Friday, 31 August 2012

Pollies grimly seek popularity from soldiers' deaths

Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, grimly
conducts a press conference Thursday.
Patriotism is a handy thing. The deaths of Australian soldiers is guaranteed to give politicians a bit of a lift. Just think of all those young, flag-draped bogans heading down to the Lone Pine to pay their respects to the soldiers who died in WWI. They vote. So do their mates, and their parents. So when five Australian soldiers died in Afghanistan yesterday, the prime minister, Julia Gillard, was quick to convene a press conference, taking her leave from proceedings at the Pacific Islands Forum on the Cook Islands and returning to Canberra. She looked grim. So did the Opposition leader when he fronted the camera. And the headlines told the same story: 'We'll stay the course: PM'. The message even got out to the UK's Guardian ('Five Australian Deaths in Afghanistan') and the New York Times ('In Afghanistan, Australia Suffers Worst Toll Yet').

But it's hardly WWII, or even Vietnam. All the soldiers who died yesterday were volunteers, in other words professional soldiers. Soldiers are employed to fight and kill, and to put themselves in danger, aware of all the risks. Especially the two SAS soldiers who died in a helicopter crash yesterday. All the grim faces and sententious words to note the deaths of professional fighters. In any case, it's good PR. Makes you look tough, committed, serious, responsible. Rusted-on conservatives and the relatives of Australian soldiers might violently disagree with this take on what goes on whenever a Digger is killed on deployment, but if truth be told there are other, more important things to think about with respect to the conflict in Afghanistan.

I wonder how many Afghanis die for every Australian soldier, for example. But this kind of information is rarely made public mainly because of the extremely tight-lipped Department of Defense, a past-master at shielding the general public from access to real information. Photographs used in news bulletins yesterday, for example, what do they show? Actual casualties? The actual helicopter that was downed? There's no way to know. File footage, probably. Defense has the content under wraps, and releases information only when it suits Defense. It's all about message manipulation.

The message is that the war in Afghanistan is going to end in 2014 - not before time, and no later - and Defense and the PM are on-message. So on-message that the Opposition leader is reading from the same script. In a news story this morning, from AAP:
"We are on track," Mr Abbott said.
"Having spoken to lots of soldiers, they think they are making a difference."
Making a difference? To whom? Why? Well, it's best to leave out the reasons why Australia is involved in Afghanistan, it just makes things complicated. And so we get this kind of thing from Julia Gillard:
''We cannot allow even the most grievous of losses to change our strategy,'' Ms Gillard said in Rarotonga.
''In my view that wouldn't be appropriately honouring the men we have lost. In my view that would be letting our nation down. We went there for a purpose and we will see that purpose through."
The purpose, we've been told (although not this time, alas) is to make the world safe from terrorists. The reasoning is pretty flimsy. The war has been going on for so long. It started in 2001 under the leadership of George W. Bush in retaliation for the September 2001 Twin Towers attacks in New York. Apparently the instigator of those attacks was living in Afghanistan, a country that harboured such people. So the US went in accompanied by satellite supporters such as Australia. The war has been going on for 11 years. That's a long war. But the terrorists are no longer in Afghanistan, they're in Somalia. They're moved on. We haven't.

I think most Australians would be more concerned about the truly evil shape that government would probably take under the Taliban, if they were allowed to resume control of the country. This isn't the original reason for Australia's involvement (which anyway nobody seems to want to talk about). But it's a much better reason, in my view. A bit of regime change to protect Afghani women and girls, allow them to go to school and listen to Michael Jackson. But the only people who talk about such things are commentators. Administrations are too busy controlling the message and eking out an advantage from occasional deaths to complicate things by talking about the real Afghani people. Anyway it's bad practice; a muddy message reduces the strength of the popularity boost you can get from looking grim on-camera.

Real Afghanis would also be in the news a lot more if the media had better access to asylum seekers who arrive by boat from Indonesia, but here again the government tightly controls the message. A lot of such people try to get to Australia in boats, although the flag-draped bogans who frequent Lone Pine every year probably, more than likely, resent such intrusions on our borders. It's the Greens and their inner-city latte sippers who want to allow desperate Afghanis to come to Australia to live a new life in peace and freedom. Julia Gillard, for her part, has just resuscitated the Pacific Solution, whereby asylum seekers will the "processed" overseas before being able to settle in Australia's safe haven. There are so many stories not being told to protect our government from criticism. Maximise the benefit, is the mantra in Canberra.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Asking women to 'submit' in marriage is asking for trouble

It should be laughable. The debate on how to react to the Sydney Anglican diocese changing the words used for marriage vows started out with a healthy dose of mocking laughter. The religious fundamentalists of Sydney want to have women say they will "submit" to their husbands, and right-thinking progressives sit back, open mouthed, to contemplate the implications of this nice case, one that tries to chip away at the egalitarianism it has taken them, and their parents, decades to nurture. And then, of course, they laugh at it. As they should.

When I first heard of the push by the Sydney fundamentalists to change the vows for women I thought, "They're looking for the Muslim marriage." There has been plenty of talk in the UK about the Anglican Church mapping out ways to accommodate sharia in their practices, after all. But then I understood pretty quickly that the Sydney diocese, run by Bible fundamentalists, is merely trying to roll back progress made in society since the 1960s, and which it believes are signs of a "destructive individualism and libertarianism". Which is a dirty bit of special pleading that attempts to cut out the right-thinking progressives and address directly the greater mass of middle-of-the-road Australians, the 92 percent of us who do not go to church regularly but whose grandparents - many of whom might still be alive - did.

