All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Great Barrier Reef Politics

Australia’s environment has been in precarious hands since European settlement found its lengthy and persistent way to the continent.  It has been mined, mauled, drained, farmed, deforested and despoiled at a rate that was only restrained by the size of its small but rapacious populace.  When environmental matters have made an appearance, they have done so with a veil of political opportunism.  Few typify this more than Labor’s environment minister Senator Graham Richardson’s efforts regarding the Tasmanian forests.  To win over the conservation-minded voter in marginal, city-based seats, it was good to go green – at least for a bit.

The Great Barrier Reef has not been exempt from the political tussles of a troubled environmental conscience.  Its monumental size, and its status as an ecological wonder meant little in the late 1960s, when the appetite for development mattered most.  In 1967, it seemed to be facing imminent destruction, another casualty of a predatory mining industry keen for new conquests.  The state of Queensland had elected a National Party government hungry to exploit the environment’s wares.

As local tour operator Alistair Pike explained to the ABC, “We had a fairly full-on development oriented government… and mate, if they couldn’t drill it, mine it, chop it down or whatever, they really didn’t want to know about it.”  It took characters such as that feted “rat bag” of an activist, rogue of action and Mission Beach artist John Büsst to bring angered but focused attention on threats to bulldoze Ellison Reef.  An impeccably connected person, he had the ear of Australian prime minister and fellow diver Harold Holt.  A cast of characters were duly mobilised: the CSIRO forester Len Webb, and president of the Queensland Wildlife Society Judith Wright became enthusiastic and un-phased recruits.

In the Australian environmental conscience, this gorgeously freakish wonder of ecology has been seen in isolation, its problems a local provenance and interest rather than a global phenomenon of ailing.  As the earth continues is warming push, earthbound, and very terrestrially unimaginative politicians have been attempting to treat the Reef’s woes as separately resolvable from the broader challenges of climate change.

Little wonder, then, that a problem viewed in such limited terms could be duly remedied by donations without tender, lump sum payments without review.  Narrowly viewed problems tend to lead to narrowly devised solutions.  Such was the nature of the Turnbull government’s $444 million “rescue package” to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, one conceived and delivered in a haze.

The issue of who takes the reins and ensures study and conservation was never going to be free of a political push.  While common sense suggests that the task be left to government organisations within the scientific community – CSIRO, the Australian Institute for Marine Science and the Marine Park Authority, other contenders have been stalking the scene.

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation was deemed the chosen one, but questions are circulating as to why that outfit got preferment for such largesse.  For one thing, it seemed an oddly hasty move, given that it entailed an expenditure of almost the entire spending allocation for the 2050 Reef Partnership program.

Then came the organisation’s profile.  Its chief executive Anna Marsden is married to Ben Myers, chief of staff to former Queensland premier Campbell Newman. (Newman can be counted, incidentally, as one of those durable environmental sceptics who prefers the bulldozer to reef hugging conservation.)  One of the four founding businessmen behind the venture is the current chairman of the foundation, and former chairman of Esso Australia and the Commonwealth Bank.  Advocates of barrier reef protection, beware.

That particular non-profit group had a revenue stream of less than $8 million in 2017, a humble outfit with six full time employees.  Nothing suggests that those working for it had a clue that this staggering cash supply was coming their way.  “We didn’t have much time before the announcement to be prepared for it,” came the perplexed, albeit thrilled Marsden.  Easy to understand why Marsden considered this winning the lottery.  Overnight, even given a spread of funding over six years, the Foundation has become one of the largest, if not largest NGO in Australia.  By way of grim contrast, government employees connected with the science fraternity are facing skint measures to fund their projects.

The bungling has led to Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, asking the secretary of his department to urge the National Audit Office to give the funding arrangement serious consideration “as a priority”.

This piqued the interest of Tony Burke, Labor’s opposition spokesman, who claimed that it “was an extraordinary step for the secretary of the department to be sending a letter like that to the Auditor-General at the exact same time that Josh Frydenberg is standing up in Parliament saying there is no problem here”.

The outstanding feature of the funding spill to the foundation is its conspicuous absence of any reference to climate change.  It is a hermetic form of deliverable rescue sans climate science, an approach that politically factors in the climate change sceptics within the Turnbull government.  By all means try to preserve an Australian wonder; but ditch the climate science.  The conclusion of one unnamed scientist to the Fairfax press about the nature of this arrangement was elementary and crude: “Obviously this is political – it’s to head off Labor making a big issue of the Great Barrier Reef at the next election.” Woe to the reef.

Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship

Contrary to any popular perceptions of Australia’s legal system, a dislike of rights reigns with pious conviction on both sides of the political aisle.  Rights are the stuff of nonsense and nuisance, revocable for those deemed undesirable. The Australian constitution, a heavily dull document, remains silent on many important liberties; the common law is relied upon to fill in gaps (think of that conjuration known as the implied constitutional right to freedom of communication on political subjects). Parliament, mystically wise, is meant to be the grand guardian.

In terms of citizenship, Australia’s parliament has been rather cavalier on the idea of citizenship, exploiting the absence of any specific reference to the term in the arid document that grants it legislative powers.  In 2015, national security considerations became the basis for legislation stripping individuals of citizenship in certain instances where terrorism was an issue.  While citizenship can be lost in certain instances common to other countries, the arbitrary revocation of citizenship via executive fiat is possible under the Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth).

