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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.

Not Adding Up: Australia, Iran and the Release of Kylie Moore-Gilbert

Australia’s ambassadorial offices and political leaders have a consistent record of ignoring their citizens in tight situations. David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib and Julian Assange are but a few names that come to mind in this inglorious record of indifference. In such cases, Australian public figures and officials have tacitly approved the use of abduction, torture and neglect, usually outsourced and employed by allies such as the United States.

Australian diplomacy, to that end, is nastily cheap. It comes at heavily discounted prices, when it comes at all. To then see the extent of interest and effort in seeking the release of Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from Iranian captivity, is as interesting as it is perplexing. A work ethic in Canberra has come into being. Nothing was spared securing the release of Moore-Gilbert, where she had been imprisoned for espionage charges and spent 804 days in detention. Fears for her wellbeing spiked with her transfer to Qarchak women’s prison, not known for its salubrious facilities. She had previously spent time at Tehran’s Evin prison.

Efforts were made by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who raised Moore-Gilbert’s detention in four meetings with her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. As she confirmed, the release “was achieved through diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government.”

Iranian authorities put it to the Australians that they wanted three of their covert operatives – Saeid Moradi, Mohammad Kharzei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh – released. The three men in question had been held in Thailand for planting explosive devices in Bangkok in an effort to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012. Whatever the skills of these operatives, bomb making was evidently low on the list. An accidental explosion holed their rented Bangkok villa. Moradi was sentenced to life for his attempt to kill a police officer. The police officer survived; Moradi’s legs did not, lost when a grenade he tossed bounced back and detonated. Kharzei received 15 years for possessing explosives.

With the list handy, the Australian government approached Thai contacts. Moore-Gilbert’s release had, Payne claimed, become a matter of “absolute priority”. Israeli government officials were also engaged. A secret agreement was reached, involving what was effectively a prisoner exchange.

Whatever else is said of her case, the issue of the effort and labour put in is significant. Throw in the cliché of being an academic with Middle Eastern expertise working in foreign climes, and you have a recipe rather richer than is advertised.

The heavily scripted nature of the affair is screamingly evident. Media coverage of Moore-Gilbert’s release, and the circumstances of her detention, has avoided much in the way of analysis. The tone is very much that of the official press release. What we get, instead, are the anodyne statements from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, supposedly “thrilled and relieved” by the outcome. “The tone of her voice was very uplifting, particularly given what she has been through.” We also get notes of worry. Amber Schultz of Crikey expressed concern about the prolonged “ordeal” that would continue to face Moore-Gilbert upon her return to Australia.

That Moore-Gilbert’s release was, in fact, brokered as part of a broader prisoner release is not laboured over. The prime minister is cryptic in his statement. “If other people have been released in other places, they are the decisions of the sovereign governments. There are no people who have been held in Australia who have been released.” Skirted over, as well, is Moore-Gilbert’s relationship with an Israeli, which, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, led to “baseless claims that she was a spy for Israel.”

Iran’s Young Journalist Club has its own serve on the subject, making mention of the release. Moore-Gilbert “was swapped for an Iranian businessman and two other nationals incarcerated abroad on delusional accusations, Iranian news agencies reported.” It notes a report by the IRNA news agency claiming that the academic “had passed a two-year special training course for her spying mission.” She attained fluency in Persian “and was prepared to perform espionage activities in Iran.” What interested the IRNA was her second visit, when “she entered Iran on the recommendation of the Zionist regime [Israel] on the lunar calendar month of Muharram.” Details are sketchy on what Moore-Gilbert supposedly did. She “travelled to different cities as part of her mission and gathered information.”

For her part, Moore-Gilbert, in letters smuggled out of Evin prison, denies ever being a spy. “I am not a spy. I have never been a spy, and I have no interest to work for a spying organisation in any country.”

The standard concern by some in the media stable is that such exchanges are common instruments in Tehran’s foreign policy arsenal. The Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, suggested “a clear pattern by Iran’s government to arbitrarily detain foreign and dual nationals and use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with other states.” The executive director of the Australian Israel and Jewish Affairs Council Colin Rubenstein saw the practice of using hostages in exchanges “for terrorists is typical of the tyrannical Iranian regime.” Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow with the Middle Eastern program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes “hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft for four decades now. The Revolutionary Guards are blatant about it and believe it delivers results.”

Such concerns are legitimate and consistent, though the circumstances for each situation varies. Attention should be paid to the quarry being traded. The Iranian Republic has a striking appetite for detaining academics and researchers. French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Iranian-Swedish academic Ahmadreza Djalali, have all been the subject of Tehran’s ire.  Djalali, also accused of spying for Israel, faces execution.

The question not being asked is why Moore-Gilbert was that valuable so as to warrant the release of three Iranian agents. Afshon Ostovar, an academic based at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of National Security Affairs, sees little in the incongruence; Iran negotiation strategy, he more than implies, lacks proportion. “It seems rather puzzling that Iran’s imprisonment of an innocent foreign grad student [sic] should lead to the release of three of its covert agents jailed for failed explosive attacks in Thailand but that’s how the Islamic Republic does business.”

One person not exactly cheering the prisoner swap is Israel’s former ambassador to Thailand, Itzhak Shoham. On Israel’s Channel 12, he vented. “I don’t know anything about this deal beyond what was published. Of course it saddens me to see the pictures as [the Iranians] celebrate instead of rotting in prison, if they haven’t already been executed.” Rather abstractedly, Shoham had one consolation: that the former chief of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in January in a US drone strike.

This prisoner exchange is also odd in another respect. Such instances are usually occasions of much fanfare for Tehran. Iranian television anchors tend to be at hand, noting the names of the released figures and their return to families. “The reason for Iran’s refusal to name those freed remains unclear,” states the cautious Times of Israel. “However, Tehran has long denied being behind the bomb plot and likely hopes to leverage the incoming administration of US President-Joe Biden to ease American sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump.

The nagging question remains: Why did the Australian government regard Moore-Gilbert’s case as exceptional?

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Keeping the Empire Running: Britain’s Global Military Footprint

A few nostalgic types still believe that the Union Jack continues to flutter to sighs and reverence over outposts of the world, from the tropics to the desert. They would be right, if only to a point. Britain, it turns out, has a rather expansive global reach when it comes to bases, military installations and testing sites. While not having the obese heft and lumbering brawn of the United States, it makes a good go of it. Globally, the UK military has a presence in 145 sites in 42 countries. Such figures tally with Ian Cobain’s prickly observation in The History Thieves: that the British were the only people “perpetually at war.”

Phil Miller’s rich overview of Britain’s military footprint for Declassified UK shows it to be heavy. “The size of the global military presence is far larger than previously thought and is likely to mean that the UK has the second largest military network in the world, after the United States.” The UK military, for instance, has a presence in five countries in the Asia-Pacific: naval facilities in Singapore; garrisons in Brunei, drone testing facilities in Australia; three facilities in Nepal; a quick reaction force in Afghanistan. Cyprus remains a favourite with 17 military installations. In Africa, British personnel can be found in Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Mali. Then come the ever dubious ties to Arab monarchies.

The nature of having such bases is to be kind to your host, despite him being theocratic, barking mad, or an old fashioned despot with fetishes. Despite the often silly pronouncements by British policy makers that they take issue with authoritarians, exceptions numerous in number abound. The UK has never had a problem with authoritarians it can work with or despots it can coddle. A closer look at such relations usually reveal the same ingredients: capital, commerce, perceptions of military necessity. The approach to Oman, a state marked by absolute rule, is a case in point.

Since 1798, Britain has had a hand in ensuring the success, and the survivability, of the House of Al Said. On September 12, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced that a further £23.8 million would go to enhancing the British Joint Logistics Support Base at Duqm port, thereby tripling “the size of the existing UK base and help facilitate Royal Navy deployments to the Indian Ocean.” The Ministry of Defence also went so far as to describe a “renewal” of a “hugely valuable relationship,” despite the signing of a new Joint Defence Agreement in February 2019.

The agreement had been one of the swan song acts of the ailing Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose passing this year was genuinely mourned in British political circles. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called him “an exceptionally wise and respected leader who will be missed enormously.” Papers of record wrote in praise of a reformer and a developer. “The longest serving Arab ruler,” observed a sycophantic column in The Guardian, “Qaboos was an absolute monarch, albeit a relatively benevolent and popular one.”

The same Sultan, it should be said, had little fondness for freedom of expression, assembly and association, encouraged the arrests and harassment of government critics and condoned sex discrimination. But he was of the “one of us” labels: trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, an unwavering Anglophile, installed on the throne by Britain in the 1970 palace coup during the all but forgotten Dhofar Rebellion. “Strategically,” Cobain reminds us, “the Dhofar war was one of the most important conflicts of the 20th century, as the victors could expect to control the Strait of Hormuz and the flow of oil.” The British made sure their man won.

Public mention of greater British military involvement in foreign theatres can be found, though they rarely make front page acts. The business of projecting such power, especially in the Britannic model, should be careful, considered, even gnomic. Britain, for instance, is rallying to the US-led call to contain the Yellow Peril in the Asia Pacific, a nice reminder to Beijing that old imperial misdeeds should never be a bar to repetition. The head of the British Army, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, spoke in September about there being “a market for a more persistent presence from the British Army (in Asia). It’s an area that saw a much more consistent Army presence in the Eighties, but with 9/11 we naturally receded from it.” The time had come “to redress that imbalance.”

