Dawe, Morrow and Gessen – Satire and The Rise Of Populism

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Satirist Bryan Dawe (left) and comedian Julian Morrow at Integrity 20. Photo by Frances Harper

Actor/satirist Bryan Dawe has such a low-key, laconic approach to ‘giving a talk’ that the journalistic instinct to take notes deserted me. Dawe is the surviving half of the satirical act Clarke & Dawe, but he is much more than that. He told the audience at Griffith University’s Integrity 20 Summit that when it came to political satire, he and John Clarke had never been short of material over 25 years of producing their weekly TV show.

Dawe introduced one of his best-known satirical characters, boozy retired judge Sir Murray Rivers QC; Dawe as interviewer/straight man to Sir Murray’s confused bigot. His presentation was funny; funny and sad, as he often referenced his late partner in satire John Clarke, who died in April this year. Dawe’s ‘talk’ would have been illuminating for the year 11 and 12 students attending Integrity 20, as Dawe summarised his unhappy days at school where he left early after being told by a careers adviser he would not amount to anything because he came from the ‘wrong postcode’.

Dawe joined Julian Morrow of The Chaser and The Checkout for a discussion on satire, comedy and how to know when you’ve gone too far. When asked that question by panel chair Rebecca Levingston, both agreed that nothing was off limits.

While agreeing that one could satirise and make jokes about anything, Morrow conceded that The Chaser’s skits post-9/11 were “too soon”. Levingston prompted Morrow to revisit the time The Chaser (a TV satire show), penetrated security at the 2007 APEC conference in Sydney with a fake motorcade transporting a ‘Mr bin laden of Canada’. As Morrow recalled “We never expected to succeed.”

Both satirists agreed that there are powerful people who always try to have good satire shut down, probably because nothing is funnier than the truth, greatly exaggerated. The trick, said Dawe, was not to engage with critics, trolls and others whose power base was being diminished by The Chaser’s sharp sketches or by John Clarke’s familiar introduction: “Thanks for having me, Bryan.”

Bryan Dawe’s presentation was the ideal tone for Integrity 20’s afternoon session, which followed serious and at times contrary debate about hate speech, free speech, censorship, the global rise of populism and how to destroy democracy.

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Masha Gessen, photo by Bengt Oberger, Wikipedia CC

You may have heard Richard Fidler on Conversations interviewing Masha Gessen, an exiled Russian American journalist and author. Her speech ‘How to Destroy Democracy’ and later contribution to a panel discussion on populism was a highlight of Integrity 20.

New York-based Gessen outlined the seven lessons in ‘imagining the worse’, in which the rise of populism destroys democracy. These include destroying the sense of participation, conspiracy myth-making, and engaging in the ‘forever war’, (which in the US means a 16-year war against ‘terrorism’, an unidentifiable foe, with no end point in sight).

Gessen, an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, also referred to the way democracy could be destroyed simply by degrading language.

“Trump is a master at that. He lies and lies to convince you that something that’s not true is true. There’s no way for a journalist not to quote his lies.

“Trump says he’s the subject of a witch hunt when that’s the opposite of what he means. He creates word salad and makes it difficult to work out what it all means. It’s a direct assault on how we all live because language is the main tool we use to co-exist.”

Even while Gessen was articulating this I was thinking about former PM Tony Abbott’s ludicrous comments about goats, volcanoes and climate change. However daft the comments seemed, journalists had no option but to quote what he actually said at a climate conference in London.

As Ricky Gervais said this week in a thought-provoking tweet:

Some opinions are so stupid they hurt my feelings. But that’s my problem. It’s a person’s right to hold as stupid an opinion as they like. (@rickygervais):

A panel discussion followed on the global rise of populism. Panel chair Luke Stegemann summarised the rise of populism in countries including Italy, Poland, the UK, France and Germany. “Australia is not immune by any means,” he added, citing the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and how it taps into the frustrations, racism and bigotry of people who are angry about immigration and furious about globalisation and the perceived impact these issues have on their jobs.

One ought to keep in mind that populism − a movement for the people and against a privileged elite − can occur across a broad political spectrum. It is possible, as panellist Geoffrey Robertson QC observed, to have left-wing populism.

The origins of populism date back to the 1800s when rural peasants revolted against their robber baron landlords. Today it is more about polarising the electorate and pitting angry poor people against (poor and possibly angry) immigrants and asylum seekers.

The privileged elite seem to survive with wealth intact, whichever way the populist wind is blowing.

Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the common perception was that supporters of populism are racists and bigots.

“There is a racist fringe but the core of populism is about high inequality and why people don’t understand why politicians don’t listen.”

Geoffrey Robertson said young people were disenchanted about the rampant capitalism that democracy encourages. This was in response to Kleinfeld’s comment that only 52% of people aged 18 to 29 think it is preferable to live in a democracy. Robertson said the key threat imposed by populist leaders was the attempt to replace an independent judiciary with their own people.

Kleinfeld made comparisons between Donald Trump and outsider president Andrew Jackson (1828-1834), who enjoyed two terms and put his successor, Martin Van Buren, in place to ensure 12 years of a populist government.

The Atlantic made much of the Trump/Jackson similarities.

“Jackson, like Trump, won over many white working-class voters, who brushed aside critics who warned that he was unstable and a would-be dictator. He maintained their loyalty even though, like Trump, he was of the elite.”

I can’t recall who started it, but it seemed all panellists agreed that Trump, despite being widely reviled, would easily take another term in office. They didn’t say so, but it seems obvious that Trump has a like-minded and seemingly un-impeachable successor in Mike Pence sitting on the bench (wearing a Martin Van Buren t-shirt).

If you were not yet confused about populism and its multiple meanings, Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, coined the phrase “thin ideology”. This means to merely set up a framework: pure people versus a corrupt elite. Thin ideology can be attached to all sorts of “thick” ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism or racism.

I will leave it to the reader to decide what type of populism exists in Australia.

Monday I’ve got Friday on my mind

I leave you with a tribute to the late George Young, who co-wrote the song from which this essay takes its name. Young and co-writer Harry Vanda and their band The Easybeats had an international hit with Friday on My Mind in 1967. Here’s a terrific cover from Richard Thompson and band from the album 1000 Years of Popular Music. (Please don’t listen to the Bruce Springsteen version that comes up after that…Ed)

 

Great wall of Mexico

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South Australia dog fence Photo by Bob Wilson

There are precedents for President Donald Trump’s plan to build, or complete a 3,208 kilometre wall between Mexico and the US. The Australian outback features not one but two barrier fences, sprawling the length and breadth of the country.

A tour guide took us on a sunset tour out to the ‘dog fence’ near Coober Pedy in 2014. The South Australian section of the 5,531km fence which runs from the SA border to Queensland is 2,250 kms long.  Built in the 1880s, it’s the longest fence in the world and keeps wild dogs out (or in).

In Western Australia there’s also the 3,256 kms long Rabbit Proof Fence. Possibly because there’s a movie by that name, it is now known as the State Barrier Fence of Western Australia. Having done our share of outback travel, we can tell you that rabbits are still breeding away and undermining parts of Australia, despite myxomatosis, 1080 poison and vermin proof fences. Western Australia’s fence was completed in three stages in the early 1900s as an attempt to isolate the west from the national rabbit plague.

Just so you all know, dingoes and rabbits were not asked to pay for the construction of these fences.

Yes, it makes you think.

There’s no doubt that well-built vermin fences, extending a long way into the ground, have been successful at keeping rabbits and other pests from undermining Australia and also prevent dingoes from savaging livestock. So the cost is defendable, as is the ongoing expense of sending out boundary riders on weekly repair patrols. Feral camels do the most damage, so not surprisingly; there are plans for a taller (electrified) fence.

So what about President Trump’s wall between Mexico and the US? Despite the fact that a 1000 kilometre stretch was completed by George W Bush’s government, this is still going to be a $20 billion exercise. Crikey, that’s about 30% of the US education budget, right there.

And speaking of education, a Pew Research survey found that 61% of Americans think a wall between the US and Mexico is a dumb idea.

Our Albuquerque correspondent, despite living 693 kilometres from the New Mexico border at Juarez, thinks the wall is ‘insulting, a blight and really bad foreign policy.”

Thanks to Bloomberg and heavyweight sources like the Department of Homeland Security, here’s what we know about the challenges facing President Trump’s wall. The notoriously porous border between the US and Mexico is almost 3,208 kilometres long, two-thirds of it tracking the Rio Grande River. The border passes through cities including San Ysidro (California) and El Paso (Texas), rural farmland, desert, mountains and wildlife reserves. The border features 30+ patrol stations and 25 ports of entry.

