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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.

Justifications for Inequality: The Neuroses of Kochland

One of the brothers Koch, David, has shuffled off this mortal coil, and the pious few looking at his passing may well think he is making it tough for camels passing through needles. As part of the Brothers Koch, he presided over a corporate empire that did its pinching best to wrest control from the purses of public accountability in the US republic. At his death, he was the eleventh richest person on the planet, on par with his dominant brother, Charles.

David K, however, went beyond the narrower spending interests of brother Charles, the one with the sharpest of eyes for business who elevated the family’s Wichita oil company into a mammoth entity worth $110 billion.

The pet projects of right wing think tanks and campaign funding for libertarian causes did interest David, but he wished for more. Medicine and the arts tickled his interest, turning him into a philanthropist. His particular funding-from-high approach was something that was bound to earn praise in some cases: the powerful can be benevolent to the arts and various good causes, even if it comes with a presumption of innate inequality. Take the New York ballet, which can count some $100 million in donations from the family, and such institutions as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Such recipients spent little time philosophising about the origins of the loot. As President Theodore Roosevelt said dismissively of John D. Rockefeller’s establishment of a foundation to manage and disseminate his wealth, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

It was precisely such gestures that made David Koch a difficult one to pin down, at least for a certain breed of conservative. Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review, for instance, has suggested that this particular Koch brother could not be meaningfully slotted into a niche of blue-blood conservatism, being himself “a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights, drug legalisation, and much else that does not fit very comfortably on the current ‘right wing’ agenda”.

Politics generates its own distinct tics; Charles and David were left heavy with the anti-socialist sentiments of their bruising father, Fred, who supervised the building of refineries in a Soviet Union hungry for petroleum engineering. This was a temporary measure: when the Soviets felt competent enough to proceed without his help, Fred Koch wound his disgruntled way to a more accommodating Nazi Germany, where his firm, Winkler-Koch, prospered from 1934. (This latter point is not mentioned on the website of an organisation Fred joined as an early national council member, The John Birch Society).

A form of natural selection in the family was encouraged, with Charles edging David out in the pecking order. David would find his way. MIT engineering, basketball for which he showed more than an aptitude for, and presidency of Koch Engineering, and executive vice-president of Koch Industries in 1981. While brother Charles always took primary polling in building the empire, turning Fred’s bricks into family marble, it was David who proved a consistent ally in subsequent family disputes, notably against mischievous brother Bill.

To study the Kochs is to study the US republic as an ailing patient saddled with profound neuroses. To that end, few studies on the Kochs, or any other US corporation, match Christopher Leonard’s Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America. “The Koch brothers derived their wealth through a patient, long-term strategy of seizing opportunities in complex and often opaque corners of the economic system.” That toenail growing patience was underpinned by an ideological observance of free-market economy, specifically those of the Austrian school. Out of this worship of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek came Market-Based Management, not much short of a cult’s affirmation.

The name Koch is associated with the realisation of political platforms and the disruption of others. The same year David found himself running as vice-president, Richard Fink, long considered the steering force of the “Kochtopus”, suggested a three stage process in the field of activism. The idea would be germinated by intellectual hothouses and allowed to flourish. Selected think tanks would treat these ideas as a convertible and exportable commodity: the activists and advocacy groups, suitably bankrolled with Koch cash, would fashion such raw material, using it to pressure elected officials.

As Jane Mayer, a keen student of the Koch phenomenon has noted, the brothers “built a kind of an assembly line to manufacture political change.” In Dark Money, she would call it “a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled and switched on.” Some conservatives preferred to simply see such operating means with gushing envy: the Kochs, according to an admiring Jim Geraghty, were engaged in “effective activism”, targeting “state legislatures, local tax initiatives and the political races that aren’t ‘sexy’.”

That production line had its favourite targets: the supposedly galloping away power of the state (by the end of the 1970s, abolishing the Energy Department had become a platform of the Libertarian Party), unwanted regulations, and fetters on corporate behaviour. In recent years, a clearer picture of the Koch contribution to a big-ticket issue – climate change denial – has emerged. This has been characterised by an insatiable, and uninterrupted hunger, for natural resources. As David Koch explained to the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Alaska in 1980, the US, “in its own self-interest should be actively promoting development of natural resources in Alaska and assisting in placing more land in private ownership.” Good for Koch; good for the United States.

In 1991, a coterie of individuals who have become part of the usual suspect list of climate change scepticism, underpinned by the need for continued environmental exploitation, gathered at a Cato conference titled “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?” The theme was clear enough: plunder as there was no danger of perishing; extract as there was no fear of environmental degradation. Meteorologist Richard S. Lindzen was a headline act, dismissing global warming as having “very little evidence at all.” According to Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigation Center, such gatherings proved indispensable in stifling any chances of a carbon tax.

In 1980, David Koch attempted a foray into US politics, an effort to come from behind the screen of power. In a sense, it seemed to contradict the secrecy and opacity of the Koch modus operandi: to influence US politics was to do so in the foggy background of assiduously gathered intelligence, targeted donations and backroom manipulations. Running as US vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, with Ed Clark as the mainstay, did not come to much: the brothers ultimately knew that their mark would be best made as puppet masters rather than openly elected puppets. Inequality, smoothed by various disgorges of largesse, would always be key.

Perhaps unwittingly, the statement from the family on David’s passing suggested the triumph of a certain type of raw American value, distant, unattainable, and ultimately hostile to the commonweal. Life is nasty, brutish and short, but it has the softening of moneyed self-interest. “David liked to say that a combination of brilliant doctors, state-of-the-art medications and his own stubbornness kept the cancer at bay.” How good of him, and his family, to embrace a view of the evils of state-sponsored health care and welfare; to the rich go the lecturing spoils.

Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and semantic gymnast for President Donald Trump, was keen to do his bit of weeding of negative opinions. “David Koch,” he peevishly tweeted at Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, “was a good man who had a different ideology than you or to some extent me. But it’s cruel to attack a dead man who was doing what he believed was best for our country. Stop demonizing.”

The case here is less one of demonization than sorrow. The success of Koch Industries, and even taking into account David’s calculatingly philanthropic streak, has signalled a failure, and failing, of the US republic. The citizen has been anatomised; the corporation reigns with impunity. Charles, and his philosophy, remains ascendant.

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The Naming Industrial Complex: The Stupidity of Smart Devices and Smart Cities

Insentience cannot have intelligence, but the modern public relations revolution would have you think otherwise. Smart phones, smart bombs, and, it follows, Smart Cities (capitalising such terms implies false authority), do not exist in that sense, whatever their cheer squad emissaries in High Tech land claim. They are merely a masterfully daft celebration of tactically deployed cults: there is a fad, a trend, and therefore, it must be smart, a model option to pursue.

What does exist is a naming industrial complex, a conniving fraternity that gives them some form of nominal existence: to utter and label is to create. These people are, in due course, paid ample amounts to whisper such packaged sweet nothings, the tech wizards in alliance with the marketing gurus.

Naming systems as if they were intelligent has a long pedigree in the kingdom of mechanical designations. The US Department of Defense came up with a scheme in 1963 to generate various names, which might give you the impression of unwarranted sophistication or even cuddliness. Little wonder that the term ‘smart’ came to be used in the naming process.

In the 1970s, the term “smart weapons” came into usage to distinguish laser and TV-guided munitions from the standard, lacklustre non-wonders such as “dumb” bombs. This false distinction should never have taken off, but it did, proudly asserted in military circles as gospel. An article in 1987 by A.R. Newbury in the RUSI Journal sums this up without a shred of cynicism. “In particular, ‘smart’, or even ‘brilliant’, has been used to describe weapons which can acquire and attack targets with the minimum of external support.”

Subsequent deployments of these weapons revealed, in time, a distinctly “dumb” streak. William M. Arkin, having been a military adviser for Human Rights Watch, suggested that “smart” weapons did not preclude dumb uses, such as targeting. Arkin specifically references the bombing of Pančevo’s Lola Utva plant in 1999, a factory that “was simply not in a position to contribute much of anything to Yugoslavia’s military” when it was hit by NATO forces. Besides, “all weapons,” according to internal Pentagon documents, “show that for all weapons – smart and dumb – only 58 percent of the intended ‘aimpoints’ were hit.” Much none-too-smart nonsense continues to circulate ad nauseam, in the field.

From the weaponry of states deployed with varying measures of accuracy and bungling, supposedly vested with the euphemistic charm of being intelligent, we find similar measures in proposals that seek to identify the magic of smart weaponry held by domestic citizenry. Take, for instance, the idea of “smart” guns. In 2014, the US Attorney General Eric Holder gave an example before a House appropriations subcommittee. The theme: how guns “can be made more safe” in a managed environment that would still enable US citizens to exercise their second amendment rights. “By making them either through finger print identification, the gun talks to a bracelet or something you might wear, how guns can be used only by the person who is lawfully in possession of the weapon.”

