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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.

Joining the War Club: Australia’s HIMARS Purchase

Another needless, fatuous endeavour; another irresponsible drain on the public purse; another expression that the military-industrial complex Down Under is thriving in all its insidious stupidity. But Australia’s purchase of HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) batteries from the United States can be put down to loneliness – or the feeling of being left out. And history shows that loneliness in the context of weapons and harm involves a need to acquire more means to do further harm.

The timing of the announcement this month seemed curious enough. Could it have been coincidental that it came soon after the Ukrainian strike using the HIMARS system that destroyed a makeshift Russian garrison with lethal consequences? It was certainly wonderfully grotesque timing, even if Australian defence officials had already yearned for the HIMARS system in 2022.

The HIMARS system is certainly getting its sales, proving to be a bountiful treasure for Lockheed Martin. Its lethal strength lies in accuracy over considerable distances and easy deployment. It is also indicative of a broader missile fetish that has gripped Canberra. To make the point, the Australian government also announced the signing of a contract with Norway-based Kongsberg to purchase Naval Strike Missiles for its naval destroyers and frigates, designed to replace the Harpoon anti-ship missiles from next year. Perceived obsolescence remains the militarist’s nightmare and the weapons manufacturer’s hope.

The nervousness towards Russian ambitions in Ukraine has done its bit to boost the purchases for countries historically clutched by the old empire and its interests. Last month, the Baltic states secured deals to attain the rocket system. Such purchases serve two purposes: to reassure the anxious and to fill the pockets of the ambitious. Defence ministers will always cue their performance. “It is a big step for our armed forces, this new system, and it will significantly enhance our national and regional capabilities,” stated Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas.

The Australian example, however, is even less comprehensible, unless read through the demands and needs of a foreign power keen on keeping the gunpowder dry for war. Otherwise, there are no threats to speak of, except in the feverish mind of stupefied analysts subsided by foreign powers. Why, then, go for 20 of such systems at the cost of $385 million ($A558 million), which is more likely to be more expensive, given the refusal by government sources to reveal the actual amount?

James Heading, Director of Programs, Strategic Capabilities Office at Lockheed Martin Australia’s Missiles and Fire Control did little to explain the broader necessity for such a system for Australia, turning it into a logistics fun fair for adult children prone to violent urges. What mattered was how good the killing system was, a toy the entire military family could have. “HIMARS employs a ‘shoot to scoot’ capability which enhances crew and platform survivability in high threat environments.”

With gushing admiration, Heading spoke of “a generational leap in capability for Australia, taking Defence from cannon artillery to Long-Range Precision Fires that provide a 24/7 persistent, all-weather capability.” Such historical comparisons are flawed to the point of caricature, but they tend to be predictable in weapons sales and the need to find ever more imaginative ways of killing. For all the posturing, Heading did lift the cover on the broader strategic value of supplying Australian forces with such weapons: the US imperium, namely, demands it. “HIMARS offers the Australian Defence Force the ability to use and share common munitions and to integrate into a coalition effort.”

This poorly-cooked tripe was swallowed by Australian Defence Minister and chief weapon’s fetishist Richard Marles, “The Albanese Government is taking a proactive approach to keeping Australia safe – and the Naval Strike Missile and HIMARS launchers will give our Defence Force the ability to deter conflict and protect our interests.” (No account has ever shown any defence minister authorising purchases against the country’s interests.)

The Australian Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy was also seduced by the whole issue of capability in the face of fictional demons, till one realises that the only demon being fantasised upon is located to Australia’s distant north and known historically as the Middle Kingdom. To the ABC, he explained with a toddler’s enthusiasm that Australia would now have “an Army ground-launched missile that can reach targets up to 300 kilometres away.”

For all his confidence, Conroy’s Washington masters were also speaking in his ear. “We are part of a developmental program with the United States called the Precision Strike Missile that will allow [the] the army to hit targets in excess of 499 kilometres. So, this will give the Australian army a strike capability they have never had before.”

The US Defense Department was affirmingly clear in its rationale for endorsing the system’s export to Canberra. “The proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States,” wrote the Pentagon. “Australia is one of our most important allies in the Western Pacific. The strategic location of this political and economic power contributes significantly to ensuring peace and economic stability in the region.”

The clods in defence are bound to be revelling in all of this. There are no bounds of accountability, no reason to argue against insensible procurements. It’s all about the toys and using them in the next war.


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Sportswashed: Ronaldo heads to Saudi Arabia

It just keeps getting darker and darker. For the professionally ignorant, things are only getting better. With one of history’s great events of sportswashing concluded – the 2022 Qatar World Cup – another state famed for its cosmetic distractions and moneyed seductions made a splash. Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, his sun setting and his prospects diminishing among Europe’s top clubs, was signed to play in Saudi Arabia.

He had been seething and fuming at Manchester United, increasingly cast into peripheral, bench warming roles. The inner truculent brat screamed and found a voice on the ever humbly named show Piers Morgan Uncensored. In a conversation between brats who felt they had been mistreated over the years, the impression given by Ronaldo was always going to be a love of the game over cash.

“Is it also that you want to keep playing at the highest level? That you want to play Champions League football, you want to keep breaking records?” asked Morgan. In the manner of a ghost writer mulling over the bleedingly obvious, Morgan persisted. “Again, it comes back to my gut feeling about you that, if it was just about the money, you’d be in Saudi Arabia earning this king’s ransom. But that’s not what motivates you, you want to keep at the top…”

Whether he was already being courted by the money goons in Riyadh is hard to say, but if that was the case, Ronaldo was keen to keep up appearances. He wanted goals, to score in the big leagues, to be in the service of the elite clubs. “Exactly, because I still believe that I can score many, many goals and help the teams. I believe I am still good and capable to help the national team and even Manchester United.”

The king’s ransom, however, is exactly what he came to accept, though he aggrandised his own appeal by claiming to be hot property on the international transfer market. “I had many offers in Europe, many in Brazil, Australia, the US, even in Portugal.” At around £172 million, it will be the largest amount forked out for a football player in history, beating that offered Lionel Mess for his final four years with FC Barcelona at £137.2 million per annum. And Ronaldo only needs to play till June 2025.

Ronaldo will be helping Al-Nassr FC, whose administrators and backers are already moist with delight. “History in the making,” their twitter account crowed. “This is a signing that will not only inspire our club to achieve even greater success but inspire our league, our nation and future generations, boys and girls to be the best version of themselves.”

There is something sickly about such hailing: it projects a fantasy brand of equality, a delusion underwritten by cash. And there’s lots of it. Ronaldo is there to add rich lashings of sugary cover to the Kingdom’s broader agenda, which has reached across sporting such fields as golf, boxing, tennis, and Formula One. “We will support the rest of our clubs for qualitative deals with international stars soon,” came the solemn promise of the Saudi Minister for Sports, Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal.

As for the player himself, he shows little clue about who he is doing this for. “It’s not the end of my career to come to South Africa,” he said at his first Saudi press conference, even with the message of “Saudi welcome to Arabia” in his backdrop. The faux pas did little to dampen the enthusiasm of fans and officials. “You don’t need to know the name of a country to make 200 million euros,” remarked one. Nor, it would seem, its role in perpetrating humanitarian disasters, murdering journalists and indulging in mass executions.

Like Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is luring the big stars like stain removing agents for bloodstained clothes. Messi may well be considered a footballing demigod among fans and his countrymen, but like Ronaldo, he is keen about the way money talks. In May 2022, the Argentinian master became tourism ambassador for Riyadh. “We are excited for you to explore the treasures of the Red Sea, the Jeddah Season and our ancient history,” exclaimed Minister for Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb in twitter-land. “This is not his first visit to the Kingdom and it will not be the last!”

The broader Saudi agenda here is clear enough. Such signings are also intended to improve the country’s chances for hosting the 2030 World Cup. Last year, Riyadh revealed it would be proposing a joint bid for the games that might also include Egypt and Greece. “Definitely the three countries would invest heavily in infrastructure and would definitely be ready,” Al Khateeb insisted in an interview last November. “And I know by then Saudi Arabia would have state of the art stadiums and fanzones built.”

Ronaldo, his challenged geography aside, is clear about one thing: he doesn’t want to retire gracefully and live off his accumulated treasure. Football now is less relevant than Mammon’s calling. That is something the House of Saud knows all too well.


