Sunday 29 September 2019

Book review: Lucky Ticket, Joey Bui (2019)

I wonder how some might feel about a young, Harvard-educated Vietnamese-Australian woman writing about a Tanzanian temporary migrant working in the United Arab Emirates (‘Abu Dhabi Gently’), a Nepalese student whose photograph hangs in a Kathmandu exhibition put on by an American (‘Before the Lights Go Out’), or an Argentinian musician (‘Dinosaurs’).

Some might think cultural appropriation of this kind strikes a note that sounds off-key. For my part, I have no problem with anyone writing any type of characters they feel like, but for parts of the left this sort of thing elicits feelings verging on suspicion. The question being: is it authentic? Well these short stories, while reading, certainly felt authentic to me.

They are full of life and they are interesting but tonally they are somewhat uniform, even at their endings. This kind of plain writing makes you trust the author – she is not unwontedly spicing up her narratives for effect, you feel. But what the stories lack in the way of that characteristic punch you find terminating some writers’ short stories they make up for in other ways.

Bui is a competent chronicler of the migrant experience, and the majority of these stories are about Vietnamese living in Vietnam or else Vietnamese who have migrated to Australia. Cultural markers such as filial piety and a solid work ethic are offset by other aspects of these people’s lives, such as a love of beauty or the remains of trauma due to war and displacement.

As important as the protagonists are the secondary characters, such as the father in ‘Before the Lights Go Out’, the father in ‘Mekong Love’, or the mother in ‘I Just Want to Hear You Say It’, each of whom perform important roles in the stories they appear in. There is a range of different voices and these men and women – and children, too, sometimes – give the reader access to other ways of living and other systems of value. And Biu is clear-eyed about the lives of her creations, she doesn’t spare anyone from her critical intuition.

In publishing a collection like this Bui is aware of the kinds of debates that circulate in the public sphere about migration. When I was younger I was employed by the police and many of the people we investigated were Romanians involved in the drug trade but there was also a significant number of Vietnamese running such businesses as well. In Sydney, where I was doing that work, common in the records that we generated by doing car registration checks and from other sources were addresses in the suburb of Cabramatta – where many Vietnamese migrants lived.

That part of the Vietnamese-Australian experience is happily, now, ancient history and although many Vietnamese-Australian families still live in Cabramatta how they earn a living is, now, for the most part legal. So it is salutary to read a book like this one, a book filled with important stories that add to the stock of credit that Australia reaps as a result of its generous immigration policies. As for Bui, I suspect that she will become better-known in future as her work is more widely read.

Saturday 28 September 2019

Trump, impeachment and the real problems in US politics

On 25 September news filtered out, as usual initially on social media, of the decision by the Democrats in the US House of Representatives to start an inquiry into matters that might lead to the impeachment of the president. This news ran on air on the TV all day and I knew that it would continue to dominate the media for a while.

The question that the Democrats have to answer is whether Donald Trump solicited and received information from the government of the Ukraine about Joe Biden’s son. Biden is currently one of the front-runners in the race among Democrats to find a candidate to compete against Trump, who is a Republican, in the 2020 presidential election. Dirt on Biden’s son might, the thinking goes, damage the father and reduce his chances of success in any polls.

So the whole impeachment thing turns on a technicality, a piece of legalistic thinking of the most arcane sort. In the US, it is illegal for a politician to receive anything of value from a foreign country to use in an election.

But this minor item of US legal exotica is of little consequence compared to the reality of US electoral dysfunction. Let’s leave aside the debacle of the 2016 presidential election, which all evidence says Russian influencers skewed in favour of Trump. If this was the only problem the insignificance of the piece of election law being analysed in this post would already be proven but there’s much more that makes it even less relevant.

In the middle of last year I wrote a post which was a review of a new book on democracy by a British academic named David Runciman. In my review I talked about some of the problems with the US electoral system. I have seen, since then, many people online talking about “the system” in a way that makes me think that there is a lot of discontent in the country about the political settlement. Back on 7 August 2018 I wrote:
In fact (and Runciman hints at this at one point in the book) the US is not actually a democracy at all, but rather an oligarchy. And the political right [wing] there is always working to further limit access to the democratic process to exclude people living in the lower-socioeconomic strata of society. Look at recent efforts by Donald Trump to make having photo ID mandatory when going to vote. It’s all about trying to make sure the elites are the only ones who can cast a vote.
I went on to list a number of things that the US should do to make it easier for the maximum number of people to vote in elections because the whole US electoral system is skewed in favour of the conservatives through a variety of means. I have slightly revised the list:
  • Make voting at all elections mandatory
  • Establish a federal statutory body (and separate state bodies) to run elections and (in order to eliminate gerrymandering) set electoral boundaries; such bodies would operate at arm’s length from any executive or legislature and appointments to their boards would be based on bipartisan consensus
  • Stop preventing ex-convicts from voting 
  • Increase the number of voting booths and make them easily accessible
  • Stop using electronic voting machines (which can easily be gamed) and only use paper ballots
  • Move voting days to Saturday
There are probably another half-dozen things that might be done to improve the political process. You might, for example, outlaw political action committees and prevent political appointments being made to make up the Supreme Court. The list above is just what I can right now come up with sitting here, in Australia, looking in from outside (and feeling a bit helpless).

If things such as these were promoted by the Democrats with the same energy they are displaying in their effort to impeach Trump, then they might have a better chance of winning elections. But they either don’t know what the real problems are or else they are just in thrall to the moment, like a junkie who needs his fix to get through the day. The system is the problem. Trump is not the disease, he is a symptom of the illness of entrenched inequality. An illness that, furthermore, permits rich corporations to heavily influence the process of government through donations and through professional lobbying. Foreign influence? Pah! The Ukraine thing is a nothing but a sideshow.

[UPDATE 5 October 2019, 8.55am:] A comment went up this morning at 8.37am Sydney time. It was from a person whose Twitter name is Steven Badeener and who had joined the site in June this year, and had accumulated 21 followers since then. It went, "You have no business commenting on these things, they are above your head. Now take your worthless opinion and self promotion and shove it." I had evidently hit a nerve with someone. A Google search turned up no-one with this name. The only record I found was the Twitter account that had responded to me. In the tweet, the mixture of suppressed politeness and conscientious thoroughness made me think that this person is not young. You can't please everyone, it seems.

