Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Sitrep - 30 March, 2016

Three explosions in the bureaucratic heart of the European Union killed 35 people on March 22. The attacks, later claimed by the Islamic State (IS), targeted the Brussels International Airport in Zaventem and the Maalbeek metro station. An unexploded device was located near the airport and Brussels security services have since conducted raids in adjacent suburbs against other suspected terrorists.

A handful of high-profile arrests were made in the weeks leading up to the attack – one of which nabbed the alleged mastermind of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. The attacks and this arrest appear to be connected. The Brussels strikes were poorly planned and rushed, indicating the cell may have been spooked into a “use it or lose it” situation, deciding to conduct the attack at an inopportune time.

However, the type of explosives (triacetone triperoxide, or TATP) used indicates the terror cell has significant competence and a skilled bombmaker who is still at large. There is suspicion the same bombmaker was involved in the Paris attacks. TATP is a notoriously difficult explosive to synthesise, named “the mother of Satan” by Hamas. Brussels security services are hunting the remains of the cell.

Government troops loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad retook the UNESCO World Heritage city of Palmyra in southern Syria from the militant group IS. The militants had controlled the city since May 2015. The operation to reconquer the city took three weeks, hundreds of Russian airstrikes and reportedly killed dozens of loyalist troops and perhaps only a few hundred IS fighters.

The low number of IS deaths suggest the group strategically withdrew the bulk of its forces from the city, rather than staying to fight. The city was certainly more important for Damascus –proximate as it is to crucial regime supply lines – than it was for the militant group. Mr Assad’s forces were also bolstered by Russian Special Forces, Hezbollah fighters and a whole host of troops harking from Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.

Although pushing IS from Palmyra represents another very public loss of IS territory, it should not be seen as a strategic defeat for the group. Since it is unlikely loyalist forces will expand across the Syrian desert towards IS core territory, the group can fall back to conduct guerrilla and spoiling attacks to hassle regime supply lines without threatening its own strategic interests.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The clash of ideologies in the shadows

A strange thing bobbed to the surface this week in Syria. While this scenario happens all the time, across the world, the situation isn’t supposed to be revealed – let alone framed. But here it is, clear as day.

The LA Times reports that two or more Syrian militia groups engaged each other near the crippled northern city of Aleppo. Perhaps that’s not startling, given the hundreds of estimated rebel groups arrayed against Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Except in this case, one militia group was backed by the CIA, while the other was apparently receiving support from the Pentagon.

Technically, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) receive Pentagon support and one of its cohorts did clash with CIA-backed Arab and Turkmen rebels. However, the details are murky on who supports whom and why. So while this scenario doesn’t imply US interagency warfare, something is happening in the shadows for which the standard model of international relations doesn’t account.

Now, this curious story might ring some bells for clever readers. As this column previously described, the CIA is a State Department entity and the Pentagon is controlled by the Department of Defence. Those departments are most accurately understood as two power bases competing for control over the US government. They each chase this goal – not only within the continental US – but using other countries’ conflicts too, as in Syria.

In this case, Washington’s explanations for the clash range from the fog-of-war and Russian intervention to ethnic tensions and the usual lack of communication between US government departments. Standard stuff, really. But it is much more informative to view this event through the lens of competitive imperial projects. And yes, there is more than one imperial project alive today.

The rebels, whether they know this or not, represent a fronts in the imperial project known as the “international democratic movement”. This movement is presently conducted by the US government, but it predates America. The leftist or democratic tradition in Anglo-American history is almost four hundred years old. If you read Hobbes’ Behemoth (‘Or, The Long Parliament’), it'll pop right out at you in full colour. Today, wherever resides a parliament, so also is the “movement”.

For instance, all OECD countries are members and regardless of nominal boundaries the movement appears to coordinate policy not just in the US, but throughout the Western world. The long-term goal is to spread the ideology globally. In true Orwellian terms, we call the member nations of the UN “independent countries”. Actually most are American satellites at best, possessions at worst. Even those with partial sovereignty, Russia and China, are sterile upstarts with no real relationship to the old civilizations of the Romanovs or the Qing.

Within this movement there are total and partial client states. A total client is friendly with all important elements in the sponsor state (State and Defence Departments). The revolutionary states were (and are) partial clients – friendly with some sponsor state elements, and hostile (often to the point of actual war) to others. The client needs the sponsor, because the friendly elements protect him from the anger of the hostile elements. Thus the relationship is symbiotic, and can continue for decades.

In the standard international relations model, all the world’s death and destruction is the fault of the enemies of democracy. It follows then that human civilization cannot tolerate the existence of nondemocratic states – since they caused all this death and destruction. So democracy conquers the world and produces an outbreak of peace. To conquer is to pacify. The fact tells you nothing about the goodness of the conquering ideology.

Basically, the self-interpretation of the standard model is that the US conquered the world in self-defence. All alternative ideologies are a threat. Which may be accurate, but it sounds strange. Fascism was an alternative, for example, but it was crushed. And Communism? Well, democracy is socialism – the two are the same. In actuality, the international democratic movement hasn’t had a real enemy for half a century.

The empire is already far advanced. The question now is which Washington faction will have final power. The rebel clash in Syria is a rare instance of this contest spilling into the mainstream. It should be no surprise that the rebels are fighting for freedom and democracy. They probably think it was their idea.

These ribbons can be tied neatly together if we bring in the Islamic State (IS). Theirs is the only, although very weak, alternative to the movement which is also trying to carve its own imperial regime. Both IS and the movement are equally religious, and equally bent on world domination. Neither shies from using violence to achieve empire.

Anglo-American democracy was the last philosophy standing in the 20th century. Not because it is perfect and lovely, but because it was more lethal to its neighbours and predatory than its enemies’ ideology. It hasn’t yet bared its true fangs against the Islamic State’s imperial project because IS isn’t anywhere near as threatening to the advanced of the movement as the media portrays.

That Syrian rebels are fighting each other, Damascus (which has a seat at the UN) and the Islamic State should be no shock to the astute observer. That is what clients of the movement do. The Nazis never wanted to control the world, but IS does. Both are feeling the heavy hand of the most successful and predatory imperial project in human history. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Trump violence: the mask of progressivism slips, but only for a second

Something interesting happened the other week in the US presidential primaries and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I finally figured out why. So rather than letting it die with the rest of the news cycles, I’d better write it up before it goes out of date. Not because I’m bored, but because I think I noticed something no one else has.

Without going into too much detail, on March 19 protesters attempted to stop drivers from attending a Donald Trump rally in Arizona by blocking a road leading to the venue, stopping traffic for 90 minutes. On March 12, professional protester Thomas DiMassimo rushed the stage at a Trump event forcing Mr Trump’s protective security detail to defend the candidate. On March 11, a violent protest broke out at a rally in Chicago and after Mr Trump cancelled the rally citing safety concerns the protesters called him a coward. A large group of anti-Trump demonstrators started fights which were caught on video.

When I saw this, I assumed nothing out of the ordinary: given the highly charged political atmosphere in the world’s largest economy, something like this was inevitable. After all, every US presidential race is considered to be the “worst” in its history. Come on, news won't sell with passive headlines saying the race is “nasty, but not as bad as last time”. That’s just not sexy.

What got my attention wasn't the media's coverage, it was something much more sinister.

Before I get into that, I need to explain the model I use when assessing US politics. The first thing I need to make clear is that Washington is not controlled by the President of the United States. Despite what many people think, including the vast majority of US citizens, their votes have no effect on the true power base in the Beltway. Every time I start to think the President, or even the Prime Minister in New Zealand, has real power I remember the old saying: if voting changed anything, they wouldn’t let us do it. Whoever sits in the Oval Office throne room is essentially the public face of Washington so citizens have someone to blame or praise (depending on the day/hour) and little more than a pen pusher who signs policy proposals given to him (or her).

Where does the President get these proposals from? A strange groups of creatures from across the avenue called “civil servants” create policies using their superior knowledge and data-gathering abilities. Working groups are set up in the State, Energy, Agriculture, Defence and all the other massive government departments structures in the city. Sometimes the President may ask one of the magical departments to work on a policy, but this is rare, and if the President proposes their own policy the civil service will nod politely while backing slowly out of the room. All policies are thought, written and delivered by the permanent civil service alone. No help from the White House needed, thank you very much.

Where the proposals come from isn’t the most important question, however. What we really need to ask is who these people in the civil service are? Why are they “permanent”? And to whom do they answer?

The answers are: they are citizens with perhaps some experience in administration or the relevant field (but generally only have experience in government, so it’s kind of a downwardly-spiralling feedback loop); they are permanent because although they can be hired using a procedure similar to that found in business, they cannot be fired by the President directly; and they answer to no one - least of all the President. They are working “on behalf of the American people”, a job which can always be renewed regardless of “results”. And they do have power, oh yes, all of the power.

Before I go on, be aware that this structure happens in other Western countries too. Any government with a permanent civil service has the same formula. You can thank the British for that.

