Friday, 21 November 2014

Denial in the Saudi Arabia of Coal

Australia's current little piece of political theatre, aside from the lunatic fringe festival that is the Palmer United Party, is provided by the fall-out from Barack Obama's speech at the University of Queensland during the G20.  In speaking about global climate change, Obama said "the incredible glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened" and went on to express the desire that his daughters, and their children, would be able to visit it long into the future.


It seems like a mild and self-evident thing to say, but in the delicate and nuanced world of diplomacy it has been understood as a rebuke of the Australian Government for trying - unsuccessfully as it turned out - to keep climate change off the G20 agenda.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (oddly not Environment Minister Greg Hunt) has come out swinging.  "Of course, the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come. And we do not believe that it is in danger," Ms Bishop said.  Her point is that the Australian and Queensland Governments have a strategy to protect the Reef from what she says are its two biggest threats, agricultural run-off and natural disasters (failing to mention dredging and dumping of dredge spoil, over which her government is still prevaricating - oh, and also climate change).  She is apparently sending a detailed briefing to the White House explaining just that.


It would be interesting to read that briefing, because it seems hard to find a marine scientist who agrees with her.  Today the Brisbane Times reports feedback from a number of scientists who confirm that yes, the Reef is under threat.  Even the Governments's own report, the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, found "the reef to be in poor condition and the outlook for further deterioration".  Even if we deal with the run-off and dredging problems and the impact of cyclones, it will all be swamped by rising sea temperatures and acidity over the coming century.  A rising tide may not lift all boats, but it certainly will kill off a lot of coral.

So what's with all the furious denials from Bishop and her colleagues?  Why not just calmly say, "yes we all know this is a problem, it's great that the US and China are finally promising to do something about their massive emissions."?  Why, despite its official acceptance that climate change is a problem and its much criticised but nonetheless existent strategy for reducing emissions, does the government reach for the denial card almost as a reflex?

A number of countries claim the title of "the Saudi Arabia of Coal", including the US and Mongolia, but in actual fact Australia has the best claim to that title, as Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute pointed out in a recent article in The Conversation.  Australia is currently the world's largest exporter of coal, and has a bigger share of the global coal market than Saudi Arabia does of the oil market.  If Australia sneezes, the coal market gets a cold.  Or Black Lung, or whatever.

This presents Australia with a both an opportunity and a dilemma.  Coal, along with oil, is the major contributor to climate change.  The faster we can move away from coal and oil to renewables, the more we will limit global climate change.  Australia, despite it's small size and limited influence in the global economy generally, has a significant amount of power to influence this process.

If we limit our coal production, the global coal price will go up.  This will make renewables more competitive and hasten their development and adoption over the next few decades, both in Australia and around the world.  In the long run, this will mean some of our coal will stay in the ground, but in the short term what we dig up will be more profitable.

On the other hand, if we rush to produce more of it the price will go down.  The emergent renewables sector will have a much harder struggle, and we will be able to sell more coal for longer.  Good for the coal miners, bad for the rest of us, and the reef.

Which way will our government jump?  Before we could even get around to asking the question the government has answered it loud and clear.  The coal industry has said "jump", and the government has said "how high?".  "Coal is good for humanity," says our Prime Minister.  By which he means "Coal is good for coal miners".  And coal miners back his party, and fund his election campaigns, as well as having key media organisations in their back pockets to whip him with if he steps out of line.

Coal is not good for other members of humanity.  It's not good for Pacific Islanders whose islands are getting swamped.  It's not good for people in poor communities around the world who suffer increasing climatic volatility and food insecurity.  And it is clearly not good for the reef.  But Julie Bishop has her instructions.  If she talks loudly enough she might be able to drown out the voices that are telling us this, and her backers will live to sell another day.  Not so the coral.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Land of the G20

So here we are, in sunny Brisbane, Awestralia, on the day after the G20.


For most of the world the event lasted two days, but for us here in Brisbane it seems to have been going on for months.  We have been peppered with mixed messages all year.  At one moment we were being warned of potential terrorist attacks and violent and disruptive protesters.  The next we were hearing the benefits of democracy extolled.  One moment we were being told about road closures, traffic chaos, public transport disruptions and heavy security around a rather large exclusion zone.  The next were being begged to come into town and join in the fun of the expensive G20 Cultural Celebration.

In the event the terrorists stayed away altogether along with the large proportion of Brisbane residents who took advantage of the long weekend to go elsewhere.  The protests were peaceful and creative, with people dressing up, creating events and generally performing for the huge international media contingent.  This was pretty much all that was open to them, since rules not only excluded them from a wide area around where the actual world leaders were gathering, but placed strict limits on the size of any banners to ensure visiting dignitaries would not have to read any disturbing messages from afar.

These things were strictly enforced, too, in fact some could say over-zealously so.  Yesterday evening I had a chat to someone at church who had been told his sign was too large.  When he was a little slow to pack it up and leave the area he was informed that he was now banned for the duration of the G20, which still had a few hours to run.  His dreadlocks probably didn't help his cause.  Other well-known non-violent activists were preemptively banned before the event, and another woman was banned after she was found carrying a "weapon" which turned out to be a multi-tool. Despite these examples of over-enthusiasm there were only 14 arrests and the specially-established temporary magistrate's court and watch-house only had to deal with one offender during the event.  The thousands of police mainly had to stand around looking impressive and ride their bicycles and motorbikes around the inner city.

There was not really a whole lot to be offended about in the protests in any case.  Many of the main concerns of the protesters ended up being covered in the official G20 communique - international tax reform, combating ebola and global poverty, even (despite our own government's attempt to keep it off the agenda) climate change.  Of course Vladimir Putin may have been a little miffed at some of the things protesters said about him (miffed enough, at least, for his local emissaries to organise a rival cheer squad) but they were only following the lead of our Prime Minister.

Channel 9 vainly attempted to whip up some outrage about the group of Aboriginal protesters who burnt some Australian flags in protest at Tony Abbot's latest attempt to write them out of our history.  "Why did the large police contingent do nothing to prevent it?" asked the reporter in shocked rhetorical tones.  Later at his press conference the Police Commissioner provided the obvious and non-shocking answer that it is not illegal to burn an Australian flag and that the police knew beforehand that it was going to happen thanks to the months of work they have put into building good relations with this and other protest groups.

Oh yes and while we're on the subject, somewhere amidst all this there was a meeting of the leaders of the world's 20 richest countries.  Solemn speeches were made and interpreted and at the end a relatively vague but non-trivial communique was signed, promising actions (not totally clearly specified) to promote global growth, share information and practice on infrastructure development, work towards a legally binding agreement to combat climate change, make better (or at least not worse) attempts to address global poverty and tackle the ebola crisis, continue working towards a system to reduce international tax avoidance, and to combat corruption.

All this came at a cost of something like $100m.  Which makes me wonder (and I know I'm not the only one) why bother?  In this time of international budget emergencies and so forth, was it all worth it?

Of course, international cooperation is better than the alternative, but we need to understand how these things really work.  For a start, the four-page communique was not worked up over the course of the past two days.  It, and the background documents that flesh it out, have been painstakingly negotiated by armies of diplomats and officials from the 20 countries over the 14 months since the last meeting in St Petersburgh, if not longer.  They have been the subject of endless consultation and scrutiny, referred to experts and committees of the 20 participating governments and other international agencies, redrafted scores of times before finally being presented at yesterday's conference and given the formal rubber stamp.  Very little of any value was added at the meeting itself - any last minute alterations were sorted out in the back rooms.

So the whole thing could technically have been done without any kind of meeting at all.  If an actual personal meeting of leaders was required, rumour has it that electronic communications technology is now in an advanced stage of development and it is a relatively trivial technical problem to link 20 leaders together via video from the safety and comfort of their own offices.  It certainly would cost a lot less that $100m.  So why all the trouble?