The UK Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, prefers to be more enigmatic about the “future of Global Britain.” To deal with an “ever more complex and dynamic strategic context,” he suggests the “Integrated Operating Concept.” Britain had to “compete below the threshold of war in order to deter war, and to prevent one’s adversaries from achieving their objectives in fait accompli strategies.”

Gone are the old thuggeries of imperial snatch and grab; evident are matters of flexibility in terms of competition. “Competing involves a campaign posture that includes continuous operating on our terms and in places of our choosing.” This entails a thought process involving “several dimensions to escalate and deescalate up and down multiple ladders – as if it were a spider’s web.” The general attempts to illustrate this gibberish with the following example: “One might actively constrain in the cyber domain to protect critical national infrastructure in the maritime Domain.”

In 2017, there were already more than just murmurings from Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, that a greater British presence in the Asia-Pacific was warranted. Fallon was keen to stress the reasons for deeper involvement, listing them to a group of Australian journalists. “The tensions have been rising in the region, not just from the tests by North Korea but also escalating tension in the South China Sea with the building program that’s gone there on the islands and the need to keep those routes open.”

With such chatter about the China threat you could be forgiven for believing that British presence in the Asia-Pacific was minimal. But that would ignore, for instance, the naval logistics base at Singapore’s Sembawang Wharf, permanently staffed by eight British military personnel with an eye on the busy Malacca Strait. A more substantial presence can also be found in the Sultanate of Brunei, comprising an infantry battalion of Gurkhas and an Army Air Corps Flight of Bell 212 helicopters. The MOD is particularly keen on the surroundings, as they offer “tropical climate and terrain … well suited to jungle training”.

Over the next four years, the UK military can expect to get an extra £16.5 billion – a 10% increase in funding and a fond salute to militarists. “I have decided that the era of cutting our defence budget must end, and ends now,” declared Johnson. “Our plans will safeguard hundreds of thousands of jobs in the defence industry, protecting livelihoods across the UK and keeping the British people safe.”

The prime minister was hoping to make that announcement accompanied by the “Integrated Defence and Security Review” long championed by his now departed chief special adviser, Dominic Cummings. Cummings might have been ejected from the gladiatorial arena of Downing Street politics, but the ideas in the Review are unlikely to buck old imperial trends. At the very least, there will be a promise of more military bases to reflect a posture General Carter describes rather obscurely as “engaged and forward deployed.”

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Skewed Responsibility: Australian War Crimes in Afghanistan

The Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry was always going to make for a gruesome read – and that was only the redacted version. The findings of the four-year investigation, led by New South Wales Court of Appeal Justice and Army Reserve Major-General Paul Brereton, point to “credible evidence” that 39 Afghan non-combatants and prisoners were allegedly killed by Australian special forces personnel. Two others were also treated with cruelty. The Report recommends referring 36 cases for criminal investigation to the Australian Federal Police. These involve 23 incidents and 19 individuals who have been referred to the newly created Office of the Special Prosecutor.

The Report goes into some detail about various practices adopted by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan. The initiation rites for junior soldiers tasked with “blooding” – the first kill initiated by means of shooting a prisoner – come in for mention. “This would happen after the target compound had been secured, and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control’.” “Throwdowns” – equipment such as radios or weapons – would then be placed upon the body. A “cover story” would thereby be scripted “for purposes of operational reporting to deflect scrutiny.”

A “warrior culture” also comes in for some withering treatment, which is slightly odd given the kill and capture tasks these men have been given with mind numbing regularity. “Special Force operators should pride themselves on being model professional soldiers, not on being ‘warrior heroes’.” When one is in the business of killing, be model about it.

As with any revelation of war crimes, the accused parties often express bemusement, bewilderment and even horror. The rule at play here is to always assume the enemy is terrible and capable of the worst, whereas somehow, your own soldiers are capable of something infinitely better. “I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era,” claimed Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell.

History has precedent for such self-delusions of innocence abroad. The atrocity is either unbelievable, or, if it does take place, aberrant and capable of isolation. The killing of some 500 unarmed women, children and elderly men in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai on March 16, 1968 by soldiers of the US Americal Division was not, at least initially, seen as believable. When it came to light it was conceived as a horror both exceptional and cinematic. A veteran of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division went so far as to regard My Lai as “bizarre, an unusual aberration. Things like that were strictly for the movies.”

The investigating subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee responded to My Lai in much the same way, suggesting a lack of sanity on the part of the perpetrators. The massacre “was so wrong and so foreign to the normal character and actions of our military forces as to immediately raise a question as to the legal sanity at the time of those men involved.”

The Brereton Report also has a good deal of hand washing in so far as it confines responsibility to the institution of the army itself. “The events discovered by this Inquiry occurred within the Australian Defence Force, by members of the Australian Defence Force, under the command of the Australian Defence Force.”

Even here, troop and squadron commanders, along with headquartered senior officers, are spared the rod of responsibility. The Report “found no evidence that there was knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the commission of war crimes, on the part of commanders at troop/platoon, squadron/company or Task Group Headquarters level, let alone at higher levels such as Commander of Joint Task Force 633, Joint Operations Command, or Australian Defence Headquarters.”

Such a finding seems adventurously confident. If accurate, it suggests a degree of profound ignorance within the ADF command structure. For his part, Campbell acknowledged those “many, many people at all sorts of levels across the defence force involved in operations in Afghanistan or in support of those operations who do wonder what didn’t they see, what did they walk past, what did they not appreciate they could have done to prevent this.”

The Report also sports a glaring absence. The political context in terms of decisions made by Australian governments to use such forces drawn from a small pool is totally lacking. Such omissions lend a stilted quality to the findings, which, on that score, prove misleading and patently inaccurate. Armies, unless they constitute the government of a state, are merely the instruments of political wish and folly. Nonetheless, the Report insists that, “It was not a risk [the unlawful killings] to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted. Ministers were briefed that the task was manageable. The responsibility lies in the Australian Defence Force, not with the government of the day.”

Prime ministerial and executive exemption of responsibility is thereby granted, much aided by the persistent fiction, reiterated by General Campbell, that Australian soldiers found themselves in Afghanistan because the Afghans had “asked for our help.”

History may not be the ADF chief’s forte, given that the government at the time was the Taliban, accused of providing sanctuary to al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Needless to say, there was no invitation to special forces troops of any stripes to come to the country. The mission to Afghanistan became a conceit of power, with Australia’s role being justified, in the words of the Defence Department’s website, to “help contain the threat from international terrorism”.

It is also accurate to claim that Australian government officials were unaware of the enthusiastic, and sometimes incompetently murderous activities of the SAS in the country. On May 17, 2002, Australian special troops were responsible for the deaths of at least 11 Afghan civilians. They had been misidentified as al-Qaeda members. The defence minister at the time, Robert Hill, told journalist Brian Toohey via fax that the special forces had “well-defined personnel identification matrices” including “tactical behaviour,” weapons and equipment. These suggested the slain were not “local Afghan people.” This turned out to be nonsense: the dead were from Afghan tribes opposed to the Taliban.

John Howard, the prime minister responsible for deploying special operations troops to Afghanistan in 2001, is understandably keen to adopt the line of aberrance in responding to the Report’s findings. The ADF was characterised by “bravery and professionalism,” and the disease of atrocity and poor behaviour could be confined to “a small group of special forces personnel who, it is claimed, amongst other things, were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 Afghan citizens.”

This is much wilful thinking, though it will prove persuasive to most Australian politicians. In Canberra, there are few voices arguing for a spread of responsibility. One of them is the West Australian Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John. “The politicians who sent [the special forces] to #Afghanistan & kept them there for over a decade,” tweeted the sensible senator, “must be held to account, as must the chain of command who either didn’t know when they should’ve or knew & failed to act.”



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The Yemen Civil War Arms Bonanza

“Making billions from arms exports which fuel the conflict while providing a small fraction of that in aid to Yemen is both immoral and incoherent.” So thundered Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director, Muhsin Siddiquey after consulting figures from the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showing that members of the G20 have exported over $17 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the Kingdom entered the conflict in Yemen. “The world’s wealthiest nations cannot continue to put profits above the Yemeni people.”

They do, and will continue to do so, despite the cholera outbreak, coronavirus, poorly functioning hospitals, and 10 million hungry mouths. The latest illustration of this is the Trump administration’s hurried $23 billon sale of 50 F-35 fighter aircraft, 18 MQ-9B Reaper drones, air-to-air missiles and various other munitions to the United Arab Emirates. The UAE used to be a more enthusiastic member of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition that has been pounding Yemen since 2015. Despite completing a phased military withdrawal from the conflict in February 2020 to much fanfare, Abu Dhabi remains involved in the coalition and an influential agent. Amnesty International has issued a grim warning that such weapons might well be used in “attacks that violate international humanitarian law and kill, as well as injure, thousands of Yemeni civilians.”

With the imminent change of administration in the United States, there is a moral flutter in Congressional ranks, though much of it remains meek and slanted. Democratic Senators Bob Menendez (NJ) and Chris Murphy (Conn.), along with Republican Senator Rand Paul (Ky) intend introducing separate resolutions disapproving of President Donald Trump’s sale. Menendez felt morally mighty in warning the Trump administration that “circumventing deliberative processes for considering a massive infusion of weapons to a country in a volatile region with multiple ongoing conflicts is downright irresponsible.”

Murphy expressed his support for “the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but nothing in that agreement requires us to flood the region with more weapons and facilitate a dangerous arms race.”

