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Category Archives: AIM Extra

Agents of Chaos: Trump, the Federal Reserve and Andrew Jackson

“It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes” (President Andrew Jackson, Washington, July 10, 1832).

They are three players, all problematic in their own way. They are the creatures of inconvenient chaos. Donald Trump was born into the role, a misfit of misrule who found his baffling way to the White House on a grievance. Wall Street, with its various agglomerations of vice and ambition constitute the spear of global instability while the US Federal Reserve, long seen as a gentlemanly symbol of stability, has done its fair share to avoid its remit to right unstable ships, a power in its own right.

The Federal Reserve, despite assuming the role of Apollonian stabiliser, remained blind and indifferent through the Clinton era under the stewardship of Alan Greenspan. The creatures of Dionysus played, and Greenspan was happy to watch. While he is credited with having contained the shock of the 1987 stock-market crash, he proceeded to push a period of manically low interest rates and minimal financial regulation through the hot growth of the 1990s and early 2000s. Rather than condemning “Ninja loans” and other such bank exotica, he celebrated them as creations of speculative genius.

The mood at the Fed these days might seems chastened. They are the monkish wowsers and party poopers, those who lock down the bar and tell the merrily sauced to head home. The sense there is that the market, boosted and inflated, needs correction after years of keeping interest rates at floor levels. Unemployment levels are at 3.7 per cent; inflation levels are close to 2 per cent. “If the strong growth in income and jobs continues,” reasoned Federal Reserve chairman Jerome H. Powell in August, “further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will likely be appropriate.”

Cooling through an increase in interest rates was deemed necessary in light of a consumer binge induced by Trump’s tax cuts, and no one knows when it will stop. “What’s not yet clear,” observes Timothy Moore, “is how far rates will have to rise to reach a level that the Fed considers neutral – where rates neither bolster nor restrain the pace of growth – because rates already have risen so much.” To three rises in the federal-funds rate that have already taken place could be added another in December and in 2019.

Powell is now facing attacks by President Trump, a self-described “low interest rate person,” in a manner not unlike the assault on the Second Bank of the United States by President Andrew Jackson. Trump’s adolescent indignation is akin to the person whose balloons have been pinched. In July, he was “not thrilled” with that round of rate hikes and said as much. “Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again.” Markets, playing their side of the disruptive bargain, reacted, with the dollar, stocks and treasury yields falling.

This month, the same story repeated itself. When the markets go up, Trump, invariably, sees his hand in it; when they go down, someone else foots the blame. Now, according to the president, the Federal Reserve has “gone crazy” and “wild” in various measures. “I’d like our Fed not to be so aggressive, because I think they’re making a big mistake.” To Fox News’s Shannon Bream, Trump insisted that, “The Fed is going loco and there’s no reason for them to do it.” White House chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow found himself defending his boss “as a successful businessman and investor” informed about such matters.

The history between the Fed and the White House has been punctuated by occasional bouts of surliness. Paul Volcker’s time as chairman saw an irate, desperate James Baker, when President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, attempt to gain an assurance that interest rates would not rise. He failed. By and by, however, the Fed has remained something of a holy cow, a point Trump cares little about.

But it was Jackson’s loathing of banks that proved not only effectual but the stuff of legend. He found much suspicion in the whole notion of credit. He had also previously suffered at the hands of a land transaction involving the use of valueless paper notes. Only specie – silver and gold – deserved his commanding trust.

The very idea of a central bank running rough shod over state rights presented the hero of the Battle of New Orleans with a perfect target. His vision of frontiersman expansionism was being foiled. Such acrimony, according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, was a case of socio-economic falling out. Elites were attempting to monopolise financial power; Jackson, if in somewhat exaggerated fashion (though less so than Trump) spoke of common-man values against big business.

John M. McFaul, on the other hand, sees it somewhat differently. “Jacksonian banking policy was the result of neither an ideological timetable of entrepreneurial design nor radical hard-money purposes.” Political expedience came first. The truth lies tantalisingly in between: the ideologue and the opportunist sharing the same body of a man.

From 1823 to 1836, Nicholas Biddle served as president of the Second Bank. While he was deemed within pro-banking advocates competent and assured, his values were those of a system that had entitled him. He dispensed favours to his friends with aristocratic grace; he resisted regulatory efforts. His move to limit credit and insist on calling in loans was intended to corner Jackson, forcing his hand to add more government funds to the bank deposits.

Jackson called his bluff, and his 1832 veto not to renew the bank’s charter remained, an effective freeze on supplying federal funds. “Is there,” he rhetorically posed to the Senate in his veto message, “no danger to our liberty and independence in a bank that in its nature has so little to bind it to our country?” Eventually, Congress was won over, leaving the Second Bank defunct on the expiry of its charter in 1836. Jackson did his own bit of chaotic undermining by draining the bank coffers in a way that would subsequently be deemed an abuse of executive power.

The stock gurus and economic wizards are waving wands and gazing at crystal balls, but the markets are simply engaging in the usual frenetic activity that accompanies remarks made by figures of power. Behind the scenes, the speculators get busy and anticipate the next flurry. Creative – or perhaps not so creative destruction – is currently unfolding, much of it an illusion. Trump’s America remains, much like Jackson’s discredited paper notes, of questionable value. But unlike the Second Bank, the Federal Reserve is very much intact in the face of institutional mocking. Thankfully for its board and Powell, its charter is not coming up for renewal, nor is Powell going to prove to be another Biddle.

What is it with Heaven and Millennials?

The promise of an afterlife – to meet departed family and friends – appeals to many;
but especially for younger Australians. Why do they dismiss the evidence of physics?

Against all odds, it seems the concept of going to heaven holds far greater significance for the young than for those who are closer – numerically – to death!  We need to confront “the D word” itself, but let’s first get a handle on why the idea of paradise has gripped contemporary youth – more so than pensioners!

A national Essential poll shows 40% of all Australians believe in heaven.  But the crucial figure is that a staggering 51% of those aged 18-34 hold such a belief!  This compares to just 29% of the public who are over 55 years old.  The young are almost twice as fixated with an afterlife than those closer to pension age! Why is that?

Is it insecurity or religiosity?  One suggestion points to the fact that 40% of secondary students now attend private religious schools – a rate far higher than all other Western nations.  There has been an exponential growth in government funding for private Catholic and Anglican schools since the 1960s – from a base of almost zero.

Others suggest that a similar rise in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) and chaplains in public schools has led to the Christianisation of education across the nation.  These government-funded programs are run by evangelical Christian organisations in each state – with Catholic and Anglican private schools proselytising their own religions.  And do millennials then stay at home too long, with a childhood faith, instead of getting out into the real world?

Since colonisation, Christianity instilled belief in an afterlife.  It’s reflected on a daily basis in mainstream media, in film and on television – and in our obsession with sport.  No game passes without players pointing skyward when scoring a goal, or honouring a deceased team or family member with hands reaching towards heaven.

But the biggest problem is that we don’t talk about death!

Society needs to get over this end-of-life taboo – to discuss and challenge the sugar-coated religious myth that claims we will all meet up with our loved ones (and pets) when we die and go to heaven.  Before confronting the concrete scientific evidence (below) – and how we can better handle the emotional aspects of death – just dwell on this thought for one moment.

Isn’t paradise already just a little crowded?  Think about who those you would meet – not only the entire cohort of your departed relatives, your friends and ancestors – but all the people you have detested; and those who gave you so much grief during your lifetime.

Then there’s the rest – every human who died!  Research shows that, by 2050, an estimated 113 billion people will have lived and died on planet Earth; so heaven is already a seething mass of ‘souls’.  For eternity!

The average punter has great difficulty conceptualising ‘eternity’.  Most can’t even grasp the fact of our universe being 13.8 billion years old – or Earth a mere 4.5 billion!  The concept is starkly illustrated in a fascinating book, “A History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters.”  While fictional, it focuses the mind on a serious problem with infinity.

Chapter 10 sees our hero arrive in heaven, choosing to spend all his time eating luxurious food, having endless sex, and playing golf.  After several thousand years he’s sick of food and sex, and on each heavenly golf course, he hits holes-in-one on every par 3.  He pleads to be released from this endless “perfect existence” and asks if others finally yearn to be free; to actually “die”.  With a short pause for effect, the answer was plain. “Everyone!”

Books on near-death experiences and visits to heaven are legion.  A recent bestseller was “Proof of Heaven” by Dr Eben Alexander – a neurosurgeon, no less.  Alexander sold more than 2 million copies before his claims were debunked.  Among those who contested his story was Professor Sean Carroll, a particle physicist and high-profile science communicator.  Carroll said there could only be two possibilities for Alexander’s spiritual encounter:

(1) Either some ill-defined metaphysical substance, not subject to the known laws of physics, interacted with the atoms of his brain in ways that have eluded every controlled experiment ever performed in the history of science.  OR… (2) People hallucinate when they are nearly dead.

Professor Carroll’s detailed explanation of Physics and Immortality spells out precisely why an immaterial “soul” does not exist.  The physics are graphically demonstrated in his video address (at 20:00).  Carroll worked with the team that discovered the Higgs Boson at Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider.  He could not be more explicit;

“if there are other waves, particles or forces sufficient to externally influence the brain, then we would know about them … Within Quantum Field Theory, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments … You would have to demonstrate evidence of a completely new realm of reality, obeying very different rules than everything we know about physics.”
(The 3 links above are needed to fully understand why there is no “soul”.)

But science does not devalue the need for compassion and empathy in the face of raw emotions that come with our personal experiences of death.  It is necessary to face up to reality – but there are alternatives to religion in coping with end of life crises. Discussing death openly and honestly – and publicly through the media – is a first step in helping to ease the extreme distress that many suffer with their own fear of death.

The ‘Golden Age of Athens’ pre-dates Christianity by four centuries – it led to a crucial period of new philosophical thought about life and death, about government and democracy, and how ordinary people could live a more fulfilled and contented life.

The philosophical principles of stoicism remain popular today.  It’s based on three central themes. “Perception”, how we choose to view events; “Action”, how we deal with events we can control (and those we can’t); and then there’s “Will” – training ourselves to deal honestly and ethically with events in our own lives.  Following the full regime of stoicism may seem daunting; but filtering the basic principles it becomes somewhat easier to apply.

