The Deal of the Century is designed to fail

“Trump’s peace plan has ­morphed from being a plan to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians to a plan to help get Netanyahu re-elected in return for Netanyahu helping to get Trump re-elected,”  Martin Indyk

With the second Israeli election this year taking place this week, the Kushner Peace Plan, the US’ long awaited solution to the seventy year old – no, century old – conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and put together by President Trump’s ingenue and arguably disingenuous businessman son-in-law Jared and his highly partisan, blinkered and thus discredited amigos. is about to finally be plonked down on the rickety and sloping negotiating table.One of them, Donald’s “special representative to the peace process’  Jason Greenblat has just this week left the room, which says heaps about his confidence in the project.

The “speculative” details are now well known, and it would appear that the “deal of the Century” will be DOA. The plan has been described as a a rewriting of the old story of the king’s new clothes. It will likely be rejected by both Israeli right-wing hardliners and a majority of Palestinians, but Israel’s leadership is likely to accept the plan only because they know that the Palestinians will reject it, allowing them to blame the failure of the Trump administration-brokered “peace process” on the Palestinians. It seems like the Us is going to an awful lot of trouble to get to exactly where things are now : stalemate and the potential for annexation.

There has been much excellent reporting on the so-called ‘deal of the century” (as in “mo one does deals like Donald’. ‘I’m finding Bel Trew’s reports from the Middle East very worthwhile and insightful, alongside her colleagues Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn.

The indefatigable Fisk takes the prize, but.

‘How many times can you fit a South Sea Bubble into a Bermuda Triangle?’

Whatever you might think of Robert Fisk or whatever side you take on the Israel-Palestine conundrum, he certainly pinpoints the strangeness of Jared Kushner’s “March of folly”. He was in fine form and in full flight whilst reporting on the recent Bahraini bash that launched the plan’s economic vision, he  was in fine form:

“Trump’s fey and vain son-in-law, a supporter of Israel’s colonial expansion on Arab land, set off with” Jason Greenblatt (who says “West Bank settlements are not an obstacle to peace”) to work out the economic underpinning of Trump’s “deal of the century” … Kushner recently went to visit some Muslim killer-states, some of them with very nasty and tyrannical leaders – Saudi Arabia and Turkey among them – to chat about the “economic dimension” of this mythical deal. Middle East leaders may be murderers with lots of torturers to help them stay in power, but they are not entirely stupid. It’s clear that Kushner and Greenblatt need lots and lots of cash to prop up their plans for the final destruction of Palestinian statehood – we are talking in billions – and the Arab leaders they met did not hear anything about the political “dimension” of Trump’s “deal”. Because presumably there isn’t one …”

Fisk continues: “This very vagueness is amazing, because the Kushner-Greenblatt fandango was in fact a very historic event. It was unprecedented as well as bizarre, unequalled in recent Arab history for its temerity as well as its outrageous assumption … this was the first time in modern Arab history – indeed modern Muslim history – that America has constructed and prepared a bribe BEFORE the acquiescence of those who are supposed to take the money; before actually telling the Palestinians and other Arabs what they are supposed to do in order to get their hands on the loot”.

On the eve of the the peace plan’s great unveiling, we republish from behind News Limited’s paywall, the following a worthwhile interview with veteran US diplomat Martin Indyk.

Related: Throwing Abbas under the bus; and on a lighter note, Bob Dylan’s 116th Dream – a Jerusalem Reverie.

Also, in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany

Trump’s deal of the century engineered for failure: Indyk

Cameron Stewart, The Weekend Australian, 14th September 2019

People walk past an Israeli election billboard for the Likud party showing Donald Trump shaking hands with Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption in Hebrew reading ‘Netanyahu, in another league’. Picture: AFP

Bibi and his bestie. Israeli election billboard captioned ‘Netanyahu, in another league’

Martin Indyk’s phone won’t stop ringing in his office at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. US President Donald Trump has just sacked his third national security adviser, John Bolton, while in Israel a few hours earlier Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex a large chunk of the West Bank if he wins next week’s general election.

These events mean that Indyk, the Australian-educated two-time US ambassador to Israel and former National Security Council member in Bill Clinton’s White House, is in high demand for comment from the US media.

“The departure of Bolton suggests that President Trump is going to be his own foreign policy adviser,” he tells The New York Times in a quote that will appear on the front page the next day.

Right now Indyk is watching a confluence of events that will help determine the future of US policy in the Middle East with ramifications for allies such as Australia. On Tuesday Israel goes to the polls in an election that could end the era of Netanyahu, its longest serving prime minister, or extend his reign and reshape Israel’s footprint in the occupied territories. Soon after that election, perhaps even within days, Trump says he will release his long-awaited Middle East peace plan, which he has dubbed “the deal of the century”.

At the same time, the Trump White House is struggling to deal with a more assertive and aggressive Iran as it stares down the US in protest against crippling sanctions imposed on it by Washington.

Trump’s decision to sack Bolton reflected growing differences on a range of issues including Iran, where Bolton unsuccessfully tried to push Trump to launch a military strike over its recent downing of a US drone. Indyk says Bolton’s overly hawkish views on Iran have helped lead Trump down the wrong road on dealing with Tehran. More broadly, he says Trump’s overall policy approach to the Middle East has been poorly advised and badly executed.

“When it comes to the Middle East, Trump is effectively subcontracting to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and that can’t work, it isn’t working,” he tells Inquirer. “It doesn’t work for the peace process, as we can see, and it hasn’t worked for Arab-Israeli relations. These things, I think, are a real setback for American interests.”

Indyk, who was the US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014, says there is “zero chance” the Trump White House will produce a plan that will revive the stalled peace process.

“One leading indicator of the expectations for this plan is that Jason Greenblatt, who is Trump’s envoy for the negotiations, has resigned before the plan has come out,” he says. “If he expected that this plan would lead to negotiations he would not be resigning.”

Indyk expects the administration’s plan, which is said to be 60 pages long, will take the form of a vague “vision” for the region rather than a document that can work towards solutions.

“In terms of process, I don’t see how a 60-page document can be the basis for negotiation,” he says.

“A two-page document which laid out the basis for the negotiations could, but not 60 pages. In terms of acceptance there is zero chance that the Palestinians will accept it because it will not see their minimum requirements of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.”

Indyk says Trump’s peace plan was effectively dead from the moment the administration moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem.

“The peace process had a design fault from that time on,” says Indyk. “It was engineered for failure because there was no way they were going to get the Palestinians to engage.”

Trump’s strong support for Netanyahu is largely driven by the belief of both leaders that they can help each other to get re-elected, Indyk says. Trump has been a far more pro-Israel president than his predecessor, Barack Obama. He has moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognised Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, sup­ported Netanyahu’s expansionist policies in the occupied territories and adopted a far tougher stance against Iran, including withdrawing from the nuclear deal. Indyk says Netanyahu’s statement this week that he would seize on the historic opportunity given to him by a sympathetic White House to annex nearly a third of the occupied West Bank if he were re-elected would be a generational blow to peace.

“There is no way that Israel can go ahead and annex the Jordan Valley and expect to have peace with the Palestinians. That is critical territory for the Palestinian state, which is the minimum the Palestinians would require to make peace with Israel,” he says. If the Trump administration backs such a move, as Netanyahu claims, it will be “a recipe for continued conflict”.

“If Trump has in mind green-lighting a (partial) annexation of the Jordan Valley then that’s not a peace plan; that’s a plan for peace between the US and Israel, it’s a plan for the right-wing annexationists and it’s a plan for a one-state solution, which is not a solution at all.”

Indyk says Trump’s support for Netanyahu, which has proved divisive with American Jews, is driven more by domestic US politics than by geo-strategic calculations.

“Trump’s peace plan has ­morphed from being a plan to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians to a plan to help get Netanyahu re-elected in return for Netanyahu helping to get Trump re-elected,” he says. “The key here for Trump is the (vote of the) US evangelicals. It’s not the American Jews because the vast majority of American Jews vote Democrat. But the evangelicals care deeply about Israel and appreciate what Trump has done for Israel and appreciate it when Netanyahu says he is the best president Israel has ever had, so that’s a critical part of Trump’s base.”

The Democrats gave Trump “a gift” with controversial anti-Israeli comments made by Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, members of the so-called Squad, Indyk adds.

“That gave Trump the ability to try to paint the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic, and I don’t think anyone really takes it seriously, but he is trying to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and American Jews. I don’t believe he will succeed but that is his purpose. The way he did it most recently by questioning the loyalty of American Jews … saying they should be loyal to Israel is something that is very dangerous and yet Netanyahu did not say a word. So I think it is an informal pact they have reached that he will do what he can do to get Bibi elected and in exchange Bibi will help him.”

Indyk says if the results of the Israel election reflect current polling then Netanyahu’s prospects of forming a working coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset are unlikely. He says in some ways the election will be a referendum on Netanyahu, who faces indictment on corruption charges and has had a larger-than-life presence in Israeli politics for a generation.

“He has dominated the Israeli political scene for more than a decade and he has made this election very much about himself,” he says. “The fact that he is likely to be indicted within a month of the elections also ensures that it’s going to be focused on him.”

On Iran, Indyk says the US has lost the advantage it had in negotiations with Tehran because the White House has overplayed its hand and provoked Iran to step up its aggression. He says the US decision last year to leave the Iran nuclear deal and impose tough economic sanctions on Tehran initially led to a relatively muted response from Iran. “The Iranians were kind of hunkering down in the face of this intense economic pressure from the sanctions hoping to wait Trump out while staying within the nuclear deal hoping to split the Europeans off from Trump,” he says. “So in a sense Trump was winning the game.”

But he says when Trump went a step further by designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorists and further increasing economic pressure, sending Iran’s economy deep into negative territory, he provoked Tehran to become more assertive.

“They decided to show Trump that they could hurt him in every area that mattered to him,” he says. This included attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, attacking Saudi oil infrastructure, threatening US troops in Iraq and a step-by-step flouting of the terms of the nuclear deal.

“It put Trump in a tighter and tighter corner. He had to decide whether he was going to respond by confronting them.”

But Indyk says Trump then made the mistake of blinking in June when he initially ordered a military strike against Iran for the shooting down of a US drone, only to reverse the order several hours later. As a result, Indyk says, Iran is much more confident that Trump will not pursue armed conflict.

“Trump’s advisers, Bolton and (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo, should never have put him up to it, one drone being shot down is not a basis for a strike on Iran,” he says. “Trump doesn’t want a war and they don’t want a war, but they have won this round.”

Australia is correct to stand alongside the US in helping enforce safe passage of oil supplies through the Strait of Hormuz against Iranian attacks, Indyk says. “Australia has always been there in every circumstance when the United States has needed military assistance and I think that one would have to say, looking back over the years, with the exception of Vietnam, I think paying that premium has been basically a worthwhile policy from a strategic point of view.

“And given that Australia, like all America’s allies, are now dealing with a mercurial and unreliable President who has a kneejerk disdain for allies who aren’t pulling their weight in his terms, I think it is probably a prudent thing for Australia to do.”

Indyk, who was born in London to Jewish immigrants from Poland, was reared in Sydney, attending the University of Sydney and then the Australian National University. His brother and their family still live in Australia and he visits them each year. He moved to the US in 1992 and became a US citizen the following year. “But you can’t take the Australian out of the American,” he says. “Australia is still very much in my heart.”

In a glittering CV, Indyk says the best job he has had were his two terms as US ambassador from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2000 to 2001, during a turbulent era in Israel. “It was really difficult and in the end disastrous with (prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the Intifada, but there were also some very high points like the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the Oslo Accords; we did some great things,” he says.

“Being an ambassador on the front lines of American diplomacy at a time when the US was heavily involved in trying to make peace was just an amazing experience and a real privilege.”

