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.

My notes for launching Omar Musa’s new book Here Come the Dogs

Last night in Sydney I was honoured to launch my friend Omar Musa’s first book, Here Come the Dogs, released publicly now. Today it received a wonderful review in The Guardian.

Here are my launch notes:

22/7/14

-       Met Omar in 2009 in Ubud, Bali, at the Ubud Literary Festival. He was funny, brash and cheeky. His spoken word poetry was rude, crude, witty, humorous, moving and different to so much of what claimed to speak for Australia. This was an authentic voice that wasn’t white, how bloody rare is that in our bland press?, and he demanded to be heard in the mainstream. His new book signals he’s not content waiting to be asked. He’s arrived with a bang and lashings of the word “cunt”. From the first page.

-       His great poem, My Generation, is a work I constantly return to, with lines like this:

“My generation
took solace in
false prophets who promised change
and did more of the same,
whose ideologies of optimism
were turned into
fridge magnets and bumper stickers-
YES WE CAN”

The false dawn of Barack Obama still resonates today.

-        Here Come The Dogs is an Australia we rarely see or hear. It’s tough, edgy, masculine, multiracial, uncompromising, not beach obsessed, not polite, full of fucks and the youth. It roams around a country that we all know exists. Tony Abbott would not approve. His daughters, all dressed in white, virginal dresses on election night last year, would be appalled. It’s even more reason to love this book.

-        Knowing Omar for more than five years, he’s often choosing between poetry, hip-hop, writer and playwright. We can now add author to this list. Here Come The Dogs has a rhythm that’s hypnotic, exposing an Australia that is ashamed of our past, questioning of our present and not overly optimistic about our future. Reading the book I found myself wondering why we don’t hear these perspectives more often. Blame the media. Blame the old editors. Blame the unadventurous. The Pacific point of view is almost invisible in Australian media.  The loser is mocked not understood. The petty criminal is fodder for a Daily Telegraph cover. Omar injects humanity around all his characters but he doesn’t shy away from sometimes stomping on their hearts and dreams.

-        This book makes me proud to be Australian because it doesn’t give a fuck about manners, and encourages eating our food with fingers and not a knife and fork. Napkins aren’t provided. It’s raw and all the better for it.

-        This is an angry but tender book. Men dominate. Flames lick around all the characters. Uncertainty is in the air. Confidence is something to be mocked.

-        I’m honoured to call Omar a friend and we’ve spent hours, in Australia, Indonesia and India, debating politics, the world and the finer points of Barry Obama’s foreign policy. Thank you for asking me to help launch your first book. The first of many, and I know you’re already planning the next one. May you offend every more people with it, a sign in my world that you’re achieving your aims.

-        I encourage everybody to buy at least 5 copies of the book, for friends, enemies and lovers. It’s written in a language that soars. May it provoke concern in North Shore wives, excitement in inner-city kids, fear in private schools and trembling at the censorship board.

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How the West has always backed brutal Sri Lanka

My weekly Guardian column:

The Sri Lankan Navy band was busy last week, learning the tune to Waltzing Matilda. They played it to welcome Scott Morrison, the Australian immigration minister, who was visiting to launch two patrol boats donated by the Australian government. A photo of the moment,tweeted by journalist Jason Koutsoukis, showed Morrison sitting alongside president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Perhaps it didn’t worry Morrison that there are growing calls to prosecute Gotabaya Rajapaksa for war crimes, because of his actions in 2009 during the Sri Lankan civil war. Australia has been aware of Sri Lanka’s breaches of human rights for some time.

Australia is now closer to the regime than ever, because of their assistance in implementing Morrison’s tough border protection strategy. As Emily Howie, the director of advocacy and research at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, reported in 2013, “the Australian government is actively funding and supporting Sri Lanka to undertake these interceptions [of asylum seekers].”

Her report was based on interviews she gathered in Sri Lanka with people who wanted to leave and were stopped, interrogated and often tortured. Howie wrote in The Conversation that arbitrary detention, beatings and torture are routinely meted out to those in custody, Tamil and Sinhalese, with Canberra’s knowledge.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) works closely with its Sri Lankan counterparts, providing training, intelligence, vehicles and surveillance equipment. This has been happening for years. From time to time, stories surface alleging that AFP offers have been present during Sri Lankan police beatings and interrogations of returned asylum seekers. If true, this fits into a wider pattern of Western officials colluding with thuggish militias and authorities over the last few decades, including in Northern IrelandIraq and Afghanistan.

