All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Death by Video: Morrison Combats Refugees By Film

Caught in the backwater of the world’s existence, Australia struggles for relevance in various ways. It might show itself a leader in creating a sovereign fund (too late for that now); it might demonstrate, in various ways, a singular approach to solar energy (impossible, we are told, on that score). Lacking a decent number of terrorist attacks, it feels left out, stranded in a provincialism that ignores the decent, maiming bombing that might signal a boost in security funding. Lacking the millions of refugees Jordan and Turkey host, it feels cast aside, preferring to persecute the few that it has. Being a US satellite sometimes stings, if only to remind the policy makers here that a good education and service for Australia leads to a pledge to a foreign Queen and, yes, functionaries in Washington.

But there is always room to impress. Australia, land girt by sea, and terrified by what will approach via it. A fixation, one that should fill the psychiatric manuals, has captivated Australian politicians since it became unfashionable to avoid paperwork and get on a boat to head Down Under. In the late 1990s, the regulatory framework to punish and condemn those without documentation was established. The document became sovereign: lacking it landed you, not only in a spot of bother, but a spot of derision. The Migration Act scolded; the Australian immigration minister dispensed with. Australians like their queues; why did you, amidst falling bombs, murderous thugs and the odd exploitative pimp, show consideration and wait in line till we called you?

A certain literature – and to that, a good deal of ghastly celluloid – has been produced on the subject. All are, in essence, in violation of the United Nations Refugee Convention. No mention on the right to asylum is ever made; nor to the right not to be prejudiced against as an asylum seeker in terms of means of arrival. And that’s merely the start. In gazing at these amateurish compilations of self-entitled guff, one is left with the conclusion that no one involved in this process has ever consulted a human rights manual, let alone familiarised themselves with the hideous post-Second World War period. There was a time when the term Displaced Person was not entirely revolting.

Such cinematic barrel scraping features warnings about arriving in Australia. It targets individuals at various stages of their travel. Farid Rasuli, as a 17-year-old refugee, managed to catch a video on YouTube, with production credits due to the Australian Border Force, a few years ago. Moving through Indonesia and hoping to conduct a search for videos in his language, Rasuli found a dull, austere Australian major general popping up. It starts like this: “This video is produced in English by the Australian Government to ensure transparency of translated anti-people smuggling communication material being delivered to audiences offshore.” Such breathtaking, granular authenticity!

The video proceeds in unequivocal manner. In bold type, it claims that, “You will be turned back.” The particular production, dull vintage 2016, insists that the arrangement with the United States to settle refugees that would, otherwise, find themselves in Australia’s holiday gulag, is a “one-off.” Potential arrivals are told that they will not be able to avail themselves of such an option, should they wish to leap on the off chance. What is not explained is that the US administration at the time offers no guarantees that such a measure would even work. (A certain President Donald Trump was going to get the wobbles on that one.)

In 2014, Angus Campbell, the commander of the unfortunately named Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia’s own secret mission of oppression, was co-opted in making another video. It featured, in rather ugly fashion, the bold capitalised words “NO WAY” followed by the imperative shout, “You will not make Australia Home.” Above the message: an Australia with a line through it; a deleted, forbidden Australia. The duration of this ghastly pap is a mere minute. “The message is simple, if you come to Australia illegally by boat, there is no way you will ever make Australia home.”

The message is designed as a punch against both the smuggler and the cargo. “It is the policy and practice of the Australian government to intercept any vessel that is seeking to illegally enter Australia and safely remove it beyond our waters.” (The wording is important: whose safety are we really referring to?)

The Australian propaganda units have been busy – far busier than many of the citizens care to reflect upon. Money best reserved for Australia’s declining education system has found a home in other projects. In addition to film, the form of the graphic novel has been deployed. Going for 18-pages, one had a specific audience: Afghan asylum seekers. The message: should you dare make the journey to Australia, Nauru’s infamous hospitality awaits. The production positively reeks of persecution.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the hardened advertising man of the government, has retreated into something he knows best: the shallow, bucket swilling call of the advert. This is interesting in a way: the same man condemned his opponents for doing something similar when they got on the anti-refugee video show. When Labor, then in government, introduced material to justify its “PNG solution” in July 2013, Morrison claimed that the party was “ramraiding the taxpayer’s ATM”. The then coalition opposition snortingly dismissed the effort by Labor as “propaganda”.

Shortened memories prevail. A two-minute video message is now ambling its way through 10 countries, though it will have to be translated, however accurately, on its crooked journey. “Make no mistake, if you attempt to come to Australia illegally by boat, you will not succeed.” Spare your pennies, insists Morrison. “So do not waste your money or risk your life, or anyone else’s life, for nothing.” Such is the awareness of a person who has never had to consider the throbbing, genuine feeling human rights conjures up in the breast of the oppressed.

Morrison is selling the measure as a necessity, a band aid to what the opposition parties have done to his cherished border protection policy. “Our government will be doing everything within our power – despite what the Labor Party have done to undermine our border protection regime – to ensure these boats don’t come.” Videos, and up at them.

Size Matters: The Demise of the A380

The aircraft business has always been a dear affair.  More than other forms of transport, it remains susceptible to oscillating costs (materials, fuel), ever at the mercy of the uncontrollable.  The Airbus A380 was meant to be a giant’s contribution to aviation.  In time, its makers came to the conclusion that the bird had already flown.

In the solemn words of outgoing Airbus chief executive Tom Enders, “We have no sustainable A380 backlog and hence no basis to sustain production, despite all our sales efforts with other airlines in recent years.”

