All posts by Binoy Kampmark

The Economy of Tolerable Massacres: The Uvalde Shootings

Societies generate their own economies of tolerable cruelties and injustices.  Poverty, for instance, will be allowed, as long a sufficient number of individuals are profiting.  To an extent, crime and violence can be allowed to thrive.  In the United States, the economy of tolerable massacres, executed by military grade weapons, is considerable and seemingly resilient.  Its participants all partake in administering it, playing their bleak roles under the sacred banner of constitutional freedom and psychobabble.

Just as prison reform tends to keep pace with the expansion of the bloated system, the gun argument in the US keeps pace, barely, with each massacre.  With each round of killings, a script is activated: initial horror, hot tears of indignation of never again, and then, the stalemate on reform till the next round of killings can be duly accommodated. “It isn’t enough to reiterate the plain truth that the assault weapons used in mass shootings must be banned and confiscated,” observes Benjamin Kunkel.  “Instead, every fresh atrocity must be recruited into everyone’s preferred single-factor sociological narrative.”

In Uvalde, Texas, a teenage gunman (they do get younger) made his way into an elementary school and delivered an unforgettable May 24 lesson.  When he had finished at Robb Elementary School, 19 children and 2 adults had perished.  But even this effort, in the premier league ranking of school killings, failed to top the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.  On that occasion, 26 lost their lives.

The horror and indignant tears were duly cued.  President of the United States, Joe Biden: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage?  Why do we keep letting this happen?” he rhetorically intoned at a press conference.  “For every parent, for every citizen in this country, we have to make it clear to every elected official in this country: it’s time to act.”  This would involve the passing of “common sense gun laws” and combating the gun lobby.

The next day, Vice President Kamala Harris reiterated the formula.  “We must work together to create an America where everyone feels safe in their community, where children feel safe in their schools.”

The politicians are duly accompanied by the talking heads, such as Ron Avi Astor, described by NPR as “a mass shooting expert”.  With this unsavoury appellation, we are told that this UCLA professor is puzzled as to why negligible changes to gun laws have taken place since Sandy Hook.  In coping with such puzzlement, he suggests an old academic trick: reframe the problem to lessen its gravity.

With some gusto, Astor proceeds to say that schools in the US have been doing fabulously well in coping with violence – as long as you take the long view. “If you look over the last 20 years, really since Columbine, there’s been a massive, massive, massive … decrease in victimization and violence in schools.”  Diving into the silver lining in his own massive way, he finds “reductions” in violence in the order of 50 to 70 percent.

It never takes long for the economy of tolerable massacres to generate the next round of scrappy arguments, with the corpses barely cold.  The common one is that of shooting frequency.  Was this a good year relative to the last?  This year, the United States has suffered 27.

Since 2018, Education Week, showing how school deaths should very much feature in planning curricula, has taken a grim interest in the whole matter.  Reading its compiled figures – “heartbreaking, but important work”, the journal claims – is much like dipping into stock market returns with the requisite amount of sensitivity.  In 2021, there were 34 school shootings, a real bumper year.  In 2020, it was poor on that front: a modest 10.  Both 2019 and 2018 saw higher returns: 24 each.

If you wish to be entertained by the ghoulish nature of it all, Education Week also gives us some infotainment with a graphic on “Where the Shootings Happened.”  Dots feature on a map of the country.  “The size of the dots correlates to the number of people killed or injured.  Click on each dot for more information.”  Where would we be but for such valuable services?

To give credence to the seemingly immutable nature of this economy on shootings, platoons of commentators, equipped with various skills, argue about responses, most showing that common sense, in this field, is a noble dream.  The conservative National Review takes the view that “tougher background checks” would hardly have worked for the Uvalde shooter.  There was no paper trail flagging him as a threat, nothing to suggest that he should have been prevented as a “legal adult from purchasing a firearm.”  The implicit suggestion here: only nutters kill.

The business of guns is the business of a particular American sensibility.  With the school shooting still fresh, various members of the GOP and Donald Trump affirmed their interest in appearing at a Memorial Day weekend event hosted by the National Rifle Association.  In a statement on the shootings, the NRA expressed its “deepest sympathies” for the families and victims of “this horrific and evil crime” but preferred to describe the killings as the responsibility “of a lone, deranged criminal.”  Leave gun regulation alone; focus on school security instead.

With that brief formality discharged, the NRA expressed its delight at its forthcoming Annual Meetings and Exhibits event to take place at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston between May 27 and May 29.  “The Exhibit Hall is open all three days and will showcase over 14 acres of the latest guns and gear from the most popular companies in the Industry.”  It promises to be fun for the whole family.

Then comes the thorny matter of definitions, a sure way to kill off any sensible action.  From boffin to reactionary, no one can quite accept what a “school shooting” is.  Non-profit outfits such as the New York-based Everytown for Gun Safety include any discharge of a firearm at school as part of the definition.  “In 2022,” the organisation claims, “there were at least 77 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 14 deaths and 45 injuries nationally.”

Everytown for Gun Safety is keen to paint a picture of annual murderous rampage: 3,500 children and teens being shot and killed; 15,000 shot and injured.  Some 3 million children in the US are exposed to shootings each year.

The tone underlying such a message is much at odds with the rest easy approach taken by Astor – what Australians would call the “she’ll be right, mate” caste of mind.  It is certainly Panglossian in nature, aligning with the views of cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, optimist extraordinaire on the human condition.  Taken holistically, he keeps insisting, we live in far better, less violent times than our forebears.  Such massacres as those at Sandy Hook should not be taken to mean that schools have become less safe.  “People always think that violence has increased because they reason from memorable examples rather than global data.”  For Pinker, the 2013 joint survey by the Departments of Justice and Education on such statistics as rates of victimisation since 1992 to non-fatal victimisations was sufficient rebuke against the pessimists and moaners.

