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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Decoding the National Security Commentariat

The Fourth Estate, that historical unelected grouping of society’s scrutineers, has become something of a rabble, and, as a confederacy of strewn dunces and the ongoing compromised, is ripe for analysis. An essential premise in the work of WikiLeaks was demonstrating, to a good, stone-throwing degree, how media figures and practitioners had been bought by the state or the corporate sector, unwittingly or otherwise. At the very least, the traditionalists had swallowed their reservations and preferred to proclaim, rather unconvincingly, that they were operating with freedom to scrutinise and question, facing down the rebels from the WikiLeaks set.

The Fourth Estate has, however, been placed on poor gruel and life support. Gone are the days when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ferreted their way through sources and obtaining the material – leaks from confidential sources, no less – that would make them famous and lay the way for the demise of a US President. Such energy is frowned upon these days; the investigative journalist is being treated more as an irritating remnant, a costly undusted fossil. The way for what Nozomi Hayase calls the “Global Fourth Estate” is being well and truly paved as a result.

The corporate factor in this process is undeniable. The Australian media tycoon and ageing tyrant Rupert Murdoch has proven to be the kiss of death to much decent journalism, though he is by no means the only contributor. As a man who takes pride in directly intervening in the policies and directions of his newspapers, identifying the credible view from the crafty slant is a hard thing. Political and business interests tend to converge in such an empire. Balanced reporting is for the bleeding hearts.

Meshed in this compromised journalism is a particular type of commentator, the holder of opinions with an open channel to the national security establishment. They are the Deep Throats turned into media judges and avengers. They might be flatteringly called the national security fraternity, a club of the military and espionage clubbables, the sort who find it inconceivable that someone from the public might throw open the larder of government secrets to expose a state’s misdeeds. It went without saying that such individuals would see, in WikiLeaks, the incarnation of a pseudo-intelligence service, or at the very least, its tailor for one.

The national security fraternity is typified by the revolving door. It whirrs around, not merely in oil companies, the US State Department and merchant banks, but the issue of the media stable. The state demands its permanent loyalties; those who have served in advisory roles in the state will keep paying once they leave. Security-trained and watered thoroughbreds are bound to see outliers and vigilantes as challengers who need to be put down.

Samantha Vinograd supplies a nice example. The crossover into journalism from the National Security State (NSS) is made from experience as adviser to the National Security Council as the Director for Iraq. (That could hardly have gone that well). Her teeth well cut on security matters and advice, her journalism is bound to be tinged and flavoured by the apparatus of the state. Julian Assange, she argues, is “the self-anointed director of his own intel service.”

The evidence she assesses on whether Assange requires punishment is deemed self-evident; the evidence comes from a source that need not be questioned. Vinograd exudes the confidence of one clutching to the inside of the establishment, and one with lapels suggesting patriot and defender of state. An Assange-like figure is bound to not merely be poison making its way to the vestal virgins; it is a figure to be extirpated.

In casting her own eye over the list of expanded charges against Assange, has taken the allegations against him of espionage to be factual. But she does so by attempting to repudiate his credentials as a publisher and journalist. “If anyone is making the [sic] Assange is a free speech champion, read paragraph 36,” she intones. “He knowingly endangered the lives of journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents and did incredible harm to all our security.” This devious interpretation on the part of the drafters has the purpose of demonising Assange – self-interested, maniacal, even sociopathic, they imply – while tagging, at the end, the only issue that concerns the US security apparatus: the fictional endangering of US national security. Absent here are observations and studies by the Pentagon which claimed on several occasions that there was little in way of evidence that lives had been compromised in the leak.

The same goes for former FBI types who see the accumulating dossier against Assange as an incriminating tissue of evidence. The issue here was pre-determined; it is shut and done. There is no broader philosophical point, because the only point that matters is realpolitik and the beating heart of the secretly minded patriot. Curiously enough, the distinction between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, ceases to exist in such circles. We are left with the operating rationale of the big bad NSS, decked out in all its nasty, modern tinsel.

Asha Rangappa, former FBI “special agent” and editor at Just Security, is one of the NSS’s glorified commentators, even if much of her strategy lies in cringeworthy self-advertising. She was drooling with a certain social media imbecility at the news that an 18-count superseding indictment against Assange had been issued by the Department of Justice. “Awwwww yeah,” came her remark on Twitter. Don the gloves; go into action: Team America needs you.

Rangappa is a wonderful illustration of a corrupted type of journalist cum commentator, one conscious of a cop culture that is celebrated rather than questioned, paraded rather than critiqued. She is even featured in Elle Magazine, with a slush-filled gooey tribute from Sylvie McNamara. “I’m at Asha Rangappa’s dinner table because, for the past few years, her commentary on CNN and Twitter has helped hundreds of thousands of people understand the news.”

If a certain type of blinkered understanding is what you are out for, then she is your glamorous source. She was keen on putting away “bad guys”; she “rooted for the United States to beat the Soviet Union in the Olympics”; she acknowledges who “we had to fight for our values”. McNamara is won over, and hardly one to question. “Rangappa knows from previous experience how the FBI handles Russian spies and disinformation; add to the mix her professional skill at explaining complex ideas, and she is ideally positioned to break down the bewildering political events in recent years.” If you consciously avoid or fail to spot the inauthenticity in any of that, then you are well on the way to joining the National Security Club.

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Lunar Narratives: Landing on the Moon, Politics and the Cold War

Anniversaries are occasions to distort records. The intoxicated recounting of the past faces a record in need of correction. Couples long married hide their differences before guests. Creases are covered; the make-up is applied generously. Defects become virtues, if, indeed they were ever there to begin with. In historical commemoration, the same is true. The moon landing anniversary this weekend was given a vigorous clean-up, with the Cold War finding a back seat when it was, in fact, the main driver.

The moon project was a fundamental political poke, soaked by competitive drives. The science was the instrumental ballast and has come to provide the heavy cosmetics to romanticise what is, at best, an effigy. When President John F. Kennedy proclaimed his wish for the United States to land a man on the moon and safely return him by the end of the 1960s, he was google-eyed by Cold War syndrome. The Soviets had been making advances in the space race, and paranoia at Red exploits was catching. A godless state had launched the nerve-wracking Sputnik in 1957 and in 1961 put Yuri Gagarin into space.

While the Soviet Union is only mentioned once in his speech at Rice University, the competitive dig, the putdown, did come. Balance had to be restored. “Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were ‘made in the United States of America’ and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.” When he mentions being “behind for some time in manned flight”, there is little doubt who the bogeyman to beat is. We do not, he said reassuringly to his audience, “intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.”

Combating the Soviet Union, and communism more broadly, was simply one aspect of an aggrandised fist fight, to be fought on the ground, the seas, and in space. While it has become a charming conceit to suggest that JFK had intended to take the brakes off US commitments to stemming the Communist contagion in Vietnam, his administration saw a spike in the deployment of resources and advisers to the South. He had to be seen to be aggressive in all theatres of endeavour.

Domestically, selling the moon mission was not popular, and the post-landing effort to scrub away voices of opposition in the historical record has been vigorous. Space historian Roger Launius notes the sentiment at the time. “Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969.”

In 1964, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni published the despairing, blistering work that deserves a good dive into. The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race notes scientific opposition to the space program, at least in so far as it was not balanced. The space race, with its immortalisation of gadgets, glorified “rocket-powered jumps” and “extrovert activism”, had been “used as an escape”. The obsession with the moon delayed “facing ourselves, as Americans and citizens of the earth.”

Earthly concerns were considered more pressing. Civil rights leaders in the United States feared a loss of focus. While a million people gathered along Florida’s Space Coast to watch the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, some 500 protesters, mostly African-American and led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Centre. He had in tow a wooden wagon and two mules, a deliciously confronting contrast between the Saturn V rocket and the impecunious life. “$12 a day to feed an astronaut, we could feed a child for $8,” read the protest signs.

NASA administrator Thomas Paine ventured out to meet Abernathy, subsequently recounting the concerns of the reverend. “The money for the space program, he stated, should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.”

Behind the project lay other dark forces whose roles have been obscured by propagandists of a romantic lunar narrative. The amoral genius that was Wernher von Braun, given the moniker of Missileman, was an illustration that science might well lack an ethical compass, even if it worked. Tom Lehrer’s lines from 1967 were hitting in their aptness: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”

Kennedy was himself keen to justify the reason for going to the moon not because it made sense for humans to do so but because it was hard. His Rice University address couples banalities, the human urge to engage and achieve the impossible expounded. “Why climb the highest mountain?” he rhetorically poses. Or fly the Atlantic? “Why does Rice play Texas?” Going to the moon was a goal that would “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

What mattered was getting the job done with a kind of mechanistic fanaticism: working labourers to death in Mittelbau-Dora in making V-2 rockets to target civilians during the Second World War was as worthy as beating the Soviets in the space game. In Disney’s 1955 television production Man and the Moon, von Braun, the then director of development at the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency, spoke of a nuclear-powered space station that would propel Americans to the moon.

A decade before, von Braun was part of a scooping operation conducted by US personnel to nab the best and brightest of German science, a process that did much to ensure a good deal of whitewashing of industrialised murder. In the gathering were the signs of the Cold War to come; the Soviets conducted their own version of Operation Paperclip, plundering the brainboxes of Teutonic engineering. To the victors went the corrupted spoils.

Von Braun was treated and feted, plied with generous budgets and resources. The missiles duly came. He led a team that developed Redstone, the first US ballistic missile capable of propelling a nuclear warhead to distances of 250 miles. Then came the Jupiter-C in 1958, which shot the first US satellite, Explorer 1, into space. The famed Saturn V rocket was created while von Braun was director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre. The line between concentration camp and the moon landing was established, as was the role of the smooth scientist communicator trading on human wonder.

