Archive for the ‘Political musings’ Category

Boris Johnson

We have refrained from commenting overmuch on Boris Johnson’s accession to the role of PM in the UK in this and other fora for the same reason that one does not comment on car crashes, especially when they are completely predictable. It’s just bad form to mock the afflicted.

But be under no misapprehension, Dear Reader – for all that his acolytes pretend he is some kind of wayward genius, Boris Johnson has now shown himself up as a blustering incompetent.

The proroguing of Parliament – denied by Number 10 for a month despite the planning for it now being revealed – is and was an anti-democratic coup designed to stifle Parliamentary oversight of one of the most crucial periods in British history since the second world war, irregardless of waffle from Rees-Mogg and others.

The British people know it, which is why they have roused themselves from their somnambular walk towards a No Deal Brexit and taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

If Johnson wanted to unite the anti-Brexit forces he can hardly have done a better job than shutting down Parliament to stifle inconvenient debate.

Charles 1 executed

Remember: as many have noted in the Twitterverse and elsewhere, the British cut the head off the last person to do that. For all that nothing excites British passion as much as a good game of football or the perennial battle for the cricket Ashes, they are rather partial to their Parliament being allowed to do its thing.

And withdrawing the whip from some of the best Tory MPs in the House who dared to exercise critical thought in the vote yesterday in London simply reveals him as both a strategic idiot for making the threat, and an even bigger fool for following through on it. The sheer hypocrisy of the move when this sanction was never applied to row after row of Brexiteers in vote after vote in the House reveals the total vacuity of the Government’s position – a fact which will now be pointed out repeatedly by the commentariat.

What we think will happen now is that the Opposition and the Tory Rebels will resist any calls for a General Election until after they have taken No Deal off the table, which act will then leave Johnson as ham-strung in negotiations with the EU as poor old Theresa May was for three years.

And even if he could subsequently successfully call a General Election – by no means certain, as the House will have to give him a 2/3rds majority to do so – there is no guarantee he will win it, as he will be effectively saying “OK, I messed up my Brexit attempt despite telling you I’d fix it … now we’re back where we were three years ago, but please give the Conservatives another chance because I’m a better Prime Minister than Theresa May was.”

Hardly a convincing call, when he’s just shown himself to be anything but competent.

The British headlines tell an unmissable story. “Brexit bomshell: Boris loses control” (The Mirror), “Humiliation for Johnson” (Guardian), “Johnson loses control” (i), “PM loses historic vote” (The Times), “Johnson strategy in ruins” (Financial Times). Overseas comment is hardly kinder: “Boris Johnson’s populist playbook implodes” said the Washington Post.

A Labour/Lib Dem/Nationalist Coalition government is at least as likely as a Tory win, especially when you consider that Brexit is much less popular in Wales and Scotland, and that the Brexit Party waits in the wings ready to snap at the Tories’ heels, splitting the pro-Brexit vote, should October 31st be revealed as the day Britain actually did not, yet again, leave the EU.

Let’s put this in perspective. Johnson just got thrashed on the floor of the House in his SECOND DAY actually in the Parliament. No amount of hairy chest-beating in the Tory leadership election or since makes up for that simple fact. Nor that he has managed to outlaw two previous Chancellors of the Exchequer, the grandson of his political idol Nicholas Soames – a harmless old fuddy duddy at the best of times – and one of the contenders for the Tory Leadership – Rory Stewart – who proved himself very popular with the public. (And who may yet replace Johnson.)

David Cameron

Credit where credit is due. Let’s never forget who foisted this chaos on the British people, and the world, in a staggering failure of political strategy and leadership.

Perhaps the Parliament should pass a law banning Old Etonians from being PM? Remember this chaos was begun by the equally politically incompetent David Cameron.

As we have always said, if Brexit ever does succeed, it will be a wishy-washy cobbled-together Brexit which achieves none of the goals of the Leave campaign – a Brexit in name only – except to remove Britain from the discussions at the heart of Europe of which it should, of course, be a part.

Our prediction is that Boris Johnson will one day be seen as an irrelevant blip on the road to that outcome.

We think a Labour-LibDem-Nationalist majority in the House whenever the next election occurs will offer the people a second referendum based on some compromise deal of which the facts are actually known, as well as the option to stay in the EU, and that this time the “stay in the EU” option will actually be in the majority.

And then, at long last, the British Parliament can get back to actually governing.

Under those circumstances, we also think it is highly likely that the British Conservative Party will break into two parties – one pro EU and one against – and they will condemn themselves to a generation of irrelevance by keeping on talking about Europe when no one else ever wants to hear about it again.

 

#Brexit #BrexitShambles #BorisJohnson

Death penalty chamber (lethal injection)

 

News that the Federal Government in America intends resuming the use of the death penalty in federal cases with the execution of five prisoners in December has caused renewed debate on the use of the ultimate sanction.

It has to be said that the population of many countries are usually in favour of the death penalty for murder, especially when conducted against children, or as a result of terrorist activity. The imposition of the penalty has undeniable democratic validity, and especially so where the guilt of the accused seems certain or is admitted.

But it still raises very troubling questions. These are, to our eyes, the strongest reasons not to impose the death penalty.

It can be a mistake

Posthumous pardons are little recompense for someone being put to death incorrectly. And the records of those killed for doing no wrong are long and repeated. It would be incorrect to assume this is a rare occurrence, or only in cases where the verdict was circumstantial or in the balance.

 

Cameron Todd Willingham

 

Texas man Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three daughters. Following his execution, further evidence revealed that Willingham did not set the fire that caused their deaths. But it came too late to save him, even as he consistently protested his innocence.

Other cases that could have involved the death penalty demonstrate the fallibility of the system too. George Allen Jr. was exonerated on January 18, 2013, in St. Louis, Missouri, after serving over 30 years in prison for the murder of a young court reporter. Allen was convicted based in part on a false confession, police “tunnel vision” and blood type evidence that was said to include Allen, but actually eliminated him as a possible contributor. Visiting the Innocence Project website will reveal how often convictions are incorrect.

There was also the notorious case of Troy Davis, which this writer campaigned on for some years where it was perfectly clear an innocent man was to be executed, which duly occurred.

In 2014, a study estimated perhaps 4% of death row inmates in America are innocent. Many of these are people where there is no apparent or yet discovered doubt about their guilt.

In the USA, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973 and released from death row. The average time on death row before these exonerations was 11 years.

The continuous threat of execution makes the ordeal of those wrongly convicted particularly horrible.

Timothy Evans

In March 1950 The British Government hanged Timothy Evans, a 25-year-old man who had the vocabulary of a 14-year-old and the mental age of a ten-year-old.

Evans was arrested for the murder of his wife and daughter at their home, the top floor flat of 10 Rillington Place, London. His statements to the police were contradictory, telling them that he killed her, and also that he was innocent.

He was tried and convicted for the murder of his daughter and subsequently hanged. Three years later Evans’s landlord, John Christie, was arrested for the murder of several women, whose bodies he hid in the house. He subsequently admitted to the murder of Evans’s wife, but not the daughter.

He was hanged in July 1953 in Pentonville Prison, but the case showed Evans’s conviction and hanging had been a miscarriage of justice.

It can be arbitrary

One Supreme Court Justice in the USA even changed from a supporter of the death penalty to an abolitionist due to his experience on America’s highest court. He said: “The death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake … Experience has taught us that the constitutional goal of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination from the administration of death … can never be achieved without compromising an equally essential component of fundamental fairness – individualised sentencing.”  Justice Harry Blackmun, United States Supreme Court, 1994

There’s much concern in the USA, in particular, that the legal system doesn’t always provide poor accused people with good lawyers. Out of all offenders who are sentenced to death, three quarters of those who are allocated a legal aid lawyer can expect execution, a figure that drops to a quarter if the defendant could afford to pay for a lawyer.

It’s not a deterrent.

There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than a prison term. In fact, evidence reveals the opposite.

Since abolishing the death penalty in 1976, for example, Canada’s murder rate has steadily declined and as of 2016 was at its lowest since 1966.

There is still the argument that the death penalty is effective retribution, but what does that then say about us, as a society? And as experts agree, revenge is not as healthy for those to whom harm has been done as forgiveness is. It’s argued that retribution is used in a unique way in the case of the death penalty. And crimes other than murder do not receive a punishment that mimics the crime – for example rapists are not punished by sexual assault, and people guilty of assault are not ceremonially beaten up.

Research conducted for the UN has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. And such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.

As Amnesty International commented, “The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.”

Or as anti-death penalty campaigner Dr Daisy Kouzel commented, “When they used to hang pickpockets in public, more pickpocketing was going on at the site of execution than had been done by the condemned man who was being hanged to set an example. ”

It removes the possibility of rehabilitation

For some murderers, it appears there is never any hope of rehabilitation. But stories abound of people on death row in various countries for long periods of time, decades sometimes, sentenced for horrible crimes, who become “model prisoners”, and make a sustained contribution to the well-being of their fellow prisoners. In the case of one prisoner – Edmund Zagorski – executed in Tennessee in 2018 for murdering two people over a drug deal, he was even credited with having saved the life of a prison warder.

It’s inhumane

Many styles of execution are painful – there are extreme concerns over lethal injection in the United States taking up to 30 minutes to kill the convicted criminal, inflicting feelings of fear, suffocation, and “burning up from the inside”. In Japan, the accused are only informed of their execution moments before it is scheduled. As a result, each day of their life is lived as if it was their last. This is surely mental torture.

It’s applied inconsistently

Some lawyers argue that capital punishment is not really used as retribution for murder, or even consistently for a particular kind of murder. They argue that, in the USA at least, only a small minority of murderers are actually executed, and that imposition of capital punishment on a “capriciously selected random handful” of offenders does not amount to a consistent programme of retribution.

Since capital punishment is not operated retributively, it is therefore inappropriate to use retribution to justify capital punishment. This argument would have no value in a society that applied the death penalty consistently for particular types of murder, of course, but evidence also shows that similar crimes – murder, rape, drug dealing and so forth – produce very different results in court, and that the further down the social scale you are, the more likely you are to have the ultimate penalty imposed. (See ‘arbitrary’, above.)

It brutalises individuals

Statistics show that the death penalty leads to an increase in murder rate. In the USA, for example, more murders take place in states where capital punishment is allowed. In 2010, the murder rate in states where the death penalty has been abolished was 4.01 per cent per 100,000 people. In states where the death penalty is used, the figure was 5.00 per cent. These calculations are based on figures from the FBI. The gap between death penalty states and non-death penalty states rose considerably from 4 per cent difference in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2010. It is also linked to increased number of police officers murdered. The argument seems to be that “If I am going to be killed for one count of murder, why not commit more?”

It should not be applied to the mentally incapable or the insane

This is not an argument against capital punishment itself, but against the fact of its existence leading to it being applied wrongly.

Some countries, including the USA and the UK (in the past), have executed people proven to be insane or to have been so mentally incapacitated as to be, in effect, like little children.

But it’s generally accepted that people should not be punished for their actions unless they have a guilty mind – which requires them to know what they are doing and that it’s wrong. Therefore people who are insane should not be convicted, let alone executed. This doesn’t prevent insane people who have done terrible things being confined in secure mental institutions, but this is done for public safety, not to punish the insane person.

To put it more formally: it is wrong to impose capital punishment on those who have at best a marginal capacity for deliberation and for moral agency.

A more difficult moral problem may arises in the case of offenders who were apparently temporarily insane at the time of their crime and trial but who then recover.

The existence of the death penalty leads to special jury selection

Jurors in many US death penalty cases must be ‘death eligible’. This means the prospective juror must be willing to convict the accused knowing that a sentence of death is a possibility.

This results in a jury biased in favour of the death penalty, since no one who opposes the death penalty is likely to be accepted as a juror. Whether or not that makes them any better or worse at judging guilt is imponderable. But where jurors must recommend a sentence to a judge, or order it, it biases the system in favour of death penalty outcomes regardless of the culpability or profile of the offender.

It arrogates to the ‘State’ the right to do things we might not be prepared to do ourselves.

There is a moral argument against execution if an individual apparently in favour of the death penalty would not, nevertheless, be willing to perform the execution themselves. As one MP put it in Britain, “I would not pull the lever (to hang someone) myself, so I will not instruct others to do it on my behalf.”

It brutalises society, to no purpose

If the authorities will respect life, this attitude filters down to the lowest stratum of society. Far fewer murderers are perpetrated today than when executions were a dime a dozen and gibbets a common sight at crossroads, except of course in countries where the executioner is very active and blood keeps adding to blood. Why? Because humaneness and mercy produce more of the same. As criminal law humanised so there was less crime instead of more, despite the rapid increase in populations. And if state officials carry out a death sentence, they must extinguish all feelings of reverence for life; otherwise they would never be able to carry out their task.

This would seem to be echoed by the most famous executioner in modern history, Albert Pierrepoint, in Britain, who hanged up to 600 people.

In his 1974 autobiography, Pierrepoint changed his view on capital punishment, and wrote that hanging:

… is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.

It can be applied for ‘crimes’ that do not warrant it

Notoriously, up to 9,000 homosexuals were murdered in Nazi Germany for same-sex behaviour … but in Iran, and parts of Nigeria, you can still be executed for being an active homosexual, and some other majority Muslim states. In Saudi Arabia people have been executed for throwing stones at a street demonstration when they were a child, or for cross-dressing, and in the UAE for rape. In China, you can be executed for financial corruption and 53 other non lethal crimes. In a number of countries in Asia you can be executed for relatively minor drug crime.

Most people would argue the ultimate penalty should only be handed down for the ultimate crime.

The debate will, no doubt, continue, in the USA and elsewhere. What do you think, Dear Reader?

 

As I write this, just two days after the Australian election, the sense of shock in the electorate at the Liberal-National Coalition’s narrow victory over Labor is still causing most citizens to mutter, confused, “What the actual fuck?” I am not being coarse for the sake of effect. That is by far the most common comment.

It’s not just that there was a widespread sense that the Coalition, victim of recent leadership instability, was long overdue a “pull yourselves together” kicking.

It was that a Labor victory had been predicted for so long, with “two party preferred” margins of as high as 53-47 in their favour being forecast in usually reliable opinion polls as late as the morning of election day, that the eventual win by their opponents was … well, flabbergasting. Stupefying. “Shome mishtake, shurely?” (Election night in Australia is universally accompanied by parties and heavy drinking.)

In its way, this result is just as shocking (and therefore interesting) as the Brexit vote and the Presidential win of Donald Trump.

So in the end, what was it that produced a result which looks like ending up as 51-49 outcome in favour of the Coalition and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, now owners of a wafter thin majority that will theoretically allow them to continue to hold the Government benches for another three years?

There are many factors and I will try and unpick them intelligently for any election tragics out there.

Bill Shorten in Parliament

All the natural charisma of a brick.

