The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

China – Paper Tiger or Hidden Dragon?

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

THE LANDSCAPE OF THE DISCOURSE

Trump Doomsday Scenario

Image Courtesy DeviantArt via SiberanBearOk

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

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

FOREIGN INVESTMENT

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

INFLUENCE PEDDLING

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

SUMMING UP

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

Tony Abbott On Balance

Warringah’s fearless PM in exile, Tony Abbott, has been in the news again defending the rights and feelings of that beleaguered minority of Australians known as ‘The White Heterosexual Middle Class’, this time by pointing out that the invasion of Aboriginal territories, repeated attempts at both cultural and actual genocide, and continuing Darwinist paternalism towards indigenous Australians have been, on balance, a good thing – not just for the waves of settlers who benefited from the wholesale appropriation of land and rights, but also for those people who were dispossessed, marginalised, and murdered. He has said that the First Fleet brought the light of civilisation, scientific curiosity, and political equality to the benighted peoples of our great continent. He then went on to point out that this civilisation was a bit crude, wasn’t great at medical science, and didn’t really have all that much equality. You can read his totally not incoherent, rambling, or logically inconsistent argument in full here.

On that basis, I would like to call for Tony Abbott to join the rest of the nation in celebrating a holiday commemorating the day marriage equality legislation passed the house. Because, on balance, it was a good thing. Sure, he fled the house in order to abstain, and to show that what was being done was happening very much against his will. And sure, he has complained loudly and repeatedly that such a step would violate his own tribal taboos and destroy an important pillar of his traditional way of life. But the thing is, what that day really represents is the moment Australia was brought up to speed with the rest of Western civilisation. There he was, practising his parochial, primitive, and outdated way of life, when a political movement which started in the heartlands of the West landed in his native parliament house and changed his beloved nation forever. The bright light of pluralism and political and legal equality was wafted over the seas to land on our shores, dragging Tones and his ilk kicking and screaming into the ambit of the broad moral and legal consensus of the twenty first century.

Sure, this happened without his consent, but there’s three hundred and sixty four other days on which we can wear a conservative Catholic armband. What we should be celebrating is the modernisation and enlightenment of this our great nation. His minority group has certainly been marginalised and subjected to the horrors of name-calling and whatnot, but on balance, what happened that day was a good thing, not just for the millions of Australians who were in favour of marriage equality, but for him as well – now Tones is blessed with the benefits of living in a thoroughly modern and pluralist nation, whether he likes it or not.

Given all this, I call on the honourable Tones to turn out on December 7 next year draped in a rainbow flag in order to honour the day when our great nation moved forward into the modern world and destroyed forever his traditional way of life. Because it was really only his own personal religious prejudices which took a hit that day – so according to his own rationale, what’s good for the horribly, savagely mistreated goose should also be good for his really only slightly miffed gander.

Trump’s Stock Market Myth-Making

Donald Trump

The stock market, especially the Dow, has been performing very well under Trump. Various measurements do, in fact, indicate the “record-breaking” gains which have been repeatedly claimed, but whether or not we decide to quibble with the selected metrics, Trump’s first year stock market performance is definitely in the top five, alongside names like George H W Bush, Roosevelt, and Obama.

And this is where we hit our first snag: the phrase, “Trump’s first year performance”. Western governments in general, and US Presidents in particular, are consistently given far too much credit and/or blame for the state of the economy. It seems there are two kinds of cognitive dissonance at play. The first is the fact of most democratic elections being fought with complex economic policies as one of their major pillars. The vast majority of the populace simply does not understand even the most basic principles of economics, and yet they are generally unshakably convinced of the rightness of their chosen candidate’s economic policies. But by far the most germane dissonance is the tendency to praise the President for encouraging the growth of a Free Market Economy, while simultaneously crediting him as if he were in charge of a Command Economy. Trump is not unique in this regard. The tendency of all political discourse around economics is to fall prey to this serious logical fallacy. Western democratic governments do not control their economies. This is in accordance with one of the fundamental principles of Western democracy. This means that simplified, cause/effect views of economic policy and activity need to be taken with a grain of salt, and if they also come with a package of cheerleading for one or another form of ideology, then it is a cubic tonne of salt which is required. Looked at objectively, giving sole credit for economic performance to a POTUS is akin to crediting the umpire, and the umpire alone, for an Ashes win.

Of course, not everyone falls prey to this kind of thinking, regardless of how much politicians try to encourage it. There is, of course, a significant minority of the electorate, including commentators and analysts, who possess sufficient nous to understand the true nature of the nexus between government and economy. Discourse at this level tends centre much more sensibly and accurately around the role of governments as regulators and influencers of economic performance and activity. In these circles, the unusual degree of credit/blame assigned to POTUS makes more sense – the office has a peculiar and unique influence on both the global and national economies, for a whole complex of reasons far too tortuous to elucidate here. Let’s just say that military and diplomatic power, geography, and the interplay of various economic cartels, make the attitude and actions of a US President particularly significant. Where this all falls down, however, is in the areas of ideological partisanship and the very real fact that economics is almost purely theoretical.

