The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'authoritarianism'
To the surprise of exactly nobody, Australia’s Labor party agree to pass the mandatory encryption back-door bill, after the usual pantomime of token opposition.
The bill will allow the government to demand technical measures to allow access to encrypted content. The ALP stress that it will include safeguards, ensuring it is only used for matters of national security. It also has provisions preventing it from being used to mandate the introduction of “systematic weaknesses”, the definition of a “systematic weakness” being whatever the Attorney-General and Communications Minister agree it is or isn’t.
Labor’s spokespeople, resplendent in their progressive pragmatism, assure us that there’s no need to worry, that they have exacted strict safeguards as conditions of their support, requiring not one but two cabinet-level ministers to decide what isn’t a systematic weakness, and requiring that technical surveillance capabilities are mandated only for the most serious of cases (i.e., “OMG Paedoterrorists!”-level threats), with the non-terrorist/non-paedophile majority’s privacy assured as always. And perhaps the Australian political process, renowned worldwide as it is for its high calibre, has managed to, in secret committee, produce a perfectly square circle, a magical golden key that can only be wielded against evildoers and is impervious to abuse, misuse or negligence. (Or at least to the standards of the Australian law of “no worries, she’ll be right mate”; i.e., “I’m not a Muslim, a commo, femmo, pinko, greenie, bikie, trade unionist or any other kind of ratbag, or involved a cop’s ex-missus or anything, and neither are most people, therefore there are no possible problems worth thinking about”)
Of course, the much vaunted safeguards apply only to ordering companies to implement back doors; once the back door has been implemented, it’s there for any subsequent use: everybody’s WhatsApp messages, by law, have an escrowed key that ASIO’s computers can use to automatically decrypt and store them. If Australia’s metadata retention regime is anything to go by, the number of agencies with access to this will only grow. Within 12 months, copyright holders will use this to detect and prosecute someone sending an illegally downloaded TV show episode to a friend, or using a VPN to circumvent pirate site blocks; six months later, local councils will be trawling the plaintext of everyone’s iMessage conversations to find litterers and dog-poo violators. The government will, of course, have a much easier time of bringing the hammer down on troublesome journalists seeking to embarrass them, and anybody even considering talking to them. Meanwhile, somewhere in Queensland, a cop will have an easier time getting a hold of his estranged wife and the new man in her life. And a few years later, when mass surveillance of anything held on network-connected electronics is the new normal, some politician or public servant, impressed by the efficacy of China’s social-credit system or a PowerPoint presentation from Palantir, will suggest a system to aggregate everybody’s plaintext and analyse it to find as yet unidentified potential threats, by assigning everybody a “true-blue Aussie score” based on their chats, photos and file backups and making a list of those with suspiciously low ones. (Bonus card: the Russian mafiya quietly crack the ASIO key-escrow system and spend a few months feeding the plaintext of every Australian’s data into their databases, before embarking on a continent-scale automated extortion campaign.)
Meanwhile, the other four members of Five Eyes will be lining up to send their decryption requests through Canberra; sometimes, having a member of your club which is still, for all administrative purposes, a penal colony and military strongpoint of Empire, where there is by definition no right to privacy from Authority, can be useful.
Spain uses force to suppress outbreaks of illegal voting, as Catalonia's secessionist government defies a ban on an independence referendum. Having failed to seize all ballot papers in the days running up to the election, Spain has ordered riot police to fire with rubber bullets on those defying the ban; currently, 460 people are said to have been injured. The optics, as they say in this age, are not good; meanwhile, somewhere in the circle of Hell reserved for tyrants, Generalissimo Franco is rubbing his hands with glee, knowing that his life's work has, in some way, endured.
The optimistic liberal commentariat on Twitter, of course, is adamant that this is the day that Spain's right-of-centre anti-separatist government has lost all democratic legitimacy, and will suffer a crushing judgment from History and or Public Opinion; the corollary being that, however questionable Catalan independence may have been until now, it is as inevitable as, say, the Irish Free State became after the Easter Rising. Though that conclusion neglects a few things: firstly, can a government that uses force against its population automatically be said to have lost in the court of public opinion, in an age when the public looks to Dubai as a model of aspirational glamour and gets its news from the Daily Mail, FOXNews and the like? These days, the idea of “human rights” has fallen from favour somewhat, and is regarded with suspicion, if not outright contempt, by a large proportion of the public, whose rights are assumed to be assured by the natural order of things. (After all, if decent folks' rights are in no danger, the reasoning follows, then “human rights” can only be a scam to take from us and give to those people. If you hear some nice well-meaning liberal talking about “human rights”, check your wallet.) Would your typical person, who's relaxed and comfortable with wearing clothes made by slave labour and holidaying in locations where uppity minorities are kept in their place by the threat of deadly force, judge Mariano Rajoy's Spain to have overstepped the mark? As long as any future settlement ensures that Spain remains a sunny holiday and/or retirement destination, this is fine.
Secondly, Turkey has set a precedent for how a member in good standing of the club of free democracies (which Turkey remains, and will remain as long as it keeps the threatened tidal wave of Islamic refugees from entering Europe) may deal with internal dissent. Turkey, as you will recall, was faced with its own ethnic/linguistic minority—the Kurds, who had been left without a homeland by the Sykes-Picot treaty—who had their own party (the HDP), held mayorships in Kurdish-majority towns, and at the last election, won a large number of seats in the parliament, becoming a de facto liberal opposition to Erdoǧan's authoritarian rule. Erdoǧan responded by escalating tensions, jailing most HDP politicians, dissolving Kurdish-run regional governments and replacing them with non-Kurdish administrators, and, in places, using military force against resistant populations. This, too, was judged to be fine, and in no way inconsistent with Turkey's good standing in the democratic world. And in doing so, it set the baseline for what any other free democracy faced with secessionist dissent may freely do.
There seems to be no way back; the Catalans will not surrender unconditionally and forever rule out independence, as would be the minimum required. Therefore, the only option Madrid has is to decisively crush the secessionist movement and salt the ground to ensure it does not return. In the short term, Madrid will probably impose martial law, possibly backed with a shoot-to-kill curfew, which will be in force until immediate tension dissipates. Voting materials will be seized and destroyed, and any ringleaders still at large and within Spain arrested. (Whether neighbours will honour extradition requests for Catalan nationalist activists remains to be seen; Germany, for one, has been refusing to hand over Turkish dissidents.) In the longer term, there are likely to be sweeping Turkish-style purges of the public service, media and universities, with anyone who liked any Catalan independence materials on Twitter/Facebook likely to face dismissal.
Which leaves the longer term, and the whole question of “Catalonia” in the first place. Does (or should) it exist in any way that, say, “Kurdistan“ or “Palestine” officially don't? Does allowing a regional government to exist, to maintain its own laws and mandate that signage must be in Catalan, undermine national cohesion and sovereignty? A Spanish government seeking to eliminate the possibility of future secession might take a number of courses of action, from demoting Catalan from a first-class language to a vulgar dialect, removing it from place names and official materials and school curricula, up to eliminating the region of Catalonia altogether, subsuming its component parts into neighbouring regions for administrative purposes. (This would also serve as a warning to the Basques not to get any ideas; you have a lot of privileges, it would say; this is what happens to those who abuse them.)
Of course, this is assuming that Spain does prevail. A strategy of raising tensions could escalate into an actual civil war, or if not, then into a guerilla conflict like the Basque one, which could fester on for decades, and interact unpredictably with events abroad (if, say, France goes fascist after the next election, or Russia decides that a frozen conflict in western Europe serves its geopolitical ambitions, or post-Brexit Britain turns it into some kind of jingoistic proxy war over Gibraltar or something, anything could happen).
Terrible reports from Aleppo as the forces of the tyrant Assad, backed by Russia, take the last pockets of resistance and exact a terrible vengeance on the resisting population. Mass executions of civilians (or, in the official parlance, “terrorists”) ensue, some shot by firing squads, some burnt alive. (The executed “terrorists” include terrorist children, but as the Bolshevik who bayoneted the Romanovs reportedly said, “nits grow up to be lice”.) On Twitter, accounts that have posted from the besieged, bombed city send their desperate last dispatches. If you ever wondered what it would have been like had they had social media during, say, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it'd probably have been something like this.
Meanwhile, in the West, we look on, appalled but not surprised, and then, bummed out by the constant torrent of misery coming from those parts of the world, change the channel. How about that Kanye West, right? What a legend/card/asshole/(insert your own assessment).
Here in the liberal-democratic world, with its ideals of universal human rights and general tolerance, we are aghast; not in our name, we say. Though this very world seems to be in the process of being swept away, replaced by something more brutish and atavistically Hobbesian. From 20 January, the massacre of Aleppo, and any similar actions which follow, will have been in our name. The United States will officially approve of Assad's ancient right as sovereign to crush rebellions, and to lay waste to their cities, making examples of entire populations that harbour rebels to deter future rebellions (mercifully preventing more bloodshed in the future!). And as satellites of the Trumpreich, so will the UK (which increasingly rejects the idea of human rights) and Australia (with its own gulag system for brown and/or Islamic refugees) and others. France will almost certainly join the new consensus after the election of their next President, who is tipped to be either an actual fascist or a Catholic reactionary aching to roll back the Enlightenment, but in either case a follower of Putin's ideology of strength. They will join Hungary, Turkey and Poland, already in the growing post-liberal consensus. And so, as the world starts to look more like Russia at any point in history, a place where life is cheap, power is all, and any words that contradict this are lies, the relative stability of what came before (roughly the world from the years after World War 2 to 2016) will recede into myth; part fantastically bright Star Trek utopia, part naïve Weimar-style idealism, and part decadent lie that deserved to die. Indeed, the last citadel of liberalism and human rights may well be Germany, having had totalitarianism and genocide sufficiently close in its past, and sufficient memorials to its terrible toll, to resist desperately.
A massive rally in the defence of free speech and in solidarity against Islamist terrorism has taken place in Paris, with the crowds estimated between 1.5 and 2 million in number, more than turned out when Paris was liberated from the Nazis. The rally has also attracted leaders from around the world, including various dictators, autocrats and authoritarians, uniting in Paris to say Je Suis Charlie, before going back to supervise their torturers giving some recalcitrant journalists a going over, or just to rush in sweeping mass-surveillance powers (which are unlikely to have helped catch terrorists the intelligence services already had on their watch lists).
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world:
- In Nigeria, the Islamist group Boko Haram (whose name, meaning something like “non-Islamic education is forbidden”, says it all) have reportedly massacred some 2,000 people, all in the name of an all-merciful God, after seizing a town. (That's about 200 times the Charlie Hebdo massacre, or 2/3 of 9/11.)
- Saudi Arabia, that most honorary of members in our world-spanning alliance of freedom-loving democracies, has flogged a man 50 times for running a liberal blog and criticising the country's religious establishment (“insulting Islam”). Raif Badawi was hunted down by Saudi Arabia's morality police, undoubtedly using surveillance technologies sold by our governments to aid in the hunting down of terrorists; incidentally, Saudi law regards atheism and apostasy as forms of terrorism. Badawi is to be flogged 950 more times over the next 20 weeks, after which he will continue his 10-year prison sentence.
Raif Badawi is probably Charlie, but Saudi Arabia's ambassador to France, who was at the Je Suis Charlie rally, not so much.
Finally, it appears that the noble French tradition of freedom of offensive speech only applies to offensive speech punching outwards.
Actor Gabriel Byrne talks about the 1950s Ireland he grew up in, and in which a new BBC crime series he stars in is set:
Both Byrne and Banville, who are old friends, grew up in this Ireland of the 1950s. "It was almost a Taliban-esque society," says the actor, recalling an incident when his mother, who was walking down the street with him while pushing a pram, stepped off the pavement into the road to make way for a priest. "That's how much power they had. Now all the rocks have been lifted and all the maggots have crawled out. The Catholic Church is a tyrannical, evil institution, there's no doubt about it – anti-woman, anti-homosexual, anti-love, anti-condom, totally elitist."The series, Quirke, is to air on the BBC “later this autumn”, and looks like it could be interesting.
A few days ago, David Miranda, a Brazilian man who is the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours under anti-terrorism legislation whilst passing through Heathrow on the way from Berlin to his home in Brazil. Metropolitan Police threatened him with imprisonment, demanded his passwords and seized all electronic devices on his person; GCHQ have been unable to crack encrypted files seized from him, which could be plans for a doomsday device. Or they might not.
US conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan has compared this incident to events in Putin's Russia:
In this respect, I can say this to David Cameron. Thank you for clearing the air on these matters of surveillance. You have now demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these anti-terror provisions are capable of rank abuse. Unless some other facts emerge, there is really no difference in kind between you and Vladimir Putin. You have used police powers granted for anti-terrorism and deployed them to target and intimidate journalists deemed enemies of the state.
You have proven that these laws can be hideously abused. Which means they must be repealed. You have broken the trust that enables any such legislation to survive in a democracy. By so doing, you have attacked British democracy itself. What on earth do you have to say for yourself? And were you, in any way, encouraged by the US administration to do such a thing?The Whitehouse "says" "it" "played" "no" "role" "in" the detention, though acknowledged that it was briefed on Miranda's presence on the plane and on the detention, as was PM David Cameron. Which suggests that, unless one makes the extraordinary mental gymnastics of extending the definition of “terrorism” to leaking information embarrassing national security agencies, this was a naked act of intimidation against a journalist by targeting his family, of the sort practiced in China and Iran.
Meanwhile, it emerged that, a month earlier, officers of the security services raided the headquarters of the Guardian and forced staff to destroy hard drives and computers used to store the NSA revelations. Copies apparently exist abroad, for the time being, with Guardian staff working on the case being based in the New York office.
I wonder how long until the Guardian relocates its editorial headquarters to a location that is not a pervasive security state, selling the shiny new building they have at Kings Place (though perhaps keeping a floor as a local bureau and/or for writing whimsical middle-class humour columns for the Saturday supplement) and using part of the undoubtedly hefty profit to buy a block in, say, downtown Reykjavík?
Also, Groklaw founder Pamela Jones has shut the site down, on account of the environment of pervasive surveillance, and is going into internal exile off the internet:
One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.
My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it's possible. I'm just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can't stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write. I've always been a private person. That's why I never wanted to be a celebrity and why I fought hard to maintain both my privacy and yours.And here's Charlie Stross' take, in which he connects the British security state to David Cameron's mandatory anti-porn internet filter plans:
The spooks are not stupid. There are two ways they can respond to this in a manner consistent with their current objectives. They can try to shut down the press — a distinct possibility within the UK, but still incredibly dangerous — or they can shut down the open internet, in order to stop the information leakage over that channel and, more ambitiously, to stop the public reading undesirable news.I think they're going for the latter option, although I doubt they can make it stick. Let me walk you through the early stages of what I think is going to happen.
If you can tap data from the major search engines, how hard is it to insert search results into their output? Easy, it turns out. As easy as falling off a log. Google and Facebook are both advertising businesses. Twitter's trying to become one. Amazon and Ebay both rent space at the top of their search results to vendors who pay more money or offer more profits. Advertising is the keyword. All the NSA needs, in addition to the current information gathering capability, is the ability to inject spurious search results that submerge whatever nugget the user might be hunting for in a sea of irrelevant sewage. Imagine hunting for "Snowden" on Google and, instead of finding The New York Times or The Guardian's in-depth coverage, finding page after page of links to spam blogs.
Der Spiegel has an interesting interview with Adam Michnik, former Polish Solidarność dissident and now editor of the broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza, talking about democracy, authoritarianism and civil society in Europe, looking partly at the hardline authoritarian-nationalist turn Hungary has taken, and to a lesser extent the Catholic-nationalist right in Poland:
SPIEGEL: Orbán is trying to direct his country into a "system of national cooperation without compromises." What does he mean by that?
Michnik: British historian Norman Davies called this form of democracy a "government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth. At some point, parties no longer mean anything, and the system is based, once again, on a monologue of power. The democratic institutions in the West are more deeply embedded in the West than in Eastern Europe. Democracy can defend itself there. Everything is still fragile in our countries, even two decades after the end of communism.
Michnik: Back in 1990, I wrote that nationalism is the last stage of communism: a system of thought that gives simple but wrong answers to complex questions. Nationalism is practically the natural ideology of authoritarian regimes.
More dispatches from Australia's culture war, where a raid on an art gallery, and pending charges of child pornography production against one of the artists, signal a new climate of rising censorship and a the return of a narrow-minded, provincial prudishness, now riding within the mainstream of the Liberal Party:
The opposition to Yore's work has been spearheaded by a group of local figures. Minutes from a City of Port Phillip council meeting on 28 May show that Chris Spillane, a Liberal party candidate for the council, "stated that while he hasn't seen the exhibition himself, from what he has heard about the exhibition it is offensive and pornographic in nature".
Spillane has previously claimed the council "wastes considerable sums of money" on projects that promote "socialism and multiculturalism". He has been supported in his stance against the Linden centre by councilor Andrew Bond, who called Yore's exhibition "complete smut", and by resident Adrian Jackson.As Australian historian Manning Clark (who himself has fallen posthumously out of favour in the new age of muscular conservatism, partly thanks to the Murdoch press's attempts to paint him as a Soviet agent of influence) said, Australian history has been a battle between the “enlargers” and the “straighteners” (a somewhat more nuanced paradigm than the “larrikin/wowser” nexus; after all, Australia has no shortage of rowdy, flag-draped xenophobes vigorously defending their freedom from the rules of decorum whilst attacking anything outside of their narrow view of what belongs in Australia). The straighteners were the wowsers, the provincial prudes and authoritarians, drawing the boundaries and punishing those who dare cross them, whereas the enlargers, the liberal-minded cosmopolitans, were those who aspired to push the boundaries back.
The enlargers were initially a minority but have had a home in the artistic and intellectual world of Australia's bohemian enclaves (as described by Tony Moore in Dancing with Empty Pockets) since the mid-19th century, gradually extended their influence as the nation's culture matured; this reached its peak during the great thaw, which began when the boundaries of the old conservatism, inherited from imperial administrators and shored up by the great patriarch of the Right, Menzies, broke, culminating in the sweeping in of the Whitlam government and a quarter-century of progressive change, creating the illusion of a forward-looking, broad-minded country. Now, after eleven years under the stern paternal gaze of arch-conservative John Howard and five more in an interregnum, governed by a Labor government keen to avoid breaking from the conservatism of the day and keeping the seat warm for the triumphant return of Howard's successor (Tony Abbott, a spiritual and cultural heir of Catholic ultraconservative Bob Santamaria), it becomes more apparent that that was an illusion; mere window-dressing over the small-minded authoritarianism of the penal colony and the military outpost of Empire. Leading the charge is a reinvigorated Liberal Party, having shed the ambiguity that its name suggests, sidelined progressive elements (such as deputy leader Malcolm Turnbull, who once led the push for Australia to abandon the monarchy) and firmly, unapologetically carrying the banner of a specifically Australian conservatism at all levels of government. Their Australia is a nation of God-fearing muscular soldier-sportsmen, standing proudly in the glow of imperial glories and singing in unison from the same hymn sheet, a nation in which there is no room for anything that is un-Australian, be it black-armband history, black-armband climatology, Godless Communism, uppity sheilas, uppity poofters or immoral or indecent art.
In the latest conflict between contemporary art and Australia's socially conservative morés, an artist is facing charges of producing child pornography after Victoria Police raided an exhibition and seized an installation titled Everything's Fucked, which allegedly depicted sexual acts with children's faces superimposed on them.
On Saturday Yore described the police seizure as "completely absurd". "The work, I feel, has been taken completely out of context because they're very small fragments of a collage of a much larger work that constitutes literally thousands of different objects I've found in society - basically junk I've been collecting,'' he said.If convicted, Paul Yore is likely to end up with a lengthy prison sentence (and one knows how much respect “rock spiders”—convicted paedophiles—get in Australian prisons) followed by life on the sex offenders' register. Possibly a better deal than Pussy Riot got in Russia, but not by much.
If the various tiers of Australian government are so keen to draw a firm line and authoritatively declare what is not allowed in our society, wouldn't it be cheaper for them to introduce a new series of arts grants, consisting of one-way tickets to, say, New York, Berlin or Amsterdam (or perhaps even New Zealand, which lacks the undercurrent of penal-colony authoritarianism that's never far from the surface in Australia), to be disbursed to potential troublemakers who have issues with our relaxed and comfortable way of life?
As Australia's Labor government confirms its inability to win the next election, we begin to see what the Abbott government's legislative agenda might look like. Until now, Abbott's handlers have been mindful about not scaring the swinging voters and careful to keep him sedated and making reassuring noises about not imposing his religious beliefs on the public (as, for example, he did when he used ministerial powers to ban morning-after contraceptive pill RU486 from Australia, effectively deputising Australia's medical regulatory system into an arm of the Catholic Church's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith), now as victory becomes more of a certainty, the mask has started to slip, revealing radical policy ideas like eliminating unemployment benefits for people under 30, instead requiring them to go work in the mines. A bit like the British Tories' Workfare, only with a truly Australian sense of scale:
The Opposition Leader made the controversial remarks during a two-hour meeting with about 15 senior resources industry leaders in Perth on Monday night. Mr Abbott told the roundtable briefing he believed stopping dole payments to able-bodied young people would take pressure off the welfare system and reduce the need to bring in large numbers of skilled migrants to staff mining projects.To be fair, the remarks are not currently Coalition policy, though the fact that the likely future Prime Minister can suggest them with a straight face, and not as some kind of Swiftean modest proposal or reductio ad absurdum, gives one a foretaste of what is to come. Herding young people into labour battalions at the command (and for the profit) of the Gina Rineharts of the country: Howard may have wanted to take Australia back to the 1950s, but Abbott seems to have his sights set on the penal-colony era.
The Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot have, as expected, been found guilty, and sentenced to two years in a gulag, a sentence less than the 3-7 years the prosecution wanted, but still alarmingly severe given the nature of the incident. Given the brutality of the Russian prison system (in which almost half of the prisoners are ill with HIV or antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and disfavoured prisoners, a category into which unrepentant enemies of the powers that be may end up being coerced, are singled out for brutal abuse), their chances of emerging two years later more or less OK don't look good.
The trial, if anything, has been a turning point, in that Russia has given up the pretence of being a liberal democracy, and publicly reasserted the Czarist autocratic model, with the Russian Orthodox church acting as a Caesaropapist arm of the absolute State. Der Spiegel has a piece on Russia's reembracing of autocracy:
In the summer of 1991, for example, when the Soviet realm was collapsing, Putin moved into his office in St. Petersburg and promptly had the portrait of Lenin removed and replaced with one of Peter the Great. A janitor had brought Putin two images of the czar. The first one depicted the young Peter, looking amiable and idealistic, a modernizer who wanted to open the "window to Europe" for his giant, backward country. Putin rejected the picture. Instead, he chose one of a serious-looking older czar, marked by many battles and conflicts, one who had expanded his realm with new conquests, and one whose rule was so ruthless that he had his own son tortured to death after accusing him of being involved in a conspiracy.Then again, as Twitter user @mrcolmquinn pointed out, "Next time you see a staged photo of Putin doing something macho remember he is scared of a non violent group of young women."
