The perils of popularism

This week we originally were going to be discussing Pauline Hanson’s One…

Cutting High Functioning Autism Funding Re: NDIS

By Jane SalmonThe person who allegedly killed Euridyce Dixon has been said…

Can Trump's Singapore Summit farce alert us to…

“A new story, a new beginning, one of peace. Two men, two…

They know it is wrong but, if it…

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has written an essay in which she acknowledges that Muslims…

Vaccines Cause Climate Change And Other Logical Conclusions!

While I'm sure that there's a lot of anti-vaxers chomping at the…

Killing The ABC: The IPA's Agenda To Dismantle…

By Loz LawreyI've been resisting the urge to write yet another “rant”…

ABC Interview Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

ABC: Good morning PM can we start by asking if you will…

Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel:…

We came across a skeleton of a building bristling with warnings: Asbestos,…

«
»
Facebook

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.

Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel: The Anguish for Lost Buildings

We came across a skeleton of a building bristling with warnings: Asbestos, Stay Out; Danger, Do Not Enter. The sense was that entering this site of history in Townsville, North Queensland, would kill you. And damn well it would have, sending you keeling over in fumes, damning you even if, on entering, you had hoped to see a miniature copy of the nubile Chloe overseeing the meal counter, taken from a painting that resides in holy majesty at Young and Jacksons Pub in Melbourne. The Victoria Park Hotel, it seemed, was no more, consumed by hellish fire.

Funereal rites for burned buildings are as significant as they are for humans. For within them, there existed men and women who flitted about, performed their tasks, discharged their duties. People caroused, gossiped, cooked, ate, defecated, and fornicated. A life history, in a fashion.

Grief produces misinformed and paranoid children; anger much the same. Such offspring demand the answers that only deities could provide, a record of evidence that no mortal could satisfy. The account from the Townsville Bulletin on this tragic burning screams of suggestion and theory: there were three in the hotel near the moment when the sparks began (around midnight); one went for a walk (not in of itself odd, though teasingly curious, given that few people walk in that part of town), but they came back. Were the other two burning Rome as the other fiddled on the stroll?

Then there is the sense that another story was humming away in the background, enticing alternative explanations and hypotheses. The building was up for sale – some $2.5 million. Ideas do the rounds, and soon, the tangled cliché of an explanation comes to provide some false certitude: the insurance job, or a vengeful rebuke.

This does not need actual knowledge, merely enthusiastic speculation. But the implications in a town where the heritage building is deemed the enemy of modern and vulgar construction projects is hard to avoid.

Well moneyed history buffs should have rushed in with the enthusiasm of an Antiques Road Show judge to purchase this wonder; the hotel was a model piece of clumsy adaptation and glorious modification for public use. It spoke, in that characteristically broken note, of old Australia, the unforgivingly cruel and brutal settlements of north Queensland in the 1880s, the White Man’s goal hewn into a remorseless earth. For here, there would be drink, relief, and rest.

In design, it was an installation art piece – of sorts. Nothing of the Florentine about it (no trace of the geometrically dogmatic Leon Battista Alberti, nor lined purity of Filippo Brunelleschi) but there was effort, like so many architectural experimenters in North Queensland, to create something handsome and easy on the eye. In this alien landscape, you adapt, tinker, mould, bruise the dry earth, temper resistance, conquer the variables. From the street, it had perpendicular forms that would have inspired sighs from the neat minded.

The toilets were conventionally ordinary, reeking with the testosterone meanderings of provincial Queensland; the timber reeked of historical readings and additions, the bric-a-brac of lateral thinking. There was a sense of the gaudy, the lights taking you back to retro disco.

Everything else was fiercely authentic: the canines outside waiting for their owners, anguished by neglect, lapping from water bowls; the all-female meetings at dinner celebrating, not merely their triumph of being alive but the absence of the Man and the more vicious plural (husbands, sons, man children), those irritating sport freaks who find rugby more arousing than heterosexual banter. And families – and so many: the birthdays, the anniversaries, the special occasions.

To go into this joy of a structure, this wood citadel promising libation, would be to find yourself in a drinking hole of garrulous louts in smeared singlets and stained shorts resistant to the wash; coarse fortune tellers and liver-corroded impresarios keen to noise you to death; and bar tenders with a fluffy grace in serving drinks with deft soft hands; strong women capable of breaking backs and building the Tower of Babel.

One stood out, a rock strong heroine cut with just enough humour to be cut from the script of Stephen Sondheim, garnished with mad hair and touched with lipstick. She steered the show, directed the performance, insisting that the “Verdello” (Verdelho pulverised by Australian pronunciation) was the best, and the absolute best, and making sure that the other ladies performed accordingly in understanding and discharging the orders at hand.

To go to the side of lout land and rough trade was to find yourself on an odd assortment of cafeteria style seating that should have revolted. Instead, you could only marvel at a menu that suggested promise – and danger. The fillet mignon tended to inspire.  Portions were enormous and challenging.

Now, gone. Disappeared in an asbestos released conflagration. But from the great structures of life comes prospects for renewal. A new project, perhaps. In the European tradition of churches, buildings lost to fire were spiritual promises rather than actual regrets; for in those charred remains came seedlings of promise. The Victoria Park Hotel may be no different and there is already talk of salvation.

Dark Precedents: Matteo Salvini, the MV Tampa and Refugees

In August 2001, Australia’s dour Prime Minister John Howard demonstrated to the world what his country’s elite soldiers could do. Desperate, close to starvation and having been rescued at sea from the Palapa I in the Indian Ocean, refugees and asylum seekers on the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, were greeted by the “crack” troops of the Special Air Services.

A bitter, politicised standoff ensued. The Norwegian vessel had initially made its way to the Indonesian port of Merak, but then turned towards the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Howard, being the political animal he was, had to concoct a crisis to distract. The politics of fear had a better convertibility rate than the politics of hope.

Australian authorities rebuked and threatened the container ship’s captain, claiming that if Rinnan refused to change course from entering Australia’s territorial sea, he would be liable to prosecution for people smuggling. The vessel was refused docking at Christmas Island. As was remarked a few year later by Mary Crock in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, “The stand taken by Australia in August 2001 set a precedent that, if followed by other refugee receiving countries, could only worsen the already deplorable problems facing asylum seekers in the world today.”

And so it has transpired. Italy’s response to the migrant rescue ship, MV Aquarius, eerily evoked the Tampa and its captain’s plight. The charity ship, carrying some 629 African refugees, found all Italian ports closed to it under the express orders of Matteo Salvini, who has debuted in stormy fashion as Italy’s new deputy prime minister and minister for the interior.

Salvini had, at first instance, pressed Malta to accept the human cargo, but only got an offer of assistance with air evacuations. “The good God,” he bitterly surmised, “put Malta closer to Africa than Sicily.” The result was initial diplomatic inertia, followed by growing humanitarian crisis, and a Spanish offer to accept the vessel.

The situation clearly, as it did in the case of the Tampa, was calculated for maximum political bruising. One of Salvini’s many political hats is federal secretary of the populist Lega party, which capitalised, along with the Five Star Movement, on the shambles of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s failure to form a government in May. The nature of that calculation was made clearer by the uneventful rescue of 937 refugees off the Libyan coast who were taken to Catania in Sicily by the Italian warship, the Diciotti on Tuesday. Little fuss arose from that engagement.

The target seemed to be the French-based non-governmental organisation SOS Méditerranée, who so happens to own the Aquarius. The implication here is the Salvini camp are none too pleased with those rescue organisations they accuse of feeding a people smuggling racket.

Again, this very sentiment accords with Australia’s manic obsession in breaking what is termed by all major parties to be a “market model” that ignores humanity for profit. In categorising such activity with an accountant’s sensibility, it becomes easier to dispose of the human subjects in a more cavalier manner.

The sentiments expressed by the newly emboldened Italian authorities do not merely speak volumes to a change of heart which, given the boatloads of irregular arrivals in the wake of Libya’s collapse in 2011, was bound to happen. They point to a disintegration of a common front regarding the rescue and processing of asylum seekers and refugees, a general fracturing of the European approach to a problem that has been all too disparate in responses.

Over the last few years, the number of arrivals fell but this has been occasioned by patchwork interventions by such countries as Greece, which has in its place a questionable agreement with Ankara to keep a lid on arrivals from Syria. Italy has much the same with Libya, courtesy of a 2017 memorandum of understanding hammered out by Marco Minniti ostensibly in the field of security and cooperation to stem illegal immigration. Salvini lay, in due course, in not-so-quiet incubation, becoming a vocal representative of a front suspicious of intentions in Brussels and northern European states.

