Occupy This

16 10 2011

To steal from Network, Americans are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

The #Occupy movement, which began as #OccupyWallStreet, a protest against bankers, bailouts and corporate greed.

In my tiny mind, Americans have every right to be angry. They might be angry enough to consign Barack Obama to a one-term presidency – unthinkable a few years ago. The left is angry, the right is angry and the Tea Party is the small government, small tax version of the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Christian base for this decade

A few fast facts on why I think Americans are mad:

The economy: No wonder President Obama is playing golf with President Clinton. The baseline in American politics is the economy, stupid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ latest release (7 October), seasonally adjusted unemployment in September 2011 was 9.1 per cent. That’s a 0.5 per cent improvement on September 2010. Breaking that down:

  • 14 million Americans are registered unemployed
  • Of that number, the long-term unemployed (people out of work for more than 27 weeks) make up more than 44 per cent, or 6.2 million)
  • 24 per cent of teenagers (16-19 year olds) are unemployed
  • 16 per cent of blacks are unemployed (c.f. with 8 per cent unemployment among whites; 11.3 per cent for Hispanics and 7.8 per cent for Asians)
  • The annual 2010 unemployment rate of ‘Gulf War II’ veterans (i.e. military personnel who have served post September 2001) is 11.5 per cent
Delving slightly deeper, while the labor force and employment figures lifted, the civilian labor force participation rate (64.2 per cent) and employment:population ratio (58.3 per cent) remain fairly static. Disturbingly, 9.3 million Americans are classed as involuntary part-time workers (i.e. their hours have been cut or they’re unable to find full-time work). In August 2011, the number was 8.8 million – an additional 444,000 people in one month. Those ‘marginally attached to the workforce’ – some 2.5 million Americans who have sought work in the last year, but not in the last four weeks, are not counted as unemployed. There are 1 million ‘discouraged’ American workers. These are the defeated and demoralised. They believe they cannot get a job, so they’ve given up. Average hourly earnings? $23.12. Average weekly earnings? $793.02.
‘Failed’ stimulus: President Obama signed The Recovery Act on 7 February 2009. The total package of $787 billion was increased to $840 billion in 2011. I bracketed ‘failed’ because it’s open to interpretation. There is certainly a perception that while some of the leading indicators have resulted in an improvement in certain sectors of the economy and regions, in my view, this is counterbalanced by one of the saddest statistics I think I’ve ever come across: $8 billion additional spend on food stamps to feed 38 million hungry Americans. (Reuters)
Dysfunctional government: the White House is caught in a pincer movement. President Obama has come out swinging at Congress recently, most notably on his jobs bill. He’s moving to Candidate Obama, criss-crossing the country selling a Bill which has no chance of passing. These people who were willing to play brinkmanship with the country’s credit card. It is pathetic.
The cost of foreign policy: President Obama got Osama bin Laden. Terrific. It doesn’t change the economic and human costs of the country’s operations in Pakistan and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the key findings of a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:
  • The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt.
  • More than 31,000 people in uniform and military contractors have died, including the Iraqi and Afghan security forces and other military forces allied with the United States.
  • By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts.
  • The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees among Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis.
  • Pentagon bills account for half of the budgetary costs incurred and are a fraction of the full economic cost of the wars.
  • Because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020.
  • Federal obligations to care for past and future veterans of these wars will likely total between $600-$950 billion. This number is not included in most analyses of the costs of war and will not peak until mid-century.
That’s just war. Don’t start me on the President’s broken promise to close Guantánamo Bay; conduct of extra-judicial killings and the disconnect between endorsement of the Arab Spring where it’s easy (Libya, for example) and wilful disregard for others (such as the Shi`a of  Bahrain).
The 99 per cent: Campaign finance reform; the disparity between tax breaks for the super-wealthy and the middle-class; corporate bailouts; out-of-control student debt it’s the beginning of a national conversation Americans haven’t engaged in for a long time.
So … it was with a general sense of irritation that I heard about the #OccupyPickAnAustralianCity protests that took place yesterday, for one reason: the great Australian propensity for whingeing. If whingeing was an Olympic sport, it would be, ‘GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!’ for Australia. I whinge, I hear others whinge and I read about people whingeing on a daily basis. It’s healthy to vent, to verbalise frustrations, irritations and feelings that systems, services and other people are failing us; but when you conflate whingeing into the #Occupy movement, you cheapen it. Yes, I am fully aware that Australia was only one of 78 countries to hold protests yesterday. I would also contend that people in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece have legitimate fears and grievances against prevailing economic conditions and systemic corruption. Australia? Not so much. While many on the ‘left’ view Tony Abbott as the Nabob of No, the Occupiers of Australia are playing his game of fear and loathing:
The economy: 5.2 per cent unemployment in September 2011. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress 2011 report shows, pretty much everything (barring productivity) has improved since 2000. Including unemployment. The bad news? That increase applies to threatened animal species due to climate change. The average weekly income per full-time employed adult is $1,305. The average hourly income is between $29.70 and$33.10 (the disparity? Female wages c.f. men) (Source: ABS)
‘Failed’ stimulus: I’m leaving this one to George Megalogenis
Dysfunctional government: I am not a cheerleader for the current Government, but I am thankful that there are some quality people in our Parliament. Not naming names, but as close to the bone it has come on major issues – especially in the last few weeks – it is functional. I may not like the politics, the policies, the poor communication and quality of political discourse, but it continues to roll on.
The cost of foreign policy: Defence estimates an approximate $6 billion spend in Afghanistan to 2014. Iraq Mk II, approximately $2.3 billion. To me, the irreparable damage is in civilian deaths, leaving Australian citizens in Gitmo, irregular migration flows (UN-speak for refugees), international reputation and pathetic policy reactions to the problems we helped cause. That said, I don’t think we’ve been breaking arms embargoes, killing people willy-nilly or uneven in our condemnation for despots the world over.
The 99 per cent: according to a new release into household wealth from the ABS, the top 20 per cent of Australian households have seen their average net wealth increase by 15 per cent to $2.2 million since 2005/06, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of total household wealth. The bottom 20 per cent’s average net wealth grew by only 4 per cent. They account for approximately 1 per cent of total household wealth. That leaves almost 30 per cent of Australian households with an average net wealth of $720,000, up 14 per cent since 2005/06 – almost on par with the richest in the land and 10 per cent ahead of the poor. I contend that there is no ’99 per cent’ in Australia. Of course there is disparity in wealth; but the two major assets of Australian households (property – $520-540,000; superannuation – $60-154,000) put ‘average’ Australia within striking distance of the top 20 per cent. This is not the case in the US. It never has been and never will be.
I hope this stirs some pots & kettles. It stirred mine.
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None of the News

