The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

What Does Racism Mean, Anyway?

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Pauline Hanson has a point.

Paragraph break while readers get back on their chairs.

The fearless Ms Hanson did have a point when she lamented that many of the people calling her a racist do not, in fact, know the definition of the word ‘racism’. I think a great many people are unaware of the exact definition. What they do know, however, is what they think it means. I find it odd that Ms Hanson would object to this kind of usage, given that this would appear to be the first time she’s resorted to anything resembling a dictionary. While I applaud this sudden lurch towards an academic understanding of words and things, I do feel compelled to point out that she’s muffed it.

You see, the main reason people don’t have a single clear definition for ‘racism’ is that the word does not have a single, monolithic definition. It’s always the same with pesky abstract nouns. There’s popular usage, the rather precise and fussy definitions used by various branches of academia, definitions in law and, after all that, the definitions that end up in the dictionary. Yes, definitions, plural. Not definition, singular.

And it’s really not the dictionary definition we’re concerned with when we’re talking about any sort of vox populi statement. It’s the duty of the listener, in any kind of communication, to make an effort to understand what their interlocutor actually means, and when people call Pauline racist, what they mean is that there is a fundamental assumption of ethnic superiority inherent in her particular brand of mythical monoculturism. Or, to put it in simpler terms – she’s a racist.

I suppose it’s not exactly a state secret that Senator Hanson is terrible at language. In fairness, linguistic capability is not what her supporters value her for. It’s for her ‘straight talking’, the way she ‘keeps the bastards honest’ and stands up to ‘lefty elites’. It’s a shame, then, that she hasn’t stuck to her core competencies. Incoherent diatribes blaming anybody and everybody for problems which are never clearly defined are the core, the fundamental bedrock of right wing populism. All of this semantic trickery is much more properly kept in the arsenal of the left.

If I were Pauline Hanson I’d be very careful about precision in language. I’d strongly advise she stick to inchoate expressions of injured outrage – if she gets too specific, it might become apparent to her supporters that she does not, in fact, have anything else.

The Futility of Trump Analysis

Image Credit NY Times

Image Credit NY Times

The question on everybody’s mind, I think, is: “What is Donald Trump actually going to do?”

A great many words have been written on this subject and a great many of these words have been written by people whose business is words. Which means that the vast majority of this analysis is simply useless. As I’ve been saying since the earliest stages of the campaign, focussing on what Trump actually says is not particularly useful for determining either what he means or what he intends to do. With Obama, parsing and analysing his every word was often worthwhile. Obama is a rhetorician and career politician. He speaks (and probably thinks) in policy-making terms, which means that there can be precise and specific meanings to be mined from his lightest comments.

Trump, on the other hand, has spent most of his life selling big, visionary projects. While the two disciplines are related, they are still entirely distinct in that the goals relating to the use of language are subtly but significantly different. The effective language of politics is about making quite narrow and technical concepts sound broad and appealing whilst avoiding inadvertent commitment to the impossible. The effective language of sales is about persuasion, personal bonding and desire, with specific meaning sitting very much in the back seat, while commitment isn’t even in the car. And whatever else he is, Trump is a consummate salesman.

In his recent touch and love session with the New York Times, where he attempted to heal some wounds and use his corporate slugger charm to win them over, some very direct questions were asked of him and his answers recorded in transcript form. In response to repeated questions about whether he would pursue the prosecution of Hilary Clinton, for example, one of his responses was:

“No, no, but it’s just not something that I feel very strongly about. I feel very strongly about health care. I feel very strongly about an immigration bill that I think even the people in this room can be happy. You know, you’ve been talking about immigration bills for 50 years and nothing’s ever happened.

I feel very strongly about an immigration bill that’s fair and just and a lot of other things. There are a lot of things I feel strongly about. I’m not looking to look back and go through this. This was a very painful period. This was a very painful election with all of the email things and all of the foundation things and all of the everything that they went through and the whole country went through. This was a very painful period of time. I read recently where it was, it was, they’re saying, they used to say it was Lincoln against whoever and none of us were there to see it. And there aren’t a lot of recordings of that, right?

