All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Feeding Militarism: The US Imperial Consensus

The US military industrial complex reigns like a ravenous ruler in search of new funding prospects. It has done well this year, with the Trump administration pushing the sale that the imperium needs more ruddy cash and indulgent expenditure to cope with all manner of evils.  Empire must be without equal.

The dissenters to this program have been pitiably small, concentrated amongst such outliers as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Those on the GOP side of the aisle have barely squeaked but relative to the Democrats, their sounds have been spectacularly noisy.  There is, in fact, something to be said that, in the boisterous era of Donald Trump, the Democrats have shown very little by way of bucking any trend whatever in the continuingly expansive program that is US military spending.

As Peter Beinart observed in February this year, the Democrats might be moving to the left on the domestic front (a murmuring more than a lurch, it must be said); in terms of a foreign or defence policy, nothing of note comes to mind.  Terrified of being left behind in the rat race of reaction, the Democrats have, for instance, done their bit to promise funding for the border wall with Mexico, albeit offering a lesser $1.6 billion in 2019 to the $5 billion demanded by Trump.

Beinart took note of the remarks of Nancy Pelosi, chipper in the run-up to the budget deal that dramatically increased US defence spending.  “In our negotiations,” she enthused to fellow House Democrats in an email, “Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defence.”

Defence, notably when aligned with imperial cravings, supplies its own logic.  The military industrial complex is an economy within, given the armouring rationales that make a reduction of spending heretical.  Firms and employees need to be supported; infrastructure maintained. Forget those other menial things: roads, public transport, train tracks, bridges and airports can be left to one side.  To reduce the amount would be tantamount to being treasonous, an anti-patriotic gesture.

“It’s not just a matter of buying fewer bombs,” suggests Brian Riedl of the conservatively inclined Manhattan Institute.  “The United States spends $100,000 per troop on compensation – such as salaries, housing, health care – which also contributes to our defence budget exceeding that of countries like China.”  As with such empires as Rome, the entire complex entails compensation, remuneration and nourishment for the industry of death and protection.

It became clear this month that, even with short-term spending bills, this rationale would repeat itself.  Last week, the Senate considered such a bill that further supplemented the earlier budget package that would not only fund the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments; it would also add further largesse to the Pentagon.  By a margin of 93-7, the package was passed and the Democrats found wanting, refusing to stage any protest that might result in an expiration of government funding come September 30.

Trump, in his amoral calculations, is all for such a disruptive measure, having expressed a desire both for and against a shutting down of the government in an effort to push funding towards his pet border security projects.  “Finish the Wall!” he has intoned between sessions of hectoring, directed both at the Democrats and the GOP.

The Democrats have been weak in conviction.  “This is necessary,” explained an unconvincing Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “to ensure that we do not face a government shutdown in the event that we do not finish our work on other remaining bills.”

This supposedly necessitous state of affairs sees the Pentagon budget for 2019 receiving an outlay of $606.5 billion, an increase of $17 billion from 2018.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky)’s words were those of the patriot turned fetishist.  “After subjecting America’s all-voluntary armed forces to years of belt tightening, this legislation will build on our recent progress in rebuilding the readiness of our military and investing more in the men and women who wear the uniform.”

As for what the appropriations will fund, 13 new Navy ships will be added to the inventory, including three DDG-51 guided missile destroyers and two Virginia-class submarines.  The air arm can look forward to 93 of the previously mocked (by no less or more a person than Trump) F-35 aircraft, 58 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 66 AH-64 Apache helicopters, 13 V-22 aircraft.  A further $1.5 billion will be set aside for upgrading 135 Abrams tanks.

In the tactics that ultimately saw a grand capitulation on the part of the Democrats, a policy obscenity manifested itself: to avoid squabbling over non-defence spending bills, the Senate agreed to pack the military budget bill along with that of full-year funding for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education. In wrapping these bills in the same ribbon, an abysmal reality surfaced: the military industrial complex finds a home in any legislative orientation, and will not be denied.

Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor

They are some of the most remunerated officials of one of Australia’s most importantly lucrative sectors, drawing huge “packages”, as they are termed, for little more than ribbon cutting, attending meetings and overseeing policies that, if implemented, will have to be reversed at some point.

The modern university is neither corporation nor government agency. But it has the worst elements of both, endorsing the rapacity of the former without its benefits, and the bureaucracy of the latter without its purpose.  In it, a hybrid has developed, one that has, in turn, brought forth further creations of horror: the pro-vice chancellor and the deputies, a praetorian guard of management heavies with pygmy visions and armies of support staff who have not set foot in a library in years.

Their entire existence – this draining cabal that hoards and feeds – is premised on the irrelevant and the intangible: a visit to a counterpart university in a country they can barely name, signing a memorandum of understanding they will never read again, overseeing policies they neither understand nor care to.  That’s the “vision thing”, the bollocks of strategy that has seen Australia’s 38 public university vice-chancellors paid an average of $890,000 in 2016, with 12 earning more than $1 million.

The University of Melbourne’s Glyn Davis, whose vice-chancellorship is coming to an end next month, has proven reflective on that point.  In an August issue of the Australian Financial Review, he was willing to certain observations “in the certain knowledge they will be of no use whatsoever.”  (Uselessness is always a good start, and shows the immediate hurt expressed by those who think themselves useful.)

One such kernel was the sense of not being needed, an obvious point the vice-chancellors have been attempting to overcome since they became recipients of university largesse.  Sensibly, the professorial class at the university fought off a professional full-time vice-chancellor role “for nearly 80 years”.  Australia’s famous military commander and part-time chancellor of University of Melbourne Sir John Monash “quit in frustration, famously declaring that he found it easier to organise an army on the Western Front than to run a university.”