And in other news, Moscow's top court has banned gay parades for 100 years.
Where punk still means something: There's a piece in the Observer about the trials and tribulations of Russian punk-rock protest group Pussy Riot, a sort of hybrid of Plastic People Of The Universe-style rock'n'roll absurdism with the semiotics and feminist ideology of riot-grrl and a touch of Situationism, who took on the Putin regime, and (in being crucified by it) may yet bring it low:
Russia's leaders have always understood the potency of the visual imagery of power. Of hammers and sickles. Of nuclear warheads and a well-muscled man doing manly, bare-chested outdoor pursuits. And, in the latest instance: of five young women in brightly coloured balaclavas jumping up and down in the symbolic heart of the Russian state: Red Square.
Miriam Elder, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, who has covered the case assiduously, met a group of them shortly afterwards, one of the very few journalists to have interviewed them. "They were just very determined. Very purposeful. Everybody was so angry at that time. But what came across was just how educated they were. How well thought out their ideas were. They quoted everybody from Simone de Beauvoir to the Ramones. It wasn't just a silly prank. There was a real message behind it."The members of the Pussy Riot collective are anonymous, covering their faces and going by noms de guerre. Nonetheless, three members were arrested after invading a Russian Orthodox cathedral and playing a song calling for Putin to be dismissed, a gesture which was deliberately calculated to highlight the complicity of the Church with the Putin-era state in attempting to reassert absolute control over Russian society:
"More than this, though, is how the church has started to act as if it is the propaganda wing of the government. Before the election, Patriarch Kirill said that it was 'un-Christian' to demonstrate. And then he said that Putin had been placed at the head of the government 'by God'. No one was talking about this before. And now everybody is."The state has moved to make an example of the Pussy Riot Three; they have been detained incommunicado pending a trial, and face up to seven years in prison. Though public opinion, both within Russia and in the outside world, has moved against the state. Amnesty International, ignoring the tradition of religious privilege to take offence, has also designated the three to be prisoners of conscience.
Britain's High Court has ruled that the Metropolitan Police was justified in preemptively arresting activists prior to the royal wedding last year, just in case they tried something, a decision which effectively allows anybody with a propensity to protest of any sort to be arrested to prevent them protesting, opening the way for the great British democracy to be managed far more smoothly than previously possible. Soon Britain's civil society may be as efficient and trouble-free as Singapore's.
A key driver in the move towards a better managed democracy has been the recent festivities: the royal wedding last year, and the Jubilympics this year, which promise to leave a lasting legacy of legal measures. With the smooth running of the marketing exercise in East London at stake, nothing may be left to chance. Most recently, this has resulted in a “legal” graffiti artist being banned from the vicinity of Olympic venues, all public transport facilities and from possessing spray paint or marker pens for the duration of the event, merely because, should he decide to unlawfully graffiti the games (or to do a commission in the area for a non-sponsoring client), he would be able to do so.
The Olympics are nigh upon London, and their shadow falls heavily over the people of the capital. The stadiums are going up in the East End and the unsightly poor are being cleansed to make way for residents with more disposable income. Further afield, signs of the mass spectacle are appearing all over London, as if dropped from Mount Olympus itself by the gods to the grateful mortals below. (The mortals are grateful and in good cheer because that is the law, and the penalties, both civil and criminal, for being off-message have been subtly explained; these Olympics are, ultimately, a very understatedly British take on the totalitarian mass spectacle that the modern Olympics' Fascist originators had in mind—not so much the iron fist in the velvet glove, as the iron fist in a glove of brightly coloured, vaguely hip-hop-styled plastic foam, shipped by the containerload from China.)
Now, it has emerged that the Ministry of Defence will be billeting surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of apartment buildings in East London; one journalist who lives in the area received a leaflet notifying him of this; the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that it is considering missile deployments.
Having surface-to-air missiles deployed to defend an urban environment is a somewhat sketchy proposition at best; should the missiles be fired, whatever they shoot down will cause a lot of damage when it hits the ground (and if they miss, they themselves will cause some damage). The Whitehouse, famously, has a SAM battery on the roof (Dick Cheney reportedly ordered it as a red-meat-conservative replacement for Bill Clinton's unacceptably liberal solar cells); the implicit message being that the lives of those inside the Whitehouse are worth trading the lives of those around it for. Whether this reasoning transfers from the Commander-in-Chief of the Free World to a stadium full of spectators at a corporate promotional event is another question. (The Queen, the head of state of Britain, does not have a SAM battery defending Buckingham Palace and threatening to send any rogue aircraft down in flames onto the posh digs of Belgravia.) Meanwhile, Charlie Stross extrapolates on the possible unintended consequences:
Hmm. It's a good thing I'm a novelist who dabbles in technothrillers, not a terrorist. If I was a terrorist I'd be licking my lips, trying to work out how to trigger a missile launch. Using a motor-powered model aircraft, free flight design (no radio controls to jam) aimed vaguely towards the Olympic stadium, with a nice radio beacon or some sort of infra-red source (a flare, perhaps) on its tail to make it easy to track? These missiles will be the close-in option, because we know the RAF will already be flying combat air patrols over London; they won't have much time to evaluate threats or respond intelligently. So launch from the back of a panel van, like the IRA mortar attacks on places like Heathrow or 10 Downing Street. The twist in the scheme would be to aim past the missile launchers along a vector that would attract a hail of hypervelocity missile launches in the direction of, say, a DLR station at rush hour.Meanwhile, Stephen Graham (professor of cities and society at Newcastle University, and author of Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism) has an article on the security lockdown being imposed on London for the Olympics, much of it to protect the brand image of corporate sponsors:
Beyond these security spectaculars, more stealthy changes are underway. New, punitive and potentially invasive laws such as the London Olympic Games Act 2006 are in force. These legitimise the use of force, potentially by private security companies, to proscribe Occupy-style protests. They also allow Olympic security personnel to deal forcibly with the display of any commercial material that is deemed to challenge the complete management of London as a "clean city" to be branded for the global TV audience wholly by prime corporate sponsors (including McDonald's, Visa and Dow Chemical).
The final point is how the security operations of Olympics have major long-term legacies for their host cities and nations. The security preoccupations of Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested – especially in democracies. These often work to "purify" or "cleanse" diverse and messy realities of city life and portray existing places as "waste" or "derelict" spaces to be transformed by mysterious "trickle-down effects". The scale and nature of evictions and the clearance of streets of those deemed not to befit such events can seem like systematic ethnic or social cleansing. To make way for the Beijing Games, 1.5 million were evicted; clearances of local businesses and residents in London, though more stealthy, have been marked.
Looking at these various points together shows one thing: contemporary Olympics are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends. Far removed from their notional or founding ideals, these events dramatically embody changes in the wider world: fast-increasing inequality, growing corporate power, the rise of the homeland security complex, and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.The permanent legacy of the authoritarian measures in the Olympic enabling laws mandated by the IOC cannot be emphasised enough; in Sydney, for example, restrictions on civil liberties passed for the 2000 Olympics were used, years later, to crack down on protests against the Catholic Church's “World Youth Day”, and remain on the books to this day.
And some are saying that the levels of brand policing, imposing criminal sanctions on the display of non-sponsor logos (to say nothing of political protests) within an Olympic zone and severely restricting the use of words such as “London” and “2012” by non-sponsors, will have an adverse effect on the alleged economic benefits of the Olympics, which are touted as much much of the rationale for putting up with all this in the first place.
Finally, Charlie Brooker weighs in:
Oral-B's official Olympic toothbrush exists because its parent company, Procter & Gamble, has a sponsorship deal enabling it to associate all its products with the Games. That's why if you look up Viakal limescale remover on a supermarket website, the famous five interlocking rings pop up alongside it. This in no way cheapens the Olympic emblem, which traditionally symbolises global unity, peaceful competition and gleaming stainless steel shower baskets.
In the US, employers are paying increasingly close attention to candidates' Facebook accounts; demanding that they hand over their Facebook passwords, allowing them to investigate their profiles, their past activities and the company they keep to determine whether they are of sufficient moral fibre:
In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state's Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall. Previously, applicants were asked to surrender their user name and password, but a complaint from the ACLU stopped that practice last year. While submitting to a Facebook review is voluntary, virtually all applicants agree to it out of a desire to score well in the interview, according Maryland ACLU legislative director Melissa Coretz Goemann.And some universities are requiring students to friend official accounts and monitoring their social network activity:
Student-athletes in colleges around the country also are finding out they can no longer maintain privacy in Facebook communications because schools are requiring them to "friend" a coach or compliance officer, giving that person access to their “friends-only” posts. Schools are also turning to social media monitoring companies with names like UDilligence and Varsity Monitor for software packages that automate the task. The programs offer a "reputation scoreboard" to coaches and send "threat level" warnings about individual athletes to compliance officers.(I imagine that the assumption here is that those on athletic scholarships are not bright enough to set up friend lists and segregate their posts. After all, Facebook doesn't tell you whether you see all of a user's posts, a small portion, or in fact, whether they put you on their “Restricted” list (i.e., the “pretend-to-be-this-schmuck's-friend-but-don't-show-them-anything” list).
Demanding Facebook passwords is of dubious legality, however, if a court rules in favour of this practice, companies answerable to shareholders and concerned about legal liability may start adopting it as policy. One option is to not have a Facebook account, or deny having one; however, this could be a liability, marking one out as some kind of antisocial loner (studies have found that evidence of a social life can boost one's employability rankings, and if everyone's on Facebook, the one guy whose name draws a blank could look too much like potential spree-killer material to be worth the risk.)
If employer (or school, or governmental) Facebook surveillance becomes widespread I can see a new version of the clean-urine-for-drug-tests business model emerging, in the form of clean-but-plausibly-active-looking Facebook profiles for presentation to officials. Fill in a form giving details (what political/religious views it should espouse, where it should be between gregariously easy-going and Stepfordesquely clean (in most cases, inserting a few minor flaws for versimilitude is recommended, though the optimum degree of flaws will vary case by case; your case advisor can offer you guidance), what sorts of people, institutions and social situations your perfect doppelgänger should be seen to associate with, &c.), put in your credit card number and, presto, an army of third-world data-centre workers will assemble a profile you can show to any authority figure without fear. For a monthly fee, they'll even run your parallel life in the background for you, keeping the illusion up, posting anodyne comments about TV shows and sports matches, attending church mixers, liking big, uncontroversial brands and even giving you your desired level of a simulated social life with a network of convincing yet utterly unimpeachable sockpuppets.
Psychologist Bruce Levine makes the claim that, in the US, the psychological profession has a bias towards conformism and authoritarianism, and against anti-authoritarian tendencies. This bias apparently results from the institutional structure of the profession, which selects for and reinforces pro-conformist and pro-authoritarian tendencies, and manifests itself, among other things, in those who exhibit “anti-authoritarian tendencies” being caught, diagnosed with various mental illnesses and medicated into compliance before they can develop into actual troublemakers:
In my career as a psychologist, I have talked with hundreds of people previously diagnosed by other professionals with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, anxiety disorder and other psychiatric illnesses, and I am struck by (1) how many of those diagnosed are essentially anti-authoritarians, and (2) how those professionals who have diagnosed them are not.
Anti-authoritarians question whether an authority is a legitimate one before taking that authority seriously. Evaluating the legitimacy of authorities includes assessing whether or not authorities actually know what they are talking about, are honest, and care about those people who are respecting their authority. And when anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they challenge and resist that authority—sometimes aggressively and sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes wisely and sometimes not.
Some activists lament how few anti-authoritarians there appear to be in the United States. One reason could be that many natural anti-authoritarians are now psychopathologized and medicated before they achieve political consciousness of society’s most oppressive authorities.Showing hostility to or resentment of authority will get one diagnosed with various conditions, such as “opposition defiant disorder (ODD)”, a condition which manifests itself in deficits in “rule-governed behaviour”, and for which, as for many parts of the human condition, there are many types of corrective medication these days. (Compare this to the condition of “sluggish schizophrenia”, which only existed in the Soviet Union and manifested itself as a rejection of the self-evident truth of Marxism-Leninism.)
While pretty much every hierarchical society has mechanisms for encouraging conformity to some degree, Dr. Levine's contention is that the increase in psychiatric medication in recent years may be leading to a more authoritarian and conformistic society.
With the recent Royal Wedding and the upcoming Olympics, London's public transport authority has declared war on underground explorers, whose activities have now become a matter of national security:
"Normally we would have been dished off to the graffiti squad," Otter says. "But because of the wedding we ended up with detectives much higher up."
Last month TfL applied to issue anti-social behaviour orders which would not only stop them undertaking further expeditions and blogging about urban exploration but also prohibit them from carrying equipment that could be used for exploring after dark. Extraordinarily, it also stipulates they should not be allowed to speak to each other for the duration of the order – 10 years.
In the light of Wikipedia disappearing for a day in protest against the SOPA law, an article by an assistant professor comparing the philosophy of Wikipedia with that of traditional paper encyclopaedias:
Reading the high-quality, professionally edited entries in my library’s encyclopedias was an eye-opener and a guilty pleasure — you could learn so much with so little effort! And you don’t have to work as hard untangling the entries the way you do with Wikipedia! But this is exactly the problem with closed, for-profit encyclopedias: they require no work. In fact, they require just the opposite: submission to authority. The writing guidelines for my encyclopedia entry insist that there be no quotations or citations — just a short list of additional readings. Encyclopedias give us no reason to believe their claims are true except the arbitrary authority of those who write them. They are the ultimate triumph of the authoritarian impulse in academics.
It is this refusal of arbitrary authority that really scares encyclopedia types, not worries about accuracy. Wikipedia is a place where you must learn to think for yourself, encyclopedias are places where you are told what to believe.It's interesting that the authoritarian underpinnings of the encyclopaedia, necessary for the purposes of aggregating broadly accepted knowledge within convenient reach, went all but unnoticed (and, had anybody noticed and criticised them, they would have sounded like some kind of hopelessly idealistic hippy Arcadian) until the disintermediating power of the internet demonstrated that another world is possible.
Since taking office, Victoria's conservative government has pursued a war on indecent language. First it instituted on-the-spot fines for swearing in public, and now, it has unveiled changes to the liquor licensing laws which allows venues' licences to be revoked for tolerating "profane, indecent or obscene language", or not promptly removing indecent graffiti.
“What this means is that if someone swears inside your venue Police can penalise your venue with Demerit Points. The concern … is that this gives Police unprecedented authority over an already over-regulated legitimate business sector that contributes strongly to the local economy. Vandalism is also mentioned. Does this mean that if someone has graffiti-ed in the bathrooms that police can issue Demerit points?”
Russian Prime Minister and President-in-waiting Vladimir Putin has been awarded the Confucian Peace Prize, created by the Chinese government to "promote world peace from an eastern perspective", beating a field of other candidates, including Bill Gates, Angela Merkel and a Beijing-appointed Tibetan Panchen Lama:
The 16-judge panel said that Putin deserved the award because his criticism of Nato's military engagement in Libya was "outstanding in keeping world peace", regardless of the fact that it had no bearing on the outcome of the north African conflict.
The Chinese organisers claimed they established the award last year after preparing for years to create something that would "promote world peace from an eastern perspective". But the Confucian peace prize appeared more like a rushed and botched attempt to upstage the Nobel laureate status granted to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Not many people defend authoritarianism for its own sake; those who don't abhor it generally regard it as a means to a specific end. Not so Prince:
"I was anti-authoritarian but at the same time I was a loving tyrant. You can't be both. I had to learn what authority was. That's what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a study guide for social interaction."
Sometimes he seems a little too fond of boundaries. "It's fun being in Islamic countries, to know there's only one religion. There's order. You wear a burqa. There's no choice. People are happy with that." But what about women who are unhappy about having to wearing burqas? "There are people who are unhappy with everything," he says shruggingly. "There's a dark side to everything."
Reasons to be careful about visiting Thailand: a US citizen who went there for medical reasons has been arrested for having posted excerpts from a biography of the Thai king banned in the country in his blog in 2007. He is charged with lese majeste and also under the Computer Crimes Act (ostensibly for entering false information into a computer system).
The spirit of the "Arab Spring" seems to have spread to Singapore, the world's most perfectly managed democracy, so well run that opposition parties have, in the past, not been a problem:
Singapore is known worldwide for censorship and corporal punishment. But in the runup to Saturday's parliamentary elections more people have started to speak out against the clan that has ruled Singapore for almost 50 years. Parallels with the Arab spring are striking, even if revolution is not just around the corner.
Rally attendance does not always translate to the polling booth. In 2006, despite large crowds at opposition speeches, the PAP won 67% of the vote. Many Singaporeans fear their ballots will be traced and their mortgages or jobs taken away if they vote for the opposition.As expected, the governing People's Action Party won the election by a handsome margin, though the opposition Singapore won an unprecedented 36.8% of the valid votes, and from now on, the government may have a harder time keeping a lid on things.
And here is a piece by Chee Soon Juan, a former opposition politician bankrupted (and thus disqualified) in a government lawsuit.
Shortly before the Royal Wedding, Facebook shut down the groups of 50 UK-based protest groups, most of them not specifically anti-royalist. These groups included anti-corporate-tax-avoidance group UK Uncut, anti-cuts and pro-NHS protesters, and the Green Party, as well as socialist and anarchist groups. Facebook says that the groups were using fake personal accounts, rather than pages, in violation of the terms of service. However, to nuke them, immediately prior to a "national security event" and suspension of civil liberties, without any warning being given, does look somewhat suspicious.
I wonder what really happened there. Does Her Majesty's Government have in its arsenal a D-notice-style order to secretly oblige internet services operating in the UK to deny services to suspicious persons, and also deny the existence of the order? Has Prince Charles escalated his personal interventions in affairs of state from sacking modernist architects to calling up internet companies and getting protest groups silenced? Or is this a strategic decision by Facebook, a company which reportedly has its eye on the vast Chinese market, demonstrating to the Chinese Communist Party that it is extremely comfortable about enforcing "harmony" on its platform?
Meanwhile, Cory Doctorow argues that activists should avoid Facebook, because the system (a) gives one no democratic rights that cannot be arbitrarily taken away if it suits the powers that be to do so, and (b) is a surveillance system which gives the authorities lists of suspicious persons who have communicated with other troublemakers. It strikes me that if the world's activists take this advice, then these actions will have done to their causes the same sort of damage Wikileaks sought to do to the authoritarian conspiracy Julian Assange wrote about seeking to stop: by increasing the risks of organising in public, forcing them to fragment into small, secretive cells, with a greatly reduced organisational capacity.
Britain isn't the only place where protest activity is being deterred: in Israel, an activist named Jonathan Pollak has been gaoled for three months for taking part in a nonviolent bicycle demonstration against the blockade of Gaza:
"It is not common that someone found guilty of illegal assembly will be sent to prison," said (Pollak's lawyer) Lasky, who has worked in this field for eight years. "We are in the midst of a high wave of detentions of activists," she added. "The criminalisation of leftwing demonstrations is a policy these days".When Israel's aggressive foreign policy and handling of the Palestinians are brought up, one rejoinder often heard is that Israel, the premier (if not only) pluralist democracy in the region, has a very robust culture of democratic debate, with more dissent and criticism heard there than in, say, the U.S, and certainly more than in the Middle East in general. In light of this, the gaoling of nonviolent demonstrators is particularly disturbing.
Meanwhile in Tennessee, state anti-terrorism officials have listed the American Civil Liberties Union on a map detailing "terrorism events and other suspicious activities", after the ACLU warned schools to ensure that holiday celebrations "are inclusive". Officials now say that this was done by mistake, but it does make one wonder whether, for some officials, terrorism is the new Communism.
Johann Hari writes that, for the first time, he is hearing Britons say that they are too scared to protest:
So now we know. When our politicians complained over the past few decades, in a low, sad tone, that our young people were “too apathetic” and “disengaged”, it was a lie. A great flaring re-engagement of the young has take place this year. With overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, they are demanding policies that are supported by the majority of the British people – and our rulers are trying to truncheon, kettle and intimidate them back into apathy.
This slow constriction of the right to protest has been happening for decades now. Under New Labour, protesters outside parliament started to have to ask permission and suddenly found themselves prosecuted for “anti-social behaviour.” In 2009, a man who had committed no violence or threats at all died after being attacked by a police officer on the streets of London at a protest - and nobody has ever been punished. Now the Metropolitan Police’s instinctive response to any group of protesters is to surround them and ‘kettle’ – that is, arbitrarily imprison – them for up to ten hours in the freezing cold, with no food, water, or toilets. It doesn’t matter how peaceful you were. You are trapped.As the government pushes through unpopular measures, such as the ConDems' "fair-minded" sweeping cuts to services, whilst preserving tax breaks for the super-rich, such intimidatory measures could be essential to maintaining social acquiescence. Though, when the idea of consent of the governed is compromised, ordinary people will pay the price:
There is a cost to this chilling of protest. Every British citizen is the beneficiary of a long line of protesters stretching back through the centuries. Every woman reading this can vote and open her own bank account and choose her own husband and have a career because protesters demanded it. Every worker gets at least £5.93 an hour, and paid holidays, and paid sick leave, because protesters demanded it. Every pensioner gets enough to survive because protesters demand it. What what your life would be like if all those protesters through all those years had been frightened into inactivity? If you block the right to protest, you block the path to progress. You are left instead at the whim of an elite, whose priority is tax cuts for themselves, paid for with spending cuts for the poor.
In Britain, we are not suffering from an excess of civil disobedience. We are suffering from an excess of civil obedience. Our government is pursuing dozens of policies we, the people, know to be immoral – from bombing civilians in Afghanistan to kicking away the ladder that lets hard-working poor children stay on at school. We aren’t wrong when we challenge these injustices. We are wrong when we stay silent. As Oscar Wilde said: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index, a ranking of countries from most to least democratic, is out. The actual report requires registration, but the Wikipedia page contains a list, and various news sites across the world accompany this with explanatory commentary. A press release is here.
The report divides the world into four blocks, in order from best to worst: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. The largest group, by population, is flawed democracies, followed by authoritarian regimes and, some distance behind, full democracies.
The four most democratic countries are—quelle surprise!—Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden. They're followed immediately by New Zealand (which is looking increasingly like a chunk of Scandinavia in the Antipodes) and Australia. That's right, Australia is more democratic than Finland, Switzerland and Canada (#7. #8 and #9). The United States is at #17 (with a score of 8.18/10) and the UK is at #19. (The US loses points due to the War On Terror, whereas the UK's problem seems to be political apathy. Though is that the cause or, as Charlie Stross argued, a symptom?)
Meanwhile, France under Sarkozy has fallen out of the league of full democracies, and been relegated to the flawed democracies; there it is kept company by Berlusconi's Italy, Greece, and most of the Eastern European countries (with the notable exception of the Czech Republic, who are one step above the US), along with South Africa, Israel, India, East Timor, Brazil, Thailand, Ukraine and a panoply of African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Below the flawed democracies lie the hybrid regimes; these include Hong Kong (a notional democracy with Communist China keeping it on a leash), Singapore (a model of "managed democracy"), Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Palestine and Russia. And at the bottom are authoritarian regimes, including the usual suspects: Cuba, China, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia and such. It will surprise few to learn that the bottom spot is held by North Korea, with a score of 1.08 out of 10, followed by Chad, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Burma.
