The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

In which I am proven to be an amazingly prescient genius person and not just because I know the word “prescient”

Hi there. I’m Tim. Sometimes I make predictions. Sometimes they are hugely false, like that time I predicted Trump would resign after six months because he would get sick of working eight hour days. Silly me… I should have figured he’d only work a three hour day. But sometimes… sometimes I prove to be amazingly prescient. Like the time I predicted this:

Once marriage equality comes in, the objections [to it] will stop. The bigoted fear-merchants who fought for so long, and warned of such dire consequences, will put down their tooth and nail, pack up their placards, and fade into obscurity.

You see, today marks the first anniversary of that time the Liberal government made us all waste $120 million to spend a few months vilifying the LGBTIQ community to re-verify the results of countless already-available public polls and decide on an issue that wasn’t the public’s business and parliament could have voted on for free. So it’s a perfect time for me to reflect on my prediction and check in on how amazing I can be. And lemme tell you… all signs point to me being quite amazing.

You see, I have noticed a little bit of a trend in conservative objections to progressive ideals, which seems to be thus:

  1. An injustice is recognised.
  2. A proposal is made to correct the injustice.
  3. We are told that correcting the injustice will lead to the wholesale destruction of society.
  4. The change is made anyway.
  5. Society is not destroyed.
  6. All the people who said society would be destroyed forget about it and move on to something else.

This exact sequence of events has played out in a multitude of historic advances. Female suffrage, inter-racial marriage, no fault divorce, IVF, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality, to name but a few. In each case, we were told that to make the change would be to ring the death knell of life as we knew it, and usher in a new era of calamity and universal suffering.

We know, of course, that in each case, no such calamity ever came to fruition. Instead, we collectively benefited from a society that was more accepting, more kind, and one step further along the long path to true equality. Every time these disastrous changes were made, we saw that, ultimately, life went on, and after a while, most people didn’t care.

I should point out that, logically speaking, this does not at all prove that their objections were unfounded (there are many other reasons that prove that). What it does highlight, however, is the perfidy of their professed sincerity.

Let’s just think about this for a second. Female suffrage, we were told, would be an absolute disaster. One poster that depicted the dangers of female suffrage showed “a grim-looking man arriving home from work to a scene of domestic chaos, with weeping children, a dangerously smoking lamp, and a casual note attached to a suffrage poster – ‘Back in an hour or so’”. My god, that sounds horrendous! Can you even imagine? If you can’t imagine, the people of the time were happy to produce gems like this to help out:

Yes, friends… if women were allowed to vote, it would definitely, definitely result in never ending nagging.

So, with so much on the line, what did such people do when women were finally granted the right to vote? Did they fight to their last breath to have universal suffrage overturned? Are they still fighting today? Or did they all die from incessant nagging? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding “No”. I wonder why.

Which brings me to my prediction about marriage equality in Australia. We were told that it would destroy families. We were told it would result in people marrying their cats. We were told that there would be another stolen generation, which was a rather oblivious objection, coming as it did from the sort of Christians who instigated the original. Even I can admit that, if true, that would be a high price to pay indeed.

History now shows that they lost, as they were always going to. That’s not particularly interesting, given the multitude of polls that showed that defeat was inevitable. What is interesting, is what happened next.

And what happened next was… nothing.

Sure, there were a few whinges on social media. Lyle probably cried, not there’s anything wrong with that. But apart from that… nothing. No extended campaigns to reverse the decision. No marching in the streets demanding the maintenance of the status quo. No bills introduced to parliament to prevent this catastrophic change to Australian society.

Which means one of two things. They’re just a fear mongering bag of dïcks, or they don’t really believe the shït they’re shovelling.

And just to be fair, I’ll let them decide which.

A picture tells a thousand words… and lots of them are racist

It’s now been a little over a month since Mark Knight published his cartoon depicting Serena Williams at the US Open. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. Jeez, Tim, that was ages ago, and we’ve all moved on to needles in strawberries, Billy Slater, needles in bananas, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s mushroom pee-pee, horse racing on Opera Houses, kicking gay kids out of schools, the TPP, wondering whether it’s OK to be white, administrative errors, moving our Israeli embassy, journalists being murdered in the Saudi embassy, and needles in cucumbers. And you are of course right. We have indeed moved on.

Or have we?

Sure, we’ve all found new things to be outraged about. In fact, the only thing more outraging than being outraged at things, is not having enough outrage to be outraged about the sheer number of things we have to be outraged about, which is, quite frankly, outrageous. But there is another, more important sense, in which we haven’t moved on at all. To wit, we all seem to be very good at forming a quick opinion on something, but we don’t seem to be very good at revising that opinion, when presented with new information. Or, put another way, people are fond of basing outrage on gut reactions, and are also fond of hunkering down and doggedly ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

For the Mark Knight cartoon, I, like most people, had an initial gut reaction when I first saw it. I hadn’t watched the women’s final, and hadn’t seen Serena’s dispute with the umpire, but I had heard enough about it to get the “joke”. Mark Knight thought that Serena had thrown a huge, unnecessary hissy fit, and there she was, jumping up and down, with a spat out dummy on the ground. So, apart from lacking cleverness, and not being at all funny, I didn’t really see much wrong with it. Here it is again, in case you’ve forgotten.

Haha, boy that Serena sure is grumpy! Point made, fair and square. Right?

Well, not quite. Call me old fashioned, or a (partially qualified!) actuary, but I happen to think that it’s always a good idea to check your assumptions. In a spreadsheet, ideally. And so despite my assumption that Mark’s cartoon was merely a bit cräp, the fact that so many people thought it had transcended cräp and jumped feet first into full on racism gave me pause. So I did what every reasonable person would do and just ignored them to make myself feel better. Oh wait, no I didn’t. I actually went and read about why people were upset about it. Interestingly, it had absolutely nothing to do with the point Mark Knight was trying to make. No one seemed to be upset about his claim that Serena had thrown a massive hissy fit, or that she seems to be playing with a wooden racquet that is smaller than her head, or that he’d coloured the whole court blue when the perimeter is clearly green, or that professional athletes very rarely use a dummy due the risk of choking. What was clear, however, was that many, many people were objecting to the way he had drawn Serena, and, perhaps even more so, the way he had drawn the other player in the cartoon, Naomi Osaka.

Serena was hard to miss. Not only is she the subject of the cartoon, but Mark had depicted her as a ridiculously large woman, with huge arms, huge hair, huge face, huge mouth, and huuuuuuge bum. I mean, the size of her bum is something to behold, assuming you could even find enough hands to hold it. It looks to be six times as wide as her racquet, which would make it around four and a half metres across, and happens to be the same length as my car. Haha… Serena big!