That essence of not needing the appointment immediately distorts and corrupts.  “So to endure, the vice-chancellor must show she brings some benefit to justify the inconvenience.”  This is where Davis hits his stride. The vice-chancellor must always claim relevance, importance, and need, even if there is little to show for it. He claims that “much vice-chancellorial work is external and therefore largely invisible to the professors – representing the university to government and business, enthusing the alumni, touching donors for money.”

Davis, in other words, is suggesting that the modern vice-chancellor is pimp, wooer and crawler, an individual who is not necessarily an academic superstar who will lead the academe but a promoter who will seek to advance the emptiness of a world view jotted down by business planners.

Central to that promotion is something that no vice-chancellor can ever resist babbling about: strategy.  “Guiding the priorities that mean we do some things but not others, that we ensure the university articulates, and lives by, its aspirations.”  Strategy is where the fare is earned, the supper sung for, as it “requires a full armoury of skills – values, vision, clarity, communication, an implementation plan, evaluation, reporting back.”  Is this a university Davis is writing about, or some emaciated version of IBM or Microsoft?

When things go wrong, the university politburo digs in, retaining the most god-awful flunkeys to construct meaningless ripostes to what was, to begin with, meaningless.  The VC, PVCs and Deputy PVCs are all, essentially, running an institution into the ground, but want reassurance in doing so that they have the backing of people who are, in all likelihood, going to be their victims.

They seek complicity, encouragement and backing.  Staff surveys are sought by vice-chancellors on the almost meaningless suggestions that they care what university workers actually think.  (They don’t, and never will.  Estranged, they operate in the celestial dimension of self-serving mantras and false gains.)

One such recently conducted survey at RMIT, which was encouraged by senior managers with a fretful insistence typical of a suicidal creature who knows he will succeed, merely served to demonstrate that university managers (turncoat or failed academics, for the most part) are disliked, are deemed to be lacking a vision, and really ought to be done away with.  The response from the vice-chancellor in question to such failings?  Keep up the good work, staff! You know you are liked.  Many a bucket to expectorate into was procured at that endorsement.

Davis’ replacement is Professor Duncan Maskell, senior pro-vice chancellor (planning and resources) at the University of Cambridge.  It is significant to note why Maskell is taking up the reins.  Introduced as an academic expert in bacterial infections of livestock and people, it is clear why he enchanted the selection panel.  “He was,” noted the Australian Financial Review, “co-founder of Arrow Therapeutics, which was sold to AstraZeneca in 2007, a sale reportedly worth $150 million.”

University of Melbourne Chancellor Allan Myers supplied the standard form for such appointment: Maskell was “outstanding” as an academic, but what mattered were the numbers, the turnovers, the promotions, the management.  “He has responsibility for a turnover of approximately £2 billion per annum and is also responsible for Cambridge’s major building program”.

It is exactly such sentiments that treat the vice-chancellor, not as an intellectual leader but as an overpaid pseudo-corporate official.  We are told repeatedly that education is a matter best left to the CEOs and the administrators, not the teachers and scribblers. It further explains why universities – take RMIT as an example – prefer an individual who lacks any higher degrees but who supposedly boasts the pedigree of a former Microsoft employee.  Such a being knows “how to help the university decide what our fees should be, how to market us more effectively – where to play and how to win.”  Never mind that job losses, higher fees, and cut-backs are the result, or that students get poorer returns.

The upshot here is that the university vice-chancellor is not only meaningless at best, but parasitic and even destructive at worst.  Drawing life from the institution he or she purportedly protects but is, in truth, mauling, such a creature is best done away with.  Removing this gargoyle of encumbrance would also enable those who actually do the work – the research and teaching – to finally shave off an entire layering of dead wood that lies heavy upon the spirit of learning.  Vision, indeed.

Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama

Stage set Washington.  Object: adulterating power.  The arm of government: the judiciary.  That particular group of high ranking paladins remains up in the air as US Supreme Court appointee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh floats around in a stage of grinding limbo, as sexual allegations made start to bite.  This purgatorial state promises to resolve itself next week.

Palo Alto professor of psychology Christine Blasey Ford insists that Kavanaugh and another Georgetown Prep student, Mark Judge, locked her in a room during a party held in 1982.  What followed was what was termed an “attempted rape”, with Kavanaugh allegedly making a vain effort to remove Ford’s clothes.

That Kavanaugh has survived this long in the Me Too age as a nominee of one of the most influential bodies of US governance is a fair indicator that Trumpland has done much to disrupt a certain sensibility.  That sensibility might be hypocritical, but it is a disruption no less.  Trump, for his part, has also aided his nominee’s cause by withholding some hundred thousand documents of the judge’s records from the Bush White House on presidential privilege grounds.

This show has been given a blood rushing boost, with the parties drawing battlelines in what promises to be a squalid spectacle.  Whether it is those who back Ford, or the judge himself, the parties are jousting over grounds of fairness and how best to confront the allegations.  The Democrats insist that the process cannot go further without an investigation by the FBI. Debra Katz, one of Ford’s legal team, has reiterated that line for her client.

Senate Republicans have rebuffed it, many seeing Ford’s spoiling role as having no significant impact on the confirmation process.  “We got a little hiccup here with the Kavanaugh nomination,” came a confident Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who was also convinced that “we’ll get through this and we’ll get off to the races.” Senator John Cornyn of Texas suggested Ford, whether she wanted to “participate and tell her story” or otherwise would be “no reason for us to delay”.

Kavanaugh has done himself few favours, though he has tried to water down speculations about any reactionary tendencies that might manifest should he actually make it to the bench. His record as a staunchly conservative jurist who has more than sniffed the glue of criticism offered against Roe v Wade suggests that a regressive trend in Supreme Court jurisprudence might be in the offing. This is hidden behind the language of a studied objectivity. Before the Senate judiciary committee, he explained that, “A good judge must be an umpire – a neutral and impartial arbiter who favours no litigant or policy.”

