Friday, March 28, 2003

Dummy Spit of the Week

Friday, 28 March 2003

In spite of the Yob's attempt to scoop me this week, Tim Dunlop didn't even come close to winning. it was a fine try Tim, but you need to do more work on your distance.

The Member for Bennelong has been getting a fair bit of attention elsewhere in Ozblogistan for telling UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to pull his head in. Although I had hopes that the man who gave us such fine moments of parliamentary rhetoric as "I did not mislead the Australian people Mr Speaker, I did not!" might be a qualifier this week, I've only seen written reports of his remarks and, since delivery is everything in a good dummy spit, I'm forced to look elsewhere for contenders.

Hero-columnist Janet Albrechtsen came close on Wednesday with an article on the Melbourne legal firm of Slater and Gordon. I was particularly impressed with the opening paragraphs of Janet's column, which reminded me very much of a short story by Saki. Urban legend buffs might want to keep an eye on this one. But, vapidity doesn't make for a good dummy spit either, so sadly, Janet doesn't even score an honourable mention.

This week's prize winner is Andrew Bolt of The Melbourne Hun for this fine piece of op-ed apoplexy. In his usual style, Bolt demonstrates his inability to cope with the notion that there are actually people benighted enough to hold opinions different from his own. It helps to show why, in the paper's print edition, Bolt is usually shown in three-quarter profile: it hides the colostomy bag hanging out of one of his ears.

This will probably be the last "Dummy Spit of the Week" for a while, at least at this blog. I've decided to experiment with a few alternatives, so next Friday, I'll be trying out "Snob of the Week". Once again, nominations (from the realms of blogging, op-ed, politics or whatever) are always welcome.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Berk on Burke

Thursday, 27 March 2003

Edmund Burke's Address to the Electors of Bristol has been on my mind a bit recently. Any idea, however silly, that isn't about the war is a welcome relief at the moment. I first started thinking about Burke's address after reading Trollope's Doctor Thorne which includes a lengthy description of the conduct of an election in the Borough of Barchester. For me, this cast Burke's remarks to his recalcitrant electors in an entirely new light.

Burke's address is supposed to enunciate a principled conservative position on the relationship between voters and their representatives: I've yet to find the "central passage" where Burke clearly enunciates this principle - I keep getting bogged down in Burke's carping remarks about the various accusations that have been brought against him. Having read Trollope's account of an election held several years after Burke's death - a period which saw at least one act of Parliament aimed at electoral reform - I think that there are good grounds for believing that part of Burke's sense of grievance with his electors was that he wasn't getting value for money. Over the years, Burke would have spent a lot of money securing the votes of the Bristol electors and, in some cases, he probably knew how much an elector's vote had cost him down to the last penny. Or, at the very least, someone would be able to tell him.

These days we do things differently - votes are bought by providing schools, hospitals and bowling clubs out of the public purse. This may not be an improvement: public works budgets may be to politics what soap-on-a-rope and horny-as-a-rhino boxer shorts are to Christmas. If nothing else, a return to more straightforward forms of vote-buying would be more economically efficient than trying to win the votes of the many by providing expensive public facilities which, in practice, will only be used by a few. There are probably plenty of voters out there who would rather have an extra few bucks in the kitty on election day than a share in a new gym for the local high school which they don't send their kids to anyway.

The other problem with our modern forms of vote buying is that public works send no clear price signal to either voters or to politicians. A return to simpler forms of electioneering would eliminate this inefficiency. In fact, if some of the institutions which have arisen since Burke's time - such as futures exchanges -were brought into play, it would be possible to arrive at a system which sent very clear price signals to both electors and their representatives at all times. If the member for Bennelong wished to check his standing with his local electorate, he would only need to check closing prices for Bennelong votes on the Sydney Futures exchange. As market price signals are always reliable, much of the needless ambiguity and error associated with opinion polling would be eliminated.

I have a nagging feeling that there's something wrong with this post, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is.
Sprung! (with apologies to James Russell).

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Her Way

Wednesday, 26 March 2003

This has (rightly) been overlooked, with the focus on the war, but last Thursday Pauline Hanson got together with country & western singer Brian Letton and producer Tommy Tycho to record a plea for the peoples of the world to "sort of live in peace and harmony". The song she chose to record was Wonderful World, the old Louis Armstrong classic. I was tempted to do a rewrite, more in keeping with the Hanson vision, but there's not much there to work with. All the same, I'd be interested to hear if this section got any re-working:

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you.

Another Boring Little Trip Into My Past

Wednesday, 26 March 2003

Back in my days as a career bureaucrat, I played a small, but pivotal, role in a newsworthy industrial dispute. I started the bloody thing. Yes, it is typical isn't it?