Britain has had its own peculiar involvement in the darkness of Sri Lanka’s recent past. A groundbreaking new report by British researcher and journalist Phil Miller, a researcher at London-based Corporate Watch and regular contributor to Open Democracy on detention issues, outlines how brutal British tactics utilised in Northern Ireland were brought to Sri Lanka in its war against dissidents and Tamils.

The report uncovers new evidence of government and mercenary elements colluding to put down Tamil independence and calls for equal rights. From the early 1980s, London denied any official involvement in training Sri Lankan “para-military [forces] for counter-insurgency operations” but documents show how the British were working closely with Colombo to stamp out the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

Britain saw a unique opportunity to maintain influence with Colombo by training a generation of Sri Lankan officers. London set up a military academy there in 1997, supplied a range of weapons to the army, assisted Sri Lankan intelligence agencies, protected Sri Lanka in international forums against abuse allegations and pressured various governments to ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

One month after the end of the civil war in 2009, Britain was working to assist the growth of Sri Lanka’s police department. There was no concern over the serious allegations of massive human rights abuses of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military. The agenda was economic and political, with Liam Fox, the British defence minister, explaining in June 2011 that Sri Lanka played a vital role in combating international piracy.

“Sri Lanka is located in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean with major international shipping routes between the Far East and the Gulf within 25 miles of your coast”, he said.

Russia, China, Israel and America have sold military hardware to Colombo both before and after 2009. Wikileaks cables show the US government recognised the Sri Lankan military’s role in atrocities during the civil war. Although the Tamil Tigers undeniably committed terrorist acts, state terrorism by the Sri Lankan establishment was far worse. Australia’s view has been consistent for decades: Canberra rarely recognises state terrorism if committed by an ally.

Australia’s former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bruce Haigh, stationed in the country from 1994, recalls how the high commission in Colombo would regularly liaise with its Sri Lankan counterparts, run training programs and accept Colombo’s line that any and all Tamils associated with the liberation struggle were terrorists.

This mindset existed long before September 11. Little has changed, though. Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, has gone even further than his mentor, John Howard, by expressing sympathy for a Sri Lankan regime that tortures its opponents and refuses to endorse an independent investigation into the end of the civil war.

How nations like Australia should relate to Sri Lanka and other human rights abusing countries is a tough question, when Canberra itself routinely breaches its international obligations. At the very least, we should call for rights to be recognised and improved in foreign lands and at home.

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ABCTV Big Ideas on freedom of the press

The following was broadcast last week by ABC TV’s Big Ideas:

Big Ideas went to the deep north for the Wordstorm festival in Darwin. This is a festival that covers local and national politics and culture with a hefty dose of late night rapping. Some of the rap probably needs a late night time slot; but we can bring you this uncensored session on freedom of the press that pulls together some local journalists and some from the bigger smoke.

The panellists are Kerrie Anne Walsh, formerly of the Canberra Press Gallery & author of The Stalking of Julia Gillard; Glen Morrison, a journalist from Alice Springs, John Van Tiggelan; formerly with The Good Weekend & currently a journalist with The Monthly, writer Claire Scobie & the ubiquitous Antony Loewenstein – blogger, doco maker and journalist. His last book you might recall was Profits of Doom.

Kerrie Anne Walsh is particularly good on the big changes in the reportage and alignments within the Canberra press gallery.

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Talking about nation and identity in Greece

I’m currently in Greece working on a new book, out in 2015 with Verso Books on disaster capitalism (more details soon), and excited to announce this public event on 24th June with my friend and colleague (and bloody fine and successful writer), Christos Tsiolkas. It’s organised by the art/intellectual collective, the Athens-based Libby Saucer Foundation:

The group Libby Sacer Foundation continues its series of events under the title “Passport please” at the cheapart art space (An. Metaxa 25, Exarheia). The next two events of the series focus on Ghosts. Entrance is free.

Talk – discussion: The Ghost of Nation” - 24th June, 8pm

Two Australian natives, radical Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas and anti-Zionist Jewish journalist Antony Loewenstein discuss the notion of nation. As the children and grandchildren of immigrants, white inhabitants of a black continent and people functioning beyond normality on multiple levels, the two will trace their relationship with what we call nation. 

The guests will discuss in English and there will be a Greek interpreter.