The stoic approach to dealing with death – of family, friends, or oneself – is particularly relevant.  Initially, it may appear morbid to periodically remind ourselves of one’s mortality.  But if we consider this approach to death deeply enough, we soon come to realise the benefits of a greatly improved mental state.

The stark alternative for most people is to ignore the inevitable and to be completely consumed by grief when family or friends die unexpectedly.  Religion holds its privileged status based on fear – fear of not believing in God, fear of the unknown, and especially the fear of death.  It’s a cruel deception that society needs to overcome.

By sugar-coating mortality with the myth of everlasting heaven, religion simply deprives us all of the ways and means to better cope with the end of life.  While stoicism may not be the complete solution for all, it is clear that the basic principles of “philosophical ethics” – honesty, reason, compassion, and love – would be a far better alternative than teaching schoolchildren obedience to God and religious ritual.

Future generations would avoid the trap of today’s millennials who continue to shun science and instead cling to religious concepts of an afterlife.  A ‘soul’ that miraculously ascends to heaven, only to reunite with 113 billion other souls – for the whole of eternity! Just like our golfing hero, that sounds more like purgatory!

Brian Morris is author of ‘Sacred to Secular’ and specialises in secular politics.  He is a former journalist, and is director of www.plainreason.org which promotes science, reason and critical thinking.

Australian Complicity: Nauru and Silencing Journalism

Journalism is getting something of a battering in Australia.  At the parliamentary level, laws have passed that would be inimical to any tradition versed in the bill of rights. (Australia, not having such a restraining instrument on political zeal, can only rely on the bumbling wisdom of its representatives.) At the executive level, deals have been brokered between Canberra and various regional states to ensure minimum coverage over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.  Secrecy is all fashion.

Adding to this is the triumph of a certain breed of lazy, compliant journalist.  The image of the ragtag journo long lost in the speculative tripe of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop has been replaced by a tedious, technocratic lout who should, time permitting, be put out to a distant pasture.  We are now dealing with compromised dispatches, press releases that yoke the reasoning and analysis that would barely pass muster in the lower grades of a half-credible primary. The investigative journalist has, for the most part, disappeared, leaving a few brave scribblers to toil in the wilderness.

The corporate angle on this is fairly unremitting: wedged between the Murdoch behemoth (populist, ragged Herald Sun, or the screaming ideological The Australian) and the Fairfax machine (given a progressive tag), the options for the enterprising press writers are narrow.  From the perspective of covering the brutal refugee policy Australia insists on pursuing, the Murdoch press tends to earn the medals of the island authorities in Manus and Nauru.  Fairfax shuffles along in the background with the occasional note of condemnation.

The restrictions placed on covering the policy of the Australian government and those paid subsidiaries on Nauru and Manus remain on par with the secrecy protocols of the Cold War.  Since its inception, the Australian policy towards boat arrivals ultimately sent to those isolated island reaches has smacked of colonial patronage, with the regulations to boot.

Elevated to the levels of high secrecy under the term Operation Sovereign Borders, “operational details” in dealing with boat arrivals, as they are termed, have been a matter of clandestine value. The degrees of control have also extended to covering camp conditions, a matter policed by such brutish little laws such as the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth).  Under that bit of legislative nastiness, those who obtain “protected information” in the course of their employment in the border force apparatus can be punished for two years for disclosing such information except to authorised personnel.

Prior to the passage of the ABFA, the Australian government made it its business to hound a number of Save the Children employees working in the Nauru Regional Processing centre. Their sin had been to disclose information on the lamentable conditions in the centre.

The levels of media management regarding reporting on the conditions in Nauru has been extreme.  Amnesty International has called this a veritable “wall of secrecy”, designed to conceal “a system of deliberate abuse”.  The Nauru government has periodically limited access by journalists to the island, a process made craftier by the hefty visa application fee.  In 2014, the non-refundable fee of $200 jumped to $8000.

Over the last few years, the small island state has insisted on controlling the journalistic pool.  A conspicuous target here has been the ABC itself, which was banned from entering the country to cover the Pacific Islands Forum in September.  In a government statement posted in July, “It should be noted that no representative from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will be granted a visa to enter Nauru under any circumstances.”

This decision had been occasioned by “this organisation’s blatant interference in Nauru’s domestic politics prior to the 2016 election, harassment of and lack of respect towards our President in Australia, false and defamatory allegations against members of our government, and continued biased and false reporting about our country.” Other outlets, such as the more palatable A Current Affair, The Australian and Sky News, have received no such accusations.

Sky News journalist Laura Jayes even had the high visa application fee waived by the Nauru government when seeking entry in 2016.  She also revealed who the main targets of such a ruinously costly regime were: “Nauru officials would openly admit the fee was to deter the ABC and Guardian.”

The thin-skinned disposition of those authorities was not condemned by the then Turnbull government, a point unsurprising given the close media management being conducted between Australia and Nauru. What has since transpired is that suggestions by officials in Canberra that Australia’s role in the affair is minimal must be taken with a pinch of coarse salt.

A document tendered to federal court as part of a Nauruan medical transfer case is enlightening. “The governments of Australia and Nauru,” it goes, “will agree to media and visitor access policy and conditions of entry, taking into consideration the requirements of section 13 of the Asylum Seekers (Regional Processing Centre) Act 2012.”  Those “seeking access to a Centre will be required to obtain permission from the Secretary of Justice and to sign a media access agreement.” Nothing, it seems, must be left to chance in letting Australians know what is taking place in those outposts of torment and misery.

Words can fly and words can bite

By George Theodoridis 

Exhibit 1: Justin Milne to Guthrie (via email): “…I just think it’s simple. Get rid of her. My view is we need to save the corporation, not Emma…” Milne says these comments were taken out of context.

Exhibit 2:  PM Morrison to journalist Cassidy: “I expect the ABC Board to do better and if they don’t, well, they can expect a bit more attention from me.”
http://www.abc.net.au/insiders/sunday-30-september-full-program/10322604

Exhibit 3:  Odysseus to Agamemnon, wrathfully: “Son of Atreus!  What words have escaped the barrier of your teeth!” – Iliad 4, 350. 

That’s Homer for you: “Our teeth are much like the topless towers of Troy the Greeks had to face: a barrier to hold back unruly or recalcitrant words,” he tells us. “Don’t let false words, fake words escape that barrier.” Homer also used the formulaic phrase, Ἔπεα πτερόεντα” (“Winged words”), throughout his two giant epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

If he were a modern-day Aussie, he’d put it in these words: “Words are like mozzies, mate: They fly and they can bite you on the bum. Take care what words you let fly out of your mouth!”

And there are two types of words, those uttered and those written. Here’s Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus addressing the Roman Senate: “Verba Volant, Scripta Manent,” he warned the good senators which, in English parlance it means “(Uttered) Words fly, written ones remain.”

All the words uttered in the Australian Parliament are written; so are those in the ABC act. They remain. They are immortal and they are there even after they are erased by some usurper of our Democracy, and they are still there even if nobody takes notice of them.

Emails or hard copy, words said in a pub, a boardroom or from a pulpit, words that mean nothing and words that change worlds, words of every hue and of every tone can fly forever. Unlike chocolate, they have no use-by date.

Laws and important notices in Ancient Greece were chiselled into stone or wooden pillars called “Stelae” and these were placed throughout the city, a practice which gave strength and legitimacy to Aristotle’s view that “all men are political beings.” All men (yes, women were excluded officially from the political process) were an active part of a polis and so they were all responsible for its health -social, moral, economic. They were, in other words, politicians and that’s the real meaning of the word. Solon’s laws were engraved on these Stelae and there they remained and thus they were easy to check and point to when matters became complex or ambivalent. They were there to remain all its citizens that they were politicians.

Words are great. They change their form from abstract, when they’re in one’s head, to sensate when they are written or uttered. They are great to make one happy, great to make one sad, great at praising someone and great at destroying someone. Most importantly, they are great when we try to express even our most subtle emotions:

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.”
Wrote Elizabeth Browning.

Words can be sweet and they can be bitter. The power of the pen does not rest upon its nib or the colour of the ink it uses but upon the words, it writes. And whilst words are certainly not the only means of communication and we well know what the gesture of a finger thrust hard into the air or a thumb bitten aggressively convey, words have the ability to communicate the most complex of issues in the most subtle way. 

The Spartans communicated using the shortest possible sentences, a type of speech called laconic speech. For example, you would hear soldiers daring their enemies with  “μολὼν λαβέ”  (“Come and get it if you dare!”) or a mother telling her son as she hands him his shield on his way to war:ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” (“Return either carrying it as a victor or upon it, killed on the battlefield.”  

Their cousins, the Athenians across the isthmus, on the other hand, loved using lengthy orations even to describe the simplest of things, because nothing in the minds of the philosophical Athenians was ever simple. Consequently, Thucydides’ prediction was true and we now have little of what the Spartans have said and a great deal of what the Athenians did, from Literature to philosophy, to theatre, to law and to History. Almost all of the stuff he have now about Sparta and the Spartans was written by non-Spartans.

Both, written and uttered words should be freely expressed.

On the eve of his invasion to Greece, in 480 BC the Persian emperor, Xerxes once asked his Greek counsellor, Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king, if the Greeks will stay to fight an army as enormous as his.

Demaratus nervously, fearfully asked the great King if he would like to hear the truth or whatever would please his ears and heart. Xerxes answered that he wanted to know the truth. Still, Demaratus was afraid to speak it. To tell him the truth.

Demaratus did tell the Great King the truth about the nature of the Greek soldier but the King refused to believe him, which is another trait of a despot, to ignore the truth. Demaratus followed him against his countrymen and the invasion ended in an abject failure for the King.

Herodotus’ whole work, his Histories is an effort to show that societies whose people are free are better than those whose people labour under autocrats and tyrants. Fear and intimidation will almost always conceal or distort the truth. Freedom of speech was at the very core of being a Greek while its opposite, the fear of speaking it was at the very core of a tyrannical despot, ones like Xerxes and his father Darius. Demaratus had left Greece where he was able to speak his mind freely and ended up in Persia where doing so could cost him his life. 

A fair and just society is made up of fair and just citizens, the blood and soul of which are words that are the true reflections of the thoughts of its citizens and their expression is pure and undefiled by any interference by anyone.  No society can be fair and just if its citizens can’t do that. 

