The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

The Safe Schools Program Part 2, or, these are not the numbers you’re looking for

One of the earliest problems I encountered during my actuarial degree was being surrounded by nerds. Oh, and also, the Birthday Problem.

There are a few different ways to formulate the problem, but at the time, it was presented to us as:

If you’re at a party, how many people need to be there for there to be a 50% chance that two guests will have the same birthday?

The first answer that might spring to mind is that, since there are 365 days in a year (well, most years), you would need about half that many people to have a 50% chance of two people having the same birthday – so, around 182 people. That is wrong. By a lot.

The correct answer is actually 23. That’s right, you only need 23 people at a party to have a 50% chance that two of the guests have the same birthday. I won’t go through the calculation, because this post is boring enough already, but it basically comes down to combinatorics. Each time someone arrives at the party, there is a chance that they have the same birthday as someone already there. Thus, the second person who arrives has lots of alcohol to choose from, but also has only one other person to compare birthdays to. By the time the 10th person arrives, however, all the good alcohol is gone, and there are nine people who could have the same birthday. In short, the higher the number of people already there, the greater the chance that the next person who arrives won’t find a drink, but will find a matching birthday.

Keep this in mind for later.

Another interesting fact is that any party where this birthday-checking thing happens has a zero percent chance of being fun. I assume I don’t need to explain that one… suffice to say we all learned a valuable lesson at our first end of exams party.

In my last post, we learned that over-stating the proportion of LGBTIQ people can make some people a little upset. The official Safe Schools Introductory Guide tells us that:

  • 10% of students are same-sex attracted;
  • 4% of students are gender diverse or trans; and
  • 1.7% of students are intersex.

Some people really hate that 10% figure. Like renowned statistical phenomenon Bill Meuhlenberg, who tells us that “the ten per cent figure has always been a big lie” and “homosexual activists have confirmed [it] to be a case of deliberate deception”. But why does it matter? Well, as Bill points out:

If the homosexual lobby is willing to use faulty statistics to support its cause, just how reliable is it in other areas?

Bill doesn’t provide an answer, but Murray Campbell has similar concerns about the proportion of intersex people. Apparently, “gauging accurate numbers for sexuality and gender is near impossible”. Even so, Safe Schools claims the proportion is around 1 in 60, while “the American Psychological Association suggests the figure to be about 1 in 1,500”. Ouch. Murray suggests that this is like “a political party taking 10 polls, publishing the one that is favourable and deleting the 9 which are less supportive”. The cynic in me says that a better analogy would be that it’s like ignoring countless free polls showing that 70% of Australians support marriage equality and asking to hold another poll that will give the same result but cost $160m and then ignoring that poll too. But the cynic in me also seems to be trying to derail my own post, so I’m going to ignore him.

In any event, Murray informs us that:

This kind of misrepresentation of facts and science straight away raises questions about the legitimacy of [the] program.


Keep this in mind for later, too.

And by later I mean now.

Apparently, much like never seeing your parents having sex, getting the proportion right is not only near impossible, but also impossibly important. Because if those LGBTIQ people can’t even tell us how many of them there are, how can we trust them enough to believe anything they tell us? They could tell us that we need to, oh I don’t know, run an anti-LGBTIQ bullying program in schools, and we might end up spending millions of dollars saving fewer people from suicide than we thought we could. Let’s be honest, no one wants that.

But if we can’t trust the LGBTIQ community to give us the true state of affairs, who can we trust? Who can we turn to, to assess the legitimacy of the Safe Schools program? Happily, Bill and Murray, but definitely not Bill Murray, show us the way – if we can’t trust the people who don’t give us the true statistics, all we need to do is trust the people who do. You know, like the people who told Murray the proportion of intersex people.

The American Psychological Association.

Let’s ask them about the legitimacy of the Safe Schools program.

Tim: “Tell me, APA, do LGBTIQ people get bullied?”
APA: “Well, Tim, I’m glad you asked. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people encounter extensive prejudice, discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation.”
Tim: “Trans people have it pretty easy though eh? Just look at Caitlin. She was in a magazine!”
APA: “No Tim, many transgender people are the targets of hate crimes. They are also the victims of subtle discrimination—which includes everything from glances or glares of disapproval or discomfort to invasive questions about their body parts.”
Tim: “So what you’re telling me is that LGBTIQ people are just a bit precious?”
APA: “No, Tim. The widespread prejudice, discrimination, and violence to which LGBTIQ people are often subjected are significant mental health concerns. Sexual prejudice, sexual orientation discrimination and antigay violence are major sources of stress. Although social support is crucial in coping with stress, antigay attitudes and discrimination may make it difficult for LGBTIQ people to find such support.”
Tim: “Yeah OK, but it’s all a mental disorder anyway, isn’t it?”
APA: “No, LGBTIQ orientations are not disorders. Research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology. Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality.”
Tim: “All right, fine! But they make shït parents, and shouldn’t be allowed to have a family.”
APA: “Studies of personality, self-concept, and behavior problems show few differences between children of LGBTIQ parents and children of heterosexual parents.”

Damn you, APA, damn you to hell. I can still use your statistics on LGBTIQ incidence, though… right? Please?

Turning to the proportions themselves, there are obviously a wide range of studies that show a wide range of values. Conveniently, people like Bill and Murray, but definitely not Bill Murray, only ever manage to stumble across the studies that confirm the view they already hold. Surprise, surprise, they also like to use measures that distort the picture to suit their needs. Statistics like “only 1% of people achieved orgasm with a member of the same sex in the last year”, or “only 0.002% of people named Sarah have müff-dived with someone named Nancy”.