Friday 27 September 2019

In The Field, number 02: Balancing the grass budget

‘In The Field’ is a series of blogposts designed to give farmers a bigger voice in the broader community. The first post in the series was published on 24 November last year, and the series will run for as long as I can source suitable content. Any farmers operating in Australia who want to participate can send me a photo taken on their property and descriptions of how, in their working lives, they face challenges. An exchange of questions and answers would result in a final draft. 

Gus Whyte and his wife Kelly operate a 12,500-hectare property they own, Wyndham Station, and lease another 19,000-hectare property. They graze cattle and sheep on both properties, which are located in New South Wales 80km north of the Victorian border, in the direction of Broken Hill. They are on the Great Darling Anabranch, an anabranch of the Darling River which separates from the main stream just below Menindee Lakes and joins the Murray River further south.

This is a photo of Gus on a motorbike taken by Heidi Wright in 2013 on Wyndham Station.

The challenge

The Whytes have a number of interlinked challenges around drought/dry-time management. The last good general rain in the area was in September 2016, with only scattered thunderstorms and showers since then.

One challenge is to conserve a reasonable level of ground cover – grass that has been able to survive the drought – and to preserve the integrity of the landscape long-term. Earning a living from raising livestock shouldn’t mean damaging our land, says Gus. “The Land is our most valuable asset.”

Another challenge is to manage the breeding stock. Gus says that time, thought and effort have gone into the genetics of their stock and maintaining this resource is important so that once it rains again they can restock to more profitable levels. Retaining stock genetics is a long-term goal. 

And there’s a third challenge: until it rains these farmers must support their family and ensure that all in the household maintain their equilibrium and thrive. “Now,” Gus says, “it’s about keeping us in a good frame of mind so good decisions can be made.”

The solution

If the river floods the Whytes can grow crops on lakebeds once the waters recede but this may only happen every 10 to 15 years so, essentially, they run a grazing business. 

Using a grazing chart that combines rainfall data as well as paddock records, these farmers identified the drought early and started destocking in November 2016, so were able to get good prices at market for some of their animals before prices went down. Most other graziers started to sell stock in mid- to late-2017, so the Whytes were ahead of the curve. They have heavily destocked and now have only 10 cattle as well as a flock of 2400 sheep.

They take time to identify the next mob of stock to sell, a mob with “one foot on the truck”.  Gus and Kelly both completed a course delivered by KLR Marketing School, so understand the concept of “selling your grass to the highest bidder” (making sure that you retain the best stock for the feed you have available).  

Gus calls it keeping a “grass budget” which, he thinks, is something he estimates not five percent of graziers do. He says it is about reducing the demand on the grass as grass supply decreases and maintaining a stocking rate to match the carrying capacity (SR=CC) of the land. 

“Not living beyond your means,” he adds. By making constant small decisions early it relieves much of the pressure when feed runs out, and when you need to make a significant decision.  “There is no doubt that the biggest gain in a grazing business comes from matching stocking rate to carrying capacity,” Gus wrote in an email, "yet this attracts very little attention.”

Gus supplements income deriving from the family’s main operation by doing other work. He emailed: “Currently I’m doing a small amount of off farm work facilitating a community group in the Menindee area as well as a number of community roles in our region and industry. This work brings in a small amount of money and the main role is to keep achieving and maintain a good frame of mind so that good decisions can be made when times are tough here, also we can be ready to take our business forward when it does rain.”

Thursday 26 September 2019

Book review: Bunny, Mona Awad (2019)

This absolutely perfect coming-of-age story contains a range of divergent elements that make it hard to classify. I see a new literary paradigm (what I call Divergism; a post about it was published on this blog on 1 March this year and there’s another one that went up on the blog on the 17th of this month) that this book emblematises. You have speculative elements, fantasy, romance, and crime that are all blended together in a hybrid that is both engaging and intelligent.

As for themes, this novel deals with such issues as #metoo, youth, mental health, inequality, and the environment. But it also takes a long, hard look at contemporary culture, especially as it exists on social media.

There is a credible protagonist and there is a satisfying denouement. There is even, as in gothic fiction, a chase. It seems to have everything you can imagine and it is unbelievably good fun to read.

Samantha is a 25-year-old postgraduate student at a fictional North American college (what is called in the British system a university) studying writing. Naturally, there are strong metafictional elements in the book but its narrow scope belies the breadth of the author’s vision. The plot is intricate and the poetics that fill out the spaces between events are, like the language used for the novel, delicate, flexible, and full of nuance and subtlety.

Samantha initially doesn’t like a group of four women in one of her classes who all call each other “Bunny” and who are from wealthy backgrounds. She talks about them with her friend Ava one day when there is an outdoor event on at the college. And while things change and relations between the young women adapt over time always the question of authenticity arises.

Interpersonal relations supply material for much of the novel’s forward movement and while the story in its different phases evokes plenty of emotions (it made me nostalgic for my own youth) it’s hard to pin down exactly what the book is about. I felt that, apart from running a critique of the narcissism and banality of contemporary internet culture, the novel examines how, ultimately, we are alone in the world. It also looks at how we construct reality to suit our own purposes despite the efforts of others to circumscribe our conduct with their own behaviour.

Using just over a dozen settings – a classroom, the home of a lecturer, another lecturer’s office, a college hallway, a college hall, a college lawn, the home of a friend, the home of another friend, Samantha’s own apartment, a busstop, the interior of a bus, the interior of a car, a seat by a pond, a street, a restaurant – the author creates vivid portraits of characters with which to populate her narrative. In addition to crystalline dialogue, how people feel and what they see (or think they see) contrive to give the reader access to a credible world in which to immerse his or her imagination. It’s a suspenseful ride with magic and danger, hope and sadness, fear and love. I really can’t adequately express how good this novel is, it contains worlds.

This book was brought out by a British company I had never heard of before, a circumstance which shows the importance of supporting independent publishers. Kudos to Head of Zeus for seeing the talent in this Canadian author’s work.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

A chronicle of anti-Sisi protests in Egypt at the end of the third week of September

This survey of comments from Twitter started on Saturday 21 September, Sydney time, (Friday 20 September in Egypt) and ended two days later, in the evening of Monday 23 September (lunchtime on Sunday, Cairo time). Time-wise, Sydney is eight hours ahead of Cairo. The dates and times used in this post are for Sydney, Australia, and where necessary I have included the local Cairo equivalents.