Cameron Stewart is an Associate Editor of The Australian and its Washington correspondent.

Martin Indyk

I hear America singing – happy birthday Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. 

America’s national bard set the song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its  promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose” (Song of the Open Road).

From his rural roots on Long Island, where, in youth and early adulthood, he lived and worked as an itinerant schoolteacher and newspaper editor, Walt Whitman would go on to become one of the most influential and significant American poets. He’s viewed today as a modern voice even though he lived two centuries ago, a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”

Whitman scholar Brenda Wineapple has written of how the poet was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties:

”In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self- proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” – Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, ‘I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For  every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.”

Whitman’s reputation as an innovator, she says, is partly based on Whitman’s then-radical use of free verse – poems that are not developed around a rhyming structure. “Every poet that comes along is looking for his new voice, and their own tradition and they look to Whitman to see how he did it”.

Regarding his “American-ness”, author Karen Karbenier asks us “… to approach Whitman and his work not as a hero or a villain but as a mirror. “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes),” announces the narrator of “Song of Myself.” Walt Whitman the man was as conflicted and complex as the country he sought to embody. He may still be regarded as a representative American — but representative of who we have been and continue to be, not just who we claim we are … When examining Whitman’s racial slurs alongside his most egalitarian poetic lines, we should feel discomfort and regret and the need for renewal and change. This complicated and conflicted American also envisioned, described and celebrated a truly democratic society that neither his era nor our own has yet realized. What could America need more right now than a poetic figure whose work spotlights the chaos and division that have long defined what it means to be an American?”

Celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, I republish here one of my favourite Whitman poems, Out of the Cradle Restlessly Rocking.

The poem contained three intertwined motifs: the boy, awakening to nature and himself; the bereaved mockingbird, futilely hopeful and lost in his loneliness; and the sea, it’s waves forever breaking on the shore. It is a bittersweet song, an aria transforming, expanding, transcending into a pantheistic opera. That encompasses the wheel of life: the child, the youth, the lover, the man, the poet awakening – discovering, uncovering, and learning, sensing and seeing and being.

When first published in 1859 (it was included in the 1860 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass), A reviewer called it “unmixed and hopeless drivel” and a disgrace to its publisher.

Such is the lot of the poet …

See also, Walt Whitman – Citizen Poet; and,  in In That Howling Infinite,  The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel” ; and, listen to my musical tribute to Walt Whitman; Valances (early in the morning at break of day)

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.
Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather’d guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.
 
Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.
Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.
And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok’s shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.
He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother.
Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.
 
Low hangs the moon, it rose late,
It is lagging—O I think it is heavy with love, with love.
 
O madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love.
 
O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?
What is that little black thing I see there in the white?
 
Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
 
High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love.
 
Low-hanging moon!
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?
O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!
O moon do not keep her from me any longer.
 
Land! land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look.
 
O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.
 
O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere!
Pierce the woods, the earth,
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.
 
Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the night’s carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols.
 
But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois’d sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.
 
Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you my love, for you.
 
Do not be decoy’d elsewhere,
That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice,
That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray,
Those are the shadows of leaves.
 
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.
 
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!
O throat! O throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night.
 
O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.
The aria sinking,
All else continuing, the stars shining,
The winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing,
With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning,
On the sands of Paumanok’s shore gray and rustling,
The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying,
The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting,
The aria’s meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,
The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy’s soul’s questions sullenly timing, some drown’d secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard.
Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you,
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night,
By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
O give me the clew! (it lurks in the night here somewhere,)
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!
A word then, (for I will conquer it,)
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up—what is it?—I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.

The Bonfire of the Insanities – the biofuel greenwash

Drax!

It sounds like a villain in The Avengers series. 

We first saw it when visiting my niece in Yorkshire a few years back. But we did not know then that this huge, redundant coal-fired power station outside the historic town of Selby had been re-purposed as Britain’s largest biomass plant. But now, it seems, everybody is talking about it. 

Drax has been touted as a pioneer of clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, and is one of villains of the documentary BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?, an excellent but scary film made by North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance about the burning of wood on an industrial scale for energy. It tells the little-known story of the accelerating destruction of forests for fuel, probing the policy loopholes, huge subsidies, and blatant green-washing of the burgeoning biomass power industry.

BURNED describes how the European Union’s desperation to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels kicked off a demand for wood pellets for burning to generate electricity that in turn created an industry. Promising clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, it came for what it called forest waste, and then it came for the forest itself. 

The film exposes a green-wash built on shonky accounting and corporate conjuring, corporate deception and misrepresentation, complicit economists and regulators, and semantic sleight of hand. 

It reveals how an accounting error determined biomass burning to be carbon neutral, whilst a mechanism to prevent counting carbon twice became a rule that carbon wasn’t counted at all. Indeed, it was declared that the burning of biomass was “instant carbon sequestration” whilst emissions exuding from the new-age power stations were actually “biogenic carbon” – green power!

And it exposes the hoodwinking of ordinary folk in economically depressed areas who now suffer the environmental and health consequences of born-again power plants that become, in reality, incinerators. 

PLEASE WATCH THIS IMPORTANT FILM NOW — free-streaming via LinkTV (30-minute concise edition)  HERE 

Coming to a forest near you! 

In Australia and elsewhere, the general public, forest industry nostalgists, conservative politicians, and, even, many environmentalists believe that we are saving forests from destruction by using plantations for jobs and construction timber, when in fact the former are few, supplanted by hi-tech  mechanization, and latter is destined for pulp mills and power plants.

But maybe we are at last wising up.

Since the widespread distribution of BURNED, the true scale of the biofuel greenwash is being given the publicity it needs. The true colours of rebadged, born-again plants like Drax are now revealed for all the world to see. And they are not green! 

The mainstream media is now on the case, as demonstrated by recent pieces in The Australian and The New Yorker. The latter, an informative report reporting on work done by the Dogwood Alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Centre, is republished in full below (But you can read it HERE).

Drax, of course, is held up as public enemy number one.

The Southern Environmental Law Centre reports that the British government, “continues to heavily subsidize biomass electricity generation at the expense of wind and solar. In 2018 alone, Drax Power (which has now converted four of its coal-fired plants to burn biomass) received £789.2 million in U.K. government subsidies under the guise of carbon reductions … These subsidies are being used on an industry that, even under the proclaimed best case scenario, does not reduce carbon emissions in the time-frame necessary for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Instead, the UK and European Union must end all subsidies for biomass electricity generation and reallocate existing biomass subsidies to zero-emitting renewables like wind and solar”.

It gets worse. Like some colonizing power (no pun intended), Drax is extending its reach. The SELC reported recently on a carbon lifecycle analysis for three wood pellet mills located in Louisiana and Mississippi and owned by Drax Biomass, a subsidiary of Drax Power …  The analysis demonstrated  that Drax’s plants rely mostly on whole trees sourced from thinnings from non-industrial pine plantations, with the remaining wood coming from sawmill residues, although there is evidence that Drax is using between 5-20 % hardwoods. Rather than reducing carbon emissions, the analysis showed that burning wood pellets from these mills for electricity in the U.K. increases carbon pollution to the atmosphere for more than 40 years”.

Meanwhile, as I write, back in Europe, a cargo ship is approaching Ireland’s green shores laden with timber from faraway foreign forests to be consumed in re-engineered peat-fired plants as part of a “co-fuel” trial. The Irish environmental organisation An Taisce (pronounced An Taysh) – essentially, the country’s national trust – has sounded a clarion call with respect to shipping what is officially designated “sustainably sourced biomass” (of course it is!) in a diesel-powered vessel halfway across the world from a country that is already facing dire environmental problems – and no, we’re not talking about some impoverished third world nation, but economically, technologically, intellectually and socially well-to-do Australia!

Australians too are now on the case.

In a recent article, environmentalist Francis Pike shone a strong light on Australia’s disingenuous complicity in what is indisputably a global greenwash. She writes: “the fairy-tale that burning wood instead of coal is carbon neutral continues to wreak havoc on the world’s extant forests … For a long time, the falsity of carbon emission accounting for forest bio-energy has been apparently invisible to many policymakers”. But, she continues, “the fairy-tale could soon end, taking with it the myth that the industrial logging of the world’s native forests has been and is now “sustainable”. 

She, like the  Dogwood Alliance, calls out the linguistic contortions and the dubious accounting: “Corporatised state forest agencies and helpful state environmental protection agencies have created industry-friendly definitions, definitions of residue that can accommodate whole logs.  They might be called pulp logs – native forest trees of various “unwanted” species not allowed to grow to maturity”.

And whilst we in northern New South Wales might be alarmed about re-tooled plants like Drax and those in Ireland’s Midlands, Pike reminds us that something wicked this way comes: “ … whole log “residues” can be chipped and transported to power stations or transported and then chipped at the power station, as with New South Wales power stations at Vales Point on the Central Coast and Cape Byron in the north. Native forest biomass burnt with or without coal or something else, props up emission intensive enterprises with its “carbon neutral, renewable energy, subsidy attracting” quality. Or the forest biomass is exported, as pellets, chip or whole trees”. (Activists are already protesting at the Condong plant at Cape Byron).

‘Renewable energy’ at Cape Byron, NSW

Australian forests are now being actively marketed as an export commodity for combustion in Asia, most notably China, and to a lesser extent, Japan – not to mention, of course, Saint Patrick’s Fair Isle. 

Queensland Commodity Exports Pty, Ltd, a subsidiary of wood-chip behemoth Midway, a leading supplier of wood-fibre to the Asian markets, is currently sourcing Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) certified timber (a much-prized but highly suspect ‘green tick of approval’) from northern NSW – including all of Bellingen’s plantation forests, and pulping it on the wharf at Port Brisbane.

So …

BELLINGEN BEWARE — vast areas of our closely surrounding public forests have been reclassified as ‘low quality’ for wood-chip export … the bio-fuel industry will be coming for us next!

As Bob Dylan once sang, “It’s all just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme, babe, that sucks you into feelin’ like this”.

Here is some further the reading on Drax and the Irish trials:

See also in In That Howling Infinite, The Return of the Forest Wars and If You go down to the woods today.

Condong 13/08/2019. David Bradbury

The bonfire of insanity: Woodland shipped 3,800 miles to burn in Drax, emitting more CO2 for a cleaner and greener Britain!

David Rose, The Mail on Sunday, 16th March 2014

On a perfect spring day in the coastal forest of North Carolina I hike along a nature trail – a thread of dry gravel between the pools of the Roanoke river backwaters. A glistening otter dives for lunch just a few feet away.

Majestic trees soar straight and tall, their roots sunk deep in the swampland: maples, sweetgums and several kinds of oak. A pileated woodpecker – the world’s largest species, with a wingspan of almost 2ft – whistles as it flutters across the canopy. There the leaves are starting to bud, 100ft above the ground.  The trees seem to stretch to the horizon: a serene and timeless landscape.

But North Carolina’s ‘bottomland’ forest is being cut down in swathes, and much of it pulped and turned into wood pellets – so Britain can keep its lights on.

The UK is committed by law to a radical shift to renewable energy. By 2020, the proportion of Britain’s electricity generated from ‘renewable’ sources is supposed to almost triple to 30 per cent, with more than a third of that from what is called ‘biomass’.

So our biggest power station, the leviathan Drax plant near Selby in North Yorkshire, is switching from dirty, non-renewable coal. Biomass is far more expensive, but the consumer helps the process by paying subsidies via levies on energy bills.

That’s where North Carolina’s forests come in. They are being reduced to pellets in a gargantuan pulping process at local factories, then shipped across the Atlantic from a purpose-built dock at Chesapeake Port, just across the state line in Virginia.

