Friggin Democrats

March 8, 2010

The performance of the US Democrat over the past year has been utterly abysmal. Judging from their performance, no one could have guessed that they won the 2008 election with 53% of the vote and majorities in both houses. They have allowed the Republicans (who have never been more extreme/insane and fragmented then at the current time) to obstruct their entire legislative agenda and have not laid a figure on them in retaliation. Sure, a large part of the problem is systemic; the fact that a “super” majority of 60 is required to pass anything in the Senate and the loss of the Massachusetts senate seat in January gave the Republicans what is effectively a 41-59 majority.

It is worth remembering though, that Bush jnr. when in power did not have anything like a 59-41 majority in the senate, yet he was able to pass more or less whatever he wanted. Bush scraped through in the highly controversial 2000 election and embarked on a highly partisan legislative agenda. The Democrats felt obliged to pass his legislation as Bush after all was the President, and it was the wisdom at the time that it would be political suicide to deliberately obstruct the President on partisan grounds. Fast forward eight years after the most unpopular Presidency of modern times with the economy tanking and Republican disapproval at an all time high, the Republicans make the political decision to obstruct all of President Obama’s legislative agenda for the base reason of denying him a political victory.

This obstructionism has exposed the Republicans to the charge of putting their partisan interests before those of the country, perhaps most cogently when they voted against funding for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq in December… if only the Democrats had the brains to actually capitalize on it. If Democrats had opposed troop funding during George Bush’s presidency you can be assured that the Republicans would be running attack ads lambasting the Democrats for putting their partisan self-interest ahead of the well-being of the troops. So why are the Democrats incapable of returning the favor?

This example perfectly illustrates the political ineptness that has resulted in the Democrats failing to pass a single piece of major legislation (save for the stimulus package), and consequently pissing off their support base, scaring away independent voters and galvanizing the Republican base.

Having gone three months without a post, I will now unleash several short(ish) rambling tirades in a short space of time.
Coming up: (1) Why the Healthcare bill has failed to attract popular support – and the strategy that could have (probably would’ve) worked. (2) The politics of authenticity – how a politician tries to demonstrate to an audience that they’re not actually a politican but they’re actually one of us. (3) Why the mainstream press/public are voyeuristic creeps and Tiger Woods deserves better.

Be very worried. Not just at the prospect of expectations for the upcoming Copenhagen conference benig downgraded, but because scientific assessments of the impacts of climate change have been getting worse and worse at the same time that the proportion of Americans (and Australians) who believe climate change is a hoax is actually rising(http://people-press.org/report/556/global-warming), at the same time that the growth rate of international greenhouse emissions has been accelerating! In short, humans are releasing unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at precisely the time we know we have to stop. What is truly worrying however, is just how deluded policy makers, environmentalists and members of the public are on the issue. The debate is conducted under the premise that it is within our capacity to “stop” climate change. Yet it has become increasingly clear that we have lost the battle to “stop” dangerous climate change. The battle is now between dangerous climate change and really really dangerous climate change. As Clive Hamilton has recently argued in a speech to the Royal Society of the Arts, the goal of keeping global emissions under the “safe” limit of 450ppm is completely unrealistic and politically impossible. This assertion is backed up with compelling evidence and I recommend that you read the speech in it’s entirety. His argument is perhaps most succinctly expressed in the following quote “It is clear that limiting warming to 2ºC is beyond us; the question now is whether we can limit warming to 4ºC. The conclusion that, even if we act promptly and resolutely, the world is on a path to reach 650 ppm and associated warming of 4°C is almost too frightening to accept. Yet that is the reluctant conclusion of the world’s leading climate scientists. Even with the most optimistic set of assumptions—the ending of deforestation, a halving of emissions associated with food production, global emissions peaking in 2020 and then falling by 3 per cent a year for a few decades— we have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change” (http://www.clivehamilton.net.au/cms/media/documents/articles/rsa_lecture.pdf)

The position of many environmental lobbies such as Australia’s Climate Institute, is to trivialize these sombre predictions as the “politics of despair”. They seem afraid to engage with these arguments due to their groundless assumption that it will lead to people “tuning out” and assuming climate problems are too big to be dealt with. But not only is it disingenuous to avoid telling whole truth on the basis of how the public might react, but I believe it only works against us. It has not seemed to have dawned on green or science groups that climate change denialism and apathy cannot be defeated with iron-proof evidence and rigorous argument. Climate change deniers simply have no desire to engage in rational debate, their fears of human-hating environmentalists and capitalism-loathing scientists cannot be confronted rationally. As the Pew Research Centre survey reveals, denialism is on the rise so it is clear that the current “softy softly” approach to educating the public on climate change has failed spectacularly.

