Saturday, January 31, 2009

Abu Ghraib set to re-open

The Iraqi government has announced it will be re-opening the Abu Ghraib prison next month under a new name. The prison was closed in 2006 after a string of controversial incidents where Iraqi war prisoners were tortured and humiliated by American military personnel. Busho Ibrahim, Iraq’s deputy justice minister made the announcement last week and said the renovated facility will be renamed as Baghdad Central Prison. "We have named it Baghdad Central Prison because of its bad reputation as Abu Ghraib prison,” said Ibrahim, “not just because of what the Americans did there but also because of what the regime of Saddam has done.”

Located 32km out of the capital, Abu Ghraib means “place of ravens” in Arabic. The raven has long been considered a bird of ill omen and the prison was infamous in Iraq well before the Americans invaded. During the Saddam era the facility held thousands of inmates. The legal scholar Robert Alt noted in 2004 that it may have held as many as 400,000 people and was a place where Iraqis were detained for crimes that caused offence to the leader. He says it was a place where torture was the rule and not the exception; and a place that Iraqis feared worse than death itself. He quoted Abu Ghraib survivor Ala’a Abdul Hussien Hassan who said "I don’t believe that anybody can imagine what we’ve been through. We’ve been oppressed on all levels."

However it was its use in the post-Saddam era that made Abu Ghraib’s notoriety in the wider world. By the time that Alt wrote his piece about the Saddam era prison, US soldiers were already creating a new nightmare of oppression for its post-invasion inmates. When US forces arrived in Baghdad the previous April, Abu Ghraib was empty. Saddam released all the prisoners in one of last acts as dictator. US commanders on the ground were slow to adapt to the insurgency that erupted in the Summer and Autumn of 2003. As they began detaining thousands of Iraqis suspected of involvement, the problem of what to doing with them quickly spiralled out of control.

Around the same time, evidence began to emerge of torture at the facility. The CBS program 60 Minutes broadcast pictures of male and female US soldiers grinning and pointing at the genitals of naked prisoners. Others showed a naked and hooded inmate placed on a box with wires attached to his body. There were allegations of sexual abuses and attacks by dogs. The authorities quickly acted to court martial the offenders and tried to limit the damage by calling them “bad apples”. Bush apologised for “the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners and..their families” but refused calls to sack Defence Secretary Rumsfeld.

But the politicians were the real culprits. Before the war General Eric K Shinseki estimated that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq. Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz called this estimate “wildly off the mark”. The Pentagon expected things to calm down and planned for just 100,000 troops. A spokesman for Shinseki (a former commander of the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia) said simply: "He was asked a question and he responded with his best military judgement."

Of course, time proved Shinseki's best military judgement right and Wolfowitz “wildly wrong”. This became apparent even in the early days of occupation. The army committee of inquiry found that the brigade in charge of Abu Ghraib was inadequately trained for its mission. Morale was also low. Most soldiers expected to go home after the occupation of Baghdad and became demoralised when he had to stay on to guard an influx of thousands of detainees. It didn’t help that heavy fighting took place in and around Abu Ghraib during the early years of the US invasion in Iraq. The prison was overcrowded, under-resourced and under continuous attack.

But while the chaotic conditions allowed corrupt and unsupervised behaviour to thrive, once again in it was the directive of politicians that lay at the heart of what went wrong. Back in 2002, President Bush issued a memorandum stating that the Geneva Convention did not apply to Al-Qaeda and that Taliban combatants were also not entitled to prisoner of war status. This new category of “unlawful combatants” would have far-reaching consequences even though it was never intended to apply to Iraq.

The inquiry noted that military intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib had previously worked in Afghanistan and Guantanamo and believed the presidential order gave them permission to apply additional interrogation techniques. The abuses, the final report of the inquiry found, “would have been avoided with proper training, leadership and oversight”.

After the report was issued, the Americans moved to shut down the facility. President Bush announced in May 2004 said Abu Ghraib would be destroyed and replaced by” the construction of a modern, maximum security prison.” However the Iraqis opposed this plan and the Americans began gradually moving prisoners to Camp Bucca near the Kuwait border. By 2006 it was emptied of detainees and the US handed the facility over to the Iraqi government. Now the country’s deputy justice minister Ibrahim says the prison will house 3,500 inmates when it reopens in mid-February and will have a capacity for at least 15,000 by the end of this year. "This prison will solve many problems for us - huge problems," he said. The ghosts of the place of ravens may not agree.

Of Time and Twitter

Overnight the Scotland media industry site allmediascotland announced that a local journalist has set up the world’s first Twitter newspaper. The idea of the "All Tweet Journal" is that a collection of tweets will be published as a PDF file with a newspaper feel. It will be an online twitter newspaper where the editor will publish the best of the tweets he receives. The plan is to bring out the newspaper once a week but it could expand to a daily publication.

This curious mix of old and new technology is the brainchild of James McIvor. McIvor is a former chief sub-editor of the Scottish Sun who operating as Scooped has produced spoof newspaper front pages as novelty gifts. He has also been a Twitter user for over a year. His new “all tweet journal” will initially follow the Scooped model be a one page “splash” of whatever news he can glean from the Twitterverse. His hope is that it will attract enough eyeballs to get the attention of advertisers. His first edition (pdf) released yesterday had a trashy tabloid look that shows McIver’s Scottish Sun background. However the idea is promising if only visitors can be bothered to wait around until Adobe loads up.

Whether they wait or not is a matter of time. Speed is of the essence in Twitter. Its growing popularity is in many ways a product of its almost instantaneous ability to get the news out. Though it may unleash complex viral actions, Twitter itself is deceptively simple. You have 140 characters or less to say something. The idea is that your friends or admirers will sign up to receive your Twitter updates and they can tweet back to you. Twitter is erroneously called micro-blogging but it communication patterns are far more erratic than the traditional blog with its header-post-comment format. Twitter has a flatter structure that allows for quicker and more anarchic feedback. Today's called Twitter users “all little birds in the same tree of ‘real-time status communication’”.

Australian media writer and Twitterer Stilgherrian prefers to use imagery of fins rather than feathers. As he put it “the Twitter-river flows on 24/7 but you don’t stop to watch every fish”. His profile soared after named him in a list of ten of Australia’s most interesting Twitter users earlier this week. The article was tongue-in-cheek aimed at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Stilgherrian himself is a withering judge of chaff: he gives potential followees just three to five seconds to prove themselves worthy of watching.

His strategy shows exactly how time sensitive Twitter is. But his list of what factors he considers in those five seconds is also impressive. Alice Rawsthorn says this is because we’ve become more efficient at navigating the daily blizzard of information. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, she says we do this by ignoring “flotsam” to make sense out of the things that matter. The age of the Internet has honed our skills in piecing puzzles of information together. In other words she says, “we've trained ourselves to synthesise”. Rawsthorn (whose article also contains an intriguing method of differentiating those under 30 from those over) listed Twitter among the vast array of tools we’ve become comfortable with in the digital age. She notes that there are more technological innovations in our lives than at any other period of history and we keep increasing them at astonishing speed.