Righteous France, fuming at Italy’s conduct, has done its bit to keep pathways to its territory with Italy shut. Ditto Austria. Other states such as Spain and Malta have preferred indifference, leading to the assertion by Salvini that his country has become the “refugee camp of Europe”.

For the interior minister, the Australian “stop the boats” mantra is something like a godsend, a note of clarity in the humanitarian murkiness. He has also admired the firm-fisted approach of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who supplied Salvini with ample electoral ammunition on the refugee crisis in Europe, not to mention those bleeding, yet stingy hearts in Brussels.

The Tampa platform has become something of an inspiration to a range of European politicians, be it Germany’ Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer, and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, not to mention Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. They form a collective of hardening irritables who are taking the issue of regulating refugees away from the centralised assumptions of the EU polity.

The Italian government’s plans on the issue of irregular migration refocus interest in evaluating asylum applications in countries of origin or transit, stemming migrant flows at external borders, targeting international trafficking utilising the assistance of other EU states, and establishing (Australian politicians would delight in this) detention centres in all of Italy’s 20 regions. The standout feature here is abolishing the Dublin Regulation obliging countries on the border of the EU – and in this, Italy is most prone – to host arrivals.

Had the warnings and urgings of the previous Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni been heeded, notably on the sharing of the housing and processing burdens across other countries, the spectacle of a rebuffed Aquarius may well have been averted. EU complicity in this debacle is unquestionable and it is not merely refugees who need rescuing, but the European Project itself, which will require a Good Samaritan to storm in with vision and purpose. To save one may well save the other.

Pushing Huawei Out: Australia, the Solomon Islands and the Internet

Be wary of the Chinese technological behemoth, goes the current cry from many circles in Australia’s parliament. Cybersecurity issues are at stake, and the eyes of Beijing are getting beadier by the day.

The seedy involvement of Australia in the Solomon Islands, ostensibly to block the influence of a Chinese company’s investment venture, is simply testament to the old issues surrounding empire: If your interests are threatened, you are bound to flex some muscle, snort a bit, and, provided it’s not too costly, get your way. Not that Canberra’s muscle is necessarily taut or formidable in any way.

The inspiration behind Canberra’s intervention was an initial contract between Huawei and the Solomon Islands involving the Chinese giant in a major role building the high-speed telecommunications cable between Sydney and Honiara. Even more disconcerting might be the prospects that it would work, supplying a cable that would enable the Chinese to peer into the Australia’s own fallible network.

What made this particular flexing odd was the spectacle of an Australian prime minister congratulating himself in securing tax payer funding for the building of a 4,000-kilometre internet cable even as the domestic National Broadband Network stutters and groans. Another juicy point is that Huawei was banned from applying for tendering for the NBN in 2012.

As the world’s second largest maker of telecommunications equipment was told, “there is no role for Huawei in Australia’s NBN”. The then Attorney-General Nicola Roxon explained that the move was “consistent with the government’s practice for ensuring the security and resilience of Australia’s critical infrastructure more broadly.” Better an incompetent local provider of appropriate “values” than a reliable foreign entity.

The move against Huawei has largely centred on fears voiced by the intelligence community in various states that Beijing might be getting a number up on their competitors. In February this year, the FBI Director Chris Wray expressed the US government’s concern “about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.” Doing so would enable them to “maliciously modify or steal information” and provide “the capacity to conduct undetected espionage.”

Such comments tend to suggest envy; the US intelligence community chiefs know all too well that they, not a foreign entity, should have the means to conduct their own variant of undetected espionage on the citizens of the Republic, not to mention the globe.

The concerns fomented by Huawei’s alleged profile are such to have featured in the telecommunications sector security reforms pushed by the Turnbull government. When they come into effect in September, they would permit the government “to provide risk advice to mobile network operators or the relevant minister to issue a direction.”

Labor backbencher Michael Danby has also pushed the line that Huawei is materially compromised by its links to the Chinese Communist Party, a point that only becomes relevant because of its expertise in technology infrastructure. By all means allow Chinese companies to “build a fruit and vegetable exporting empire in the Ord and Fitzroy River” but be wary of the electronic backdoor.

“On matters like the electronic spine of Australia, the new 5G network which will control the internet of things – automatically driven cars, lifts, medical technology – I don’t think it’s appropriate to sell or allow a company like Huawei to participate.”

Certain figures backing Australian intervention can be found, though they tend to take line of ignoble Chinese business instincts. Robert Iroga of the Solomon Islands Business Magazine noted that no public tender was made, with Huawei getting “the right … this is where the big questions of governance comes.”

Ruth Liloqula of Transparency Solomon Islands spoke of “paying under the table to make sure that their applications and other things are top of the pile.” None of these actions, however, are above the conduct of Australia’s own officials, who tend to assume that matters of purity seem to coincide with those of self-interest.

The message from Canberra has fallen on appropriate ears. Penny Williams, Canberra’s Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told her counterparts in the Solomons that a study had been commissioned on the undersea cable project. Miracle of miracles, it “found a number of solutions that would provide Solomon Islands with a high speed internet connection from Australia at a competitive price.”

DFAT’s head of the Undersea Cable Task Force Pablo Kang also had the necessary sweeteners for his target audience; the project, appropriately managed by Australia, would be cheaper than the Huawei alternative.

It will be a delightfully grotesque irony should the Internet speed on the Solomons be quicker than their Australian counterparts, who specialise in lagging behind other countries. In May, the Speedtest Global Index, which provides monthly rankings of mobile and fixed broadband speeds across the globe, found Australia languishing at an inglorious 56 on the ladder. (A relatively impoverished Romania comes in at an impressively kicking number 5). Should that happen, the political establishment in Honiara will feel they have gotten the steal of the decade.

Meeting on the Island of Death From Behind: The Kim-Trump Summit

Everything about this summit is in the showy warm-up run. “I am on my way to Singapore,” tweets US President Donald J. Trump, “where we have a chance to achieve a truly wonderful result for North Korea and the World.” Such descriptions from America’s ever hustling television president tend to become child like, whether glowingly or indignantly. On this occasion, he was glowing. “It will be certainly an exciting day and I know that Kim Jong-un will work very hard to do something that has rarely been done before”.

Detractors and sceptics were fretting in the woodwork. Former US Representative from Florida David Jolly was one: “Under scrutiny from loyal allies, Trump chooses to strengthen his alliance with Putin and Kim Jong Un.” The slip into psychobabble becomes easy: “Notwithstanding geopolitical consequences, it demonstrates a grown man unable to hold his own among peers, so instead seek affirmation among adversaries willing to provide it.”

Holding the summit on Sentosa Island suggested a deliciously disturbing twist. Now a resort destination drawing some 20 million visitors a year dotted by theme parks, beaches and Singaporean state propaganda, it had been known as Pulau Belakang Mati, “island of death from behind.” During the Second World War, summary executions of members of the Singaporean Chinese population were common on the island, as were instances of brutality towards British and Australian servicemen after their surrender to the Japanese in 1942.

This past did not distract. The two hefty figures approached before their flags. Pressed the flesh. Exchanged remarks. Before them stood two flags displayed with equal relevance (the free world types would have quaked), and a display that preceded an initial discussion between the two leaders. Importantly, that discussion was unencumbered by the machinery that has historically done as much to scupper smooth sailing than anything else. Only the two interpreters accompanying them at the initial stage will ever know.

The horror that this television, social media tart of a figure might pull off a durable peace venture is not something that is missed by journalists and pundits. The press conference was filled with baffled queries: What about Kim’s appalling human rights record? What of the actual details, the sort usually left for the mechanists to worry about after the photo snaps are taken.

This did not bother Trump. He had a show to perform, and accordingly ran it. “There is no limit to what North Korea can achieve when it gives up its nuclear weapons and embraces commerce and engages with the rest of the world.”

For Trump, reminders were important, and praise directed when required: the Chairman “has before him an opportunity like no other to be remembered as the leader who ushered in a glorious new era of security and prosperity for his people.

Then came that other horror: one of legitimacy. Both men, meeting alone, initially unencumbered by their advisors and policy staff; both, shaking hands and standing in front of their respective flags, levelling, legitimising, making those present complicit. This very fact would have made those familiar with the cultic regime padded by its ideological doctrine of Juche uncomfortable. It also showed the DPRK chairman that he had scored what was, some months ago, the unthinkable, and, more to the point, the unfathomable.