For obvious reasons in this post I only sample English-language tweets. I tried to rely where possible on reliable sources, mainly news outlets, but other views are also expressed where they offer different perspectives on the events at the centre of the protests. I was very selective with the items copied from my feed, focusing on evidence of protests involving large numbers of people as well as commentary illuminating them. The order used for this survey is largely chronological but there are exceptions to this rule where it made sense to group tweets around unique themes.

The outbreak of protests in Egypt on the night of Friday 20 September (the morning of Saturday 21 September in Sydney) was not entirely a surprise as Friday is often a volatile day in Muslim countries due to its being a special day set aside for religious devotions.

As you will see if you read through this (rather long) post, eventually the Egyptian authorities took measures to suppress the disorder and at some time on Monday 23 September (Sydney time) the feed of tweets from people in that country appeared to stop. From then on what was happening on the ground in places such as Suez and Cairo wasn’t clear. But for a while, it looked like something remarkable.

The first sign that I saw that something was happening was from something a person on Facebook had posted. I followed a link to a tweet and then tuned into the #Egypt hashtag on Twitter. There was a rash of messages coming out of the country, it appeared, as well as a substantial number in Turkish. Some were in English, for example one that I saw on Saturday 21 September at 7.14am (11.14pm on Friday 20 September in Cairo) from Orla Guerin, a BBC correspondent, who tweeted, “Rare protests on the streets [against] President #Sisi, following damaging corruption allegations by whistleblower Mohamed Ali. If protests continue/ build this could be very significant. Critics finding their voice again.....daring to demonstrate.”

A reporter named Sara Firth from TRT World, the national broadcaster of Turkey, wrote at 7.12pm on 21 September (11.12am on 21 September in Cairo), "Egyptian activists have held protests against the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Demonstrations were held in Alexandria, Suez, Gharbiya & Mahala, Mansoura and Damietta Friday & into the early hours of Saturday."

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news outlet, published a story about the protests on 21 September. I saw the tweet with the link in it at 10.45am on Sunday 22 September and the web page said that the story had been published 12 hours earlier.

On 21 September at 11.48am journalist Mohamed Hassan, who had 5981 followers and who included the name of the news outlet Middle East Eye in his profile, tweeted a thread explaining the protests. Here are a few of those tweets.
On September 2nd, a former contractor working with the Egyptian military released a video online accusing president Sisi and his close companions of rampant corruption in the construction industry, and of robbing him of over 200 million Egyptian pounds. 
The man, Mohamed Ali, who is also an actor, released a series of daily videos detailing specific projects Sisi, his wife, and several other top generals were involved in - which included using state funds to build personal palaces and hotels. 
The videos gained massive traction in Egypt, and were watched by millions each day, giving Mohamed Ali a sudden and overwhelming following, and prompting him to continue criticising the Egyptian government and its economic and political failures. 
Keep in mind that under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, opposition and criticism has become virtually impossible. Activists are jailed. Opposition parties shut down. Journalists arrested without charge. Simply posting anti-government messages on social media can get you jailed and tortured. 
So for many, Mohamed Ali, who had fled to Spain a year before releasing the videos, quickly became a rallying figure and a voice who spoke directly to Sisi without hesitation. He also knew his secrets, having worked closely with him for years. 
Last week, Sisi did something unusual. He directly responded to Mohamed Ali's claims during a youth conference. He admited that he did build palaces using state funds, but denied he was corrupt and claimed it was all for the country's good. 
This didn't go down well. People were furious. And Mohamed Ali used the momentum to call on people to take to social media and demand Sisi resign. If that didn't happen, they should protest for 1 hour on Friday night. Which is tonight.
There were more tweets than this in the thread, but what appears above outlines, in some detail, the incipient moment of the protests. If you want more information you can go to Hassan’s account, which uses the Twitter handle @MHassan_1.

The protests were still continuing the next day. On 22 September at 7.47am an account named Ahmed Shalaby with 1537 followers tweeted, “Egyptians take to the streets demanding President Sisi's removal. The rallies come after Egyptian businessman Ali accused President Sisi of corruption and called on him to resign.”

Some photos appeared on 21 September at 3.14pm that had been put up by a Pakistani account called Haqeeqat TV, with 104,404 followers. The photos came with the comment, “Time is Up for SiSi.” One of the photos included in the tweet is shown below. It shows a large crowd of people and a fire outside a building. Haqeeqat TV calls itself “Pakistan's Largest Youtube Channel” on its English-language Twitter account. There was no information about where the photo was taken or who took the photo, or even if it was taken in Egypt.

At this time, the feed of tweets from people on the ground in Egypt was still strong. On 21 September at 3.35pm an account named Hasib N with 3719 followers and, in its profile, mention of a connection to something called the Legacy Institute, tweeted, “Allah be with the people of #Egypt, remove their oppressors, & give them leaders that are in their service & lead them to prosperity.”

The BBC News (World) account tweeted on 21 September at 11.01pm, “’These protesters have been chanting and calling on President Sisi to go and leave power.’ The BBC's Sally Nabil says tear gas has been fired to disperse demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo.” The comment came with a video.

A long thread started on 22 September at 3.58am (7.27pm on 21 September in Cairo) from a person named Iyad el-Baghdadi, who had 133,552 followers when I checked his profile. It outlined the problems with the political settlement in Egypt. President al-Sisi, he said, has been worse than Mubarak as political Opposition has been completely dismantled. “Sisi's years have been far more repressive than even the worst of Mubarak's years.” 
It is also impossible for the Egyptian army to just give up power, and any uprising that seeks to do so will result in something worse than Syria. The army is still very much in control in Egypt. 
Note that the majority of the protests targeted Sisi and not the army establishment. This does not necessarily mean that Egyptians are still fond of their "patriotic" army. It means that Sisi is the current object of their wrath. 
For all of these reasons, it's both unlikely and undesirable that "the regime" falls, if we define the regime as the Egyptian army establishment. 
Whoever in the Egyptian army succeeds Sisi will therefore have quite a job cut out for them. They'll have to re-establish legitimacy. This situation *could* (if mature decisions are made) lead to a political opening.
El-Baghdadi recommended the solution to the current problem would be for a new leader to be put in place and then a gradual transition to democracy.
No regime has endless repressive capacity. Even the most repressive regimes rule by some sort of promise or narrative or social contract. Sisi seems to have lost his. The next contract is unlikely to be democratic, but can be an important step towards one, and that's important.
The protests continued the next day. On Sunday 22 September at 8.06am (the evening of Saturday 21 September in Cairo) the Al Jazeera English account tweeted, “Protests demanding the resignation of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continue for a second night in #Egypt.”