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Metaphors of Belligerence: Wars by and against Nature

Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else. Aristotle, Poetics (1457b)

It all seemed familiar. Anthropomorphised Mother Nature in vengeful mood; humans wondering if they might meet a frozen demise in trapped vehicles; the planners taking stock as to how best to cope with grim circumstances. The New York State governor Kathy Hochul was happy to stick her head out in declaring the latest lethal winter storm in Buffalo to be nothing less than a “war with Mother Nature, and she has been hitting us with everything she has.”

Having found her less than imaginative metaphor, the governor ran with it, suggesting that Mother Nature had laid waste to the region around Buffalo. “It is [like] going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking.”

Sappy media outlets have also taken up Hochul’s call from the parapets of battle, scouring the record for heartfelt accounts of the human spirit. The Guardian warmed to “stories of endurance, survival and rescue” – these are the sorts of things you expect when under attack from an omnipotent enemy. “Good Samaritans took stranded travellers into their homes; strangers worked together to help a snow-trapped expectant mother through some birth.”

Metaphors of war and the environment are rarely helpful. They conjure up false notions of battle, fictional platoons, ready reserves and resources marshalled against a retributive god or some sentient force of agency. Unfortunately, they are everywhere, and often conceptually shaky. “A solidified metaphor, a metaphor accepted unambiguously as truth,” writes Scarlet Marquette with accuracy, “is, in fact, a most pernicious force, inimical to truth.”

Officials have made it a habit to see war everywhere, often involving inanimate and abstract notions that do more to distort than clarify. They operate as enormous distractions in the service of not making policy. There are wars on sugar, salt, fat, poverty, homelessness and that colossally failed project known as the “War against Drugs.”

Such tendencies have seen a slew of publications, many of the specialised variety. One co-authored article in the dedicated journal Metaphor and Symbol argues that “war metaphors are omnipresent because (a) they draw on basic and widely shared schematic knowledge that efficiently structures our ability to reason and communicate about many different types of situations, and (b) they reliably express an urgent, negatively valenced emotional tone that captures attention and motivates action.”

That the action is necessarily well-directed or founded is another matter. Susan Sontag picked up on this point in examining illness and its various metaphors, writing that “military metaphors contribute to the stigmatizing of certain illnesses and, by extension, those who are ill.”

But the theme of Nature can also be taken from the other side: that humanity has brought wrath against itself for its plundering, fecund, and warring ways. Nature, in that sense, is the recipient of human bad behaviour, with humans refusing to come to the table and make peace.

The UN environment chief, Inger Andersen, sees much in that comparison. Unlike Hochul, her concern lies in the concern that human beings have been the unilateral aggressors, exploiters, and marauders. “As far as biodiversity is concerned, we are at war with nature. We need to make peace with nature. Because nature is what sustains everything on Earth … the science is unequivocal.”

Pausing to reflect on the birth of the 8 billionth human being was an occasion to celebrate, but “the more people there are, the more we put the Earth under heavy pressure.” That pressure came in the form of “the five horsemen of the biodiversity apocalypse,” namely, land-use, overexploitation, pollution, the broader climate crisis, and the spread of invasive species.

The same sentiment is expressed by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who shifts the focus to humanity as the warring problem on Planet Earth. He puts his hope in the children to save us from this dilemma, hoping the young will be far more sensible in making peace. “I am continuously inspired by their commitment & leadership in tackling the war against nature.”



If one starts off with the premise that human beings are prone to such innate war making tendencies – and this premise has been challenged – alternatives have been suggested. The philosopher William James proposed a re-channelling of such desires in his address, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Instead of killing each other, humanity might go about other pursuits.

Unfortunately, such redirections bring environmental consequences James could scant see. “To the coal mines and iron mines, to freight trains … to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

Another rechannelling is required, but it will not be found in the exhortations to survival suggested by Hochul. Her language is not that of humans bound to nature as collaborative ecological agents, but warriors besieged. In that analysis, nature itself is stigmatised. Like Medea, she will kill her children, and is accordingly to be feared.


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Vivienne Westwood: Activism and the Godmother of Punk

There was the punk scene, Malcolm McLaren, their racy clothes shop at 430 King’s Road that started out as Let it Rock, the creation of a look, and the gathering of the earth rumbling Sex Pistols. In fact, the late Dame Vivienne Westwood was already a proven stirrer, suggesting that she, not Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon, a.k.a Johnny Rotten, came up with the title for the barnstorming “Anarchy in the UK”. Boldly, she claimed that prior to McLaren and herself, there was no punk.

The Westwood look became ubiquitous with enthusiastic teens of the late 1970s, the use of studs, clothes replete with antisocial indignation, and the jarring, spiky hair to match. In the opinion of Dame Zandra Rhodes, “We’d had flower power… then suddenly you had this very-hard hitting punk.”

In her 2014 memoir, Viv Albertine of Slits fame offered a striking description of aspects of Westwood costumery: “mohair jumpers, knitted on big needles, so loosely that you can see all the way through them, T-shirts slashed and written on by hand, seams and labels on the outside, showing the construction of the piece.”

For Westwood, fashion was always meant to be a spear for change. But as she noted in her autobiography, one jointly aided by the pen of Ian Kelly, “When I turned around, on the barricades, there was no one there. That was how it felt. They were just pogoing. So I lost interest.” The kids, in other words, just wanted the gear without manifesting any grand idea; this was the confrontation of fashion without any enduring consequences.

Such a pattern would follow through the decades. The activist and designer were not always seen as one. Instead, Westwood was anointed as a cultural engenderer of daring haute couture rather than activist grenade thrower. But she made it clear that she was in fashion for only one reason: “to destroy the word ‘conformity’.” Far from being a mere designer of fashion, she “wished to confront the rotten status quo” via that medium.

The official website draws upon a busy life beyond design, speaking about activism over two decades in support of “hundreds of causes, NGOs, grassroot charities and campaigns, including Amnesty International, War Child and Liberty” in addition to launching the campaigning movement Climate Revolution.

Westwood’s environmental edge impressed PETA’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk. “She was an early adopter of PETA’s fur-free ethos, choosing to donate her brand’s remaining rabbit fur bags to a wildlife sanctuary, and shed exotic things from her collections years ago.”

In 2013, she told The Daily Mail that she could not talk about fashion. “I’m too preoccupied with using it as a vehicle for talking about climate change, which is an incredible danger. Everybody who’s eco-conscious is fighting the revolution and of course we need to get more people involved, to pressure the governments, to sort this out, because we have to sort this out.”

In 2018, on receiving the Excellence Award at the Ischia Film & Music Global Fest, Westwood declared that fashion, in her mind, had ceased being as important as the issue of the day. At the very least, she was bored with it. “We have an enormous global problem: our politicians are not listening to our scientists. We have barely 20 years to stop things, otherwise we shall reach a tipping point and we can draw a line across the earth and everywhere below Paris will be uninhabitable. By the end of this century we will be only one billion people.”

While eco-guerrilla activism was foremost in her mind, Westwood’s activist tent proved capacious. WikiLeaks and Assange can certainly express some gratitude for Westwood’s fire-breathing dedication. After his 40th birthday celebrations, she would make regular cycle visits to the Ecuadorian embassy, where the WikiLeaks founder remained an asylee tenant for seven years. As with her other causes, she managed to combine heavy-accented symbolism with a fashion statement, the catwalk repurposed for radical transparency. In 2012, she created a unisex “I’m Julian Assange” T-shirt, available for purchase for £40.

As extradition proceedings mounted by the United States became ever more serious for Assange, Westwood was again on the scene. In 2020, during trial proceedings, she spent part of a day suspended in a cage outside the Old Bailey in London, kitted up in a yellow suit to signify the canary in the coalmine. “If the canary died, they all got out. Julian Assange is in a cage and he needs to get out. Don’t extradite to America.”

Little wonder that Assange is now seeking leave from the authorities in Belmarsh Prison to attend her funeral. Given the practice of UK institutions, specifically regarding Assange, this dispensation is unlikely to be granted.

Westwood also left a touching tribute to Assange’s wife, Stella: a wedding dress. In of itself, it was a striking statement of fashion and the act of naughty defiance and constant mischief: the publisher’s partner dressed in the activist’s genius.