The fallacy of naming in order to vest technology with a sensibility persists in other areas. Labelling teams work around the clock. Domestic appliances have not be spared; the home has been invaded by their language. As a world-weary David Capener observes, “Marketers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties.” The anatomy of such a city is based on its technological expression, one as equally sinister as it is questionable. It takes the form of continual, mass surveillance typified by sensing devices; vending machines with in-built biometric sensors; concealed black boxes located through the city’s urban settings.

Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, was one such convert to the idea.  In his response to the 2010 mudslides, he forged ahead with plans to create an urban command centre based in the Cicade Novo district known as the Centro de Operações Preifetura do Rio de Janeiro (COR). “COR,” as The Guardian noted, “brings together the municipality’s 30 departments and private suppliers into a single monitoring rom. Here, they track real-time conditions in the city, when necessary coordinating a response to emergencies and disruptions.”

In terms of cities, London is considered one of the smartest, despite its crowding, desperate chaos and poor planning. As a sceptical Bruce Sterling reminds us in The Atlantic, “London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.”

The naming logic becomes a necessity, linked to technological need. You are told that the whole business is necessitous and vital. You simply could not do without it. As Sterling suggests, burying fibre-optic capable gives you the internet; towers and smartphones generate “portable ubiquity”; breaking a smartphone into component parts – sensors, switches, radios – gives you the internet of things. But when all are linked, and examined, you also get the dumb aspect of things, insensate, machine oriented, duly named to trick the gullible. Behind this lurk the familiar pagan gods: the internet, cloud computing and capital.

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Imperial Sentiments: Donald Trump, Greenland and Colonial Real Estate

Haven’t the critics worked it out yet? US President Donald Trump chugs to the coal of nonsense that may come in the wrapping of some sense. Initial mad-cat comments, when cobbled together, might reveal some pattern in time.

Take, for instance, the recent offer to purchase Greenland. Considered laughable, purchasing territories has notable, historical precedent in US foreign policy. Territorial aggrandizement through such means has been something of a US specialty, complementing the usual technique of brutal military conquest.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was a steal by President Thomas Jefferson, almost doubling the territory of the United States. Alaska also went the way of purchase, being transferred by Russia to the US in 1867 for $7.2 million. It was something the Russians would come to rue: within a half-century, that amount had been earned back a hundred times over. 

That same decade saw US State Department officials turn their attention to Greenland. An 1868 publication for the department compiled by Benjamin Mills Peirce casts more than a fleeting eye on the resources of both Iceland and Greenland, acknowledging the treaty with Denmark which was ostensibly meant to cede control of the islands of St. Thomas and St. John to the US. (The US State Department describes this attempt on the part of Secretary of State William Henry Seward to acquire the Danish West Indies rather laconically as “peaceful territorial expansion”.)  

This observation in the report comes with its inaccuracies, largely based on premature optimism: the US Senate spitefully rejected the treaty, despite being ratified by the Danish parliament and its approval by the very limited suffrage plebiscite. Anger was expressed at Seward’s persistent support for the troubled President Andrew Jackson during impeachment proceedings. US interest persisted, though it was the turn of the Danish upper house to return the serve of repudiation in 1902 in refusing to ratify the agreement. It took the winds of the First World War to encourage a formal transfer of the Danish West Indies on April 1, 1917. 

The 1868 report uses rather familiar language to Trump’s, both in political and economic terms. The Danish authorities are held to task for their great neglect of invaluable development opportunities. Iceland is praised for “pasture and arable lands, its valuable mines, its splendid fisheries, and its unsurpassed hydraulic power”. Fully developed (read, by US efforts), a population of one million might be sustained. The population of Greenland is similarly “neglected by Denmark”, despite the island having vast quantities of fauna varieties for the kill, among them “whale, walrus, seal, and shark, cod, ivory-cod, salmon, salmon-trout, and herring”. Obtaining it for the US would make good political and commercial sense: it would flank “British America on the Arctic and Pacific” and force her away from Britain “to become a part of the American Union.”

Enough seriousness was given to Trump’s offer to warrant copy across the media spectrum. The Brookings Institution’s Scott R. Anderson was not hopeful that discussions would go anywhere. “Unfortunately for the president, buying and selling Greenland is, in all likelihood, a legal and political impossibility.”

Anderson acknowledges a traditional acquisitiveness towards Greenland, being a gem of mineral and natural resource wealth. Furthermore, its proximity to Russia and the Arctic, in Anderson’s words, “makes it a major strategic asset for staging various military and intelligence facilities.” This point is already noted by a US presence at the Thule Air Base, something maintained since the Second World War with Danish consent. Admittedly, that presence was encouraged by Nazi Germany’s occupation of the kingdom in 1940, leaving Greenland to slide into the American orbit. Six years later, President Harry Truman wanted to formalise the move by suggesting a sum of $100 million for the island.

Given that the Danish government already permits a degree of US influence, it might have been more prudent of Trump to simply exercise it via traditional forms of seemingly benign encroachment. That approach can be seen in Australia, where an increased US military presence is being felt by way of US marines on rotation in the Northern Territory. But such a technique seems all too quiet for the Trump boardroom of hiring and firing. On Wednesday, he cancelled a planned visit to Denmark, deeming the comments made by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen “nasty”.

Frederiksen’s degree of nastiness was simply one of puzzlement. Talking about purchasing Greenland was “an absurd discussion”, even though the US did acquire the Danish West Indies through purchase and has kept a roaming eye, wallet at the ready, to expansion in the Atlantic. On Sunday, she told a television reporter that, “Thankfully, the time when you buy and sell other countries and populations is over. Let’s leave it there.” She did make one gentle concession. “Jokes aside, we would naturally love to have an even closer strategic relationship with the US.” Deeper cooperation “on Arctic affairs” is still on the table.

Despite Frederiksen’s occasional asides at the United States, Danish foreign policy has been closely aligned with the United States since the attacks of September 11, 2001, bucking a long history of non-interventionism. The Danish Parliament gave its unqualified approval to US actions in retaliation and committed troops to the warring enterprises in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Danish military casualties per capita are the highest of any of the coalition partners in those haphazard efforts. This shedding of blood has led to such emetic observations as those of former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, describing the kingdom as “America’s largest and smallest ally”. (An exhibition at the Museum of Danish America in 2017 proclaimed without reserve that the US and Denmark “have the longest unbroken diplomatic relationship in the world, beginning in 1801.”)

There is also Denmark’s strained and blighted relationship with Greenland, making it susceptible to foreign influence. The largely self-governing entity has capitalised on Danish indifference, attempting to lure Chinese investment to develop three airports to secure better connections to the US and Europe. (Denmark reluctantly caved in last year in an effort to keep the PRC at bay.) Greenland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, however, drawn the line over a proposed sale. “We’re open for business,” went an official tweet, “not for sale”.

The Greenland spat has revealed the obstinate ahistorical context of Trump’s world.  Allies, for one, are to be hectored, their efforts dismissed as paltry. Despite Danish contributions to the foolhardy efforts of the US imperium, Denmark could still be scolded for spending a mere 1.35% of GDP on NATO. “They are a wealthy country,” tweeted Trump, “and should be at 2%”. The president had been insulted, his ego put down by the prime minister of a small state. “You don’t talk to the United States in that way, at least under me,” he told reporters in Washington. “I thought it was not a nice statement, the way she blew me off.” The US was never blown off and remains the oversized fly in the ointment of Denmark’s foreign policy. As for Greenland, Trump might have asked its own prime minister, Kim Kielsen.

 

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Fast Bowling, Concussions and Jofra Archer

We should all be cheering on some level. So much in this age of cricket favours the pampered bat over the stifled ball. The game of duration has suffered: five-day test matches are struggling before diminishing attention spans and ever shorter forms of the game. The tat of T20 has become the dull staple; the expertise and concentration for test cricket is sliding.

The second test match at Lords, where Australia have a near unblemished record against England, saw a glorious injection into the longer form of the game. Australia’s Steve Smith again threatened a Bradmanesque feat, huffing his boyish invincibility before an increasingly wearing field of bowlers. But he encountered a savage bouncer at the hand of England’s newest weapon, Jofra Archer. Having turned awkwardly away from the rising delivery from the debutant, the back of his neck encountered the bruising cherry. He was floored. A few sharp intakes of breath were registered – at least initially: such a blow could be, as it tragically proved for Phillip Hughes in 2014, lethal. Fans peered, consulted their media feeds, sought the good word. Smith got up but had to leave the field.

On returning to the crease after 40 minutes, there was little in the atmosphere of Lord’s suggesting that a gladiator had returned, taking his deserved place at his mark. The amber fluid had been flowing, and it was clear to some that jeering Smith was itself a sporting thing to do.

Not so, suggested Britain’s sports minister Nigel Adams. Smith had served his suspension for ball tampering, done his time in cricket’s cold purgatory. “The vast majority of the Lord’s crowd were on their feet applauding Steve Smith after his innings but a small amount of booing from a tiny element of the crowd has made the news.” While he conceded that seeing Smith score a glut of runs might not be what he wanted, Evans found him “mesmerising to watch and as a genuine sports fan we should be applauding him, not jeering.”

