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Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off

Even before the single ball was kicked at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, there were threats, promises and suggestions from various governments about how best to cope with Vladimir Putin and his designated fiendish circle of authoritarians. In March, the then UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson opined that President Vladimir Putin would make much hay from the event, in the manner as Hitler had done during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

In fairness to Johnson in one salient respect, games of such scale are bound to be the stuff of high floating praise and fluffy imagery; no state, whatever the vicissitudes of their political system, is ever going to let such an event pass into the realm of pure sport. It is axiomatic that self-advertisement will duly follow.

Russia furnishes us a particularly difficult example. The history of Russia for the west is a history of tailored, carefully packaged images, a process of management with various degrees of severity and enigmatic delusion. When the Soviet Union was bloating with corpses in the aftermath of the famines of 1932 and 1933, a result of catastrophic collectivisation, certain journalists, foremost amongst them Walter Duranty of The New York Times, swallowed the necessary consequences. The modern Bolshevik, so went this particular argument of modern development, was bringing discipline and order to the barbaric yeomanry of the steppes. “They lived in gutters and pigsties for centuries, and the Bolsheviks have shown them that the way out and up is by education.”

Attempts to place Putin upon a pedestal of unvarnished brutality, the leader of a vast kleptocratic enterprise, have been made with varying degrees of success. Admittedly, being a scribbler in Russia, notably a dissentient one sniffing with disdain at the president’s politics, is a hazard of the job requiring decent life insurance. So when it comes to such grand shows as the World Cup, how would the Putin state come across?

All in all, it was theatre, appearance, show. The players did what they were meant to do, and even better than that, for the most part play absorbing football culminating in one of the most prolific finals in the tournament’s history. The events, for the most part, went smoothly. Long term residents in Moscow such as the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg saw this as a “land of Oz, otherwise known as ‘World Cup Russia’, football fans from across the globe” thronging the streets of the city. “In more than 20 years of living in Moscow, I cannot remember a time when the city has felt more relaxed, more cosmopolitan, more welcoming.”

Such events tend to be costly affairs, and it was a point that protesters in Rio 2014 were keen to impress upon visitors, indignant at the amounts forked out for hosting the event. Better stadiums may have encouraged officialdom to flash some good plumage but this did not improve living standards. In Russia 2018, there was barely a murmur. The stadiums impressed; there was gratis train travel to venues; there was good order.

Paradoxically, Putin, in making a pact with FIFA President Gianni Infantino to keep politics out of the tournament, had permitted the tournament to become a glitzy exposition of a political vision: a show to debunk Western narratives of Russian surliness and brutality. His audience has been duly receptive. “I was told people, police in Red Square are smiling,” remarked Infantino to Putin. “This is great. This is exactly what Russia is. This is the new image that we have about Russia.”

The World Cup has been something of a mammoth alibi for Putin’s state, a means to buffer it against criticism that can be primed against opponents in this scrap of images. “As a historian of Russia specialising in Kremlin media strategy,” wrote Cynthia Hooper, “I see confirmation of a Putin public relations victory in headlines around the world.” For the usually circumspect German news magazine Der Spiegel, the event had “shown Russia in a new light.”

Russia’s critics, explained a contented Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, “failed. We are happy that so many people in the UK and in other countries had a unique chance not to see channels like BBC telling stories about Russia, but to see the real Russia with their own eyes.” As for Putin himself, he was contented at those “so-called bloggers – people working in social media [who] helped tear down numerous stereotypes about Russia.”

But such is the nature of hunting for the authentic – it can be all and nothing, absence and presence. Police with instructions to smile genially towards football supports can just as well engage in a crackdown on orders. The authentic can be both generous and brutal.

This supposedly apolitical World Cup has also inspired willingness on the part of other powers to accept, at least in some measure, Putin’s standing. Efforts to box the Russian leader in hermetic opprobrium have essentially fallen over.

Despite being a critic of Russian foreign policy, French President Emmanuel Macron would still announce that he would meet with Putin at the final itself. For all the tense relations between Bonn and Moscow, both have taken time to conclude the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal, a point that interested US President Donald Trump enough to issue an outburst that Germany was “totally controlled” by the Russian behemoth.

The hardline from Washington, obsessive about sanctions, is also being viewed by some European states as unproductive and self-interested. While Russia remains, on the surface, a traditional unifying bogey, the oppositional front, as with much in Europe these days, is wobbly.

Putin will take some time to bask in the afterglow, but it would be foolish to assume that much has changed. Theatrical shows are of finite duration, escapist punctuations of the tedium. The curtains eventually come down; audiences go home to mull over the direction. Some might well remember it. But these are not cases that tend to put food on the table, nor restore peace. The football show moves on to the improbable Qatar, a reminder that FIFA is less a body of football than a body of deals and transactions in search of appropriate sponsors for the Cup.

The Woes of Luka Modrić: Croatia, Nationalism and Football

Juraj Vrdoljak of Telesport was convinced. “I think half the population didn’t show up to work on the morning after the win against England.” The victory had inspired early shop closures, a feeling of rampant escapism. “Croatia is a country with a deep economic crisis. Every day, life is really hard. It’s full of bad stories and tough times. There is lot of poverty. A lot of people are emigrating.”

Members of Croatia’s football team have become national talismans of endurance, the shock troops of resilience and hope. Ivan Rakitić, when he takes the field against France, will be playing his 71st match of the season, the most than any top-flight player this year. Luka Modrić remains unflinching in the midfield as the team’s general. Domagoj Vida has been granite in defensive solidity.

Football teams can be held up as mirrors of the nations they represent. This sociological gazing can always be taken too far, a scholar’s fruitless pondering, but Croatia’s national side is instructive. It was Dinamo Zagreb’s Zvonimir Boban who stirred matters with his heralded assault on a police officer engaged in a violent scuffle with fans in a match against Red Star Belgrade. Croatian football was fashioned as a vehicle of protest and dissent against what was seen as a Serb-dominated federation.

In time, football kicks became shells and bullets in the murderous dissolution of Yugoslavia. To this day, a legend stubbornly holds that the truculent Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo and the countering Deljie of Red Star precipitated the first shots of that war.

Starting with its current inspirational captain, the link between social ill and patriotic performance can be seamless. When he finishes the tournament in Russia, Modrić will have to turn his mind back to his relationship with mentor and former Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamić, a towering figure who finds himself facing a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for corruption and fraud. From Bosnia and Herzegovina, he does battle with the authorities, attempting to avoid extradition after fleeing Croatia.

A bursting feature of the case mounted against Mamić involved claims of ill-gotten gains from transfers of Modrić from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 and Dejan Lovren to Lyon in 2010. Modrić, it seemed, was implicated in signing an annex to his Dinamo contract, suggesting a 50-50 split of any future transfer fee. What was significant was the timing – 2015 as opposed to any earlier dates. Through his tenure, suggestions that Mamić had conducted a “silent privatisation” of the club were rampant, producing inflated transfer prices and a cult of acquisitiveness.

Modrić, having been billed as a star witness who initially supplied anti-corruption investigators with gold dust on Mamić’s penchant for cooking the accounts, notably in terms of pocketing millions of euros of the transfer fee, froze in the dock. His memory, it seemed, had failed him; the contract annex was not signed, as he initially claimed, in 2015 but 2004. This testimony was effectively rendered worthless. Croatia’s captain now faces the prospect of a perjury charge that carries a possible sentence of five years in prison.

The Croatian Football association, in an official statement in March, was not having a bar of it, unsurprising given the powers that be within the country’s football hierarchy. The body insisted upon “the principle of innocence and considers every person innocent until proven otherwise.” It was also “deeply convinced of the correctness of Luka Modrić’s testimony before the court in Osijek, and especially because of Modrić’s behaviour since his first appearance for the Croatian U-15 team in March 2001 to date.”

While every inch the commander in the field, with his team keen to impress in their following, not all Croatian supporters are in the Modrić tent of fandom. The Bad Blue Boys have found themselves split in loyalties over the years, with some, such as Juraj Ćošić, forming a breakaway team, Futsal Dinamo. “Zdravko Mamić,” claims football sociologist Ben Perasović, “is a typical member of the new rich class.” It is a class that continues to afflict Croatian football with their depredations, a looting tendency that is only now being reined in with mixed success.

The other team members have also shown this side to be rather prickly. Vida, and the now sacked assistant coach Ognjen Vukojević, were caught on film making comments supportive of Ukrainian nationalists in the aftermath of the side’s defeat of Russia in the quarter-finals. FIFA’s benevolence prevailed, and the centre-back was permitted to play in the semi-final against England.

Such a background adds more than a touch of complexity, with all its discomforts, to the World Cup final against France. Croatia’s team will not merely be facing their opponents on the field in a battle of wits and tenacity. Off it, pens and knives are being readied and sharpened, with prosecutions being prepared.

Even now, the team is being written off by the smug pundits of football orthodoxy, though with less disdain than before. Three matches on the trot into extra-time suggest imminent exhaustion, a possible overrunning by a more refreshed French team. But desperation, in meeting talent, can be the most potent of elixirs. This Croatian team has pushed the sceptics to the edge, and threatens to leave them there. And with players like Modrić, adversity remains their closest companion.

Das Testament

Any reading of the annals of human history, its achievements and failings, in both majestic endeavour or mean deception, will uncover the heroic alongside the cowardice of the spirit of humanity indelibly written into the texts and transcripts recorded in those annals … even an attempt to hide or disguise the facts of a moment of importance cannot be forever obscured … there is no hiding from history.

The primary sources of Roman history are well served with examples of both. Tacitus will record with both pride in deed and shame in action those annals he has written for the elucidation of posterity. His candid revelations without fear or favour can be an inspiration to those who follow and would like to record their own interpretations of their own contemporary histories, an example most encouraging. Even the everyday chattering of the Diary of Samuel Pepys gives sublime clue to the machinations of his times.

