Fiddling While It Burns

Sanctions: Get Busy Looking Busy

15/11/2011
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Note: I wrote this in an hour a couple of months ago as part of a recruiting process, so it’s a little out of date and a little rough, but I stand by the premise so I thought I’d throw it up.

Muammar Gaddafi (Picture:AP) and Frank Bainimarama (Picture:RFMF).

Sanctions. For the slaughter of thousands of its own people, Syria gets sanctions. EU and US sanctions for now, and perhaps Security Council-imposed sanctions in the near future.

Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria – sanctions are applied all over the place, but rarely achieve anything beyond putting the problem off for another day. Sanctions are the international community’s ‘too hard basket’.

Ostensibly, they exist to punish violations of international law. They are placed on states as a measure short of violence to force them to conform to whatever norm they are breaking. However, to argue they are really anything other than filler, a replacement for either real action or an admission of impotence, is drawing a long bow.

It’s not that sanctions do nothing. When the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and held them largely in place until 2003, they were intended to force Saddam Hussein’s regime to quit the country and pay reparations. While this task was instead accomplished by main force by the United States two separate occasions, the sanctions still took their toll.

In fact, it is estimated by the UNHCR that these sanctions took no fewer than 500,000 Iraqi lives, mostly those of children. Meanwhile, Hussein maintained his vice-like grip on his country until April 2003.

Similarly, Iran has been under US sanctions since 1979 and UN sanctions since 2006, but its nuclear weapons program still ground onwards. Only an alleged US-Israeli operation to destroy Siemens industrial equipment used for uranium enrichment with the Stuxnet computer virus succeeded in putting a real spoke in the regime’s plans.

In Gaddafi’s Libya, things were little different. The US first imposed sanctions on the country in 1986, and it was under varying levels of these sanctions until September 2003 when the prospect of purchasing all of Libya’s lovely oil became too hard to resist. Gaddafi remained inviolate, a king in his castle, until February this year, when a foaming sea of opposition broke open arms caches and joined with defecting soldiers to fight the regime directly.

The West is deeply ambivalent about the legitimacy of violence, particularly on the political Left. Despite the horrific brutality of Gaddafi’s campaign against his own people before the imposition of the no-fly zone, it is not uncommon to hear NATO’s efforts in Libya described as ‘massacres’, just as it is incredibly common to hear Afghanistan described as an illegitimate war of occupation, which is no doubt surprising to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans fighting for the government in that conflict.

The use of force in international peacekeeping is certainly a messy and difficult issue. Sanctions, however, are stupid. Not only do they not achieve their goals, they cause real suffering amongst the population of their targets. International travel sanctions and divestment of the foreign assets of dictators are even sillier – rather than pursuing the traditional escape avenue for dictators of fleeing with the kitty, tyrants like Muammar Gaddafi must instead stay where they are safest and can do the most harm – in their capitals, surrounded by their army.

Force is not always an option. I wouldn’t advocate an invasion or even bombing of Syria to add to the economic and military stress of campaigns Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But sanctions don’t help. Like medieval bleeding, they give the international community something to do, but happen to make the problem worse.


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Rolling Stone on Rick Perry

27/10/2011
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I thought I’d dust off the blog for this.

I have a real problem with Rolling Stone‘s political journalism: namely, I think it’s shit. It’s basically Fox News for the left, and like Fox News, people who are already invested in its particular flavour of bullshit have a very hard time regarding it critically.

Personally, while I probably fit somewhere into the centre-left, I think good journalism is more important than pleasing politics, and so this sort of polemicism masquerading as journalism annoys me like an itchy bum at a job interview. So, when I saw people on Twitter praising Matt Taibbi’s vicious profile of US Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, I started to read it, but soon felt compelled to make a running list of the gross violations of basic ethical and journalistic practice in the article.

It really is a running list, in the sense that you’ll only understand exactly what I mean by following along with the article online, but you can get the gist of the thing.

Here goes:

Breaks Godwin’s Law, page 1 paragraph 8.

Unbacked polemical innuendo, paragraph 9.

Overt distortion, top of page 2.

More unbacked innuendo (and baseless comparison to a serial killer), page 2 paragraph 2.

More dodgy innuendo trying to turn a very responsible act into corruption through outright defamation in paragraph 7.

Unsourced smear quotes paragraphs 9-11.

Guilt by association, last paragraph of page 2.