He is also a creature happy to reflect about his time as a testosterone charged student – in certain company. In 2015, he remembered those days fondly before an audience at the Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, reflecting on the comments of his dean from that time: “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep.”

His statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee was an effort, in part, to convey an image that has taken something of a battering.  Wanting to earn plaudits on the pro-women ledger, he expressed pride at his mother’s efforts to become one of “the few women prosecutors at the time”. He peppered his delivery with references to coaching female basketball teams, including those of his daughters. “I love coaching.  All the girls I have coached are awesome,” came the crawling observation from Kavanaugh’s opening statement, suggesting a manager all too keen on being liked. It’s all the casting game, the show of decent appearances. “A majority of my 48 law clerks have been women. More than a quarter of my law clerks have been minorities.” In this, shallowness plays all ways: ticking the boxes of what, on the surface, looks like compliance and observance.

The show of having Blasey and Kavanaugh presented like celebrity life stock for political purchase is something that does little to consider accusations and grounds.  This is Trump’s deforming legacy: the show matters far more than either outcome or substantive details. For that reason, GOP strategists concerned that Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual proclivities might somehow find their way in disturbing the President’s popularity have missed a beat.

One such individual is Liz Mair, a consultant for the Republicans. “Trump already has a problem with suburban women,” Mair is noted as saying in USA Today.  “The way this is going, I don’t see any great upside here for the GOP.”  Mair should be retained for other tasks, have tripped over the obvious point that Trump’s aggressive, engaged voters find groping hands, dedicated misogyny and callousness less significant that the Making America Great Again Show.  It should be remembered that the consequences of the “Access Hollywood” tape was guaranteed, cycle-news notoriety that did wonders to enhance a profile rather than diminish credibility.

Lisa J. Banks, also representing Ford, was none too impressed with the show, though she did concede her client’s willingness to work with the judiciary committee.  “The committee’s stated plan to move forward with a hearing that has only two witnesses is not a fair or good faith investigation; there are multiple witnesses whose names have appeared publicly and should be included in any proceeding.”  For his part, Kavanaugh insists on a categorical and unequivocal denial. “I remain committed to defending my integrity.”

The politics of calculation in this instance is everything. At the moment, the Republicans are doing their best to ensure that Judge Kavanaugh gets confirmation before the mid-term elections, slotting him in before any inevitable entropy. A Democratic-controlled Senate, should it eventuate, will make the prospects of getting this marred creature onto the bench significantly more difficult.

The Pathology of Mass Surveillance

It’s fitting that the same society that produced George Orwell with his warnings of a totalitarian dystopia stacked with all-prying monitors, surveillance and paranoia should yield up some of the most invasive surveillance regimes imaginable.  While some states have found the revelations from Edward Snowden the sort that should initiate, at the very least, modest changes, the United Kingdom preferred opposite approach.  It had, after all, been an indispensable ally to the US National Security Agency, its equivalent GCHQ always intent on going one better.

In 2016, the Snooper’s Charter, a name so innocuous as to imply impressive cuddliness, found its way onto Britain’s law books after two failed efforts.  That instrument’s more officious, and appropriate title, was the Investigatory Powers Act, deemed by Snowden “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.”  As Paul Bernal suggested in The Conversation on its passage, “It is not a modernisation of existing law, but something qualitatively different, something that intrudes upon every UK citizen’s life in a way that would even a decade ago have been inconceivable.”

Various efforts in Britain have been mounted against the all-consuming beast of mass surveillance.  The UK Court of Appeal did find in 2015 that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) failed to place adequate restrictions upon police officers in their attempts to access personal information, including web browsing history and phone records.  The discerning judges noted the absence of an independent overseer and appropriate safeguards that might have saved the legislation.

Last Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights took a rather different view from the national security boffins in the case of Big Brother Watch and Others v the United Kingdom.  The legality of three different surveillance forms featured in the complaint by 16 applicants, launched in the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s disclosures: the bulk interception of communications; the sharing of intelligence with foreign governments; the obtaining of communications data from communications service providers.

While the applicants did not shun all forms of bulk interception, the relevant claim was that such a regime could hardly be seen to have “the quality of law because it was so complex as to be inaccessible to the public and to the Government” lacking “clear and binding legal guidelines” and “sufficient guarantees against abuse.”

The submission by the UK government was predictably heavy on the issues of threat, security and danger.  The greatest temptation of tyrants is the claim that what is being combated is new, fresh and entirely modern.  National security threats abound like a miasmic phenomenon, and not just that old nagging matter of terrorism.  There was a degree of “sophistication” terrorists and criminals had adopted in communicating over the Internet so as to avoid detection. Encryption was being used; the volume of communications was so vast as to enable concealment.

By five votes to two, the Chamber found that the bulk interception regime violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights covering the respect for private and family life, home and correspondence.  The failing here was a conspicuous lack of oversight in selecting Internet bearers for targets of interception.  There was also an inadequate system in filtering, searching and selecting any salient intercepted communications; and there was a pronounced lack of pertinent safeguards concerning “related communications data”.  Bulk interception did not, in of itself, violate the Convention; but clearly defined criteria was the essence of validity.

By six votes to one, the Chamber found that obtaining communications data from those in the communications industry also breached the protections of Article 8.  Article 10 of the Convention covering freedom of expression, holding opinions, and the imparting and receipt of information was also found to have been offended by both the bulk interception regime and obtaining communications from service providers.

