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The Daily Briefing 16/11/05
1 Common sense and terrorism
Just when you thought common sense had become extinct, be thankful that Ross Gittins does not limit himself to the world of economics and business, because he may be the only person not to have lost his head to terrorism. More men died in the first hours of the battle of the Somme (fighting, we are told, for freedom) than have been killed in all the terrorist attacks in the last 100 years, and yet we are supposed to give up those blood-soaked freedoms for the sake of a rag-tag bunch of misfit nihilists. The strength of the Gittins column is that he points out that the fear mongers - the pollies, the police and the media - all have a vested interests in drumming up fear.
The media's madness over the issue is on show again this morning as they all troop out to the Mulga Creek property that was supposedly used as a terrorist training camp to report ... that they shot holes in trees (memo to news editors: you'll find trees like that on every farm in Australia). Even ABC TV News got the bug last night, showing us footage of the actual coals of the actual remains of what may have been the campfire where people who may, or may not, have had something to do with terrorism, may have camped. The world is indeed going mad at a faster than normal rate.
ROSS GITTINS/THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
2 Fallujah and chemical warfare
Sometime back TDB was following the debate on US tactics in the attack on Fallujah, which some commentators have described as this century's Guernica. Since Italian TV last week broadcast a documentary alleging that white phosphorous was used by the US army, the issue has become a major talking point on blogs around the world. The Independent reported it had investigated the claims and found that: "WP shells were fired at insurgents, that reports from the battleground suggest troops firing these WP shells did not always know who they were hitting and that there remain widespread reports of civilians suffering extensive burn injuries. While US commanders insist they always strive to avoid civilian casualties, the story of the battle of Fallujah highlights the intrinsic difficulty of such an endeavour." The paper also reports that napalm has been used by the US in Iraq, mainly during the invasion. (Was Australia consulted about its use? What has been our response to these allegations?)
George Monbiot in the column linked to below dismisses the Italian evidence but finds what he says is more convincing proof of the use of both phosphorous and napalm, something he says the US has lied about. Monbiot says that those who invaded Iraq are now guilty of some of the charges on which Saddam Hussein is facing court. "We were told that the war with Iraq was necessary for two reasons. Saddam Hussein possessed biological and chemical weapons and might one day use them against another nation. And the Iraqi people needed to be liberated from his oppressive regime, which had, among its other crimes, used chemical weapons to kill them. Tony Blair, Colin Powell, William Shawcross, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Ann Clwyd and many others referred, in making their case, to Saddam's gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. They accused those who opposed the war of caring nothing for the welfare of the Iraqis. Given that they care so much, why has none of these hawks spoken out against the use of unconventional weapons by coalition forces?"
This piece on The Huffington Post contains links to conservative and liberal blogs on both sides of the argument.
GEORGE MONBIOT/THE GUARDIAN
3 Afghanistan, the forgotten mess
TDB considered linking to this column by Jackson Diehl for The Washington Post last week, but it may be even more timely today with reports that Australia is be asked to join a NATO force to Afghanistan (see The Age, national round-up below). Diehl recently spoke with the US ambassadors to Iraq and Afghanistan who reported that both countries were in trouble because of past strategic blunders, but that they may now be on the right course - just when the clamour to withdraw troops is gaining momentum. Diehl, by the way, was a supporter of both wars but is one of that rare bred of commentator, unknown on this shores, who can turn that support into critical analysis and discussion of how they are being conducted.
Which may be a good time for another reminder that one of the arguments against invading Iraq was that there was a job to be finished in Afghanistan. Now we can but wonder what shape that country might be in today if the blood and treasure wasted in Iraq had been spent in the country which was at that time, the only place where Al-Queda held sway.
The Independent yesterday devoted its front page lead (link below) to the situation Australian troops will confront if sent in larger numbers to Afghanistan. "But in the south there is widespread support for the insurgency and opposition to any Western presence in Afghanistan. Helmand in particular is notorious even among Afghans for the ferocity of its tribesmen. British troops are moving into the province under a plan for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) to take over security in the area. And it was no coincidence that yesterday's attacks specifically targeted Isaf troops in Kabul."
And The Daily Telegraph reports that women have enjoyed success in Afghanistan's recent elections. "Female candidates have triumphed in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, with one bidding to become the new parliament's speaker. After a delay in counting of more than a month, official results show women secured seats ahead of male candidates in a quarter of the 34 provinces, while in one a woman was outright winner."
4 Sensible people saying dumb things
Should have waited a day. TDB spent some time yesterday offering alternative views on the French riots, in part due to the lop-sided coverage in The Week-End Australian. Had we but waited a few hours, David Aaronovitch could have done the job for us. The Oz ran two pieces, both oozing with Islamo-hysteria, from The Spectator, when the consensus of coverage around the planet has been that it was the underclass lashing out. "Constantly you can hear good, sensible people beginning to say stupid things about Muslims. You hear them, at the most basic level, confuse Islamism with Islam, which is like confusing crusaders with Christians. The vast majority of Muslims are not Islamists. They aren't militant and they aren't zealots. They are not anything really, any more than the rest of us. And it is simply wrong to focus continually on the words of the Koran or of this or that preacher, in the expectation of finding something alien or alarming."