Firstly and most obviously, the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, was an unpopular figure, in part because he had a history as a dominant and powerful head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which is not an organisation which spends much of its time cultivating the affection of the middle class centre of Australia where most Australians sit, but also because in Parliament and on TV he exhibited all the natural charisma of a brick.

Ironically a decent, engaging and friendly character away from the cameras, once they turned on he became over-controlled, lecturing, somewhat superior and just plain boring.

And as he was Labor Leader for six years, that was a long time to bore people.

The recently anointed Leader of the Liberal Party, by contrast, has been a relentlessly cheerful “ordinary bloke”, with an ever-present baseball cap perched on his head, who made no pretence of any great intellectual heft, but insisted he had plenty of empathy for the “battlers” – Aussies who want a “fair go”, or as they picturesquely put it here, “a fair suck of the saveloy”.

As one Liberal insider put it: “When he got the job last year he immediately began building his persona as an ordinary, knockabout bloke who can knock back a beer and roll up his shirt sleeves to have a go. He knew the importance of filling in the picture before his opponents defined him to the public.”

By achieving this, Morrison captured the aspiration of many working people to not actually be working people, thanks very much, but rather to ascend to comfortable middle class status.

Not for nothing was Scott Morrison’s first act after his win to go to his evangelical Church on Sunday morning, and then to go to the football on Sunday night.

Whereas the Labor Party – with a complex and substantial “tax and spend” agenda that required endless explanation – appeared mired in the class-warfare battles of previous decades, stating, in effect, “We’ll tax you what we need and then spend it on you as we see fit”, to which many Australians on Saturday clearly said “Thanks a lot, I’ll just keep me money and spend it myself”.

Whether or not a new Liberal-National Coalition government will actually do anything much to help the people who switched their votes to them remains to be seen – they didn’t expect themselves to win either, so they have a very sketchy plan for government – but painting Labor as the party of higher taxation was certainly a successful part of their pitch. It will be a long cold day in hell till a political party in Australia again goes into an election promising significant tax reform or even tax increases.

This effect was multiplied by the Labor Party’s inability (wary of offending environmentally-aware/Green voters further south) to enthusiastically support the proposed Adani coal mine in regional Queensland.

The Coalition found it simplicity itself to portray Labor as wishy-washy on the mine (which they were) and by implication, therefore, as wishy-washy on jobs for regional people – estimated as maybe as many as 15,000 jobs from Adani alone. This effect was re-doubled by no apparent solution to endlessly rising power prices and problems with water supply to regional areas.

The wash up is that are now no Labour seats left in Queensland anywhere north of the Brisbane river. And the “don’t care about jobs” message hurt Labor in regional New South Wales, too, where the impact of Adani was little more than symbolic of two very different agendas for Government, but where Labor was portrayed as having forgotten their core base (and the extraction industries generally) in favour of chasing a more ideologically-driven pro-environment vote.

The scale of the rout is notable. Across Queensland Coalition candidates in fact polled 57 per cent to Labor’s 43 per cent. Unheard of margins.

Scott Morrison Victory speech

“How good is Queensland?!” If you’re a Liberal, very, very good.

“How good is Queensland?!” roared Scott Morrison when the results were known, and he was cheered to the rafters by an audience in New South Wales. It’s hard to explain to an overseas audience quite how unlikely that is. Maybe Manchester United supporters offering to go over to Anfield and cheer on Liverpool so the Kop can have a day off. Lakers fans cheering for the Celtics. That sort of thing.

By running dead on new coal mines and talking up their climate change credentials, Labor made a bold attempt to speak to inner city Sydney and seats across left-leaning Victoria in particular, which had recently delivered a massive electoral setback to the Liberals in a recent State election.

The attempt failed.

Although the Green vote around the nation stayed roughly the same at 10.5% (approximately, counting continues), blue collar voters were resolutely unimpressed.

It’s not that they don’t care about climate change, it’s just that they want to care about it without paying more tax on a second investment home, (often called a “bricks and mortar pension” in Australia), or their parents having to give up long-established tax breaks on shares in their superannuation portfolio.

Ironically in well-to-do Coalition seats in the centre of cities there were small swings to the Greens and even to high-taxing Labor – the so-called “Doctor’s wives” effect, where comfortably off people dabble in more progressive politics because whatever the outcome it won’t really affect them. But move into the outer suburban ring and the effect was reversed, leading to a clutch of vital Coalition wins in seats in marginal seats in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania where they should, by all expectations, have been swept aside.

So it is worthwhile considering why the Liberal-National scare tactics on tax were so effective.

Australians are not, in a general sense, anti-taxation in the way that some in America are. It’s not that they are selfish. Indeed, Australians donate more per head of population to charity – including to charities overseas – than any other country in the world.

It is rather that they do not trust Government to spend those taxes wisely.

The Bill Australia can't afford.

Simple idea, cleverly expressed, and devastatingly powerful.

As part of a growing trend worldwide, Australians are deeply suspicious of Government at all levels, so when the Coalition festooned all the polling stations in the country in bunting – in stark Labour red – with an unflattering photo of Bill Shorten looking, frankly, confused, with the slogan “Labor: It’s the Bill Australia can’t afford.” it was highly effective. At no stage did Labor ever manage to convey their contrasting priorities with such devastating and effective directness.

And it was this scenario – starkly similarly to Clinton’s shock loss to Trump in America – that led one member of the public writing in to a radio station on Sunday morning to dismiss the Labor effort as having been led by “Hillary Shorten”. You could hear the heads nodding in agreement around the country’s breakfast tables.

Or in the case of those who were yet to get up having drunk themselves to sleep in either distress or celebration just a few hours previously, there was a muttered “Yeah … what she said …” from under a pillow.

Perhaps the most significant thing to say about this election is that it shows, once again, that political parties in the Western world are no longer either mere vehicles for those who traditionally made up their supporter base or even perfectly aligned to those who they seek to lead, and especially on the Left.

Pennsylvania coal miners voted for Trump. On Saturday so did coal miners in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and those who want to be coal miners in Queensland. Voters in Wales and Northern England and the South West voted against their obvious self-interest for Brexit. On Saturday so did those working in the tourism industry in Queensland who said, in effect, we’d rather have a coal mine than the Barrier Reef.

This time round, Australia’s Conservative parties portrayed themselves as simple-thinking, straight-talking managers, eschewing the internecine struggles that have consumed them in recent years (the Coalition parties have been split between hard right cultural warriors and small-l liberals, much like in Britain) and opted instead for a pitch that they were just a bunch of good old blokes on the side of “ordinary” Aussies – yes, even those who work down coal mines, milk the cows, and for those – by offering vague and very unlikely promises on road building – who are stuck in commuter traffic queues for hours every day.

By contrast the Labor Party was simply too overly intellectual, too long-winded, and they constantly beetled off down obscurantist paths – all very noble in their own right, to be sure – without taking care of their knitting. As one radio commentator explained: “I went to see the mechanic who works on my car, and I asked him who he was going to vote for, and he said Liberal because he didn’t want to lose his tax break on the one investment property his family owned. When I told him there was no chance of that, because any change to the law meant that existing arrangements were grandfathered, he looked at me and said ‘What the fuck does ‘Grandfathered’ mean?’”

Quite.

You couldn’t summarise Labor’s failures to explain their goals any more simply, nor could you sound a better warning to the Left around the world as they seek to come to terms with the appeal of populist right wing heroes.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen next. The Coalition now have a clean slate and the thrill of a totally unexpected win, and they could take the chance to shift their party back to the centre, (especially as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, leader of the hard right, lost his seat to an Independent), deliver modest but welcome tax cuts, finally make some progress on climate change – a notable failure for some years – and de-fang Labor for a generation.

Labor will retreat and lick their wounds, but they already show little sign of having learned their lesson, as their next Leader, far from a consensus politician from the centre, will very likely be a dyed-in-the-wool tub-thumping leftie. Which will do wonders for reviving the spirits of their own members, but very little for the electorate at large. Sound familiar?

In the meantime, Australians will move on to arguing about this week’s football, and saying “Thank God that’s over for another three years.” Although with a likely Government majority of just 1, they might be counting those chickens a tad early.

Because of it’s essential nature as a “free to edit” site, Wikipedia is often referred to in jokey terms as an information resource.

But many of its articles, supported by references, are hugely useful to a wide variety of people. The project has vastly contributed to the free flow of information and opinion around the world.

While you read this, Wikipedia develops at a rate of over 1.8 edits per second, performed by editors from all over the world. Currently, the English Wikipedia includes 5,854,311 articles and it averages 564 new articles per day. This amount of data can be analysed in a huge number of ways.

What is certain is that it is a highly valuable resource to make world conversations better informed.

Which is why it is so sad that for one-third of the world’s population, it just disappeared.

Screenshot of Wikipedia ad

Wikipedia is now blocked in China.

All language editions of Wikipedia have been blocked in mainland China since April, the Wikimedia foundation has confirmed.

Internet censorship researchers found that Wikipedia had joined thousands of other websites which cannot be accessed in China.

The country had previously banned the Chinese language version of the site, but the block has now been expanded. Wikimedia said it had received “no notice” of the move.

In a statement, the foundation said: “In late April, the Wikimedia Foundation determined that Wikipedia was no longer accessible in China. After closely analysing our internal traffic reports, we can confirm that Wikipedia is currently blocked across all language versions.”

The free community-edited encyclopaedia has been intermittently blocked by authorities around the world.

In 2017, the site was blocked in Turkey and it has been blocked intermittently in Venezuela this year.

Experience shows that there is one thing that authoritarian regimes detest more than anything else, and that is losing control of the flow of information to their citizens. And experience shows that nothing forces them to back-track on these incursions into people’s freedom than their embarrassment at being found out and criticised.

The answer? Make a fuss. Stand up for the freedom of our Chinese brothers and sisters. Re-blog this article, put a link to it on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on any other platform you use regularly. Just hit one of the buttons at the end of this article.

Those in power in China will notice.

And if you want to know more about how important Wikipedia now is, go here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics

This story gives us the first words heard from Mohamed Noor, who shot Justine Damond when she ran to his police car for help, having heard a disturbance outside her home.

https://www.theage.com.au/world/north-america/you-die-if-you-react-too-late-noor-breaks-silence-on-damond-death-20190426-p51he6.html

Whilst anger at Damond’s stupid, awful death bubbles up very easily, quiet reflection makes it hard not to feel some sympathy for Noor and his partner, too. Yes, the license to carry a weapon and use it with deadly force is a heavy responsibility, to be sure. Without pre-judging the matter al all, merely based on what we have heard so far, we suspect Noor will likely be found guilty*, if for no other reason that taking the oath to serve also implies an ability to balance responding effectively to threats with public safety in moments of crisis. Anyhow, we shall see, and he deserves his day in court. But frankly, a greater responsibility lies elsewhere.

It is with customary police training that sends officers onto the street with a hair trigger attitude, to “shoot first” in case they are ambushed, as is laid out clearly in the story.

The parts of Noor’s defence outlined in the article above is a wake up call to all to address ingrained police attitudes to the use of deadly force.

And responsibility lies with the American public, who in a masse sense simply cannot summon up the will to reduce the numbers of guns in circulation in that country, leading in turn to a never-ending cycle of violence of which Justine Damond was just one more tragic victim.

The debate in America has become toxic, as so many discussions in that country have become. (Not uniquely, of course, but especially.) Advocates of greater gun control are called soft-headed at best and cowards and traitors at worst, but gun advocates are in turn are accused of being uncaring at best and gung ho to the point of latent murderousness at worst.

Neither attitude will encourage a move to the centre, and a desire to solve the problem. And until that happens, the litany of unnecessary deaths, of policemen, by policemen, and from the public, and by the public against other members of the public, will continue.

What is needed in the debate is evidence-based facts to balance the rhetoric. Research shows that some gun control measures reduce violence, others have a less efficacious effect. Research shows that guns can effectively be used in self-defence, in certain situations, and therefore have a moral and practical value. (Assuming no other course of action was open to the person defending themself, of course.) Evidence-based debate would reduce the toxicity and allow compromise to be considered.

America has a unique relationship with guns. Of course, jingoistic appeals to the Second Amendment are just so much hogwash. The Founding Fathers wanted to make space for citizen armies to defend against foreign insurgents – entirely unnecessary when America has the most expensive armed forces in the world – and they never imagined rifles, let alone repeating rifles, let alone near-assault weapons. But Americans enjoy hunting – often for food – as a core part of their culture. And that should be respected. Farmers need guns to reduce vermin. Ditto. And the right to self-defence is ingrained in a country which was for many years a frontier state.

But all that said, no one ever envisaged a country where inner city areas – especially – are plagued by roaming gangs of youth – white, black, hispanic, asian – locked into a cycle of crime, social despair and joblessness, with a free and never-ending supply of weapons. No one ever envisaged a militarised police force that would have to corral those dispirited and violent youths like an occupying army.

Yes, intelligent moves to rid the streets of some of their guns will be a beginning. But the ultimate answer, of course, in what is supposed to be a society based on productive capitalism, is work.

Work that gives a people a stake in their world. Work that lets people develop their lives with optimism. Work that lets people have pride in themselves.

Real work, in productive and meaningful jobs, with skills training that lasts a lifetime and makes future employment easier, mopping up the energy of the workforce.

Nothing more than a new “New Deal” will solve the crisis of America’s cities, and it will take an investment of trillions of dollars. And, of course, if that investment is made into old, dying industries it will serve no purpose, because it will not generate lasting economic growth to support – and repay – the initial investment.

If Americans weary of the never-ending cycle of violence, then here is a project around which both the right and the left in America can coalesce, if, and it’s a big if, the political will – which comes, ultimately, from the electorate – can be created.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues call for a New Green Deal to combat climate change. Well, that could combat inner city wasteful lawlessness, too. It can be a focal point for industrial renewal in cities across the USA. And there are many Republicans who, believing that the best jobs plan is economic growth, could be persuaded that capitalism nevertheless needs seed corn capital to function, and that at least some of the profits of corporate tax cuts need to be ploughed back into the economy, and not just into shareholders pockets to spend on Chinese TVs and Korean cars.

They might also consider that if the new energy technologies the world is crying out for could be invented, developed and sold by American companies, then America might start to reverse its disastrous trade deficit, which this month reached it’s largest ever figure. Which would be good for America, and the world.

Such a compact requires two things above all.

Imagination – to rise above the pointless squabbling that categorises modern American politics.

And compromise – a willingness to come together for the common good, such as one sees in wartime.

Justine Damond was just one more victim of an internal war raging endlessly in America’s cities, as, in his way, was Mohamed Noor. Redressing the collapse of those cities will require an effort just as dramatic and unifying as if the country was being threatened from abroad.

And it is long overdue. The clock stands at a minute to midnight.

