“Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit”

America is becoming sicker by the day. We really can’t mince words any longer without being dishonest.

We now have (7-10-2012), a few weeks before the Presidential election, the first sighting in several states of light plastic chairs, swaying in the wind, hanging from the trees, empty chairs labelled “No-Bama’ (remember Clint Eastwood’s ‘empty chair’ symbol at last week’s the Republican Nomination meeting).

“People kept stealing the chair; we just have to take extra precautions”, said one innocent owner of a swinging plastic chair. “There’s a constitution. Some people forget that” said another more defiant mum.

But we all know. A repetition of the past – not too distant a past. A lynching of a black. Traditions sometimes take a long time to die.


Two weeks ago it was the anniversary of the last hours of a sixteen year old black youth, charged and found guilty of the rape and murder of a white woman in Waco, Texas in 1916. Seized from the court room, castrated, fingers amputated, tied and burnt slowly for two hours over a fire until ‘he’ was reduced to charcoal.

Fifteen thousand locals watched, including the police and schoolchildren (during their lunch break).

It was said later than he was probably not guilty of either crime. He was, however, truly a black. (I quote Wikipedia).

“Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit
Blood on the Leaves and Blood at the Root

Don Miller


Taking Liberties

How dare some people! The liberties they take! Who do they think they are?

Most people have heard of the posters put up (in their hundreds?) throughout the New York subway network announcing “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.” Between two Stars of David it adds “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The authors were the Anti-Muslim American Freedom Defence Initiative.

The US court ruled that this was allowed under the First Amendment. (Technically correct, but perhaps debatable).

Egyptian-American writer, Mona Eltahawy, has been arrested in New York (28-9-2012) after spraying paint over one of the posters.

Michael Leunig, Melbourne cartoonist, in The Age (Melb) newspaper (29-9-2012) has a ten-line poem which begins
God in all his wisdom hates
Enemies of the United States
Enemies of the birds and bees
Are free to do just what they please

A drone hovers high above the poem. The duck turns its head.

Don Miller

You are/are not allowed to take liberties and reply.


Agent Orange

Forty-two years after the end of the Vietnam War, or as it is called in Vietnam, the American War, the American government has finally offered to clean up (if it can) the area around Danang airport, where the defoliating poisons were mixed and stored.
At this moment there is no commitment to extend the work into the agricultural and forest areas affected. According to American records 20,000,000 gallons of the poison, mixed at thirteen times more than the recommended strength in America to make it more lethal, were sprayed in 6,542 flying missions between 1961 and 1971. According to Vietnam sources approximately one million locals have been affected. Deformed and stillborn are still occurring. Up to now America has denied any responsibility. The infamous Agent Orange.

The apparent change of heart announced last week (still without accepting responsibility for creating the tragedy – the spokesman referred to only “out past mutual tragedy”) has been greeted by many Australians, I sense, as ‘good, a bit late, but better late than never’. No word has yet crept into the public realm suggesting a closer look. Why, for example, now? As in so many things, and certainly in politics, domestic or foreign, timing is everything. ‘When’ something is done is critical in determining exactly ‘what’ is being done, and what is the real purpose for doing something ‘then’ rather than some other time. Why now after 42 years?

As soon as you ask that question, the answer is obvious. It is now a mere few months since President Obama announced in Darwin the new American policy, to stay the power it has been in the Asia-Pacific; in other words, and no-one has doubted its meaning, to ‘contain’ China – without that word being used. America is not withdrawing, nor sharing the region with anyone else. The wisdom of that policy has quickly become a matter of serious thought.

Within a matter of months, Australia has agreed to America having land and water facilities in and around Darwin – an agreement already in operation. It is about to be provided facilities in and around Perth for its largest ships; and, most contentiously of all, its use of the Cocos Is. for its ‘drone’ unmanned aircraft is likely to be settled in the near future, despite the clear global antipathy to that silent killer. Governments can move quickly when they want to.