Twitter is growing faster than most. Founded in mid 2006, Time magazine was reporting 100,000 users by March the following year. By September 2008, there were five million. It is likely that number has since increased dramatically given the high profile publicity Twitter has had since then. There was the climax to Obama’s online campaign which was followed by the plane crash twitterer, and the plane landing twitterer. Then both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the Gaza war took to the tweets. Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson says the site is attracting 10,000 new users every day which would suggest there are now over six million users. Yesterday Forbes pushed it on further with its list of top Twitter celebrities “taking over the web, 140 characters at a time.”

Twitter may or may not be taking over the web, but the company’s accelerated growth has made it an attractive takeover prospect. In November, the three owners Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams turned down a $500 million, mostly paper-based, offer from Facebook. This seemed an outlandish amount for site which has no subscriptions or advertising. This week the owners settled for a more modest valuation of $250 million signing a term sheet (letter of intent) with an unnamed venture fund.

This valuation will difficult to judge as Twitter is morphing into new uses almost by the hour. It is attracting the serious interest of journalists both internationally and locally. The product is attracting a bewildering array of tools, widgets, and user interfaces. It seems highly likely given the speed of technological development and commercial intent, Twitter will look radically different by the time it becomes endemic. And given a faster adobe interface, then perhaps the all tweet journal may be onto something.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Madagascar’s political stand-off turns nasty

(photo by avylavitra).

The death toll is rising on the African Indian Ocean island of Madagascar after clashes between government and opposition supporters went into a third day. Yesterday the BBC reported 34 deaths after two days of rioting and looting in the capital Antananarivo. However this morning French website reported there have been between 68 to 80 deaths since Monday. 37 of them, all suspected looters, were found dead in a shopping centre after they were trapped inside when it burnt down.

The Government and opposition factions have blamed each other for the growing violence. Opposition leader and Antananarivo Mayor Andry Rajoelina accuses President Marc Ravalomanana's government of misspending funds and threatening democracy. Meanwhile the president accuses the mayor of trying to stir up a revolt. The worst of the violence occurred on Monday and Tuesday when rioters targeted state owned media and shops owned by President Ravalomanana after the president shut down the Mayor’s independent radio station. The President visited his own damaged state radio station where he called Rajoelina "the initiator of these disturbances.” The trigger for the violence was Rajoelina’s address to a crowd of 20,000 in the capital in Saturday where he called for a “dead city” to "reclaim democracy." Yesterday, another 40,000 protesters answered Rajoelina’s general strike call.

Rajoelina has been adept at using his radio and television stations to foment unrest. His TV station Viva was temporarily closed down by the government in December after it broadcast an interview with former president Didier Ratsiraka. Ratsiraka ruled Madagascar for 25 years but lost a disputed election to Ravalomanana in 2001. The two forces fought a short and brutal war before Ratsiraka was forced to flee to France where he still remains. The Viva interview (in Malagasy) shows Ratsiraka harshly criticizing Ravalomanana.

The 60 year old Ravalomanana has been president for seven years and has won two terms of office. He is also one of the richest men in Madagascar as the owner of Tiko. Tiko is the country's leading dairy firm, as well as a food, construction and media conglomerate. Many in the country see this as disproportionate power in the hands of one man. However he remains popular and was comfortably re-elected in 2006. Ravalomanana’s political and financial pre-eminence seemed assured until Rajoelina arrived on the scene.

The 34 year old Andry Rajoelina is a youthful contrast to the president but shares many of his entrepreneurial qualities. He was given the nickname TGV for his quick fire personality and he turned the initials into his movement’s name: Tanora Gasy Vonona, or Young Dynamic Madagascan. He ran for the Antananarivo mayoralty in the 2007 municipal elections against Ravalomanana's party as an independent candidate. Rajoelina easily won with 63 percent of the vote. The Antananarivo mayoral seat has always been a politically defining post and it is where Ravalomanana rose to become president. Since taking office Rajoelina has fitted the mould and grown into the regime's most vocal opponent. He condemned what he says are shrinking freedoms in Madagascar and called for a transitional government. He has also fiercely criticised a massive project to lease vast swathes of farmland to South Korean industrial giant Daewoo.

In November the president announced he had leased 1.3 million hectares to Daewoo for 99 years for an undisclosed price. Daewoo will grow palm oil and maize on the island in an effort to sharply reduce Korean reliance on US imports. The leased property is half the size of Belgium and represents about half of Madagascar’s arable land. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned this year that the race by Madagascar and other African countries to lease farmland to overseas investors risked creating a “neo-colonial” system. And while Madagascar becomes a breadbasket for Korea, 70 percent of the island nation’s population suffer from food shortages and malnutrition. As Glenn Ashton observed at, the benefits of Daewoo’s land grab to the Malagasy people “appear chimeral at best”.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Digital TV cutover delayed in the US

The US Senate voted unanimously on Monday to delay the deadline to cut over to digital television until 12 June. The House of Representatives is now likely to follow their lead to confirm the delay. The original deadline of 17 February 2009 was set almost a decade ago. However survey company Nielsen Co estimates that over six million households are still without digital cutover boxes. Those affected are mostly poor and rural households who do not have cable or satellite subscriptions. The Senate took the vote after then president-elect Obama urged Congress earlier this month to postpone the date. His team were concerned the government was not doing enough to help those in rural, poor or minority communities to prepare for and navigate the transition despite spending $200 million on an ad campaign explaining the transition.

The issue occurred after the federal program that provides coupons to defray the cost of converter boxes hit a $1.34 billion statutory funding limit on 4 January. The year-long program allowed analogue television owners to receive up to two $40 coupons to buy converter boxes. The program is administered by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and it proved enormously popular. 25 million households requested 47 million coupons (despite the fact that 2008 Nielsen research showed only 13 million households did not have digital transmission).

Obama’s home state of Hawaii was the first to complete the cutover on 16 January. It went early to avoid the nesting season of the Hawaiian dark-rumped petrel which lives in the television transmitting towers. Authorities made the conversion there with minimal customer outrage. However on the mainland there are still 2.5 million people on the waiting list who won’t get a coupon until either unredeemed coupons are returned or there is an increase in the funding cap. Another four million people may not even be aware of the scheme or the cutoff date. The additional four months will give NTIA time to address the over-extended scheme.

But not everyone in the US is happy with the delayed cutover. The four-month delay will mean local television stations will need to keep their old transmitters turned on resulting in higher power bills and maintenance expenses. Telecommunication companies could also lose millions as they wait to take over the spectrum released by the analogue transmitters. Qualcomm paid $550 million in the government spectrum auction to roll out its MediaFLO mobile TV platform which transmits data to portable devices. Qualcomm COO Len Lauer wrote to Congress pleading for them to stick with the original timetable. He also told Dow Jones the delay “will cost us tens of millions of dollars in extra expense and lost revenue.”

