How US/Australia intelligence collusion rightly concerns Asia

My weekly Guardian column is here:

Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?

There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.

When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.

Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.

The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.

We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.

Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.

The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.

The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.

So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.

And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.

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How to be a clueless fashion magazine in one easy step

How to be a vacuous and morally void magazine is far too simple.

Here’s Human Rights Watch’s Iain Levine with the story:

What were they thinking? 

Someone, somewhere in the depths of luxury magazine Elle thought it was a good idea to feature “North Korea chic” in September’s edition of the magazine (the page was subsequently replaced). 

“Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons,” the article purred. “This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.” Dangerous indeed for those actually in North Korea and subject to being executed for simply watching a foreign video. Or for those beaten to death. 

It didn’t take long for the world to render its judgement – outrage on social media condemned Elle for its breathtaking ignorance and insensitivity.

The magazine’s mea culpa quickly followed: We regret the reference to North Korea in our post on the season’s military trend, and have removed the image. We apologize to those we offended. It wrote on its website.

It’s worth pausing to consider where the outrage over “North Korea Chic” stems from.

Human rights activists become used to hearing distressing stories of cruelty and brutality against the powerless and the innocent. It is the price we pay for helping to bear witness and demand justice.

But even for the more hardened amongst us, North Korea, provides some of the worst and most gut-wrenching stories imaginable: torture, starvation of children, beatings, random killings, forced labor in brutal camps.

Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge, who heads a UN panel into the crimes of North Korea, admitted that he had been reduced to tears by some of the testimonies he had heard.

Ironically, Elle is a magazine that seeks to contribute to the debate about “rebranding feminism”.  In a recent interview, Elle’s UK editor declared: “We have always been forthright, smart, brave, and intelligent.”  

In October, my colleague, John Sifton, attended one of the sessions of the UN inquiry on North Korea. Hetweeted: “North Korea escapee says mother gave her the starving baby while she went out to find food somewhere. The baby died in her arms.” And then “witness is now crying”.

Yes, Elle has removed the North Korea page but one can’t help wonder why Elle thought it “forthright, smart, brave, intelligent” to trivialize the totalitarian regime of North Korea in the first place. Rather than just apologize for offending, why not use its powerful media platform to call out North Korea for its notable cruelty, not its style.

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David Hicks deserves justice, an apology and compensation

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

It’s hard to think of an Australian individual since 9/11 who has experienced more humiliation and abandonment by the federal government than David Hicks. Julian Assange, who declared he felt abandoned by the Australian government, perhaps comes close. As they both found out, an Australian passport is no guarantee of protection against a superpower determined to aggressively impose its will.

Hicks is currently launching legal proceedings in the US to overturn his 2007 conviction for providing material support for terrorism – a crime he and his legal team say does not exist. A 2012 ruling in a US appeals court found that a similar conviction against Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, was invalid because US law did not recognise material support for terrorism as a war crime at the time Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was charged. Both Hicks and Hamdan were prosecuted under a 2006 law, and the US appeals court ruled that its retroactive application was illegal. Hicks is now trying to follow Hamdan in having his conviction quashed.

Here’s what we know about Hicks. He was born in Adelaide in 1975 and worked various jobs across Australia. He converted to Islam in the 1990s, stating he wanted to be around people who “shared his desire for belonging”. Drawn to what he saw as the oppression of Muslims in foreign lands, he left for Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. By late 1999, he visited Pakistan to study Islam. In early 2000, Hicks joined the radical militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and received training to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. He wrote in a letter that “there are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally”. He was in Afghanistan in September 2001 and, though he had no knowledge or involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, he was captured and sold to the US for $1,000 and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he remained without valid charge.

Hicks maintains he was interrogated, tortured and held in isolation for nearly six years in Guantánamo – including 244 days in solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell without sunlight. He says he was also experimented on by US military doctors during his incarceration (a new study by The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism found that doctors tortured suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay). Amnesty International maintains that Hicks was illegally detained without fair trial for years, and that when he did have one, the military commission he appeared before never met international standards for fair trials.

This didn’t stop Australian commentators from baying for blood, however. In 2011, News Limited’s Miranda Devine dismissed any critics of Guantánamo’s detention practices as whingers. Those thinking that “suspected terrorists” being “smacked around a bit” constituted overly harsh treatment were naive, she wrote. In other words, Hicks deserved what he got. When Hicks was still in Guantánamo Bay in 2007, Devine also referred to him as “a well-trained terrorist, an al-Qaida ‘golden boy’… and the enemy traitor when Australian troops were on the ground [in Afghanistan].” For years Hicks was primarily referred to in the corporate press as a “terrorism supporter” by Murdoch columnists such as Tim Blair – fair trial be damned.

Repeat government smears against individuals deemed suspect is nothing new. During the Cold War, many reporters were happy to be spies and display their deluded patriotic duty. Australian citizen and journalist Wilfred Burchett, who dared investigate the “other side”, was denied his passport for years because he refused to play the insider game of praising the capitalist west. In the “war on terror”, we see a new generation of journalists who blindly re-hash propaganda dressed up as fact about war, illegal detention and intelligence.

There is documentary evidence suggesting that in 2007, former prime minister John Howard asked the US to manage the Hicks issue. Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of military commissions, told US journalist Jason Leopold in 2011 that he had concerns about the Bush administration charging Hicks. There was “no doubt in my mind”, Davis added, that “this was an accommodation to help Howard by making the David Hicks case go away [in an election year].” The alleged political fix, which was always denied by Howard, bothered the vast bulk of the Australian population.

It’s perfectly legitimate, indeed crucial, to ask Hicks tough questions about his background, his belief in the Taliban and his nauseating old letters denigrating Jews and praising bin Laden. But none of this justifies long-term jailing, torture and psychological abuse. Colonel Morris Davis told the Australian in early November this year that the treatment meted out to Hicks at Guantánamo was “at least as good, if not better” than towards other detainees. It was an absurd statement – suggesting that Hicks may have been tortured, but it could have been worse.

