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Archive for the ‘Justice’ Category

Trump – still watching the slo-mo train wreck

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Jacinta: Well haha, you made a prediction to me last December that Trump would be out on his highly intelligent arse by the end of this year – how’s that going?

Canto: Well after making that prediction I’ve embarked on a bit of a journey re US politics and the presidential system in particular, and as you know, what I’ve discovered has shocked me to the core. So, yes, he probably won’t be out by year’s end, but he obviously should have been, well before this. Basically, as I see it, the sensible folks of the US, the adults, are paralysed in the face of a crooked, incompetent, solipsistic pre-teen brat being elected, with less than half the votes, to the most powerful position in the most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth. They just haven’t got the political system, the checks and balances, to deal with him, in spite of their constant braying about being ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Still, as a number of US pundits have pointed out, he’ll be much closer to his end when this month comes to an end. And I find it all very engaging, in a morbid kind of way.

Jacinta: Well, yes, we’ve referred to it for some time as a slo-mo train wreck, and it looks like some of the more visible damage might be witnessed in the next few weeks.  

Canto: Follow the money. Which takes us to Russia. We’ve long known that Trump was saved from his bankruptcies and financial incompetence by Deutsche Bank, the Russian money-laundering bank, that he’s very secretive about those finances, and his tax returns haven’t been prised from him…

Jacinta: But the Mueller team have subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, haven’t they? Specifically for Trump’s business finances? I mean, why else?

Canto: I’ve long said that the Mueller team have such a feast of incriminating info on Trump and Russia that even the world’s greatest glutton couldn’t consume it. And there’s plenty of murky stuff available to the public, as reported in The Moscow Project, for example, and in presentations by MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow, among others. 

Jacinta: The word ‘kompromat’ comes up a lot – compromising information or indebtedness, used to exert leverage over powerful individuals or business entities. Though I’m sure Russia-Putin never dreamed they would one day have such leverage over a US President. 

Canto: Well that’s the thing. They did dream about it, and what’s more worked to make it happen. Remember that Trump didn’t win the popular vote, he won the electoral college. And remember that the Russians interfered with that election. I haven’t looked into this in detail, but the claim made, for example, by the historian and commentator Niall Ferguson, that Russian interference in the 2016 election was negligible as to results, that claim is bullshit, I suspect. They targeted ‘purple states’, theirs was a value-for-money operation, very sophisticated. I recall reading the speaking indictment on the hacking, and noting the mention of ‘known and unknown individuals’ on the American side of that hacking. So Mueller knew then about some American conspirators, and probably knows more now. Trump goes on about ‘no collusion’, but there clearly was a conspiracy, to win the election with Russian assistance in return for removal of sanctions and god knows what else.

Jacinta: Kompromat indeed. Certainly seems to explain Trump’s behaviour re Russia-Putin from before the election to now. What’s amusing is that he’s not only parroted ‘no conclusion’ endlessly, he’s also repeated the ‘no deals with Russia’ mantra ad nauseam. Pretty dumb, because it soon becomes clear that when he repeats things like that, he’s lying. 

Canto: Dumb but hey, he’s never been jailed or had to pay much of a price for his misdeeds. But let’s focus on Russia itself – or Russia-Putin as you call it (I like that combo). As you know the country is run, or rather fleeced, by a bunch of billionaire oligarchs who are Putin’s puppets, and if they don’t do his bidding they’re fleeced in turn by Putin and either jailed or forced into exile, or worse. Trump enters this network of fiends as the archetypal bumbling braggadocio. These guys love to sneer at Americans, no doubt seeing them as amateur scammers and thugs compared to themselves. And Trump is the ultimate incompetent amateur, as if created for their cynical purposes. Now, as is well known, Trump has filed for bankruptcy six times, from 1991 to 2009. It’s called Chapter 11 bankruptcy and it’s designed to enable restructuring, so Trump says he uses the system to his benefit, but of course little of what he says is true or even makes sense…

Jacinta: But surely it’s true that he hasn’t suffered much from his bankruptcies. 