But the fact is that there were some pretty vicious elections; they say this was, this was the most.

They say it was definitely the most vicious primary. And I think it’s very important to look forward.”

This is classic fast sales talk. The majority of these statements don’t actually mean anything, they’re not obviously connected in any way and they’re certainly not designed to convey any specific information. It’s about persuasion – delivering an impression of character. A flood of words to make the speaker seem forgiving and reasonable, delivered apparently willy-nilly and with, I think, a fairly transparent effort to confuse and distract – to derail forensic questioning. The structure of this response is, in its own way, masterly.

We start with a “No, no,” which sounds very much like a direct answer to the question, but which is immediately qualified into meaninglessness. This qualification leads to a crude and largely meaningless segue into immigration and health, followed by the payload – the statement that Trump actually wants to deliver: namely, that the campaign has been vicious (the implication being that things said during it shouldn’t be taken too seriously). Then there’s a joke, and then finally we have the answer, which isn’t actually an answer at all.

If you can be bothered, you can examine the full transcript here, where you’ll see that all of his responses broadly follow this pattern. It’s a sales talk. He’s not trying to tell us anything, he’s really only interested in how we feel about him. I still think this is the most significant factor in his success, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, and I don’t understand why so many analysts are failing to understand this. But as far as analysis and prediction goes, I think it’s my job to say what nobody else in this clickbait, instant gratification culture wants to say. Predicting Donald Trump’s actions on the basis of his sales pitch is impossible. We’ll have to capture a great deal more of what he has to say before we can determine exactly what he means and, by that time, he’ll probably already be doing what he always intended to do. Which is kind of what sales patter is all about.

Peter Dutton: Wave Crest and Iceberg Tip

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It’s hard to imagine Peter Dutton being at the top of anything, except perhaps a list of the mentally defective, or the podium at a suicidal horse lookalike contest. Such, however, is the nature of hackneyed metaphor that we now need to imagine Peter Dutton at the top of a wave, iceberg, or some other mobile maritime feature, in order to see clearly what it is that he’s about – something, incidentally, which he seems utterly incapable of doing himself.

Mr Dutton’s recent remarks on Lebanese immigrants were, from a certain point of view, ill-advised, idiotic and frankly appalling. From another point of view, however, they were immensely enlightening. Various analysts are (correctly, I think) putting down his recent rhetoric to the emboldening Trump effect combined with the ongoing war between the right faction of the LNP and everyone else. This is all very interesting, and I think a valid way of interpreting and understanding events, but I don’t think it goes far enough. It is both satisfying and enjoyable to be outraged by his troglodytic bumbling about free speech, ‘honest conversations’ and ‘realistic assessments’, but it’s important to remember that he has a point.

Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, he just happens to be right about the urgent need for Australia, as a country, to have a serious conversation. We need to talk about how it can be that after a snappy two hundred years we can still believe that xenophobic politics is anything other than a smokescreen designed to whip up popular frenzy and votes. We need to talk about our inherent tendency to racism, and our simultaneous compulsion to furiously deny that it’s any such thing. We urgently need to talk about how we’ve ended up with an electorate which consistently spews up pond-life like Dutton, Hanson, Roberts, Nile, etc. as political leaders. And the whole world needs to have a long and serious conversation about allowing the hysterical catharsis facilitated by internet anonymity to colour debate on serious, life-affecting issues.

What we probably don’t need to talk about so much is what names we should call each other, or whether Dutton should be sacked on the grounds of gross incompetence and utter incapability. His job as Minister for Immigration is simply irrelevant next to his real role as hard right political mouthpiece, and that is probably one of the most important topics for ‘honest conversation’. How can we be okay with paying people to serve the public good while they prioritise factional contests above the needs and safety of the people they purport to represent?

