Sunday, 30 September 2012

Don't expect Alan Jones to die of shame

Not happy Alan.
Intelligent people were outraged last night when it came out that Alan Jones had said that Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard's father, John, who passed away recently aged 83, had "died of shame" due to his daughter's behaviour. Jones' words were cleverly captured by a Daily Telegraph journalist who had bought a ticket to, and attended, a Sydney University Liberal Club dinner that took place on 22 September this year, just on a week ago. The journalist made a recording of Jones' speech. The newspaper's story on the event this morning indicates that comment had been sought from Jones but that he did not respond to approaches yesterday. Jones, a successful radio broadcaster, works for Sydney's most profitable radio station 2GB, which is owned by Macquarie Radio Network. Calls were made on social media for boycotts of 2GB sponsors, with the Twitter hashtag #Boycott2GB trending, and continuing to do so this morning.

Many people feel that Jones has been campaigning against Gillard for some time. For his part, the speech had Jones averring that the Opposition are wont to "go easy" on Gillard because she's a woman. There have been accusations of misogyny against Jones before this, especially following the outcry that erupted earlier this month when he said that women in Australia were “destroying the joint”; the women referred to, including the prime minister, all holding high office. Some think that Jones has trouble accepting the fact that women can legitimately hold high office. The latest ruckus will only serve to cement this belief in their minds. But Jones trades on his ability to attract the community's attention, his notoriety is the cause of his massive salary, and anyway there's a trend globally for media outlets to lean in the direction of one side of politics or the other. A story that was published by the Economist, the UK magazine, shows that in the US it is the "balanced' outlets like CNN that are suffering financially. While Fox News' daily audience rose from about 0.2 million viewers in 2000 to about 1.1 million in 2012, the audience for CNN has remained flat over the same period, at about 0.4 million viewers. The left-leaning MSNBC TV station also saw a rise over the period from about 0.2 million to just over 0.4 million viewers.

The implication is clear: audiences prefer their news delivered with bias. They do not like to be told things without a political slant, and prefer to have their own biases confirmed by the media outlet they watch, read or listen to. By this calculation Jones' outburst in front of the Young Liberals, and the resulting outflow of anger from some parts of the community, must only serve his ends, and cement him in his role as the preeminent Lefty-basher in Australia's biggest city. Jones' uneducated, low-rent audience will lap up this latest junk with the same pleasure with which a dog eats a puddle of steaming vomit. The radio broadcaster's visceral connection to his oafish listeners will survive this latest storm. In the US, conservative radio jock Rush Limbaugh continues to work despite being forced to apologise for earlier this year calling a Georgetown University Law Center student a "slut" and "prostitute" after she called publicly for contraceptives to be covered by insurance. A slap on the wrist, a brief sensation of pain that attaches to public shame, and then back on the horse for another charge against the corrosive forces of liberalism that are undermining the nation's integrity.

With Jones the most we can hope for is that something similar will happen. Jones will not stop broadcasting. His employer is owned by John Singleton, who is notorious for his support of the Opposition, and anyway one thing you can rely on with Jones is the ratings. People in the community love this kind of dirt. Rather than blaming Jones for feeding the bogan beast its daily dose of septic sludge, we should ask ourselves why this beast is so influential and so large. Some might even live close by. You never know.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

One death in Brunswick is too many

There are so many flowers left in tribute to the slain woman because her death deeply offended a lot of people. This was an attack on the entire community so it's a personal matter for so many. Locals who live close enough bring their tributes and lay them on the ground at an impromptu shrine. People with tears in their eyes walk up to the bridal shop on the city street where the CCTV camera captured the last images of the woman when she was alive. The camera points toward the street. There is a man in blue talking to someone then the woman, slim and wearing high heeled shoes and a skirt, walks into the frame and we know he is talking to her. She stops. He hesitates and gestures in her direction. He disappears from the frame. It looks as though she is making a phone call. The images were captured late at night, at almost 2am.

The next morning her worried husband calls the police to report his wife missing. An image appears on the internet. The photograph shows a pretty young woman with red lipstick, long black hair and a smile on her face. She is looking up and to the left as though inspecting the future for interesting possibilities. Soon copies of the photograph will be made and attached to telephone poles in the vicinity of where the woman was last seen. At first the police ask the husband questions and search the house the two occupy. Pictures of the police taking objects away from the house appear in the media, initiating doubts in the minds of members of the public. The missing woman's handbag is located even though police had searched the place where it is found. But the missing woman's phone is not found. Her bank accounts are not accessed. Questions remain.

The video captured in the bridal shop is made public and information from people in the community pours in by way of telephone calls and through social media on the internet. Imagine a map of the country. For each comment in social media there is a flash of light. The map illuminates brightly with thousands of intense flashes as people react to what they see in the media. The lights flare on the map, obscuring its outlines. The map becomes a chalice full of fire as people find a united voice online. There's the man in blue walking up and down the street. The missing woman enters the frame, stops. The man in blue gestures toward her, then walks on. The woman appears to be making a phone call. People at home watch the scene play out over and over again because it has been too long, days in fact, and still there is no sign of the missing woman.

When news of an arrest appears a jolt animates the community like a surge of electricity. Late that night, in the early hours of the morning in fact, news arrives that the missing woman's body has been found outside the city in a shallow grave that had been dug beside a rural road. A hasty court session is set up long before the morning rush hour. There is no bail. The judge acknowledges that this is a serious crime. The time for the next hearing is set. It is to be later that morning, a public hearing.

Members of the public pack the courtroom and there is a cry from the public seats. The cry contains the word for the pupa of the common house fly but in this context the word becomes ugly, threatening. It is because people are profoundly angry. Homicides involving women and people they do not know are extremely rare in this country. The cry is heard at the end of the hearing. The sentiment migrates online to social media where thousands of people congregate to express their fury, to say aloud and in concert that sexual predators are not welcome in this society. They want to live in a country where it is safe for young women to walk home from the pub at night. Fearing a mistrial, the police are forced to warn people in the community to avoid certain utterances. Others who know the law join in with their own warnings. And people listen. We know this because just 12 hours after news of the discovery of the dead woman's body appeared in the public sphere the internet virtually stops talking about her. There are no more comments. The silence after the electronic onslaught is eerie.

Amid the silence, a sullen anger. Millions of people have been offended and not just in this country. In the slain woman's home country where the community is close-knit there is also much anger. It will take a long time for people to come to terms with this event and in that process many words will be produced and read. Exchanging information in this electronically mediated fashion allows people living in geographically distant places to share their feelings. The slain woman's family has asked for privacy. The public meanwhile creates a family of sentiment animated by shared feelings of revulsion and a common interest in ensuring that the streets are safe for all of its members. Public streets are not just in Brunswick, Jill Meagher was just one of many women to decide to walk home alone, and one death like this should be more than enough for caring.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Identity politics is refashioning the Middle East

Amid the rubble, a product of Syria's civil war.
There can be no denying the sense of a broad, global community of souls uniting Muslims wherever they live. Or, at least, uniting a proportion of Muslims in countries across the world. What proportion? We see it happening in respect of the video trailer titled Innocence of Muslims, the release of which on YouTube led to violent protests across the world last week. One Australian commentator, a Muslim, talked about this phenomenon in the wake of a protest held in the city of Sydney:
[M]any Muslims in Australia do not simply give up their identity as belonging to a global community merely because they happen to live in Australia. Many have not bought the liberal idea of individualism, and so see events happening on the other side of the planet as personally related to them.
Rather than being excessively alarmed by this phenomenon we should be aware that the dynamic of identity politics, or public action that reflects personal values, cuts both ways. So we also see this pan-Islamic identity kicking in strongly, and with positive effect, in the wake of the protest of one man, in December 2010, in Tunisia, against police corruption and ill treatment. Bang! And then Egypt's new president, Mohamad Morsi, installed in office following a popular ballot in that country after the regime of the caudillo Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011, is suddenly visiting New York to speak with other world leaders at the UN headquarters on behalf of his country. It is clear by any reckoning that Morsi is the legitimate leader of a sovereign people.