I can do that, too. Manipulate statistics to suit my agenda I mean, not müff-dive with Nancy. For example, a quick look at Wikipedia will tell you that:

  • A 2011 survey of 7,725 Italians found that only 77% of people identified as heterosexual;
  • A similar study in Britain in 2009 found that 9% of people identified as non-heterosexual.
  • In an update to this study in 2015, only 72% of all adults identified as totally heterosexual.

Who to believe?

In terms of the Safe Schools program itself, however, there is one aspect of the debate on which people like Bill and Murray (and probably Bill Murray) are suspiciously silent. All the studies they quote attempt to determine the proportion of LGBTIQ people in society as a whole. A society in which the vast majority of people were raised to believe that being anything other than a gender-normative heterosexual was a very, very bad idea. A society in which people might be a little reluctant to admit their sexuality and gender identity to themselves, much less to a stranger conducting a telephone survey. A society in which each generation is a little more liberal than the last. And, returning to the 2015 study above, a society in which 72% of all adults identify as totally heterosexual, but when you look at the 18-24 age bracket, only 46% do.

Which is why Safe Schools based their 10% figure on a survey of Australian secondary students by La Trobe University.

All this leads us to two very obvious, and very important, observations:

  1. More and more young people are identifying as LGBTIQ; and
  2. There are still a shïtload of people out there who are going to hate them for it.


The best part of all this talk of proportions is that it doesn’t even matter. I love it when that happens.

Because even if we accept the figures provided by people like Bill and Murray (but definitely not Bill Murray), it in no way invalidates the Safe Schools program.

If society is a party, and we are the guests, and instead of comparing birthdays, we compare our various levels of male- and femaleness, and hetero- and homosexuality, and acceptance and bigotry, there is an extraordinarily high probability that someone who is just trying to be themselves will encounter someone who wants to make them feel shït about it. And if that happens often enough, there is a very good chance that the person who is just trying to be themselves won’t want to be themselves anymore, and will think suicide is a good way to make that happen.

And it doesn’t matter if the proportion is 1 in 10, or 1 in 365. Given the number of people at the party, there’s a very good chance it will happen eventually.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a risk that’s just not worth taking.

The Safe Schools Program Part 1, or, Why Anglican ministers should study stats… stat

You may have heard recently that there has been a bit of a kerfuffle about the Safe Schools Program. For those who don’t know what that is, Google defines a kerfuffle as “a commotion or fuss, especially one caused by conflicting views”. Google also tells us that the Safe Schools Program is an initiative that aims to make life a little easier for LGBTIQ students in Australian schools. Or, in the words of the people who actually run the program, it seeks to provide:

a suite of free resources and support to equip staff and students with skills, practical ideas and greater confidence to lead positive change and be safe and inclusive for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families.

School can be a tough place, and never more so than for those who are a little different. School kids have an extraordinary gift for spotting someone who is a little different, and an almost supernatural talent for making them feel like absolute cräp for it. One country’s different is another country’s normal, but if you’re reading this and you’re Australian, you know who I’m talking about.


Also, anyone who isn’t thin, white, middle-class, or good at sports. But it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes, you even get bullied for being too good at sports. Mostly if that sport is golf. And, just to make things extra confusing, the reasons people are bullied can change over time. Terrence’s Shirley Bassey impersonation went down a treat in Kindergarten… in high school, not so much.

Haha, very funny. Right?

No. Not even a little bit.

Bullying is a scourge on our collective character, and a major, if not the biggest, contributor to youth depression and suicide. And today in Australia, one of the easiest ways to find yourself on the path to depression and suicide is to have the apparent misfortune of being gay, lesbian, transgender or intersex. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center analysed a number of studies on LGBTI suicide rates, and estimated that between 30% and 40% of LGBTIQ youth have attempted suicide. And a study by the US government found that LGBTIQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Just stop and think about that for a second. Between 30% and 40%. Four times more likely.

This stuff doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. LGBTIQ kids aren’t just mopey little whiners who need a cement pill. They’re pretty much exactly like the rest of us, except for the fact that society loves to remind them that they’re not.

Once you understand all that, the Safe Schools Program starts to make a little bit of sense.

Well, unless your name is Cory Bernardi. Or David Ould. [EDIT: David Ould is approximately 100 times better than Cory Bernardi].

Some of you may have seen the excellent 2014 SBS series called Living With the Enemy. If you didn’t see it, it was a six part series that explored “the fault lines of social cohesion in Australia”, with each episode exploring “a different topic dividing Australian opinion by asking people to live with others whose lifestyles and beliefs directly contradict their own”.

One such fault line was marriage equality, and one such person with a contradictory lifestyle was an Anglican minister by the name of David Ould. As part of the show, David was required to not only live with, and attend the wedding of, Michael and Gregory, but to also host them in his own home (or at least, in a caravan on his driveway). I was lucky enough to know Michael, and was at his house during filming, where I met David and spoke with him for some time. We ended up keeping in touch, and he was nice enough to ask me around to his house for dinner, where I met his delightful family, and we spent some time discussing marriage equality.

My friend Michael will probably not like me saying this, but I like David. I find him interesting, and easy to talk to, and I genuinely believe that his heart is in the right place.

But that doesn’t mean he has any idea about statistics.

