The Kosovo Blunder: Moves Towards a Standing Army

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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 Kosovo Blunder: Moves Towards a Standing Army

There never is a time not to worry in the Balkans. The next conflict always seems to be peering around the corner with a malicious enthusiasm, eager to spring at points of demagogic advantage and personal suffering. The centrepieces of future disaster in the region tend to be Kosovo and Bosnia. The former is now intent on formalising military arrangements, thereby fashioning a spear that will be able to be driven deep through the heart of Serbian pride.

On Friday, the Assembly of Kosovo passed three draft laws with overwhelming numbers that it would form an army. (Serbian lawmakers boycotted the session.) The current Kosovo Security Force of 3,000 lightly armed personnel is to become somewhat more formidable: 5,000 active troops backed by 3,000 reservists in the next decade. This move was brazenly chest beating in nature, an assertion that security, as provided by the 4,000 NATO troops forming KFOR (the Kosovo Force), was inadequate and, more to the point, to be bypassed altogether.

It also came as a calculated assault, timed to bruise Serbians in Kosovo – numbering some 120,000 – and politicians in Belgrade, suggesting a marked change from negotiations some three months prior. Then, it seemed that a land swap offer was in the making, one that would have reflected the relevant though tense ethnic composition in the region: the Preševo Valley in southern Serbia, predominantly Albanian, would join Kosovo; Serbia would re-establish dominion over the majority ethnic-Serb area of Kosovo to the north of the River Ibar.

Things subsequently soured. Kosovo had already agreed to raise a 100 percent tariff on imports from Serbia, a move that is economically insensible but parochially clear. Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj justified the action by blaming Belgrade’s efforts to foil his bid in admitting Kosovo to Interpol. Aggression from Belgrade was cited on all fronts: from the seething Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj; from the foreign ministry (“abusive” lobbying by Serbia was cited); and from the prime minister himself.

To have such an army will be another feather in the cap of Kosovo’s aims to consolidate its sovereign credentials and sever the umbilical cord with Belgrade. The danger here, as ever, is how the ethnic Serbs, backed by their indignant patrons, will respond. Haradinaj’s caper here is to claim that the forces will be “multi-ethnic, in service of its own citizens, in function of peace, alongside other regional armies, including the Serbian Army, in having partnership for peace.” His officials also insist on a modest role for the new army, one dedicated to “search and rescue operations, explosive ordnance disposal, fire fighting and hazardous material disposal.” Nothing, in short, to have kittens over.

The region is already suffering a form of legal schizophrenia, one designed by the legal and security arrangements more befitting an asylum than a functioning state. Countries in Europe facing their own separatist dilemmas have been steadfast in not recognising Kosovo. Unsurprisingly, Spain is foremost amongst them. In January, the Spanish foreign ministry expressed the view that Kosovo be kept out of any plans for Western Balkans enlargement. “The concept of ‘WB6’ does not fit the enlargement dynamic. Kosovo is not part of the enlargement process and has its own differentiated framework.”

In reality, the Kosovar Albanians know they can count on much support within European ranks: the appetite for protecting Serbian interests was long lost during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Lauded defenders became demonised butchers. Kosovo assumed the form of a pet project, one to be nurtured by Western European and US interests under the fictional tent of humanitarianism. Invariably, Serbia sought support from Russia and China, both of whom steadfastly rejected the 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

For Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, speaking in Trstenik on Thursday, “Kosovo and Metohija is to us great torment, especially because of Pristina’s move and the announcement of the formation of an army, which is neither based on law nor on Resolution 1244.” Serbia’s foreign minister, Ivica Daičić deemed the formation of any such army “the most direct threat to peace and stability in the region.”

Such instances are open invitations to violence. The Kosovo authorities are keen to wave the red flag; Serbian authorities risk running at it with frothing intensity. There is also a fear that this move has received conventional prodding, this time from the United States. “Everything Pristina is doing,” according to Vučić, “it is obviously doing with the support of the United States. They have no right under international legal document to form armed formations; to us, that’s illegal, and we will inform the public about further steps.”

The assertion is not without foundation. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) is clear that the guarantor of security in the region be KFOR. “Hence,” goes a statement from a spokesman for the UN Secretary General, “any restriction to the discharge by KFOR of its security responsibilities would be inconsistent with that resolution.” But the bad behaviour of small entities such as Kosovo often takes place at the behest of greater powers, and US ambassador to Kosovo Philip Kosnett has openly stated that it was “only natural for Kosovo as a sovereign, independent country to have a self-defence capability.”

Lieutenant Colonel Sylejman Cakaj, who had cut his milk teeth on fighting Serbia as a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1999, seemed to have drunk a juice heavy with political overtones. “We are all seeing a geo-strategic changes in the world, towards the creation of a somewhat new world order. I believe it is necessary that following the consolidation of its statehood, Kosovo has its army too… the one that we are entitled to as representatives of the people, to be in control of our country.” The shudder amongst ethnic Serbs at such remarks is palpable, and the fear here is whether Belgrade will catch a terrible cold.

The response from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was more one of remorse than decisive anger. “I regret that the decision to initiate a change of the Kosovo Security Force mandate was made despite concerns expressed by NATO.” The “level of NATO’s engagement with the Kosovo Security Force” would have to be re-examined.

While patriotic foolishness should never be discounted in any factor in the region, the Kosovo Albanians have been emboldened. The wait-and-see game about whether Serbian forces are deployed to protect Kosovar Serbs is afoot. As former Serbian military commander Nebojša Jović warned with thick ominousness, “What they [the Kosovo Albanians] should know from our history is that there was never a ‘small war’ in these territories. Every time there was a conflict in Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija, it turned into a war on a bigger scale and none of us here want this.”

Be Offensive and Be Damned: The Cases of Peter Ridd and Tim Anderson

It has been an ordinary year for universities in Australia. While the National Tertiary Education Union pats itself on the back for supposedly advancing the rights and pay of academics, several face removal and castigation at the hands of university management. Consumerism and pay are the sort of quotidian matters that interest the NTEU. Less interesting is the realm of academic ideas and how they clash with the bureaucratic prisons that have been built into universities.

At James Cook University, Peter Ridd was sacked on “code of conduct” grounds applied with a delightful elasticity. He claimed that it was for holding views on climate change out of step with his colleagues, and attacking the credibility of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. (The pettiness of such institutions knows no bounds: Ridd’s knuckles were wrapped, for instance, for satirising, trivialising or parodying the university.)

At the University of Sydney, Tim Anderson, a full-time critic of Western interventions in the Middle East and acquitted for ordering the 1978 Sydney Hilton Hotel bombing, has been suspended pending what would seem to be imminent sacking. Causing “offense” was what mattered.

A cardinal rule applies in this case: Be suspicious of those who use good behaviour as a criterion of policing, notably in an environment where bad behaviour and dangerous ideas should hold sway over meek bumbling and submissiveness. Be wary of the demands to be vanilla and beige – behind them lies administrative venality and the dictates of compliance.

Such rubbery provisions as being “civil” or not causing offense shield the weak, spineless and fraudulent and, most dangerously, create the very same intolerable workplace that managers are supposedly opposed to. Very importantly, such code of conduct regulations are designed to immunise management from questions about their behaviour and often daft directives, letting institutions grow flabby with corruption. Inoculated, that class thrives in its toxicity.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor of JCU, Iain Gordon, has drawn upon the usual stock nonsense defending the decision regarding Ridd. “The issue has never been about Peter’s right to make statements – it’s about how he has continually broken a code of conduct that we would expect all our staff to stick to, to create a safe, respectful professional workplace.” The thrust of this is simple: Never cause offense; be compliantly decent; be cripplingly dull and go back to your homes in your suburbs living a life unexamined. As an academic, you are merely delivering a service mandated by individuals several steps removed from the education process, not performing an ancient duty to educate mankind.

The code of conduct, the product of a corporatized imbecility, assumes the mantle of dogma in such disputes. “All staff members must comply with the Code of Conduct,” goes Gordon’s official statement in May, with its distinct politburo flavour of placing things beyond debate. “This is non-negotiable.  It is a fundamental duty and obligation that forms part of their employment.” Ridd, explains Gordon, “sensationalised his comments to attract attention, has criticised and denigrated published work, and has demonstrated a lack of respect for his colleague and institutions in doing so. Academic rebuttal of his scientific views on the reef has been separately published.”

Anderson, having found himself at stages in the University of Sydney’s bad books, has also run the gauntlet of offensiveness. The specific conduct resulting in his suspension featured lecture materials shown to students suggesting the imposition of a swastika upon Israel’s flag. This was deemed “disrespectful and offensive, and contrary to the university’s behavioural expectations”. Tut, tut, Anderson.

The Sydney University provost and acting vice-chancellor Stephen Garton followed the line taken at JCU towards Ridd with zombie-like predictability. “The university has, since its inception, supported and encouraged its staff to engage in public debate and it has always accepted that those views might be controversial.” But debate – and here, behavioural fetters were again to be imposed – had to be undertaken “in a civil manner.” Contrarianism should be expressed with a good measure of decency.

Tim Anderson

The letter of suspension from Garton to Anderson is one-dimensionally authoritarian. Principles of academic freedom were supported by the university, but only in “accordance with the highest ethical, professional and legal standards.” But the all supreme, and trumping document, remained the Code of Conduct, capitalised by the bureaucrats as Mosaic Law. “The inclusion of the altered image of the Israeli flag in your Twitter Posts, Facebook Posts and teaching materials is disrespectful and offensive, and contrary to the University’s behavioural expectations and requirements for all staff.”

