During last week’s Sydney Writer’s Festival, I was involved in a fantastic event about World War One Poetry with Tony Birch, Colin Friels, Judy Davis, Jennifer Mills, Omar Musa and Maxine Beneba Clarke. It was organised by Jeff Sparrow at Overland magazine.
I read the following piece:
My father’s father, Fred Loewenstein, was born in Dresden, Germany. The brother of Fred’s mother was Hans Roth. He was born on the 20 July 1890 and fell, on active service with the German army, around the 13 October 1916. He had been awarded, as an Under-Officer, the Iron Cross 2nd Class. I visited his grave in Dresden in 1998.
Too often in war our political and media classes demand we support the home team, ignore the abuses by our own side and demonise the enemy. It is why when in 2012 a remarkable book, Poetry of the Taliban, was published there was predictable outrage by the same conservative forces, generals and media hacks who had led the West into a predictable disaster in Afghanistan. The book remains an essential tool in understanding the resilience, beauty, contradictions and brutality of a relatively small force that has defeated America and its allies in a nation long known as the “graveyard of empires”.
During World War I, there was much poetry written by the German forces, including Jews. Emmanuel Saul was the son of a Rabbi, born in 1876, and when war broke out he volunteered to fight. He was killed on the Russian front in 1915.
This poem by Saul, called To My Children, is a moving work praising the importance and nobility of the German cause. It reminds us that unless we understand the “other” side in war, we are destined to repeat the mistakes and crimes of the past.
Here’s an extract from a very long piece.
Last week I had the honour to meet and spend time with US investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. He was here for the Sydney Writer’s Festival (photos from the event here) – our panel together discussed the importance of indy journalism in the face of corporate reporting – and it was unique hearing somebody speak clearly about the human cost of the “war on terror”. Take this ABC interview:
Spending time together reinforced my belief that Scahill, and other humane journalists, aren’t obsessed with “objective” work but reporting on the cost of violent policies across the world in places away from prying eyes. We are all human beings and yet so many journalists prefer being close to power.
Scahill does not.
My weekly Guardian column:
I rarely feel proud to be Australian. Perhaps it’s a personal distaste for any form of nationalism, or my long-held belief that human rights abuses increasingly define our nation as brutal, petty and racist. It’s hard to feel pride when we lock up children in Pacific detention camps and incarcerate indigenous men at record rates.
When I wrote a column in the Guardian last year about gaining German citizenship, I explained that:
“My identity is a conflicted and messy mix that incorporates Judaism, atheism, anti-Zionism, Germanic traditions and Anglo-Saxon-Australian beliefs. And yet I both routinely reject and embrace them all. It sounds exhausting but it’s actually invigorating. I never feel I belong anywhere. I can’t be a Jew, atheist, German or Australian without a bundle of caveats.”
A number of readers understood my point, feeling culturally and socially unsure where exactly to fit in. Yet others wondered why I felt so estranged from my country of birth, Australia. After all, they insisted, we aren’t perfect, no country is, and we’re far freer than the vast bulk of states on the planet.
The message appeared to be that I should be grateful for what we have, stop the leftist self-loathing, celebrate the strengths and condemn the faults while campaigning to make them better.
I think about the notion of identity and the ways in which our public discourse constantly insists on a bland association with Australian mateship, a cliché notion that means everything from waving the flag on Anzac Day to enjoying a beer with friends on Bondi beach.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these acts, but they’re largely undertaken by men and women from Anglo backgrounds using alcohol as a perennial lubricant. Because our political and media elites are mostly white, it’s hard not to conclude that pushing this particular version of Australianness hasn’t been designed for the Muslim imam, the asylum seeker from Pakistan or the Aboriginal man from Katherine. How truly inclusive is our country?
During last weekend’s Sydney Writer’s Festival, I heard Australian historian Henry Reynolds, author of many books (including the recent Forgotten War on the battles between white settlers and Indigenous fighters), speak on the great silences that still permeate this nation. “We should stop looking overseas for meaning”, he said. “It’s time to come home, and look at our own history.” Reynolds resisted the current Australian government’s push to take our history back to imperial times. He asked us:
“Why do you celebrate Anzacs so much? With tens of thousands killed in foreign wars we have to say these men died for a cause, fighting for democracy. But I don’t think they did. Recognising our past is important and this affects how we see our future.”
Listening to Reynolds made me reflect on my own uncomfortableness when assessing whether Australia has ever been the “lucky country” for the masses of men, women and children never treated as equal citizens. The Saturday Paper recently investigated the shockingly high number of black kids in state care – 1,000 children are taken every year in New South Wales alone – which they headlined, The Next Stolen Generation.
