Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Listening to Iraqi voices when hearing about Iraq

My weekly Guardian column:

Since last week’s victories by the militant group Isis against a weak, US-backed, Iraqi government, the same, failed protagonists from the 2003 invasion have come out of the woodwork to advocate another military intervention.

Although some journalists, like The Independent’s prescient Patrick Cockburn, have been warning about the growing power of Isis, voices on the ground are few and far between in western media. Mostly we get the same old neo-cons who took us to Iraq in the first place.

That’s a shame, because local reporters and bloggers have a unique perspective. Instead of listening to think-tanks pushing to bomb, a tour through the internet turns up plenty of thoughts from those suffering the direct consequences of the carnage in Iraq.

Niqash is a website that features Iraqi journalists from across the nation and publishes in Arabic, Kurdish and English. Reporter Abdul-Khaleq Dosky this week interviewed Bashar al-Kiki, the Kurdish head of the provincial council in Ninawa, and asked him about life inside Mosul since it fell to Isis.

“The whole of Mosul is under Isis’ control,” al-Kiki explained. “Isis has also allocated one mosque in the city for tawba [repentance or confession]. People are expected to go this mosque to repent past acts and to show their loyalty to Isis.”

Mustafa Habib‘s analysis of the retreat from Mosul is fascinating: he argues that the Iraqi army didn’t desert, but was ordered to leave. It remains unclear by whom but he quotes Hakim al-Zamily, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defence committee, who says:

“There can only be a handful of people who know who actually gave those orders for the army to withdraw. One of them must be al-Maliki [the Iraqi prime minister.] But up until now he’s said nothing about this.”

Users of social media in Iraq have been perennially blocked by the government. Many Iraqis outside the country have been tweeting about their families trapped in Mosul. Iraqi blogger Maryam Al Dabbagh, now in the UAE, has an essential Twitter feed with moving details about life under Isis control.

The absence of Iraqi voices on the plight of their own country isn’t a new phenomenon. One of the most articulate Iraqi bloggers, Baghdad Burning, moved from Iraq to Syria after 2003 and is now in another Arab city. Her last post, in April 2013, was full of anger about the fate of her homeland:

“We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands.”

Kurdish journalist Fazel Hawramy runs a good Twitter account on Iraq, and has been reporting for The Guardian. Then there’s Isis, which is mounting its own social media campaign. Ironically, there is also an apparent Isis critic tweeting from within the group.

Of course, many Iraqis don’t use social networks at all. In any modern war it’s dangerous to take Facebook posts and Tweets as representing anything more than the views of a select few. Journalism from the streets still remains vitally important.

We should also ask why western reporters are taken to be the most trusted authorities wherever they are reporting. An anonymous journalist, writing from Mosul last week, explained in Niqash that the Baath Party may be making an effort to restore its power in Iraq. However, the author wrote:

“It was still clear who was really in charge: Isis. The same source in Mosul said that after gaining control of the whole province of Ninawa, ISIS then gave the Naqshbandi Army [militias linked to the Baathists] 24 hours to remove their pictures of Saddam Hussein.”

The Iraqi people face years more hardship and uncertainty. What the country doesn’t need is more blowhards looking to preserve American prestige. That was lost the day Iraq was invaded in 2003. Listening and engaging local voices has never been more important, if for no other reason to prove that Baghdad’s problems won’t be fully solved in London, Tehran, Washington or Canberra.

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Why do so many Australians embrace spying?

My weekly Guardian column:

Australians feel very comfortable with spying on our friends and enemies. During his visit to Canada this week, Tony Abbott, the prime minister, backed the Five Eyes intelligence sharing structure between America, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Australia, saying “our intelligence gathering has got to be done in a way that is decent and fair and which doesn’t betray the fundamental values that we are doing our best to uphold”.

According to the recently released Lowy Institute 2014 poll, the majority of Australians agree: 70% of us feel it’s appropriate to monitor the activities of nations with which Canberra has poor relations. Half argue it’s acceptable even against friendly states. Australians have no issue with Indonesia, East Timor, France, Japan, America and New Zealand being spied on by their own government.

Despite there being vast evidence that Australia is arguably essentially spying for commercial purposes against a poor neighbour such as East Timor over its valuable oil and gas reserves, these facts don’t appear to concern Australians.

