Archive for the ‘Political musings’ Category

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.”

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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.

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 12.09.51 pm

This is a quotation on the “True Marriage Equality” website – a noisy, and to our eyes offensive and very ridiculous organisation, that has popped up.

This is the Alt-Right/Fake News experience happening right now in Australia. This is the unpleasant, harmful and entirely unnecessary experience – that many warned that Malcolm Turnbull’s weak-kneed inability to stand up to his own right wing as he clings to The Lodge was foisting on us – that has been created by this ludicrous opinion poll.

The quoting of Paul Keating implying clearly that he is against same sex marriage (in an interview from a long time ago, despite the date on the article header being 19th August two days ago, clearly the date the post when up but NOT when Keating said anything) is actually an utterly dishonest taking of quotes out of context and it is promoted as a positive for their biased arguments.

In a desperate attempt to fight back against this crap being promoted by the No campaign – which has included anonymous and deeply offensive posters appearing on Melbourne’s streets, from who-knows-where) here is the actual text from whence the quote was plucked:

RAY MARTIN: John Howard, are you relaxed and comfortable about homosexual marriages in Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: No, I’m not. I don’t believe that homosexuals should be discriminated against. I believe that sexual preference is a private matter. I do not believe that homosexual relationships should be given the same legal status as a marriage. I believe that marriage has a special role in our society. It is a special institution which gives an enormous amount of stability to our community.

RAY MARTIN: So, a gay couple in marriage is not a family unit in Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: I didn’t say that. Look, I am not going to get in to a legalistic definition. I mean, a family is an emotional relationship and it is a commitment of people.

RAY MARTIN: But like Tim Fischer, you are not in favour of homosexual marriages?

JOHN HOWARD: But I do not and I make no bones about it. I am not in favour of homosexual marriages.

RAY MARTIN: Paul.

PAUL KEATING: People live in all sorts of relationship, Ray. You can’t describe a family in any one way. The nuclear family is an important, but nevertheless somewhat ageing concept.

RAY MARTIN: Can you ever be convinced that two men and a cocker spaniel is not a family unit as you once said in Cabinet?

PAUL KEATING: Well, you will never build a society on it. You will not build a nation on it, but it is another thing to discriminate against people. It is another thing to seek to do as the National Party and others have done, is speak in discriminatory terms about people who live in homosexual relationships.

JOHN HOWARD: You really are trying to have two bob each way. I mean, just state your view and get on to the next one.

PAUL KEATING: Oh, excuse me, I can give my own answers, thanks. I don’t need you to interpret them, John.

Presumable he doesn’t need “True Marriage Equality” to interpret them in this way, either. We also refer you to our much-read article explaining why all the arguments posted by Christians in favour of bias against homosexuals is NOT Biblical.

Why is the Church anti-gay if the Bible isn’t?

 

Bang you're dead

Reproduced from the Daily Mail and other sources. At Wellthisiswhatithink we are hugely in favour of clean energy and clean cars. But the world needs to tackle this scandal:

  • Sky News investigated the Katanga mines and found Dorsen, 8, and Monica, 4
  • The pair were working in the vast mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • They are two of the 40,000 children working daily in the mines, checking rocks for cobalt

Picking through a mountain of huge rocks with his tiny bare hands, the exhausted little boy makes a pitiful sight.

His name is Dorsen and he is one of an army of children, some just four years old, working in the vast polluted mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where toxic red dust burns their eyes, and they run the risk of skin disease and a deadly lung condition. Here, for a wage of just 8p a day, the children are made to check the rocks for the tell-tale chocolate-brown streaks of cobalt – the prized ingredient essential for the batteries that power electric cars.

And it’s feared that thousands more children could be about to be dragged into this hellish daily existence – after the historic pledge made by Britain and other countries and cart manufacturers to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars  and switch to electric vehicles.

Eight-year-old Dorsen is pictured cowering beneath the raised hand of an overseer who warns him not to spill a rock

Eight-year-old Dorsen is pictured cowering beneath the raised hand of an overseer who warns him not to spill a rock

Young children are working at Congo mines in horrific conditions. A future of clean energy, free from pollution is proposed, but such ideals mean nothing for the children condemned to a life of hellish misery in the race to achieve this goal.

Dorsen, just eight, is one of 40,000 children working daily in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The terrible price they will pay for our clean air is ruined health and a likely early death.

Almost every big motor manufacturer striving to produce millions of electric vehicles buys its cobalt from the impoverished central African state. It is the world’s biggest producer, with 60 per cent of the planet’s reserves.

The cobalt is mined by unregulated labour and transported to Asia where battery manufacturers use it to make their products lighter, longer-lasting and rechargeable.

The planned switch to clean energy vehicles has led to an extraordinary surge in demand. While a smartphone battery uses no more than 10 grams of refined cobalt, an electric car needs 15kg (33lb).

He then staggers beneath the weight of a heavy sack that he must carry to unload 60ft away in pouring rain

He then staggers beneath the weight of a heavy sack that he must carry to unload 60ft away in pouring rain.

Goldman Sachs, the merchant bank, calls cobalt ‘the new gasoline’ but there are no signs of new wealth in the DRC, where the children haul the rocks brought up from tunnels dug by hand.

Adult miners dig up to 600ft below the surface using basic tools, without protective clothing or modern machinery.

Sometimes the children are sent down into the narrow makeshift chambers where there is constant danger of collapse.

Cobalt is such a health hazard that it has a respiratory disease named after it – cobalt lung, a form of pneumonia which causes coughing and leads to permanent incapacity and even death.

Even simply eating vegetables grown in local soil can cause vomiting and diarrhoea, thyroid damage and fatal lung diseases, while birds and fish cannot survive in the area.

No one knows quite how many children have died mining cobalt in the Katanga region in the south-east of the country. The UN estimates 80 a year, but many more deaths go unregistered, with the bodies buried in the rubble of collapsed tunnels. Others survive but with chronic diseases which destroy their young lives. Girls as young as ten in the mines are subjected to sexual attacks and many become pregnant.

Dorsen and 11-year-old Richard are pictured. With his mother dead, Dorsen lives with his father in the bush and the two have to work daily in the cobalt mine to earn money for food.

Dorsen and 11-year-old Richard are pictured. With his mother dead, Dorsen lives with his father in the bush and the two have to work daily in the cobalt mine to earn money for food.

When Sky News investigated the Katanga mines it found Dorsen, working near a little girl called Monica, who was four, on a day of relentless rainfall.

Dorsen was hauling heavy sacks of rocks from the mine surface to a growing stack 60ft away. A full sack was lifted on to Dorsen’s head and he staggered across to the stack. A brutish overseer stood over him, shouting and raising his hand to threaten a beating if he spilt any.

With his mother dead, Dorsen lives with his father in the bush and the two have to work daily in the cobalt mine to earn money for food.<

Dorsen’s friend Richard, 11, said that at the end of a working day ‘everything hurts’.

In a country devastated by civil wars in which millions have died, there is no other way for families to survive. Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) is donating £10.5million between June 2007 and June 2018 towards strengthening revenue transparency and encouraging responsible activity in large and small scale artisanal mining, ‘to benefit the poor of DRC’.

There is little to show for these efforts so far. There is a DRC law forbidding the enslavement of under-age children, but nobody enforces it.

The UN’s International Labour Organisation has described cobalt mining in DRC as ‘one of the worst forms of child labour’ due to the health risks.

Soil samples taken from the mining area by doctors at the University of Lubumbashi, the nearest city, show the region to be among the ten most polluted in the world. Residents near mines in southern DRC had urinary concentrates of cobalt 43 higher than normal. Lead levels were five times higher, cadmium and uranium four times higher.

he worldwide rush to bring millions of electric vehicles on to our roads has handed a big advantage to those giant car-makers which saw this bonanza coming and invested in developing battery-powered vehicles, among them General Motors, Renault-Nissan, Tesla, BMW and Fiat-Chrysler.

Chinese middle-men working for the Congo Dongfang Mining Company have the stranglehold in DRC, buying the raw cobalt brought to them in sacks carried on bicycles and dilapidated old cars daily from the Katanga mines. They sit in shacks on a dusty road near the Zambian border, offering measly sums scrawled on blackboards outside – £40 for a ton of cobalt-rich rocks – that will be sent by cargo ship to minerals giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt in China and sold on to a complex supply chain feeding giant multinationals.

Challenged by the Washington Post about the appalling conditions in the mines, Huayou Cobalt said ‘it would be irresponsible’ to stop using child labour, claiming: ‘It could aggravate poverty in the cobalt mining regions and worsen the livelihood of local miners.’

Human rights charity Amnesty International also investigated cobalt mining in the DRC and says that none of the 16 electric vehicle manufacturers they identified have conducted due diligence to the standard defined by the Responsible Cobalt Initiative.

Monica, just four-years-old, works in the mine alongside Dorsen and Richard

Encouragingly, Apple, which uses the mineral in its devices, has committed itself to treat cobalt like conflict minerals – those which have in the past funded child soldiers in the country’s civil war – and the company claims it is going to require all refiners to have supply chain audits and risk assessments. But Amnesty International is not satisfied. ‘This promise is not worth the paper it is written on when the companies are not investigating their suppliers,’ said Amnesty’s Mark Dummett. ‘Big brands have the power to change this.’

After DRC, Australia is the next biggest source of cobalt, with reserves of 1 million tons, followed by Cuba, China, Russia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Car maker Tesla – the market leader in electric vehicles – plans to produce 500,000 cars per year starting in 2018, and will need 7,800 tons of cobalt to achieve this. Sales are expected to hit 4.4 million by 2021. It means the price of cobalt will soar as the world gears itself up for the electric car revolution, and there is evidence some corporations are cancelling their contracts with regulated mines using industrial technology, and turning increasingly to the cheaper mines using human labour.

After the terrible plight of Dorsen and Richard was broadcast in a report on Sky News, an emotive response from viewers funded a rescue by children’s charity Kimbilio. They are now living in a church-supported children’s home, sleeping on mattresses for the first time in their lives and going to school.

But there is no such happy ending for the tens of thousands of children left in the hell on earth that is the cobalt mines of the Congo.

The breathless reporting of Labour advancing on the bastions of Torydom continues apace, including here in the national media in Australia.

But since two days ago, we have been focusing our attention on two issues – firstly, the seat by seat betting odds for the various parties, and secondly, intelligence leaking out from impeccable Labour sources.

Both would seem to suggest that any “surge” in the Labour vote may have been over-estimated by an over-eager or badly-informed media.

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 12.18.55 pmWhat the punters say

The betting odds which reflect real money (laid by people in the know, usually) are certainly not predicting wholesale Labour gains.

