Where are books and story-telling going?

My weekly Guardian column is below:

How many e-book consumers realise that some publishers, writers and distributors know an awful lot about their reading style? They have knowledge about how far into the book you’ve reached, when you get bored, which characters you like and those you don’t. Amazon, Apple and Google, along with countless large publishers, embrace the idea of providing products that readers are apparently craving.

It’s yet another way that our digital footprint is commercialised, marketed and analysed. Nothing is private anymore. Curling up on the couch with an e-book is not a solitary act but instead a way for corporations to learn about your habits and then sell you items you’ll think you need.

Novelist Scott Turow told the Wall Street Journal in 2012 that writers still didn’t know who bought their books or why. “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting”, Turow said. “Personally I’d love to get the information.” The president of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux pithily responded: “We’re not going to shorten War and Peace because somebody didn’t finish it.”

Along with the music and newspaper industries, the publishing world is undergoing a profound transformation that will affect every book that you buy or write. A 2009 New Yorker article on whether the Amazon Kindle could “improve on the book”, is today a redundant question. The device, despite its technological limitations and mundane aesthetics, has sold in the millions (not that Amazon ever releases actual sales figures).

The days of extravagant publishing parties, sales reps enjoying spa treatments and wine tastings are almost gone. The result is that author advances have plummeted, Amazon now controls vast swathes of the industry, bookstores are closing across the Western world and yet at no time in history have more people been reading. Publishers in Australia and globally are trying to adapt, recognising that readers want more choice in how they purchase books. The Australian industry, while perhaps healthier than in years past, remains risk-averse though online opportunities for genre fiction has never been stronger.

The reasons for the publishing malaise is both complex and predictable (yes, the internet kills and nourishes all art forms). In a seminal 2009 essay on the subject, by Elizabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a litany of figures are blamed, including the industry itself. She worried about the commodification of books, the “internet types” who see books as items to be shifted as opposed to critical cultural artefacts in a healthy democracy and “lucrative junk”. Sifton laments “booklike objects created by the teams working on, say, famous generals in televised wars, cooks, telly dons, ballplayers, realty-show contestants, famous pats. These flashy items dominate shelf space, ad budgets and public attention; they leave nowhere near enough air, space or money for true literature.”

I would counter and say a healthy market should sustain all types of books, from the literary masterpiece to the quickie title based on an instantly forgettable TV show.

Despite it all, the book will survive and perhaps thrive, though our understanding of what a book can do and how it relates to the reader must change. Amazon remains a behemoth and yet a recent New Yorker feature on the company painted a picture of multinational disinterest in building a quality collection of books and literary culture (perhaps because they’re too busy selling garden tools, dildos and toys on their website).

Books, like newspapers, aren’t just products to be bought, discarded and forgotten; they contribute to the necessary exchange of ideas, policies and dreams in any stable nation. Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy urged her colleagues this year to strongly promote the “marketplace of ideas” that they create. Books can inspire fear and hope, love and pain. They allow any individual to shut out their own lives and imagine a different reality. Whether this is fiction or non-fiction and in print or online, we should celebrate, nourish and support the realisation of creative works. This takes time, money, patience and a diversity of views. Never forget that only six corporations control 90% of media in the US. Smaller, independent presses have therefore never been so important (along with challenging the idea that a company like Google can digitise every book ever written, handing one firm unimaginable and dangerous cultural and financial power).

So what will the reading future look like? It may be dominated by new ideas around wearable technology such as Google Glass. Wired magazine claimed in January that these devices “will be as big as the smartphone”. It’s entirely conceivable that people will want innovative ways to read content as they live, work and sleep. Publishers will need to be ready or the public will simply bypass them and design their own methods of reading. As an author myself, I’d love a book that can be accessed on multiple devices, each giving the reader a different experience about my journalistic work, some static and others interactive.

Perhaps the most interesting interventions in this debate over narrative are coming from gamers and digital storytellers. Sydney based Guy Gadney, group executive director of The Project Factory, blogged this month – under the headline, Why Ancient Stories Bring Transmedia Inspiration (Or Why Books are Shit) – that consumers should no longer accept the rules set by publishers. “Books are now centralised and controlled by monolithic publishing houses which make the decisions over what we should read and what stories will never see the light of day”, Gadney argued. “But behind this corralling of story form and structure, a new wave of storytelling has recently been emerging that will challenge the orthodoxy.”

He advocated a “dialogue not monologue” around engaging audiences and used one example of a project that will assist Australian Indigenous cultures in sharing their stories to a wider audience via an app, Ringbalin: River Stories. A normal book simply cannot fulfil this mission.

I don’t see this project as replacing traditional books but a direct challenge to the failure of the written word to publish or even acknowledge so many Indigenous stories. With the public increasingly consuming information on countless devices and screens with limited time to read and reflect, non-linear forms of storytelling must be considered by any serious producer of content.