In addition America has recently expressed varying degrees of ‘sympathy’ with the several countries in the Asian and S.E. Asian region which have a range of differences of opinion with China, not least on mining rights in certain waters and on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

It is obviously now the right time, according to an American calculus, to make closer relations with those strategically significant nations: voila Vietnam. It needs no change of heart, simply conceiving a cool tactical move. The particular American proposal has an additional advantage. A real value-added trump. Once America ‘clears’ Danang it will be difficult for Vietnam to turn down an offer to extend the cleansing exercise elsewhere, with the simple cost of American rights to the use of the Danang airport. If successful, a clever set of exchanges indeed.

That’s politics. Don’t think of change of heart, or of altruism. It is a nasty game; but in this instance , it is also a disastrous blunder by America for the future of world peace. It is not merely escalating anxieties, suspicions and frictions, it is galloping at them. The very speed of America’s move during this year is enough to raise the temperature of many international relations in the region. A combination of pride and paranoia can appear, too easily, as a ‘decent gesture’, a value that unfortunately has little traction in the international lexicon.

This blog will appear on www.melbournecentreforideas.com and

Discussion is always welcome.

Don Miller
Director, MCI
August 14, 2012



It is often amusing and more often distressing to see the great American consensus at work. A bit-performer in maintaining that comforting and loyalist consensus – on most everything – is the ‘liberal’ New York Times.

I thought that today having read its obituary of Gore Vidal – among many other things, America’s undoubtedly greatest essayist – (reprinted in The Age,(Melb), August 2, 2012).

Having referred to his well known public spats with the likes of Norman Mailer, Al Capote and William Buckley Jnr., the obituary continues:
“Some of his political positions were similarly quarrelsome and provocative. Vidal was an unspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians”.

“Quarrelsome and provocative”! Is that the appropriate language to describe criticism of a nation which almost the entire world agrees has been frequently ‘immoral’ and ‘guilty of war crimes’? How bold can you get? How clever to sound almost liberal and mildly chastising while being effectively reactionary and intolerant of any view outside the myopic domestic mainstream?

For some reason that language reminds me of another but different occasion. After 9/11 the London Review of Books invited its regular reviewers to write a short piece on their reactions to that tragic event. Between thirty and forty articles appeared in the next issue; many expressing an opinion, among other things, that it would be a good time for America and the West generally to look at themselves and their behaviour in the Middle East over the last millennium.

In the following issue of the LRB one of the many letters published including one from a New Yorker which said that the next time he was in London he intends to enter the office of the LRB and thump on its desk a bag of his shit. That poor man had obviously been provoked.

Don Miller
Melbourne Centre for Ideas


Is that still democracy?

Most westerners have a general idea what a democracy entails: such as rule of law, free, regular elections, adult franchise, free press, government succession orderly and non-violent. That is, a government elected by and responsible to the people. Or, in other words, a relationship between state and people that is regulated, predictable and recognised as legitimate.

And the purpose, rarely articulated in any document, is to sustain the people’s wellbeing. The arrangement can take many forms. But people intuitively know when ‘democracy’ has been breached. The State is seen as acting too arbitrarily or too consistently against the people’s interests. It is considered undemocratic and illegitimate when it abuses its power.

It is a mistake however we were to assume that all world governments fit into one of those two types. Observers have in fact conceived of at least one other form of political rule, and they point to several African states they call ‘broken-backed’ states – those that are so wracked by opposition groups violently undermining them, by one means or another including violence, that they are incapable of pursuing normal state activities. They are made inoperative. In this situation people’s interests are harmed despite state efforts to the contrary.

But is there an unwitting ethnocentrism in finding broken-backed states only in ‘darkest’ Africa. None in the West?

Why, for example, does no American Federal government ever try to place some control on gun ownership despite the pleas to do so following every gun massacre around that country? I don’t know what percentage of members of Congress own one or more guns – it would be a significant number however. But we do know, anecdotally, the power of the NRA. One simple comparison is telling: during the American election of 2010 the anti-gun lobby collected $5 million to promote its cause. NRA raised $253 million for the same purpose. It has power.