Hicks tells me that his lack of both education and friends caused him to “make some unfortunate decisions” before 9/11. He says he now far better understands the world and reads widely. “I always wanted to help people”, he says, “but today it’s not through resistance, though the Australian government uses violence and sends troops to fight in various wars.” He condemns the vast bulk of the media for following the lies told about him for all these years. “Nobody is calling for accountability or a royal commission [about my case]. I would support this or a full judicial review.”

Although he has no contact with the other former Australian Guantánamo captive Mamdouh Habib, he rightly believes that he deserves monetary compensation, like Habib received, for his years of suffering. He’s not currently pursuing a compensation claim, but it’s something he hopes will happen one day soon.

Today, Hicks works as a panel-beater in Sydney and fears leaving the country. “I have a passport”, he says, “but with the targeting of individuals who supported Edward Snowden, including Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda in London, I’m scared of traveling. If the US can go after them, and they’re big names, they could get me in spite.”

Justice for Hicks – through a formal apology and legal readdress – is vital to restore a modicum of Australian credibility. Heads should roll. Careers should end. Dignity can only be restored if apologies and compensation are offered.

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Why it should not be unlawful to offend a person because of their race

Today the Guardian hosts a discussion about the proposed changes to Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. Writer and academic Alana Lentin argues the laws should remain while I state they need reform:

Alana Lentin

The right to offend is often held up by liberals everywhere as more important than the right to be offended. But posing the problem of protection from racial discrimination in this way suggests that “taking offence” is a choice of the same order as being deliberately offensive.

When Aboriginal people, asylum seekers and other racialised groups are told that those who vilify them in the press – often touting stereotypes and outright lies – are merely voicing their opinions in a free society, their experience tells them that a truly free society would not look like today’s Australia. Democracy exists in name, but systemic inequality makes a mockery of it.

When Andrew Bolt and his political supporters speak of rights, they know as well as any critical legal theorist that rights are far from universal, despite the rhetoric. The message sent to those victimised is “why can’t you just be free like me? Why can’t you get beyond the identity, the difference, that calls for it to be pointed out and ridiculed?” For example, those in favour of publishing the infamous 2004 “Muhammad cartoons” claimed that for Muslims to take offence was ridiculous, as to follow Islam is a choice that could just as easily be renounced. Tell that to any man or woman next time they are suspected of being a Muslim terrorist just because they’re not white.

By repealing the so-called “Bolt laws”, Brandis is not only telling racialised minorities in Australia that the right to vilify them is more important than their right to be protected from racist insults, he is going a step further. At the very least, this ends the duplicitousness of the “antiracist racist state.” However, political point scoring is not a good reason for lauding the repeal.

Some on the (white) left who support Brandis argue that curbing media freedom opens the door to Zionist groups using racial discrimination law to sanction those calling for a boycott of Israel. As a Jew, an Israeli citizen and a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporter, I reject this. We must be able to protect those who face the worst racism in our society from the spread of hatred, while at the same time exposing the nonsensical equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

In matters of race, freedom of speech only protects the right of some to offend; and the right of those in power to be offended has, and always will continue to be protected anyway.

Antony Loewenstein

The proposed changes by Australian Attorney General George Brandis to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) – removing a section that makes it illegal to insult and offend people because of their race – have nothing to do with freedom of speech. Ignore the true believers who say they are.

It displays a selective concern about dissenting views. Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is being taken to the federal court after allegedly breaching the RDA over his support for BDS against Israel, and yet Brandis has said nothing. I would hazard that these ideologues support “free speech” that empowers their worldview, not oppressed minorities. It’s an unsurprising first legislative move by a new government which will do nothing to widen the range of views in the public square.

In spite of this, I believe Brandis’ proposed changes should be welcomed – albeit with clear caveats. I agree with Sarah Joseph, director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, who points out that “there is no human right not to be offended or insulted“. The Centre welcomes the amendments, pointing out they’re consistent with international law, but calls to retain a restriction of intimidation and humiliation over race. The Human Rights Law Centre has also called for reform and not repeal of the RDA.

Section 18c of the RDA, which is set to be amended, was used in the successful prosecution of Herald Sun commentator Andrew Bolt in 2011after he attacked the credibility of Aboriginal Australians. His popular and far from silenced newspaper responded with the front page headline This is a Sad Day for Freedom of Speech. Bolt and his colleagues have suffered no loss or lack of voice ever since.

But the principle is nonetheless important – and section 18c isn’t keeping the racist hordes at the door. Fighting intolerance and discrimination isn’t the job of an ever more powerful state. It must be fought in the public domain while never forgetting the profound power disparity between different individuals or groups. Bolt has the right to express his odious views, but I have an equal responsibility to challenge them vigorously.

In the meantime, if Tony Abbott’s government was serious about strengthen Australia’s democracy, it would improve FOI lawsrelease basic information about asylum seekers, and reform onerous defamation laws that protect the rich and powerful.

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Why BDS must be supported for justice in the Middle East

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a thriving Palestinian-led initiative that attacks institutional links to Israel’s illegal settlements, has been gaining in popularity. In Australia, the movement has been slowly growing as Israel continues to defy international law – and it now faces one of its greatest opportunities in the court of public opinion.

Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center is an Israel-based organisation that claims to be a civil group “fighting for rights of hundreds of terror victims”. It is currently taking Jake Lynch, head of Sydney University’sCentre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), to the Australian federal court. They assert that Lynch has allegedly breached the 1975 racial discrimination act by refusing to sponsor a fellowship application by Israeli academic Dan Avnon. Lynch and CPACS support BDS, and since Avnon works at Hebrew University – a key intellectual hub which is targeted by boycotters for allegedly being complicit in the establishment of illegal settlements – Lynch declined to be named as a reference.