Canto: That’s true, and there are obviously major flaws in US corporate law that allow him to get out from under while others apparently foot the bill. But what’s interesting is that, as American banks saw him more and more as an unstable businessman, they turned off the tap. One bank that didn’t, however, was Deutsche Bank – the Russian money-laundering bank. Not only that, Trump was increasingly interested in business relations with Russians, probably due to their lax standards. Trump Tower Toronto was largely funded through VEB, a Russian state-owned bank once chaired by Putin himself, and Russian investments into Trump real estate in the US are too numerous to list. And that takes us to more recent events. Trump and his enablers were trying to build a tower in Moscow in the run-up to the campaign. Clearly this was of interest to Russia-Putin, so again the VEB was heavily involved. Imagine if candidate Trump, who already shared many of Russia-Putin’s anti-democratic proclivities, could be installed as President,  in return for financial assistance, which would be tied to the lifting of US sanctions on Russia, and other sweetheart deals. What a coup that would be.

Jacinta: Yes, and all that is pretty well established, I mean in the public realm. But what about the law? Which laws have been broken? We both agree that impeachment stinks, so how exactly is the law going to deal with Trump and co?

Canto: Well, let’s leave aside the probable case that the Mueller team won’t have Trump arrested, due to the vast powers they’ve given their President. Let’s imagine it’s a more sensible system in which the head of state is as immediately accountable for his crimes as any other citizen. I’m not an expert on US law of course, but as often mentioned, Cohen has pled guilty to two felony offences, campaign finance violations, and has stated – obviously correctly – that they were directed by Trump. The FBI, or whoever, already knew that as they have all of Cohen’s paperwork, emails, texts, mountains of the stuff. So that’s two dead certain offences. 

Jacinta: Cohen is trying for what we know Flynn will likely get – no prison time. How does that affect Trump?

Canto: Badly. I love it that Trump is lambasting Cohen for doing the right thing, and praising Manafort and Stone for doing the wrong thing. Now all Manafort can hope for is a pardon, from a surely doomed President. 

Jacinta: So if Trump pardons Manafort and then he goes down on multiple charges – financial misdealings, conspiracy and obstruction of justice – what then?

Canto: The pardon shouldn’t be allowed to stand, and that’s another test for the US judicial system.

Jacinta: So should we try to find out the precise laws that have likely been broken? 

Canto: That may be a difficult, or at least a painstaking task. There are lawsuits pending against him however. For example there are a couple of suits against him for violating the emoluments clause of the US constitution, one by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and one filed jointly by the Attorneys-General of the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland. This will be the first time the emoluments clause has been tested in court. The D C and Maryland suit was filed back in June 2017 but there has been action on it recently, with subpoenas issued just a few days ago for Trump’s financial records relating to his D C hotel. So that’s one to watch on the sidelines. But generally there will be laws relating to money laundering, conspiring with foreign entities to interfere in an election, and obstruction of justice, that will likely apply to Trump. The obstruction of justice matter, which no doubt includes lying to the FBI (but perhaps not lying about the FBI!) is unfortunately a bit vague. In any case, we just need to stop hyperventilating – or I do – and watch it all play out. I’d love to see Trump in jail, but the other side of me knows he can’t help himself, he is what he is. The real problem, as I’ve always said, isn’t really Trump but the American political system, most particularly the Presidential system. I want to see if they try to fix it, post-Trump. 


Written by stewart henderson

December 6, 2018 at 10:24 pm

on luck, and improving environments

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Trump wasn’t born here, and neither was I

I’m in the process of reading Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, who has tried in his book to summarise, via the research literature, the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days, then lifetimes and more, that precede any particular piece of behaviour. It’s a dense but fascinating book, which aligns with, and provides mountains of evidence for, my view that we’re far less in control of ourselves than we think.

It seems we think this because of what might be called conscious awareness of our behaviours and our decisions. This consciousness is something we sometimes mistake for control. It’s interesting that we consider it obvious that we have no control over the size of our nose or the colour of our eyes, but we have more or less complete control of our temper, appetites, desires and ambitions. 

