Sticks and stones may break my bones…

Brilliant cartoon in today’s Sydney Morning Herald by Cathy Wilcox.

No photo description available.

Are there white supremacy sympathisers working at the Courier Mail?

I am wary of adding to the commentary about the Christchurch shooting.

But a crucial question remains unasked: how may people working at Australia’s leading publications are sympathetic to white supremacist doctrine?

It’s important because the front page of News Ltd’s Courier Mail on Saturday 16 March – the day after the shooting – adopts a presentation and framing in its reporting that the shooter himself could only have dreamed of as he planned his attack.


First, the design. In his portrait he is depicted as stern, tough and determined. That’s not surprising, because it’s sourced from his own social media account: he would have posted it to make himself look good. The top left image is again his: it’s a screen shot from the Facebook Live stream of the attack that he broadcast as he entered the Christchurch mosque. The decision to use these images and the qualities they embody plays into the shooter’s hands – as opposed to, say, not showing his image or the footage of the live stream at all, which is what the New Zealand authorities urged.

The headline and splash keep the theme going. He is not described as a terrorist, or a criminal, or a murderer. He is instead a ‘working class’ guy, a ‘kid who grew up in Grafton’. This humanises him and suggests that rather than being entirely culpable, something must have happened to make this ordinary man snap and commit this act of violence. It’s also exactly how he described himself in his video, as quoted in the text below the headline: as coming from an ‘ordinary, working class family’.

That article extract at the bottom of the page reinforces his own view of what made him snap. The massacre is described – by the Courier Mail’s journalist this time – as ‘orchestrated revenge attacks against immigrants’. The phrase ‘revenge attacks’ implies that immigrants in New Zealand have done something that may be seen as worthy of revenge. In other words, the shooter was reacting to external provocation as opposed to committing an unjustified terrorist attack. I’m not suggesting that the Courier Mail journalist thinks this is the case. But the poor choice of phrasing again plays into the shooter’s hands.

Finally, the phrase ‘killer white supremacist’. What at first glance sounds like a condemnation reads instead as a compliment to the shooter, at least in the eyes of him and his far-right followers. He is not described as a coward or a loser. He is a ‘white supremacist’, a tag he has gladly embraces. And he is a ‘killer’: a praiseworthy thing in a movement that glories in violence.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that the above qualities emphasised by the Courier Mail’s front page are exactly those the far right tries to claim as its own in their image-making efforts.

They see themselves as the last ‘real men’, as opposed to the ‘feminised’ leftist ‘cucks’ they hate. They are honest, salt of the earth types struggling against the cosmopolitan elites who they blame for the immigration they see as corroding white society. They depict themselves as warriors in a clash of civilisations, pushed to breaking point – and violence – by a ‘quiet invasion’ that is marginalising them.

There are only two explanations for this, both unpalatable. Either the Courier Mail’s staff are so ignorant of this context that they have published a front page that unintentionally plays into the shooter’s hands, or those responsible for that front page knew what they were doing.

I prefer to believe it was done out of ignorance.

But the Courier Mail needs to examine how a front page that would have had many layers of sign off and oversight before it hit the presses could end up reinforcing so many far right tropes in its coverage of one of the worst white supremacist shootings in history.




Tony Abbott is the 21st century Neville Chamberlain

You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.

– Winston Churchill to Neville Chamberlain, after the Munich conference, September 1938


The reality of the climate crisis can no longer be avoided.

Whether it’s Australia’s record-breaking 2018/19 summer heat wave, the disruption of the jet stream that has delivered arctic winters to north America and Europe, or the life-threatening collapse of global insect numbers, it is clear that climate change is already here as an existential threat.

Individual actions to combat the problem, like turning down your air-con or doing meat-free Mondays, barely scratch the surface. Proposals for economy-wide transformations better match the scale of the threat. The most current, and most promising, is the Green New Deal, promoted most visibly by first term US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The scheme borrows its name from US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vast scheme of public spending and regulatory reform – the New Deal – which helped to pull the US out of the Great Depression. The Green New Deal proposes mobilising the resources of the state on a similar scale to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and prevent the impacts of climate change shifting from bad to catastrophic.

