Wentworth Circus, Elephants In The Room, Jokers In…

The Liberals have lost Wentworth for the first time and so the…

Oh, for a government that values values

By Loz LawreyI constantly hear the word “values” bandied about in public…

If You Missed Scott Morrison's Concession Speech

Ok, I was watching Sky's coverage of the election.We cut from the…

Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem…

Politics can, after a time, becomes a myopic exercise of expedient measures…

Wentworth: Something right out of the classics!

By George TheodoridisIt's Thucydides all over again, isn't it? I mean, it's so…

Scott steps up but all he can hit…

Scott Morrison might tell us he has “stepped up to the plate”…

Wentworth Mystery: The Baffling Case Of The Missing…

So the Coalition dump Malcolm Turnbull as leader and he decides to…

The story behind the latest unemployment figures

The government sent out the troops to spruik the latest jobs growth…

«
»
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.

Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem Problem

Politics can, after a time, becomes a myopic exercise of expedient measures and desperate hope. Politics, raw and crude, is at its best at points where survival matters. Conversely, it can illustrate human vices in raw fashion, low points of idiocy and the disaster of folly.

The Morrison government in Australia risks succumbing to another march of folly. Having arisen from a decision to summarily execute its leader (politically speaking), Malcolm Turnbull’s replacement looks wooden, a hulk of swaying confusion in search of a purpose. No perspective to exploit is beyond Scott Morrison’s purview, be it psychologically ruined children on Manus Island or the prospect of disturbing relations with a move of the Australian embassy to Jerusalem.

The latest shot to Morrison’s less than tranquil ship has come from the abrupt move to consider Jerusalem as the new seat of Australia’s representation, one made simultaneously with a not so considered contemplation of repudiating the Iran nuclear deal. Some figures, cocooned by security and a cultivated sense of obliviousness, felt it sensible. Colin Rubinstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council felt it politically savvy. “Look at his backbench.  Look at his ministry.  If you took a poll I think you’d find a lot of support.”

A cruder rationale lurks behind the decision: an attempt, made at short notice, to shore up the Jewish vote in the federal seat of Wentworth, vacated by Turnbull in the aftermath of the Liberal Party’s leadership challenge. The good, irate citizens of that seat are being asked whether to return a Liberal member to Canberra, a point complicated by a competitive field of candidates and dollops of anger.

In this instance, a leaked briefing or bulletin by the Australian domestic intelligence service on the possible disturbance of any such announcement found its way into the public domain. Marked “Secret” and “AUSTEO” (Australian eyes only), it received distribution on October 15, a day before Morrison floated the idea of an embassy relocation.

The ASIO Bulletin is sombre and reflective, no doubt aware that the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem came with much blood (dozens of Palestinians slaughtered along with 2,400 injured during protests in May): “We expect any announcement on the possible relocation of the Australian embassy to Jerusalem, or consideration of voting against Palestinians in the United Nations, may provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank.” The document also noted that, “possible Australian interests may be the target of protest activity following any announcement.”

Morrison, having been caught off guard (why would you listen to cautious intelligence officials?) sought a second opinion from ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis to placate critics. “I want to… reassure Australians that ASIO has no evidence at this time of any planned violence in response to the government’s announcement on 16 October and the matter was fully discussed by Cabinet.”

Another (failed) element of Morrison’s Jerusalem botching stems from attempts to minimise the reaction from various Muslim states to the prospects of moving Australian diplomats from Tel Aviv. One state, Australia’s northern neighbour with the largest Muslim populace on the planet, came to mind.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi had been rather busy on the WhatsApp program conveying notes of concern to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, a point that was dismissed by the Morrison government as small beer. A spokesman for Senator Payne went so far as to call the exchange part of a “constructive discussion.”

The messages, also leaked, suggested that the term “constructive” had been rather worn. The action would, according to Marsudi, prove a “slap” to “Indonesia’s face”. Irritated at the timing of the announcement (Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki was visiting Jakarta), Payne’s counterpart wondered: “Is it really necessary to do this on Tuesday?”

Payne’s spokesman, briefed to soften the agitation, explained his boss’s position: “Minister Payne emphasised that there had been no change to Australia’s commitment to the Middle East peace process and to a durable and resilient two-state solution that allowed Israel and a future Palestinian state to exist side by side, within internationally recognised borders.”

This did little to calm Marsudi, who badgered Australia’s ambassador Gary Quinlan for two meetings in three days to explain why the contents of her conversation with Payne had made their merry way into the public domain.

The statement from the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Canberra, signed by Egyptian ambassador Mohamad Khairat as head of the Council, did much to blow off any suggestions that Morrison’s grand idea would not be damaging. “The two-state solution means nothing without an equitable resolution of these final-status issues. In the absence of functioning peace process, the sensible course of action would be for Australia to recognise the State of Palestine based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

The waters of diplomacy have been muddied, and Morrison is keen to find convenient scapegoats. The Victorian Labor government has been accused of leaking the ASIO bulletin to The Guardian Australia, though this vaguely libellous accusation ignores the genuine possibility that staff on Morrison’s own side might well have done so. According to an ASIO spokesman, Lewis had spoken to the Australian Federal Police head Andrew Colvin and “formally referred this matter to the AFP for investigation.”

This entire tie-up revealed a standard perversion in Australian attitudes to classified information: the disclosure of WhatsApp messages between representatives of a foreign country is frowned upon but less egregious than a sober, relevant document warning government officials about the consequences of an expedient foreign policy decision. The latter informs an otherwise ignorant public about a government making policy on the hop; the former is a disclosure of tittle-tattle and anger, useful in exposing hypocrisy. Both, at this terminus of the Morrison government, reveal a slide into imminent electoral extinction.

Embassy Disappearances: Jamal Khashoggi and the Foreign Policy Web

“Do this outside. You will put me into trouble” (Mohammad al-Otaibi, Saudi consul, to Saudi agents, Istanbul, October 2, 2018).

It smells, but anything wedged between the putrefaction of Saudi foreign policy, the ambition of Turkish bellicosity, and the US muddling middleman is bound to. Three powers tussling over image and appearance; all engaged in a wrestle over how best to seem the least hypocritical. US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi already seems to have found his name into the books of martyred dissidents, but we have no body, merely an inflicted disappearance suggesting a gruesome murder.

The journalist, a notable critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was last seen on October 2 entering the residence of the Saudi consul-general in Istanbul, ostensibly to obtain a document necessary for his upcoming nuptials. A senior Turkish official put forth a brutal scenario on Wednesday based on obtained audio recordings. Saudi operatives, probably numbering 15 from the intelligence services and the Royal Guards, were waiting for Khashoggi’s arrival at 1.15 pm. Within a matter of minutes, Khashoggi was dead, decapitated, dismembered, his fingers removed. The entire operation took two hours.

The New York Times pondered how the brutality was inflicted. “Whether Mr. Khashoggi was killed before his fingers were removed and his body dismembered could not be determined.” The Saudi consul Mohammad al-Otaibi was revealed to be squeamish and worried, suggesting the agents ply their craft elsewhere. The reply from one of the company was curt and unequivocal: “If you want to live when you come back to Arabia, shut up.” A Saudi doctor of forensics, Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, a worthy addition to the crew, got to work disposing of the body. His advice to any companions feeling wobbly: listen to music, soothe the savage breast.

A danse macabre has developed between the various power players. US president Donald Trump has asked his Turkish counterparts for any audio or video evidence that might shed light on the journalist’s fate. To date, these have been drip fed with tantalising timing, disturbing the White House’s neat and comfortable acceptance of the account put forth by Riyadh. But Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an individual never shy to exploit a jingoistic moment, has remained cautiously reticent.

This is where the world of image, supposition, and make-believe, comes into play. The procuring of evidence is being resisted. Trump asks, but does not expect any. The Turkish side, thus far, supplies crumbs, finding their way into selected news outlets such as the Daily Yeni Şafak. Trump, for his part, remains non-committal, even indifferent to what might emerge. “I’m not sure yet that it exists, probably does, probably does.”

The picture is patchy, gathered from audio surveillance, intercepted communications and a miscellany of sources, but on this point, Ankara remains ginger. US intelligence officials have so far suggested that circumstantial evidence on the involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed is growing.

Trump’s game with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of hedging and hoping: hedging on the issue of blood-linked complicity, and hoping that the sordid matter will simply evaporate in the ether of the next event. “I just want to find out what’s happening,” he deflected. “I’m not giving cover at all.” But he has again fallen victim to the characteristic, off colour corker: allegations against the Saudis might be analogously seen with those of sexual assault against now confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also shown a marked reluctance to go near any details, telling the press that any facts on Khashoggi will not be discussed.