David has a blog, which is almost as good as this one, and in his latest post, he addresses the Safe Schools Program, or more specifically, whether or not it is justified, based on the number of LGBTIQ students in Australian schools. The Safe Schools coalition, it seems, has been lying about how many LGBTIQ students there actually are. Their website claims 10% of students are LGBTIQ. David Ould says otherwise, via a Baptist minster named Murray Campbell. Murray is happy to admit that determining the proportion of LGBTIQ people “is near impossible”, but nevertheless feels confident enough to tells us that, while

Safe Schools want us to believe that 10% of the population have same-sex attraction, most scientific studies put the figure under 4% (and that includes bisexual people), and other research suggests even lower.

Helpfully, David provides some stats of his own, sourced from a recent commercial from Medibank Private, which you can watch for yourself below.

David did some analysis, and concludes that Medibank is trying to tell us in a “subtle way” that “30% of households with children are same-sex households”. He bases that 30% figure on a number of observations:

  1. There were, on a rough count, 10 various households with children.
  2. Single-parent families, who make up about a quarter of Australian families with children, only got one clear representative in the video.
  3. Of the ten families three were clearly same-sex.

I have to say, it looks a little damning for Medibank. Based on those observations, it really does look like they are trying to tell us that 30% of households with children are same-sex households. That’s clearly not true, so it made me wonder what else they got wrong, and I did a little analysis of my own:
Medibank stats

Based on my analysis, there were two households with children that didn’t have any parents whatsoever. I can only conclude that Medibank is trying to claim that 22% of Australian children are currently living out their dream of starring in a real life Lord of the Flies.

One of the nine families with children had four children. That’s 11%, compared to only 5% of Australian families having four or more children. Medibank is trying to convince us that there are way more four child families than there actually are. I can’t believe they would do such a thing.

That’s not the worst of it though. The worst thing I found was that 100% of the children in baths were really happy. And we all know that can’t be true.

I like this style of analysis. I wonder if I can turn it around, and analyse David’s analysis?

David claimed that there were 10 households with children. I counted exactly nine. He did say it was a rough count though, so perhaps I can forgive him.

David also claimed that there was only one single parent family. There were actually three, which puts David out by 200%. Hmm.

Finally, David said that there were three same-sex families in the video. There were actually only two, which puts David’s figure out by 50%.

Based on these results, and applying David’s own analysis technique, I am free to conclude that 67% of anything David tells us is wrong. Very, very wrong.

That’s probably not fair though, is it? I’ve based that off only one of David’s blog posts, and one is hardly ever a good sample size. In fact, pretty much the only time that a sample size of one has any kind of statistical significance is when you survey yourself to find out what you want for dinner. To get a better indication of the true state of affairs, you should probably take the largest sample size you can. Like, perhaps, every television commercial and print ad from the last 100 years.

LGBTIQ people have been living in the shadows for a long time, and have only recently started poking out their heads for some time in the sun. Unfortunately, some people in our society see a gay head poking out, and have a desperate need to smack it back down, like some giant, real-life game of wack-a-mole. Apparently, lots of people would rather pretend that LGBTIQ people don’t exist. Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the YouTube comments on the Medibank video:
Medibank YouTube comments

Is it any wonder that a program like Safe Schools is needed, and 30% to 40% of LGBTIQ people attempt suicide? Given how long LGBTIQ people have had to hide in shame, is it really that hard for us to see them in a frikken health insurance commercial?

Besides, isn’t the bigger concern the high number of children who live in families with no parents at all? Shouldn’t we check how they’re paying their mortgages? Can we send someone over to make them eat their vegetables?

Or maybe, just maybe, we could stop for moment, relax, and recognise that there are people out there who want to end their lives because our society has told them that being themselves isn’t good enough. And maybe there are a few things we could do to help. Like give them a little recognition, in a single, 30 second commercial, in amongst the millions of commercials that have completely ignored their existence. Because maybe, just maybe, that will give a few people a better chance at being happy.

I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.

GBAV – Genesis 10

In which having sex with your family leads to a whole bunch of people with silly names.

Gn 10:1These are all the people who were born after Noah’s family all had sex with each other. And by people I mean boys.

Gn 10:2-5The sons of Japheth were Smeagol, and Gary, and Spencer, and Gomer, who was apparently a surprise, surprise, surprise. And the sons of Gomer were Hoochie, and Flowerpot, and Pooface. And the sons of Hoochie were Vlad the Impaler, and Snoopy, and Zoolander. And they all went off and invented new languages, for some reason.

Gn 10:6-9And the sons of Ham were Barry, and Andrew and Terrence. And the sons of Barry were ugly. And the sons of Ugly were Dumbledore, and Jabba, and Sauron. And Jabba begat Nimrod, who was a mighty hunter. Hence that really well known phrase, “OMG you are such a Nimrod, and by that I mean a mighty hunter.”

Gn 10:10-20And Nimrod begat Gilligan, and the Skipper, too. And the Skipper begat Krusty, and Stimpy, and Wolverine, and Jamiroquai. And they all went off and invented new languages, for some reason.

Gn 10:21-31And Shem was just as bad at inventing names as his two brothers, so all of his sons had silly names, too. And they all went off and invented new languages, for some reason.

Gn 10:32So that’s pretty much what happened after the flood. And everyone was happy, even though they had silly names, because at least they didn’t have to have sex with their family any more.

<< Genesis 9

Russia, Turkey And An Enormous Grain Of Salt

The big news today (or yesterday, if you get news alerts) is that Turkish F16 fighters have shot down a Russian Su24. Despite the fact that something like this has been brewing ever since the great powers, and also Russia and Turkey, decided to play kingmaker in Syria, the usual panic-merchants, spin doctors and instant military experts are expressing shock, outrage and surprise. Yet again, we have been chilled by warnings of WWIII and bombarded with both Russian and Turkish claims of innocence and injury.

