Recognising the diversity of sexual orientation is an area in which, thankfully, much progress has been made over the past several decades. In many Western societies, including Australia, it is now at the very least acknowledgeable to be someone who is not of heterosexual orientation. Many of us are now fortunate enough to live in a society where it is almost fashionable to exhibit some form of gender differentiation. Even if one does not identify as a member of the LGBTI community, it is often acceptable to blur the line between straight and gay, or between male and female. It seems that for many (particularly those who live in cities and larger metropolitan areas), there even exists an undercurrent of acceptance and mutual understanding amongst a large portion of the population. This is why much of the LGBTI movement, and rightly so, has remained heavily focused on civil rights issues that are visible and at the forefront of society’s understanding. This is because tolerance is measured by one or two questions in a Nielsen poll. Rarely, does the measure for tolerance delve into deeper understanding or critique than this. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the fight to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia has been the centre of the movement for a number of years.
However, with this focus comes a cost. The LGBTI community and its supporters have invested so much into the fight for recognition of same-sex marriage that it seems as if this is the last barrier to full equality and recognition. And on paper, it almost is. To think that just two decades ago, homosexual sex was illegal in a number of states is outstanding. Until recently, same-sex adoption was illegal in NSW. Before the Rudd Labor Government gained federal power in 2007, same-sex couples in Australia lacked recognition in over eighty pieces of federal legislation, which limited the ability for these couples to be properly recognised in areas such as taxation, superannuation and healthcare. It cannot for a second be argued that progress has not been made. However, in remaining so invested and focused on achieving full equality legally, the LGBTI community and its supporters are ignoring perhaps the biggest problem that it is facing today: that of heteronormativity.
Heteronormativity namely refers to the cultural bias in which opposite-sex relationships and heterosexuality are viewed as ‘normal’, thereby granting anything outside of this box as different or unusual. Heteronormativity exists in a number of different ways, and is expressed through a variety of different cultural, legal and social mechanisms. Indeed, the inability for same-sex couples to have their relationships legally recognised as marriage is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of heteronormativity. This indeed is damaging, however the potency of heteronormativity often goes unrecognized, and the extent to which is exists often lacks sufficient detail or understanding.
Think about it. From the moment a child is born, their biological sex is attached to a gender. From this, a number of connotations and assumptions are made about that child before they even take their first step. A boy is usually dressed in blue; a girl in pink. As the child grows, they are given toys to play with: again, the boy is given a car; the girl a doll. The child goes to preschool, where they play mummies and daddies, and usually assume the role given to them by society. Of course, the child does not actively decide as to what gender role they play. Usually, they have been taught this from the first TV shows that they ever watched. Usually, from their own observations, they have learned that the roles that they play should mirror the make up of their own family. For those who do not come from a family where there is both a mother and a father, society quickly teaches them what a family is supposed to look like. This is not surprising, particularly considering that a large majority of families in society are made up of heterosexual parents. It is only very recently that same-sex couples have been able to raise children in any capacity, so society can be forgiven for not catching up with this yet. But this does not mean that society should ignore the damage caused by assumptions such as those made from the moment a child is born.
Once a child heads to school, it is expected at some point that they will gain an interest in someone of the opposite sex. After all, this is the expectation laid on by those around them. Almost every TV show and movie a child watches shows a heterosexual relationship in function. Even with a media where homosexuality is increasingly represented, it is the heterosexual relationship that is usually shown as being the most stable, with little focus on developing the versatility of characters that may represent the LGBTI community. Even the gay-friendly antics of pioneering shows such as Will & Grace give little time to exploring a stable relationship amongst its gay characters, as well as the versatility of people who identify as homosexual more largely.
Even as a child reaches high school and becomes a young adult, they are faced with increasing pressure to conform to an expectation that is largely heteronormative. Exposure to the world of heterosexuality and everything that comes with it further implies that this is what is expected. Of course, homosexuality is explored moreso here than at any other time in a young person’s life – but quite often this is too little and too late. Society has, for the most part, invested fifteen years in telling this child that heterosexuality is the norm, even if this was not always intentional. By waiting this long to open a forum for the discussion of homosexuality, even if it is to educate in the name of tolerance, is damaging. This is because it becomes increasingly difficult to clear the preconceived ideas and sporadic assumptions that a child has had about homosexuality for this long. A child should be taught about the diversity of society from a young age – an age where the weight of society’s expectations does not distort and minimise their understanding of the many different ways in which society operates, and the many different people who exist in such a society.
