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The Daily Briefing 4/11/05
1 Journalism and hyped terrorist threats
Yesterday TDB berated Australian "hacks" for being "unworldly". That word was chosen as shorthand for the fact that they seem to have so little knowledge of what's being reported around the world, and therefore fail to put their reports and comments into that wider context - which means they can end up looking like dumb hicks. Paul Kelly was somewhat guilty of it in his column on Wednesday about George Bush - fine as far as it went, but slow, behind the game and not sharp on the source and impact of some of the material he quoted. (TDB subscribers are better informed.)
At the opposite end of that sad spectrum, is Richard Ackland's column (link below) today on the anti-terrorism laws. Ackland has obviously been following the history of terrorism scares in the US, all of which have come to nothing, and some of which have fortuitously appeared at politically advantageous times (there were quite a few in the lead up to last year's US presidential election). Ackland, apparently a subscriber to TimesSelect, refers to Frank Rich's latest column for the NYTimes (briefly available here for free for the purposes of this discussion) which traced the history of some the US terror hype, and links it to other White House lies and spin. Ackland concludes: "So back we come to the terrorism legislation, which bears the stain of the same inflated marketing used to sell other dubious government policies. The dirty tricks are catching up with the White House, but strangely the little buddy down under is the beneficiary of a system that has no special prosecutors who can compel witnesses, a largely compliant media and a rubber stamp Parliament. Who could want for anything more?"
And then there is Dennis Shanahan with perhaps the most gormless column he has ever written - although it has some stiff challengers. It opens: "John Howard and Kim Beazley have done the right thing on the urgent changes to the counter-terrorism laws passed yesterday." Really Dennis. How the bloody hell would you know mate? Been in on those secret briefings from our spooks? Of course not. Maybe the pollies have done the right thing - but it is simply too early to know. And for a journalist to then berate anyone who has raised a sceptical voice to what is going on suggests it is time for Shanahan (a good reporter on his day, but they are now too rare) to go into spruiking for the government full time.
Shanahan also runs this curious line: "Neo-conservatives have tried to overturn too much of our legal freedom using terrorism as an excuse ... " Umm, methinks Dennis does not understand neo-conservatism, nor know exactly who these creatures are. But don't worry, he is only the political editor for the national daily newspaper.
RICHARD ACKLAND/THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
2 Democracy, terror and citizenship
One of the great experiences from TDB's 25 years in journalism was covering the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and then watching a society be transformed by its findings. Watching Tony Fitzgerald day in, day out, and reading his report, was a deep lesson in the rule of law and the healthy functioning of a democratic society. So when Fitzgerald speaks, I listen up.
In a column for The Australian today (link below) Fitzgerald picks up on Labor senator John Faulkner's recent comments abut the public's "indifference to politics" and politicians' "reciprocal cynicism", and goes from there to report what he sees as the weaknesses in Australian democracy. In the end, the column is a call to citizenship, with Fitzgerald arguing change is only likely to come from "outside the political class". As the bloggers say, read the whole thing. "Contrary to international democratic norms, there are almost no restrictions on government power in Australia. The executive government effectively controls parliament and, subject to very limited exceptions, is able to have it enact unjust and undemocratic laws. Conversely, parliament is unable to prevent the government from abusing its power; for example, by implementing unjust policies, partisan appointments to public office and the expenditure of public money for party-political advantage."
TONY FITZGERALD/THE AUSTRALIAN
3 Plame and the press
Two fabulous essays in the New Yorker, perhaps even for those who feel full to the brim on Bush, Plame, Libby and Miller. In the article linked to below, Nicholas Lemann recounts the whole saga, but better still, puts it into the historical context of the changing nature of the relationship between the White House and journalists post-Watergate. OK, so it's all about the US, but anyone with an interest in how politics and journalism relate ought to gain something from reading it. "It was painful, if you love the press, to watch Patrick Fitzgerald doggedly break down the resistance of some of the country's best news organizations and succeed in getting reporters to reveal confidential sources. Fitzgerald's record was six wins and no losses, and there is no question that the cause of legally protecting the reporter-source relationship, which was not in great shape when the Plame story began, is in worse shape now."