As much as it was a “technical wonder” (an “outstanding engineering and industrial achievement” boasted Enders), the A380 simply did not have the momentum financially to carry the company.  To a large extent, this may have been embedded in the mission itself: to outperform, at quite literally all cost, the Boeing 747, the super mega jet dream born in 1988 when Airbus engineers went to work on designing an ultra-high-capacity-airliner (UHCA).  This would entail the guzzling addition of four jet engines, and an ongoing headache to the accountants.

The consequences of this vain if admired project have been more than head-ache inducing.  Carriers who have gone for purchases of the divine beast have under-performed on the revenue side of things. Such large entities, to make matters viable, need orders covering up to four-fifths of the seats.  This leads to incentives to discount prices and seek promotions.  In the penny-pinching world of air travel, this is a tall order.

And big it is.  The A380 was advertised for its breezy size and proportions – 73 metres in length, 80 metres wide, able to ferry 550 to 800 passengers, depending on type, on two complete decks.  Floor space was increased dramatically (some 49 percent), with additional seating being a mere 35 percent from the previous largest aircraft.  The comfort factor was enhanced: more passenger room, and less noise.  In a machine sense, it made many in the aeronautical side of things salivate: modern computerised systems; powerful Rolls-Royce reactors.  A truly big toy.

The transport routes favouring hubs (Dubai and Singapore) were originally the target of the A380.  Megacities would proliferate; traffic between them would necessitate bigger planes to cope with capacity issues.  Congestion would thereby be reduced.  But there were delays – some eighteen months – before it finally made its maiden flight on April 7, 2005.

Then came a change in strategy from hub destinations.  A diversification of travel routes took place.  Appropriate capacity for destinations was simply not there.  The market has also grown at a lesser rate.  Projections, in other words, have not been met.

In 2015, it was already clear that the A380 was more than struggling. No new orders were taken. The order book then stood at 317 units, with Airbus needing to make it to 420 to break even. (The original projection had been 270, but delays and currency fluctuations will do that sort of thing.)

The arrival of fuel-efficient, longer-haul flights have also become something of a curse.  The Boeing 787 and Airbus’ own A350 have done more than simply pique interest.  A move in their direction signals a greater interest in the More Electric Aircraft generation.  Qantas Airways Ltd. is seen as an example: initially enthusiastic about Emirates, having made an alliance in 2013, it has moved with greater enthusiasm towards Cathay, courtesy of the 787. This means that the traditional hub destinations like Dubai can be by-passed.

The largest purchaser of the A380 – Emirates – has done its best to keep orders coming in for the company.  (In and of itself, this suggests dangers to both purchaser and supplier.)  Gross orders as of January 31, 2019 show Emirates coming in at a staggering 162, with Singapore Airlines a very distant second at 24. Since 2008, it has made the airline its centre piece.  Emirates’ tastes are also fairly unique, being the only major airline preferring large, twin-aisle, wide-bodied jets.

But the airline is looking elsewhere, downsizing to the smaller A350 or A330.  The numbers are eye popping: of the 56 aircraft still on the order line, 53 are set for Emirates; but Dubai’s national carrier was contemplating switching 20 orders of the Airbus SE 380.  Confirmation that it would cut orders for the A380 by 39 was enough of a call for Enders.

There are, however, still a few tricks available in the A380 bag.  Emirates, for one, managed to do the unusual thing of having increasing numbers of passengers while reducing departures.  It won’t and has not saved the continued production of the A380, but that large creature of avionics is set to be around for a time before a full, unpensioned retirement.  In Enders’ romantic reflection, the A380 would be roaming “the skies for many years to come”.

Sickness and Paranoia: The Morrison Government’s Refugee Problem

The passage of amendments to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) by the Australian House of Representatives and the Senate this week was less a case of celebration than necessitous deliverance.  The mental wellbeing of asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, or lack thereof, has been documented extensively from Australian legal representatives to members of Médecins Sans Frontières.

The Medevac Bill is scripted in clunky fashion typical of Australian drafting, but it does what other items of legislation have not: privilege, to some extent at least, medical opinion on the desperate situation of those kept in indefinite detention.  Australia’s own crude experiment of what might be termed “biopolitical” control has had predictably disastrous consequences on health and well-being.

The legislation supplies the lawful basis for refugees and asylum seekers to be transferred to Australia for “medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment”.  “Aside from being a circuit breaker to current arrangements,” claim Nicholas Proctor and Mary Anne Kenny, “the bill is a new opportunity to establish agreed governance arrangements and a clinical pathway for recognising and responding to medical need without political interference.”

Previously, Australian governments have fought any transfer arrangements of refugees and asylum seekers from Canberra’s tropical gulag with rabid ferocity.  Be it men, women or children, any show of compassion has been given the cold sneer.

The assessment of each patient is to be conducted by two doctors, either in person or remotely, keeping in mind psychiatric and treatment needs. Crucial here is the consideration about whether those supposedly five star facilities in Nauru or Manus Island supply any adequate basis for treating psychiatric and medical disorders.

It would be foolish to presume that the new provisions somehow alleviate the prospects of political interference.  The 72-hour window limit for the Minister for Home Affairs merely imposes a note of urgency; he otherwise retains power of approval or refusal over the recommendations regarding transferrals.  A firestop of sorts restraining the minister has been put in place, one involving an Independent Health Advice Panel, but this is hardly the end of the matter.  Traditional grounds for refusal are also available: a person having a “substantial criminal record” or facing an adverse security assessment might be refused leave to be treated in Australia.

The Coalition was hoping to catch out the opposition on grounds of constitutionality.  (All about inappropriate expenditure, you see.)  That was swiftly remedied by another amendment by the Labor party deeming all members sitting on the medical panel pro bono officials.

Stung and out manoeuvred in parliament, the Morrison government turned savage; facing electoral defeat (the latest poll figures show that a farm slaughter awaits), the signal to abandon reason was there.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann, Attorney-General Christian Porter and a host of worthies from the government side have been drumming the same note of feral abandon: opposition politicians are weak on protecting Australia’s sacred borders; refugees should be tarred and feathered as criminals of various sorts.