A curious perversion was effectively at play. To have reached this point necessitated a nuclear program that effectively terrified and tormented US strategists with sufficient bite to take Kim seriously. To bargain it away in the absence of various onerous security guarantees supplies the greatest talking point of all. The White House mythology is to see different triggers: crippling sanctions, maximum, pig-headed pressure, the indignation of the “Little Rocket Man” school of rhetoric.

Details of the Sentosa agreement have been sparse; the fastidious bookish types will be left disappointed. “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK,” went the salient part of the joint statement, “and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Much of the previous work done to get the two leaders to Singapore was simply reiterated. The Panmunjom Declaration, signed by South Korea and the DPRK after the April 27 meeting committing both states to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, was reaffirmed.

If words are weapons to be forged, then some were sufficiently sharp to draw some attention. “Mutual confidence-building” measures were deemed essential to promote the goal of denuclearisation. Both states committed “to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.” A “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” would be worked towards. Then, something for the populist metre was also inserted for the voters back home: a commitment to recover US “POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

No timetable could be ventured on denuclearisation, the word that is keeping the astrological fraternity in international relations teased, but this did not stop Trump from insistent vagueness (“very soon” he hazarded and “as fast as it can mechanically and physically be done”). Sanctions, Trump observed, would “come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor.”

For one thing, both men insisted that what was signed did not necessarily incorporate what was said. Matters were tagged on, as if in a fit of absentmindedness. At stages during a press conference that resounded of Dada experimentation, Trump would tantalise journalists with remarks about record keeping – or its lack of. “We have notes or something,” he claimed offhandedly about the discussions.

As ever, Twitter, with its brevity and short bursts of attention was a source to return to. “Great progress was made on the denuclearization of North Korea. Hostages are back home, will be getting the remains of our great heroes back to their families, no missiles shot, no research happening, sites closing”. The end, perhaps, of a certain beginning, done from behind.

The Ramsay Twist: Australian University Funding and Western Civilisation

There is a lot of tattle going on about why the Australian National University rebuffed, after a series of talks, the offer for the establishment of a specific bachelor’s degree that would feature Western Civilisation as its content. It would have been managed under the auspices of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Besides, universities have been directing their attention to meaningless, tarted guff for decades, whether it be a bachelor’s degree in surfing, or the various toilet roll supplements that degrees in media and communication provide.

This, however, was deemed different. It’s not popular to talk about Western Civilisation these days, notably in capitals, and certainly not in an environment where sexual politics and identity platforms count. The term suggests dead white men of scolding gravitas, even if a few of them were unnervingly bright and ahead of their time. But in Australia, the issue seems to be that much touchier, and uglier. Education is periodically packaged as a diorama for culture wars, and the commanders and grunts are uncompromising in their ideological positions.

In a country given over to the ad hominem stab, and the physical, as opposed to verbal putdown, victories are won through beating contenders into oblivion. The issues here are motivations, political agendas, and visions.

The effort to set up a funding stream for a Western Civilisation degree was imperilled from the start by the two front men in the endeavour, notably former Australian prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard. Both are members of the Ramsay Centre, the latter being its current chair. The very fact that these men had become advocates for the enterprise suggested a program and a platform beyond an offer for money and mere cultivation. On the table was essentially a program of inculcation to be controlled by the Centre, a form of soft power a grade above the norm.

There is much irony in this. Both Abbott and Howard were the conservative stalwarts who have done wonders to convert Australia into an arid world of accountants and price watchers, rendering the country a collective of aspirational voters crushed by mortgages who salivate, or despair, at the next economic forecast. Such principles have little to do with the civilizational purpose of Athens and its peripatetic walk and certainly nothing to do with the philosophe punchers who made up the Encyclopaedists. As for talk of liberty, Abbott’s meditations soon veer into the territory of the Vatican, whose values he cherishes with parochial dedication.

Australia’s perfected political suicide Abbott arguably lobbed a grenade of considerable proportion when promoting the merits of the Ramsay program in a piece for Australia’s foremost conservative magazine, Quadrant. In its pages, his praise for late health mogul raises an assortment of questions.

He writes about the acquisitive Cecil Rhodes, a person distinctly out of favour with anti-imperialists and not indifferent to looting for empire, with infantile enthusiasm. He then charts Ramsay’s vision about a syllabus that would “foster undergraduate courses in the Western canon at three leading Australian universities with scholarships” to contend with “life’s biggest issues and history’s greatest challenges” and so forth. (Whether this is Abbott talking, or Ramsay, is hard to say).

Then Abbott starts laying his own booby traps. “The key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it’s not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it.” This made it “distinctive”. “This is an important national project.” The only thing to fear here was the dictum of John O’Sullivan, current international editor of Quadrant: “every organisation that’s not explicitly right-wing, over time becomes left-wing.”

In the schemes of negotiation, this did not play well. Australia’s national university was essentially being told that autonomy over the program – selection of staff, selection of students, and the program itself – would not be exercised by autonomous academics and officials within it, but by those without. Take the cash, but accept the strings. ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt subsequently claimed that “academic autonomy” was at risk, terminating the conversation.

A group of academics at the University of Sydney, having gotten wind of negotiations being conducted between the Centre and their own Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, claimed any collaboration with the Ramsay Centre “a violation of our crucial role in promoting a society of diversity, inclusiveness and mutual respect”. Their open letter deemed the enterprise to be promoting a “conservative, culturally essentialist, and Eurocentric vision” mired in “chauvinistic, Western essentialism.” Besides, subjects on western civilisation were already being studied “intensively” at the institution.

There are, of course, other hypocrisies when it comes to money, donations and the tertiary sector. Universities, when they are teased of their component parts, are fractious creatures, divided to fail rather than prosper and bound to harm that most precious resource of all: the student. If the open letter from the University of Sydney academics was right in their claim that the Ramsay Centre could be successful in creating “a cadre of leaders”, that would have been a near miracle. What universities tend to do now is create gluttonous, beige products that pride management and the harnessing of specialist skills over notions of any Renaissance man.

As for the structure of the university itself, management, in whatever curious cloaking of convenience they choose to pick at any given time, see themselves as head boys and girls keeping the academic workers in check, trying to turn the modern teaching institution into a technical ant hill; the workers, generally weak, loathsomely middle class and in search of misplaced spines, tend to be compliant. Rents, mortgages and quotients of weakness need to be paid.

When a questionable money supply finds its way to the university, the issue of compromise varies. The Ramsay Centre’s mistake here was to be obvious, overt, rather than covert and clandestine. Soft power funds can be received but never described as such. Funding for Australian universities, for instance, can be traced to various states officially out of the good books of Canberra: Iran and Turkey, for instance.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also taken the additional steps of attempting to control the way Islam and Middle Eastern studies are taught in Western universities. Then comes that most discomforting of realities: the role played by philanthropic funding and donations to the profusion of China Centres that dot the research and education landscape. Forget the Enlightenment; this is business.

Elite Atrocities: Australia’s Special Forces in Afghanistan

“Further into the Afghanistan mission, after multiple deployments, soldiers began to refer to members going ‘up the Congo’.” (Chris Masters, The Sydney Morning Herald, Jun 9, 2018).

They operate with impunity in areas already deemed lawless by their civilising superiors. Afghanistan, derided as a country of anarchic sensibilities, was never going to be a place for those abiding by armchair rules. Whether it was the Soviet army engaged in strafing operations indifferent to combatant and civilian, or those subsequent intruders of the Global War on Terror – the forces of the US-led International Security Assistance Force and associated allies – the complement of atrocities was only set to grow.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Curt, Fatou Bensouda, has had an eye on Afghanistan for some time for that very reason. In 2016, she claimed in a report that, “Members of US armed forces appear to have subjected at least 61 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity on the territory of Afghanistan between 1 May 2003 and 31 December 2014.”

The Central Intelligence Agency was not to be left out sulking on the side, with Bensouda suggesting that 27 detainees in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania and Lithuania had been subjected to “torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity and/or rape” between December 2002 and March 2008. A true smorgasbord of violence.

In November 2017, Bensouda concluded, after a seemingly interminable preliminary process, “that all legal criteria required under the Rome statute [of the ICC] to commence an investigation have been met”. The investigation specifically into the conduct of forces in Afghanistan, she suggested, would cover the alleged perpetration of crimes against humanity including murder, targeting humanitarian workers, and summary executions.