This was precisely the way the Founding Fathers designed government. At the time, these people had just escaped what they characterised in England as a repressive and undemocratic monarchist regime. They didn’t like the king, but they ironically believed the permanent civil service was fantastic. As a result, they wrote into the US Constitution a separation of powers between three branches of government: the judicial, legislative and executive. They didn’t want domestic decision-making powers to be in the hands of a single branch, such as the executive. Such a consolidation might lead to exactly the same problems experienced in the Old World. It might not happen in the first few decades, but given time, the probability of a political system producing an individual with an insatiable appetite for power drops to 1. It always does. Creating a heterarchy - rather than a hierarchy - where a series of institutions each have some power, but not all the power, was going to be a prophylactic.

All this worked more or less swimmingly until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took control of the executive office in the early 20th century. As part of his two “New Deal” proposals, he greatly expanded the power and size of the permanent civil service. The powers of the branches of government were diluted, including the office of the executive. In effect, FDR had weakened his own and the other branch’s power in favour of a faceless edifice with thousands of employees.

He did this because he was a firm believer in a political ideology known as “progressivism”. The idea had gained traction in the American political system since before the First World War, but it hadn’t quite cracked the establishment. People in academia, for instance, who expounded the concept were considered a little loony at best and agitators at worst. They were watched closely. This was known as the “Progressive Era”. Wikipedia can explain:

“Progressivism in the United States is a broadly based reform movement that reached its height early in the 20th century and is generally considered to be middle class and reformist in nature. It arose as a response to the vast changes brought by modernisation, such as the growth of large corporations and railroads, and fears of corruption in American politics. In the 21st century, progressives continue to embrace concepts such as environmentalism and social justice. Social progressivism, the view that governmental practices ought to be adjusted as society evolves, forms the ideological basis for many American progressives. 
“Historians debate the exact contours, but generally date the "Progressive Era" from the 1890s to either World War I or the onset of the Great Depression, in response to the perceived excesses of the Gilded Age.”

There is a lot packed into those two paragraphs. I only need to bring your attention to the sentences: “It arose as a response to the vast changes brought by modernisation” and “progressives continue to embrace concepts such as environmentalism and social justice”. Do these ideas remind you of anything? Anything at all? Perhaps another ideology floating around Europe at the time which “embraced” similar goals. If you can’t think of it now, don’t worry because it goes by another name. We’ll get to that in due course, read on.

The actions of FDR certainly sound strange to anyone educated at one of the Western world’s many august universities. Diluting one’s own power would surely be the worst thing for someone already in power, wouldn’t it? And yet, FDR did exactly this. His decision was a direct consequence of his political beliefs. Progressives, remember, are the antithesis of conservatives. Where conservatives believe government should be structured towards a handful of institutions from which decisions are made without recourse to a higher authority, progressives want to break down such structures to spread power over a wide area of society. Conservatives desire order while progressives desire anarchy.

In progressivism, breaking down order gives more people and institutions a piece of that power, albeit diminishing in size as each person gets a slice. To them, the more government, the better. Nothing could be more divine than setting up a new working group to create more policies. And since all of that requires money, taxes rise and government hiring is prioritised.

The size of a standard Western government in 2016 is magnitudes larger than the decade before, or the decade before that - all the way back to FDR. All Western countries act similarly because of a small skirmish in Europe commonly called World War II. You might have heard of it. As we all know (because they won’t shut up about it) the US won that facas and secured the privilege of writing the new world rules and agenda. The League of Nations became the United Nations, and was given a clear mandate for encouraging spread of the victorious of the three versions of democracy - parliamentarianism - to every corner of the globe until everyone was “free”, in the required direction, of course.

Meanwhile in the US, FDR’s legacy continued and progressives doubled-down, spurred on by the knowledge that parliamentarianism was now effectively unquenchable. The US and its allies had just defeated one of the other versions of democracy - fascism - in a decisive victory. No more Brown Shirts, hooray! And seeing their way was clear, the progressive movement turned its attention to the domestic culture of the US to begin a cleansing programme that continues today. So began the culture wars and rights movements organising equality for previously marginalised groups such as African-Americans and women.

Today the progressive movement controls the US political system, and by extension it is the dominant ideology of all major nation-states and many minor ones as well. One of the central tenets of the movement, not included in the Wikipedia write-up, is the concept of “permanent revolution”, whereby there is always order to be deconstructed. The low-hanging fruit of Black Rights and Women’s Rights were achieved quickly. But according to the ideology there is still much work to be done, as anyone with an internet connection would have noticed with the arrival of LGBT rights and the current fight to control the internet speech/behaviour.

All decisions in Washington are informed by the tenets of progressivism, including free speech, human rights, labour laws, environmentalism and many others. Perhaps it’s worth another article, but the movement shares a frightening amount with Christianity. Scholars such as John Gray say progressivism - and its philosophical sibling “humanism” - is essentially Christianity without the supernatural. This makes sense because the early Americans were Puritan Christians from England. They brought those ideas with them and soon separated out the political from the spiritual, both of which were intertwined within Christianity from the religion’s birth. This is why progressivism and its adherents appear to act religiously and with almost messianic ambition - they are Christians without a god, which is why they are called “secular”.

Earlier I hinted that progressivism goes by another name. I’m not trying to give everything away, but it starts with ‘C’, or sometimes ‘S’, depending on the country. It’s the third version of democracy along with parliamentarianism and fascism. The Russians called it “communism”. However at polite dinner parties it’s called “socialism”. Progressivism shares many details with those ideals, what saves it from subsuming the nasty connotations is only the name. Without that the jig, as they say, would be up. If you doubt this, consider the anger and disgust poured onto the version known as fascism. There’s nothing more destructive for a political career than to be called a fascist. And Adolf Hitler is pretty much a universal yardstick for evil. This is no accident, it is precisely the post-WWII propaganda goal under the direction of the progressive movement.

Anyone reading 20th century history knows Hitler wasn’t the only person who killed large numbers of people, nor was fascism the bloodiest version of democracy. Both parliamentarianism and communism slaughtered millions, and yet neither version is interrogated with anything like the scrutiny leveraged against fascism. Isn’t that curious? It’s almost as though communism was export of US progressivism, which emerged from the English Puritans, which itself is a version of Christianity, which in turn adopted the idea of democracy from the Greeks. One big happy family. After all, you can’t have the Russian revolution without the French, and the French revolution needed the American experiment to get started, and before the American’s kicked off the British revolution was the instigator. It all starts in Europe: Karl Marx was a Prussian who wrote in London. You can draw a direct line through them all, and today that line is called progressivism - the core of the left. Ladies and gentlemen, the system.

This is my model for analysing the US government. And it told me to pay attention to the violent protests. So with the background out of the way, the rest of this article will (hopefully) make more sense. Fingers crossed.

What protects progressivism from association with communism or socialism is a mix of sheer self-denial and a century of propaganda. Since the three share tenets, progressives must avoid at all costs being boxed in with the other two. In the US, it is perfectly acceptable to hate socialist and communist regimes, especially if they are violent and repressive. The fewer American values a horrible leftist regime displays, the easier this narrative is to sell. Progressives are liberals too, certainly, but they would never do anything like that. No no, theirs is a wholesome and righteous process of government, not corrupted and genocidal.

This is all bullshit, of course. And no one is counting how many people have died as a result of its policies to make the world after its own image. Think, for instance, about how many people have died in North Korea simply because the progressive international community want it to be a democracy, not a monarchy. Or consider the overthrow of repressive regimes, or the sanctions enacted forcing sovereign nations to adopt “human rights” and other “freedoms” against their will. In progressivism this is all good and proper, and although no one will say so, eggs must be broken to make an omelette. The world would be much better, say progressives, if all nations believed.

Ideally the movement tries to avoid violence when shaping the world. Hypothesising that using violence makes them look alarmingly similar to communist regimes or socialist revolutionaries. No, it is better to spread the good word via government apparatus’ with finance and “advisors”. And should one day the need arise to use force, the Defence Department can always be trusted to get things done and take the blame. Far better to let that recalcitrant department believe it’s gaining some power for a few months than reveal the progressive movement’s true colours. Bonus: the Pentagon can be blamed for all the violence and Foggy Bottom can work to chip off a few Defence Department institutions such as CIA or NSA when it smells blood (CIA has already been nabbed, while NSA has withstood the latest attacks but is in no way safe).

Anyway, back to Trump.

The entire progressive civil service (redundant) has thrown all its tricks at Mr Trump’s campaign. From impugning his family to inventing lies that he is racist, xenophobic and misogynist. And still he doesn’t budge. Mr Trump doesn’t represent a breakdown of the civil service, nor does he represent the truth - whatever that is. Rather, Mr Trump represents a more effective lie for an alternative ideology. It goes far beyond the Republican/Democrat divide, which is largely theatre anyway.

At the cancelled rallies, progressives were unlocking a dusty old box they thought they’d never need again. Inside lies the instructions for direct action. Shutting down rallies using violence is the definition of terrorism, most people didn’t recognise it as such without the exploding cars. But terrorism it was. And the only end of the political spectrum that can effectively use violence to achieve its goals is the left. In fact, any group effectively using violence to alter politics is left by definition (al Qaeda is a leftist movement). This explains why the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik was unsuccessful in his direct action - you can’t use violence to bring about order, it is only effective in creating anarchy.