The story has been largely ignored. Fairfax Media has not touched it, and ABC TV’s 7.30 only briefly addressed it last week. Instead, it is Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian which has been driving the debate on the issue, publishing countless stories that deliberately conflates antisemitism and support for the BDS movement.

Just last week, after the horrific bashing of Jewish men in Sydney, the paper featured a Holocaust survivor on its front page condemning the attack. Within the article was the rhetorical device of inserting comment about BDS – as if physically assaulting Jewish people was on the same spectrum as a peaceful, non-violent attempt to force Israel to abide by international law. Bizarrely, an op-ed published by Newscorp’s The Telegraph also said that the best response to the assaults was to support Max Brenner – the chocolate shop whose parent company, the Strauss Group, has been a target of BDS protestors for supporting the Israeli Defence Force.

Countless letters have since been published in The Australian reinforcing a correlation between antisemitism and the boycott – following this logic, Lynch and his backers are a threat to public order. This also ignores the nearly 2,000 signatories of a public petition backing Lynch (which a number of academics, including the co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish VoicesPeter Slezak, signed).

Last week, The Australian ran an editorial which implied that Lynch blocked Avnon’s academic credentials simply because he was an Israeli. Another front page story in the paper last week claimed that Hebrew University is a bastion of Jewish and Arab co-operation, yet ignored an example of the institution repressing Palestinian rights through its connections to the arms industry.

Lynch tells me that Shurat HaDin have deliberately skewed his BDS stance. He denies, despite what the group’s Australian lawyer Andrew Hamilton said on ABC TV last week, having “admitted” that he boycotted Avnon because he was Israeli. He told me:

“I have made it abundantly clear from the start that the policy is aimed at institutional links. If the Hebrew University is anything like the University of Sydney, then it probably employs academics from various backgrounds in terms of religious affiliation and country of origin. It would not make any difference to my or the CPACS’ policy if the applicant was originally from Belgium, Botswana or Bolivia – I believe the University of Sydney should revoke its part in the Sir Zelman Cowen and Technion fellowship schemes, and I reserve my right not to collaborate with them. Andrew Hamilton has clearly not paid serious attention to our policy, or to what I have actually done in pursuit of it.”

It’s worth noting that Avnon, endlessly praised in the Australian media as a humanist who believes in co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians, sits on Israeli group Metzilah’s General Assembly. This is a group that put out a report explicitly rejecting the Palestinian right of return to lands stolen by Israel, and claims that a Jewish state discriminating against equal rights for Palestinians is not problematic. It is worth noting that the Palestinian right of return is a requirement in international law.

Largely missing from the ferocious media coverage has been any information about the real agenda of Shurat HaDin. The organisation, according to Wikileaks documents, has strong links to Israeli intelligence and Mossad, just one of the many groups that now prosecutes Israel’s argument for the Jewish state. The law firm tried to sue Twitter for daring to host Hizbollah tweets, former US President Jimmy Carter for criticising Israel and Stephen Hawking for damning the Israeli occupation. Even the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a leading Zionist lobby, refuses to endorse Shurat HaDin’s case against Lynch, pointing out that attempts to suppress the campaign through litigation are inappropriate.

Also absent from the debate is the reason BDS exists. It is growing due to a complete lack of faith in US-led peace talks. American journalist Max Blumenthal recently published a book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which shows in forensic detail the reality of the Israeli mainstream’s embrace of blatant racism against Arabs and Africans. This isn’t what the Israel Shurat HaDin and its fellow travellers want the world to see. Indeed, Australian Israel lobby AIJAC responded to the latest BDS case against Lynch by completely ignoring illegal settlements altogether. This week Dean Sherr, a young lobbyist, wrote an entire column in The Australian about BDS without mentioning their existence.

The fear of BDS is reflected in the massive amount of money and resources Israel is spending to stop it. Instead of moving towards a democratic state for all its citizens, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to demolish Palestinian homes and build illegal colonies on Palestinian land.

Shurat HaDin’s Australian lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, told Haaretz last week that BDS “does nothing to help Palestinians and indeed harms them. It is merely an excuse for the vilest public antisemitic campaign the western world has seen since the Holocaust.” With such a statement, which essentially compares Jake Lynch to a Nazi, it’s no wonder Zionist advocates are losing the public relations battle globally.

For some of us on the left, using the racial discrimination act as a tool to silence views we find distasteful is deeply worrying – I write this as somebody who opposed the legal case against News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt in 2011. A real democracy is a place where any individual has the right to vehemently oppose colluding with an overseas university institution that disputes equal rights for Jews and Arabs.

I look forward to Australia’s leading public backers of free speech, such as Bolt, Miranda Devine and the Institute of Public Affairs, loudly backing Lynch. Somehow I think I’ll be waiting a while for these brave advocates to find their voice.

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Australia’s treatment of indigenous population akin to apartheid

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Aboriginal levels of incarceration in Australian prisons have never been higher. In fact, country-wide rates of imprisonment are worse per capita for the black population than during apartheid South Africa. These numbers are also largely ignored. This silence, which stretches across the country only to reach the highest levels of the political and media elites, is arguably Australia’s greatest outrage, and a stain on our projected global image as an egalitarian state with justice for all.

Over 40% of all adult Western Australian prisoners are Aboriginal, and deaths behind bars remain too common. During a visit to Western Australia this week, I heard first-hand the reality of these failed policies, and the ways in which politicians in both the Labor and Liberal parties wilfully ignore measured recommendations to treat Aboriginal men and women as equals.

The recent apology in Perth’s parliament house for Aboriginal man John Pat, whose death in 1983 was one of the reasons behind the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, was a welcome but far too late acknowledgment that the state and its authorities have an incurable racism problem.