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. “But, but… it’s a caricature! And she is a large woman!”. Let’s park that for a second.

There is a second player in the cartoon, being Serena’s opponent, Naomi Osaka. In contrast to Serena, Naomi is depicted as a small, svelte, white woman with a blonde ponytail. This must obviously be a caricature, because that’s what Mark did to Serena, so in real life I guess Naomi must be less skinny, less blonde, and have fewer ponytails. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that Naomi is actually of Haitian-Japanese descent, has dark skin, dark hair, is 5cm taller than Serena, and weighs only 1kg less. And has exactly one ponytail. Interesting.

But back to Serena. Why was everyone upset about his depiction of Serena? Two seconds on Google was all I needed. He had basically drawn her in the same way as 19th and 20th century cartoonists who openly admitted they were racist.

At that point one might have hoped that either Mark or his publisher would take all the feedback on board and issue some kind of explanation. Something along the lines of “Look, I didn’t realise at the time, but I can see now that my cartoon is offensive to people of colour”. But no, of course what we had as a doubling-down on the next day’s front page, with cries of political correctness, and dire warnings of the demise of free speech. Which, when added together and yelled by the same person, invariably means they just want the right to be a massive ärsehole.

So far, so predictable.

But it shouldn’t be. And to make things easier for people like Mark Knight, I’ve prepared this handy guide, The Official Good Bad Asinine Guide to What to Do When You’ve Drawn a Cräp Cartoon That Lacks Cleverness and Isn’t At All Funny and Lots of People Get Upset Because It’s Pretty Racist. Enjoy.

The Official Good Bad Asinine Guide to What to Do When You’ve Drawn a Cräp Cartoon That Lacks Cleverness and Isn’t At All Funny and Lots of People Get Upset Because It’s Pretty Racist

1
If you want to make a point about someone having a hissy fit, and you’re able to make the point without drawing them with a 4.5m butt, then you should do that.

2
The people with the most insight into whether something is offensive are generally not the people doing the offending.

3
If someone explains to you why something you did was racist, complaining about political correctness just makes you more racist.

4
There’s no shame in admitting you’re wrong. But there is plenty of shame in being racist.

Hope that helps!

It’s Okay To Be (Far) Right

scott-morrison

I accidentally support far right causes all the time. Just the other day, I saw a friend of mine beating a black person across the road and I raised my hand to admonish him for his political incorrectness but, would you believe it, I forgot to actually wave it around and it ended up looking like a Nazi salute. And then there was a few weeks ago when I was walking through the city and, abstractedly whilst thinking of this and that, as you do, I suddenly realised that I had accidentally scrawled the Neo-Nazi ’88’ on every flat surface I had passed. I, of course, had been contemplating on infinity, but because of the curvature of the earth and parallax error I’d done my infinity signs sideways. And only yesterday I was teaching one of my students when she asked me if the holocaust was wrong and, being distracted by the sheer volume of non-white people passing up and down the street, I misspoke and said ‘no’. Could have happened to anyone. These little errors are so normal and natural, and I can only thank my weirdly Middle Eastern white male god that nobody with cameras was around, as that’s the kind of thing that can end careers and ruin lives for no reason at all in this PC gone mad kind of world.

And this is why I deeply sympathise with the senate amidst the spurious media beat up of their accidental support of a Pauline Hanson motion using a far right white supremacist slogan. How could these people, people whose business, by the way, is politics, have known that such a motion might have been racist? How could anyone have divined that a motion passed by one of the senate’s most eloquent and statesmanlike senators of sanity might be located at the gibbering and drooling extreme end of the far right? I mean, really, who could have known this?

This is just another of those unfortunate accidents. The government, worried that their crazy Christian fundamentalist pick for PM might not be far right enough for the far right silent majority we hear so much from, were innocently dipping their toes into the cesspit of race politics when they suddenly found that their hard right faction’s views on race and politics were not as popular as they thought they might be. Now some cynics might point out that these people have been consistently wrong, and some might even utter the libellous opinion that the conservative faction of the Liberals is a miscellaneous grab bag of bigoted lunatics, but they would be wrong. This is exactly the kind of innocent mistake anyone could make.

So we have a decision to make some time next year. Do we support these hard working warriors for the cause of the much marginalised middle class white male, or do we give in to the leftist extremists and let spurious considerations like slavish devotion to unrepresentative views on religion, a laudable but innocent tendency to discriminate along the lines of race, sexuality, and religion, and the natural and inevitable state of being bought and sold by their large corporate donors – are we going to let little things like this get between us and the kind of good government we used to get in the 1950s?

Well, I guess that’s up to you.

 

Religious Protections? How Astonishing!

scott-morrison

It’s generally a good rule that you can determine what’s important to a country by observing what its government or laws protect. Of course, in the case of Australia, the phrase ‘unrepresentative swill’ has a curious persistence in the public mind, possibly created by the fact that we are, in fact, governed by unrepresentative swill. Just as cream rises to the top, so too does scum, and generally in unregarded places – the dark corners and byways of our great nation where we can’t be bothered to go. It’s worth thinking about how we actually got our current crop of leaders. It would seem that the main ways would be through the kinds of community networks churches are so good at (more of which in another post), and through the internal mechanisms of the two major parties and their feeders, being the union movement and big business/big Jesus respectively. So for Australia, what needs to be said is that you can tell what the government, without reference to the people, cares about by observing what it’s most willing to protect by law.

Back in the heady days of the Same Sex Marriage Don’t Call It Marriage Equality Debacle And Signal Failure Of Parliamentary Responsibility, which I call ‘The Coward’s Plebiscite’ for short, many questions were raised, some by this author, as to whose job it actually was to make laws. Now this is quite a basic question, and it was quite tricky to expand the answer – parliament – into a six hundred word post. I did this mainly by impugning the character, tolerance, and courage of our fearless leaders, being hesitant to address that which is much more difficult to determine, i.e., what they were actually thinking. In the light of hindsight, and with our nation’s new First Creationist, I mean, Prime Minister, having emerged from his gratuitous bloodbath to set his policy agenda, it has, in fact, become a bit easier to determine what it is this particularly trollish coterie known politely as ‘the conservative faction’ were actually thinking. Basically, our first impression was correct. So unwilling were they to institute equal civil rights for homosexuals, they followed a template from their favourite bedside book and did a Pontius Pilate. Washing their hands of the responsibility, they devolved the power of execution onto the mob hoping, I’m now absolutely certain, that the mob would be nasty and vote to crucify the progressive movement. The fact that they were so emphatically wrong still keeps me warm on cold nights with the memory of the time I fell even more deeply in love with my country.