The judges noted that the second and third applications involved “investigative journalists who have reported on issues such a CIA torture, counterterrorism, drone warfare, and the Iraq war logs [accepting] that they were potentially at risk of having their communications obtained by the United Kingdom authorities”.

The judges did, however, fail to bite on several fronts. Sharing intelligence with foreign governments could not be considered a violation of either Article 8 or 10.  (This, in of itself, raises a set of problems given Britain’s security ties with various unsavoury states who might be all too happy to receive the UK’s bounty.)  On the issue of whether the surveillance regime breached Article 6 (covering the right to a fair trial), and the inadequacy of domestic processes in challenging surveillance measures suggesting a violation of Article 14 (prohibiting discrimination), the court remained unmoved.

The response of the UK government has been one of readjustment and sweetening.  Whilst “careful consideration” would be given to the ruling, a new “double lock” oversight process, according to a spokesperson, had been introduced in the 2016 legislation. The process involved agreement between an independent judicial commissioner and the authorising secretary of state in executing search warrants.  It is precisely such measures that must be regarded as the mandatory softeners in otherwise extreme security measures that never do what they claim to.

Despite the recent horror of her premiership, Prime Minister Theresa May, a figure instrumental in building the new British security state, can take comfort from Brexit in one fundamental respect: At the very least she might be able to prize Britannia away from the clutches of a European human rights court that continues to correct wayward member states obsessed with surveillance.

Deplatforming Germaine Greer

The flexibility of English, and thriving sign that it is not a dead language, permits repeated atrocities to be committed in the name of new terms.  We are told that what is new is supposedly good, a sign of evolution. More accurately, such terms simply describe an old phenomenon, giving the false impression that the novel has appeared before the old.

The term “deplatforming” is de rigueur at the moment, a creature of the social media age and lecture circuit.  Invitations to writers’ festivals can be withdrawn at a moment’s notice because the invitee has either not observed the current fashion, or has done something distinctly against it.  Users of social media have their carpet, or platform, as it were, taken from under them.

The star recipient of that treatment was Alex Jones, who has found himself, and his Infowars, expelled beyond the city gates of social media babble. Social media giants, pressured by the very individuals who believe that free speech is vital oxygen to the body politic, have taken it upon themselves to police expression. “It’s implausible to imagine a future,” observed a bleak David Harsanyi, “in which liberal activists don’t demand that Republican groups be de-platformed.”

A creature of argumentation and debate very different to Jones is Germaine Greer, a permanent voice of insurrection whose The Female Eunuch still retains, even after a half-century, the sense of being both iconoclastic and holy.  When your book becomes a household weapon of feminist liberation, an item to be found on reading lists to perturb, you know you have made it.  While she has never quite emulated the initial triumph of that deliciously confronting text, she has always managed to take stage and floor, to back into the limelight.  Her enemies are many, and there are as many amongst the fractious sisterhood as they are outside it. Having never been a full card carrying ideologue, Greer has never, thankfully, belonged.

On the ABC’s Q&A program, Greer was again found showing how her opinions and essays can still strike appropriate chords, ruffle the occasional, fixed feather and disrupt the nonchalant with a discomforting start.  On this occasion, it was rape, that tool of power, appropriation and control that has preoccupied analysts of sexuality since cognition was discovered.   Greer’s reaction was hardly surprising, a no-nonsense slap down on how victimhood should be treated.  “Trauma is something that is dictated really by the sufferer.  You know, I can’t bear huntsman spiders.  It is not their fault. It’s my fault… I decided to be frightened of them.”

The program merely saw a reiteration of Greer’s views outlined in her latest essay On Rape, which does not disparage victims but provides a trenchant critique of the justice system that reduces such victims to the minutiae of “evidence”.  “Rape,” she contends, “is a jagged outcrop in the vast monotonous landscape of bad sex; we can only understand its prevalence and our inability to deal with it if we position it correctly within the psychopathology of daily life.”

It is “banal rape” that poses the greatest problem, wrapped, as it were, in the dilemmas of the incommunicable, the gulf between sexual participants.  To that end, and here, Greer supplies the kindling for her critics, a different sentencing regime is required, one that focuses on convicting “on the assault charges while leaving the rape issue moot”.

It is such views that have seen Greer disinvited to the Brisbane Writers’ festival, a move which has been couched in the lingo of organisational guff.  Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler was far from impressed by the decision of the organisers, claiming that it “seems counter to the ethos of freedom of speech”.

The response from the festival was resoundingly cowardly: “Brisbane writers’ festival does not shy away from controversy or challenging ideas, but as all festival organisers know, it’s invariably difficult to choose between the many authors currently promoting books and the need to provide engaging choices for our audience along a curatorial theme.”

There will always be fashions and tyrannies of thought, attempts to close off argumentation if not ignore it altogether.  Liz Duck-Chong reflects this tendency, and finds it necessary to preface any views with the identity descriptor “trans” (because identities are mysterious, self-justifying ideas rather than markers). Having accepted with a heavy reluctance that there is a “market place of ideas”, she proceeds to dictate, akin to a book banning commissar, what constitutes that market.  “Greer and her ilk” are not “worth listening to” and have nothing to add to the “on going conversation”.  Talk about tolerance is “tired”, an old excuse best left by the wayside.  What such opinions do is remind us that the oldest of ideas, intolerance, remains ever threatening, the censor, a dangerous reality.  The market place is enjoyable, till you encounter ideas you do not like.

It is important to note that Australia had, at one point, a censorship record of such astounding ferocity it rivalled that of Ireland.  Books of interest were not published for fear of stirring scurrilous thoughts or fostering wayward behaviour.  Banning as an instinct of paternal control came first.  To remove Greer, a well read, tutored figure strides ahead of many of her critics, is to deny audiences not merely an intellectual draught of consequence but a poking sense of fun.  Disliking her ideas is hardly an excuse to avoid entertaining them.