Stephen Conroy and his mandarins in the Australia Federal Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Department will be closely watching developments in the US. Here the vested influences of the free-to-air broadcasters succeeded in pushing back the cutover date to 2013. Australia has been slow on the uptake of boxes with only 42 percent cutover (pdf) as of 2007. There was considerable regional variation with 64 percent of Tasmanians cutover to digital compared to only 37 percent in Queensland and South Australia. Critically for the success of the program, 40 percent of people said that digital reception was not an important factor in the choice of a new TV.

Despite the low take-up, there are no plans at this stage to subsidise the cutover. Instead Australia will follow the British staggered-rollout approach (which started in 2007 and goes to 2012). To that end, Conroy set up Digital Australia and hired Andy Townend to lead it in 2007. Townend was formerly the 2IC at Digital UK, the body supervising the British digital switch. However he will have to make do with a budget of $17 million for the next four years, compared with a $488 million budget for Digital UK.

A Conroy spokesman told The Age that the government believes the process will be relatively simple. "For most people, switching to digital will be a relatively straightforward process and we will be supplying information to help people with this as part of our campaign,” he said. However he also admitted poorer sections of society may find it harder to switch and said the Government was considering “several policy options” to address the issue. This is likely to take the form of an education campaign and a help scheme for the elderly and disabled. The rollout begins in the Mildura region of northern Victoria in the first half of 2010.

Sri Lankan Tigers take to the jungle

Sri Lanka is reaching an endgame in the conventional stage of the war between the central government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). After a campaign of several months, the Tigers were pushed out of their last remaining urban stronghold when the garrison town of Mullaitivu fell on Sunday. The loss of Mullaitivu was significant as it means the LTTE lost their use of heavy artillery and rebel forces retreated to the jungle after the fall of the town. But Colombo has not been able to bomb the idea of Tamil independence into submission. The cornered Tigers remain dangerous opponents and are likely to resort back to guerrilla tactics and asymmetric warfare.

Nonetheless, January has been a good month from the government’s perspective. The capture of the town of Kilinochchi followed by the fall of the Elephant Pass earlier this month were two devastating blows to the LTTE. The pass is the strategic causeway linking the northern Jaffna peninsula with the mainland. The BBC called its capture “arguably one of the military's greatest successes over the past two decades of war.”

Army chief Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka touted the official line that a victory for the army would mean that “the end of terrorism is near”. He also expressed confidence that “95% of the work” had been done in clearing the Tigers from the north of the island. But not only does his statement conveniently overlook his own side’s terrorism, it also fails to consider that the final five percent may not be as easy to win. Al Jazeera's Colombo correspondent Tony Birtley believes the Tigers will be familiar with the terrain having started out in the jungle 25 years ago. “It's going to be a much harder job to clear them out than it was out of Mullaitivu town,” he said today.

And on Monday, a Tigers’ spokesman B Nadesan told the BBC the rebels would fight on. The spokesman also denied local rumours that their chief military officer Velupillai Prabhakaran had fled the country. Nadesan explained that despite recent reverses the war will not be ending any time soon. “We took up arms to safeguard our people,” he said. “We need a guarantee of living with freedom and dignity and sovereignty... until that, we will not come to that point."

That point seems as far away as ever. Meanwhile there seems no end to the casualties coming out of this long and brutal war. At least 67 civilians have been killed in the latest fighting this week. 30 people were killed on Thursday when soldiers shelled a village and makeshift hospital. The village lies in a supposed "safe zone" demarcated by the military to allow civilians behind Tiger lines to take shelter and avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Another 37 civilians died in the fighting that took place on the road to Mullaitivu. Aid agencies say that another quarter of a million people are sandwiched between the two opposing armies.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon issued a press release today which expressed his fears for civilians caught in the crossfire. He called on the government and the LTTE to give priority to the protection of civilians and humanitarian aid workers in the area. He said both sides must ensure all people are treated in accordance with international humanitarian law. He called for respect of “no fire zones,” “safe areas,” and civilian infrastructure and also expressed concern about attacks on members of the media and urges all parties to demonstrate respect for the freedom of the press.

There have been three attacks on the media this month. The most well known media victim of the violence is the Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge who was murdered by unknown assailants three weeks ago. Wickrematunge was a harsh critic of the government’s push to destroy the Tamil rebel movement and said it was merely an excuse to cement the power of hardline Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is extremely likely that Rajapaksa authorised Wickrematunge’s death to remove an inconvenient voice of moderation. In his final, remarkable editorial published after his death, Wickrematunge issued a plague on both sides’ houses. He offered a third way that, in the end, is the only hope of peace in Sri Lanka:
Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united.

Monday, January 26, 2009

To each their own: Happy Australia Day

There is an ad for Telstra’s Internet service doing the rounds that shows a grandad and grandson flunking a teacher’s question about what Australia Day represents. Their answers of “a long weekend” and “watching the cricket” drew a sharp face of rebuke from the teacher. While we never get to hear the teacher’s answer why we should celebrate the day, the implication from the ad makers is clear - get Telstra Broadband and you’ll find out the answer on the Internet. But is that true? I looked on the Internet today and found no consensus on what today’s Australia Day holiday actually means.

The first site returned on a Google search for Australia Day is the frothy-looking government site. It does not really explain the meaning of the day except to exhort people to "celebrate what's great". It does have a history page which tells us the Australia Day holiday is a recent tradition. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Sydney almanacs referred to 26 January, 1788 as First Landing Day or Foundation Day. The word “Australia” did not enter the national vocabulary until 1826. In 1888 Tasmania’s Mercury celebrated “the centenary of the occupation of the country by the British people”. But generally other states resented the focus on NSW and Australia Day did not become a national holiday until 1994.

Nor did the occupied ever never fully accepted the occupation. Aboriginals still call 26 January Mourning Day. Today Prime Minister Rudd knocked back the suggestion from the new Australian of the Year Mick Dodson that there should be a national conversation on changing the date of Australia Day. The Sydney Morning Herald (and most TV news reports) went with Rudd’s sound bite response: “to our indigenous leaders, and those who call for a change to our national day, let me say a simple, respectful but straightforward no.” However those media neglected to say why Rudd wasn’t changing the date. A look at Rudd’s address at Canberra’s Australia Day citizenship ceremony shows he mostly ignored the issue: “There’ve always been controversies about national days. But this is not the point. The central point is what we then resolve to fashion as a nation?”

Andrew Bartlett was quick to point out that the real reason why Rudd wouldn't join the debate was to avoid being wedged. “Calls to change Australia Day are manna from heaven for right-wing radio shock jocks and history warriors,” said Bartlett today, “so it’s no surprise Kevin Rudd wants to shut down debate on it straight away and get us all back to pondering how bad the economy is.” Rudd’s political radar looks smart if the Sydney Daily Telegraph readers’ debate on the topic is anything to go by with many entries skirting racism as they vigorous supported the 26 January date.