This is not an issue about the past, like the Stolen Generations or the White Australia policy, but a living and breathing example of codified bigotry. Those stories go uncovered, with editors thinking the public don’t care or are sick of hearing about Aboriginal disadvantage. The vast bulk of the coverage in our press features stereotyping that reinforces images of Indigenous dysfunction. I’m not questioning the vast problems that exist – including substance abuse and domestic violence – but the lazy ways in which reporters cover it. I’ve seen rampant alcoholism amongst young Aboriginal men in Derby, a few hours from Broome, and it’s not these faces and stories we hear about when political leaders and their media courtiers praise the “fair go” mentality in Australia. It’s true if you have power or access. Most do not.

So we look away. We don’t want to know.

Our racist history isn’t to be worn like a badge of white guilt, though Aboriginal people deserve far more than our soothing words. I’m thinking of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s formal apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, which while important, provided no compensation for past losses and occurred at the same time his government was deepening the Northern Territory Intervention – treating Indigenous people as different, worthy of discrimination and racism.

Years on from this policy, there’s no evidence to show any progresstowards greater education or health care outcomes. And yet prime minister Tony Abbott’s government, after Labor’s boosting of the Intervention policy, is set to expand it. This is bi-partisan extreme ideology dressed up as compassion.

Labor MP Ben Wyatt told the West Australian parliament on 25 September this year, during his apology to John Pat, that, “as far as justice for the Aboriginal community goes, nothing has changed [since the Royal Commission in 1993] because we have still got horrific incarceration rates”. Mavis Pat, John Pat’s mother, told ABC News that, “me and my people have tolerated so much since 1788, and I’m still going through what my old people went through. Even today we still get the same treatment now and again by specific police, some are good and some are bad, and we’re going to have to accept that.”

This lack of justice isn’t an accident; policing zeroes in on Aboriginal men and women for largely minor infractions. It’s a daily occurrence, and it is targeted. As just one example of constant harassment by authorities of Indigenous people, Marc Newhouse, the Perth-based chair of Deaths in Custody Watch Committee in Western Australia, told me that West Australian police routinely target Aboriginal funerals to impound cars, citing legal breaches, instead of regularly engaging with elders to address any perceived or real problems. This is how Aboriginality is criminalised when white citizens aren’t equally chased.

The facts speak for themselves. In May, The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released a study that found a doubling of Aboriginal Australians in jail and a rise in deaths in custody in the last five years. The vast bulk of the Royal Commission recommendations have been ignored. About 30,000 people are behind bars and Aboriginal prisoners form a quarter of the prison population yet only around 3% of the general population.

Newhouse tells me that “prison should be a last resort but is too often the first port of call” for the court and government, adding that “we need to address the root causes, social, political and cultural, but instead racism is ubiquitous across the state.”

Newhouse, who grew up under apartheid South Africa and worked with former black prisoners to gain voting rights after transition to democracy in 1994, sees worrying parallels between his former homeland and Australia. “We are pathologising the problem”, he says, “and media-favourite Indigenous leaders such as Warren Mundine, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are going after welfare dependency and not the bigger picture, the structural issues.” He highlights the push for ever-greater privatisation of prisons by corporations such as Serco, and the deafening silence on the side of politicians.

I was surprised to find that even former newspaper editor of The West newspaper and presenter on Perth’s 6PR radio, Paul Murray, agrees with me that free marketeers such as Serco may be a threat to democracy. These corporations shouldn’t under-estimate public anger when they fail to deliver what taxpayers are expecting (as evidenced by Serco inadequacies in Western Australia).

The mass privatisation agenda in Western Australia, led by Liberal Premier Colin Barnett, is the strongest in the country and provides a model for the Abbott government’s upcoming fire-sale of public assets. The record in the West, including with Indigenous prisoners, shows that privately-owned assets are routinely delivering hefty profits to share-holders and not the best care for inmates because the bottom line depends on delivering the least amount of support.

With grim irony, Western Australia is suffering from prison over-crowding, leading to violence and other social ills, and yet the offered solutions by governments and business lobby groups is more outsourcing. This is worse than a faulty band-aid; it’s akin to treating a wounded person with a battle axe because the bleeding is so serious.

Making a profit from ever-greater Indigenous incarceration is the ugly side of vulture capitalism. But there are alternatives, such as citizen juries and a shift towards “smart on crime” instead of “tough on crime” initiatives. Newhouse says that justice re-investment is one model that should be examined – his organisation is leading a Build Communities Not Prisons campaign.

Meanwhile, in a bid to save $500,000, the West Australian state wants to restrict permission for prisoners to attend funerals. This deeply affects Aboriginal people who often have to travel large distances to mourn their dead. Another day, and another headline that will be soon forgotten. It doesn’t have to be this way. Until it changes, Australia has no right to call itself a civilised democracy.

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The importance of dissenting journalism on a global scale

Glenn Greenwald has set the bar high for provocative, original and challenging journalism (his latest interview on Democracy Now is here and here discussing NSA revelations and his new, online media venture).

He engages with New York Times columnist and former editor Bill Keller in a revealing exchange that highlights the fallacy of “impartial” and corporate journalism:

Dear Glenn,

We come at journalism from different traditions. I’ve spent a life working at newspapers that put a premium on aggressive but impartial reporting, that expect reporters and editors to keep their opinions to themselves unless they relocate (as I have done) to the pages clearly identified as the home of opinion. You come from a more activist tradition — first as a lawyer, then as a blogger and columnist, and soon as part of a new, independent journalistic venture financed by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Your writing proceeds from a clearly stated point of view.

In a post on Reuters this summer, media critic Jack Shafer celebrated the tradition of partisan journalism — “From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald” — and contrasted it with what he called “the corporatist ideal.” He didn’t explain the phrase, but I don’t think he meant it in a nice way. Henry Farrell, who blogs for The Washington Post, wrote more recently that publications like The New York Times and The Guardian “have political relationships with governments, which make them nervous about publishing (and hence validating) certain kinds of information,” and he suggested that your new project with Omidyar would represent a welcome escape from such relationships.

I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ “political relationships with governments”). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.