The message that green groups relate to their own supporters is equally tragic; a relentlessly “positive” message that extols the virtues of austerity and making a difference at the community level. There is nothing wrong with this in of itself, but it is what the green groups fail to say that is disingenuous. Encouraging kids to recyle or to plant trees or save water is nice, but it hides from them the enormity of the looming castrophe. No matter how well-meaning greenies are, they can only ever have a minute impact on emissions unless governments legislate and enforce emission cuts. The relentless focus on individual responsibility in fact allows governments to abdicate a large portion of it’s own responsibility.

In short, even the people who believe in climate change don’t appear to be psycologically able to accept its consequences. The vast majority of people confront the threat with apathy. Those who acknowledge the consequences often seek to filter out their full impact by assuming that humans will overcome the challenges through a technological revolution or an unrealistic optimism that our political leaders will suddenly see the light (although as Clive Hamilton points out, even if they did suddenly, it is still highly unlikely we could avoid at least 2 degrees of warming). Themes of “hope” and optimism for optimism’s sake dominate the public sphere, but this is increasingly dangerous as it blinds people to the reality that the focus in the climate change battle must necessarily move from prevention to mitigation. But themes of hope and optimism have no place in strategic thinking about responding to climate change, there are only cold hard facts and our willingness to face reality for what it is instead of what it ought to be. If one wants to be optimistic than think of it this way: the quicker we start re-structuring our society to limit the impacts of climate change the better. The public need to have a better understanding of what population centres and economic practises are inherently unsustainable and how we can plan for a new geo-strategic environment.

There is only one country that has clearly begun to plan in this way; China. China’s resolve in ocupying Tibet can be better understood in the context of a warming climate where glaciars and snow melt will accelerate in the coming decades. By damming the Mekong river (as China has begun doing), they are not only ensuring water supplies and an alternative agricultural base to the heavily polluted Yangtze river, but they can also hold the countries who rely on the Mekong further downstream (ie. most of South Eeast Asia) to ransom. As China controls the head of the river, countries such as Thailand will become hopelessly dependent on China for water and will have no bargaining chips of their own. In short, China will exercise an iron-curtain like grip on South East Asia. And how is Australia planning? Well we’re subsidising rice farms on the Murray Darling at the same time that Adelaide is on the brink of dependency on bottled water.

My criticism of mindless optimism and unjustified hope does not necessarily mean that I have been able to psycologically accept the realities of impending climate change however, whatever “accepting” it means. As the reality of inevitable climate change has sunk in over the past eighteen months it feels quite surreal. Surreal in the sense that there is no modern historical comparison for this sort of issue (there are plenty of comparisons with ancient civlizations such as the Mayans and the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island). What is most strange however, is the sense that boundaries and parameters of geo-politics for the next hundred years have effectively been decided in the last five. And one it utterly powerless to stop it. Politics and external realities are going to collide with even the most apathetic of my peers within a few decades. But instead of just wollowing in self-pity, it is worth taking note of just how extradoninary our luck has been henceforth; we have lived in an usually stable and agriculture-friendly environment for the past 20,000 years and no generation has profited more from this than those living today. By any historical comparison Gen X and Gen Y have had healthy, luxurious and care-free lives (ie. worrying about relationships and job promotions as opposed to surviving famines and plagues). The problems we face in life bear little relation to those faced by any living thing that has ever lived on this planet. That said, it is our children and grandchildren that are going to deal with the worst consequences and it’s entirely the fault of people alive today.

Whatever your reaction may be, it will always be better than self-delusionment.

Avoiding the argument

October 27, 2009

Few writers have more succinctly articulated the emerging mainstream counter-argument to “New Atheists” better than Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller when she writes that
“For five years, since the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, the so-called faith-versus-reason debate has been a favorite pastime of certain secularists and intellectuals, the subject of innumerable books and lecture series. Three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they’ve crushed it. And so they’ve become celebrities. Together they’ve sold more than 3 million books worldwide, which suggests they may be in this for more than just our edification.“(http://www.newsweek.com/id/219009)

As far as I can tell, her argument has basically nothing to do with the points raised by the likes of Dawkins or Harris but rather their style. The notion that because they are perceived to be rude and “like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight”, we should disregard their arguments. Miller contrasts these adolescent egomaniacs with the more mature and thoughtful atheists who explore questions of belief “like a poet rather than a scientist” and respect everyone’s point of view and right to believe whatever they want to believe.