Books will exist in 100 or 500 years, and not just in museums. How we as a society manage the online disruption to traditional forms of publishing will determine how we want to tell our own stories and how they should be remembered. Are we no more or less than what is recorded on a retrievable device? Memories fade. History has been traditionally written by the elite so I welcome the ability for anybody today to document their lives, every intimate detail, on equipment of their choosing. Books need to adapt to this changed reality or face being principally embraced as nostalgia.

no comments

Western hypocrisy over Russia

Brilliantly strong Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

Saddam Hussein has already been executed, and so has Osama bin Laden. But all is not lost for the enlightened West. There is a new devil, and his name is Vladimir Putin. He hates gay people, so the leaders of the enlightenment did not go to Sochi. Now he is occupying land, so sanctions and boycotts will be imposed upon him. The West is screaming bloody murder from wall to wall: How dare he annex territory in Crimea?

The United States is the superpower responsible for the greatest amount of bloodshed since World War II, and the blood of its victims cries out from the soil of Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For years, Washington meddled in Latin America’s internal affairs as though those affairs were its own, installing and overthrowing regimes willy-nilly.

Moreover, the number of people in American prisons, and their proportion of the population, is the highest in the world, and that includes China and Russia. Since 1977, 1,246 people, some of whom were innocent of the charges against them, have been executed in the United States. Eight U.S. states limit speech against homosexuality in ways that are remarkably similar to the anti-gay law Putin enacted. It is this superpower that, with its allies and vassal states, is raising an outcry against the new devil.

They cry out against the occupation of the Crimean peninsula as if it were the most awful occupation on earth. They will punish Russia for it, perhaps even fight a world war for the liberation of Sebastopol. America can occupy Iraq — the war on terror and the weapons of mass destruction justify that, as everybody knows — but Russia may not invade Crimea. That is a violation of international law. Even a referendum is a violation of that law — which the West observes so meticulously, as everybody knows.

But of course, the truth is as far from the world of this sanctimonious double standard as east is from west. The annexation of Crimea may be problematic, but it is less problematic than the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel. It is more democratic than Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s land-swap proposal; at least Russia asked the inhabitants under which sovereign power they wished to live, something it has never occurred to Lieberman to do.

Russia’s reasons for the annexation of Crimea are also more convincing than the de facto annexation of the Israeli occupied territories. The Russians and the Israelis use the same terminology of ancestral rights and historical connection. The Israelis add reasons from the Bible, and mix in issues like sanctity and messianic belief. “Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to … their home shores, to their home port, to Russia!” said Putin; in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about “the rock of our existence.” But while most of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian, most inhabitants of the territories are Palestinian — such a minor, insignificant difference.

Russia is also more honest than Israel: It states its intention of annexing the territory. Israel, which for all intents and purposes annexed its territories long ago, has never dared admit it.

The Israeli occupation does not cry out to the world — not for sanctions and certainly not for threats of war — as the occupation of Crimea does. Netanyahu is not the devil, either in the eyes of the Americans or the Europeans, and Israel’s violations of international law are almost never mentioned. The Israeli occupation, which is more cruel than that of Crimea, is not recognized, and the West does not do a thing to truly bring it to a halt. The United States and Europe even provide it with funding and arms.

This is not to say that Russia does not deserve to be criticized. The legacy of the Soviet Union is horrific, and democracy in Russia is far from real, what with Putin declaring war on the media and on free expression and with the disgraceful Pussy Riot affair; there is rising corruption and, with it, the rule of the oligarchs. Putin does not speak as nobly as U.S. President Barack Obama, but then Guantanamo is run by America, not Russia.

For all the pompous Western talk of justice and international law, it’s actually the Western devil who wears Prada, all the while doing far more than Russia to undermine those vaunted values.

no comments

Why progressives must fight and win the culture wars

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Australia’s reactionary culture warriors are amateurs compared to their British and American counterparts. Sack the ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman, screams News Limited columnist Piers Akerman. Privatise the public broadcaster, shouts the Institute of Public Affairs (a think-tank that refuses to disclose its funders, though the ABC still allows its spokespeople to appear). Former Liberal party employee Chris Kenny demands respect for the military and tweets like a man possessed about #theirABC and its supposed leftist agenda.

In Britain and America, where Australia’s brave keyboard warriors find their ammunition and snarky lines, the daily drumbeat towards a deregulated, privatised and militarised society continues apace. The commercial interests in neutering competition to this agenda is ignored – who can forget James Murdoch railing against the BBC’s “chilling” size and commercial ambitions in 2009, just before his company was engulfed in the phone-hacking scandal? Yet, despite their massive megaphone, I have long believed that these attacks are the cries of a frustrated minority.

In America an extreme version of the culture wars has life and death consequences. The battle for gay equality and marriage, while not won, is well on the way to being achieved. This is why American Christian fundamentalists are looking further afield to fight for the right to discriminate according to their twisted reading of the Bible. Witness the horrific recent anti-gay laws in Uganda and the clear involvement of US evangelicals. This is a culture war on a global scale, the logical outcome of a perverse belief that homosexuals should be punished or killed for their actions. Thankfully, Australia’s prominent culture warriors aren’t promoting such outrages.