 Humanistically speaking, this understanding about very limited control needs to have massive implications for our understanding of others. We don’t get to choose our parents, our native country or the immediate environment that most profoundly affects our early life and much of our subsequent behaviour. The flow of hormones and neurotransmitters and their regulation via genetic and epigenetic factors proceed daily, hourly, moment by moment, and all we’re aware of, essentially, is outcomes. 

A lot of people, I note, are very uncomfortable about this kind of talk. For example, many of us want to treat each other as ‘equal before the law’. But is one person ever ‘equal’ with another? We know – it’s obvious – that we’re all different. That’s how we distinguish people, by their smiles, their voices, their fingerprints, their DNA. So how can we be different and equal at the same time? Or, to turn things around, how can a legal system operate if everyone is treated as different, unique, a special case?

Well, in a sense, we already do this, with respect to the law. No two bank robberies, or rapes, or murders are the same, and the judiciary must be highly attuned to the differences when applying punishments. Nowadays, and increasingly, the mental state of the offender – particularly at the time of the offence, if that can be ascertained – is considered when sentencing.  And this is surely a good thing. 

The question here is, considering the exponential growth of our neurophysiological knowledge in the 21st century, and its bearing on our understanding of every kind of negative or positive behaviour we engage in, how can we harness that knowledge to improve outcomes and move from a punitive approach to bad behaviours to something more constructive?

Of course, it’s one thing to identify the release or suppression of glucocorticoids, for example, and its effect on person x’s cognitive faculties, it’s entirely another thing to effect a remedy. And to what effect? To make everyone docile, ‘happy’ and law-abiding? To have another go at eugenics, this time involving far more than just genes? 

One of the points constantly hammered home in Sapolsky’s book is the effect of environment on everything that goes on inside us, so that, for example, genes aren’t quite as determinative as we once thought. Here are some key points from his chapter on genes (with apologies about unexplained terms such as epigenetic, transcription and transposons):

a. Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events.

b. Instead genes are regulated by the environment, with environment consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.

c. Much of your DNA turns environmental influences into gene transcription, rather than coding for genes themselves; moreover, evolution is heavily about changing regulation of gene transcription, rather than genes themselves.

d. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong, or even multigenerational.

e. And thanks to transposons, neurons contain a mosaic of different genomes. 

And genes are only one component of the array of forces that influence or control our behaviour. We know, or course, about how Phineas Gage-type accidents and brain tumours can alter behaviour, but many other effects on the brain can alter our behaviour without us and others knowing too much about it. These include stress, malnutrition, and long-term cultural and religious influences which permanently affect our attitudes to, for example, women, other species and the food we eat. Domestic violence, drug use, political affiliations, educational outcomes and sexual affinities are all more inter-generational than we’re generally prepared to admit. 

The first thing we need to do is be aware of all this in our judgment of others, and even of ourselves. There’s just so much luck involved in being who we are. We could’ve been more or less ‘good-looking’ than we are -according to the standards of the culture around us – and this would’ve affected the way we’ve been treated throughout our whole lives. We could’ve been born richer or poorer, with more or less dysfunctional parents, taller or shorter, more or less mentally agile, more or less immune to the pathogens that surround us. On and on and on we could go, even to an extreme degree. We could’ve been born in Algeria, Argentina or Azerbaijan. We could’ve been born in 1912, 1412 or 512, or 150,000 years ago. We could’ve been born a mongoose, a mouse or a mosquito. It’s all luck, whether good or bad is up to us to decide, but probably not worth speculating about as we have no choice but to make the best of what we are.

What we do have is consciousness or awareness of what we are. And with that consciousness we can speculate, as we as a species always have, on how to make the best of ourselves, given that we’re the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and for that reason the most successful, measured by population, spread across the globe, and what we’ve done for ourselves in terms of social evolution – our science, our technology, our laws and our politics.  

