Category Archives: Everlasting awfulness

Naming the enemy: Why Abbott has switched to saying ISIL

The Australian government has decided that Australian taxpayers should spend half a billion dollars per year fighting a war against someone.

Not so long ago we had a budget emergency. We were drowning in a debt and deficit disaster. The problem was so dire that it justified starving people under 30 to death. It justified gouging pensioners to see a doctor. It justified disinvesting in people with disabilities, disinvesting in universal education, hindering access to university for all but the wealthy. This talking down of the economy as though there is no relationship between confidence and economic growth justified gutting the most important 21st century infrastructure and productivity boost the country ever attempted, a national high speed broadband network. These appallingly brutal policies, which are terrible for business and consumer confidence and will have a negative multiplier effect, had to be installed because the government’s political opponents. That is the argument. Plus something about poor people and car ownership. Really. Leaving aside foreign minister Julie Bishop, who has stood loftily above mundane domestic issues like whether young people can eat, we have a room full of white men and one wannabe white man, a group whose combined education cost millions. Here is what they decided: hey we can kick the poor people yay because the Labor Party.

So we are dealing with a bunch of heartless economic illiterates for whom power is its own end. They do not want political power to run the country for all Australians, to invest in our future, or to make sensible fiscal decisions based on a coherent ideology and our shared, national future. They do not even have a coherent ideology. They did once, but it has been jettisoned. Cogency? Principles? Values? Nah, no need. This is the age of neoliberalism gone mad, a ramshackle outfit of nasty incompetent brutes who have their greedy hands on the levers of power and are determined to bring the rest of Australia across to their grim and destructive outlook. That way they are returned to power, and that is all they seek. Nothing more.

When domestic politics go wrong, as with the spectacular failure of this first Coalition budget since 2007, men in power look for a distraction and a common enemy. I would call this an old trick except it is something more serious than a trick. It is a tired unimaginative political ploy, but it is also stupidly expensive and globally destructive. The current Australian government has chosen ISIS. Or ISIL. Or is it Islamic State. Hard to know.

We could be spending half a billion dollars a year on foreign aid. Or combatting Ebola. Or re-building Gaza, a recurring, urgent need that will never go away, or not for as long as Israel refuses to get over itself. We could invest that money in education, or health, or infrastructure. We could just distribute it evenly across the Australian population and save millions in welfare compliance costs. It would pay for itself in the year, easily. But instead, the government is pouring massive amounts of our own money into scaring the shit out of us. For the same old shitty reason: to stay in power. That is it, that is all. Nothing more.

Putting to one side all the constructive efforts in foreign affairs we could be doing instead, here is the problem with naming the enemy. The enemy calls itself Islamic State. This is clever. It is brief and pithy and to the point. Islamic, and a state. No need to use the word caliphate, but a caliphate is clearly implied. It is the same with the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. Apart from colonial imperatives, which were numerous and powerful, Pakistan was created as the territory neighbouring India for people of the Muslim faith, and as such named its capital Islamabad. It is nigh on a teetering failed state, of course. No people can be at the whims and tides of colonial imperatives for centuries and then be expected to function democratically when the coloniser cuts and runs. It never works, and it will never work again in Iraq and Syria.

For a while, the news media went along with most Western leaders and called Islamic State Islamic State. There was an exception, however, and an important one. President Obama resolutely and consistently referred to ISIL. This is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Obama conspicuously did not refer to ISIS, the alternative acronym which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This week, the Australian Prime Minister finally got the memo and switched his language too. He had already committed the death and destruction machines, the money, and the human beings, to fighting this super terrible threatening horrific terrorist terrorist terrorist threat. Remember, it is a threat. No Australian has been harmed in any way. Then yesterday the Prime Minister also worked out what he was supposed to call the enemy. Well done, Tony.

Words matter. Words are powerful and influential and important. Using words in war is always as important as the killing machines. This is why we quote the ancient and modern iterations of that famous phrase ‘the first casualty of war is truth’. It goes to such truisms as ‘we have to win the battle for hearts and minds’. So naming the enemy is a pretty basic starting point for committing our country’s resources – human and capital resources – to an obviously poorly considered, expensive, unwinnable war.