From the States to Selby

Those pellets are burnt by the billion at Drax. Each year, says Drax’s head of environment, Nigel Burdett, Drax buys more than a million metric tons of pellets from US firm Enviva, around two thirds of its total output. Most of them come not from fast-growing pine, but mixed, deciduous hardwood.

Drax and Enviva insist this practice is ‘sustainable’. But though it is entirely driven by the desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a broad alliance of US and international environmentalists argue it is increasing, not reducing them.

In fact, Burdett admits, Drax’s wood-fuelled furnaces actually produce three per cent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal – and well over twice as much as gas: 870g per megawatt hour (MW/hr) is belched out by wood, compared to just 400g for gas.

Then there’s the extra CO2 produced by manufacturing the pellets and transporting them 3,800 miles. According to Burdett, when all that is taken into account, using biomass for generating power produces 20 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

And meanwhile, say the environmentalists, the forest’s precious wildlife habitat is being placed  in jeopardy.

Drax concedes that ‘when biomass is burned, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere’. Its defence is that trees – unlike coal or gas – are renewable because they can grow again, and that when they do, they will neutralise the carbon in the atmosphere by ‘breathing’ it in – or in technical parlance, ‘sequestering’ it.

So Drax claims that burning wood ‘significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared with coal-fired generation’ – by as much, Burdett says, as 80 per cent.

These claims are questionable.  For one thing, some trees in the ‘bottomland’ woods can take more than 100 years to regrow. But for Drax, this argument has proven beneficial and lucrative.

Only a few years ago, as a coal-only plant, Drax was Europe’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and was often targeted by green activists. Now it boasts of its ‘environmental leadership position’, saying it is the biggest renewable energy plant in the world.

It also gets guaranteed profits  from the Government’s green energy subsidies. Last year, these amounted to £62.5 million, paid by levies on consumers’ bills. This is set to triple by 2016 as Drax increases its biomass capacity.

In the longer term, the Government has decreed that customers will pay £105 per MW/hr for Drax’s biomass electricity – £10 more than for onshore wind energy, and £15 more than for power from the controversial new nuclear plant to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset.  The current ‘normal’ market electricity price is just £50 per MW/hr.

Mr Burdett admitted: ‘Our whole business case is built on subsidy, like the rest of the renewable energy industry. We are simply responding to Government policy.’

Company spokesman Matt Willey added: ‘We’re a power company. We’ve been told to take coal out of the equation. What would you have us do – build a dirty great windfarm?’
Meanwhile, there are other costs, less easily quantifiable.

‘These are some of our most valuable forests,’ said my trail companion, Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Centre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  ‘Your government’s Department  for Energy and Climate Change claims what’s happening is sustainable,  and carbon neutral. But it’s not. What you’re actually doing is wrecking the environment in the name of saving  the planet.

After our hike through the forest, Mr Carter and I drove to a nearby airfield, where we boarded  a plane. From 2,000ft up, the forest spread beneath us. Soon, however, we reached an oblong wedge, an open wound in the landscape. It was a recent ‘clear cut’ where every tree had been removed, leaving only mud, water and a few stumps. Clear cuts are the standard means of harvesting these forests, and this one covered about 35 acres.

Enviva yesterday confirmed that some of its wood was turned into pellets for Drax.

In the next 10 minutes, we flew over at least a dozen such holes in the tree cover. Finally a looming smokestack appeared up ahead: Enviva’s pellet plant at Ahoskie. To one side lay the material that provides the plant’s input: a huge, circular pile of logs: tens of thousands of them, each perhaps 30 or 40ft long. In the middle was a heavy-duty crane. It swivelled round and grabbed bunches of the logs as if they were matchsticks, to feed them into the plant’s machines.  Later, we inspected the plant on the ground. It’s clear that many of the logs are not branches, but trunks: as Carter observed, they displayed the distinctive flaring which swampland trees often have at their base.

Here the story becomes murky. At Drax, Burdett said that in making pellets, Enviva used only ‘thinnings, branches, bentwood .  .  . we are left with the rubbish, the residue from existing forestry operations. It’s a waste or by-products industry.’ He insisted: ‘We don’t actually chop whole trees down.’ But looking at the plant at Ahoskie, Carter said:  I just don’t get this claim that Drax doesn’t use whole trees. Most of what you’re seeing here is whole trees.’

Pressed by The Mail on Sunday, Enviva yesterday admitted it does use whole trees in its pellet process. But according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Woodworth, it only pulps those deemed ‘unsuitable for saw-milling because of small size, disease or other defects’.

Not so green: By using pellets, Drax produce three per cent more carbon dioxide than coal, not including the CO2 produced by manufacturing the pellets and transporting them 3,800 miles

She claimed such trees, no more than 26 inches in diameter, make up a quarter of the wood processed at Ahoskie. Another 35 per cent comes from limbs and the top parts of trunks whose lower sections went to saw mills. To put it another way: 60 per cent of the wood cut by the loggers who supply Enviva is turned into pellets.

The firm, she added, was ‘committed to sustainable forestry… replacing coal with sustainably produced wood pellets reduces lifecycle emissions of carbon dioxide by 74 to 90 per cent.’

How fast do these forests, once cut, really regrow?

Clear-cut wetlands cannot be replanted. They will start to sprout again naturally quite quickly, but according to Clayton Altizer of the North Carolina forest service: ‘For bottomland sites, these types of forests are typically on a 60 to 100-year cycle of growth depending on the soil fertility.’ Other experts say it could easily take more than 100 years.

That means it will be a long time before all the carbon emitted from Drax can be re-absorbed. For decades, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will be higher than it would have been if Drax still burnt only coal.

Drax’s Nigel Burdett yesterday admitted he did not know how long a North Carolina clear-cut bottomland swathe would take to regrow, but insisted this simply doesn’t matter. What counted, he said, was not the areas which had been cut, but the whole region from which the pellets were sourced.

Drax’s website implies unmistakeably that biomass deserves its ‘carbon neutral’ status because the wood cut for pellets regrows. But Mr Burdett said: ‘The rate at which it re-grows is irrelevant. The crucial issue is how much there is across the whole catchment area.’ He said that in North Carolina, as in other southern states, more wood is growing than being cut so the ‘sustainable’ claim is justified.

There is an obvious objection to this: the forests would be growing still faster, and absorbing more CO2, if they weren’t being cut down.

Burdett’s argument gets short shrift from conservationists.

Danna Smith, director of North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance, said the pellet industry increases the pressure to ‘over-harvest’ forests, as landowners know they have a guaranteed market for material which they could not otherwise sell: ‘It adds to the value they get from clear-cutting.’

The pellets are supposedly a step in reducing CO2 emissions, but have, in fact, made it worse

Moreover, she added, if this incentive did not exist, they would wait until the smaller trees were big enough to cut for furniture and construction – and all that time, they would be absorbing carbon.

A recent study showed that bigger, older trees absorb more CO2 than saplings. As for Drax’s claim that what counts is regrowth across the region, ‘that just doesn’t capture what’s happening around the mills where they’re sourcing the wood’.

According to a study by a team  of academics, published in December by Carter’s law centre, Enviva’s operations in North Carolina ‘pose high risks to wildlife and biodiversity, especially birds’.

The Roanoke wetlands are home to several rare or endangered species: the World Wildlife Fund said in a report that the forests constitute ‘some of the most biologically important habitats in North America’ and constitute a ‘critical/endangered resource’.

Meanwhile, in North Yorkshire, the sheer scale of Drax’s biomass operation is hard to take in at first sight. Wood pellets are so much less dense than coal, so Drax has had to commission the world’s biggest freight wagons to move them by rail from the docks at Hull, Immingham and Port of Tyne. Each car is more than 60ft high, and the 25-car trains are half a mile long. On arrival, the pellets are stored in three of the world’s largest domes, each 300ft high – built by lining colossal inflated polyurethane balloons with concrete. Inside one of them, not  yet in use, the echo is impressive. Light filters in through slits in the roof, like a giant version of the Pantheon church in Rome.

To date, only one of Drax’s six turbine ‘units’ has been converted from coal to biomass: another two are set to follow suit in the next two years. Eventually, the firm says, its 3.6 gigawatt capacity – about five per cent of the UK total – will be ‘predominantly’ biomass, burning seven million tons of pellets a year.

From the domes, the pellets are carried along a 30ft-wide conveyor belt into a milling plant where they are ground to powder. This is burnt in the furnaces, blown down into them by deafening industrial fans.

All this has required an investment of £700 million. Thanks to the green subsidies, this will soon be paid off. Even if all Britain’s forests were devoted to Drax, they could not keep its furnaces going. ‘We need areas with lots of wood, a reliable supply chain,’ Mr Burdett said.

As well as Enviva, Drax buys wood from other firms such as Georgia Biomass, which supplies mainly pine. It is building new pellet-making plants in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Last month, the Department of Energy and Climate Change issued new rules on biomass sourcing, and will insist on strict monitoring to ensure there really is ‘sustainability’.

In North Carolina, this will not be easy: as Carter points out, there is very little local regulation. But wouldn’t a much more effective and cheaper way of cutting emissions be to shut down Drax altogether, and replace it with clean new gas plants – which need no subsidy at all?

Mr Burdett said: ‘We develop  our business plan in light of what the Government wants – not what might be nice.’

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2581887/The-bonfire-insanity-Woodland-shipped-3-800-miles-burned-Drax-power-station-It-belches-CO2-coal-huge-cost-YOU-pay-cleaner-greener-Britain.html

Don’t Burn Trees to Fight Climate Change—Let Them Grow

Bill McKibben, The New Yorker, 15th August 2019

Countries and public utilities are trying to reduce carbon emissions by burning wood pellets instead of coal, but recent studies have shown that the practice will have disastrous effects.Photograph by Anna Gowthorpe / PA Wire / AP

Of all the solutions to climate change, ones that involve trees make people the happiest. Earlier this year, when a Swiss study announced that planting 1.2 trillion trees might cancel out a decade’s worth of carbon emissions, people swooned (at least on Twitter). And last month, when Ethiopian officials announced that twenty-three million of their citizens had planted three hundred and fifty million trees in a single day, the swooning intensified. Someone tweeted, “This should be like the ice bucket challenge thing.”

So it may surprise you to learn that, at the moment, the main way in which the world employs trees to fight climate change is by cutting them down and burning them. 

Across much of Europe, countries and utilities are meeting their carbon-reduction targets by importing wood pellets from the southeastern United States and burning them in place of coal: giant ships keep up a steady flow of wood across the Atlantic. 

“Biomass makes up fifty per cent of the renewables mix in the E.U.,” Rita Frost, a campaigner for the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville, North Carolina, told me. 

And the practice could be on the rise in the United States, where new renewable-energy targets proposed by some Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as by the E.P.A., treat “biomass”—fuels derived from plants—as “carbon-neutral,” much to the pleasure of the forestry industry. “Big logging groups are up on Capitol Hill working hard,” Alexandra Wisner, the associate director of the Rachel Carson Council, told me, when I spoke with her recently.

The story of how this happened begins with good intentions. As concern about climate change rose during the nineteen-nineties, back when solar power, for instance, cost ten times what it does now, people casting about for alternatives to fossil fuels looked to trees. 

Trees, of course, are carbon—when you burn them you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the logic went like this: if you cut down a tree, another will grow in its place. And, as that tree grows, it will suck up carbon from the atmosphere—so, in carbon terms, it should be a wash. 

In 2009, Middlebury College, where I teach, was lauded for replacing its oil-fired boilers with a small biomass plant; I remember how proud the students who first presented the idea to the board of trustees were.