If we are to rightfully boast that we are a Democracy, then we ought to have another forum, another platform from that of the Parliament, a platform where the speech of our people, the true demos, can be uttered freely. That forum should be the media and the media should comprise journalists whose only concern is the pursuit of news and its true dissemination, again, free from any interference. The truth should reign free.

The ABC, we all thought foolishly, was a media platform where these vested interests were kept at bay; that this taxpayer-funded body was protected by legislation and that it worked free of manipulation and of agendas belonging to particular interests and not to its funders, the Australian demos. Recently we found out that this was not the case and that the ABC was in fact, run by a board put there by political interests and that these political interests were ruthlessly directing the trajectory of its work.

We know this because the words used by the chairman of its board, Justin Milne, demanding that one of its best-known journalist should be sacked, rose to the surface of public scrutiny, much like the sewage of a badly maintained plumbing complex.

The ABC, which though, I suggest might not always have given us a “no punches pulled” account of the facts, was and certainly is vital to us if we are to understand ourselves, as well as others and to respect the two most crucial elements of a humane society, truth and justice. This body must not brook any interference from anyone and to pursue, as its charter suggests, truth at any cost.

A society is not served at all well if its journalists are so afraid, to tell the truth, that they become silenced hostages of the powerful – effectively nothing more than palace eunuchs.

As I write, I am watching the President of the USA mocking in the most loathsome way, a woman who dared speak out about a sexual assault she suffered by someone who is after one of the most important jobs in America –it is a job for the rest of his life- in the most important field in the running of the American society, that of the country’s Supreme Court.

President Trump was mocking Dr Christine Blasey Ford who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by the Trump’s nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

And this is while the Senate is trying to assess Kavanaugh’s suitability to a seat in the Supreme Court. His words, Trump’s words, are a belligerent, bellowing cascade of bitterness, of hatred and of poison that has indeed, escaped the barrier of his teeth. They are nothing short of a vulgar, unabashed interference in the process of seeking the truth. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/02/trump-mocks-christine-blasey-ford-at-mississippi-rally)

Interference by powerful, vested interests. An aggressive attack on a person with little power other than that invested in the truth, an attack aimed at shutting down any other person who holds the truth but who is not powerful enough to utter it.

The ABC, like the ancient Greek stage, is the platform where the truth comes to see the light and breathe the clear air. This light and this air must not be subverted in any way. It must not be turned into a “truth maybe” or a “truth but.”

Limiting Israel: Russia Deploys the S-300 to Syria

Relations between Russia and Israel have been those of an estranged couple punctuated by occasional breakouts of tense understanding.  As with other such couples, a public row does not necessarily reflect the more placid, if stern discussion that might happen behind closed doors.

On the public side of things, Russia’s decision to deploy the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria has made Israeli officials apoplectic.  That said, Israel’s security establishment were privy to prospects of a possible Russian deployment of the modern, more discriminating air-defence system.  The former head of the Israeli Defence Force’s Strategic Division, Brigadier General Assaf Orion at the Institution for National Security Studies, was reflective.  “However one may keep in mind that for the last twenty years Israel was preparing for this to appear in theatre.”

In April, Amos Yadlin, the country’s retired Military Intelligence chief stuck his head out to issue a warning: should Russia supply Syria with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Israel’s air force would retaliate.  Israel Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman also upped the ante, suggesting that Israel would destroy any S-300 targeting Israeli aircraft. Would Russia call’s Israel’s bluff?

Any indecision on Russia’s part evaporated in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane by Syrian government forces on September 17, leading to the death of 15 personnel.  The Syrian action had been prompted by attacks from Israeli F-16 jets on facilities in the province of Latakia.

In the words of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, “It is a system which is defensive in nature rather than offensive, and is intended for the defence of the Syrian airspace.” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has only praise for the batteries, which are “capable of intercepting aerial attacks at the distance of over 250 kilometres, and simultaneously countering several targets”. Deploying it was a necessary “retaliatory” measure.

The tone, at this point, has become far more reserved on Israel’s part.  While Moscow “made a move, the playing field is very large,” came an unnamed Israeli official’s view. Israel was “dealing” with the aftermath of the decision made by President Vladimir Putin, but would “not necessarily” attempt “to prevent the delivery” of the anti-aircraft system.  This stands to reason: the presence of other Russian missile systems in the Syrian conflict – the S-400, for instance – did not deter Israel’s previous strikes; nor did it cause much by way of open remonstration. Symbolism is everything.

Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, was impressed by Moscow’s move. Israel’s regional bullying would finally, at least in some fashion, be contained. “For the first time in years another state is making it clear to Israel that there are restrictions to its power, that it’s not okay for it to do whatever it wants, that it’s not alone in the game, that America can’t always cover for it and there’s a limit to the harm that it can do.”

Like other players, Russia and Israel will continue to be careful in avoiding any undue engagements. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has made various utterances to that effect, though the deployment has put him on notice that the Israeli action in Syria can no longer take place with brazen impunity.

Then comes the issue as to which outfits will be manning the batteries. Netanyahu, pushing the familiar line that certain weapon systems are only appropriate in the right hands, sees the S-300 finding its way to “irresponsible players”.  Orion fears those “incompetent and reckless” hands fidgeting and firing.

On that score, it is unlikely that the Russians intend giving their Syrian recipients full leverage in using the system.  At this stage of the conflict, it is clear that Moscow is calling many of the shots in the field, having, for instance, restrained Syrian government forces in launching a blood-soaked offensive on rebel forces in Idlib in favour of an accord with Turkey.

Moves such as the S-300 announcement say less about a conflict that has killed with remorseless drive than it does about the pieces of furniture that keep being moved in one of the most atrocious wars in recent memory.  A weapons system is deployed in one place to discourage another “player” from overconfidence and bellicosity; airstrikes are undertaken against the forces of another group or state to nip any growing influence. Brief agreements are brokered, short-term understandings reached.  

Israel gazes wide-eyed upon the influence of Iran and any umbilical cord to Hezbollah; Turkey watches warily the influence of the Kurds and any overly patriotic tendencies. Syrian soil becomes the staging ground for amoral plays of power.

The critics and observers add to this, using sterile terms that give the impression that states are participants in a robust conversation free of blood, a gentlemen’s dispute rather than a murderous fight to the finish.  Syria remains a carcass swarmed over by various enthusiasts, pecking it into cruel oblivion.

When Sputnik went ballistic

As its 61st anniversary approaches it is worth pondering the lasting impact on popular culture of a polished metal sphere whose 21-day orbit ushered in the space race and tightened the ratchet on the cold war. The sphere, known as Sputnik, marked the commencement of a new era.

On the 4th October 1957, citizens of the planet fortunate enough to own a radio, myself among them, uttered a collective gasp. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first spacecraft. named Sputnik 1, the 58-centimetre sphere, passed into an elliptical low orbit and forever changed earth’s perception of itself.

Sputnik, which emitted a single watt of power and is written thus in Russian, Простейший Спутник, marked the literal end of one period and the beginning of another.

The successful launch more than 60 years ago of this remarkable example of Soviet technology, is an event worthy of a brief analysis of its lasting cultural impact.

The football-sized satellite emboldened the United States to launch its own venture, which triggered the space race and a concomitant influence on popular culture.

A few years after Sputnik, the Soviets again trumped the United States when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth on 12 April 1961.

I recall imploring a cantankerous father to buy a set of Gagarin postage stamps which if mint, would today be worth a pretty pack of kopecks.

“Communist,” he snorted.

The following month Alan Shepard earned the moniker First American in Space, but it was the clean-shaven and crew-cut astronaut John Glenn who emulated Gagarin’s feat on 20 February 1962. More than a decade later in 1979 American author, Tom Wolfe declared Shepard and Glenn et al had The Right Stuff. Yuri Gagarin and his comrades apparently did not.

Sputnik spawned a new category of heroes. The Soviet cohort, led by Gagarin, bore the prefix ‘cosmo,’ their American counterparts ‘astro’.

Sputnik emboldened post-war children to throw away treasured Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and scour the dictionaries for words commencing with both prefixes. Cosmology, cosmos and cosmonaut entered the lexicon alongside astronomical, Astrodome, astrobiology and astronautics, to name a few.

In 1963 Japanese youth shared the global passion for shiny space-age newness, by empowering Astro Boy to take artistic flight from the pages of manga, onto the black and white screens of nascent television.

Around the world, designers, advertisers — especially for Campari — graphic artists, furniture and light makers and others, drew inspiration from the tiny orb. Meanwhile in the good ole’ US of A Sputnik breathed life into a genre of silly, speculative pulp, written in the preceding decades.

Science Fiction rocketed into a favoured form of escapism when it ‘slipped the surly bonds’ of penny dreadful novels and become a night-time television staple.

The monotonous Mixolydian mode of the beeping Sputnik monitored and re-broadcast by ham radio operators, became a tone poem for authors of the calibre of Phillip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke. And while Gene Roddenberry died before dreaming up the sophistication of an astrometrics lab, courtesy of Star Trek Voyager, I’m confident Roddenberry would’ve approved its creation.

Stanley Kubrick produced Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 to the accompaniment of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss and new music by the Austro-Hungarian contemporary composer György Ligeti. In the meantime in a mysterious cosmos far, far away, Sputnik inspired Soviet writers and artists to dream dreams of a serene, egalitarian space populated by a fragile humanity, with the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, its locus.

In 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky launched the fictional Solaris, Солярис in Cyrillic, (also spelt Solyaris) to the strains of J.S. Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, and the electrosonics of Soviet composer Eduard Nikolayevich Artemyev.

As I sat in the Lido cinema located in a forgotten quarter of downtown Sydney, I imagined wandering the corridors of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a few kilometres from the snow-shrouded Magnitogorsk, a locale I thought the home of Magneto of X Men fame. Солярис, Solyaris epitomised an art-space which I naively believed flourished behind the weirdness of the Iron Curtain.

In the same year of Solaris’ cinematic release, the impact of Sputnik began to slip from popular consciousness thanks to the song Star Man from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Artemyev’s electro plunking did not stand a chance against Mick Ronson’s soaring guitar licks. For chronologically challenged readers this pop milestone, written by David Bowie, is now 46 years old.