Given that Aaronovitch refers to sensible people saying stupid things, that obviously excludes, the stupid people who focus continually on the words of this or that preacher, in the expectation of finding something alien or alarming. But for the very last word in silly people saying stupid things about Islam, check out this interview between John Stone and Michael Duffy on Monday's Counterpoint, and count the number of times one or the other said in effect, we don't know what we are talking about - "we are generalising; the only data I have ..." etc. Just why anyone would mistake a long-retired abacus operator and ex-Joh for PM flunky for someone who knows something about anything wasn't really explained.
And now for something completely sensible. Jane Kramer in The New Yorker comments on the riots, and the various European models for dealing with (often) post-colonial immigrants. "The kids who are rioting hate their lives. They are lonely for France; they are sickeningly disappointed in France, in the promise of France. And, in desperation, they are attacking their own half-world cités. They want the real cities, where the "French" live."
DAVID AARONOVITCH/THE TIMES
5 Burma's new, secret capital
The NYTimes describes it as baffling: "At precisely 6:37 a.m. last Sunday, according to one account - with a shout of "Let's go!" - a convoy of trucks began a huge, expensive and baffling transfer of the government of Myanmar from the capital to a secret mountain compound 200 miles to the north." The Financial Times (link below) reports that "Burma's military junta predicted on Monday that history would vindicate its controversial decision to relocate the country's long-time capital from Rangoon to a remote town in central Burma, saying the move was "in the interests of the nation and the people"."
THE FINANCIAL TIMES
6 Factory farming and avian flu
Two articles on the production of the chicken, once an animal known as the chook, now a commodity churned out by factory farms and remarkably, still eaten by many humans. Philosopher Peter Singer (link below) argues that apart from their other ethical and environmental failings, the factory farm is linked to that other great fear of the moment , avian flu. "Supporters of factory farming often point out that bird flu can be spread by free-range flocks, or by wild ducks and other migrating birds, who may join the free-range birds to feed with them or drop their feces while flying overhead. But, as Brown has pointed out, viruses found in wild birds are generally not very dangerous. On the contrary, it is only when these viruses enter a high-density poultry operation that they mutate into something far more virulent."
And in The Times, Martin Samuel wonders "how unethical would sir like his chicken?" "Yet the ethical treatment of animals is just so much chatter when Britain stubbornly resists paying a fair rate for its food. Chicken is cheaper today than it was 20 years ago. Fact. Now that has not been achieved by increased free-range or labour intensive organic farming. Putting fowl together in wire cages, with a legal space requirement per chicken that equates to three-quarters of a sheet of A4 paper, does it. There are between 23 and 30 million chickens in Britain, 85 per cent are battery farmed, and two million die each year through inadequate cleaning of faeces. Now you can have crap-choked, cheaper chicken or you can have ethical, open-air, expensive chicken; but you can't have cheap ethical chicken."
PETER SINGER/THE KOREAN HERALD
7 Silence and the lessons of John Hay
A break from the incessant din of world events to explore the quieter world of two unusual men. The LATimes reports that there may be less than 10 truly quiet places left in the US, according to botanist Gordon Hempton who makes his living as an "acoustic ecologist". Hempton has recorded 60 CDs in quiet places and is fighting to preserve what is left. "If he can stir up a ruckus, maybe the right people will listen and the National Park Service will officially designate just one square inch of this park as a place of absolute quiet. One square inch of quiet, of course, means miles and miles of buffer - essentially securing the natural soundscape of the entire park. A simple idea. Turn off the generators in those RVs, reroute the airline traffic going into Seattle, forbid private planes overhead, and plaster the visitor center with posters reaffirming the mission of our national parks: to preserve nature as it was, quiet included."
And the article by author David Gessner linked to below takes as its starting point the arguments of activists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus last year in ''The Death of Environmentalism" and says that since Thoreau is no longer available, a response to them may be found in the work of a half-blind 90-year-old man named John Hay who lives atop a hill on Cape Cod. "It was in hopes of clearing up my own sometimes foggy vision that I began visiting John Hay in the spring of 2001. At the time I was living just down the street. But Hay was no ordinary neighbor: He is regarded by many environmental critics as our greatest living nature writer; in 1964, he won nature writing's Pulitzer, the John Burroughs Medal, for his book ''The Great Beach.'' He was 86 when we met, but still had the energy to hike through the trees and walk the beaches around his home on Dry Hill in Brewster, where he has lived for 60 years. Though I'd been writing about the environment for 10 years, during my very first visit to Dry Hill, Hay helped change my perspective on nature itself."
