Wednesday, August 03, 2005
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
hus spake Marshall McLuhan many years ago. I wonder what he would have made of the global internet, and especially of the developing blogosphere and its impact on the discourse of the commons. These technological and social advances would not likely have been a surprise to the Canadian philosopher who originated the concept of the world as "a global village."
I recall the period of my own questioning of many long trusted political convictions, after September 11, and unconsciously resorting to McLuhan's paradigm -- trying to make sense of an apparently changed world. What is really going on here, on this blue-green ball of life? What is the United States as the most powerful actor in the story? And what are the other actors doing, in their various shifting alliances and groupings pulling every which way? What to do about the Taliban, not to mention the growing talk of taking out Saddam Hussein. My mind just naturally wanted to put all the actors in a town, reduce the global reality to a situation where everybody lived as actual neighbours.
Now play out what was going on, using any analogies you wish. There is no independent town police force to enforce any laws. Laws themselves barely exist apart from a lot of handshake agreements between residents, but many of these are accepted and honoured by most of the townspeople. They do have a mayor, but he can't give orders to anyone (no matter how much trouble they might be causing), and while he sits on city council meetings, he doesn't even get a vote. Every house in town sends its own city councillor to the meetings, which are grand affairs that accomplish very little toward the well being of the townsfolk.
This is because this town is terribly divided, and families have drifted into competing groups -- many of the heads of households are serious followers of one or another ideology, and this results in competing alliances and conflict. Yet the households themselves are prone to change at times, and will periodically reform and alter their internal operating system. Ever since the one big family (at that time the most powerful competitor to the massive mansion of United States) abruptly gave up its tightly held ideology and its leadership of a large clique in the town, many of the smaller houses have followed suit. Now there's only a handful of homes run under that system, a few small and medium sized ones and of course the big one out in the east end with the most kids. Most of the shifts have been in the direction of the "democracy neighbourhood" as some of the household heads begin to see the benefits of this kind of system.
But yet the town itself remains virtually lawless, because as we all know, there are always some bad guys around wherever you go. Some guys actually beat their kids black and blue, or attack their neighbours and move the fence over. Sometimes they even kill the neighbours' kids, or hold them for ransom, or even kill their own kids. A few even starve their own family practically to death, and Dear Father in the basement mixing up some vile poisonous concoction in a bathtub so he can take on the entire town -- or at least his own cul-de-sac.
Now a new thing has come to town. A fascistic religious cult has taken hold within one of the traditions, a tradition which itself is followed peacefully in much of the town. When the cult was still little noticed, it had already declared war on the "democracy neighbourhood" and much of the rest of town as well. Nobody really noticed much, even after this group had detonated themselves in plenty of other people's houses. Most of the town cooperated in trying to catch and stop these fanatics, a lot of others didn't care one way or another. Years after the cultists had declared war, directed all the peaceful followers (of the tradition they claim to lead) to become new warriors, and decreed that they must kill residents of particular houses wherever they might find them, the townspeople still generally did not think of the situation as a war of any kind.
USA House selected a new head of household and made minor adjustments to its internal operating system, a regular occurence for them. Nine months later, on orders from cult headquarters (located within a small, poor home now run as the town's newest medieval theocracy), a large attack on Mansion USA was launched from within, a clear attempt to decapitate the town's most powerful member. With this event, the town realised the threat, widely accepted the state of war declared years before by the enemy, and pledged resistance and defeat for this new adversary.
And what then?
You can't call out the cops to #3 Theocracy Crescent, there are no police in this village. There are trouble-making houses scattered all over town, some who've already given help to the killers holed up inside #3, but what can you do? Out in the east end, Dear Father is still brewing stuff in his basement, over in mid-town Papa Saddam has been running Iraq House like a brute, even after a coalition of responsible residents kicked him out of his neighbour's place -- and he keeps paying for these cultists' "sacred explosions" at one particular neighbour's home. Now he really hates the neighbourhood democracy association, many of whom cooperated to take away his coveted prize and made him lose face. And like Dear Father, he has plenty of bathtubs on the go -- and he's tested a lot of them out on his own kids, and those of his next door neighbour, with horrific results. Virtually the whole town is convinced that he still has it, and knows how to use it.
