All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Tom Wolfe: the Parajournalist

As is the nature of his creepy totality, President Donald Trump has a habit of suffusing the obituaries of the famous and pampered.  Tom Wolfe, it is said by such figures as Maggie Haberman in The New York Times, conceived of Trump as a formidable figure before Trump himself came to prominence.

The point is somewhat inaccurate: when The Bonfire of the Vanities made its debut on shelves in 1987, it had to share space with the banal exhortations of The Art of the Deal.  “We catch glimpses,” suggests historian and squad leader of empire Niall Ferguson, “of Trump-like figures not in Bonfire but also in the equally engrossing, although less lauded, A Man in Full.”

As New Journalism’s primary advocate, Tom Wolfe headed the field with such experimental forces as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson, all dedicated to enriching supposedly factual accounts with excessive flourishes that hurried out the beige in favour of the kaleidoscopic.  One source of inspiration for Wolfe was Emil Ludvig’s biography of Napoleon.  “It begins,” he recalled to fellow NJ aficionado George Plimpton in The Paris Review, “as the mother sits suckling her babe in a tent.”  But formatively speaking, the Soviet grouping known as the Brothers Serapion (Eugene Zamiatin, Boris Pilnyak et al), fusing symbolism with raw historical events, encouraged a change of direction.

In a 1973 anthology of such writings gathered with fellow traveller E. W. Johnson, Wolfe identifies the novel going off in freedom land even as purple-prosed nonfiction was stealing its march.  “I must confess that the retrograde state of contemporary fiction has made it far easier to make the main point of this book: that the most important literature being written in America today is in nonfiction, in the form that has been tagged, however ungracefully, the New Journalism.”

The American novelist, by the 1960s, had abandoned that “richest terrain of the novel: namely, society, the social tableau, manners and morals, the whole business of ‘the way we live now’, in Trollope’s phrase.”  Such a tendency was in strident defiance of previous writers who wrote novels as social chronicles: Balzac in the context of France; Thackeray on London in the 1840s.

Wolfe’s artillery was also marshalled against old journalism itself, a concerted effort to remove objectivity’s throne and bring colour to description.  While the traditional novelist had noted manners and society, the old journalist was still trapped in a refusal to accept the subtleties of the lived life.  The newspaper in traditional guise, he claimed, was “very bad for one’s prose style.”  Thus spawned the parajournalist, though its ancestry, with its seductive pitfalls, was traced by Dwight Macdonald as far back as Daniel Defoe with his masterful hoax in Journal of the Plague Year.

As Michael Wood would note in a review for The New York Times, the New Journalism extracts the piece of gossip, dreariness or schmaltz, moving it “to the centre of the stage while at the corners, at the edges, vast, scaring implications about American life quietly gesture to us, not really wishing to intrude.”  Fact and fiction are no longer dogmatically partitioned, blurring instead into resemblance, which is far from saying that truth is undermined. “What it is suggesting is that fiction is the only shape we can give to facts, that all shapes are fictions.”

His journalism readied weapons as words, tipped with spears of wit and derision.  He took aim at dogma in architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), critical of the “colonial complex” governing the American building that had its origins in Europe as a “compound” of ideologues.  He launched missiles at Modern Art in The Painted Word (1975), noting it as a racket that was distinctly non-radical.  “The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what happened.” Collectors would only ever gravitate to “highly abstract art unless it’s the only game in town” preferring more conservative “realistic art”.

Such writing was bound to miss the mark in some ways or, if it did, embed itself with mixed results.  His fabrications could be sloppy, and, unshackled by the rigours of evidence imposed by the investigative journalist, distorting in their speculation.  For the sharp Dwight MacDonald, specifically referencing the The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) Wolfe was a good observer who made “no pretence at factuality but sketching with humour and poignancy urban dilemmas one recognizes as real.” In his writing lay a certain “kultur-neuroses common among adult, educated Americans today: a masochistic deference to the Young, who are by definition, new and so in”.  This was also accompanied by that “guilt-feeling about class – maybe they don’t deserve their status, maybe they aren’t so cultivated”.

Hip and new, then a studied reactionary, Wolfe’s career was a paradox of idealising pop culture trends and figures while turning on mouldering art and literary movements that had run their course and deserved euthanizing.  Doing so gave him a certain eye for barometric readings of contempt straddling those three most American obsessions: money, race and sex.  In that, we have Trump, a monster fusion of such interests, having a “real childish side” and adorable megalomania.  “The childishness” claimed Wolfe in 2016, “makes him seem honest.”  To the last, a chronicler of gossip, schmaltz and those scaring implications.

Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution

The inevitable stop, start and stuttering of the Korean peace process was bound to manifest itself soon after the hugs, expansive smiles and sympathetic back rubs.  Dates have been set – the Kim-Trump summit is slated to take place in Singapore on June 12, though there is much time for disruptive mischief to take place.

One field of possible disruption lies in air exercises between the US and South Korea known as Max Thunder.  Such manoeuvres have been of particular interest to the DPRK, given their scale and possible use as leverage in talks.

The latest irritation was occasioned by claims in Pyongyang that the US had deployed B-52 Stratofortress bombers as part of the exercise despite denying that this would take place.  This was construed, in the words of Leon V. Sigal, “as inconsistent with President Trump’s pledge at President Moon’s urging to move toward peace in Korea.”

The position against using such nuclear-capable assets had been outlined in Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year’s Day address.  The South, he insisted, should “discontinue all the nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces,” a point reiterated in Rodong Sinmun, the Party newspaper, ten days later: “If the South Korean authorities really want détente and peace, they should first stop all efforts to bringing in the US nuclear equipment and conduct exercises for nuclear warfare with foreign forces.”

While these matters were unfolding, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor was being his injudicious self, doing his bit for global insecurity.  Never a diplomat in the true sense of the term, John Bolton remains a traditional head kicker for empire, the rustler of discontent.