Politicians in the United States have been attempting to add tears and remorse to the equation, though these dry quickly. Rep. Eric Swalwell Jr. from California suggested that the explanations were needless. “If someone was killed in your home, while you were in it, and 15 days later you’re still coming up with an explanation… forget it. We already know.” US Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Orrin Hatch are chewing over the prospect that Khashoggi’s fate might have been occasioned by an “interrogation gone wrong”.

The one person to again blow the cover off any niceties, to destroy the façade of propriety in what is otherwise a grizzly affair is the US president. He has avoided funereal respects and regrets. He has avoided referencing any idyllic notions of a free press. The all-powerful dollar and arms sales remain paramount. “You’ve got $100 billion worth of arms sales… we cannot alienate our biggest player in the Middle East.” And just to show that a love of God and the foetus won’t deter evangelicals from embracing a ghoulish Arab theocracy, Pat Robertson has added his hearty support. “For those who are screaming blood for the Saudis – look, these people are our allies.”

Whatever happens regarding Khashoggi, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh is assured. Turkey, from first signs, is avoiding open confrontation. Murder, alleged or otherwise, can take place in certain circumstances, however brazenly executed. The brutality against Khashoggi, should it ever come to be properly aired, is but another footnote in the program of a kingdom indifferent to suffering, from the saw doctor to the jet. And business remains business.

DNA in Trumpland: Elizabeth Warren’s Native American Dance

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) made a fundamental error in chasing the coattails of DNA provenance as a response to the jibes of US President Donald J. Trump. She had been derided by the president as an ordinary “Pocahontas”, and promised at a July 5 rally in Montana a million dollars “to your favourite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”

The very fact that the senator took the test was not merely a concession to the wiles of such rogue, extortionate agencies such as “Ancestry.com” but a nod to the validity of Trump’s characteristic prodding. He had managed to, as he has so often before, lower the tone of conversation and disfigure it. Warren had, in other words, done what most Democrats did before and after the election on 2016: grudgingly accept that the man wasn’t barking mad or reactionary in insisting on a course of action reserved for game show gimmicks and the lunatic fringe.

The test-run of this spectacle was already made during the previous presidency, when Trump repeatedly insisted that Barack Obama was born, not in Hawaii but Kenya. Obama assumed that a world of debate, evidence and tests would matter. The fact-checkers would gather under the same umbrella; confidence would be restored against ignorance and the ill-informed if the paperwork could be produced. Against the mind of Trump, facts have no place to land, no means of clutching and holding. They simply slip, awaiting the next grab. More often than not, they are subtracted.

As if to prove that point, Trump finally conceded during his 2016 presidential campaign that Obama’s paperwork had, in fact, been in order. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” Trump then came with his own unsettling improvement, accusing his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, of having spawned the “birther movement”. (It has since been reported that the birther fascination remains mother’s milk for Trump, an individual offended by authenticity.)

Given that one of the big problems in current US politics lies in its division between billowy identitarianism and head blowing reaction, wading into a gene pool associated with Native American identity was not necessarily useful. It risked aggravating Native American sensibilities and while failing to convince Trump. Warren claimed that she would not “sit quietly for @realDonaldTrump’s racism, so I took a test.”

She also had to mention that “a famous geneticist”, Professor Carlos D. Bustamante of Stanford, had examined her DNA in this elaborate exercise of eugenic self-affirmation. The test revealed a historical whiff of Native American, through the ancestral line stretching back some six to ten generations ago. “The facts suggest,” concluded Bustamante, “that you absolutely have Native American ancestry in your pedigree.” Warren duly released a video built on a refutation of Trump’s claims, insisting that such insults were designed “to distract from the kinds of changes I am fighting for.”

Taking such tests, larding counter-claims with weapons of putative fact, simply plays into the pantomime of provocation and mockery that Trumpland inspires; you dignify such shows of provocation further by conceding to your opponent that he might have had something to go on in the first place, the absurd or irrelevant rendered plausible.

When questioned about the findings, Trump adopted his characteristic method of degrading the premises and the evidence. What was the percentage, for instance, of Warren’s Native American background? One or one thousand? Being negligible in the gene tally was as good as not existing at all. As for the money, he wasn’t going to be parting with any, having, in his own mind at least, never made a promise to part with any. Having said that, “I’ll only do it if I can test her personally, OK? That will not be something I enjoy doing either.”

Warren deemed such comments “creepy”, and part of the Trump method of responding to “women who scare him: call us names, attack us personally, shrink us down to feel better about himself.” Such acts might well “soothe his ego – but it won’t work.”

Unfortunately for Warren, her effort to placate the hounds of scepticism did not only inspire Trump to another round of mockery; it enraged members of the Cherokee Nation. Warren had issued a modest disclaimer in saying that, “DNA & family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only – only – by Tribal Nations.” While respecting “the distinction”, she preferred to not list herself as “Native” in the Senate.

In a country sensitive to the opportunism of appropriation and incessant culture wars, Warren did not impress. Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. was livid. “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.” Warren had not merely delegitimised the use of DNA tests but dishonoured “legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.”

The way was left open to Trump to initiate another round of attacks. “Even they,” chortled Trump, “don’t want her.” He thanked “the Cherokee Nation for revealing that Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, is a complete and total Fraud!” And so it was, back to the misery of square one, Warren checkmated, Trump bullishly ecstatic, and political conversation dumbed into oblivion.

Agents of Chaos: Trump, the Federal Reserve and Andrew Jackson

“It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes” (President Andrew Jackson, Washington, July 10, 1832).

They are three players, all problematic in their own way. They are the creatures of inconvenient chaos. Donald Trump was born into the role, a misfit of misrule who found his baffling way to the White House on a grievance. Wall Street, with its various agglomerations of vice and ambition constitute the spear of global instability while the US Federal Reserve, long seen as a gentlemanly symbol of stability, has done its fair share to avoid its remit to right unstable ships, a power in its own right.

The Federal Reserve, despite assuming the role of Apollonian stabiliser, remained blind and indifferent through the Clinton era under the stewardship of Alan Greenspan. The creatures of Dionysus played, and Greenspan was happy to watch. While he is credited with having contained the shock of the 1987 stock-market crash, he proceeded to push a period of manically low interest rates and minimal financial regulation through the hot growth of the 1990s and early 2000s. Rather than condemning “Ninja loans” and other such bank exotica, he celebrated them as creations of speculative genius.

The mood at the Fed these days might seems chastened. They are the monkish wowsers and party poopers, those who lock down the bar and tell the merrily sauced to head home. The sense there is that the market, boosted and inflated, needs correction after years of keeping interest rates at floor levels. Unemployment levels are at 3.7 per cent; inflation levels are close to 2 per cent. “If the strong growth in income and jobs continues,” reasoned Federal Reserve chairman Jerome H. Powell in August, “further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will likely be appropriate.”

Cooling through an increase in interest rates was deemed necessary in light of a consumer binge induced by Trump’s tax cuts, and no one knows when it will stop. “What’s not yet clear,” observes Timothy Moore, “is how far rates will have to rise to reach a level that the Fed considers neutral – where rates neither bolster nor restrain the pace of growth – because rates already have risen so much.” To three rises in the federal-funds rate that have already taken place could be added another in December and in 2019.

Powell is now facing attacks by President Trump, a self-described “low interest rate person,” in a manner not unlike the assault on the Second Bank of the United States by President Andrew Jackson. Trump’s adolescent indignation is akin to the person whose balloons have been pinched. In July, he was “not thrilled” with that round of rate hikes and said as much. “Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again.” Markets, playing their side of the disruptive bargain, reacted, with the dollar, stocks and treasury yields falling.

This month, the same story repeated itself. When the markets go up, Trump, invariably, sees his hand in it; when they go down, someone else foots the blame. Now, according to the president, the Federal Reserve has “gone crazy” and “wild” in various measures. “I’d like our Fed not to be so aggressive, because I think they’re making a big mistake.” To Fox News’s Shannon Bream, Trump insisted that, “The Fed is going loco and there’s no reason for them to do it.” White House chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow found himself defending his boss “as a successful businessman and investor” informed about such matters.

The history between the Fed and the White House has been punctuated by occasional bouts of surliness. Paul Volcker’s time as chairman saw an irate, desperate James Baker, when President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, attempt to gain an assurance that interest rates would not rise. He failed. By and by, however, the Fed has remained something of a holy cow, a point Trump cares little about.