It all started with a couple of electrical contractors who were installing wiring for a new computer system. They had removed a few tiles from the false ceiling and were busy hauling cable through the roof space. In the process they disturbed some very suspicious looking fibrous mineral stuff that had been lying on top of the ceiling tiles. It was insulation material that had fallen there form the underside of the floor above. It looked a lot like asbestos.

I spent a good part of that morning on the telephone - I do remember that much, although the content of most of the calls is lost a bit foggy. There was one to the state branch office of my union, of course. And several others to any analytical chemistry laboratories I could find in the yellow pages, on the off-chance that one of them might take on a spot of quick chemical analysis on a Friday afternoon. I found a laboratory close enough for one of "the members" to drive a sample of the suspect material over at lunch-time, with a preliminary report to be provided that afternoon. I also spent a lot of time that Friday in heated discussion with my office manager and other union delegates in the building. No one wanted to know basically.

The results that I got back from my chemist (at around 4.00 pm) were a bit ambiguous: the sample we had sent had the chemical composition of asbestos and some physical tests produced results consistent with it being asbestos. That was all he was prepared to say: it was definitely a mineral fibre and most likely to be asbestos, but his tests weren't conclusive. There weren't in his opinion, too many other things it was likely to be but he couldn't say that in a responsible scientific report. By this time the situation, and the discussion about it had become very heated indeed. In other departments that were in the building, union meetings were being held where representatives of other unions were passing on advice from their state offices that I was possibly just scare mongering.

In the end I reached a compromise position with my manager: any staff from our office who wanted it would get temporary redeployment to another office, pending the results of a more thorough analysis, by a government laboratory, of the evil grey shit that had ruined my Friday. I put my name on the list of those to be re-deployed (it was a solidarity thing, more than anything else), and went home for a fraught weekend. As the buiding's IS activist had helpfully informed me, I had put my personal credibility on the line: if the results of the official analysis went against me I would be shown up as, well, a scare monger. On the other hand, if the results confirmed what I believed from the my chemist's report I would be personally vindicated as a bona fide working-class hero. I was also worried about the bill for the chemist's analysis: I'd told him to bill it to me, so I might be out of pocket for the better part of $200. This was back in the days when Australia still had a currency worthy of the name. If nothing else, it shows how quickly the political can become very personal. As it has in much of the debate on the war.

It wasn't until the next Tuesday that the final results came in from the government lab - the stuff really was asbestos, amosite asbestos to be precise. Not, thankfully, the blue stuff of Wittenoom fame. So, for what little it was worth, I was personally vindicated and the union agreed to pay the lab bill. It's occurred to me while I've been writing this post, that there's been time since the dispute took place for me to receive the ultimate vindication: someone who worked in that building may finally have come down with an asbestos related illness. If so, I don't want to know about it.

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Cheap Shot with Quote

Wedneday, 26 March 2003

There's been a fair bit of comment from bloggers and others about the performance of the media in reporting this war. A lot of people hold the opinion that, once again, the media are letting the side down by reporting facts that our governments would rather not let us know. For example, the BBC had the temerity to show Dubya having his hair and make-up fixed up on camera before he was actually scheduled to go to air. Most of those taking this position are standing in a cheap shot free fire zone - I'm sure that the Iraqi government is having no trouble keeping their media outlets in line. Of course, if the liberation of Iraq succeeds, future Iraqi governments will have to contend with media organisations and journalists who will be every bit as badly behaved when it comes to demonstrating knee-jerk support for the government in power as their western counterparts. Call me naive, but I thought that, in part at least, this is what we are fighting for.

There's a claim being made, mostly implicitly, that the sort of critical media coverage and commentary we are sometimes getting plays into Saddam's hands. It allows Saddam to use our Western liberal-democratic values to weaken our resolve to impose those western liberal-democratic values on rogue states. There's a topic for a much longer post in that issue, but for now, I'll just finish with this quote from Tony Blair, aired yesterday on the ABC's AM:

There are of course difficulties that have arisen, tragedies and accidents and we grieve for the lives lost. That is in the nature of war and it is in the nature of today's instant, live reporting of war, that people see the pain and the blood in vivid and shocking terms. [my emphasis].

Monday, March 24, 2003

Some Meta-Comments on WOMD

Monday, 24 March 2003

Ken Parish has an interesting post up Through a glass slightly less darkly, which is attracting a fair bit of comment, some on the subject of Saddam Hussein's weapons of you know what, and when they are likely to be used. As we know that we're talking principally about chemical weapons (such as VX gas) and biological weapons (such as bacillus anthracis) - the nukes seem to have been dropped off the agenda. I'm prepared to say, with a little confidence and a lot of hope that they won't be used.

