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Why Waleed is both right and wrong

23 Nov

This passionate plea from television personality and academic Waleed Ali, made in response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, begins with the statement: ISIL is weak.

This is true. ISIL, like any other organisation, institution and individual that resorts to violence, intimidation and slaughter, is weak. There is no strength in terror. There is only moral, intellectual, psychological and emotional weakness. To use violence is to admit defeat on all levels, though rarely will any organisation, institution or individual recognise and acknowledge that psychological truth.

The problem is, however, that weakness does not equate to harmlessness. The morally, intellectually, psychologically and emotionally weak have been responsible for the worst atrocities this world has witnessed and endured, and they have come from the east and the west, from most religions you can name, and from the secular.

It’s counter-intuitive to correlate weakness with terrorists. Terrorists terrorise, causing unfathomable anguish and disruption, disabling cities, bringing down aircraft, destroying families, creating bloodied havoc, leaving in their wake a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, rage and grief that have little possibility of resolution: why would we imagine these people as weak?

Waleed Ali is correct to call them weak in the moral, intellectual, psychological and emotional sense. But they are dangerous, and they remain dangerous, because weak does not equal harmless.

Today the city of Brussels is in lockdown in fear of a terrorist attack. ISIL are weak, but they can lock down cities. Imagine the fear and apprehension felt by residents of that city today, yesterday and tomorrow, as they wait for the next attack. And if it doesn’t come, they won’t easily stop fearing. ISIL are weak, but they are also controlling a city, manipulating its citizens through terror, and the threat of terror.

The weak are the most dangerous people on earth, because their weakness is so often expressed as brutality. To describe ISIL as weak is both true and misleading, the latter because the term “weak” is synonymous with harmless, pathetic, contemptible,vulnerable, but never with dangerous, murderous and brutal.

We can think of ISIL as weak, as Ali urges, but only in the understanding of what weakness means in this context. They are weak and they are dangerous. This danger can’t be underestimated because they are weak.






16 Nov
People light candles during a vigil at the site of the two explosions that occurred on Thursday in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut, November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban - RTS6U96

People light candles during a vigil at the site of the two explosions that occurred on Thursday in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut, November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban – RTS6U96


I’ve read all I can read for now from genuine experts, armchair experts, bigots, racists, xenophobes, politicians, atheists, religious persons, and trouble mongers, on the Paris terrorist attacks.

I don’t have the knowledge, the expertise, the wisdom to add to the thousands of words already written.

This woman, journalist Ruby Hamad, born to a Lebanese father and a Syrian mother, says, for mine, the most important things that need to be said. In her article titled Paris attacks: Is solidarity for white terror victims only ? Ms Hamad, without hatred, rancour or the desire for vengeance, says what needs to be said about who is and who is not considered fully human, what it feels like to not make the grade, and who gets to decide.

Please read her piece.

The Newsroom, politicians, reality and Annabel Crabb

10 Nov



For reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve spent some time lately holed up binge-watching television series, the latest being a revisiting of the 2012-2014 HBO production, The Newsroom.

Written by Aaron Sorkin, it has many of the characteristics of The West Wing: engagement with complex issues in an at times tortuous, but honourable manner, and ongoing examination of the difficulties and costs involved in taking a particular moral perspective within the context of savage politics, and savage media, both of whose end game is to grab and hold onto power.

Both series can be irritatingly self-righteous and way too heart-warming but hey, Sorkin has a dream.

In his many monologic tirades against the dumbing down of news, and in particular the feeding of baser human instincts through the elevation of celebrity gossip to the status of journalism, anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) grieves the loss of intellectual and moral engagement between media and consumers that the culture of celebrity has inevitably ousted, to everyone’s detriment.

As an extreme example, McAvoy is obliged by his employers to replace a segment of information of national economic significance with the story of former congressman Anthony Weiner sexting various women images of his penis, as told on camera by one of the recipients of his favours.

And this brings me to the point of this post: ABC TV’s Kitchen Cabinet, hosted by political journalist Annabel Crabb.

Crabb has copped sustained criticism lately for her pleasant little program in which she dines with various politicians. Much of that criticism and an analysis of Crabb’s response can be read here, at the Politcally Homeless blog.