Brief biographies:

Christos Tsiolkas was born in Melbourne in 1965. Born to a working-class family of Greek migrants, he is left-wing and openly gay. He has been called “one of the greatest contemporary writers in Australia” and has received many awards. His first novel, Loaded (1995), was filmed as Head On (1998) by director Ana Kokkinos. In 2006, his novel Dead Europe won The Age Book of the Year fiction award and was adapted into a film in 2012. In 2009, his fourth novel, The Slap, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009 for best novel in the South-East Asia and South Pacific area, and in 2010 he was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Tsiolkas has also written The Jesus Man, The Devil’s Playground and most recently Barracuda. Christos Tsiolkas is also a playwright, essayist and screenwriter. 

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based journalist, author and filmmaker. He’s a weekly columnist for the Guardian, has written best-selling books including My Israel Question, The Blogging Revolution and Profits of Doom: How vulture capitalism is swallowing the world. Loewenstein also edited Left Turn and After Zionism and is currently making a documentary and a new book about vulture capitalism. 

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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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SBS News interview on Australia not seeing East Jerusalem as occupied

I was interviewed for the SBS TV news earlier this week on Canberra’s insane decision to avoid calling East Jerusalem “occupied” despite the entire world knowing that it is, except the occupying nation itself, Israel. Shalailah Medhora is the journalist (and a link to the video is here):

Last week Attorney-General George Brandis told Senate Estimates that Australia would drop “occupied” when referring to East Jerusalem.

Australia is the only nation apart from Israel to change its language on the contested land.

“Australia [will] isolate itself from the entire international community, and from the peace process,” Ambassador to the General Delegation of Palestine, Izzat Abdulhadi, told SBS.

The Ambassador has met with counterparts from Arab and Asian nations to draft a letter calling for an urgent meeting with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to clarify Australia’s position.

“In this letter we express our deep concern about this position of Australia,” Mr Abdulhadi says.

“We think it’s important for Australia to revise its position.”

Israeli Ambassador to Australia, Schmuel Ben-Schmuel, has welcomed the policy shift.

“It’s a reasonable step which I wish all like-minded countries would accept,” Mr Ben-Schmuel told SBS.

The Ambassador says the change will help the peace process.

“The way through peace is through direct negotiation through the parties involved.”

Former Australian Ambassador to Israel, Ross Burns, disagrees.

“Now we seem to be losing our capacity to dialogue with the Arab side,” the ex-Ambassador turned Palestinian advocate, says.

“Our name has been mud, particularly among the Palestinians, but also generally in the Arab world.”

Some commentators think the decision to drop “occupied” is less about the federal government’s ideology, and more about keeping the Jewish lobby happy.

“They’re trying to do this as some kind of quid pro quo in relation to the Racial Discrimination Act,” Independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein says.

Representatives of the Israeli community in Australia refute that.

“It’s irrelevant,” Colin Rubenstein from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council says.

“It’s completely unrelated to that.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued SBS with a statement saying there’s been no change to the federal government’s position on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories.

The Palestinian Authority has summoned Australian representative in Ramallah, Tom Wilson, to issue a please explain.

Dr Saeb Erekat, a senior member of the Palestinian Authority, has written to Minister Bishop saying that the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation may review their relations with Australia in light of the policy shift.

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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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Israeli writer Ari Shavit on Palestine, occupation and BDS

My following interview appears in the Guardian:

During an event at the Sydney writer’s festival last month, Israeli writer and author Ari Shavit told a packed auditorium that his country was “an oasis in the Middle East”. He explained to the audience, who largely appreciated his words despite some grumblings when he condemned the occupation of the Palestinian territories, that “the Zionist revolution is a phenomenal success”.

Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, has received plaudits from the cream of the liberal, American, political elite. Even former Israeli prime minister and defence minister Ehud Barak writes on the back cover that Shavit “is being brutally honest regarding the Zionist enterprise”.

The book attempts to challenge Zionist myths. One of the more celebrated chapters revolves around Shavit’s recounting of Israeli forces driving the Arab residents from the Palestinian town of Lydda in 1948. He doesn’t shy away from explaining the violence inflicted but then writes that, “I know that if it wasn’t for them [the militias], the State of Israel would not have been born … They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”

During an exclusive and extensive conversation with Shavit, he tells me that despite decades of conflict and negotiation the “only solution is the two-state solution”.