Seeking more dispassionate information, I turned to the second Google entry on Australia Day: the supposedly NPOV (Non Point Of View) Wikipedia. Here I was particularly interested in one sentence: “Australia Day has become a symbol for adverse effects of British settlement on Australia's indigenous people.” This is true; it would not matter if you did move the date, it would remain a symbol of adverse effects. As I’ve written before, European settlement was always going to have a negative effect on the earlier settlers. The French arrived in Sydney Harbour the same day as the First Fleet. Sooner or later, there would have been a European Invasion Day to mourn.

Ron Barassi says we should move the date to 27 May to commemorate when Aborigines got voting rights in 1967. But that would put another holiday in the already crowded six week zone that has Easter, Anzac Day, the Queens Birthday (loaded with symbolism itself!) and for us in Queensland, the Mayday holiday. If you must move it, find an excuse to place it in the long dead zone of the second half of the year (there are no national holidays between July and Christmas).

But the fact that people are still looking for a “peg” to hang Australia Day on, is proof positive that its current celebration is not tied to its historical meaning. The end of January may be a good time to have it, given the local climate. Despite the current and dangerous fad for drink-fueled ultra-nationalism, there really is no single national imagining or agreement of what it means. The granddad and the kid on the ad got it right, for them Australia Day is indeed about watching the cricket or having a long weekend. It could equally have been celebrating Chinese New Year or a barbecue or a day at the beach or the park or the Havaiana Thong Challenge or whatever else all the other 21 million citizens did. But you don’t need the Internet to tell you that.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Backman turnoff overdrive: Free speech and the Australian Israeli lobby

Paul Ramadge, editor of The Age, has badly damaged his reputation for editorial independence over his role in the Backman affair. The story began a couple of weeks ago when freelance journalist Michael Backman wrote an article in the Melbourne broadsheet heavily critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza. The Australian Jewish lobby publicly attacked it as "offensive to Jews". Within days, The Age editor issued an apology for the article (and incorrectly blamed a lack of supervision over the holiday period for publishing it). Backman also apologised to the Jewish community for any hurt caused. He subsequently removed the offending article from his own site but the text can be still be retrieved thanks to the ever reliable Google cache.

The fact is that Backman has nothing to apologise for. His issues about Israel need to be discussed and not thrown out of the public space. Backman does not deny Israel's right to exist, but his is an angry thesis bristling with frustration about the way it is treated with kid gloves in the western world. Like most things written in anger, it is far from perfect. His comparison between Israel/Gaza and Melbourne/Bendigo was hilariously bad and was deservedly lampooned by right-wing commentators such as Tim Blair. And his allegations about rude Israeli backpackers in Nepal were totally unsubstantiated.

Nonetheless, many of his statements in the article about the state of Israel are absolutely true and well worth repeating:

“Israel's utter inability to transform the Palestinians from enemies into friends has imposed big costs on us all.”

“The enmity many Muslims now feel for Israel has nothing to do with religion.”

“Hamas did not enjoy the support of all the people of Gaza. It does now.”

“Israel needs to change.”

And Israel does need to change. Ever since its birth, the country’s consistently hawkish attitude towards any kind of a negotiated settlement means that the Palestinian question continues to be one of the world’s most intractable problems. Palestinians still call 1948 “Al Nakbah”. In English it is “the catastrophe” from which they have never recovered. It is also a catastrophe that Israel has never acknowledged.

Its treatment is in stark contrast to what the nation deems as its own catastrophe: the Holocaust. But the Holocaust does not belong to Israel and its treatment of survivors has not always been impeccable. According to Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, during the war Zionists were more worried by the threat of Palestinians than the fate of European Jews and were selective about which Jews could enter the country (they wanted only the fittest). And afterwards, only ten percent of the three million Holocaust survivors went to Israel (the vast majority preferred to flee to America). Those that did arrive were initially hated by the Zionists who were already there before the war. The newcomers, like the many Arab Jews who also migrated to Israel after 1948, were housed in camps that must have given many of them uncomfortable reminders of what they left behind.

Pappé also says Israelis refer to the Holocaust as “the other planet”. The wording is important as it means the incomprehensible acts of that other planet could not possibly be imagined in theirs. However since 1948, Israel has treated Palestinians ("unpeople") with exactly the same disrespect as Germany treated its unwanted minorities ("untermenschen"). To get round these inconvenient arguments, Israel claimed patrimony over the Holocaust. The Shoah was conflated with the notion of Israel in order to serve the national ambitions of successive Israeli governments. Pappé suffered death threats for his ideas and was forced to leave Israel.

Whenever anti-Israeli ideas such as Pappé’s and Backman’s appear, the Holocaust and associated shibboleth of anti-semitism can be used to stop them. It works particularly well in Australia. While hard hitting criticism similar to Backman's are published as a matter of record in the vibrant Israeli press, they were deemed too potent for our media. Not for the first time the ever watchful Israeli government lobby got their way and extracted grovelling apologies from all concerned. The effect is to muzzle effective debate about Israel in this country.

The Australian architect for this strategy is Colin Rubinstein. For the last ten years, Rubenstein has been the executive director for Australia’s most powerful Israeli lobby group, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). Based in Melbourne and funded by private donations, AIJAC is a high profile and assertive lobby group. It was Rubenstein and the AIJAC who were the most aggressive lobby group against the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize to Hanan Ashrawi. Although their bullying tactics were exposed by Antony Loewenstein’s "My Israel Question", they continue to have a chilling effect on the Israel debate in this country. They do this by consistently attacking any public suggestion Israel is in the wrong or might need to compromise, and then use their considerable muscle, and manufactured shame over the Holocaust to close the argument down. It is usually easier for a journalist or an editor to self-censor than to take them on.

And so when Rubenstein saw Backman’s article, he did what he always does when confronted with an anti-Israeli polemic and went for the jugular. Rubenstein arranged to meet with Age editor Paul Ramadge twice last week. Meanwhile the Australian Jewish News reported unnamed “critics in the Jewish community” (they were Jewish Community Council of Victoria president John Searle and Zionist Council of Victoria president Danny Lamm) calling Backman’s column “blatantly anti-semitic” and “hate speech against the Jews”.

Of course it was neither, There is no evidence of anti-semitism in the article. It is not hate speech against the Jews but rather hate speech against the Israeli government. That might not be appealing to some, but it is not unreasonable to publish such an attitude. It is also protected under the “fair comment” provisions of our libel laws. But it didn't take long for the lobby group pressure to bear. Paul Ramadge caved in to Rubenstein and cravenly removed the piece.