There are those moments when researching contemporary history that certain discrepancies in what one can remember being taught in primary or secondary school can be revealed … and revealing most alarmingly a betrayal of honour by those educators entrusted with the teaching of an accurate and honest history of one’s own State or region. The revelation of which can be more than a shock to the system. The lie about the Governing class of South Australia, in that it was a honest, well-meaning if a tad unknowledgeable about Indigenous peoples and affairs … that it had the best interests of the State and people at heart … that the colony was run on a tight rein by competent administrators right through till the end of the 2nd WW … well .. this was a lie … from the start to the finish … a complete fabrication carefully constructed by thieves, speilers, con-men and killers … AND all of them the most political conservatives.

These ruling conservatives, of whom many of the streets of Adelaide are named after, used their political and financial networks to corrupt and destroy the original intentions of the Letters Patent written for the British Parliament and signed off by the King of England … While there is but obscure evidence of unbridled corruption in the official documents, we can see within the signed off letters between the board members and their agents, some of them quite subversive, that there is the agenda of intent to profiteer from their favourable situation … and after all is said and done, under all the pomp and ceremony of the official documents, we see nothing but a collegiate of cowboy entrepreneurs, spivs and speculators.

The entire official history is open to capricious interpretation and in dire need of total overhaul. The activities in the latter decade of the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the twentieth century of shady political organisations like The National Defence League, ostensibly a lobby-group for the conservative conspiracy operating in a covert manner to block social policy, usurp the procedures of democratic governance and to frustrate fair taxation in the state.

As we go about the mundane and banal business of our everyday lives, we are sometimes suddenly, in the midst of any one of those everyday chores, in between those activities of boring methodology of habit, we are confronted with a moment of such sublime beauty … perhaps an intrusion of natural sights, sounds or actions … like the movement of an obscure lizard or caterpillar that attracts our eye … or the sudden syrupy call of an obscure bird nearby … the movement of a kangaroo if you are in the country or even some domestic animal that you have petted rubbing about your leg … and all of a moment, putting aside those mundane chores you are doing, to either listen or look, a door of perception can open to you … a pause to gaze through that door into an ethereal world full of distracting mystery and strange reward. A world so different to that of the everyday, that one has to hold it in abeyance so as not to be too distracted from the work at hand … a kind of pause and reset moment.

We are dreamers by nature, imaginers by desire for what can be unattainable and indeed … given a bit of thought … perhaps not really wanted … but desired all the same … a kind of sweet-sorrow … as “the bard” would have it! But the strangest thing is, that all those visions that delight us, that provoke such emotional hunger and desire in us are really no more than an exercise of gazing into that which is already in our hearts … already inside us. Such moments happen in historical research where a flash of light can suddenly illuminate a confusing jumble of historical detail and reduce to hard-core evidence that which has been in some doubt for a long time … like the below.

Letters Patent establishing the Province of South Australia 19 February 1836 (UK):

“ … Provided Always that nothing in those our Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives In Witness whereof We have caused these our Letters to be made Patent Witness Ourself at Westminster the Nineteenth day of February in the sixth year of our Reign.
By Writ of Privy Seal

In my recent research into the pioneer Germanic settlers of this region, called by some with more an eye of an acolyte’s hunger for approval than to interest of knowledge as ; ”white-bread contemporary history”, a research that has given me access to a cache of pictures and documents archived by a local historian of good research repute, I have been sifting the many pictures of schools and churches and residences of those hardy settlers … when I came upon one picture of a group of school-children in the year of 1930, varying in age from about ten years old to mid-teens. Upon first glance, they appear to be the usual mix of grinning or scowling kids under instruction to “smile for the birdy!” … and then I noticed one boy, mostly hidden behind the first row who looked different than the blond-haired Germanics, standing in the shadows there … and sure enough, upon enlargement of the frame I saw that he was an indigenous child … and going through the names so gratefully written under the pic, I see his name as ‘Mervyn Sumner” … and that is all.

Having a familiar knowledge with the surnames of many families of this region, THAT particular name did not ring any bells … I started to research through Trove and elsewhere and there he was, sadly recorded in another state (Victoria) in a police inquiry.

(The Argus/Melb Feb 4th 1936):

“Pending the receipt of further Information from the South Australian authorities it is practically certain that the half-caste aborigine youth who died on Lock Island last week and is believed to have been poisoned was Mervyn Sumner who escaped from the Edwardstown Industrial School After the Inquest was opened and adjourned two fruit-pickers who arrived during the week-end stated that they knew Sumner well. The Inquest was reopened mid one of the pickers identified the body as that of Sumner. The hearing was then again adjourned to a date to be fixed.”

(The Age/Melb 30th March 1936):

“MILDURA. The deputy coroner (Mr. H. F. Paul) concluded an inquest on Saturday into the death of a half-caste, Mervyn Sumner, who was found dead on 30th January at Lock Island, Mildura. A finding was recorded that death was due to strychnine poisoning, but there was not sufficient evidence to show how it was administered.”

(Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry):

“In 1921 a two-year-old boy was placed in State care until the age of 18 for being illegitimate. When he was 14, he absconded twice from subsidy placements and, at 15, from the Edwardstown Industrial School. He died 11 months later in Victoria in 1936. His SWIC recorded ‘died’ and the Mortality Record Book ‘sudden – poison’. No coronial files were held in South Australia because the death occurred interstate. The Inquiry obtained department files relating to the boy.

One file contained a report on absconding from the superintendent of the industrial school, which said the boy absconded in February 1935. The police were notified and a warrant issued. Eleven months later, the department received information from the police regarding an unnamed person dying from poisoning in Mildura. According to an informant, the person had given himself a different name but stated that he had come from an Adelaide orphanage.

He told the informant that he had twice previously escaped from the orphanage and that he had no intention of returning to SA until he turned 18. Fingerprints taken from the deceased matched those of someone with a different name again. A photo was then sent to the department, which identified the boy. It appears he had used at least two false names after he had absconded. A newspaper article on the file refers to the circumstances of the death. The boy had been camping on the River Murray with two other youths. He wandered on to an island and what happened next was not known, but later the boy came running from trees and collapsed, saying, ‘I am dying’. He died ‘in agony almost immediately at [the boys’ ] feet’. The article said that a swiftly acting poison caused the boy’s death. The file contained no official document s following up the circumstances of the boy ’s death.”

The above records give a lie to the Royal and Parliamentary proclamation of allowing the indigenous peoples land to be “enjoyed by such natives thereof … “The deliberate actions extant in the files of The South Australia Company, to exploit both persons and land of the new colony from the beginning to the end give testament to their culpable actions to enrich themselves and their colleagues at the expense of the labouring settlers and the indigenous peoples. These so-called Administrators were nothing … NOTHING … more than a bunch of entrepreneurial “free-enterprise” cowboys with good connections and no idea, who found an opportune moment to be in on a good thing! And when it all went pear-shaped, they manipulated the situation so as to be bailed out by the British government of the day with taxpayer money yet leaving themselves still “in situ” to profiteer on their already swindled and plundered estates … no different than these times … not the slightest difference at all.

My studies into the early and subsequent multi-culture immigrants to this country has shown a coordinated discrimination and crushing, one-culture-at-a-time, NOT necessarily by a dominant CULTURE, but certainly by a DOMINATING middle-class capital/financial system … and THAT was and IS the ONLY flag of allegiance such entrepreneurs and swindlers fly … it is their State, their Nation, their Empire, their Tyranny.

Starting with their own duped labourers, then the innocent indigenous peoples, then the Germanic peoples who migrated here in good trust to SA … with the isolation & discrimination wherever possible, using poverty as a weapon of persuasion, then, when the hardiest of them all could no longer be ignored because of their success, bringing those selected from among them with the most adaptability to a “consciousness of kind” … into the tent to control the others and so on and on with the other ethnic peoples, the Italians, Greeks, Slavic peoples, Baltics, Asian and middle-eastern … and even now as we witness these days with certain Indigenous individuals.

Each people, one ethnic group at a time … the same procedure: invite, contain, divide, reject their culture … introduce debt along with aspiration & expectation until cultural and financial control does the rest until capital/material obsession becomes the new culture … with the help of those among their own who will work with and perhaps for the masters in that “consciousness of kind” cooperation.

Until those unique cultures become a pastiche of the original … a blancmange confectionery of the real thing … one culture at a time till we are all looking and sounding like a Dutton, an Abbott or a Hanson or a Howard. We must revive our individual cultures within our multiculturalism … and THAT includes that most crushed of all the imported cultures: Those of the Scots, the Welsh, the Cornish and including the Celts … Look now how successful the Indigenous peoples are being against EXTREME oppression in holding and restoring their cultural tribes … It’s still one hell of a fight and it is one we must win!

Cultural Renaissance now!

Rescues, Caves and Celebrity Salvation

It all risks becoming pornographic, looped and re-run with an obsessive eye for updates and detail about despair and hope. The twenty-four hour news cycle tends to encourage this sort of thing, ever desperate for snippets, obsessively chasing the update. With a soccer team of twelve youths and their coach trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave some one kilometre below the surface, the curious, the gormless, and those with an unhealthy interest in the morbid have assumed couch position.

First came the discovery of the team by British divers after the group had gone missing for nine days. They were found on a ledge inside the Northern Thai cave system. Divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were feted as being among the best in the world, the former having been awarded an MBE for, of all things, services in cave diving.

There was much hooting and tooting in celebration, something prompted by the fact that any hope of finding them alive, according to the governor of Chiang Rai province, was nigh impossible. But the mechanics of extricating the team from the cave started to mount in complexity and desperation, bursting the initial balloon of celebration.

With 2.5 miles of flooded cave between the team and the entrance, a sense of imperilment has grown. This is compounded by a dreaded risk that adds a televisual ghastliness to the tale: the prospect of more heavy rain on the weekend, something that will foil current efforts to drain the excess water.

A village of international rescue experts including military personnel has grown around the enterprise, not to mention a vast hive of media representatives. Four questions seem to be doing the rounds: to leave the team in the cave till there is a receding of the water level (dangerous given the monsoon season); pumping out the water to an extent to enable the trapped team to wade out; teaching the youths how so scuba dive, something which would be no mean feat given the length of time it would take for them to journey out of the cave (some five hours) and their status as virginal divers; and finally, drilling into the cave system.

