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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.

The Priorities of General Motors: Ditching Holden

It seemed to be a case of grand misrepresentation. Holden cars, those great Australian acquisitions, along with home, lawnmower and nuclear family, gave the impression of indigenous pride, the home brand. It was also resoundingly masculine. But behind that image was a mighty American thrust, with General Motors holding the reins on investment as benevolent parent happy to rebadge the car brand when needed. Poor returns would invariably mean rough corporate decisions untouched by sentiment.

Between 2002 and 2005, things looked rosy. Sales of 170,000 a year saw the peak of the company’s returns. But Holden remained a distinctly parochial brand, incapable of moving beyond its Australian and New Zealand markets.

Breathing down the neck of GM’s Holden operations was the realisation that other auto companies were doing their own bit of wooing. The Australian buyer, over time, developed a taste for other products. Japanese car culture, with its clever alignments with game culture, seduced and won over buyers. Vehicles such as the Mazda MX-5 impressed. Toyota became a mainstay and South Korea’s Hyundai has proven more than competitive.

In 2017, GM ceased its manufacturing operations in Australia, a decision that was already promised by the company at the end of 2013. Then GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson put it down to those “negative influences the automotive industry faces in the country, including the sustained strength of the Australian dollar, high cost of production, small domestic market and arguably the most competitive and fragmented auto market in the world.” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was less inspired before his fellow parliamentarians, and did not “want to pretend to the parliament that this is anything other than a dark day for Australian manufacturing.”

Australia had simply become too dear as a base, and the closure of the Elizabeth vehicle manufacturing plant in Adelaide saw the loss of 1,600 jobs. Melbourne’s share was 1,300. What took its place was, in the sexed-up language of GM, “a national sales company, a national parts distribution centre and a global design studio.”

The sweet promise of the transformation remained more aspiration than substance. The sale run in 2019 proved so poor that it saw the cessation of the Opel-based Holden Commodore and Astra in favour of SUVs. Such moves spelled doom for the entire Holden enterprise, and on Monday afternoon, February 17, auto-watchers witnessed an announcement by GM and Holden executives that Holden will close at the end of 2020. Some 600 workers will lose their jobs by June, leaving 200 to provide the relevant customer service for the 1.6 million Holdens that are still on the roads.

A glance at the promotional messages on the GM website should have worried any Holden fan. On February 16, the company stated in the cold language of the corporate boardroom that it was “taking decisive action to transform its international operations, building on its comprehensive strategy it laid out in 2015 to strengthen its core business, drive significant cost efficiencies and take action in markets that cannot earn an adequate return for its shareholders.”

GM President Mark Reuss was suitably cool in his statement. “After considering many possible options – and putting aside our personal desires to accommodate the people and the market – we came to the conclusion that we could not prioritise further investment over all other considerations we have in a rapidly changing global industry.”

The federal government was notified a mere 15 minutes prior to the announcement, the sort of brusque treatment one has come to expect from the car manufacturer. The treatment is even more stinging given that the federal government has, historically, been one of the biggest single customers for Holden cars. Prime Minister Scott Morrison felt slighted, but despite noting the provision of some $2 billion for Holden over its existence, showed little surprise at behaviour he stopped short of describing as corporate vandalism. “I am angry, like I think many Australians would be. They just let the brand wither away on their watch. Now they are leaving it behind.”

Nowhere in the mournful tributes is the prowess of Holden cars, in all their ranges, mentioned. Family, sex and racing, yes, but nothing on the everyday competence of the products. Like relatives past their prime, they are celebrated as figures of mythology rather than the toilers of achievement. Former Holden worker Cara Bertoli summed up the sentiment of hope over corporate experience. “There were those rumours going around that yes, the brand name might eventually die off, but I guess it’s one of those things, when you’re loyal to the brand, you hope as much as you can that it doesn’t happen.”

Holden employees, on being interviewed, have shown consternation at GM. The alien parent, it was stated on ABC News Breakfast, had no idea about what a “home brand” might mean in terms of cars. Calls to the American offices were ignored; the parent seemed befuddled. Gary Mortimer, a professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at Queensland University of Technology, saw the Holden as lying at the “core” of a very Australian identity. “General Motors,” he rued, “took it away.” Australians may have fallen out of the love with Holden, but that was “because it fell out of love with us.”

Holden cars, repeatedly, tritely called “iconic”, have now lived up to that designation, a museum, or even church brand to be appreciated by collectors and the nostalgic. Any future manufacture, as the British car-dedicated program Top Gear discovered regarding the Jeep SRT Trackhawk, will be by American enthusiasts.

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Corporate Occupations: The UN Business “Black List” and Israel’s Settlements

Mikhail Bakunin, in that charming anarchist tradition, regarded the state as an evil to be done away with. Such collective formations were criminal, oppressive, eviscerating to the individual. The corporation might be regarded as a similar collective, adopting and aping elements of the state with, in some cases, greater latitude to achieve its object. At times, they collude with states to advance their interests, which rarely deviate from the profit motive; in other cases, they seek to overthrow state regimes in favour of more compliant ones.

For that reason, bringing corporate behaviour within the realm of human rights can be a tad tricky. You can take corporate managers to witness grave abuses, but you can’t make them feel. The cynicism in this field is so profound that it produces such views as those of Milton Friedman, who suggested with monetarist glee that corporations are only burdened by one task in the field of social responsibility: using their “resources and engage in activities designed to increase [their] profits so long as it stays in the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.”

In his New York Times Magazine piece from 1970, he took issue with those businessmen who spoke of having a “social conscience”, or sought to achieve “social” ends, be it limiting pollution, ensuring secure employment or eliminating discrimination.

Friedman’s piece was as much a distillation of a business condition as a philosophy. Invariably, the corporate condition is one-dimensional and bound to the aims of maximising share dividends and gaining market share. Every other goal tends to be subordinated to that end.

Publishing the names of various companies reaping in proceeds from occupied Palestinian lands while supporting their structural integrity would hardly shock a follower of Friedman. The follower would argue that such companies have only one moral, ethical purpose in mind, something which would preclude advancing a human rights agenda, or greater accommodation with Palestinians. But a company operating on such soil cannot entirely escape the orbit of ethical implications. The dispute hinges on the implicit assumption on Israel’s part that such businesses are, supposedly, legitimate in their operations; the counter to that is that the United Nations, and most of its members, see the settlements as illegal in international law.

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights office revealed a database of some 112 businesses connected with Israeli settlements, 94 of which are Israeli. The report was a response to a 2016 UNHRC resolution (31/36) calling for a “database for all businesses engaged in specific activities related to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory.” US companies include Airbnb, Trip Advisor, Expedia, Motorola and General Mills. The UK’s Greenkote and France’s Alstom also feature in the list. The special rapporteur Michael Lynk saw them as essential components of economic activity within the settlements. “Without these investments, wineries, factories, corporate supply and purchase agreements, banking operations and support services, many of the settlements would not be financially and operationally sustainable. And without the settlements, the five-decade-long Israeli occupation would lose its colonial raison d’être.”

Lynk felt that publishing details of those businesses did constitute some measure of rebuke, however small. “While the release of the database will not, by itself, bring an end to the illegal settlements and their serious impact upon human rights, it does signal that sustained defiance by an occupying power will not go unanswered.”

One notable qualifier on the list has gone unnoticed. In a statement from the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, the point was made that identifying the companies had not been a judicial or quasi-judicial exercise. The settlements were illegal, but the report did not furnish a “legal characterization of the activities in question, or of business enterprises’ involvement in them.” One senses that an opportunity might have gone begging there.

The response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one deviation and re-attribution. The UN Human Rights Council, he charged, “is a biased and uninfluential body.” Rather than dealing with human rights “this body is trying to blacken Israel’s name. We reject any such attempt in the strongest terms and with disgust.”

Despite dismissing the Human Rights Council as uninfluential, Netanyahu took the matter seriously enough to suspend ties with the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. The basis for doing so had nothing to do with addressing any criteria of human rights, but whether companies would be protected in conducting their business. Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s office, Foreign Minister Israel Katz accused, had fallen into the service of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.

In a statement on the issue, Katz was keen to take a principled stance. The Human Rights Council was ignorant of human rights. “Since its establishment, the Council has not taken a single meaningful step towards the preservation of human rights, but has rather served to protect some of the most discriminatory regimes in the world.” The Commissioner had “wasted an opportunity to preserve the dignity of the UN ad salvage what was left of the Council and the Commission’s integrity.”

President Reuven Rivlin, as if to prove the point made by special rapporteur Lynk, read out the names of those Israeli companies that had made the list in an address from his Jerusalem residence, calling them “patriots who contribute to Israeli society, to economy and to peace.”

Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan even went so far as to claim that such lists violated the rights of those subjects living under occupation. In the language befitting a colonial governor’s reproach to an independence activist, Erdan suggested that the UN publication “will hurt the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinians who coexist and cooperate with Israelis on a daily basis in Judea and Samaria.”

Had Netanyahu simply claimed to be a Friedmanite, that might have made some brutal, if shallow sense. But as occupations, territorial consolidation and Israeli identity remain ideological and religious matters, ethics becomes a matter of observance and abuse. Occupations and matters of conquest tend to be disturbingly moral pursuits, pursued fanatically and with lethal resolve. Best keep corporations on your side, if that is the case.

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Intelligence Spats: Australia, Britain and Huawei

A note of fraternal tension has been registered between the United Kingdom and Australia. It began with Britain’s decision to permit China’s technology giant Huawei a role in the construction of the country’s 5G network. While the decision is qualified to non-core functions, as UK officials term it, the irritations to the United States and, it follows, Australia, have been far from negligible.

Members of the US Congress have been clear that letting Huawei into the stables of security risks future trade deals. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to the UK, has been equally insistent on the dangers. “When you allow the information of your citizens of the national security information of your citizens to transit a network that the Chinese Communist party has a legal mandate to obtain, it creates risk.” In Munich attending an international security conference, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper warned that, “Reliance on Chinese 5G vendors … could render our partners critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation and espionage.” As for US President Donald Trump, the words “apoplectic” and “fury” figured in responding to the UK decision.

Australian officials have relished their role in telling the old, long-in tooth Mother Country off. Simon Gilding, director of the Australian Signals Directorate till December, suggested in The Strategist that the UK was putting its faith in “a flawed and outdated cybersecurity model to convince themselves that they can manage the risk that Chinese intelligence services could use Huawei’s access to UK telco networks to insert bad code.”

Gilding does not mince his words. “5G decisions reflect one of those quietly pivotal moments that crystallise a change in world affairs.” The British decision had been “disappointing” in “doing the wrong thing” on the technology. It had not considered, for instance, Australian testing in the field. “I was,” he smugly recalled, “part of the team in the Australian Signals Directorate that tried to design a suite of cybersecurity controls that would give the government confidence that hostile intelligence services could not leverage their national vendors to gain access to our 5G networks.” Measures of mitigation were designed with the express purpose of preventing a state actor from gaining access to the networks. All failed.

The UK government has been attempting to reassure allies within the “Five Eyes” agreement that any security concerns are unjustified. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spent a good deal of his time during this month’s visit to Canberra attempting to assuage members of the Federal Parliament Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees. That effort seemed to fall flat.

In a report that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Deputy Intelligence Committee Chair and Labor MP Anthony Byrne was irate, notably at Raab’s response that the Huawei decision was a “technical” if “difficult” matter, but hardly political. “How would you feel,” Byrne is reported to have asked of Raab, “if the Russians laid down infrastructure in your own networks? That’s how we feel about Huawei.”

Officially, Byrne gave the impression that things had gone rather well in “a full and frank discussion regarding 5G, trade and strategic challenges.” Privately, that same Byrne was cocksure, daring, even rude. According to the source reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, “He basically said: ‘I’ll raise you my ASD [Australian Signals Directorate] against your GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters].” China, he argued, had become an “existential” threat to Australia, being both its largest trading partner and most formidable “security threat”.

Few others were privy to the discussions that took place between Raab and various Australian parliamentarians. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s Liberal MP Andrew Hastie was present, as was Foreign Affairs Committee chair, Liberal senator David Fawcett. The other person to bear witness to discussions was the UK High Commissioner Vicki Treadell.

For Treadell, the matter was obvious. Someone in the meeting had ratted. As the ABC subsequently found out, “measured” and “stern” letters were duly sent from the High Commissioner’s Office to both committee chairs chiding them for the leaks. Despite failing to confirm the existence of such letters, the UK Commission being supposedly “unable to comment on private briefings, or on any information pertaining to these private briefings”, the shells had been fired.

Feeling put out, Parliament’s intelligence and security committee cancelled a planned visit to the UK scheduled to take place in March, preferring the more reliable, anti-Huawei environs of Washington. The official, anodyne explanation for the cancellations was put down to advice given by Australia’s High Commissioner in the UK “as he advised that counterpart committees in the UK have not yet reconstituted following the UK’s December election.”

The reasons given to the ABC by a member of the intelligence committee proved more forthright. “If this is the attitude of the British, we may as well visit the Americans who we can trust more on this stuff.” A right royal spat, indeed, and one not without its juvenile connotations.

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Buying Elections: The Bloomberg Meme Campaign

Interfering, corrupting and altering the views of electors is apparently frowned upon. But it all depends on who that manipulating source is. The Russians might be condemned for being meddlers of minds in the US electorate, but an American billionaire who hires battalions of influencing agents to get his word across on social media platforms is not much better. At least the Russian representatives were decent enough to light fires on both sides of the political divide, providing an odd equilibrium of chaos.

Bloomberg’s booklet of electoral wooing is merely a softened, couched version of what has come before. To win over the electorate, you need an army of hidden persuaders, the men and women who claim to know, telling the voter how to vote for a supposedly delightful candidate who is, truth be told, a sham. This is ad-man territory and puts the former New York Mayor on terrain that abuts that of President Donald Trump.

The cash-for-allegiance system is being facilitated through the very social media organs so disliked by Democrats. They, after all, were excoriated for muddying Hillary Clinton’s image in 2016, doing that most terrible thing of disseminating leaked material, good and bad, about her. Now, the Bloomberg campaign, keeping it digitally real, has linked arms with Meme 2020. The mission is simple if implausible: vesting Bloomberg with various attributes he does not have. According to Sabrina Singh, spokesperson for Bloomberg, “While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics, we’re betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.”

This polish-the-turd effort has the stifling smell of acute desperation.  It’s armchair electioneering of the most profligate kind (a million dollars a day spent on Facebook ads alone), putting faith in online presences and seducers to do what candidates who fail turning up to primaries and caucuses supposedly cannot. As it turns out, Bloomberg’s approach has furnished Senator Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg with the gift of credibility. They, at the very least, bothered. However ceremonially hollow such initial rounds are, placing the candidate before the halls, the tea rooms, the homes, counts as turning up. Bloomberg is already assuming that physical absenteeism can be overcome by digital loudness.

The lead strategist of the campaign group, Mick Purzycki, chief executive of Jerry Media, is tasked with the improbable. Given that Trump’s electability was deemed impossible, the issue is by no means an irreconcilable handicap, but the fence is still a high one. The thing guaranteed in this fairly low brow affair is bad taste and profound disingenuousness. The Instagram posts, for instance, promote Bloomberg as the awkward but “cool candidate”. He dresses accordingly, if unconvincingly. He is, as the @KateSalad meme account run by Samir Mezrahi spouts, “like kale salad: tough and tasteless but ultimately good for you.”

The marketers involved with posting memes for Bloomberg are thrilled with the exposure. In the broader world of advertising, all publicity is good. The same cannot be said for the political world. Shirin Ghaffary makes the point in Vox, questioning the effectiveness of the campaign. The risk here for both Bloomberg and the influencers lies in “promoting a candidate who’s viewed by many of their followers as an out-of-touch billionaire trying to buy his way into an election.”

Not all the cabal of influencers are singing from the same hymn book. They do the same dirty deeds, blot the same copybooks but even on that shallow terrain, Bloomberg will spark disagreement. Josh Ostrovsky, known in his line of work as The Fat Jew, is one. “They asked me to do it, I said no,” he vented on Instagram. “I grew up in New York City so I can tell you firsthand, Bloomberg is a colossal shitbag.” It takes one to know one, and Ostrovsky, a serial joke thief, is a paragon of vice in the field. Paid Instagram influencers such as Tank Sinatra are also finding their posts choked with withering remarks about their unglamorous subject.

The campaign has raised a bigger question as to what role such “branded content” has. Instagram’s owner is Facebook, an organisation constantly accused of sporting accounts that might be used to disseminate unsavoury political content. Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications Nick Clegg has not helped matters with his statements on the subject. “We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.” He suggests two exceptions: “where speech endangers people and where we take money, which is why we have more stringent rules on advertising than we do for ordinary speech and rhetoric.”

Bloomberg has, on this point, scored a victory of sorts. As a Facebook representative explained to the New York Post, “We’re allowing US-based political candidates to work with creators to run this content, provided the political candidates are authorized and the creators disclose any paid partnerships through our branded content tools.” This leads to a specious difference. “Branded content is different from advertising, but in either case, we believe it’s important people know when they’re seeing paid content on our platforms.”