The US President-elect, Joe Biden, has thrown a few titbits of promise to critics of the US-Gulf States circle of love and armaments. During the Atlanta Democratic debate held in November last year, he entertained a departure from a policy embraced during the Obama administration, certainly with regards to Saudi Arabia. “I would make it very clear that we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them.” A Biden administration would “make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Specifically on the Yemen conflict, he promised to “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.” Fighting words, easily said when a candidate.

This view was reiterated to the Council on Foreign Relations in August this year. “I would end US support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” The Trump administration had issued the kingdom “a dangerous blank check. Saudi Arabia has used it to extend a war in Yemen that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, pursue reckless foreign policy fights, and repress its own people.”

Progressive groups have picked up a scent they find promising. Policy director for Win Without War, Kate Kizer, expressed hope “that [Biden] starts by immediately undoing as many of the just-notified sales to the UAE as possible, and by putting the brakes on transfers that Congress has previously tried to reject under Trump.”

The moral wash on this is, however, thin. Menendez, for instance, is hardly giddy about the fate of Yemeni civilians in the context of such arms sales, citing “a number of outstanding concerns as to how these sales would impact the national security interests of both the United States and of Israel.” Priorities, priorities.

Biden’s top foreign policy advisor, Tony Blinken, seems less concerned about who will be the target of the weapons in the UAE sale than any upset caused to that most unimpeachable of allies, Israel. Sales of the F-35, for instance, were intended as a US-Israeli preserve. Selling it to other powers in the Middle East might well compromise the “qualitative military edge” doctrine Washington adopts towards the Jewish state. “The Obama-Biden administration made those planes available to Israel and only Israel in the region,” explained Blinken in an interview with the Times of Israel. The new administration would have to “take a hard look” at the F-35 sale. Was it, he wondered, a quid pro quo for the normalisation deal between Israel and the UAE?

Mammoth arms sales continue to remain matters of business and politics, with business tending to be the crowing representative. Halting or curbing arms sales is only ever trendy and never permanent. Oxfam reminds us of that blood-soaked truth. “When arms exports by G20 nations to other members of this [Arab] coalition are included, the figure of $17 billion rises to at least $31.4 billion between 2015 and 2019, the last year for which records are available.”

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Dim Halos: Suppressing the Cult of Pope John Paul II

As chief conductor of the saint factory, Pope John Paul II was always going to be, in time, canonised. Almost 500 saints were created under his watch. The previous 600 years had seen 300. But declaring him a saint in 2014, a mere nine years after his death, was speedy by the standards of the Vatican. Critics, and those more reserved about the wisdom of such a move, now have more reason to question the pontiff’s hastily affixed halo.

In a 449-page report released last week by the Vatican, the large figure of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick takes centre stage. McCarrick was promoted by John Paul in 2000 to be archbishop of Washington DC. He was defrocked by Pope Francis last year following a separate Vatican inquest which found McCarrick to have abused his power over seminarians and bore responsibility for sexually abusing children and adults, with some acts taking place during confession.

While Pope Francis is attempting to do some tidying up in the church, a deeper investigation was not necessarily what he had hoped for. Despite being praised for cleansing “the Church of its dirt”, McCarrick had impressed him. It took the savage promptings of the former Holy See ambassador to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, to push the cart along. Viganò had been one of the noisiest of accusers, claiming that 20 or so US and Vatican officials, not to mention Pope Francis himself, had been responsible for the vigilant concealment of McCarrick’s improprieties. The Report found some of the claims to have merit, others not.

Viganò himself was not spared; stinging suggestions were made of his own efforts to either conceal or frustrate processes of investigating McCarrick.One instance of this involved Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the newly appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, urging Viganò to take steps investigating the claims of a certain “Priest 3” from Metuchen whose lawsuit alleged “that overt sexual conduct between him and McCarrick occurred in 1991.” He “did not take these steps and therefore never placed himself in a position to ascertain the credibility of Priest 3.”

The lengthier Report served to sketch John Paul’s role in a sordid tale of institutional complicity, though it is rather forgiving at points. Reports about McCarrick’s behaviour were already being received during the late 1990s. A letter dated October 28, 1999 from the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, to the Apostolic Nuncio, was shared with the pope summarising various allegations against McCarrick. These included claims of sexual conduct, actual and attempted, with priests; “a series of anonymous letters” distributed to Church officials accusing McCarrick of paedophilia with his “nephews” and instances were beds were shared with young adult men and seminarians at the Bishop’s residence in Metuchen and Newark and a beach house on the New Jersey shore.

John Paul did relent in commissioning an inquiry directed at four New Jersey bishops. While the bishops confirmed that McCarrick had shared a bed with young men, instances of “sexual misconduct,” according to the Report, were not confirmed. However, “three of the four American bishops provided inaccurate and incomplete information to the Holy See regarding McCarrick’s sexual conduct with young adults.” The information, in turn “appears likely to have impacted the conclusions of John Paul II’s advisors and, consequently, of John Paul II himself.”

A critical point seems to have been the personal intervention of McCarrick himself. On August 6, 2000, he penned a letter to the then papal secretary Bishop Stanisław Dziwisz, in an attempt to counter the allegations made by Cardinal O’Connor. “In the seventy years of my life,” wrote a solemn McCarrick, “I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay, nor have I ever abused another person or treated them with disrespect.”

Presenting himself as a model of celibate propriety, his letter was believed.  McCarrick’s name was not only put forward as a candidate for promotion but checks as to his adherence to Church doctrine were waived by Papal direction. Dziwisz would himself go on to be stone deaf, even hostile, to claims of abuse in the Church, notably after becoming Archbishop of Krakow in 2005.

The Report also notes the culture of the period, in part to exempt the Holy See from claims of connivance. There were no complaints “direct from a victim, whether adult or minor, about McCarrick’s misconduct.” His supporters, to that end, “could plausibly characterize the allegations against him and ‘gossip’ and ‘rumours’.” As is often the case in such institutional investigations, notably when made by the institution itself, a bit is had both ways.

The hoodwink defence is always easy to resort to when the larder of options is bare. Papal biographer George Weigel is familiar with the tried formula, fashioned from the greater the saint, greater the sinner school of persuasion.  “Saints are human beings, and saints, in their humanity, can be deceived.” Given that the pontiff purports to be a representative hovering somewhere between the heavenly divine and earth bound humanity, this argument quickly collapses. But it certainly satisfied the head of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gadecki, who is of the view that John Paul should be venerated further, both as a Doctor of the Church and patron saint of Europe. (The Vatican disagrees.) In a statement last Friday, the Archbishop insisted that John Paul had been “cynically deceived”.

John Paul had his own reasons in dealing with rumours and suspicions that flesh was being pursued with avid enthusiasm by highly placed church officials. An enemy of the communist system, indeed celebrated within Poland as a vital figure in undermining it, he was also aware of methods used to accuse and denounce opponents without an iota of evidence. The Catholic Church, and certainly the Polish branch, holds the line on that score.

The view was not shared by the Missouri-based National Catholic Reporter. “It is time for a difficult reckoning,” suggested the editors on November 13. “This man, proclaimed a Catholic saint by Pope Francis in 2014, wilfully put at risk children and young adults in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and across the world.” This “undermined the global church’s witness, shattered its credibility as an institution, and set a deplorable example in ignoring the account of those abuse victims.” The solution? “Suppress” the cult of John Paul II. History suggests a different trajectory: the saint abused is one adored ever more.

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Covid Offices and the Religion of Remote Work

Masks can prove liberating. The hidden face affords security. Obnoxious authority breathes better, hiding in comfort. Behind the material, confidence finds a home. While tens of millions of jobs have been lost to the novel coronavirus globally, security services, surveillance officers and pen pushers are thriving, policing admissions to facilities, churning through health and safety declarations, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

Consider the state of Victoria in Australia. The pandemic lockdown measures have softened but have left a thick film of bureaucracy. For the overly eager employee wishing to come into work to retrieve necessary materials (the definition of what is necessary varies), the task is irritating, even taxing. First, temperature check. Second, checking in via smart phone with a health declaration, a step discriminatory to those who have no interest in having such devices. Third, clearance with security to ensure the activation of relevant cards, and the lending of necessary keys. Even through masks, those lining up exude weariness, feeling saggy after months in epidemiological confinement.

With the card activated and ready to access the necessary buildings, it is time to make way to the office, a space neglected since March. Books, sulking at not having been consulted. Detritus of memories on the wall: posters and pictures of travel to places now inaccessible for reasons of cost or the pandemic. Towers of paperwork left unattended, rendered irrelevant by digitalisation. White board, uncleaned. A sense of woe grips: the days for having such a space of monkish calm and serene bliss are numbered.

During the pandemic, employers have been chorusing about the benefits of making people work from home. This has very much to do with them, though other virtues are also celebrated: the conveniences of work and home living; avoiding long, draining commutes; spending more time with family. We are doing it for you.

This has meant the invasion of the employee’s home, and often not a voluntary one. Urban managerialism, already identified in the 1970s by the English sociologist Ray Pahl, has been hyper charged by a reallocation of resources, the imposition of stresses upon the toilers. The nature of parasitic capitalism, as Andy Merrifield puts it, has come to the fore with aggression. “World cities,” he reasons, “are giant arenas where the most rabid activity is the activity of rabidly extorting land rent, of making land pay anyway it can; of dispatching all non-parasitic activities to some other part of town (as Engels recognized long ago), so as to help this rental maximisation.” The almost operatic description of Karl Marx in the first volume of Das Kapital comes to mind: “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more and more it sucks.”

