This is part 2 of my 2022 reading list – part 1 can be found here. It is here the focus of my reading (for the most part) was on Australian foreign policy and Indigenous politics as they were some of the units I took at university in first semester. Again, it is in the order that I finished reading them, so there are some odd jumps as I read multiple books at once.
China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering – David Brophy
You would be mistaken for thinking that there are only two positions you can have on China and its role in the world – either they are a major threat, not just economically but also militarily as the “new Cold War” rhetoric starts ringing, or they are the future and we must embrace their dominance or get left behind. Unsurprisingly, put in a bit of thought and nuanced opinions and stances can be taken. David Brophy does just that, taking a realistic approach to China and Australia’s foreign policy towards our large neighbour.
For instance, we need to be pragmatic and realistic. China is a rising power, and their economic influence – gained primarily through investments and infrastructure abroad (as opposed to US force and subversion) – cannot be ignored. They are Australia’s largest trade partner, and despite our new fancy AUKUS agreement and the Coalition’s fearmongering over war prospects, there is no indication China is interested in military endeavours beyond what they consider their territory.
Which is where the other side comes in – China, like the US, like Russia, like any other country, must be held accountable for their actions, including domestic policy. Particularly, from the foreign policy viewpoint, the cases of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang are the most prominent. While beating our chest at Asia may make for some exciting headlines for the masses, it does nothing for those we ostensibly support the freedom and autonomy of and actually puts us at risk. If Australia wishes to maintain its status as a “middle-power”, or a player at all, in the Asia-Pacific region, our engagement with it needs to be constructive. This does not mean conceding to China and staying silent to their abuses (like we do with the US), but there are alternative pathways to simply antagonising them.
I’d recommend this book as a good overview of the situation.
The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) – Katie Mack
There is no better way to contribute to a constant existential crisis than by reading a short book about the multiple ways the very universe itself may end, as if the mortality of man wasn’t enough. It was fun though – Katie Mack takes a very light-hearted approach to the end, detailing a number of ways the demise of the universe could take place. From the usual expansion and heat death and the “big crunch” (which, with space-time acceleration increasing, is unlikely), to the rather horrifying vacuum decay, you can rest assured the universe will end in timescales beyond our comprehension.
Unless a vacuum has formed with part of our universe entering a lower-energy state close enough to us that expansion doesn’t counter the speed of light…
The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy
I thought this was a book, it kind of is, but it turned out to just be an edition of the Australian Foreign Policy journal. Some real nerd shit.
More or Less: Democracy and New Media – Helen Sykes (Editor)
This was a collection of essays, speeches, and other writings on various topics, most of which didn’t particularly interest me as much as I thought it would when I picked it up at a local Bookfest. There was, however, one rather amusing speech included for which the publication date must be noted – 2012. Former journalist, investment banker, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech to journalists about journalism, the 24 hour news cycle, and politics. As with many issues, it appeared that he did actually care somewhat about the integrity and role of the media as watchdogs of the powerful – enough to state the importance of the ABC and how social media could not possibly take on the task of outlets like the Sydney Morning Herald at holding power to account.
Contrast this to his party – under his leadership – attacking the ABC relentlessly and deregulating media ownership laws (that, ironically, Labor introduced under Keating that helped Murdoch and Packer consolidate power in specific mediums) that allowed Packer to buyout and merge Fairfax into Nine Entertainment, gutting the once respected outlet more than it already had been by that stage. As with climate change, either Turnbull genuinely cared but was such a spineless cuck to the powerbrokers of his party, or his attempt to rebuild his image since losing the PM role in 2018 is pure bullshit. Neither explanation helps his case.