14 07 2011

I was a ‘copykid’ at News Limited’s Holt Street, Surry Hills, headquarters in the early 1990s. I have written previously, & very briefly about my experience there, on a rare journalistic duty known as a ‘deathknock’. What I haven’t written – or ranted about – is the sum of that experience; how it opened my eyes to the guts of an industry from the way that I think has fallen by the wayside – interacting with everyone on staff, from the ‘Brothers’ in the printing room, to the drivers; the late night paper runs, where we swapped bundles of the Daily Telegraph-Mirror (as it was then) and The Australian in return for the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review – a cute little deal that meant if one had a great splash, the other could write a few pars & get the Day Editor & Chief-of-Staff onto the yarn so they could report how it was progressing at the morning’s news conference. We rotated shifts: mid –dawns; 7am-3pm; 3pm-midnight, seven days a week; we rotated desks – from the radio room, an airless goldfish bowl where you listened to police scanners for breaking stories; to general news (generally shit, the editorial floor’s dogs body, with tasks ranging from getting then-DTM Editor, Col Allan’s cigarettes, to ploughing through the newspapers’ photo library and paper files for back stories and pix. Oh, and buying Ray Chesterton’s chips). I was lucky; my starting roster was on the Weekend Australian Magazine. They were a good crew, and the pace was, well, I started at nine and finished at five, bought coffees, did the file gathering and sometimes some proof-reading. It was great. It was also sheltered from the maelstrom of the editorial floors.

When you work shifts, your body and mind inevitably rebel. As soon as the rosters went up – unless we were on a regular assignment such as the magazine – 20 plus copykids, almost all with degrees and aching with ability – zoomed to the ‘head of the copykids’ office to check it out. Invariably, there would be a week of 7-3s followed by a mid-dawn week in the radio room, starting Sunday night. The worst weeks involved changing shifts daily. 7-3, 3-7, 9-5, 11-7 … a 40 hour week, without scheduled breaks, for $17,000 a year. Raised in a union household, I was shocked to learn that because we weren’t on a recognised award, the Australian Journalists’ Association (now the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance) would not accept us as members, or fight for even the most basic of rights. It turned me off unionism for life (despite working for Labor governments, I have never joined a union). Again, if you were working on a good desk, like the DTM features desk (my all-time favourite; bursting with talent and sound people to work alongside), it was a case of, ‘hey, do you need me for 15 minutes? I just want to go out and grab something to eat, I’ll be straight back’, and eating without interruption. If you were on a shithouse roster, like the newsdesk, there would be two copykids so you could at least take a piss, and cover for each other while you saw what delights the canteen held for you. Invariably, it was hot chips. Invariably, you inhaled them or ate them cold, with the shout, ‘COPY!’ snapping you to attention and ensuring you were beside the person who called before the shout came again.

