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Favourites of 2017: My doomed colleagues

Media pack (Photo: UNclimatechange/Flickr)
Media pack (Photo: UNclimatechange/Flickr)
Published 22 Dec 2017 14:30    0 Comments

If I’m honest, my favourite read of the year was Yellow & Black by Konrad Marshall, a true inside story of how (my) team Richmond brushed aside 37 years of misery to win the grand final in the Australian Football League. There is not a skerrick of foreign policy in this richly reported book, unless you count a chance the Tigers will play in India sometime in 2018. And full-disclosure - I get a thank-you in the acknowledgements, and my real motivation in raising the book is that I can’t resist the urge to brag in the face of ridicule, having predicted Richmond’s success in a front page article in March.

But to the wider world.

A savage warning by Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev was my highlight. Kovalev wrote ‘A message to my doomed colleagues in the American media’ just after Donald Trump gave his first press conference in January as the soon-to-be US president. This wasn’t a riff on the Russian influence story, but actually something darker. Kovalev recognised that Trump has changed reporting with an authoritarian turn - that facts can be neutered by bluster and the ‘gotcha’ stories that killed many a political career will matter no more.

It’s much worse. For all the conspiracy talk of ‘the media’ as if a single-minded behemoth, Kovalev acknowledged the lonely nature of the reporting profession. ‘If your question is stonewalled/mocked down/ignored, don’t expect a rival publication to pick up the banner and follow up on your behalf,’ he warned. Truth matters less than access.

This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules - which he can change at any time without any notice.

Kovalev’s essay – along with complaints by media academics such as Jay Rosen about attempts to normalise Trump - serve as true explainers for ‘fake news’.

Which is precisely what someone called my Tigers prediction on page 1 … Ha!

Favourites of 2017: East West Street

Auschwitz (Photo: Philip Milne/Flickr)
Auschwitz (Photo: Philip Milne/Flickr)
Published 22 Dec 2017 09:30    0 Comments

Philippe Sands, the author of East West Street, is one of those rare things, a practising and eminent international lawyer. When I was studying international law in Sydney (quite a while ago now) I remember my professor telling us, with sadness, how little chance we students had of ever developing a successful international law practice, however much we wanted it. Back then, there were as few as five lawyers in the world whose practices were entirely international law, we were told.

This is a book by a real international lawyer, but is much more than a book about international law. It’s a fast-paced detective story, researched with incredible depth, discovering the lives, roles, and sometimes tragic deaths, of a diverse cast of characters – Jews, Nazis, gentiles, children, parents, grandparents, orphans – before, during, and after the Second World War.

The book came about because Sands was invited to give a lecture on crimes against humanity and genocide, based on his work as a barrister. The lecture was to be in Lviv, a city now within the borders of Ukraine. But the city was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, when it was called Lemberg, then part of Poland (Lwow), then occupied by the Soviets in the Second World War (Lvov). In the 30 years between 1914 and 1944, the city changed hands eight times. As a consequence, its citizens’ lives were turbulent.

Researching for the lecture, Sands discovered that the town of Lviv was the home of two of the most important figures in the development of modern human rights law – Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. The lecture led Sands to find out more about them, and the book traces them from boyhood to their lives as law students, as Jews during the war, the loss of their families, and then achievements in changing the global legal framework for protecting human rights.

Lauterpacht played a pivotal role in the Nuremberg trials, advocating for the introduction of a new crime – a crime against humanity. Lemkin passionately argued alternatively for the introduction of the crime of genocide. Ultimately, both crimes became part of modern international law. Lauterpacht’s work inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and Lemkin’s work resulted in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Sands also research his personal history - his own grandfather grew up in Lemberg/Lviv/Lwow/Lvov. This research, beautifully chronicled in the book, led him around the world – to America, Poland, Tel Aviv, Paris, among many other places. He discovered many connected lives. One of the most disturbing (his)stories was that of Hans Frank, a lawyer who rose through Nazi ranks to become the governor general of occupied Poland, overseeing the Warsaw ghetto and several death camps, including Treblinka.

Frank’s son Niklas had many conversations with Sands, and together, they visited the Nuremberg courtroom in which Frank was sentenced to death. Each conversation, as are countless conversations with characters in this book, was recorded and woven into the narrative, which fast jumps between cities, families, times and centuries. You need to read meticulously, and sometimes re-read, to keep track of each intricate storyline.