The government’s line was being pressed by some, for example on Sunday 22 September at 7.05am (11.05pm on Saturday 21 September in Cairo). At this time the account of Egypt Today, an English-language news outlet founded in 2017, tweeted, “Egyptian security forces successfully raided a terrorist hideout at Matariya neighborhood in eastern Cairo, said Interior Ministry’s statement on Saturday.” it went on at 7.14am, “Security troops linked to the National Security sector carried out on Saturday a daring raid on a terrorist hideout where weapons & arm fires intended to be used against the public were kept.” The outlet appears to be independent but it’s hard to say as there’s no information on the website about where its funding comes from.

The government also started on this day to crack down on the media. At 7.15am an account named Nadia Mohamed with 439 followers tweeted, “Today, #Egypt blocked #BBC Arabic website, after coverage of last night.”

The following photo was taken from a video included in a tweet put up on 22 September at 7.19am by an account named Jamal Elshayyal, an Al Jazeera journalist with 26,109 followers at the time I checked his profile. The photo shows a Suez street and the video was evidently taken from a high vantage point, most likely a building. You can see protesters and a police tuck. There is also a fire on the street at one point. The number of protesters is small.

But the government was watching such images carefully and reacted to their dissemination by people such as this. At 9.08am on that same morning (evening of the previous day in Cairo) a tweet appeared from an account belonging to journalist Mohamed Hassan. He tweeted, “LATEST in #Egypt, a man called Mohamed Saied living in Suez was filming clashes of police and protesters from his balcony, now says police are coming to detain him. Final video shows him in a stunned state saying goodbye, while a woman offscreen begs him to stop filming.”

At 9.21am an account named Bravenhaurten with 24 followers tweeted, “’Hey guys, the police are coming to arrest me. They're standing at the bottom of my building, and they're coming. I haven't done anything except film. Goodbye.’ This is the final video. Mohamed Saied posted this 55 minutes ago.” The tweet came with a video showing the face of a man talking to the camera.

And while Tahrir Square had been a location where the protesters had been gathering, there were also protests in other parts of the capital. At 7.27am an account named Nervana Mahmoud with 38,598 followers tweeted, “While Western journalists are fixated at #Tahrir, waiting for the *Spring*, Egyptian security forces were in #Matariya district chasing, for hours, a senior cadre of #Hasm who was heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenade!”

Suez was also lit up by violent protest. That Sunday at 7.30am (11.30pm on Saturday 21 September in Cairo) a Brussels account named Zakaria Khayar with 852 followers tweeted, “Moments ago - Suez is now raging, with fierce clashes between security forces and demonstrators in Arbaeen Square, after security forces attacked them with cartridges and gas. People chanting: ‘the people want to bring down the regime’.”

On 22 September at 8.06am an Egyptian account named Eng. Tharwat Mohamed with 2131 followers tweeted, “Security forces in Suez, historically a bastion of resistance in #Egypt forcibly disperse pro-democracy protesters in the centre of the city. The movement to oust #AlSisi is building rapidly across the country.”

And there was drama in people’s comments as the authorities took action to quell the disturbances. At 7.38am the same Bravenhaurten mentioned above tweeted, “Reports coming from #Egypt that, unlike yesterday, authorities today are using brute force to crackdown on protesters. It seems that there's a showdown inside the decision making circles. If things go on this tense, coming Friday protests will be bloody.” This was a reference to the following Friday, 27 September.

On 23 September at 12.52am Al Jazeera journalist Jamal Elshayyal tweeted a letter that the Egyptian government had written, and included a comment, “The #Egypt Gov sent this memo out to the foreign journalists who are still allowed to report from inside the country. I particularly like point 2!! When was the last time an opposition voice was allowed on Egyptian TV??”

Not only were the authorities delivering warnings to foreign journalists, they were also starting to use technology to prevent the dissemination of messages between protesters and from protesters to the world. On 23 September at 2.52am an account named, which tracks interruptions to online services, tweeted, “Confirmed: Facebook Messenger, BBC News and social media CDN servers restricted in #Egypt by leading providers amid demonstrations against government corruption; incident ongoing.” 

“CDN” means “content delivery network” and according to Google refers to, “a bunch of servers geographically positioned between the origin server of some web content, and the user requesting it, all with the purpose of delivering the content faster by reducing latency.” The NetBlocks story linked from the tweet also said that Facebook had been blocked. Twitter wasn’t mentioned in the story, which went on: 
Technical measurements show that the social media and messaging platforms became unavailable on AS8452 (Telecom Egypt) and AS24835 (Raya) on Sunday amid heightened political tensions following the publication of videos alleging state corruption.
On 23 September at 6.37am an account named Tita which had no location information in its profile, tweeted, “Encrypted and secure IM apps like Wire and Signal are being blocked in #Egypt. There has been some news also about FB messenger and WhatsApp being not accessible on different ISPs. Download Tor browser for desktop and enable bridges.”

It was hard, sometimes, to know if what was being shared was authentic, especially when it came to images and videos. On 23 September at 6.44am an account with the Twitter handle @KhaledEibid tweeted a video with a comment, “Trump favorite Dictator #Sisi continue [sic] lying when he talked about the poverty of #Egypt and Egyptians, while spending millions on himself and his family, also wasting billions in projects such as the new 6 palaces and 4 private jets.” The video showed the interior of a specially fitted-out jet but it was impossible to know if it was actually showing one of the president’s jets or not.