After two cadet exams and two failures to escape the ‘copy’ grind for a prized cadetship, I bid Holt Street farewell. My desire to change the world with electronic typewriter (yes, I am that old) and SLR steadily eroded by seeing the way shit worked: the nepotism; the sensationalism; seeing good journos doing good things, knowing they were capable of much more (many of them have gone on to prove me right). It was also an exciting time – the merger of Sydney’s two tabloids into one; being part of the end of an era – the last of the copy runners, the last of the trucks leaving Holt Street as the presses moved to Chullora and the sub-editors got to grips with doing their normal jobs as fact checkers, word-slashers & general layout to becoming the new ‘band of brothers’.

OK, so this is a rambling way of getting to the biggest media story of the year: the implosion of News International. I’ve eaten this up, just because I left News Ltd almost 20 years ago doesn’t mean I don’t care about the company. Care is the wrong word. There were (and are) plenty of good people at News. I have never worked at Fairfax but I have had a decade’s worth of liaising with both Fairfax and News and they are both employers of writers capable of fine journalism and scum producing real bottom of the barrel tat and opinion dressed as news.

The only thing I can add to the debate about whether the British disease may have spread to Australia (much of it quite spiteful, ill-founded and agenda-focused from a variety of players – not all of them News Ltd employees) is another of the tasks performed by the 3-11pm or 4pm to midnight copykids: faxing the first couple of pages to each of Mr Murdoch’s offices, so that wherever he was, he knew exactly what was in every one of his papers. In those days, there was only one Mr Murdoch. AsI fed the fax machine a page at a time to Mr Murdoch on a regular basis, I often wondered how he had the time and energy to read every title owned by News Corporation and its subsidiaries – I think there are about 170 (from the suburbs of Sydney to the Wall Street Journal; excluding minority shareholdings in Fijian, PNG, and Russian titles). I wondered, but always went back to the adage that Mr Murdoch had ink in his veins. He loved newspapers the same way Kerry Packer loved Channel 9. He famously parlayed the legacy of his father, Sir Keith, (main asset? The now-defunct Adelaide News) into the world’s second-largest media and entertainment conglomerate. It takes balls of steel. As we have seen in the case of News International, it means that the ink in his veins appears to have dried.

Yet, I have this gnawing suspicion that he still gets the first five pages of his titles sent to an iPad somewhere in the world; dictators may look upon their chosen successors benignly, but they remain dictators to the very end. The Mr Murdoch that I worked for, all those years ago, knew what was going on in Holt Street. Why would Fleet Street (or Wapping) be any different? I am not buying the Sergeant Schultz defence that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks are selling. I don’t care how much Mr Murdoch may care for Rebekah Brooks (some say she is viewed as another Murdoch child), the man we all knew as ruthless when it came to business (and he viewed editorial as business), would never have suffered an editor who said, ‘sorry about that guy busted for phone hacking, I didn’t know it was happening’. Their heels wouldn’t have touched the floor on the way out. James Murdoch’s tortuously crafted statements about standards don’t cut the ice with me, either; if he didn’t know what was happening on his watch, then he’s either incompetent, a fool or both. I don’t believe he is. His father’s refusal to address the issue publicly to any greater extent than a terse sentence (even on his own Fox News Network, with a business reporter who called him Mr Chairman, which made me snort water out of my nose as I imagined Mr Murdoch waving his mighty ‘red tops’, a version of Mao with Little Red Book in hand) is the ultimate con. He is a man with a compulsive desire to know things. He was bidding for the greatest prize, 100 per cent ownership of BSkyB, which would stamp his name in history as the greatest of the great media tycoons (they have always existed: people who believe The Australian is a poisonous vessel of the right under the Twitter #auspol hashtag probably don’t remember the UK Mirror Group pensions scandal under Robert Maxwell, poor Czech immigrant turned MP and media proprietor, let alone have any notion of the influence wielded by Max Aitken (the 1st Baron Beaverbrook – indeed, ‘the first Baron of Fleet Street’) who published every morsel of King Edward VIII’s affair with Mrs Wallis Simpson, while personally imploring him to give up her up. His friend, Churchill made him a Minister during World War II; he met with Roosevelt and Stalin; Evelyn Waugh thinly-disguised the media tycoon in his triumph, Scoop, Lord Cooper, on Beaverbrook. Murdoch is not the first, he won’t be the last. However, Mr Murdoch is looking a little fragile. As King of kings, more Ozymandias than Ramses the Great.