But the kind of journalism The Times and other mainstream news organizations practice — at their best — includes an awful lot to be proud of, too, revelations from Watergate to torture and secret prisons to the malfeasance of the financial industry, and including some pre-Snowden revelations about the N.S.A.’s abuse of its authority. Those are highlights that leap to mind, but you’ll find examples in just about every day’s report. Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible. The mainstream press has had its failures — episodes of credulousness, false equivalency, sensationalism and inattention — for which we have been deservedly flogged. I expect you’ll say, not flogged enough. So I pass you the lash.

Dear Bill,

There’s no question that journalists at establishment media venues, certainly including The New York Times, have produced some superb reporting over the last couple of decades. I don’t think anyone contends that what has become (rather recently) the standard model for a reporter — concealing one’s subjective perspectives or what appears to be “opinions” — precludes good journalism.

But this model has also produced lots of atrocious journalism and some toxic habits that are weakening the profession. A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).

Worse still, this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring. A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.

Worst of all, this model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?

The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.

Moreover, all journalism is a form of activism. Every journalistic choice necessarily embraces highly subjective assumptions — cultural, political or nationalistic — and serves the interests of one faction or another. Former Bush D.O.J. lawyer Jack Goldsmith in 2011 praised what he called “the patriotism of the American press,” meaning their allegiance to protecting the interests and policies of the U.S. government. That may (or may not) be a noble thing to do, but it most definitely is not objective: it is quite subjective and classically “activist.”

But ultimately, the only real metric of journalism that should matter is accuracy and reliability. I personally think honestly disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism. But no journalism — from the most stylistically “objective” to the most brazenly opinionated — has any real value unless it is grounded in facts, evidence, and verifiable data. The claim that overtly opinionated journalists cannot produce good journalism is every bit as invalid as the claim that the contrived form of perspective-free journalism cannot.

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Russell Brand informs BBC that corporate democracy isn’t the answer

Challenging the predictable and corporatised two-party system and imagining a different future are issues so rarely discussed in the mainstream. It’s welcoming to watch Russell Brand (increasingly becoming a witty and pointed commentator on social and political issues) tackle the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, rather flailing here:

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Another day and another example of extreme Zionist racism against Arabs

The extremism and growing fascism inside Israel is largely ignored by the mainstream media and political elites (though it’s something Max Blumenthal’s new book Goliath covers brilliantly).

A case in point (via The Times of Israel):

A right-wing, anti-assimilation organization that campaigns to prevent Arab men from dating Jewish women has opened a hotline enabling members of the public to inform on women so that they can be persuaded to end the relationship.

When called, a recording on the Lehava hotline says the service is meant to “save the daughters of Israel.” In addition to offering support for women, the line also provides the names and telephone numbers of Arab men that the organization suspects of dating Jewish women.

Callers to the hotline are given a number of choices from a menu in which a recorded voice refers to a non-Jewish man as a “goy,” a derogatory term for a non-Jew.

“If you are in contact with a goy and need assistance, press 1,” is the first option offered by the service, which continues by asking callers if they wish to inform on others.

“If you know a girl who is involved with a goy and you want to help her, press 2,” the voice recording says.

The service then asks for information about non-Jewish men who are in relationships with Jews.

“If you know of a goy who masquerades as a Jew or is harassing Jewish women, or of locations where there is an assimilation problem, press 3.”

“The purpose is to submit immediate reports about girls who are going out with Arabs, and about Arabs who are pretending to be Jews in order to catch Jewish girls in their net,” the chairman of the Lehava organization, Bentzi Gupstein, told Walla, claiming that each report was acted on immediately, as a matter of life and death.

“We approach the girl in question and tell her about the life that awaits her with the selfsame Ahmed who at the moment is calling himself Yossi,” he explained.

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Stop drinking the think-tank kool-aid

My weekly column for the Guardian appears today:

The ABC TV Lateline interview with Kurt Campbell, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was cordial, even reverential. It was conducted in the middle of March this year, more than a month after Campbell had left the state department.

Interviewer Emma Alberici asked Campbell about the transformation of Burma and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. He gushed that it was remarkable, and gave some folksy anecdotes about a “better future” for the Burmese. The interview then swiftly moved on to focus on the prospects of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016. There were no questions about Campbell’s push for greater ties with the Indonesian military despite its shocking record of abuse in West Papua.

There were also no questions about Campbell’s Washington and Singapore-based investment organisation, the Asia Group, and its efforts to win lucrative contracts across the Asia-Pacific region. After all, his company had been launched before this interview took place and surely warranted some questions about the appropriateness of setting up a company so soon after leaving government.

It might be considered an example of the unwillingness of the mainstream media to challenge potential conflicts of interest when it comes to the murky melding of business and politics. With the announcement in August by the Lowy Institute that Campbell was its 2013 distinguished international fellow, it’s vital to question the ways in which our media has drunk the thinktank kool-aid.

The Lowy Institute sees itself as Australia’s leading foreign affairs thinktank. Its fellows and staff routinely appear in the media pontificating about global affairs, including a push for greater defence spending that would allow countless contractors to earn billions of dollars. Its head Michael Fullilove, who’s also a non-resident senior fellow in foreign affairs at the Brookings Institution, writes longingly about former US national security advisor Henry Kissinger as a “realist”, despite there being questions over Kissinger’s record of foreign policy. Kissinger endorsed Fullilove’s recent book, a love letter to Franklin D Roosevelt. Fullilove has also been an outspoken critic of the release of the Wikileaks cables.

When former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard recently announced that she had been made a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, I could find no local news story that explained what the thinktank was. Glenn Greenwald has pithily written that “Brookings is a classic example of that sprawling strain of Washington thinktank culture that exist for little reason other than to serve and justify government power.”

The US-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting group investigated the influence of corporate and foundation money on thinktanks and their spokepeople, and urged an examination of their fundings in the areas of climate change, war, arms manufacturing and energy policy. Frustratingly, interviewers rarely get past the bland soundbite from their guests. As an example, the Public Accountability Initiative released a report this month that found a number many of the expert voices calling for military action against Syria in the US were linked to the weapons industry and would financially benefit from a US strike. However, in the vast bulk of media appearances, outlets failed to disclose these business interests.