In all this, a solid argument might well be made that Bloomberg is demonstrating precisely why Trump, toxic leader of the realm, is entitled to remain in the White House. The US electors already have their cashed-up megalomaniacal fraud; why go for another?

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Fashion Fetishism, Surgical Masks and Coronavirus

Entering Singapore’s Changi Airport gives the visitor a glimpse of a mask fetish. Security guards wear it. As do the nurses and the various personnel who man cameras like anti-aircraft batteries, noting the approaching passenger in transit with due suspicion. The passenger, in turn, wishes to avoid showing anything that might be construed as a suspect symptom. Whatever you do, do not cough, splutter or sweat in nervousness. Best to wear a mask then: neither party can accurately gauge the disposition of the other.

Witnessing the profusion of disease paraphernalia furnishes us a salient reminder that opportunity lurks where fears of a pandemic lie. Pharmaceutical companies await a rush for certain drugs that might come in handy battling the next pathogen; producers of equipment that might stem the advantage of the viral monster tick off orders to satisfy demand. In the case of the Coronavirus, now given its “novel” title as COVID-19, a global symbol of its stretch and influence, actual or otherwise, is the face mask.

In parts of Southeast Asia and in China, the mask was already ubiquitous. Preventing particles and dirt from entering the respiratory system, such layers provide a modicum of protection against such undue inhalation. But the coronavirus “business” has seen their purpose obscured in favour of solutions that are, at best, varnished hopes or selfish aims.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance, insists in a factsheet on respiratory infection control that, “Surgical masks are not designed to seal tightly against the user’s face. During inhalation, much of the potentially contaminated air can pass through the gaps between the face and the surgical mask and not be pulled through the filter of the mask.”

The advisory does, however, claim that using surgical masks “may reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission between infected and non-infected persons”, conceding that “historical information” on their effectiveness in controlling, for instance, influenza, remains limited.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also warned against donning the facemask in unnecessary circumstances. “CDC does not recommend the people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory viruses, including 2019-nCoV. You should only wear a mask if a healthcare professional recommends it.” Only those exposed to the virus and showing symptoms should wear one. Those involved in providing health services, be they health workers “and other people who are taking care of someone infected with 2019-nCov in close settings (at home or in a health care facility)” are also encouraged to wear them.

Similst views can also be found in assessments from biosecurity wonks such as Professor C. Raina MacIntyre of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute based at the University of New South Wales. In a co-authored piece for The Conversation, MacIntyre takes some gloss off the use of such preventive measures by noting that surgical masks “do not provide a seal around the face or filtration of airborne particles, like those that may carry coronavirus.” But some “limited barrier against you transferring the virus from your hand to the face, or from large droplets and splashes of fluid” is provided.

The aims behind such use are distinct. Use them for evacuation flights out of the disease zone. Use them in cities where ongoing transmission is taking place. But in areas where there is no crisis to speak of, extensive use or stockpiling by members of the general public can only be deemed to be disproportionate. In the words of MacIntyre and her co-author Abrar Ahmad Chungtai, “countries where transmission is not widespread and there are only a handful of cases being treated in hospital isolation rooms, masks serve no purpose in the community.”

Again, as with their colleagues in the field of medical science, the issue was different for those at the coal face of disease prevention. Health workers had to be preserved; “if they get sick or die, we lose our ability to fight the epidemic.”

The literature on the effectiveness of such masks can be found, though littered with the necessary caveats that come with the field. A study examining facemask usage and effect in reducing the number of influenza A (H1N1) cases published in 2010 used mathematical modelling to conclude that, “if worn properly,” they could constitute “an effective intervention strategy in reducing the spread of pandemic (H1N1) 2009.”

The central purpose, then, is for the mask to act as some sort of diligent disease concierge: to keep the germs in while ensuring that particles and matter, be they dust or blood, are kept out. But commercial instinct is indifferent to such nuances. Where there is money to be made and social media accounts to be co-opted, along with those vulgar irritants known as “influencers”, the issue is making the product appealing, not questioning it use.

A profusion of online images show the scantily clad, the demure, the enticing, sporting the masks as they pose. Companies such as AusAir stress local design and themes in their production: Tasmanian lavender, eucalypt varieties. A similarity with other protective devices – flavoured prophylactics, for instance – can be drawn. There is no reason not to be fashionable when being protected, though it lends a certain crassness to the whole enterprise. Monetised as such, the masks have become accessories rather than necessities, notably in countries least affected. The mask, for instance, can serve to cover perceived facial imperfections or even emotions in the public gaze. The medical quack has been replaced by the fashion guru.

To that end, the medical mask has spurred a global surge in demand. A shortage in supply has eventuated, causing more than a mild panic. In 2009, a similar shortage of masks was precipitated by the influenza H1N1 pandemic, despite WHO recommendations against general public use. The shortage has had a somewhat nasty effect of running down what is available for those practitioners who need them in their ongoing work with patients. As in instances of war and conflict, the opportunists and profiteers have made their inevitable, and dreaded appearance.

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Disease Diplomacy and the Heavy Hand: China and the Coronavirus Problem

Authoritarian responses, with the gloved heavy hand, will always find its admirers. The reaction by Chinese authorities to the novel coronavirus (now named COVID-19) outbreak has been receiving its fair share of gushing praise from some medical circles. No country builds hospitals as quickly as they do; or seal off threatening areas with greater speed.

The measures have been extreme, extraordinary and not lacking in a certain brutality. World Health Organisation Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has grateful for efforts at “slowing the spread to the rest of the world.” This was not all, and the doctor was also happy to offer a political observation. “China’s speed, China’s scale and China’s efficiency … is the advantage of the China system.” Tweeting at the end of January, he lauded Beijing for “setting a new standard for outbreak response.”

This was bound to cause a stir. Was the WHO chief showing a degree of tolerance towards the one-party state way of doing things? No, claims former special adviser to the UN secretary-general David Nabarro. “He has to work with the Chinese … He can’t just start slagging them off.”

Tedros, for his part, has taken the view that peering into the cerebral apparatus of the Chinese state is an exercise in distracting futility. “Nobody knows for sure if they were hiding [anything],” he surmised in an interview with the Financial Times. Nobody, evidently, did not extend to the all-knowing Tedros, who deduced that concealment was not consistent with containment. Concealing the spread would not have prevented a spread to other countries. “The logic doesn’t support the idea [of a cover up]. It’s wrong to jump to conclusions.” The PRC authorities, he noted, “identified the pathogen and shared the sequence immediately.” They were to be congratulated “for hammering the epicentre. They are actually protecting the rest of the world.”

Special words were reserved for China’s leader. Cringe-worthily ingratiating, he found President Xi Jinping’s awareness remarkable. “I was stunned by the knowledge he had. He was personally living it. That’s good leadership.”

Tedros’ praise sounds awfully like various delight. He had previously been accused when running for the WHO top job of having a rather patchy record in responding to cholera outbreaks in his native Ethiopia, or its preferred symptom, acute water diarrhea (AWD). Under his watch as health minister, health workers were told, according to Human Rights Watch, “not to refer to cholera outbreaks as such, instead referring to outbreaks as ‘diarrhea’ or AWD.” That’s disease diplomacy for you.

As for hammering that epicentre, Wuhan’s 11 million strong populace finds itself under the world’s largest lockdown. Those who have managed to find the means of evacuation from Wuhan face mandatory quarantine periods in reaching their home destinations. In the US, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention went so far as to order a 14-day mandatory period for 195 evacuated passengers, prompting Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union to point out that, “Quarantining somebody is an extraordinary deprivation of their liberties.”

Stanley’s sensibilities are not entirely addled. The burden is on governments to find the least intrusive method of achieving public health goals. “The bottom line is these kinds of policies need to be based on science and not politics.” Well said, but far easier to put into practice. The Wuhan model, it might be said, has been exported, finding form in ambit quarantine measures reminiscent of those taken to deal with the Ebola virus in 2014.

As with much in the land of politics, such ideas of efficiency tend to be fables. The expansive Wuhan shutdown seems like grandiose theatre, a measure of reassurance for global markets and social stability. Within the bureaucracy, appropriate heads have been punished, despite initial tolerance towards their lethargy. The party secretary for the Hubei Health Commission has lost his post, as has the head of the commission, suggesting a spree of internal tidying. Appearance is central to performance.

As with any such crisis, albeit one made more difficult by an inherent dislike for transparency, exposing problems is not necessarily welcome. The late doctor Li Wenliang, a victim of the virus, caused sufficient consternation to trouble the censors and information managers. He had been one of the first to express consternation at the potential dangers posed, concerns which fell on resolutely deaf ears where it counted.