Colossal human stupidity, and moral shakiness, tend to find ways into the grandiose and the grand. As a species, hubris has proven a common trait. Technological mastery comes torrentially more easily than luminous ethical insight. France’s courtly Charles De Gaulle was reflective on this point: humans might well have mastered the way of getting to the moon but it could hardly be said to be far. “The greatest distance we have to cover still lies within us.” Humankind has yet to master its more terrestrial problems. Any future exploration and colonisation is bound to see humans bringing their own complement of problems to the frontiers of space. Facing ourselves continues to be a delayed enterprise of arrested development.

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Manus, Nauru and an Australian Detention Legacy

It could be called a gulag mentality, though it finds form in different ways. In the defunct Soviet Union, it was definitive of life: millions incarcerated, garrisons of forced labour, instruments of the proletarian paradise fouled. Gulag literature suggested another society, estranged and removed from civilian life, channelled into an absent universe. Titles suggested as much: Gustaw Herling’s work was titled A World Apart; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago likewise suggested societies marooned from the broader social project. But these were intrinsic to the bricks and mortar, in many cases quite literally, of the Soviet state. 

In the case of countries supposedly priding themselves in the lotteries of exaggerated freedom, the influence of this carceral mentality is less obvious but still significant. In Australia, where offshore processing of naval arrivals and its own offerings of gulag culture were made, six years have passed since Nauru and Manus Island became outposts of indefinite detention.

During the years, legislation has been passed encasing these outposts in capsules of secrecy, superficially protected by island sovereignty. Whistleblowing has been criminalised; concerned doctors have been expelled; suicides, sexual assault and psychological mutilations have been normalised in the patchwork monstrosity that involves compromised local officials, private security firms and funding from the Australian taxpayer.

A most obvious consequence of this is the cultivation of a thuggish lack of accountability. Australian politicians keen to visit the handiwork of their government have been rebuffed. Greens Senator Nick McKim had been trying to splash out some publicity on the anniversary, paying a visit to Manus Island. He noted a deterioration in conditions since his 2017 visit. 

On Thursday, he was approached by two immigration officials who informed him that he would be deported. He had been attempting to see East Lorengau camp, was denied entry, and his passport confiscated. To SBS News, he expressed his disappointment “that they are threatening to deport me because I am here to expose the truth about the treatment of refugees, to lift the veil of secrecy that’s been draped over Australia’s offshore detention regime.”

A mistake is made in assuming clear dates of commencement in terms of a distinct Australian approach. Australia was, after all, itself a penal colony, an experiment in distant punishment and obsessive control. It made, in turn, prisoners of the indigenous population. Brutally, its various authorities relocated individuals to missions, camps and compounds. A paternal mentality, one that has never left, took hold: we know what is best for you, be it the Bible or the dog tag. Infantilism, exploitation and dispossession thrived as mentalities.

Despite being an active participant in the post-war movement to establish an international refugee regime protecting human rights, Australian approaches have remained, as immigration law specialist Mary Crock puts it, “controlled and highly selective.” For decades, Australian administrators and decision-makers remained unperturbed by jurisprudence relevant to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. The country’s isolation, its continental expanse, and not sharing land borders, have offered governments an unparalleled luxury: “the ability to achieve near-perfect control of immigration.”

During the 1960s, Manus Island was set up to take refugees from West Papua. Salasia Camp, located near the current Lombrom detention centre, was established to isolate a certain number of West Papuan notables who had irked the Indonesian state’s efforts in claiming the former Dutch New Guinea colony. Australia, not wanting to aggravate their Indonesian counterparts in providing safe havens for West Irian rebels, kept matters quiet, sometimes turning back refugees while offering “permissive residence” visas to others.

Not that the officials of Papua New Guinea were thrilled: thousands of West Papuans who made their way fleeing conflict between the rebels of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (West Papua Freedom Movement) and the Indonesian military were left without PNG citizenship for five decades.

The arrival of Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing in the aftermath of the country’s reunification in the 1970s saw Australian officials flirt with variants of offshore processing. The 1978 system established in response to these arrivals ensured a monopoly on the part of the immigration minister to determine the refugee status of arrivals. Lawyers and advisors were given a distant second billing in the role. In the words of Professor Crock, “The regional processing regime established right across Southeast Asia was predicated on an offshore processing-type idea; stopping asylum seekers where they are, processing them there, and distributing them in an orderly fashion.”

There was the Tampa-Pacific solution orchestrated by Prime Minister John Howard in 2001; there was the re-commencement in fits and starts under dysfunctional, catty Labor governments: the Gillard administration reinstated offshore processing in 2012, while Kevin Rudd added his icing by insisting that no asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia.  But the earth had already been disturbed, the mind oriented, towards cruelty in the name of necessity.

While refugees tend to be the fodder of periodic periods of demonization, there are many reminders about a condition that Australia has made its own. Some of this features in the talismanic, urgently desperate writing of the Iranian-Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani. In 2018, Hoda Afshar snapped a picture showing Boochani as a Christ-like figure, seemingly awaiting crucifixion. Her subject chose to see it differently. “I only see a refugee, someone whose identity has been taken from him. Just bare life, standing beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.”

The Australian Book Review has offered a Behrouz Boochani Fellowship worth $10,000, funded by lawyer and philanthropist Peter McMullin. In of itself, it suggests the absurd condition that is offshore processing, a state of mind that now draws funding for analysis, for commitment, for understanding.  Having become as ordinary as the insufferably ugly Australian Hills Hoist, or bountiful cask wine, it will not be leaving any time too soon, itself a disfigurement rendered natural.

 

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Donald Trump, the Democrat Squad and Failed Impeachment

Twitter has become policy. It is platform, direction and determination. It has served one particular person well, a hazy mechanism to fog up the lenses of law makers. When President Donald Trump needs an air-wave filling distraction, a bilious splurge of interest in the blogosphere, he is always happy to lob a grenade of 280 characters or so. His targets and recipients oblige in an unsettling dance. Speeches are made, press galleries filled, and resolutions submitted to Congress.

Trump’s last round of fired remarks found their targets in Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They were not mentioned by name, but presumption can be all powerful. “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.” Then came his none-too constructive suggestion: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

While his remarks against “The Squad” are in characteristic poor taste, not to mention inaccurate (three of the representatives were born in the United States) they remain characteristic, brutish panto and all part of the boundless show that is Trumpism. They are not designed to convert the unconverted or convince the unsure with rhetorical sharpness or insight. Anti-Trump and pro-Trump lines are firmed, concretely paved for the next election. The issue, till then, is merely to occupy space with venom and fury, to divide and hope that the house will fall when the votes are tallied.

Such space of distraction assumes a few forms, all ultimately lending false credibility to incendiary smatterings. Words are broken down, assumptions unpacked. Were his words racist? Yes, claim some.  Did he articulate a substantive vision? Most certainly, go others. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deemed them “xenophobic”). For Omar, Trump’s words are programmatic, “a blatantly racist attack on four duly elected members of the United States House of Representatives, all of whom are women of colour. This is an agenda of white nationalists.”

President Barack Obama’s chief election strategist David Axelrod, similarly sees a program, albeit encased in a trap, with Trump wanting “to raise the profile of his targets, drive Dems to defend them and make them emblematic of the entire party.  It’s a cold, hard strategy.” The none-too-implicit suggestion here is that the quartet risk being hung out to dry come 2020 by the party strategists.

In solidarity, the four representatives expressed their marshalled outrage, all the time attempting to give a sense of elevated fury to the garbage gilded Twittersphere while denying its enduring relevance. Omar fell for the laid bait on the issue of impeachment, claiming on Monday that “it is time for us to impeach this president” having “openly” violated his constitutional oath.

The quartet managed to get up a House resolution, passed by 240 to 187 votes, condemning Trump for “racist comments that have legitimised fear and hatred of New Americans and people of colour.” The resolution, for good measure, also praised the value immigrants had brought to the United States. Trump ventured his own view. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

The show delighted commentators dazzled by the fireworks. It was seen as historic, because it was the first time in over a century a President had received such a vote of disapproval. But it was true polarising fodder for the Trump administration, bound to inflict indigestion for anybody keen to seek a united stance. Division reigned; disorder prevailed, and the representatives stuck to firmly etched party lines, with the exception of four Republicans who crossed the floor.

Democrat Representative John Lewis, Democrat from Georgia, spoke of knowing racism when seeing it and feeling it “and at the highest level of government.” Pelosi claimed that to not condemn Trump’s words “would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”

Representative Dan Meuser, Republican of Pennsylvania, was ill-tempered in response, insisting that the whole show had been a “ridiculous slander” which did a “disservice to our nation.” “What has really happened here is that the president and his supporters have been forced to endure months of allegations of racism.”

Republicans slanted their attack on procedural improprieties, less on the nature of Trump’s words than the behaviour of their Democrat colleagues, who they regarded as impugning the motives of the President. A failed effort was made to excise any suggestive words from the House Speaker’s record in accordance with the Jefferson Manual, a text authored by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Quaintly if revealingly, the manual states that “references to racial or other discrimination on the part of the President are not in order.” Appalled by the bickering and disagreement, Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, Democrat of Missouri, banged the gavel and took his leave. “We just want to fight.”

While the president versus squad show was boiling over, an arguably more significant resolution failed to gather the numbers. Sponsored by Representative Al Green, Democrat from Texas, the measure seeking to impeach Trump in light of his comments on the four representatives, failed by 332 votes to 95. Bigotry, argued Green, was “a high crime and misdemeanour.”

The president, while publically condemning the exercise as “time consuming”, would have been heartened: the squabbling Democrats may well have been united in their rebuke of the president’s tweets, but such consensus was momentary. In Pelosi’s words, “We have six committees working on following the facts in terms of any abuse of power, obstruction of justice and the rest that the president may have engaged in.” With unwitting comedic effect, the House Speaker found herself claiming that to be “the serious path we’re on – not that Mr Green is not serious, but we’ll deal with that on the floor.” And dealt with it they did, putting the pro-impeachment Democrats back into their crammed box.