The words were used in a piece published this morning by Peter Jensen, the archbishop of Sydney. In his piece, Jensen attempts to explain the reasoning behind the decision of the Anglican diocese to change "obey" to "submit". "Obey" is the vow that has traditionally been used in the Anglican marriage rite in Australia. The Bible fundamentalists say that "submit" is the more accurate translation, using a nice piece of argument that harkens back to the Renaissance when accuracy of translation of the Bible was actually an important issue in society. For those who don't know much about history, the official Bible translation that benefited from the new scholarship of the Renaissance was published in 1611, about the time Shakespeare died. It's called the King James Bible because it was published in the time of James I. His predecessor, Elizabeth I, who actually reigned during the most tumultuous disagreements arising from the Reformation, died in 1603.

This is all by the way of background. Jensen's piece in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning also contains a good deal of reasoned background. It's the supporting documentation, if you like, and it seems to me to be essential reading for any woman (and man) planning to take the new marriage vow of the Anglican Church. There's a lot of clever, Jesuitical reasoning in Jensen's piece surrounding the nature of the role of the man in a marriage, essential, Jensen believes, to make people also understand the nature of the role of a woman in marriage.

Perhaps the good archbishop should set up a training course so that young couples planning to avail themselves of a nice sandstone backdrop for their marriage ceremony - the photos will look much nicer, after all - can brush up on their theological knowledge before entering into a pact that might not otherwise truly reflect what they believe or expect.

I think the Anglican Church could make a nice little earner out of running the course. They could call it CERT IV - Marriage Roles and Responsibilities. A one-week course, $495 all-up. This would be a good way to avoid the likely outcome of the new vow, which is an increase in domestic violence, the traditional resort of that brand of male who believes that, because he is physically stronger than his wife, has the right to bring her round to his way of thinking with a few select punches to the face.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Steven Ercolino was killed by the Second Amendment

The body of gunman Jeff Johnson lies on the
pavement outside the Empire State Building.
For a person observing events from Down Under the most surprising thing about the excellent New York Times story on Friday's fatal shooting at the Empire State Building is that it says nothing about access to firearms in the US. I wrote about the subject last month in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting event. That was on 23 July. Then a couple of weeks later at the beginning of this month a neo-Nazi shot and killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The thing about Jeff Johnson, who shot and killed his former workmate Steven Ercolino outside the Empire State Building, is that he was neither a fanatic nor a mass murderer. He was just a regular guy who had lost his job and held a grudge against someone he used to work with. What he did on Friday is called "going postal" in reference to a number of grudge shootings that took place during the 1980s and 1990s in the US.

If a guy like Jeff Johnson can pull out a handgun and shoot a workmate dead in the street what you need to think about is the normalisation of firearm ownership. For Johnson to own a gun in the first place means that gun ownership is such an unproblematic occurrence that no normal person would remark on it. Certainly, the NY Times story does not. But this is the aberration, and it's the US that is out of step with the world. If the same thing had happened in Australia journalists here would be asking police for information about the shooter's access to the firearm because it is such a rare thing here to own a handgun. People who own handguns in Australia are either criminals or hobby shooters and the laws that regulate the sale of firearms, especially handguns, are very strict. The result of this vigilance is that the rate of death by shooting in Australia is a tiny fraction of what it is in the US.

Jeff Johnson did not have to go to any special lengths to secure access to a handgun. He would have just bought it over the counter in a shop, like you buy a fishing rod or a box of coloured pencils. It would not be remarkable for him to own the handgun. It seems to me that Johnson was the kind of guy who would not own a handgun if it were an offense to do so; he was just such a regular sort of guy. The result of the US policy on handgun ownership is that we see yet another tragedy occur in an otherwise peaceful setting. After the Aurora shooting President Obama remarked publicly on the presence of automatic weapons in the community. They should be used by soldiers, he said, and not by regular citizens. But in the Empire State Building shooting there was no heavy weapon, just a simple handgun. And it's the fact that I can write "just a simple handgun" that is the problem here. The Second Amendment killed Ercolino.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Assange's image suffers at home for his notoriety

Assange fronts the media, London, August 2012.
I don't often listen to the radio. Yesterday I did while driving back from visiting a friend a few hours away, and as usual I was tuned to the ABC local station. In the morning I had heard people talking about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also; that was during an interview with Stella Rimington, the former MI5 head, now a novelist. Her ostensible reason for fronting the mic answering questions about WikiLeaks was to promote her new spy novel. But there is a compulsive need among Australian journalists to address the Asssange issue at every opportunity, so Rimington had to answer questions about WikiLeaks as well. At the other end of the day there were a few of those typical types you hear on ABC radio doing a talk program. You know the ones. They're articulate, well-adjusted, cautious, polite and reasonable. They have careers and children, they eat at nice restaurants, they have opinions. And these vultures were talking about Julian Assange on air.