Everywhere but London, Labour support looks soft, measured by this perennially reliable predictor. The odds aren’t always right, it has to be said, but they are consistently more right than anything else, including opinion polls, and especially when looking at individual seats. Parties often try and ameliorate the cost of their local campaigning through smart betting moves.

So if Labour activists the length and breadth of the country who can actually see the doorstep canvassing results are not plunging on with their own hard earned, then that says something.

What Labour insiders say

But Labour intelligence is even more interesting. Along with private messages we have received, the Labour Uncut website (which has excellent contacts and who have previously given real insights) point to certain factors that we should respect.

Calling potential results outside London as potentially “a nuclear winter”, the blog calls for extreme caution as regards the recent optimism over Labour, quoting the following points:

Labour members and supporters have been knocking doors in core Labour wards, in seats that are under threat. In the last week they’ve been focused specifically on Labour voters. If there was a shift [in favour of Labour], this could happening out of sight of the canvassers. For example, Labour might be piling up support in safe Labour seats where there is little activity.

This is a well-known phenomenon, which bedevils polling organisations the world over. Unless they are polling ONLY marginal seats, they may detect a hardening of support for a party in seats where that surge in support doesn’t actually matter. Look, for example, at the huge leads for Hillary Clinton on the east and west coasts of America. She still lost in key battleground states.

People are generally pretty savvy about who is going to win their seat. “It’s always been [so and so] around here.” And people like voting for the likely winners. So in safe Labour seats they are more inclined to vote Labour, in safe Tory seats, the same. This well-understood effect doesn’t mean that a rise in support in seats like this is reflected elsewhere.

The other phenomenon that has been noted in this election, which we mentioned the other day, is the rise in activity in younger voters. Labour Uncut hazards the following:

One explanation might be a rise in support among those in a household that don’t normally take part in the doorstep conversation but do answer online polls, such as young voters. The polls themselves indicate that Labour’s rise is being driven by enthusiasm among young electors with a striking proportion saying they are committed to voting. But since the rise in the polls, Uncut has heard various stories about Labour candidates and campaigners scouring their electoral rolls to identify households with voters under 25 – whether they live in Labour wards or not, whether they or their families have a history of backing Labour or not. The feedback has been that in the overwhelming majority of cases, this pool of voters is neither sizeable enough to make a difference nor are the canvass returns from these targeted efforts tallying with the level of rise that the polls are suggesting.

This may indeed be the case. A switch to online polling has changed how polls should be read.

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 12.25.42 pmThere is a prevalent view that online polls aren’t as accurate as phone polls, and phone polls aren’t as accurate as face-to-face discussions. And it is on this latter point that Labour Uncut is most damning.

They encourage us to first note (looking at the last election) the difference between ‘party preference’ and ‘desired government outcome’. Voters might have identified with Labour but they didn’t want an Ed Miliband-led coalition so voted accordingly.

Second, they suggest that some voters “gamed the polls”. They used them to signal a protest before reverting to a different choice in the polling booth. It’s worth taking in, what Tory pollster Mark Textor said,

“We were polling massive numbers of voters every night and assessing how they looked at their choices, so we knew that in normal public-style polls they were saying they preferred Labour … but at the end of the day the actual outcome they wanted was a David Cameron-led Conservative government, and the only way to do that was to vote Conservative in their local seat,”

“We measured their preferred style of government … they might say: ‘Normally I prefer Labour’, but we asked: ‘Which scenario do you want as an outcome?’…so we knew there were a lot of voters who on traditional voting patterns were Labour voters but had made the tactical decision that the best choice was to vote for David Cameron … we were measuring outcomes and not just voting preference.”

“They were using polling like a protest vote – they might think: ‘I don’t really want Miliband, but I’ll say I prefer him to tickle up the Conservatives’ – or whomever – but we knew at the end of the day when we measured their preferred model in government what they really wanted was the outcome of a stable Cameron-led government.”

Labour campaigners fear something similar is happening right now.

In every seat, canvassers are encountering lifelong Labour supporters who still identify with the party but not with Jeremy Corbyn.  (The point we made much of the other day.)

This group tends to have voted forScreen Shot 2017-06-07 at 12.28.56 pm Ed Miliband reluctantly or abstained and are now either sitting out this contest as well or are ready to vote Tory for the first time to prevent a Corbyn premiership.

These switchers represent a new generation of so-called “shy Tories”, located deep inside Labour’s core vote.

The theory is that they are embarrassed at voting Tory, sufficiently so to deny their intent to friends, families and pollsters. Some of the older Labour officials and campaigners have reported familiar doorstep cadences from 1992 – “It’s in the eyes,” one said.

One last point is worth noting in judging what is happening on the ground. Lib Dem campaigners note they are in very tough fights to hold three or four of their seats, although hopeful of picking up a few more.  So no shock increase in Lib Dem seats coming up to skew the likelihood of a majority for May. And Labour campaigners and supporters are privately conceding seats that in a good year they would hold. But perhaps most of all, as Labour Uncut point out:

The Tories do not look like a party that thinks Labour is threatening a range of their seats in England, which is what the polls suggest.

Based on what Mark Textor said after the 2015 election, we know something of what they are doing. Large scale nightly polling, targeted at specific seats, with questioning framed as per the quote above. At this stage in the campaign, postal votes – which have been sampled over the past 5 days, giving them an idea of actual vote performance – will also be factored into the mix.

This is then used to shape their social media targeting on Facebook, local newspaper ad buys and visit schedule for the cabinet and leader.

Last Friday, Theresa May visited Sheffield. Specifically she was in Don Valley, Caroline Flint’s constituency, a seat where Labour led the Tories by 21% in 2015. On Saturday, she was in Penistone and Stockbridge, Angela Smith’s seat, where she won by 14% over the Tories in 2015. Tonight, May was in Bradford South, a seat where Judith Cummins beat her Tory opponent by 17% in 2015.

The fear of Labour officials and candidates, particularly in the West Midlands, North East, North West and Yorkshire, is that if the Tories are on course to flip seats like Don Valley, then many more could be vulnerable. One official in Yorkshire told Uncut that a string of Morley and Outwoods – the seat Ed Balls lost in 2015 – was on the cards for 2017.

Labour Uncut concedes they might be wrong, as you can see below, but we don’t think they are. To our eyes, the sheer un-electability of Corbyn has always been the key factor.

The polls might be right. There could be a surge of young voters that rewrite general election rules. This could be the first contest in living memory where a party increases its rating by so much during the short campaign. Labour could be about to poll near its 1997 level at the general election.

Or not.

We have consulted one election guru whose advice we consider near infallible. Not least because he personally steered some of the most famous by election victories in electoral history, and his political “nose” is about as attuned as anyone we have ever met, and he makes it his business to campaign in a variety of seats during an election.

He confidently reckons the Tories by 40-70 seats. So we are content to revise our prediction for a Tory victory upwards from the 30-40 where we had it. We’ll go with 50-70, especially as any pick ups for Labour in Scotland look increasingly unlikely. Maybe one or two. Maybe none. Not enough, anyway.

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 12.09.41 pm

Apparently men with beards are seen as more aggressive – not a feature people like in politicians. Yet they like “strong” leaders. Go figure.

 

Still not a thumping endorsement for Theresa May, at all, but it finally would be a profound rejection by the voters of Jeremy Corbyn, personally. And we have no doubt he would retire from the leadership immediately in the event of such a result. Who would replace him is more problematical. The party is split top to toe between its parliamentarians and its members. There will be tears before bedtime.

One thing that is not really on anyone’s radar is whether May herself is under threat in, say, the 12 months following this election.

Her election performance has been underwhelming in the extreme. She’d have to do a damn good job of Brexit to avoid being tapped on the shoulder by the grey ghosts of the Tory Party.

Oh, one last thing. Buy some sterling. A Tory win will see a significant jump upwards in its value.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 2.19.00 pm

This blog has a long and honourable history of predicting election outcomes, and usually getting them right.

We have, however, recently made a right pig’s arse of the process.

We got the Australian election almost spot on, in predicting a narrow Conservative majority. We got the shellacking handed out to the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 election spot on – we may have been the only predictor expecting them to hold under 10 of their seats. But in both those cases it might be argued that it was our personal closeness to the outcomes that led to their accuracy.

In other instances recently – David Cameron winning an unexpected majority in 2015, the Brexit vote narrowly backing Leave, and most infamously Donald Trump winning the electoral college (not, note, the popular vote) we were plain wrong, much to the inordinate glee of some of our correspondents who accused us of everything from not understanding opinion polling (unlikely considering our profession), to not seeing a fundamental shift to the populist nationalist right worldwide (which was always a nonsense), or of under-estimating electorate’s sense of angst and desire to give anyone – everyone – a kicking, (which was perfectly correct, and we did indeed under-estimate it).

Bang on time for this week’s UK election, this super article by Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com explains in great detail and copious references just why it has become so difficult to predict elections today, and the efforts gone to by polling organisations to correct any likely mistakes – which may even cause further mistakes.

If you have any interest in politics or political forecasting at all, we cannot recommend highly enough that you click the link and read it.

Anyhow, the old line out forth by politicians anytime a poll is unfavourable to them – “There’s only one poll that counts. The one on election day.” – is proving to be more and more true.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 2.23.45 pm

So will we make a prediction, or is our headline just a pathetic attempt at click bait?

Nope. We’ll give it a go, but with the loudly proclaimed proviso that we could be wrong by more than the apparent margin of error either way, as Silver so kindly points out.

The average poll lead for the Tories over the Labour Party currently sits at around 7%. In our view, this is likely to be a winning margin for the following reasons:

Labour haven’t fixed their Scottish problem. Although they will do better than their wipeout north of the border last time, we need to remember that Scotland used to be rock-solid Labour territory. They could count on hatfuls of seats from the big industrial conurbations. They are doing slightly better now, so they will win some seats back, but in our view, not enough. And essentially, with a thoroughly “SNP-ised” Scotland, Labour need to do historically better in England and Wales than at any time in their history in order to overhaul the Conservatives. And that’s not going to happen.

The Liberal Democrats have stayed stubbornly limited to around 8% in the polls, sometimes up to 10-11%, sometimes down to 6%. Essentially, they are not seen as serious contenders in this election, and there is a still a strong “on the nose” element hanging over from their disastrous conduct of the Coalition agreement. The Lib Dem result is notoriously hard to predict because what they do bring to the table, undoubtedly, is superb on the ground campaigning – the so-called “street game”. Which is why we think they will pick up some seats, but they are also in danger of losing a couple of obvious wins where boundary changes or demographic changes are running against them, so their net effect via-a-vis the Tories (their main target) is likely to be negligible. Certainly not dramatic enough to rob May of her majority.

