Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Beyond a joke

Problems have brewed for Denmark over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet wearing a turban that looks like a bomb. Islam expressly forbids any depiction of the Prophet, and caricatures are considered blasphemous. The Arab League has been in contact with the UN about adopting a 'binding resolution' banning contempt of religious beliefs.

May I be the first to say that the first sign of wavering faith is the inability to countenance criticism of it? Yes, the cartoon is likely racist, and I suspect there are more tasteful ways to lampoon a religion. But seriously, aren't there more pressing concerns? Should the 'Jesus Christ' character from South Park be similarly condemned (remember, he's slept with Eric Cartman's mother!)? Reading such stories is quite frustrating for someone like myself. Western progressives are the natural allies of moderate Muslims, and it is unlikely this quarter will dare say anything much too critical of the response to the Danish cartoons. But seriously, are Muslims so intolerant, yes intolerant!, and so lacking a sense of humour that we cannot even accept cartoon images of the Prophet, even where they are caricatures?

I imagine the real answer to this question is no. We aren't that intolerant, and yes, we do have a sense of humour. But as usual, the self-proclaimed moral arbiters of the faith are vociferous and vocal, and the rest of us dare not contradict them.

In any belief system, what really matters is one's own journey towards self actualisation - becoming that person which your belief system says you ought to be. Therefore, it is really quite secondary whether others are critical of or lampoon your beliefs. Yes, I can see that protecting religious and ethnic groups from vilification is important. But something like a cartoon. Seriously, get a life Arab League.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lessons in international criminal justice

The Australian recently scooped a report from the UN Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor. In its 2500 pages, the report documents the crimes committed in East Timor during the brutal military occupation that lasted from 1975 to 1999. It estimated that the Indonesian military and its proxies were responsible for the death of 180,000 Timorese during that period. The Australian even made this startling revelation:

It recommends reparations from Indonesia and the members of the UN Security Council, including Britain and the US, who gave military backing to Indonesia between 1974 and 1999, as well as those nations that provided military assistance to Jakarta during the occupation, including Australia.

As a significant supporter of the US's so-called 'War on Terrorism', a war apparently between the forces of civilisation and barbarism where the Western powers are meant to represent the former, you'd think Australia would jump at the opportunity provided by the UN report on East Timor to press Indonesia to prosecute those most responsible for the atrocities in Timor.

Instead, of course, there is total silence. No murmur from the Labor Party. And the media has given only limited coverage to the Greens, who have been quite vocal on this issue.

Also note the total lack of what I would describe as causational analysis by the media. At the very same time that this report has come out, Indonesia's brutal occupation of West Papua has hit the headlines again, albeit implicitly. After 43 West Papuans sought refuge in Australia from persecution at the hands of Indonesia at home, at least two Papuans have been shot. Papuan activists allege that the Indonesian Army is responsible. The Australian response is typically immoral: give Indonesia, with its decades long reputation for violence and murder as has been unambiguously documented in the UN report, the benefit of the doubt.

The treatment of the indigenous population in West Papua by the occupying Indonesians is an open secret. Considering that the region is literally at Australia's doorstep, it is incredible that there is very limited coverage of the situation in West Papua. Indeed, when the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University released a detailed report on Indonesian atrocities in West Papua, the Federal Government and Opposition response was notable by its absence.

The message was and remains clear. The real value of musings on protecting civilisation, of Governments' interest in protecting the vulnerable, and prosecuting the guilty is not in justice per se. It only has value to the extent that it provides a justification for conquest and engineered moral outrage. Well might the media be dominated by stories of the Australian Wheat Board scandal in Iraq, and there is no doubt that this is a serious matter worthy of significant media scrutiny. But where is the follow through when the scandals are of far greater levity and much closer to home as they are where East Timor and West Papua are concerned?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

More civilian victims of our 'justice'

Here’s an interesting, if tragic, lesson in how to report the death of third world citizens at the hands of the world’s superpower. The United States has killed at least 15 people in Pakistan in an attempt to assassinate ‘Al Qaeda’s number two man’, Ayman al Zwahiri. Compare this report, which focuses on protests by ‘Anti-U.S. Islamic groups’ with this report from a popular online news site in Pakistan.