The case of Morsi is particularly relevant because his political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, which began life in 1928 as a pan-Islamic movement. Conservative opinionators in the West cautioned us when Egypt's elections started to look like a certainty but Morsi so far appears to have acquitted his role with moderation. No sign yet of Teheran on the Nile. But how would we really know what is happening in Egypt? It's difficult. Perhaps we should remember that the provocative video trailer I mentioned earlier was purportedly made by a US citizen who is also a Coptic Christian. After the protests against it started I heard that Egypt's Copts, who comprise 10 percent of the population, feared reprisals at home.

It certainly is remarkable that Middle Eastern identity politics has turned out to be something that can play itself out globally, and US President Obama might want to think about how this pan-Islamic identity actually works before he gets up on stage to talk in high tones about the spread of democracy in the Middle East. How many US presidents glad-handed Mubarak, a regional ally for so many decades, all the while funnelling tonnes of cash into Egypt to prop up his corrupt regime? Egyptians may have wanted democracy but the majority of them also now want their own brand of democracy, and since their identity is so clearly, on a personal and intimate level, associated with Islam, there is no doubt that Egypt's lawmakers are going to be consulting religious leaders in Cairo and elsewhere when they start to formulate the laws that are going to be used to govern Egyptians.

Global phenomena and identity politics can of course also be said to have led to the current impasse in Syria, where the non-democratic Assad regime is being supported by Russia and China at UN headquarters, preventing the use of UN forces to remove Assad.

The UN, founded in the aftermath of WWII, is a historical relic reflecting the state of international relations that briefly held true before the Cold War started, which was let's say in 1950 with the start of the war in Korea. Russia's seat on the UN Security Council, like China's, is permanent in fact but also contingent by the logic of a deeper understanding. It is contingent upon the result of the global struggle between democracy and fascism that culminated in the end of hostilities in 1945. How legitimate is it then? We can consider the role of identity politics in that war. We should also think about the Cold War that followed. In eastern Europe people living in Warsaw Pact countries can hardly be said to have always willingly embraced Russian overlordship during the years prior to 1989. On the other hand, in Asia, there is no doubt that people living in countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia often thought that adopting Communism could help to improve their quality of life at home. But matters have changed with time and of those two Communist governments only one survives. Calls for democracy in China have led its government to moderate its behaviour and embrace capitalism, and in Russia some form of democracy has taken hold.

But the problem with Russia and China supporting Assad is that, at home, their leaders are often required to use force in order to maintain the integrity of the government. You really have to wonder what individual Russians and Chinese think of what's happening in Syria at the moment. Russia's Vladimir Putin apparently recently won an election, but how legitimate is that result in the absence of a free media? And are Chinese people in general happy with the position their government has taken vis-a-vis Syria? It is very difficult to know because the media is entirely state-controlled in China and so stories issuing from Chinese media agencies cannot be relied upon to accurately reflect popular opinion.

Getting back to the actions taken by the US government in its role as global police enforcer there is little doubt that most people in the West cheered when US and French jets began their UN-backed assault on Libya in March 2011 that aimed to remove from power the caudillo Muammar Ghaddafi. It was a short war, unlike the civil war in Syria that began with protests in the streets in the same month. While we cannot really know what the majority of Russians and Chinese think of the deplorable state of internal relations in Syria it's unquestionable that most Westerners want Assad removed from power.

Images such as the one that accompanies this post are all-too-common in our media. We see Syrian refugees, including of course thousands of children, moving into Turkish camps to live. In cities and towns across the Syrian countryside government jets shell dwellings into rubble, there are reports of torture being used, and we can only imagine what other atrocities are being perpetrated against individuals. On the one hand rebel fighters represent the democratic urge that characterises the Arab Spring and on the other government units fight to prop up a regime that is clearly illegitimate according to the values of the popular movement that is altering the political landscape right across the Muslim world. In the absence of a way to stop the bloodshed we are left with only one option: to personally judge the state of affairs in Syria.

Recourse to this kind of moral calculation on a personal level must also bring to mind the future. What kind of things are people in countries like Egypt talking about when they contemplate their futures? Are there elements in Egypt that will disagree with the passage through the parliament of laws that are based on sharia? How are these debates to be handled within Egypt? Is there a free media that can reliably function as a vehicle for community debate so that individuals have the opportunity to participate in government in the years between elections? As we saw in Sydney and of course elsewhere after the anti-Islam video was made public on YouTube, by the personal calculation of many Muslims the freedom to speak publicly is a highly questionable matter, and hardly a right. But when it comes to identity politics and the necessity for individual participation in the political process, at least a certain number of Egyptians may find that they are in conflict with the tenets of the very religion that enabled them to acquire the means to choose who they are governed by.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Clever Tanner disturbs Labor's clean air

Lindsay Tanner was interviewed by the ABC's
Leigh Sales last night.
Lindsay Tanner has put the cat among the pigeons, it seems, with his PR round to promote a new book, Politics with Purpose, released yesterday. It's the second post-retirement critique of politics from Tanner, and follows last year's Sideshow, which slammed the personality-driven focus of discourse in the Australian public sphere, and which was equally critical of politicians and the media. So it's ironic that though noone apart from Fairfax's Michelle Grattan appears to have read the new book the author's appearances in the media have stirred up so much dust. The ABC's Leigh Sales last night took a hard line on the point of loyalty, in the wake of dismissive rejoinders from serving Labor ministers during the day. Tanner's sangfroid in the face of Sales' spirited onslaught was admirable, but she forced him to deny any intention to resuscitate the perennial question of whether the prime minister was right to overthrow Kevin Rudd. In the absence of much knowledge of what the book contains, Sales seems to have fallen back on the now-stale leadership question, but accusations of disloyalty are harder to reject.

Labor has clawed its way back from the point where another leadership change looked likely (knowing the Labor Party) six months ago, to a point now where, according to the latest Newspoll, it's sitting at 50-50 against the Coalition on a two-party-preferred basis. This is nothing short of miraculous considering the hefty legislative load pushed through Parliament by the canny Gillard and her ministers. And the party should be congratulated for suppressing any desire to succumb to the "NSW disease", and for leaving Gillard in place as leader. This strategy has clearly worked for Labor. In any case the reappearance of Tanner in the media at this point in time is purely accidental, based as it is on the publisher's schedule, and not on any desire by Tanner to diminish Labor's recent vigour. The issue of loyalty is of course relevant, but I think Sales was merely defaulting to the most routine of all the available options during her interview. More information is of course available, notably in Grattan's story yesterday, and I think it's probably worthwhile to look at what she wrote.

To say that Labor has outsourced its ideas, that it stands for nothing, and that its politicians seek only reelection may merely be a neat way of backhandedly congratulating the Greens for achieving electoral and legislative goals that seemed remote for them even five years ago. The Greens have been gnawing away at Labor's left flank while changing demographics mean that Labor has had to expand policy-wise to the right. The rise of the Greens is not the only reason Labor has had to grow at the expense of the Liberal Party, therefore. Even 15 years ago the community in Australia had a different shape than it has now, and as unionisation shrinks along with growth in the relative importance of the services sector, as manufacturing shifts to countries that offer a lower cost base for corporations, and as new industries emerge that demand new skills from employees, it would be silly to expect Labor to remain immobile.

It's also silly to reminisce fondly on ye olde ancient Labor as somehow more sui-generis than Labor today. Under Hawke and Keating the shift toward the right was already obvious, and policies implemented in those days reflected the reality that Australia had changed and that Labor's traditional working-class identity was up for review. It's hard to see how either of those prime ministers can be "favourably" compared to Rudd or Gillard if we are honest about what kind of changes they made, to Australia's economic structure especially. New Labour of the Tony Blair kind had run its course in Australia by 1997 when Blair first got elected, and if Tanner thinks that things were more consistent with traditional Labor values under those two he must stand accused of viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses.