As it turned out, Archer’s 148 km/hr blow was a test match debut call, rippling across the cricket world. There was exhilarating danger and a sort of admiration reserved for boxers. Pakistan’s Rawalpindi Express, Shoaib Akhtar, was adamant about Archer’s value. Those from the opponent side were also inclined to issue a note of praise. “It’s quite rare to be able to bowl with pace and accuracy for such a long time,” reflected Australia’s most successful fast bowling titan Glenn McGrath. “His action doesn’t look too stressful, he has a nice, smooth run-up and goes through the crease really well.” Beware those bowlers who make the mode of execution effortless, whatever effort they might be putting into their deliveries.

There was also the usual criticism, a moralist’s behavioural code that surfaces when the quicks get their man. Archer did not compose himself properly in reaction, went this line of reasoning. This proved harsh, as it tends to with most fast bowlers: tactics and determination are confused with predation and brute viciousness. The next day, Archer would tell the BBC that he breathed “a sigh of relief” when Smith got up. To Sky Sports, he expressed some disorientation after the incident. “Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking at the time.”

While Archer’s praises were sung in a range of registers, the issue of safety had re-appeared. There was a fear about delayed concussion doing its dirty deeds: should Smith had returned to the crease to continue his battles, or retire for a period of numbing tests and distracting convalescence? The experts weighed in; a decision was made: Australia’s golden goose would have to exit.

This made way for some history to be made, namely, a “concussion replacement”, as commentators unflatteringly called it, a substitute cog left with an impossible task to right the run making machine. Few in history have had to be saddled with such top-down discouragement. But Marnus Labuschagne did not seem flustered, filling the vacancy with pluck. “Cricket does not like substitutes,” observed Geoff Lemon for The Guardian, stating an ancient rule of sporting tribalism.  An exception was made on this occasion, though it was only so because of Labuschagne’s heroics. “Asked to be Steve Smith for a day,” a laconic Lemon posed, “he had done enough.” This included being struck by another Archer special.

Few spectacles in cricket quite match the hot-blooded bowler in stride, eyes glaringly focused on the batsman as he releases the ball. Such a creature, venomous, striking, and sometimes gigantic, summons the collective blood, turning benign spectators into entranced representatives. Mass chanting hypnosis follows. The seeds of terror are sown, and the opponents recoil. In Archer’s deliveries, the ghosts of Freddie Truman, Malcolm Marshall et al were thriving in their channelling powers. Here was someone England could call their own, a magician, a terror wizard.

The dangerous zip off the pitch from Archer was telling, a respectful nod to the great family of speedsters that has brought ruin and misery to so many batsmen, and joy to many a captain and audience. The English captain, Joe Root, has looked deracinated and listless in his approaches to Australia in the past (the catastrophe of the tour of Australia remains). Archer was deliverance and opportunity.

Reservations have been few, and the sceptics hard to find. But there have been a few warnings. Australia’s former quick bowler Mitchell Johnson wondered whether Archer was labouring too much for his country. The means of exerting terror can be blunted by excessive labour and overly eager captains. But whatever happens for the rest of series, history has been made. We have a new demon fast bowler; a push making neck guards mandatory for batsmen is now underway; and the batsmen from both sides will be pondering their vulnerabilities in brittle line-ups set for the skittling.

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No Deal Chaos: The Brexit Cliff Face and Operation Yellowhammer

Britain’s Boris Johnson is driving his country to the cliff face, along the way mouthing and spouting all manner of populist reassurances. Still fresh in the job, he declared that UK preparations for a no-deal Brexit on October 31, when Britain would leave the European Union, would receive a boost – a “turbocharge”, no less. Michael Gove, now chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, has been charged with the task of handling the haphazard effort, having chaired some dozen meetings of the Brexit war cabinet dubbed XO to date.

While this hubris bubbles, the Sunday Times article relying on a leaked cross-government paper showing preparations for a no-deal Brexit did its panic-inducing trick, though it has not swayed the Tory-Brexiteer zombies. The BBC was told by a “Downing Street source” that the leaked document “is from when ministers were blocking what needed to be done to get ready to leave and the funds were not available.”

Codenamed Operation Yellowhammer, the dossier is resoundingly pessimistic, an Anglo version of Götterdämmerung delivered in a civil servant’s tone. The former head of the British civil service, Lord Bob Kerslake, had little reason to doubt its veracity or sincerity, warning listeners on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House that the document “lays bare the scale of the risks we are facing with no-deal Brexit in almost every area.”

A few blotches of generous bleakness are noted in the Yellowhammer report, not least the theme of uncertainty (read total lack of transparency) that has hindered efforts to “provide for a concrete situation for third parties to prepare for”. The UK risks lapsing into “third country” status, with the European Union “unsympathetic” in engaging bilaterally or implementing protections unilaterally. (Individual member states might take a different view). The public, and British businesses, remained unprepared in the face of “EU exit fatigue” – at least those of the small and medium-size types. “Business readiness will be compounded by seasonable effects and factors such as warehouse availability.”

The lack of preparedness on the part of businesses is a point reiterated by the interim director-general of the Institute of Directors, Edwin Morgan. “Until recently the level of planning has been fairly low. Our surveys show that businesses had been waiting to see what happened. The message from the government is getting clearer, but is still not clear enough.” The chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, Mike Cherry, is even gloomier. “The ongoing political uncertainty has meant it’s impossible for them to invest, expand and hire when we don’t know what the future holds.”

The big no-no of a hard border in Ireland is also floated in the dossier; current arrangements to avoid widespread checks are deemed “unsustainable” in the long run. The risk of “direct” protest action and road blockages is considered a more than realistic prospect. Protests in the UK would also be possible, requiring “significant amounts of police resource[s]”.

Strangulation and suffocation are the heavy themes that run through the report like clarions of doom. Fuel distribution could be disrupted in London and the southeast of England, caused by the closure of oil refineries leading to a loss of 2,000 jobs and strike action; up to 85 per cent of lorries using the main Channel crossing were unprepared for French customs, a point that could lead to delays of two-and-a-half days. Shortages in fresh food, precipitating a rise in prices; this would hit “vulnerable groups”. Medical supplies would “be vulnerable to severe extended delays”, given that the UK receives three-quarters of its medicine through the main Channel crossings.

Then there is the sheer blithe indifference of it all, the Whitehall smugness and government secrecy of the optimists who bungle in the name of Queen and country. In the reported words of a Cabinet Office source, “Successive UK governments have a long history of failing to prepare their citizens to be resilient for their own emergencies.”

The Britannia-rules-the-waves set barely broke a sweat at Sunday’s less than startling revelations. The consensus among them was that the Yellowhammer dossier was merely part of a sensible planning strategy, not a portrait of calamity; in any case, claimed Gove, this was “a worst case scenario” and hardly worth a murmur of concern.  Contingencies always had to be planned for; there would be “bumps in the road” and “some element of disruption”. The last three weeks had been very “significant steps” taken to “accelerate Brexit planning”. Nothing, however, was done to allay uncertainty.

Other efforts were made to suggest that the Yellowhammer Report was outdated and inaccurate on various points. A press release from the Gibraltar authorities, for instance, claimed that references to the territory on whether preparations for “worse case scenarios” had been made were “out of date”. (The Yellowhammer dossier suggests delays of up to four hours at the border with Spain, a state of affairs that will last for “at least a few months”).

Stay calm, suggest the governing authorities in Gibraltar; they had “already dealt with” such matters. “We have already commissioned all necessary works at the port of Gibraltar in order to have even further contingency capacity in maritime traffic. We do not anticipate this will be needed, but as a responsible government we want to make sure it will be available.”

While the denial syndrome continues to exert its force, the fears within the bureaucracy on imminent, and absurd catastrophe, abound. A sickened, black humour prevails. Last Wednesday, a civil servant working in what might be designated the National Centre For No-Deal Planning told comedian Stewart Lee of a clandestine scheme to purchase Kinder eggs and tubs of Vaseline using “thousands of press-ganged school children and cross-Channel swimmers.” The comic mused: Why keep it clandestine? “I don’t know, but we don’t want to set off a Kinder egg and Vaseline buying panic.” More than just a comic affair.

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Condescension and Climate Change: Australia and the Failure of the Pacific Islands Forum

It was predictably ugly: in tone, in regret, and, in some ways, disgust. Australia emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting isolated, the true spoiler of the party which saw 17 states facing the obstinacy of one. It had taken place on Tuvalu, some two hours flight north of Fiji. The capital Funafuti is located on vanishing land; the island state is facing coastal erosion, the pressing issue of salinity, the very crisis of its existence.

Pacific Island leaders were already wise to the accounting cosmetics of Canberra’s accountants prior to the Forum. It reeked, for instance, of a gesture for permissive pollution to the tune of $500 million: we give you money to boost “resilience” and sandbag your countries against rising water levels; we will keep polluting and emitting with expanded fossil fuel projects because that is what we are good at.

Alex Hawke, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, called the cash promise the “most amount of money Australia has ever spent on climate in the Pacific.” As Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga explained, “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing.” That right thing was a reduction in emissions, “including not opening your coal mines.”