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Spying on Julian Assange: UC Global, CNN and Russian Couriers

History’s scope for the absurd and tragic is infinite. Like Sisyphus engaged in permanent labours pushing a boulder up a slope, the effort of making sense of such scope is likewise, absurdly infinite. To see images of an exhausted and world-weary Julian Assange attempting to dodge the all-eye surveillance operation that he would complain about is to wade in the insensibility of it all. But it could hardly have surprised those who have watched WikiLeaks’ battles with the Security Establishment over the years.

Assange is not merely an exceptional figure but a figure of the exception. Despite being granted asylum status by an Ecuadorean regime that would subsequently change heart with a change of brooms, he was never permitted to exercise all his freedoms associated with such a grant. There was always a sense of contingency and qualification, the impending cul-de-sac in London’s Ecuadorean embassy.

Between December 2017 and March 2018, dozens of meetings between Assange, his legal representatives, and visitors, were recorded in daily confidential reports written by an assigned security team and submitted to David Morales, formerly of special ops of the marine corps of the Spanish Navy. The very idea of legal professional privilege, a fetish in the Anglo-American legal system, was not so much deemed non-existent as ignored altogether.

The security firm tasked with this smeared-in-the-gutter mission was Spanish outfit UC Global SL, whose task became all the more urgent once Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno came to power in May 2017. The mood had changed from the days when Rafael Correa had been accommodating, one at the crest of what was termed the Latin American Pink Tide. Under Moreno, Assange was no longer the wunderkind poking the eye of the US imperium with cheery backing. He had become, instead, a tenant of immense irritation and inconvenience, a threat to the shift in politics taking place in Ecuador. According to El País, “The security employees at the embassy had a daily job to do: to monitor Assange’s every move, record his conversations, and take note of his moods.”

The revelations of the surveillance operation on Assange had had their natural effect on the establishment journalists who continue taking the mother’s milk of conspiracy and intrigue in libelling the publisher. CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Kay Guerrero and Arturo Torres seemed delighted in finding their éminence grise with his fingers in the pie, making the claim, with more than a whiff of patriotic self-importance, how “surveillance reports also describe how Assange turned the embassy into a command centre and orchestrated a series of damaging disclosures that rocked the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States.” Rather than seeing obsessive surveillance in breach of political asylum as a problem, they see the quarry obtained by UC Global in quite a different light. The WikiLeaks publisher had supposedly been outed.

The trio claimed to have obtained documents “exclusive” to CNN (the labours of El País, who did the lion’s share on this, are confined to the periphery) – though they have not been kind enough to share the original content with the curious. Nor do they make much of the private security materials as such, preferring to pick from the disordered larder that is the Mueller Report.

The CNN agenda is, however, clear enough. “The documents build on the possibility, raised by special counsel Robert Mueller in his report on Russian meddling, that couriers brought hacked files to Assange at the embassy.” Suggestions, without the empirical follow-up, are made to beef up the insinuated message. “While the Republican National Convention kicked off in Cleveland, an embassy security guard broke protocol by abandoning his post to receive a package outside the embassy from a man in disguise.” The individual in question “covered his face with a mask and sunglasses and was wearing a backpack, according to surveillance images obtained by CNN.” So planned; so cheeky.

Another line in the same report also serves to highlight the less than remarkable stuff in the pudding. “After the election, the private security company prepared an assessment of Assange’s allegiances. That report, which included open-source information, concluded there was ‘no doubt that there is evidence’ that Assange had ties to Russian intelligence agencies.” Not exactly one to stop the presses.

CNN, in fact, suggests a figure demanding, unaccountable, dangerous and entirely in charge of the situation. It is the psychological profile of a brattish historical agent keen to avoid detection. (Here the journalists are keen to suggest that meeting guests “inside the women’s bathroom” in the Ecuadorean embassy was a shabby enterprise initiated by Assange; the obvious point that he was being subject to surveillance by UC Global’s “feverish, obsessive vigilance”, to use the words of El País, is turned on its head).

He is reported to have “demanded” a high-speed internet connection. He sought a working phone service, because obviously that would be unreasonable for any grantee of political asylum. He requested regular access to his professional circle and followers. Never has such a confined person been deemed a commander, an orchestrator and master of space. “Though confined to a few rooms inside the embassy, Assange was able to wield enormous authority over his situation.”

The account offered by Txema Guijarro García, a former advisor to Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño and an important figure dealing with the logistics of granting Assange asylum in 2012, is decidedly different. In general, “relations between him and the embassy staff were better than anyone could have expected. The staff had amazing patience and, under difficult conditions, they managed to combine their diplomatic work with the task of caring for our famous guest.”

The language from the CNN report suggests the mechanics of concerted exclusion, laying the framework for an apologia that would justify Assange’s extradition to the United States to face espionage charges rather than practising journalism. It is a salient reminder about the readiness of such outlets to accommodate, rather than buck, the state narrative on publishing national security information.

It is also distinctly out of step with the defences being made in favour of publishing leaked diplomatic cables being expressed in the Tory leadership debate in Britain. While it should be construed with care, the words of Boris Johnson in the aftermath of the publication of British cables authored by the now ex-UK ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, are pertinent. “It cannot conceivably be right that newspapers or any other media organisation publishing such material face prosecution.” Even Johnson can take the pulse of history accurately once in a while.

 

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Corporate Gangster: Adani’s Pursuit of Scientists

The Adani conglomerate should be best described as a bloated gangster, promising the earth even as it mines it. Like other corporate thugs of such disposition, it will do things within, and if necessary outside, the regulatory framework it encounters. Where necessary, it will libel detractors and bribe critics, speak of a fictional number of as yet non-existent jobs, and claim that it is green in its coaling practices. It will also hire legal firms claiming to be trained attack dogs and hector the national broadcaster to pull unflattering stories from publication and discussion.

As a marauder of the environment, the Indian mining giant has left little to chance. It has politicians friendly to its cause in Australia at both the state and federal level, but it faces an environmental movement that refuses to dissipate. It also has a problem with environmental science, particularly in the area of water management. Conditional approvals have been secured, albeit hurried in the aftermath of May’s federal election, and even here, further testing will have to be done.

Given the inconveniences posed by scientists wedded to methodology and technique, the company did not surprise in freedom of information findings by the environmental group Lock the Gate that it had asked the federal environment department for “a list of each person from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia involved in the review” of the Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem Management Plan (GDEMP) and Groundwater Monitoring and Management Plan (GMMP).

In a bullying note to the Department of Environment and Energy (DOEE) in January 25 this year, Hamish Manzi, head of the company’s environment and sustainability branch officiously gave a five day limit to the request, claiming that it “simply wants to know who is involved in the review to provide it with peace of mind that it is being treated fairly and that the review will not be hijacked by activists with a political, as opposed to scientific, agenda.” Manzi had noted “recent press coverage regarding an anti-coal and/or anti-Adani bias potentially held by experts reviewing other Adani approvals.” For Manzi, the only expert worthy of that name would have to be sympathetic to the mining cause.

The corporate instinct is rarely on all fours with that of the scientific one. The former seeks the accumulation of assets, profits and dividends; the latter tests hypotheses using a falsification system, a process that can only ever have fidelity to itself. The corporate instinct is happy to forget troubling scientific outcomes, and, where necessary, corrupt it for its ends. Where the science does not match, it is obviously the work of ill-motivated activists or those inconvenienced by conscience.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in February 2012, through its Scientific Integrity Program, supplied readers with a list of fields where science, and scientists, have been attacked or compromised. More importantly, it notes how governments become the subject of influence, their decisions ever vulnerable to wobbling. “Corporations attempt to exert influence at every step of the scientific and policy-making processes, often to shape decisions in their favour or avoid regulation and monitoring of their products and by-products at the public’s expense. In so doing, they often attempt to fundamentally alter the decision-making process.”

The methods of corrupting science are not exhaustive, but the UCS report suggests a view tried ones. Research, for instance, is either held up by the company in question or terminated. Scientists are intimidated or coerced through threats to job security, defunding and litigation. Defective methodologies in testing and research are embraced. Scientific articles are ghost written, with corporate sponsorship blurred. Negative results are slyly under-reported; positive results are glowingly celebrated. And never forget good old-fashioned vilification.

The FOI documents regarding Adani’s conduct show the company as a witchdoctor wooing the federal government into timed releases of information and an obsession with preventing a broader public discussion of findings. A January 9 email from Adani to DOEE demanded that CSIRO/GA reports not be circulated to third parties or the public. The next day, the department obligingly informed the company that it would only share advice with Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science.

The uncovered documents also show a certain degree of cyber stalking at play. On January 15, a staff member of Geoscience Australia wrote to DOEE expressing concern that the company had viewed LinkedIn profiles of employees. Such concerns did little to ruffle the growing accord between the department and the company.

The abdication of government to the corporate sector is one of the more troubling features of this tawdry chapter in Australian non-governance. Corporate giants know they must enlist the support of representatives who they can trust to be of sound mind. History is replete with successful lobbying efforts in the name of corrupted science.

In 2007, ReGen Biologics, a New Jersey company, faced a sceptical Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concerned with Menaflex, a device intended to replace knee cartilage. With the FDA’s rejection came a mobilisation effort. Politicians were sought and cultivated. In December that year, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Rep. Steve Rothman all wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach. The Commissioner’s ear had been bended sufficiently to lead to a new review headed by Dr Daniel Schultz, head of the FDA’s medical devices division.  Scepticism vanished; the product was approved. In 2010, a shamefaced FDA had to concede that it had erred and duly revoked approval.