Bolton, history teacher incarnate, wants to impress upon the North Koreans certain jarring examples.  A favourite of his is the so-called Libyan solution. How well that worked: the leadership of a country maligned but convinced in its international rehabilitation to abandon various weapons programs in the hope of shoring up security.  More specifically, in 2003, Libya was convinced to undertake a process US diplomats and negotiators parrot with steam and enthusiasm: denuclearisation.

“We should insist that if this meeting is going to take place,” claimed Bolton on Radio Free Asia with characteristic smugness, “it will be similar to discussions we had with Libya 13 or 14 years ago: how to pack up their nuclear weapons program and take it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”

The problem with this skewed interpretation lies in its false premise: that US threats, cajoling and sanctions has actually brought North Korea, tail between legs, to the diplomatic table.  Being firm and threatening, according to Bolton, has been rewarding.  This reading verges on the fantastic, ignoring three years of cautious, informal engagement.  It also refuses to account for the fact that Pyongyang made firm moves in Washington’s direction after the insistence on firm preconditions was abandoned by Trump.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also been rumbling on the issue of a firm line, suggesting that he, like Bolton, has a preference for the stick approach.  Despite speaking about “warm” and “substantive” talks with Kim, he claims that any agreement with Pyongyang must have a “robust verification program” built into it.

The suggestion of the Libyan precedent was enough to sent Pyongyang into a state, given their developed fears about becoming the next casualty of unwarranted foreign intervention.  Libya did denuclearise, thereby inflicting what could only be seen subsequently as a self-amputation.  As missiles rained down upon Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, launched by the British, French and the US ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, a sense of terrible regret must have been felt.  Soon, the mad colonel would be butchered, and his state torn asunder in a sectarian reckoning.

As the air assault was taking place, the North Korean foreign ministry identified the problem: the bargain between Libya and the western powers to surrender its nuclear weapons program was “an invasion tactic to disarm the country”.  The intervention “is teaching the international community a grave lesson”.

The state news agency KNCA took note of Bolton’s remarks, issuing an official rebuff highlighting the status of the DPRK as a true, fully fledged nuclear weapon state: the “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met a miserable fate.  It is absolutely absurd to dare compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapon state, to Libya, which had been at the initial stage of nuclear development.”

The DPRK’s vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, was unequivocal in warning.  “If the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit.”  Bolton received specific mention: “We do not hide a feeling of repugnance toward him.”

The Trump White House preferred to give different signals.  Sarah Huckabee Sanders is claiming that the president will be his own man on this, though Trump’s own reading of the “Libya model” has proven confusingly selective.  In any case the leverage brought by US ultimatum to disarm without genuine concessions is hardly likely to gain traction. The response from Pyongyang will be simple: resume missile testing and further enlarge the arsenal.

Remembering Big Dead Place

The image of Antarctica in common circulation is environmental and utopian.  The scientist of valour, the investigator thirsting for discovery in a litmus test environment that will give warning about current and impending variations in temperature that will affect the globe.  Noble stuff indeed.

On other occasions, the continent has tickled the conspiratorial mind.  Did Adolf Hitler find relief and sanctuary in such frozen climes instead of perishing in his Berlin bunker in 1945 before the Soviet onslaught?  Did the Nazis establish a base that would dock extra-terrestrial aircraft? Tyle Glockner of SecureTeam10 videos certainly finds food for thought there. “The continent,” he said tritely last year, “has been shrouded in a mystery of its own for years now.”
Despite being deemed a “triumph of the global commons” where “state sovereignty has remained unrecognised” in favour of “the principles of peace and environmental protection”, another, somewhat neglected view, also exists of this glacial wonderland.

Nick Johnson was one who recorded and chronicled life working in Antarctica at McMurdo Station, doing so with a degree of wit and ruthlessness that led to his masterly compilation Big Dead Place.  But it was not an account of the dingy corridors of White Hall or the dank context of a police state apparatus.  He was considering the human encrustations that had found themselves on the earth’s seventh continent, one filled with its fair share of intrepid explorer corpses.

Venturing to his website, now generally defunct in terms of links, one finds an entry by a certain Lazarus B. Danzig, described as “a manager in an unnamed department at McMurdo Station.”  White collar management is examined and revealed for its absurd guiding principles, a farce in slow motion. “The average manager in Antarctica insists on indoor temperatures that would call for air conditioning were they summering at home. And, while the outside temperatures might for months remain well below zero, they will wear clothing suitable to Sub Saharan Africa or perhaps Polynesia.”

Such is the managers’ role of defiance: to resist, and deny the environment they exist in.  Manual labour is shunned while “Blue Collar day outdoors provides more exercise than a month of inane managerial exertions.”  And it is the role characterised by certain markers: the promotion of mediocrity; the cultivation of “marooned scavengers” who clamber up the hierarchy.

Interviews were also posted, featuring the mocking bleakness rife at McMurdo.  One contractor is philosophical: “Antarctica prepared me for the War Zones, a stepping stone which made the transition to Iraq a little easier.” Another speaks about not being able to get enough disco clothes.  “They are a source of infinite delight.” Then come the somewhat sinister undertone: secrecy, clandestine insinuations and a sense of menace fostered by that big daddy corporation, Raytheon.

Johnson sketches the absurd popularity of Antarctica as façade and the station as micro reality.  “Today,” he writes in one account, “the international science community working in Antarctica is carrying on this proud legacy, helping us to learn more about global processes affecting Earth’s environment.  Consequently, we will have the solid scientific information we need to develop sound environmental policies.”

