The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

We No Longer Deserve Democracy

I know some people with right wing views. Obviously, they’re all bigots, homophobes, racists and Nazis. But that’s alright, because apparently, as a leftie, I’m a bleeding heart, elitist, Islam loving atheist. And a Nazi. As far as I can make out, both the left and right wings of Australian politics are made up exclusively of people who wish to push insidious foreign agendas in order to bring about the destruction of our great nation whilst simultaneously stamping on the faces of the poor. So we’re screwed, basically.

This presents a very big problem. On the one hand there is a bunch of power and money worshipping fascists who wish to abolish education, social security and, to judge from their online presence, spelling. And on the other side of the fence are people who wish to flood our country with foreign criminals arriving by boat and spend every cent of public money on people who refuse to work. Especially if they’re foreign. It’s very difficult to see a way forward, unless, of course we place our faith in the basic decency of human nature.

But even this is problematic. If I’m to believe what I read, nobody in the entire world is well-intentioned. Either they want to destroy our heritage and kill God, or they want to funnel all the world’s money into the hands of the world’s plutocrats. And they always have such dastardly reasons for wanting these things. Either they’re evil extremists, foreign agents, war-crazed capitalists or ultra-fascist monsters. Or, in a lot of cases, it would seem that they are mentally defective lunatics.

Give me a fucking break.

The only mentally defective lunatic in this particular situation is the one who thinks that this is how the world really works. Liberal, Labor, Greens (to a certain extent) – all these parties have one thing in common. They are run by people who entered politics because they wanted to help – to contribute to the running of the country and, in some cases, to correct perceived wrongs occurring in that process. I can hear the chorus of tinpot cynics now rambling on about corruption, gravy-trains and trotters in troughs, but that kind of rhetoric is just cheap. In any group of people we can and must accept a certain amount of deviance, and the amazing thing about our politicians as a group is not their corruption, but their astonishing general probity given the opportunities for malfeasance and embezzlement with which they are presented on a daily basis. Compare our pollies with the ‘governments’ of Tanzania, Libya, Sierra Leone, the local governments of Indonesia or the absolute bloody shambles that pose as the governments of Italy and Greece, and you’ll see that we’re actually pretty well off for principled, hard-working politicians and civil servants.

But no, we’re all on the brink of ruin because everybody is either a ‘leftard’ or a ‘teabilly’ and must be seen and judged by those terms and those terms alone.

Let’s please, if at all possible, just try to grow up a little bit. Our system of government, the way in which we attempt to find the balance by which optimal government can be achieved, is basically adversarial. This means that people of differing opinions, beliefs and ideologies, through opposition and compromise, work out a way forward. There is no room in this kind of system for zealotry, absolutism or hate speech. We need to remember that the people on both sides of politics are people. And that it’s impossible to persuade any person of anything by insulting and berating them. If we forget this, we play into the hands of real despotism. The more we carry on the way we are, the easier it is going to become for some clever dick to point at the electorate and say: “That’s not a polity, that’s just a screaming mob. We should remove all power from this dangerously stupid group as quickly as possible.”

Because democracy can only be effective when we, the people, are worthy of it.

Cecil the Lion

About four days ago, a story broke on RT, Reuters and AP about a well-loved lion having been hunted and killed. The vast majority of the world, including me, ignored it. Two days later, a dentist and bow-hunter from the US called Walter Palmer stepped forward to air his concerns that he ‘might’ have been the killer of this animal. Clearly, Dr Palmer (do you call dentists ‘Dr’? Everyone else is just calling him ‘bastard’) was not at all familiar with the internet and was therefore unaware that hunting creates a larger and more sustained reaction than child murder, one punch kills and mass shootings combined.

A great many posts wished for Palmer’s dentistry business to go bust and for Palmer himself to be immolated, driven to suicide, hunted by lions or killed by PETA activists. His clinic’s Yelp profile, FB page, address and telephone numbers, both business and personal, were released. Netizens all over the world bewailed the death of Cecil the Lion and condemned Walter Palmer for cowardice, malice and general evilness. His practice was shut down and he was inundated with angry calls and death threats. When a FB page called ‘Cecil the Lion’ put up a post asking for people to direct their outrage not at Palmer but at the law that continues to allow hunting, it drew about 667 responses, very much along the lines of these below.

“Regrets killing him,more like he is cacking himself of what will happen to him,now it’s world wide,hope someone shoots him”

Worthless piece of shit, hope you get hunted outside your practice u fucking c*nt!!!!!!!

HERE IS THE BUSINESS ADDRESS OF THIS WANKER. PLEASE REPOST AND RUIN HIS LIVELIHOOD

Which seems to be a fair summation of the world’s opinion of game hunting in general and Palmer in particular. Apart from the Zimbabwean government, of course. They seem to think big game hunting is an essential funding source for the upkeep of Hwange National Park. But there’s always a few loonies out there to ruin it for everyone.