The relevant minister, goes the wording of s. 35A, “may determine in writing that a person ceases to be an Australian citizen” in various instances involving convictions for certain offences, including terrorism.  But convictions might not be necessary; the minister might deem it against the public interest for the person to remain an Australian citizen. This is all made ever vaguer on the issue of what constitutes recruitment and the status of foreign fighters.  We remain at the mercy of “security” considerations.

Parliament did stop short of rendering citizens stateless, making the provisions apply to dual nationals.  But it yielded two outcomes: that the relevant minister would be effectively governed by the consideration that the Australian citizen might have citizenship of another country, however tenuous that link would be, and that any powers to deprive that person of Australian citizenship could be exercised to limited review.

This curiously venal formulation was always problematic; for one, such laws are not, specifically, “with respect to aliens” or with respect to immigration, terminology that is to be found in the constitution.

Khaled Sharrouf became the debutant to lose his Australian citizenship under the amendments, his reputation marked by a spectacularly gruesome display of images sporting his son holding a severed head.

Five Islamic State supporters can now deem themselves former Australian citizens.  Details are scant.  All it took was a decision by the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton.  There was no presiding judge, nor scrutinising judicial proceeding to oversee the merits of the decision.  There was no context supplied as to what support was given to Islamic State.  “We have taken a decision that these people have been involved in serious terrorist-related activity.”  No guidelines were disclosed supporting the decision, no taxing criteria by which we could even say that these supporters should be deprived of their bit of paperwork.

Dutton admits that there was something akin to a process, but openly admits conflict zones present different challengers to the investigator.  “Obviously when you are talking about a war zone, it is a very different circumstance than a crime zone in Australia in terms of gathering evidence.”

Not that this evidentiary hurdle troubles him.  Intelligence assessments and briefings do not necessarily stand the test of a withering legal examination, but for Dutton they constitute the legal basis for alleviating individuals of their citizenship.

The issues of belonging and involvement in civic life are troubling propositions. Stripping citizenship is an announcement that the time for belonging is over.  But it is also an assertion that there is no redemption and challenge.  Like the despot’s favour, Dutton can designate individuals terrorists with capricious ease, a situation that does not broker appeal except in exceptional cases.  That very repellent, illiberal fact runs against the concept of holding an overly zealous executive to account.

All that matters for Dutton is the public safety rationale, a concept of such fuzziness it is susceptible to convenient abuse. “The determination of the Government is to try and keep Australia as safe as possible and we do that by keeping these people far from our shores so if we can deal with foreign fighters away from our shores we do that.”

Such occasions should strike fear into the citizenry of any self-respecting state.  Dutton has assumed the position of assessor, deliberator, and executor, his crude paternalism a conspicuous threat to civil liberties.  Policing roles have been fused with the judicial, the very definition of an unchecked tyrant.  Whatever the nature of those who deemed it necessary to join a cause or find solace in the organisational bosom of an officially designated terrorist group (and the options are many) the ease by which they lost their status is more than troubling.  The Magna Carta, it would seem, is a dead letter, a fact that should be a cause for lengthy mourning.

Using the Burka: Boris Johnson’s Bid for Popularity

Comedy, Boris Johnson, and the Tories – these three share a certain comforting, if chaotic, affinity, lobbed together in some nightmarish union that risks consuming itself.  But times are serious – profoundly so, we are told: Brexit exercises the nerves as if Britannia were a patient about to expire, and there is the cultural irritation posed by those naughty elements who refuse to do the good thing and integrate themselves into the land of her Britannic majesty.

Thus far, Britain has resisted the moves of other states in Europe to impose public bans on such religious coverings as the burka and some of its more expansive cognates.  But there is a prevailing appetite for such measures in a climate suffused with notions of civilisation, irate outsiders and insecure insiders.  France was a pioneer in that regard, initiating a ban in 2004.  In Denmark, rough measures have been implemented punishing those who don such headdress in public spaces.

A perfect chance for Johnson, who remains a smouldering menace to Prime Minister Theresa May, to strike form, even if only to rile critics and keep the blogosphere busy.  “In Britain today there is only a tiny, tiny minority of women who wear these odd bits of headgear,” he noted in his regular Daily Telegraph column last week.  Confidently, he claimed that, “One day, I am sure, they will go.”

His has little time for assuming that women have any choice in the matter.  “If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran.”

Nothing is spared. The whole show is given, and any social or academic nicety is given over to a populist punchiness.  “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” But Johnson returns to a traditional stance taken to such articles of wear: they should not be banned. The only resort, then, is to mock.

It becomes clear what this exercise was about.  The burka, and Islamic dress, might well have found themselves objects of pure, unalloyed opportunism for yet another push for recognition from fellow Tories that Johnson remains a relevant contender for high office.  He might have resigned from the front bench in an act of calculated sabotage, but he glows.

The Conservative Party has found itself in a bind.  Something needed to be done, as the current wisdom goes, but what?  An investigation is currently being taken, a fairly pointless exercise that serves to supply valuable oxygen to Johnson’s flame of embellished martyrdom.  Communities and Local Government Secretary James Brokenshire told BBC Breakfast that an investigation into complaints made about Johnson’s comments was taking place and “that’s the right approach”.

If the investigation – being conducted by an individual officer – finds justification for the complaints, an independent panel will be convened (independence being in the eye of the beholders), which might decide to refer Johnson to the party’s board.  From there, the power of expulsion can come into play.