The Corbyn factor is especially interesting. Rarely has a leader of a major political party been more demonised by the media and commentators. But along with this demonisation has come a stubborn determination by some Britons – especially the young and first time voters, who have registered in historically large numbers – to back him, to give the establishment a kicking if nothing else. He has also appeared more impressive while the campaign has worn on, in stark contrast to Theresa May, who has frequently looked like a rabbit caught in headlights.

So we see the growth in the polls for Labour as real, but we simply can’t bring ourselves to believe that a character as polarising as Corbyn can beat an incumbent government. It’s just too counter-cultural – the continuing drumbeat about his past views on the IRA, his beard – how successful many bearded politicians do you know? There’s a reason for that. – the fact he looks uncomfortable in a suit, the way he is repeatedly castigated as returning Labour to the bad old days of the seventies, let alone his recent wholesale rejection by his own MPs, etc. etc.  It’s just too much of a tsunami of criticism to push back against.

Our last reason for plumping for the Tories is the three recent terror attacks, and especially the last two, in Manchester at the Ariana Grande concert, and over the weekend on London Bridge. In times of deep anxiety, people tend to plump for “the devil they know”, and in this case that is definitely the incumbent government. It shouldn’t be so: in a perfect world, people should make a careful and cautious examination of all the reasons for voting for one or other of the options on offer, and not be swayed by the actions of a few vicious lunatics, but the fact is people simply don’t behave like that. Enough people will say, we believe, that this is no time remove backing from the Government, and that factor alone will be enough to see them over the line. Also, the Prime Minister and Government of the day receive a great deal of “free” – and mostly positive – airtime, simply by saying the sort of thing that is expected of political leaders at such times.

As became clear after Manchester, however, the advantage does not necessarily flow all one way. A spate of attacks, so close to an election, cannot but challenge the Government’s line in some people’s minds that it has successfully defended the country against terrorism. After Manchester, too, the Labour leader offered a rather different view of root causes. While Corbyn denied blaming the Government for the Manchester attack in any way – and indeed did not do so – he did ask about the possible impact on domestic security of the UK’s involvement in foreign wars. Nor – surprisingly perhaps, given the context – did he attract much public opprobrium for doing so.

So the advantage to the Conservatives of a national security election – as opposed to a Brexit or migration or austerity election – may not be as decisive as initially thought. But it will not be the same election as it would have been, even if going ahead with the vote as normal shows the necessary determination not to be cowed.

So in the final wash up, our guess is a Tory majority of 30-40 seats. Way down on initial suggestions that May might win a majority of 100 or even 150 seats, and one unintended consequence of such a result would be that May’s own leadership credentials would be severely wounded. How seriously, only time would tell. But there are certainly those around her cabinet table with a lean and hungry look, even if that soubriquet could never reasonably be applied to Boris Johnson.

But our certainty, also, is that we could be completely – even wildly – wrong. Things used to be quite easy in the world of psephology. Not so much nowadays.

For once, we will not be making a substantial bet on the outcome. That should tell you something, Dear Reader.

Abril Gallardo rode 15 hours in a van to Austin to protest new immigration laws, and to urge fellow Hispanics to fight back.

“Fear motivated me to get involved,” said Gallardo, a 26-year-old Mexican native who entered the U.S. illegally at age 12.

Texas cities and immigrant rights’ groups have challenged the legality of the law, hopeful for a legal victory like the one in Arizona, but that could take months to have any effect.

But even as some vowed to fight, others have begun fleeing the state. Their ranks are still too small to quantify, but a larger exodus — similar to what occurred in Arizona — could have a profound effect on the Texas economy.

Texas has more than 1 million immigrants illegally in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute. No one seems to have considered the effect on Texas’s economy should those people abruptly leave, or get kicked out.

Some are abandoning Texas for more liberal states, where they feel safer — even if it means relinquishing lives they’ve spent years building.

Jose, a 43-year-old Mexican living in the U.S. illegally since 2001, and his wife Holly left Austin for Seattle in January in anticipation of Texas’ immigration crackdown. That meant parting with Jose’s grown son, their community of friends and their beloved home of eight years.

“I felt like we ripped our roots up and threw ourselves across the country,” said Holly, a 40-year-old Kentucky native who wanted to protect her husband.

Holly said as soon as Donald Trump was elected president, she and her husband began preparing to move. They expected Texas would “follow Trump’s agenda trying to force local law enforcement to do immigration’s job.” And when they heard Texas had approved a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” she said they “finalised the decision.”

At Wellthisiswhatithink we think these changes are crazy. Why tear apart families that have lived peacefully and constructively in a country for ten, twenty, thirty years? Productive citizens should be given a simple and non-discriminatory path to citizenship. What the hell ever happened to “send me your poor and huddled masses”?

America has lost its soul, and its way.

Looks like a real peach, doesn’t he? Never mind background checks. He should fail a foreground check.

Deputies: Man Accused Of Shooting At Neighbours Following Dispute Over Noisy Children

From South Carolina:

A Goose Creek man is behind bars and charged with fours counts of attempted murder after deputies say he opened fire on neighbours following a dispute over loud children.

On Monday at approximately 4:50 p.m., deputies with the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office responded to 107 Gator Drive in the Goose Creek area of Berkeley County reference to a report of two victims possibly being shot.

After arriving on the scene, deputies met with George Ernest Merritt, 65, of that address who stated, “the victim would be OK” as he had “only shot him in the shoulder.”

According to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, juveniles were playing in the road close to where the suspect lives. At some point, deputies say that Merritt went outside and told the children to be quiet.

After interacting with Merritt, deputies say the children went home and told their grandparents, who had been watching them after school. The grandparents went outside to speak with Merritt and advise him to speak with them and not yell at the children. This interaction took place near the intersection of Guerry Circle and Gator Drive.

At some point, Merritt reportedly got upset and left – returning to his house where he retrieved a 22 caliber pistol. Deputies say he returned to the corner of Guerry Circle and Gator Drive and began to shoot at the grandparents, and by some accounts, the children. Whatever the facts, the entire incident was captured on a video surveillance system, which will make things easier, no doubt.

Deputies say he then returned to his home and waited for deputies to arrive. He was taken into custody without incident.

Merritt was charged with 4 counts of Attempted Murder and one count of “Possession of a weapon during a violent crime”. He was transported to the Hill Finklea Detention Centre to await warrant service and a bond hearing.

Not wanting to pre-judge the case, but one suspects that George Ernest Merritt might be going away for quite some time.

dialogue

 

This blog is a re-purposing of an exchange I just had with a dear friend on Facebook. I know this friend to be a sincere man, who thinks deeply. His identity is irrelevant. The discussion isn’t.

Begins:

But what you don’t seem to appreciate, [name], is that all your bile (or rather the bile in the websites and news services you quote) is aimed at Muslims. I would ask you to consider the following:

>We’re pissed off about being branded a racist when we speak out for what we believe in

No, people are branded racists when they categorise an entire people as being one thing – less intelligent, more violent, more hateful, etc – when clearly that cannot be applied to all the people in that group. Calling out “all Muslims” – or “all Anyone” of course – IS racist, because no one group is homogenous.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught crap at school

Well, you’d have to give me an example. The schools I deal with, judging the Ainger Awards, for example, seem to be turning out very aware, balanced and thoughtful kids, chock full of stuff I never knew. And my daughter, who has had to work very hard, has progressed to doing a PhD in neuroscience from a not-especially-academic Christian school, so I am pretty impressed with that.

Maybe your experience is different. I’m all ears.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught that they can go to whatever toilet they like

Unisex toilets are hardly the barbarians at the gate, and if they make life easier for transgender teenagers I have no problem with them. I find kids today much more respectful of each other’s space than we were. I suspect it’s just a change, and change can be scary. I haven’t heard a single case of it causing a problem, here or anywhere – but I have heard plenty of middle aged people going volcanic about it.

>communities are dropping Christmas celebrations

Certainly not in Melbourne. Carols by Candlelight was great this year. Are you sure this is happening, or have you heard of one or two nutjobs going on about it, and beat it up into a “thing”?

PS Muslims think Christ was a holy man, too. Our neighbours gave us a lovely card and a generous gift this year.

>we’re pissed off that Muslim only housing estates are being built in Australia

Why? If people want to live together, let them. We have Chinese retirement homes in Doncaster – the fabric of society seems remarkably unchallenged. We have had Jewish-only schools, homes and – frankly – suburbs for decades. No one cares less. Are you just afraid of something of which you have no real experience?

>we’re pissed off because Anzac Day marches have to be cancelled because RSL clubs can’t afford the extra security due to threat of terror attacks

Here we can agree totally. But you also need to remember that we have had as many terror incidents from bikie gangs and the far right Nazis in Australia as we have had from Muslims. Beating up fear about a virtually unheard of event – a terrorist attack in Australia – only serves to make people anxious. Sure, anything can happen, but the fact is we are a very long way from everywhere, and 99.99999% recurring of our population are law abiding and peaceful. Certainly as regards politics and religion. I know a few bookies who should be inside …

>we’re pissed off because every time we become part of a large crowd we’re looking over our shoulder

Yes, yes, yes – but I have to be frank with you, this has been going on pretty much since the beginning of society. Sadly, there is always someone ready to throw a bomb or lash out with a gun or a sword, and right now most of them are from extremist minority sects of Islam. But it wasn’t long ago, for example, that the world was just as transfixed by the activities of the Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades (some of whose attacks were CIA-led false flag attacks, by the way), the Fenians chucked grenades and bombs around willy nilly for about 150 years in the UK, anarchists started World War 1, etc etc.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.” Whilst what is happening know is horrible, and deplorable and indefensible, it isn’t actually all that different to centuries of conflict. If you want it to stop, find peaceful solutions, rather than pretending there is some new great conspiracy threatening your tea and toast.

I will say this – the main problem with Islamic extremism at the moment is the conflict between Shia and Sunni, which has been going on for hundreds of years, and the only reason we even know about it is because we have interpolated ourselves into their countries in a most aggressive and colonial way, instead of leaving the Arabs and the Persians to sort it out themselves. We made ourselves sitting ducks by insanities like invading Iraq when we had no clear reason why – except to secure oil supplies, as Alexander Downer admitted – absolutely predictably de-stabilising the entire region – and NOT intervening when the majority of the Syrian population asked us to, to get rid of the brutal Assad regime, because we were so burned by our own idiocy in Iraq.

In Iraq alone, over 500,000 civilians have died, 100% because of the instability caused by OUR actions, if not necessarily by our direct actions.

We let our politicians do that.

22 died in Manchester. Which breaks my heart. And I condemn it utterly. But think about it. Think about the half a million in Iraq alone. Think about the four million displaced from Syria. Can you understand why some people, not me, at all, but some people, don’t understand why we feel so threatened, compared to them?

Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember you
Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember
Saffie, we don’t know what to do
Saffie, we don’t know

Saffie.

[                                        ]

Later reporting: MANCHESTER FIRST RESPONDER TELLS OF MOMENT HE FOUND YOUNGEST VICTIM SAFFIE ROUSSOS

A first responder to the Manchester Arena suicide attack has told of how an eight-year-old girl had called out for her mum as she lay in his arms during her dying moments.

Paul Reid, 43, had tried to reassure Saffie Rose Roussos that everything would be OK as he waited with her while help arrived, during the horrific attack aftermath.

Speaking with The Sun, Mr Reid said he tried to look for the terrorist after he heard a bomb at the end of the Ariana Grande concert on Monday.

Paul Reid was a first responder at the scene of the Manchester Arena suicide bombing. Photo: BBC

Mr Reid instead rushed to comfort those who he had found injury, laying on the concert hall floor.

One of those was little Saffie, who he wrapped in his coat, before helping her onto a stretcher. It wasn’t until the next day that Mr Reid learnt the little girl he tried to save had died in hospital from her injuries.

Saffie was the youngest of the 22 killed in the attack.

“She was a dying little girl and she just wanted her mum. It was devastating,” Mr Reid said, in tears.

Mr Reid, also a father, had been at the concert and was one of the first to contact emergency services after Salman Abedi blew himself up.

“The concert was just about to end and I was at the bottom of the stairs at the main exit. Then I just heard a boom. I could see dust, smoke and stuff flying around,” he said. “I ran back up the stairs and I was actually looking for a terrorist. I knew it had been a bomb.

Mr Reid was reduced to tears as he spoke of Saffie, who he found a few feet away.
“She was trembling all over,” he said. “I saw the little girl was conscious and I said, ‘What’s your name?’

“I thought she said Sophie. When I asked her how old she was she said she was eight.

“I wanted to keep her talking and asked her if she had enjoyed the concert but then I realised she was having difficulty breathing.

“She said, ‘Where’s my mum?’ I said to her, ‘I don’t know but we are going to find her in a minute. Don’t worry. We are going to sort it out. You are going to be all right’.

Tributes in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack on Monday night. Photo: AAP

“The girl kept trying to fall asleep but I knew I had to keep her awake and conscious. I was stroking her face and saying, ‘Come on Sophie stay awake. You’re going to be all right. They are coming to take you away in a minute.’

“But she kept drifting into unconsciousness. I cannot bear to think about it. Then she started shivering and told me she felt cold. I took my coat off and put it over her but she was still shaking a bit.

“Once we got outside one of the police flags down an ambulance. We gently put her in and she is still alive with her eyes open. That’s the last time I saw her.”

“I only knew her for a few minutes but I will never forget her,” he said of Saffie.

None of us will ever forget you, Saffie.

Recently, Dear Reader, we have been pondering the matter of free speech.

Specifically, should it be absolute? Anyone able to say anything they like, unrestrained by the law.

We are referring, of course, to the Western world. It is clear that in authoritarian regimes the world over nothing like “free speech” exists, or ever has. But as we argue that liberal democracy is the best form of government to adopt, no matter who or where you are, it is surely fair to ask – sensible, indeed – to ask whether all the shibboleths of free speech are, in fact, practically defensible.

One of the key schism lines in world opinion is around the concept of “Criminal Defamation”, where the expression of an opinion is taken to damage a Government, and therefore put the civil peace at risk. What are (or should be) the rights of the state in seeking to restrain comment that can be considered injurious to the whole.

(This is not the same as Civil Defamation, where an individual has a a right to sue another individual (or corporation) for saying or printing something about them that they consider to be both untrue and harmful of their reputation, causing loss. No one seriously argues that Civil Defamation should be abolished – although the bar is set so high in the United States, for example, that defamation laws are essentially unenforceable, with predictable consequences.)

With Criminal Defamation, ironically, Great Britain, the country which bequeathed the infamous legacy of criminal defamation to states like India, where it is currently being heatedly debated, abolished the law in 2009.

Such laws are believed to date back to the early 17th century, when the invention of the printing press enabled political writings to be circulated far and wide easily and inexpensively through pamphlets, thus broadening the scope of public debate. The Court of the Star Chamber (the English court of law from the late fifteenth to mid-seventeenth century), fearing that criticisms against the royal authority, regardless of their truthfulness, may disturb public peace, began charging the critics with the criminal offence of “seditious libel”.

Evidently, a kind of faux civil peace, resulting from the English citizenry’s ignorance of their State’s corruption, was preferred over the knowledge of truth because any exposure could have potentially led to the downfall of the government. This perhaps explains the origin of the well-known adage, “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.”

Not surprisingly, famous England-American political theorist Thomas Paine, who helped inspire the American Revolution, was also charged with seditious libel in England because of his insistence on the right of the citizens to overthrow the government in the second part of his work Rights of Man. Even though Paine would have been happy with the fact that seditious libel was finally abolished in England, such laws continue to thrive to this day in many countries, and even in some democracies.

Indian law, for example, provides for imprisonment to anyone “who brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India”. This law was enacted by the British to keep the Indian freedom movement in check. Not surprisingly, both Bal Gangadhar Tilak and MK Gandhi were charged with sedition, arrested, and jailed for six years and two years respectively. Like the pigs taking over the farm in the novel 1984, the incoming Indian authorities duly left the laws on the books.

But isn’t it reasonable to disallow unfettered free speech is the result is the overthrow of a peaceful, beneficial state? The answer, of course, is that the question is a fallacy. In a democracy, the government’s behaviour should withstand any such scrutiny in the “court of public opinion”, and if it does not, well, essentially the Government does not deserve to survive. Even if the change of Government may be painful. Truth, here, is elevated above social discord, and few would argue, for example, that a corrupt or inept Government should not be subject to completely free criticism.

The problem is that the view of what constitutes a “peaceful, beneficial state” can vary widely. Just as someone may consider a Government corrupt or inept, but another may not, even when presented with the same evidence. This is before we even get into utilitarian considerations such as “the Government may be corrupt, but it’s helping a lot of people and things are going pretty well, so let’s all pretend it isn’t corrupt and leave things be”. That’s the pertaining situation throughout much of Asia currently, for example.

Currently Governments around the world are reserving the right to restrict free speech where that speech is designed to overthrow their rule by violent means. But from a libertarian point of view, this can be problematical. Many would argue it should be illegal to say “Government A is evil, so go and get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”.

But should it be equally illegal to say “Government A is evil, in my view it is morally justified for someone to get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”?

The difference is the width of a butterfly’s wing, but it could be argued that the latter is legitimate comment – a bona fide intellectual opinion – whilst the other is incitement to murder. Yet the latter will today get you just as locked up just as quickly in many Western democracies as would the more direct statement. The argument employed here is that the fractionally milder comment might have exactly the same effect of encouraging violent action, and therefore seeking to discern a difference is mere semantics, especially if the Government’s primary goal is to preserve its status and prevent violence.

Where the line is drawn in such matters is an on-going debate.

How, for example, does one parse the case of Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning), the American soldier of Wikileaks fame, who dumped vast amounts of classified information onto the world stage in pursuit of his belief that the public had a right to know what was being done – often illegally – in their name.

Manning languished in a dire mental condition in an American military prison – arguably the subject of ongoing mental torture from the authorities – for telling the world … what? That American helicopter gunships were cheerfully slaughtering Reuters journalists and innocent civilians on the ground through hopelessly loose rules of engagement? Or that world leaders say one thing to each other’s faces, and another to their advisors, and yet another to the public? What part of what Manning revealed – do people think they were either too stupid or too irresponsible to be told – which resulted in no harm to anyone, you will recall, as confirmed by the CIA –  whether they were told by Wikileaks or by the newspapers round the world who gleefully re-reported the treasure trove of documents.

The incident was hugely embarrassing for many Governments, to be sure, but was it truly harmful? And why was Manning not protected by concepts of free speech? By all means argue that he contravened the rules of his military service (which is what he is technically being punished for) but should he have, if we believe what we say about free speech being sacrosanct, actually have been praised? Feted, even?

Why was he banged up in solitary when the journalists who re-reported him are free to pursue their careers, and the media barons free to bank their profits?

What led us to this pondering?

Yesterday, on radio in Melbourne, a “One Nation” Senator, recently elected in Queensland through the vagaries and lunacies of Australia’s Senate voting system, was given free range to spout his ludicrous theories that the United Nations were trying to impose “One World Government” on the planet through fear mongering on man-made climate change, change which wasn’t happening. That there was no empirical evidence that CO2 was causing global warming, or that if we scrapped all human fossil fuel emissions overnight it would make any difference to the state of the planet at all.

Mr Roberts has apparently also written numerous reports claiming climate change is an international conspiracy fostered by the United Nations and international banks to impose a socialist world order. According to the Sydney Morning Herald at least one report cites several anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, including notorious Holocaust denier Eustace Mullins among its “primary references”.

According to the SMH Mr Roberts, who used to work in the arch-polluting coal industry, also sent a bizarre affidavit to then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011 demanding to be exempt from the carbon tax and using language consistent with the “sovereign citizen” movement.

Anti-government, self-identified “sovereign citizens” claim to exist outside the country’s legal and taxation systems and frequently believe the government uses grammar to enslave its citizens.

NSW Police say such people “should be considered a potential terrorist threat”.

In an affidavit he sent to Ms Gillard in 2011, Mr Roberts identified himself as “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts., the living soul”, representing a corporate entity he termed MALCOLM IEUAN ROBERTS.

In the document, Mr Roberts demanded to be exempted from the carbon tax and compensated to the tune of $280,000 if Ms Gillard did not provide “full and accurate disclosure” in relation to 28 points explaining why he should not be liable for the tax.

Mr Roberts addressed the affidavit to “The Woman, Julia-Eileen: Gillard., acting as The Honourable JULIA EILEEN GILLARD” and presented her with a detailed contract he expected her to sign.

That stylisation of names is said to be commonly used by “sovereign citizens” who believe the use of hyphens and colons is a way to evade governments’ use of grammar to enslave their citizens. Roberts has recently confirmed that he wrote the affidavit, but has stated that he is not a ‘sovereign citizen’.

The new Senator, who received 77 below-the-line first preference votes, will take his Senate seat on August 30 and will receive a taxpayer-funded base salary of $199,040, plus staff and entitlements.

The price of free speech is often very high indeed.

But the biggest price we pay is not monetary. It is seeing our public institutions – our broadcasters, and Parliaments – invaded by rogues, charlatans, and the frankly deluded, spouting theories that seek to mislead and derail intelligent debate under the guise of promoting “truth”.

 

Whatever you think of Martin McGuinness, or of his remarkable journey from senior IRA commander and reputedly Army Council member to Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland government, one thing is clear.