Other tasks must also be performed.  There are menial but necessary. Needs must also be met, perversions sated.  Johnson was clearing the rubbish and station detritus, an unheralded garbo, personified Blue Collar grunt.  “Though I am a garbageman and I spent Independence Day sorting through vomit-covered aluminium cans, the warm glow of your Midwinter’s Day greeting,” he pens in a note to US President George W. Bush in 2001, “reminded me of my contribution to learning and knowledge.”

Illusions are punctured; hope given a good dampening before a regulated world and hierarchy policed by Raytheon.  He dismisses the nobility of the US mission in Antarctica, which he rightly noted as being less about altruistic engagement than geopolitical fancy.  In such an environment, other projects were being pursued. NASA psychologists, for instance, take to Antarctica’s bases to examine what human behaviour might look like in a simulated lunar setting.

The manager’s response to such accounts as Johnson’s is typical: ignore, deny and repudiate.  Why did he return if he detested his experiences? Why would he actually work in such a horrid environment?  This is the usual deflection adopted by those who wish to accept the horrors they perpetuate, the ghastliness they foment.

On being refused a permit to work another stint at McMurdo, Johnson suffered inexorable decline. After taking his life at the end of a shot gun at his West Seattle home, barely a murmur registered across the US literary landscape.

Johnson seemed drawn to Antarctica, not so much as a doomed explorer finding El Dorado but as part of an intrepid life that took him to South Korea to teach English, drive a taxi in Seattle.  On the most barren of terrains, the most viciously hostile of environments, relief as a sharp observer could be found. It was then taken away from him. In refusing him return, the indifferent bureaucrat’s revenge was assured.

The Spectre of Torture: The Gina Haspel Hearings

I’m not going to sit here with the benefit of hindsight and judge the very good people who made hard decisions who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances.

— Gina Haspel, May 9, 2018.

It was always going to be the most complicated of hurdles. Having moved Mike Pompeo on to the role of Secretary of State, President Donald Trump had to find a replacement at the Central Intelligence Agency.  Punting for Gina Haspel was an invitation to go into battle, given the Acting Director’s associations with the era of agency waterboarding.

Of specific interest to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee was Haspel’s role in running a covert detention site in Thailand during the blooming violence of the “war on terror” inspired by President George W. Bush’s crusade against jihadis real and fictional.  Details of the site are still sketchy, though the jottings on her conduct are sufficient to cause concern. Hypothetical scenarios were considered; questions on what Haspel as director would do if that man in the White House would insist on torture were submitted.

Given that Trump has shown his enthusiasm in torturing the enemy in purely transactional terms, Haspel was asked what would happen in the event the president gave the order. “Senator, I would advise,” came her response to Republican Senator Susan Collins.  “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that.”  Hardly cause for comfort.

In a performance that seemed disoriented and inconsistent, Haspel fudged the issue of whether torture was immoral while suggesting that the CIA was simply not up to snuff in interrogations.  This was tantamount to claiming that these good defenders of Freedom land were executioners with blunt axes.  In fact, in the Haspel remit of CIA operations, interrogations of whatever form had never been conducted by the agency, a point distinctly at odds with patches of that body’s history.

As it stood now, such tasks of probing suspects were being conducted by “other US government entities… I would advise anyone that asked me that the CIA is not the place to conduct interrogations.  We do not have interrogators and we not have interrogation expertise.”

She spoke of having been given a “strong moral compass” by her parents, and keeping the ship steady.  “Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership the CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation programme.”

The utilitarian aspect of the argument was pressed by Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat from California. Trump had advanced that old canard that torture actually worked; did the nominee agree?  “It’s a yes or no answer,” came an unsatisfied senator. “I’m not asking do you believe they were legal. I’m asking do you believe they were immoral.”

Haspel’s response was to transform herself into a utility enthusiast.  “Senator, I believe that the CIA did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on the country, given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.”

This was the desk job rationale, the bureaucrat’s classic number.  Not a word about the substantive nature of morality mattered here.  References to holding “ourselves to the moral standard outlined in the Army Field Manual” or such vague formulations as “the higher moral standard we have decided to hold ourselves to” proliferated as scripted answers.

What mattered most was the result, which was not that people were tortured, but that the United States had been served well, a defence that might have found some sympathy with other famous bureaucrats of the violent and murderous persuasion.  “I believe, as many directors who have sat in this chair before me, that valuable information was obtained from senior al Qaida operatives that allowed us to defend this country and prevent another attack.”  Ergo, those soiled hands got results in the name of protecting the Republic.

Haspel did make inroads among some members of the intelligence committee. “After meeting with Gina Haspel,” came the confident words of Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, “discussing her extensive experience as a CIA agent, and considering her time as acting director, I will vote to confirm her to be our next CIA director.”  She was evidently a character of “great character”.

An illustrative if sharp point in Wednesday’s proceedings came when former CIA operative Ray McGovern made an intervention at Haspel’s refusal to consider the moral dimension of enhanced interrogation techniques. What of instances, suggested Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, when a CIA officer might be tortured?  Would such conduct be immoral?

McGovern duly stood up in the audience and uttered, somewhat inscrutably, that “Senator Wyden, you deserve a direct answer.”  (Wyden was not questioning Haspel at the time)  The outcome was swift and violent: committee head Senator Richard Burr ordering the Capitol Police to frogmarch the one time chair of the National Intelligence Estimates out of the chamber.

Prior to the hearings, McGovern had penned a powerful note on the lamentable nature of Trump’s appointee.  We already knew that Haspel had sought to destroy “dozens of videotapes of torture sessions, including some before her arrival.”  Haspel was also part of that industry of deception on “the supposed effectiveness of torture”, something she repeatedly fed “to CIA superiors, Congress, and two presidents.”

With protestors crying foul, and the senators probing the prospects of what a Haspel-led CIA might look like, torture is again making an appearance as prospect and reality.  McGovern’s ejection simply served to sully things further.