So as the second decade of the 21st-century edges to a conclusion, books, films, comics and a myriad of other cultural manifestations of ‘space, the final frontier’, owe an incalculable debt to a tiny device which carried less onboard technology than a $200 drone.


Henry Johnston is a Sydney based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus and other stories is available at https://tasmania-40-south.myshopify.com/products/last-voyage-of-aratus-the-by-henry-johnston-pb

Nostalgia and Sunshine: Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black

This effort seems to be a bit of camping out on the part of director Bruce Beresford, whose list of cinematic achievements include Driving Miss Daisy and Breaker Morant. There are many smiles, a few distributed tears and occasional sighs of regret, but generally speaking, little by way of controversial stings.  Ladies in Black, in other words, is all entertainment punctuated by the enthusiastic retelling of sun-drenched stories that afflict the lives of women working in a Sydney department store.

The film, based upon the 1993 novel Women in Black by Beresford’s University of Sydney contemporary Madeleine St John, takes its audience to the Sydney of 1959, distant from the world and on the cusp of change.  An insular Anglo-Celtic civilisation has become the home to various “reffos” (refugees, as they are locally termed), which becomes the shorthanded reference to all those of “Continental” background.

The scenes are charmingly executed, and beneath the shimmering and the handsome shine are those tensions that lay bare minor prejudices and major faults.  This does not impress some of the critics, with Rebecca Harkins-Cross less charitable than most. “Beresford,” she writes stingingly in The Monthly, “is flogging a delusion of the egalitarian land o’plenty, where masculine cruelty is unconsciously writ by bumbling blokes, and xenophobia can be fixed by the discovery that salami is, of course, delicious.”  But the film’s purpose is not to chide or reproach, nor plough the depths of sociological insight. It shows both the efforts on the part of those who found love and safe living away from conflict and the pains of post-war Europe and the response of careful, cautious accommodation on the part of Australians.

The reverse is only lightly touched upon: Australians yearning for cultural nourishment away from stifling wowserism, the tyranny of the dull and the pro-British apologetics of Prime Minister Robert Menzies.  The latter particularly irritated historian Manning Clark, who described Menzies as “a tragedy writ large” in the service of “alien gods”.

This did not, as Gerard Henderson defensively wrote in 2011, trouble those immigrants who saw the Australia of the 1950s as far from boring.  This, he suggested, was a confection of “the middle-class left-wing intelligentsia” and those irritating stone throwing academics tenured at tax payer’s expense.

Central to the cast is Angourie Rice’s Lesley (who prefers to go by the name of the unambiguously feminine Lisa), a voracious reader who takes time during the school holidays to be a temp at the fashion store Goode’s.  Her encounter with Julia Ormond’s Magda leads to tender enlightenment. Being Slovenian, Magda wears her knowledge of fashion heavily on the subject of high-end gowns, ultimately hoping to establish her own shop.

There are a few barbs directed at relations between the sexes.  The Hungarian Rudi (Ryan Corr) is seeking an Australian flame to build his life with (she must be “strong and healthy”) and is happy to do his bit like a European Henry Higgins, educating any ignorant partner he might meet.  Australian men are seen as gormless and bound to dash down to the pub after work for a brew while European men – the continental ones, that is – cook and have more than a passing acquaintance with music. Magda, for her part, is not impressed by Australian women, whom she regards as essentially untutored, the good ones have done the sensible thing in fleeing to London or Paris.

The cultural depictions are also delightfully striking.  How an Australian Christmas is celebrated varies among the groups: such sweets as the lamington feature for the Anglo-Australians who spend time in the scorching outdoors; the Hungarian feast, held indoors, is replete with dishes of the old country paired with matching wines.

There are moments of incongruity wrapped inside a certain, sympathetic nostalgia. Lisa’s father (Shane Jacobsen), who labours in the printing presses of the Sydney Morning Herald, is congratulated by a crowd of fellow male workers about having a gifted daughter.  (Her grades, being exemplary, do not quite sink into his conservative head.)  One fellow worker professes to having two of his girls going to the University of Sydney and loving it.  Lisa’s father, for his part, remains conventional, seeing tertiary education as fairly needless to a member of the fairer sex.

The general sentiment on refugees is a salutary reminder in the film that echoes Australia’s dramatically violent approach to certain new arrivals since the late 1990s.  The policy of the Australian government during the 1950s, still governed by White Australia strictures, was to permit refugees from Europe, notably from southern and central Europe, from entering en masse. These, in time, formed a resilient backbone of industrial development. The modern approach stresses the penal over the constructive, the discriminatory over the progressive.  While the film stresses the merits of those “reffos”, an alert audience will note the jarring contrast.

Bridging the Generational Gap

By Cal Sorensen-Karklis 

What is clear in the hearts and minds of society today is the growing divide in generational thinking, both for better and worse. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the youth of today are generally not interested by political parties, community groups, churches, and trade unions. Yes there are a few small amounts of young people engaged this much is true but on overall in the 1950s – 1960s the membership of these groups was far greater than it is today especially among the youth. Why is this so?

There is no denying the fact that the Baby Boomer generation went through a great deal of fun and rebellious mayhem with the revolutionary thinking of the 1960s in pop culture and politics with such events as JFK’s new frontier, Whitlam, civil rights, feminism, Vietnam, Woodstock and the Beatles all occurring against the backdrop of challenging entrenched conservative ideals of yesteryear. This in itself didn’t lead to the gradual decline of engagement, however. Gen X had its own moments with Michael Jackson, Aids, Midnight Oil, the early 1990s recession, and the end of the Cold War. Both generations had a great deal of engagement in the society of the era in its institutions you just have to pay attention to the historical footage and the marches.

But why not Gen Y and Z? Well simply put there are many reasons why the never-ending greed of the 1980s neo-liberal agenda opened up a mindset which led to productivity of all else which did spark some technological advancements, yes but driven by corporate profit over all else which ultimately cut the egalitarian dream short.

This has caused ripple effects forward into time. When you really think about it both the newer generations are as opinionated as the previous ones it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the messaging in music like Hilltop Hoods, Green Day or see the resentment towards the Iraq War and concern on climate change issues. But with that said my generation and the one after me are being bombarded with information and disinformation in a digital world. The power of a pic and a tweet can do a lot, monkey see, monkey do. But it should be noted too that the youth of today campaign very differently in this world.

Even though membership numbers of organisations in our institutions once prospered, organisations such as Get Up, The Youth Climate Coalition, and the emerging anti-gun movement in America have all done well because they harness traction and attention on singular issues. The youth of today are broad thinking but do so with so much information in a do it yourself economy which has huge implications in mindset and thinking. Especially today, where there is a lack of ethical guidelines and teachings in place in such a changed environment. Where education is looked upon more with an emphasis on self-interested economic sense than just one based on satisfaction and dreaming big for everyone on a community level. This, in turn, has created an influx of careerist opportunist without guidance in our workplaces and beyond.

What is promising, however, is Gen Y’s are becoming more understanding of how to broaden their engagement with growing results but Gen Z still seems caught in the crossfires for now. What is clear here is a cultural change from tall poppy syndrome from older generations towards younger generations and one where both need to work together to learn off each other.

Young people don’t like being siloed with cheap gimmicks. Eventually, like anybody, they want a say. This, in turn, strengthens democracy, which is why many are turning to the extremes of the Left or Right at present in some nations across the Liberal order.  

One good thing the Australian Labor Party has done recently is introducing party codes of conduct to handle bullying. Another great project in the works that the trade unions, ALP and Fabians are part of is the introduction of such a training program to mentor our future activist and cultivate their skills sets by teaching them ethically for them to grow.

If the institutions adapt to the changes while ethically recruiting and training then a future ruled by monsters can be avoided, yes a future worse than now is still possible despite Trump. A future that looks for a vision of hope for a better tomorrow.

The Labor Academy:

This project is accepting donations and support.
(https://www.laboracademy.com.au/)

Time will tell if these initiatives will work in the long run but one song sums it up perfectly.

Billy Joel’s song – We Didn’t Start the Fire puts it best:  

“It was always burning since the world was turning”.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFTLKWw542g)

Australian Fabians:

To keep in touch with future Fabians events the QLD committee is also looking to fundraise donations for the creation of a magazine. Feel free to check out the link below:
(https://www.fabians.org.au/queenslandpamphlet)


Callen is the Secretary of the QLD Fabians Branch of the Australian Fabians Society, is a member of Crime Stoppers, and is a Quandamooka Noonucle Indigenous person with a strong commitment to community. Callen has worked in the retail, media and market research sectors and is currently a student at Griffith University.

 

Tortured Solutions: Ecuador, the UK and Julian Assange’s Fate

The pulse of negotiations, a flurry of communications, and the person central to this is one who threatens to go nowhere – for the moment.  But go somewhere these parties would wish Julian Assange to do. For six years, cramped within a space in London a stone’s throw away from Harrods, one he has made his tenuous home, a citadel of sporadic publishing and exposes; for six years, an unruly, disobedient tenant whose celebrity shine has lost its gloss for certain followers and those who did, at one point, tolerate him.

The landlords have lost patience, and Lenín Moreno is willing to call in the arrears.  He has made it clear that whilst Assange has been subjected to an unacceptable state of affairs (“Being five or six years in an embassy already violates his human rights”), he should also be moved on in some form with the British authorities.  How that moving takes place is producing a host of large, ballooning questions.

Ultimately, the current Ecuadorean leadership finds little to merit Assange’s effort.  He intrudes into the political affairs of other countries with audacity; he disturbs and interrupts the order of things with relish and, for those reasons, ought to be regarded with suspicion.  “I don’t agree with what he does,” Moreno is on record as saying. “It is somewhat disgusting to see someone violating people’s right to communicate privately.”

Moreno, despite being classed as a protégé of his predecessor Rafael Correa, has done his level best to spruce up the country’s image for the United States whose Vice President, Mike Pence, duly acknowledged on a visit in June this year. He has moved on former figures within the previous administration, including Correa, claiming instances of corruption and crime.  Previous contracts made with Chinese companies are also being scrutinised for their value.