And sucking it does, making sure that employees feed the beast by shouldering more expenses while all the time being told they are fulfilling their civic obligations and minding their good health. The fact that doing this also means reducing the ongoing costs of the business or entity, ensuring greater rental maximisation, is seen as ancillary to the main show.

Prior to the pandemic, the literature on attitudes to remote work was already sounding like an urban manager’s small book of maxims and clichés. Sophia Bernazzani of the video conferencing company Owl Labs, writing in December last year, announced how “new survey data revealed that remote work is a major benefit for employees. In fact, 34% of US workers would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely. And those who do work remotely say they’re happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site workers.”

With COVID-19 yet to make its telling presence, Forbes was already diving into reasons why a remote workforce was an exhilarating boon for business. As contributor Amar Hussain reasoned, “Although there are challenges that come with hiring and organizing a remote workforce, the reality is working with a remote team might end up being one of the best decisions you could make for your business.” More work is accomplished by such remote teams (time otherwise wasted on commuting, for instance, can be used); a “larger talent pool” can be drawn from, given the absence of geographical constraints; rental costs will be spared, meaning that US companies would be saving $10,000 per employee per year. Finally, a health dividend (because they care), would accrue. “Remote work removes the need to commute and the associated negative effects.”

Urban planning academic Richard Shearmur sees past the glossy narrative of saving costs, tilting the focus away from proselytisers of the religion of remote work. “Whatever the personal and productivity impacts of remote work, the savings of US$10,000 per year are the employer’s. In effect, this represents an offloading of costs onto employees – a new type of enclosure.” With this comes loneliness, reduced productivity and various inefficiencies.

Shearmur also sees a historical parallel of expropriation. “In 16th-century Britain, powerful landowners expropriated common land from the communities, often for the purpose of running lucrative sheep farms. Today, businesses like Shopify appear to be expropriating their employee’s private living space.” They do so by making employees purchase more work equipment for the home (ergonomic chairs, desks and so forth), placing the emphasis on them to maintain such equipment and the premises that house them.

Such businesses are also casting an Orwellian eye over employees in their home environment. Expropriation, in a fashion, is not enough; it must come with the monitoring gaze. Productivity targets must be maintained. Elizabeth Lyons of the University of San Diego explains what that entails. “The things employers are really looking for is what websites are employees on, are these productive or unproductive websites, what apps are they using, how much time they are spending on their different tasks.”

In an online survey of 1,800 people in October conducted by Prospect, a UK trade union representing engineers, scientists and civil servants, two-thirds of workers expressed discomfort at the idea of programmes being used to check the frequency of their typing. Up to 80% were also unsettled by the use of cameras recording them as they sat at their home computer, with 76% uncomfortable with the idea of wearing devices noting their location.

Some employees have been encouraged to believe in the narcotic of efficiency and productivity. Take Candice, a “digital marketer” behind podcasts aiding students undertaking English proficiency tests. Interviewed for ABC Radio National in Australia, she is sympathetic to her employer who “has no idea of what I’m doing all day long.” Except that he does. But never mind that: home surveillance technology “keeps me on track … I can see exactly how much time I’ve spent doing work.” Good for the unassuming Candice and co-religionists of remote work; bad for many of us.

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A Dedicated Obsession: Washington’s Continuing Iran Sanctions Regime

One dogma that is likely to persist in US foreign policy during a Biden presidency will be the sanctions regime adopted towards Iran. Every messianic state craves clearly scripted enemies, and the demonology about the Islamic Republic is not going to go begging. Elliot Abrahams, the current US special representative for Iran, told Associated Press on November 12 that, “Even if you went back to the (nuclear deal) and even if the Iranians were willing to return … this newly enriched uranium, you would not have solved these fundamental questions of whether Iran is going to be permitted to violate long-term commitments it has made to the world community.”

It is worth pointing out that it was President Donald Trump who proved so itchy to renege on the nuclear deal to begin with. In May 2018, his administration formally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the long-negotiated harvest of the Obama administration in July 2015. Over the course of 120 days, it re-imposed all previously lifted economic sanctions, including “secondary sanctions” on non-US entities conducting financial or commercial transactions with Iran. A unilateral shredding of Washington’s own undertakings was made while still expecting the mullahs to continue in sweet compliance.

The less than compliant response from Tehran has not made this one of Trump’s finer moments: an abandonment of nuclear limits marked out by the agreement; a resumption of the nuclear program; an increasingly emboldened stance in the Middle East. According to UN inspectors, Iran’s enriched stockpile currently lies at 2,440 kilograms. Under the deal, it would have been under 300 kilograms. All of this took place despite the precipitous fall in oil exports, a decline in currency value and a steep rise in inflation.

Even before the pandemic, human rights organisations were already warning about the broader health implications of a brutal sanctions regime. As Human Rights Watch explained in an October 2019 report, the consequences of such sanctions “pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines – and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages – ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”

The US State Department and the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control continue to maintain that humanitarian goods, which also covers medicine and medical supplies, are exempt in the sanctions policy. A rosily inaccurate picture, given the imposition of sanctions on 18 Iranian banks including those entities engaged in financing foods and medicines. To this comes the added complication of what the US considers “dual use” items: hazmat suits, face shields, oxygen generators, air filters. Decisions to grant exemptions, the purview of bureaucrats, are tardily made.

The advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic inspired a ghoulish train of thought in the Trump administration. Easing sanctions to better enable Iran to cope with COVID-19 was never entertained. Instead, as Djavad Salehi-Isfahani of the Brookings Institute observed, “the US piled on more sanctions, and chose to ignore calls from world leaders, former US diplomats, and the United Nations to ease sanctions.” Such a bloodthirsty sentiment was captured by the Wall Street Journal in March 2020, whose editors decided that sanctions should continue, despite Iran becoming a pandemic hotspot. “If American sanctions were the culprit, it might be reasonable to consider lifting them. But the regime’s incompetence and self-interest are to blame.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif thought differently of it, accusing the US of “medical terrorism” in blunting Tehran’s efforts to access financial resources during the COVID-19 crisis. Hadi Yazdani, a physician and a member of the reformist Union of Islamic People Party, sports a more nuanced view: US sanctions have well hobbled the government’s pandemic policy, but so has inefficiency and habitual bureaucratic mismanagement.

The dedicatedly nasty sanctions regime encouraged and enforced by the United States is now frustrating efforts in the country to make advance payment to the COVAX facility, created to assist in providing future COVID-19 vaccines to more indigent states. This will become more pressing, given rising death tolls. (On November 13, 461 were reported in the state media.)

The rate of COVID-19 infections is also scorching: 11,737 cases over 24 hours from Friday, according to Sima Sadat Lari, a health ministry spokeswoman who has become the regular herald of doom. She also admitted that various questions on the vaccines remained unanswered, notably in terms of “how effective the vaccine is and for what groups it is more effective.”

During the transition period in US politics, we can expect the Trump administration to be particularly testy about modifying its position on sanctions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues to busy himself with blacklisting Iranian entities. The Treasury Department, for instance, recently placed a supply chain network on the list, claiming it “facilitated the procurement of sensitive goods, including US-origin electronic components” for an Iranian entity linked to the production of “military communication systems, avionics, information technology, electronic warfare, and missile launchers.”

Pompeo – and in this, he has a few devotees- argues that a return to the nuclear deal would be dotty and dangerous. “It’s a crazy idea to think that you’re going to get back into a deal that permitted a clean pathway for the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon by which they could terrorize the entire world.” President-elect Joe Biden, for his part, insists that Iran “must return to strict compliance with the deal. If it does so, I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”

The statements of the president-elect suggest nothing comforting to health specialists and policy makers bearing witness to the suffering caused by sanctions. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy might be abandoned in name, but will continue exerting a haunting influence. The hawks in the Republican Party will be sharpening their talons, ever watchful of any softening towards Tehran.

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Rolling Heads at the Pentagon: Trump as Sacker-in-Chief

A sense of redundancy might encourage calm. The job is done, however well or poorly. The legacy charted. But in the case of President Donald Trump, there is still much to be done. Leaving aside his priority of fortifying himself in the White House against any bailiff onslaught by president-elect Joe Biden, he is busy making decisions. One of them is something that this administration will always be remembered for: sackings.

The sacking of Defence Secretary Mark Esper was in keeping with a recently minted tradition. Trump has made a habit of cycling through appointees, notably those in the Defence Department. Five acting or confirmed defence secretaries during the course of a presidential term is a spanking record and unlikely to be outdone for some years.

It was Esper who showed alarm at the possibility that troops would be deployed against protesters and did little to hide that fact. As he explained in the Pentagon briefing room on June 3, “The option to use active duty troops in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

Solid stuff from someone the president had mocked for undue subservience as ‘Yesper’, a tag he expressed resentment over in an interview given to Military Times a few days before his sacking. “My frustration is I sit there and say, ‘Hm, 18 Cabinet members. Who’s pushed back more than anybody? Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back.”

He was hardly top of the cabinet pops, and so, the beleaguered commander-in-chief, wishing for some gratuitous blood, found Esper’s exposed head. “Mark Esper,” came the president’s tweet, “has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.” His replacement: Christopher C. Miller, Director of the National Counterterrorism Centre.



What makes this unusual is that transitions are usually periods of dull resignation and tidying up. Job massacres do not tend to figure. But Trump was rarely ordinary in anything concerning White House business, often reprising his role from The Apprentice as firer-in-chief.