William R. Moomaw, a climate and policy scientist who has published some of the most recent papers on the carbon cycle of forests, told me about the impact of biomass, saying, “back in those days, I thought it could be considered carbon neutral. But I hadn’t done the math. I hadn’t done the physics.” 

Once scientists did that work, they fairly quickly figured out the problem. Burning wood to generate electricity expels a big puff of carbon into the atmosphere now. Eventually, if the forest regrows, that carbon will be sucked back up. 

But eventually will be too long—as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear last fall, we’re going to break the back of the climate system in the next few decades. For all intents and purposes, in the short term, wood is just another fossil fuel, and in climate terms the short term is mostly what matters.

As an M.I.T. study put it last year, while the regrowth of forests, if it happens, can eventually repay the carbon debt created by the burning of wood pellets, that payback time ranges from forty-four years to a hundred and four in forests in the eastern U.S., and, in the meantime, the carbon you’ve emitted can produce “potentially irreversible impacts that may arise before the long-run benefits are realized.”

As the scientific research on this carbon debt emerged, in the past decade, at least a few of us in the environmental movement started voicing opposition to burning trees. The most effective leadership has come from the Southeast, where community activists have pointed out that logging rates are now the highest in the world, and that rural communities—often communities of color—are being disrupted by endless lines of logging trucks and by air pollution from plants where trees are turned into easy-to-ship pellets. 

Earlier this year, a proposal to build the largest pellet mill in the world, in Lucedale, Mississippi, drew opposition from a coalition that included the N.A.A.C.P. and which predicted that the plant would have a “disastrous effect on the people, wildlife, and climate.”

But Mississippi environmental officials approved an air permit for the plant, which would employ ninety full-time workers, and so far European officials have also turned a deaf ear to the opposition: new E.U. regulations will keep treating the cutting down of trees as carbon neutral at least through 2030, meaning that utilities can burn wood in their old plants and receive massive subsidies for theoretically reducing their emissions. The Drax power plant, in the North of England, which burns more wood than any power plant on Earth, gets 2.2 million dollars a day in subsidies. 

But a new study, commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center and released on Monday, makes clear that, even under the most conservative estimates, Drax’s burning of wood pellets that it imports from the American South will “increase carbon pollution in the atmosphere for more than forty years, well beyond the time-frame identified by the IPCC as critical for carbon reduction.” 

Biomass fuel at Drax Selby. Anna Gowthorpe / PA Wire / AP

European subsidies treat power plants that burn wood as the equivalent of, say, solar panels, despite the fact that, under even the most generous scenarios, they emit at least ten times as much carbon, when factoring in the energy that it takes to make the panels. “They’re looking for ways to shift their infrastructure without drastically overhauling it,” Bob Musil, a veteran-environmentalist who now runs the Rachel Carson Council, said. “Ways that don’t cause shifts in culture.” 

It’s remarkably similar to what happened in the United States with fracking: political leaders, including some in the Obama Administration, decided that the least-fuss way to replace coal would be with natural gas, only to learn that, as new science emerged, they had in fact replaced carbon emissions with leaking methane, which was making the climate crisis worse.

In this case, the greenwashing is particularly misleading, because burning trees defies the carbon math in another way, too: once they have been cut down, the trees won’t be there to soak up the carbon. “The Southeast U.S. is falsely seen as a sustainable source of wood,” Danna Smith, the executive director of the Dogwood Alliance, told me, because when the trees are cut down they can regrow—unlike, say, in the Amazon, where thin soils usually mean that when trees are cut down the land becomes pasture. She added, “But these forests are vital carbon sinks.”

In fact, the newest research shows just what folly biomass burning really is. 

This summer, William Moomaw was the co-author of a paper that tracked carbon accumulation in trees. Planting all those trees in Ethiopia definitely helps pull carbon from the air, but not as much as letting existing trees keep growing would. Unlike human beings, who gain most of their height in their early years, Moomaw explained to me, “trees grow more rapidly in their middle period, and that extends far longer than most people realize.” 

A stand of white pines, for instance, will take up twenty-two tons of carbon by its fiftieth year, which is about when it would get cut down to make pellets. “But, if you let it grow another fifty years, it adds twenty-five tons,” he said. “And in the next fifty years it adds 28.5 tons. It would be a mistake to cut them down when they’re forty and make plywood. It’s really foolish to cut them down when they’re forty and burn them, especially now that we’ve got cheap solar.” He calls letting trees stand and accumulate carbon “proforestation” – as opposed to reforestation.

Bill McKibben, a former New Yorker staff writer, is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College. His latest book is “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?Read more »

Messing with the Mullahs – America’s phoney war?

“The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment.  It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.  There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms”. Statement from the White House Press Secretary 1st July 2019

The White House has not subsequently explained how a country can violate the terms of a deal before that deal existed. But, as New York Times commentator Roger Cohen wrote recently, ”President Donald Trump has been all over the place on Iran, which is what happens when you take a serious subject, treat it with farcical superficiality, believe braggadocio will sway a proud and ancient civilisation, approach foreign policy like a real-estate deal, defer to advisers with Iran Derangement Syndrome, refuse to read any briefing papers and confuse the American national interest with the Saudi or Israeli”.

There is transparent angst and disappointment among many in the US Administration that that Iran’s Islamic Republic has endured for forty years with no sign of collapse (there are parallel palpitations and peregrinations with regard to Cuba and more recently, to Venezuela). Iran ‘hawk’ John Bolton might declare that the Islamic Republic would not celebrate its fortieth anniversary the Iranian Revolution. But the anniversary is upon us already. Iran is not going anywhere else soon.

Presently, it would appear that the administration is backpedaling on its bellicose rhetoric as it responds to Congress’ concerns about what is perceived as a lack of a unified US strategy. The dispatch of an American battle fleet to the Persian Gulf in response to unexplained and indeterminate Iranian threats and provocations has now been re-framed as having successfully deterred Iran’s hardliners from miscellaneous mischiefs and miscalculations. And yet, others in the US and elsewhere are attributing such follies to the US itself?

By ironic synchronicity, I am rereading historian Barbara W Tuchman’s acclaimed The March of Folly – From Troy to Vietnam. Her opening sentence reads: ‘A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than most any other human activity’. Her many definitions of folly include dangerous delusions of grandeur and “and obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals”. History has shown us – I refrain from saying “taught us” because we rarely learn from history – the consequences of single-minded determination amounting to a tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity. Charging ahead regardless only works for those who are stronger than all obstacles. Only those holding all the trump cards can ignore the other players at the table. With the US ratchetting up the pressure on Iran, the law of unintended consequences is in play with many observers perceiving the American leadership as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

In recent moves that recall the US’ lurch into Iraq sixteen years ago on the basis of nonexistent – or at the least very well hidden – weapons of mass destruction, war drums are beating across the Potomac as Iran hawks boost the potential for war with the Islamic Republic. Curiously identical damage to Saudi and Emiratis vessels in the strategically important Persian Gulf point to Iranian sabotage. rather than signally Iran’s provocative intent, it looks more like a clumsy false-flag frolic by the geniuses who gave us thrillers like “how to murder a dissident journalist in plain sight”, “let’s bomb one of the poorest countries on earth back into the Stone Age”.

This can be set against a historical record that the US has not initiated a major war – that is one with congressional approval – without a false flag since the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour in 1898, thus taking the US into a war with Spain that resulted in the colonization the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This includes the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident 1964 escalated an ongoing “skirmish” in Vietnam into an all-out conflict, and those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that arguably brought us to where we are now.

Most folk who are into history like to draw parallels and identify patterns in the past that reflect upon the present. As I do also, albeit in a more ambivalent way. Cleaving to Mark (Twain, that is) rather than Marx, I am fascinated more by the rhymes than the repetitions. But “remembering’, as Taylor Swift sings. “comes in flashbacks and echoes”. Over to Bob Dylan:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again

The story of the Iranian Revolution is a complex, multidimensional one, and it is difficult for its events and essence to be compressed into brief opinion pieces of any political flavour, no matter how even-handed they endeavour to be.

The revolution began slowly in late 1977 when demonstrations against Shah Reza Pahlevi, developed into a campaign of civil resistance by both secular and religious groups. These intensified through 1978, culminating In strikes and demonstrations that paralyzed the country. Millennia of monarchy in Iran ended in January 1979 when the Shah and his family fled into exile. By April, exiled cleric and  longtime dissident Ayatollah Khomeini returned home to a rapturous welcome. Activist fighters and rebel soldiers overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah, and Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic republic on April 1st 1979. A new constitution saw Khomeini became Supreme Leader in December 1979.

The success and continuing durability of the Iranian Revolution derived from many sources, and many are not touched upon by commentators and pundits. Here are some of my own thoughts on disparate but intrinsic parts of the Islamic Republic’s story.

One can’t ignore the nature of the monarchy that preceded it – modernist on the one hand, and brutally repressive on the other; nor the unwavering and hypocritical support (including infrastructure, weapons, and intelligence) provided to it by western “democracies” since Britain and the US placed Reza Shah Pahlevi on the throne in 1953. And nor should we ignore the nature of the unprecedented regime and state that was established forty years ago – a brutal, theocratic, patriarchal, quasi-totalitarian system that endeavours to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives, its rule enforced by loyal militias like the ruthless Basij and by the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex more powerful than the regular army.

The support and succour that the US gave to the deposed Shah and his family and entourage, and later, to the opponents of the revolution, served to unite the population around a dogmatic, cruel and vengeful regime, which, in the manner of revolutions past and present, “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike. One of the ironies of the early days of the revolution was its heterodox complexion – a loose and unstable alliance between factions of the left, right and divine. History is replete with examples of how a revolution besieged within and without by enemies actual and imagined mobilizes it people for its support, strength and survival. Recall France after 1789 and Russian after 1917.  The outcome in both was foreign intervention and years of war and repression.

I fought in the old revolution 
on the side of the ghost and the King. 
Of course I was very young 
and I thought that we were winning; 
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing 
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen

Too often, in modern times, the US administration of the day has been called upon by a new and potentially radical regime to take sides, and indeed, to accept a tentative hand of friendship. And too often, for reasons political, ideological, economic, religious even, the US has made what historians of all colours would deduce was the wrong call – with disastrous consequences for the  newly freed nation and, with perfect if partisan hindsight, the world. Think Vietnam, Egypt and Cuba. In each, there was a pivotal moment when the US could have given its support to the new rulers and potentially changed the course of the revolution, and the freshly “liberated” people, and our world, might have been better off for it. And, so it was in 1979, with Iran.

The US’ steadfast support for the Shah during his reign, and its enmity towards Iran’s new rulers, predictably reciprocated by the mullahs and their zealous supporters, created “the Great Satan”, a symbolism sustained by the reality that many in US political circles actively sought to undermine and destroy the revolution (and still do, championing the late Shah’s son as their annointed one.

Time and folly have not softened the fear and the fervour.

Here are but a selection from a sorry catalogue: the long-running embassy hostage drama, and failed and ignominious rescue attempts; the subsequent and continuing economic sanctions; the moral and material support provided to Saddam Hussein during the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which cost the lives of over half a million soldiers on both sides; the years of wrestling and wrangling, politicking and posturing over Iran’s quest for a nuclear deterrent against perceived US aggression, and the western powers’ push-back; the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond through proxies and patronage, subterfuge and subversion – often through those latter day sell-swords the Revolutionary Guards – a form of what strategic analysts now call “offshore balancing”, or, simply put, fighting your foes outside rather than within your own borders; and today’s quixotic tango in which a false move or miscalculation could have catastrophic consequences.

There have been moments of what reasonable folk might perceive as farce, such as when in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, sparking violence and protests around the world. Or as tragedy, as in July 1988, when the USS Vincennes blew Iranian Flight 655 out of the sky above the Persian Gulf, killing 290 men, women and children. The ship’s captain was exonerated.

