrence enough. There must be another way.

Contemplating my own life in this context is odd. My life is pretty good. I’ve been educated, I have a good home, a supportive and loving family. I get to play music, to enjoy the company of my friends in a city I love, to enjoy the fruits of our culture, to move and work freely. I can do all the things we, that I, take for granted.
But perhaps it is possible that something so disgusting and violent, something so repugnant and wretched is occurring, even to so few, that everything else is made tasteless, ash in the mouth; that everything else is tainted with the grime of someone else’s torment, covered up in they grey blanket of government secrets. That something so awful can ruin everything else. There are things to be proud of in this country, many great things. But this, and not only this, is the filth on our flag that so many of us like to think we’re proud of; it is more blood on the face and hands of our nation. It makes my heart blue with shame.
The next time you sit for a meal with your family, the next time you enjoy the comforts of a free citizen, picture yourself: destitute, desperate, without hope, wanting to die, beaten, assaulted, laughed at. Picture yourself there and then the nation responsible for it—idle, uncaring, cruel, secretive. Only watching you suffer. Picture its citizens, going about their day, working, living, voting for this government, watching their taxes pay for it all. This Australian gulag. See them there.

Watching you diminish.

Watching, watching, watching. And nothing.