That’s where humanism comes in, for me. Since we know that ‘there but for the randomness of luck go I’, it surely follows that we should sympathise with those whose luck hasn’t been as lucky as our own, and strive to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Safe havens, educational opportunities, decent wages, human rights, clean environments, social networks – we know what’s required for people to thrive. Yet we focus, I think, too much on punishment. We punish people for trying to improve their family’s situation – or to avoid obliteration – by seeking refuge in safer, richer, healthier places. We punish them for seeking solace in drugs because their circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with. We punish them for momentary and one-off lapses of concentration that have had dire consequences. Of course it has always been thus, and I think we’re improving, though very unevenly across the globe. And the best way to improve is by more knowing. And more understanding of the consequences of that knowledge. 

Currently, it seems to me, we’re punishing people too much for doing what impoverished, damaged, desperate people do to survive. It’s understandable, perhaps, in our increasingly individualist world. How dare someone bother me for handouts. It’s not my fault that x has fucked up his life. Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles. People smugglers are the lowest form of human life. Etc etc – mostly from people who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be those people. Because their life is so different, through no fault, or cause, of their own. 

So to me the message is clear. Out lives would be better if others’ lives were better – if we could give others the opportunities, the health, the security and the smarts that we have, and if we could have all of those advantages that they have. I suppose that’s kind of impossible, but it’s better than blaming and punishing, and feeling superior. We’re not, we’re just lucky. Ot not. 

  

Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2018 at 2:22 pm

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.

References

https://ussromantics.com/2018/05/15/is-free-will-a-thing-apparently-not/

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FreWil

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/one-among-many/201803/five-arguments-free-will

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/06/free-will-exists-and-is-measurable/486551/

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Brat Cavernaugh, or the Ruling Class at play: part two

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Mitch McConnell, ruthless American conservative

 

In a speech to his old high school in 2015, Kavanaugh remarked smirkily that ‘what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep, that’s been a good thing for all of us..’ It’s fascinating how such a seemingly harmless piece of banter can take on much darker tones as information comes to light. For example, considering that Georgetown Prep has always been an all-boys’ school, ‘all of us’ clearly refers to only one gender, and considering that the cloud gathering over Kavanaugh now is all about his and his preppy mates’ treatment of the opposite sex, which may have at times bordered on criminality, this hiding of the truth about goings-on at the school becomes very disturbing. 

The intense focus on Kavanaugh in recent weeks has revealed someone who knows how to be evasive in a lawyerly way. The end result, before the scandalous claims began mounting up, was that Democrats and moderate Republicans, in Congress and out, had no clear idea of his views on Roe v Wade, presidential power and immunity, or any other key issue that concerned them. It can be argued that this evasiveness was a product of ‘due judiciousness’, the view that a judge can’t answer these general questions, but has to pass judgment on the facts before him in particular instances, but with so much at stake, it’s understandable that those with at least some progressive cells in their body would want a clearer picture. This has in fact been given by examinations of his record of judgements and legal opinions, which don’t provide much hope for progressives.  

More importantly, Kavanaugh’s evasiveness has been very much to the fore as allegations have come to light re his high school and university years. In the case of his most recent appearance before the judiciary committee, this evasiveness has been mixed with, and sometimes masked by, a belligerent and, in my view, self-servingly mawkish tone which I didn’t find conducive to truthfulness. Most importantly, and, I feel, decisively, he managed to avoid answering the question as to whether he would be prepared to submit to an FBI investigation. Not once but on five separate occasions when questioned on the matter. In spite of my squeamishness, I did witness him doing this on one of the cable networks, and to me it was clear what he was doing. As a person who has himself been falsely accused – of a crime even more serious than anything alleged against Kavanaugh – I know how I feel about police investigations – that they should be done as promptly and as thoroughly as humanly possible, and I would certainly have been prepared to testify to the highest authorities under oath many times over to clear my name, and was in fact desperate to do so. And since there were no witnesses to the allegation made against me, I would certainly have been happy to have any and all witnesses to testify to my character in respect of violence, or my accuser’s character in respect of truth-telling. But, being a ‘nobody’, accused by a nobody, I had to sit and by and watch the police do virtually nothing, until forced to do so, after which the case was thrown out. So Kavanaugh’s refusal to answer that question, and his obvious whitewashing of the period in question, can only be explained one way. Innocent people just don’t behave like that, unless there’s something very wrong with them. 