Labor, tweeted Morrison, “have learned nothing from their past failures and cannot be trusted to keep our borders and Australia strong.”  The Coalition’s border protection policy, he reiterated with confidence trickster’s gumption, “stopped the boats, stopped the deaths at sea, closed the detention centres, removed all children from detention and from Nauru.”

Former Prime Minister and backbencher Tony Abbott has been doing his bit as spear thrower, arguing that, “If you lose control of the border, you lose control of the country.” (Is this code for bowel and body?)

Porter’s reasoning is imaginatively skewed: the bill as passed permits individuals to be transferred to Australia who are either charged and not convicted; or convicted yet not sentenced. “At the very last moment, Labor put an amendment in that would give some discretion to the minister to stop people who are criminals, in effect, from coming to Australia.” Such a measure would fail, given that sentencing was “a very long tunnel”, and that ministerial discretion could not be exercised to keep the rotters out.

Fancifully, Porter’s nasty bout of demonization ignores the effects the detention regime have had on the individuals in question.  Prisons are schools for crime; detention centres are sites for mental ruination.  In some cases, these have resulted in sexual predation and desperation, hardly a cause of justification, but perfectly understandable in Canberra’s desire to degrade a certain class of refugee. If you treat people like animals, expect certain results.

A broader principle is also ignored: those either charged or convicted are not entitled to decent medical care.  They are, whatever their legal status, to suffer.  Yet again, Australia’s inherent penal mentality manifests.

Rounding the list of terrors involved, government representatives have been focusing on that permanently rich gift that keeps giving: the morally depraved and corrupt people smuggler, a phantom menace who has done wonders to keep members of parliament elected and secure.  Such a being, it would seem, is always there, awaiting to do the terrible thing and exploit an asylum seeker’s right to, well, seek asylum.  People smugglers, claims Abbott, “will be saying to their potential customers ‘look what Labor has been able to do in opposition, think how better they’ll be for you when they’re in government.”

In an effort to shore up its failings on the vote, the Morrison government has sought to use Christmas Island as a replacement option.  In Morrison’s resigned words, “We have approved putting in place the re-opening of the Christmas Island detention facilities, both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers.”

Local officials on Christmas Island were none too amused; if the facilities were not adequate on Manus or Nauru, they are hardly going to reach par on Christmas Island.  But refugee politics in Australia, at least since the late 1990s, has not been about the sensible and the generous, but about the punitive and the preventative.

Unity and Exceptionalism: Trump’s State of Union Flurries

“Trump is hated by everyone,” comes one unnamed former official in an account to Vanity Fair, one supposedly sourced after the President’s State of the Union Address.  Another claimed that all was wretched in the White House: “It’s total misery. People feel trapped.”  Off record stuff, unnamed and, as ever, doing nothing to concern a leader whose interests have always lain elsewhere.  Whatever the chronic dysfunction affecting the West Wing, what mattered for Donald Trump was simply getting his State of the Union address going. And long it was too – 82 minutes, making it the third longest in history.

The address saw Trump return to what he is most comfortable with: campaign mode.  Governance is less important than combat.  When there are troubles, and when there is crisis, he searches for the rally, the reassurances of his formidable and, it would seem, unshakeable base still ignored on either side of the coast.  The speech was seen by Susan Glasser of The New Yorker as “sort of gauzy” with hints of “World War II triumphalism”.

The language was, in the main, thin puffery, that of the exceptional nation which had “saved freedom, transformed science” and done more than its bit to redefine “the middle class standard of living for the entire world to see.” In a sense, this is true: the paradox of US living is that it supposedly reconciles middle class living with horrendous swathes of indigence and an active food stamp culture, a true glory to the distortions of Social Darwinism.

US presidential addresses tend to sound like bits of elevated shouting, the imperial figure, clutching the purple, looking down at his global subjects to lecture them about an extensive curriculum vitae thick with achievement.  “This is our future, our fate, and our choice to make.  I am asking you to choose greatness.”  This is the great mythology of choice, one that takes root in the experimental soils of New World optimism.  It hides, or at least ignores, the obvious point that greatness has often nothing to do with choice, being, as it were, a convergence of accidents, unintended steps and old fashioned stumbling.  US society was not conceived as a committee’s work in progress.

But for Trump, there was an exhortation framed around the language of decision and volition, peering into the future brightly. “Together we can break decades of political stalemate.  We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.  The decision is ours to make.”

Trump’s language of deliverance is not for the future, but from it.  It speaks to nostalgic tear-duct swellings, hot flushes of the past when full US employment was not an elaborate sham and US power could be seen, and in many cases felt, as an unconditional phenomenon.  The future, to be understood, can only be done via the mechanism of the past.  The State of the Union was no different in that sense.  “In June we marked 75 years since the start of what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower called ‘the great crusade’, the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II.”

Then there was that issue of moon travel, another act worthy of chest beating.  “In 2019, we also celebrate 50 years since brave young pilots flew a quarter of a million miles through space to plant the American flag on the face of the moon.  Half a century later we are joined by one of the Apollo 11 astronauts who planted the flag: Buzz Aldrin.  This year, American astronauts will go back into space on American rockets.”

The speech proved glazing in its praise of the Make America Great project. Manufacturing was up; regulations had been cut; corporations had been pacified and encouraged; taxes had been sliced; and the United States had become “the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world.”

Then came the rather funny business of unity.  Not that Trump’s period in office has been entirely absent of it: the passage of the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform measure that received a modest cheer across the aisles, will go down, in time, as a significant bipartisan measure. But Trump had his sights set elsewhere.  “As we have seen, when we are united, we can make astonishing strides for our country.  Now, Republicans and Democrats must join forces again to confront an urgent national crisis.”  Congress, he spoke in hectoring reminder, had “10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our Government, protect our homeland and secure our southern border.”