Moreno is prudish and inaccurate on the issue of private communications and the WikiLeaks experiment. What he ignores is the driving rationale for the spicy vigilantism of the publishing outfit, an attempt to subvert a certain order of power that was crying out for a revision. This revision, applied through the lens of transparency, would arm the weak and powerless with knowledge while defending their privacy.  The powerful and brutish, on the other hand, must be kept exposed, under a form of public surveillance and permanent review. Transparency for the powerful; privacy for the powerless.

The asymmetrical order of information, however, lauds the reverse of this. States are patriarchs beyond scrutiny; they dispense, with occasional bad grace, the odd favour that entitles the public to see its activities.  Freedom of information statutes and regulations give the impression that the public are, somehow, entitled to see material that is supposedly their resource. (How condescending to tell citizens that they have a resource that can only be accessed carefully, via suspicious gatekeepers obsessed with national security.)

In return, these gorged bureaucracies conduct surveillance upon their citizens with a sneering conviction and ensure that a fictional public interest is deployed against those who would dare air the cupboard of skeletons.

The current state of negotiations are blurry.  On Wednesday, Moreno claimed that Ecuadorean and British officials were nattering over permitting Assange to leave the embassy “in the medium term”.  His lawyers have been notified of the process, but nothing else is forthcoming.

What tends to be written about Assange is itself a product of the dissimulation that he has attempted to banish from political conservation.  His variant of the Midas touch is less turning things to gold than simulacrums of truth. A piece on the Australian SBS site notes how “Previous sexual assault charges filed against him in Sweden have been dropped.”  The stopper here is that he was never charged, being merely a subject of interest who needed to be questioned. The rest is an awkward, concocted silence.

Assange, more significantly for the geopolitical boffins, took a dump in the imperium’s gold water closet, and now faces the consequences.  It has come in dribs and drabs: cutting off internet access on March 27; restricting visitors and the access of journalists. Moreno himself has suggested that Assange stop what he does best: express unsavoury opinions.  Should Assange promise “to stop emitting opinions on the politics of friendly nations like Spain or the United States then we have no problem with him going online.”  Turning Assange into a eunuch of public affairs is a top priority.

Moreno’s predecessors have shaken their heads in disbelief at the treatment being dished out to the Australian publisher.  To ban visitors, argued Correa, was “a clear violation of his rights.  Once we give asylum to someone, we are responsible for his safety, for ensuring humane living conditions.” (It should be noted that Correa himself authorised a temporary suspension of internet access to Assange in 2016, a brief measure taken to stem the publisher’s zeal in attacking Hillary Clinton during the US presidential elections.)

This will be a slow torture, a cruel process of breaking down resistance.  The issue in such cases is to avoid going potty and losing all sense of bearing.  Should Assange even maintain a sense of psychic composure after this relentless attempt to dissolve his will, history should record it as one of those infrequent secular miracles that the human spirit can provide?

The APEC Summit in Port Moresby: Delivering Great Expectations for the Indo Pacific?

The Essential Background to APEC 2018

Australia will have an important steering role when leaders from the twenty-one-member Asia-Pacific Economic Summit (APEC) which will convene in Port Moresby between 12-18 November 2018. Some associate and observer states will also attend. These latter groups will include India, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Pacific Economic Co-operation Council and the Pacific Islands Forum.

The date of the summit is highly symbolic. 11th November 2018 is the century of the cease-fire in the Great War (1914-18). The anniversary unites all countries and associates in attendance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will be in Darwin to join in the commemorations before travelling on to Port Moresby.

It should not be over-looked that Australian ANZACs were escorted across the Indian Ocean from Albany and Fremantle by the Japanese frigates. Britain played a major role in modernizing the Japanese Imperial Navy during the 1920s. One of US Vice President Mike Pence’s trusted advisers might remind him of the importance of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930) in the last days of the Republican Hoover Administration in antagonizing Japan as the Great Depression descended on the global economy. This time the US trade war is directed against China, but Japan and Australia are not exempt from the financial and strategic costs of the Trump Administration’s compromises with investment and trading ties across the APEC Region.

Just as significant for the morale of US delegates at APEC will be the fate of the Trump Administration itself after the mid-term elections on 6 November 2018. Without the wisdom of Nostradamus, it is perhaps safer to keep a watch on current polling trends for both houses of Congress (FT Online 22 September 2018: https://ig.ft.com/us-midterm-elections/):

Lighter Notes on Security at APEC

Australian special forces have been quietly deployed to Papua-New Guinea to help secure Port Moresby ahead of the APEC Meeting (ABC News 12 September 2018):

Senior Defence sources have confirmed elite Australian Army personnel are “on the ground”, amid concerns the impoverished nation’s military is not adequately equipped to control the large event.

World leaders including US Vice President Mike Pence, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are all expected to attend the two-day summit.

“We have Australian Army and Australian Special Forces assisting the PNGDF (Papua New Guinea Defence Force), making sure the counter-terrorism provision of services is first class,” a senior member of the Special Forces Command said.

“We’re standing ready to support PNGDF to secure the APEC meeting and help PNG showcase the country to the world,” he added.

The ABC understands Royal Australian Navy warships will also be located off the PNG coast as part of Operation APEC Assist to protect cruise ships which will be used for temporary APEC accommodation.

Maritime security is a major focus for APEC security preparations, with Papua New Guinea’s maritime policing capabilities considered to be very limited.

It is feared cruise ships could be particularly vulnerable to terrorist strikes and will need the protection of Special Forces soldiers, who are highly skilled at boarding vessels at sea.

Defence has declined to publicly confirm the deployment of its secretive SAS and Commando units but notes “Operation APEC Assist” has been “at the request of the Papua New Guinea government”.

Despite fond memories of security breaches by members of the Chaser’s War on Everything at the APEC Summit in Sydney in September 2007, the elements of unpredictability are more likely to be in the Chinese-built convention centre (YouTube Coverage the Sydney Summit  2007 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3zKuLgH_l8).

This APEC Summit will attract up to 10,000 support staff in a Melanesian capital which is not noted for high security or vast accommodation resources. Cruise ships have been hired to assist with accommodation and hospitality.

Anticipate Robust Discussions  

With a list of participants as grand as the Versailles Conference of 1919, it is going to be well nigh impossible for one power bloc to control events at the APEC Summit.  Discussions and compromises can be affronting to representatives of the Trump Administration at the APEC Summit. Tight security outside the Summit cannot control similar events at the forthcoming APEC Summit.

At last year’s APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, sub-plots were being brewed. There were positive   outcomes in 2018 as a result as noted by the Asian Times (14 November 2017):

Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met on Saturday on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Danang, Vietnam, and agreed to normalize bilateral ties that were damaged by a flap over a US anti-missile system when they hold a summit in Beijing next month.

International relations have also moved in positive directions since Canada and the US co-chaired the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Canada on the Security and Stability of the Korean Peninsula. Against conventional strategic wisdom from the Trump Administration, the Canadian Government opted for a diplomatic window of opportunity to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula (Canadian Government 16 January 2018).

Good-will towards South Korea as a peace-broker, of course, pre-dated President Moon Jae-in’s election victory. As host to the 70th Anniversary Parade in Beijing to celebrate the defeat of Imperial Japan, President Park Guen-Hye was given a place close to President Putin and President Xi Jinping (Korea JoonAng Daily 4 September 2015):

BEIJING – President Park Geun-Hye on Thursday watched the largest-ever military parade by China from a prominent spot near President Xi Jinping, a symbol that the South has replaced the North – at least for now – as China’s favourite Korea…Throughout the ceremony, Beijing offered special treatment to Park to thank her for attending events skipped by leaders of most Western countries. On the observation deck at Tiananmen Square, Park was seated very prominently. Chinese President Xi Jinping was seated at the center of the front row, with Russian President Vladimir Putin to his right. Park sat next to Putin. 

On Xi’s left side, a group of Chinese leaders including former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were seated. The seating order symbolized China’s attitude towards its neighbours. The treatment Park received as a foreign guest was comparable to the protocol Beijing used decades ago to receive North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.

It cannot be assumed that countries like South Korea and Japan will always toe the line set by market ideology which was so important in the old Cold War Order. Essentially, most Indo-Pacific countries from India to Japan and Russia are developmental states with a commitment to varying forms of social market capitalism.

PNG itself cannot afford to stay within its current market ideology. Its occasionally spectacular economic growth rate oscillates with commodity prices. PNG’s resources are plundered largely by multinational companies that offer gleaming export terminals while so many local people struggle with food and electricity shortages, environmental vandalism and lack of urban security.

The island of New Guinea on both sides of the Irian Jaya Border with Indonesia is a vast network of resource projects which produce artificially high economic growth rates.

Yet the age of quisling states is unravelling. APEC and PNG itself are now at the cutting edge of change in a new globalized era.

President Trump is symbolically absent from this years APEC Summit. It is doubtful if he could cope with the likely robust discussions at the APEC Summit. This is a major post-Cold War event for our region which is worth watching in future news coverage. In the context of Victory Over Japan Parade in Beijing in 2015, even the seating plan is significant. This will be carefully steered by the government of PNG and its key allies.

 

Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in advancing pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.  

 

 

 

Augmenting Brains: Google Turns Twenty

 

“Eventually you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you an answer.” Larry Page, co-founder of Google

The Verge starts with a statement that has become commonplace, the compulsory nod to power one has come to expect when engaged with that whole mammoth enterprise known as Google.  “No technology company is arguably more responsible for shaping the modern internet, the modern life, than Google.”

The story of Google is all minted Silicon Valley: the modest research project birthed in computer lingo and networking, the serendipitous meeting of graduate students, and the finding of auspicious and enormously productive garage locations.  The names tell a story: fresh, childish but hopeful. Alphabet spawned Google, and so forth. These were the products of, scorned Jonathan Taplin in his sharp Move Fast and Break Things, spoiled, ignorant brats.

In a sense, the Google experiment is all homage to behavioural tendencies writ large, an attempt on the part of the founders less to control than predict. (This distinction, it must be said, has been lost.)  How do people search for what is important? Who tells them?

The PageRank algorithm of Google is a moderate blessing and heavily laden curse, reducing the conduct of human searches to a dimension of repetition and faux enlargement of knowledge.  But the paradox of such behaviour is not so much a broadening of mind as a reconfirmation of its narrowing. You are fed results you expect; in time, you are delivered the results you expect. Variety is stifled within the very system that supposedly promotes a world of seamless access.