*Since this article was written Noor has, indeed, been found guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Australian woman Justine Ruszczyk Damond. He was acquitted of second-degree murder.

There has been widespread publicity – and volumes of commentary and angst  – about whether young women (and some not so young) who left their home countries to travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State should be permitted to return to their original countries.

In one case in the UK, the Home Secretary has revoked Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship, a decision supported by apparently 78% of the British population, and possibly effectively rendering her stateless – which even the Home Secretary acknowledges would be illegal.

In the USA, Donald Trump has instructed that another bride, Hoda Muthana, should not be allowed to return to America.

But perhaps there is a more nuanced reaction that should be considered.

Firstly, both these women, and others, claim they were brainwashed into originally heading to IS, and then for supporting it.

In the case of Muthana, she unquestionably urged violence against her American compatriots. In the case of Begum, she reported seeing “a decapitated head in a waste bin” and not being “fazed” by the experience, and that the terrorist bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester was “retaliation” for Western bombing.

However, despite these being utterly abhorrent opinions, it may still be that there are arguments in favour of such people being allowed “home”.

The problem is by no means limited to the West.

As the BBC reported in May 2018 more than 2,000 Russian women have disappeared in Iraq and Syria. Some will be dead. Some will be held by the Governments of those countries, (some of the Russian women and others are rumoured to have been taken to prison in Baghdad, where they face execution), or by anti-IS militia such as Hashd al-Shaabi. Some will be in hiding, or in refugee camps. Is some cases, when captured with their husbands, the husbands have been executed.

So can anything be said for allowing such people to return to their countries of birth or citizenship?

Their age

Most people would concede that decision-making at the age of 15, as in the case of Begum and the two friends that went with her (both now dead) would be wildly different from even a few years later.

Or when, as in Muthana’s case, (she left when 19), she was making decisions in a cloistered and very severe background with little or no external input. For example, she says her family in Alabama were deeply conservative and placed restrictions on her movements and interactions, factors she claims contributed to her radicalisation. “You want to go out with your friends and I didn’t get any of that. I turned to my religion and went in too hard. I was self-taught and thought whatever I read, it was right. I look back now and I think I was very arrogant. Now I’m worried about my son’s future. In the end I didn’t have many friends left, because the more I talked about the oppression of Isis the more I lost friends. I was brainwashed once and my friends are still brainwashed.”

Whilst Begum says she does not regret travelling to Syria, which has been widely reported, she also says she came to believe that IS deserved to be defeated because it was corrupt and cruel. That is a much more nuanced attitude. Such an attitude expressed openly in the ‘Caliphate’ would have seen her executed.

In Muthana’s case, she speaks of having made a great mistake in travelling to join IS, of being manipulated, of being ignorant.

Do we believe them? Are they sincere? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would it make any difference if they were?

The essential question here is should we punish people for life, effectively, because of errors made – even egregious errors – when they were children, or when they say they were misled?

The pressure on them inside IS

There is ample evidence that IS placed such “brides” under huge pressure.

They were rigidly kept under lock and key until they married a fighter, to which they would not have been introduced, simply shown a photograph.

Once released into marriage, their movement was severely restricted, and any attempt to live an independent existence could result in terrible punishment. Soon after Begum’s marriage, (just three weeks after she arrived in the area), her husband was arrested, accused of spying, and was imprisoned and tortured for six and a half months.

It is not impossible to imagine that women such as Muthana would, effectively, have continued being “brainwashed” during their time in IS territory, or become too afraid to change their minds or express any different opinions. Whilst Muthana does not deny sending inflammatory tweets when she first arrived, and after her first husband was killed, she then claims her Twitter account was run by an IS fighter. Why did she stop sending her own tweets? Should we at least ask?

Are they actually guilty of any crime?

There is an argument that the women gave succour and sustenance to a terrorist organisation through their very presence. But other than this somewhat nebulous charge, have they actually broken any laws that would justify them being permanently excluded?

in 2015 Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the three girls would not face terror charges or be treated as criminals. And in Begum’s case specifically, Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said at the time there was a “difference between the person running around northern Iraq with a Kalishnikov” and three schoolgirls who had been duped into travelling to Syria. However as Ms Begum is now 19, she is legally an adult. If she was under 18, UK authorities could argue they still had a duty of care to her. That might be more complex now. Then again, Security minister Ben Wallace said last week: “As a British citizen she has a right to come home here. We are obliged to make sure our citizens have rights, no matter who they are,” he told Sky News. But he dismissed any suggestion of sending officials to meet Ms Begum, saying: “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists in a failed state. Actions have consequences.”

Should they be obliged to face prosecution?

Though it might be unclear what they would be charged with, it may well be that the women concerned should be prosecuted in a court of law.

Sir Peter Fahy, a retired senior police chief who was the leader of the Prevent terrorism prevention programme at the time the girls left the UK, told BBC Radio 4 that if Begum was to now return, British authorities would first detain her and investigate whether there was enough evidence to prosecute her.

He said it was understandable why the government was “not particularly interested” in aiding her return. “If the woman was showing complete remorse, it would be completely different,” he said.

However this begs the question, should an individual’s guilt or innocence, whatever their actions, not be judged by a jury of their peers? Is there actually any more basic premise for western societies which support the jury system?

Fighters returning to their countries of origin are routinely taken to court, judged and sentenced. Why is one course of action right, and another wrong?

If it is simply because there are actually no laws under which to charge the women, that is surely not a reason to sentence them to exile in limbo in absentia.

Do we want them just running around anywhere?

Many IS brides are in camps (or areas) controlled by America and/or her allies in the region. European countries show no great enthusiasm to bring captured IS fighters home to face prosecution, nor to go to dangerous areas to interview or assess them.

But President Trump has publicly asserted that if the Europeans don’t steep up he will simply open the gates and let them go. In which case, will the women be released as well? To go … where? With what attitude or future actions?

So much is unclear.

Can they be rehabilitated?

The answer to this question is ‘probably’. De-radicalisation programs around the world actually show high levels of success.

The question is what is actually of more use to our society – de-radicalised people who were given a chance to atone for their behaviour, or permanently locking them out of sight overseas?

It is, of course, impossible to predict what future contribution they might make, but it is equally impossible to argue “None”. They might end us as useful members of society. They may even be part of an effort to help to prevent other young people becoming radicalised. In that sense, bringing them home would start to redress their foolishness.

Last but not least: what about the children?

Both these women – and many others – have very young children. No one would argue the children have done anything wrong, apart from having the misfortune to be born in a war zone.

Do the sins of their parents require them to be punished too? Surely not. And many people have said that their children should be allowed entry. But if we are to then obdurately refuse to take their mothers back, is that morally supportable? There is no evidence that the mothers are abusive towards their children – rather the opposite, in fact. So on what grounds can we or should we separate them?

At least 730 children have been born inside ISIS territory to foreign nationals, including 566 born to Western Europeans. Are they all to stay in refugee camps in Syria or surrounding countries?

Our conclusion?

It is often said that it is easy to forgive those that we agree with, or who are essentially good people. But it’s harder – and perhaps more relevant – to forgive those that we do not like.

Both of these women, and others, have expressed hateful opinions, as well as more complex ones.

But the issues they pose go to the heart of our judicial system. And they also talk to who we are as people, and how our attitudes to them define our societies, and how we wish to behave. Decisions about their future should not be made on the basis of pandering to mob disgust, even if that disgust is perfectly understandable.

Our view is that it is far too simplistic to argue, as social media has done, “Pah! They made their bed, let them lie in it.”

Why? Well, for one reason above all.

If we eschew totally the opportunity for rehabilitation – or even for measured punishment that fits the crime – then there would only be one sentence for all transgressions or crimes. And that sentence would be life in jail, or execution.

Now who does that sound like?

Our regular Reader, and Facebook friends, will know that we are somewhat exercised over the collective insanity that is Brexit. Wandering around the world wide interweb thingy, we saw this: To us, it seems remarkably apposite:

Leavers “We voted for Brexit, now you Remainers need to implement it”

Remainers “But it’s not possible!”

Leavers “The People Have Spoken. Therefore it is possible. You just have to think positively.”

Remainers “And do what exactly?”

Leavers “Come up with a Plan that will leave us all better off outside the EU than in it.”

Remainers “But that’s not possible!”

Leavers “Quit with the negative vibes. The People Have Spoken.”

Remainers “But even you don’t know how!”

Leavers “That’s your problem, we’ve done our bit and voted, we’re going to sit here and eat popcorn and watch as you do it.”

Remainers “Shouldn’t you do it? It was your idea. We were happy.”

Leavers “It’s not up to us to work out the detail, it’s up to you experts.”

Remainers “I thought you’d had enough of experts?”

Leavers “Remain experts.”

Remainers “There are no Leave experts.”

Leavers “Then you’ll have to do it then. Oh, and by the way, no dragging your feet or complaining about it, because if you do a deal we don’t want, we’ll eat you alive.”

Remainers “But you don’t know what you want!”

Leavers “We want massive economic growth, no migration, free trade with the EU and every other country, on our terms, the revival of British industry, re-open the coal mines, tea and vicars on every village green, some nice bunting, and maybe restoration of the empire.”

Remainers “You’re delusional.”

Leavers “We’re a delusional majority. DEMOCRACY! So do the thing that isn’t possible, very quickly, and give all Leavers what they want, even though they don’t know what they want, and ignore the 16 million other voters who disagree. They’re tight trouser latte-sipping hipsters who whine all the time. Who cares?”

This was created by Ishtar Ostaria and kudos to Ish.

We’d like to engage in one more bit of speculation.

The best intelligence at the moment seems to be that May will bring a deal back to the UK Parliament to pass which leaves the situation virtually as it is now, with Britain inside the EU, except Britain will lose all influence over the EU by not having any input in the EU parliament or ministerial conflabs. How that improves Britain’s standing is beyond us, even though it is what we speculated would happen years ago.

OR May will come back to the Parliament and say “This can’t be done, we need to defer Article 50, possibly for quite some time.”

This will create a political furore in Britain, even if it actually makes sense.

May might then go to the country for a renewed mandate, and with Labour languishing because of their leadership’s inability to oppose Brexit, and the Lib Dems seemingly unable to make up significant ground on them, she will probably get it. Which won’t make Brexit any easier, but which will entrench probably the most incompetent Government in recent British history in power for another five years.

British civil discourse is being rent asunder by political toxicity, and the country is led by donkeys. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic.

Regular readers will know (a) that I think Brexit is a really, really bad idea, and (b) I have blogged about why often, or waffled about it on Facebook, or whatever.

But after the shambles in the UK Parliament yesterday (Australian time) I thought this BBC graphic might be useful for anyone trying to understand what on earth happens (or can happen) now.

Brexit next steps

The UK Parliament yesterday was a seething mass of regret, ambition, determination and anger.

The problem, as one Brexiteer friend complained to me this morning is that Prime Minister Theresa May was never a Leaver, and therefore the entire negotiation has been bumbled along incompetently in order to leave the British sort of still in the EU and sort of out of it. As Aussies would say, paraphrasing a famous old advertising slogan: “It’s the Brexit you’re having when you’re not having a Brexit.”

Theresa May under pressure in the UK parliament yesterday.

There’s only one problem with this analysis, which is that the current situation could well cost Theresa May her job, and politicians don’t generally engineer a situation which seems tailor-made to see them sacked.

If May wanted a Brexit deal that left the situation essentially a status quo, one suspects she would have dressed it up better to mollify the right-wing anti-European segment of her party, rather than enrage it. (Which presumes that they were capable of being mollified, which is by no means certain.) But when the Minister in charge of the deal enunciated yesterday, as Dominic Raab did, that he’s resigning because he can’t support the deal he himself negotiated, then we are in uncharted political territory.

It is likely that the Brexiteers in May’s party (by no means a majority, but incredibly determined and vocal) were simply waiting for this moment to topple her in favour of one of their own. They won’t get one of their own, but they will succeed in making their party look ungovernable and fractured. Why they would want to do that you will have to ask them.

Nevertheless, putting a deal to Parliament which seems to please no-one apart from a small core of May loyalists seems a failure of political strategy. Doing something to unite the right wing of the Tories, the increasingly marginalised Lib Dems, the much more significant Scots Nats, large swathes of Labour (if not its increasingly unimpressive leader) and even the DUP (nominally part of the government, in effect) is quite a feat.

It may simply be that May has simply run out of time, and had to do something. She may, indeed, prefer to go down fighting on the principle that the people voted for Brexit, and she’s going to deliver the Brexit she can, or die trying. Certainly her performance in the Commons – against a barrage of criticism unlike anything seen since Chamberlain was removed in 1940 – was bullish, determined and courageous.

The problem, of course, is that in terms of what is right for Britain, this is a disaster.

If the deal cannot survive the Commons, then a “No Deal, Crash Out” outcome becomes very likely. Passionate opponents of the EU will say (are saying) “Well, so what? We survived two World Wars, we can manage a bit of trade disruption!” The problem is that this is mere wishful thinking – “magic thinking” – and terrifyingly naive.

The UK currently trades with the EU under rules set down by the EU customs union, which is an agreement that goods can be traded freely, and the single market, which sets a common regulatory structure and allows the free movement of goods, capital, people and services.

Leaving these two arrangements overnight would, first, mean the UK would trade with the EU on the basis of rules set down by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This would end the free movement of goods between the UK and the EU, and mean that tariffs, or special import taxes, would apply on some products. Secondly, customs checks would also be immediately needed between countries where they aren’t currently. Chaos.

Aviation is an example of another key area where problems will arise. At the moment the UK aircraft industry operates under EU regulation both within the EU and for flights to other countries such as the US. If the UK leaves suddenly next March, then some new regulatory arrangement would be needed. This could be worked out in advance, or could ground flights between the UK and EU countries for a period if not. On some scenarios, flights might halt for a few days before things are worked out – but much will depend on what the mood is between the two sides at the time. Any any such disruption would cause untold problems. Similarly in pharmaceuticals, the UK is part of the EU regulatory regime and questions would emerge over pharma exports from the UK,and vice versa. Stockpiling of vital drugs in both the UK and EU countries is already at the planning stage as a fallback. The UK Health Secretary reportedly told the Prime Minister and her cabinet that he ‘could not guarantee that people would not die’ if no Brexit deal was agreed. Matt Hancock is reported to have said that lives will be at risk due to a shortage of medicine in a no deal scenario during the stormy No 10 five-hour meeting on Wednesday.

Britain is also highly dependent on imported food. By value, imports make up more than 90% of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK and half of the meat. A “hard” Brexit is expected to suddenly and substantially increase trade costs and make food imports more expensive, something that could lead to changes in diets and dietary risk factors that influence health. In fact, Brexit could lead to up to 5,600 diet-related deaths per year by 2027, additional healthcare expenditure of £600m, and increase the GDP losses of Brexit by up to 50% according to estimates Florian Freund and Marco Springmann published in a new Oxford Martin School Working Paper.