For the powerful there is the luxury of false intelligence and the ensuing, deadly mistake. There has been no mainstream media criticism of the fact that the US was attempting to commit an extra-judicial assassination (killing someone in the absence of any judicial process) either. Of course not, it’s Al Qaeda after all.

Anyone thought about actually bringing Zwahiri to justice? By which I mean catch him alive and bring him before an international criminal tribunal and require a prosecutor to establish exactly what Zwahiri is guilty of?

Top ten under-reported stories

Natural disasters like the south Asia tsunami and the war in Iraq dominated international reporting. But in a year that Tyndall said had an unusually high amount of international coverage, only six minutes were devoted to DR Congo and two minutes to Chechnya. The remaining stories highlighted by MSF were not covered at all. The AIDS crisis received 14 minutes of coverage, none of which, however, was devoted to the lack of R&D.

Medecin Sans Frontieres have published a list of the ten least-reported humanitarian crises of 2005. The list includes the health crisis and civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the conflict in Chechnya, the lawlessness and campaign of political genocide occurring in Haiti, and several others.

You can read the entire list here.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Media coverage of Israel (and Palestine)

Whilst media coverage focuses on Ariel Sharon's health, a significant impediment to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis is being ignored. The Palestinian Authority is holding parliamentary elections but Israel has refused to allow Palestinians living in Jerusalem to participate in the vote. Candidates who attempted to lobby for votes in Jerusalem were stopped by Israeli security officers. One of the most moderate candidates, Mustafa Barghouti, and a key aide of another moderate candidate, Hanan Ashrawi, were arrested. A clear pattern has emerged. Block the moderates for they pose the greatest threat to Israel's colonial designs over the West Bank.

The most moderate candidates pose the greatest risk to Israel, because these moderates are most likely to seek a peaceful, and just, resolution of hostilities. Israel has no interest in anything other than eventual takeover of all of the lands still inhabited, in ever so rudimentary a fashion, by the Palestinians. This is evidenced by the fact that Israel refuses to recognise any Palestinian connection to Jerusalem. Even though this connection significantly pre-dates the State of Israel. There is also, of course, the ever expanding system of settlements in the Occupied Territories. These settlements are illegal under international law, as affirmed by an overwhelming International Court of Justice majority decision in 2004. The settlements continue to expand, taking all of the most valuable land - the highest ground, the most fertile fields, the greatest access to fresh water, and so on. Most significantly, the settlement program could not exist without billions of dollars worth of funding from the United States government on an annual basis. There is no coverage of this in the mainstream media.

Instead, we read of the travails of Ariel Sharon's health. That peace in the region is diminished if Sharon is lost to the political process. There is even talk of the dilemmas faced by the United States if Sharon is no longer Prime Minister.

In comparison there is limited reporting of Israel's abject refusal to allow Palestinians from Jerusalem to participate in political life. Even where there is reporting, there are no headlines noting the simple fact that Israel is steadfastly opposed to any meaningful recognition of a Palestinian state. Not to mention the pivotal role played by Ariel Sharon in maintaining this opposition. Orwell has been tossed and turned in his grave by so many writers since he died such that his corpse has now shredded into a million miniscule pieces. So I won't make the obvious comment about how Orwellian the mainstream media coverage of Israel and Palestine is.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Racism at the cricket

For the third match in a row, South Africa's cricketers have complained of racial abuse. In the first test played at the WACA ground in Perth, people were heard calling the South Africans 'kafirs', a derogatory term in South African slang. Apparently the taunters weren't even South African expats.

In the latest instance, South African fast bowler Andre Nel complained of racial abuse at the boundary rope. Cricket Australia has issued the usual condemnation via press release.

Should anyone be particularly surprised? Racism and a day at the cricket are as old... well as old as Australia's cricketing heritage. Whenever I used to go to the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch Pakistan play Australia our family always expected to cop the standard 'Paki' or 'Curry muncher' line. We were rarely disappointed. Somehow the fact that two separate teams – one ‘Australian’, the other foreign – gave some people a licence to be overtly racist without any sense of guilt. It was as if being affiliated with the opposing team meant that the abuse you copped wasn’t meant to be racist, only an expression of the fact that you were supporting the opponent.