Let me spell this out in case it isn't yet clear: progressivism are so concerned about Mr Trump’s popularity that they briefly sidelined their long-term strategy to masking its connections to communism and socialist movements when its members used violence to affect political results - in America. That is a big deal.

Now, I’m sure this was all a misstep that progressives will try to avoid making again, but I sense desperation and more violence could be coming. Not from Trump supporters, mind you. From progressives supporting Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Again, political violence is only effective if undertaken by the left. If conservative groups organise violence it is disgusting and maligned by everybody equally. It doesn’t work anymore.

This is why the media, which is an arm of the government captured by the progressive ideology, had no idea what to do with the footage of the violent leftist agitators. News companies have filing cabinets full of condemnations for rightist violence, but draw a blank for leftist violence. Do you see? Leftist political violence hasn’t happened in the US for decades, and back then it was among minority groups not mainstream progressives.

So perhaps this election race will be worse than previous campaigns. That will depend on a few things. If Mr Trump continues to befuddle the standard bag of progressive political tricks, then that dusty old box might be wiped off and exposed to bright sunlight. The progressive movement doesn’t think it is doomed - enough elites still believe for it to persist for at least another two or three generations, and fresh refugees receiving benefits will keep them in power for at least that time. Rather, the fear arises because the most serious societal group likely to organise revolution - the white middle class - is rallying behind Mr Trump because they feel marginalised and abused. They have felt thus for generations now, with each decade introducing more things to hate about the group. They feel assaulted from all sides.

They are sick of being called evil, useless and inferior while other groups are coddled and protected by progressives. The white middle class has watched the promised American dream of ever-rising living standards dissolve as jobs are offshored or simply disappear. They are now reacting to this worsening economic and cultural environment afflicting the country and people they love, and may found a Presidential candidate that just might change things. To the progressives, this represents the worst possible scenario: a wholesale failure to maintain the psychological capture of the core of America.

The progressive movement will have none of this. They have worked too long and too hard to break down the old structure of the white middle class for some irreverent construction mogul with hilarious hair capture the minds of exactly the societal group which, if it gets angry, could actually affect serious change. There aren’t enough minorities in the world to coalesce together to defeat a mobilised white middle class. That is the fear for the ruling elites in the Western world - it has always been the fear.

At those rallies we saw what progressives were prepared to do to stop Mr Trump. Direct action appears to have spooked many of them, but as soon as they shake off their squeamishness and notice Mr Trump polling, more violence will be planned. It is all they have remaining. And because of this, a dilemma occurs: let the mask slip and reveal the true leftist colours of the progressive movement, or watch Mr Trump mobilise the white middle class. That is not a nice choice to face, and many elites will now be wondering when they screwed up to let this happen.

Up until 2016, the movement didn’t need to use violence because psychological capture was sufficient. But that box of direct action tricks was always sitting in the basement. Now that it's out, will they be able to maintain the fiction, or is this the beginning of the end? It is certainly the end of the beginning.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The pornography of superhero movies - or not...yeah, totally not

I hate the sophomoric habit of many internet writers to compare every trope or cliché in a genre or medium to porn. Porn is sensory and libidinal by definition. It implicates base feelings of power and weakness. Pornography is the reduction of sex to a meaningless act.

It's true that the treatment of some subjects with certain kinds of imagery can be thought of as pornographic.The coverage of war in media, for instance, is a prime candidate. Focusing as it does on the weapons, the bombs, the explosions. It's often used to captivate people by appealing to many of the same basic impulses as pornography, but with non-sexual imagery of dominance and violence. And like porn, this coverage renders meaningless the human and political conflict at the centre of war.

Similarly, the excessive and pointless abuse, gore and viscera of many horror films - divorced from any of the storytelling devices of suspense, foreboding, anxiety or neurosis - plays to those same instincts too. It's a major reason why I can't watch either these films or war footage. Furthermore the dominance and exploitation through violence mimics pornography. Yet violence itself (specifically the loss of innocence, victim creation and the lunacy of the violator) is rendered meaningless, which is the film's entire point.

Not every tired symbol or plot line is pornographic however. Tragedy cannot be porn, it is intellectual and emotional. It is one of the few fundamental types of stories. Tragedy cannot be divorced from story, because it is the story - and without the story there is nothing. More importantly, porn has the characteristic of being disposable. It is devoid of any content except that which is superficially present. Tragedies are often defining events in the lives of story characters. They are the opposite of the meaninglessness of pornography.

I've got a lot of problems with superhero movies, not least of which is the adolescent nature of the tales. Superhero stories use traditional story lines to transform the medium into something more than it is, more than it can be.

Consider the Joker character. He routinely kills people, but none of those murders are considered "tragic". What would qualify as tragic (and undesirable porn) is if the story dwelt on the death of the poor character by linking it somehow to the hero. And what would make it porn is when the violence is "too real", or at least more real than the endless flow of meaningless violence and anonymous victims saturating these movies under normal circumstances. What people really object to when they complain of "porn" is the use of realistic story lines (or what passes for realistic in the medium) to interrupt the actual superhero violence which is the genre's cliché. That's weird to me.

After all, what's more onanistic than watching scene after scene of rippling, muscle-bound superheroes smashing buildings and shooting energy beams out of their friggin' heads? Specifically, what do these complainers think the viewer is experiencing when they watch conventional superhero movies? It can't be different.

The reason death is integral to these movies is precisely because the violence is meaningless. It's an escape from meaning. How many people has the Joker killed? Thousands, probably, but the director is obviously okay with that. Yet when he breaks Batman's or Batgirl's back (I forget which one) and we dwell on his/her misery over the next few scenes, that's "porn"? Some people find it unacceptable to watch even the semblance of a realistic treatment of the effects of violence in superhero movies, because the reason they started watching in the first place was to consume meaningless violence.

I think that logic is totally backwards. If we are going to draw the analogy to porn, then it is more accurate to say superheros are always pornographic, except when they aspire to stories of greater importance to the characters than the typical death scenes.

If, for instance, Watchmen was the ne plus ultra of the superhero medium, then the medium is doomed. Compare that pinnacle with its counterparts in novels, music or other film genres. Those have the ability to change the way we live and interpret memories. They are works of art with density and power of meaning that can take a lifetime to fathom and unpack.

Superhero movies are the opposite. Yes, occasionally a work of significance sneaks into theatres disguised as something conventional. But most of the time, what passes for a good movie is entirely conventional. And it's pretty clear to me that directors and producers aren't to blame for the current movie ghetto. It's the audience.

The choices of Brussels and its bombers

I almost didn’t write anything about the Brussels bombings, because, what else is there to say that hasn’t already been said?

Most of the world’s newspapers are running copy-and-paste stories with only the names and details of previous and similar attacks changed. Islam, of course, is at the centre again. And it doesn’t matter whether the author writes to condemn Islam, defend Islam or draw attention to the “good” people of the religion. It’s all been written before and I’m sick of it.

The facts are simple: three bombs killed more than 30 people and wounded 200 others in the heart of Europe. One attack was at the Brussels international airport while a second targeted the metro line nearby. Two explosions appear to be suicide attacks, making them the sixth and seventh suicide bombings in Europe’s history (the first five occurring during the November 2015 Paris attacks).

A third suicide vest was discovered in the vicinity of the airport. A police raid on a house in the Brussels neighbourhood of Schaerbeek also uncovered another explosive device, chemical products and an Islamic State (IS) flag. A manhunt is now underway for a man captured on CCTV footage at the airport.

But I’m not going to discuss the details further. I’ve already pointed out on multiple occasions why the war on terror is so hard to fight, how terror attacks are the new normal and the attraction of “soft targets” to terrorists such as airports and metro subways. Nowhere is safe, that’s always been true.

All the expected talk of multiculturalism’s failure or the influx of millions of refugees, both “breaking down the cultural norms of Europe”, will be enjoyable dinner table conversation (it’s also a good way to lose friends, and that’s always been true too).

The way I see it, the only question worthy of an answer won’t be asked. It’s not a difficult question because it goes to the core of both individual and collective psychology. The question is one everyone asks themselves at some point in their lives: Who do I wish to be in the future?

Five years or ten years will come regardless of the answer, so isn’t it best to take control now? Because like it or not, we are all choosing our future with every daily action. Everyone must ultimately choose who they are, or else it will get chosen for you.

This stretches from how one’s anger is dealt with, whether to buy that morning coffee, pausing to let someone cross your walking path, staring a few too many seconds out the window, eating at 1pm rather than 1:05pm or picking up a book instead of the TV remote. All are choices and we make millions each day, down to the millisecond.

Those attackers in Brussels made a series of unbroken choices leading all the way to pressing the button on their explosive vests. The people waiting in line at the security desk made a series of unbroken choices until they stood looking bored in the long queue. Every word I write here is a result of choices to include them on the page. And you, dear reader, made a choice to read this story.