Here’s the thinking behind the words, or the best explaination I can figure, which is not easy, because I don’t think the way these war-mongering idiots think.

Naming the enemy by its own preferred moniker is giving succour to the enemy. We can not call Islamic State Islamic State because we want to demonise its Islamicness but not credit it with statehood. It is a powerful armed group seizing territory by force, just like England and France and Spain and Portugal and all the other imperial powers have done in the past. But we must not allow this now because Islam. Or democracy. Or subjugation of women. Take your pick.

Or barbarian hoards at the gate. Aha. Here it is. Invoking barbarism is a typical appropriation by imperial powers, in this case of the Berber identity, dehumanising and demonising a whole group of people. The Greeks saw the Berber as ‘aliens’ or ‘foreigners’ as they came from across the Mediterranean, the sea at the middle of the territory. The Berber of the ancient world, from North Africa, or the Mughrabe, provide the linguistic origin of the imagery invoked by barbarism. Much the same was done to the Philistines by those who wanted their country and identity. The Philistines are the Palestinians, and thus it is a cinch to invoke notions that Palestinians are uncivilised in the western/Christian mind. Bethlehem and Nazareth are of course in Palestine, hence the desire of the Christian west to appropriate Palestinian identity and cast a whole people as deserving of subjugation, dehumanisation and, in the case of Western support for Israel, mass murder.

Whatever, just keep arming this side or that and profiteering from the sale of weapons and the deaths of human beings. This is obviously the work of violent and inept men in thrall to the military-industrial complex, but it is unfashionable to say so.

That little journey through geo-political history and nomenclature brings us to why Obama and now Abbott call the enemy ISIL and not ISIS today. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria presents a problem: it names Syria. The western intervention wants to stop at the imaginary line, drawn by colonial powers in the first place, between Iraq and Syria. As the enemy has so neatly captured in its name, the actual human beings who live there did not consent to this border, and it has been used ever since by powerful leaders for their own ends rather than for the good of local populations. Iraqis and Syrians have always had cross-border family and friendships and tribal connections and enmities and all the other relationships that humans create. But it suited Assad and other Syrian and Iraqi leaders before him to go along with the borders of a nation state. As Palestinians know only too well, it is nigh on impossible to function in the contemporary world without the rights and interests that are conferred with the existence of a nation state with borders. This is so for individuals and for groups, for societies and religions and polities. It is a relatively recent development, and it feeds all sorts of violence and problems and vested interests of rich and violent men. But there it is.

Australians tend to overlook the significance of borders and the colonial powers that created them at huge cost and heartbreak for local populations because our borders are so clearly delineated. As a great big island continent, we know where we are and who we are more clearly than possibly any other country. It is only when some minor short-lived clamour is raised, like that around our navy entering Indonesian waters to tow back asylum seekers – more human costs and misery – that we are reminded that we even have borders with other countries.

The point of writing Syria out of the story is that its regime has killed almost 200,000 of its own citizens in just three years. This mass slaughter, this crime against humanity, this revolting atrocity, is not apparently worthy of Western intervention. So if we name the enemy Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, we risk awkward questions about our failure to give two hoots about the lives of the Syrian people. And as the meme goes, awkward questions are awkward. So to spare the sensibilities of a gung-ho war mongering buffoon like Abbott, we don’t mention the war. Or not the Syrian civil war.

That leaves the final label, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This one is tricky. The ancient world was understood and labelled as Mesopotamia, the Levant, and the Mughrabe. Mesopotamia centred on modern day Iraq. Think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The starting point of Abraham’s journey. The Levant is further west. Think the twelve tribes of Israel. Hold that thought. And finally, the Mughrabe, the northern swathe of the African-Arab world. It stretches across much of the area where the Arab Spring, that moment of hope, originated.

Why on earth would we in the west choose this invocation of the Levant, with its anachronistic imagery and biblical overtones, to refer to our present-day enemy?

