Thursday, November 14, 2002

MOVING OUT TODAY

THIS BLOG HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

PLEASE READ THIS FOR DETAILS ABOUT WHERE YOU CAN NOW FIND THE ROAD TO SURFDOM


Today is the last day that I will be blogging on this site.

The entire operation has moved to a new site at this address: http://www.roadtosurfdom.com/

Yep, The Road to Surfdom has its very own domain name and (I hope) a nice reliable server.

The entire archive has been moved across, so anything you might want here is available there with the advantage of being more accessible and searchable.

The new site was made possible entirely by the work of Neale Talbot and I can't thank him enough for the time he has put in.

If people could update their links list, I'd appreciate it greatly.

There are still a few things to iron out, so if anyone has any sort of problem, could they drop me a line. But basically, apart from a few cosmetic fiddles and some other updating, it is finished and ready to go.

Now click HERE to make your way across.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

LET THE TRADE BE FREE

Well, this is something no-one predicated as being so high up the Republican agenda in the aftermath of their recent election clean sweep. The US and Australia have announced that negotiations on a free trade agreement between the two countries are to start forthwith:

Australia and the United States are to begin negotiations on a free trade agreement early next year, U.S. special trade representative Bob Zoellick confirmed Thursday.

Zoellick, in Australia for World Trade Organization talks, said he told Australian Prime Minister John Howard Thursday morning that President Bush had committed to starting the talks.

At a joint press conference in the Australian capital, Canberra, Howard said he was "delighted" at the announcement and said a free trade agreement would deliver "enormous benefit".


Well of course he did. And I guess he'd better be right.

As I say, this is all a little out of the blue, at least in terms of the timing, but it's one we can all watch with interest.
OH YE OF TOO MUCH FAITH

This insightful person seems to think he has had an hilarious and penetrating revelation. Wait for it....communism can be thought of as a religion. I bet no-one has considered this angle before:

Sure, the commies make a big deal about there not being a God...but the most radical madrassas would not produce graduates so fanatical, so obsessed as the yahoos who sell Socialist Worker on the campus quad. Marx is the messiah, Kapital the Holy Book, Noam Chomsky the pope, the Ramsey Clark Freakzaoid Brigade the college of cardinals. (Christopher Hitchens - still a hard leftie, despite his support for war on Iraq - is Martin Luther. Tony Blair is a lapsed socialist. Ex-socialist David Horowitz is Satan.)

And then the big punchline:

"Religion is the opiate of the masses," said Marx. Well, Marxism is the opiate of fucking morons.

Well, it's always hard to argue with such an acute mixture of humour and learnedness. But even so, what precisely is the point of the comparison and why does it count as an insult to say that communism (which he very loosely associates with what the press mis-labels "anti-globalisation" protesters) is perhaps treated as a religion by some advocates? I mean, think about it: forgetting about how unoriginal and unfunny the comment is, and even perhaps forgetting whether or not the comparison is sustainable, what exactly is the force of the criticism being levelled?

Is it simply that some people believe in something based on faith rather than empirical evidence? Then wouldn't the criticism be better directed at, oh I don't know, Christians? If your criteria is scientific evidence, then there are more serious breaches within that, or any other actual religion, than there are within communism. I mean, at least Marx existed.

Is Daimnation really just making fun of people who rely on some level of faith? Or does the insult lie in the fact that communism claims a scientific basis for its tenets?

Of course, those who follow the science of capitalism exhibit none of these attributes. No unsubstantiated beliefs. No gross simplifications to make a point. No idols and no priestly caste. No central temples and regional churches. No straying sheep. No faith in abstractions, even in the face of evidence. No vision of a better life based on right behaviour. Just Gradgrindian fact. Absolutely nothing like a religion.

According to some, Jesus made the lame walk. With a bit of luck, he might reappear and provide the same service for Daimnation's lame observation.

UPDATE: Just noticed that James Russell was thinking similar thoughts and got in ahead of me.
JUST PRETEND YOUR INSANE

The game of they'll bomb him-they'll bomb him not continues. As Hesiod points out, Colin Powell is saying that if Saddam fails to comply with the latest UN resolution it won't necessarily trigger an invasion. Hesiod wonders, "Is this a stall tactic because the U.S. is not able, presently, to attack? Or is it an indication that President Bush was bluffing all along?" and concludes, "My interpretation...it's the former."