It’s a pleasant fiction to believe that fate or luck causes all events. It’s comforting because it removes guilt and culpability, replacing them with ambivalence and resignation. It also denies the agency of the individual. Because to believe “everything happens for a reason”, and for that reason to be fate, is superstition and religious. It is the default mode for frightened humans who only wish to get through life without thinking about how alone they really are. It is a poisonous comfort.

The truth is all choices are binary. An action is either taken or not taken. Grey areas do not exist, and if anyone points out some grey then you are looking only at a lie. Everything is a choice, everything you do is your choice. And yes, that’s frightening, but would you have it any other way?

So what choices did Europe and Europeans make which lead to explosions in Brussels? I’m not interested in whether they are at fault for not accommodating the immigrants more effectively. I’m interested only in asking who or what does Europe wish to be in the future.

Because the millions of EU social policies are all interconnected. It is disingenuous to isolate policies of multiculturalism, for instance, and blame them for specific events in the bloc. A society can’t organise multiculturalism without the spider-web of preceding ideas and laws built around it. Each of those laws and ideas required choices – to take the action or not. That is what is important.

In reality, the Europe of 2016 has grown into exactly the construction it wished to become five or ten years ago. Whatever the benefits or dangers of this present construction are details. The only thing that matters is that Europe made a series of unbroken choices. The bloc now looks to 2021 or 2026 and asks what it wishes to become by the time those years roll around, and a new series of choices will be made to achieve this goal.

Of course arguing over those choices is crucial because they affect every one of the 503 million EU inhabitants. And amongst them is a myriad of groups with differing conceptions of what they wish Europe to look like in 2021. There will be sympathisers of the Brussels attackers too, adherents of a specific Islamic doctrine advocating world domination and the removal of all “infidels”.

Those Islamic fanatics are also making choices towards achieving who they wish to be in the future and how they want Europe to be. From their perspective, their choices are outweighing the choices of Europeans and that is at the core of the scenario. Europe is changing to accommodate the cultural ideas and norms of a new set of people. There are unambiguous consequences for this.

If I’m correct about choices, then this is not a dark conspiracy. It is the direct result of unbroken series of actions taken by an entire continent. This did not happen to Europe as a result of misfortune.

On that logic, what we are witnessing today is precisely the result of choices made five, ten and twenty years ago in Brussels. We can shake our heads in wonder and befuddlement, yet ultimately this has nothing to do with fate or luck. The Europe we see now is the Europe its citizens wanted and now they have to deal with those choices.

Every day you must consciously choose who you are. Choose.

Sitrep - 23 March, 2016

Turkey and the European Union reached a deal to better organise the enormous flow of refugees into the supranational bloc. Over 400,000 refugees are trapped at the Greece/Macedonia border after the Balkans corridor into the EU was closed late last year. Another 3 million refugees, mainly from Syria and Iraq, are currently in camps inside Turkey. So this deal will benefit both parties.

Under the agreement, any refugee landing illegally in Greece from Turkey will be deported back to Turkey immediately. Once in Turkey, he will be placed at the bottom of the asylum list while a fully-vetted refugee replaces the illegal and is sent to Greece for processing into the EU instead. The deal raises some questions about international human rights legality and the ulterior motives of Turkey.

In Iraq, a US Marine was killed by an Islamic State (IS) rocket at a previously unknown firebase 100 kilometres outside of the northern city of Mosul. It is the second death of a US serviceman since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve (in which NZDF trainers are participating). Despite US President Barack Obama’s insistence on having “no boots on the ground” more Marines are now being prepared to deploy to the embattled country.

Elsewhere, 11 days of protests are currently underway in Baghdad lead by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Protests have become relatively commonplace across Iraq over the past year but these demonstrations reflect tensions between the ruling Shiite power base. Many of the protesters want Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s Shiite government rearranged at best, and dissolved at worse. Serious unrest among Iraq’s Shia is possible if the demonstrations turn violent.

An impeachment process could be imminent in Brazil as President Dilma Rousseff struggles to hold on to power and avoid the political system stagnating. Ms Rousseff is facing allegations of corruption and bribery for “financial irregularities” during the drafting of three prior national budgets and for a murky deal involving state-owned oil giant Petrobras.

Brazil has dropped from the world’s 7th largest economy to 9th in a year as the corruption and political stalemate reaches a crescendo. Few policy changes or repairs to assist Brazil’s worsening economy have been possible due to the infighting. Ousting Ms Rousseff’s leadership still could include a handful of options aside from impeachment, none of which will bring the country back into the economic sunlight in the short term.

Monday, 21 March 2016

After 13 years or war, are Iraq and Syria coming back?

A full 13 years have passed since the US and its allies invaded and removed the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Yet Mesopotamia will continue to make headlines for another 13 years at minimum – for all the wrong reasons.

In 2003, the majority of Western military analysts thought the Iraq invasion would be straightforward. And to a large extent they were correct. Fighting to control the country lasted little more than a month as Iraqi regulars and even the elite Republican Guards melted ahead of the advancing mechanised troops.

The CIA had been telling Iraqi soldiers for years to give up their weapons and positions and be treated well after regime change. Their lack of tenacity is therefore no surprise. Yet the resulting government orchestration by US officials was incompetent, leaving many Iraqi soldiers disenchanted and angry. The nasty insurgency and present-day splintering is a direct result of that frustration.

But thousands of angry soldiers aren’t enough to cause such disarray, something else was going on in Iraqi society. The nation itself was a hasty carve-up organised by tired and distracted French and English officials after their victory in WWI. Although the two powers had interacted with the Arab world for decades, they gave little thought to the history of the region’s ethnic population. The glue they used to stitch the region was the structure of the nation state led by authoritarian regimes.

This glue worked for a while, but underneath the patchwork of nation states was a bottle. This bottle was effervescent with mixed ethnic flavours. And for 100 years it was shaken around building up incredible pressure inside. The invasion of 2003 was the metaphorical lid to that bottle being torn off and its contents exploding. We are witnessing what is diplomatically called “transition”, but this sanitary word doesn’t capture the savagery of the region’s struggle for self-determination.

The country known as “Iraq” still has a seat in the UN at Turtle Bay, New York. And the government remains internationally recognised. But it is becoming ridiculous to say that UN seat actually represents a viable sovereign country. Not only is Iraq hosting troops from almost 100 different countries – including New Zealand – those foreign soldiers are the only ones fighting for the integrity of the state. The Iraqis do not see it that way.

Almost every group has long since given up repairing the fractured country and is consolidating what territory they control, while blocking attempts by other groups to expand. Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds are the dominant groupings, each having secured personal patrons from around the world. But there are as many tribes as there are towns in Iraq – each of them wanting some semblance of autonomy or recognition. The politics are messy, to say the least.

In the south, the largest city is Basra where the British focused its attention during last decade’s war. Today it is dominated by Shiites and influenced heavily by Iran. In the centre is Baghdad, where a weak Shiite government tries unsuccessfully to balance every other interest. In the north lies the largest Sunni city of Mosul, where Sunni militants Islamic State (IS) are in control.

100 years ago, the Ottomans divided modern Iraq into three “vilayets”. The empire’s strategy was to allow a measure of self-determination if the people declared loyalty to Constantinople (Istanbul). Where were those vilayets? They were centred on Basra in the south, Baghdad in the centre and Mosul in the north. The region is reverting back to one of its natural formations.

The same dynamics are happening in Syria. Although no country wants to take responsibility for Syria, plenty of countries are involved in its civil war. Russia, the US and others are each acting to both attack IS militants and boost/target Syrian rebel elements against the regime. But none of these tasks have been even remotely successful and the war continues.

Last week Russia decided its military goals for Syria were met, announcing it would remove the “main part” of its force. Russian troops entered Syria in September 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin used the word основный [osnovnyi], which means “main” in a somewhat vague way rather than a more technical or military version of main (главный, glavnyi) or majority (большинство, bol’shinstvo), according to the analyst Robert Kagan. His choice of language was consistent across the statement however, so it was intentional.

While the splintering of Syria into Ottoman-era vilayets isn’t guaranteed, the lines of control look intriguingly similar. The corridor connecting the cities of Latakia and Damascus is under the control of President Bashar al Assad’s ethnic group, the Alawites. An arc between Aleppo and Deir el-Zour is dominated by Sunni rebels and IS militants. And a nascent Kurdish territory tying the cities of Mardin and Arbil (in Iraq) is also forming.

So 13 years after the US invasion of Iraq, the two countries in the cradle of civilisation are wrenching apart into pseudo-states reflecting their individual histories and traditional lands. Yet calls to intervene in Syria and Iraq keep flowing from New Zealand and other Western elites. What exactly can intervention mean, however, if Syria or Iraq have effectively ceased to exist?

Those countries aren’t coming back, and it’s time we started thinking about easing the process of transition by supporting the people on the ground to discuss how they wish to organise their emerging territories in the future.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Why do we feel broke all the time?

Because we are. Most people know what being rich means, but few understand what it means to be wealthy. It’s not a secret. A little creative thinking could change everything for your family.

Retirement savings don’t really count towards wealth because that will be your income after the age of 65. If you blow it all now, you’ll be poor later. So this only leaves liquid assets and equity on one’s house. Do you have kids and want them to attend university? That will likely cost at minimum a juicy $100k, per child, in tuition for their entire education.