Several streams of serious danger are perceived by the townsfolk at large, or at least a lot of the more responsible ones. The streams seem to be converging -- or very close to converging -- and decisions must be made for survival before the convergence is accomplished. Does one keep to oneself, not make any noise, avoid offending the cult, and hope for the best? Bring it up at the next city council meeting? Quite a few of the councillors would seem to wish for the Mansion (and many of its democratic partners) to be levelled -- even a few jealous "friends." So City Hall can't ever really decide on anything, especially if it concerns Mansion USA. The Mansion has a lot of enemies among the more oppressive houses in town, but it also has a lot of friends. Good and loyal friends who can see what is at stake in the present situation.
So volunteers are gathered, numbering a substantial portion of the town's residents -- but not most. About a quarter of the houses, maybe a little less than that, join in the ad hoc citizens' policing effort. The immensely wealthy, powerful and advanced USA House carries the bulk of the load as expected, but all contributions are welcome and appreciated. It's widely accepted, even by most of those not participating in the posse, that the medieval situation at #3 Theocracy Cres. will be changed, and that this will be a good thing. But the streams do not only converge there, the danger is much wider and deeper than that. Papa Saddam has had the entire town wrapped around his little finger for a dozen years, one of the streams that shows no inclination of changing its course. He puts up with occasional visits from social workers, gets them running around in confused circles looking in this cupboard and that, and thumbs his nose as they walk back to the car. He continues to beat and torment and even kill his own family behind closed doors (his immediate neighbours couldn't care less), and everybody knows he has a lot of foul bathtub concoctions on the go -- for some future eventuality.
Alright, I'm going to leave it there. Of course my analogies are not precise, nor can they be. But I find that when considering what choices are available, choices that must be weighed by the leaders we entrust to make difficult decisions in defense of civilised society, scaling the problem down to a more approachable situation can make the right course of action more apparent. The hypothetical town I've imagined would certainly be a fearsome place to live one's day to day life. It must be tempting to just stay behind one's door, never go outside (if one is lucky enough to be born in a house of relative freedom), and pretend that it's not a jungle out there -- since it isn't a jungle "in here." But the jungle remains, and some of your neighbours still want to kill you anyway, just on general principle. Yet strangely, many of them are keen to join the "democracy neighbourhood" even while their chieftains veto the idea. On occasions when they do manage to change, mischief levels go way down and they become much less likely to, for example, shoot your wife over the back fence. When seemingly insurmountable barriers to the change are taken away suddenly, we see the people in these houses taking to the new ways like ducks to water, as though it was the most natural thing in the world for them.
Violet stained fingers comprised only one recent manifestation of this; the Iraqi people showed, once the sickness was removed, which direction they choose to advance. Hyper-reactionary forces are fighting against this advance with everything at their disposal, for when it succeeds, these forces are doomed. I continue to cringe at every single car-bomb, IED and exploding jihadist which take dozens of innocent lives daily. And I thank the Great Spirit, the universe and anything else that might be responsible for putting those other men and women among us; those who are now very far from their safe homes and those they love, doing everything humanly possible to help tip the balance in the right direction. The only option remaining to the terror masters for preventing this tipping point being reached, is to manufacture a communal war within the house. They are getting very close to accomplishing that.
I believe Iraqis will achieve their aspirations. They are paying a terrible price for their tenacity, and their incredible resistance to being drawn into warring with each other. Good men and women from all over town are helping, defending freedom alongside them, and frequently dying with them too. All inside somebody else's house, which when it is all over, will remain somebody else's house.
Some call these men and women the evil ones, the aggressive ones, the imperialist ones. Hungry for blood and brown people to kill, their oil to drink, these say. They call the mass killers of children (who then the next day, attack the grieving parents with more "sacred explosions") as "freedom fighters" and "patriotic heroes". There must be some psychological reason for this type of inversion, that makes liberation and freedom into a bad thing, and violent fascism into a good thing. I have no doubt whatsoever which side in this struggle is the good, and which is the evil one. I mean really. This is not really a tricky question here.
Believe it or not (heh, you'll believe it I'm sure), this isn't the article I set out to write at the top. The headline has nothing to do with where I ended up going with this. The whole article is a side-track! Hey, the story of my life! But wait: if the headline bears no relation to the contents, then that means.... oh no! I'm spontaneously becoming a stuffy old lefty newspaper! Well. Let's remedy that if there's still time.
THE MASSAGE OF THE MEDIA
ow's that for a self-correcting double flip? Yes, it's one of my issues since starting to write here all those months ago -- the way the staid, old, hidebound, legacy news media likes to massage things in a particular way before feeding it to the consumer.
I could have just called this one "Funny Headlines" or something, because it started with my jotting down a couple of choice examples of those that I've seen in the last while. Then some things came along which I didn't find so funny, so that title's out.