Some heart can be taken from the protest last Friday on the part of 30 academics who signed an open letter objecting to the treatment meted out to Anderson, stating that academic freedom was “meaningless if it is suspended when its exercise is deemed offensive.” His suspension pending termination of his employment was “an unacceptable act of censorship and a body-blow to academic freedom at the University of Sydney.” Reaction to Ridd has been somewhat cooler.

The point with Anderson is that his views are deemed bad for university business, which tolerates no room for the offensive. This, in a place where the most varied, and, at points, tasteless views, should be expressed. But as universities have become shabby entrepreneurial endeavours which see students as obesely delicious milch cows for their existence, the idea is less important than the process.

As is so often the case of free speech, advocates of it always assume it doesn’t apply to others. It is only to be extolled as a mark on paper and university policy. But never, for instance, challenge inane university policy or the hacks who implement it. Never ridicule ideas that deserve it. Never mock the obscene nature of managerialism’s central principle: massaged incompetence and assured decline. University managers and the colourless suits aided by their ill-tutored human resources goon squads tend to hold sway over opinions, taking against anybody who questions certain aspects of their (non)performance.

The Ridd and Anderson cases, coming from separate parts of the academic spectrum, demonstrate the prevalence of toadyism on the part of those who wish to avoid questioning the rationale of a university’s management process. They also suggest an immemorial tendency of authority to savagely oppress those who ignore it; to manifest its existence through punishment. In truth, it is precisely in ignoring those officials long barnacled upon the research and teaching endeavours of the University and drawing revenue best spent on students and scholars that a grave sin is committed. Such officialdom should be ignored, treated as the bureaucratic irrelevance that it is. Time for sit-ins, occupations, boycotts and a retaking of the University.

William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate

In the incessant self-praise of the US imperial project, kept safe in a state of permanently enforced amnesia, occasional writings prod and puncture. Mark Twain expressed an ashamed horror at the treatment of the Philippines; Ulysses Grant, despite being a victorious general of the Union forces in the Civil War and US president, could reflect that his country might, someday, face its comeuppance from those whose lands had been pinched.

In the garrison state that emerged during the Cold War, the New Left provided antidotes of varying strength to the illusion of a good, faultless America, even if much of this was confined to university campuses. Mainstream newspaper channels remained sovereign and aloof from such debates, even if the Vietnam War did, eventually, bite.

The late William Blum, former computer programmer in the US State Department and initial enthusiast for US moral crusades, gave us various exemplars of this counter-insurgent scholarship. His compilation of foreign policy ills in Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, was written with the US as sole surveyor of the land, all powerful and dangerously uncontained. To reach that point, it mobilised such familiar instruments of influence as the National Endowment for Democracy and the School of the Americas, a learning ground for the torturers and assassins who would ply their despoiling trade in Latin America. The imperium developed an unrivalled military, infatuated with armaments, to deal with its enemies. Forget the canard, insists Blum, of humanitarian intervention, as it was espoused to justify NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

His Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II, remains his best and potently dispiriting affair, one in which Washington and its Christian warriors sought to battle the “International Communist Conspiracy” with fanatical, God-fearing enthusiasm. In this quest, foreign and mostly democratically elected governments were given the heave-ho with the blessings of US intervention. Food supplies were poisoned; leaders were subjected to successful and failed assassinations (not so many were as lucky as Cuba’s Fidel Castro); the peasantry of countries sprayed with napalm and insecticide; fascist forces and those of reaction pressed into the service of Freedom’s Land.

The squirrelling academic, ever mindful of nuts, has been less willing to embrace Blum. This has, to some extent, been aided by such curious instances as the mention, by one Osama bin Laden, of Rogue State in a recording that emerged in 2006. “If I were president I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently.” Sales surged at this endorsement from the dark inspiration behind September 11, 2001. “This is almost,” observed Blum wryly, “as good as being an Oprah book.”

Killing Hope, praised by various high priests in academe on its initial release in 1986, morphed. Various extensions and additions were not approved. Blum, considering the US in its vicious full bloom of the post-Cold War, saw the wickedness of the market in Eastern European countries, the hand of US power in sabotaging negotiations between the Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia that led to an ongoing murderous conflict, and ongoing mischief in the Middle East (the Syrian Civil War, sponsored jihadists).

Much of this, admittedly, finds an audience, if only for the fact that it excuses, to some extent, local factors and failings. Students of imperial history tend to forget the manipulations of local elites keen to ingratiate themselves and sort out problems with the aid of a foreign brute. It is worth pointing out that, in the vastness of US power, a certain incompetence in exercising it has also prevailed.

But the groves of the academy have tended to sway away from Blum for many of the usual reasons: tenure, security and treading carefully before the imperium’s minders. “It merits mention,” poses Julia Muravska, very keen to mind her P’s and Q’s before the academic establishment as a doctoral candidate, “that after the release of the last majorly revised edition in 1995, successive versions of Killing Hope have largely passed under the radar of mainstream punditry and academia, but remained stalwartly cherished not only in left-leaning circles, but also amongst conspiracy theorists and fringe commentators.”

Such is the damning strategy here: to be credible, you must wallow in mainstream acceptance and gain acknowledgement from the approving centre; to be at the fringe is to not merely to be unaccepted but unacceptable. Amnesia is a funny old thing. While Blum’s scholarship at points had the failings of overstretch, a counteracting zeal, his overall polemics, and advocacy, were part of a tradition that continues to beat in an assortment of publications that challenge the central premises of US power.

Much of Blum’s takes remain dangerously pertinent. “Fake news” has assumed a born-again relevance, when it should simply be termed measured disinformation, one that the CIA and its associates engaged in, and still do, with varying degrees of success. The Russians hardly deserve their supposed monopoly on the subject, though they are handy scapegoats.

Blum did well to note an absolute pearler by way of example: the efforts of the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination and the US Post Office to solicit a letter writing campaign in 1948 to influence the course of Italy’s 1948 elections. American Italians, or so it was thought, were mobilised to swamp the mother country with warnings of atheistic communism and the threat it posed to Catholic authority. Should Italy turn red, US largesse and aid would stop flowing to a country still suffering from the ills of war. Italians known to have voted communist would not be permitted to enter the US.

Some individuals, guided by samples run in newspapers, offered specimens, but it soon became a campaign featuring “mass-produced, pre-written, postage paid form letters, cablegrams, ‘educational circulars’ and posters, needing only an address and signature.” Italian political parties, generally those of centre, could count on the CIA for a helpful contribution.

Empire remains a terrible encumbrance, draining and ruining both the paternal centre and its patronised subjects. It is a salient reminder as to why Montesquieu insisted on the durability of small republics, warning against aggrandizement. Doing so produces the inevitable, vengeful reaction. As Blum surmised, “The thesis in my books and my writing is that anti-American terrorism arises from the behaviour of US foreign policy. It is what the US government does which angers people all over the world.” To that end, his mission, as described to the Washington Post in an interview in 2006, has been one of, if not ending the American empire, then “at least slowing down” or “injuring the beast.”

Seventy Years of Aspiration: Rights Charters and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

It was a gathering of activists masquerading as deep thinkers. Ostensibly, it was to celebrate seven decades of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one devised in the aftermath of a traumatised world and easier to do so for that fact. But this gathering on Lonsdale Street, Melbourne which featured irritatingly optimistic speakers showed the lamentable weaknesses in the human rights project. Human rights continues to be ever susceptible to personalisation and haggling, a manipulated concept that all too often serves the select.

Human rights remains as much fashion and political statement. In Australia, the idea that such rights have struck with the political classes is a very flimsy notion indeed. A country that praises itself constantly as a paragon of freedoms and liberties is bound to find common ground with those people’s democracies who insist on keeping political prisoners and confining individuals indefinitely. Australia’s record on matters regarding the UDHR remains abysmal: indefinite detention regimes outsourced and funded on tropical Pacific islands; permitted, open-ended control regimes for those who have served their time in prison yet still remain a matter of interest to the state; and various infractions committed after September 11, 2001 in anti-terrorist operations.

Rights documents, be they the universal declaration itself or a charter that might embed those provisions, is also politically difficult to sell. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd received the report from Father Frank Brennan on having a Human Rights Act he insisted, rather uncharitably, that he had been served a shit sandwich. (Scatological references were a favourite theme with him.) Despite going through the exercise of having such a consultation committee, the project for a human rights act would be shelved; the sense that Australia remains resistant to such abstract notions as free speech and privacy remains strong. Many thanked their stars that the decision by Rudd had essentially set back the discussion of rights in Australia by a generation.

The Charter of Rights movement is yet another grouping of human rights activists and lawyers in Australia attempting to encourage the country’s citizens to embrace something tantamount to a Bill of Rights. It uses the bland measures of advertising and mild condescension, more in the hope that citizens will succumb to the sheer power of persuasion.

But even these advocates cannot, nor want to see the implications of having a firm, entrenched civil and political rights document immune from the predations of Parliament. Shen Narayanasamy, Human Rights Campaign director at the lobby group GetUp!, managed a sneer at the idea of free speech, largely because it was the sort that might be embraced by affronted conservatives and self-satisfied bigots. 

Lee Carnie of the Human Rights Law Centre, a fellow panellist, argued that any charter would necessarily have to be subordinate to the wishes of Parliament. The “legislative dialogue model”, as it is termed, still privileges the role of that all-powerful, and often erratic body, one that can imprison, separate from the judiciary, any citizen or resident who supposedly impugns and impairs its functions. Parliament, notably one run by majoritarian instincts, remains a constant threat to the liberties of the citizenry.

