Saturday, December 30, 2006


I begin writing this post at 12:30 Australian East Coast time, one and a half hours before Saddam Hussein is due to hang. The news is contradictory on the topic. Some sites say he might be hanged at 2pm my time (dawn in Iraq); some say it’s definite, some say no way. Anyway by the time I’ve posted, we’ll all know.

Is it right?

For those of us that agree with the death penalty it’s a no-brainer; the guy’s a savage killer – good riddance. In the United States (one of the world’s top executioner states) it’s relatively easy for politicians, especially conservatives, to welcome the verdict and it’s application. In Australia where the death penalty is almost universally regarded as barbaric it’s more of a problem.

I’ve shifted through dozens of web sites all elucidating the ethics of death. There’s the site of David Berkowitz better known as the Son of Sam who blames Satan for his spree of 1977 killings in NYC; there’s the pro death penalty site which goes into graphic detail about the
crimes for which some people have been condemned in the US. Various other sites brought me graphic images of death by bulletwound in China, hanging in Iran, botched electrocution and the multiple hanging of Abraham Lincoln’s killer and associates.

What conclusions did I derive?

None. I don’t believe in the death penalty: there are two main reasons. First it is more enlightened, more humane not to execute, regardless of the nastiness perpetrated. Whilst I do agree that in the intuitive sense of the word justice is served by terminating the life of persons who do horrible things I believe it is the mark of an enlightened society not to take life. Secondly there is much to learn from killers, rapists and sociopaths. If we understand how they tick, what caused them to be what they were, or, in the absence of causal factors how we recognize them, we may be able to save lives.

In the case of heads of murderous states however the question is more complicated. Pinochet was let off precisely because he was a head of state. Milosevic dragged an international court through years of procedural labyrinth before finally dying of natural courses without conviction. Heads of state who use the apparatus of the country to perpetrate horrendous murders, rapes, tortures and deprivations of liberty are able to carry out much broader ranges of crimes on a larger scale than any single mass murderer/serial killer no matter how clever and bloodthirsty. And the way things stand it is relatively easy for them to escape justice.

The burden of proof that requires the prosecution to demonstrate guilt beyond reasonable doubt is a factor. In a future world where murderous heads of state are routinely brought to justice the onus on the prosecution to demonstrate guilt might provide a loophole that allows these people to get off. I would suggest that in the case of a head of state tried for crimes against humanity committed by the state that that individual should have to demonstrate that they were unaware and unwitting. In other words the burden of proof should be reversed.

As for the death penalty? Hussein himself is said to have preferred this to a life languished in prison; a martyr’s death he deemed it. Maybe a lifetime in confinement, powerless, living at the behest of guards is exactly what these people deserve. And perhaps we can learn from tyrants the way we learn from psychopaths.

In Hussein’s case we’ll never know. The headlines are out: the man is dead. I don’t believe in the death penalty but I can’t say I’m sorry.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


This week the world in the form of the United Nations has been striving to restrain the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear activity. On the farnarkling involved more below, but this geopolitical drama has highlighted one of the crucial issues facing the global culture in the twenty-first century.

Who has the right to have nuclear weapons? Or to put it technically by what legitimate process are states entitled to possess nuclear weapons.

Rights are bestowed by states which uphold and institutionalise them. Schappelle Corby, by example, was convicted of drug trafficking a crime in which the standard burden of proof is reversed. Contrary to conventional opinion the Indonesian justice system normally places the burden of proof on the state except in the event of drug trafficking in which the accused has to show on the balance of evidence that they hadn’t anything to do with the drugs placed about their person. This same reversal of proof with respect to drug trafficking exists in Australia. Rights are not immutable they are proscribed by statute and can vary. Corby’s rights if she’d been accused of murder would’ve been different.

The right to nukes is a pickle. Nukes are kept by states not within states (fingers crossed). Who or what bestows upon states the right to bear a nuclear arsenal? The strict answer is no-one and nothing. The United Nations is not a government in that sense although it bears many marks of one: it has a large bureaucracy for example, But it's fundamental role is that of a voluntary association of nations formed at least partially because of the invention of atomic weaponry.

Ergo it can't grant or withhold 'rights' to bear arms. That's a matter that states decide for themselves. Hence, moral objections aside, every state has the ‘right’ to bear a nuclear arsenal no matter how irresponsible.

Of course there is international law and the United Nations does make noise about the issue. However due both to the Byzantine nature of the U.N.’s political farnarckling and the unwillingness of nations to surrender sovereignty there is no force that can compel a cease and desist with anything like a national justice system’s effectiveness.