The Uvalde massacre will, in time, be absorbed by this economy of tolerable violence.  The anger will dissipate; collective amnesia, if not simple indifference, will exert its dulling sleep.  The dead, except for the personally affected, will go the way of others, buried in the confetti and scrapings of statistics.

The post The Economy of Tolerable Massacres: The Uvalde Shootings first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Biden in Tokyo: Killing Strategic Ambiguity

Could it have been just another case of bumbling poor judgment, the mind softened as the mouth opened?  A question was put to US President Joe Biden, visiting Tokyo and standing beside Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida: “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons.  Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”  The answer: “Yes.  That’s a commitment we made.”

Biden was again flatly committing the US to a conflict over Taiwan should China deploy its forces.  He has done so on two previous occasions, showing either a degree of ignorance, or a willingness to throw caution to the wind.  The first took place during an interview with ABC News in August, when he equated Taiwan’s status to those of other allies such as South Korea.  The second, in a CNN town hall, took place in October, when he stated that the US had “a commitment to do that”.

In doing so a third time, he was helping no one in particular, and taking the hammer to the strategic ambiguity that has marked US-Taiwan policy for decades.  The only thing that could have been taken away from it is a reminder to Beijing that they are not facing a cautious superpower steered by a sage, but a government not unwilling to shed blood over Taiwan.

Biden has expressed this view before, and grates against a policy Washington has had for 43 years.  It is a policy characterised by two key understandings.  The first is the One China policy, which the Biden administration affirmed in Tokyo.  Beijing, accordingly, remains the sole legitimate authority representing China.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 is the other pillar that guides US policy towards Taiwan.  The Act declares it the policy of the United States “to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan, as well as the people of the China mainland and all other people in the Western Pacific area.”

The Act facilitates the provision of arms to Taiwan “of a defensive character” and maintains “the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”  It does not impose an obligation on the US to intervene militarily in the event of an attack, or to compel the use of forces in defence of the island.

The first pertinent question was whether an actual change had been heralded in Tokyo.  The National Review certainly thought so.  “Biden’s remarks signal a big shift in US foreign policy regarding Taiwan.”  The New York Times also suggested that, unlike his previous, seemingly incautious remarks on the subject, this could not be treated as a simple gaffe.  Sebastian Smith, White House correspondent for Agence France-Presse, thought that Biden’s response “really raised the adrenaline levels in that palace briefing room”.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was overjoyed, expressing “sincere welcome and gratitude to President Biden of the United States for reiterating its rock solid commitment to Taiwan.”

For his part, Biden was having a bit each way, suggesting that strategic ambiguity was still being retained in some modest form.  “We agree with the One China policy and all the attendant agreements we made.  But the idea that it can be taken by force, would just not be appropriate.”  His Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin was even more adamant that there had been no change to speak of on the part of the president.  “As the president said, our One China policy has not changed,” he stated at the Pentagon.  “He reiterated that policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.  He also highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.  So, again, our policy has not changed.”

On being asked by a journalist what potential risks would rise as part of a US military defence of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was unwilling to elucidate.  A “variety of contingency plans” were held by the military applicable to the Pacific, Europe “and elsewhere”, all classified.  “And it would be very inappropriate for me on a microphone to discuss the risk associated with those plans relative to anything with respect to Taiwan or anywhere else in the Pacific.”  Reassuring.

As often tends to come to pass, when the potential for war lurks in cupboards and around corners, there are those less than unwilling to repel it.  The chance to exercise muscle, especially indulged vicariously, brings out the inner war monger.  Bret Stephens uses the New York Times to promote the popular view held by many in the US and amongst its allies that Biden was quite right not to stick to “diplomatic formulas of a now-dead status quo”.  President Xi Jinping, that sly devil, had “changed the rules of the game” by crushing protests in Hong Kong, repudiating the “one country, two systems” formula and blithely ignored the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on Chinese claims on the South China Sea.

Stephens sees opportunity in this statement from Biden, a thankful slaying of ambiguity.  For one, the US can sell more arms to Taiwan while incorporating Taipei into its broader strategic approach.  The administration should also convince Taipei to increase its “scandalously low” military budget.  Washington, for its part, can increase the small component of US Special Operations and Marine personnel already deployed to train local forces.  Biden’s stumble, in short, was a shift; and the shift moves one step closer to inciting war.

The post Biden in Tokyo: Killing Strategic Ambiguity first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Great Teal Tsunami: Arise Australia’s Independents

Rarely in Australian history has a governing party suffered such loss in the face of an opponent unable to claim complete victory.  It said much about the disillusionment, and plain disgust, from that nebulous centre of the country’s politics.  That centre roared on May 21, consuming sitting government members and inflicting a bloody reckoning.

That reckoning was made in traditional inner-city seats that have never known anyone other than conservative members.  It was part of a “teal” electoral tsunami, comprising candidates who would not necessarily wish to vote for Labor or the Greens, but who had found the Liberal-National government of Scott Morrison impossible to stomach on matters ranging from gender equality to climate change.

In the Melbourne seat of Goldstein, held by the Liberal Party’s Tim Wilson, former ABC journalist Zoe Wilson stormed through.  It was a showing most fitting: the electorate is named after Vera Goldstein, feminist and women’s rights campaigner who, in 1903, was the first woman to stand for election in a national parliament.  “She ran as an independent several times,” Wilson said in a telling reminder, “because she was so independent that she couldn’t bring herself to run for either of the major parties.”

In the same city, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was overwhelmed by Dr Monique Ryan in Kooyong.  (Postal votes are currently being tallied, but it does not seem likely that Ryan will lose.)  This loss for the Liberals will be keenly felt, given Frydenberg’s leadership aspirations.

