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The Daily Briefing 14/11/05
1 Gerard Henderson and Osama bin Laden
The main complaint TDB has with Gerard Henderson is that he dumbs down national debate. In case you missed it, have a read of Henderson in full flight on the World Today on Friday. He seriously argues that public policy making on terrorism should be left to Osama bin Laden and what the spooks want. Seriously. I am not making this up. He says Australian is at war (and compares it with WWII) because Osama says he is at war with us (and whose army, Osama?) and that the police are reasonable people so we should give them what they want. This argument would fail Public Policy 101, yet Henderson is regarded as one of our leading commentators. Stakeholders in any public debate always want as much as they can get. The job of politicians is to balance competing interests (especially important principals like habeas corpus and freedom of speech) against those ambit claims. Not for Gerard, who may be the person most rattled by terrorism on this planet. Osama is definitely messing with his head: "I mean, to say that we're not at war dismisses Osama bin Laden and his associates who say we are at war ... " (Yeah Gerard, and there's a guy down at the fish and chip shop who swears he's Elvis - good enough for you?)
So Gerard's going to be beside himself with interest in "Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden", edited by Bruce Lawrence. Back in September, TDB linked to this report about the writing of the book. In the article linked to below, Lawrence gives his impressions of bin Laden, and in short, describes a dead-ender with more interest in martyrdom than a coherent plan for an Islamic caliphate. "The letters reveal him to be a calculating, highly literate polemicist. Stateless, he creates his own image of an Islamic supernation that replaces all current Muslim nation-states. He projects himself as the counterweight to both American hegemony and Arab perfidy. He is the Nasser of the new century, trying to rouse Muslim audiences as much through his rhetoric as his action. He even turns the tables on the Western media. In his view, it is they, not he, who perpetuate terror. "Terror is the most dreaded weapon in the modern age and the Western media are mercilessly using it against their own people," he declares in an October 2001 interview with Al-Ja-zeera." (Interesting quote that last one. The media spreading terror. That'd be a reasonable description of last week's local newspapers.)
Peter Preston reviews the book for The Observer, and says a clear image of bin Laden emerges from it. "He is formidable, an image, a force. If you're looking for a British parallel, though their policies have nothing in common, the politician he most reminds me of is Tony Benn, convincing as always about a golden past that has been betrayed, unveiling statistical amazements and historical myths with equal facility, always seeming safe within a cocoon of certitude. And American politicians? George Bush himself, the matching crusader, stands out from a born-again pack."
The Observer also ran this disappointingly slight review of "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East" by Robert Fisk.
BRUCE LAWRENCE/THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
2 Freedom, terror, torture and Iraq
As noted previously, no journalist campaigned more fiercely in favour of the Iraq invasion than Andrew Sullivan. And no-one has been more vociferous in his condemnation of how it has been handled than Sullivan. In this recent post on his blog, The Daily Dish, he admits to getting it wrong on WMDs (something no pro-war commentator in Australia has done yet, gutless wonders), although he is still not inclined to the view that George Bush lied about the subject - a view that increasingly looks generous in the extreme. Sullivan's most recent posts are a good discussion, with links, on the latest contributions to the torture debate raging in the US, including an embarrassing attempt by the Wall Street Journal (since withdrawn) to justify it.
On that point, as noted in the national round-up below, Michael Gawenda in The Age comes perilously close to linking John Howard to this issue, as he should be. What did he know and when did he know about techniques being used by the US military? Australia is part of the invasion and occupation force. Has Australia told the US its conduct is unacceptable? These are but some of the questions local journos might want to put to Howard, if they ever rouse themselves from their slumbers.
In the column linked to below, Sullivan argues that a false division has been created between traditional freedoms and fighting terrorism, as if both are not possible at the same time. "Those of us who believe in fighting the war on terror need not regard civil liberties as somehow a sign of unseriousness in wartime. Protecting liberty at home is critical to winning the wider conflict, especially in the larger battle of ideas that will ensure ultimate victory or defeat. There is now little doubt left that the executive branches in both countries have overreached."