You rarely read articles that attack the substance of arguments made by Dawkins et al. No one has really attacked the notion that religion is a form of child abuse, or attack their arguments against the existence of God. They are instead derided as arrogant schoolboys trying to impress everyone with their intelligence. Furthermore, Miller’s bizarre belief that because “they’ve sold more than 3 million books worldwide”, this suggests “they may be in this for more than just our edification” reveals her true agenda to be playing the man and not the ball. As Sam Harris has previously observed, the consequence of this vilification is to “keep criticism of religion at arm’s length, [which] has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them.”

This style of vilification is tailor-made for our relativist, post modernist culture where people are encouraged to believe based not on the validity of their arguments, but rather whether it makes them happy and gets them through the day. People like to identify themselves as the “moderates” between “religious extremists” and “new atheists” and so the idea that both sides are “a bit right” becomes quite satisfying, even if you haven’t actually studied the arguments for and against.

It’s also wrong. What is so intolerant or arrogant about expressing your belief (or lack of belief) in god? I believe it is a double standard in our society that one can attack another person’s political beliefs without it being construed as an attack on their person, yet to make a similar attack on someone’s religious beliefs is regarded as intolerant. There is no rational reason for this. I think it can only be understood in the context of our cultural zeitgeist. I suspect that in centuries past with the abolition of slavery, the granting of voting rights for women and every other turn of the cultural zeitgeist there would have been people who would concede the points made by abolitionists or suffragettes but would have hesitated to accept the consequences of their arguments simply because of status of those ideas at that time as being “radical”.

Openly debating religion in the 21st century might just be the latest example of this, as there has been no historical precent in Western society for religion to be openly and popularly debated in the mainstream media. For many people the idea of religious debate being up-front and unapologetic is an alien concept, and it is only with the passing of time that the idea will gradually be accepted as mainstream and self-evident.

Obama has been in a bit of strife after having been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. His critics argue that he hasn’t actually achieved any of his aims yet, whilst his defenders claim that the important thing is that Obama’s change in rhetoric and style has re-crafted the environment in which peace can be attained. While I personally agree with his critics, I could see that his defenders did have a valid, arguable point.

Unfortunately however, Obama proves the argument wrong by continuing one of the US’ most dangerously flawed and narrow minded foreign policies; the unquestioning support for Israel. One might have reasonably expected this to have been tempered by the release of the UN authorized Goldstone Report into the January Gaza war. It is, after all, hard to accuse a respected and renown judge such as Richard Goldstone of being biased and one-sided, especially since his report criticized both sides.

Most Western Governments realize they have to face up to reality, Britain is one of them with their ambassador to the UN John Sawers stating what shouldn’t be so startling; “we urge the Israeli Government to carry out full, credible and impartial elections into the allegations reported in the Goldstone report.” The US however, embarked on a tirade; citing “serious concerns about the report, its unbalanced focus on Israeli, the overly broad scope of its recommendations and its sweeping conclusions of law.” This denial-of-reality from the US is tiresome and childish. At no point should diplomatic ties between two countries be cited as an excuse for denying past events and de-legitimizing respected judges.

For all of Hamas’ faults, the whole Arab world sees the double standards employed when we refuse to acknowledge Hamas and yet negotiate with “moderate” elements of the Taliban or the corrupt Karzai Government. Hamas are an organization with some vile policies (that’s never stopped the US from negotiating with governments before) but we simply have to accept that unfortunately they won the popular vote in 2006 and were democratically elected. Refusing to acknowledge this, or acknowledge the factors that compelled people to vote “Hamas”, all the US and Israel are doing is guaranteeing their re-election. Indeed, the Gaza war gave Hamas a useful smoke-screen with which to purge opponents.

But it’s clear that while in many areas Obama might be saying the right things (if not quite doing them yet), but on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is at the heart of the Middle East’s problems, Obama is yet the make the only foreign policy speech that would make a difference on the ground; making it clear to the Palestinians that the US are not their enemy and that he regards the rights of Israelis and Palestinians as equally important.

Let me reiterate; diplomatic ties should never compel the US to deny historical facts and slander respected judges.
Hardly actions be-fitting of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Step up Greens