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George Santos: The Perfect Résumé

The true résumé is rarely honest. The entire document is based on a stream of twisting embellishments, fanciful achievements, and, in some cases, pure fiction. Read it, as you would, an autobiography, which could only interest audiences by what it omits, what it underlines, and what it pretends to celebrate. The wrinkles vanish, the wounding sores patched; the skin moisturised, the face lifted by delicate textual surgery. Its writing, and its acceptance by any relevant audience, is a mutual conceit, a pact against veracity.

The number of individuals who make use of this mechanism is embarrassing. Academics speak of projects they never undertook nor finished, and degrees doctored rather than earned. In a good number of cases, diplomas and awards mentioned are not all they seem – the global market for purchasable PhDs is healthy and thriving. Some claim to have legal qualifications they lack, and others fantasise about unattained military honours and tours of duty they never completed.

Any résumé that also purports to be true is bound to be irrelevant. Many job appointments are already filled before the paperwork is sent in. The favoured candidate, however inferior, must be boosted by the quality of the alternatives. That the alternatives are better is not a chance they will succeed, but cast glorious sunlight on the nepotistic pick, the favoured winner. The mediocre are long in such affairs.

The true résumé, in short, is short on truth. All it needs do is mention a name, preferably correctly (the right spelling is a bonus), a few bottom drawer achievements, and the rest can be put down to research by the employer or, in the case of politics, the voters in question.

This raises, then, the fundamental point about the role of such a document in certain fields. Why even bother trusting the biographical portraits of politicians, notably those of salad day persuasion? The art and the craft of the position demands deception, truthful lies and lying truths. A good turn of phrase, a deodorising spray of charm, helps.

It follows that such a document is redundant before going to press, to brochure, and to postings on a social media channel. You cannot trust it, and you are a fool to. Even worse is to get excited about it after the fact.

This leads us to the New York Republican and Representative-elect George Santos, who has been put into the stockade, if only by the press, for his schoolboy fibbing and childish howlers. “My sins here,” he mumbles, “are embellishing my résumé.”

It transpires that the 34-year-old representative-elect did not graduate from college (it probably would have spoiled his education), nor worked for Mammon’s cutthroat representatives, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup (a fact impressively moral, surely?). His portfolio of 13 properties was also make-believe – he lives with his sister in Long Island. His mother did not die “in her office in the south tower” of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, but in 2016. Then came that slightly tricky addition of identity politics – good if you can get away with it, dangerous if you end up on the gallows. That matter was the question of his Jewishness.

The New York Times could barely hide its astonishment at such a smorgasbord selection by Santos. “While others have also embellished their backgrounds and military honors that they did not receive or distortions about their business acumen and wealth, few have done so in such a wide-ranging manner.” The paper was indignant at the fact that voters “didn’t know about his lies before casting their ballots.”

The list of political figures sporting sketchy biographies, if not outright lies, is lengthy and not confined to any one party or ideology. Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren had a hack at claims of Native American ancestry and was found wanting. In August 2019, she put the whole matter down to a case of oversight. “Like anyone who’s being honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes.”

The current US President, one Joseph R. Biden Jr, was also susceptible to improving his academic record for public consumption. In 1987, he inflated his double major in history and political science from the University of Delaware into three degrees rather than a single B.A. in history and political science. His claim that he had gone to law school on a full academic scholarship was corrected by Newsweek’s finding that Biden had gone to Syracuse “on half scholarship based on financial need.”

For those who treat the truth with molesting disdain, Santos is impressively and pathologically consistent. But he hopes that his audience will be receptive and forgiving. “I’m very much gay,” he remarks, hoping to shrug off the demon of unfashionable heterosexuality. His marriage of five years to a woman was one of those things that made him ponder. “People change. I’m one of those people who change.” Steady on, Representative-elect; you have changed quite enough already.

Santos has also promised to “be effective” and “good.” There is no reason to assume that he will be either, but that’s merely in line with his résumé. Any politician claiming achievement ahead of attainment is a clown to be celebrated before the guillotine of real expectations.




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Country for Bad Dreams: Vandalism on the Nullarbor Plain

“This is quite shocking,” declared South Australia’s Attorney-General and Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Kyam Maher. “These caves are some of the earliest evidence of Aboriginal occupation of that part of the country.” That evidence was subtracted this month by acts of vandalism inflicted on artwork in Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain, claimed to be the world’s largest limestone karst landscape and covering over 200,000 square kilometres.

Edward John Eyre, the first European to cross the Plain in 1840-1841, wrote hauntingly of it as “a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into bad dreams.” In his case, personal circumstances soured the impressions: horses dying of dehydration; a case of mutiny resulting in the killing of his companion John Baxter; the theft of the party’s supplies; the slimmest chances of survival.

The work in question, carvings on chalk limestone, is said to be some 30,000 years old, considered sacred by the Mirning people. By the time news reached CNN of the incident, eight years had been shaved off the estimate, one more in line with the 1956 dating by archaeologist Alexander Gallus. In information available on the Commonwealth Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, the “finger markings and unique archaeological deposits found in Koonalda Cave provide a rare glimpse of Aboriginal life on the Nullarbor Plain during the Pleistocene.”

The rock art in question is now plastered by crude graffiti, featuring such messages as “don’t look now, but this is a death cave.” The verdict of archaeologist Keryn Walshe, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the Koonalda Cave is unsurpassed, was gravely unequivocal. “The art is not recoverable.” To remove the graffiti from the soft surface would effectively do away with the art itself. “It’s a massive, tragic loss to have it defaced to this degree.”

Something of a consensus has been reached on how this took place. A steel case, installed in the 1980s, was breached by digging intruders. Astonishingly, the Mirning elders seemed to have been the last ones to know about it. Bunna Lawrie, for instance, only heard about the matter this month. (Access is usually restricted to a few male elders; the site is closed to tourists.) “We are the traditional custodians of Koonalda,” he declared in a statement, “and ask for this to be respected and for our Mirning elders to be consulted.”

Put it down to inadequate resources, and a lack of will, which has also seen previous acts of vandalism take place. “The failure to build an effective gate, or to make use of modern security services, such as wildlife monitoring cameras that operate 24/7, has in many ways allowed this vandalism to occur,” suggested Clare Buswell of the Australian Speleological Federation Conservation Commission in a submission to the Aboriginal lands parliamentary standing committee made earlier this year.

The statement by Lawrie reiterates the point. “Since 2018 we have been asking for support to secure the entrance as a priority and to offer appropriate Mirning signage. This support did not happen.” Other misfortunes had befallen the site since, including the collapse of the cave entrance, and access works that did not involve consultation and were “not approved.”

The destruction of such sites should shock, but each revelation seemingly inures the authorities to them. The pattern is clear: apologies follow; horror is expressed; and even offers of compensation made to cope with irreversible harm. But the business of trashing a legacy continues, digestible as the stuff of accident or indifference.

In many instances, laws sympathetic to development and mining also do much to doom such works to extinction. The rock shelters of the Jukaan Gorge site in Western Australia were remorselessly levelled by Rio Tinto in May 2020, an outcome that was ethically atrocious yet legally sanctioned by the legislation of the day.

Of note was the mining giant’s conduct towards local elders. The company’s legal team stomped on any protest, haughtily informing members of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) that any emergency application to halt to the company’s works made to the federal government could only take place with the company’s blessing, and with 30 days-notice. Carol Meredith, the chief executive of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, recalled the sharp response from Rio’s lawyers, who stated that “we were not able to engage seeking out an emergency declaration that perhaps would have stopped proceedings, because of our claim-wide participation agreement.”

Within the wheels of the company, blissful ignorance reigned. Rio Tinto’s head of corporate relations, Simone Niven, was not only based in London but had little idea about the significance of the Juukan Gorge caves. Relations could hardly be counted as her strong suit.

Conforming to previous instances of such vandalism, penalties are being called for regarding the perpetrators of the graffiti. Under the legal regime, damaging such sites can carry a fine of $A10,000 or six months in prison. But the harm has been done; again, history has been left poorer, and the dreams worse than ever.


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Christmas Jottings from North Queensland

A ridiculous spectacle: Christmas in North Queensland, an event held in a land so prehistoric it makes a mockery of its human inhabitants. Cartoons and cardboard cut-outs of snow flecked reindeer stranded upon water-hungry lawns, irrelevant and incapable of surviving in these climes; the occasional defiance by the inhabitants who replace the reindeer with kangaroos as Santa’s recruits dragging his sleigh.