He continues: “It is the moral and political duty of every Israeli prime minister to try to achieve the two-state solution. Because I have some doubts if this final status peace agreement can be signed today, the next step should be trying to create two-state dynamics that will lead to a two-state solution. We must end the occupation for sure, which if it can’t be done in these circumstances immediately must be done gradually by a settlement freeze and then a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.”

Shavit also believes that the Palestinians have a responsibility to build a viable state of their own. They “should use whatever land liberated for them in order to have development projects and rebuild a new kind of Palestinian reality,” he says. “You then have Israel moving forward, what I call a nation saving project that ends the occupation, while Palestinians are going into a nation building process to hopefully build a democratic, life-loving Palestine.”

On the first page of My Promised Land, Shavit writes that, “as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” I ask him if he still feels that way in the 21st century, as a man in his late 50s. He does. “Although Israel seems to be strong, politically, economically and militarily, at the same time we are intimidated. The two pillars of Israel’s existence are occupation and intimidation and there is a tendency on the Left to see occupation and overlook intimidation and on the Right to focus on intimidation and overlook occupation. Both are there and both are unacceptable.

“Peace-loving people around the world should also address that Israel’s security concerns are not just an issue for generals and strategic experts, or because of Jewish neurosis and our history, but we’re intimidated because of Iran and brutal, violent forces in the region such as Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamist forces in Syria.”

My Promised Land hasn’t received universal praise. American historian Norman Finkelstein just released an entire book, Old Wine, Broken Bottle, debunking the book. Others condemn Shavit’s many writings advocating violence against Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.

Independent Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf, writing in +972 Magazine, sees the work as the “Zionist story, retold by the elite, for the elite”. Sheizaf attacks “the intellectualisation of violence – and ultimately, murder – [as] a central theme with elites in the US and Israel, due to the inherent contradiction between their values and the massive implementation of military force they often pursue.”

Sheizaf condemns Shavit for obsessively focusing on powerful Ashkenazi, Jewish men with the almost complete exclusion of Mizrahi Jews, another large and influential section of Israeli society. “Every social or political group remains the object of the same view”, the reviewer concludes, “deprived of an existence that stretches beyond the role it plays in the Ashkenazi elite’s drama.” Furthermore, Sheizaf wonders about the lack of women in Shavit’s narrative.

Shavit counters these critics not by responding directly to them but by telling me that he refuses to accept that Israel, of all nations “with a past” such as Australia, should not be welcomed. He argues that it can’t be that “liberal Americans, liberal Canadians, liberal Australians and liberal New Zealanders will say that of all the peoples in the world, Israel is the only one that is sinful and morally wrong. Most nations, if not all nations, have skeletons in their past and I thought it was my moral duty to address the side that many Zionists and Israelis do not address. But to take that out of context and not see the larger tragedy of Jewish history and the larger impressive and sometimes even heroic parts of Israeli and Zionist history, that’s wrong.”

What does the success of Shavit’s book in the US reflect about the current climate towards the Jewish state? The author tells me that, “I think there are many people who have an issue with Israel’s present policy, mainly occupation and settlements, and yet they have a sense that there is a need to have Israel, that Israel is legitimate, just and a necessary entity.”

I ask Shavit about the growing global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, which the author strongly rejects. “The only way to win the battle within Israel [against Jewish extremism] is to have a strong sense that the international community will stand by Israel,” Shavit says to me, “totally accepts Israel’s legitimacy, and will stand by it post occupation.

“If people are not Israel haters and are into really ending the occupation in a reasonable way, the policy should be the exact opposite of BDS. Go to Israelis, hug them, promise them love and support once they do the right thing and demand of them to do the right thing. Right now so many Israelis have deep suspicions whether this kind of [BDS] pressure will end the moment they end the occupation.”

During Shavit’s Sydney writers’ festival event, he continually claimed that, “Israel is not settlers or soldiers” and yet the occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank has been a fact for nearly 50 years. Although he wants to “avoid the blame game” – he praises pro-settlement, Zionist lobbyists around the world because “I’m not ashamed that we have some organisations speaking up for the Jewish minority” – he’s aware that there is growing global impatience with maintaining the status quo.

Ultimately, Shavit fears the “cancer eating Israel from within” and tells me that, “we cannot survive another decade with the suicidal ways in which Israel is building more settlements”. But he has some hope that “a realistic peace concept, rather than a utopian one” can appear to convince the majority of Israelis that “they must act to save Israel from occupation”.

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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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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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