Is This Racism . . . ?

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I don’t think I’d hear of Valerie Jarrett until CNN told me that Roseanne Barr had insulted her and lost her TV show as a result. The offending tweet was “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”

Valerie Jarrett

The story was accompanied by a photo of Ms Jarrett, in which she did bear some resemblance to the masks used in the Planet of the Apes films. But Google Images has no photos like that, and the one reproduced here shows her as 100% human.

I’ve since done some online research and found that a false rumour had once been spread by her political opponents, saying that she was Iranian (she was in fact born in Iran of US parents) and a Muslim and having proclaimed an agenda to “help change America to be a more Islamic country.”

But Roseanne’s offence was, according to the media, racism. And I don’t get it. Being a Muslim or an advocate of Islam is unrelated to race. Resembling a fictional non-human primate is unrelated to race. Roseanne was undoubtedly guilty of ‘passing personal remarks’ (which I was taught to avoid) and perpetuating a false rumour. But where’s the racism?

The Royal Wedding

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I’ve just watched the Royal Wedding – and if you’re asking “What royal wedding?” you needn’t read on. I wasn’t going to watch, but I had BBC World News on mute and when I saw Meghan’s majestic black-and-burgundy Roller rolling I couldn’t resist. The following thoughts occurred to me:

  • Nobody does this sort of thing better than the Brits. It’s theatre dripping with symbolism and political messages. As an actress, the Duchess of Sussex is exactly right for the job.
  • Including a black American preacher and a gospel choir was a masterstroke, a counterpoint to all that was ancient, traditional and solemn.  It symbolised invigoration of the Old World by the New. I had a fleeting mental image of a decrepit billionaire sipping virgins’ blood in hope of rejuvenation.
  • Now that it’s over, the team that organised it should be reassigned immediately to organising Brexit.

Some commentators – even the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins  – have described Meghan as the stronger member of the partnership. Harry has 10 years military service behind him, much in the front-line; is the prime mover of the Invictus Games; and has withstood a lifetime of public scrutiny to become a widely loved and respected royal. Speculation that he may be pushed around or overshadowed by his wife is certainly unfair, and unlikely to be helpful.

Consumption Tax

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In Australia we have one of the lowest consumption taxes in the world: 10%. It’s a value-added tax (VAT) but, like New Zealand, we call it a goods and services tax (GST)

In principle such taxes are supposed to be levied on everything, at as low a rate as possible, so as to be non-distorting. But when it was introduced in 2000 it had been mauled in Parliament and many goods and services were exempted. I blame the Greens for the mauling, but that may not be wholly fair.

One consequence has been that special interest groups have been able to characterise it as a ‘luxury tax’ because it’s not applied to things like fresh and minimally processed food (eg milk and cheese). I have posted before about the absurd campaign to exempt feminine hygiene products: the phrase ‘tampon tax’ is unfortunately alliterative, lending itself to sloganeering.

Out of interest, I have kept all my receipts over the past 5 weeks, to see how much GST I’m actually paying. Excluding household utilities, I have spent $598.74, of which $19.65 was GST. This means an average rate of 3.4%. If I hadn’t bought a case of wine it would have been 2.0%.

Delicious Lucy Turnbull

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Emmanuel Macron came to Australia with a pretty meaty agenda. He has been described as the de facto Leader of the Free World, with some justification. The media covered his visit and his picture was on every front page, but the journalists chose to focus on the French President’s unusual use of the word ‘delicious’, applying it to the Australian Prime Minister’s wife Lucy.

Emmanuel Macron and Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, 2018

Perhaps it was a quaintly framed compliment, perhaps he mis-spoke. After all, he was doing us the courtesy of addressing us in our own language instead of relying on an interpreter. Whatever the case, allowing this one word to dominate the news trivialises an important occasion and demeans a man who deserves our respect.

A Farce or a Tragedy

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This is a follow-up to my last post, about selective schools and the need for an elite trained for leadership. I just read an article on populism by Yascha Mounk (Harvard lecturer on government) in the Guardian Weekly, and my attention was seized by the following passage:

What, George Washington asked in his Eighth Annual Address, could be more important than to pass civic values down to “the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

“A people who mean to be their own Governors,” James Madison echoed a few years later, “must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.” His fears about what would happen to America if it neglected this crucial task sound oddly apposite today: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

Of course, it would be ideal to have the entire population ‘armed with the power that knowledge gives,’ not just a meritocratic class That lofty goal has eluded us so far, in America and elsewhere.