In any case, I’m disgusted, appalled and ashamed at this disgusting episode. I’m also a bit sad about Cecil, and confused as to why killing for trophies is still done in this day and age, but mostly I’m disgusted, appalled and ashamed of the baying lynch mob that has gathered around Walter Palmer.

Firstly, I’m willing to bet that more than 99 percent of these keyboard warriors had never even heard of Cecil a week ago. I certainly hadn’t. Another thing that most of these people would never have heard of is Palmer’s 2 children. I wonder what kind of time they’re having now, and whether the netizens of the world believe that they deserve it, having committed the dread crime of being the offspring of such an egregious criminal? Some netizens have even suggested that a fit punishment would be to hunt and kill these vile offspring to show Palmer ‘how it feels’. There’s also the fact that Palmer runs a sizeable dental practice – do his partners and employees also deserve to suffer from the taint of his association? Probably, but we’ll never know because the mob decided before any of these questions could be examined.

Okay, internet – I get it. Hunting is wrong. Fine. But how on Earth did I miss the memo that said applying sanctions to a man by the means of mob rule was okay? And why are people not more outraged about other stuff? Like Dylann Roof? Or the man who was in the news yesterday for organising the commission of at least 500 sex offences against his own daughter? I suspect it’s because hunting is a ‘safe’ one. Whether you are genuinely outraged or not, if you get on television and cry about the death of a lion and rail against the cowardly practice of hunting dangerous animals at night, you will get a surge in popularity because practically everybody out there is loudly feeling the same way via Twitter. This is something we can all join in on – an outrage that doesn’t raise uncomfortable questions of race, gender or sexuality, that doesn’t seem to target any significant cultural group – it’s a good, old fashioned pecking party directed at one man. And splashing all over every innocent individual that man knows. But we wont worry about that – can’t think, pecking.

If we were really serious about stopping hunting, rather than having a hatestravaganza on someone who can’t kick back, our rage would be focussed on the people who routinely issue permits to kill big game animals for sport. We would be trying to put enough pressure on them to change their ways and find some other means of funding their wildlife reserves. But we’re not. Which means that it can’t possibly be big-game hunting that we’re actually concerned with. What we seem most concerned with, in this instance, is finding safe and popular targets for frenzied outpourings of hate. Which, if you think about it,  is a kind of hunting in itself.

Death Cult? What’s That When it’s at Home?

Watching our PM and his cabinet talking about ISIS, one can be forgiven for thinking that they have absolutely no idea what it actually is. Is it a state? A death cult? An Islamist movement or a nihilist anomaly?

It’s highly unlikely, however, that our PM, with his advisers, security agencies and privileged access to US and UK intelligence, is actually confused about what’s going on over in Syria and Iraq. He couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to have all this information without gaining a more or less clear picture of the events that he and his government are determined to obfuscate. If he was, he wouldn’t be the head of a major institution, he’d be committed to one.

But this isn’t as reassuring as it might superficially sound. While we can be fairly well convinced that they have some sort of idea of what it is we’re supposed to be fighting over there, their standard failure in communicating intelligently to the public leaves me wondering how much the electorate actually knows about ISIS. Not only are the government and local media apparently conspiring to say nothing that cannot be reduced to a catchphrase of five words or less, the movement itself has been through a bewildering series of evolutions and permutations resulting in a bewildering alphabet soup that continues to confuse to this day.

Given that a large amount of what the government is pleased to call ‘policy’ these days is predicated on the notion that fighting ‘Daesh’ is one of this country’s most urgent priorities, it is vital that the public be aware of who and what they actually are. Recognising this, Mr Abbott has helpfully provided the information that they are an ‘evil death cult’. Apparently, we are required to be satisfied with that. I, for one, am not. How does an evil death cult work? What resources, materiel and future potential does it have? In what way specifically does it represent a threat to our country and its interests? What is the best way to fight it? And most importantly, what the hell is it? All that this description does for us is point to an inexplicable phenomenon and identify it as ‘the enemy’.

And this is key – to most people, I believe, this phenomenon is just that: inexplicable. We have a hazy, back of the mind notion that every moslem is one short step away from being a bomb-strapped crazy, which leads us to the uncomfortable belief that organisations like ISIS are an inevitable result of the existence of a faith that the left dare not criticise and that the right blames for every evil currently not attributable to the left.

All of which is, of course, unadulterated bull excrement.

It is ironic that some of the clearest and most coherent branding for ISIS has come from our own government. The movement itself has shown scant regard for this side of things. It markets itself under a bewildering alphabet soup of brand names with reckless abandon, having changed its name at least seven times in the past fifteen or so years. Its history and the history and identity of its founders are enigmatic and contentious, but the official line tells a story of a nihilistic, grassroots offshoot of the classical, intellectually elitist Al Qaeda. More of this in another post. For now, though, I think it’s important to have clarity on what ISIS is in the here and now.

