AS an Australian, I find this hard to admit, but I’m afraid there’s a field of endeavour in which we’ll never beat the Yanks.
It’s the field of genuine political craziness. They hold all the cards. With 50 state legislatures (and a federal district), there’s far more opportunity for looney-tunes to reach some sort of headline-grabbing prominence.
Then there are their electoral boundaries, which are rearranged at the hands of State governments rather than non-partisan authorities. You think Queensland’s Bjelkemander was bad? Hah, it’s not even in the same league as the State of Pennsylvania.
In 2002, the worthies in that state wanted to dislodge a sitting member, one Frank Mascara. They created an electorate that ‘‘formed a finger that stopped at his street, encompassing his house, but not the spot where he parked his car’’. Now that’s class.
But the source of most joy to outsiders is the constant tension between individual states, the Supreme Court and the Constitution, particularly the sections on freedom of speech and freedom, both ‘‘of’’ and ‘‘from’’, religion.
Bear in mind that America is astonishingly religious, compared to lackadaisical Australia. Figures from 2010 show the US as 80percent nominally Christian, 7percent other religions and a beleaguered 12percent ‘‘agnostics’’. Of the religious, more than half attend a service weekly.
The just-released 2011 Australian census shows us 61percent nominally Christian, 22percent ‘‘no religion’’ and 7percent other religions. But, of the religious, less than a quarter attend regular services.
So we have less investment in ‘‘apocalypse’’ theories. And our more restrictive speech laws make it more difficult to pin blame on individuals. Plus, our High Court isn’t regularly called on to interpret the words of a law written almost 250 years ago.
Thus, we miss out on fun like the Great Numberplate Debate.
America’s personalised car number plates, like ours, are produced by individual states. New techniques have made it possible to imprint almost anything on them – scenery, symbols, slogans – and drivers have been willing to hand over useful amounts of money to state coffers.
This isn’t a problem if you’re a quilter who wants the pretty official Montana quilt pattern on your plates. But when you’re a demonstrative Christian who wants ‘‘Jesus Saves’’ and a cross, or an anti-abortion activist who wants ‘‘Choose Life’’, the question arises: who’s talking?
Is it the state? After all, they printed the numberplate – oops. A state is constitutionally forbidden to favour one religion over another. Yay, court case!
Or maybe it’s the motorist, whose right to free speech is so thoroughly protected that he damn well thinks he can say anything he damn well likes. So who gets sued if his state-produced partisan swipe tempts other motorists to rear-end him, in outrage or by accident?
It’s green-field territory for governments, researchers and compensation lawyers – also for photographers. Check out a gallery of some of the weirder plates at slate.com.
Another joy Australia’s missing is Agenda 21, which made international headlines in The Economist recently under ‘‘Why walking leads to one-world government’’. The sedate Atlantic magazine went for ‘‘The international tyranny of bike lanes’’.
Americans are suddenly denouncing jogging and cycling lanes because back in 1992 the UN produced the Rio Declaration, which included Agenda 21, a non-binding, unenforceable document full of feel-good stuff about sustainable growth and energy conservation.
This is being interpreted 20 years later as an attempt to impose, gasp, One World Government, abolish private property and intervene in every area where humans interact with the environment. Oh, and it’s being done with ‘‘a cold-war mind-control technique known as Delphi’’.
The obsession is even hitting real government decisions. Georgia lawmaker Bill Byrne is fighting a metropolitan sales tax aimed at providing alternative transportation (cycle paths). North Carolina wants to remove funds from its planning commission, which daringly promotes ‘‘sustainable’’ goals.
Decisions on water quality, low-cost housing, energy efficiency, climate change and even roundabouts are being resisted in Tennessee, California and Arizona.
Meanwhile, Texas radio shock-jock and former political candidate Alex Jones is busy exposing a pyramid-shaped sports venue owned by the city of Memphis, Tennessee. After sundry ventures, it’s being redeveloped as a shopping centre, but Jones knows it can’t succeed – because ba-a-ad, ‘‘Masonic’’ objects were hidden in it during construction.
Uh-huh. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be down in the Mall. With a dowsing rod. Gonna track down what’s keeping those good times away.