The stupid thing about all this is that it is only Theresa May’s dogged determination (although disgracefully supported by the grinning idiot Jeremy Corbyn) that “Brexit means Brexit” and therefore there is nothing for it but to “keep on buggering on” in Churchill’s famous aphorism, that is the real problem here. She is full of Thatcher-like passion that “there is no alternative”. But there is an alternative, which is commonsense.

During the Brexit process, and increasingly as the negotiations have become mired in the very complexity that many of us predicted from day 1, the British people have gradually woken up to the fact that they don’t really like the look of what they voted for.

The original referendum was advisory only, and even if we elevate that to the level of Holy Writ as some have (with no basis in law), arguing that it places a moral obligation on the Government to deliver Brexit (this is May’s oft-stated position), this does not allow for the very obvious fact that people change their mind.

When a Government is elected, it undoubtedly has a mandate (of some strength or other, depending on the details of a result) but that Government is elected in sure and certain knowledge that it can be removed if it loses the confidence of the House, or a subsequent election. So why should the result of a referendum be somehow locked eternally in stone, when no other Governmental process is?

The Government has struggled hard to deliver Brexit. And failed. It was always a quixotic and incredibly complex goal.

The terms of the deal May has now put on the table actually leaves Britain economically worse off than staying in the EU, but with none of the advantages that Brexit was supposed to deliver. Far from “taking back control”, it actually cedes further control to the bureaucrats. Crashing out without a deal would be political and economic insanity, although it would be the preferred option for the Brexit fanatics. But in reality they have never truly been in a majority, either in the Conservative Party, or the country as a whole.

Opinion polls now suggest that there is a solid majority of the British electorate who have changed their minds on Brexit as the details have become clear. An even larger majority want the chance to vote on the terms of the deal in a so-called “People’s Vote”. May stubbornly refuses.

It is simple ornery-ness to deny them that chance, especially as it might well produce a result – staying in the EU – which would instantly resolve the current impasse. Such a result would not, of course, prevent the UK seeking to continue to renegotiate any of the terms of membership which it finds especially onerous.

Sadly, such commonsense is in short supply at the moment. Götterdämmerung works in Wagner operas. It’s no way to run a country.

So, the much-discussed mid-terms are over and done with, and the US stock market is up about 2%, as it usually is when the uncertainty of elections is over.

As we predicted a year ago, the Democrats handily won the House, (probably by more than estimated in early reports), and there was an “as you were” result in the Senate, which is likely to leave the Republicans in control. (We say “likely”, because a number of races are still toss ups, but it’s by far the most likely result.)

But what happens next is vitally important to the health of the US economy, and more broadly the world.

Nancy Pelosi, who despite some rumblings is certain to hold onto her job as head of the Democrats in the house, (if for no other reason than she is both a wily negotiator and a fundraising ballistic missile), has spoken warily of the need to work with the White House across the “aisle”.

In return, President Trump has said he wants to work with Pelosi on boosting infrastructure spending and lowering prescription drug prices, two rare policy stances of agreement.

“I think she’s a very smart woman. She has done a very good job,” Trump said at a press conference Wednesday, adding that the two didn’t discuss the prospect of impeachment in a phone call. “A lot of people thought I was beings sarcastic or joking, I wasn’t,” Trump added, in reference to a tweet saying Pelosi deserved to be speaker. “There was nothing sarcastic about it, it was really meant with good intentions.”

But – and it’s a big but – two things are likely to impede both sides’ vaunted good intentions.

Firstly, the desire to impeach Trump for something – anything, frankly – may prove irresistible to many Democrats who are still smarting from two plus years of insults from the Cheeto-in-Chief, after what they consider to have been a stolen Presidential election, and would love to hurt him back.

And Trump does not take well to assaults on his person. If war is declared, it will be fought bitterly.

Secondly, despite some areas of agreement, the Democrats are distant by a country mile from the Republicans on healthcare and will also seek to spread the benefits of a moderately booming economy to their own middle class base and away from the 1% and rustbelt industries that they fell deserted them in 2016.

So whilst the two sides may co-operate – and let us all fervently hope so – the stage is just as likely set for a “do nothing” period of government akin to when Obama lost control of the House.

If the reality of so-called gridlock sets in, then it may limit the current “relief rally”, added Nigel Green, founder and chief executive of the financial consultancy deVere Group. Of such a gridlock, he said: “This will halt deregulation legislation, which in turn will hurt sectors such as banking, energy, industrials, and smaller companies that stood to gain most from looser controls.”

Green’s concerns would be just the beginning, though. The Democrats may choose to wade in on the nasty little trade war going on with China, introducing yet more uncertainty. (Whilst the world might welcome a move to free up trade again, uncertainty on policy settings is what drives stock markets down.)

And what is absolutely certain is there is no appetite in Washington to do anything serious to tackle the ever-ballooning American government debt, from either side, but most definitely not from “tax and spend” Democrats.

Failure to do anything serious about the debt is the ticking time bomb at the heart of the American economy, containing within it a potential fall in the value of the dollar through a general loss of confidence in the essential health of the economy and its currency, and a possible subsequent stoking of inflation. That inflation then causes more uncertainty, and so on we go …

In summary, a fall in the value of the dollar:

  • Makes US exports cheaper to foreigners importing US Goods.
  • It is cheaper for non-US citizens to go on holiday to the US.
  • US consumers face higher price of imported goods.

However a devaluation is often just a temporary increase in competitiveness. Devaluation often causes inflationary pressures which reduce a temporary gain in competitiveness.

Also, as exports become more competitive (ie cheaper to foreign buyers) without firms having to make much effort to make that increase happen, then therefore there is less incentive for them to cut costs and boost productivity, and so in the long run costs will increase and therefore inflation will increase. If firms are well run and they cut costs when times are good then this may be avoided, but there appears to be little appetite for that in the USA at the moment.

If there is a devaluation in the value of the US dollar then there will be an increase in the price of goods being imported to the USA. After decades of manufacturing decline, imports are now quite a significant part of the country’s CPI, therefore increasing their prices will contribute towards cost-push inflation.

It is possible that retailers might not pass the price increases onto consumers but choose to live with lower profit margins, but if the devaluation is sustained, prices will inevitably go up.

The Financial Times have estimated that as a rough rule of thumb, a 10% devaluation may increase prices to consumers by 2-3%, affecting confidence. The components of the CPI most affected by a devaluation in the dollar are:

  1. Air travel (-1.29)
  2. Vegetables (-1.22)
  3. Gas  (-0.71)
  4. Fuel (-0.54)
  5. Books (-0.35)

Numbers 2-5 hit ordinary consumers hardest, of course. That won’t help the party in power.

And after yesterday’s results, that means both of them.

The price of a war between the House and everyone else will be international market instability. That doesn’t help anyone, inn the USA, and beyond. Let’s hope Pelosi and Trump can work that out.

 

Aussies considering a quick break in one of the many plush resorts popping up in Cambodia need to stop and consider whether they want to reward the loathsome Hun Sen regime with their much needed foreign currency. You can read about the case here:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45364695

The savage jailing for six years of elderly Aussie journalist James Ricketson is clearly a nonsensical, Kafkaesque attempt to stifle both journalistic freedom and criticism of the increasingly authoritarian Government.

Cambodia is a country which relies on Australian aid, (somewhere around $80-90 million in the most recent year), has close governmental contact with Australia, and which needs close trade ties with Australia to continue its development from the nightmare of the Pol Pot era.

It’s time the Australian Government stopped pussy-footing around human rights abuses by our near neighbours. Incoming Foreign Minister Marise Payne – no shrinking violet  – has an opportunity to stamp her authority on the position by demanding that Cambodia release Ricketson forthwith.

No ifs, no buts, no diplomatic doublespeak, no procrastination, no face-saving formulas. Now.

For heavens’ sake, Cambodian prosecutors can’t even say who Ricketson was supposed to be spying for.

If you wish to urge Marise Payne to take immediate and effective action, we suggest you email her on:

Email: Senator.Payne@aph.gov.au

Foreign Affairs: Foreign.minister@dfat.gov.au

#Asia #Asean #MarisePayne #Australia #justice

The “little corporal” Napoleon, standing at about 5 feet 7 inches, was actually taller than most of his compatriots.

According to the National Post, this misconception may have arisen because of the difference between French and British inches at the time. In French measurements, Napoleon was 5 feet 2 inches, but French inches were longer than British ones.

 

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Others believe it all started with a satirical cartoon with Napoleon being held in an British general’s hand. Or is that the King? We’re not sure.

Just another example, we feel, of “history being written by the victors”. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo we suspect Wellington would have become a silly creature of fun with boots up to his arse, and Nelson a bent and hobbled cripple.

This historical oddity, though, raises an interesting question. How many sources for history do we really need if we are to attain a “balanced” view. What weight should be placed on various sources? And what duty do we owe to the living to get it right?

One would suppose very few French people feel especially hard done by because we generally think Napoleon was a short-arse. But let us take, for example, the history of indigenous owners of land since appropriated by Empires various or immigrants: the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for example. They see the arrival of the British as a murderous, genocidal invasion of lands they had occupied for at least 40,000 years. Our view of the North American first peoples is founded almost entirely on the myth making of 19th century broadsheet writers and comic books, the owners of which had a vested interested in selling the “white man” as a brave and honourable creature, a position gleefully adopted by Hollywood who were selling movies to those white people’s descendants, of course, and not the grandchildren of the noble (and more often ignoble) savages. Blacks in Africa were invariably shown as feckless and ignorant, despite have created civilisations that pre-dated Europe by thousands of years – ditto the Arab world which was apparently entirely composed of wild eyed zealots with flashing knives and not some of the greatest scientists in history, Aztecs and Mayans did little more with their time than cut the hearts out of slaves and toss their bodies down the sides of pyramids despite centuries of learning on astronomy and mathematics that were centuries in advance of the “West”, the Chinese were corrupt satraps despite their progress in civil administration, medicine, art and literature, and so on and so on ad infinitum.

All these civilisations were the victims of “othering”. The process by which we ridicule, marginalise and often slaughter those whom we defeat, and we simply do not concede either honourable or laudable characteristics to the defeated.

So it is perhaps instructional to consider those who are “othered” by the media, politicians, and common opinion in the West today.

The myth-making runs in overtime about, in no particular order, “lazy, venal” South Americans, “disaffected, drug-addled” American people of colour, “dangerous, inhuman, violent” Muslims, (we are sick of pointing out that if Muslims as a group were really violent the West would currently be at war with 1.2 billion of them, and probably losing, but there it is), disorganised and corrupt Italians and Greeks, drunken Irish, endlessly warring Africans, and many more.

Well. It is our birthday, today, Dear Reader. We are getting older. As someone so kindly pointed out in a message to our mobile phone earlier, “your senior years are now really upon you”. Well, yes, they are. So if you will permit me, an observation from the full height of the mountain I have so far climbed.

Whomever we are discussing, and wherever they are in the world, what has struck me most forcefully as I have gone through this life is actually how similar people are. Whoever they are. Wherever they are. No matter what their cultural background.

People everywhere simply want to live in peace. To celebrate family, and have a chance to provide for them. To speak, walk and breathe freely. To live free from fear, and with enough wealth that they don’t fear want, either.

The same things essentially frighten all of us, and the same things usually please us, inspire us, and elevate us.

We are all much more alike than we are unalike.

One of the most educational things today is to observe on social media how a “meme” of something silly, charming, and encouraging can be shared by people of all cultures, all types, all ages, and all sexes, umpteen millions of times. Very often, those memes involve conspicuous acts of kindness. Of gentleness. Every time someone clicks “Share”, they are affirming our common humanity.

If social media has a true purpose, it is perhaps to remind us that what unites us, as a species, is much more than ever divides us.

This is not to argue for a common or enforced blandness. Educator, campaigner and orator Booker T Washington once said, “In all things social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”.

That’ll do me. For my birthday present, I’d really like it if you agreed, Dear Reader. Let’s stop “othering”, and be the hand that creates mutual progress.

 

 

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Sitting in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California looking back on his wasted life is Sirhan Sirhan, the aggrieved pro-Palestinian Jordanian who fifty years ago today fatally shot Bobby Kennedy for his support for selling war planes to Israel.

But what he killed that day was not only the wildly popular primary contender for the Democratic nomination for President, but also the post-war “big government” consensus that had held sway in America since the Depression. With Kennedy effectively died the idea that Government had a legitimate role in enabling social cohesion and attacking evils such as poverty and the racial divide.

After his death, the Democrats turned to Hubert Humphrey as a consensus candidate, but the bumbling Humphrey was never going to be a match for the charismatic and experienced Richard Nixon.

That event began a thirty year or more realignment to the right in American politics, which eventually led to a wider realignment around the democratic world, which affected both future Democratic candidates (such as Carter and Clinton) as well as notable Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. By the end of the process the “post war consensus” around enabling government and Keynsian economics was largely broken, and it is not clear yet whether or not it will ever be revived.

Texan political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics presents a theory of American political development that focuses on the role of party systems that endure for several decades, only to be disrupted by a “critical election”. Such elections not only hand presidential and congressional power to the non-incumbent political party, but they do so in a dramatic way that repudiates the worn-out ideas of the old party and initiates a new era whose leaders govern on a new set of assumptions, ideologies, and public policies. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are perhaps the clearest examples of critical elections, and scholars have disagreed about how well Burnham’s theories still explain American electoral politics. Others contend that 1968 was a realigning election for Republicans holding the presidency from 1969 to 1977 and again from 1981 to 1993.

Some political scientists, such as Mayhew, are skeptical of the realignment theory altogether, saying there are no long-term patterns: “Electoral politics,” he wrote, “is to an important degree just one thing after another … Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans … It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation … It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end.”

That is in all probability true. “Realignment” elections are probably the result of long-term trends that then coalesce around an individual or event. In this sense, the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK is unquestionably onesuch, in that it can be seen as not so much an enthusiasm for Thatcher personally (for some time after her election in 1979 she actually languished in the polls and could arguably have been defeated in the 1983 election were it not for the Falklands War) but as an enduring and growing response to militant trade unionism that had disrupted the country during the previous Heath and Callaghan premierships.