The Timor-Leste/Australia Conciliation: A Victory for UNCLOS and Peaceful Settlement of Disputes – Hao Duy Phan | Tara Davenport | Robert Beckman (Editors)
This is an extremely fascinating book – and I cannot recommend it enough if you are interested in Australian foreign policy regarding Timor-Leste and resource exploitation. The Treaty created as a result of the UNCLOS settlements in 2018 is one of the greatest underdog victories of the 21st Century, which frankly did not go far enough but the results speak for themselves. Since the end of World War 2, when East Timor was still Portuguese Timor, Australia has had a shameful history in the Timor Sea in pursuit of profits. I would also recommend Kim McGrath’s Crossing the Line and Bernard Collaery’s Oil Under Troubled Water (which I am yet to finish).
We negotiated agreeable terms with Suharto, the vicious US-backed dictator in Indonesia, to keep the maritime border with East Timor vague as a third of their population was wiped out. Gough Whitlam wanted a “democratic” takeover by Indonesia, and after his dismissal Fraser was the first, and for a long time only, one to recognise Indonesia’s control over East Timor. Only when the US pulled the plug on Suharto in the late 1990s did we have a green light through the UN to look like the benevolent peacekeepers that helped Timor-Leste achieve independence. John Howard then proceeded to have ASIS conduct espionage and shaft the fledgling government of a tiny nation to ensure Australia got the lion’s share of resources that rightfully belonged to Timor-Leste. Upwards of $5B was stolen over all this time, but Australia managed to get by without retrospective repayments or reparations to our poor neighbour.
What is most telling is how Australia and Timor-Leste viewed these negotiations. Both countries had a section to detail their involvement and thoughts, and the contrast is staggering. Australia’s section is short, describing how relations have been frayed but that we have always strived for the most equitable outcome. The Treaty was heralded as a fantastic result, and showed just how amazing the UN and the “rules-based international order” was in achieving it.
Timor-Leste, on the other hand, took this occasion to detail some of the real history. This included how hard they had to fight to get the UN involved, and noting how Australia tried to excuse itself from certain parts of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea so they did not have to dragged into talks. Anyone who thought the Australian government, particularly the Coalition, was going to willingly negotiate when Woodside profits were on the line is dreaming.
Thankfully, Timor-Leste won the day, although that has not stopped Australia trying to get the oil processed on Australian soil to make bank on the “waste product” gases in the meantime.
God and the State – Mikhail Bakunin
Here Bakunin specifically focuses on Christianity, because that is the religion that had dominated the West, but some of his arguments against religion and deities could apply to any religion or spiritual belief. One more unique to the monotheistic religions, however, I think sums up his main point:
“The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice.”
This conception of God, wielded by both Church and State, is supreme – as master, mankind must be a slave. Bakunin believed that as a slave, man (to use the language of the time) therefore has no freedom or justice, no prosperity or equality, as it is all out of reach. In a rather amusing statement, he hit back at Voltaire by saying “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”
An anarchist refutation of the State, the Church, and even God himself is hardly out of place, but there is one chapter in the book that stands out. Some religious people (and I’ve known a few like this) quite hypocritically flip the conversation to the “belief” in science. On the extreme end there is just plain ignorance and dangerous denialism – evolution, climate change, and matters of the universe’s (or universes’, perhaps) origins are the main ones I see online. But mostly it is scepticism, as though they (the believers in a God reliant on faith) are the gatekeepers of sceptic thought.
To the contrary, Bakunin dedicates a whole chapter against the “government of science”, of savants who would be aristocratic and keep science from the masses and thus faith in them is required to know truth. Science, instead, must be liberated, freely accessible to all so that unjust authority cannot be derived from it. For example, I would absolutely defer to the vast, vast majority of climate scientists on the consensus of global warming – not on faith, but because while I do not study it in as much depth, I can access and understand the science involved and see the facts. (Ironically, it was also a religious acquaintance who said academic literature did not need to be free to the public…)
And that knowledge is not blind faith either, nor is it absolute. A scientific theory is our best understanding and explanation of natural phenomena given the observations, evidence and rigorous testing of hypotheses. Science can and has changed course with the discovery of new ideas and observations, and if something were to shake up a theory like, say, gravity, one would hope it is the evidence that is followed.