Russia claims that a pair of Su24 warplanes were innocently bombing ‘terrorists’ on the Syrian side of the border when, without warning or provocation, Turkish terror sympathisers shot down one of their planes. The Turks are claiming that two aggressive, apparently unidentifiable Russian warplanes violated Turkish airspace, were warned ‘ten times in five minutes’ and, when one of them wouldn’t leave, they were regrettably forced to shoot it down. It is possible that one of these versions of events is completely correct, but it is far more probable that neither bears more than a passing acquaintance with the truth.

Russian credibility has become something of an oxymoron of late and their statements on Syria are no exception to this tendency. Russian operations have been almost exclusively in areas where there is little or no ISIS activity, and yet the Russian propaganda machine continually spews out article after article claiming ISIS routs and casualties. Latakia, where the Russian Su24’s were bombing, is known to be primarily in the hands of factions backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Only the wilfully blind could fail to see that all that Russia has planned or achieved is to create a ring of fire around the Assad regime’s heartland, regardless of who they have to blow up to do it. And they have lied, brazenly, continuously and demonstrably, about their actions, their intentions and their priorities.

As for Turkey, the country is going through some very interesting times. Kemal’s grand secular experiment seems to be coming to an end, with Erdogan doing his level best to Islamise as much of Turkey’s government and history as possible. His key ally in this process is rampant nationalism, with constant references to Ottoman and Hittite* glories and their essential repeatability. The fact that a key rival both for regional hegemony and Western favour is currently burning to the ground has presented Turkey with challenges, certainly, but also with exciting opportunities. The problem, however, is that Turkey is currently a smoking hot mess, riven with internal turmoil, rolling border disputes, a disaffected middle class and, to top it all off, a refugee crisis that makes Europe’s look tiddling by comparison. If Turkey’s actions seem schizophrenic and unpredictable, this is partly because they are trying to juggle a myriad of factors and interests in the midst of a fluid and dangerous situation. And also because they lie pretty much as often and as whoppingly as Russia.

Anyone who knows anything about modern warplanes knows that five minutes is practically an eternity, and that it is impossible to put one in the air with an idiot in the cockpit. Incompetence or stupidity are not probable factors in this situation. What we have here is an incident that was at least partially deliberately engineered. Russian tactics in this conflict, and for most of modern history, are well known to be ‘probing’, which is diplomatic jargon for ‘invasive’ and ‘insolent’. It is not just conceivable, it is probable, that the Russian warplanes were deliberately probing Turkish airspace for both political and military reasons. As always, the situation is not particularly clear cut. Latakia borders Hayat, which is one of the places where the Sykes-Picot line gets a little bit confusing. And if we are to believe accounts that the plane came down in Hayat, then they were cutting it extremely fine at the very least. Little wonder then, that both Turkey and Russia have been able to broadcast absolute ‘proof’ that the warplanes either were or weren’t inside Turkish airspace.

Turkey’s Rules of Engagement (RoE) are very clear, and so is their position on violations of their airspace, but here’s the thing: supersonic jets operating in the vicinity of an invisible and, in this case, somewhat blurry line, present sovereign powers not with a threat but with a choice. They are probably going to violate what they perceive to be their airspace, especially if they’re Russian, but not necessarily deliberately or with hostile intent. Knowing this, a decision has to be made as to just how rigidly RoE will be applied. Considering how long Russia has been operating in border provinces like Latakia and Idlib (another ISIS free zone), and knowing how Russian forces tend to operate, it is difficult to understand why it’s taken this long for an incident to occur. Until we consider the fact that the latest rebel group to come under Russian fire have been the Turkmen factions fighting for the FSA against Assad.

And then it all suddenly clicks into place. Russian forces have been bombing ethnic Turks and Turkey wants them to stop. Russian forces just being themselves, in combination with stringent RoE, has provided a pretext for Turkey to make a very emphatic point about this. Turkey is well aware that, by itself, not many countries have very compelling reasons to listen to them. Shoot down a Russian jet, however, and people stop talking about Turkey and start talking about NATO. And pretty much everyone listens to NATO, even if, like Russia, they pretend very loudly not to.

So who’s telling the truth about this situation? Neither of them, and it couldn’t matter less. This is just another facet of a confused, confusing and morally toxic conflict, where human lives are used as gaming tokens and atrocities as diplomatic currency. While it is not impossible that a major war could accidentally snowball out of this incident, there is no indication that either Russia or Turkey want a deeper conflict. This is apparent in the unusually measured rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and the immediate way in which Turkey has fled under NATO’s skirts. If we can all remain calm, we will all have forgotten about this in a fortnight.

Apart, that is, from the pilots, their families and the poor bastards who were and are being bombed.


*It is worth noting that for a good portion of the history that Erdogan is glorifying, the biggest single enemy of the Turks was the Russian empire. I’m not counting the Hittites because viewing them with reference to modern Turkey is just bizarre. 


The Paris Attacks, ISIS, And Its Al Qaeda Roots

Much hay has been made of the fact that the core leadership of what is now called ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh was once booted out of Al Qaeda. Various propagandists and even analysts have made the argument that if an organisation as evil as Al Qaeda was unable to tolerate ISIS, then the rest of the world certainly shouldn’t. I certainly don’t disagree with the conclusion, but the argument is false.