And then there is an even more succinct comment piece by the magazine's editor David Remnick on "Bush's hell week". "Part of Bush's vanity--and his Oedipal drama--is that he has modelled himself on Reagan and not on his father, but it is hard to imagine him cleaning house the way Reagan did in 1987 and moving toward the center. In fact, it is even harder these days to locate a centrist establishment in the Republican Party."
NICHOLAS LEMANN/NEW YORKER
4 Scowcroft and Iraq
The interview with Brett Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser to US President no. 41, George H. Bush, is now available at the New Yorker (link below). It has already been much commented upon, and referred to a couple of times in TDB. In it, he is critical of Bush jnr's decision to invade Iraq, a view some suggest is also held by Bush snr. "The neoconservatives-the Republicans who argued most fervently for the second Gulf war-believe in the export of democracy, by violence if that is required, Scowcroft said. "How do the neocons bring democracy to Iraq? You invade, you threaten and pressure, you evangelize." And now, Scowcroft said, America is suffering from the consequences of that brand of revolutionary utopianism. "This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism," he said."
In Slate, Christopher Hitchens is at his acerbic best responding to Scowcroft. "I had not known until I read this article that Scowcroft was a Mormon, and this may have no importance. His willingness to believe anything could well stem from another source. He takes the view that the status quo is preferable to any forcible change, and also preferable to any change at all."
Along the way, Hitchens makes that extraordinary observation that "the (Saddam) regime was crumbling and would have imploded with ghastly results .." If the regime was crumbling, and since it had no WMD's (as the UN weapons inspectors correctly reported) doesn't this further undercut the argument for the invasion? Not, it seems in Hitchens' mind, even though he goes on to concede that "ghastly results" have followed it.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG/NEW YORKER
5 More views on Iraq that you can use
More (conservative) views on Iraq than you can possibly use. Yesterday TDB made an observation to the effect that friends of the war in Iraq were becoming as rare as rocking horse droppings, then paused for a moment to wonder if the assessment may have been a little hasty, before setting out to make doubly sure. Surf and ye shall find. The conservative magazine Commentary has conducted a "symposium" (link below) on the Bush Doctrine and asked 36 conservative thinkers to take part. TDB has not studied every single word, but they are overwhelmingly critical of how the policy has been handled, and many are sceptical of the theories that underpin it.
In a similar vein, the LATimes reports on the changing mood on Capitol Hill to the Iraq invasion. It says that "Democratic lawmakers and candidates have sharpened their critique of the administration's policy" and that "some Republicans who were strong backers of Bush's policy increasingly are distancing themselves from his optimism that the U.S. mission will be successful - even after the recent approval of a new Iraqi constitution." (Phew, I think we got that one right.)
As for the US public's attitude, which will be vital in terms of how long troops stay in Iraq, the latest CBS News Poll has suport for Bush at 35 per cent - only Richard Nixon (think Watergate) on 27 per cent had a worse result at this stage of his presidency.
On the same topic, Stephen Holmes in The Nation looks at the history and rationale of liberal support for the war following two recent books on the subject by liberal hawks Peter Berman and David Reith. Holmes is not swayed by their arguments. "Faced with the "appalling and degrading" conditions in postwar Iraq, where things were "worse than anything I was able to write about it," Rieff has felt compelled to reconsider his advocacy of US-led humanitarian intervention. What he discovered on his visits to Iraq was a collapsed state, not a liberated country. Those who fervently embrace American power, it turns out, are also condemning people to death. Rieff shifts his emphasis, therefore, from the complicity of noninterventionists to the complicity of interventionists. He begins to write persuasively about "the responsibility one has in advocating war when one will have little or no responsibility or say in how it is waged." Idealists who trumpeted a purely humanitarian case for invading Iraq should have known that their benevolent motives were not sufficient to trigger the war and were not going to govern the way the war and the occupation unfolded."