October 13, 2009

The Australian Greens Party has finally made some noise in the Emissions Trading Scheme debate by unveiling 22 amendments to the Rudd Government’s ETS legislation. Proposals from the Greens are typically derided as being extremist and unrealistic, yet the Greens are firmly rooted in mainstream economic and scientific orthodoxy on climate change. Their proposed 25 per cent emissions cut for example, is not a number chosen simply because it is more ambitious then the Government’s. It is the minimum cut in emissions as recommended by the best available scientific data to keep the climate “safe” stabilizing under a Co2 concentration of 450 ppm. As well as keeping in line with the science, the Greens’ proposed amendments burrow heavily from the Garnaut report (the Government commissioned economic study into an ETS). In particular the proposals to limit compensation for the big polluters, to require greater transparency in carbon accounting and to remove the ridiculously low $10 carbon permit price cap. Furthermore the Greens try and address some of the fundamental problems in the scheme, such as the fact that voluntary emissions reductions by individuals and small businesses only serve to subsidise the big polluters. They propose to appoint an expert body “to estimate the level of additional abatement for a year” from these individuals and then require the Climate Change minister to reduce the national emissions cap by that amount each year. While this would be difficult to practically administer, it at least shows that one political party is trying to solve these fundamental flaws in emissions trading schemes. Most cogently, the Greens argue that the Productivity Commission should play a key role in regulating and reviewing the scheme when passed into law, particularly in relation to industry assistance and the actual rate of “carbon leakage” or job losses. Strong collaboration with the Productivity Commission in the running of the ETS would make it much harder for the big polluters to make unqualified claims about potential job losses and present dodgy economic modelling.

Unfortunately, despite the quality and economic rationality of these amendments, they are nothing more than political stunts. The Government will never negotiate with the Greens because, as Ben Eltham succinctly puts it in the New Matilda today “why would Kevin Rudd negotiate with the Greens, when merely threatening a double-dissolution election on climate change is just about tearing the Liberal Party apart? Or to put it another way, why let the little matter of the future climate of the planet get in the way of party political advantage?”( http://newmatilda.com/2009/10/13/last-some-realistic-climate-policy-ideas). Indeed while there is the prospect that the Greens could get Independent senator Nick Xenaphon on board, but they would in addition require the vote of either Steve Fielding (a proudly self-described “climate change sceptic) or the vote of a Coalition senator which just doesn’t seem realistic at all.

This doesn’t render the Greens’ contribution irrelevant however. What is important is that they are out there in the news-cycle hammering home their talking points and discrediting the positions of the other parties. Since their proposed scheme is demonstrably more efficient as proven by the Government’s own economic modelling in the Garnaut Report, the Greens have an ideal platform with which to display their economic credentials to the public and with which they can simultaneously to criticize the major parties for handing out compensation to big polluters. When Parliament returns next Monday, the Greens need to focus heavily on the issue of compensation for big polluters because it has the potential to be a really sensitive issue for the Government. Giving taxpayer money to big polluters is never going to be popular in the electorate, especially when the Garnaut Report recommended against it. The Greens can criticize the cosy relationship between Government and the big polluters in a populist manner and have the economic evidence to back it up with. Raising the issue so that Government ministers are forced to justify the compensation in interviews will be enough to make their strategists nervous.

The Greens’ amendments will sadly never be passed but arguably that is not the point of releasing them. The reason for releasing them is to provide an authorities platform with which to expose the potential political weaknesses of the Government’s ETS in particular the free compensation for big polluters. The Greens need to make it very clear to the public that the scheme the Government proposes is both economically inefficient and beholden to vested interest groups as the evidence clearly shows. The Greens must also make clear that their amendments are not the result of a quasi-religious environmentalist stance but rather the product of the best available economic and scientific data. After all, people expect the Greens to call for tougher measures, what they don’t usually expect is for those measures to be economically responsible. In short, the Greens through their amendments, have earned the right to describe their climate change policy as the most economically rational and efficient of all the parties. They now need to make sure everyone knows it.

Self-absorbed Politicians

October 9, 2009

Most of Canberra will be celebrating John Hargreaves’ resignation from the ACT frontbench today. His success in gaining a ministerial post can be solely attributed to his dominance in the ACT Labor party as a factional hack from the right wing. However the only talents he demonstrated in his five years on the frontbench was a remarkable talent for keeping his job in spite of his growing record of personal misconduct and all round incompetence. His record this year alone has included cancelling the Canberra Fringe Festival and reporting it to the media, somehow forgetting to inform the Fringe Festival director at any point in the process. His worst action as minister however, will exist long after he has disappeared from politics. That is his banning of fireworks in spite of the wishes of a clear majority of Canberrans. His own personal misdemonears include being caught drink driving in 2006 which is setting a great example considering his position as Transport Minister and recently “jokingly” picking up a Greens MP and “pretending to throw her into the crowd”. According to Hargreaves there was nothing to worry about though because it was all done “in a jestful manner”. As if this wasn’t enough a friend of mine recognized him sitting a table in the same restaraunt a few years ago, and apparently he was loud and obnoxious. Well that settles it.

Hargreaves really showed his true colors in his statement of resignation however, he stated that his depature was not due to his dismal record but, astonishingly it’s because “I’m tired of the negative media attention that his dogged me in the last twelve months”. Hargreaves seems to feel that he is aggrieved party in this case, not because of his actions but because his misconduct was reported by the media which “dogged” him henceforth. Incredible. This man doesn’t seem to think he owes the public anything, instead we all owe him an apology for questioning his demonstrably poor ability as a minister. Indeed his refusal to resign as a public representative altogether indicates just how trivial he regards his misconduct to have been.