The deafness was intentional: Li had been taken to task by public security authorities for revealing his concerns on a WeChat group, supposedly for “disseminating rumours.” The seven patients quarantined at his hospital seemed to be showing symptoms loosely associated with the same family that gave the world SARS. Other medical staff similarly concerned were also taken to task.

His death subsequently led to a spike in disgruntlement, with the social media stream peppered with observations of the doctor’s martyr status. The Chinese blogging site Weibo grew thick with the hashtag “I want freedom of speech,” though the two million or so posts featuring it were gone within hours.

With that transformation in social media apparent, Dr. Li the troublemaker became Dr. Li the fallen soldier. Officialdom has rapidly co-opted the dead doctor’s legacy in an effort to wrest the narrative. Rather than making him vanish from the record as a dissenting irritant, a fate that befell Jiang Yanyong, a military doctor who took note of the discrepancy in reporting SARS cases, Dr. Li finds himself in the posthumous propaganda pantheon. Pity the land that needs heroes, but more appropriately, be wary of how they are minted in the first place.

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Subverting the Blacklist: Kirk Douglas’s Modest Contribution

Leaving aside the content of the spectacular, embellished account that became Spartacus, Kirk Douglas, whose life ticked over into a century and a few years, left his own distinct mark on US cultural politics. At the very least, he managed to fashion a spear to direct through the Hollywood blacklist, an infamous compilation of the supposedly unpatriotic naughties in the film business who had sympathies, proven or otherwise, with communism. The justified question, however, is how significant his role actually was. Celebrities and thespians often assume a heft they do not have, a significance they lack.

What was certain was that Hollywood was pullulating with its own host of Red Baiters and the sort that Gore Vidal called American Sissies, all keen to do their bit for the House Un-American Activities Committee. John Wayne, an old John Bircher, tended to take the lead in that regard, seeing the film industry as a patriotic preserve that did not need any Commie contaminant.

Douglas recalled the chilling effect of the Cold War as it iced writers and actors in a 2015 interview. His co-star in Detective Story (1951), Lee Grant, was refused work for twelve years after refusing “to testify against her husband before the House Un-American Activities Committee.”

The case of Dalton Trumbo’s ostracising was one that particularly exercised Douglas. HUAC had eyed him as a notable enough threat (he had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s) to require scrubbing from the industry. He went into pseudonymous territory, scripting Roman Holiday and The Brave One, winning an Oscar for the latter under the name Robert Rich. Along with nine other writers and directors, he made up the Hollywood Ten, jailed for contempt of Congress in 1950 for refusing to collude in the collective hysteria of political cleansing.

When the time came for the release of Spartacus, Douglas, having assumed the role of both protagonist of the film and its direction, insisted that Trumbo’s name appear in the credits. The act was both testament to the exaggerated quality of protest inherent in film, and the strength of illusions in the Dream Factory. The masquerade,” concluded Douglas, “was over.” Despite being told that placing Trumbo in prime position on the credits would terminate his career, “the blacklist was broken.”

Thespians are in the business of stretching the record, and while Douglas, in his own way, made an impression, it was hardly a protest of profound radicalism. Sizeable pebbles were fashioned, but they remained pebbles. There was room for some daring. Besides, Otto Preminger, who directed Exodus, was saddled with a less than negligible contribution against the ban, a point noted in the New York Times, opining in a January 20, 1960 piece that his acknowledgement of Trumbo’s role was “the first open defiance by a producer-director of Hollywood’s ‘blacklist’.” Exodus was released in December; Spartacus had already been showing since October.

Trumbo’s widow, Cleo, certainly felt that the compass was out of kilter on the point of contributions. In 1991, when the Writers Guild of America invited her to attend its annual awards dinner, she feared witnessing the presentation of the Robert F. Meltzer Award to Kirk Douglas as the sole saboteur of the blacklist. At the invitation, she wrote back with a degree of curtness: “It is important to remember it was Otto Preminger who first announced that Dalton Trumbo’s name would appear on his film, Exodus…  This observation is not meant to diminish Mr Douglas’ actions, for what he did required courage, but merely to put them in perspective”.

Cleo went on to suggest that, had her husband still been living to witness this, he would have thought “it unconscionable that Otto Preminger would be ignored and only Kirk Douglas honoured by the Guild for his contribution to destroy the blacklist. I am also certain that he would not attend a ceremony which sanctioned such a distortion of actual events.” She did not attend the event.

As she subsequently reiterated in 2002 in a note to the Los Angeles Times, having expressed being “deeply disturbed” by a letter from Jack Valenti, long-time president of the Motion Picture Association of America, it was all a question of balanced agency; “no single person can be credited with breaking the blacklist.” More, she argued, should be attributed to the daring of the scribes themselves. “For more than 12 years these men and women continued to write without credit at a fraction of what they had earned before.” They wrote polemics pleading their cause, issued pamphlets, filed lawsuits. “By the time Trumbo’s name appeared on Spartacus and Exodus the ground had been well prepared by the ceaseless efforts of blacklisted writers.”

In 2012, Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi also weighed in with a corrective in Salon, assembling her mother’s previously directed barbs in an attempt to take some of the polish and shine off Douglas’ claims. One point of irritation stood out: the bombastic assertions made by Douglas in his book I am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, leaving a record that “has not only inflated his role” but left “incidents that did not happen.” Mitzi went to work on Douglas, claiming that Trumbo did not lunch with Douglas at the Universal studio commissary, nor attend a screening in disguise. Nor did that doyen of British cinema, Laurence Olivier, ever dine at the Trumbo household. “He has also asserted a brand-new claim,” she wrote sourly, “that he, not my father, wrote the iconic ‘I am Spartacus’ scene from the film.”

Memories are imperfect repositories, but there is something to be said about those of actors being particularly susceptible. The actor, after all, is essentially a dissimulator of reality. Posterity supplies the siren call, and the inventive pen follows. In the case of Douglas, his role in overturning a sordid episode in US cinematic history was not inconsiderable, but nor was it earth shattering.

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Failed Prosecutions: Donald Trump Survives the Senate

Never undertake a prosecution unless you have good grounds, and prospects, for a solid conviction. In the case against President Donald Trump, there was never a serious prospect that the Senate would cool sufficiently to give the Democrats the votes necessary to affirm vote of impeachment in the House. The GOP remains very much in Trump’s pocket, a remarkable if opportunistic transformation given the innate hostility shown towards him prior to the 2016 elections. With their allegiance pinned to the Trump juggernaut, the hope is that, come November, the entire effort won’t sink under the toxic miasma that is US politics.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had agonised over the original decision to pursue Trump through impeachment proceedings. One argument that seemed persuasive was the sense that too much energy would be consumed in the process, taking away from the election cycle and jeopardising the campaign to oust Trump at the ballot box. She held out for a time, keeping the firebrands at bay. But the demands of her office, and those around her to do something to combat Trump’s claimed misdemeanours in office, were too profound to ignore. Even if the effort was bound to lose, a stand had to be made.

Political strategists, however, thought of alternatives as to how best to land enduring blows. Douglas Heye, former deputy chief of staff to House Majority leader Eric Cantor, felt that censure was more appropriate and would have constituted “a serious rebuke of Trump’s action and might have even garnered some bipartisan support.”

Once commenced, the approach of the Democrats seemed clipped, a crude abridgement that was as much a matter of caution as it was of fear. The articles of impeachment were narrow, pegged to the issue of Ukraine, the nexus with US electoral interference, and obstruction of Congress. The meaty report of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, played no part.

For all that, the case against Trump did convince Senator Mitt Romney, the only Republican to be swayed by the arguments that Trump be removed. The bar for misconduct in executive office, as opposed to the wheeling and dealing that keeps company with the occupant of that office, remains a high one indeed.

The school of thought favouring Pelosi – that the Democrats had to pursue the impeachment route – has force with the likes of Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect. “Trump’s contempt for the rule of law was so flagrant that it would have been a dereliction of constitutional duty for the House Democrats to turn the other cheek.” While Trump was not removed from office, “it had to be done, and could yet produce major benefits for the Democrats and the country.” Kuttner, it would seem, is no political strategist.

Keith E. Whittington of Princeton University is also of similar mind. There were a host of “good reasons”, he claims in Lawfare, in pursuing an impeachment process despite falling at the final hurdle.  It constituted “a kind of formal censure” and “an effort to reassert important constitutional norms.” For all that, Whittington makes a concession. While an impeachment process might not be a failure because it ends in acquittal, one “that heightens political divisions without reinforcing the proper limits on conduct of government officials is not much of a success.”