In an interview a couple of years ago, actress Kate Winslet recalled on a conversation that she had had with her son, who was just seven years old at the time. He said to her, ‘One day I will have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Which would you prefer?’. Winslet responded, ‘My love, that would be entirely up to you, and doesn’t make any difference to me.’ It is this type of innocence, where a child has not yet been educated about what is perceived to be ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ by society, which should be highly regarded. It would be difficult to imagine a child saying this when he or she were fifteen, without a number of theories surrounding their sexual preference being made. But if only this could be the case – where a young adult’s exploration of their own sexuality is something that could be discussed as freely as we discuss what we had for breakfast, or what holidays we are planning. This is the type of discussion that should be encouraged, and at a much younger age than when this usually occurs.
Even when a child reaches adulthood and is exposed to the LGBTI community more thoroughly, the critical nature of society does not subside – even by those who usually express tolerance. Heteronormativity exists even within the LGBTI community, and often goes unnoticed. Because society still demonstrates such difficulty in recognising same-sex relationships as legitimate, it is almost automatic that these are held to heterosexual standards. Rarely can a same-sex couple walk down the street without facing judgement based on a set of criteria. Who is the ‘boy’ and who is the ‘girl’? Who is more masculine and who is more feminine? What does this tell us about this couple more generally? What does this tell us about the successes and failures of the individuals in the relationship? Until we remove the frames through which these questions are asked and through which these assumptions are made, heteronormativity remains one of the most difficult barriers faced by those who identify as being a part of the LGBTI community.
Of course, it is without doubt that legalising same-sex marriage will certainly assist in breaking down some of the heteronormative assumptions that society makes on a daily basis. If anything, the most important thing that same-sex marriage will do is allow the youngest members of our society, those who are gay and those who are straight, to grow up in world where there is equal recognition of all relationships, regardless of the gender of its constituents. From the outset, it can be hoped that this will allow diversity to be celebrated rather than minimised. However, we as members of this society must be careful to not place too heavy a focus on same-sex marriage as being the apex of issues faced by the LGBTI community today. If and when legislation passes to allow recognition of same-sex marriage, there will be progress. However, we remain a part of a society that largely undervalues the diversity of those who identify as being of different sexual orientation, and it is the smaller things that we do that will ultimately provide the most growth. Progress is not enough on paper. Instead, progress requires a change in understanding, and that is the most integral thing that we can contribute to when it comes to combating heteronormativity and placing true value on the diversity of the people whom we live alongside.
Over the past year, the United States has seen some terrible acts of gun violence; amongst the worst in its domestic history. These acts have been callous, indescribable, and far too regular for anyone’s liking. The rest of the world has watched on in despair, with disbelief and without any real ability to comprehend. The mythology that surrounds such an act opens a platform for public discourse that has been evident on both the national and international stage. All of a sudden, solutions are sought. All of a sudden, people care. Not only does bad news sell, but it also ignites a unique form of interest amongst individuals. We pity those who are responsible; we feel for those who are affected. We mourn for those who are lost; and we rely on justice to resolve the issue at hand. And then we move on. We forget - largely by choice. If we weren’t involved, to the rational human being there is little reason for us to go on being concerned. In particular, to watch on from afar gives us the benefit of judgement, or at least we think it does. And that is something that we, as observers, feel that we are entitled to do – regardless of whether we provide enough weighting to context.
Following the shootings in a cinema in Colorado last year, and then again in a primary school in Connecticut earlier this year, the world went into its usual state of shock. This type of event we so easily deem to be exceptional only to the United States, a nation where almost half of all households possess some type of firearm. To the international media, this is just another example of American ignorance and irrationality on an issue that seems largely uncontroversial to many other nation-states. How was this allowed to happen? What kind of Government would allow its people, including those who are mentally ill or ex-criminals, to possess a gun? Why can’t the U.S. just follow the same path that we Australians did following the mass shooting that occurred in Port Arthur in the 1990s? We enter into the usual conversations that occur after such a shocking event. We discuss. We debate. We criticise. But do we actually make any attempt to understand why things really are the way that they are?
We tend to follow one of two paths when we try to understand the politics that surrounds what has happened: either the American people are foolish to think that gun ownership is not the central problem in this situation; or that the American Government has little concern for the welfare of its own people. Either way, we can easily reach some sort of conclusion rather quickly. We debate for twenty minutes, work out who, in all of our infinite wisdom, is to blame, and then close that chapter and move on. We know what the problem is – it just seems that the American people can’t work it out. Cue another generalisation about how dumb Americans and their government really are. This acts as a form of self-validation for us, more than anything.