So listen closely. Don’t confuse a loud voice with strength or an aggressive tone with confidence. Insecurity is the mainstay of ideological culture warriors (see the hilarious lead opinion article in the Australian this week about the evil of tattoos, as if a “civilisation collapsing” is occurring because countless men and women enjoy body art. Seriously).

There is no doubt that globalisation has negatively affected the economic well-being of the lower and middle classes, just one explanation for the success of the Tea Party movement. Now Fox News amplifies these grievances, offering a steady diet of stories that leads to many American whites claiming they’re suffering from racism.

The predictability of the attacks, the co-ordinated nature of countless shock-jocks just happening to all agree every week that the ABC, climate change, indigenous rights, gay marriage, asylum seekers or Islam must be abolished, imprisoned, ignored or silenced should be treated with contempt. Tribalism is the language of the hour, mates stick with mates, though it was little different under the previous Labor regime. Our media class prefers an insider culture that rewards favouritism.

And yet the left can’t ignore it, and must find far better strategies to deal with the onslaught. Far too often progressive voices are on the defensive, arguing on the terms set by the opposition, guaranteeing a loss. The culture war isn’t just about point scoring or winning an argument but how a society is taught, ordered, shared, viewed and expanded. We have the right to want a country and community that believes in truly equality and free speech for all, whether we’re Muslim, black, white, anti-Zionist, conservative, green or radical.

The hypocrisy of the right’s position – beautifully articulated by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last week when he unsurprisingly found Fox News more concerned with some poor people abusing the welfare system than corporate government subsidies – must be exposed and a new, more enlightened framing introduced. The Australian government and its ideological soulmates across the world like to attack the culture of entitlement of the general population while still happily enriching their mates in business with overly generous tax breaks. It’s good to be rich.

A recent case study shows the effectiveness of lo-fi campaigning to address an injustice. Take the controversy over the Sydney Biennale and the apoplectic, elite response to artists and asylum seeker activists campaigning against the sponsorship of Transfield, a company running offshore detention centres. Most media ran countless articles all in furious agreement with the idea that the boycott was misguided. Attorney General George Brandis joined the party and communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull railed against the boycott (thankfully some in the general public showed more sense and Transfield remains in the sights of ethical campaigners).

This was a classic misfire from the critics and an unqualified success by the boycotters. Culture warriors, of the faux-left and right, damned the campaign for not achieving the abolition of offshore processing. That was never the goal, but rather to highlight the supply chain complicity of companies, such as Transfield (and across the arts by Santos and Crown Resorts Foundation, amongst others) who claim to be good corporate citizens and then bleat when challenged on their role in prolonging refugee (plus gambling or climate change) misery. The boycott is the start of a conversation, not the end of it. Moral practices matter and apparently it takes non-politicians and non-journalists to point this out.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is growing globally for precisely the same reason, despite false accusations of anti-Semitism, because citizens are refusing to accept a brutal and illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and BDS is a legitimate and non-violent to resist. Likewise the Biennale boycott. Two campaigns that refuse to cave to cultural gatekeepers who prefer to operate within the system rather than acting to challenge the toxic nexus between culture, corporatism and human rights.

The culture wars aren’t solely about intellectual issues, fought between competing elites, but the effect of business and government policy on people’s lives. This is why most culture warriors prefer pontificating from the safety of their embedded, well paid bubbles. People are suffering, in Afghanistan, on Manus Island or under the Northern Territory Intervention, while shock-jocks express outrage over the latest confected scandal.

It’s necessary to include a wide variety of voices in public discussions – the BBC news presenter John Humphrys recently accused his broadcaster of ignoring more skeptical views on the EU and immigration though the BBC’s pro-government stances are clear – and the ABC could undoubtedly have far more challenging perspectives across the political spectrum.

We have to fight the tendency to ignore these battles because they’re too hard or tiresome; a more just and transparent world depends on us engaged in these arguments and gaining support from ordinary people because without them we’re merely arguing with each other.

no comments

A truly free society would support and not silence BDS

Me at ABC’s The Drum today:

The BDS movement is a logical and non-violent response to human rights abuses in Palestine, so why is it being threatened in a country like America that prides itself on free speech, asks Antony Loewenstein.

It seems barely a week passes without a student union or corporation somewhere in the world taking a public stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Many now state that they’re following the dictates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a way to protest ongoing colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza which remains in breach of international law. In America, where free speech is a long-held tradition, BDS faces multiple attacks against its legitimacy and legal right to be heard, as well as allegations of anti-Semitism.

Today it’s clear that the US political system and, in my view, the sham “peace process” is little more than cover for ongoing and illegal settlement expansion; BDS is rising globally in popularity and coverage partly due to this fact. Even The Australian’s Middle East reporter John Lyons in his paper, the most pro-Israel publication in the country, last weekend accused Australian Zionist leaders of ignoring the human cost of the occupation. For some citizens BDS is seen as a logical, humane and non-violent response to these abuses in Palestine (abuses which countries like the US, UK, and Australia only denounce through lip service). This right, to condemn Israeli actions, should be a fundamental tenet of any democracy.