The ambition of the Green New Deal is its great strength. But it is already being opposed by the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry, and their political and media enablers, whose profits would be threatened by the necessary phase out of coal, oil and gas.

They are not simply faceless corporations and lobby groups. They are people who have names and faces and addresses. Globally they include US president Donald Trump, former Exxon CEO and short-lived US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch. In Australia the familiar roll call includes Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, and the compromised men of the Monash Forum.


They trust science in other area of their lives but have chosen to ignore it here. They play make believe when it comes to climate science because it is easier (and more lucrative) to pretend a catastrophic threat doesn’t exist than to face it square on and make the sacrifices that it demands.

We need a Green New Deal. But a better 20th century comparison is not the Great Depression but the immediate lead up to World War 2. Then, people of conscience and character could see the threat and chose to face up to it. They knew that the longer they delayed, the more difficult the task would be in the long run.

But today, as then, those who would turn away and try to postpone the inevitable at the expense of the rest of us remain in power.

As much as former Australian Prime Minister, and climate denier in chief, Tony Abbott admires Winston Churchill, he is much more akin to Churchill’s political opponent, Neville Chamberlain, in his cowering before a threat that is all too real, instead of taking up the fight.

Abbott has already suffered the same fate as his appeaser compatriot, who was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1940. At the upcoming May election, Abbott will likely lose his seat in parliament as well.

Poetic justice for a man who has perhaps done more than any other to delay climate action in the hottest, driest continent on earth.


Momentum, schmoementum


Nate Silver reminds us that we should ignore vague discussions of the ‘momentum’ behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign and focus on the numbers:

So Sanders is doomed? If he doesn’t beat these polls, then probably yes — Sanders is not going to win the Democratic nomination if he’s losing Ohio by 13 percentage points. And if Clinton has a really good night on Super Tuesday — by winning Massachusetts, for instance — that would take almost all the suspense out of the race….


His polling in the Super Tuesday states looks pretty bad, even after allowing for the fact that they aren’t a great set of states for him. Still, follow the numbers in these states and not the talk about who has “momentum.”

I’m trying hard to avoid my #election2016 posts sounding like a paean to but these guys really do know what they’re talking about.


Rolling Stone’s Political Reporting: Thompson to Taibbi

Hunter S. Thompson is my favourite political writer, and one of my favourite writers of all time. Although he is now best known for the drug-fuelled benders that inspired some of his work – as memorialised in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, itself based on his book of the same title – he has written more truth about American politics than anyone else I’ve read.

Hunter cut his teeth as a political correspondent at Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s, reaching his peak when he worked as an embedded reporter with George McGovern’s unlikelyrs622-rs progressive tilt for the Democratic nomination and the Presidency (McGovern ultimately got the nomination, but lost all but one state in the general against Nixon. I’ve got another post saved up for a comparison between McGovern and Sanders). Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is Hunter’s book-length account of that campaign – and it’s spectacular.

Matt Taibbi is Rolling Stone’s new rising star, and it’s pretty clear he is going for Hunter’s mantle, if not explicitly, then at least through some strong allusions to his style. His piece on his time with the Republican primary roadshow in New Hampshire is worth reading in full. My favourite part:

Concord, New Hampshire, the Secretary of State’s office, morning of November 6th. I’m waiting to see Ohio Gov. John Kasich officially register as a candidate for the New Hampshire primary.

In another election, Kasich might be a serious contender, being as he is from Ohio, a former Lehman Brothers stooge and a haranguing bore with the face of a dogcatcher. He exactly fits the profile of what party insiders used to call an “exciting” candidate.

At the moment, though, he’s a grumpy sideshow to Trump and Carson whose main accomplishment is that he hogged the most time in the fourth debate (and also became the first non-Trump candidate to be booed). Kasich in person seems like a man ready to physically implode from bitterness at the thought that his carefully laid scheme for power might be undone by a flatulent novelty act like Trump.

Compare that to this, by Thompson himself:

Richard Nixon has never been one of my favourite people, anyway. For years I’ve regarded his very existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humourless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.

Hunter wins it easily, but then again I doubt even Rolling Stone could publish something like this today and not get sued. Hell, they’d probably chicken out before even trying it on.