The PIF leaders were also aware about what disruptive role Australia was going to play. Australian politicians of the past and present have done little to endear themselves to a forum they have only recently felt more interest in because of China’s increasingly conspicuous presence. In 2015, when Tony Abbott held the reins of power, his culturally challenged immigration minister Peter Dutton, in conversation with the prime minister, quipped rather darkly that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.” The remark was a response to a meeting on Syrian refugees which had been running late, or on “Cape York time”, as he put it.

Ahead of the leaders’ forum, an annotated draft of the Pacific Islands Forum declaration revealed a sprinkling of qualifications, repudiations and rejections on the part of the Australian delegation. The comments from August 7 sought to restrict any total decarbonisation, bans on the future use of coal power plants, opt out clauses for the 1.5C limit in temperature rise, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and the very mention of the term ‘climate change’.

When it came to proceedings, Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed his true garish colours: Australia was a small contributor to emissions; it was a global problem, and so others had to do more. In short, the weak excuse of any emission producing state. Besides, he kept trumpeting, Australia was a leading investor in the sector of renewables.

Back in Australia, the Australian broadcaster and regular vulgarian Alan Jones was busy attacking the leaders of the gathering, most notably New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who had suggested that Australia “had to answer the Pacific” on the climate change issue. A sock, he suggested, should have been strategically placed down her throat. He subsequently suggested that this was a “wilful misrepresentation of what I said obviously distract from the point that she was wrong about climate change and wrong about Australia’s contribution to carbon dioxide levels.”

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was sickeningly unimpressed, having expressed open admiration for New Zealand’s efforts to combat climate change. “Easy to tell someone to shove a sock down a throat when you’re sitting in the comfort of a studio. The people of the Pacific, forced to abandon their homes due to climate change, don’t have that luxury. Try saying it to a Tuvaluan child pleading for help.”

Michael McCormack, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, added the most revealing touch on Australia’s position at the PIF during a revealing business function in the rural town of Wagga Wagga on Friday. (McCormack, it should be noted, is on record as disputing evidence of an increase in global temperatures). With an address heavy with bruising paternalism, he thought the PIF leaders were bellyaching, needlessly lamenting their fate. He admitted “getting a bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and saying we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive.” He had little doubt they would continue to do so, due to the “large aid assistance from Australia” and “because their workers come here and pick our fruit, pick our fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour and we welcome them and we always will.” The only thing lacking in the statement was a Boris Johnson-styled garnish: a reference to cannibalism, or the toothy watermelon smiles.

A neat summary of the entire encounter between the Pacific Island leaders and Australia was provided by Tuvalu’s Sopoaga. “You [Scott Morrison] are concerned about saving your economy in Australia… I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.”

The final communique proved lukewarm and non-committal, a feeble reiteration of existing understandings that climate change was a serious matter. Bainimarama supplied an acid opinion on the final text. “We came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but unfortunately, we settled for the status quo of our communique. Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.” Sopoaga was even more dramatic in assessing the response to the weakened language of the communique. “There were serious arguments and even shouting, crying, leaders were shedding tears.”

Sadly, the main Australian opposition party would not have done much better. Efforts on the part of Senator Penny Wong to claim a drastically different Labor approach must be put to rest. This is a party torn on the subject of King Coal, energy costs and renewables.

The hysterical aspect to PIF is that Australia’s denuding contribution will only serve to damage its own interests. In the short-term, Chinese diplomats will be delighted by the self-sabotaging efforts of the Morrison government. Beijing’s Special Envoy to the Pacific, Ambassador Wang Xuefeng, was on hand to tell the forum that “no matter how the international situation evolves, China will always be a good friend, partner and brother of Pacific Island Countries.” Expect a surge of interest towards the PRC in the forthcoming months.

A longer-term consequence is also impossible to ignore. Fine to joke about having refugee islanders pick the fruit of your country, but to do so requires places to grow fruit. Rising sea levels may will cause the dreaded vanishing of the island states, but it will also submerge a good deal of Australia’s precariously placed coastal cities. What a bitter, if not deserved outcome that would be.

 

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God, Guns and Video Games

The din struck by videos of the gaming variety; its forced causal link (always alleged, never proved) to altering conduct, continues its relentless march across the discussion forums in the United States and beyond. The almost casual butcheries – actual, not as opposed to digital – have gone on unabated, the next extremist taking a murderous shot at his role in history – and everybody else. Now it is the white supremacists who are sharing top billing with previous jihadi enthusiasts, a concession on the part of law enforcement authorities that there might be something to say about using the word “terrorist” in an ecumenical sense.

The August 3 shootings at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, left over 30 dead and 53 injured. The profiles of the shooters were subjected to a less than thorough dissection. A twenty-one-year old Patrick Crusius had allegedly driven from Dallas-Fort Worth to El Paso in the hope of targeting Mexican immigrants. For Connor Betts, motives seemed sketchy, though he was noted for having a Twitter account showing much support for Antifa and an interest in “exploring violent ideologies.” Much is being made of his drug addled state at the time of the shootings.

The taking of sides over the whole calculus of violence took place in a matter of hours. For those insisting on gun control, lax rules enabling the easy acquisition of weapons of mass lethality were fundamental, with Texas taking the lead. Racism and xenophobia were also blamed.

For gun worshippers, the culprits were violent celluloid, naughty video games, hideous media. Even as the casualty lists were being compiled, Fox News host Jon Scott suggest suggested that the El Paso shooter was merely another youth raised on a diet of violent video games that might propel him to take to guns.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speculated that the killings were the bloody realisations of a video game, a desire on the part of the shooter to “be a super soldier, for his Call of Duty game.” But there was a bit more to that: God’s banishment from society, the one and only deity being cast out for most of the week, unable to exert His moral authority. “As long as we continue to only praise God and look at God on a Sunday morning and kick him out of the town square in our schools the other six days of the week, what do we expect?”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed on Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures that video games dehumanized participants, turning them into insentient zombies. “We’ve watched studies show what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos and how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.”

President Donald Trump, as he did in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting in Parklands, Florida, lamented the “glorification of violence in our society,” which included “the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately.”

The president also had room for that old straw man Fake News which “has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years. News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”

Some common ground is found in commentary suggesting that Gamergate holds the toxic key – at least when it comes to understanding white nationalist trigger happy types. Founded in a campaign of coordinated harassment in 2014 against female video game designers and gaming critics, the Gamergaters migrated from the 4chan image-based website to 8chan. (4chan had tired of the harassing troupe). Evan Urquhart duly stretches the bow in his Slate contribution. “This subculture of Gamergaters, who erroneously believe themselves to be the only true gamers in the world in a world of phonies, is what made the culture of 8chan what it is. It was violent then, it it’s more violent now.”

If only it were that simple: the moving image would be banned; the provocative print would be stored away in inaccessible troves; online forums would be banished. But as tens of millions of humans happily engage with such matter without incident on a daily basis, the prosecution is left floundering on this point.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham pushily decided that comic books were needlessly imperilling readers (perhaps viewers is more appropriate?). His methodologically unsound Seduction of the Innocent remains a suitable bit of canonical drivel, stirring the agitated, not least of all his claim that the gay subtext of the Batman stories was harmful to youths. It led to a panic that saw the creation of the Comics Code Authority and the eventual demise of EC Comics.

Since then, there has been a smattering of work on the gaming-violence causation business. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology ran a study in 2013 featuring participants engaged in playing violent or non-violent video games over 20 minutes per day over 3 days. “As expected, aggressive behaviour and hostile expectations increased over days for violent game players, but not for nonviolent video game players, and the increase in aggressive behaviour was partially due to hostile expectations.” That same year, another study published in Aggressive Behaviour found an exception: participants surveyed sowed that violence with a “prosocial motive (i.e. protecting a friend and furthering his nonviolent goals) were found to show lower short-term aggression”.

Research published this year by Andrew K. Przybylski of Oxford University and Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University, arguably gives us one of the most thorough bodies of work to date. It surveyed 1,004 British 14-15-year-olds on gaming habits and behaviour, along with an equal number of carers. “There was no evidence for a critical tipping point relating violent game engagement to aggressive behaviour.” According to co-author Weinstein, “Our finding suggest that researcher biases might have influenced previous studies on this topic, and have distorted our understanding of the effects of video games.”

Even judges have opined from upon high on the issue, with the late Antonin Scalia observing in the 2011 case of Brown v Entertainment Merchant Association that psychological research studies, at least those being relied upon in that case, “do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning).” The studies only showed “at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and miniscule real-world effects”.

This does not prevent the prosecution from having a good stab at the futile. Dozens of countries have access to violent games and do not see gamers running amok massacring all and sundry. The issue is deeper, and the deeper part is what is problematic. In this, progressives and conservatives find testy, shallow consensus, if in slightly different ways. The video gamers are being accused of producing a star fashioned in ghoulish, murderous reality.

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Australia’s Pacific Play: Denying Climate Change and Boosting China’s Threat

Australia has always nursed a contradictory, repressive relationship with its Pacific neighbours. Being a satrap of great powers, it has performed the role of gate keeper and monitor of regional instability, a condescending, often paternalistic agent. At stages, it has also entertained more direct colonial interests. For almost seven decades, Australia controlled Papua New Guinea, assuming power over the former British colony of Papua in 1906.

