President Trump and American greatness

America is a great country, but that has nothing to do with President Trump

Trump at a campaign rally in Nashville in May 2018. PHOTO Mark Humphrey/AP

Trump at a campaign rally in Nashville in May 2018. PHOTO Mark Humphrey/AP

Donald Trump’s signature commitment to Make America Great Again continues to resonate, here as well as in the US. Which raises this question: if America is not currently great, when was it?

Interviewed by the New York Times as a presidential candidate two years ago, when he didn’t seem to mind mainstream media, Trump identified two periods in US history which he most admired.

The first was the early years of the 20th century, which he said he liked for its “wild” entrepreneurship. It was an era dominated by President Theodore Roosevelt.

The second was straight after World War II and in the 1950s, when Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were in charge. Trump said he liked this period because “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody”.

That’s one idea of greatness – US commercial and military power projected on to the wider world. But greatness is not just muscle, and there were other aspects of the US story in those times that should have given him pause for thought.

While Teddy Roosevelt liked to wave big sticks at other countries, he was also passionate about nature conservation. He stared down powerful land interests to lock up huge areas of the American West in many national parks and monuments, bird reserves and national forests.

In sharp contrast, Trump’s interior secretary Ryan Zinke has moved to allow oil, gas and metal extraction on reserved lands, while Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt is on a mission to free business of environmental responsibility.

In the mid-20th century a nuclear-armed US was “respected by everybody”, but it was also a strong voice for international cooperation. America’s generous Marshall Plan helped a war-ravaged Europe get back on its feet; by contrast a feature of Trump’s presidency is hostility toward Europe.

There is another difference. In the 1940s the US led the push to establish the United Nations and provided its New York headquarters, and has since broadly supported the world body both financially and by adhering to agreements and protocols.

Last year Trump announced that he was pulling his country out of the UN’s landmark ecological agreement in Paris in 2015 – the first time all the world’s nations had agreed on the common goal of stopping global warming. Though far from fatal, the US withdrawal was a big setback.

Trump’s 18 months at the helm have been devastating for his country’s hard-earned reputation as a friend of liberal democracy and an enemy of tyrants. He has taken America in the opposite direction, making friends with repressive regimes while alienating democratic allies.

America’s founding fathers saw fit to build checks and balances into its constitution, such that all power could never reside in the president’s hands. Congress was one of those checks; the judiciary another. Another essential arm of liberal democracy is the press.

Every democracy needs independent news media ready and able to call out misbehaviour by powerful interests, including governments and their agencies, and that has never been more crucial than today. Yet at his rallies Trump has persisted in calling them “enemies of the people”.

He surely would have been rethinking this attitude in expressing concern about last week’s shooting of five people at a Maryland newspaper office. We must hope so.

Every leader in every election in every democracy promises that the swamp will be drained, corruption stopped, promises kept. Trump grabbed attention because he was a newcomer with a stage presence and no political past.

Trump is clearly not what my mother would have called a “nice man”, but Americans didn’t elect him for that. They were fed up with leaders who broke campaign promises while doing nothing about corruption. Some felt that as he was already wealthy he wouldn’t be open to bribes.

But life is not so straightforward. It was a mistake to think that Trump could fix things, just as it would have been for Barak Obama, or for that matter Malcolm Turnbull. Government is about many things and many people, and no amount of charisma will alter that.

Not being a scholar and barely even a reader, Trump understands little about checks and balances, separation of powers and the overarching authority of the US constitution. Like many who voted for him, he seems to assume that being president means everyone must do his bidding.

He chafes over opposition from US academics, scientists and the news media, and his failure to bring justice officials and the FBI to heel. But good democratic government needs independent institutions. It takes multiple viewpoints to deal with our complex human world.

For all its many and glaring faults, the US deserves our gratitude for its past and continuing contribution to global order, to democratic process and the rule of law, to science, technology, environmental awareness, literature, performing and visual arts and much more.

America is great not because of Trump but in spite of him, and it will still be so long after he and his presidency have become a distant memory.

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Confronting a shameful past

Our inability to come to terms with some dark events in the history of European settlement diminishes us as a nation, and we need to deal with it.