But it was Jackson’s loathing of banks that proved not only effectual but the stuff of legend. He found much suspicion in the whole notion of credit. He had also previously suffered at the hands of a land transaction involving the use of valueless paper notes. Only specie – silver and gold – deserved his commanding trust.

The very idea of a central bank running rough shod over state rights presented the hero of the Battle of New Orleans with a perfect target. His vision of frontiersman expansionism was being foiled. Such acrimony, according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, was a case of socio-economic falling out. Elites were attempting to monopolise financial power; Jackson, if in somewhat exaggerated fashion (though less so than Trump) spoke of common-man values against big business.

John M. McFaul, on the other hand, sees it somewhat differently. “Jacksonian banking policy was the result of neither an ideological timetable of entrepreneurial design nor radical hard-money purposes.” Political expedience came first. The truth lies tantalisingly in between: the ideologue and the opportunist sharing the same body of a man.

From 1823 to 1836, Nicholas Biddle served as president of the Second Bank. While he was deemed within pro-banking advocates competent and assured, his values were those of a system that had entitled him. He dispensed favours to his friends with aristocratic grace; he resisted regulatory efforts. His move to limit credit and insist on calling in loans was intended to corner Jackson, forcing his hand to add more government funds to the bank deposits.

Jackson called his bluff, and his 1832 veto not to renew the bank’s charter remained, an effective freeze on supplying federal funds. “Is there,” he rhetorically posed to the Senate in his veto message, “no danger to our liberty and independence in a bank that in its nature has so little to bind it to our country?” Eventually, Congress was won over, leaving the Second Bank defunct on the expiry of its charter in 1836. Jackson did his own bit of chaotic undermining by draining the bank coffers in a way that would subsequently be deemed an abuse of executive power.

The stock gurus and economic wizards are waving wands and gazing at crystal balls, but the markets are simply engaging in the usual frenetic activity that accompanies remarks made by figures of power. Behind the scenes, the speculators get busy and anticipate the next flurry. Creative – or perhaps not so creative destruction – is currently unfolding, much of it an illusion. Trump’s America remains, much like Jackson’s discredited paper notes, of questionable value. But unlike the Second Bank, the Federal Reserve is very much intact in the face of institutional mocking. Thankfully for its board and Powell, its charter is not coming up for renewal, nor is Powell going to prove to be another Biddle.

Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma

It is an organisation not without its problems. Conceived in the heat of idealism, and promoted as the vanguard of medical rescue and human rights advocacy, Médecins Sans Frontières has had its faults. Its co-founder Bernard Kouchner went a bit awry when he turned such advocacy into full blown interventionism. As Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign minister, his conversion to politicised interventionism in places of crisis went full circle. He notably split from MSF to create Doctors of the World, where he felt imbued by the spirit of droit d’ingerence, subsequently given the gloss of “humanitarian intervention”. With its mischief making properties, such interventions have manifested, usually in the guise of wealthy Western states, from the Balkans to Africa.

MSF, at least in its operating protocols, is meant to be solidly neutral and diligently impartial. But neutrality tends to be compromised before the spectacle of suffering.  Bearing witness disturbs the mood and narrows objective distance. On June 17, 2016, by way of example, the organisation stated that it could not “accept funding from the EU or the Member States while at the same time treating the victims of their policies! It’s that simple.” Central to this, as Katharine Weatherhead explained in an analysis of the organisation’s stance, is the “ethic of refusal” and témoignage, “the idea of being a witness to suffering.”

Australia’s gulag mimicry – a prison first, justice second mentality that governs boat arrivals – has done wonders to challenge any stance of distance humanitarian organisations might purport to have. To see the suffering such policies cause is to make converts of the stony-hearted. What matters in this instance – the MSF condemnation of Australia’s innately brutal anti-refugee policy on Nauru – is its certitude.

The Australian government has taken the high, icy road and left the UN Refugee Convention in shambolic ruin; it insists, repeatedly, that refugees are to be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive to the country; it also suggests, with a hypnotically disabling insistence that keeping people in open air prisons indefinitely is far better than letting them drown. (We, the message goes, stopped the boats and saved lives!)

MSF, which had been working on the island since November 2017 primarily providing free psychological and psychiatric services, was given its marching orders by Nauru’s authorities last week. Visas for the organisation’s workers were cancelled “to make it clear there was no intention of inviting us back,” explained MSF Australia director Paul McPhun.

A disagreement about what MSF was charged with doing developed. The original memorandum of understanding with the Nauru government tends to put cold water on the suggestion by Australia’s Home Affairs Minister that MSF had not been involved in supplying medical services to the detainees on the island. In dull wording, the agreement stated who the intended recipients of the project would be: “People suffering from various mental health issues, from moderate to severe, members of the various communities living in the Republic of Nauru, including Nauruan residents, expatriates, asylum seekers and refugees with no discrimination.”

It was obvious that the revelations would eventually become too much for either the authorities of Australia or Nauru to tolerate. Having been entrusted with the task of healing the wounds of the mind, MSF’s brief was withdrawn after the organisation’s findings on the state of mental health of those in detention. “Five years of indefinite limbo has led to a radical deterioration of their medical health and wellbeing,” claimed McPhun in stark fashion to reporters in Sydney on Thursday. “Separating families, holding men, women and children on a remote island indefinitely with no hope of protection except in the case of a medical emergency, is cruel and inhumane.”

Undertaking a journey from war torn environs and famine-stricken lands might well inflict its own elements of emotional distortion and disturbance, but Australia’s policy of keeping people isolated, distant and grounded took it further. It was penal vindictiveness, a form of needless brutal application.

In McPhun’s sharp assessment, “While many asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru experienced trauma in their countries of origin or during their journey, it is the Australian government’s policy of indefinite offshore detention that has destroyed their resilience, shattered all hope, and ultimately impacted their mental health.”

The organisation has made it clear that Canberra’s insistence that “offshore detention” remains somehow humanitarian is barely credible, there being “nothing humanitarian saving people from the sea only to leave them in an open-air prison on Nauru.”

Such a cruel joke has turned the members of MSF into a decidedly militant outfit. “Over the past 11 months on Nauru,” states psychiatrist Beth O’Connor, “I have seen an alarming number of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm among the refugee and asylum seeker men, women and children we treat.” Particularly shocking were the number of children enduring the effects of traumatic withdrawal syndrome “where their status deteriorated to the extent they were unable to eat, drink, or even to walk to the toilet.”

With such observations, there is little surprise that Nauru’s government, which was evidently seeking to find an ally and an alibi, felt slighted.  The doctors had to go. “Although MSF claimed to be a partner to Nauru and the Nauruan people instead of working with us,” came the government justification, “they conspired against us.” The government was no longer inclined “to accept the concocted lies told about us purely to advance political agendas.”

What the government statement also insisted upon was the comparative advantage the hosted refugees and asylum seekers had. They had their own tissue of mendacity to proffer. “The facilities, care, welfare and homely environment offered to refugees and asylum seekers are comparable or better than what other refugees and asylum seekers across the globe receive.” For that to make any sense, a comparative study on suicides, psychological corrosion and trauma would have to be done across the world’s refugee camps. In those terms, Nauru’s performance, aided and abetted by their Australian sponsors, has been ghoulishly stellar.

Barely Breathing: May’s Gasping Premiership

The Boris Johnson storm, beating away at the British Prime Minister’s doors with an ancient fury, has been stayed for the moment in the wake of the Conservative Party Conference held at Birmingham last week.  While the potential usurper batters away on the domestic front with red-faced enthusiasm, Theresa May faces the impossible sell: convincing the European Union that the divorce Britain is initiating will still entail some form of faux conjugal relations.  In this, she must also convince the forces of the remainder group that she has a solution that is not the worst of all worlds, a form of permissive molestation that will yield some benefits from the Brussels machinery.

In the background, protests abuzz in an effort to turn the ship away from its current course for March 29, 2019.  The referendum of 2016 that led to a Brexit, goes this line of argument, was attained by audacious cheek, a fraud couched in populist sentiment.  London remains ground zero for the resistance (wasn’t it always?), with its mayor, Sadiq Khan, holding the fort in insisting for a second vote. The UK, he argued, was trapped between cripplingly dangerous options: “a public vote on any deal or a vote on a no-deal, alongside the option of staying in the EU”.