Still, it’s good to see them covering the race properly. I’m looking forward to what Taibbi can come up with as it gets more serious and more insane. Maybe he just needs to hit the narcotics a bit more to catch up with his predecessor and go from great to eye-peelingly fantastic.

RFK on progress


‘The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.’

Robert F. Kennedy

Day of Affirmation address at Cape Town University, Cape Town, South Africa (6 June 1966)

Behind the spin, Adani and coal are in trouble

My op-ed on the looming failure of Adani Australia’s huge Carmichael coal mine was published in New Matilda:

Image via Flickr: Max Phillips

Image via Flickr: Max Phillips

You have to hand it to Adani Australia chief executive Jeyakumar Janakaraj. Despite years-long delays on Adani’s Queensland Carmichael coal mine – a project mired in court challenges and no realistic prospect of obtaining the financing it needs to proceed – Mr Janakaraj retains a cheerful disposition. Last week he said Adani was “absolutely committed” to proceeding with the mine. The show of optimism is designed to obscure the fact that his company’s coal mine project looks increasingly likely to fail.

The Carmichael mine and associated coal port at Abbot Point have been the target of sustained opposition from a wide range of community organisations, both in Australia and overseas, because of the catastrophic impact they would have on the Great Barrier Reef. UNESCO has kept the Reef on its world heritage watch list due to the threat that projects like Adani’s pose to its health. In August 2015, a Federal Court challenge forced Environment Minister Greg Hunt to overturn the approval for the mine. Two more legal challenges against the Carmichael project remain, and the project is yet to obtain mining leases from the government. The project itself is effectively stalled, with the Adani contractors who were sent home in 2015 still not back on the job.

Yet even if all of these obstacles were removed, the mine’s financials simply don’t stack up. A viable enterprise when coal prices were at their $140 per tonne 2012 peak, Carmichael’s forecast operating expenses mean that it cannot turn a profit at the current price, which is hovering around $50. The environmental and economic arguments against the mine have led 14 global banks to rule out involvement in the project, leaving it with no banks willing to lend Adani the money its $16bn mega mine needs to proceed.

So when Indian market analysts Axis Capital reported that Adani had frozen investment in the project, with “further investments [in Carmichael]dependent on visibility of revival in global coal prices”, it should have come as little surprise.

As acknowledged by analysts, including Goldman Sachs and Citi, the market for thermal coal, used for electricity generation, is in structural decline and being displaced by cleaner, more cost-effective renewables like solar and wind, accelerated by the growing momentum for action on climate change after last year’s Paris climate agreement. Even Adani itself is moving into solar power, with 800MW of new solar plants in the pipeline for India, as well as this week’s announced plans to build a utility scale solar plant in Queensland.

The project still has its defenders, of course. Queensland MPs, like Adani spruiker George Christensen, insist that Carmichael remains viable. Queensland state Environment Minister Steven Miles recently gave the mine its environmental approval and the Palaszczuk government continues to express broad support for coal mining in Queensland. And, unsurprisingly, Adani insists the project is going ahead.

These manoeuvres are best understood as part of a face-saving exercise by the Queensland government and Adani for the moment when the project is declared dead and buried. Adani will blame the onerous regulations and delays supposedly placed on coal mine developments in Australia. It continues for now to push for the mine’s final outstanding approvals in the hope that it might be able to sell the rights to the project and at least salvage a small portion of the billions of dollars it has already wasted. Queensland Labor has and will claim that it has done all it can to assist Adani to get the mine up and running, thereby avoiding the charge of not supporting Queensland jobs. It will point to the poor economic fundamentals of the project as the culprit.

The spin can’t hide the fact that the decline of coal, exacerbated by a cooling Chinese economy and a broader global commodities slump, is already being felt in Australia. According to BIS Shrapnel, the Australian mining industry has laid off 40,000 workers since 2012/13, with 20,000 more forecast to go in the next year. With the world’s biggest economies, including the US and China, announcing moratoriums on coal mine approvals, this decline will only accelerate in the months and years to come. Predictably, the Queensland Resources Council has already called for more taxpayer subsidies for the mining industry. That’s on top of the $1.8bn in annual production subsidies already given to the coal mining industry, and the $5.5bn in direct subsidies or tax breaks given to fossil fuels.