In doing this, we are achieving very little. We are failing to understand the American psyche and how different it is to ours. We are failing to understand how the promise of freedom can trump all supposed rationality. Americans are to many of us what Asians are to Pauline Hanson. They’re all the same, and they scare us. Their world is impinging on ours, and it’s making us uncomfortable. This scares us, and so we fight back. We fight back the only way we know how – through our own ignorance and misunderstanding. We are willing to make a brief statement that is a summary of over 300 million people in just one or two sentences, with little regard for the context of a society in which such a group of people live.
But why do we care so much about what happens in the U.S., when simultaneously we argue with the sole purpose of verifying our own supposed superiority? It’s because, more than anything else, we are only working to differentiate ourselves from the United States. We crave our own identity so much because we despise the fact that, in many ways, we conform to U.S. customs and ideals. We wear their clothes. We watch their movies. We listen to their music. We eat their food. We almost religiously follow them into war. We attribute much of our success to their support and the way in which they have led the world for the past six decades. Our own government is well aware of the feelings of many Australians on this issue. In fact, our relationship with the United States has generated an undercurrent of anti-Americanism for quite some time. It is fascinating that this exists with such fervour in a nation that is one of its closest allies. However, at the same time, it is far from surprising. As with any decision comes controversy. And the unapologetic decision of the Australian Government to stand by the United States for over six decades is sure to make some people uncomfortable. This is why we criticise to begin with. Insecurity breeds judgement. And judgement without any understanding of context is something that we as a people, as a media, and as a society have become very good at.
I write this as someone who has had quite a tumultuous relationship with religion, to say the least. Religion and I go together like chalk and cheese. It has never worked between us. We went on a couple of dates when I was younger, but outside of the primary school scripture classroom, nothing really eventuated. Despite this, over the past few years of my life I have had my own ‘enlightenment’, if you like. I have gone from a Dawkins-esque view of religion, to one that sees the inherent value that it brings to the lives of many people. The personal nature of religion I do not have a problem with – ultimately, it is the influence that religion has on public policy which concerns me. Who am I to say that someone can’t believe in a god if it is belief in that god which gets them through each day? The debate between and about religions needs to move from one of conflict, to one of mutual understanding. Both sides need to stop trying to convince the other why they may be wrong, and need to learn how to work together.
I have stood by one’s right to believe for many years; even when to me it has seemed irrational. Even though I have formed my own personal bias towards secularism, I have defended through and through one’s right to believe what they want, without this being oppressed by the state or other groups in society. I personally align this belief with that which maintains religion as a personal venture. Particularly, I have stood by religious and minority groups who are often vilified by others in our society only to further uphold a standard that I believe to be integral in a country like Australia. This is why to someone like myself, the violent protests by Islamic extremists in Sydney last week made me sick to the stomach.
We are coming off of the back of a decade where the West’s relationship with Islam has been tumultuous at best. Following 9/11, everyone who wanted to hate Islam found a reason why. Every person who wanted to prove that it was a violent religion had evidence that it was. And every media outlet, social organisation, shock jock, current affairs reporter and religious leader who wanted to vilify Islam for their own political benefit, was able to do so. As Martin and Barzegar argued in 2010: Islam gave the West the much-needed boost of ‘social supremacy’ that it needed following the end of the Cold War.
There are a large number of people in the West who have spent hours and hours in debate, endlessly attempting to shut down stereotypes of Muslims that paint Islam in the most unfavourable light. Both Muslims and non-Muslims alike have worked tirelessly to divulge evidence that demonstrates how Islam operates as an essentially peaceful religion that only turns sour in the hands of extremists. Much like Christianity and other world religions. However, it is very difficult to tell this to a group of people who have been given fuel for thought. To people whose lack of understanding is combined with a fear stimulated by those who have more political power than them. To people who have other political motivations behind inciting hateful conflict.
Religious extremism exists in all religions, and a film that openly criticises a key religious figure is bound to cause anger and frustration. Surely, a film made about Jesus Christ that painted him as a paedophile would cause a stir in many parts of the world. However, the way to earn respect and understanding of your religion, whilst simultaneously disproving vilification such as that of Muhammad recently, is to educate. Religious and cultural groups need to do what those who are on your side are also doing: raise awareness, and create activism. People who have no vested personal interest in Islam, yet continue to advocate for the right to religious freedom (I include myself in this group), have more power to raise awareness than those heavily involved in the religion. This is true in many situations, not just religious ones. For example, heterosexuals with no familial or emotional connection to members of the LGBTI community who still advocate for equal marriage rights, have more ‘political pull’ in society than their gay and lesbian counterparts. Those who advocate for the rights of the disabled despite not being personally restricted by disability also gain more attention. This is because people are more likely to listen to them, largely due to the fact that society is startled by those who advocate for something that they won’t directly benefit from.