Much of what happens to Haspel will come down to the swaying views of such committee members as the ailing Senator John McCain, who has already made his position on Haspel clear: “Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

The Mummy Returns: Mahathir Mohamad and the Malaysian Elections

It was a victory, but it could hardly count as a truly revolutionary one.  Grizzled, aged but formidably stirring, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister, is set to form government as the world’s oldest elected leader.  His Pakatan Harapan coalition ventured past the 112 seat threshold required to form government, while a weary Barisan Nasional limped through with 79.

Shocks were registered some four hours after voting closed.  Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, head of the Malaysian Chinese Association, fell to Wong Tack of PKR.  Then came the caretaker health minister S. Subramaniam. The ballot box slaughter would continue for the ruling party through the night.

This election result is only surprising if one considers the seemingly immutable nature of BN’s rule, which has lasted six decades and resisted change with studied fanaticism.  Prime Minister Najib Rajak had thrown everything bar the kitchen sink at this election, enacting laws to curb the reporting of “fake news” and holding the election at an inconvenient time of the week, but even those actions could not conceal the rot that had set in.

The decay was such as to give Najib international notoriety, featuring the alleged misappropriation of funds from the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).  Mahathir, hardly a squeaky clean figure himself, took this as his cue to return to Malaysian politics, this time under the aegis of a new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

Barisan Nasional was very much a beast Mahathir understood, having lead it for 22 years. He was its stalwart and steward before retiring.  As prime minister, he pursued a modernisation agenda at some cost while also poking international rivals with vigour.  “Asian values” remained a favourite theme of his, fashioned to outwit advocates of greater civil liberties.

At times, it seemed that the wily politician was right.  He took considerable and understandable umbrage at the efforts of such figures as former US Vice President Al Gore to insist on his ouster in the wake of student protests against his ruthless treatment of former deputy Anwar Ibrahim. “Citizens who gain democracy,” proclaimed Gore before some thousand business leaders on a visit to Malaysia in November 1998, “also gain the opportunity and the obligation to root out corruption and cronyism.”

Such statements of sanctimonious interference merely served to shore up Mahathir’s authority.  “If the attempt [to oust him] had succeeded,” penned Eiichi Furukuwa in 1999, “it would have strengthened and expanded the power of the Islamic radicals and exacerbated conflicts with the Chinese community, leading to possible Kosovo-type ethnic conflict in Malaysia.”

Economically, Mahathir was a dark sheep.  He refused, much to the surprise of common wisdom at the time, to accept the orthodoxy of the International Monetary Fund clique in the wake of a financial crisis that burned through various Asian economies in the late 1990s.  Capital controls on global investors were put in place, a heresy that enraged such currency speculators as George Soros, deemed by the then prime minister as one of various “unscrupulous profiteers” engaged in an “unnecessary, unproductive and immoral” trade.  Currency trading, argued Mahathir, “should be made illegal.” Soros preferred to think of it as unstoppable.  Mahathir, it seemed, won through on that one.

As part of his political kit, Mahathir nurses a fair number of conspiracy theories that are amply consumed in certain constituencies. His address before the Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit in 2003 held in Kuala Lumpur is still held up as an exemplar of anti-Semitic outrage.  “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be a defeated by a few million Jews,” he explained to the applauding delegates.  “There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategize and then to counterattack.”

Themes of extermination and subjugation featured in an address that would have found easy room in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  “We are actually very strong.  1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out.  The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy.”

He was also its crudest of weapons when required, manipulating ethnic insensibilities and political weaknesses for reasons of political survival.  His 1970 publication The Malay Dilemma advanced the cause of ethnic Malays in the face of their more productive Chinese counterparts, an assertion of ownership and blood purity that seemed, at best, anachronistic.  Malaysia’s ethnic composition – Malay, Chinese and Indian – has never been the rosy one recounted in state propaganda, but Mahathir managed to place himself, if somewhat falsely, above the fray as a unifying voice tempering violent Islamic tendencies.

He always remained the foundational pugilist, banishing opponents and anointing successors in a semi-autocratic style that won him fame.  His understanding of politics is such that he will even promise enemies relief and rehabilitation if required, the most notable of this being his courting of his jailed rival Anwar.

Even now the agreement Mahathir supposedly hammered out with Anwar looks shaky and unsure, sketched in the heat of political expediency.  It must involve the securing of a royal pardon, then a by-election victory to enable the former deputy prime minister to assume the reins of power from his nemesis.  Yet even at the age of 92, Mahathir’s political instinct is animal like and impossible to contain.  The shock here was not his victory but the lack of variety and options in Malaysian politics that might count as reform.  The mummy, albeit in different wrapping, has returned.

Withdrawal Symptoms: Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal

Hot on the heels of the Benjamin Netanyahu “nuclear archive” show supposedly revealing Iranian perfidy, US President Donald Trump added succour to the Israeli cause by promising to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear deal, more lengthily known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The JCPOA originally comprised various undertakings and actions on the part of the Obama administration: the rescinding of various executive orders imposing nuclear sanctions on Tehran (Executive Orders 13574, 13590, 13622 and 13645) and specific sections of Executive Order 13628.  To this laundry list were added persons and entities deemed Specially Designated Nationals and Foreign Sanction Evaders who were specifically de-listed.

Such measures caused discomfort to Congress, not least because of the JCPOA’s designation as a non-legally binding political agreement.  Doing so side-stepped the need for Congressional approval, though a rebuff came in the form of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, requiring the president to submit any nuclear agreement with Tehran to review by the legislators.  An oversight mechanism was thereby introduced.

Trump remained true to his vulgar form, calling the agreement “a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made”.  Iran deserved special mention as being “the leading sponsor of state terror.  It exports dangerous missiles, fuels conflicts across the Middle East, and supports terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al Qaeda.”

He also spoke in tones suggesting an alternate, disassociated reality.  Iran had been permitted “to continue enriching uranium and, over time, reach the brink of a nuclear breakout.”  Nor did the deal prove expansive enough, avoiding “other malign behaviour, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places around the world.”

