Saturday, 20 August 2016

Olympic Ideals

I should say at the outset of this post that I really enjoy the Olympics.  The tension of the contest, the sense of history being made and celebrated, the personalities large and small.  I enjoy the grace and technical skill of the gymnasts, the sheer power of the throwers, the speed and endurance of the runners and swimmers, the idea that these young people have focused single-mindedly on becoming the best they can at some arcane discipline.

I enjoy the wins, of course, but what I enjoy most are those occasional moments of sporting ethics and friendship between athletes.  Like the Swiss pole vaulter helping the young Kiwi bronze medallist to clean up her face for the hundreds of photos that were about to be taken of her.


Or the two women, previously strangers, who fell in their 5,000m heat and then coaxed each other through the rest of the race to finish together.  Or the tradition among decathletes of sharing the victory lap with the whole field.  These are the moments that give me hope, where people reach out across languages, nations and cultures and express their common humanity.

High Ideals
The Olympic Charter contains some really lovely ideals.  For instance, the first two Fundamental Principles of Olympism are as follows.

Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

A little further on, the Mission of the International Olympic Committee includes, among other things, the following lofty goals.

to encourage and support the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport as well as education of youth through sport and to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned;

to cooperate with the competent public or private organisations and authorities in the endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace;

to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women;

to protect clean athletes and the integrity of sport, by leading the fight against doping, and by taking action against all forms of manipulation of competitions and related corruption;

to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes;

to promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host cities and host countries;

We all know that reality rarely matches our high ideals, and that there is not as much peace, love and fair play in the Olympics as we (or, if we take their official word for it, the IOC) would like.  Yet we want to believe that they are trying, that the ideals are still there alongside the failings.

So every four years we willingly suspend our disbelief and enter into the enjoyment of this world of peace, camaraderie and fair play.  We admire the athletes who win, those who do their best and those who play fair and form lifelong friendships.  Then after two weeks it's all over and we go back to our everyday joys and sorrows.

Sadly, this year it's been harder than usual to buy into the illusion.

Clean Athletes, Dirty Countries
For a start, the "protection of clean athletes" seems to have largely gone by the wayside, so much so that said (presumably) clean athletes have started taking the law into their own hands by calling out and shunning athletes who have previously been suspended for doping.  The IOC dithered right up until the eve of the event over what to do about Russia after the World Anti-Doping Authority exposed rampant corruption in the country's testing regime.  

Finally they flicked the matter to individual sports federations, with the result than outside of the track and field competition Russians have largely been allowed to compete.  They have duly won a swag of medals and been booed wherever they go, as have other convicted dopers like US sprinter Justin Gatlin and Chinese swimmer Sun Yang.  

The issue kind of takes the shine off those moments we all love.  Usain Bolt has confirmed his status as the greatest sprinter ever, but what if it all turns out to be a drug-assisted sham?  He assures us it isn't and we so want to believe him, but we've been let down before - Ben Jonson, Marion Jones, Gatlin, not to mention Lance Armstrong.  The state of doping control is so dubious that anything is possible.

Whatever happened to the "spirit of fair play", the "educational value of a good example", the "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles"?  Well, they fell at the hurdle of another broken ideal, to "oppose the political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes".  

Not so many years ago, the Olympics was restricted to amateur athletes.  The restriction was removed, not so much because of a principled decision, but because it became impossible to enforce.  In an age of mass media, athletes being paid to compete was the least of the IOC's worries.  Successful athletes could now be paid to promote anything from sportswear to fast food, and if these promotional duties left them with the time to train and compete full time, so much the better. The trouble is, such riches are only available to the winners.  There is a huge financial incentive to cheat.

More inexplicable, in a sense, is the propaganda value of Olympic success.  It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but governments of all flavours somehow seem to buy the notion that having winning athletes shows that you are a great country.  Hence they pour millions of dollars into coaching, training facilities, financial support of athletes and innovations in sports science.  Increasingly these dollars are linked to "outcomes" or "results" like winning a certain number of medals.  No-one wants to be the athlete who "lets their country down" so publicly after all the millions that have been spent on them, and no sporting official wants to be the subject of an intrusive review into why they failed to achieve their targets.

Of course "doping" and "performance enhancing drugs" are relative terms.  What else are elite athletes and their coaches and sports scientists paid to do, if not enhance performance?  "Doping" simply means using a substance that is on WADA's list of banned substances.  A substance that enhances performance but is not on the list is fine.  The list changes all the time.  Last year Meldonium was not on it, and lots of athletes used it.  This year it has been added and a number of people have been suspended for continuing to use it for a bit too long.

Of course all athletes use performance enhancing substances - energy drinks, protein supplements, stimulants, special diets designed for their particular training needs and so forth.  As the recent controversies in Aussie Rules and Rugby League show, athletes think nothing of taking a course of injections to improve their performance, and nor does WADA unless the injections contain something on their list.

All this performance enhancement is expensive.  It is no accident that the top of the medal tally is a list of the world's economic heavyweights - the USA, Great Britain, China, Germany, Russia, Japan.  The biggest performance enhancing substance is not a steroid or a stimulant, it is money.

In what way, you have to ask, is this fair competition?  What is its contribution to a "peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity"?  This seems to be just the opposite, a kind of bloodless proxy war between superpowers.  No wonder some (or all) of them cheat.  There is no such thing as cheating in war.  As nationalism hardens and fascist parties gain ground all around the world, it is hard to see this changing any time soon.

The Olympic Legacy
There have been two very bizarre police incidents in these Olympics.  In one, a group of US swimmers claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint at a petrol station.  Everyone believed them - after all, Rio has a huge crime problem.  Everyone but the police, who are habitually suspicious and investigate stuff before reaching conclusions.  Turns out the swimmers were lying.  They had actually trashed the service station toilet and then been asked to pay for the damage by armed security guards.  So, not so much victims of the notorious crime rate as contributors to it.

However, the gold medal for bizarre goes to the arrest of an elderly Irish official, dragged out of his hotel room by police and charged with selling tickets to the Olympics on the black market.  What's bizarre about this story is not the arrest, but the crime itself.  To whom was he selling these tickets?  Who would buy on the black market when you can simply turn up at the venue and pay at the gate?


Most of the events at these games have taken place in half-empty stadia.  Foreign tourists were frightened off by Zika virus and the crime rate.  Locals seem to have more pressing concerns, like what to eat and where to live, especially those displaced to make way for these empty facilities.  Brazil's government is in crisis and a substantial part of the population believes there were better ways to spend $8b in a country where millions of people are homeless and hungry.  Perhaps when the Olympics are over they will be able to sleep in the empty stadia.  After all, very few of the sports these facilities are designed for are of much interest to Brazilians.  Like Athens before it, the Olympic precinct is set to become a hugely expensive white elephant.  Indeed, in a sense it already is.

People Like Us
We like to think that in Australia we are more enlightened than this.  However, one of my great frustrations about the Olympics is the ease with which this festival of internationalism can be portrayed as being all about us.  Sure, we watch the big names and big events (Usain Bolt) but the nightly news, the daily round-ups, the news stories are all about how the Aussies did.  An Australian taking part in a race-off for ninth place will take precedence over a German throwing for gold.  How many of China's 22 gold medals (and counting) have we seen on our TV screens?  We interrupt something else to cross to the javelin and see the Australian thrower try to better her sixth place, then after she has thrown we cross back.  We announce the decathlon result by informing our viewers that the Australian came 14th to the American champion, but neglect to mention who placed 2-13.

Of course the Seven Network, like their commercial rivals before them, tell us that this is what their viewers want to see.  Maybe they are right, but why is this the case, and does it matter?  After all, it's only sport.

I would suggest that it's the case because Australians are progressively becoming more and more insular, more and more self-focused, and this matters a great deal.  Our right wing parties (and I include the Liberals here) have become successful by demonising the "other" - Aboriginal people, Muslims, asylum seekers, poor people - and proposing more and more draconian methods to "control" these "problems".