The problem with WikiLeaks, said one of them, a woman, is that Julian Assange is identified too closely with the organisation, and she gave the opinion that whenever Assange opens his mouth she throws up a bit in hers. Clearly, she doesn't like Assange. You get a lot of this kind of backstabbing on social media as well from the same kind of well-adjusted and reasonable people, but in the final analysis it's the tall-poppy syndrome at work. I hear it so often from the same well-adjusted, reasonable types who use Twitter.

The thing about Assange is that he's Australian and it's an affront to every well-adjusted, reasonable, mediocre Australian that a fellow citizen could achieve the level of recognition that Assange has done. If he had an American accent it would be different. Americans are supposed to deliver new, outlandish and original ideas to us here in Australia. But Assange is a local, and he gets this casual and unkind treatment every time one of these well-adjusted, educated, reasonable types hits the airwaves with their opinion.

It makes me sick. So does the implication that Assange is receiving too much exposure. As the public face of WikiLeaks, an organisation that can only work if most of its members operate in secret, it's perfectly natural for Assange to be in the public eye. In addition to that, Assange was the originator of the WikiLeaks idea. If anyone deserves to receive the accolades for its success, Assange does. These well-adjusted, reasonable, middle-class types cannot - or will not - see the perfect logic whereby Assange receives publicity. You cannot trust them, they are jealous, and they use their perfect, well-adjusted reasonableness to try to cut down one of the most interesting men Australia has produced in decades.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Book review: The Ideal Man, Joshua Kurlantzick (2011)

It's difficult to know where to start talking about this book because it integrates so intimately the personal and the political. It's got a catchy subtitle - 'The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War' - but you do really need a whole book to tell this story because Jim Thompson, the book's hero, was such a large man in the history of Thailand after WWII.

A resourceful and intelligent man, Thompson seems to have had three careers. Born to a wealthy Delaware family in 1906, Thompson rattled about in New York working as an architect until the outbreak of hostilities in Europe made him resent the non-intervention policy of the US government. He volunteered for the National Guard but his postings there were less than inspiring and when an opportunity came up to enlist in the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA) he jumped at the chance. He ended up in Thailand, a country where the government had allied itself to the Japanese during the war. Never a colony, Thailand (then called Siam) nevertheless was surrounded by countries that had been colonised, most notably by the French. Thompson had no sympathy for the French colonisers and in his professional life had dealings with resistance fighters, like Ho Chi Minh, who sought independence from France. He encouraged his superiors back in Washington to support such groups, to no avail. The Cold War was under way - the Communist Chinese had chased the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949 and in 1950 the Korean War started - and not for the last time US domestic politics was beginning to exert a strong influence on the way the country handled its international affairs.

Thompson also wanted to support democratic elements within Thailand. Global realpolitik meant, however, that the US materially supported conservative strongmen in the kingdom, men who would unflinchingly support its own efforts to use Thailand as an immoveable aircraft carrier; the US wanted to establish forward bases in northern Thailand to support its ghost war in Laos against the Viet Minh. Thompson became disenchanted with these changes and drifted away from intelligence work, establishing a silk production and marketing company - the Thai Silk Company - that exists to this day. This was his third career, as a textile designer and businessman. The final chapter of his life took place in 1967 when he visited Malaysia for a bushwalking holiday, and he disappeared. His body was never found. Seven years later he was legally declared dead.

Kurlantzick's thorough reporting of the story of Jim Thompson is really impressive. In a sense this book can serve to fill in the gaps in our regular understanding of the Cold War. Those crucial years from the end of hostilities against fascism in 1945 to the start of the Korean War in 1950 will always, I think, require more discussion and research than other periods of the 20th Century because to learn about them is to see how good intentions can turn bad. On the global stage, such changes are of particular importance, and voters in developed countries - the countries that often get involved in a sort of global police effort - should be aware of how those changes take place in the real world. A rich historical understanding might prevent later mistakes. Possibly. But I think that a better understanding of the life of Jim Thompson can help to inform discussions such as those that took place in the public sphere in many countries in the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kurlantzick has also written a useful history of Thailand in the years after WWII. Insights about Thailand are valuable even now, such as this:
At that time - and, to some extent, still today - the skyscrapers, banks, and late-model European and Japanese sedans of Bangkok concealed a developing city with weak institutions and even weaker laws, a kind of hollow edifice in which the structures of the industrialized world had been implanted over a political culture that remained personalized, familial, and almost tribal.
And such insights, which can in a book like this be delineated in great detail so that you can actually feel how things work on the ground, are also useful in understanding other developing countries around the world. As such, Kurlantzick has written a multi-layered and nuanced work that can have great interest for a wide range of people. You don't just need to want to know about the Vietnam War and southeast Asia to profit from reading this book. Its insights into the way the US conducts its foreign policy are applicable to a wide range of cases. And it also works, too, as a kind of guidebook to the beginning of the Cold War, which was a seminal chapter in our recent history.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Book review: Our Kind of Traitor, John le Carre (2010)

A couple of days ago I reviewed a 1974 book by John le Carre and because I had enjoyed reading it so much I decided to get hold of a more recent effort by the same writer and read it. How had his writing changed over 35 years? Had it improved? Or was he just riding on the coattails of his early success? The following shows what I came up with. It contains spoilers, so be warned if you haven't read this book yet.