The story was repeated in Sydney, with the same narrative directed like a dagger at the Morrison government: You, fossil fuel devotees, mocked climate change, disregarded gender equality, and sneered at policing corruption in federal politics.  Wentworth went to businesswoman Allegra Spender, who had, during the course of her campaign, managed to assemble an army of 1200 volunteers.

Spender’s team, comprising a number of company directors, many women, is a revealing sign that movements can take root in the arid soil of caution that is Australian politics.  “You said you were standing for the community, not the party,” she told supporters, “for taking responsibility, not blaming, for compassion, not division and for the future, not the past.”

In the seat of North Sydney, held by the mild-mannered Liberal Trent Zimmerman, a victorious Kylea Tink reiterated the laundry list issues that had motivated the teal revolution.  “The majority things for me,” she told Crikey, “are climate action, integrity and addressing inequality.”

The victory of the various independents was the Liberal Party’s version of the Trojan Horse, one that had found itself parked in their heartland seats and released on election night.  It was a triumph of community organisation, not rusted party politics, despite Wilson’s fulminations about sinister external forces at work. It was the apotheosis of a movement that began with Cathy McGowan, the Victorian independent who won the rural seat of Indi in 2013.

This was also an election which delivered the highest Greens vote ever.  Queensland, almost always the deciding state, may well furnish two, possibly three Greens members in the House of Representatives.  The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, put much of it down to the turbulent, vicious weather of recent times.  “We’ve just had three years of droughts and then fires and then floods and then floods again and people can see that this is happening.”

Remarkably for the group, they managed to win the Liberal-held seat of Ryan in the process.  They are also on the hunt in the Labor-held Melbourne seat of Macnamara.  “We are now on planet Greensland,” exclaimed the Greens candidate Elizabeth Watson-Brown on realising her triumph in Ryan, “and we are taking it forward.”

While the Labor opposition have good reason to cheer the prospect of forming government in almost a decade, other facts are impossible to ignore.  The Greens continued their now established historical trend of eating away at Labor’s vote in inner suburban areas, notably in Queensland.

Across several states, the party actually suffered, along the Liberal National coalition, a precipitous fall in the primary vote.  To form government on such a low primary return is staggering and says much about the loss of appeal of the established parties.  “It would be an unusual win for Labor,” noted a sour editorial from the Australian Financial Review, “with no grand policy ambitions or sweeping difference from the incumbent Coalition government.”  Only Western Australia, keen to punish the Morrison government, arrested that tendency, and may end up giving Anthony Albanese a majority.

Labor also bungled in the previously safely held south-west Sydney seat of Fowler, where Kristina Keneally, who had only lived in the electorate for a brief spell, missed out to local grassroots independent, Dai Le.  The swing of almost 18 per cent away from Labor shows that Keneally, when she suffers defeat, does so in grandly catastrophic fashion.  The story of this debacle is also salutary to major parties who parachute heavy weight politicians into seats as part of party and personal ambition, rather than the interests of voters.

While the bruised LNP will lick their wounds and rue their ignorance of the community movement that gathered pace under their noses, Australia’s major parties will have to consider a new phenomenon: the non-career parliamentarian, one who enters parliament, not for party allegiance and faction but for voter representation and change.  For the Westminster model of government, this is indeed a stunning novelty.

The post The Great Teal Tsunami: Arise Australia’s Independents first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Australian Disinformation Wonderland: The Federal Election 2022

All elections are filled with the half-truths, mistruths and full-fledged lies.  Victory is rarely bought on a platform of complete honesty.  But the road to the current Australian federal election has been potholed by more deception than most.  This is bound to happen when policy platforms are weak and rickety, leaving the opponents large scope to undermine each other.  The personal prevails over the substantive; ideas play little to no role.

Much of the influence of misinformation and its more aggressive twin, disinformation, is given a legendary status ahead of time.  Commentaries abound about how to spot “fake news” from outlets that have themselves been prone to promote counterfeit material.

A study commissioned by Digital security and privacy company Avast filled electors with little confidence about either the content of news or their talents in spotting irregularities and fictions.  38 percent of those surveyed revealed they were not confident in identifying fake news online.  The age group between 18-24 were said to be the least confident.

Misinformation has a tendency to multiply and amplify in the wildfire environs of the Internet.  “In recent research,” claimed Avast security expert Stephen Ko, “our AI team found that 17.9 percent of hyperlinks of misinformation sites link to other misinformation domains.  If users visit a misinformation site, the risk is higher that they end up in a rabbit hole of misinformation sites.”  His advice, resembling those cautionary words of an impatient parent to an inattentive child, is to check such matters as the publication date.  News should, he remarked, be “current”.

The Australian Electoral Commission has also gone out on a limb in establishing what it calls a “disinformation register”.  Doing so comes with a caveat.  “The AEC is not the arbiter of truth regarding political communication and does not seek to censor political debate in any way.”  A fine objective, except that the AEC is also authoritative in pointing out that, “when it comes to the election process we conduct, we’re the experts and we’re active in defending Australia’s democracy.”

A list of “prominent pieces of disinformation” follows, though the actual source is not overly specific beyond the platform.  The first example: “The AEC has sent multiple copies of unsolicited postal votes to a single voter proving voter fraud occurs.”  The unsurprising source: Facebook.

Others include claims that First Nations people “have been wiped from the electoral roll without their knowledge”; that applications for postal votes “are being submitted and processed for deceased Australians” and “Dominion voting machines will be used and will be ‘rigged’ to favour one of the major political parties.”  That old favourite – that the AEC is itself politically aligned – also features.

Various ethnic groups have been the subject of interest in disinformation strategies.  The ABC has reported instances of Liberal Party supporters using the WeChat platform to spread falsehoods about a number of Labor supporters and critics of the Morrison government.