Yes, Al Qaeda’s leadership was largely made up of a kind of intellectual elite who thought of ISIS (then AQI) as a barbaric and ignorant embarrassment. Yes, Osama bin Laden was famously horrified by the methods and even the existence of the thuggish, practically apostate Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. But no, it is simply not true to say that the two organisations fell out due to delicacy of feeling on bin Laden’s part.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, a large document cache was recovered. Amongst these was a wealth of correspondence between bin Laden and other militants in which the 9/11 mastermind made pronouncements on a range of different issues. Mujahideen operating in the Levant needed to know if they could accept funds and logistical support from Shiite jihadists. Osama told them they could – the just could be sorted from the wicked at a later date. Various affiliates expressed discomfort at the use of infidel technology to spread their message. The Al Qaeda leader advised them to shut the hell up because wars cannot be won without propaganda. The Shabaab in Africa were told in no uncertain terms that they were too grubby, insecure and haphazard to be officially accepted under the AQ banner. But Allah bless them anyway, and if they should win a major victory, Al Qaeda would smile on their efforts and, presumably, share in the credit.

Most notable in the light of current events, however, was a collection of letters apparently begging the leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to stop killing fellow Muslims and to focus their attacks on Westerners. It is understandable that these have repeatedly been misinterpreted, especially by the media, as showing a merciful side to the world’s most notorious terrorist. The letters were written in the archaic, classical Arabic favoured by Al Qaeda and which formed such a significant part of their revanchist appeal. The translations tried to catch the sense of this language, leaving us with English that smacked vaguely of the King James bible. On a casual reading, language like this can make things sound quite a lot more reasonable than they really are.

The truth of the matter was that the use of mediaeval language is simply a part of their Salafist image. A closer reading of the letters between AQ and AQI reveals that the heart of their disagreement was not about mercy, it was about military doctrine. Osama bin Laden was pushing the core point of difference that AQ had over every other Islamist terror organisation, which was their strategy of focussing their attacks on foreign soil. This approach had been the key to their success and had the added advantage of leaving local Muslim populations unharmed, significantly improving propaganda and recruitment efforts.

What bin Laden was trying to persuade Baghdadi and his insurgents to do was to take a leaf out of his own book. He worried that the Iraqi insurgency was diluting the overall strategic thrust of groups under the Al Qaeda banner. AQI’s leadership basically told him to bugger off. They saw themselves as a grassroots insurgency, a breed that couldn’t be more different from elitist Al Qaeda. And with their numbers being swollen by disaffected, well trained Iraqi military and security personnel, and coalition forces harried and bleeding casualties daily, they didn’t need advice from some fancy-talking throwback who couldn’t even go outside, thank you very much. The Al Qaeda leadership responded by taking away the right to use their brand name.

Their disdain for bin Laden’s advice would seem to have been vindicated early on. The newly minted IS rushed into the gap created by the Syrian rebellion and the Iraqi failure like a biblical plague, helped along by Western lassitude and Assad’s frankly insane tactic of releasing known militants in order to fragment the secular rebellion against his regime. IS broke every rule in the insurgent handbook and ended up in control of two major cities. They were stepping high and wide all over the Middle East and nobody seemed able to stop them. Until they did.

History will possibly remember this, if it does at all, as a victory of democratic leaders over democratic process. Despite the immense unwillingness of practically everyone, Obama and Co. embarked on an incremental escalation of force, salted judiciously with atrocity propaganda (made easier by the fact of real atrocities), and helped to create a situation where the ISIS advance was halted by force, practically against the will of the people. A key victory was won just before the Paris attacks, when the supply line between Raqqa and Mosul was cut by Peshmerga forces with coalition air and SF support. ISIS, which had basically morphed into a kind of flying mechanised cavalry column, was ‘contained’. It was the beginning of the end.

It is at this stage, presumably, that those ISIS leaders who had their roots in Al Qaeda must have had a bit of a brainwave. As the major assault geared up and they saw that they simply would not be able to hold the line, it must have occurred to them that there might be something in what old bin Laden had to say after all. Faced with a situation where they were unable to win a victory on their own territory, they decided to activate multiple cells overseas. One of those cells, apparently reinforced and advised by jihadis blooded in Syria, was behind the attacks in Paris. And it worked. US backed forces had won one of the most significant victories of the campaign so far, but this news was simply swallowed up by events in Paris. If the goal of such attacks is to sow disruption and erode fighting will amongst the general populace, Paris was a near total success.

In a way, this would seem to be a posthumous validation of bin Laden’s military doctrine. Beleaguered at home? Then attack abroad. This is why, amongst the outpourings of grief and outrage, several quiet academic voices could be heard saying that we had no right, really, to be surprised. This kind of attack exists deep in the doctrinal DNA of ISIS and, even though they initially rejected it, ISIS reversals in the Middle East are likely to cause a return to this strategy. As coalition forces and their proxy militia consolidate their gains in Iraq and Syria, we in the West should brace ourselves for more attempts to attack us at home.

No, Hippie, We Can’t Beat ISIS With Hugs

There has been a lot of embarrassing commentary bandied about in the last few weeks. People who are otherwise perfectly sane have, for some reason, decided to channel the bronze age and declare that the conflict with ISIS is a competition between gods, requiring us to smite the unbelieving wherever and whomever they might be. This ignores, of course, the fact that there is only one god in question, and that the question isn’t really a very relevant one. And who could forget the hate-groups, leveraging the credulity of the public in general and Pauline Hanson in particular in order to pose as grassroots movements of ‘concerned citizens’, instead of revealing themselves to be the white supremacist filth that they really are.

While outpourings of hate and stupidity like these are deeply embarrassing to all paid-up members of humanity, by far the most embarrassing commentary, for me, has been from the hearts and flowers brigade. Now, don’t get me wrong: anyone who’s spreading a message of peace, tolerance and love is generally going to get two big thumbs up from me. And I should also point out that I understand what they’re saying – to wit, that one of the main aims of ISIS is to sow division, and that by coming together we can frustrate that aim. The problem for me is that this is a nuanced message and, as such, has been completely misunderstood by idiots on both sides of the political divide. And it was always going to be.