The good offices of the US Treasury, along with other agencies, have been mobilised by Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum, with a promise that sanctions will be re-imposed on those industries exempted in the 2015 deal, specifically aircraft exports, precious metals, the purchase of US banknotes and the oil sector.

As the US Department of Treasury explained, “As soon as administratively feasible, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) expects to revoke, or amend, as appropriate, general and specific licenses issued in connection with the JCPOA.”  Applicable sanctions will come into effect at the end of 90-day and 180-day wind down periods.

At times, the language from the department is colourfully off in its child-like morality.  “The US government will continue to make aggressive use of its authorities to target Iran’s malign behaviour.”  The president’s distinct vernacular is proving catching, and the bureaucrats are succumbing.

The Iran obsession has taken hold in the White House, and the hard talkers have evidently taken up residence beside Trump’s ear.  National Security Adviser John Bolton has been stumping the view that European companies doing business with Iran ought to cease within six months or face US sanctions.

The president, explained Bolton in a press briefing, had made “a firm statement of American resolve to prevent not only Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but a ballistic missile delivery capability.  It limits its continuing support of terrorism and its causing instability and turmoil in the Middle East.”

Through his briefing, Bolton’s answers betrayed the carceral mentality that characterises his approach to international diplomacy, or whatever passes for it. Never give the other side an inch.  Dictate stances and refuse to abide by your own obligations. The “fundamentally flawed” agreement, he asserted, “does not prevent Iran from developing deliverable nuclear weapons. It allows Iran to continue technologies like uranium enrichment, reprocessing of plutonium.” The underlying sentiment here is that Iran should have nothing to do with anything remotely resembling the atom.

Washington’s allies had been attempting to reel Trump back with respective, and evidently ineffectual visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s warning to members of the US congress was fitted as part of a broader program of restraint: be aware of withdrawing from collectively hammered out agreements on security.

As with the climate change regime, those states left with the shambles of a clumsy US exit will stay the course.  Federica Mogherini of the EU expressed the need to “preserve” the arrangements.  A joint statement from the UK, Germany and France emphasised “our continuing commitment to the JCPOA.”  The leaders noted the assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Tehran “continues to abide by the restrictions set out by the JCPOA, in line with its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.  The world is a safer place as a result.”

This point of compliance has sailed over the heads of Trump’s circle of ravenous hawks, suggesting that such abidance is the problem.  The European angle on this has always been accommodating to the verification results of the IAEA.  As an official in the German Federal Foreign Office noted last year, “We have no indication of Iran violating its JCPOA commitments.”

In Tehran, a proposal involving restoring enrichment capabilities clipped by the JCPOA is doing the rounds. “I have ordered the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran,” explained Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, “to be ready for action if needed so that if necessary we can resume our enrichment on an industrial level without any limitations.”  In a note of mild reassurance, Rouhani claimed that the agreement would still remain in place provided its “goals in cooperation with other members of the deal” could be achieved.

Hard line reactionary types the world over will be excited by Trump’s latest take on Iran.  The cards for war are being readied.  The obscurantist regime in Riyadh cheered with welcome that an arch rival had been railroaded.  Likewise that other fear monger, Israel.  Their desire has an obscene angle to it: to discourage Iran from non-proliferation, thereby setting up the premise for an attack that would confirm their fears.  Doing so will, in these demonic calculations, finally settle long, dog-eared scores.

Irresistible Urges: Surveilling Australia’s Citizens

The authoritarian misfits in the Turnbull government have again rumbled and uttered suspicions long held: Australian residents and citizens are not to be trusted, and the intelligence services should start getting busy in expanding their operations against the next Doomsday threat.

This became clear from leaked material on discussions that illustrate in no subtle way the security paranoia afflicting officials in the nation’s various capitals.  A merry bunch they are too, featuring the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his advisor and department secretary, Mike Pezzullo.  These latest discussions disclose not so much a change of approach as a continuation of a theme the Australian national security has taken since 2001: we are menaced constantly, and need the peering folk and peeping toms to pre-empt the next attack, fraud or swindle.

Central to the latest security round robin is a familiar, authoritarian theme: the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) should be given access to emails, bank records and text messages without the knowledge of citizens, tantamount to a data home invasion. A mutual role would thereby be cemented between defence and home affairs.

Minister Dutton has found it hard to contain his delight at the prospect of further influence, despite rejecting the notion that his moves would lead to carte blanche espionage on home soil. According to the ABC, which has attempted to make sense of the latest chatter, the ASD would be given a larger role on three levels.

The first would involve deploying shutting down or “cyber effects” powers against the usual gifts that keep giving alibis: organised criminals, child pornographers and terrorists.  “Penetration tests” on Australian companies to test the value of their cyber security against hacking would also be conducted.  The third arm of enlarged power would entail giving the ASD powers to coerce government agencies and companies to improve cyber security.

Over the weekend, the secretaries of Defence, Home Affairs and the ASD issued a joint statement claiming that the latter’s “cyber security function entails protecting Australians from cyber-enabled crime and cyber attacks, and not collecting intelligence on Australians.”

The secretaries insist on a scrupulousness that barely computes: “We would never provide advice to Government suggesting that ASD be allowed to have unchecked data collection on Australians – this can only ever occur within the law, and under very limited and controlled circumstances.”

The state of protections citizens have is hardly rosy as it is: ASIO is tasked with the issue of conducting espionage on Australian territory though it needs warrants signatured by the Attorney General.  The Australian Federal Police also require warrants.  The ASD, to date, has been a helper rather than a controller, a two-bit player and data cruncher.