It is no secret that the bulk of the US media is now, and always has been, openly partisan. There are clear and obvious identifiers, when looking at the US media, which allow us to label most outlets as either Democrat, Republican, or tinfoil hat crazy. If we take the very sensible decision to leave outlets like Alex Jones, Breitbart, and Raw Story out of the picture, a quick sampling of Democratic and Republican outlets helps us to see the extent of this problem when it comes to clear-sighted evaluation of Trump’s administration as positive or negative economic influencer. When we look at the Dow Jones Index in isolation, the gains under the current administration outstrip everyone but Roosevelt. When we look at absolute dollar value of the market, Trump comes in a distant second to Obama. But these rankings don’t really mean anything. Outlets like Bloomberg, for example, tread very lightly – almost imperceptibly – over the fact that Obama’s Keynesian response to the GFC means that the dollar value measurement is always going to exceed that of a president walking into a relatively strong economy. And what focus on the Dow alone ignores is the value of a measurement biased so heavily towards theoretically questionable assumptions on the effect and impact of equity market adjustments. But what can be said, without question, is that theoretical extrapolations of cause and effect can be constructed to favour Keynesian, monetarist, neo-conservative, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or (somewhat less convincingly) Illuminati based ideological positions, with breathtaking ease.

In terms of reporting, all sides of the political divide are more or less equally guilty of cherry-picking, bias, and selective memory. The facts are basically ineluctable, and apply to all presidents – all governments, in fact – claiming sole credit for economic performance. It is usual for stock market value to increase, and to increase sharply in the first year of a presidency. This is partly because it tends to dip around election time, but mostly because that first year is when most presidents increase and retrench spending in certain areas, and thus clarify their intentions, providing a degree of certainty. There is, however, a real Trump effect happening in this instance. Possibly the only thing Trump has been clear about is his intention to be business friendly. So the boost deriving from this certainty within the business community is, in fact, down to him. But a great deal of the economy’s strength has to do with both local and global factors which are not only outside his control, but of the control of any sitting government. And given Trump’s destabilising effect in other areas, it’s very important to be clear-sighted about the one positive claim of his which actually has some credence.

Is Trump Going Down?

There’s a lot of excitement amongst the very broad spectrum of people who hate Trump. The indictment of Manafort and Gates is being heralded as the final nail in the coffin of the Trump presidency, and there is already wild speculation about the range and shape of charges which could be laid against members of Trump’s administration and family, with many rightly pointing out that the fact of these two words being interchangeable is appalling. While this isn’t exactly irrational, it is somewhat premature. I would suggest that it’s best viewed as a first nail, always assuming that key figures in the Trump administration are actually guilty of collusion, which I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to, regardless of how tempting or natural this would seem.

The indictment is probably best interpreted as an example of The Capone Gambit, where seemingly peripheral infractions are used against the investigation target. Add to this the heavy weight of precedent (and its absence), as well as presidential powers, and it becomes clear that it’s much more accurate to view this as the first step in a longer game. Given what is known about the character of Manafort, it’s possible this game could play out very quickly indeed, but the endgame is far from clear. Several possibilities need to be considered. Namely, that the Trump administration may have been competent enough to set up a deniable structure, the fact that collusion can be extremely difficult to prove, and the possibility of Trump and his senior staff actually being innocent, even if only technically.

A close reading of the indictment reveals that the charges laid against Manafort and Gates do not relate directly to the investigation target. These two men are being charged with lobbying for a foreign power without declaring the fact, receiving and controlling moneys in foreign accounts without ditto, and lying to federal investigators and entities. While the titles of the charges sound impressive and momentous, and are getting the usual very loud play in tabloid headlines, the fact is that they’re quite narrow in scope. Manafort’s association with the foreign power in question (Ukraine) has a distinct air of low hanging fruit. His association was already quite well known, to the extent of being reported in the media, and there is a grain of truth in conservative arguments that this kind of polite fiction (lobbying for a foreign govt while saying you’re not) is endemic and widespread. What’s more serious is the accusation of money laundering. To be fair, the scheme allegedly set up by Manafort and co looks much more like tax avoidance and fraud than anything in the washing of blood money spectrum, but the right of forfeiture is what’s important here. It appears that serious efforts have been made to locate and identify assets with a view to their seizure by the US govt. This is very clearly the stick. Manafort’s open greed and expensive tastes are obviously being used as a lever to coerce testimony. Will Manafort sing? Nobody really knows, but it’s hard to imagine that a man like him would stonewall and fall on his sword into penury.