Another matter that is equally ridiculous: a desert religion’s celebration in the conifer-covered land masses of northern Europe, where pagan spirits fight with dedicated stubbornness against clerics and monotheistic dogma. The single god head struggles there, as it does in the heat of northern Australia, where song lines chart themselves across the land in pantheistic richness.

To have a forested backyard this part of the world is to preside over a merry bazaar of activities. Not far is an army base that is one of Australia’s largest and bound to be immolated in acts of stupidity bound to be committed by the Commonwealth government. The country is becoming a garrison state, soon to be occupied by an even greater number of US military personnel.

There are blue faced honeyeaters squeaking, the metallic churrs of the bower birds, peaceful doves cooing sweetly, Indian mynas hated for their invasive initiative and supreme guile. (The latter have inspired murderous instincts in the locals, who enjoy placing them in car boots to poison with carbon monoxide.) Then, the absurdly aristocratic spectacle of the sulphur-crested cockatoo, intruding with its mass upon the bird bowl, seizing the day, and everything else. Initially, the bird’s thick frame is accommodated; then, the bowl upturns, dropping its bounty upon the ground. All other birds are joyful: they finally can have a hack.

Rainbow lorikeets are flashes of kaleidoscopic colours hopping across the lawn like failed ballerinas. On the bird bowl, where they congregate in the absence of the cockatoos and corellas, squabbles become raging battles, rainbows aligned against each other over sunflower seed and grievance. The squawking, the screeching, the war cries stream out of their delicate beaks. And then, moments of silence – bird treaty and accord, avian solitude, feathery understanding. Munch and crunch, before the next round of bickering.

Such scenes prove therapeutic. You can take your mind off the pedestrian horrors that inhabit the screens, crowd the radio waves, and saturate the news feeds. It’s a selfish indulgence; conflicts continue to rumble along in distant geography: Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, and a number of hapless African states inured to warring misery. In Canberra, Australian politicians are readying the country for the next futile, needless intervention in which citizens can be sent to die in ignorance.

But the news, for want of a better term, remains news. On December 17, a number of supermarket chains released near hysterical warnings about contaminated baby spinach in a number of food lines. Coles recalled 11 of its Own Brand products; Woolworths did the same with two salad products. Aldi took precautions with its fresh stir-fry ingredients.

The national broadcaster reported a number of symptoms for those admitted to hospital: nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, dilated pupils, rapid heartbeat, hallucinations and confusion. Hallucinogenic salads seem to combine the anticipation of nutrition with a narcotised hit, but few seemed to be laughing.

Local news is demagogic, personal and cringingly desperate. The Townsville Bulletin is reliably all of these. There are the predictable drug busts (“Huge stash of drugs flown into NQ prison”), fears of youth crime and reports of minor thefts and local break-ins.

Encounters with crocodiles and sharks seem mandatory copy, a reminder of the estranging discomfort many in this part of the world feel with their environment. “Dehydrated, clinging to a piece of wood less than half his size,” the paper writes in hushed tones of reverence, “a fisherman has spoken of the lengths he went in order to stay alive in the Torres Strait for 24 hours.” During that time, you will not be surprised about how “sharks circled him”. Spared by sharks, the fisherman was not spared the attention of North Queensland’s infamous rag.

Then come the accidents to excite any bored voyeur. “Big hole in his leg,” screams one headline. “Listen to the Triple-0 call that saved Ted after horror ATV flip.” Another item features a brave mother who “grabbed kids and ran” fleeing an “explosive fire” that destroyed their home. If you wish for some heart-warming cheer for the holiday season, you can read about reunion celebrations for a man honoured with a commemorative jersey for founding a touch football club five decades ago.

Foreign news is only run in such publications to emphasise the strangeness of another world. The French are depicted as protest-hungry freaks prone to violence in one news item. Overseas travel is seen as dangerously unpredictable in another. “Passengers were stunned to find themselves in Azerbaijan after a Qantas flight to London was dramatically forced to change route.”

Best get back to viewing the spectacle of nature in the backyard, the rustling canopy of life, the slow and sure descent of tired palm leaves, the lawn hungering for moisture, and anticipate the next raid for seed.


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Suing Meta in Kenya

Africa has been a continent exploited since the European scramble carved it out in lines of a draughtsman’s crude design. Its resources have been pilfered; its peoples enslaved for reasons of trade and profit; its political conditions manipulated to favour predatory companies.

A similar pattern is detectable in the digital world. The slavers have replaced their human product with data and information. The ubiquitous sharing of information on social media platforms has brought with it a fair share of dangerous ills. A $2 billion lawsuit against Facebook’s parent company Meta, which was filed in Kenya’s High Court this month, is a case in point.

The petitioners, Kenyan rights group Katiba Institute, and Ethiopian researchers Fisseha Tekle and Abrham Meareg, argue that Meta failed to employ sufficient safety measures on the Facebook platform which would have prevented the incitement of lethal conflict. Most notable were the deaths of Ethiopians arising from the Tigray War, a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and seen the displacement of 2.1 million Ethiopians.

Abrham Meareg’s case is particularly harrowing. His father, chemistry Professor Meareg Amare Abrha and an ethnic Tigrayan, was singled out and harassed in a number of violent and racially inflammatory Facebook posts. Two posts screeching with slander (complicity in massacres; aiding military raids, corruption and theft) and death threats found their way onto a page named “BDU STAFF”, which sported over 50,000 followers at the time.

The posts also included the professor’s picture and home locality. Complaints to the platform by his son received no response. The posts remained up for four weeks. Meareg Amare was subsequently assassinated after leaving his work at Bahir Dar University. According to his son, the killing “was orchestrated by both state and non-state actors.”

Rosa Curling, Director of the non-profit campaign outfit Foxglove, an organisation supporting the petitioners, is convinced that the professor would still be alive had the posts been removed. She also makes a salient point. “Sadly, ‘engaging’ posts are often violent or shocking, because people react to them, share them, comment on them. All those reactions mean the Facebook algorithm promotes the post more, and can make hate posts and violence go viral, and spread even further.”

Meta, in response, has trotted out the standard, disingenuous deflection, giving us an insight into a parallel universe of compliance. “We have strict rules about what is and isn’t allowed on Facebook and Instagram,” declared Meta spokesperson Mike DelMoro. “Feedback from local civil society organizations and international institutions guides our security and integrity work in Ethiopia.”

Meta’s content moderation hub for Eastern and Southern Africa is located in Nairobi. But questions have been raised about how adequate its staffing and resourcing arrangements are. DelMoro claims there is nothing of interest on that score. “We employ staff with local knowledge and expertise, and continue to develop our skills to detect harmful content in the country’s most commonly spoken languages, including Amharic, Oromo, Somali and Tigrinya.”

The treatment of staff at Meta’s main subcontractor for content moderation in Africa, Sama, is also the subject of another lawsuit. That action alleges the use of forced labour and human trafficking, unequal labour relations, attacks on unions and a failure to provide sufficient mental health and psychosocial support to hired moderators.

Abrham Meareg and his fellow petitioners are demanding, along with Facebook’s halting of viral hate and demoting of content inciting violence, the employment of greater numbers of content moderators versed in a range of languages. The legal filing also demands that Meta issue an apology for the professor’s death and establish a restitution fund for victims of hate speech or misinformation posted on the company’s platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.

Such actions are becoming regular fare. All tend to follow a similar blueprint. In December last year, a class action complaint was lodged with the northern district court in San Francisco claiming that Facebook was “willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in south-east Asia.” The language proved instructive: a company, operating much in the traditional mercantilist mould, a plunderer of resources, its gold the product of surveillance capitalism.

Lawyers representing the petitioners also submitted a letter to Facebook’s UK office stating that their clients had been subjected to acts of “serious violence, murder and/or other grave human rights abuses” as part of a genocidal campaign waged by the military regime and aligned extremists in Myanmar.

As with the case lodged in Kenyan High Court, the grounds against Facebook were that its algorithms amplified hate speech against the Rohingya populace; it failed to adequately invest in local moderators and diligent fact-checkers; it failed to remove posts inciting violence against the Rohingya; and it did not shut down or delete specific accounts, groups and pages that encouraged ethnic violence.

Despite such actions, there is nothing in the way Meta operates to suggest a change in approach. As far long as the wallets stretch, platforms such as Facebook will continue to use devilish algorithms to boost bad behaviour. In the scheme of things, such behaviour, however hateful or misinformed, sells. The dragon of surveillance capitalism continues to thrive with fire breathing menace.