A few days after posting my last effort (too many days ago, sorry for the long radio silence...), I was watching Washington Journal on C-SPAN, which I normally like to do if possible on weekends, which is the only time the satellite over here carries it. The Journal, like C-SPAN generally, is admirably balanced overall. It's basically, for those who don't know it, a televised phone-in news-oriented talk show. The hosts will have guests in the studio to discuss some particular issue or event, callers can phone to ask questions or debate with the guest while the host alternates between several phone-lines dedicated to either the "pro-whatever", the "anti-whatever" and "others". Usually it's "support the president" on one line, "support Democrats" on another, and "support others" on a third. They do everything possible to balance not only the views expressed by callers, but give equal time to studio guests on both (or more) sides of an issue. The views of the host (moderator might be a better term) remain entirely a mystery, which I also like. Some parts of the three hour program are given to open topics, and the hosts intersperse everything with selected highlighted stories from the morning's mainstream newspapers. It did seem quite odd at first exposure to this program, to see people on TV reading from the newspapers, an over-desk camera doing a close-up on the story, following it down as he or she reads. Hey, I'm reading the newspaper on television -- what the heck is this all about? (McLuhan would have loved it, what's the medium here anyway?)
OK, so it sounds ridiculous, but it works in a strange sort of way. And that night, President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court was still the top issue for the papers. Stories on how Democrats were expected to react, would there be a filibuster, is John Roberts a "radical conservative" (kind of an oxymoron if you ask me) that would trigger a huge brawl over his confirmation, and so on. The host had read selections from several papers, when my eyes noticed the headline of what he was reading:
Roberts has tried for 50 years to keep his politics secretWow. I knew from other readings that this fellow is a 50 year old man. In what seems awfully much like a headline writer gone completely bonkers trying to subtley convey something vaguely sinister, a man who keeps his politics private becomes a man with something to hide. Obviously, eh? I mean, trying for 50 bloody years to keep this stuff secret, and doing so ever since birth.... as a baby, as a toddler, and as a child, this John Roberts "character" has been keeping his politics secret, in a very determined manner! Imagine the people who get their take on events from only scanning the headlines, and don't read the stories at all. I didn't notice which paper that was from, but more than likely either the WaPo or NYT. Often they can provide actual, real time parody of their own earnest partisanship.
Later in the same program, with a guest at the table, a caller was taken on the Democrat line. She launched into the standard tirade about Bush lied for Halliburton to steal Iraqi oil and get all his buddies rich, and so on (everybody knows how it goes). I thought here may be an example of a person who probably assembles her perception of what's happening in the world by just noticing the cleverly worded headlines, which she stitches together to make the narrative that she believes is true. There was absolutely no depth of knowledge, no details, she spoke only in headlines. Talking with the guest about freedom of expression -- which of course the "far right fascists" with Bush at the head are working day and night to eliminate for all time, along with the constitution, Bill of Rights, and probably apple pie too. I burst out laughing when she said something like, "Oh yeah? Well here's proof for you. The Dixie Chicks said Bush lied, and they lost their jobs! That's what happens when you speak out in this country!" The guest patiently explained that they hadn't actually "lost their jobs" since nobody was in any position to fire them. But that many people had felt disgust with some extreme statements that one or two of the Chicks had made, and that many people had also decided to stop buying their music. So their sales went down abruptly, but this is also freedom of expression, and nobody actually lost their jobs. I'm sure the woman continues to be convinced that somebody fired the Dixie Chicks from their jobs because they spoke the truth to power, and because the PATRIOT Act has now eliminated all the rights and freedoms that Americans used to pretend they still had, or something like that.
Trusting that the headline faithfully corresponds with the story following it, can often be a misplaced trust for sure. Try this one on for size, spotted by Tim Blair last week in the Melbourne Age. "More innocents could be shot: UK police" went the headline. After reading the story, one might wonder who might be doing the actual shooting...... perhaps the public telephone box. The tenth paragraph reads:
On July 7 three trains and a bus in London killed 56 people - including the four suspected suicide bombers - and wounded 700.I wonder what the motive might have been.