Barriers already extend along a third of the border, giving President Trump’s contractors something of a head-start. Most of the California, Arizona and New Mexico borders have existing barriers. These range from 5.5m high iron and corrugated metal fences to what our Albuquerque correspondent calls “pedestrian fencing.’

Bloomberg reports that in 2015, the Customs and Border Patrol claimed an 81% strike rate for apprehending and turning back Mexicans attempting to cross illegally (or should that be irregularly).

No-one really knows how many undocumented Mexicans are living in the US but informed estimates figure around 11 million. There have been amnesties in the past, but that does not appear to be an option under a Trump administration.

A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in 2015 found that 72% of Americans (including 80% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 56% of Republicans), thought undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay “if they meet certain requirements.

Most of the existing border fence was built after 2006, when President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fences Act. I hate to be pedantic, but the act specifically says “Fences” not walls. When President Trump talks about his vision, most of us imagine a Great Wall of China or the 8m high sections of the West Bank edifice.

Al Jazeera reports that the West Bank security fence is the largest infrastructure project in Israel’s history. Nearly 15 years old, the 706km long fence costs Israel $260 million a year to maintain.

The ‘separation barrier” as it is coyly known, comprises mostly 2m high, electrified barbed-wire fences with vehicle-barrier trenches and a 60m exclusion zone on the Palestinian side. But in densely populated urban areas with space limitations, the Israelis built an 8m concrete wall.

Walls built between countries or within countries are always controversial, and, well, brutally divisive.

There’s no space at this time to delve into the tragedies of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Berlin for 27 years, for reasons which now seem specious. History shows that barrier walls built for whatever reason are destined to become decaying tourist attractions,

Visitors to Britain often schedule a visit to Hadrian’s Wall, a fascinating relic of 122AD when the emperor Hadrian demanded a wall be built east from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Hadrian’s Wall was the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years, built by the Roman army (to separate the barbarians from the Romans). Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987.

In 2010 English folksingers Julie Matthews and Chris While joined a group of songwriters to write songs inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. Their song which emerged from the All Along the Wall project, Rock of Gelt, imagines a bored centurion who has been dragooned, if that is the appropriate word, into “building the Empire’s last frontier.”

There are only a handful of inscriptions to be found along the remains of the stone wall, including a piece of graffiti found in the Gelt Valley. It translates to: “Daminius didn’t want to do it,” which becomes the repeated refrain at the end of the song.

So will Donald Trump persist with a plan to build/complete a wall that 61% of Americans do not want? No doubt the 39% who want it would argue it will employ large numbers of people, through the building phase, then on maintenance and security.

Maintenance of walls and fences is an ongoing issue – just ask a fencing contractor called in to repair or replace fences wrecked or washed away in floods. The annual maintenance bill to keep the Dingo Fence in sound repair is around $10 million, according to an article in The Conversation. The authors argue for a re-think of the country’s vermin fence policies, including a plan to move a section of the fence to test whether the now endangered dingo can help restore degraded rangelands.

The humanitarian question is, if you must build a barrier wall or fence, surely you should have to justify the exclusion of a species?

As poet Elvis McGonnagal wrote, inspired by the Along the Wall project:

“Walls entomb, walls divide

Walls barricade the unknown

Berlin, Belfast, Gaza

Walls set difference in stone

 But the same sun that sets on the west bank

Rises up on the eastern wall

A man’s a man in Mesapotamia

A man’s a man in Gaul.”

*thanks to Julie Matthews for the insights

Trump vs the rest

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US Supreme Court – photo by Freeimages.com

President-elect Donald Trump is taking the oath of inauguration tomorrow (our time) burdened by a legacy of some 75 unresolved civil court cases. Trump or his businesses are involved in these cases, all at varying stages, with Trump as plaintiff or defendant. This would normally be business as usual for Trump, but for the fact that he is the President-elect.

Exhaustive research by US Today shows Trump and his businesses have been involved in more than 4,000 civil cases over the past three decades. They include branding and trademark cases, contract disputes, employment cases, personal defamation suits and about 190 government and tax cases. About half of the civil suits involve Trump’s casino businesses and a large number involve his real estate businesses.

US Today set a team of reporters and researchers on a monumental, ongoing task of tracing the litigious President-elect’s track record.

Of immediate concern are the 75 open cases in the background as Donald John Trump prepares to take office as US Commander-in-Chief.

The type of civil action which can prove difficult for an incoming President or Prime Minister is defamation. Some consider it unsporting for the leader of a country to sue someone (usually a media organisation) for defamation. As the number one public figure in a democracy, you’re supposed to roll with the punches.

