Saturday, November 09, 2002


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

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


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


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.


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



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.


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?

Tuesday, November 05, 2002



I've spent most of the day preparing for the 'festival of the vote' party we are having at our house tonight. Some ungodly number of our nearest and dearest friends are joining us for an all-eating, all-drinking evening in front of a couple of tellies tuned to different stations, probably CNN and MSNBC (how could you not watch Chris Matthews rabbit on on a night like this?!).

I'm particularly looking forward to the election edition of the Late Show, the nearest thing the US has to a Roy and HG experience - and believe me, it is up to standard.

Apart from the TV coverage, I'll also be tuning in regularly to the stupendous political blog, MyDD for regular updates. If anyone in Australia wants to keep up with the unfolding story of the election, I'd recommend it highly.

Despite my criticisms in the piece below, I have to say that this is a really exciting night and one I've been looking forward to for a while. It is completely fascinating to see how someone else does democracy and to realise that stuff we take for granted is not heard of here and vice versa.

The other fascinating thing is the extent to which this election mirrors the most recent federal election in Australia, in that you have a conservative incumbent running hard on national security issues and an opposition party too gutless to offer a real alternative. If the comparison holds, which I think it does, it is going to be a bad night for the Democrats.

Still, my sources tell me that if the Dems can get out the vote (that is, actually convince people to vote) then they are in a with chance (of controlling the Senate, that is).

Now, back to the oven.


Today is mid-term election day in the US. Both the Senate and the House of Reps are up for grabs. Most likely the Reps will stay with Republicans. The Senate, currently evenly divided between the two majors and with a single independent keeping either side from an outright majority, is too close to call. Basically, the balance of power in the world's only superpower and fledgling imperium is up for grabs. The economy is in trouble, "homeland" security is an ever-present issue, the country is on the verge of a war with Iraq, is in the middle of one with terrorism, specifically in Afghanistan, the President has been on the hustings for weeks and has thus made the election something of a referendum on himself, major policy issues loom including health care and prescription drugs, we are still in the shadow of the biggest Wall Street nose dive since the great depression and some of the most egregious corporate corruption ever experienced. In other words, this is a pretty important time.

Nonetheless, a majority of Americans will choose not to vote. For some reason they have their voting during the week rather than on the weekend, thus making it that much harder for working people to get to a polling booth. Some just don't bother anyway. A whole bunch of those who do vote will have their vote not count because the world's greatest democracy apparently hasn't figured out a relatively fool proof way of collecting and counting votes. This is not just a problem in Flori-duh either. Most of the votes, regardless, will follow the money. The connection between big money and electoral success will be cemented more firmly than ever, which is good news for the Republicans who are led by the most successful money-raising President in history. We all have our talents and our uses, I guess.

While all this anti-democracy democracy is playing out, the rest of us in the world get to sit back and watch, safe in the knowledge that no matter who they vote for, an American will always win.

Monday, November 04, 2002



Like a lot of bloggers, Robert Corr links approvingly to this article by Salman Rushdie. Like me, Robert thinks there is a case for ousting Hussein on the grounds that he oppresses his people rather than because he is a threat to the US and its allies. The Rushdie article seems to support this position, but I wonder if it really does.

Rushdie begins by saying this:

In this strange, unattractive historical moment, the extremely strong anti-Saddam Hussein argument isn't getting a fraction of the attention it deserves. This is, of course, the argument based on his three-and-a-half-decade-long assault on the Iraqi people. He has impoverished them, murdered them, gassed and tortured them, sent them off to die by the tens of thousands in futile wars, repressed them, gagged them, bludgeoned them and then murdered them some more.

Saddam and his ruthless gang of cronies from his home village of Tikrit are homicidal criminals, and their Iraq is a living hell. This obvious truth is no less true because we have been turning a blind eye to it - and "we" includes, until recently, the government of the United States, an early and committed supporter of the "secular" Saddam against the "fanatical" Islamic religionists of the region. Nor is it less true because it suits the politics of the Muslim world to inveigh against the global bully it believes the US to be, while it tolerates the all-too-real monsters in its own ranks. Nor is it less true because it's getting buried beneath the loudly made but poorly argued US position, which is that Saddam is a big threat, not so much to his own people but to us.

Okay, this is all very well. But Rushdie also wants to set himself part from the anti-war crowd and so goes onto say:

Iraqi opposition groups in exile have been trying to get the West's attention for years. Until recently, however, the Bush people weren't giving them the time of day. Now, there's a change in Washington's tune. Good. One may suspect the commitment of the Wolfowitz-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis to the creation and support of a free, democratic Iraq, but it remains the most desirable of goals.