As for Greer herself, some humour prevails. “The Brisbane writers’ festival is very hard work.  So, to be uninvited to what is possibly the dreariest literary festival in the world, with zero hospitality and no fun at all, is a great relief.”

Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under

There is something peculiar doing the rounds in Australian food circles.  The land down under, considered something of a nirvana of fruit and vegetable production despite horrendous droughts and calamitous cyclones, is facing a new challenge: human agency, namely in the form of despoliation of strawberries.

The results have knocked Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket chains, with both Coles and Aldi withdrawing all their fruit with a nervousness that has not been seen in years.  A spate of incidents involving “contamination”, or pins stuck in the fruit, have manifested across a range of outlets.  Strawberry brands including Donnybrook Berries, Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis brands, Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Mal’s Black Label have made it onto the list of needled suppliers.  There have been possible copycat initiates doing the rounds.  “This,” exclaimed Strawberries Australia Inc. Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels, “is food terrorism that is bringing an industry to its knees.”

The game of food contamination, infection or, as Daniels deems it, food terrorism, is the sort of thing that multiplies in fear and emotion.  It targets the industry itself (the strawberry market is already frail before the effects of pest and blight), and ensures maximum publicity for the perpetrator.  Then there is the constant fear of a potential victim, the all stifling terror of legal action that might find a target in the form of a provider.  Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has already boosted such feelings, ordering the Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate the matter.  “This is a vicious crime, it’s designed to injure and possible worse, members of the population at large.”

Out of 800,000 punnets of strawberries, notes Daniels, seven needles were found.  “You’ve got more chance of winning lotto than being affected.”  Take your chance, and, as with all food production, hope for the best as you would hope for the arrival of a green goddess.

Others such as Anthony Kachenko of Hort Innovation Australia have also moved into a mode of reassurance, a salutary reminder that Australia remains in the stratosphere of food excellence despite such adventurous despoilers.  Sabotage it might be, but it was surely isolated, a nonsense that could be dealt with surgical accuracy. “Australia prides itself on safe, healthy, nutritious produce and we have the utmost confidence in the produce that we grow both for the domestic and the export markets.”

Such attitudes mask the fundamental bet that has characterised human existence since these unfortunate bipeds decided to experiment with the cooked and uncooked.  History shows that wells have been poisoned and fields salted.  The divorce from hunter gatherer to industrialist consumer oblivious to the origins of food made that matter even more poignant, and, in some cases, tragic.  The consumer is at the mercy of the production line, and everything else that finds its way into it.

The food science fraternity are being drawn out to explain the meddling, pitching for greater funding, and another spike in industry funds.  “The things we’re usually concerned about,” suggests Kim Phan-Thien of the University of Sydney, “are the accidental contaminants; spray drift or microbial contamination [which is] a natural risk in the production system.”  What was needed, claimed the good food science pundit, was an examination, not merely of “unintentional adulteration and contaminants but the intentional adulteration for economic gain or a malicious reason for a form of terrorism.”

Take a punt (or in this case, a punnet), and hope that source, process and final destination are somehow safe.  The cautionary note here is to simply cut the suspect fruit to ensure no errant needles or pins have found their way into them.  (This presumes the needle suspect was probably hygienic.)

But the strawberry nightmare highlights the insecurity within the food industry, the permanent vulnerability that afflicts a multi-process set of transactions, recipients and consumers.  Purchasing anything off the stands, and in any aisle of a supermarket is never a guarantee of safety, a leap of faith based upon a coma inflicted by industrial complacence.  We are left at the mercy of speculative fancy: the item we take home is what it supposedly is, irrespective of labelling, accurate or otherwise.

The scare, as it is now being termed, has had the sort of impact any fearful threat to health and safety does: an increased focus on security, a boost in food surveillance and the gurus versed in the business of providing machinery.  Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia President Neil Handasyde revealed that growers were being pressed for increased scanning in the form of metal detectors.  “As an industry we are sure that [the needles] are not coming from the farm, but we’re about trying to get confidence into customers that when they buy a punnet of strawberries, that there isn’t going to be anything other than strawberries in there and they’re safe to eat.”

Possibly guilty parties have been distancing themselves with feverish necessity.  This, as much as anything else, reeks of the legal advice necessary to avoid paying for any injury that might result.  Mal’s Black Label strawberries, one of the growing number of needle recipients, has taken the line that the farm is above suspicion, with the suspects to be found elsewhere.  Strawberry grower Tony Holl suggested that some figure was floating around, needle and all, intent on fulfilling the wishes of “a real vendetta”.

A reward of $100,000 has been offered by the Queensland government for capturing the villain in question, if, indeed, there is a conscious, all-rounded creature doing the rounds.  He, she, or it, has now assumed various titles from the Queensland authorities.  The “strawberry spiker” or “strawberry saboteur” seem less like life-threatening agents than lifestyle names intent on an encyclopaedic entry.  But biosecurity, and matters of food health, are matters that throb and pulsate in Australia.  Authorities are promising to find the culprit.  The culprit may have other designs.

The Woes of Climate Change States

As Australia’s tattered yet new government, led by the increasingly oafish and amateurish Scott Morrison trundled into its post-climate phase, states which see their existence as dependent on the cutting of carbon emissions have been more than a touch concerned. Their reality remains divorced from the paper clip conspiracies of Canberra and the energy cliques obsessed with cutting prices.

Morrison’s ascension to power was yet another, existentially imposed headache in the aftermath of US President Donald J. Trump’s announcement that the United States would be making a dash from any obligations and aspirations associated with the Paris Climate Agreement. Pacific Island states were starting to write up their wills.