On his website Michael Backman proclaims “truth belongs to the people; not the government”. But in this case, as in many others related to reporting of Israel in Australia, truth belonged to neither. It was the power to influence that took truth off the agenda. It is not a matter of whether you agree with Backman or not, the default position is you cannot even say what Backman said and have it published in a leading newspaper. Like it or not, Colin Rubenstein remains one of the Australia’s most powerful gatekeepers of opinion in the public sphere.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Turn ABC and SBS into hyperlocal content hubs, says review submission

Yesterday, I wrote about Pay TV’s submission to the government review of the two national broadcasters, ABC and SBS. Today I want to look at another of the 2,400 submissions; this time a less self-interested but no less well argued one from four prominent Queensland academics. The submission is called “Social Innovation, User-Created Content and the Future of the ABC and SBS as Public Service Media” and was written by Terry Flew, Stuart Cunningham, Axel Bruns, and Jason Wilson.

The submission calls for both ABC and SBS to focus on user created content and redefine themselves as media organisations rather than broadcasters. The latter call is timely as The Inquisitr reveals that a 2:1 majority of Americans watched the Obama inauguration on the Internet rather than TV. The public service remit, argue the authors, should not be confined to specific technology like radio and television but to the services they provide – regardless of platform. They go even further and suggest that now is the ideal time for the ABC and SBS to change their emphasis and become participatory public media harnessing the power of citizen journalism.

The authors are making these recommendations from personal experience and research. Since 2007, all four have been intimately involved in an Australian Research Council Linkage Project called “Investigating Innovative Applications of Digital Media for Participatory Journalism and Citizen Engagement in Australian Public Communication”. The title is a mouthful but in a nutshell it is an investigation into the possibilities of citizen journalism using established industry partners such as SBS and Cisco. The project’s aim was to devise prototypes for “emergent forms of political citizenship and public communication in 21st century Australia".

The project began by creating an aggregated citizen journalism site called for the 2007 federal election. They provided tools and resources to enable hyper-local citizen participation in partnership with national organisations and then set to work documenting their findings in the wider international context of citizen journalism and web 2.0 developments. The project also researched attitudes (see attached pdf) within SBS about user-created content, a subject the authors saw as a crucial development for both national broadcasters.

According to the submission, the question of how SBS and ABC respond to changes in the media environment due to technological and cultural reasons is a matter of ‘social innovation’. By this they mean the application of a new idea (or a new application of an existing idea) that delivers lasting social value. The two areas driving social innovation are the technological revolution (as exemplified by the Internet) and cultural activity (increasing the number of voices in a democracy). The two areas are blurring as innovation increasingly comes from the margins and a network economy emerges that is both distributed and co-ordinated in a many-to-many fashion. The often non-commercial aspects of these activities deliver social, cultural, and public value and are mirrored by the public service aspects of the charters of ABC and SBS.

The challenge for the public broadcasters in the 21st century, say the authors, is to continue delivering unique and compelling content while also being conduits for user-led social innovation. To that end, the charters need to redefine the organisations as media rather than broadcasters, providing media services. They should then make the leap to become ‘participatory public service media’ to harness and encourage social content creation. In effect, they want to see ABC and SBS become an Australian digital commons.

Both ABC and SBS already have a strong digital presence and bring considerable strengths to a web 2.0 environment. They are trusted brands with informed audiences, they have access to large networks of media professionals, have good reputations as innovators, and large archives that could be digitised. ABC has already taken some small steps in collaborative culture with its Pool initiative which allows users to share and remix content. ABC has also allowed public feedback in long form in forums such as Opinion and Unleashed. But the authors say they could do more to encourage participation without harming their traditional public broadcasting function.

On the contrary, the authors say that enabling citizen journalism will allow organisational resources to be harnessed better in the traditional functions. The benefits will be in the areas of expanding direct participation in democratic processes and providing local communities, particularly remote ones, with a means of communication. The authors say the ABC should transform its national network of local bureaux into hyperlocal hubs for content created by local communities. As the experience with youdecide2007 showed the researchers, citizen media provided an outlet for the stories of remote communities, disadvantaged groups, and minority political opinion in a way “more traditional media sources could not match”. Flew, Cunningham, Bruns and Wilson’s submission is one of the more radical, imaginative and exciting visions for Australian public media among the 2,400 voices and deserves some serious merit. If ABC and SBS won’t provide the platform, it will simply go elsewhere. But if it does, the nation will be the loser.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Twitter and public broadcasting issues under one mumbrella

A real breath of fresh air on the Australian blogging scene is Tim Burrowes at Mumbrella. The former editor of B&T magazine is one of the few bloggers who actually breaks stories and he broke two good ones today. Just minutes ago, he revealed that the viral Twitter messages that a plane on fire caused Melbourne airport to close this evening were a gross overreaction. While it was true that a passenger reported seeing fire from the left wing of a Boeing 767 this evening, the plane was cleared after eight minutes and there were no further consequences. But while Burrowes confirmed there was no fire with a quick phone to the airport, the Twitter world was happier just to repeat the "plane on fire" news ad infinitum in an Australian version of the Hudson plane landing incident. But in this case, the airport press office was justified telling Burrowes that “unfortunately the Internet is full of gossip.”

In scotching the rumours, Burrowes exemplified the remarks of Jason Wilson’s provocative post at Gatewatching last week by showing that “journalists use telephones”. Burrowes was also on the phone earlier today after he read one of the more contentious entries of the 2,400 submissions to the review of Australia's two national broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). The government will review the submissions ahead of the broadcasters' next funding review in July this year.

Burrowes’ interest was in the submission by Astra, the peak body representing Australia’s subscription TV industry. In their submission, Astra were critical of the plan to give six new digital channels to ABC and SBS. Astra picked on the point made by ABC’s managing director Mark Scott that the new channels (in areas of news, children’s entertainment and foreign language programming among others) addressed a “market failure”. Astra denied there was a market failure and said they were (or will be soon) delivering similar products to what ABC planned to deliver. It was a persuasive argument if you leave out the fact that just two million Australians subscribe to pay TV and that leaves a potential market failure for 19 million others.

Nevertheless the newsworthy element that Burrowes noticed was an Astra comment that the public broadcasters are doing aggressive deals that lock out pay TV from showing up-to-date content. They claim “ABC and SBS have included pursuit of commercial terms which seek to ensure longer than industry standard ‘hold back’ clauses in production and acquisition deals, and in some instances the ABC in particular has been willing to pay more for content to ensure this happens”. The result is that pay TV has to wait longer to get content for re-run and Astra says this is contrary to ABC 1983 charter goals (a charter Astra says is out of date as is the 1992 Broadcasting Act).

Once again Burrowes picked up the telephone and spoke to both SBS and ABC today for comment on Astra’s accusation. SBS firmly denied the claims and gave examples where SBS and Pay TV have cooperated in acquiring broadcast rights. Their spokesperson also told Burrowes that they often allow World Movies Channel and other pay TV channels to run content first. The ABC spokesperson was similarly dismissive: “The ABC is not sure how ASTRA can justify such claims of warehousing when there are many examples of rights sharing of programs between the ABC and the subscription channels” he said. But this controversy is not likely to go away and Burrowes may have reported on what is likely to be the opening salvo of a long running debate between the public broadcasters and the Pay TV industry for hearts, minds and control of the digital spectrum.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Israel's Supreme Court overturns electoral ban on Arab parties

The Israeli Supreme Court yesterday overruled a parliamentary panel which had barred the Arab parties United Arab List-Ta'al (UAL-Ta’al) and Balad from running for Knesset (parliament). The decision enables the two parties to run in the national elections scheduled for 10 February. The nine Supreme Court justices unanimously accepted the UAL-Ta'al appeal, while the Balad appeal was accepted by eight justices against one.