Basically, the show is perceived by some critics as a dumbed-down, albeit classily-styled interaction with politicians, and as offering nothing of significance (contrary to Crabb’s claims) other than providing “humanising” propaganda for individuals on the public broadcaster.

Which, if you think about it, makes it a show of great political significance in the most negative and undesirable way.

Crabb’s justifications for her program are interesting, and for mine, disingenuous, or perhaps I can be more generous and describe them as naive, though naivety doesn’t strike me as a Crabb characteristic.  For example, she claims that:

I don’t think you can possibly separate what people are like from what they do… Observing someone in their own environment offers – in my view – some useful information about how they might behave outside it.

Well. For a start, the dinner times with politicians are absolutely contrived, and definitely not an example of how they behave in their own environment. In much the same way as we can argue that there is no such thing as reality tv because the presence of a camera crew immediately imposes a context that, unless you are completely narcissistic, creates a reality that bears no resemblance to the reality in which one actually lives, we can also argue that Crabb’s interviewees are in as much of their own environment as are monkeys in a zoo.

The participants are under surveillance and like most human beings, pitch their behaviours and their projection of what they are like to their expectations of the outcome of that surveillance. Like most human beings and unlike monkeys, what they’ll reveal of themselves under scrutiny is what they perceive as their best. This is only one aspect of what they are like, and it is a highly sanitised aspect.

Ms Crabb has long experience in media, and must be more aware than most of how people adapt to the presence of cameras. So for her to make the claim that Kitchen Cabinet is politically necessary because it shows us what politicians are like and thus helps us better understand their policies, is, quite frankly, a steaming pile of monkey poo, and insulting to our intelligence.

As for what they are like…I think I could binge-watch Kitchen Cabinet for a decade, and still be no wiser about what any of its subjects are like. Indeed, I learn far more about what they are like from the policies they espouse, than I could ever learn from the personas they present at dinner with Annabel.

To be honest, I have zero interest in what they are like. I’m far more interested in what they do and if I don’t like what they do I’ll vote against them, no matter what they might be like. 

I don’t want to be entirely negative so let me say here that I love the frocks. I’m immensely fond of frocks and Annabel’s are divine. In fact, it’s been a struggle for me, deciding to turn off the show, because I really wanted to look at those frocks.

But for mine, Kitchen Cabinet is an excellent example of what Aaron Sorkin has his characters rail against in The Newsroom. It is presented to its audience as having educative political significance, when in fact it has none.  It will, its presenter assures us, inform us as to the characters and motives of our politicians, thus adding to our understanding of the decisions they make. No it won’t. With very few exceptions we already know what they’re likely to decide: it’s on that basis that we do or do not vote for them.

This is dumbed-down politics, masquerading as important and relevant because it’s on the ABC and presented by one of that organisation’s senior political journalists. Which is, actually, shameful, it really is.

Kitchen Cabinet is as dumbed down in its way as the Daily Telegraph. It’s celebrity journalism, though Sorkin won’t have that called journalism at all. It does not enlighten, it obfuscates. It distracts us from the harm many of these men and women have inflicted upon us, our country and others. It dulls us in ways we ought not to accept being dulled.

The show could have worked as entertainment, if it hadn’t been found necessary to infuse it with faux usefulness and faux meaning. It might have also worked better if Crabb wasn’t seen snuggling up to politicians, and letting them get away with not answering important questions.

Maybe not a journalist at all. Maybe a chef. That guy who says SBS won’t have him because he’s too white. He’d be good.

We’re funding our own demise as an engaged and critical polity. Kitchen Cabinet is bread and circuses. Do yourself a favour. Revisit The Newsroom, re-imagine the ideals and potential of  journalism, then tell me I’m wrong.







Abbott: Even a Nazi feels shame, but those illegal immigrants? Shameless

5 Sep

The Atlantic. Asylum Seekers flood into Hungary


Our socially dominating right-wing authoritarian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is talking more even more drivel than usual. ISIS, his pet death cult, are worse than the Nazis he claims, because unlike the Nazis, they have no shame.

I’ve searched far and wide. I can find no suggestion anywhere that the Nazis were ashamed of themselves. Never mind.