Khan’s views function as vain hopes in search of a mind changing miracle.  Expressed from London, they might as well sound like the tinny sounds of a capsule lodged in the red earth of Mars.  “People didn’t vote to leave the EU to make themselves poorer, to watch their businesses suffer, to have the NHS wards understaffed, to see the police preparing for civil unrest or for our national security to be put at risk if our cooperation with the EU in the right against terrorism is weakened.”

European leaders, anxious that the EU compact is being gnawed at from within, have also been muttering approvingly for a change of heart.  Keep voting, seems to be this view, till the minds change, a recipe less for democracy than managed thought. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat went as far as to tell BBC Radio 4 last month that, “We would like the almost impossible to happen… that the UK has another referendum.”

Johnson did have a good go at stirring the pot, and delegates and those gathered at the Tory Conference – some 1,500 – were not disappointed.  “If I have a function here today it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil, to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief, and to invite you to feel realistic and justified confidence.”

As usual, Johnson was short on what exactly to do.  The hearts would beat, throb even, and the mind would catch-up.  After the wrecking ball, what’s there to do? “Our diplomatic strategy,” he observed, “was focused on the EU.  That made sense in the 1970s. It makes much less sense today, when 95 percent of the world’s growth is going to be outside the EU.”  This has become a stodgy mantra – the world as Britain’s eager oyster waiting to be prized over, pearl and all.

May had certainly been struggling to contain the Johnson bull in the china shop, whose message is to “chuck Chequers”, which was nothing more than a “cheat” that, should it be enacted, would “escalate the sense of mistrust.”  It is a point that has noisy traction. Patrick Robinson, writing in The Telegraph, suggested that the “Chequers plan is not a ‘compromise’ or a negotiating position.  This was the public face of a ploy to keep the UK inside the EU by tying our hands on rules governing foods, food, the environment, the workplace and much else, and maintaining the supremacy of European law in our country.”

In this, he has found common ground from the EU technocrats, who are also none too keen on the prime minister’s distinction between the “common rulebook” for goods but not services, designed to prevent the creation of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  As a wary Donald Tusk of the European Council explained in Salzburg last month, “The suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work, not least because it is undermining the single market.”

May claimed last Tuesday that she had a new policy about immigration in a post-Brexit Britain.  Critics were quick to point out she did not. Instead of upstaging Johnson, Home Secretary Sajid Javid found himself left in the lurch.  “Boris,” claimed Charles Moore, “was boosted by her hostility, and people listened to his wide-ranging speech.”

Then came the Wednesday speech, made in the aftermath of Johnson’s show which, by her own admission, made her “cross.” She was attempting, while taking a swipe at Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, to appeal to those wishing for “a party that is decent, moderate and patriotic.” There would be no more fiscal conservatism in the Cameron-Osborne mould.  The political sectarians would be shunned. And she could deliver all these promises with a weak jokes and an awkward robotic dance.

While quantifiable figures on sentiment must be treated with studied caution, one poll conducted for The Observer in the aftermath of May’s concluding conference speech suggested that the prime minister had shored up her position. A small 17 percent pitted for Johnson; double that number preferred May.  Washed out and barely breathing, the pulse has returned. Time, however, is running out.

Australian Complicity: Nauru and Silencing Journalism

Journalism is getting something of a battering in Australia.  At the parliamentary level, laws have passed that would be inimical to any tradition versed in the bill of rights. (Australia, not having such a restraining instrument on political zeal, can only rely on the bumbling wisdom of its representatives.) At the executive level, deals have been brokered between Canberra and various regional states to ensure minimum coverage over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.  Secrecy is all fashion.

Adding to this is the triumph of a certain breed of lazy, compliant journalist.  The image of the ragtag journo long lost in the speculative tripe of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop has been replaced by a tedious, technocratic lout who should, time permitting, be put out to a distant pasture.  We are now dealing with compromised dispatches, press releases that yoke the reasoning and analysis that would barely pass muster in the lower grades of a half-credible primary. The investigative journalist has, for the most part, disappeared, leaving a few brave scribblers to toil in the wilderness.

The corporate angle on this is fairly unremitting: wedged between the Murdoch behemoth (populist, ragged Herald Sun, or the screaming ideological The Australian) and the Fairfax machine (given a progressive tag), the options for the enterprising press writers are narrow.  From the perspective of covering the brutal refugee policy Australia insists on pursuing, the Murdoch press tends to earn the medals of the island authorities in Manus and Nauru.  Fairfax shuffles along in the background with the occasional note of condemnation.

The restrictions placed on covering the policy of the Australian government and those paid subsidiaries on Nauru and Manus remain on par with the secrecy protocols of the Cold War.  Since its inception, the Australian policy towards boat arrivals ultimately sent to those isolated island reaches has smacked of colonial patronage, with the regulations to boot.

Elevated to the levels of high secrecy under the term Operation Sovereign Borders, “operational details” in dealing with boat arrivals, as they are termed, have been a matter of clandestine value. The degrees of control have also extended to covering camp conditions, a matter policed by such brutish little laws such as the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth).  Under that bit of legislative nastiness, those who obtain “protected information” in the course of their employment in the border force apparatus can be punished for two years for disclosing such information except to authorised personnel.

Prior to the passage of the ABFA, the Australian government made it its business to hound a number of Save the Children employees working in the Nauru Regional Processing centre. Their sin had been to disclose information on the lamentable conditions in the centre.

The levels of media management regarding reporting on the conditions in Nauru has been extreme.  Amnesty International has called this a veritable “wall of secrecy”, designed to conceal “a system of deliberate abuse”.  The Nauru government has periodically limited access by journalists to the island, a process made craftier by the hefty visa application fee.  In 2014, the non-refundable fee of $200 jumped to $8000.

Over the last few years, the small island state has insisted on controlling the journalistic pool.  A conspicuous target here has been the ABC itself, which was banned from entering the country to cover the Pacific Islands Forum in September.  In a government statement posted in July, “It should be noted that no representative from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will be granted a visa to enter Nauru under any circumstances.”

This decision had been occasioned by “this organisation’s blatant interference in Nauru’s domestic politics prior to the 2016 election, harassment of and lack of respect towards our President in Australia, false and defamatory allegations against members of our government, and continued biased and false reporting about our country.” Other outlets, such as the more palatable A Current Affair, The Australian and Sky News, have received no such accusations.

Sky News journalist Laura Jayes even had the high visa application fee waived by the Nauru government when seeking entry in 2016.  She also revealed who the main targets of such a ruinously costly regime were: “Nauru officials would openly admit the fee was to deter the ABC and Guardian.”

The thin-skinned disposition of those authorities was not condemned by the then Turnbull government, a point unsurprising given the close media management being conducted between Australia and Nauru. What has since transpired is that suggestions by officials in Canberra that Australia’s role in the affair is minimal must be taken with a pinch of coarse salt.

A document tendered to federal court as part of a Nauruan medical transfer case is enlightening. “The governments of Australia and Nauru,” it goes, “will agree to media and visitor access policy and conditions of entry, taking into consideration the requirements of section 13 of the Asylum Seekers (Regional Processing Centre) Act 2012.”  Those “seeking access to a Centre will be required to obtain permission from the Secretary of Justice and to sign a media access agreement.” Nothing, it seems, must be left to chance in letting Australians know what is taking place in those outposts of torment and misery.

Limiting Israel: Russia Deploys the S-300 to Syria

Relations between Russia and Israel have been those of an estranged couple punctuated by occasional breakouts of tense understanding.  As with other such couples, a public row does not necessarily reflect the more placid, if stern discussion that might happen behind closed doors.

On the public side of things, Russia’s decision to deploy the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria has made Israeli officials apoplectic.  That said, Israel’s security establishment were privy to prospects of a possible Russian deployment of the modern, more discriminating air-defence system.  The former head of the Israeli Defence Force’s Strategic Division, Brigadier General Assaf Orion at the Institution for National Security Studies, was reflective.  “However one may keep in mind that for the last twenty years Israel was preparing for this to appear in theatre.”

In April, Amos Yadlin, the country’s retired Military Intelligence chief stuck his head out to issue a warning: should Russia supply Syria with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Israel’s air force would retaliate.  Israel Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman also upped the ante, suggesting that Israel would destroy any S-300 targeting Israeli aircraft. Would Russia call’s Israel’s bluff?

Any indecision on Russia’s part evaporated in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane by Syrian government forces on September 17, leading to the death of 15 personnel.  The Syrian action had been prompted by attacks from Israeli F-16 jets on facilities in the province of Latakia.