This sorry state reveals the lack of political vision for the Australian economy beyond the waning era of fossil fuels. Instead of continuing to mouth support for coal mining, it is time our political leaders develop a serious plan for a fair transition for the hard-working Australians whose jobs are already being lost, and a coherent energy policy that sees Australia rapidly transition to renewable energy and take on the threat of climate change.

In parts of Australia, that future is already here. AGL recently completed its Broken Hill solar plant – the largest in the southern hemisphere – and Australia is a world leader in adoption of rooftop solar. It is indeed an exciting time to be Australian, as our PM has observed. That excitement will be sustained in the years to come not by clinging to obsolete 19th century technology, but by seizing a clean energy future.


Nate Silver is still election god


Back in 2008, when I had a bit more time on my hands, I completely geeked out on the US presidential election. I followed the news obsessively, read election blogs and even played with an interactive electoral college map on a regular basis. At the time Nate Silver was relatively unknown, but became famous, along with his website, for using big data to more accurately predict the result than anyone else. In 2012 he picked the margin of Obama’s win almost exactly, as well as 50 of 50 states.

I’ve been surprised not to see his commentary more front and centre this year. Part of that might be that his methodology is now much more widespread, but Silver is also someone who didn’t really ‘play nice’ with the established media elite: after all, no-one likes to be shown up as not really knowing what they’re talking about by a nerd with a monster computer model.

All that aside, he’s still killing it over at  538 – check out his coverage of the race and especially this recent post on the role of super delegates if you want serious analysis without the gut-feeling, reading the tea leaves bullshit spouted by most of the pundits out there.

The Linguistic Rift in Ukraine

In a fascinating article at the Washington Post, Max Fisher explains how much of what is happening in Ukraine is about culture and language as much as politics. Two maps that illustrate the rift.

The electoral division of the country into pro- and anti-Yanukovich regions:


And into predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and predominantly Russian-speaking ones:


In other words, in the European-facing half of Ukraine, the orange half, the protests are even more widespread and severe than you might have gathered from watching the media coverage. But it’s important to keep in mind that the other half of the country, the blue half, is much quieter.


You may be wondering, then, why there is such a consistent and deep divide between these two halves of Ukraine. Here’s the really crucial thing to understand about Ukraine: A whole lot of the country speaks Russian, rather than Ukrainian. This map shows the country’s linguistic divide, which you may notice lines up just about perfectly with its political divide.


…Heavily Russian-speaking regions can tend to be more sympathetic (or at least less hostile) to policies that bring their country closer to Russia, as Yanukovych has been doing. But the Ukrainian-speaking regions have historically sought a Ukrainian national identity that is less Russia-facing and more European. So this is about politics, yes, but it’s also about identity, about the question of what it means to be Ukrainian.

(H/T: Andrew Sullivan)



Australia Day Press Wrap Up


Australia Day is a good opportunity to reflect on what Australia is, and where it is going. Here is what some major papers and thinkers/commentators had to say:

Australian of the Year, footballer Adam Goodes, an indigenous Andyamathanha man, does not see the day, which marks the arrival of English colonists in 1788 and their subsequent seizure of aboriginal land with the establishment of the colony of New South Wales, as predominantly one of national celebration:

because of the sadness and mourning and the sorrow of our people and a culture that unfortunately has been lost to me through generations…We are still here, we’ve got a lot to celebrate about being here and that we have one of the longest-serving cultures still alive and kicking.’

Tim Soutphommasane, in the Age, argues that pride and patriotism should be embraced, but tied to a notion of civic membership which eschews blind loyalty or chauvinism:

In the words of one patriot, ”My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Wendy Harmer, in the Sydney Morning Herald, asked her casually racist butcher, grateful immigrant fruit shop owner, and star struck fridge repair man what they thought about the nation:

On Australia Day I’ll raise a toast to Spooks, Sue, Poe, Shamal and everyone who calls this place home or dreams of a better life here. And I’ll also think about all those who seek to exploit our differences and misunderstandings to divide us. Who can understand their motivations?