He was engaged in secret peace discussions with the British Government from 1972 onwards. And there is little doubt that, along with Gerry Adams, McGuinness was instrumental in turning the Republican movement away from continued violence and towards political engagement. He was a man driven in his eyes to violence, who came to reject violence as a political tool.

What is also certain is that without him, in all probability, Ireland and Britain would still be mired in violence over the future of the six counties.

He took huge personal risks for peace. His critics, he said were afraid of change.

“They would love the IRA to go back to war. I’m delighted that we have not fallen into this trap.

“I’m delighted that we have an organisation which understands the political dynamics [of the peace process].

“There is a confidence and assertiveness among nationalists,” he continued.

“We know who we are, we are Irish, we are proud of it.”

His republican credentials remained impeccable to his death. And ultimately, we all owe him respect for playing a fundamental – perhaps the most fundamental – role in stilling the guns.

McGuinness was living proof that we really can – and sometimes do – beat the swords we grasp all too readily into ploughshares.

Ireland is poorer for his passing.

Image Copyright Amnesty International- Amnesty International says Saydnaya prison may hold between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

Image Copyright Amnesty International – Amnesty International says Saydnaya prison may hold between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

As many as 13,000 people, most of them civilian opposition supporters, have been executed in secret at a prison in Syria, Amnesty International says.

A new report by the human rights group alleges that mass hangings took place every week at Saydnaya prison between September 2011 and December 2015.

Amnesty says the alleged executions were authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government.

The government has previously denied killing or mistreating detainees.

However, UN human rights experts said a year ago that witness accounts and documentary evidence strongly suggested that tens of thousands of people were being detained and that “deaths on a massive scale” were occurring in custody.

Amnesty interviewed 84 people, including former guards, detainees and prison officials for its report.

A detainee before his imprisonment, and after, his release from the prison.

Image Copyright Amnesty International – Former detainee Omar al-Shogre before his imprisonment, and after his release from the prison.

It alleges that every week, and often twice a week, groups of between 20 and 50 people were executed in total secrecy at the facility, just north of Damascus. They are by no means all opposition fighters. They include lawyers, doctors, journalists, and other professionals whose only “crime” is to be “on the other side”, even if their relationship with “the other side” may be nothing more than a geographical location.

Before their execution, detainees were brought before a “military field court” in the capital’s Qaboun district for “trials” lasting between one and three minutes, the report says.

A former military court judge quoted by Amnesty said detainees would be asked if they had committed crimes alleged to have taken place. “Whether the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, he will be convicted… This court has no relation with the rule of law,” he chillingly said.

According to the report, detainees were told on the day of the hangings that they would be transferred to a civilian prison then taken to a basement cell and beaten over the course of two or three hours.

syriasaydayadamascus

Then in the middle of the night they were blindfolded and moved to another part of the prison, where they were taken into a room in the basement and told they had been sentenced to death just minutes before nooses were placed around their necks, the report adds.

The bodies of those killed were allegedly then loaded onto lorries, and transferred to Tishreen military hospital in Damascus for registration and burial in mass graves located on military land.

On the basis of evidence of the testimony of its witnesses, Amnesty estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Saydnaya over five years.


Witness accounts

A former judge who saw the hangings:

“They kept them [hanging] there for 10 to 15 minutes. Some didn’t die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn’t kill them. The officers’ assistants would pull them down and break their necks.”

‘Hamid’, a former military officer who was detained at Saydnaya:

“If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling. This would last around 10 minutes… We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then.”

Former detainee ‘Sameer’ describes alleged abuse:

“The beating was so intense. It was as if you had a nail, and you were trying again and again to beat it into a rock. It was impossible, but they just kept going. I was wishing they would just cut off my legs instead of beating them any more.”

Source: Amnesty International


Although it does not have evidence of executions taking place since December 2015, the group says it has no reason to believe they have stopped and that thousands more were likely to have died.

Amnesty says these practices amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It also notes that death sentences have to be approved by the grand mufti and by either the defence minister or the army’s chief of staff, who are deputised to act on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

The human rights group says it contacted the Syrian authorities about the allegations in early January but has received no response.

Last August, Amnesty reported that an estimated 17,723 people had died in custody as a result of torture and the deprivation of food, water and medical care between March 2011 – when the uprising against President Assad began – and December 2015. That figure did not include those allegedly hanged at Saydnaya.

These are the people that the West have stood by and idly watched as Putin and others have rained bombs on civilians. Certainly some of the Opposition in Syria are bad guys, too. No question. But many – and many of those killed in the war or in prison – are democrats who thought they could wrest their country from the grip of a cruel fascist dictator and turn it to democracy.

Wellthisiswhatithink says:

Those who have been freed from Saydnaya, and those who have escaped its clutches, and those who have avoided being murdered by the secret police and paramilitary forces, and those who have escaped the barrel bombs and the poison gas, largely make up – with their families – those who have desperately fled Syria looking for refuge. Looking for the right to live in peace, free from fear of persecution.

You know: the ones that Donald Trump thinks are dangerous. To us. But Mr Putin and his cronies? They’re OK.

hm-queen-elizabeth_3273772kfff

May we correct a much-repeated mistake in coverage of the petition to the UK Parliament to prevent Donald Trump making a State Visit to the UK?

This has often been erroneously reported in Australian and United States media as a desire to prevent Mr Trump visiting the UK per se

This is not so. In fact, the petition refers specifically to such a visit being a State visit, the highest possible honour conferred on a visitor, and specifically so that he would not have to be entertained by the Queen.

As the petition states, Donald Trump should be allowed to enter the UK in his capacity as head of the US Government, but he should not be invited to make an official State Visit because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen. The petition continues “Donald Trump’s well documented misogyny and vulgarity disqualifies him from being received by Her Majesty the Queen or the Prince of Wales. Therefore during the term of his presidency Donald Trump should not be invited to the United Kingdom for an official State Visit.”

This is a little detail, perhaps, but surely a significant one. 

trumpkate

Britons are presumably concerned that a man who used his Twitter account to encourage Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, (then known as Kate Middleton), to sunbathe topless so that paparazzi could photograph her would be especially offensive to the Royal Family, who have frequently had to protest at the unwanted attentions of photographers, and who successfully sued to have the Middleton photographs restricted. The Royal Family would be far too polite to point this out, so the public are doing it for them.

And just days after Princess Diana died in a car crash, in which the paparazzi were again involved, President Trump notoriously asserted on the radio that he could have slept with her.

Howard Stern asked him: ‘Why do people think it’s egotistical of you to say you could’ve gotten with Lady Di? You could’ve gotten her, right? You could’ve nailed her.’ ‘I think I could have,’ Trump replied. 

The internet is full of funny memes about the Queen and Donald trump. This is our personal favourite.

The internet is full of funny memes about the Queen and Donald Trump. This is our personal favourite.

On the same radio show three years later, he referred to Lady Diana as ‘crazy, but these are minor details’, again saying he would have slept with her ‘without even hesitation’.

Presumably more than 1.8 million people feel the Queen shouldn’t be forced to share a royal carriage with such a man, much less have to make polite chit chat sitting next to him at dinner.

And no doubt similar considerations were behind House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s overnight decision not to ask Mr Trump to address Parliament when he visits.

In a post-truth world, it surely pays to remember facts.

australia aborigines

If you are genuinely unsure, simply read these stories, which represent the tip of the iceberg as regards the effect of white colonisation on our native brothers and sisters.

The Cape Grim massacre was an incident on 10 February 1828 in which a group of Aboriginal Tasmanians gathering food at a beach in the north-west of Tasmania is said to have been ambushed and shot by four Van Diemen’s Land Company workers, with bodies of some of the victims then thrown from a 60-metre cliff. About 30 men are thought to have been killed in the attack, which was a reprisal action for an earlier Aboriginal raid on a flock of Van Diemen’s Land Company sheep, but part of an escalating spiral of violence probably triggered by the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women in the area. The massacre was part of the “Black War”, the period of violent conflict between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians in Tasmania from the mid-1820s to 1832.

The Convincing Ground massacre at Portland Bay south-west of Melbourne probably resulted from the Gunditjmara people’s determination to assert their right to the whale as traditional food and when challenged by the whalers, were aggressive in return. The whalers withdrew to the head station only to return with their firearms. Robinson’s journal entry says “And the whalers then let fly, to use his expression, right and left upon the natives. He said the natives did not go away but got behind trees and threw spears and stones. They, however, did not much molest them after that.” No mention was made in the conversation as to casualties. Later reports arising from a meeting in 1842 that Robinson had with Gunditjmara people stated only two members survived the massacre. Accounts vary, but the number of Aborigines killed is believed to be between 60 and 200.”

The Pinjarra Massacre was an attack that occurred at Pinjarra, Western Australia on a group of up to 80 Noongar people by a detachment of 25 soldiers, police and settlers led by Governor James Stirling in 1834. After attacks on the displaced Swan River Whadjuk people and depredations on settlers by a group of the Binjareb people led by Calyute had, according to European settlers, reached unacceptable levels, culminating in the payback killing of an ex-soldier, Stirling led his force after the party. Arriving at their camp, five members of the pursuit party were sent into the camp to arrest the suspects and the Aborigines resisted. In the ensuing melee, Stirling reported 15 killed (eleven names were collected later from Aboriginal sources but because of local religious beliefs many dead would not be named); police superintendent T.T. Ellis later died of wounds and a soldier was wounded. A more realistic figure for the Aboriginal dead, including many woman and children, is 40-50. The flood-scoured slopes gave the men, women and children little cover as they tried to hide behind what logs or bushes there were. Many ducked into the water, holding their breath as long as they could. Some tried to float downstream out of range, but the water was too shallow to permit their escape. They, too, were shot. A white attacker’s journal records “Very few wounded were suffered to escape”.

massacreThe Waterloo Creek massacre occured when a Sydney mounted police detachment was despatched by acting Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales Colonel Kenneth Snodgrass, to track down the Namoi, Weraerai and Kamilaroi people who had killed five stockmen in separate incidents on recently established pastoral runs on the upper Gwydir River area of New South Wales. After two months the mounted police, consisting of two sergeants and twenty troopers led by Major James Nunn, arrested 15 Aborigines along the Namoi River. They released all but two, one of whom was shot whilst attempting to escape. The main body of Kamilaroi eluded the troopers, thus Major Nunn’s party along with two stockmen pursued the Kamilaroi for three weeks from present-day Manilla on the Namoi River north to the upper Gwydir River.