The press release states that the democracy ratings are worse than in previous years, with democracy declining across the world. Several factors are cited for this decline, including the economic crisis, the War On Terror, and declining confidence in political institutions. The press release also says that the crisis may have increased the attractiveness of the Chinese authoritarian model.
The scale of the rankings is, of course, not scientific. A rating of 9.8/10, as Norway has, would suggest that 98% of policy is decided at the ballot box, rather than in negotiations with other states, interest groups, bondholders and the like. And if 81.6% of Britain's decisions were democratically made, grossly unpopular decisions like trebling university tuition fees or invading Iraq would not have happened. One could imagine a more accurate scale, which estimates what percentage of a country's public affairs are decided through democratic discourse. A better measure would also have to take into account media pluralism, the education levels of the public, and access to unfiltered information; if a country's media is controlled by a few media tycoons, the will of the people will act as a low-pass filter on their opinions.
Another place not to visit: Kuwait has banned the use of DSLR cameras in public places except by registered journalists. Compact cameras are exempt from the ban, presumably because banning them would have involved banning most mobile phones.
Restrictions on photography aren't unprecedented for Middle Eastern monarchies. In the United Arab Emirates (which includes Dubai, one of the region's more liberal enclaves), for example, photo-sharing site Flickr is blocked.
Recently, in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia has blocked Facebook, on the grounds that it doesn't conform with the kingdom's conservative Wahhabi Islamist values. (The big surprise: Facebook was apparently not blocked earlier. Given that even the relatively liberal Dubai blocks sites like Flickr, it's surprising that the Saudis have let their subjects wilfully poke each other online for so long.) The ban is said to be temporary; presumably Facebook doesn't usually contravene Wahhabi values.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority police have arrested an atheist blogger after intelligence officers traced him to an internet café; 26-year-old Walid Husayin could get life in prison for heresy, though the Palestinian equivalent of the Daily Mail readership are calling for him to be put to death:
Husayin used a fake name on his English and Arabic-language blogs and Facebook pages. After his mother discovered articles on atheism on his computer, she canceled his Internet connection in hopes that he would change his mind.
Instead, he began going to an Internet cafe — a move that turned out to be a costly mistake. The owner, Ahmed Abu-Asal, said the blogger aroused suspicion by spending up to seven hours a day in a corner booth. After several months, a cafe worker supplied captured snapshots of his Facebook pages to Palestinian intelligence officials.
Officials monitored him for several weeks and then arrested him on Oct. 31 as he sat in the cafe, said Abu-Asal.Apparently such intense surveillance of heretics is not unusual in the region; intelligence officers in both the relatively liberal West Bank and the hard-line Islamist-dominated Gaza work hard to hunt down dissidents, and even in Egypt, a blogger was charged with atheism in 2007 after intelligence officials monitored his posts.
A British author has been found guilty of insulting the Singaporean judiciary for criticising Singapore's use of the death penalty, and alleging a lack of impartiality. Alan Shadrake, based in Malaysia, made the claims in a book titled Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock; he was arrested when he entered the city-state and "managed democracy" to promote his book. He is also being investigated for criminal defamation, and the police have seized his passport.
Justice Loh said Shadrake had written a "selective and dissembling account" of half-truths and falsehoods which could cause the unwary reader to doubt Singapore's rule of law.
News organisations covering Singapore critically have paid large fines or had their circulation in Singapore restricted. Human rights groups say the Singaporean authorities too often resort to the courts to silence their critics. But the government insists it has a right to quash inaccuracies, our correspondent says.I wonder whether, by this token, Singapore has an arrest warrant out for William Gibson.
As Australia's tenuous Labor government foolhardily presses ahead with its internet censorship scheme, more evidence of its epic unpopularity comes to light; this time, from analyses of Senate election results, showing thousands of voters placing the minister responsible, Senator Conroy, last, or second-last to barking religiot Steve Fielding, whose loyalty the plan had originally been intended to buy.
There are several points of interest here. For Senator Conroy, his largest spikes by far were at 2 and 8. This suggests that a large chunk of people are voting Labor first or second, probably after the Greens. Similarly, the spike at 57 would coincide with voters putting Labor last. Senator Fielding sees a similar pattern, the spike at 1 being people putting Family First first on their preferences, the group of spikes at the end would be Family First being voted towards last, the final spike at 56 being a large group of voters putting Family First as the last party on their ballot. Far more interesting, however, are the last few places on the ballot. If people were voting by party, this should drop off significantly. Instead, we see both candidates having a significant proportion of voters putting them last or second last.Senator Conroy, #2 on the ALP's above-the-line list, was placed last by 7% of the electorate; notably, this happened without any sort of centrally driven campaign coordinating it. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that Fielding, who could generally be expected to be unpopular with the thinking set, was placed last by 8.9% of the electorate.
(When I voted, it was a toss-up which of these distinguished gentlemen to reward with the honour of last place. In the end, I gave it to Conroy. While Fielding, a simple man of unbending faith, could hardly be expected to be anything but what he was, Conroy's disingenuous defences of authoritarianism, above and beyond the call of political expediency, merited a special honour.)
The Running of the Dead, a longish but eminently readable and illuminating article by one Christian Thorne, examining the shift in zombie film tropes from the slow, shambling zombies of George Romero's original films to the fast zombies of "updated" remakes and films like 28 Days Later, and what it says about changes in assumptions about civilisation between the late 1960s and the Homeland Security age:
Slow-zombie movies are a meditation on consumer society—on a certain excess of civilization, as it were; and fast-zombie movies are pretty much the opposite. So the simple question: In the Dawn remake, how do the zombies look? And the simple answer is: They look like rioters or encamped refugees. If you say that zombie movies are always about crowds, a person might respond: Yeah, I see, the mob—but if you’re talking about George Romero and the slow-zombie movie, the word “mob” isn’t quite right, since white people in formal wear aren’t exactly the mob, and, casting a glance at Romero’s original Dawn, shoppers aren’t either, except on the day after Thanksgiving. Fear of the mob has usually been the hallmark of an anti-democratic politics. The phrase “mob rule” remains common enough; eighteenth-century writers used to call it “mobacracy.” And that’s not what Romero’s after. Romero is worried that the crowd isn’t democratic enough, and one of his more remarkable achievements, back in 1968, was to start a cinematic conversation about the dangers of crowds that ducked the problem of “the mob,” that bracketed that concept out. This couldn’t have been easy to do, since the one term substitutes so easily for the other. And the pokeyness of the zombies is central to this feat, because corpses that look like they’re wading through gelatin are going to seem grinding and methodical or maybe doped and so not like looters or protestors or the Red Cross’s Congolese wards. By making the zombies fast—or rather, by merely accelerating them back to normal human speeds—Snyder allows his dead to seethe and roil. Once the movie’s survivors decide they have to leave the mall where they’ve been hiding—once they head out, in armored buses, into the teeming parking lot—they have entered an American Gaza.In short, according to Thorne, while Romero's slow zombie movies are inherently democratic, fast-zombie movies are fundamentally authoritarian, advancing Thomas Hobbes' argument: civilisation is a fragile thing, one step away from collapse, and must be upheld by arbitrary authority (which is to say, authority one cannot question, whose rightness or wrongness are not open to debate). Hobbes' argument (a cornerstone of right-wing authoritarian thought) is predicated on fear, and has been gaining cultural currency in the post-9/11 Long Siege; the pro-democratic, small-L-libertarian tropes of the cultural shifts of the 1960s seem impossibly quaint, almost Rousseauvian in their naïveté, and haven't dated well beyond being a period piece, a code for the somewhat goofy epoch of pot-smoking, group sex and poor personal hygiene we call The Sixties. Meanwhile, the Other—the terrorist, the inner-city looter, the paedophile, the ultra-ruthless foreign gangster—is at the door. The freedom that was liberating to our hippy parents and grandparents is positively terrifying, and perhaps we need more authority.
The rise in fear-driven authoritarianism has manifested itself in other places; the zero-tolerance culture in schools (at least in the US; your mileage may vary), brought in after Columbine and 9/11, is, as one author suggests, conditioning a generation of young people to unquestioningly accept and submit to authority, instilling subconscious values which will later assert themselves when future social contracts are thrashed out. Tomorrow's citizens will be a little (or a lot) more accepting of the encroachment of authority, less likely to question it, and more likely to dismiss anti-authoritarian arguments as invalid or irrational.
According to GetUp, the Great Firewall of Australia is dead(ish); the Coalition have now committed themselves to blocking it in the Senate, should Labor try to force it through, meaning that there's no way it can get through. Mind you, the national firewall plan was written off as dead a year ago, before making a remarkable recovery, so I'd want to see it staked through the heart and its ashes scattered to the four winds before I break out the champagne.
Whether it rears its ugly head again depends on the makeup of the next parliament. While much has been said about Kevin Rudd's genuine religiosity and wowserism, the plan was as much a bargaining chip with the Christian Fundamentalist party Family First, who held an important vote in the Senate, as anything else. If the Religious Right retain their position, or gain the balance of power, in the next senate, it's likely to be back in play; however, if they lose their influence (as some say is likely; keep in mind that the half of the Senate that Family First inhabit was elected in the more conservative times of Howard's culture war, and is now outgoing), it looks to be pretty much dead. (Which is not to say that, in three or four years' time, someone won't introduce something similar, but if they did, they'd hopefully have a harder time convincing anyone that it's not a terrible idea.)
Fresh from its triumph with the national firewall (now a bipartisan commitment, due to appear some time after the next election), the Australian government is planning a proposal to require internet service providers to record certain details of all users' access to the net. The proposal itself is secret; while a document about the plans have been obtained through freedom of information laws, in the finest traditions of a well-managed democracy, 90% of the document was blacked out, to stop "premature unnecessary debate", or, in other words, to keep the subjects from sticking their noses into matters they have no business with.
What on earth is going on in Australia? First came the internet censorship firewall plan (which may be on hold until the next election, but is still Labor Party policy, and while the Coalition have been strategically holding their tongues about it, reading between the lines, it seems like Tony Abbott (a known religious hardliner) would take it even further), then the plan to require ISPs to record what websites all users visit and whom they email, a record of which will be linked to users' identity details including passport numbers. And now, a parliamentary inquiry has proposed requiring users to run government-mandated "cyber-security" software on their computers to access the internet. A proposal which sounds a lot like China's "Green Dam" spyware.
Of course, if implemented, this would lock out anybody who uses an unsupported operating system for which the government hasn't made available a version of its Green And Gold Dam software, not to mention the scope for abuse. Imagine that, a year later, a law is quietly passed and the software updated to search users' hard drives for images that might be pornographic and forward them to the police, in the guise of hunting down paedophiles, or for text documents that might conceivably be "terrorist materials". Other than a few people being raided for possessing nude images of small-breasted models or similarly suspicious materials, all of a sudden, the police have a copy of everyone's private photos and other files; it's a good thing that the Australian police are renowned for their incorruptibility, and neither individual officers nor the police forces would ever abuse such sweeping powers.
Of course, once the software is, by law, on everyone's machine, the possibilities don't end there. In the age of the Long Siege, it's not unlikely that security agencies would have special powers to use this in a targeted fashion to go after persons of special concern (which, in the eyes of the Murdoch tabloids and their readership, means bloodthirsty paedoterrorist extremists who should all be locked up, but in reality is likely to mean environmental protesters, social-justice groups and anyone who looks suspicious). If ASIO or the AFP can surreptitiously modify files on computers at, say, Greenpeace or the Greens, think of the COINTELPRO-style hijinks they could get up to; changing the plans of protests, planting evidence that key organisers are informers, or just disrupting campaigns at key moments. And so, as if by magic, protests fizzle, media campaigns fail, opposition groups disintegrate in acrimony, and Australian democracy becomes a lot more efficiently managed. Confound their politics, indeed.
Of course, the Green and Gold Dam is by no means a done deal. Perhaps it's a proposal which will die, recognised for its heavy-handedness and unfeasibility. Or perhaps it's an ambit claim, to make the government's existing plans (the national firewall and ISP-based surveillance infrastructure) seem more moderate by comparison.
Using Star Wars as a metaphor for the real world isn't merely for Microsoft/RIAA-hating Slashdot penguinistas; witness Star Wars Modern, an at once illuminating and slightly odd blog by Brooklyn-based sculptor John Powers. Keenly interested in art and culture and steeped in modernism (in the aesthetic and philosophical sense), Powers nonetheless uses Star Wars' good-vs.-evil dualism (which, he argues, came from the heavy mood of Nixon/Vietnam War-era America, with the new counterculture against The Man) to partition the world into Jedi and Sith.
And like Nixon, the Sith perfectly represent a particular strain of American authority: Cold Warriors. Not just the violence and paranoia of America’s anti-communist foreign policy, but their repressive and absolutist domestic policies: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?”
Even the world building efforts of the cold warriors were perfectly embodied by Lucas and his crew. The top-down Utopian art, architecture and urbanism of the Cold Warriors were elegantly re-imaged as the Deathstar.The Sith, we learn, are those who want control and chains of authority, and fear chaos above all. They include among their ranks Richard Nixon (obviously) and Le Corbusier (which stands to reason; he was a proponent of centralised architectures of control and dedicated his 1935 book/manifesto The Radiant City "To Authority"). The Jedi, meanwhile, are the dissenters, he lists them as "Phreaks and Yippies; draft resisters and Feminists; Diggers and Black Panthers", and places Martin Luther King and Rem Koolhaas among their number. So not too far from the Penguinheads' Jedi-Sith dichotomy (RMS and Linus are Jedi, while Darth Gates, patent trolls and the forces of Big Copyright are Sith; where Steve Jobs and Ayn Rand stand is a matter for lengthy, intractable flame wars), only with a better sense of aesthetics.
(It seems that what Lucas may have contributed to culture here is a catchy two-word name for the cultural schism of the second half of the 20th century, for the collapse of the power of authoritarianism from 1945 onwards, and the Empire striking back from the 1970s onwards, and the underlying motif of order vs. chaos, authority vs. freedom (which recurs in a lot of cultural artefacts of the time—Discordianism, for one, and the plots of much of the fiction of the time). Perhaps "Sith" and "Jedi" are catchier terms than "authoritarianism" and "freedom" or less bound to a specific time and milieu than "the Man" and "the freaks"—at least, in a world where science fiction and other geeky niches have broken into the mainstream.)
Anyway, Star Wars Modern has a number of interesting (and somewhat lengthy) posts on various topics falling in the area between Modernism and Star Wars, such as the portrayals of art and artists in Hollywood films, the Hollywood serial killer archetype as studio artist, and a three-part back-and-forth debate, triggered by an apocryphal account of Goebbels having designed the original Helvetica, about (small-f) fascism and modernist typography.
The War on Copyright Piracy has many uses: in Kyrgyzstan, for example, the government is using the pretext of anti-piracy raids to shut down opposition media, by having goons with alleged Microsoft affiliations seize computers:
Stan TV employees told CPJ that police were accompanied by a technical expert, Sergey Pavlovsky, who claimed to be a representative of Microsoft’s Bishkek office. According to the journalists, Pavlovsky said he had authorization papers from Microsoft but was unwilling to show them. After a cursory inspection of the computers, they said, Pavlovsky declared all of the equipment to be using pirated software. Stan TV’s work computers, as well as the personal laptops of journalists, were seized; the offices were also sealed, interrupting the station’s work.Microsoft have disowned any connection to the raid.
Meanwhile, enterprising malware entrepreneurs have jumped onto the copyright lawsuit bandwagon; a new piece of malware for Windows scans users' hard drives for torrents, and threatens the users with lawsuits, demanding payment by credit card:
(via Boing Boing, Download Squad)
The possibility of Australia legalising video games not suitable for children moves a little closer, now that the main obstacle, South Australian
Witchfinder-General Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, has resigned from his post, in the wake of a poor election result. Atkinson, a religious conservative, was exercising his power of veto over the possible introduction of an 18+ rating for video games, and was on record making statements comparing video gamers to motorcycle gangs. He also tried to pass a law banning anonymous speech on the internet prior to the election.
Details have emerged of the suspensions of civil liberties to be brought in for the 2012 Olympics in London, and even by the standards of New Labour Britain, they are severe. Police will have the power to enter private homes and seize posters (so no putting a "Free Tibet" poster on your window then) and, to keep sponsors placated, will prevent the public from carrying "non-sponsor items" to sporting events. Not sure if it'll apply just inside stadia or inside an "Olympic Zone" of London as in Sydney in 2000, so if, say, KFC are a sponsor, whether it'll be an offense to be seen eating a box of Sheriff Sam's Al-Halal Texas Fried Chicken ("Tender and Tasty!") in the streets of Stratford. Or, indeed, whether the laws will stay on the books afterward, to be brought out when expedient (as happened in Sydney, where Olympic laws were later used to suppress protests against the Catholic Church's "World Youth Day").
Given that the Olympics are a merchandising exercise which invariably involves notionally liberal states bending over to placate corporate sponsors by suspending civil liberties, perhaps it would be better if future Olympics were held only in totalitarian states, where the legal frameworks are already in place. Pyongyang 2016 perhaps? I hear the North Koreans put on a killer show...
(via Boing Boing)
Weaponizing Mozart, an article on how classical music is being used in Britain's war on its own youth:
The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. They’re so desperate to control youth—but from a distance, without actually having to engage with them—that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The dangerous message being sent to young people is clear: 1) you are scum; 2) classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it’s a repellent against mildly anti-social behavior.
The state of South Australia has long been at the vanguard of Australia's lurch towards authoritarianism; the conservative state's veto is keeping video games unsuitable for children illegal in Australia, and the state recently required R-rated films to be displayed in plain packaging; now, Australia's Deep South continues its position of leadership by banning anonymous online comments about the upcoming state election, a law supported by both major political parties.
I imagine that once such a law becomes established in South Australia, it will most probably spread federally, expand into a general mandate for online communications to be labelled with the sender's legal identity, and be hard to eradicate; after all, a law making all internet content legally trackable would be a boon not only for the plan to eradicate pornography (for a broad definition of that word) from the Australian-viewable internet but would also be welcomed by Big Copyright, who would undoubtedly have hefty electoral donations for politicians favouring it. And the fundamental ideas of liberalism—that it is unacceptable to restrict the rights of individuals unless they actively harm others—are looking decidedly shaky in post-Howard Australia.
Update: the law has been retroactively repealed, after mass opposition, and after South Australia's Attorney-General and Wowser-In-Chief, Michael Atkinson, went on air claiming that an online critic, Aaron Fornarino, didn't exist, after which the website AdelaideNow posted a picture of Fornarino.
In Italy, the Berlusconi government is planning to introduce regulations requiring anyone uploading videos to the internet to obtain government approval. The government claims that the regulations (which can be passed without a vote) are an enactment of an EU directive on product placement; conveniently, they also outlaw a lot of competition to established media, such as, for example, the Mediaset group owned by the current Italian Prime Minister.
Article 4 of the decree specifies that the dissemination over the Internet "of moving pictures, whether or not accompanied by sound," requires ministerial authorization. Critics say it will therefore apply to the Web sites of newspapers, to IPTV and to mobile TV, obliging them to take on the same status as television broadcasters.The regulations follow an earlier attempt by the Italian government to regulate bloggers by subjecting them to the same rules as newspaper publishers. Italy also requires all users of internet access points to register their identity, under an "anti-terrorism and anti-paedophilia" law.
In an attempt to fight pornography and disharmony on the internet, the Chinese government has banned individuals from registering personal domain names, and announced that those with personal websites might lose them. From now on, only licensed businesses will be able to own domain names in China.
Meanwhile, the Italian government is considering restricting criticism on the internet, after a violent assault on the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, which his party have argued was caused by "a climate of hate generated by virulent opposition criticism". Italy already requires anybody using internet access facilities to show and register identity documents, under the guise of fighting terrorism and paedophilia.
Australia's communications minister Stephen Conroy has announced that the government will go ahead with its mandatory internet censorship firewall, pushing through the legislation before the next election. This is despite a lack of public support for such a scheme (except from fringe religious groups), opposition from child-welfare and civil-rights groups, and a broad consensus that the firewall won't achieve its stated aims and will be prone to abuse. (Under the legislation, ISPs will have to block access to any sites on a secret blacklist. This will nominally include any material that is "refused classification", which could be anything from illegal pornography to information on euthanasia or safer drug use or material pertaining to sexual fetishes, though as the list is secret, there will be little in the way of a future government adding things to it for political advantage.)
In the past, the legislation would have been unlikely to have made it through the Senate (religious wowser Fielding, whom the government courted with the proposal, was all for it, but the other independent, Nick Xenophon, was against it). Now, with the Tories fronted by religious-Right culture-warrior Tony Abbott (whose ascent the government themselves have compared to Joh Bjelke-Petersen's 1987 Prime Ministerial campaign), perhaps they can count on the Opposition to vote for it.
And so, at a fork in the road, Australia turns its back on the cosmopolitan, dynamic 21st-century society it has evolved into and moves to reembrace the small-minded, punitive values of the string of authoritarian penal colonies it was formed from, in the process, joining the club of nations that includes Iran, Burma and China. Say goodbye to the "clever country". Of course, if you're displeased with this, you can let your MP know here. (If you want the government to actyually notice you, read this.)
Canadian psychology professor Bob Altemeyer has made available online the text of a book examining the psychology of authoritarianism. Altemeyer looks at what he calls Right-Wing Authoritarianism, a personality trait which manifests itself in a high degree of submission to the established authorities, high levels of aggression in the name of the authorities, and a high level of conventionalism, and correlates with the political right, at least in North America. (He also mentions left-wing authoritarianism—think dogmatic Maoism or similar—in passing, though dismisses it as having all but died out in North America, whereas right-wing authoritarianism is going from strength to strength.)
It’s about what happened to the American government after "conservatives" gained control of Congress in the 1990s and the White House in 2000. It’s about the disastrous decisions that government made, which have created the enormous problems we face now. It’s about the corruption that rotted the Congress. It’s about how traditional conservatism has nearly been destroyed by authoritarianism. It’s about how the “Religious Right” teamed up with amoral authoritarian leaders to push its un-democratic agenda onto the country.
For example, take the following statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.” Sounds like something Hitler would say, right? Want to guess how many politicians, how many lawmakers in the United States agreed with it? Want to guess what they had in common?Altemeyer puts forward a Right-Wing Authoritarian personality scale, with higher scores correlating with the trait. High-RWA individuals have a "Daddy knows best" attitute to the authorities. They defer to their leaders, and even while they often believe that the law, however harsh, must be obeyed, they will exempt their leaders from this if the ends justify the means (such as approving of illegal activities against "radicals" or "enemies of society"). They view the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, with little sympathy for the latter, and an us-vs.-them outlook, exhibit aggression against those seen to be transgressing against the norms of society, and are quicker than average to join with others to take action against them. And, being highly conventional, they interpret a lot of things as existential threats to the established order. (Authoritarianism, in other words, seems to tie in with a survival-values worldview, driven by the perception of existential threats and the need to deal with them.) Being driven by faith in authority, high-RWAs are more capable than most of compartmentalising contradictory beliefs and resisting challenges to their beliefs posed by logic or evidence.