The issue is like the face of Janus, or Poor Edward with a devil twin on the back of his head.  Its kind, friendly face is the face of these smiling or tearful, almost exclusively Anglo, athletes in green and gold doing their stuff on the world stage.  Its ugly face is the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, the remote Aboriginal communities where life expectancy is twenty years shorter than mainstream Australia, the detention centres where young people are abused and their abusers protected, the bombs falling on civilians in Iraq and Syria.  All of these things are supported and enabled by our ability to look away, to focus only on people like ourselves.

This makes the Olympics a huge wasted opportunity.  There are 207 countries competing.  The athletes come in both genders, all sizes, all skin colours, a veritable Babel of languages, a wide variety of faiths and beliefs.  They come from poor families and rich, from villages and farms and big cities, from the tropics and the snow.  Each has their story to tell.  The Olympics could make such a contribution to global understanding, to the "service of humanity and the promotion of peace".


Yet we, and those who feed us information, choose to tune out of all that, to see it as simply a colourful backdrop before which people like us perform.  If only we could use it as an opportunity to learn that in reality they are all people like us.  Then the Olympic charter would start to mean something again.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Naive Charity

I was recently involved in a workshop where someone complained about the propensity for the wider public to support projects for homeless people that don't actually help.  The particular example she singled out was Street Swags, a charity founded in 2005 by young Brisbane woman Jean Madden.  Madden invented a weather-proof sleeping bag, and her charity raises funds to manufacture them and distribute them to rough sleepers free of charge so that they can sleep warm and dry in all weathers.


Among her many other awards, Madden was named Queensland's Young Australian of the Year in 2010.  In the past month or two she has been in the news for less pleasant reasons - sacked, sued and charged in the criminal courts with fraud for stealing money from the charity she founded.

This kind of scandal is certainly not the norm in the charitable world, but supporting charities like these is very popular.  The 2016 Young Australians of the Year are two Brisbane men by the name of Lucas Patchett and Nic Marchesi.  In 2014 they started a charity called Orange Sky Laundry, which operates a team of mobile vans that go to public places and wash homeless people's clothes for them.  They have since been feted across the country.


If you see a media story about homelessness, chances are it will feature some similar service - a food van, a bus that drives homeless people to appointments, a redesigned park bench that's easier to sleep on, and so forth.  It is a favourite stock news story - the generous ordinary man or woman who devotes his or her life to helping those less fortunate and receives in turn their eternal gratitude.

Because of my colleague's comment, I've been thinking a lot about these type of charities in the past few weeks.  Was she being unnecessarily harsh?  You might think so.  After all, here are some nice young people who are putting a lot of effort into doing good.  Why criticise?

The question is a fair one, but I think the critique stands up to scrutiny.  Madden, Patchett, Marchesi and others working on the same model are well intentioned but they are also naive.  They want to help homeless people, but in the end their interventions leave them exactly where they are.  At best, they are marginally better off for a short time.  At worst, the intervention unintentionally leaves them worse off than it found them.  For instance, bringing food vans into inner city parks, or distributing camping gear, can increase the visibility of homeless people, intensifying the safety fears of other users and amplifying voices calling for them to be "moved on".  Sometimes these hostile voices prevail, and moving on can make homeless people's lives a lot worse.  They would have been better off left alone.

I don't want to sound holier than thou about this.  In fact, in the past I've been involved in some counter-productive interventions myself.  None of us is perfect.  Still, the analysis I am presenting here is not just a matter of opinion, and it is not controversial among housing and homelessness professionals and researchers.

When I first started working in homelessness there was a prevailing view that some people were not "housing-ready".  To house such people was to set them up for failure.  Instead, we should focus on helping them to address the factors that led to their homelessness - their mental illness, drug addiction, or whatever - after which they could be successfully housed.

A growing body of evidence suggests that this is counterproductive.  Homelessness has such a huge impact on a person's mental and physical health that any efforts to help them with other issues will be swamped by the homelessness itself, and they will always remain ill, addicted and "unready".  All the best homelessness services now operate through a "housing first" approach - house people, then support them to remain in their housing and address the problems which may either have caused or resulted from their homelessness.

Of course this is not easy and some of these attempts will fail.  If we simply house people and don't support them with the right services they may indeed abandon or be evicted from their housing and end up back on the street.  But the chances that they will succeed are astronomically improved by being housed first, particularly if they are provided with good quality support at the same time.

So why are the young men from Orange Sky Laundry not helping people into housing, where they will have access to a laundry in which they can wash their own clothes?  Why do Madden's clients have to make do with a swag and not also get a bed to put it on or a roof over their head so they don't have to keep it under covers all night?  Why do we persist not only in allowing, but supporting and resourcing these acts of naive charity?  Why do their founders win awards while those who operate much more effective services are virtually invisible?

I think there are a few reasons.  The first is that many of these founders are, indeed, young and naive.  They simply don't have the hard-won knowledge of those who have been working for years in this field.  Yet this doesn't explain why they have successfully raised funds and won swags of awards, and why no-one had gently redirected their energy into something that will actually help.

I think this is explained in large part by the fact that their donors tend to be just as naive, and happy to remain so.  The best way to attract donors is to present a simple, compelling story about a person, and offer a simple (cost-effective) way to address it.  If you donate $80 you can provide a homeless person with a street swag.  The person your $80 helps will probably be a person like the scruffy, bearded middle aged gentleman in the photo - a full-blown homelessness stereotype.   If you are feeling particularly generous, a donation of $400 will swag up a whole family - presumably a family of five, although the family is not pictured.  You can donate to Orange Sky Laundry even more cheaply - a mere $6 will wash someone's clothes and you can cycle your cleanliness contributions up from there.  The man in their video tells you how much he loves the service, in case you weren't sure.

This kind of cheap and easy solution feeds our desire to believe that nothing is fundamentally wrong in our community.  If people are homeless, this is largely because they have chosen to be so.  Their situation is perhaps unfortunate, and we should extend them some kindness and tolerance, but ultimately there is not much that can be done, except to make their lives a little more comfortable.  It feeds our illusion of a stable and safe society in which people are happy in the places they now occupy, and all will be well if we just show a little more kindness.

This, however, is an illusion.  In 2010 I was involved in the first detailed health survey of Brisbane's rough sleeping population, using a variation on a US-developed set of simple health indicators.  Of approximately 200 people surveyed, over half were at a significant risk of dying in the following 12 months if their homelessness was not addressed.  Homelessness kills, clean clothes or not.

The good news is that this problem is far from insoluble, although the solution doesn't come cheap.  The cost of providing a high quality supported housing service for a high-need homeless person was estimated in a recent study at a bit under $6,500 per year and many of them will need ongoing support for more than a year - some for the rest of their lives.  These programs, unlike clothes washing and a chat, can't be delivered by volunteers - they require highly skilled, trained professionals.  There is no quick fix here, no cheap adrenaline rush of charity.  It is a hard, unromantic slog.

On the other hand, there are immense benefits.  The same study found that providing this housing and support reduced the person's demand on the health system alone by an average of  more than $13,000 per year in hospital admissions and visits to emergency departments, not to mention any other reduced costs, like policing, park maintenance and so forth.  But these are just dollars - what they represent is the fact that people who receive such support experience massive improvements in their health and quality of life.  These services quite literally save lives.

Yet there is no evidence of any knowledge of these facts on the Orange Sky Laundry or Street Swags websites.  If the young people who run these charities are aware of  them, they are keeping it to themselves.  If the charities themselves don't engage with these issues, what hope is there for their donors?

It has long been understood in the world of charitable fund-raising that what attracts funds is often very different from what solves the problem.  The classic example of this is the use of child sponsorship programs in overseas aid.  Donors respond very generously to requests for child sponsorship.  They may not sign up for a program or simply to support a set of organisational goals, and will easily drop the commitment the moment their income goes down.  However, the tug on the heartstrings of a cute, vulnerable child can be hard to resist, and once donors are signed up they tend to stay the course because they feel they have taken personal responsibility for a specific child's wellbeing.  Indeed, many donors feel a strong personal attachment to the child they sponsor, corresponding with them, sending them gifts and even visiting them.