Such views seem to come from the harsh bottlebrush of Australian suspicion: we have rights, but these are revocable by the whim of the legislature; we have rights,but these are susceptible to modification by judicial and parliamentary fiat. The result is a rather meagre appreciation for the very idea of rights, one stifled by process.

What, then, are Australians left with? The Universal Declaration, or what lawyers suggestively term “soft law”, comes to mind. As “soft” law, it should not be treated as irrelevant and without utility; its crawling influence has been significant and long lasting, even if removed from any direct enforceable mechanism. It is not the stuff to make black letter lawyers swoon; in some cases, it causes them considerable bowel disruptions of discomfort. 

In the words of Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “It has withstood the tests of passing years, and the advent of dramatic new technologies and social, political and economic developments that its drafters would have foreseen.” As the United Nations information site claims,“the UDHR has inspired a rich body of legally binding international human rights treaties.” With confidence the organisation insists that “more than 80 international human rights treaties and declarations, a great number of regional human rights conventions, domestic human rights bills and constitutional provisions” have been birthed in that vortex of inspired drafting.    

Scepticism and criticism of it remain. It has been accused of ethnocentrism,Western-oriented tendencies and presumptuousness. Ajamu Baraka sees the document as nobly inspired but hopelessly applied, historically bound and shackled to bad habits of history. “The historic project temporarily diverted by the war as a result of the German bringing the horrors colonial domination unleashed by the European invasion of what become the ‘America’s’ in 1492, back to Europe, and applied to other Europeans.” (He avoids any mention of Japanese brutalities and the World War undertaken in the East which had its own variant of domination at play.) His suggestion is one of decolonising the declaration.

Aspirational gloss has always been central to such a document; application continues to be, if not poor, then non-existent in some cases. We are left with the imperfect callings of soft law, one that seeks to move and germinate, rather than becoming, in of itself, an enforceable document it can never hope to be. 

Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Immemorial Divisions

“Of course there’s one Spain. If there was another, we’d all be in that one.” (Joke on Franco’s Spain, in LondonReview of Books, 37, July, 2015).

Beware the corpse that never truly expires. General Francisco Franco might well been tombed in the Valley of the Fallen (Vallede los Caídos) – at least for the moment – but his remains are set for exhumation, to be disturbed on the wishes of Spain’s socialist government ledby Pedro Sánchez. Fernando Martínez of the Justice Ministry, entrusted with handling matters on the delicate subject of historical memory, explains the rationale. “In a democratic society, there cannot be a dictator who is the subject of homages, or whose tomb is a site of fascist pilgrimage, or who has a monument in his honour.”

This might be all well and good, though it tends to jar with the delicate transition process Spain endured in the 1970s. It also sits uncomfortably with voters,whether as a priority or as a necessity. Sigma Dos, in a July poll for the daily El Mundo, found a mere 41 percent of Spaniards in agreement with moving the remains,while 54 percent also felt that the issue was not of importance at this time. 

What came after the general’s death was a matter of political juggling, as much a case of rehearsed, and encouraged amnesia, as it did archiving matters of the mind. This form of forgetting had much practice, perfected by Franco himself before his death through what was termed “recuperation”. Reconciliation was off the books, though Franco, in his last message, sought “pardon of all my enemies, as I pardon with all my heart all those who declared themselves my enemy, although I did not consider them to be so.”

To attain the goal of democracy came with its own distasteful compromises, not least of all an acceptance that Francoist officials would be left untouched by any prosecuting process. Victims of Franco’s Spain duly felt confined to the status of víctimas de segunda –“second class citizens”, contributing to the new, and reformed country, in painful silence.

There have been attempts to edge towards confronting the bloody past of the Civil War and Franco’s legacy. In 2000, unmarked graves of the Civil War began being opened at the behest of such organisations as the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. Eight years later, Judge Baltasar Garzón embarked on his own mission to investigate Franco’s blood-soaked handiwork, deemed by him crimes against humanity. 

Garzón subsequently found himself in hot water, accused of knowingly exceeding his powers in ignoring the Amnesty law of 1977 injuncting any effort to initiate prosecutions against Francoists. In February 2012, the Supreme Court of Spain affirmed the law had a barring effect on the investigating efforts, though the enthusiastic examining magistrate was cleared at trial in a case brought by three right-wing organisations, including Franco’s own party, Falange España. It is a testament to the stubbornly vibrant legacy of Franco’s memory that Garzón could mount prosecutions against terrorists and authoritarian figures such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, but fall foul of the dead generalissimo.

From the Valley of the Fallen, where he resides in sombre reminder about wars and divisions, where then? Franco’s seven grandchildren, preferring the status quo, filed a petition with the Ombudsman’s Office in October to stop the move.

Failing that, the grandchildren insisted that a 2010 decree entitles Franco to be buried with full military honours with the whole complement of “national anthem, volley shots and a canon gun salute”. This might be, pardon the pun,ceremonial overkill, given that Franco already received one after he died in November 1975, an occasion marked by his coffin’s journey from the Victory Archin La Moncloa in Madrid to the Valley of the Fallen monument.

The monument itself attests to the slaughter between 1936 and 1939, Europe’s own variant of Syria’s current civil war where a state withers before ravishment and military molestation. It saw the collapse of the Republican government at the hands of Franco’s Falangists and paramilitaries bent on a Christian reclamation,and the death of hundreds of thousands, 33,000 of whom are buried on the site. Powers such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany could test their arms against army personnel and civilians; hypocrisy and cant ruled in the corridors of state across Europe. While Franco himself remained unmistakably adorned with his marker at the monument, his identity as victor known to all, most remain unmarked. To name would be to give suffering an identity, and render loss intimate.

The family’s plea now is to have the remains interred in the La Almudena cathedral,the very notion of which is unnerving to those of Spain’s political divide who fear a pro-Franco resurgence. To do so would also go against the object of this entire, potentially risky exercise, which is to de-sacralise and demystify the Franco cult. Franco, at least symbolically placed outside the perimeter of the capital, would find himself buried at its heart.

This newly invigorated drive has received some added momentum with the rise of a new political right in Spain. Since Franco’s death, Spain has kept host, in some minor form, to right-wing pretenders calling for the return of a strongman  undaunted by the effete effects of democracy. Fuerza Nueva, España 2000 and Democracía Nacional can count themselves amongst them. Previously, goes one line of reasoning onthis, there was no need for a larger neo-fascist following, if only because, in Dan Hancox’s words,“the political, bureaucratic and ideological legacy of Francoism lives on in the mainstream of Spanish power.” 

Now,the Vox party has shown its credentials at the ballot box, despite being considered previously to be a dramatic, clownish outfit led by Santiago Abascal intent on initiating his own version of the “reconquest”. They have done well in regional elections, picking up 12 seats in Andalucía’s 109-seat parliament, thereby giving the socialist PSOE party a considering bruising. Vox’s Andalucían leader, Francisco Serrano, has given some flavouring of what the movement stands for: a revived,virile misogyny in the face of “psychopathic feminazis” and a reassertion of European values.

Franco’s remains might as well be Spain’s kryptonite, a sort of character flaw that, if disturbed, will merely serve to show a country permanently riven. Íñigo Errejónof Podemos prefers to read the lay of the land differently. To move Franco, he suggested in June, “would not open any wounds. On the contrary, it would reconcile Spanish democracy with democrats.” But Paloma Aguilar’s Memoryand Amnesia (2002) reminds us how “the memory of historical misfortune and the fear of the dangers of radicalization contributed most to moderating the demands of all the important political and social groups of the time.” 

Ironically enough, for officials charged with the management of memory, disturbing such matters as managed memory may well serve to enliven, rather than bury, the very subject of the exercise. Franco remains, in a very troubling way to Spanish history, a reminder and an influence.

The Security Derangement Complex: Technology Companies and Australia’s Anti-Encryption Law

Australia is being seen as a test case. How does a liberal democracy affirm the destruction of private, encrypted communications? In 2015, China demonstrated what could be done to technology companies, equipping other states with an inspiration: encryption keys, when required, could be surrendered to the authorities.

It is worth remembering the feeble justification then, as now. As Li Shouwei, deputy head of the Chinese parliament’s criminal law division explained to the press at the time, “This rule accords with the actual work need of fighting terrorism and is basically the same as what other major countries in the world do”. Birds of a feather, indeed.

An Weixing, head of the Public Security Ministry’s Counter-Terrorism division, furnishes us with the striking example of a generic state official who sees malefactors coming out of the woodwork of the nation. “Terrorism,” he sombrely stated, reflecting on Islamic separatists from East Turkestan, “is the public enemy of mankind, and the Chinese government will oppose all forms of terrorism.” Given that such elastic definitions are in the eye of the paranoid beholder, the scope for indefinite spread is ever present.

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, must be consulting the same oracles as those earning their keep in the PRC. The first rule of modern governance: frighten the public in order to protect them. Look behind deceptive facades to find the devil lurking in his trench coat. Morrison’s rationale is childishly simple: the security derangement complex must, at all times, win over. The world is a dark place, a jungle rife with, as Morrison insists upon with an advertiser’s amorality, paedophile rings, terrorist cells, and naysayers.

One of his solutions? The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018, otherwise known by its more accurate title of the Anti-Encryption Bill. This poorly conceived and insufferably vague Bill, soon to escape its chrysalis to become law, shows the government playbook in action: tamper with society’s sanity; draft a ponderous bit of text; and treat, importantly, the voter as a creature mushrooming in self-loathing insecurity in the dark.