The Authoritarians looks at the RWA scale and other phenomena, such as religious fundamentalism, social-dominance orientation and real-world politics. Not surprisingly, there are correlations between right-wing authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism, and both are strong predictors of prejudice against out-groups. (Paradoxically, many high-RWA people exhibit both racial prejudices and hostility to overt racism, largely due to not seeing themselves or their peers as racially prejudiced; this would be the dampening effect authoritarianism has on insight and analysis.) Meanwhile, there are both parallels and differences between right-wing authoritarian followers and people who score highly on the social dominance scale; the former don't necessarily want personal power, whereas the latter are less likely to be religious or constrained by rules, though will often happily feign religiosity as a means to an end. Some individuals, of course, score highly on both scales. Because authoritarian followers are receptive to messages that feel right, and are suspicious of critical thought, right-wing authoritarian movements attract more than their share of power-hungry sociopaths willing to pound the right talking points to get willing, unquestioning followers.
The bad news is, the authoritarians have been ascendant over the past decade (in the US, Altemeyer says, they have largely seized the Republican Party). The good news is that right-wing authoritarianism, as a tendency, can be defeated. Studies have found that fear increases RWA scores, in effect making people shut up and follow the leader. (This was used to great effect by the Bush Whitehouse, for example, by instituting a prominent colour-coded terror threat level, seldom dipping below "severe", and raising it inexplicably before elections.) Fearful societies are governed by authoritarian survival values, which have a harder time of getting a grip without fear. Exposure to people unlike oneself and one's "in-group" also weakens authoritarian tendencies, as does a liberal education. A study cited by Altemeyer showed university students' RWA scores declining steadily over the course of their studies, and remaining low throughout their lives. (Parenting, meanwhile, causes one's RWA scores to increase slightly.)
There are other ideas Altemeyer's Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale ties into, such as Lakoff's strict-father/nurturing-parent family dichotomy (which Altemeyer looks at though finds weakly connected), Milgram's obedience experiment, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, and theories about the mass psychology of fascism. (Of which this strikes me as one of the more useful ones; while it may be fun to posit connections between fascism and manned flight or the mass spectacle of rock'n'roll, those are probably less useful for actually understanding the threat of fascism as a mass movement.)
(via Boing Boing)
Some news from Venezuela, the Another World that Is Possible. There, the "Bolivarian" authorities have criminalised "violent" video games (a move which may be intended to shut down internet cafés which depend on game players for revenue but also bypass official means of the dissemination of information), and routinely round up gays and lesbians:
One Friday at around midnight, on Villaflor Street, a favourite spot for gays and lesbians in the Venezuelan capital, Yonatan Matheus and Omar Marques noticed two Caracas police patrol vans carrying about 20 detainees, most of them very young.
When Marques and Matheus, who are gay leaders of the Venezuela Diversa (Diverse Venezuela) organisation, approached to find out what was happening and take pictures, they were picked up too.
"Like most of those arrested, our identity documents and mobile phones were taken away, we were beaten, our sexual orientation was insulted in degrading language, and we were refused permission to speak to the Justice Ministry officials and members of the National Guard who were present," Matheus told IPS.
(via Boing Boing)
An article in Radical Philosophy (a journal of "socialist and feminist philosophy") looks at the phenomenon of those Keep Calm And Carry On posters, and what the reprinting and near-ubiquitous popularity of a WW2-era propaganda poster that was never originally released says about contemporary British society, alienation from the consumer-capitalist values of Thatcherism-Blairism, and a displaced longing for an imagined utopia of benign paternalistic bureaucracy and modernistic optimism that happened (as all golden ages happen) decades before those contemplating it were born.
Initially sold in London by the Victoria & Albert Museum, the poster only gradually became the middlebrow staple it is now when the recession, euphemistically the ‘credit crunch’, hit. Through this poster, the way to display one’s commitment to the new austerity was to buy more consumer goods, albeit with a less garish aesthetic than was customary during the boom. It is in a sense not so different to the ‘keep calm and carry on shopping’ commanded by George W. Bush both after September 11 and when the sub-prime crisis hit America – though the ‘wartime’ use of this rhetoric has escalated during the economic turmoil, especially in the UK. Essentially, the power of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stoicism and muddling through, something which survives only in the popular imaginary, in a country devoted to services and consumption, and given to sudden outpourings of sentiment and grief, as over the deaths of celebrities like Diana Spencer or Jade Goody. The poster isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself, a nostalgia for the state of being repressed – solid, stoic, public-spirited, as opposed to the depoliticized, hysterical and privatized reality of Britain over the last thirty years. At the same time as it evokes a sense of loss over the decline of this idea of Britain and the British, it is both reassuring and flattering, implying a virtuous (if highly self-aware) stoicism in the displayer of the poster or wearer of the T-shirt.The article then mentions a number of other examples of related "austerity chic" or fetishisations of a more high-minded and public-spirited pre-Thatcherite idyll: celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's "Ministry of Food" concept, aesthetic references to Jan Tschichold' Penguin paperback covers, and plates printed with austerely clean images of 1930s Modernist buildings (which the author of the essay links to a reaction against the Blatcherite culture of high-Gini property speculation). One can add to this list a number of other icons. For example, on things like CD covers, the British Rail logo seems to have taken the place of the Mod RAF roundel as an insignia of retro cool, also referencing a pre-privatisation institution remembered more fondly in retrospect to its better-marketed, fare-gouging Blatcherite successors. Perhaps if Rupert Murdoch gets his way, we'll see hipsters wearing BBC logo badges in the not too distant future?
It's not all benign nostalgia for a kinder, gentler age, though: the article mentions a more sinister edge, from the police force's Keep Calm-esque "We'd Like To Give You A Good Talking To" posters (ironically juxtaposing an attention-grabbing tone of authoritarian brutality with a "caring"official message, which happened, as the author points out, near the harshly suppressed G20 protests) to Ken Livingstone's ironically Orwellian "Secure Beneath Their Watchful Eyes" posters, promoting the comprehensive surveillance society as a beneficial thing. (One is reminded of the "High Security Holiday Resort" posters in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.)
A man in Azerbaijan was recently interrogated by the National Security Ministry for having voted for the Armenians in the Eurovision Song Contest:
"They wanted an explanation for why I voted for Armenia. They said it was a matter of national security,” Nasirli said. “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like, 'You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?' They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go."It is not known whether the same treatment was dealt to the (exactly) 42 other Azeris who voted for Armenia.
This is not the first time that politics have clashed with Eurovision voting; some years ago, Lebanon withdrew from the contest because, to participate, they would have had to allow their citizens to vote for any contestants, including the Israeli ones.
A new exhibition in Spain explores sexual relations under Franco's fascist régime, through official advice given to women by the Feminine Section of the Falange, the fascist party:
"If your husband asks you for unusual sexual practices, be obedient and don’t complain. If he suggests union, agree humbly? When the culminating moment arrives, a small whimper on your part is sufficient to indicate any pleasure that might have been experienced."
From 1937 to 1977, some three million women aged 17 to 35 joined an organisation that urged young girls "not to burden themselves with books ? there’s no need to be an intellectual". And although sport was encouraged – one of few positives of the mass mobilisation – enthusiasts were warned: "Don’t take sport as a pretext to wear scandalous costumes."
The head of the women’s section was Pilar Primo de Rivera, sister of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, who founded the fascist Falange, the ideological backbone of Franco’s rule. "The life of every woman ? is nothing more than the eternal desire to find someone to submit to," she wrote.
For 40 years, women were drafted into "social service", a form of military conscription that supplied free labour for hospitals, publicly run restaurants and other social institutions.
More dispatches from the War on the Unexpected: London police forced an Austrian tourist to delete photographs of a bus station, on the grounds that photographing transport infrastructure was "strictly forbidden". Which sounds like something more befitting of, say, Belarus or North Korea than of an ostensibly free country:
Matkza, a 69-year-old retired television cameraman with a taste for modern architecture, was told that photographing anything to do with transport was "strictly forbidden". The policemen also recorded the pair's details, including passport numbers and hotel addresses.
In a telephone interview from his home in Vienna, Matka said: "I've never had these experiences anywhere, never in the world, not even in Communist countries."Meanwhile, in the United States, police seized a student's computers on the grounds that he was using a suspicious operating system (i.e., Linux), and thus probably up to no good:
_________ reported that Mr. Calixte uses two different operating systems to hide his illegal activities. One is the regular [Boston College] operating system and the other is a black screen with white font which he uses prompt commands on.Which sounds like he's guilty of some kind of technological witchcraft.
The Independent has an article on the dark side of Dubai. The economic boom apparently owes itself to the unique and dynamic qualities of Dubai's autocratic legal environment, which short-circuits a lot of the inefficiencies of a more liberal society. For example, if you can lure workers over with promises of wealth, then take their passports, force them to work in inhumane conditions and not bother with paying them, you can achieve miracles of efficiency:
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.That's the construction workers building the marvels of architecture. The maids hired by the ruling classes of Emiratis and expatriates don't have any more rights, and don't have it much better:
The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."The sense of terriblisma is heightened by some choice quotes from some particularly charming-sounding expatriates (mostly found in a tacky British bar):
"If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"The expatriates, however, are not citizens and have no rights there; life's good for them, but only while they have money to spend and don't rock the boat:
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. "Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out," they said. She says: "The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!" There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.It gets worse, though: the article starts with the account of a woman who moved there with her husband when he got a senior management job. All was well until he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and resigned to leave; his payoff wasn't enough to cancel their debts, their passports were confiscated, and he was thrown in a debtors' prison.
Of course, it can't last forever; some say the Great Recession could wipe Dubai out:
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."This article concurs that Dubai is in a world of trouble, citing the fact that those who have passports and their wits about them are fleeing, abandoning their cars at the airport with the keys still in the ignition before anyone can detain them.
Details have emerged of the Australian government's internet censorship scheme. Under the system, Australian internet users will be placed by default on a connection which filters out adult content, though will be able to opt out to a second feed, which only filters content which is illegal in Australia (which includes things such as video games unsuitable for children and advocacy of euthanasia, for example; Australian governments are rather fond of banning things, and the general public are apathetic enough to let them, leaving the puritanical wowsers of the socks-and-sandals brigade as the sole voice lobbying for policy):
“Users can opt-out of the 'additional material' blacklist (referred to in a department press release, which is a list of things unsuitable for children, but there is no opt-out for 'illegal content'”, Newton said.
“Illegal is illegal and if there is infrastructure in place to block it, then it will be required to be blocked — end of story.”
Online libertarians claim the blacklists could be expanded to censor material such as euthanasia, drugs and protest.Of course, this isn't going to do much to help Australian internet speeds (already lagging behind the rest of the world; for example, a 2-megabit ADSL connection in Australia costs more than an 8-megabit one in the UK).
(via Boing Boing)
The Australian government is apparently planning to search MP3 players for illegally copied content at airports, with violators facing criminal penalties. It is not clear how the authorities would determine whether a file was illegally copied, especially since Australian copyright law allows format shifting. The proposal may be part of a new "anti-counterfeiting" treaty currently being thrashed out, which promises to give Big Copyright an even bigger stick in the War On Copying.
(via Wired News)
The Russian government is considering banning the emo youth subculture, on the grounds that it is a "negative ideology" encouraging depression, social withdrawal and suicide.
Among the moves supported are strong regulation of websites and banning young people dressed in an emo style from schools and government buildings.
The document states that emos are aged from 12 to 16, wear black and pink, and have long, black hair which may "cover half the face". Other characteristics identified include black fingernails, black belts with studs and pins, and ear and eyebrow piercings.Presumably the Russian authorities would rather its youth disrupted dissident meetings, engaged in mass weddings and had lots of babies than going around wearing black and feeling sorry for themselves.
If you break the law, the law will break you: The fabled Australian commitment to free speech, civil liberties and the right of peaceful dissent is once again in the news, as the New South Wales government announced that anyone annoying those attending the Catholic Church's "World Youth Day" may face criminal penalties.
Police and emergency services will have the power to order people to cease behaviour that "causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Youth Day event" under the regulations. Anyone who fails to comply could be fined A$5,500 (£2,630).
Anna Katzman, the president of the New South Wales bar association, which represents almost 3,000 lawyers, said it was "unnecessary and repugnant" to make someone's inconvenience the basis of a criminal offence. "If I was to wear a T-shirt proclaiming that 'World Youth Day is a waste of public money' and refuse to remove it when an officer ... asks me to, I would commit a criminal offence," Katzman said. "How ridiculous is that?"This is possible under laws related to those used for suspending civil liberties during the 2000 Olympics, and could criminalise planned protests by gay rights, student and secularist groups. Not to worry, though; the authorities have given their word that these sweeping powers will be exercised reasonably.
China has issued orders that all entertainment web sites and regular television programming be shut down completely for the next 3 days. Only web sites covering the recent tragic 7.8 magnitude earthquake and television stations broadcasting CCTV earthquake programming will be allowed to remain live.Mind you, this is according to Twitter messages from one web entrepreneur in China, and other reports are divided on whether such a shutdown has actually occurred.
A Russian government agency is now making noises about requiring all WiFi devices to be registered. This will include not only access points, but laptops, VoIP phones, handheld game consoles and so on. The Russian Mass Media, Communications and Cultural Protection Service reserves the right to confiscate any unregistered devices:
According to Karpov’s statement, registering a PDA or telephone would take 10 days. Then, only the owner of the device would be licensed to use it. Registering a Wi-Fi hotspot, on the other hand, would be more difficult. Anyone wishing to set up as much as a personal home-network would need to file a complete set of documents, as well as technological certifications. Networks in Moscow or St. Petersburg would also need approval from the Federal Security Guard Service (FSO) and the Federal Security Service (FSB).The FSB, of course, used to be known as the KGB, and is closely tied to the administration of Vladimir Putin.
Australia has apparently outlawed laser pointers after some griefers decided to aim them at aircraft for lulz. (Maybe they hoped that they'd get lucky and bring one down and get to see lots of cool flames and shit.) And so, thanks to the actions of a few cretins, the nation's cats are deprived of one more source of amusement.
Concerned about its young citizens being too busy working hard to find partners, the government of Singapore (perhaps one of the most efficiently managed societies in history) has begun offering lessons in seduction. Not that type of seduction, though, of course, but something altogether more wholesome and befitting of a place described as "Disneyland with the death penalty":
Students at two polytechnics can earn two credits towards their final degree by choosing the love elective. Activities include watching romantic films, holding hands and "love song analysis".(They need a course with credits for holding hands? Good grief. Has all spontaneity really been disciplined out of the Singaporean spirit to the point where they need to be directed on how to fall in love?)
But it is not so easy to put Singaporean youth in the mood for love. Another student who did the course, Kamal Prakash, said: "I'm not really looking for a girlfriend now as I want to concentrate on my studies."
Scientists have developed a vaccine against cocaine, which permanently reconfigures the immune system to attack and destroy cocaine molecules before they can reach the brain:
The developers of the new cocaine vaccine, known as 'TA-CD', are doing essentially the same thing by cleverly combining a deactivated cocaine molecule with a deactivated cholera toxin molecule. The deactivated cholera toxin is enough to trigger the immune system, which finds and adapts to the new invader.
If effective, you can see that some parents might want to vaccinate their non-addicted, perfectly healthy children, so they are 'immune' to cocaine. The difference here, is that once given, the 'immunity' may be permanent. In other words, you would make the decision that your child will never be able to experience the effects of cocaine for the rest of their life.Another option (and one with a whiff of authoritarianism about it, though perhaps not much more than the militarised, prison-filling War On Drugs) would be a compulsory mass vaccination programme, perhaps of all school-aged children. Implemented on a large enough scale, this could be the only way of killing off the cocaine cartels other than legalising the stuff (politically unpalatable) or rendering coca extinct by biological means (an ecological non-starter).
A vaccine against heroin may also be possible, though one wouldn't want to ever be in need of strong painkillers if one has had one of those.
(via Mind Hacks)
In Poland, where the mainstream culture is dominated by a conservative, nationalistic monoculture, more often than not with an anti-Semitic streak, rebels, refuseniks and rootless cosmopolitanists are embracing all things Jewish. Klezmer bands (comprised mostly of non-Jewish musicians) are forming everywhere, people are taking classes in everything from Hasidic dancing to Hebrew calligraphy, and replicas of 1930s-vintage Jewish merchants' signs are cropping up all over Krakow streets like some kind of theme park:
Interest in Jewish culture became an identifying factor for people unhappy with the status quo and looking for ways to rebel, whether against the government or their parents.
"The word 'Jew' still cuts conversation at the dinner table," Gebert said. "People freeze."
The revival of Jewish culture is, in its way, a progressive counterpoint to a conservative nationalist strain in Polish politics that still espouses anti-Semitic views. Some people see it as a generation's effort to rise above the country's dark past in order to convincingly condemn it.Not everybody's pleased with this:
Many Jews are offended by the commercialization of their culture in a country almost universally associated with its near annihilation.
Others argue that there is something deeper taking place in Poland as the country heals from the double wounds of Nazi and communist domination. "There is commercialism, but that is foam on the surface," Gebert said. "This is one of the deepest ethical transformations that our country is undergoing.Perhaps we can expect to see a new wave of klezmer-punk bands emerging from Krakow any day now?
The Guardian has an article on the lengths to which the police went to persecute homosexuals in Britain before 1967, when homosexuality was decriminalised:
But his memories of the period are precise. In the early days, they tell me, living together was a dangerous business. When a drunk coach driver crashed into their car outside their house in the night, 'the first thing we had to do was make up the spare bed. We knew from experience that if you called the police and they suspected you were homosexual, they would ignore the original crime and concentrate on the homosexuality.'
For all that the law was draconian, it was also unenforceable. As a result, arrests often seemed to have an arbitrary, random quality. When Allan Horsfall became a Bolton councillor in 1958, he discovered that a public lavatory used for cottaging was well known to police and magistrates, yet there hadn't been a conviction in 30 years. On the other hand, there would be intermittent trawls through address books of suspected homosexuals, with the result that up to 20 men at a time would appear in the dock, accused of being a 'homosexual ring', even though many of them might never have met many of the others.Of course, whilst homosexuality was legalised in 1967, the age of consent was set to 21, and actually meeting other men for sex were still crimes, as "procuring" or "soliciting", up until 2003:
We shouldn't think this provision was quietly ignored either. In 1989, during the Conservative campaign for family values, more than 2,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency, as many as during the 1950s and nearly three times the numbers in the mid-Sixties.
Cory Doctorow has an essay in Forbes, asserting that ubiquitous surveillance, of the sorts that has been made technologically feasible recently, not only doesn't make cities more secure but undermines the social contracts that make them work:
The key to living in a city and peacefully co-existing as a social animal in tight quarters is to set a delicate balance of seeing and not seeing. You take care not to step on the heels of the woman in front of you on the way out of the subway, and you might take passing note of her most excellent handbag. But you don't make eye contact and exchange a nod. Or even if you do, you make sure that it's as fleeting as it can be.
I once asked a Japanese friend to explain why so many people on the Tokyo subway wore surgical masks. Are they extreme germophobes? Conscientious folks getting over a cold? Oh, yes, he said, yes, of course, but that's only the rubric. The real reason to wear the mask is to spare others the discomfort of seeing your facial expression, to make your face into a disengaged, unreadable blank--to spare others the discomfort of firing up their mirror neurons in order to model your mood based on your outward expression. To make it possible to see without seeing.
Crazy, desperate, violent people don't make rational calculus in regards to their lives. Anyone who becomes a junkie, crack dealer, or cellphone-stealing stickup artist is obviously bad at making life decisions. They're not deterred by surveillance.
(via Boing Boing)
The Age has an article, excerpted from a recent Quarterly Essay, about how, despite all their protestations of "larrikinism", distrust of authority, and the rambunctious convict spirit, Australians are, as a nation, obedient, compliant and eager to conform, as demonstrated by the past 10 years of the Howard government's erosion of democratic institutions:
Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra's mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.
We haven't been hoodwinked. Each step along the way has been reported, perhaps not as thoroughly and passionately as it should have been, but we're not dealing in dark secrets here. We've known what's going on. If we cared, we didn't care enough to stop it. Boredom, indifference and fear have played a part in this. So does something about ourselves we rarely face: Australians trust authority. Not love, perhaps, but trust. It's bred in the bone. We call ourselves larrikins, but we leave our leaders to get on with it. Even the leaders we mock.David Marr argues that this is so because Australia's defining historical events, unlike, say, America, did not involve abstract ideals loftier than pragmatism:
We've never fought to be free. Vinegar Hill was a convict break-out easily and brutally suppressed. The officers who overthrew Bligh spouted liberty to trade in rum. Shorn of the colour, Eureka was a bunch of miners who didn't want to pay tax. The great issue that drove self-government for the colonies was seizing control of land. We were as much a part of the British Empire after Federation as we were before. And each step away from Britain had to be forced on Australia until the great Mother of the nation finally turned her back on us and walked into Europe. Australia surprised itself by refusing to accept Menzies' tyrannical plans to ban the Communist Party. But only just. Referendums opposed by any of the big parties always lose, and usually heavily. Liberty was preserved in 1951 by 50,000 votes in a nation of millions. The barricades have rarely been manned since.
The historian John Hirst writes: "Australians think of themselves as anti-authority. It is not true. Australians are suspicious of persons in authority, but towards impersonal authority they are very obedient. This is a country which for a long time closed its pubs at 6pm and which pioneered the compulsory wearing of seatbelts in cars. Its people since 1924 have accepted the compulsion to vote. Its anti-smoking legislation is so tough that smoking is prohibited in its largest sporting stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, though it is open to the skies."
Blog of the day: Architectures Of Control. Written by an industrial designer, it looks at how products or systems are designed to control the behaviour of their users, explicitly or implicitly. It has posts covering everything from public seating designed to discourage sleeping or lingering to the way that packaged food portion sizes subliminally influence how much people eat to interactive museum exhibits subtly forcing people to learn things embedded in the context of a game, to deliberately incompatible light sockets which require compact fluorescent bulbs, and of course, the DRM/"trusted computing" debate. For some reason or other, this blog is blocked in China.
(via Boing Boing)
The Australian government moves to extend its grip on internet content in Australia, introducing a new law which will require interactive forums to meet TV-style classification criteria. Which sounds like it could mean that forums (such as blog comments, chat rooms, and so on) will either need to employ Chinese-style chaperones to actively police content or be put behind an age verification firewall.
Providers of live services such as chatrooms must have their service professionally assessed to determine whether its "likely content" should be restricted.Were this enforced literally, it would mean the end of non-corporate user-generated content in Australia. (Joe/Jo Blogger, with a full-time job, would not be able to meet their obligations by themselves.) Which could be just what the government (who have been aggressively moving to aggregate the Australian media into the control of as few proprietors as possible) could want. Then again, they may not need to enforce it completely, only to drag it out to take down any troublemakers who step out of line, and/or occasionally beat up someone out of line with mainstream community opinion to score culture-war points.
Naomi Wolf claims that, after 9/11, Bush's America has been following a historically well-trodden path — the path from an open society to fascism:
If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.