The problem is that child sponsorship has been shown to be a very poor method of combating poverty in developing countries.  The reason is that children are not poor in isolation.  Poor children live in poor families who themselves live in poor communities.  If you only address the poverty of an individual child without addressing the structures of poverty in which they are embedded, you are likely to have limited success in the long term.  You can even make things worse for them because they can become objects of jealousy, hostility or exploitation by dint of being singled out and having extra resources directed their way.

This presents aid agencies with a dilemma, and they basically have three options.  The option taken by many agencies such as TEAR Australia, of which I have been a long term supporter, is to forgo child sponsorship and the income it brings and do good development even if this means less money.  A second option, followed with some success by World Vision, is a kind of uneasy compromise where you continue to use child sponsorship for marketing purposes with sponsors, but in fact direct the resources raised to projects which benefit the child's whole family and community.

However, there is also a third option - to ignore the evidence and continue as if it doesn't exist.  As in homelessness a disturbing number of charities continue to raise large sums of money for programs like child sponsorship which have been demonstrated not to actually work.  Furthermore, donors keep donating to them.

The opportunity costs of this shouldn't be under-estimated.  Orange Sky Laundry's 2014-15 financial report shows they had an income in that year of $265,000.  That doesn't make them a rich organisation, but it is enough money to provide good quality supported housing to 40 high need homeless people.  40 lives saved.  You can expect their income to increase in the next year or two thanks to the extra profile generated by the young founders' growing celebrity.  Street Swags, which has been going for 10 years now, had an income of over a million dollars in 2014-15.  Over 150 lives which could have been saved.  Instead, this money will go to things which at best make only a marginal difference to people's lives.  Donors will feel good, but they could be doing so much better.

So, if you are thinking of starting a charity, take responsibility.  Don't assume that because you are a clever young person or a successful business person you can work out what to do for yourself.  Chances are there are experts in whatever field you want to contribute to who have researched the issue thoroughly and have a solid, evidence based response that is crying out for resources.  Don't scorn such expertise, it is hard-won. If someone offers you a simple solution to a complex, entrenched problem it is almost certain to be wrong. Complex problems require sophisticated solutions which are time-consuming and costly.

If you are a donor, you also have a responsibility.  Don't just accept the superficial story.  Resist the stereotyped images presented to you by charities.  Google is your friend.  If you google "how do you solve homelessness?" you can spend as much or as little time as you like reading research which will by and large confirm what I have just told you.  We no longer have an excuse for naivety.  We can and should do better.  Lives depend on it.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Coal Not Dole

The coal mining industry has a special place in working class history and culture.  The hardships and dangers of the miner's life feature in the literature of social reform, with DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Emile Zola's Germinal both featuring the hardships of the miners life and in Zola's case, the devastating, life and death struggles to unionise and negotiate a fair wage.

It has an even richer tradition in folk song.  Here's one of my favourites, 'Coal Not Dole', written in 1984 at the height of the British miners' strike by Kay Sutcliffe, who was married to one of the strikers.  It's sung here by veteran English folk singer Norma Waterson.


It stands so proud, the wheel so still,
A ghostlike figure on the hill.
It seems so strange, there is no sound,
Now there are no men underground.

What will become of this pit yard
Where men once trampled, faces hard?
Tired and weary, their shift done,
Never having seen the sun.

Will it become a sacred ground?
Foreign tourists gazing round
Asking if men once worked here,
Way beneath this pithead gear.

Empty trucks once filled with coal,
Lined up like men on the dole.
Will they e'er be used again
Or left for scrap just like the men?

There'll always be a happy hour
For those with money, jobs and power;
They'll never realise the hurt
They cause to men they treat like dirt.

You can find many versions of this on the internet - the Oyster Band do a lovely one which segues into Bells of Rhymney, another coal mining song written by Welsh poet Idris Davies in the 1930s and first recorded by Pete Seeger.  Other mining songs are even older.  'Blackleg Miner', made famous by Steeleye Span, originates from the north of England in the 1840s and delivers a blunt warning to strike-breakers, who would stain their legs black to journey to the mine at night unseen.

The mining industry was always fertile ground for unionism.  The work was hard and dangerous, and in the early days of industrialisation often poorly paid.  The workers not only worked together but lived together in specially provided housing near the mine.  Not only did they have the motivation to organise, their proximity made it easy.  Of course they faced opposition but the stakes were high - not only their livelihoods, but their very lives, were often at issue.  Over time they succeeded in extracting better pay and conditions from their employers.  In addition, unions were at the forefront of social initiatives - working men's clubs, hardship funds for injured miners or widows and orphans, and so forth.

By the third quarter of the 20th century the British coal industry was being run by a government owned corporation which, while a model employer, was not especially profitable.  The industry was sustained on the basis that it was in the national interest to have a local energy source even if the prices for British coal, dug up from old fashioned pit mines, struggled to compete with product from sources like Australia.

In early 1984, Maggie Thatcher decided to change all that.  The British coal industry involved three things she despised - government ownership, the prioritisation of social goals over profit, and a strong union presence.  She announced that a large number of marginal mines across the country would be closed.  The result was a bitter industrial dispute which lasted into the early part of 1985 and at its height saw over 140,000 miners out on strike.  The miners knew that their livelihoods and way of life were at stake, and they fought hard.  Ultimately it was a fight they couldn't win - when your only weapon is to withdraw your labour it is not very effective against an employer who doesn't particularly want it.  Thatcher got her way, the mines closed, and today there is little coal mining anywhere in Britain.

It was a defining moment for British society, a moment when battle lines were drawn.  The left was firmly in the miners camp - the mines should stay open, it was better than putting the men on the dole.  Folk singers, always on the left, sang "Coal Not Dole" up and down the country.  Other songs were written too.  Even Sting, famous for his environmentalism, wrote one called "We Work the Black Seam" because not only was the closure of the mines an attack on the working class, Thatcher's preferred alternative was nuclear power.



One day in a nuclear age
They may understand our rage
They build machines that they can't control
And bury the waste in a great big hole
Power was to become cheap and clean
Grimy faces were never seen
Deadly for twelve thousand years is carbon fourteen

Sting has his substances mixed up, but his point is a valid one - Thatcher's strategy was to pursue private profit at all costs, and the future be damned.  And of course the closure of mines was only part of a wider process of de-industrialisation in the western world as factories of all sorts closed down, shifted offshore in search of cheap labour or mechanised to the point where hardly any labour was needed.  In each case the process was fought tooth and nail by unions to no avail, and mourned by singers, as in the Oyster Band favourite, "Another Quiet Night in England".


Where is the pit and the mill
Where is the skill and the sweat from their hands?
Gone with the smoke and the heat
The noise and the beat of the heart of the land.

Anyhow, I live in Australia, it's 2016 and haven't times changed?  Coal mining is a huge industry here.  It is still unionised to a large extent and it is still somewhat dangerous although, thanks to those generations of union activists, nothing like it used to be.  But there are not that many actual miners any more, and they are no longer wiry men with picks and shovels.  They are highly trained, well paid machine operators.  Sometimes they still live near the mine, but once they quit the job they head for the coast and more and more of them fly in and out on a weekly basis.

These days the left is unlikely to fight to keep mines open.  In fact, we are engaged in a bitter and high-stakes struggle to have them closed.  Coal mine closure is no longer an attack on the working class and a Trojan horse for the nuclear industry.  Now the shoe is on the other foot.  We are in a desperate fight to avoid dangerous levels of global warming and shift rapidly to safer renewable sources, resisted tooth and nail by greedy mining companies who want every dollar of profit they can get and the future be damned.

The other thing that has changed is that to a large extent, Thatcher and her likes have won the battle with the unions.  In the end, the battle wasn't won by confrontations like the miners' strike and Murdoch's lock-outs of striking print workers.  Instead, it took place gradually through the shift to a post-industrial economy.  Unions remain strong in traditional industries like mining and manufacturing, but these have become less and less important.  The emerging powerhouses - information technology, retail and service industries, aged care and so forth - are largely non-unionised and it shows in the levels of casualisation, low wages and repeated examples of exploitation.