Put simply, it’s an international movement holding a base territory straddling Syria and Iraq, including a handful of major cities, but with affiliates in Libya and other parts of Africa. This basic footprint of its influence has been virtually unchanged through its days as AQI, AQIM, ISIL, etc., because this is a movement that is now and always has been focussed on jihad in Iraq, Syria, the Levant and the Maghreb.  Popular to contrary belief, their activities are not confined to raping slaves and beheading people on the internet. Their brutality, while public and ubiquitous, is far from being chaotic or random. It is a targeted exercise in public relations and intimidation, inspiring the disaffected and terrifying everyone else. Their territories are run with varying degrees of efficiency but, most importantly, they are run. Reports from Raqqa indicate the implementation of complex civil service systems and the delivery of services such as education and garbage collection. The education is reportedly modelled pretty well exactly on the Saudi secondary school curriculum and is delivered to children of both sexes. Taxes are collected, licit and illicit businesses are supported and conducted by both the movement itself and the people living within its territories. In true nation state style, ISIS appears to be selling oil to the Assad regime, one of its declared enemies. These activities produce an estimated revenue stream of about two billion dollars per year. Reports from other, less securely held centres would indicate that the ISIS local leadership is either unable or unwilling to govern effectively. This inconsistency is unsurprising, given the volatile state of its ‘borders’ and the wild variations in the quality, competence and intelligence of its leaders and fighters on the ground.

On a military level, even the most casual observation reveals that they are strategically and tactically shambolic and reckless. Their decision making is difficult to fathom because they appear to have been unable to read or understand the insurgent playbook. They hold territory, fight pitched battles that they cannot hope to win and throw the lives of their fighters away on lost causes. Their entire military strategy appears to be predicated on keeping recruitment numbers above casualty numbers. To this end, practically every ISIS fighter is also an online recruiter and propagandist – a bottomless pool of volunteers and the sophisticated marketing of brutality are the keys to their military successes.

So no, this is not a ‘death cult’. Or rather, it is, in that it is a movement with a violently nihilistic ideology, but that’s purely on a moral level. As an entity viewed in military and foreign policy terms, it simply cannot be reduced to the status of a frothy-mouthed anomaly. It calls itself a state and, in some ways, functions very much like one. It also transcends borders because of the universality of the appeal of nihilistic revolution amongst the poor, the angry and the oppressed. Knowing what ISIS is, it is difficult to understand why our government has chosen the approach that it has. Alienating the Islamic minority in order to fight an organisation that recruits from alienated Islamic minorities? Understating the local effect of an organisation whose chief appeal seems to be the possession of a territory to house its followers? Disincentivising the return of people who have gone to this territory, seen the reality of its operation and now no longer wish to participate? If our government were a recruiting branch for ISIS, they could hardly do a better job of funnelling fighters to them and guaranteeing their retention. Let’s get real, drop the slogans and the pig-headed refusal to acknowledge the realities of their existence. That way, we might be able to formulate a realistic, multi-layered approach to wiping this abomination off the face of the long-suffering Earth.

Daesh. No, Daiersh. Daaaeeiioorshe. Ahhh, F*ck it – ISIS.

When a horrifically violent terror organisation takes by storm a territory about the size of Tasmania and uses it as a base for the re-introduction of slavery, the rape of minors and the radicalisation and recruitment of tens of thousands of people from around the world, obviously one of the first priorities of any government is to make long and tedious announcements about what the name of that organisation is. It’s a self-evident fact that slipping up in the all important area of language would be a fatal mistake in the fight against global terror. Our government is so serious about this that they have abandoned any attempt to communicate clearly on any other issue and, with almost spooky foresight, instituted this policy well before ISIS even emerged.

Now, the name that our government has settled on is ‘Daesh’, being a loose acronym for Al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. The justifications for this range from the ludicrous to the ignorant to the sensible, which would make it business as usual for the foot-in-mouth gang we inexplicably voted in at the last election. First and foremost is the refusal to use names that identify the group as Islamic or a ‘state’. This falls in the ludicrous (and possibly ignorant) category, as they are using an Arabic acronym that does both these things, just not in English. If just avoiding the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘State’ is sufficient, then the English equivalent of this acronym, ‘ISIS’, does the job equally well and means pretty well exactly the same thing. The other reason for using ‘Daesh’ is that it’s the name favoured by the group’s enemies as it is phonetically similar to words for ‘oppressor’ and suchlike in Arabic.

So, the name was chosen on the grounds that it doesn’t identify the group as an Islamic State, even though it does, but in Arabic, which nobody understands. Also, it is a derogatory pun, which is good, even though it’s in Arabic, which nobody understands. I think this kind of thinking is exactly what the word ‘loopy’ was invented to describe.