On the morning of January 26 – ironically – in a surprise attack on Nunn’s party Corporal Hannan was wounded in the leg with a spear and subsequently the police reported four or five Aborigines were shot dead in retaliation. The Aborigines fled down the river as the troopers regrouped, rearmed and pursued them led by the second in command Lieutenant George Cobban. Cobban’s party found their quarry about a mile down the river now known as Waterloo Creek, where a second engagement took place. The encounter lasted several hours, and no Aborigines were captured. It is this second clash where details of its occurrence contrast substantially. Estimates of Aboriginal dead range as high as 70.

Murdering Gully, formerly known as Puuroyup to the Djargurd Wurrung people, is the site of an 1839 massacre of 35-40 people of the Tarnbeere Gundidj clan of the Djargurd Wurrung in the Camperdown district of Victoria, Australia. It is a gully on Mount Emu Creek, where a small stream adjoins from Merida Station.

Of particular note for this massacre is the extent of oral history and first hand accounts of the incident and detail in settler diaries, records of Weslayan missionaries, and Aboriginal Protectorate records. Following the massacre there was popular disapproval and censure of the leading perpetrator, Frederick Taylor, so that Taylor’s River was renamed to Mount Emu Creek. The massacre effectively destroyed the Tarnbeere Gundidj clan.

The Campaspe Plains massacre, occurred in 1839 in Central Victoria, Australia as a reprisal raid against Aboriginal resistance to the invasion and occupation of the Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung lands. Charles Hutton took over the Campaspe run, located near the border of Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung, in 1838 following sporadic confrontations.

In April 1839 five Aborigines were killed by three white men. In response Hugh Bryan, a shepherd, and James Neill, a hut keeper were killed in May 1839 by Aborigines identified as Daung Wurrung, who had robbed a hut of bedding, clothes, guns and ammunition and also ran a flock of 700 sheep off the property, possibly as retribution for the earlier Aboriginal deaths. Hutton immediately put together an armed party of settlers who tracked and finally caught the Aborigines with a flock of sheep 30 miles away near the Campaspe Creek. An armed confrontation between the settlers and Aborigines occurred for up to half an hour. Hutton claimed privately that nearly 40 Aborigines were killed.

The Aboriginal people of East Gippsland, Victoria, Australia, known as the Gunai/Kurnai people, fought against the European invasion of their land. The technical superiority of the Europeans’ weapons gave the Europeans an absolute advantage. At least 300 people were killed, but other figures estimate up to 1,000; however, it is extremely difficult to be certain about the real death toll as so few records still exist or were even made at the time. Diseases introduced from the 1820s by European sealers and whalers also caused a rapid decline in Aboriginal numbers. The following list was compiled from such things as letters and diaries.

1840 – Nuntin- unknown number killed by Angus McMillan’s men
1840 – Boney Point – “Angus McMillan and his men took a heavy toll of Aboriginal lives”
1841 – Butchers Creek – 30-35 shot by Angus McMillan’s men
1841 – Maffra – unknown number shot by Angus McMillan’s men
1842 – Skull Creek – unknown number killed
1842 – Bruthen Creek – “hundreds killed”
1843 – Warrigal Creek – between 60 and 180 shot by Angus McMillan and his men
1844 – Maffra – unknown number killed
1846 – South Gippsland – 14 killed
1846 – Snowy River – 8 killed by Captain Dana and the Aboriginal Police
1846-47 – Central Gippsland – 50 or more shot by armed party hunting for a white woman supposedly held by Aborigines; no such woman was ever found.
1850 – East Gippsland – 15-20 killed
1850 – Murrindal – 16 poisoned
1850 – Brodribb River – 15-20 killed

The Flying Foam massacre was a series of confrontations between white settlers and Aboriginal people around Flying Foam Passage on Murujuga Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia.

The confrontations occurred between February and May 1868 triggered by the killings of two police officers and a local workman. The confrontations resulted in the deaths of unknown number of Jaburara (or Yaburrara, Yapurarra) people with estimates ranging between 15 and 150 dead.

The confrontations followed the killings on 7 February, on the south west shore of Nickol Bay, of Police Constable William Griffis, an Aboriginal police assistant named Peter, and a pearling worker named George Breem, by some Jaburara people, along with the disappearance of a pearling lugger captain, Henry Jermyn. Three Jaburara were arrested and convicted of Griffis’ murder. Sentenced to death their sentences were commuted to twelve years’ penal servitude on Rottnest Island.

Pearlers and pastoralists from the surrounding region, with the approval and support of the Government Resident in Roebourne, R. J. Sholl,organised two armed and mounted parties, which travelled overland and by sea to Murujuga, the heartland of the Jaburara. The two parties moved towards each other on the peninsula in a pincer movement. Anthropologist T. J. Gara – utilising official sources and oral tradition – suggests that one attack by the parties, on a Jaburara camp at King Bay, on 17 February, killed at least 15 people, including some children.

The Mowla Bluff massacre was an incident involving the murder of a number of indigenous Australians at Geegully Creek, near Mowla Bluff, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1916.

Mowla Bluff is a cattle station 140 kilometres (87 mi) south of Derby and 75 kilometres (47 mi) southwest of Jarlmadangah. Responding to the brutality of the white station manager, some local men gave him a beating. In reprisal, an armed mob which included officials and residents rounded up a large number of Aboriginal men, women and children who were then shot. The bodies were burned.

One account states that three or four hundred people were killed and only three survived.

The Forrest River massacre, or Oombulgurri massacre, is a disputed account of a massacre of indigenous Australian people by a law enforcement party in the wake of the killing of a pastoralist, which took place in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1926. The massacre was investigated by a Royal Commission in 1927 which subsequently determined that 11 people had been killed. Charges were brought against two officers but dismissed for lack of evidence. A local man, Lumbia, was convicted of the killing of the pastoralist Frederick Hay. The findings have recently been disputed by journalist Rod Moran, whose analysis has received some academic support while other academic historians accept that a massacre did take place but disagree over the number of victims.In January 1968, Dr Neville Green interviewed on audiotape Charles Overheu, the brother of Hay’s partner and co-owner of Nulla Nulla station Leopold Overheu:

They all got together up there and there was a bloody massacre because I think they shot about three hundred natives all in one hit and there was a hell of a row over it. It was all published in the papers and somebody let the cat out of the bag and anyhow the government and the judges in those times they realised what the trouble was and the whole thing was hushed up you see.

In the same year, Forrest River Aborigines specified that the massacres had taken place at five different sites, and a German scholar, Dr Helmut Reim, from interviews with three Aboriginal elders, concluded that between 80 and 100 Aborigines had been killed in the massacres on the Marndoc Reserve, of which the Forrest River Mission was a small part.

The Coniston massacre, which took place from 14 August to 18 October 1928 near the Coniston cattle station in Northern Territory, Australia, was the last known officially sanctioned massacre of indigenous Australians and one of the last events of the Australian Frontier Wars. People of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye groups were killed. The massacre occurred in revenge for the death of dingo hunter Frederick Brooks, killed by Aboriginal people in August 1928 at a place now known as Yukurru, (also known as Brooks Soak).

Official records at the time stated that 31 people were killed. The owner of Coniston station, Randall Stafford, was a member of the punitive party for the first few days and estimated that at least twice that number were killed between 14 August and 1 September. Historians estimate that at least 60 and as many as 110 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed. The Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye believe that up to 170 died between 14 August and 18 October.

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-3-35-08-pmThese records are merely the best known of the mass murders committed by the white settlers of Australia. That some of them were in response to provocation or retaliation is irrelevant. The indigenous people had been invaded and forcefully dispossessed. They saw themselves as fighting for justice according to laws developed over 40,000 of habitation. This, to a large extent, is why the native peoples of Australia still call for a formal treaty to be signed between the Government of Australia and its first peoples. For them, the war that was visited on them has never formally been recognised, or ended.

It should be obvious to anyone that 26th January is a needlessly provocative day to celebrate as Australia Day, and that a number of other dates offer themselves as equally significant and worthy of celebration. Anyone denying this simple proposition is merely continuing the assertion of white privilege and domination that these stories tragically demonstrate.

Remember, the killings of groups of Aborigines continued to within living memory, let alone later injustices which are just as well known.

We are big enough to acknowledge the past. It is time we made the change. Simple as that.

 

 

Dear President Trump

Congratulations on your election. We never supported your run for office, and we were frankly somewhat dismayed that it succeeded, as the trend in politics that you represent is far removed from our view of the world.

But we have to put that aside now. You’re in. And we have to work with you.

Of course we wish you well. The world needs a strong and successful America. You are still the locomotive at the front of the train that is the world’s economy. Or at the very least, one of the locomotives.

You are still the home of much of the most fortuitous innovations that will help us manage and preserve civilisation and the world. We need you to do well, which is why even those who oppose your brand of politics wish you success. Who knows? You may surprise us all.

But in saying that, Mr President, we have a problem.

It seems to us that a lot of what you’re saying simply doesn’t make sense. So we have some questions for you, which we hope you feel able to answer.

Your new White House website says the following:

The Trump Administration is committed to a foreign policy focused on American interests and American national security.

Peace through strength will be at the centre of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.

Honestly, this strikes us as short-sighted.

 

Free the shit out of you

Whilst we understand that you need to protect American interests, “peace through strength” just sounds to the rest of us like “if we’re big enough and ugly enough to make you do what we say, we’ll get along just fine”. Or in other words, more of everything that has managed to piss the rest of the world off about America on regular occasions since WWII.

There’s every chance that this type of attitude won’t result in a more stable or peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground, but possibly the very opposite. More chances for your country and others to rub each other up the wrong way, to create distrust about your motives, and to lead to more conflict, not less.

Next, we will rebuild the American military. Our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016. Our Air Force is roughly one third smaller than in 1991. President Trump is committed to reversing this trend, because he knows that our military dominance must be unquestioned.

“Military dominance”? There you go again. But hang on a minute here, yes, you might have retired some ageing ships and aircraft – replacing them with better ones – but you still spend as much on defence as the NEXT TEN countries in defence spending in the world PUT TOGETHER.

So, Donald, if you don’t have military dominance now, we strongly urge you to look more closely at how you’re spending your trillions. Because you should be far and away the most powerful country in the world already.

And you are, of course.

You know that. Everyone knows that.

So what’s an increase in military spending really all about?

0053_defense-comparison-full

You know, since Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex in the first place, we have seen the taxes of Americans and the profits from American trade ploughed into a vast, bloated military, making some American corporations richer than Croesus. Is America really safer, as a result, or are just a bunch of banks and Wall Street types much richer?

Also, you said:

Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.

See: we’re not awfully sure what you’re getting at here. Sure, it sounds good, but honestly, what has the world been trying to do for more than a decade now? We’ve all been busy cutting off funding, expanding intelligence sharing, engaging in cyberwarfare and all the rest of it.

So the only thing that’s really different here is pursuing aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary.