But that’s all ancient history in the rough and tumble of politics, right? Well, not exactly, as it leads me back to my original point that you can tell what a government thinks is important by looking at what it’s willing to protect with legislation. The review on religious protections, commissioned by Turnbull as he bravely ran away from yet another of his political principles, has reported. The government is now getting ready to implement its recommendations, and all of this is going very smoothly. The report’s still secret (not officially, just in a ‘not yet released’ way), but even the Jesuits on the panel are saying that it’s just a matter of putting ‘some small tweaks’ into existing anti-discrimination laws. I really don’t have a problem with this. Religious freedom is key, and is the very principle which allows me to say that Scott Morrison’s religion is only separated in craziness from Scientology by its age and pedigree. But the problematic part is what it tells us about the nature of this government.

Basically, this Liberal government was so unwilling to make laws protecting the equal civil rights of people outside their own template of normal that they spent twenty million dollars of our money taking a punt on the Australian public being as ungenerous and backward as themselves. Simultaneously, they’re so willing to protect their own atavistic, myth-loving kind, that they’re announcing legislation to do so, almost as a first action after the chaos of their own utterly self inflicted wounding. So it’s pretty clear that religion is the most important thing to these people. I would hazard a guess and say that this is simply not the case for the majority of Australians, but I don’t have to thanks to the census. Which leads me back to the idea of ‘unrepresentative swill’. Worth thinking about, if you live in Wentworth or, if you don’t, as a thought to save up for whenever God tells our PM to call an election.

Jordan Peterson – The World’s Most Popular Halfwit

jordan peterson

I know I’m going to cop a lot of flack for this one. Jordan Peterson is much loved as an inspirational figure, a voice of reason and morality in a crazy world of hyper-liberal relativism, a light in the darkness of a post-feminist, post-structural, post-everything-good world. The thing is, I get it. I have no intention of hitting the same old tired tropes of most Peterson critics – his unintelligible Jung and Hegel derived flights of rhetoric, the fact of his worldview being actually and technically fascist, his apparent (but almost certainly nonexistent) misogyny, his rarely acknowledged political funding sources, his severe logical deficits and habit of eliding definition resistant generalities into chains of reasoning which are invalid in all possible universes. None of these things really matter when it comes to him or his followers because nobody who is actually a philosopher can accept him as one, and nobody, therefore, who thinks of him as one, tends to forensically examine his arguments, such as they are. In the same way that the Sermon on the Mount, taken from a certain point of view, doesn’t make a lick of sense, Peterson’s pronouncements are not, as far as I can tell, valued because they make sense or are specific, but because they don’t and are not.

What Peterson is primarily selling is a feeling. It’s very easy when looking out at the world, especially if one’s lens on that world is the internet, to get the feeling that masculinity is, in fact, in crisis. An entire generation weeping over puppy dogs and irrelevant causes, drowning in political correctness, and in headlong flight from tried and tested values like masculine pride, personal responsibility, and freedom of speech. Peterson’s clear and apparently sincere indignation at these regressive tendencies has an appeal which is very easy to understand, and his habit of reducing the solutions to these problems to simple, self-help style commandments makes for compelling stuff. Follow the twelve simple rules, and you can immediately cast yourself as a warrior for freedom, an island of sanity in an insane world. And when it comes to things like taking personal responsibility for one’s failings and actions, keeping one’s space and oneself neat and tidy as a nod to both universal order and self respect, parsing all politics through an aggressive dialectic and forensic lens, I find myself in complete agreement with the man. All of these things are vitally important. As important as it is to be proud of one’s manhood, in whatever form it is expressed, to set boundaries and draw lines around tolerance, to avoid at all costs pandering to pity and outrage merchants, or to the blind knee-jerk advocacy of partisan causes. I more than agree with all this stuff. In fact, I actively proselytise it. The problem with Peterson does not lie in this side of things in which, as a clinical psych, we’d sort of expect him to be rock solid. Where there is a massive problem is in the elision of this very sensible thinking with a world view which is not just parochially narrow, but actually crazy.

It should be freely acknowledged that the regressive left is a problem. In the rarefied atmosphere of some university campuses, and in quite a bit of the feminist and LGBTQI press, a certain kind of victim rage insanity festers and spits at the rest of the world and, because media largely trades in emotions like outrage and shock, gets wildly disproportionate and unrepresentative airplay. It should also be acknowledged that Canadian universities seem to have a particularly bad time with these idiots, with faculty losing their jobs on political grounds, blatant propagandising, and the espousal of frankly loopy positions. I would point out, though, that Peterson’s own dismissal appears to have been the simple result of a refusal to follow a reasonable instruction from his employer. But that’s by the by – and highly arguable – my point here is that when we look at the environment from which he’s come, it’s very easy to identify the dragon which he wishes to slay. But Canadian higher education – Canada in general, to be brutally honest – is not even close to being the whole world. What we see from Peterson, however, is a classic narrative of threat which seems to be predicated on the opposite assumption. It never ceases to amaze me how people who can be cynical about the manufactured threat narratives of global terrorism, Macarthyism, AI alarmism, and so on, can so utterly fail to see that the exact same methodology is at work in Peterson’s message.

Let’s take a look at some of his more classic statements in order to explain what I mean here. “For thirty years now, nobody – at least nobody who is on their side – has been talking to kids about responsibility.” What in the name of sanity does this statement actually mean? Parse it as closely as possible, sieve it for nuance, make all possible allowances, and all we can really get from this statement is that the world is going to pot because this new generation hasn’t been brought up properly. Leaving aside problems such as the appallingly invalid assumption that every young person across the globe is in the same boat, or the galling refusal of the speaker to provide even a working definition of ‘responsibility’, it should be pretty obvious to anyone not blinded by love or ‘me-too-ism’ that this is a sentiment (and I use that word advisedly) which can be found in the writings of cranky old men from 2000BCE to the present day. Or let’s take this doozy: “Medical science isn’t about welfare, it’s about science.” Well, yes, if you’re willing to suspend the three seconds of thought it takes to arrive at the conclusion that medical science is, in fact, one branch of the entire medical endeavour which, for the entirety of civilisation, has been about the welfare of individuals and groups, among other things. Or the nanosecond of thought required to understand that something as huge as all of medical science cannot possibly be summed up in a fortune cookie bon mot. But that’s the thing with Peterson. It’s not about logic, or fine points like parsing the actual meanings of statements. No, what it’s about is furious and indignant agreement – an extrapolation of personal responses to our own ant’s-eye views of the world into global positions predicated on the basis of ‘stuff was better when I was a kid’ and ‘I’m disturbed by what I’m seeing’.