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The Wieambilla Killings: The Sense(lessness) Behind Senseless Murder

The contradiction behind the messages is clear. This was a “sophisticated” operation involving surveillance. It was planned. Those unfortunate police officers were lured to an isolated Queensland property where they were “executed”. The details were initially sketchy, but that did not prevent the general sentiment from simmering away: this was, in the words of a statement by the Queensland Police Union, a “senseless murder of colleagues.” That account has been trotted out with unanimity.

It began as an inquiry about a missing person, involving four officers from Tara sent to a Wieambilla property in the Western Downs region, some 270km west of the Queensland capital, Brisbane. According to Ian Leavers, President of the Queensland Police Union, two officers, constables Rachel McCrow and Matthew Arnold, were shot on arrival around 4.45pm in “a ruthless, calculated and targeted execution of our colleagues.” Of the two remaining officers, one was wounded, while the other escaped. A neighbour, Alan Dare, in going to assist, was also killed.

The three individuals accused of perpetrating the shootings were brothers Nathaniel and Gareth Train, and Gareth’s wife Stacey Train. They were subsequently killed by specialist police forces at the site.

Murder, in many instances, is filled with sense and planning. As disturbing it may well be, an intention to kill can conform to a set of presumptions that make sense within a particular world view. That view is often alloyed by a number of disturbing influences, the contaminant that sets the fuse.

To that end, it would be appropriate to investigate what the motivations of these figures are. But efforts to do so have been uneven. Media outlets have not held back in portraying the individuals as members of the mad, the deranged, the delusional. These cloddish efforts do little to illuminate and much to obfuscate.

The quest to not understand has been aided by the conspiracy label attached to the three individuals. Gareth Train, for one, believed that the 1996 Port Arthur massacre had been a false-flag operation; tactical police had set out to target “conspiracy talkers” and “truthers”. He also had a YouTube channel, since deleted, replete with posts covering conspiracies on COVID, anti-vaccination and the sovereign citizen movement. That same channel featured footage from Gareth and Stacey Train showing the prelude to the attack, including coverage of the shootings.

An ABC investigative report into the background of the trio noted, among other things, the conduct of Gareth and Tracey on their move in 2011 to the small town of Camooweal, about 13km from the Northern Territory border in far west Queensland. “We were invited to tea at their house,” noted a resident, who noticed “their pig dogs inside the house in cages” and Gareth’s “big collection of hunting knives and he then told us he was a social worker.”

Gareth, the accounts note, had a certain lusting for blood. “Sometimes we would see Gareth with his knives running around with dogs chasing the pigs,” another resident stated. Given the ecstasy shown by many an Australian in massacring “feral” invasive species, not to mention the occasional native one, this crude behaviour is hardly eyebrow raising. But this is Gareth, the cop killer, so all must be exceptional and unusual in his universe.

A closer reading of such accounts suggests that what the Trains did was less a case of being remarkable than the fact it was done so openly. Slaughtering animals is all good, but do not do it in front of children. Paul (not his real name) recalled how Gareth would “butcher” the pigs and hang the carcasses facing the local school. “There would be a smell of offal and blood running onto the footy field.”

Using the analytical template for the standard nutter and the unhinged lunatic, interest focused on Gareth Train’s views expressed on fora dedicated to conspiracies and survivalism. “I currently live on my rural property in western Queensland were [sic] I have been building an ‘ark’[,] homesteading for the last five years preparing to survive tomorrow. I am not interested in indoctrinating or convincing anyone of anything.”

The last line is worth recalling but has gotten lost in the speculative literature warning about rampaging conspiracy theorists willing to tear their way through the security and law enforcement establishment. It’s easy to forget that the survivalist, conspiracy tribe seeking arks and sanctuaries from impending cataclysm is a large one. It includes a good number of terrified billionaires, among them the libertarian Peter Thiel, who hopes to set up shop in New Zealand when calamity strikes.

Nicholas Evans, an academic in policing and emergency management, illustrates the fear of his colleagues: “[t]he killings are the clearest example of what security, policing researchers, and law enforcement have warned of – conspiracy beliefs can be motivators for actual or attempted violence against specific people, places and organisations.”

In the saturation of grief, the police have been less than forthcoming about why they sent junior officers to this particular property in the first place. Queensland Police Service commissioner Katarina Carroll conceded she did not have the “full extent of information” about the Trains.

The Queensland Police have resolutely refused to answer questions about whether officers had made a prior visit to the property, or the extent of knowledge about the shooters. The now deleted YouTube channel features videos suggesting a history with authorities, expressed through paranoid language. And as with much in the way of paranoia, kernels of veracity might be picked. “You attempt to abduct us using contractors,” goes one caption. “You attempt to intimidate and target us with your Raytheon Learjets and planes. You sent ‘covert’ assets out here to my place in the bush. So what is your play here? To have me and my wife murdered during a state police ‘welfare check’? You already tried that one.”

Gareth’s brother Nathaniel was also one who came across the police radar, having driven a 4WD packed with loaded guns and military knives through a New South Wales border gate into Queensland last December. This was in breach of COVID-19 regulations. Nathaniel was subsequently found disposing of some of the items in a creek near the Queensland town of Talwood, an incident reported to police. The fact that these included three loaded firearms might have struck law enforcement as odd.

On Radio National on December 21, the Queensland Police Union again reiterated the view that there was no credence to claims that police had made a previous visit to the property. Instead of discussing such details, Leavers has something else in mind: purchasing the property of the shooters in Wieambilla, rendering the profane sacred.

This macabre object has a broader purpose: “The last thing we want to see is the anti-vaxxers, pro-gun, conspiracy theorists to get this land and use it for their own warped and dangerous views.” Comprehending or even seeking to understand such individuals was simply intolerable. “They are absolutely un-Australian and I don’t want it to be used for them to promote themselves.” Let ignorance reign so that others may live happily.


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The Year of the Botched Execution

There was never anything going for it, except political mileage and the desire for crude retribution. The putting to death of another human being by the legal sanction of a state has always been another way of justifying murder, effectively assassination by judicial fiat. Such policies remain terrifying features of a number of penal systems, designed to terrorise more than reform.

In the United States, the death penalty has been falling out of favour. The outgoing governor of Oregon Kate Brown announced on December 13 that she would commute all of the state’s 17 prisoners on death row. In terms of the sheer bloodiness of it all, the figure of 18 executions in six states comes across as one of the lowest in recent years.

The 2022 report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is merely another reminder as to why such cruelty should be ditched. It reads like a sadist’s dream and a humanitarian’s nightmare: over a third of executions this year were botched in the United States. “2022,” the report declares, “could be called ‘the year of the botched execution’.” To be more precise, seven of 20 execution attempts were bungled (“visibly problematic”, write the authors). Executions, it was found, were mostly concentrated in select jurisdictions – more than half in Oklahoma and Texas.

One particularly ghastly incident, in taking three hours, became the longest lethal injection in US history. The Alabama execution of Joe Nathan James took three hours, which, in the words of Reprieve US, was not just the longest in recorded US history in terms of lethal injection but “may even be the longest execution ever using any method.”



The conduct of the Alabama Department of Corrections proved to be a point of conjecture. Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in The Atlantic, noted the clumsy attempts by the executioners to gain access to a vein to deliver the lethal dose. The Department of Corrections told media witnesses that “nothing out of the ordinary” had taken place, a barely believable state of affairs that led to a private autopsy. Those with a taste for gallows humour might have understood an inadvertent frankness on the part of the ADC: there was nothing out of the ordinary about the inability of their staff to discharge their life-taking role.

Bruenig’s description is chastening. It conveys the blood sport spectatorship that such events entail, and the moral cant that implicates the entire penal establishment. “Something terrible had been done to James while he was strapped to a gurney behind closed doors without so much as a lawyer present to protest his treatment or an advocate to observe it, yet the state had insisted that nothing usual had taken place.”

The next two executions scheduled in the state were halted – call them foiled works in progress – given the inability of the amateur butchers to set an IV line. As is instinctive for politicians and bureaucrats when incompetence manifests, a review becomes the default position to obscure the obvious.

In November, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced a “top-to-bottom review” of the state’s execution procedures, one that should, by implication, have included her. In doing so, Ivey refused to accept “the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at Corrections or anyone in law enforcement, for that matter. I believe that legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.”