Why have I written this? For almost 20 years, I have felt very guilty about something I did to further my career at News Limited. While working on the DTM features desk on Good Friday (can you imagine, the slowest of slow news days), I went out to grab some coffees for the skeleton crew. I happened to spot the notoriously private film director, Jane Campion. Ms Campion was hot property, having just returned from Cannes, with the Palme d’Or for The Piano. I loved the film. I came back, and with a studied insouciance, dropped the tidbit as I put down the coffees. The CoS loved it, a photographer was dispatched and boy was I feeling good about providing a lead that would fill a story-sized hole in the paper. The snapper came back, unhappy. Ms Campion’s partner had lost his temper, their quiet party of four was ruined and the photos were awful. The reason? Jane Campion’s first baby, 12-days-old, had recently died. The story was published, and must have been incredibly hurtful to her & her partner, and it was my fault. There was no public interest in pursuing a woman who had not pursued personal fame; let alone snapping her having what may have appeared as a nice little chat about her French triumph, but was possibly a first outing with friends as they struggled with their grief. To my shame and regret (knowingly, or unknowingly, it doesn’t matter), I caused someone else pain to advance my stocks at News Limited because as a ‘celebrity’ she was fair game. I believe it was that single event which made me reassess what I wanted to do with my life. Telling tittle-tattle wasn’t it.

For the record, I despise what News International has done. I also loathe that while it was ‘just’ affecting celebrities and politicians, the status quo prevailed; there was no groundswell of anger when the News of the World was literally, The News of the Screws – only when it became about real people. My experience with Jane Campion made me relate to the pain inflicted on former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his wife, Sarah, by Rebekah Brooks, who personally saw that News International’s Sun newspaper broke the news that their baby son had cystic fibrosis. I cried when I read it in The Guardian. I’ve worked for some monumentally self-serving people in politics and in business. I’ve seen first-hand some who I consider to be morally bankrupt; people who bully others in a manner bordering on sociopathic. I’ve known people who have been dragged before, or deserved to front, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. I’ve also had stand-up brawls with journalists who will stoop to innuendo and float base lies to fool people. I have seen people hurt, careers ended, by stories that served no public interest. I have had lazy hacks call for stories they can present at news conference, written a press release ‘exclusively’ for them and seen my words printed verbatim, with their name attached to it. In the same edition of the paper, they will roll out a bullshit yarn about the millions of dollars spent by governments on ‘spin’, which always included the salaries of secretaries, receptionists and policy advisers. I have personally had the staff of ‘shock jocks’ call me – a Ministerial press secretary – to resolve the problems of their callers – basically ‘queue jumpers’ – and then take the credit for it on air. The lives of ‘spin doctors’ and journalists are symbiotic; we, accused of being all-powerful, deceitful obfuscants of the truth; they, facile hacks who struggle to write a decent lead and selectively use one quote or statistic to suit their agenda, even when third parties object in Letters to the Editor. I have heard off-the-record phone calls between a Minister and an Editor which haven’t even finished before their press gallery reporter is on the phone, demanding a statement from me about what my boss genuinely believed was a personal conversation. I have had the threat, ‘we’re running this anyway’. I’ve also developed relationships with journalists to the point that they will tell me what pages their stories are running on, so a Minister can piggy-back off tomorrow’s unpublished headline, pre-record radio news grabs and know that TV crews will turn up for the vision we lovingly put together for them to fill their bulletins; or alternately, craft an ‘appropriate’ response to a shit sandwich. Anyone who thinks for one moment that one or the other has the complete upper hand on a positive or negative story is deluding themselves. Their news, your news … a lot of it is not news.





Talking Points Memos

26 05 2011

Malcolm Farnsworth’s critique of the Prime Minister & Australian political scene, published today by The Drum, is as ever, spot on. (“Malcolm Farnsworth: Three occasions, three glimpses of Barack Obama, three lessons for Julia Gillard. http://bit.ly/leu38P“)
Sadly, the piece isn’t counter-balanced with a more nuanced take on the US political discourse. In fact, it reads more like a DCCC talking points memo.
President Obama’s favourables still hover around 44%; the crowd that has thinned-out among potential GOP presidential-candidates has been Donald Trump – the declared candidates include Gingrich (damaged), Pawlenty & the dark-horse libertarian darling, Johnson. Then there are Romney, who has $6m cash-on-hand at present, & yes … Palin, who has just bought a house in AZ.
I say this as a supporter of the President, but his oratorical talent has rarely been doubted. He’s given a few good speeches in Europe … unfortunately, the speech that counted, delivered to AIPAC, was nothing new. In fact, he’s stuck to the same rhetoric and policy as his two immediate predecessors. The difference is like it or not, Israeli-Palestinian peace seems further away at a time when Israel’s neighbours – & therefore the Palestinians – are looking to make Israel’s claim to be the Middle East’s only democracy a thing of the past.





