THE MANY AND THE FUGUE

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 30 April 2009

by Jake Lynch

fugue (fyo̵̅o̅g)
noun
Definitions:

1. (MUSIC) a composition for a definite number of parts or voices, in which a subject is announced in one voice, imitated in succession by each of the other voices, and developed contrapuntally;

2. (PSYCHIATRY) a state of psychological amnesia during which the subject seems to behave in a conscious and rational way, although upon return to normal consciousness he cannot remember the period of time nor what he did during it; temporary flight from reality.

News that the Polish concert pianist, Krystian Zimerman, halted a recital in Los Angeles to make an impromptu speech berating US foreign policy should come as no surprise. Classical musicians may not be everyone’s idea of radicals, but we should not forget that among the first into Wenceslaus Square, in Prague, during the people power demonstrations that brought down the Communist regime in 1989, was the entire company of the Czech Philharmonic. And here in Australia, principal players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra are often ready to turn out, as the Sydney Soloists, for a good cause, most recently in partnership with the Sydney Peace Foundation to raise money to send medical relief to Zimbabwe.

Many are the fugues they have intoned, in the sense of the first definition of the word, quoted above from yourdictionary.com (“the last word in words”). Zimerman’s outburst could be interpreted as a side-effect of the second, which describes a diagnosed psychiatric syndrome but could also serve as a metaphor for the manipulation of public opinion in the US and allied countries during the so-called ‘war on terrorism’.

This subject was, indeed, announced in one voice – that of George W Bush – and imitated by a succession of others, none more avidly than Australia’s then Prime Minister, John Howard. Both men have now retreated in contumely: Bush to the unforgiving verdict of history, Howard to the rattle of an empty ballot box, having been unseated in his own electorate. Publics in both countries rubbed their eyes and wondered how, exactly, they’d gone along with the flight from reality that connected the ‘9/11’ attacks with the invasion of Iraq. Policies pursued in an apparently conscious and rational way turned out to have been, well, a bit of a fugue.

The experience has left some lasting imprints. Australians never wanted to take part in the campaign to unseat the Saddam Hussein regime, but many reluctantly went along with it. After all, Howard – having taken steps to keep the ‘Diggers’ well away from the most dangerous deployments – survived another election, in the meantime, before the final ignominy. Now, most opinion polls show, they are also fed up with Australia’s mission in Afghanistan. A survey carried out by the Australian National University this week suggested slightly stronger support, but also revealed that fully 69% believe their compatriots are fighting there in a losing cause.

The other notable result, from the same poll, showed an historic reversal in Australians’ attitudes to military spending. For years now, it’s been rising at 3% a year above inflation, and defence chiefs have basked in public approval for the supposed expansion in capabilities at their command. Today, however, for the first time in two decades, more people favour a cut in defence spending than any further increase.

This is where public opinion threatens to interrupt the smooth running of governments on behalf of their members and clients. Alternations in the ruling party still bring some expectations of change. In the US, with the Obama Administration apparently intent on fulfilling voter expectations at least to the extent of bringing combat troops home from Iraq, lean times were being foreseen for one powerful client group in particular – the arms industry. Anthony Mirhaydari, of MSN Money, was typical of many stockwatchers in advising readers to “avoid” investing in the big four ‘defense’ contractors – Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Electric and Raytheon.

Sure enough, at the end of February, the ‘four horsemen’ were undershooting an already flaccid equities market. The dip in all their share prices was noticeably sharper than the steady decline of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Then, a week or so into March, came a sudden change in sentiment. As Wall Street sprang back to life, the quartet enjoyed a remarkable recovery. Just as the downward gradient in the sector was steeper than the rest of the market, so the upturn now saw them outperforming the index as a whole.

As Obama foreshadowed an end to America’s “combat mission” in Iraq by August 2010, so he signalled an extension of the war in Afghanistan, both in scope and intensity. Robert Gates – the Republican appointee retained at the Pentagon to sit in the new cabinet – announced a budget, on April 7, of US$564 billion. Military spending was, it seemed, destined to continue remorselessly rising, as it had, year-on-year, through the Bush Administration. As so often, those who had the nerve to defy common wisdom, the deep pockets to back their judgement and – perish the thought – access to inside information, made a killing.

What struck a discordant note with the virtuoso, Zimerman, was Obama’s decision to press on with the so-called ‘missile shield’ in Europe, part of which is sited on Polish soil. This is the ultimate folly of the military-industrial complex, with a new financial reporting standard – so-called ‘development spiral accounting’ – having to be devised, to exempt the multi-billion dollar program from having to show results, or even specify, at the outset, what results it is seeking to achieve. The inherent infeasibility of the scheme – clear to any moderately well-informed observer – must not be allowed to impede the spending of US$130 billion over ten years.