Easy. It triggers all the associated geo-political and religious imaginations, the clash of civilisations thesis. It implies that Israel is in danger, again. Israel is always in danger in its collective Israeli mind despite being the most heavily armed territory in the region, with the fourth biggest army in the world, on a permanent war footing and undisclosed numbers of nuclear warheads. Saying ISIL feeds this and other useful imagery. It implies the backwardness of those violent sectarian Arabs, always at war with each other. It erases the massive damage wreaked upon the region by the imperialist west, from colonial times to the 2003-09 carpet bombing of Iraq. It shifts responsibility from us, us who clearly have the most fire-power, global power, and capacity to harm. It simultaneously evokes biblical overtones while managing to imply that Muslims are sword-wielding primitives who nevertheless pose a grave terrible horrific terrorist terrorist terrorist threat to our way of life over here in wealthy, distant, peaceful Australia.

And remember, it is still a threat and a threat alone. No single Australian has been harmed by the enemy. Not one.

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What Israel Says…

Responses used by Israeli officialdom each time the state is exposed as having acted in violation of international law, or inhumanely, or immorally, or with extremely poor judgement.

1. Israel does not comment on security matters.
2. Israel denies it violated international law.
3. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.
4. Hamas are terrorists.
5. The IDF is the most moral army in the world.
6. Israel has acted decisively to discipline the IDF member/Israeli citizen.
7. Arabs in Israel have more rights than in any Arab country.
8. Israel is under existential threat.
9. Israel has a right to defend itself.
10. Israel has a right to exist.
11. Israel is surrounded by enemies.
12. Israel wants peace.
13. Israel has no (viable) partner in peace.
14. Iran wants nuclear weapons.
15. There are other, worse human rights violations around the world.

These responses have been successful in maintaining the position of Israel as the Jewish state, and its influence in the world. This is so regardless of the passionately debated and ultimately repetitive reasons put forward by Israel for its military campaigns. None of the major world players, from the Middle East Quartet to the United Nations Security Council, has ever halted or prevented Israeli military action. The ‘Middle East Quartet’, by the way, is basically everyone: its membership is the USA, Russia and the EU and the UN itself.

In response to Tim Blech of the Terror

At 05.16 hours this morning Tuesday 16 June 2014 that old fashioned charmer Tim Blair confirmed his hysterical fear of intelligent articulate women: http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/timblair/index.php/dailytelegraph/comments/crown_our_crazy_queen/

While the gracious Dee Madigan suggested that no lefty femmo would be so crass as to post a response, I had no such qualms. Except perhap a small qualm about responding to Blair’s list of formidably fabulous women by naming the chief whitemansplainers (neologic credit: Celeste Liddle) who should be wanted for crimes against humanity, and the English language.

Here is my mirror call.

They blather, they jabber, they drone. They crow of their “democratic” victory (that’s the Abbott government, to you and me) from the towers of triumphalism, these chicken hawking megaphone kings. They are Australia’s dominant elite; oppressive, mendacious members of the white man ruling class NOT ALL WHITE MEN (why, a decent white man raised me – to think for myself). Their sexist, racist, homophobic (/self-hating) poor-hating chorus rises in ridiculousness to a panicked stampede following the rise and rise of today’s smart articulate women.

Only one of them can reign as our solitary shepherd of the petrified men-sheep. Only one can run screaming down the same road with all the others, clambering over each other to complain, whine and whinge that the women are out of the kitchen, and the First Peoples are asserting the universal rights that are inherent to us all. Who is the most threatened by intelligent voices everywhere? I can’t list the choices of frightened white man commentariat or I’d be sick in my mouth and besides, you know them already.

We know, and we have known for a very long time

Recently I finished re-reading the Steinbeck masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Re-reading books is an old habit of mine, from childhood days when I used to run out of books to read. Like most people I know, books pile up by the bed these days, half- or un-read as deadlines loom and children are ferried about the countryside. Re-reading is rarer, a forgotten pleasure. It is easy company. There is no urgency. You know what happens. The book is an old friend to be curled up with at night in the sure knowledge that the prose is comfortingly exquisite, the finale the same.

A few weeks ago my daughter, frustrated with her homework on the equally grim Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men, decided to clean out the shed instead. She is that kind of person. I can think of no better way to pass a rainy weekend than in bed with a good book. My daughter and her metabolism start climbing the internal walls, silently and not-so-silently screaming for physical action. Hence the shed project, in which The Grapes of Wrath was re-discovered and thence re-read.