Thai Navy Seals have been deployed, and much help is at hand, but the goriness has not been entirely dissipated. The Navy Seal Chief Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yoo-kongkaew has been feeding the story to journalists keen to strike the optimistic note.

The Rear Admiral did not disappoint. “Now we have given food to the boys, starting with food that is easy to digest and provides high energy.” He stressed that care has been given to the youths “following the doctor’s recommendation. So do not worry, we will take care of them with our best. We will bring all of them with safety. We are now planning how to do so.” Such confidence was given a dint with the subsequent death of one of his crew, Samarn Poonan, who perished due to lack of oxygen during a dive.

One similar incident stands out to what is currently unfolding in Thailand: the initial loss, the recovery and sanctifying of the “Los 33”, the Chilean miners who became celebrities of salvation in 2010. They spent 69 days in the collapsed San Jose mine near Copiapó. Over time, a process of mythologising began to take place.

It was fame imposed on the ordinary, confected by the mere fact, as important as that fact was, that they had survived. Like Church miracle artefacts, they were vested with allure, attraction, and sheer pulling power. They were also there to be exploited, used, and interpreted. Otherwise, they were uncomplicated creatures of animal and mineral, many of whom believed that God had been the thirty-fourth miner keeping them resolute.

As the rescue effort unfolded, the minor celebrity bandwagon grew. US radio personality Ryan Seacrest sent prayers and well wishes hoping, rather insipidly, “to see everyone on the surface soon.” The clownish Irish song duo of Jedward sent their own message of tinny idiocy: “All the miners remember it’s not about mining it’s about finding dinosaurs and dragons.” The late English presenter Keith Chegwin expressed some mock shame that “Dig Brother” had ended. “Wonder what Chile 4 will put on now.”

The miners would subsequently add a touch of mysticism to the rescue, essentially sacralising it. Jorge Galleguillos spoke of seeing “a white species … a butterfly” falling “like a paper” into the mine. “Faith is nourishment … Faith is life.” Stories abounded of how medical ailments were healed by prayer. The drill used to tunnel to the miners was guided, according to miner Ariel Ticona, “by the hand of God”.

The miners became the heralds of a modern success story. They were invited as guests of honour to Manchester United. They did the US chat show circuit. As a statement of pure fantasy, they went to that composite of fantasy, Disneyland. Then, for another sort of miracle dream work, they ventured to the Holy Land. Expenses were footed.

Amidst the celebratory orgy typical of myth came a few sceptical qualifiers. The degree of medical danger posed to them, for instance, had been given undue embellishment. Dr. James Polk, deputy chief medical officer and chief of space medicine at NASA put this down to “not having all the facts, and things that people did not know about the situation”.

The workers were, for instance, trapped at sea level and could hardly have suffered from decompression sickness. The miners were less confined as was portrayed, able to continue their labours underground. Nor were they at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. “Chilean authorities,” according to Polk, “anticipated this, and they gave them a large dose of Vitamin D3 as part of their nutritional supplementation.”

Many of the rescued miners subsequently faced the ruination of imposed fame. Mario Sepúlveda spoke of “fame but not money. It is the worst possible thing.” The camera that had given him and his colleagues celebrity had also consumed them. His world remains one of anti-depressants and a return to mining, where the darkness comforts.

The “Los 33” effect is very much at play regarding this young football team even as the rescue crews are busying themselves on tactics. The big and the moneyed are seeking their place in the sun, offering advice.  Some are constructive; others are simply sentimental. Elon Musk, according to a spokesman, has revealed that negotiations are underway on supplying location technology using Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or Boring Co. technology for digging purposes, or providing Tesla Inc. Powerwall battery packs. But to every little bit of brain storming comes the deadly qualifier: engaging such services as that of Boring Co., with its colossal drills, might simply be too dangerous.

Even now, the young team has drawn on the heartstrings of the football community, encouraging a measure of faith. Liverpool Football manager Jürgen Klopp, in an official video intended for the youngsters and their coach, spoke of “hoping every second that you see the daylight again. You’ll never walk alone.” Such language, heartfelt yet tinged with a sense of funereal doom.

“We don’t feel for one minute we are free”

Samad is a writer from Pakistan and an administrator of Writing Through Fences. Obeida is an auto-mechanic from Syria. Samad speaks with Obeida about life in Australia’s immigration prison camps on Manus Island as the only remaining Syrian.

This interview was conducted in the East Lorengau Prison Camp on Manus Island.

Samad: Thank you so much, Obeida for your time and to be here. I saw your interview which you gave to Janet in 2015. I saw that, and I read it and it is very painful and I am very sorry for that so my best wishes will be with you.

Living in the new prison camps:

Samad: Obeida, my friend, first of all I would like to ask you how are you feeling and how is the new accommodation?

Obeida: Here no-one gives me help because I’m alone here. Even I asked for help from the security or from anyone here, but they didn’t help. First, they put me with someone with mental problem. That person tried to set fire to the room when I was asleep. You know, after that I leave the room, and no-one give me help. This is what I feel: I feel alone here.

Samad: So you don’t have any room here?

Obeida: For now I have a room but not forever.

Samad: Ah it is just temporary room.

Obeida: Yes, it is, just for now.

Being Syrian on Manus:

Samad: So you said you are the only Syrian here and as you are only one person here so you don’t have any appearance from your community here. How do you feel to be alone like this?

Obeida: When you feel alone you cannot do anything. You be with yourself just thinking. Thinking about your family and what they do in Syria. My family’s still in Syria. Always there. Thinking. Just thinking.

Last 24 days on Lombrum:

Samad: So I will ask about the 24 days when Australia left us without food, without water, without support and they just left us alone in Lombrum. It was horrible days. It was really horrible days and we are still suffering that pain. Can you describe how do you feel about that, and how did you survive that, and do you have suffering that come from that?

Obeida: You know, the Australian government they tried to kill us at that time, but they put PNG as the face – little man do whatever they want. PNG they tried to kill us but in the end the media went out. We remained strong at that time and we showed all the world all the pain that Australia does to us. I was feeling not safe because we don’t have parents, we don’t have food, we don’t have water. We tried to contain the rain water and we drink it. Very hard days.

Samad: Yeah, it was very hard days.

Obeida: Yeah. We don’t have this stuff. Maybe the animals will eat us at that time. Really. They did try to kill us.

Australia and the situation for people in and from Syria:

Samad: I want to ask you about, you know, the world knows now that Syrian is now a war zone and a couple of countries are accepting refugees from Syria including Australia. I saw in the news that 12,000 people will be accepted by Australian government, whether they are really accepted or not I don’t know.

Obeida: Yeah, I never believe the Australian government. I never believe what I hear from Australia. Never believe they have one person who help humanity.

When Australia says they will take 12,000 Syrian families, please think about the off-shore people because you have Syrians there. You have one person in Manus and two families in Nauru. It is only a few people who come and ask, ‘We need your help. We need safety’. You will torture the Syrian people and in the media you say you will help 12,000 people or 10,000 families.

Samad: Yes, it is really unjust. They are taking people from Syria but Syrian people are here in offshore and they are not accepting them, so this is unfair. I’m so sorry for that.

So you still have contact with your family in Syria?

Obeida: I have contact with my family, but you know, with the situation it is very hard. But yeah, sometimes I contact with my family. But just family. My friends, I lost them. I don’t know where my friends are now.

Samad: You don’t know about your friends?

Obeida: Some of them is dead, and some of them in prison and some of them I don’t know.

Samad: So where is your family now? Are they in Syria or somewhere else?

Obeida: Still in Syria.

Samad: Are they safe now?

Obeida: I can’t say yes, and I can’t say no.

Samad: We heard about USA use some kind of weapons, chemical weapons – we don’t know. Did it affect your friends or family?

Obeida: Yeah. No, it is a little bit away from my family.

About love:

Samad: Obayda I have one more question. Do you love someone or something the most in your life?

Obeida: I love freedom. But I don’t think we get freedom. This is not freedom somewhere else in PNG. It is not freedom to settle in danger. We will not have freedom in Australia or somewhere else.

I loved one girl in Syria so talked about marrying me and we got engaged.

Samad: So was it love engaged or someone organised for you?

Obeida: No. It was love engaged.

Samad: So you guys met in Syria? And then you came here and you got engaged 2014?

Obeida: Yes, because we were not thinking we live in here long time – like now for 5 years. We don’t know when we will be free.

Samad. So that is the reason she break up with you?

Obeida: Yeah.

Samad: When you broke up with her how was your feelings? Of course, you were in Lombrum then, so how was your feeling?

Obeida: It is hard to explain this feeling.

Samad: Yes, especially when you were in Lombrum, a terrible place.

Obeida: Yeah, and you love someone, and you cannot see them or touch them for long long time. And after that you lost them.

Samad: So how can you describe the pain?

Obeida: You know that time I think by then it’s better for me you know, at that time. Yeah but after these long years I try to forget.

Samad: You suffer too much my friend. I am sorry for this.


Samad: Do you like any music. What kind of music?

Obeida: Yes, I like to listen to English music sometime. Sometime Arabic. I love to hear the English music more than Arabic. You know, sometimes in the night you like to listen to sad music because of this situation you know. When you are happy, you will listen to romantic music or something happy.

Samad: Yes, I can say music is our only friend that we have got here that can give us a little bit of happiness and strength.

On Friends:

Samad: One more thing I wanted to ask you about Tiger [Tiger was a young stray dog that Obayde adopted]. He was our friend. Especially for you.

Obeida: Yes, he was my best friend.

Samad: Yes, he was your best friend. I see in photos you are with him and he with you every time. Yes, rest in peace our friend, Tiger. How do you feel about losing this friend?

Obeida: When I lose him, when I lost my friend I put my heart with him, in the ground with him. I don’t feel myself here. Because when I walk, always Tiger was with me. When I go somewhere, Tiger was with me. Really, he’s my best friend. I lost something from my heart. You know I think half of my heart is gone.

Samad: Tiger was such a relation. He was like our friend. The whole compound friend.

Obeida: Yes, he was everyone’s.

Samad: Especially he was close with you. So, you don’t feel safe when you go out now.

