The original models for modern constitutional democracies were the republics of Athens and Rome. They failed to keep their constitutions viable and fell to dictatorships: Athens to Alexander the Great; Rome to the Caesars. For many centuries after that, the conventional wisdom was that democratic republics do not work. The American founding fathers thought they could prove this wrong. Their design is now being seriously tested.
Few things have more bedevilled the debate about global warming than the question of scientific consensus. About what the scientific consensus on the subject is and about what degree of deference should be paid to scientific consensus as such. Both debates have been seriously aggravated by two other factors. Global warming seems to have colossal economic implications, which has activated the concerns of many interested parties; and the ecological nature of global warming has stirred up heated ideological passions that go well beyond the science. It’s all very well to feel either passionate or sceptical about these matters, but how are we to think clearly about them?
About six weeks ago, in a televised address during Ramadan, the leading Muslim cleric in Egypt, Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo, who is hailed as one of the leading ‘moderate’ teachers in the Islamic world, denounced apostasy from Islam as ‘grand treason’. He stated categorically: ‘Those learned in Islam and the imams of the four schools of jurisprudence consider apostasy a crime and agree that the apostate must either renounce his apostasy or else be killed.’
Interesting as it is, the debate over the Chinalco bid for a bigger stake in Rio Tinto needs to be seen in a larger context. Shareholder anxiety about the mismanagement of Rio Tinto, anxiety at BHP Billiton that its market position is under threat and anxieties in Australia about large-scale investment from China are all understandable. However, they seem to have too many people overlooking the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’: the ambitious mercantilist designs of the Chinese state. That state, though still dominated by a political body calling itself the Communist Party, has become an emergent authoritarian, mercantile market state. Its resources strategy must be understood in this context.
Just before New Year, this newspaper reprinted a column from The Wall Street Journal headed ‘Science turns to God as universe appears to be ultimate miracle’. The author was one Eric Metaxas, an American religious writer, who has written a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He argued that there is increasing evidence that the probability of the universe existing at all and in such a way that intelligent life can have evolved is so astronomically small that these things cannot have happened by chance, but must be the work of an intelligent designer – ‘God’.
The Chinese Communist Party again and again accuses Japan of being in denial about its World War Two history and being insufficiently repentant about its crimes of that by-gone era. In a speech at Nanjing recently, Chinese president Xi Jinping was at it again, attacking Japan for atrocities committed 77 years ago band charging that it continues to fudge or deny the facts of the matter. ‘History will not be altered as time changes and facts will not disappear because of any chicanery or denials,’ he declared to an audience of thousands.
There is a scene towards the end of Kostantinos Gavros’s 1982 film, Missing, in which a hard-edged US military officer tells Ed Horman, played by Jack Lemmon, ‘Suppose I went up to your town and started messing around with the Mafia and I wind up dead in the East River and my wife or my father complains to the police because they didn’t protect me. They really wouldn’t have much of a case, would they? You play with fire, you get burned.’
On 23 July, Waleed Aly will be presented with the Voltaire Award for free speech from Liberty Victoria. It would be rather charming were he to give a speech on that occasion reflecting on Voltaire’s play Mahomet, which depicted Islam as based on false miracles, personal ambition and ruthless fanaticism. Aly has for some time been the go to person for commentary on Islam and avoiding what is widely dubbed ‘Islamophobia’. It is safe to say he does not share Voltaire’s assessment of Islam.
The single most important reference point in the debate over the WikiLeaks case is the leaking of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, in 1971, by Daniel Ellsberg. Those who see Ellsberg as a hero tend to see Julian Assange as one. Those critical of Assange tend to denounce what he has done for the same reasons and in the same language that Henry Kissinger used in 1971, when he described his old Harvard University colleague Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America.” Ellsberg himself has come out in support of Assange. But the differences between the Ellsberg and Assange cases are more important than the similarities.
There is something deeply disturbing about the direction in which Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are taking Turkey. Writing in this newspaper last week, John Lyons compared the sweeping purges to McCarthyism in the United States, in the 1950s. That was altogether the wrong analogy. The scale and arbitrariness of what is happening are, rather, akin to Hitler’s state of emergency after the Reichstag fire in 1933, or Stalin’s reaction to the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, than to the United States in the 1950s. There is also an analogy with the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979-81.
The recent massacre of innocents in Paris and French President Francois Hollande’s declaration of a ‘merciless’ war on ISIS, have heightened the danger of aggravated anti-Muslim sentiment in the West at large. The fact that huge numbers of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa are pouring into Europe and that a small number of them are likely to be ISIS infiltrators exacerbates this problem, even outside Europe.
Perhaps the story of the past week has been controversy over the Director General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, publicly rebuking a number of politicians and urging that they curb their outspokenness regarding Islam. Lewis had made two crucial points: that intemperate criticism of Islam risked inflaming Muslim opinion, making ASIO’s job harder; and that it was ‘blasphemous, to the extent that I can comment on someone else’s religion’ to suggest that Islamist terrorism springs from Islam itself.
The DVD cover for Alex Gibney’s riveting documentary Zero Days features a picture of a computer screen with a mushroom cloud rising high into the air and the caption World War 3.0. The cover of the September/October 2018 of Foreign Affairs carries the title World War Web: The Fight for the Internet’s Future, accompanied by the image of a menu of Wi-Fi options in different languages. David Sanger’s new book simply has a massive stream of zeros and ones as a background to its title. Welcome to the real/virtual world of our time.
With The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History (2016), Frank Dikotter completes a trilogy on the catastrophic impact that Mao Zedong and his Communist Party inflicted on China between their seizure of power in 1949 and Mao’s death in 1976. The first volume in the trilogy chronologically, though it was written second, was The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57 (2013). It covers the civil war, the seizure of power, the mass terror campaigns that accompanied and followed that seizure of power, the vaunted Marxist-Leninist nationalization of the means of production, distribution and exchange and the crushing of intellectual and popular dissent in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign – which was led by none other than Deng Xiaoping.
There are a great many newly published books that might be interesting, instructive or entertaining to read. There are relatively few that can rightly be called required reading. This is one of them. Every literate person should read it - now.
It is about a deadly existential threat to human civilization and even life on Earth: nuclear arms and the danger of nuclear winter. It is written by a person unusually well informed on this particular subject, having worked at the highest levels with extraordinary access to the most secret plans and discussions and fully conversant with the subject.
PAUL Thomas Anderson's recent film The Master is transparently a critical portrait of the early years of the Church of Scientology under its strange founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard. It is 1950, the year Hubbard published his signature book Dianetics. Philip Seymour Hoffmann plays Lancaster Dodd, who sails around in a boat called Aletheia, practising a new form of talking cure called "processing" and recruiting volunteers on billion-year contracts, while bullying and abusing critics or questioners.
Each of these books is worth reading, if you have any interest in Australian defence and security. Both are timely, lucid, scholarly and readable. The first is a handy introduction to current debates about the ANZUS alliance, China and our security, which avoids over heated language and shows a deft familiarity with the scholarly literature. The second is something of a tour de force on strategic thinking as such in Australia. It could have benefited from a little editing to clean up typographical errors and infelicities of expression, but it provides an unusually incisive critique of the history and theory of defence strategy in Australia. It also offers the elements of a fresh approach, against the background of emerging strategic realities.
The rise of China is the biggest story in geopolitics. We fuss about where we stand between China and the United States; the end of the commodities boom and our future place in China’s economic development; the uncertainties engendered by Donald Trump’s leadership style; and the systematic efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to buy influence within our institutions and stifle criticism of its own policies and mode of government.