Yascha Mounk

George Washington

James Madison

 

Teachers With Guns

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It’s funny how little things bring to mind old memories. When President Trump floated the idea of arming teachers to protect children, I vividly remembered my first day at high school in the north of England. All the new boys were herded into a lecture theatre and briefed by the teacher whose duties also included running the Lost Property Office.

We were told that the teachers were Masters and we were to address them as ‘Sir’. We would be addressed by our surnames, followed by our initials where there were two of more boys with the same surname, and we were not to fasten any but the middle buttons of our blazers: top and bottom buttons were only for show. Oh, and while in uniform outside the school grounds we were always to wear our caps.

There was to be no walking on the grass, and the path that offered a short-cut on the way to the cricket pavilion was out of bounds to all boys except sixth-formers. On reaching that pinnacle we would also be allowed to wear brown shoes instead of black and, in the summer months anyway, exchange our regulation caps for boaters.

At frequent intervals we were reminded how lucky we were to be admitted to such a good school.

All in all it sounded like a declaration of war. I can’t help thinking that, if our Masters had been armed, the boundary between corporal punishment and capital punishment would have got blurred pretty quickly.

Sex, Politics and Ethics

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No, I’m not slipping in a sly plug for The Eeks Trilogy – although if you find the title intriguing you’ll probably enjoy The Eeks Trilogy, now available in a single volume titled Goldiloxians.

But right now I’m having my say about the story that’s been hogging the front pages of Australian newspapers for a week or so (it seems longer) and shows no sign of abating. It’s about Barnaby Joyce, who is

  • Leader of the right-of-centre National Party, which represents the interests of the rural sector and is in government in coalition with the Liberal Party;
  • Deputy Prime Minister (a requirement of the coalition agreement);
  • Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources (to the dismay of environmentalists who see this as a conflict of interest);
  • Minister of Infrastructure and Transport (since December);
  • The centre of a storm surrounding an affair with a member of his staff who is now pregnant with his unborn child;
  • Consequently separated from his wife; and
  • In open verbal warfare with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The story is a gift that keeps on giving to the newsmongers because it irritates so many people for so many reasons.

First, there is a sexual morality issue. Barnaby has been an advocate of family values, invoking them in the recent debate about redefining ‘marriage’ to include same-sex couples. Barnaby was on the losing ‘No’ side of that debate.

Then there is the MeToo aspect. As Deputy PM, Barnaby was in a position of power over Vikki Campion, the humble Media Advisor who became his mistress. To some people this looks uncomfortably like a Harvey Weinstein situation.

Third, in a vain attempt to keep the affair quiet the mistress was transferred to the office of another National Party minister, in a high-paying job that was allegedly created especially for her.

There is Ministerial Code of Conduct that prohibits having one’s partner on the payroll. Barnaby is claiming that at the time of Vikki’s employment in his department she was not his ‘partner’. She was having sex with him, but was not actually and legally his partner as such. The PM has now made clear that the Code of Conduct will henceforth forbid sexual relations between ministers and their staff. This was immediately labelled the Bonk Ban.

To cap it all, it has emerged that Barnaby was staying rent-free in premises provided by a prominent National Party donor and commercial supplier of services to the Party.

In Australia we have a thing called ‘the pub test’. This sweeps away legal niceties that allow obvious rogues to hold up their hands in a gesture of supplication and say, “But I did nothing wrong!” Needless to say, Barnaby Joyce has failed the pub test on a Biblical scale in the eyes of all but his most one-eyed supporters.

One final comment from me… The story runs and runs because it gives sub-editors such wonderful opportunities for punny headlines. A photo of an obviously pregnant Vikki Campion was headlined ‘Bundle of Joyce’. Another headline over the Bonk Ban story referenced a campaign to ban poker (gambling) machines: ‘No Pokies’.

Populism

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The Cambridge Dictionary has chosen ‘populism’ as its Word of the Year. The word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary – only a definition of a populist as “a person who claims to support the interests of ordinary people.”