Another possibility is suggested by this declassified document from the policy subcommittee to the Strategic Advisory Group (SAG). As this article explains:

In 1995, CINCSTRAT Admiral Chiles directed the policy subcommittee to the Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) to produce a Terms of Reference that could be used as a baseline for other SAG subcommittees in "expanding the Deterrence of the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction."

The work continued the efforts of STRATCOM and other elements of the Pentagon to adjust U.S. nuclear doctrine to the changes that occurred with the demise of the Soviet Union and the increasing focus on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The result was a eight-page outline of deterrence theory and its potential application against enemies armed with weapons of mass destruction in the Post-Cold War era. The study emphasized a value-based deterrence, holding at risk those assets that mean most to an opponent.


The fun bit of the document, and the bit that might explain why Powell is seemingly at odds with others in the Administration is this:

Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the US may
do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it
hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The
fact that some elements may appear to be potentially "out of control"
can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts thin the
minds of an adversary's decision makers. This essential sense of fear
is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational
and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the
national persona we project to all adversaries.


It's a similar strategy to the one Mel Gibson used in one of the Lethal Weapon movies where he makes funny noises and slaps himself in the face to distract the guy he is fighting and then thumps the bejesus out of him. It worked for Mel, and I've written before on the way in which the US Government is always keen to employ the methodology of Hollywood.

More seriously, the difficult thing with such a strategy is that for a pretence of being out of control to have any force, you actually have to be out of control (that is, unpredictable in your actions) otherwise your enemy will soon figure out you're pretending and won't take you seriously anymore. This is very likely to happen if you write long papers about you intend to pretend to be out of control and then release them on the internet.

Confused? Good. But the rest of the document is worth a read, simply for the insight it offers into Administration thinking at the time of the first Gulf War.
VOICE BELIEVED TO BE AUTHENTIC

Washington authorities today released an audio taped message spoken by a voice believed to be that of Vice-President, Dick Cheney. Although FBI and CIA language experts could not confirm conclusively that the message came from Cheney--admitting that it had been so long since anyone had heard him talk that they had just forgotten what he sounds like--they nonetheless were confident that an identification could be made. When asked to comment if he thought the voice on the tape was in fact Mr Cheney, White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said, "who?" Analysis of the mysterious voice continues.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

THE BLOG OF LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING

De Spectaculis points us towards this piece which muses on the connection between humour and terrorism. The article is worth a read, as are De Spectaculis's comments on it.

But's it's ultimately a hodge-podge of a piece. What it tries do is suggest that because of some non-western attribute, Islamic terrorists lack a sense of humour (unlike, say, the IRA, who were really funny guys). It suggests that there is something unique about western humour, and then it tries to link a lack of a sense of humour amongst militant Islamacists with a willingness of the left to excuse such lack. Or something:

DOES THE EUROPEAN Left have a humor problem? The current issue of Merkur, a highbrow German journal devoted to ''European thought,'' explores this ticklish subject. Roughly half of the contributors address the topic of humor and 9/11, and along with the inevitable analyses of American humor after the terrorist attacks, there are a number of well-written polemics excoriating what the authors view as a fundamental hostility within the Islamic world toward Western ideas of fun - and the European Left's tendency to sidestep or blame the West for this hostility.


So there are two aspects here, the interesting idea that terror arises from humourlessness and that the left can't give, get or take a joke.

On the former point I think we can reasonably conclude that abuse of power speaks to a certain lack of joviality, though I wonder if you can quite cast it in this "clash of civilisations" type framework. Fart cushions and poo-jokes are equally out of place in the halls of absolute power of west as much as the east. The idea that humour belongs to the good guys is a staple of political literature and not devoid of truth as readers of, say, Milan Kundera or Vladimir Nabokov would be well aware. There is something fundamentally humourless about the exercise of power and the more draconianly you want to exercise it, the less likely you are to be the life of the party. Power, as Ellis said, devolves to the most boring person in the room, and boring and humourless go together nicely.