The faux macho aggression you see at the cricket, fuelled as ever by booze, is something to behold. I think it says a lot about the absence of any meaningful mechanism for men, especially white men, to express themselves in Australian society. Of course this is not to say that non-white males don’t have issues with healthy emotional expression, only that drunkard behaviour at the cricket isn’t a good example of this.

Well might Alan Jones complain about oversexed and overly aggressive Lebanese youths on Sydney beaches. But the fact is that every weekend you can see a plethora of young, white Australian males being total pork chops at any of a number of bars, clubs and pubs. And, of course, the cricket.

Looking at the sport of cricket, I think the fact that the Australian team is so dominant, especially at home, gives the spectator-yobbo the opportunity to get drunk, loud and aggressive with a sense of false justification. My team is beating your team so I can act like a wanker. It doesn't help that players like Shane Warne affirm this core belief on and off the playing field. Neither is it a coincidence that Australia's cricket team is very white. Did I mention John Howard loves his cricket? Very rarely have ethnic minorities represented Australia in the cricket. Indeed some of Australia’s finest domestic cricketers never received an opportunity to represent Australia because they were Aboriginal. This includes Eddie Gilbert, one of Australia’s first tearaway fast bowlers, an athlete that some consider may have been our fastest bowler ever. Yet Gilbert led a tragic life, eventually drinking himself to an early death. There is of course the story of the Aboriginal cricket team from Victoria which became the first cricket team to represent Australia overseas when it toured England. This team has yet to receive the recognition it squarely deserves. I am not aware of a single Asian or Lebanese professional cricketer.

I think whenever Australia's cricket team defeats a foreign country, especially a dark-skinned country, it affirms, at least in the mind of some, Australia's superiority as a nation. This may seem a long bow to string, and I certainly am not saying this is the only interpretation one could make. But all one has to do to confirm what I'm saying is to look at the media coverage of cricket. If it's not the glowing praise for Australia's superior tactics or positive attitude towards the game, its snickering condemnation of the trickery or inferiority of other cricket-playing nations.

Comparing the media coverage of Shane Warne with Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan is a case in point. For years now Muralitharan has been seen as a cheat. Someone who deliberately 'chucks' the ball (in cricket the 'bowler' who acts like the pitcher in baseball has to throw the ball to the batsman with a straight arm). Even after his action was cleared by biomechanics experts a cloud has remained over Muralitharan's head, especially in Australia. Muralitharan rarely travels to Australia to play cricket. In comparison, Shane Warne is considered ‘the greatest bowler of all time’. A man without peer on the cricket field.

None of the above should particularly surprise us. All spectator sport serves some nationalist function. It is a tool for enshrining passive and irrational obedience to authority. As an avid cricket fan perhaps I can speak of cricket most authoritatively. For at least in cricket, I would say the vast majority of spectators, and not just in Australia, watch the game not out of love of cricket, but out of love of victory. And, specifically, to see their team win. Noting that, I must say that I believe Australian crowds particularly love to see their team thrash other countries. And yet what precise benefit does one gain from such obsequious support? What more significant social function does popular support for spectator sport provide other than to distract and to enshrine within the general population a sense of allegiance to that most vague, abstract and too often violent of concepts – nationalism?

And maybe that is why personalities like Shane Warne are so popular. Because no matter how rotten an individual in the real world he may be, he is an incredibly talented cricketer, and the fantasy of sport provides a comfortable buffer from the uncomfortable moral vagaries of the real world. You know which one I'm talking about, the one in which we lock up asylum seekers and go to war with defenceless countries which have never harmed us. Victory in sport gives Australians something to be proud of without having to weigh into anything with significant moral or political dimensions. Of course, like it or not, we bring to sport the reality we live in, and the baggage such reality entails. Racism in sport is but one example of this.

Look into my eyes by Gihad Ali

Look into my eyes
and tell me what you see.
You don't see a damn thing,
`cause you can't possibly relate to me.