All of this sounds very promising for those who wish to be rid of Trump, but certain important things need to be remembered. What’s being attacked here is not the administration, but the campaign. Without direct and compelling evidence of wrong doing, one would expect it to be easy for the administration to simply deny all knowledge. Admittedly, the Trump administration does not have the best record for basic political competence, but surely it’s safe to assume that the skills required for protection of the principal in this case are not confined to insiders on the hill. While it’s very obvious that this investigation could potentially end the Trump presidency, the Manafort/Gates indictment should be seen as an early stage attempt to turn the enemy’s flank, so to speak – a gambit designed to open new channels of inquiry.

Quite a bit of the analysis circulating at the moment seems also to have lost sight of the investigation’s frame of reference. This is not solely an investigation of Trump. What is being attempted to be established is the fact and extent of Russian interference in the election, which inquiry was brought about by widespread media reports and accusations. What is much more directly related to this are the charges made against Pappadopoulos, who has reportedly pleaded guilty. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that this is certainly not one of the big fish, but the potential ripples from his confessions are quite large. But once again it has to be remembered that this all refers to a specific act of collusion conducted within the Trump campaign – an act which any half-way competent organisation would have firewalled from its principal as a matter of course. It would be astonishing if it turned out that a direct line of complicity could be drawn even to senior leadership in the Trump campaign. Of course, there’s plenty of precedent for astonishing incompetence amongst Trump’s people, but there must surely be a limit.

It should also be remembered that Trump can pardon people. And while this may cause outrage, it’s still a fact. The recent pardoning of Arpaio is a case in point – none of the outcry or protest changes the fact that Arpaio’s numerous transgressions have been pardoned, with all that that implies. So criminal charges against individuals or entities linked to Trump are of potentially limited impact. What’s much more dangerous to the Trump administration is the risk of impeachment. If enough key people roll over and point fingers, there is a real possibility that key members of the administration, including the president himself, could be sufficiently implicated to trigger constitutional provisions for impeachment. Which obviously could end the Trump presidency. But would it? And what would happen if it did? The possible consequences are enormous, and possibly very dangerous for the US and its allies. Which is something which Mueller must have in his mind, making it reasonable to assume that whatever happens from here on in is going to happen, at least on Mueller’s part, slowly and carefully.

Having said all that, this is a scandal which dwarfs Watergate. There is a very real chance of this presidency, already beleaguered on multiple fronts, crumbling under the weight of its troubles. But as far as this specific event is concerned it is, to coin a phrase, just another brick in the wall.

 

Why you should vote “Yes”, even if you don’t want to

Well, the day is finally here. The High Court challenges have been struck down, the campaigns have been run, and now here I am, walking up the street to cast my vote, in the warming sun of spring-time Sydney.

As I approach the polling place, I cannot help but smile that the vote should take place in a church. How satisfying, to imagine god looking down upon me as I vote. I must remember to look up and wink at him, right when I mark my ballot paper. Not in a sexy way, mind. That would be a little hypocritical, given why I’m here. Just in a completely platonic “Hey buddy, I got this” kind of way. But anyway… what a sweet irony, that the democratic process of this lucky, prosperous, fair-go-for-all country should call on me to vote in god’s own house. And how fortunate, that that same democratic process is giving me an opportunity to have a say in how other people live their lives.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it. It’s not just a say in how they live their lives. It’s about how their lives affect me. Even they admit there aren’t many of them. What is it, like 8% at most? And yet they already affect every aspect of our lives, and, more importantly, the lives of our children. That’s what this is really about – a battle. A battle for the minds of the young. Because the future is forged in the minds of the young. And fart jokes. Fart jokes are also forged in the minds of the young. Their side has always known that. Probably not the bit about fart jokes, because they never appear to have a sense of humour. But definitely the bit about the future. And that’s what they’re trying to do here.

But even if they weren’t trying to convert our kids, I’d still vote “No”, because they’re wrong. As simple as that. They’re wrong and they want to drag the rest of us down with them. I can’t stand the thought of all the things they do and say behind those closed doors. It’s gross. And ridiculous. It’s… it’s… dammit. I was trying to combine “gross” and “ridiculous” into a word but I can’t, because I’m so angry and grodiculous.

These are the thoughts that consume me as I shuffle along in the queue, smiling at my own righteousness, and breathing in the delicious smell of sausage. In fact, all I can smell is sausage. Far out, now all I want to do is eat a sausage. Not in a sexy way, mind. That would be a little hypocritical, given why I’m here. It’s just a democracy sausage. I’m allowed to eat a democracy sausage.