Instead of defending practices of departments and professionals engaged in the task of assessing the merits of such ventures, individuals such as the Australian deputy prime minister suggest that Adani might have a point in is heavy-handed enthusiasm to root out contrarians. In Michael McCormack’s view, Adani “were made to jump through more environmental hoops than perhaps any previous project in the nation.” They merely “wanted to determine… that those arguing against their proposals were not just some quasi anti-development groups or individuals.” The thug’s narrative has found a home in the hearts of the anti-scientific representatives that currently rule the Canberra roost. Scientists have been warned.

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The Resigning Ambassador: Sir Kim Darroch on Donald Trump

Rarely do ambassadors resign after an intense self-assessment of worth. Diplomatic immunity does not merely extend to protecting the official from the reach of local laws; it encourages a degree of freedom in engaging as a country’s representative. Sir Kim Darroch, as UK ambassador to the United States, felt that any freedom afforded him in that capacity had ended. “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would have liked.”

The storm between Darroch’s good offices and the Trump administration was precipitated by the publication in the Mail on Sunday of content drawn from leaked diplomatic cables. Darroch expressed a view both unsurprising as it was prosaic. “We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”

Specific foreign policy areas were singled out.  Regarding Tehran, a memorandum from June 22 notes that it was “unlikely that US policy on Iran is going to become more coherent anytime soon. This is a divided Administration.” Future British-US relations are in for a heady time. “As we advance our agenda of deepening and strengthening trading agreements,” comes Darroch’s warning in a June 10 memorandum, “divergences of approach on climate change, media freedoms and the death penalty may come to the fore.”

Darroch’s assessment might have been withering, but he was keen to provide his superiors a portrait on how best to approach Trump. All importantly, emphasise concentrated repetition. “It’s important to ‘flood the zone’: you want as many as possible of those who Trump consults to give them the same answer.” It was important to keep up his interest on the phone: speak two or three times a month, maybe more. Flatter him and treacle-glaze words. “You need to start praising him for something that he’s done recently.” Be blunt; if critical of Trump, be sure it is not personal and not a matter or surprise. Throw him parties, roll out the red carpet, and entertain the beast.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May, while caught off guard, did not flinch in backing her man in Washington. What mattered was not the content of the correspondence but the fact of its revelation. (Ignore the substance; punish the leaker). “Contact has been made with the Trump administration, setting out our view that we believe the leak is unacceptable,” came the view of May’s spokesman. “It is, of course, a matter of regret that this has happened.”

Such regret tends to take the form of safe, internally orchestrated inquiries. At their conclusion, amnesia would have set in, making no one the wiser. UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has promised “serious consequences” for the source, but he was also open to the default position of Anglo-US politics when matters sour: the Russians might have done it. “Of course,” he told The Sun, “it would be massively concerning if it was the act of a foreign, hostile state.” Feeling some unnatural urge for balance, he felt it necessary to tell the paper that he had “seen no evidence that’s the case, but we’ll look at the leak inquiry very carefully.”

Former British ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, cast the net wider. “It was clearly somebody,” he opined on BBC radio, “who set out deliberately to sabotage Sir Kim’s ambassadorship, to make his position untenable and to have him replaced by somebody more congenial to the leaker.”

On July 8, Trump issued a spray on Twitter designed to sink the ambassador’s continued appointment. “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not well liked or well thought of within the US. We will no longer deal with him.” The comment was a prelude to his usual self-congratulatory view on such matters as Brexit. “I have been very critical about the way the UK and Prime Minister Theresa May handled Brexit. What a mess she and her representatives have created.” May, he felt, had refused to accede to this all shaking wisdom.

Darroch’s exposure to the Trump show was never going to have unqualified shielding. May will shortly vacate the prime minister’s office, leaving the way for either Boris Johnson or Hunt to take the reins. Given that the UK is set – at least as things stand – to leave the European Union on October 31, being in the Trump administration’s good books for a US-UK trade deal is a matter of distracting importance. To illustrate the point, UK trade minister Liam Fox made a note on a visit to Washington to issue an apology to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.

Darroch’s remarks, to that end, assumed another degree of importance. Would Britain’s representative in Washington have the support of May’s successor? The stance taken by the main contender for the Tory leadership in a debate on Tuesday cast doubt on that position. Johnson’s opponent, Jeremy Hunt, failed to receive a clear answer after questioning Johnson on whether he would stick with the ambassador should he become prime minister.

On Friday, the BBC’s Andrew Neil got closer, but received a good deal of waffle by way of response. “I stood up completely for the principle that civil servants should be allowed to say what they want for their political masters without fear or favour.” Not quite. An old tradition was broken with, and Trump, as he continues to do, had gotten his way – again.

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Juggling with the Authoritarians: Donald Trump’s Diplomatic Copy Book

Cue the shots, take the snaps: US President Donald Trump was back entertaining his fetish with firm handshakes proclaiming the making of history in the last round of discussions with Kim Jong-un. The press were, despite periodic attacks of bafflement, ever obliging. The meeting of Trump with the leader of the DPRK was deemed historic, because everything the president does these says has to be, by definition, shatteringly historic. Respective handshaking took place across the demarcation line of North and South Korea before Trump “briefly crossed into North Korea, a symbolic milestone,” noted the BBC.

Kim, in turn, crossed into South Korea alongside Trump, cheeks bunched and aglow: “I believe this is an expression of his willingness to eliminate all the unfortunate past and open a new future.” An hour-long discussion followed in the Freedom House. At one point, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in joined the gathering for a collegial cameo. Again “unprecedented”, came the observations.

Trump’s diplomatic copy book is an untidy compilation of zigs and zags; amidst the lack of neatness lies a scratchy pattern. Each accommodating approach must come with its selective targets of incoherent demonization. Every handshake on one side of the diplomatic ledger must be accompanied by the cold shoulder on the other, if not a good deal of spiked bile. There is Iran, which serves the purpose for potential military engagement and cartoon gangster pose, and China, which supplies the Trump administration with a target for hard bargaining.

As each day goes by, military digs and pokes are being directed at Tehran by US officials now more accustomed to poking tongues than using them. This is far from a bright move, but serves the object of brinkmanship Trump has managed to cultivate in Washington.

US policy on that front is that of the bull acting in disregard of the precious china. The china, for one, involved adherence by Iran to the restrictive nuclear agreement that saw the destruction of its plutonium reactor and an opening up to the peering eyes of inspectors for a period ranging between ten and twenty-five years. Economic losses would be made up by a more liberal trade regime with European powers. But Trump, consistently with his campaign promises on redrafting, if not tossing various agreements out altogether, was determined to find a marketable enemy. Evidence was less important than necessity, however confused.

The confusion towards Iran can be gathered by a stance that suggests criticism without sense or context; what is needed is the dangerous power, and any necessary accusation will be made to fit. A White House statement on July 1 reads like a patient after electric shock treatment, more than a touch addled.

It is holed with regrets and scolding references, striking a catty note. “It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.” Then the head scratching moment follows. “There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.” Trumpland allows such plasticine-like flexibility: terms can be violated before they come into existence.

It also leads to such grand theatrical gestures as the President’s claim that the loss of 150 Iranian lives in US military strikes would have been disproportionate measures undertaken in response to the downing of a US drone. Good sense prevailed, so he says, leading to them being called off at the last moment. As Zvi Bar’el writing in Haaretz noted sourly, “Such a humanitarian explanation would have been heartwarming if it hadn’t come from the president still arming the Saudi military that’s killing thousands in Yemen.”

Far better, in the supposedly more reserved approach of the administration, to strangle the nation with the noose of sanctions, a form of economic warfare that is guaranteed to add to the butcher’s bill while doing little to influence the leaders. (Economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs claimed in an April paper for the Center for Economic and Policy Research that an estimated 40,000 deaths were caused by US sanctions imposed on Venezuela).

Then there is China, whose relationship is one that moves between boiling anger and simmer filled resentment. Beijing is being given pride of place as the future enemy of the US imperium. The People’s Republic is being beefed up to the status of ultimate threat.

On July 3, an open letter organised by Michael D. Swaine and signed by some 150 former officials and scholars insisted that Beijing was not “an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere.” Beijing replacing the United States “as the global leader” was a matter of exaggeration. “Most other countries have no interest in such an outcome, and it is not clear that Beijing itself sees this goal as necessary or feasible.”

The anti-China squad is ballooning in popularity on the Hill and elsewhere, making such reserved scepticism indigestible for the soft-headed members of the imperium. Democrat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made his enthusiasm for Trump’s position clear in May. “Strength is the only way to win with China,” he tweeted. The naïve assumption of turning Beijing’s authoritarians into liberal capitalists has been replaced by another: that US power is indefinitely enduring.

The central theme to Trump’s copy book can be said to be this: to conserve a cosy position with one authoritarian regime necessitates a punitive approach to another. A calculus for the voter comes into play: you can only fool the electors some of the time. To that end, much has been leveraged on the anti-China sentiment and chest thumping before the Iranian mullahs. Just as much has been expended on the idea of Trump the peace maker in Northeast Asia, a situation that has yielded more ceremony than substance. If Trump can keep his weapons holstered, cool heads will prevail. Now that would be historic.

 

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Out of Kilter: National Security and Press Freedoms in Australia

Australian society relishes secrecy and surveillance. Forget the laid-back, relaxed demeanour that remains the great fiction of a confected identity; like all such creations, the trace should not be mistaken as the tendency. The political culture of Australia remains shaped by penal paranoia and an indifference to transparency. The citizen is not to be trusted; rather, the subject is to be policed and regulated into apathetic submission.

The statute books of the federal parliament are larded with provisions of secrecy that make doing credible journalism in the country nigh impossible. Journalists are left to their own devices, inventive as these might be, assisted by the odd prized leak.

