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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.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Penguins and the United Nations

“That’s why Israel’s policy regarding the nuclear deal with Iran is very simple: Change it or cancel it. Fix it or nix it.” (Benjamin Netanyahu, UN General Assembly Address, 2017).

While he is very much the traditional politician, whose sheen has been corrupted, whose approach to policy merits suspicion, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was happy with US President Donald Trump. Trump had just given a rousing display of realpolitik before the United Nations General Assembly, though it was less a case of Machiavelli than an instance of plain, boardroom mannered bullying. America First had made its boisterous debut, and Israel was not going to miss out.

Certainly not Sara Netanyahu, who decided that watching Trump in action (a good “friend” of the family, as is constantly reiterated) would be far better done in the first row of diplomats rather than the balcony, where Trump’s wife was left.

Not that people should have made much of a fuss. Policy decisions, prejudices and sentiments are well articulated from the podium of many a UN address, but these tend to be more froth than substance. The diplomats, in time, will clean up the mess, mop the walls and tidy up the stalls. “Most analysts will tell anybody who will listen,” writes Joshua Davidovich for the Times of Israel, “that speeches at the UN General Assembly are largely pabulum.”

This pabulum had to begin with the language of drama, one suggesting that anything personal in the prime minister’s life was bound to be globally significant. Israel was facing a revolution in its “standing among the nations.” Countries had suddenly “woken up” to Israeli prowess, its throbbing inner genius. Israel, the “innovation nation”, the miracle worker in agriculture, cybersecurity, medicine, autonomous vehicles.

Any potion of exceptionalism a US politician offers can be bettered by an Israeli one. Israel, Netanyahu told delegate members, had become something of a clearing house for anti-terrorist expertise. “In recent years, Israel has provided intelligence that has prevented dozens of major terrorist attacks around the world.”

And leaders of the world were curious, wondrous, delighted. They came to see for themselves, to taste the heavenly manna and drink its magical waters. Trump had visited in May and stood at the Western Wall – “and when the president touched those ancient stones, he touched our hearts forever.”  Then there was the visit by Indian Prime Minister Modi – more Israeli ingenuity on show.

It also followed that the Israeli leader would be something of a jetsetter too, racking up his frequent flyer ledger. Africa featured (“Israeli innovators increasing crop yields”); Asia (the deepening of ties with China and Singapore); and advancing cooperation with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – moderate Muslim states, of course.

The time for a comic turn was nigh. “One year, six continents.” But what of Antarctica? Yes, the good prime minister was hoping to visit the continent of ice having “heard that penguins are also enthusiastic of Israel.” They had little difficulty acknowledging “that some things are black and white, are right and wrong”. Remarkable.

Nentayahu could not avoid returning to a theme so worn it is falling off its hinges: the Iran nuclear deal, the perception that any arrangement with Teheran made with the international community must smack of conciliatoriness to the death dealing mullahs. Be wary of the sunset clause on restrictions placed on them; be wary of a nuclear-armed Iranian-Islamist empire.

In so doing, he managed to shoot a line of Farsi to the Iranian people, a doffing of the cap. A degree of bootlicking was also offered – every Israeli leader needs to be dexterous: “President Trump rightly called the nuclear deal with Iran – he called it ‘an embarrassment’.”

It was, according to Yossi Verter in Haaretz, “the black against all the shining white that is modern, innovative Israel, whose seawater the Indian prime minister drank two minutes after it had been desalinated.”  As for the Iranian deal, it was fix it, or nix it.

But things have not been going well for Netanyahu. While attempting to keep the show smooth and going on the international road, his domestic affairs are suffering. One version of this is offered by Yoaz Hendel, a soft variant that almost comes across as fawning, apologetic, sympathetic.

“It’s like there are two prime ministers.” One is suitable, proper, managing “to wrangle unprecedented support out of the US president and advances ties with moderate Arab states.” The other “is busy with the former house manager in his residence, takeout trays and the terrible stories about him in the media.”

While performing in New York, Netanyahu was evidently fronting for his audience in Israel, attempting to shore up sliding positions with is pitch to greatness. Members of the law are keeping an eye on him, those in the Justice Ministry mulling over whether he is worth charging over instances of corruption, abusing former household staff or a scandal over deposits on empty bottles.

Israel’s citizens are doing likewise. According to Verter, “He was trying to appease his people in Zion who, because of the late hour of his speech, 10 p.m., weren’t able to watch him during the usual hour of 8 to 9.”

A truly motley array of positions, then. Netanyahu, the potential suspect pleading for mercy; Netanyahu the great statesman and head of an enterprising, indestructible society thriving against the odds; Netanyahu the wise crack specialist with an inner knowledge of a penguin’s moral compass. And Netanyahu the singer of praise for a certain Donald Trump.

 

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

The Demise of Civic Journalism: The Xenophon-Turnbull Deal

It was never spectacular, but the Australian mediascape is set to become duller, more contained, and more controlled with changes to the Broadcasting Services Act. In an environment strewn with the corpses of papers and outlets strapped for cash, calls for reforming the media market have been heard across the spectrum.

The foggy deception being perpetrated by the Turnbull government, assisted by the calculating antics of South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, is that diversity will be shored up by such measures as the $60 million “innovation” fund for small publishers while scrapping the so-called two-out-of-three rule for TV, radio and press ownership. Such dissembling language is straight out of the spin doctor’s covert manual: place innovation in the title, and you might get across the message.

As Chris Graham of New Matilda scornfully put it, “The Turnbull government is going to spend $60 million of your taxes buying a Senator’s vote to pass bad legislation designed to advantage some of the most powerful media corporations in the world.”

Paul Budde of Independent Australia was similarly excoriating. “To increase power of the incumbent players through media reforms might not necessarily have an enormous effect on the everyday media diversity, but it will allow organisations such as the Murdoch press to wield even greater power over Australian politics than is already the case.”

As the statement from Senator Xenophon’s site reads, “Grants would be allocated, for example, to programs and initiatives such as the purchasing or upgrading of equipment and software, development of apps, business activities to drive revenue and readership, and training, all of which will assist in extending civic and regional journalism.” The communications minister Mitch Fifield went so far as to deem the fund “a shot in the arm” for media organisations, granting them “a fighting chance”.

The aim here, claims the good senator, is to throw down the gauntlet to the revenue pinchers such as Facebook and Google while generating a decent number of recruits through journalism cadetships. Google, claimed Xenophon in August, “are hoovering up billions of dollars or revenue along with Facebook and that is killing media in this country.”

Google Australia managing director Jason Pellegrino had a very different take: you only had to go no further than the consumer. “The people to blame are you and I as news consumers, because we are choosing to change the behaviour and patterns of (how) we are consuming news.”

Xenophon’s patchwork fund hardly alleviates the consequences that will follow from scrapping of the rules on ownership. Having chanted the anti-Google line that its behaviour is distinctly anti-democratic, his agreement with the government will shine a bright green light for cash-heavy media tycoons keen on owning types of media (radio, television, papers) without limits. The line between commercial viability and canned journalism run by unelected puppet masters becomes all too real, while the truly independent outlets will be left to their social Darwinian fate.

Labor senator Sam Dastyari saw the Turnbull-Xenophon agreement has having one notable target, and not necessarily the social media giants who had punctured the media market with such effect. “They are doing in the Guardian. You have thrown them under the bus.”

The measure is odd in a few respects, most notably because regional papers were hardly consulted on the measure. This, it seemed, was a hobby horse run by the senator through the stables of government policy. In the end, the horse made it to the finishing line.

The very idea of linking government grants to the cause of journalism constitutes a form of purchasing allegiance and backing. How this advances the cause of civic journalism, as opposed to killing it by submission, is unclear. The temptation for bias – the picking of what is deemed appropriately civic, and what is not, is all too apparent.

The package supposedly incorporates an “independence test” by which the applicant publisher can’t be affiliated with any political party, union, superannuation fund, financial institution, non-government organisation or policy lobby group. Further independence is supposedly ensured by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which will administer the fund.