The only official answer, offered by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, is falsely accusing BDS of anti-Semitism. At the recent Israel lobby AIPAC conference in Washington, Netanyahu mentioned BDS many times - so much for it being irrelevant and ineffectual as Zionists often claim - and said its adherents were just the latest believers in anti-Semitism. It’s a slur that many people dismiss, hence the gradual rise in BDS support.

Concerned Israeli businesspeople are already feeling the strain and Israeli commentators are worrying that Israel is not winning the war over narrative.

Just this week the National University of Galway passed a motion in support of BDS and therefore became Ireland’s first student union to get on-board. The reason for this move was made clear in the public statement: “Institutional collusion between NUI Galway and Israeli oppression, such as NUI Galway’s use of G4S, the international security company notorious for its provision of security and incarceration ‘services’ to Israel’s inhumane prison regime.”

Last month the student union at the University of Kent decided to sever its ties with G4S and find another provider for assisting the union with a cash handling role. The complicity of G4S in breaching human rights is global, from Australian-run detention centres to poorly run British immigration houses, and cutting ties with the English multinational is gathering steam. The message is clear; hit a company and its shareholders where it hurts, the bottom line.

In the US, politicians and conservative commentators are arguing for the criminalisation of BDS. This would have a chilling effect on free speech in a nation that likes to pride itself on the sanctity of the First Amendment. Perhaps surprisingly, given the American press insulates Americans from the brutal, daily reality of Israeli actions, opposition has been encouragingly strong.

Back in December the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed BDS and the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli universities due to their complicity in the Israeli infrastructure of occupation. Individual Israeli academics would not be targeted but any official association with the Israeli state would end until “Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law”.

As a result of this strong and principled stance, echoing the campaign against apartheid South Africa, other state legislatures pledged to help Israel. New York politicians wanted to pass a bill that would have blocked the state from funding academic groups that supported the idea. I wonder if this political enthusiasm was more about securing funding for future political campaigns than an actual belief in Israel. Whatever the case, free speech was threatened and many politicians are still pledging to take action.

The New York Times editorialised (before the bill failed) and wrote that it “would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent. Academics are rightly concerned that it will impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel”.

The Maryland General Assembly also recently moved to insulate Israel from criticism with a similar bill and even the Washington Post, a strident backer of Israel, condemned it. Maryland may well still back this bill – it has not been quashed.

There are countless other moves to silence free speech over legitimate criticism of Israel, including members of Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) being told in early March that their chapter had been suspended for at least a year. The reason that university administrators said the students needed to undergo training was principally due to the group distributing notices across campus that parodied similar eviction notices placed on Palestinian homes targeted for Israeli demolition. Astoundingly, the police were called in to investigate. And this all for just distributing brochures.

This example and many others are why a number of US academics, including Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi, signed a recent statement that read in part:

“It is important to recognise that boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression … We are now witnessing accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS. We ask cultural and educational institutions to have the courage and the principle to stand for, and safeguard, the very principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas that make those institutions possible.”

This message must be the core of any reasonable public debate over BDS. Disagreeing with its aim is a legitimate position, of course, but a free society, in America or beyond, is defined by the ability to both tolerate and encourage speech and views that some may find repugnant. American Jewish leaders are waking up to the BDS “threat” and aiming to counter with a pro-Israel message. It’s unlikely that slicker PR will be enough.

The strength of BDS, explained by Jewish Voice for Peace head Rebecca Vilkomerson this month, is that it’s forcing self-described liberals to struggle with the once accepted idea that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic when all the evidence is proving its impossibility. “As a people who have experienced over and over the trauma of refugee-hood and longing for homeland,” she argues, “how can we possibly deny the validity of the right of return for Palestinians? And which do we value more: our fears or our respect for the universality of rights for all people?”

The building debate over Israel/Palestine, with Jews and Arabs, is increasingly about enlarging the tent of public discussion and articulating why virtually all points of view (except for Holocaust denial) must be integral to mature contemporary debate.

A society that believes in free speech would welcome a multitude of views over the Middle East. Trying to intimidate or silence critics of Israel, and its ongoing occupation, is not the way to engender support for the Jewish state.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author, photographer and blogger. His latest book is Profits Of Doom. View his full profile here.

no comments

Ed Snowden: Encryption is answer to NSA spying

Striking conversation with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden at America’s SXSW overnight.

We can and must resist unwarranted government and corporate snooping:

no comments

Condemning media propaganda over Russia and Ukraine

The Western media prides itself on self-criticism but the fact remains that very journalists routinely challenge the inherent power structures of government and the press.

RT host Abby Martin this week damned Russian incursions into Crimea and meddling in Ukraine (she maintains her job thus far) and in this interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan she highlights the narrow perspectives on US commercial TV when debating war and peace:

one comment

It’s time for Australia to face up to its dark military past and present

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Official, government-mandated story telling should be treated with suspicion. How else to to separate the truth from hagiograhy?

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was in Darwin last week-end to attend a welcome home ceremony for soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. “Australians don’t fight to conquer”, he said in a voice filled with emotion. “We fight to help, to build and to serve. So yes, it was worth it. The price was high but the cause was great and the success has been sufficient.”