The Democrats remained defensive and unmoved, preferring a softer approach to dealing with illegal immigration.  Nor are they are likely to ease up on the investigations, which they have become inexorably linked to.  It said much about the neurotic state of affairs that is Washington politics: Trump can speak to unity where it doesn’t exist, a common ground that is simply not being reached.  Nor can it.  Unity is precisely what the president is not, the toxic, necessary revelation of a society rented through with divisions that have turned into votes.

For the US to again fall into the fictional language of forced consensus, one manufactured in the hot houses of technocracy and the board room, would be for Trump to disappear, for his America to vanish into the illusion of agreement.  That is hardly going to happen – at least for now.  The economic figures have given him leg room; his supporters have not left.  Nor do the Democrats have an answer.  The conspiracy of happiness has yet to return.

Meeting in Moscow: The Taliban Meets the Afghan Opposition

It had the semblance of a play lacking key actors.  They were deemed the difficult ones, and a decision was made to go through with the performance.  The Taliban were willing to talk with their adversaries, but they were keen on doing so with opposition politicians rather than the stick-in-the-mud types in government led by the current President Ashraf Ghani.  The assessment from The New York Times over the whole affair held at the President Hotel in Moscow was that the meeting could only be, at best, “a brainstorming session”.

The Taliban officials going to Moscow were a different crew, at least in terms of perceptions.  These were not the intemperate salad day youths of 1996, yanking cassettes from car stereos in Kandahar and ranting against all matters musical and female.  These were men of diplomacy, their guns holstered.  Gone were visions of seizing the whole of Afghanistan and establishing a broader theocratic state.  Doing so, by their admission, would not bring the state to peaceful order.   Nor, and here there will be questions, did they seem unwilling to reconsider their position on broader notion of human rights.

The claims from the Taliban demonstrate their continued boldness and durability.  Enemies have come and gone, and they remain steadfast in imposing order.  Their brutality remains common and assertive, but they have become wiser, more discerning in their heavy-handedness. “Peace is more difficult than war,” suggested Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, one of the members of the negotiating party to head to Moscow.

The January draft agreement arising from a series of meetings with US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, suggests a commitment on the part of the US to withdraw its forces from the country with a Taliban promise to prevent Afghanistan being used as a staging ground for jihadists in future.

The Wednesday statement did little to add flesh to any potential bargain but did outline nine points.  Continued intra-Afghan talks would take place – the usual talks about talks; involving the cooperation of regional countries and others were “essential to determine lasting and nationwide peace in Afghanistan”.

One aspiration stood out, making all aware about the traumatic divisions in a society that has resisted internally and externally imposed changes for generations.  Unity has been impossible; centralisation of the state an impracticable and unrealisable dream.  “All parties agreed that the values such as respect for the principles of Islam in all parts of the system, the principle that Afghanistan is a common home to all Afghans, support to a powerful centralised government with all ethnicities having a role in it, protecting national sovereignty and promoting social justice, to keep Afghanistan neutral in all regional and international conflicts, protecting Afghanistan’s national and religious values and undertaking a unified and single policy.”

The other aspirations follow on from the first: the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghan soil; an affirmation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and the principle of non-interference.  Then come promises to protect “social, economic, political and educational rights of the Afghan women in line with Islamic principles, protection of political and social rights of the entire people of Afghanistan and protection of freedom of speech in line with Islamic principles.”

Ghani’s spokesman Samim Arif expressed his sentiments on the gathering.  “On the issue of the peace process, we respect the views of all parts of society, including the politicians.  But the ownership and the leadership of the peace process is the authority of the Afghan government.”

Ghani was even blunter: “With whom, what will they agree upon there?  Where is their executive power?  Let hundreds of such meetings be held, but these would only be paper (agreements) unless there is an agreement by the Afghan government; Afghanistan’s national assembly and Afghanistan’s legal institutions.” Ghani might as well have asked himself those same questions, his rule itself very much a paper based one, his claims to executive authority adventurous at best.

Notwithstanding the activities in Moscow, there will no doubt be a good number of Afghans, left confused by years of external intervention and promptings, concerned by this affirmation and legitimation of Taliban rule.  While the Moscow declaration insists on observing various rights previously anathema to Taliban theocracy, these are provisional within the remit of “Islamic principles”, which have been shown to be roughly interpreted when needed.  Schools may continue being threatened under any new regime; education for females face the prospects of being reined in (religious reasons apply, naturally), as they always tend to in areas of Taliban occupation.  Aired guarantees are simply that.

The gathering in Moscow signalled one undeniable reality: the Taliban as a political force cannot be ignored.  Remarks made in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 by US-led forces that the Taliban would be blown to smithereens and wiped off the lunar face of the country have come to nought.  These fighters have lasted the distance; corrupt officials in Kabul, pampered and sponsored by foreign largesse, remain estranged and politically weak.  The Trump administration, prone to erratic spots of unilateral viciousness, is keen on easing part of the imperium’s commitments in the Middle East.  Eyes will be on Kabul to see how far this goes.

Sharp Manias: Knife Crime in London

London — A bleak London assailed by daily news about Brexit negotiation, prospects of food shortages and higher prices in the event of a no-deal with the European Union, provides the perfect apocalyptic backdrop for headlines. The city is ailing; the residents are panicked; and the authorities are gloomy.

Such environments are ideal for talk about emergencies.  One doing much filling on London airtime is that of knife crime.  Not that knife crime, in and of, itself is unusual: for years, stabbing implements have made their way into broader law and order issues in the city’s policing scene, a good number featuring errant youth.  These have encouraged a wide array of myths masquerading as solid fact: London, the city of the “no-go” area; Londonistan, city of perpetual, spiralling crime.