In this sense, though, it is interesting to debate what type of America we might now see had Robert Kennedy survived and won the election. Would we have seen a rejuvenated consensus around government intervention, led by Kennedy’s personal charisma, and fervour? Or was Kennedy a “man out of time”, a liberal consensus man who belonged ten or twenty years earlier? It is an enticing discussion.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in response to the dissent brokered by the civil rights movement thoroughly moved large numbers of older, conservative and male whites (most directly) into the Republican camp. Whether or not Kennedy’s personal appeal and rhetorical flourish would have kept them in the Democrat fold is impossible to say. Republican leaders consciously appealed to many white Southerners’ racial grievances in order to gain their support. Whether or not Kennedy could have “sold” a different narrative is hard to say. The Southern Strategy and its effectiveness certainly annoyed black and other minority voters. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologised to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a national civil rights organisation, for exploiting racial polarisation to win elections and ignoring the black vote. The very substantial preference for the Democrat ticket currently evidenced by the black population stems in part from this period and there can be little doubt that the election of Donald Trump reresented the most stark division between black and white voters in modern electoral history. Would Kennedy have reduced or prevented that divide? Who knows?

Certainly, many left-leaning leaders at the time felt Kennedy’s loss very keenly and for many Kennedy’s death ended the revival of American liberalism.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 2.31.06 pm“King had prepared us for his death, and after it [MLK’s death] happened, there was no weeping, we immediately started figuring out how we were going to carry on the Poor People’s Campaign,” says former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s closest aides.

But that maintenance of effort was scuppered by Kennedy’s death. “That was when I broke down,” says Young. “I think that the rational liberal democratic socialist view of the world, from Franklin Roosevelt all the way to Lyndon Johnson, was really cut short by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.”

Others disagree. “By the end of the 1960s, the forces that were swelling up against the Great Society, which was an extension of the New Deal of the 1930s, were going to defeat whoever the Democrats put up,” says HW Brands, historian and author. “Americans were disillusioned and angered by the violence of the 1960s, and by the failure of the Democratic governments of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to take Vietnam to a successful conclusion.”

Brands notes how also the Civil Rights movement had largely achieved its legislative aims, and so if either Martin Luther King Jr or Robert Kennedy had lived they would have had to battle the great American conundrum of economic inequality and poverty that has thwarted all others.

“That’s a much tougher nut to deal with going off the last 50 years of American politics,” Mr Brands says. “You can repeal laws against blacks, but can you mandate economic equality? Nobody’s figured out how to do it … for a society that is organised economically along capitalist lines.” It’s a fair point.

 

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Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 1.44.58 pm.pngWhat is certain is that the election of Nixon and the general drift to the right that continues to this day resulted in economic policies – an understanding of the economic framework – that are wildly different to what went before … right up to until, perhaps, the election of an innately interventionist Trump administration, with its talk of directly investing in rustbelt industries, trade wars, and all the rest of it – which election can at least in part be squarely laid at the door of voter dis-satisfaction with the actual out-workings of the very “trickle down” economics that the Republicans for a generation have been enthusiastically promoting.

Yet as the result of the Trump revolution, American economic policy is now a curious (and not necessarily sustainable, or necessarily successful) mixture of lowering taxes and increasing spending, of triumphalist nationalism and “America First”, and an apparent rejection of free tradeism. Aided, no doubt, by Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity in some sections of the population, Trump’s election was above all a reaction to the fact that the new consensus, established after Kennedy’s death and pursued by both Democrats and Republicans, hasn’t really “worked”, either.

So it is at least worth speculating exactly what Sirhan Sirhan destroyed that day, 50 years ago. Jeremi Suri, a history professor and author, has commented: “Kennedy … was the last politician who came from a background of Franklin Roosevelt-influenced social welfare policies who could connect with rural voters,” Mr Suri says. “What ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a set of policies of expanding rights, expanding government services and assistance for those in need, and the backlash against that was facilitated by the absence of effective figures like Robert Kennedy.”

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So was Kennedy-ism the last gasp of the liberal consensus, or will we see that consensus revived, at least in part, by a new crop of populist centre-left politicians, in America and around the world, of whom Trump is merely, perhaps, a somewhat confused example?

How do we judge, for example, the huge popularity of a character like Bernie Sanders, a self proclaimed “democratic socialist”, whose economic prescription for America could have been written by any “big Government” thinker from 1926-1966 without anyone finding it in the least unusual or even worthy of much comment?

Was Kennedy’s death merely a pause in left-liberal consensus building, or the end of it?

Time, as always, will tell.

(Some of the quotations in this article previously appeared in a BBC article.)

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Protesters hold protest signs denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin near the Russian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York in 2015. (Reuters)

The really interesting question in the recent poisoning case in the UK is not if the Russian Government is implicated – it looks highly likely (see below) – but why they would perform such an act now.

When trying to understand the context, two factors are key in our view.

Firstly, Russia is in an expansionist phase, constantly testing the resolve of the West to resist it.

Recent examples are many and varied. Russia is firmly in the camp of rogue state in terms of its murderous support of the Assad regime in Syria, as it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East. It continues to agitate against the Ukraine, maintains a threatening posture against the newly independent Baltic states, and threatens the USA with a “new generation” of nuclear missiles.

Secondly, Putin is up for re-election. He is a populist “strongman”, and that’s why his rule is virtually unchallenged, although factions within the ruling elite in Russia do exist, and jockeying for power in the event of any departure by Putin is constant. In this, Russia has hardly evolved from the days of communist control, or frankly, the Tsars.

Viewed in this light, the murder of a minor spy who has been quietly living in the West for some time – which would be re-reported in Russia, of course – serves two purposes.

It tests the West’s resolve to resist brazen Russian aggression without risking an armed conflict.

Second, it makes Putin look tough. Again.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson thus faces a serious test. If the attempted murder (or it may turn out to be a triple murder, depending on the health of those most affected) turns out to be very obviously to be laid at the feet of the Russian State, what is an appropriate response?

Will the British worry overmuch about the unpleasant despatch of a spy – deaths in that arena happen constantly, of course – and the unfortunate collateral damage of a Wiltshire policeman? Or will they make a lot of huff and puff and do nothing much?

Our money is on nothing much. Perhaps a few diplomats expelled and a strongly worded note.

The British economy – especially the City of London – increasingly depends on the growing petro-dollar and gas-dollar influx of funds “washed” through banks and finance houses in London. And funds from less obvious sources inside the Russian kleptocracy. Putin knows Britain wouldn’t want anything to upset that, especially when complications from Brexit means those funds could easily get switched to other markets. So this event tests how brazen Russian behaviour can be before any real damage is done to the relationship.

Ordinarily, of course, the Brits would turn to their American colleagues for advice on how to handle this latest “Beast from the East” event. (The “Beast from the East” was the nickname given to the recent blast of cold air from Russia that dumped snow everywhere.) But given the inordinately close relationship between Putin and the Trump administration, we feel it is unlikely that Britain will turn there for help and advice. And relations between Britain and the EU aren’t exactly rosy just now either.

Putin is, unlike his American counterpart, a highly calculating man. We believe he may be testing the UK right now simply because it is increasingly isolated and left to its own resources. Simply to see what happens.

How Johnson responds will be fascinating to watch.

THE BBC’s latest reporting follows:

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon and remain critically ill.

A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now in a serious condition in hospital, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said.

Nerve agents are highly toxic chemicals that stop the nervous system working and shut down bodily functions.

They normally enter the body through the mouth or nose, but can also be absorbed through the eyes or skin.

Mr Rowley, head of Counter Terrorism Policing, said government scientists had identified the agent used, but would not make that information public at this stage.

“This is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder, by administration of a nerve agent,” he said.

“Having established that a nerve agent is the cause of the symptoms… I can also confirm that we believe that the two people who became unwell were targeted specifically.”

He said there was no evidence of a widespread health risk to the public.

Two other police officers who attended the scene were treated in hospital for minor symptoms, before they were given the all clear. It is understood their symptoms included itchy eyes and wheezing.

Analysis

By Richard Galpin, BBC News correspondent – formerly based in Moscow

The announcement by the police that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are the victims of an attack in which a nerve agent was used makes the parallel with the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 even stronger.

Like the radioactive polonium used to kill Litvinenko, a nerve agent is not normally something criminal gangs or terrorist groups can make.

Instead, it is usually manufactured by specialist laboratories under the control of governments – and that inevitably means suspicion will now be very much focused on Russia.

Not only does it have a track record of using poisons to assassinate its enemies, there is also a motive in the case of Sergei Skripal.

As a military intelligence officer in Russia, he betrayed his country by providing information to MI6, reportedly revealing the identities of Russian agents in Europe. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has in the past indicated that traitors deserve to die.

Although the question remains, why would Mr Skripal be attacked now when he has been living in Britain for eight years and came here originally as part of a spy swap?

Mr Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped on a bench outside the Maltings shopping centre.

Police want to speak to anyone who was in the city centre on Sunday afternoon.

They are particularly keen to hear from people who ate at Zizzi or drank in The Bishop’s Mill pub between 13:00 and 16:00 GMT.

Both of those locations remain closed to the public.

There is also a cordon in place outside Mr Skripal’s Salisbury home. A yellow forensic tent has been erected and police have been seen carrying equipment into the building.

Mr Rowley said hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers were working round the clock on the case.

The investigation in Salisbury may take several more days, he added.

Prof Malcolm Sperrin, fellow of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, said: “Symptoms of exposure to nerve agents may include respiratory arrest, heart failure, twitching or spasms – anything where the nerve control is degraded.

“Nerve agents can cause death, but not necessarily at low-level exposure or with a minor dose.”

Alastair Hay, emeritus professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, added: “These are very difficult and dangerous chemicals to make.”

Sergei Skripal and his daughter YuliaImage copyright EPA/ YULIA SKRIPAL/FACEBOOK
Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, collapsed on a bench in Salisbury city centre

A public inquiry concluded the killing of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 was probably carried out with the approval of President Putin.

On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told MPs the UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian “state responsibility” in the Skripal case.

Russia has insisted it has “no information” about what could have led to the incident, but is open to co-operating with British police if requested.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said foreign media had used the incident as part of an anti-Russian campaign.

“It’s a traditional campaign. The tradition is to make things up. We can only see it as a provocation,” she said.

Who is Sergei Skripal?

Undated image taken from the internet of Sergei Skripal in uniform.
Col Skripal, 66, had been living in Salisbury after being released by Russia in 2010

Colonel Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence officer, was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006.

He was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI.

After a Cold War-style spy swap at Austria’s Vienna airport, Col Skripal moved to Salisbury, where he kept a low profile for eight years.

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I’m waiting for my Son to die. At least in Heaven there’s food.

 

Compassion fatigue?

Boredom?

Distracted by the Winter Olympics closing ceremony? Massacres in American schools? Trump’s latest tweet? Football?

What will it take to make you sit up and take notice?

Perhaps this. Warning: distressing.

http://www.bbc.com/news/video_and_audio/must_see/43163173/syria-war-children-struggle-to-survive-in-eastern-ghouta

#assad #syria #russia #civilians #children

If you want to share this story, which is something you could to do immediately to raise awareness of this utter disgrace, please cut and paste the link at the end of this sentence, and post it to your Facebook page or wherever: wp.me/p1LY0z-3ya

NEWS UPDATE

There appears to be some success in the outpouring of anger over Russia and Assad’s behaviour. Please KEEP sharing this story as often and as creatively as you can to ensure that pressure is kept up.?

See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43200956

 

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Watching video footage of a Florida student recording the noise of a gunman firing an “AR-15 style rifle” inside their school – killing at least 17 people, and possibly more when the injured either recover or tragically do not – was not good for one’s peace of mind.

The horrific and terrifying noise that such a rifle makes just a few feet from you will live in the mind of viewers forever. What the long-term effect will be on those who were actually there will be, God only knows. The by-now all too familiar photographs of traumatised children and parents are almost too awful to contemplate.

Indeed, one of the greatest dangers of the current situation in America is that people will turn away, feeling helpless, or simply ignore events through compassion fatigue.

This was the 18th school shooting in the USA this year. Which, it should be pointed out, is not even into its third month.

Worse, the alleged perpetrator was known to the school, had been disciplined while there, and previously banned from the campus with a backpack on.

The time for America to ignore its hugely powerful gun lobby and take action to prevent more occurrences of these acts is now so long overdue that it is not even worth fulminating in shock any more.

America must do take following steps now, or accept that disenfranchised marginalised youths – nearly always male, and clearly disturbed – will continue to act like this with relative impunity.

No, this problem will not be fixed overnight – the solution will be long, tortuous and depressingly tough and complex – but every day that is wasted simply invites another such event. America has to start this journey sometime. If not now, when?

  • “Assault style/AR-15” rifles must be banned throughout the country. For everyone. They are unnecessary for vermin control on farms, they are unnecessary for hunting, they are unnecessary for personal protection, and in the wrong hands they are irreparably and uniquely harmful. That’s it, no discussion, the time has come. Someone needs to show some leadership and get this change implemented.
  • No gun of any kind should be sold, by anyone, to anyone, without thorough psychological and background checks. America needs, as far as it can, to keep guns out of the hands of people who are likely to turn them on themselves or others.
  • The USA needs a gun amnesty to encourage legacy guns out of the community so they can be destroyed. This will reduce the number of guns stolen (currently 200,000 a year from legal gun owners) that end up int he criminal community.
  • People keeping unsecured weapons in their home should be subject to tough new nationally-agreed sanctions including, but not limited to, the permanent removal of their weapons and a ban on them replacing them

None of these aims should be rejected by reasonable advocates of gun ownership. Most people outside of America consider, as we have said many times before, that the right to bear arms is as inherently unwise as the right to arm bears. But it has to be accepted that the American public has a unique view of the matter. But that view can still be respected while making America’s children – indeed, all their population – much safer.

Some will say, again, that the problem is schools that are gun free zones, that all that is needed is more and better armed security. This is, of course, a simple nonsense. No school facility can ever be adequately secured against a madman with a semi-automatic rifle, and that’s the only point that matters. Unless you want to turn schools into the equivalent of armed prison camps, which is not only impractical, but is also not healthy for the children inside them. Why would America want to do that, when Americans can choose instead to rid society of semi-automatic weapons if they so wish?

Some will say, again, that guns are not the only deadly weapon available to assailants. And they’d be right. But it is much more difficult to kill 17 people with a knife, or a baseball bat. And that’s the point. And it is unarguable. It is also unarguable that the vast majority of attacks are carried out with guns, and the most deadly have always been with AR-15 style weapons, simply because of the ease with which multiple shots can be got off.

Some will say again that getting rid of such weapons is too hard, that illegal arms will continue to circulate amongst the criminal classes, and the argument needs to be confronted honestly. Yes, it will be hard to eliminate such weapons from the streets of America, and it will take time. As each such weapon is discovered, it must be destroyed. The population of such weapons will fall only slowly. (Although a gun amnesty will speed the process.) But people committing massacres are not career or professional criminals. They are not even gang members. They are loners, and normally not criminal in any other identifiable sense. In other words, the argument is a simple furphy.

The argument in favour of starting the process of reducing the population of such guns vastly outweighs any difficulties.