Inside the memorial to US lynching victims. PHOTO National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Inside the memorial to US lynching victims. PHOTO National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Two months ago a memorial dedicated to victims of white supremacy opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in the heart of America’s Deep South.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Memorial) and its accompanying Legacy Museum explore the confronting history of violence against black people since the Civil War officially ended slavery in that country.

The memorial is dedicated to the victims of lynch mobs, mainly in southern US states from 1877 to 1950, whereby local groups of white people took it on themselves to condemn and execute, and sometimes to torture and dismember, black people whom they believed had stepped out of line.

The monument’s principal feature is 805 steel boxes which hang above the heads of viewers. Each box represents a US county in which one or more of the over-4300 documented lynchings in the US occurred. The name of each victim is inscribed on the relevant county box.

The memorial, brainchild of a slave descendant, Bryan Stevenson, is a simple, moving statement about the experience of black people, former slaves and those coming after, who continued to endure crippling discrimination long after slavery was supposed to have ended.

Black people remain a disadvantaged minority in the US. They have a lower standard of health and a higher rate of alcohol and drug use than white counterparts, tend to be targeted by police, and suffer imprisonment at a rate vastly out of proportion to their total numbers.

A similar fate overtook indigenous North Americans: slaughtered, dispossessed of their land, deprived of its resources and shunted into reservations.

Does all that seem familiar? According to the Bureau of Statistics, indigenous Australians are far more likely to suffer unemployment, poor health, and drug and alcohol addiction than other Australians, and about 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous people.

Specifically excluded from the Federal Constitution, Aboriginals won voting rights in 1967, but that has made little difference to the way they are seen and treated. Governments still place them in a distinct category, separate from everyone else, and the rest of us prefer to think of other things.

So it was when European humans settled Australia 230 years ago. They took over this continent on the basis of a legal fiction called “terra nullius” – land belonging to nobody – which deemed the 800,000-odd dark-skinned beings who lived here to be nobody, another species, not human at all.

That absurdity survived because it made eliminating these unwanted people so much simpler. The leading scholar in this field, Henry Reynolds, has calculated that up to the 1920s the number of indigenous people killed approached 30,000.

Most of these deaths were not documented, but events around them were well enough recorded for us to know they happened everywhere that Europeans settled. The victims died without ceremony. To the killers these people were anonymous in life, irrelevant in death.

That, of course, was false. Each victim had a name and an identity, and each was important to someone, as sister, brother, father, mother, daughter, son, community member, leader. The victims were elders, breadwinners, carers and children: a people’s past, present and future.

The fact is, those who took over this country in 1788 had no knowledge of the society they set out to destroy. The bigger shame is that – at least until science revealed the richness, resilience and astonishing longevity of indigenous Australian culture – they never sought to know.

Mona has proposed a memorial on Hobart’s Macquarie Point to enable Tasmanians, in the words of Greg Lehman, to “respectfully mourn the outrages of our colonial past, and [celebrate] 400 centuries of Tasmanian history”. That surely deserves highly visible public recognition. But this is a national issue that merits a national response.

The War Memorial says Aboriginal deaths in defence of their land is not its responsibility. To its credit the National Gallery commemorates Aboriginal deaths in the frontier wars with an exhibit of 200 hollow log coffins from Arnhem Land. But this is not enough.

An inspired aspect of the US National Memorial is the way it approaches the question of local responsibility. An exact duplicate of each of the 805 county boxes has been made. Any US county can have the Memorial send it the relevant duplicate as a basis for a local lynching memorial.

The hidden war against Aboriginal people destroyed communities and desecrated sacred places. We need to acknowledge and identify those connections with place, as we do for our war dead, whose loyalty and loss in their nation’s name is honoured at local cenotaphs across Australia.

The seeds of racism lie deep within every individual and every society. It stems from everyone’s need for community and belonging, and fear of the other, the stranger from somewhere else. But this country of many races must find a way to rise above such base instincts.

Our nationhood is undermined and diminished by our failure to acknowledge the full story of our indigenous people. Confronting that past, bringing it into the light of day in the places where dark crimes were committed, would be a significant step toward reconciliation.

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Snow on snow: vanishing glacial ice

Winter’s white blanket of snow is becoming rarer. We must learn to appreciate it.