Not to be outdone, some Labor supporters have targeted the incumbent Liberal member for the seat of Chisholm, Gladys Liu, the first ethnic Chinese woman to serve a term in the House of Representatives.  According to a Facebook page hosted by an ALP branch located in the Queensland electorate of Wright, Liu’s loyalties were malodorously suspect.  A post from April 19 insinuated that Liu was potentially linked to a Chinese plot to infiltrate the Australian parliament.

A particularly aggressive campaign of media disinformation has also blown through some seats where independents are running against threatened incumbents.  Earlier this month, the New South Wales electorates of Mackellar, Warringah and Hughes woke up to a number of posters with independent candidates branded with the Greens logo.  A statement from the Greens leader Adam Bandt made much of the deception, suggesting that there was “a good chance that whoever is behind this has also committed a criminal act.”

In the Melbourne electorate of Kooyong, a simmering campaign alleging the hidden allegiances of independent Monique Ryan has also been marked by the stain of inaccuracy and mistruth.  Stickers have emerged at points claiming that a vote for Ryan is a vote for Labor.  This has not been helped by an aggressive campaign waged by the Liberal Party and the Murdoch-News Corp cheer squad alleging much the same thing.

Zoe Daniels, running against the Liberal Party’s Tim Wilson in the Victorian seat of Goldstein, expressed dismay in a tweet about voting strategies set to undermine her candidacy.  “In a new low, ‘people’ on social media are spreading the lie that it’s only necessary to mark me number 1 for the vote to be valid.”  This was a matter of “orchestrated DISINFORMATION,” she capitalised in anger, “designed to cause informal voting.”  Every box, she fumed, had to be numbered.

In its response to the message from Daniels, the AEC expressed its own disappointment. “Formality rules are very clear – in addition to them being printed on our ballot papers, our staff will also walk voters through what’s required.”  In some cases, it will take more than just a walk through to dispel the miasma of falsehoods that will mark this election as voters cast their ballots.

The post Australian Disinformation Wonderland: The Federal Election 2022 first appeared on Dissident Voice.

COVID Brain Fade at the Australian Elections

It’s the last week of an election between the uninspiring and the unspeakable.  Australia’s conservative incumbents – the unspeakable ones – are even desperate enough to concede to a lack of popularity.  Dislike us, but for heaven’s sake, vote us in.  The times are wretched, the cost of living is rising, and we are going to look after you in the spiral.  The opposition, in contrast, is being stingy on detail and sparing on scope.  Memories of 2019 continue to traumatise the Australian Labor Party.

Scouring the election platforms, statements, and town hall debates, is a glaring absence of one particular field of policy.  Virtually no candidate or major political party is mentioning that troubling issue of COVID-19 and the global pandemic.  That was the dark past, and, like released jailbirds, voters find themselves preoccupied with other matters.

Sporadically, mention is made about the Morrison government’s tardy ordering and supply of COVID-19 vaccines – at least in the initial phase.  At that time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, rather infamously, dismissed the slow rollout.  This wasn’t, he opined, a race.

In his first campaign video, Morrison burnished his own credentials as a warrior against COVID-19, having been responsible for saving thousands of lives.  (The States and Territories, all far more engaged in the matter than Morrison ever was, are ignored.) But the primary message was that of,  “A choice between an economic recovery that is leading the world, and a Labor opposition that would weaken it, and risk it.”

Despite Australia’s enviable record, the emergence of the furiously transmissible Omicron variant and a death toll this year surpassing the combined figures of 2020 and 2021, have seen a departure from previous policy.  As Raina MacIntyre of the Kirby Institute remarked in January, Australia “swung from one extreme in pandemic control to the other – having great control of COVID, to now having the world’s highest rise in daily cases.”

Scenes of chaos ensued.  The vulnerable had to queue for hours as testing centres were overwhelmed.  A number of such centres were also closed, often without good reason.  The Commonwealth and State governments tinkered with definitions on eligibility regarding testing, all the time refusing to expand capacity.  MacIntyre was distinctly unimpressed.  “There was no planning for expedited third-dose boosters, expanded testing capacity, rapid antigen tests, hospital in the home, opening of schools or even guidance for people to protect their household when one person becomes infected.”

None of this has made a difference in the political platform, nor, it seems, in voter interest. The COVID brain fade has well and truly set in.  According to data generated by the ABC’s Vote Compass, a mere 1 per cent of Australians consider COVID the most important issue in this election.  Vulnerable members of society are being seen as “collateral” to the overall scheme.  Living with the virus has also meant suffering and even perishing from it.

The only party making much of COVID-19, and not from the perspective of praising vaccines and sound pandemic management, is the United Australia Party. Bankrolled by the quixotic mining magnate Clive Palmer, millions have been spent on media campaigns that have seen no discernible shift in the polls.

By default, health officials and experts have become crying Cassandras and the concerned oracles.  Virologist Stuart Turville has observed, with exasperation, that the federal election campaign has been afflicted by “a case of COVID Fight Club.  Don’t talk about it.”  Future policies on the subject are virtually absent. “What will happen if we don’t get our third or fourth dose?” wonders Turville.  “Will we see the death rate creep up from 40, to 60, to 80 before we start to talk about this again?”

Another figure of some woe and worry is Burnet Institute director, Brendan Crabb, who claims that politicians and governments have resolutely kept their “heads in the sand”.  There was a dangerous sense of “COVID now”.  Continuing high rates of transmission was “bad for business”.  The longer health impacts were also being neglected.  “How many of the 350,000 plus active cases in Australia right now will have chronic impacts?  Overseas data suggests 20 per cent of them.”

Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, based at the University of Melbourne, is another who can always be relied upon to deter any emerging complacency.  “We’re at a point,” she gravely states, “where COVID is now one of the major killers of Australians, and probably by the end of the year is going to be one of the top three.”  She adds further lashings of doom.  “And with increasing case numbers, new sub-variants [will be] coming in.  This may drive it even further, which would have a bigger impact.”