When the decision by Trump was made in the middle of last year, such states as Samoa and Fiji felt a shudder.  “His decision,” came the press release from an assortment of Pacific Island Civil Society Organisations, “is a clear sign of his continued support of the fossil fuel industry which directly threatens the lives of communities living in the Pacific Islands.”

The Australian response, ever mindful of the wishes of its obese cousin and all powerful defender, has reflected a certain bipolar conditioning on matters ecological and climactic.  Canberra takes the position, when convenient to its neighbours, that climate change is genuine, dangerous and in need of serious consideration.  When necessary, amnesia takes hold.

In the aftermath of Morrison’s replacement of sitting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama sent a salutary reminder to the new Australian leader couched in a disarming note of congratulation.  “I look forward to working with you across a broad front, including the global campaign for action on climate change, the greatest threat facing Australia and all of your neighbours in the Pacific.”

This, to a man who had coarsely brandished a lump of coal in the Australian parliament in February last year, supplied by the good offices of the Minerals Council of Australia. “This is coal,” he guffawed to his opponents, caressing the inert item in his hand with a fetishist’s resolve. “Don’t be afraid; don’t be scared.”

Morrison ought to be suffering jitters from such figures as Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele, who has made it clear how climate change laggards should be treated.  “We all know the problem, we all know the solutions,” he explained to the Lowy Institute at the end of last month, “and all that is left would be some political courage, some political guts, to tell people of your country there is a certainty of disaster.”

Then came the delicious blow, landed between the gizzards.  “So any leader of any country who believes that there is no climate change, I think he ought to be taken to mental confinement.  He is utterly stupid.  And I say the same thing to any leader here.”

Despite such cataclysmic promises, Australia’s politicians remain resilient before the inconveniences of reality, and warm to the enticements of stupidity.  The big god coal, and associate demigod fossil fuels, call the tune.

The new Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, made the necessary, paternalistic adjustments for her audience earlier this month ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru.  This line waxes and wanes along the issue of aid, the condescending drip aid designed to influence more than change.  The angle on Australian generosity was pushed (daddy with deep pockets cares), as much to counter the phantom of Chinese influence in the region as anything else. “The largest development assistance in the region is overwhelmingly coming from Australia; in fact, it will hit the largest contribution ever during 2018-19 at $1.3 billion.”

Payne also busied herself bribing regional neighbours with such reassurances as employment, a tribute to an old legacy of enticing black labour to an economy short of staffing.  Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, she said with soothing corruption, would be added to Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme, nothing less than a traditional, extracting incentive for the Australian economy.  As ever, the benefit would be for Australia more than anybody else: citizens from those countries would be able to fill the necessary jobs in rural and regional Australia.  (Well and good – they might, in time, have no country to return to.)

Despite the issue of climate change making its inevitable appearance on the agenda, Payne preferred to see it as one of the items for discussion, rather than the main show.  “We really recognise that our Pacific Island neighbours are particularly vulnerable to climate change.”  Australia had been purportedly “working hard” towards climate change commitments, though Payne failed to spell out any coherent steps of late.

The internal politics of the governing coalition in Australia remains intimately related to the fossil fuel industries and climate change sceptics.  The schismatic Tony Abbott remains convinced that Australia should go the way of Trump, and more than a sprinkling of his colleagues think the same.  Central to this is not environmental degradation so much as cheaper energy prices, which has become the holy of holies, the El Dorado of policy makers.  Such is the thinking that accompanies the short term aspirations of shop keeping types even as it dooms island states to watery oblivion.

A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats

Sweden’s elections are normally dull affairs. The same political arrangements have been in place for decades, featuring mild oscillations around the centre between the green-red bloc (Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party) and the conservative Alliance (the Moderates, Christian Democrats and the Centre and Liberal Parties).

The favoured line for political watchers of Sweden is standard.  Few monumental disagreements have registered since Sweden became a model free-education welfare state with impeccable health services funded by high taxes.  But Europe has caught a rash, and it has become something of a contagion.  The symptoms are clear enough: consternation at Brussels at the centralising European machinery; concerns about immigration; apoplexy about perceptions of rising crime; and the corrosions posed to the once seemingly impregnable welfare state.

Sweden’s own contribution to such fears comes in the form of Jimmie Åkesson of the Sweden Democrats, a person who reminds the observer of fascist politics that appearances, and the aesthetic of appeal, matter.  Last Sunday’s elections saw the SD do well, garnering 42 of the 342 seats in the Riksdag.

While his party was nursed in the bosom of neo-Nazi politics in the 1980s, Åkesson has spruced matters up, giving the impression that slickness and modern looks are somehow contradictory to reactionary politics.  (Parallels are evident in the cosmetic adjustments made to the Front National in France.)

His party members seem well kitted out, dressed less to offend than to blend.  Decency is all in, and efforts are being made to keep the more savage sentiments in the cupboard.  “Open Swedishness” is being promoted as a platform for integration, and Åkesson has been conscious to carry the necessary political ornamentation that comes with good public relations.  Jonas Chongera, a Congo-born former pastor, has been seen keeping him company as a member of the municipal council of Forshaga in Värmland.  Four years ago, the lapsed pastor made it clear that responsibility for refugees was a fundamental goal of the party, proud that the SD was the only one daring to ponder the imponderable issue of immigration. And that was before the arrival of 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

As Barbara Wesel of Deutsche Welle observed, “It seems that voters really buy this image of the ‘nice son-in-law’ that Jimme Åkesson is projecting – you know, sort of every mother’s dream if she wants to marry off her daughter.”  Not that this is an image that needed to be sold in the first place.  Traditional voters have been put off by policies seemingly placed on the autopilot of consensus, a stance that made former Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt smugly deem Sweden a “humanitarian superpower”.