Our Kind of Traitor is a kind of fantasy story where a couple of average Brits - young, professional, girlfriend and boyfriend - get involved in spying. Perry Makepiece and Gail Perkins are on a tennis holiday in the Caribbean when they meet a demonstrative, rich and slightly sleazy Russian businessman named Dima Krasnov who flatters them and engages their sympathies by displaying his oddly constituted family to them. Gail and Perry volunteer their goodwill in order to help the family enjoy the island, and Gail especially tries to get to know the two little girls who are not Dima's children, and Dima's beautiful, 16-year-old daughter Natasha; Perry plays cricket with Dima's two adolescent sons. It's an affecting picture, and Dima helps the relationships along by praising Perry's British "fair play" and Gail's good looks. He invites the two to dinner at his house on the island, but then surprises them outright when he divulges that he is a player in the Russian mafia who wants to defect to the UK: his secrets in exchange for protection and a new life for his family.

Hector Meredith is the spy put in charge of the case, and he conscripts Luke Weaver, a mid-aged spy with a tendency to philandering, a wife he doesn't love, and a son. He also brings on-board a woman with access to government information, Yvonne, and a practical fellow named Ollie. It's decided that they will use Perry and Gail to extract Dima. Hector's team has come up with a number of items of information that show that Dima could be useful to HM government; as a chief mafia money launderer, Dima is privy to a collection of organisational secrets. His testimony could lead to the investigation of many British citizens, including senior Opposition party members. So Perry and Gail are shipped off to Paris to meet Dima at the French Open. The link-up with Hector takes place in the dressing room of a Paris tennis club, where Dima makes a further pitch and hands over more documents to the British spies. A plan to extract Dima and his family from Switzerland is hatched. Dima will be in the country to finalise his handover of financial responsibilities to the new oligarch, an event which he fears will lead to his death. No longer of any use to the capo, Dima fears, he will be liquidated just as his protege Misha - father of the two little girls - had been.

When Dima is snatched away from his minders by Luke, however, the oligarch and his British establishment friends begin to suspect Secret Service involvement. The family is ensconced in a Swiss chalet but the go-ahead from London, where Hector is busy trying to get approval for the relocation from the relevant authorities, is delayed more than once. Perry and Luke are getting anxious, Gail tries to keep the children occupied. Finally a partial solution is reached: Dima alone will visit London to talk with those in charge. If his information turns out to be genuine his family will follow, he's told. At the end of a final, nighttime run through the mountains Dima and Luke board a small plane that takes off. There's an explosion and all passengers are killed.

The implication is that the lure of dirty Russian money for City bankers overweighs the justice of prosecuting British citizens involved in its accumulation and use. The oligarch's friends had convinced the Service to sabotage the plane, and Dima is killed so that embarrassing British secrets are not aired publicly through the courts. It's a cynical story where Dima's dream of British "fair play" falls victim to a stronger Western appetite for economic growth. And it's a good story, well told. It appears that le Carre's talents have survived those 35 years intact, and his ability to create sympathetic and credible characters has, if anything, strengthened over the years. This is a cracking tale.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Book review: Kennedy's Brain, Henning Mankell (2007)

I occasionally read Mankell because I'm a fan of the series of TV remakes - both the British version with Kenneth Branagh, and the possibly-even-better Swedish version with Krister Henriksson - of Mankell's Wallander crime novels. I like crime thrillers and Mankell delivers the goods reliably although he appreciably falls short of the level of interest the as-yet-unsurpassed Stieg Larsson generates for me. Larsson's Millennium series of novels were cinematised, again locally in Sweden and, later, in the US. Where Larsson was a died-in-the-wool political progressive, even a hard-nosed activist at some deep level, and this character trait deeply colours everything he invents for use in his fiction, Mankell seems to me to just be a regular sort of guy who for some reason is able to write genre fiction.

Those who have not yet read Kennedy's Brain and who wish to do so without spoilers should be aware that this review reveals plot elements.

The story opens in Greece where Louise Cantor, a fifty-something archaeologist, is on a dig but has to go back home to Sweden to deliver a conference paper. In Sweden, she discovers her son dead in his bed. The police say it's not suspicious, and toxicology reports later will reveal the presence of barbiturates in Henrik's blood, suggesting an overdose of sleeping pills. But Louise is not convinced there was no foul play. The first person she collars to question about Henrik is a girlfriend, Nazrin, who appears one day at Henrik's apartment. The first weakness in Mankell's plot is here. Nazrin, though introduced in full at this early stage in the novel, will pretty much disappear down the track. Which is a shame, as Nazrin could have provided more interest for the reader. Unfortunately, Mankell is busy in Mozambique by the novel's later stages and he makes no further use of her.

Louise's first thought is to contact Henrik's biological father, Aron, who is living somewhere in the world. A bit of a gadfly, Aron is run to earth in southeast Australia. To find him, Louise merely jets to Sydney and goes to eat in an Italian restaurant located near the Opera House. She overhears a man at a neighbouring table speaking in Swedish. She talks to him and he offers to track Aron down. The next day he calls her and tells her Aron is living in Apollo Bay. She flies to Melbourne, hires a car, and drives out west of the city to the town where she finds Aron fishing on the pier. It's all a bit simple, really, but I guess Swedes will be open to such shifty handling of a country as far away and exotic as Australia. Stieg Larsson also used Australia in his novels; it seems there's something of a fascination among Scandinavians for the country. Anyway, Louise gets Aron to accompany her to Barcelona, where Henrik kept an apartment, but in Barcelona Aron disappears.