In practically the same breath Abbott has busied himself criminalising the estimated four million Syrian women, children and men fleeing their country and the ISIS death cult, by declaring them to be “illegal” immigrants.

In other words, death cult is badder than bad Nazis, but fleeing bad death cult is even badder then bad Nazis AND badder death cult?

Prime Minister Abbott then co-opted the death by drowning of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi to justify his stop the boats campaign, saying at least we don’t have drowned babies washing up here anymore because we’ve stopped the boats.

By the way, remember the Christmas Island boat tragedy when then immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison said we shouldn’t pay for the funerals of drowned babies? Flying corpses to the mainland for burial, Morrison said, was not giving taxpayers “value for money.”

(I urge you to read the article in New Matilda I’ve linked to in my first sentence, for an insight into the psychology of right-wing authoritarians. It explains much.)

British Murdoch columnist Katy Hopkins suggested that Europe should adopt Australia’s approach to asylum seekers by “threatening them with violence until they bugger off.” Which is a pretty good précis of off-shore detention, when you think about it. Australians have big balls and tiny hearts, Katy claims, admiringly, as apparently that’s the perfect combination for male-dominated leadership and murdering, directly and indirectly, millions of people seeking asylum.

At this point things become confusing. Nazis are bad for murdering millions but they have the capacity for shame, so not as bad as ISIS death cult who aspire to murder millions, as many as possible on social media so definitely no shame, so badder than Nazis. But Europeans should directly and indirectly murder millions and that’s good, no shame required, because big balls and tiny hearts are great. As long as they’re in white, non-Nazi bodies. Right.

Meanwhile, the New York Times published an excoriating editorial damning Abbott’s ruthless and inhumane asylum seeker policies. For which Abbott feels no shame, because…all right, I won’t say it all again but if he gets to talk in threes why can’t I?

There was considerable robust debate the other day concerning whether or not the image of the tiny body of Aylan Kurdi, washed up drowned on the beach, should have been published by The Guardian, and re-posted on social media.

For mine, the very fact of this debate highlighted our privilege: we do not have to directly deal with such horrendous circumstances, rather, from a safe distance, we have the option to debate whether or not it is kind or unkind to us that we are confronted with images of those circumstances.

There seems to be an attitude about that we have an inherent right not to be disturbed and discomfited. We don’t. Nobody was forced to look at the images, and warnings were issued for those who wanted to turn away. As Carol Duncan quite rightly tweeted, if you don’t want to see the pictures, exercise your privilege and turn off your devices.

With millions of displaced, desperate people roaming the globe, and the numbers set to increase, we have no right to demand censorship of images of their plight. If you don’t want to see it, don’t look, but please, spare us the preciousness of your complaints that you are traumatised by looking.

Shame, anyone?

A Syrian refugee plays Thursday after heavy rain at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

A Syrian refugee plays Thursday after heavy rain at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.







Is Struggle Street poverty porn?

7 May

Struggle Street

SBS aired the first episode of the documentary Struggle Street last night, amidst the kind of publicity and controversy media outlets dream of.

Briefly, the program follows the daily lives of families and individuals who live in Mount Druitt, a suburb in Sydney’s far west where unemployment and poverty are rife, and all the complexities created by lack of opportunity and marginalisation serve to oppress, in some cases, beyond endurance.

In this erudite review in The Conversation the program is described as “poverty porn,” created by the entitled for the entertainment of the entitled. It’s worth noting the author of this piece had not seen the program before writing his review of it. Always a mistake, in my opinion.

An alternative perspective can be found here, written by a journalist who has, thankfully, actually watched the documentary.

For the first ten minutes I found Struggle Street almost impossible to watch, so palpable was the pain, confusion, frustration and sorrow of the people involved. There seems to be an inevitability about the trajectory of their lives: the possibility of a happy ending, or an even slightly improved ending seems severely limited, not because the people involved are inherently undeserving or morally lax, but because of circumstances so complex that unravelling them requires skills and resources that are simply not available, and that authorities are unwilling to make available.

It is convenient to cast people in such situations as being entirely responsible for their own misfortunes, ignoring the vast web of circumstances created by the more privileged sectors of society, circumstances that inevitably create an underclass whom the privileged then have the satisfaction of despising.