Abbott announced that a national day of commemoration for the Afghan war will be held for the first time on 21 March 2015. It’s hard to imagine that this occasion will be anything other than a chance for the state to praise the soldiers who fought in the war, rather than any serious examination of our legacy in Uruzgan province, where 40 men died during our deployment and 261 were seriously wounded. Around 400 “military personnel” remain in the country.

On the ground in Afghanistan, the evidence for any long-lasting and positive legacy is lacking, with many infrastructure projects now abandoned. Britain faces a similar desultory result in the Helmand province.

The coming years will see plenty of celebration and reflection on the contribution of Australia (and Britain) to countless conflicts since the first world war. Author Thomas Keneally recently said he hoped that “no one says ‘Australia was born at Gallipoli’. Australia was born in 1901, and there needs to be a certain amount of de-mythologising. Let’s hope the historians win out over the politicians, who strike me as fairly jingoistic.”

Keneally was correct to call for a rational recollection of the horrors of war (“we let them down when they came back”) though it’s arguable whether Indigenous Australians would agree the country started in 1901. Aboriginal people already feel ignored by official historians, as shown in John Pilger’s documentary Utopia, when he visits the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and finds no recognition of Aboriginal involvement in our foreign or local, frontier wars.

Ask any soldier about the brutality of war – and I’ve spoken to many in Afghanistan – and few of them idealise the battle. Yes, tales of heroism are guaranteed and the latest Hollywood blockbuster Lone Survivor proves that there’ s still an appetite for an Afghan war movie without any Afghans. But the toll of post-traumatic stress, mental health problems, lost limbs and suicide, now an epidemic amongst returning US war veterans, cannot be ignored. Moreover, far too often in the western consciousness local, ethnic voices are diminished or ignored.

War isn’t glorious or beautiful but messy, bloody and destructive. Victory isn’t clean or pretty, a fact that any objective observer will recognise when assessing the the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars with a very questionable outcome (an indisputable victory would perhaps embolden Canberra, London and Washington to embark on yet more colonial adventures). Instead, as Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill explains, the Obama administration now prefers covert assassination squads and drones to defang an unseen enemy.

So how should we, as a nation, remember the fallen and living, the disabled and broken, both our own victims and the ones we’ve created in foreign lands?

The job of governments who send men and women into battle is to insulate the public from the bloody mission, but our focus surely must be on avoiding futile and costly foreign wars for the sake of backing our bigger allies. I hope for a day when an Australian prime minister, along with both major sides of the political divide, have the moral fortitude to reject an American request for soldiers or grunt. The world is not designed to be conquered by newest weapons, fastest satellites, deadliest missiles and metadata-acquired intelligence.

James Brown, a former Australian army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, argues in his new book Anzac’s Long Shadow that the lack of skeptical thinking, and excessive spending on first world war commemorations, is “creating a culture in which critical analysis is rare and difficult. That is very dangerous for a military that should be adapting to face new threats.” He’s right, to a point. And yet his vision remains narrow, as Brown then argues that, “it is bizarre and inexcusable that there is as yet no commissioned official military history of the conflicts in East Timor, the Solomons, Iraq or Afghanistan … Serving generals should be making the case to government for the urgent completion of these histories so that the military can learn and improve, but they are not.”

This is exactly the wrong way to approach history. The “official” version of wars are guaranteed to ignore what the public needs to know and feel (look at the Pentagon’s deeply dishonest rendering of the Vietnam war to commemorate the conflict’s 50th anniversary). The 2013 New York Times best-selling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, uncovers new research by journalist Nick Turse that torpedoes the idea that the infamous My Lai massacre was an anomaly. Instead, we discover that US forces routinely killed Vietnamese non-combatants on an industrial scale. Former US army medic Jamie Henry is just one man who tried to detail the atrocities committed by his unit, but the military ignored his allegations and shunned him.

The danger signs are here if we care to look, and a true reckoning of any military past is incomplete without hearing the testimony of all participants, not just our own.

This is the kind of real history that the late Howard Zinn tried to capture in A People’s History of the United States; unvarnished, honest, truthful. Is Australia even willing to begin a similarly sober conversation about our eagerness to join distant wars?

one comment

3AW Neil Mitchell interview about drugs and decriminalisation

In 2012 I wrote for the Guardian a column about the lunacy of the “war on drugs” and the need to decriminalise or legalise many drugs.

Last week I was interviewed by one of Australia’s more popular radio presenters, Neil Mitchell, about these issues and why it’s becoming increasingly mainstream, especially in the US, to discuss them (my interview starts just after the one hour mark):

no comments

US and UK mission to destroy Wikileaks (the documents prove it)

A stunning work from the new investigative site The Intercept – founded by Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the articles already speak for themselves; critical, punchy and unafraid to take on power – reveals the British and American attempts to destroy Wikileaks and attack its supporters. As a backer of Wikileaks since the beginning, in 2006, I continue to believe its documents are some of the most important this century:

Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.