The Bill, in dreary but dangerous terms, establishes “voluntary and mandatory industry assistance to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in relation to encryption technologies via the issuing of technical assistance requests, technical assistance notices and technical capability notices”. Technology companies are to become the bullied handmaidens, or “assistants”, of the Australian police state.

The Pentecostal Prime Minister has been able to count on supporters who see privacy as dispensable and security needs as unimpeachable. Those who get giddy from security derangement syndrome don the academic gown of scorn, lecturing privacy advocates as ignorant idealists in a terrible world. “I know it is a sensitive issue,” claims Rodger Shananan of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, “but the people arguing privacy just don’t have a handle on how widespread it’s used by the bad people.” The problem with such ill-considered dross is that such technology is also used by “good” or “indifferent” people.

Precisely in being universal, inserting such anti-encryption backdoors insists on a mutual presumption of guilt, that no one can, or should be trusted. It is in such environments that well versed cyber criminals thrive, sniffing out vulnerabilities and exploiting them. Computing security academic Ahmed Ibrahim states the point unreservedly. “If we leave an intentional backdoor they will find it. Once it is discovered it is usually not easy to fix.”

The extent of such government invasiveness was such as to trouble certain traditional conservative voices. Alan Jones, who rules from the shock jock roost of radio station 2GB, asked Morrison about whether this obsession with back door access to communications might be going too far. Quoting Angelo M. Codevilla of Boston University, a veteran critic of government incursions into private, encrypted communications, Jones suggested that the anti-encryption bill “allows police and intelligence agencies access to everyone’s messages, demanding that we believe that any amongst us is as likely or not to be a terrorist.” Morrison, unmoved, mounted the high horse of necessity. Like Shanahan, he was only interested in the “bad” people.

To that end, public consultation has been kept to a minimum. In the words of human rights lawyer, Lizzie O’Shea, it was “a terrible truncation of the process”, one evidently designed to make Australia a shining light for others within the Five Eyes Alliance to follow. “Once you’ve built the tools, it becomes very hard to argue that you can’t hand them over to the US government, the UK – it becomes something they can all use.”

There had been some hope that the opposition parties would stymy the process and postpone consideration of the bill till next year. It could thereby be tied up, bound and sunk by various amendments. But in the last, sagging sessions of Australia’s parliament, a compliant opposition party was keen to remain in the elector’s good books ahead of Christmas. Bill Shorten’s Labor Party took of the root of unreason, calculating that saying yes to the contents of the bill might also secure the transfer of desperate and mentally ailing refugees on Nauru and Manus Island to the Australian mainland.

Instead, in what became a farcical bungle of miscalculating indulgence, the government got what it wanted. The medical transfer bill on Nauru and Manus Island failed to pass in the lower house after a filibuster in the Senate by the Coalition and Senators Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson. The Anti-Encryption Bill, having made is way to the lower house, did.

Shorten’s deputy, Tanya Plibersek, was keen to lay the ground for Thursday’s capitulation to the government earlier in the week. A range of “protections” had been inserted into the legislation at the behest of the Labor Party. (Such brimming pride!) The Attorney-General Christian Porter was praised – unbelievably – for having accepted their sagacious suggestions. The point was elementary: Labor, not wanting to be seen as weak on law enforcement, had to be seen as accommodating.

Porter found himself crowing. “This ensures that our national security and law enforcement agencies have the modern tools they need, the appropriate authority and oversight, to access the encrypted conversations of those who seek to do us harm.”

International authorities versed in the area are looking at the Australian example with jaw dropping concern. EU officials will find the measure repugnant on various levels, given the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws in place. Australian technology companies are set to be designated appropriate pariahs, as are other technology companies willing to conduct transactions in Australia.  All consumers are being treated as potential criminals, an attitude that does not sit well with entities attempting to make a buck or two.

SwiftOnSecurity, an often canonical source on cyber security matters, is baffled. “Over in Australia they’re shooting themselves in the face with a shockingly technical nonsensical encryption backdoor law.” Not only does the law fail to serve any useful protections; it “poison-pills their entire domestic tech industry, breaks imports.”

Li’s point, again something which the Australian government insists upon, was that the Chinese law did not constitute a “backdoor” through encryption protections. Every state official merely wanted to get those “bad people” while sparing the “good”. The Tor Project is far more enlightening: “There are no safe backdoors.” An open declaration on the abolition of privacy in Australia has been made; a wonderfully noxious Christmas present for the Australian electorate.

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The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian

“This is going to be one of the most infamous news disasters since Stern published the ‘Hitler Diaries.’” (WikiLeaks, Twitter, Nov 27, 2018).

Those at The Guardian certainly felt they were onto something. It would be a scoop that would have consequences on a range of fronts featuring President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Julian Assange and the eponymous Russian connection with the 2016 US elections.

If they could tie the ribbon of Manafort over the Assange package, one linked to the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails in the summer of 2016, they could strike journalistic gold. At one stroke, they could achieve a trifecta: an exposé on WikiLeaks, Russian involvement, and the tie-in with the Trump campaign.

The virally charged story, when run towards the leg end of November, claimed that Manafort had visited Assange in the embassy “in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016.” Speculation happily followed in an account untroubled by heavy documentation. “It is unclear why Manafort would have wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last apparent meeting is likely to come under scrutiny and could interest Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

It was a strikingly shoddy effort. An “internal document” supposedly garnered from the Ecuadorean intelligence agency named a certain “Paul Manaford [sic]” as a guest while also noting the presence of “Russians”. No document or individual names were supplied.

The enterprise was supposedly to come with an added satisfaction: getting one over the prickly Assange, a person with whom the paper has yet a frosty association with since things went pear shaped after Cablegate in 2010. Luke Harding, the lead behind this latest packaging effort, has received his fair share of pasting in the past, with Assange accusing him of “minimal additional research” and mere reiteration in the shabby cobbling The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (2014). “The Guardian,” Assange observed in reviewing the work, “is a curiously inward-looking beast.” Harding, for his part, is whistling the promotional tune of his unmistakably titled book Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House. The feud persists with much fuel.

Unfortunately for those coup seekers attempting a framed symmetry, the bomb has yet to detonate, an inert creature finding its ways into placid waters. WikiLeaks was, understandably, the first out of the stables with an irate tweet. “Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper’s reputation. @WikiLeaks is willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange.”

Manafort himself denied ever meeting Assange. “I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him. I have never been contacted by anyone connected to WikiLeaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or WikiLeaks on any matter.”

WikiLeaks has also pointed to a certain busy bee fabricator as a possible source for Harding et al, an Ecuadorean journalist by the name of Fernando Villavicencio. Villavicencio cut his milk teeth digging into the record of Moreno’s predecessor and somewhat Assange friendly, Rafael Correa.

Glenn Greenwald, himself having had a stint – and a fruitful one covering the Snowden revelations on the National Security Agency – had also been relentless on the inconsistencies. If Manafort did visit Assange, why the vagueness and absence of evidence? London, he points out, “is one of the world’s most surveilled, if not the most surveilled, cities.” The Ecuadorean embassy is, in turn, “one of the most scrutinized, surveilled, monitored and filmed locations on the planet.” Yet no photographic or video evidence has been found linking Manafort to Assange.

The grey-haired establishment types are also wondering about the lack of fizz and bubble. Paul Farhi at The Washington Post furnishes an example: “No other news organization has been able to corroborate the Guardian’s reporting to substantiate its central claim of a meeting. News organizations typically do such independent reporting to confirm important stories.”

Another distorting aspect to this squalid matter is the Manafort-Ecuadorean link, which does little to help Harding’s account. A debt ridden Manafort, according to the New York Times, ventured his way to Ecuador in mid-May last year to proffer his services to the newly elected president, Lenín Moreno. Moreno could not have been flattered: this was a man’s swansong and rescue bid, desperate to ingratiate himself with governments as varied as Iraqi Kurdistan and Puerto Rico.

In two meetings (the number might be more) between Manafort and his Ecuadorean interlocutor, various issues were canvassed. Eyes remained on China but there was also interest in finding some workable solution to debt relief from the United States. Then came that issue of a certain Australian, and now also Ecuadorean national, holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge, London.

Moreno has been courting several options, none of which seem to have grown wings. A possibility of getting a diplomatic post for Assange in Russia did not take off. (British authorities still threatened the prospect of arrest.) The issue of removing the thorniest dissident publisher in modern memory remains furiously alive.

As ever, accounts of the Moreno-Manafort tête-à-tête vary. A spokesman for Manafort, one Jason Maloni, suggests a different account. Manafort was not the instigator, but merely the recipient, of a query from Moreno about “his desire to remove Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy.” Manafort listened impassively, “but made no promises as this was ancillary to the purpose of the meeting.” Russia, he sought to clarify, did not crop up.

Fraud might run through Manafort’s blood (convictions on eight counts of bank-and tax-fraud is fairly convincing proof of that), but the case assembled against Assange seems very much one of enthusiastic botch-up masquerading as a stitch-up. So far, the paper has batten down the hatches, and Harding has referred any queries through The Guardian’s spokesman, Brendan O’Grady. Zeal can be punishing. O’Grady will have to earn his keep.

In Contempt of Parliament: The Legal Advice of Brexit

It is attrition, suffocation and contortion. While Theresa May’s Brexit program, weak, compromising and cobbled as it is, endures that bit longer, her opponents from within and without government have been essentially undercutting her on various fronts.

Foppish and solutions-free Boris Johnson does so from the perspective that the May program as it has been agreed to with the EU so far is a case of Britannia surrendering to the wickedness of the Continent. He prefers, according to Sir Roger Gale, “the grievance to the solution”.