I think the answer is that it is a powerful piece of symbolism.  Just as the protesters outside the venues used various theatrical techniques to make their points, the leaders inside were engaging in their own form of theatrics.  Even the heavy handed security and police presence was its own form of theatre.  The point was not that the police or the soldiers should do anything, merely that they should be seen.  Indeed, the less they did, the happier everyone was.  Their massed uniforms were enough to create the aura of power.  Much better if the dark underbelly of such power - its brutality and ruthlessness - could be kept carefully under wraps.

The politicians themselves, of course, are mostly past masters as playing for an audience.  The pleasant speeches, handshakes and photo opportunities are what they were all here for, a show of unity, peace and cooperation carefully calculated to assure their various constituencies that things are heading in the right direction, that there will be peace in our time.

I say "mostly past masters" because our own Prime Minister seems to be still struggling with the idea.  His firm handshake with Putin was close enough to a "shirtfront" to satisfy his backers and the aggrieved demonstrators outside, but he did rather spoil it by joining his Russian counterpart in a bout of koala-hugging.


When he opened his mouth, on the other hand, Australians could only cringe at his insistence on trying to interest his global audience in the administrative minutiae of domestic politics.  The Shovel's wry headline about car-parking issues in Warringah is not so wide of the mark, really.

He could have learnt a thing or two from Barak Obama, whose side engagement at the University of Queensland involved the flights of visionary rhetoric we have come to expect, a sweeping humanitarian vision of the US role in world affairs which remains seductive despite the dismal outcomes of the past decade or so of US military intervention in the Middle East.  Still, any keen observer will wonder who exactly Obama was speaking to in this address.  When the head of the host department is unable to snaffle a seat in his own lecture hall it hardly seems likely that any other faculty staff would be allowed in, never mind those pesky students.  The risk of random departures from the script would have been too great.  The theatrics, and the international media, was everything.  Obamas's carefully crafted message was designed for the world at large, conveyed via the international journalists who made up a large proportion of his audience.  Really, he could have been anywhere.

Of course all of this took place on a weekend of record November temperatures, as if to dramatise the urgency of the global warming task Abbot and co were trying to pretend wasn't important.  The gathered world leaders would hardly know it.  They only stepped out of their air-conditioned meeting rooms to climb into their air-conditioned limousines (or in Obama's case, helicopter) and get driven to their air-conditioned and security-cleansed hotel rooms.  And anyway, how hot is it supposed to be in...what city is this again?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Lone Wolf Terrorism

Over the past few weeks we've been hearing a new term in interviews and statements from government ministers and the heads of national security agencies - "lone wolf terrorism".  I've been trying for a little while to come to terms with this concept and what it means.

I think it's helpful to think about the deliberate killing of human beings as taking place along a continuum, as shown below.


I'm not suggesting this is a moral continuum.  All these forms of killing are awful.  The continuum is related to the public or political nature of the act.

Murder is essentially a private act.  When Brett Cowan killed Daniel Morcombe he was indulging his own twisted enjoyment of seeing someone else suffer.  When Carl Williams killed or arranged the killing of various members and associates of the Moran family he was protecting and extending his family's control of Melbourne's illicit drug trade.  When Adam Lanza shot 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut in December 2012, he seems to have been acting out his disturbed obsession with mass killings and violent video games.

Although quite different, each of these are very much private crimes, committed for personal reasons.  Intense public interest notwithstanding, they really only closely concern the perpetrators and their victims.

What, though, are we to make of Anders Breivik?  In July 2011 Breivik shot 77 people in Oslo, Norway, most of them attendees at a Labour Party youth camp.  Breivik was a member of the right-wing Progress Party and published a detailed political manifesto outlining the reasons for his actions.  However, neither the Progress Party nor any other right wing group appears to have approved of his actions, never mind collaborated in them.  Breivik, like Lanza or Williams, was killing for his own twisted personal reasons.  It matters little whether the trigger is a political ideology, a personal business interest or an addiction to violent video games, these are personal, private actions.

At the other end of the continuum, war is very much a public act.  Men and women participate in organised killing and violence at the behest of their governments, in pursuit of political objectives.  It is conducted within a well understood framework of international relations and international law (even if this is often honoured in the breach) which governs things like protection of civilians and treatment of prisoners of war.  Individual soldiers may or may not be passionate about the cause in which they are fighting - they may even disagree with it - and they rarely know the soldiers they are fighting against, much less hate them personally.  They are fighting because it's their job.

In between these two is a lot of murky ground, and some of it is what we loosely refer to as "terrorism".  Terrorism is a highly contested term.  The expression "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" was apparently coined by British novelist Gerald Seymour in a 1970s book set during the Irish troubles.  It provides us with a way of framing the question: is "terrorism" an act of war, or is it simply murder?

The usual context for terrorism is civil war.  Whereas war between nations is fought between officially sanctioned armies, raised and controlled by governments which are generally recognised to have some legitimacy, civil war involves a conflict within a country, between different ethnic, religious or political groupings who have not been able to reach a working agreement on the governance of their nation.  Most often one of these parties (for instance, the English and the Irish loyalists) represents the official government of the country while the other (the IRA) represents or purports to represent the disaffected or oppressed grouping within the nation.  This dynamic of conflict means it takes place in much more murky legal territory, in which each party will refer to the other as murderers or terrorists.

Such conflicts are generally very uneven.  One side is able to mobilise the resources of government - a trained and well-equipped army, control of official information channels and so forth.  The other has to operate underground with limited resources and firepower even if it enjoys widespread and even majority support within the population.

This means they will rarely try to meet their opponents in open battle.  Instead they engage in guerrilla warfare, using small forces to launch surprise attacks on key infrastructure or undefended installations.  Their aim is not to achieve an immediate military victory, it is to disrupt and weaken their opponents and undermine public confidence in them.  They are there for the long haul, hoping that either the government will eventually collapse under the pressure of war and the unpopular measures they are forced to take in the name of security, or else be forced to negotiate a compromise.

These guerrilla fighters may or may not be scrupulous about who they target.  Some stick to military installations, or more broadly to government infrastructure.  Others are more willing to target civilians, particularly those aligned with their opponents.  Irrespective of how they behave in this regard, they are likely to be labelled terrorists and their will be some justification for this because creating fear is one of their aims.  Official governments can at times be equally unscrupulous, as we have seen in the most recent Israel-Gaza conflict.

This continues to be the overwhelming driver of the type of activity we think of as terrorism.  The Tamil Tigers (inventors of modern suicide bombing) wanted to establish a separate Tamil state independent of Sri Lanka.  Hamas want to overthrow the Israeli rulers of their homeland and replace them with a Palestinian Islamic government.  Islamic State wants to establish an Islamist regime in Iraq and Syria.

At least from our Western standpoint, the leaders of these movements are seen as criminals but there is no guarantee that this will always be so.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned as a terrorist and supported armed conflict by the ANC, but died the father of a nation.  Menachem Begin was a leader of the Zionist terror group Irgun which carried out attacks on British military and civilian installations, but later became Israeli Prime Minister.  I could go on.  If your side wins, you are likely to be seen as a national hero.  If it loses, you will die a villain.

One of the features of terrorism that has so worried us in the 21st century is its internationalisation.  However, this is not a new development that has arrived out of the blue.  It goes hand in hand with the internationalisation of a number of civil and local wars.  Robert Pape's comprehensive study of suicide terrorism from 1980 onwards identifies that the key common factor in all of them was the bomber's understanding of their own country as occupied by foreign powers.

Hence Osama bin Laden was started on the path to radicalisation by his anger at the heavy US military presence in his native Saudi Arabia.  It is hardly coincidental that Al Qaeda's signature terrorist act involved the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon near Washington DC.  These attacks, although showing a geographic reach unprecedented in earlier incidents, still followed the basic guerrilla pattern.  They were organised and carried out by trained, disciplined underground militia groups, operating under a covert but more or less clear command structure with a defined military objective.  They were certainly crimes, but it is still arguable that they were war crimes.

"Lone wolf terrorism" represents a rather baffling and disturbing extension of this trend.  It has been kicked along by an address from IS leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in late September in which he called incited supporters in Western nations to acts of violence.