In February 2019, a Middle East Security Conference was convened in Warsaw by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought together sixty countries, including Arab states and Israel, ostensible to discuss a range of issues, including Syria and Palestine, but in reality, it was always about Iran. The Warsaw gathering was a strange beast – its very title was a misnomer, Vice President Pence making it quite clear Iran was the ‘greatest threat’ to peace and stability in Middle East that it’s transgressions be punished. He even implied that it was God’s will.

The conference was most notable for who wasn’t there – Russia, Turkey, China, and the EU leaders British, France and Germany, all of whom are opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. It is indicative of the US’ isolation with regard to Iran, and its inability to call the shots in a Middle East where Russian, Turkey and Iran hold all the cards. Pence and Pompeo meanwhile talk about regime change and democracy in Iran but ignore what is going on in the US’ lacklustre autocratic allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – this and international reaction to the US’ alleged complicity a slow-motion, as yet unresolved and unconsummated “coup” in Venezuela only serve to remind the world of Uncle Sam’s not altogether successful track-record of hypocrisy and hubris, interference and inconsistency.

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had initially tweeted that the conference was convened to discuss what he called the “war with Iran”. Although he amended his tweet soon afterwards, he was not exaggerating. There is indeed a war between Iran on one hand and Israel and the Gulf monarchies on the other with other countries lending their support to one side or the other. America and its Middle East allies have been at war with Iran for forty years, and Iran has reciprocated.

It is said, not without reason, that Iran has long been preparing for a war with the US, and that the US has psyched itself into a martial mindset that justifies Iranian fears. If push did indeed come to shove and the present cold war turned hot, Iran might appear to be at a disadvantage. Compared to the US, its forces are poorly equipped and lacking in battle experience, although they are indeed well-provided for by the sanctions-hit regime, whilst the Revolutionary Guard’s Al Quds brigade has been given real battlefield experience in Syria and Iraq’s civil wars. They would however be defending their homeland, which for Iranians is holy ground regardless of who rules it.

The American people are weary and wary of foreign military commitments, and doubtless confused by the administration’s mix of pullback and push-back. For all it’s manpower and materiel, it’s experience and equipage, after its problematic excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US armed forces cannot be said to be a uniformly committed, effective and high-morale fighting force. It would be dependent on allies of dubious intent and ability, and on free-booting contractors and mercenaries like Erik Prince’s hired guns and sell-swords.

As the Warsaw talk fest demonstrated, the US would have to act very much on its own against Iran, with Israel being its only potential partner of any value. And yet, even Israel appears to be reticent, having of late toned down its bellicose rhetoric.

Despite Bibi’s bark and bluster, Israel does not want anyone to go to war with Iran, and it does not want to be blamed if a conflict does erupt. Nothing focuses the mind more than the thought of thousands of Hezbollah’s Iranian-sourced precision missiles raining down on the Galilee. The Gulf states are tin-pot tyrants with meagre military skill and no desire to throw away their toys when the US (and Israel?) will do the fighting for them. Russia, Turkey, and, potentially, China, would be implacably opposed and would indeed run interference, and provide diplomatic, economic, military and logistical support.

Iran itself is not without the ability and the means to set up a multitude of diversions and distractions, whether it is playing with the US administration’s head, as it has been for forum decades, encouraging Hezbollah and Bashar Assad to make mischief on Israel’s northern border and the Golan, inciting its Palestinian pawn Islamic Jihad in Gaze, providing Yemen’s Houthis with the means to better target Saudi cities, or, perhaps counter-productively, initiating espionage and terrorist incidents on the US mainland and in Western Europe.

The US may opt for measures short of a “hot” war, as it doing right now with limited success, but the hawks are circling over Washington DC and may have the President’s feckless and fickle ear – and, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.


Here are some recent articles on the latest Iran-US  tango:

For more on the Middle East in in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany 

Bob Dylan’s 116th Dream – a Jerusalem reverie

The Kushner Peace Plan, the long awaited solution to the seventy year old – no, century old – conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is, so we are informed via leaks and leading articles (see those at the end of this post), is about to finally be plonked down on the rickety and sloping negotiating table.

What President Trump has dubbed “the deal of the century” – presumably the now twenty years gone by 21st Century – has been developed, with varying degrees of involvement and disdain from both Israel and the the Palestinians, and from several significant others, including the US’ exclusively autocratic and repressive Arab allies. But the primary architects have been presidential adviser Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

Whether this bird can fly is a subject for much current discussion and conjecture in mainstream and left of mainstream media; and we really can’t predict what will happen at this point in time.

But, if indeed we did need a person with Jewish genes to nudge the Israelis and the Arabs to realize peace in the Holy Land, then maybe Trump should have dispatched the Bobster to the Middle East instead of his ingenue and arguably disingenuous businessman son-in-law Jared Kushner and JK’s highly partisan, blinkered and thus discredited amigos.

You gotta serve somebody

Bob Dylan once sang “… there’s no success like failure, and failure is no success at all”. He also crooned: “it ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there”. And to complete a trifecta of wisdom: “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

He has even worked out the Palestinians cannot be pushed to the negotiating table by the US and it’s corrupt, brutal Arab allies: “So many roads, so much at stake. So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake. Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity”.

And few could match Bob’s credentials for the gig. How’s this for resumé:

“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains. I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways. I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests. I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans. I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”.

And what will you do now, Mr Dylan?

“I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest where the people are many and their hands are all empty, where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters, where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden, where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten, where black is the color, where none is the number”.

And then?

“… I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it, and reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it. And I’ll stand on on the water until I start sinkin’, but I’ll know my song well before I start singin’”.

And so, there’s Bob “flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight, flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight, an’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night”.

He’s “tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake, tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake … tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail, for the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale, an’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail”.

And yes, “he’s tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed, for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse, an’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe” …

But the question remains, will Palestinian youth, wild at heart and wired to the world, be “wishin’ and hopin’, and thinkin’ and prayin’”, to quote another zeitgeist philosopher, that one day they’ll be able to “gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing”.

And will Israelis, with their weapons, walls and wire, their soldier boys and girls, and two millenia of yearning for for a place of greater safety, no longer be “condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting”.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind ….

See also, in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany  

Some FaceBook background

I’m finding The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Bel Trew’s reportst very worthwhile and insightful, alongside those of her colleagues Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn. Here is Bel’s take on the long awaited Kushner “Plan”, so succinctly encapsulated by Fisk himself:

‘How many times can you fit a South Sea Bubble into a Bermuda Triangle?’

He continued, in fine form:

“Trump’s fey and vain son-in-law, a supporter of Israel’s colonial expansion on Arab land, set off with Trump’s “special representative to the peace process” Jason Greenblatt (who says “West Bank settlements are not an obstacle to peace”) to work out the economic underpinning of Trump’s “deal of the century” …

… Kushner recently went to visit some Muslim killer-states, some of them with very nasty and tyrannical leaders – Saudi Arabia and Turkey among them – to chat about the “economic dimension” of this mythical deal. Middle East leaders may be murderers with lots of torturers to help them stay in power, but they are not entirely stupid. It’s clear that Kushner and Greenblatt need lots and lots of cash to prop up their plans for the final destruction of Palestinian statehood – we are talking in billions – and the Arab leaders they met did not hear anything about the political “dimension” of Trump’s “deal”. Because presumably there isn’t one …

… This very vagueness is amazing, because the Kushner-Greenblatt fandango was in fact a very historic event. It was unprecedented as well as bizarre, unequalled in recent Arab history for its temerity as well as its outrageous assumption … this was the first time in modern Arab history – indeed modern Muslim history – that America has constructed and prepared a bribe BEFORE the acquiescence of those who are supposed to take the money; before actually telling the Palestinians and other Arabs what they are supposed to do in order to get their hands on the loot”.

Read Bel Trew’s article here; and Robert Fisk’s, here.

 

The agony of Julian Assange

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
That fellow’s got to swing’.
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
 
A nice dilemma we have here that calls for all our wit
Gilbert and Sullivan, Trial by Jury

The Road to Belmarsh Gaol

Julian Assange, the Australian co-founder of online media organization WikiLeaks is in deep shit. He’s pissed off the Yanks, frustrated the Poms, and angered his Ecuadorian hosts, and now the Swedes want to have another bash …

He was arrested on April 11th by British police at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been claiming political asylum for almost seven years having lost a final appeal against his extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. He was then charged with failing to surrender to the court.

While in the embassy, Assange could not be arrested because of the international legal protection of diplomatic premises, which meant police could not enter without Ecuador’s consent. On April 11, British police were invited into the embassy and made the arrest. On the same day, Assange was found guilty on that charge of failing to surrender, sentenced to fifty weeks for jumping bail. and is serving his time at HM Prison Belmarsh.

On April 11, the United States government unsealed an indictment made in March 2018 charging Julian Assange with a conspiracy to help whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, former soldier and pardoned felon to crack a password which enabled her to pass on classified documents that were then published by WikiLeaks – in effect, conspiracy to hack US computer systems, a charge which carries a maximum five year sentence. The US has requested that the UK extradite Assange to face these charges before a US court. Assange has now been indicted on seventeen charges under the espionage act, which if proven, could mean life imprisonment. There is no guarantee that once he enters the the legal system he will ever re-emerge.

In 2010, a Swedish prosecutor requested Assange’s transfer to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, which he denies. Whilst appealing a British High Court decision to extradite him, he spent eighteen months under house arrest at the home of a supporter (in effect, he has been incarcerated for almost a decade). In 2016, Assange was questioned by Swedish authorities by video link while he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2017, they closed the case against him, but after his arrest, the lawyer for one of the Swedish complainants indicated she’d ask the prosecutor to reopen the case. Sweden’s Prosecution Authority reviewed the case and renewed its request for extradition; but in November 2019, it dropped the matter citing a lack of substantive evidence.

But the British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has signed off on the US’ extradition request. It must now go through the British courts. The process could take years, well beyond Assange’s initial   fifty weeks incarceration, the court’s refusal to free him when it had expired – on the grounds that he was a flight risk (he has form, after all) – and the formal expedition hearing which open in February 2020.

Stay angry, get even

The current US administration cleaves to the maxim “stay angry and get even” – Uncle Sam neither forgets nor forgives. Just wait and see what happens if it can get its hands on exiled hacker and   Now Russian resident Edward Snowden. The British Government, relieved to have restored a corner of Knightsbridge to its sovereignty, and currently knee deep in the Brexit “Big Muddy”, probably won’t lift a finger to help him even though by any standard of much-vaunted British ‘fair play’, his self-imposed punishment hardly fits his alleged crimes, an by any liberal and democratic benchmark, he’s certainly served his time. Former Aussie prime minister Kevin Rudd has declared that  Julian Assange would pay an “unacceptable” and “disproportionate” price if he is extradited to the United States, that no actual harm to individuals has been demonstrated, whilst the WikiLeaks founder should not take the fall for Washington’s failures to secure its own classified documents.

Our leaders here in Australia, lost in our own short-term political preoccupations bleat from the distant sidelines that it’s not our problem – which politically and diplomatically speaking, it isn’t, other than the fact that he is an Australian citizen (albeit a longtime absentee) and therefore warrants consular assistance. Simplistically put, there are no votes in it.

Will our government now help him out? Demand his return to Australia? Oppose the calls from the US to extradite him from the UK?

Our tepid and tardy response to the detention in Thailand of footballer Hakeem al-Araibi on a dodgey Bahraini extradition order and the asylum plea of Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammad – ironically, again from Thailand – does not auger well for a resolute and reasonable response. The way we left erstwhile al Qaida fellow-travelers David Hicks and Mamduh Habib to rot in Gitmo, and the  lack of enthusiasm with which we took up journalist Peter Greste’s case in Egypt – his family and journalists worldwide maintained the struggle for his release – suggest that after what we call “diplomatic representations” (what ordinary folk call “going through the motions”), we will face political realities and bend to the US’ will.