And updating the Niger yellowcake forgeries stories, particularly for we obsessives who want the latest on it, Justin Raimondo and Josh Marshall are the men for the job.
Finally, because TDB cannot resist a contrarian stir, Michael Creswell, assistant professor of history at Florida State University, compares the insurgency in Iraq to the US War of Independence. " Outgunned Iraqi insurgents recognize the folly of directly challenging U.S. forces. Instead, they employ indirect methods of attack, such as ambushes, that do not leave them vulnerable to retaliation. At the outset of the War for American Independence, the amateurish Continental Army, led by George Washington, was no match for British regulars. Yet the Continental Army and the citizen militias adapted its strategy and tactics to their opponent."
6 Remembering Theo van Gogh
This is an important essay, given the proposed anti-terrorism laws and the possible impact on the Muslim community in Australia. Twelve months after Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh had his throat cut by an Islamist, Francis Fukuyama ("the end of history") considers the impact his death has had, and argues that Europe, where Muslims are cut off from their social norms, and not the Middle East, is the ideal breeding ground for radical Islam. "Since van Gogh's murder, the Dutch have embarked on a vigorous and often impolitic debate on what it means to be Dutch, with some demanding of immigrants not just an ability to speak Dutch, but a detailed knowledge of Dutch history and culture that many Dutch people do not have themselves. But national identity has to be a source of inclusion, not exclusion; nor can it be based, contrary to the assertion of the gay Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn who was assassinated in 2003, on endless tolerance and valuelessness. The Dutch have at least broken through the stifling barrier of political correctness that has prevented most other European countries from even beginning a discussion of the interconnected issues of identity, culture and immigration. But getting the national identity question right is a delicate and elusive task."
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
7 The Afghan Parliament
One of the arguments made against the invasion of Iraq was that it would distract from the long and tortuous business of nation building in Afghanistan. If the money and troops used in Iraq had been spent in Afghanistan, it is hard to see that the world would not have been better off by a long way. In this article, Peter Church survey's the make up of the new Afghan Parliament and emerges deeply depressed. "The reaction to the elections from an Afghan colleague of mine, Hekmatullah, is telling. It's a reaction shared by many of the Afghans with whom I speak. As the results of the ballot count in his province became clear, Hekmatullah said to me, "I'm sad for the Afghan people." Why, I asked. "Because these people will not work for Afghanistan." He went on to explain that one of the elected parliamentarians for his province is the uncle of a police commander who reportedly threatened voters as they went to the polls in his jurisdiction. These days "police commander" is often shorthand for "drugs and arms trafficker," of which Afghanistan currently has plenty. Links to opium trafficking will be hardly uncommon amongst the new legislators."
PETER CHURCH/THE WEEKLY STANDARD
8 Why Gandhi didn't win the Nobel prize
Henry Kissinger won it, yet Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times - in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and never did. Hilwiah Roche looks at the debate surrounding what is still a controversial decision. "The irony of ironies is that eminent personalities, who based their own actions on the pattern of Gandhi's teachings, were themselves awarded the Nobel Prize in later years - Albert Luthuli in 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, Mother Teresa in 1979, the Dalai Lama in 1989 and Nelson Mandela in 1993."
HILWIAH ROCHE/THE GLOBALIST
9 The literary Darwinists
Why do humans read and write fiction? Is it in the genes? TDB has visited the subject of literary Darwinism previously, but this is arguably the best piece yet on the subject - especially of course, for those who've not come across it before. "It is useful to know a bit about current literary criticism to understand how different the Darwinist approach to literature is. Current literary theory tends to look at a text as the product of particular social conditions or, less often, as a network of references to other texts. (Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, famously observed that there was "nothing outside the text.") It often focuses on how the writer's and the reader's identities - straight, gay, female, male, black, white, colonizer or colonized - shape a particular narrative or its interpretation. Theorists sometimes regard science as simply another form of language or suspect that when scientists claim to speak for nature, they are disguising their own assertion of power. Literary Darwinism breaks with these tendencies. First, its goal is to study literature through biology - not politics or semiotics. Second, it takes as a given not that literature possesses its own truth or many truths but that it derives its truth from laws of nature."