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,  Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.

This rather chilling summons could be seen as an act of terrorism in itself, given the fear it has caused in various Western nations.  As a statement it retains the elements of war that characterise other terrorist acts.  However, it departs from any form of warfare in that it asks people to act on their own.  In place of planned attacks like the World Trade Centre bombing or Irgun's attack on the King David Hotel, planned and authorised by a central command and carried out by people assigned to the task, it urges random acts of violence by unspecified supporters.

Adnani may in fact have been inspired to make this statement by the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby.  In May 2013 two young men of Nigerian descent killed an off-duty Rigby on a London street near his barracks.  While their motivation was a version of Islamic extremism and they had some links with Nigerian terror group Al Shabaab, it is not clear that they were acting under any kind of specific instruction, and their attack had no clear strategic motive.  It seems they simply wanted to kill a British soldier.

The actions of Abdul Numan Haider may in turn have been inspired by Adnani's statement.  Haider was under investigation by Victorian police as a result of his connections with Islamic extremism.  At a pre-arranged interview with investigating officers on September 23, just a day or two after Adnani's statement became public, he drew a knife and stabbed one of the officers before being shot dead.

How are we to understand the connection between Adnani's statement and Haider's attempted murder?  This is not a piece of guerilla warfare, even on the Al Qaeda model.  Haider acted alone, with minimal planning, no training and little technical know-how.  Indeed, Adnani's statement itself is the opposite of Al Qaeda's tactic.  He explicitly tells his listeners not to conspire, not to take advice or seek approval, to simply go and do it.  Adnani appears to know he doesn't have the infrastructure to launch an Al Qaeda style of attack, so instead he incites his listeners to murder.

In what sense is this different to Lanza's act, or Breivik's?  A troubled young man, acting alone under the influence of an extreme and destructive world view, commits a violent crime against unsuspecting and innocent victims.  Adnani has added another item to the list of influences that can push such young men into violence.  Alongside death metal music, violent video games, right wing paranoia and lifelong bullying we now have extreme Islam.

Calling the resultant murders and attempted murders "acts of terrorism" dignifies them with a heroism they don't deserve.  It holds out the possibility that at least in someone's eyes the perpetrators can be seen as heroes.  It inflates the power of distant extremists by attributing to them the ability to pull strings which, in reality, are not connected to anything.  Intensified surveillance, invasions of privacy, targeting of Muslims and political posturing will not help.  Troubled young men have always done this, under the banner of one excuse or another.  Instead we need to ask - why do we have so many troubled young men?

Friday, 24 October 2014

Capital in the 21st Century

Some of last week's thoughts about privatisation were prompted by reading French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, passed on to me by my generous cousin Michael.

Piketty's book is economics on a grand scale.  He sets out to tell the story of global capital accumulation over the past two centuries.  To do so, he draws on an impressive (if not quite truly global) collection of historical data on wealth collated by himself and a number of other economists over the past decade, published in sources such as the World Top Incomes Database.

This is not exactly an easy book to read, but nor is it the kind of impenetrable tome produced by so many professional economists.  Anyone who has some basic economic literacy will have no trouble grasping his arguments and if its 500-plus pages seem daunting take heart, there's a fair amount of repetition involved.  If you take economic issues seriously (as we all should!) this book is essential reading.

Piketty's foil, in an intellectual sense, is Simon Kuznets, the post-war American economist who was responsible for the 'Kuznets curve'.  This was the idea that the progress of industrialisation would initially result in greater inequality of income before swinging back to greater equality as a result of market forces and economic growth.  Kuznets summed this idea up in the famous phrase, "a rising tide lifts all boats".

Kuznets' theory is so hopeful and positive we would all love it to be true, but is it?  Well, according to Piketty even the limited data used by Kuznets himself did not really support his theory.  In his more serious academic works Kuznets was cautious and circumspect, but in his popular speeches and pronouncements as president of the American Economic Association he was far more bullish about the equalising effects of capitalism.

Piketty disagrees.  His data series, stretching back as far as 250 years for countries such as France and the UK and almost as far for the USA, paint a very different picture of the dynamics of wealth inequality.  His data show that both income and wealth inequality increased steadily through the 19th century, reaching a peak in the early 1900s.  In the decades that followed the wealthiest people in society lost a large proportion of their wealth due to the triple shock of two world wars and the Great Depression.  As a result, equality was at an historic high in the post-war period, kept that way by the rapid growth necessitated by post-war reconstruction and the institution of high marginal tax rates at the top of the income scale.

This is the world Kuznets lived in, and he took it to be normal and inevitable.  However, since the 1970s the level of income inequality and the concentration of wealth have increased steadily, so that they are now almost where they were a century ago.

Why has this happened?  Piketty explains the process of wealth accumulation through the use of a number of simple, elegant equations.  One of these suggests that where the return on capital (that is, rent, interest, dividends, capital gains etc) is greater than the rate of growth in the economy, wealth inequality will automatically increase.  Hence in high growth environments inequality tends to be suppressed, but in low growth environments it will almost always grow over time.  Wealth will gradually trickle up to the top.

But if we start out equal, wouldn't the return on capital benefit everyone equally?  Perhaps, but this is purely hypothetical.  Wealth has never been even close to being distributed equally.  Certainly we have a middle class which owns modest amounts of wealth, but this modest wealth is held in safer but lower-yielding assets like housing and bank accounts.  Wealthier people hold much more of their wealth in higher-yielding assets like equities, and have the freedom to take risks in order to achieve higher growth.  This means that over time they will progressively claim more and more of the available wealth.  Nor is this a question of hard work.  Once you have the wealth (whether earned or inherited) it will continue to grow without your lifting a finger.

So, is the answer that we should continuously promote high levels of growth?  Piketty is not hopeful about this option.  Over the long run of history, it seems unlikely that growth has often risen much above one percent.  High growth rates are inevitably a result of catch-up - Europe and the USA during the post-war reconstruction, Japan during its modernisation phase, the South East Asian nations of the 1980s and 90s, most recently China and India.  In the process of building infrastructure and acquiring technology to catch up with the rest of the world, these nations experience rapid growth.  Once they have caught up, growth slows dramatically.

Hence, Piketty believes that the decades to come will overwhelmingly see low growth - no more than 2% per year on average.  Even if Kuznets was right, there will be no rapid tide to lift those boats.

So are we doomed to ever-increasing inequality?  The good news is that there are other options available.  The less good news is that the wealthy citizens of all the major economies have a lot of power and wealth, and will fiercely resist anything that reduces that wealth.  Which brings us to the question of tax.

One of the significant contributors to the relative equality in advanced countries from the 1950s to the 1970s was a highly progressive tax system, with the richest people in many countries paying rates of 70% and beyond on the top part of their income as well as substantial inheritance taxes.  These taxes funded substantial social programs - health, education, public infrastructure, income security, public housing - which predominantly benefited those on lower incomes.  Allied with this were highly regulated labour markets which oversaw improved wages and conditions.

However, the rise of neoclassical economics from the late 1970s, personified by Reagan and Thatcher, represented a reversal of these gains.  Top tax rates were cut around the world, estate taxes were reduced or even abolished, loopholes were allowed to proliferate, wages were pushed down.  The result is what we see today in Australia as elsewhere.  A small number of fabulously wealthy people, many of them beneficiaries of large inheritances, live in luxury while the majority live from day to day and the number in poverty increases.  Meanwhile our governments, deprived of sufficient tax revenue, suffer their own form of poverty, running large deficits and borrowing to stay afloat.

Piketty's answer is that we should tax wealth.  His proposed tax is modest - nothing on the sort of amounts ordinary working families can accumulate, then stepping up progressively to 5% on the largest fortunes.  He clearly thinks it would be reasonable to levy much higher amounts - he suggests that fortunes above a certain size could be seen as socially dysfunctional and could be subject to confiscatory taxes.  However, he also understands that even these modest rates will be fiercely opposed by those who would have to pay them.  If you are in any doubt, just think back to the Rudd government's attempt to levy an extra tax on mining company profits.