Afghanistan has again become the site of interest for the maligned side of human nature, this time from the Australian angle. The weekend began with Canberra in a tizz over allegations that Australia’s special forces have committed war crimes since commencing operations in 2001.

On Friday, Fairfax Media revealed certain contents of a report written by Defence Department consultant Dr Samantha Crompvoets in 2016 alleging the commission of such crimes suggesting a “complete lack of accountability”. It had been instigated at the behest of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) examining “rumours … [of] possible breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict by members of the ADF in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016”.

Various “unsanctioned and illegal” applications of “violence in operations” entailing a “disregard for human life and dignity” had purportedly taken place. There were “allusions to behaviour and practices involving abuse of drugs and alcohol” peppered with instances of “domestic violence”.

The report by Crompvoets points to “problems deeply embedded in the culture” of the Special Operations Command. The account of one interviewee is studded with suggestion though little detail. “I know there were over the last 15 years some horrendous things. Some just disgraceful things happened in Kabul … very bad news, or just inappropriate behaviour, but it was pretty much kept under wraps.”

A central theme emerges here: ignorance in central command and amongst the civilians at the helm. Unvarnished, necessary, practised, Australia’s national security remains detached from an understanding of its elite, anointed arm which does its best to keep bloody in conditions of utmost secrecy. Such ignorance extends to matters of “mentality” and the logistical makeup of the Special Air Service Regiment itself and the Commandos.

Chris Masters has tailed the culture of the SASR for some time, being himself “embedded” within the organisation in Afghanistan that yielded No Front Line – Australia’s Special Forces at war in Afghanistan. “The long deployment to Afghanistan had worn at the character of some members, who were beginning to act as a law unto themselves.” Such are the ugly disfigurements produced by small, endless wars.

Evidence would be planted on the dead to throw off beady-eyed investigators; detainees would be slaughtered in acts of “competitive killing” to prevent the endless questioning that awaited them back at base. By 2010, the butcher’s bill for Oruzgan province, euphemised by the term EKIA (enemies killed in action) had become so lengthy as to raise eyebrows back amongst the paper shufflers in Kabul.

The report has produced its own precipitate in the form of another inquiry, this time fronted by Australia’s judicial arm. A dozen or so men of the Special Air Service Regiment have been subject to lengthy periods of questioning by New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton.

Concern of this ugliness is tempered with well-seeded praise. “The SAS is in my electorate,” Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop took care to point out, “they are regarded as some of the finest men prepared to put their life on the line in conflict situations to defend us and our freedoms, they are one of the finest fighting forces in the world.”

The opposition minister for defence, Richard Marles, was similarly tiptoeing with a pseudo-psychologist’s hat, wanting a killing force that was doing its bit in accordance with decency. “Our soldiers, particularly our special forces, work in difficult and complex environments. It’s important that we know, as a country, that they’re doing it in a professional and legal way.”

Elite forces trained to liquidate their opponents with ruthlessness do not suggest law book observers and the scrupulous reading of statutes. Their very existence is owed to being unorthodox, to operate outside convention in contempt of local rules and the encumbrances of red tape.

The issue, as ever, is not their operational doctrine so much as the political masters who put them there, inspired by fatuous assessments of what the defence of freedom might look like. The crimes will happen, but the mandate to do so will always come from high and farther afield, those tut tutting types back in the bureaucracy who insist that small wars in vaguely defined theatres are necessary for the national interest.

The Food of Movement: Anthony Bourdain’s Universal Eater

Bruce Chatwin considered movement the indispensable feature of the human species. Sedentary natures killed through asphyxiation; a refusal to move suggested an acceptance of death. Walking he considered a virtue; tourism the ultimate sin. For the late Anthony Bourdain, a chef turned walker and explorer, no dish was odd enough or peculiar to be avoided or exiled by palate.

Bourdain was certainly of similar inclination to Chatwin – in some respects. “If I’m an advocate of anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Foods and rites may well be seen as communal acts for the new to be initiated into. But a modern world obsessed with nutritional counters, diet and concerns makes adventurism, quite literally in some cases, hard to stomach. But the wiry Bourdain seemed to have a cast iron stomach, a body impregnable to that various kitchens he sampled. The only thing he would not have eaten, he once quipped, was a cheese burger from Johnny Rockets.

The world of eating and dining can also be hierarchical and exclusive, pegged against an inverse relationship between diminishing returns on a plate and the amount that is splashed out at the till. Common dining remains in a titanic struggle with the elite nibblers who would surely die of starvation in the name of impressions and appearances. While Bourdain was not immune to the Michelin star disease, he was accommodating of a stunning variety of culinary forms. “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.” Those were the words former US President Barack Obama in recalling a meeting with Bourdain as part of the Parts Unknown series airing on CNN.

His interest in writing about food was also pointedly against the food snobs and the babbler of high end consumption. A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals was a favourite of his, describe by Bourdain as an account by “an enthusiastic lover of food and wine, very knowledgeable but never a snob”.

The restaurant is an ideal spectacle for sociological study. “The man who founded the first restaurant,” observed Brillat-Savarin, “must have been a genius endowed with profound insight into human nature.” Those manning that haven were the chefs, those gargoyles and creators with the power of creativity – or not – to fashion appearances.  Bourdain, however, never forgot that aesthetics was subordinate to the cravings of the belly.

Such a creature was Bourdain whose quarter century as a New York chef served a plate full of delicious, manic and delightfully crafted experiences in Kitchen Confidential.  In that account published in 2000, Bourdain suggests the aptness of military metaphor in describing the kitchen, a point as sharp as the weapons wielded. Battles are fought, and lost – most of the restaurants he found himself working for went broke. Wounds are inflicted, bloodshed.

Cooking habits are given colourful description, suggesting that diners should be imperilled by the chef’s all-too-innovative short cuts.  “If you are one of those people who cringe at the thought of strangers fondling your food, you shouldn’t go out to eat.”  Meals on the assembly line will have “dozens of sweaty fingers” poking, prodding, stroking and shaping. The meal that induces salivation is bound to have a dark, even hideous side.

He also offers the advice that should be part of any diner’s canon: avoid ordering fish on Mondays like the plague, having lingered from the previous Friday. Most definitely avoid any temptation to get the mussels which “are allowed to wallow in their foul-smelling piss in the bottom of a reach-in”.

Bourdain, according to initial reports, seems to have taken his own life in a hotel near Strasbourg while engaged in making another instalment of Parts Unknown. The recounting of responses to his death and discussions in tribute pieces inevitably go soppy, drenched by the concerns that the taking of his own life was, essentially, unpardonable. Or at the very least, he should have been discouraged, the darkness expelled by proper counsel and sagacious words.

“Suicide,” goes a piece in CNN, “is a growing problem in the United States.” The report cites a survey released on Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suicide rates have spiked by 25 per cent across the country over the two decades ending in 2016. That his death caused tremors of despair and loss is an entirely sensible reaction: such gourmands should, on some level, be revered for making food, and food chat, a joy. But Bourdain lived his life so utterly chocked with nutrients, experiences and movement, leaving the eater hopeful that the cravings of the belly are universal and, when satiated, give peace, and peace of mind.

Dazzled by Tech: Universities, Googlification and Microsoft

The mechanical, robotic striving of university politburos and their jack boot managers have always been interesting when it comes to one particular topic: the role of technology and its adoption. For it is in technology that the mediocre paper clip shuffler can claim to have achieved something – on someone else’s back, naturally.

The shift to Google by universities as a storage and communication mechanism was something taken with a breezy obliviousness to its implications. For Google, it was a magical boon: mass concentration of staff and student data, cloud facilities, the magic of information. Such decisions are generally taken without asking the staff who actually use it – the nature of university management is piously anti-democratic, with all the usual balloons of sentiment about faux consultation and the like.

Google’s move into the university sector with a mixture of predatory zeal and seductive wooing was inexorable, mimicking the cyber colonisation drive of Steve Jobs at Apple (“computers are bicycles for the mind”).

In schools, Google has built a relentless, unquestioned empire, taking root in such systems as Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the United States. As the New York Times noted in May 2017, such an event heralded “the Googlification of the classroom.” Teachers became Google grunts advertising products to other schools, bypassing school district officials. Students became Google converts, effectively disabled from considering any alternatives and indifferent to pure knowledge. They have become the new worker bees.