The decision about which organisation to fund is already implied by the scale of revenue. The cut-off point, for starters, is an annual turnover of not less than $300,000 in revenue. The other end of the scale is a ceiling of $30 million, which, for any media outlet, would be impressive.

This media non-reform package also comes on the heels of another dispiriting masquerade: an attempt to import a further layering of supposed transparency measures on the ABC and SBS, a position long championed by senator Pauline Hanson. This reactionary reflex, claimed the fuming crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie, was “the worst lot of crap I have seen”, the sort of feculence designed to punish the public broadcaster for being “one step ahead when it comes to iView and their social media platforms.”

Between the giants of Google and Facebook, and a government happy to sing before the tycoons, a small publishing outlet is best going it alone in an already cut throat environment, relying on the old fashioned, albeit ruthless good sense, of the reader. Have trust that the copy will pull you through, or perish trying to do so.

 

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

The Genuine Article in Australian Politics

He was there with his entourage, a face unmoved bar the occasional muscle flex. “There’s Malcolm Turnbull!” exclaimed drinking companions at the Curtin on Melbourne’s famed Lygon Street, the artery of culinary matters Italian.

It wasn’t: Bill Shorten, the leader of the Australian Labor Party and contender for the Prime Ministership of Australia, was nursing a drink this Friday evening, treating it with the sort of caution one reserves for a lice infested child.

Various appellations and amalgams come to mind: Malcolm Shorten; Bill Malcolm; Malcolm Bill. Leaving aside the statistical dimension of who is the preferred person for prime minister, a poll that Shorten tends to lose, their similarity on much ground is stunning. Bill goes for the poor zinger-heavy speech; Malcolm goes for the fluffy slogan (growth, jobs) and the hunt for the tedious moniker to give his opponents. Substance is only optional.

Who, then, to turn to? Between the union machine hack and the uninspiring sloganeering merchant banker, Australian politics is suffering a death by boredom, the stifling middle belt that resists radical reform. The stage, then, is set for the next spectacular – this, after all, is the age of Donald Trump, where the absurd is scripted as a daily show.

The mad monk comes to mind, so mad he turns Australian politics inside out with an extreme touch, simple yet purely animal. That mad monk, the fab loon, the reactionary: Tony Abbott. There are others, the sort who infuriate, and trick, the spin doctor and the public relations entourage who distort and cloak. Their version of democracy is the controlled press statement, damage control and staged popularity. But former prime minister Abbott was always impossible to muzzle, allergic to modern forms of containment. Before Trump-Bannon, there was Abbott-Credlin.

If Australian forces would have to go it alone in Iraq, even without US air cover, he would say so with flag waving enthusiasm. On November 25, 2015, Abbott put forth the suggestion to staff and planners that 3,500 Australian soldiers could be deployed to deal with the Islamic State.

The Australian, a Murdoch paper usually in favour of drum beating reactionary politics, found this particular idea dazzling for its original stupidity. “The proposal to invade Iraq raises the issue of Mr Abbott’s judgment – it was made two months before his decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip.” Trump would have been impressed with both.

If deploying Australian armed personnel into a Ukrainian war zone to consolidate an air crash site was possible, he would also step up to the mark. This nugget surfaced in the revelations of former Australian Army officer James Brown, who called this “the clearest case in recent times of a prime minister struggling to grasp the limits of Australian military power”.

Covering him in the news would be like encapsulating a typhoon of verity. However detestable, he remained, and remains, pure to his loathing, dedicated to principle. It is the purity he carries with him to his cosy position at Radio 2GB, where he is feted by the shock jock family.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, he is evidently at home, the revolutionary who prefers to attack, rather than govern. For those against the measure to change the marriage laws, he is gold dust, giving the impression of tolerance while making sure that his position is left clearly combative.

“Like most,” he explained in the Fairfax Press, “I have tried to be there for friends and family who are gay.  They are good people who deserve our love, respect and inclusion but that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to reserve the term ‘marriage’ for the relationship of one man with one woman, ideally for life and usually dedicated to children.”

Marriage as the sacred, reserved institution, special, biological, and for the heterosexuals to make or break. Besides, claims this authentic article, same-sex couples already have “marriage equality” despite not having it, the existence of something by another name.

A similar genuine article, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, also teeters in mad territory, a fabulous counterweight to Turnbull. Here is a person who will make international waves attacking a Hollywood actor for evading quarantine regulations. He will snipe at environmentalists while defending the use of pilfered water from the Murray Darling system. Joyce has a mouth which will go on vacation when it needs to.

Through Australia’s upper chamber, we also see the colourful expressions of the genuine article. There is Pauline Hanson to shore up a form of extremism that tends to find diluted form in the centre of politics; there are such figures as Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie. (“You have no moral values and to go after the public broadcaster is an absolute disgrace,” she thundered in a late-night Senate speech on the government’s media reforms).

Such figures rarely attain the top position, being monitoring spoilers, the shock troops of controversy. Abbott was rewarded with the prime ministership, briefly, and was knifed by his own party. Joyce may well find that he is ineligible to sit in Parliament, courtesy of New Zealand citizenship he did not believe he had. But no one would ever confuse them for Bill Malcolm, or Malcolm Shorten.

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

 

The CIA Wins: Harvard, Chelsea Manning and Visiting Fellowships

It all began with an announcement, made public on the website of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Chelsea Manning would be joining a curious array of Visiting Fellows, including Mr Disaster, Robby Mook, and Sean Bumbling Spicer (Manning, Spicer and Mook has a curious ring to it, the name, perhaps, of an error-prone debt recovery agency).

Mook will have something to tell members of the Kennedy School, being credited with directing one of the worst electoral campaigns in US electoral history. His fanatical insistence on statistical determinations had its own role to play in sinking Hillary Clinton, the person who hired him to get elected.

Spicer hardly needs an introduction, handed the task of being the first press secretary of the Trump administration. (Remember, he explained, Hitler did not use chemical weapons). In a world supposedly hostile to facts, he wore his crown proudly and comically, before taking leave.

Where, then, would the ire come against this rogues gallery of appointments? There was potentially room for everyone to have a crack. Within hours, it became a shooting gallery with one ultimate target: Chelsea Manning.

Apart from the usual blood lusting, chest-beating patriots who adore that fiction known as a country, Manning’s appointment was bound to generate a few frowns. But what should have been mere creases became full blown furrows, with the Central Intelligence Agency taking the noisy lead.

Coercive blackmail on the decision makers was first exerted by a former employee of that less than principled organisation. Michael Morell’s letter to Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, was hectoring, irate. It did not even matter that his own fellowship appointment (because former CIA employees are worth it) was in the Belfer Center, where he would not necessarily be sharing beverages with the crew at the Institute of Politics.

The former deputy and acting director of the CIA insisted that the very fact of leaking classified information – never mind of what nature – was a reprehensible, disqualifying act. It was “my right, indeed my duty, to argue that the School’s decision is wholly inappropriate and to protest it by resigning from the Kennedy School – in order to make the fundamental point that leaking classified information is disgraceful and damaging to our nation.” (How are nations ever damaged in that way has never been satisfactorily demonstrated by the actuaries in the security establishment).

Current CIA director Mike Pompeo also lobbed a bomb of indignation at Harvard’s Rolf Mowatt-Larssen after cancelling a scheduled appearance at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum. The rationale was predictable from a person who pretends to see the world in clearly minted, binary terms, where the warriors of light will vanquish those of the dark. By attending the event, he would be sending a large announcement of betrayal to the former, while giving an incentive to the latter.

Pompeo’s reasoning pans Manning as a felon “found guilty of 17 serious crimes for leaking classified information to WikiLeaks.” He then reiterates a sentiment trumpeted from the start of his tenure: “WikiLeaks is an enemy of the United States akin to a hostile foreign intelligence service.”

It is worth nothing that, for all the efforts made by the prosecution in the Manning case, the charge of supplying classified information to a foreign enemy failed to convince Judge Denise Lind. To have taken that step would have been tantamount to drawing a wide net over the fourth estate, the security state’s ultimate vengeance.