The Australian Federal Police raids executed last month on the home of a News Corp journalist and the Sydney headquarters of the ABC had, for the clandestine community operating in the capitals of Australia, a surprise. A usually divided fraternity came together in one voice, attempting to challenge the warrants and seek reform on matters related to press freedoms.

Media organisations would like to see parliament perform its functions, namely in the field of passing legislation that would enhance Freedom of Information provisions, arm press outlets with the means to contest warrants aimed at journalists, furnish whistle-blowers with credible protections, and tilt the balance away from the national security grand inquisitor that seems to prevail in Canberra.

Understanding Canberra and the public service, however, is to understand a form of studied stasis, an effort to stymy change. Ideas tend to go there to find cold storage if not expire altogether. The way to keep them in cold storage and throw away the key is to set up an inquiry, with all the baubles and tinsels of cheap accountability.

This is the preferred approach of the Morrison government, knowing that such an inquiry will be guaranteed to kill off any reform drive. (Four months should do it: the inquiry is due to report on October 17). In his letter to the opposition leader Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister Scott Morrison informed is counterpart that, “The Government is committed to ensuring our democracy strikes the right balance between a free press and keeping Australians safe – two fundamental tenets of our democracy.”

Knowing the hostility this government, and its predecessors, have had to the only press freedom that matters – exposing abuses of state and corporate power – the limitations have already been inked.

One way of ensuring a smidgen of reform, if at all, is to use the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), a body of approved politicians who can be trusted to do the right thing by secrecy and security. Independents are excluded; contrarians are barred. Morrison claims the PJCIS is “well placed to conduct this inquiry given its responsibility for, and experience in, handling issues concerning national security information and legislation.” Whatever qualifications the sitting members will have, their most valued pre-requisite is the capacity for premature adjudication of the problem, adjusted to satisfy the security apologists.

Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP more qualified than most to sit on the committee, makes the point starkly. “The Labor and Liberal-dominated PJCIS is part of the problem because it’s signed off on every unnecessary security reform in recent history.”

To permit the committee the means and latitude to decide that balance on press freedom and security would be the equivalent of granting full powers of determination to a taxidermist over your favourite pet. Denis Muller sees this as foxes guarding hen houses or poachers overseeing game-keeping.

The PJCIS has been one of the most important entities behind approving the shabby Australian national security state, a clumsy creation that does nothing to improve security let alone preserve freedoms. Its members are terrified by technology and the Internet, and see any effort to restrain their reach as necessary to protect Australians.

Wilkie reminds us of the dubious resume of the PJCIS. “Who could forget the controversial data retention bill of 2015 and just last year the encryption bill? In both cases the PJCIS recommended some tweaks around the edges, but… recommended the bills be passed, despite the serious concerns about both.” While the European Union makes strides against such inefficient and dangerous policies as data retention, Australian governments embrace them with a relish for anachronism.

The inquiry hopes to assess, in part, “Whether and in what circumstances there could be contested hearings in relation to warrants authorising investigative action in relation to journalists and media organisations; (and) the appropriateness of thresholds of law enforcement for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access electronic data on devices used by … media organisations.” A full agenda for reform is guaranteed to be avoided.

Labor, in turn, is trying to shore up its poor parliamentary performance of late in attempting to set up a second, separate inquiry free of the clutches of the PJCIS. That inquiry makes explicit reference to the “public’s right to know and press freedom.” Senator Kristina Keneally, shadow minister for home affairs, notes a prevailing “culture of secrecy and perverting the public’s right to know that has been making its way through this government for too long.” In unwittingly casting such stones in the glass house, she ignores the record of previous Labor governments with similar leanings towards the national security state.

The parliamentary committee has its defenders in the Canberra set, relieved that the matter will be contained. Jacinta Carroll, as director of national security policy at the National Security College at ANU, can be relied upon to sing the appropriate, pro-secrecy tune. “The PJCIS is the appropriate body to undertake this review, as it’s made up of elected representatives of the people in Australia, and it’s also an established and expert body in the matter at hand.” Any praise for such committees should be met with scepticism, and her willingness to accept the supposedly useful function it performs suggests capitulation rather than engagement.

Carroll’s they-know-best tone is schoolmarmish and characterises the befuddlement of the security hacks. She accepts, in tokenistic fashion, that, “A functioning and vibrant democracy is characterised by engaged civil society and informed debate.” As Australian democracy is not vibrant and lacks oxygen for a civil society struggling to fend off the regulators and spooks, her observation has little bearing on reality.

Given all that, she still insists, as the inquiry takes place, that all “maintain the focus on being informed about the complexities, nuances and competing interests at play, and not be lured into an oversimplified debate.” Read: let bought parliamentarians seduced by national security briefs and their promoters dictate the balance. The parents know best.

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Dressed for the Fourth of July: The US Imperium Comes Out

The United States of Amnesia has occasionally found expression amongst those despairing at the state of historical consciousness in Freedom’s Land. Gore Vidal remains something of its high priest, his writings a pertinent scolding about what went wrong in the creation of a New Rome in the Americas. From Pilgrim’s Progress to the National Security State, the US became an empire with certain resemblances those of past: territorial acquisitiveness, a code of behaviour to observe and impose, a bore’s insistence on its exceptional qualities.

The word “empire” never really caught on, sealed fast from the cognitive capacities of the US academic and policy establishment. The US was meant to be different, and celebrating the Fourth of July was not intended as a boastful affair of chained slaves on parade, rumbling armaments and purpled victory. Besides, any course Washington had to power was, as Geir Lundestad, former director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, famously observed, invited, not imposed. (Such fine dissembling!)

This point is insisted upon by historians and international theorists alike who avoid the implications of US thuggery and predation: the US merely exerted a sort of hegemony by consensus and encouraged its citizens to spend, spend, spend; it was also, by definition, the only true hegemon (on this, see John Lewis Gaddis) in a world without genuine rivals, which was not the same as calling it imperial. Any urgings that the US empire come out of the closet were met with alarm by such figures as Robert Kagan, who insist that calling it such “would not only be factually wrong but strategically catastrophic.” The US enriched rather than pillaged.

For much of the Obama administration, the imperium adopted what might be called a form of cross-dress or at least a form of fancy dress. No one could be under any illusion what the Chicago lawyer was really up to: the lingering power of Empire required a less than subtle reorientation, or pivot, eastwards to stay the rise of Cathay. It also saw an expansion of such interventions by stealth, with a spike in the use of drone warfare.

Then came President Donald J. Trump, who has nursed dreams of tanks rolling and jets roaring during an official celebration since 2017, when he witnessed the spectacular of a Bastille Day parade. If the French President Emmanuel Macron could bask in such ecstatic celebration of civilisation, why not the US? But even the empire has its logistical limits: a ballooning budget to run such a show, for instance and the prospect of damage to roads. (US infrastructure continues to ail).

Trump’s Fourth of July “Salute to America” was a chance to right the ledger. The US Navy’s Blue Angels impressed; the crowds took their snaps. The New York Times penned its own observation, and not an approving one at that. “Flanked by Bradley armoured vehicles and M1A2 tanks in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Mr Trump payed homage to the five branches of the military as a chorus sang each service hymn and he cued the arrival of fighter jets, helicopters and other military aircraft as they roared overhead.”

Had Trump the militarist come out? Retired Marine Col. David Lapan of the Bipartisan Policy Center caught eye of the tanks but considered them less than impressive “props”. Prior to the celebration, the issue of Trump unleashing tanks in display was seen with mixtures of orgiastic delight and an infantile terror.

The American Empire was gasping to come out of the closet, and dressed for the occasion, but Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, himself a West Point graduate who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, would have none of it. “Tanks aren’t props. They are weapons of war.”

As with all beacon-on-the-hill messages, Trump spoke of an idea rather than an entity, a heart welled up. “We are one people, chasing one dream, and one magnificent destiny.” Then came the dreaming – and so much dreaming it was. “We all share the same heroes, the same home, the same heart, and we are all made by the same Almighty God.” The US was a narrative of, and in, progress. “Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told – the story of America.”

While such notes have a historical rhyming with the speech fare of other presidents, this one was different in backdrop and occasion. Previous stewards of the imperium have preferred to avoid the abject reality of the US as empire, preferring the quiet retreat, the humble commemoration. Doing so assists amnesia, reassuring the US citizenry that Washington remains against wars of conquest, toppling governments and preserving its power.

On this occasion, there was no return to the home state, no low key gathering. George W. Bush preferred West Virginia for four years running; visible, military filled bluster was put to one side. As Time Magazine noted, the bicentennial parade of 1976 saw hundreds of thousands in attendance, but President Gerald Ford preferred a golfing stint in Bethesda.

While Fox News tends to be an annexe of laboured unreality, its commentators were out to celebrate the admission about US military power, taking issue with the naysayers. Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, in the true sentiment of the imperial sissy, was feeling particularly bullish. “No wonder these Snowflake General haven’t won a war since 1991: Military chiefs concerned about @realDonaldTrump’s July Fourth celebration.” Dobbs’ was on shaky ground in his enthusiastic reliance upon a source: a piece in the UK Daily Mail – hardly a paper of record – noting claims by an “insider” that “members of the military’s top brass have been hesitant about accepting Trump’s invitation to the event at the National Mall on Thursday”.

Admittedly, the military high-ups were in short supply, being on leave, travelling or simply not in attendance. The same could not be said for military families given invitations by Trump to attend the VIP section.

Trump was heartily warmed by the occasion, and duly said so. “A great crowd of tremendous Patriots this evening, all the way back to the Washington Monument!” This came with its usual theatrical alterations – or so it was alleged: no show is quite complete without a cosmetic touch-up to Trump’s images, though the accusers were suggesting a mauling of the original. Allegations of authenticity battled those of the inauthentic, and Trump merely garnered more publicity for the occasion. The one entity, undoctored and decked out in the whole war costume of celebration, finally let out into the open with frank vulgarity, was the US imperium.