I honestly think that the vast majority of Peterson supporters are intelligent, decent people. I also suspect that almost all of them engage with his actual content at the same level most people do with the law. They think it’s a very good thing, will fight vigorously to defend it, and, for the vast majority, have never actually read a word of it. I read the pieces which attack Peterson, and by no means are all of these from the left wing press. The majority of articles I’ve read have been from faculties of philosophy, political science, and, weirdly, international relations. They come from a broad spectrum of people from left and right of centre (I’m sorry – I really can’t be bothered with the extreme ends of the spectrum, so don’t know what they have to say about him) – and uniformly express utter disbelief at just how childishly simple it is to spot that his entire body of work is deeply irrational and founded on reasoning so invalid it isn’t actually reasoning. And that’s the biggest problem – Peterson’s framework does not stand up to even the most cursory rational examination, sure, but for as long as he so effectively touches the right emotional chords in his audience, they’re never going to subject him to it. And given that he seems to be genuinely half-witted enough to believe that his ramblings are actually cogent chains of ratiocination, he’s going to be imbued with the kind of Messianic sincerity which practically guarantees this result indefinitely.

Scott Morrison’s ‘Upbeat’ Church

Australia is under threat from extreme ideologies. The creeping influence of these vile theologies has penetrated our civil society, soured our political discourse, and impacted every level of our nation, right up to its highest office. I am talking, of course, about Christianity.

There has been some recent and very polite attention drawn to the church of our new Prime Minister, Horizon Church, particularly in the SMH, wherein can be found an extremely soft soap profile of their high priest or pastor or god whisperer, or whatever they call themselves. In this article which, the more I read it, the more it looks like a masterful exercise in misdirection, senior Jesus Wrangler Brad Bonhomme is asked a series of searching questions about his energy levels and the fact that he is not a member of the Liberal Party. Or, at least, that is the only inference which can be drawn from the content of the article. He describes his church as ‘upbeat’, and then spends a long time being utterly irrelevant in a beguiling way by explaining that he has no input on the Liberal Party’s policy direction. Which is one of those truths which is actually a lie. But nowhere is there any exploration of what a Pentecostal church actually believes.

The Pentecostal churches and I are old adversaries. I have always contended that they are a cancer on society, exploiting the poor and vulnerable, openly operating for profit, hiding toxic and hateful beliefs beneath their manic smiles and doing all of this, of course, not only without paying any taxes, but with a fair amount of government money and, around election time, courtship. It’s probably enough to say that among the council of churches of which Horizon is a part is that cankerous boil on the backside of religion known as Hillsong, but I feel it’s important to go where the SMH either didn’t dare or think to tread, and provide answers to some actually important questions about the church.

It’s telling that it takes four clicks to get to their doctrinal basis. For those not as intimately familiar with religious doublespeak as this Catholic educated author, I should explain that the doctrinal basis is like a theological constitution. It describes core and broad beliefs, but like a constitution, limits itself to those which are fundamental and non-negotiable. Basically, it’s a useful document because it’s a valid assumption that all members of this church either believe, or say they believe, the stuff on the list. And as far as this list is concerned, it’s actually quite worrying stuff. The preamble uses the phrase ‘inspired Word of God’ in describing the bible. This is usually code for ‘I’m a fundamentalist nut job’, but not always. You’ll find a similar phrase in the Baptist doctrine, for example, but Baptists are generally free to interpret the bible in their own way. But not in this case. The phrase appears multiple times with the addition of words like ‘direct’, ‘sufficient’, and ‘accurate’. Basically, the Pentecostal churches are biblical literalists.

What this means is that we have a Prime Minister who believes that the world was literally crafted and made by God, that humanity was literally created by God from the clays of the earth, that Moses literally received the law in tablet form on Mount Sinai, and that every word of the books of the law should be followed. If you click through their bible reading plan, you’ll find that the first reading is Leviticus, that famous book of laws about stoning gay people and people who wear clothes of different fabrics. Now you might think I’m overstating this, but click through to the doctrine and scroll down to the end, past the bit about getting the world ready for the second coming, and the one about believing that sinners burn in hell for all eternity, and you’ll see that there’s a simple, clear statement of belief in creationism.

Now, I should point out that we live in a pluralistic society. I firmly believe that everyone has the absolute right to believe whatever crazy garbage floats their boat, whether it be Ickean lizard monarchs, gay frogs, or immortal Jews with revolutionary tendencies. But I also think it’s important to be aware of just who the crazy people are. Given the last census, it’s worrying to see just how unrepresentative the Parliament generally is when it comes to religion. Fraser Anning: Evangelical. Mike Baird: Fundamentalist. Tony Abbott: Catholic. Cory Bernardi: Catholic. Scott Morrison: Happy Clappy Tongues Speaking Lunatic. And these aren’t just vague religious affiliations – they’re forward deployed, staunchly held positions. Morrison himself has been quoted as saying that faith informs everything he does. So no wonder he doesn’t like climate change scientists. The man has apparently got a B.Sci himself, though I have no idea what kind of insanity is required to reconcile that with creationism in this day and age. But what I mostly wonder is, if faith does inform everything he does, then what steps will he be taking to prepare us for the Millennial reign of Christ at the End of Days, as his church instructs him is necessary? And what steps do we think he’ll take to try and save all Australians from the eternal hellfire?

The biggest question, though, is this: Should we accept a Prime Minister who has beliefs incompatible with basic sanity?

I say no.

Orwell Would Have Hated You, Stupid. And Me Too.

When Orwell died, he left clear instructions that his notes and papers be destroyed. It’s typical of the way the world has always treated him that I’ve read them all for the simple reason that his dying wishes were ignored, and all his essays, letters, and short manuscripts are now available in an annotated Penguin collection, a format, by the way, which he would have despised.

There’s quite a lot of debate about Orwell’s politics, all against a near constant background hum of his words and works being co-opted in support of everything from Chinese Communist Party propaganda to libertarian arguments against regulation. As with most figures in history, in order to understand his politics it’s probably beneficial to know a little something about the man himself. Everybody will have read the Penguin bio, so would know that he was born Eric Arthur Blair, that his father was an official of the British Empire, and that he therefore went to Eton on a scholarship, but I’d hazard a guess that that’s generally as far as it goes.