The closest things the world has to an enforcement of limits to nuclear weaponry are the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NNPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agency, set up in 1957, exists to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology; the treaty signed in 1968 furthers this aim by limiting the possession of nuclear weaponry to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the only states that had the bomb in ‘68. Since this time the number of nations thought to possess the bomb has grown to nine. India and Pakistan (who never signed) have both tested nuclear weapons. Israel (also a non-signer) is thought to have the bomb although this remains unconfirmed and earlier this year North Korea (who signed, then withdrew) tested a small nuclear device.

Thus despite international efforts to limit the spread of atomic weapons, they have spread. This is pretty much because there is nothing that compels nations to comply with international pressure. The use of sanctions notwithstanding one cannot lock a whole country up in prison. Therefore nuclear weapons can be developed if a nation has the resources and will to do so.

Currently the international community is attempting to head of what is perceived to be an attempt by the Islamic Republic of Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The UNSC has, after extended negotiations in which the United States/Britain faced off against Russia/China, authorised sanctions to bring Iran to heel. Russia is in the nuke energy business with Iran and don’t want the possibility that its client is making the bomb to spoil the party. Thus Russia amended the resolution to spare Iran’s legal nuclear activity: that is the Russian financed heavy water plant at Busher. Dealmaking like this is the UNSC’s par.

Iran responded . It’s UN ambassador Javad Zarif declared, “A nation is being punished for exercising its inalienable rights.”. The republic’s foreign ministry “considers the new UN Security Council resolution ... an extralegal act outside the frame of its responsibilities and against the UN Charter,". Iran not only maintains that it’s rights to nuclear technology are inalienable but that the UN is exceeding its authority.

Iran therefore says effectively – the United Nations has no business telling us what to do: similar to North Korea who’ve likewise ignored international pressure to halt their bomb program. As much as we’d prefer it otherwise, this challenge to international authority in addition to the other states that have developed nuclear weaponry despite international criticism effectively demonstrates that the UNSC has no authority. Obedience to its dictates is voluntary.

That Iranians ignore it is understandable. If I was the enemy of the United States and they’d invaded my neighbour I’d want the bomb too. However, criticisms of the United States standing, do we really want a world in which dictatorships can obtain and use nuclear weapons?

If you answer no, sorry. We already have one.

The Soviet Union was of course a dictatorship. The transition to democracy still has a long way to travel for former Soviet States including and especially Russia. China’s still a one-party state. Pakistan’s stable only in the event of military dictatorship. India’s a democracy but with a history of assassinations and civil strife. Israel is a democracy with quite a political kaleidoscope, many changes of government all coalitions of various kinds and a hostile neighbourhood. The United States, France and Britain are the cradles of modern democracy but also with histories of civil strife and assassination.

And of course there’s North Korea. The nuclear family is not a happy one.

By what right have these nations developed nuclear weapons? By none bestowed in a legal sense. Ancient convention stipulates that nations have a right to defend themselves. Historically they haven’t an inalienable right to sovereignty. If a stronger power conquered you that was life.

Nuclear weapons in many ways guarantee sovereignty to the nation that possesses them. If Australia has a nuke we wouldn’t need America, militarily. No matter the war fever amongst generals in Indonesia, Malaysia or elsewhere in the neighbourhood, nukes are the great leveller. This is the reason India and Pakistan have acquired them. It is the reason Iran seeks to.

The United Nations was set up to put a halt to the nation poaching which characterises much of history. After Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy made efforts to grab themselves a slice of the imperial pie the world seemed to reach a consensus and the moral tide went against empire building. Gradually the old European empires either self-dismantled (ie Britain) or were forced to do so by local independence movements (France) or both. The UN was also set up to civilize world relations in the face of the massive destructive power suggested by atomic weaponry.

The only trouble is it doesn’t work. Unlike the relationships between states and individuals a supra state body cannot impose loss of liberty or life as punishment for law breaking. International conventions therefore have exactly the force of verbal contracts made in a stateless territory. They have substance if the parties involved decide to honour them. If they don’t too bad.

That the UN is too mired in bureaucracy and special interest to adequately police the world is apparent. Partially the problem is the existence of 5 permanent members of the UNSC. As indicated above in its efforts to deal with Iran concessions had to be made to Russia who wish to guarantee their interests in the region. It doesn’t matter if the watering down of sanctions might provide a loophole through which Iran can continue to develop atomic weaponry. The UNSC is stuck. Each permanent UNSC member can veto whatever resolution is proposed and will do so if it runs contrary to its interests. This is certainly anti-democratic. It is also a fatal encumbrance on an institution which is the closest thing the world has to a global lawmaker.

Under George the 2nd's precidency the neo-conservative agenda has been given a good try. This agenda states that the previous conservative practise of tolerating right-wing dictatorships (he's a bastard but he's our bastard) is null and void. Accordingly the United States as leader of the free world has the reposnisbility to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world bringing democracy to everyone, hence the Iraq war. Naturally Iraq's large reserves of oil don't hurt.

