The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what happened next was… nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

Or have we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, so predictable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope that helps!

Religious Protections? How Astonishing!

scott-morrison

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

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

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

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

Jordan Peterson – The World’s Most Popular Halfwit

jordan peterson

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Morrison’s ‘Upbeat’ Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say no.

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.