Why has BP been given permission to drill for oil in the waters off the north-west coast despite what was said after the oil disaster BP was intimately involved in off the south-west coast last year? Check the size of political donations from the oil industry to all Presidential and Congress elections now and over the years. And we could go on. Banking? Finance? Who controls whom in actual practice?

The American government of Congress and Presidency is powerless to act against the interests of big corporations. No government runs the country; the Economy (for shorthand) does because it runs the Government. The situation has the hallmarks of certain African states: the state is not free to do what it would like to do, and the people suffer. It is a broken-backed state.

And if so should we continue to call America a democracy? Even to ask that question is disturbing. We may need to coin a new expression. America is no longer essentially a ‘political system’; it is now an ‘economic system’. Money rules – and it rules in its own interests only; not in the interest of the people. As for politicians and their offices? – mere foot-soldiers of the economy. Politics as we knew it no longer exists.

How about commenting on this blog – whether you like it or not.

Don Miller
Melbourne Centre or Ideas


An Elephant in the Room

It’s a nice expression; and or but it’s far from trivial in its relation to reality. It boldly points to that human behaviour we all know and apply of turning our backs, literally and metaphorically, on something almost impossible to ignore, but which to our mortification, we may let slip and ‘give it away’. Like poor Basil Fawlty’s advice to his hotel staff “Don’t mention the war” as a group of German tourists arrive as guests.

Politicians are more adept at such manoeuvres. I was reminded of this again when listening to our national leaders debating the ‘best’ way to cope with the ‘boat people’. So many questions are raised: is it this country or that country, this factor or that factor we should consider most. The two major parties are at each other’s throat – yet that is odd because each party is complicit in keeping the same secret. Cleverly they distract the public from looking at the real issues by mesmerising us with their mutual hysteria: should we, the ‘responsible’ parties of Labor and Liberal as distinct from the ‘irresponsible and extremist’ parties like the Greens, should we condemn more the evil owners of the rotting boats who scandalously fleece the families seeking safe refuge, or should we condemn more the boat-people themselves who use all manner of deceit to get into our blessed country full of its well-earned prosperity and peace?

Like Basil who must not ‘mention the war’, our leading politicians keep a wary eye on a bigger elephant – ‘don’t mention the war we started’.

The one thing that our national leaders cannot mention is that we caused the misery the boat people are now trying to escape. If it were not for America and its yes-men like Australia who started the war in Afghanistan, and for twelve years have continued that war, destroying its very social and physical fabric, Afghans in their tens of thousands would not be daily risking their lives to get away from that maetstrom we set in motion. And is it our quiet guilt that makes us now punish the Afghan people for a second time? We have a lot to hide and deny.

Don Miller
Melbourne Centre for Ideas

This Blog is also posted at


Correspondence, to be published or not according to the writer’s wish, is always welcome.


America – its Ill-health

The Supreme Court has surprisingly ruled 5 to 4 (more on that another time) that the Obama Health scheme was generally but not totally unconstitutional. What sort of victory or defeat is that?

At the time of its Congress passing, after two years of bitter struggle, the bill had reached its most diluted form possible. Many argued it was a waste of time achieving such a pathetic effort, especially at such a political cost. There must now be some relief among the thirty millions Americans who for the first now have health coverage, but the rest of the population it seems maintains its bitterly help opposing opinions.

Republicans promise to repeal the entire bill once it wins the Presidency. The mood against ‘Obamacare’ is ugly, as Americans can do so easily, increasingly so. Listen to what The Age correspondent reports (June 30, 2012):
A young man sweating in a suit and tie in the 35-degree heat (of Washington) told The Saturday Age “To me, communism has now descended upon America. This allows the Government to do whatever they want whenever they want”.
This is not simply the sentiment of the odd paranoid freak; in more judicious, learned, rational language this is also the mood expressed in most of the articles published in The Washington Post today on this issue.