Not all ministers are on board with the plan, notably the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  A palpable shift of power is taking place in the bureaucratic machinations of Canberra, and the suggestions that the ASD be given enhanced powers to produce intelligence on Australians suggests a further circumvention if not outright evisceration of the Attorney-General’s department.

Dutton and his cadres are also mounting an offensive on other surveillance fronts, something typified by the weasel language of the “central interoperability hub”. The Home Affairs department already shows sign of bloating self-importance, floating more ideas about how best to keep the large eye of the state attentive to security threats.  A facial recognition system, for instance, is on the table, and is likely to be given the blessing of parliament.

The Law Council of Australia has reason to worry as, for that matter, does everybody else. Giving government agencies the means to identify a face in a crowd can only have a broadening effect, resulting in prosecutions for minor misdemeanours.

On this score, the governments of the states and territories are with the Home Affairs department, having agreed in October last year to the sharing of identity and facial recognition data between all levels of government to target the usual bogeys that threaten Australia’s cobbled civilisation: organised crime, terrorism and identity fraud.

The surveillance sorcerers, it would seem, are rampant, a point made clear in the Identity-matching Services Bill 2018.  This potentially insidious bit of drafting “provides for the exchange of identity information between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments by enabling the Department of Home Affairs to collect, use and disclose identification information in order to operate the technical systems that will facilitate the identity-matching services envisaged by the IGA.” (Crypto-authoritarians tend to be rather verbose.)

The Bill’s wording also abhors the state of current image-based methods of identification, these being “slow, difficult to audit, and often involve manual tasking between requesting agencies and data holding agencies, sometimes taking several days or longer to process”. The travails of a liberal democracy, ever a nuisance to those protectors citing omnipresent threats.

The Council’s president, Morry Bailes, has already hammered out the words he intends to tell the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security: “Clearly, provision of such capability has been desirable to facilitate detection of would-be terrorists scoping a site for a potential terrorist attack.  But that very same identity-matching capability might also be used for a range of activities that Australian citizens regard as unacceptable.”

Even Bailes effuses pieties, thinking that clearly drawn lines on the use of such data will somehow save the sacred cow of civil liberties.  (That cow, it must be said, is in a poor state of health as it is.)  He insists on such canons as legitimate use and proportionality, two features managers of the national security state are inherently incapable of.

“That line should also be assured by law to be fully transparent, understood and consistently applied by all relevant governments and their agencies.”  But such a line might creep, advancing “towards broad social surveillance” finding its way “to a full social-credit style system of government surveillance of Australian citizens.”

The issue common to the latest pro-surveillance bingers is an innate desire to remove the judicial arm from the equation.  Having a warrant takes time and resources; leaving surveillance to the discretion of state officials is far more expedient and tidy.

As the Australian Human Rights Commission notes, the “very broad powers” granted to Dutton as Home Affairs minister “could lead to further very significant intrusions on privacy.”  There are no discernible “limits on what may be done with information shared through the services the bill would create”.

The latest ASD affair, with other surveillance agendas in the wing, suggests that a very unfitting eulogy for Australian civil liberties is being written.  Authoritarianism is being kept in check by ever weakening forces and fetters.  The insecurity of citizens is deemed a suitable price for the security of the state – just the way Dutton likes it.

Macron’s Travels in Trumpland

All smiles and hugs is the current French President, Emmanuel Macron.  In the White House, there seemed to be an emotional equation generated by the supposedly warm relationship between President Donald Trump and his guest.  In entertainment vision, substance would only consist of wiping the dandruff off the jacket of Macron and handshakes so firm they appear, at stages, to be the weary product of Stockholm syndrome.

A stream of inanities on Macron’s travels developed into a rampaging flood on the idea of what all this back rubbing and hand holding meant. The Bromance theorists became an irritating phenomenon, a cult of confused masculinity.  Macron, for one, had gone beyond the polite French formality of issuing kisses – the old bises. Here, he was all in for the manly shake, though in being hugged, pondered Europe 1 journalist Vincent Hervouët, he was exposed “to the risk that the other person suddenly thinks they can dust you down.” Or at the very least grope you.

Others became amateur ethnologists and psychologists, wondering whether Macron might, like some chancing charmer, find his way to influence Trump for the sake of France, and, by way of default, the world. “As no politician gives the impression of being able to influence him,” noted former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine to Europe 1, “it’s not at all absurd for Emmanuel Macron to try the friendship card.”

Olivier Mazerolle got inventive for radio station RTL on the role of the French president as valued, elevated intermediary. “They’ll probably do as in the saloon bars of the Old West… when they realise nobody has what it takes to win, they take a drink together. And neither of them has any wish to split”.

Stephen Bunard, in Journal du Dimanche, showed a touch of Desmond Morris in creep vision.  “A pat on the back, or repeated taps on the back, the place on the back being tapped… all that is important.  For example, the higher on the back the tap, the more the person is showing their dominant character.”  A sense of envy here that Bunard did not get a chance to be the proverbial, if traumatised, fly on the White House wall.

While Macron timed his smiles and showed a cordial disposition, the French position seemed to be one previously assumed by the British: the Greeks of old supplying wise counsel to the Romans of now. Convince your Roman counterparts about the folly of ignoring current climate change agreements; remind them of the importance of being collective rather than unilateral in decisions; be wary of feverish nationalism and keep the Iran nuclear deal in place.  “This rapport,” claimed the BBC, “has pushed France ahead of Germany and the UK, to become America’s primary European contact.”

Trump was evidently liking the moment. His tweets on the subject had become sugary rather than abusive, and, in glucose-filled wonder, observed those links between “two great republics”, “the timeless bonds of history, culture and destiny.  We are people who cherish our values, protect our civilization, and recognize the image of God in every human soul.”

Macron’s speech before Congress made the pitch of argument while simulating praise.  He began with a ponderous Franco-American comparison on the physical interactions he had been sharing with Trump.  The French philosopher Voltaire, he reminded his audience, had met Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1778. “They embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms, and kissing each other’s cheeks.  It can remind you of something.” Certainly, though not that.