A Secret Country – John Pilger
As a journalism student who also has a passion for history and the lessons we can learn from it, this semi-history book by Pilger, a renowned (if sometimes misguided) journalist, on a different shade of Australia’s past was fascinating. It digs into some of the less savoury aspects of our history, and into the political intrigue and corruption of the government and media. There is one chapter that is curious though, and it relates to the Dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975.
Pilger was a major voice in the story of the CIA backed soft-coup against our elected government, detailing Washington’s fury at Whitlam’s push for independence from US influence and the complicity of our own secret intelligence agencies (of which Kerr is claimed to be embedded in). For a while, I also believed this – and there is compelling enough motive for it. Whitlam did oppose the violent Chilean coup in 1973, recalling ASIS’ involvement once he found out we were involved there under American orders. There were also questions about whether he would allow US bases like Pine Gap to continue operation on Australian soil.
But my thoughts this year – indeed, for the past few years that I’ve insisted on the coup narrative myself – have changed somewhat. I do think there were antagonisms between the US government and Whitlam, and certainly Whitlam had a frayed relationship with the intelligence community. But generally, with Bob Hawke having such great sway over the Union movement, the Labor Party was fairly in line with US economic interests. Most tellingly, Whitlam was supportive of the Indonesian takeover of East Timor (as mentioned in the previous post), which is an extreme derivation from the popular image of him.
There also just isn’t enough real evidence, including from the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, to show that there was such a strong effort to remove Whitlam. Pilger, then as now in some instances, placed his opposition to the United States ahead of verifiable fact. And many have latched onto this since.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – Elizabeth Kolbert
Kolbert goes on a journey through time, describing the various mass extinction events that have almost completely wiped out life on the Earth. There are five major ones, all of which occurred due to natural processes and circumstances. We are on the cusp of the sixth – the Holocene – which is not natural. From trees migrating up the Andes, coral reefs dying out, and vanishing insects, it is quite a dire picture for the future of life on this planet.
Her conclusion is that humanity has a power that no other species has ever had, nothing less than the ability to decide how many evolutionary pathways will be lost forever as a direct result of our actions. In the grand scheme of things, human survival is negligible, but as an animal that can shape the future – and, when it is so inclined, cares about that future – the question of what legacy we want to leave behind becomes paramount. Because at the moment, we are leaving nothing but death in a preventable version of global catastrophe.
The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty – Aileen Moreton-Robinson
Along with Marquis Bey’s Anarcho-Blackness in the previous post, this book became fundamental to my approach to Indigenous politics. The concept of the patriarchal white nation-state provides so many avenues of critique over many institutions. I used it to provide an anarchist critique of the State with regards to our First Nations’ peoples politics, and as an explanation for successive leaders’ violent treatment of refugees as a threat to white sovereignty.
While some parts of the book were specific to Australia, it does have more generalised sections that can apply to other Indigenous peoples around the world, so I would recommend it to anyone.
Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala – Stephen Schlesinger | Stephen Kinzer
I took a very long time to read through this one, because it is a rather dense study of a very niche topic – but I believe it was worth it. Do not pick it up if you don’t have an interest in Guatemalan history, the history of US foreign policy and interference, or in propaganda and the work of Edward Bernays. Also do not pick it up if you are expecting information on the violent oppression of the Indigenous peoples in the region – while the book was not focussed on the aftermath of the coup beyond some political implications, I do think omitting this was one of the failings of the book.
It really is just a detailed look at why and how the US managed to carry out a coup against the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, including – unbeknownst to me – Bernay’s role in making the American public amenable to such drastic measures. Suffice to say, Arbenz’s severely moderate land reforms and economic vision for Guatemala was not communist, nor influenced by Russia in any way, and the United States did it purely for the corporate interests of the United Fruit Company.