Obeida: Yeah, because before you had a friend walking with you. Like Tiger was my friend. A friend makes you strong when you are walking with them. Now I never feel safe.

Samad: I am sorry it is terrible news. I hope you find adopt another dog or something.

Obeida: Especially in this country because you don’t feel safe from the security. You will never feel safe because the security will … attack us, take you to prison or try to kill us, already kill four or five friends, you know.

Chauka prison:

Samad: I heard you had been taken to Chauka in 2015 I think.

Obeida: Yes, I go to Chauka prison and also the Lorengau prison.

Samad: How many days you were in Chauka?

Obeida: Maybe for 3 days. One time 24 hours.

Samad: What was the reason they take you to Chauka?

Obeida: You know, one time they take me to Chauka because I have – you remember we have one sick man was Syrian? He had long time been sick and he had a broken nose from Syria. He was very very sick, and I tried to help him. Security were beating him. I just tried to protect his body and security arrest me and take me to Chauka.

Samad: Where is he now?

Obeida: He’s back to Syria.

Samad: He’s been deported or …?

Obeida: No no, he’s gone back because he’s so sick and Australia they didn’t help him …

Samad: So he’s gone back. How is he?

Obeida: You know his father is dead from the war. In his city it is so bad. Very very dangerous.

Samad: So you were trying to protect him when the security were beating him.

Obeida: Yes, so they take me to Chauka

Samad: So can you try to explain the Chauka, what kind of place was that like?

Obeida: So, Chauka is like a [shipping] container and there you don’t have water, you don’t have food.

Samad: So do they give you toilet, no water, no bathroom?

Obeida: No, they have a bathroom but, you know, like even if you have a dog they will never use this bathroom, you know.

Samad: Yeah, I saw some pictures. That toilet’s terrible.

Obeida: Yes, they give you hot water. You can drink only one bottle of water in a day.

Samad: Only one bottle on a hot day!

Obeida: Hot day under the sun. Inside the container, under the sun, oh, you know if you sleep it’s like you swim in the water because of the sweat, you know. They give you only little little food. Not allowed to have fan or air con.

Samad: When you were in Chauka did security guys beat you or give you some problem?

Obeida: No just talking too bad, you know.

Samad: So they give you some pain with their words.

Obeida: Yes, by words. They never beat me but when they are talking bad with you it is like they beat you, you know. If they beat you it is better than talking with you badly. You cannot do anything, you are a prisoner.

Samad: Playing with feelings and trying to give you negative words to make you upset, to make you sad?

Obeida: Yeah.

Hopes and motivations:

Samad: What is your hope and motivation that keeps you up and strong?

Obeida: My family and doing something for them.

Samad: So it’s a really good thing. Because your family keep you up and you are strong and still thinking what you can do. So I really hope you can do something for your family and that you can be with them in a safe country. I pray for you.

Samad: What is your dreams or goals when you are released and get to a safe country? What will be your dreams?

Obeida: I want to help people. To help the people who other people torture them, try to help them, the poor people. This my dream.

Samad: It was really nice talking to you Obieda. So what will be the three things you want to do for the world it you could?

Obeida: The first thing I try to bring peace for Syria. I hope the refugees will not be suffering in the compound and in the centre. I love to see the refugees free. To see country like Australia help the refugees; not torturing the refugees, not put them in prison, but help them. It’s not a compound. We are in a prison. We don’t feel for one minute we are free. To see the refugees are OK, have a good life. One thing else, I hope that all the world love each other, you know, thinking only about love, not thinking about religion, or the colour, you are black or white.

Samad: No racism, yeah.

Obeida: You know this is how they brought us, this is how they bring us here, only thinking about religion. I hope all the people thinking only for love. Nothing about the religion or colour.

Samad: So you want to do three things for the world. To build peace in Syria, stop the persecution of refugees, like you want to end all the detention centres, people who suffer in detention and the third will be love. You want to make love, no racism, nothing like that, no torture in the name of religion. That’s really inspiring. Thank you very much for being with me today and it was really inspiring to be with you again. I am pleased that you are with me and yes, we know the situation and how it is. It is a terrible situation.

I think we have finished now what was in our mind and what was in my mind and I can say you are very positive person and a gentleman and I hope this detention will end soon. We are still hopeful for that because we have to. We have to be positive every time so again thank you very much Obieda. It was very nice.

Obeida: Thank you.

Defeat in Sochi: Australia’s World Cup Campaign Ends

“Disappointing is the word. Empty is the other word.” (Mile Jedenak, Jun 26, 2018).

Australia was always the outsider in the tournament, and a loitering one at that. Its fans, and loyal commentators, thought otherwise. In Kazan, the journalists gave the impression that the so-called Socceroos were Lotharios to be admired, wonders to be embraced. A story went around that Australia had become some substitute Netherlands side, a touch far fetched though enticingly sentimental.

In Sochi, such sentimentality became hackneyed and wooden. Australia needed to beat another unfancied side, Peru, and hope for a good French performance against the other group member Denmark, to have a chance to scrape into the last sixteen. The exercise was ultimately an academic one: France failed to score against Denmark, as did Denmark against France. Peru and Australia would be leaving the tournament.

When it came to the group matches, there were chances, means, and hopes garlanded with prospect. The Danes were struck by the fortitude of the Socceroos, both sides squaring the ledger after ninety minutes. Such is the nature of football and its arithmetically perverted odds: it distorts to a charming degree and affords comfort in the most unlikely of cases.

The reality is all too clear: the Socceroos have been flat. Be it in execution, delivery and generation, the team has been operating in discordant assembly, its barbs either hidden or totally absent. The gloriously bearded captain Mile Jedinak may well have scored from his two penalty shots, but finding a goal from open play has been less likely than a koala sighting in Kazan.

Much of the commentary around the match against Peru was based on the suspended meaningless of a moment. “Peru scored with their one and only shot of the half,” chirped a dissatisfied former Australian goal keeper, Mark Schwarzer. The context and qualifier follows: “Socceroos have looked the more threatening and dangerous going forward. I think we’re unlucky to be behind.”  Luck remains the emptiest of alibis in football, but it is appealing as a refuge of last resort.

The old tricks of the disgruntled show find their place: the performers who did well in a village styled pedestrianism but came up without the result; the injustice of the fine-tuned shot (how dare they!) that penetrated and punctured all; and the sense of god awful luck; or its lack, if you are an Australian soccer tragedian.

The broadcast had to emphasise failed potential, promise gone wrong. Another smattering from the Optus Sport Twitter feed, of which there were many: “Tom Rogic was almost unstoppable … until Pedro Gallese go in the way.” But the despoiler of the show was Andrew Carillo, who decided to shine when necessary.  In the second half, Paolo Geurrero added another punch to the misery. As the gradual unravelling of a team was taking place, the side punditry was warming up: Would Tim Cahill play? Was he warming up?

This is the soppy nature of World Cup feeling and Australians were feeling it in abundance. “A dagger in the Socceroos’ heart,” came another post on the Optus Sport Twitter feed, which is good to see, given that Optus proved fairly incapable of showing anything dagger related at all in broadcasting its complement of matches to Australian audiences.

In terms of football, Australia remains a country in cryogenic storage, archived in the pocket of potential, the slot of future expectation. The same cannot be said about the women, who seem to have outdone their male counterparts by some stomping margin. The World Game, as it has been marketed through sporting channels in the country, has yet to globally impose its omnipresent sense upon the populace. There are still many competing codes.

In terms of team make-up, there is no excuse why this population located at the base of Asia should not muster something that moves, at the very least, into the elimination stage of the tournament. Players such as the green but delightfully promising Daniel Arzani were kept back as delicate porcelain samples. Tim Cahill, the terror of set pieces and some delicious moves in the previous World Cup, was treated as a worn talisman who might, given the right moment, have emerged from wheelchair royalty. Deployed all too late, his appearance against Peru seemed but a meek and ineffectual swansong.

In a World Cup where goals have come with graceful ease and fluency, Australia has struggled with shots. Build-ups did come, mounted with some grit and fortitude; there were even times in the drawn match against Denmark that suggested something of a blooding, a growing in confidence. But other teams wised up to the glaring disability, leaving the Socceroos as mutes before a noisy and insistent chorus.

“We played well,” came the redundant summation from former Socceroo John Aloisi, “we were the better team tonight.” Cries were registered at the final whistle that the first goal from Peru was inflicted from an offside situation. But what mattered was that Peru did score, which will be etched in sporting history. Same with France in its narrow victory, helped by the freakish nature of providence itself. In the context of tournament matches, that is all that matters.

Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel: The Anguish for Lost Buildings

We came across a skeleton of a building bristling with warnings: Asbestos, Stay Out; Danger, Do Not Enter. The sense was that entering this site of history in Townsville, North Queensland, would kill you. And damn well it would have, sending you keeling over in fumes, damning you even if, on entering, you had hoped to see a miniature copy of the nubile Chloe overseeing the meal counter, taken from a painting that resides in holy majesty at Young and Jacksons Pub in Melbourne. The Victoria Park Hotel, it seemed, was no more, consumed by hellish fire.

Funereal rites for burned buildings are as significant as they are for humans. For within them, there existed men and women who flitted about, performed their tasks, discharged their duties. People caroused, gossiped, cooked, ate, defecated, and fornicated. A life history, in a fashion.

Grief produces misinformed and paranoid children; anger much the same. Such offspring demand the answers that only deities could provide, a record of evidence that no mortal could satisfy. The account from the Townsville Bulletin on this tragic burning screams of suggestion and theory: there were three in the hotel near the moment when the sparks began (around midnight); one went for a walk (not in of itself odd, though teasingly curious, given that few people walk in that part of town), but they came back. Were the other two burning Rome as the other fiddled on the stroll?

Then there is the sense that another story was humming away in the background, enticing alternative explanations and hypotheses. The building was up for sale – some $2.5 million. Ideas do the rounds, and soon, the tangled cliché of an explanation comes to provide some false certitude: the insurance job, or a vengeful rebuke.

This does not need actual knowledge, merely enthusiastic speculation. But the implications in a town where the heritage building is deemed the enemy of modern and vulgar construction projects is hard to avoid.