At this stage, these are meaningless hypothetical points, and expelling Johnson will add a few streaks of popularity to him.  If that ever unreliable metric called polling can be drawn upon, Johnson has allies on the score of whether he should receive some form of disciplinary action.  The Sunday Express, noting the findings of its ComRes poll, found 53 percent of respondents did not feel any such action should be taken.

The Muslim Council of Britain has also added to the exercise of giving Johnson form and profile, sending a letter to Prime Minister May that “no-one should be allowed to victimise minorities with impunity.”  The Council was “hopeful” that the Tories “will not allow any whitewashing of this specific inquiry currently in process”.

A few murmurings of support have aired.  That ever reliable period-piece Tory prop and member for North East Somerset Jacob Rees-Mogg is certain that the whole exercise against Johnson – a “show trial” no less – is tactical, a measure to protect May and see off a rival.  There is envy in the leadership at his “many successes, popularity with voters and charisma”.  He speculates: “Could it be that there is a nervousness that a once and probably future leadership contender is becoming too popular and needs to be stopped?”

Another element is the comedy line, suggesting the view that Johnson remains the permanent, immutable joke of British reaction.  To censure Johnson would be to censure a certain type of eccentric, if indecent, Britain.  Rowan Atkinson, the genius behind Mr Bean and a range of comic adaptations, took the freedom-to-joke line in a letter to The Times.  “As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one.”  Pity that it has been a standard one for some time – was Atkinson perhaps referring to Johnson himself, the joke in harness?

It is all well and good to accept the necessary function of comedy to puncture, deflate and generally mock the role of faith, credulous attitudes and the devout. “All jokes about religion cause offence,” says Atkinson accurately, “so it’s pointless apologising for them.”

But Johnson has never been the font of sincerity in that regard, and his effusion was hardly intended as one of pure humour. He wishes to remain politically relevant, and persists sniping through his columns and from the back bench in the hope that he won’t be forgotten.  As Britain leaves its awkward EU marriage, Johnson may well find himself presiding over the ruins of his own handiwork.

Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship

Contrary to any popular perceptions of Australia’s legal system, a dislike of rights reigns with pious conviction on both sides of the political aisle.  Rights are the stuff of nonsense and nuisance, revocable for those deemed undesirable. The Australian constitution, a heavily dull document, remains silent on many important liberties; the common law is relied upon to fill in gaps (think of that conjuration known as the implied constitutional right to freedom of communication on political subjects). Parliament, mystically wise, is meant to be the grand guardian.

In terms of citizenship, Australia’s parliament has been rather cavalier on the idea of citizenship, exploiting the absence of any specific reference to the term in the arid document that grants it legislative powers.  In 2015, national security considerations became the basis for legislation stripping individuals of citizenship in certain instances where terrorism was an issue.  While citizenship can be lost in certain instances common to other countries, the arbitrary revocation of citizenship via executive fiat is possible under the Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth).

The relevant minister, goes the wording of s. 35A, “may determine in writing that a person ceases to be an Australian citizen” in various instances involving convictions for certain offences, including terrorism.  But convictions might not be necessary; the minister might deem it against the public interest for the person to remain an Australian citizen. This is all made ever vaguer on the issue of what constitutes recruitment and the status of foreign fighters.  We remain at the mercy of “security” considerations.

Parliament did stop short of rendering citizens stateless, making the provisions apply to dual nationals.  But it yielded two outcomes: that the relevant minister would be effectively governed by the consideration that the Australian citizen might have citizenship of another country, however tenuous that link would be, and that any powers to deprive that person of Australian citizenship could be exercised to limited review.

This curiously venal formulation was always problematic; for one, such laws are not, specifically, “with respect to aliens” or with respect to immigration, terminology that is to be found in the constitution.

Khaled Sharrouf became the debutant to lose his Australian citizenship under the amendments, his reputation marked by a spectacularly gruesome display of images sporting his son holding a severed head.

Five Islamic State supporters can now deem themselves former Australian citizens.  Details are scant.  All it took was a decision by the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton.  There was no presiding judge, nor scrutinising judicial proceeding to oversee the merits of the decision.  There was no context supplied as to what support was given to Islamic State.  “We have taken a decision that these people have been involved in serious terrorist-related activity.”  No guidelines were disclosed supporting the decision, no taxing criteria by which we could even say that these supporters should be deprived of their bit of paperwork.

Dutton admits that there was something akin to a process, but openly admits conflict zones present different challengers to the investigator.  “Obviously when you are talking about a war zone, it is a very different circumstance than a crime zone in Australia in terms of gathering evidence.”

Not that this evidentiary hurdle troubles him.  Intelligence assessments and briefings do not necessarily stand the test of a withering legal examination, but for Dutton they constitute the legal basis for alleviating individuals of their citizenship.

The issues of belonging and involvement in civic life are troubling propositions. Stripping citizenship is an announcement that the time for belonging is over.  But it is also an assertion that there is no redemption and challenge.  Like the despot’s favour, Dutton can designate individuals terrorists with capricious ease, a situation that does not broker appeal except in exceptional cases.  That very repellent, illiberal fact runs against the concept of holding an overly zealous executive to account.

All that matters for Dutton is the public safety rationale, a concept of such fuzziness it is susceptible to convenient abuse. “The determination of the Government is to try and keep Australia as safe as possible and we do that by keeping these people far from our shores so if we can deal with foreign fighters away from our shores we do that.”