Showing formidable courage of a kind rarely met with in normal human beings, Louise then flies to Mozambique to track down Lucinda, a woman who seems to be another girlfriend. She finds her in a seedy bar in Maputo, the country's capital, where very young girls work as prostitutes. The scene provides Mankell with an opportunity to rail against fat, rich Westerners engaging in sex tourism in third-world countries. It's pretty unpleasant. But Louise, although one of her first experiences in Maputo is to be mugged and robbed, soldiers on regardless of the danger that seems to loom large everywhere in this unpredictable country. She tracks down others who knew Henrik and starts to piece together a pattern out of the evidence she elicits in conversations.

One of the most important elements of Henrik's mysterious life, one she had never suspected could exist, is that he was HIV-positive. Lucinda says initially that she is not. Later events will reveal a kind of racket operated by an elusive American businessman through a community hospice for AIDs sufferers he has established outside Maputo in a place named Xia-Xia. There is a link with an employee attached to the Swedish embassy, too, but Louise doesn't have time to dig up all the evidence against him. She tries to talk with AIDs sufferers who have been taken in at the hospice but on two occasions the person she is talking to is suddenly murdered, including poor Lucinda. The suspicion is that anti-HIV drugs are being tested on human guinea pigs at Xia-Xia. More sinister is the suspicion that AIDs was developed to eradicate blacks from Africa.

We meet some good guys on the journey as well. Lucinda's English is a little too competent to my mind but she turns out to be an intelligent and courageous woman whose attachment to Henrik was real. A journalist named Nuno da Silva appears briefly - again, it's a pity that Mankell didn't make further use of this character - and he's a man with conviction and courage who fights against the odds for what he believes in. There's also an old painter living on a small island near Maputo Louise trots off to visit on a flaky propeller-driven aeroplane. But behind all the drama there is a lurking evil, and even though there are three deaths that happen close to her Louise remains undaunted in her quest to unearth the truth about Henrik's demise.

Louise is a fantastically brave woman - possibly a tad too staunch - and the story she uncovers is worth telling, though the coup-de-grace against Big Business (or someone) is never finally run home. The novel sort of peters out at the end, with hints of future efforts to be made to bring to justice those who were responsible for the death of Louise's son, Henrik. Aside from the mercurial Aron, Henrik is probably the most interesting character in the novel, a kind of will-o-the-wisp who wants to change the world and loves a good mystery, like the story of how Kennedy's brain went missing after the successful 1963 assassination.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Assange's Mexican stand-off has its gothic notes

The Embassy of Ecuador in London is in this building.
The ABC's Leigh Sales apparently said on her evening report last night that Julian Assange was wanted in Sweden on "rape charges", which just goes to show that if you throw enough mud some of it will stick. People who have followed the Assange debacle closely will know that no charges have been laid and that the WikiLeaks founder is merely wanted by Swedish authorities to answer questions. Such people might also know that the nature of the Swedish case against Assange is lamentably tainted by political partisanship; most of those involved in the case are active Social Democrats, which is the party that originally brought in Sweden's harsh rape laws. On top of this Assange has volunteered himself for questioning via videolink from London on a number of occasions; Sweden says "No, you must be in camera".

Suspicious minds might say that Sweden wants to use Assange as a trophy case to promote awareness of its new laws at home. Beyond that, however, there are strong indications that the US wants to extradite Assange to its territory in order to prosecute him for espionage; a secret grand jury has undoubtedly been convened in Virginia, a notoriously pro-defence state that would supply a reliably compliant jury to convict Assange if he were brought to trial there. It is hard to blame Assange for resorting, in mid June, to requesting sanctuary at the Embassy of Ecuador in London. He has been there ever since. Yesterday, the government of Ecuador said that it will grant political asylum to Assange. Immediately, the British authorities said that they would not grant safe passage to Assange so that he can leave the country.

It's a Mexican stand-off with added gothic elements, not least of which is the grotesque architecture of the Ecuadorian Embassy itself, a garish pile of red brick and white detail with turrets and special architectural features that belong to an earlier era than ours. It was probably built in the late 19th Century, a time when the gothic mode experienced a revival in Europe to match a vibrant historical consciousness that went along with the continent's economic prosperity, and a privileged sense of destiny. That's a sense of self-worth that is more readily attributed, now, to the United States.

Which is a serious opponent to have, and Assange's personal standing within the global community is taking severe hits, with one writer recently saying that he was the weak link in the WikiLeaks organisation. Which is a bit odd considering that Julian Assange set up WikiLeaks in the first place and is the organisation's only public face. You can't win, it seems. Perhaps the tension is just getting to be too much for global punditry; there have been a few imaginative souls who have envisioned a Jason Bourne-like escape from the gothic embassy, with Assange, guns blazing, taking out police officers guarding the building's exits. Supporters have rallied to the cause with fresh vigour, however, and one man even stationed himself outside the embassy throughout the night holding a video camera to provide a live feed to a global audience.