Mick Dodson writes that the date of Australia Day needs to be reconsidered, and indigenous Australians formally recognised in the constitution:

Australians would never declare that we should “just get over it” when it comes to the commemoration of the Anzacs. Why, then, should that demand be made of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians about the events of a century before that and all that followed? Both should be commemorated, each as surely as the other.

Noel Pearson also writes, in the Australian, about the need for recognition, but only if it is tied to a change in how Australia deals with  policy relating to indigenous affairs:

Without demonstrable traction on the practical agenda, the symbolic reform will face sceptical Australians, black and white. A narrative that explains the relationship between the symbolic and the practical will be needed.

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, yesterday publicly came out in favour of formally recognising indigenous Australians in the constitution.

And, bringing up the rear, Andrew Bolt, at the Herald Sun, is appalled at the choice of Adam Goodes as Australian of the Year, and has written a piece titled ‘Man Honoured After Yelling at 13-year-old Girl’, in which he supportively cites a reader who rails at the ‘racism industry’:

Only by reducing two individuals to racial caricatures – a repentant 13-year-old girl into a white racist and 34-year-old champion footballer into a black victim – could you see in that public shaming a “ magnificent demonstration of character and compassion” worthy of an Australian of the Year. (I do note, however, Goodes was honored for more than this incident alone.)

Reading over this list, it strikes me that only one of the people I have cited is a woman. I went back to several news and commentary sites to find more op-eds and columns written by women about Australia Day, but came up with nothing. I’d be very happy to amend the above if anyone can point me to something worth reading, but for now this post can perhaps serve as an overview of thinking about Australian identity as well as (unintentionally) highlighting the extent to which the Australian media view serious commentary about national affairs as the preserve of men.

Almost Everything in ‘Dr Strangelove’ was True

dr strangelove

Eric Schlosser previews his new book about nuclear weapons in the New Yorker. It turns out that Dr Strangelove was pretty much on the money:

A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.

If It Quacks Like a Duck: Golden Dawn Nazis Exposed

Golden Dawn pictures

The economic crisis in Greece has led to the rise of Golden Dawn, a far-right political movement, which says and does pretty much everything one would expect from that description.

Their earlier denials of being fascists or Nazi sympathisers were spectacularly blown apart by the revelation last week of thousands of pictures of members, some armed, giving the Nazi salute, and brandishing SS banners.

“What this confirms, without a shadow of doubt, is that Golden Dawn is not only a Nazi group but a criminal organisation that operated as a paramilitary structure,” said Dimitris Psarras, the country’s leading authority on the party.

“We are literally talking about thousands of pictures,” he told the Guardian. “And many are highly incriminating, portraying well known members receiving armed training in summer camps.”

The British National Party’s Nick Griffin has defended the group, who he called his ‘patriot comrades.’

The seriousness of this kind of thing should not be underestimated in a country with a history of dictatorship, and a continent where Nazism is a living memory for many.

They have also set up an Australian chapter, in Melbourne.


Click Bait Media: Australians Who Read our Work are Dumb

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 2.13.49 PM

Generalisations about whole nations are meaningless. People, let alone masses of population millions strong, are far more complicated than to be able to be summarised by a handful of perceived common attributes. Yet the genre of national character sketch persists and, in Australia, tends to be particularly cherished by progressive writers using it to argue that their compatriots are stupid, ill-informed racists, more interested in reality TV than politics.

This piece, by comedian and writer Corinne Grant, has been doing the rounds recently, cited approvingly as an accurate snapshot of Australia and Australians. In brief, Grant argues that we are more interested in celebrity gossip than serious politics. The repeated violation of Indonesian territorial waters by the Australian Navy in its attempts to turn back refugee boats is said to get less interest than Cameron Diaz’s views on Brazilian waxing. The conclusion:

The Murdoch media and politicians have told us ‘boat people’ are stealing from us and we’re stupid enough to fall for it. We genuinely believe that a few thousand people are responsible for traffic congestion and hospital queues instead of years and years of government inaction on public transport, roads and health. We accept that we’re ‘at war’ with asylum seekers without questioning the ludicrousness of the statement or the secrecy and abuse it’s used to justify. We hate to think but we love to hate.