Unions have struggled to adapt to this new world, their rhetoric and models of organisation still based on those developed in the factory and the mine.  Nor have they coped well with globalisation - while employers and investors skip freely across the globe searching for low wages, unions remain firmly within national borders, arguing for protectionism and limits to immigration rather than making common cause with exploited bothers and sisters in the factories of Asia or South America.

"Coal Not Dole", "We Work the Black Seam" and "Another Quiet Night" are all beautiful, emotive songs.  They make you want to go out and fight for the workers who are losing their jobs, to resist the heartless machinations of capitalists intent on nothing but profit.  But their fights are over, the battles lost.  The battles of today often look the opposite although greed and short-sighted self-interest are the same in every generation.  Are there songs for our age and our battles?  None spring to mind that have the same power and resonance but perhaps, although rap is not my thing, this one might be a good place to start?


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Escape from Freedom

So I finally have time and brain space to blog again, and I've been thinking: what do Brexit, Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump have in common?


To my mind, there are at least three similarities.

The first is that each of them represents a response to perceived threats to the wellbeing of their nations from people who are labelled "terrorists".  These terrorists are pictured as an existential threat and mainstream political forces are portrayed as being too weak to respond to these threats.  Hence, a certain proportion of our population turns to someone who will be "strong" and act decisively.

In Britain, a majority turned against their more moderate leaders and voted for a movement led by the right-wing UKIP and the far-right elements of the Conservative Party.  In the US, establishment Republican figures are rejected in favour of an outsider who promises to fix their broken nation.  Here in Australia Pauline Hanson remains a marginal figure but after 18 years of trying she has finally achieved a return to parliament - and her rhetoric is hardly more extreme than that of some members of our Coalition government.

The second similarity is that Islam provides a lightning rod for the fears that have propelled these right-wing outsiders into the mainstream.  Brexit is driven by a desire to control immigration, primarily to exclude the wave of refugees from Syria and other Islamic trouble spots who are flooding into Europe.  Both Trump and Hanson promise to end Muslim immigration, prevent the building of mosques and defeat Islamic State.

The final similarity is that in each case the debate is driven by fear, even panic, unsupported either by facts or by clear policy responses.  People have not elected a person who has thought through the problem and developed a response.  Instead, they have turned to someone who has played on their fears and produced a simple slogan which calms and comforts them.

Our fear of terrorism is not unreasonable, but in all three countries it is out of proportion to the threat.  The worst mass shootings in the US (and there have been many) are nothing to do with terrorism, they are carried out by disturbed young people making use of their community's lax gun laws to create mayhem.  More innocent people are shot each year by police than by terrorists.  More people die in all three countries as a result of domestic violence and alcohol-induced violence than Islamic extremism.  Yet none of these much more serious problems creates the same level of panic or calls forth a "strong" or "decisive" response.

The proposed solution - banning Muslim migration - is not so much a solution as a slogan.  Aside from the obvious - that the ban is misdirected because the vast majority of Muslims oppose terrorism - the policy has no legs.  How will such a ban be implemented?  Will all immigrants be subject to a religious test?  How will lying on such a test be detected?  Will background checks include evidence of a person's religious practice?  What degree of connection with, or devotion to, Islam is sufficient to exclude someone, and how will this be measured?  If someone has previously been Muslim but has abandoned the faith, will they be allowed in?  And will their visa be subject to continued non-attendance at Friday prayers once they are here?

Even if we could actually implement such a ban, what is the evidence that it would protect us from terrorism?  This question is particularly pertinent because IS's current practice is to recruit at a distance, targeting vulnerable people who are already in the country they want to disrupt.  Recent attacks in Australia, the UK, the US, Canada, France and Belgium have all been carried out by people who are residents and even citizens of those countries, sometimes even born there.  What will happen when our post-ban societies are victims of another attack?  What will our right-wing demagogues offer us then to make us feel safe?  No doubt when overseas Muslims can no longer be targeted, we will focus sharper attention on those who are already here.  The groundwork for this is already being laid in the proposals (also championed by Hanson, Trump and the UKIP) to ban further mosque-building and to ban women from covering their faces in public.

Of course, driving Islam underground and persecuting its followers will not make us safer or even make us feel safer after the initial sense of relief.  Indeed it will make is less safe as Muslims see proof that we really do hate them and more of them respond to calls to strike back in the name of Allah.  The cycle of violence will spin ever faster.

What is going on here?

In 1941 German-born social psychologist Erich Fromm published a book called Escape From Freedom.  Fromm himself, a man of Jewish parentage, had lived through the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany before seeking safety in the US in the 1930s.

Escape From Freedom analyses the psychological processes which underlay the rise of European fascism.  It describes the rise of the Nazis as driven by the fears and uncertainties of particular sections of the German population who suffered badly during the Great Depression.  The lower middle class, in particular, felt confused and fearful, seeing their livelihoods and way of life threatened by forces beyond their control.  In this environment freedom was psychologically burdensome, leaving them insecure, and they turned instead to charismatic, "strong leader" figures who promised decisive action to solve their problems.

The Nazis had a gift for describing both the problems and the solutions in simple (indeed simplistic) terms.  The problems of Germany, they said, were caused by easily identifiable enemies.  There was the enemy without - the Allied powers who were milking Germany dry by demanding war reparations and by manipulating world trade against them.  There was also the enemy within - a secret Jewish conspiracy to subvert German society through control of the financial sector and other key social institutions.  These threats demanded a powerful response - massive militarisation to deal with the external threat, suspension of freedoms and a powerful unfettered police force to deal with the enemy within.

Although our circumstances are not identical, there is a lot to learn from Fromm's analysis.  Trump, Hanson and the UKIP are all neo-fascists.  They advocate the same broad set of policies implemented by the Fascist governments of the 1930s and 1940s - strong authoritarian government, extreme nationalism, a focus on law and order, an insistence on social uniformity, an abhorrence of anything that looks or smells even vaguely like socialism, and a naive liberal free market view of economics.  They also, like the Nazis, build their support base by targeting enemies both without and within.

Sure, none of them are advocating the creation of concentration camps, but nor were the Nazis in the early 1930s.  They began with general anti-Jewish propaganda and progressed by easy stages through laws which restricted Jews from certain occupations, then stripped them of citizenship.  It was not until 1938 that they progressed to open violence towards Jews and even then the retained the fiction that Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that killed over 2,000 Jews and destroyed vast amounts of Jewish property, was not an official government action.

Much of Fromm's psychological dynamic is also on display in Australia, the UK, the US and other parts of the world.  People feel a general sense that things are not right in their societies.  Even though our economies are prospering, ordinary people are finding their jobs and businesses are at risk.  Dangers seem to be growing all around us.  Meanwhile we feel powerless to affect any of these things and the institutions through which we used to act - our trade unions, our churches, our social and sporting clubs, even our political parties - are in decline.

The actual causes of these problems are complex and deep rooted.  I have previously written (here and here) about how the problems that we see daily on our TVs are symptoms of deeper problems - the problems of environmental degradation, growing inequality and our attachment to destructive social and political illusions.  However, the scale of these problems and the complexity of the solutions leads to precisely the fear and disempowerment Fromm observed in Germany in the 1930s.
In this situation it doesn't matter that the problems are misidentified or that the solutions are impractical and counterproductive.  What matters is that someone offers to take the weight off our shoulders, to speak for us, to fix the problem for us, to restore our peace and sense of self-worth.

They won't be able to deliver on this promise.  Their prescriptions will make the problems worse and if we follow them we will feel less secure than we did before.  If they follow the Nazi pattern, they will then attempt to keep our loyalty through escalating the strategy, implementing ever stricter law and order policies, stricter supervision of our imagined enemies, more belligerent foreign policies.  If we allow them to get away with it, they will end up with such a firm grip on power that we couldn't dislodge them even if we wanted to.

I would like to say we should stop the cycle of escalation before it begins, but it's already too late for that.  Rather, let's stop it now before it gets out of hand.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Road to Ruin

I'm not sure if I have the energy to blog about the upcoming Australian election.  The level of debate is so low, the options so dismal, that it is hard to know where to begin.  While the parties tit for tat about who will have the biggest deficit or break the most promises, everyone is ignoring the elephants in the room - climate change, the new world economic order, imprisoning asylum seekers, the permanent end to coal mining, a new generation of Aboriginal poverty and despair.  It' not so much an election as a game of trivial pursuit.

