lessons from America

re-awakening to a different america

I’m in that lull time between my friend Jodi leaving to head back to her Cincinnati home and registration for Netroots Nation (and my hotel check-in) opening later this afternoon.

I’ve been here in Pittsburgh for 4 days. Re-acclimatising myself to the American way: to US portion sizes and distances; to the accents and the attitudes; to the increasingly rowdy debates on healthcare; to the So-Co and Lime that tastes so much better this side of the Atlantic.

I certainly find it easier striking up conversation with people here – whether on the plane, in the street or by the bar. Sure there’s normally an enthusiastic response to my accent. But there’s often something more: a seemingly genuine interest in what I’m doing or in an exchange about politics, culture or places.

From Demo(thesnes), the Greek-American restaurant owner with an impressive foreign affairs knowledge who invited us for a drink and we ended up chatting all evening; to the guys from AmericasPower grassroots organising to promote a better image for the coal industry but willing to engage in an open and intelligent discussion on energy; to the owniter and barista at the BigDog coffee shop I’m currently sitting in talking enthusiastically about the DirectTrade coffee they serve.

However, watching the cable news channels yesterday, with their reports on the heated healthcare townhalls by Obama, Senators Maskill and Specter and other Democratic politicans, the debate seems anything but civil. Protestors, hecklers, argument and intractable differences were portrayed as the norm. This looks like one hard sell for the Obama administration; especially now the tags of “Socialism” and “Obamajinedad” (yes, really) are being hurled at increasing frequency. Jodi said she had never seen such an ugly mood about a domestic policy before.

There is no doubt the scare tactics by those opposing healthcare change are having an effect. Last year I’d seen “hope” and optimism as the predominant emotion. Now it seems fear and unwillingness to let go of the failing status quo are rising to pre-eminence. I think I’d forgotten how much fear – of the other, of lawsuits, of government possibly being a force for good – is part of the American psyche too. I’m hoping a couple of days with the Netroots and especially the Howard Dean healthcare townhall here at NN will be good antidotes and allow me to get a more rounded perspective on the issue.

Nevertheless, my observation of the week so far: that America as a nation and Americans themselves are both far more optimistic and far more fearful than us Brits.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | global perspective, Netroots Nation | 1 Comment

Jodi and Malcolm’s adventures in Pittsburgh

Netroots Nation is my reason for being in what I imagined was the unglamarous city of Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania. But I took the opportunity to arrive 4 days early and spend the time discovering the city and hanging out with my friend Jodi. She drove up from Cincinnati and met with at the airport on Sat eve. Now it’s Wed afternoon and she’s heading back home, while I stay here for NN09.

Jodi and I have good form (from my visits to Cincinnati in Oct 08 and Jan 09) in hitting the town, having fun, meeting some great people and enjoying what life throws at us. And so it proved again this time; albeit slightly hampered by Jodi still recovering from illness.

Saturday night:

Discovered ‘Dish’ – a fantastic Sicilian bar and bistro on S17th Street, just a few blocks from our guesthouse. Not everywhere you get a barista who takes a flavour or base drink you are in the mood for and then mixes some great creation to perfection. Haven’t had a better chocolate cocktail for many years!


Lazy morning followed by a trip up the Duversequene Incline – a rack funicular up a steep hill overlooking downtown Pittsburgh and the surrounding riverside areas. Fantastic views.

While chilling at a bar overlooking the city, met some guys from AmericasPower. They had hats saying “affordable energy” so I was intrigued as to what they were promoting. Turns out they are grassroots organisers for a campaign to promote the coal industry – clean coal, energy security, jobs and economic impact. Jeff, Tim and Opal were all experienced organisers and had been involved in the Obama and McCain campaigns. They were now going to fairs, community events, tail-gating at games etc to spread the pro-coal message and get lobbying activity underway in prep for Congress coming back. While I wasn’t sold on their pitch, it was interesting to hear a Pennsylvanian perspective on the energy debate that is quite different from the arguments in the UK. There are still serious jobs and money in coal in certain States. And the guys understood my points about investing seriosuly now in renewable energy rather than clean coal and starting a planned switch over – not (as they feared) the immediate pull-the-plug on coal we did in the early 1990s. Whatever our differences, the conversation was a pleasant one and our common enthusiasm for campaigning and political engagement shone through.