So if someone accumulates $100-200k of net worth in their 30's, they aren't doing all that well. They’re doing okay. But that’s precisely the wrong way to think.

Nothing changed because of the 2008 financial crisis. All the problems (and solutions) in that event are exactly where they always have been. The usual explanation for 2008 is that people’s spending spiralled out of control or simply piled up. That isn’t true. Debt is the sum of all purchases made on borrowed money.

If this system works for you, great. Yet the whole process operates on psychology, which preys on the debtor’s anxiety. And because few people are taught how to have a relationship with money which isn't based on worry, consumption impulses manipulated by advertising to satisfy desires or soothe anxiety is what gets people into the mess of debt.

Counter-manipulating those same impulses may save you, only because of the aspiration to live a debt-free life – whatever that is – instead of aspiring to be the kind of person who doesn’t need to drive new cars, or refresh their wardrobe with high frequency.

Spending or controlling money isn’t the path to a better life. Going down that road leads to a life where most of your time and thoughts are dedicated to consumption and money, which is no way to live. You have to think of your grandchildren, and here’s how.

Let’s consider someone who doesn’t yet have kids, but plans to have one in the future.

That person should take $10,000 and put it into a bank account right now. The money shouldn’t sit quietly for 10 or 15 years, rather for 65 years. Assume it receives an average annual real rate of interest (i.e. inflation subtracted from the rate of interest) over this period of 6%. In 65 years, that account will have amassed over $500,000 (in today’s dollars).

But that’s not the clever bit. The clever bit is to teach your kids to do this for their grandchildren. Because if your child rolls the account over for one more generation, then it’ll have been ripening for 95 years in total. Congratulations, your great-grandchild is an instant millionaire three times over.

You (probably) won’t miss the $10,000, and maintenance of the bank account requires absolutely no work on your part. That little move will make the life of a loved one tremendously easier, simply because you are buying down their fears about money. Money is what ends marriages, creates stress and causes people to sacrifice their lives doing jobs they hate. Wouldn’t that be best avoided?

Your kids won't become spoiled brats, because the money isn’t for them. Whoever gets the money must be an adult (only their parents need to know it exists). Everyone in your life still has to work and save. Maybe you can teach your kids to teach their children to forever roll this money over. It isn't about giving someone an easy life. It’s about creating wealth your family can rely on in emergencies.

Now for the really clever bit.

Perhaps you leave the account to ripen for a neat 100 years instead. Leave a letter inside with instructions to be opened only when the account matures a century later.

Now, at a 6% real rate of interest, the account will be just shy of $3.5 million (again, this is in today’s dollars because the interest rate is after inflation). The actual dollar value will be based on the average nominal interest rate or return on revenue (RoR).

After a hundred years, your great-grandkids finally open the letter. And what do they find? Instructions on using the assets in the account as starting capital for their own private bank.

This bank will only lend money to, and accept deposits from, the other great-grandchildren and their children – not the public. So when your great-grandchildren require a loan, they can borrow it from their own bank and pay themselves the interest. Of course it all must be paid back, which reinforces good money habits, and it lets your family’s assets multiply exponentially ensuring they never have to resort to shoddy banks or rely on government benefits to survive.

And before readers say the strategy isn’t worth it, consider that if the interest rate is just 1% higher (7%), after 100 years the account will be worth $8.7 million (more than double). Doing business with family might sound risky, surely it’s much riskier doing business with faceless corporations?

I know it’s a pretty big assumption to assume a constant interest rate of 6% over generations, immune to crashes, taxes, collapses and economic seizures. But this strategy doesn’t require a constant rate, only an average of 6%. Some years will be better, some years worse.

Since 1900 (end-of-year 1899), through 2010, the average total return/year of the DJIA (Dow Jones Industrial Average) was approximately 9.4%. Price appreciation was 4.8%, with 4.7% in dividends. This number does not include inflation, which over the same time frame averages 3.5%. Feel free to check my maths.

Using a larger stock index such as the S&P 500 produces even better results. And some studies of New Zealand’s equity market return over the same time period show an average of almost 11% per year, with a standard deviation of 20%. And don't forget you can invest in anything: gold, China stocks, uranium, SpaceX, etc.

Some people might not have $10K to invest, that’s understandable in this economic climate. But would they have accepted their current job if it and all the other jobs they interviewed for paid a salary of $10k less? Taa daa. I just made you $10k.

If $10k is still too much, guess what, starting with just $500 in 100 years will generate $170,000 at 6%. Even more impressively, $500 balloons to $1 million if the rate only nudges to 8%.

Here’s my point (if you haven't figured it out already): it doesn’t matter how much you start with. What matters is that you start.

There are three variables in this system, and only one of them can possibly be in your control – the starting dollar amount. The time period is 100% certain. A century will pass whether you undertake this task or not. And the interest rate is completely beyond one person’s control, so don't bother worrying about it.

You can’t be sure the real return won't be -1%, nor can you be sure it won't be 14% ($500 at 14% for 100 years is $245 million; start with $10,000 and the account will amass $4.9 billion). It’s called the time value of money, and you should learn it like it’s the fifth fundamental force of the universe.

Currently, you are choosing to put down $0. What I'm suggesting is that you pick any number higher.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Could the Arab Spring happen in New Zealand?

One of the more fascinating dynamics of the Arab Spring movement was its effects on Western observers. There was a palpable jealousy of the protesting Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans.

The jealousy wasn’t drawn from the protester’s ability to rise up against their oppressors. Rather I think it was a realisation long dormant that oppressors are something which can be risen against.

It isn’t that Westerners feel happy – we generally don’t. We seem to be aware that something somewhere is wrong or broken, but it’s hard to take to the streets over it. Not because we can’t, but because we know it won’t matter. The thing that’s broken isn’t really in the streets, or over here or there. In the West, what’s wrong is just as metamorphic and ambulant as the uprising we would mount against it, if we ever figured out a way.

It’s useful to think about this in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, not the defunct and poisonous paradigm of class struggle. In Egypt and Tunisia, the combination of dictatorship and rising food commodity prices nudged those living on the first two tiers of Maslow's pyramid completely off the structure.

At the other end were Wael Ghonim and Mohammed El Baradei. Rich, Western educated elites who achieved great wealth, power and influence internationally yet still felt they hadn't become who they were meant to become. They had a creeping sense of not bringing their lives the meaning that is only achieved through moral action.

Early on in the protests, Mr Ghonim wrote a tweet to his wife saying “we were looking for Egypt.” He felt that whatever success or stature he achieved was diminished when he had to leave his country to do so. He had to stop being Egyptians and be something else, even though deep down he and El Baradei were always Egyptians.

They felt their success and influence gave them a duty to help change what it meant to be an Egyptian, thereby restoring themselves to their culture – “I’m not a moderate Arab, I am simply an Egyptian,” Mr Ghonim tweeted. To mount the revolution was an act of great service and sacrifice but with a clear personal dimension as well. They were finally fulfilling a long-felt duty.

Wide swathes of Egyptians were being confronted with a future in which they could no longer meet their basic survival needs. And combined with this educated elite ashamed of their home country conditions the two pillars allied against the oppressive Mubarak regime, bringing it down. The actual regime collapse included a lot more detail, of course, but those are important dynamics to tease out.

The Arab Spring showed us that power is never overthrown, it is only dissolved. And the drips of its pure liquid always flow between hands, never a molecule disappearing on the way. Solzhenitsyn, in From Under the Rubble, put it best:

The intelligentsia proved incapable of taking action, quailed, and was lost in confusion; its party leaders readily abdicated the power and leadership which had seemed so desirable from a distance; and power, like a ball of fire, was tossed from hand to hand until it came into hands which caught it and were sufficiently hardened to withstand its white heat (they also, incidentally, belonged to the intelligentsia, but a special part of it). The intelligentsia had succeeded in rocking Russia with a cosmic explosion, but was unable to handle the debris.

Power, like a ball of fire! Solzhenitsyn knew what was possible after the Arab Spring. Power, glowing with flame, would spread everywhere. Anyone who could scrape up a piece of it would never have to scrape again. After the revolution, he will be a dignitary, his belly will swell and his children will be well-educated. Yet the revolution died before the power exploded.

What saddens me is that while the protesters wanted freedom, they were tricked. They were sold a flavour of freedom by the Ghonims and El Baradeis that was not freedom at all, only more control. For if a slave is freed, he only shifts control to his new master. The protester’s frustration, acting from vague Westernised dreams of liberalism and equality, were employed for a greater purpose.

The masses in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria each forgot the single most important law of human government: sovereignty is always conserved. If you do not grasp the glowing ball, someone, whose hands are “sufficiently hardened to withstand its white heat”, is certain to grasp instead. After five years of the Arab Spring “revolution”, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

What were Westerners thinking while the Arab Spring played out? We were jammed on the third and fourth levels of Maslow’s pyramid, spending the bulk of our lives trying to build meaningful relationships. To love and be loved, but also to belong. To be part of the culture and the broader collective experience. To be confident that we are considered precious by those close to us and respected by others more distant.