Those divisions were laid bare in their partisanship. The Republicans ensured minimal scrutiny in the trial process itself, including jettisoning any prospect for calling witnesses. Further avenues of embarrassment were cut off. It was a reminder that, however such processes are framed, impeachment is a political scrap rather than a sober judicial assessment. The Democrats, despite their desperate attempts to make Russiagate swallow Trump, or the allegations regarding the withholding of funding to Ukraine as a quid quo pro for investigating the Bidens, have not been able to shift the ground.

Trump’s fantastically oily manner of conducting politics – an aping of business acumen and crassness – has left opponents wanting. He slips, ducks and eventually turns the gun pointed at him against the opponent. He makes sure it is armed, then fires. The impeachment episode is now being loaded and launched as a means of acquittal and exoneration, while the Democrats are being accused of failed venality. We, claimed Trump “have that gorgeous word. I never thought a word would sound so good – it’s called, ‘total acquittal.’” Arithmetic is evidently not the president’s strong suit.

The ever demagogic Louis Dobb of Fox Business is also happily restocking the arsenal, having told his audience that the Senate had “acquitted President Trump of both charges fabricated by Congressional Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi and Adam Schiff, to carry out the most egregious and partisan attack against any president in our history – a man they knew to be innocent.”

The representative Republican position, and not just one held by them, was to be found in the views of the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Right now, this is a political loser for [the Democrats]. They initiated it. They thought this was a great idea.” In the “short term, it has been a colossal political mistake.” Much reading of the tea leaves is bound to follow.

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Triumphal Divisions: Trump’s State of the Union Address

In this year of the presidential elections, President Donald J. Trump shows little sign of cowering. It had been some time in coming, but here was a businessman talking to a Congress long in the pocket of business, a seemingly seamless order of things that would have made the Founding Fathers cringe.

Trump’s rule has remade political practice in the United States. Protocols have been abandoned; forms torn. The language of politics is sillier, barrel scraping and coarse, the lingo of the tweet, rather than the elevation of inspired ideas. His enemies have become poor facsimiles of the Trump method, and for this, he must always be remembered.

Damning protocol was already something Trump was keen on even before he began his speech. He turned his back on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand. It was not a level of rudeness to be batted away with magisterial indifference; Pelosi was keen to show that she was more than able to abandon convention and reciprocate with similar childishness. She refused to use the language of customary introduction – that it was her “honour” to introduce the president. At the conclusion of his speech, she tore up the speech in view of the cameras. It was, she explained to journalists, “the courteous thing to do, considering the alternatives.”

The Democrats have never quite nailed down a program of getting at Trump the showman. They lament his mendacity, which he can always turn into a weapon, deployed as brief stabs over the social media cycle; they loathe his character, which he can always rebrand as daring in the face of fetters that encourage dreariness. Shockingly, the opposition seems grey, haggard, stilted and, at points, decidedly confused. (The Iowa caucus fiasco did not help). By vote, they impeached him in the House of Representatives, where they were bound to, given that they control the chamber. By vote, they are bound to fail to remove him from office in the Senate trial that concludes on Wednesday.

Trump’s speech, billed as the “Great American Comeback”, took deep bites out of the economy mantra, fictional as it is. “Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling, confidence is surging, and our country is thriving and highly respected again!” He stressed high velocity, speedy movement, the sort of subject matter US presidents luxuriate in. “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back!” What this entails is less relevant than the illusion of busy dedication. “In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny.”

The president also took a chance to dare and prod his opponents in the House. He made it clear that the Presidential Medal of Freedom would be awarded to Rush Limbaugh, a radio demagogue who has revealed he has advanced lung cancer. Having rewarded a figure with well proven credentials in divisiveness, he explained that he was himself the leader of inclusivity. “The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American dream.”

His project for the US involved constructing “the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society – one where every citizen can join in America’s unparalleled success, and where every community can take place in America’s extraordinary rise.”

That prosperous society evidently entailed not having universal healthcare but a good deal of private healthcare directed away from rogue illegal aliens who seemed to be finding themselves in the United States, despite Trump’s own claims that the US-Mexico border is resoundingly secure.  Unconvincingly, Trump suggested that 130 lawmakers “in this chamber have endorsed legislation that would bankrupt our Nation by providing free taxpayer-funded healthcare to millions of illegal aliens, forcing taxpayers to subsidize free care for anyone in the world who unlawfully crosses our borders.”

By right of reply, the opposition duties for this year fell to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. “Bullying people on Twitter doesn’t fix bridges – it burns them.” What the governor has failed to appreciate here is that bridges have a solidity a tweet does not. A set of rapidly fired words furnish fantastic distractions that can be altered at a moment’s pressing. Lacking punch, even Trump critics found Whitmer’s speech tedious.

Trump’s speeches are never to be taken as factual representations. They are merely signposted sentiments and crude displays. Unemployment is low, but job security in the United States is precarious. The stock market has been booming, but that ignores the massive underwritten expansion that arose from the injection of public moneys into the economy during the Obama years. The fiction of a healthy Wall Street independent, daring and free of the state remains a delusion with high circulation. Trump is by no means the only one to advertise that nonsense, which assures companies that their losses will be socialised, and their profits treated as acts of ingenious self-achievement.

The timing of the address was also significant, becoming a display of of both the man himself and the system he represents. On Wednesday, his impeachment trial will conclude with a Senate vote, and he is likely to remain in place. Pelosi’s rudeness was put down, in part, to the hope that she will not preside over another State of the Union from Trump. She may well live to regret saying so. The White House is certainly reminding her of that fact, claiming that the act of tearing Trump’s speech was tantamount to ripping up, “The survival of our last surviving Tuskegee Airmen”, survival of a child born at 21 weeks, families in mourning, and a “service member’s reunion with his family.”  Shallow and flawed reasoning, but substantive enough to sell.

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Muddling Democrats: Chaos in the Iowa Caucus

Whatever the claims by the Democratic pollsters on the ground, the party has all the work to do ahead of selecting a candidate to make a fist of it come November. Pity for them, then, that the opening in Iowa proved to be a spectacular shambles, notably for those obsessed with the live news cycle. The Iowa Democrats claimed that the delay in voting results across the 1765 precincts had arisen because of a “reporting issue”.  At this writing, the “results” page is barren, characterised by the glorious absence of results. The pollsters, rather than the voters, have taken the high ground.

The Iowan branch was doing its best to trumpet the value of the event, claiming that President Donald Trump was “terrified” at the prospects of losing “the Hawkeye State” come the elections. (To keep an eye on things, he had “sent near 100 of his buddies” to campaign on his behalf in the state.)  “So exciting to see high turnout – Iowa Democrats are fired up!” went one tweet. Another expressed pride that the caucus “has been more accessible this year than ever before.” 

One of the Democratic contenders for the nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, could not resist a touch of embellishment. “The whole world is looking at Iowa today. They are looking to see whether the people of Iowa are prepared to stand up and fight for justice.  Let’s win this together.” Rival contender Senator Elizabeth Warren, mindful of Trump’s state of the union speech on Tuesday, was taking things beyond the man in her address: “Our union is stronger than Donald Trump. And tonight, as a party, we are a step closer to defeating the most corrupt president in American history.”

As things slowly panned out, Warren seemed mistaken. Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Mandy McClure seems to put a dampener on everything by revealing in a statement that “inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results” had been identified. “In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate the results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report.” Mindful about the leap into conspiracy territory and accusations of foul play, she put it all down to a hiccup in reporting, rather than any malicious intrusion or hack. Suggestions that this had arisen because of a faulty app were dismissed, a view not shared by various county chairs.

Local party chairman Troy Price was hoping to give the whole show an air of fastidiousness; to be thorough was not to err. “We are validating every piece of data we have against our paper trail.” As he explained to reporters, “At this point, the [Iowa Democratic Party] is manually verifying all precinct results.  We expect to have numbers to report later today.” Former state party chair Gordon Fischer, sensing the storm of discredit enveloping the entire process, told CNN’s Gloria Borger that a delay “to make sure the results are accurate” could hardly be a bad thing.

None of this thrilled the candidates, whose personnel were getting stroppy.  Dana Remus, campaign general counsel for Joe Biden, demanded “full explanations and relevant information” in a letter sent to Price and IDP Executive Director Kevin Geiken.  No level of fastidiousness could hide the fact that a meltdown had taken place. “The app that was intended to relay Caucus results to the Party failed; the Party’s back-up telephone reporting system likewise failed. Now, we understand that Caucus Chairs are attempting to – and in many cases, failing to – report results telephonically to the Party. These acute failures are occurring statewide.”