Eventually I find myself completely alone in a small cardboard cubicle next to 30 other people completely alone in their own cardboard cubicles. I try and stifle the similarities with that weird night out in Hong Kong, and I look down to see a piece of paper, and a crappy pencil, and a simple question. But no sausages.

And the question is beautiful. And just what I wanted. And I will vote “No”, because that’s what I believe, and that’s what they deserve. So I grab my crappy pencil, which is way too short and digs into my palm. And as I look down at my hand, and at the pencil digging into my palm, I am struck with both the simplicity and the power of it all. There’s no fighting in the streets, no storming of the palace gates. All it takes is me, armed with a simple pencil, and answering a simple question, and the lives of many are changed forever. And I imagine the hand of a “Yes” voter poised above the same ballot, possibly right next to me, and I grin as I imagine what she must be thinking. She’s also thinking about the simple question, and the simple pencil, and about how right now millions of her fellow citizens are grinning, just like me, at being able to have their say in how she lives her life. Her hand is probably shaking… with rage, or fear, or embarrassment, that something so dear to her, something so innate and precious, is being subjected to the whims of a bunch of complete strangers.

Wait, what? Where did those thoughts come from?

This isn’t about her! It’s about me, and my children, and what’s right. Right?

My pencil hovers above the “No” box. Now it’s my hand that is shaking. What am I doing? I look once more at the question before me, the question previously so simple and beautiful:

“Should we continue to allow the public practice of Christianity?”

I read it again, and again, and again. And suddenly everything is not as simple as I thought. Their faith is misplaced, and it does affect my life, and they do try and influence our children.

But it is precious to them. And sincere. And their right.

We’re all different, but we’re all in this together. And a part of our democracy would die if we were to take it away from them.

So I vote “Yes”. Not because I agree.

But because it’s right.

Court 1: The Margaret Court Centre for Kids Who Can’t Write Letters Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too Like Play Tennis

Say what you like about Margaret Court and her views on marriage equality, but dayum… girlfriend sure knows how to write a letter.

I know this because she wrote one and, like many of you, I read it. But unlike the rest of you Philistines, I didn’t merely recoil with horror at her tendentious mendacity, and berate her for the belligerent homophobia of her splenetic polemic. No! Because to me, her words were art. And, much like a painting by Andrew Bolt’s doodle, surely we can appreciate a great work of art, while distancing ourselves from the dïck that created it. What is to separate us from the beasts if we can’t? Oh, pants. Pants also separate us from the beasts. But you get my point – Splenetic Polemic would be a great band name. And also, Margaret Court’s letter was like a painting by Andrew Bolt’s doodle.

So that is why I waited a little while for things to settle down for Margaret, before rushing to enrol in The Margaret Court Centre for Kids Who Can’t Write Letters Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too Like Play Tennis. And boy, am I glad I did. After attending the course last week, I can now say without a word of a lie that, not only is Margaret a great tennis player – oh hang on she’s probably not that good any more. I’ll start again. Not only is Margaret a great former sports entertainment person, but she’s a great teacher, too. And for those of us lucky enough to attend the course, she great teachered the cräp out of us. I now know how to write a letter just as amazing as Margaret’s, and my forehand has improved by at least 8%.

Now, Margaret wants to keep this knowledge a secret. She said that with a great forehand comes great responsibility, or something like that. But I think this knowledge deserves to be out there. I think we should all be able to write letters like this. Especially today, when there are so many letters to write, and so many social causes to champion. So, at great personal risk, I managed to smuggle out the Margaret Court Guide to Writing Letters Good, which walks you through the real-life letter mentioned above, and shows you how you too can write a letter just as amazing.

And at the risk of being sued, here it is:

See? I told you it was amazing. But as amazing as it most certainly is, what if such brilliance is beyond me? How can I possibly know whether I am worthy of receiving such wisdom? Well, I thought about it a long time, and I decided that the only way I will ever know is to write a letter myself. And so I did – to Virgin, who are also an airline, and who also support marriage equality. My letter is below, and Margaret, if you are reading, I hope I did you proud, and you find it a fitting tribute to the elegance and luminosity of your undeniable artistic ability.
_____

Dear Mr Board Person,

I write this as an open letter to the Virgin board as someone who works with spreadsheets a lot. Seriously, I have the best spreadsheets. Just fantastic.

As you will know, I can make a really funny noise with my ear, and I once ate a whole box of Barbecue Shapes for dinner.

Now, I’m not mad, but I’m disappointed that Virgin has decided to actively promote gender equality in the workplace. I believe that it is wrong to plough with a donkey and an ox yoked together, as stated in the bible.