This is the hard part for anti-war liberals to ignore.

Two things need to be said initially. One is that "anti-war liberals" aren't ignoring this. The second is that with this set up, Rushdie seems to be saying that the case for "regime change", on these grounds at least, is unequivocal; that it simply must happen. But is this what he really ends up arguing?

In fact, he ends up outlining the very things that anti- or reluctant-war types tend to cite, especially the nasty precedent that a US first-strike policy conjures:

Unilateralist action by the world's only hyperpower looks like bullying because, well, it is bullying. And America's new pre-emptive strike policy would, if applied, make America itself a much less safe place, because if the US reserves the right to attack any country it doesn't like the look of, then those who don't like the look of the US might feel obliged to return the compliment. It's not always as smart as it sounds to get your retaliation in first.

And, he goes further, making the basic anti-war case, as near as I can tell:

Also deeply suspect is the US insistence that its anti-Saddam obsession is a part of the global war on terror....The connection between Saddam and al Qaeda remains comprehensively unproven, whereas the presence of the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, and of al Qaeda sympathisers in that country's intelligence services, is well known. Yet nobody is talking about attacking Pakistan.

Nor does America's vagueness about its plans for a post-Saddam Iraq and its own "exit strategy" inspire much confidence....does America really have the determination to (a) dismantle the Baathist one-party state and (b) avoid the military strongman solution that has been so attractive to American global scenarists in the past - "our son of a bitch", as Roosevelt once described the dictator Somoza in Nicaragua? Does it (c) have the long-term stomach for keeping troops in Iraq, quite possibly in large, even Vietnam-size numbers, for what could easily be a generation, while democracy takes root in a country that has no experience of it whatever; a country, moreover, bedevilled by internal divisions and separatist tendencies? How will it (d) answer the accusations that any regime shored up by US military power, even a democratic one, would just be an American puppet? And (e) if Iraq starts unravelling and comes apart on America's watch, is the administration prepared to take the rap for that?

These are some of the reasons I, among others, have remained unconvinced by President Bush's Iraqi grand design.

Well, indeed. But he has already made the point that for other reasons (one other reason) regime change must happen. So despite all these concerns, we just have to do it. Right? Nup:

But as I listen to Iraqi voices describing the numberless atrocities of the Saddam years, then I am bound to say that if, as now seems possible, the US and the United Nations do agree on a new Iraq resolution; and if inspectors do return, and, as is probable, Saddam gets up to his old obstructionist tricks again; or if Iraq refuses to accept the new UN resolution; then the rest of the world must stop sitting on its hands and join the Americans in ridding the world of this vile despot and his cohorts.

If the UN agrees; if inspectors return; if Iraq refuses to accept UN resolutions............then everyone must join the US.

Huh? Why is this such a radical position? For all the framing of it as being against the namby-pambies who are reluctant to go to war; for all the fake-angry rhetoric implying that everyone except the US is "sitting on their hands"; and for the all high-blown language about how awful Saddam Hussein is, all he's done is outline the position most US allies have already taken. Far from being a brave call to arms on behalf of oppressed Iraqis, it is stock-standard position hedged in with many conditions. Surely, if he really believes his own rhetoric about the need to rescue the Iraqi people from Hussein (a legitimate concern) then he has no choice but to support unconditional action on the part of whomever happens to be willing to take it. In other words, the US.

The whole thing seems to me an attempt to dress-up the middle ground as some sort of radical alternative. I guess it's what you get when a former bad-boy lefty radical wants to clean up his act without actually admitting he's bought some soap. Look out for the full-blown Hitchensesque statement of moral purpose coming to an op-ed page near you soon.

UPDATE: John Quiggin joins the list of those endorsing the Rushdie line, and there is also an interesting discussion in the comments section of this post on the Stand Down no war blog.


A recent survey suggested that the happiest Australians were its many volunteers, those who give up there own time, effort and money in order to help others. Post-Sydney Olympics, where volunteers endlessly impressed visitors and locals alike with their generosity, volunteerism has increasingly come to be seen as one of the civlising factors in Australian society, one of the things that defines us and make ours a good place to live.

But not according to Heath Gibson from Catallaxy and the Randians he quotes. According to them, volunteerism, inspired by feelings of altruism, is the the slippery slope to totalitarianism and the sooner we all activate our selfish gene the better off we will be because, for starters, "Dictatorship is a consequence of the morality of altruism."

Yep, that will explain why both America and Australia, each with a strong sense of community service, are well on their way to becoming dictatorships.