How can these facts not affect our feelings towards the place we call home?
Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser took part in another writer’s festival session last weekend. He discussed his recent book, which calls for the closure of the US intelligence base Pine Gap and the abolition of the US alliance with Canberra. He was asked by a questioner about the real Australian spirit.
We like to think of ourselves as larrikins and anti-authoritarians, the man said, yet as a nation we blindly defer to US whims on war and policy. Fraser agreed and said that it would take a political shift to become a truly independent country. I wish I didn’t agree with him, but we have never been really been free from foreign direction.
So where’s the dissent from this worldview, from the idea that perhaps I should be far more thankful for the peace, security and artistry offered here?
The 2013 World Peace Index found Australia was one of the most peaceful places on earth. True, I feel weirdly excited when watching Australia play the World Cup football, even though we have no chance of the championship. I travel the world and defend my nation’s essential goodness and decency, even though I harshly condemn its discriminatory stance. I’m excited about the new film by Australian director David Michod, The Rover, because it’s a cinematic story with a local, dystopian heart. I was deeply impressed during the writer’s festival by the ingenuity of Sydney-based special effects company Animal Logic when talking about their remarkably creative work. I like that tourists in Sydney can purchase a kangaroo scrotum keychain.
Does it matter that citizens aren’t always proud of their country? My role as a journalist and commentator isn’t to heap praise on political leaders, or presume their motives are pure. My responsibility isn’t to find happy stories to make readers feel good about the world. As US investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill said on a panel with me during last week’s Sydney writer’s festival, our role as reporters isn’t to develop Stockholm Syndrome when being around the powerful, military or elites.
Governments come and go and Australia is undeniably a more equal society than when I was born in the 1970s, though there’s a long way to go for true parity between all the different classes. This reality is a computing impossibility within a capitalist system, so wishing for it is fruitless.
The issue here isn’t falling into the trap of proving how much I love my country to appease the false patriots who demand allegiance to the draconian idea of “being Australian”. Instead, I’ll believe that my country could one day, with the population not being led but leading, become a nation in harmony with its original, Indigenous inhabitants and reconcile its colonial past with a bright and egalitarian future.
Last weekend I spoke at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and one of my panels was this fantastic event (recorded and played on ABC Radio’s Sunday Nights yesterday):
A Muslim-Christian-Muslim, a Jewish-Atheist and a Scientist-Atheist-Humanist walked into a room… for a conversation with John Cleary of Sunday Nights.
Writers Reza Aslan, Antony Loewenstein and Jim Al-Khalili have a diverse range of views on faith in a modern context, and on what it means to believe in something with or without religion.
They shared their perspectives with John Cleary at the Sydney Theatre Company on 22 May as part of the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
The hugely successful #MarchinMay rallies were held last weekend across Australia, calling on equal access to health, education and a fair go. I spoke at the Sydney rally.
Here’s a wonderful video of the event, by Italian film-maker Claudio Accheri and Peta Ding, and shows the vibrancy of the day:
My weekly Guardian column:
The war on public broadcasters by corporate media is currently enjoying a resurgence.
Britain’s Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has long loathed the BBC, accusing it of supporting “cultural marxism”. In a 2007 lecture, he said the organisation attempted to undermine “the values of conservatism, with a small ‘c’, which, I would argue, just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons.” To Dacre, the BBC is a “closed thought system operating a kind of Orwellian Newspeak … perverting political discourse and disenfranchising countless millions”.
In reality, it would be hard to find any media group in Britain more polarising than the Daily Mail, constantly railing against refugees, Muslims, single women and anybody who threatens its view of the world. We can look forward to the same outlook when it formally launches in Australia this year.
Dacre’s comments on the BBC were little different to Rupert Murdoch’s Australian editorial last weekend on the ABC, that alleged managing director Mark Scott had “failed to address bias issues at the national broadcaster, lift standards or impose accountability.”
Furthermore (and Dacre would have been proud of this line), “the ABC has an endless list of progressive journalists and hosts sharing their perspectives and an absence of hosts or programmers who are mainstream or, heaven forbid, conservative”.
Corporate media’s solution isn’t to totally dismantle public broadcasters – there’s no public appetite for that – but to neuter, privatise, weaken, dismiss and delegitimise them. Despite the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, they aren’t really complaining of a lack of standards or diversity. Rather, they are conducting an ideological war against media outlets whose agendas aren’t set by corporate interests.