I had not forgotten much of this “terrible, indignant” book, as it is billed. Every pivotal scene was seared on my memory as it emerged – the crushed skull of the ex-preacher, Ma’s cold resistance to praise-the-lord flagellants, the Native American mechanic who befriends Tom Joad, and that final scene. In the end, which we know is neither end nor new beginning, the Joads stumble away from the flooded lowlands and across a starving family of two in the barn on the hill to which they flee. The once plump and simple Rose of Sharon has been pregnant throughout the book, until her starving bub is born lifeless in the midst of flooding rain that washed away the work. On hearing the crying boy, who tells how his whose dying lied about not being hungry, Rosasharn shares the one sustenance she has to give with the starving man. It is love, and human dignity, it is gift and spirit and sharing to the ultimate end, but it is terrible, too terrible to contemplate. This, says Steinbeck, in the closing pages: this, in the most powerful nation on earth.

Of course it could never happen here. This fucking refrain makes me screamingly angry. Wall-climbingly, hair-rippingly, arm-wavingly furious. Yes, it could. In fact, it is. Jesus said the poor will always be with us, I heard an arrogant man of god intone tonelessly on the radio this afternoon. He was one of those complacent conservative types from some wealthy diocese or bishopric or whatever its called, the Sydney one which is home to needle-eye squeezing camels, and which lost tens of millions of parishioner dollars in the 2008 global financial crisis. I assume the god-fearing merchant bankers knew their tithes were being gambled on the stock market, and did not care. What with the tens of millions of tax payer dollars rolling through the place in the form of massive government contracts to outsource the essential social services that are the responsibility of the state.

This corrupt and Christian-less rort allows the non-tax paying church to profiteer from the taxpayer while risking its actual income to enrich itself. Or not, in the case if the poor management and judgement exercised in the greedy noughties, indistinguishable from the greedy neoliberal radicals of the nineties. It is also how the government is obscuring our march toward radical US-style “free” marketeering ideology and, thus, government policy.

The poor will always be with us, intoned the man of god. Yes, yes they will for as long as people like you commandeer huge portions of available assets. And make no mistake, the wealthy few, the neo-liberal government and this man of god are all cut from the same cloth. But surely, said the interviewer to the man of god, a state stipend is about human dignity? Must we force the unemployed to go cap in hand to a religious organisation?

And there it is. We are not simply dumping the poor on the street. We are providing a safety net. We do not let people starve in this country. We fund, with taxes, religious organisations to perpetuate and reproduce the crashing failure of the charity model, which is designed to not let Jesus be wrong, and ensure the poor are always with us.

I am talking every category of poor, it does not matter whether we are talking homelessness or disability or Aboriginality or homelessness. Poor is poor, and poor means worse health, higher rates of imprisonment, greater need of urgent and unaffordable dental care, worse education outcomes. The evidence is in. We do not need to prop up more research communities or caring industries or government departments: poor is poor, and goods and services cost money. Either the tax payers provide essential services to those who can not afford them, or they suffer. Where the state under-invests in health and education, and over-invests in force (police, guns, tasers, batons, prisons, wars, ‘defence’ personnel and their eye-wateringly expensive equipment and perks) the problems compound. Even viable solutions like public dental clinics, cost more than the initial fix would have been, once this compound decay sets in for, would have been.

This, the state says, is the fault of the poor. It is not. It is the fault of economic management so bad it beggars belief that its architects are still able to take to the microphones and spout words like ‘economic management’. Those touts have little to no understanding of basic economic relationships, relationships such as that between investment and return on investment, or confidence and expectations, or credit and trust. This is not conspiracy. No conspiracy is required. They all respond the same because they all think the same. Not one has ever been hungry. But they will tell you they have been poor. The code word, the one to look out for, is struggle. I have known struggle, a complacent suited white man in the pink of health will assure an uncritical media representative, failing to mention that it was a pre-selection struggle or some other effort, equally meaningless to anyone but the club. They have never known night after night with a sick child (if they had, we would have heard about it), or no money for school excursions, or shame so intense it renders you immobile. You can be sure they have not struggled with the decision as to whether to share their dead baby’s milk with a grown, starving man. Well, nor did Rosasharn. As Steinbeck tells it, she did not struggle with that decision at all.