I feel so strongly about this that I absolutely refuse to fly with you ever again. That is how important it is to me. But, on the other hand, I don’t like trains or buses, and I can’t fly Qantas, so I might have to fly with you sometimes. But I will give you all dirty looks.

How proud I was to promote Virgins throughout the world, from the Aircar SkyChariots to the Boeing 7-Elevens. I did this as I was absolutely quite certain that Virgins were a huge promoter of gender inequality, right up until your recent public statement.

I used to be a penguin, and will be pleased to attend your family Christmas dinner at any time. But it won’t be in March.

May the kisses of a thousand racehorses grace your birthday party.

Tim, B.BBQ Shapes, Somewhere in Scandinavia
_____

There. It is done. Thank you Margaret for your guidance, and may the kisses of a thousand racehorses grace your birthday party.

Now Is The Time To Worry About War

Donald Trump

World War III, as a concept, has descended into the realm of cliche and farce, with its imminence being used as an argument against Brexit, Trump, Clinton, intervention in Syria, non-intervention in Syria, Halal butchery, and marriage equality. If you’ve decided to stop paying attention to the screamsheets’ predictions of a major power conflict that never, ever ends up panning out, I’d say that was a sensible course. Until now, that is.

I hasten to point out that there is no cause for panic. I emphatically do not support any one of the stupid journalistic narratives of some accidental collision of forces causing an apocalyptic major power conflict – that sort of garbage is the result of far too much Hollywood and far too little actual study of the international community. We are, however, approaching a situation of some danger – a sort of near perfect storm of disturbances in the balance of power: questionable world leadership, popular unrest, and regional flashpoints.

While it may currently be trendy to identify Russia or China as future superpowers, and harp endlessly on about their supposed capabilities without reference to their deep, systemic internal problems, the fact remains that we currently live in a world that is still very much unipolar. Given this, the failure of the Trump White House to fall into any kind of rhythm is deeply concerning. To be fair, this administration has been subject to sustained attack of unprecedented savagery and disruptiveness, mostly by deeply hostile major media outlets, as well as from some elements within the government itself. I make no comment on this beyond saying that it’s a major factor in Trump’s continuing inability to put a foot right. The problem with this is that it renders previously predictable situations dangerously fluid. Add this to low-level, but intense and dirty conflicts going on all over the world, and the general instability and uncertainty surrounding the leadership of the USA’s great power supporters, and we have a potentially explosive situation.

Fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine, Central and Western Africa, and Kurdistan, tensions in the South China Sea, and the resulting humanitarian and economic effects these conflicts precipitate, all place great pressure on the current world order. Not only do they have real and significant impacts on governments and peoples, they also all  involve major powers who could conceivably be drawn into larger conflicts as a result. Weakness, confusion, or disarray in the USA can and will be seen as an opportunity for both friendly and unfriendly powers to make diplomatic and/or territorial gains on the assumption that the use or threat of force will go unpunished by a superpower preoccupied with the containment of its own Idiot in Chief. Deep divides in the UK, an unknown quantity in charge of a heavily armed and highly nervous France, a Germany whose centrality is becoming cause for fear and resentment in much of Europe, and a Japan made volatile by deeply unpopular re-militarisation, all make it possible to assume that the USA’s major allies and proxies may also be too busy to do anything about naked adventurism in any or all of the above-mentioned regions. What this can lead to is a situation where prestige politics becomes the only available option, and to judge from the few clear, concrete actions of the Trump administration, we’re practically already there.

What this can create is the kind of slow burner that eventually kicked off World War I. Leaving aside the moronically simplistic narrative taught in schools, there are remarkable similarities to the global instability which slowly manifested itself over a long period of inexorable shifts in the balance of power between 1870 and 1913. A fluid world order, such as the one which is beginning to develop now, needs adroit, courageous, and far seeing handling. It seems unlikely, given the current state of the major liberal western democracies, that we can expect such handling in the near future. I don’t for a second contend that we might wake up tomorrow to a nuclear winter, but whereas until now it’s been a matter of ‘wait and see’, I’d argue that in the past month we have edged appreciably closer to the kind of global disorder which could, if we’re not very careful, drop the first domino in a previously unthinkable chain of events.

It’s vitally important that the populations of the major and medium democratic powers remember the lessons of history, the price of nationalist or xenophobic hysteria, and send our leaders the clear message that grandstanding idiocy will not, under any circumstances, win them votes.

Emmanuel Macron – Why We Should Keep Worrying

Emmanuel Macron

I find myself in the curious (and somewhat repugnant) position of being in agreement with Andrew Bolt. As per usual, the Boltmeister is flinging partisan mud under the guise of ‘free speech’, but he makes a valid point when he expresses concern over the new French president’s domestic arrangements. I feel a little backgrounding and explaining is required here.