Caught up between our subservient relationship with the US, our slavish pandering to economic and strategic interests, placing these above considerations of human rights, and our government’s susceptibility to the malign influence of shock-jocks and populist politicians, Australia’s official behaviour in such cases is often predictably and reflexively disingenuous.

Nowadays, most governments are desperate to stop leaks, data dumps, whistle-blowers and uncomfortable revelations. Democratic governments have attempted to use ostensibly benign legal and security powers to restrict media oversight and criticism. Witness here in Australian how the Victorian Director of Prosecutions is seeking to put thirty-six media outlets, editors and journalists on trial over allegations that they breached a suppression order in reports published after the prominent and well-connected Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child sex abuse charges. The powerful look after their own.

Less squeamish, more thuggish autocratic regimes have few qualms about consigning journalists and editors to jail and worse whilst their western allies and armourers ‘see no, hear no, speak no evil’. Narrow, national interests as ever trump (an apposite word, indeed) human rights. Witness the hundreds of Egyptian and Turkish journalists jailed without trial, the harassment and even killing of reporters in Eastern Europe and Russia, and, of course, the gruesome murder of Saudi scribbler and stirrer Jamal Khashoggi.

The US, the land of the free and the First Amendment has truly shown its hand, and its true colours, proving that Assange’s fears of extradition were quite justified. The UK, meanwhile, has long ached to nail him for contempt of its bail laws, and just plain contempt, really – and a seriously extravagant waste of already straitened police resources. When Assange had worn out his Ecuadorian welcome, lubricated, it is alleged (by WikiLeaks), a $4.2 billion IMF bailout plus another $6 billion from other financial institutions, the Met was ready to roll. Meanwhile, Australia’s political class, having long regarded his Australian nationality as an embarrassing inconvenience, just hoped that we could be left out of it all.

Rally ‘round the fall guy

The media, mainstream, extreme, any stream really, including social media and sundry supporters and detractors, are rushing to both praise Assange and to bury him. They defend and demonstrate, denounce and demean. So Julian Assange, simultaneously icon and bête noir, is the ideal fall-guy “pour decourager les autres”: for everyone on the left and the right who dig him, there’s another who can’t stand him for reasons political, personal, or perverse.

There’s the role he played in the demise of Hilary Clinton and election of Donald Trump, as if, some believe, he was hoping for some kind of “get out of jail free” card from a Trump administration. There’s his hanging out, in a confined space, with the likes of UKIP’s irritating and arguably obnoxious Nigel Farage. All this has forever tarnished his reputation as a warrior of the left. There’s those problematical charges in Sweden that we now learn have never gone away.

During the Australian Federal election before last, the party running his senate bid in absentia gave its preferences to right-wing libertarian nut-jobs ahead of Labor and the Greens, his erstwhile natural allies – and then put it all down to clerical error.

Sadly, stories about his tantrums, visits by Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga and onetime Baywatch hottie Pamela Anderson (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!) and neglecting to clean up after his cat – lurid tales of his hygiene habits appear have been concocted to dehumanize him in tabloid tittle-tat – have rendered him an object of ridicule. And the images of him being dragged out of the embassy, pale and blinking in the unforgiving daylight, grey-haired, bearded, wide-eyed and disheveled, like some mad old street person, have engendered pathos and pity.

There can be little doubt that his mental and physical health deteriorated during his confinement. For sure he is not the confident man who entered the embassy so many years ago; but the law doesn’t recognise this – it demands a reckoning. And many love to kick a man when he’s down.

In the end, Assange was in so many ways his own worst enemy. It is hypothesized that he could’ve surrendered to the Brits long time passing and took his chances at law instead of hiding, a much diminished figure, in the embassy of a small Latin American republic. The sad irony is that if he’d faced the music all those years ago, he might’ve been a free man by now, either having done his time or been exonerated, or else, a credible and respected political prisoner supported worldwide as a champion of press freedom and free speech.

Lights in dark corners

Amidst all the commentary and partisanship swirling about the Assange’s unfortunate circumstances, there has been remarkably little explanation of what he, Manning, WikiLeaks and Snowden have actually done in a substantive security sense. Robert Fisk and his colleague at The Independent, Patrick Cockburn, address just that.
Fisk wrote on 31st May:  “ … the last few days have convinced me that there is something far more obvious about the incarceration of Assange and the re-jailing of Manning. And it has nothing to do with betrayal or treachery or any supposed catastrophic damage to our security”.
Cockburn succinctly belled the cat with on the same day: “ … the real purpose of state secrecy is to enable governments to establish their own self-interested and often mendacious version of the truth by the careful selection of “facts” to be passed on to the public. They feel enraged by any revelation of what they really know, or by any alternative source of information. Such threats to their control of the news agenda must be suppressed where possible and, where not, those responsible must be pursued and punished.”
Fisk continues: “The worst of this material was secret not because it accidentally slipped into a military administration file marked “confidential” or “for your eyes only”, but because it represented the cover-up of state crime on a massive scale. Those responsible for these atrocities should now be on trial, extradited from wherever they are hiding and imprisoned for their crimes against humanity. But no, we are going to punish the leakers – however pathetic we may regard their motives … Far better we hunt down other truths, equally frightening for authority. Why not find out, for example, what Mike Pompeo said in private to Mohammed bin Salman? What toxic promises Donald Trump may have made to Netanyahu? What relations the US still secretly maintains with Iran, why it has even kept up important contact – desultory, silently and covertly – with elements of the Syrian regime?
Assange was not, in Fisk’s opinion an investigative journalist; he is nevertheless, a scapegoat, and also a salutary warning for all who shine a light into the dark corners of power: “… what we find out through the old conventional journalism of foot-slogging, of history via deep throats or trusted contacts, is going to reveal – if we do our job – just the same vile mendacity of our masters that has led to the clamour of hatred towards Assange and Manning and, indeed, Edward Snowden. We’re not going to be arraigned because the prosecution of these three set a dangerous legal precedent. But we’ll be persecuted for the same reasons: because what we shall disclose will inevitably prove that our governments and those of our allies commit war crimes; and those responsible for these iniquities will try to make us pay for such indiscretion with a life behind bars. Shame and the fear of accountability for what has been done by our “security” authorities, not the law-breaking of leakers, is what this is all about”.

Back to Cockburn who writes that one reason Assange was being persecuted was for WikiLeaks’ revelations about US policy in Yemen: “Revealing important information about the Yemen war – in which at least 70,000 people have been killed – is the reason why the US government is persecuting both Assange and Yemeni journalist Maas al Zikry … (who) says that “one of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in that tragic condition it has reached today is the US administration’s mass punishment of Yemen”. This is demonstrably true, but doubtless somebody in Washington considers it a secret.”

A nice dilemma

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange has done the world many favours. They’ve exposed war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; they’ve shine an unwelcome light on wrongdoing, shabby deals, and hypocritical, incriminating and ofttimes embarrassing goings-on in the corridors of power and diplomacy worldwide. And they’ve passed all this on to reputable media sources throughout the so-called free world to sift, analyse, question, join disparate dots, and disseminate.

Yet, in what may seem in retrospect to be a bad dose of overconfidence and hubris, they aspired to be players in the power games of others rather than remaining a neutral and discerning watchdog. And this was perhaps Assange’s undoing – if undone he indeed becomes. This story has some distance to run …

His faithfully longtime lawyer Jen Robinson declared that his arrest, after seven years of self-imposed internal exile, has “set a dangerous precedent for all media and journalists in Europe and around the world”. His extradition to the US, she said, meant that any journalist could face charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States”.

And yet, much of the legal argy-bargy around the charges Assange is likely to face in the US hinge on the question of whether he is actually a journalist and whether WikiLeaks is actually a news organization. He and his supporters have long portrayed him as a champion of a free press, but some experts believe that the US Department of Justice’s decision to charge him with conspiring to hack government computers limits his ability to mount a vigorous free speech defense. Assange has long said WikiLeaks is a journalistic endeavour protected by freedom of the press laws, and in 2017, a UK tribunal recognized WikiLeaks as a “media organisation”.

Political prisoner, maybe, whistle-blower, certainly, but “not a prisoner of conscience”, at least by Amnesty International’s definition. Compared to many prisoners on Amnesty’s books, innocents and activists banged up by oppressive regimes, Assange has been pretty well treated. The consistent reference in many media reports to a potential death sentence in the US is egregious insofar as the UK will not allow extradition if a death sentence is on the cards. Many would also dispute the tag “investigative journalist” that some have bestowed upon him, seeing as he and Chelsea Manning released classified US and other information. They did not ferret it out, sift it and analyse it for publication as investigative journalists generally do. As for making Assange a “working class hero”, as some on the far-left have done, that is drawing a long bow. Friends and foes alike are now dancing around these distinctions.

In a concise recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Greste, who got to know very well the inside of a squalid Egyptian prison cell and the Egypt’s kafkaesqe judicial system for allegedly publishing what a government didn’t like, makes a few points that Jennifer, her colleague, the eloquent and famous Geoffrey Robertson, and others have skated lightly over:

“Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom … Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility. To effectively fulfill the role of journalism in a democracy, there is an obligation to seek out what is genuinely in the public interest and a responsibility to remove anything that may compromise the privacy of individuals not directly involved in a story or that might put them at risk. Journalism also requires detailed context and analysis to explain why the information is important, and what it all means”.

Yes, Julian is in deep shit. But, you animal lovers and sharers of kitty pics out there in the twitterverse and Facebook world, his cat and companion Michi has gone to a good home …

Read more about politics in In That Howling Infinite here: A Political World – Thoughts and Themes

The ghosts of Gandamak

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

When in the wake of 9/11 the US and it’s allies invaded Afghanistan, critics and cynics invoked the long arm of history to declare that the venture was a forlorn hope. Many questioned latter day imperial hubris. Others asked what were the long term goals, and what was the exit strategy. Reference was made to the Soviet Union’s destructive, demoralizing and ultimately debilitating invasion and nine year occupation (some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, and 35,000 were wounded whilst about two million Afghan civilians were killed) which left the land in the tyrannical thrall of competing warlords; and to America’s own Vietnam quagmire. And then there were the British history buffs who reminded the world that Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires, so well illustrated in the famous painting of the last stand of the 44th Foot on the bleak hillside of Gandamak during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Inevitably, we dust down Rudyard Kipling’s well worn rhyme:  

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

After more than 17 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, with over two thousand soldiers dead and some twenty three thousand wounded. And yet, US forces are no closer to defeating the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001 – than they were a decade ago. Indeed, In fact, the proportion of the country under the full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. A war which has caused over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 wounded (over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed) has staggered to a bloody stalemate.

Whilst a American force that once reached 140,000 soldiers America could not wipe out the Taliban, a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, seems capable keeping the Taliban more or less in check. Whilst the Taliban appear to control the arid, countryside But 10,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone. 

The US is now endeavouring to come to a peace deal with the Taliban, and its efforts are all the more urgent in the wake of President Trumps decision to extricate American troops from this expensive and dangerous entanglement. The Taliban appears happy to deal – and may be willing to accede to the US’ conditions  to rid themselves of the Americans knowing that if they renege on their word, the GIs are unlikely to return. 

Before America toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (about 24 million people) who live in government-controlled areas.

Hearts and Minds

A US withdrawal could jeopardize all this If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam when Nixon’s administration hung its South Vietnamese allies out to dry (read Max Hastings recently published Vietnam – an American Tragedy for a chilling account of the US’ cynical, cold-blooded duplicity). 