The entire counting and reporting debacle invariably drew criticism about the very idea of having caucuses to begin with. President Barack Obama’s chief election strategist David Axelrod questioned their viability. Jim Geraghty of The National Review deemed them “a terrible way to pick a nominee. There is no secret ballot, so every nosy neighbour and busybody who prefers another candidate knows who you’re supporting.”

It was a day of non-concession speeches and not entirely convincing victory ones either. The Iowa caucus had not spoken with any clarity, but that did not prevent candidates from having a stab at the result. Senator Bernie Sanders suggested that he was ahead of former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, according to internal polling data, and doing “very, very well.”  Buttigieg, in turn, spoke of marching victorious to New Hampshire, since “all indications” pointed in that direction. “Tonight, Iowa chose a new path,” he pronounced, though adding, for good measure, that it had “shocked the nation”.

This was all money for jam for the Republicans, who now have some material to work with. “It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process,” chortled Trump campaign manager and social media specialist Brad Parscale. “And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?”

Everyone seemed to think they had won something, though Biden preferred to remain more cautious, hoping to discredit any result that will not favour his case.  In truth, the eventual victor of Iowa will have little to go on by the time New Hampshire comes around. There will be no momentum to speak of, no electoral gush to push the victorious candidate on to the next round. But the one person counting himself lucky in this opening election shot will be the man giving the state of union address on Tuesday.  “Big WIN for us in Iowa tonight. Thank you!”

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Brexit Day

London

Parliament Square is the site, muddied by rain, trodden by hundreds who have made it their celebratory space. The Leave Means Leave official website had been busy for weeks, thrilled about January 31 and the fact that Britain would finally be leaving that beastly collective they know as the European Union. Those who promised to be in attendance were the usual suspects of the Little England brigade who had been so successful in convincing citizens that leaving the European Union was tantamount to gaining one’s freedom from a stifling oppressor. Over time, the EU had become a figure no less savoury and vicious than Hitler, an achievement of branding if ever there was one.

London is ground zero for the anti-Brexit sentiment that clings to this city with depressing dedication. It is the Leavers’ primary target, and affirmation they have won. Vae victis – woe to the vanquished – is a sentiment they seem to relish, though few would know the provenance of the term. There are parties taking place celebrating the event across this wounded city, daggers into the heart of the metropolitan centre. During the day, London talkback radio was bubbling and humming with an upbeat note in the morning, occasionally moving into a state of delirium.  Some, it seemed, had already been on the sauce. Bikers for Brexit, for instance, were happy to share their views about the “revelation” that their freedom was being returned; that the “tyranny” of the European Union was finally being overthrown.

A good number of callers could not see what the fuss was all about. “We can trade with Europe; we can still trade with Europe,” suggested a sozzled David, who promised to be nursing a brandy as the celebrations commenced. But beyond trade, David’s true colours showed. The EU had been responsible for the sort of immigration that that had produced “beggars” and the “homeless” problem in Britain. No mention was made of the industrious contributions of those millions, spearheaded by the Poles.

Robert was particularly irate at the divisions. As an arch Leaver living in a Remain borough, he faced the cancellations of playdates for his children, a feeling of having contracted leprosy.  His account was marked by breezy uses of “apparently” (“Old people voted for Brexit, apparently”). But the caller was clear: he was definitely not racist, because “I’m black.”

Anecdotes seemed to be the order of the day, an easy if questionable form of data sampling. Craig from Shoreditch spoke of “the Pole, the Israeli, and the Czech” who told him what a good thing Britain was doing against a seventy-year-old effort to initiate a “global takeover”. One had to “fight the system”. This, it seemed, entailed voting for the very same man with system etched on his forehead.

By the afternoon, the mood had moderated, though still dominated by the theme of hope that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had reiterated for months. On radio, Vincenzo from Sheffield felt he had little to celebrate. He had been in Britain for four decades as had others of his generation. “They forgot us,” he lamented.  Another spoke of moving to Ireland and chasing up his business contacts there, abandoning this sceptred Isle of Idiots.

By 5 in the evening, the dissenters had vanished from Parliament Square with their mild, even defeated voices, with placards such as “We’ll be back” and “You have destroyed my future career and dreams.” Predictably, the statue of Winston Churchill found itself the subject of much attention. There were posters such as the “Restoration Bill 2020” appended at the base, a document scatterbrained and meandering in its clauses. The authors wished for all EU flags to be removed from buildings, fishing rights restored exclusively to Britain, a reinstatement of the Magna Carta and the abolition of hate-speech laws. Evidently unaware that British law and EU law have nourished and influenced each other over almost a half-century, such documents become parochial venom to direct at those in disagreement. Just to keep with that theme, a rotund gentleman, cheeks red and defiantly moving his placard around before Churchill’s indifferent gaze, was giving tips on how to tell a “Remoaner from a Remainer.” The former, spat his message, are offered money to betray their country.

There are pockets on the square gradually growing in number, but at this time, they resemble devotees of a cult. Like Sadhus in a trance, several men dance before drum beats, their eyes shut, limbs a jumble of ecstatic movements and gyration. Donald Trump-inspired imitation Stetsons are handed out, albeit sporting the Union Jack on flimsy material. Others in attendance seem to resemble an animal species preserved in a sanctuary, making Parliament Square something of a historical zoo. A man decked in full Union Jack regalia from head to toe, his dark skin and flashing grin a striking contrast to his outfit, terrifies some of those who have decided to see the spectacle.  

As the Brexiters had failed in getting their Big Ben to bong for 11 in the evening, a makeshift miniature was assembled on the square, with the more modest title of “Little Ben”. Makeshift Little Ben was plastered with “Democracy”, “Sovereignty”, boasting a small bell to sound by anybody wishing to partake. The drum attached below the small makeshift tower, which resembled a haphazard paper construction, was belted with manic delight. 

Covering the show was an entire regiment of press officials and support staff from any number of countries. They seemed as bemused as anybody else, adjusting their cameras and mikes between the statues of Churchill and Jan Smuts, with an illuminated Westminster as the backdrop. A few interviewees were already being drawn in, their eyes sparklingly enthusiastic about what is to come.

The hour duly arrived and, impressive as ever on timing, comes Nigel Farage, a man who has been paid from EU funds as a member of the European Parliament for years, yet has never won a seat in Britain’s parliament. To be paid by the enemy, it seems, is not a form of betrayal, except when others do it. “The war is over,” he declares emphatically. “The vast majority of people who voted Remain now say we’re a democratic country and its right we accept Brexit.”

The sense that this is done and dusted for those who wished to exit the EU is unshakeable. It ignores the obvious point that the machinery that will extricate Britain is still to be hammered out, sorted and implemented between British negotiators and their counterparts in Brussels. The EU strategy on this is to bring in the squeeze after those months are out, imposing what will be a form of moderated misery. January 31 is but a symbolic day; the practical cruelties and nastiness will only be felt once the transition period expires, when the bureaucrats so loathed by the populists will have their say. For now, Britain continues to pay EU dues without any representation. Not exactly independence, by any stretch of the imagination.

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Paranoid Groundings and Technocratic States: Hillary Clinton versus Mark Zuckerberg

It is another one of those contests and disagreements where the contestants should all lose, or at the very least, be subjected to a torturous stalemate. Hillary Clinton remains the nasty sprinkle on the Democratic Party in the United States, ever hopeful that some door might open to enable her to come sliding in, taking the reins to what she regards as her possession: The White House.

Not winning in 2016 against Donald Trump, a person considered less electable than most cartoon characters, requires more than sessions of therapy and good doses of mind-numbing medication. Clinton’s therapy has been one of self-denial and accusation of others, strained through a device that gives her miraculous exoneration for her own failings. That device lies in the realm of information, because this individual, renowned for her own sharp slant on it (remember those fictional sniper bullets she apparently dodged during a visit to Bosnia in 1996?), feels she has been terribly hard done by. The US may have attempted to thrown off aristocracy in becoming a republic, but it has done a good job of finding sawdust substitutes.

The dish served up to interviewers and journalists regarding Clinton’s defeat is always the same: I would have won had I not encountered the roadblocks of that impossible James B. Comey and “Russian WikiLeaks.” She remains obsessed by rites of self-purification that ignore the inner workings of the parasitic machine she and her husband created, marked by an inability to understand the blue-collar revolt that fell into Trump’s lap.

Having isolated the cause of defeat as mind controlling “fake news” and “misinformation”, a seedy strategy that ignores the information that was discomfortingly accurate in a populist election (in bed with Wall Street profiteers, the problems with free trade, foreign interventions), she sees the enemy as those who dish out information she does not like. Those who provide such material must be motivated. They must have an agenda against her, however mummified she seems to be. More to the point, having such an agenda miraculously dispenses with the need to confront the details.