D.T. MAX/NYTIMES MAGAZINE
10 Profile of Maureen Dowd
Michael Gawenda recently referred to Maureen Dowd as the "token woman" on the NYTimes op-ed page. As if. Dowd is notoriously reclusive and reluctant to give interviews, but it seems having a book out ("Are Men Necessary?") has changed that. (TDB recently linked to an extract from it.) This profile of her (link below) was written by Ariel Levy, the author of "Female Chauvinist Pigs" (links in archives). "Dowd's femininity is dramatized by the relentless maleness of the worlds she inhabits. She appears that much more redheaded surrounded by the blue-suited stoniness of Washington, the arid fustiness of the New York Times. When Dowd started out as a political correspondent, she had a term for women in her position: color girls. "I always liked the sort of funnier, weirder thing to write about as opposed to the official thing that would be officially more prestigious but, to me, not as interesting," Dowd says. "So I liked being a color girl. You can deliver something unique." The light in which she's bathed herself is low and gray but flattering."
Katie Roiphe in Slate reviews the book, and appears hell-bent on a provocative panning, but in the end, her criticisms read more like personal annoyance at Dowd's flip writing style. "Like the crude, sexist men she lampoons, Dowd is extremely fond of clever stereotyping. But this strategy is better-suited to satirizing a real person (say, President Bush) than it is to offering insights into the already cartoonish "war" between the sexes. In Are Men Necessary? she gravitates toward quotes like this: "Deep down all men want the same thing: a virgin in a gingham dress," or "if there's one thing men fear it's a woman who uses her critical faculties." To support these generalizations, Dowd relies on the faux journalism of women's magazines."
ARIEL LEVY/NEW YORK METRO
11 You are what you consume
Our needs are few, our wants many, and in the modern consumer society, Nicolas Riou says, emotional need now triumphs completely over function. " ... we have entered a new stage in the consumption society. Objects no longer simply answer needs: we generally don't need a new car or dishwasher. A new motor has been added to the logics of price arbitrage and social symbolism, one of a psychological order. More and more we choose products or brands for the psychic benefit they bring us. And that benefit is often unconscious. How can we make a rational choice when there are 22,000 products to choose from in one hypermarket? The logic of desire is always articulated around the notion of a lack. But this lack has become psychological. Objects and brands fulfill emotional needs."
It's from Haaretz in Israel, but the situation in Australia is remarkably similar. This portrait of the dairy industry may have you thinking twice about the milk you drink.
And the NYTimes reports that some major corporations are muscling in on the organics industry, and want changes on what can be labelled as organic. "... last week, Senate and House Republicans on the Agriculture appropriations subcommittee inserted a last-minute provision into the department's fiscal 2006 budget specifying that certain artificial ingredients could be used in organic food."
12 Bit 'n pieces from here and there
The same formula applies the world over, it seems. S*x guide = furore. That's what has happened in the north of Spain (link below) where a guide for teenagers has been described as an "invitation to lesbianism and m*sturbation" (you need an invitation?).
In case you really believe there is nothing new under the sun, the NYTimes reports on a radio station for cats and dogs.
It's an ill wind. CBS News reports that Hurricane Katrina has blown in some support for pagans in the Bible-bashing south of the US. And that Starhawk, self-proclaimed leader in modern Earth-based spirituality, author and global justice activist, believes she may have played a role in Katrina changing course slightly and being downgraded to a category 4 storm. (Seems obvious when you think about it.)
Greenpeace has been fined US$7,000 for damaging a coral reef in a Philippines World Heritage area.
The Times reports on the ultimate stamp collection swap - four "Inverted Jenny" 1918 airmail stamps for a one-cent Z-grill from 1868. We are talking multi-milion dollar stamps.
And something the world needs even more than radio for dogs - the septocycle. The Reno News and Review reports on a bicycle built for seven.