This may not be the case with Donald Trump. During his presidential campaign, he threatened to sue all the women who accused him of unwanted sexual advances and also said he would sue media outlets who reported the claims. (By extension this ought to be worrisome to anyone who re-posted related remarks on Facebook or Twitter).

US Today say that although Donald Trump has frequently threatened to sue for defamation, he rarely follows through and has won only one of 14 cases since 1976.

It may well have been the case if he had not won the presidency that Trump would have pursued the women he called ‘liars’. However, it would seem a bridge too far to expect a brand-new President to deal with such distractions, which, if pursued to trial, could result in (President) Trump being called to give testimony under oath. So as his presidency begins, can we expect to see more civil cases being dropped or settled?

The BBC reported that Mr Trump faced three fraud cases related to Trump University, which closed in 2010. The first case, brought by students who claim they were deceived by Trump University’s marketing, was to have been heard 20 days after the election.

Although repeatedly saying during his campaign that he would “never settle”, in November Trump closed all three cases in a $25 million private settlement.

The issue of Trump and his legal legacy has not been greatly pursued by the media, but it is an immediate impediment and distraction to his getting on with making America great again.

The President-elect will no doubt make his own mind up whether he can afford to be distracted by these 75 legal challenges, carried over from his volatile business life and the long campaign to establish himself as a presidential contender. None of these cases can be ignored. As plaintiff he must either pursue his claim or withdraw. As defendant, he must defend or offer to settle. In just one example cited by the BBC, Trump is being sued by Republican political consultant Cheryl Jacobus. She filed a $4 million libel lawsuit claiming he “destroyed her career” by calling her a derogatory name on Twitter.

John Dean, former legal advisor to Richard Nixon, analysed similar outcomes for four other Presidents in a Newsweek article. Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton all carried civil suits into the Oval Office. Most of these cases were quickly disposed of; however Bill Clinton was not so fortunate. Clinton vs Jones went all the way to the US Supreme court, which held that a US president is not immune from civil litigation involving matters occurring before he took office. If you had forgotten or were curious, searching Clinton vs Jones will take you on a journey.

I’ve been pursued by one or two lawyers whose clients claimed I had defamed them (in my newspaper reporting days). Typically, a news outlet can make a claim for defamation go away by printing or broadcasting an apology. Since most cases of libel amount to mistakes (the mistake occurred in the production process), apologising seems the sensible option.

Or the publisher can get on his high horse and defend the charges, which can, as you may have noticed, cost millions and go on for years.

It is often the case for those mounting a defamation case, here or in the US, that the length of time it takes to come to trial and the extent of legal costs increasingly encourages the aggrieved person to settle for an apology and (sometimes) an undisclosed amount.

I worry about people who make heated comments online about politicians. There’s no doubt the people they are castigating deserve a level of criticism. But it has to be defensible.

There have already been cases in Australia where people were sued for defamation over Facebook posts with some payouts approaching six figures. So next time you’re set to post about the neighbour’s barking dogs or the idiots who party till five in the morning every day of the week, take a break, go for a walk, calm down.

Meanwhile, here’s a bit of evidence that politicians may not always be prepared to take the flak that comes with being a public figure, Crikey has compiled a list of politicians who have sued Australian media outlets for defamation. It’s a long list.

As for Donald Trump and his ongoing civil litigation caseload, the length of time it takes for a case to come to trial may be one factor influencing decisions to settle. The average time (in America) from complaint to trial is 22 months and all that time the legal system’s meters are running. According to California Labour and Law’s Eugene Lee, a US Bureau of Justice Statistics national survey revealed that only 3.5% of disputes were resolved by trial. Most are resolved by settlement.

Columnist Sadhbh Walshe writing in The Guardian claims America’s ‘litigious society’ is a myth. He cites data that shows only 10% of injured Americans ever file a claim for compensation and only 2% file lawsuits.

“So we’re really not all that litigious, yet we continue to be treated with kid gloves as though all it will take is a scraped knee for us to be on the phone to our lawyers.”

This will be no comfort at all to incoming President Trump, whose net worth of $3.7 billion makes him an obvious target. US Today also looked into presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s exposure to the courts. They found her named in 900 actions, most as defendant. More than a third of these claims were lodged by federal prisoners, activists and other citizens seeking redress from government.

The ‘pick a big target’ tactic seems at odds with the argument that the ‘litigious society’ is a myth. What do you reckon?