Who, then, should be Fellows, visiting or otherwise? Bill Delahunt, acting director of the IOP, was clear: “We welcome the breath of thought-provoking viewpoints on race, gender, politics and media.” Such enlightenment, such maturity.

It was not a point shared by Pompeo: “Harvard’s actions implicitly tell its students that you too can be a fellow at Harvard and a felon under United States law.” This position is hard to entertain in any credible, intellectual sense, especially coming from the director of an organisation trained in the dark arts of destabilisation, interrogation and extra-judicial killings.

Morell, of course, was singled out by Pompeo as the exemplar of public service. “You have traded a respected individual who served his country with dignity for one who served it with disgrace and who violated the warrior ethos she promoted to uphold when she voluntarily chose to join the United States Army.” Contradiction be damned.

The upshot of this was a whimpering victory for the CIA, a crude one won by the invocations of bullying. The Kennedy School duly rescinded Manning’s title, and did so in the most mealy-mouthed of ways.

“We invited Chelsea Manning,” came the statement from dean Elmendorf, “because the Kennedy School’s longstanding approach to visiting speakers is to invite some people who have significantly influenced events in the world even if they do not share our values and even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community.” Debate was not justification; discussion did not entail approval.

What Elmendorf then does, after patting the institutional back for intellectual tolerance, is to empty the term “Fellow” of any clear meaning. Don’t presume, we are told, that it has any distinguishing merit to it. A Visiting Fellow, he suggests, is merely a visitor. “In general, across the School, we do not view the title of ‘Fellow’ as conveying a special honour; rather, it is a way to describe some people who spend more than a few hours at the School.”

Manning had only been invited, we are informed, to spend one day at the School, specifically to “meet with students and others who are interested in talking with her, and then to give remarks in the Forum where the audience would have ample opportunity – as with all of our speakers – to ask hard questions and challenge what she had said and done.”

The dean then moves into a mode of apology. “Visiting Fellow” could be construed, mistakenly, as “honorific”, a point that should have been considered. A weighing should have also taken place between educating the Kennedy School community and “the extent to which the person’s conduct fulfils the values of public service to which we aspire.” On this basis, inviting Manning “was wrong.” The term “Visiting Fellow” would duly be stripped from Manning, even though the invitation to still spend a day at the School and speak to the forum would stand.

This entire charming episode shows, regrettably, how spines go on sudden holiday in the academy when political forces knock at the door. Academics tend to be the first to fold when matters of courage are concerned, and often do so in graceless dissimulating prose. The Kennedy School of Government has not just been made safe for the CIA, but for academic hypocrisy.

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Energy Chaos in Australia: Closing the Liddell Power Station

Australia is having an energy crisis. A country with such abundant resources is incapable it seems, of handling matters of reliable supply, either in terms of affordability, or in terms of delivery. The situation has been further muddied by the inability of the parties in parliament to find common ground. The gloves are off, and there is blood in the chambers.

The blame game is being fanned with the enthusiasm of Tourette syndrome sufferers. The impoverished state of Australian political speak is evident in the use of various terms of derision. Labor frontbencher, Joel Fitzgibbon, has become “No coal Joel” to members of the government.

The leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, has been labelled by the uninventive Prime Minister “Electricity Blackout Bill”. “There’s never been a more exciting time,” rues comedian Mark Humphries, “for crap nicknames.”

A political form of schizophrenia has developed towards the energy market, though it had already announced its arrival with the previous Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Apparently leaving matters to the market, the religious bread and butter of the conservative coalition government, is not the way to go on this one.

This interventionist approach has manifested itself in two ways. Companies, like AGL, are battered (at first glance) into making business choices that favour the LNP’s policy agenda. Monsters like Adani are rewarded with subsidies to further mine a commodity that is fast reaching economic obsolescence.

The Turnbull government, in a state of numbing panic, has badgered AGL boss Andy Vesey who is intent on moving his company from coal generation to renewables. This would see the coal fired Liddell power station in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley closed.

In horror, the government is intent on treating the energy issue as an ideological one, though it has shaped it as a matter of necessity more for their survival than anything else. This necessity was borne, supposedly, by the assessment by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) that much of the east and southern coast of the country could face the prospect of intermittent blackouts this scorching summer. Just to add some zest to the forecast, the AEMO also suggested these might continue for many more summers.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues, preferring to turn their minds away from the repeated comments by Vesey that the Liddell power station’s days were numbered, took the insistent route. Insist, for instance, that the station be sold to a third party rather than close. Insist that this agreement would enable the station to produce electricity for five years beyond 2022 so that it might make up for the possible 1000 megawatt shortfall in dispatchable base load power.

Coal, the Turnbull government has decided, cannot be factored out. Never mind what the penny counting banks say; or the somewhat unscrupulous energy companies themselves. Or the bleeding heart environmentalists and the cool calculating economists, the latter reminding the government that using coal for electricity is no longer viable.

As one of the doyens of the Australian science establishment, Alan Finkel, noted in his independent review of Australia’s national electricity market, wind and solar sources are proving more attractive, with coal losing its economic edge. Listening to members of the government coalition, and you might be tempted to think otherwise.

Caught in a dinosaur’s twilight zone, the Turnbull government has brought its knuckledusters to the political podium. The opposition Labor party has been clipped around the ears: Do you really want to be responsible for putting coal workers out of work in your electorate, No coal Joel?

The result of hectoring Vasey yielded a minor, if only distracting concession – 90 days, in fact – during which options to keep the station open, selling it, or finding a suitable market equivalent to ensure supply, will be considered. In the cocksure words of Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, the outcomes would ensure that there would be no “adverse impact on consumers in terms of those price and reliability on the system.”

The bully of the show, in this case the prime minister, was less sure. AGL had not “articulated what [the plan] is, so we don’t know and, frankly, I don’t think they do either.” Naturally: having wished to close the plant and move off coal, the board was now being asked to revise, renege, and repudiate.

The Greens climate change spokesman Adam Bandt MP was unimpressed by the proceedings: Turnbull was simply delaying the sword of inevitability: “All the government has done has forced AGL to bring forward its planning for new renewables. AGL’s board will discuss what they were going to discuss anyway.”

Vesey’s own comments suggest that. “Short term, new development will continue to favour renewables supported by gas peaking. Longer term, we see this trend continuing with large scale battery deployment enhancing the value of renewable technology.”

Even after receiving a mock bruising from Turnbull, Vesey could still maintain the unflappable line on coal. “In this environment, we just don’t see new development of coal as economically rational, even before factoring in a carbon cost.”

Turnbull’s handiwork had not extracted everything government members had wanted.  Taking the truncheon to the energy companies has been fashionable of late down under, and the identifiable Vesey has certainly left his mark on members of the Coalition. “It appears,” claimed an accusing Craig Kelly MP, “AGL speaks with forked tongue.” Less forked, perhaps, than realistic.

 

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Shooting at Hurricane Irma: The Seriousness of Humour

It has all the ingredients of screwball stand up comedy, the necessary corrective to end-of-the-world scenarios. “And there she was, Irma, blowing herself through the room … And I shot her.” But humour is in scant supply for authorities who have been paying attention to the relentless movements of Hurricane Irma.  Irma, who sounds like a gentle, tea sipping teetotal passing her days on a patio, is keen to make an impression.

Certainly she has for those at the Pasco County Sheriff’s office, based in the Tampa Bay area. The good sheriffs got wind of a Facebook event titled “Shoot At Hurricane Irma” on Saturday, immediately sending out fitful warnings. The barb of humour had struck. People had to be warned about the madness of directing weapons at Mother Nature’s finer furies in case her temper turned.

DO NOT shoot weapons @ #Irma. You won’t make it turn around [and] it will have very dangerous side effects.” This warning is in the order of death being bad for your health. Bullets, warned the office, come back. “Don’t shoot.”

The Facebook event itself, which took place on September 10, received over 80,000 responses. (And if you do care for the breakdown, 29 thousand went; 55 thousand were interested). The “windy headass named Irma” would be shown a thing or two by the invitees. Well one thing at least: “Let’s show Irma that we shoot first.”