If the current mood prevails till May 21, we can expect little purchase from such attitudes at the ballot box.  Fiscal responsibility, the consumer price index, climate change and the China bogeyman, are likely to feature ahead of the most disruptive pandemic in a century.

The post COVID Brain Fade at the Australian Elections first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Peter Dutton’s Defamation Defeat

The occasions when an activist, writer or commentator triumph over defamation lawsuits launched by a thin-skinned politician are rare in Australia.  When it comes to matters regarding the law of reputation, Australia remains a place where parliamentarians, as a species, thrive in the knowledge they can use favourable provisions to protect their hurt feelings and soiled reputations.

The country, in also lacking a bill of rights protecting free speech and the press, has further emboldened politicians.  At best, the Australian High Court has only left an anaemic implied right “to protect freedom of communication on political subjects”, which should really be read as a restraint on executive and legislative power, never to be personally exercised.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton, ever the nasty enforcer of the Morrison government, was one who had every reason to feel confident when he took refugee activist Shane Bazzi to court in April last year.  In February 2021, Bazzi published a six-word tweet: “Peter Dutton is a rape apologist.”

The tweet was made some hours after Dutton had told a press conference that he had not been furnished with the finer details of a rape allegation made by former Coalition staffer Britney Higgins.  The context here was also important.  Dutton had, when Home Affairs Minister, characterised refugee women being held on Nauru, one of Australia’s carceral domains, as “trying it on” to get access to the Australian mainland for medical treatment.

The following month, this sadist-in-chief promised that he would start to “pick out some” individuals who were “trending on Twitter or have the anonymity of different Twitter accounts” posting “all these statements and tweets that are frankly defamatory.” It was an informal declaration of war against critics.

In instigating proceedings against Bazzi, Dutton claimed in the trial that he was “deeply offended” by the contents of the tweet.  He accepted that, “As a minister for immigration or home affairs … people make comments that are false or untrue, offensive, profane, but that’s part of the rough and tumble.”  But Bazzi had gone one step too far.   “It was somebody that held himself out as an authority or a journalist.”  His remarks “went beyond” the tolerably bruising nature of politics. “And it went against who I am, my beliefs … I thought it was hurtful.”

In finding for Dutton in November and awarding $35,000 in damages, Justice Richard White ruled that the tweet had been defamatory, and that Bazzi could not resort to the defence of honest opinion.  Dutton failed to gain damages in three of the four imputations, while also troubling the judge with his hunger in pursuing the defendant for the full legal bill.  But in his remarks on Bazzi’s claim of honest opinion, White was dismissive.  “Bazzi may have used the word ‘apologist’ without an understanding of the meaning he was, in fact conveying.”  If this had been the case, “it would follow that he did not hold the opinion actually conveyed by the words.”

On May 17, Bazzi found that he had convinced the Full Court of the Federal Court that the reasoning behind the six-word tweet, and the purportedly defamatory imputations it conveyed, was flawed.  Justices Steven Rares and Darryl Rangiah, in a joint judgment, found that Justice White had erred in not explaining “how the reader would understand the whole (or any part) of the tweet to convey the imputation.”  They also noted that Justice White had found the meaning of the word “apologist” was not that of an excuser but of a defender.  “When the material is read with Mr Bazzi’s six words, the reader would conclude that the tweet was suggesting that Mr Dutton was sceptical about claims of rape and in that way was an apologist.”  It was “very different from imputing that he excuses rape itself.”

The judges put much stock in the context of the tweet, and the need to read it alongside Dutton’s previous remarks on the women held on Nauru as recorded in The Guardian.  “The reader would perceive that the message in the tweet consisted of both parts, Mr Bazzi’s six word statement and The Guardian material, read together.”  When read together, the reader “would understand that the point that the tweet was conveying was that a ‘rape apologist’ behaves in the way Mr Dutton had in expressing scepticism about the claims of rape.  That is a far cry from conveying the meaning that he excuses rape itself.”

Justice Michael Wigney also found that the primary judge had erred in finding the tweet defamatory and “substantially agreed” with the two other justices.  It was “tolerably clear” that Bazzi’s statement “was about, or responsive to, the extract from The Guardian article.”  The primary judge had erred in how the ordinary reasonable Twitter user would have read the tweet, downplaying, for instance, the significance of the link to the article.

Accordingly, “It was wrong for the primary judge, in analysing whether Mr Bazzi’s tweet conveyed the alleged imputation, to dissect and segregate the tweet in the way he did.”  While the tweet did convey “an impression that is derogatory and critical of [Dutton’s] attitude to rape or rape allegations,” it did “not go so far as to convey the impression that [Dutton] is a person who excuses rape”.

Dutton’s litigious boldness was much in keeping with the Morrison government’s general hostility to social media outlets and the internet, in general.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison has shown a willingness to do battle with social media and making the platforms assume greater responsibility for material hosted on their sites.  Taking advantage of the killings in Christchurch in March 2019, he exploited the chance to pursue a global agenda of online censorship.  “We urge online platforms to step up the ambition and pace of their efforts to prevent terrorist and VECT (violent extremism conducive to terrorism) content being streamed, uploaded, or re-uploaded.”

In the latter part of last year, the government announced that it was drafting laws that would make social media companies gather user details and permit courts to force the divulging of user identities in defamation proceedings.  While a re-elected Morrison government will be a dark day for internet freedoms and expression, Dutton’s defeat is a cause for genuine celebration.  It also heralds the need to water down the persistently draconian nature of laws that do all too much in protecting that strange animal known as the offended politician.