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Going Nuclear in the Antipodes: Australia’s Megadeath Complex

The antipodes has had a fraught relationship with the nuclear option. At the distant ends of the earth, New Zealand took a stand against the death complex, assuming the forefront of restricting the deployment of nuclear assets in its proximity. This drove Australia bonkers with moral envy and strategic fury. The New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987 made the country a nuclear and biological weapons-free area. It was a thumbing, defiant gesture against the United States, but what is sometimes forgotten is that it was also a statement to other powers – including France – who might venture to experiment and test their weapons in the Pacific environs.

The Lange government had made an anti-nuclear platform indispensable to an independent foreign policy, one that caused a fair share of consternation in Washington. The satellite was misbehaving and seeking to break free from its US orbit. “If we don’t pass this law, if we don’t declare ourselves nuclear free,” insisted Prime Minister David Lange, “we will have anarchy on the harbours and in the streets.”

An important provision of the Act remains clause 9(2): “The Prime Minister may only grant approval for the entry into the internal waters of New Zealand by foreign warships if the Prime Minister is satisfied that the warships will not be carrying any nuclear explosive device upon their entry into the internal waters of New Zealand.”

The reaction from the US Congress was a cool one: the Broomfield Act was duly passed in the House: an ally had been recast as a somewhat disregarding “friend”. It urged New Zealand to “reconsider its decision and law denying port access to certain US ships” and “resume its obligations under the ANZUS Treaty.” Various “security assistance and arms export preferences” to New Zealand would be suspended till the President determined that the country was compliant with the Treaty.

As Anglo-American retainer and policing authority of the Pacific, Australia has had sporadic flirts with the nuclear option, one shadowing the creation of the Australian National University, the Woomera Rocket Range and the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity scheme. Australian territory had been used, and abused, by British forces keen to test Albion’s own acquisition of an atomic option. The Maralinga atomic weapons test range remains a poisoned reminder of that period, but was hoped to be a prelude to establishing an independent Australia nuclear force. Cooperation with Britain was to be key, and Australian defence spending, including the acquisition of 24 pricey F-111 fighter bombers from the US in the 1960s, was premised on a deliverable nuclear capability.

Maralinga test, 1957 (image from sbs.com.au)

During John Gorton’s short stint as prime minister in the late 1960s, rudimentary efforts were made at Jervis Bay to develop what would have been a reactor capable of generating plutonium under the broad aegis of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. Gorton’s premiership ended in 1971; Australia slid back into the sheltering comforts of Washington’s unverifiable nuclear umbrella.

The influential chairman of the AAEC, Philip Baxter, who held the reins between 1956 and 1972 with a passion for secrecy, never gave up his dream of encouraging the production of weapons grade plutonium. It led historian Ann Moyal to reflect on the “problems and danger of closed government”, with nuclear policy framed “through the influence of one powerful administrator surrounded by largely silent men”.

Nuclear weapons have a habit of inducing the worst of human traits. Envy, fear, and pride tend to coagulate, producing a nerdish disposition that tolerates mass murder in the name of faux strategy. With the boisterous emergence of China, Australian academics and security hacks have been bitten by the nuclear bug. In 2018, Stephan Frühling, Associate Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University fantasised about adorning the Australian coastline with tactical, short-range nuclear weapons.

It was a fantasy he was happy to recommend to audiences tuning in to the ABC’s Late Night Live. “In air and naval battle on the high seas, nukes can now be employed without significant risk of collateral damage much like conventional warheads.” Such thinking has the hallmarks of redux insanity in the field of nuclear thinking, the sort that deems such weapons equivalent in their characteristics to conventional types.

And what of the much-vaunted US nuclear umbrella? By stepping out of it, Australia was surely making a statement of cranky independence. Frühling’s suggestion is symptomatic of a field filled with syndromes and disorders. “Before investing in a nuclear program I think we would have to make a genuine attempt at trying to draw closer to the United States and its nuclear arsenal.” By stepping out, you have to be stepping in.

His work exudes a lingering suspicion that the ANZUS treaty binding both Australia and the United States remains foamy and indistinct on the issue of territorial defence. Since Vietnam, there has been little by way of joint operations in the Pacific between the two. The treaty’s preamble outlining the allies’ need to “declare publicly and formally their sense of unity, so that no potential aggressor could be under any illusion that any of them stand alone in the Pacific Area” remains distinctly free of evidence and logistical heft.

Other authors who claim to be doyens of Australian strategic thinking also fear the seize-the-prize intentions of the Yellow Peril and a half-hearted Uncle Sam keen to look away from “the Indo-Pacific and its allies.” Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith and Brendan Sargeant, all with ANU affiliations, call for “a radically new defence policy,” which might be read as a terror of the US imperium in retreat. For Dibb, Australia “should aim for greater defence self-reliance.” This would involve “developing a Defence Force capable of denying our approaches to a well-armed adversary capable of engaging us in sustained high-intensity conflict.”

Such writings suggest an element of the unhinged at play. The paternal protector snubs the child; the child goes mad and seeks comfort in suitable toys. Brabin-Smith broods over the end of extended nuclear deterrence, “not just for us but for other US allies in the Pacific, Japan especially.” This might well precipitate nuclear proliferation in the Pacific, requiring “Australia to review its own position on nuclear weapons.”

Not wishing to be left off the increasingly crowded nuclear wagon, Australia’s long-standing commentator on China, Hugh White, has also put his oar in, building up the pro-nuclear argument in what he calls a “difficult and uncomfortable” question. (Age does have its own liberating qualities). Having suggested in 2017 that the China-US tussle in the Pacific would eventually lead to a victory for Beijing, he has his own recipe for a re-ordering of the Australian defence establishment. How to Defend Australia suggests what needs to be done and, as is the nature of such texts, what the bunglers in the security establishment are actually doing. It is also a paean about future loss. “We have been very fortunate to live under America’s protection for so long and we will sorely miss it when it is gone.”

White advocates an Australian Defence Force heavily reliant on sinking flotillas: “only ships can carry the vast amounts of material required for a major land campaign.” Sell most of the surface vessels, he urges; abandon existing plans to build more; build a fleet of 24 to 36 submarines and increase defence spending from the current levels of 2% to 3.5%.

Then comes the issue of a nuclear capability, previously unneeded given the pillowing comforts of the US umbrella, underpinned by the assurance that Washington was “the primary power in Asia”. White shows more consideration than other nuclear groupies in acknowledging the existential dangers. Acquiring such weapons would come at a Mephistophelian cost. “It would make us less secure in some ways, that’s why in some ways I think it’s appalling.”

The nuclear call doing the rounds in Canberra is a bit of old man’s bravado, and a glowering approach to the non-proliferation thrust of the current international regime. Should Australia embark on a nuclear program, it is bound to coalescence a range of otherwise divided interests across the country. It will also thrill other nuclear aspirants excoriated for daring to obtain such an option. The mullahs in Iran will crow, North Korea will be reassured, and states in the Asian-Pacific may well reconsider their benign status.

 

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Facebook, Funny Money and Libra

In this squalid era of compromised data and hollowed privacy, it would be fitting that the company largely responsible for such mishaps would steer another technological innovation. Distractions are needed, and while Mark Zuckerberg cannot launch missiles, as yet, he can certainly launch platforms and what can be coarsely termed “deliverables”.

Having become the object of derision and resentment from the political fraternities of many countries, Facebook has been brazen enough to launch a cryptocurrency it hopes will be boosted by support from major currencies.

Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency generated more than a smattering of interest last month when its early-access code made its way to GitHub. By the end of the month, it had been “saved” by some 10,000 users, while 1,000 clones of the codebase were also generated, very much in a playful effort to test its reliability.

The site for the new currency is spritzed by the usual immodest lingo we have come to associate with technology that is meant to assist, and transform (naturally). “A simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people,” toots the message. The vision is then broken down, staccato like: “Reinvent money. Transform the global economy. So people everywhere can live better lives.”

The world of cash is also given an unveiling. The cost of transferring money is seen as unnecessarily expensive, an impediment to smoothness. “Moving money around the world should be as easy and cheap as sending a text message.” Libra also promises to be free of the fluctuations afflicting Bitcoin using a variant of the “currency board”, described by John Hawkins as a “rule-based monetary policy regime, involving much less (or no) discretion than most other monetary regimes.” Volatility will also be dampened by the backing of Libra Reserve, a genuine asset base.

Leaving aside the staple bombast that accompanies such projects, there have been the usual reservations. Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, fears it. “This currency would insert a powerful new corporate layer of monetary control between central banks and individuals.” He persists in believing that the central banking system has merit, having been established through costly trial and error: “we want a central bank to act to increase or decrease the money supply in moments of contraction and expansion.”

The paradox with currency is that financial regulators can be fickle, almost tortuously so. Financial disasters arising out of the crisis of 2008 were as much a product of rapacious banking practices as they were regulatory sloth and boardroom sleepwalking. But come a new currency, notably in digital format, then the eyes widen and scurrying takes place.

Hardly unusual, then, that governments have given their standard line, usually congregated around the issue that Libra can never become, in of its own, an independent currency if it ever gets off the ground. Any currency threatening to knock on the door of acceptable legal tender is bound to be scorned or feared rather than tested on its own merits.

The G7, with France taking the lead, has decided to busy itself with a taskforce examining any attendant risks. The theme has already been set, and there is a feeling the conclusions have already being pre-empted. “It is out of the question,” France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire stated, that Libra would “become a sovereign currency. It can’t and it must not happen.”

Like pornography, the feeling of regulatory authorities is one tinged with a degree of cant: people will use it, and some form of circulation is bound to happen. Like sex, it is good to be principled in rationing it, but the laws doing so eventually become dead letters. The Promethean desire to subvert is perennial; innovation must be encouraged. François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of France’s central bank, exemplifies such a position: innovate, but regulate with steely determination.