In the words of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, “It is a system which is defensive in nature rather than offensive, and is intended for the defence of the Syrian airspace.” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has only praise for the batteries, which are “capable of intercepting aerial attacks at the distance of over 250 kilometres, and simultaneously countering several targets”. Deploying it was a necessary “retaliatory” measure.

The tone, at this point, has become far more reserved on Israel’s part.  While Moscow “made a move, the playing field is very large,” came an unnamed Israeli official’s view. Israel was “dealing” with the aftermath of the decision made by President Vladimir Putin, but would “not necessarily” attempt “to prevent the delivery” of the anti-aircraft system.  This stands to reason: the presence of other Russian missile systems in the Syrian conflict – the S-400, for instance – did not deter Israel’s previous strikes; nor did it cause much by way of open remonstration. Symbolism is everything.

Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, was impressed by Moscow’s move. Israel’s regional bullying would finally, at least in some fashion, be contained. “For the first time in years another state is making it clear to Israel that there are restrictions to its power, that it’s not okay for it to do whatever it wants, that it’s not alone in the game, that America can’t always cover for it and there’s a limit to the harm that it can do.”

Like other players, Russia and Israel will continue to be careful in avoiding any undue engagements. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has made various utterances to that effect, though the deployment has put him on notice that the Israeli action in Syria can no longer take place with brazen impunity.

Then comes the issue as to which outfits will be manning the batteries. Netanyahu, pushing the familiar line that certain weapon systems are only appropriate in the right hands, sees the S-300 finding its way to “irresponsible players”.  Orion fears those “incompetent and reckless” hands fidgeting and firing.

On that score, it is unlikely that the Russians intend giving their Syrian recipients full leverage in using the system.  At this stage of the conflict, it is clear that Moscow is calling many of the shots in the field, having, for instance, restrained Syrian government forces in launching a blood-soaked offensive on rebel forces in Idlib in favour of an accord with Turkey.

Moves such as the S-300 announcement say less about a conflict that has killed with remorseless drive than it does about the pieces of furniture that keep being moved in one of the most atrocious wars in recent memory.  A weapons system is deployed in one place to discourage another “player” from overconfidence and bellicosity; airstrikes are undertaken against the forces of another group or state to nip any growing influence. Brief agreements are brokered, short-term understandings reached.  

Israel gazes wide-eyed upon the influence of Iran and any umbilical cord to Hezbollah; Turkey watches warily the influence of the Kurds and any overly patriotic tendencies. Syrian soil becomes the staging ground for amoral plays of power.

The critics and observers add to this, using sterile terms that give the impression that states are participants in a robust conversation free of blood, a gentlemen’s dispute rather than a murderous fight to the finish.  Syria remains a carcass swarmed over by various enthusiasts, pecking it into cruel oblivion.

Nostalgia and Sunshine: Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black

This effort seems to be a bit of camping out on the part of director Bruce Beresford, whose list of cinematic achievements include Driving Miss Daisy and Breaker Morant. There are many smiles, a few distributed tears and occasional sighs of regret, but generally speaking, little by way of controversial stings.  Ladies in Black, in other words, is all entertainment punctuated by the enthusiastic retelling of sun-drenched stories that afflict the lives of women working in a Sydney department store.

The film, based upon the 1993 novel Women in Black by Beresford’s University of Sydney contemporary Madeleine St John, takes its audience to the Sydney of 1959, distant from the world and on the cusp of change.  An insular Anglo-Celtic civilisation has become the home to various “reffos” (refugees, as they are locally termed), which becomes the shorthanded reference to all those of “Continental” background.

The scenes are charmingly executed, and beneath the shimmering and the handsome shine are those tensions that lay bare minor prejudices and major faults.  This does not impress some of the critics, with Rebecca Harkins-Cross less charitable than most. “Beresford,” she writes stingingly in The Monthly, “is flogging a delusion of the egalitarian land o’plenty, where masculine cruelty is unconsciously writ by bumbling blokes, and xenophobia can be fixed by the discovery that salami is, of course, delicious.”  But the film’s purpose is not to chide or reproach, nor plough the depths of sociological insight. It shows both the efforts on the part of those who found love and safe living away from conflict and the pains of post-war Europe and the response of careful, cautious accommodation on the part of Australians.

The reverse is only lightly touched upon: Australians yearning for cultural nourishment away from stifling wowserism, the tyranny of the dull and the pro-British apologetics of Prime Minister Robert Menzies.  The latter particularly irritated historian Manning Clark, who described Menzies as “a tragedy writ large” in the service of “alien gods”.

This did not, as Gerard Henderson defensively wrote in 2011, trouble those immigrants who saw the Australia of the 1950s as far from boring.  This, he suggested, was a confection of “the middle-class left-wing intelligentsia” and those irritating stone throwing academics tenured at tax payer’s expense.

Central to the cast is Angourie Rice’s Lesley (who prefers to go by the name of the unambiguously feminine Lisa), a voracious reader who takes time during the school holidays to be a temp at the fashion store Goode’s.  Her encounter with Julia Ormond’s Magda leads to tender enlightenment. Being Slovenian, Magda wears her knowledge of fashion heavily on the subject of high-end gowns, ultimately hoping to establish her own shop.

There are a few barbs directed at relations between the sexes.  The Hungarian Rudi (Ryan Corr) is seeking an Australian flame to build his life with (she must be “strong and healthy”) and is happy to do his bit like a European Henry Higgins, educating any ignorant partner he might meet.  Australian men are seen as gormless and bound to dash down to the pub after work for a brew while European men – the continental ones, that is – cook and have more than a passing acquaintance with music. Magda, for her part, is not impressed by Australian women, whom she regards as essentially untutored, the good ones have done the sensible thing in fleeing to London or Paris.

The cultural depictions are also delightfully striking.  How an Australian Christmas is celebrated varies among the groups: such sweets as the lamington feature for the Anglo-Australians who spend time in the scorching outdoors; the Hungarian feast, held indoors, is replete with dishes of the old country paired with matching wines.

There are moments of incongruity wrapped inside a certain, sympathetic nostalgia. Lisa’s father (Shane Jacobsen), who labours in the printing presses of the Sydney Morning Herald, is congratulated by a crowd of fellow male workers about having a gifted daughter.  (Her grades, being exemplary, do not quite sink into his conservative head.)  One fellow worker professes to having two of his girls going to the University of Sydney and loving it.  Lisa’s father, for his part, remains conventional, seeing tertiary education as fairly needless to a member of the fairer sex.

The general sentiment on refugees is a salutary reminder in the film that echoes Australia’s dramatically violent approach to certain new arrivals since the late 1990s.  The policy of the Australian government during the 1950s, still governed by White Australia strictures, was to permit refugees from Europe, notably from southern and central Europe, from entering en masse. These, in time, formed a resilient backbone of industrial development. The modern approach stresses the penal over the constructive, the discriminatory over the progressive.  While the film stresses the merits of those “reffos”, an alert audience will note the jarring contrast.

Tortured Solutions: Ecuador, the UK and Julian Assange’s Fate

The pulse of negotiations, a flurry of communications, and the person central to this is one who threatens to go nowhere – for the moment.  But go somewhere these parties would wish Julian Assange to do. For six years, cramped within a space in London a stone’s throw away from Harrods, one he has made his tenuous home, a citadel of sporadic publishing and exposes; for six years, an unruly, disobedient tenant whose celebrity shine has lost its gloss for certain followers and those who did, at one point, tolerate him.

The landlords have lost patience, and Lenín Moreno is willing to call in the arrears.  He has made it clear that whilst Assange has been subjected to an unacceptable state of affairs (“Being five or six years in an embassy already violates his human rights”), he should also be moved on in some form with the British authorities.  How that moving takes place is producing a host of large, ballooning questions.

Ultimately, the current Ecuadorean leadership finds little to merit Assange’s effort.  He intrudes into the political affairs of other countries with audacity; he disturbs and interrupts the order of things with relish and, for those reasons, ought to be regarded with suspicion.  “I don’t agree with what he does,” Moreno is on record as saying. “It is somewhat disgusting to see someone violating people’s right to communicate privately.”

Moreno, despite being classed as a protégé of his predecessor Rafael Correa, has done his level best to spruce up the country’s image for the United States whose Vice President, Mike Pence, duly acknowledged on a visit in June this year. He has moved on former figures within the previous administration, including Correa, claiming instances of corruption and crime.  Previous contracts made with Chinese companies are also being scrutinised for their value.