America has always prided itself on its ‘exceptionalism’. Its self-image is becoming an increasingly accurate portrayal of its reality – domestically and internationally. But that particular value can cast different shadows. A ‘rogue-state’ can never be a healthy state – for itself and the world.

Don Miller, Melbourne Centre for Ideas,
June 30, 2012


Science Fiction?

Regular readers of Melbourne Centre for Ideas will know that I am not normally a great barracker for the virtues of science and technology. Anything new dished up is invariably embraced as yet another God-sent benefit. And it distresses me to hear so many people argue that if there is such a thing as global warming seriously threatening our future, mankind will once again step into ‘innovation mode’ and create technology that will solve the problem for us. There will be, they add, no need for us to change our ways.

But on a flight the other day, when the captain announced we were cruising at 39,000 feet, I looked out and saw nothing but blue sky and sunshine, and I suddenly thought: “It seem feasible that one day science could conceive a means by which aircraft could be made of a material making it a perfect solar panel. And what a permanent sun-trap! Once above cloud level, every flight around the globe would be constantly energising itself. Even night flights could be fuelled by power captured during the day. Free flying – both in terms of fuel costs and in its pollution-free effect.”

I remember then thinking whether that meant ‘more flights the better’ – but a moment’s reflection corrected that false hope: the scheme and technology as the stand at the moment in my mind are, as it were, simply paying for the trips being made, rescuing the aircraft industry from its extreme odium of giant polluter and, in the process, making a huge reduction to the human task of reducing carbon. Impressive enough, but it’s not everything.

And that triggered my further thought. What is next needed is a way of capturing that solar energy up there, and transferring it to earth making more and more collective human production and services free of energy and ancillary costs. That would require a means of saving surplus solar energy, and then ‘channelling’ it earth-bound to ‘banks’ for further distribution industry-wide according to priorities determined.

How to capture or create surplus solar energy seems the primary task. Civilian airlines cannot be expected to do more than pay for their own fares. Which
lead to my next thought. If we need planes without the weight of humans and baggage and freed from the necessity to be going between specific destinations all the time, we need look no further: we have them already. Drones.

That remote-controlled inhuman monstrosity, deservedly despised throughout the world, can be rescued from all opprobrium. Henceforth flotillas of drones, size enlarged preferably, to be launched to permanently fly the skies in formations set and guided never to interfere with each other or any civilian aircraft, to do nothing but absorb solar energy which it then transmits to energy reservoirs scattered around the globe. (That transmission earthwards is an additional task outside my ken to speculate – but at least we know drones target quite accurately). The craft may need to return to earth periodically (once a week, month, year – who knows) for possible maintenance purposes.

A constant supervision of the drones ( pity the word ‘ergs’ is already taken) can be left in the hands of a handful of people). I imagine on occasions a drone could technically turn rogue, but it can immediately and harmlessly be remotely ‘removed’ by any supervisor employed by the CIA (Centre for Intelligent Affairs), a new instrumentality of the U.N.

That was all I imagined during the flight.
Above the clouds the sky is the limit. Up there, solar-energy is really do-able. Drones, redeemed, could save us all.

Don Miller


To be posted on www.melbournecentreforideas.com
and http://melbournecentreforrideas.posterous.com


Religion and the Eternal return

Most people think that as time passes, Life continues its evolutionary movement ever forward. Progress, that triumphal word, maintains its linear thrust. With a moment’s pause, however, that simple ‘story’ of our ‘history’ (the two words are of the same Latin root) needs to be taken essentially as a history only of the west; from this perspective the remainder continues in its mire of superstition, cruelty, poverty and ignorance.