Unnecessary sarcasm aside, the real dishonesty in the piece quoted is the way that it surreptitiously tries to remove the key point of the argument before the argument even begins. It does this by trying to blur the distinction between "voluntary" and "compulsory". It then allows a particular instance to stand in for the whole which has the effect of further muddying the waters. And then it chooses its words carefully so that it can both deny and affirm the proposition at almost the same time. If we take this opening maneouvre out of the equation, the whole silly "argument" collapses.

Look at how it is presented. The quoted piece says:

The distinction between "voluntary service" and "forced service" is a false one. Already the veneer of "choice" is slipping: Clinton has called for volunteerism to become mandatory in the high-school curriculum and a requirement for high-school graduation.

There are leaps here worthy of Evil Kneval. Why exactly is this a false distinction? Sounds like a perfectly good distinction to me - I was forced to do something; I chose to do something. Are they separate concepts? Well, yes. And even if the point is that somehow to endorse altruism is to in fact invite curtailment of freedom by the back door (a slippery slope argument), I wonder how compelling it is.

But having stated the case that baldly, look then at how the "logic" proceeds. First we say it is a false distinction; then we say that the veneer of "choice" is slipping. But what's wrong with this leap? Well, how can there be even a veneer of choice if the distinction is false? Either there is a choice or there isn't. If there is, then the distinction cannot be false. "Veneer" just becomes a weasel word to hide the fact that there was no false distinction in the first place, a process David Stove calls "neutralising success words". What is baldly stated in the first sentence is surreptitiously withdrawn in the second.

The malfeasance is then multiplied by the use of a false example. One example as a means of illustration is incredibly misleading, not least because the quoted example never actually happened. Where does the argument (no difference between voluntary and compulsory) go when the example used to support it no longer holds? Defenestrated, I'm afraid. School kids can actually choose whether to volunteer or not. There is a choice. The distinction holds. Despotism has been averted. Or if you like, no slippery slope.

But even if this single example held, would that be sufficient to make the case? Clearly not. There obviously remains a distinction between "compulsory" and "voluntary" even if some acts are actually compulsory. Altruism relies on the element of choice to even define it: the Randian argument, on the other hand, seeks to define something else--compulsion--and simply call it altruism.

You just don't get to do this in a good faith argument or any place where rationality holds. But having done it, almost any leap of meaning becomes possible and they don't hesitate to marshall the scare campaign:

If one has a duty to fight for his country, then his country is morally just when it drafts him into the army. If we are morally obligated to give our money to the poor, then the state is justified in collecting that money. If we have a duty to live our lives for the needy, then the state is perfectly justified in collecting our lives and using them as it sees fit. Under the morality of altruism, there are no individual rights, for such rights are rejected as too personal, too private, in essence: "selfish."

The only "if" that actually applies is the one that says we if define altruism without bothering to include the notion of choice, then certain things may follow. And as I've suggested, this has been done quite dishonestly in this piece. Let me spell it out a bit more.

You can see what has happened: we have already blurred the distinction between voluntary and coerced behaviour. But this is precisely the point at which it becomes important to recognise that voluntary and compulsory are different things. If, in fact, I choose to help someone--that is, I do it because I want to and not because some law or other compulsion has forced me to--then I am obviously excercising my free, individual choice. This means that, for whatever reason, I can choose to help someone, and that further, at some other point I can choose to stop helping them. That is, my "selfishness" can kick back in at some point and I will cease to "live for others" a long time before I allow myself to become "the property of others". I can do this because I am free to choose. So it is NOT a matter of time "before we are forced" into helping others: it is more likely a matter of time before we stop being altruistic and we return, necessarily and rightly, to concerns with our own situation.

Certainly, we can choice taken away from us, but then we are no longer dealing with altruism. Simply choosing to be altruistic (or less tautologically, being altruistic) no more condemns us to a lack of individual rights than choosing to eat McDonalds today condemns us to eating it forever more.

In the meantime, I would argue, though not at length here, that our individuality is enhanced by our altruism--necessarily because our decision to engage in such behaviour was a product of our own free will--and and what's more, the society in which we live has been made a little bit more civilised. This means that my altruism has actually had a benefit for me as well as for the person I helped, which, at some level, may have been why I chose to engage in the behaviour in the first place (though this is not important for the argument). In fact, if this is true--if we are altruistic because it ultimately benefits us--then there is a wonderful irony at work: on this understanding, altruism is not the slippery slope to dictatorship but is actually an example of the very sort of self-interested behaviour the Randians claim to admire.

Think about that one, I guess.