Some people expressed alarm are what they suspected was inauthentic content. On 23 September at 3.31am a tweet appeared from a Cairo-based woman named Minoush Abdel-Meguid whose profile said works for a private equity firm based in Egypt named Union Capital. The tweet said, “Dear Egyptian activists and revolutionary wannabes kindly ensure videos you share about #Egypt protests are not old footage and plz don’t retweet them as if they are recent. We understand that the revolution hype attracts you but honesty is integral to activism or so it should.” 

Some information got out about who the rioters were. For example, a Guardian story appeared on the morning of 23 September that pointed out that many of the people protesting were in their 20s and so were too young to have been involved in the 2011 protests. The story also said: 
The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), a Cairo-based NGO, reported on Sunday that at least 220 people had been arrested since protests began on Friday night. The organisation said it had set up an “emergency room” to deal with the spike in arrests, and that at least 100 more people were likely to have been detained after protests in Suez, Alexandria and Giza. Another NGO, the Egyptian Centre for Economic & Social Rights, stated it had recorded at least 274 arrests since the demonstrations began.
By this time the mainstream had caught up with events and had started to publish stories about the riots. On 23 September at 6.55am Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted, “Egyptian outrage at the corruption of Pres Sisi and his military (as detailed in viral videos) seems to have reached a level of intensity that people are taking to the streets despite the autocrat’s usual repressive response to any public manifestation of discontent.” His tweet also retweeted one that had gone up on the same day at 6.08am from Berlin-based Egyptian writer Amr Magdi, that said, “My brief talk on Egypt's anti-Sisi protests. on Al Jazeera Inside Story. People's frustration has reached unprecedented levels and they are left with nothing to lose.” His tweet contained a link to a YouTube video.  

The actions of the authorities reportedly led to the arrest of over 500 people (this figure from an organisation named Economic and Social Rights) and in one case a person who is widely known was snatched off the street by a group of men. This was announced on 23 September at 3.36am in a tweet that appeared from the account of a person named Yasmin El-Rifae, editor of Mada Mars. Her tweet said:
Mahinour el Masry was grabbed by men in civilian clothes & dragged into a white minivan moments after she walked out of court, where she was attending a hearing as a lawyer. This was reported & confirmed by several lawyers & witnesses.
This is the most high profile arrest since anti-Sisi protests began on Friday.
Mada Mars is an Egyptian media organisation that on its English-language website says:
We are an Egypt-based media organization interested in producing intelligent and engaging journalism, and more generally in re-examining the role of media in relation to its public.
The site was established in 2013 by a group of journalists who had lost their jobs at other organisations. It appears to be independent but there is no specific information on the “About” page that describes where its funding comes from. El Masry’s Wikipedia page says she is currently serving a prison sentence but this information might be out of date. She was born in 1986 in Alexandria. The site also says she is “an Egyptian human rights lawyer and political activist” and it spells her given name “Mahienour”.

Different people had different views about the protests, and were not shy of expressing them online. On 23 September at 12.10pm a 38-year-old, whose account had the Twitter handle @Gihan81 and 65 followers, tweeted, “Sisi is a piece of shit. No doubt about that. But the solution is certainly NOT the #MuslimBrotherhood and their leftist allies. They are no better than the current regime. We would be going from one puddle of shit to another.”

Foreign nations also didn’t escape people’s ire. On 23 September at 2.50pm an account named The New Arab (that has a blue verification tick from Twitter) tweeted, “‘UK 'complicit' in #Egypt regime brutality against pro-#democracy protesters‘.” The tweet came with a link to a story on its website.  The story included the following:
Since assuming power, Sisi's regime has had £141 million worth of arms sales approved by the British government, which included assault rifles, small arms ammunition, weapon sights and armoured vehicles, all of which were likely used against protesters. 
In 2011 the Egyptian authorities used UK-made tear gas against pro-democracy campaigners.
The stock market was closed, suspending trade in equities. On 23 September at 7.24pm a news site called Egypt Independent tweeted, “#Egypt trading suspended as shares plunge after protests.” The tweet came with a link to a story dated 22 September.  The website’s “About” page contains this:
Egypt Independent is the sister English-language publication of Al-Masry Al-Youm daily, the country’s flagship independent paper. 
In 2011, Egypt’s year of revolutionary change, Egypt Independent launched a weekly print edition that serves as an insightful digest of the country’s dynamic times.
And where was al-Sisi? On 23 September at 7.26pm a news outlet with the name NRT English tweeted, “Heads of state of Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt meet ahead of UN General Assembly.” The tweet came with a photo (see below). Al-Sisi is the man at the table on the left in the photo. There was also a link to a story on the outlet’s website.  The “About” page was only in Arabic and the text there didn’t translate using Google Translate.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Book review: Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present, Christopher Harding (2018)

I read this history slowly and it took in all about a week to get through its 400-odd pages. I had a bit of trouble with the author’s decision to use the Japanese traditional way of writing names (with the family name first) and another issue was the lack of commentary when talking about people who had earlier appeared in the narrative. But overall the quality of this book is very good and Harding gives the reader a detailed but engaging portrait of modern Japan.

Going by the way Harding deals with the most recent times it is reasonable to say that he is fair and balanced throughout the entire length of the book. I had nothing to compare his history with for the early years covered in the scope of the work, but for the postwar era I had experience having spent almost a decade living in the country myself. So I can vouch to prospective readers that this is a quality production.

Japan’s main problem since the middle of the 19th century seems to have been how to organise itself and associated with this problem was how to understand itself. Coming from feudalism straight into modernity without anything in between – there had been no Renaissance and no scientific revolution, while there had been these things in Europe – it was no wonder there were teething problems. The Meiji settlement, that came about in the years after the new emperor came into power in 1868, allowed a small minority of males (limited according to income) to vote for representatives in the legislature’s lower house but the upper house was appointed by the emperor. Even after 1925 when universal male suffrage was introduced, women were not allowed to vote and the upper house was still appointed by the monarch. Civil society had nowhere to grow in the absence of a middle class.

Under this kind of system of government, with a very limited franchise, it was unsurprising that weird things happened. Alongside the lack of accountability was a distrust on the part of the government of any kind of popular sovereignty at all. Poverty made the country in its early days fertile ground for such ideas as socialism but the government worked with business to control the masses and to use their labour to progress national goals such as colonialism and war. Once the Americans got involved – getting, for the writing of a new Constitution, a woman with a Jewish father and a Japanese mother – things turned around as power was spread more evenly across the whole community and as a country Japan eventually turned into a success.