The Guardian newspaper has seemed lately, especially on its opinion pages, determined to live up to the alternate name which has been growing in popularity in some circles, that of al Grauniad. The paper had employed a known member of the radical islamist group Hizb ut Tahrir to write hard hitting editorial comment. Dilpazier Aslam wrote immediately after the July 7 London bombings, that his generation of British Muslims were not so polite as their parent's generation. No no, they were the "sassy" generation, expressing themselves in creative, "sassy" ways, so get used to it. "Sassy" is now Dilpazier's middle name. A blogger, Scott Burgess decided to go googling and find some other writings, and he sure found some. The Guardian opinion maker had written screeds for extremist islamist websites devoted to the ideology of Hizb ut Tahrir. He confronted the Guardian editors with this, who eventually were embarrassed enough to let poor Sassy go. He could belong to an extremist group which advocates the killing of Jews, among other illiberal things, or he could be employed by the progressive newspaper in the vanguard of social justice, but he could not do both. He left the paper.
But al Grauniad was mighty damned pissed at being so embarrassed, and published an anonymously penned article entitled "Aslam targeted by bloggers":
"Rightwing bloggers from the US, where the Guardian has a large online following, were behind the targeting last week of a trainee Guardian journalist who wrote a comment piece which they did not care for about the London bombings."Hmm. A left-leaning British blog known as Harry's Place played at least as much of a role as Burgess' The Daily Ablution, but y'know, American imperialist redneck cowboy aggressors, and all that. And Mr. Burgess, while admitting to "blogging while American", confirms that he has lived in London now for six years. Here is his response to the anonymous article (apparently a rare abberation for this paper). And in a recent development to this story, Guardian staff seem to have become rather polarised over the sacking of Sassy Aslam, resulting in some sort of infighting and taking sides over the issue, which culminated last Friday with the further sacking of the paper's executive news editor. Good grief, all this fuss over an ordinary, garden variety, Joo-hating islamist fanatic working at the "progressive" paper of socialist goodness and vanguard of anti-imperialist justice for all.
Speaking of which, the BBC's Kabul operation might just be causing some similar embarassment for the global mother Corp -- also sometimes known as "Guardian-On-Air". A Kabul blogger has been receiving explicit threats by email recently, seemingly from someone who knows his identity (he writes with a nom de plume, like Agam). The blogger was just reading and deleting them, but they kept on coming with more overt threats of harm and/or outing of his identity which could equally endanger him. Finally the blogger kept a few of these messages, traced the originating IP number, and found that it belonged to the BBC Kabul operation. Read about it here.
After confronting the BBC with the evidence and logs, the Corp conducted an investigation of sorts. They do not condone this type of activity of course, and I believe them. But their response is one of the creepiest evasions of responsibility I've ever seen. In a roundabout way and after itemising the evidence collected, the Head of Media Relations implied that the blogger might have come to the BBC office (which he has done) and sent himself the threatening emails from the BBC's computer. Or if that didn't happen, maybe he altered the emails himself after receipt. Or if that didn't happen... read the BBC response here. I certainly have no idea what really happened, but either an Afghan blogger who wishes to write anonymously staged an elaborate hoax by threatening himself with identity outing and various physical harm, or the BBC has some "sassy" staff members of her own. Wai to InstaPundit for that one.
SHOULDER TO SHOULDER
hortly after the second, thankfully failed, attacks on the London transportation system -- which was first being reported just as I was about to post my previous set of articles all those days ago -- BBC World switched over from their ongoing breaking news coverage of the event (the national broadcast having taken the place of the international one on BBC World), to bring the live news conference of Tony Blair and John Howard. There were some preliminary statements first, and then Blair fielded some questions from journalists. As soon as Howard, in response to a question, mentioned the word "terrorism", the crack news team down in the studio decided that was enough of that, and it was time to go back to various reporters standing out in the streets with nothing much to report on. "Damn them," I thought. "What is the matter with these bozos, I was listening to that!" I quickly moved the dish over to AsiaSat, hoping that the APTN (Associated Press Television Network) feed might be carrying it. They were. And I heard John Howard give the most concise description of the current state of affairs in the terror war, as well as his dedication to the values of civilised humanity and determination to confront and defeat these enemies of freedom. I hope the people of Britain had a chance to see this part of the conference later on tape, because it was a powerful and moving declaration.
But some producer decided that since Tony wasn't talking, only the Australian, it was time for more exciting empty street scenes. You can see the entire 22 minute event by picking the correct Real Media file from this page (hint: it's the top one). The video might not be available for much longer, so check it out. If you have no time to spare for the 22 minutes, move it ahead to 16:30, and watch. And listen. If it's gone by the time you get there, a shorter clip containing Howard's masterful answer to one of his own country's journalists, can also be found on Jackson's Junction.