I'm basing this prediction on the assumption that, while Saddam is basically a crazy bugger who is prepared to kill his own population to get his political way, he's not a completely stupid bugger who's prepared to risk killing most of his own army on the slim chance that it might win him the war. The only weapons of etc in his arsenal that are of any account on the battle field are the chemical weapons - biological weapons aren't an effective tactical weapon - by the time your enemy has come down with a bad case of anthrax, he's still had time to shoot the shit out of quite a few of your own troops. he's also had time to figure out that, as he may basically be dead anyway, he might as well make the best of the little time he has remaining to do just that.

As far as I know, the only chemical weapon that was ever employed on the battle field was phosgene gas in World War I. Its use was quickly abandoned: all it took was a wind shift for the stuff to start killing your own troops, rather than the other side's. If (as Cassandra remarks) "Even in the pre TV age, and with armies from societies where dissent was irrelevant, it was military stupidity to risk harming those willing to accept you as a liberator," it's a more obvious military stupidity to risk harming those who are fighting on your side.

The obvious question is, given that chemical and biological weapons are basically useless as weapons of war, why did Saddam set so much store by acquiring them? One obvious answer, borne out by history, is to terrorise his own population. The other, outward looking, reason is deterrence. On this score, John Howard's prediction (?) that a war on Iraq would send a message to other "rogue states" may been borne out: if Iraq is liberated (or conquered, depending on your political bias) without Saddam resorting to the use of chemical weapons, these weapons will be discredited as effective deterrents to enemy attack. I wouldn't be too triumphant about this: as Rob Schaap has remarked the whole exercise may just reinforce the conventional wisdom, known to serious players of regional conflict since the 1960s, that, really, you have to have nukes.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Riding on the Coat-Tails of the Famous

Sunday, 23 March 2003

On March 10, John Quiggin posted on his appearance in Technorati's list of the Top 50 Interesting Newcomers. I got a mention in John's post and, as a bonus, a listing at Technorati. Today it's been Robb Corr's turn to carry me to wider prominence - he's listed at number 41. I suspect that, in part, this is due to his decision to ban "Cassandra" from his comments thread and the resulting furore. In my opinion, if Rob wishes to slam the door in the face of an unwelcome visitor, I have absolutely no problem with that. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to call someone an annoying little twat with the usual accompanying suggestions for their future movements and conduct.


Sunday, 23 March 2003

Now that some of the mental clutter has been cleared up, there's space for a more considered post on Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins' address to his troops. This post is suggested by James Russell's post here, where he remarks on the contrast between Collins' sober speech and the rhetoric of our political leaders. On balance, I'm not surprised that the most considered speech that I've read on the Iraq war should come from a professional soldier: they are, after all, the best placed to know and understand war. There are some lessons in it for our politicians and the rest of us. I hope I'm up to bringing [some of] them out.

First of all, I'm assuming that Collins didn't address his men in the wretched "Listen with Mother" tone that both John Howard and Simon Crean adopted in their recent addresses to the nation. It's difficult to imagine these remarks being delivered in the tones of a doting parent reading a child's favourite bed-time story:

It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive but there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign.

We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.

These are the sort of words that you address to mature adults who face serious risk and know that they face serious risk. Although there are obvious differences between Collins' situation and that of Howard & Crean when they addressed us on this war both speeches could have benefited if we had been addressed not as worried children refusing to go to sleep without the lights on but as citizens of a democracy. Collins' respected his men enough to address them as soldiers: it's long past time that we received similar respect from our politicians.

You might notice something missing from this section of Collins' address: he makes no mention of his own responsibilities beyond stating his intention to bring every single one of them out alive. Does he ask them to trust him? Only by implication. Does he demand that they respect his willingness to accept the burden of command? Only by stating his clear intention to carry out his responsibilities.


Later in his address, Collins says:

It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly.

I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts, I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.

If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family.

and later, this:

If you harm the regiment or its history by over enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer.

You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest for your deeds will follow you down through history. We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.

This is very much in keeping with Collins' general tone: apparently he doesn't assume that all his men have to do to liberate Iraq is just to kick seven shades of shit out of any Iraqi who gets in their way. It's this that I found most heartening in the address: the fact that, although this war was set in train by bellicose jackasses like Donald Rumsfeld, its conduct is in the hands of men like Collins who are prepared to treat the enemy as more than a few eggs that need to be broken so that we can get on with cooking up the new global omelette.

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