The efforts – detailed in documents provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – included a broad campaign of international pressure aimed not only at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but at what the U.S. government calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The documents also contain internal discussions about targeting the file-sharing site Pirate Bay and hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous.

One classified document from Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s top spy agency, shows that GCHQ used its surveillance system to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site. By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.

Another classified document from the U.S. intelligence community, dated August 2010, recounts how the Obama administration urged foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs.

A third document, from July 2011, contains a summary of an internal discussion in which officials from two NSA offices – including the agency’s general counsel and an arm of its Threat Operations Center – considered designating WikiLeaks as “a ‘malicious foreign actor’ for the purpose of targeting.” Such a designation would have allowed the group to be targeted with extensive electronic surveillance – without the need to exclude U.S. persons from the surveillance searches.

In 2008, not long after WikiLeaks was formed, the U.S. Army prepared a report that identified the organization as an enemy, and plotted how it could be destroyed. The new documents provide a window into how the U.S. and British governments appear to have shared the view that WikiLeaks represented a serious threat, and reveal the controversial measures they were willing to take to combat it.

In a statement to The Intercept, Assange condemned what he called “the reckless and unlawful behavior of the National Security Agency” and GCHQ’s “extensive hostile monitoring of a popular publisher’s website and its readers.”

“News that the NSA planned these operations at the level of its Office of the General Counsel is especially troubling,” Assange said. “Today, we call on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the extent of the NSA’s criminal activity against the media, including WikiLeaks, its staff, its associates and its supporters.”

Illustrating how far afield the NSA deviates from its self-proclaimed focus on terrorism and national security, the documents reveal that the agency considered using its sweeping surveillance system against Pirate Bay, which has been accused of facilitating copyright violations. The agency also approved surveillance of the foreign “branches” of hacktivist groups, mentioning Anonymous by name.

The documents call into question the Obama administration’s repeated insistence that U.S. citizens are not being caught up in the sweeping surveillance dragnet being cast by the NSA. Under the broad rationale considered by the agency, for example, any communication with a group designated as a “malicious foreign actor,” such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, would be considered fair game for surveillance.

Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in surveillance issues, says the revelations shed a disturbing light on the NSA’s willingness to sweep up American citizens in its surveillance net.

“All the reassurances Americans heard that the broad authorities of the FISA Amendments Act could only be used to ‘target’ foreigners seem a bit more hollow,” Sanchez says, “when you realize that the ‘foreign target’ can be an entire Web site or online forum used by thousands if not millions of Americans.”

no comments

What the outsourcing of news really means

More here.

no comments

Jews backing academic boycott against Israel

Back in January 2013 I signed a statement as a Jew in a global campaign backing the Palestinian right of return. The same New York-based Jews have collected signatures for a new, equally vital statement and my signature appears below:

We salute the American Studies Association’s courageous endorsement of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli academic institutions, which are leading accomplices in more than six decades of ethnic cleansing, colonization, war crimes, and apartheid.

As Jews, we refuse to remain silent as a so-called “Jewish state,” armed by the U.S. and its allies, commits these injustices with impunity in our name.

Contrary to baseless charges of “anti-Semitism,” BDS resembles the boycotts that “singled out” similarly racist regimes in Jim Crow United States and apartheid South Africa.

Applying the same standards to apartheid Israel, BDS demands nothing more — nor less — than freedom and justice throughout all of historic Palestine, by calling for:

• An end to Israeli military occupation of the 1967 territories

• Full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel

• Right of return for Palestinian refugees, as affirmed by UN resolution 194

We call on Jews of conscience everywhere to honor our own proud heritage of resistance to oppression and injustice by standing with the Palestinian people, BDS, the ASA, and the growing international movement in support of these fundamental human rights.

Partial list of initial signers
(List in formation; affiliations listed for identification only. Add your name here.)