But this is too big a topic for a blog post, so let me just deal with the second accusation, yawn, about humour and the left.

That the left lack a sense of humour (or in this case, sneakily, the European left), is a polemical ploy that has the distinct advantage of being forceful without the need to be substantive. It's part of a general method of attack upon the left that works like this - find a trait you think is admirable and then declare, preferably with no evidence, that your political/philosophical opponents don't have it.

Thus the left is variously of accused of being unpatriotic, humourless, against family values, anti-children, anti-American, anti-western, anti-progress, unAmerican, unAustralian (substitute country at will) unwashed, unkempt, unemployed, unintelligent, just plain butt unly. The beauty of the technique is that the more the target objects to it, the more likely they are to look guilty, and this is especially true of the charge of being humourless.

So saying that someone or some group has no sense of humour works well because to try and respond to the criticism is to just about to prove the point - there is nothing less funny than someone trying to prove that they have a sense of humour (as readers of Ken Parish's blog will appreciate). As logical as humour must be (that is, however absurd it gets it needs to be internally consistent to work) there is simply no logical proof you can present to show you have a sense of humour, let alone the right sort of sense of humour. It doesn't matter how unfair the accusation is, the more you protest, the more humourless you are going to look (I was joking, Ken).

The accusation of not being funny is one that cuts deeply. This is probably because we recognise that humour is such a fundamental aspect of human existence that to be accused of lacking it is to be accused of being less than human. In other words, to be accused of being unfunny is a serious accusation. So important is having a sense of humour that countries build up a self-image around the idea that their style of humour is somehow better than everybody else's.

Thus the Brits will tell you, straightfaced, that their comedy is the most subtle and sophisticated available on the world market, that Americans "just don't get" irony and that the entire German nation has had a humour by-pass. In a land with an unwritten constitution, that is, one where ultimate knowledge still resides in an oral tradition, these three oft-uttered statements have the status of immutable truth.

The fact that you can dispel each of them in turn by simply saying Carry-on movies, The Simpsons and, well, there must be something I can use as representative of the depth of German humour (I'm sure it will come to me) is a reasonable indication of the flimsiness of the claim.

Of course, a lot of humour is culturally specific: Australians wet themselves when the guys started pushing Victa lawn mowers around during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics, but I suspect no-one else did, or not for the same reasons. But that's quite different from saying that such-and-such a nation has no sense of humour. Ultimately, we accuse others of being humourless at the perpetual risk of the limits of our own tolerance to humour being breached. And there are always limits. And they are always breached.

Even the author of the article in question, although he tries to cover his arse by pretending that he is willing to laugh at some of the tactics of the Bush Administration (as if to say, see I can laugh at my side) shows himself, nonetheless, to be sensitive to accusations that fall outside his particular humour tolerance zone, even in the opening paragraph with the passing comment about "the inevitable analyses of American humor after the terrorist attacks." What's the matter, Jefferson, don't like it when the nasty German's say you can't take a joke?

He also gets something terribly wrong in this paragraph I think:

If humor is an index of a society's capacity for self-criticism - and the confidence that self-criticism presupposes - then it is not coincidental that the American media's most immediate reaction to 9/11 was a temporary joke moratorium on programs like the ''Tonight Show with Jay Leno.'' It is to America's credit that before long Leno's groaners resumed and computer-altered photos of Osama bin Laden posing next to Bert from ''Sesame Street'' appeared on the Internet. It certainly does not say much for the sophistication of the anti-American demonstrators in Pakistan that they downloaded these very images and used them on placards.

Um, Leno doing jokes about bin Laden says nothing about America's capacity to use humour as self-criticism. And when a comic did try to do actual jokes about 911 as a form of criticism (Bill Maher's comments about the US being cowards for dropping bombs from planes rather than flying them into buildings) he lost his job and the show got axed.

Anyway, saying the the left lacks a sense of humour is about as compelling as saying America lacks a sense of irony. Neither accusation can be sustained. I know a lot of lefties who can spend hours laughing at George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and even Rush Limbaugh (and even, sometimes, during the bits where he's trying to be funny). As to Americans lacking irony: well, what could be more ironic than a nation that prides itself on its rugged individualism, its frontier spirit, its can-do resourcefulness and its tolerance of diversity, and that is also the place where every olive on every supermarket shelf is already pitted, where every movie has a happy ending, where hamburgers are produced with communist comformity, and where Paul Wellstone was considered a radical lefty?