Even if the Afghan government staggered on, a US withdrawal without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. In a 21st century replay of The Great Game, neighbours India, Iran, and Pakistan, and regional powers China and Russia would be tempted take advantage of the vacuum for their own strategic and economic ends, but to would all struggle to fill it. There could be a surge in fighting, as warlords once again reassert their influence and as ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the situation. The whole region could be further destabilized, and America and its allies could be sucked back in – on other’s terms. 

And Afghanistan, at war with itself for 40 years, would be condemned to continuing conflict and carnage. 

Click on the picture below to read the New York Times’ commentary on the negotiations. And below that is a recent piece by David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert. He argues that talks between the US and the Taliban are not new. He asks: “What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue”. In essence, he argues, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments. Donald Trump and the shifting, unpredictable nature of US foreign policy; the growth of Chinese influence and engagement in Afghanistan’s political and economic development; and the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group, and now the Taliban’s is an arch-enemy. Kilcullen is, as ever, well worth reading.

In In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Ghost of a chance in talks with Taliban

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 16th February 2019

Training Wheels

The recent announcement that US and Taliban negotiators had agreed a framework for peace talks was greeted as a breakthrough in the 18-year war. But the twin issues around which those talks will be framed — a withdrawal pledge by Washington in return for a Taliban promise to never again let Afghanistan ­become a threat to any other country — are far from new.

These have been consistent Taliban demands since December 2009, when (as part of the headquarters team in Kabul) I met insurgent leaders who asked for the same deal in almost the same words. Likewise, I have heard these demands from many Taliban-aligned elders in Afghanistan over the years, and Taliban representatives proposed the identical quid pro quo during talks with the Obama administration in 2011-14.

What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue.

Since rebuilding Afghanistan was always recognized as a multi-decade project (akin to the US presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany), Washington was effectively telegraphing an intent to never leave — US forces are still present, after all, in all three of those countries more than 75 years after occupying them.

For coalition partners, and allies including Australia, the aim has been to demonstrate commitment, strengthen ties to Washington and thereby increase access to the political, economic and security benefits these ties offer. This goal, too, was achieved as soon as coalition forces entered Afghanistan: our hypothetical cynic might observe that we gain “alliance points” simply by being there and doing a decent job.

No coalition partner would be fighting in Afghanistan without Washington, and none can win or lose the war on its own. Thus, for the allies, whether the war is won or lost is, strictly speaking, irrelevant: having succeeded in being seen as a valuable ally, the only thing that could now undo that success would be to leave before the US does. Winning the war is, of course, a real objective for coalition capitals as it is for Washington — but it’s a secondary one.

Thus, for the coalition, given the open-ended nature of the Afghan commitment, the focus has been on calibrating troop levels, expenditure and other inputs to make the effort sustainable for the long haul. There are about 14,000 American troops in country (less than half the number stationed in Korea for the past several decades) and US spending on Afghan security forces is tracking at about $US3.7 billion ($5.2bn) a year — a tiny fraction of the overall US ­budget).

On Australia’s part, after peaking during 2010-11 with reconstruction and stabilization forces in Oruzgan province and a special operations task group that ­achieved widespread respect for its ­professionalism, our commitment now stands at about 300 ­personnel.

Most Australians are in headquarters roles in Kabul, at Camp Qargha (the officer academy near Kabul), as advisers to the Afghan Air Force, and at the training, advisory and assistance command for Afghanistan’s southern region in Kandahar. There is no doubt the Australians are performing a valuable role and enhancing our reputation with Afghans and allies — but again, we would achieve this effect whether the war is won or simply drags on; the only thing we could do to undermine ourselves at this point would be to withdraw ahead of the allies.

Coalition casualties are also relatively low — the coalition lost 18 personnel last year, dramatically down from 2010, the worst year of the war, when 711 US and allied troops were killed. Australia has suffered 41 fatalities, with more than half killed in 2010 and 2011 at the peak of our commitment. Our last fatality occurred in July 2014, while our last combat casualty was in June 2013.

While any loss of life is a horrendous tragedy, in the harsh logic of defense planners the US casualty rate is sustainable. In short, at the current level of financial and human cost, there is no strictly military (as distinct from political or humanitarian) reason why the US could not simply continue the war indefinitely. Of course, for the Afghan military and police — which have lost 45,000 killed since September 2014, compared with the coalition’s 72 — the war is far from sustainable, and its impact on civilians is both horrific and increasing. So while the coalition can essentially keep this up forever, the Afghan military and ordinary Afghans can’t.

For the Afghan government, another key stakeholder, our imaginary cynic might say that the main goal is to maintain the benefits of international presence including military aid, funding, donor engagement and reconstruction effort. Again, although winning is a real objective for Kabul, until its capture of Kunduz in October 2015 the Taliban showed no ability to seize provincial cities or do deep damage to the capital, so losing to the Taliban seemed an impossibility. And under those circumstances, winning the war was desirable but continuing it was mandatory, since it was the war that guaranteed international engagement.

This is no longer the case: given rising civilian casualties, the high loss rate of Afghan forces, the deadly string of Taliban bombings now afflicting Afghan cities and the fact that the Taliban are now capturing and briefly holding provincial capitals every few months, the Kabul government wants to reduce the war to a far lower level of intensity.

Containing the Taliban as a remote, rural threat, grave enough to stop the international community abandoning Afghanistan yet able to be gradually overcome as a long-term national project (with international money and help) would be ideal.

On the Taliban side, winning has always been the ultimate goal but, like other stakeholders, the insurgents have been willing to let the war drag on without a resolution. In the first few years after 9/11 the Taliban was in disarray — its senior leadership group, the Quitta Shura, wasn’t even founded until October 2003, two years after the US-led invasion.

Then after a resurgence in 2005-06, it suffered severe setbacks in the south and east of the country and its fighters were forced to bide their time as they rebuilt, recruited and rearmed in Pakistan, and stealthily recaptured territory in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then Barack Oba­ma, in announcing his surge in December 2009, also (very helpfully for the Taliban) announced its end date, later extended by NATO but still resulting in a rigid timetable for withdrawal.

As a result, Taliban leaders wisely decided their best course was to withhold most of their combat troops in Pakistan, do enough to stay in the public eye in Afghanistan, and wait for withdrawal, which duly took place right on schedule. After the International Security Assistance Force departed at the end of 2014, the Taliban immediately began ramping up its activity, and within a year it was gaining ground, taking the fight to Afghan cities, and projecting force into Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, which has historically seen India as its principal threat and feared encirclement by an India-Afghanistan alliance, keeping Afghanistan unstable is an important means of preventing that encirclement and achieving strategic depth. Pakistani decision-makers have long been extraordinarily open about this.

From their standpoint, the Afghan Taliban (as distinct from the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad sees as a real threat and has fought hard to contain) is an insurance policy, to be preserved in case of a need to crank up the pressure on Kabul and New Delhi. A Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as would an outright Taliban defeat, so keeping the war on a low boil and letting parts of Pakistan become a haven for the Taliban has made sense through much of the war since 2001.

This might be why, during the tentative talks in 2009-10 that I mentioned earlier, Pakistani intelligence officers arrested a key Taliban figure — Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, a former deputy defense minister and a highly respected combat leader who had expressed willingness to talk with the coalition.

With Baradar out of the picture, the talks collapsed, but Pakistan now had a controlling hand in the resumption of talks, at a time and in a manner of its choosing. That’s why Baradar’s release by Pakistan last October — and his participation in the most recent talks in Doha last month, by far the most productive to date — was such a big deal. For the first time in years, the Taliban now has a negotiator at the table with the power to deliver on agreements, and the fact that Pakistan released Baradar to participate suggests that Islamabad, too, is serious about finding a path to peace in Afghanistan.

This brings us back to our original question: what’s different now? In essence, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments.

The first is Donald Trump.

I mentioned that two key assumptions have underpinned the enduring international presence, namely the fear of a Taliban takeover if we withdraw, leaving a weak Afghan government behind, and the expectation that such a takeover would result in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about the first issue, and his answer to the second is that if an attack took place, he would order massive retaliation.

Given his generally mercurial approach to foreign policy and the fact that he has indeed ordered strikes in Syria and raids in Yemen and Africa, this threat is probably credible enough to give the Taliban pause — and, more importantly, reassure some in Kabul. The US President — who campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan as part of a broader policy of extricating America from its Middle Eastern wars of occupation — has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling his campaign promises. In his recent State of the Union address he repeatedly emphasized the need for a political solution in Afghanistan.

But while he seems entirely serious about settling (as he calls it) with the Taliban, his attitude is sharply at odds with that of the US foreign policy establishment, the Defense Department (where secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over the Afghan and Syrian withdrawals), the Democratic opposition, and even his own Republican Party in congress, which passed a bipartisan resolution calling on him to maintain forces in Afghanistan and Syria.

So, with a US presidential election next year and its guerrillas gaining ground, Taliban negotiators know that this is the best offer they are likely to get, while by January 2021 there could be a very different occupant in the White House and Washington’s Afghanistan “forever war” project could be back on.

A second factor is also preying on Taliban minds — the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group. Having lost 98 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is looking for greener pastures in Africa, The Philippines, and particularly Afghanistan. IS-K has been very active since its first appearance in September 2015, launching a series of horrendously violent bombings and massacres, and the Taliban is an arch-enemy of the group.

Still, the group’s reach and influence are growing, leaving the Taliban with the choice to make peace this year under relatively favourable circumstances or face a war on two fronts with an emboldened IS-K in the future. Again, this puts pressure on Taliban negotiators to find a solution.

The final new factor is that Pakistan seems to have finally decided its interests are best served by peace in Afghanistan — hence the release of Baradar and the willingness to support talks.

The reason for this change might partly be the new, tougher line on Pakistan adopted by the Trump administration, or a policy shift by the civilian administration in Islamabad. But for my money, the most plausible explanation has to do with Pakistan’s major ally, China.

Chinese business and political influence in Afghanistan have been growing significantly in recent years through investments in mining and infrastructure, aid money, diplomatic activity and a limited military presence (with troops often disguised as security contractors working for Chinese companies in country).

Afghanistan is also an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. This matters to Pakistan because, if the key factor driving Islamabad’s behaviour has been fear of encirclement by India, then one solution is for a major Pakistani ally, China, to play an important role in Afghanistan and thereby counterbalance Indian influence.

This would reduce the requirement for Pakistan to tolerate the Taliban, since there would no longer be a strategic rationale to destabilise Afghanistan. While many in Washington see Chinese influence in Afghanistan as a threat, in fact a greater Chinese role in the region is probably inevitable in the long term and is likely to be quite constructive.

All this means that — after 18 years in which everybody wanted to end the war, but everybody also wanted some other objective even more and was willing to continue the war rather than risk that other goal — things might finally be changing for Afghanistan. While I am not as cynical about this as my hypothetical observer, I am very sceptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. This is not the first time that talks have been mooted, it’s not the first time the stars have seemed to align for peace, and it’s clear that the Taliban is both far from defeated and incapable of winning outright.

There is also the not-so-minor matter of the sovereign independent government of Afghanistan, which strongly resents being cut out of negotiations, has defense and interior ministries led by highly competent hard-line adversaries of the Taliban, and is highly unlikely to acquiesce in its own abandonment.

So, time will tell, but at this point, colour me sceptical but not entirely cynical about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.

 

That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

Free Speech, One Each

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practice it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain.  Paul Monk

Every once in a while, The Australian commissions an articulate and respected conservative commentator to pen a piece on a topic dear to its editorial heart. He (these worthy souls are invariably old, white blokes) duly oblige, for kudos or cash or both, and yet are careful not to become ensnared in the NewsCorp echo-chamber that houses the more virulent and predictable of its opinionistas. Historian Geoffrey Blainey recently managed such as arabesque when writing about the controversial Ramsay Centre (see The Oz’s Lonely Crusade). Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson did likewise in a tribute to Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (see Ghosts of the Gulag).