See the mountain

18 01 2011

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.”

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

Acceptance Speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize,

Oslo, December 10, 1964

The third Monday in January is a public holiday in the United States: Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Delivering his speech before the great and the good assembled in Oslo, The Rev. Dr King became, at 35 years old, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Feted before royalty and heads of state, he then became its shortest lived, assassinated on 4 April, 1968, aged 39.

I have been thinking about The Rev. Dr King for some time. Along with several other Twitter friends, I wanted to organise drinks for people with a passion for US politics eary in the new year, and thought this past weekend would be the perfect opportunity to do so. That was until the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, the deaths of six people and wounding of 19 attending her first ‘Congress in the Community’ meeting of 2011. The frenzied tweeting; the race to be first with the news – any news (including reports that Congresswoman Giffords had died, or was sitting up in bed); the hasty conclusions, claims and counter-claims about the mental health, political affiliation, musical tastes and reading habits of the young man arrested after the shootings; the impact of political rhetoric; gun laws; healthcare; homegrown terrorism – everything about America in 2011, compacted into one tragedy. I thought about it. USPol wonkdrinks would have to wait. Chiefly, because I was astounded by the way so many people I follow on Twitter saw this crime – and it is a crime: through the bifocal lens of our political system, ignoring the multipolarity of the US system, where a Jewish woman who had been a member of the Republican Party could be elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat representing a district in urban Arizona; where her seat, or her head, could be targeted in a map of surveyors’ marks or gunsight cross-hairs; a system which identified her as a “Blue Dog”, or fiscal conservative, who voted for President Obama’s healthcare reforms; a woman who was pro-choice and pro-gun. There is a left and right in US politics, but its electoral system encourages a middle ground where individual representatives put their individual interests ahead of the collective and attach demands of bridges to nowhere for their vote on a bill, blatant pork-barrelling known as ‘earmarks’. Few seem willing to acknowledge or understand the level of resentment towards ‘Washington’ and the perception that it writes cheques it cannot afford to cash that inspired the amorphous entity we know as the ‘Tea Party’; while its adherents might also be social conservatives, they are not the cookie-cutter base of the GoP. In short, the tie that binds is fear, not of God, but of government. It is a movement that has been hijacked by politicians and purveyors of the 10 word answer, hacks and haters more notable for backing failures in the 2010 Senate mid-term elections than successful candidates in the House.

The Rev. Dr King has been playing on my mind for weeks. His leadership of another amorphous entity, the civil rights movement; its expansion from the bigotry in Montgomery, Alabama, through to the March on Washington and his final push against the Vietnam War and poverty, whoever and wherever it marked. I was mindful in the early hours of this morning of other quotes from a preacher of the doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience, that, ‘a riot, is at bottom, the language of the unheard’; that ‘a man who won’t die for something is unfit to live’. He remains forefront in my mind as I read more claims and counter-claims regarding the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia and whether it was fomented by social media.

I say a resounding ‘no’. There is a breathtaking, post-colonial arrogance at the suggestion that Tunisians took to the streets to protest, and eventually ouster the despot Ben Ali, because social media made it so; that the truth of a leaked American diplomatic cable alerted the Global North to what Tunisians have known for years – that Ben Ali and his family and hangers on were corrupt; that educated young men have no prospect of employment, and were willing – nay, acted, on their despair – willing to die by their own hand in the belief, as the Rev. Dr King states, that, ‘freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed’. Acts of self-immolation have spread from Tunisia to Algeria, and now, Egypt. I see monks burning themselves in Vietnam, a war which cost America Johnson’s Great Society, according to King. The dictators of the Maghreb Union and Arab League may yet follow Ben Ali into the arms of the House of ibn Saud – but it will be in real life, at the cost of lives, not thanks to a Twibbon. We may know more – and information may spread faster – thanks to social media, but does it play that different a role to the French pamphleteers of 1789 – particularly in Tunisia, where al-Jazeera was not welcome and the internet and press censored and strangled?

Networks exist, but I cannot ascribe the fleeing of self-styled kings to ‘social networks’ as we know them. They are the palpable cry of people against networks of influence which free political actors from formal constraints of governance – the rules of representation, accountability and transparency; networks that coalesce around influential individuals, and infiltrate every element of the political process, helping those in power to keep it by manipulating the national polity and cultivating a culture of cronyism, solidifying a power base – such as Ben Ali’s – for 23 years – and making the machinery of government inefficient and susceptible to corruption. Such networks flourish in states where power is not diffused, making it difficult for opposition voices to be heard legitimately. When a society is wracked by what Kennes terms the ‘banalization of corruption and theft’, the nomenclature of the state ceases to bear meaning other than as a rallying cry for opposition. If the perception arises that just about anyone can do just about anything, longstanding norms and behaviours are turned on their head – suddenly and shockingly to us, as we read 140 character updates. If the norm-reversal extends across North Africa, then we must do more than hope that these ancien regimes will recede into the darkness. We must see the mountain, as Martin Luther King, Jr did in the final days of his life. We must say no to injustice, everywhere, wherever it exists. We can use social media as a tool, as Gabby Giffords did, inviting her community to be a part of her work in Congress; but in doing so, we must open ourselves to multiple voices, not simply amplify the ones we want to hear. Dismissing the dissenting opinion without applying critical thinking invites closed networks to flourish.