What this book does do well is to show how hard it can be to arrive at modernity in the absence of a working civil society and a middle class to run it. In this regard, the example of China comes to mind. There, an autocratic class (much like Japan’s in the early years, from 1850), refuses to share power and causes an endless series of problems for its neighbours. What Japan does show, on the other hand, is that, even with a multi-party system and universal suffrage, people might prefer to stick with the same group of people whenever they are asked to choose between the options on offer. It’s hard, in the light of this example, to see what the CCP is worried about. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is firmly in power and has been for most of the time since WWII.

The other thing the book does is to show how Japanese people have been looking, for a long time, for ways to understand their place in the world. A lot of what happened in its history since 1850 – and there is plenty of time spent focusing in the book on culture, and not just on politics or economics – is driven by a search for authenticity.

In relation to the West, which has been, for all of the period under review in this work, so manifestly different from Japan, how are the Japanese people to see themselves? What do they represent? What are their values? What are their beliefs? Who, at the end of the day, are they? Part of the answer to such questions is reached by looking at how Westerners see Japanese people and Japan as a nation. But this is never enough for Japanese people themselves. They need to know, on their own terms, what they are all about.

A national history is always going to form a contested space but I feel that this one deserves to be widely read. The author uses colourful vignettes, especially at the beginning of the different sections that make up the book, to draw representative portraits of individuals who somehow embody something important about the collective. This was great fun to read and I recommend it highly.

Monday 23 September 2019

Odd shots, 03: The ABC hates the Labor Party

This is the third post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The trope is so common it’s unremarkable. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

My survey started on 1 September, ran for three weeks, and focused on the idea that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has it in for the Labor Party, a centre-left party that always receives a large part of the primary vote in Australian elections. This view seems to be a commonplace now for the simple reason that the federal government is controlled by the Liberal-National coalition (a centre-right party). However as I noted in the previous post in this series:
The Coalition also holds power in NSW, the country’s largest state. The Liberal party holds government in South Australia and in Tasmania. But Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory are controlled by the Labor Party.
But getting back to the main thrust of this article, an idea with currency in the broader community – or at least that part of it that uses Twitter, which skews heavily progressive – has Labor on the ropes with the country somehow in thrall to the far-right.

Left-wing luminaries regularly stoke this fear. For example, on Thursday 5 September at 9.38am, Sally McManus, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, tweeted, “Just imagine the response of whole sections of the media if Labor had of [sic] delivered the economic results [Treasurer] Josh Frydenberg did yesterday. Front page and wall to wall.”

The above chart derives from federal government data and shows, since 1991, the size of federal tax receipts as a proportion of GDP and the state of the national debt (surplus or deficit). The chart shows that the Coalition’s track record managing the economy differs from Labor’s in material ways, and many journalists are aware of this. 

To provide some context for the chart, some details are necessary. Labor was in power from 1983 until 1996, the year John Howard of the Liberals gained power. He was prime minister until 2007, when the Labor Party won government again. They saw the country through the Global Financial Crisis, spending heavily to prop up the economy, and lost power in 2013, when the Liberal-National coalition were elected again. These paragraphs are intended to give some background for the comments from McManus included earlier.

The ABC is the national broadcaster and, as even the most obtuse netizen knows, it has a corporate charter that mandates representation of the whole community on the TV channels, the websites, and the radio stations the company runs.

One ABC panel show that runs regularly, every Sunday morning, is ‘Insiders’, and it is being hosted by different people at the moment until such time as a permanent replacement for the previous host (Barrie Cassidy) can be installed. The program is very popular with people who use Twitter, and gets its own hashtag, which becomes very busy when the show airs. On Sunday 1 September at 8.31pm an account named Eddy Jokovich (with 10,274 followers when I looked at the profile page) tweeted, “Amazingly poor interview on #Insiders. [Host] Fran Kelly attacking [Labor Senator] Tanya Plibersek about education, as if she’s been the minister responsible. [The Labor Party] hasn’t been in government since 2013, but Kelly framing problems as if it’s all her fault.” 

In that case, a probing interview was perceived as evidence of bias. Other journalists get this kind of treatment as well. For example, on Wednesday 11 September at 4.11pm an account with the Twitter handle @fightingtories and 6755 followers tweeted, “So now we get @PatsKarvelas running protection for Gladys Liu[,] the same Karvelas who went after Dastyari. now even using liberal party [sic] lines and racism as an attack line.” Patricia Karvelas works for the ABC but used to be with News Corp. Gladys Liu is an embattled Liberal MP who had been caught lying on a radio show on another broadcaster’s frequency about her involvement with a front group for the Chinese Communist Party. Labor’s Sam Dastyari, a federal senator, had had to resign in January 2018 because of what was perceived in the community to be unwarranted influence from Chinese businessmen associated (as they all are, if they are rich) with the CCP.

It’s not just the ABC that hates the Labor Party, say some. The perception of bias to the disadvantage of Labor also extends to other news outlets. For example, on 12 September at 11.54am the government-run Special Broadcasting Service’s account tweeted, “Breaking: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called the attack on Gladys Liu a 'grubby smear' and an insult to Chinese-Australians.” Retweeting this, at 12.02pm a Victorian resident with 8322 followers tweeted, “as expected, Main Stream [sic] Media supporting PM Morrison[,] Liberals, now if it was a Labor MP, the [shit; rendered by an emoji] would flow copiously and endlessly in the media.”

And it wasn’t only Gladys Liu netizens were targeting (although she came in for a lot of flak over a period of two or three days). On 13 September Denise Shrivell, who regularly complains about the media, tweeted, “Extraordinary mainstream media & the ABC is not asking why the National Party is so keen to roll out the cashless welfare card further when the reason is so easy to find. Just extraordinary.” A few minutes later, at 7.39am, Shrivell tweeted in reply to a progressive-minded journalist named Paddy Manning, “There’s a lot more to this card than mainstream media is reporting - costs involved, who owns it, actual trial results. Once you know all this - the reason the Nats are supporting it becomes obvious.” 