Liberal Josh Marshall at Talking Point Memos is less forgiving of Bush than Sullivan as he responds to Bush's recent speech in which he accused critics of the war of attempting to rewrite the history leading up to it. "Time has finally caught up to him. And now he doesn't have the popularity to beat back all the people trying to call him to account. He could; but now he can't. So he's caught. And his best play is to accuse his critics of rewriting history, of playing fast and loose with the truth -- a sad, pathetic man."
For those who have not followed the torture debate and revelations thus far, this Slate backgrounder (along with TDB Archives) is a good place to start.
It will be interesting to see if Bush's attempt to go on the political offensive on this issue can turn things around, particularly with the latest polls showing things getting worse. According to Newsweek "Only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president, and an astounding 68 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country-the highest in Bush's presidency."
While the stance of the editorial board of the left-wing "The Nation" will come as no surprise, the position outlined in this editorial is indicative of a hardening of US attitudes against the occupation of Iraq. "The Nation therefore takes the following stand: We will not support any candidate for national office who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq a major issue of his or her campaign. We urge all voters to join us in adopting this position. Many worry that the aftermath of withdrawal will be ugly, but we can now see that the consequences of staying will be uglier still. Fear of facing the consequences of Bush's disaster should not be permitted to excuse the creation of a worse disaster by continuing the occupation."
The Washington Post yesterday ran this long backgrounder about Rumsfeld and the war, trying to assess the Defence Secretary's role in it. The article highlights what looks like an effort to distance Rumsfeld from the disaster that appears to be unfolding. "He is interested in sharing the memo because the memo, as he outlines it, demonstrates that his critics are utterly mistaken. He did not dash heedless and underprepared into Iraq. Rumsfeld foresaw the things that could go wrong -- and not just foresaw them, but wrote them up in a classically Rumsfeldian list, one brisk bullet point after another, 29 potential pitfalls in all. Then he distributed the memo at the highest levels, fed it into the super-secret planning process and personally walked the president through the warnings."
And on Saturday, The Post ran this much shorter article about the Quakers and the peace movement.
ANDREW SULLIVAN/THE SUNDAY TIMES
3 Woman slain for her verse
The bravest people on the planet, these women who try to live full lives in primitive, barbaric, intensely patriarchal, usually Islamic tribal cultures. Christina Lamb reports on the death of Nadia Anjuman, who risked torture and imprisonment to study literature and write poetry in secret under the Taliban, only to be beaten to death, apparently murdered by her husband, after the publication of her first book of poetry. "The death of the young writer has shocked a city which prides itself on its artistic heritage. It has also raised uncomfortable questions about how much the position of women in Afghanistan has improved since the fall of the Taliban to American-led forces four years ago." (Christina Lamb consistently produces strong investigative journalism.)
CHRISTINA LAMB/THE SUNDAY TIMES
4 The tragedy in Kashmir
Salman Rushdie joins the growing chorus who fear the world has been slow and inadequate in its response to the recent earthquake. "For more than half a century the world has turned a blind eye to the political problems of Kashmir. It must not now turn its back on the Kashmiri people. If the flow of aid does not increase at once, then it is probable that more people will die in the earthquake's wintry aftermath than perished in the quake itself. It is entirely possible that the final death toll will be greater than the tsunami's. We may be looking at the greatest natural calamity in human history. But in this case we have the power to avert it."
SALMAN RUSHDIE/THE TIMES
5 Famine in Malawi
The NYTimes recently ran a series of articles about the drought, deforestation and famine in Malawi, which regrettably TDB did not get around to including. Perhaps prompted by those articles, The Washington Post reports on a nation facing famine. "Today, Malawi resembles the arid West African nation of Niger, which is suffering from a systemic food shortage of its own. Both countries are dependent on the most rudimentary forms of agriculture and cannot afford to import enough food to make up shortfalls. Both also have rapidly expanding populations and liberalizing economies that have failed to provide promised benefits."