The announcement of Australia’s defence budget has been prefigured by a review process, with public hearings chaired by one Stephen Loosley, a former Senator of the governing Labor Party who was appointed last year to the board of Thales Australia, one of the country’s own major defence contractors. Company bigwig Paul McClintock promised shareholders that the new recruit would help Thales to “continue to grow and deliver on its strategies”. Which, given that its chief growth strategy is to inveigle the government into buying ever more warfighting kit, might be thought to amount to a conflict of interests.

That’s a notion that seems to carry little meaning in Australian politics, however. Or, indeed, in the media: when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a further 450 troops were headed for Afghanistan, the main evening news programme on ABC radio turned, for independent comment, to a fellow of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Except the ASPI is funded by, er, the Department of Defence, making its insights useful, in many ways, no doubt – but not independent.  

Public discussion of these issues here is crimped by the journalistic habit of ‘indexing’, behaving as though the limits of legitimate controversy can be located by counterposing the views of the two main political parties. The front bench on either side is in favour of the troop commitment to Afghanistan, so the opposite view seldom gets an airing – even when a major escalation is announced. What’s remarkable is the extent to which the unconvinced manage to sustain and develop their opinions (perhaps by reading outside mainstream media, as now).

One seemingly important development, that’s managed to stray from the depths of the security establishment into the public prints – at least the ones that pay serious attention – is a spat between Defence officials and their own Intelligence Organisation over how to regard relations with China. Rudd himself is apparently a China-phobe. When the Prime Minister announced last November that he wanted the Navy to have a new generation of surface ships and submarines, he told journalists in private briefings that this was essential to enable Australia to counter the Chinese ‘threat’.

Indeed, he has made much of the supposed arms build-up in Asia as a rationale for Australia’s continuing rise in ‘defence’ spending. (Which prominent think-tank released a new report, timed to coincide with the start of the review process, making just such a claim? Why, our old friends the ASPI…) Trouble is, his logic was torpedoed by the head of the Navy himself, Vice-Admiral Russell Crane, who pointed out that China and India are engaged only in a “normal modernisation” of their armed forces, not engaging in a regional arms race. The Defence Intelligence view is that China is taking precautions against US attack, not preparing to throw its weight around. As in Washington, so in Canberra: a struggle for supremacy, between the uniformed and the uninformed.

In public, at least, establishment voices tend to parrot a standard ‘security discourse’: the old motto, hope for the best while preparing for the worst. Trouble is, preparing for the worst contributes to bringing it about, since everyone else will follow suit, in a fugue of self-amplifying mutual suspicion. It plays into the hands of the arms industry, which will sell to all sides: Rudd is expected to turn on a gusher of guaranteed public money to finance Australian manufacturing capacities in key ‘sectors’, from radar development to jet fighter repair and maintenance.

The peace discourse takes the opposite view: the world we will meet in the future is partly of our own making, so we all have to take a share of responsibility for working towards optimum outcomes. If that perspective is effectively barred from the air waves of even the public broadcaster, at least on this issue, how can it make itself heard? It’s a classic challenge and opportunity to engage in strategic non-violence. The work we do in the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies could be seen as non-violent action, in the category Gandhi called the Constructive Program. The author, Judith Hand, who issues a regular newsletter, A Future Without War (1) emphasises that this must be joined, in some situations, by non-violent action in the Obstructive Program, meaning variations of civil disobedience.

We’re running a training course in peace activism, in partnership with the Sydney Peace Foundation, over the next couple of months (2), culminating in a trip to the protests at Operation Talisman Sabre, the biennial ‘war game’ where thousands of US troops join their Australian counterparts to spend several days rampaging around the outback in northern Queensland. Last time the exercise saw the debut of a new training installation, a ‘mock town’, an arrangement of shipping containers stacked on top of one another to resemble buildings, for the purpose of practising urban warfare. The large structure in the middle is apparently known to participating soldiers as ‘the Mosque’.

Australia’s military is, in other words, rehearsing for the invasion of a Muslim country, alongside the Americans, despite there being no mandate, in public opinion, for any such adventure. Will the ABC and other media draw any attention to the issue? If not, there will be a case for the Obstructive Program to be taken there, too. Some time during the next fugue being played on The Pretentious Hour from ABC Radio National, you may hear the faint sound of demonstrators from outside the building. It may just serve to jolt us out of our collective amnesia.

References:

1. www.afww.org

2. Starts May 15th. Enquiries: contact arts.cpacs@usyd.edu.au

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 April 2009.

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