These comments related to the government’s plan to make unemployment benefits available only using a type of debit card that the government would commission a private company to issue to welfare recipients. People using the card would not be able to buy such things as alcohol or drugs with their welfare benefits. Previously, this type of card, called an “Indue card”, was only issued to Aboriginal people living in remote communities in order to prevent them spending their benefits on booze. Extending the Indue card to all unemployed living in cities had elicited a good deal of commentary in the media. The National Party is the partner of the Liberal Party, and as mentioned at the beginning of this post they share power federally. 

On Friday 13 September the attacks on Fran Kelly started up again. At 7.10am the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ Twitter account announced, “This Sunday on #Insiders @frankelly08 will be joined by Niki Savva, @vanOnselenP and @PhillipCoorey.” The same day at 11.21pm an account with the Twitter handle @krONik and 11,143 followers retweeted this tweet with a comment, “Good grief! Savva *AND* PvO? Throw Fran Kelly in and that's real @LiberalAus bias in defiance of the ABC Charter. Does #insiders actually believe advertising this line up of #rwnj @LiberalAus stooges will increase its audience? Seems I'm now freed up to go watch TVSN!” Niki Savva is a conservative commentator and a former adviser to John Howard, who was Liberal prime minster between 1996 and 2007. Peter van Onselen is a journalist with Ten Network (a unit of US broadcaster CBS) and Phillip Coorey is a journalist with the Australian Financial Review, which is owned by Channel Nine. TVSN is a shopping network owned by a company called Direct Group Pty Ltd.

Predictably, on Sunday 15 September on the morning the weekly episode of ‘Insiders’ screened, the verbal missiles aimed at the ABC started up again. I have only included a few of them here: there were a lot more than this. 

At 9.22am an account named Butus45 with 587 followers tweeted, “Pity Fran does not do a study on the LNP like she does on Labor or would that be doing you [sic] job look at this Fran #insiders” The “LNP” is the acronym people use to refer to the Liberal-National coalition, although they are separate parties apart from in the state of Queensland. The tweet came with an image attacking the Liberal MP David Littleproud for allegedly charging over $22,000 dollars as the cost for a journey of 84km. The image had been common the day before and had been held up by many on Twitter as an example of Liberal Party excess but the allegation had not been picked up by any reputable media outlet.
At 9.51am, an account named Bee (@belindsjones68) with 11,239 followers tweeted the following:
This week on #Insiders 
Talking Pictures
End of Show
I want PK back, I liked it when the show focused on what the govt is doing, not what the Opposition is doing.  
‘Talking Pictures’ is a humorous segment on ‘Insiders’ that looks at political cartoons that have appeared in newspapers during the previous week. “PK” refers to Patricia Karvelas.

And at 10.01am an account named lachiemc with 443 followers tweeted, “The masters that run ‘our?’ ABC are telling us over and over that the only reason the opposition exists is to repeatedly bash in order to distract us all from just how awful the COALition Government really is. Unfortunately this works.”

The idea that journalists are just “stenographers” who blindly parrot the line the government gives them is also commonplace. Not a few regular media critics use this excuse when they want to attack the media for some perceived failing. An example of this appeared on Monday 16 September at 7.25am after the ABC morning show’s Michael Rowland tweeted, “Energy Minister @AngusTaylorMP says Australia's strategic oil reserve is closer to 90 days 'on our definition', and that it includes 'stock on water'. The govt has been criticised in the past for only having 28 days supply.” 

Later that day, at 11.11am, an account named Grunta operated by a man named Grant who had 4822 followers when I checked his profile, retweeted Rowland’s tweet and added a comment of his own: “So journalism is now just parroting Gov's blatant lies verbatim without challenge, then to play those lies on loop all day long, this is what the Abc [sic] do daily, those lies become the accepted narrative.” This despite the fact that a journalist reporting what a member of the government says about a topical issue is perfectly normal and reasonable.

When the prime minister visited Washington, DC, to meet the US president there was more reason, for some, to lambaste the ABC on the basis of a perception that it goes easy on the federal government. So on Friday 20 September at 1.27pm Ian Mannix (ironically, a former ABC employee) tweeted, “If you log onto @abcnews mobile page right now you get almost nothing of consequence about #ClimateStrike. This time the kids aren’t running the newsroom and they should be. Lift your game @abcnews hours watching plane land in USA. WTF?” The reference to “kids” related to the fact that the impetus for the climate strike action that took place in many countries on 20 September had been noticeably led by young people. Mannix’s comment was not entirely fair however as during that day I had noticed many segments about the climate strike protests on the ABC News TV channel; I usually keep the box on in the background when I am on social media.

Sunday 22 September 2019

Book review: The Collected Schizophrenias, Esme Weijun Wang (2019)

This fine collection of essays is both a memoir and a work of journalism. In recounting her problems with schizoaffective disorder, Wang does other things as well, as would a person who is motivated both by generosity and by an existential need: to comprehend something that normally lies beyond the boundaries of the ordinary person’s experience and that goes to the centre of her very identity. Unavoidably, her illness defines, in a real way, much about she is.

The book is both personal and accessible. In this realm there are few popular guides to conduct and so the author had to make it up as she went along. There are plenty of references in the book to the rendering of mental illness, particularly this kind of disease, in both popular culture and in more weighty works, so Wang is not completely adrift on a sea of nothingness. But the manner of her proceeding is all her own. She bounces ideas off existing cultural artefacts as well as examining institutional responses to mental illnesses of this nature, but she brings her own brand of intelligence to the table in looking for answers.

My own diagnosis is not included in this book but I did feel that I had been, to a certain degree, understood by this author. When I was first hospitalised following an episode of my illness, the doctors were hesitant to use the word “schizophrenia” but this word was later applied to me by others. Then, some 15 years later, another psychiatrist used a different word to describe my condition.

For someone who is living with a mental illness, this book can offer a particular type of signification that you can’t often find in the world. It is a strange document but Wang is a talented writer. Her habits of mind make her susceptible to grasping the meanings of both mundane and psychological phenomena and the solutions she seeks out to help her manage her illness, the many avenues she travels down in her quest for peace-of-mind, suggest a kind of practical wisdom. In telling her own story, Wang also says useful things about this kind of illness in a broader sense, and she looks at the different ways that society has, in the past, tried to cope with people who live with it.