In Australia, the questions around the independence of thinktanks started with the establishment of Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre in 2006. At its launch dinner, Rupert Murdoch said that “Australians must resist and reject the facile, reflexive, unthinking anti-Americanism that has gripped much of Europe”. The media today laps up its views, despite questions around the Centre Sydney University allowing itself to be funded by politically friendly parties.

The US Studies Centre is supported by a range of corporate interests, including the Dow Chemical Company Foundation, “to support a three-year research program on sustainability.” A key aim of Dow is to push genetically modified foods, and to oppose complete labelling of GM foods in the US. People should take these connections into account when evaluating any US Studies Centre face that appears in our media to talk dispassionately about the environment.

But back to Kurt Campbell. In May 2013, his company the Asia Group was one of the bidders on Yangon International Airport, a $1bn project. In July 2012, Campbell had successfully convinced the Obama administration while he was still in government to lift an investment ban on Burma, allowing US firms to make a fortune in the country.

This led to Foreign Policy’s The Cable wondering whether The Asia Group had some conflict of interest questions to answer, leading company COO Nirav Patel to claim that Campbell’s activities in the country had been “extremely consistent” for years. “This is intrinsically about supporting reform,” he said. “You can’t get to supporting reform without people taking [investment] risks. That’s something we’re very passionate about.” In the end, a Korean consortium, Incheon, won the airport tender.

There are no suggestions of illegal behaviour by Campbell or his company. But questions can be asked over the appropriateness of setting up a consulting firm shortly after leaving government, and then potentially making money from relationships established during his time as a public servant. My many requests for comment from Campbell and the Asia Group went unanswered.

I asked the Lowy Institute a range of questions about Campbell’s possible conflicts of interest. They sent me a statement that ignored these issues:

“Dr Campbell has long been one of the United States’ foremost policymakers on Asia. As assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, he played a leading role on issues such at the US “rebalance” towards Asia, US-China relations, and efforts to promote democratic change in Burma. This fellowship will provide the international policy community in Australia with an opportunity to draw upon Dr Campbell’s experience and insights on the defining political, economic and strategic issues in Asia at a time of great change in the region. It will also be an opportunity to expose Dr Campbell to Australian perspectives on these issues.”

Business and politics rarely mix without controversy; the media needs to be careful not to be seduced by smooth thinktank talkers.

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Glenn Greenwald challenges puerile pro-government BBC questioning

The Guardian reporter shows how it’s done. Note how virtually every BBC “question” could have been written by the British government in relation to intelligence and Edward Snowden. Welcome to mainstream journalism (just as bad as this infamous interview with Julian Assange in 2012):

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How do we know right from wrong

My recent book, For God’s Sake, continues to generate interest in debates over the ethics and actions of daily life. 

Here’s an extract published in ABC Religion and Ethics:

Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock wrestle with their own traditions and each other over the question of how to determine what is morally right and how we, in turn, should live.

Rachel Woodlock

She stared at me with big brown eyes. Both her and the small child on her hip looked wispy, their clothes threadbare, both living on the margins of existence. That’s how I’ll always remember them, be haunted by them. Maria, a fellow language student, and I were wandering through local Yemeni markets searching for gifts for friends back in Australia.

She followed us waiting for an opportunity to ask if we might bestow some generosity on her. Finally, she came close and gingerly put out her hand. Maria shook her head firmly, and steered me away commenting, “You should never give to beggars. It just encourages them.” I was too embarrassed to challenge Maria, feeling foolish to seem so gullible. I’ll never forget the look on her face – a mixture of sadness, disgust, hopelessness and curiosity that with all our money to fritter away, we had no heart to give her even a few token riyals. From time to time I remember to pray for her.

These situations seem designed to test a person’s flaws, like water to a clay pot, revealing where each otherwise unobservable crack is hidden. Often it’s not intellectual consistency with a moral philosophy that’s revealed, but some startlingly base behaviour: submission to authority, self-interest and weakness to peer pressure. This is what Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram found in his now infamous experiment where people were ordered to administer (fake) electric shocks to a person in distress. Milgram and his team set up a scenario where unwitting subjects were asked to “teach” a simple language task to a learner who was really an actor in a different room. Whenever the learner apparently made a mistake, the subject was instructed to shock the learner. The experimenters were actually playing pre-recorded distress noises, and the levels were increased to the point where the subjects were made to believe something dire had happened to the learner in the other room. Milgram wished to observe how bad things would have to get before ordinary people would buck against orders and do the right thing.

It turns out most of us will obey authority even when it so obviously conflicts basic ethics. This is why, taught Prophet Muhammad, the jihad (struggle) to live a moral life is greater than fighting in any military war. Battling to choose the good over self-interest takes a lifetime of training, according to the spiritual adepts.

While to the vast majority of us, acts of great evil – Nazis committing genocide against the Jews, Soviets starving political prisoners in communist gulags, paedophile priests assaulting children, Al-Qaeda suicide bombers targeting innocents – are clearly wrong, more ambiguous moral conundrums require some introspection. Is it wrong to tell your friend she looks fabulous when she proudly shows off her mullet dress?

Historically, Muslim theologians and philosophers debated morality, questioning whether acts are intrinsically good or bad, or whether they are arbitrarily named so by God. Some argued that good and bad exist objectively – for instance, that killing and lying are inherently and under every circumstance wrong. Others pointed out, no, in some extremely rare cases it is right to kill and to lie.