Responses to the event, hosted by Ryon Edwards and Zeke Murphy, were more interested in the humour of it than any intended physical, let alone literal effects. But it has generated a quarry of hysterics to mine, many focused on gun culture, gallows humour and Florida. These are the follies and foibles of shooting, not necessarily related to hurricane-induced disaster.

For those happy to get into the jocular spirit of things, this was their chance at some light entertainment before the brute winds, and inevitable flooding, that Irma will bring. Links and posts to articles about Florida proliferated. Images of weapons and armaments, including infants placed beside rocket launchers, were posted showing firm resolution in the face of gloom.

Even an international dimension was injected into proceedings. “Breaking news,” posted Raghavendra Rao, “North Korea has decided to stand by the US during hurricane Irma, and as a gesture of solidarity, it has decided to drop its h-bomb on Irma to make it turn around.”

Then there were the errors, the home video incompetents, the plain foolish to remind participants what happens in that state. “A Florida man accidentally shot himself in the penis when he sat down on a gun in the driver’s seat of his car,” goes one post from Mike Hunter, featuring the Orlando Sentinel from July. “The sheriff’s office said the 38-year old man has a previous conviction for cocaine possession and may now face charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm.”

There are others: “Florida man shoots python that attacked family goat”; “Man robs store, then shoots himself”. All these snippets have a certain underlying scorn to them, the upturned nose at hick madness. Humour can, after all, do its fair share of wounding. But it can just as well lighten and heal, soften impending and existing cruelties.

Not so, for the literal minded, fearful that wells of intelligence and caution were running dry. “Are you an idiot?” raged Janet Konst Wilson on the Facebook invitation wall. “I hope no one actually follows your ‘sarcastic’ post.” Such angst, it seemed, was justifiable, because, “Not everyone recognizes sarcasm, especially when they are afraid of their lives.” Think about those law enforcement warnings, wrote Janet with priestly gravity. “You could be bringing a lot of hurt down on you [sic] own head.”

Another post from Jeff Cobb makes an assertion verging on the tone of an anti-book fatwa. If the author insults holy edicts, he should die. “If someone dies from this,” claims Cobb, “@ryon should go to prison.”

The absurdity of adding such seriousness to the occasion diminishes on realising how Liberty Land can be so averse to the ironies of the human character. Special warnings must be issued; nothing eccentric or contrarian can be left to chance. People might just do it!  And just as there are certain old jokes about the Floridian resident going troppo, there are always those who think that shooting at a natural disaster might just help.

Transforming the comic into stone serious panic amongst authorities was not confined to the US quarter. True, this is the land where biblical literalism banishes humour from discussion in the wake of fire and brimstone solemnity, but there was concerned Jiří Palička, who insisted that everyone part of “this silly happening should return his weapons and report himself to the nearest mental situation.”

As Edwards subsequently noted, “It was cool to see the response this got from Facebook. On another note, I’ve learned that about 50% of the world could not understand sarcasm to save their lives. Carry on.” As, indeed, they shall.

Image from Twitter (@PascoeSheriff)

 

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Prizes and the Rohingyas

Scratch the skin of a saint, claimed George Orwell, and you are bound to find a sinner with an extensive resume. Such resumes are evaluated in these modern times by accolades, awards, and summits. The Noble Peace Prize tends to be crowning affirmation that somewhere along the line, you sufficiently fouled up to merit it.

The calls, some even shrill, to have the Nobel Prize taken off Aung San Suu Kyi, are distressed lamentations of misplaced loyalties, even love. The de facto leader of Myanmar is showing what others have in the past: partiality, a harsh streak, and a cold blooded instinct. The saint, in other words, has been scratched, and the unquestioning followers are startled.

When asked to respond to the arrival in Bangladesh of almost 150,000 stateless Muslim Rohingyas since August, the result of violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, the leader sternly rebuked suggestions that there was a problem. After all, the initial violence had been perpetrated by assaults on an army base and police posts by Rohingya insurgents since October.

The problem she sought to address was that others were faking the record to advance the interests of terrorists, supplying the world with “a huge iceberg of misinformation”. (How delightful is Trumpland, with its tentacles so global and extensive they have found themselves in the speeches and opinions of a secularly ordained saint).

Faking the fleeing of tens of thousands of persecuted souls would surely be a challenge. The response from Suu Kyi is a salutary reminder that genocides, atrocities and historical cruelties can be often denied with untroubled ease. Her statement in response to the crisis was one of conscious omission: the Rohingyas barely warranted a mention, except as a security challenge.

The statement issued from her office on Facebook claimed that the government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.” The misinformation campaign, she insisted, was coming from such individuals as the Turkish deputy prime minister, who deleted images of killings on Twitter after discovering they were not, in fact, from Myanmar.

The approach to misinformation taken by the government has been one of silence and containment. National security advisor Thaung Tun has made it clear that China and Russia will be wooed in efforts to frustrate any resolution that might make its way to the UN Security Council. “China is our friend and we have a similar relationship with Russia, so it will not be possible for that issue to go forward.”

As for calls of terrorists sowing discord, Suu Kyi may well get her wish. Protests organised in Muslim regional powers are already pressing for the cutting of ties with Myanmar. Turkey is pressing for answers. The Islamist tide, should it duly affect the Rohingyas, will itself become a retaliatory reality.

This sting of crisis and realpolitik was all too much for certain members of the Suu Kyi fan club. It certainly was for veteran Guardian columnist George Monbiot. He, along with others, had looked to her when jailed (house arrest or otherwise) as pristine, the model prisoner, the ideal pro-democracy figure. When held captive, the purity was unquestioned.

Hopes were entrusted, and not counterfeit ones. “To mention her was to invoke patience and resilience in the face of suffering, courage and determination in the unyielding struggle for freedom. She was an inspiration to us all.”

Not so now. Crimes documented by the UN human rights report of February have been ignored. The deliberate destruction of crops, avoided. Humanitarian aid has been obstructed. The military, praised. When violence has been acknowledged, it has only been to blame insurgents who represent, in any case, an interloping people who are denied their ethnicity by the 1982 Citizenship Law.

“I believe,” writes Monbiot, “the Nobel Committee should retain responsibility for the prizes it awards, and withdraw them if its laureates later violate the principles for which they were recognised.”

How often has history shown that the prison is merely the prelude to a recurring nastiness, political calculation, and revenge? Far from enlightening the mind and restoring faith, it destroys optimism and vests the inmate with those survival skills that, when resorted to, can result in carnage and misery. Suu Kyi, in other words, is behaving politically, fearing the loss of her position, aware that behind her is a military that needs to be kept, at least partly, in clover.

Other Nobel Laureates have also added their voices to the roll call of concern, less of condemnation than encouragement. One is Professor Muhammed Yunus. “These are her own people. She says ‘these are not my people, someone else’s people’, I would say she has completely departed from her original role which brought her the Nobel Prize.”

Yunus, however, is more optimistic that the selfish, distancing leader will return to her peaceful credentials. From a dark sleep, she will rise. “I still think she is the same Aung San Suu Kyi that won the Nobel Peace Prize; she will wake up to that person.”

Another is Desmond Tutu, who took the route of an open letter: “My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep … We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of our people.  We pray for you to intervene.”

The Nobel Institute, obviously moved by a sufficient number of calls to comment on the status of the award for the 1991 recipient, deemed the decision immutable. “Neither Alfred Nobel’s will nor the statutes of the Nobel Foundation,” confirmed its head Olav Njølstad, “provide the possibility that a Nobel Prize – whether for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature or peace – can be revoked.”

As for the prize itself, it is long axiomatic that persons who tend to get it have blood on their hands. The terrorist, reborn, is feted by the Nobel Prize Committee. Before ploughshares came swords. Before peace, there was the shedding of blood. But, in some cases, it may well be the reverse: from the ploughshares come the swords, and the Rohingyas are tasting that awful fact.