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The British Art of Black Propaganda

Never underestimate the potency, and deceptive malice, of the British political mind.  In responding to the threat posed by Imperial Germany during the First World War, the British propaganda campaign made much of the atrocity tale, the nun raping German and the baby bayoneting Hun.  The effectiveness of the campaign was so impressive it sowed doubt amongst a generation about the reliability of war crimes accounts.

In its efforts to try to win US support for its cause against Hitler in World War II, the train of British propaganda again operated with a concerted effect, demonising isolationists and denigrating supporters and members of the America First Committee.  The great hope there was that Britain would fight the Germans to the last American.  It led to one of the largest covert operations in UK history conducted under the auspices of an agency known as “British Security Coordination”.  During the course of its operations, BSC subject matter entered the American political bloodstream, aided by the injecting activities of Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, a radio station (WRUL) and the Overseas News Agency (ONA).

During the Cold War, the black propagandists were again in high demand.  In 2021, the Observer revealed that the Information Research Department (IRD) had done its bit to egg on the massacres of communists and sympathisers in Indonesia in 1965.  Pamphlets supposedly authored by seething Indonesian patriots but cooked up by the dark musings of the IRD, called for the elimination of the Indonesian communist party, the PKI.  The deaths that followed numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The IRD, which had, at its height in the mid-1960s, a staff of 360, had a primary purpose: to counter Soviet propaganda and its effects in Britain.  It had its origins in the opening shots of the Cold War, established in 1948 but found itself behind the efforts of various sections of Whitehall already dedicated to the anti-Soviet effort.

Its program was more engaged and more ambitious than previously thought.  “It’s very clear now,” Rory Cormac, an authority on subversion and intelligence history, explained to the Guardian, “that the UK engaged in more black propaganda than historians assume and these efforts were more systemic, ambitious and offensive.  Despite official denials, [this] went far beyond merely exposing Soviet disinformation.”

The effects of propaganda can be perversely insidious.  Allies or friendly nations can be used and abused if the aim is to advance the security of the propagandist.  As Howard Becker laconically puts it in describing the consequences of black propaganda, “truth or falsity, as determined by any standard, is not raised.  Propaganda which achieves its end may be entirely true, it may be entirely false; expedient rationality alone governs the choice of means.”

The IRD shows that, while it was more modest in scale to its US, Soviet and East European counterparts, it could hold its own in terms of inventiveness.  It specialised in creating fake news sources and false statements designed to stir pots of racial tension, create instability, and foster social and political chaos.

A feature of the black propaganda campaign was the forging of statements by official Soviet bodies and entities.  The Soviet-run news agency Novosti was something of a favourite, given the release of 11 fake statements supposedly authored by the body between 1965 and 1972.

In the wake of Israel’s lightning victory during the Six-Day War of 1967, the outfit drafted a number of documents claiming to be authored by disgruntled Muslim organisations sore at defeat and seeking answers.  One did not have to look far for the culprit of godless Communism.  “Why is the Arab nation at this time afflicted by so much sorry and disaster?” asks a statement purportedly issued from the League of Believers, a fictional Islamist organisation.  “Why were the brave forces defeated in the jihad by the evil heathen Zionists?”  The reason: that “we are departing from the right path, we are following the course chosen for us by the communist-atheists for whom religion is a form of social disease.”

Other material focused on existing and influential organisations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.  One pamphlet from the IRD, supposedly issued by the group, takes issue with the quality of Soviet weaponry.  As for the Soviets themselves, they were “filthy-tongued atheists” who had little time for Egyptians, mere “peasants who lived all their lives nursing reactionary superstitions”.

In Africa, propaganda efforts were made to malign the activities of Soviet front organisations such as the World Federation of Democratic Youth.  Nationalist, revolutionary figures were also targeted.  A statement from early 1963, forged by the IRD, has the WFDY falsely accusing Africans of being morally feeble, uncivilised, and “primitive”.  The theme is repeated in another forged statement three years later, and in a fake release by Novosti noting the poor quality of African students enrolled at an international university in Moscow.

These recent revelations do have a certain flavour of told-you-so obviousness, but serve as reminders that the news, however official, reeks when consulted between the lines (and lies).  Cormac reminds us that the current UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has her own “government information cell”, a distant echo of the IRD.  It pays to look behind the merits of the next news bulletin, if only to be disillusioned.

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Morbid Matters: Estimating COVID-19 Mortality

It has dominated news cycles, debates and policies since 2020, but COVID-19 continues to exercise the interest of number crunchers and talliers.  While the ghoulish daily press announcements about infections and deaths across many a country have diminished and, in some cases, disappeared altogether, publications abound about how many were taken in the pandemic.

The World Health Organization, ever that herald of dark news, has offered a revised assessment across of the SARS-CoV-2 death toll associated either directly or indirectly with the pandemic.  Between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021, the global health body suggests that the mortality figure is closer to 14.9 million, with a range of 13.3 million to 16.6 million.

The number considers excess mortality, the figure reached after accounting for the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred, and the number expected in the absence of the pandemic.  It also accounts for deaths occasioned directly by COVID-19, or indirectly (for instance, the pandemic’s disruption of society and health systems).

The impact, as expected, has been disproportionate in terms of which countries have suffered more.  Of the excess deaths, 68% were concentrated in 10 countries – Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States.  Middle-income countries accounted for 81% of excess deaths; high-income countries, for 15%, and low-income countries, 4%.

The United States, if only for being ascendant in terms of power, wealth, and incompetence in dealing with the virus, finds itself in the undistinguished position of having lost a million people.  “Today,” remarked President Joe Biden, “we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States, one million COVID deaths, one million empty chairs around the family dinner table, each irreplaceable, irreplaceable losses, each leaving behind a family, a community forever changed because of this pandemic.”