But whether readers choose to view and listen or not, you're going to get the memorable quotation here anyway. Lifted from Melanie Phillips' Diary (Big Wai to Melanie), here are the objective facts as seen by brother John Howard. In answer to the Australian journalist's supposition that the "propaganda war was being lost" and that Western governments may have brought on such attacks by their actions in Iraq and elsewhere....
PRIME MIN. HOWARD: 'Can I just say very directly, Paul, on the issue of the policies of my government and indeed the policies of the British and American governments on Iraq, that the first point of reference is that once a country allows its foreign policy to be determined by terrorism, it's given the game away, to use the vernacular. And no Australian government that I lead will ever have policies determined by terrorism or terrorist threats, and no self-respecting government of any political stripe in Australia would allow that to happen.In the Weekend Australian this past Saturday, was this glowing description of Mr. Howard's recent international trip. Greg Sheridan writes that it must have been the most successful Prime Ministerial trip ever, and that Mr. Howard was probably seen and heard by more people around the globe than any other Australian leader in history. From Washington, to London, on to Baghdad for a surprise visit with the new democratically elected Prime Minister of that country, and thence down to Al Muthanna province to spend time with the Diggers there.
'Can I remind you that the murder of 88 Australians in Bali took place before the operation in Iraq.
'And I remind you that the 11th of September occurred before the operation in Iraq.
'Can I also remind you that the very first occasion that bin Laden specifically referred to Australia was in the context of Australia's involvement in liberating the people of East Timor. Are people by implication suggesting we shouldn't have done that?
'When a group claimed responsibility on the website for the attacks on the 7th of July, they talked about British policy not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan. Are people suggesting we shouldn't be in Afghanistan?
'When Sergio de Mello was murdered in Iraq -- a brave man, a distinguished international diplomat, a person immensely respected for his work in the United Nations -- when al Qaeda gloated about that, they referred specifically to the role that de Mello had carried out in East Timor because he was the United Nations administrator in East Timor.
'Now I don't know the mind of the terrorists. By definition, you can't put yourself in the mind of a successful suicide bomber. I can only look at objective facts, and the objective facts are as I've cited. The objective evidence is that Australia was a terrorist target long before the operation in Iraq. And indeed, all the evidence, as distinct from the suppositions, suggests to me that this is about hatred of a way of life, this is about the perverted use of principles of the great world religion that, at its root, preaches peace and cooperation. And I think we lose sight of the challenge we have if we allow ourselves to see these attacks in the context of particular circumstances rather than the abuse through a perverted ideology of people and their murder.'
PRIME MIN. BLAIR: 'And I agree 100 percent with that'. (Laughter.)
The Anchoress illustrates John Howard's argument with a few pictures of some things that actually happened before the, er, you know, that war for oil and stuff that Chimpy started for his cronies, and caused all our terrorism and everything.
t seems that some United Nations members, which coincidentally are also Islamic states, view any criticism of suicide / homicide / "sacred explosions" type martyrs as an affront to Islam as a whole. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the World Union of Humanist, Secular and Rationalist organisations had attempted to have the concept of slaughtering of innocents in the name of (any) religion, as a general principle, condemned by the UN Sub Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Good try, IHEU, but don't you know that such resolutions are "un-Islamic"? Criticism of suicide bombers censored at the UN:
The Islamic members of the Sub-Commission objected to the speech as an attack on Islam. The text however is a report on recent critical comment on Islamist extremism by a number of notable Muslim writers and is a call to the UN Human Rights Commission by the NGOs "to condemn calls to kill, to terrorise or to use violence in the name of God or any religion".Wai littlegreenfootballs.
The text referred to recent decisions by high-ranking Muslim clerics confirming that those who carry out suicide bombings cannot be treated as apostates and remain Muslims(1), a fatwa by a Saudi cleric that innocent Britons were a legitimate target for terrorist action(2), and remarks by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, dean of the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Qatar University who has visited Britain, that terror attacks are permissible.
These actions follow the refusal of the Islamic states at the meeting of the Commission in April to condemn those who kill in the name of religion, and to categorise their attempts to criticise Islamic terrorists as "defamation of religion".
al-Qaradawi is of course the charming Islamic scholar that London mayor Ken Livingston has been so keen on praising and playing host to, in his fair city. And I've heard he's due to bless London with another visit soon. I'm sure Ken will be the ever-polite host, and wouldn't dream of saying anything untoward about terrorists and thus defaming the great world religion itself. Especially to such an esteemed scholar and peaceful man of moderation and tolerance, for whom such activities are entirely permissible.