Orwell was a man tortured by class. This can be very clearly seen in multiple works. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a semi-autobiographical account of a starving writer caught between his parlour communist posh friends and actual working class folk who despise him, there is a telling quote. The protagonist has a financial windfall and goes on a champagne-fuelled binge. Somewhere in the middle of this, he catches a sort of pitying look from one of his posh mates and reflects on his own mendacity, thinking that “…the rich take their pleasures gracefully…”, and seeing his own feverish, poverty-driven excesses as ridiculous aping of his ‘betters’. In Wigan PierSuch, Such Were the Joys, and even when disguised as a tramp and meandering from Spike to Spike in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell is plagued by a sense of his class, the idea of being a ‘gentleman’, and the fact he has not the money to sustain this position. He hates the charity of his friends, the shame he feels in his own poverty, and the system which, to his mind, debars him from simply and permanently becoming a navvy or dustman. In fact, the only time he doesn’t seem hagridden by the constraints of his social status is during that passage of Down and Out where he is living as a dishwasher, or plongeur, in Paris.

It’s during this period that we get to see another side of the man. The bulk of this passage of writing, which I would highly recommend as incisive social history, has to do with food, not having enough, and the trials and tribulations involved in trying to keep fed. Orwell was so hard up he recounts waiting five days for a cheque to clear before he can eat, stating that his sole refuges were tobacco, without which “life would not have been tolerable”, and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, which were all he was “capable” of reading. In the context of being this hungry, he lists a series of disasters which can befall a poor man. Queuing for five centimes worth of bread, the girl clumsily over-cuts the loaf for the customer before him, saying, “You don’t care about a couple of sous extra, no?”. This causes Orwell to walk shamefacedly away, as should the same thing happen to him, he has not even a sou to cover it, going without bread as much because of his shame at his poverty as the poverty itself. Or another time, starving in a garret, he is boiling milk and potatoes in a spirit stove when an insect of some kind falls into the pot. He recounts, as a matter of course, that the whole meal must then be thrown away. But even in the midst of all this we see a keen spirit of observation reminiscent of the Enlightenment novelists and thinkers who were among his literary heroes. He notes that a man’s description of what bread tastes like to a starving man (thick, wet, doughy) is accurate. He records faithfully a typical example of tenement gossip, involving a miserly eccentric suspected of being a paedophile, and a shipment of cocaine (nothing changes). He notes with the care of an eighteenth century naturalist the lassitude, sensory changes, changes in mood, in texture of spittle, associated with both starvation and extreme fatigue. He records in full the alcoholic boasting of a teenager claiming to have raped a virgin newly installed in a brothel. Orwell is that very rare type of observer who is fastidious and methodical enough to make observations of value, and willing and able to become intimately familiar with the dregs of life.

And here, I think, is the key to understanding where Orwell stood. He stood alone. If there was a tide making, he would almost certainly swim against it. He has been described as a “perpetual political misfit”, and this is true. We can see it in his essays where he excoriates right wing patriots and revolutionary communists alike, where he agonises over whether or not to support his country’s war effort, rails at Auden for his use of the phrase “necessary murder”, accuses Dickens of childish parochialism while praising his imagination and social activism to the skies, staunchly defends English cooking, English murder mysteries over American, and rails passionately against the existence of the compound word ‘onto’. And we can see it in his journalism, his unflinching and strangely unsympathetic accounts of the very poor, his furious frustration with Spanish anarcho-communists, parlour socialists, his doubt of the veracity of his own socialism, and his frank disgust at the smug self-satisfaction of his friends and supporters on the left. And we especially see it in his literature. Animal Farm, amongst other things, is much more a tale of ideologues enforcing their own particular vision of the state without reference to the people than it is anything else. And as for 1984, only a fool or a teenager would allow themselves to be distracted by all the quaint futurism and buzzwords like “newspeak”, and thereby miss the central point of that work, which is despair. Despair at the limitations of the proletariat, at the cowardly conformist mendacity of humankind, of any possibility of human redemption or perfectibility. Two plus two equals five not just because the state says so, but because the people will grant this and anything else besides, merely in order to feel safe and fill their bellies. To be relieved of the burden of actually having to think about anything.

While it’s not possible to sum up a human in a single sentence, it is possible to say a true thing about them, and the true thing in Orwell’s case is that he was uncompromisingly rational. He hated all forms of mob enthusiasm, all manifestations of blind and mindless party allegiance. He prized self examination above all things, and was contemptuous of anyone either unwilling or unable to think past their own feelings. And this is why a libertarian co-opting his arguments against totalitarian control in support of deregulation is basically the equivalent to pissing on his memory. The whole attitude of ‘my ideology right or wrong’ was deeply invidious to him, as was the kind of obtuseness capable of blurring the distinctions surrounding his own arguments. And as for communists and ersatz socialists repeatedly and determinedly missing the point of his calls for revolution, the same applies. And as for me, I think he would have been deeply annoyed by my faith in the military, my tolerance for homosexuals and Catholicism, my cowardice in choosing to feed myself by teaching the children of the rich. And he would have been seriously unhappy about the fact that I read all his letters. So I don’t quote him in support of my ideas as I’m very well aware that he would not have liked me. And nor would he have had a single second for the unreflective armchair activists and keyboard warriors who spew out what passes for political discourse today.

 

Is he allowed to Izzy Folau?

So apparently some guy who is good at handling balls and rolling around on the ground with other guys told some guy that any guys who handle balls and roll around on the ground with other guys will spend an eternity with all the other guys who handle balls and roll around on the ground with other guys unless they stop handling balls and rolling around with other guys. The original guy was of course Israel Folau, who started life as Palestine Folau, until his mother realised that name wasn’t as marketable. And the guys who roll around with other guys are of course the gays (and definitely not rugby players), and the place where they go to roll around with other guys is of course HELL (and definitely not a club on Oxford St).

If that all sounds like a bit of a mouthful, I will refer you to the words of young Izzy himself, who is probably also a bit of a mouthful, but only for women because that shït will send you to hell. To wit, when asked on what appears to be an express cocaine delivery service called Instagram what God’s plan is for gay people, young Izzy replied that God’s plan for gay people is:

“HELL – unless they repent their sins and turn to God”.

Needless to say, this caused quite the kerfuffle. No one likes to be told they are going to hell – oh, sorry, I mean HELL – just for being who they are. Well, that’s not quite true. Personally, I couldn’t give a cräp if young Izzy told me I was going to HELL. I guess it helps that I’m heterosexual, so god obviously loves the cräp out of me. Not literally though, cos that shït will send you to HELL. On the other hand, I am an atheist, so god hates me just as much as the gays. Maybe even more. But on the plus side, he doesn’t exist, so I’m in the clear, along with all the gay people, which is nice.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Isn’t he free to decide what belongs in his own personal sin bin? Why should I care if some random rugby player decides to tackle an issue on an express cocaine delivery service called Instagram? Does he deserve to be publicly mauled, or should we let his views pass by without comment? Should he be penalised for his views, or would that amount to religious persecution? Izzy just a ruckwit? And finally, should I ask any more questions, or should you all go back and appreciate all the rugby puns I just made?