In 2008, Britain’s public institutions – political and public – became darkly enraptured with knife crime afflicting inner city areas, with a heavy focus on London.  Stabbings were reported in lurid fashion; threats to urban safety were emphasised.  As Peter Squires noted in a fairly withering examination of the phenomenon in British Politics, “The knife crime ‘epidemic’, as it came to be called, coincided with a series of youth justice policy measures being rolled out by the government, and significantly influenced them.”

Kevin Marsh of the BBC, writing at the same time, wondered how best a news organisation might report such crime figures. “How much does tone and prominence distort the real picture?  Is some coverage self-fulfilling prophecy?  Does it spread fear and anxiety way beyond the rational?”  Marsh would admit that being a victim of a knife crime was “very, very unlikely”; and that young men, in the main, did not carry knives; “most young people are not components of what some politicians are calling the ‘broken society’.”

For all that, Marsh found himself admitting that “it’s part of the purpose of our media to draw things to our attention, however crudely.”  The crude element remains the sticking point, resisting nuance, despite the hope that reporters might help “us citizens really think hard about possible solutions”.

Knife crime has become the bread and butter of lazy reportage, one hitched to the coattails of the broken society argument.  Describing a broken fence is easier fare than describing a mended one; solutions remain dull, academic matters.  The emergency narrative tends to emerge ahead each time; matters of social causes and complexity receive short shrift.  In 2017, Gary Younge turned his noise up at the panic merchants, and deemed teenage knife crime “a tabloid obsession, blamed on feral youth running riot in our cities.”  Such fears speak to an obsession with decay and decline; youth go wrong if society does not go right.

In 2018, knife crime became a meme of terror.  The Express shouted with “London BLOODBATH” in a June headline, and subsequently began using it as a running title for any knife-related crime.  Political parties also capitalised on the atmosphere. In the east London borough of Havering, a local Conservative leaflet, buttering up electors ahead of the March local elections, promised mayhem.  “Mayor Khan and Corbyn’s men are desperate to grab power in our Town Hall, so get ready for… A London crimewave with even less police.”  In Lewisham East, UKIP candidate David Kurten added his bit in a by-election with a leaflet featuring the words “STOP THE KARNAGE” placed across a picture of a knife.

The dreary world of knife crime figures is erratic.  Between 2008 and 2014, offences involving knives or sharp instruments fell from 36,000 recorded offences to 25,000.  Then came an increase in 2015/6 – a nudge to 28,900.  The figures on death occasioned by knife crime are even more inscrutable, prompting Spiked Online to conclude that there was “no huge upsurge in knife violence because society overall is becoming less violent, and crime in general is falling.”  This was not to say that no concern should be felt: the issue is particular in London, and its effects disproportionate on young working-class black men. A possible explanation?  Not just indigence or exclusion, but nihilism and plain susceptibility.

Barely two months into this year, and the rounds of panic are in full swing.  As always, it’s the deceptive field of statistics dragged out to give a picture of clear, bolt-the-doors-and-hide doom.  It began with a spate of violent actions on New Year’s Eve, which saw four young men stabbed to death in London, prompting London Mayor Sadiq Khan to berate the government for its squeeze on youth services, policing and education.

Police statistics, pounced upon by the Evening Standard just in time for the evening commute on Monday, suggest that 41 percent across London’s boroughs involve those between the green years of 15 to 19.  Eight percent range from the even greener 10 to 14.

The Standard’s Martin Bentham sliced and spliced the announcement from the police with maximum, terrifying effect, all assisted by a picture perfect grim background of law enforcement officials at a crime scene on Caledonia Road.  “The new figures came as a Scotland Yard chief warned that attacks in the capital were also becoming ‘more ferocious’ as offenders were ‘more and more young’ tried to kill or injure by ‘getting up close and stabbing someone several times’.

Descriptions on police tactics follow, resembling those of urban battle plans keen on frustrating potential attacks.  Chief Superintendent Ade Adelekan, head of the Met’s Violent Crime Task Force, is quoted as claiming that “some progress” is being made.  There was also a more frequent use of search and “other tactics” including “the deployment of ‘embedded’ plain clothes officers to work with uniformed counterparts” in acts of prevention.

As Younge rightly notes, such realities are “more complex – and we cannot save lives if we do not understand it.”  But understanding is a term absent in times of panic. These are times rich for exploitation.  With Brexit having become the great psychodrama, all else is ripe for distraction and manipulation.

“Instagram Helped Kill My Daughter”: Censorship Tendencies in Social Media

It is all a rather sorry tale.  Molly Russell, another teenager gorged on social media content, sharing and darkly revelling, took her own life in 2017 supposedly after viewing what the BBC described as “disturbing content about suicide on social media.”  Causation is presumed, and the platform hosting the content is saddled with blame.

Molly’s father was not so much seeking answers as attributing culpability.  Instagram, claimed Ian Russell, “helped kill my daughter”.  He was also spoiling to challenge other platforms: “Pininterest has a huge amount to answer for.”  These platforms do, but not in quite the same way suggested by the aggrieved father.

The political classes were also quick to jump the gun.  Here was a chance to score a few moral points as a distraction from the messiness of Brexit negotiations.  UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was in combative mood on the Andrew Marr show: “If we think they need to do things they are refusing to do, then we can and we must legislate.”  Material dealing with self-harm and suicide would have to be purged.  As has become popular in this instance, the purging element would have to come from technology platforms themselves, helped along by the kindly legislators.