Yet none of this ever happens because those things – those relationships – are mediated. We use Facebook to seek attention, to collect images and messages as proxies for friends and intimacy. We log in and are presented with a wall of bright faces, each photograph smiling at different people, at different times and in difference places. We see them all at once directed at us, and it always rings of oppression, quiet and insidious but oppression nonetheless.

Which of us feels as bright and happy as a wall of dozens of our smiling friends? We understand intellectually that these are only images, but our prehistoric minds see only the happiness we lack. Some friends are scattered across the globe, and all we have left are emails and misty tweets. The crucial bonds formed by shared experience is reduced to status updates or “emoticons”.

To this must be added the stories and myths of our time: the images of advertising and popular culture, delivering unrealistic and impossible expectations. These are our modern religions promising salvation and peace, but delivering only guilt and judgment. Everything is about what is coming next. Showing us what we can become if we act now.

We never belong to anything, we conform. Our sense of belonging is simply membership in a demographic group, and what we think of as culture or experience is only following trends. When another (or, god forbid, newer) demographic group breaks those trends, or even mocks them, we immediately feel old, marginalised and unimportant.

The internet shattered the Society of the Spectacle. But it was replaced with a Society of Infinite Spectacles, each uniquely tailored to our individual conditions at any given moment in time. We each carry with us a unique Spectacle for our custom preferences, changing us over and over in a permanent revolution – the only way of responding to the constant bombardment.

The human brain evolved to handle recounting myths of celestial gods around a campfire, not for the semiotic assault waged by television. We have our own Spectacle – an illusion-fantasy-anxiety machine – roaring ahead full steam. Television is a huge part of this. But so is Facebook and the rest of the internet. And whereas Facebook shattered the Spectacle in Egypt, here in New Zealand it is fully integrated.

What still inspires me about the Arab Spring, even though I know it didn’t work, is the idea that to overcome an oppressive force, people don't have to move against it. They simply have to be. To be still when an apparatus says to move, but in great numbers and at the same place and time. It is sufficient that a multitude declares together that everyone is identical. That we are a mass and cannot be moved, we are simply here. And by being here, it means the oppressors are not.

In the West we each experience the same life at different times, but all of us experience anxiety constantly. Anxiety is the one emotion that never lies. For any physical characteristic or personality trait there exists a cultural artefact, celebrity or Facebook friend surpassing us in every way. Anxiety manifests with the impossibility of being perfect, of being whole.

This disparity is sensed in the present. Everyone knows what they are missing, but they can never attain it, for if they do it will instantly change to some other desire. One of the most insightful of Freud’s many theories is that we don’t necessarily want the object or goal. We just want the wanting.

We in the West make small, insignificant moves on the chessboard to soothe this anxiety. These moves constituting the field or our lives – the kitchen, the gym, the website, the school, the therapist or the confessional. Every one of them a lateral movement in a confined space.

What is known with certainty is that we are all alienated. We can argue whether the alienation is a simple by-product of modern society or a deliberate, predictable and intended consequence of modern society. But we are all alienated. Television and mass media alienate us with an image representative of a reality that does not exist, but which we aspire to see as if it were real.

I used to think that the internet would reduce this alienation, allowing us to communicate directly with each other. But the truth is that the internet reinforces alienation. The greatest advertisement for Facebook is a friend's page with more connections than yours. You are not popular enough. Love is reduced to like, which is quantified because computers are good at that sort of thing. And all the qualitative and unquantifiable aspects of love are marginalised or ignored, because computers are terrible at those things. And by extension, so have we become.

This existence is choking us, but only slightly. At some level we all know this. We watched the Egyptian and Arab experiences and we gasp for air. We can sense that real love, real culture, real purpose is out there. Somewhere. A real-life adjacent to our own.

It’s true that Facebook and Twitter facilitated the Arab Spring, but this ignores the key problem with Twitter – users confuse tweeting with action. There are some people who believe a 140 character message constitutes positive action. The more we view events through Twitter and Facebook – as social networks become the filter through which we interact with reality – the more we will incorrectly believe that our actions on these networks constitute changes in reality.

The function of revolution has always been to create a tension which cannot be relieved in any way until the final moment of action. Thus, the revolutionary act is a release. But if people are venting on blogs or Twitter, they are venting the tension away and pressure doesn’t build.

We want to rise up – but against whom, where and for what? We want to take to the streets but only because it’s what we see others doing.

I don't know. The territory that needs taking, that needs de-territorialising, isn't the street. It's our minds. The apparatus of this Thing, this morphing mutating whatever-it-is, has completely restructured and defined our entire way of seeing and being in the world.

I have no idea how one rises up against this.

Five years later: The complete and utter failure of the Arab Spring

This week marks five years since the beginning of the horrific Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring movement. A net assessment of the affected countries shows the ineffectiveness of the movement.

Protests began in Syria on March 15, 2011 in the capital Damascus as Syrians demanded democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. The protests spiralled into pain and madness when President Bashar al Assad’s security forces opened fire on the protesters, leading to a full-scale civil war and the dissolution of Syria as a viable country.

Over the next five years the conflict would attract almost every major world power, each joining the fight against various Syrian factions – or each other – for their own political purposes. A new generation of jihadists, evolving far past the al qaeda movement, took advantage of the chaos to build what has become known as the Islamic State in both Syria and the riven Iraqi north.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the bulk of his forces in Syria would begin departure from the conflict, having “achieved” the Kremlin’s initial military goals. Bolstering al Assad in Syria and setting the conditions for power-sharing negotiations between the rebels and the regime were indeed accomplished as a result of Russia’s intervention in Syria.

For Mr Putin, intervening in Syria was never strictly about that conflict. Rather it was used to demonstrate Russian power and seriousness to encourage concessions with the West regarding the frozen conflict in Ukraine.

It remains to be seen whether these wider goals can now be realised due to the actions in Syria. The Europeans and the US hold the strategic initiative in Ukraine and will probably conduct tough negotiations with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the Syrian war grinds on.

Of the other three countries deeply affected by the Arab Spring – Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – only Tunisia has managed to forge something resembling a democratic government. Although it is fragile and under pressure by Islamist political forces, the government is currently under the control of Nidaa Tounes party, or Call for Tunisia, following the 2014 election.

Nidaa Tounes has a plurality of seats in parliament and enjoys significant support from the traditional power bases that enabled strongmen such as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba (Tunisia’s founding president) to govern the country. Essentially, some democratic progress has occurred, but not much has changed in the North African country since the protests. Many of Mr Ben Ali’s inner circle are back in power among the judiciary and executive branches.

The story is much the same in Egypt. The country received the most glowing media coverage during the mass protests in early 2011. According to most narratives Egyptian citizens were rising up against the dictator Hosni Mubarak, hoping to encourage a democratic transition.

Instead, the military – to which Mr Mubarak was deeply connected – worked to oust the dictator while paying lip service to protester’s demands. They made this decision because immediately before the protests began Mr Mubarak had nominated a controversial family member to succeed his rule. The military leadership felt threatened by this new face and used the protests as an excuse to remove Mr Mubarak’s regime and retain power.

And after a theatrical democratic election temporarily brought the provocative Muslim Brotherhood party to power in Cairo, the military leadership became concerned with many of the party’s proposed reforms and once again worked to remove the Muslim Brotherhood. Presently, a group of military leaders known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) remain in control of Egypt, as it always has been.

Libya is a broken country after limited democratic protests in the eastern city of Benghazi turned violent in 2011. Dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s regime was subsequently removed from power by a mix of Islamists and ethnic forces in a bloody civil war. Libya was the only country in 2011 where Western forces intervened. When the regime appeared to existentially threaten the uprising, US and European militaries conducted airstrikes to cripple Mr Gadhafi’s forces.

After his regime collapsed, the rebel factions split the country into at least three major sections along existing ethnic and historical lines. All the underlying tensions held together by the dictator have so far precluded the rebels from coalescing into a functional transitional government while strongmen from Mr Gadhafi’s regime have taken control of the various groups.

The UN has attempted multiple times to create a unity government, but each construction has failed. As a result of the present anarchy, an affiliate of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has gained control of the city of Sirte and threatens almost 250 kilometres of territory along the Libyan coast.

Even though Western forces quickly departed Libya after the regime fell, they are now preparing to re-enter Libya under the pretence of fighting IS to provide legitimacy to the nascent unity government.

Other countries across the region experienced only limited uprisings during the months of the Arab Spring. Protests in Bahrain were largely unsuccessful because of an extremely effective and heavy-handed security response by military and police forces of Saudi Arabia, which were invited to protect Bahrain by its government. In Saudi Arabia, the security response to isolated uprisings in the predominantly Shia east were quelled swiftly before they could connect and metastasise.

Saudi Arabia has also been involved in Yemen’s civil war on behalf of the elected President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The fighting may be resolved in the next few months as coalition forces are poised to retake the capital Sanaa. The Yemeni uprising was only peripherally a result of the wider Arab Spring, but protests did undermine the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh leading to instability and worried attention from Riyadh.