As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.The steps Wolf cites, giving examples of each, are:
- Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
- Create a gulag
- Develop a thug caste
- Set up an internal surveillance system
- Harass citizens' groups
- Engage in arbitrary detention and release
- Target key individuals
- Control the press
- Dissent equals treason
- Suspend the rule of law
It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."
What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.
We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep going down this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before - and this is the way it is now.An exercise for the reader: which, if any, of the 10 steps to fascism have been taken in your country?
Everyone complains about the procession of doom and gloom in the news, but only the Russians are doing something about it. After a bank loyal to Russia's President Vladimir Putin bought out Russia's largest independent radio news network, they decreed that at least 50% of reports about Russia must be "positive".
As well as protecting the Russian people from doom and gloom, they are also committed to guarding them from the pernicious influence of unapproved politicians, all mention of whom has been banned.
WIRED News has an article on the Kafkaesque world of US "terrorist watch lists". If your name (or some approximation thereof; which is why it can suck to have a common Arabic name) appears on them, you can be detained for interrogation should you attempt to board a flight in the US, or denied credit. You are not entitled to any explanation and have no right to recourse, and the very existence of some of these watchlists, or how many there are, is not officially acknowledged. Which, as you can imagine, lends itself to abuse:
Despite that, last month constitutional scholar Walter F. Murphy, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Princeton University, found himself unable to check in curbside at a New Mexico airport. A check-in clerk with American Airlines told him it was because he was on a "terrorist watch list," Murphy says.
"One of them, I don't remember which one, asked me, 'Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying for that,'" recalls Murphy. "I said, 'No, but I did give a speech criticizing George Bush,' and he said, 'That will do it.'"
While there are almost no American citizens on the OFAC list, it is routinely used during home purchases, credit checks and even apartment rentals, and has caused people with common Latino and Muslim names to be denied mortgages for having a name that only vaguely resembles a name on the list, according to a recent report (.pdf) from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Australia's state governments have unanimously condemned the government's decision to appoint a friend of the Prime Minister to run the Office of Film and Literature Censorship. The new head, Donald McDonald, is former head of the ABC, the now neutered and compliant state broadcaster:
Raena Lea-Shannon, a media lawyer and spokeswoman for lobby group Watch on Censorship, said the move was linked to the Government's desire to clamp down on literature that incites or instructs terrorism. "It fits into a fairly obvious pattern of a strong desire to take control over classification … we should be worried about this because it has a chilling effect on freedom," she said.Another fact that emerges from the article: the OFLC used to be an independent body, but has since been absorbed into the federal Attorney-General's Department. For which there could well be a perfectly rational explanation, though it certainly looks like a move to politicise the mechanism of censorship and media control in Australia. Given the government's equivocal stand on freedom of expression (banning or attempting to ban films which offend the religious right like Baise-Moi and Mysterious Skin and seizing and deporting anti-war activists, whilst stridently defending freedom of speech when it's the speech of sympathetic right-wingers like Alan Jones), it certainly looks troubling.
The editor of the Indonesian edition of Playboy has been acquitted of indecency. While pornography is widely available in the populous Islamic country, the local edition of Playboy has avoided taking risks, and it is probably safe to say that most of its readers really do get it just for the articles:
The Indonesian version of the magazine went on sale for the first time last April, featuring several scantily-clad models but no nudity.
Arnada would have faced two years in prison, if convicted and his magazine welcomed the ruling. "Playboy Indonesia never has and will never publish nude photos or other forbidden materials," it said in a statement.This ruling has not been enough for hardline Islamist groups, who have threatened to "declare war" on the magazine, and conservatives who are pushing for strict new decency laws. Though given the wide availability of locally-produced pornography, chances are the conservatives' objection is not to Playboy's mildly racy content but to the American/Western cultural values it and its name symbolise.
Meanwhile, Thailand has blocked access to YouTube, after the site refused to remove a video insulting the king (by showing graffiti over his face). Thailand takes insulding the king very seriously; just recently, a Swiss man was jailed for ten years for defacing posters of the monarch.
One thing I'm wondering: would Thailand have blocked YouTube had this happened before last year's military coup?
These days, Canadian immigration authorities are attempting to search the contents of all laptops entering the country for pornography (at least that stored in really obvious places):
But he is stuck. There is nothing familiar. So he clicks on the start menu and finds "My Pictures". You know, if I was into that - that is precisely where I would stick all of my porn - right there in "My Pictures". He goes into it - and sees all of my folders. And al of my pictures, which we looked at. He said "wow, you travel a lot", I said "yup".
Now, after about 15 minutes of looking at my pictures (I have to resist the urge to point him to my favorites :) he shuts down my computer and says "Ok sir, thank you very much, have a nice trip".And in the comments:
At the US border they are allowed now to seize your laptop and search for porn. Then your laptop will be returned at some other time if nothing is found. Some people have not had their laptop returned after almost a year.Recently, US transport regulations have mandated that all luggage checked at an airport be unlocked or else be locked with a special approved padlock that can be opened with a master key by the authorities. Perhaps in a few years' time, they will mandate that all laptops have a means by which the entire contents can be copied at the airport, for external scanning for pornographic/terrorist/copyright-violating content.
A 1939 magazine article about the censorship of animated cartoons, and exactly the sorts of things the Hays Office (which handled film censorship in the U.S. at the time) demanded cut from cartoons. For example, a cartoon cow was made to wear a skirt covering its udders, a sombrero-wearing bandit is required to end up in jail (crime, you see, must unambiguously be seen to not pay), and a scene with a stereotypical black (as in African-American) angel placing pushpins on a globe labelled "Harlem" and mentioning "De Lawd" had to be altered, not because of the racial stereotypes (which, in 1939, were perfectly fine) but because it was considered too sacrilegious.
It's interesting to note that the article states at the beginning that animated cartoons were subjected to stricter censorship regulations than live-action films because it was assumed that anything animated was for children, who needed to be protected. Similar justifications were used for comic books (with the Comics Code, which was in force until publishers started ignoring it in the 1960s or so, and had similarly puritanical scope), and in current video game censorship in Australia.
(via Boing Boing)
This morning, 3RRR had an interview with Sarah Maddison, one of the editors of a book titled Silencing Dissent, which alleges anti-democratic and authoritarian measures by the Howard government in recent years. Maddison gave a few examples of the way the government has allegedly used its power to suppress dissent, such as gagging CSIRO scientists on issues like climate change, pressuring non-governmental organisations to suppress criticism of policies, and banning unsympathetic journalists and photographers from the Parliamentary press gallery. From the book's web site:
Silencing Dissent uncovers the tactics used by John Howard and his colleagues to undermine dissenting and independent opinion. Bullying, intimidation, public denigration, threats of withdrawal of funding, personal harassment, increased government red tape and manipulation of the rules are all tools of trade for a government that wants to keep a lid on public debate. The victims are charities, academics, researchers, journalists, judges, public sector organisations, even parliament itself.3RRR has taken a position consistently critical of the Howard government and its allies. For example, this morning's news mentioned the government's dealings with a nuclear power consortium, suggesting improper collusion between the government and mining concerns which have funded dubious research denying global warming.
I predict that at some stage (possibly after the next election, should they win it), the Howard government will get around to setting its sights on the community radio sector. This sector was established in the more politically liberal climate of the Whitlam government and those which followed it, and has a similarly anachronistically progressive outlook. In the mythology of Howard's Australia, the bulk of community stations represent a minority range of views—those of the inner-city latte-sipping pro-refugee socialist elite—increasingly out of line with the (economically aspirational, socially conservative) views of the Silent Majority Of Suburban Battlers in the marginal electorates. It is obvious that such an arrangement on scarce, federally regulated radio spectrum is not sustainable the climate of the Howard culture war; the only question is, how long will it be allowed to stand by default.
Perhaps sometime after the next election, we'll see a bold plan of community radio "reforms", with stations being subjected to the same majoritarian "objectivity" criteria as the ABC on pain of loss of licence, or possibly the three liberal stations in Melbourne (RRR, PBS, and the radical-leftist 3CR) being reduced to one, with remaining licences either being sold commercially or given to new stations run by groups "more in line with mainstream Australian values", such as, say, the Hillsong Church.
This year in India, anti-Valentine's Day demonstrators (mostly from the Hindu religious right) have adopted the tactic of forcibly marrying couples found celebrating Valentine's Day:
A 'rath' (decorated vehicle) prepared by the protesters, mainly activists of the Dharam Sena, for "forcibly marrying couples found celebrating Valentine's Day" was seized in Jabalpur, Additional Superintendent of Police Manohar Verma told PTI.It is not clear whether any such forced marriages have actually taken place, or whether, in fact, they would be legally binding.
(via Boing Boing)
Last night, I visited the local video library a rather good one in Stoke Newington Church St., which has a lot of art-house/foreign films) and rented a copy of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America.
This is a mockumentary, presenting an alternate history in which the slave-holding South, rather than the abolitionist North, won the American Civil War, and formed what we know as America. It presents this history from the Civil War (in which the South managed to get British and French support for its cause, in the interest of "private property rights"), through the reconstruction (in which the values of the slave-holders are imposed on the North, successfully, and all non-whites become slaves), wars of conquest across South America (forming a "tropical empire", of the sort envisioned by Confederate leaders, governed under a policy of racial "apartness"), through to the present day CSA. The documentary is framed as an imported British documentary being presented on a CSA TV channel; it is preceded by a disclaimer as to its "controversial nature" and interspersed with ads, which shed some light on life in an early-21st-century Confederate America; these include advertisements for cable-TV slave-shopping programmes and electronic tracking bracelets, Cops-style TV programmes about federal agents hunting down runaway slaves, and public-service announcements urging citizens to beware of the disease of homosexuality and report suspected racially-impure people passing as white to the government.
What does the C.S.A. circa 2004 look like? Well, people with any non-white blood are, by law, slaves, Christianity is the state religion (generously, and narrowly, allowing Catholicism to be considered Christian), women are not allowed to vote, Jews are confined to Long Island, and there is a cold war with "Red Canada", which harbours abolitionist "terrorists" and is the home of rock'n'roll and "race music". (Canada is not alone; virtually everyone but South Africa has imposed sanctions on the C.S.A.) Those are the obvious and spectacular differences; on a more subtle level, the C.S.A. is a much more conformistic and authoritarian culture. The mindset which allows ordinary people, who see themselves as good and decent, to tolerate and participate in slavery is one in which society is organised along strong chains of authority and hierarchy, which are seen as part of the order of nature. (One example of this is in an ad early in the film, for an insurance company, which mentions that the father is "master of the house".) With acceptance of arbitrary authority comes the acceptance of beliefs on the basis of faith in authority, and unsurprisingly, the values of the religious right are dominant in the C.S.A. (in one scene, there is a shot of the front page of "CSA Today", which includes a story about scientists disproving evolution). Not surprisingly, this mindset and the focus on "purity" creates a stagnant, homogeneous culture, one seeming in some ways quaintly archaic (one example is music and entertainment programming on its television stations, where, of course, all black influences are banned). Quoting from a friend, it is Pleasantville meets Triumph Of The Will.
C.S.A. has its lighter moments as well; artistic licence is employed to ensure that the history doesn't diverge too wildly from the world we know, but instead parallels it, mirroring and counterpointing. For example, the C.S.A. enters World War 2 after launching a surprise attack on a Japanese naval base; John F. Kennedy is assassinated, right on cue, for having suspected abolitionist sympathies, and the Clinton sex scandal is echoed, quote for quote, in the investigation into a politician's racial make-up.
All in all, C.S.A. was quite an interesting and thought-provoking film, and is worth a look.
The Age has a piece on another cultural trend in Howard's Australia: the transformation of Australia's obsession with sport into an aggressive, militaristic conformism, intolerant of dissent from the majority view:
It was being used as "gang colours", the producer said; "racism disguised as patriotism". There had been reports of people the previous year, hot on the heels of the Cronulla riots, bullying others into kissing the flag and pledging their allegiance -- and shouting the sportscry "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi oi oi!". Not only the slogan but the whole attitude of barracking seeps across to other things. Eggheads (probably a less derisory term in Australia than intellectuals) are castigated for holding thoughts and attitudes divorced from those of the mainstream. Questionable, but isn't that what intellectuals and artists occasionally do everywhere? Tolstoy no more passes for a typical Russian than Shakespeare could pass for a typical Englishman.
But, as the barracking mood has spread across the country, there has been an exponential growth of the idea of something or someone being "un-Australian". Not part of the team. This idea has become so entrenched that people have been deported who have spent virtually their whole lives here but were infants elsewhere. Undesirable, not ours — although they may have been almost entirely shaped by an Australian upbringing.
The notion of being "un-Australian" is a silly one and should be sent back to the America of the Cold War, where it belongs. If we are truly a nation, then every citizen is a member, enriching it with the narrative, patterns and choices of their lives. Whoever heard of anybody being called "un-French", or even "un-English"? "Un-New Zealand" wouldn't even get to first base — not only because it's a mouthful, but because neither Maori nor Pakeha can claim the whole.Adding to this is a creeping militarisation of Australian public life:
The barracking mentality has become more prevalent at the same time as a deepening khaki tinge has entered our national life. We don't hear much now of Australia as a pioneer of democracy: it's Gallipoli, the Western Front, Kokoda. Our history has been militarised. Then there's our military Governor-General, who does quite a good job (when he's allowed to). There are also things like the recent advertisement for Boags, which has a soldier in uniform, saluting, with his glass of beer. Or The Australian deciding that the Australian of the year should be the digger — advancing democracy around the world. You would think it was 1942.
But now the link (between sport and the military) is much more explicit. It is used to fire up sportspeople. Cricket teams off to England to play for the Ashes have stopped off at Gallipoli. And at the Athens Olympics, one of the girls in the softball team enjoined the others to "think of the Anzacs". "It lifted us," commented another. "It really lifted us.""Think of the Anzacs" could also be a good motivational phrase to encourage Australians to knuckle down and accept the American-style working conditions being brought in as part of the government's industrial relations laws. When you're working longer hours, competing against your coworkers not to be dismissed, think of the diggers who had it much worse.
A military presence has become part of the scene at major football matches. Four days before last Anzac Day, a Hawthorn-Carlton match began with the two teams lined up before an enormous Australian flag, the crowd being asked to stand while two buglers played the Last Post. Then there is the special Anzac Day match: although only 13 years old, it is presented as being as traditional as Waltzing Matilda. War planes flew overhead, veterans were whisked around the ground in a lap of honour, while on television the army logo appeared throughout — along with an advertisement for recruitment. The risk is that sport and militarism are becoming increasingly aligned to produce a blunt equation: sport + patriotism = the military.This could bode ill for other aspects of the local culture:
With the virtual collapse of high culture, and the weakening of its local forms (which looked so promising 30 years ago), we may be left with little else, particularly as sport is so deeply Australian. Most of our popular cultural icons have been sold off. But in becoming more sports-obsessed, the country could also become increasingly illiberal and increasingly militaristic.If the article is true, Australia is in danger of turning into a latter-day Sparta, a muscular, militarised, fiercely conformistic nation with no place for those who aren't part of the team.
Chilean free-market reformer General Pinochet is dead. Former British PM Margaret Thatcher is greatly saddened. Meanwhile, left-wing troublemakers such as Geoffrey Robertson QC and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture are unhappy that he'll never face justice for the 3,000 people who were killed or "disappeared" and the numerous others tortured as part of his reforms.
Iran's reactionary Islamist regime has tightened the screws of censorship and blocked access to numerous evil Zionist-crusader websites like YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia and IMDB. This seems to be an escalation from the theocracy's relatively more liberal policy until now of only specifically blocking politically or religiously sensitive materials:
Critics accuse Iran of using filtering technology to censor more sites than any country apart from China. Until now, targets have been mainly linked to opposition groups or those deemed "immoral" under Iran's Islamic legal code. Some news sites, such as the BBC's Farsi service, are also blocked.
With some 7.5 million surfers, Iran is believed to have the highest rate of web use in the Middle East after Israel. The net's popularity has prompted an estimated 100,000 bloggers, many opposed to the Islamic regime. Some blogs are substitutes for Iran's once-flourishing, but now largely supressed, reformist press.The new restrictions come a few weeks after the banning of numerous books.
Meanwhile, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadine-Jihad, who isn't known for his liberal views, is in hot water with hardliners in his own regime after he was seen watching unveiled women dancers at the opening of the Asian games in Qatar, which appears to be the Iranian equivalent of being caught in a strip club. MPs are calling for an investigation, and probably beheadings, stonings and limb amputations of those involved.
The Australian government has backed down slightly on its draconian copyright laws. It still is considerably more severe and pro-Big Copyright than the existing laws, though at least now consumers don't face the possibility of on-the-spot fines for possession of iPods or general-purpose computers, and search engines don't need to obtain permission in advance for indexing web pages. Share a file with a friend, however, and the law will, if you're unlucky, break you.
"While Labor still has some reservations about the Government's overall approach to copyright, the bill that passed the Senate today is a million times better than the one Mr Ruddock pushed through the house," she said in a statement.
"The Free Trade Agreement with the United States means the worst aspects of the American Copyright system has been imported into Australian law but with none of the consumer safeguards such as open ended fair use rights that exist in the United States," said Greens senator Kerry Nettle.
(via Boing Boing)
Google Earth has given ordinary people easy access to satellite images of where they live. In Bahrain, this technology is proving disruptive, as ordinary Bahrainis visualise the glaring inequality between them and the aristocracy who own most of the land:
Opposition activists claim that 80 per cent of the island has been carved up between royals and other private landlords, while much of the rest of the population faces an acute housing shortage.
"Some of the palaces take up more space than three or four villages nearby and block access to the sea for fishermen. People knew this already. But they never saw it. All they saw were the surrounding walls," said Mr Yousif, who is seen in Bahrain as the grandfather of its blogging community.The house of al-Khalifa has responded by knocking down the walls of its palaces and handing the land over to the people.. whom am I kidding; they, of course, responded by configuring the national firewall (and every authoritarian regime should have one of those!) to block access to Google Earth. Which, given the number of internet-savvy Bahrainis, failed, and had the opposite effect, encouraging more people to look at this Google Earth thing.
For those with insufficient bandwidth to access Google Earth, a PDF file with dozens of downloaded images of royal estates has been circulated anonymously by e-mail. Mr Yousif, among others, initially encouraged web users to post images on photo-sharing websites.It'll be interesting to see what happens: whether this will result Bahrain's democratic reform programme to be accelerated, or result in violent unrest and a Nepalese-style crackdown.
(via Boing Boing)
An article on how Australia's new copyright laws will be a disaster:
While originally promoted by the Government as a way of relaxing the arcane deficiencies of existing law - which, for example, make it illegal to record a TV show for later viewing - it is now clear that the laws would turn Australian copyright law into one of the most punitive, restrictive and regressive systems in the world.
The Attorney-General claims that exemptions will be made in the law to account for personal use. But what exemptions? Will it be legal for a teenager to rip the CD she just bought so she can play it on her iPod or her mobile? Absolutely not. These new laws will strictly define what someone can do with the media that they believe they've bought. The recording companies desperately want to sell you the same song three times - once on CD, once for your iPod, and again for your mobile. The film distributors are looking for the same deal.
Instead of moving Australian copyright law into the 21st century, where copyright holders and audiences will need as much freedom and flexibility as possible to develop new and successful financial relationships, the Government wants to freeze the nation into a model that would have worked flawlessly 25 years ago. These laws are not just an insult to the audience, they actually criminalise the audience. A restrictive copyright regime will simply produce a population with no respect for copyright.Meanwhile, it appears that, in addition to allowing easier prosecution of MP3 player owners, the new laws could outlaw search engines in Australia, by requiring them to obtain permission for each page they index.
I wonder what the chances are of the government actually cluing in and making these laws any less draconian are. Or of a future government reforming them. Sadly, since the same present-day government is handing over the Australian media to larger and more incestuous corporate oligopolies, who can then wield even more influence over who is elected, I'd say that it doesn't look good.
Sometimes I despair for my country.
The Australian government is about to enact draconian new copyright laws that, by lowering burdens of proof, expose people doing everyday things to severe criminal liabilities:
"As an example," said Mr Coroneos, "a family who holds a birthday picnic in a place of public entertainment (for example, the grounds of a zoo) and sings 'Happy Birthday' in a manner that can be heard by others, risks an infringement notice carrying a fine of up to $1320. If they make a video recording of the event, they risk a further fine for the possession of a device for the purpose of making an infringing copy of a song. And if they go home and upload the clip to the internet where it can be accessed by others, they risk a further fine of up to $1320 for illegal distribution. All in all, possible fines of up to $3960 for this series of acts -- and the new offences do not require knowledge or improper intent. Just the doing of the acts is enough to ground a legal liability under the new 'strict liability' offences."There's more about the laws here. Apparently the fines will be summary, and not require court offences, and possession of MP3s ripped from CDs you have purchased will be a criminal offense liable to such fines. Which is not to say that the police will be doing mass copyright audits of suburbia anytime soon, but theoretically, if you're carrying a MP3 player and are stopped by a police officer who doesn't like your look/attitude, they will have the power to fine you. The laws could also end up creating an industry of copyright bounty hunters who seek out and prosecute infringers, pocketing a share of the takings (as has happened in the US War On Drugs).
Anyway, the laws have been passed by the House of Representatives, and are being fast-tracked through the Senate. If you live in Australia, it might be an idea to contact your senator now. That and preparing to destroy all copies of your MP3 collection/videotaped TV shows.
Police in Italy have seized a toilet which plays the Italian national anthem when flushed from the Bolzano Museum of Modern Art. A court will now decide whether the museum is guilty of causing offence to the nation; the case for the prosecution is strengthened by a decree by the authoritarian Berlusconi government earlier this year defining the national anthem as an emblem and the property of the state.
Reporters Sans Frontières has published its 2006 Press Freedom Index, ranking the world's countries in where they stand in press freedom. There's little change at the top (mostly Nordic countries, with the notable absence of Denmark due to the cartoons row; the poll counts incidents of violence, harrassment and intimidation against journalists, not instances of the defense of press freedom, so any boat-rocking will look bad), nor at the bottom, with North Korea still being world champion of repression, and the likes of Iran, Cuba, Burma and Turkmenistan (whose eccentric dictator, ironically, has just opened a book-shaped building dedicated to the media and "free creativity"; perhaps they can put the cells where journalists are tortured inside it?) being not much better.
The United States has fallen nine places, thanks to uses of national-security laws against journalists critical of the "war on terror" (if it's any consolation, this was done in the name of freedom), and the jailing of blogger Josh Wolf, and France's position has also continued to decline. Meanwhile, Australia has dropped a few points (which is attributed to "anti-terrorist laws").
The Chinese city of Chongqing has enacted a law which bans satire on the internet:
The rules target Web users "who spread information or remarks defaming others, launch personal attacks or damage others' reputations online," the official Xinhua News Agency said. Potential violations include posting online video "to satirize others or social phenomena."Online satire has become a big problem in China, a society where any challenge to the government's authority is taken very seriously:
Video spoofs have become so popular that Chinese have coined a new slang term, "egao," to describe the act of using real film clips to create mocking send ups.
Government film regulators announced new rules in August meant to rein in the "egao" fad by allowing only authorized major Web sites to show short films online.Laws prohibiting sarcasm and irony and strictly regulating the use of other rhetorical devices are expected soon.