Take the case of the Muslims during the 1994 Rwandan genocide who saved many Tutsi lives based on a lie. In 2009, Jason Klocek interviewed the head mufti of Rwanda, Sheikh Saleh Habimana, asking him how Muslims were able to shelter Tutsis, given the danger to their own lives, to which the Sheikh replied:

“[W]e Muslims had an advantage. You see, for many years Hutus had been taught to fear Muslims. They were scared of our mosques, so we could hide Tutsis there without fear of Hutus entering. Hutus had been taught that our mosques were houses of the devil. They were taught that the devil lived in Muslim homes, too. “From one perspective, the lie that mosques are full of devils was harmful, yet the same lie proved so useful in saving many innocent lives.

There’s a postscript to my opening story. When an old Yemeni friend reached out and asked for help, I knew immediately what the right thing to do was. The 2012 food crisis had hit him and his family hard, with the lack of work due to political turmoil affecting soaring food prices. With some generous and compassionate friends, including a number of Twitter mates, I got together enough funds to help his family repay some food debts and buy enough stocks for several months. I hope it makes up for my shame just a little.

Antony Loewenstein

I was standing in a refugee camp in Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti. It was September 2012, more than two and a half years after the devastating earthquake that ravaged the impoverished country and killed up to 250,000 people. It was a steamy hot day and a sea of human beings – men, women and children – were living in squalor. Many had been there for years, failed by the UN, NGOs, the United States government and other foreign powers. The smell of faeces filled the air as the day came to a close. The sun shone on the men playing dominos while many women stood around chastising their dirty children.

Words failed me. I asked questions of men who were keen to express their frustration to a Western journalist, but I felt impotent, an imposter, useless. All my questions seemed trivial. “Why has the world forgotten us?” was a constant refrain. Giving a response seemed worse than saying nothing at all, so I simply expressed sympathy and solidarity with their plight, promising to report fairly what I saw. I’d rarely felt more aware of the inadequacy of journalism as a tool for positive change.

What I witnessed was wrong and cruel. It’s hard to imagine anybody challenging that assessment. I didn’t need God, spirituality, my Judaism or faith to understand that claiming to assist a place such as Haiti, and pledging billions of dollars to do so, is radically different from ensuring the money actually reaches the people who most desperately need it.

Talking about doing good is irrelevant when people are still suffering. It’s a Western indulgence to think we’re helping to bring any sense of true dignity to the Haitian people just by donating money to a favoured charity or believing our governments when they say they’re doing all they can. We make a moral call, as I did when seeing the reality up close in all its grimness, that it’s right to do more than simply express hurt and impotence. It’s called being human.

Like every conscious human being, I have lied and cheated. I have wished ill on people. I have done wrong many times and will inevitably do so again for as long as I live. The older I become the less sure I am about the certainties of my youth. I don’t believe my values have fundamentally shifted but I’ve become sometimes more tolerant of intolerance. Or maybe a better way to put it is that I’m far more interested in understanding where somebody who’s acting correctly has come from, what in their past has made them do right.

I’m very much in the “nurture not nature” school of thought. You aren’t born good nor are you born a Nazi. The values we inherit from family, friends, media, religion, travelling or partners develop over a lifetime. But these values aren’t universally shared. Sadly, in some Muslim communities, rape is defended and even encouraged. In some Jewish circles, the killing of Palestinians is classed as an unavoidable reality. In many Catholic communities, abortions are denied even in cases of incest.

Faith can be distorted. Faith can bring renewal. Faith can be life-affirming. Faith can make people do good and give a moral framework within which to build a life. I don’t think I’m being equivocal by arguing against the demonisation of religious faith in an age of reason. There are untold millions of people globally who give their time and money to various causes principally because they believe they’re doing good in the eyes of Muhammad or Jesus. None of this means it’s necessarily unthinking charity or pressure from an imam.

When there’s no one definition of goodness and evil in the world – things that were seen as an abomination by the vast majority of citizens in the West a few decades ago, such as gay sex, are now popularised through mainstream Hollywood, situated in one of the most conservative Christian nations on earth – it’s inevitable that most of us will be able to agree only on the bare minimum of what’s wrong in our society.

We exaggerate allegedly noble Judaeo-Christian “values” when many of them are inherently racist, homophobic and intolerant. Building a just society requires progressing beyond the tired arguments of past decades, when believers would instruct non-believers they would go to hell because they didn’t feel the love of an omnipotent being. We learn what’s right and wrong from experience and these can and should change throughout our lives.

It’s incumbent on us all to remember that nobody has a monopoly on goodness or evil, right or wrong. We’re all capable, no matter our background, of being a bit of both, and liking it.

Jane Caro

I do not believe that children are born in sin, or born sinners. I do not believe that people can only be good if they’re bribed with promises of heavenly reward or threatened with eternal damnation. I believe that people are likely to do the right thing unless they’ve been warped and damaged – particularly in childhood – and so have lost that innate capacity to treat others as they’d like to be treated.

My own moral compass is fundamentally based on the Golden Rule. If I wouldn’t like something done to me, then I assume other people wouldn’t like it done to them. Such a simple ethical framework, and yet it covers murder, torture, stealing, cheating, lying, hitting, hurting, kidnapping, threatening, bullying, intimidation, slavery and a thousand and one other crimes both great and small. It also means I cannot countenance racism, sexism or homophobia.

I use another moral philosophy to help me decide right and wrong, and that’s the right of everyone to live as they wish, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. My greatest desire is for the liberty and freedom to do what I freely choose to do without answering to others. To be granted the respect that I am capable of making my own decisions and strong enough to live with the consequences, be they good or bad, is how I wish to be “done by.” And I try to grant that same respect to others.

I’m simply not interested in other people’s sex lives. As long as all the activities involved are between consenting adults, I have no moral problem with multiple sex partners, use of any or all orifices, positions, combinations or even fetish behaviour, including freely consented-to sadomasochism. How other people give and receive physical pleasure is not for me to judge, and I actively object to attempts to restrict them. I have many more moral qualms about old-fashioned marriage – particularly when it included conjugal rights – than I have about the honest, transparent, economic transactions involved in legal, well-regulated prostitution.