At the beginning of their relationship, Niklas was skeptical that his father, Frank, was a killer. By the time of their Nuremberg visit several years later, Niklas handed to Sands a photograph of Frank pictured just after his hanging in 1946. ‘Every day I look at this’ Niklas said. ‘To remind me, to make sure, he is dead.’

This is a book about those who died, but also those who survived – and of unforgettable stories.

Favourites of 2017: PNG speaks

Photo: UN Women/Flickr
Photo: UN Women/Flickr
Published 21 Dec 2017 14:30    0 Comments

As a close observer of Australia’s nearest neighbour, I often lament how little commentary there is on Papua New Guinea's short history from a local perspective. The most contemporary example is former prime minister Julius Chan’s autobiography, which gilds the lily on a few too many occasions, but is still essential reading. Time is also running out to capture perspectives from the birth of the nation, as the generation that shepherded PNG to independence 42 years ago is beginning to fade away.

It is for all of these reasons that a website launched this year, ‘PNG Speaks’, is so welcome. The website, a partnership between the National Museum and Art Gallery of Papua New Guinea, The University of Queensland, Deakin University and the Australian government, preserves PNG’s oral history through more than 16 hours of interviews with ten prominent figures at the time of independence.

What I particularly like about this series is the effort made by the interview team (which includes Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow Ian Kemish) to collect a range of perspectives. While founding prime minister Michael Somare tops the group, there are also perspectives from eminent journalists, bureaucrats, members of civil society, business, the defence force and unionists. I’m still working my way through the whole series, but the parts I have most enjoyed are from the non-political figures, such as Henry Chow and Charles Lepani. Listening to Jean Kekedo and Josephine Abaijah talki about blazing the trail for women in country - where a lot more work is needed - are particular highlights.

The website is meticulously put together. Well archived timestamps and keywords help navigate the interviews and allow people to jump to issues they are particularly interested in hearing about.

This series of interviews, while collecting only a small sample of perspectives from the thousands that contributed to PNG’s independence, goes a long way in preserving the PNG history of the nation’s formative year. And for more on PNG, take a look at our latest series of research Papua New Guinea – 7 snapshots of a nation

Favourites of 2017: International Crisis Group on Myanmar

Newly arrived refugees from Myanmar on the Bangladesh border (Photo: Mahmud Rahman/Caritas Bangladesh/Flickr)
Newly arrived refugees from Myanmar on the Bangladesh border (Photo: Mahmud Rahman/Caritas Bangladesh/Flickr)
Published 21 Dec 2017 09:46    0 Comments

In a year of such mud and murk in Myanmar, far too little commentary has been well informed, balanced or timely.

Myanmar’s ballooning Facebook effect, which in 2015 emboldened many to vote in Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide election victory, had a more sinister influence in the proliferation of hate speech in 2017. This ultimately led to conditions for what appears to have become the most deadly few months in modern Myanmar’s history.

There were few sources of consistently accurate and balanced information in the immensely emotional environment in which Myanmar exists for among news media, rights activists and too many casual analysts. That is an indictment on the state of commentary and the susceptibility to hyperbolic and emotive social media. Moreover, it has been wholly destructive in finding the solutions that such thorny problems need.

International Crisis Group has consistently cut through this echo chamber. Their nuanced and balanced reports on Myanmar have been a bedrock in a sea of false, misleading or downright dangerous reporting and advocacy from all sides. To their credit, the timely papers by ICG on the situation in Rakhine state, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, as well as Myanmar’s politics more generally, have proved distressingly prophetic. The reports are essential reading for anyone wanting to comment on Myanmar’s politics or the devastating events that have unfolded this year.

In 2018, we will no doubt need to find more oracles of balance and considered wisdom, lest Facebook and other more intentionally malign actors gobble up more of the hard-fought successes in the region and beyond.

Favorites of 2017: Pachinko

A pachinko parlour in Tokyo (Photo: Or Hiltch/Flickr)
A pachinko parlour in Tokyo (Photo: Or Hiltch/Flickr)
Published 20 Dec 2017 14:00    0 Comments

When I lived in Japan I was fascinated by the way internet tycoon Masayoshi Son broke through the bamboo ceiling that limits the citizenship rights of ethnic Koreans despite their residence in Japan for generations. And I always took visitors to a pachinko (gambling) parlour if for nothing else than the amazing aural experience. But I still didn’t understand this nether world.

It has taken Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee since 1989 to produce her epic novel, Pachinko (published by Apollo), following a Korean family’s journey from Japanese colonisation in 1911 to life in Son’s time via the pachinko parlours that have traditionally sustained the resident Koreans. But it has certainly been worth the wait and these themes are now even relevant to managing the North Korean nuclear threat. As her unlikely survivor laments:

This country isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am. So what the f---. All those people who went back to the North are starving to death.