THE WASHINGTON POST
6 Rove, Federalists and the Supreme Court
Merely being a member of the conservative legal association The Federalist Society is enough to disqualify a prospective judge from a position on the bench in the eyes of many liberals. With the recent debates over Bush nominees John Roberts, Harriet Miers and now Samuel Alito, the group has been prominent in public debate. The NYTimes reports that despite the widespread view that the US Supreme Court has moved to the right in recent times, society members are far from content. "Liberal groups argue that the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the swing vote in many abortion rights cases, throws open the direction of the court. But most of the Federalist Society speakers contend that for decades the court has been veering much too far from the founders' original intentions to be corrected by the replacement of just one justice."
This Washington Post report will not lighten their mood. It reports that "both in their decisions and in public remarks off the bench, key members of the court are expressing views either explicitly or implicitly at variance with the administration's approach" to foreign affairs.
And on last Thursday, "Bush's brain" (aka "T*rd Blossom"), Karl Rove, addressed the society, and the Post has published excerpts of his speech (link below). "The Federalist Society is one of America's most important intellectual movements. Since your founding more than 20 years ago, you have made extraordinary efforts to return our country to constitutionalism. You've developed new generations of lawyers, judges and legal scholars who are committed to that vision. And you've shaped America's legal, cultural and political landscape in a very constructive way."
THE WASHINGTON POST
7 Health and Death
Just what are human beings (in the West at least) prepared to die from, and when? Daniel Callahan (link below) argues that our denial of death is placing a heavy strain on health systems of all sorts around the world when it comes together with the rapid rate and ever-increasing cost of medical progress. "The dilemmas of progress and the realities of death are commonly domesticated and often trivialized, turned into little more than troublesome management puzzles. We have lacked a serious and sustained consideration of the value of medical progress, beyond simply discussing how best to manage and pay for it. And we have approached death in the public square mainly with calls for new death-defying advances and greater patient choice at the end of life. Such responses are insufficient to the challenges ahead and the gravity of these subjects."
As for those refusing to face the inevitable, perhaps a little of the wisdom of the ancients might help. Lawrence Jost reviews "Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics" by James Warren and declares it the book Epicureans have been waiting for. "There are, he thinks, four main fears about death and its discontents that need to be addressed: (1) fear of being dead, (2) fear (or distress) that one will die and disappear, (3) fear of dying prematurely, and (4) fear of the process of dying. In chapters 1-4 he addresses each concern, exploring both the ancient and modern controversies about the (un)reasonableness of each fear, and then addresses in chapter 5 the positive case to be made for leading an Epicurean life, concluding with a chapter that summarizes the argument of the whole and ends on an upbeat note."
DANIEL CALLAHAN/THE NEW ATLANTIS
8 Fox does global warming
"Fair and balanced" Fox News takes a serious look at the climate change issue? True story according to the LATimes, link below. It may be 20 years too late, but it has still come as a shock to some of the Murdoch network's conservative backers. "The top-rated cable news channel has long rejected its reputation for having a conservative slant. Nevertheless, the network's involvement in the special has pleased environmentalists and piqued some conservatives, who have lobbed an unusual criticism of the network: that its program only offers a liberal viewpoint on the issue."
Rolling Stone, in collaboration with Salon, has a series of articles, Warriors and Heroes, about "twenty-five leaders who are fighting to stave off the planetwide catastrophe". They include Al Gore, James Hansen, Robert Watson, Raul Estrada Oyuela, Paul Anderson, Jim Woolsey, Sheila Watt-Cloutier and Tony Blair.
And courtesy of the first ever outside-the-family subscriber to TDB, Susan B (who is currently fighting the good fight in Switzerland), The Climate Mash - an animated reworking of "The Monster Mash", sung by the song's author Bobby Pickett.
9 Dada and the truth about the 20th century
Little chance of seeing the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (though it is on until January 9) but you may enjoy Jonathon Jones essay on Dada, which he describes as the central art movement of the 20th century. "When we look at the remains of Dada, we see the 20th century with its skin peeled off. Surrealism was to reject Dada in favour of something supposedly less gestural. Yet Dada spoke the truth. It is revealed here as one of the richest of all art movements, and I have left out so much. But the great contrast in Dada is between the poetic mystics such as Ball and Duchamp, who were true pacifists, and the revolutionaries in Berlin - Grosz joined the Communist Party - whose art is a form of street-fighting."
JONATHON JONES/THE GUARDIAN