Sunday evening seemed dead in downtown and in the Strip District. We ended up eating at a Hard Rock Cafe where the best thing going was the extensive cocktail menu. Unfortunately, our friendly bartender recommended against most of the concotions because they were grim. Jodi took her advice, but I’m contrary and saw it as a challenge. So I got a ‘Gargoyle’ – something involving absinthe and last ordered several months before.

We ended up back near our guesthouse in the one happening part of town: Southside, and Carson Street in particular. Bar-hopping is the thing to do and that’s exactly what we did. Amongst it all, we saw some great hip hop dancing in one club and then ended up in a Polynesian bar with some folks who enjoyed my English accent and hitting on Jodi. The two guys had just finished their first shift at the mega-casino that opened up that day just beyond the downtown area.


An evening with Demo – owner of cafe 1889 on Carson Street and foreign affairs specialist. We’d met him when we looked at the menu outside at lunchtime. He invited us for a beer with him later, as he was interested in chatting about politics and international relations. So that evening we wandered down (all of a block and half) and went in for a beer and ended up staying for dinner and many hours of great conversation. Here was a man who was incredibly learned (self-taught mainly) with a passion both for world politics and for hearing other people’s perspectives. We talked Africa, Middle East, EU, China (he’s married to a Chinese woman) and Obama’s impact on policy. Just as the conversation was starting to tail off, we talked Crete (his homeland and where my father has spent a lot of time recently) and were off again for another 30mins.

The night was still young once we left his restaurant, and the pull of good cocktails and a friendly smile at the bar was too great … so we walked to Dish to repeat Saturday evening’s fun. We managed 3 cocktails each: not just reprises of the last creations but also new ones including a peanut butter and jelly flavoured drink. While at the bar we met a local musician who gave us CDs of his band, and two people who outdid Jodi and I for crazy antics. One’s party piece was the famous soliquay from Braveheart, complete with the right hair and booming Scots accent; the other was Danish and had perfected a hysterical laugh.


A visit to the Andy Warhol museum and some time spent wandering the streets downtown. Lucky enough to be there at the right time for a fantastic outdoor live jazz concert.


A sad goodbye to Jodi, as she headed back to Cincinnati. I spent much of the day in Big Dog cafe blogging, catching up on work emails and discussing Fairtrade with the owners.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cambridge Uni hosts first public screening of ‘Dollar and a Dream’ doc and campaign memorabilia exhibition

Back in mid June, Meghan’s documentary following my US election experiences had its first public viewing. ‘A Dollar and a Dream’ was screened as part of the America Week (sponsored by the US Embassy) at Clare Hall, Cambridge University.

I only saw the film for the first time that morning … and it (and scarily I) looked different projected onto the big screen that evening. Over 50 people came for the screening. Meghan kicked off proceedings with an intro about the film and then everyone sat back to watch twenty minutes of footage which wonderfully captures the mood of America the week before the election.

The film is much less about politics and the election, and much more about the interaction between me and Americans, and a glimpse of what life was like campaigning in the American suburbs.

My role may initially have been as chief protaganist, but thankfully I am certainly not the star of the show: it is the people I meet along the way who are (as well as Meghan, who did so much running with heavy camera equipment to try to keep up with me and also skilfully pulls together all the disparate footage to weave a coherent and meaningful narrative as all good story-tellers do).

The reaction from the audience was generally very positive and also included some good feedback which will help make the final version even better. After people had had a chance to question Meghan, I was brought to the front to sit on a panel of eminent academics and commentators to discuss ‘Obama: 5 months on’. Fascinating contributions from the other panellists, especially a guy who had been a senior McCain foreign policy advisor.

Thanks to sponsorship, there was a drinks reception afterwards. American wines of course! But also a chance for people to look around the college’s new temporary exhibition: a display of Obama and US election memorabilia collected by yours truly. The organiser did a superb job of displaying a selection of my buttons, trinkets, flags, posters, newspapers and more collected from my various trips to the States.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | global perspective, On the Campaign Trail | Leave a comment