In the Commons, Johnson persisted with his motif of imprisonment and punishment for the sceptred isle: that the bureaucrats across the channel were cooking up a terrible fate for Britain were the backstop not to be removed from any arrangement. “They will keep us in permanent captivity as a momento mori, as a reminder to the world of what happens to all those who try to leave the EU.” Britain would be hostage to Spanish claims on Gibraltar, the French purloining of its fish and bankers, and German pressing for concessions on the free movement of EU nationals.

Opposition parties assail the prime minister from the perspective that the entire campaign for Brexit, and government behaviour since, has been a tissue of irresponsibility and lying. They are often not sure which, but they are chancing it. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is, however, playing a double game. Being himself sympathetic with the Leavers, he can only, as of this time, trash the Chequers proposals with indignant scrutiny. Before his fellow parliamentarians, Corbyn insisted that May’s plan would cause a severe case of economic shrinkage: some 4 per cent, precipitating the loss of £100 billion over the course of fifteen years.

What exercised the House of Commons on this occasion most, however, was a historical incident of singular rarity. Members from Labour and the DUP were permitted by Speaker John Bercow to submit an emergency motion to find the government in contempt. The motion carried.

The May government had not done itself any favours in that regard, equipping opponents with the bombs to duly situate under their chairs. As if channelling her former self as home minister, the secretive May refused to release the full legal advice behind the Brexit deal that may yet be doomed. A circulating rumour (for much, in these shadows, remains rumour), is the fear that the backstop might keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union indefinitely.

The government defence proved to be stock standard and would, in most instances, have worked: to release such a report would expose vulnerabilities in negotiating positions ahead of further talks with the EU, thereby rewarding the very individuals deemed enemies by many in parliament. Besides, argued transport secretary Chris Grayling, himself a former lord chancellor, it remained “a central part of the principles of our legal system that the advice provided from a lawyer to their client is treated as confidential.”

Such is the dire, panicked state of British politics at the moment than even old principles of legal propriety, including that of professional privilege, should be seen to be broken in the higher national interest. Parliament, as the people’s arbiter, must be informed, and not releasing the attorney general’s legal advice failed to comply, according to the parties behind the contempt motion, with the Commons resolution of November 13. That resolution stemmed from the principle that legal advice on the Brexit deal would be published in its entirety.

Attempt to placate opponents were duly made. The first was the release by the government of an overview on Monday covering the gist of the attorney general’s legal advice. Then came the appearance of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox in the Chamber. He expressed a willingness to answer questions put to him, but this proved a minor sedative to the proceedings. A three-line whip, deployed by Conservative MPs in an effort to shield the government, also failed.

Cox’s responses conceded various government weaknesses in their negotiations with the EU. He would have preferred, for instance, “a unilateral right of termination” over the Northern Ireland backstop. Additionally, he would have also liked to see “a clause that would have allowed us to exit if negotiations had irretrievably broken down.” But such frankness was to no avail, and Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, was compelled to accede to the wishes of the opponents, with the full advice set to be published on Wednesday.

Contempt matters are ancient things, the sort referred to a privileges committee. But the focus here will be less seeking sanction against any relevant minister, including Cox, than the vote on December 11 in a house that is already faltering. The government, surmised shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, “has lost its majority and the respect of the house”. At this point, the deal in this form will be scuppered, leaving a drawing board bereft of options. Those filling the void will do so with a formula so repetitive it has become traditional: extol the scenario of total collapse, or embrace the fiction a world outside Europe that can act as appropriate replacement for British trade and power.

Lying About Age: The Legal Efforts of Emile Ratelband

Oscar Wilde famously warned that one should never trust a woman who revealed her true age; anyone so inclined to do so was bound to tell you anything. He also, in his characteristic stab at modern manners, suggested that no woman should be quite on the money about her age for another reason: “It looks so calculating.”

Emile Ratelband, from what reports suggest, is not a woman, but a distinctly insecure man on a mission of pure calculation: to secure a different age in the public domain. While biologically impossible, despite claiming that his ageing has stopped, the Dutchman is testing the legal waters to see if he might slash off some 20 years off his birthdate, making him a more youthful 49. The world might be slowly going to hell in a hand basket, but the monumental nature of the trivial shall have its day in court.

Ratelband’s view is that of any person feeling an identity pull crying out for legal recognition. He is inspired by other role models – not merely the insufferable Tony Robbins of US, life coach optimism, but transgendered people, who supply him a shameless ground of comparison. Despite being a motivational speaker himself, his optimism does not extend to the impediments of age. “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender. Why can’t I decide my own age?”

Open slather has been declared in the identity market, and to that end, he has gone so far as to subject himself to a psychiatric evaluation as to whether he was a “victim of the Peter Pan syndrome”. Another evaluation might be in order after Ratelband’s address to the court, in which he claimed that President Donald Trump was “the first person who is honest” in showing his feelings on Twitter. “He’s a new kind of person.”

His fruit salad reasons are, like others obsessed with “the real me”, selfish, having “to do with my feeling, with respect about who I think… I am, my identity.” Reducing his age by two decades would open doors shut to the aged and ageing. “If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work.” (These are things Ratelband could probably do anyway, given his frame of mind, but lets his leave his mind to its own, curiously absorbed devices.)

There is the issue of dating, that minefield of human interaction where initial impressions, toxic, deodorised or otherwise, tend to be everything. “When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”

Why Ratelband does not take a leaf out of the book of mendacity that has characterised human dating since bipedalism became vogue is hard to fathom. Again, lie about your age; many people do so with calculation and determination. Appearance, of which he cares much about, will carry you over. But the adventurous, if seemingly vexatious Dutchman does have a point: every liar should sport a phenomenal memory, which is a damn bother if you don’t have one. “If you lie,” he told the Washington Post, “you have to remember everything you say.”

The judges of the Arnhem District Court found little to merit this effort at jigging time, and the law. “Mr Ratelband,” claimed the court bench with cool reserve, despite initially showing, according to the petitioner, a giggly, girly disposition, “is at liberty to feel 20 years younger than his real age and to act accordingly.” Altering any legal documents pertaining to age, however, would lead to “undesirable legal and societal implications”.

Some of these implications centre on the issue of assigning duties and rights by the mere fact of having an age – the issue of voting, for instance, or the obligation to attend school. (Neither apply to the applicant in this case, but courts are always distracted by the issue of floodgates and their irrepressible breach.) “If Mr Ratelband’s request was allowed, those age requirements would become meaningless.”

The judges were also concerned about the sheer number of documents that would, quite literally, cease to have any relevance. To amend the date of birth “would cause 20 years of records to vanish from the register of births, deaths, marriages and registered partnerships.” An administrator’s nightmare.

The field of discrimination could have supplied Ratelband his ammunition. The judges, however, needed more convincing. While the court bench was not immune to the possibility that discrimination might, in some cases, be open, Ratelband had failed to show that he had suffered it, suggesting that “other alternatives” were available “rather than amending a person’s date of birth.”

Ratelband, for his part, is undeterred. His irritating positivity is both balm and encouragement. “The rejection of [the] court is great… because they give all kinds of angles where we can connect when we go on appeal.”

Ratelband sounds vain, insufferable, insecure and keen to be heard. He is entitled to, but this is a selfish time that denies the immutable nature of death (delayed as it is) and presumes that those who age will do so noisily into the social media night. As Ratelband is unlikely to avail himself of time dilation, a delightful consequence of Einstein’s theory of relativity, he will have to seek his change via legal processes. That might entail moving to a different jurisdiction, and mindset, altogether.

George H.W. Bush: Cold War Ends and New World Orders

The death of certain political figures, notably those of a vast imperium, is bound to provoke less criticism or critical insight than soul searching pursuits. With the US in the mauling clutches of Donald J. Trump, the nightmare that was supposedly never to happen, nostalgia prevails in establishment circles. What ever happened to traditional duplicity and dynasty politicians, with their sanctimonious call upon the good Sky God benefactor and the messianic mission? The US Republic, even as it was being emptied of its worth during their tenure, could at least be assured of predictable corruption. Decay, yes, but on their controlled terms.

The death of the forty-first president, George H.W. Bush was a fine reminder of that point, a man of standing and missions who could be said, by Time, to be a creature of Aristotle’s “practical wisdom”. A “natural born leader” was he, one “comfortable with dissenting views” and skilful in his employ of “strong advisers”.

The New York Times, with ceremonial hat tilting, saw Bush as “part of a new generation of Republicans” and was “often referred to as the most successful one-term president”. The recipe for this success, according to such commentary, seems to have been written in foreign rather than domestic fields. He is seen as a masterful juggler, “handling” the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuring “the liberation of Eastern Europe”. As the Cold War curtain was drawn, Bush, reprising his role as a Second World War naval aviator, remained calm.

Bush’s passing is a reminder about a particular moment of history. The Soviet Union packed up in disarray, its own imperium unfolding as based closed and forces left. This left the way, dangerously, for an uncontained hegemon. The United States became Prometheus unbound, even if its power was initially advertised under the broader umbrella of a “New World Order”.

Bush gave an inkling of what this order would look like in his address to a joint session of Congress on September 11, 1990. “The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation.”

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, having invaded Kuwait in August 1990 after reading mixed signals from Washington, had presented an alibi and pretext for principled aggression, done so, artificially, under the blanket of international norms. Bush made the spurious claim that the Iraqi invasion had been prompted “without provocation or warning,” ignoring the July assurance given to Saddam by US ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, that Washington had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” He saw, in Baghdad’s efforts, a stretched historical analogy. “As was the case in the 1930’s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbours.”