Such occasions should strike fear into the citizenry of any self-respecting state.  Dutton has assumed the position of assessor, deliberator, and executor, his crude paternalism a conspicuous threat to civil liberties.  Policing roles have been fused with the judicial, the very definition of an unchecked tyrant.  Whatever the nature of those who deemed it necessary to join a cause or find solace in the organisational bosom of an officially designated terrorist group (and the options are many) the ease by which they lost their status is more than troubling.  The Magna Carta, it would seem, is a dead letter, a fact that should be a cause for lengthy mourning.

Trump versus Journalism: The Travails of Fourth Estate

You have to give it to him: President Donald Trump loathes the Fourth Estate with a dedication verging on caricature.  He splutters at the members and rails at their observations with adolescent rage. He sees some of its members, not without a few solid reasons, as enemies of his vision.  (The Gray Lady is formidable in that regard.)

But it is hardly surprising that his loathing takes place at a time when that particular estate, which Thomas Carlyle saw a mighty force of oversight, has been smouldering and crumbling before the sallies of social media and a newly emergent Fifth Estate, edgy, uncontrolled and threatening to conventional wisdom.  Call them the citizen journalists, the irate foot soldiers, the opinionated bloggers, the readers of news who prefer Facebook to reportage.  The media denizens are besieged.

These foot soldiers of another type of often shrieking journalism are a hit-and-miss sort.  They ended up in the mad flung universe of Breitbart where Steve Bannon continues to hold court as a guerrilla force.  They populate the climes which have now been designated “alt-right”.

Bannon’s clever alteration of technique was to turn standard journalism against itself, suggesting that his own brand was different, a torch for anti-establishment forces. In so doing, he exploited establishment ignorance and wilful myopia.  “The media here,” he infamously noted last year, “is the opposition party.  They don’t understand this country.  They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”

While Bannon rode on the Trump phenomenon even as he honed it, the journalist became enemy and opponent, the anthropologist who had written about tribes he had misread, he bothered writing about them at all.  The establishment could not be trusted to supply the public with news, merely its counterfeit, condescending variant.  “They have no sources, they just make it up,” Trump barked at the Conservative Political Action Conference.  “It’s fake, phony, all fake. I want you to know that we are fighting the fake news – they are the enemy of the people.”  What the President wanted was not material worth but theatrical posture that not even gonzo journalism, with its teasing alloy of fiction, could provide.

This month has seen a new round of attacks and counter-attacks in the battle of Trump versus Journalism.  On August 2, Trump, who seems to be in permanent rallying mode, told supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania that the media was “fake, fake disgusting news.” He feigned a questioning attitude, asking his supporters, “Whatever happened to the free press?  Whatever happened to honest reporting?”

The Boston Globe has taken the initiative to encourage editorial boards through the US to engage Trump in pieces set to run on August 16.  “Our words will differ.  But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.”  The sally against Trump is taking place to counter “a dirty war against the free press.”  To date, some 70 outlets have added their names to the ledger.

What mars such campaigns is the assumption that sober rational assumptions will prevail over the lures of instinct.  To learn, one has to listen, endure and forebear opponents.  That is the world of peripatetic discussion, enlightenment through discussion. But Trumpland is purposely aggressive, and singularly shut off, a process that a good number of the newspaper fraternity were simply not tuning to.  There is no room for conviction, only belief, and in that regard, the Fourth Estate has suffered, having committed the cardinal sin of regarding Trump as unelectable, the vulgar joke that would never materialise into hardened, electoral reality.

The behaviour of Jim Acosta of CNN, to that end, is a fine illustration of this struggle.  All well to go on a fact-checking binge, but Trump’s show is above the ground-level digging that characterises such a task.  Acosta insists that he and his colleagues are at war with Trumpian falsehoods, but he realises the effect this can have from “a lot of folks who support the president who are very upset with us right now because they take it in, and they see it as ‘They’re just bashing the president all day long.’”

The Trump supporter is hardly interested in didactic campaigns and tutorials of civic worth delivered via editorials.  But this is precisely what deputy managing director Marjorie Pritchard at the Globe wishes to do, directing readers across the United States to wise up to the orange monster in the White House even as the editorial classes speak down to them: “I hope it would educate readers to realise that an attack on the First Amendment is unacceptable.”  She insists that, “We are a free and independent press, it is one of the most sacred principles in the Constitution.”

Pivoting on these changes leads to a few conclusions. One tends to be misguided: that those who think the press corrupt and established journalists purveyors of the fake should be condemned as totalitarian misfits.  (Stalin and Mao, opined The Guardian in troubled tones, also referred to the press as the “enemy of the people”.)  This hardly squares, attributing false historical analogies to a distinct situation.

Such paralysing pessimism also ignores the resilience of the First Amendment protections which protect all the actors in this fractious drama.  A country where dedicated Nazis and fringe belief dottiness cohabit with bible bashing evangelicals, the love of business and that elusive pursuit of happiness can only be admired for its vast tent.

The second point is far more significant. The US political landscape has become more unruly, irritable, and irate.  Wade in it, even enjoy it.  Trumpland is there to be weathered, but it is also there to be scrutinised for its influence and, most importantly, its origins.  It will not last forever and Trump will not, whatever astrological nightmares are predicted, become a clownish totalitarian marked by crown, orb, and sceptre.