But there it is. The Google search engine commodifies and controls choice, thereby leaving you with little.  The impression of a world with abundance is essential and draws out the curse of plenty: your choice is pre-empted, and typing in a search term generates terms you might wish to pursue.  Even the traditional library is hard to retreat to in certain respects given that librarians are becoming allergic to matters of paper, covers and book spines, a catalogue outsourced beyond its walls. The modern library has become the product of such market management fetish as knowledge centres, which is far more in line with Google speak.

Google has also reduced us to phone-reaching idiocy, an impulsive dive into the creature of all knowing answers that lies in the pocket and is procured at a moment’s notice.  Few conversations go by these days without that nasty God of the search engine making its celebrated entry to dispel doubts and right wrongs. Not knowing a “fact” is intrinsically linked to the rescue of finding out what Google will tell you.

Larry Page has made little secret of its all-conquering, cerebral mission manifested through the all-powerful search engine.  It verges on the creepily totalitarian, but more in the fashion of Brave New World seductiveness than 1984 torture and stomping.  “It will be included in people’s brains,” he explained to a veteran observer of the company, Steven Levy.  “When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information.” Similarly, for fellow founder Sergey Brin, Google is viewed “as a way to augment your brain with the knowledge of the world.”

There is the other side: company concentration, exquisitely vast power that has wooed critics, and a self-assumed omniscience that crushes the competition.  It is such characteristics that determine Google as a sovereign exception that seems to trounce the prerogative of many states: there are regulations made by elected officials, but these can, and will be subverted, if needed.

But there is another side of the Google phenomenon: calculated compliance, and collaboration verging on the obsequious. Business remains business, and having such a concentrated entity exerting dominion over the Internet and the market is the very thing that should trouble anti-trust specialists.

This very fact struck the Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry as relevant. If Google was to be dealt with in any feasible way, it would have to be through the traditional weaponry of the anti-trust suit (think, he reminds us, of Standard Oil 1910).  “This can’t be fixed legislatively,” suggested Landry to Baton Rouge’s The Advocate. “We need to go to court with an antitrust suit.”

The European Union has already taken up the matter, fining Google $5 billion for antitrust violations relating to its Android market dominance, notably its bundling of the search engine and Chrome apps into the operating system while also making “payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators” to exclusively bundle the Google search app on handsets.

The suggestion for some form of antitrust action against Google and other technological giants in the US itself is now being lost in the political opportunism of the Trump Whitehouse.  On Tuesday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a gathering of various officials to consider “a growing concern” about how certain companies might “be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms”.

The problem here is not the premise Sessions is pursuing.  What matters is the reason he is taking such an interest, pressed by the sledgehammer approach advocated by President Donald J. Trump.  That ever sensitive leader of the confused free world claims that the search engine has developed a bias against him, yet another rigged entity in action.

Trump’s critics also have issues with social media sites and Google’s search engine. Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, they argue, conversely, that such entities promoted the forces of reaction.  Had they not been so easily susceptible to those wicked Russians in spreading misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump would never have gotten the keys to the White House.  That proposition has been given some academic ballast with Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President – What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know, though it remains qualified at best.

Reaching the age of 20 has certainly brought Google to the summit of criticism and a certain pervasive idolatry. There are those who feel erroneously slighted (Trump and Clinton); there are those who wish their records erased from the search engine in an effort to make their lives anew (the right to forget the foolish error); and then there are those who simply could not be bothered to do a bit more digging for something that is so effortlessly available.  “Google is the oracle of redirection,” claims James Gleick.  In due course, its own influence will, in time, require redirection, and the brats may have to be disciplined accordingly.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

By Kyran O’Dwyer 

There is a book titled ‘Jasper Jones’, by Craig Silvey.

Having found the day to day offerings of our media a tad deficient in either thought or substance, books have become a bit of a refuge. As this book has numerous themes and explores many issues, it came as little surprise that it was on students reading lists and, given its 2018, ‘cheat sheets’ can be purchased for the inevitable essay or test on the content.

With some sadness, but no surprise, it turns out the book is one of those that is controversial for its ‘inappropriate content’ and was subjected to the usual talk of ‘banning’.

The author, Mr Silvey, was required to defend that which should be inalienable, not alienated.  

A story is an opportunity to travel beyond the familiar, and to observe and explore the world from other perspectives. This is a vital, timeless practice. It enriches us by inviting us to empathise and understand.

“Rather than close us off, it opens us up, and it makes us better people. But it has to be honest. And often the truth is painful, frightening, confusing, or difficult to process.

“This is why I’d urge you to trust your staff, whose expertise lies in guiding and encouraging students through discussion, passing on the requisite skills to digest and dissect, and offering context and advice, so that the content in stories won’t be too distressing or overwhelming, and neither will the world beyond them.

“Most of all, trust your students. They’re stronger, wiser and more capable than you might presume.”

We seem to spend a lot of time criticising our teachers and students for their laziness and lack of critical thinking, yet constantly restrict their thinking and bind their energies. Obviously, this is not the first time that ‘swear words’ and ‘sex’ have caused the fragile sensitivities of our virtuous elders to be offended, but their constant hysteria in imposing their own shallow, hypocritical values on children is really getting old.

One of the passages in the book, which many of these virtuous elders may have missed because it doesn’t mention sex or contain swear words, is about a word. A single, solitary word. Whilst only one word, it has a myriad of expressions and applications, measured as much by the sincerity of its utterance, as by its casual, disingenuous dispersal. It’s a word that they would likely be unfamiliar with. As are our politicians, who would do well to become more familiar with it.

Sorry.

Sorry can haunt and hurt, a word that pardons itself for being on a page, it’s as clear as it is elusive. A good word used by good people. Every character in every story is buffeted between good and bad, between right and wrong. Its good people who can tell the difference, know when they have crossed the line. It’s a hard and humbling gesture to take the blame and accept fault. You have to be brave to say and mean sorry.

Sorry means you have the pulse of other people’s pain, as well as your own and saying it means you take a share of it. It binds us together. It’s a hole refilled, a debt repaid, the wake of misdeed, the crippling ripple of conscience, sorry is sadness (just as knowing is sadness).

Sorry is not about you. It’s theirs to take or leave.

Sorry is a question that begs forgiveness, because the metronome of a good heart won’t settle until things are set right and true. Sorry doesn’t take things back, it pushes things forward. It bridges the gap. Sorry is a sacrament. It’s an offering. A gift.

Sorry is when good people feel bad. The people who trouble me are the ones who, through a break in circuitry or a hole in their heart, can’t feel it, or say it, or transmit it to the sky.

Maybe sorry isn’t as simple as that. Or as honourable or romantic or grand. Maybe it’s just the refuge of the weak. Maybe it’s just the calming balm of the bad and ruthless. Maybe it’s little or no reward for those in receipt. An empty promise, a gift of a hollow box; self-serving and loveless. Maybe it takes what it needs and gives nothing back.

Stupid, lousy, meaningless.” *

That our children would be subjected to such thinking! Granted, many children won’t get the gist, and many will simply go to the cheat sheet. If only a few drink from that lovely well, our appreciation of ourselves and our environment may be enhanced, even if only a little.

It seems a shame to introduce a dishonourable rodent, John Winston Howard, into such thought or conversation. But he is the very epitome of all of the conflicting thoughts and sentiments in Mr Silvey’s writing about the use or abuse of one, single, solitary word. A word that Howard had neither the courage to say or the heart to mean. For him, such a word could only ever mean a ‘legal liability’.

This miserable weasel, a suburban solicitor, on the 26th August 1999, issued regret, on a without prejudice basis, subject to every possible codicil and caveat available to all miserable rodents.

On the 27th August 1999, the rodent did an interview –

MATT PEACOCK: …you were insisting on deep and sincere regret.

JOHN HOWARD: I have got and the Government has produced and the Parliament endorsed a motion, and I don’t think there’ll be much sort of support in the Australian community for a continued debate about words and about what ought to have been or might not have been or should have been or could have been. You’ve got something that is a collective expression of regret and acknowledgement of historical truth and reality.

MATT PEACOCK: Do you think most Australians, non-Aboriginal Australians would accept the proposition that to quote your motion, ‘the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter of our national history’?

JOHN HOWARD: I think most Australians probably would, yes. And that’s something I’ve said before and it’s something I believe. I think the scale of the Australian achievement and what this country has achieved has been immense but, just as you salute and express pleasure about what you have achieved, you should truthfully recognise mistakes. And I’m sure that that language is historically accurate and I believe most Australians would probably accept it.

MATT PEACOCK: Yet despite that major blemish, there’s no mention of restitution or compensation.

JOHN HOWARD: Well it’s not appropriate in something like this.

MATT PEACOCK: It’s purely symbolic?

JOHN HOWARD: Well it is symbolic, yes, it is. When you say purely symbolic is to discount the value of symbolism.

MATT PEACOCK: Well I mean you can have a pure symbol but the point is it has no…It’s like the preamble, no legal…

JOHN HOWARD: No, it doesn’t have any legal effect, no, and it’s not meant to. It’s meant to be an expression of national sentiment and a deliberative acknowledgement of what occurred but in the context of it being not a legally binding thing. I mean the question of whether rights have been infringed is a matter for the law and the courts, not for the Parliament in something like this.”

It’s hard to reconcile the two writings about the one word, isn’t it?

A ‘symbolic regret’ about a ‘mistake’ sounds like a vague if only notional, concern for having spilt some milk on your hosts’ carpet. It was of little significance that the little rodent didn’t attend the ceremony held on the 13th February 2008.

Mr Rudd’s apology was at least a start.

For our nation, the course of action is clear … and that is to deal now with what has become one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history.”

“In doing so, we are also wrestling with our own souls.

“As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry. And I offer you this apology without qualification.”

“We have had sufficient audacity and faith to advance part way to that future, with arms extended rather than with fists still clenched,” he said.

“Let us allow this day of national reconciliation to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself.

“For the nation to bring the first two centuries of our settled history to a close … and embrace with awe these ancient cultures which we are blessed, truly blessed to have among us.”

It hasn’t amounted to much, but at least it was a start. No reparation, restitution or compensation. The voice that we asked our First People to use and share was later extinguished by another lawyer when he declined to hear the ‘Statement from the heart’.