University managers were tickled and thrilled by the jargon, the applications, the idea of productivity, sending out such messages to staff as follows:

“The College is Going Google! What does this mean? How will it impact teaching and learning at The College? Many K-12 school districts are using Google Apps for Education, providing their students with access to Google productivity tools as early as primary school. Students coming to The College in the next five years may never have opened Microsoft Word, but will be familiar with the sharing, collaborating, and publishing with Google tools. Are you ready?”

Such gush and wobbly prose characterised the nature of such unwanted missives. (Most staff, at least the sentient ones, could not have cared less). And Google was certainly winning over its competitors, most notably Microsoft. In 2011, it scored the coup of coups by netting University of California at Berkeley.

The Californian giant displayed those usual budgetary considerations typical of such decisions: Google, for one, was cheaper and easier on the bottom line. Office 365 would also require the initial installation and configuration of local software as a preliminary for any migration to be effectuated. “Office 365 offers an integrated experience for on-premise and cloud users,” went the explanatory document comparing Google and Office 365. “This comes at a greater ongoing, operational expense and complexity of maintaining central infrastructure.”

Google, on the other hand, would be able to do amply more with significantly less – and at goggle eyed speed. “A UC Berkeley migration to Google [from CalMail] can start faster and with less infrastructure investment.”

But some universities, after conducting their whirlwind Google romance, soured over the giant company. UC Berkeley students and alumni contended in a law suit in 2016 that Google had given the false impression that email accounts would not be scanned for commercial purposes.

In 2015, Macquarie University reconsidered a move it undertook in 2010 to migrate some 6,000 staff from its Novell GroupWise to Gmail. Students had already commenced using Gmail in late 2007.

Again, as with UC Berkeley, it is worth scrutinising why the university initially decided to go with Google over Microsoft, that ever contending beast in the tech boardroom. The reasons are crusty as they are old: “The university rejected Microsoft as an option at the time,” explained Allie Coyne in ITNews, “for being too expensive.”

Being careful to market such economic reasons appropriately, the Macquarie public relations unit was keen to emphasise that the university had only gone with Google after being reassured that generated data would be hosted in the European Union. With data protections being more securely moored in the EU, this was a consideration decorated to sell. To have hosted it in the US would have naturally brought the US Patriot Act and Digital Millennium Copyright Act into play.

With a change in hosting policy on the part of Google, Macquarie found itself veering into the arms of Microsoft and Office 365. That company had, it so happened, opened two Australian data centres in 2014, a point that alleviated the infrastructure impediments that bothered the paladins at UC Berkeley.

The move to Office 365 is simply exchanging one demon’s credentials for another, and the rosy line being parroted by university management must be unpacked with diligence. The example offered by RMIT University, for instance, in abandoning Google is fittingly opportunistic, with one email circulated amongst staff finally revealing why one of Australia’s largest teaching institutions is moving to Office 365: “RMIT strategic vision is to expand into China. Google is NOT supported in China.” A truly mercantilist sentiment.

Twats and Tweets: Roseanne Barr and the Issue of Proportion

Can anything be said that doesn’t warrant an empaneled jury of twitting twats to determine the fate of an individual? It is evident that branding, marketing and selling can only be done in a context of controlled hypocrisy. Companies long happy to use celebrities as fronts for promoting products and the image of a television network have become obsessed with the idea of sensitivity.

While Roseanne Barr’s tweet describing former President Barack Obama’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett in simian terms (“Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj”) was stingingly rude, the hammer option adopted towards her by the ABC was manic. Was the Roseanne Barr slated to return in her show meant to have been reformed, one more economical in her rattled, and rattling opinions?

The sense among the writers and producers was to fall in line. People were all meant to be horrified at this new creation, this new Barr. Executive producer David Caplan claimed to be helpless before the implications of the tweet. “I really wasn’t sure what to do because I didn’t feel like there was really any response to it. It was so far over the line and so loathsome that I suspected there might not be any coming back from it.”

Caplan recounted Barr during season 10 of the program. She was found to be “reasonable with the writers.” Despite disagreements regarding her political beliefs, she proved “reasonable to work with at that point.”

This suggests a bit of hand washing on Caplan’s part in anticipation of future employment: Barr’s tweet had nothing to do with work matters, and certainly nothing to with the scripting of the show. Keep new freaky marginalised, isolated, for fear of being contaminated.

This stomach-turning sanctimony can be found in the idea that the ABC network is magically tolerant (family values and all that), and that Barr was somehow out of step. Take Hal Boedeker, who happily marches to a tune that is not only discordant but silly.

In the Orlando Sentinel, the righteous Boedeker made the following observation held down by the assumptions of pure fantasy: “Disney sends the message that it welcomes all. Barr violated the Disney philosophy with her racist tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.” As if it made any difference whatsoever, “Barr also had a history of bashing others with tweets, and she trafficked in conspiracy theories.”

What makes such mind addled assessments even more unearthly is the remark that Barr’s conspiracy theories do not cut it in the world of fantasy. (What runs for fantastic these days?) “Disney deals in fairy tales, not conspiracy theories.” A good reading of the text, subtext and inner meaning of many a fairy tale repudiates such a view. In-between readers such as academics keen to secure their next grant constitute, it could be said, a conspiracy of interpretation, finding a spectral hook upon which to hang upon the next questionable interpretation.

True to corporate form, the production vultures at the ABC are trying to find ways to move beyond RB for what is enthusiastically being proclaimed a salvation. Spin-offs are being sought, though they must be emphatic on one point: the absence of the protagonist that made it to begin with. In the manner that resembles something of a theft, Barr, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “would not be able to financially benefit from any new incarnation of the series.” (Legal minds, ready yourselves).

The point about Barr is that she never changed, which might well be the problem. To understand the market and the nature of one’s employer is to understand how hypocrisies and cant might change at any given moment in time. The fury directed against her is the misplaced anger of the trend follower with the attention span of a light lured moth.

Treating Barr in such a manner is also bound to encourage others to come out with their scything swipes. An example is provided by Jonathan S. Tobin in The National Review, who has asked for “an amnesty for speech offenses.” If Barr can be sent to the television’s salt mines for a racist tweet “why shouldn’t Samantha Bee lose hers for a presumably scripted line on her show in which she called Ivanka Trump a cunt and implied that she could get her father to change her mind about an issue by wearing something tight and low cut?”

Ironically enough, in the age of Trump, where the ad hominem remark has been given a whole new lease of life, becoming total, normal and unstoppable, mechanisms of control and punishment are finding their bearings. Trust broadcasting to be one of them in their righteous corrections.

Those familiar enough with Barr would have taken her comment as deserving of a chastising, disturbed rebuke, a point she would have been more than capable of accepting. But debate before the lynch mob is nigh impossible. The noose speaks volumes, and expression can gradually slide into a dull, controlled oblivion.

A Literary Vice: Me Too Enthusiasm and Junot Díaz

It all happened at breakneck speed. Before the dust settled, Junot Díaz was on a plane from Sydney back to the United States. The Sydney Writers’ Festival had received a severe spiking of flavour from another Me Too, stop that and what to do skirmish.

The occasion needs some teasing out. It began with fellow participant Zinzi Clemmons at a question and answer session. The time had come for her as to why Díaz had placed her in the uncomfortable position he supposedly did when she was a graduate student at Columbia University six years ago.

Clemmons takes the stance of a revolutionary preacher who refused to stay silent. (Her reticence seemed to have been considerable). “Junot Díaz,” she claimed in a statement to the New York Times, “has made his behaviour the burden of young women – particularly women of colour – for far too long, enabled by his team and the institutions that employ him.”

The timing was all: she had been affected by the act of forcible kissing when a graduate student but “now I am a professor and I cannot bear to think of the young women he has exploited in his position, and the many more that would be harmed if I said nothing.”

The intervention by Clemmons unleashed a flood of remarks that were not always consistent with the theme of abuse. Was it a novelist’s crankiness and irritability, or was it a genuine rage of misogyny? Hard to tell – detestable characters are not necessarily unpleasant in a gendered way, but taking offence these days is the first step to assuming that it has something to do with it. Monica Byrne, for instance, claimed that the author had yelled at her face in disagreement. Did this suggest that he did not yell at men? “It was completely bizarre, disproportionate and violent.”

Carmen Maria Machado was of like mind in asking a question regarding Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her. “When I made the mistake of asking him about his protagonist’s unhealthy, pathological relationship with women, he went off on me for twenty minutes.”