It’s a campaign that’s fundamentally failing. The ABC and BBC are still remarkably popular with the public. None of this means that there aren’t serious issues with both broadcasters. The BBC too often airs views expressed by the conservative British establishment over war and peace while, as George Monbiot recently investigated, rarely revealing the background and funding of think-tankers and other guests. The same goes for Australian think-tank guests, whose backers are not declared on air.
Last week’s Australian federal budget took an axe to the ABC-run Australia network and its ability to properly cover the Asia-Pacific. Managing director Mark Scott came out swinging (as much as a man in his position can do) and slammed the decision, thankfully defending the ABC’s independence and partnership with the Guardian over the stories related to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
Opposition to the ABC from the Abbott government and Murdoch press will likely result in more cuts in the coming years. It’s heartening to see Scott resist pressure to transform the public broadcaster into a cheerleader for the home team.
Australia’s wannabe culture warriors are copying a playbook that’s been honed for decades in Britain and the US. Public broadcasting in America, such as NPR and PBS, is theoretically paid for by the tax payer but in reality is now funded by both public and private monies. NPR has been accused of unimaginative thinking over the most contentious issues such as Israel/Palestine, and is prone to massive pressure from lobby groups.
One of the richest men in the country, David Koch, has heavily invested in these organisations. In 2013, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer investigated the extent of Koch’s influence of WNET, a New York channel he sponsors (WNET is part of the PBS network). After the station decided to air a documentary on inequality by Oscar-winning film-maker Alex Gibney, that included a profile of the Koch family, Mayer found the station’s channel managers and producers were scared for their jobs. The documentary went to air but with craven caveats and post-screening rebuttals by critics.
The fact that Koch could even have influence over the screening schedule at WNET reveals the massive financial short-fall from public funds and perceived need for corporate donors. This isn’t a future Australia should ever want.
PBS has often been a target for conservatives who believe it has “left-wing bias”. American journalist David Sirota, writing in Pando Daily, exposed the funding arrangements behind a two-year WNET series called The Pension Peril. The series was to be financed by billionaire former Enron trader John Arnold, a man committed to reducing pension options for millions of Americans. PBS initially denied any impropriety by taking Arnold’s money, but soon returned the funds after public outrage.
I asked Sirota what this scandal said about American public broadcasting. “PBS faces a crisis”, he told me:
“It’s billed and branded as a public-minded and publicly funded entity but it doesn’t receive an adequate amount of public funding to do purely public minded journalism and content. Instead, it has to rely on private funders who can try to attach ideological strings to their money. The end result is that content branded as public under the PBS banner is potentially being shaped by private special interests.”
It’s not an accident, he argues, that the US receives a tiny amount of public funding per capita compared to most other industrialised nations, because “well-resourced public media would be a threat to the corporate and political establishment.”
“It would have the ability to do independent journalism. Because that’s a threat to the corporate and political establishment, that establishment has drained public media of resources,” Sirota said.
Public broadcasting in Europe remains far healthier than in America (though France and Greece have seen far better days) and the BBC is currently undergoing one of its perennial discussions about who should pay for its services. Some BBC luminaries argue that the institution is too big and unfairly restricts private business. Such an argument seems absurd at a time when publicly funded media remains the most trusted in Britain and Australia.
The ABC is full of inadequacies, insider journalism and parochialism but the sheer range of its content across multiple platforms, reaching millions of Australians every day, is a key reason it must be defended against its opponents.
The following event took place this week at Harvard and contains a discussion of Greenwald’s latest book, No Place to Hide:
Yesterday thousands of Australians marched around the country to reject the extremism of Tony Abbott’s government. I was asked to speak in Sydney to a crowd of around 10,000 people (some great photos by Jaroslaw L Gasiorek here).
This video features 15 minutes of highlights (I appear at 7.24):
A slightly expanded version of my speech has been published by The Hoopla today:
Extremism is a danger to us all and it’s rampant in the political and media class.
But let’s be clear, these problems didn’t start with last year’s election. We have been experiencing a corporate government, both Labor and Liberal, for decades. We have politicians happy to do the bidding of their corporate mates while speaking of fairness. It’s the great, unspoken lie, rarely challenged by our docile media.
There has been privatisation and outsourcing by Labor and Liberal and it’s been accelerating for decades in areas of immigration, indigenous affairs, transport, education, health, child-care and defence.
Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have furthered this trend because Labor assisted the groundwork, sharing the same neo-liberal agenda. These politicians mostly go to the same parties, attend the same think-tank events and romance the same reporters. It’s a cosy club that gets a warm reception in the US and Israeli embassies.