The fact is, Kavanaugh’s obfuscation is incredibly telling, and the majority Republicans, who have now ‘permitted’ an FBI inquiry, ‘limited in scope and time’, are still doing their best to ram through the confirmation ‘no matter what’, according to the dictum of the egregious Mitch McConnell. This is not an investigation which will probe all the facts in the case, because it is limited by a partisan party. Moreover, the recent appearance by Kavanaugh was conducted under oath, and a number of classmates have since come forward to point out that he told lies under that oath, about his drinking habits, which he massively downplayed while also talking, strangely, at length, about the pleasures of beer. He presented himself as a church-going, highly studious, sporty type whose love of beer wasn’t excessive. Classmates have come forward to say that he was very often drunk, that he was a mean drunk, a sloppy drunk and so forth, and that he therefore lied under oath, which should be immediately disqualifying. 

However, having said that, it’s likely that the FBI will not be investigating his drinking habits, they will only concern themselves, as directed, with the alleged assault or assaults. Though it isn’t entirely clear, it seems, what the FBI’s brief is. In fact, as I write, the goalposts keep shifting. The White House and Trump seemed to broaden the investigation, then the media were told, no, it would remain limited, etc, and the FBI itself seemed confused about all the mixed signals. The bureau is supposed to take its orders from the White House in this instance, which is itself a worry. Not surprisingly, Trump is now heaping praise on the FBI – at least until their findings are presented.

But to return to Kavanaugh’s final ‘testimony’. It was belligerent and evasive, but also partisan and Trumpian – blaming the Clintons for a set-up and an ambush. It’s noteworthy that Trump was critical of Kavanaugh’s performance in his first hearing, and it’s well-known that Kavanaugh had been ‘rehearsing’ his performance at the White House, so this time he did his master’s bidding and played the witch-hunt card, thus managing to be offensively belligerent and obsequious at the same time – though why he chose to play to an audience of one, when the confirmation was largely out of Trump’s hands, is anyone’s guess.

The most recent development, which seems to be Trump’s own doing, is that the FBI is being given as wide a scope as it needs. From this, I’m getting the impression that Trump is preparing to wash his hands of Kavanaugh – to throw him under that very destructive bus the Yanks keep talking about – but the GOP is definitely not. Which leaves the FBI as the piggy in the middle, with the White House giving carte blanche, and the Republican Senators, under the whip of the disgusting McConnell, saying it all has to be wrapped up by Friday (October 5). It’s an impossibly ludicrous situation. Apparently the FBI is currently busy turning away an increasing number of people who want to speak to the agency about Kavanaugh’s drunken loutishness during his college days. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Brett was then something of a lout, and is now something of a liar. All in all it’s the behaviour of that class of people I recall from my own university days – students of the moneyed professions, behaving boorishly in the bar, mixing only with their own kind, man-spreading smugly, making a moat of waste and filth around their table as they disgorged food, drink, fag-ends and assorted packaging over the course of a fun evening. The sort of people worth avoiding, for a lifetime. Everything I’ve observed about Kavanaugh recently fits that picture to a t. Having said that, having been a loutish youth over thirty years ago isn’t a crime. Pretending that you never really behaved badly isn’t either. But, on the one hand, we’re not talking about criminality, we’re talking about suitability for a particular job, a job that clearly requires great integrity (as does the job of US President, but that’s another story…). On the other hand, the possibility of a serious crime is in question, and that won’t be properly investigated, because of the determination of McConnell and the GOP. So, if the GOP manage to get him confirmed, it will destroy the credibility of their party for a long time into the future – and I believe Kavanaugh can be impeached. Though he may have to wait in line. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 3, 2018 at 2:07 pm

the battle for justice – feeling impotent

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not in Australia

So while I await the DCSI’s long-delayed decision on my clearance, I’m a little too nerve-frayed to focus on something completely other than myself, and Trump’s downfall – always an easy topic. So, until that time, I can do little more than diarise, my neologism. So I might be drifting from my case to that of the Trump, and back. On my case, I’ve spoken to a criminal lawyer, a friend of a friend, who’s agreed to help me, and as he’s also a friend of my former lawyer in the original court proceedings, he may be able to access further documentation, the stuff I’ve been trying to get hold of.