Given the furore young Izzy’s comments have generated, you would be forgiven for thinking that these are difficult questions to answer. Like, “Why is there no light in the freezer?”, or “Why doesn’t my iron have an off switch?”. Thankfully, however, Good Bad Asinine is here to navigate through the confusion. So here we go.

Isn’t he free to decide what belongs in his own personal sin bin?
Oooh good, an easy one to start with. Yes, of course he is free to do that. He is also free to advise us of his thoughts on deconstructed coffee, and whether Han shot first.

However, his views on the gays are… interesting… once you realise two things.

Firstly, the bible being what it is, it’s actually very easy to construct an argument that says gays won’t go to HELL. And a great many Christians have done just that.

Secondly, as a work of moral guidance, the bible’s authors have covered themselves in something, but it certainly isn’t glory. Just look at my favourite bible verse, Deuteronomy 22:10:

You must not plough with a donkey and an ox yoked together.

Yes, Izzy, the Great Book that gave you “GAYS GO TO HELL” also felt it necessary to issue advice on bi-species land management practices. And OK sure, maybe you can waive that away as a bit of silliness. A Biblical version of Jar Jar Binks, if you will. But how about Deuteronomy 25:11-12:

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.

Apart from being very interested in why this was such a common occurrence as to warrant its very own rule, one also has to wonder whether cherry-picking the bible really is the best way to decide what’s right and wrong, especially in a sport that regularly features men reaching out and seizing other men by their private parts (the imaginatively named and much feared squirrel grip).

So yes, as silly as his view is, Izzy is free to decide what belongs in his own personal sin bin. Whether we should actually care what some random rugby player thinks, however, is another matter…

Why should I care if some random rugby player decides to tackle an issue on an express cocaine delivery service called Instagram?
Oooh nice segue! And another easy one… two words – frikken empathy.

As a heterosexual atheist, it’s extraordinarily easy for me to say I don’t care if some narrow minded biblical literalist publicly states what I already know narrow minded biblical literalists to believe. An eternity of suffering for being mutually attracted to the people that some imaginary being made you attracted to? Pull the other one, mate (just don’t pull it too often… that shït will send you to HELL). But, thankfully, not everyone is the same as me, and I’m not stupid or insensitive enough to expect that if something doesn’t upset me, then it shouldn’t upset anyone.

Whether he should be publicly mailed, however, is another matter…

Does he deserve to be publicly mauled, or should we let his views pass by without comment?
OMG… these segues are amazing!

Well, on the face of it, it may seem like young Izzy doesn’t “deserve” to be singled out for expressing a view that is as old as it is tedious. And let’s face it, a throwaway comment on an otherwise unremarkable Instagram post isn’t exactly the same as using your post-match press conference to call for a return to (Biblically-mandated) public stonings. There is a problem here, however.

You know who else Izzy believes should go to HELL? Murderers, that’s who. And rapists, obviously. Not to mention adulterers, pedophiles, thieves, liars, blasphemers, Muslims and atheists. This list is not exhaustive, of course, but it does illustrate my point quite nicely. Young Izzy believes that two people in a loving, consensual homosexual relationship are on the same moral level as a murdering rapist who lied about how much goddamn shït he stole by hiding it in his underage mistress’ burqa. Looking at it that way, it’s not a stretch to suggest that young Izzy might like a return to the good ol’ days, when instead of wasting millions of dollars deciding if gay people could marry, we just locked them up instead.

And that, my friends, is why we need to call young Izzy’s comments out for what they are. And what they are is pretty cräp. Whether he should be penalised, however, is another matter…

Should he be penalised for his views, or would that amount to religious persecution?
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking, “Get to the point, you muppet”. Which is basically another way of saying, “You’re so right, Tim… but what, if anything, should we actually do about it?”.

On the face of it, this seems like a tricky question to answer. His comment was odiously stupid, of course, but people do odiously stupid things all the time, and we just let them glide on by without so much as a nipple cripple. Golfers, for example. And Camry drivers. So why are so many people calling for Izzy to be sacked from the Wallabies, but not Warren, who drives his Camry to Riverside Oaks every frikken day of the week?

Well, for starters, Warren is too slow and uncoordinated for the Wallabies (that’s why he’s playing golf). But more than that, Warren doesn’t have a legion of adoring fans, who look to him for guidance and inspiration. Warren doesn’t have thousands of children show up each week to watch him showcase his skills. Warren doesn’t walk around after the game, surrounded by people asking him to sign their “WARREN” jerseys. And, let’s face it, no one has posters of Warren on their bedroom wall.

You know who does, though? Israel Folau. Well, he doesn’t have a Warren poster on his wall, but you know what I mean.

Like it or lump it, young Izzy has a lot of fans. And some of those fans will be young, and either openly gay, or struggling with their sexuality. For those fans, Izzy’s comments aren’t just little bit of odious stupidity. They are yet another reminder that the bullying they endure at school doesn’t end when they leave, and that there will always be people who treat them as second class citizens. Even some of their heroes. And all for the apparently awful crime of just being themselves.

And so, from the ARU’s point of view, the question isn’t so much why he should be penalised, but how. And if young Izzy doesn’t like it, he is welcome to play rugby in Uganda, where I’m sure his views will be welcome.

Is he just a ruckwit?
Despite the above, I’m sure young Izzy is an otherwise lovely young man, so the answer to this is, probably not. I just really wanted to say “ruckwit”.

Should you all go back and appreciate all the rugby puns I just made?
Definitely!

Otherwise, feel free to go to HELL. 🙂

Syria, Great Power Games, And Cost

It is unfortunately necessary to view situations like the one in Syria in terms of some sort of grand game. This is because, for those most accustomed to having and dealing in it, power is a kind of marketplace which, at the lower end of the purchasing power spectrum, needs must be bought with blood, force, and terror. Because of this, to speak coherently about great power movements, grand strategy, tactics, and geopolitics, it’s necessary to talk in terms of ‘phases’, ‘gambits’, ‘resources’, and ‘collateral’. I suppose it’s the greatest injustice of human history that greatness exists in inverse proportion to simple human morality.

I want to break down the most recent chain of events in Syria. Also, spoiler alert, I’m going to argue that nothing very much has or is likely to change (always allowing, though, for the randomness of The Trump Effect). But before I do this, I want you to look at this picture.