Page 3 paragraph 1. Can you identify one solid problem with this nuclear waste storage facility beyond general nose-holding? Note that you could find someone to tell you a nuclear waste dump was too close to ground water if it was on the moon.

Comparison to Soviet Russia in paragraph 2. Paragraph 3 tries to twist transparency into corruption.

Baseless inference of influence, comparison to organised crime in paragraph 6.

Another comparison to a serial killer at the bottom of page 3.

Calls Perry a “hick Texas rancher” page 4 paragraph 1, casts what could easily be a sincere inspiration to pursue politics as cynical, lazy. Would be interested to see whether this Fred McClure feels he’s been misrepresented in the use of those quotes.

Page 4 paragraph 6, finally we get some numbers – but it’s a bit suspect to imply that appointing donors is corrupt, since all appointees are expected to be Republicans and therefore Republican donors in a donation culture.

Accusing Perry of being out of line with Tea Party principles before the Tea Party existed, multiple times this page.

Economically illiterate attack on openly pro-business politician for allowing foreign investment, page 5 paragraphs 1-3.

Tricks with innumeracy: page 5 paragraph 6 pretends that two schemes totalling US$563 million are some vast amount of money for a state like Texas. Paragraph 7 pretends ‘borrowing’ from a state insurance fund is the same as borrowing from foreign lenders in the form of bonds.

Paragraph 13, now notice the article has been leaning significantly on the person Perry beat in a primary campaign as a source.

Page 5 last paragraph, implies that Perry is insincere in his Christianity, once again without basis.

Page 6 paragraph 3: Holocaust reference.

Page 6 paragraph 4: A “dangerous nuclear-waste dump that might blow up 30 years from now”? Hasn’t even offered any evidence that the waste dump is dangerous, let alone that it’s somehow going to spontaneously turn into a nuclear warhead and detonate.

Paragraph 7: Again, attacking the common-sense decision to administer Gardasil at state expense as implying corruption.

Taibbi’s writing is aesthetically quite lovely, like Rolling Stone‘s other political writers. That’s a big part of the problem – the ability to spackle over the holes in one’s argument with beautiful prose excuses all manner of evil to the casual reader. Personally, I don’t think it’s good enough, although it’ll undoubtedly be a very popular article with the magazine’s audience.

So that’s what I consider to be 22 major journalistic lapses, without even making a phone call. I would love to be told why these points aren’t problems.


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A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

21/03/2011
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Image property United Artists

A Fistful of Dollars is the original Spaghetti Western, and the film that began the break from the John Ford/John Wayne era to the overlapping Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood era when it was released to American audiences in 1967.

Fistful‘s (Per Un Pugno Di Dollari in its original Italian release) plot is elegant in its simplicity. A nameless gunfighter (called Joe, Americano or gringo in the film, or The Man With No Name otherwise) rides into a town on the Mexican border, which is being terrorised by the feuding of two rival gangs – the Baxters and the Rojos. Setting up camp at the hotel between the two gang lairs, which face off against each other down the wide and dusty main street, the gunfighter acts as a mercenary for both sides, after proving his usefulness by gunning down four of the Baxter’s fighters in a fair fight.

His downfall, however, comes when he intervenes to rescue the captive mistress of Ramón, the most deadly and cunning of the three Rojos brothers. He goes to the small house where she is being kept apart from her husband and child, shoots the five guards, and gives them the small family the money he was given by the two gangs to escape with.

As a result, he is captured, beaten and tortured, and the Rojos kill every one of the Baxters in a surprise attack. The Man With No Name escapes with the help of a few of the townsfolk to recover and return for a final showdown with the Rojos.

The final showdown is a work of art in itself. The sequence revolves around Ramón Rojos’ well established favourite weapon, a lever-action rifle which gives him an insurmountable range advantage over Joe’s single-action Colt .45. The Man With No Name faces off against the Rojos brothers and two henchmen down the wide main street, to an immortal theme of at once soaring and mournful brass, above menacing strings.

See the video

Joe advances on Ramón and taunts him, telling him to “aim for the heart”. Ramón fires all seven of his shots into Joe’s chest one at a time, yet Joe continues to advance. Finally, Joe flips his poncho out of the way, to reveal the iron plate which has been protecting him. Discarding it, Joe shoots the rifle out of Ramón’s hands, and guns down the four men behind him as well, leaving Ramón at his mercy.