What the Lowy poll doesn’t ask is how Australians feel about Canberra and its US allies spying on them. One of the invaluable revelations of former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was confirming the US government’s mass surveillance of its own citizens. Would Australians feel happy knowing faceless spy agencies are recording, collating, monitoring and storing private details about their lives? I hope not.

In Britain this week, actor Stephen Fry slammed the British government for its “squalid and rancid” response to the Snowden revelations. Yet in Australia, there has been very little dissent over them at all. With bipartisan, political backing for American influence on the Australian homeland, it’s revealing how few public condemnations have been heard (with some notable exceptions). For this reason alone, intelligence agencies, the federal government and media backers feel little pressure to be answerable for their secret business.

The Lowy Institute should have probed these issues far more, instead of rehashing tired questions about Australians’ love of the US alliance. The poll report muses on the “continuing relevance and durability of the US alliance for our nation’s security” while never allowing any questions that may challenge this notion. Does the US alliance make Australia a client state of Washington (as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser states in his new book)? Should Australia continue to buy overpriced weapons and planes from multinational US arms manufacturers?

I’m reminded of the classic Noam Chomsky quote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”

The Lowy poll adheres to this rule with mostly safe and predictable questions, and therefore receives expected answers. Elsewhere, the Lowy poll asks mundane questions about how Australians feel about world figures such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi and Angela Merkel. It stands to reason that since media coverage of western leaders is largely benign, showing the supposed good intent of their democratic credentials, Australians overwhelmingly like Obama and his ilk (though no questions about US drone strikes which kill many civilians). Equally, non-western leaders, such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Xi Jinping, are very unpopular.

This is another confected result. Since the Snowden leaks last year, Washington has ramped up the rhetoric blaming Beijing for its outrageous spying infrastructure against American businesses and government, even going so far in May of charging some in the Chinese military for hacking. Beijing is demonised as uniquely evil, unfairly gaining commercial advantage over its rivals. This is a classic smokescreen which attempts to change the conversation away from the Snowden documents, which detail extensive US spying on Chinese interests.

When the media gives Washington’s claims far more credence and coverage than Beijing’s, we shouldn’t be shocked that Australians tell the Lowy Institute that they don’t trust the Chinese leader.

Despite these deep hesitations, the Lowy results provide some instructive news about local attitudes. Asylum seekers have been so successfully demonised for so many years that sympathy for their claims and boat people in general is shamefully low. Pressure for serious action on climate change is rising at a time when president Obama is encouraging a reduction in carbon emissions while countries run by neo-conservatives, such as Canada and Australia, are moving even further towards embracing a coal future. Abbott is out of step with public opinion.

One sign of a healthy and mature nation is how it relates to the world and the most vulnerable people in it, and it’s encouraging that 70% of Lowy respondents see poverty reduction, rather than foreign policy objectives (a stated goal of the Abbott government), as central to our outward posture.

A think-tank that didn’t see its main purpose as supporting and strengthening the foreign policy status quo would have designed a far more imaginative and insightful annual poll. In the meantime, Lowy has given us an incomplete picture of Australian attitudes towards some of the most contentious issues of our time and shown the public to be conservative, caring and cautious – the inevitable result when our media is so selective in its coverage of crucial news.

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Triple R radio interview on US, drones and civilian murder

I was interviewed this week on Triple R’s Spoke show about US drone strikes in Yemen, killing Australians and the law:

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The Daily Show on Bowe Bergdahl and Fox News

Nothing short of genius tinged with necessary slap-downs of race-baiting Fox News:

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Three problems with the Fourth Estate

The blandness of the mainstream media, including public broadcasters, is all about the narrow level of “debate” allowed on issues of the day.

Australian intellectual and academic Scott Burchill has written the following short essay on the problem and possible solutions:

In what is misleadingly called the ‘age of culture wars’ there are three aspects of media commentary and reporting that poison discussion about politics in Australia. None of them are new, and it is by no means a definitive list, but all of them are now more prominent than they were two decades ago. Each contaminates political discourse and significantly reduces the value of newspaper and online commentary. The first is the misunderstanding of bias, the second is a tendency to political apostasy and the third is the effect of close proximity to power.

Bias and corkscrew journalism

It is important to start by exposing some common misperceptions about the conceptualisation of media bias.