Much like this heavily publicised book by Nikki Savva, The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government.

Savva presents us with the inside story on the collapse of Abbott's Prime Ministership, as only someone in her position can.  She spent some years as Treasurer Peter Costello's press secretary before moving on to the Liberal Party's PR department, otherwise known as News Ltd.  She has a wide network of Liberal Party contacts with whom she worked as a political staffer, and who now feed her titbits for her columns in The Australian and commentary appearances on Sky News.

This means she can present us with a rollicking yarn about her former boss's bitterest sparring partner, Tony Abbott, and his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin.  Savva pulls no punches.  The early chapters of the book are a systematic demolition of Credlin's character.  The book was publicised through the careful placement of extracts about a rumoured affair between the two, but this turns out to be a fizzer.  The real story is that Credlin is a classic workplace psychopath.  Bullying staff and even her boss, throwing tantrums, controlling information and jobs, cutting off communication with the wider world.  Everyone, it seems, was offside with her - ministers, backbenchers, her own staff, the staff of other ministers.  Only Abbott, it seems, has any liking for her and he apparently supports her because he is cowed into submission.

However, this story soon runs out of steam because it begs the question - why would an experienced, canny operator like Abbott hire and keep someone so obviously unsuited to the job?  Why would he continue to protect her in the face of repeated advice from his closest allies to sack her?  I have always thought this showed that despite his many faults, Abbott still retains enough decency and loyalty to stand by his friends.  However, Savva will have none of it.  The problem is that Abbott himself was incompetent.

So the book moves on to flay Abbott as a person wonderfully suited to be an Opposition Leader but woefully unprepared to be Prime Minister.  His many  missteps are recounted in forensic detail - his off the cuff promises on election eve about things he wouldn't cut which came back to haunt him, his mishandling of the leadup to the 2014 budget, his immoderate language on terrorism and foreign affairs, his poor judgement on knighthoods, his unavailability to backbenchers and even senior ministers.  Things came to a head in February 2015 with a backbench revolt in which a spill motion gathered 39 out of 101 votes despite the lack of a challenger. Savva retails the joke that nearly 40% of Abbott's colleagues would rather be led by an empty chair.  He was given six months to get it right but nothing changed and the rest, as they say, is Turnbull.

It's a tale of intrigue and skullduggery, full of tales told out of school about who called who when, who had illicit meetings with whom, who was or wasn't part of which plot and why, who thought who was part of it when they weren't, who may or may not have voted for whom.  No-one comes out of it with much glory, not even Savva herself who gleefully reported many of these titbits in her columns, helping to stir up the very trouble she appears to deplore.

Of course she has a point.  After all, we all know who Peta Credlin is.  How many other Prime Ministerial Chiefs of Staff can you name?  Who is Turnbull's, or for that matter Bill Shorten's? When someone in this role emerges from the shadows you know there is something wrong.

Still, despite its apparent forensic detail Savva's account seems to be missing something, or many somethings.  The politics she describes is almost totally the politics of personality.  It's not a Liberal-National government, it's Abbott and Credlin's Government.  Its flaws are the flaws in these two personalities.  Credlin is an insecure bullying control freak.  Abbott is a political trench warrior without the people skills or policy smarts to run a government.  If they had just been nicer to their colleagues, or at least smarter in their interactions with them, they would still be there.  Or if Abbott had the sense to sack Credlin, he would still be there with better advisers.

The same shallow analysis is applied elsewhere.  The Labor Party doesn't feature much in this story but where it does it is given the same treatment.  Savva and her informants are not horrified at the thought of a Labor government, they are horrified at the idea of Bill Shorten as Prime Minister.  The Gillard government didn't fall because the Labor Party was fatally divided, it fell because Gillard was too inexperienced for the top job.

And of course, in Savva's world the whole point of politics is to win government and keep it.  Hence she thinks Abbott was a great Opposition Leader but a terrible Prime Minister.  After all, he destroyed the Gillard Government and won power, but was unable to keep it.  Yet it seems to me that if Abbott had been a good opposition leader he would have slipped seamlessly into the role of Prime Minister, having presented the electorate with a clear alternative government from the opposition benches. He did not - he simply tore his opponents to shreds then walked into power over their dead bodies.  Once there he had no idea what to do next.  His time in opposition was wasted.

But this is not Savva's biggest misunderstanding.  The hugest gap in this book, the one so big you can't see it, is about policy.  In her story, Abbott rapidly lost popularity because of personal failings and poor publicity.  Yet as a political outsider, I think this is a load of bollocks.  Abbott lost popularity once people became aware of the policies he and his government wanted to implement - policies Abbott rightly discerned they would never vote for if they were announced pre-election.

People didn't like cuts to pensions, medicare payments and various other aspects of the social safety net, especially not when the Liberal Party's rich backers got to keep their lucrative tax concessions.  They didn't like the curtailment of civil liberties and the targeting of Muslim communities, the wanton imprisonment of innocent asylum seekers, the constant appeasement of the coal industry at the expense of the environment.  If your supermarket sells rotting meat it doesn't matter how slick your advertising campaign is, people still won't buy it.  Which is the very problem Malcolm Turnbull has now.  The more people realise that despite his engaging personality he leads a government with the same policies as before, the less inclined they will be to return that government.  Hence the early election.

But this is not the full story either.  If you want to explain why Abbott lasted such a short time, you need an explanation which will also help you understand why the Labor Party switched leaders twice in six years, and why the Liberals dumped Turnbull in opposition then re-elected him two years into their first term in government.

Such instability is a new thing in post-war Australian politics.  Certainly there have been leaders who didn't last, but even John Gorton survived more than three years in a collapsing government.  Menzies, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard all got extended runs at leadership.  Even Gough Whitlam, despite only lasting three years as Prime Minister, led the Labor Party for ten.  So what's changed?

I'm not sure I fully know the answer, but I think one part of the problem is that the parties themselves are fragmenting.  The Liberal Party is torn between the religious right and the secular pro-business "moderates".  The switching between Abbott (darling of the religious right) and Turnbull (champion of the secularists) is symptomatic of this deeper divide.  We've all seen Turnbull booed at NSW Liberal Party meetings.  The same is true of the Labor Party, with deep divisions over how much to appease big business, how close to remain to the union movement, how to manage refugee intake and how much to prioritise social equity over the neo-liberal economists' recipe for economic growth.

These divisions are symptomatic of a similar breakdown in social consensus in the wider community.  The divide between rich and poor is greater than it ever was - they now inhabit such different worlds they barely understand one another.  We have more cultural diversity than ever, and are torn between fear and embrace, a faultline brutally exposed by One Nation and then exploited by the Liberals for short term gain and long term pain.  We face threats we haven't faced before - climate change, a changing world economic order - and are flailing about for a coherent response.

You would like to think that in such a time of crisis we would be able to find political leaders who took the challenges seriously, who thought carefully about how to meet them and worked hard at taking Australians along the path of change.  I still hope and pray we will get to that eventually, but it's not on display in this election.  At least not so far, but then there's still more than a month to go....

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Arrival City

I've just read a most enlightening and thought-provoking book, Arrival City:How the Largest Migration in History is Changing our World by Doug Saunders.  Saunders is an English journalist who writes for the Globe and Mail, the kind of journalist who looks beyond the headlines for the social trends and idea that lie behind day to day events.  If I was journalist, that's the sort I'd like to be.

Our world, he says, is going through the largest and most rapid process of urbanisation in human history. Millions of people in developing nations are leaving their villages and heading to the major cities, most of them never to return.  By the end of this century approximately two to three billion people - a third of the world's population - will have made the shift and most of the world will be as urbanised as the wealthy nations are now.

At the centre of this movement is what Saunders calls the 'Arrival City' - those communities on the edge of major cities that are the first destination for rural migrants.  These destinations may be in their own country, or in a wealthy country far from home.  Wherever they are, they are not the most attractive or secure places.  Housing is often substandard, land tenure is insecure and occupation often illegal, infrastructure may be absent, or obtained at inflated costs from illegal diversions from "official" water or power supplies, and work may be hard, dangerous and poorly paid.