The collective sigh of relief as the people of France turned decisively away from Le Pen was audible around the world. This was partly due to the concern that over sixty years of patiently building of a liberal world order was being thrown away by know-nothing millenials and churlishly selfish baby boomers, which seems to be the fake issue du jour in middlebrow circles. But it was mostly, I think, to do with Trump, Russia, and the toxic, racist, fear-mongering of Le Pen, whose modus and support network were so eerily reminiscent of the US Idiot in Chief. Hacked emails, character assassinations, and a terror incident all conspired to make us wonder if the lessons of WWII were finally to be forgotten, and if France would elect a candidate who, while probably not strictly speaking a fascist, looks and sounds remarkably like one*.

When Macron was elected in what the leftist press termed ‘a landslide’ and the right wing papers ‘a solid majority’, the love poured forth. Major newspapers, left and right, are basically in favour of the establishment, especially if it doesn’t look like the establishment – a role Macron fills to perfection. Any serious analysis of his background, politics, credentials, or intentions (I’d recommend this) has been drowned out by the usual rank idiocy surrounding popular figures. Articles pondering the important questions like, “Who’s Hotter? Macron or Trudeau?” have crept up the search rankings, accompanied by pictures of Marine Le Pen looking sad or angry or otherwise gurning. But beyond the stupidity, there is a real sense of disaster averted which is probably justified – whatever else he is, Macron is from the centre and is probably a safe pair of hands. At least, much, much safer than the alternative. But as Bolt accidentally points out, there are still a few things to worry about.

Bolt wonders very loudly about the nature of Macron’s relationship with his wife. He harps on the fact that their relationship began when Macron was underage (15) and Brigitte was in her forties. He then leaves the reservation entirely, as is his wont, and begins comparing the French president to Milo Yiannopoulos. You can read the article here if you can bothered, but I’d not recommend it. He does, however, raise a couple of valid points. It’s possible, or even probable, that their initial relationship would legally be defined as abusive. He also points out that forensic media scrutiny is next to nil. And here we get to what I feel we have to worry about.

I hold the somewhat unpopular opinion that the personal lives of politicians only matter when they represent a conflict with their sworn duties. I’m aware, however, that this isn’t the case, and the positive spin being placed on the story of Macron’s love life is a function of the fact that most people are unable or unwilling to divorce private character from public function. So what happens, then, when disillusion kicks in? I use the word ‘when’ advisedly. Macron is a financier, an establishment figure and a member of the liberal elite. He believes in the balancing of interests for the greater national good, the judicious use of force, the preservation of essential but ultimately abstract freedoms – whatever his packaging, and whatever his vision for change, he knows the system and will play it, as he definitely understands that politics is the art of the possible. Which means that the love affair is definitely going to be of finite duration. Think Obama in his third year of office. And when love dies, the potential time bomb of his relationship may very well go off, dealing a potentially crippling blow to the forces of moderation in one of the lynch pins of Europe.

And not only this – there’s parliamentary elections still to come. There is a yawning gap of time between now and then during which the populace can grow into the realisation that their current idol has feet of clay, in that like all intelligent operators he is much more a servant of the constituted system than a weathercock for the loudest complaints. Any diminution of his current popularity (and it’s hard to see how it can go in any other direction) leaves the door open for revanchist and fascist forces to snap up parliamentary seats and leave Macron a lame duck president. Which is why I’d suggest it is far too early to celebrate. Macron’s victory is not the end of the war against pointy-headed populism in France – it’s just the securing of the beach head.

 

*Okay, she is a fascist, but her far right disguise is good enough to make saying that a matter of opinion rather than fact.

For the love of god, just be honest

And so, it would seem, the Safe Schools program has ended in NSW. For while our Victorian counterparts vowed to fund the program themselves after Federal funding ended, here in NSW the government is apparently Fred up with it, and has sent it sailing down the Nile.

But fear not! According to Education Minister Rob Stokes, it will be replaced with another program with a broader focus:

Bullying will never be tolerated in NSW public schools — whether it be because someone is overweight, gay, based on the colour of their skin or for any other reason.

Well that sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? School can be a horrendous experience for people who are a little different, and we should do whatever we can to eliminate the bullying elicited by such differences. And not just for LGBTIQ students, obviously. As the good minister says, children who are overweight or not white enough or who like golf are bullied, too. And if we’re serious about eliminating bullying from schools, we need to cover all these differences, right?