You see, the thing about a message that contains a complete idea, and is delivered in the form of a complete sentence, is that it’s always going to go straight over the heads of people who don’t understand the difference between words like ‘Muslim’, ‘Islamist’, ‘terrorist’, ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’. Beyond a vague idea that they might be spelt differently, that is. It’s also going to have limited success amongst people whose solution to everything is to buy a hobby farm somewhere and blog endlessly about falling in love with trees, fair trade cocoa beans, or their own goddess powers, or whatever it is small-earther hippies are into this week. The point is that when you know full well that the bulk of your likely audience is going to possess the political sophistication of a recently concussed duckling, there is really very little to be gained by talking to them like they’re grownups.

There is, however, a lot to be lost. Like clarity. Like sensible discussion. Like the ability to avoid the conflation of the related but very different problems that are terrorism and ISIS. Terrorism is a global phenomenon that’s been around for centuries and is probably a symptom of a broader systemic failure arising from the way in which world power is organised. There are people out there who realise this, and who are working on a solution. ISIS is a localised problem, stemming from a number of factors including our own actions in the Middle East, and there are only two possible solutions, neither of which have anything to do with hugs or flowers. We either need to arrange for the total military destruction of the ISIS regime, or prepare for a world which contains a new winner of this century’s ‘most evil state’ competition. Aggressively loving each other in public is going to achieve neither of these outcomes, and it is deeply unhelpful to suggest, even inadvertently, that it might.

So, to all those pointy heads on the right, please try to understand that no sane person is suggesting that universal love is going to result in the military defeat of ISIS. And to all the neo-hippies of the increasingly embarrassing left: There have only ever been a handful of major conflicts that have been won without casualties and using free love in favour of ordnance, and none of these have ever occurred outside of the Disney universe. If we can’t wrap our heads around the basic realities of the current situation, then I’m afraid that we will effectively forfeit any rights we might have in determining our future course. This would represent, to my mind, a disastrous failure of the principles of democracy. It is for this reason that I would urge all good citizens from both the left and the right to immediately book tickets for their return to planet Earth.

It’s Not A Defence Of Islam, It’s An Attack On Stupidity

In the wake of the Paris attacks, social media has once again come alive with people who see no problem with leveraging a global tragedy in order to promote an ideology of hatred. I’d like to say a majority of these people are in the Middle East and are called ISIS, but they’re not. They’re ‘ordinary decent citizens’ who are sick of what they see as government inaction and the ‘liberal left’ being ‘soft on Muslims’.

What I’d most like to say to these people is unprintable. What I’d say next would be, “Take a long look at yourselves.” But when I consider the incoherent and asinine results of their having taken a look at contemporary issues, I lack faith in their capacity for self examination. Or sequential thought. Or coherent speech. So, finding myself the only person in these conversations who is capable of conversation, I am forced to listen to what they have to say and respond to it.

Let’s leave, for the moment, the moronic and borderline insane tendency to speak of a population comprising one and a half billion people as if they were a single, uniform group. And perhaps we should pass lightly over the fact that if we were to convert far right ‘opinions’ into policy recommendations, we would end up with what basically amounts to ethnic cleansing. And let’s ignore, as well, the simple fact that anybody who thinks that our current terrorism problem stems primarily from the existence of Islam cannot possibly be said to understand the problem, Islam, history, or the process known as ‘thinking’. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that screaming blindingly obvious facts into the faces of bigots is neither an effective nor a productive use of time. Let us, instead, focus on the accusation that ‘lefties’ are uniformly in love with Islam and everything it stands for.

This accusation, like everything else that comes out of the mouths of reactionaries, is a distortion and over-simplification of a complex truth. Like many functional mental defectives in history, this interpretation smacks of the sort of mind that is capable of taking political rhetoric literally, and then believing it. And I use the word ‘mind’ loosely. The simple fact of the matter is that Islamist terrorism is obviously going to have elements of Islam in it. Islamist terrorist propaganda is going to use Islamic language and archaic Islamic ideas in order to get its message across. And there are going to be elements of fundamentalist Islam that are actually going to be quite conducive to the idea of blowing yourself up in a market square because you’re a bit miffed about America, or short skirts, or whatever loopy objection to the modern world happens to be uppermost in your diseased mind at the time.

The thing is, though, that this fact is part of a nuanced reality. There is not a single organised religion on the face of the planet that could not be turned to the justification of this kind of activity*. What actually tips the scales is not the nature of the religion, but the political and social realities experienced by its members, the function that determines the likelihood of radicalisation having far more to do with socio-economic status, national self-image, recent historical narrative (both contrived and actual) and degree and type of political oppression. This, however, is difficult to fit on a meme. Much more dangerous than the vague and contradictory tenets of any religion, is the bugbear of every progressive: the insidious human stain that is bigotry.

Progressive rhetoric will always push hard to sell the idea that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, not because it’s the absolute truth, but owing to an assessment of what ‘ordinary people’ will almost always do when given an opportunity to ostracise and vilify people who look a bit funny. Like all political rhetoric, it needs to be taken with about half a metric tonne of salt, because this kind of rhetoric isn’t about information – it’s about reaction. A belief that the left is constantly defending Islam is symptomatic of the inability to understand subtleties that is endemic amongst the ranks of the bigoted. The natural response to an invalid attack on Islam is to attack that attack. This does not in itself amount to a defence of Islam. It is an attack on bigotry.