 

Iraqi dead child is prepared for burial

A violently killed young Iraqi girl is prepared for burial. The photograph originally appeared at Salon.com some years ago.

 

It might be an idea to explain what that really means. See, we’ve just seen America endlessly tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq for what seems like forever. Apart from American losses, civilian losses in Iraq alone are up to about 600,000 and counting. We’re certainly not doing a great job of bringing enduring freedom to the Iraqi people, are we? And we’re getting out of Afghanistan with our butts kicked, and the probability that we will have achieved nothing very much at all. Honestly, we don’t really think the American public has the stomach for much more of that, do you?

So how about an alternative idea?

Sooner or later – and this is a very simple thought, but we encourage you to consider it carefully – the West is going to have to accommodate itself to an Islamic world with some very different agendas to ours, and different rules. As Churchill said, “Jaw Jaw is always better than War War”.

It would be hard to imagine more implacable enemies in the Cold War period than Russia and America – the titanic, historic struggle between state socialism and capitalism. And yet, ultimately, it was talking that wound back the tension levels, and created opportunities for both sides. Many, many more people died in the proxy wars fought to promulgate the cold war than have died in conflicts between Islam and the West. Yet we managed to talk our way to a better place.

So who in the Islamic world are you going to talk to, to try and bring some conclusion to the current conflicts? Yes, we know there’s no point talking to the leaders of IS, but they are only a very small part of the problem, and frankly most of the Islamic world hates them as much as you do. So where in your world view is the great West-Islam dialogue that must, inevitably, be the real solution to the problems we now face? What’s the plan? A few words about embracing diplomacy doesn’t really cut it, Donald. Would you care to be more specific?

Now. Trade.

Your website says:

For too long, Americans have been forced to accept trade deals that put the interests of insiders and the Washington elite over the hard-working men and women of this country. As a result, blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close and good-paying jobs move overseas, while Americans face a mounting trade deficit and a devastated manufacturing base.

Forgive us, Sir, but trade deals are not why blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close. Nor why America has a trade deficit. Nor why your manufacturing base is devastated.

All these things have happened because the American people have been sold a dream of an endlessly expanding consumer paradise with everything one could need for a modern lifestyle provided ever more cheaply, whether it’s cars or phones, or TVs, or white goods, or clothes.

 

china

And overseas – especially, but not exclusively, in Asia – clever, determined people produce those things at a fraction of a cost to them being produced in America. That’s why some of your very own private businesses manufacture over there, right?

So, Sir, the only way you can protect those all rust-belt manufacturers is either to forbid people from buying cheap consumer goods from overseas (good luck with that project) or by slapping tariffs on goods made overseas. That’s what your policy really means. And as soon as you do that, the countries currently supplying you will simply do the same to you, so the things you ARE selling into those countries (less and less already, as you know) will be priced out of their markets. (And the growing middle class in China and India and other such places will simply buy their own products. After all, they’re just as good. That’s why your own population buys them so enthusiastically.)

It’s called a trade war, Mr President. And like some other wars we could mention, it’s a war you can’t win.

Or we suppose you could try and persuade American workers to accept much lower pay and conditions. Somehow we don’t think you’re going to attempt that.

Sure, you can try and re-negotiate trade deals, but who’s to say anyone is going to want to negotiate with you? When you stand on the steps of the Capitol and call out “America First” like some sort of mantra, don’t you realise that what the rest of us hear is “And you guys second. Or last. Or nowhere. We really don’t care.”?

If you don’t believe us, can we suggest you watch this video from Holland? It’s not only very funny, but it explains the problem better than we can.

You see, if the success of a trade deal is no longer to be a quid pro quo – as the Jews say, “leaving a little something in the deal for everyone” – then can you explain, please, why you think anyone is going to want to negotiate with you?

Sir, the ONLY solution to America’s economic decline is to work harder, and more innovatively. To produce things that the rest of the world hasn’t worked out how to make yet, and to continue to produce those things at the lowest feasible cost until everyone else catches up, and then to repeat the process. Endlessly. That is your only defence against the new Tigers, wherever they are.

But we don’t hear anything about that from you.

Instead, for example, when the world is desperate for new, non-fossil fuel energy sources, smarter batteries, new power transmission technologies and all the rest, what do you offer us?

A huge increase in fracking and coal consumption. Have you walked down the streets in Beijing and Mumbai recently? Why would you want to visit more pollution on the people of the USA?

 

The inevitable result of an economy based on coal-fired energy. If we're wrong, please tell us why.

The inevitable result of an economy based on coal-fired energy. If we’re wrong, please tell us why.

And you say:

Lastly, our need for energy must go hand-in-hand with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority. President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.

But Mr President, even with “clean coal” technology (assuming it can be successfully developed, at a reasonable price, which is still highly uncertain) and even with the most careful rules over fracking, you can’t protect the water and air of the United States no matter how hard you try. And your statement completely ignores the effect on the climate of burning more and more fossil fuels.

Even if you don’t think climate change is man made, or entirely man made, or whatever your position is this week, surely you must appreciate that expanding fossil fuel production is taking a vastly greater risk with the environment that we don’t need to take? Renewable energy sources are now more than capable of taking up the slack, as Europe is demonstrating successfully in an incredibly short timescale.

If climate change disrupts American agriculture, the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

If climate change means Americans cannot live in safety in the forests, deserts, or coastal plains that they live in now, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence. In lives, and in dollars.

If climate change alters the make-up of the oceans so that fish stocks migrate away from your shores, or disappear altogether, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

If climate change increases the severity of weather events – hot and cold – across your nation, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

See, Mr President, this is our real problem. It seems to us that you must know all these things. You are clearly an intelligent and ambitious man. You surround yourself with bright people.

Yet despite the fact that you must know better, you are simply not levelling with the American people, or the world, about the depth and the scale of the problems in trade, manufacturing, energy, and defence.

We could keep writing on and on about other areas of your program, but that doesn’t seem fair.

Lord knows, there’s more than enough here to be going on with.

So, Sir, we respectfully invite you to address the questions we have for you. We’re genuinely interested to know what you think.

Or if it’s all just politics – if it’s all just a con, playing to the gallery, shoring up a base of domestic support, then why not admit it? As you have said, it doesn’t seem to matter what you say and do, they’re gonna love you anyway. But the rest of us would really like to know what you’re on about, because from over here, it simply doesn’t make any sense.

At all. Not even a bit.

Yours sincerely

The World

Read the facts, and make your own mind up.

Read the facts, and make your own mind up.

Wikipedia has a thorough and excellently sourced article on Chelsea, formerly Bradley, Manning, and his life, actions, trial and imprisonment.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelsea_Manning

It should be required reading before anyone – anyone – comments on her case, or on Obama’s commutation of her sentence.

Manning’s story is a modern heroic tragedy. More than anything, it is an exemplary lesson about the difficulties faced by gay and transgender people in a strongly machismo-rich environment like the United States armed services. Given her challenges, and the way she was treated in the Army, Manning was essentially a mentally fragile train wreck waiting to happen, who should never have held such a sensitive position. The US Army must at the very least being considered morally culpable for her transgressions, especially as Manning herself made them aware of the difficulties she was experiencing on multiple occasions.

There is no question that Manning is highly intelligent, strongly motivated, and ethically-driven. She may also suffer from a variety of mental challenges, such as Asperger’s. Whilst this would normally elicit sympathy for her, because of her role in Wikileaks it is ignored. It certainly wasn’t taken into account in the brutal 35 year sentence she received, of which she has served 6, often in appalling circumstances that were officially judged to amount to torture.

Ironically, the West awards and applauds a movie like The Danish Girl, addressing exactly the same topic, and yet Manning receives little or no care, no understanding, and plenty of abuse.

Let us be absolutely clear: whether born of personal distress or a sense of rage at the injustices she discovered – and it was in all likelihood a mixture of the two – what Manning did when she realised what was being perpetrated by American forces and diplomats was morally entirely supportable, and resulted in a wide-ranging re-assessment of international relations and the conduct of war both specifically and in general.

Those who believe she should not have been a “whistle-blower” need to ask themselves, “What is it that was in the Wikileaks Iraq files that you consider that you personally – because that is where we must reduce this matter to, in making a moral judgement – that you personally are either too stupid or too dangerous to be trusted with?”

The answer of course is “Nothing”.

Manning shone a torch on the machinations of armies and their political leaders, and the world is much better for it. She exposed murder, committed in our name. She exposed double dealing and bare-faced lying. She exposed corruption. She was the agent for the oxygen of publicity on a variety of topics that we needed to know, and we should thank her for it.

Did anyone suffer harm as a result of her disclosures? No. Multiple intelligence sources have confirmed that no one was hurt as a result, because of her own redacting of the files to remove personally identifying information, and subsequent redactions by media organisations.

Was she embarrassing to those in power? Yes – hugely. Did she do anything wrong? Strictly legally, yes, but then so do many whistle blowers. Is she a hero? Yes, she is.

We owe her a great deal, and that should include, we would argue, making every effort to help her get on with rebuilding her life.

It’ll all make a great movie, too. And when Oliver Stone (or someone similar) makes that movie, we are certain that history will come down very sympathetically on her side. For today, we just rejoice that she will soon be free.

kennedyIn recent times, we have seen an upsurge in a rejection of the status quo and the success of populism, overwhelming the accepted norms of political discourse. The litany of events is very obvious … Erdowan in Turkey becoming progressively more authoritarian, the election of Syriza in Greece to oppose the EU-imposed austerity, the British public voting (albeit narrowly) for “Brexit”, the near-defeat of the Liberal-National coalition Government in Australia, the ascent of a virtual fascist to the Presidential run off in Austria, the likely ascent of the far-right National Front in France to a run-off in the coming French elections and the inability of a left-centre candidate to even make the frame, the rejection of Prime Minister Renzi’s attempt to rationalise decision-making in Italy leading to his resignation, the likely future success of the ultra-right in Holland, and above all, the election of businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump to the most powerful position in the Western world, President of the United States.

In reality, this trend can be traced back even further, to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union (although this was also a more complex situation than mere discontent with the failures of the incumbent power structures). It could also be argued that the ultimate example is the steady move towards a command-capitalist model in China, with attendant liberalisation – creeping, at times reversed, but inexorable in its trend – of the media, of criticism of Party officials, and of the material expectations of a growing middle class. Indeed, in unleashing the forces of capitalism on Chinese society, Deng Xiao Ping can be said to have headed off a more dramatic and cataclysmic change in China.

When people are asked why they are participating in these quiet (or not so quiet) electoral revolutions they invariably answer with comments like “I am just sick of all of them”, “I am tired of the status quo, we need someone to shake things up”, “Politicians have failed us”, “We need someone to fix things up.”