As for "outsourcing" policy-making, there is a good reason for broader involvement by the Australian community in setting political priorities for Labor. It's the same in science. No longer do scientists win Nobel Prizes on their own, it's usually a team of two or three and often they're even situated on different continents. Compared with 15 years ago the world has become more complex, and so finding solutions to domestic Australian problems cannot be achieved in the same way, now, as it was in the days of Hawke or Keating. Ideas should furthermore come from anywhere they are made if they're good. Community needs might be expressed more faithfully within reports fashioned by any of the thousands of nameless people who handle information deriving from recent surveys in any of the areas that are apt to be touched by government influence, such as healthcare, housing, education, immigration, landcare, manufacturing, agriculture, primary resources - the list can go on indefinitely. Think tanks, privately-funded institutes, endowed units within universities, NGOs - all of these entities are constantly active handling information that can be better, more accurate, and more recent than information held within the Labor Party. It would be foolish for any political party to ignore this vast wealth of knowledge.

Until Tanner's book gets read more widely that's about all I can say on this question, and it's really only a question because Tanner is such a smart guy, and because the community takes notice when he enters the public arena. The fuss the book has stirred up is testament to Tanner's reputation as a thoughtful and articulate participant in Australia's public sphere. It's unlikely, as he told Sales, that this little blip will materially alter Labor's political fortunes.

A final word on loyalty. It is true that some Labor supporters might think that renewal is important for Labor, but more broadly in the community people will be looking for politicians who talk about issues that are important for them. Loyalty is fine for some, but principles will continue to be far more important for people in the electorate. Labor might feel that it has lost possession of the high ground to the other crowd but I think that we all should be aware that as the world changes shape, as genres blur, as new industries emerge, and as people leave school and enter the workforce, the precise location of the high ground may turn out to be somewhere other than where you thought it was yesterday. We live in interesting times, as that wise Chinese once said.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Book review: Dancing With Warriors, Philip Flood (2011)

The first thing to announce about my efforts with this book is that I didn't finish it. It's subtitled 'A Diplomatic Memoir' but it's hard to know precisely in which way this should be taken. Certainly it's a memoir that chronicles a life spent in the business of diplomacy. Further than that, however, it's also a memoir written in a highly diplomatic manner. You don't always know who the particular audience is for any specific section of the narrative.

With the same angle in mind, the book's title suggests a certain measure of difficulty encountered during those years of being a diplomat and also running government agencies involved in diplomacy. This is deeply misleading for the person in the bookshop hoping for a bit of realism; there is very little evidence of those political struggles that must have accompanied the formulation of decisions made in order to promote Australia's national interests. Often Flood will give credit to a minister, or thank a particular party encountered in the course of acquitting his duties, but of the disagreements and fights there is only the vaguest indication.

This is not true, of course, of the sections that deal with Australia's interactions with Indonesia, where Flood served as ambassador for a number of years during the Suharto era. And overall the book is fun and interesting to read. Of especial interest, I think, are those sections that talk about the changing relationship between Britain and Australia. Britain signalled its position on the antipodes, Flood says, at two crucial points. One of these was its behaviour during WWII, when it became obvious that Britain would place Australia's interests second to its own. The other notable occasion occurred when Britain was successful in joining the EEC. Decisions made by Australia's top bureaucrats and by Australian politicians prior to this latter event that were aimed at establishing a uniquely Australian stance in the world, turned out to be wise ones.

So the book provided me with a mixed experience. On the one hand it is written in a way that is quite seamless. If the job of the diplomat is to achieve his or her goals in the absence of any displays of emotion or disappointment, then this book reflects the skills and attitudes Flood developed over many years in the service. Some people will read specific sections of the book with a keen eye for the telling detail, but I'm not one of these people. I suspect that Flood always kept that person in mind while writing his memoir. The political commentator interested in Australia's reaction to 1991's Dili Massacre, for example, will no doubt find more of interest in this book, than me. Of course I read of these events with interest, but for me of greater interest are Australia's official attitudes toward West Papua, where many indigenous people are seeking independence from what they see as a colonial power. Flood glosses over this issue, as does the Australian government whenever it rises to the surface in Australia's public sphere. Flood remains, as always, on messge, even in his retirement.

So who would read this book? I think anyone can profit from reading it. The writing is high quality and accessible, and there is a refreshing lack of jargon and bureaucratic language. The writing seems to me to be appropriate for the purpose, and I think that this facility had something to do with Flood's success in the diplomacy game. He expresses himself well, gets on with the job with little fuss, but also displays a depth of knowledge that gives you confidence that you are in good hands.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The secular trinity, a family history

Traditional Holy Trinity design.
I often do not watch the ABC's Q and A but I did today so I found out a bit about Jason Silva, who sat on the panel as a futurist. Jason had both the panel and the audience cracking up because of the way he spoke and because, for him, the solution to everything seemed to be "technology". Even when he was not invited to speak he'd be breaking into the conversation with this wicked, wicked word. It was like a talisman he wore around his neck that everyone could see at all times. And, sure, he talked about smart handheld devices, air travel, the human genome, whatever. But he also talked about written language as a technology and in this he slightly veered away from what is normally understood by the term. But he's right of course, and others agree with this analysis.

There was a great Scientific American blog post, for example, by Bora Zivkovic in 2010 that talked about the parallel emergence, in the West, of science and a free press. And I want to add democracy to those two things to achieve some sort of trinity of phenomena, and I want to place in the centre (see image) the human artefact - the technology - of written language. If you can imagine this arrangement of things then we are on the way to looking at what I had in mind when I started writing this blog post.

But first I want to emphasise that there's nothing hubristic about this arrangement; I can describe it because knowledge of this kind is freely available through reading history and literature. But you have to go back some way, to about the time of my earliest known forbear, Thomas Coldicott, who was born in 1610 CE. He was a husbandman and was buried in 1664 in Ilmington, Warwickshire. That's about all I know of him, though of course he would have married a woman and had children (otherwise I would not be here today). A "husbandman" was someone who looked after a herd of cows, and so he was indeed a substantial person in his time, possessing a measure of wealth. He may have held public office. What he would have been able to do that his own grandfather probably could not do, was read books.

When Thomas was 10 years old Francis Bacon's "new method", the Novum Organum, was published, and this text quickly became the foundation of the scientific method. The 17th century sees many new scientific discoveries emerging in Europe, along with a plethora of cheap newspapers that brought together news of events in Europe of interest to the average person. Then when Thomas was 39 years old, in 1649, the king, Charles I, was put to death by public beheading by Parliament for his sins. This dramatic break with tradition marked a turning point for democracy because it cemented in custom the shift of power away from the person of the absolute monarch into the hands of the people's elected representatives. Sure, the Commonwealth quickly disintegrated when Cromwell died, but Charles' grandson James II would rule for just on three years before being deposed, at Parliament's urging, by the protestant William of Orange. The king was made to suit Parliament, and not, as in earlier times, vice versa.

Goodness only knows what Tomas Caldicott made in his mind of the death of Charles, but he would have read about it in the newspapers, of that we can be certain. He might not have cared much about the establishment, in 1660, of the Royal Society, but Thomas' great-grandson John Caldicott, a ribbon manufacturer who was born in 1742, would have been very aware of technological changes altering the economics of manufacturing in England, causing social disruption and large-scale movements of people away from rural areas to growing cities. His son, also named John, was born in 1790, and grew up during a time of war caused by seismic political changes in Europe that threatened to sweep monarchy away from the continent forever. And finally John's son Alfred Jolly would quit England in 1853, along with his son Robert Henry, following news from the colony of New South Wales of the discovery of precious gold in the earth, to forge a new life in a new continent.