What remains certain is that all the drama has had a negative impact on the WikiLeaks organisation, which has been notably silent of late. Few new releases of documents have emerged. This situation must be of concern to WikiLeaks personnel, since WikiLeaks guarantees its contributors timely release of documents. So WikiLeaks' enemies are anyway achieving at least part of their goal by default; if you create enough disturbance you will shut down the machine.

Less certain is what the end result of Assange's successful asylum application will be. Watch now for aggressive demonstrations of intent from both British and Ecuadorian authorities, who will be exchanging public comments over the following weeks. If not longer. For the moment, Assange is once more a kind of sideshow feature in the global media, caught in an uncompromising web of clashing forces. It's important not to forget the reason why he is so notable. Freedom of information can be radical in nature. We all benefit when information is allowed to circulate freely.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Book review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carre (1974)

Because of the 2011 release of a movie based on this book - the first English-language film by Swedish director Thomas Alfredson, and which has a number of good British actors in it, including Gary Oldman as George Smiley and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam - I think a good place to start this review of the novel is with a quick look at how it differs from the film. But first it should be said that, like the film, the novel moves pretty quick. You have to pay attention, and even if you do you will miss clues.

The main areas where the movie is lacking complexity and detail are in the story of Ricky Tarr and Irina, and in the story of what Jim Prideaux was doing in Czechoslovakia when he got shot. Irina's story - which takes place in Hong Kong in the book, but in Turkey in the film - is important because it positively alerts the Circus through operative Ricky Tarr to the possibility of a mole in the British secret service. The Jim Prideaux episode is very important because of the fact that he was sent to Czechoslovakia with the aim of receiving information about a mole, by the service top man, Control. Control had suspected a mole but his time ran out. A series of operational catastrophes and ill health undermined his standing with his superiors. The book opens with George Smiley, Control's right-hand man, experiencing the uncertain pleasures of unemployment following Control's death and the installation of a number of other service operatives in senior positions within the organisation. Smiley is out, Percy Alleline is in. Alleline has enjoyed professional success on the back of tainted information the mole is feeding the government. He has used the feed to promote his own interests within the organisation.

George Smiley is asked to investigate, and he uses a colleague, Peter Guillam, and a few others, to implement his strategy for finding out the truth. Documents must be accessed. People have to be interviewed. Fat and out of luck in the marital stakes, Smiley trundles around the moist English countryside like a lonely duck looking for clues to what has really gone on in the Circus over the past few years.

While the pace is quick the book contains a number of longer narrative segments that didn't make it into the film. Smiley's long account of the time he interviewed Karla in India is one of these. There are also long sections of text involved in the contemplations of Jim Prideaux during his exile teaching languages in a secondary school out in the sticks. With passages like these in the book it tends to read slower than the film progresses, or at least it has a more uneven gait: slow at times but then with rapid jumps as le Carre switches hands from one narrative strand to another. Those quick shifts do work, however, and what you do not find in the novel is the kind of reflective filler that other genre novels often contain; those sections of text that serve novelists who want to slow down the story but which merely go over ground they have already covered. Such bits of filler are common in use by crime novelists because they enable them to transition with a bit of dignity from one key moment to another, but le Carre does not rely on them and his book is the richer for a disciplined approach to regulating the speed of delivery.

The skill le Carre deploys is matched with his superior knowledge of the spy game; le Carre worked in British intelligence between 1958 and 1964, eventually leaving when his writing began to gain traction. He got into the service due to his work during the early stages of the Cold War with the Army Intelligence Corps; he had studied foreign languages in Switzerland in 1948 and 1949. The name is a pseudonym for David Cornwell; Cornwell chose the name because of organisational strictures on publishing under a real name. The experience le Carre gained in the service has obviously been useful to him as a writer, but it is his work as a writer that is most interesting.

The film is good. Anyone who has seen the film will doubly enjoy the novel mainly because the novel adds a number of dimensions to the viewer's understanding of how a suspicion of Control that there was a mole in the service grew into a full investigation; where Smiley comes into the picture. The book lacks any resort to cliche to maintain the reader's interest. Death is not held out as an inducement to read on; in fact, where death enters the story it does so very shyly. And there are no narrative complications that threaten hurt to key secondary characters - another common resort of genre writers who want to spice up their stories with a little sadism and blood. The novel might indeed be a classic of the form but the implication doesn't really matter to me. What's important is that it works well and is a real pleasure to read.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Movie review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, dir Lasse Hallstrom (2011)

Emily Blunt as Harriet Chetwode-Talbot and Ewan
McGregor as Dr Alfred Jones in Salmon Fishing
in the Yemen
Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is a consultant representing a rich Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) who has a dream of establishing salmon fishing in his country. Harriet contacts Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a British fisheries expert, to gauge the potential of the project. Fred dismisses the idea until it attracts the attention of Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), a senior PR operative in the government who is looking for a "good news story" in the region to offset recent adverse exposure. Patricia fast-tracks the idea, and presses Fred's manager, Bernard Sugden (Conleth Hill), to implement it. There are problems but the enterprising trio of Harriet, Fred and Sheikh Mohammed push it forward.