Information managers in modern societies accrue power by controlling and organising knowledge. They have the skills to process and direct information, and the influence to mobilise public support for decision-making by government. They are in the business of lobbying, cheerleading and opinion management, though they routinely masquerade as independent and objective  commentators.

These managers – or perhaps more accurately “commissars” – are commonly classified in 200 year old ideological terms such as “left” and “right”, positions on a linear spectrum which are then paired with political parties which are said to approximate these approaches: in Australia – ALP = left, Coalition = right. Many commentators are in fact former party functionaries and apparatchiks who have seamlessly passed through a revolving door between politics and journalism.

The idea of political “balance” – usually only invoked as an attack on ideological adversaries who apparently lack it – assumes that both halves of the political spectrum (left and right) should be  equally represented in the political process and that a optimal mid-point between the two exists. This centre or median, which is apparently free of political bias and often described as “moderate” or “mainstream”, is where taxpayer-funded media organisations such as the ABC are supposed to reside – in the interests of both fairness and their charters. No such discipline is expected of privately owned media outlets.

There are several problems with this schema.

The assumption that a moderate, responsible and “natural” balance can be found on each and every political issue is self-evidently untrue. Are there two sides to the Holocaust or indiscriminate terrorism where a balanced view in the middle can be found? Obviously not. There are not always two legitimate sides to every story.

The persistent use of terms such as “left” and “right” to characterise media opinion in Australia grossly exaggerates the diversity of views that are actually presented. It is still widely assumed that the two party system (Labor–Coalition) encompasses the full spectrum of legitimate political thought in Australia. Ideas or arguments which do not fall neatly within the policy parameters of the major parties (eg the Greens) are said to be “extreme” and beyond the bounds of respectable opinion. Debate, discussion and choice is effectively circumscribed by defining the intellectual boundaries within which legitimate political expression is possible. There is no need for formal censorship, which is usually clumsy and ineffective.

When the range of “legitimate” political ideas moves as a bloc to the right while simultaneously converging, the terms used to describe these ideologies becomes misleading. Instead, voters looking for meaningful differences within the two party system are presented with an illusion of choice. All but the narrowest of proposals is dismissed as  “radical” or “extreme”. The “free market” of political ideas narrows and discourse becomes stale and repetitive.

This is the primary drawback of bipartisanship, a view of politics which avoids robust debate and disagreement believing a consensus should be achieved on most issues. It also explains the revolving ideological door used by newspaper columnists such as Gerard Henderson and the late Paddy McGuinness, opinionistas equally comfortable at houses of Fairfax and Murdoch.

Of the reasons to feel depressed about the state of the Australian media, it is this tendency towards repetition, recycling and set–piece ideological battles – sometimes described as “corkscrew journalism” – which is most deflating.

According to the late Fred Halliday, the term “corkscrew journalism” originated in the film The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor in 1940. Halliday defines it as “instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged, polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade, or more.”

This is an accurate description of much media commentary in Australia, illustrated recently by the interminable sniping between the ABC and the Murdoch press. Predictability and a lack of originality are rife, and media consumers are no longer buying it – literally.

Readers, viewers and listeners are often surprised to find commentators placing themselves at the centre of these ideological battles, frequently defending either their (often undisclosed) party affiliations or the commercial prerogatives of their employer, against other columnists and their backers. It’s a dialogue between insiders who share a grossly inflated sense of their own importance. The current ABC v Murdoch scrap is little more than competition for market share in the commodity known as news and current affairs, via direct attacks on rival management and journalists.

There is little that is thoughtful and much that is repetitive, but everything seems designed to provoke – usually other columnists. The tyranny of concision ensures that complex and detailed ideas cannot be properly explained, so much commentary is little more than the personal vendettas of ideological vigilantes, the airing of petty grievances and the venting of long-standing obsessions.

There is one golden rule in political commentary, especially for in-house regulars, which is unfortunately honoured more in the breech than the observance. If you have nothing interesting or original to say, say nothing.

A new tendency: political apostasy

If there is an increasing tendency amongst Australia’s media commentariat it is not a shared ideological conviction – although the spectrum of opinion has sharply narrowed to the right in recent years – but a trend towards political apostasy. Reflecting a pattern set in the United States and the United Kingdom by David Horowitz, Paul Johnson, Christopher Hitchens and others, Australia’s political apostates such as Keith Windschuttle, Brendan O’Neill, Piers Akerman and Imre Salusinszky, appear motivated by a desperate need to cleanse themselves of the ideological sins of their youth by suddenly adopting diametrically opposite views. In the case of Robert Manne and Malcolm Fraser, the transition from liberal to conservative has been reversed.