This is the film where Clint Eastwood created the persona which arguably carried him through his entire career – the laconic, wind-etched, hollow-cheeked pistolero, The Man With No Name. Attired identically in all three of the original Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, 1965’s A Few Dollars More and 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), he is the archetypal Western protagonist. His past is unstated, as are his motives (as he makes fortunes throughout all three movies yet spends nothing). Before A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood was already an established cowboy on the TV series Rawhide, but he played a standard, smiling white-hat, whereas forever after he was associated with the stoic, brown-hatted Joe, which made his career.

Indeed, much of Fistful is instantly iconic, from the opening credits, to the incredible score by Ennio Morricone, and of course the tense final showdown. The super-closeups on characters’ faces used throughout the film have become so identified with Sergio Leone’s style, the shot type is often referred to as The Leone. Among many tributes to Fistful in film, Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future III largely recreates the final showdown, while Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill borrowed heavily from its soundtrack.

A Fistful of Dollars is not a perfect movie. It is dubbed in the Italian style, which is slightly jarring to modern audiences, and in the absence of squibs and blood packs, characters simply hurl themselves over unconvincingly when shot. With all its far-reaching influence, one would expect Fistful to be a paragon of originality. However, it was in fact an unauthorised remake of the 1961 Kurosawa film Yojimbo. Its plot structure is not only lifted from the samurai film, but much of it is a shot-for-shot reconstruction of Kurosawa’s original. However, it is impossible to argue against Fistful‘s brilliance, or to argue that it created nothing original. It changed the entire genre, and its blood runs through every successful Western made today.

The term ‘Spaghetti Western’ referred originally to a film movement that emerged in the 1960s, where Italian directors and producers created some of the great Westerns of all time. The films were shot on shoestring budgets, in either central or southern Italy, Sardinia or southern Spain, in areas that looked similar to the American South West. 

Since then, the term has come to refer more to an ouevre, seen in recent films like The Good, the Bad and the Weird, Sukiyaki Western Django, and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy. The Spaghetti Western has less emphasis on horseback time and rarely involve clashes with Indian tribes as was common in earlier Westerns, and much more emphasis on stylised and unlikely gunfights. The films of Sergio Leone led the way with their slow, menacing pace and instantly identifiable scoring.


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New blog

15/03/2011
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I’m starting a new blog for my Arts Journalism subject, so I’ll be updating it twice a week. I’ll cross-post here, though. Honestly the nagging feeling of a blog going without updates weighs on my conscience. The first blog is here.


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Has the internet enhanced the quality of political communication and debate?

25/10/2010
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In an age where mainstream media increasingly speaks with one voice, the internet has revolutionised political participation and revivified the public sphere. While there has been much angst and hand-wringing over the state of public debate in the internet age, this dissatisfaction belongs rightly not with the internet itself, but with the flaws of democracy generally, or even the human condition itself.

Independent news organisations like the New Matilda, Crikey!, and Salon, for example, offer genuinely different perspectives from traditional news insiders, most notably demonstrated by Salon’s 2005 role in vaulting the revelations of abuse in Abu Ghraib into the media spotlight, after the story was initially buried within the New York Times.

Meanwhile, self-appointed media watchdogs like Media Matters, Crooks and Liars, and innumerable others subject traditional media to a fine-toothed scrutiny never before imagined. Social media like Facebook and Twitter allow real-time sharing of news stories, and first-hand accounts from anywhere in the world can reach readers in seconds. The ability to store and share source documents online has revolutionised the journalistic standard of truth.

There are, of course, legitimate criticisms of online communication and debate. The legions of bloggers are not necessarily critical thinkers; nor are they necessarily concerned with the professional ethics associated with journalism. Many seek only to confirm their prejudices, and so the mutually exclusive, mutually outraged left- and right-wing ‘blogospheres’ are born, each their own onanistic Ouroboros, endlessly canting new data to fit old myths.

This phenomenon has been widely decried, and the internet has been blamed for an increasingly partisan and antagonistic culture by commentators such as Cass Sunstein, as well as a burgeoning culture of frivolousness preferring Twitter over essays, TMZ over the New York Times. This view, however, is rooted in a fallacious belief in some perfect past.

The fact is, Habermas’ idealised public sphere has never existed for mass democracy. The majority of voters have never been intellectuals; all elections are decided by people who have no idea who John Stuart Mill or Edmund Burke were. Only a privileged educated class has ever possessed a complex understanding of politics; previously, their debates were merely an exclusive sideshow. Now, although it is still far from the main event, the sideshow is at least a far larger and more visible one.