To be poor is to be surveilled in a manner entirely alien to the middle class, where the possibilities of concealment are many and varied, and to whom “privacy” and the right not to be offended or embarrassed is a privilege enshrined in law.  It could be argued that the documentary is yet another form of surveillance of the marginalised, ostensibly entered into voluntarily, to which the middle class would never subject itself. It could also be argued that the privileged creators and viewers who perhaps voyeuristically consumed the program last night found moral gratification, if they needed to look for it, in the abyss between the them of Struggle Street, and the us of the entitled gaze.

For me, what fought its way through the grim despair that haunts the daily lives of many of the participants in this documentary is their humanity. The love of a father for his recalcitrant offspring who steal from him to buy drugs. The determined attempts to create, from nothing, a party atmosphere for small children. The yearning of a young woman, homeless for two years owing to family disruption, to return to learning and thus make something of her life. The ongoing adversarial encounters with authorities such as Centrelink and the police that are part of the daily grind that must be faced and endured. People keep struggling to love, to make things better, to stay alive, all against the overwhelming influences of forces beyond their control.

Struggle Street is not, to my mind, poverty porn, though there are those who will choose to view it as such. This says more to me about them, than it does about the program and its participants. There will be the righteously self-congratulatory who measure their success against the apparent failures of the residents of Struggle Street. That can’t be avoided, however, that they need to make such a measure speaks volumes, and not about Struggle Street. What I would hope is that this documentary will confront us with the ferocious inequalities in our society, and the inhumanity of political authority that refuses resources and care to those who most need it, opting instead to blame and punish and marginalise. Mount Druitt does not exist in a vacuum. If this series demonstrates anything, it ought to be that reality.

PS: And the Guardian agrees with me.

Truth, employment and freedom of speech.

2 May

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, yesterday proffered this analysis of the sacking of SBS sports presenter Scott McIntyre, after he posted a series of tweets that suggested, among other things, an alternative and previously unspoken view of the actions of the ANZACS.

In her piece Professor Triggs refers to the case of Banerji v Bowles (2013) in which Department of Immigration former employee Michaela Banerji was sacked after tweeting criticisms of detention centres, the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Immigration. Ms Banerji used a pseudonym for her Twitter account, and argued that her comments are “constitutionally protected by her right to freedom of political communication as an indispensable incident of representative government.” The Federal Court rejected this view.

Ms Banerji has now replied to Professor Triggs’ observations on her case here.

I know there are readers of Sheep who are as intrigued by legal forensics as am I, and the arguments made by both parties are of significant import to anyone who is employed and uses social media. I won’t add my comparatively ignorant voice to those of Professor Triggs and Ms Banerji, rather I’m interested in Trigg’s observations on the use of social media and Truth.

Triggs begins her piece with a quote from John Milton’s Areopagitica in which the poet passionately opposes censorship, arguing for freedom of speech. “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” he asks.

Triggs argues that “today’s near universal access to social media challenges the idea that freedom of expression ensures truth will be victorious over falsehood.”  The poet Milton could not have envisaged the extent of free and open encounters awaiting society in its future, and made his observation at a time when only the privileged had access to a public platform.

There are a couple of assumptions in Triggs’ argument that ought to be noted. In claiming that universal access to social media dilutes the possibility of Truth triumphing over falsehood, Triggs, inadvertently I’m sure, is claiming not only that Truth is, as it was in Milton’s time, defined and controlled by a particular demographic who enjoy freedom of expression due to their privilege, but that this is still a legitimate manner in which to determine what is Truth.  Now the masses have unprecedented access to public platforms that democratise freedom of expression, Truth will inevitably be vanquished by the freely expressed opinions of these masses. Whatever is publicly expressed by those other than the privileged and entitled will inevitably be falsehood, is what her argument implies.

Truth is a tricky concept, fluid in the extreme, determined by the orthodoxy, enforced by the state and its agents, and religion and its agents. Social media offers the most expansive and democratic opportunity for the contestation of what Foucault calls “regimes of truth”  that has ever existed in human history.