He reiterated the drug-induced mission both messianic countries have undertaken.  “The American and French people have had a rendezvous with freedom.” He spoke of two possible pathways to take: “We can choose isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism… But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world.”  He reiterated the urgency of greening, rather than warming, the earth, there being no “Planet B” to fall back on.

Macron was enjoying himself.  His domestic front is troubled, packed with discontent and strikes organised against his reform agenda.  These, as French history shows, often have considerable effect on the leadership of the day.  Relief has been sought elsewhere, and even a Trump White House offered temporary solace.

A delightful aside to the entire Washington visit was the aftermath of the sessile oak planting in the White House grounds. The placing of the sapling in the South Lawn by both presidents was meant to signify yet another one of those special relationships covered with good intentions coloured in with camera ready display.  The tree’s provenance had some symbolic potency, stemming from the Belleau Wood where some 2,000 US soldiers died in the First World War.

Within a few days, the tree had vanished.  Hacks speculated about motives and ploys, enshrouded by what was termed “a mystery”.  The explanation duly came: the tree had been quarantined. Cheers all around.  An official from Macron’s office told Reuters how timing was all, “a special favour from Trump to France to be able to plant the tree the day of the president’s visit. Since then, it has returned to quarantine and will soon be replanted in the White House gardens.”

Gallic parasites that had found their way to the tree might have insinuated themselves into the good vegetation of the White House. What a suitable statement: an arboreal gift timed for the cameras, followed by a quarantine of possibly dangerous, if microscopic, immigrants.

Sugar Demons, Sweet Lobbies and Taxes

It came across on the ABC’s Four Corners as something of a junkie’s confession: I am an addict, and I know.  The conservative MP for the Australian federal seat of Dawson, George Christensen, was not mincing words so much as spouting them in crude confessional form.  Regulating the sugar industry by means of a levy or tax ignored personal responsibility.

“I think that a lot of the issue with obesity has got to come back to telling people that they are personally responsible for the choices they make.”  He was a “fat bloke” who had made regrettable health decisions. He had to accept the consequences of those food choices that found their way down his “gob”.

Christensen is not merely a representative of a federal seat, but representative of a country that has found its way to physical hugeness.  Australia has become one of the fattest nations on the planet, rippling with health worries.  Sixty percent of its populace is overweight or obese. By 2025, the figure will be 80 percent.  It is such figures that have officials and those preoccupied with health policy irate and alarmed.

Christensen’s individualist acceptance is standard form for industries that have found certain costs and regulations unnecessary and damaging to the purse strings.  No changes of behaviour, goes the argument, will be induced by such a sugar levy.  But the sweet lobby in Canberra has moneyed depth and financial dogmatism to pursue this variation of free will gone wrong. “Big industry knows,” observes former ACT health minister Michael Moore, “that if you’re going to have influence then you’re going to have to talk to members [of parliament].”

Australia’s representatives, notably those in designated “sugar seats”, have been taking note of the food and beverages lobby for some time.  Where there is a sugar industry, there are votes to be had, beasts to be propitiated.  The Beverages Council’s Annual Report in 2016 strikes a certain note of pride in spending a “vast amount of resources” in fighting proponents of a sugar tax, notably those in the major political parties.

What matters here is the global profile of the sugar industry, one sustained by the same tactical profile as the tobacco lobby.  Tactics of minimisation and distortion, packaged by a covering of legitimacy regarding research and health effects, dominate the sugar lobbyist’s agenda.

Such research has a long and compromised history in the annals of nutrition.  Along with various co-authors, Christin Kearns published in JAMA Internal Medicine a jaw dropping 2016 study using documents of the Sugar Research Foundation.  The investigation showed how some five decades of research on nutrition and heart disease was aggressively cooked by the sugar industry.

“Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings,” concluded the authors, “suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD (coronary heart disease).”

That’s what you get when dolling out some $50,000 in modern money terms to scientists, even in the academically rigorous environs of Harvard University.  With appropriate findings cobbled, the result was a skewed and influential publication in the New England Journal of Medicine (Aug 1967). No conflict of interest with the sugar industry was published, but the brief exonerating sugar as a major risk factor in CHD was advanced.

Marion Nestle of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies in NYU did go softly on the scientists who had conducted the research in the 1960s.  “Whether they did this deliberately, unconsciously, or because they genuinely believed saturated fat to be the great threat is unknown.” That said, “science is not supposed to work this way.  The documents make this review seem more about public relations than science.”

Prior to that, sugar barons were already keen to exploit a deceptive nutritional claim by a simple strategy of avoidance.  The link between sugar-rich diets and heart disease would be overlooked in favour of the chosen enemies of dietary fat and cholesterol.  Americans keen on reducing fat in their diets, and consequential cholesterol formation, could still be encouraged to consume sugar.

As the SRF president in 1954 claimed in a speech to the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists, “If the carbohydrate industries were to capture this 20 percent of the calories in the US diet (the difference between the 40 percent which fat has and the 20 percent which it ought to have) and if sugar maintained its present share of the carbohydrate market, this change would  mean an increase in the per capita consumption of sugar more than a third with a tremendous improvement in general health.”

Specific companies in the sugar business remain the big boys and girls of obfuscation in the world of nutrition science.  In league with them are members of the nutrition fraternity such as exercise scientist Steven N. Blair, who find it reluctant on the padding of appropriate industry sponsorship to libel sugar and its role in causing obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Strong patrons, in short, make for poor, or at the very least questionable research.  In 2015, The New York Times found that Coca-Cola, the single dominant producer of sugary beverages, supplied millions in terms of funding to researchers to identify (or not, as the case was) links between sugar consumption and obesity.  The focus there was to get more exercise and get over a near clinical obsession on the part of Americans to be weight-conscious.