At 13.36 on the 11th September, on ‘The Guardian’s’ live feed blog of parliamentthe current imposter PM’s edict was announced.

The government has announced when it will deliver the national apology to survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: 22 October.

There are only 800 places, with 400 going to organisations that support survivors, and the other 400 open to a ballot. The attorney general’s department released this statement:

The National Apology, to be delivered at Parliament House in Canberra, will acknowledge and apologise for the appalling abuse endured by vulnerable children, by the very people that were supposed to care for them, leaving immeasurable and lasting damage.

The National Apology will pay tribute to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse, many of whom have so bravely shared their stories through the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, with the aim of ensuring the shameful practices are never repeated in the future.

To encourage attendance from across Australia, a national ballot process will be conducted to allocate seats in the Great Hall of Parliament House and provide travel assistance, where required. Victims, survivors and others personally affected by institutional child sexual abuse are encouraged to register their interest in attending the National Apology through the ballot process.

Approximately 400 places will be available through the ballot and another 400 will be made available directly to organisations that support survivors and others affected by institutional child sexual abuse.

Additional viewing areas at Parliament House will also be open to the community on the day and the event will be televised nationally.

The Prime Minister is writing to all Premiers and Chief Ministers encouraging them to hold their own viewing events to coincide with the National Apology, to allow for the participation of those who cannot be in Canberra.”

Naturally, this assumes he will still be the PM at that time. Unlike the apology to our First People, this apology does have a redress scheme, even if it’s woefully inadequate.

Like our First People’s treatment subsequent to the apology so graciously afforded them by a magnanimous parliament, nothing will be done to address the ongoing abuse of children in this country.

Not in Victoria
Abused children continuing to be disregarded by major institutions, a Victorian report finds

Not in South Australia
Australia facing an ‘epidemic of child abuse and neglect’, according to experts

Not amongst our First People’s children
Indigenous children don’t need to be fixed – they need rights and opportunities

Not on Nauru
Suicidal 12-year-old refugee on Nauru will die if not removed, doctors say

So what if our abuses get us referred to the very council that we worked so hard to get a seat on?

Just like our abuse of our First People, our abuse of children will be acknowledged with some weasel words from a weasel parliament and they will retire to some parliamentary drinking hole (at our expense) to congratulate themselves, with their collective conscience suitably assuaged.

A Royal Commission is about to be launched into our abuse of elders and one is yet to be conceived about our abuse of women. Let alone the abuses of workers. Undoubtedly, we will have more apologies, more ‘sorry’s’ will be cast about. Nothing will change.

As long as there is no legitimate, dedicated, well-resourced, independent complaints and monitoring body, we will merely be issuing vacant apologies. A ‘sorry’, with fingers crossed, issued by a parliament that most hold in contempt, its occupants considered with nothing but loathing.

We do have an Australian Human Rights Commission.

It is such a pity that we Australian’s don’t have human rights, or that we see them as different human rights depending on the victim.

So, what can we do? Ms Lee recently wrote an article ‘We have forgotten what is important let alone how to fight for it’.

“Fifty years later, we are so used to all the things they warned about that we have given up the fight.

It is possible that a visionary leader could get the weight of the people behind them to remind us of what is important, but would the corporate world ever allow it?”

The suggestion being that we should wait for a visionary leader and then seek corporate approval to protest. Assuming we are still mindful of what is important, beyond a new car or a bigger house. That is not intended as a criticism of Ms Lee, nor a dismissal of the notion.

If you can bear with me, here’s a thought.

The Pope recently visited Ireland and it was expected he would issue an apology for the numerous transgressions of the church and its various agents. A campaign was launched, ‘Say Nope to the Pope’.

This is not an anti-religion thing, it’s not about disrespect for people’s beliefs or their right to practise any particular belief. It’s about people like myself who were raised as Catholics, who were practising Catholics, who suddenly went: ‘Hang on a second, these are terrible wrongs we’re hearing about.’ And we waited and we waited, and the church did nothing,” she said.

“There are no channels of protest within the church. The church is not interested in feedback. It’s not an organisation where you can fill in a questionnaire on its service. They do things their way and they’re really not interested in what you think about it.”

The idea was simple enough. People from across Ireland applied for tickets to the papal mass, giving the illusion of attendance and, by default, either agreement with, or acceptance of, the Pope’s apology. Then they didn’t go. The estimates of the crowd varied significantly.

Dr Patrick Plunkett, the medical director of the site’s field hospital, said on Sunday that he believed 130,000 people had attended the Mass. Some 500,000 people were expected in the Phoenix Park Mass but the actual turnout on the day was significantly smaller. The Vatican had estimated the attendance at 300,000.”

That may seem a significant crowd. Consider, though, that in 1979, the previous papal crowd was estimated at 1.5 million people.

It was only a few years later I found out about Pope John Paul II’s historic mass there on the 29th of September 1979, which was attended by one in three Irish people, making it the largest gathering of Irish people in history. As we prepare for an undertaking of a similar scale on the 25th of August (and the largest gathering of Irish people in my lifetime), it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on the scale of that event in 1979 and how this compares to the upcoming visit.”

An apology was hi-jacked, which gave far greater import to and urgency of the demand for ongoing accountability of those committing the wrongs by those wronged and the many impacted by the wrongs.

The 22nd October is the Monday on which this excuse for a government will offer an apology to 800 representatives of the wronged. That apology is not mine to offer or withdraw. The wrongs it acknowledges cannot and should not be belittled or ignored. Whether the 800 choose to attend or abstain from, the parliamentary ceremony is entirely their choice and I for one offer no judgement whatsoever on their choice. As Mr Silvey noted, “It’s theirs to take or leave.”

What would happen though, if that day was used by the rest of us to demand change? Not some mealy-mouthed, disingenuous apology for crimes they barely acknowledge, but real change. Without waiting for parliamentary or corporate approval, or some visionary leader. If enough people were to simply go on strike and gather outside parliaments and town halls across Australia, do you think these clowns might get the message?

If you can bear with my rantings a little longer, I can try and explain how disparate groups like workers, and women, and our First People, and our children, and our elderly, and our unemployed, and our disabled, and all of the other disparate groups that are simply not heard by these fools can offer one unified demand, to be satisfied by one meaningful act as the only acceptable apology.

The demand?

Resign.

The whole damned lot of you, effective immediately. Services, or what you consider services, no longer required. Call an election at the first available opportunity. Not to be left at the whim of a delusional fool.

It is well documented that we don’t trust our politicians, and to call an immediate election simply means that whatever we get next time around will likely become more of the same. In this age of social media and immediate communications, it can’t be too hard to require all nominees attend debates in each and every electorate, at which an assurance should be sought in the event they are elected.

To immediately convene an independent panel of experts (politicians and their staffers specifically excluded) to redraft the Electoral Act based on a Direct Democracy model.

This effectively doesn’t remove the need for or validity of political parties, but it sure will make them look over their shoulders.

This gives all of us and all of our disparate groups a real voice, subject to the reason and logic of each other, not the whim of a politician or the directive of a corporation. Subject to the usual protections of required numbers to compel a referendum, everything is on the table. Treaty. The Constitution. The states. The environment. Education. Health. Social safety nets. Asylum seekers. Immigration. Inequality. Privatisation. Defence. Everything.

The first step though, is to let them know we haven’t forgotten what is important and we do know how to fight for it.

The next step of organising would likely resemble herding cats, given the suggestion. It would be difficult, but by no means impossible.

But first things first. Has anybody else had enough of this crap?

* The passage from Mr Silvey’s book is compiled from notes I made at the time. Whilst I’m reasonably sure of its accuracy, I cannot guarantee it is verbatim. My apologies.

Feeding Militarism: The US Imperial Consensus

The US military industrial complex reigns like a ravenous ruler in search of new funding prospects. It has done well this year, with the Trump administration pushing the sale that the Imperium needs more ruddy cash and indulgent expenditure to cope with all manner of evils.  Empire must be without equal.

The dissenters to this program have been pitiably small, concentrated amongst such outliers as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Those on the GOP side of the aisle have barely squeaked but relative to the Democrats, their sounds have been spectacularly noisy.  There is, in fact, something to be said that, in the boisterous era of Donald Trump, the Democrats have shown very little by way of bucking any trend whatever in the continuingly expansive program that is US military spending.

As Peter Beinart observed in February this year, the Democrats might be moving to the left on the domestic front (a murmuring more than a lurch, it must be said); in terms of a foreign or defence policy, nothing of note comes to mind.  Terrified of being left behind in the rat race of reaction, the Democrats have, for instance, done their bit to promise funding for the border wall with Mexico, albeit offering a lesser $1.6 billion in 2019 to the $5 billion demanded by Trump.

Beinart took note of the remarks of Nancy Pelosi, chipper in the run-up to the budget deal that dramatically increased US defence spending.  “In our negotiations,” she enthused to fellow House Democrats in an email, “Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defence.”

Defence, notably when aligned with imperial cravings, supplies its own logic.  The military industrial complex is an economy within, given the armouring rationales that make a reduction of spending heretical.  Firms and employees need to be supported; infrastructure maintained. Forget those other menial things: roads, public transport, train tracks, bridges and airports can be left to one side.  To reduce the amount would be tantamount to being treasonous, an anti-patriotic gesture.

“It’s not just a matter of buying fewer bombs,” suggests Brian Riedl of the conservatively inclined Manhattan Institute.  “The United States spends $100,000 per troop on compensation – such as salaries, housing, healthcare – which also contributes to our defence budget exceeding that of countries like China.”  As with such empires as Rome, the entire complex entails compensation, remuneration and nourishment for the industry of death and protection.

It became clear this month that, even with short-term spending bills, this rationale would repeat itself.  Last week, the Senate considered such a bill that further supplemented the earlier budget package that would not only fund the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments; it would also add further largesse to the Pentagon. By a margin of 93-7, the package was passed and the Democrats found wanting, refusing to stage any protest that might result in an expiration of government funding come September 30.

Trump, in his amoral calculations, is all for such a disruptive measure, having expressed a desire both for and against a shutting down of the government in an effort to push funding towards his pet border security projects.  “Finish the Wall!” he has intoned between sessions of hectoring, directed both at the Democrats and the GOP.