So I say to those who felt the need to protest last Saturday: please don’t make it any harder for us. There are many of us trying to calm and eradicate forms of religious intolerance in our society, and we would do best with your assistance. The predictability of what results from a protest such as what we saw is almost sickening. Once the media exploits such an event, we take a large step back in the fight for religious understanding in this country. All I ask is that you lend us your support, and be politically active in the most tasteful manner possible. After all, we are lending you ours.
How does one begin to reflect on the United States as a whole? This is not an easy task, and perhaps not a task that many people are qualified to do. However, having spent six weeks in Los Angeles, I have begun to try and understand what it is that accounts for the diversity and exceptionalism of the U.S. With my active interest in the United States, there looms the threat of over-analysing, however the conclusions that I have come to after six weeks are conclusions that have clarified for me just how incomparable the United States really is.
People often automatically assume that the term ‘exceptionalism’ is synonymous with greatness or superiority. But rather, the term (at least in the case of the United States) has come to mean inherent difference that hinders the ability for the nation to be directly compared to another across the same standards. I have little desire to claim that the United States is the greatest country on Earth. Without a doubt, there are serious and obvious flaws that do exist within the country. But there are also great things that the rest of the world could learn from. However, ultimately the U.S. is a land of contradictions – contradictions that say a lot about one of the most diverse nations in the world.
To live in the United States, one would want to be sitting on a comfortable income in a comfortable city or suburb. If there were to exist a place in the world to be poor, the United States is not it. Standard of living is not guaranteed, and this is one of the areas where it seems that the U.S. government has failed its people. It is not uncommon to walk down the street and find a homeless person begging for money behind a parked Mercedes-Benz. The way in which those in poverty are classified in the U.S. is different to Australia, and the contrast between rich and poor is specifically obvious. Appealing to the notion of individualism, many Americans tend to view poverty and homelessness as the fault of the individual. Rarely is blame actively placed upon the institutions of American society, or the tenets of government that do not provide adequate standards of living for the American people. However, I have found that Americans by and large have little sympathy for those who are homeless. They are ignored, vilified and looked down upon in a way that is rather shameful. Of course, in many cases this happens in Australia as well. But the extent to which such attitudes exist only truly became clear to me in my time in the United States.
The United States is a nation that possesses an interesting combination of freedom from government, and government interference. This is a combination that is not easy to understand, and the standards at which the American people are expected to behave and live their lives is often dictated by the influence (or lack thereof) of their government. In the United States, the right to carry a gun down the street is vehemently protected by the Constitution, however the right to cross the street wherever you like is curbed by the threat of a rather severe fine. It has become sufficiently easy (particularly in the state of California) for people to gain medical marijuana licences, where it is legal for one to possess small amounts of marijuana, however to say that the drinking age of 21 is strictly enforced would be an understatement. These contradictions say a lot about the United States and the values that it upholds, which often have a current of social and fiscal conservatism flowing within them.
The people of the United States, right from the founding of the Republic in the 18th century, have been taught to be intrinsically sceptical of their government. The checks and balances that exist within the U.S. governmental structure far exceed that of most other democracies, and this is why it is notoriously difficult for the government to be proactive on a number of issues. Many Americans see government interference in people’s lives in a rather negative light, and this has led to the constant criticism that is evident amongst the population. Quite often, the very people who would benefit most from government interference in their lives are the ones who have been conditioned to view this as a bad thing. This can have an enormous impact on the ability for policies that would benefit the American people to be accepted and passed through various governmental institutions. For example, one only needs to look at the two-year struggle for Obamacare to come to fruition in order to see this. Studies showed that a constant negative perception of government played out during this process. When the tenets of the Affordable Care Act were broken down and Americans were asked about them separately, most Americans supported these. This demonstrates that the obsession with small government and the ideas that this purports to the people quite often places limitations on the nation’s success, rather than fuelling it.
Another contradiction that became evident to me is the wave of social conservatism that exists within the United States, and how this conservatism stands right next to the exportation of more explicit themes that come out of Hollywood and the American entertainment industry. The people that I came across, even in a city such as Los Angeles, were surprisingly prudish. Discussions in public are limited to themes that are socially acceptable – and these more often than not exclude explicit language and sexual themes. This is particularly surprising in a nation that has made billions of dollars exporting these very themes to the rest of the world through film, television and music. The roots of this social conservatism can by and large be credited to the large majority of Americans devoted to organised religion. With over 90% of Americans considering themselves religious, the context in which this social conservatism exists can be understood more specifically. God is at the centre of American ideology and culture, and one cannot begin to count the ways in which religion has impacted both the domestic and foreign politics of the United States.