Antarctica is losing ice from coastal glaciers at a record rate. PHOTO Australian Antarctic Division

Antarctica is losing ice from coastal glaciers at a record rate. PHOTO Australian Antarctic Division

There could be no better description of how our planet begins its descent into an ice age than Christina Rossetti’s haunting 1872 Christmas carol: “Snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter long ago”.

Year after year snow stays longer on the ground, reflecting sunlight as it builds layer upon layer as subtle shifts in Earth’s axis and rotation around the sun cause a drop in mean temperature over thousands of years. Thus did mountain glaciers form, and ice sheets on polar lands.

It was on the edge of the world’s biggest ice sheet, in Antarctica, that I had my first and only experience of skiing. Large drifts on coastal sea ice were an ideal place for a timid novice to learn some basics without breaking a leg.

I never took up the sport, but that happy memory helps me understand why people put so much effort and money into chasing snow. And why, when the snow doesn’t come, they feel so let down.

The first appearance of snow on the ground, transforming dull browns and greens to a brilliant white, is for the child and the romantic in all of us. If you have to live with it for a while it’s possible to dislike it. But you can never be indifferent to it.

Snowfall often comes as a surprise because it’s hard to predict. The Australian ski season got a lift with the weekend’s snow and ought to be in full swing pretty soon, but the Bureau of Meteorology cannot say with any assurance how things are going to pan out.

The global long-term picture is clearer, with today’s small downward trend in snow cover set to become more pronounced. Mean snow cover will become less deep, less extensive, and of shorter duration in coming decades with higher winter temperatures and more erratic precipitation.

Science is telling us Australia should anticipate a relatively rapid decline in snow cover. Altitude is a telling factor, and that’s something this country doesn’t have.

Tasmania’s low-altitude ski slopes are most vulnerable, but the higher mainland fields are little better off. A Victorian study out last week anticipates most resorts will close by mid-century. By 2100 skiing on natural snow in this country is likely to be just a faded memory.

The much younger, much higher Southern Alps will ensure New Zealand’s skiing industry survives longer, but its diminishing mountain glaciers remind us that nowhere is safe from climate change. Last summer’s record warmth there saw some glaciers retreat hundreds of metres.

Plenty of people other than skiers worry about glaciers. Disappearing ice in the Himalayas and Andes is causing real hardship for people downstream, while the fate of Greenland and Antarctic glaciers is a nagging worry for all the world’s coastal dwellers.

The scale of the glaciers that drain the Antarctic ice sheet is almost beyond imagining. The largest ones could swallow up an average-sized European country, with an ocean frontage stretching over the horizon. Their fate is linked inextricably with that of coastal lands everywhere.

Antarctica was a late starter in responding to global warming, decades behind Greenland. Since 1992 melting of glaciers and coastal ice shelves has contributed 8 mm to global sea level, but on a steadily warming planet the Antarctic contribution will eventually be measured in metres.

Last week a team of 84 scientists from over 40 international organisations, including some from Australia, released a combined verdict on what is currently happening there.

The news is not good. They found that Antarctica’s ice sheet currently sheds over 200 billion tonnes of ice into the ocean each year, which equates to half a millimetre a year of global sea level rise.

The ice sheet’s melt rate is now three times what it was 15 years ago. Parts of the continent, notably the Antarctic Peninsula, are experiencing melting at five times the level in the 1990s.

This is not what nature intended. Our planet has been relatively cool since modern glacial-interglacial cycles began 2.6 million years ago. The present state of our ever-changing relationship with the sun tells us we should soon be starting a very slow descent into another glacial period.

But the more powerful forcing of man-made greenhouse warming has disrupted that pattern. Science has calculated that left unchecked, our emissions will delay the next glaciation for at least 500,000 years, and indefinitely if emissions remain unmitigated.

All the humans who ever lived, and all of our humanoid ancestors, knew only a world that includes ice and snow. If we bring about the end of the ice ages we will truly be living in a new world.

The skiers are right. We need snow – snow on snow, in fact – to replace lost glacial ice. With David Walsh and Dark Mofo, we should wholeheartedly celebrate bracing winters. They become more precious with each passing year.

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