An atmosphere of high fever denunciation has assailed debate and banished such matters as a presumption of innocence to dangerous obsolescence. Julie Szego felt discomfort at the whole affair. “I’m uneasy about this episode though I’m not sure I’m allowed to be, by which I mean I’m not sure about the wisdom of publicly airing my unease.”

Remarks by Clemmons become high-priest and inquisitorial skewing evidentiary testing and the firm eyes of a cross-examining advocate. We are left with the impressions of a self-confessed, bright-eyed wonder who claimed total innocence before the alleged rapacity of an author.

The issue about literature going off in such a stink brings a reminder to the fore a previous incident: the disavowal of the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott as candidate for the Oxford Chair of Poetry. The withdrawal from Walcott from the ring was prompted by the sending of anonymous letters to Oxford academics alleging sexual harassment.

Before the hashtag mania ever took off, disputes and scraps over appropriate or inappropriate behaviour that might bar or somehow disqualify a person from office or a position existed. But never ignore personal motivation and malice: the patriarchy, as with any other ideological assessment, can only go so far.

What matters in this is whether a movement is afoot to cleanse the literary, if not artistic world, of its demons and offenders. Bring in, it suggests good Quaker folk who forget the thorny nattiness that concerns matters of sex, religion and politics. Be decent. Avoid offence. The current approach would certainly empty libraries, theatres and opera halls: no figure judged by the current hashtag form of justice will survive, banished by what can only be deemed a form of inadvertent censorship.

The desert awaiting is hard to contemplate.  Contracts have been and will continue being withdrawn at the utterance of a tweet. Films won’t be produced, or plays staged. The context of whether a work is good or bad will matter less than whether the person behind it offended or fondled. Crucially, courts will be bypassed as reputations are left smouldering in ruins.

In the irony of ironies, Díaz had conjured up a monster he could not control. He had also felt that riding the wave of the assault confessional would earn him plaudits of sympathy. “More,” he wrote in his tell-all tale of brutality in The New Yorker, “than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me.  I spent more energy running from it than I did living.”

Such identity politics did not get the gold medal in the sexual harassment stakes, even if it did a rather touching job of invoking that sentiment: “I never got any help, any kind of therapy. I never told anyone.” The literature vultures found revulsion and admiration. “His wording is masterful,” noted Jean Spraker, “but it’s there.” The “there” was a confession “to not only experiencing abuse but also perpetrating it”.

Clemmons, for one, saw the work was purely tactical, a means of pre-emptively silencing those who had been affected by his conduct. What seemed to bubble beneath with disturbing import was simply the sense that there are some tales of assault that will sell, and others that will not. Malice abounds, and competition is everything; some types come across better than others.

As the firm details are brought out about such figures as Harvey Weinstein, the reigning goblin of Hollywood brought down by his hubris, cautionary notes are also growing. Be wary of vengeful condemnations. Watch the cant. Impulsive witch hunts will catch many, but not necessarily the witch. In place are mere cinders.

Universities, Branding and Saudi Arabia

The modern university is a tertiary colonising institution.  Like the old mercantilist bodies – the Dutch East India Company and its equivalents – the educational world is there to be acquired by bureaucrats, teachers and, it is hoped, suitable recruits.

To that end, a good degree of amorality is required.  Scruples are best left to others, and most certainly not university managers, who prefer counting the sums rather than pondering deontological principles.

Such a point seems very much at the forefront of an arrangement between the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The MGSE, which seems, in acronym, similar to a salt brand, struck gold in its arrangement to reform the Kingdom’s school curriculum – some 36,000 schools in all comprising 500,000 teachers.

“This project,” stated the Minister for Education Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al-Issa, “will have a significant impact on the development of the new educational process in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”  It will require “patience”, and the contributions of “international experts”.

Irons were already being laid in the fire the previous year, with thirty teachers from Saudi Arabia engaging a six-month program “designed,” according to the MGSE dispatch, “to transform their teaching knowledge, skills and attitudes.”

The search for such experts is part of a broader Saudi mission, the “Vision 2030” ostensibly designed to produce a new generation of “critical” thinkers.  “A system of transmitting existing knowledge,” opined Al-Issa to a gathering of education and business figures at the Yidan Prize Summit in Hong Kong last year, “is no longer adequate.  We need to rethink education from preschool through graduate schools and we need to do this urgently.”

Al-Issa has spread matters broadly, with his ministry signing an agreement with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in November 2017 “to explore opportunities to further deepen cooperation on the design and implementation of education reform in Saudi Arabia.”

The Melbourne University newsroom was beaming with remarks sweetened by success. MGSE’s Dean Jim Watterston kept it vague and professional. “We look forward to working with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to deliver evidence-based research methods into classrooms.”  The impression given by Watterston is a system of education that enlightens rather than indoctrinates, something distinct from what passes for Saudi teaching fare.

Which brings us to the sticking, and the even fatal point behind the whole ghastly business.  As the chief Sunni state wages remorseless war on Yemen, in the process robbing cradles and breaching human rights in the name of geopolitical goals, business is still to be done.  Australian education envoys, sent by overly managed universities, are ideally blinkered. Given that it remains the country’s third largest earner of gross domestic product, principles would be a needless encumbrance.

What gives this whole matter of pedagogical enterprise between the MGSE and Saudi Arabia a good lashing of irony is that the Kingdom is at war with what it deems extremism.  Only its own Wahhabi brand, the same sort that inspired those who flew the murderous missions on September 11, 2001, against US targets, is tolerated.

Saudi Arabia, for one, boasts an education program that lends itself to the standardised, hardened teachings of Wahhabism.  Nina Shea, director of the Centre for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, told the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade in July 2017 how “violent and belligerent teachings” abounded in the curriculum like dandruff.

Two years after the 9/11 hijackers reaped sorrow, the National Dialogue in Saudi Arabia sported the findings of a scholarly panel commissioned by King Abdullah.  The religious studies curriculum, in particular, “encourages violence towards others, misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate each other.”

According to Shea, not much had changed.  The textbooks authorised by the Ministry of Education still taught “an ideology of hatred and violence against Jews, Christians, Muslims, such as Shiites, Sufis, Ahmadis, Hindus, Bahais, Yazidis, animists, sorcerers, and ‘infidels’ of all stripes, as well as other groups with different beliefs.”  If you hate, hate well, thoroughly and diligently.

Behind the current agenda of the Ministry of Education is an effort to root out rival Islamic doctrines, a program that is only critical in its evisceration and selective censorship.  In March this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS television that the dreaded Muslim Brotherhood had found its way into the Saudi school system, a carcinogenic force that needed a good dose of administrative chemo.

The Kingdom, he promised, will “fight extremist ideologies by reviewing school curricula and books to ensure they are free of the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda”.  This act of pedagogical cleansing was promised to be harsh, seeking to “ban books attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood from all schools and universities and remove all those who sympathise with the group.”

Short shrift, in other words, is being given to the functions of actual critical thinking, the very stuff Watterston boasts about somewhat uncritically.  But that will not bother him, or those who have put their signatures in this particular form of international engagement. The perks are bound to be endless.  Like the selling of arms, education is a business designed to line pockets, feed the parasites of management, and enhance an empty brand. Forget the students – they are the last in the dismal food chain. Even more importantly, ignore the politics of it all.

Donald Trump, Summits and Cancellations

It was the sort of party you would be reluctant to turn up to, and its cancellation would have caused a sigh of relief. But when the US president replicates the feigned hurt of a guest who has been impugned, the puzzlement deepens.  A mix of crankiness and promise, Trump’s letter announcing the cancellation of the Singapore meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was another etching on what is becoming an increasingly scrawled tablet of unpredictable manoeuvres. More importantly, it shows a sense that Kim is ahead of the game, cunning beyond capture, difficult to box.

It is instructive to see how blame was attributed in this latest act of diplomatic befuddlement.  Everything is, of course, saddled on the North Korean leader. But the feeling that Trump has somehow been left out is unmistakable.  Whether it is the babble of the usual chicken hawks or not is hard to say, any peace treaty and durable arrangement on the Korean peninsula will and can never be attributed to the pioneering efforts of the North Korean regime.  Should they win this, the US will be left out to dry by yet another inscrutable power, outwitted and, even worse, seduced.

“Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.  Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place.”

The letter shows traditional Trumpist dysfunction, a mix of fulmination, regret and tempered promise.  Predictably, the issue of this abrupt act is not considered his doing, but that of his counterpart. He wants to be ascendant, and to that end, demands a degree of self-accepted inferiority on the part of his opponent.