Under a new European Commission proposal, any web sites featuring moving images may soon be subject to the same regulations as broadcast television:
Ministers fear that the directive would hit not only successful sites such as YouTube but also amateur "video bloggers" who post material on their own sites. Personal websites would have to be licensed as a "television-like service".Didn't they introduce a law like this in Australia a few moral panics ago? What has been the experience there? Have web sites taken down video content because of it? Or is it tacitly recognised that the law is unworkable and that its purpose is to provide a new offence for which otherwise legitimate troublemakers can be prosecuted where expedient?
An international manhunt is under way for a Polish man who expressed his disapproval of the government by means of flatulence after being asked what he thought of the president:
Hubert Hoffman, 45, was charged with "contempt for the office of the head of state" for his actions after he was stopped by police in a routine check at a Warsaw railway station.
He complained that under President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw, the country was returning to a Communist style dictatorship.
When told to show more respect for the country's rulers, he farted loudly and was promptly arrested.When you get beyond the gross-out-Hollywood-comedy elements of this story, it starts looking rather disturbing. The implication is that, in Poland, the police are routinely stopping people, asking them what they think of the president, and arresting those who give the wrong answer. Given that the EU is bringing pressure to bear on Turkey to scrap its laws against "insulting Turkishness" before even thinking about being admitted to the EU, one of its own member states behaving in this fashion beggars belief.
Incidentally, if an Australian was stopped by Australian Federal Police outside SouthernCross Station, asked what he thought of the Prime Minister, and replied in this fashion, could he be charged with sedition? And if so, would he be?
Whilst the West hunts for Osama bin Laden, China is intensifying its war against its own equivalent thereof: the Chinese government has pledged a "fight to the death" with the Dalai Lama, its arch-nemesis best known in the West for peddling new-ageisms to Hollywood celebrities:
China's new top official in Tibet has embarked on a fierce campaign to crush loyalty to the exiled Dalai Lama and to extinguish religious beliefs among government officials.
Ethnic Tibetan civil servants of all ranks, from the lowliest of government employees to senior officials, have been banned from attending any religious ceremony or from entering a temple or monastery. Previously only party members were required to be atheist, but many of them quietly retained their Buddhist beliefs. Patriotic education campaigns in the monasteries that have been in the vanguard of anti-Chinese protests have been expanded.
Ethnic Tibetan officials in Lhasa as well as in surrounding rural counties have been required to write criticisms of the Dalai Lama. Senior civil servants must produce 10,000-word essays while those in junior posts need only write 5,000-character condemnations. Even retired officials are not exempt.Elsewhere, China is also cracking down on web video, requiring video (such as that posted on sites like YouTube) to be approved by the government beforehand. This measure was prompted by a number of films which satirised official history.
(Incidentally, China isn't the only country requiring all online video to be approved by censors. In Australia, this is the case too. As far as I know, the government there is not yet cracking down on short films promoting seditious black-armband historical narratives or taking the piss out of For The Term Of His Natural Life or We Of The Never Never.)
(via Boing Boing)
The Australian government is planning to strip environmental groups and trade unions of their tax-deductible status, for campaigning against the government during the last federal election. Interestingly enough, there is no mention of revoking charitable tax-deductible status from groups that involve themselves in politics on the government's side, such as hardline evangelical Christian organisations.
International consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers has called on Australia to introduce an 18+ rating for video games, rather than the present system of banning anything not suitable for children. Given that it's a voice of multinational corporate capital (a force the Tories respect more than paternalist wowserism and populist culture-war politics) making the call, and not the despised inner-city refugee-loving latte-socialist elite, perhaps someone will give the censorious theocrat in South Australia who holds the veto a sharp push and get things changed.
The Age looks at the Australian government's push to prevent official recognition of homosexual relationships, interviewing various prominent gay public figures, including Kerryn Phelps, Bob Brown and small-L-liberal columnist Margo Kingston, whose columns have been taking up the "anvil" side of the culture war for years:
Margo Kingston, a self-confessed Howard hater, argues it is a piece of executive arrogance. "Caesar Howard," she says. "Yes, it's a sensitive issue; yes, there are people of many opinions, but this is absolutely gutless and indefensible. The basic 'liberal' position is that whatever you do in your bedroom is private," says Kingston.Therein lies the rub. Kingston makes the mistake of assuming that Australia is a liberal society. Australia, as envisioned and reengineered by the Howard government, leans significantly more towards majoritarianism than libertarianism than most "liberal" societies (think Britain, Canada, the US blue states, and the northwest of Europe). The key distinction is that in libertarianism (not to be confused with Libertarianism, of the guns-and-Ayn-Rand stripe, but I digress), what individuals say or do privately is their own business. Under majoritarianism, there is one set of community/national values, in areas such as propriety, culture and sexual morality, and deviation from those values is seen as inherently corrosive and harmful and thus officially disapproved of and disincentivised. The majority of Australians are heterosexuals, hence tax breaks for having children, subsidised by higher taxes paid by non-breeders (both gay and straight) and official non-recognition of non-heterosexual lifestyles, making noises about "moral values" to pander to the reactionary heartland (and build up a US-style evangelical powerbase) whilst stopping short of outright persecution (as per Peter Costello's statement that gays in Australia are lucky because homosexuality is not a crime).
Amnesty International has started a campaign against internet repression. Named irrepressible.info, the campaign targets authoritarian/totalitarian regimes like Cuba, China, Iran and the friendly, open-for-business United Arab Emirates, which censor material the regime disapproves of, monitor the internet and jail dissidents, often with the help of compliant western companies like Yahoo!. There are resources detailing the extent of internet-based repression in various corners of the world, as well as a pledge to sign, which will be presented at a UN conference in November:
In November 2006, governments and companies from all over the world will attend a UN conference to discuss the future of the Internet. You can help us send a clear message to them that people everywhere believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression.
And in other news, Singapore's dominant People's Action Party was reelected, again, with a landslide. The party has ruled Singapore, a model "managed democracy" untroubled by the disorder and strife that having plausible opposition parties with a chance of winning brings about, since independence in 1965. Opposition candidates do occasionally arise, but they stand little chance of winning: electorates are so small that the government can punish rebellious ones by withdrawing funding, and any opposition figure who persists in causing trouble can easily be sued into bankruptcy under Singapore's British-style libel laws. In the government's argument, this is a good thing, as not having to worry about the cut-and-thrust of party politics means that the leaders can concentrate more on wisely and efficiently steering the ship of state:
It is clear Mr Lee expects to lead the country for many years, and comments he made last week showed he does not want a pesky opposition getting in the way. "Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament," he said on May 3. "Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I'm going to spend all my time thinking what's the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters' votes."This state of affairs may not last forever, though, as an opposition party has now formed and contested more than half of all available seats.
The PAP has easily won the past three elections because opposition candidates stood for fewer than half the seats. It has won every election since independence in 1965. This time, 47 of the 84 seats were contested.The People's Action Party can, for the moment, still rest easily: it has won all but two seats in the country's parliament, and won't yet need to submit to the indignity of parliamentary debate of its legislative programme.
Under new national-security laws in Australia, if the government doesn't like something you're likely to say, they can send teams around to raid you and smash your computers. And if you tell anyone about it afterwards, you go to jail.
CARMEL TRAVERS: Bear in mind that I was only one of many people whose computers were being cleansed and within the officers who came into my office, there was almost a boast. Because I apologised to them and I said, "Look, it's a bit cramped in here, I'm sorry you haven't got much room to work." "Don't worry, we're used to this. We do this every day." And I said, "Oh, really? How often have you done it?" "Oh, 70, 72 or 73 times." It was almost a boast and it was not a rare event, and I found that alarming.
ANDREW WILKIE: I think a lot of it was just theatre meant to put pressure on people, almost to bully them. I think it was intended to send a very clear signal to the media, to the publishing industry, to me that they needed to be very, very careful about criticising the Government. I think the Government's behaviour was intended very clearly to send a signal to my former colleagues that, you know, you don't cross them, you don't resign, you don't speak out.
DR DAVID WRIGHT NEVILLE: The sort of environment that many critics of this government now work under, many of us do feel that we are constantly surveilled, we do feel that we are constantly being harassed in some ways. One only needs to write an opinion piece for the newspaper and one can get a phone call from someone in the Government asking for clarification or pointing out things, and that never used to happen in the past.All this is made possible thanks to the powers in the anti-terrorism laws, which can be exercised without oversight, giving those at the reins of power the means to put the frighteners on anyone they don't like the look of like never before. The laws are due to expire next year, though ASIO, the national security agency, is calling on them to be made permanent. Given the iron discipline of Australian party politics, they stand a chance of getting this.
Another update on the state of free speech in Australia: A spoof of the Prime Minister's website, created by former Oz troublemaker Richard Neville, has been taken down by request from the Prime Minister's office, under anti-phishing guidelines designed to target sites which impersonate banks to steal user credentials. (Presumably a quick phone call was easier than sedition proceedings.) The site, johnhowardpm.org, was hosted by Yahoo, but used an Australian domain registrar, Melbourne IT. The moral of this story: if you say anything the Australian government doesn't approve of, don't register your domain in Australia.
Meanwhile, the reasons for the banning of the video game Getting Up in Australia have emerged: the game is illegal because it teaches skills that can be used in committing a crime, namely vandalism. Presumably under this precedent, all first-person shooters will now be illegal in Australia. And then there's Pac-Man, Mario Bros., and other games featuring behaviour-altering pills, which encourage drug use.
Since coming to power just over 10 years ago, Australia's unapologetically right-wing government has been at war with the culture of the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC (which, being a not-for-profit, government-funded entity, tends to attract people with left-wing ideals). Periodic purges of leftists and threats to its funding have kept it mostly timid and less than eager to make trouble for the government or question its agenda, though this is a less than permanent solution. Now the government's Communications Minister has announced plans to change its culture more permanently by introducing advertising.
If this goes through, Australia may soon lack a non-commercial broadcasting network funded on ideals of public service, with everything being turned into a colossal shopping mall of easily digestible mental junk food designed to attract the broadest possible audience, without the risk of challenging anyone's beliefs or requiring them to think. Those who dislike crass, loud, intelligence-insulting ads and programming designed for the lowest common denominator will be out of luck, but then again, such attitudes are fundamentally un-Australian, and have no place in a relaxed and comfortable society.
(As if by coincidence, The Soul Jazz Tropicália CD arrived in the mail today; the booklet, which gives a detailed history of the Tropicália movement and its suppression by the Brazilian military dictatorship, mentions at one stage that immediately after the military coup in 1964, the dictatorship encouraged a "television-based society" to reinforce social control. Television, it seems, is an ideal tool for instilling conformity and passivity, with its passive nature and narcotic pull; after all, why go out and do things in the mundane everyday world if you can involve yourself in the plot of Friends or Lost? And more channels of TV don't seem to be much of an answer; as has been claimed recently, all that replacing a few channels everyone watches with hundreds of niche lifestyle channels does is hasten social atomisation and encourage a sort of nihilistic solipsism and further withdrawal from any sort of social discourse. In short, the effects of television are great if one wants a passive, docile population delegating the consent of the governed to technocrats, not so good if one wants a vigorous social discourse. Discuss.)
And in other news from Australia: the country's political climate may be moving further to the right, with the Christian Fundamentalist Family First party set to win the balance of power in South Australia, getting the preferences of Labor ahead of the Democrats. Family First are the charming people whose policies involve reinforcing social discrimination against homosexuals, stepping up the War On Drugs, and installing a Saudi-style national internet firewall to protect Australians from seeing immoral content online. Now it looks like they may be leaping over the Greens and what's left of the Democrats to become the party of the balance of power for the Howard era.
Whilst various European states stubbornly refuse to rein in their freedom of expression to appease religious sensibilities, the Russians have no time for such liberal panderings. Moscow's city government has banned the city's first gay rights parade, on the grounds that the very idea has "caused outrage in society":
Gay and lesbian activists have been campaigning for permission to stage the country's first gay pride event on Saturday 27 May. The date marks the 13th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Russia in 1993. But the plans have drawn a furious reaction from religious leaders and been condemned as "suicidal" by other gay activists .
Earlier this week Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin warned that Russia's Muslims would stage violent protests if the march went ahead. "If they come out on to the streets anyway they should be flogged. Any normal person would do that - Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike ... [The protests] might be even more intense than protests abroad against those controversial cartoons."
The cleric said the Koran taught that homosexuals should be killed because their lifestyle spells the extinction of the human race and said that gays had no human rights.
In the Communist era Russian homosexuals were jailed for five years and their "condition" was classed as a mental disorder. In post-Soviet Russia public acceptance of homosexuality has been glacial. An opinion poll last year showed 43 per cent of Russians believed gay men should be incarcerated.The organisers of the parade are planning to sue the Moscow government in the European Court of Human Rights.
Still in Russia, survivors of Stalinist gulags are outraged by the imminent opening of a Stalin museum in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). The museum is funded by local businessmen, though will enjoy pride of place in an official facility; its opening is only one manifestation in the recent rise of the popularity of the Soviet dictator.
A media expert claims that, if Australia's ban on the video game Getting Up is not overturned, it may set a precedent, leading to any interactive games inculcating illegal activity or disrespect of rightful authority to be outlawed in Australia.
The latest video game to be banned by the Australian government is Mark Ecko's Getting Up, a game involving graffiti, which is banned on the grounds that it would promote graffiti.
And so, once again, Australia faced a choice between Western liberalism and Singapore-style authoritarian paternalism, and chose the latter.
I think someone should start a campaign to overhaul the Australian video game censorship guidelines and create an adults-only/"R" category. To divide an entire genre of entertainment into "suitable for children" (in the eyes of bureaucrats appointed by a conservative government unapologetic about its culture-war agenda) and "legally equivalent to child pornography/snuff films" is ridiculous.
An interesting link from Momus: Market research firm Environics has conducted a survey of changing values in America, and come up with some disturbing conclusions. Over the past 12 years, their results show, the meta-values underlying American society have shifted away from engagement within society towards a paranoid, Hobbesian, every-man-for-himself world-view; this has fostered both libertinism and authoritarianism:
Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that the father of the family must be the master in his own house increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that men are naturally superior to women increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that violence is a normal part of life -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.The research was done by plotting survey responses on a rectangular "values matrix", with two axes: authority-individuality and fulfilment-survival:
The quadrants represent different worldviews. On the top lies authority, an orientation that values traditional family, religiosity, emotional control, and obedience. On the bottom, the individuality orientation encompasses risk-taking, anomie-aimlessness, and the acceptance of flexible families and personal choice. On the right side of the scale are values that celebrate fulfillment, such as civic engagement, ecological concern, and empathy. On the left, theres a cluster of values representing the sense that life is a struggle for survival: acceptance of violence, a conviction that people get what they deserve in life, and civic apathy. These quadrants are not random: Shellenberger and Nordaus developed them based on an assessment of how likely it was that holders of certain values also held other values, or self-clustered.
Over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on every man for himself. Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.(If I recall correctly, fulfilment and survival are at the two opposite extremes of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with individuals whose survival needs are met progressing to focus on fulfilment needs. Could the reversion of the focus to survival be the result of respondents perceiving that their survival needs are threatened?)
On a related note: here is a PDF file of a presentation analysing British political opinions along similar lines, and finding that, while the old labels of "left" and "right" are less meaningful, opinions are divided along two axes: the Socialist-Free Market axis of economics and, more significantly, the "Axis of UKIP", which sorts respondents on their opinions on crime and international relations. At one end are the Daily Mail readers, who believe in isolationism and capital punishment, and on the other end are "chianti-swilling bleeding hearts" and cosmopolitanists. The centre of gravity is a little towards the UKIP end, which is why xenophobic, fear-mongering tabloids sell so well. The presentation also has diagrams of the distributions of positions by political affiliation and newspaper choice, with some interesting results.
Former Australian ambassador to the United Nations Richard Woolcott claims that Australia's reputation around the world is being diminished thanks to government policies of uncritically supporting the Bush government, restricting civil liberties and pandering to bigoted tendencies where expedient:
Australia today is not the country I represented with pride for some 40 years. This country of such great potential risks becoming a land of fading promise.
We have seen Australian democracy diminished by government hubris and arrogance, opposition weakness and a curious public detachment and apathy. Our national self-respect has also been eroded by our excessively deferential attitude to the Bush Administration's foreign and security policy, especially in Iraq. The revelations about the Australian Wheat Board's dealings with Iraq under Saddam and the Government's links with the Board, make its proper opposition to corruption and its demands for good governance, especially in the South Pacific, look hollow. Moreover, truth in Government has yet to be restored.
With our participation in the Iraq war, the Howard Government has also reinforced the image of an Australia moving back to the so-called Anglosphere, rather than focusing more on its future in its own neighbourhood.IMHO, it is not Australia's definition of itself in the "Anglosphere" that is the problem, but its position at the reactionary end of the Anglosphere. The United States, for example, has its famous constitution and Bill of Rights, not to mention an elaborate system of checks and balances which have done much to rein in the powers of radical governments. Britain has a diverse and independent media, which, at its best, is possibly the best in the world. Canada has extensive guarantees of human rights as well. Meanwhile, in Australia, there are no legal rights of freedom of speech, association or conscience (the only constitutionally guaranteed right is not to have a state religion imposed on oneself), the press is owned by a handful of media proprietors (who all supported the Liberal/National Coalition in the last election; even the liberal Age was coerced into running editorials telling voters to vote Tory). In a lot of areas, from treatment of refugees to sedition laws, Australia trails behind other "Anglosphere" countries. Australia could do a lot worse than look towards the other "Anglosphere" countries as models of good governance.
The treatment of Vivian Alvarez Solon, the injured Australian citizen deported to the Philippines, has also undermined the Government's credibility in protecting its citizens' rights. Again, a detached wider community does not seem to care too much about the principles involved in such cases.And public apathy is part of the problem. The famously laconic Australian "no-worries-she'll-be-right-mate" attitude, when extended into politics, does turn into apathy, and, sometimes, a belief that those who aren't apathetic and are "whinging" about these things are "ratbags" and thus suspicious. It's probably no coincidence that this attitude is something John Howard has lauded with his talk of a "relaxed and comfortable" Australia.
In Australia, it is now a crime to discuss suicide options by telephone, fax, email or the internet. So much for the ideals of free speech and liberalism; apparently the right of religious busybodies to control when and how people can exit their divinely bestowed lives overrides such considerations.
The next stage of the Australian police state may have been announced; after their triumph with workplace relations, sedition laws and making universities inhospitable to student leftism, a sizeable contingent of the Tories are pushing for mandatory internet filtering. Of course, because Australia Is A Liberal Democracy, those perverts who want to look at porn could apply to do so after signing the perverts' register, getting a National Pervert Number which could be entered into the firewall page, giving one a less-filtered level of access.
It remains to be seen whether this suggestion will become government policy.
Two stories have recently made the Australian press: firstly, the government pushed through its sweeping "anti-terrorism" laws, rolling back presumptions of free speech and civil liberties taken for granted with no meaningful resistance; there being nothing in the way of a formal guarantee of rights in Australia, post-Whitlam institutions of free speech and civil liberties crumbled like so many sandcastles in the path of an incoming tide. Secondly, there was mass outcry as a convicted drug smuggler, Nguyen Tuong Van, was executed in Singapore, only to be reborn as a national symbol alongside the likes of Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant, with unofficial national moments of silence at the time of his execution and numerous strangers attending his funeral to pay their respects. It is quite likely that shrines will be erected in his honour.
On the surface, the two stories seem contradictory: though, on a deeper level, they are an example of the larrikin-wowser dynamic at the heart of Australian society. The crucial point being that Australia does not have a strong tradition of civil society. It has a strong tradition of authoritarian and paternalistic governance (from the penal-colony days, through the Menzies era to the present, minus an anomalous period of fashionable liberalism in the 1970s, 80s and 90s) and arbitrary authority exercised as a means to an end (such as has been manifested in the oft-publicised incidents of police corruption), and of censorious social conservatism of the sort that would not fly in more cosmopolitan parts of the world. It also has an opposing tradition of borderline contempt for authority and propriety; the larrikin tradition, manifesting itself in everything from the Rum Rebellion to the stencil art scene, not to mention in numerous incidents of political, artistic or cultural radicalism or impropriety and, of, course the summary transformation of anyone who dies in the course of pissing off authority — even if they were undoubtedly guilty of unsavoury crimes (and most Australians, presumably, do not condone armed robbery or heroin trafficking in principle) — into a folk saint of sorts, as we are seeing now.
That's all very well, but the downside of this is that there is no centre to hold between the two; no entrenched, stable institutions of a liberal culture, but only a precarious balance in an ancient war between two extremes. Usually, these are well balanced, and things stay roughly where they are. Occasionally, one gets the upper hand, pushes the other back, and gains ground. It happened during the 1960s and 1970s, when the wave of cultural change that resonated through the Western world pushed back the the conservative status quo of Anglo-Saxon Protestant wowserism, itself undermined by the challenges of immigration and cosmopolitanism; it's happening in the opposite direction now, because of terrorism and the resulting culture of fear.
As of today, it is a crime in Australia to make any statement that inspires discontentment with the monarchy (there goes the Fenian wing of the republican movement), either house of parliament, or any of Australia's allies (looks like Brendan Nelson finally has a stick to use against the "anti-American" teachers he has been griping about). So you'd better lay off the unkind remarks about fat SUV drivers, Australians.
I wonder whether Australia's allies include Singapore, China or Saudi Arabia, and, if so, how much criticism of these states' human rights record or democratic credentials is allowable.
As for claims that the government won't use the sedition laws, the Scott Parkin incident suggests otherwise. A few months ago, they arrested and deported a US anti-globalisation activist who was about to give a workshop on non-violent demonstration. Back then, they would have been unable to act against him had he been an Australian citizen. Now the gloves are off, and all protest or dissent more vigorous than writing polite letters to a newspaper is essentially a crime. Australia is moving closer to being like Singapore, where activism is reserved for those with nothing left to lose, and there are severe disincentives to rocking the boat in any way (see also: "relaxed and comfortable").
The fact that Labor whipped its MPs to vote in favour of the sedition law, even with the Tories not needing their support, is depressing, and doesn't bode well for Australia becoming a liberal democratic society again within the next decade or so. Perhaps the period of liberalism and civil rights of the past 3 or so decades was an anomaly, and in the longer, historical sense, authoritarianism (from the penal-colony days to the first Menzies era of which Howard is so fond) is the Australian norm?
And in light of recent events, The Age looks at democracy, Singapore-style:
I was reminded powerfully of that one afternoon. Stepping out of Singapore's state-of-the-art subway system, I rode the escalator into a small park. There stood an unkempt old man with a small pile of books for sale. It was former opposition leader J. B. Jeyaretnam.
In 2001, JB was declared bankrupt after losing a series of libel cases to government figures from Lee Kuan Yew down. Now he was banned from Parliament and reduced to selling his own books to live.
It is a strategy routinely used by Singapore's ruling People's Action Party to shut up the opposition. The courts in Singapore are an arm of government. In this case, JB's final crime was to accuse the organisers of the Tamil Language Week of being "government stooges". He was penalised more than $A500,000 in damages and court costs. It ended his political career.