Even if you are not intrigued by the inner life of these notionally mono-cultural but remarkably economically successful north Asian societies, don’t be put off this intimate but expansive story. As Lee begins: ‘History has failed us, but no matter.’


Favourites of 2017: the blogosphere

Photo: Mikkel Rønne/Flickr
Photo: Mikkel Rønne/Flickr
Published 20 Dec 2017 09:36    0 Comments

You don't hear the term 'blogosphere' much anymore because blogging is in decline as a writing form (or maybe it has just evolved and consolidated). Much of my reading still comes from and via blogs, but when I stopped to think about my highlights for 2017, I realised that my blog browsing habits had become fairly consistent. If there are vital new voices out there blogging about politics and international relations, I have not discovered them.

Except, that is, for two sites that have come into my orbit in recent times. Both contain political analysis of the highest quality that often cuts against the conventional wisdom, and both are relatively low-key or anonymous.

The first is a site called The Scholar's Stage. The author, Tanner Greer, writes occasionally for mainstream publications such as Foreign Policy, but also produces consistently good stuff for The Scholar's Stage. Greer is a China specialist and lives in China, but he is clearly widely read on a number of subjects, which enhances his political analysis. I first found The Scholars Stage via a link to a post called 'China does not want your rules-based order', a piece which opened my eyes to how China perceives its role in the Asia Pacific. I refer to it still. I have yet to dive into the archive of The Scholar's Stage, but there are clearly rich pickings there on US and Chinese history and culture, and on the nature of grand strategy.

The second site I want to recommend is The Piping Shrike, which focuses largely on Australian politics. I say 'largely' because one of the strengths of this site is the anonymous author's ability to weave Australian political events into a larger story about modern democratic politics in the West. Shrike also writes essays for Meanjin, but once again, there is a lot of good material on the blog. The writing can be a touch elusive but there is no voice like this in the mainstream media.

As for my long-time regular blogs, I would nominate three. Both and Marginal Revolution carry original content as well as links to fascinating reading. My third choice is The Browser, which in truth is not really a blog. It's a daily compendium of links to the best writing on the web on a huge range of topics, and you need to pay a small annual fee to get the full service. But the quality of the curation on this site is so consistently excellent that I had to include it here. Happy reading.

Favourites of 2017: the Vietnam War

A wave of combat helicopters during Operation Pershing in the Vietnam War (Photo: Patrick Christain/Getty)
A wave of combat helicopters during Operation Pershing in the Vietnam War (Photo: Patrick Christain/Getty)
Published 19 Dec 2017 16:30    0 Comments

I’m watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novich documentary ‘The Vietnam War’ on SBS, so I’ve only seen two episodes so far (sixteen to go) and shouldn’t be offering an opinion. I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame: painful experience ahead. Most Australians of middle-age or above have already sat through so many hours on this topic in real time that spending another 18 hours finding out what historians are making of it all is either compulsive or compulsory.

Reviewers seem to like the documentary. What it might (just might) do is remind viewers that Vietnam was never simple and always a quagmire, with no good moment to get out of a losing position. Already, in the first two episodes, we are reminded that John Kennedy, visiting Vietnam in the 1950s as a young senator, sensed that this was a mess.

By the time the French fought the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1953-54, America was deeply involved, supplying a good part of the French military resources. Sure, the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor) talked to Ho Chi Minh as the Second World War was winding up, but was America going to let down their Cold War allies the French, who were adamant that they would restore their colony? American politics was overruling any doubts, fixated with the existential threat of communism and not wanting to be accused of a repeat of ‘losing China’.

The few people who knew anything about the region were too junior in the decision-process to have impact. The military were focused on doing the job they had been ordered to do, not making gloomy predictions that it would end badly. The family of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem are shown to be the sort of people you wouldn’t want to be allied with, but Uncle Ho’s colleagues were just as ruthless.

I’ll be watching the remaining episodes, replete with unpalatable home-truths though they will be. Already, for me, the overwhelming impression is how much the world has changed in 50 years. But policy-makers still makes mistakes. Acknowledging and correcting such mistakes seems as hard as ever.

Favourites of 2017: Trump's America

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Published 19 Dec 2017 13:30    0 Comments

There was only one piece of reading in 2017 that led me to silently applaud at the end of it - The Economist’s special report in the 1-7 July edition on 'Trump’s America'. It reaffirmed the best of The Economist and made for a welcome contrast to so much analysis of why and how Donald Trump became the president of the United States.