The conclusion of the First World War saw Australia draw in more former colonial territories once under German control, including German New Guinea. In Papua, stiff British tradition prevailed under the guidance of Hubert Murray. As Murray’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography goes, “Although aware that in some British colonies attempts were being made to rule through customary laws and to use influential villagers on local courts, Murray maintained the English-Australian legal system.” In New Guinea, the emphasis was on the enthusiastic and fairly ruthless exploitation of the indigenous population for economic gain.

The initial defeat of Australian forces in the Pacific by Japan brought a brief halt to its colonising hubris. After the Second World War, the colonising drive reasserted itself, this time in the guise of modernisation. Paternalism was enforced; theories of development were implemented.

Little wonder, then, that Australia has a relationship of bleak contradiction with its neighbours, hovering between that of subsidising supporter and interfering father. But Australia now finds itself as the state seemingly out of step with the modern age. Climate change remains at the forefront of Pacific nations, a terrifying, existential threat that promises a liquid, submerged future. The government of Scott Morrison, by way of contrast, remains irritated by such notions of a warming earth and the growing number of doomed species. There is mining to be done, coal reserves to be extracted. The plunderer, in short, remains enthroned in Canberra.

What Morrison has instead done is to offer a package of $500 million, announced ahead of a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting, to take place at Tuvalu on Wednesday. According to Alex Hawke, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, this constituted the “most amount of money Australia has ever spent on climate in the Pacific.”

The amount did little to inspire the popping of champagne corks through the region: the package was an accounting readjustment on existing spending arrangements and aid programs, despite Hawke’s suggestion that the aid budget had remained unaltered. Amidst such voodoo budgeting, Prime Minister Morrison insisted that the commitment highlighted “our commitment to not just meeting our emissions reductions obligations at home but supporting our neighbours and friends.”

In a sparse media statement on August 13, Morrison confirmed that he would “continue to work with our partners to build a Pacific region that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically.” Lip service was paid to the Blue Pacific narrative – the acknowledgment of shared ocean resources, geography and identity – and the Boe Declaration. Morrison gave the latter the most cursory of mentions, a conscious understating of the declaration’s acknowledgement that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress and implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

Pacific Island leaders, however, are keen to remind their Australian counterpart that the sum of money dressed up as improving resilience in the face of climate change should not be taken to be an indulgence of polluting dispensation. As Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga explained, “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing.” That right thing would be to reduce emissions, “including not opening your coal mines.”

Tuesday’s meeting of the Pacific small island states yielded a declaration less than musical to Morrison and his cabinet, a direct scorning of Australia’s environmental policy in calling for “an immediate global ban on the construction of new coal-fired power plants and coal mines” and the urging of all countries “to rapidly phase out their use of coal in the power sector.”

Morrison prefers to focus on the influence of that other C word, China, and the increasingly unhinging need to curb its influence. Pacific governments already owe Beijing some $US1.3 billion, a debt arrangement causing beads of sweat to form on the brows of Australian diplomats. But the Pacific family remains divided in their interests. The Solomon Islands, for instance, is warming to reconsidering its recognition of Taiwan as a separate, independent state, a point of some concern to Morrison, who wishes Taiwanese recognition to be a continuing policy.

In June, Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare went so far as to conduct a fact-finding tour of various neighbours with close China ties. In the words of a government law maker, John Moffat Fuqui, the taskforce would assess “the kind of development relations they have, the kind of assistance they get, the conditionalities or lack of conditionalities they might have, the kind of governance.” Nauru’s President Baron Waqa will not have a bar of it. “Taiwan is a very, very strong partner with those of us in the Pacific.”

Where the Morrison government hopes to be most mischievous in tampering with the PIF agenda remains climate change. In the realm of foreign policy, the Australian prime minister is hoping to have it both ways: placate, even bribe regional leaders into thinking that some climate change policy is chugging away, while maintaining the emissions schedule back home. To do so, Australian delegates have taken liberties in an annotated draft of the Pacific Islands Forum declaration. The August 7 comments ruthlessly excise references to climate change, carbon neutrality, the 1.5C limit in temperature rise, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and a ban on new coal power plants.

The findings of the International Panel on Climate Change’s report on 1.5C are also given the heave-ho, with suggestions that Australia might “recognis[e] the information” without endorsing assessments that a fall of global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, with the attaining of carbon neutrality by 2050, had to take place for the limit of 1.5C to achieved. In the opinion of a regretful Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands, “We would be lying to say we’re not disappointed, extremely disappointed.”

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CPAC Down Under

It was a time for Australian conservatives to be boring, and bore each other. CPAC, otherwise known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, had arrived in Sydney. The real entertainment bill was to be supplied by such figures as Brexiter supremo Nigel Farage and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London, Raheem Kassam. The rest was poor filling, the tired, cranky Fox and Sky News set.

CPAC 2019 was described in the usual, fun-filled way on the organisation’s website.  “The American Conservative Union and LibertyWorks are proud to bring CPAC to Australia for the first time!” Participate, went the message; the “shy voters” might have kept the Australian Labor Party out of office, but, and here Ronald Reagan was quoted with gusto, “The future doesn’t belong to the light-hearted. It belongs to the brave.”

For only the second time since coming into existence in 1974 with 400 registrants, CPAC was holding a gathering outside the United States. Its existence owed much to the initial explorations of the conservative magazine Human Events, and the creation of the American Conservative Union. The ACU was itself a gathering spurred on by the defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. As Human Events described it, “The CPAC Conference was seen as a way of rebuilding the morale of conservatives and of refocusing the energies of the movement for future battles.”

Farage did not disappoint, filling the forum with the invective that keeps him afloat. He, for instance, had little time for those he termed “fake” conservatives, the foremost of them being former Australian Prime Minister, the very much knifed Malcolm Turnbull.  He also demonstrated certain non-too conservative credentials of his own, aiming a few salvos at members of the Royal Family back home in conversation on a Sky News panel, and during a speech at a gala dinner on Saturday.  

While describing the Queen as “an amazing, awe-inspiring woman”, her misguided, degenerate offspring and their issue were quite a different matter. “When it comes to her son, when it comes to Charlie Boy and climate change, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”  The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, had lost the plot in desiring a modest brood of two children, being worried about climate change.

Where had that old Harry gone, “this young, brave, boisterous, all-male, getting into trouble, turning up at stag parties inappropriately dressed, drinking too much and causing all sorts of mayhem”? Instead of putting this down to age and, unusually for some royals, the maturing process, Farage had the answer: Meghan Markle. Once they met, his credibility fell off a cliff, ignoring, for instance, “the real problem the Earth faces, and that is the fact the population of the globe is exploding but no one dares talk about it.”  

This was a chance for Australian conservatives to feel loved and thought relevant by their Anglo-American cousins. Noses were powdered, outfits tailored. US-UK contingent could hardly have been that impressed. Senator Amanda Stoker’s speech on industrial relations was soporific; polemical scribe Janet Albrechtsen struck an odd note of insecurity by deeming contempt cold. “When someone treats another person with contempt, they’re putting that other person down and making themselves feel superior.” (Albrechtsen, take note.)  

To the Anglo-American set went the guns, the demagogues, the reactionary ballast. On the subject of guns, Kassam was happy to offer his own theory about the murderous bounty reaped by such devices in the United States: “the establishment media and the left”; and the pharmaceutical industry. The children of America were being pumped “with these medications […] and these lies. They want them to have a little anger, but not too much.” Mental instability, anger, and the gun-toting solution: all reasonable progressions in Kassam’s reckoning.    

Otherwise, the current Human Events global editor-in-chief proved conventional, lobbing grenades at Islam, recalling his role in establishing an anti-radicalisation group seeking to prevent people “throwing homosexuals off buildings, FGM (female genital mutilation) and lightly beating your wife” and mocking gender politics. 

The Australians, as they often do at events where Britannia and Uncle Sam hold hands, were eclipsed. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson lamented “empathy culture” and the left’s abuse of “people who dare to disagree with you”. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has had his mild spell of demagoguery in Australian politics, took issue with Victoria’s assisted dying laws (“morally shocking”, no less), identity politics, and the loss of faith. “This is why it is so easy for people to put forward fundamentally inhuman ideas and have them taken much more seriously than they should be.”

The CPAC Conference tends to function like a reassuring echo chamber rather than an arena for debate. Added publicity is only generated by those who fear its reach. One such unwitting promoter of the event was Labor’s spokesperson for Home Affairs, Senator Kristina Keneally. Having made it her personal, and failing mission, to prevent certain attendees from coming into the country, she was bound to make a mention at CPAC 2019. She did so by winning the CPAC Freedom Award, one earned for promoting the conference.  

This is something she did repeatedly, suggesting that Kassam be banned for his “extensive history of vilifying people”. Kassam, for his part, suggested that the senator, that model of Catholicism, had made him feel unsafe on the streets of Sydney. “She should be ashamed of herself…There is nothing Christian about silencing your opposition.”