Talking heads have found such moves not merely poor form but disconcerting. Former assistant Secretary of Defence during the Reagan administration, Lawrence Korb, was concerned with appearances. “This is purely an act of retaliation by a president thinking more about his petty grievances than about the good of the country.” It conveyed a “message… that Trump is going to continue his disruptive policies for the rest of his time in office.”

House speaker Nancy Pelosi saw a continuing pattern of behaviour. “The abrupt firing of Secretary Esper is disturbing evidence that President Trump is intent on using his final days in office to sow chaos in our American Democracy and around the world.” Nothing new on that front, then.

Similarly, Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, was concerned that others – namely the enemies of the United States – might be enthused by such cavalier sackings. “Dismissing politically appointed national security leaders during a transition is a destabilizing move that will only embolden our adversaries and put our country at greater risk.”

Conservative think tankers such as Kori Schake at the American Enterprise Institute agree, suggesting that Trump was not living up to the expectations of the imperial military establishment. “Firing a competent defence secretary within two months remaining in his term is exactly the kind of petty recklessness that made so much of the Republic defence establishment support Joe Biden for president.”

Given the tenure of the Trump administration, and the propensity to prevent appointees from resting on their laurels, it is doubtful whether these adversaries would care one way or the other. But the psyche of the imperium not only demands lusty enemies, but demands that they take interest, gazing across oceans and deserts at what Freedom’s Land will be up to next. Democratic Senator from Virginia Mark Warner promotes the worn view that “our adversaries are already seeking vulnerabilities they can exploit in order to undermine American global leadership and national security during this transition period.”

In the radio chatterverse, NPR’s Greg Myre was also worried about what the sacking would do to confidence in the already nerve shattered ranks of US allies. “[T]he world doesn’t take a timeout during a US presidential transition.” This speculation tends to forget that such allies have generally adapted to Trump’s tongue lashings over defence expenditure or pulling their weight, and anticipate the next erratic move as a matter of course. The rickety US alliance system has also come in for some suggested revisions, notably in the form of French President Emmanuel Macron’s notion of strategic autonomy.

Esper’s removal is part of a transition spring clean in the dying days of the Trump presidency. Anthony Tata, a retired brigadier-general, former superintendent of Wake County Schools and North Carolina Department of Transportation chief, has been shoehorned into the role of Pentagon’s policy chief. Tata struggled with Senate confirmation earlier in the summer, a situation aided by past statements of some factual elasticity. (Neither he, nor the truth, tend to trouble each other.) In 2018, he accused President Barack Obama for being a Muslim “terrorist leader”. He has also had his sights on former CIA Director John Brennan, giving firm advice on Twitter that has since been removed: “Might be a good time to pick your poison: firing squad, public hanging, life sentence as a prison b*tch, or just suck on your pistol.”



In all this clouded mess, acting undersecretary of defence for policy, James H. Anderson, also handed in his resignation papers, along with Joseph D. Kernan, undersecretary of defence for intelligence. To make the picture that more interesting, Tata had been, in effect, Anderson’s deputy, in circumvention of Senate confirmation protocols. Not only has Trump proven to be the firing boss par excellence; he continues to fiddle protocol and muddy convention. Expect more heads to roll.


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Petitions, Probes and Rupert Murdoch

Australia has given the world two influential and disruptive exports in the field of media.  One, currently in London’s Belmarsh Prison, is facing the prospect of extradition to the United States for charges that could see him serve a 175-year sentence in a brutal, soul destroying supermax. The other, so the argument goes, should also be facing the prospect of incarceration for what he has done to politics in numerous countries. But media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the gruesome presence behind Fox News and News Corp, is unlikely to spend time in a cell any time soon. The same cannot be said for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.

Ingratiatingly, politicians have made the journey of pilgrimage to the not-so-holy Murdoch to keep in his good books. Disgracefully, though motivated by perceived necessity, British Labour’s Tony Blair wooed Murdoch prior to the 1997 UK general election he was to win. The victory for New Labour led to an association between Blair and Murdoch that was, according to former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, “almost incestuous”.

Blair’s kowtowing did its magic. As former deputy editor of The Sun, Neil Wallis, recalls in the first instalment of the documentary series The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, he was flayed by Murdoch for initially running what he called a “fairly standard” front page on the election. This was the same paper that boastfully declared on April 11, 1992, that, “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.” Labour, then led by Neil Kinnock, was favoured in the polls to defeat John Major’s weary, dysfunctional Conservatives. Murdoch, and his paper, would have none of it. On election day, the paper’s headline bellowed: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

By 1997, attitudes had changed. Wallis recalls entering his office after editing the first edition. Murdoch called: “Hated your paper this morning,” he raged. “Two or three minutes later my door opens, Rupert comes up and says ‘you’re getting this wrong. You’ve got this totally wrong. We are not just backing Tony Blair but we are going to back the Labour party and everything he does in this campaign 200%. You’ve got to get that right.”

The paper’s endorsement for Blair followed but came with its pound of tantalising flesh. Blair was required to write a puff piece for the paper promising a referendum should he wish Britain to embrace the Euro currency. Former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, forever associated with the Brexit campaign and Murdoch worship, saw this intervention as crucial. “The price of Rupert Murdoch’s support for Tony Blair was that Blair promised he would not take us into the European currency without a referendum, and if Rupert Murdoch had not done that we would have joined the Euro in 1999 and I doubt Brexit would have happened.”

In a 2016 study published in Social Science Research, the authors found that The Sun’s endorsement for Labour in 1997 led to a boost of support in the order of 7%. In 2010, the same paper’s return to backing the Conservatives increased support by 15%. Even if these figures were to be scaled back significantly, they would still suggest a degree of staggering influence.

It is precisely such power that has become something of an obsession for former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Rudd has never resiled from the view that Murdoch was directly responsible for his demise. True, his own knife-wielding colleagues in the Australian Labor Party, addled by negative poll ratings, were happy to do the deed, but it was Murdoch who sang the tune of encouragement. At the launch of his second volume of autobiography in 2018, Rudd claimed that Murdoch “is ideologically, deeply conservative, deeply protective of his corporation’s commercial interests and, therefore, prosecutes a direct agenda through his newspapers which I’ve been on the receiving end [of].”

Another former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, albeit from the conservative side of politics, is also convinced, having become something of a crusader against Murdoch and his foot soldiers. On the ABC’s Insiders program, he warned of the costs accruing to Australia in permitting the dominance of Murdoch’s press imperium. “We have to work out what price we’re paying, as a society, for the hyper-partisanship of the media.” He cast his eye to the United States “and the terribly divided state of affairs that they’re in, exacerbated, as Kevin [Rudd] was saying, by Fox News and other right-wing media.”

This had led to an alliance of sorts between the two men on this point, despite Turnbull’s previous description of Rudd as one of those “miserable ghosts” that haunt politics after the fact. A wiser Turnbull understands Rudd that much better after his own party initiated a palace coup, leading to the ascent of Australia’s current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

While an online petition against the dominance of the Murdoch press imperium seems like peashooter stuff, Rudd’s initiative has gathered momentum. His petition, now tabled in Australia’s Parliament, specifically calls for a royal commission “to ensure the strength and diversity of Australian news media.” Having received 501,876 signatures, it notes concern “that Australia’s print media is overwhelmingly controlled by News Corporation, founded by Fox News billionaire Rupert Murdoch, with around two-thirds of daily newspaper readership.” Australians holding views contrary to the Murdoch line “have felt intimidated into silence.” Adding to this such matters as the “mass-sackings of news journalists,” the stripping influence of digital platforms on media diversity, News Corp’s closure of 200 smaller newspapers after their acquisition and “relentless attacks on the ABC’s independence and funding,” the picture is bleak.

The petition’s tabling caused a flutter of interest in Parliament. While Murdoch is unlikely to break out into sweat at efforts made by Australia’s politicians to investigate his reach of influence, any inquiry will be irritating. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is certainly hoping to cause a stir, having pushed members of the Senate to establish an inquiry into media diversity in response to Rudd’s petition. “Australians have become increasingly concerned about the concentration of media ownership and the power and political influence of Murdoch.” The Senator is also keen to see the two former prime ministers “speak frankly and have the protection of parliamentary privilege, which is important when you’re talking about issues of power and influence.”

Murdoch’s hirelings are ready. Unfortunately for Hanson-Young, the News Corp imperium is skilled in camouflaging inertia against change with promises of activity. The inquiry’s terms of reference are also shallow, omitting any reference to News Corp Australia while calling for an examination of the “state of media diversity, independence and reliability in Australia and the impact that this has on public interest journalism and democracy.”

News Corp Australia’s executive chairman, Michael Miller, was cool in his statement, noting that the company had participated in at least nine previous media inquiries. “As always, we will continue to constructively engage in these important conversations.” Murdoch will be hoping that the conservative Morrison government, and a good number of Labor opposition figures, will not go wobbly in preventing change. History may well prove him right. Again.

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Viral Optimism: The Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine

The announcement that Pfizer Inc., along with its collaborative partner BioNTech SE, had come up with a successful vaccine candidate to combat the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 sent the markets soaring. In New York, Pfizer’s shares rose by 15 per cent in pre-market trading; those of BioNTech, Nasdaq-listed, rose 25 per cent. “Today is a great day for science and humanity,” a confident Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla crowed. “We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen.”