Apart from the serious cognitive dissonance and triviality involved in spending any time whatsoever on such a decision, it’s generally been a positive thing. It hasn’t caught on at all, with pretty well everyone calling the group ISIS, IS, ISIL or Islamic State, but it has provided literally hours of amusing television in which various government officials find themselves unequal to the task of pronouncing or mispronouncing the word in any consistent manner. I, for one, think that Julie Bishop suddenly looking rabbit-in-headlights as she realises she’s going to have to say ‘Daesh’, and then making three or four failed attempts at it, is comedy gold. Especially from a Foreign Minister.

But it does make me wonder – how much can our government (or anyone, for that matter), actually understand about this phenomenon if they’re still grappling with what the bloody thing is called? It’s a serious threat to our interests and allies, as well as to the global balance of power and what, for want of a better term, I’ll call the current world order. On top of all this it’s causing untold suffering and committing atrocities and war-crimes on a daily basis. So it’s definitely worth talking about and taking action against, but so far, our action and our talk have been equally misguided, ineffective and just plain old, garden variety stupid. Almost equal portions of time are spent mangling an Arabic dipthong and announcing draconian measures that are a gold-plated, red-ribbon gift to the online recruiters and ideologues of ISIS. If Abbott and the Islamophobes he unwittingly incites want to know why Australia has the highest per capita incidence of jihadist recruitment, all they need to do is find a mirror and take a good, hard look at themselves, preferably just after somebody has tattooed on their foreheads:

ALIENATION CAUSES RADICALISATION. YOU STUPID, STUPID BASTARDS.

 

 

INC – The Murky Line Between Church, State and Organised Crime in the Philippines

A few hours ago, a man called Isaias Samson Jr hastily called a press conference in Manila announcing that he had escaped from ‘armed detention’ in his own home and that at least 10 of his colleagues were being held in similar circumstances in homes and local prisons around the country. He attributed his detention to being accused of speaking out in public about his organisation’s financial dealings and leadership. He said that he and his family had been confined to their house by armed men, mostly corrupt army and police force officials, for over a week.

Isaias is not, as you might imagine, a high profile mafia witness or government whistleblower – he’s a minister in an evangelical church. One of his jobs is editing their newspaper Pasugo (God’s Message), which ran a story about possible financial misconduct in the higher echelons of his church. He denies knowledge of the articles which either makes him a very bad editor or a very ambitious liar. In any case, we need to take a breath and think about this for a second.

An internal conflict within a church organisation has led to the alleged unauthorised mobilisation of armed government officials and the (alleged again) abduction of at least 10 people and their families. How is this even possible?

Well, firstly, INC is not your average evangelical backyard outfit. It’s the third largest religious organisation in the Philippines, which is really saying something when you consider the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church dominates the country. The INC was founded in 1914 by a discontented visionary (or loony, depending on your perspective) called Felix Manalo who seems to have described a kind of low rent Lutheran arc through the religious establishment of the then US colony. Gathering followers on the strength of his denunciation of Catholic practice and theology, he slowly attracted followers and firmly established a family dynasty of front men for his ‘Iglesia Ni Christo’ (Church of Christ). Today, the INC has over 1200 chapels worldwide and a couple of Guinness World Records – one for largest gospel choir (close to 5000 strong), and one for largest mixed purpose arena, being a 55000 seat stadium constructed for the purpose of their centenary celebrations last year.

While the world records must be nice for them, the family dynasty side of things appears to be a little more problematic. A few days ago, relatives of the current ‘monarch’ of the church released a Youtube video pleading for help, claiming that their lives were in danger and that their supporters had been kidnapped by armed men. This was initially seen as a bit of a bizarre blip, but Isaias’ ‘escape’ seems to confirm that this might actually be happening. Some commentators are saying that the Manalo family members are making a power play, angry at having been marginalised by the current executive minister, Eduardo Manalo. Others are saying that recent revelations about financial misconduct and extortion have resulted in the excisement of those Manalos who have failed to keep quiet. It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the INC congregation contains roughly 3% of the country’s electorate, votes in a block, and has a reputation amongst its followers for blind and total obedience. These people are a very big deal indeed – basically, if you want to run for president, you’re not winning without the endorsement of the INC.

What also matters is that nobody is even blinking at accusations that the INC could use its influence to extort millions of dollars from various local governments and commit fiscal malfeasance on a breathtaking scale. Sure, they’re denying it, but nobody has even suggested that such action would be improbable or impossible.

This is deeply, deeply worrying. In a state that purports to be democratic and secular, there is a religious organisation who can influence, intimidate and extort governments and (apparently) suborn the country’s armed forces into illegally detaining people who are inconvenient to them. Whatever the ins and outs of their internal squabbles, the real take-away from this is the potential power of rich, indifferently sane organisations if they are allowed to expand unchecked and infiltrate the mechanisms of the state.

This is not to say that we should immediately ban and patrol all church members. But it beggars belief that a church as crazy as this one could have been allowed to become so large and influential. INC is very much a restorationist and end-times church that believes all other denominations are apostates and that their first minister was Jesus Christ’s last messenger on Earth. In this country, believing crap like that would seriously limit your options in government employment, largely because we don’t hand out security clearances to cult members. In this particular case, we can see the tip of the iceberg of implications of failing to check and monitor what are, in effect, subversive, insidious and just plain whacky organisations as they form and grow.