Which brings me to moral dilemmas such as the right to safe, legal abortion. I am a firm believer in a woman’s right to choose and have had an abortion myself. I don’t intend to go into my personal decision here, but my own morality demands that I also do not act the hypocrite. In cases like abortion, I’m guided by a pragmatic belief in choosing what I regard as the lesser of two evils. Because I don’t believe in a soul, I have no hesitation in putting the rights, hopes and liberty of the sentient human being (the woman) ahead of the potential human being (her foetus). As a mother, I’m very much aware of the commitment and effort required to bring up children well. I believe that such a demanding relationship should always be entered into voluntarily. I would also argue that this is an entirely moral decision. I’m perfectly willing to respect that others make a different moral decision about abortion based on their own deeply held beliefs.

However, my moral beliefs about the world are also the reason I fiercely oppose attempts to restrict access to safe, legal terminations. It’s also why I believe in the right of the terminally ill to access voluntary euthanasia, and yet am opposed to capital punishment. To me, there’s nothing contradictory about these beliefs because they are about fundamentally respecting each individual’s right to decide the circumstances of their own life and death. To kill another sentient being – whatever they may have done – is against my moral code. To choose to die or to end a potential life because you don’t believe you can adequately parent the child it will become, may be regrettable – even tragic (just as the suffering person would prefer not to be ill, the woman would have preferred not to fall pregnant) – but not immoral.

I find the use of shame by religions to prevent adults enjoying the full delight of human sexuality morally repugnant. To me, it’s simply wrong to have made so many people feel so miserable and guilty about what is not only entirely natural behaviour, but also the source of so much joy.

I am also suspicious of the sanctimony of much religion. Always putting the other ahead of oneself smacks of masochism and manipulation. The unrealistic expectation of selflessness becomes another stick to beat people with. I don’t understand why seeking pleasure, as long as it doesn’t prevent others from doing the same, is a bad thing. I prefer the brisk, upfront honesty of the negotiation between what I want and what someone else wants, expressed candidly, to the sickly-sweet self-effacement of selflessness. Sometimes it’s generous to take and allow others to give. For me, true morality lies in being self-responsible.

Simon Smart

Very often the difference between right and wrong is complex and far from obvious. There are times when the answers to ethical puzzles involve choosing between the lesser of two evils. But from where do we source our wisdom for such choices? In attempting an answer, the West once relied on a worldview that was thoroughly soaked in the Bible and its depiction of what is true and real.

Even as modernity took shape and a strong current of thought came to regard ethics as based on human reason, a massive system of moral values and practices based on Christ’s teaching continued to exert influence in terms of what was considered good and right. Since then, large and relatively sudden cultural shifts have delivered us to the point where the ultimate reference point for establishing right practice in the social realm appears to run no deeper than human desire and will. Simply to desire something is seen as a good enough reason for doing it.

But without an outside influence, ethics becomes about whatever we can construct for ourselves, or whatever stories our society tells itself. That could mean a society that chooses solidarity, kindness and compassion just as easily as one that chooses fascism and the building of death camps. Those who object have no higher authority to appeal to, and so, as atheist philosopher Richard Rorty admits, the “good” under such circumstances becomes whatever those in power decide it to be.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need faith to lead a good life. It’s obvious that plenty of people who have rejected the idea of God or religion can and do make heroic contributions to society and lead thoroughly ethical lives. But having lost the transcendent, the ground on which ethics rests becomes decidedly unsteady. Take human rights. On what basis can we say, along with theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights, that all men and women are equally valuable, possessing an inherent dignity such that we should act towards them in a spirit of brotherhood?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor of philosophical theology at Yale University, wrote about this in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs. According to him, the attempt to find a basis for human rights apart from a theistic framework is bound to fail, whereas the notion of intrinsic worth bestowed by the creator establishes a firm foundation for rights in a way nothing else can. Human rights established on the basis of being merely a social fact of a civilised society are feeble at best and defenceless before powerful opposition. Wolterstorff argues that the “image of God” status of each individual that emerges from the Judaeo-Christian framework provides the only stable basis for the notion of inalienable human rights.

What also emerges from such a framework is Christianity’s key ethic: love for God and neighbour, which includes care for the weak and oppressed.

I suspect that Jane’s resistance to the idea of living self-sacrificially might stem from her fear that women especially are likely to be disadvantaged by such thinking, and fair enough. But in Christianity, what Jane calls “sickly-sweet self-effacement” is in fact not about being a willing subject of manipulation and other people’s selfishness, but being drawn into a vision of reality that offers the mutual cultivation of human life and love. Putting ethical questions before the “test of love” as the measure of how to act is a crucial part of this. It’s the sort of motivation for action that leads so many of the aid and charitable agencies to care for those on the scrapheap of urban poverty and homelessness; to pour resources into the developing world to ease crises and contribute to long-term change for those unlucky enough to have been born in the wrong place; to provide protection and dignity to the aged and people with dementia. It’s what has for centuries impelled people to sacrifice comfort, time and wealth to alleviate suffering and work ceaselessly on behalf of powerless and vulnerable people. Can you get that from “enlightened self-interest”?

Jesus talked about “losing your life in order to find it,” which, interestingly, is a paradox that all the current “happiness” researchers say we need to understand – the centrality and priority of relationships, the benefit of “other-person-centredness” and the personal satisfaction and benefit that comes from putting your interests aside to serve others.

My point is not that people of faith are the only ones doing this, but that they have a powerful reason for doing it that is grounded in and consistent with their view of the world and all of reality.

Our culture has been so shaped by the Christian story that even in cases where we have rejected or forgotten the story itself, its influence forms much of the ground on which we stand, shaping our view of each other and ourselves. That influence is undoubtedly waning, but what will replace it is hard to see. Perhaps we’ll find ways to live well together and foster a culture of fairness, justice and love, but I suspect it will take something a heck of a lot more profound than polite civility, faith in human goodness and collecting your neighbour’s mail when they’re away on holidays.

Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock are the authors of For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion, from which this article is drawn.

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