Moreno is prudish and inaccurate on the issue of private communications and the WikiLeaks experiment. What he ignores is the driving rationale for the spicy vigilantism of the publishing outfit, an attempt to subvert a certain order of power that was crying out for a revision. This revision, applied through the lens of transparency, would arm the weak and powerless with knowledge while defending their privacy.  The powerful and brutish, on the other hand, must be kept exposed, under a form of public surveillance and permanent review. Transparency for the powerful; privacy for the powerless.

The asymmetrical order of information, however, lauds the reverse of this. States are patriarchs beyond scrutiny; they dispense, with occasional bad grace, the odd favour that entitles the public to see its activities.  Freedom of information statutes and regulations give the impression that the public are, somehow, entitled to see material that is supposedly their resource. (How condescending to tell citizens that they have a resource that can only be accessed carefully, via suspicious gatekeepers obsessed with national security.)

In return, these gorged bureaucracies conduct surveillance upon their citizens with a sneering conviction and ensure that a fictional public interest is deployed against those who would dare air the cupboard of skeletons.

The current state of negotiations are blurry.  On Wednesday, Moreno claimed that Ecuadorean and British officials were nattering over permitting Assange to leave the embassy “in the medium term”.  His lawyers have been notified of the process, but nothing else is forthcoming.

What tends to be written about Assange is itself a product of the dissimulation that he has attempted to banish from political conservation.  His variant of the Midas touch is less turning things to gold than simulacrums of truth. A piece on the Australian SBS site notes how “Previous sexual assault charges filed against him in Sweden have been dropped.”  The stopper here is that he was never charged, being merely a subject of interest who needed to be questioned. The rest is an awkward, concocted silence.

Assange, more significantly for the geopolitical boffins, took a dump in the imperium’s gold water closet, and now faces the consequences.  It has come in dribs and drabs: cutting off internet access on March 27; restricting visitors and the access of journalists. Moreno himself has suggested that Assange stop what he does best: express unsavoury opinions.  Should Assange promise “to stop emitting opinions on the politics of friendly nations like Spain or the United States then we have no problem with him going online.”  Turning Assange into a eunuch of public affairs is a top priority.

Moreno’s predecessors have shaken their heads in disbelief at the treatment being dished out to the Australian publisher.  To ban visitors, argued Correa, was “a clear violation of his rights.  Once we give asylum to someone, we are responsible for his safety, for ensuring humane living conditions.” (It should be noted that Correa himself authorised a temporary suspension of internet access to Assange in 2016, a brief measure taken to stem the publisher’s zeal in attacking Hillary Clinton during the US presidential elections.)

This will be a slow torture, a cruel process of breaking down resistance.  The issue in such cases is to avoid going potty and losing all sense of bearing.  Should Assange even maintain a sense of psychic composure after this relentless attempt to dissolve his will, history should record it as one of those infrequent secular miracles that the human spirit can provide?

Augmenting Brains: Google Turns Twenty

 

“Eventually you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you an answer.” Larry Page, co-founder of Google

The Verge starts with a statement that has become commonplace, the compulsory nod to power one has come to expect when engaged with that whole mammoth enterprise known as Google.  “No technology company is arguably more responsible for shaping the modern internet, the modern life, than Google.”

The story of Google is all minted Silicon Valley: the modest research project birthed in computer lingo and networking, the serendipitous meeting of graduate students, and the finding of auspicious and enormously productive garage locations.  The names tell a story: fresh, childish but hopeful. Alphabet spawned Google, and so forth. These were the products of, scorned Jonathan Taplin in his sharp Move Fast and Break Things, spoiled, ignorant brats.

In a sense, the Google experiment is all homage to behavioural tendencies writ large, an attempt on the part of the founders less to control than predict. (This distinction, it must be said, has been lost.)  How do people search for what is important? Who tells them?

The PageRank algorithm of Google is a moderate blessing and heavily laden curse, reducing the conduct of human searches to a dimension of repetition and faux enlargement of knowledge.  But the paradox of such behaviour is not so much a broadening of mind as a reconfirmation of its narrowing. You are fed results you expect; in time, you are delivered the results you expect. Variety is stifled within the very system that supposedly promotes a world of seamless access.

But there it is. The Google search engine commodifies and controls choice, thereby leaving you with little.  The impression of a world with abundance is essential and draws out the curse of plenty: your choice is pre-empted, and typing in a search term generates terms you might wish to pursue.  Even the traditional library is hard to retreat to in certain respects given that librarians are becoming allergic to matters of paper, covers and book spines, a catalogue outsourced beyond its walls. The modern library has become the product of such market management fetish as knowledge centres, which is far more in line with Google speak.

Google has also reduced us to phone-reaching idiocy, an impulsive dive into the creature of all knowing answers that lies in the pocket and is procured at a moment’s notice.  Few conversations go by these days without that nasty God of the search engine making its celebrated entry to dispel doubts and right wrongs. Not knowing a “fact” is intrinsically linked to the rescue of finding out what Google will tell you.

Larry Page has made little secret of its all-conquering, cerebral mission manifested through the all-powerful search engine.  It verges on the creepily totalitarian, but more in the fashion of Brave New World seductiveness than 1984 torture and stomping.  “It will be included in people’s brains,” he explained to a veteran observer of the company, Steven Levy.  “When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information.” Similarly, for fellow founder Sergey Brin, Google is viewed “as a way to augment your brain with the knowledge of the world.”

There is the other side: company concentration, exquisitely vast power that has wooed critics, and a self-assumed omniscience that crushes the competition.  It is such characteristics that determine Google as a sovereign exception that seems to trounce the prerogative of many states: there are regulations made by elected officials, but these can, and will be subverted, if needed.

But there is another side of the Google phenomenon: calculated compliance, and collaboration verging on the obsequious. Business remains business, and having such a concentrated entity exerting dominion over the Internet and the market is the very thing that should trouble anti-trust specialists.

This very fact struck the Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry as relevant. If Google was to be dealt with in any feasible way, it would have to be through the traditional weaponry of the anti-trust suit (think, he reminds us, of Standard Oil 1910).  “This can’t be fixed legislatively,” suggested Landry to Baton Rouge’s The Advocate. “We need to go to court with an antitrust suit.”

The European Union has already taken up the matter, fining Google $5 billion for antitrust violations relating to its Android market dominance, notably its bundling of the search engine and Chrome apps into the operating system while also making “payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators” to exclusively bundle the Google search app on handsets.

The suggestion for some form of antitrust action against Google and other technological giants in the US itself is now being lost in the political opportunism of the Trump Whitehouse.  On Tuesday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a gathering of various officials to consider “a growing concern” about how certain companies might “be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms”.

The problem here is not the premise Sessions is pursuing.  What matters is the reason he is taking such an interest, pressed by the sledgehammer approach advocated by President Donald J. Trump.  That ever sensitive leader of the confused free world claims that the search engine has developed a bias against him, yet another rigged entity in action.

Trump’s critics also have issues with social media sites and Google’s search engine. Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, they argue, conversely, that such entities promoted the forces of reaction.  Had they not been so easily susceptible to those wicked Russians in spreading misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump would never have gotten the keys to the White House.  That proposition has been given some academic ballast with Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President – What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know, though it remains qualified at best.

Reaching the age of 20 has certainly brought Google to the summit of criticism and a certain pervasive idolatry. There are those who feel erroneously slighted (Trump and Clinton); there are those who wish their records erased from the search engine in an effort to make their lives anew (the right to forget the foolish error); and then there are those who simply could not be bothered to do a bit more digging for something that is so effortlessly available.  “Google is the oracle of redirection,” claims James Gleick.  In due course, its own influence will, in time, require redirection, and the brats may have to be disciplined accordingly.

Feeding Militarism: The US Imperial Consensus

The US military industrial complex reigns like a ravenous ruler in search of new funding prospects. It has done well this year, with the Trump administration pushing the sale that the Imperium needs more ruddy cash and indulgent expenditure to cope with all manner of evils.  Empire must be without equal.

The dissenters to this program have been pitiably small, concentrated amongst such outliers as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Those on the GOP side of the aisle have barely squeaked but relative to the Democrats, their sounds have been spectacularly noisy.  There is, in fact, something to be said that, in the boisterous era of Donald Trump, the Democrats have shown very little by way of bucking any trend whatever in the continuingly expansive program that is US military spending.