I don’t know that getting Peter Dutton sacked is going to help. The fact is, they’ll just replace him with someone better at this kind of rhetoric, as it’s hard to imagine anyone who could very well be worse at it. The real rot exists within the base of the movement atop which he is perched, and although I hate to say it, that base is at least partially formed by a significant portion of our population. I don’t know if talking’s going to fix anything, but I’m damn sure that name-calling and meme generation isn’t. Shall we attempt a dialogue now? After all, we’ve tried everything else…

An Open Letter To Trump Supporters

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I’ve been seeing a lot of right wing and libertarian triumphalism on the internet these days, and fair enough too. We of the liberal elite, of which I am apparently a member despite living several rungs below the poverty line, have richly deserved our comeuppance. We have been calling you names and sneeringly accusing you of idiocy and stupidity for quite a while now, and I think you all definitely deserve your moment in the sun. You showed us. Okay, not particularly emphatically, but it doesn’t matter if it’s an inch or a mile, a win’s a win. And no, I’m not being patronising by quoting “Fast and Furious” instead of a more highbrow source – I sincerely mean it.

The thing that worries me, though, is that you seem to think that you’ve won something. I’m sorry, but the truth is that you just haven’t. If the measure of victory was the removal of smug, self-serving elites from the corridors of power, what’s been achieved here is not so much a victory as a swap. Trump himself belongs to an elite – I would have thought that was staringly obvious – and it’s one that’s significantly nastier and more grasping than the one which was rejected at the polls. He’s a part of the business elite, a group which will say anything to get what they want and then, unsurprisingly, do anything to achieve same without any real reference to any connection between the two. What you’ve chosen is definitely not someone who thinks of himself as a tribune of the plebs – what you’ve chosen is a charismatic CEO. Think about that for a second.

Add to this the man’s manifest incompetence. His bumbling unfamiliarity with political systems and processes may have been endearing in campaign mode, but it’s going to be a flat-out nightmare in office. And then there’s his belief in an America from the past. I’m not going to say that this will definitely fail, but I will say that it’s a massive, reckless gamble. It’s not just that the market forces which the right so worship have already rejected the industries that Trump seeks to revive, it’s also the fact that he’ll be trying to push these changes against the prevailing currents of the entire world. This could be seen as brave and radical, or, from my side of the fence, retrograde and stupid, but no matter where we sit on the political spectrum we can all agree that it’s going to be very, very risky. And it’s not his own money and future he’ll be gambling with. It’s yours. Assuming, of course, that the revivification of the urban manufacturing base wasn’t just another part of his sales pitch, like the vast majority of the things he’s said during the campaign.

My point is that there’s pain coming. And for me, a member of the liberal elite, it’s mainly going to be emotional pain. The world we’ve painstakingly been trying to build has taken a massive leap backwards. Okay, so we’re all sick of internet feminists and the perception that every prize and benefit should go only to one-legged Cambodian lesbians, but there’s a tragic irony in all of this. Yes, there was a loud and often juvenile focus on minorities, but the point of liberalism is to build a world in which everyone can safely live and prosper. And everyone necessarily includes you. But enough of my problems, really, because it’s not me and my kind who are going to do the most hurting. If this new experiment in populism goes the way I think it’s going to go, then the big losers are going to be the same people they always are. The working poor. The uneducated. Middle America. It doesn’t matter if the powers that be are left, right, in, out or shake it all about – when things go bad, it’s always the same people taking the shafting. Remember that, please, as we move on to my next point.

We have received a loud and clear message about connection. Smart-arses like myself allowed ourselves to drift so far from the reality of plurality that we stopped listening to huge blocs of people because we were too busy shouting about inclusiveness. I see the irony, and I take the point. But a Trump in the White House is not a win against that kind of thing, it’s a wildcard. Things are very unlikely to get any better in the long term, or possibly even in the medium or short term. Because the real war in politics is not between left and right, it’s between the powerful and the powerless. I agree – the political establishment no longer serves the needs of the people. But neither does the corporate or business establishment. In fact, they’ve been screwing we the people for longer, and with much more thoroughness, for the majority of this era. The thing to remember is that division is the easiest path to power for the unscrupulous. Right wing populists climb fissures in the electorate to achieve high office. If we truly want a system and establishment which serves our needs, we can’t allow that to happen – we must, must, must create a situation in which we actually choose our leaders from amongst the best candidates, instead of whatever the hell just happened at the last election.