Regardless of one’s feelings toward the United States, it is undeniable that it has such a large impact on many nations around the world. Australia is one such nation, and perhaps moreso than others. However, one observation that I found particularly interesting is the fact that many Americans are sufficiently ignorant towards the impact that their nation has. The engagement of the American public in world affairs and their own foreign policy is considerably low, and international travel amongst American citizens is much more rare than in other countries. Of course, U.S. foreign policy is predicated on the idea that America has a duty to the rest of the world as the one and only exceptional nation. However, this is as far as public knowledge towards world affairs extends. Many Americans are blissfully unaware of the enormous impact that they have on the lives of others all around the world.
The United States is the land of plenty. Its rich history is carefully combined with its contemporary culture to create something that is truly remarkable. The core tenets of American society and culture are fervently protected in ways not even imaginable in other countries. A large theme of the 21st century is predicated on the idea that the U.S. is losing its strength and power. China is predicted to be the future world superpower, and many revel in this fact solely because they revel in the fact that the United States may be losing its global hegemony. However, I would advise that this should not be done so fast. America needs to be seen for everything that it has done, and China still has a long way to come. The United States does a lot of things right, and a lot of things wrong. But most of all, it should be seen as a nation that ultimately does things well, with a vigorous commitment to success unmatched by any other country.
Walt Disney said in 1955 that, ‘Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world…’
From this moment, it was clear that Disneyland was, and is, more than just a theme park. It is a symbolic place that encapsulates American idealism. It is meant to represent what the United States was, is, and what it will be. The park celebrates everything great about America, and gives reason for Americans to be proud. When Walt Disney first created the park, he was committed to maintaining and justifying a representation of America that was worth preserving – an America that had come so far with its people by its side, and an America that had bigger and better dreams for the future. Undoubtedly, Disneyland was, and still is, a dissection of the United States. However, how exactly it is dissected can make all the difference.
Walt Disney structured the park in a specific way – a way that encouraged visitors to flow through the different lands in a particular order, with each land exploring a part of the United States that is invaluable to America’s rich history and culture. The historical tenets of Disneyland were, however, not supposed to be realistic. Instead, they would idealise the rich history of the United States in a way that would instigate national fervour among those who visited. Just past the entrance, there is a sign which claims ‘Here you leave today and enter the world of tomorrow, yesterday and fantasy’, and this encapsulates the romanticism associated with Disneyland as a park, and more broadly a symbol of all that is great about America.
The importance of Main Street, USA as a representation of the small, historical American town is important for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a distinct nostalgia for small American towns, a nostalgia that was very real for Walt Disney himself. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it acts as a protest to the perceived importance placed on the idea of a ‘big America’ that values money and material wealth over communities and families. It indicates that the ‘real America’ truly does exists in the small towns and communities across the nation. There exists a clear level of irony here. This is because Main Street, USA, and what it is supposed to say about America, implies a protest against the consumerism that has taken hold of the United States over the past century. However, simultaneously, Disneyland is the ultimate representation of American consumerism, and capitalism more generally. This comes as little surprise, as the park was built in the 1950s – a time when communism loomed as potentially the greatest ideological threat that the United States had ever faced. Consumerism has always been at the heart of American culture, and Disneyland attempts to celebrate this as it does everything else: in an idealised fashion that ignores the often harsh realities that come as a result of it.
Frontierland exists almost solely to provide an historical context to the United States. Although the meaning behind this part of the park does not place high value on historicity, it acts as a symbol of some of the major historical themes that define the United States’ past, and indeed the United States today. The positioning of this part of the park directly opposite Tomorrowland is both deliberate and inherently symbolic. It attempts to contrast America’s past and its future. Tomorrowland symbolises the hopes and dreams of America no matter what they are, and acts as an important tool for motivation and nationalistic belief amongst Americans. It also acts as a celebration of the achievements of the United States thus far. This is the last part of the park that Walt Disney intended visitors to go to – the part of the park that guests are supposed to then leave from, with a carefully stylised belief in American exceptionalism, and an America that looks forward to the future.
Disneyland was created as a park where visitors are supposed to feel like they are part of a story. In reference to an internationalist view invoked by the park that places the United States firmly in the centre, Disneyland acts as a place where all people can feel that they are a part of a Disney story. These are stories renowned for their authenticity, their fantasy and their appeal. Staff who work at the park are known as ‘cast members’, and on the name badges that they wear, the city or town that they are from is listed under their name. This adds to the sense of nationalism and internationalism invoked by Disney films, and demonstrates the worldwide appeal of such a park. It also indicates how quintessentially the park represents the United States as a whole nation, with staff originating from almost every state.