Lee and his successor, Goh Chok Tong, then sued another opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan. An American-trained neuropsychologist, Chee is already banned from the next election after suggesting that Malay schoolgirls should be allowed to wear headscarves to school. The courts ruled that that was speaking on religion, a forbidden topic.
One last example: in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made one of his occasional gestures of liberalisation, saying Singapore must become more "open" and "inclusive". Yet days later, the thought police ordered filmmaker Martyn See to hand over his video camera and his new documentary on Chee, Singapore Rebel for Singapore law bans films "directed towards any political end". See now faces a possible two-year jail term and an $A80,000 fine.One can imagine this happening in Australia after a decade or so of unchallenged Liberal-National rule. Between the sedition laws that the government's determined to push through despite growing opposition and Australia's severe defamation laws (which. as in Singapore, are derived from English defamation laws, designed primarily to protect the interests of the establishment from the rabble), suppressing troublesome opposition should not be too difficult, requiring only the political will and lack of concern for pluralism. Perhaps within a decade, we'll see a bankrupt Bob Brown or Buffy Stott-Despoja, recently released from a prison sentence, flogging their books or JJJ Hottest 100 compilations at a flea market somewhere. Meanwhile, the Labor Party will, by then, have morphed from the shadow government to the government's shadow: a "lite" version of the Tories, whose only difference from the government is a vaguely mumbled promise to "be nicer". So no difference there, then.
Melbourne's liberal-except-when-the-proprietors-pull-the-strings newspaper The Age is shocked and appalled that, on the day that convicted heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van is hanged, the prime minister will be insensitive enough to attend a cricket match, rather than registering his outrage as a liberal Australian sickened by the very idea of the death penalty.
I'm not all that surprised. Could it be that one of the reasons that Howard did not protest too loudly is because, in his ideology, far from being a barbarically illiberal backwater, Singapore is a model for what a modern Australia could look like, reconciling the cherished authoritarian conformity of decades past with a dynamic economy and a place in the globalised world? Let's see: an extremely business-friendly regulatory environment, a work ethic that aggressively minimises threats to economic performance, strict censorship of the media and arts, criminalisation and marginalisation of political dissent, harsh penalties for conduct the leaders find inappropriate (such as chewing gum, for example) and the near-total power of the state over all aspects of public and private life. Add a good dose of Anglo-Saxon Christian moralism, suburban wowser ideas of propriety and traditional iconography to that and you have a perfect recipe for a "relaxed and comfortable" Australia John Howard could love.
Witnesses said the laws were so wide they could be used to prosecute ACTU secretary Greg Combet for his remarks urging opposition to the new industrial laws, and could be applied to those who had supported resistance movements, including Fretilin in East Timor, and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
He predicted police investigations into normal crimes would "morph" into terrorism investigations because the new laws gave police such broad powers to search properties.One group that is not complaining about the new laws is the Australian Federal Police, who give their word that the laws would be used "judiciously and cautiously". Which presumably means that officers will only ride roughshod over civil rights when the party in question is a pinko/greeno ratbag, suspiciously dark-skinned, has a bad attitude, or is otherwise un-Australian. Welcome to Bjelkeland, Australians.
The new laws could effectively outlaw any form of dissent stronger than writing a politely-worded letter to one's MP. Of course, no-one expects Howard's secret police to round up all refugee-rights campaigners, Greens voters, socialists and trade unionists and send them to gulags in the far north. They won't need to; the real purpose will be the chilling effect achieved after a few troublemakers have been made examples of, when it is known that being too outspoken in the wrong way about our government, our Queen or our allies, associating with the wrong people, or even expressing general discontent in the wrong way, can be dangerous. This will drive those with anything to lose away from political activism, leaving only a hard core of cranks who can be easily ignored, much as in that beacon of meticulously managed civil society, Singapore.
In a rush to stop an "imminent terrorist attack", Australia is about to pass sweeping "anti-terrorism" laws, which include sedition laws that effectively criminalise many forms of protest and dissent, and indeed much art and commentary critical of the state of affairs could fall foul of them:
Gill's visual record of the Eureka Stockade, Tucker's images of evil and Nolan's post-World War II paintings are just some of the works that might have offended the sedition clause in the proposed legislation, says Tamara Winikoff, the executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts.
Playwright David Williamson, yesterday did not mince his words: "It's one of the major functions of art — to look critically at what's going on around you. I think this is the most authoritarian government this country has ever had and it doesn't like voices of dissent.
"You get the feeling that the concept of democracy is not strongly held by this government. It's as if there's only one political line, one opinion. Everything else is attacked with a ferocity unlike anything in our nation's history."Welcome to Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland, Australians.
And here is an article from those known Comsymps at Indymedia, on how, far from being "un-Australian", sweeping sedition laws and the criminalisation of dissent are fine Australian traditions.
Meanwhile, while the 24-style high drama of the terror laws (will they pass them in time for Jack Bauer to capture the bad guys? Stay tuned.) rages in the front pages, the government's Dickensian industrial relations laws, whose details have just been released, are slipping under the radar.
The apolitical silent majority of Australians, bathed in the nurturing glow of their TVs in their suburban living rooms, is on record as being "relaxed and comfortable" with the changes.
In 1950, a book titled The Authoritarian Personality posited the claim that, far from being alien, fascist tendencies were commonplace in American society. The book is best known for the "F Scale", a test of how inclined one would be, should the opportunity present itself, to don the jackboots of authoritarianism. The test consisted of a number of multiple-choice questions, with the answers added to give a score; in that sense, it's an ancestor of numerous OKCupid tests and LiveJournal memes.
The F Scale is not perfect: for one, it focuses almost exclusively on a strain of traditionalist, right-wing authoritarianism, ignoring other strains, such as Soviet-style social engineering. (This could be because one of the authors was the famous Marxist critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and/or because authoritarian utopianism à la Lenin never had more than niche popularity in the US, where the research was carried out.) However, according to this article, it's more relevant today than it was when it was written:
In the June 19, 2005, issue of The New York Times Magazine, the journalist Russell Shorto interviewed activists against gay marriage and concluded that they were motivated not by a defense of traditional marriage, but by hatred of homosexuality itself. "Their passion," Shorto wrote, "comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: It seeks to spread itself." It is not difficult to conclude where those people would have stood on the F scale.
Consider the case of John R. Bolton, now our ambassador to the United Nations. While testifying about Bolton's often contentious personality, Carl Ford Jr., a former head of intelligence within the U.S. State Department, called him a "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy." Surely, in one pithy sentence, that perfectly summarizes the characteristics of those who identify with strength and disparage weakness. Everything Americans have learned about Bolton -- his temper tantrums, intolerance of dissent, and black-and-white view of the world -- step right out of the clinical material assembled by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality.
One item on the F scale, in particular, seems to capture in just a few words the way that many Christian-right politicians view the world in an age of terror: "Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of life."
From this week, anybody wishing to use an internet cafe or public telephone or fax machine in Berlusconi's Italy will have to produce their passport or identity papers. Furthermore, the managers of internet cafes and communications centres will be obliged to keep records of the times customers enter and leave the premises and which computers or telephones they use.
An Age piece on the Scott Parkin incident:
"For me, some of the really disturbing aspects of this situation have been the way that the authorities have come to conflate activism and terrorism," Dias says. "It basically means the end of freedom of expression, the end of being able to question the policy of the current government."
With state premiers preparing for the Council of Australian Government's summit on terror powers, Parkin's treatment led Victorian Premier Steve Bracks to sound a note of caution. "Without a proper explanation of why Scott Parkin was detained, there is the potential for the public to question the necessity of the law and whether it should be in place," Bracks said.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen would be proud, if not envious; compared to the present state of affairs, to say nothing of the new anti-terrorism laws being drafted as we speak, 1980s Queensland was a veritable Interzone of freedom.
And details have emerged of Parkin's extremist politics and dangerous history:
Too often physical confrontation becomes the story of a protest rather than the issue that drives the protest. Parkin teaches what Hollows calls "de-escalation techniques" to defuse potentially violent situations, and to avoid provoking police. He also advises on non-violent physical blockading methods.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said ASIO had not opposed the original visa application, but its understanding of his intentions had changed during his trip. Parkin was detained for "encouraging spirited protest".
It has been pointed out that the reason for this extraordinary action (which, incidentally, the Labor opposition fully backs; don't look for troublesome questions there) is that Parkin is a thorn in the side of Halliburton, who, as a contractor to the Australian military, are a matter of national security (a phrase Australians will be hearing a lot more of in future).
And more here:
Asked what advice he might give other travellers, he replied: "Be careful where you go and what you say, and look around at who's following you. We have to be careful, but we still need to stand up for what we're doing."Or, alternately, "don't let the sun set on you in Australia, hippie". Left-wing troublemakers are on notice that they and their politics are not welcome in Australia.
The bill for his Australian adventure will top $11,000, including $777 for his imprisonment, $4235 for his air fare to Los Angeles, and $6675 in fares and accommodation for his two minders, whose tasks included accompanying Parkin to the toilet. The account will be presented to him should he return to Australia, which he says he has been forbidden from doing for three years.Perhaps this is another sign that those of a liberal inclination should boycott Australia? Doing so would have an economic impact; for one, most of the Americans who travel abroad for personal reasons are towards the liberal side of the spectrum, and the cosmopolitanist trend is probably similar for other nations. If those who disagree with the present state of affairs boycott Australia, the tourism industry will take a hit, and I can't see an Australian Government ad campaign on Christian cable stations in Mississippi and Texas or right-wing satellite radio, promoting Australia as an ideologically sound destination for conservative holidaymakers, turning that around. Cultural exchange with the great redneck wonderland down under would also suffer, with the OFLC losing the opportunity to ban more arthouse films, progressive-leaning bands from abroad no longer stopping to play gigs at the Corner or Metro, and international arts festivals in Australia, stripped of first-tier international talent, looking increasingly parochial and small. Of course, such an action would hasten the destruction of the cosmopolitan inner-city culture and further alienate those latte-sipping refugee-loving tree-hugging vegetarian bicyclists Andrew Bolt and his ascendant ilk so despise; but for them, there is an alternative. To paraphrase Momus (substitutions in square brackets):
So just leave. [Australia] doesn't deserve you. Walk away. [Australia] doesn't need your talent, your creativity and your intelligence. Or rather, it needs them desperately, but it will never acknowledge that. It's too stupid to understand that. If it calls for you, it will call for you for the wrong reasons. It will call you up as a soldier. It will call for you as canon-fodder in some spurious and unnecessary war that serves the interests of 1% of its population and an even smaller percentage of the world's population. Even if it lets you live in relative peace as a mere civilian, it will force you to live in ways that destroy the world's weather systems and its environment. It will use your tax to fund pre-emptive wars of aggressive imperialism against impoverished nations with energy resources.
Get a passport, get a visa. Work a job, save some money. Come to Europe, come to Japan. Life is more civilised here. Come as you are, come to work, come to play, come to stay. Make love to foreigners, not [Australians]. Make non-[Australian] babies. Make your children world citizens, as you make yourself one.John Howard, the Methodist Mahathir presiding over this new age of repressiveness, has described those whose lifestyles, politics or beliefs he disagrees with as "un-Australian". Perhaps now it's time to take the hint and exit this Roman shell?
More details have emerged on the arrest of US peace activist Scott Parkin: it turns out that the government is holding him in solitary confinement, and billing him for it, until he renounces all claims against the government, a similar tactic to that used against asylum seekers. Also, it appears that he is being held on national security provisions, rather than character provisions, which entitles the government to block the hearing of his case. Meanwhile there have been protests outside the Australian embassy in the US, and Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has protested the decision.
Which demonstrates a reemerging ugly side of the Australian Way. The legal principles of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland are alive and well. The government's message here is: if you don't conform to our model of relaxed and comfortable Australia, we have the means to make things very uncomfortable for you. The principles of pluralism and democratic debate are about as relevant in John Howard's Australia as they are in Mahathir's Malaysia.
And it looks like Australia is establishing itself as a global centre for the exporting of hard-right ideology; the New Zealand Labour party claims that Australian Tory strategists and a hard-line Christian sect are involved in campaigning for the conservative National Party.
A US peace activist visiting Australia has been arrested by the Federal Police as he travelled to a workshop on the US peace movement. The Immigration Department has stated that Scott Parkin, of Zmag, was arrested on "character grounds", and would be deported "as soon as practicable". (This is believed to be under provisions for cancelling visas where "a person's presence is, or would be, prejudicial to relations between Australia and a foreign country", which means that criticising US foreign policy is now officially an Un-Australian Activity.) Non-Government politicians, environmentalists and refugee-loving latte-leftist terrsymps are up in arms; the Herald-Sun-reading silent majority of suburban battlers, however, is on record as being "relaxed and comfortable".
Is the Australian government abusing its anti-terrorism powers to suppress opposing voices? Shortly after 9/11 in the US, Green Party activists found themselves banned from flying and feminists in San Francisco were investigated for al-Qaeda sympathies. Given the Australian authorities' fine tradition of creativity in defending the status quo (think Joh Bjelke-Petersen's police force), I wouldn't rule out that sort of thing being the unwritten law of the land.
Police in Malaysia are carrying out random spot checks for pornography on mobile phones. Those found with porn will be charged with possession, and presumably flogged or caned or whatever they do, at Dr. Mahathir's pleasure.
Meanwhile, in India, the local movie studios' organisation, the MPA, has successfully obtained a general search and seizure warrant, allowing its officers to search any property in Delhi deemed under suspicion of piracy. Of course, they only intend to use such warrants against the terrorists who produce and sell pirated DVDs at markets, and, being the good guys, undoubtedly are honour-bound not to abuse these powers, so there's no cause for concern.
And in China, a researcher has discovered a sinister and ominous new trend, that people who buy webcams often use them whilst naked, posing a serious threat to public health and morality:
"At first, we thought it was merely a game for a few mentally abnormal people," the paper quoted Liu as saying. "But as our research continued, we found the problem was much larger than expected."It wasn't made clear what proportion of webcam users are filthy perverts, or, indeed, what those who don't chat naked use them for.
It looks like, 18 years after killing Australia's national ID card scheme, John Howard is putting it back on the table:
Asked if some of the issues to be discussed at the meeting could curtail civil liberties, Mr Howard said: ''The most important civil liberty you have and I have is to stay alive.'' ''To protect people from attacks is in favour of, not against, civil liberties.''Sounds nicely Orwellian, wouldn't you say. Or perhaps like Margaret Atwood's "freedom from" vs. freedom to".
John Birmingham's eulogy for Joh Bjelke-Petersen, former despot of Queensland:
As long as there is a spark of life in Australian democracy, the mid 1980s, when Bjelke-Petersen ruled alone, at the very zenith of his powers, should be studied in civics courses as an object lesson in what happens when untrammelled power is gathered into the shaky, liver-spotted hands of a stuttering, proto-fascist brute with just enough rat-bastard cunning to mask his true nature behind a carefully constructed facade of endearing bumpkinry.
Should his legacy be the flight of thousands of Queenslanders to safer, less contested lives in those states where politics did not threaten to become an intimately personal matter, something that could, in the worst case, reach out and touch you, shrivelling your options to fight or flight? And, really, only to the latter.
His state funeral should be an appropriate ceremony. Perhaps a pack of dingoes could be starved for a week before being sooled upon his corpse in the mudflats down by the Brisbane River. Or he could be buried at sea with the worst of his cabinet ministers, all of them dipped in chum and fed to the hammerheads and reef sharks off the Great Barrier Reef which they were so keen to open up to mining.
In the U.S., a small minority of pharmacists are refusing to sell birth-control pills to women, sometimes even confiscating their prescriptions, on "moral grounds". State legislatures are divided between outlawing such actions and enshrining them in law:
At a Brooks pharmacy in Laconia, New Hampshire, Suzanne Richards, a 21-year-old single mother with a 3-year-old son, was denied the morning after pill because of the pharmacist's religious convictions.
Richards says she felt "humiliated and traumatised", and was too frightened to approach another pharmacist the next day, allowing the 72-hour limit for taking the pill to pass.
One can understand people getting squeamish about the abortion of developed foetuses with nervous systems and such, but refusing to sell morning-after pills is just stupid. For one, it ignores the fact that between 60% and 80% of fertilised embryos are naturally spontaneously aborted, in much the same way that the morning-after pill would do (an argument which, when combined with pro-lifer ideology and a dose of logic, implies that much of the population of Heaven would be comprised of never-born embryos). This is clearly not about saving lives but rather about assertion of power; the Religious Right flexing its muscle and seeing how much it can get away with in Bush's America.
It looks like the next generation of Americans are finally getting over that "free speech" fad that gripped the country for 200 or so years. A survey of US schoolchildren has revealed that one in three believe the First Amendment goes "too far", Meanwhile, half of students believe that the government has the power to restrict any indecent material on the internet and newspapers should require government approval of stories for publication. This is in contrast with dangerously liberal views held by their pinko-coddling baby-boomer elders:
When asked whether people should be allowed to express unpopular views, 97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of school principals said yes. Only 83 percent of students did.
Eventually, though, the baby boomers will die away and America can complete its transformation into the new Sparta, all without anybody noticing that anything has changed. Or maybe it won't; perhaps this is not so much a trend as part of a cycle. I heard accounts of similar things happening during the McCarthy era (one in which someone once posted a copy of the Bill of Rights, without the heading, somewhere, attracting outraged complaints about "Communist propaganda").
A new bill in the US state of Virginia's legislature will require women to report miscarriages to the police within 12 hours, or else face up to 12 months in prison.
Quoted from Graham's blog, whose comments appear to be broken:
Bizarro sex ed animations, produced by the BBC. Theres one for the girls and one for the lads. Not Safe For Work. Also notice the difference in the title banners. And could you imagine the response from Murdochs hounds if the ABC even broached anything like this? More evidence that weve fallen behind the mother country in the prudity stakes. (Edit: or ahead, depending on your point of view.)
Actually, I don't think it's a matter of Australia having fallen behind the UK, so much as "respectable" Australian social morés always having been more conservative and less permissive than in the old country. It was like that in the 1950s, when Melbourne and Sydney were (on the surface) much more buttoned-down and less accepting of any deviancy than London; and in the early 1960s, when
a British model British fashion model Jean Shrimpton went to the Melbourne Cup wearing a miniskirt (which was the done thing in London), it caused public outrage and indignation.
Part of this would probably come from the frontier/outpost mentality ingrained into the Australian psyche. Australia is a new country, half a world away from civilisation, and thus needs more discipline to hold the line against barbarism. It is, the reasoning can be extrapolated as, not yet mature enough to be trusted with as much leeway as they have in London or Los Angeles. The fact that it was originally a penal colony, ruled with an iron fist by colonial governors, could have something to do with the political culture as well. The convicts are gone, but the paternalistic streak remains in Australia; from John Howard and his idol Robert Menzies to fictitious civic patriarchs in films like The Cars That Ate Paris and Welcome To Woop Woop, Australia has traditionally been a country of stern father figures laying down rules they expect to be heeded. Australia has also been a traditionally censorious society; other than high-profile cases like Baise-Moi and Nine Songs, many mainstream films have scenes cut or shortened prior to being allowed to be shown in Australia; meanwhile, a number of books, including, allegedly, 18th-century erotic novel Fanny Hill, are banned in Australia. And given how popular Howard's retro-styled leadership is (after all, one can only give so much credit to Rupert Murdoch's news-management for the last election), one can conclude that much of Australia finds this sort of governance reassuring.
Of course, that is only one side of the story. The streak of paternalistic conservatism in "respectable" bourgeois Australian society is counterbalanced by another phenomenon: the larrikin tradition. This tradition, of borderline contempt for authority and propriety, has been in Australia since the days of convict settlements and corrupt, arbitrary government, and is just as firmly ingrained, underneath the surface of society, as conservatism. The larrikin element can be argued to have informed everything from Australian contemporary art from the Angry Penguins onwards to youth counterculture (from bodgies to ferals), from contemporary scofflaws (it's no accident that Melbourne is home to the Cave Clan, dozens of zines and one of the world's most active stencil graffiti scenes) to the fine Australian tradition of political pranks.
And so we get the dynamic between wowserism (the bourgeois paternalist conservatism) and larrikinism, with both sides of the equation reinforcing each other. The larrikin vein beneath the surface of Australian culture is proof that Australia isn't ready for the sorts of license they have elsewhere in the world, and needs a firm hand to guide it. Meanwhile, the conservative, conformistic streak in respectable Australian society fuels the undercurrent of resistance. It is a balance, and a positive feedback loop, between order and chaos, just as that described by Discordianism.
It appears to me that the prominent larrikin-wowser dynamic, and its various consequences, is the main difference between the Australian and British cultures. Britain is less conservative or censorious as a whole (in fact, some have called this Britain's "repressive tolerance"), but doesn't have the larrikin tradition (not that it's a terribly orderly place, just that its disorder seems to be confined to drunken neds punching each other up outside pubs at 11pm, and has no deeper cultural manifestation).
The twilight of secularism (an ongoing series): Australia's highest-ranking Catholic clergyman and leading conservative hardliner, Cardinal George Pell, gave a speech comparing Islam to Communism and saying that secular democracy has failed and must be replaced with what he called "democratic personalism", with paternalistic Christian government being the only hope of countering the spread of fundamentalist Islam.
"The small but growing conversion of native Westerners within Western societies to Islam carries the suggestion that Islam may provide in the 21st century the attraction which communism provided in the 20th, both for those who are alienated or embittered on the one hand, and for those who seek order or justice on the other," he said.
He asked: "Does democracy need a burgeoning billion-dollar pornography industry to be truly democratic? Does it need an abortion rate in the tens of millions? "What would democracy look like if you took some of these things out of the picture? Would it cease to be democracy? Or would it actually become more democratic?"
Perhaps, after a few more terms of John Howard/Tony Abbott, we'll find out. Besides which, "democratic personalism" has a nicely euphemistic ring to it. Given how misleading it is for the Tories to call themselves the "Liberal Party", perhaps they'll take the hint and rename themselves the Democratic Personalist Party.
A recent study at the John F. Kennedy School of Government claims to disprove the often cited anecdotal connection between poverty and terrorism. According to the report, a nation's poverty has little effect on the occurrence of terrorism in that nation; however, levels of political freedom strongly influence terrorism. Countries with high levels of freedom and strictly controlled autocracies are both less susceptible to terrorism than countries with intermediate levels of freedom (this can be seen in Iraq and Russia). Perhaps it has to do with the intermediate countries not having cultural institutions which evolved with their recently gained freedom, or having insufficient freedom to provide peaceful outlets for grievances whilst insufficient control to effectively clamp down on violent ones.
Another factor which increases a country's frequency of terrorism is apparently geography, with mountainous terrain, jungle and similar features offering safe havens to rogue groups, as well as sources of narcotics-related income. (via bOING bOING)
Australia has come in in 41st place in Reporters Without Borders' annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index; which is below all EU members, several other Eastern European countries, South Africa and Hong Kong; in contrast, New Zealand ranked ninth, only slightly below the 8 nations sharing first place. Australia's dismal showing has to do partly with restricted press access to refugees, though chances are that media ownership concentration, defamation laws and attempts to force journalists to reveal their sources have also contributed.