Any time the censor steps in as defender of morality, safety and whatever tawdry assertions of social control, citizens should be alarmed.  Such attitudes are precisely the sorts of things that empty libraries and lead to the burning of books, even if they host the nasty and the unfortunate.  Content deemed undesirable must be removed; offensive content must be expunged to make us safe.  The alarming thing here is that compelling the tech behemoths to undertake such a task has the effect of granting them even more powers of social control than before. Don’t they exert enough control as it is?

While social media giants can be accused, on a certain level, of faux humanitarianism and their own variant of sublimated sociopathic control (surveillance capitalism is alive and well), they are merely being hectored for the logical consequence of sharing information and content. This is set to become more concentrated, with Facebook, as Zak Doffman writes, planning to integrate Instagram and WhatsApp further to enable users “across all three platforms to share messages and information more easily”.  Given Facebook’s insatiable quest for advertising revenue, Instagram is being tasked with being the dominant force behind it.

The onus on production and exchange is on customers: the customers supply the material, and spectacle.  They are the users and the exploited.  This, in turn, enables the social media tech groups to monetise data, trading it, exploiting it and tanking privacy measures in the process.  The social media junkie is a modern, unreflective drone.

In doing so, an illusion of independent thinking is created, where debates can supposedly be had, and ideas formed.  The grand peripatetic walk can be pursued.  Often, the opposite takes place: groups assemble along lines of similar thought; material of like vein is bounced around under the impression it advances discussion when it merely provides filling for a cork-lined room or chamber of near-identical thinking.  All of this is assisted by the algorithmic functions performed by the social media entities, all in the name of making the “experience” you have a richer one.  Far be it in their interest to make sure you juggle two contradictory ideas at the same time.

Instagram’s own “Community Guidelines” have the aim of fostering and protecting “this amazing community” of users.  It suggests that photos and videos that are shared should only be done by those with a right to do so.  Featured photos and videos should be directed towards “a diverse audience”.  A reminder that the tech giant is already keen on promoting a degree of control is evident in restrictions on nudity – a point that landed the platform in some hot water last year.  “This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks.”  That’s many an art period banished from viewing and discussion.

The suicide fraternity is evidently wide enough to garner interest, even if the cult of self-harm takes much ethical punishment from the safety lobby.  Material is still shared.  Self-harm advisories are distributed through the appropriate channels.

Instagram’s response to this is to try to nudge such individuals towards content and groups that might just as equally sport reassuring materials to discourage suicide and self-harm.  Facebook, through its recently appointed Vice-President of Global Affairs, Sir Nick Clegg, was even happy to point out that the company had prevented suicides: “Over the last year, 3,500 people who were displaying behaviour liable to lead to the taking of their own lives on Facebook were saved by early responders being pointed to those and people and intervening at the right time.”

This is all to the good, but such views fail in not understanding that social media is not used or engaged in to change ideas so much as create communities who only worship a select few.  The tyranny of the algorithm is a hard one to dislodge.

In engaging such content, we are dealing with narcotised dragoons of users, the unquestioning creating content for the unchallenged. That might prove to be the greatest social crime of all, the paradox of nipping curiosity rather than nurturing it, but instead of dealing with the complexities of information from this perspective, governments are going to make technology companies the chief censors.  It might well be argued that enough of that is already taking place as it is, this being the age of deplatforming.  Whether it be a government or a social media giant, the same shoddy principle is the same: others know better than you do, and you should be protected from yourself.

Everybody Else’s Business: Coup Fever in Venezuela

This could have been seen as audacious.  Instead, it had the smell of a not so well concealed sponsorship, the backing of a meaty foreign hand.  Venezuelan opposition leader and President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó decided to take a quick step in the direction of the presidency.  His own counterfeit theory is simple: he is not being a usurper, so much as a panacea for the usurpation by the current president, Nicolás Maduro.  “I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure and (sic) end to the usurpation.”

Such language is not that of a principled revolutionary figure so much as a hired hand intent on returning the country to conservative tedium.  The power doing that hiring has had friendly press outlets for Guaidó to express his opinions. On January 15, the president of the National Assembly was permitted space in The Washington Post to claim that his country was witnessing something without precedent. (Be wary of the message claiming the exceptional.)  “We have a government that has dismantled the state and kidnapped all institutions and manipulate them at will.”

But even Guaidó had to explain, despite deeming Maduro an unrecognised figure, that Venezuela was not your vanilla, crackpot dictatorship wedded to the use of police powers. “The regime may have ties to drug trafficking and guerrilla groups, but we also have a functioning, democratically elected parliament, the National Assembly.”  Pity, then, that Guaidó needs so much outside help to make his call.

Maduro, understandably, fumed at the challenge.  “We’ve had enough interventionism, here we have dignity damn it.” But dignity is a hard matter to retain in broader geopolitical dramas.  Shame, compromise, and a general muddying of credibility tend to follow in such foreign incursions.

The official Venezuelan president cannot be said to have been a friend of state institutions.  He is holding power under a form of sufferance.  His interpretation of the democratic mandate can be said to be sketchy at best, a feature not uncommon in the history of the Americas.  Authoritarianism breeds revolt, which breeds authoritarianism, a default revenge mechanism.  But Maduro has good reasons to sneer at his opponent and the warm embrace by US officials of the movement seeking to remove the Chávista. The memory of 2002 and the failure on the part of Washington to remove Hugo Chávez remains strong and, in some ways poisonous; the failed coup resulted in attempts on the part of Chávez to neutralise the power of his opponents, be they in the Supreme Court or the corporate media.  Mass round-ups and executions were resisted, but authoritarian counter measures were used.  Maduro has merely been one of Chávez’s keener students in that regard.