Such a tax is not currently on any government's radar, and conservative economists and media outlets have been quick to try and discredit Piketty's analysis.  Instead, the solutions on offer, in Australia as elsewhere in the developed nations, are guaranteed to continue the process of wealth concentration.  Deep cuts to social programs will deepen the poverty of the poorest while leaving the wealthy untouched.  Asset sales will transfer wealth from government to private hands, inevitably those of our wealthiest individuals and companies.  Piketty points out that debt has much the same effect but over a longer period - instead of transferring wealth in one hit, it is transferred bit by bit through interest payments.

It's hard not to be gloomy about all this.  The odds are stacked against a just solution.  Our media and much of our political process is firmly in the hands of the super-rich.  They will not give up their wealth without a fight.  Yet while there are scholars like Piketty to point out the truth, and to point the way to solutions that don't further impoverish the poor, there is at least the justification to keep on striving.

Friday, 17 October 2014

When is a Sale Not a Sale?

Privatisation, lately rebadged as "asset sales", is electoral poison for political parties and their leaders in Australia.  In 2008, after NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma proposed to privatise parts of the state's electricity system, he was rolled at the party's State Conference by a huge margin and resigned as Premier soon after.

Queensland's Labor Premier Anna Bligh didn't quite manage to learn the lesson.  Soon after her government's re-election in 2009 she announced a privatisation process that included parts of Queensland Rail, various forestry assets, the Abbot Point Coal Terminal and the Port of Brisbane.  Anger at this announcement was heightened by the fact that not a word was breathed on the subject during the election.  She may have hoped this anger would have faded by the 2012 election but it clearly hadn't and her party was almost wiped out.

All this left the incoming LNP government with a problem.  The combination of the Global Financial Crisis and structural problems in the Queensland Budget led to large deficits and a lot of debt.  The LNP loves privatisation and their key financial backers were chomping at the bit to get their hands on valuable State assets.  Yet they had ridden into power on the back of anger over just such a sales program.  As a result, they promised to not to sell any major assets (although they have sold many minor ones) without taking the issue to an election.

Finally, after two and a half years of scare tactics about the budget, savage spending cuts, the odd token tax increase and a huge amount of PR dressed up as consultation, the government has released its strategy.  The final document, The Strongest and Smartest Choice: Queensland's Plan for Secure Finances and a Strong Economy, has a fake stamp on the front that says "No Asset Sales".

So that's it, asset sales are off?  Well not quite.  Instead, the government is proposing to lease key assets - ports, electricity assets and water supply infrastructure valued in total at the deceptively precise figure of $33.6b - for periods of 99 years.  Treasurer Tim Nicholls has been proclaiming that this is a very different thing, because we get the assets back in the end.

Yes, but no.  At the end of 99 years (or 50 if the lessee fails to comply with the terms of the lease) the Queensland Government (assuming such an entity still exists) will be able to take its assets back.  WE, of course, will be long dead, as will the original people and companies who signed the leases.  The leases themselves, or the companies which hold them, will have been bought and sold on the open market many times.

But there's more to it than that.  You see, assets are not static things.  The port infrastructure, power stations, poles, wires and pipes that are about to be leased out did not exist 99 years ago.  Nor will they exist 99 years from now.  Assets gradually wear out and need to be replaced.  Technologies become obsolete and need to be upgraded.

So far the government's details on how this will work are a little sketchy, but it seems to to be like this.  The lease fees to the government will not be paid annually, they will be paid up front at the beginning so the government can use them to pay out debt.  The lessees will then, as part of their lease conditions, assume full responsibility for the management, maintenance and renewal of the assets, at their own expense, and have access to all the revenue that they generate.  Is this sounding like a sale yet?

The big difference between this and a sale is that there is an end date.  There are actually two - at 50 and 99 years.  However, a lot will happen before we get to those dates.  In the early years, investment decisions for the lessee will be clear - they have the reins for 50 years, so it is worth spending the money to upgrade the asset knowing they will get the full benefit.  However, at around the 30 or 35 year mark, they will start to examine their expenditure a bit more closely.  Parts of the electricity distribution network, say, are run down and need replacement.  The new items have an economic life of, say, 30 years, but the company only has 15 years left to run on its lease.  Is it financially prudent to spend the money?

To try and secure their investment, they will start to play hard-ball with the government of the day.  "It's just not worth our while," they will say, "to spend the money unless we have the assurance that we will get the return, so unless you extend the lease we're sorry, but we can't upgrade the infrastructure."  They will have the government over a barrel - their lease will have been prepared by the finest corporate lawyers and the government will have no grounds to end it until the 50 years are up, at which point the electricity system will be so run down that voters will be ripping politicians' heads off in frustration.  Leases will be extended well before it reaches that point.

So, it looks like a sale, it walks like a sale, it talks like a sale....  Dressing it up as a lease is pure PR.  The government is proposing to sell assets.  If you support asset sales, go ahead and vote for them.  If not, don't be fooled by the BS about leases.

Here's the thing about selling assets to reduce debt.  The government has a balance sheet (of which a summary appears in the Strongest Choice strategy) which lists its assets and liabilities.  State assets currently total a bit over $300b, with about $40b in financial assets and about $260b in land and other fixed assets.  Against this are set about $130b of liabilities, the largest item being $85b in debt, and the other big item being over $30b in superannuation and other accrued employee entitlements.  This means the State Government's net asset position - its net worth - is just under $180b.

Now if you sell some of the assets to pay debts, the net worth will stay about the same.  The fixed assets will be reduced, and the financial liabilities will be reduced by the same amount (or less if, as the government is proposing, some of the proceeds are passed back to citizens in various vote-buying exercises).  The overall position will not change, our assets will just be rearranged - more cash (or at least less cash liabilities), less fixed infrastructure.

This is where the problem with asset sales as a budget solution comes in.  Government assets are not simply inert things which sit on the books and can be sold to realise cash.  They are items that are used to provide services - electricity, water supply, transport, etc.  These can be provided in two ways - on an economic basis (the users pay a market price and the asset makes money) or on a subsidised basis (the government uses the asset to provide a free or subsidised service - for instance a hospital or school).  If the asset earns money, this money will now be paid to its private buyer not to the government, so while the budget will get an immediate boost through the one-off sale it will take a hit in each of the subsequent 99 years because the revenue will now be going elsewhere.  If the asset sold is the site of a subsidised service the government will now have to pay the private owner/lessee of this asset for the service, so expenditure will go up.

The LNP government says it wants to sell assets to "repair" the budget. Asset sales don't work like that.  If you sell assets, you structure into future budgets either reduced revenue or increased expenditure.  You put off the evil day when you have to either cut services or raise taxes, but that day will come as sure as the seasons turn.  It's not a strong choice, its a wimpish one.  But I doubt the current LNP politicians care.  By the time we all realise this, they will be long gone.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

King Alfred and the Cakes

One of my childhood treasures is a pair of books by C Walter Hodges: The Namesake and The Marsh King.  First published in the mid-1960s, these are what would today be called "Young Adult" novels which I read for the first time in late primary or early high school.  They tell the story of Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex (south England) from 871 to 899 CE, and his conflict with the invading Vikings.

I loved these books and read them over and over again, especially The Namesake, narrated by an engaging character of Hodges' invention, a one-legged boy also called Alfred who is part of the king's household.  They deal with the period from just before Alfred's accession to the throne in 871 to the conclusion of his second campaign against the Vikings led by Guthrum in 878.  I'm sure Hodges would have been pleased with the impression they made on me - to this day my ears prick up whenever I hear Alfred mentioned.

I recently decided to approach the subject for the first time in a more adult way, and bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources.  This volume brings together translations of all the material relating to Alfred that originates in his own time.  It includes the Life written by Asser, a Welsh monk who was enticed to Wessex as part of Alfred's project to improve the educational standard of this clergy and nobles, as well as excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, some fragments of correspondence, prefaces to some books Alfred translated from Latin to Old English, and Alfred's will.  It also includes a lengthy introduction and notes which provide a scholarly account of Alfred's reign.