Bourla was in no mood to be modest about the record of the mRNA-based vaccine candidate, called BNT162b2. “With today’s news, we are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis. We look forward to sharing additional efficacy and safety data generated from thousands of participants in the coming weeks.”

The phase 3 clinical trial began on July 27, using 43,538 study participants. “The first interim analysis of our global Phase 3 study provides evidence that a vaccine may effectively prevent COVID-19,” explained Uğur Şahin of BioNTech, its co-founder and CEO. “This is a victory for innovation, science and a global collaborative effort.”

Bourla, perhaps realising that sceptics and the unsure will be eyeing such claims with reservation, has done much to squeeze the public relations process. In an open letter on October 16, he assumed a voice almost presidential in character. Forget elected officials or world leaders – here was Bourla as de facto vaccine president and humanitarian rescuer, “wanting to speak directly to the billions of people, millions of businesses, and hundreds of governments around the world that are investing their hopes in a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to overcome this pandemic.”

He promised transparency in the three areas where success had to be shown before approval for public use could be sought. The vaccine had to first be effective in preventing COVID-19 “in at least a majority of vaccinated persons.” It had to be demonstrated as safe “with robust safety data generated from thousands of patients.” It also had to be shown “that the vaccine can be consistently manufactured at the highest quality standards.”

Pfizer has also not exactly been transparent in releasing the full details of its preliminary analysis, but it certainly has been keen to celebrate the findings so far. The vaccine candidate, for instance, was “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first interim efficacy analysis.” Data was also drawn from 94 confirmed COVID-19 cases, though nothing has been said about the vaccine’s effectiveness on the issue of re-infection.

Of the enrolled participants, 42% had “diverse backgrounds” (“racially and ethnically”). No serious safety concerns were noted. Submission to the US Food and Drug Administration for Emergency Use Authorization is anticipated once “the required safety milestone is achieved.” The clinical trial is set to continue to its final analysis of 164 confirmed cases “to collect further data and characterize the vaccine candidate’s performance against other study endpoints.”

Such news, despite being based on interim data as yet unpublished in peer-review literature, delighted certain members of the scientific community. Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, could barely contain his excitement. “I am probably the first guy to say that [life will be back to normal by spring], but I will say that with some confidence.” Anthony Fauci of the US National Institutes of Health found the returns of the trial “just extraordinary”.

But even amidst the frothy enthusiasm, notes of caution gurgled. Erika Edwards for NBC News lists a few reservations. “Pfizer’s vaccine is a new type of technology that’s never been used in mass human vaccination before and experts caution that much remains unknown about its safety, how long it might work and who might benefit most.”

One such expert is Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minnesota. “We don’t know anything about groups they didn’t study, like children, pregnant women, highly immunocompromised people and the eldest of the elderly.” Virologist Brenda Wren of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is another. “It is a case of ‘so far so good’ but more confirmatory safety and efficacy studies are required.”

The heralded nature of the untried technological feature of the vaccine – at least when it comes to being applied to humans – lies in the speed and scale it can be manufactured at. Messenger-RNA (mRNA) tutors the immune system to target the spike protein of the virus. As Isabelle Bekeredjian-Ding of Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institut describes it, “An mRNA is basically like a pre-form of a protein and its [sequence encodes] what the protein is basically made of later on.” Once delivered into the body, the cells read the mRNA as a set of instructions to build the viral protein in question. The molecules of the virus are thereby created but do not form the virus itself. The immune system, tricked as it were, picks up on the presence of such viral proteins, producing a defensive response.

Pfizer’s bubbly confidence will have to be read alongside its history of data manipulation and publication strategy, all in the service of profit maximisation. In 2008, it was found that Pfizer had tinkered with the publication of studies on the use of its epilepsy drug Neurontin, enabling it to sell the drug for uses not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Studies undertaken showing negative outcomes for the use of the drug for unapproved uses were suppressed or delayed.

In 2014, the company agreed to pay $325 million to resolve claims it defrauded insurers and health care benefit providers by marketing Neurontin for those unapproved uses. Despite forking out in the settlement, Pfizer refused to admit wrongdoing. Worth thinking about as more data from the BNT162b2 trials is gathered and released.

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Biden’s Victory: What Now Awaits?

Whatever was set to happen on November 3, President Donald J. Trump would not lose. Falling in that establishment firebreak against democracy known as the Electoral College would not erase, let alone repudiate him. His now victorious opponent, far from convincing, strengthened by only one fact – not being Trump – remains a projection of all the unresolved problems of the republic.

A Joe Biden presidency promises to be a return, not a progression. But a glance at the US electoral map suggests no easy pathway to political amnesia. A vote count shy of 71 million for Trump will be a hard statistic to ignore; even harder for the new administration will be the Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate. The high priests and priestesses of news at CNN attempted to strangle any suggestion that they had gotten the election so horribly wrong. Embarrassment would not be countenanced; Biden, despite struggling in various key states in the initial count, would come through on the mail-in ballots so vigorously slandered by Trump.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper could not be accused of any complexity, preferring to summarise the Trump administration as a “time of extreme divisions… it’s a time of several significant and utterly avoidable failures, most tragically, of course, the unwillingness to accept the facts and science and do everything that can be done to save lives during a pandemic.” A “long national nightmare” for Americans had concluded.

What various networks were loath to admit was how Trump, despite the pandemic calamity, the worst economic performance since the Great Depression, the misinformation, the conspiracies, the misogyny, the racist claims, scandals and corruption, could still outperform his own showing in 2016 by millions of votes.

Trump’s performance till January, before the pandemic struck, was such as to make the Democratic challenge indefeasibly weak. As Luke Savage suggests in Jacobin, “Had the virus never hit and the situation that prevailed in January remained – which saw Trump’s economic approval rating rise to levels not seen by any president for two decades – there can be little doubt that the former host of TV’s The Apprentice would have flattened the hapless Biden on his road to a second term.”

Biden, straightjacketed by the DNC establishment, barely disturbed the policy manual. As good parts of the West Coast burned, he uttered pieties on climate change while refusing to saddle himself to the Green New Deal, preferring his own “Biden Green Deal”. He also rejected Medicare for All and held out on the issue of abolishing the legislative filibuster. On the issue of whether he would expand the Supreme Court beyond nine justices, he suggested the creation of a national commission. But in all this, a nod of approval was made to Trumpist rhetoric in an effort to lure back rust belt voters: the “Buy America” plan making US manufacturing “the Arsenal of American Prosperity.”

The elections for Congress did nothing to indicate that Trumpism had been washed blue. Quite the opposite. The cash expended on attempting to dislodge various GOP Senate incumbents went begging. Lindsey Graham held firm in South Carolina; likewise Joni Ernst of Iowa. Susan Collins survived in Maine, despite the challenge from Sara Gideon, funded to the tune of $130 million. (Collins received $76 million.) The Democrats actually lost five seats in the House of Representatives. Such outcomes prompted Eric Levitz to remark that, “The 2020 election was likely a nigh-catastrophic setback for progressive politics in the United States.”

The results reveal a reorientation in US politics that Biden’s team will struggle to cope with. So will some Republicans, who find themselves, according to Steve Bannon, architect of Trump’s 2016 victory, a “working class party.” Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri certainly thinks so, making the claim on Election Day that, “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.”

Trump did increase his share of the vote, but the composition was not identical to that of 2016. An increased base among Latino voters in Texas and Florida was secured, suggesting the failure of the Democrats to convince them of Trump’s racist credentials. There was a rise in Black American votes for Trump, notably amongst males, despite the Black Lives Matter protests. Biden can also claim to have snared some former Republicans, notably of the middle-class, who found Trump a meal too rich to digest. Democrats seemed to better the Republicans in numerous suburban counties.

The remarks by the Biden-Harris team on the occasion of declaring victory did little to suggest a patching up of differences, a desire to understand the voters who cast their ballots for Trump. The illusion of “people power” was promoted by Kamala Harris. She also positioned the Democrats in such a manner as to continue the sneer against Trump’s voters. A vote for the Democrats was one for “truth” and “science”. By implication, those who voted against the Democrats were ignoramuses. Identity politics was reiterated: race, colour, sex. The lines in the sand, affirmed again.

Then came Biden, wishing to look more alive than not by running to the podium. Had he received a jab or two, a handy stimulant? Certainly, the commander-in-chief to be would have to dispel notions of lethargy and sleepiness. In animated, forced fashion, he claimed that a “clear victory” had been achieved. He spoke of an “outpouring” of joy across the globe. He promised to unify the country, again claiming that he was colour blind to “Blue States” and “Red States”. The electoral jigsaw suggests something glaringly different.

He thanked the African-American vote that always had his back as he had theirs. Identity markers were carefully inserted into the speech: African-American, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, straight, transgender, gay. This would have had Mark Lilla rolling his eyes, having warned in 2016 that celebrating diversity is “a splendid principle of moral pedagogy but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.”

There was the briefest mention to Trump supporters: “time to lower the temperature again.” He called for a “fair shot”. Enemies were not to be found, only Americans. Forces of fairness, science and hope were to be mastered. Scientists were to be appointed as advisors to the transition team to “turn around this pandemic.” He wished to “restore the soul of America”. Then, predictably, the words of his grandfather to him to “keep the faith”; and of his grandmother, to spread it.

More than faith, kept or spread, will be required. What this election victory for Biden promises is a eunuch presidency, one weak and emasculated before it begins. Anticipate deadlock and the agitations of continued tribalism. Trumpism, maddeningly, will linger behind the curtain, ever threatening to bromide politics.