The US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs has already booked a hearing on July 16. Within 48 hours of Facebook’s announcement of its Libra vision, House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters demanded a cessation of development altogether – at least till things at her end could be sorted out. “Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action”.

A cynic acquainted with the acerbic writings of H. L. Mencken might well take issue with “examine” and “take action” when it comes to inertia on the Hill, but Congress is as much there to entertain as it is to vacillate. In the meantime, Facebook will duck and weave, convinced it has the staying power to defer any genuine move to stop its inexorable momentum. In an environment of short attention spans, attrition and patience are cardinal virtues.

Waters is, on some level, sincere: the company’s record on privacy protections are not so much shoddy as horrendous, if only because they anathemize them altogether. Monetisation is premised on doing away with privacy, usually under the false impression that consent has been extracted in the process. Data is the secular version of religion’s soul, to be prized away from the human subject, and sold.

Other states are qualified in assessing the currency. The Russian Ministry of Finance, through deputy minister Alexei Moisseev, told reporters this week that Libra would receive the treatment afforded any other digital asset. Such regulatory treatment has legislatively stalled thus far, but the minister was emphatic enough. “Nobody is going to ban it.”

This was not be confused with the status of the currency: as with other cryptocurrencies, legal tender was out of the question. Purchasing goods and services with such assets would be impossible, though it would “be possible to buy it, sell it, keep it”.

Like other behemoths of history, Facebook realises that a degree of dissimulation is necessary. Knowing privacy to be its Achilles heel in any regulatory scrap, it has come up with its own variant of a regulator, advertised as a cure-all. Libra Association, a non-profit, Geneva-based body is supposedly one step removed in keeping Facebook out of overseeing the currency. The digital wallet of the new currency, Calibra, is said to share limited data with the mother ship, even if it entails using Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp applications. (A standalone application is set to follow in 2020). Protections such as fraud checks are also built in, including a consensus model described as a “proof of stake” featuring transactions authorised by those with a stake in the currency.

The Libra Association has been gathering the names, having 28 weighty co-founders. To Facebook can be added such corporate entities as MasterCard, Paypal, Visa, Spotify, Uber, Vodafone Group, Andreessen Horowitz and eBay. Notable absentees are the banks themselves, deemed the stuff shirts of the modern money market.

States, and their banking arms, are unlikely to have their currency gates stormed by this new cryptocurrency, though some nibbling of market share is anticipated. The main banking priority remains issuing loans to customers and companies. While electronic money payments, in their nature, can threaten the money lending function of banks, a point that would also affect interest rates, Facebook will have to do a bit more if it seeks an insurrection that lasts.

 

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G20 Gyrations: Donald, Ivanka and Hollow Diplomacy

Traditional diplomacy is being given a makeover – at least where it is not being abolished altogether and being replaced by a replica of The Apprentice. US President Donald Trump’s seizure of the art has been violent and molesting. Had Roman emperors had access to Twitter and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, they might have had such moments, bothering the empire’s citizenry with their latest self-absorbed act. Imagine Caligula making his horse Incitatus consul and the hyperventilating postings of enthusiasm that would have followed.

In the summations of the G20 leaders’ summit in Osaka, scribes scrounged for meaning, hoping to bring magnifying glasses to insignificant detail; press attendees did their usual act, simulating interest or showing wonder at the spectacle. Caitlin Byrne of the Griffith Asia Institute pushed herself to find gains. “Significant breakthroughs including a pause in the escalating China-US trade war and the resumption of dialogue between US and North Korea”.

The conservative National Review yearned for a new Euro-American bloc against the Yellow Peril, which did not quite eventuate. “In reality, the United States needs Europe to confront China. Americans and Europeans would be able to hold China to account through existing multilateral trade structures and coordinated responses, rather than one-off bilateral ‘deals’.”

The communiqué was suitably imprecise. The G20 leaders met “to make united efforts to address major global economic challenges.” There was a promise to “work together to foster global economic growth, while harnessing the power of technological innovation, in particular digitilization, and its application for the benefit of all.”

There are acknowledgments of problems, albeit cushioned by assurances. Trade and geopolitical issues, or “tensions” had “intensified” but these would be addressed. The World Trade Organisation would be reformed; the “Osaka Tract” framework regulating the cross-border flow of data was endorsed, one described as “Data Free Flow with Trust”.

Peering through this glass darkly, and we see cracks of varying degrees. “The digital economy is a crucial driver of economic growth,” Trump said, along with every other leader, but he was clear that “we must also ensure the resilience and security of our 5G networks.” (Huawei representatives raise your hands).

The enthusiasm for climate change action was lukewarm, lacking the sting of urgency that has found feet on the streets across countries, often led by young activists. In the leaders’ summit rooms, the adults had decided that the environment could be lessened in its immediate importance. This, it was suggested, was due to Japan’s efforts to placate the United States at a time both are negotiating a trade deal. The earth might as well go and fry: the powers shall have their trade pacts.

Global disruption is staple for the US president, and the rest of the G20 delegates in their Osaka meet had to mill about hoping for some letup in the recent push and shove between Washington and Beijing. A temporary suspension of hostilities was suggested: Trump would not be adding tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. US companies would still be permitted to sell to Huawei – for the moment. Trump remains convinced that US hegemony is the knobkerrie and staff to wield, the top chieftain in the international relations show. Best make use of such implements before they lose force and shine.

No such summit could quite pass without the injection of slight farce. One of Trump’s brood, Ivanka Trump, found herself in the media lenses, an intrusive reminder of this administration’s keenness to push family into any conspicuous, and akward position. The White House was a trophy in a game from the start; egged on and mocked, Trump dedicated himself to seizing it for himself and his interests. The impedimenta followed. (His promise to clean Washington’s swamp was done with the selectively cleansing detergent of his inner circle).

While not quite being in the big league of absurdity as Caligula’s consul stead, Ivanka still qualifies as an envoy in a role more akin to the despotisms of old than a modern diplomatic outfit. Trump’s nepotism tends to be filled with a distinct bravado. It rejects formality and embraces the politics of the malnourished playground. Given various Freudian flavourings that have attended his descriptions of his daughter, he was happy to flaunt the candy and seek compliments. Instead, an icy politeness, best expressed by IMF chief Christine Lagarde, was shown.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) dealt with the matter witheringly, attempting to draw Trump back from the world of the disruptive make believe. The subtext to her scolding: We are an empire, so behave properly as its big chief. “It may be shocking to some,” she lamented, “but being someone’s daughter actually isn’t a career qualification. It hurts our diplomatic standing when the President phones it in & the world moves on. The US needs our president working the G20. Bringing a qualified diplomat couldn’t hurt either.”

Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif) demanded an explanation from Ivanka Trump herself, showing the general consternation that continues to preoccupy the Democrats at Trumpist twist and turns. Additionally, he wondered “why Jared Kushner still has a security clearance.”

Other leaders were also scolded for their ineffectual contribution. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was taken to task by his opponents for being meek when having a chance to discuss disagreements with China’s Xi Jinping. (The chance was, admittedly, a brief one). Conservative Party MP Erin O’Toole obsessed about the Prime Minister’s body language with an amateur’s enthusiastic glare. “Some will note the later handshake and others the early hesitancy. My concern stems from foreign policy missteps that have left us isolated.”

Such complaints have a keeping-up-appearances relish to them. Trump, and some of his fellow leaders, have to be found wanting. But the G20 is hardly a gladiatorial stage of heavy breathing and chest beating, despite unconvincing endorsements that it is “the culmination of months of intense negotiations” that reinforce “the underlying habits of cooperation so desperately needed for ongoing global economic stability.” At the best of times, it remains a forum of little traction and achievement, leaving a degree of frivolousness to creep in.

In that way, Trump thrives. Shallowness is depth. The camera gives him life; social media pumps the blood and propels. Besides, he had North Korea on his mind and duly showed that shaking hands with others is something he enjoys almost as much as, well, other, more self-focused things.

 

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Raging Against the Algorithm: Google and Persuasive Technology

“The founder of Netscape said software is going to eat the world.” (Tristan Harris, Centre for Humane Technology, June 25, 2019).

Monsters and titans share the stage of mythology across cultures as the necessary realisations of the human imagination. From stone cave to urban dwelling, the theme is unremitting; kept in the imagination, such creatures perform, innocently enough, benign functions. The catch here is the human tendency to realise such creatures. They take the form of social engineering and utopia. Folly bound, such projects and ventures wind up corrupting and degrading. The monster is born, and the awful truth comes to the fore: the concentration camp, the surveillance state, newspeak, the armies of censorship.

The technology giants of the current era are the modern Utopians, indulging human hunger and interests by shaping them. One company gives us the archetype. It is Google, which has the unusual distinction of being both noun and verb, entity and action. Google’s power is disproportionately vast, a creepy sprawl that cherishes transparency while lacking it, and treasuring information while regulating its reach. It is also an entity that has gone beyond being a mere repository of searches and data, an attempt to induce behavioural change on the part of users.

Google always gives the impression that its users are in the lead, autonomous, independent in a verdant land of digital frolicking. The idea that the company itself fosters such change, teasing out alterations in behaviour, is placed to one side. There are no Svengalis in Googleland, because we are all free. Free, but needing assistance amidst chaos and “multitasking”.

People have what the company calls “micro-moments”, those, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely describes as “on-the-go mobile moments” where decisions are reached by a user while engaged, simultaneously, in a range of tasks: hotels to book, travel choices to make, work schedules to fulfil. While Ariely is writing more broadly from the perspective of the ubiquitous digital marketer, the language is pure Googleleese, smacking of part persuasion and part imposition. “Want to develop a strategy to shape your consumer decisions?” asks Google. “Start by understanding the key micro-moments in their journey.” Understand them; feed their mind; hold their hand.