 

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Taking Aim: WikiLeaks, Congress and Hostile Agencies

Various scribbles have started to pepper the conversation started by the adventurous Mike Pompeo after he branded WikiLeaks a hostile intelligence agency before the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (This would have generated a wry smile of content from Julian Assange).

The words of the Central Intelligence Agency chief are worth retelling in their mind distorting wonder: “It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it is, a non-state hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

Individuals like Assange and Edward Snowden receive the necessary special treatment as history’s great turncoats: “As long as they make a splash, they care nothing about the lives they put at risk or the damage they cause to national security.” Celebrity disrupters, dangerous irritants, narcissists in pursuit of personal glory.

This wretchedly desperate sentiment – for its nothing else – has wound its way into Congressional ponderings. Prior to the August District Work Period, the Senate Intelligence Committee took up Pompeo’s views, slotting into the Senate Intelligence Authorization Act (SB 1761) some suggestive wording:

“It is the sense of Congress that WikiLeaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resembles a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.”

This inventive provision passed 14-1, the only demurral coming from Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon. To The Hill, Wyden explained that “the use of the novel phrase ‘non-state intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets.” And what, he feared, of the “unstated course of action” against those sinister non-state hostile intelligence services?

Responses to the provision have varied. Patrick G. Eddington of the Cato Institute was less than rosy about WikiLeaks, suggesting that such “Sense of Congress” provisions are pure “legislative puffery” lacking legal force, at least as far as Assange is concerned. “To claim otherwise trivializes the real threats that actual investigative journalists and their news organizations face from the US government.”

Forget the Assange obsession, Eddington suggests to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, and focus on dragging out the rotten apples, those “real problems and real bad actors inside the American Intelligence Community”. Eddington evidently forgets that such rotten fruit can have establishment camouflage.

Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi takes the wording of the clause more seriously, seeing it as a form of justification to ground an action against WikiLeaks. But another expansive outcome could just as well ensue, empowering “federal law enforcement agencies to go after legitimate media outlets that obtain and publish classified information regarded as critical or even damaging to government policies.” (Giraldi shares with Eddington a common trait of not regarding WikiLeaks as a legitimate media outlet.  Such is the nature of backhanded praise).

This sort of legislative interference is far from unusual. Australia’s own parliament, whose laws originally supplied no means or facility to prosecute Assange or WikiLeaks activities over US material per se, did pass what was tantamount to a “WikiLeaks amendment” in 2011.

To understand the amendment, it is worth looking at the political contortions adopted by the Australia prime minister of the period, Julia Gillard. Rather than considering the legal improbabilities at hand, she openly called the publishing of US cables “a grossly irresponsible thing to do and an illegal thing to do”, a point at odds with the finding by the Australian Federal Police that nothing unlawful had happened – at least in the Australian context.

“The AFP has completed its evaluation of the material available,” came its statement in December 2010, “and has not established the existence of any criminal offences where Australia would have jurisdiction.”

A year later, the Intelligence Services Legislative Amendment Bill 2011 made its way through the drafting process. It seemed innocuous, a sort of laundry list of inoffensive provisions. But one crucial change mattered: the tinkering of the term “foreign intelligence” in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979.

The original definition was a narrower one, making foreign intelligence relevant to covering “capabilities, intentions or activities” of foreign governments, entities controlled by the same or foreign political organisations. The current definition draws the tent outwards to the “capabilities, intentions or activities of people or organisations outside Australia.”

Such a change should have sent the political classes into a furious state. But it passed with barely a murmur, only ruffling the Australian Greens concerned that it might arrogate too much power to ASIO.

So soporific was the debate that some senators never bothered to turn up. Few, it seemed, had read the submission by law academic Patrick Emerton to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee.  It reads as a sober warning to legislative overstretch, a parliamentary gift to bureaucratic paranoia: “The amendments would permit ASIO to investigate a far wider range of individuals and organisations, even where Australia’s defence interests and international relations are not at stake.”

Legislative sloppiness, congressional warnings, and the ignorant passage of statutes – these point to business as usual, the wood of unwary representatives. But they also suggest a serious program at work: the targeting and punishment, not merely of whistleblowers, but the outlets that disseminate their findings. That much can be said for such legislative puffery.

 

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Beggars for War: The US, North Korea and Bankruptcy

The statement before members of the United Nations Security Council was both brash and high strung. The US ambassador had clearly decided that firm words were needed to understand the continuing military advances of North Korea. To do so, Nikki Haley, far from the sharpest tool in the US diplomatic toolbox, hit upon what Kim Jong-un was doing: “begging for war.”

“Enough is enough,” she warned those gathered in the emergency session. “War is never something the United States wants. We don’t want it now.  But our country’s patience is not unlimited.” Troubling then, that the United States should be encouraging the circumstances for that war to take place.

Haley’s points suggest the exhaustion of options. They also cast a light on continuing failings. “Despite our efforts the North Korea nuclear program is more advanced and more dangerous than ever.” Suggesting, in fact, that US foreign policy has failed to reassure and counter; to contain and hem in.

But to hem in, to contain, to asphyxiate – the conditions, in short that will make Kim beg for conflict – is exactly what is being proposed. The upstart’s wings will be clipped, goes this attitude, and Kim will be potted.

To aid this, the Trump administration is renewing its efforts to enlist China to do its dirty work: bankrupt Pyongyang. A form of forced economic encirclement is proposed. The South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also suggested cutting off North Korea’s access to crude oil and foreign currency sources.

Beijing is hardly thrilled to shrink trade with a state that actually grew last year. “A temporary or partial ban is possible,” suggested Shi Yinhong, an adviser to the Chinese cabinet, “but the Chinese government will definitely refuse to cut off oil exports completely or permanently to North Korea.”

The method of forcibly starving a country of its oil and other necessaries has a good precedent for encouraging, rather than discouraging war. The United States was very much in the position of provoking conflict when it came to dealing with Japan in 1941. The rhyme of history is a strong one.

In the summer of 1941, prior to his departure for Placentia Bay, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an executive order to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States. This was another measure to add to various embargoes on such items as scrap metals that were already implemented in 1940. Imperial Japan, went the reasoning behind these orders, might duly compose itself, desisting from aggressive measures in China, Indochina and Southeast Asia.

This approach did have its panic-inducing effect suggesting, to such historians as Charles Beard and Charles C. Tansill, the necessary opening of a back door to war. Given Japan’s hunger for US crude and refined petroleum products, the need to seek and obtain licenses to export and pay for each shipment of goods from the United States seemed steep. But supply would still flow.

What Roosevelt had not anticipated was the mischievous ferret under the cocktail cabinet. The agency responsible for granting such licenses fell that summer to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

The disruptive Acheson, against state department advice, withheld approval for licenses to Japan to pay for goods in dollars. This was made more onerous by the fact that the US dollar was Japan’s only medium of international exchange after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The supply effectively dried up, targeting key Japanese vulnerabilities outlined by various studies done by the Economic Control Administration.

A cocksure, hardline Acheson was certain that his actions would not provoke in quite the way it did. “No rational Japanese,” he confidently surmised, “could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster.”

This amounted to, in the words of financial historian Edward S. Miller, a conscious and dangerous strategy to bankrupt Japan, a change from an initial “patchwork of export restrictions to full-blooded financial warfare”. It was the sort of economic belligerence that had its ultimate realisation in the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7 that year.

There are natural differences between the context of 1941, which saw Japan snaking relentlessly through Asia, and 2017, which sees a contained nuclear armed midget facing a bellicose superpower. What remain are the ingredients of desperation, and the assumption that reason shall prevail between the players.

Historical analogies do offer useful illustrations, even if superficial. The one that stands out here is not only that threats of war can lose their edge of pantomime. (Will you really fire the first shot?) To forcibly cut off a state from its lifelines, to render it an economic invalid, can also be tantamount to a declaration of conflict, a form of begging, in fact, for war.

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Lacking Transparency: Israeli Drones and Australian Defence

“Give us the chance to compete, to see our capabilities, to compare, to see the benefit we can bring with our [drone] system” (Shaul Shahar, Israel Aerospace Industries Vice-President, March 2, 2017).