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Fur Trades and Pandemics: Coronavirus and Denmark’s Great Mink Massacre

“The worst case scenario is a new pandemic, starting all over again out of Denmark,” came the words of a grave Kåre Mølbak, director of the Danish health authorities, the State Serum Institute. According to the Institute, COVID-19 infections were registered on 216 mink farms on November 6. Not only had such infections been registered; new variants, five different clusters in all, were also found. Mink variants were also detected in 214 people among 5,102 samples, of whom 200 live in the North Jutland Region.

A noticeable tremor of fear passed through the public health community. It was already known that mink are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. On April 23 and 25, outbreaks linked with mink farms were reported at farms in the Netherlands holding 12,000 and 7,500 animals respectively. The mink had been infected by a farm worker with COVID-19 and, like humans, proved to be either asymptomatic, or evidently ill with symptoms such as intestinal pneumonia. In time 12 of the 130 Dutch mink farms were struck. What interested researchers was the level of virulence in the transmission of the virus through the population. “Although SARS-CoV-2 is undergoing plenty of mutations as it spreads through mink,” writes Martin Enserik for Science, “its virulence shows no signs of increasing.”

The Danish discoveries, however, fuelled another concern: the possibility that the virus from cluster 5, as identified by the Institute, was more resistant to antibodies from humans infected with SARS-CoV-2 when compared to other non-mutated SARS-CoV-2 viruses. Potential vaccines, in other words, could be threatened with obsolescence. “This hits all the scary buttons,” claimed evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom.

In her November 6 briefing, Tyra Grove Krause, head of the department of infectious disease epidemiology and prevention at the SSI, did not wish to strike the doomsday register. But she was none the less abundantly cautious. “We definitely need to do more studies on this specific variant and its possible effect on future vaccines, but it takes a long time to do these kinds of studies.” But she was in no mood to wait to “get all the evidence” given the possible risks. “You need to act in time to stop transmission.”

The World Health Organization is attempting to provide some reassurance, and while this is welcome, that body’s public image has been often unjustly frayed by its initial approach to the novel coronavirus. In a statement to National Geographic, the WHO admitted concern “when a virus has gone from humans to animals, and back to humans. Each time this happens, it can change more.” But Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, refrained from drawing any conclusions from the current crop of revelations from Denmark. “We need to wait and see what the implications are but I don’t think we should come to any conclusions about whether this particular mutation is going to impact vaccine efficiency.”

Francois Balloux, director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, is also making his own infectious disease wager, thrilled by this “fantastically interesting” scenario. “I don’t believe that a strain which gets adapted to mink poses a higher risk to humans.” This comes with qualification, of course. “We can never rule out anything, but in principle it shouldn’t. It should definitely not increase transmission. I don’t see any good reason why it should make the virus more severe.”

In Denmark, no scientific chances are being taken on either the issue of virulence or the matter of vaccine effectiveness. The entire mink herd of 17 million is being culled. The Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, attempted to see the problems of her country and its mink industry in humanitarian terms. “We have a great responsibility toward our population,” she explained on Wednesday, “but with the mutation that has now been found we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well.” Residents in seven areas in North Jutland have also been told “to stay in their area to prevent the spread of infection … We are asking you in North Jutland to do something completely extraordinary. The eyes of the world are upon us.”

Despite the immediate and effective destruction of an industry, Mogens Jensen, Minister for Food and Fisheries, stated that this would be “the right thing to do in a situation where the vaccine, which is currently the light at the end of a very dark tunnel, is in danger.” Magnus Heunicke, the Minister for Health, also reiterated the point that “mink farming during the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic entails a possible risk to the public health – and for possibilities to combat COVID-19 with vaccines.”

The inevitably callous and brutal measure means that both the animals concerned and an industry, are being confined to history. Animal welfare advocates see mixed promise in the measure: cruelty in the culling, but hope in the eradication of a trade. “The right decision,” according to Animal Protection Denmark, “would be to end mink farming entirely and help farmers into [another] occupation that does not jeopardize public health and animal welfare.”

Joanna Swabe, the senior director of public affairs for Humane Society International/Europe, did express some pleasure at what was otherwise a grim end to Denmark’s mink population. As one of the largest fur producers in the global market, the “total shutdown of all Danish mink fur farms amid spiralling COVID-19 infections is a significant development.” She even went so far as to congratulate the Danish prime minister for the “decision to take such an essential and science-led step to protect Danish citizens from the deadly coronavirus.”

Fur lobbyists and traders, while accepting of the health risks, have had reservations at the absolute nature of the Danish response. Magnus Ljung, CEO of Saga Furs, noted how control of COVID-19 infections in mink populations was achieved in the Netherlands and Spain without a need to resort to mass culling. Mick Madsen of the Brussels-based industry group Fur Europe accepted that “public safety must come first” but urged Danish authorities to “release their research for scrutiny amongst international scientists.”

In the United States, mass culling is yet to take off. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains cool to any drastic measures, despite cases of contracted coronavirus at mink farms in Utah, Wisconsin and Michigan. Transmission to humans had yet to be documented, though spokesperson Jasmine Reed noted “ongoing” investigations.

Some scrutiny from international sources regarding Denmark’s decision has been forthcoming, though it is more in the order of modest scepticism. Marion Koopmans of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, recalling the research into mink outbreaks in Dutch mink populations, considered the claim on a resistant mutation a bold one. “That is a very big statement. A single mutation, I would not expect to have that dramatic an effect.” Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist based at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine in Bern, Switzerland, was also doubtful. “It’s almost never the case that it’s such a simple story of one mutation and all your vaccines stop working.”

After the great Danish mink massacre, it may well transpire that Prime Minister Frederiksen’s decision might have been less “science-led” as was presupposed. This does not dishearten Hodcroft, who warmly embraces the Danish approach to “take a step too far rather than a step too little.” Pity about the mink, then.

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The US Presidential Election: The View from Outside

It was now the turn of other states to vent about, and at, the United States. The 2020 US presidential elections were coming down to a razor-sharp wire. The Democrats were starting to feel confident in the swing states. Republicans and the Trump camp were mustering aggressive arguments on potential electoral fraud, lawyering up the heavies. The picture is increasingly ugly, and the view from political outsiders is a mix of concern laced with a touch of bemusement.

Various countries and organisations were weighing in on the US elections in a manner normally reserved for seedier regimes and states in ill repair. The International Crisis Group, in a report published just prior to the election, is all warning and woe. “The 2020 US presidential election presents risks not seen in recent history. It is conceivable that violence could erupt during voting or protracted ballot counts. Officials should take extra precautions; media and foreign leaders should avoid projecting a winner until the outcome is certain.”

The last line has a fabulously understated tone of irony, given the more than enthusiastic pronouncements previously made by US administrations on which spoiler should be recognised over another in the elections of other countries. Interfering in the elections of other states has been something of a Washington speciality, notably since the nascent days of the Cold War.

The Crisis Group believes that the US is in a terrible mess, a patient politically ill. “Beyond the implications for any Americans caught up in unrest, the election will be a harbinger of whether its institutions can guide the US safely through a period of socio-political change.”

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has suggested that President Donald Trump risked causing harm to “public trust in democratic institutions” notably in prematurely claiming victory. Polish ambassador Urszula Gacek, as chief of the US OSCE’s mission, despaired at the rash of lawsuits already dotting the political landscape. Such cases were “changing the rules of the game while the game is still going on.” (For the untutored, this assessment is understandable; but any seasoned observer would have to accept that behind every US election lies an army of lawyers in brief wielding wait.) The body’s 30 observers and 11 election experts took note of “grave concerns” from US election officials that legitimacy was being questioned “due to the incumbent President’s repeated allegations of a fraudulent election process.”

A range of reactions have also been documented – anonymously, naturally – by Time. One “senior western official” was “shocked that Trump rejected a peaceful handover of power.” Another noted concern about impending “chaos”, adding that, “Everyone here is armed.” Diplomatic missions and embassies in Washington were preparing for something akin to an apocalypse. Some diplomats have wondered whether to arm themselves in the event of violent demonstrations engulfing the city.

The view from various US allies has also been one of caution tempered with fear. Over his tenure, Trump has been rather moody about the transatlantic alliance. “This is a very explosive situation,” warned the German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. “This is a situation that can lead to a constitutional crisis in the US, as experts are rightly saying. And it is something that must cause us great concern.”

EU foreign affairs minister Josep Borrell was more measured. “The American people have spoken. While we wait for the election result, the EU remains ready to continue building a strong transatlantic partnership, based on our shared values and history.”

Fans of US imperial power were also melancholy about the election outcome so far. In Britain, it was typically vicarious, a fear that Anglophone democratic standard bearing was in for some punishment. “My biggest worry,” speculated former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, “is that we forget that the US is the leading democracy in the world, and if we end up with a huge argument about process, and people talking about a stolen election left, right and centre, we are only going to put a smile on the face of people like President Putin and President Xi who will look at their own people and say ‘are you not pleased we have not got this mess?’ and that would be an absolute disaster.” In his assessment, Hunt espouses the conventional, error filled wisdom about the US being a democracy, when it would be best described as a republic with plutocratic credentials. But myths need nourishment and encouragement.

Thinking in the vein of the indispensable nature of US power, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, former UK ambassador to Washington, was very much of the school that the US had underperformed in turning inward. Trump had not fulfilled the remit given US leaders for generations. “I fear we will get more of the same or, even worse, an even worse, an even more unpredictable and inconsistent leader than in the first term.” A eunuch presidency in the making.