And disturbingly, the INC is not a million miles away in doctrine, beliefs and power, from many of the church organisations currently operating in the USA. In fact, it’s pretty certain that the USA is where the first Manalo probably got his template for how to build a major church. One can only hope that the US, with even more at stake in terms of firepower and power in general, can get better at limiting the influence and operations of radical, apocalyptic and messianic lunatics.

Everyone Gets a Chicken – Mincome’s Counter-intuitive Effect

In one of Terry Pratchett’s marvellous ‘Discworld’ novels, a character promises his supporters that, if he comes to power, every household will receive a free chicken. I’m not sure if Mr Pratchett was aware (he probably was), but this isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds – it could have been lifted right out of any number of rousing speeches made by pretenders to various thrones in South and Central Asia in the last century or so. It speaks also to a fundamental function of any kind of government of any political persuasion: social welfare.

Over the years there have been a number of experiments, worldwide, testing the idea of providing citizens with an unconditional minimum income (mincome). There have been many variations in sample size, selection and implementation, but the basic idea remains the same. The government guarantees a minimum income level and will top up those who fall short of it in their own earnings. So, let’s say the mincome is $1000 per week and you earn $900. The government will give you $100.  If you earn $1000 you get nothing.

Sceptics predicted disastrous results. They pointed out that this kind of disbursement was tantamount to a disincentive to work and that the upshot would be an entire population sitting around watching daytime television while waiting for a cheque. Which seems to make sense – it’s very difficult indeed to poke holes in their logic. Largely because their conclusion is logical. But what it also is is limited.

The actual results of the various experiments showed no such trend. In the most famous example (Manitoba) there was a small drop off in labour participation for young males which, at the time, was presented as a catastrophic reduction in labour supply (Forget, The Town Without Poverty). The reality, however, was that this was pretty well entirely accounted for by a larger proportion of young men opting to continue their education, which has a positive impact on lifetime earnings (ibid.). Another problem with the Manitoba data is that it was never subjected to analysis, as changes in the political climate meant that dismissing the idea as ridiculous because ‘freeloaders’ became acceptable, and the experiment was de-funded and shut down without coming to any conclusions. Which is, if you like, a fairly good example of the kind of idiot tax we regularly pay for reactionary ideologies.

Fortunately, the experiment has also been trialled in different forms in India and parts of Europe (yes, Scandinavia, obviously…) and the general trend of results has been remarkably similar. I’ve bullet-pointed them below.

  • Minor drops in labour availability (continuing education) followed by significant drops in welfare participation
  • Significant improvement in health and wellbeing
  • Significant improvement in primary school test scores
  • Significant increases in individual earnings

Basically, it works. Guaranteeing a mincome frees people from existential anxieties and better equips them to do whatever it is that they want to do. And what that overwhelmingly proves to be is productive participation in society in some shape or form. There is always a hardcore of welfare recipients who do not want to participate in society (non-functional addicts, etc.) and those who cannot participate as much as they might like to (the disabled, the very elderly), and this is often pointed out as a negative. ‘Why give them a free ride?’ is the question most often asked. The thing is, though, we already do. Largely because we believe we should. Mincome or no, these people are still going to collect welfare. But with mincome, the number of other kinds of welfare recipient drops to nearly zero. So, in a weird, counter-intuitive way, offering more free money means having to pay out less.

And it’s not just welfare – the effects on health care spending seem also to be significant. Basically, poverty creates a situation where the poor do not engage with health care until they absolutely have to, which is expensive for any state that subsidises health. With a mincome, healthier lifestyles and earlier interventions become possible, meaning a potentially smaller health care spend overall.

On top of this, the cost of the whole project proved to be far from prohibitive. It’s difficult to quantify some of the savings (crime prevention, health care, mental health care, etc.), but the bill for implementing mincome was pretty similar to the bill for ordinary welfare programs in many of the experiments conducted. You’ll note, however, the prevaricative nature of my language. The problem here is that the data is very difficult to draw conclusions from due in some cases to the conduct of the experiment, and in other cases, to the experiments being incomplete. The South Asian experiments are riddled with scientific problems. The Manitoba experiment was interrupted by the moralising right. The current experiment in Utrecht only includes current welfare participants. This is extremely frustrating – it’s almost as if governments don’t want this idea to be properly tested in case it turns out to be as good as its early indications seem to promise. Like they’re afraid of having to try to sell it to an electorate, after generations of being elected on ‘tough on welfare’ platforms.