This leads to her latest splenetic spray. Her claim made in an interview with The Atlantic sounds like a lingering old home rant, somewhat demented, totally resentful. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are in Trump’s pocket, she claims. This is far from a useful designation, because the only pocket Zuckerberg has ever been in is his own, and my does it go deep. She claims to have a ring side seat to reading his mind, suggesting “that it’s to his and Facebook’s advantage not to cross Trump. That’s what I believe. And it just gives me a pit in my stomach.”

The approach is very much in the mould of Clinton and builds upon the idea that facts are supposedly immutable, accept when they apply to you. But the failed candidate insists that she has found this one fact: that Facebook is “not just going to re-elect Trump, but intend[s] to re-elect Trump.” The Atlantic is thrilled to suggest a scoop on the Zuckerberg view on this.  Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is not favoured because she nurses notions of regulating Facebook. What a stunner of a revelation!

The tech behemoths have been besieged by opponents who insist they are anti-democratic and authoritarian. There are neither, being shallow information streams that merely reflect the corrugated perversions of their users, the voyagers on the Internet who do not seek to be enlightened so much as reassured. More importantly, much of that material is generated by users themselves. “Facebook is, in a sense, the world’s first technocratic nation-state,” argues Adrienne LaFrance. Missing here is the understanding that it is more akin to a city-state of information, having monetised it for use and encouraged citizen users to participate. It is of little concern to FB where such material goes; the quality of merchandise might be shonky, yet still find a buyer or user.

What Zuckerberg’s opponents never supply is a way of circumventing the tendency inherent in such companies: that they feed instinct, desire and interest. In doing so, a confusion arises; entertainment is muddled with political sensibility; information that is merely opinion serving as engagement. It has nothing to do with reasoned debate, whatever the Utopians might have thought.

What is popular is what is extreme; what ranks in searches and information is what is controversial not necessarily what is accurate. Facebook merely performs a role Roman emperors were familiar with and what the dark lord of the press world Rupert Murdoch always practised: give the people what they want, because their self-respect only rises as far as the next supplement will take them. Do readers of trashy but election turning paper The Sun wish for a critical debate format on political candidates? Does the consumer of the Facebook “feed” desire counter-narratives and a range of sources to reach a decision? The answer to both is a resounding no. The decisions are already made, prejudices merely re-enforced.

Zuckerberg, like Clinton, has his own confusions about democratic practice. He is only to be trusted the way a press mogul should be. “In general, in a democracy, I think people should be able to hear for themselves what politicians are saying,” suggests the billionaire sociopath. The principle, for all that wimpy enthusiasm, is a hard one to dismiss. But he confuses how his platform, through its algorithmic bazaar, has become the means to merely reassure people about their set views rather than change them. Facts have nothing do with it.

There are others, of course, that also exercise Clinton’s concerns. This is a person filled with vengeful regret, and it shows. She has taken against Democratic Presidential contender Tulsi Gabbard, accusing her, in the very counterfeit news she despises, of being a “Russian asset”. Gabbard has returned the serve in the way that public figures in the US love: through the courts. A defamation suit has been filed. Clinton also keeps the dagger sharp for Bernie Sanders, suggesting that “nobody likes him” (old habits die hard for Clinton) for being something she knows all too well: a career politician.

Such ruminations are not helpful for either Clinton or the Democrats. They are, however, most useful for Trump, who has, better than his opponents, found the means to deploy the mechanisms of information, accurate or otherwise, in his favour. The issue is not Zuckerberg, however attractive he seems as a target. What social media has done is provide the mass dissemination tool that makes distraction the norm and correction impossible. There is no dialogue in such a debate, because the debate has changed within a matter of hours, if not minutes. Either ban Facebook and its emissaries, or let it be. The path to regulation is already proving hopelessly messy and will, in time, prove dangerous.

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Trump’s Failed Bullying: Britain accepts 5G Huawei Technology

It is strikingly bullying and bullish. US officials have been less than reserved in their threats about what Britain’s proposed dealings with Huawei over admitting it to its 5G network might entail. Three Republican Senators – Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Cornyn of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida – have taken it upon themselves in the circus of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump to send a letter to the UK’s National Security Council, not to mention cool notes to a whole swathe of UK ministers, including the Attorney General, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Defence.

The language is terse and unequivocal. “The company’s actions show a clear record of predatory and problematic behaviour. “For the sake of the “US-UK special relationship and the health and wellbeing of a well-functioning market,” it was “in the best interest of the United Kingdom” to exclude Huawei.

The letter is also noteworthy for doing the opposite of what it claims to. “We do not want to feed post-Brexit anxieties by threatening a potential US-UK free trade agreement when it comes to Congress for approval. Nor do we want to have to review US-UK intelligence sharing.” Except that they do.

Within the Trump administration, officials are also keen to sound the note of warning, flavoured with threat, though the voice is a touch discordant. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is a regular on the critical circuit warning that admitting Huawei to the fold is much like admitting thieves to the party. But were Huawei to be scrubbed from contention of applying its 5G technology to Britain, the US would “dedicate a lot of resources” of getting a trade deal done and dusted with it.

Those in London know that a hypocrisy is in the making. Despite the righteous stand being maintained in Congress and some in the Trump administration, opponents against a full freezing out of Huawei can be found. They have sanctuary in the Departments of Defense and Treasury. The concern here, as the Wall Street Journal notes, is that not allowing US firms to ship to Huawei will squeeze revenue in a competitive market. For one thing, it will chill progress in research in the field that might enable money and research to be spent on developing better alternatives. According to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, “We have to be conscious of sustaining those [technology] companies’ supply chains and those innovators. That’s the balance we have to strike.”

Keeping up their letter writing obsession on Huawei, Rubio and Cotton, this time with Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska to keep them company, badgered Esper for an explanation. “Huawei is an arm of the Chinese Communist Party and should be treated as such.”

The British have been rather surly on this; the suggestion that the US have priority in being listened to over a balanced deal that might be struck with a dominant Chinese company, albeit heavily subsided by an authoritarian regime, is grating. Besides, no UK official would willingly compromise the digital channels of communications with Washington by letting in a potential digital burglar. The approach of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as with much else, is to puzzle and dare.

On Tuesday, Johnson approved the limited use of Huawei equipment in the country’s fifth-generation mobile phone networks, albeit designating it a “high risk vendor.” (The designation suggests that Britain’s ministers are concerned enough to regard the company as subject to Beijing’s direction). The UK National Security Council signed off on the arrangement, but only to a market share of 35 percent within the 5G infrastructure.

Sensitive core functions will also remain out of reach for the Chinese giant, including networks in the Critical National Infrastructure and “sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases.” According to a government press release, UK ministers “determined that UK operators should put in place additional safeguards to exclude high risk vendors from parts of the telecoms network that are critical to security.” Guidance on the matter will be sought from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

Some concession has been made by means of a promise on the part of the UK that its ministers liaise with fellow “five eyes” alliance members – US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – on developing alternatives in future.

The true victor here is Huawei, even if the victory seems clipped. It is being treated as the innovator-in-chief in a technology market that has become addictive and hyper-competitive. To ban Huawei is to spit in the face of speedy progress. To ban Huawei, goes this line of reasoning, is to prevent the development of 5G and cognate broadband technologies by anywhere up to two or three years.

We are also left with some speculation as to how the technology developments will unfold. As ITV’s political editor Robert Peston maintains with relevant acuity, “The problem is that for 5G, important data processing – such as for a new generation of driverless cars – may well migrate outside of the core network to the periphery.”

The gamble being made here, as Peston reiterates, is that Huawei’s market share falls over time, something that can only happen if the UK brings in other providers (Samsung and NEC) and make all equipment interoperable. Given Britain’s fabulously bad record in dealing with such infrastructure decisions, marked by bungles and poor choices, this is anybody’s bet.

The sense of British pride, mighty as it is, is evident. While they remain dupes of international relations politics when it comes to backing Washington on various fronts, the Huawei threat was one step too far. Perhaps it said as much about Washington’s fears than it does about Britain’s own confidence: that it can strike a balance with Huawei better than others can. As the Johnson government boasts, the NCSC had “carried a technical and security analysis” that offered “the most detailed assessment in the world of what is needed to protect the UK’s digital infrastructure.” Huawei may well burst that bubbly presumption in time.