Why do people migrate to such places?  There are two reasons.  The first is that the places they are leaving are even worse.  Village life may seem peaceful and idyllic to outsiders, but developing nation villages are by far the poorest places on earth.  Farming is generally subsistence only, the risk of famine is never far away and there is little or no opportunity to supplement farm produce with non-farm work.  By contrast, the city presents opportunities to work and earn money, some of which can be sent back to struggling relatives back home.

The second reason is that arrival cities represent future hope.  They are a stepping stone to a fuller integration into city life, with opportunity for education (either for them or their children), for progress from menial work to more lucrative jobs or self-employment as they move up the social scale. Ultimately they present the hope of leaving a life of poverty and joining the urban middle class.

Saunders approaches this issue through the lives of a number of urban migrants, using each as a window into both the community they have arrived in, and into the village they have left.  The Chinese arrival cities of Liu Gong Li and Shenzen are linked to the village of Shuilin.  Tower Hamlets on the edge of London is linked with the village of Biswanath in Bangladesh.  The successful May 1 Neighbourhood on the edge of Istanbul is contrasted with the troubled German community of Slotervaart as destinations for Turkish villagers.

Life is inherently difficult for the residents of arrival cities, but it is often made more difficult by the hostility or bungling of government authorities.  Sometimes they are actively hostile.  The May 1 Neighbourhood was established as a well-organised act of protest by left-wing former villagers who built it in a single night on a piece of vacant government land on the edge of the city.  The police attempted to demolish it several times, seeing it as a hotbed of dissent and trouble.  Not only did they meet with determined armed resistance, what they destroyed was quickly rebuilt once they left.  Eventually the government gave up and changed tack, granting the residents title to the land, supplying infrastructure and incorporating them into the city.

Interestingly, the political movement that finally emerged from these communities, and ones like it founded by radical Islamists and Fascists on the edges of major Turkish cities, was not extreme at all, but the moderately conservative "Welfare Party" of Recep Tayyip Erdogan which currently controls the Turkish government (although recent events suggest Erdogan may not be quite as moderate or benign as Saunders suggests!).  Saunders attributes this eventual moderation to the process of legitimising land titles in the urban fringe communities, which turned radical settlers into petty capitalists through the right to convert their quickly-erected stone houses into three-story apartment buildings.  Even his left-wing radical informant has to sheepishly admit that he has converted his own house into a block of units and now lives off the rents.

Other arrival cities, however, are not so fortunate.  Slotervaart in Germany is also home to Turkish rural migrants, but unlike in their home country, they have no hope of permanence.  They enter Germany as "guest workers" and neither they nor their children are able by law to become German citizens.  The result is that thousands of young men and women who have only ever been to Turkey on holiday and who speak German better than they speak Turkish are nonetheless seen as foreigners, restricted in where they can live, what kind of work they can do and barred from access to German higher education.  They can neither return to Turkey nor become fully German.  The community becomes a hotbed of crime and dissent.

The suburb of Les Pyramides on the outskirts of Paris is similar.  Here, migrants from France's former African colonies rent beautifully designed housing but find themselves unable to start businesses in this fully residential suburb or to be licensed to do so elsewhere, forced to travel long distances to apply for scarce, poorly paid jobs, and locked out of a highly restricted university system.  The result was a series of wild riots in 2005, and many other examples of unrest since.  Such communities are among the biggest sources of "home grown terrorists" in Europe.  Blocked from a European identity, young men and women turn instead to a radical Islamic one which promises revenge on the countries which have rejected them.

So why do some communities work, and others don't?  Saunders identifies a number of elements that are needed for success.  New arrivals have to have access to the basics of life - basic housing and utilities, work that pays enough for them to live off, a reasonable level of safety.  Then they need the possibility of progress - the chance to own title on a piece of land, however small, the opportunity to better themselves either by improving their skills so they can move up the employment ladder, or by starting their own businesses.  Most importantly, they need the hope of permanence in their new communities and the chance to get an education for their children, so that the next generation will not face their parents' poverty.

This last point highlights something we frequently overlook in our debates about migration - it is an act of delayed gratification on a grand scale.  If migrants have the hope of future betterment for themselves or their children, they will put up with years of hardship.  When residents leave Shuilin Village for the city, they often go first to Shenzen because of the high wages on offer in its booming factories.  Yet in the end many choose to move on to Liu Gong Li because although wages are far higher in Shenzen it offers no hope of permanent residence, without which children can't be enrolled in school and housing must always be rented.  Liu Gong Li, for all its hardship, offers a brighter future.

It is the same story in Tower Hamlets, on the edge London.  Here, Bengali village families live in tiny Council flats and the parents toil at menial jobs, but their children go to school, study hard, and end up with university degrees and a ticket to the middle class, leaving Tower Hamlets for more desirable suburbs.  Official statistics often fail to capture this, because Tower Hamlets itself remains poor.

Indeed, remaining poor can be a sign of success in these communities, because rural to urban migration is not an individual thing.  The first migrants to a city will set up and work hard, sending as much money as they can to their family in the village.  As soon as they have the means they will help someone else to follow in their footsteps - a sibling, cousin or neighbour who they will employ in their new business, or get their employer to take on.  A young man might bring his wife and child, or marry.  In wealthy countries marriage will be used as a way to sponsor new migrants from home.  As one family leaves the poor community to buy a home in a better location, a new poor villager will fill their place.

The energy and enterprise of these migrants, if well harnessed, can transform and reinvigorate the urban economy.  At the same time, the process can also revive poor village economies.  At first it is the money sent home which helps improve housing and infrastructure, educates children and tides families over crop failures and food shortages.  Over time, as the city becomes home, remittances tend to decrease but the infrastructure remains, and the outflow of village populations allows for those who remain to expand their land holdings to a size where it is worth investing in modern farming methods, dramatically increasing yields and shifting from subsistence to commercial farming.  If it works as it should, both communities win.

If.  This book is, in the end, a big question mark.  It is big on stories but short on data.  How many people escape to the middle class?  How many remain in multi-generational poverty?  How many arrival cities become thriving economic hubs?  How many remain slums?  How many communities do governments embrace and resource, and how many continue to be subject to neglect or slum clearance?  Is it possible for third world governments, mired in debt and corruption, to adequately resource the migration of millions?

One thing is clear, though.  Urbanisation is happening.  People are on the move, and we will not be able to stop them.  The relevant question is not, "is this urbanisation a good thing?" It is with us whether we like it or not.  The only question is, will we handle it well or will we stuff it up?

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Blood Year

I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of David Kilcullen's Blood Year, and finally got to read it this week.  Kilcullen has been appearing a lot on ABC current affairs shows recently giving expert opinion on terrorist-related issues, and he always seems so knowledgeable and articulate.

And so he ought.  Not only does he have a PhD in guerrilla warfare, he is a former Australian military officer who, during various phases of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, served as an analyst in the US State Department, an adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq and on the staff of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  These days he runs a private research company which, among other things, advises humanitarian organisations about security issues in war zones and maintains a network of contacts in trouble spots around the world.

The "blood year" of the title is 2014-15, when Islamic State emerged from the pack of extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria to claim large swathes of territory and launch terrorist attacks around the world.  Kilcullen sets out to explain how it came to this.

The killer line in the book (pardon the pun), which the author has been using to sell it in his various interviews, is that the invasion of Iraq was "the biggest strategic blunder since Hitler invaded the USSR".  You may feel that he is overstating his case a little but he justifies the comparison in a fair bit of detail.  Like Hitler, the Bush administration chose to invade a country that was well contained and was not currently posing a threat.  In the process it committed itself to fighting on two fronts, stretching its capabilities to breaking point.  For an additional level of difficulty, unlike the Germans the US did not have a continuous supply line between the two fronts, so that the transfer of resources between them was challenging and slow.

If the decision to invade was the fundamental mistake, it was compounded by many more.  US military planners estimated that the invasion would require about 400,000 military and civilian personnel to carry out the invasion and then secure and rebuild the country.  In the end, they got 200,000.  This meant that while the initial invasion was a pushover, the subsequent occupation struggled to establish effective control.