Because the question always comes back to “if not now, when?”

parkland-florida-school-shooting-05-ap-jc-180214_4x3_992

Without political leadership – without bi-partisan political leadership – America is simply doomed to seeing these scenes over and over. What is clear is that the current situation is unacceptable in a modern, free country. If anyone doubts that it is, they should visit 17 households in Broward County tonight.

Already there is evidence that tourist numbers to the USA are being negatively affected by the widespread perception of the country as riddled with gun violence.

And the psychological impact on America’s own population can hardly be imagined.

Let’s work together on what CAN be done, rather than waste any more time arguing about whether anything should be done. And before any smart-alec remarks that this is nothing to do with a writer in Australia, we would simply make three points.

  • Sometimes, a little distance is required to give perspective.
  • We have successfully tackled this problem in Australia and largely eradicated these weapons from our society.
  • We have friends in America. Many of them. And some of those friends have children.

Only when we have sought to address the core problem is it appropriate to say “Prayers and sympathy” to the victims. Because to express such sentiments, but to refuse to even begin to seriously tackle how to prevent events like today’s terrible massacre, is utter hypocrisy. Damnable hypocrisy. And it should be called out as such.

Something must be done. Starting today. That’s the bottom line.

 

 

wildfire3

Idiots (and they are idiots) who seek to deny climate change reality may care to note, as the BBC have, that the United States experienced a record year of losses from fires, hurricanes and other weather related disasters in 2017, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Total losses amounted to $306bn the agency said, over $90bn more than the previous record set in 2005.

Making the point that refusing to address climate change is not only idiocy, it’s very expensive idiocy, economically, too.

Last year saw 16 separate events with losses exceeding $1bn, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

NOAA also confirmed that 2017 was the third warmest year on record for the US. Only 2012 and 2016 were hotter.

Last year witnessed two Category 4 hurricanes make landfall in the States.

Hurricane Harvey produced major flooding as a result of a storm surge and extreme rain. Nearly 800,000 people needed help. Researchers have already shown that climate change increased the likelihood of the observed rainfall by a factor of at least 3.5.

Noaa says the total costs of the Harvey event were $125bn, which is second only to Hurricane Katrina in terms of costs over the 38 years the record has been maintained.

Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 storm for the longest period on record. Rain gauges in Nederland, Texas, recorded 1,539mm, the largest ever recorded for a single event in the mainland US. Hurricanes Irma and Maria cost $50bn and $90bn respectively.

As well as hurricanes, there were devastating fires in western states, particularly in California. While last winter and spring saw heavy rains in the region that alleviated a long-term drought, the resulting boom in vegetation created abundant wildfire fuel. Deadly fires in both the north and south of California meant hundreds of thousands of residents had to be evacuated from their homes.

The report from NOAA says that across the US, the overall cost of these fires was $18bn, tripling the previous wildfire cost record.

“In the general picture the warming [of the] US over the long term is related to the larger scale warming we have seen on the global scale,” said Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA’s monitoring section.

“The US will have a lot more year to year variability so that it bounces up and down depending on prevailing weather regimes. But the long term signal is tied with long term warming.”

The eastern US has been experiencing an extreme cold snap, also one of the side effects of global climate change, leading some, such as US president Donald Trump, to query the impact of global warming.

But the stats don’t lie. Temperatures in most regions of the world were above the 1981-2010 average – especially in the Arctic. On the island of Svalbard, the city of Longyearbyen repeatedly experienced mean monthly temperatures more than 6 degrees C above the long-term mark.

In November last year the World Meteorological Organisation issued a provisional bulletin stating that 2017 was likely the second or third warmest year on record. That prediction will be clarified in the coming days and weeks as various agencies around the world publish their data for the full year.

There are usually some small differences between the datasets held by the different national bodies based mainly on their coverage of the polar regions and and in their estimates of sea-surface temperature.

Meanwhile, Australia swelters yet again, with our first serious fires of the season, and often having to endure temperatures in the 40s. And our politicians continue to fiddle while the country, quite literally, burns.

civilianAs we have wandered Facebook and Instagram and all the rest of it, catching up on friends’ and acquaintances’ (and a few celebrities’) wishes for the New Year, one thing has struck us forcibly.

In the 1980s and 90s it seemed to us, most of the wishes were about health and happiness and wealth – hope the New Year brings you lots of money and the energy to enjoy it, essentially.

In this new century, the world seems a more anxious and thoughtful place. And as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, even more so.

It’s easy to see why. The old order is collapsing, or at least seems to be, at least to a degree.

The European experiment, which was always about unity and not just economics, regardless of how it was “sold”, seems mired in intractable problems. Not just the misguided Brexit – an especially self-immolatory act of political lunacy born of lies, anti-immigration sentiment and a generalised angst given something to focus on by weak leadership, especially that of David Cameron – but by the difficulties in keeping Eastern European countries with no strong tradition of liberal democracy signed up to the particular rules demanded of that heavy burden, and the eternal problem of encouraging people to work to a common good rather than a local or regional one.

Those in rich countries or areas are rapidly becoming sick of bailing out poorer areas.

The ultimate failure, of course, is political – as it always is – is in explaining to them why that’s good policy, and a burden worth shouldering. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Brexit, Greece, Catalonia, Northern Italy or elsewhere. The failure is not economic, it’s political.

The United States, for so long the arbiter of seemingly everything both good and bad in the world, at least from, say 1943 onwards, now seems lost and uncertain of its role.

In part, this is very obviously because economically the country is no longer the source of unending world wealth, but also because Russian and China (in particular) have parlayed their growing economic might into political clout. Rumours of America’s demise have been hugely over-inflated – it is still the world’s biggest economy by far, with the largest armed forces by some distance, and massive diplomatic clout. But increasingly the country looks like a wounded beast thrashing around in its death throes. There is inadequate investment in the technologies of the future which America must lead in order to maintain its competitive advantage, and its political influence is deeply harmed by the perception outside the USA that its political leadership has, essentially, collapsed.

trump handsThe President looks to all the world, and increasingly to even his own supporters,  to be a scary mixture of stupidity and even mental illness, the Congress seems little more than a quacking collection of self-interested ducks, and any level of informed debate which might turn this miasma around seems largely drowned out by a mixture of bread and circuses and mindless partisanship.

Ranged against this, and perhaps most worryingly, significant numbers of young people look to the command economies of America’s greatest rival with some degree of envy. And every excess of bluster (of which the current standoff with Iran and North Korea are only the most obvious) makes the apparent stability of Russia and China look more attractive, and by implication, their systems. In reality, of course, Russia is little more than a dictatorship by kleptocracy, with highly dubious international ambitions and no regard for the freedom of its own people, and China is run by a ruthlessly domineering state apparatus that papers over substantial internal divisions whilst attempting to feed the middle-class ambitions of its people.

There are, of course, great problems with poverty and lack of opportunity in both countries, just as there are in the rust belt states of the USA or the china-poor-migrant-workers.jpgwobbling rural American states trying to make their way in a world where the produce market is increasingly borderless, or in Latin America, but we hear very little of the problems faced by the command economies of China and Russia (and their imitators) because the first thing throttled by their leadership is a free press.

The argument that judiciously managed free trade conducted by democracies is the fastest and most reliable route to the greater good of all – which should be the clarion call of all sides of Western politics – has sadly morphed, driven by localised economic hardship, into rampant protectionism in the USA, which is hardly how to inspire the people to believe in the system long term.

Capitalism’s own internal contradictions gave us the GFC in recent memory. Instead of pinioning it for what it was – a failure of sensible regulation and the inevitable result of uncontrolled greed by a small elite – America has circled the wagons and thinks it can fix the problem by being rude to its friends and neighbours, investing directly in protecting industries that should rightly be exposed to the winds of competition, and continuing to ramp up endless castles of debt, the construction of which mountain will now be enhanced by reducing its tax take.

To those casting about for security and predictability, it looks like madness, and it is.

The paper claimed mainstream climate models misunderstood the role of clouds

Pile on top of this the very obvious fact that the weather is getting “worse”. This worrysome trend is becoming patently obvious to anyone with half a brain, and debates about why seem so yesterday when the facts are faced up to. Against a US President who jokes in a snowstorm that some global warming might be helpful is a growing understanding in the population as a whole that something serious is up. The message that global warming really (and immediately) means more (and greater) extreme weather events is hitting home. Bigger and more destructive storms of all kinds, including snowstorms. Habitat change threatening species (and many more than polar bears) and subsistence farming across the planet. Large populated areas of low-lying country threatened with likely inundation. Industrial-scale farming patterns worldwide need adjusting and fast.

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And last by by no means least, the entire world seems doomed to engage in a seemingly never-ending asymmetrical war with the forces of extreme violence – now, notably, “Islamic” violence – which represents a tiny fraction of the religion’s worldwide ummah, but which taints it all with sometimes tragic consequences, despite the very obvious fact that many more Muslims are killed by the extremists than are Westerners.

The current paralysis of world political thinking is nowhere better illustrated than by the failure to deal with the philosophical basis of the extremism. The philosophy of extremist Islam is nothing new, but its ability to de-stabilise the world is new. Free availability of arms both large and small, (many supplied from the West), instant digital communication, and a perpetual media spotlight make the menace much greater than it ever has been.

And to even say “Maybe if we stopped bombing towns and villages with enhanced munitions then at least some people might stop becoming radicalised?” is to invite howls of derision and even cat-calls of “Traitor”. As we move into 2018, patriotism has become not just the refuge of scoundrels, but also those who wish to deny palpably obvious realities. The equivalent for Muslims is to say “Maybe we Shia and Sunni should stop killing each other and live in peace?” Even to voice the opinion risks swift retribution.

It is hardly surprising, faced with all this, that worldwide people are retreating into a sort of mutualised depression, for which social media provides one poor outlet, with plaintive appeals to enjoy “A peaceful New Year” replacing “Health, Wealth and Happiness”.

Part of the problem is the seemingly intractable nature of all these problems.

In all these scenarios, the themes seem simply too large, too complex, and too “far away”, for ordinary people to wreak any meaningful change in a positive direction. And it is in this specific context that we propose a return to basics.

We offer you these critical commandments to guide us all in troubling times.

  • Get out and vote for what you believe in.

Abstention-ism is not a viable option. It is leaving “it” to the elites that has got us into this awful mess.

The First Vote

But don’t just vote. Get involved with the political party of your choice. Ask questions, and demand answers.

Get involved in policy-making. Be a squeaky wheel. If you don’t feel qualified to talk about the niceties of defence planning or international economics, then start with what you do know. Your local school district. Rubbish collection. Parks and gardens. Traffic flow. Take back control over your life.

The resulting empowerment is not just good for society, and good training in how to effect change, it’s good for your own psychological well-being, too.

The demise of party membership is just the first and most obvious example of how we willfully gave away our influence over those that rule us.

This is as true in China and Russia as it is in Australia and America. Governmental systems vary, but the power of the people doesn’t. Ultimately, when exercised, the power of the people always and inevitably wins, because there’s more of “us” than there is of “them”. And their control rests on our acquiescence. (That’s why the elite are more than happy to keep us satiated with sports and hamburgers and alcohol.)

So if you want to win, get in the game. Don’t be a spectator. “Subvert the dominant paradigm”, whoever and wherever you are.

Secondly, if the drift towards climate disaster or world conflict terrifies you, (and it should), then channel that fear into something that makes a difference.

  • Don’t like climate change? Turn it off. Reduce your energy consumption.

flashing-panda-wall-switch-light-nightlight-6-led-aaa-batteries-led-wall-switchEveryone can do this, even if it simply involves turning a few lights off.

Only use heating or cooling systems when you really need to.

The planet will be grateful, and your hip-pocket will thank you too.

It really is that simple. And spend two minutes more a week recycling properly, and encouraging everyone around you to do the same.

While you’re making this change, eat a little less meat. Meat (which we freely admit we adore) is highly harmful to the environment. If you’re a dedicated carnivore, maybe enjoy just one vegetarian meal a week?

Never was “Think global, act local” more true, yet we seem to be bored with that call already. Familiarity breeds contempt. It’s time to remind everyone that tiny changes, multiplied by millions, really do make a massive difference.

  • And don’t be silent on violence. Ever.

Silence equals consent. Our silence. Your silence.

libanon25-2

It is odd, isn’t it, how we can become deeply involved in the consequences of a mugging death of a grandmother round the corner from where we live, but become inured to images of warplanes bombing civilian areas, often carried out in our name? The grandmother killed in such an event is no different from the grandmother who got mugged. Each grandmother hoped for a quiet and happy retirement, with enough to live on in a simple, life-sustaining way, surrounded by the happy cries of her grandchildren, tending to a few plants, passing the time of day with friends and neighbours in the sunset of their life. And then this dream was cruelly snatched away from them.

How do we decide to be broken-hearted about one, but cold and unmoved by the other?

To reduce and then prevent war, we simply have to – en masse – make it clear to our leaders that violence conducted in our name is not acceptable to us, and we will withdraw our support from those who conduct it.

Sounds simplistic? It is. That’s the beauty of it. It really is simple.

Over-complicate the goal and it becomes un-do-able. So keep it simple. Support candidates who support peace, and don’t support those who don’t. And make your choice known, on social media, to family and friends, and to the politicians themselves.

Want to do more? Start by arguing that our governments should not sell arms (of any kind) to other governments. Over 90% of the deaths in armed conflicts worldwide are from bullets. If we stop making those bullets, many of those people will not die. Better still, shorn of the ease of pulling a trigger to resolve a conflict, many such conflicts will be more likely to result in negotiations.

Continue by demanding that we choose to withdraw career progression from those who ache to create conflict in order to “use” the weapons and service people at their disposal. Bellicose commanders at all levels are progressively replaced by those who know the reality of war, and will do anything to avoid it. We do not do this partially, we do it on all sides.

And then tell those that govern us that we demand that they reduce the reliance on weaponry to “achieve peace”. (In reality, of course, it is not about peace at all, but is used to achieve political influence.)

We demand that armed forces everywhere are pared back to the lowest level concomitant with providing an effective defence posture against all likely events. In countries like Britain, for example, historical nonsenses like the “independent” Trident nuclear weapon system are simply scrapped. The money released by this ratcheting down of defence spending become a “peace dividend” to re-engineer businesses that rely on the military-industrial complex for survival, and to support servicepeople adjusting to civilian life.

Yes, we know we will immediately be accused, of course, of being namby-pamby, of not living in the real world, of misunderstanding how power works, of being naive. You will, too. But we are none of those things.

We have spent a life watching closely (and sometimes intimately) how the people at the top of power structures work. What motivates them. And what motivates them most is the maintenance of their power.

It is not always that they are simply power hungry, although power is unquestionably very attractive and an aphrodisiac, both to the practitioner and those around him or her. But few people get involved in politics in any system merely to aggrandise themselves, merely for career-ism.