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Split Hearings: The Assange Extradition Case Drags On

It is being increasingly larded with heavy twists and turns, a form of state oppression in slow motion, but the Julian Assange extradition case now looks like it may well move into the middle of the year, dragged out, ironically enough, by the prosecution. Curiously, this is a point that both the prosecutors, fronted by the US imperium, and the WikiLeaks defence team, seem to have found some inadvertent agreement with. This is the biggest case of its kind, and will determine, for an era, how journalism and the publication of nationally classified information is treated. Neither wish to misstep in this regard.  

The last procedural hearing ahead of the full extradition trial of Assange over 17 counts of espionage and one of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion was trained on the issue of logistics. The prosecutors seemed to be bellyaching in their discontent, lamenting matters of availability for their staff. One striking example concerned the US government’s chief barrister, James Lewis, who would be taken up with a trial in Northern Ireland of “a great deal of substance and importance”. This would make him unavailable for up to three months after the commencement of the extradition case.

Clair Dobbin, representing the US, was the first to make an application that the substantive hearing be split. Various legal rulings, she argued, would have to be made subsequent to the full February proceedings, including the ticklish issue of whether certain witnesses were to remain anonymous or not. WikiLeaks wishes that they remain so; the prosecution would like that cloak removed. 

Despite already furnishing the court with a meaty affidavit, Dobbin claimed that more needed to be done in responding to the defence evidence. (Good of them to give a sense of formality that are doing so.) Besides all that, experts sought by the prosecution were “extremely busy practitioners and academics with very full diaries”, many still chewing over the issue of where Assange fitted in the security paradigm. This statement of itself is odd, as is so much of the entire effort against the WikiLeaks publisher.

Procedural dragging was also a matter of importance for the Assange team. Despite working with manic dedication over Christmas, the issue of access remains crippling for the defence. “We simply cannot get in as we require to see Mr Assange and to take his instruction,” argued one of Assange’s lawyers, Edward Fitzgerald. “Frankly, we require more time before calling the main body of our evidence.”

The point of journalism, and its legitimate pursuit in this nasty, brutish and rather long encounter, lies at the heart of the battle. The framing of the US indictment purports to negate journalism as a factor in the case, with the prosecutors honing in on the issue of espionage and hacking. Spies cannot be journalists, so goes the claim; espionage and publication should not be seen as comparable or even linked matters. This very claim suggests that any form of national security journalism, the sort that exposes abuses of power, is illegal.

This round of submissions merely confirmed the point, though it is one sharpened to specifically exclude foreigners. In other words, press protections enshrined by the First Amendment of the US Constitution cannot apply to non-US nationals, a daringly dangerous assertion.  

As WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson crisply put it, “We have now learned from submissions and affidavits presented by the United States to the court that they do not consider foreign nationals to have a first amendment protection.” To the AAP, he surmised that the US had also “decided that they can go after journalists wherever they are residing in the world, they have universal jurisdiction, and demand extradition like they are doing by trying to get an Australian national from the UK from publishing that took place outside US borders.”  

The US case also insists that, should the extradition be successful, Assange will be subject to that troubling euphemism of “special administrative measures”. Even in a bureaucratic penal system, such language entails a formal and legal disappearance of the subject.

Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi suggests with understandable gloominess that “Pandora’s box will open” if the prosecutors make their case fly in court. The extradition of an Australian or Italian journalist by the US would just as easily justify the same action by Saudi Arabia and Russia. This terrifying precedent is reiterated as a distinct possibility across the spectrum of commentary, an extra-territorial extension of US power to punish the world’s scribblers, bloggers and publishers.  

The outcome of this set of stuttered proceedings seemed to irritate District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who conceded to the split, but sternly spoke of disfavour regarding any other requests for moving dates. She did relent to another case management hearing scheduled for February 19. The full extradition hearing is now set to open on February 24 at London’s Woolwich Crown Court, adjourning after one week, then continuing on May 18 with a three-week hearing. The chess pieces in this critical encounter have again been moved.

In this dark turn, a smattering of light seemed to shine through. Having been held in withering solitary confinement in the prison medical wing of Belmarsh, news came that Assange will be moved to an area with other inmates. Joseph Farrell of WikiLeaks described it as “a dramatic climbdown”, “a huge victory for Assange’s legal team and for campaigners, who have been insisting for weeks that the prison authorities end the punitive treatment of Assange.” The same could not be said about legal and medical access, both of which have been sorely lacking.

The decision to initiate the move seems to have sprung from prisoners within Belmarsh itself. The prison governor has been petitioned on no less than three occasions by a group of convicts insisting that the treatment being afforded Assange smacked of injustice. Human rights activist Craig Murray subsequently reflected on this “small victory for basic humanity – and it took criminals to teach it to the British state.”  

Such victories in penal terms do tend to be mixed. Assange will hope that those inmates he keeps company remain sympathetic to his cause. The new quarters will house some 40 of them, and the risks to his being remain. Even in prison, Assange’s case and plight never cease to astonish.

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Diminishing Returns: Calculated Misery in Air Travel

If there comes a point when people will decide not to fly, the issue may well be less to do with any moral or ethical issue with climate change than the fact that commercial flights have become atrocious. They are naked money-making concerns with diminishing returns on quality. The key factor that plays out here is what economists like to term inelastic demand. Prices can be raised; service quality can be reduced, but customers will keep coming. The demand remains, even if the supply leaves much to be desired.

The phenomenon is distinct over the long-haul carriers, which have, at least until recently, been spared the stripping phenomenon. Singapore Airlines, which prides itself for an almost aristocratic bearing towards its customers, proved skimp its Melbourne to Singapore leg. An insulting sampling of “toasties” was offered as a starter, a culinary outrage that did not go unnoticed. Indian passengers who had selected special meals in advance were on the money; pungent curries and dhal filled the cabin as this ridiculous excuse of a meal was handed out to customers. A few desperate, and disgusted punters asked the flight attendants if there were spare vegetarian options.

Budget airlines may have something to explain in this regard. The revolution of the cheap fare came with the reduction of expectations. No-frills travel came with a certain contempt on the part of the service providers: food and drink would no longer be gratis; seat allocations would have to be purchased in advance and check-in or carry-on luggage would have to be paid for. A turning point was Dublin-based Ryanair’s attempt to go easy on toilet numbers – one per aircraft – and charge customers for their use. As the company’s penny-pinching CEO Michael O’Leary said at the time, “We rarely use all three toilets on board our aircraft anyway.” Bladders be damned.

Instead of aspiring to a higher level of service, the traditionalists have voted to go down a notch or three. What budget airlines do badly, we can do worse. The law of diminishing returns is pushing all air travel carriers downwards in what has been seen to be an exercise of “calculated misery”. The experience is appalling and unpleasant, but need not necessarily be intolerable. The result is a curious revision of the term “upgrade”. As Alex Abad-Santos laments in Vox, passengers upgrade their seats, not to get a more spectacular service or experience, but “to avoid hell.”

Managing such misery is hardly original, though Tim Wu of Columbia Law School can be credited for giving a good overview of it when writing in 2014 for The New Yorker. “Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs to be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as ‘calculated misery’. Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.”

Nothing says such suffering than crammed economy seats on a long-haul flight. Shoulders and arms are jammed; legs can barely move. The trend was such that Bill McGee, a writer with more than a passing acquaintance with the airline industry, would note, referring to the United States, that the most spacious economy seats “you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Things are not much better in terms of the European market. Mediocrity mixes with indifference, even on flights which are half-full. A flight from London Heathrow to Copenhagen with Scandinavian Airlines was characterised by a certain snooty indifference on the part of the flight attendants. Much babbling was taking place in Finnish – why would you want to assist passengers? Little by way of interest in the customers was afforded. Curt instructions were issued; requests for coffee were received with glacial stares. Naturally, to receive a meal and drink that wasn’t water that had seen better days required forking out of the plastic fantastic. Gone are the days when international airlines behaved as such, wishing to make matters decent, comfortable and even pleasantly bearable; the European air space finds itself populated by the stingy and the tight-belted.

Commercial airlines from SAS to Singapore Airlines have taken whole sheafs of extortion from the budget airline book of making customers pay for selecting seats. The stress here is budget service at caviar prices. This cheeky form of thieving imposes a cost on the act of jumping the queue for a better place on the flight. And this is not all. You book a ticket with a flight, only to find at the airport that you had purchased a “light” version, meaning that you have to pay for carry-on luggage.

High time for a customer revolt, but the industry is distinctly programmed. Even when airlines have been well disposed to their customers, such as JetBlue, the corporate monsters of Wall Street have howled. It’s bad form to provide decent service within reasonable expectations. Efficiency, and filling the seats, is what matters, whatever the quality. Fee-free services, being conscious of the brand and a “customer-focussed” approach was simply not on. Eventually, JetBlue caved in and joined the market of calculated misery.

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