What Keneally ended up doing was demonstrating, yet again, how free speech in Australia functions as a mutable construction, easily forgotten in the face of insult and the hold exerted by an odious opinion. Just let them babble and fume.

 

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Conspiracy, Death and Jeffrey Epstein

Within minutes of news about his death in a Manhattan jail cell Saturday morning, theories spread with pestilential vigour. Was Jeffrey Epstein murdered? Accepting the premise without qualification, the next question followed: Who did it? MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was not giving anyone time to wonder. “A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives end up dead in his jail cell. How predictably… Russian.”

There had been a potential trigger: the unsealing of documents by a Federal court from a lawsuit by one of Epstein’s accusers directed against socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, the woman behind the man behind the women. In 2017, Virginia Giuffre, who had accused Maxwell of procuring young girls for sexual abuse by Epstein, settled. The depositions were duly salacious, linking the procurement to the Epstein circle, which, by all accounts, was rather large. Specific to Giuffre were claims that Maxwell had issued her instructions “to serve”, amongst others, Britain’s Prince Andrew, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and scientist Marvin Minsky.

Epstein was the insider mogul, a deeply connected, even embedded figure holding the confidences of the rich and powerful even as he pampered them. Having become a sordid archive of sorts, to have him accused of trafficking in underage sex was a powerful incentive for the narrative of silence to charge forth on an unruly stead. To have the Epstein largesse was to have its taint. And in Donald Trump’s USA, the conspiracy machine furnishes the means of settling scores and scuttling accounts; never mind the facts, those silly little things that tend to be bound up in order to die in isolation.

Anyone involved with Epstein in any intimate way could hardly have denied that sinister gothic element to his life, itself sketchy about details as college dropout, high school teacher in Manhattan and money manager. What proved striking was a pseudo-intellectual leaning in his circle: the need for a permanently horny financier to be with the bright in order to arrive at some justification for, as Andrew O’Hagan observed, “personally impregnating countless women”.

His home on East 71st Street in New York sported a stone satyr over a fifteen-foot front door leading to a home with décor “of the Gothic Quagmire school.” When he sparked interest in the authorities – of the unhealthy type – he tended to wriggle out of it, using heavy artillery lawyers to do his bidding. Operation Leap Year, conducted by the FBI over a period of 14 months some twelve years ago, found evidence that 34 underage girls had been solicited by Epstein. Not so, claimed the Alan Dershowitz-led team: the girls were not underage. A “non-prosecution” agreement was struck, allowing Epstein to escape incarceration.

The details, since released, show that Dershowitz convinced Miami prosecutors that Epstein could avoid federal charges provided he owned up to two counts of soliciting, one of them being with a minor. Immunity would also be provided for “any potential co-conspirators.” Epstein’s accusers were not to be informed of this nasty jigging of the legal system, a point in clear violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. (The legal eagle soaring over the proceedings, it should also be said, had been accused by Giuffre of being one of the Epstein inner circle she was to sexually service).

Such a resume has commanded much suspicion in terms of timing and result. New York mayor Bill de Blasio deemed it “way too convenient.” To reporters, he asked what Epstein could possibly have known. “How many other millionaires and billionaires were part of the illegal activities that he was engaged in?” In the social media scape, facts were already being killed off as rapidly as they were conceived.

President Donald Trump relished a chance to muck in, retweeting a post by comedian and commentator Terrence K. Williams sceptical about the “24/7 suicide watch.” Here was a chance to aim a few blows at his old sparring partners, the Clintons. The rancid smell of dough and sex from the fictional paedophile rings associated with “Pizzagate” in 2016 had reappeared. “#JeffreyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead.”

That whole matter was preceded by a retweet of a post by BNL News: “BREAKING: Documents were unsealed yesterday revealing that top Democrats, including Bill Clinton, took private trips to Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘pedophilia land’.” The president felt in the pink of things, launching thick salvos against the media he regarded as “lamestream”. “Think how wonderful it is to be able to fight back and show, to so many, how totally dishonest the Fake News Media really is. It may be the most corrupt disgusting business (almost) there is!”

Clinton spokesman and press secretary Angel Ureña added to the news cycle with a statement that, “President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York.”

The Daily Beast indulged a scenario in mocking fashion. Perhaps that other part of the Clinton duo, Hillary, “performed a flawless HALO parachute jump onto the roof of the Manhattan Correctional Center, rappelled down the elevator shaft”, in the process infiltrating cell, killing Epstein and making off “with her blonde hair perfectly in place and not a single stain on her tactical pantsuit.”

Not wishing to be outdone, anti-Trump tweets have aggressively followed in the wake of claims that the Clintons were intent on silencing Epstein, leaving, along the way, a good number of corpses. The hashtag #TrumpBodyCount was a response as measured as that of #ClintonBodyCount.

Epstein’s death is being covered, interpreted and heaved over in a scatter-gun environment resistant to news. Any news account must, by its Trump inflected nature, be a set-up, a contrivance, a concoction of power. “He reportedly tried to kill himself two weeks ago,” snorts Scarborough. “And is allowed to finish the job now? Bullshit.”

This leaves such questions as those posed by O’Hagan in the London Review of Books lukewarm in their intensity, however sensible they might seem. “When guilty men kill themselves, are they acknowledging their guilt, or is it more like an act of self-pity?” Epstein’s suicide terminated “a judicial process that he spent millions to disdain”; it also negated a life in prison he sought to avert. Any answers found by the Metropolitan Correctional Center (New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants “lots of them”) are bound to fall short in the current milieu of celebrated pandemonium.

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Mobility and Maginot Lines: China Hysteria Down Under

The blinkered security establishment is standard fare in politics. From Washington to Manila, we hear of terrors and concerns which tend to more spectral than not. Legitimate concerns such as catastrophic environmental failure, or a nuclear accident, are treated with a sigh, its warners doomsday advocates rather than reasoned citizens. It is the unseen demon that preoccupies.

One such blinkered devotee is Andrew Hastie, an Australian member of parliament who prides himself as something of a security sage. (Suffice to say that experience serving as a member of the Special Air Services Regiment does not necessarily qualify you as an expert in world politics). He chairs the Parliamentary Joint Committee for Intelligence and Security, a grouping of parliamentarians that has done more harm to Australian civil liberties than most institutions. Lacking an inner cabinet role, he has the freedom to mouth some of his richer views, possibly with promptings from the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Best get the lowly man to do the damage if you want a view known widely.

Being no Sinophile, Hastie has deemed the People’s Republic of China the great Satan of international politics, something that will earn him a fan base in certain circles in the Washington cocktail set. In doing so, he reiterates fears of Yellow-Red horde coursing its way through Asia to the idyllic, peaceful antipodes. He scolds Australians for not appreciating the “ideology” of the Chinese Communist Party. This is the new domino effect, and like that haphazard assessment formulated during the Eisenhower years, it is equally unconvincing.

In The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, Hastie expressed an opinion dressed up in the language of urgency, an attempt to awaken a certain consciousness. In that sense, he is an options shop, hand-me-down George Kennan, who penned his famous Long Telegram as US chargé d’affaires in Moscow warning of the Soviet mindset. “At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” he noted.

Hastie makes no mention of Kennan, preferring, instead, the convenient findings of Stephen Kotkin of Princeton to disabuse those silly sods who thought that “Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power.” In Kotkin’s views, it turned out that the embroidering of Marxist terms through meetings, discussions and policies in the Kremlin were really due to one tendency: “the Communists were Communists!”

For Hastie, the planes finding their incendiary conclusion in the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon did not supply the defining “geopolitical moment” of the 21st century. That dubious honour went to the colliding encounter between a J-8 fighter jet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and a US Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft off Hainan Island that same year. The PLAN pilot perished; the 24 crew of the EP-3 were subsequently held by the PRC for 11 days. The aircraft was duly stripped and examined, and returned in parts. “The Hainan Island incident laid down the contours for the present challenge facing Australia. It portended the agonising security and economic balancing act we must now perform.”

Hastie is less anthropological, and more reactionary than Kennan. “Right now,” writes Hastie, “our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but our thinking.” This is nothing less than an “intellectual failure” rendering Australia and other states “institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities – our little platoons – then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.” Strong language from a politician in the service of a country whose sovereignty has always been susceptible to modification, being an annex of Washington’s imperium.

What was needed, in the view of a worried Hastie, was for Australians to accept and duly respond “to the reality of the geopolitical struggle before us – its origins, its ideas and its implications for the Indo-Pacific region.” Australia found itself facing “every strategic and economic question […] refracted through the geopolitical competition of the US and the PRC.” The solution? Continue to trade with the PRC for reasons of prosperity, yet maintain a firm security posture against it.

Shaky historical comparisons make their way into the piece. Australia, he insisted, found itself in the same position as those French strategists worried about the rise of Nazi Germany. The “Maginot Line” built to protect France against Germany prior to the Second World War finds a modern equivalent in the theory that “economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China.” The French failed against the German panzers; Australia has, in turn, “failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become.”