Monday, November 11, 2002

HIT ME WITH YOUR RHYTHM CLICK

I don't know who nominated me, but thank you to whomever it was that submitted this site to the MSNBC "Best of the blogs". I'm really glad they mentioned my nomination of Jeff Cooper too. And, to make it a fun night all round, I notice they mention another Australian site, this one from the Gold Coast:

"This weblog was primarily built as a research site for Communication & Cyber Theory at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia, and will continue as a research and fact gathering blog about the phenomenon that is weblogging."

Ah, those communication departments, putting the meta into everything.

Speaking of new listings, one worth checking out is De Spectaculis

It's new and anonymous, but it sounds like the owner has an interesting job:

That's what I do: conflict context analysis. Using my field's jargon, we call it "Peace and Conflict Impact Analysis" (PCIA--the "Peace" was added after people decided the acronym might not be appropriate. Seriously). I do analysis of contexts and potential impacts on the conflict. I also teach others how to do it. I'd link to some of the tools, but most of the ones available on the web are simply not practical. Don't worry, I'll get around to a fuller discussion someday.


I look forward to it. I'm almost tempted to apply for work.

Saturday, November 09, 2002

TRADING ON INSULTS - JOHN HOWARD AND THE ANTI-ASIAN TAG

A number of ozbloggers have been critical of a recent piece by Opposition trade spokeperson, Craig Emerson, in which he says that our beloved Prime Minister is anti-Asian. To hear the bloggers speak you'd think that Howard had never given people reason to think this before and that Emerson was uttering something that had never crossed anyone's mind. Is it simply a measure of Howard's new-found (hard-won?) respectability that it is now taboo to even mention what was once a commonplace? Or are my fellow bloggers just being a bit precious?

Now I think there are problems with Emerson's article, not least its repetitiveness. There is also the fact that whatever views he holds about Howard, you can't make the easy extension and say that his attitudes pervade our entire trade and foreign policy. But Howard anti-Asian?

Well, for a start it's hard to know what it might even mean. Emerson links it to the notion of preferring to trade with nations other than Asian ones. But I suspect that the ozbloggers are getting upset about more than that. Ken Parish calls the article "unAustralian", "completely repugnant" and "disgusting" (though I note that he seems to have toned down the comments he originally had on his site). Gareth Parker backs him up.

It seems likely then, that what has people upset is the suggestion that Howard doesn't like Asians as a "race", that he is racist, or something approaching it. Given that "racist" as a term is fraught on any number of levels, let's just deal with the idea that Howard lacks an empathy for Asians. How does this claim stack up?

He did, after all, introduce "race" into political debate back in 1988, declaring we should cut back on Asian immigration ('slowed down a little' was the exact phrase). As I've said, Ken Parish, for one, rejects outright the claim that Howard is anti-Asian, but what else would you call someone who says we should have fewer Asians coming to live here? Pro-Asian? The comments ended Howard's leadership of the Liberal Party at the time and brought many in his own party out against him. Phillip Ruddock, and a fewothers, crossed the floor and voted against him on a motion that urged an "unqualified commitment" not to use race or ethnic origin as a basis of immigration policy. It was a commitment Howard would not give.

Whether it amounts to racism is another matter. I'm well aware of Katharine Betts' line that the issues raised by Howard (and Blainey) don't actually amount to racism, but this still seems an open question to me. She says:

I define racism as the belief
that cultural characteristics are biologically determined, that they cannot be
changed, and that groups sharing these characteristics can be ranked in a
hierarchy of inferiority and superiority. This belief is wrong and it has been used
to excuse terrible acts. The word ‘racism’ describes some of the greatest evils we have
seen. When it is used loosely as a catchall term of abuse, we trivialize something which
should be taken very seriously. For example are ethnic preferences in choice of
marriage partners racism, or just personal preference?
It's fashionable now to call racism as I've defined it ‘old racism’ and to say that today
we must struggle against ‘new racism’. But this ‘new racism’ seems to involve
nothing more than preferring to mix with people like yourself. Such behaviour may
sometimes be cliquey and unfriendly but it's a long way from slavery and mass
murder.