Political apostates have the same limited credibility as reformed smokers who lecture others about the risks of lung cancer, and are equally insufferable. By renouncing their earlier faith and converting to its polar opposite they display a psychological need for devotion to some cause or belief system. This enables them to courageously challenge the orthodoxies of the “elites,” “the left” or “chattering classes” that they were once a member of, without explaining their own immunity from such a contagion.

There is something fundamentalist about their behaviour. They inhabit the extremes of both the ideological position they originally held and the one they have more recently converted to. The move from Stalinist to free market zealot, for example, is remarkably seamless. The neocons around George W. Bush were perfect illustrations of this ideological transition, and they have a mirror image amongst the oligarchs of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Most political apostates in the West are victims of the ‘God That Failed’ syndrome. They began their political lives as commissars on the left but soon changed tack when they realised that real power, wealth and influence lay on the opposite side of the ideological fence. Once established as servants of state capitalism – and frequently defenders of state violence – these rugged individualists devote their time to exposing the sins of former comrades who haven’t yet seen the light and shifted like magnets to the true centres of political power.

Reconstructing themselves as faux dissenters who would prefer their earlier liberal incarnation to be forgotten, political apostates adopt reflexively contrarian positions of the risk-free kind, often portraying themselves as persecuted dissidents in a liberal dominated industry. They accomplish this without noticing that they are surrounded by a stable of like-minded conservatives, statists and reactionaries. Ensconced in the heartland of corporate media, ideas such “risk”, “opposition to power” and “dissent” are rendered meaningless. Conformity, obedience and group-think rule the day. This is why on the Op Ed pages of the Murdoch press, a “range of voices” translates to a “range of conservative voices” all saying pretty much the same thing.

Media proprietors don’t need to issue ideological edicts, although Mr Murdoch apparently instructed his editors around the world to support the war in Iraq in 2003. They select editors who have already internalised the right views and values. Self-censorship is always more effective than orders from above.

On Op Ed pages it is now common to read strident posturing and contrived provocation disguised as thoughtful opinion. Aping the modus operandi of commercial talkback radio, in-house commentators make deliberate and often unsubstantiated criticisms of their counterparts in rival papers, hoping to trigger outrage, controversy, and an equally malicious response which can then be presented as a “public debate”.

Much of what passes for “debate”, however, is remarkably shallow and ill-informed, seemingly motivated by personal animus and utterly boring to most media consumers who remain indifferent to insider breast beating. It’s largely a closed discussion between people who share an exaggerated sense of both their importance and influence. Civility and serious debate have been replaced by infantile point-scoring and a quest for 60 Minutes-style celebrity, where the presenter/commentator is more important than the story.

Intoxicated by power: a supine media class

Writing at the birth of industrial society, Adam Smith identified a major weakness in the moral condition of the species:

“The disposition to admire, and to almost worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

The 19th-century Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin concurred with Smith’s observations and understood how easily this moral corruption led to a love affair between the intellectual class and the state:

“…whatever conduces to the preservation, the grandeur and the power of the state, no matter how sacrilegious or morally revolting it may seem, that is the good. And conversely, whatever opposes the state’s interests, no matter how holy or just otherwise, that is evil. … [Machiavelli was right when he concluded that for this class] that the state was the supreme goal of all human existence, that it must be served at any cost and that, since the interest of the state prevailed over everything else, a good patriot should not recoil from any crime in order to serve it.”

Little, if anything in this regard has changed in 250 years. Proximity to power remains intoxicating for impressionable journalists and commentators, especially the ambitious and instinctively obedient. A depraved submission to authority and an ever-ready desire to please those in power may be the very antithesis of an adversarial media, but it is strikingly commonplace in the “mainstream”. Conformity and compliance are too often regarded as normal and natural, whereas dissent is evidence of anti-social tendencies and a severe personality disorder: it’s Stalinism redux, this time in the West.