Banning Alex Jones and Infowars

He is treated as the bogeyman of conspiracy entertainment, and Alex Jones has become a prominent figure for advancing a host of unsavoury views. High on his list of incendiaries is the claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting never took place and was the work of paid fantasists, with the victims’ parents being “crisis actors”. “Sandy Hook,” went Jones in a January 2015 broadcast, “is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.”  The parents of two children killed at the school massacre are suing.

There are seemingly few limits to the Jones armoury of hyper-scepticism.  But Jones has been in the business of such production for years.  Now, a campaign for banishing him from various platforms, including Infowars, has been enacted with a degree of censorious ferocity.  Summary bans have been made, ranging from the giants such as Apple, Twitter and Spotify, to Pinterest and MailChimp.

Apple took the lead in this competitive banning binge, removing five of the six Infowars podcasts available via iTunes this week, including “The Alex Jones Show” and “War Room”, while Facebook removed four Infowars pages for violating the company’s guidelines.

An Apple spokesperson explained the company’s position in a statement: “Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all our users.”  Accordingly, “Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming.  We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.”

Spotify has also added its name to the list.  “We take reports of hate content seriously,” went a statement, “and review any podcast episode or song that is flagged by our community.  Due to repeated violations of Spotify’s prohibited content policies, The Alex Jones Show has lost access to the Spotify platform.”

Who is guarding whom, and who should decide which ideas are significantly safe, less discomforting or otherwise?  Contraries are, by definition, discomforting; the contrarian, by definition, dangerously disruptive.  The idea of social media platforms becoming a constabulary for the controlling of opinion – located in the vague economy of “hate” – is ominous.  Nor have these technology mammoths articulated “a clear standard,” as Ben Shapiro notes, “by which the conspiracy theorist should be banned”.

Twitter prefers a different approach.  “We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday,” came Jack Dorsey’s announcement on the medium he helped found. “We know it’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules.  We’ll enforce if he does.”

For Dorsey, the role of policing Jones is not for Twitter and such platforms, but the media proper, an estate that has been somewhat remiss in recent years.  He did not want to take “one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.”

This in, and of, itself sensible view has drawn the predictable moralising and indignation.  Aja Romano of Vox is particularly riled.  “This response is breathtakingly amoral, as well as regressive, terrible decision-making – for Twitter, for the internet, for all of us.  It should be a moment of reckoning for everyone who uses Twitter.”

Words do move and change worlds, and care should, at select times, be taken, but who polices their dissemination and exchange remains key.  Dorsey has simply diagnosed an inherent problem in the information ecosystem about rage and counter-rage: who controls the participants, bars or muzzles the competition, should not, by default, fall to the giants.  For the market place of ideas to function with a fair degree of effect, it is participants who dictate their value, oiled by intermittent legal interventions to test the limits of free speech.

Free speech scholars have been sceptical about whether Jones can avail himself of the First Amendment protections. “False speech,” goes a submission by four jurists in an amicus brief in the Brennan Gilmore case, “does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does.” (Gilmore, a Democratic Party activist and former State Department official was in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017 attending a violent rally that subsequently saw the death of Heather Heyer, killed by a car driven by James Alex Fields, Jr.) Furthermore, the jurists insist that “there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”

Jones, for his part, has submitted in court papers that his rubbishing of Gilmore (a CIA plant hired to foment disorder, he suggested) were opinions, rather than statements of fact while Infowars was a “freewheeling” website where “hyperbole and diatribe reign as the preferred tools of discourse.”

The other issue in such summary bans is how they are challenged.  Tech platforms acting as righteous disciplinarians seems an odd thing, appropriating a degree of power they simply should not have.  And foolishly, the campaign against Jones has given him a sense of dangerous frisson.  His information and views will not necessarily disappear so much as migrate to other forums and mutate with aggression. The conspiracy theorist will ride again, even as the various tech giants bask in the ethical afterglow spurred on by anger and undefined standards of hate.

The Non-University and the Manager

We have been seeing over the last few decades the birth of the non-university, an institution hollowed out of its seminal functions: teaching and scholarship.  Such an institution emphasises the functions of commerce and branding not dissimilar to the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), dedicated to goods and services and the establishment of trading hubs.  In 2007, the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University would note how 11 Australian universities “including my own have 5 or more campuses.”

Pedagogical instruction has become a matter of popularity contests, fuelled by giddy grade inflations on the part of academics who are, let’s face it, often not doing the actual grading.  That part of the process is reserved for toiling sessional or casual workers who scrape, labour and hope, often in vain, that they will find a spot of middle-class security.  Their life is one of temporary contracts and elusive tenure, a true academic underclass seduced by the elusion of patronage.

The issue of research has also been hijacked by the circuitous nature of research grants.  The non-university specialises in workshops run by robotic consultants and endless sessions peppered by power points, preparing the unwise academic for an uncertain future where time is spent in a ceaseless drive for irrelevance.  When a grant is received, it is specifically tailor made for insipid trendiness, the latest pop sensation that creates pop-up industries and employment for minions.  Universities will, naturally, take a cut.  Importantly, getting one grant will mean getting another.  A family of sort crops up, and you are guaranteed a line of funding that does not necessarily need proof of use or evidence of worth.  Grants, in other words, displace scholarship.