The addiction to Google produces what can no longer be seen as retarding, but fostering. A generation is growing up without a hard copy research library, a ready-to-hand list of classics, and the means to search through records without resorting to those damnable digital keys. Debates are bound to be had (some already pollute the digital space) about whether this is necessarily a condition to lament. Embrace digital amnesia! To Google is to exist.

What is undeniable is that the means to find information – instantaneous, glut-filled, desperately quick – has created users who inhabit a space that guides their thinking, pre-empting, cajoling and adjusting. One form of literacy, we might kindly say, is being supplanted by another: the Google imbecile is upon us.

Given the nature of such effects, it is little wonder that politicians find Google threatening to their mouldy and rusted on craft. The politician’s preserve is sound – or unsound – communication; success at the next election is dependent upon the idea that the electors understand, and approve, what has been relayed to them (whether that material is factual, or not, a lie or otherwise, is beside the point: the politician yearns to convince in order to win).

The old search engine titan supplies something of a snag in this regard. On the one hand, it offers the political classes the means to reach a global audience, an avenue to screech and promote the next hair-brained scheme that comes into the mind of the political apparat. But what if the message stymies on the way, finding delays in the means of what is called “search engine optimisation”? Is Google to blame, or bog-standard ordinariness on the part of the politician?

US politicians think they have an answer. Only they are permitted control of the narrative, and disseminating the lie. Of late they have been trying to sketch out a path they are not used to: regulating industries once hailed as sentinels of freedom, promoters of liberty. Their complaints tend to lack consistency. On the one hand, they find various Google algorithms problematic (preference for alt-right sites, conspiratorial gruel as damaging), but their slant is wonky and skewed. Had these algorithms been driving favourable search terms (conformist, steady, unquestioning, anti-Trump), the matter would be a non-starter. Our message, they would say, is getting out there.

This week, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation tried to make sense, in rather accusing fashion, of “persuasive technology”. Nanette Byrnes furnishes us with a definition: “the idea that computers, mobile phones, websites, and other technologies could be designed to influence people’s behaviour and even attitudes.” The Pope does remain resolutely Catholic.

The committee hearing featured such opinions as those of Senator John Thune (R-SD), who wished to use the proceedings to draft legislation that would “require internet platforms to give consumers the option to engage with the platform without having the experience shaped by algorithms.” The Senator is happy to accept that artificial intelligence “powers automations to display content to optimize engagement” but sees a devil in the works, as “AI algorithms can have an unintended and possibly even dangerous downside.” This is tantamount to wanting a Formula One Grand Prix without fast cars and an athletics competition in slow motion.

Facing the senators from Google’s side was Maggie Stanphill, director of Google User Experience. Her testimony was couched in words more akin to the glossiness of a travel brochure with a complimentary sprinkling of cocaine. “Google’s Digital Wellbeing Initiative is a top company goal, focusing on providing our users with insights about their digital habits and tools to support an intentional relationship with technology.” Google merely “creates products that improve the lives of the people who use them.” The company has provided access that has “democratized information and provided services for billions of people around the world.” When asked about whether Google was doing its bit in the persuasion business, Stanphill was unequivocal. “We do not use persuasive technology.”

The session’s theme was clear: oodles and masses of content are good, but must be appropriate. In Information Utopia, where digital Adam and Eve still run naked, wickedness will not be allowed. If people want to seek content that is “negative” (this horrendous arbitrary nature keeps appearing), they should not be allowed do. Gag them, and make sure the popular terms sought are whitewashed of any offensive or dangerous import. Impose upon the tech titans a responsibility to control the negative.

Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) complained of those companies “letting these algorithms run wild […] leaving humans to clean up the mess. Algorithms are amoral.” Tristan Harris, co-founder and executive director of the Centre for Humane Technology, spoke of the competition between companies to use algorithms which “more accurately predict what will keep users there the longest.” If you want to maximise the time spent searching terms or, in the case of YouTube, watching a video, focus “the entire ant colony of humanity towards crazytown.” For Harris, “technology hacks human weaknesses.” The moral? Do not give people what they want.

The rage against the algorithm, and the belief that no behavioural pushing is taking place in search technology, is misplaced on a few fronts. On a certain level, all accept how such modes of retrieving information work. Disagreement arises as to their consequences, a concession, effectively, to the Google user as imbecile. Stanphill is being disingenuous for assuming that persuasive technology is not a function of Google’s work (it patently is, given the company’s intention of improving the “intentional relationship with technology”). In her testimony, she spoke of building “products with privacy, transparency and control for the users, and we build a lifelong relationship with the user, which is primary.” The Senators, in turn, are concerned that the users, diapered by encouragements in their search interests, are incapable of making their own fragile minds up.

The nature of managed information in the digital experience is not, as Google, YouTube and like companies show, a case of broadening knowledge but reaffirming existing assumptions. The echo chamber bristles with confirmations not challenges, with the comforts of prejudice rather than the discomforts of heavy-artillery learning. But the elected citizens on the Hill, and the cyber Utopians, continue to struggle and flounder in the digital jungle they had seen as an information utopia equal to all. For the Big Tech giants, it’s all rather simple: the attention-grabbing spectacle, bums on seats, and downloads galore.

 

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Tweets of Praise: Donald Trump, Australia and Refugees

Praise from US President Donald Trump has a tendency of tarnishing gold and ungilding matters, and there was something of the muck in his tweet praising Australia for its sadistic approach to refugee arrivals. Operation Sovereign Borders, which commenced in 2013, was the high-water mark in an experiment of glacial cruelty: to treat refugee arrivals – those specifically taking the sea route to Australia – as a security, if not military threat. That these people were merely availing themselves of human rights acknowledged in international humanitarian law was given the thickest of glossing overs.

A veil of impenetrable secrecy was imposed on the number of boat arrivals, the number of operations, and the entire operational nature of the exercise. To enforce the effort, Prime Minister Tony Abbott created a force outfitted with the sort of dark kit that would have made the goose-steppers swoon and old military orders sigh. The Australian Border Protection Force would be given a separate, higher standing than other agencies, with the slightest fascist lite appeal of uniforms, badges and insignia. (Those cheeky disorderly refugees need only the best the business of repelling can buy).

By 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that some “20 per cent of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s senior executive ranks are now uniformed, with the majority working within the Australian Border Force.” And such thuggish authority will come with its host of ironies: those figures of sound authoritarian reassurance had donned uniforms made “almost entirely in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China.”

While the likes of former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott might have been brimming with excitement and pride at the creation of one of the world’s most ruthless gulag-enforced systems to counter “illegals” (this concept is, as with much in the refugee world, anathema and arbitrary), the model remains hard to export. For one, it involves exorbitant, costly measures – the Australian program costs billions, an imposition of cruelty at cost. In another sense, it also furnishes the public with an illusion that borders are secure. The problem is merely deferred and deflected to other states (very neighbourly is Australia on that score). Nor does this halt those seeking aerial routes.

Trump, as he tends to, mines vaults of images for effect. He wanted a particular quarry after the discovery of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, found drowned in the Rio Grande on Monday. “The image,” the New York Times suggested, “represents a poignant distillation of the perilous journey migrants face on their passage north to the United States, and the tragic consequences that often go unseen in the loud and caustic debate over border policy.”

An appreciation for poignancy and good grace are not the standout features of the US President. Since being in office, he has conflated the immigration issue with the search for asylum. “The United States will not be a migrant camp,” he promised in June 2018, “and it will not be a refugee holding facility.” Criminalisation has been a strong theme.  Parents have been separated from their children. The process for seeking asylum has become one of crawling rather than pacing.

According to Senator Bernie Sanders, “Trump’s policy of making it harder to seek asylum – and separating families who do – is cruel, inhumane and leads to tragedies like this.” Trump’s retort was uncomplicated: the Democrats were preventing him from plugging holes in Fortress USA. “If they fixed the laws you wouldn’t have that. People are coming up, they’re running through the Rio Grande.”

Having scoured a few examples of Australian border force material, he tweeted how, “These flyers depict Australia’s policy on Illegal Immigration. Much can be learned!”

The flyers were of the standard, blaring variety, with the border authorities condemning anybody daring to make the journey of danger. “No way you will make Australia home,” screams a headline, followed by the boastful assertion that, “The Australian Government has introduced the toughest border protection measures ever.” Another promises that any attempt to journey to Australia by boat will not result in settlement in the country itself.

Much of the gathered material was drawn from a 2014 campaign rich in agitprop, a vulgar compilation of images and text topped by a graphic novel depicting asylum seekers mouldering in despair in an offshore detention centre. The then immigration minister Scott Morrison gave it a certain advertising coarseness, a point he replicated during his election campaign last month for the Australian prime ministership.

Trump’s tweet serves as a statement of endorsement to add to a now vast compendium of admiration from Budapest to Washington; the Australians, we are told, got it right. The Refugee Council of Australia offers a different interpretation. In the assessment of its communications director Kelly Nicholls, “Australia’s harsh policies have come at a terrible cost: 12 people have died; women, men, and children have endured enormous mental and physical harm; Australia’s reputation has been tarnished and all this has cost us more than $5 billion.”

Another assessment, however, is in order. The displaced person enrages rather than encourages empathy. They are, to use that expression Hannah Arendt made famous, the heimatlosen, stateless, deracinated souls plunged into legal purgatory. It was Arendt who urged, in response to the post-Nazi era peppered by death factories and human displacement, the need for “a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity at this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities.”

Such entities of control and compassion have yet to be established. We are left with traditional ones dedicated to brute force cemented by a distinct disregard for the dignity of the human subject. The rootless remain objects of disdain and, for politicians, a golden currency for re-election.

 

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