On the surface of it, the only hijacking taking place is by those in the penal system and law enforcement incapable of carrying out the most basic process of taking a human life. The state’s assassins are clearly not cut out for such dirty work. Ivey could only feel embarrassed that her staff had failed in putting on a good show. “I simply cannot, in good conscience, bring another victim’s family to Holman looking for justice, until I am confident that we can carry out the legal sentence.”

The report also paints a vast picture of gruesome incompetence, axiomatic in a killing system that outsources a medical process of execution to the medically untrained. In Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee and South Carolina, executions were delayed after officials proved unable to carry out execution protocols.

The spreadsheet death merchants in Idaho had slated the execution of Gerald Pizzuto, Jr. on December 15 without the drugs to complete it. The expiry of the death warrant was the culmination of a sordid legal circus involving the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole, the state’s obstinate sanguinary Governor Brad Little, and the court process.

In an unfolding of events that would have been a perfect theme for an absurdist drama, another execution did not take place in Oklahoma because the prisoner in question had not been transferred into the custody of the authorities.

Ghoulish accounts emerged in the case of all three of Arizona’s executions, “including the ‘surreal’ spectacle of a possibly innocent man assisting his executioners in finding a vein in which to inject the lethal chemicals.” Kindness and compassion, even towards the stupid, can have its drawbacks.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, had to see the silver lining in such blatant, administrative savagery. “All the indicators point to the continuing decline in capital punishment.” Indeed, the report is almost cheery in noting that a time of “incendiary political advertising that drove the public’s perception of rising crime to record highs” did not arrest the decline of public support for capital punishment and jury verdicts favouring the death penalty.

As the report’s introduction goes on to observe, “Defying conventional political wisdom, nearly every measure of change – from new death sentences imposed and executions conducted to public opinion polls and elections results – pointed to the continuing durability of the more than 20-year sustained decline of the death penalty in the United States.”

Mighty fine it is to be optimistic but residual atavism in the Land of the Free remains. The likes of Governor Ivey continue to search for more efficient executions, for the “sake of the victims and their families.” Misplaced, futile vengeance, coloured by politics, continues to play a role.


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Corrupting the European Parliament: Qatar’s Sports Diplomacy

How utterly fitting that it should happen at this time. The Qatar FIFA World Cup is coming to a close, a tournament nakedly bought by a state keen to be a standard bearer, not merely of the Arab world, but the world of shameless sportswashing. Despite being criticised for its human rights record, its laws against sexual minorities and its shabby treatment of migrant labourers, Doha will be delighted at yet another tournament passing without effectual criticism.

The tournament has certainly seen a number of converts to Qatar’s increasingly large tent of the uncritical. The French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, is telling us that “sport shouldn’t be politicised.”

In Europe, however, we see the tentacles of Qatar’s footballing gambit and the range of its influence. The European Parliament has come under a thick cloud of suspicion for receiving bribes and incentives for allegedly fostering a positive image of the Gulf state. Nothing concentrates the undecided mind quite like a large wad of cash.

The most notable scalp of an ongoing investigation into alleged illicit lobbying activities has been the European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili, whose December 9 arrest sent a chill through Strasbourg and Brussels. The next day, she was suspended from her vice-presidential role, and charged with corruption. Expulsions duly followed from the parliament’s Socialists and Democrats Group, and the Greek Pasok party.

Kaili was one of four suspects charged after Belgian investigators found 1.5 million euros spread across two homes and a suitcase. The latter, located in a Brussels hotel room, is said to have had 750,000 euros; cash worth 600,000 euros and 150,000 euros were found at the home of one suspect and at the flat of an MEP, respectively. The now former vice-president’s innocence has been declared through her lawyer, who claimed to have “no idea if any money was found or how much was found” at his client’s flat.

The other suspects, all Italian nationals, include Kaili’s partner and parliamentary assistant, Francesco Giorgi; former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who heads the human rights group Fight Impunity; and Niccolò Figa-Talamanca, who steers the lobby group No Peace Without Justice.

Doha has certainly done much to convince European counterparts that criticisms are being addressed. In September 2021, an MEP delegation met Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani, and found much merit to claimed reforms. Marc Tarabella, vice-chair of the delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula and chair of the Sport intergroup in the European parliament, claimed that Qatar valued “the EU inputs” and had demonstrated “that the country is willing to work together to achieve the outcome for workers.”

With the football tournament in full swing, Tarabella was also effusive in praising Qatar for becoming “a good example to follow for the other countries in the neighbourhood.” Last month, Kaili was also happy to concur in a speech to fellow parliamentarians that had a pungent smell of connivance. “The World Cup in Qatar is proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world.”

In self-praise, Kaili claimed that she had been “alone” in stating that Qatar was “a frontrunner in labour rights, abolishing kafala and [introducing a] minimum wage.” In reading from the pro-Doha script, she reproached critics for bullying and accusing all who talk to Qatari officials as engaging in corruption. “We can promote our values, but we do not have the moral right for lectures to get cheap media attention.”

Tarabella’s involvement was sufficient to pique the interest of Belgian police, who raided the home of the socialist Belgian MEP on December 10, seizing computer equipment along the way. “I have absolutely nothing to hide and I will answer all the questions of the investigators, that goes without saying, if that can help them shed light on this affair,” he stated. “The justice system is going through its process of information gathering and investigating, which I find completely appropriate.”

The rippling effects of Qatar’s purchasing influence are also being felt in other European states. The French financial prosecutor’s office is mulling over corruption charges relating to the award of the tournament to Qatar and any role played by French officials in that venture. Other political figures, such as National Assembly member Alexis Corbière, have openly claimed that “many lobbyists” had approached him to alter his views of the World Cup as a “social, ecological and democratic aberration.”

Indignation and shock are never good indicators of sincerity and accuracy. Parliamentary leader Roberta Metsola is sounding like a witchfinder in search of scapegoats rather than a doctor on the hunt for a diagnosis. “European democracy is under attack and our free and democratic societies are under attack.”

How this is so is not made clear, though it is evident about the reach of Qatar’s sports washing prowess. Metsola also promises that, “There will be no impunity, there will be no sweeping under the carpet.” That will surely depend on the scale of what is found – and the size of the carpet able to accommodate the findings.


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Basketball, Viktor Bout and Troubling Exchanges

Prison exchanges and swaps are never entirely satisfactory affairs. The appropriate measure in such cases is the degree of dissatisfaction that arises from them. In the instance of the exchange of US basketballer Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the Russian negotiators may well count themselves richer in the bargain.

Griner, a two-time Olympic champion, was detained in February this year at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport possessing cartridges for vapes with hashish oil. Her argument was that these had been prescribed. The court was not convinced, sentencing her to a brutal nine-year prison sentence for drug smuggling.

Bout, invested with Satanic-like qualities of influence by US authorities and Hollywood, where his role is given a celluloid form by Nicolas Cage, was convicted in 2011 on four charges that included conspiring to kill US citizens.

He was arrested three years prior in Bangkok after attempting to sell surface-to-air missiles to members of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. This very fact gave Bout cause for consternation and suspicion: the sting operation, the smell of politics. For his part, it was all business.

More popularly, he was accused of something other powers and entities have done repeatedly since decolonisation: spread the murderous joy of armaments across the African continent through the 1990s and early 2000s. Throw in claims by US authorities that he was a former officer of the Russian military intelligence directorate, the GRU, and we have a character with form.

Bout’s ventures were more complicated than merely shipping weapons. In the 1990s, he launched his own air-freight company Air Cess, acquired a fleet of military aircraft, and shipped televisions, air-conditioners, furniture, textiles, electronics and weapons to a number of countries in conflict from his operating base in Sharjah. He was positively catholic in acquiring his clients: from officials in Washington to war criminals such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor.

The prospects for seeking an exchange involving Bout were already circulating in July, when it was reported that he might be exchanged for Paul Whelan, serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges, along with Griner. Even the original sentencing justice, District Judge Shira Scheindlin, argued that “the situation has changed and this is a trade we should make.” Bout had most likely lost his place in the pecking order of arms trafficking.

Former chief of operations at the DEA, Michael Braun, expressed his alarm at the very idea. “Before going through this trade, it would behoove US President Joe Biden to remember just how dangerous Bout was – and how much damage his release could do to US national security.”

The Russian negotiators, refusing a job lot offer, drew the line at Whelan, leaving the Biden administration to accept the return of Griner while raising questions about the currency of such exchanges.