So, for the hundredth time – can everyone please just stop with the childish shouting and start listening to each other?

Remember When Syria Was About Assad?

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail - RTX242XG

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail – RTX242XG

You could probably be forgiven for being unable to remember the origins of the Syrian conflict. It was all a long time ago, involving factions which have long since been overshadowed, over issues which seem irrelevant in the face of the current situation. Many of the details have probably become quite hazy over time – blotted out by the insanity of Islamic State atrocities, major power involvement and the rapid and increasing fragmentation of the factional make-up of the region. Now that Mosul is probably due to fall in the next few months, and the encirclement of Raqqa, due to start any second now, is likely to follow a similar trajectory, the imminent destruction of Islamic State in its current form and, more importantly, the means by which this fall is being engineered, is almost certainly going to bring the seed of the conflict rushing back to the forefront. All this being the case, it’s probably worth examining the state of play a new POTUS is likely to be confronted with.

If we cast our minds back a few years, we will remember that this all really started out as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the Assad regime. The FSA were (and possibly still are) pro-democracy secularist military defectors from Assad’s own forces, who largely concentrated their operations around Aleppo. While the world was fixated on this conflict and wondering why we weren’t intervening, an organisation based on the surviving rump of Al Qaeda in Iraq was completing their integration of an influx of Baathist military officers who had been seriously disaffected by some frankly disastrous US decisions in the aftermath of the second Iraq war. Many people also believe that around this time, Islamist insurgents being rather co-operatively held by Assad’s regime were quietly released into the wild in a dramatically high risk ploy to fragment the opposition. When I first heard about this possible tactic, I called it insane. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I call it insane and somewhat effective. In any case, with a perfection of timing which seems deeply suspicious to paranoid types like me, the organisation which we now know by several equally inaccurate names and acronyms formed into a sort of flying light armoured column (strongly reminiscent of Baathist tactical columns) and took swathes of territory, materiel and cash from the ineffectual Iraqi authorities, as well as the (possibly deliberately?) absent Syrian ones. Rather embarrassingly for the US led coalition members who had invaded and then attempted to stabilise Iraq, they also took some major cities and a whole bunch of NATO gear.

We mostly know, or think we know, the rest of this story, largely because of its direct effect on us. The Paris attacks, as well as the wave of lone wolf incidents all over the world, refugees, pictures of injured or dead children, and then Russia’s blustery, propaganda-heavy intervention which made louder and louder claims to be anti-IS the more apparent it became that they’d barely hit a single target which wasn’t FSA. But now that the end of this phase is in sight, various factors which haven’t so far seemed to catch our interest are likely to become all-important. The fact that the real achievers in the fight against Islamic State have been Kurdish militia will prove to be a major sticking point in any future settlement. The US, always ready to back a winner, has cleverly and quietly folded these groups together into something called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), presumably as a workaround to avoid being seen to be arming and training members of proscribed terrorist organisations. The major problem here is that these organisations are in direct opposition to Turkey, a NATO member, and Iraq, one of the USA’s newest proxies. On top of this, Russia’s actions to defend its strongest ally in the Middle East have put them in a position where it’s very hard to see them acceding to the toppling of the current regime, especially if the replacement is US backed. There’s also the problem of what is to be done with organisations like Jabaht el Fatr al Sham, openly linked to Al Qaeda but also instrumental in reclaiming territory from IS. How can any lasting settlement exclude them? And if they are included, how to avoid the problem of negotiating with terrorists? And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that Turkey is backing and arming the FSA and operating openly on Syrian soil, in near-direct opposition to the major thrust of US policy. How to deal with the fact of their insulting and provocative exclusion from the final push against the last of Islamic State’s strongholds? And how much longer can everyone go on ignoring the added complication of Iranian militia operating on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