Australian author Paul Monk has done likewise when invited to ruminate on free speech in western universities. Instead of laying into left-wing uni students and the so-called Green Left, the bêtes noir of columnists like Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen, Monk refused to sing their song. Instead, he reminds us of our history and of our responsibility as democrats and reasonable folk to maintain dialogue with and endeavour to understand the reasoning (or its dearth) of our ideological opponents. History has shown us that once the shouting stops, the shooting often starts.

Often, I am disappointed, saddened even, by the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices.

Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation.

Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

Monk’s piece is a timely reminder as he enjoins is to teach our children well.

Five Rules for Civil Engagement

Paul Monk, The Australian, 8th December 2018

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion around these days regarding freedom of speech in our universities and more generally. But civil society and constitutional government ­require freedom of speech. And freedom of speech requires sound meta-rules regarding the way it is conducted.

Suppress freedom of speech and you move towards authoritarian government. Without sound meta-rules you move towards ­anarchy and violence.

Around the world right now we can see a disturbing drift in each of these directions.

Ever since the Greek city-states pioneered democratic government and freedom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long struggle over the nature of the rules and how to uphold them.

Our present debates about freedom of speech, “hate speech”, censorship and “deplatforming” belong squarely within this tradition. It was, after all, the Athen­ian democracy that condemned Socrates to death for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”; but we tend to admire him rather than those who condemned him.

The meta-rules we need now, in the interests of science as well as democratic governance and civil peace, are five in number.  1. That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilised and patient discourse is to elicit the truth. 2. That, since this may prove difficult and time-consuming, we agree to disagree while the inquiry and discourse are pursued, rather than simply insisting on our prior opinion being the truth. 3. That the search for truth itself be conducted according to workable principles of reason and evidence, not dogma or vehement assertion. 4. That we strive to see the distinction between opinion and truth and accept that truth, once grasped, will generally require that we alter our opinions. 5. That we agree to open contentious subjects up to discussion under the above four rules, not shut them down.

These are pretty basic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be challenged in any 21st-century liberal democracy. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani has written in The Death of Truth, even the first rule — accepting that there is such a thing as truth — is now under challenge from a bewildering variety of sources.

Holding the scientific and philosophical line on this is made more difficult by the fact human beings generally are prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive weaknesses, which ­obstruct the search for truth even in the best and most important cases.

Anarchic social media exacerbates these problems, creating thought bubbles, viral “road rage” and avenues for the rapid dissemination of confused, mendacious or inflammatory claims.

There are also deliberate ­attempts to sabotage the factual and philosophical foundations of truth seeking. Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, in his ­gentle and lucid manner, exposes the institutional vandalism of the Trump administration in this ­regard. Contempt for or shameless denial of fact and truth is endemic in undemocratic governments around the world in our time: ­Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

But our liberal democracies should be bastions of the meta-rules. This is especially so in our universities, which are supposed to be the schools of reason and the havens of open exploration of ideas. George Orwell famously wrote: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But that gets us only to the starting gate. All too often people insist on telling us things that we do not want to hear for the good reason that it is abusive, ignorant, banal, degraded or otherwise ­objectionable.

Are we obliged to listen, much less agree? And if we are not disposed to do so, what happens next?

That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be prepared to uphold them and call our interlocutors on them when they are ­violated. That’s demanding work; but it is the indispensable work of democratic politics and a scientific culture.

It is for this reason and not ­because one has any sympathy for bigoted or harebrained ideas that many of us are dismayed by the rise of “grievance studies”, the ­insistence on “safe places”, “trigger warnings” and the suppression of lines of “hate speech” at all too many of our universities.

There seem to be a growing number of things one cannot be ­allowed to say publicly or teach, or say within teaching, at universities. Is this what the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has come to at universities? Is this the proving ground for well-informed and articulate practitioners of free speech and democratic principles?

I attended university between 1977 and 1987. My purpose was to learn enough to be able to participate intelligently in public discourse about the forces shaping our world. I didn’t go to university to agitate but to inquire, though I was aware of the student radicalism of the 60s.

I encountered people, including teachers, of many different opinions and ideological or ­religious persuasions and read as widely and deeply as I could concerning where these different ­beliefs had come from and why anyone would adhere to them. No political correctness or ideological straitjacket was in evidence. That appears to have changed.

I did, however, encounter individuals with strong opinions. I ­recall a tutorial during the 1979 course Classical Social Theory (on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and other modern social theorists) in which a fellow student declared bluntly and humourlessly that “come the revolution” people who thought as individualists like me “will all be shot”.

He didn’t threaten to assault me on the spot, though, and it never occurred to me to insist that he be expelled from the class or the university for saying such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I disagreed with his politics. I was bemused by what these days one might dub his “hate speech” but not intimidated. I knew perfectly well that my classmate’s attitude was not ­merely some strange fantasy on his part.

Pol Pot had been overthrown in Cambodia only very ­recently, after having huge numbers of his country’s educated elite tortured and shot. Deng Xiaoping had just crushed the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing and had Wei Jingsheng imprisoned for — as the trial judge put it — “using so-called freedom of speech to stir up trouble”. The ruthless practice of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies throughout the 20th century was well known to me.

But being at a university in a liberal democracy, I felt safe enough to absorb such violent language in the tutorial room.

This extended to public lectures. In 1980, I attended a forum in the famous Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne, at which several well-known speakers addressed an audience of hundreds on the subject of Malcolm Fraser’s economic policies and the problem of relatively high unemployment.

David Kemp (Liberal), Tom Uren (Labor Left), Don Chipp (Australian Democrats) and Albert Langer (Monash University Marxist radical) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, however, gave a decidedly inflammatory address. The first three had all advocated various competing approaches to macro-economics and unemployment relief. Langer declared openly: “Those are all bourgeois solutions. If you want to do something useful, go and learn how to use a rifle. What this country needs is a revolution.”

There’s freedom of speech for you: used to advocate violence rather than the deepening of ­inquiry and debate. Langer was not so much a far-right Proud Boy as a Proud Leninist.

Afterwards, I approached him and asked would he care for a coffee. He cheerfully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Student Union, I conducted an exercise in freedom of speech. “Albert,” I said to him, “let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were able to organise the revolution you’ve just called for and seize power in this country. What exactly would you then do?”

“That’s a good question,” ­Albert responded.

“Sure, it’s a good question,” I ­replied, “so what’s your answer?” He remained silent. “OK,” I went on, “let’s assume you pursued a standard policy of nationalisation, state planning and indoctrination, but things got gummed up and the economy hit the skids. What would you do then?”

“Oh,” he said airily, “we’d have to have another revolution … And why not? After all, if things worked out, it’d get boring. Revolutions are fun.”

We proceeded to the Student Union and ordered our coffees. He described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist”, which struck me as absurd and ­objec­tionable but not sufficiently so as to derail the conversation. I have never since, however, been able to take Langer seriously. He remained at liberty, carrying on with his ratbaggery for years. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t able to organise an armed revolution and I was able to pursue my studies without being purged or shot.

The year after that public forum, curious about student radicals such as Langer, I undertook an honours thesis on the student ­rebellion and general strike in France in May of 1968. The soixante-huitards (sixty-eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite ­anarchic ideas about freedom of speech and social change. “All power to the imagination,” was one of their most fetching slogans.

From a conservative point of view, they were assorted imbeciles, suffering from various Castroite or Maoist fantasies and Marcusean delusions. Charles de Gaulle ­derided them as “bed wetters”.

I was interested in the wellsprings of their revolt and how it played out in advanced industrial society. My inquiry was unhindered and I drew my own conclusions, critically evaluating the full spectrum of ideological opinions about les evenements de Mai. It was a valuable learning experience.

The Free Speech Movement as such had arisen at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964-65 among restive students who had come to believe that learning at university was not enough. Agitation for social change was ­incumbent upon them and should be accommodated by the academic authorities.

There was a struggle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such ­activism in the early 60s, not least through the nationwide American movement called Students for a Democratic Society. As the problems of war in Vietnam and racism heated up, elements of the SDS threw the meta-rules of democratic social order overboard and opted to attempt violent revolution. They formed the Weather Underground Organisation, inspired by the insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Carlos Mari­ghella in Latin America. I studied all of this in the 80s when it was still a matter of recent history; during doctoral studies on American counterinsurgency strategy throughout the Cold War.

I identified to some considerable extent with Tom Hayden and the founders of the SDS and ­empathised with armed rebels in countries such as El Salvador and The Philippines. I was wary of the Marxist-Leninist brand of violent revolution, given its appalling history in the 20th century, but ­appalled by the death squads that plagued Central and South America in those years. My investigation itself, after all, required the meta-rules of liberal democracy.

Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, starring Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper and Shia LaBeouf, romanticises the Weather Underground and its radical politics. The film’s worth seeing, but it’s not a good ­introduction to what happened back then.

Brian Burrough did a vastly better job in Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence(2015). Crucially, for our present purposes, he shows how the FSM and SDS struggled with the meta-rules regarding freedom of speech and civil society and how the impatient and “radical” wing threw away those rules and opted for violence of the kind Langer extolled.

Such would-be revolutionaries, like neo-Nazis or violent anarchists or religious fanatics, pose a direct threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, after all, to seek truth in congenial, intelligent, well-­informed and professional company. But what do we do when we confront venom, ignorance, hostility, entrenched resistance — when we confront one kind or ­another of what Churchill called “the fanatic”: someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject?

Well, that’s exactly when ­defence of the meta-rules, including by police protection if necessary, is most important.

Nadine Strossen, the first female national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of constitutional law at New York University, has just given us a fine reflection on this challenge: Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. She makes a powerful case that when we find ideas objectionable, we need to have the courage to stand up and challenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.

An unimpeachable “liberal” on race, class and gender, she states forthrightly: “On many campuses … students complain that they have been ‘assaulted’ when they are exposed to ideas that offend them, or even if they learn that a provocative speaker has been ­invited to campus. This false ­equation between controversial ideas and physical violence fuels unwarranted calls for outlawing and punishing ideas, along with ­violence.”

For reasoned debate and fruitful inquiry to take place, it is necessary that violence be outlawed, but it is counter-productive for ideas to be outlawed. What’s required is to foster the opportunity for strenuous debate and what may often be painful and difficult learning. If we cannot agree on that, our political and intellectual culture is in trouble.

Unfashionable as it is to state this these days, the ideas of freedom (eleutheria), political equality (isonomia), equality of speech (isegoria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and democracy (demokratia) derive from classical Greece. They were imperfectly realised in the ancient world and the Greek and Roman republics gave way to autocratic rule. But we derive our key modern ideas about freedom and responsible government from those beginnings.

Plato, Aristotle and the School of Athens

As Josiah Ober wrote in The Athenian Revolution: “Some 2500 years after the revolution that made it possible, democracy is widely regarded as the most ­attractive form of practical (as ­opposed to utopian) political ­organisation yet devised. Among democracy’s virtues is its revisability — the potential of the political regime to rethink and to reform ­itself, while remaining committed to its core values of justice, equality, dignity and freedom.”

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practise it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Doing these things itself ­demands that we adhere to the meta-rules that make it possible. And here’s the kicker: so will building any realisable “utopia” be worth striving after? Martin ­Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faithfully to it, calling for the American republic to live up to its founding meta-rules.

Paul Monk (paulmonk.com.au) is the author of 10 books. The most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas: Uncensored Reflections in an Era of Turmoil (Echo Books, 2018).