I had a kind of vague thought that by reading Asser's Life I would be able to sort out fact from fiction in Hodges' treatment.  Of course life is never that simple.  Asser was a member of the King's household and so was hardly likely to present an unbiased account, especially given he was writing during Alfred's lifetime.  The editors suggest he probably wrote for a Welsh audience, during the negotiation of a treaty between Alfred and some of the Welsh kings in which they acknowledged his overlordship in return for military aid.

Hence we should see the Life as a piece of royal propaganda, showing the king in a favourable light to help secure the deal.  Alfred is presented as a brave and resourceful general, a pious and humble ruler and a man of great wisdom and learning.  In other words just the sort of person you would be happy to acknowledge as an overlord.  The account seems unfinished, petering out in the mid-880s.  Although Asser lived for more than a decade after Alfred's death he obviously didn't value the task highly enough to bother completing it.

The low point of Alfred's reign came in early 878.  The Danes, led by Guthrum, launched a surprise attack on Alfred at Chippenham, a royal estate in the north of his kingdom.  Most of those with him were killed.  He was forced to flee for his life and take refuge with a small group of followers in the Somerset Marshes while the Danes overran his kingdom.  From there he gathered his forces and planned a counter-attack, which he launched successfully in May 878.  He regained control and forced the Danish leaders to accept Christian baptism before expelling them from his domains.  This much, at least, seems to be history.  Beyond that it gets a little murky.

One of the most famous stories about Alfred dates from this period.  While he was fleeing the Danes, the story goes, he was forced to take refuge in the home of a poor swineherd.  There he was asked to keep watch over the cakes being baked by the woman of the house.  His attention wandered and they caught fire, drawing a sharp scolding from his hostess to the effect that he could not be bothered tending them but would have been happy to eat them.  The story illustrates both the depths of Alfred's trouble and, more importantly, his humility in being prepared to accept such a sharp rebuke from a commoner.

This story is so engaging and human it would be nice to think it was true.  However, it doesn't come up in any of the earliest sources, which simply record Alfred's flight and Somerset stronghold.  It appears for the first time in a life of St Neot, a saint Alfred apparently venerated, which dates from around a century later.  It is repeated thereafter in various forms in other sources, multiplying as the years passed and gaining enough currency to be included in 19th and 20th century school history books and other such dubious sources of information.

Although the story is almost certainly legendary, it is quite consistent with the picture Asser paints of Alfred - a pious, humble, approachable man, someone who didn't stand on his dignity and had the common touch.  Hence while the story itself may not be strictly true, it illustrates something that may well be true, the character of the monarch and his attitude to those around him.  I say "may well be" because the source of the original description is a piece of royal propaganda, so it is just as valid to interpret the story as an illustration of how good propaganda works.

Then there is a third way it can be read.  It is possible that we should understand this as an illustration of how kings should behave.  Whether Alfred was really as humble and pious as Asser makes out, whether he really was the kind of king who would take a scolding from  swineherd's wife, is beside the point.  A king should be humble enough to accept rebuke when he has done wrong, wherever that rebuke comes from.  Perhaps when the English have revered Alfred down the years this is the message they have been giving to his numerous successors.

True or not, this story is too good for a novelist to pass up.  Nonetheless, the sparseness of its original telling will not do - the story requires context, a place in the overall narrative arc.  Neither Asser nor the later sources are much help.   What is Mr Hodges to do?

Of course as a novelist he is free to make things up.  However, as a historical novelist he has to be very careful what he makes up.  It has to at least be plausible within the context of the time and place, and of what is known of the main characters.  It's interesting to observe how Hodges handles this problem when he tells the story in The Marsh King.

The first thing he creates is a nephew for Alfred. It is a matter of historical fact that Alfred was the youngest of four brothers.  No-one expected him to be king at all, never mind by the age of 21, but his brothers fell one by one to battle or misfortune and there he was.  It is also a matter of historical fact that his eldest brother Aethelbalt scandalised his realm by marrying his father's young widow, a marriage considered incestuous even though she was not his mother.  There is no record of any offspring that I can find  but in Hodges' telling there is a son, Edmund, abandoned by his mother and brought up by loyal retainers on his father's English estate, of which he eventually becomes master.

Once we accept Edmund's existence what comes next is equally plausible but also not strictly historical.  Alfred is invited to attend young Edmund's wedding and, despite the misgivings of his lords, agrees to attend, wanting to show kindness to his nephew.  However, Edmund and his ambitious foster-father have tipped off the Danes to his impending presence.  Guthrum's men stage an ambush, intending to kill Alfred and invade his kingdom while it is leaderless.  Guthrum promises in return to install Edmund as king, a title to which he has some small claim.

Once again this is plausible in the context of the times.  The Danes had already installed an Anglo-Saxon puppet ruler in the kingdom of Mercia, just to the north of Wessex.  Although there is no evidence they planned to do the same in Wessex, it is not out of the question, and in any case Hodges doesn't over-play his hand - Edmund is never crowned.

Other parts of the story show the same blend of fact and fiction, or at least of known and unknown. Alongside a disaffected nephew to explain the ambush, he supplies an exchange of kindnesses to explain his escape.  While on the estate Alfred befriends the young daughter of the house, and she warns him of the ambush in the nick of time and helps him to escape through a hole in the fence.  Pure children's literary fancy, but good fun and once again rooted in Asser's description of Alfred's character.

Another detail shows how Hodges subtly modifies his sources to build a story.  According to Asser, Alfred suffered a chronic illness which left him in more or less constant pain.  He doesn't provide enough information for any attempt at diagnosis, so Hodges feels free to modify it slightly for his own purposes, from a constant source of pain to an intermittent illness.  Hodges' Alfred can be healthy for weeks and even months, and then be afflicted with weakness and fever which disables him for a few days before he returns to full strength.

This provides him with a plot device that he exploits to the full.  Alfred is struck down with his illness as he flees with young Hildis and one of his bodyguard.  King and child are forced to take refuge with the swineherd (remaining anonymous for fear of further betrayal) while the bodyguard struggles on through the snow to find help.  They stay there for a few days while Alfred recovers and his followers find the way back to him - long enough for him to burn a batch of cakes and be scolded for his negligence.  Alfred's thankyou gift of several bags of flour and a dozen perfectly cooked cakes is a nice addition, wholly of Hodges' own invention.

In purely factual terms none of this is historical at all - it is a modern fiction built around the bones of an ancient one.  Yet it presents a picture which is in some respects strikingly historical.  Asser, who tells us none of these things, tells us that Alfred was humble, gentle and approachable and had a sharp sense of humour.  Hodges doesn't tell us these things in so many words, but in this story Alfred shows kindness to his nephew even though his advisors urge him not to, almost dies for it but is saved as a sort of reward for another act of simple kindness towards a young girl.  He burns the cakes and takes his scolding in good spirit, before responding later with an act of self-deprecating humour.

Asser's portrait is, as I said, a piece of royal propaganda, aimed at convincing the Welsh that an alliance with Alfred would be to their advantage.  Hodges, of course, was far removed from the realpolitik of the 9th century and uses the story to illustrate his own concerns.  The Danes (who in keeping with Asser and the spirit of the time he designates as 'the heathen') attempt to conquer and rule through betrayal, brutality and venality.  Alfred (the Christian king), on the other hand, rules with kindness, justice and mercy, keeping promises despite the risks involved and forgoing revenge even if it seems to others the wiser course.  It seems at times that Alfred will be defeated, but in the end he wins and saves his kingdom, in no small part because his own kindness is repaid at the crucial moment.

Was Alfred really such a paragon of virtue?  It seems unlikely.  The further we get from him in time, the more his legend grows.  For those of his day and the years that followed. Asser's boosting aside, he was simply seen as one of a line of competent, successful Anglo-Saxon kings.  It was only later, when the Normans had taken over the realm from his descendants, that he acquired the tag of "the Great".