A certain part of you should go on vacation when a drone company, certainly one dedicated to killing, gets less custom to do what it does best. The only problem in this case is that the winning party will also be a manufacturer of killer drones. Where there is unscrupulous demand, a willing if soiled supplier is always happy to step in.

The Australian Defence Force was already making its intentions clear earlier this year when the murderous Reaper drone made a visit to Australian soil. This spine tingling presence of a weapon responsible for the deaths of thousands caused a minor titter in local circles.

In recent years, the ADF has pondered whether to get into the grim business of robotic killing, despite its abysmal failings on the legal front. Defence Minister Marise Payne is fairly indifferent to such concerns: “There will always be, in a remotely piloted aircraft, a human involved and that is the threshold for this capability for us.” Precisely the problem: behind the machine is a human; and behind that human is a vulnerable commander executing government policy.

The ADF, in other words, is falling for that old canard that such technologies are good, clean and strictly sanitised through a line of command. Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute throws the book of “strict rules of engagement” back at the critics. As long as the nod is given to protocols of use, there is nothing to sweat over. “We’ve worked with the US and other countries using drones, we understand about command and control.”

Davis also laments Australia’s limp into a brave new world of lethal technologies. “I’m amazed to be honest, that we haven’t got drones or more correctly, unmanned aerial vehicles by now. I mean, Australia has fallen well behind in this regard.”

Where are the options in an emerging smorgasbord of killing? General Atomics from the US offers its prize MQ-9 Reaper, and Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) boasts the Heron TP. The vigorous rumour whirling in the wings of drone central is not the whether the Heron discharges its job well, but whether the Reaper has an inter-operable dimension with the weapons systems of allies. To that end the usual plaudits are cast the way of the Israeli model, while the eye on the prize is already set.

The fuming Israeli representative, Shaul Shahar, was beside himself. His ultimate fear: that the decision is already cooked for the American rivals. In protest, he explained to the ABC that prospective Australian drone pilots had been training on the Heron-1 system, a “successful” one at that. Furthermore, Shahar claims that Australians were already using it in Afghanistan – for 3 years, no less. (Such a nugget of information, implicating Australian pilots in incidents where whole families become the bloody collateral of a target mission).

Shahar smells discrimination and foul play, that awful sense of being strung along. “With all the risk analysis, all competitive analysis, they need to do here and they didn’t done [sic] it because no one has approached us, no one has offered to put our data of the system on the table.”

Minister Payne complied with cabinet protocol: avoid the grievance, keep the options open and claim that nothing was off the boardroom table. A similar option is done in appointing academic staff to faculties: you know who you want, but you want to keep up appearances by getting appropriate external candidates. To that end, the playbook of deflection ensures that no one option is ignored in favour of another, even if a decision has been made months in advance.

“Defence,” goes such weasel speak from a statement from the minister, “is considering a range of options for the future of the future Australian Defence Force armed remotely piloted aircraft system.”

Naturally, Payne makes the mandatory addition, the qualifier that suggests keen objectivity, gentle and deft consideration: “As the evaluation process is ongoing it is not appropriate to comment.” Woe to the Israeli contractor.

The notable disdain for transparency shown by the ADF is far from unusual in the Australian defence industry. The ADF, for one, can hardly be accused of being overly patriotic when it comes to local industries, showing a drug-addicted preference for US products.

This was made clear in 2015 when Australian drone manufacturers – this time in the surveillance context – found it impossible to net contracts from the ministry of defence. The Australian forces showed greater and ultimately definitive interest in dealing with the American company AeroVironment.

This time, the pattern is set to repeat itself.  Few are better in the business of drone-directed killings than the Israelis, but the Reaper has clout, a grotesque resume to back it, and the brutish swagger of made in the USA.

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Unnerving the Donald: North Korea’s Sixth Nuclear Test

We are now into reckless territory with the latest North Korean nuclear test – in all probability a genuine hydrogen weapon – sending the ever reckless US President Donald Trump into a true state of belligerent adolescence.

After Saturday midnight, Washington time, when the test is meant to have taken place, Trump took little time to start pushing out those less than encyclopaedic tweets. He felt, for one, that South Korea needed a good ticking off, a scolding for presuming that some diplomatic, accommodating stance between Seoul and the north might be possible. “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!

Peering through that transparent glass, Trump’s anger with Seoul may well also have another context: the issue of trade, or practices he deems “unfair”. (The spirit of Steve Bannon still rides high). Given his aversion to various free trade deals, Trump has taken exception to arrangements with South Korea.

Gary D. Cohn of the National Economic Council, and national security advisor H.R. McMaster, warn against the needless aggravation that would ensue should the US wish to rewrite, or withdraw from the South Korean deal. But the position is by no means uniform, and diplomats are fully charged with the mission of extricating Washington. Even under threat of incineration and the mushroom cloud, the president reveals his true enthusiasm: doing business, and doing it badly.

Defense Secretary James Mattis, who had been the more stable of the two, was feeling an insistent and heavy breather down his back. Be strong, came the message, and do so with a promise of violence, should the circumstances arise. Importantly, give the impression that a bag of tricks so vast was still available to the Trump administration. Just don’t let one that this bag has gone missing.

Mattis’ briefing to the press in front of the White House came dangerously close to those lunatic appraisals by mega-death advocates who believed that fighting a nuclear conflict would be entirely feasible.

For one thing, Mattis insisted that there were “many military options and the President wanted to be briefed on each of them.” In truth, these options, at least vis-à-vis the North Korean nuclear project, are non-existent.

The issue would be different should Kim Jong-un prefer to attack the US and its interests: “Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.”

Having laid out the necessary punches, even if into thin air, Mattis retracted a bit, considering it good form to tell Pyongyang that the US was against obliterating it.  “Because we are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so.”

US satellite spokesman and Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was doing his best to stir the war pot, insisting that the peninsula was on the verge of conflict at a point closer than any time since the Korean war. (Does this sage know something we do not?). Such statements are beyond testing, and only have meaning if there is, in fact, a conflict: the rest, till then, is not merely speculation but irresponsible venting.

After the initial doom and gloom rant, the economic option again remains a point of fancy.  According to Trump, “the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stoping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.

Tediously, China is again being pressed, as if Beijing wishes to aid in perpetrating a collapse in Pyongyang. Trump is ever decent enough to suggest that Beijing might be trying to help, but has proven ineffectual – much like an ignored parent. “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.

Turnbull similarly likes speaking for China, having, it would seem, a telepathic linen into the Chinese foreign ministry. “The Chinese are frustrated and dismayed by North Korea’s conduct, but China has the greatest leverage, and with the greatest leverage comes the greatest responsibility.”

Given that China does trade with Pyongyang, the cessation of trade between the US and the world’s second largest economy is bound to be an own goal of dramatic idiocy. Doing so will make the US smaller rather than great, somewhat against the current puffy rhetoric preferred in the White House.

As for other options – take the denuclearisation of the peninsula – realism starts to ebb. The idea was again advanced by Mattis as an important goal of the UN Security Council; but such matters remain the stuff of nonsense. Having struck gold, a person is hardly going to relinquish it. The nuclear weapon remains Kim’s best insurance policy, his plumage of warning. He also knows that his opponents in the west, most notably in the United States, know that fact better than most.

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

The Flawed Institution: Australian Marriage and the Same-Sex Debate

It’s a pretty curious thing to see: marriage being defended at all. Like slavery, and not necessarily inconsistent with it, marriage is an institution. It embraces codes. It imparts obligations, duties, and rights. And it creeps up on you.

In Australia, flawed campaigns are being waged in its name. This has been occasioned by an absence of parliamentary will. Abdicating a responsibility that was clearly given to them by the High Court of Australia in the 2013 case between the Commonwealth and the Australian Capital Territory, parliamentarians will be waiting for the results of a postal plebiscite that should not be taken for granted by anybody. The farce will then continue on what form of bill will be voted upon, if, indeed, there will be a bill put forth at all.