Cemented to the outline these scraps form, in fact embedded within the weave of these lives, are the three pillars of secular modernity: a free press, democracy and the scientific method. During those years these three elements functioned in concert, and without one of them the advance of secular modernity would have halted. But times, it appears, have changed, so that nowadays, in the 21st century, it appears to be possible to select, carefully perhaps, which among these elements a country wishes to stencil to the substance of its human fabric. While Thomas Caldicott or any of his descendants would have been thrown back into poverty or even into civil conflict by the omission of even one of the elements of my humanist trinity, today the president of Egypt, let's say, can choose to adopt just two of them. In China, also, it appears possible to get by on less than the full set; in fact there you apparently only need one of the elements of this trinity to achieve material prosperity.

But I wonder how long these types of balancing acts can last in the face of demands for popular sovereignty that are implicit in the nature of the underlying technology of written language. Problems such as how to attract foreign investment and how to encourage innovation make themselves evident. Investment requires political stability, and innovation requires a free press. Countries like Egypt or China can of course continue to import knowledge and new technology but the trend is for the best minds to seek a better life balance and more opportunities through migration to places where diversity of opinion, and the freedom to express it, is tolerated by custom.

And custom emerges over time. To illustrate this we can look at Robert Henry's grandson, William Henry, with a wife, Carrie (nee Morgan), who was born in 1880 and would become one of the first women ever in the history of the world to lodge her vote for the local MP of her choice in the first federal Parliament of Australia. Not a suffragette, certainly, but entitled should she have had the inclination and the means, to herself stand to be an elected representative of the people, in Melbourne, to debate the issues of the day, and to see her words printed in the evening newspaper. And their daughter, my grandmother Phyllis, would be born in 1906, one of the first generation of free gentlewomen, who would, discarding violently the claims of custom followed by all her Anglo Saxon forbears, marry a Portuguese migrant from Africa who, my father, his son, wrote in his memoir, believed "that the British knew the best way to govern and both he and Maria Nazaré (his sister) desired to have English spouses and live in English speaking countries". It could have been America that gave him shelter, or Canada, but it appears he was on a ship on his way to East Timor when he got off at the dock in Melbourne, and stayed. It was 1924. I wonder where Jason Silva's forbears came from, and when they arrived in America.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Understanding Australia's past can be useful for our future

For a moment I thought Fairfax was getting its Crabb on. I refer of course to Annabel Crabb's Kitchen Cabinet, the show on the ABC where bubbly and eloquent journalist Crabb visits pollies and has a nice, long chat over a good, solid meal. With the politician cooking up the necessary, natch. In Today's Sydney Morning Herald there's an odd variation on the theme, with Bill Shorten, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, sitting in a period-style 50s kitchen having a good ol' chin-wag with a Fairfax journo amid strategically-placed tea cups and onions. There Shorten sits, squeezed in between the old-fashioned cast-iron stove and the formica-topped kitchen table, but unfortunately it's not the minister's kitchen we're seeing. The house is a place that most Australians will not know, because we Aussies do not indulge in any American-style patriotic refurbishment of our past leaders and, anyway, Robert Menzies was in power for so long that anything prior to his era is simply, for most people, lost in the mists of time. The house is, in fact, Chifley Home, which is now a museum, in Bathurst, and Shorten went there to give a speech conducted annually, Labor's annual ''light on the hill'' speech in honour of Ben Chifley, the prime minister from 1945 to 1949.

It's an innovative move by Shorten, but also a self-interested one. Since Labor's polling rate has lifted in the past couple of months we have been regaled with media stories about a possible leadership challenge by Kevin Rudd, who Prime Minister Gillard replaced in mid-2010. Varying on that theme, Shorten's video makes a claim on our attention with himself at the centre of the picture instead of Rudd.

The kitchen is heartbreakingly stylish, and to think, as I did, that it was Shorten's own, would be to contemplate a politician with a secret, and serious, obsession. Once you read the story that goes with the video, you know that it's merely a bit of a play for attention within the larger arena of Australia's public sphere. But Shorten's ambition is not totally misplaced. After all, he is clearly being groomed for some form of high office, and as Labor's stakes regain a positive slant it's not surprising to see prominent caucus members talking in the media about the vision thing. And it's this that is intended to occupy our attention, because it does indeed appear that Labor has managed over time to ride out the community's displeasure, and to find itself, now, in a more comfortable place. Credit for injecting fortitude of this nature into the party must, of course, lie with Gillard, for clearly Rudd tended the other way and was wont to react violently to what he perceived as popular opinion on specific issues. Gillard's modus operandi is somewhat different, and by toughing it out she has earned the respect that is the root cause of Labor's stronger popular backing federally.

To return to Chifley and what he might mean to people, I've been reading a biography of Chifley's predecessor, John Curtin. Like Chifley, Curtin was a Catholic. Both were Labor prime ministers. Both were reformers. The reason I got onto Curtin was because of his stance vis-a-vis the US in WWII, so my attention was drawn to him via the normal mechanism of an interest in Australia-US relations; a lot is spoken of the fact that Australia has fought alongside the US in all of its wars, and with China's rise the role of the US in the western Pacific must be a point of interest for most Australians. As I said earlier, Australians, unlike Americans, tend not to give much attention to their past leaders. You might think that this is a shame, but it's this lack of patriotism that lies at the heart of a refreshing lack of jingoism within the Australian's sense of self. So while we might neglect our national story we also do not make claims for our country in such a way that can lead to the making of unwise decisions on the global stage.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting things to learn if you take the time to read about the ancient Labor leaders. There are lessons there that can inform current debates. Lessons to do with poverty, for example, that can help us to avoid the kind of income disparities that so seriously threaten social cohesion in the US. The kind of lives that men like Curtin and Chifley led prior to their entering politics radically informed the kinds of decisions they made once there. In the case of Curtin, for example, who became active politically in the first years after federation, we must be aware of his childhood disadvantage and of the promises of a better world he learned about through his involvement in the socialist movement. I think that Australia has avoided some of the less attractive aspects of the American Dream because of the way that socialism has traditionally been an integral part of politics in this country, whereas in the US it seems to have been associated with violence. By accommodating those elements of society within political discourse and giving them an active role in how Australia has fashioned itself, we have reached a healthier, if less entrepreneurial, state.

It may just be Labor pollies like Shorten who make the effort to read up on these past Labor leaders, but we all should try to do so. In his video, Shorten says that if we do not understand the past we cannot know where we are going in future. That may be true, to a certain degree. What is certainly true is that Australia does have a special identity, and therefore a special role to play in the world. There can therefore be no harm in being more aware of how that identity was created in this, the world's fourth-oldest democracy.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Book review: The China Choice, Hugh White (2012)

It was timely for the New York Times to publish a story on President Obama's stance with respect to China just as I was reading this book. It's a long, feature story, chatty and well sourced, and it talks about how, since 2012, Obama has toughened up on China. In Australia, we can see where this has taken things. In 2011, Obama visited Australia to open a new Marines base in the Northern Territory. Today we see another Asian partner, New Zealand, at the receiving end of the US's glad hand, as Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, announced that New Zealand ships would once again be allowed to dock at US military yards. But news about the strategy of Pacific littoral democracies regarding China are really not hard to find here in the media. Which is why this book is so interesting.

Hugh White works at the Australian National University in Canberra but he has also worked in government, notably with the Office of National Assessments, an intelligence-gathering organisation. The book demonstrates that he's well-read: there are passages dealing with Britain's appeasement of Hitler and with the Concert of Europe established in 1815 to regulate relations between countries on that continent. His new book is subtitled 'Why America Should Share Power' and it deftly, and in detail, maps out the realities of the new Asian order, which derive their compelling character from the fact that China is soon to become the world's largest economy.

White astutely points out that patriotism rather than ideology is the value that drives China's foreign relations, especially those that touch on its sense of self. In this respect the power struggle between China and the US - which White says has been going on for some years - is markedly different from the one which played out between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There are other differences, too. Whereas the Soviet Union signally failed to improve the quality of life of its people, China has managed to shift from a classic Marxist economy to one that enables individuals there to achieve a measure of wealth that makes them far less likely to criticise the government. White says that this characteristic of Communist China means that America must recognise the Chinese government as legitimate, and this is something he says Obama is just the latest president to refuse to do. White also says that America cannot contain China any more, and he gives much space to describing why this is the case. Therefore, he says, a new order for Asia is required.