Leaving aside the fact that Grant’s piece was published by a commentary website whose lead story today was titled ‘Oh, High Heels, Must We Break Up?’ (pic above), it seems perverse to diagnose the problem as low quality media and then conclude that its sufferers must themselves be stupid.

The uncomfortable reality for media commentators is that most people simply do not have the time to spend informing themselves from several media sources about contemporary politics. Getting up, taking your kids to school, working until 5 or 6 (often later), commuting home, sorting out dinner, and taking a few minutes to relax before heading to bed leaves very little time for the kind of balanced analysis Grant seems to assume is a prerequisite for not deserving to be the target of her opprobrium.

Australia has some of the least diverse media ownership in the world. Two newspaper owners (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; Fairfax) were responsible for 86% of newspaper circulation in the country in 2011. Online news and commentary have changed this picture somewhat, but it is still the case that legacy media determines the daily political narrative.

More media diversity is part of the solution, and it is great to see, most recently, the emergence of a new quality weekend broadsheet. But progressive thinkers have to try harder to communicate in ways that are not dripping with contempt for those whose opinions they hope to change, and not simply vacate the field, as Labor did, for example, on refugees in the wake of the 2001 Tampa affair, when it all gets too difficult.

Not giving in to the easy pleasure of proclaiming that everybody who disagrees with you ‘loves stayin’ dumb’ is a good place to start.

Francois ‘Niemandshand’ Hollande

Some comedy to start 2014: French President Francois Hollande failing at handshakes.

The bottom right is my favourite.



Via Dutch paper Volkskrant. (H/T @ollybarratt)


MITT: the Surprisingly Compelling Documentary

Greg Whiteley was given close access to the 2012 Romney presidential campaign, and made a documentary which will stream on Netflix from January 24th, 2014.

Judging from the trailer, which starts with a scene of Romney as he realises he will lose that is so intimate it looks staged, this will be a must see:

Abandoned Futuristic Monuments in the Former Yugoslavia

Yugoslavian monument

A series of photographs of monuments set up under Tito, now largely abandoned. There is a real sense in these huge concrete sculptures  of a vast optimism in a promised future combined with the blunt assertion of state power which makes so much socialist era art unavoidably tragic.

See the full series of 25 here.

US Federal Judge: NSA Domestic Surveillance Likely Unconstitutional

In the first federal ruling in open court on the constitutionality of the NSA’s surveillance activities, US Federal Court Judge Richard J. Leon has ruled that the bulk collection of phone metadata is likely to violate the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable searches (via WaPo):

‘I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval…No court has ever recognized a special need sufficient to justify continuous, daily searches of virtually every American citizen without any particularized suspicion.’

Leon has granted a preliminary injunction against the NSA, stayed pending government appeal.

Edward Snowden, whose leaked documents uncovered the surveillance, on the ruling:

 ‘I acted on my belief that the NSA’s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts. Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.’

Overseas surveillance, of course, is not substantially affected by the ruling. In Australia at least, there is surprisingly little concern over NSA surveillance when compared, for example, to the response in parts of Europe. Greens senator Scott Ludlam appears to be the only prominent politician to publicly and regularly address its implications in or out of parliament.

The Joy of Data Visualisation

Having spent much of dinner tonight talking about global development, I was reminded of this fantastic clip by Hans Rosling, tracking the income and life expectancy of 200 countries over 200 years in a four minute animated graph.

If the Swedish chef did big data it would look something like this:

(H/T: J.W.)

Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia


A fascinating exhibition, on at the National Library of Australia (Canberra) until the 10th of March, 2014.

The US is Still in the Dark on the Extent of Snowden’s Data Cache

Following on from my previous post, the New York Times reports that after six months of investigation US intelligence and law enforcement investigators still don’t know the full extent of the data Edward Snowden took from the NSA:

“They’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of man-hours trying to reconstruct everything he has gotten, and they still don’t know all of what he took,” a senior administration official said. “I know that seems crazy, but everything with this is crazy.”

Closer to home, the Weekend Australian argues today that the outrage over revelations, via Snowden, of Australia’s bugging of the personal mobile phone of Indonesian PM Susilo Bambang Yudhyono’s wife, Kristiani Herawati, was misplaced: Herawati should not be seen as politically passive, but as one of SBY’s closest advisers.