DAVID GESSNER/THE BOSTON GLOBE
8 The soul of Google
So many articles are written about Google that TDB could include a story or two on the company every other day. But David Vise may spare us all that fate. Vise has written a book, "The Google Story" and The Washington Post has published Chapter 26, Googling Your Genes. The paper also has an article by Vise, link below, in which he seeks to explain the nature of the company as a way to understanding what it does, why, and what might be yet to come. "We eagerly sample the new online toys that Google rolls out every few months. But these friendly features belie Google's disdain for the status quo and its voracious appetite for aggressively pursuing initiatives to bring about radical change. Google is testing the boundaries in so many ways, and so purposefully, it's likely to wind up at the center of a variety of legal battles with landmark significance."
And the NYTimes reports on the latest of those "friendly features" Vise was talking about. "Google plans to introduce free analytical tools for online publishers and marketers today, a move that would help the company's clients get a better sense of Web site traffic patterns and advertising campaigns."
DAVID VISE/THE WASHINGTON POST
9 Marriage, children and castration
An odd collection of odds and sods from the world of human relationships that caught the eye and have been sitting around, cluttering up the backroom of TDB's website. Here they are, for what they may be worth. In The Times, Britain's answer to Emma Tom, Julie Burchill (ok, so Julie's been around longer, but you get the drift) latches on to a recent report that becoming a father reduces male testosterone levels. "And the news this week that testosterone levels are lower in men who are fathers (33 per cent less than married non-fathers, 44 per cent less than single men) is hardly going to make men - already being accused in some quarters of being commitment-shy eternal adolescents - gung-ho about reproducing. It's not exactly a great offer, is it? "Have a baby and get castrated!" The castrating family! It's always struck me as a piquant paradox that the very thing that people say s*x was designed for - procreation - is the thing that most renders people, well, s*xless."
Now here's a bloke who could do with a little less testosterone. KISS rocker Gene Simmons is being sued by a former girlfriend who alleges he characterised her as being unchaste or promiscuous in a documentary about the band. Unchaste, Mr Simmons? This from a man who claimed in the same doco to have had s*xual encounters with 4,600 women. Gotta love those old double standards.
For many couples living in poverty in India, the issue is more fundamental - finding the privacy for genuine intimacy. Since that often fails, all they have left are semi-public moments of physical gratification.
Could this be at all related to testosterone depletion? The Independent reports on the increasing incidence of domestic violence toward men. "New figures show that the number of calls to domestic violence helplines from male victims has more than doubled over the past five years. And now one of the world's leading feminist journals will investigate the issue of male abuse for the first time in its history: the Psychology of Women Quarterly will devote a whole edition to research on violent women and their behaviour towards men."
This one has popped up in the local papers since The Times ran this report. "Princess Sayako will abandon the life of sprawling palaces and ancient privilege for a smallish Tokyo apartment and a new home with the bespectacled bureaucrat she loves", becoming the first member of the Japanese royal family to marry a commoner since 1960.
The Times also reports that the lot of the UK mail order bride is about to get worse, having been satirised on "Little Britain".
Abigail Witchalls attracted national headlines in the UK earlier this year after a knife attack left her paralysed from the neck down. The fact that Mrs Witchalls was pregnant at the time gave added interest to the story, but when she later spoke of her forgiveness for her attacker, the "hang 'em high" law and order brigade were (momentarily) stunned. Mrs Witchalls has given birth, naturally, to a son.
And finally, one of those contrarian, against the grain stories of which TDB is so fond. Teaching academic Pat Sikes thinks affairs between students and teachers can be beneficial. Ms Sikes is married to the teacher she fell for at 14. "Britain should drop its moral outrage over s*xual relationships between pupils and teachers and accept that an "erotic charge" in the classroom can be an aid to teaching, a Sheffield University academic says."
JULIE BURCHILL/THE TIMES
10 Kazakhstan vs Borat
TDB was most pleased to read that Kazakhstan is threatening to sue Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen's character from "Da Ali G Show", because it gives us an excuse to re-run a favourite piece from last year. The New Yorker interviewed Roman Vassilenko, the press secretary for the Embassy of Kazakhstan, and reported, in that delightfully dead-pan New Yorker way, that he wanted to clear up some misconceptions spread by Borat about his country. "Women are not kept in cages. The national sport is not shooting a dog and then having a party. You cannot earn a living being a Gypsy catcher. Wine is not made from fermented horse urine. It is not customary for a man to grab another man's khrum. "Khrum" is not the word for testicles."
THE NEW YORKER
11 Everything old is new again
Sign of the time, or one of those pop sociology newspaper pieces that rely on a few anecdotes and meaningless statistics? The Washington Post thinks it may be on to a new social trend - savvy teenagers who dig 60s and 70s music. Like, really dig it, man. (Never thought that phrase would be trotted out again.) Which is, of course, understandable, because boomer-era music was the best, everyone knows that. But, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"? After what The Simpsons did to it? "Neither AOL Music, iTunes nor Rhapsody could provide any sort of meaningful demographic information about who exactly has been downloading "Back in Black," "Purple Haze" and "Behind Blue Eyes." But Yahoo Music, which claims more than 20 million users monthly, reports that teenagers, the majority of them male, make up about a third of the "active audience" that's listening to and reading about core classic-rock acts like AC/DC, Hendrix and the Who."
THE WASHINGTON POST