To this dysfunctional mess can be added the pervasive, consistent and persistent molestation of US foreign policy.  Gardens in Latin America have been trampled upon by US thuggery since the Republic was founded, and the tendency is instinctive and genetic.  That thuggery also shares a neurotic relationship with democracy, the product Washington finds hard to export while scuttling the democratic projects of others.  Hustlers and gamblers are not, by their dispositions, democratic: they believe in the doomed nature of change, and, to that end, identify the steady horse they would wish to back in any political race.  If that horse is sympathetic to capital interests, despite kicking in the teeth of liberal democracy, all the better.

While apoplectic hysteria governs the US security heavies from the Hill to the public talk circuit about Russian electoral interference, dispensation will always be given to meddling in the affairs of others. Trump, for one, has acknowledged Guaidó’s declaration as legitimising an interim presidency, one that will arm an opponent of Maduro and ensure a transition of loyalty to the United States. “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law.”  (Richly inconsistent, is The Donald, on matters regarding freedom and the law.)

The international reaction has been illustrative of the broader issues at stake, making it far more than a matter of pure bullying from Washington.  Other countries have decided to make Venezuela their business, some by suggesting that it should not be the business of others.  Mexico remains an observer of the status quo.  China and Russia have taken the view that non-interference should be the policy while Turkey insists that Maduro dig in.  Cuba and Bolivia had defended the incumbent, but Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina have gone the whole hog in accepting Guaidó.

Liberal democratic states have shown themselves presumptuous enough to violate the UN Charter in directly stating their willingness to back Maduro’s opponents.  Even timelines have been advanced and demands issued that directly impair the Venezuelan political process.  “Unless elections are announced within eight days,” suggested France’s unpopular President Emmanuel Macron, “we will be ready to recognise @jguaido as ‘President in charge’ of Venezuela in order to trigger a political process.”  Given Macron’s own tarnished legitimacy as leader, harangued as a charlatan intent on market and labour reform, this came across as rich posturing.

The same with Spanish Prime Minster Pedro Sanchez, yet another figure who has decided to make Venezuelan politics a matter of personal interest.  “The government of Spain gives [President] Nicolas Maduro eight days to call free, transparent and democratic elections.  If that doesn’t happen, Spain will recognise Juan Guaidó as interim president in charge of calling these elections.”  And to think that Sanchez can hardly be said to have a standing vote in those elections.

As in other countries, the fate of the incumbent government may be decided by the loyalty of the army.  The position, as stated by the country’s defence minister Vladimir Padrino, is that the armed forces do not, at this point, recognise the usurping antics of the opposition leader “imposed by shadowy interests… outside the law”.  Such stances, as history shows, change.

From this whole mess, one conclusion may be drawn.  Venezuela has ceased being a midget to be pushed over by the obese villain and its allies, though it still risks succumbing to the dictating wishes of others.  Maduro has severed relations with Washington, issuing marching orders to US diplomats. But the schismatic spectacle of two governments seeking to pull the strings has become an absurdly disruptive prospect.  Any state that has suggested this as feasible should be wary of what they wish for.

Shutting Down in Trumpland

It is a political idiosyncrasy that most political systems avoid: the state, as if suffering a stroke, operating at only partial capacity, incapable of paying certain employees and incapable of fronting certain services.  And so it is in the United States, which is facing the longest shut down in its history after the record set under the Clinton Presidency – 21 days in 1995 – was passed.

Prior to the 1970s, the administration of the day could generally expend moneys without prior congressional approval.  Then came a shifting of power from the executive to Congress in a 1974 law, reorganising the budget process.  Scrapping duly followed between the arms of government, and the legal opinion of United States attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti provided the kiss of dysfunction to politics in Washington.  Agencies could not, he surmised with high priest severity, continue to operate in the absence of congressional appropriations, bar those engaged in certain vital tasks, such as protecting life and property.

The reasons for the current squabble remain less significant than the process and consequences.  President Donald Trump wants his wall on the Mexico border; the Democrats remain cool to aspects of the idea.  The result has been a standoff and the drying up of pay checks to certain federal employees.

The term “shutdown” is deceptive.  The state itself, for the most part, is still functioning, hence that qualifying word “partial”.  The imperial mechanisms of waging war, procuring weapons of death and lining the pockets of the military industrial complex are exempt activities, the purview of the Department of Defence.  Many agencies have also been funded through the current fiscal year.

But services out of the news, and on the margins, are the first to go into the world of pro-bono delivery, food pantries and food banks.  An estimate in terms of how many are going without pay runs into 800,000.

Then come those flexing arms of Homeland Security: the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.  Political decisions can have stinging irony, and for a president keen to press home his interest in border security and impervious walls, not paying members of these parts of the security apparatus seems a jarring, and risible, oversight.  TSA employees have found small ways to inflict vengeance: employees are calling in sick in large numbers; checkpoints have been closing.

The Coast Guard has had to be comforted by words rather than cash.  Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson described members as “brave” in their task of keeping “America’s waters safe” even as they assisted the navy in various “maritime theatres of war” in maintaining security and countering piracy.

The issue with shutdowns is problematic in several ways.  Trump’s loyal base may remain unmoved by his obstinate childishness, but the issue remains depleting to the entire practice of governance. When the money stops trickling into services, the political figures of the day will be noted and marked.  But Trump retains a padding that resists corrosion and wearing.  The same cannot be said either about members of the GOP, or the Democrats.  As the Republic rusts before the fantasy of a wall and a self-engineered, partial paralysis, the man who remains standing, whatever the polls say, is Trump.

The danger for the Democrats is how to stay mighty and distant, instead of close and small.  This has been all but impossible for them.  Trump is ramping it up with delinquent enthusiasm, as he always does, playing the trivial politics of small gains and considerable bellows, and also making it hard for his opponents to escape falling for much the same.