You're blinded by our differences.
My life makes no sense to you.
I'm the persecuted Palestinian.
You're the American red, white and blue.

Each day you wake in tranquility.
No fears to cross your eyes.
Each day I wake in gratitude.
Thanking God He let me rise.

You worry about your education
and the bills you have to pay.
I worry about my vulnerable life
and if I'll survive another day.

Your biggest fear is getting ticketed
as you cruise your Cadillac.
My fear is that the tank that just left
will turn around and come back.

American, do you realize,
that the taxes that you pay
feed the forces that traumatize
my every living day?

The bulldozers and the tanks,
the gases and the guns,
the bombs that fall outside my door,
all due to American funds.

Yet do you know the truth
of where your money goes?
Do you let your media deceive your mind?
Is this a truth that no one knows?

You blame me for defending myself
against the ways of Zionists.
I'm terrorized in my own land
and I'm the terrorist?

You think you know all about terrorism
but you don't know it the way I do.
So let me define the term for you.
And teach you what you thought you knew.

I've known terrorism for quite some time,
fifty-four years and more.
It's the fruitless garden uprooted in my yard.
It's the bulldozer in front of my door.

Terrorism breathes the air I breathe.
It's the checkpoint on my way to school.
It's the curfew that jails me in my own home,
and the penalties of breaking that curfew rule.

Terrorism is the robbery of my land.
And the torture of my mother.
The imprisonment of my innocent father.
The bullet in my baby brother.

So American, don't tell me you know about
the things I feel and see.
I'm terrorized in my own land
and the blame is put on me.

But I will not rest, I shall never settle
for the injustice my people endure.
Palestine is our land and there we'll remain
until the day our homeland is secure.

And if that time shall never come,
then you will never see a day of peace.
I will not be thrown from my own home,
nor will my fight for justice cease.

And if I am killed, it will be in Falasteen.
It's written on my every breath.
So in your own patriotic words,
Give me liberty or give me death.

Outlandish, a Danish rap group, have turned this poem into a rap song. You can check out the videoclip here. Let me know what it's like. I've got dial-up, haven't been able to check it out.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Get 'em while they're young

Fees for students of elite private schools have shot up. The principal of one of these schools explained that the increase in fees was due to the increase in staff wages. Blast those decadent teachers! Yet somehow I don't think that adequately explains the increase in fees.

They say our most fundamental traits are acquired in our earliest years. At least to the extent that our nature is the product of external factors and not genetics. Perhaps that explains the latest 'dilemma' for the elite private schools sector. It seems the nurseries for the future captains of industry, government, and privilege are run by the same mechanisms that dictate our capitalist society. Like our economy, elite private schools are intensely subsidised, disproportionately so, yet appear to be constantly in need of further funding. The target for this latest of funding crises is the usual one - the gullible and/or rich parents of elite private school students.

I like the Greens' response:

Massive hikes in elite private school fees demonstrate the need for a new direction in school funding, according to Greens NSW Education spokesperson John Kaye.

Dr Kaye said: "Federal Education Minister Brendan and his predecessor, Dr Kemp, supported their massive increases in funding of private schools by arguing that the money would make these institutions more affordable.

"Continued growth in fees well above the inflation rate for the elite institutions and the introduction of private schools for profit proves that this policy has failed.

"Despite annual subsidies of more than $110 million going to the wealthiest private schools in NSW alone, they are becoming much less affordable.

"In fact the Howard government's policy has actually made these schools less affordable by creating ever greater competition between them. This has meant escalating investments in lavish grounds, luxurious buildings and extravagant facilities that are attractive to high net worth parents, but add little to educational outcomes.

"The Howard government talks about accountability but has sat back and allowed some of their funds and some of the parents money to go into profit rather than teachers' salaries and other relevant resources.

"The NSW State government, which gave $50 million to the wealthiest private schools continues to fund these institutions without regard to the increases in the federal government subsidies.

"It is time to rethink the failed policy of funding those institutions that already operate with an excessive level of resources. Public schools should be the highest priority of both levels of government," Dr Kaye said.