An inner circle, where journalists are privy to confidences and trusted with sensitive information, is a very seductive locale to inhabit. Flattery yields to feelings of being special and exclusive – becoming a player, even a decision-maker. Loyalty and discretion are rewarded with privileges and access. There might be networking and photo opportunities, a book endorsement or launch, even the receipt of an authorised leak: later perhaps, a well-paid, high-status government job.

Whether it’s being duchessed around Israel with an all expenses paid guided tour organised by the local Israel lobby or an invitation to attend the Australia America Leadership Dialogue where Chatham House rules apply, scepticism and independence are replaced by a socialisation to power. In this atmosphere a journalist may come to believe that she, and the subjects of her reporting, are not adversaries at all but colleagues in a common enterprise. They effectively become courtiers, working to “understand” current problems while preserving the status quo: a patriotic agenda.

The personal hostility of many journalists and think tankers to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden stems from both professional jealousy that they were out-scooped by unorthodox competitors, and an instinctive fear of upsetting established power. Instead of investigating the behavior of governments and welcoming greater transparency about decisions being taken in the peoples’ name, many in the media became complicit in defending state power from public exposure. Along the way the ‘right to know’ about government malfeasance was abandoned and replaced with personal smears, innuendo and outright lies about those were actually informing the public.

Framing ideas and debates, telling people what they should think about public issues and defending doctrinal orthodoxies is what lobbying on behalf of power is all about. The role of journalists and commentators is to challenge and expose these processes, not to endorse or amplify them.

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How to reconcile black and white relations in Australia

My weekly Guardian column:

The humidity in Darwin slows everything down. Although it’s currently dry season, the temperature is still in the mid 30s and warm breezes linger late into the night.

The city, which sits at the top end of Australia, is troubled by excessive violence and alcohol abuse. The Northern Territory has one of thehighest rates of incarceration in Australia, particularly for Aboriginal men. An adult in the NT is close to eight times more likely to be in jail than an individual in the Australian Capital Territory.

I was invited to Darwin’s Wordstorm writer’s festival last week, and spent far more time listening than talking. I was warmly welcomed and attended many events where the gulf between white and black Australia was discussed. The proximity of both peoples in a small population forces daily interactions. None of this guarantees harmony, of course, as a piece by anthropologist Evelyn Enduatta on Darwin’s stark yet normalised racism recently highlighted.

In the south of the country, where I live, Aboriginal Australia can often seem abstract or removed from daily life. Most Australians never knowingly encounter an Aboriginal person. My major relationship with Indigenous communities was writing about the ultimately successful campaign in western Australia against a proposed onshore, Woodside gas plant at James Price Point. I spent time there and supported the Aboriginal groups and environmental activists who argued the plan was ill-conceived, and would not benefit those most in need of economic support.

In Darwin last week, on a panel titled, “Is home where the heart is? Can we all belong to this land?”, author and Miles Franklin finalist Alexis Wright, an Indigenous woman of the Waanyi people from the Gulf of Carpentaria, argued that Australia was far away from reconciling with its original peoples. She had no faith in the political process; Labor, Liberal and the Greens didn’t rate a positive mention.

Wright said that Eddie Mabo, a man from the Torres Strait Islands, had to fight a system that refused to accept Aboriginal ownership or rights over land until the high court in 1992 overturned the concept of Australia being an empty continent when the British arrived in 1788 – “a land without a people for a people without a land”. In Australia, Wright explained, obtaining justice will only come through the courts. It was an admittedly imperfect method of obtaining justice, she conceded, and fellow Indigenous writer Philip McLaren said that the state would simply keep changing the law to stymie any benefits from litigation. “We just have to keep on fighting”, Wright pithily responded.

One of the key themes throughout the festival was the Aboriginal connection to the land, and the whitefellas’ comparative absence of it. Indigenous poet Lionel Fogarty convincingly explained that the concept of ownership and property was foreign to many of his fellow brothers and sisters, and they therefore couldn’t understand why they needed to pay rent on land or even aim to buy it (which most can’t afford, anyway).

This made me reflect on my own sense of home and what it means when I’m Australian, Jewish, German, atheist, anti-Zionist and against nationalism and patriotism of all kinds. I have never felt a deep connection to the natural world or earth and I admire, though not romanticise, those who do. Although I have strong memories and understandings of certain places from different stages of my life, in Australia and globally, I don’t think there’s anywhere I couldn’t live without ever seeing again.