Only the west had an Enlightenment, the argument reminds us, a sustained explosion of knowledge, four hundred years ago and ever since, its civilisation of science, rationality, and ultimately democracy has delivered bountiful benefits. Only this modern west, endowed with a scientific spirit and a thirst for endless, new technology, scientific experimentation and innovation could land a man on the moon, perform feats of surgical brilliance, and display breathtaking speed in all things, unbelievable a mere hundred years ago.

Not everyone is convinced by this fulsome exhortations of the west’s history. Certainly Nietzsche, one of the early sceptics, and there have been many since, argues that along with the apparent benefits of the post-Enlightenment, a nasty, brutal and ignorant history has continued, marring mankind’s popular self-image. Indeed, we seem destined to endlessly repeat ourselves – our ‘eternal return’. Our past clings on; seemingly impossible to permanently dislodge.

Over the last half century American scholars in particular have analysed what is needed to allow the impoverished and superstitious non-western societies to become ‘modern’/‘western’ – economically, politically and culturally. What, in other words, will help them become secular, democratic and rational beings.

However I sense a new uncertainty and ambivalence in discussing these matters in recent years. Some societies have become economically successful/modern without accompanying democratic or cultural progress. Our teleology of/for the ‘third world’ seems very shaky these days. Furthermore the buoyant images of ourselves, as modernists, are also being dislodged. Religion in America, for example, is growing at a pace; not as expected, gradually withering on the vine. Further and surprisingly, this religious fervour has become dramatically political in its interests and activities. And most people, I suspect, are aware of the continued battle to have forms of Christian teachings on the birth of mankind taught in schools in opposition to or replacement of the recognised evolutionist theories of science. Is America still a secular state as always assumed?

And now the latest news. Once again an Eternal Return. The Past becoming the Present. Twenty or so years ago, the first of America’s one hundred and fifty Medical Schools introduced a new subject in its curriculum, ‘Religion and Medicine’. Today one hundred Medical Schools have such a course – 66 per cent of the total tertiary institutions educating the future medical profession. And the course is compulsory.

To return.

Don Miller

MCI Blogs for the month of May include “Words, Words, Words”; “News, Views and Ads”; “Capitalism” on either
and http://melbournecentreforideas.posterous.con

Comments are always welcome.


“All the news fit to print”

Ive forgotten when and where that famous piece of journalistic creed first appeared. It certainly has captured the attention of many – writers and readers. But what is ‘fit’? And fitness for whom? One wonders how often is it abused – as it can so easily be with such an elastic word – or perhaps all words. And how often does a public know when the article of faith is being ‘misapplied’, and something too potentially troublesome to print is quietly interred.

It would be interesting to know how many news sources in the USA have decided to publish or not the findings of a recent UNESCO research – ‘Report Card 10’ – which discovered that America has the second-highest rate of child poverty among thirty-five developed countries. Only Rumania was higher, with 26.5 percent; America 23.1, followed by Latvia and Bulgaria at 18.8, Spain 17.1, and Greece 16.

Iceland had the lowest child poverty rate 4.7, followed by Finland at 5.3, Cyprus and the Netherlands at 6.1 and Norway at 6.3.

The Research also studied child deprivation, defined for the purpose as a child who lacked two or more of 14 basic items, such as three meals a day, a quiet place to do homework, educational books at home, or an internet connection. Rumania, Bulgaria and Portugal had the highest rates of deprivation; but richer countries like France and Italy had rates higher than 10 percent. The Nordic countries all had rates of 3 or below.

It also showed that government policies play a role in these matters; it is not a straight result of national wealth. Denmark and Sweden had lower rates of child deprivation than Germany and Belgium – all on roughly similar levels of national economy and personal income.

There are no surprises, I am sure, to many people outside of America. Broad public opinion inside the USA is another matter. The propaganda machine, pervasive and powerful, is difficult to resist; and a public concern for the needs of others is coming to be seen as a sure badge of disloyalty. Denial on a grand scale makes ‘seeing’ certain matters problematic. The western tradition of ‘care’ is retreating on many fronts everywhere.

Don Miller