The unspoken truth of the matter is that most intellectual progressives believe the ‘great unwashed’ to be incapable of separating extreme ideology from the mainstream, or either ideology from the very real men, women and children who are going to have to live with the attitudes formed by what the populist right laughably calls ‘thinking’. An historical understanding of how bigotry forms and takes root is the primary factor informing the liberal response. Progressives believe that the only responsible answer to the specious, absolutist arguments of bigotry is the adoption of a position just as absolute. The assumption is that people who are prone to using stupid arguments are unlikely to understand complex ones.

If you think this attitude is high-handed, smug or condescending, you will find me in complete agreement. Unfortunately, a quick look at the reaction of the right wing all over the world will reveal that, as well as being all these things, it is also accurate.


*Yes, including Buddhism. 

The Relative Irrelevance Of Ideology… Explained Through Tinder

When I first heard about Tinder, I was very excited. You see, I’ve never really been interested in having a long term relationship with anyone, and the whole notion of creating a home and filling it with prototype humans has about as much appeal for me as a bareback ride on a machete. Of course, so many people have exactly the opposite view that it’s almost impossible to convince anyone else that this is a sincere or enduring position. People just smile puffy, self-satisfied smiles and say things like: “Well, you might think that now…” implying that my considered choices about my mode of life are just a temporary aberration that will be fixed when I finally decide to be just like everyone else. Maybe they’re right, or maybe not. It couldn’t matter less. What does matter in the here and now, though, is the fact that practically everyone who is single and my age is completely sold on the picket fence and SUV model for happiness, which brings up the practical issue of how to acquire sex without love.

So, Tinder is announced and the concept is one that seems tailor-made for my situation. It’s apparently a community of people who are interested only in “hookups”. Gone is the tiresome business of trying to determine likes and dislikes, political affiliations, compatibility of both the mundane and spiritual variety – it’s just a matter of liking what you see and then arranging to meet. To a person in my position, Tinder seemed to be absolutely heaven sent. A purpose-built community of people who, like me, do not see their future solely in the context of who else will be in it and who are nevertheless saddled with a practical need for temporary companionship. Perfect, right?

Wrong. The problem with Tinder is that it became phenomenally popular. And the whole thing with popularity is that it enforces, with crushing inevitability, the Poisson curve of statistical normality. Completely disregarding the deliberately shallow, hardbitten engineering of the system and ideology behind Tinder, the hookup app became overwhelmingly a dating app. What started as a simple means of obtaining casual sex became, under the pressure of sheer single-minded human banality, yet another place where people emote at each other and look for love. Don’t get me wrong – there is still a minority core of sex addicts and other assorted extremists who wish to use the app in the spirit in which it was intended, but they are  drowned out by the sheer volume of people using Tinder as a low-budget form of eHarmony. Even when they say they’re not.

And this, really, is my point. Systems, ideologies, creeds, faiths – it doesn’t really matter what they are: people will just be people. And it is this fact, so obvious that it attains the status of a truism, that many of us seem to have difficulty understanding. Take the people who think Islam is the root cause of violence and extremism in the Middle East. They smugly quote passages of the Quran, share around images and video of extremist nutbags saying extremist things and then use these things as ‘evidence’ that Islam is somehow intrinsically evil and directly responsible for everything that’s wrong with the world today. The massive, ten million dollar problem with such a view is that it ignores the reality of human experience  – that depressing Poisson curve of normality.

It really doesn’t matter what your religion says – people are pretty much just going to go on being people. Christianity can be interpreted as a mystical creed of universal love, abnegation of the self before God and the embracing of poverty, which clearly explains why Christendom has become one of the most peace-loving and frugal regions of the globe today. No, wait… bad example. Buddhism is a creed of universal love, tolerance and the transcendence of base human impulses, which clearly explains why Buddhist nations like Sri Lanka and Thailand have embraced ethnic minorities and… no, hang on – another bad example.

It really doesn’t matter what any creed or code actually says – get enough people involved and they will basically screw it up by being themselves. There are constants in human behaviour that can be identified across more than ten thousand years of civilisation and, while the exciting backdrop of philosophies and systems flickers and changes over time, human behaviour does not. I could start a religion today that advocates the worship of Satan, whose primary virtues include rebellion against God and the state and promiscuity. I guarantee you that as soon as it has a large enough membership, it will be filled with people who pay their taxes and raise children in nuclear families. And it will probably contain a fringe element of weird beards who actually read the holy texts and call the rest of the congregation apostates. Sound familiar? That’s because it is – it’s the story of every established religion in the history of humanity. The reality is that people ignore or twist ideology and faith to provide sovereign justification for whatever it was that they were always going to do in the first place. Which is why Tinder is just another dating site, and Islam is just another religion.

On Remembrance Day…


Image sourced from the Australian War Memorial

Image sourced from the Australian War Memorial

Tomorrow marks the 97th anniversary of the end of one of the greatest catastrophes in modern history. Millions upon millions were killed, nations were swallowed up, overrun or erased and whole empires shattered. And then there was the meatgrinder of the Western Front, the shocking, mobile attrition of the battle at sea, the hellish nightmare of the sappers, the Eastern Front – I could go on, but I think we all know these things all too well. Remembrance Day, originally called Armistice Day, was instituted to remind us not so much of all these horrors, but as a memorial to those who fell. As time went on, and the hollowness of the epithet ‘war to end all wars’ became apparent, the day was expanded to include all of the fallen from all of our wars, and further invested with symbolism by the poignant burial ceremonies of Unknown Soldiers from various countries, including our own in 1993. This makes it a truly national and international day of reflection and one that should, by all the normal laws of decency and basic humanity, be free from politics, hatred or partisan or sectarian squabbling.