Truth, argues Foucault, does not exist outside of power:

 on the contrary, truth “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints [a]nd it induces regulated effects of power”. This is to say that “each society has its regime of truth”, and by this expression Foucault means: (1) “the types of discourse [society] harbours and causes to function as true”; (2) “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and (3) “the way in which each is sanctioned”; (4) “the techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth”; (5) “the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault 1976, p. 112; 13).

Therefore, “truth” is “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements”; it is linked “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it”. 

It is the function of social media, exemplified most recently by the tweets of Scott McIntyre, to contest truth regimes produced by systems of power that control and sustain what comes to be normalised as “Truth.” Scott McIntyre, Michaela Banerji and countless others have used social media to contest the constructed regimes of truth, to their cost. Whether these challenges to the orthodoxy are accurate or not, the point is they must be made and in a liberal democracy the people who make them ought not to be punished.

There is absolutely no correlation between freedom of expression and what we might, at any given time, consider to be Truth. The very best we can do is, as Foucault recommends, constantly question the origins of our current regimes of truth, by whom are they determined, whose ends do they serve, what techniques and procedures are valorised for obtaining truth and by whom. Our most powerful weapon for contesting regimes of truth is social media. Professor Triggs is quite wrong: today’s near universal access to social media ensures an unprecedented freedom of expression that in turn ensures an unrelenting contestation of truth claims, and herein lies its power, and its threat to authority.

Freedom of expression has never ensured Truth, not in Milton’s time and not in ours. Social media is a powerful tool for the examination of regimes of truth established by the privileged and entitled, regimes that all too often have little to do with what is true, and far more to do with what is advantageous to those who declare it to be true.

Foucault: Regimes of Truth


When abuse is just another news story

16 Apr


I was driving home from my appointment with my shrink, with whom I’m attempting to unravel the mystery of how events of the past inescapably determine the present (“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana. Remember it) when I heard on ABC Radio National’s The World Today this report of evidence given at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse.

The report was preceded by a warning of “disturbing” content.

The content is disturbing. It might make you weep. It might make you remember. It might make you rage. It might make your heart break.

But what is even more disturbing is the manner in which this disturbing content, like all other disturbing content, is transmogrified from a heartbreaking, terrifying, rage-provoking account of one man’s childhood into nothing more than another news story in a busy news cycle, the majority of which is comprised of disturbing content of one kind or another. In other words, as soon as this disturbing event is reported we move immediately onto something else, as is routine, as is expected in a media-drenched world where news is barely considered interesting unless it’s disturbing. The need of comfortable people for the thrill of vicarious disturbance should never be underestimated.

What we should have had after Mr David Owen’s story is a minute’s silence. What we should have had is a minute to absorb the magnitude of his suffering. What we should have had is a minute to reflect that Mr Owen’s story of childhood sexual abuse is repeated and repeated and repeated, perhaps a billion or more times around the globe.

What we also should have had is the opportunity to reflect that while it is on the one hand a “good” thing that these matters are now public, it is also possibly a “bad” thing that they are treated as one more story in the news cycle, and that as a society we are becoming so inured to disturbing content that we can be momentarily appalled then move on, within seconds, to the next piece of news without as much as a moment to catch our breaths and reflect upon what we have just heard.

Everything is a damn hashtag. Everything.

It is unrealistic of me to want a minute’s silence after reports such as that on Mr Owen’s childhood suffering. Yet I was outraged by the manner in which his account of the details of his abuse was slotted between other items of interest to the ABC’s midday audience, and I was infuriated by how we are expected to lurch from stories of such atrocities to something Tony Abbott said with nary a second to catch our breaths. How can atrocity become anything more than wall paper when it’s doled out on the hour in sound bites? And what is this doing to us?

I don’t know what purpose was served by the ABC reporting Mr Owen’s evidence, in all its aching detail, in little more than a sound bite. Fair enough if some time is dedicated to the topic. Fair enough if some respect is accorded to the man, and to his experiences. But to sandwich it between Abbott and the jobless figures is a step too far.

While everyone ought to know what happens to far too many children, and the aftermath, it isn’t a sound bite. Mr Owen is a man of tremendous courage and resilience. His story isn’t fodder for the news cycle.


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