Well, yes, of course. But there’s a problem. Why is it that the loudest voices advocating for change are also the biggest bullies when it comes to the LGBTIQ community?
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You may have noticed lately that there are a few ostensibly contentious issues floating around. Now, I say ostensibly contentious because, really, they aren’t contentious at all. They are rendered contentious, however, by a typically small, but always influential, minority. The most contentious issue of recent times has been, to my mind anyway, the debate around Marriage Equality. But there are, and have been, a multitude of others. The debate around abortion rights, for example, never seems to go away, not to mention the sporadic agitations for euthanasia. Then there is the teaching of scripture in public schools, vaccinations, same-sex adoption and surrogacy, the gender pay gap, climate change, changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, corporate tax cuts, gun control, treatment of refugees, the decision to axe Renegade – and that’s just off the top of my head. The list, it seems lately, is endless.

Thinking about all these issues, and how we debate and decide on things as a society, I was struck by three thoughts:

  1. In most cases, the resistance appears to be geared towards maintaining the status quo;
  2. There is normally a single, core belief at the root of such resistance, which, paradoxically, is never mentioned;
  3. The decision to axe Renegade was the worst decision in the history of mankind. (You should all take a moment to watch the link before proceeding. You will thank me later.)

Thought #1 is not new, and has been observed by countless observers who observe things worthy of observation. Humans are nothing if not creatures of habit, and old habits die hard, with a vengeance, sometimes. Thought #3 is also fairly obvious. I mean come on, he was a cop and good at his job. Why would anyone axe a show like that? Thought #2, however, deserves some attention, if you can spare it.

Let’s look, for a moment, at Marriage Equality. While a large number of nations have embraced it with open arms, and have not yet descended into debaucherous anarchy, in Australia the resistance to change has been as fierce as it has been needlessly prolonged. Countless polls show public support has hovered around 70% for almost a decade, and yet still the opponents of change drone on and on with the same old tired arguments that were debunked on day one. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, you see. So we can’t possibility change it now. And it’s all about the children. Don’t forget the children.

There’s a problem, however – these arguments fall apart at the smallest nudge with a logic stick. For starters, when you’re in a debate about changing the legal definition of something, you can’t just appeal to the current definition and pretend it’s an argument. Oh, and if you are going to stubbornly point to the legal definition, you can’t claim that marriage is all about children when your cherished definition doesn’t mention children at all. Silly, right? And yet here we are, in 2017, and same-sex couples still cannot marry.

The truth is that there is not a single, logical reason to deny marriage equality. Not one. And yet still people oppose it. Why is that? Why are people still opposed to euthanasia and abortion? Why do people still deny climate change, when there is such overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
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In the case of marriage equality, the reason should be obvious – the overwhelming majority of opponents are religious. A survey of some 40,000 Americans conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that, while around 55% of Americans were in favour of marriage equality, 91% of the people who oppose it identify as religious. This can’t be a coincidence. And if it’s not a coincidence, it means that the reason they are opposed to marriage equality is not because of some disingenuous claim like children do best with their biological mother and father. It’s because they view the existence of gay, interesex and trans* people as anything from slightly distasteful to morally reprehensible, depending on affiliation.

This is not, however, a slight on the religious in general. How could it be, when the same survey found that, for every four people who support marriage equality, three of them belong to a church of some kind. Clearly there are a lot of people who are able to either reconcile their decision with their faith, or set it aside for the sake of their LGBTIQ brothers and sisters (and everyone inbetween).

Likewise, this is not an attack on the right of people of faith to oppose marriage equality because of that faith. I don’t agree with it, but if that is their choice according to their conscience, then so be it.

What I do take issue with, however, is deception – if you’re going to deny LGBTIQ couples the right to marry, at least be honest about why.
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So how does all this relate to Safe Schools? Well, why don’t we have a look at what some of our favourite people have to say about it, shall we?

“Good that NSW is scrapping so called Safe Schools, a social engineering programme dressed up as anti-bullying,” said Tony Abbott.

Apparently Tony doesn’t like social engineering presented as something else. Which is interesting, given the $250m his government set aside to put trained chaplains counsellors in government schools.

The Australian Christian Lobby can always be relied upon to fulfill Jesus’ central mission of making life miserable for gay people 1, so let’s see what they have to say:

Make our schools safe for all students
The federally funded ‘Safe Schools’ initiative is supposed to be an anti-bullying program. [But] this radical program is being used to introduce children from primary school age up to sexual concepts that are not age appropriate.

Well they sound like legitimate concerns, don’t they? We must teach children that all bullying is wrong, and the material should be age appropriate. I wonder if Lyle Shelton, the head of the ACL, would change his mind about the program’s LGBTIQ content, if those concerns were addressed? What say you, Lyle?

Despite the rainbow carpet being rolled out in schools, gender theory is highly contested with leading feminists such as Germaine Greer scathing. Women and girls should feel safe in their toilets and change rooms from male-to-female transgender people who have not undergone a sex change, they rightly say. And there is no scientific evidence that anyone is “born gay” or that little boys and girls have been born in the wrong body and that surgery, hormones, tucking or binding are the solution.