That sounds pretty admirable to me. So why are the words ‘populism’ and ‘populist’ always used pejoratively? Nobody ever says, “That Trump fellow is a real populist. Good for him!” Could it be that the political élite, the pointy-headed intellectuals, the upper middle class people who work in universities, newsrooms and government departments, really do look down on the unwashed masses as Trump and many others claim? Do those people really think they know better what’s good for the common people than the common people themselves?

I have just read an article by Cas Mudde (pictured) in the Guardian Weekly (wishing that I’d thought of that name to give one of my characters in The Eeks Trilogy) in which he argues that what is often called ‘populism’ is really nativism. He goes on to define nativism as “an ideology that holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state;” and characterise it as “nasty.”

This got me thinking about the concept of the nation-state and why it was regarded as such a good thing in the 19th and early 20th centuries; why political heavy­weights in the richest countries of the West now consider it anathema; and why the epithet ‘racist’ is routinely hurled at anyone who expresses a preference for living among people with similar cultural practices, beliefs, values, history and language.

I flipped through a recent issue of the Guardian Weekly and found stories about conflict arising from this preference in six countries: Cameroon, Cyprus, Hungary, Myanmar, Poland and Tibet. And there was a story about German politics, which was dominated for over 40 years by a desire to restore nation-statehood.

Perhaps it’s time for us to be more tolerant of this preference, which seems to be deeply embedded in human nature whether we like it or not.

Life Imitates Monty Python

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We’re used to life imitating art, but sometimes this goes right off any reasonable scale. In the past week I’ve seen four glorious examples, all reported in the good old Adelaide Advertiser.

First, there is the story about a sit-in by Saudi princes to protest against having to pay their own utility bills. The princesses were showing more decorum, it seems. Or perhaps they were otherwise occupied at the motor show for women, soon to be allowed to drive.

The second story to catch my eye was that Oprah Winfrey is being touted as a potential presidential candidate, on the basis of a speech she made about sexual abuse and harassment in the entertainment industry. Germaine Greer was asked what she thought about it on ABC Radio National, and said that if Ronald Reagan could be President, why not?

Next comes the appalling news that “Struggling families are being deterred from travelling overseas because of the high cost of leaving the country. … Australian passports are the second most expensive in the world, behind those of Turkey.” Has overseas travel really become a necessity of life, in the same category as a flat-screen TV or a smart ‘phone?

Finally, I read about a 50-year-old Australian man called Craig Whitall. He is/was a drug addict with a history of 10 driving disqualifications, 50+ other traffic offences, 9 convictions for unlicensed driving and a 9-year driving ban. While driving home from a methadone clinic he caused an accident that killed 3 people – all members of the Falkholt family. “At what point,” I wondered, “does a sane law enforcement system give up on somebody, lock them up and throw away the key in order to protect everyone else?”

Judo and the KGB

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When President Putin is mentioned in the Western press the phrase ‘former KGB officer’ is often thrown in, presumably to remind readers that this man is smart, wily and not to be trusted. Such a reminder is probably unnecessary. It might be more useful to insert the reminder that he’s a black belt in judo. I Googled ‘principles of judo strategy’ and came up with the following:

Principle #3 Exploit leverage that uses the weight and strategy of opponents against them. Movement and flexibility are prerequisites for judo strategy. They’re crucial to keeping the competition off balance, and they prevent large competitors from dominating smaller, more vulnerable opponents.

This is the principle at the core of President Putin’s success. He looks at the Western allies, which are collectively many times more powerful than the Russian Federation, both economically and militarily. But he sees their weaknesses and understands how to exploit them to his own advantage.

Chief among these weaknesses are democracy, respect for the rule of law, short-termism and a love of comfort. We will make any compromise, betray any promise and scuff out any ‘line in the sand’ to avoid unfavourable poll numbers, shortages, unemployment, encroachment on citizens’ freedoms, accusations of political incorrectness, or armed conflict that might result in a lot of body bags – body bags containing the bodies of our own people, that is.

One could add another to that list: rejection of the nation state as a political ideal. But that’s a big topic that calls for a separate post.

Disclosure: I am working in Ukraine at the moment, and I have every sympathy for Ukraine’s position over Crimea and its eastern parts that are effectively occupied by the Russian Federation. So Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is not my friend.