  • Avigail Abarbanel, psychotherapist, activist, writer; Inverness, Scotland
  • Gabriel Ash, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-Switzerland
  • Prof. Jonathan Beller, Humanities and Media Studies; Director, Graduate Program in Media Studies, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn
  • Prof. Steve Brier, historian, New York
  • Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, Tel Aviv
  • Nora Barrows-Friedman, journalist; Oakland
  • Max Blumenthal, journalist and author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel
  • Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Culture, UC Berkeley
  • Lenni Brenner, author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators
  • Estee Chandler, Community Organizer, Los Angeles
  • Mike Cushman, Convener, Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (UK)
  • Eron Davidson, award-winning filmmaker, Roadmap to Apartheid, USA
  • Warren Davis, labor and political activist, Philadelphia, PA
  • Hedy Epstein, Nazi Holocaust survivor and human rights activist; St. Louis, MO
  • Samuel Farber, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Brooklyn College, CUNY
  • Joel Finkel, Jewish Voices for Peace-Chicago
  • Prof. Cynthia Franklin, Co-Editor, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, University of Hawai’i
  • Lee Gargaliano, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-US
  • Dr. Terri Ginsberg, film and media scholar, New York
  • Sherna Berger Gluck, emerita faculty, California State University, Long Beach; founding member, US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; Israel Divestment Campaign
  • Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence, Berkeley
  • Hector Grad, Prof. of Social Anthropology, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid
  • Ira Grupper, former National Co-Chair, New Jewish Agenda (1989-1993)
  • Jeff Halper, Director, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)
  • Stanley Heller, Host, “The Struggle” Video News, TSVN
  • Shir Hever, Jewish Voice for Just Peace, Germany
  • Tikva Honig-Parnass, former member of the Zionist armed forces (1948); author of False Prophets of Peace: Liberal Zionism and the Struggle for Palestine
  • Adam Horowitz, Co-Editor, Mondoweiss
  • Selma James, Global Women’s Strike; International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-UK
  • Jake Javanshir, Independent Jewish Voices, Toronto
  • Emily Katz Kishawi, Jewish Anti Zionist Network, San Francisco
  • Sara Kershnar, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-International
  • David Klein, Organizing Committee, US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
  • Toby Kramer, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-US
  • David Letwin, activist and teacher, Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition
  • Michael Letwin, Former president, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325; Organizing Committee, US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition
  • Dr. Les Levidow, Open University, UK
  • Brooke Lober, PhD candidate, Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Arizona
  • Antony Loewenstein, Australian journalist and author
  • Jennifer Loewenstein, Faculty Associate, Middle East Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Samantha Liapes, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network
  • Barbara Lubin, Executive Director, Middle East Children’s Alliance; Oakland, CA
  • Prof. David Makofsky, Research Anthropologist, People’s Republic of China
  • Mike Marqusee, author of If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew
  • Thomas Mayer, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado at Boulder
  • Linda Milazzo, writer, activist, educator, Los Angeles
  • Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)
  • Prof. Bertell Ollman, Dept. of Politics, New York University
  • Prof. Ilan Pappé, Israeli historian and socialist activist
  • Miko Peled, writer, activist, author of The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine
  • Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Sakharov Prize laureate, Jerusalem
  • Karen Pomer, granddaughter of Henri B. van Leeuwen, Dutch anti-Zionist leader and Bergen-Belsen survivor
  • Roland Rance, Jews Against Zionism, London
  • Michael Ratner, President Emeritus, Center for Constitutional Rights (for ID purposes only); New York
  • Ruben Rosenberg Colorni, Journalist, The News Junkie Post, Activist – Youth for Palestine; The Hague
  • Lillian Rosengarten, activist for Palestinian liberation and a bi-national Israel/Palestinian State; New York
  • Prof. Jonathan Rosenhead, London School of Economics
  • Ilana Rossoff, community organizer; New Jersey
  • Cheryl Rubenberg, retired associate professor of Middle East politics at Florida International University (Miami)
  • Josh Ruebner, Author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace
  • Margot Salom, Just Peace for Palestine; Brisbane
  • Yom Shamash, Independent Jewish Voices; Vancouver
  • Tali Shapiro, Boycott from Within; Israel
  • Sid Shniad, Independent Jewish Voices; Vancouver
  • Jonatan Stanczak, Managing Director, The Freedom Theatre
  • Marsha Steinberg, BDS-LA for Justice in Palestine
  • Prof. Miriam Swenson, educational psychology
  • Steve Terry, criminal defense attorney; Brooklyn, NY
  • Sam Weinstein, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-Labor
  • Abraham Weizfeld, Administrative Secretary, Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians
  • Marcy Winograd, former congressional candidate, Los Angeles
  • Bekah Wolf, UC Hastings College of Law Student; Co-founder, Palestine Solidarity Project
  • Sherry Wolf, Associate Editor, International Socialist Review
  • Dr. Roger van Zwanenberg, Non-Executive Director, Pluto Books Ltd.; London
one comment

Detention centre owners making a killing

My following feature appears in the January edition of Britain’s New Internationalist magazine:

Outsourcing detention to private companies is a recipe for a disaster, says Antony Loewenstein.

Imprisoning immigrants is good for business. In the US it’s common for lobbyists hired by leading prison companies to magically convince officials to write legislation that benefits their bottom line.

US magazine The Nation revealed in June 2013 that the massive corporation Geo Group had used the firm Navigators Global to lobby both houses of Congress on ‘issues related to comprehensive immigration reform’. It’s obvious why: billions of dollars are there for the taking with bi-partisan support for locking up thousands of undocumented migrants.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the collusion between big business and government are the clauses inserted into contracts that ensure people remain behind bars. In 2012, a letter to 48 state governors from the country’s biggest for-profit private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offered to purchase and run public state prisons. However, the deal required the states to sign a 20-year contract guaranteeing 90-per-cent occupancy during the period. The states refused to accept this lousy deal, but in Arizona three privately run prisons require a 100-per-cent occupancy or fines are incurred. This is vulture capitalism of the crudest kind.

The past 30 years have seen a global trend towards outsourcing prisons, detention centres, juvenile justice facilities, hospitals and a range of other essential services. Under the guise of ‘efficiency’, major political parties of the centre-left and centre-right have rushed to embrace the least transparent companies such as Serco, G4S, Dyncorp, Blackwater and others.