There is a key theme from this case which is perking up in plenty of other stories involving Australian politicians in recent days. That is, the extent to which politicians take their public support for granted. The myopic self-absorbed attitude of Hargreaves can also be seen detected in the recent actions of politicians such as Peter Dutton, Brendan Nelson and Peter Costello. The former has railed against the cruel injustice that has denied him the chance of parachuting into a safe conservative seat, following his Brisbane seat becoming notionally Labor. The two latter politicians have decided that they simply can’t wait one more year till the 2010 general election and have resigned now, forcing by-elections in both their seats. Indeed plenty of these politicians seem to regard getting elected as akin to being knighted. They believe they are entitled resign from their duties whenever it suits them. Or they treat their seat as an lucrative income while devoting time to writing introspective biographies typically personifying themselves as authentic moral idealists doing battle with a ravenous and morally baseless media.

Hargreaves’ resignation speech, like Costello’s, Nelson’s and inevitably Dutton’s, was entirely self-absorbed. We are reminded of just how hard it was for these men to deal with negative media attention. Yet never do these men take the oppurtunity to reflect on the character faults and poor decisions that led to the negative media coverage in the first place. Negative media attention seems to be regarded by these individuals as an inevitable facet of politics. Criticisms from the media are seemingly put down entirely to their predatory attitude towards politicians rather than any interest in maintaining a standard of ethics and morality.

So excuse me if I don’t sympathize when resigning politicians talk of their “hard times” in politics. Despite their attempts, history will judge these men by their actions, not their autobiographies.

In the lead up to the Copenhagen climate conference, it has been customary for green groups and environmentalists to pin all hope on the possibility that President Obama will suddenly provide strong leadership and strike an historic climate deal with China. This isn’t going to happen. We have already seen the farcical scenes in the US where Obama can’t even convince his Congress and Senate to support universal healthcare, why should we think they would support strong cuts on emissions? The influence of the fossil fuel lobbies in developed economies at this current time is just too strong. The developing economies such as India’s will continue to argue that developed economies should take the initiative, even though India must surely realize that they won’t. The only realistic avenue we have for convincing world leaders to reduce emissions is to increase the public pressure on them. After all, the only people Western politicians really pay attention to are opinion pollsters, and it is only when politicians start regarding their climate change inertia as an electoral liability will they be motivated to act.

When examining the opinion polls on climate change in Western nations such as Australia, the UK and the US it is clear that people are aware of climate change. It is evident that the majority in these countries regard climate change as a real issue and not as part of a left wing conspiracy. Based on this one might conclude that scientists and green groups have been successful in spreading the message that climate change is real. This is true. However, despite the belief in climate change it is not regarded as a high priority issue. In the US for example, only 7% regarded climate change as one of the most important issues that will affect their 2010 Congress vote. This is where we lose it, the science is telling us we need dramatic cuts in order to keep the temperature increase under two degrees. The only way this is realistically possible now is by making a pledge similar in size to the bank-bailout last October. Unfortunately a pledge of that size would not be electorally popular. For too long the public have been hammered with the message that dramatic action to cut emissions would be “economically irresponsible”. This charge is quite ridiculous for the reason that delaying action on climate change causes our environmental and agricultural assets to devalue dramatically so delaying action is far more economically irresponsible. This is the debate that fossil fuel lobbies have been allowed to win though; they have quite successfully cast themselves in the media as the economically responsible whilst green groups are more often regarded as idealistic and unrealistic economic vandals.

A recent report by the British Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reveals the true extent of the image problem green groups suffer. The IPPR’s research involving talking to what their analyst Simon Retallack described as “society’s trendsetters. They tend to have a high level of motivation to consume, and their prominent position within social circles makes them a driver of fashions and trends, meaning that they are a particularly powerful subsection of the population when it comes to determining consumption-related behaviors”. When asked their views on climate change one participant in the IPPR’s workshops apparently regarded climate change as “one of those things you think about for a few minutes, get depressed, and move on to the next thing”. Another prevalent attitude among IPPR’s participants was a sense of resentfulness at being made to feel guilty about their lifestyles. Environmentalists as a whole were regarded by this group as “smug” and “self righteous”. Environmentalists are the most common messengers for climate change and their low esteem in the community redoubtably has a lot to do with so much of the public has been so slow to warm to the notion of climate change.