Well moneyed history buffs should have rushed in with the enthusiasm of an Antiques Road Show judge to purchase this wonder; the hotel was a model piece of clumsy adaptation and glorious modification for public use. It spoke, in that characteristically broken note, of old Australia, the unforgivingly cruel and brutal settlements of north Queensland in the 1880s, the White Man’s goal hewn into a remorseless earth. For here, there would be drink, relief, and rest.

In design, it was an installation art piece – of sorts. Nothing of the Florentine about it (no trace of the geometrically dogmatic Leon Battista Alberti, nor lined purity of Filippo Brunelleschi) but there was effort, like so many architectural experimenters in North Queensland, to create something handsome and easy on the eye. In this alien landscape, you adapt, tinker, mould, bruise the dry earth, temper resistance, conquer the variables. From the street, it had perpendicular forms that would have inspired sighs from the neat minded.

The toilets were conventionally ordinary, reeking with the testosterone meanderings of provincial Queensland; the timber reeked of historical readings and additions, the bric-a-brac of lateral thinking. There was a sense of the gaudy, the lights taking you back to retro disco.

Everything else was fiercely authentic: the canines outside waiting for their owners, anguished by neglect, lapping from water bowls; the all-female meetings at dinner celebrating, not merely their triumph of being alive but the absence of the Man and the more vicious plural (husbands, sons, man children), those irritating sport freaks who find rugby more arousing than heterosexual banter. And families – and so many: the birthdays, the anniversaries, the special occasions.

To go into this joy of a structure, this wood citadel promising libation, would be to find yourself in a drinking hole of garrulous louts in smeared singlets and stained shorts resistant to the wash; coarse fortune tellers and liver-corroded impresarios keen to noise you to death; and bar tenders with a fluffy grace in serving drinks with deft soft hands; strong women capable of breaking backs and building the Tower of Babel.

One stood out, a rock strong heroine cut with just enough humour to be cut from the script of Stephen Sondheim, garnished with mad hair and touched with lipstick. She steered the show, directed the performance, insisting that the “Verdello” (Verdelho pulverised by Australian pronunciation) was the best, and the absolute best, and making sure that the other ladies performed accordingly in understanding and discharging the orders at hand.

To go to the side of lout land and rough trade was to find yourself on an odd assortment of cafeteria style seating that should have revolted. Instead, you could only marvel at a menu that suggested promise – and danger. The fillet mignon tended to inspire.  Portions were enormous and challenging.

Now, gone. Disappeared in an asbestos released conflagration. But from the great structures of life comes prospects for renewal. A new project, perhaps. In the European tradition of churches, buildings lost to fire were spiritual promises rather than actual regrets; for in those charred remains came seedlings of promise. The Victoria Park Hotel may be no different and there is already talk of salvation.

Four principal elements of life

Earth, Air, Fire and Water … The humanist side of politics see them as spiritual elements that need to be respected even when being put to use … The corporate side of politics see them as an opportunity to capitalise upon for personal enrichment … and there is the left – right divide.

But mother nature is a strange beast, caring little for the creatures that shelter from or make use of her bounty … whether they use it judicially or waste it profusely, she is what is described as an immovable force, neither sympathetic to cruelty nor appreciative of kindness … she just is. And it goes to measure that they who will waste her resources to fulfil their own greed and treasure house is benefited as much by the same chance of luck and fortune as those who hold her gifts dear to their heart.

There is, however, a price to pay for the wanton destruction of a natural resource … Humanity, being the most guilty of this crime, has learned from so many social collapses and natural disasters that the limits of endurance of a natural system of supply can only be pushed to a certain limit before it hurts … and hurts sorely. Humanity has learned, but alas, not applied that lesson … Humanity esteems that wisdom, praises it, builds idols to it … but does not emulate it … and can there be anything more pathetic than a subordinate giving false flattery to an overseer in the hope for material reward?

Earth, Air, Fire and Water … these were the elements that those Germanic pioneers used as the axiom for their lives out here in the South Australian hinterland, and we can use their trials and tribulations as metaphorical example of that ideological divide … The basic truths that they brought from their homelands in the valleys and on the river banks of the Silesian and Pomeranian soils when they migrated with entire villages to a new land, a new horizon that would allow them the freedoms to pursue their own unique life-style and culture. There was no other truth to their lives and those basic truths were shared with and abided next to their deep Godly faith … it was life and death to them.

Their Earth was the dry, shallow Mallee soils, or the more fertile hills and shallow valleys of the Barossa Ranges … Their Air was the winds that tore through their hard-won crops and orchards … Fire was ever their watch-word that could in a moment wipe out their entire dreams and Water was such a thirst that it went either to drought or to flood .. It was these elements that they held in deep but reverent superstition, where many festivals celebrating a good harvest or lamenting hard times was a hang-over from their pagan past and revered and feared with equal passion.

But there was a contrast in ideology at work in that new colony between the objectives of the colonial administrators and the pioneer settlers. Part of a new philosophy of capitalist exploitation. The one more keen to profit from their speculation at the expense of the land (Earth) with the official doctrine of “trees don’t pay taxes”, the burning of cut-wood for energy and charcoal fuel (Air), the smelting of ores and powering of steam engines (Fire) and the last (Water), such a valuable commodity that could be measured in a price per gallon, held and levied as a commodity.

Who would win this tug-of-war between the basic necessities of life and the profit of corporations? … Of course, it was never in question … They who command the power of regulation and jurisdiction make the laws and enforce them. But the laws they made took little account of those four vital elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water that the farmers staked their survival upon and so the taxes, the interest rates and the harsh conditions of both the leases of land and the environment took their toll … So the pioneers sweated their too small parcels of land, broke their families hearts, condemned to frightful birthing moments and illness and disease, and broke their own backs in doing so and after several generations were scattered to the farther reaches of the new colonies and their leaseholds sold and resold to neighbours to increase their own acreage and the chance of financial survival in an unforgiving environment, till the pioneers finally got the hang of the soils, the knowledge of the weather patterns and the chances of fire and made a go of their estates, only to be once again reviled for their “German-ness” in the time of the Great War.

All those place-names, those familiarities that gave their new locations a feeling of “home” … hamlets and streams, the hills and forests, the valleys and the tracks … names rolled off in a German tongue now culled from the maps by a ludicrously named ”Department of Nomenclature” … to victimise those hardy farmers and tradespeople who in reality had little intention of revolution as they came to the colony to escape those same warring empires … and even had less hope of achieving any uprising even had they the inclination … But still they were held in suspicion, partly because of their close-held cultural beliefs and their singular Lutheranism … one of the very reasons they fled their homeland … and so they stood next in line to the Indigenous peoples to witness their identities erased with the stroke of a clerk’s pen and substituted for a ruling nation’s whim, a mere idiosyncrasy.

But those hardy peasants, stubbornly steeled in their beliefs by centuries of certainty, rose above mere bureaucracy, their offspring gaining more and more credibility in agricultural pursuits .. orchards, cropping, animal husbandry and wine-making until they were the major force in the adjacent valleys and flats … Their family names now a marque of distinction in the art of vigneron and fine produce. No more rejected for their origins, where once the names of “Those who Served” on local plinth and stone memorial boasted a majority of Anglo-Celtic surnames. By the time of the second world war, these Germanic families heralded the majority of servicemen and women.

Now the object of those who considered themselves “born to rule” was how to bring this rising demographic “into the tent” … into the arms of a conservative colonial ruling class, when in truth those very same “lesser aristocrats” of a lower status than those they emulated in snobbery, if not in capacity, would rather see these “foreigners” remain in a servile state and managed like their own country-folk, destroyed of their culture and native inclinations by the brutality of the British industrial revolution … robbed of their heritage by a rapacious middle-class … so they sought out those members of the community most aligned with their own ambitions … most agreeable to their own “consciousness of kind” … those later arrivals who were able to ride in on the coat-tails of their hard-working country people … ”the Men who come behind”, as Henry Lawson wrote:

“There’s a class of men (and women) who are always on their guard —
Cunning, treacherous, suspicious — feeling softly — grasping hard —
Brainy, yet without the courage to forsake the beaten track —
Cautiously they feel their way behind a bolder spirit’s back …”

Better educated, more financially secure, more than willing to bend their culture and will to a ruling class appreciative of a “doffed cap and the tugged forelock “ … they are easy to find, easier to corrupt and cheaper to reward … divide and rule, a tactic as old as empires and as certain of as time itself.

Those suitable applicants were initiated into the rituals of governance .. the conditions of rule, the bias of social superiority that would lead to the possibilities of wealth and glittering prizes. Some of these old family names were altered, letters and umlauts dropped that showed their origins as too vulgar … too close to the Earth … too close to a past of struggle and woe … These new inductees needed to be “blooded” in class warfare, with a knowledge of which side must always “win” … So from the end of that second war, we see many names that once graced the lists of “desperate needs dole”, now, in this new century, carved in the foundation stones of civic buildings and raised in toast at dinners of the Chambers of Commerce in the capital city, while their “lesser” cousins marvelled the crowds at local and national sport grounds with their dexterity with ball, bat and other skilled sports.

But their parents and their grandparents and forebears right back to the first years of the colony have their names carved into a different, more humble marble and stone … Courageous testaments cut in lonely, abandoned church-yard cemeteries … many with their still-born or short-lived children buried next to them, to keep them company into eternity and perhaps the only recognition being a short note in the obituaries of another’s old diary or the fading memory of a aged descendant, themselves still keen to test the four elements that continuously challenge those with close and honest affinity to the eternity of the land:

Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

The Food of Movement: Anthony Bourdain’s Universal Eater

Bruce Chatwin considered movement the indispensable feature of the human species. Sedentary natures killed through asphyxiation; a refusal to move suggested an acceptance of death. Walking he considered a virtue; tourism the ultimate sin. For the late Anthony Bourdain, a chef turned walker and explorer, no dish was odd enough or peculiar to be avoided or exiled by palate.