Heading, controlling and asphyxiating the non-university is the layer of not infrequently venal officialdom known as managers.  Their impending influence across society was already given a good reading by James Burnham, whose The Managerial Revolution (1941) remains all too relevant.  Central to his thesis was the claim that capitalist society would ultimately transform into a managerial one, one where the masses would be told in no uncertain terms that the classless society was an illusion, with state institutions essentially becoming the “property” of management.

Central to the incidence of university management is the divorce between owning the means of production and the control of their distribution.  Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means supplied the relevant observations in The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932).  With organisations becoming more complex, along with their varied methods of production, a new class of managers hired by capitalist owners came into existence.  Direct control was thereby relinquished.

The modern non-university is the very incarnation of this principle, one that sees the academic class forfeiting control over the means of production: their scholarship and teaching.  Academic labour, with its fruits of learning, is influenced, observed and ultimately controlled by management.  Management, in turn, burgeons with the self-justified rationale that more managers are needed.  Fictional projects drive this growth; more committees are deemed necessary, and, importantly, nothing is ever done.

The university manager is a born and dedicated philistine, and is one of the most important reasons why such institutions are not only failing students but failing staff.  It is managers who, untutored but entirely self-interested, feather their nests while stomping on the innovative and shutting out the novel.  The world of ideas is a world of offense, dangerous and to be avoided.

Within university management are the turncoats known as failed academics. Incapable of writing, researching and teaching, these people, unburdened by their banal resume, move into a dreary world of paper clips, staplers and signatures, knowing that they can be promoted up a ladder filled with endless forms and bundles of paperwork.  One Australian university is even proud of having a Vice Chancellor who is rather light on education, not daring to even have a doctoral thesis to his name.  Such credentials would be an impediment in a non-university.

The fundamental goal of management is not merely to control, monitor and mediate performance on the part of the neutered academic, an insistence that thought is obscene.  (Thought, by its very act, cannot be managed.)  The academic must be restrained before the all-seeing-eyes of the brand label police and authoritarians.

Work-plans – because cerebral activity and inspiration can miraculously become the subject of a spreadsheet or the subject of itemisation – are designed in order to be used against academic staff.  Online Modules, fostered in the true Orwellian spirit, ensure a degree of disgruntled humility.  They are generally of no consequence, seeing as they will be breached by university managers with impunity, but these must be undertaken by staff.  Know the “values” of a university; appreciate “diversity”; know your place and worship the next dogma and, above all, do not criticise “hard working” management.  A module on hypocrisy would also be well worth taking, but irony and humour are the stuff of poison to a university manager.

A return to the university, one thriving with students and engaged scholarship, would be a jolly thing. But the chances of that happening are glacial, remote and unpopular.  The non-university will only be killed off when the students stop coming, or when governments see fit to curb their funding.  The problem in the latter case, as it has been for decades, is that students and unions will protest, thereby inadvertently protecting the managers who influence them.  The fundamental truth is that most of these bodies run on the blood of those who pay them. Drying up the resources will see management cannibalise itself, a mortal competition to the finish. Now wouldn’t that be fun?

Trillion Dollar Companies: The Apple Empire and Concentrated Markets

It seems a distant reality, or nightmare now: a company that was near defunct in 1996, now finding itself at the imperial pinnacle of the corporate ladder.  Then, publications were mournful and reflective about the corporation that gave us the Apple Computer.  An icon had fallen into disrepair.  Then came the renovations, the Steve Jobs retooling and sexed-up products of convenience.

Apple’s valuation last Thursday came in at $1 trillion and may well make it the first trillion dollar company on the planet.  That its assets are worth more than a slew of countries is surely something to be questioned rather than cheered.  This un-elected entity, with employees versed in evading, as far as possible, the burdens of public accountability, poses a troubling minder about how concentrated financial power rarely squares with democratic governance.

Chalking up such a mark is only impressive for those keeping an eye on the trillion dollar line.  China’s state-owned PetroChina is another muscular contender for getting there first, while the Saudi Arabian energy company Aramco, which produces a far from negligible 10 percent of the world’s oil, could well scoot past Apple should it go public.

Cheering was exactly what was demanded by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, whose piece in The Week suggests that Apple reached that mark “the right way”.  The critics of such concentrated power, technology company or otherwise, were simply wrong.  “For them, superbig is automatically superbad.”

Praise for Apple, an abstract being, is warranted in the way that its ally, modern capitalism, should be. “The story of Apple is really the story of modern capitalism doing what it does best: turning imagination into reality.”  The author prefers to see Apple, and Amazon, as products of US genius in the capitalist context.

The New York Times is similarly impressed, linking individual gargantuan successes to the broader American effort in the economy.  A small gaggle of US companies commanding “a larger share of total corporate profits” than at any time since the 1970s, is not necessarily something to snort at. The nine-year bull market has, essentially, been powered by the four technology giants. “Their successes are also propelling the broader economy, which is on track for its fastest growth rate in a decade.”

To its credit, the paper does pay lip service to concerns that such “superstar firms” are doing their bit to stifle wage growth, shrink an already struggling, barely breathing middle class, while jolting income inequality.

This is where the trouble lies: a seemingly blind understanding of capitalism’s inner quirks and unstable manifestations. The paradox behind the tech giant phenomenon does not lie in the wisdom that innovation comes from competition. The converse is claimed to be true: that concentration, oligopolistic power, and strings pulled by a few players is the way to keep innovation alive.  This was Microsoft’s vain argument during the 1990s, something that did not sit well with the antitrust denizens.