This example demonstrates quite clearly that while people believe in climate change they are also quite apathetic or ignorant towards its consequences. What green groups need to do is find an argument that challenges that apathy, by linking climate change to bread and buter issues; weekly incomes, financial security and the price of food. Green groups will be listened by many more people (particularly by those with lower incomes) if they incorporate these concerns into their message.

Fossil fuel lobbies currently have the upper hand in the economic side of the climate change debate, due to their claims that changing the current system will have a disastrous impact on jobs and prevent economic growth. Green groups need to show that the opposite is true; the cost of doing nothing will ensure an even greater financial burden as environmental degradation begins to affect economic output. Few individuals seem more suited to articulating this style of argument that Ben McNeil, author of the recently published “The Clean Industrial Revolution”. In an interview with New Matilda’s Ben Eltham he observes that “every single economic reform that’s happened in the country, whether it be occupational health and safety in the 80s or lowering tariffs, there was always this massive scare campaign from particular industry groups. But in the end it turned out that both those things were actually good things for Australia”. This is a good example of the sort of argument that needs to be made against the carbon lobbies. In this narrative, protecting the fossil fuel industry is like protecting the typewriter in the age of the computer. Economic advantage is to be gained from investing in new sectors such as renewable energy and economic change is necessary to keep our economy strong. If we simply maintain the status quo then food and energy prices will inevitably rise anyway.

Green groups should also dedicate more time to trashing the fossil fuel lobby’s credibility. The horrifying job numbers that the big mining companies produce in their dodgy economic modeling are obviously flawed yet they allowed to fester in the news cycle and gain traction in the electorate. Green groups must respond with the message that energy companies aren’t concerned about jobs, only profits. Books such as Clive Hamilton’s “Scorcher” shed light on the insidious and uncomfortably close relationship between government ministers and the resources lobby in Australia, yet these associations are never widely publicized in the media. If green groups spent more time in the news cycle bemoaning the closeness between vested interests and politicians, it would undoubtedly make the likes of Kevin Rudd hesitant to deal with the resources lobbies for fear of electoral disapproval. The way things currently are, the carbon lobbies have a key role in the writing of the actual carbon Emissions Trading Scheme legislation. The fact that the big fossil fuel lobbies are not regarded with suspicion by the general public is one of the greatest failings of the environmental movement. When one considers the ease with which Israel is able to demonize human rights groups and the ease with which Republican election campaigners demonize just about anyone who stands in their way I find it incredible that green groups have not been able to demonize fossil fuel lobbies despite the amount of material they have to work with. Even if we can’t convince Average Joe to trust environmentalists, we should sure as hell be able to make him distrust energy companies.

To summarize; in 2009 the objective of green groups must change from simply raising awareness of the problem of climate change, to emphasizing the economic importance of taking urgent action. Environmentalists need to start talking like economists and less like social campaigners. Green groups also need to work much harder to trash the carbon lobbies and their cosy relationships with politicians. The day when politicians regard associating with heavy polluters as an electoral liability will be a good day for climate politics.

The recent “hottest 100” of all time has provoked considerable debate as people struggle to comprehend why there is so little diversity in the list and why the fucking Killers made the top 40. The list was dominated by anthemic rock released in the nineties. In fact more than half the songs in the list were released in the nineties, and it also seems to have helped a song considerably if the artist had died in tragic circumstances. Female artists are completely excluded from the list and black musicians or electronic artists didn’t fare too well either. So how does one explain the lack of diversity in the poll?
Some people have sought to explain the lack of diversity as being the result of our society’s inability to regard the contributions of female artists as being as important as those of men, but a quick glance at the results of 1998 hottest 100 of all time reveal a problem with this idea. The 1998 list features contributions from female artists such as Tori Amos, Portishead and even Dee-lite which suggests that if our society deliberately does project a patriarchal perspective of music, than it has intesified in the past ten years. When one considers the prevalence of female radio presenters and female artists on high rotation from La Roux to Sarah Blaskow, and indeed the backlash that this perceived sexism has provoked from a large section of Triple J’s listener base, the “cultural prejudice” argument seems inadequate.
Most of the criticism of the poll has been based on the assumption that because there were more than 500,000 votes, than it must be the honest reflection of the collective mindset of the voters, but this is not necessarily so. The fact that so many Triple J presenters and fans have been both surprised and dismayed by the lack of diversity makes this worth investigating. The ways in which Triple J ask the question and gather the results may in fact distort the voters’ true preferences. The dominance of nineties music in the list may for example, be due to the fact that Triple J’s listener base is predominantly young and would have only been exposed to music from the nineties and noughties, in the same way that if 1053 2CA had a listener based music poll you would expect 60s and 70s music to dominate.