But why would this idea be so unpalatable to the electorate? Why is it that, immediately upon mentioning it to people, the reflex response is almost always extreme scepticism? I think it has to do with the long term conditioning of the way in which we think about welfare. We think it’s about providing a safety net for the weak and feckless. This means that a habit of stigmatising, patrolling and punishing recipients of welfare, or, to put it in more human terms, ‘keeping those bastard dole-bludgers honest’, is intrinsic to the way in which we view state welfare. It’s a disturbing insight into  the soul of the modern polity.

Basically, the main reason we don’t think mincome can work is because we believe that the human race is made up mainly of lazy, feckless opportunists who will take a mile from every grudgingly ceded inch. So what do you believe? Do you believe that human beings are:

a) Basically good and imbued with a wish to participate and contribute?

or

b) Grubby malcontents who will take everything they can get and give nothing in return?

At the moment, most data would suggest that option ‘a’ is the correct one. So why are so many of us convinced that it’s option ‘b’? Why can’t we get our heads around the idea that the world would be a much better place if we just gave everyone a chicken?

Two Minutes Hate

I’m so angry!

The world is full of bigoted idiots who are beyond comprehension!

How could they do this to those poor people WHAT WERE THEY THINKING IS THIS 1950?!!!!!

And so on.

Such, such are the joys of the internet news cycle, deliberately outraging humans for over ten weeks, or however long some of these ‘publications’ have been around. Articles and headlines designed to pick up and amplify any departure from an arbitrarily set orthodoxy, regardless of how trivial or irrelevant the information is, appear to be the order of the day. Patiently working through articles about racist police, bigoted workers, ignorant politicians and sexist everything-on-the-face-of-the-Earth is not a rewarding activity. We find articles that are retracted as fabrications, articles that are clearly not even tenuously related to their headlines and, the most common, articles that entirely lack context, balance or research. A moslem person complains about discrimination and the right runs headlines like: MOSLEMS DEMAND CHANGES TO LAWS, while over on the left we get something along the lines of: SHOCKING MISTREATMENT OF MOSLEM WORKERS THAT YOU WON’T BELIEVE. In the tabloids, of course. Respectable broadsheets don’t sully themselves with this sort of thing. They just report that the tabloid stories have been reported, and that such reporting is outrageous.

I’ve heard it argued that this kind of crap is healthy – cathartic and ‘good for the blood’, whatever the hell that means. I can certainly agree that it is a lot of fun. Outrage is such a liberating emotion. It allows us to shed any notion of a multipolar world, turning everything into clear, easily comprehensible, binary black and white. Good and bad. Left and right. It’s a revival of the simple days of childhood when everything came down to goodies and baddies and when a facility for effective argument and a talent for name-calling were one and the same thing. So, okay – it feels good. But so does most childish idiocy.

In the early days of internet news I found this sort of thing amusing, but now, like most childish things that people fail to outgrow, it’s sinister. Sure, on a pragmatic level we know that outrage is one of the very best ways to drive traffic to a news website, along with titillation, sickly feelgood sentiment and humour. So it’s understandable that so much of our news content contains the words ‘shocking’, ‘naked’, ‘perfect’ or ‘hilarious’. The emphases on sentiment, skin and comedy are probably pretty harmless beyond their trivialising effect, but the outrage card is worrying.

What constant promotion of outrage does is to divide the world into mutually incomprehensible, incommunicado warring camps. The world sharply divides into a binary system of orthodoxies, constantly at war both with each other and themselves. The destructive impact is double-edged. On the one hand, people from the other orthodoxy are known to never say anything that should not immediately be ridiculed. It’s possible, for instance, for a right wing commentator to be mercilessly lampooned by the left for saying that welfare benefits should be increased. The pointy-headed, shouty solution is simply to accuse them of not wanting enough of an increase. And then be outraged by that. Internally, loud and verbally violent attacks are levelled at people who dare to have shades and nuances of belief outside the absolute partisanism that seems to be required by the online environment. Which means that for some reason, being in favour of interventionist government and social welfare comes, for no reason, with an expectation of virulent anti-hunting sentiment, atheism and organic living. Which is ridiculous for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that none of these ‘extras’ has anything to do with leftist or rightist politics.

While I am aware that a big part of this phenomenon is driven by a multilateral experiment with user-driven content, I also think that the time has come to pronounce findings. Basically, the ‘user’ as a collective entity is a hapless, brainless idiot. Letting it decide what it wants to read is like putting a puppy in charge of its own feeding regime. It’s time to experiment instead with professionalism and purpose, where journalists choose and research material based on their duty to inform and editors check and publish accordingly.

 

Confusion on the Right and Antifa on the Left

The recent rallies held across the country have been thought-provoking to say the least. Ostensibly, they were about Australia’s attitude to Islam, but in terms of revealing or resolving this attitude they have achieved next to nothing. While I’m certain that both sides had a great deal to say on the issue, all that seems to have filtered through to the media is reports of violence on one day and then reports of its absence the next. What the rallies have done, however, has been to shine a spotlight on some of the more extreme elements of Australian politics.