Taking this survey into account (the wording by the Turnbull government on this is intentional) is, however, hard to take seriously. Lacking the austere gravitas and purpose of a referendum, it only promises to take the temperature of the Australian populace, a reading of that confused patient known as the public.

Then there is the nagging question of whether the plebiscite will even go ahead. A sword of Damocles hangs over its very legality, and the holder of that weapon – the High Court of Australia – may yet find against it. Advocates against it have argued that such a measure cannot bypass parliamentary will.

As for the arguments for marriage, these have been variant and even idiosyncratic. Conservatives groups for gay marriage argue that you strengthen it by virtue of expanding it. The more, it seems, the merrier. The stance is outlined by Nick Greiner, former New South Wakes premier.

Those in favour of not enlarging the tent – such as Senator Matt Canavan – embrace the erroneous notion that an ancient institution should not be changed in terms of gender. What has been done for millennia must be right. (He forgets that the same arguments could be used in apologias for genocide, slavery and domestic violence).

The good senator is somewhat confused in insisting that the institution needs more than love. It would be far more accurate to say that property and securing it against challengers has been the traditional role of marriage. Love tended to be found outside it.

The issue of marrying for love is a charmingly recent phenomenon. It was very much the understanding in European aristocratic circles that marriage would only ever be to keep the line of succession safe. If you so happened to be a Hapsburg operating the levers of power five hundred years ago, you would also see marriage as a means of acquiring other properties (states, possessions, colonies).

The issue of children raises other fascinating points. For Canavan, the bond between males and females called for “a special word and a special institution” because of its link to breeding. A strict reading of marriage as a breeding machine puts those heterosexual couples who don’t wish to add to their global carbon footprint at odds with the religiously minded. Marriage entails issue, and blessed are the breeders, despite adding to population bomb. Even on that score, same-sex couples can have children, even if a heterosexual element is still required to supply the, to put it indelicately, raw matter.

As for the issue of miracles, nothing could be less so. Offspring tend to be an automatic affair that only promises to disappear when the process of reproduction becomes sexless, a dry, mess free laboratory matter sketched in such dystopian delights as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

The campaign has also given a foretaste of the nastiness to come. The pro-marriage conservatives insist that children who are raised in any environment that is not hetero-normative are bound to have a few screws loose.

Again, we have a problem of false attribution of value: since the conventional marriage produces children, it follows that it is good. This is hardly a good argument when stacked up against those dysfunctional children who come from that euphemised context of a “broken home”. Broken homes also produce broken children, and heterosexual couples can be damn good at it.

Advocates for the status quo have also brought the issue of freedom of religion into play. But this is a deceptive and disingenuous way of introducing discrimination via the backdoor. Traditional anti-discrimination statutes would thereby be circumvented by the bigoted notion that you could refuse to hold a service or bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The novelty of this debate is seeing how advocates from the Left perspective have marched in favour of same-sex marriage when marriage itself has lost its appeal to many progressives. The only argument left, then, is the equality of choice: same-sex couples should be perfectly entitled to enter into a flawed, anachronistic institution should they wish to. We should all be entitled to make our own mistakes.

 

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Spinning Triumphs: Bangladesh’s victory over Australia

The cricket punter will be delighted by this result. Those favouring status quos and sides with long stretches of dominance will not. The first test match between Bangladesh and Australia in Mirpur was unnervingly close, delighting the home team which still remains callow in international cricketing competition.

Prior to playing the touring Australian side in the test opener of a two-match series, the Bangladeshi record of victories was skimpy, being roughly one in ten. Material, however, was being added. Over the last twelve months, both England and Sri Lanka have afforded scalps to a team that is, least at home, is on the rise.

For Steve Smith, the smarting Australian skipper, history was again being made against his side. Yet again, it was made with the tantalising play of the turning ball on dusty zipping pitches. Chasing a modest 265 for victory made more problematic by conditions, the survivors from the previous day were starting at a cool, confident 2/109.

David Warner, already a masterful centurion and a battling Steve Smith on 37, seemed in charge. But this entire match has been a sequence of false hopes and marked collapses, punctuated by sessions of gritty holdouts and rearguards. The loss of eight wickets for a paltry 86 runs doomed the Australian effort, but it would be folly to dismiss it wholesale.

Stunning as this home team display was, the turning ball remains that all bewitching means that undoes current Australian sides. Solid gains are whittled away; inroads are made with destabilising guile. Poor shot selection, naturally, plays its part. There are also undue burdens played on Warner and Smith, who, when on song, keep the effort consistent and even formidable.

Sri Lanka encountered many of these problems when rolling the visiting Australians with a near casual ruthlessness in a 3-0 home series victory; humbler, less experienced Bangladesh risk doing the same.

The hatchets were duly procured by an unforgiving Australian press. For a scathing Peter Lalor, Australian sides had developed an aversion to winning on the subcontinent spanning 23 matches over 12 years, the result of contracting “an almost fatal dust allergy.” (Not entirely: Australia did net two lonely victories).

Chip Le Grand of The Australian did not stretch the invalid theme, preferring to employ that tried approach of damning the victors with faint praise while heaping opprobrium upon the defeated. Paupers on about $26,136 a year, in other words, had triumphed over the millionaires, the seditious underclass over the hapless ruling class.

“Although Warner earned his keep with a brilliant second-innings century, others played like millionaires.” Glen Maxwell was singled out for special treatment, having made a “reckless shot to the first ball after lunch”. For Le Grand, the question had to be asked: “Did our national team expend too much energy on the Australian Cricket Association picket line and not enough in the nets?”

The Herald Sun pressed the remuneration issue, reminding readers about those cricketers who had been in an ongoing pay dispute with Cricket Australia that had yielded them a five-year agreement worth some $500 million. “What happened in Dhaka was on one hand wonderful for world cricket and on the other embarrassing for a pack of overpaid prima donnas.” By all means, strike over pay, went the paper, but “make sure you back it up in the field of play. Losing to Bangladesh is hardly doing that.”

Such acid commentary suggests, according to the solid observations of Assistant Editor to ESNcricinfo Daniel Brettig, the lingering damage sustained by the pay dispute. Cricket Australia’s targeting of the national team during the sniping sessions opened a hunting season that has yet to close, despite the official memorandum of understanding between the combatants.

Another facet of the rage directed against the Australian team comes from the old wisdom of playing foes that merit attention. To lose against a formidable, long engaged opponent (Brettig calls them “bankable”) such as England or India is a far bitter pill to swallow than losing to the unknown, the minnow, the usurper.

Rather than taking the stern, austere ground of criticism, one directed against the well paid, Bangladesh should be feted.  Former test players certainly thought so, with India’s Sachin Tendulkar exclaiming that, “Test cricket is thriving.”

But it was the comment from Pakistan’s formidable bowling all-rounder Wasim Akram that summed up the celebratory note, the exhilaration of the gladiatorial context that tends to get lost in the monetary equation. “Great to see Bangladesh win against mighty Australians. Test cricket still is and always will be the ultimate form of the game.”

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

Durable Conspiracies: Twenty Years after Princess Diana’s Death

It has been two decades, and a stocktake of the conspiracy theories over the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death in the Pont de l’Alma road Tunnel will reveal the same inventory as were spawned in the immediate aftermath of her demise. No response short of fanciful will do; no planned horror, however improbable, can be dismissed. Importantly, there must be some schema, a nefarious design intended to snatch away this figure’s life.

The nature of myth has its own powers, its own resilience. Making the late princess into a myth served the ambitions of New Labour and the Blairite program, which promoted its own fictions through the dense web of spin and policy. “Call me Tony” Blair was a perfect accompaniment to the pop assemblage that was the People’s Princess, confections of managed public relations.

The People’s Princess still exerts a profane power from beyond the grave. She is still deemed “extraordinary” (a common mistake), and worthy of floral tributes outside Kensington Palace. An example of this wearisome nonsense is provided by Mara Klemich, visiting from Sydney: “We had never met her and been nowhere near her, but I think she touched so many people because of who she was, the way she conducted herself in the context of where she was living and who she became.”