Yet this myth has its own purpose.  It provides a model of leadership with reflects how we would all like to be led.  For Hodges, who lived through both world wars, the Saxon-Danish conflict no doubt reminded him of more recent events.  Perhaps Guthrum, with his brutality, his cunning schemes and his huge imperial ambitions, represented Hitler and Alfred represented Churchill, a man who for all his faults was both a lover of learning and a thoroughgoing democrat.  And if Guthrum is a much nicer version of Hitler then Alfred is certainly a cleansed and exalted analogue of Churchill, an ideal model of which all rulers will ultimately fall short but from which, if we are lucky, some may still derive inspiration.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Death: Collective Illusions, Cultural Death

One of the things I touched on briefly in previous posts is the collective impact of our illusion of immortality.  Individually we know we will die but we push that idea away and act as if we will live for ever.  This leads us to value the wrong things - to put possessions before people, to waste time on trivialities, to put off until tomorrow what we should be doing today.  At its extremes this illusion can lead us to abuse and exploit others in the belief that our power over them will go on forever.

This same process also works for us as a community.  We see our current culture or "way of life" as something immutable and eternal which needs to be protected and preserved at all costs.  This illusion, and the actions that flow from it, have some very serious consequences for our society and the way we act in the wider world.

We can see this in the way our community responds to three controversial questions facing our country at the moment - our response to the perceived threat of terrorism, the question of asylum seekers, and the response to climate change.  Let me explain.

One of the big justifications being given for us getting involved in the latest Iraqi troubles, and for tougher security laws at home, is that the Islamists are out to destroy our way of life.  This way of life must be protected at all costs, even if this means sending war-planes overseas at huge expense and risk, and giving unprecedented powers to security agencies at home.

Australia has a long history of fearing outsiders.  For much of our history, this has focused on people from China and South-East Asia.  We feared that as a small Anglo-Saxon society in a region of populous Asian nations we were in danger of being overrun.  Our response to this perceived problem was to foster immigration from European countries, especially from the United Kingdom, while restricting it from Asia - what is colloquially referred to as the "White Australia policy".  While we moved to a more inclusive immigration policy in the 1970s, the fear remains.  As recently as the late 1990s Pauline Hanson built a political career on the fear of Asian immigration.

This fear still hasn't gone away, but since the World Trade Centre bombing in 2001 its focus has shifted to people from Islamic backgrounds and particularly those from the Middle East.  We fear that Islamic immigrants are a kind of Trojan horse, planting themselves quietly in our midst and waiting for the opportunity to subvert our culture and impose Sharia Law on us all.  Hence the presence of a small group of disaffected young people in our midst takes on a significance massively out of proportion to the actual objective threat.  The fact that we feel threatened by women in niqabs or burkas is a dead giveaway - how many violent crimes have been committed by women wearing these garments?

We are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to defend ourselves from this threat.  In order to prevent the "uncontrolled" arrival of people we feel threatened by, we are currently detaining over 6,000 people in immigration detention including about 900 children, many of whom are detained indefinitely in extremely harsh conditions.  We have just handed unprecedented powers of surveillance and detention to ASIO and the AFP.  And we are sending fighter planes off to Iraq to assist in the war against IS and its allies.  It seems to me that we are acting like gods, disposing of people as we see fit and imagining that the world will eventually bend to our iron will.

Now don't get me wrong, I actually quite like our way of life.  However, I think in our flurry to protect it at all costs we miss some very important things.

The first is that not everyone sees our way of life as we do.  Why do we have "home grown terrorists", as the government likes to call them?  Because there are young people growing up in our midst who feel excluded from, and vilified by, our culture.  Elsewhere I have written about how one of the most prominent, Mohammed Baryalei, grew up in Australia but never felt at home here despite his often desperate efforts to fit in.  It was Islam, not our way of life, which saved him from suicide.

These young men, and the many like them (Islamic or not) who turn to other alternatives when our society lets them down, are a test for us, a reminder that our culture is not yet all we would like it to be.  We should already know this as Christians.  We are citizens of another kingdom, and much as we love our culture we know that it is temporary and that there is something better coming which will sweep it away.  Jesus' kingdom is one which breaks down walls instead of building them up, which puts a high priority on welcoming the outcast and directs its critique against the powerful.

The other thing we fail to notice is that our culture is changing all the time.  While we have been focused on Islam, the Asians we have forgotten to fear have been moving to Australia in increasing numbers.  We are so used to their presence now we hardly notice it.  Just the other day I realised that the "happy prosperous family" images that scroll across my bank's website include a Chinese family.  We have, in fact, learned that the only really scary thing about Chinese and South-East Asian people is their capacity for hard work.  They have quietly become an accepted, productive part of our community, contributing to our developing culture and embedding themselves seamlessly among us.  Nothing bad has come of it so far, and I'm thinking it probably won't.

Climate change is a slightly different matter.  What is at stake here is our material culture, the ways we produce things, the way we get around, the way we design our cities, the structure of our industry and our economy.  Much of this is founded on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, the use of which powered the Industrial Revolution and helped create and enrich Australia.

Responding to climate change means changing this.  It means shifting from an economy based on fossil fuels, especially coal (of which we are the world's largest source) to renewables.  It means ditching our cars in favour of human-powered or renewably powered modes of transport.  It means shifting from big centralised power generation systems to networked distribution with large numbers of localised sources using sun, wind, thermal and wave power.  It means not flying half way across the country or the world at the drop of a hat.


These changes are difficult and costly.  We would like to think that we don't have to face them, that one day we will wake up and discover the whole thing was a bad dream (or a mistake of some crazed bunch of scientists) and that things can go an as normal.  We act as if that was the case.  We work hard to sustain our illusion that our economy will continue as it always has.

In the process we forget two things.  The first thing is that it always hasn't.  Out automobile culture only took off after the second world war.  I can remember a time when air travel was a luxury - my English grandparents only visited Australia once in my childhood because they simply could not afford the plane fare.  Our whole industrial system of production only dates back less than two centuries.  There were thousands of generations who did not live like we do.

The second is that if we open our eyes just ever so slightly we will see that it can't possibly go on as it is forever.  Our economic and industrial structures are not, and cannot possibly be, eternal.  Even in the unlikely event that the scientists turn out to be wrong and climate change is a false alarm, the supply of fossil fuels is strictly limited.  If global warming doesn't bring it to an end, peak oil will.  We don't have the option of not changing, but if we open our eyes and accept the mortality of aspects of our way of life, we have the option of preventing the change from being catastrophic.

Things are changing all around us, and not always in ways that we would like.  Many things that we are used to a take fro granted are coming to an end as we speak.  Richard Leakey talks about the "sixth extinction", the rapid elimination of species and lifeforms that is going on as a direct result of our industrial civilisation and the huge toll it takes on the natural environment.  Bruce Cockburn captures the tragedy of this so beautifully.



There's a knot in my gut as I gaze out today
On the planes of the city all polychrome grey
When the skin is peeled of it what is there to say?
The beautiful creatures are going away

Like a dam on a river my conscience is pressed
By the weight of hard feelings piled up in my breast
The callous and vicious things humans display
The beautiful creatures are going away

Why? Why?

From the stones of the fortress to the shapes in the air
To the ache in the spirit we label despair
We create what destroys, bind ourselves to betray
The beautiful creatures are going away

Then of course there is this.  A big part of the reason we persist in this illusion of immortality is that it seems to us that the alternative is despair.  What we fear most of all is our own annihilation.  David Crosby and Graham Nash capture it so well in their song To the Last Whale.  The song imagines the world's last whale stranded and dying as a result of our overhunting (an eventuality we have fortunately managed to avert so far).


However their final verse captures the problem neatly in a few words.

Maybe we'll go, maybe we'll disappear
It's not that we don't know, it's just that we don't wanna care...

The possibility of our own ending is too terrible to contemplate.  It literally paralyses us with fear.  So we close our eyes and pretend it's not so.  We pretend to be gods, but really we are just frightened children.