Coca-Cola, ever mindful of sustaining its appeal, has adopted the similar health and exercise offensive in other markets.  In 2016, it was revealed that $1.7 million was expended by the company on fitness groups and academics in Australia alone.  Professor Tim Olds of the University of South Australia saw no problems in pocketing $400,000 from the company for an international study on obesity.  “I think, frankly,” he sneered, “this is old-style superannuated chardonnay socialism.”

Those from the food industry continue to draw miffed distinctions between the effects of sugar, and the impacts of other behaviours. “There’s no safe level of smoking,” claimed Geoff Parker, CEO of the Australian Beverages Council, “and so we refute any sort of comparison between what’s happening with reducing the prevalence of smoking with reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.”  No nanny-state will do for Parker – not even a health conscious one.  The sugar demons still have the upper hand.

The Korean Promise: The Meeting in Panmunjom

It seems, and certainly feels, like a distant number of months since a panel of experts noshed and chatted over how best to overcome the nuclear impasse that pitted North Korea against its southern neighbour and allies.  Held in Seoul last December, the project of attendees hosted by the Korean National Diplomatic Academy was ambitious and lofty: the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

The US angle was one of continued military presence on the peninsula while acknowledging that Pyongyang would not relinquish their top option for empty guarantees.  Parties from Thailand and China felt that area should not become a security buffer zone favourable to the United States and its allies.  Good will entailed true neutrality.  The Russian and Chinese angle was an immediate push to calm the nerves: insist on a “freeze-for-freeze” (a halt to military drills and missile testing), a cold storage metaphor suggesting a seizing up on the road before catastrophe.

Across the parties was a general admission that nothing could be done, or advanced, without genuine measures to seek a state of affairs that would entrench peace even as measures to remove North Korea’s nuclear capability gathered pace.  A peace treaty, in other words, festooned with various security guarantees, would be indispensable.

Now, at the end of April, we have the leaders of Pyongyang and Seoul embracing and emitting tones of rosy confidence, promising steps of reconciliation that would have seemed as eye popping as any Trump tweet.  For the first time since 1953, one of the Kim dynasty found himself on the southern side of the demilitarised zone, chatting at the truce village of Panmunjom.

On Saturday, happy snaps were released of the previous day’s meeting between the DPRK’s Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in.  Such gestures were bound to tease the driest tear ducts, causing a necessary trickle.  Summaries on the summit points were cobbled together for press circulation.  The Seoul Shinmun was not holding back: “No war on Korean Peninsula, complete denuclearisation, formal end to Korean War this year.”

The agreement, known as the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula itself promises the machinery for “a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”  The “current unnatural state of armistice” was to be ended. “Blood relations” between the states would be reconnected; “practical steps towards the connection and modernisation of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor” would be adopted.

The occasion conjures up, in terms of historical pressings, the initial stages of Ostpolitik, when East and West Germany began a warming process that eventually culminated in re-unification, even if the last stages were induced by the shock of the Iron Curtain’s retreat.  “We are living next door to each other,” claimed Kim, “there is no reason we should fight each other.”

It was impossible to expect certain big mouths to stay silent. “Please do not forget,” came President Donald Trump, “the great help that my good friend, President Xi of China, has given to the United States, particularly at the Border of North Korea.  Without him it would have been a much longer, tougher process!”  All charming, given the berating the man in the White House was giving Beijing’s leadership over previous mouths for not doing enough.

Such events are bound to leave certain parties unmoved.  The minstrel’s song will be falling on deaf ears, notably those hardened by decades of realpolitik cynicism.  Political boffins, notably in the West, continue to obsess with the utterance of the terms “complete denuclearisation”, and wonder whether this will, in fact, happen.

Former US national security advisor H. R. McMaster ran with the line that the DPRK was using its nuclear weapons capability “for nuclear blackmail, and then, to quote, ‘reunify’ the peninsula under the red banner.”  It never occurred to McMaster that pure survival is as good a reason as any, and nuclear weapons supply comforting insurance rather than offensive means.

The Washington Post was ready to throw some cold water on the cosy gathering, reminding readers of 1992, when Pyongyang signed a denuclearisation agreement with Seoul, then 1994, when the DPRK concluded one with the United States.  In April 2005, the gesture was repeated with North Korea’s four neighbours and Washington.  In 2012 came another agreement between Pyongyang and Washington.

Rather than considering the totality of these agreements, and the deeper reasons for their failures, the paper suggested one, inglorious culprit: “North Korea has never stuck to any of its agreements.” Conservative figures such as the Liberty Korea Party’s head, Hong Joon-pyo, find little room to trust, seeing a manipulative dictator highly skilled in stage management. “The inter-Korean summit was a show of fake peace,” he fumed on Facebook.

Still others, such as Michael E. O’Hanlon, are claiming that the recent moves have little to do with the wily Kim or accommodating Moon, but the brutal sanctions regime that brought suitable pressure to bear on the northern regime.  Kim’s moves suggested “that the world’s collective economic sanctions against his regime are starting to bite”.

Again, these old fictions circulate like counterfeit currency, suggesting that the DPRK’s nuclear regime – the supposed object of such measures – would be impaired.  As with all sanctions regimes, citizens tend to head the queue of punishment. Those in power are rarely scarred.

The Korean peninsula has rarely been entitled to prosper and develop on its own accord, ever at the mercy of ruthless powers and case jottings about security and self-interest.  An arbitrary border, drawn at the 38th parallel by two US colonels, one of them the future Secretary of State Dean Rusk, brought Washington and Moscow into potential conflict.

This random division of political mismanagement precipitated a neurosis between Pyongyang and Seoul, as much a product of inward enmity as it was an external inspiration, poked and prodded by those too afraid to let go.  Perhaps that time is now.