Bourdain was certainly of similar inclination to Chatwin – in some respects. “If I’m an advocate of anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Foods and rites may well be seen as communal acts for the new to be initiated into. But a modern world obsessed with nutritional counters, diet and concerns makes adventurism, quite literally in some cases, hard to stomach. But the wiry Bourdain seemed to have a cast iron stomach, a body impregnable to that various kitchens he sampled. The only thing he would not have eaten, he once quipped, was a cheese burger from Johnny Rockets.

The world of eating and dining can also be hierarchical and exclusive, pegged against an inverse relationship between diminishing returns on a plate and the amount that is splashed out at the till. Common dining remains in a titanic struggle with the elite nibblers who would surely die of starvation in the name of impressions and appearances. While Bourdain was not immune to the Michelin star disease, he was accommodating of a stunning variety of culinary forms. “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.” Those were the words former US President Barack Obama in recalling a meeting with Bourdain as part of the Parts Unknown series airing on CNN.

His interest in writing about food was also pointedly against the food snobs and the babbler of high end consumption. A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals was a favourite of his, describe by Bourdain as an account by “an enthusiastic lover of food and wine, very knowledgeable but never a snob”.

The restaurant is an ideal spectacle for sociological study. “The man who founded the first restaurant,” observed Brillat-Savarin, “must have been a genius endowed with profound insight into human nature.” Those manning that haven were the chefs, those gargoyles and creators with the power of creativity – or not – to fashion appearances.  Bourdain, however, never forgot that aesthetics was subordinate to the cravings of the belly.

Such a creature was Bourdain whose quarter century as a New York chef served a plate full of delicious, manic and delightfully crafted experiences in Kitchen Confidential.  In that account published in 2000, Bourdain suggests the aptness of military metaphor in describing the kitchen, a point as sharp as the weapons wielded. Battles are fought, and lost – most of the restaurants he found himself working for went broke. Wounds are inflicted, bloodshed.

Cooking habits are given colourful description, suggesting that diners should be imperilled by the chef’s all-too-innovative short cuts.  “If you are one of those people who cringe at the thought of strangers fondling your food, you shouldn’t go out to eat.”  Meals on the assembly line will have “dozens of sweaty fingers” poking, prodding, stroking and shaping. The meal that induces salivation is bound to have a dark, even hideous side.

He also offers the advice that should be part of any diner’s canon: avoid ordering fish on Mondays like the plague, having lingered from the previous Friday. Most definitely avoid any temptation to get the mussels which “are allowed to wallow in their foul-smelling piss in the bottom of a reach-in”.

Bourdain, according to initial reports, seems to have taken his own life in a hotel near Strasbourg while engaged in making another instalment of Parts Unknown. The recounting of responses to his death and discussions in tribute pieces inevitably go soppy, drenched by the concerns that the taking of his own life was, essentially, unpardonable. Or at the very least, he should have been discouraged, the darkness expelled by proper counsel and sagacious words.

“Suicide,” goes a piece in CNN, “is a growing problem in the United States.” The report cites a survey released on Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suicide rates have spiked by 25 per cent across the country over the two decades ending in 2016. That his death caused tremors of despair and loss is an entirely sensible reaction: such gourmands should, on some level, be revered for making food, and food chat, a joy. But Bourdain lived his life so utterly chocked with nutrients, experiences and movement, leaving the eater hopeful that the cravings of the belly are universal and, when satiated, give peace, and peace of mind.

Silk Road Solutions: Emergent Land Bridge from the Far East

By Denis Bright

China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) are an unqualified plus for the global economy and improved living standards for more than half of humankind between the Far East, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Australia signed up to support the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) despite pressure from the Obama Administration. Hugh White of the Sydney Morning Herald correctly noted that participation in AIIB projects was a very crucial test of Australia’s capacity of independence within the US Global Alliance.

Three years later the momentum of China’s BRIs is being translated into new road and rail corridors, fuel pipelines and electronic communications.

Charlie Campbell’s feature article talked up the positives in BRI initiatives for Time Magazine:

Formerly known as One Belt One Road, it’s a rekindling of the ancient Silk Road through a staggeringly ambitious plan to build a network of highways, railways and pipelines linking Asia via the Middle East to Europe and south through Africa.

The economic land “belt” takes cargo, in large part via Khorgos, through Eurasia. A maritime “road” links coastal Chinese cities via a series of ports to Africa and the Mediterranean. A total of 900 separate projects have been earmarked at a cost of $900 billion, according to the China Development Bank.

There’s the $480 million Lamu deep-sea port in Kenya, which will eventually be connected via road, railway and pipeline to landlocked South Sudan and Ethiopia and right across Africa to Cameroon’s port of Douala.

A new $7.3 billion pipeline from Turkmenistan will bring China an extra 15 billion cubic meters of gas annually. Not since the hordes of Genghis Khan galloped west in the 13th century have such sweeping transnational ambitions emanated from China, though instead of ashes and sun-bleached bones, this time the invaders plan to leave harbors, pipelines and high-speed rail in its wake.

In a break from the succession of bad news from across the Middle East, there is interest from Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Syria in new associations with SCO.

Recent reporting in the Jerusalem Post is favourable to China’s BRI initiatives:

Israel could play a pivotal role in China’s BRI as a connector between Asia, Africa and Europe both as a land bridge via Jordan and a sea-land bridge from the Red Sea. The BRI presents a unique opportunity for Israel to broaden and diversify its economy. As a critical transit point on China’s New Silk Road, Israel would become an essential part of the global trading ecosystem.

BRI is one initiative which is supported by both Israel and Moslem countries of different persuasions. Progressive economic diplomacy has an instant appeal. SCO strategies are different. They reject the excessively strategic focus of NATO expansion from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. SCO has taken on Turkey, Egypt and Afghanistan as new associate states.

The predominantly strategic focus of NATO’s outreach has failed to win hearts and minds in Kyrgyzstan.

Once a NATO transit node for the supply of NATO troops and material for the Afghan War, Kyrgyzstan is now a full member of SCO. The Diplomat recorded the largely un-noticed departure of US military installations:

The United States closed its only Central Asian airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, formally handing back control to the government of Kyrgyzstan, which has been increasingly aligning itself with Russia.

The Transit Centre at Manas was especially important for U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts in Afghanistan, as it was the first and last stop for soldiers entering Central Asia en route to fight in Afghanistan. Additionally, it was home to a logistics and refuelling operation run by the United States Air Force for the war in Afghanistan. The base at Manas was set up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks with Russia’s consent and has transported 5.3 million military servicemen from 26 countries in and out the Afghanistan conflict theatre. It became especially important as a transportation hub after 2005, when the United States was evicted from its other base in the region, in Uzbekistan.

The quest for alternatives to the shackles imposed by the IMF has extended to Jordan where Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has just been installed to defer austerity measures and tax increases to reduce the national debt (The Jordan Times, 7 June 2018).

While Israel’s centre-right government supports current BRI initiatives, Israel is still unable to distance itself from a more emergent Iran in Middle Eastern politics. This is a difficult obstacle as Iran is the crucial transport hub on planned transport routes from the Far East through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkistan to the Mediterranean Coast, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

Even Japan has a place in supportive BRI maritime investment initiatives which will feed containerised freight into continental land bridges. The centre-right Abe Government supports the major bridge links to connect Northern Hokkaido, Japan with Russia through the island of Sakhalin:

Russia and Japan are in “serious discussions” to link the two countries with a bridge that could allow rail travel all the way from London to Tokyo. The proposed 28-mile (45 kilometre) bridge would join Cape Crillon on the Russian island of Sakhalin to Cape Soya at the northern tip of Hokkaido island, Japan.

A shorter bridge or tunnel that has been mooted from the Khabarovsk region on the Russian mainland to Sakhalin would eventually allow an uninterrupted rail journey of about 6,000 miles from western Europe to Hokkaido via the Baikal-Amur mainline and the Trans-Siberian railway.

Representatives from the SCO countries are currently assembling in the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao for this year’s 18th annual Summit. The SCO Summit has an expanding network of observer states and dialogue partners including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia and Nepal. The guest attendee representatives also include representatives from ASEAN, the UN Organizations and Turkmenistan (Xinhuanet, 8 June 2017). Expect future participation from Japan and the Korean Peninsula in SCO economic initiatives.

Australia’s representatives on the Board of Governors of the AIIB gave supported the Bank’s infrastructure investments (Board of Governor’s Annual Meeting 2016). Statistics are now dated but Australia’s initial subscription to the AIIB approached $4 billion in 2015 which gave Australia a 3.5 per cent stake in voting rights at meetings of the board of governors. New Zealand made a significantly higher contribution to the AIIB.

Given the unpopularity of President Trump at home and abroad, here’s hoping that Labor’s National Conference in December 2018 might swap commitment to progressive economic diplomacy to out-dated approaches to re-militarization of foreign policies and costly sabre rattling in the South China Sea.

Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in advancing pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.


Dazzled by Tech: Universities, Googlification and Microsoft

The mechanical, robotic striving of university politburos and their jack boot managers have always been interesting when it comes to one particular topic: the role of technology and its adoption. For it is in technology that the mediocre paper clip shuffler can claim to have achieved something – on someone else’s back, naturally.

The shift to Google by universities as a storage and communication mechanism was something taken with a breezy obliviousness to its implications. For Google, it was a magical boon: mass concentration of staff and student data, cloud facilities, the magic of information. Such decisions are generally taken without asking the staff who actually use it – the nature of university management is piously anti-democratic, with all the usual balloons of sentiment about faux consultation and the like.

Google’s move into the university sector with a mixture of predatory zeal and seductive wooing was inexorable, mimicking the cyber colonisation drive of Steve Jobs at Apple (“computers are bicycles for the mind”).

In schools, Google has built a relentless, unquestioned empire, taking root in such systems as Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the United States. As the New York Times noted in May 2017, such an event heralded “the Googlification of the classroom.” Teachers became Google grunts advertising products to other schools, bypassing school district officials. Students became Google converts, effectively disabled from considering any alternatives and indifferent to pure knowledge. They have become the new worker bees.