Jesus faced the same problem.  The people of first century Palestine faced the very real prospect of the annihilation of their culture and their way of life - indeed it happened within decades of Jesus' own crucifixion.  After his protest in the temple John quotes him as saying "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  His hearers' response in incredulous: "This temple has been under construction for 46 years..." they say.  Even Jesus' own disciples marvel at its grandeur and solidity.  Yet Jesus warns them, "Not one stone will be left upon another".

He faced clearly the imminent destruction of their religion and way of life, and offered them something better.  The Samaritan woman who he asked for water asked him which was right, to worship on Mt Gerazim as the Samaritans did, or in Jerusalem as the Jews did.  Jesus responded, "The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth...."

All these things, he's saying - the temple, the mountain shrine, all the customs and practices that go with them - are temporary, powerful and eternal though they may seem.  When their time is up they will be destroyed, and this destruction can indeed be catastrophic as it was for both Jews and Samaritans in the war of 66-70 CE.  Yet we can rely on the fact that the Father is permanent, and when he takes away one thing he will replace it with another, different but better.  The temple had become a den of thieves.  The mountain had become a place to worship a god they hardly knew.  All this needed to be renewed.  Now worshipers must learn once again to worship in a new way, in spirit and in truth.

"So if anyone is in Christ," says Paul in 2 Corinthians 5, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

Monday, 29 September 2014

How I Nearly Became an Extremist

I had an epiphany the other day.  I was watching ABC's 7.30 report on Mohammed Ali Baryalei, the Afghani-Australian man who is reputed to be the most senior Australian member of Islamic State.  I had a profound moment of identification.

Baryalei is a man with a colourful history.  He arrived in Australia in the early 1980s as an infant after his family fled Afghanistan, and grew up in Sydney in the home of his violent father.  The trauma of his personal abuse was exacerbated by the World Trade Centre bombing (he would have been about 20 at the time) which made him feel like an outsider in Australia, and his young adulthood included bouts of depression, periodic drug abuse and possibly petty crime.  On the brink of suicide, he turned back to Islam and within a short time became a fervent preacher, evangelising young men on the streets of Sydney.


The 7.30 story included some Youtube footage (which has been cut from the on-line version) of Baryalei talking with a shy, nervous young man about this young man's conversion to Islam.  As I looked at the young man, the thought popped into my head: "That could have been me!"

I had a much happier childhood than Baryalei.  My parents came to Australia from England when I was six, and I grew up in a peaceful, happy family.  I did well at school, went on to university and launched quickly into a professional career.

Nevertheless like most young men, in my teens and early 20s I was struggling to work out my place in the world, and in the universe.  I could see the world wasn't as it should be, and that I wasn't either.  I was searching for something better.  Despite my education, I lacked both the maturity and the intelligence to grasp the complexity of what I was seeing.  I wanted a simple, pre-packaged answer that would fix it.

I turned to Christianity while I was still at high school.  My early experiences were in mainstream churches, firstly in one of Brisbane's premier evangelical Anglican churches, and later in the Uniting Church.  However, although I was solidly middle class myself I felt a little out of place in these churches because my budding career as a social worker was confronting me with aspects of social dysfunction and human misery which my peers at church were not encountering.  I felt confused and disoriented.  I flirted with various things, including declaring myself an anarchist (despite not having a very clear idea what that was) and hanging for a short time on the fringes of Brisbane's rag-tag bunch of International Socialists.

Then at 21, after I finished university, I moved to the regional Queensland town of Maryborough and joined an Open Brethren congregation.  Now don't get me wrong - the Brethren are not extremists.  Although they are a little bit on the fringes of the Christian church, they are essentially orthodox, mostly differing from other fundamentalist Protestant churches on matters of ecclesiology and perhaps a bit more interest in questions of prophecy.  My local church's leadership were kind, peace-loving, conservative men committed to their faith.

However, there are a couple of aspects of the Brethren that make them more open to extreme views than other churches.  They are perhaps the most unstructured of all the mainstream churches, a network of independent congregations bound together by some very loose cooperative arrangements and a set of collective norms.  Unlike other congregational denominations like the Baptists and the Churches of Christ, they have no system for training or accrediting clergy and they have a strong anti-clerical ethos which can easily slide into anti-intellectualism.  This means it can be easy for extreme views to find space within the Brethren, and there are often extremists of various sorts floating around the edges of these churches.

Maryborough was a place that suffered badly from the economic restructuring of the 1980s.  At its economic peak it was the location of Walkers Engineering, a large engineering and ship-building business which employed over a thousand people, plus a number of sawmills, a large sugar mill and a range of associated service providers.  However, by the time I got there a lot of this was gone.  The shipyard was closed altogether and the rest of the engineering works was limping along on the back of government train-building contracts, employing less than 200 people.  A number of the sawmills had closed.  The sugar mill had automated much of its production and downsized its workforce, which was seasonal in any case.  The make it worse the global sugar price had fallen through the floor and the surrounding cane farmers were struggling to pay the bills.

Unemployment was extremely high, particularly among labourers and tradies.  Young men who had taken up apprenticeships at Walkers confident of a job for life found themselves laid off once they had finished their training, with few prospects elsewhere in the town and a specific set of skills which were hard to transfer.  The town had a thriving drug scene and a lot of young people with time on their hands, feeling alienated from and abandoned by their wider society.

Quite a group of these young people were drawn to the Brethren, whose full time worker was a skilled evangelist with a huge amount of compassion and a gift for explaining the Gospel in clear terms that anyone could understand.  Under his influence they gave up drugs, studied the King James Bible with great excitement despite its impenetrable English, attended prayer groups and bible studies and formed a tight-knit little religious community.  This activity was supported by the congregation but often took place on its fringes, in people's homes or on informally organised weekend camping trips.

This was the group I joined when I moved to Maryborough.  I visited other churches, but I was attracted by the lively enthusiasm and questing spirit and the strong sense of community, the way they supported one another and the fact that they were different to me and to the people I had grown up with and in whose company I was dissatisfied.  It was a very good time in my life and I still have friends from there.

The worm in the apple here was that on the fringes of this group was a strong strain of extreme right-wing politics.  I'm not sure now exactly where it came from, and it wasn't part of the "official" teaching of the church.  My first encounter with it, as for many, was through the tracts of American cartoonist Jack Chick.  Chick describes himself as an evangelist and many of his cartoons are proclamations of the gospel according to the most conservative of fundamentalists.  However, he also does a virulent line in hate literature and far-right conspiracy-mongering.  He was (presumably still is) a promoter of the idea that various secret social forces - the Freemasons, the finance industry (controlled by Jewish interests), the communists and their fellow-travellers, the United Nations - were plotting to establish a single world government which would enslave us all, as predicted in the Book of Revelation.

If you wanted to know more than you could find out from his simple cartoons, there were various books in circulation that expounded the idea more fully.  There was Gary Allen and Larry Abraham's None Dare Call It Conspiracy which purported to reveal the secret machinations of these various forces in recent history.  There was Australian revivalist preacher Don Stanton's Mystery 666 which related this version of current events to the story in the Book of Revelation about the coming of the Beast, which he interpreted as this same world government which would usher in the Great Tribulation.  And of course there was Hal Lindsay's monumental best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth.  

There was also an Australian called Peter Sawyer who had his fifteen minutes of fame about that time.  Sawyer was a former clerk in the Department of Social Security in Western Australia.  While on the job he systematically defrauded the Department of a substantial sum of money by claiming payments under false names, then publicly returned the money, claiming he had done it to demonstrate how open the system was to fraud.  Not surprisingly he was sacked, but a magistrate refused to convict him of fraud on the basis that he was conducting a political crusade and had no intention of actually stealing the money.

Sawyer wrote a book about his experiences and briefly became a tabloid media darling and went on a national speaking tour.  He also started editing a magazine called Inside News.  This magazine was a vehicle for all sorts of right wing stuff including conspiracy theories about what was going on at Pine Gap, covert government surveillance of citizens and his own take on the World Government.  A number of church members went to hear him speak, including one of the senior church leaders, and came back mightily impressed.