That Kim spoke about the DPRK’s nuclear capability was taken as a slight, suggesting that Little Rocket Man was getting a bit ahead of himself.  “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

The disparity of positions there is evident: the US nuclear stockpile is neutralised by its sheer enormity.  To have such weapons on such a scale suggests redundancy rather than value. North Korea, in contrast, need only possess a few murderous weapons for political insurance.

Hawkish North Korea watchers long sceptical of any bona fide considerations that might accompany such talks suggest that Trump was ambushed.  He was, ventured The Economist, unaware “of North Korea’s long history of seeking direct talks with America, or of its past promises to abandon its nuclear weapons, or the bad faith and broken promises that have at all times characterised its nuclear diplomacy.”

Such a position remains traditionally constipated, one keen to keep up the squeeze in an effort to extract reliable concessions.  It also ignores the dogma of US policy towards the DPRK, refusing to accede to the regime’s desire to obtain a non-aggression guarantee and, to that end, seek ultimate denuclearisation only if and when its own security can be assured.

The Economist could still admit, despite the prospect of a “bad deal”, or “narrow agreement to protect America” made in exchange for retaining nuclear weapons, “the summit still seemed like a gamble worth taking.”

A day before the cancellation letter was issued, Pyongyang invited a gaggle of international journalists to Punggye-Ri Nuclear Test Site to note the destruction of tunnels and buildings at the facility.  Instead of seeing this as a gesture to allay mistrust and build confidence for negotiations with Seoul and Washington, fears abound that this is nothing more than an act of wilful destruction of valuable evidence and site sanitisation.

Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., and Jack Liu offer a different take on this for 38 North: “forensic evidence will outlast any explosions that may be used to collapse or seal the test tunnels.”  Besides, deeming such an exercise a wanton act of destroying evidence suggests that “Pyongyang is under some kind of obligation to open its doors to foreign investigators looking into its nuclear program.  Unfortunately, it is not.”

The response from Pyongyang was far from blood-curdling  In a statement from the first vice minister of foreign affairs, Kim Kye Gwan, delivered via the Korean Central News Agency, “We have inwardly highly appreciated President Trump for having made the bold decision, which any other US president dared not, and made effort for such a crucial event at the summit.”

Giving the appropriate signals and touching the right buttons, the statement seemed to capture Trump expertly: speak to ego and laud current and future effort.  “We would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US side to solve the problem regardless of ways at any time.”

The statement had its wanted effect, stirring the president like a well planted caress and tickle.  “Very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea,” he cooed on Twitter.  “We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to a long and enduring prosperity and peace.  Only time (and talent) will tell!”

All this goes to show that Kim has had a good run thus far, dragging Trump to near historic proportions in seeking dialogue.  The US president has been shown up out witted, and, even with egg on his face, he can only offer a hope that his opponent might change course.  “If you change your mind having to do this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”

States of Cruelty: The Dead Refugees of Manus

In those seemingly interminable refugee debates being held in various countries, cruelty is pure theatre. It is directed, stage managed, the victims treated as mere marionettes in a play of putrid public policy and indifferent public officials.  Barriers have been set; barbed wire has been put in place. Open zones such as the European Union are being internally bordered up, the principle of mobility derided and assaulted.

In all of this, Australia has remained a paragon to be emulated. It first began with tentative steps: the establishment of onshore detention facilities at Villawood, Sydney and Port Hedland, Western Australia, in 1991.  Then came that vile concept of mandatory detention, introduced in 1992. The hobgoblin of offshore detention, financed afar by the Australian taxpayer, would come with the Howard government.

The worded rationale since the Hawke years has tended to follow variants of the same, only differing in terms of shrillness and savagery. “Australia,” came the grave words of the Hawke government, “could be on the threshold of a major wave of unauthorised boat arrivals from south-east Asia, which will severely test both our resolve and our capacity to ensure that immigration in this country is conducted within a planned and controlled framework”.

The list of obituaries arising from such a policy is growing and should be chiselled into a wall of remembrance.  There is the Kurdish-Iranian refugee Fazel Chegeni, who perished on Christmas Island in November 2015 after escaping the North West Point detention centre.  His state of mental deterioration had been documented, along with three reported attempts at suicide.

There is the youthful Hamid Kehazaei, who succumbed to sepsis after his request for a medical transfer was sternly refused, only to then flounder before the overgrown resistance of Canberra’s bureaucracy. The details of his maltreatment laid before the Queensland coroner Terry Ryan have proven to be kaleidoscopically torturous: the refusal to supply intravenous paracetamol for two nights in a row; suffering hypoxia; being left unsheltered at the airfield un-sedated.

The case of Manus is particularly grotesque, given the decision made by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court in 2016 that detaining people indefinitely was decidedly illegal, a constitutional violation of personal liberty. Those facilities replacing the camp have done little to arrest the decline of the health of the remaining population.

Earlier this week, a Rohingya refugee by the name of Salim was found dead in an apparent suicide, taking to seven the number of asylum seekers and refugees who have met gruesome ends on Manus since July 2013.  He had jumped from a moving bus near the refugee transition centre, and duly struck by its wheels. The Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul was adamant: “He should not have been taken there in 2013, and he should not have been returned there after he was brought to Australia for medical treatment in 2014.”

Farce became tragedy when a call by a staff member of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to Salim’s spouse revealed, prior to any notification from Australian officials, that her husband had committed suicide.  The worker in question, a certain Kon Karapanagiotidis, was, by his own admission “lost for words”.

During Question Time, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton exercised his long-held approach of rebuking the heart sleeve wearers. “I’m not going to take a morals lecture from the Greens when it comes to border protection policy.”  His own department, also adopting another standard line to questions on Salim’s death, deemed it “a matter for the PNG government.”

What is in place in Australia’s singularly styled gulag is a measure of calculated degradation, a brutal hierarchy of violence manufactured to defeat the spirit and aspiration of the UN Refugee Convention.  Few countries of the nominal democratic world have been so avidly dedicated to this cause, citing counterfeit humanitarian considerations even as the noose – quite literally – is being tightened.

Adding to the heavy-handed attempts by those in Canberra to deter refugees and asylum seekers from contemplating a journey to Australia, resources and services are being trimmed back.  Nait Jit Lam, the UNHCR’s Deputy Regional Representative in Canberra, offered the following observation on May 22: “With the passage of too many years and the withdrawal or reduction of essential services, the already critical situation for refugees most in need continues to deteriorate.”

Medical care in acute situations is being refused, notably when it requires treatment that would only be possible on the Australian mainland.  The oldest Afghan Hazara held on Nauru, one Ali is said to have advanced lung cancer.  He is being housed at the Australian-built RPC1 camp, a woefully inadequate, threadbare facility which is bearing witness to his last days.  Doctors have had the ear of the Australian Border Force, but the establishment remains stony towards calls for help. The Department of Home Affairs has preferred to remind Ali that he best shove off his mortal coil back in Afghanistan.

The growing list of deaths, the burgeoning number of psychological wrecks, the casualty list in what can only be deemed a planned campaign against refugees and asylum seekers, is such that even the extreme centre, the Australian consensus approving such treatment, might be changing.

The Victorian State Labor conference, by way of example, will consider an urgency motion calling on the party, on winning federal office, “to close offshore detention centres, transit centres and other camps on Manus and Nauru within the first 90 days, and to bring all the children, women and men who are refugees or seeking asylum remaining there to Australia.”

As ever, such moves stem from the left wing of the party, those condemned as bleeding hearts or soggily wet with teary sentiment.  But in federal parliament, refugee advocates could get some hope at the remarks made by Labor MP Ged Kearney, fresh from her by-election victory in the Melbourne seat of Batman.

Still untainted by the wearing grime of the Labor Party apparatus, she could still state in her first speech to the federal parliament that Australia’s refugee policy was not only vicious but corrosive. “We are a rich country. We can afford to take more refugees. I doubt, however, we can afford the ongoing cost to our national psyche of subjecting men, women, children to years of indefinite detention in camps.”

Psyches captive to the police mentality that afflicts Dutton and government front benchers happily tolerate such ongoing costs.  As would many of those on the opposite of the aisle. For such political creatures, deterring refugees who arrive outside that planned controlled framework stated by the Labor government of the early 1990s is not merely a job but a duty.