Most genuinely believe they are acting in the greater good, and this motivates them to stick with the long hours, the dangers, the disrupted family life, the huge responsibilities, the petty treacheries, and all the rest of it.

Threaten to take that opportunity to “do good” away – the psychological bedrock of their career – is the most powerful thing any of us can do to affect their behaviour.

That is why the consent – or withdrawal of consent – for politicians to simply do as they wish regardless of our opinions rests on every single one of us. Alone, we can achieve little, but building a consensus rests with every single one of us. We can hide under the covers, or we can speak our mind. We can stand up and be counted, and when enough people are counted, politicians and rulers react.

Every single one of us can say “Not that, this.” Some of us will be ignored. Some of us will mocked for doing so. Some will lose friends. Some will even be injured or killed. But every one of us has the capacity and the right to say “Not that, this.” It is the one thing that no one can take away from us. We control our own opinions. Our voice is our own, whatever the cost. And the choice to use it is always ours and ours alone.

And that’s why this is our New Year’s wish. For you, and for the world.

Because war really is over. If you want it. Badly enough.

Here’s a thought. Why not share a link to this blog? That’d be a good start.

PS A number of people have asked why Churchill – a famous war leader – heads this column. The answer is simple. As someone who actually experienced war, Churchill hated it, whilst nevertheless waging it ferociously. His most relevant quotation on the topic is also perhaps his least quoted: “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war”. That’s why. If Churchill “got it”, anyone can.

Paul Alexander spends almost every moment of the day inside his iron lung. Photo: Jennings Brown for Gizmodo

This article is reproduced from Gizmodo, with thanks, and without adulteration. It deserves to be read by every anti-vaccination campaigner, and every parent frightened by their propaganda.

Martha Lillard spends half of every day with her body encapsulated in a half-century old machine that forces her to breathe. Only her head sticks out of the end of the antique iron lung. On the other end, a motorised lever pulls the leather bellows, creating negative pressure that induces her lungs to suck in air.

In 2013, the Post-Polio Health International (PPHI) organisations estimated that there were six to eight iron lung users in the United States. Now, PPHI executive director Brian Tiburzi says he doesn’t know anyone alive still using the negative-pressure ventilators. Recently, I met three polio survivors who depend on iron lungs. They are among the last few, possibly the last three.

Martha

Their locations form a line that cuts directly through the heart of the US – one in Dallas, one outside Oklahoma City, and one in Kansas City, Missouri – what some call tornado alley.

Storms have always been especially difficult for Lillard because if the iron lung loses power, she could die in her sleep. She lives alone, aside from three dogs and 20 geckos that she keeps in plastic terrariums filled with foliage and wool. “They like to sleep in the fleece, wrapped up like a burrito,” she said as she introduced me to a few of her favourites.

Lillard sleeps in the iron lung, so it is in her bedroom. Even though the tank is a dull canary yellow it pops in the room, which is painted chartreuse – like the rest of the house, inside and out – and filled with toys and dolls that she has collected throughout her lifetime. On the walls hang a crucifix, a plush Pink Panther, and mirrors strategically placed so she can see around the room and into the hallway.

Her iron lung has portholes and windows on the side; a pressure gauge at the top. The machine is actually cobbled together from two iron lungs. One, the March of Dimes gave her when she was a child. The other, she bought from someone in Utah, after she haggled him down from $US25,000 ($33,127) to $US8000 ($10,600). The body has also been modified over the years. Her grandfather invented a motorised pulley system that closes the bed tray into the tank after she climbs in. He also replaced the brushed aluminium mirror above the neck slot with a real mirror so that she could have a clear view to the rest of the room when she’s locked in the canister. A local engineer used a motor from an old voter registration device to build a mechanism that tightens the collar around her neck after she slips her head through the portal. The fan belts and half-horsepower motor have been replaced about 10 times.

“It seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing. You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating.”

When Lillard is outside of the tank, she can breathe using a positive-pressure ventilator, a smaller device that pushes air into her lungs. But that instrument doesn’t provide the same relief as when she puts her entire body into the 290kg, 2.3m-long apparatus. Plus, forcing air into the lungs can cause inflammation or damage the air sacs. When she’s sick, she can only heal if she spends full days in the iron lung. She calls herself “a human battery” because she has to recharge every day.

Lillard is 69, 145cm and weighs 44kg. Her back is arched from scoliosis. She didn’t get surgery when she was a child because doctors didn’t expect her to make it to her teenage years, and she never had an operation as an adult because polio survivors can stop breathing when they’re on anaesthesia.

She was infected with polio at her fifth birthday party at the Joyland Amusement Park on 8 June 1953. Nine days later, her neck ached so bad she couldn’t raise her head off the pillow. Her parents said it was probably just a summer cold, but Lillard could tell they were afraid. They took her in for a spinal tap, which confirmed it was polio.

floorLillard looks through a photo album on her living room floor. Photo: Jennings Brown for Gizmodo

Lillard asked me to take out a photo album so she could show me snapshots of her youth as she sat on a blanket on the floor of her living room, where it’s more comfortable for her to sit when she’s out of the machine. “I wanted to be a ballerina. That was my big wish. I started walking on my toes when I was one, and I just constantly was after ballerina dolls. We didn’t have a dance school in town until I was five and my mum was going to enrol me that year, but I got sick,” she told me. “I think now of my life as a ballet. I have to balance so many things. It’s a phenomenal amount of energy I have to use to coordinate everything in my life.”

Polio is a silver bullet

“All the mothers were just terrified because people were just getting it right and left,” Lillard said. “They didn’t know if it was a virus or bacteria or how you caught it.”

Poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease that can cause paralysis of legs, arms and respiratory muscles. “The polio virus is a silver bullet designed to kill specific parts of the brain,” Richard Bruno, a clinical psychophysiologist, and director of the International Centre for Polio Education said. “But parents today have no idea what polio was like, so it’s hard to convince somebody that lives are at risk if they don’t vaccinate.”

When Lillard was a child, polio was every parent’s worst nightmare. The worst polio outbreak year in US history took place in 1952, a year before Lillard was infected. There were about 58,000 reported cases. Out of all the cases, 21,269 were paralysed and 3145 died. “They closed theatres, swimming pools, families would keep their kids away from other kids because of the fear of transmission,” Bruno said.

POLIO EPIDEMIC
The emergency polio ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston, 16 August 1955. Patients are using the same Emerson iron lung model that some polio survivors use today. Photo: AP

Children under the age of five are especially susceptible. In the 1940s and 1950s, hospitals across the US were filled with rows of iron lungs that kept victims alive. Lillard recalls being in rooms packed with metal tubes – especially when there were storms and all the men, women, adults and children would be moved to the same room so nurses could manually operate the iron lungs if the power went out. “The period of time that it took the nurse to get out of the chair, it seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing,” Lillard said. “You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating and it was just terrifying. The only noise that you can make when you can’t breathe is clicking your tongue. And that whole dark room just sounded like a big room full of chickens just cluck-cluck-clucking. All the nurses were saying, ‘Just a second, you’ll be breathing in just a second.'”

In 1955, Americans finally had access to the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk. “It was hailed as a medical miracle and the excitement about it was really unparalleled as far as health history in the United States,” Jay Wenger, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s polio-eradication effort told me. “No one who remembers the 1950s, in terms of polio, wants to go back there and be in that situation again.”

By 1961, there were only 161 reported cases in the US. But in 1988, there were still an estimated 350,000 cases worldwide. That year, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the Rotary Club began an aggressive campaign to end polio everywhere. Last year there were 37 cases reported in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

According to Bruno, if an infected person in either of those countries visited family in an area such as Orange County, California, where many parents are opting out of vaccinating their children, “then we could be talking about the definition of a polio epidemic.”

Wenger said that’s why the Gates Foundation recently joined the other organisations in the global effort to eradicate polio. “If there’s a virus anywhere in the world, it could just come back in,” Wenger said. “Some little kid could get on a plane and fly in and reinfect an area. And if the kids in that area are not vaccinated, you could start the virus circulating again.”

But even though the last wild case of polio in the US was in 1979, it still haunts the country. “A lot of people think of polio as a disease of the past and don’t realise there are people here today that are still suffering the effects of polio.” said Brian Tiburzi, executive director of Post-Polio Health International (PPHI), an advocacy group for the estimated 350,000 to 500,000 polio survivors living in the US.

Some polio survivors were only partially impaired or got better. For instance, Mia Farrow only had to spend eight months in an iron lung when she was nine, before going on to become a famous actress and polio advocate. And golfer Jack Nicklaus had symptoms for two weeks as a child, but as an adult only had sore joints.

But many polio victims have breathing difficulties for the rest of their lives, or have issues later in life when overworked neurons burn out, a condition called post-polio syndrome. “I breathe 20 per cent of what you breathe with every breath,” Lillard explained to me. “You still have the neurons that work the muscles that you breathe with.”

Let it breathe for you

Lillard offered to let me try out her iron lung about an hour after I met her. She showed me how to operate the ad hoc mechanisms that would lock me into the tank and tighten the collar around my neck like a camera shutter – tight enough that no air can escape, but loose enough that I don’t choke myself.

I climbed into the bed tray, slipped my head through the hole, tightened the collar, then flipped the switch that controls the pulley that closes the tray into the main canister. As the system locked me in, I had a quick wave of claustrophobic panic and my instinct was to take deep breaths, but a motor was controlling that. I tried to describe the feeling to Lillard, but the machine was inhaling for me, so no sound came out. I had to wait a moment for the release.

“Let the air out of your lungs and let it breathe for you,” Lillard said. “Imagine if you were real tired of breathing, how good that would feel – if you were struggling to take a breath.”

Being in an iron lung was the most relief and discomfort I have ever felt at the same time. I slowly got used to the mechanical rhythm and began feeling a little relaxed. I tried closing my mouth, and air still rushed in through my lips. I felt like a vacuum cleaner.

As I climbed out, Lillard warned me to be careful and not break any of the switches or pulleys. If I damaged anything, and she wasn’t able to get someone to repair it within a few hours, she might not have made it through the night. A few weeks earlier, the collar-opener broke and she was trapped inside. Fortunately, her housekeeper was there to help her force it open, and a friend who does custom metal fabrication for motorcycles, planes and other machines, Tony Baustert, came a few hours later to repair it.

Recently, an ice storm knocked her power out for three days and the generator malfunctioned. The fire department came over but they wouldn’t run a power line from down the street or provide a temporary generator, Lillard said. Fortunately, one of the firefighters came by when he was off-duty and fixed the generator. During the panic, Lillard thought about Dianne Odell, a polio survivor who died in her iron lung in Memphis in 2008, after she lost power during a storm. Her father and brother-in-law took turns pumping the bellows by hand but couldn’t sustain the rhythm long enough to keep her alive.

Understandably, Lillard lives in a constant state of anxiety over the functionality of her iron lung. But she said the company responsible for servicing the device, Philips Respironics, hasn’t been much help. She recalls one time when a repair person disassembled the machine to make a repair, then tried to leave before putting it back together. Another technician took it apart and couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so Lillard had to call another mechanically skilled friend, Jerry House, to help.

These days her biggest concern is the canvas spiral collar that creates the seal around her neck. She used to have to replace them every few months after they wore out and stopped keeping a seal. Back then she could get them for a few dollars each, but she recently bought two from Respironics for a little more than $US200 ($265) each. She said the company wouldn’t sell her any more because they only have 10 left. For years she’s been trying to find someone to make a new collar. She uses Scotch guard on her current supply and tries not to move her neck around, hoping to make them last as long as possible.

I asked her what happens if she runs out.

“Well, I die,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Iron lungs became the responsibility of Philips through mergers and acquisitions. The March of Dimes supplied and serviced iron lungs until the end of the ’60s, around the same time the J.H. Emerson company stopped manufacturing the product. Once Salk’s vaccine diminished the need for polio support and advocacy, March of Dimes handed off iron lung responsibilities to Lifecare Services. Medical supply company Respironics acquired Lifecare in 1996, then merged with Philips in 2007.

Over the years, Lifecare and Respironics have tried to get more polio survivors to use alternative breathing aids – devices that were newer, cheaper, easier to service, and didn’t require parts that were no longer manufactured. In 2004, Respironics gave iron lung users three options: Transition to another ventilator device, keep using the iron lung but know that Respironics may not be able to repair the device, or accept full ownership and responsibility of the iron lung and find someone else to repair it. According to the Post-Polio Health International, responses “ranged from ‘it is understandable that repairing a device made that long ago would be difficult’ to ‘a multi-million dollar company should be able to just make parts'”.

Philips Respironics denied multiple requests to comment for this story. But polio advocates believe the company can do more to help polio survivors who have struggled with the effects of polio their entire lives.

“It would be helpful if the people who are contractually responsible and morally and ethically responsible for polio survivors did something to help these people,” said International Centre for Polio Education director Richard Bruno. “It would be like if you bought a used car, you drove it a block and the car stopped working. Then you go back to the car dealer and you say, ‘Hey, the car stopped working.’ And they say, ‘Well too bad, you bought it and that’s the way life goes.’ Except instead of a car it’s a machine that you need to live.”

The iron lung’s a part of me

Like Lillard, Paul Alexander, 70, also relies on a mechanic to keep his iron lung running.

I met Alexander a few times in his small house in Dallas. He spends nearly every moment in his iron lung in the centre of his living room, which is decorated with degrees, awards, pictures of family, and a drawing of the Scottish folk singer Donovan, who had polio. When people enter the front door a few metres away from him, he usually greets them with a warm upside-down smile, reflected in the mirror above his head.

One of the times I visited Alexander, I walked in on him editing a memoir that’s set to be published in a few months. He types and answers the phone with his mouth, using a capped pen attached to a plastic wand he clenches with his teeth. During another visit, his friend and mechanical saviour Brady Richards stopped by to check in on Alexander.

Alexander, who got polio in 1952 when he was five, is almost entirely paralysed below the neck, but that hasn’t stopped him from going to law school and becoming a trial lawyer. “When I transferred to University of Texas, they were horrified to think that I was going to bring my iron lung down, but I did, and I put it in the dorm, and I lived in the dorm with my iron lung,” he told me. “I had a thousand friends before it was over with, who all wanted to find out what’s that guy downstairs with a head sticking out of a machine doing here?”

Alexander hasn’t been to a trial in a few years now as it has become nearly impossible for him to get out of the iron lung for a few hours like he used to do when he went to court and represented clients in a wheelchair.

In 2015, a friend of Alexander uploaded a YouTube video of Alexander explaining the issues he was having with his iron lung, hoping it would be seen by a machinist who knew how to repair the respirator. Finally someone connected Alexander with someone kind and skilled enough to help. “I looked for years to find someone who knew how to work on iron lungs,” Alexander said. “Brady Richards, it’s a miracle that I found him.”