The power-sharing relationship that White envisages between America and the other major Asian powers - India and Japan - will take time to develop even if it were embraced by all of their administrations today, but he thinks that there needs to be an agreement to establish a new Concert of Asia. Curiously, White omits Australia from his calculations and analysis. He also thinks that Russia is more interested in regaining influence on its European margins than it is in becoming a major player in Asia. I'm not sure I agree with these points, because clearly Australia must be part of any decision-making process that would lead to a new Asian power balance, and I believe that Russia would require inclusion in such a process as well. But this is the thing with White's book: there are so many angles to cover and he espouses his arguments with such clarity, that the reader's engagement is assured. That is, if the reader has an interest in Asian geopolitics. All Australians should be so inclined. I wrote about my vision for Australia in a blog post earlier this month, because the Australian people generally are more informed about what's going on in Asia, than are Americans.

Obama is not the only world leader to address a joint sitting of Australia's Parliament. Hu Jintao, China's president, did so too in 2003. Australia also reserves a significant quantity of its media attention for China due to the importance of our trade with that country. And the proportion of ethnic Chinese in Australia is certainly larger than it is in the US, although the number in total may not be as large. Likewise for the large cohort of Chinese students who study here each year. But it's not just China that occupies so much of our attention. Indonesia is frequently in the news, and India shares a national obsession - cricket - with Australia. We are at the centre in Asia, and so when a man from Down Under with such strong qualifications as Hugh White calls for a change in the way US-China relations are structured, America should pay attention.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Bernardi's sacking means homophobia is not OK

A disgraced Bernardi sneeking into London.
It was a swift and ignominous exit that saw Cory Bernardi dropped from his role on the Opposition front bench, board a plane and arrive in the UK where he was booked to speak to a gathering of young conservatives. He was out and good riddance. Even UK conservatives condemned his views. For Opposition leader Tony Abbott, Bernardi's sin might have been to stray from the Party line on same-sex marrige when he warned that allowing the proposed change to the Marriage Act in favour of same-sex couples might lead in future to official sanction for those who want to practice bestiality also. Yeah, sure, Cory. The speech, delivered in measured tones within the Senate chamber, predictably caused outrage within the wider community. Although he retains his Senate seat, Bernardi's axing as parliamentary secretary was the result but the man's form on many contentious issues set him up to fail.

There have been two votes in as many days on same-sex marriage in the Parliament, and both failed to bring about change. They did so because Julia Gillard declined to make support for same-sex marriage Labor Party policy, allowing instead a conscience vote for Labor parliamentarians. The Opposition leader decided that his party's policy would be to oppose the proposed changes. The sole Greens MP voted for the changes and the independents in the Lower House were split on the issue. The Senate followed suit, so same-sex couples will have to wait - again - for this long-delayed change in Australian law to rectify a glaring breach of the human rights of a significant component of the population.

But homosexuality has been normalised for most Autralians for some time. It came up again last night during the screening of an episode of the ABC's TV drama Lowdown, written by the talented Adam Zwar. Here's the synopsis:
When high profile footballer Kade Thompson (Brett Tucker) decides to announce his homosexuality in the Sunday Sun, his only request is that a gay writer does the interview. With no gay writers at the Sunday Sun, the editor calls upon Alex to write the story, telling Kade – and Alex – that Alex is gay. But will the editor’s ruse affect Alex’s chances with the hot new sandwich girl, Jane (Jess Harris)? And will Kade really be the first AFL player to go through with outing himself?
Kade's proposal to out himself in the media is certainly fraught but among those involved, in the newsroom, there is little sign of dismay at the footballer's way of life. The program uses humour to defuse any lingering doubts about how 'right' it feels to contemplate a public figure who is also a practising homosexual. It's clearly regrettable how much anguish accompanies Kade's decision to come out about his sexuality, and the burden falls back on those who express dislike of gays. In one scene set in the back seat of a taxi, Kade decides to grill Alex to find out if he's really gay. Alex's way to deflect attention from his own duplicity is to ask the driver to turn on the radio, which reveals a footballer speaking against homosexuality in the game, something that actually happened in Australia not so long ago. But Alex, a journalist who has seen a lot of things and so is quite blase about most human foibles, asks the driver to turn the offensive broadcast off.

Public outrage against Bernardi's Senate speech led to Tony Abbott turning the volume down on the senator, and that's a welcome sign of how things really stand within the broader community. There are now moves to change the law in the state of New South Wales. What needs to be done to accomplish the goal of legislative change at the federal level is for all Australians to seek to change things where they live and work so that homosexuals can feel welcome and relaxed. There is another thing that Australians can do to promote legislative change, and that is to vote Green. The Australian Greens are the only party that carry support for same-sex marrige on their policy platform, so support for them is support for something that has waited long enough now for ratification in the statutes. The need is pressing, as Kade noted while talking to Alex about his reasons for coming out: young gay people feel discriminated against and it is young people, especially males, who are dying by their own hands in Australia at an unacceptable rate.

Support for same-sex marriage means that you want to normalise homosexuality, and this is without question a human rights issue. You have one vote to make a change on this pressing issue, so vote Green in 2013.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Is the solution to fear a permanent state of protest?

One of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. "And my
ass? Do you like my ass?"
It's almost unheard-of that I will quote Paul Sheehan, the conservative Sydney Morning Herald columnist, but his article today raises an important point about the protests last Saturday against the anti-Islam film trailer, Innocence of Muslims. It's a point that Waleed Aly, the Melbourne writer and teacher, raised as well. Here's what Sheehan wrote:
The telling moment in court on Tuesday was when supporters of a young Muslim man charged with affray during a demonstration in Sydney on Saturday stayed in their seats when the magistrate entered the court. It was an act of disrespect for Australian law.
These men respect sharia. They want to live under the caliphate of Islam.
(...) They are members of a strand of Muslim fundamentalists who live in the West and exploit the West while despising the West.
To justify their own hypocrisy of not living under Sharia, they exist in a permanent twilight of victimhood.
The victimhood bit is what Aly also mentioned. Mohamad Tabbaa, the PhD student from Melbourne I quoted yesterday, also says that "many Muslims in Australia do not simply give up their identity as belonging to a global community merely because they happen to live in Australia". Tabbaa agrees with Sheehan in saying that the allegiance of these people is not to Australia and its laws. This is a challenge to everyone who values the benefits of liberal democracy.

As I wrote on Saturday, the problem is one of tribalism, with the allegiance of the tribe, in this case, belonging to Islam, the religion. Tribalism is also the root cause of many other evils in the developing world, especially corruption, with corruption being one of the reasons that Muslims lose faith with secular institutions like democracy, and so corruption is a corrosive and highly pernicious phemonenon that removes legitimacy from national leadership and allows more extreme groups to grow in power and influence.
The basic question is one of identity particularly in Muslim countries, such as Egypt, that suddenly are home to populations that are able to decide how they are governed. What is the basis of identity? Is it ideology? Is it family? Is it religion? A tribal culture will always have difficulties transitioning from autocratic rule to rule by popular franchise. Problems such as corruption are tribal in nature, and the problems that Copts experience in Egypt originate in the same place. In a sense it's a matter of allegiance. If your allegiance is to a tribe then you - if you are in a position of authority - will be severely tempted to favour in a material way those who belong to your tribe. For people outside that tribe your allegiance will then lead to distrust in authority. There will be a perception that you do not administer your role for the general good, so it becomes a matter of equality. And equality - one person, one vote - is at the root of democracy. So tribalism is anti-democratic, and cannot be sustained indefinitely without resort to violence.
In France, a magazine has now taken a stand. Charlie Hebdo's editor said in the media, "One has the impression that everybody's driven by fear. That's what this small handful of fundamentalists, that doesn't represent anyone, wants to do: govern through fear." The magazine's editors have bitten the bullet and decided that it is better to be roundly disliked in public than to live in fear, which is to live in a permanent state of emasculation. The magazine's offices were fire-bombed last November as a result of a publishing decision.