The refusal to accept the Aboriginal connection to land is one of this country’s eternal shames and the Wordstorm literary festival forced me to confront how far away reconciliation is in Australia after a litany of Indigenous writers, poets and authors documented what most of the population don’t see or hear. Their community isn’t defined by alcohol abuse or dysfunction, although that clearly exists – I saw many intoxicated Aboriginal men and women, some with visible mental issues, sprawled on Darwin streets – yet the vibrancy and diversity of Aboriginal Australia is invisible to white Australia.

Whatever reconciliation really means - constitutional recognition of the First Australians or an end to an ever-expanding NT intervention – it wasn’t hard to hear offered solutions and ideas in Darwin that displayed both weariness and enthusiasm. Mainstream politics is unlikely to bring any comfort in the foreseeable future, if ever.

I’ve long believed that white Australia has a moral responsibility to both recognise the attempted genocide against its First Australians and pay reparations. It’s an issue eloquently detailed in the US in this month’s Atlantic cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates who argues that slavery and institutional racism in America requires state-sponsored compensation.

“More important than any single check cut to any African American”, he writes, “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

The writer told Democracy Now last week that there are many ways to imagine reparations being made, including sending cheques to African-Americans who have been affected. He strongly backs atoning for past wrongs because, “you actually can’t understand American history without understanding slavery.” Australia is little different.

Coates says that when a nation, such as the US, implements policies that “disproportionately injure black people…our policies should be structured in such a way that take that into account.” Land, housing and imprisonment discrimination are either addressed immediately or these festering sores will only deepen.

It’s a conversation that Australia desperately needs to begin and yet one that seems incredibly far away. This isn’t about victimhood or putting a hand out for endless welfare because of past wrongs. It’s about recognising profound, historical traumas that continue to do this day.

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How the world currently sees Australia

Champagne piece on the US comedy show by John Oliver, Last Week Tonight:

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How the UK and its mercenaries assisted Ugandan thugs

The history of Western governments talking about democracy and freedom while backing the most thuggish groups in the world is long and sordid.

The UK-based Corporate Watch does a wonderful job of uncovering the many links between business and government.

Here is its Phil Miller on a story that shows why we always need to separate rhetoric from reality:

Margaret Thatcher gave her approval to British mercenaries working with a Ugandan paramilitary unit during the bloodiest human rights abuses in the East African country’s civil war, newly-released documents reveal.

Falconstar Limited, run by ex-SAS officers Jeremy Trevaskis and Peter Le Marchand, trained the Ugandan Police Special Force, a notorious group implicated in mass killings, beatings and rape during President Milton Obote’s crackdown after the fall of Idi Amin.

Trevaskis wrote to Prime Minister Thatcher in September 1983 to inform her that Falconstar was “in the process now of completing a major contract with the Government of Uganda, where we have trained over 1,500 Special Force constables in two years”, adding that this had “made a large contribution to internal security and to foreign investors’ confidence in Uganda”.

Thatcher’s private secretary, David Barclay, wrote in reply: “Mrs Thatcher was most interested to read about Falconstar’s services, and sends her best wishes for continued success.”

Just months before in July 1983, Malcolm Rifkind, then Foreign Office Minister for African Affairs, had warned Obote about human rights abuses when he visited Uganda.

Human Rights Watch has said the civil war from 1981-1986 was characterized by “military excesses against civilians which are believed to have exceeded the brutality of the Amin era”. An estimated 300,000 Ugandans died and 500,000 were displaced.

Corporate Watch found the papers among Downing Street files released under the 30-year-rule at the UK National Archives. This latest revelation comes from the same batch of Thatcher’s correspondence which showed the Prime Minister secretly dispatched an SAS officer to advise the Indian government on storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar and gave tacit approval to SAS veterans training Sri Lankan commandos to suppress Tamil rebels in 1984. The respective situations in Uganda, Sri Lanka and India’s Punjab region ranked among the world’s worst conflicts in the mid-1980s.

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ABCTV News24′s The Drum on asylum seekers and politics

I was on ABCTV News24′s The Drum on Monday night discussing the latest report on asylum seeker chaos caused by Australia and other political issues:

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Why understanding the “other side” remains vital in war

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.

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Jeremy Scahill in Australia

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.

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How to consider identity, pride and country

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.

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