(H/T: TechCrunch)

Snowden, Assange and the Ancient History of Seeking Asylum


An article I published at The Conversation in July 2013:

As Julian Assange remains inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London and Edward Snowden, last thought to be Venezuela-bound, attempts to avoid capture by an enraged United States, the grant of asylum has become a matter of contemporary global interest and debate. Yet its origins are ancient, and its exploitation in interstate politics was there from the beginning.

Asylum, like many English words, has its linguistic roots in Ancient Greek.

The Greek term was “asylia”, a compound of “sylē”, meaning the right of seizure or reprisal, and the prefix “a-”, denoting the absence of something. A site characterised by asylia was declared to be immune from attack or plunder. The Romans adopted the word and Latinised it into the form with which we are familiar. The noun “asylum” therefore came to refer to a place which afforded such protection.

For the ancient Greeks, the idea of territorial inviolability appears to have originated in the religious sphere. Temples of the gods and the holy precincts within which they were situated were understood to be off limits to the regular plundering raids which were a common reality in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Those who violated the sanctuary of a particular god or goddess risked incurring their divine wrath. This protection extended not only to the temple and cult objects, but also came to include people who entered the sanctuary’s “temenos”, or sacred boundary. Flight to a sacred space became a way for individuals to escape their pursuers, even if the inviolate status of sanctuaries was not always respected in practice.

Yet the Greeks also understood that whatever power the gods might be seen to possess, the credibility of asylia in practice had to be secured through human intervention. In 242 B.C., the citizens of Cos, one of the eastern-most Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, wrote to their neighbours to ask that they recognise the asylia of their city’s sanctuary to Asclepius, the god of healing who was the city’s patron deity. The replies received were engraved on stone slabs and publicly displayed in the city; they included assurances of the sanctuary’s status by some of the most powerful polities of the eastern Mediterranean world.

Such protection was not limited to divine precincts. In 203/2 B.C., the Greek city of Teos (on the western coast of modern Turkey) secured asylia for its entire territory from the main power in the region, the Seleucid empire ruled by King Antiochus III.

Grants of asylia provided concrete benefits to their recipients, both as a mark of honour and as an affirmation of safety from harm. Yet they were also important tools in ancient international relations. When the people of Teos accepted protection for their city, they acknowledged King Antiochus’ power.

When Rome’s influence in the same region began to rival that of Antiochus, the Romans also recognised Teos’ claim to asylia in 193 B.C. in order to assert their own authority. Recognising asylia not only provided benefits to the protected, but also served to emphasise the power and status of those guaranteeing their protection.

Against this historical background, it should come as no surprise that granting asylum to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden has come to symbolise far more than a specific application of international law. Through its sheltering of Assange, Ecuador has implicitly undermined the power of the US and the United Kingdom. The harsher treatment of Snowden – and in particular the recent refusal of transit to the Bolivian president’s plane falsely suspected of carrying the former NSA analyst – demonstrates the extent to which this lesson has been learnt by the international community.

At a special meeting of Latin American leaders, Bolivian president Evo Morales recently commented that “being united will defeat American imperialism”. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has suggested that had a US or European head of state been treated as Morales was, it would have been considered sufficient pretext for military action. Both comments make clear the perceptions of power at stake.

The conflict between the US and Ecuador or Bolivia remains a diplomatic one, and the above comments are perhaps best seen as the product of a righteous, if relatively impotent, indignation. Yet were Snowden to reach Bolivia and be granted asylum, the possibility of escalation in a region with a long history of US intervention – while perhaps unlikely – should not be dismissed out of hand.

In 190 B.C., when the people of Teos agreed to support Antiochus III in his conflict with Rome by storing supplies for him in their city, the Romans had no qualms about attacking their territory, despite their affirmation of Teos’ inviolate status only three years earlier.

Then, as now, asylum could be as much a tool of interstate politics as a right which afforded safety to those who claimed its protection.