Pretty compelling, isn't it? And yet. Surely the line can't be drawn as neatly as this. Even if what Betts calls old racism is different in degree to new racism, it isn't different in kind. Now I'm not saying that it is a trivial difference, but it suggests the two forms are on a continuum rather than on opposite sides of the paper. Thus, different people will interpret different behaviours as being more or less to a given end of the continuum, and such a judgement will be affected by things like their political affiliation. So it is probably fair enough to say that there is a degree of political opportunism being excercised by those who label Howard racist and that this might amount to a misuse of the term. And yet.

Where does Howard's statement, reported by Saun Carney in his biography of Treasurer Peter Costello, that he (Howard) was "uncomfortable" with the number of Asian faces on the streets of Sydney fall on the continuum?

The tendency today, in a political and punditry climate more favourable to Howard, is to reinterpret his flirtations with "race talk" as a brave and necessary challenge to the stifling atmosphere of political correctness that pervaded at the time. I 'd go along with this to some extent. Any talk of changing levels of immigration was far too easily labelled racist if it suited the political agenda of some people. And yet.

What about Howard's softly softly approach to Pauline Hanson? Was Hanson racist? Or was she just a step further along the continuum than Howard? He said the rate of specifically Asian immigration should be "slowed down a little." She said we were being swamped by Asians. Her words, in fact, mimic very closely a speech Margaret Thatcher made to the Conservative Party in 1978. She said Britain was being swamped by Asians. And as Paul Kelly reminds us in The End of Certainty, at the time Howard made his Asian immigration comments, he was well under the influence of Mrs Thatcher, having spent some time with her imbibing her credo of "never apologise, never withdraw." Kelly suggests that it was stubbornness, born of Thatcher's influence, that accounts for Howard's failure to withdraw his comments even as it cost him the leadership. But surely he wouldn't have stuck by an opinion he didn't really believe?

What if we abandon the charge of racism and simply say that Howard isn't comfortable with people not of his own ethnic group. That would be okay on Betts's understanding. What if we took it a smidge further and said, Howard just doesn't really like people from Asia. This seems to be Emerson's plan in using the term "anti-Asian", though it also seems clear that many have read it as code for a charge of racism. I think it probably is. But if we're going to allow that sort of analysis, then it is reasonable to apply it to Howard as well and say that his comments about immigration and Hanson were code, euphemisms, for his anti-Asian feelings which may or may not have been racist.

After all, for some reason, he thought it worth singling out Asia as the place from where Australia should take fewer immigrants, so presumably there was something in particular about Asians that he found problematic. According to Betts, this is okay and doesn't amount to racism because it isn't inspired by feelings of superiority or a desire to do physical harm. Okay, but it does amount to not liking them, doesn't it? And where exactly is the line between not liking someone and thinking you are better than them? I mean, it can exist. I don't like plenty of people whom I can happily acknowledge are not worse people than me. But when you associate that dislike (discomfort if you prefer) with a group ("race") of people and single them out for special consideration because of membership of that group, well, then, at the very least it suggests that Betts's line between "old" and "new" racism isn't as clear-cut as she suggests.

Howard's approach in this matter (less Asian immigration) also smacks a little--just a little--of her other criteria for actual racism, namely, a belief that they, other "races", cannot be changed. Presumably Howard thought there was something unchangeable about Asians that made them problematic as a category of immigrants? Surely if he thought they could change, which can only mean, fit in better and be more like Australians, then there would have been no problem with them coming in almost any numbers. But if you thought they couldn't change.

But how can Howard be anti-Asian? As another blogger, Alex Robson, notes:

In today's Melbourne Age, Labor Party hack Craig Emerson writes: "Consistent with the Prime Minister's long-held beliefs, the government is turning its back on Asia"
and, "Maybe the Prime Minister hasn't changed his spots: he just doesn't like Asians."
Robson then offers a bunch of examples of where the Howard government has actually dealt with Asia. For example:

25 October, 2002: Speaking at the APEC Leaders CEO Summit in Mexico, Anti-Asian John Howard announces that the Anti-Asian Australian Government will grant tariff and quota free access for 50 of the world's poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and East Timor.