Eternal Disappearance: MH370 and the Hangar Gossipers

It has fuelled enough speculation to fill libraries and populate databases at catchy speed.  The disappearance of MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, one of two Malaysian Airlines flights to perish that year, continues to torment relatives and tantalise the diviners of mystery.

Ocean Infinity, the Houston-based company retained by the Malaysian government to conduct the vain search for the missing flight, will conclude its contract on May 29.  The incentives for Ocean Infinity were considerable, not least the $93 million promised in the event of a successful find over a 90-day search of the southern Indian Ocean. (The company had requested an extension till May 29.)  To date, tormenting samples of the flight have washed up.

With little on the table, legal representatives for the families of victims could only scrounge for faint praise for the newly constituted Malaysian government.  “As a lawyer who acts for 76 relatives of passengers on board MH370,” reflected Ganesan Nethi, “I find this to be a very heartening approach and refreshing change of approach by the new Government.”

Inhabiting the grieving world of the living, relatives have been met with opaque processes and unfulfilled promises.  MAS was always reluctant to part with compensation monies. The airforce and the Department of Civil Aviation ventured to strike out the claims by families due under law.  Claims have been filed in Australia, the United States and China.

Interest in the plane has not diminished. Sporadic reports bubble with near feverish speculation.  Last March, an Australian mechanical engineer, Peter McMahon, made the bold and boastful claim that he had found the plane.  The mystery had been solved by a meticulous search of Google Earth. With precision, McMahon claimed that wreckage could be found 16km south of Round Island, some 22.5 km north of Mauritius.

This finding was complicated by a minor inconsistency noted by a spokesperson for the Joint Agency Coordination Centre: the prize image had been snapped on November 6, 2009, “more than four years before the flight disappeared.”

Central to McMahon’s contention is secrecy and subterfuge. “They have made sure that all information received has been hidden from the public, even our government – but why?”  Happily, for McMahon, an explanation offers itself: the area cannot be searched because it is being kept out of bounds by US officials.  They “do not want it found as it’s full of bullet holes, finding it will only open another inquiry.”

Surviving relatives have offered their own explanations.  Ghyslain Wattrelos, who lost his wife and two children, propounds the theory that the plane was shot down.  Silence, notably on the part of Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand, is taken as admission.

Another particularly attractive version is doing the rounds: did the pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah land the plane somewhere in the Indian Ocean with malicious intent?  Unlikely, suggests aviation expert Christine Negroni, dismissing the claim by Canadian air crash investigator, Larry Vance and fellow hangar gossipers.

Vance has been busying himself with the MH370 circuit, which has become something of a cottage industry and extensive meal ticket.  Earlier this month, he suggested to Australia’s 60 Minutes that the pilot had taken off fully intent on accomplishing a suicide mission.  He “was killing himself; unfortunately, he was killing everybody else on board, and he did it deliberately.” 

Much of this amounted to recycling, given Vance’s debut on the MH370 circuit in 2016.  Then, Australia’s 60 Minutes similarly pumped Vance for his views, courtesy of prodding by a fairly uncritical correspondent Ross Coulthart.

The suicide theory thereby made its blazing march to absurdity, despite the contrary assertions of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau suggesting that the aircraft “was in a rapid rate of descent” when it met its doom.  So much for the guided-landing theory.

Simon Hardy is of similar mind to Vance but prefers to outdo him, even going for a sentimental, soap opera touch.  As the pilot flew the plane over Penang, he tipped, according to the mind-reading Hardy, the aircraft wing as a “farewell gesture”.

Negroni will have none of that, withering in her criticism of the Vance-Hardy version as “far-fetched” and peppered with “hokum”.  “Ladies and gents, thanks to 60 Minutes, pilots Vance and Hardy are in the cockpit. They’ve fuelled up with alternative facts and are taking us on a flight to the absurd.”

A battle of expertise and faith was bound to propel matters the longer the fruitless search for the plane continued.  To Negroni’s own work The Crash Detectives can be added Florence de Changy’s Flight MH370 Did Not Disappear.  These struggle in seemingly unsuccessful standoffs with spectacular theories, of which the Vance-Hardy version is one.  For Negroni, evidence counts, and Vance, with deluded self-confidence, has ignored such points as a forensic examination which “showed the flaperon was very likely stowed, not deployed when the plane crashed.” 

As with other events of the disappearing kind, such events are drearily eternal.  Competitive inventiveness displaces the pursuit for empirical verification. Even as Ocean Infinity prepares to pack up its mission, the one thing that will continue humming will be the sort of speculation that, unfortunately, serves to line pockets and garner airtime rather than terminate fables.

Australia’s China Syndrome

Syndromes can make for cringe-worthy, nervous laughter. To see the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, struggle with reconciling China the bully of influence with China the resource hungry friend supplied the press with one such spectacle on Tuesday morning. Larded with suffocating clichés, Turnbull could speak of the greatest multicultural society on earth (forget the United States or any other comparisons) and those million or so members of the Australian-Chinese family who had made Australia what it is. Lurking, as ever, is the next diplomatic storm, and the next allegation, of Chinese influence in Australia.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been doing his own bit to ruffle Australian policy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang quoted Wang’s remark that Australia “take off tinted glasses [and] see China’s development from a positive perspective”. He also spoke of the “difficulties” that had beset relations between the countries “which even inflicted impacts on bilateral cooperation in some respects.”

Australia’s own Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has been very busy keeping her own tinted glasses on. “I get on very well with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, we’ve known each other for a very long time.” Recent discussions with Wang were “very warm and constructive”. Pure deceptive theatre indeed.

Within Australia’s own parliament, members are itching to lob grenades at China’s channels of influence, a tendency that is now producing a form of avid competition. Andrew Hastie, chair of the intelligence and security committee, availed himself of parliamentary privilege to out a certain “Co-conspirator 3 or CC-3” from the shadows, a person familiar to both the Liberal and Labor parties.

Businessman Chau Chak Wing, it seems, had not only busied himself lining the pockets of both sides of the parliamentary aisle to the tune of some $200,000 (donations are not bribes, it seems); he had also been attempting to woo the former president of the UN General Assembly, John Ashe, with a tidy sum. He had, in Hastie’s words of forced concern, “close contact with the United Front, the influence arm of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007”.

“I share it with the house because I believe it to be in the national interest. My duty, first and foremost, is to the Australian people and the preservation of the ideals and democratic traditions of our Commonwealth.” The Chinese Communist Party, Hastie claimed, was “working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and also influence our political processes and public debates”.

While such revelations are delivered with a sense of heavy moral responsibility, much of it is stretched. Trade Minister Steve Ciobo was almost dismissive in claiming that the content was hardly novel. Turnbull dumped some cold water on Hastie’s fire by claiming that “the specific allegations that were made… were not new.” But getting on the China bandwagon of condemnation is all the rage. Parliament has already sought to curb that vague and immeasurable term “influence” with legislation that muddies rather than clears the water. When the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 was introduced, it signalled a new front in an inchoate war that, on closer inspection, merely looks like a good stab at civil liberties and an attempt to harness paranoia.

A “new and balanced secrecy regime” criminalising the disclosure of “inherently harmful information” was introduced alongside “offences that criminalise covert and deceptive activities of foreign actors that fall short of espionage but are still intended to interfere with our democratic systems and processes or support the intelligence activities of a foreign government.”

Such words are hard going in the wake of one overwhelming reality: Australia’s satellite status and broader importance in the US imperium. Should Australia ever wish to bend over for Beijing – and here, Hastie and company should take comfort – a few Pentagon goons are bound to be dispatched Down Under to right matters. Washington’s indifference to sending an ambassador of clout or any ambassador at all for some eighteen months is simply an acceptance that the good politicians of Canberra will behave. Head boys and girls are simply not required.

Acknowledgment of Australia’s efforts has also been forthcoming. One senior official in the Pentagon with a brief covering US defence policy in Asia, Randy Schriver, was rather pleased by the spurt of legislative activity seeking to rein in those nasty foreign influences. “I think [Australia’s] woken up people in a lot of countries to take a look at Chinese activity within their own borders.” The country had “done us a great service by publicising much of this activity and then taking action.” With such rounded approval from Empire, what could go wrong?

The field of political influence will always be a hostage to trends. As things stand, Australian citizens are being treated to daily doses of anti-Chinese hysteria. It is hardly surprising that such distractions are necessary consumption for a government desperate to keep its oar in regarding the electorate. Villains are always necessary in political bouts, even if they pay your bills, buy your products, and fill the coffers.

Scroll Up