That's the gist of the story and not surprisingly it doesn't really do the film justice. This romantic comedy focuses also on the relationship between Harriet and Fred, which is complicated by the presence of Captain Robert Mayers (Tom Mison), Harriet's boyfriend of a few weeks. Tom is assigned to combat, then goes missing, feared dead. To further complicate matters, Fred has a mild form of autism, like Asperger's syndrome. There's also his unfulfilling relationship with his wife, Mary (Rachel Stirling). Brought together by the ups and downs of trying to realise Sheikh Mohammed's almost impossible dream, Harriet and Fred forge a close bond of trust, especially when Harriet's anxiety over Tom's situation erupts; Fred is compassionate and supportive, and is there for Harriet when she needs help. The bonds of trust thus built qualify Harriet and Fred for romance, especially when they are contrasted with the cynicism displayed by other characters in the film, such as Bernard and Patricia. It's for Harriet and Fred that we barrack, most definitely.

Sheikh Mohammed is a deeply sympathetic character as well. His aspiration for establishing a salmon fishing ground in the Yemen is built on a sincere appreciation for what he thinks the pastime can do for many people; he thinks that it is the kind of Western thing that can add value to the lives of people in his own country. Amr Waked's skillful portrayal of Sheikh Mohammed ensures that this character achieves a firm hold in the viewer's imagination, and in it we also find interesting resonances that draw on ideas of the Middle East, of national development, and of a kind of benevolent absolutism that will also key in with ideas that Western viewers will be familiar with.

In contrast with this positive character there's Patricia, who is however probably the most complex character in the film. Cynical and competent, Patricia ruthlessly exploits people and situations in order to achieve her professional goals. As a PR flak, her aim is to forge a strong, positive image for the government. If she has to use people like Harriet and Fred to do this, then that's the price of entry into the game. But Patricia is also more than just a foil to Sheikh Mohammed's benevolence and exotic appeal. She is also the mother of at least three children and a woman who thrives in a world dominated by the opposite sex.

Drawn into the moment by the pleasures and professional satisfactions of doing something exceptional and worthwhile, Harriet and Fred build interpersonal ties that are strong and enduring. But this simply could not happen without the exceptionally competent direction of Lasse Hallstrom, who builds a delightful romantic comedy on top of a complex narrative structure. Hallstrom's ability to do both things at once without giving undue importance to either, means the viewer is constantly delighted when watching this lovely movie. It's not the first time Hallstrom has explored ideas around international combat, either. There's also 2010's Dear John, which I reviewed here two years ago. That was also a special movie in its own way. Hallstrom seems to have the knack for bringing out the best in his scripts. He also has the ability to create the kind of special magic that is particular to the medium of film.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Want a burger with your silver medal? Don't hold back!

Leaving aside whether Channel Nine omitted the final stages of the Olympic 470 class race in the UK (you can't expect TV schedulers to understand a sport as difficult to appreciate as sailing, and one which is not naturally telegenic, such as a 100-metre sprint), the bigger question about the TV station's performance this Olympics must centre on its saturation advertising during broadcasts.

Want a burger with that car, folks? If so, Channel Nine is the station to rely on because it has pulled McDonalds ads back-to-back with ads for Jeep. Not only that, but the station has filled in the remaining milliseconds with a series of cheesy infomercials that doggedly round off with the Jeep 'Don't Hold Back' tagline just so you don't miss another opportunity to have your purchasing preferences influenced by a wealthy sponsor. Heaven forbid.

If you don't rush out and buy a burger, you're positively un-Australian.

Aside from the frustration this produces, Channel Nine has turned up the bogan metre to the max during commentary breaks in its broadcasts. You might be watching My Kitchen Rules for all the verbiage by the men and women on the front desk resembles the kind of informed commentary that viewers should reasonably expect to see alongside coverage of actual races in some of the world's top sporting events. Station executives have made sure that their coverage matches up with the expectations of the lowest common denominator among their preferred viewership. The look and feel of their coverage resembles nothing more than Channel Nine's nightly news broadcast, and noone would blame that show for being upmarket. All in all it's a downer.

Mixing commercials with live sports coverage is risky enough. You'd think that Channel Nine would try to relieve the tension produced by this unholy alliance by lifting the tone of the broadcast generally. But that's not good business, it seems. The ultimate aim here is to maximise the number of opportunities the station has to expose viewers to the kind of business-driven product placement that ordinarily destroys the appeal of more routine broadcasts on TV. This Olympics coverage is all of a piece with the commercial imperatives that the station uses to compete in regular time slots. And it's practically unwatchable.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Book review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson (2011)

I bought this memoir after seeing the author interviewed on TV despite the fact that I'd also previously bought a novel of hers, and rejected it. The fact is that I love memoirs. I especially love memoirs about childhoods. And I even more particularly love memoirs by people who are measurably different and special. There was Winterson on TV, feisty, zesty, with an unquenchable aptitude for producing words. There was Winterson the gay novelist. Who was also adopted as an infant. I could not resist this book even though I'd found Lighthousekeeping (2004) mannered and plain (it never got reviewed here).

Yes, Winterson's sentences are sometimes short and unforgiving. But I realise now that this reflects her desire to achieve accuracy. I did find her somewhat discursive, but this is a mere reflection of the same cause: she assimilates and analyses things and then ventures out an explanation to fit her enduring requirement for accuracy and pithiness. So my problems with Winterson's style were resolved to a degree with this memoir and I settled down to enjoy the story.