The extrapolations are inevitable: the Munich analogy that corrupted so much thinking in US foreign policy, leading to defeat in Vietnam; the need to take steps to avert disaster and avoid appeasing authoritarianism. Many an idiotic policy has arisen from shonky historical analogies.

The Chinese response was curt, coming in a statement from the embassy. “We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on ‘China threat’ which lays bare his Cold War mentality and ideological bias.” Its assessment was conventional: there was a “world trend of peace, co-operation and development” that was undermined by such remarks.

Hastie has his glum faced backers unnerved by the “might is right” view of the world order, be it US President Donald Trump’s penchant for tearing up treaties, Russian disruptions, strong man popularity or disunity in Europe. Anne-Marie Brady, based at the University of Canterbury, defers to the MP’s wisdom, making the common mistake about a joint parliamentary committee that often sees haunting forms rather than substantive matters. That committee, after all, “helped pass the new counter-foreign interference legislation which will help address the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive united front work activities in Australia”.

We have seen this in history: the hysterical prophet who insists on self-fulfilling prophecies. If you proclaim the end of the world is nigh, you might just get what you wish for. Terrifying your opponents, unsettling them into something rash, is the stuff historical blunders are made from. The march of history is not that of an orderly, planned sequence, but a messy stumble occasioned by blundering leaders. With individuals like Hastie, a reasoned balance will not be struck. Those in Washington will remain confident that they have Australia on their side in any future skirmish.

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Caught in the Strait

It is clear that the United Kingdom could not have thought this through. Was it a touch of the Suez jitters, the haunting syndrome of 1956 leaving a false impression that the Old Empire still had it? To taunt a power already under the watchful and punitive eye of the United States was never a recipe for equanimity and calm repose. But taunt they did, using 30 Royal Marines to detain an Iranian tanker Grace I in Gibraltar last month.

The official justification was unconvincing: the need to enforce European Union sanctions against the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The vessel had been supposedly on route to Syria. Some in the diplomatic fraternity were perplexed: it had not previously been UK policy to diligently pursue the impounding of vessels bound for Syria with Iranian cargo.

Local Spanish authorities sensed the hand of US pressure, of which squeezing oil revenue is one; as well as they might, given the unbridled joy expressed by President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton. “Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of US sanctions.” The US and its allies would “continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade.”

Former Swedish prime minister and co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations outlined some of the inconsistencies in the UK approach. “The legality of the UK seizure of a tanker heading for Syria with oil from Iran intrigues me. One refers to EU sanctions against Syria, but Iran is not a member of the EU. And the EU as a principle doesn’t impose its sanctions on others. That’s what the US does.”

Becoming the US running dog on enforcement was not going to sit well with Iran. The Mullahs are spoiling for a fight. On May 20, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, cast an eye to historical examples of Persian resistance. President Donald Trump would fail as others had in their efforts to subdue his country. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan had tried, and not succeeded. (The foreign minister’s sense of history is only as good as his sense of relativity: the Persian entity was, for a time, conquered, but the conquest was never indefinite).

The seizures of vessels constitute a recipe for a tit-for-tat calamity. We are already seeing the bitter fruit of the harvest arising out of the seizure of Grace I. Two oil tankers – the UK registered Stena Impero, and the Mesdar, another Liberian registered vessel though British operated – were subsequently seized in the Strait of Hormuz. The Mesdar’s detention was threatening though teasingly brief; the Stena Impero, on the other hand, was to be made an example of.

Another oil tanker has since fallen into the hands of the Iranian forces, one accused of smuggling some 700,000 litres of fuel to Arab states. “The seizure of the oil tanker,” noted IRGC commander Ramezan Zirahi, “was in coordination with Iran’s judiciary authorities and based on their order.”

In all of this, the UK has made a fateful decision: the US is there to be supported in a policy to protect merchant ships against Iranian efforts. But Washington has assisted in creating the problem for which it now claims to have the solutions. It is the supplied choice of a current empire to a former one, and the current empire is keen on misbehaving. The forces of the US imperium have been doing their bit to ensnare Iran in a troubling vice, be it from al-Asad airbase in Iraq, to Qatar. At sea, the US Navy holds forth with its carrier strike group. Sanctions have been ramped; the Iran nuclear deal dumped upon and exited. The Trump administration persists in causing a certain modicum of mayhem.

Putting up your hands for an unconditional commitment to a US-led effort cuts against the grain for a united European-controlled mission in the strait. European powers also feel they must be firm, just not in the Trump way. The result has seen hesitation and concern about whether Germany and France might be added to any cobbled coalition. Farther afield, Australia has also fielded a request from Washington described as “serious and complex”, one that would see oil shipments from Iranian incursions being protected. Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has not been exactly forthcoming in any way on what qualifies the request as complex and serious, though, like a long-retained servant to the lord of a manor, makes it sound grander than it is.

Now, Britain finds itself stretched, the rubber man of international relations keen to maintain shape, if only in distorted fashion. Iran was bold, even brazen, but its forces feel they have every right to be. The current conventions are for ditching; the protocols of old are being thrown out like stagnant dishwater. Now, in with the new, the asymmetrical teasing, be it through sponsored agents in Yemen, allies in Iraq, or a chance to seize, if only arbitrarily, various assets in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iranian actions have done their bit to strike a degree of consternation. Moez Hayat, penning a view in The National Interest, exemplifies that consternation. Iran struck when the UK lacked awareness and cogency. “Functionally, Britain was leaderless as Iranian forces boarded the vessel. Prime Minister Theresa May was a lame duck, unable to act as the Conservative Party elected a successor.” The problems go far deeper than that, telling of European disunity and continued US bellicosity. On this occasion, a simpler assessment is that Britain was caught in the strait, a true US set-up with continuing consequences.

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Cheering a New Arms Race: The End of the INF

US President Donald Trump is a master of the withdrawal method. That said, it is often forgotten that the United States remains that most fickle of creatures, joining, or abandoning international regimes that might be seen to jar with the national interest. Initial preparations for such global arrangements tend to be initially optimistic, even rosy. Eager to draft a suitable document, say, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, diligent diplomats give the work a made-in-America feel. They are then told ratification will be impossible in the Senate. Uncle Sam duly becomes a unilateralist jingo.

The difference from what has come before is that Trump is not troubled by any sense of enduring history. There are no restraints, nor caveats. Pre-Trump history had to be bad, if not altogether rotten. This sort of attitude comes with doses of good and heavy draughts of bad. Tariff wars result; states like Iran can be provoked. Allies can be mocked.

On October 20, 2018, the US president announced that his country would be withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Since then, the INF has been confined to an aged home, given modest palliative care, and not so respectfully expired.

The agreement came about because of a tiff in the nuclear family on certain weapons, notably ground-launched intermediate missiles. The Soviet Union had moved SS-20 missiles into Europe in 1979. The US balanced it with Pershing and cruise missiles in West Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. The prospect of turning Europe into a wasteland in futility presented itself with a certain glaringness. Protests were held; politicians toyed with a fragile destiny. The Kremlin and Washington stared at each other.

The result was the INF Treaty, described by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev as follows: “This treaty is historic for its objective – the complete elimination of an entire class of US and Soviet nuclear arms – and for the innovative character and scope of its verification provisions.” It mandated that both sides destroy and not deploy ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, be they conventional or nuclear.

It took some time, but disgruntlement about observing the injunctions of the treaty were to come. China, for instance, was not a member, leaving it to feed growing aspirations in deploying intermediate-range forces in East Asia. And the military industrial complex is a cheeky old thing, bound to do its Promethean mischief in due course. In 2014, the US took issue with Russia’s testing of the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile. Three years later, it was alleged that the weapon system had been deployed. By October 2018, Russia was deemed to be in full-blown violation of the treaty and given till February 2019 to right the ledger. Not that the US never had its fair share of contingency designs in the system.

Now, Russia has also conceded to putting the 1987 document to bed. Doing so provides greater latitude of missile deployment without the sense of being under a legal cloud, though few implications will be initially visible. “In the short term, there’s no immediate physical change after Friday,” observes former US diplomat versed on non-proliferation issues. “The United States and Russia are not going to begin on Saturday deploying hundreds of new missiles.”

Richard A. Clarke hazarded a guess on the implications. Smug yet troubled, he reminded us that he had been a bricklayer in the original agreement, sad to see it lapse into history. “As someone who helped designed the INF Treaty, only Russia benefits from the US withdrawal. No European country will let us deploy new nukes and we don’t have any even under development.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has argued that, “This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles.”

At the heart of every arms control understanding is a studied hypocrisy. By way of example, every power which has nuclear weapons wants to keep them. Many powers without it want them but will be denied access to such technology by the family of hardnosed enforcers. But within the nuclear cabal lies a range of inconsistent and, in some cases, contradictory factors. Arms control might be seen as another form of controlled addiction, never case of abolition and true security.