Walt Disney had a vision for a park – a park that would represent America’s hopes and dreams through the idealism of his Disney films and characters. The location of Disneyland plays an important role in helping to define this. Anaheim, which is almost an hour’s drive out of Los Angeles, denotes feelings of escapism and small-town nostalgia. By building the park on the west coast of the United States, not directly attached to any large cities, Walt Disney was able to demonstrate his intentions quite clearly. He wanted Disneyland to be a celebration of film, imagination and freedom that was disconnected from the restrictions imposed by American culture in the east. This sense of escapism allows for a distinct juxtaposition that is clear to all visitors to the park: Disneyland represents an America that is full of hope, optimism and happiness. Once one leaves the park however, an altogether different view of the United States becomes clear. This could not have been made more transparent on our visit to the park. Only a few blocks away, there were riots on the streets in protest of police brutality that led to the death of two Americans just one week earlier. Within the confines of Disneyland, one can forget anything of the sort and venture into a world that celebrates the strength of modern-day America - a strength that conveniently ignores the inconsistencies. Ultimately, Disneyland is an escape that many Americans need, and the contrast between Disneyland and outside America could not be clearer. There perhaps has never been a time in America’s history where Disneyland could have been more relevant.
A clever political message from the one and only Sacha Baron Cohen in his latest film ‘The Dictator’.
The shootings in a Colorado cinema earlier this week that cost the lives of twelve Americans understandably sparked an outpour of emotion across the United States. Flags remain at half-mast, newspapers are filled with back-to-front coverage, and politicians are full of sympathy. However, a notable difference in the way that this issue is approached in domestic media here in the United States, compared with the international media, begs the question: why is gun control such a hot-button issue, and why can’t it be fixed?
Gun control is what is often considered a ‘third rail’ of US politics – an area that remains almost completely untouched by both sides of politics. This is because it is an issue that has a resounding effect on the American being; an issue so inherent to the rights of the people, that any politician who dares touch it is almost always unsuccessful. The American psyche operates very differently to the psyche of other cultures around the world. The Constitutional protection afforded to those who choose to own and carry guns is unmatched. The vehement way in which many politicians will work to protect this right helps to form the crux of the problem. However on the same note, this is only part of the problem. Tragedies such as the shooting in Colorado are framed very differently here in the United States than they would be elsewhere. The individualism of the American people, and how this reinforces a political and legal right that led to the shooting to begin with, says more about the United States than most would care to admit.
Within hours of the tragedy, American politics was forced to respond. The first stage of this response, quite rightly, was focused on the emotional toll that this event had caused. President Obama expressed his sympathy. Mitt Romney expressed his sympathy. Senators, Congressmen and Congresswomen all expressed their sympathy. But in the era of the 160-character tweet, there was little room for more. Much of the American media has focused on the personal, rather than the political. I am not suggesting that this is the wrong approach – particularly in the immediate aftermath. However, in many circles, there lacks even implicit discussion surrounding the tragedy and what may have led it to occur. The mayor of Aurora, the town where the shooting occurred, took the personal approach. He pinned the tragedy solely onto the man who did it. Quite rightly so, he should be blamed. So far, there appears no other individual who could be blamed. It seems that from the perspective of a majority of Americans, the responsibility lies squarely with James Holmes – a man who ultimately abused the Constitutional rights afforded to him and chose to prematurely end the lives of twelve Americans.
This approach however should not dismiss the institutions that allowed such a tragedy to happen through the existence of legal protections that fervently supports one’s right to possess a firearm. And most importantly, the inability for American politics to approach, let alone comprehensively deal with the issue, begs the question: at what point does the protection of an individual’s rights allow the security of the masses to be compromised? In this tragic case, the answer seems somewhat obvious to many around the world. However, this is somewhat less obvious to Americans. Americans are a people who enjoy the freedom and individualism granted to them by a small government. And when the Constitution actively grants Americans the right to possess a firearm, little can be done politically to curb this right.
It is with little doubt that a decent number of American politicians would privately support a curb on gun ownership and possession rights. To wake up to news such as that which came from Colorado only days ago would be very difficult for any politician to fathom. This is because in times like this, Americans look to their leaders for guidance and answers. The inherent irony here however is that most politicians wouldn’t dare provide the answer that would best help Americans. A majority of politicians (with a few exceptions) choose to remove themselves from the intrinsic problem that exists with the right to individual gun ownership, and how this assisted in the Colorado shooting. This is because politically, this is dangerous territory.
