Friday, February 14, 2003

Rubbery Figures

Friday, 14 February 2003

I've just got back from the Peace Rally in Melbourne. I phoned a friend who watched it on the news and she gave me these estimates of the attendance figures:

Channel 10: 10 - 15,000.
Channel 7: 15 - 20,000.
Channel 2: 100,000.

The only comment I'll make on the numbers is that well before I started walking anywhere (I was on the corner of Swanston and Little Lonsdale, counting the Spartacists) the head of the march already looked like it had reached Flinders Street. When I got to Bourke Street, I stopped and let it go past for a while: it still took up the whole of Swanston Street and I was told by a passing stranger that the tail still stretched to the John Curtin Hotel. That's a lot of people, way above what the commercial stations are estimating.

Still, the only reliable estimate I can offer is for the number of Sparts: by my count there were 4, 3 to carry the banner and one selling The Spartacist. Their banner took my personal prize for the most stupid slogan of the day. It was really more of a manifesto printed on cheap fabric and read:

Australian Military get out of Persian Gulf, East Timor: Hands off Indonesia. Defend Iraq Against UN/US/Australian Imperialist Attack.

I wonder if they realise why so many people were giving them such a wide berth.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

When Meaning Well Is Not Quite Enough

Thursday, 13 February 2003

(Part 3 of "Gummo Trotsky on Just War Theory". See also: Part 1, Part 2.)

The general thrust of the requirement for right intention is that we go to war for the sake of justice itself rather than national self-interest. This immediately invites a narrow reading of the criterion which excludes any justification which is "tainted" by considerations of national interest: this is often the implicit basis of the "It's all about oil" argument. To consider the issue of right intention in such a narrow way ignores the possibility that the national interest may coincide with the cause of justice without compromising it. It also makes the unrealistic assumption that ethical action is impossible without absolute purity of ethical intent. The challenge is to recognise, given that most human actions proceed from a variety of motivations, whether the ethical intent is the dominant consideration. In the political debate around war on Iraq a lot of effort has been put into rallying support for the war on the basis that, in the long run, it will liberate the Iraqi people which is an ethical purpose. However, if the dominant intent is something else, this argument in favour of war deserves to be rejected until its proponents can come up with a credible case that this is our major goal and that we can achieve it without an unacceptable level of "collateral damage", assuming that there is such a thing as an acceptable level of "collateral damage" and that this can be defined.

The issue is further complicated by the existence of motivations which do taint right intention: in the case of war these include hatred, blood-thirst, the desire for revenge or the goal of instilling fear in one's enemies. These are all, recognisably the taints of terrorism and anyone who advocates war on any of these grounds is, quite simply, a terrorist. In saying this I am transgressing against the normal code of civility which would require that I use such weasel words as "no better than" or "no different to" and so on but there is little point in attempting to make this assertion palatable to those who may think themselves, or their favourite politicians, on the wrong end of it: to advocate the use of atrocity and fear as rightful means for achieving political goals is to advocate terrorism. It should be possible to state this position without every reader leaping to the conclusion that I am accusing George Bush, Tony Blair, John Howard et al of being terrorists but no doubt there is someone out there who will make this intuitive leap.


The last preliminary consideration I want to raise on the issue of right intention is the importance of intention not only as a justification for action but as a guide in determining how we act. The goal of disarming Iraq and the goal of disarming Saddam Hussein are subtly but decisively different in this respect. In the first case, we make no clear distinction between the government of a nation and the nation itself and run the risk that we will choose means which are imprecisely directed: Iraq as the enemy is as much its people as its government. In the second case, we make it clear that the government of Iraq is the enemy and open the possibility of more discriminating forms of action which treat the people of Iraq less casually than as people who might, regretably, get killed because they stand in the way of our goal. Most of the pro-war rhetoric has been disappointing to me because often the words "Iraq" and "saddam Hussein" have been used interchangeably, as if they were one and the same thing. When these statements come from government, it doesn't inspire confidence that the actions taken will be (to anticipate a little) proportionate to the objectives of the war.

A judgement on whether we will be taking part in a war on Iraq with right intent requires that we identify our intent. Timothy Garton Ash offered a catalogue of the various motives for war in this article in the Guardian (link via ken Parish and Tim Dunlop). Here's a similar (but probably incomplete) catalogue of Australian motivations, based on what has been said by politicians and commentators:

1. Freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein.

2. Demonstrating our support for the US Alliance.

3. Disarming Iraq/Saddam Hussein.

4. Deterring future rogue states.

5. Prime Ministerial hubris or arse-licking or

6. Prime Ministerial clarity of vision and moral purpose.

Note: 5 and 6 are mutually exclusive.


Unlike Garton Ash, I'm not going to attempt to ascribe percentage weightings to these, except for the first which, after Alexander Downer's comments of February 11, 2003 can be confidently weighted at 0%: Australia's official reasons for going to war with Iraq have nothing to do with the welfare of the Iraqi people. US government thinking on the issue is different: there is some commitment there to the idea that a war must be followed by an effort to rebuild Iraq as a nation (link via Tim Dunlop again). This raises an interesting question: can we continue to use the liberation and democratisation of Iraq as a justification for Australian involvement in the war, when we have made it clear that we are going to be leaving this to others? Perhaps we can justify this on the basis of an international division of labour, with Australia in the international riot squad, leaving "wussy" nations (like the French and Germans) to form the international ambulance service who come in to tend to the injured once order is restored.