The danger, of course, is that the people wreak major changes based on their discontent, without necessarily taking the time to consider whether those changes are what they really want. Fed a diet of rubbish and lies by both the media and their political leaders they simply cannot work out what is true or not, and therefore fall back on their gut instinct. And their gut instinct is that they are being badly led – which they are.

This is emphatically not to say the people are stupid – not at all. It is simply to note that in their desire to punish the under-performing elite they place rational decision-making of what might come next as secondary to their desire to give the establishment a damn good kicking. They argue, if questioned on precisely this point, that “it couldn’t be any worse”.

Winston ChurchillThe fact that it could, definitively, be much worse, is ignored because of the same anger that created the switch to populist idols in the first place.

Churchill’s warning that “democracy is the worst form of Government, it’s just better than all the others” is forgotten as the public elevate people who do not essentially subscribe to democratic ideals to run their democracies, with as yet untested outcomes.

In Russia, for example, the putative glasnost and perestroika of the Gorbacev era has now been thoroughly replaced by the quasi-fascist rule of Putin and his cronies, with uncertain outcomes that could be argued to threaten peace in Europe, at least. The Brexit vote at a minimum calls into question the “Union” part of the European Union, which is now on the nose throughout most of the EU, and the great dream of a peaceful, co-operative Europe that transcends mere trade freedom seems to lie in tatters. We might also note Churchill’s prescient remark that “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” People used to understand the limits of Government to “fix things”. No longer, it appears.

How did it come to this?

It is important to see this collapse of the ruling consensus as more than any desire to attend to this particular problem, or that, because the matters creating the angst vary from theatre to theatre.

Unquestionably, above all, the refugee flood around the world (and not just from the Middle East, at all) has created great tensions – great fear of “the others” – because it has happened at a time when the world seems to be collapsing into an ongoing conflict between the West and extremist Arabist/Muslim sects. But when massive population shifts occurred immediately after the Second World War there was considerably less social angst about an inflow of refugees, although by no means was there none, as any of the Italians, Greeks, Albanians and others who were shipped en masse to Australia (and America, and Canada) can attest. But it produced no mass revolution against the status quo. As recently as the late 1970s, huge inflows of refugees from the communist takeover of Vietnam produced barely a ripple of protest. So something different is happening here.

Unquestionably, economic uncertainty is playing its part.
The lost of traditional jobs has devastated some areas,
and not been replaced withtightrope anything else. That politicians seem unable or unwilling to recognise and successfully the problem is a staggering failure. During the 1930s, a huge “whole of Government” effort in some countries prevented the compact between the governing and the governed from breaking down altogether. The “New Deal” in America being the best and most successful example. But the mass unemployment caused by the breakdown of capital in that decade led inexorably to World War 2 and all that meant. That Western politicians can look at societies with 50% youth unemployment, can gaze on as we witness the wholesale collapse of traditional industries, can make mealy-mouthed contributions when someone brings up the obviously inadequate funds to support the aged and the ill, and yet imagine that such a cataclysm could not occur again? This is the ultimate desertion of responsibility.

It seems to us that the world is experiencing a “perfect storm” of fear – endlessly beaten up by politicians and the media – at precisely the same time as politicians are struggling, and usually failing, to come to terms with the stresses and strains created in economies by “instant” international banking (which can change the dominant rules of a market in seconds), globalisation (which has led to the wholesale demise of “old” industries in the established economies), a series of scandals that imply that our political leaders are little more than a series of ever-hungry pigs with their snouts so deep in the trough that their eyes can’t see anything over the top, and, and this is critical, a failure of leadership.

On the one hand we have the populists, with their broad brush stroke slogans, their breathlessly simple solutions, and their fellow travellers that constantly beat the drum praising the perspicacity of their chosen flag bearer. Only he (or she, in the case of Marie le Pen) have the strength and vision to ram through “the change we need”. And like parched wanderers in the desert, the people turn inevitably to the promise of relief. Tongues hanging out for any water, no matter how brackish.

But this is just a mirage of “we can fix it”. It’s a big lie. A big con. So big, indeed, that people swallow it, because surely no-one could be so ruthless, so uncaring of the effect they are having, so roguish in their pursuit of power, as to promise relief with no real idea of how to deliver it. But they can. As Stalin so chillingly said, “one man’s death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. The same hideous calculation is made by the populists when they promise change they cannot deliver, and solutions that are paper thin in their analysis.

But what has the response of the liberal democracies, the “ruling elite”, been to this challenge? It has been to bury themselves in perpetual over-intellectual obfuscation, to sneer at the populists as if they do not represent a threat, to blithely fiddle as their Rome burns. It has been to bleat “but we are doing our best”, when Blind Freddie can see that their best is woefully lacking. It is to lock themselves in their ivory towers – towers made of parliamentary walls, and TV studios, and offices – and to make little or no real attempt to explain to the people why they are doing what they are doing, and that is assuming they are doing anything much, at all.

How has this situation been allowed to persist?

The reasons are many and various, but in our view they come down to this:

THE FIVE GREAT FAILURES

The failure of vision

Politicians are no longer driven by a desire to create better societies – to serve their people – but by careerism. There is no doubt that no one succeeds in climbing the slippery pole without a strong streak of self-regard, but until the relatively recent past politics was still full of people whose primary, over-riding motivation was the betterment of their electorate, and more widely, humankind. There were more “enthusiastic amateurs”, drawn from all walks of life, chock full of useful experiences. To be sure, they never turned their noses up at the perks of office, nor the thrill of handling the levers of power. But at the core was a desire to conserve what was good, and to develop what was promising, and – based on evidence – to eschew what was failing. It is highly questionable whether that still applies to most politicians today – certainly those of reach the top of the heap – and the people smell the rot with absolute accuracy.

The failure of honesty

It is now a dispiritingly long time since any politician, anywhere in the West, dared to say “Actually, we’re not really sure what to do”. And yet, in huge swathes of decision making, it is perfectly clear that our leaders do not know what to do. The pace of change, and the relentless news cycle, is leading them to pretend they know what they’re doing when they really don’t. In vast areas of public policy – balancing the structural changes in economies, achieving unanimity on climate change, reducing the proxy conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, preventing a new Cold – or Hot – war, it is plain they are thrashing about, confused and dispirited. And yet, turn a camera and a microphone on and they act like Mastermind contestants with all the answers.

This has two linked effects. Firstly, it destroys trust, when it becomes clear that the assurances and calming words are so much hogwash. Second, it removes responsibility from the public to be part of the solution to intractable problems, leaving them reliant on blowing up the entire system when they are – inevitably – disappointed, as they had no part in devising the solution, and no ownership of the outcome.

The failure of communication

Politicians seem to no longer be able to phrase their goals in simple language, without succumbing to the temptation to reduce everything to focus group-led slogans.

It would be hard to think of a single major Western politician – with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, although her days may well be numbered – who still has the required “common touch”, although Justin Trudeau in Canada is undoubtedly a standout exception – and he, it should be noted, is of the left, and is an intellectual, thus giving the lie to the assertion that all this change is merely a revolt against “left intellectualism”.

A politician like Churchill, for example, could be autocratic, even waywardly so, but he never forgot the absolute need to take the people with him. Perhaps in war-time this need is more obvious. But in the recent past – much as we disagreed with some of her policies – a politician who widely admired Churchill – Margaret Thatcher – also had the ability to communicate broad themes in a popular way, while making changes that many argue were long overdue in Britain despite being sometimes achingly difficult.

Where are the democratic politicians who offer us soaring rhetoric, yet rooted in common sense, to enliven and inform civic debate? Certainly Obama offered the soaring rhetoric, but outside of campaign mode he so often failed to return to those heights, and was too often hidebound by a toxic combination of an obstructive Congress, a swingeing economic crisis, and his own innate conservatism.

The cupboard is depressingly bare.

The failure of thought

The West, in particular, but by no means exclusively, is failing itself. The essence of democracy is free, vibrant and deep debate, the development of philosophy, the parsing of solutions. One of the inevitable results of the dumbing down of Universities – through the diversion of their funds increasingly to commercial “applied science” rather than humanities such as literature, politics, and philosophy – even theology – has starved our system of thinkers. The problems we face are massively complicated, yet those who used to work diligently behind the scenes in thousands of “thinking hives” are increasingly no longer there, and no longer contributing. Political parties are increasingly less full of thinkers and increasingly full of yar boo sucks partisans. Where political thought across the political divide was once welcome and respected, now it is virtually unheard of. While politicians of different ilk may well be friendly “behind the scenes”, for them to acknowledge the thoughts of an opponent as having value, of being worthy of consideration, is apparently political death. Little wonder the public don’t trust them, faced with such ludicrous and childishness obstinacy.

The failure of media

Our media organisations have become helplessly addicted to the brief, and the sensational.

Whilst this was always true of the tabloid media, it is now true of all media.

The people they employ are largely intellectual pygmies, and in television in particular they are in the job because they look good and can follow a producer’s brief.

Across all types of media, they don’t scare the horses, because they rarely ask any hard questions. Hard questions require that the journalist has knowledge and the politician can address that knowledge intelligently, taking whatever time is required. Neither is true, and anyway there is no time.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are very few and far between, and becoming more so. The success of the series “Newsroom” showed the public’s deep desire for a form of journalism that is principled, erudite and independent. But of how many journalists today can those three qualities be said? And increasingly, anyway, mainstream media is being over-taken by social media, where the provenance of any story is impossible to divine, and where the impact is so transient that clear nonsense is forgotten almost as soon as it has trended, but not before it has added to the dominant zeitgeist, whatever that may be. If we are in the era of “post truth politics” – a terrifying concept in itself for admirers of democracy – then the most brutal criticism of all must be levied at the media – all of the media – that simultaneously tolerates and encourages the situation.

So what’s to be done?

It may indeed be way too late to close the stable door after watching an entire herd of horses bolting in all directions. Or to mix our metaphors, we may all be just a bunch of well-boiled frogs who should have acted to redress the decline a long time ago.

Yes, we will be accused of being pessimistic because it appears “our side” of politics is currently losing, and we will also be accused of succumbing to conspiracy theories.

In fact, we confidently expect we will be today’s Cassandra, doomed to wail on the battlements while all around mock us.

But in our view, the first step in redressing this danger – the danger of the collapse of modern liberal democracy – is to acknowledge the problem and seek to persuade others to address it. Others, we note, regardless of their native political bent. This is a task for all of us, whatever our political persuasion.

As we do not have the influence to turn the ship around on our own, we simply point to the mounting evidence, and suggest the general shape of a solution.

It will take a mighty effort to reverse the trends outlined here. But as Horace said 2000 years ago, “A journey, once begin, is half over.” To begin this journey, we have to agree that there is a problem, yes?