University managers were tickled and thrilled by the jargon, the applications, the idea of productivity, sending out such messages to staff as follows:

“The College is Going Google! What does this mean? How will it impact teaching and learning at The College? Many K-12 school districts are using Google Apps for Education, providing their students with access to Google productivity tools as early as primary school. Students coming to The College in the next five years may never have opened Microsoft Word, but will be familiar with the sharing, collaborating, and publishing with Google tools. Are you ready?”

Such gush and wobbly prose characterised the nature of such unwanted missives. (Most staff, at least the sentient ones, could not have cared less). And Google was certainly winning over its competitors, most notably Microsoft. In 2011, it scored the coup of coups by netting University of California at Berkeley.

The Californian giant displayed those usual budgetary considerations typical of such decisions: Google, for one, was cheaper and easier on the bottom line. Office 365 would also require the initial installation and configuration of local software as a preliminary for any migration to be effectuated. “Office 365 offers an integrated experience for on-premise and cloud users,” went the explanatory document comparing Google and Office 365. “This comes at a greater ongoing, operational expense and complexity of maintaining central infrastructure.”

Google, on the other hand, would be able to do amply more with significantly less – and at goggle eyed speed. “A UC Berkeley migration to Google [from CalMail] can start faster and with less infrastructure investment.”

But some universities, after conducting their whirlwind Google romance, soured over the giant company. UC Berkeley students and alumni contended in a law suit in 2016 that Google had given the false impression that email accounts would not be scanned for commercial purposes.

In 2015, Macquarie University reconsidered a move it undertook in 2010 to migrate some 6,000 staff from its Novell GroupWise to Gmail. Students had already commenced using Gmail in late 2007.

Again, as with UC Berkeley, it is worth scrutinising why the university initially decided to go with Google over Microsoft, that ever contending beast in the tech boardroom. The reasons are crusty as they are old: “The university rejected Microsoft as an option at the time,” explained Allie Coyne in ITNews, “for being too expensive.”

Being careful to market such economic reasons appropriately, the Macquarie public relations unit was keen to emphasise that the university had only gone with Google after being reassured that generated data would be hosted in the European Union. With data protections being more securely moored in the EU, this was a consideration decorated to sell. To have hosted it in the US would have naturally brought the US Patriot Act and Digital Millennium Copyright Act into play.

With a change in hosting policy on the part of Google, Macquarie found itself veering into the arms of Microsoft and Office 365. That company had, it so happened, opened two Australian data centres in 2014, a point that alleviated the infrastructure impediments that bothered the paladins at UC Berkeley.

The move to Office 365 is simply exchanging one demon’s credentials for another, and the rosy line being parroted by university management must be unpacked with diligence. The example offered by RMIT University, for instance, in abandoning Google is fittingly opportunistic, with one email circulated amongst staff finally revealing why one of Australia’s largest teaching institutions is moving to Office 365: “RMIT strategic vision is to expand into China. Google is NOT supported in China.” A truly mercantilist sentiment.

A Literary Vice: Me Too Enthusiasm and Junot Díaz

It all happened at breakneck speed. Before the dust settled, Junot Díaz was on a plane from Sydney back to the United States. The Sydney Writers’ Festival had received a severe spiking of flavour from another Me Too, stop that and what to do skirmish.

The occasion needs some teasing out. It began with fellow participant Zinzi Clemmons at a question and answer session. The time had come for her as to why Díaz had placed her in the uncomfortable position he supposedly did when she was a graduate student at Columbia University six years ago.

Clemmons takes the stance of a revolutionary preacher who refused to stay silent. (Her reticence seemed to have been considerable). “Junot Díaz,” she claimed in a statement to the New York Times, “has made his behaviour the burden of young women – particularly women of colour – for far too long, enabled by his team and the institutions that employ him.”

The timing was all: she had been affected by the act of forcible kissing when a graduate student but “now I am a professor and I cannot bear to think of the young women he has exploited in his position, and the many more that would be harmed if I said nothing.”

The intervention by Clemmons unleashed a flood of remarks that were not always consistent with the theme of abuse. Was it a novelist’s crankiness and irritability, or was it a genuine rage of misogyny? Hard to tell – detestable characters are not necessarily unpleasant in a gendered way, but taking offence these days is the first step to assuming that it has something to do with it. Monica Byrne, for instance, claimed that the author had yelled at her face in disagreement. Did this suggest that he did not yell at men? “It was completely bizarre, disproportionate and violent.”

Carmen Maria Machado was of like mind in asking a question regarding Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her. “When I made the mistake of asking him about his protagonist’s unhealthy, pathological relationship with women, he went off on me for twenty minutes.”

An atmosphere of high fever denunciation has assailed debate and banished such matters as a presumption of innocence to dangerous obsolescence. Julie Szego felt discomfort at the whole affair. “I’m uneasy about this episode though I’m not sure I’m allowed to be, by which I mean I’m not sure about the wisdom of publicly airing my unease.”

Remarks by Clemmons become high-priest and inquisitorial skewing evidentiary testing and the firm eyes of a cross-examining advocate. We are left with the impressions of a self-confessed, bright-eyed wonder who claimed total innocence before the alleged rapacity of an author.

The issue about literature going off in such a stink brings a reminder to the fore a previous incident: the disavowal of the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott as candidate for the Oxford Chair of Poetry. The withdrawal from Walcott from the ring was prompted by the sending of anonymous letters to Oxford academics alleging sexual harassment.

Before the hashtag mania ever took off, disputes and scraps over appropriate or inappropriate behaviour that might bar or somehow disqualify a person from office or a position existed. But never ignore personal motivation and malice: the patriarchy, as with any other ideological assessment, can only go so far.

What matters in this is whether a movement is afoot to cleanse the literary, if not artistic world, of its demons and offenders. Bring in, it suggests good Quaker folk who forget the thorny nattiness that concerns matters of sex, religion and politics. Be decent. Avoid offence. The current approach would certainly empty libraries, theatres and opera halls: no figure judged by the current hashtag form of justice will survive, banished by what can only be deemed a form of inadvertent censorship.

The desert awaiting is hard to contemplate.  Contracts have been and will continue being withdrawn at the utterance of a tweet. Films won’t be produced, or plays staged. The context of whether a work is good or bad will matter less than whether the person behind it offended or fondled. Crucially, courts will be bypassed as reputations are left smouldering in ruins.

In the irony of ironies, Díaz had conjured up a monster he could not control. He had also felt that riding the wave of the assault confessional would earn him plaudits of sympathy. “More,” he wrote in his tell-all tale of brutality in The New Yorker, “than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me.  I spent more energy running from it than I did living.”

Such identity politics did not get the gold medal in the sexual harassment stakes, even if it did a rather touching job of invoking that sentiment: “I never got any help, any kind of therapy. I never told anyone.” The literature vultures found revulsion and admiration. “His wording is masterful,” noted Jean Spraker, “but it’s there.” The “there” was a confession “to not only experiencing abuse but also perpetrating it”.

Clemmons, for one, saw the work was purely tactical, a means of pre-emptively silencing those who had been affected by his conduct. What seemed to bubble beneath with disturbing import was simply the sense that there are some tales of assault that will sell, and others that will not. Malice abounds, and competition is everything; some types come across better than others.

As the firm details are brought out about such figures as Harvey Weinstein, the reigning goblin of Hollywood brought down by his hubris, cautionary notes are also growing. Be wary of vengeful condemnations. Watch the cant. Impulsive witch hunts will catch many, but not necessarily the witch. In place are mere cinders.

Universities, Branding and Saudi Arabia

The modern university is a tertiary colonising institution.  Like the old mercantilist bodies – the Dutch East India Company and its equivalents – the educational world is there to be acquired by bureaucrats, teachers and, it is hoped, suitable recruits.

To that end, a good degree of amorality is required.  Scruples are best left to others, and most certainly not university managers, who prefer counting the sums rather than pondering deontological principles.

Such a point seems very much at the forefront of an arrangement between the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The MGSE, which seems, in acronym, similar to a salt brand, struck gold in its arrangement to reform the Kingdom’s school curriculum – some 36,000 schools in all comprising 500,000 teachers.

“This project,” stated the Minister for Education Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al-Issa, “will have a significant impact on the development of the new educational process in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”  It will require “patience”, and the contributions of “international experts”.

Irons were already being laid in the fire the previous year, with thirty teachers from Saudi Arabia engaging a six-month program “designed,” according to the MGSE dispatch, “to transform their teaching knowledge, skills and attitudes.”

The search for such experts is part of a broader Saudi mission, the “Vision 2030” ostensibly designed to produce a new generation of “critical” thinkers.  “A system of transmitting existing knowledge,” opined Al-Issa to a gathering of education and business figures at the Yidan Prize Summit in Hong Kong last year, “is no longer adequate.  We need to rethink education from preschool through graduate schools and we need to do this urgently.”

Al-Issa has spread matters broadly, with his ministry signing an agreement with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in November 2017 “to explore opportunities to further deepen cooperation on the design and implementation of education reform in Saudi Arabia.”

The Melbourne University newsroom was beaming with remarks sweetened by success. MGSE’s Dean Jim Watterston kept it vague and professional. “We look forward to working with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to deliver evidence-based research methods into classrooms.”  The impression given by Watterston is a system of education that enlightens rather than indoctrinates, something distinct from what passes for Saudi teaching fare.

Which brings us to the sticking, and the even fatal point behind the whole ghastly business.  As the chief Sunni state wages remorseless war on Yemen, in the process robbing cradles and breaching human rights in the name of geopolitical goals, business is still to be done.  Australian education envoys, sent by overly managed universities, are ideally blinkered. Given that it remains the country’s third largest earner of gross domestic product, principles would be a needless encumbrance.

What gives this whole matter of pedagogical enterprise between the MGSE and Saudi Arabia a good lashing of irony is that the Kingdom is at war with what it deems extremism.  Only its own Wahhabi brand, the same sort that inspired those who flew the murderous missions on September 11, 2001, against US targets, is tolerated.

Saudi Arabia, for one, boasts an education program that lends itself to the standardised, hardened teachings of Wahhabism.  Nina Shea, director of the Centre for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, told the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade in July 2017 how “violent and belligerent teachings” abounded in the curriculum like dandruff.