Crucial to this was a condescending hand to the Soviet Union: that it be welcomed “back into the world order”. (Had it been absent for the duration?) Such language was couched in the confidence of an imperial leadership convinced that the barbarians had been subjugated and would, if not exactly lend their support, avoid any effort to sabotage Project USA.

These shaky norms were defended by a coalition, assembled in January 1991, disproportionate in its scope involving two dozen countries, but it lent itself to the dangerous illusion that the US should, and could, become a post-Cold War policeman equipped with discriminatory wisdom and fine acumen. New World Orders, when invoked, tend to be preludes to further conflict. President Woodrow Wilson, vainly obsessed with the League of Nations, did much to aspire to a moral structure that had, within its own foundation, ruination and despoliation. As Europe recoiled in 1919 from self-inflicted slaughter, a second world war was in gestation.

In that very suggestion that a country might be central to remaking a global system came the defective nature of US foreign policy and its messianic, delivering strain: an empire seen in the context of duty and shouldering a heavy burden to make a world safe for something or rather. (Democracy less than money and hustling.) Expelling Saddam from Kuwait was a false advertisement for future collective security, a concept that had been doomed in the aftermath of the First World War.

The 1991 mission also came with an unhealthy sense that the Vietnam syndrome had been purged, rendering US military interventions somehow free of original sin. Morally inspired giants could intervene in foreign conflicts at will without lasting and dangerous consequence. Father Bush thereby begot the failings of Bush Junior in a Middle East repeat in 2003 that continues to shake the region in paroxysms of sectarian rage.

No figure can be considered in splendid isolation. Bush was Ronald Reagan’s vice-president for eight years, much of it featuring a president prone to astrological advice (quite literally) and amnesiac episodes. He also took a leaf out of the latter’s book of deception over the arms-for-hostages deal, professing ignorance about it in 1987. It is one of the few points that his biographer, Jon Meacham, finds fault with him over. Then came the supply side economics that remains a perennial disease of US economics: you coddle and favour the wealthy through sugary tax cuts, increase public debt and slash public funding.

If the beasts of relativity were to be consulted, Bush Sr could be seen as better in value than certain US presidents, but only marginally. He, after all, presided over the motor of hubris that did lead the US into a lengthy sunset even as it hectored the rest of the world. In evaluating his own son’s exploits, he was guarded and concerned about the turn of power after September 11, 2001. He was particularly concerned of the neoconservative hardliners. “I don’t like what he did,” reflected Bush on former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, “and think it hurt the president, having his iron-ass view of everything”. In the annals of empire, the two Bushes, separated by a Clinton, remain more consistent than the hair splitters would wish.

Journey into Obsolescence: The Adani Carmichael Project

The Carmichael mine being pursued in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland is a dinosaur before its creation. On paper, it is hefty – to be some five times the size of Sydney Harbour, the largest in Australia and one of the largest on the planet. Six open cut and five underground mines covering some 30 kilometres are proposed, a gargantuan epic. The coal itself would be transported through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area, and would feature a rail line subsidised by the money of Australian taxpayers.

Even before the initial steps are taken, its realisation is doomed to obsolescent indulgence and environmental wearing. It has been endorsed by a bribed political class best represented by Liberal senator Matt Canavan, who sees Adani through tinted glasses as a “little Aussie battler”; it is run by an unelected plutocratic one. This venture has seen Australian politicians, protoplasmic and spineless, do deals with a company run by a billionaire in a way that sneers at democracy and mocks the common citizenry.

The Adani group, run by its persistent Chairman Gautam Adani, has worked out what political figures want to hear and how far it can go, even in the face of mounting opposition. His closeness to the halls of power has been noted: influential be he who has the ear of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

How divisive the Carmichael project is between Australia’s morally flexible politicians and a growing body of disaffected citizenry can be gathered from the open letter to the Adani Group from some 90 notable Australians that was submitted in the first part of last year. The list was impressively eclectic: authors such as Richard Flanagan and Tim Winton; investment banker Mark Burrows; and former Australian test cricket captains Ian and Greg Chappell. (“The thought,” Ian Chappell ruefully, “that this could affect the relationship, hopefully, that’ll get through.”)

The text of the note was simple enough. “We are writing to respectfully ask you to abandon the Adani Group’s proposal in Queensland’s Galilee Basin… Pollution from burning coal was the single biggest driver of global warming, threatening life in Australia, India and all over the world.”

That same year, the British medical journal The Lancet deemed the Adani mine project a “public health disaster” though Australian authorities remain indifferent to recommendations that independent health assessments be conducted on the impact of the mine. In very tangible ways, air pollution arising from the burning of coal is a global killer. Australia’s menacing own contribution to this casualty list comes in at around three thousand a year; in India, the list, according to a 2013 study by the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust, is an eye-popping 115,000. “I didn’t expect the mortality figures per year,” remarked Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust, “to be so high.”

The trends in energy generation and resources are against fossil fuels, and even the banks have heeded this, refusing to supply a credit line to the company. But Adani knows a gullible audience when he sees one. Like a sadhu aware of a westerner’s amenability to mysticism, the chairman and his worthies say the rights things, and encourage the appropriate response from the ruling classes they are wooing. The company feeds them the fodder and rose water they wish to hear, and massages them into appreciative stances. The campaign by the Indian company has been so comprehensive as to include decision makers from every level of government that might be connected with the mine.

Adani, not to be deterred by delays of some six years, has suggested that it will pursue a different model, though this remains vague. Extravagance is being reined in, supposedly trimmed and slimmed: targets will be cut by three-quarters, and the company has now promised to finance the project itself. “We will now,” claimed Adani Mining CEO Lucas Dow this week, “be developing a smaller open-cut mine comparable to many other Queensland coal mines and will ramp up production over time.”

Nothing this company says should ever be taken at face value. Exaggeration and myth-making is central to its platform. Slyly, the company’s Australian operation is also given a deceptive wrapping; a visit to the company’s website will see information on Adani’s efforts to “become the leading supplier of renewable energy in Australia.”

Dow has become a missionary of sorts, repeatedly telling Queenslanders that the project can only mean jobs, and more jobs. Astrological projections more in league with tarot card reading are used. Last November, Dow, in a media statement, was brimming with optimism over those “indirect jobs” that would be created in Rockhampton, Townsville, Mackay and the Isaac region. “Economic modelling, such as that used by the Queensland Resources Council in its annual resources industry economic impact report, show that each direct job in the industry in Queensland supports another four and a half jobs in related industries and businesses, therefore we can expect to see more than 7,000 jobs created by the initial ramp-up of the Carmichael project.”

Not merely does the Carmichael mine smack of a crude obsolescence before the first lumps of coal are mined; it is bound to take a wrecking ball to any emissions reduction strategy Australia might intend pursuing. (Matters are already half-hearted as they are in Canberra, poisoned by a fractious energy lobby and ill-gotten gains stakeholders.) Professor Andrew Stock of the Climate Council has explained that once coal begins being burned, Australia’s “total emissions” are set to double, nothing less than an act of “environmental vandalism”. Work on the mine will also contribute to such despoliation: the clearing of 20,200 hectares of land will add to the climate chance quotient; the Great Artesian Basin’s groundwater system will also be affected.

Another graphic projection is also being suggested. For the duration of its projected 60-year lifespan, as epidemiologist Fiona Stanley reminds us, Adani’s venture will produce as much carbon as all of Australia’s current coal-fired power stations combined. All this, even as the Indian state promises to phase out thermal coal imports, rendering the Adani coal project a white, if vandalising elephant. The only difference now is that the elephant proposed is somewhat smaller in scale and size.

Mutual Decline: The Failings of Student Evaluations

That time of the year. Student evaluations are being gathered by the data crunchers. Participation rates are being noted. Attitudes and responses are mapped. The vulnerable, insecure instructor, fearing an execution squad via email, looks apprehensively at comments in the attached folder that will, in all likelihood, devastate rather than reward. “Too much teaching matter”; “Too heavy in content”; “Too many books.” Then come the other comments from those who seem challenged rather than worn down; excited rather than dulled. These are few and far between: the modern student is estranged from instructor and teaching. Not a brave new world, this, but an ignorant, cowardly one.

The student evaluation, ostensibly designed to gather opinions of students about a taught course, is a surprisingly old device. Some specialists in the field of education, rather bravely, identify instances of this in Antioch during the time of Socrates and instances during the medieval period. But it took modern mass education to transform the exercise into a feast of administrative joy.

As Beatrice Tucker explains in Higher Education (Sep, 2014), “the establishment of external quality assurance bodies (particularly in the UK and in Australia), and the ever-increasing requirement for quality assurance and public accountability, has seen a shift in the use of evaluation systems including their use for performance funding, evidencing promotions and teaching awards.”

Student evaluations, the non-teaching bureaucrat’s response to teaching and learning, create a mutually complicit distortion. A false economy of expectations is generated even as they degrade the institution of learning, which should not be confused with the learning institution. (Institutions actually have no interest, as such, in teaching, merely happy customers.) It turns the student into commodity and paying consumer, units of measurement rather than sentient beings interested in learning. The instructor is also given the impression that these matter, adjusting method, approach and content. Decline is assured.

Both instructor and pupil are left with an impression by the vast, bloated bureaucracies of universities that such evaluation forms are indispensable to tailor appropriate courses for student needs. But universities remain backward in this regard, having limited tools in educational analytics and text mining. Student comments, in other words, are hard to synthesise in a meaningful way.