These men are courageous. Perhaps we should be taking the hint, and perhaps see that the way to combat the excesses of one tribe in our global community - whose only resort is to violence - is to cause them to live in a state of permanent protest. After all, 9/11 has to a significant degree infantilised people everywhere due to the rigorous security measures that are required to ensure safe air travel. This is a permanent measure brought on by the excessses of tribalism. If more Westerners published material that is offensive to Allah then perhaps the situation would change, and the multiplying objects of hatred would cause their self-righteous anger to turn back on itself and inspire a few important questions to be asked about their world view. Grid lock may lead to self reflection. It's worth a try.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Identity a problem for Muslims in secular Australia

A protester in Sydney on Saturday.
The fallout from Saturday's protest in Sydney's CBD continues, just as pundits globally comment on the wider context of protests throughout the Muslim world. A lot of what's being said contributes positively to the debate (I choose not reference comments from right-wing Australian senators, deliberately), including the informed piece by Waleed Aly which came out on Monday. Aly's thesis is that among Muslims there is a chronic feeling of disempowerment and that the film against which the protest was ostensibly angled was just an excuse to express this otherwise inchoate anger. Aly says that in this situation "you have an identity that holds an entirely impoverished position: that to be defiantly angry is to be" and so asks those Muslims to consider their position more objectively. What can be done? He also congratulates Muslim community leaders for condemning the violence. In effect, the burden of change falls back on Muslims in Australia.

Conversely, today Mohamad Tabbaa, a Melbourne PhD candidate in law and criminology, shifts the burden of change onto the shoulders of Muslim community leaders in his piece in the Fairfax media. Tabbaa asks the community leadership to more faithfully represent the interests of the community:
These youth have been relying on their leaders - their representatives - to [articulate their grievances] on their behalf. Instead what they see is a leadership almost exclusively concerned with ''portraying the correct image'' of Muslims in the media. Rather than voicing their grievances, they see their leaders capitulating to representatives of the governments they accuse of Muslim oppression. Instead of protecting them from what are seen as some of the harshest anti-terrorism laws in the world, they see their leaders thanking police for raiding Muslim homes; they see their leaders as siding against them, rather than with them; they feel betrayed.
Over in the US we also have Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the secularised Dutch Muslim author writing in Newsweek about the protests in another way. Hirsi Ali wants Western leaders to do more to uphold the values against which currently Muslims around the world are protesting: freedom of speech, human rights. She envisions change happening within the Muslim community so that it begins to adopt these values as its own:
America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative. At the heart of that alternative are the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of thought, worship, and expression. For these values there can and should be no apologies, no groveling, no hesitation.
Everyone except Hirsi Ali, it seems, is trying to hose down the situation. Muslim community leaders are keen to get the pictures of protesting youths off the front pages. Political leaders, such as those in the US who have been asked by Muslim protesters to prosecute the filmmakers, have tried to do just that, and failed. But the issue will not go away. Maybe we should listen to Salman Rushdie, whose famous episode, which started in 1989, set the tone for all the conflicts of principles involving Muslims that have happened since. As I mentioned a few days ago, the issue at hand currently is a matter of identity. If your identity is defined by religion exclusively, then resort to violence is your only option when it is attacked, within a secular democracy. That is because there are no other mechanisms available for you to seek change unless there is a party of the religious in government, or even in opposition. But there is no place for a party of the religious in secular democracies. So there's the rub.

There is however a place for ideology within the system of secular democracy that has developed over centuries in the West to manage the fraught matter of how to change the way the community is led without resort to violence. Currently, in Australia, there are two main frames of reference in respect of ideology: progressive and conservative. We know however that for some reason the conservatives have taken ownership of the view that asks Muslims to change, to prefer ideology over religion when it comes time to cementing their allegiance. With regard to this point, I refer once again to Tabbaa:
[M]any Muslims in Australia do not simply give up their identity as belonging to a global community merely because they happen to live in Australia. Many have not bought the liberal idea of individualism, and so see events happening on the other side of the planet as personally related to them.
What I want to see is some effort put into explaining the reason why countries like Australia base their system of values on things such as the individual and human rights. Rather than let the right-wing ideologues take possession of the field I want to see progressives start talking about why and how such values emerged, and why they are to be preferred over values inscribed in a 1300-year-old book. 

Sadly, the kind of debate I envisage usually takes place within the pages of right-wing publications such as Quadrant, and it seems that it falls back on people like Hirsi Ali to defend the faith. Is she right-wing? Ironically, throughout history it has been progressives who campaigned for the changes that, today, the Right has decided it wants to own. So I'd like to see progressives get bolshie on the matter of how a peacful secular democracy like Australia developed. It's the world's fourth-oldest democracy, after all, and in its history there is no major episode of civil strife to mar a seamless mien. Let not just skip bogans with Southern Cross tattoos on their legs feel proud of Australia. Let us all learn how it came to be the attractive destination for refugees - from all over the world - that it is.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Book review: Welcome to Normal, Nick Earls (2012)

I also just finished the novel The Fix (2011) by Nick Earls so I can say that this writer is completely on top of both forms: the novel and the short story. In The Fix Earls also talks about normality as something to be desired, but in 'Welcome to Normal', the short story that gives Welcome to Normal its title, Normal turns out to be the name of a town in Illinois, that Mid West bastion of normalcy which has given the USA two presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. The story is strange in a Roald Dahl kind of way, with its ending performing a little flick of the tail - a fish swimming out of range as it glides past in clear water - that changes the way we perceive everything that has gone before. This is Earls' style throughout the collection: there's the slow build-up - a spring gently coiling over time until it gains the necessary margin of strength - and then the quick release at the end that sets the whole show off on its true tangent. Reality revealed. "This," Earls seems to be saying at the end of each story, "is what is actually normal." No less normal for being slightly disturbing; "making strange" or "defamiliarisation" is a concept central to modernist art and it has been a strategy followed by some of the great short story writers we are all familiar with. Nick Earls show us that he is also one of those masters.

One thing that strikes the reader of this collection of short stories is how many of them are set overseas. It's not just the title story. 'The Heart of Robert the Bruce', which is the longest story in the collection, and is about a couple on holidays, is set in Spain. 'Range', about an Air Force employee driving home from his work directing aerial drones, is set in Arizona's arid regions. 'Grass Valley', about a boy and his father on holidays, is set in California. And 'The Magnificent Amberson' is about two Queensland winemakers on a business trip in Taiwan. Only in 'Range' is the protagonist not an Australian. This interest in places overseas might have something to do with Earls being a Queenslander living in Brisbane. What is normal, after all, about living in the tiny bottom corner of a state the size of Alaska, and where the open ranges extend like forbidding wastes seemingly forever to the west, to where there is anyway nothing much at all, merely the equally uninhabited regions of the Northern Territory and of northern Western Australia. Installed on the narrow coastal strip bordering the Pacific Ocean, Queenslanders face outward - north and east - toward other places. Their identity is hardly defined by a need to look south, toward the main population centres of Sydney and Melbourne. There is more than that. There has to be.

In 'The Heart of Robert the Bruce' we see two people, a couple, on holidays in Spain. The story opens in the hotel room, and from the way they talk it appears that one of them is a woman and one a man. We also feel that the woman is not quite happy with the man; there is something behind the scenes, that we do not yet know about, that has her permanently on edge. The reality - what is normal - turns out to be quite different, of course. That is Earls' way. In the course of their days in Spain the couple meet a Scottish couple of Pakistani extraction. One the protagonists, the one we think is the man, has a Scottish name. The two couples lunch together during their day trips and become acquainted, or as familiar as it is possible - or desirable - to be on a short holiday overseas. There are tensions. The Scottish couple are expecting a child. Our protagonists seem to find this fact, and the normalcy of the Scottish couple, threatening. The two of them make jokes, sometimes at the expense of the Scottish couple, as they lunch between visits to notable local places of interest. In the middle of the story we get that flick of the tail, a hint, just a word, that turns the whole story on its axis and shows us what really is normal. It's a long story at 83 pages but the wait is worth it. It's a story with big themes: immigration, sexuality, tolerance.