One last matter: apart from the other weaknesses I have pointed out, the quoted extract's most insidious equivocation is that it can only be made in a society where the very behaviour it deplores (altruism) is taken for granted. If in fact we lived in this ingrown toenail world of anti-altruism that such pieces insist is desirable, we would all be so miserable, and, in the Hobbesian sense, nasty and brutish, that the last thing we could seriously conjecture is that the world is well-served by the sort of greed that the Randians try and pass off as enlightened.

And as long as we guard against choice being taken out of our altruism, there is no good reason why democratic governments shouldn't encourage community service. The problem is not altruism, it is lack of choice, and the piece Heath quotes tries to pretend that they are the same thing. It's a hell of a lot of trouble to go to simply to justify being stingy.

Anyway, although I don't have much time for this sort of approach, I'm grateful that Heath chose to share it with us.

Sunday, November 03, 2002



In an article in today's Age, Robert Manne basically regurgitates points I've made previously about the relationship between Australian and US governments on foreign policy. Well, okay, we both just kinda state the obvious, though Manne, writing for a paper rather than a blog has less room to offer any nuance.

Anyway, his piece goes from a fairly standard interpretation of such matters to, I think, a rather tangential point about what a war with Iraq will mean for the Australian Labor Party. I mean, I can see what he's getting at in terms of how party politics will play itself out in the near and middle future; but I still think it is the sort of tactical assessment that needlessly fills up column inches and is best left to the rest of the media who, by and large, see their job as one of reporting on political issues as if they were a sporting event.

Manne writes:

As things stand, Labor opposition to a war against Iraq, without unambiguous UN mandate, would have the backing of a substantial section of Australia's former political and military elite, as the recent letter organised by Bob Hawke revealed. It would also have a solid chance of support from a majority of the Australian people, who are at present overwhelmingly opposed to war of such a kind.

On the other hand, opposition to any war commitment, when troops have been dispatched, is an inherently risky business, especially in a political culture where the habit of dependence on great and powerful friends runs deep. Since the Tampa incident, moreover, Labor has been mesmerised by fears of the populist conservatism unleashed by the Howard Government - by its capacity to destabilise the ALP by a crude appeal to the most bellicose sentiments of the Australian people. In a very deep sense, since Tampa, Labor has lost its nerve.

Over Iraq, then, the ALP is at present suspended between its fear that public opinion might rally to the government, and its need to reveal to the true believers that it has returned to its core principles and to the Australian people that it has regained the courage to oppose. At present only one thing seems clear. If it comes to a US war with Iraq, it is around the attitude of Crean Labor that the future of Australian party politics will be shaped.

As I say it's the sort of "on the one hand but maybe on the other" type of analysis that the likes of Michelle Grattan waste their time on. At best, it is the start of an analysis, not the end.

So here's a thought: instead of trying to guess which way the opinion polls will spin in some unforeseeable future, why doesn't the Labor Party have a meeting(s), listen to all the views they can, including from their membership, and actually decide what they really think and tell us. Given that "public opinion" is shaped more than it is discovered, they might find that telling us their true feelings about something creates its own momentum, its own constituency, and that this principled approach will actually turn out to be the most practical one as well.


What an odd story this is about the Queen. Diana's butler was charged with stealing stuff from her. The trial has been dragging on for five years. The butler told the Queen in 1997 that he had the stuff. On the verge of the butler giving evidence in the trial, which he promised would be very detailed, her maj mysteriously pops up and says, oh by the way, he told me five years ago that he had the stuff and its okay by me. Case dismissed.

Naturally, the usual "constitutional experts" (the polite word for royal apologist) have been wheeled out to spin the story in favour of The Kween, but it seems to me she has a lot to answer. Of course, though, she will never have to answer any questions as the whole system is predicated on her being above the law.

An interesting sidelight to the story concerns the involvement of Prince Charles:

Before Mr Burrell (the butler) was charged, police told Prince Charles and his sons - who were reluctant for the case to go ahead because of the negative publicity it would spark - that Mr Burrell and his friends had been photographed wearing Princess Diana's clothes after her death.

They were also told Mr Burrell had been selling Diana's possessions overseas. The Princes were furious. Prince Charles gave his blessing to the prosecution on the basis of what police told him.

But in court, Detective Chief Inspector Maxine de Brunner conceded there was no evidence to support the claims against Mr Burrell. She said neither Prince Charles nor his sons had been told. Critically, Mr Burrell had arranged a meeting with Prince Charles just before he was charged. Prince Charles missed the meeting when he fell off his polo pony.

What I want to know is, why was the Prince going to a relative important meeting like this on his polo pony?