Monarchies in Jordan, Oman, UAE and Saudi Arabia all escaped the spread of the Arab Spring. For reasons presently unknown, the royals possessed perhaps both greater legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens and the international community than the unpopular dictators in the afflicted countries, and were able to introduce sufficient security force at critical moments to quell uprisings.

However, Jordan struggles to cope with the weight of millions of refugees fleeing to the country from the Syrian civil war to its north. Amman has set up temporary camps but its infrastructure (Jordan has little fresh water and few natural resources) has been stretched thin for years. The royal family faces only a weak threat from civil unrest, but the dangerous mix of refugees, over-stretched resources and a growing infiltration of terror groups may push it over the edge.

Saudi Arabia is carefully moving through a significant leadership transition as the second generation of its monarchs depart. Although the new rulers are the sons of the outgoing kings, they are a mixed group of highly experienced and unexperienced individuals. The regime is also barely coping with extremely low oil prices (hurting its vital social subsidies programmes).

Riyadh’s rulers have been unable to extinguish the flames of the Arab Spring and will not be blind to the threat against the regime’s status quo from growing democratic fervour. But to avoid the dangers inherent in the grey area of transition, Saudi rulers will need to manage how much political reform they can absorb without undermining the family’s rule. But the balance will be delicate.

Ultimately, while the Arab Spring introduced plenty of turmoil which is still not fully expunged, the pro-democratic movements have largely been a failure.

The reality is that old and entrenched government figures are still in control in most Arab governments or complete anarchy is the political norm. The protesters of five years ago had the heart for change, but not the might. And in the game of power, might will always make right.

Still, those old power structures continue to face challenges. Forces outside their control on a global economic or financial scale could result in a more effective catalyst for true revolutionary change should they compound in the next few years. Oil prices remain low and unemployment is high, alongside many of the very same reasons that boiled over in 2011 and haven’t been addressed.

Western actions over the past decade in the Arab world were a factor in stirring the unrest. Many protesters were hoping to foment democratic reform, an observation leading to the naming of the uprisings as the “Arab Spring.” But it is important not to deny the agency of the demonstrators.

A significant group of people desired change, but in the direction of more austere cultural traditions such as Islam – not for greater liberal values. These forces remain a strong undercurrent in Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria especially. Their goal was to remove the entrenched leaders not because they were undemocratic, but because they were not traditional enough. What this means in practise to the individual ethnic groups is as varied as the countries themselves, and doesn’t suggest an easy answer.

There are great divisions still raw across the Arab world, and far greater splits occurring along the ancient lines of Islam. The question is whether the violence observed today will reach a conclusion, or will continue seemingly without end in a cyclical nature or perhaps as a continued deterioration.

Or perhaps seeds of true change were planted in 2011 which will eventually lead to democratic and liberalised democracy. Washington, especially, would appreciate this outcome. It pays to remember that Europe spent centuries of nasty internecine conflict before it evolved away from religious wars to the consensus of the “nation state” system.

Perhaps the Arab world too is on this same path. But it is not a guarantee. If so, then at minimum the international community can expect an entire generation of fear and trembling in the region. Yet geopolitics moves quickly there and the Arab Spring surprised every intelligence agency on the planet. Predicting what happens next will always an imperfect science, to say the least.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Sitrep - 16 March, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week announced a surprise withdrawal of the “main force” of his troops in Syria. Mr Putin says the intervention has “achieved its goals” but will retain forces at airbases and a naval base in Latakia province as the five-month withdrawal takes place.

The objectives of Russia in Syria were twofold: stabilise legitimate authority and create conditions for political compromise. Both of these have largely been accomplished. And peace talks in Geneva this week may result in a path towards a power transition in Damascus. Russia retains the option to return to Syria, but its wider concerns in Ukraine and Europe may also have changed positively.

Western forces are also preparing for a return to a broken Libya. The reason? To drive Islamic State affiliates from the coastal town of Sirte, a city of 80,000. IS forces are not as strong in Libya as its parent group is in Syria, but the potential remains for the group to use the anarchy in Libya to launch transnational attacks – Rome is, after all, only a few hundred kilometres away.

Italy, France, the US and UK are all pre-positioning Special Forces in the country in preparation for thousands of ground troops. It is unclear when or if those troops will arrive, but the seriousness of the outside powers concerning the country is notable. A unity government has struggled to take root and gangs still rule the country. Western troops will help consolidate a new government.

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have moved to within 10 kilometres of the international airport in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Forces loyal to President Mansur Hadi, with support from Riyadh, are mustering troops in preparation for a strike on the capital. Fighting in the city will be bloody as rebel forces have had a long time to defend.

Some indications of backroom deals are emerging for a post-conflict reality. Talks between Houthi rebels (supporters of the ousted president) and Saudi Arabia for a ceasefire along Yemen’s northern border is underway. The Houthis are in a good strategic position to negotiate for robust political influence. Meanwhile, al qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to hold significant territory in the south.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The long Western sigh and a return to Libya

Five years after the Arab Spring, Western forces and intelligence teams are preparing the Libyan battlefield for another intervention in its horrific civil war. The only way to make sense of this half-hearted return is to see what Washington cannot: that a progressive worldview is incompatible with an imperial project.

Libya is broken not because it was invaded or because warring ethnic divisions collapsed the regime. It is broken because the revolutionary desire of Libyan citizens to adopt western political values was clumsily abused by the adolescent, contradictory and self-centred worldview of Washington elites.

Recall the media’s explanation of the uprising: social networking. The internet is the quintessential American invention. Everyone who engages with it is educated on US progressive values. During the 2011 uprising, rioter’s looked like Libyans, but their clothing, technology and speech was all Western.

The very bones of the internet are named “freedom of speech” and “egalitarianism”. No wonder the uprisings were delivered to us as a demand for democracy and a desire for civil rights. How unjust, the Americanised rioters yelled, was the misfortune of being born in Libya! Borders are meaningless in this digital world! Indeed. Boundaries are precisely the reactionary artefact the US imperial project wishes to erase.

The progressive message was delivered worldwide over decades by the tongues of the US State Department, the press’s eye and by the Department of Defence’s cold and useless fist. Libyan liberals thought they understood the message: Democracy is assured, now rise up with the full support of the US empire!

But they were mistaken because the US imperial project contains a contradiction. Progressivism will not cease until every country is democratic and free. There are no enemies in this worldview, only citizens who are not yet naturalised.

Yet progressivism itself precludes Washington from forcing countries along that route. It wants the world to be “free” but they must come to that conclusion themselves. Using weapons to compel others is antithetical to liberal progressivism. That would be walking a dangerous path to colonialism or much worse.

So President Barack Obama surveyed the Libyan situation in both 2011 and today, testing the weight of the contradiction, and chose the only action available in this ideology: small footprint with speedy extraction. Just enough to cripple dictators or jihadists, but avoiding the attachment of nasty colonial strings to Washington’s “liberal” Libyan puppets. And puppets they most certainly are.

Since Libyan liberals do not in fact govern today – since they cannot in fact govern – no one section rules. Everyone rules, including the Islamic State which adores a vacuum. This is anarchy, real anarchy, a temporary but very unpleasant state. American war planes assisted in 2011, but the necessary American help was non-existent. It was left to Libya’s liberals who discovered the ugly truth that although they have the power to un-rule Libya; rule it, they could not

Once Twitter twittered the old dictator out of power, the country was without police, riven by rebel factions and the remnants of Moammar Gadhafi’s officer corps. The gangs became smart, turning into political parties and acquiring paramilitary wings. The lesson was simple: Sovereignty is conserved. You can spread it around, but don't expect to enjoy the result.

Beltway elites missed this lesson. Washington exhorted the Libyans to revolt, and when they lost it was none of its business. Because after helping their liberal Libyan friends commit spectacular political suicide in 2011, it is back for more. Behold foreign-policy “realism”: ie, selective isolationism. It’s a good thing jihadists now threaten Libyan, because killing terrorists is less intellectually demanding than reappraising a defunct progressive political ideology.

Bombs won’t change anything if the fundamental problem is the incompatibility of progressivism with the maintenance of an imperial project. Until American elites figure out a workable model to govern this empire, Special Forces will deploy again and again, to no effect. Not just in Libya either.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The reality of Reality TV

Reality TV is not successful because it creates a sense of community. Reality TV is successful because it provides an outlet for judgement borne of ignorance.

People love watching X-Factor because they can pass judgement on the talent of others on-stage. The same is true for Survivor, Amazing Race, the Biggest Loser, etc. If it is on television, shot on video and doesn't involve actors reading from a script, the show survives based on an audience's judgement of what they see. It has nothing to do with reality. It has everything to do with fooling the audience into reaffirming that there are, actually, people lower on the totem pole after all (thank god...).

Reality TV serves three key functions: it is cheap to produce for all the reasons people say. More importantly, it is immediate. Viewers don't dare record the show if their friends will be talking about it tomorrow. This immediacy, codenamed "event" television, allows the producers to sell advertisements inside the show because the advertisers believe more people will be watching it live compared to ordinary TV shows.