The two appeals were submitted by the Israeli-Arab rights group Adalah earlier this week. Adalah claimed that the decision to disqualify the parties was a violation of their rights. They also claimed it also ignored the legal opinion of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz that there was not enough evidence to justify preventing the participation of the parties in the Knesset elections. Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa: Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, called the decision part of a "fascist atmosphere that exists in the media and in political parties that is excluding the Arab community in Israel."

The original decision had been made in the heat of the Gaza conflict. Two ultra right parties Yisrael Beiteinu and National Union-National Religious Party requested the Arab parties be banned by the parliamentary Central Elections Committee (CEC) which comprises of members of all party factions. The CEC met on 12 January and ruled the parties ineligible to fight the elections on the grounds they did not recognise Israel and called for armed conflict against the state. Arab CEC members boycotted the vote and called the vote the actions of a “fascist, racist state”. Members of all three major parties (Kadima, Labour, Likud) voted to expel the parties.

However it was the ultra-right faction which was predictably unhappiest with the court’s overruling. Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman described it as "unfortunate” as it established no boundary to prevent Arab Knesset members from being disloyal to the state. He warned his party would continue the offensive. “[The ruling] gave the Arab parties license to kill the state of Israel as a Jewish democratic state," he said. “In the next Knesset, we will pass a citizenship law that will prevent the disloyalty of some of Israel's Arabs.”

However the left-wing non denominational Hadash party welcomed the judgement. Hadash Member of the Knesset (MK) Mohammad Barakeh said he had expected the decision. He wants to go down the opposite path to Avigdor Lieberman and deny the CEC the right to disqualify parties from running. This is not the first time that the CEC has attempted to ban the Arab parties, or the first time the court has overruled it. "It's a scenario that is renewed during every election, said Barakeh, “due to the hopes of Lieberman and those similar to him to recruit more anti-Arab members to the committee."

Israel is home to 1.4 million Islamic and Christian Arabs who form about 20 percent of the total population. But they are represented by only 8 percent of parliament with just ten 10 Arabs in the 120-seat Knesset. Balad holds three of those seats. It was formed in 1995 in order to create political awareness within the Arab sector in Israel and oppose the 1993 Oslo Accords.

was established around the same time as Balad and now holds four seats. It has similar goals to Balad and calls for an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Both parties now hope that the indignation over their ban and the general conduct of the Gaza war will result in a strong Arab turnout at the ballot box. UAL-Ta’al leader and MK Ahmed Tibi described the ruling as a rallying call for his party. “This battle is not yet complete because racism has now become the mainstream in Israel,” he said. “We will finish this operation in Israel on the day of elections."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President 2.0 – Obama gives a makeover

The new Obama administration has wasted little time in getting its agenda out. The website underwent a makeover at midday, the time of the inauguration. The site contained several pre-written blog posts, all date-stamped Tue, January 20, 12:01 p.m. EST. Jimmy Orr, who directed website operations during Bush 43’s first term, believes the site resembles Obama’s campaign site which he says is no bad thing. “President Obama ran an excellent e-campaign and his website was very user-friendly, as is this one,” he said. “The site is attractive, modern looking, easy to navigate, free of clutter, and makes an excellent use of photos.”

But what the site does not yet have is a personal Obama touch. In his influential PressThink blog NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen advises Obama to write the blog himself. “Don’t start a blog and make it an extension of the press release,” cautioned Rosen. “You’d be worse off, with a lame blog and a blown start in the race to be smart online.”

But so far Obama has been silent online. One person who has introduced himself on the blog is Macon Phillips. Phillips described himself the Director of New Media for the White House. He says that the three new media priorities are communication, transparency and participation. To these ends, the new administration has set up a briefing room about presidential events and public statements, a policy agenda, and a feedback form for contact. Phillips says is “just the beginning of the new administration's efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement”.

According to LinkedIn, Macon Phillips is a director of Strategy & Communications at Washington DC-based Blue State Digital which specialises in Internet election strategies. The company has strong Democratic Party roots and was founded in 2004 by former staffers of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign that year. In early 2007 the Obama campaign hired the company to provide technology, communication and media services. They were instrumental in giving Obama the platform to attract a social network of 850,000 people and raise $200 million online. BusinessWeek called them “Obama’s secret digital weapon”.

And as the New York Times noted in December, Obama campaign’s communications strategy was predicated in part on what it called “an aggressive indifference” to the usual media insider set. The campaign mastered new political media including a vast database of e-mail addresses, discussion boards, web sites, blogs, YouTube videos and text messaging. It was reflected in the number of friends and followers Obama collected in social networks. In MySpace for instance, Obama held a clear lead, with 844,927 friends compared to McCain's 219,404 (up to November 2008). In the same period he also trounced McCain on Twitter with 118,108 followers compared to the Republican candidate’s 4,942. Blue State Digital could take a lot of credit for these results.

Although Macon Phillips wasn’t one of Blue State Digital’s founders, it is likely he will bring a lot of the company’s expertise to the White House’s online presence. Phillips says the goal of the revamped site is to give people a better view of the governing process and a greater opportunity to participate. As well as the blog and associated RSS feed, there will also be e-mail updates, and texts of executive orders and proclamations. “One significant addition to reflects a campaign promise from the President,” he said. “We will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.”

These are bold claims and the project deserves respect as well as time to grow. In his inauguration speech, Obama referred to a need to “do our business in the light of day.” The new site will be an important source of that light. It will also be an antidote to the obsessive secrecy of the Bush regime. The makeover is needed because, as Obama noted, “only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” The people will be watching, and participating.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Harry Nicolaides is latest victim of Thailand’s archaic lèse-majesté laws

An Australian teacher was yesterday sentenced to three years imprisonment in Thailand for insulting the Thai monarchy. Harry Nicolaides originally received six years but the sentence was halved after he pleaded guilty and apologised to the king. The case was filed under the country’s notorious lèse-majesté laws which can allow for a 15 year jail term for insulting the Thai king, queen or (as in Nicolaides’s case) the prince regent.

The 41 year Nicolaides is a Melbourne man who has worked in Thailand as an English teacher and freelance writer. He was arrested at Bangkok airport as he tried to leave the country on 31 August last year. Nicolaides was charged under article 112 of the Thai criminal code which reads "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years." Nicolaides was alleged to have made the insult in a paragraph in his 2005 novel Verisimilitude (see full text in linked pdf). Nicolaides intended the novel as a commentary on contemporary Thai political and social life however the book was not exactly a page-turner. Only 50 copies were published of which only seven were sold.