It's an unfamiliar take on an old story. I think that most people who are creative and individual experience childhoods that are, to varying degrees, unhappy and restrictive. Most people's mothers are not forever waiting for the End Time, of course, just as most people's mothers do not routinely lock them out of the house for minor infringements of the domicile's moral rules. There's no question that Jeanette suffered to a significant degree for her mother's ideosynchratic peculiarities. But the ordinary reader I mentioned can profitably read this memoir and empathise with the things that transpire.

A lot of people aren't gay. A teenager who realises that she is gay might also not possess a Christian fundamentalist for a mother. Many people aren't adopted. This combination of factors increases the piquancy of what happens in the book, which also seeks to illustrate the author's search for her biological mother. And that is an unfinished tale as the book ends. The author knows the reader is seeking out a resolution to the central drama, which is Winterson's frustration at having been dealt such a difficult hand by fate. There is also the issue of Winterson's personal ideosynchrasies: the rages, the fatigue in the face of stress, the clinical depression that enters at one stage in her life.

She draws out the narrative in a pleasant way. There is some sort of resolution, but Winterson's taste for accuracy ensures that when the final page is reached the reader is already wondering about a sequel. Perhaps there will be one in another 10 years or so. We hope Winterson keeps writing to that extent.

As for me, I will be searching out other books by Winterson (who, for some reason, I thought was Canadian) because I think that she does have something to offer. Now that I know she invented herself as a writer out of a childhood and adolescence as a passionate reader, and did so alone and without any outside guidance beyond those provided by her librarian and her English teacher at school, I will be more tolerant of the special qualities of her prose. I was too rash with the earlier book, too quick. But that's me. Smart people often are. And, anyway, she may have improved in the intervening seven years.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Vidal was staunch in the service of the angels

Gore Vidal, literary eminence grise.
News of the passing into the oblivion that awaits us all of Gore Vidal, aged 86, has been slightly immature: swift arriving and also copious. There are the detailed summaries and there are the partisan judgements, like the one by Greg Sheridan, a right-wing hack who writes with depressing regularity for a Murdoch broadsheet, and who mocks and insults the writer who "perfected the art of mocking and insulting" forgetting, the while, that he himself has written no novels. And never shall. But his piece underscores the main point: that Vidal was a champion of the progressive side of politics.

It will be for that, and not for the bulk of his novelistic output, that people like myself will remember Vidal: as someone reliably and wittily in your own corner. A standout among his books was Myra Breckinridge, which deals with sexuality inasmuch as it dealt with contemporary interpersonal politics. This novel rises above the bulk of Vidal's output because of the originality of its conception and the ingenuity of its ideas.

Vidal was part of the routine experience of my generation in the same way that Garcia Marquez was, or Joyce. But his fecundity and his obsession with America had the tendency to moderate that influence. Rather than concentrating on developing a new style, Vidal spent his time in conversation with his peers. He was topical but not groundbreaking, relevant in terms of his subject matter but not in terms of the purely novelistic aspirations that can set a writer apart and ensure his or her fame in perpetuity. Or at least for a generation or two. But regardless, he was one of us and we appreciated the efforts he made to change society.

Whether Vidal will be read any more widely in his posthumous existence is uncertain. What is sure is that he will be remembered by progressives as a champion to rely on in the unceasing battle with the agents of conservatism. If his stylistic solutions were not as radical as his political views were we can hardly accuse him of being dull. With the death also of Christopher Hitchens, the baton passes to the next generation - although Vidal had not been as visible in his final years as he had previously been - who will draw on his strength of character and unwillingness to back down in the fight. Vidal's future readers may be those who go out seeking inspiration and community among the ranks of progressive writers.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

China's medal dominance should be a red flag to foreigners

Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen qualifies
fastest in a heat.
Australians are sensing that something has changed with this Olympics. It's still early in the games but this early part of the competition is when the swimming medal races are held. And the traditional face-off between the US and Australia has fallen by the wayside; in it's place is a battle between the US and China.

China is leading the medal count, with the US in second place. But look further down the rankings. Russia is placed ninth. But North Korea is placed fifth. Under Communism, the Soviet Union was always a top-ranking competitor. Under democracy it has slipped in the rankings down to a more realistic slot, one which more credibly reflects its domestic priorities. For Communist China and Communist North Korea, winning medals remains the first priority. Glory is everything. Face must be kept.

These regimes are using Olympic medals to justify oppressive, totalitarian government. For China's leadership, the medal count may satisfy the population's appetite for victory but the people are still unable to access the internet freely, cannot vote, and have no choice in how they are governed. Managing a democracy is harder than training the human show-ponies needed to bolster the internal standing of the ruling Party.

Doping was one thing that Jacques Rogge talked about in his opening address. But the vast amounts of capital that China's Party is throwing at training athletes in order to facilitate their hold on power is equal to illegal substances in its ultimate effect.

Chinese athletes winning medals are doing so because they are nurtured and supported financially by the regime. They are like some sort of esoteric collection of catamites, the Party's harem of trained perfection. There is something wrong with this picture. It is an indicator of economic excess channelled toward achieving national greatness above all else, even self-determination. If this is the aim of the government, then we must conclude that foreigners in fact do have to worry about China. China's Olympic success is actually a red flag to nations overseas: to win at all costs.