As we can see, the whole situation is a kind of horrible Gordian knot. Neutralising Islamic State as a force is not so much the end of the campaign, as it is the ending of a bloody and horrific sideshow which, once over, will put us firmly back on a heavily compromised square one. When the dust has settled on Raqqa and Mosul, it’s going to take very careful management to prevent a kind of backdraft effect from re-igniting and re-escalating the original conflicts. While the tortuous network of factions and alliances might be as clear as mud, what is very clear is that the destruction of IS in its current form is merely the end of a phase of this conflict. There’s a great deal more work yet to be done if the great powers are to fulfil their commitment to help the region return to stability.

Donald Trump Is Neither Funny Nor Incomprehensible

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It would seem, from a quick perusal of the internets, that we have two and a bit days before the world is either consumed in a fireball of climate change and offended minorities under Trump, or packaged up and sold to CIA reptiles and some numinous body called ‘the elite’ under Clinton. Every kind of publication I follow, from highbrow to low, mainstream to fringe, is relishing the opportunity to dust off their literary educations (such as they are) and get into some John of Patmos style apocalyptic prophesy. Political philosophers are talking about the ‘post-truth’ age, major newspapers are resorting to name-calling, fiction factories like RT and Sputnik have reached new heights of fabricated falsehood and the world in general seems to be devoting a fair portion of each day to screaming at people they’ve never met about issues they don’t understand. So, business as usual, really – just carried on a bit louder.

What’s depressed me most about this presidential race, however, has been the reaction of that subset of the media which caters to the intelligent, the well-informed, and the far more numerous group who incorrectly believe themselves to be both. By far the most common trend amongst what Trump supporters call ‘the liberal media elite’ has been blank incomprehension. They can’t understand why anyone would support Trump. They can’t understand how Trump can be a contender. They can’t understand what Trump himself is actually saying. And these are supposed to be the smart ones? To me, and presumably to the people who support him, Trump’s appeal is obvious. He speaks to the near-universal delusion that the world can be run on something called ‘common sense’. How do we control border access? Build a wall – why hasn’t anyone thought of that? Are we stupid? How do we fix the economy? It’s simple – we just fix it. Don’t worry about the details – that’s just finance nerd trickery. We’ll make more jobs. How do we solve the various crises in the Middle East? Easy – we’ll simultaneously bring all our troops home and bomb the crap out of the enemy, whoever they happen to be. It’s all really simple and don’t let anyone tell you you’re too stupid or too ignorant to work it out.

Because there’s the crux of the problem. It’s the revenge of the nerds out there at the moment. Who is the leader of Islamic State? What limits and powers attach to sovereign status in a rules based world order? What is the net effect of cash supply on the velocity of money? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not fit to run the country, vote, or use the toilet without assistance. And not just that, you’ll be sniggered at and put on a meme. Such is the narrative emanating from the left and a great many people are justifiably fed up with it. Of course they’re going to flock to someone who tells them that they’re not stupid, but rather oppressed by a conspiracy of smart-arses who use big meaningless words and over-complicate things to hide their self-serving perfidy, which is another meaningless big word and let’s make everything great again, y’all.

And to a certain extent, this is correct. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a person who doesn’t believe that trans rights is a real issue. Who feels that calling Hispanic people ‘spics’ is quaint and affectionate. Who’s utterly convinced that women and ethnics are being unfairly advantaged and that the keystone of Western civilisation and its success is faith in our one true lord Jesus Christ. Imagine that you’re that kind of person, and then think about just how patiently a left-leaning intellectual is going to listen to you. Think about just how big a platform you’d get for airing these views. Fact is, if you hold these views, you are guilty of thoughtcrime. They’re unthinkable, and therefore forbidden everywhere but in little pockets of resistance on the internet. And, now, within the walls of the travelling circus tent which is the Trump campaign.