The Gitmo Archipelago, or how I learned to stop worrying and fell out of love with Barack Obama (Part I)

9 11 2010

“I’m sorry, Kimberley, but I’m an American. I don’t vote for the President of the world. I vote for the President of the United States of America. I’m from Chicago. Barack Obama is NOT what he represents himself to be. You don’t get in, or out of Chicago politics, as squeaky clean as people think this guy is. I’m for freedom, not socialism. I don’t want to be told what doctor I can see, or have my taxes support people who want to have five kids on welfare and never work. You bet I’ll vote for Sarah Palin if she runs in 2012.”

I’m sitting next to ‘Tom’, a businessman from Illinois, at a great restaurant in the West Village, New York City. It’s my last night here, and the antipathy towards President Obama is troubling me. I understand part of his argument: the US economy is up shit creek, and for many people, the paddle is out of reach. Every second ad on cable TV is for bankruptcy specialists. What I do not understand is why President Obama is not kicking against the pricks. I know you can’t blame the other side for everything, but President Bush rode his horse out of town with nary a bad word said against his economic record; the obsession with tax cuts while running a parallel, war-fuelled deficit defies belief; but he did it. It is four months before the midterm elections. Unemployment is running at almost 11 per cent. I walk around the financial district & it is though nothing, bar September 11, has hit the place. The investment houses, bailed out by the taxpayer, have returned to profitability. I feel sick that Australians, in general, do not understand how a combination of sound regulation of the financial industry and measured (though highly criticised) stimulus spending saved our country from this pain, and I am staying in one of the best neighbourhoods in New York. Poverty is not immediately evident, but former Mayor Rudy Giuliani did a good job of sweeping out the homeless. I may not agree with Tom, but he is considered, measured and engaged in the political process, and we agree to disagree, which is my default position on almost everything.

“Tom, I’m sorry – You’re the only superpower left. With that position comes responsibility. I’m not asking you to vote for Barack Obama because he’s a Democrat. Give me an intelligent, moderate Republican and go for your lives – but Sarah Palin? Sarah Palin negotiating Middle East peace talks? My country is at war because our then-government followed you. Socialised medicine? How many daughters did you say you have, Tom? Two? What are your daughters going to do if, god forbid, you’re in an accident and can’t work for six months. What if they have a genetic test, and they find out that they have the ‘breast cancer gene’? Will they be covered under your insurance? Will it be considered a pre-existing condition? What use is it to have the greatest pharmaceutical companies in the world if you cannot afford to buy medicine? How is access to a doctor ‘socialism’?”

We buy each other a drink. It’s hot, and a hot New York is not where Tom wants to be. He blames Barack Obama for almost everything, from the state of the economy to single mothers with five kids sucking the marrow out of his tax dollar to healthcare reform. If he thought big government controlled the weather, he would blame the President for that as well. 

The next day, I leave the Village for Penn Station and the Acela Express to Washington, D.C. – meeting my best friend from high school, who I haven’t seen for 15 years. She married an American she met in Sydney, and become a citizen in time to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election. I page her, she pages me, and I am mortified when a ‘red cap’ (Amtrak porter) grabs my bags as we squeal and hug. “I’ve got these, Ma’am. Don’t worry, you’re with me now,” he says, but it’s a struggle. I’m used to it – my rule is that if I can’t carry it all, I can’t buy anymore. The red cap won’t hear of it, and my friend keeps walking and talking. I tip him $10 as we board the train, mostly from sheer embarrassment. My friend berates me as she juggles a handbag, laptop, iPhone & squeals at her business partner in an accent that is neither that of her birth, or home. She lectures me on tipping etiquette. I hold firm with my own tipping regime. I tipped $1 in Williamsburg on Sunday for $2 beers! How is that fair to a guy in his 50s hauling 30 kilos of shoes, handbags and cosmetics while we squawk like battery hens? Well, in this economy, she says, people are lucky to be working. I voted for Obama and now, I don’t know. We don’t see him enough. I mean, what’s he doing? You’re in politics, surely you think it’s not good that we don’t see him? I look at the gadgets and listen to the conversations about crazy clients she’s firing. Yes. In this economy. Maybe the President is working, I muse aloud; he was dealt a pretty crap hand. That said, if I was his comms director, I would have him do more Presidential press conferences – he’s done fewer than Dubya. That part I do understand. As a candidate, Barack Obama travelled overseas and was feted in the capitals of Europe. My friend voted for hope, audacity and change; for a candidate whose oratory captivated the world.  Now my friend has a President, and rarely hears his voice. He’s not a candidate; he’s not leader of a movement – he’s the POTUS. You need to kick arse when circumstances warrant it. People and pundits talk about consensus politics, reaching bipartisan solutions to national problems. It’s bullshit. Politics is adversarial. In a few short months, the Democrat majority in Congress is going to be put to the test and NO ONE does nasty adversarial politics better than the Republican Party. The GOP in full flight is a sight to behold. President Obama is being hit from the left and the right, and he’s doing a pretty good, Ali-style ‘ rope-a-dope’, taking a metaphysical pounding from George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, round after round. President Obama is well into round two. He and the Democrat machine need to start bloodying the nose of the right. It’s July, 2010 and New York City feels as steamy as 1974 Zaire.