The fraternity of economists, rarely capable in agreeing on broader trends, has become abuzz with literature focused on one unsettling topic: the continuing, and accelerating concentration of US industry.  Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin and Roni Michaely noted in April last year that government policies encouraging competition in industry had been “drastically reversed in the US” with a 75 percent increase in the Herfindahl-Hirschman index (HHI) measuring market concentration.  (Antitrust regulators beware.)  The authors observe how, “Lax enforcement of antitrust regulations and increasingly technological barriers to entry appear to be important factors behind this trend.”

Marketing professor from NYU, Scott Galloway, is one who has supped from the cup of the tech giants. He has written about their exploits (The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google), his addresses having become something of a viral phenomenon with analyses of the companies at the DLD Conference in Munich.  Initially seduced by the bling and the product, he enjoyed the magic mushroom inducements the tech giants supplied, relished in their success and stock options, extolled their alteration of human behaviour. “This started as a love affair.  I want to be clear.  I love these companies.”

This year, a change of heart took place.  Galloway, after spending “the majority of the last two years” of his life “really trying to understand them and the relationship with the ecosystem” is convinced that these behemoths must be broken up.  The big four, striving all powerful deities, sources of mass adoration, have become “our consumptive gods”.  “And as a result of their ability to tap into these very basic instincts, they’ve aggregated more market cap than the majority of nation’s GDP”.

Power and influence has shifted.  Political leaders have little of these relatively speaking, certainly over the behavioural consistency and content of subjects and citizens.  Someone like Mark Zuckerberg, distinctly outside a political process he can still control, does.  “He can turn off or on your mood. He can take any product up or down. He can pretty much kill any company in the tech space.”  And that’s just Facebook.

What Galloway points out with a forceful relevance is that liberties and freedoms are not the preserve of estranged markets and their bullish actors. Regulation and oversight are required.  A return to competition would only be possible through some form of intervention and coaxing, perhaps even economic violence.  The memory of the great financial crisis initially stimulated an appetite for regulation.  In recent years, such urgings have been satiated.  The tech giants, fully aware of this, continue to burgeon.

The Lasting Condition: Drought in Australia

Humans are a funny species.  They create settlements along fault lines that, on moving, can create catastrophe, killing thousands.  They construct homes facing rivers that will, at some point, break their banks, carrying of their precious property.  Importantly, they return in the aftermath.  Existence continues.

The same follows certain settlements of parts of the planet where hostile, environmental conditions discourage rather than endorse a certain form of living.  Changes in weather have been vicious catalysts for the collapse of civilisations; extreme climactic variations prevent and retard stable and sustainable agriculture.

“The flourishing of human civilisation from about 10,000 years ago, and in particular from 7,000 years ago,” notes earth and paleo-climate scientist Andrew Glikson, “critically depended on stabilisation of climate conditions”.  This had its due results: planting and harvesting of seed; cultivation of crops; the growth of villages and towns.

Australia, the second driest continent on the planet, has never been exempt from such patterns of disruption, and those stubborn, pluckily foolish farmers who persist in the notion that they can make a living in parts of it risk going the same way.

Australia’s agrarian purveyors have certainly been persistent, hopeful as pilgrims in search of holy land.  Disasters have not discouraged.  A sense of a certain attendant fatalism can be found in the scribbles of Nancy Fotheringham Cato’s “Mallee Farmer”:

You cleared the mallee and the sand blew over
Fence and road to the slow green river;
You prayed for rain but the sky breathed dust
Of long dead farmers and soil’s red rust.
You ploughed up the paddocks with a stump jump plough
But the gates were open and the drought walked through.

The Settlement Drought (1790-1793) threatened but did not overwhelm early European settlers. The Goyder Line Drought (1861-5) savaged but did not kill farming in parts of South Australia.  The recent Millennium drought (1997-2009) was spectacularly ruinous, but Australian agriculture moaned and stuttered along.

Farming in Australia remains precarious, an occupation of permanent contingency.  Droughts ravage, kill and annihilate.  Crops and livestock perish with gruesome ease.  But the Australian farmer, rather than being portrayed as a dinosaur awaiting extinction, is seen as resilient, durable and innovative.  Yet each drought brings a certain narrative.

One aspect of that narrative is the sense of singularity.  Droughts are often seen as unprecedented.  This alleviates the need to consider stark realities and inefficiencies that characterise the problem of farming in naturally dry environs with inappropriate crops or livestock, to up stakes, as it were, and finally admit to the brutalities.  Such determination often flies in the face of the work conducted by climate science researchers, who tend to occupy a certain high terrain of gloom.  Recent publications float the suggestion that the droughts this year may be some of the worst in 800 years.

The response from the prime minister has been an urging against the predations of nature: to fortify “resilience” in light of more unpredictable rainfall.  The fear from such figures as former Nationals leader John Anderson is that matters of climate change will be co-opted in an act of politicisation.  This would suggest inevitability, doom and acceptance.

Climate change watchers Andrew King, Anna Ukkola and Ben Henley do not shed much light on these matters, logically pointing out that drought, being a “complex beast” can be “measured in a variety of ways.  Some aspects of drought are linked to climate change; others are not.”  The entire field of drought studies reads like a sophisticated, taxonomical manual of expertise and foreboding, noting variations in their spatial effects, duration, seasonality and intensity.