The third key function is the one described in the article: it conveys a sense of community. What the article does not say is that the community is illusory. You think you are part of a community, but in reality you are one of millions of isolated people opening your homes so liars and hustlers can enter. As the article says:

A good player on one of these shows is, to me, as talented at what they're doing as the average ball player; people will scoff at that but I honestly think it's true: the ability to manipulate 10 - 20 different personalities into doing what you want them to do is just as remarkable a skill as throwing a ball 100mph.

This is utterly absurd. To throw a ball 100 mph requires hundreds of thousands of hours for the pitcher himself. Not to mention the coaches, trainers, physical therapists, nutritionists and others. All working at the the peak of their profession. People have been manipulating each other since humans formed communal groups. They've only been throwing balls 100mph for a few decades. That is a significant human achievement, representing the dominance of the human body by science. It may not be an important achievement, but it is notable, on par with the 4 minute mile.

Furthermore, the notion that "manipulat[ing] 10 - 20 different personalities into doing what you want" is laudable or should be encouraged is heinous. We call these people con artists. We are supposed to avoid them, not relish in their success.

And anyway, manipulating 10-20 people is nothing. The producers of these Reality TV shows manipulate millions of viewers every night into handing over their valuable and increasingly scarce leisure time in exchange for receiving advertisements. That's quite a bargain they got you to strike!

Friday, 11 March 2016

Are journalists civil servants?

Every time I read a piece of investigative journalism, the only questions I have are never answered: why is this story being told? How did these events come to the attention of the journalist? For some reason, this is rarely in the story.

I am, of course, referring to the mainstream media. For reasons that will hopefully become clear, I don’t think that term fits. In fact, it’s purposefully misleading and doesn't accurately reflect the position of media in modern society. So let’s use the term official journalism instead. The question is: what does it mean for journalism to be official?

If journalism is actually a branch of the government, we know exactly how that would work. Speaking from experience, a “journalist” is a sanctioned writer. A member of the union of other such writers. In a democratic society, the official journalist is assigned the vital duty of informing the public. Therefore, not just anyone can tell the public what the prime minister says. No, it takes a “journalist.”

Most people know New Zealand has a civil service. It is a recognised and legitimate group of people conducting the difficult and frustrating process of statecraft. Official journalism must exist outside the government proper – as a Ministry of Journalism, perhaps – where it would be just as potent, permanent and unaccountable as the rest of the civil service.

The way I see it, journalists are definitely part of the larger eco-system of permanent government power. Though not quite part of the civil service, it would be better described as the “extended civil service.” It is extended because it comprises not only formal government employees but also all those who consider themselves public servants, including professors, NGO workers, transnationals etc. All of whom maintain the coherency of the state, and all of whom are above politics and entirely unelected.

By far the largest portion of a citizen’s political education is undertaken by the press as a sort of school for grown-ups. And, of course, power in democracies belongs to those who manage public opinion. This theory isn’t mine – it was first stated by Walter Lippmann in 1922.

The key to the premise of official journalism is that three words are synonymous: responsibility, influence and power. A newspaper is responsible because, if it makes mistakes, it can cause tremendous suffering. It is influential because its contents affect the lives of many people. And it is powerful because there is no useful understanding of the word “power” which does not correspond with responsibility and influence. After all, power is the ability to change the world and make a difference. Remind me again why people want to be journalists? Exactly.

If journalism is official, what does that mean for the rest of government? In connecting power with influence and responsibility, for instance, how much power does John Key have? While Mr Key has a bit more power over his wider government than does the president of the United States, he is not as powerful as many people think. New Zealand’s 'leader' is presented with policies and carefully written decisions to ensure the correct outcome. He cannot even write his own speeches. If Mr Key came to his staff with a fresh policy, their first thought might be to send him for an MRI.

The larger National Party has a smidgen more power than the prime minister. And, with the inertia of tradition, the party always wants to connect everything it does with the person of John Key. No one in Wellington actually believes this but no one has the energy to contradict it, either. It's just one of those things. Anyway. I digress. Back to journalists.

While I’m in the process of discarding well-known words, I should probably get rid of “newspaper” too. It doesn’t paint the object with the correct colour. What we’re talking about is a product that not only sorts truth from lies but also has the power to make things exist or not exist.

The product of journalism is highly influential, on a par with scientific academic journals. So while the Journal of Climate Change might be the “blue journal,” and the Journal of Military Studies would be the “red journal,” every scientist’s goal, for example, is to make it into the “grey journal.” Any scientist would trade a publication in their field’s journal for a write-up in the official press in a heartbeat. Of course, scientists can’t submit straight to the grey journal. You have to know someone who knows someone. The request will travel through five or ten ordinary people, with no particular expertise (perhaps a bachelor of science) who managed to be assigned to the “science beat.”

Through this process, a handful of basically uneducated journalists essentially controls science. It's a bit concerning that these people could easily have dispatched climate change – rightly or wrongly – to the intellectual dustbin alongside the philosopher’s stone. And what if those journalists make a mistake? As part of the extended civil service, who would have the power to catch them?

And this is only in science. Pick up any article about the Syrian civil war. Nowhere in the story will you read that the reporter is one of the most powerful people in that country. Not only is policy informed by journalism, the reader has no alternative to learning about the conflict aside from personally stepping into the desert. This is considerable power.

Reporters often change the outcome of wars simply by writing about them – I’d call this “quantum journalism” but there’s already too many new names in this article. None of this explains how the grey journal was created, however.

A common complaint about media is its insistence on mixing the serious with the trivial. What people are noticing is an atavism of sensationalist “yellow journalism” of the early 20th century, fossilised for eternity. At some point during the past 100 years, yellow turned to grey. I think I know when this happened.

The transition from yellow to grey journalism occurred in the years surrounding World War II. Where yellow journalism used its considerable political power to aid a variety of private interests, which were largely unconnected to the interests of the State, grey journalism is a result of wartime propaganda. Grey journalism overcame yellow by learning its Hegelian manners, and now it serves and upholds the state primarily.

Its practitioners still insist on calling it "responsible journalism" or "objective journalism." But it remains true that the capture of journalism by the state was a direct continuation of what the mendacious James P Warburg called “psychological warfare” during the war. It worked so well powerful people decided to keep it churning once the guns stopped firing.

According to Mr Warburg’s 1946 book Unwritten Treaty, psychological warfare provides “the maintenance of home morale; the maintenance of the confidence of the peoples of friendly or allied nations; and win the sympathy of the peoples of neutral countries." In this way, thoughts, perspectives and facts which favour, justify or defend a system of government are championed, and those which oppose it are expunged.

Think about how journalists describe their primary role as “speaking truth to power.” Most would interpret this as journalists being a bulwark against government corruption. But understand the default assumption here. If one “speaks truth to power,” then one implicitly accepts the legitimacy of that power structure. No journalist questions whether New Zealand needs a parliament or democracy. So by accepting the default, a journalist is maintaining the State simply by doing their job.

We should ask whether grey journalism is more powerful than yellow. One way to measure this would be to gauge the social attitudes toward reporters in the two eras. A quick study shows that journalists were “weasels” when yellow was king. Yet today the presence of a respected journalist at a cocktail party is a feather in the host’s cap. So “more powerful” is about right.

Another way to ask this question is: What would be the minimal set of changes needed to make grey journalism unquestionably official? We would need to make it an elite division of the permanent government – only more elite. The Ministry of Journalism will have three branches: training, reporting/investigation and editorial. Since this clearly qualifies as official, would such a journalist’s job be different in the ministry? It's hard to see how it would be.

After all, we usually think of “independent journalism” as a result of freedom of speech. But perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another form of civil service protection. It would be ludicrous for other government divisions to tell this ministry what to write, or how to write it. It would be like the Beehive showing the High Court how to prosecute.

New Zealand already has something like a Ministry of Journalism. It’s called TVNZ. There isn't much difference between is the job of a TVNZ reporter from the job of an NBR reporter. Each has the same ethos of public service, the same protection from political interference, both are nonpartisan and both serve only the state. If you believe in the Hegelian apolitical civil-service state, you believe in official journalism.

Moreover, the Ministry of Journalism is one of the most powerful departments in the civil-service state. A journalist can attack anyone and no one can attack them – except a judge, and then only in a limited set of ways following approved procedures, aka “laws,” which journalists often have heavy influence in designing.

I used to think I was getting an accurate picture of reality from media because all the stories are written by people. Their names are right there at the top: “Steven,” “Jacqueline,” “Andrew.” Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me garbage? Why should I? What do I know about the news company? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its views on anything?

If you don't believe in grey journalism, you believe in nothing. You’re probably a nihilist. Have another look at the Syrian story. Does this “Syria” on the page have any resemblance to reality? Is there even a country called “Syria”? Once you reject grey journalism, you can reject anything. Your paranoia becomes infinite. I suspect Nietzsche didn’t believe in grey journalism either, although my dates are a little fuzzy.

Losing your faith in official journalism is an awfully large intellectual step. Similar to giving up a religion. It creates an enormous set of questions which you thought were answered, and now suddenly are questions again. And it's very easy to get those questions wrong.