To increase the degree of difficulty, the US collaborated with the interim Iraqi Government on a process of "de-Ba'athification", disbanding the Iraqi army and removing all Ba'ath Party members from the civil service.  Since party membership was a qualification for holding any kind of responsible position in the Ba'athist regime this meant that any competent administrator was removed from the service, even though their membership may have been a career necessity rather than an expression of deeply held political allegiance.

This led to a dangerous situation from the beginning.  Because the US and its allies were unable to secure the country, many of the army divisions were able to depart with their weapons, withdrawing to secure locations from which they could harass the occupying powers.  They are still there today - according to Kilcullen, about three quarters of the senior IS military commanders are former Iraqi Army officers who were displaced after 2003.

While he is highly critical of the Bush administration, he has at least qualified praise for Bush's later conduct of the "Surge", the insertion of extra troops into Iraq in 2007-08 which led to a dramatic reduction in violence and the securing of large parts of Iraq on behalf of the Maliki government.  He also has strong praise for his sometime boss Condoleezza Rice and for Bush himself, who he says took personal charge of the Surge with at least weekly contact with its commanders.  He comments that while Bush's public persona was folksy and facile, in private he was highly intelligent and engaged.  However, his focus on Iraq came at the cost of attention to to the wider "War on Terrorism" in places like North Africa, other parts of the Middle East or even Afghanistan.

While he has this level of faint praise for Bush, he has none for Barack Obama.  Bush, he says, was at least prepared to back words with action.  Obama, on the other hand, acted as if merely making statements was enough.  Furthermore, Kilcullen is highly critical of his decision to withdraw troops from Iraq at the end of the Surge, and is scathing about Obama and Hilary Clinton's claim to have "ended the war in Iraq" when all they actually did was leave it.

From here, the book is a sorry tale of decline.  With coalition troops withdrawn and the Maliki Government increasingly aligned with sectarian Shi'a groups against their Sunni rivals, violence rapidly increased.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, all but wiped out in the Surge, bounced back and reformed itself as Islamic State.  All this was aided by the confusions of US and European policy in Syria, where the allies encouraged attempts to overthrow the Assad regime but failed to back them in any meaningful way, throwing the country into the kind of chaos in which groups like IS thrive and providing IS with a safe haven outside Iraq from which it could rebuild.

In the end, the US found itself in an untenable position.  In Syria it ended up having not one enemy but two - the Assad regime and IS - which were fighting each other.  This meant it was unable to respond effectively against either opponent and it became hugely complicit in the mass killing and displacement of Syrian civilians by both sides.  Kilcullen points out that the Assad regime has killed roughly eight times as many Syrians as IS has, and has been guilty of war crimes such as bombing civilian targets with chemical weapons.  Yet after announcing that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for his administration in Syria and would force them to act, when Assad's generals did in fact deploy these weapons the US did nothing.  The signal was clear - you could safely ignore anything the US said because it would not act.

The other really interesting part of this book is Kilcullen's analysis of the terrorist attacks in the West.  First of all, he talks about them in terms of their tactical goals.  These attacks are designed to drain the resources of the allies fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, diverting resources to homeland security.  This tactic has been highly effective - the cost of mounting the attacks is very low for IS, but the costs they have extracted from Western nations have been extraordinary - billions of extra dollars or euros spent on policing, surveillance, airport security and border protection.

Secondly, he applies a sophisticated analysis of the tactics involved.  He describes the 9/11 attacks as "expeditionary terrorism" - terrorists are recruited and trained for their task in one country, then inserted into another to carry out the carefully prepared plan.  Other attacks over the years have followed this plan - for instance, the Mumbai attack carried out by Pakistani terrorists in 2008.  Such attacks can be devastating but they are also complex and expensive, and security improvements since 9/11 make them much more difficult.

Terrorist organisations have adapted by using other methods - remote recruitment particularly over the internet which allows groups to recruit people already in the target country; "leaderless resistance", in which a central group will do no more than issue general instructions (such as IS's public call for supporters to carry out attacks on Western targets) which supporters then carry out without central control or planning.  These two measures result in lower intensity attacks with fewer casualties, but they are also far less resource intensive and far more difficult to detect and prevent.

In addition, tactics have changed, making more use of what Kilcullen calls "guerrilla terrorism" - lightly armed groups of attackers hitting civilian targets (possibly multiple targets at any one time to fragment responses) and compensating for lack of fire-power by conducting sieges which tie up manpower and paralyse city centres for extended periods.  Terrorist groups, he says, are creative and adaptable.  If you take security measures to prevent one sort of attack, they will devise something different.  Defence is always one step behind attack.

Where does all this leave us?  Kilcullen is pessimistic about the future of these conflicts - he doesn't see any quick or easy victory either over IS or over a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Nor does he see any let-up in terrorist attacks in the West.  However, he sees very clearly that these outcomes are the result of decisions the US and its allies have made, not inevitable facts of destiny.

In this spirit he closes with a number of "lessons" to draw from the past 15 years of the War on Terror.

"Don't confuse bad management with destiny"

"Never think, 'This is as bad as it gets'"

"Strategy, without resources and sequencing, is fantasy"

"Battlefield success is not victory"

"You can't fight without fighting"

Kilcullen is, or course, a military man and this is a military book - a very enlightening and insightful one.  He is far from ignorant about politics, but his focus is on military successes, failures and prospects.  Within these terms, his pessimism seems more than justified.  However I wonder, is this pessimism because he, and those he has worked for, were seeking military solutions for what were primarily political and social problems?  And what might be the political and social solutions, given that military ones have failed so badly?  Perhaps there are none, but given the alternative is ever-spiralling violence and repression, we need to keep searching for them.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Who Killed Omid Masoumali?

So, over the past two weeks two Nauru-based asylum seekers have set themselves on fire.  The first, a young Iranian man called Omid Masoumali, died of his burns in a Brisbane hospital.  The second, a 21-year-old Somali woman named Hodan Yasin, set herself alight yesterday and is now in a critical condition.  Reports suggest at least one other man has been prevented from doing the same.


As far as I understand this is the tip of the iceberg.  Depression, anger and self-harm are widespread amongst the asylum seekers on Nauru, Manus, Christmas Island and the various detention centres on the Australian mainland.

Who is responsible for this shocking self-harm, these acts of desperation, these signs of hopelessness and despair? Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton wants us to believe it's the fault of human rights advocates, says the Brisbane Times (which, by the way, is the source of the photo).

He expressed anger at advocates and others "who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that that pressure exerted on the Australian Government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures".

"These behaviours have intensified in recent times and as we see, they have turned to extreme acts with terrible consequences," Mr Dutton said.

"Advocates who proclaim to represent and support the interests of refugees and asylum seekers must frankly hear a clear message ... their activities and these behaviours must end."

So, Mr Dutton, self-harm is caused by people who suggest that perhaps somewhere in the make-up of your government there is a shred of humanity, who suggest to them that somewhere, sometime they will have a future?  Whereas if everyone just stayed on message and convinced them that there is no hope, that the world is all black and they may as well give up living now, then this self-harm would stop?

Our humanitarians, those who would like to befriend refugees and settle them here in our prosperous democratic country, are robbing them of hope, are they?  While your government is bringing them hope and light with your determination to ensure their only option is life on an island with no economy aside from housing our unwanted refugees, or on an archipelago with the highest murder rate in the world, or a poor repressive South-East Asian nation?

Your government, which without warning took a depressed and injured Hodan Yasin from her bed in the Brisbane detention centre and bundled her onto a plane back to Nauru against her will and contrary to medical advice ?  Your government, which has poured billions into a system that is specifically designed to rob people of all hope, is not to blame for their despair?

It seems to me, Mr Dutton, that these acts of self-harm are precisely the outcome your billions and your relentless denial of hope are designed to produce.  What could send a clearer signal to the people smugglers and those who might buy their services than a spectacular, public act of suicide?  Perhaps if you filmed the act it would have a bigger impact, but beyond that it is hard to see how you could design a more effective deterrent.  Well done.  I hope you are proud of yourself.