Personally, despite it appealing to my anti-government stance and general distrust of authority, I didn't end up buying it.  My education came to my aid and I was able to see through the rather transparent flaws in the conspiratorial theories and the crude stereotypes of Chick's comics.  The all-encompassing circularity of the conspiracy theorists fell apart at the slightest poke.

So I emerged intact.  So did all of my friends, as far as I know.  Some of them became missionaries of various sorts, at home and abroad, others continued to live normal lives at home.  None of those I'm still in touch with became right wing political activists - they are all living peaceful lives as ordinary citizens, just like me.  They may not have had university educations, (although some got them later) but they weren't stupid.

Of course there are differences.  For one thing, our 1980s extremists preached fear and even hate, but did not advocate violence.  If they had a political program at all it was to frighten their followers into the arms of the political right.  The main beneficiaries were populists like Joh Bjelke-Petersen and later Pauline Hanson.  Dangerous in many ways, but not literally deadly.

Yet there were also a lot of similarities with what we hear of the recruitment of our young Islamic extremists.  Structurally, Islam has many similarities to the Brethren - although more clericalised, local Islamic congregations have a high level of independence, established and governed by local leaders.  Like our little church group, they often have groups of people loosely attached to them, coming to Friday prayers but running their own show off-site and on the streets.  Like our little group, which included street evangelism in its range of activities, Street Dawah aims to give new life and purpose to lost souls, just like Baryalei himself turned to Islam as a way out of addiction and depression.

Such groups, with uneducated new believers searching for answers, are prime targets for strong voices advocating radical solutions that have an air of certainty.  It could be armed rebellion dressed up in Islamic clothes, or right wing extremism dressed up in Christian clothes  The nature of the solutions proposed in both cases is transparently foolish, but they have an air of certainty and a promise of radical change which can be superficially appealing.

You might respond that none of us became terrorists, or even hard-line right-wingers, but this is not that different either.  How many of the young people touched by Street Dawah around the country have joined IS or other Islamist groups?  The government's statements are vague on the subject but somewhere around 50 or 60 people have headed overseas to fight, and the total number of supporters in Australia is not much more than that.  Most of them are young - Baryalei himself is one of the oldest at 33, most of the others named are in their teens or early 20s.  With a supportive community and access to good teaching, most will grow up and move on.  The tragedy, and the one really important difference, is that the advocacy of violence within this movement means that some will never get that opportunity.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, Jesus says we should love our neighbour as ourselves, and that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  I want to make the point than when we see the faces of these young men and women on our TV screens, we should resist the temptation to think of them as "other".  They are not that different from you and me.  They have the same needs, the same vulnerabilities, the same drives and motivations.  Our first reaction on seeing the tragedy of their lives could appropriately be, "there but for the grace of God go I".

The second is that their existence presents a challenge to us.  We have young people in our midst looking for meaning, purpose and acceptance.  They are alienated from mainstream society, struggling to find a place for themselves and often drifting into mental illness and addiction. Should our first response be to criminalise them, to subject them to surveillance, questioning, and summary detention?  Or should we be making room for them in our midst, finding ways to help them find work, kick their addictions, put their lives on track?  Should we be trying to force them to change, or listening respectfully to their critique of our society?  Although they will be naive, idealistic and often just plain wrong, it is also possible they may have something to teach us.  We need to heed Jesus' lesson on driving out demons and find a way to fill the vacancy we create by driving out IS, otherwise we might just be creating space for an even worse devil.

I could have been a right-wing extremist.  Alternatively, if I had stayed in Brisbane and immersed myself a little more deeply in International Socialism, I could have become a left-wing extremist.  As it turned out I became neither.  I'm still uneasy about our society and still looking for a place in it.  I have become a lot more uneasy in the last year or two as our planet and country seem to lurch back to the right.  Yet I am also a lot more wary of easy answers, of programs or theories which attempt to explain everything.  I understand that the world is a lot more complex than that and have learned to live with it.

My prayer for our current young would-be extremists, and those in their orbit, is that they may live to do the same, and that as they do we will support them and help them to grow up.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Death: Where is your Sting?

So, I've written about my own experience of death, about the Genesis account of death's origin, and about the processes of denial, anger and bargaining that we use to try and deal with our mortality.  How do we get to the point of acceptance, and learn to live with the inevitability of our own death?

Of course I'm not going to give you "the answer", and I don't want to try and convince you that I have this one under control.  I'm just as prone to the illusion of immortality as anyone, more than many.  I know I'm going to die but most of the time I live as though I'm not.

However, I think the Bible has two answers for us.  The first is the answer I quoted in the last post, from the book of Ecclesiastes.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

I think part of the reason we often find Ecclesiastes so dark and wonder why it's even in the Bible is that we are still working hard to maintain our illusion of immortality.  Yet Solomon has gone past this, and is fully aware of his.  It drives him to despair, and he wonders: what is the point of it all?  Why do I bother with all this learning, all this hard work, all these wise choices, when one day soon it will all go up in smoke?

This problem doesn't cease to trouble Solomon throughout his book - he keeps returning to it, which is both honest and kind of comforting.  If anyone tells you they don't fear death, my hunch would be that they are deceiving themselves.  Solomon is honest and aware enough to admit that his answer is difficult to live by.

His answer is simply this - that we should humbly accept our lot, as a gift from God.  This is the opposite of the pretensions of Adam and Eve, who swallow the serpent's line that they can become gods themselves.  It is almost the undoing of the original sin, an acceptance that we are limited and mortal and that everything we have and are comes from God.  It is a deliberate act of submission, a willingness to live under his rule.

This is not the answer we have come to expect as Christians.  We have come to expect that we will be comforted with the promise of eternal life.  I will get to that in a moment, but I've stressed Solomon's answer for two reasons.  The first is that it is much harder for us to hear.  We desperately want to keep our god-illusion alive.  The second is that it is essential if we are to properly understand the New Testament's message.  It is too easy for us to just use eternal life as another way of bargaining with God or denying our mortality.

Death is a teacher which reminds us of our place in the universe.  Although this is  painful lesson, and one we have to relearn many times over, it is important that we learn it for many different reasons, not least of which is that we have to stop playing God with our planet and one another, and start to live out the call of Christ to lay down our lives for one another.

Once we have understood this answer we can move on to the second, and more expected, which comes from 1 Corinthians 15.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
      ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
      ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
              Where, O death, is your sting?’

Paul doesn't promise us that our life will go on forever.  Nor does he talk of an immortal soul, or of our loved ones looking down on us from heaven.  Death is not an illusion.  It is very real.  Those who die (and we have no special reason for thinking this will not be us) go into the ground and remain there.  We can't use our Christian hope to try and avoid this.

What Paul is saying is that this is not the full story.  Death itself is one of those temporary things, just like our lives.  Death is not an eternal reality.  Jesus' resurrection is the foretaste, the assurance that there is something beyond death.

The details of this "something" are not entirely clear - he is telling us a mystery.  He can only describe it through metaphor and analogy.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15 he responds to the question, "with what kind of body do they come?" with a series of images.  The comparison between our form now and our resurrected form is like the difference between a seed and the plant it becomes, or like the difference between the bodies of humans and animals and the bodies of the sun, moon and stars. He says that our weakness, perishability and dishonour will be replaced bu imperishability, honour and power.   Instead of being made out of dust, we will be made out of the substance of heaven.

We don't know what all this means.  We can't picture it or describe it in any more precise terms than this.  All we know is that God has something better in store, and he will bring it about in his good time.  This is the hope with which the New Testament writers want to replace our illusion of immortality and our despair at death.  The Christian assurance is not that death is illusory, but that it precedes something much better than this life.  We will not go on for ever as we are, we will be transformed into something better.  This life of tears and suffering will give way to a life of joy.  As John Donne puts it:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Or for a more contemporary slant, as I've been working on this post I have the voice of Nick Cave and various friends in my head, singing a song written by Bob Dylan and appropriately titled 'Death is Not the End'.  Enjoy, and live in hope!