I spent the last two posts looking at the far right groups that have recently been the loudest. I focussed on these groups because of their relative novelty and, in the case of Reclaim Australia, the intermittent ability to rally significant numbers to their cause, something which has recently been missing from hoary old dinosaurs like Australia First and the Hanson bedevilled One Nation. Of course, the unifying factor amongst all these far right factions and parties has been confusion. The simple fact of the matter is that nobody can really discover what it is they want because they themselves are generally incapable of framing, clarifying or communicating their grievances or their visions for the future. They are nothing more than parties of complaint squawking meaningless protests in the language of victimhood and outrage.

On the extreme left, however, the story couldn’t be more different. Let’s take Antifa as a case in point. For those of us who aren’t aware, Antifa protesters were the ones we saw on Saturday wearing black bandannas and hoodies and doing violent stuff on television.

The first thing one notices about Antifa is coherence. Their various websites are clean and professional looking, with their mission and vision statements outlined in simple, muscular prose that Hemingway would have found unobjectionable. There is neither a cultivated nor an incidental presentation of the ‘Grand Aussie Mess’ that is so fashionable amongst their equivalents on the right. They have no interest in being seen as a regular bunch of blokes fighting with confused frowns the iniquities of the nameless authority. They present themselves as warriors – articulate, purpose-driven and crystal clear as to what they think and what they want. This, of course, breaks down a little on the Facebook pages where individual members launch into long, rambling Marxist rants, but all the official material – the prose that was written by representatives of the organisation – is stark and clear.

It is for this reason that I have absolutely no difficulties in breaking down their position and their mission. Antifa believes that Capitalism is a system that helps to create fascistic and bigoted systems and institutions. Their aim is to detect, disrupt and destroy these as early as possible, lest they gain traction and bleed into mainstream society. This mission could be copied and pasted onto the website of any of their long term enemies in the counter-intelligence world without causing any comment whatsoever. Of course, if we dig deeper, we find the same kind of flailing with reality that is common to much of the extreme left in these progressive modern times: an awkward love affair with the old language of communism and a weird dissonance between efforts to stay relevant and core mission objectives. But the point – the salient point – is that a member of the public’s first and abiding impression is one of unity of purpose and clarity of vision.

So they’re against fascism, racism, homophobia and Islamophobia – so far, so good. What, if anything, makes them extremists? Well, first and foremost is their advocacy of violence. On their various websites and blogs, violence is referred to by various code words, e.g., ‘direct action’, or ‘disruption’, but it is abundantly clear that what they are talking about is physical confrontation and the destruction of property. One blog post recounts a planned right wing rally in Hyde Park. “Our operatives scoured the park but could find no evidence of the cowardly fascists…” says the author. The clear implication is that, hearing about the rally, a posse of Antifa ‘operatives’ mobilised and headed for the park in order to bring the pain. In their social media streams, the far right is characteristically schizophrenic in their treatment of the opposition. They will, in the same breath, dismiss them as “Merlot swilling parlour socialist dickhead keyboard warriors fighting from mummy’s basement”, and then show real fear of their operations on the ground: “God protect our warriors and keep them safe from the Antifa scum”. Which is reminiscent of wartime propaganda concerning the Japanese, if you like.

Are they a threat? In spite of their superior organisation, muster capability, rhetoric and intelligence, I’d have to say no. They are self-consciously reactive, seeing themselves as a sort of quick response force to outbreaks of fascism. They are also deliberately limited in their aims. Antifa, as far as I can tell, isn’t particularly interested in revolution. They are focussed entirely on their aim of smacking down fascist groups wherever they see them. So, no, not a threat unless they decide to go to war against you.

And I guess that comes to the nub of what I find so disturbing about all of these groups. It doesn’t matter what they say they stand for, or what their motives and mission are, you can’t get away from the reality that all of these people, left or right, are willing to view a greater or lesser portion of the Australian population as ‘the enemy’. So whether or not it’s possible to agree with their politics, the absolutist, warring-faction mentality that underpins them is an automatic dealbreaker.

Who Are the United Patriot’s Front?

Not being an avid watcher of the far right, I was blissfully unaware of their shenanigans until various organisations started advertising this weekend’s rallies in Melbourne and Sydney on my Facebook newsfeed.

I should explain that, having noticed just how tightly shut an echo chamber the internet can be, I deliberately follow several feeds and pages that are diametrically opposed to my own beliefs. This ensures that I am not just hearing my own opinions in different words, and is closer to the ideals that I think should inform our usage of the internet.

It was for this reason that I began hearing about an organisation called the United Patriot’s Front (not to be confused with the Sudanese separatist movement), a far right, ultra-nationalist, anti-Islamic group that could be described as a splinter group of Reclaim Australia, if only because their founder is a former spokesman for Reclaim and split off on the assumption that the bulk of Reclaim would follow him (they didn’t). The UPF are initially quite difficult to gather information about, largely because of the looseness of their organisation. In digital terms their existence is confined to a handful of Facebook pages, some very angry Youtube videos, and a website with the message “Please bare [sic] with us while this site is under construction”.