Mr Dutton squares his jaw while his opposite number Richard Marles wrings his hands and promises to do just what Dutton is doing, but more effectively. Meanwhile in the real world where black is not white, lies are not truth and people take responsibility for their own actions we, the Australian People, seem to be about to elect a government in which one of these men will be Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

Do we want to do that?  Can we, in all conscience, continue to vote for politicians who deliberately cause suffering to innocent people?  Whether they are steely jawed or hand-wringing, we should do better.  We can do better.  Will we?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Gnostic Gospels

In December 1945 an Egyptian peasant by the name of Muhammad Ali al-Samman found a stone jar buried on a mountainside near the town of Nag Hammadi.  Inside were thirteen leather-bound papyrus books.

Over the next couple of years these books found their way, by various circuitous routes, into the collection of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities where in the decades that followed they were examined and translated by an international team of scholars.  The thirteen volumes brought together Coptic translations of over 50 second century Gnostic Christian texts, some completely unknown, some known only through quotes and references in other writings.

This is one of the most important finds in the study of the origins of Christianity, opening up an avenue of understanding that had been closed for more than 1,500 years.  Elaine Pagels joined the team of scholars working on these documents in the late 1960s and has become one of the leading experts in the field.  She has written a number of technical works on the subject, but The Gnostic Gospels, first published in 1979, is her attempt to interpret them for a wider audience.

A warning is in order: the title is misleading.  This is not, as I thought it would be, a summary and explanation of the gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi - gospels purported to be written by Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas and Philip.  Rather, it is a description and analysis of the debate between the gnostic writers and their orthodox critics about the nature of Christianity.

This book would not have been possible before the Nag Hammadi find.  Before then, most of what scholars knew about gnosticism was reconstructed from the writings of its critics.  Now we have the other side of the debate, and Pagels is able to put side by side the writings of the various gnostic teachers and those of defenders of orthodoxy such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin and Hippolytus.  For the first time, we can hear both sides of the debate.

Pagels focuses on five issues (listed here in a different order to the way Pagels presents them) - Jesus' passion and resurrection, the nature of God (particularly the question of gender), the authority of the priests and bishops, the question of the "true church" and the pathway to knowing God. On each of these crucial questions there were major differences between gnostic views (not all gnostics saw these issues the same way) and those which came to be considered orthodox.

The orthodox Christian view is that Jesus was really human as well as divine, that his passion involved real suffering and death, and that he then experienced physical resurrection.  For the gnostics it was impossible for a divine being to suffer and a physical resurrection would be pointless.  Hence, they saw the suffering as only applying to his "likeness" while his true self hovered above, laughing.  His "resurrection appearances" were appearances of this true spiritual self, not a resurrected physical person.

This may sound rather esoteric but it has practical consequences.  For the gnostics, the physical body was unimportant.  This led in two directions - in one, physical conduct was irrelevant and you could do what you liked.  In the other, true spirituality involved high levels of asceticism, particularly the denial of sexual activity.  Orthodox believers, on the other hand, saw our physical lives as important, valued appropriate sexuality and did not insist that their followers deny themselves legitimate pleasures.  A further implication, of crucial importance in the second century, was that while martyrdom was highly valued by orthodox believers it was downplayed and even seen as foolish by gnostics, who would rather compromise with authorities.

For orthodox Christians, there is only one God expressed in three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This God is in general seen to be male although the Spirit is often seen as without gender.  Gnostics, by contrast, are famous for their complex cosmologies and held a variety of views about the nature of God.  In one of the most widespread, the God of Israel was co-creator with the superior female God Sophia (Wisdom) who may even have created him.  His desire to be seen as the only God is seen in this scheme as an aberration which led Sophia to withdraw in order to leave him to his delusion, before sending Jesus as a messenger or expression of herself to draw people back to her and away from this jealous, delusional god.  This view opens the way for a radical re-assessment of the Hebrew scriptures, seen not as "Christian" but as delusional texts inspired by a delusional deity.

One practical consequence of this is that just as Sophia was female, so women were seen by many gnostics (although certainly not all) as equal to men.  This is expressed in the elevated role played by Mary Magdelene in gnostic writings, and more immediately in the fact that many gnostic groups permitted women to take on priestly roles including celebrating communion, preaching and prophesying.  In contrast, by the second century the orthodox church was firmly patriarchal and many parts of it remain so even now.

Closely related to this is the question of authority in the church.  This was a pressing issue as the second century progressed and not only the apostles, but those who had been taught by them, passed away.  Who had the authority to lead and teach now?  For orthodox believers, this authority rested partly in the apostles' writings (in the process of becoming the canon of the New Testament) but more crucially in the apostolic succession, in those bishops who could trace their line of ordination back to the apostles, with the "apostolic churches" and particularly the church of Rome pre-eminent among them.

For the gnostics, these bishops were pretenders devoid of real wisdom, and the true leaders of the church were those who had received "gnosis" or knowledge/insight direct from the Spirit of God.  This meant that they did not recognise, or did not take seriously, the rigid hierarchy that was developing in the church at that time.  For example, one gnostic group is reported as drawing lots among its members each Sunday for who would take various roles in worship.

Of course along with this comes the final issue - how can you know God?  For the orthodox, knowing God was a straightforward matter of knowing some key propositions of the kind which were later incorporated into the Creeds.  These were open to all and comprehensible by people of all classes and levels of education.  A simple affirmation was all that was required to become a church member.

The gnostics, on the other hand, valued a much deeper personal knowledge which was not necessarily accessible to all.  Gnosticism was a religion of initiates, much like the mystery religions of the ancient Roman world.  Some of its teachings were seen as "secret", revealed only after the person had passed through the steps of initiation.  At the same time, they valued self-knowledge as a path to knowing God, and direct ecstatic experience as a source of enlightenment.  Their teachers invented their own myths and analogies, their own fictitious apostolic dialogues, their own ways of expressing the truth of a God who they saw as ultimately incomprehensible.  They valued and rewarded this kind of creativity and imagination.  For them the simplicity of orthodoxy was a sign of ignorance - God cold not be known so easily.

Pagels clearly has some admiration for the gnostics and provides a very sympathetic account of their views.  She is also very clear that the conflict was not just about esoteric matters of theology, it was about who was to be master of the church.  She appears to have little sympathy with the book-burners of the fourth and fifth centuries who effectively erased the traces of gnosticism from the newly Christianised Roman empire.  Some have criticised her for being too sympathetic, suggesting for instance that many gnostic teachers were much more negative towards femininity than she makes out.

However, she is no gnostic apologist.  She identifies at least three areas in which orthodoxy was clearly superior.  It provided a strong, clear organisational structure which bound the church together and kept it united, whereas gnosticism was diverse, diffuse and highly vulnerable.  The second is that the complexities of gnosticism required leisure and education  and so could only really appeal to the upper classes, while orthodoxy was open to all.  The third is that the simplicity of the orthodox creeds and formulations placed few hurdles in the way of adherents, while the complex and immersive nature of gnosticism restricted its number of followers.  Although the power of empire finally wiped out gnosticism, it had to eventually accept and even endorse orthodoxy after three centuries of persecution failed to make a dent on it.

Pagels writes as if gnosticism is a historical curiosity, wiped from the church by the triumph of orthodoxy.  However, I find myself wondering if it was that simple.  Certainly their complex cosmologies are now mere curiosities.  However, both asceticism and the valuing of direct experience survived in the monastic movement and the mystical or contemplative strand of Christian piety.  The modern-day Pentecostal movement seems to reprise much of the gnostic valuing of direct revelation and ecstatic experience.  Even their love of invention and myth-creation seems to have lived on in the art of hagiography and lives again in the likes of Lewis and Tolkein.

None of these developments can be formally attributed to the gnostic movement or to its anathemised authors.  However, I get the feeling that like many other church movements down through the ages, the gnostics have contributed much more to the Christian worldview than their opponents would like to think, and that their subterranean influence continues to benefit us today.  The church has always been a diverse body and we continue to learn from each other even as we fight.  May it always be so!