Photo: Erbin News/NurPhoto (Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images) 

This is a photo of a row of dead children, killed in an alleged chemical attack. There are no obvious signs of chemical burns, but this isn’t necessarily conclusive. Children are lower to the ground, and when oxygen is evacuated by heavier than air gases, they tend to suffocate and drop before adults do. There’s also the fact that children are not as resilient, or as large as adults. This being the case, levels of exposure to toxic gases too low to cause burns can infiltrate their bloodstream via soft and mucosal tissue, which is burnt and blistered in the process, causing multiple organ failure, seizures, agonising pain, and other fatal but often externally invisible damage. I’d like to point out two things. Firstly, this photo is from Ghouta in 2013 – the conflict in Syria is such that I can reach back half a decade and find an image of mass child casualties. And secondly, during all the ensuing discussion about ‘the game’, it should definitely be remembered that the currency in this ‘game’ is pictured above.

One of the big questions about the Syrian conflict is whether it’s moving into either a terminal or normalising phase. Put simply, opinion seems to be split between analysts who think that we are moving into a sort of endgame, and those who believe that the tempo of conflict is settling into a permanently sustainable condition. It’s unsurprising that there’s such a wide range of opinions on this subject. There’s just too many variables. The situation on the ground, even with IS and major rebel groups steadily folding up their positions, is still mind-bendingly complex. And the more splinters and fragments get rolled up, the greater the consolidation of action from the great powers using Syria as a proxy ground, and therefore the greater the level of uncertainty. At the moment, Russia, the US and allies, Turkey (nominally but not demonstrably a US ally), Iran, and Israel all have visible assets in the field vying for national interest, national security, and national prestige. For this reason, it is no longer possible to understand the situation in terms of simple binarism. The combined interests and commitments of all the players have melded into a kind of hostility soup, lending the conflict a sort of independent agency all its own, and putting us all in a realm where the conflict itself could generate significant outcomes independent of deliberate actions of any of the players.

In this environment, then, it’s pretty easy to justify spectacular reaction to actual deliberate action on the part of the Syrian regime. It’s important to point out that it’s not certain that a chemical attack has been carried out, or that it was carried out by the Assad regime. What is certain, however, is that the Assads, both father and son, have used chemical warfare, helicopter gunships, and extra-judicial torture and murder to combat minor dissidence in the past. It is therefore reasonable to assume that they would be and have been willing to use all these means and more in the current conflict which, shorn of the protecting hand of Russia, would represent an existential threat to the Assad regime. It’s also certain that Russian media and state (often indistinguishable from each other) lie with the facility and brazenness of decades of practice. So despite the lack of conclusive evidence, I am going to proceed on the assumption that the Syrian government has gassed its own people. Again.

Given this, a certain chain of events is practically inevitable. ‘Red Line’ policy is the issue here, and Trump has made it very clear that he does not consider it notional or aspirational. A confirmed chemical attack will generate a military response, and has done in the past. Or rather, I should say that a confirmed chemical attack which garners sufficient public attention will do so. Quite a few reports of chemical attacks have gone unaddressed, largely because they haven’t been reported outside local media. In this context, there are quite a few unfortunate factors at play here. Firstly, it’s very difficult not to see a connection between Trump’s random and unbelievably stupid decision to announce his intention to pull out of Syria, and the subsequent attack. It’s actually worth considering that, in spite of all the rhetoric, it’s very possible that Assad can see real disadvantages to the withdrawal of US power from the region. This is counter-intuitive, sure, but the fact is that an entire theatre of the war is tied up and held down by US forces and their proxies and allies, and if the US were to pull out, the resultant chaos might overwhelm his already beleaguered grip on his territories, even with his Russian allies present. I’m pretty certain that Assad is now in the same position as everyone else – more or less locked into a standoff which needs must be drawn down gradually if it is not to entirely subsume one or more of the state actors involved.

Add to this the almost certainly Israeli strike the day after. Israel has conducted strikes against this airbase before, arguing that it is a training and supply base for Hezbollah militants (which is possible to probable). Unfortunately, Israel rarely acknowledges strikes in Syria, and currently has a host of problems of its own. There is the horrible possibility that Israel has been greenlighted as some kind of proxy for the US in this strike, but there are some levels of stupidity which I doubt even the Trump administration is capable of. Regardless, Trump will almost certainly receive a package of measured, proportionate responses from Mattis, and will then pick and play one. Just like last time. And then the whole dreary business will go on, forever and ever, amen.

Or perhaps it might not. Perhaps the erratic and chaotic nature of both the conflict and its major players will assert itself into a full blown war regardless of the frustrating, but arguably world-saving structure of the UNSC. Or perhaps an actually decisive response on the part of the West might finally emerge as a result of there being just one too many pictures of dead children laid out in rows in the street. I doubt it, though – the game is such that the safest option for us by far is to just keep playing.

China – Paper Tiger or Hidden Dragon?

In the lead up to the Crimean war, historian and novelist George MacDonald Fraser noted that a sudden and inexplicable obsession with Russia, as feverish as it was hysterical, gripped the British public. Given that Russian and British mercantile and security interests had been colliding in Central Asia for decades, and that Russia had just made one of its more successful periodic lurches in the direction of The Black Sea, threatening a sudden shift in the global balance of power, the casus belli underlying the French and British intervention on behalf of the Ottomans was eminently rational in that an analysis of the situation reveals clear and clearly understandable reasoning. What MacDonald Fraser is pointing out is that the conflict was undertaken for reasons of high statecraft and geopolitics, but that the public, enthusiastically backing their government, simply did not understand it in those terms. Many analysts are pointing to strong parallels between nineteenth century Russia’s collision with Britain, and China’s resurgence today, and I agree. But what I see as the strongest parallel is that gulf of incomprehension which sits between the actions and decisions of government, and the sentiments of the people.

THE LANDSCAPE OF THE DISCOURSE

Trump Doomsday Scenario

Image Courtesy DeviantArt via SiberanBearOk

The fact is that there are a great many people who have a direct interest in overstating both the soft and hard power of China. This interest is not always and often not purely mercenary. The security services are a case in point. In the marketplace of access to public funding, hyperbole and fashion have as much to do with resource allocation as actual threat, and China watchers see it as their duty to beat the war drums in order to secure the funding and personnel they know are necessary to cope with China’s changing status. They have many helpers in this process. Without going into too much detail, there is a close and long standing relationship between sections of the security community and the popular mass media, and the calculated sharing of analysis and other intelligence for broadcast is an old and familiar method of influencing the political mood to help secure allocations. This kind of marketing, however well-intentioned, does have a tendency to produce less than ideal second and third order effects. The first and most obvious is polarisation of the discussion. Academics and other analysts, upon seeing this overstatement, will immediately respond by understating or dismissing the threat. This is all well within the bounds of the rules of argument, and within the upper circles of the discourse, does not tend to have the effect of creating blind spots or false beliefs. But the way that discussions like these are simplified for mass broadcast leads to the inevitable formation of polarised opinion – one set of outlets and their adherents will scream a narrative of Chinese apocalypse, while the other will swear blind that China is a peaceful nation of public benefactors and perfect institutions. Obviously, neither of these narratives can be entirely true.