This leads to something of a paradox. In this illusory world, corruption proves inevitable. Impressions are everything, and in the evaluation process, the instructor and student have an uncomfortable face off. The student must be satisfied that the product delivered is up to snuff. The instructor, desperate to stay in the good books of brute management and brown nose the appropriate promotion committees, puts on a good show of pampering and coddling. Appropriate behaviour, not talent, is the order of the day.

The most pernicious element of this outcome is, by far, grade inflation. “Students,” asserts Nancy Bunge in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “give better evaluations to people who grade them more generously.” Absurd spectacles are thereby generated, including twin tower sets of academic performances that eschew anything to do with failure (students as consumers cannot fail, as such); everybody finds themselves in the distinction or high distinction band, a statistical improbability. Be wary, go the ingratiating types at course evaluation committees, of “bell curves” – they apparently do not exist as an accurate reflection of a student’s skill set.

The result is a mutually enforcing process of mediocrity and decline. The instructor tries to please, and in so doing, insists that the student does less. Students feel more estranged and engage less. Participation rates fall.

The untaxed mind is a dangerous thing, and students, unaware of this process, insist on possessing a level of prowess and learning that is the equal of the instructor. This is not discouraged by the administrative apparatchiks of various committees who make it their business to soil decent syllabi with dumbed down efforts such as “workshops” and “group work”. (The modern student supposedly has a limited, social media concentration span.) To them, the individual thinker – student or instructor – is a sworn enemy and must be stomped into an oblivion of faecal drudgery.

There is ample evidence, diligently ignored by university management, suggesting how the introduction of such surveys has been, not merely corrupting but disastrous for the groves of academe. Take, for instance, gender bias, which has a marked way of intruding into the exercise. Clayton N. Tatro found in a 1995 analysis of 537 male and female student questionnaires that both the gender of the instructor and the relevant grade “were significant predictors of evaluations.” Broadly speaking, the female students gave higher rating evaluations that their male counterparts. Female instructors did better in the evaluation scores than their male peers. Female instructors also did better in their scores with female respondents.

Learning is a process of perennial discomfort, not constant reassurance. The pinprick of awareness is far better than the smothering pillow. Genuine learning is meant to shatter models and presumptions, propelling the mind into enlightened, new domains. The student evaluation form is the enemy of the process, a stifling effect that disempowers all even as it claims to enhance quality.

Where to, then, with evaluating teaching? There is something to be said about the element of risk: there will always be good and bad teachers, and that very experience of being taught by individuals as varying as the pedestrian reader of lecture notes or the charming raconteur of learned anecdotes should be part of the pedagogical quest. From such variety grows resilience, something that customer satisfaction cannot tolerate.

Education specialists, administrators and those who staff that fairly meaningless body known as Learning and Teaching, cannot leave the instructing process alone. For them, some form of evaluation exercise must exist to placate the gods of funding and quality assurance pen pushers.

What then, to be done? Geoff Schneider, in a study considering the links between student evaluations, grade inflation and teaching, puts it this way, though he does so with a kind of blinkered optimism. “In order to improve the quality of teaching, it is important for universities to develop a system for evaluating teaching that emphasises (and rewards) the degree of challenge and learning that occurs in courses.” Snow balls suffering an unenviable fate in hell comes to mind.

Eyes Without The Prize: Stripping Aung San Suu Kyi’s Awards

It is impossible to see peace prize or freedom awards as anything other than fragments of an industry. In time, ideals become marketable and matters of commodity. Those who go against this market rationale face the fires of moral outrage. The business of promoting peace in the wrapping of human rights protections is its own market, with false advertising. It is merely, in many instances, the flipside of conflict.

A point often forgotten in this indulgence is that most recipients tend to be not merely the advocates of peace but previous advocates of conflict. Bloodied swords preceded ploughshares; the terrorist became, in time, a peace maker. Realising this tense, and central reality, should put any committee responsible for peace prizes or humanitarian awards out of business.

The speed at which a previously celebrated Aung San Suu Kyi has been stripped of such awards shows the frustration and rage of peace bureaucrats and the cocktail set who suddenly deigned their choice a counterfeit. Like an original hanging in a gallery, the award had to be removed, its bestowing reconsidered.

So many removals and revocations have taken place that Suu Kyi’s record now reads like a veritable Who’s Who of award deprivation. Each has been accompanied with necessary doses of hurt and cant in the face of a sanctified figure who has rusted. Stripping Suu Kyi of the Freedom of City awards figures prominently in these grand moral gestures: Edinburgh, Oxford, Glasgow and Newcastle, to name but a few examples. A good deal of this suggests an inflated brand gone wrong: the saint sinned in taking the steroids of pragmatism, and to that end, city councillors are left in search of other appropriate products and recipients.

When she was in fashion, Suu Kyi could rely on such remarks as those of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who described her in 2005 as “a symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.” Comparisons were made to another figure rendered pure by a lengthy prison stint: Nelson Mandela. Last November, the Lord Provost started getting nervous. Use your “immeasurable courage and influence,” urged Frank Ross, to ensure the safe return of the Rohingya Muslims to Rakhine.

With total radio silence following, Ross tabled a council motion calling for her freedom of city to be stripped. Suu Kyi found herself in curious company: the last, and previously only time Edinburgh had revoked a freedom of city award was in 1890, when the giddily nationalistic Charles Parnell was accused of conducting an adulterous affair with Katharine O’Shea. Then, as now, the moralists were in charge of both tradition and award.

Much is also being made about her silence on matters that are, less the bread and butter of human rights than its publicity. To air them is to incite a miracle. The atrocities against the Rohingya by the Burmese military is marked out as a significant inkblot on previously unblemished paper. In October, Canadian lawmakers, in an unprecedented move revoking Suu Kyi’s honorary Canadian citizenship granted in 2007, cited her inaction on calling out “genocide” against the Rohingyas as a determining factor. Senator Ratna Omidvar was almost aggrieved at a symbol fallen from imposed grace. “The world pinned its hope on her as the shining light and hope for a democratic and peaceful Myanmar.”  uu Kyi’s ambitions were evidently more modest and less global.

Amnesty International followed in November. “Our expectation,” came an enraged letter from its Secretary General Kumi Naidoo this month, “was that you would continue to use your moral authority to speak out against injustice whenever you saw it, not least within Myanmar itself.” The organisation thereby announced it revocation of the Ambassador of Conscience award.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has also been pressed to reconsider their award. Olav Njølstad, secretary of the committee, tiptoed around the matter with a ballerina’s ease, finding relief in the certainty that the prize was not a presently relevant issue. “It’s important to remember that a Nobel Prize, whether in physics, literature or peace, is awarded for some prize-worthy effort or achievement in the past.” Using the past as apologia, escape and salvation for his organisation’s decision, Njølstad could argue that Suu Kyi’s award was based on “her fight for democracy and freedom up until 1991, the year she was awarded the prize.”

Committees often exhibit such pedantic, book-keeping tendencies. Berit Reiss-Andersen, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, eschewed any prospective policing role by her organisation’s members in 2017. “It’s not our task to oversee or censor what a laureate does after the prize has been won.” Once awarded, never to be revoked.

For Myanmar gazers, peace is a complex commodity, bought through complicity, acquiescence and the dictates of stability. The National Coalition of Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), a composite of exiled pro-democracy figures elected to the national parliament in 1990, left a specific tripartite rationale in place: unchallenged, near-divine respect for Suu Kyi; a reluctance to directly criticise the military (notable here is Suu Kyi’s own bloodline, tied to a father considered one of the founders of the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar military); and a chronic inability to confront ethnic problems within the country.

In the words of J.J. Rose, “The military controls all significant political action in Myanmar, despite its political wing winning less than 7 percent of the popular vote in the country’s major parliamentary house in 2015.”

Under conditions of house arrest, the activist becomes a symbol externally venerated rather than a practitioner able to exert meaningful action. In time, Suu Kyi became a cipher for democratic impulses and sentiments, but hardly a genuine, substantive figure of effective leadership.

The sentiments of veneration and subsequent despair seem cute to bricks and mortar pragmatists who see the obsession with her refusal to use microphone and rostrum as complicit in culpability. Abhijit Dutta, writing in the Hindustan Times, gives the leader far more time and consideration. “Today, she has a job to do: remake a country that has systematically hollowed out its institutions over the past 50 years and ensure that it stays the course on its democratic transition.”

The vocal stance, or in this case its absence, has been elevated to the level of mystical influence. To not speak is tantamount to the gravest of sins in the epoch of emoting, where the decibel range of outrage is taken as a measure of an activist’s worth. Even a concession by a UN independent international fact-finding mission that “the constitutional powers of the civilian authorities afford little scope for controlling the actions of the Tatmadaw” does not sway proponents of necessary, and public condemnation. The present condemns the past.

A Parliament of Irresponsibility: Peter Dutton, Section 44 and Pecuniary Interests

It took place as the blades were being sharpened for a palace coup in August. On Radio National’s breakfast program, Deputy Leader of Labor, Tanya Plibersek was tight lipped to her interlocutor. The issue posed to her party was the eligibility of the then recently resigned Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, chief knife wielder and executioner against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Plibersek, it transpired, had received advice earlier in the year that might leave Dutton without his seat. But what also surfaced was a certain, carefree irresponsibility: instead of making use of that material, Labor had a useful weapon to keep in storage.

When necessary, the strategists in opposition could refer Dutton to the Australian High Court, claiming his ineligibility under section 44 of the Australian Constitution. While other sitting members have fallen on the sword of dual-nationality and owing allegiance to a foreign power (s. 44(i)), the case with Dutton is pecuniary in nature, posing a potential conflict of interest (s. 44(v)).

