Books: Blowback / Electronic Whorehouse

Oprah might have got herself into some hot water with her book club, but I'm prepared to give it a shot. As I mentioned at the start of the summer, since November I've had a chance to be unusually bookish. Rather than keeping my brilliantly thought out response to these books all to myself, I figured I ought to share them with the rest of the world. Not reviews, as such. Just a few musings.

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Thanks to Wen Jie Li in allowing me to scandalously breach copyright in using this caricature which is near completely irrelevant to the post.

Blowback, by veteran American Asia-watcher Chalmers Johnson, was hailed as one of the few texts which offered anything close to a prediction of September 11. With a bit of a stretch of the imagination, there is some truth to the claim, and a new prologue is there to help you with the stretching. Johnson takes hackneyed left-wing anti-Americanism and gives some substance to it. Covering examples as diverse as the horrors of Reagan's CIA in Central America, the US military base in Italy and US insensitivity on Taiwan, Johnson constructs the argument that the US empire is both overstretched and counter-productive. Johnson lists a litany of cases where the US military presence has harmed local communities and generated anti-Americanism: the 'blowback' of the title. He does pose a question worth addressing: why has the US done little to wind back its overseas presence since the end of the Cold War, given that repelling the Russians was it's raison d'etre.

The problem with Johnson's argument is that while he puports to assess the costs and benefits of the US overseas presence, he makes little attempt to assess the benefits, and simultaneously oversells the costs. There's little doubt, for example, that the US presence in Taiwan and South Korea has repelled China and North Korea from taking over territory by force. Similarly a US military presence in Europe puts it in a good position to intervene as necessary in the Middle East. Still, it is true that a massive Military-Industrial complex lives on in Washington, and the sooner this muscular excess in reined in, the better. Given the massively superior technology that the US possess, it seems fair to say that it is the mere threat of US military involvement, rather than an on-the-ground presence, is what is needed to keep the North Koreas of this world from taking action.

Next book up is rather more lowbrow: a collection of flotsum and jetsum by former SMH writer Paul Sheehan grouped together under the banner The Electronic Whorehouse. Sheehan has taken a rather schizophrenic approach to this, his second book. Some chapters loosely resemble the work of gangland thugs, marching up to easy targets and belting them around the kneecaps with a literary cricket bat. David Marr, Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson (who, incidentally has chosen a terrible photo of himself on his website) all cop an Andrew Symonds-style walloping. Alongside all this, however, is a thoughtful collection of essays encapsulating a calm and rational conservative approach to sensitive issues such as asylum seekers and the Stolen Generation.

If you can look past the bitterness and anger, Sheehan has a valid point to make: the liberal, and occasionally radical, perspective has become the sole legitimate point of view of much for the mainstream media establishment. So ingrained is the bias that its proponents don't recognise it as a bias at all. Reading his thoughtful and intelligent defence of the status quo in Australia's refugee program, for example, it was startling to realise that this line of argument struggled to make it into Fairfax or the ABC, although a far more hysterical version found its way into the Murdoch and Southern Cross media outlets. Sheehan has made a name for himself as a bit of a headkicker: his first book, Among the Barbarians, stirred up plenty of controversy when it tackled obssessive political correctness. The approach kind of works, but then again, much like Andrew Bolt, Phillip Adams and Robert Manne, the shtick is getting just a little tired.


(pre-empting ur next post Ari)

The thing about Leunig that pisses me off is that he has about as much understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a 1st year undergrad who has taken a course or two and maybe even read a book on the issue.

Foremost, his cartoons are incredibly patronising, suggesting that the Jews are misguided and have come nowhere since the Holocaust. Like the Jews have somehow chosen 'war' over his beloved peace. Like the Holocaust was a choice, like establishing a national home was a choice...the alternative was extermination. In reality, peace is fleeting and incredibly difficult to obtain particularly when a society is faced with self-preservation at all costs.

Next, it is probably the complexity of the conflict that is what makes it so violent -- it has been described of a war of 'right and right'. Thus, both sides have claims to the land. Therefore, the conflict is complicated.

Either Leunig does not appreciate the moral minefield navigated by Israelis and Palestinians every single day...or simply his cartoons, as an artistic/political medium, fail to reflect this.

He has all the ability and motivation of a 1st year Arts undergrad
boy_fromOz said…
methinks you don't give first year Arts undergrads enough credit...
NahumAyliffe said…
I disagree with Sheehan's central proposition, if he suggests that the overwhelmingly legitimate opinion position is a liberal position.

As an avid reader of opinion pages, there is considerable variety of views presented by the different columnists in the broadsheets.

Marr is probably one of the most liberal, and Henderson is a lot more Conservative than Marr or Manne.

If you consider that the prevailing logic of Australian, and Western politics is Capital C Conservative (nothing splits Beazley and Howard on most issues), then don't we need a counterveiling ideology, and commentary?
boy_fromOz said…
By what stretch is Henderson a 'liberal' (in the American sense of the word)? He's the local Charles Krauthammer - neocon is the best tag for him, if tag you must. But he's definitely way out in right field.

As for our broadsheets, a token dissenting columnist (Phillip Adams, Tony Parkinson) doesn't balance make, nor does publishing contrarian guest pieces every 3-4 days. I'll grant that Age editorials avoid the vicious attacks typical of Murdoch papers, but that doesn't make them less partisan. The only moderately balanced section is the letters.
Ari Sharp said…
Maybe I missed something, but I don't think anyone ever suggested Henderson was a liberal. I simply put him in a list with two others who happen to be Liberals. The reason Sheehan attacks him is firstly, because he thinks Henderson is boring as batshit, and secondly because he thinks Henderson is nepotistic and corrupted by sponsors. Worth reading, although it's a bit lightweight.

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