Anyone who has lived with this kind of illness will understand implicitly the kinds of measures Wang resorts to and the kinds of questions she asks of a range of people, including medical practitioners. They will also understand how she feels at different moments, or most of the time at least.

As such, this book can serve people who do not live with this kind of illness as a kind of primer. I hope it will be widely read so that the author’s journey from a place characterised by intense suffering, to another kind of place, can be better understood. Stigma is real and it erodes people’s ability to live a normal life. While we need to speak out more about mental illness so that it can be better managed and so that suicide can be prevented more effectively, there is enough misunderstanding about mental illness that people who live with it are unwilling, in most cases, to tell many people about their condition. They might tell their close friends and their family but beyond that circle of trusted individuals they normally stay mum. This silence is corrosive and leads to poor outcomes.

So this book can function as a corrective for general ignorance but, with this kind of disease, not every solution that works for every person is guaranteed to work for every other person. To suggest such a thing would be preposterous. This is one woman’s journey yet it can, nonetheless, possess general relevance. A very good read, and it doesn’t take long to complete.

Saturday 21 September 2019

Some climate strike placards people were carrying in Australia

Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in parks and on streets in 112 Australian towns and cities to protest against government inaction on climate change. In the evening, an estimate published by the Sydney Morning Herald, the nation’s leading newspaper, said 300,000 people, or about 1.2 percent of the country’s population.

The figurehead of the action was Swedish student Greta Thunberg but the turnout on the day showed the community that there are many people who are concerned about global warming and the other phenomena associated with climate change. Next Friday, New Zealand is going to hold similar protests.

I started to grab images of placards and other signs in the early afternoon and I finished up at about 4.20pm with 46 files saved to disc. Most of these were found after tuning into the #climatestrike hashtag. They are just the placards that caught my attention: the more amusing or unusual creations. There were many other signs that I left untouched in the hours during which I undertook the survey. I have categorised the selected images in the following way:
  1. The prime minister and other politicians
  2. Variations on the word “hot”
  3. Relating to school
  4. On children
  5. On old age
  6. On introverts
  7. Popular culture references
  8. Internet culture inventions
  9. Some dogs
  10. Plays on the name of the planet Uranus
  11. The rest
One: The prime minister and other politicians

Above: “Prime minister’s to do list.” 

Above: “Scomo likes it hot.” “Scomo” is the nickname of Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister.

Above: “I’ve seen smarter cabinets at Ikea.” 

Above: “Scomo rhymes with ohno for a reason.”

Above: “We actually do have the power to force politicians to take action.”

Above: “Hey man you got a climate policy? We’d be a lot cooler if you did.”

Above: “Make earth great again.” Refers to Donald Trump.

Above: “Fossil fools.” Shows the Australian prime minister and the American president. On the day of the protest the two men met in Washington, DC.

Two: Variations on the word “hot”

Above: “Hot girl summer.”

Above: “The planet is getting hotter than my imaginary boyfriend.”

Above: “We can’t afford to get any hotter.”

Three: Relating to school

Above: “I just took a climate change test. Turns out we’re 100% killing the planet.”

Above: “School bus 2050.”

Above: “the world is our classroom.”

Above: “We’ll go to school when the earth is cool.”

Above: “Well do our maths when you do your job.”

Four: On children

Above: “The sea is getting higher than me.”

Above: “Stop burning our babies’ futures.” These pregnant women were wearing T-shirts saying, “It’s getting hot in here.”

Five: On old age

Above: “Grumpy old man who supports smart students.”

Above: “You will die of old age we will die from climate change.”

Six: On introverts

Above: “It’s so bad even introverts are here.”

Above: “It’s so bad the introverts are here.”

Seven: Popular culture references

Above: “This planet is hotter than Shawn Mendes.” This man is, I learned after doing a Google search, a Canadian singer, songwriter and model.

Above: “At the start of every disaster movie there’s a scientist being ignored.”

Above: “Climate change is worst [sic] than Voldemort.” Harry Potter’s nemesis in the novels by JK Rowling. 

Above: “Death for my metal not my planet.”

Above: “Too hot for bananas.” Reference to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘Bananas in Pyjamas’ children’s show.

Above: “Nemo no more.” The protagonist, a fish, in the 2003 Pixar Animation Studios movie ‘Finding Nemo’, which is set in the waters off the Australian coast.

Above: “It’s so bad I skipped the Area 51 raid.” Refers to a legendary and secret US military site located in the state of Nevada. The "raid" was "a Facebook joke that quickly attracted millions of followers", according to a story on the BuzzFeed website.

Above: “There’s no Creative Mode to save our planet.” Creative Mode is a part of the computer game ‘Minecraft’. According to the game’s wiki, in this mode, “players have an infinite amount of resources to build with, with no health or hunger to hamper their building and the ability to destroy all blocks instantly.” I had to look this up as I don’t play computer games.

Eight: Internet culture inventions

Above: “RIP earth we are gonna miss you boo xox.”

Above: “What if we saved the planet haha jk …”

Above: “Nooo don’t kill the earth it’s so sexy haha.”

Above: “The apocalypse is not accessible.”

Nine: Some dogs

Above: “K9 for planet earth.”

Above: “I have better climate pawlicies.”

Ten: Plays on the name of the planet Uranus

Above: “Keep the earth clean it’s not Uranus.”

Above: “Act now Scomo B4 earth looks like Uranus.”

Eleven: The rest

Above: “Get your head out of the sand.”

Above: “I recycled some trash for my sign.”

Above: “If you’re not worried you’re not paying attention.”

Above: “I’m sure the dinosaurs thought they had time too.”

Above: “Pig powered by clean coal.”

Above: “Save the bees, avoid the sting. UR extinction.” This is the popular activist Danny Lim with one of his famous sandwich boards.

Above: “There is no planet B.”

Above: “We are nature’s immune system.”

I apologise to the people who took these photos for not crediting them, but it wasn’t always possible to know who took the photos. Further, making a decision to capture such information would have significantly increased the complexity of the process. If you see a photo you took and you want me to either add your name to the caption or take the photo off this post, get in touch.