This does not however, explain why women still failed to make the list and why some songs seemed to quite dramatically over-achieve. To explain this, we need to take a closer look at the question; Triple J asked it’s listeners to vote for their favourite TEN songs, not their favourite hundred. While there are obvious practical reasons for doing it this way, it does have the potential to distort the final results. To show you what I mean, lets imagine that
– 10% of the population regard Janis Joplin’s “Leaving on a Jetplane” as one their top hundred songs of all time but only 1% of those people have that song in their top ten.
– 40% of the population think Nirvana – Smells like Teen Spirit is in their top 100, 10% have it in their top ten
– 5% of the population regard Gotye – Heart’s a Mess as in their top hundred and 2.5% have it in their top ten.
So if we use the voters’ top hundred songs to compile our list than than it would rank Nirvana first, Janis Joplin second and Gotye last. But if we only use the top ten preferences of the voters then Nirvana still comes on top, but Gotye now outranks Janis Joplin, even though far less of the population actually like the song.
These flaws in the voting methodology may not completely account for the lack of variety in the list, but it should make it clear that one cannot take these results at face value as an exact reflection of the musical preferences of the voters.

Why Israel matters

July 29, 2009

I came across a rather interesting article from Carlo Strenger today wherein he takes the left wing to task for their disproportionate criticism of Israel. He characterizes the left’s perception of conflicts in the Middle East as being governed by a Standard Left Explanatory System (SLES), wherein sympathy is extended to the underdog in any conflict regardless of their actual idealogical beliefs. “SLES, when applied to the Middle East” writes Strenger, “is remarkably simple. If Palestinians, Muslims or Arabs say something that isn’t nice (like “It is a religious duty to kill Americans”, or “Israel needs to be wiped off the map”), or do something even less nice (like blowing up the Twin Towers, killing entire families on the first evening of Passover in Netanya, or attacking London’s public transport system) you have a very quick explanation for it: “There is something that the Jews/Americans did that must have hurt him/her terribly. We must try to understand him/her.” I have to agree that this is a valid criticism, particuarly in the months immediately following the September 11th attacks when the likes of Noam Chomsky continued to describe the conflict in the context of America being the agressor and the hijackers merely as fighting for their freedom. Another example is the characterization of Palestenian suicide bombers who blew themselves and scores of innocent civilians as being motivated by “despair”, as if that makes makes it all alright.

However I find this logic insufficient to justify shielding Israel from criticism on the basis of the “disproportion between the condemnations of Israeli policies and the silence of Europe’s self-righteous left about horrors ranging from the mass murder of members of Fatah by Hamas, to the genocide in Darfur, to rocket attacks on Israeli civilians” for two reasons. First, because this logic runs both ways. On what basis does Israel decree that they cannot talk to Hamas yet it is perfectly acceptable to use a notoriously corrupt Egyptian dictator to broker peace talks? On what basis does the US decide that Mullah Muhammad Omar and Saddam Huissen are evil dictators and their countries need to be liberated, and yet there is never any talk of confronting Robert Mugabe or taking or tackling the situation in Darfur? And why should criticism upon Israel be diluted just because there is someone somewhere else that is doing something worse?

The second reason for why one cannot ignore Israel’s indiscretions is because of the fundamental role that their policies have on the countries around them. It is not enough to simply observe that Hamas are a bunch of misogynistic religious fanatics, few on the right ever seem to wonder why the Palestenians actually elected Hamas, and how Israel’s policies actually strengthen Hamas (Hamas used the chaos of the recent Gaza war to purge more of their political opponents and shore up their own position in Gaza, this is all thanks to the IDF). One can only view Hamas’ steady rise in popularity in Gaza and the West Bank in the context of Israel’s policies of collective punishment and the economic blockade. Many Israeli lobbies seem incapable of understanding that criticisms of Israel’s policies do not automatically translate into a thumbs up for Hamas. We can agree that Hamas is an evil organization but what infuriates me is Israel’s ironclad belief that there is only one way to deal with Hamas, and that anyone who disagrees with that method simply doesn’t understand how evil Hamas are. This policy against Hamas often reminds me of the movie “Fifth Element” where the military attempt to destroy the planet of “great evil” simply by firing at it, this only makes the planet grow in size and yet the only thought that occurs to the general on the spaceship is to keep firing until the planet engulfs the space ship. Criticizing Israel’s conduct towards the Palestenians is necessary because it is only through changing those policies that one can hope to politically wedge and marginalize the great evil from within Gaza and West Bank. Imagine if Israel had attempted to make a distinction between Palestenian civilians and terrorists, and given welfare support and farming equipment and a sense of dignity back to those on the border. If the employment rate in Gaza was high and the economy and infrastructure relatively intact it is hard to believe that Hamas would enjoy so much electoral support. But in Israel’s mind Hamas is evil therefore the gloves are off and they deserve whatever they get, no matter that this attitude is evidently counter-productive.