Such political tags tend to prove dangerous and unnecessary.  “I feel immigrants have priority now,” came the opinion of former Social Democrat voter Helena Persson, who did her bit to push the SD into first place in the village of Håbo-Tibble.  “The Swedish people come second.”

Åkesson was also given a modest pre-election fillip by French President Emmanuel Macron, who felt slighted at remarks made by the SD leader calling him an “EU-federalist” who “travels around Europe to speak ill of the national state, nationalism, all that I stand for.”  Between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and France’s Macron, few differences could be discerned, a view prompting the French leader to suggest to Swedish voters, rather impudently, that Åkesson “is not compliant with your story and your values”.

Åkesson’s views have not been racy or spectacular, having spent time on the boiler plate for some years.  In the summer of 2014, as his party was readying itself for the September general elections, he espoused the sorts of views that would have moved many a supporter of US President Donald Trump.  “Islamism is the Nazism and Communism of our time.”  To those few Swedish nationals who had found their way to fight in Iraq and Syria, “You guys can stay there.  Sweden is no longer your home, this country is built on Christian principles.”

If tranquil, unflappable Sweden can be rocked and disrupted, the rest need to worry. But it would also be remiss to consume a version of Sweden as the land of milk-honeyed tolerance somehow free of Nazi sympathy.  A figure such as Åkesson is hardly a bolt out of the blue, and historiography on the subject of Swedish fascism has attempted to correct the misunderstandings about its origins and influence.  Elisabeth Åsbrink has done more than anybody else in recent times to show how certain figures of Swedish fascism were very aware about the need to evolve their creed after the Second World War.  Like Ingvar Kamprad’s modular furniture, fascist ideology has, over time, been re-assembled for modern needs.

One such figure in this reassembling venture was Per Engdahl, described by Åsbrink as “intelligent and modern” who realised in 1945 that he needed a new set of clothes, nay, wardrobe, to sell his politics. “He made contact with Oswald Mosley’s fascists in England, with the French fascists, the Swiss Nazis and Hitler’s loyalists in Germany.”  And that was merely a spare green grocer’s list of right wing pugilists, not considering his own role in founding a Danish Nazi party and links with the Italian Social Movement.

The SD now finds itself riding a European trend distinctly offended by the sensibilities of “bloc” politics.  The forces of progressivism have been found wanting, and refusing to stake any claim to political relevance will simply provide kindle for Åkesson.  Despite not winning the Swedish elections, he has already staked an irrefutable claim to change his country’s politics.

Doctrines of Impunity: John Bolton and the ICC

The Trump administration’s national security advisor John Bolton has never been a fan of international law, a concept he has found, at best, rubbery.  Any institution supposedly guided by its spirit was bound to draw the ire of both his temper and temperament.  Before members of the Federalist Society on Monday, Bolton took to the pulpit with a fury reserved for the unreflective patriot certain that his country, right or wrong, was above such matters.  “The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.”

The wicked body, in this instance, is the International Criminal Court, established by the Rome Statute to try instances of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, a “court of last resort” backed by 123 nations.

The instigation for such concern on Bolton’s part came from the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who requested that the court investigate the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan from 2003 by forces including elements of the US military and intelligence services.  In doing so, she was moving the frame of reference beyond a continent that has featured all too readily in the court’s prosecutions: Africa.

Bolton was quick off the mark after the announcement in 2017, with a blistering observation in the Wall Street Journal:

The Trump administration should not respond to Ms. Bensouda in any way that acknowledges the ICC’s legitimacy.  Even merely contesting its jurisdiction risks drawing the US deeper into the quicksand.

Bolton has been consistent with such tirades.  In 2000, he contemplated the issue of whether there was such a thing as “law” in the matter of international affairs. His sustained attack in Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems remains salient to a parochial understanding of how such rules work.  For Bolton, the central defining issue was one of liberty: how such “law” might “affect individuals in the exercise of their individual freedom”.  Prior to the Second World War, international law was essentially a matter of nation states rather than individuals and groups.

Bolton wishes it remained there, a courtly, distant matter separate from the populace.  But “the logic of today’s international law proponents drives them toward more pervasive international command-and-control structures that will deeply affect the domestic policies and constitutions of all nations.”  Such law lacked notions of “popular sovereignty or public accountability through reasonably democratic popular controls over creation, interpretation, and enforcement of laws”.  It lacked clear sources and a mechanism to determine its change.  In short, and here, reflective of the sum of all his grievances against international law, such juridical phenomena were not of the US order of things, specifically the “United States Constitution and its system of government, exemplifying the kind of legal system acceptable to a free person.”

His address to the Federalist Society recapitulates his critique: the “supranational” and “unchecked” conspiracy of the ICC advanced by “‘global governance’ advocates” inimical to the Founders’ vision.  “Any day now, the ICC may announce the start of a formal investigation against these American patriots, who voluntarily signed on to go into harm’s way to protect our nation, our homes, and our families in the wake of the 9/11 attacks…. An unfounded, unjustifiable investigation.”

The efforts of the ICC was to be frustrated at every turn.  No assistance would be provided to its functions and its pursuits. “And, certainly, we will not join the ICC.  We will let the ICC die on its own.  After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

Bolton keeps interesting company in having such views.  The refusal by the US to ratify the ICC’s founding document in 2002 was joined by Israel, Saudi Arabia and China, fearing its “unacceptable consequences for our national sovereignty”.  Bolton subsequently led efforts as Under Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration to broker some hundred bilateral deals preventing countries from surrendering US nationals to the ICC.  These remain, by his own admission, a proud achievement.