I think that on some level, people are well aware of this dissonance. When viewed as either an invincible superpower or benign plucky underdog, China’s status and actions simply don’t make sense, which is why those who wish to cast it in either of those lights need to shout and obfuscate in order to do so. The attenuation of meaning and complexity of an idea travelling from specialist to non-specialist circles is to be expected, but when it comes to issues like this, I personally believe that the discourse itself is the most dangerous part of the whole picture. To that end, I feel it becomes important for everyone who is capable of so doing to push as much balanced, untainted information out into the public domain as possible. A quick search of Google analytics tells me that the most prominent topics for Australians in the China discussion are Chinese foreign investment and Chinese influence/interference.

FOREIGN INVESTMENT

There is not a little hint of the ‘yellow peril’ mentality when it comes to discussions of Chinese foreign investment. Foreign investment needs to be encouraged and should generally be seen as a positive, and the extent of Chinese investment in Australia is relatively small, and largely driven, it would seem, by individuals buying homes and other properties. Given this, however, the proportion, small as it might be, is in fact exceptional. People whose job it is to know these things wish to understand why so many Chinese are buying so much property, and this question is often asked publicly, giving rise to the public’s vague notion that ‘The Chinese’ are buying our country out from under us, when the truth is that China’s slice of the foreign investment pie is somewhere around five percent. But that’s not to say that we can simply ignore Chinese investment. Where there is real concern is in the lack of transparency in China’s state systems. Careful work needs to be done to ensure that Chinese state and corporate interests are not able to hide their investment using Trojan Horse style tactics. So far, there’s not a lot of evidence for this happening, but for those whose job it is to watch these things, this is a possibility which deserves serious attention. The issue here isn’t so much private homes or farms – Chinese ownership of these assets doesn’t really matter one way or another, from a security point of view. The Commonwealth has a duty to protect the property rights of citizens and foreign investors, certainly, but the rights of that second group can easily and very rapidly be suspended. What’s worthy of close attention is the acquisition of intellectual property as a consequence of investment in other kinds of property. As a favoured member of the US military tech circle of love, we have firewalls up around sensitive and critical industries when it comes to foreign investment, and quite a lot of the noise we’re hearing about this is focussed on reminding those in power that these walls need to be assiduously maintained in the interest not only of national security, but the status and trust in which we are held by our closest ally.

INFLUENCE PEDDLING

Much of the current concern around Chinese influence seems to centre around a book with a highly sensationalist title and blurb, but which consists, in fact, of a reasonably comprehensive shopping list of ‘facts’ sewn together with a mixture of valid analysis and typical misunderstandings of Chinese culture and practice. Academia, as always, has been less than helpful, demonstrating their usual weird inability to express anything to the public in a manner likely to correspond with their intended message. The current debate surrounding Chinese ‘suppression of free speech’, and influence in academia is, in essence, a family dispute which is being aired in public. Some academics, many of whom are in fact Chinese, are deeply concerned about the readiness with which universities and schools are snatching up funds in exchange for the establishment of CCP friendly or even affiliated friendship groups, think tanks, or other influence vectors. They also point out, with justifiable concern, that Chinese and Chinese Australian students are vulnerable to these vectors as, to the same degree which they offer support and companionship, they generally demand loyalty and advocacy. This kind of organisation has parallels with every national power’s presence in and relationship with other countries, but in the case of China, the concern is that theirs are blatant, and more than likely effective, recruitment centres for Chinese foreign intelligence assets. While this needs to be watched and controlled, it is certainly not worth panicking about. In a counter-intuitive sort of way, we sort of want our allies and trading partners, as well as our enemies, to have agents here. To a certain extent, the more they know about us, the less likely they are to act in an insane manner, and any reasonably competent security service will know enough about their presence to occasionally use them as a useful diplomatic back channel. I’m not saying we should throw open the gates and let the nosy and indiscriminately ravenous CCP intelligence arms into our house, but a reasonable and reasonably well monitored foreign presence is basically just a sign of normal relations. But I wander from the point. The point is that the current spat we are seeing played out in the media is basically a pamphlet war between academic factions which, in typical academic style, is wrangling over funding sources couched in high concept multisyllables around morality, democratic principles, and national interest, with typical academic blindness when it comes to how their messaging will be received by a public not in the habit of knowing or understanding anything in complex ways. This is not to say that China’s influence is confined to obscure Chinese student associations – the recent furore over Labor funding sources proves this isn’t the case. But I think there is a tendency to see Chinese influence as monolithic and centralised. In some cases it certainly is, but in most instances the hand of the CCP is enmeshed in subtle and complex ways, and there are also a great many ethnically Chinese influence peddlers who are not in any way aligned to the current Chinese government or its interests. As with most great power presence, the dogfighting factions of the home state are more or less reflected in the makeup of the interest groups present on foreign soil.

SUMMING UP

So is China a credible threat worthy of our attention? Yes, of course they are, but we need to remember context. Responsible strategists need to weigh the threat potential of every major player, and it’s vital that we remember that these calculations do not necessarily imply the existence of a live and current threat. What we’re most often talking about is threat in the abstract – a complicated function of potential, current capability, and intent. Does China represent the kind of threat presented by the USSR at the height of The Cold War? On all three of those metrics the answer is ‘no’. Where China is most a threat to the world is in its rapid development, expansion of influence, and frankly toxic attitude to the rule of law both domestically and internationally. The ‘rise of China’ has strategists and historians worried because the lesson of history is that rapid shifts in the balance of power cause war. But strategists and historians are generally incapable of thinking in units of time smaller than a decade, and are generally far more concerned with what can be done than with what will actually happen. This arises from a duty to inform government of potential contingency as part of the process of ensuring readiness for the maximum number of possible futures. What this does not translate to is any valid reason for thinking of China as a current urgent existential threat. As dangerous and morally repugnant as the CCP’s regime is, their interface with the international community is complex, and driven at least as much by a desire for inclusion as by the aspiration, universal amongst large nations, to dominate their region and be a major player on the world stage. This means that we need to tread a fine line. It’s very important that a player as volatile and rapidly accelerating as China be watched and managed very carefully indeed, but a frame of thinking which casts China as an immediate and implacable threat is as dangerous as it is foolish.