As Peter Beinart observed in February this year, the Democrats might be moving to the left on the domestic front (a murmuring more than a lurch, it must be said); in terms of a foreign or defence policy, nothing of note comes to mind.  Terrified of being left behind in the rat race of reaction, the Democrats have, for instance, done their bit to promise funding for the border wall with Mexico, albeit offering a lesser $1.6 billion in 2019 to the $5 billion demanded by Trump.

Beinart took note of the remarks of Nancy Pelosi, chipper in the run-up to the budget deal that dramatically increased US defence spending.  “In our negotiations,” she enthused to fellow House Democrats in an email, “Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defence.”

Defence, notably when aligned with imperial cravings, supplies its own logic.  The military industrial complex is an economy within, given the armouring rationales that make a reduction of spending heretical.  Firms and employees need to be supported; infrastructure maintained. Forget those other menial things: roads, public transport, train tracks, bridges and airports can be left to one side.  To reduce the amount would be tantamount to being treasonous, an anti-patriotic gesture.

“It’s not just a matter of buying fewer bombs,” suggests Brian Riedl of the conservatively inclined Manhattan Institute.  “The United States spends $100,000 per troop on compensation – such as salaries, housing, healthcare – which also contributes to our defence budget exceeding that of countries like China.”  As with such empires as Rome, the entire complex entails compensation, remuneration and nourishment for the industry of death and protection.

It became clear this month that, even with short-term spending bills, this rationale would repeat itself.  Last week, the Senate considered such a bill that further supplemented the earlier budget package that would not only fund the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments; it would also add further largesse to the Pentagon. By a margin of 93-7, the package was passed and the Democrats found wanting, refusing to stage any protest that might result in an expiration of government funding come September 30.

Trump, in his amoral calculations, is all for such a disruptive measure, having expressed a desire both for and against a shutting down of the government in an effort to push funding towards his pet border security projects.  “Finish the Wall!” he has intoned between sessions of hectoring, directed both at the Democrats and the GOP.

The Democrats have been weak in conviction.  “This is necessary,” explained an unconvincing Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “to ensure that we do not face a government shutdown in the event that we do not finish our work on other remaining bills.”

This supposedly necessitous state of affairs sees the Pentagon budget for 2019 receiving an outlay of $606.5 billion, an increase of $17 billion from 2018.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky)’s words were those of the patriot turned fetishist.  “After subjecting America’s all-voluntary armed forces to years of belt-tightening, this legislation will build on our recent progress in rebuilding the readiness of our military and investing more in the men and women who wear the uniform.”

As for what the appropriations will fund, 13 new Navy ships will be added to the inventory, including three DDG-51 guided missile destroyers and two Virginia-class submarines.  The air arm can look forward to 93 of the previously mocked (by no less or more a person than Trump) F-35 aircraft, 58 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 66 AH-64 Apache helicopters, 13 V-22 aircraft.  A further $1.5 billion will be set aside for upgrading 135 Abrams tanks.

In the tactics that ultimately saw a grand capitulation on the part of the Democrats, a policy obscenity manifested itself: to avoid squabbling over non-defence spending bills, the Senate agreed to pack the military budget bill along with that of full-year funding for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education. In wrapping these bills in the same ribbon, an abysmal reality surfaced: the military-industrial complex finds a home in any legislative orientation, and will not be denied.

Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama

Stage set Washington.  Object: adulterating power.  The arm of government: the judiciary.  That particular group of high ranking paladins remains up in the air as US Supreme Court appointee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh floats around in a stage of grinding limbo, as sexual allegations made start to bite.  This purgatorial state promises to resolve itself next week.

Palo Alto professor of psychology Christine Blasey Ford insists that Kavanaugh and another Georgetown Prep student, Mark Judge, locked her in a room during a party held in 1982.  What followed was what was termed an “attempted rape”, with Kavanaugh allegedly making a vain effort to remove Ford’s clothes.

That Kavanaugh has survived this long in the Me Too age as a nominee of one of the most influential bodies of US governance is a fair indicator that Trumpland has done much to disrupt a certain sensibility.  That sensibility might be hypocritical, but it is a disruption no less. Trump, for his part, has also aided his nominee’s cause by withholding some hundred thousand documents of the judge’s records from the Bush White House on presidential privilege grounds.

This show has been given a blood rushing boost, with the parties drawing battle lines in what promises to be a squalid spectacle.  Whether it is those who back Ford, or the judge himself, the parties are jousting over grounds of fairness and how best to confront the allegations.  The Democrats insist that the process cannot go further without an investigation by the FBI. Debra Katz, one of Ford’s legal team, has reiterated that line for her client.

Senate Republicans have rebuffed it, many seeing Ford’s spoiling role as having no significant impact on the confirmation process.  “We got a little hiccup here with the Kavanaugh nomination,” came a confident Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who was also convinced that “we’ll get through this and we’ll get off to the races.”  Senator John Cornyn of Texas suggested Ford, whether she wanted to “participate and tell her story” or otherwise would be “no reason for us to delay”.

Kavanaugh has done himself few favours, though he has tried to water down speculations about any reactionary tendencies that might manifest should he actually make it to the bench.  His record as a staunchly conservative jurist who has more than sniffed the glue of criticism offered against Roe v Wade suggests that a regressive trend in Supreme Court jurisprudence might be in the offing.  This is hidden behind the language of a studied objectivity. Before the Senate judiciary committee, he explained that “A good judge must be an umpire – a neutral and impartial arbiter who favours no litigant or policy.”

He is also a creature happy to reflect about his time as a testosterone-charged student – in certain company.  In 2015, he remembered those days fondly before an audience at the Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, reflecting on the comments of his dean from that time: “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep.”

His statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee was an effort, in part, to convey an image that has taken something of a battering.  Wanting to earn plaudits on the pro-women ledger, he expressed pride at his mother’s efforts to become one of “the few women prosecutors at the time”.  He peppered his delivery with references to coaching female basketball teams, including those of his daughters. “I love coaching. All the girls I have coached are awesome,” came the crawling observation from Kavanaugh’s opening statement, suggesting a manager all too keen on being liked.  It’s all the casting game, the show of decent appearances. “A majority of my 48 law clerks have been women. More than a quarter of my law clerks have been minorities.” In this, shallowness plays all ways: ticking the boxes of what, on the surface, looks like compliance and observance.

The show of having Blasey and Kavanaugh presented like celebrity life stock for political purchase is something that does little to consider accusations and grounds.  This is Trump’s deforming legacy: the show matters far more than either outcome or substantive details. For that reason, GOP strategists concerned that Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual proclivities might somehow find their way in disturbing the President’s popularity have missed a beat. 

One such individual is Liz Mair, a consultant for the Republicans.  “Trump already has a problem with suburban women,” Mair is noted as saying in USA Today.  “The way this is going, I don’t see any great upside here for the GOP.”  Mair should be retained for other tasks, have tripped over the obvious point that Trump’s aggressive, engaged voters find groping hands, dedicated misogyny and callousness less significant that the Making America Great Again Show.  It should be remembered that the consequences of the “Access Hollywood” tape was guaranteed, cycle-news notoriety that did wonders to enhance a profile rather than diminish credibility.

Lisa J. Banks, also representing Ford, was none too impressed with the show, though she did concede her client’s willingness to work with the judiciary committee.  “The committee’s stated plan to move forward with a hearing that has only two witnesses is not a fair or good faith investigation; there are multiple witnesses whose names have appeared publicly and should be included in any proceeding.”  For his part, Kavanaugh insists on a categorical and unequivocal denial. “I remain committed to defending my integrity.”

The politics of calculation in this instance is everything.  At the moment, the Republicans are doing their best to ensure that Judge Kavanaugh gets confirmation before the mid-term elections, slotting him in before any inevitable entropy.  A Democratic-controlled Senate, should it eventuate, will make the prospects of getting this marred creature onto the bench significantly more difficult.

The Pathology of Mass Surveillance: The UK, Bulk Interception and the European Court of Human Rights

It’s fitting that the same society that produced George Orwell with his warnings of a totalitarian dystopia stacked with all-prying monitors, surveillance and paranoia should yield up some of the most invasive surveillance regimes imaginable.  While some states have found the revelations from Edward Snowden the sort that should initiate, at the very least, modest changes, the United Kingdom preferred the opposite approach. It had, after all, been an indispensable ally to the US National Security Agency, its equivalent GCHQ always intent on going one better.