The ICC has had its fair share of bad press.  It groans under a bureaucracy that has led to accusations of justice delayed being justice denied.  It has conspicuously failed to deter the perpetration of atrocities in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar.  Its Africa-focus has also caused more than a flutter of dissent from states on that continent.  Early last year, the African Union passed a non-binding resolution for member states to withdraw from the court, or at the very least seek reforming it.  South Africa confirmed its desire to remove itself from the jurisdictional reach of the ICC, a decision that continues to shadow law makers.

Bolton’s resentment, in short, has fuel to fire.  President Donald Trump sees any international pact untouched by his influence to be deficient and contrary to the values of the imperium.  But the ICC still has legs, however plodding, and such efforts to despoil their function will not necessarily cripple, let alone kill it.

In contrast to Bolton’s view is another stream of US legal thought that sees international law and its enforcement as indispensable to peace.  That view is unduly rosy, and held, at times, disingenuously. But for the US Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson, delivering his opening address in November 1945 to the judges of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, such a body, far from being abstract, incoherent and spineless, supplied the animating legitimacy for an international court.

What fouled international law’s decent nest were those wars of imperialism waged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leaving the impression “that all wars are to be regarded as legitimate wars.”  Jackson’s point was that no one, not even the leaders of the United States, could always remain unaccountable, anathema to Bolton’s idea of impunity outside the US constitution.

Tory Kafuffles: Boris Johnson, Brexit and Suicide Vests

The next blow in Boris Johnson’s chapter of political suicide has been made: a piece in the Mail on Sunday which supplied him ample room to take yet another shot at the ghostly British prime minister, Theresa May.  There was nothing new in it; everybody knew what Johnson’s views were, and the position he had taken since hyperventilating over July’s Chequers statement on Brexit was simply reiterated with the usual reckless prose.

May’s Brexit deal, scribbled Johnson with an almost boorish predictability, was tantamount to wrapping “a suicide vest around the British constitution” and handing “the detonator to (EU chief negotiator) Michel Barnier”. (He failed to mention that he has been as indispensable as anybody else in adding to that wrapping.)

While the EU had played the role of playground bully, the UK had been unacceptably “feeble” in response, a truly pathetic counterpart.  May might have sought a “generous free trade deal” with the EU in the aftermath of the divorce; instead, Britain was effectively saying to those in Brussels, “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir”.  “We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500lb gorilla.”

Johnson’s very public falling out with his fellow Tories after resigning as Foreign Secretary continues to play out the ailing nature of the May government in very public fashion.  Cabinet ministers have had to take very public stances to back the prime minister.  Current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sounded trench bound in waiting for the barrage, calling on colleagues to keep firm behind May “in the face of intense pressure”.

Former army officer and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat found himself falling for the old trick that such provocation requires stern correction.  “A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand.  The carnage was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes.  Brave men who stopped him killing me and others died in horrific pain.  Some need to grow up.  Comparing the PM to that isn’t funny.”

Brexit, and in a sense, the broader miasmic effect of the Trump presidency on political language, has supplied a release of military metaphors, spells of doom, and imminent calamity.  Decorum has come to be seen as the enemy of honesty; opponents are just stopping short of lynching each other.  For Alistair Burt of the Foreign Office, the language used by Johnson was not merely “outrageous, inappropriate and hurtful”.  “If we don’t stop this extraordinary use of language over Brexit, our country might never heal.  Again, I say, enough.”

The issue with Johnson has certain similarities to another Westminster country thousands of miles away, and one still insisting on retaining the same British monarch as head of state.  Australia resumes parliament with a new prime minister after a needless bloodbath initiated by party functionaries hypnotised by pollsters and number crunchers.  The plotters there were also claiming that the governing party had gone vanilla and soft on the hard political decisions.  Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been all too centrist when he could have done with a few lashings of decent, hard right ideology. The result: Australia’s first Pentecostal leader.

Johnson’s overall popularity in Britain is on par with May, a statement of true depression and deflation.  But where he has traction is in the ideological, stark-raving mad stakes, a point that May’s aides know all too well, given their efforts to compile a 4,000 word “war book” on the man’s sexual proclivities in 2016.  Unlike other European states, sexual prowess, evenly spread inside and out of marriage, is seen as an impediment to high office.

Johnson certainly has his own cheer squad within the Tories.  Tory Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen acclaimed Johnson’s appeal and how he “speaks truth unto power”; Tory MP Nadine Dorries suggested that his detractors were merely “terrified by his popular appeal”.  Were he to become leader of the Tories, and prime minister, “he’ll deliver a clean and prosperous #Brexit.”

Others are playing the middling game.  Home Secretary Sajid Javid merely called for more “measured language” to be used, because that was evidently “what the public want to see.”  On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Javid was making sure about booking a seat in any future cabinet that might have a new prime minister.  “I think there are much better ways to articulate your differences.”

Johnson is a spluttering John Bull, foolhardy and all, and his supporters like that.  Irresponsible, destructive, a true political malefactor and dressed up public school boy charlatan, he is genetically programmed to disrupt rather than succeed, to undermine rather than govern.  His world is not that of figures and sober appraisals, the desk job assessment, the compiler of facts.  Those are best left to the hard working empirical types of industry and a hard day’s work.

Even his personal life has not been immune from the all-consuming circus that is the Boris show.  His announcement last week that he and his wife of 25 years, Marina Wheeler, would be divorcing, was seen as a political calculation, timed to eliminate any prospect of scandal in the event of a leadership challenge to May.

His opponents, however, have an eternal hope that he will self-destruct, stumbling into a back-end swamp where he will perish as quietly as possible.  Johnson’s barbed comments, came foreign office minister Alan Duncan, marked “one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics”.  Making them spelled “the political end of Boris Johnson”.  Unlikely; should Johnson conclude his political career anytime soon, he is bound to be as destructive as the vest he claims May has wrapped Britain in.