To be continued …





Yisra’el and the Zeal of Islam

4 09 2010

Sometimes, Referrals, I think hard about things. I’m not extraordinarily bright, but I’m interested in things, places and people beyond my understanding. That’s why I went back to university in 2009, and did a Master of Arts (International Relations). Because I remember, as a child – a very strange child – Anwar Sadat’s assassination, and asking my mother if the world was going to end. I’ve always been interested in the Middle East, and when I went on my grand tour in the mid 1990s, it was one of the first regions I visited. This post is an edited version of an essay I wrote for my degree last year so it is dated, but the resumption of Israeli settlement building in the last week has been playing on my mind; and when serious issues occupy my head instead of prancing unicorns, I don’t sleep. At all. And when I think about the reasons for the rise of groups like Hamas, or the Muslim Brotherhood, my mind fairly trembles at the thought of what ‘surrogate service providers’ may achieve in Pakistan if the millions of people left homeless and without livelihoods feel they are not being assisted by their government, or the international community.

I was very fortunate to have Dr Anthony Billingsley as my Middle East politics lecturer. Anthony Billingsley is everything someone who wants to learn could want from a teacher: good-humoured, ferociously bright, generous with his knowledge. He has contributed to The Drum (see this post on Australia’s U.N. candidacy: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2378066.htm) and I’ve also heard him interviewed on the wireless. He has a touch of the Ian Flemings about him (he’s not a Bond), as this interview explores: http://www.newspaper.unsw.edu.au/archive/2009/09_11_13/text/fivemin.htm. The man’s got pages of googledom, so I’m not going to list every article he’s given his two cents’ worth to. Back to me and my thinking. Or attempt at thinking about why I can’t see a two-state solution for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As I said, it’s an edited version of a full paper which also examined the 2006 war in Lebanon. For the record, I passed. Here goes:

Perhaps the greatest problem for Israel is its statehood. Bound and constrained by a complex, inflexible regime of institutions, ideas, relationships and practices, nation-states can render themselves incapable of identifying and ably responding to threats that transcend or subvert territorial boundaries. In Hamas, Israel is engaged with a force which is neither a conventional army, nor global Jihadist. Regardless of Syrian / Iranian surrogacy, Hamas is not regarded as a surrogate by the people; instead, it is accepted and welcomed as an indigenous, multi-faceted and highly organised service providers.

It is not a guerrilla movement as traditionally understood – a small organisation that uses its mobility as a weapon and feeds off its host population, depending on it for shelter and survival. Instead, Hamas participates in local politics, provides local services and can be bargained with. Because Hamas refuses to mark ‘X’ as military targets, civilian losses are almost certainly guaranteed to be higher than Western democracies can stomach. While it may be a surrogate of Syria and Iran, it is ‘of’ the people; an indivisible power. This philosophy is reflected in its military tactics and strikes at the heart of Israeli identity – while it is unlikely to defeat Israel by firing rockets at its citizens, Israel’s mighty army cannot prevent them from being fired. Israelis are supposed to be tough; the name for an Israeli-born Jew, sabra, comes from the Hebrew for cactus – Sa’bar; but how long can Israelis continue to manifest their insecurity in a highly-weaponised military when it does not keep them safe?

