What I'm reading (foreign politics and foreign policy)

Andrew Cockburn, Like A Ball of Fire (LRB)

But when you look more closely at the history of the Cold War and its post-Soviet resurgence, you see that a very different process is at work, in which the arms lobby on each side has self-interestedly sought capital and bureaucratic advantage while enlisting its counterpart on the other side as a justification for its own ambition. In other words, they enjoy a mutually profitable partnership...

Pam Campos-Palma, November Revolution, Fellow Travelers Blog

To that end, a few things I’ve observed this cycle keep me up at night. One is the continued lack of understanding by political operatives, think tankers, and wonks of the populist moment we’re in after decades of increasing wealth inequality, systemic corruption, and institutions failing everyday people. A prime fuel for the populist turn in politics are elite, insular institutions who refuse or are very slow to acknowledge their lack of race-class-gender analysis has been a liability. Foreign policy and national security institutions embody this problem, arguably to an unparalleled extent. One of the few political articles of faith left for the mainstream foreign policy community is the arrogant and ignorant belief that everyday Americans either do not care or aren’t educated enough to grasp matters of foreign policy.

Euan Graham, The Pitfalls of Pragmatism, The Strategist

Australia’s roustabout China policy debate is intense and polarising, but largely exogenously framed. Beyond former prime minister Tony Abbott’s celebrated ‘fear and greed’ aphorism, not a lot of thought seems to be directed at why some Australians—and here I’m excluding those solely in it for the money—appear willing to resign themselves to falling within China’s orbit.

Theirs may be the more durable wisdom for all I know. But it leads me to wonder whether a predisposition towards fatalism and pragmatism may be cultural in origin—a trait shaped by Australia’s geographic isolation and colonial past...

...I suspect that the drivers behind fatalism and pragmatism go beyond Abbott’s binary reduction, tapping into deeper, historical currents running through the national psyche that also inform Australia’s ‘strategic personality’. It may be a stretch to draw a colonial connection, and as a wandering Brit who has pitched his tent here, I probably shouldn’t go there.

But my gut feeling is that there are enduring habits of deference (less kindly, the ‘cultural cringe’), and an associated tendency to ‘go with the strength’, which hark back to the early period of European settlement, when the governor was the absolute authority of all that he surveyed, and paths to opportunity meant being on good terms with the power of the day.

This jars with that more easy-going depiction of national character: the anti-authoritarian, non-rule-abiding ‘larrikin’. Yet one of Australia’s best-kept secrets is how extraordinarily rule-bound and subtly hierarchical it is as a society.

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What I'm reading: from ideology to knitting

William Davies reviews Thomas Piketty's Capital and Ideology, The Guardian.

Capital and Ideology is an astonishing experiment in social science, one that defies easy comparison. In its ambition, obsessive testimony and sheer oddness, it is closer to the spirit of Karl Ove Knausgård than of Karl Marx. It alternates between sweeping generalities about the nature of justice and the kind of wonkery that one might expect from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, often in the same paragraph. It is occasionally naive (it will bug the hell out of historians and anthropologists) but in a provocative fashion, as if to say: if inequality isn’t justified, why not change it?

Martin Filler, Trump's Towering Folly on Federal Architecture (New York Review of Books).

Because of the thoroughgoing threat to democracy signaled by the Republican Party’s abject capitulation to Trump, I’ve heretofore thought it frivolous to address the aesthetics of the current regime, mindful of that old saw about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That was my attitude until February 4, when Architectural Record broke a news story about a proposed executive order that would make it mandatory for all new federally sponsored buildings to adhere to a Classical style. This effective ban on modern architecture commissioned by the US government is horrifyingly reminiscent of Hitler’s insistence that public buildings in the Third Reich hew to the Classical tradition (though usually a stripped-down version of it) and that modern design, except for some industrial uses, was streng verboten (strictly forbidden).

Aleesha Paz, Raise Your Needles, Public Books (originally published in the Sydney Review of Books)

Historically, knitting wasn’t linked to any particular gender. This gendering only developed in the last couple of centuries, but ever since it became a women’s activity knitting has struggled to be recognised as valuable, skilled work. To knit in public is to cast off any shame associated with the craft, and seeing other members of your community engage in this transformative process legitimises knitting for the crafty individual and also normalises its presence in public places.

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Manning Bar

SYDNEY UNIVERSITY'S MANNING BAR is to close to day trade. Sic transit gloria mundi, I spent a great deal of time there in my own early adulthood, drinking, and arguing about politics and history, and drinking some more, and watching the votes of student elections come in. When I began a PhD I used it as an office, because nobody would give me a desk, and it was usually quieter and calmer than the library. The kind of fruitless, restive underemployment being there represented turned out to be something of a motif in my adulthood. It was a formative place for me, though nobody can claim anything I or anyone did there has made the world a better place. Quite the opposite, when I'm honest with myself.

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Clerical companionship

EDWARD LUTTWAK IN 1994 wrote a completely prescient article, dunking (in contemporary terms) on Francis Fukuyma. (It is pointed to by Ferdinand Mount in the most recent edition, writing about Brexit). It is exactly as startling as Mount says it is to recognise one’s own times in a two-decades old article; it is depressing to realise that job insecurity, the fundamental working condition of everyone in 2020, still has no meaningful-realistic political answer, on the political left or right. The most confronting sentence for me though, in the 26 year old article was the strange, aside, mention of a bit of workplace culture long forgotten:

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Delusion

THE NSW CIVIL AND Administrative Tribunal, which rules on the correctness of decisions made in some lower decision-making bodies, was asked to decide whether a ‘Qanon’ blog, run by a psychiatrist, was itself evidence of mental impairment, for the purposes of deregistration. It decided it was, and with the—extremely, as they say, wild—other behaviours, upheld the decision. ‘Qanon’, for the uninitiated, is an umbrella-term for a set of far-right conspiracy theories largely to do with imagined opponents of President Trump, and range from the banal, to the tediously anti-semitic, to the truly, literarily, strange.

I am personally fascinated by the question of delusions, and where they can be drawn as separate to merely unusual political or religious beliefs. I don’t think it’s possible to easily identify one from the other, at least not permanently. N Hennessy ADCJ, obiter dicta:

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