UPDATES AND PROGRESS

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 3 October 2009

by Jake Lynch

The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney came about after a campaign by students and staff to have peace taught within its hallowed sandstone walls. After all, they reasoned, just about every other conceivable subject was taught there, so why not peace? The authorities of the day acceded, with the proviso that ‘conflict’ be added – hence, CPACS.

That was 21 years ago, and ever since then, the Centre has always been a place of peace activism as well as academic endeavours. Its first campaign was to preserve a universal system of public health care in Australia, in solidarity with the dockworkers’ union, the MUA. We benefit from enlightened attitudes within Higher Education that somehow survived the deep chill of neo-liberalism into which it was plunged throughout the intervening period: notably the ideal of the public intellectual, which university staff are encouraged to follow. Indeed, the rubric of the job advertisement, when I applied for my post as the Centre’s Director, spelt out the role of the incumbent in “providing leadership on peace and justice issues in the wider community”.

In pursuit of this mandate, I’ve been busily engaged in the important procedure of, well, going round stirring up trouble. In more scholarly terms, I’ve been trying to increase what the pioneering sociologist, Neil Smelser, called “structural conduciveness” to the emergence of effective movements for social change. The campaigning that I and others at the Centre have been doing could, in Smelser’s terms, be understood as spreading a “generalized belief” about the nature of the problems we face – problems that exert “structural strain” within the society we inhabit (1).

A crisis of military legitimacy

Some of the strains are manifest in the growing ‘disconnect’ between public and political opinion on a range of key issues, notably over Australia’s foreign policy, role and identity in the world at large. It’s some time now since the country’s military mission to Afghanistan lost majority support. An innovative new current affairs show, Hungry Beast, opened the other night on the main television channel of the public broadcaster, ABC, with a montage of political statements showing how the date when the ‘Diggers’ were expected to come back home has constantly slipped back.

I will be speaking at a public anti-war rally in Sydney, on the eighth anniversary of the US invasion in October 2001, this week – an attempt to raise the profile and contestability of the conflict, and fill out the fleeting impressions from snapshots of public opinion.

Another poll, conducted a few months ago by the Australian National University, showed a majority of people now want to see the country’s military budget either cut, or maintained at the same level, rather than increased any further, as it has been, over and above the rate of inflation, for many years.

And yet you will wait in vain to hear anyone articulating this view, or the opinion that Australia should pull its troops out of Afghanistan, either in political debate or in the main public or commercial media. What I’m describing are symptoms of a crisis of military legitimacy, following the rapid and conspicuous unravelling of propaganda constructs in the invasion of Iraq, and the increasingly evident quagmire in central Asia.

Those who seek to seek to exert what is called political agency, in pursuit of such perspectives, run slap-bang into what the peace researcher, John Paul Lederach, called a “gap of interdependence”, lacking the leverage that comes through “responsive and coordinated relationships [with] top-level leaders” (2) who control decision-making processes. Instead, they are met with what I have called the “brute unresponsiveness of institutional frameworks”. Increases in defence spending, further prolongations of Australia’s Afghan entanglement, joint military exercises with the United States – all simply continue in their not-so-merry way, seemingly regardless of what the rest of us think about them.

Another way of saying the same thing is that the purveyors of peace perspectives are not plugged into the right networks. This is where it’s worth seeking to exert some agency, or influence, in the domain of media. The continuing militarism of Australia, in the face of public opinion, could be attributed to what Eisenhower called the “unwarranted influence… of the military-industrial complex”. This has since been updated, by James Der Derian, into the influential formula of MIME-Net, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (3).

My favourite viewing of the moment, the NBC TV comedy, 30 Rock, starring its creator, the wonderful Tina Fey, is set in the one place on earth where these threads perhaps most obviously meet, namely the corporate HQ of General Electric. A major arms dealer, GE proved a stalwart contributor to CREEP (the Campaign to Re-Elect the President) in 2004, then later picked up $600m worth of Iraq reconstruction contracts. It’s also the majority shareholder of NBC itself.

In my contribution to the book we’re just about to release, to mark CPACS’ coming-of-age (4), I suggest that this “put GE in a position directly to influence public opinion in favour of war… Among the significant factors joining these dots are the growth of corporate PR and the proliferation of on-air pundits from corporate-funded think-tanks, espousing both business-friendly policies and – as in the case of the American Enterprise Institute, prime advocate of the ‘troop surge’ – escalations of military activities”.

ABC and SBS

In a modest attempt at pushback, against some of this influence, I’ve been trying to use the complaints procedures provided for by the ABC to show how the gaps in its coverage amount to an abrogation of its public service agreements. Regular readers will recall how I queried why no-one interviewed on the recently published Defence White Paper took issue with its central premise, that war preparations should continue to be stepped up, at three percent in real terms, year on year.

In return, the corporation sent me links to the transcripts of ten items from radio current affairs programs, but, far from refuting my complaint, they actually supported it. The next step was a referral to the Complaints Review Executive, a former editor by the name of Robert J Batten. OK I can’t resist this… he did indeed batten down the hatches, by dint of ‘misconstruing’ my reference to the ANU poll as an argument that the ABC should have reported its results instead of the White Paper. I’m presently waiting to find the time to take the matter to the next level, the Independent Complaints Review Panel, although, after the experience up to now, I must admit my minds-eye view of such a body is not a million miles from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Another corporate entity that seems content, generally, to reside in its own looking-glass world is Australia’s other public broadcaster, SBS. Its Head of News, Paul Cutler, recently sent a memo to journalists, as silly as it was sinister, forbidding them from referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as ‘Palestinian land’. This was attributed to a ruling by the station’s Ombudsman, Sally Begbie, so I sent her a message, asking her to rescind the ruling, and making what seemed like a sensible recommendation:

“There are a few people, mainly on the Right of Israeli politics, who dispute the fact that these territories are Palestinian land. Perhaps they should be treated, by your journalists, in the same way as people who dispute that anthropogenic global warming is underway? That is, occasionally report their view, and attempt to tell us why they think as they do, but emphasise that the settled consensus of international expert opinion lies on the other side of the question. For all normal purposes, the rightful Palestinian ownership of those territories can – like climate change – be reported as a fact”.