Don’t be fooled by Labor leader Bill Shorten’s fighting words; judge what his party did in government under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Growing privatisation and gifts to their corporate mates was their real agenda, masked behind class rhetoric.
Vulture capitalism is now the ideology of our age, defended and encouraged by vast swathes of the mainstream media.
During last week’s budget coverage, how often did we hear ABC journalists ask Labor politicians and critics about the “budget emergency”, mindlessly repeating Abbott government spin? There is no budget emergency .
We are told that the budget was fair for all but the Abbott government looks to the US and UK with admiration – two societies with massive inequality and a huge underclass. Privatised education and health-care, along with private universities and hospitals are moving those countries down a path of apartheid. Access is uneven, the poor are suffering and the rich are enjoying the spoils of buying public assets at an ever-increasing rate.
Latest figures from the UK, released last week, find that the top 1% own as much as 55% of the population put together.
We are badly served by a media class that often works and plays in a bubble. They rarely go further than their offices unless on official, government visits to the US, UK or embedded with “our boys” in Afghanistan. They don’t see or hear from average citizens, and don’t want to. They talk to each other and re-publish press releases as “news” and sanctioned leaks as “exclusives”. Very few serious news stories in our press are independently discovered.
The Canberra press gallery should never be in parliament house because it guarantees subservience to an insider political message. ABC TV’s The Insiders personifies this sickness, a weekly showing of journalists happy to be close to power while providing “insights” gleaned from talking to their small coterie of friends and colleagues who are sustained by the same insularity.
Alternative voices are needed and all of you need to make yourself heard. Independent media has never been more important, fresh voices, non-white voices, multicultural voices and non-old and male voices.
I’ve spent the last years researching in Australia and globally the privatisation bonanza of public services. The rhetoric is that services will improve and efficiency will increase. The opposite is true.
In immigration detention, both Labor and Liberal have outsourced all our detention centres and services to unaccountable corporations such as G4S, Serco and Transfield. Their sole goal is profit, making money from the misery of asylum seekers.
Resistance works. Take this year’s revolt against the Biennale arts festival taking money from Transfield, a company that won a $1.2 billion contract to run Manus Island and Nauru. Artists, activists, journalists and concerned citizens convinced the Biennale that it wasn’t worth its ongoing association with Transfield. The elite response was furious, from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to Attorney General George Brandis.
Artists with an opinion who dare oppose repressive policies? That’s what great art has always been.
I stood in solidarity with this campaign. We should all examine where our money is invested, from superannuation to banks, and make sure we aren’t subsiding human rights abuses in Australia or around the world. Demand your super fund or bank tell you if they invest in Transfield or other profiteers.
Let’s build a movement of justice, equality and human rights for all. Labor and Liberal aren’t the answers; we need independent politics free from corporate interests. The Greens and others should capitalise on this public demand for clean politics and policies that will make the wealthiest Australians pay their fair share.
A political revolution is necessary, but equally a compliant media needs major change to its position as supporting the individuals, parties and corporations causing the environmental and social damage in the first place.
Reject corporate politics. Another world is possible.
*This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the March in May protest in Sydney’s Belmore Park yesterday. Tens of thousands of people gathered in cities around Australia to protest last week’s budget.
My weekly Guardian column:
This is a story about an Australian company you’ve never heard of, operating in a nation that rarely enters the global media: Greenland. It’s a story about the intense search for energy sources in a world that’s moving away from the dirtiest fossil fuels.
Aleqa Hammond, the prime minister of Greenland, is the first woman to lead this autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. She also welcomes the financial opportunities from climate change and a melting Arctic Circle.
“I simply refuse to be the victimised people of climate change”, she told Business Week this month. “This time we have other options than just hunting. We have the right now to our own underground.”
In October last year, Hammond pushed legislation through Greenland’s parliament to overturn a 25 year old ban on the extraction of radioactive materials, including uranium, despite countless leading environmental NGOs urging otherwise. It attracted global interest from the rare earth and uranium industries, including from China. Concerns were also raised about Greenland’s ability to manage a toxic substance in the wake of Fukushima and Chernobyl.
The company Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited (GMEL) is based in Perth, Western Australia. This year GMEL announced a major step forward in their plan to open one of the world’s largest uranium mines in southern Greenland, at Kvanefjeld. The mine will also produce fluoride, thorium and other rare earths.