Of course, my bias in this area is fairly obvious – and this is because I have grown up in a country where gun ownership is rare, concealed and heavily legislated. Being in the United States, I notice huge differences. I walk into restaurants and see signs on the doors informing patrons that it is not recommended that they bring their firearms inside. I wake up to stories almost every day of gun violence in the suburbs of Los Angeles as if it were going out of fashion. The truth remains that guns are a large part of the American psyche – a psyche obsessed with individual rights, even if it means that this may cost a few lives every now and then.
It is often assumed that a leader should act in the best interests of their electorate, even where this may not necessarily be popular. We see this happening in Australia fairly regularly – leaders will make decisions that ultimately will render them successful, at least when the history books are written in years to come. In the United States, the focus is much more heavily based on short-term solutions to long-term problems. In the case of the shooting in Aurora, it is almost definite that this will be the outcome. James Holmes will probably be jailed for the rest of his life. He may even be given the death penalty – a penalty given only once in Colorado since the 1970s. Although the loss that families and friends of the victims have experienced (and will continue to experience in the face of this tragedy) may never be completely healed, it will appear that justice will have been served. Americans will move on, and in a year or two (maybe even less), this tragedy will be portrayed as simply the actions of a lunatic who took advantage of the rights granted to him by the Second Amendment. Furthermore, it is almost guaranteed that there will be little dialogue on gun control evolving from this tragedy – perhaps only from the elites of American coastal cities who clearly have little regard for what it means to be American. You know, the same elites that are trying to bring socialism to the United States in the form of efficient health care and gay rights.
This is why it isn’t feasible for American politics to fix the issue of gun control. The rights of the American people are so highly valued that it is political suicide for most politicians to even touch the problem. Congress is fractured as it is, and the Supreme Court has enough on its plate without adding a few more challenges. Obama is already having a tough time proving that he is a decent American – an American who advocates for the freedom of the people over anything else. With almost a quarter of Americans believing that Obama wasn’t even born in the United States, Obama could only ever dream of approaching gun control when he no longer cares for a political career. The National Rifle Association (NRA) remains the most influential political lobby group in the United States – a lobby group too powerful for any President to oppose. The expenditure of the gun rights lobbies on members of Congress triples that of gun control lobbies. And in a country where money is everything, politicians who want to be elected can’t afford to turn their back on the NRA or other similar lobbies.
This is why any attempts to curb gun rights in the United States in the near future are doomed from the start. With the tenets of American politics being too afraid to touch the issue, any hope of a solution seems to remain squarely with the people. Until the American people as a whole begin to realize that the institutional protections and rights surrounding gun ownership are precisely the problem, very little progress will be made. The choice of James Holmes to legally purchase the firearms and ammunition that he used, and then to enter the cinema and shoot at the crowd was entirely individual. The failure of many Americans, however, is the ability to link this individualism to the institutions that exist which allowed him to do such a thing in the first place.
I came to the United States still undecided on how I felt about compulsory voting, and whether it is a good idea or not. Over the past three weeks, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue, and deliberating over it in my head in some depth. However, I am still unable to reach a solid conclusion as to where I stand – and this is perhaps because I am not yet educated enough on all of the repercussions that the issue can have on politics and society.
The fact remains that Australia is one of only a few countries in the world that forces its citizens to enrol to vote, with the expectation that citizens see this as their civic duty. Many Australians find this ethically fulfilling, and take pride in this legal requirement. Even though the penalty for not voting is rather trivial, most Australians still make the effort to turn up to the polling booth on voting day. This appears impressively democratic and helps to ensure that all Australians have the chance to have a say in who represents them. It is comforting to Australians to know that no-one has been excluded from this process, either by the law or by the unethical influence of candidates and companies that may attempt to marginalise or repress those who they believe may actively vote against their interests.
In the United States, the approach to voting is rather different. Rather than it being a civic duty per se, it is seen as a democratic right. Being forced to vote in a nation that has always valued individualism and freedom over anything else is seen by many as unethical. It makes little sense to force those who are apolitical and potentially unaware of what they are voting on to turn up to a polling booth. Many would argue in response to this that it is important that everyone has a say in who represents them, regardless of their level of political interest. However this higher notion of democratic inclusion does not always run so smoothly. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, having the choice to vote is more important than the act of voting itself, and this is reflected in the approach of many to the issue of voting in the United States.