Little stories each with a mystery at its heart comprise the contents of Welcome to Normal. Sometimes it takes time to reach the twist that sets the whole thing on its correct axis, but it's always worth it.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Violence at Sydney protest against anti-Islam film

Injured protester detained by police in Sydney.
The shopping precinct in central Sydney erupted in violent protest yesterday as hundreds of Muslim men marched down Pitt Street in the direction of the US consulate. The unauthorised march descended into violence as large cohorts of police, including riot police and dog handlers, confronted the protesters in the shopping mall. Bottles and other missiles were thrown at police, who responded by using capsicum spray. The crowd of protesters surged against the cordon of police, who pushed back en masse. A number of protesters held signs saying "Behead all those who insult the prophet", including a child depicted in one picture, posted on Twitter, where he is shown being photographed by his proud mother as they stand in Hyde Park, to where the protesters resorted after leaving the shopping precinct. Police on horseback arrived at the park. There were reported to be 400 protesters, eight men were arrested and six were charged, with two being taken to hospital for treatment. Two police officers were also injured.

The prime minister, Julia Gillard, the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and the leader of the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, condemned the violent protest.

On Twitter, the reaction from many people was disgust, with the hashtag #sydneyriot attracting a number of people interested in discussing the protest. Some compared the protest yesterday with the violence that emerged in Cronulla in December 2005 that involved Muslim men being assaulted by crowds of angry ethnically Anglo-Celtic men seeking payback for an event on the beach a few days previously where a lifeguard had been punched. Yesterday's Sydney CBD clash is the largest violent event involving Australian Muslims since the Cronulla events. While those events were racial in nature, yesterday's affray was inspired by religious bigotry, with protesters objecting to the content of a movie trailer that had been posted on YouTube days before.

"Is this Sydney?" asked the Sydney Morning Herald on its website, accurately reflecting the feelings of shocked incredulity that Saturday CBD shoppers must have experienced as they stood around watching events unfold in the usually-peaceful retail mall. Young Muslim men carrying down the street signs exhorting violence in retaliation against the production of a cultural object is a sight very much out of the ordinary, and in multicultural Australia such bigotry traditionally has no place. A hundred years ago Melbourne's Brunswick saw Catholics and Protestants clash on the streets during marches of the kind that you still see today in Northern Ireland, but they were soon discontinued, and the groups involved decided to remove their enthusiasm to indoor venues instead. There were demonstrations against Chinese gold-prospectors 150 years ago, it's true, and immigration restrictions featured strongly in early legislation from the Parliament when it was established upon Federation in 1901. But violent protest is such a rare occurrence in Australia that any sign of it appearing will naturally attract keen community attention.

Australia was an early adopter of multiculturalism, beginning in 1972 under the Labor government of Gough Whitlam. Whitlam attained power in the wake of a period of extended conservative government, and he quickly moved to adopt a policy - multiculturalism - that had just been pioneered in Canada. But tolerance of cultural diversity by individuals and entities must be matched by an acknowledgement of the primacy of the laws of Australia, and recent federal government policy on the matter of multiculturalism reflects this aspect of the arrangement. It is within this framework - keeping in mind a strong, if minority, xenophobic undercurrent in Australia - that the violent protest that took place yesterday in Sydney should be considered. There were no overseas media reports of the protests, but in Australia they are sure to attract the attention of not only the community at large but also those elements in it that resent the burdens of multiculturalism, such as tolerance. For this reason, it is to be hoped for the sake of social cohesion that Muslims in Sydney and other major centres throughout the country adopt a mature attitude to how they express their grievances, and think carefully before bringing to the streets dissatisfactions that have arisen from a fundamental cultural conflict.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Anti-Islam movie can promote change in Egypt

A still from the movie at the centre of the troubles.
It suggests a truly odd piece of cinematography, the movie trailer at the centre of the current crisis of identity in the Muslim world. The Innocence of Muslims, a 14-minute YouTube video purportedly made by a US citizen who is also a Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, has sparked protests in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Nigeria. The US president, Barack Obama, has asked YouTube to "review whether it violates their terms of use". In California, where Nakoula lives, authorities are reviewing his probation; Nakoula was convicted on bank fraud charges in 2010. Under the terms of his probation he is not allowed to use the internet. Of course, it's not clear who loaded the video to YouTube.

The movie trailer itself is so strange as to be practically incomprehensible (that is, if I've actually seen the movie in question!). It contains a mishmash of scenes including an anti-Christian riot in which a Christian woman is hacked to death by frenzied Muslims, a curious story about the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and other bits and pieces spliced together. The quality of the acting is hard to gauge as the production values are so astonishingly low, and in some scenes words have even been dubbed onto the original scene, why it is not clear. In short, the movie trailer has the charm of a high school social studies project. But it also has at its core what appears to be a deep sense of dissatisfaction bred of generations of discrimination against Christians in Muslim countries such as Egypt. (Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population.) Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, who was elected to govern earlier this year, has asked Egyptians to stay calm:
"I call on everyone to take that into consideration, to not violate Egyptian law . . . to not assault embassies," Mr Mursi said on Thursday. "I condemn and oppose all who . . . insult our prophet. [But] it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad."
Morsi's political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, a social force that was stifled for decades under the caudillo Hosni Mubarak, and it is an Islamist party. If Nakoula's aim was to criticise the new government in Egypt, there has been no acknowledgement by Morsi or his party of what events or laws might have inspired the filmmaker.

Obama is currently in the air en route to Libya where he will attend a ceremony in memory of the US embassy staff killed during protests in Benghazi, where the anti-Western voilence started. Along with Morsi, Obama has an impossible task ahead of him. As the Guardian noted early this morning:
The president, the secretary of state and other top officals have condemned the video but said it is protected under the right to free speech. 
 "We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be," Secretary Clinton said yesterday.
The reaction to the film in the Muslim world seems to reflect a perception among people living there that governments have the power to suppress speech. By attacking take-away food stores and embassies these protesters seem to be saying, "The movie was made by a US citizen, so the US government should ban the movie immediately." Of course such a view ignores the kind of fundamental rights embedded in Western democracies - and especially in the US, where speech is protected in the Constitution - where those rights have developed over centuries and are considered to be inalienable elements of citizenship. The law is unambiguous, but by the same token the law in Muslim countries is equally unambiguous: denigration of the prophet Mohammad is illegal.

It is inconcievable that Western politicians will change the laws they administer. For their part, politicians in Muslim countries such as Egypt (especially Egypt) should reflect on the reason the film was made so that its root cause - discrimination against the Christian minority in Egypt - may furnish grounds for discussion in a reasoned and calm way within the polities they represent. The kinds of discrimination faced by Copts are of the same tribal nature as that which has caused violent discord elsewhere; closest to home from my point of view being the post-liberation voilence in East Timor that caused Australia to place peacekeepers on the ground in the capital, Dili, a few years ago.

The basic question is one of identity particularly in Muslim countries, such as Egypt, that suddenly are home to populations that are able to decide how they are governed. What is the basis of identity? Is it ideology? Is it family? Is it religion? A tribal culture will always have difficulties transitioning from autocratic rule to rule by popular franchise. Problems such as corruption are tribal in nature, and the problems that Copts experience in Egypt originate in the same place. In a sense it's a matter of allegiance. If your allegiance is to a tribe then you - if you are in a position of authority - will be severely tempted to favour in a material way those who belong to your tribe. For people outside that tribe your allegiance will then lead to distrust in authority. There will be a perception that you do not administer your role for the general good, so it becomes a matter of equality. And equality - one person, one vote - is at the root of democracy. So tribalism is anti-democratic, and cannot be sustained indefinitely without resort to violence.