Such studies are intriguing, and tend to ignore the withering human consequences that invariably follow.  Figures like Edwina Robertson of Trangie, west of Dubbo supply the viewer with a pathos and desperation, her tears the only moisture in an arid setting.  The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was there to capitalise.  “It’s worse,” he was told, “than anything you are seeing in the media, it’s far worse.”

Drought brings with it a whole platoon of agents and variables.  Cash relief payments are provided through the Farm Household Allowance (additional payments of up to $12,000 have been promised); mental health services are boosted (the Rural Financial Counsellors feature in this scheme).  Australian farmers are being encouraged to come forth with their anxieties and strains.

These are salutary reminders that some parts of Australian farming can only be kept on life support for so long.  As Richard Eckard, director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre at the University of Melbourne explained in 2015, the limits to adaptation are unavoidable.  The odds for the more fortunate wheat farmer in a hotter, drier climate will be better than those cultivating chickpeas, walnuts and peaches.  No matter, argues Eckard; Australia’s farming adaptation technologies will ensure that the country never has a food security problem.  “We’re heading for quality, rather than quantity.”

Perversely, as the federal government and a host or bodies tend to the drought, and as is in the manner of the Australian environment, northern stretches of the country have been and are being drenched.  More flooding and cyclones are being promised in the future.  Australia, that most untamed environmental miracle of all; but Australia’s agrarian inhabitants, permanently subject to trials they are often poorly prepared for, buttressed by an obstinate faith that sustains them.

Fought to the Table: Talks with the Taliban

Attempting to control rural areas in Afghanistan always eventually ends up boiling down to personal survival.

— Evan McAllister, former Marine staff sergeant, New York Times, July 28, 2018

It genuinely doesn’t matter how the security boffins within the Pentagon frame it: the Taliban have fought the United States, through sheer will of force and mania, to the negotiating table – at least in a fashion.  Ever since a vengeful US took to the field in Afghanistan in an effort to redraw the political landscape in its favour, the country has been true to its historical record: drawing, draining and dispersing the manpower and material of an empire.

Washington’s longest war has taken the lives of 2,400 Americans and 30,000 Afghan civilians, a bloody sore that never dries. The US has 14,000 troops stationed in an effort to bolster a flabby, unconvincing Afghan military which is suffering weekly losses at a horrendous rate. The bloodletting has had its necessary demoralising effect, with the number of Afghan soldiers, police, pilots and security personnel dropping by five percent (18,000 fewer individuals) since last year.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has become a regular font for bad news, at least for those punters backing the regime in Kabul.  The Taliban and various other insurgent groups have been industriously committed, making gains exceeding those of January 2016.

Within Afghanistan lie 407 districts, with the government holding or influencing 229. The Taliban have a seemingly modest 59.  What is significant is where the rest fall: the so-called “contested” category.

The strategy adopted against a thriving Taliban force is a tried and failed one.  Even since the Soviet Union discovered that it could never genuinely control the rural areas with any conviction, let alone purpose, peppering areas of low population density with beleaguered military outposts, retreat to the urban areas has become the norm.

The current push from US planners is strikingly unvaried in imitation, insisting that Afghan troops do the same.  First came the redux Soviet strategy adopted by the Bush administration: guarding outposts intent on re-establishing control and taking the battle to the Taliban in rural areas.  By 2009, the focus had shifted: remote areas would no longer feature; the focus was, as a Pentagon document went, “protecting and developing the major population centres” in eastern Afghanistan.

Retired two-star Army General Paul Eaton, whose previous brief was to train Iraqi forces following the calamitous 2003 invasion of that country, has more than let the cat out of the bag: the US has run out of military solutions amidst the “significant loss of life, and blood and treasure.”  It is “time to say that we need a political outcome.”

The basis of such a political outcome will involve encouraging the Afghan military to leave unpopulated areas with a focus on more heavily populated ones, seen by Eaton as “a rational approach to secure the cities, and provide the Afghanistan government the political opportunity to work with the Taliban.” Again, this is reminiscent of the prodding by the Obama administration in 2015 to convince Afghan commanders that various remote checkpoints were simply not worth defending, let alone reclaiming and holding.

The denials that this is the case have been forthcoming.  Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, is well versed enough in spin to suggest that the approach has nothing to do with conceding ground to the enterprising Taliban and surrendering rural areas to their control; the focus, rather, is to secure urban areas with a future aim on re-engaging rural communities.

This treacly deception ignores the point that a retreat from remote Afghanistan is a de facto defeat for the Afghan and US forces.  The police forces left in place will become fodder for Taliban attacks; in some instances, negotiations are taking place between the local police and the Taliban.  Survival is the aim.

True to erratic form, the Trump administration is attempting to adjust old and stubborn positions.  The President had preferred a swift withdrawal and termination of the conflict but Defence Secretary Jim Mattis got to his ear, preferring a more conventional topping up of forces – an additional 4,000 troops in a last hurrah for a victory that never came.

Instead, new talks with the Taliban are being proposed.  A few preliminary ones have already taken place in Qatar.  In their aftermath, State Department spokeswoman Stephanie R. Newman preferred a modest assessment.  “Any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”  The giant is being humbled.

The Taliban remain an indigenous force, nigh impossible to dislodge.  Its unsavoury brand of Islam will not fly in cosmopolitan circles, but that hardly matters. In the game of crude politics, they have survived and become a reality impossible to ignore, let alone defeat.  Swords may, in time, be sheathed, and guns holstered – if only temporarily.