Ending the INF is bound to cause some glumness, but the critics about its binary nature were growing in number, eager to see its revision or scuttling. In 2014, Trump’s current national security advisor John Bolton was already making mutterings about a treaty obsolete before its violation. It is easy to forget that the Reagan administration initially began with bellicosity, fearing that any sense of restraining the nuclear arms race was only coming at the expense of US hegemony. Such arms control was not for them. Yet it was Reagan, spurred on astrological guidance or otherwise, who finally found reassurance in the signing of the INF with his sparring counterpart.

There is bound to be an initial boost in expenditure and testing on weapons that would have otherwise been banned by the INF. A mini-arms race is in the offing: to each his degree of deserving lunacy. There will also be, if the views of NATO Secretary General Jason Stoltenberg are anything to go by, an increased emphasis on improving missile defences. Once that dash is done, the parties may well find themselves at the negotiating table again, with a new cohort of arms inspectors ready for employment. Till then, Trump is likely to set his wrecking ball to another arms control agreement. Beware, negotiators of New START.

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The Retainer Solution: The European Union, Libya and Irregular Migration

There is a venom in international refugee policy that refuses to go away: officials charged with their tasks, passing on their labours to those who might see the UN Refugee Convention as empty wording, rather than strict injunction carved upon stone. They have all become manifest in the policy of deferral: humanitarian problems are for others to solve. We will simply supply monetary assistance, the machinery, the means; the recipients, like time honoured servants, will do the rest.

The European Union, and some of its members, have their own idea of a glorified servant minding their business in North Africa. The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is the pot of gold; the recipient is Libya, an important “transit country for migrants heading to Europe.” Such a status makes Libya the main point of outsourced obligations associated with human traffic. Using Libya supposedly achieves the objectives of the Joint Communication ‘Managing flows, saving lives’ (never pass up the chance to use weasel words) and the Malta Declaration.

In responding to the regional refugee crisis, the EU mires itself in the wording of bureaucracy, machine language meant to be inoffensive. The first phase of the “Support to Integrated border and migration management in Libya” sounds like an allocation of mild tasks, a simple case of proper filing. In summary, it “aims to strengthen the capacity of relevant Libyan authorities in the areas of border and migration management, including border control and surveillance, addressing smuggling and trafficking of human beings, search and rescue at sea and in the desert.” A casual takeaway from this is that the EU is not merely being responsible but caring, assisting a country to, in turn assist migrants and refugees from making rash decisions, saving them when needed, and protecting them when required.

According to its unconvincing brief, “the EUTF for Africa pays particular attention to protection and assistance to migrants and their host communities in the country in order to increase their resilience.” In arid language, there is lip-service paid to “support a migrant management and asylum in Libya that is consistent with the main international standards and human rights.”

Such documents conceal the appallingly dire situation of Libya as the sponsored defender of Europe against irregular arrivals. Money sent is not necessarily money well spent. Detention centres have become concentrations of corrupted desperation, its residents exploited, tormented and kidnapped.

Accounts of torture in such camps have made their way to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  In July 2018, Human Rights Watch paid a visit to four detention centres in Tripoli, Misrata and Zuwara. The organisation found “inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate healthcare, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and the use of electric shocks.”

The EUTF for Africa lacks human context; dull, bloodless policy accounts make little mention of cutthroat militias jousting for authority and the absence of coherent, stable governance. In May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Charlie Yaxley claimed that the UNHCR was “in a race against time to urgently move refugees and migrants out of detention centres to safety, and we urge the international community to come forward with offers of evacuation.”

Such races have tended to be lost, and rather badly at that. The militias are on the move, and one war lord eager to make an impression is Khalifa Haftar. On July 3, some fifty people perished in an airstrike when two missiles hit a detention centre in Tripoli hosting 610 individuals. The finger pointing, even as the centre continued to burn, was quick, with blame duly allocated: Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, and Libya’s UN-recognised and misnamed Government of National Accord (GNA) saw the hand of Haftar’s Libyan National Army. The intended target, according to LNP general Khaled el-Mahjoub, had been the militia camp located in the Tajoura neighbourhood.

Salvini, for good measure, also saw another culprit in the undergrowth of responsibility. While the rest of the EU could not shy away from this “criminal attack”, France would prove an exception, given their “economic and commercial reasons” for supporting “an attack on civilian targets.” Salvini is right, up to a point: France has an interest in supporting Haftar, given its interest in the eastern Libyan oilfields which he controls. The EU continues to speak in harshly different voices, none of them particularly humanitarian.

The UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé suggested that the strike “clearly could constitute a war crime” having killed people “whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter.” The envoy’s formulation was striking: it was not the fault of GNA authorities who had detained migrants near a military depot; nor did the EU harbour any responsibility for having ensured the conditions of “managed” traffic flow that had led to the creation of detention centres.

The debate that followed was all a matter of logistical semantics; the camps proved to be, yet again, areas of mortal danger and hardly up to the modest standards of the EU’s refugee policy. To add to the prospects of future butchery, 95 more people have been added to the Tajoura centre. The cruel business has resumed.

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Publishing Stolen Material: WikiLeaks, the DNC and Freedom of Speech

It may well be a finding of some implication should Julian Assange find his way into the beastly glory that is the US justice system. In its efforts to rope in President Donald Trump’s election campaign, Wikileaks, Assange and the Russian Federation for hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, the DNC case was found wanting.

The case presented in the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York was never convincing but remains as aspect of a broader effort to inculpate WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in assisting the Trump campaign triumph. One allegation was key: that “the dissemination of those [hacked] materials furthered the prospect of the Trump Campaign”, a point of assistance the defendants “welcomed”. Claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupted Organizations Act and Stored Communications Act, among other statutes, were also advanced.

An important ingredient in the DNC case was that of conspiracy, a notable point given current efforts on the part of the US Justice Department to extradite Assange from the United Kingdom. The elaborate conspiracy was alleged to link the Russian theft of emails and data from the DNC computer system to WikiLeaks and company via dissemination. Effectively, the argument was that stolen materials were disclosed.  (Merrily for transparency advocates, the DNC did not contest the veracity of the material, merely the way such material had been obtained.)

Reporters and civil liberty groups rallied. The Knight First Amendment Institute situated at Columbia University, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, all made submissions backing WikiLeaks’ request for the dismissal of the lawsuit.

The first snag for the DNC team was the Russian Federation. As District Judge John G. Koeltl noted from the outset, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act rendered the issue of Russia’s legal liability for the pilfering deeds a moot one; the Federation could not be sued in the courts of the United States for acts of state, a point duly acknowledged as reciprocal. Nor had the DNC shown that the case satisfied any exceptions, including that of “commercial activity”. Cyber-attacks, it was accepted, tended to lack the necessary commercial quality.

What then followed was a textbook application of the First Amendment and press freedoms at play. The DNC effort had a smell of desperation; in pursuing WikiLeaks, it had ignored a salient lesson in constitutional history. The good judge was wise to the point, recalling the US Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v United States (the “Pentagon Papers” case) upholding “the press’ right to publish information of public concern obtained from documents stolen by a third party.”

The 2001 Supreme Court decision of Bartnicki v Vopper was also added to the judicial mix, one involving the interception by an unknown person of a recorded call between a teachers’ union’s president and its main negotiator. The subsequent airing of the recording by a local radio host did not result in any liability for breaching federal and Pennsylvania wiretapping statutes, despite knowledge that the recording had been obtained illegally. Action on the part of a state “to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional standards”.

Koeltl noted that the DNC raised “a number of connections and communications between the defendants and with people loosely connected to the Russian Federation, but at no point does the DNC allege any facts in the Second Amendment Complaint to show that any of the defendants – other than the Russian Federation – participated in the theft of the DNC’s information.” What the DNC was essentially doing was making allegations sound like fact, something of an irritation for Koeltl.

While acknowledging that the DNC’s argument against WikiLeaks might have initially seemed strong, they being “the only defendant – other than the Russian Federation – that is alleged to have published the stolen information”, such an allegation lacked legs. The Bartnicki case loomed as a heavy precedent: WikiLeaks had played no “role in the theft of the documents and it is undisputed that the stolen materials involve matters of public concern.” It was left to the DNC to distinguish the two cases, something which it tried to do with the concept of the “after-the-fact co-conspirator”. The bridge was alleged to be WikiLeaks’ “coordination to obtain and distribute stolen materials”.

In what seems like an audible sigh coming through the text, Koeltl deemed WikiLeaks’ knowledge that the material was stolen a “constitutionally insignificant” matter and “unpersuasive.” On the other hand, publishing internal communications allowing “the American electorate to look behind a curtain of one of the two major political parties in the United States during a presidential election” was very much deserving of the “strongest protection that the First Amendment offers.”

Even any solicitation of the part of WikiLeaks to obtain such material (prosecutors, take note) was irrelevant. “A person is entitled to publish stolen documents that the publisher requested from a source as long as the publisher did not participate in the theft.”

The logical implication following from punishing individuals and entities for doing so, acknowledged the court, would “render any journalist who publishes an article based on stolen information a co-conspirator in the theft”. Assange and his legal team will be more than a little heartened by this acknowledgement, one that repels efforts to treat WikiLeaks as a hacking rather than publishing enterprise.

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