Since the Gaza war however, I am not so sure we can keep talking about Israel as being much more principled and dignified than their opponents. Israel’s conduct during that war revealed themselves to be utterly indifferent to the lives of civilians. While one may bicker over the details, the fact is Israel banned the media from Gaza and proceeded to bomb the crap out of it with an obvious disregard for the collateral damage they were causing. To “not intend” civilian deaths seems to me to be a hollow defence. If you are going to bomb a heavily concentrated urban area which you know to be full of women and children then you have implicitly decided that those civilians are going to die, Israel needed to go further and intend not to kill civilians so as to distinguish themselves from their opponents. The subsequent revelations by Israeli soldiers about the IDF’s lax policy regarding securing the safety of civilians in Gaza are utterly sickening and hammer home the fact that Israel apparently doesn’t care anymore about Palestenian civilians than their opponents do about Israelis. And why should we be satisfied when the IDF investigates itself or an Israeli lobby attacks the character or methodology of those who call to question their conduct in Gaza? Israel knows full well that if they allowed journalists to report during the conflict there would be no need for this confusion.

So why should the left keep whining about Israel’s conduct whilst ignoring far worse regimes? Because the “I’m-no-worse-than-the-rest” defence is no defence at all and because Israel’s policies and attitudes have have ramifications for the popularity of the more evil regimes around them.

The Carlo Strenger article can be found here http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jul/28/israel-free-speech-middle-east

“With this decision, now, I will be able to fight even harder for you, for what is right, and for truth.” This is what Sarah Palin had to say during her resignation speech from the governership of Alaska. You could be forgiven for asking how by resigning as Governer she could possibly be in a position to fight “even harder for you”, but then one must recognize that logic and reason don’t really apply to Palin. She lives in a strange reality where knowing stuff is bad and detailed policy stances are distractions from “straight talk” and the real business of helping Joe the Plumber realise his dream of owning his own business. Just recently she extolled the virtues of a free press “first, some straight talk for some, just some in the media, because another right protected for all of us is freedom of the press, and you have such important jobs, reporting facts and informing the electorate and exerting power to influence. You represent what could and should be a respected, honest profession that could and should be a cornerstone of our democracy. Democracy depends on you. And that’s why our troops are willing to die for you, so how about in honor of the American soldier, you quit making things up.” – Speaks for itself doesn’t it?

The fact that Palin enjoys so much success within the conservative establishment is indicative of a broader trend within the political right wing towards a rather barmy view of reality. In the eyes of most US Republicans and throughout the right wing blogosphere Obama is a liberal faccist, a socialist and a communist all in one. They make the claim that Obama wasn’t even born on US soil and the birth certificate he provided to quash the myth is (obviously) forged. His part ownership of the auto industry is part of a secret plan of mass socialisation of America’s companies, healthcare for all is derided as “socialist medicine”. Climate change is a giant hoax perpertrated by “extreme” environmentalists… I am sure you can think of another twenty issues wherein the conservative (particuarly the Republican) perspective isn’t grounded in reality. It is perfectly legitimate for a conservative politician to believe that there is a world wide chai-latte-drinking-elitist conspiracy to set up an environmentalist-totalatarian state and of course they never need to provide actual evidence of this. If you think I’m exaagerating, listen to Rush Limbaugh (surely the most powerful person in the Republican establishment right now) and weep with laughter.

These crazy attitudes aren’t limited to the US because, as Wilson Tuckey revealed last week, the Australian Liberal and National parties are full of utter nutcases. It’s as if Wilson Tuckey doesn’t care that his party would be annihlated at the next election for denying the scientific basis for climate change. Tuckey, like so many other self styled defenders of “Howard’s legacy” within the party simply refuse to face facts (both of a scientific and a electoral nature) that spell out in black and white that the great majority of the public do not agree with him. I always thought that one of the professed virtues of conservatism as a political philosophy was that it was more a realistic way of looking at the world as it is as opposed to how it ought to be, but what are we to make of these American and Australian conservatives who prefer the set of facts produced by fossil fuel lobbies over the opinions of peer reviewed scientific bodies. One possible explanation for this slide towards insanity is that the recent American and Australian elections saw many of the marginal seats go to the Democrats and Labor respectively so that the smaller right wing caucus is made up primarily with those members who serve particuarly conservative electrates. Thus an increasing proportion of the decreasing conservsative base are idealogically extreme.

One should watch Palin’s progress in the 2011 Republican primaries closely, her success or failure will be determined largely by whether the conservatives want to face reality, or continue to live in their own dystopia of elitist conspiracy theorists and liberal fascism(whatever that actually means).