If the United States want to go gallivanting about like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Libert Valance all well and good. Trouble is they don’t have the resources to topple every nasty regime in the world and building nice new democracies out of smoking rubble is still beyond their skill-set range. More to the point if they only go to war for democracy in places with suspiciously large quantities of resources vital to the US economy they will lose credibility more than somewhat.

The fact of the matter is that the US does not have the resources or will to go around imposing democracy on other places. Even in the event they were able to do so to conquer a place and force a new system of government on people there is impractical and fundamentally anti-democratic. One cannot talk about rights if one isn’t willing to honour those rights oneself. And by what right does America impose order on the world?

This is not to demonise America. Oil aside the desire to spread democracy globally is not without merit. One should respect the intention if deploring the tactics. The world would undoubtedly be better if governments were universally answerable to their people. But whether one can accomplish this by bulldozing regimes and imposing copycat constitutions irrespective of local culture, history and circumstance is questionable.

What the world needs now is some way of imposing order on the various nations that make up its membership. This will require a universal agreement on basic values. How this can be done is a good question because currently unanswerable. When?

Quite a while I'd say.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Today the government announced it's values and English language tests for Australia citizenship continuing its policies of restricting immigration and citizenship. This he insisted was not the re-introduction of racially discriminatory immigration policies but the re-alignment of emphasis on those things that unite us over the things that divide us.

Although Howard's policy does in some ways smack of White Australia days and almost certainly attempts to dredge up support re. simmering ethnic tensions that came to his aid during the Tampa 'crisis' there is an issue underlying all this that needs addressing. And it's supporters of multiculturalism that should be stepping up to bat.

Whatever Utopian feelings supporters of multiculturalism (and I'm most definitely one) there are limitations. Before you explode let me explain that these limitations are quite broad. There's an old saying: the law must make a decision. This is true, one has rights or one doesn't.

Consider, for example, a case where in one's country of origin it's normal to compel girls to marry according to the father's wishes. This is problematic because an Australian citizen has a right to self-determination and this means that everyone is free to marry (or not) on the basis of personal choice. That doesn't preclude arranged marriages as such but, in the context of democracy, they can only take place freely chosen by a consenting adult. Ergo a tradition in which a fourteen year-old is required to marry at her father's behest is inconsistent with her rights as a citizen and in contravention of the legal age of consent.

A tricky issue sure, especially considering that some indigenous communities practice coercive arranged marriage. Still one has certain democratic rights or one does not. To suspend rights on the basis of cultural relativism is ethnically discriminatory. That is, saying you have to do what your traditions dictate even though it conflicts with your rights as a citizen effectively says you have no rights on the basis of your ethnicity. This is racist.

My arguments are not against multiculturalism which I regard as a fact of Australian life but rather to preserve multiculturalism. After all a Muslim Imam is just as capable of being a bigot as an Anglo-Saxon political wannabe. And labeling all non-Muslim Australian girls as meat for rapists is as divisive and unacceptable as saying all Africans have AIDS.

Ethnic tension does exist and those who voice concerns about it should not be automatically branded rednecks. The tolerance of others regardless of ethnicity, sex, sexuality etc. is a general requirement. It applies to everyone no matter who they are. Supporters of multiculturalism must assert themselves on this agenda so that it is not the sole province of people like Pauline Hanson.

Although I believe this problem is not as serious as it's made out to be I do not believe it doesn't exist. A collection of mutually hostile ethnicities is not multiculturalism it is potentially explosive.

Whether or no an English test or more importantly a multiple choice questionaire re. Oz values is the way to go is another matter. The cultural values test appears to me to more of an examination of one's capacity to rote learn rather than one's actual feelings about the country. I could sit down and write an essay stating why I think fascism is the best possible political system, that certainly doesn't mean I actually believe that. I reckon maybe the way to disseminate true democratic feelings is through the education system but this is slow-working and unlikely to create much self-serving argument re. the question of 'ethnics' before next year's election. Still maybe I should shut-up and try and think of better solutions.

So long as the Left persists in refusing to see existing problems it will be the Right who deal with those problems to our exclusion. To brand them racists, deservedly or otherwise is not good enough. We need to look at the problems where they exist, be mindful that racism is not an exclusively Anglo-Celtic phenomenon and fight it by contributing our own perspectives and solutions.

Friday, December 01, 2006


George Orwell's book 1984 alerted me to my vocation. That's not to say Orwell is my favourite writer. So far as it goes I don't have a favourite writer, painter, musician, composer, colour or choice of ice cream. I can never pick one to the exclusion of others. Asked my favourite film and I'd be able to provide a list of ten. But that list would change tomorrow.