Chief Medical Adviser to the President, Anthony Fauci, rued the fact that “at least a quarter of those deaths, namely about 250,000” might have been saved by vaccinations.  He also warned about the ugly prospect of a resurgence in numbers, and not bringing “down our guard”.

In light of such figures, WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reiterates the line he and his colleagues have done so for months.  Pandemics demand more “resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems”.  His organisation “was committed to working with all countries to strengthen their health information systems to generate better data for better decisions and better outcomes.”  Much of this will be wishful thinking.

Figures, certainly when they concern matters of mortality, can become the subject of bitter dispute.  COVID-19 has proved no exception.  In Africa, 41 of 54 countries reported insufficient data.  Some countries have released incomplete data sets; others, none to speak of.  This meant, inevitably, that the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group for COVID-19 Mortality Assessment could only model the missing figures to fill gaps.

As a result scrapping and arguments over methodology duly emerged.  India, for one, has very publicly objected to the way the WHO has approached the compilation, communicating its concerns in no less than six letters between November 2021 and March 2022 and in a number of virtual meetings.  Concerns have also been registered by WHO Member States, including China, Iran, Bangladesh, Syria, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The case with India is particularly telling, given WHO modelling showing 4,740,894 excess deaths, almost triple that of New Delhi’s own figures.  Such figures imply, as epidemiologist Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto claimed back in January, that the authorities were “trying to suppress the numbers in the way that they coded the COVID deaths.”

In an indignant statement from the Union Health Ministry released early this month, much is made of “how the statistical model projects estimates for a country of geographical size & population of India and also fits in with other countries which have smaller population.”  This constituted an unacceptable “one-size-fits-all approach and models which are true for smaller countries like Tunisia may not be applicable to India with a population of 1.3 billion.”

The WHO model also returned two highly varied sets of excess mortality estimates when using data from Tier 1 countries and when using data from 18 Indian states that had not been verified.  “India has asserted that if the model [is] accurate and reliable, it should be authenticated by running it for all Tier 1 countries” and the “result of such exercise may be shared with all Member States.”

WHO assistant director general for emergency response, Ibrahima Soće Fall, concedes that any accurate picture is only as complete as the data provided.  “We know where the data gaps are, and we must collectively intensify our support to countries, so that every country has the capability to track outbreaks in real time, ensure delivery of essential health services, and safeguard population health.”

The degree of fractiousness that persists in public health shows that sharp fault lines remain in each country’s approach to the pandemic problem.  Disunity and factionalism, petty nationalism and self-interest, remain imperishable, even at the direst of times.  And all governments, given the chance, will err on the side of inaccuracy rather than risk acute embarrassment.

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Rogues and Spyware: Pegasus Strikes in Spain

Weapons, lacking sentience and moral orientation, are there to be used by all.  Once out, these creations can never be rebottled.  Effective spyware, that most malicious of surveillance tools, is one such creation, available to entities and governments of all stripes.  The targets are standard: dissidents, journalists, legislators, activists, even the odd jurist.

Pegasus spyware, the fiendishly effective creation of Israel’s unscrupulous NSO Group, has become something of a regular in the news cycles on cyber security.  Created in 2010, it was the brainchild of three engineers who had cut their teeth working for the cyber outfit Unit 8200 of the Israeli Defence Forces: Niv Carmi, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie.

NSO found itself at the vanguard of an Israeli charm offensive, regularly hosting officials from Mossad at its headquarters in Herzliya in the company of delegations from African and Arab countries.  Cyber capabilities would be one way of getting into their good books.

The record of the company was such as to pique the interest of the US Department of Commerce, which announced last November that it would be adding NSO Group and another Israeli cyber company Candiru (now renamed Saito Tech) to its entity list “based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project, an initiative of 17 media organisations and civil society groups, revealed that 50,000 phone numbers of interest to a number of governments had appeared on a list of hackable targets.  All had been targets of Pegasus.

The government clients of the NSO Group are extensive, spanning the authoritarian and liberal democratic spectrum.  Most notoriously, Pegasus has found its way into the surveillance armoury of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which allegedly monitored calls made by the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a fellow dissident, Omar Abdulaziz.  In October 2018, Khashoggi, on orders of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was butchered on the grounds of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a hit squad. NSO subsequently became the subject of a legal suit, with lawyers for Abdulaziz arguing that the hacking of his phone “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder Mr Khashoggi.”

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Defence Minister Margarita Robles, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, and 18 Catalan separatists are the latest high-profile targets to feature in the Pegasus canon.  Sánchez’s phone was hacked twice in May 2021, with officials claiming that there was at least one data leak.  This was the result of, according to the government, an “illicit and external” operation, conducted by bodies with no state authorisation.

Ironically enough, Robles herself had defended the targeting of the 18 Catalan separatists, claiming that the surveillance was conducted with court approval.  “In this country,” she insisted at a press conference, “no-one is investigated for their political ideals.”

The backdrop of the entire scandal is even more sinister, with Citizen Lab revealing last month that over 60 Catalan legislators, jurists, Members of the European Parliament, journalists and family members were targeted by the Pegasus spyware between 2015 and 2020.  (Citizen Lab found that 63 individuals had been targeted or infected with Pegasus, with four others being the victims of the Candiru spyware.)  Confirmed targets include Elisenda Paluzie and Sònia Urpí Garcia, who both work for the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, an organisation that campaigns for the independence of Catalonia.

The phone of Catalan journalist Meritxell Bonet was also hacked in June 2019 during the final days of a Supreme Court case against her husband Jordi Cuixart.  Cuixart, former president of the Catalan association Òmnium Cultural, was charged and sentenced on grounds of sedition.