In Russia, some of the sharper comments could be found. Konstantin Korsachev, chair of the upper house Federation Council committee of foreign affairs, insisted that Russia benefitted “from any certainty in which losers won’t need to resort to [claims of] foreign interference. It’s time for America to return to the politics of sanity, in which case we will always support it.” The path to sanity may be rather more cluttered than Korsachev thinks.

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Trump, Blue Mirages and False Polls

The great bard remarks in Henry VI: Part II that all the lawyers ought to be killed. In entertaining this homicidal formula, William Shakespeare had yet to encounter that barnacle breed known as the pollster. There is much to suggest that those practising this dark and futile art ought to be done away with, with their special ability to suggest realities buried in the entrails of malleable opinions. Their failings have been regular and profound: the Brexit referendum in 2016; the US presidential victory that same year for Donald J. Trump.

Cue to 2020. The scene set before the November 3 vote: the wooden, barely breathing Joe Biden, whose only claim to fame in this presidential race has been not being Trump. A vote for Biden; a vote for a return to amnesia, self-denial and the fiction of “decency”. Trump, campaigning manically across several swing states in the last days; Biden, doing his little bit in Pennsylvania, strumming his Scranton, working class tune to voters.

Democrats were again counting on the weakness of their opponent, misreading him. Strategists could only see a monster, an apparition that would pass. Left unseen was a campaigner who never left the rally; a person whose four years in office has been one long pitch to retain power. In the meantime, despite the president’s predations and the personalisation of high office, Trump’s supporters have noted the hum of the economy (prior to the coronavirus), delighted in his hard stance on treaties, his pugilism towards Washington’s allies and foes.

The death rate of COVID-19 might have seen him off; indeed, Trump might himself have become a viral casualty were it not for the highly priced medical treatment he received. But even here, this mendacious wonder managed to suggest that he contracted it for the American people, did it for them; the foolish minimiser of disease turned brave warrior, albeit it one with a large medical bill attached.

In this mess were the pollsters – again. Data from Real Clear Politics suggested that Biden would sail into the White House on a sea of blue, ahead with 51 per cent compared to Trump’s 44 per cent in the seven-day rolling average. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported a 10 point lead favouring Biden (52 per cent to 42 per cent).

Emblematic in all of this was the result in Florida. Victory was secured by Trump by a margin three times that of 2016. The polling suggested that Biden would be breathing easy with a margin of 2.5 points. Another glaring error for the books.

Looking at Florida, John Podhoretz raged, wondering why “we fell for their crap again.” Such polling could only be seen as “a fraud. It claims to measure something that, it is now unmistakably clear, cannot be accurately measured. Polling’s seductive promise is that it will take the guesswork out of understanding a complex and changing set of circumstances and replace that uncertainty with something that looks like science.”

Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson was similarly livid. Suggesting that the polling industry was “dead”, he advocated mass firings. “I could name some of the people who should be fired immediately.”

One figure in the firing line of vituperation was Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, a data journalism blog described by Aaron Timms in The New Republic as having “no politics – or rather, no politics beyond a mute approval of the status quo.” Silver has turned into a shape changer over the years, moving beyond the astrology of polling into strident pontifications, some of which are suitably dotty. But elections are meant to be his ham and eggs, and in November 2020, he was nodding the way of a convincing Biden victory.

This prompted Erik Engquist, senior managing editor of The Real Deal, to release a volley of indignation. “How many elections can Nate Silver’s model do this before people stop taking him seriously? It gave Biden a 95% chance to win MI, 94% chance to WI, 69% to win FL etc.” Reuters investigative reporter Joel Schectman suggested that Silver had “a lot of mansplaining to do” though took the barb off his remarks by claiming irony; Ashlee Vance of Businessweek wondered how many poles it would take “for Nate Silver to get a forecast right.”

Away from the convenient, readymade fictions of the polling industry, the US political ground is looking ugly, fractured and desperate. This has not stopped Democrats remaining wrapped up in an entitlement narrative that continues to repel voters with its own form of snobbery. Biden’s promise on Election Day that “there will be no red states or blue states just the United States of America” is supremely fanciful when looking at a country distinctly divided between them. What is abysmal for the Donkey Party this time around is not that Trump just might win (again), but that his record on pandemic mismanagement, politicisation of US institutions and science, to name but a few, did not guarantee a blue stampede. Across the country, the revolted remain in revolt.

Instead, Trump has managed to turn the political fabric of the US inside out, sowing seeds of chaos and now, with a promise of litigation, to reap them in the various courts of the country. His overt turn to hucksterism – the claim that an electoral fraud has been committed – is very fitting. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.” The pollsters have now been replaced by the vote counters. The lawyers, far from being done away with, are being hired by the platoon.

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The US Republic, Trump and the Authoritarian Fear Mongering Club

It’s an oxymoron with a long history: American democracy. In referring to the United States, it does not exist. Nor does it take a follower of refrigerated communism to note the obvious point that democracy plays a small part in the processes of the US political system. It is a republic, with all the glorious, problematic and deep-seated problems that term implies. Factions are held in check; neither must get too powerful. To ensure political, propertied stability, the worst side of human nature is to be guarded against. One way lies the rule of the mob; the other, the tyrant.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, in a report published in June 2020, reiterates the point. “America is a republic.” It was never meant to be a “pure democracy.” Issue is taken with various non-republican solutions which are becoming popular: Congressional-term limits; abandoning the Senatorial filibuster; inflating the number of Supreme Court justices; “developing more effective and immediate ways to express the will of the majority.”

One initiative intended to shore up the democratic deficit has come in the proposal to circumvent or abolish the Electoral College, an idea that captured the imaginations of Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y) in April last year. The Electoral College damns numerical voting majorities in favour of overly weighted college votes. The US republic has witnessed five instances when the popular vote did not carry the day: 2016, 2000, 1888, 1876 and 1824.

In introducing a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College system, Senator Schatz suggested that “the person who gets the most votes should win. It’s that simple.” For Senator Durbin, “the Electoral College is a relic from a shameful period in our nation’s history, and allows some votes to carry greater weight than others.”

The issue of making elections more direct to popular voice is a debate worth having. But it is hard to imagine these senators being as enthusiastic to such reform had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election for their party.

The creation of the US republic – by white, privileged landowners fearful of either a return to monarchy or the usurpation of democratic impulse – suggested the need for containment, neutralisation, the levelling out of factional interest. Extol the virtues of human nature; but ensure that such nature be contained by such doctrines as the separation of power. As James Madison wrote in the tenth essay of the Federalist Papers (1787), “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”

Such a background is instructive in debunking the false option available to US voters on November 3. One recurring theme here is that of democracy versus Trump. This was always a false opposition, and continues the libel against his supporters perpetrated with disastrous import by Hillary Clinton. (Never forget “the basket of deplorables”.) In the initial days after the 2016 presidential election, there were voices to be heard in San Francisco’s Castro District calling, not for more democracy but less: the disenfranchisement of ignorant voters who could let such a man have the keys to the White House. Early on, the seeds of the Russia canard was also sown, an attempt by a traumatised establishment to suggest that the man in the White House was nothing more than a puppet of the Kremlin. All of this served, at least for the Democrats and Trump’s critics, to distract from the weaknesses and problems that had imperilled their own political position. Losses can always be explained away by exogenous cause, a method of deflection Trump knows all too well.

During Trump’s time in office, the spectre of tyranny has not been realised. It was predicted by some conservatives and those of more progressive bent in the initial days of the presidency. Yes, the president has fiddled and courted external powers to assist his political efforts; attacked the fourth estate; mocked science and its high priests as a pandemic rages; embraced the odd conspiracy theory on the way; tampered with appointments. He has brought Twitter and Fox News into the White House. Reality television has become staple in a presidency that has, at times, resembled a grotesque caricature of power rather than power itself. But for all that, the optimistic might have much to say that the Republic, despite ailing, still has some fight in it.



This has not stopped commentary from the presidium of talking heads warning about Trump as the anti-democratic, even totalitarian figure, suggesting that a vote for Joe Biden is somehow more democratic, more decent and enlightened. On the eve of the US election, we have scholars of authoritarianism and fascism signing a letter with a less than subtle allusion to the president that democracy “is either withering or in full-scale collapse globally.” The scholars lament the passing of a golden era “in the years following the end of the Cold War,” when “democracy appeared to be flourishing everywhere.”

It does not make much time for the signers of the letter to get to the president. “Whether Donald J. Trump is a fascist, post-fascist populist, an autocrat, or just a bumbling opportunist, the danger to democracy did not arrive with his presidency and goes well beyond November 3rd, 2020.” It is admirable for the signatories to take the long view, though such language can come across as silly. For one, the scholars, having been so caught up with seeing authoritarianism everywhere, have probably neglected to identify the content of democracy with any precision. There is also surely a vast difference between terms such as “fascist” and a “bumbling opportunist” but labels in the academe can start to clot the mix of reason after a time.

In such cases, it becomes easy to adopt a didactic tone of warning. Mark Kenny of the Australian National University’s Australian Studies Institute does just that, taking aim at the US voter. “A decisive rejection of Trumpism offers national redemption. His re-election, the opposite. In 2020, there will be no innocence and no buyer’s remorse.” The problem, as always with such assessments of Trump, is that this president was not responsible for the US republic’s banishment from Eden. There was never any innocence to take in the first place.


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