Needless to say, your intellectual rigour is on shaky ground, if you’re resorting to “leading feminists such as Germaine Greer”. In any event, we’re getting closer to the crux of the matter – it seems like Lyle is not so much concerned with the program’s specificity or age-appropriateness, as he is with the existence of gay and transgender people themselves.

Even people like Fred Nile can’t seem to just come out and say what’s really on their mind:

Naturally, we are deeply concerned about the proliferation of such programs which are ideologically driven with the aim of recruiting children.

To nobody’s surprise, he is happy to follow Tony’s lead, and merrily support the ideological teaching of Scripture in NSW public schools with the aim of recruiting children. But that’s for another time.

Unfortunately, we need to stoop to Bill Muehlenberg to find out what all of the above people are thinking, but are too afraid to say (some LGBTIQ people may want to skip this one):

The war against reality, against biology, against who we are as human beings is getting out of hand. For those of a religious persuasion, it is a direct assault on our Creator and the way we were created. In the beginning God made us male and female. He did not make us with gender fluidity or with a smorgasbord of sexual expression and choices.

And there you have it. Thought #2 in a nutshell. People like Tony Abbott, Lyle Shelton, and Fred Nile exert an extraordinary amount of energy opposing social change. They have thrown up all manner of arguments against marriage equality, euthanasia, abortion and “Safe Schools”. But no matter how many of their concerns you assuage, no matter how many of their arguments you prove misplaced or wrong, their opposition will never waver. For neither Tony Abbott, nor Lyle Shelton, nor Captain Christian himself, Fred Nile, seem to ever mention the one thing – the only thing – on which their opposition is founded.

Their god 2.

Which, when you think about it, is simultaneously a little weird, and perfectly understandable. But also really annoying.

So, to Tony, Lyle, and Nile… I, for one, wish you would talk about your god. Don’t tell us it’s all about someone’s child, unless that child is Baby Jebus. For not only are you denying your own faith, much like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, and not only would it save us all a helluva lotta debate time, but it’s downright cowardly.

Bill Muehlenberg may be an ignorant buffoon, at least he’s honest.

– Tim
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Footnotes
1. I don’t think this was Jesus’ central mission, but the ACL seems to, judging by the focus of their media releases.
2. Or rather, their own personal interpretation of their god.

The Real Malcolm Stands Up

When I look at the state of the world today, with Trump being Trump, low-level, nasty little wars burning all over the Middle East and North Africa, crazy fluctuations in global resource and commodity prices, various crises playing out in Europe, the US, and even here in quiet little Australia, the first thing which occurs to me, obviously, is that something urgently needs to be done about the way we administrate foreign workers and citizenship.

How fortunate, then, that we have a government and a Prime Minister so well versed in the arcane business of government. Weaker minds might think that our most urgent priorities might be the future-proofing of our economy, defence, and foreign policy in the face of a rapidly changing world, but this would obviously be foolish and reactionary. What’s really needed, here, is for the government to embark on six weeks of consultation about what constitutes ‘Australian values’, having first declared to the nation what they are.

Truly, we are blessed to have leaders who so intimately understand the true nature of government. Who maintain such a tight grip on what’s actually important and relevant. And it’s not just our federal pollies who display such sagacity. Even at state level, we see the same fearless integrity at work, with a government so focussed on essentials that in the face of spiralling gun and drug crime, and record voter disaffection, they have bravely chosen to spend their time dropping the Safe Schools program.

Do you remember those heady days when Tony Abbott was rolled, countries like Taiwan (Taiwan!) were in a position to find our politics laughable, and myriad Australians were calling for the “real Malcolm Turnbull” to stand up? Well, as it turns out, he was planted foursquare on his tap dancing little footsies even then. His true stature as a leader has been apparent from the very beginning, and we should be pleased and grateful for his perspicacity and foresight. Because the real Malcolm Turnbull has now proven himself to be intimately familiar with what is important in Australian politics. Some idiots might think that the real business of government is the balancing of national, public, and commercial interests as part of a process of… well, of governing the country. But no, Malcolm and his right wing puppeteers know the score. They know that the essence of government in this country is to wall oneself off from the real issues of the day and play out petty factional fights in the great forum of the nation, whilst simultaneously leaning loudly in whichever direction one thinks the wind is blowing by making nakedly populist announcements about nothing very much at all.

I, for one, am overjoyed that this government has so nobly stuck to its guns and decided to continue the age-old Australian tradition of picking on immigrants in order to gain political brownie points. It shows a real respect for core Australian political values, and reveals, unequivocally, the intelligent, informed, and generally just wonderful state of our public discourse. Tony Abbott in a Malcolm suit is exactly the hero our country needs.