Two years after the 9/11 hijackers reaped sorrow, the National Dialogue in Saudi Arabia sported the findings of a scholarly panel commissioned by King Abdullah.  The religious studies curriculum, in particular, “encourages violence towards others, misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate each other.”

According to Shea, not much had changed.  The textbooks authorised by the Ministry of Education still taught “an ideology of hatred and violence against Jews, Christians, Muslims, such as Shiites, Sufis, Ahmadis, Hindus, Bahais, Yazidis, animists, sorcerers, and ‘infidels’ of all stripes, as well as other groups with different beliefs.”  If you hate, hate well, thoroughly and diligently.

Behind the current agenda of the Ministry of Education is an effort to root out rival Islamic doctrines, a program that is only critical in its evisceration and selective censorship.  In March this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS television that the dreaded Muslim Brotherhood had found its way into the Saudi school system, a carcinogenic force that needed a good dose of administrative chemo.

The Kingdom, he promised, will “fight extremist ideologies by reviewing school curricula and books to ensure they are free of the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda”.  This act of pedagogical cleansing was promised to be harsh, seeking to “ban books attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood from all schools and universities and remove all those who sympathise with the group.”

Short shrift, in other words, is being given to the functions of actual critical thinking, the very stuff Watterston boasts about somewhat uncritically.  But that will not bother him, or those who have put their signatures in this particular form of international engagement. The perks are bound to be endless.  Like the selling of arms, education is a business designed to line pockets, feed the parasites of management, and enhance an empty brand. Forget the students – they are the last in the dismal food chain. Even more importantly, ignore the politics of it all.

Christian MPs want ‘cultural war’ over religious freedom

The PM is holding 20 Ruddock Review recommendations to advance religious
while giving Christian lobbyists private briefings ahead of their public release in June.

Malcolm Turnbull faces a political gamble by swinging the religious pendulum too far to the right.  Does he risk a backlash by further weakening our secular constitution — giving ‘faith’ extraordinary new powers — simply to ease religious angst over the legalisation of same-sex marriage?

Conservative MPs won’t let it go; and “religious freedom” is their battle cry.  Assistant Home Affairs Minister, Alex Hawke, is already on record as saying that Australia is “absolutely” in a “new cultural war” against secular social policy.

There’s an almost postmodernist feel about this Christian campaign for more “freedom”.  It’s an “identity politics” strategy of presenting Christianity as an “oppressed minority”, despite their 52 per cent showing at the 2016 Census.

There were 16,500 submissions to the Ruddock Review — almost 10 times the number to the Banking Royal Commission.  It is estimated that 95 per cent of these are from aggrieved congregations filling out pro-forma letters against gay marriage, orchestrated by religious lobbies.

Media commentators are not asking the basic questions.  What, precisely, do the Churches mean by “freedom” — and what freedoms are they currently denied?  Legal experts say “none!” The handful of ‘secular’ organisations that lodged Ruddock submissions went to great lengths listing dozens of freedoms, privileges and entitlements, already enjoyed exclusively by all religious institutions.

They include the existing right to ‘hire and fire’ LGBTI staff and students from their schools.  But it extends to “religious belief” under exemptions from some anti-discrimination laws — and this can include thousands of “secular” positions in church hospitals, schools, aged cared, charities and for-profit businesses.  They include teachers, nurses and welfare workers who may fall foul of religious exemptions. A recent poll showed 80 percent of the public thought this was unacceptable.

We must be careful not to give additional powers to corporatised religious institutions.  Every person currently has the constitutional right to believe whatever they wish — but religions should not be above state and national laws that apply to all other citizens.  The trials of Cardinal Pell and Arch Bishop Philip Wilson attest to that.

Australia is already regarded as a ‘soft theocracy’, with considerable religious influence in politics.  A recent academic journal showed that our federal parliament is one of the most Christianised in the Western world, with 30 per cent of MPs “actively” attending regular parliamentary Prayer Breakfasts — a rate which is twice the religiosity of the general public.

And religious groups are now lobbying MPs for greater powers.

The religious publication ‘Eternity’ reports Freedom For Faith (FFF) being given privileged briefings on the Ruddock Review by the Prime Minister’s Officer.  At the recent FFF conference in Sydney, Professor Patrick Parkinson — who wrote the Ruddock Review submission for Freedom For Faith — told the audience:

“I have been kept closely in touch with the Ruddock Inquiry. I have been kept informed by the Prime Minister’s office and we have been making progress.”

This lends credibility to the claim that Christian churches wish to codify and extend many of their religious entitlements — specifically articulated in many submissions from leading religious institutions, and published on the Ruddock Review website.  

Professor Parkinson went on to say that ‘secularists’ fail to understand the need for religious schools to have all staff bound by FFF principles, and including Christian maths teachers.

“My wife is a maths teacher and she brings God into her classroom all the time, saying that an equation relates to the order of creation.”

In Australia’s secular democracy religious organisations cannot claim they are discriminated against.  Currently, 40 per cent of secondary students are taught in private religious schools.  Promoting God — including within STEM subjects — seems to be accepted practice.  Extend these freedoms to the variety of other religious businesses — all funded to some degree by taxpayers — and it’s difficult not to conclude that the federal government and religion are perhaps too closely joined at the hip.

It seems almost certain that 78 per cent of the public who believe religion and politics should be separated (IPSOS Poll 2016), would also support the separation of religion from STEM subjects in schools.  Does this contribute to the perennial conflict between religion and science?

We have yet to learn the content and effect of Philip Ruddock’s 20 recommendations for religious freedom — and the lobbyists are already working on sympathetic MPs in the corridors of power.  But the PM must finally take the gamble of formalising one or more of the recommendations into law. That may be more problematic, once it hits the floor of parliament.

At that point, many MPs might think more seriously about a public backlash if religion — already heavily bankrolled by taxpayers — is given new powers.  To codify the hiring and firing of their vast workforce — based on a belief in God — might be swinging the religious pendulum way too far.


Brian Morris is Media Director of the National Secular Lobby. He is a former journalist and managing director of The Publicity Agency. He is the author of ‘Sacred to Secular’. More information about Brian can be found on his website, Plain Reason.



Donald Trump, Summits and Cancellations

It was the sort of party you would be reluctant to turn up to, and its cancellation would have caused a sigh of relief. But when the US president replicates the feigned hurt of a guest who has been impugned, the puzzlement deepens.  A mix of crankiness and promise, Trump’s letter announcing the cancellation of the Singapore meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was another etching on what is becoming an increasingly scrawled tablet of unpredictable manoeuvres. More importantly, it shows a sense that Kim is ahead of the game, cunning beyond capture, difficult to box.

It is instructive to see how blame was attributed in this latest act of diplomatic befuddlement.  Everything is, of course, saddled on the North Korean leader. But the feeling that Trump has somehow been left out is unmistakable.  Whether it is the babble of the usual chicken hawks or not is hard to say, any peace treaty and durable arrangement on the Korean peninsula will and can never be attributed to the pioneering efforts of the North Korean regime.  Should they win this, the US will be left out to dry by yet another inscrutable power, outwitted and, even worse, seduced.

“Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.  Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place.”

The letter shows traditional Trumpist dysfunction, a mix of fulmination, regret and tempered promise.  Predictably, the issue of this abrupt act is not considered his doing, but that of his counterpart. He wants to be ascendant, and to that end, demands a degree of self-accepted inferiority on the part of his opponent.

That Kim spoke about the DPRK’s nuclear capability was taken as a slight, suggesting that Little Rocket Man was getting a bit ahead of himself.  “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

The disparity of positions there is evident: the US nuclear stockpile is neutralised by its sheer enormity.  To have such weapons on such a scale suggests redundancy rather than value. North Korea, in contrast, need only possess a few murderous weapons for political insurance.

Hawkish North Korea watchers long sceptical of any bona fide considerations that might accompany such talks suggest that Trump was ambushed.  He was, ventured The Economist, unaware “of North Korea’s long history of seeking direct talks with America, or of its past promises to abandon its nuclear weapons, or the bad faith and broken promises that have at all times characterised its nuclear diplomacy.”

Such a position remains traditionally constipated, one keen to keep up the squeeze in an effort to extract reliable concessions.  It also ignores the dogma of US policy towards the DPRK, refusing to accede to the regime’s desire to obtain a non-aggression guarantee and, to that end, seek ultimate denuclearisation only if and when its own security can be assured.

The Economist could still admit, despite the prospect of a “bad deal”, or “narrow agreement to protect America” made in exchange for retaining nuclear weapons, “the summit still seemed like a gamble worth taking.”

A day before the cancellation letter was issued, Pyongyang invited a gaggle of international journalists to Punggye-Ri Nuclear Test Site to note the destruction of tunnels and buildings at the facility.  Instead of seeing this as a gesture to allay mistrust and build confidence for negotiations with Seoul and Washington, fears abound that this is nothing more than an act of wilful destruction of valuable evidence and site sanitisation.

Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., and Jack Liu offer a different take on this for 38 North: “forensic evidence will outlast any explosions that may be used to collapse or seal the test tunnels.”  Besides, deeming such an exercise a wanton act of destroying evidence suggests that “Pyongyang is under some kind of obligation to open its doors to foreign investigators looking into its nuclear program.  Unfortunately, it is not.”

The response from Pyongyang was far from blood-curdling  In a statement from the first vice minister of foreign affairs, Kim Kye Gwan, delivered via the Korean Central News Agency, “We have inwardly highly appreciated President Trump for having made the bold decision, which any other US president dared not, and made effort for such a crucial event at the summit.”

Giving the appropriate signals and touching the right buttons, the statement seemed to capture Trump expertly: speak to ego and laud current and future effort.  “We would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US side to solve the problem regardless of ways at any time.”

The statement had its wanted effect, stirring the president like a well planted caress and tickle.  “Very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea,” he cooed on Twitter.  “We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to a long and enduring prosperity and peace.  Only time (and talent) will tell!”

All this goes to show that Kim has had a good run thus far, dragging Trump to near historic proportions in seeking dialogue.  The US president has been shown up out witted, and, even with egg on his face, he can only offer a hope that his opponent might change course.  “If you change your mind having to do this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”

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