When it comes to motives 5 and 6, I doubt that anyone will be surprised if I say that I'm more inclined to explain the conduct of our Prime Minister in terms of number 5: This is the man who weaseled out of accusations that he misled the Australian public in the Children overboard affair on the spurious grounds that he was merely passing on the untruths that were told to him, the man who was such an ambiguous friend to Bill Heffernan - first, in effect standing aside while Heffernan defamed Justice Michael Kirby under cover of parliamentary privilege then left him hanging out to dry when Heffernan's allegations were proved baseless and most recently has found himself contradicted by none other than George Bush on the subject of Australia's pre-commitment to war in Iraq. While it is possible that on this issue he has rediscovered an ability to hold and act on moral convictions his past conduct doesn't inspire confidence on this point.

In the end, I'm unable to reach a conclusion on whether Australian involvement in a war with Iraq will have right intention: there is too much on both sides of the question to reach a definite conclusion.

- *** -

Bernie's Missing Link

Thursday, 13 February 2003

Bernard Slattery is mickle irritated over Annabel Crabbe's House on the Hill column in yesterday's Age. Thanks to that technological marvel, the Google Advanced Search facility, I'm able to present the full text of the item that has got Bernard's goat.

What's he got under that robe?

Lefties who lost their breakfast over the appointment of Dyson Heydon to the High Court vacancy left by Mary Gaudron can prepare to lose it again.

The gossip at yesterday's High Court blast to welcome Justice Heydon was that he is planning to take on right-wing commentator Janet Albrechtsen as his associate next year.

Albrechtsen, a lawyer and opinion-haver who has been published extensively in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review and lately in The Australian, was at the ceremony yesterday and would admit only that "negotiations" were under way.

But she'd certainly have a cool reception in some corners of the High Court tea-room.

"Is the High Court inviting terrorists to Australia?" Albrechtsen wrote in December last year, in a piece that further accused Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, Justice Michael Kirby and Justice Mary Gaudron of having "trouble differentiating terrorists from refugees".

Presciently, she urged the Government on November 6 last year not to appoint another "hero-judge" such as Lionel Murphy or Michael Kirby.

(One would assume the rider "so Dyson Heydon gets the gig so I can have a job" was not even implicitly attached.)

Anyway, if the job comes through, it will cause havoc among the anti-Albrechtsen forces, not least Labor's Mark Latham, who has unleashed Project Vocabulary upon the unfortunate columnist, using privilege to savage her variously as a "filthy hypocrite" and a "skanky ho' who will die in a ditch to defend the Liberal Party".

It's going to be a sad day for me if Janet does become a hero-associate to a High Court judge: where am I going to find a hero-columnist who is remotely her equal?

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Phoning It In

Wednesday, 12 February 2003

Despite my best intentions, my personal musings on whether a war on Iraq will be a just war have stalled, so today's installment on the issue of right intention has been held up. There are a lot of events to catch up on, particularly with the prolific posting that's been going on in the Blogmos lately so it may take a few days, especially as I have to spend a lot of time right now writing this sort of thing:

$s =~ s/\s+/ /g;

In the meantime, here are a few interesting bits of reading from other sites.

Tom Frame, Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force applies the just war doctrine to the war on Iraq in yesterday's Oz. Strangely, he comes to the opposite conclusion to the one I'm increasingly drawn to: maybe as I get further through the series I'll come to agree with him.

From Slacktivist via Pedantry a former US president comments on the war powers of the US presidency.

From Life Sciences Network via Bizarre Science the latest weapon in the war of words on genetic modification: celebrity scientist gossip. When I read stuff like this I have to forcefully remind myself that I'm an agnostic on the basic science of genetic modification, give or take Barry Commoner's arguments which are "refuted" here.

And over at you-know-where, you-know-who has accumulated a great deal of reliable anecdotal evidence for his latest "bike-shed" theory of the possible origins of youthful leftism.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Throwaway Ideas No. 1 and 2

Monday, 10 February 2003

It's been a while since I've dropped in to Dissecting Leftism, John Ray's continuing inquiry into the psychological and social origins of the virulent social disease of Leftism. Apparently, he's had a fair bit of correspondence on this subject, with several like-witted readers e-mailing their own theories of the origins of Leftism, ranging from family environment to, most recently, the assertion that it's easier for a young man to get a root out of a left-wing woman.

This sort of thing invites speculation on the social and psychological origins of conservatism, especially during bouts of insomnia. During last night's, I started to wonder about the childhood influences which might guide the (allegedly normal) progression from a soft-headed, sentimental (and possibly libidinous) attachment to left-wing beliefs in early adulthood to a more conservative, libertarian senility. I think the key is in those incidents one sometimes sees in the supermarket where a toddler throws a tantrum when mum tells the check-out operator that she doesn't want the Kinder Surprise that junior has surreptitiously slipped into the supermarket trolley.

To put it bluntly, the more successful you were as a child in getting your way through obnoxious behaviour, the more likely you are in later life to adopt an unconditional belief that the protection of your personal freedom of action is the most important political value, and to resent to the point of moral outrage any government limitation on your ability to get your way through similar obnoxiousness. The more often your parents rewarded bad behaviour by giving you what you wanted, the more likely it is that you will be attracted to a political ideology which asserts your right to be rewarded for bad behaviour.

There is an easily foreseen objection to this theory: there are bound to be conservatives out there who will maintain, very sincerely, that their childhood was nothing like that described. For these critics I have but two words: selective memory. Some younger conservatives might resort to checking their recollections of a well-behaved childhood with their parents but these (especially rusted-on Randroids) should bear in mind that their parents' testimony that they were pretty normal kids should be taken with a grain of salt, given that their failure to instil a proper sense of community in their spawn is strong evidence of parental ineptitude.

This theory of the childhood origins of rightism has at least as much to reccommend it as psycho-social theories of the origins of leftism: it is equally rigorous, has the same solid basis in fact and makes exactly the same contribution to intelligent political debate. The only fault I can find with this post is that it's 49 days too early.