The offending passage in the novel was just a few sentences which described the turbulent marital relations of its fictional prince. It is a thinly-veiled account of the sexual affairs of Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Vajiralongkorn is the 56 year old first son of the long-reigning monarch Bhumibol Adulyadel. The heir to the throne is the Edward VII of Thai royalty, an occasional philanderer who is waiting forever for his aged and revered parent to die in order to ascend to the throne. Vajiralongkorn lacks the stature and popularity of his frail father who has reigned for 62 years old. Time magazine compared him to a more recent British example calling him “Charles’ Siamese Twin” picking on the similarities of “an elderly monarch, an heir with a troubled marriage, [and] rumours of adultery”.

At Nicolaides’ trial, the presiding judge said the passage in Verisimilitude "suggested that there was abuse of royal power," and caused "dishonour" to the king and the heir apparent. After the trial the prosecutor warned journalists not to repeat or publish the offending material. The warning was treated seriously by CNN which chose not to repeat the allegations “because it could result in CNN staff being prosecuted in Thailand.” As a result most people in Thailand remain unaware of the details of this and other similar cases.

In his 2005 birthday speech King Bhumibol cautioned against the over-exuberant use of this criminal provision. However it remains a convenient tool for many factions within the Thai elite and is unlikely to be repealed anytime soon. The laws are a serious problem for Thai media and effectively muzzle public discussion of a range of issues relating to the country’s ongoing political crisis. As the Thai news and analysis site New Mandela points out, the lèse majesté laws “helps guarantee an unrelenting public diet of positive royal news.”

The obscure laws have been invoked several times in recent years as the role of the king comes under sharp focus in Thailand’s fraught post-coup environment. Last year Chotisak Onsoong was charged for refusing to stand during the national anthem in a cinema. More seriously, a government minister Jakrapob Penkair was charged with after a speech critical of the country’s patronage system which “bordered” on lèse majesté.

And as recently as last week Giles Ungpakorn, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, was arrested for “unspecified charges” believed to be related to his critical public statements about the monarchy and his book A Coup for the Rich. The pugnacious Ungpakorn has refused to be silenced and promised to fight the charges in order, as he says, “to defend academic freedom, the freedom of expression and democracy in Thailand.” Ungpakorn, Nicolaides and the others deserve the support of everyone who cares about the precarious health of democracy in the 21st century.

Monday, January 19, 2009

British police abuse Section 27 powers to target football fans

Police in Manchester have been forced to issue an apology to 80 football fans after wrongfully preventing them from attending a football match. The 80 were all fans of Stoke City and were in a Manchester pub prior to a game against Manchester United on 15 November last year when they were all bundled into buses and made to return to Stoke. Despite the fact there was no evidence of any disturbance, Police issued a Section 27 notification in accordance with the Violent Crime Reduction Act which enabled them to take the extraordinary action of making them leave town. The fans received no apology for missing a match against the English champions and no refund for their expensive tickets.

According to Greater Manchester Police (GMP), they had received intelligence that around 80 fans were intent on causing trouble. They claimed it was their “duty to keep public order” that drove their action to detain the fans for four hours and send them back to Stoke. The GMP admitted it was now reviewing its use of the act to ensure it was only used when necessary. However they also said that only “a small proportion” of the 80 were not trouble makers, with a clear implication that the majority were. The GMP offered no rationale for their belief that peaceful fans were troublemakers nor have they revealed the "intelligence" that caused them to invoke Section 27 in the first place.

On the day of the incident, the Stoke fans had met at the Railway Inn in Irlam near Manchester for a few pre-match beers. The pub was a natural stop-off point to the stadium for those arriving via the M6 motorway or the local railway station. The atmosphere was quiet in the pub and the landlord made no complaint to the police. According to one fan at the pub, “there were no football chants being sung at the Railway Inn and no evidence of disorder whatsoever. If there had of been we would have left the pub and made our way elsewhere.” Nevertheless the premises were surrounded by police and the 80 supporters were all required to sign Section 27 forms or else face arrest. Police refused requests from some fans to state on the form that they were not intoxicated.

Section 27 (pdf) of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 introduced a little known new police power to give directions to leave to individuals to leave a locality. The section can be invoked when an individual’s presence is deemed likely to cause or contribute to an “alcohol-related crime or disorder in a locality”. The Home Office circular related to the new powers directs chief police officers to use them “proportionately, reasonably and with discretion in circumstances where it is considered necessary to prevent the likelihood of alcohol-related crime or disorder.” Not only did the GMP fail to apply this test of the law, they were also guilty of a severe lack of proportionality.

According to Henry Portman in The Guardian, the police behaviour was both “oppressive and arbitrary”. Portman linked to a press release issued by the civil liberties and human rights group Liberty which gave further details of the inhumane way they treated the fans. Liberty said the 80 on the coach were deprived of toilet facilities and instructed to urinate into cups, which spilled over the floor of the bus. They had to sit with urine sloshing around their feet for the 65km journey back to Stoke.

Malcolm Clarke, the head of the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), has taken up the cause of the wronged fans. He has appealed on the Stoke City fansite The Oatcake for anyone served with a Section 27 order to lodge a formal complaint. Clarke told Woolly Days that while Manchester Police have apologised to a subset of the 80 fans, they have not admitted illegality or agreed to pay damages. Clarke also noted there have been examples of other fans served with Section 27 orders. In December, South Yorkshire police prevented several Plymouth Argyle fans from attending a game at Doncaster Rovers and escorted them back to the south coast.

Clarke believes the hardline anti-fan attitude of individual police authorities is undermining the good work of the UK Football Policing Unit established in 2005. Football-related arrests have been dropping in recent years despite the highest league attendances in 35 years. “The Football Policing Unit has a very sensible strategy,” said Clarke. “But we don't have a national police force in the UK and they have no direct control over individual police forces.” The FSF will need to remain vigilant to ensure other police forces are not tempted to invoke the easy collective punishment aspect of Section 27.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama and Tocqueville: thoughts on the inaugural journey

Barack Obama’s inauguration train pulled into Washington overnight after a journey from Philadelphia that commemorated a similar ride by the first Republican president Abraham Lincoln. Well-wishers lined the route to greet the President-elect and the Obama family took in the scenery as the normally two hour journey took nine hours (it was still a big improvement on Lincoln’s 1861 trip from Ohio which took 12 days). The not-so-express stopped in Baltimore for a trip to the War Memorial and also in Wilmington, Delaware to pick up that state’s senator and vice-President elect Joe Biden.

Now that the administration team is in Washington, the world awaits as the wheels of American democracy turn and the free world gets new leadership. The US’s first black president carries a weight of expectations from his many constituencies but has a wealth of national and international goodwill behind him as he takes the Oath of office on Tuesday. It was the biographer of American democracy (ironically a freedom frying Frenchman) Alexis de Tocqueville who said that in America all men were “born equal". However Tocqueville wrote that before slavery ended in the south and he was only too aware that rule did not apply to blacks. “The negro,” he wrote in Democracy in America (1835), “cannot have any control over his own existence without committing a theft”.