The movie at the centre of the strife is certainly bad, from a purely artistic viewpoint, but you do not see dedicated fans of the art of cinema torching US embassies because it offends their aesthetic sensibilities! And it is certainly offensive, and designed to be so. But it is possible to draw lessons from this clash of legal systems that can lead to positive outcomes. US authorities have said they will look at options, and they are doing so. It lies with Morsi and his government to also look at what can be done to ensure that this kind of movie does not need to be made in future. The responsibility, now, rests with lawmakers in Egypt - and by extension with the Egyptian media and with Egyptians themselves - to discuss ways to change their polity and so to prevent more bad movies about the prophet Mohammad from being made.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Book review: Rip Tide, Stella Rimington (2011)

Yesterday's announcement of an arrest and seizures of guns and data from people associated with the al Furqan centre and bookshop in suburban Melbourne remind us of the continuing danger posed by home grown terrorists. In fact, the head of ASIO prefigured this action a week or so ago when he said publicly that domestic terror was still a reality in Australia. No doubt there are similar investigations underway in other countries. For her part, former MI5 head and novelist Stella Rimington thinks that this remains a problem for law enforcement in the UK because the conspiracy in Rip Tide (2011) centres on a mosque in Birmingham where young men of Pakistani extraction are radicalised and sent overseas to be trained for violent jihad. And in her 2006 novel Secret Asset an MI5 mole recruits and guides a cell of domestic terrorists who attempt to carry out an attack in Oxford.

In Rip Tide, we meet up again with Liz Carlyle, an MI5 agent runner whose job is very much her life and who teams up once more with the efficient researcher Peggy Kinsolving in order to crack the secret of how a young man with Pakistani parents came to find himself among the crew of a pirate skiff that has attacked a container ship transporting aid supplies from Greece to Kenya. Liz travels to Paris to interview Amir Khan but gets nowhere. In the UK, MI5 are alerted to unusual goings-on in a Birmingham mosque by Boatman, an agent they have run for some time. And in Greece at the headquarters of the aid shipping business USCO there are suspicions that only the more valuable cargoes of aid are being targeted by the pirates operating off Somalia. Liz must tie all these strands together.

The book offers curious readers plenty of standard spook tradecraft but few clues. There are some violent incidents, particularly when Maria Galanos, an MI6 agent living in Greece, who is tasked with infiltrating USCO and watching for clues as to who is leaking information to the pirates, is killed in her apartment. Boatman also suffers when he is pushed off the back of a bus in Birmingham, and sustains injuries. While these incidents may be necessary for the forward movement of the plot they do not add much to the satisfaction the reader gleans from the book; violence in a spy novel should be the very last place of resort for the author. Especially in the case of Maria, also, the reader can see the danger coming from a mile away, as the unhappy woman walks home from a night out in a club spent with two girls from the office. If anything, such episodes expose a weakness in Rimington's style, which is otherwise inscrutable and masterful. From the plot perspective, such a death might not be the best method to use, for Maria's demise alerts MI5 to the fact that her cover is blown. There might have been a better way to handle this element of the plot.

Relations between the UK and the US spy agencies are canvassed in the book, too. Because the USCO employee who alerted MI6 to his suspicions, Mitchell Berger, is a former employee of the CIA, that organisation becomes involved in the case, too, in the form of Andy Bokus. Bokus and Geoffrey Fane, the head of MI6 who has a crush on Liz, spar with each other over which country should lead an operation to capture the pirates, and Bokus resents Fane's implication that the Americans tend to go into such operations with too much firepower and too little tact. In the meeting, it is Liz's current squeeze, the Frenchman Martin Seurat, who breaks the impasse by suggesting that a French Navy frigate should be the contact vessel. But in the end it is careful work by operatives like Liz and Peggy who discover the links between the Birmingham mosque and USCO, and who uncover the identity of the mole inside USCO. But there is still one more dastardly plot to tease out involving a radicalised youth, a bomb and a pop concert.

As usual, Rimington uses very short chapters to deliver the narrative. The puzzle is suitably complex and of course it is current, inasmuch as she tends to write stories that have some real-world connection. There is not much use of metaphor and few descriptive passages; Rimington prefers to focus on the kinds of information about people that might be found in a case file: age, background, career, appearance, clothes, vehicle used, etcetera. As is her wont Rimington here again takes a long hard look at the realities of life in the agency for female spies like Liz. What kind of choices does she have to make in order to build her career? What problems are specific to the lives of women in the business? What kind of personal life is possible for a female spy, and how does she negotiate between its demands and the demands of her career? In this way, Rimington succeeds in humanising Liz, and making her situation universal in this sense, bringing her closer to us. The result is a better book, and this one is certainly good.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Consumers must do more to ensure sustainable fishing

Raising awareness of the dangers of overfishing.
Yesterday's news that the supertrawler scheduled to start operating off southern Australia, the Abel Tasman (named until very recently the Margiris), would not be allowed to operate until further research was done was widely welcomed online. But politicians know that this is just a temporary measure. Independent MP Rob Oakeshott asked for more information on Twitter and there were a fair few replies, mostly to the effect that large boats like the Abel Tasman are not sustainable, and not good for Australia. He asked about both bycatch and about quotas - the two issues that are of most relevance to people like himself. It appears that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority has set an 18,000-tonne quota for the Abel Tasman, but
The Fisheries Minister, Joe Ludwig, announced the federal government would also carry out a ''root and branch review'' of fisheries management law in response to concerns about the 18,000-tonne fish quota given by fisheries authorities to Seafish Tasmania for the trawler.
There are other details that will be introduced into the debate via the media from all sides. It's a complex issue and there are many players, including the owners of the vessel, the federal government, and environmental lobby groups such as Greenpeace. Greenpease began its campaign in a typically hard-hitting style a couple of weeks ago with an op-ed piece that covered some of the more striking points within the debate. For those who know something about this debate from watching activities associated with other fisheries around the world, the main issue is the poor record, generally, of industrial fishing. Writes David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific:
The basic problem is that there is too much capacity in the global fishing fleet. According to the World Bank, the global fleet is 2½ times what the oceans can sustain. The situation in Europe is even worse. And, with European stocks of fishing running out, the biggest and worst of Europe's fleet - boats like the Margiris - have gone in search of other fishing grounds.
So enterprising businessmen have got hold of the Margiris, sailed it the whole way around the world to the antipodes, reflagged and renamed it, and applied for permission to use it here. Opponents such as Greenpeace worry that what has happened in European seas will happen here: viable stocks of fish will be depleted due to overfishing. It has happened, most notably in the Canadian cod fishery.

But I worry that talk like this at the very top end of the value chain will merely gyrate around arcane points that only scientists will be able to understand, and that the courts will be the final arbiters. To avoid this, there needs to be more awareness among consumers about where their fish comes from. If consumers ask for fish that is caught sustainably then retailers will force their suppliers to provide certified assurances that it is so. And this is possible now. In the UK, major retailers like Sainsbury's sell a lot of fish that is certified sustainable because UK shoppers demand these assurances. UK shoppers are worried about the care of the seas, and with good reason. It's a shame to think that Australian shoppers will only start caring when overfishing becomes a problem here, too.

The Marine Stewardship Council, a body made up of both scientists and representatives from the seafood industries, has started certifying types of fish sold in Australia, but this is still only an embryonic initiative here. Aldi, for example, has taken the lead by selling tuna certified sustainable by the MSC. More types of fish, in more fisheries, need to be assessed by the MSC so that consumers can be sure that annual takes can be supported by the ability of the fish in the sea to replenish lost numbers. 

Having worked on stories in this area in the past, I think that such certification, and the consumer demand that requires it, is the only way to ensure sustainable fishing in Australia. The MSC is not a pressure group; in fact Greenpeace will no doubt question many of the decisions that MSC people take in respect of fisheries around the world. But it's better than flying blind, which is why Rob Oakeshott tweeted his question. Other politicians would, I'm sure, feel more secure if there was more popular demand for MSC certification because that pressure from the community would serve as a guide to them when they make decisions that will affect us, both now and in the future.