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How Mischief-Makers Built Australia Through Pranks and Protests

In his new book "How to Make Trouble and Influence People," Iain McIntyre offers readers an alternative version of Australian history.
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Australians have long been troublemakers—witty, willing to mock and thwart authority, and full of the kind of no-nonsense pragmatism that comes from making a society in a harsh landscape. Iain McIntyre’s How to Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Protests, Graffiti & Political Mischief-Making from Across Australia is a new edition of a book that began as a zine nearly 20 years ago. While the title, of course, parodies the most famous example of the self-help genre, How to Make Trouble is more Howard Zinn than Dale Carnegie. It offers an alternative history of Australia, chronicling how it “has progressed by a series of little rebellions” (according to an epigraph at the front of book from politician and writer Leslie Haylen).

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Some of the events described here are sobering, especially the 18th- and 19th-century accounts of violent uprisings led by Aboriginal groups and rebellions staged by convicts—and even bloodier reprisals from authorities and settlers. But subversive wit has also been a powerful force throughout Australia’s history: In 1876, a group of Irish political prisoners escaped by posing as Americans, commandeering a boat, and unfurling an American flag. In 1911, Australia’s burgeoning labor unions plastered the sides of lampposts with slogans like “A bad day’s work for a bad day’s pay.” In 1986, a group of activists stole a $2 million Picasso painting from the National Gallery of Victoria and held it for ransom to demand an increase in arts funding, then quietly returned it weeks later. In 2009, the “Ministers of Energy, Resources and Silly Walks,” wearing suits and bowler hats, joined hundreds of protesters at a polluting coal power plant to urge that it be decommissioned.

A section at the end of How to Make Trouble interviews famous Australian gadflies and activist leaders. They offer wit and wisdom about the ways art, humor, persistence, and defiance can penetrate politics and history.

Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for The Power of Story, the Summer 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline writes about the environment and climate change. She is a contributing editor to YES! and lives in Seattle.

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