25 October, 2002: Renowned Anti-Asian John Howard announces that the Anti-Asian Australian Government will provide an additional $10 million over four years to assist Indonesia build its counter-terrorism capacity.

8 August, 2002: Renowned Anti-Asian John Howard announces that he has "been advised by the Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji that Anti-Asian Australia’s Northwest Shelf Venture has been chosen by China to be the sole supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to its first LNG project in Guangdong province. The contract will be worth between $20 - $25 billion in export income for Anti-Asian Australia. This is Anti-Asian Australia's largest single export deal. Starting from 2005–06 the venture will supply over 3 million tonnes of LNG per year for 25 years. It is likely to entail an eventual additional investment in a fifth LNG processing train for the Northwest Shelf facilities on the Burrup peninsula, which in itself would be worth about $1.5 billion."


But this proves precisely nothing. You can still be anti-Asian, not like Asians, and decide to do business with them. We do business with Saddam Hussein but I don't think Alex would argue we are therefore pro-Hussein.

A further point in this regard is made by John Quiggin. He thinks that Howard's critics have overstated the extent of our withdrawal from Asia but that there are some grounds for noting a change in attitude. He quotes a piece by Cavan Hogue:

That balance sheet shows a government whose public statements have sent the message that Australia is not part of Asia, that relations with Asia must be balanced against important relations with our great and powerful friends, and that previous Australian governments gave too much emphasis to Asia...If you constantly tell people they are not as important to you as they used to be, then you can't blame them for believing you.

Nor can you entirely avoid the label of anti-Asian.

In brief, John Howard has a clear record of antipathy towards Asia, often defining himself in terms of trying to minimise involvement with them. Of course, given our position in the world, we must both trade with Asian countries and allow immigration from them, a fact Howard recognises, but there is little or no evidence that this is other than another strand of his much-vaunted political pragmatism.

His early approach to immigration is, I think, the most revealing aspect. Remember, it was not simply a matter of controlling immigration in general, which anybody who believes in sovereign states has to acknowledge is a legitimate concern of government. No, Howard wanted to limit specifically Asian immigration. He was uncomfortable with Asian faces on the streets of Sydney. It mightn't be racism, but I think it makes the minimum requirements of being anti-Asian. So why the fuss about Emerson revisiting the accusation?

Perhaps a further point is the one made by Ken Parish, and with which I agree: "I can't blame Labor members for getting increasingly desperate about their prospects under Simon Crean's leadership. But if 'arse licking' and 'anti-Asian' rhetoric are the best alternatives they can offer, then God help us." Emerson should realise that the line just doesn't play and that his job is to articulate an actual trade policy.

But whether Emerson's clumsiness absolves Howard of the charge, I have my doubts.

Friday, November 08, 2002

KILL THE WORLD TRADE ORGANISATION

According to Professor Andrew Rose, there is no proof at all that the World Trade Organisation has done anything to help, well, world trade. Bummer. And he's written a report to prove it:

While theory, casual empiricism, and strong statements abound, there is, to
my knowledge, no compelling empirical evidence showing that the GATT/WTO has actually
encouraged trade. In this paper, I provide the first comprehensive econometric study of the
effect of the postwar multilateral agreements on trade. It turns out that membership in the
GATT/WTO is not associated with enhanced trade, once standard factors have been taken into
account. To be more precise, countries acceding or belonging to the GATT/WTO do not have
significantly different trade patterns than non-members. Not all multilateral institutions have
been ineffectual; I find that the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) extended from the
North to developing countries approximately doubles trade. Thus the data and methodology
clearly can deliver strong results. I conclude that we currently do not have strong empirical
evidence that the GATT/WTO has systematically played a strong role in encouraging trade.


The whole thing is pretty fascinating, especially his rather flippant style. Still, there is plenty of good solid economic jargon in there too, and some actual mathematical equations, so it must be reputable. Honestly, the paper is a hoot. Be interested to hear what the resident economists of blogland have to say.