In 2016, the Snooper’s Charter, a name so innocuous as to imply impressive cuddliness, found its way onto Britain’s law books after two failed efforts.  That instrument’s more officious, and appropriate title, was the Investigatory Powers Act, deemed by Snowden “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.”  As Paul Bernal suggested in The Conversation on its passage, “It is not a modernisation of existing law, but something qualitatively different, something that intrudes upon every UK citizen’s life in a way that would even a decade ago have been inconceivable.”

Various efforts in Britain have been mounted against the all-consuming beast of mass surveillance.  The UK Court of Appeal did find in 2015 that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) failed to place adequate restrictions upon police officers in their attempts to access personal information, including web browsing history and phone records.  The discerning judges noted the absence of an independent overseer and appropriate safeguards that might have saved the legislation.

Last Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights took a rather different view from the national security boffins in the case of Big Brother Watch and Others v the United Kingdom. The legality of three different surveillance forms featured in the complaint by 16 applicants, launched in the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures: the bulk interception of communications; the sharing of intelligence with foreign governments; the obtaining of communications data from communications service providers.

While the applicants did not shun all forms of bulk interception, the relevant claim was that such a regime could hardly be seen to have “the quality of law because it was so complex as to be inaccessible to the public and to the Government” lacking “clear and binding legal guidelines” and “sufficient guarantees against abuse.”

The submission by the UK government was predictably heavy on the issues of threat, security and danger.  The greatest temptation of tyrants is the claim that what is being combated is new, fresh and entirely modern.  National security threats abound like a miasmic phenomenon, and not just that old nagging matter of terrorism. There was a degree of “sophistication” terrorists and criminals had adopted in communicating over the Internet so as to avoid detection. Encryption was being used; the volume of communications was so vast as to enable concealment.

By five votes to two, the Chamber found that the bulk interception regime violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights covering the respect for private and family life, home and correspondence.  The failing here was a conspicuous lack of oversight in selecting Internet bearers for targets of interception. There was also an inadequate system in filtering, searching and selecting any salient intercepted communications; and there was a pronounced lack of pertinent safeguards concerning “related communications data”.  Bulk interception did not, in of itself, violate the Convention; but clearly defined criteria was the essence of validity.

By six votes to one, the Chamber found that obtaining communications data from those in the communications industry also breached the protections of Article 8.  Article 10 of the Convention covering freedom of expression, holding opinions, and the imparting and receipt of information was also found to have been offended by both the bulk interception regime and obtaining communications from service providers.

The judges noted that the second and third applications involved “investigative journalists who have reported on issues such a CIA torture, counterterrorism, drone warfare, and the Iraq war logs [accepting] that they were potentially at risk of having their communications obtained by the United Kingdom authorities”.

The judges did, however, fail to bite on several fronts.   Sharing intelligence with foreign governments could not be considered a violation of either Article 8 or 10.  (This, in of itself, raises a set of problems given Britain’s security ties with various unsavoury states who might be all too happy to receive the UK’s bounty.)  On the issue of whether the surveillance regime breached Article 6 (covering the right to a fair trial), and the inadequacy of domestic processes in challenging surveillance measures suggesting a violation of Article 14 (prohibiting discrimination), the court remained unmoved.

The response of the UK government has been one of readjustment and sweetening. Whilst “careful consideration” would be given to the ruling, a new “double lock” oversight process, according to a spokesperson, had been introduced in the 2016 legislation. The process involved an agreement between an independent judicial commissioner and the authorising secretary of state in executing search warrants.  It is precisely such measures that must be regarded as the mandatory softeners in otherwise extreme security measures that never do what they claim to.

Despite the recent horror of her premiership, Prime Minister Theresa May, a figure instrumental in building the new British security state, can take comfort from Brexit in one fundamental respect: At the very least she might be able to prize Britannia away from the clutches of a European human rights court that continues to correct wayward member states obsessed with surveillance.

Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under

There is something peculiar doing the rounds in Australian food circles.  The land down under, considered something of a nirvana of fruit and vegetable production despite horrendous droughts and calamitous cyclones, is facing a new challenge: human agency, namely in the form of despoliation of strawberries.

The results have knocked Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket chains, with both Coles and Aldi withdrawing all their fruit with a nervousness that has not been seen in years.  A spate of incidents involving “contamination”, or pins stuck in the fruit, have manifested across a range of outlets. Strawberry brands including Donnybrook Berries, Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis brands, Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Mal’s Black Label have made it onto the list of needled suppliers.  There have been possible copycat initiates doing the rounds. “This,” exclaimed Strawberries Australia Inc. Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels, “is food terrorism that is bringing an industry to its knees.”

The game of food contamination, infection or, as Daniels deems it, food terrorism is the sort of thing that multiplies in fear and emotion.  It targets the industry itself (the strawberry market is already frail before the effects of pest and blight) and ensures maximum publicity for the perpetrator.  Then there is the constant fear of a potential victim, the all stifling terror of legal action that might find a target in the form of a provider. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has already boosted such feelings, ordering the Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate the matter.  “This is a vicious crime, it’s designed to injure, and possibly worse, members of the population at large.”

Out of 800,000 punnets of strawberries, notes Daniels, seven needles were found. “You’ve got more chance of winning lotto than being affected.” Take your chance, and, as with all food production, hope for the best as you would hope for the arrival of a green goddess.

Others such as Anthony Kachenko of Hort Innovation Australia have also moved into a mode of reassurance, a salutary reminder that Australia remains in the stratosphere of food excellence despite such adventurous despoilers.  Sabotage it might be, but it was surely isolated, a nonsense that could be dealt with surgical accuracy. “Australia prides itself on safe, healthy, nutritious produce and we have the utmost confidence in the produce that we grow both for the domestic and the export markets.”

Such attitudes mask the fundamental bet that has characterised human existence since these unfortunate bipeds decided to experiment with the cooked and uncooked.  History shows that wells have been poisoned and fields salted. The divorce from hunter-gatherer to industrialist consumer oblivious to the origins of food made that matter even more poignant, and, in some cases, tragic.  The consumer is at the mercy of the production line, and everything else that finds its way into it.

The food science fraternity are being drawn out to explain the meddling, pitching for greater funding, and another spike in industry funds.  “The things we’re usually concerned about,” suggests Kim Phan-Thien of the University of Sydney, “are the accidental contaminants; spray drift or microbial contamination [which is] a natural risk in the production system.”  What was needed, claimed the good food science pundit, was an examination, not merely of “unintentional adulteration and contaminants but the intentional adulteration for economic gain or a malicious reason for a form of terrorism.”

Take a punt (or in this case, a punnet), and hope that source, process and final destination are somehow safe.  The cautionary note here is to simply cut the suspect fruit to ensure no errant needles or pins have found their way into them.  (This presumes the needle suspect was probably hygienic.)

But the strawberry nightmare highlights the insecurity within the food industry, the permanent vulnerability that afflicts a multi-process set of transactions, recipients and consumers.  Purchasing anything off the stands, and in any aisle of a supermarket is never a guarantee of safety, a leap of faith based upon a coma inflicted by industrial complacence. We are left at the mercy of speculative fancy: the item we take home is what it supposedly is, irrespective of labelling, accurate or otherwise.

The scare, as it is now being termed, has had the sort of impact any fearful threat to health and safety does: an increased focus on security, a boost in food surveillance and the gurus versed in the business of providing machinery.  Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia President Neil Handasyde revealed that growers were being pressed for increased scanning in the form of metal detectors.  “As an industry, we are sure that [the needles] are not coming from the farm, but we’re about trying to get confidence into customers that when they buy a punnet of strawberries, that there isn’t going to be anything other than strawberries in there and they’re safe to eat.”

Possibly guilty parties have been distancing themselves with feverish necessity.  This, as much as anything else, reeks of the legal advice necessary to avoid paying for any injury that might result.  Mal’s Black Label strawberries, one of the growing number of needle recipients, has taken the line that the farm is above suspicion, with the suspects to be found elsewhere.  Strawberry grower Tony Holl suggested that some figure was floating around, needle and all, intent on fulfilling the wishes of “a real vendetta”.

A reward of $100,000 has been offered by the Queensland government for capturing the villain in question, if, indeed, there is a conscious, all-rounded creature doing the rounds.  He, she, or it, has now assumed various titles from the Queensland authorities. The “strawberry spiker” or “strawberry saboteur” seem less like life-threatening agents than lifestyle names intent on an encyclopaedic entry.  But biosecurity, and matters of food health, are matters that throb and pulsate in Australia. Authorities are promising to find the culprit. The culprit may have other designs.

Scroll Up