The bottom of the list is held, predictably, by North Korea (at #167), with Cuba just above it. Saudi Arabia is at #159, three places ahead of China, while Singapore is at #147. Brazil, a popular recent poster child of the Third Way, languishes at #66. The US's arrest of journalists at anti-Bush protests and restrictions on journalistic visas have knocked it down to #22. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Israel is at #36 (shared with Bulgaria), except in the occupied territories, where it is at #115 (shared with Gabon), though ahead of the Palestinian Authority (#127, slightly better than Egypt and Somalia).
First place is shared by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia and Switzerland.
Australia has made its choice, the Tories have been reelected with an increased majority, and look like gaining control of the Senate as well (current predictions show them set to have half the Senate in their own right, with a Family First senator giving them a majority, in return for a religious conservative legislative agenda). The Greens did well, but, with Labor having collapsed under them, they will be unable to do much with all their Senate seats. So, what can we expect in the next three years?
For one, we're likely to see a stepping up of the culture war. The election has shown that Australia is polarised, between a small, cosmopolitanist minority in the inner cities who voted Green, and the majority of Herald-Sun-reading suburban battlers who back Howard. Given the acrimony before the election (other parties directing preferences away from the Greens as if they were One Nation, and scare ads about the Greens standing for drugs and paedophilia), and the Family First factor, the prospects of a new, triumphant Howard government waving the olive branch of inclusion seems unlikely. What seems more likely is that the boot will come down hard, and the culture war will become uglier, dirtier and more brutal, with the full weight of a completely controlled legislative apparatus being used to instill "Australian" values and punish the deviants who resist them.
What will this entail? For one, more censorship. Under Howard, Australia had already become quite a censorious society (witness the banning of Baise-Moi in the cinemas a few years ago), and will do so even more as Family First push for children and adults to be protected from filth. Expect more controversial films to be denied classification, or film distributors to even stop bothering trying to get a rating for anything controversial in Australia, while many films which are shown will only be shown in expurgated editions. More internet censorship is on the cards. Family First proposed a national censorship infrastructure, like Singapore's, funded by a $10 annual levy on each user; it is not unlikely that the Howard government will borrow this idea. After all, the current censorship arrangement (as secretive and undemocratic as it is) still doesn't stop children from viewing filth at a few mouse clicks (as any tabloid journalist will be happy to demonstrate). And national censorship infrastructures have been shown to be workable; Singapore, China and Saudi Arabia have them, and Britain now also has infrastructure in place to block web sites (it is presently used to block a few child pornography web sites, but could be pressed into service to block the next equivalent of Spycatcher or David Shayler at the drop of a D-notice, but I digress). Some in the Liberal Party even suggested, some years ago, blocking all adult content from the mainstream internet, requiring those perverted enough to look at such content to register for access through a special proxy server. Registration would, presumably, limit one's career prospects in certain industries, just in case your Suicide Girls habit made you into a kiddie diddler.
With Australia's new family-friendly cinemas and internet, the country's reputation as a modern, cosmopolitan society will suffer. Film and arts festivals will lose any edge they had, attracting little in the way of anything controversial but instead presenting only comforting banalities. Sydney and Melbourne will once again give up their claim to be world cultural capitals and fall back to being big provincial towns. And don't expect anything like Piss Christ being exhibited in an Australian gallery; chances are, Andres Serrano wouldn't even get a visa. Welcome to relaxed and comfortable Australia, where decent people needn't fear having their sensibilities offended.
Other consequences of the Culture War could be loss of reproductive choice (current health minister Tony Abbott mentioned his opposition to abortion, and with Family First's new influence, it could be banned or restricted), institutionalised discrimination against homosexuals (they are, after all, deviants who have no place in Howard's idealised 1950s suburbia), continuing denial of indigenous rights, not to mention a policy of pure spite towards refugees.
And then there is the US-Australian Free Trade Agreement, in which Australia signed over vast swathes of economic sovereignty to the US in return for access to US markets for its sugar industry, only to find out that that wasn't part of the deal, but pressed on anyway out of loyalty. Since we're adopting wholesale the US software patent system, we can expect small Australian software companies to go out of business, unable to risk the cost of patent litigation, or be bought out en masse by multinationals with patent portfolios and cross-licensing agreements. Within a few years, the Australian industry will be little more than a branch office of US multinationals. Open source may not escape unscathed; given the broadness of software patents, anything without a multinational with a huge legal department behind it will be too much of a risk for anybody to use, distribute or support. And then there's our adoption of US copyright laws without actually having a Constitutional fair use provision, as the US does, which means that anyone with an iPod is committing a crime.
If there's one good thing that may come out of the new, repressive, paternalist Australia, it is the prospect of an underground culture flourishing in pockets of resistance. After all, it was the roiling undercurrents of resentment in Thatcher's Britain that gave us everything from alternative comedy to the explosion of British indie music and art. (Not that the Thatcherites took their credit for that happening on their watch; they were too busy promoting their view of proper British culture in the form of Lloyd-Webber musicals and insipid Merchant-Ivory costume dramas and the like, their own equivalent of "Relaxed and Comfortable".)
Tony Abbott's bold campaign of restoring 1950s-style paternal authority to Australian society through legislation has suffered a setback with the withdrawal of a bill giving parents access to their teenaged childrens' medical records, overriding doctor-patient confidentiality. The bill suffered a blow after a Tory backbencher, a former doctor, threatened to cross the floor over it. Dr. Mal Washer asserts that the bill would cause vulnerable teenagers in troubled domestic situations to avoid medical help and thus falling through the cracks, and recounted an incident of a teenaged girl who committed suicide because help was not available.
The values of the Howard government embody an authoritarian, paternalistic strain of Australianness, much like those embodied by numerous outback patriarchs in films from The Cars That Ate Paris to Welcome To Woop Woop. Ostensibly laid back, relaxed and comfortable, and if you're in the majority, you'll have it easy. However, if you don't fit in with the Herald-Sun-reading majority, you'll find things getting difficult for you. The sooner you get the message and learn to conform, the easier you'll make it on yourself. But it's for your own good; after all, father knows best, and a country, like a family, is best ruled with a firm hand. Or, as the convict saying goes, cop it sweet.
Art Spiegelman, the author of Holocaust graphic novel Maus, has tackled September 11:
"The work is on my feelings towards the hijacking and then the hijacking of the hijacking by the Government. I'm not so sure The New Yorker is being complacent. I'm sure I'd be welcomed back once I had found the right medication."
Spiegelman's new book is sure to cause as much, if not more, ruckus as MAUS. It depicts a government out of control, or, more chillingly, totally in control. "They had an agenda already on their mind before September 11," he says. "Drying up funds for health and education and moving the funds upward to the rich, all made more implementable by the war in Iraq."
Remember all those claims about how the internet was to render tyranny and authoritarianism unviable and usher in a global blossoming of democracy, pluralism and liberty? Well, according to this article, that's not happening, and if anything, the web is helping to reinforce authoritarian regimes and dissipate dissent:
Singaporean dissident Gomez says the Web empowers individual members of a political movement, rather than the movement as a whole. Opposition members can offer dissenting opinions at will, thus undermining the leadership and potentially splintering the organization. In combating an authoritarian regime, in other words, there's such a thing as too much democracy. Two of the most successful opposition movements of the last few decades--the South African opposition led by Nelson Mandela and the Burmese resistance led by Aung San Suu Kyi--relied upon charismatic, almost authoritarian leaders to set a message followed by the rest of the movement. The anti-globalization movement, by contrast, has been a prime example of the anarchy that can develop when groups utilize the Web to organize. Allowing nearly anyone to make a statement or call a meeting via the Web, the anti-globalizers have wound up with large but unorganized rallies in which everyone from serious critics of free trade to advocates of witches and self-anointed saviors of famed death-row convict Mumia Abu Jumal have their say. To take just one example, at the anti-globalization World Social Forum held in Mumbai in January, nuanced critics of globalization like former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz shared space with, as The New York Times reported, "a long list of regional causes," including anti-Microsoft and anti-Coca Cola activists.
In China, the Web has similarly empowered the authorities. In the past two decades, Beijing's system of monitoring the population by installing informers into businesses, neighborhoods, and other social institutions has broken down--in part because the Chinese population has become more transient and in part because the regime's embrace of capitalism has meant fewer devoted Communists willing to spy for the government. But Beijing has replaced these legions of informers with a smaller group of dedicated security agents who monitor the Internet traffic of millions of Chinese.
Though the article suggests more that the effects of the internet will be slower to take effect, and more long-term. While China has clamped down on anti-government dissent more or less effectively, Chinese environmental activists are organising in ways they would have been unable to before; meanwhile, a new generation of urban Chinese are used to more freedom of choice and cultural expression, and the Communist Party has been forced to enshrine private property and human rights in law (not that that necessarily changes much, but it will). Maybe if we check back in 20 years' time, the verdict on the liberating potential of the internet will be different.
Then again, with the intellectual-property interests which increasingly make up most of the West's economies pushing for "trusted computing" systems, which could just as easily be used to stop samizdat as MP3 sharing, and the increasing will (on the part of both the public and legislators) to accept mechanisms of surveillance and control unthinkable three years ago to defend against an asymmetric terrorist threat, perhaps the liberating potential of computers has peaked, and it can only go downhill from here?
According to the Political Compass (you know, the are-you-a-good-Libertarian-or-an-evil-fascist/stalinist test), virtually all Presidential candidates are right-wing authoritarians; or at least all the ones remotely likely to get elected. Bush is, of course, the most extreme in both right-wing and authoritarian dimensions, though current Democratic frontrunner John Kerry is shown as being almost near the centre; i.e., only a tiny bit right-wing and authoritarian. Oddly enough, the most libertarian candidate is Al Sharpton (isn't he meant to be some kind of extremist black-nationalist, and/or funded by the Republicans as a spoiler?).
China amends its constitution to protect private property, formally abandoning socialism in favour of an authoritarian form of free-market capitalism. So far, there has been no announcement of any name change for the increasingly inaccurately-named Communist Party, which will continue to maintain an iron grip on the nation's political life and public discourse.
But it is stalemated on even these modest political reforms, leaving modern China an increasingly prosperous private economy ruled by a dictatorship. In this it resembles General Pinochet's Chile, South Korea under military rule - or Taiwan before it moved to democracy in the 1980s.
A report from the Human Rights Council of Australia says that Australia is moving towards an authoritarian state under Howard. Among the symptoms of this are a political climate dominated by fear, insecurity and division, and the "de-legitimising" of dissent., including, for example, through the demonisation of those with alternative views and the restriction of their resources and public standing, the council says.
There are increasing controls on information, while potential dissenters are co-opted or even coerced, for instance through exploiting growing financial dependence on government and use of provisions in contracts.
There has been a radical shift in how government business is done, with tight constraints on the capacity for dissent. "All but the bravest" will avoid speaking out as more organisations become dependent on government funding.
(Wasn't Howard going to revoke the tax-exempt status of charities that become involved in political debates (as opposed to just handing out soup or blankets)? Has that gone through?)
Though at least here we have the
Democrats Greens; on the occasions that Labor shows some backbone, they can blunt the worst of the government's legislation. Unlike in the US (where third parties only serve to leech votes from their respective lesser evil) or the UK (where the upper house is comprised of hereditary peers, gradually being replaced by anointed political cronies; I'm sure a true believer in protecting the interests that matter from the friction of excessive democracy like Teflon Tony won't be in any hurry to bring in proportional representation.
Speaking of which, Blair is planning to lower the voting age to 16 in Britain. Not sure what he'll do to prevent outbreaks of Greenism and socialism in the Houses of Parliament; introduce US-style first-past-the-post voting, count on British youth being less given to rocking the boat (see also: Greg Palast's rants about the Brits habitually deferring to their betters where Americans would raise a fuss), or just sign over enough sovereignty in international "free trade" treaties to render Parliament no more relevant than a student union?
(Speaking of Palast: have there been any counterexamples to his assertion, of British subjects forcing the powers that be to overturn odious legislation through protest or civil disobedience? Wasn't that what happened to Thatcher's poll tax?)
A former teacher blows the lid off the real functions of schools; sounds somewhere between a Situationist pamphlet and a New Waver sound collage: (via NWD)
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can't test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called "the conformity function," because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student's proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in "your permanent record." Yes, you do have one.
This part makes some sense (and reminds me of a claim I heard that the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was behind the modern education system's emphasis on unstructured rote memorisation of facts rather than critical analysis; the former makes useful worker drones, whereas the latter can breed revolutionaries and troublemakers. Mind you, it wouldn't surprise me if the source of the claim was some Marxist or anarchist pamphlet.)
Point 5, however, is a bit more paranoid.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin's theory of natural selection as applied to what he called "the favored races." In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That's what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
Granted, school is a brutal, high-intensity pressure-cooker environment that brings out the worst in its inmates, and I can buy the theory that it conveniently serves the purpose of instilling conformity and social cohesion (though, these days, TV, short attention spans and medication also help); however, the claim that it's designed to act as a system of psychological eugenics to keep the unfit from breeding is a bit harder to swallow.
Jordan's parliament overwhelmingly rejects ban on "honour killings", claiming that the ban would "encourage vice and destroy social values". Which is almost exactly the same words as used by Christian conservatives in America opposing anti-bullying laws for schools. Funny how religious reactionaries of all stripes will rally in the defense of thuggishness, because, in their world view, the alternative is far worse.
Thailand is tackling the problem of massive online game addiction head on; the Communications Technology Minister (presumably their equivalent of Senator Alston) has announced a game curfew. Access to multiplayer game servers will be blocked between 10pm and 6am, and internet cafe hours will also be curbed. No word on how this will be implemented: whether Thailand has a national firewall which can be programmed to do this or whether the onus will be on ISPs. The minister has announced other restrictions, including mandatory breaks every 2 hours and ID cards to ensure players do not profit from games (presumably by selling their characters).
Fairfax commentator Margo Kingston on Australian PM Howard's road to absolute power:
Howard wants to go out on a high alright, but he wants the high to be higher than the one he's already on. He wants to transform Australia so completely that the old Australia can never be revived. His vision is so radical that only a man in complete charge of the political agenda could even dream of it. And the cross media legislation - the one I've been writing about in such despair for a week now - is central to his plans.
Kingston then describes how Howard's threat of a double dissolution election and proposed media deregulation laws would be used to give the government a power to reshape Australia that even the Bush Whitehouse doesn't have. And not surprisingly, the Australia that will emerge will be the worst of both worlds: repressively socially conservative and conformistic, and economically ruled by big business. All public debate, meanwhile, will be framed by the Murdoch/Packer press; which, by contrast, will make America (a country whose dissenters famously have to import their news from Britain) look like a model of pluralism.
And scarily, this is all within reach. (via Stumblings)
The Guardian on the rising tide of censorship in Australia. Australia has a long tradition of paternalism, it seems, though the country has become a lot more censorious under Howard. Btw, did you know the 18th-century novel Fanny Hill is still banned here? 'Struth.
Authorities across the Middle East are cracking down on music subcultures: form heavy-metal fans in Morocco to gay disco-dancing "Satanists" in Lebanon to anything to do with Michael Jackson in Saudi Arabia.
Among the objects exhibited in court as being contrary to good morals was a black T-shirt with heavy metal symbols on it. This prompted the judge to comment that "normal people go to concerts in a suit and tie".
Lebanese devil worshippers are easily recognised. According to one security official, they are young men with long hair and beards who "listen to hard rock music, drink mind-altering alcoholic cocktails and take off their black shirts, dancing bare-chested".
What is probably the most bizarre heavy-metal-and-satanism case occurred in Egypt in 1997 when state security police, armed with machine guns and satanically clad in masks and black uniforms, dragged about 70 youngsters - some as young as 16 - from their beds in a series of dawn raids. They took away posters from bedroom walls, CDs and tapes ranging from Guns 'n' Roses to Beethoven's fifth symphony and, in one household, a black t-shirt with a Bugs Bunny design.
"In the 1980s," Mohammed continued, "Saudis started dressing like [Michael Jackson], copying his hairstyle and doing moonwalks on the roundabouts. This is the reason most people give me about why his stuff is not allowed here.
Prominent Malaysian human rights lawyer Karpal Singh has claimed that Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (you know, the one who blamed the International Jewish Conspiracy for Malaysia's economic woes and keeps accusing Australia of racist contempt for "Asian values" for refusing to silence critics of his regime) is moving Malaysia towards sharia law. Mahathir declared 18 months ago, for reasons of political expediency, that Malaysia is "a fundamentalist Islamic state", ignoring the Supreme Court's pronouncements that Malaysia is a secular state, and has had little respect for the evil British imperialist legacy of common law and an independent judiciary. His edict and the fact that many of Malaysia's judges are on the verge of retiring have emboldened Islamist hardliners seeking to abolish common law. Could Mahathir be the next Mugabe?
Never let it be said that the Australian government doesn't stand for anything. Its commitment to the Australian people's absolute right to life, for example, has moved it to prosecute people providing suicide information on the internet. I guess this means that alt.suicide.holiday will be blocked by Senator Alston's national firewall then.
A few years ago, Australia's conservative government gave the local censorship board sweeping authority to take down offensive web sites. Surprisingly, this has not impaired the availability of hardcore pornography. So they're looking at changing the law. And if you thought that means getting rid of the whole white elephant, you'd be wrong. Hard-line neo-conservative PM John Howard and "World's Greatest Luddite" Senator Alston are looking at a number of options, including a Singaporean/Saudi-style national filter and mandatory porn filters on all Internet connections at the ISP level (except for those who have signed a "pervert register" to get to download porn; though you may have trouble getting a job requiring "moral integrity" if your name is on the register). Labor has made noises about not supporting such legislation, though, so it may well get blocked in the Senate.
Arabic-surnamed German KDE developer comes to Australia for the Linux conference, is interrogated and beaten by customs officials and/or ASIO types. Welcome to the South Africa of the 21st Century.
After a while he gave me the device and I used it to help myself. He dragged me up again by my shirt and this time he hit me. When I woke up I was no longer with them and my companions were with me also a Deutsch representitive was with them. My face hurt and I had blood on my shirt. They put me in a car and took me to the hospital where I had a broken nose and fractured rib, I did not know what they had done while I was passed away.
I left Australia as soon as I could I would never return to that place again.
It's things like this (and the detention centre thing, and Howard's neo-Bjelkean cowboy politics) that make me ashamed to be Australian. It's almost enough to make one want to emigrate and start petitioning for economic sanctions against that redneck hellhole in the southern hemisphere. (via The Fix)
Singapore is to legalise chewing gum -- but only with a doctor's prescription.
Those comsymps at the Grauniad are having a minute's silence for September 11 victims -- September 11, 1973, when the CIA-backed Pinochet regime overthrew Allende in Chile. Mind you, the estimated 30,000 men, women and children who were killed were all Communists, who would have enslaved Chile under a hellish Stalinist dictatorship had the CIA not intervened in the name of defending freedom worldwide.
(Wasn't it Kissinger or someone who articulated the difference between "totalitarianism", which is uniformly evil (and ideologically "left-wing"), and "authoritarianism", which can be benign, a strong state concerned about defending cherished values and such?)
On a similar tangent, I once heard that one of the reason for the West's toleration of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor was that Fretilin had troublingly leftist leanings; an independent East Timor would have been a probable Soviet client state, and Australia could have had its own Cuban Missile Crisis. And what better experts on Communist eradication in the asia-pacific region than Suharto's New Order?
Site to watch: libertus.net; keeping an eye on freedom of expression and censorship in Howard's Australia. (via Graham)
Presiding over a memorial service commemorating the victims of the attack on the Death Star, the Emperor declared that while recent victories over the Rebel Alliance were "encouraging, the War on Terror is not over yet."
"We will continue to fight these terrorists, and the rogue governments who harbor them, until the universe is safe, once and for all, and the security of the Neo-New Cosmik Order ensured."
And then there's this analysis of Star Wars, in which the Empire is good (if somewhat heavy-handed in places, though never without justification) and the Rebels are "an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back".
Make no mistake, as emperor, Palpatine is a dictator--but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet. It's a dictatorship people can do business with. They collect taxes and patrol the skies. They try to stop organized crime (in the form of the smuggling rings run by the Hutts). The Empire has virtually no effect on the daily life of the average, law-abiding citizen.
I wonder whether such an article would have been written before September 11 2001. Or whether the problematically Al-Qaeda-like nature of the Rebel Alliance will bite into the Star Wars franchise's profitability. (via bOING bOING)
Heeding the golden rule that one has to dehumanise an enemy to marshal public opinion against them, Australia's defence minister's office banned the taking of photographs which could "humanise or personalise" asylum seekers, lest they start to seem inconveniently unlike a formless terrorist menace and/or reason to vote Liberal.
Everyone's a critic: Judge sentences photographer to 2 1/2 years jail for taking photographs of corpses in a morgue.
One of the images showed the hands of a 2-year-old boy wrapped with plastic. In another, a man's body was posed with an apple, while another showed a woman with a key between her lips.
The judge called Mr. Condon's project ''idiotic'' and questioned the photographer's remorse.
IMHO, taking the photographs without permission (of the relatives; the subjects, after all, being beyond caring about such matters) could be considered somewhat callous; however, sending someone to prison for it is just stupid, and reeks of authoritarianism and an all-American puritanism.
The US and its
colonies allies aren't the only countries
declaring war on terrorism; Zimbabwe is as well. Zimbabwe's President Mugabe
has wholeheartedly taken up the fight against terrorism, and is introducing
laws bringing in the death penalty for terrorism and criminalising criticism
of the President (after all, this is not a time for division or disunity in
the face of terror). This move comes days after describing white farmers
and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change as terrorists.
War is peace, freedom is slavery, but business is business: Murdoch's people have learned that, if you want any chance of access to the world's largest market, you bend over when the Chinese Government says so, or when you think it'll appreciate your doing so. Case in point: Murdoch fils James, in charge of dealings with China, gave a speech in Los Angeles, denouncing the Falun Gong movement, condemning Western media bias against Chinese government policy, and saying that Hong Kong's democracy activists should accept the reality of life under a strong-willed "absolutist" government. ("absolutist" sounds like a particularly psychoceramic strain of Ayn Randism, but is presumably a way of saying "totalitarian" without the negative connotations; sort of like the Reagan-era coinage of "authoritarian" for US-friendly right-wing dictatorships, as opposed to the truly evil "totalitarian" left-wing dictatorships.) (via Lev)
In the latest surprising development, Australia's authoritarian-moralist prime minister John "The Beast" Howard has put forward plans to roll back the Sex Discrimination Act, restricting IVF treatment to married heterosexuals. The Beast claims that children have a right to be born into a traditional heterosexual family. Why not extend it further and ban non-church-going couples from having IVF treatment? After all, shouldn't children in Howard's Menzies-retro utopia have a right to a good, moral, Christian upbringing, rather than being brainwashed with permissiveness and SEXular humanism? Perhaps Howard should bring back the traditional Australian policy of taking children away from their parents and putting them in more traditional homes; only rather than just targeting Aborigines, extending it to target all who disagree with Howard's vision of moral purity.