There is still significant opposition to the Kvanefjeld project. The Ecological Council, a Danish NGO, organised a conference to discuss the potential contamination risks in March, noting that the mine poses serious risks for the inhabitants of the nearby village, Narsaq. Many locals told the BBC that they worried about pollution and challenges to traditional ways of life if GMEL moved ahead with its plans. Unsurprisingly, Danish green groups have pushed for a continued ban on uranium mining. They claim that rare earth elements can be extracted without uranium mining in Greenland.
This would have been an important but fairly typical contest over resources, but after issues surrounding the ownership and status of Perth-based GMEL were raised in the Greenlandic parliament, the prospects of the Australian firm may be in jeopardy.
Late last year, Greenland MP Sara Olsvig (tipped by some as a future prime minister) wrote to the country’s minister of industry and minerals, Jens-Erik Kirkegaard. She demanded details about any and all of GMEL’s shareholders, after Australian media outlets had raised allegations about both the company back in 2009 (here and here) and mining prospector Mihran Shemesian, also known as “Mick Many Names“.
In 2009, Fairfax media claimed that Shemesian controlled more than 20% of GMEL stock. Range Resources, another company tied to Shemesian, had earlier been accused of paying the disputed government of the Puntland State of Somalia, linked to Somali rebels, more than $US6m ($A9.3m) for resource rights to the region. Since then, there have been very few stories about him.
Kirkegaard responded that the government dismissed any concerns about GMEL – “the alleged events all occurred outside Greenland’s jurisdiction” – and claimed that the company didn’t own an exploration license anyway, so there was nothing to worry about. This isn’t quite the case: Greenland Minerals and Energy A/S (GME), the firm granted the licence, is the wholly-owned Greenlandic subsidiary of GMEL.
So is “Mick Many Names” Shemesian involved with GMEL? John Mair, the company’s executive director, told me he isn’t “registered as a shareholder”. But he would not guarantee that Shemesian has no involvement with GMEL.
Mair is proud of the Kvanefjed project, where “risks can be appropriately mitigated”. GMEL was “working with Greenland to help establish a secure and viable economy that will help sustain their increasing political independence,” he told me, adding that he was “optimistic” GMEL would be granted a mining license in the foreseeable future because “we have much local community support in Greenland”.
A key shareholder in GMEL is Perth-based geologist Greg Barnes, founder and CEO of Tanbreez. He told me by phone from Singapore that he has personally invested $40m towards mining possibilities in Greenland. He says he has known Shemesian for 30 years and “has heard that he has a 50% share in GMEL and I’ve heard that he has 0%. I have no relationship with him.”
But in December last year he told Grønlandsposten, a Greenlandic newspaper that, “he and Shemesian could probably fire GMEL’s board if they wanted to”. He told me that this referred to the make-up of GMEL many years ago – not today.
“[Greenland] is the size of Western Australia but it has no mines”, he said. “In Western Australia an application for mining would take three months but in Greenland it takes years.” A vast part of Greenland has been “staked out by a number of Perth companies.” Barnes isn’t concerned about climate change “because it didn’t really show up in places like Greenland apart from some ice sheets reducing”.
There is another view. Niels Henrik Hooge is a Danish consultant who works with green NGOs. He’s been at the forefront of the campaign against uranium mining in Greenland. He says to me that the people of Greenland are “split down the middle regarding the repeal of the [uranium] ban.”
Hooge explains that the “mineral authorities” have fed the public disinformation over the last years but the tide may be turning, with growing concerns over environmental effects and the leftist party Inuit Ataqatigiit pledging to roll back the repeal if it wins back power.
The prospect of a relatively unknown Australian company exploiting massive untapped resources in Greenland deserves a robust public and political debate. It has thus far received nothing in Australia, and little in Denmark and Greenland. In an age of worsening climate change, mining uranium is an arguably unsafe and potentially explosive answer to the problem.
Antony Loewenstein @antloewenstein
Journalist and author:My Israel Question, The Blogging Revolution
I joined Twitter in 2009 because I’m a news junkie and I was interested in finding information on a new medium. It allows me to connect with people around the world who I wouldn’t normally speak to – journalists, activists, writers, dissidents, and because I write about issues in the Middle East or issues of immigration detention in Australia, I find invaluable information from writers to refugees to activists who don’t normally have a voice in mainstream media.
I enjoy being challenged on Twitter and I enjoy being comforted. The downside is Twitter addiction. I may need to go into some kind of treatment for it. I tweet a lot. But I do have a rule that I don’t talk about my personal life, partner, family or where I’m going. I encourage people to find that space rather than tweeting everything they do. I think there is danger in willingly giving up our privacy to corporations mining our personal information.