A Festivus for the Rest of Us

The US states of Wisconsin and Florida have Festivus poles installed in their Capitol buildings. And Fox News doesn’t like it one bit:

For the origins of Festivus, see the article linked above and this:

I’d love to see a public ‘airing of grievances’ take place in every parliament before Christmas.

As usual, Jon Stewart is on it (H/T: E.J.)

After Antibiotics

New Zealand this week recorded its first death of a patient with an infection resistant to all known antibiotics. The implications of a ‘post antibiotic‘ world are huge, and affect everything from surgery to food supply:

If we really lost antibiotics to advancing drug resistance — and trust me, we’re not far off — here’s what we would lose. Not just the ability to treat infectious disease; that’s obvious.

But also: The ability to treat cancer, and to transplant organs, because doing those successfully relies on suppressing the immune system and willingly making ourselves vulnerable to infection. Any treatment that relies on a permanent port into the bloodstream — for instance, kidney dialysis. Any major open-cavity surgery, on the heart, the lungs, the abdomen. Any surgery on a part of the body that already harbors a population of bacteria: the guts, the bladder, the genitals. Implantable devices: new hips, new knees, new heart valves. Cosmetic plastic surgery. Liposuction. Tattoos.

We’d lose the ability to treat people after traumatic accidents, as major as crashing your car and as minor as your kid falling out of a tree. We’d lose the safety of modern childbirth: Before the antibiotic era, 5 women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of every nine skin infections killed. Three out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it.

And we’d lose, as well, a good portion of our cheap modern food supply. Most of the meat we eat in the industrialized world is raised with the routine use of antibiotics, to fatten livestock and protect them from the conditions in which the animals are raised. Without the drugs that keep livestock healthy in concentrated agriculture, we’d lose the ability to raise them that way.

A terrifying prospect and one that deserves more publicity.

No Atheism, please: we’re American


Jennifer Michael Hecht asks why Atheism is seen as such a problematic belief for US lawmakers to hold. 25 years ago being an atheist was a greater black mark, as far as American voters were concerned, than being gay, which is saying something: the late 80s were hardly an enlightened time for gay rights.

In Australia, of course, it’s a non-issue: PM Julia Gillard was open about her lack of religious faith.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Gold and the Incas


A great looking visiting exhibition at the National Gallery of Australa.

Funding Research in the Humanities: the View from Australia

Parliament House

With a new Australian federal government come new funding priorities. Research funding for the humanities appears to be low among them.

The new Coalition government publicised its plans to reduce funding for the humanities prior to the 2013 election. Part of that effort was devoted to ridiculing past grants for projects which were seemingly frivolous or wasteful.

The parliament is currently debating the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013. While this bill’s purpose is to approve ARC funding to 2016/17 and include indexation, an opportunity to mock valuable research was not missed by Craig Kelly, Liberal MP for Hughes in Sydney’s SW suburbs, in a powerful demonstration of the tyranny of ignorance.

Rather than engage in a debate about the merits of funding the humanities and social sciences, or even of individual projects, Kelly’s speech was dedicated to listing grants he didn’t like along with a set of sneering asides.

I want to go through a list of some of the expenditure items that occurred under the previous government. A Queensland university secured funding of $197,302 for a project titled, Sending and responding to messages about climate change: the role of emotion and morality. You have to ask what medical researcher missed out on funding because of that little research grant. A cool $578,792 was granted for a study of credit instruments in Florentine economic, social and religious life from 1570 to 1790. One of my favourites was the $314,000 for a study to determine if birds are shrinking. Another one was the $145,000 to study sleeping snails.

The fallacy that humanities funding – or any pure research funding for that matter – takes money away from medical research aside, that a member of the highest representative body in Australia assumes that this kind of belittling approach to some of the brightest researchers in the country is worthy of the federal parliament is the best evidence for why more, not less, money should be put into research in the humanities.

A spirit of inquiry, of fascination in the people and world around us and the desire to answer why it is the way it is, is exactly what studying the humanities allows to flourish. That is a valuable contribution in itself. But a spirit of inquiry across all spheres of knowledge is also a powerful indicator of an open society and, ultimately, of a humane polity.

That some members of parliament feel that this kind of goal is beyond modern Australia is more of an indictment of their own short horizons than that of the nation as a whole.

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