The air of disagreement from the smokestacks of commentary in the US was certainly palpable. But Griner’s return came to be seen as morally necessary, given, as a CNN report put it, her sentence “to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil.” Bout’s release became a justifiable move because of Griner’s “blatant seizure as a geopolitical pawn on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Russian human rights lawyer Arseny Levinson also thought the sentence political in nature. “She should not have been sentenced to a real prison term at all. Moreover, such a severe punishment should not have been imposed, it was motivated solely by raising the stakes in the exchange, making a mockery out of the hostage.”

The Griner-Bout exchange has thrown up an unwelcome mirror for the Biden administration. The failure to secure Whelan’s release led former President Donald Trump to fume at “a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA,” while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called it a “gift to Vladimir Putin” and imperilling to “American lives.”

US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) argued that the trade gave another reason to “impeach” the President. Biden “traded Russian terrorist arms dealer, Viktor Bout, left a US Marine in a Russian jail, and brought home a professional basketball player.”

The sentiment was echoed in gloating fashion by RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who thought Whelan a “hero spy” as opposed to Griner, a “drug-addicted black lesbian who suffered for vaping hashish”.

Then came that rather uncomfortable fact that marijuana, while legal in 21 US states, has also seen prisoners serve life sentences for possessing small amounts of the drug. Neuroscientist and drug reform advocate Dr Carl Hart celebrated Griner’s release, but suggested the need to do more: “Now let’s free all drug war political prisoners.”

Being righteous over the release of Bout is an easy thing. The arms-trade has a far more obvious lethality to it than drugs or the pet obsession of wealthy countries with “people smuggling.” But that ignores the muddy picture of deals, collaborative alliances and understandings known as the international arms market.

Singling out Bout as the cartoonish gangster who endangered US lives ignores the fact that the United States remains the world’s biggest arms exporter, thereby endangering the lives of citizens across the globe. Between 2017 and 2021, the US accounted for 39 percent of the major arms transfers globally. This was twice that of Russia, and almost 10 times what China sent its customers.

Another excruciating point is that one can only become a merchant of death if the merchandise, and the interest in buying and using it, is there. As Bout himself put it, if you were going to prosecute a figure such as himself, you might as well prosecute US arms dealers whose weapons eventually end up being used against US citizens. (The National Rifle Association, take note.) “They are involved even more than me!”


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The US Imperium Garrisons Australia

On December 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosted Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles. It was the 32nd occasion the countries had met in this setting.

The Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) is really a chat fest held between Australian Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs along with the US Secretaries of State and Defense, accompanied by officials of touted seniority. Advertised as an occasion for the states “to discuss and share perspectives and approaches on major global and regional political issues, and to deepen bilateral foreign security and defence cooperation,” it is more accurately an occasion for Washington to keep an eye on its satellite.

The occasion would have been a disappointment for sceptics of the US-Australian alliance, one that has seen Australians join, with somnambulistic facility, failed distant, needless wars. Even with a change of government in Canberra, it is clear that the US security lobby remains ascendant, tranquilising Australian politicians with the virtues of the alliance.

The joint statement from Blinken, Austin, Wong and Marles was filled with the gruel of banality: rules-based order, as they understood it; the importance of the relationship to “regional peace and prosperity,” despite signs it is becoming increasingly dangerous to that cause; and utterances about human rights and fundamental freedoms.

For keen watchers of encroaching militarism, the following would have stood out: “The principals also decided to evolve their defense and security cooperation to ensure they are equipped to deter aggression, counter coercion, and make space for sovereign decision making.”

This could hardly be a reference to Australian sovereignty, given its whittling down over the years to the decisions of an increasingly more engaged US in the Indo-Pacific region. While Canberra decries any moves by Pacific Island neighbours to exercise their own rights of sovereignty to seal security arrangements with Beijing, it ignores its own subordinate, increasingly garrisoned role in the US imperium.

China comes in for a predictable mauling, given its actions in the South China Sea and the making of “excessive maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law.” Wishing to enrage the Yellow Devil further, the parties also reiterate “Taiwan’s role as a leading democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, an important regional economy, and a key contributor to critical supply chains.”

Strategic competition, as a concept, was fine in principle, but to be pursued “responsibly,” a word that has little meaning in the thuggery of international politics. The parties also agreed to “work together to ensure competition does not escalate into conflict” and looked to the PRC “to do the same and to engage Beijing on risk reduction and transparency measures.” More could be done on the issue of transparency and China’s nuclear arsenal, for instance.

The statement then goes on to raise the importance of cooperation with Beijing in some areas of mutual concern followed by a sharp backhanded serve. Cooperation with China on “issues of shared interest, including climate change, pandemic threats, non-proliferation, countering illicit and illegal narcotics, the global food crisis, and macroeconomic issues” was important, but so was “enhancing deterrence and resilience through coordinated efforts to offer Indo-Pacific nations support to resist subversion and coercion of any kind.”

There is also more poking with the expression of “serious concerns about severe human rights violations in Xinjiang, the human rights situation in Tibet, and the systematic erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, democratic institutions, and processes undermining commitments made by the PRC before the handover.”

Australia’s promised submarines under the AUKUS security pact, almost as credible as the Loch Ness monster, receives an airing. Giving nothing away, the statement “commended the significant progress AUKUS partners have made on developing the optimal pathway for Australia to acquire a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability at the earliest possible date.” No date is provided, but a year on when that optimal pathway will be miraculously revealed is 2023. Best not wait up.

The joint statement does little to dissuade the idea that Australia is moving, inexorably, towards a satellite, garrison state to be disposed of and used by the US imperium. Under the “Forced Posture Initiatives” – the wording is telling – the US will further integrate Australia into its military operations via Enhanced Land Cooperation, Enhanced Maritime Cooperation, and the Combined, Logistics, Sustainment, and Maintenance Enterprise.

The US armed forces would continue its “rotational presence” in Australia across air, land and sea including “US Bomber Task Force rotations, fighters, and future rotations of US Navy and US Army capabilities.” The emphasis, in other words, is entirely US-centric, with Australia’s posture being rather supine, even as it aids “US force posture with associated infrastructure, including runway improvements, parking aprons, fuel infrastructure, explosive storage infrastructure, and facilities to support the workforce.”

What a wonderful list of targets for any future foe, and bound to become even juicier with Austin’s promise to “find ways to further integrate our defense industrial bases in the years ahead.”

While they do not tend to make regular appearances on uncritical mainstream news outlets, Australian civil society members have been alarmed by such moves. The 280 submissions to the Independent and Peaceful Australian Network (IPAN) addressing the high cost of Australia’s relationship with the United States attest to a very different narrative.

IPAN’s report drawn from its People’s Inquiry into “Exploring the Case for an Independent and Peaceful Australia,” informed by those submissions and released last month, should be mandatory reading for Canberra’s insular policy hacks. In his contribution to the report covering the defence and military aspects of the alliance, Vince Scappatura took note of the most pressing concern among the submissions: “that the alliance makes Australia an unnecessary target of America’s foes.”

The alliance has also seen Australia committed to “several needless and costly wars and is likely to do so again in the future, with especially grave consequences in the context of the great power rivalry between the US and China.” Unfortunately for the industrious Scappatura and those honourable souls determined to force a revision of the relationship, the sleepwalkers are in charge. And when that happens, wars are rarely far away.


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Baguette Listings: Why Food is Politics

On November 30, the French baguette was formally added to the United Nations’ Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The bureaucrats had finally gotten hold of a glorified bread stick, adding it to their spreadsheet list of cultural items worthy of preservation. A delighted French President took the moment to gloat at the French Embassy in Washington. “In these few centimetres passed from hand to hand lies the spirit of French know-how,” stated a glowing Emmanuel Macron.

The list, for which UNESCO is responsible for observing, includes some 678 traditions from 140 countries. The Slovenians have beekeeping, for instance; Tunisia has harissa; Zambia can call upon the significance of the Kalela dance. Such traditions can span several countries: the listing of states for the Lipizzan horse breeding tradition reads like an inventory of the lost Austro-Hungarian empire, echoing Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch.

The baguette, one of France’s grandest gastronative examples, is celebrated as a labour-intensive product marked by patience. Lengthy periods of fermentation are required, including wheat of appropriate quality, leaving a distinct gold crispness. Fats are eschewed, as are any improvers or additives, which are prohibited by the decree of September 13, 1993. The characteristic cuts with 14 facets act like ceremonial scars. It is also the hallmark of the traditional boulangeries, which are struggling, notably in rural areas, to survive.