It’s not funny. It’s goddamn heartbreaking. The world has always been filled with people too stupid to lift the seat before they piss, but not until recently has it become de-rigeur amongst the mainstream to mock, belittle and ignore them. The educating mission has died out just as the hillbilly meme is born and now we have a situation where it’s actually become impossible to persuade, largely because we’ve given up talking to each other. Ever since the emergence of complex civilisation, the vast bulk of any population has been more or less mystified as to the actual workings of the state, and it has been down to the people who do know to either cultivate their trust, or keep them in order through force of one sort or another. Well, the existence of a Donald Trump is indicative of a failure to maintain that trust. It’s not hard to see how it’s been destroyed when we consider that trust is impossible without meaningful communication. And when we swap persuasion for condemnation, understanding for mockery and dialogue for self-righteous censorship, any kind of communication becomes next to impossible. We’ve divided into feuding factions, separated by a mutual incomprehension which is at least nine tenths deliberate, and if Trump wins on Tuesday we liberals have only our sniggering, supercilious, breathtakingly arrogant selves to blame.

Still Stopping The Boats, Are We?

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There were always going to be a few options when it came to stopping unauthorised maritime arrivals, or whatever it is we’re calling them this week. As it’s a complex problem, the solutions are also quite complex. For the sake of space and sanity, let’s divide the possible responses into two broad sets: Preventative and Punitive. And just so we don’t accidentally create a false dichotomy, let’s point out, right here at the top of the page, that each solution obviously contains elements of the other. What gives each set of responses its title is emphasis, rather than exclusivity.

Way back in the days before Australia’s somewhat ill-advised experiment with Abbottian Radicalism, we the people were presented with a clear choice. On the one hand, there was the humane, intelligent and nuanced Preventative solution, where government tried to ignore the white noise of xenophobia and make plans which would operate and effect well into the middle and long term (note the careful use of the word ‘government’ – neither Liberal nor Labor get a pass on this particular bucket of vile toxicity). And then there was the Punitive solution, where government would amplify, and in large part create, xenophobic white noise, and undertake actions which can either be seen as courageous and direct, or reactive and stupid, depending on which part of the political spectrum the describer happens to be shouting from.

With breathtaking courage, perspicacity and intelligence, we the people chose the Punitive approach. Bravely, we went forth on a program of deliberate and questionably legal cruelty in order, so we were told, to save lives. We entered into dubious agreements with dubious island governments, militarised and classified what had previously been a relatively benign border control operation and turned a sanctimoniously blind eye to the psychological abuse, beating and rape of the men, women and children we were so virtuously saving from death. All things pass, however, and after a while I think we became less enthused about the Punitive solution. The obvious moral ambiguities, as well as the shockingly increased cost, gave many of us pause. “Who would have thought,” the media said for us, “that a solution which requires significantly greater resources and involves indefinite internment would cost so much more and be so damn nasty?”

I don’t really understand how we of the Australian public, members of a nation and culture I love, could ever have rationalised this to ourselves. Perhaps we saw it as some kind of tough love? Or perhaps we, as a nation, had a momentary lapse of both generosity and courage, and decided in that moment to listen to the mean, reactionary, white supremacist fringe which exists in every Western nation, no matter how wonderful. Suffice it to say, having made this choice we are, for the moment, stuck with it.

What happened, way back in the halcyon days before Rudd Gillard Rudd OMFG ABBOTT WHY WHY WHY Turnbull, was a re-affirmation of one of the oldest principles of Australian politics. We confirmed, in no uncertain terms, that being tough on Johnny Foreigner was still a guaranteed lever for generating popularity. It’s in this context that the recent proposed lifetime ban on boat arrivals makes the most sense. The permanently outraged left is not, I think, alone in being nonplussed and infuriated by the proposal, but there really isn’t any reason for this. With a Prime Minister weakened by factional infighting, low popularity and his own apparent moral and political cowardice, it was really only a matter of time before the xenophobia button was pushed yet again. And it is merely characteristic that it’s being done in such a half-arsed, pussy-footed and tangential way. Half-arsed, pussy-footed and tangential could and probably will be carved on this government’s headstone.