Would that it were so. With depressing regularity, pointy heads from both sides of the political spectrum choose this day to come out and push the more hateful parts of their ideologies. On the right, for reasons that beggar understanding, the world’s various fascists choose this day of all days to push the idea that white countries belong to white people, that exclusion is the key to national happiness and that everything is the fault of brown people. Which is ironic when you consider how many Nepali, Indian, Bangladeshi, African and Aboriginal troops were under arms for the British Empire. But, irony, logic and fact-proof as ever, the extreme right will share its poppy photos on social media and pretend to be decent citizens and human beings right along with the rest of us in the hope of gaining a new audience for the hate that they spew from their hatches.

And let’s not forget our friends on the extreme left, who are convinced that any kind of patriotism or commemoration of our war dead plays into the hands of the control of plutocrats, or capitalists, or alien lizards who have taken over the CIA, or whatever other garbage they’ve managed to convince themselves of this week. That’s right – these very same people who we applaud for throwing half-bricks at fascists have a horrifying tendency to paint the ANZACs as sex-offending, murderous war criminals. Which is to ignore the fact that such was the rate of volunteerism that pretty well all of our Imperial contingent was made up of perfectly ordinary, decent men and women. The very same ordinary people that these idiots purport to defend. And more to the point, many of them died in the belief that they were defending our future. So the hardline lefties can shut up too.

The point is that radical groups from both extremes come out of the woodwork on days like Remembrance Day, with the sole purpose of hijacking an anniversary that belongs to civilisation in order to push decidedly uncivilised ideas. The point is that we cannot and should not let them. I’m not suggesting that we attack, refute or argue with these people. That just wouldn’t be appropriate – not on a day as solemn as tomorrow. But we should definitely enforce the principle of silence. Let our moment’s silence spread so that it encompasses the silent rejection of all those who would outrage the memories of history with their hideous, politicised filth. When we see vile material from the likes of the UPF or Britain First, or any other extremist group, we should let them know by simply ignoring them that we are not disposed to discuss their lunacy on any given day, and especially not on a day that is dedicated to the heroes of generations past.

So You Want To Be A Starving Artist…


Last week, I met a good friend for a couple of beers. We talked, we laughed, we declared undying friendship to various groups of complete strangers and, all things considered, I think a good night was had by all. The following morning I did the usual two litres of water, three rashers of bacon and eighteen metric tonnes of remorse. I also did a check on my bank balance.

I discovered that the night had cost me a grand total of $58. At first glance, it would seem that I got off very lightly indeed. And I did, really, but there’s no changing the fact that this sum of money represents 89% of my fortnightly food budget. Couple this with the fact that my rent is roughly 75% of my income and that most of the rest of my cash goes to Sydney’s hideously expensive and frequently eccentric public transport network, and I think we might begin to appreciate the reality of being a starving artist in one of the most costly cities in the world.

You might ask how I can expect to earn a decent income when, as a novelist and hack reporter, I must spend most of my day either contemplating my navel or arguing about the impact of new formalism on post-modern thought in smoky bohemian cafes. My answer to this would begin with a long stream of profanity. I would then point out that I work an average of between 70 and 80 hours per week. My time is divided between pretending to be a journalist on a US news aggregation site, plugging away at the sisyphean task of writing a novel and working on various creative projects that have absolutely no chance of earning a single cent at any time within the next six months. In order to be able to eat and sleep in a location that has walls and a ceiling, I spend time on top of this workload tutoring HSC kids in English literature. I average four hours sleep a night, and generally not all in one go.

So kids, before you decide to really chase your dreams, you should be aware that this mainly involves constant labour, a Mee Goreng diet and turning down social invitations. And it’s not just the poverty. Creative work comes with many potential rewards, but the only guaranteed returns are criticism and abuse. In some industries, jobs which involve dealing with constant abuse are remunerated on an astronomical scale. In the creative field, you literally get your kicks for free. Sometimes it’s because people don’t understand your work. Other times it’s because you’re too far ahead of your time, or too highbrow, or too unconventional. But mostly (read ‘always’) it’s because creating on a full time basis means that a portion of your work is always going to be embarrassingly crap. And it’s those times that the criticism hurts the most.

Of course, having decided to do what I’m doing, I have absolutely no right to complain about it. One thing that I have over a lot of other people is near absolute job satisfaction. I will never again have to look in the mirror and see a person who has sold all the years of his adult life for a mortgage and the ability to eat overpriced brunches in streetside cafes. This provides a kind of smug satisfaction that cannot be bought.

Thing is, though – my poverty is a considered choice. I don’t really have to be poor – I could go and do something else, but I’ve met many people who can’t. People who are poor not because of their vocation, but in spite of their best efforts. Men and women who are stuck in labouring, service or process jobs that eat up all their time and pay only infinitesimally more than the dole. People who are attempting to raise children on incomes similar to my own. People who have to save up for four weeks in order to buy a ninety dollar pair of shoes and who are expected, by bootstrap trickle-down economists, to somehow improve their situations in life by working even harder than they already do.

It’s this more than anything that makes it worthwhile. A world in which the working poor exist is a world that needs changing. And I don’t care what they say in all those hippie internet memes: there’s really only a few ways to change the world, and one of them is through the creative arts. As long as there are people out there who are as poor as me, and don’t want to be, I have absolutely no problem with living on plain flour and promises. I’ll take a pure mission in life over a salary package any day of the week and twice on Sundays. In fact, I already have.