The investigation by Citizen Lab did not conclusively attribute “the operations to a specific entity, but strong circumstantial evidence suggests a nexus with Spanish authorities.”  Amnesty International Technology and Human Rights researcher Likhita Banerji put the case simply. “The Spanish government needs to come clean over whether or not it is a customer of NSO Group.  It must also conduct a thorough, independent investigation into the use of Pegasus spyware against the Catalans identified in this investigation.”

Heads were bound to roll, and the main casualty in this affair was the first woman to head Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, Paz Esteban.  Esteban’s defence of the Catalan hackings proved identical to that of Robles: they had been done with judicial and legal approval.  But she needed a scalp for an increasingly embarrassing situation and had no desire to have her reasons parroted back to her.  “You speak of dismissal,” she stated tersely, “I speak of substitution.”

While the implications for the Spanish government are distinctly smelly, one should not forget who the Victor Frankenstein here is.  NSO has had a few scrapes in Israel itself.  It survived a lawsuit by Amnesty International in 2020 to review its security export license.  But there is little danger of that company losing the support of Israel’s Ministry of Defence.  In Israel, cybersecurity continues to be the poster child of technological prowess, lucrative, opaque and distinctly unaccountable to parliamentarians and the courts.

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Barnaby Joyce: Election Gonzo and China Fears

Always looking, and sounding, a touch unhinged, the beetroot-coloured Barnaby Joyce, leader of the Australian Nationals and, for a time now, deputy prime minister, has made a splash.  With the federal elections being held on May 18, he does not have much time to commit mischief and befuddle the political vultures.  But the National Press Club gave him a chance to make some trouble, a task accomplished with some success.

At stages during his address, it seemed that trouble had followed Joyce.  There was sniffing and sniffling.  Then a nosebleed, brief intermission and tissues.  The Twitterati thought this ominous; political commentators searched for omens about previous pre-election mishaps.  “I know you are going to get 1001 photos of me with a Kleenex up my nose, congratulations,” he chirped, on being handed a fresh tissue.

Of more interest, and some bafflement, was the speech itself, a filling of meaty prejudices and concerns about China, a fairly dismissive take on climate change, and a warning about the threat posed by a number of independent candidates that are knocking at the door of traditional conservative seats.

As far as Beijing is concerned, Joyce presents the classic Australian paradox: a pathological suspicion of the Yellow Horde and its strategic interests, but a delight at the voracious appetite they show for Australian commodities.  In recent years, Australia’s skewed and distorted pattern of wealth has developed on the back of that particular interest.  The same can also be said about the China student market and witless Australian universities lazily disposed to easy cash.

The role played by China in aiding Australian wealth did feature, if only to enable Joyce to speculate wildly as to who would replace it as top customer in the importing of iron ore exports.  This proved particularly pertinent on the issue of how Australian commodities were essentially going into Chinese war-making capabilities.

In his answer, Joyce recalled “talking to one of the large miners” and saying that “we have a big new customer.”  That customer: Germany.  “Germany is a big new customer.  And I imagine Germany is using the iron ore for a whole range of things and of course, one the other Germany is redoing, rearming.” When “rearming” and “Germany” are used, however disjointedly, in a sentence, ghosts of wars past stir nervously.

Not, it would seem, now.  A Teutonic replacement would be welcome in the face of Beijing’s regional ambitions.  Chinese military expansion, Joyce stated unequivocally, was “without a shadow of a doubt” the most important issue facing Australians.

Inventively, and with a flourish, he took the view that China’s conduct in seeking security ties with countries such as the Solomon Islands was simple: the encirclement of Australia.  “It is quite obvious through their desire to have military bases that they are starting a process of encircling Australia and that there is a wish, at the very least, to intimidate, or worse, to supplicate Australia.”

Joyce has never quite had the mind or sense to understand the historical basis of China’s own concern of encirclement, a psychic disturbance very much aided by the United States and the recent AUKUS security pact.  The same can be said about his understanding of independent candidates, whom he rubbishes as being incapable of understanding national security.

Such novel, absurd and dangerous interpretations on the wishes of a power can become, at a moment’s notice, the bricks and mortar for conflict.  “The thing that China will respect is strength.  That’s why I say we have to become as strong as possible as quickly as possible.  And respecting strength means you have to be strong across all facets of what you do.”

Giving the impression of being far-eyed and sagacious, Barnaby spoke of his role in preventing previous efforts by Chinese entities to acquire Australian assets and muscle in on domestic matters.  “I refer to my successful endeavours to stop a Chinese state-owned enterprise takeover of Rio Tinto, our largest iron ore exporter, back as far as 2009.”  He then boasted of his support for “changes in foreign investment laws which the Labor Party opposed.”

When asked about the touchy issue of climate change and disagreement within his own party and his Liberal coalition partners, he was unperturbed.  Metropolitan, ecology-minded types, despite being threatened by the so-called “teal independents”, would not have their way on the issue of preventing coal projects.  “Because what we are doing is … we have got to make sure our nation earns as much money as possible.  We can’t do that if we shut down coal exports.”  What vision, what clarity.

What about the issue of the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” in responding to climate change?  In a sense, this looks suspiciously like a version of the demonised carbon tax, an idea considered pestilential in pro-fossil fuel circles.  The mechanism requires polluting companies to purchase carbon credits or, in lieu of that, reduce emissions.  “It’s like the ceiling on this,” the cryptic Barnaby intoned.  “It’s out of the way but it stops you going through the roof.  They [Labor] are going to bring the ceiling down to about head level for tall people.  And about 215 [companies] are going to start belting their heads on the fans and the lights and being fatally attacked based on that.”

In all the hyperbolic, and at points inscrutable venting, Joyce struggled with the correct pronunciation of Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese, the man vying to be the next Prime Minister.  Several attempts were made, none quite hitting the mark.  Labor will be hoping that such misfiring will translate into electoral returns.  Given Joyce’s previous successes, this will prove a tall order, notably in regional Australia.

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