This means that in order to find out about who they are and what they have to say, one has to go through the rather depressing process of reading their material and watching their videos. What we first gather about these people is that they are angry. They are, in fact, very angry indeed. What they mainly seem to be angry about is the existence of Islam, having a confused idea that just because violent political ideologies in the Middle East happen to identify with Islam, that Islam must therefore be the enemy of civilisation. They also appear to be angry about female genital mutilation, cherry-picked passages of the Quran, Halal certification, the media and, weirdly, communism. The upshot of their worldview appears to be that a vague entity that they label ‘The Left’, in cahoots with the ‘Communist Media’, is conspiring to destroy the Australian way of life. So far so garden variety loony. Unusually, they are also inordinately angry at the idea of being called racist. I could just about understand this if I was able to believe it. Unfortunately, their non-racist credentials are seriously questionable. Aside from their public and close association with more or less openly racist parties and groups, there is clear evidence that a senior neo-nazi was invited to join yesterday’s bus trip from Sydney to Melbourne, and that he was prominently and loudly kicked off only after various media outlets had detected and reported his presence.

As for numbers and support, this is also a bit nebulous. Many of the ‘allied organisations’ they reference do not appear to exist and their on again off again relationship with Reclaim Australia is obviously fraught. Far less fraught is their relationship with parties like Australia First and the National Democratic Party of Australia. Their turnout at the Melbourne rally yesterday, which would ordinarily serve as a good guide, is difficult to calculate as their leadership failed to name the pre-rally point, meaning that by the time the rally had begun many of their supporters appear to have been stuck on the wrong side of the police lines set up to protect them. This is sourced from their Facebook page and would appear to be fairly indicative of their general intelligence and organisational ability.

So what are they? Farcical or dangerous? It’s extremely difficult to say. I, personally, find them deeply worrying. The brand of non-reflective, anti-intellectual ultra-nationalism that they push seems to me to have the potential for mass appeal. There is a significant portion of the Australian community who are sufficiently ill-informed to buy in to the kind of xenophobic anxiety that groups like this push. It is interesting to note that their FB page has over 8000 likes and their founder’s page over 22000. And the half-truths and fabrications that they publish are no more radical or bizarre than the comments on Islam that I hear from many ordinary Australians on an almost daily basis.

Why does a group like this even exist? Neo-nazis and fascists haven’t had this kind of a popularity wave since the ’90s, when the Howard government attempted to access deep-seated anxieties about Asian immigration in a bid to garner populist brownie points.

Wait a minute… I think I’ve got it…

Reclaim Australia – Reclaim What?

Some fat bloke has decided to address tomorrow’s Reclaim Australia rally in Mackay. This isn’t usually something any sane person would care about, but in this case, the fat bloke is an elected representative. Reactions to this decision have been, to say the least, extreme. People have condemned, lauded, vilified and eulogised the man (George Christensen). When asked to explain his decision, he replied that he had read the ‘charter’ of the group and felt that it was something that he could get behind.

So I decided to read what he’d read and try to understand what he saw as being worthy of support.

Reclaim Australia has a 24 point manifesto outlining all of the things that they wish to ‘reclaim’. Grammar and spelling don’t seem to be amongst them and are often made conspicuous by their absence. This might sound snobbish but I would suggest that any group that lacks the nous to engage someone who can actually write and spell to construct their website is probably seriously lacking in other areas as well.

The first thing that jumps out at the reader is the sheer scope of the group’s demands. They have something to say on everything from anti-discrimination law and the wearing of ADF uniforms to Australia’s membership of the UN (they’re apparently against it).

The next most noticeable aspect is the organisation’s tenuous grip on reality. For example, they seem to labour under the impression that the UN can compel Australia to write new laws, rather than the reality, which is that Australia voluntarily supports various conventions and then writes legislation to reflect this support.

And then there’s the sheer ignorance and confusion of the document when considered as a whole. In essence, it is strongly reminiscent of the ‘Occupy’ movement – a random political grab-bag of half-formed ideas and ill-digested observations. And, most significantly, they share a confused sense of being somehow victimised by the modern world. In the case of Occupy it was multi-national corporations and capitalism. For Reclaim Australia, it is globalisation and ‘political correctness’ that are somehow preventing them from attaining happiness.

Basically, it’s stupid. I’d like to rebut each of the 24 points, but that would involve writing a lengthy volume on law, history and international relations aimed at a primary school audience, and that would be unutterably dull for all of us. Instead, I’d just like to point out a single, horrifying truth.

An elected representative, sitting in Federal Parliament, is sufficiently stupid to read this stupid, poorly spelt, barely literate document and decide that it outlines a political philosophy worth endorsing.

For those of us who enjoy a good laugh, the manifesto can be found at the link below:

http://www.reclaim-australia.com/reclaim-what-.html

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