Of all of the actors central to the conflict, one force has demonstrated an uncanny ability to exploit these tectonic plates of Middle Eastern geopolitics for its own purposes: Iran. Neither Arab nor Sunni, Iran supports Islamist groups, both Sunni and Shi`a, using the Arab-Israeli conflict to bridge the sectarian and national gap. It could be argued that there is nothing Iran would like more than to see the Palestinian question remain unanswered. The continued ostracism of Hamas, despite it being the democratically-elected government of Gaza, means it has ‘nowhere to go but deeper into the embrace of Iran’. Iran is able to use the anniversary of al-Nakba to mobilise support for its Islamist proxies. The relative strategic impacts on any form of rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas are immense. Could youmfitna al-tawil , destroy the two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians? How can a two-state solution be found when in reality, there are three states operating? Without a zaïm since Arafat’s death, Palestine has splintered geographically and politically between Hamas, controlling Gaza, and Fatah in the West Bank stronghold of Ramallah; all on the watch of an increasingly hard-line Israel.

The 2006 attack on Lebanon changed Israel’s political landscape irrevocably. It was a major factor in the downfall of Ehud Olmert and the Kadima Party government. Governed by Binyamin Netanyahu and a coalition of his Likud Party, the remnants of the once-dominant Labour Party (with its former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak agreeing to be Netanyahu’s Defence Minister); and Yisra’el Beitenu with the latter’s leader Avigdor Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer from Moldova, taking the role of Foreign Minister, leaving Kadima, founded by Ariel Sharon and led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, as the moderate opposition. Despite its domestic political shake-up, Israel repeated many of the mistakes it made in Lebanon in 2006 when it attacked Gaza in the last few days of December 2008. If the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different outcome, then repeating these failures against Hamas almost defies belief – another entrenched grassroots movement; a Sunni Arab ally of Iran; the democratically elected (but isolated) government; with militants firing rockets at Israeli civilians. Israel’s timing was cynical (in the interregnum between the US Presidential election and inauguration); it seems to have approached the fighting, and the Arab world, from a strategic perspective that will increase instability in the region and ultimately weaken Israel‘s security’. Attacking United Nations’ installations and using white phosphorus coalesced international opinion against it; destroying Gaza’s already inadequate infrastructure (just as it had done in Lebanon); all the while ignoring the strategic impact of the horrendous images of Gaza’s humanitarian crisis conflict. Israel has experienced consistent shelling from the Gaza strip since its withdrawal in August 2005. The reality for Israel and Palestine is that the folly of 2009 has made the blockade and ghettoisation of Gaza worse. The schism between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas has fractured the domestic constituency to an extent where one possible outcome is renewed factional fighting. Weakening Hamas by isolating it has not worked; it has not given Mahmoud Abbas and the PA a foothold in Gaza. Unifying the territories and their political and security apparatuses seems increasingly unlikely – so a one-state solution is likely to prevail. How can there be a two-state solution when there are, effectively, three states, territories, turfs – whatever you want to call them – three entities in play in that tiny strip of land: Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Territories are not just separated by ideology, they are physically asunder. In any event, Netanyahu is unlikely to seek a political settlement for fear of looking weaker than Olmert to his insecure citizenry.

The expectation gap that appears to be crushing the Obama administration is a leading indicator of the possible strategic impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East and one which has its roots in the 2006 Israeli-Hizbollah conflict, namely negotiations with Syria. Obama simply cannot afford to spend political and economic capital on the unflinching support of Israel of his predecessors – his strained talks with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu indicate he has no intention of doing so; as does his commitment to a two-state solution and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s repeated calls for an end to the spread of Israeli settlements. The possibilities of taking Syria out of the equation by giving both Israel and Syria what they had come close to agreeing to are of immense strategic value: agreement between the two countries would wound Hizbollah materially, and curb the ‘Shi`a Crescent’ that stretches from Iran through Syria to Lebanon and on to Gaza. It would also ameliorate Israeli insecurities stemming from two-pronged attacks and possibly revive ‘Annapolis’ – the aim of which, was to agree on the framework for a Palestinian state alongside Israel be the end of 2008, a goal which was never reached. However, the attack on Gaza made the Pax Syriana more difficult to realise. It strained relations between Turkey and Israel. Loosening Damascus’ ties with Tehran by restoring the Golan Heights and with it, Syria’s territorial integrity would also have weakened Hizbollah. However, both conflicts reinforced the Israeli public’s sense of insecurity. Why should Israel withdraw from more land when pulling out of Lebanon and dissembling settlements in Gaza has prompted hot wars?

In the end, the most likely strategic impact of Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon and 2009 attack on Gaza may have nothing to do with bombs, but babies: as Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University wrote in The Boston Globe on 8 January 2009, ‘demography rather than weaponry is likely to determine the conflict’s ultimate outcome: that the Palestinian and Arab Israeli birthrate far exceeds the birthrate among Jewish Israelis is a fact with enormous strategic implications’*; and one that cannot be solved with talks, roadmaps or rockets.

To read Bacevich’s full article, follow this link: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/01/08/the_lessons_of_gaza/