Orwell has frequently been relegated to the second tier of major 20th century writers. His prose style, fluent and clear, has nothing on the innovations of Joyce or the radical departures of Beckett or Burroughs. The poetry of DeLillo completely escapes him. Orwell was a lousy poet. As a writer he made virtually no contribution to the main thrust of 20th century culture which was to attack and break all the rules one by one. Aesthetically he was a conservative. And if he hadn't written his last two books doubtless he'd relegated to the dusty corridors of an obscure thesis.

But those two books: Animal Farm and 1984 cast in stone Orwell's position as a 20th century writer of major importance. Of all the writing extant regarding the Russian revolution and other revolutions besides, Animal Farm is a short, neat and totally accurate explication of the core, baneful truth about revolutions and their betrayers. It says exactly what needs to be said, nothing less and not a word over. There are other animal metaphors for the establishment of the totalitarian nightmare (Ionesco's Rhinoceros, but Animal Farm explains more than the psychology, it explains the process.

1984 is the manual for totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, I say, can be found even in the most libertine democracy. Indeed Western culture has recently found it in the most unlikely of places: the Humanities academy, the avant-garde arts and the political left. Various forms of activism and discourse sparking in the 1960s have manifested as somewhat totalitarian mini-realms. Places normally associated with the most radical vicissitudes of liberty are now locked down, unknowing, by its processes.

The most recent anecdote that comes to mind was when I was, playfully, called a fascist by suggesting that contemporary art had the air of the Emperor's New Clothes about it. That is although much of the 'art' on display was a bunch of not much work, with little imagination it was accompanied by a mountain of jargon that further baffled the already baffled punter and made them feel idiotic. The reaction to this of course is simply to nod one's head. Yes I see the Emperor's suit isn't it beautiful.

In the ensuing argument I was labeled a conservative and reminded that on first viewing Picasso wouldn't have looked much to most. I was given only two choices: one - support contemporary art uncritically, two - become a revisionist backslider. Either for or against. Either/or.

Now I don't suppose that my companions could have known that I've dipped into various aspects of the art scene now for quite a while. That I've participated in all sorts of post-fluxus fancy: matrix poetry, video art, situationism etc. I don't suppose they've quite ascertained my enthusiasm for unprovoked shit-stirring either. I can appreciate Dumchamp's witty toilet bowl, I think Piero Manzoni's canning his own shit and valuing it according to the price of gold is a good joke.

But how long does this sort of thing last and remain culturally valid? Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie might be a really fascinating experiment but to paraphrase Andy Warhol it's better talked about than read. I'd bet green money right now that if every novel read like Topology of a Phantom City the market for fiction would completely collapse.

Does this make me a reactionary?

I don't think so. I'm a realist and endeavour to be honest with myself. The choice between La Jalousie and The Big Sleep both as a pleasant way to pass a rainy aftenoon and as a meaningful document of life in the twentieth century is not a real choice. Chandler will be read long after Robbe-Grillet has been forgotten. This is not finally about the victory of the 'right' over the 'left' so much as the simple fact that one book is still meaningful despite the fading of it's immediate artistic context, the other is not.

Of course it does not follow that the 'straight story' has the final word. Ullysses will continue to be read and the myriad of nineteenth century style romances, adventures, mysteries and 'serious' works published contemporary to it are forgotten. As much as Tom Wolfe likes to think that nineteenth century poetics (like nineteenth century economics) have finally triumphed I think he will be proven mistaken in the long run. As impressive as Bonfire of the Vanities is, at least for it's sheer Dickensian detail, it's nothing next to Underworld.

So how does this tangent-laden rant come back to Orwell? What I think after all these years I've gotten from Orwell before every other writer; what I believe writers have a duty to uphold is the willful pursuit of Nietzsche's bad conscience. The determined, bullheaded stand against a crowded room stuffed with upheld fists. No matter what you think of the reason that crowd has.

At a time when the Left supported Stalin (the Right too) Orwell called him as he saw him: a power-famished arsehole killing everyone in his way. Orwell's contribution to the culture, particularly the culture of writers is to uphold the noble virtue of clear and critical thinking, to resist above all the urge to descend into groupthink. I suppose Orwell's influence on me is not so much my aesthetic sensibilities but ultimately on my behavior as a citizen. Nowadays the Right are in ascendance. For a while now the Left have floundered on the lonely high ground of self-appointed moral superiority whilst effective policy has come from the Right.

It is time for this to end. The old cultures of sloganeering chants, declarations of principles sans practical application and most especially reverse bigotry are over. The Left must take stock of all its own bullshit and put it away some where under the 'our mistakes' folder. We must transcend our commitments to doctrinarian approaches to problems and learn once more how to speak and think plainly. And we must listen. Above all we must turn our gaze back to general reality and confront honestly what we see there.