Richards runs the Environmental Testing Laboratory, which does rigorous testing to make sure equipment and products meet environmental standards (everything from checking if a TV mount is earthquake proof to checking how an ambulance will handle a T-bone collision). In one of Richard’s garages, he keeps his side projects – hot rods, desert race cars, and a small collection of iron lungs and parts. This is where Richards refurbished the current machine that Alexander uses and where he is fixing up another replacement. “When we first brought the tube into the shop, one of my younger employees asked me what I was doing with these smoker grills,” Richards said. “And I was like these are not smokers, these are iron lungs. And all my younger guys had no idea what that meant.”

Alexander had been in the refurbished model for about a couple months when I first met with him in September. To him, it was like a new skin. “Once you live in an iron lung forever, it seems like, it becomes such a part of your mentality. Like if somebody touches the iron lung – touches it – I can feel that. I can feel the vibration go through the iron lung,” he said. “If there’s a slight bit of a vibration that occurs as the result of the mechanics – worn out the fan belt or it needs grease or anything like that – it tends to change the breath slightly. Yep, the iron lung’s a part of me, I’m afraid.”

My worst thought

My final visit was Mona Randolph, 81, who lives with her husband Mark, 63, in Kansas City, Missouri. When I first arrived, a helper was tucking Mona into the machine for the night. They lift Mona into the iron lung using a mechanical arm attached to their ceiling since Mark’s back problems prevent him from lifting her into the iron lung, like he used to do when they first met in the ’80s.

Mona got polio at the age of 20 in 1956. At the time, she was a skilled pianist planning her wedding. She needed an iron lung for the first year, until she went to rehab in Warm Spring, Georgia, where she was able to wean herself off. But 20 years later, in 1977, she had a series of bronchial infections – possibly due to post-polio syndrome – and her doctors told her she needed to start using an iron lung again. “The ‘yellow submarine’ is my necessary, trusted, mechanical friend,” she told me. “I approach it with relief in store at night and thankfully leave it with relief in the morning.”

Mona is covered under Mark’s insurance and Medicare, but neither of those help with the iron lung or the caretakers that Mona needs. The Randolphs opted to take full ownership of the iron lung when Respironics was making its big push to offload them. Since then, Mark, a software engineer who has many other engineer skills, and Mona’s cousin, a former aircraft mechanic, have maintained and repaired Mona’s “yellow submarine”. Mark said the medical costs are about the same as a new car every year, “But what would I spend it on if not for Mona.”

When I met with the Randolphs, Mark gave me photocopies of old service manuals and operating instructions. He filled me in on little-known history about the Emerson iron lung and its inventor, whom they met at a Post-Polio convention. I realised what each of these iron lung users have in common are the aid of generous, mechanically skilled friends and family. And that’s probably the main reason they have been able to live long and full lives, despite the hardships and anxieties of depending on ageing machinery to survive.

But another thing they all had in common is a desire for the next generations to know about them so we’ll realise how fortunate we are to have vaccines. “When children inquire what happened to me, I tell them the nerve wires that tell my muscles what to do were damaged by a virus,” Mona said. “And ask them if they have had their vaccine to prevent this. No one has ever argued with me.”

Alexander told me that if he had kids he would have made sure they were vaccinated. “Now, my worst thought is that polio’s come back,” he said. “If there’s so many people who’ve not been – children, especially – have not been vaccinated… I don’t even want to think about it.”

Lillard is heartbroken when she meets anti-vaccine activists.

“Of course, I’m concerned about any place where there’s no vaccine,” she said. “I think it’s criminal that they don’t have it for other people and I would just do anything to prevent somebody from having to go through what I have. I mean, my mother, if she had the vaccine available, I would have had it in a heartbeat.”

This girl.

As we all celebrate International Day of the Girl (Child) let’s remember that smashing glass ceilings in Western countries is ALL our job. And all well and good. Bravo. Let’s be in that with bells on.

But let us also remember that many of the girl children born into the world are perpetually hungry, don’t get even the most rudimentary education, are virtual slaves at the hands of their fathers and male relatives, and subject to horrific “honour” violence, too. Let us remember that the laws in their lands protect them inadequately, and that they are marginalised and ignored in decision making.

Painting by Amrita Shergil

So let’s not just make this International Day of the Girl who needs equal pay in her cossetted Western society, or who needs to aspire to be a Board Director like her male sibling. Yes, she does. Yes, those things are very important.

But in other societies – societies we do business with, and visit –  the girls would just appreciate pay. Any pay. Any chance for anything beyond the grinding poverty that locks them into a life of walking miles to collect clean water, scrabbling in the rubbish for food, or spending from pre-dawn to late at night engaged on domestic chores and caring for men.

So let’s make this “day” about them, first.

It’s also “Mental Health Day” today.

An ironic juxtaposition in so many ways.

Whilst we focus on the very real needs of everyone who suffers from mental health problems –  and Lord knows we need to do that – let’s also remember that food, shelter, a job, and dignity are the basic building blocks of a happy life.

And we owe it to the world to ensure everyone gets at least a start. A chance.

Because that’s really good for their mental health.

Here are the top 10 toughest places for girls’ education:

  1. South Sudan: the world’s newest country has faced much violence and war, with the destruction of schools and families forced from their homes. Almost three-quarters of girls do not even make it to primary school
  2. Central African Republic: one teacher for every 80 pupils
  3. Niger: only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate
  4. Afghanistan: wide gender gap, with boys more likely to be in school than girls
  5. Chad: many social and economic barriers to girls and women getting education
  6. Mali: only 38% of girls finish primary school
  7. Guinea: the average time in education among women over the age of 25 is less than one year
  8. Burkina Faso: only 1% of girls complete secondary school
  9. Liberia: almost two-thirds of primary-age pupils out of school
  10. Ethiopia: two in five girls are married before the age of 18

A shortage of teachers is a common problem across poorer countries.

Last year, the UN said another 69 million teachers would need to be recruited worldwide by 2030 if international promises on education were to be kept.

Let’s keep our promises. “Girl child” is asking us to.

#marriageequality #loveislove

Dear Reader, if you have spent any time at all reading our blog, you will be aware of two things. One, I have opinions. (Hence the name of the blog.) Two, I am a Christian.

So when the pro-same sex marriage rally was announced in Melbourne over the weekend, there was never any doubt we would attend.

Firstly, for me, equality for homosexuals has been a lifelong campaign.

My proudest “Button” in my collection of political ephemera is one that reads “Gay Liberation is Our Liberation”. (It is an ample example of how old we are now that no-one today would refer to “Gay Liberation”.)

Whenever I wore the badge, forty plus years ago, sooner or later someone would challenge me on it. I was stronger and fitter then, and ready to “look after myself” if I got a hammering. Typically some liquored-up idiot would prod me in the chest with an accusative finger and breathe “So, you’re a poofter, eh?”

This gave me the opportunity to say “Actually, no I am not. But Gay Liberation is about the heterosexual community freeing itself from our own bigotry.” This would usually result in the knuckle-scraper backing off with a confused look on his face (it was always men) and – now and again – a useful conversation. It was my small contribution to the struggle, because, of course, if a gay person had worn the badge the exchange would often have ended up with a punch in the face.

We also used to run discos when I was at University with the poster headline “Come and Meet a Real Live Queer” a decade or more before the LGBTI+ generally community worked out that they could “own” the word, and thus challenge and even change the negative connotations associated with it. Even if those days, communications was my passion.

Secondly, I have studied Christianity all my life – I have a degree in Theology – and I simply detest the way that the Church is often portrayed (and often behaves) as the home of wowsers and conservatives.

My Christianity is progressive, activist, small-l liberal and dedicated to over-turning shibboleths. I simply cannot abide the way that literal interpretations of Scripture (which are not even based on scholarship, but usually on bias and/or inaccurate translations) are used to support essentially anti-Christian behaviour – of which opposing “same sex” marriage is simply the most recent example.

Fundamentalist Christianity has been used to excuse burning “heretics”, drowning witches, slavery, banning contraception, destroying womens’ health provision, idiotic anti-scientific nonsense like Creationism, and much more. Little wonder the Church in the developed world is rapidly losing adherents.

In its blind opposition to same-sex attracted people having the same rights as everyone else it has caused huge suffering to many, including people who I know and love. The tactics used by the ugly confluence of the far-right and the fundamentalist Churches (epitomised by the often appalling Roman Catholic Church, the conservative Anglican diocese of the Sydney, and the utterly bigoted and so-called Australian Christian Lobby) seeks to portray all Christians as anti-gay.

Well we ain’t. At all. “Not in my name” comes to mind. So when the rally was announced, my attendance was inevitable.

But having decided to attend, what then? I have no standing in the Equal Love movement, so they weren’t going to ask me to speak. No public position to leverage. Was there anything I could do to help, over and above simply wearing out some shoe leather and getting some much-needed exercise?

Because I am in the comms business, I decided my brain should be given a bit of a workout as well as the legs.

I decided to actively take on the nonsense that is written about me and millions of people like me by those who should know better, or who should stop behaving so shamefully as trying to present their opinions as mine.

I decided to say, deliberately, “Hey – I am bulk-standard, standard-issue Middle Australian, and I am voting “Yes”.” With the obvious implied corollary, “You should too.”

I simply wanted to make it clear to everyone else attending the rally that the support for equal rights spreads right across the political and social spectrum. Because that’s one way to ensure that people outside of the core campaign group will be encouraged to stand up too: to come out and vote, and to campaign.

And because – above all – I think the LGBTI+ community deserves to know that the rest of us support them. They’ve been fighting this battle too long and too hard for us to miss this chance to help them get a “Yes” vote across the line. As one placard read at the rally, “I can’t believe we’re still fighting this shit”.

Quite.

Hence the placard.

Agit-Prop? Hell, yes it was.

Was I looking for publicity? Yes, I was. Not in the sense that I wanted ME to become famous. (At all. I’m too old for all that rubbish.) No, I wanted the principle embodied by the placard to become famous. Or at least, to spread out beyond my head.

Maybe a TV camera might snap it, and it could get seen? Or maybe a journo or two? Yes, I was aware of that possibility. Most of all, of course, I simply wanted to stand in solidarity with the other campaigners, and against the nonsense. But I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t hope the placard might make some difference beyond that. Don’t ask, don’t get, eh? It’s worth trying anything to overcome naked wrongs.

As so often in life, though, what really happened was way beyond my expectations.

The moment Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I arrived, and plonked ourselves strategically down on a well-positioned bench, we were deluged with smiling people wanting to photograph the sign. I completely lost track of how many people did. Hundreds, certainly. We had so many ‘thank yous’, so many thumbs up, not a few kisses planted on our cheeks and plenty of “high fives”. It was really quite overwhelming, and beautiful.

At one point I turned to Jenie and said “And this is what people are afraid of? All this love? All these terrible revolutionaries seeking to undermine the very basis of society.? These are the nicest people I have ever met!” Everyone was there – families with kids of all ages, masses of young people of all apparent sexualities, gay couples, and all age groups. It was uplifting in the best possible way.

One journo asked me why I was there. I had to stop and think for a moment, because I hadn’t planned an answer. In the end I said “Freedom’s important.” She smiled and said “That’s the best reason I’ve heard today.” She went down on the list of “Positives”.

One fundo Christian with crazy eyes came up to me and assailed me with every ridiculous argument the “No” lobby have been pushing out. I politely but firmly batted back every faux Biblical quotation with another, or with a more accurate translation. Every time I did, she moved the goalposts. In the end, after quite some time, I put her down as “irretrievably No”, and asked her (nicely) to move on. “There!” she said triumphantly, “when you’re losing the debate you just back out!” I looked at her sadly, and wondered, not for the first time, when and how children turn into adults with this level of stupidity. What happens to people? She wouldn’t leave. In the end I had to say firmly, “Please: leave me alone.” She wanted off, eyes blazing with self-induced fire, muttering.

But in general, we were deluged with kindness and positivity. I will never forget it. And at this stage, let me explicitly acknowledge Jenie’s role. My lovely wife, although she has her own strongly held opinions on just about everything,  is not a natural attender at rallies – she doesn’t like crowds, or public attention for that matter – yet she was utterly supportive of my goals in going to the rally, and she engaged with journos, and our neighbours around us, she helped me hold the sign, pointed out people who wanted a photo and – a million thanks – found us a coffee. “Whaddawewant?” “ Hot coffee!” “When do we want it?” “About ten minutes ago, thanks.” Sharing this life-affirming event with her made it all the more meaningful.

Later, we discovered that the placard had been snapped by a photo journo Tara Watson, and then tweeted and posted on FB by Guardian journo and opinion leader Van Badham, and then re-tweeted by Penny Wong, and essentially, that was that.

The picture was suddenly everywhere. Jenie and I were deluged with kind and supportive messages, and when our daughter re-posted the photo and said she was proud of us, then so was she. A more practical example of the essential goodness of folk you couldn’t wish for. It was embarrassing and wonderful in equal measure.

So much, so good. So viral. The world is an interesting place, these days. I am happy so many people got to see the message, and there it is.

But two people we met stand out in my mind, and the real point of this article is to tell you about them.

No names – they didn’t ask for publicity – but their stories deserve to be told.

One guy came up, and told us about his Dad, who had recently died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 90. He had never “had the conversation” with his Dad about his sexuality, and now he never would. But after his Dad’s death, he mentioned this to one of the nurses who used to look after him. “Oh, no,” said the nurse. “He knew.”

She had been walking the old chap in the garden, asking him about his family. He had three sons, he said. One did such and such, one did such and such, and one did such and such. He’s gay, of course.” The old man couldn’t have cared less, and he knew.

As he told us this story, tears started running down his cheeks. “Good thing I’ve got dark glasses on” he said, as he wiped them away. “Thank you so much for the sign. It’s so good to know that people like you understand.”

He made his apologies, and left. It was awhile before I dared to speak again.

A little while later, a middle-aged woman came up, and insisted on shaking hands. Momentarily, after struggling to smile, she started crying too.

“I just want to say thank you. I just want to shake your hand. Our son is gay, and he gets bullied at school. Badly bullied. That’s why I’m here. I’m here with my husband. I’m so excited to see you here, making this point. It makes all the difference to me. Thank you. Thank you. Sorry. Thank you.”

She turned away, too choked to say any more. I just said “You’re welcome.” It seemed totally inadequate, and it was, but what can you do? Here was the ugly side of this debate manifested in a real person’s life, in a real person’s family, raw, and unsanitised and brutal and sad.

I felt – and feel – deeply humbled and grateful for having met these people.

I wish everyone could meet them.

This stupid, unnecessary and divisive government opinion poll would be won by a huge margin, if people could just get past the propaganda of the “No” campaign, and talk to real people who are going to be affected profoundly, for good or ill, by the judgement of their peers.

God bless you, Australia. Please vote “Yes”.

And go to the next rally. With your own sign. It matters.