The Economist's special report avoided quick-fire analysis that often tells you more about the writer’s predispositions than about Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential campaign or US electoral politics. Instead, it used the journalistic tool of talking with a wide range of people and letting them tell their points of view. This combined with careful analysis of the mass of statistical data about voters and voting patterns to provide a compelling analysis and story about contemporary US politics. Trump's election as president was a watershed moment, but much of the subsequent analysis has only served to confuse, obfuscate, or reaffirm the views of the commentators. This special report, when I read it, did the opposite.

Favourites of 2017: Behind the Rise

French President Emmanuel Macron last week at Elysee Palace (Photo: Aurelien Meunier/Getty)
French President Emmanuel Macron last week at Elysee Palace (Photo: Aurelien Meunier/Getty)
Published 18 Dec 2017 16:00    0 Comments

A rare bright spot in a sobering 2017 was the election in France of a young new president. I was relieved by Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen, but I was also impressed by the scale of his political achievement. By sheer strength of will, Macron turned French politics upside down. His campaign for the Elysée was marked by energy and optimism. It was quite something to see him stride through the courtyard of the Louvre to deliver his victory speech to the strains of ‘Ode to Joy’, the European anthem.

Most of the West was stepping down. Yet here was a Western leader who was stepping up.

Director Yann L'Hénoret spent eight months embedded with the Macron campaign to produce an arresting documentary, Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise, which traced the ascent of Macron and his newly-created party La République en Marche. The documentary was screened on French television the day after Macron’s election.

The filmmakers enjoyed almost complete access to the candidate, who showed all the unearthly self-confidence of a man in his thirties who was tearing down the temple of French politics.

Behind the Rise brought to mind the famous 1993 D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus documentary The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. However Bill Clinton declined to feature prominently in The War Room, which focused on campaign aides James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. (Carville featured in one of the highlights of the film, when he declared in his Louisiana drawl that 'outside of a person’s love, the most sacred thing that they can give is their labour … any time you can combine labour with love you’ve made a good merger'.)

In Behind the Rise, by contrast, Macron is ever-present – debating, orating, negotiating. His young and deferential campaign staffers flit like comets across the night sky.

The film, like Macron’s presidency itself, is all about Emmanuel.

Favourites of 2017: Age of Anger

Protesters in Philadelphia in January (Photo: Joe Piette/Flickr)
Protesters in Philadelphia in January (Photo: Joe Piette/Flickr)
Published 18 Dec 2017 11:16    0 Comments

Making sense of populism has been a favourite theme of non-fiction writers in 2017, as they seek to rationalise the apparent collapse of a harmonious era of liberal, technocratic centrism. Provocative and powerful, Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger fits into this trend, even if it was largely completed before 2016’s dual shock of Brexit and Trump.

What makes Mishra’s book particularly intriguing is the way that he draws together what seem to be vastly different phenomena –Trump, Putin, Timothy McVeigh, ISIS, fascism, Narendra Modi, among others – and identifies them as manifestations of the same essential thing. That thing is the discontent that modernisation necessarily breeds. It sows alienation, estrangement and disillusion; an environment in which violence, hatred and anger flourish. Those assailants of the world-as-it-is, be they iconoclastic populists or naive terrorists, are very much the progenies of the world against which they vainly rail.

Fundamentally, Age of Ager is a diagnosis of the pathologies of the West. To illustrate how fundamental these pathologies are, Mishra takes as his leitmotifs the eighteenth century philosophes Voltaire and Rousseau, the former the very personification of a modern elite, the latter its most perceptive critic. His point is that ressentiment has stirred whenever modernity has been championed. But Age of Anger is not strictly a lecture on modernity’s specific failures: Enlightenment and modernisation must deal with the opposites they necessarily create for themselves. Still less does it offer a prognosis or an antidote. Instead, it offers an austere assessment of a world wreaked by its own inherent contradictions.

Is it convincing? Not especially. Certainly, discontent and anger have always inhered in the modern world, and modernisation has always produced angry victims. But this is surely a reason to focus on the specifics – why in these times and places, why in this political form? Further, the book contains much to make the political theorist or intellectual historian cringe: thinkers and historical figures are catapulted out of its pages at a dizzying pace, with little space to reflect on the societies that produced them. Yet in some ways this is not the point. In a political world desperately lacking in historical perspective, Mishra’s diagnosis is as stimulating as it is chilling.