Some weeks later, an SBS functionary sent back a rather pathetic reply, one which exemplified what I have come to think of as the ‘cockroach tendency’ of corporate behaviour – keep as much as possible in the dark, then, when the lights are switched on, find a bureaucratic niche to scurry into, and stay there till the scrutiny has passed. My correspondence, I was told, “does not constitute a formal complaint and is therefore not a matter for this office”. Particularly insulting was the claim that Cutler’s memo, and the reporting of these issues by SBS, should be regarded purely as an “internal matter”.

In an attempt to drag this poppycock out into the open, I put my points into a press release and sent it to a journalist on the media section of the Australian newspaper, who produced a useful article, quoting me – in response to which, I understand, the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, is now being approached with a request to intervene. After all, the first line of the MEAA ethical code stipulates that members should endeavour to report “all relevant information”, and if they are prevented from mentioning the fact that the Occupied Palestinian Territories are Palestinian, then this may be considered a serious drawback. The BBC – doyen of public service broadcasting – was asked to consider the same issue five years ago, it turns out, and reached the opposite conclusion: the phrase, ‘Palestinian land’ “appropriately reflects the content of UN resolutions”.

Boycotting Israel

There are strong arguments on either side of the case for an academic boycott of the Higher Education industry in Israel, which I’ve called for at the University of Sydney, where strong institutional links exist with several Israeli universities. A public meeting we held recently in the Centre saw some vigorous debate with staff and students from the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies. Our own National Tertiary Education Union – fresh from its notable success in achieving a favourable Enterprise Bargaining Agreement with university management – is now planning steps to facilitate a wider debate among its members on campus.

Some of the more persuasive counter-points have to do with the relationships that Lederach identifies as crucial resources for peacebuilding. I fully accept that there is an onus on me to show how productive relationships can be maintained with individual Israeli academic colleagues, where they may help to bridge gaps of interdependence at any level of the conflict.

Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, founders of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, say: “The fact that we go out of our way [in the original boycott call] to ‘Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies’ follows from our realization that there is always a grey area where an academic may be perceived as representing her/himself rather than her/his institution”.

In a similar way, those who’ve protested at the Toronto International Film Festival theming itself on Tel Aviv this year – including screen actors Viggo Mortensen and Danny Glover – make it clear that they are not against individual directors being invited to exhibit. It’s the “decision to host a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv” that makes the festival “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine”. Naomi Klein has described how she switched publication of the Israeli edition of her book, The Shock Doctrine, to a publisher that agreed to use all the proceeds for translating Arabic books into Hebrew, thus enabling her to “boycott the Israeli economy but not Israelis”.

In contrast with this rather sophisticated debate, there is, on the other hand, a familiar annoying whine emanating from some apologists for Israel’s serial breaches of international law: the ‘why us?’ argument. One of its most egregious exponents, the Australian MP Michael Danby, recently ventured into the columns of an online publication, Galus Australis – Jewish Life in the Antipodes. I took the opportunity to post the response it deserved:

I picture apologists for Israel’s serial breaches of international law, like Michael Danby, huddling together in an overheated room somewhere, getting terribly excited when they feel they’ve hit upon a particularly convincing argument, and sallying forth into the real world, certain it’s going to prove persuasive, only to stumble over the one obvious point they forgot.

I’ll let him down gently, then. He may be surprised to learn that, when I was going around, persuading people to boycott South Africa in the 1980s, I was not wholly oblivious to the human rights abuses being endured by the people of Iraq, El Salvador and many others.

In the words of Naomi Klein, boycott is not a dogma: it’s a tactic. The reason for trying it on Israel is that it might work, which is why Danby and his ilk are getting so uptight about it.

Israel presently enjoys impunity for its crimes, which incentivises repetition. End the impunity through BDS and it becomes clear that carrying on the brutal and illegal occupation of Palestinian territory is not in Israel’s interests. That would be a first.

Where the rubber hits the road on the boycott will inevitably vary according to context. For academics, anything that connects us with the revenue streams of Israel’s strategic higher education industry makes us inseparably complicit in the brutal occupation of Palestinian territory and all that it entails. It’s the same logic that animates other sections of the worldwide campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, notably the overwhelming vote by Britain’s Trade Union Congress on a boycott motion, at their annual conference. Coming just before the disgraceful complaisance of the Obama Administration on the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the (Palestinian) West Bank, it shows, perhaps, that the unresponsiveness of institutional frameworks, over basic concepts of justice, obliges us to take matters into our own hands.

References

1) Smelser, Neil, 1962: Theory of collective behaviour, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

2) Lederach, John Paul 1999: ‘Justpeace’, in European Centre for Conflict Prevention, People Building Peace Utrecht: European Centre for Conflict Prevention, pp. 27–36.  

3) Der Derian, James, 2009: Virtuous War, 2nd edition, New York and London: Routledge.

4) Blanchard, Lynda and Chan, Leah (eds), 2009: Ending War, Building Peace, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

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