Still, if you want the short version, there is this BBC article.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

THE LATEST PITCH FROM HITCH - WHISPERING TRUTH TO POWER

Bargarz alerts us to this latest piece from Christopher Hitchens which includes this rather extraordinary admission (my emphasis):

"From conversations I have had on this subject in Washington, I would say that the most fascinating and suggestive conclusion is this: After Sept. 11, several conservative policy-makers decided in effect that there were "root causes" behind the murder-attacks. These "root causes" lay in the political slum that the United States has been running in the region, and in the rotten nexus of client-states from Riyadh to Islamabad. Such causes cannot be publicly admitted, nor can they be addressed all at once. But a slum-clearance program is beginning to form in the political mind."

Excuse me, but wasn't it such suggestions--that there were "root causes"--that caused Hitchens to indulge in apoplectic rages against the vile left for even daring to suggest that there might be reasons why "they" hate "us" and fly planes into buildings? Let's remind ourselves of the no uncertain terms in which it was said (my emphasis):

"I was apprehensive from the first moment about the sort of masochistic e-mail traffic that might start circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter, and I was not to be disappointed. With all due thanks to these worthy comrades, I know already that the people of Palestine and Iraq are victims of a depraved and callous Western statecraft. And I think I can claim to have been among the first to point out that Clinton's rocketing of Khartoum...But there is no sense in which the events of September 11 can be held to constitute such a reprisal, either legally or morally....It is worse than idle to propose the very trade-offs that may have been lodged somewhere in the closed-off minds of the mass murderers....Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content."

Now, apparently, we are to applaud such reasoning, to endorse its "intellectual content" because some conservatives have told Hitchens quietly over drinks that, yeah, it all might just have something to do with US foreign policy in the region.

So we endorse those who whisper off-the-record--mmm, yes it's "fascinating"..."suggestive"--and scorn those who tell the truth so everyone can hear it.

I think Chris needs to re-read his Orwell.
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THE NEW ROAD TO SURFDOM SITE

Yes, folks. Change is in the air. Thanks to the wonderful Neale Talbot, I'm about to move operations to a new Moveable Type site. Transfer of archives is happening soon and I will be posting at the new site ASAP. I'll put the new address up here soon.

If I have your email address, I'll contact you personally. If you want to be on that list, send me an email and I'll include you. But keep checking back as the new address will be posted here.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

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NOT STUPID, JUST AWFUL

Back on the job after a US pilgrimage, Captain America, Tim Blair, reminds us that George W. Bush is not stupid. Indeed, Tim waxes embarrassingly about the genius in the White House. Apparently George went to school, went to university and has a steady job.

Thus far, the reputed idiot Bush has graduated from Yale and Harvard, made a stack of cash in the oil industry, become the first consecutive-term governor of Texas, defeated a dual-term VP for the Presidency, and led his party to yesterday's extraordinary triumphs.

Yep, it's the American dream. Poor little Georgey, born into poverty, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, fought substance abuse....well, at least some of that's right. As Tim says, "Let his opponents keep calling him stupid; if they do, within five years Bush will be King of England, the Pope, and world Formula One motor racing champion."

True enough, but hardly the point. The thing is, some people don't think he's stupid, they just don't think he's worth fawning over in this way. We reserve our right to dislike him, to be unimpressed by his lying, by his approach to public policy, his instinctive urge to to give a leg-up to the already wealthy, to indulge in blatant cronyism, to allow his Administration to trample civilised, democratic conventions, if not actual laws (can we have the papers now, Mr Cheney?), to talk to the citizens of his country and the people of the world as if they were stupid, to pretend to be some down-home ordinary guy that he quite clearly isn't and never could be. Amongst other things.

Reading this sort of goo-goo eyed adoration I get an inkling of how sick conservatives used to get when lefties licked at the boots of the likes of Paul Keating or Bill Clinton. George W. sure isn't stupid (as I've previously argued) but this is about as revealing as saying Arkansas isn't in Tasmania.
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DEMOCRACY LITE - JUST ONE PARTY

It is a fact universally acknowledged that people won't vote for your party if they think your party is just pretending to be like the other party.