To be sustainable as a myth, it was necessary to develop, as Roland Barthes put it in his Mythologies, a set of meanings, essentially rendering them as natural, rather than crafted by the foibles of human intent. This compelling point leads us to conclude that looking at the myth is less significant than the story teller behind it. The show is nothing without its producer.

And my, were there stories to pick from, a vast pantheon teeming with variants as to how Diana died. One common conspiracy centres on a misunderstanding of causation. Goldie Lookin Chain, a Welsh rap outfit, would summarise this neat point in Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do. In the case of the princess, those with cameras did it, even if the ultimate responsibility should lie with a drunken driver and the poor choices made on the day on road safety.

The stubborn nexus with power – that the princess was somehow getting too big for her fancy boots – remains a noisy, if astonishingly misplaced theme. One can’t make bricks without straw, as the expression goes, and straw was supplied at various intervals: in 2008 by former MI6 operative Richard Tomlinson, and then by former SAS sergeant, soldier N, in 2013.

Both figures were particularly keen to push the theory that Diana’s driver had been blinded with lethally intended consequences. For Tomlinson, the suggestion of using a strobe light to blind a chauffeur was penned own in an MI6 document from 1992 listing three methods of how best to kill Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević.

The mystery soldier N confided in his spouse about a flashing light deployed by a hit squad that distracted the driver at a crucial moment. Soldier N, we might say, was as pure as driven slush, arrested and detained along with SAS sniper Danny Nightingale in 2011 for having illegal weapons and ammunition. It did not take the Met long to dismiss his plagiarised account.

Mohamed Al-Fayed, whose son Dodi also perished with Diana, has been the most vigorous devotee of the conspiracy brand, blaming the Duke of Edinburgh. Here, the royal precedent to murder one’s own returns to form.

For Al-Fayed, the design on the princess was simple: the couple would die at the hands of the security services because they had intended to marry. (Those seeking current grist for the mill suggest that the princess was intending to reject any marriage proposal – the old business goes on).

The fuss kicked up by the grieving, somewhat unhinged father led to the stripping of Harrods’ four warrants granting the store the right to declare its appointment by the Royal Family to supply goods. But hate sustains, and Al-Fayed busied himself with sniffing around the Duke of Edinburgh’s alleged Nazi links. The world was spared witnessing the ex-Harrods owner’s celluloid product claiming the same. Unfortunately, it has not been spared much else.

Each body of evidence has failed to convince the punters. The French Magistrates, for one, were never going to satisfy the Diana clan. (Their scepticism was fuelled by a good deal of anti-Gallic passion: if the Frogs did not do it, they certainly made it easier).

“The vehicle’s driver,” concluded the 1999 report, “was in a state of drunkenness and under the undue influence of medication incompatible with alcohol, a state that prevented him from keeping control of his vehicle when he was driving at speed.” Chauffeur Henri Paul hardly needed strobe lighting.

On the other side of the Channel, the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Paget revealed, after draining more resources, personnel and time, not to mention  800 pages, that “all the evidence at this time” pointed to “no conspiracy to murder any of the occupants in the car.  This was a tragic accident.” Instead of allaying doubts in December 2006, when it was released, there were those who refused to be convinced.

Nothing in terms of evidence would ever refute or repudiate the myth producing industry behind the princess. On the contrary, this steadfast refutation of evidence, the fanatical resolve to reject the empirical, provided a foretaste of that modern staple we now know as “fake news”. The conspiracy complex was more Donald Trump than Donald Trump, and troublingly post-modern in turning all matters foundational and solid to dust. And in that dust is the grand sinister design.

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

 

The Myth of the Liveable City

In 2016, the Melbourne-based Herald Sun claimed with some consternation that Melbourne was “set to lose its status as the world’s most liveable city.” That particular, somewhat meaningless status is granted by that great myth maker, the Economist Intelligence Unit, whose Global Liveability Index tends to deceive rather than illuminate. Not that the Herald needed to worry: Melbourne has retained its mantle, and the propagandists are crowing.

The EIU is far from the only player in this game. Mercer Human Resource Consulting has its own Quality of Living Survey, and titled for Vienna as the place to be in its 18th study last year, giving Baghdad the dirtied wooden spoon.

Yet each year, the party balloons are procured with zombie-like predictability for the victors, a fairly unchanging set at the top featuring Melbourne and Vancouver. That’s provided you follow The Economist the way a follower charges after a sadhu.

This is an exam that has been marked in advance, a decision suitably gamed, Melbourne, this grand sized expensive village, which keeps getting top billing. Not even the Herald Sun, as pointed out by Crikey, was necessarily going to go into much detail as to why Melbourne might risk losing that crown.

The ultimate point here is not whether Melbourne has a left-bank culture to swoon over, or a stunning social scene that will enable punters to trip the light fantastic. The EIU rating system is far more prosaic in purpose, a sort of philistine’s guide book for the corporate traveller and big business.

The point is made by Alan Davies of The Urbanist: “these expatriates are mostly well-paid corporate executives who are far more likely to live in mansions or penthouses than ‘dogbox’ apartments.” The suburb will be “up-market”; the drive to work will be luxuriant and distinctly averse to public transport; and health care will be covered, not by the public insurer but a private concern sponsored by the company.

The same goes for the Mercer studies, though the slant there is distinctly towards the European continent. These comb the health, education, housing and economic conditions less from the perspective of the trudging main street citizen than the Wall Street flier who may have to be relocated. Whether a city such as Vienna, long famous for its social housing, gets the nod is less significant than the heft it can muster for employees who relocate.

A neat contrast to the EIU finding for top banana was that Mercer were not taken by the fuss around Melbourne, placing it at a more slumming 15 in the rankings and, horror of horrors, behind Sydney. (A superficial comparison in terms of rentals and living cost give that rating a semblance of plausibility). Between the EIU and Mercer views lie clear differences of opinion for German speaking cities, with the latter proving most amenable to the Teutonic tongue.

The preponderance of Australian and Canadian cities in the Intelligence Unit’s rankings did prompt a quip from the New York Times: “The Economist clearly equates liveability with speaking English.” The call of those British dominions remains strong for those in the EIU. As the column went on to note, “Health care and education are important, of course, but, except in the choice of Vienna, neither Mercer nor The Economist seem to have put much emphasis on high culture.”

The boom cities, the exciting, hot pot centres (New York, London or Paris) stocked with treasures (more accurately termed loot) of empires, capital and cosmopolitan cultural sets get shoved down the lists for being, unsurprisingly, places of higher crime, crowding and creaking infrastructure. Flushed excitement matters less in these surveys than sober business deals.

Yet a city like Melbourne would be, to anybody mildly acquainted with it, an odd winner in any case, even by some of the criteria these fluff studies insist on using. It certainly riles Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s chief city planner from 2005 to 2012. Those were the days when his city gazed over others in the list.

Toderian, in classic deflating mode, notes that Melbourne has an “outstanding downtown” but fails pretty miserably in the suburbs, which he deems “ordinary or below-average”. In what would surprise some Melbournians, he pours cold water on praise for the “largest tram network in the world”, noting insufficient “land use and density around the trams” to encourage more use. The car, in short, remains king in the suburbs.

Alternative systems of assessing a city’s liveability merit have little room for the likes of Melbourne or Vancouver. Hong Kong, for instance, topped a study by urban planner and architect Filippo Lovato, whose submitted plan won the EIU’s own effort to come up with a new approach to evaluating liveability.

“Hong Kong, the winner,” went the confident Lovato, “is a very compact city that has managed to maintain its natural heritage, create a dense network of green spaces and enjoy extensive links to the rest of the world.”  Alien references to any Melbourne of Vancouver resident.

It also followed in Lovato’s study that the Australians and Canadians featured less, and, in true civilizational bliss, European cities romped in. Amsterdam, Berlin and Munich made top ten appearances.  But such a model was not, ultimately, embraced by the compilers of the EIU index, who remain stuck to the Melbourne-Vancouver nexus. All ascendant corporate logic promises to prevail, while embracing, in large measure, the hoodwinking philistinism that comes with it.

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 on Twitter at @bkampmark.

 

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