“Many have tried to make it; they just made something industrial which has no taste,” the grinning Macron exclaimed. “And this ‘French touch’ we have in our baguette is the one we have in other sectors: It’s this additional know-how, this extra soul. So, congratulations to our baguette for today.”

Macron’s dig at the industrialised, quickly made baguette is well-founded, and it was appropriate for him to be doing it in the land of mass-industrialised food practices. But the baguette has become, in time, a French imperial marker with local variations.The Vietnamese famously have their Bánh mì, which has become an international food presence across the global diaspora, though modifications in terms of part substitution of rice flour for wheat flour take place. The influence in western and northern Africa is also clear. The streets of Dakar are marked by baguette stands.

As food is as much a political statement as a culturally boisterous one, political figures expressed their delight at the baguette’s listing. Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak tweeted about the ubiquity of the baguette in terms of French habits: “morning, noon and evening, the baguette is part of the daily life of the French.” The listing was “a great recognition for our artisans and the unifying places that are our bakeries.”

Another important figure in promoting the baguette’s case for UNESCO recognition, Dominique Anract, called the announcement “good news in a complicated environment.” As president of the National Federation of French Bakeries and Patisseries, Anract almost struck a wistful note about old habits. “When a baby cuts his teeth, his parents give him a stump of baguette to chew off.”

Much of this belies the fact that the French, as serious as they are about eating bread, consume less of it and are facing changing lifestyles and the hollowing out of its evocative rural villages. Since 1950, the consumption of bread has fallen by a startling two-thirds. But modern food politics demands modern laws; and a recent promulgation demands the use of certain percentages regarding the use of wheat. Eventually, much is at stake for the continued making and consumption of this thin bread morsel.

For an individual such as Steven Kaplan, a Brooklyn-born historian who has spent almost all his academic life focused on bread, the UNESCO addition could only cause displeasure. The ecstasy of French politicians about the baguette belies the fact that such a listing will simply serve to encourage inferior alternatives. Under the generic term of “baguette de pain”, as opposed to “baguette de tradition”, the white flour baguette, “which is generally of very mediocre quality” is legitimised. “For me, who has long campaigned for artisanal savoir-faire, this is an appalling regression.”

Whenever a committee meets, politics will arise. The decision making of UNESCO is no exception. Was there a reason why Ukrainian borscht soup needed to make the list? Yes, according to committee members, because of Russia’s warring efforts in Ukraine. A gastronomic threat had been identified, with UNESCO claiming that “armed conflict has threatened the viability” of the dish, as “people not only cannot cook or grow local vegetables for borscht, but also cannot gather [to make the dish] … undermining the social and cultural well-being of communities.”

Borscht brings its own brand of culinary politics, and charting countries which consume this soup is to revisit dead empires and their shadows: Imperial Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Igor Bednyakov, chef at the Moscow restaurant Bochka, advises that the Cossacks cooked up the stew during the siege of Azov in 1637, a fascinating twist to the tale that has done little to neutralise Ukrainian-Russian debates on the issue.

Ukrainian food nativists, for one, point to earlier dates and the addition of beetroot, while the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is adamant that borscht is a “symbol of traditional cuisine” and a “timeless classic” of Russian origin. Not only do they want to steal our territory, comes the Ukrainian retort, but they want to appropriate our dishes. Be that as it may, empires may perish but the dishes linger, their origins of necessity lost.

The UNESCO listing of borscht was merely another front in the battle between Kyiv and Moscow. “Victory in the war for borscht is ours!” exclaimed Ukrainian Minister for Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko. Food, as the late Anthony Bourdain reminded us, really is politics.


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The Raider Spirit: The Unveiling of the B-21

The US military industrial complex has made news with another eye-wateringly expensive product, a near totemic tribute to waste in a time of crisis. The $700 million B-21 Raider stealth bomber was unveiled by Northrop Grumman Corp. and the United States Air Force on December 2 at Airforce Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.

There was much slush and fudge about the project, with its release being treated as something akin to the Second Coming. Those in public relations were kept particularly busy. Social media was shamelessly used to advertise the event, which was livestreamed. “Join now for our live reveal of the B-21 Raider,” tweeted Northrop Grumman. “This changes everything.”

The occasion was the first of its type since November 1988, when the Northrop B-2 Spirit made its debut. The aircraft in question, with serial number 00001 was rolled forward, still covered in tarpaulin, from a hangar before defence and policy wonks, the press and 2,000 workers. The removal of the covering revealed a machine reminiscent of the original B-2 with an extra-terrestrial echo, described as “space-age coatings”.

Praise was heaped upon the celebrated, as yet untested monster. “The B-21 is the most advanced military aircraft ever built and is a product of pioneering innovation and technological excellence,” stated Doug Young, sector vice president and general manager at Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems.

A USAF news release was filled with justifications for the Raider. (The ceremony was timed to coincide with a new report on Chinese military capabilities.) “The B-21 Raider is the first strategic bomber in more than three decades,” declared Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin during the unveiling. “It is a testament to America’s enduring advantages in ingenuity and innovation. And it’s proof of the Department’s long-term commitment to building advanced capabilities that will fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future.”

As with all defence projects of absurd expenditure, justification is easily sought and found. Such a creation, argue defence officials, was entirely in line with the National Defense Strategy “and other analyses”. No degree of ingenuity is required to appreciate the primary thrust of the NDS, which is “deterrence against China.” Of its four top defence priorities outlined in the document, the PRC receives generous coverage, being seen as a “growing multi-domain threat” and any country challenging US interests in the Indo-Pacific.

As Austin has previously stated, “We’re seamlessly integrating our deterrence efforts to make a basic truth crystal clear to any potential foe. The truth is that the cost of aggression against the United States or our allies and partners far outweigh any conceivable gains.”

This delusional effusion is striking for inverting what are overly aggressive overtures on the international scene, turning them into the more benign objective of deterrence. Reduced to a skeletal outline, defending US supremacy is the order of the day, and any pretenders or mischief makers will be dealt with, however genuine their credentials. And when in doubt, those ominous credentials are bound to be inflated.

The B-21 is merely one aspect of that policy. It “is deterrence the American way,” claims Austin, which might be regarded as threatened aggression by other means. “It’s the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic that we all love. It’s a testament to our strategy of deterrence – with the capabilities to back it up, every time and everywhere.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr., was careful to doff the cap to representatives of the military industrial complex, where corporation and tax payer dollars mix with little scrutiny and few scruples. “You think about what we’re able to do in the amount of time with the workforce here from Northrop Grumman, the collaboration with the United States Air Force to bring in a capability using a digital approach which is new and different from anything we’ve done [in] any major program, that’s part of the Raider spirit.”

Those at Northrop Grumman won even greater favour with Pentagon bean counters, reportedly developing the project at an amount less than the original $25.1 billion projection by the USAF. Time will tell.

The event itself was not exactly brimming with revelations. Air & Space Forces Magazine bluntly noted that little by way of new information about the aircraft was supplied, be it about capabilities, dimensions, or “further programmatic details, such as the planned production rate, or even how many engines power the bomber.” Austin boasted that it would have a range longer than any other bomber, and “won’t need to be based in theatre. It won’t need logistical support to hold any target at risk.”

The bomber, the USAF tells us, was designed to be “a long-range, highly survivable stealth bomber capable of delivering a mix of conventional and nuclear munitions. The aircraft will play a major role supporting national security objectives and assuring US allies and partners across the globe.”

We also learn that the B-21 unveiled on December 2 is one of six in the production line, with an eventual target of 100 or even 150 (defence officials are fickle about such projections). “Each is considered a test aircraft, but each is being built on the same production line, using the same tools, processes, and technicians who will build production aircraft.”

Opinions and assessments, as they often are in such defence dispatches, are scripted to say nothing while clouding the main issues. Andrew P. Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, comes up with a bubble-filled sample. “Leveraging innovative manufacturing techniques, open systems architectures and active management allows us to integrate new technology as it matures and ensures the B-21 can adapt to future threats and be successful when and where we need it.”

While the name of the aircraft is meant to evoke the daring of the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo by 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers in retaliation for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, the B-21 is the offspring of a very different spirit: the raider turned wasteful aggressor-in-waiting.


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