Whether or not a black President can heel centuries of racial discrimination remains to be seen, but Obama’s victory was certainly no theft. It is also notable that Tocqueville framed the “negro” as a he, and writing in the 1830s, he wanted to extend suffrage rights to black and Native American men only. It was unthinkable that any woman would have the vote. (It makes me wonder which of our ‘self evident truths’ will seem backwards to our descendents a century from now?) But he was prescient to know that sooner or later, that the destiny of the world would be tied up with America.

And as in 2007, a Democrat presidential win became increasingly likely, it was equally obvious that the country would have its first black or female president. To that end, I actually wanted Hillary to win at first, as she represented an even large disenfranchised group than Obama (perhaps a Democrat Condoleezza Rice would have been ideal). But as Obama opened up through the campaign, it was clear he was the most striking and intelligent candidate. Those type of candidates don’t always win of course, and even less likely as a young black senator of less than four years standing in the Senate. He got the media onside with occasionally inspired oratory. But it was his use of "netroot" democracy which tore up the rules of campaign finance and enabled him to outspend Clinton in the long war of attrition in the primaries.

With Bush’s reputation in tatters, it was always likely that Obama would beat any Republican candidate once he’d seen off Clinton. The GOP chose the least Bush-a-like player in the party, but the base could never really get fully behind the maverick McCain despite his war hero status. They brought in Sarah Palin to compensate for his age, unattractiveness, and liberalism, but after brief stardom she was immolated in an orgy of Late Night Comedy. Dubya’s internal and international failures hung over the Republicans like a bad smell. Obama seized the metaphor for change and by end of the Democrat convention he was already the President-in-waiting just counting down the days to Dubya’s demise.

Curiously it is George W. Bush who claims his favourite political thinker was Alexis de Tocqueville. Bush liked Tocqueville’s description of a healthy America polity thanks to its ubiquitous "associations" or community groups. But there are pitfalls with pushing Tocqueville’s prescriptions. As Ted Widner points out in the International Herald Tribune, “the chief danger is that people will actually read him.”

Tocqueville accurately predicted the rise of the commercial classes that would eventually capture power in America. He knew even then that the country’s relentless conformity would mean that dissent and extremism would never become part of the political landscape. He knew Americans were not interested in other cultures. But none of that criticism seems to matter to his reputation in the US. This week alone, his words were not only quoted in the IHT but also by, among others, the Miami Herald's editorial about the inauguration, The Nation's story about Obama’s international impact, a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune about Abu Ghraib, The Baltimore Sun's story about the impact of TV, The Independent's (UK) story about Lincoln and even in the New York Times’s review of Slumdog Millionaire.

The humorist Russell Baker once suggested that of all the great unread writers, Alexis de Tocqueville is the most widely quoted. But it is true that for over a century and a half, his book has held up a mirror to Americans, allowing as Gerald Bevan puts it, “each generation to see themselves and their values in it”. What will Obama’s generation see in it?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dawkins and the “new atheists" take to the buses

A Christian bus driver in Southampton, England has refused to drive a bus which carries a pro-atheism message on the side. The driver said he was shocked by “the starkness of this advert which implied there was no God”. 800 buses in England are now adorned with the message "There's probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life." The English move follows a campaign in Washington DC last year which planted the message: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake” on 240 buses. Here in Australia, the ad agency APN Outdoor took a more prudish stance and rejected a $16,000 campaign to put such slogans as "Sleep in on Sunday mornings" and "Celebrate reason" on local public transport.

While Australian atheists have been forced to take their case to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Board, their counterparts in the UK would probably be delighted with the publicity their campaign has afforded. While the idea was the brainchild of comedian Ariane Sherine, it was quickly taken up by the country’s most public atheist Richard Dawkins. Sherine got a thousand people to pledge money to counter a pro-religion bias in the advertising world. Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion” and the TV documentary “The Root of all Evil?” came to the party by agreeing to match all contributions up to the first £5,500. His endorsement also helped the credibility of the project, and in the end, the fundraising drive raised more than £140,000.

The campaign has raised a predictable outcry from the religious lobby and also some surprising support. The activist group Christian Voice has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about the ads. However, the Methodist Church said the campaign might be a "good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life”. But even some non-believers are finding this new militant brand of atheism off-putting and unnecessary. According to Natalie Rothschild in Spiked, the new atheists are engaging in religion-bashing. She says the reason the likes of Dawkins believe preachers and charlatans form such a threat to rational thinking is because of all the gullible masses that “apparently so easily fall for their quackery”.

But Rothschild’s argument is flawed. She says that Dawkins (and the other atheist campaigners) are preaching at the public rather than trying to engage it. Even if that were true, they would simply be mimicking the way religion also advertises itself. In any case, Dawkins went to great pains in The God Delusion to avoid preachiness and engage with the debate. The book presents 400 pages of closely argued points that look at the evolution of belief, its role in society, morality, philosophy and the impacts of organised religion. Harking to the bus campaign, one of his chapter headings is “why there is almost certainly no God”. Ironically it is one of the least interesting chapters (with its over-intellectual ruminations on irreducible complexity, god of the gaps, and the anthropic principle) of an otherwise engaging book and passionate polemic.

In an early chapter, Dawkins quotes the words of his late friend Douglas Adams. In the speech, Adams tackles the whole notion of the sacredness of religion. Religion was a notion, he said, that people were not allowed to say anything bad about. Adams continued:
“Why not? - because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'Fine, I respect that'.”

Dawkins called it an example of “society’s overweening respect for religion”. Religious grounds are still the best bet for a wartime conscientious objector. And in those wars, Dawkins noted a “pusillanimous reluctance” to use religious names for the warring factors. Religions are exempt from a whole raft of laws (include taxation) that govern every other organisation. In the US, the constitutional right to the freedom of religion has been used to justify warped behaviour and discrimination against homosexuals and other minority groups. In the Muslim world, the furore over the Danish cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten was deliberately stoked up by a small group of Muslims living in Denmark. The clerics took their propaganda campaign worldwide with predictable results. Libyan rioters killed nine people and burned an Italian consulate. Pakistanis and Nigerians burned Christian churches, while in Britain some Muslims carried banners which read “behead those who say Islam is a violent religion”.

Believers deemed the hurt and suffering they felt as a result of seeing the pictures worse than any physical violence perpetrated on anyone who got in the way of their revenge. What Muslims share in common with believers of most other faiths is that their values trump anyone else’s. The atheist campaign is not about gratuitous offence or hurt to religious belief. But it is a valid protest against the disproportionate privilege of religion in otherwise secular societies. Dawkins quotes the words of the great H.L. Mencken: “we must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart”.