That limb of the provision states that any person who “has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth” is disqualified from sitting in the chambers of parliament. As he is a beneficiary of a discretionary family trust which, through its trustee, owns two childcare centres in Queensland which have been in receipt of childcare subsidies, the issue of a “pecuniary interest” might arise.

The undergrowth of legal argument over this is suffocatingly dense. One of Australia’s foremost constitutional authorities, Anne Twomey, suggests that Dutton might have an out: that the childcare centres in question “merely receive the subsidy on behalf of the parents and do not have an agreement with the public service.” But if an agreement is, in fact, found, an indirect pecuniary interest might be identified.

To date, the Solicitor-General has given the most inadequate of band aids to the government. (As he knows, never second guess the judicial heads on the bench.) Stephan Donaghue, back in August, was scrupulous in covering all his exits, lest egg find its way to his unsuspecting face: Dutton was “not incapable” of sitting as a member of parliament, but there was “some risk” that the High Court might see the “substantial size of the payments” arising from subsidies as a problem. “However, for a variety of reasons, I have been briefed with very little factual information.” Yet again, darkness descends where light should enlighten.

The High Court has given some clue about its brutal and merciless reading of s. 44(v). Family First senator Bob Day was one such individual to fall foul of that section, another instance of the High Court’s enthusiastic policing of the constitution’s invalidating procedures. Chief Justice Kiefel and Justices Bell and Edelman noted an exemption: there would be “no relevant interest if the agreement in question is one ordinarily made between government and citizen.” The senator was not so lucky.

The conditions have shifted again, tickling Labor into action. The Coalition government has received yet another blow directed from within the party room: MP Julia Banks has joined the ranks of those “three female independent representatives” who sport “sensible, centre, liberal values”. The Liberals are now another representative short, accused of falling into the arms of woman-hating “reactionaries”. The recently elected independent member for Wentworth, Kerry Phelps, has also put the feelers out for a prospective referral.

True to parliamentary form, Christopher Pyne, the leader of the House, has retaliated with his own variant of political poison gas: should Labor and Phelps wish to push the issue of referring Dutton to the High Court, the Coalition would seek to refer Phelps, and Labor MPs Mike Freelander and Tony Zappia.

The trio offer another bag of legal delights for the constitutional vultures: Phelps because of her being both a city of Sydney councillor and medical practitioner; Freelander because he was, like Phelps, a GP in receipt of Medicare subsidies; and Zappia for an alleged interest in his wife’s fitness centre. “My original position, of course,” claimed Pyne on Radio National, “is that we don’t have a constitutional issue but if they decide that he does and they want to send him there, they’ll have to send the other three as well.” How utterly sporting of him.

Far from being a matter of public duty, integrity and issue of good governance, section 44 and its eligibility requirements are weapons of choice for opponents. Even after the disastrous strafing of Parliament by a range of High Court decisions declaring certain sitting members to be ineligible (dual nationality can be a tricky, thorny thing), doubts louse the locks of certainty. Self-confidence on the part of politicians that their position is secure should be treated with hearty contempt, even more so than economic forecasts.

There is a logistical, and bureaucratic cock-up in waiting as well. Were Dutton actually found to be invalidly vested with power, his decisions under the Migration Act, it would follow, would be void. Legal eagles are also swooping upon the prospect that 1,600 decisions made by the minister to cancel visas of those convicted of a crime are null. Lawyers for a man designated FQM18 currently argue that, due to the breaches incurred under s. 44, Dutton was “not constitutionally permitted to act as a minister” when he made a decision of non-revocation on February 6, 2018.

As the claim goes, in full, “At the time of the non-revocation decision, Mr. Dutton was incapable of sitting as a member of the House of Representatives of the commonwealth of Australia because he had a pecuniary interest in an agreement with the public service of the commonwealth in breach of s. 44(v) of the constitution.”

The Labor opposition has little reason to bear itself up as a proud example of parliamentary conduct. For them, as, for that matter, other political parties, Australia’s constitution has been an inconvenience and a godsend. Its invalidating provisions for members of parliament lie in cold storage, only to be thawed and deployed when the winds blow favourably.

Section 44 has been used to eliminate enemies, unseat opponents and destroy the credibility of sitting members. It has added doubt to voters who no doubt wonder whether candidates and members can read basic paperwork. High Court fundamentalism, laced with opaque reasoning, has done the rest, leaving little room for error for anybody wishing to stand for the highest elected chambers in the country. Run for elected office at your peril.

Steve Bannon at Oxford

Steve Bannon. The Oxford Union. A university that has been the breeding, sculpting and minting ground for British prime ministers for centuries and the Establishment. Here, Bannon, strategist of the Trump campaign in 2016, was in full swing, spearing his enemies and mocking the elite with an approach he has come to master. The audience was hushed, bewildered, even stunned.

The thrust of his anti-elite argument was something that sat strikingly well with a figure he failed mention: John Ralston Saul. Saul was himself an investment manager and oil executive turned pure; he has reflected upon the failings of the system occasioned by an elite that has duped, gulled and hoodwinked entire nations, citing the value of rationalism filled by an “obsession with expertise”.  They are, as Bannon reminded his audience, the party of Davos; they are the ones who prospered as bailouts were being dished out after the financial crisis of 2008-9, socialising privately made losses. They are, as Saul claimed, Voltaire’s bastards, the ones who hijacked reason to despoil societies in the name of an estranged technocracy.

Perversely, the weapon to initiate this upending and bruising of these laboratory technocrats was Donald Trump, a person very much part of a system riven by decay. Trump had himself been beneficiary of its fracturing, one that left former employees without work and a string of bankruptcies. He fed the world of reality television with viral dedication. But instead of seeking a professional campaign manager, Trump struck electoral gold, appointing, in Ken Stern’s words, “a media bomb-thrower with no experience on the trail.”

Trump, in turn, served a useful purpose (in Bannon’s own description, a “blunt instrument for us”): he could slay sacred cows, mock members of the establishment and foul the temples. Bannon gave a taste of this sentiment, a true politics of aggression. “I said I wanna unchain the dogs on Megyn Kelly and I’m proud of it – politics is war by other methods.”

There were those who felt Bannon had no place at the Union. The Oxford Students Stand Up To Racism took issue with the body for “giving credibility to racism and fascism”, a view as childish as it was ill-thought. In a press release, the group claimed that Bannon was “attempting to build an Islamophobic international of far-right groups and is looking to fascist Tommy Robinson here in Britain as a key figure for his movement.” Anneliese Dodds, MP for Oxford East, thanked the demonstrators for not welcoming “white supremacists like Bannon.”

A rough estimate of 1,000 protestors had gathered; Bannon was himself smuggled into the talk “in the back of a police van” according to the Daily Mail. There were chants. “The police protect the Nazis!”; “Say it loud, say it clear, Bannon is not welcome here!” Two men happily goaded the protests in St. Michael’s Street, mimicking Nazi-style salutes and causing, according to the police, “alarm and distress to those who were present”.

The address was peppered with the observations of a man who is now speaking to a political orthodoxy that has taken root in numerous states. “I did the original travel ban, it made our citizens safer. Zero-tolerance at the border is a humanitarian policy.” The view has been endorsed by both conservative and Labor governments in Australia since the late 1990s.

Bannon betrays a certain ideological inconsistency, suspicious of cults and followings of protest he sees as equivalent (naturally, he exempts his own): “Nazis and the KKK have no place in our society, they should have never been allowed to march in Charlottesville.” But the blade cuts all ways: “The same can be said about Antifa and Black Lives Matter – they shouldn’t be allowed to be doing what they are doing.”

The problem here is that both Bannon and the protestors sport the very same defective positions they wish to promote. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, for instance, boasted about her belief in free speech but refused to appear at an Edinburgh conference attended by Bannon for fear that she risked “legitimizing or normalizing far-right, racist views.”

Both sides want to ban each other in fits of self-conviction, ideologically convinced they have found the appropriate way. Both feel they have found some unassailable truth in their Manichean struggle. Consider the student at Oxford who was reported to say that he was “here to protest against the Student Union events being used for right wing personalities.” (Keep them vanilla, safe, or left, whatever that might entail.)  To be right is to be wrong and worthy of silencing. “I am Australian and we already have a fascist government so it’s important to fight right-wing politics while we still can.”

Tossing about vague labels serves more to restrict discussion and confuse social symptoms rather than advance argument which is, ultimately, the aim of most regimes of censorship. Tagging alt-right and fascist to the Bannon show is handily reassuring for the ideologically closeted, but it betrays a convenient ignorance. For one, it resists an inquiry into the causes for the rise of Trumpism, and the broader Bannon agenda of a neo-nationalist international.

A set of brief contributions to the Times Literary Supplement this month from a range of thinkers on the subject merely served to illustrate how unsure the field of comparative studies on fascism is. “We could no more define [fascism],” argued classics titan Mary Beard, “than most of the mid-twentieth century fascists themselves could.” To use the word “fascist” in the Trump debate “has become a sloppy, and even dangerous, alibi for failing properly to analyse conduct.”

Bannon is not in any conventional, let alone unconventional sense, fascist, but a sharpened reactionary attuned to the impulses of a malcontent. He is the perfect condottiere’s type, having become an adviser for the European, and generally global right, on those populist disruptions that now find shape inside and outside numerous governments. Some of these have an undeniable encrustation of neo-fascism. But the essential point here is hardly to shut them up and ignore them but rally with appropriate antidotes. Censorship, notably at such forums as the Oxford Union, would be a poor, and ultimately weak form, of combat.

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