Essentially, the Dems were out-spent and out-thought. They tried to make themselves a small target, to present themselves on key issues as identical to the Administration in the hope that those issues would therefore become irrelevant. This is a risky strategy when the issues involved are as important as national security, taxation and war. And it didn't work (anymore than it did for the Australian Labor Party at our last federal election.)

People want to know what parties really think about these things and it is just plain insulting not to tell them. If one party runs dead on key issues then the electorate is presented with two choices, which they probably don't think about as explicitly or as as consciously as this, but that nonetheless, at some level, inform their opinion: the Dems either really agree with the Administration on these issues in which case there is no good reason to vote for the Dems over the Republicans; or, the Dems don't actually agree with Republicans on these issues and they are therefore lying.

The only reason any party would give citizens this choice, even if only by implication, is because they don't really think the citizens can figure out the strategy. Well, apparently they can, and now Republicans hold power in both Houses.

A number of bloggers, most especially MyDD have pointed out that the Republican margins are quite small but that the GOP will rule as if they won 100 percent of the votes.

The presumption in such a conclusion is that at some level, the issues on which the election was ostensibly fought have not been decided by the outcome of the election. What they are saying, in other words, is that because their governing margin is small, there is still considerable opposition to those positions, even perhaps majority opposition, which is somehow hidden by a low voter turnout and the lack of alternative position offered by the Democrats.

I think this misses the point, in that a small majority to all intents and purposes IS as good as an absolute one. It has to be so. Even though democracies at their best work on the basis of informed deliberation throughout the election cycle, eventually decisions have to be made and this means deliberation gives way to aggregation. That is, people vote on something, you add up the votes and the the person with the most votes wins. Once you accept this condition, and there is really nothing wrong with it, then a small victory is the same as a big one. In fact, to some extent, democracy is predicated on this understanding in that to work, losers must always accept the legitimacy of the vote and concede power to the majority faction.

But this is where the Dems abdication of engagement on key issues becomes negligence. They were never interested in discussing the issues, only in winning the vote. Deliberation was replaced with an election strategy, and a not very successful one as it turned out. Not only did they short-circuit the deliberative phase of the process by not arguing the toss, they have handed the legitimacy of electorate to the GOP and have thus undermined any future attempts they might make to challenge these positions. The GOP, with both Houses and the Presidency under their control, do get to act as if they won every seat.

But let's not forget, even if the Dems facilitated this charade, the GOP were hardly blameless. Far from applauding the Republicans on their brilliant strategy, there is every reason to chastise them on the same grounds.

For instance, I find it extraordinary that people can rave about the extent to which the President "involved" himself so much in the election when in fact he didn't have to answer one direct question on a single key issue. Is there any more insulated political figure in world politics than the President of the United States?

He's "involved" in the campaign in a democratic and political sense in the same way that Jay Leno is involved in the staging and production of The Tonight Show. Like a television front man, Bush just gets to show up at rallies populated by his supporters who would, let's face it, cheer if he stood up and sang I'm a Little Teapot, and all he has to do is make like an evangelist, recite his motherhood statements about the resilience and greatness of the American people, take a bow, and be deemed "Presidential".

How would American politics change if the actual President had to do what they pay Ari Fleischer to do?

Anyway, the world's most powerful country is today a one-party state partly because the opposition were incapable of presenting a viable alternative and abdicated their role in making the incumbents answerable, and partly because a majority of the freedom-loving citizens couldn't be bothered voting.

Okay, so I'm being a bit hyperbolic, but if a small majority on a less-than-fifty-percent turnout does mean that a lot, or even most, Americans do not actually support the positions of the GOP, then Tom Daschle and the other Democrat leaders have done a disservice not just to their supporters but to the whole country.

In fact, there is a much bigger issue at stake here. The failure is not ultimately with the Democratic Party. It is with a system--a two-party, big-money, non-proportional representational system--that does not allow other voices into the process and that leaves voters with a non-choice between two groups fighting over the same handful of swing-voters on the same issues from basically the same angle. If one party fails to hold up their end of the democratic bargain, as I believe the Democrats did, and not present a real alternative, then there is simply no-one else who can step into the breach and do it. The system is rigged against genuine representation.

Exactly the same criticism holds back home in Australia. In an era where choice is such a catch-cry, why do we all put up with this oligarchy?