This is where an interesting dichotomy between Australia and the United States begins to take shape. There are vast differences in both countries in terms of how potential issues with each system are thought out. Advocates of compulsory voting often argue that a U.S.-style system opens up the opportunity for excessive political influence from powerful actors, which in turn can force undue pressure onto citizens and groups in society. Thus, the focus in the U.S. is often shifted to motivating marginalised groups to vote, particularly groups with historically low voter turnout rates, such as Latino Americans. This can have one of two results: a candidate can place excessive attention on a group that has higher economic and political power (such as wealthy Anglo-Saxon Americans, for example) in order to help ensure that they are elected. Or alternatively, they can focus more heavily on those who have been historically marginalised (i.e. Latino Americans), by creating policies that may encourage higher voter turnout from these groups. Either way, the results of an election can be significantly skewed because of one of the fundamental problems with a system of voluntary voting: too much time and money is spent on encouraging certain groups of society to vote (or not vote), whilst others are often ignored or neglected because they are seen to be less politically valuable.
In spite of this, a system of compulsory voting such as the one that we have in Australia does not come without its problems. Many of these problems are often neglected because we are preoccupied with justifying the superiority of this system, without thinking about all of the repercussions that can come with it. We pride ourselves on not having the fundamental problems that the United States often faces in terms of prioritising selected groups over others in order to achieve electoral success. Nevertheless, Australia faces an altogether different problem in terms of understanding the role that different groups can play in the voting process, and how this can often skew the results of an election. In an ideal world, one would like to think that the focus in Australia should be on ensuring that marginalised and less-educated groups are well informed on the issues that one is voting for before heading to the polls. It is undeniable that there exists a large number of Australians who have cast their vote based on little understanding as to what the issues in an election are. Even if people are aware of the issues, this is arguably not enough. The role that the media plays in terms of generating negative politics in Australia means that almost all Australians can, without too much pain, generate an opinion on at least one political issue. However, this is often formed based on what one heard in the media, on talkback radio or similar. Knowing the existence of issues should be heavily complemented by recognition of possible solutions to this issue. It is very easy to criticise and oppose – but I would suggest that this should be done carefully, with an alternative solution in mind. Only then is it possible for citizens to appreciate the candidate that they believe will best serve them.
It is potentially elitist to suggest that Australians who vote purely on the basis of an opinion formed through one or two news stories should perhaps not vote. However, before dismissing this completely, one should observe the potential validity of this argument. A lack of political interest quite often correlates with a lack of political understanding, particularly of contemporary issues. Should someone with almost no interest in an issue, and a limited understanding of the issue, be allowed to vote on this - potentially affecting its outcome? Wouldn’t it be rational to just allow those who choose to vote on an issue the right to decide for what they believe to be the most desirable outcome?
But of course, one of the issues with this argument is that it implies that those who choose not to vote will most likely not be affected by the outcome. Quite often this is not the case, and there are many who would argue that those who will be affected by a decision or outcome should have a say in this, regardless of whether they actually have a genuine interest or not. And this is where a rather dramatic difference in ideology surrounding the issue of voting becomes more apparent. As I have suggested, those who are affected by an outcome perhaps should be required to vote for who they believe to be best at delivering this outcome. But then, does this mean that those who won’t be affected by the outcome should also be allowed to have an equal vote on the issue? Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Perhaps all women who intend to have an abortion, or even all women regardless, should be actively required to vote on the issue so that the outcome is indicative of an electorate-wide consensus that would form from this requirement. But then should men be allowed to have a say on the issue? It may not affect them as much as it would women, so should their votes be equal to those of women? Or instead, should the issue only be voted on by those who decide that it is of importance to them, with those seeing it as not important or as a non-issue not required to vote on it?
There are valid arguments for both sides in this case, and I personally find it very difficult to reach a conclusion as to what I feel would be the best process. By removing the requirement to vote, the issue may be resolved in a way that is more indicative of public opinion, with the likelihood of the result being skewed by those less informed or less interested significantly less. However, what is to say that this could not happen regardless, due to the influence of the media, community groups, family and friends? Or perhaps an advocate for either side of the debate may be very effective in mobilising people politically on the issue, and in the process potentially misconstruing the reason or the nature of the vote in order to achieve an outcome that they see as most desirable? Of course, I used the issue of abortion as simple example of how both compulsory and non-compulsory voting systems can heed different results, while potentially minimising the inefficiencies that can arise in the voting process. There does still exist some overarching inherent problems with democracy that are very difficult to control, particularly when there usually exists a large part of a voting population in any electorate (big or small) that is misinformed, less educated, or unreasonably influenced. And until this problem is resolved, I am unable to decide on what I feel about the issue. I am unable to decide mostly because I don’t have a solution, and it would be incredibly incongruous of me to do so.