He has, for instance, delighted in preventing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from using a plane that would have taken her on a trip to Afghanistan.  Trump’s administration, in the words of a White House official, “worked with the Air Force and (the Defence Department) and basically took away the rights to the plane from the speaker.”  The note from Trump to Pelosi explaining the decision suggests an emperor keen to prevent an out of favour official from seeing the sights of the imperium. “Due to the Shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan has been postponed.” The “seven-day excursion” (how true) would be rescheduled “when the Shutdown is over”.

Pelosi, not wanting to be left out of the barnyard romp of low expectations, retaliated by insisting that the House of Representatives “will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the president’s State of the Union address in the House chamber until the government has opened.”

Trump, in a previous note to Pelosi, dared and cajoled the House Speaker into seeking to prevent the speech from going ahead. “It would be so very sad for our country if the State of the Union were not delivered on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location.”  Trump, inadvertently, is accurate in one respect: if Congress be that great cinema, and theatre, of dissimulation and intrigue, a studio production line insulated from the electors, it is only appropriate for the chief to address its members there and then.

Trump’s dark pull, Washington’s scolding id, is total and consuming to opponents and followers alike, barrel scraping, and ultimate circus.  Others, as they have done before, will have to busy themselves running matters while those on the Hill and in the White House pursue matters of non-governance.

Eyeing the White House: The Democratic Field

Not so much hunting season as declaratory season in US politics.  The US presidential candidates from the Democratic side are making promises spiced with forced excitement in anticipation of the 2020 elections.  This early morning of the public holiday of Martin Luther King, Jr., US voters were given a spray of enthusiastic promises by yet another potential candidate for the White House: Senator Kamala Harris.

The Democratic field is wide, expansive and not necessarily satisfactory in coping with the Trump phenomenon.  The orange hell beast still has them in a tangle, the anti-thesis yet manifestation of so much that is US political behaviour.  Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders bear the heavy baggage of wearing and timing.  Sanders’ failure, one also assisted with the customarily ruthless guile of the Clinton machine in 2016, will handicap him.  Biden seems primed for the sunset ride rather than the imperial throne.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who fell for the gibes and challenges of President Donald Trump on the issue of Native American heritage, pushed her way into contention with an announcement on the eve of the new year that the White House was in her distant sights.  Even Warren’s own hometown publication, The Boston Globe, felt that she might not make the cut and should best forget it.  The reason? Divisiveness.

Groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign and Justice Democrats disagree, insisting that Warren embraces “multiracial populism” in an effort to tackle “Trump’s divide-and-conquer agenda”.  Such formulae, however, do little to deal with the actual divisions that translate into votes, whatever the clotted rhetoric suggests.  What the Trump era has shown with such brutal force is that division does win depending on where the votes fall.  The demagogic factor is no longer a matter of fringe politics.

In terms of her messages, Warren does sound like Sanders lite, with distinctions: focus on the mad cat banking sector; focus on the predatory nature of the US political system and its links with finance, but not remove the problem the private sector poses to politics and the general US citizen.

For one thing, she wishes her Accountable Capitalism Act to propel worker representation on corporate boards while encouraging corporations to be kinder in terms of how they benefit their stakeholders – not just the investor but the worker.  (Sanders, by way of contrast, wishes to be rid of the sheer influence of Wall Street, unconvinced about its salvaging properties or the ability of it to be tamed.)  Superficially, both sound similar.  “The problem we’ve got right now in Washington,” Warren made clear in her announcement, “is that it works great for those who’ve got money to buy influence, and I’m fighting against that.”

On the issue of campaign funding, Warren is also staking her claim to purity. “I don’t think we ought to be running campaigns that are funded by billionaires, whether it goes through super PACs or their own money that they’re spending.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is another figure who has added her feelers to the presidential race.  In many ways she remains one of the more interesting prospects, being suitably oleaginous to the political establishment to worry it.  In 2017, for instance, she did the unthinkable for the morally righteous core of politics in Freedom’s Land: she met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Rather sensibly, and hardly revolutionary, she suggested that it was “very important for any leader in this country to be willing to meet with others, whether they be friends or adversaries or political adversaries if we are serious about the pursuit of peace and securing our country.”  Given the absence of moral cant from such attitudes, she is bound to struggle with the chest-beating moral mongers.

As for the latest sprightly addition, Senator Harris cannot be accused of having an allergy against opportunism.  She did not, for one, feel the need for any exploratory committees.  The release of her video on Monday morning, to be catalogued along with commemorations of King, is typically decorative, the flimflam of political ornamentation. “Justice.  Decency.  Equality.  Freedom.  Democracy.  These aren’t just words.  They’re the values we as Americans cherish.  And they’re all on the line now.”

Harris has the whiff of the political animal about her, enough so to garner interest in circles regarding her record as San Francisco district attorney and attorney general for the state of California.  The very fact that she was a prosecutor has niggled contributors to column space.  Briahna Gray poses the question on whether a prosecutor can “become a president in an age when black lives matter”. The view there is that prosecutors side, by definition, with the system, and replicate its faults.

As Gray reminds us, Harris criminalized truancy and went softly on the misconduct of her prosecutors. She took issue with a finding by a federal judge that the death penalty was unconstitutional.  All of these points might just as well be used to favour her candidacy: the one who could be tough at points on crime (though not the causes of crime), and modestly enlightened on others.

Finding the progressive ship in US politics is a near impossible task.  The forces of reaction find company with those of conservatism, and in a state steered by two right wings, the progressive aspiration is firstly stifled, then asphyxiated.

Harris, for that reason, must do as other contenders will: pretend to be something she is not, and dissimulate accordingly.  She will certainly run as a progressive, but her record in the law will stalk her.  It would be best, however, to forget the tag, label or designation of progressive in the broader field now coming to bear.  What will matter is whether the populist sting in the electorate remains strong in 2020.