As for the accusation that the internet allows closed spheres of thought, this too presumes a false, glorious past. Think of the classic Australian film Don’s Party, where the drama of blue collars and silvertails plays out on the eve of Gough Whitlam’s election; think of the deeply divided America of the Clinton or Johnson years. Can we really say society is more divided now? No, we are just more aware of the divisions.

Yes, the internet is often an ignorant place – as society is often an ignorant place. But it can’t be denied: the internet genuinely democratises political participation in a way that has never been seen before. It is a uniquely incendiary fuel for any spark of political interest. The mass-movements behind the Obama campaign in the US or GetUp! in Australia are proof enough of this. The internet is imperfect to the extent that we are imperfect; yet, it offers a better prospect of an informed, involved electorate than anything which came before. No doubt it annoys the traditional gatekeepers, who feel their own qualified voices are drowned in an ocean of plebeian chatter – but isn’t that precisely the point?

Note: this piece was written for a Politics & Media assignment, with the title as the set topic. It’s fairly mundane as an opinion piece, but I thought it was worth blogging, at least.


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A different kind of war

18/10/2010
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Here’s a project I did for radio journalism. I think the biggest failure of the news media around Afghanistan is not giving interested generalists an understanding of the strategies and realities, instead preferring to sensationalise and trivialise, so I’ve tried to cover some of the basics of counterinsurgency, a doctrine central to understanding what’s happening in Afghanistan right now.

A different kind of war


Simplistic pacifism won’t help the Afghans

03/09/2010
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Photo: Simon O'Dwyer, via SMH

I’ve got a piece on Afghanistan on The National Times today. You can read it here.


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In old news

01/09/2010
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I just stumbled across this story, which I think says it all about just how broken the Israeli Army’s rules of engagement are, and how dehumanised Palestinians are in the Middle East equation. It’s also worth considering in light of Israel’s willingness to investigate itself after the killings aboard the ‘peace flotilla’ earlier this year.

In other news, I’ll be published sometime this week in the National Times. I wish I could look forward to it, but I have a feeling it’ll be a little bit backlash-y, since I’ve swung a spiteful kick at the left of the Afghanistan debate, while deliberately alienating the right. Because that’s just how I roll.


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Are kill or capture missions lowering the Taliban’s effectiveness?

01/09/2010
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From the Telegraph in the UK:

Quarter of senior Taliban killed by SAS in ‘kill or capture’ targeting

The Taliban in Helmand are being killed by the SAS on an “industrial scale” with a quarter of senior commanders killed since spring, leading to a dramatic drop in British casualties.

My personal bugbear is that war coverage is binary and partisan. There’s the left-leaning media, to whom war is always bad and almost everything is a new reason to drop the whole thing and level war crimes charges, and the right-wing, who revel in their jingoism, adulate ‘our men and women in uniform’, and wouldn’t oppose anything up to and including concentration camps and public executions of anti-war protestors.

War is a complex business, and military leaders and academics study for years or their entire lives to best understand and execute it, yet war policy is a slave to these two strains of empty-headed populism. (Of course, there’s also a vast empty-headed consensus populism which is neither strongly for or against, but I’ll leave that to one side.) So, both criticism and support are inadequately informed, which allows debacles both ways – the invasion of Iraq and criminally incompetent strategies of the first couple of years of the occupation when the war-drummers get their way, and the undermined bleeding-away of the war effort that’s happening right now in Iraq. It’s a situation where objective facts exist, indicating evidence-based courses of action, but two false realities obscure our views and make it impossible for the professionals to do their jobs.

That said, this article, although ridiculously canted and egregiously overstating its case, is still informative about the role of the British SAS in Afghanistan when read with a critical eye. Read in conjunction with this press release, it’s a little peek behind the veil.


Time to Renew Our Commitment to Freedom

10/08/2010
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I had a piece published in the National Times, the opinion portal for the Fairfax broadsheets. It was a bit of a coup, but rather overshadowed by the birth of my daughter the day before. Anyway, the piece was about liberal democracy, the internet filter and the burqa debate, and is available here.

A sample:

The problem with banning self-expression in any way is that it’s viral. The chilling effect is an infection in human society, which soon spreads into every aspect of life. The law is an ass, and a well-ordered society is only ever an ill-considered law or a populist outrage from a police state. Yet in Australian political debate, far too often what is “bad” is treated as one with what should be “banned”.


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