Politicians are seduced by the idea. Lavishly appointed trips organized by the contractor help to convince them that the state has no business managing public services. Democracy has suffered; services have not improved.

The problem is particularly acute in Australia. In 2011, I visited the Curtin Detention Centre, a desert camp for asylum-seekers, in the remote West. Around 1,000 men were warehoused there; Afghans, Iranians, Sri Lankans and others. British transnational Serco, which runs all of Australia’s detention centres, managed the place with ruthless efficiency. Australia has the dubious honour of being one of the few nations in the world that has outsourced its entire refugee network to private contractors.

I met Yugan, a Tamil asylum-seeker, in Curtin. He was in his mid-20s, spoke good English and was already knowledgeable about Australia after more than 18 months locked up in mandatory detention. He was warm, funny and inquisitive. Australian immigration officials and Serco guards gave him little information about his application for asylum – thousands of Tamils have arrived on Australian shores since the brutal end of the long-running Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 – and he did not know when he might be released into the community or forcibly returned to his unsafe homeland.

Why was Yugan locked up for so long in a high-security prison environment? Luckily, his story ended well. Granted a protection visa a few weeks after we met, he now lives in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. I saw him in October 2013 and he was adapting well to his new life. He regularly visited asylum-seekers who remained in detention, continued to campaign for justice in Sri Lanka and spoke at public rallies calling for a change in Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

Not every story ends like this, of course. There are high incidences of self-harm, with many asylum-seekers languishing in detention for years and/or returned to unsafe countries. Post-release, many suffer mental trauma due to the extended time away from normal life.

The quest for profit can aggravate poor conditions in detention. When I spoke to Serco staff in Australia and a senior company whistleblower, they detailed the corporation hierarchy’s contempt for spending appropriate funds on support for staff or asylum-seekers in their care. Countless guards told me that they were suffering mental trauma after receiving little or no appropriate training before being thrust into remote centres alongside fragile refugees. The whistleblower explained that ‘there is no care about conditions [in detention], such as people sitting or lying in shit in tents, but it’s all about whether the right forms are filled in’.

Privatization lies at the heart of Australia’s asylum policy. In 2009, the then Labor government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, signed a contract with Serco for AUS $370 million ($342 million). By 2013, that figure ballooned to over AUS $1.86 billion ($1.7 billion) though the exact figures are not known, such is the deliberate obfuscation of the contractual agreement (‘commercial-in-confidence’ agreements are the antithesis of transparent democracy).

The new conservative government of Tony Abbott has every intention of maintaining the outsourcing agenda and is expanding secretive camps for asylum-seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Australia’s border policy is neo-colonialism with a cheque in one hand and a stick in the other.

Conditions in offshore detention are said to be even worse. A former detention manager on Manus Island told TV station SBS in July 2013, ‘in Australia, the facility couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel. The owners would be jailed.’

Of course, this is the neoliberal model, applied globally, so we should not be too surprised at the results. Despite the troubled records of Serco and G4S in Britain and beyond, successive Australian leaders are seduced by the concept of ‘efficiency’ and seem willing to outsource their own responsibility to firms that rarely exercise any of their own. It’s a recipe for human rights disasters.

In Britain, both Serco and G4S are currently being investigated by the country’s Serious Fraud Office for allegedly charging for tagging criminals who were imprisoned, dead or did not exist. The contracts were worth millions and Serco’s chief executive resigned.

Such news should disqualify the firms from being able to bid on other contracts. But David Cameron’s government is allowing G4S to run for future work, including probation services worth around $800 million. G4S earns roughly 10 per cent of its annual revenue from British government contracts, while Serco receives 25 per cent of work from the British tax-payer.

The list of human rights abuses by both companies is long. It includes the death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S guards in 2010. The fact that a private company is paid to deport people using rough, physical restraint shows the woeful state of government responsibility for the most vulnerable.

It does not have to be this way. In the US, growing numbers of states – including those run by Republicans – are ditching a failed model of enriching private prison corporations, and are sentencing fewer people to long prison terms. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s a start. Warehousing asylum-seekers is not reducing the number of desperate citizens globally searching for a better life and it only helps the bottom line of companies like Serco.

The New York Times editorialized in November 2013 that European prisons are a model the US should consider. However, Europe shouldn’t be idealized. Countries in the European Union, reflecting the continent’s rightward political shift, are hiring private detention centre companies to house asylum-seekers.

Ireland, Spain, Italy and France are already utilizing this failed approach and Greece, a nation with neo-Nazis in parliament, will be following shortly. The Greek Ministry of Public Order recently announced it would issue public tenders – designed for private security companies – to outsource six temporary detention facilities.

Treating refugees with respect, and releasing them into the community while their claims are processed, is a practical and humane way for states to behave towards individuals who deserve patience and investment. We have a choice between becoming insecure ghetto-dwellers, with private corporations to hide our dirty secrets; or a truly globalized world with inspiring values.

Antony Loewenstein is an Australian independent journalist and author of many books, including the 2013 Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World’.

no comments