The Democrats have been weak in conviction.  “This is necessary,” explained an unconvincing Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “to ensure that we do not face a government shutdown in the event that we do not finish our work on other remaining bills.”

This supposedly necessitous state of affairs sees the Pentagon budget for 2019 receiving an outlay of $606.5 billion, an increase of $17 billion from 2018.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky)’s words were those of the patriot turned fetishist.  “After subjecting America’s all-voluntary armed forces to years of belt-tightening, this legislation will build on our recent progress in rebuilding the readiness of our military and investing more in the men and women who wear the uniform.”

As for what the appropriations will fund, 13 new Navy ships will be added to the inventory, including three DDG-51 guided missile destroyers and two Virginia-class submarines.  The air arm can look forward to 93 of the previously mocked (by no less or more a person than Trump) F-35 aircraft, 58 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 66 AH-64 Apache helicopters, 13 V-22 aircraft.  A further $1.5 billion will be set aside for upgrading 135 Abrams tanks.

In the tactics that ultimately saw a grand capitulation on the part of the Democrats, a policy obscenity manifested itself: to avoid squabbling over non-defence spending bills, the Senate agreed to pack the military budget bill along with that of full-year funding for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education. In wrapping these bills in the same ribbon, an abysmal reality surfaced: the military-industrial complex finds a home in any legislative orientation, and will not be denied.

Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama

Stage set Washington.  Object: adulterating power.  The arm of government: the judiciary.  That particular group of high ranking paladins remains up in the air as US Supreme Court appointee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh floats around in a stage of grinding limbo, as sexual allegations made start to bite.  This purgatorial state promises to resolve itself next week.

Palo Alto professor of psychology Christine Blasey Ford insists that Kavanaugh and another Georgetown Prep student, Mark Judge, locked her in a room during a party held in 1982.  What followed was what was termed an “attempted rape”, with Kavanaugh allegedly making a vain effort to remove Ford’s clothes.

That Kavanaugh has survived this long in the Me Too age as a nominee of one of the most influential bodies of US governance is a fair indicator that Trumpland has done much to disrupt a certain sensibility.  That sensibility might be hypocritical, but it is a disruption no less. Trump, for his part, has also aided his nominee’s cause by withholding some hundred thousand documents of the judge’s records from the Bush White House on presidential privilege grounds.

This show has been given a blood rushing boost, with the parties drawing battle lines in what promises to be a squalid spectacle.  Whether it is those who back Ford, or the judge himself, the parties are jousting over grounds of fairness and how best to confront the allegations.  The Democrats insist that the process cannot go further without an investigation by the FBI. Debra Katz, one of Ford’s legal team, has reiterated that line for her client.

Senate Republicans have rebuffed it, many seeing Ford’s spoiling role as having no significant impact on the confirmation process.  “We got a little hiccup here with the Kavanaugh nomination,” came a confident Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who was also convinced that “we’ll get through this and we’ll get off to the races.”  Senator John Cornyn of Texas suggested Ford, whether she wanted to “participate and tell her story” or otherwise would be “no reason for us to delay”.

Kavanaugh has done himself few favours, though he has tried to water down speculations about any reactionary tendencies that might manifest should he actually make it to the bench.  His record as a staunchly conservative jurist who has more than sniffed the glue of criticism offered against Roe v Wade suggests that a regressive trend in Supreme Court jurisprudence might be in the offing.  This is hidden behind the language of a studied objectivity. Before the Senate judiciary committee, he explained that “A good judge must be an umpire – a neutral and impartial arbiter who favours no litigant or policy.”

He is also a creature happy to reflect about his time as a testosterone-charged student – in certain company.  In 2015, he remembered those days fondly before an audience at the Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, reflecting on the comments of his dean from that time: “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep.”

His statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee was an effort, in part, to convey an image that has taken something of a battering.  Wanting to earn plaudits on the pro-women ledger, he expressed pride at his mother’s efforts to become one of “the few women prosecutors at the time”.  He peppered his delivery with references to coaching female basketball teams, including those of his daughters. “I love coaching. All the girls I have coached are awesome,” came the crawling observation from Kavanaugh’s opening statement, suggesting a manager all too keen on being liked.  It’s all the casting game, the show of decent appearances. “A majority of my 48 law clerks have been women. More than a quarter of my law clerks have been minorities.” In this, shallowness plays all ways: ticking the boxes of what, on the surface, looks like compliance and observance.

The show of having Blasey and Kavanaugh presented like celebrity life stock for political purchase is something that does little to consider accusations and grounds.  This is Trump’s deforming legacy: the show matters far more than either outcome or substantive details. For that reason, GOP strategists concerned that Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual proclivities might somehow find their way in disturbing the President’s popularity have missed a beat. 

One such individual is Liz Mair, a consultant for the Republicans.  “Trump already has a problem with suburban women,” Mair is noted as saying in USA Today.  “The way this is going, I don’t see any great upside here for the GOP.”  Mair should be retained for other tasks, have tripped over the obvious point that Trump’s aggressive, engaged voters find groping hands, dedicated misogyny and callousness less significant that the Making America Great Again Show.  It should be remembered that the consequences of the “Access Hollywood” tape was guaranteed, cycle-news notoriety that did wonders to enhance a profile rather than diminish credibility.

Lisa J. Banks, also representing Ford, was none too impressed with the show, though she did concede her client’s willingness to work with the judiciary committee.  “The committee’s stated plan to move forward with a hearing that has only two witnesses is not a fair or good faith investigation; there are multiple witnesses whose names have appeared publicly and should be included in any proceeding.”  For his part, Kavanaugh insists on a categorical and unequivocal denial. “I remain committed to defending my integrity.”

The politics of calculation in this instance is everything.  At the moment, the Republicans are doing their best to ensure that Judge Kavanaugh gets confirmation before the mid-term elections, slotting him in before any inevitable entropy.  A Democratic-controlled Senate, should it eventuate, will make the prospects of getting this marred creature onto the bench significantly more difficult.

The Pathology of Mass Surveillance: The UK, Bulk Interception and the European Court of Human Rights

It’s fitting that the same society that produced George Orwell with his warnings of a totalitarian dystopia stacked with all-prying monitors, surveillance and paranoia should yield up some of the most invasive surveillance regimes imaginable.  While some states have found the revelations from Edward Snowden the sort that should initiate, at the very least, modest changes, the United Kingdom preferred the opposite approach. It had, after all, been an indispensable ally to the US National Security Agency, its equivalent GCHQ always intent on going one better.

In 2016, the Snooper’s Charter, a name so innocuous as to imply impressive cuddliness, found its way onto Britain’s law books after two failed efforts.  That instrument’s more officious, and appropriate title, was the Investigatory Powers Act, deemed by Snowden “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.”  As Paul Bernal suggested in The Conversation on its passage, “It is not a modernisation of existing law, but something qualitatively different, something that intrudes upon every UK citizen’s life in a way that would even a decade ago have been inconceivable.”

Various efforts in Britain have been mounted against the all-consuming beast of mass surveillance.  The UK Court of Appeal did find in 2015 that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) failed to place adequate restrictions upon police officers in their attempts to access personal information, including web browsing history and phone records.  The discerning judges noted the absence of an independent overseer and appropriate safeguards that might have saved the legislation.

Last Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights took a rather different view from the national security boffins in the case of Big Brother Watch and Others v the United Kingdom. The legality of three different surveillance forms featured in the complaint by 16 applicants, launched in the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures: the bulk interception of communications; the sharing of intelligence with foreign governments; the obtaining of communications data from communications service providers.

While the applicants did not shun all forms of bulk interception, the relevant claim was that such a regime could hardly be seen to have “the quality of law because it was so complex as to be inaccessible to the public and to the Government” lacking “clear and binding legal guidelines” and “sufficient guarantees against abuse.”

The submission by the UK government was predictably heavy on the issues of threat, security and danger.  The greatest temptation of tyrants is the claim that what is being combated is new, fresh and entirely modern.  National security threats abound like a miasmic phenomenon, and not just that old nagging matter of terrorism. There was a degree of “sophistication” terrorists and criminals had adopted in communicating over the Internet so as to avoid detection. Encryption was being used; the volume of communications was so vast as to enable concealment.

By five votes to two, the Chamber found that the bulk interception regime violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights covering the respect for private and family life, home and correspondence.  The failing here was a conspicuous lack of oversight in selecting Internet bearers for targets of interception. There was also an inadequate system in filtering, searching and selecting any salient intercepted communications; and there was a pronounced lack of pertinent safeguards concerning “related communications data”.  Bulk interception did not, in of itself, violate the Convention; but clearly defined criteria was the essence of validity.

By six votes to one, the Chamber found that obtaining communications data from those in the communications industry also breached the protections of Article 8.  Article 10 of the Convention covering freedom of expression, holding opinions, and the imparting and receipt of information was also found to have been offended by both the bulk interception regime and obtaining communications from service providers.

The judges noted that the second and third applications involved “investigative journalists who have reported on issues such a CIA torture, counterterrorism, drone warfare, and the Iraq war logs [accepting] that they were potentially at risk of having their communications obtained by the United Kingdom authorities”.

The judges did, however, fail to bite on several fronts.   Sharing intelligence with foreign governments could not be considered a violation of either Article 8 or 10.  (This, in of itself, raises a set of problems given Britain’s security ties with various unsavoury states who might be all too happy to receive the UK’s bounty.)  On the issue of whether the surveillance regime breached Article 6 (covering the right to a fair trial), and the inadequacy of domestic processes in challenging surveillance measures suggesting a violation of Article 14 (prohibiting discrimination), the court remained unmoved.

The response of the UK government has been one of readjustment and sweetening. Whilst “careful consideration” would be given to the ruling, a new “double lock” oversight process, according to a spokesperson, had been introduced in the 2016 legislation. The process involved an agreement between an independent judicial commissioner and the authorising secretary of state in executing search warrants.  It is precisely such measures that must be regarded as the mandatory softeners in otherwise extreme security measures that never do what they claim to.

Despite the recent horror of her premiership, Prime Minister Theresa May, a figure instrumental in building the new British security state, can take comfort from Brexit in one fundamental respect: At the very least she might be able to prize Britannia away from the clutches of a European human rights court that continues to correct wayward member states obsessed with surveillance.

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