What was of more interest to me, though, was his insight into the way this state government has weighted legislation, over time, to favour the accuser over the defendant in cases of alleged sexual abuse. Some would argue this is a good thing, because it’s surely fair to say that in the past, allegations of rape for example, have not been given the full treatment they deserve, in our patriarchal society. We’re at last much more prepared to believe the women, and I agree that women very rarely lie about such things. But very rarely doesn’t mean never, and I would stick my neck out to say that children are more likely to lie about such things than adults, though again such lies are still rare. In my case, the liar was a fourteen-fifteen year old boy, whose motives I made clear to the police and to my lawyer at the time. But of course I never had my day in court, to examine the matter, such as it was.

The problem, as the lawyer put it, is that there are some zealots within the Screening Unit of DCSI, and they may be the ultimate decision makers, rather than the coal-face workers who interviewed me back in early December. That interview went well, and I came out of it feeling confident. For the first time I had something equivalent to my ‘day in court’, and I foolishly fantasised that it would all be wrapped up within a week or two, in my favour. We’re now in the twentieth week since my review lodgement, and I’m beginning to share the pessimistic views of this lawyer and of a teacher colleague – ‘these bureaucrats really hate admitting they were wrong’. Not to mention the jeopardy they’ve placed themselves in, in terms of the suffering they’ve put myself and others through, and the resentment and the desire for compensation and damages they’ve stirred up.

All of which makes me think this could become a much bigger issue, even a scandal of sorts, if only it was possible to determine how many people are involved. If there are few – and I must bear in mind that false accusations are rare – then nothing may come of it. After all, these ‘complex cases’ mentioned in the Ombudsman email may be more like borderline infractions, where the level of seriousness is in question, not whether something actually happened or not. Even so, they may have enough in common with those falsely accused for us to make common cause, in some kind of class action. Teachers, care workers and others are having their careers and reputations destroyed for questionable infractions and false allegations that happened to make it into the court system, with no recourse, because the screening unit has decided to ‘err’ on the side of caution. And considering the truly vast numbers of people being screened nowadays, even a small fraction of innocent people being done down, because of this decision that it’s acceptable to commit errors, may amount to a substantial number.

Innocent people, people who know they’re innocent, are likely to fight very very hard against a system that treats them as guilty. Especially in a case such as mine, when they have reason to feel proud of their role as a foster carer, a teacher or whatever. If there is some way I can connect with other innocent workers who are being destroyed by a systematic approach of ‘erring on the side of caution’, in a screening system with increasingly wide application in the workforce, we may be able to persuade authorities of the justice of our cause.

Interestingly, I’ve been partly inspired in this more active approach by one of the most currently prominent Trump scandals. Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for pornstar Stormy Daniels, is preparing for a major fight to permit his client to tell the truth. He’s facing the full weight of a political machine that is determined to suppress this truth, and it’s his commitment to having his client tell her story and to be judged, not only by the canaille, to speak pejoratively, but by the discerning public, that encourages me. I’ve told my story to a very few ‘strangers’, including a couple of lawyers and a panel of two employees of DCSI’s screening unit, who are clearly not the decision-makers in my case. The principal decision-makers appear to be higher-ups who are more interested in the thinnest of documents with ‘nolle prosequi’ at their head. I would dearly love to have my story, undramatic though it might be, presented on 60 Minutes for all to judge, and my accuser, if he’s still accusing, can have his say in the court of public opinion too. I would have far more faith in that court, in which at least people get to be heard by their judges, than by this secret process, ideologically driven to ‘err on the side of caution’, which means basically erring on the side of the accuser. But it’s Avenatti’s aggressive fighting spirit that impresses me. I feel that spirit within me, but of course I don’t have much of an audience to bolster me, or any forum in which to fight. Clearly I face an uphill battle to be heard by even a nano-fraction of the public, but again I’m heartened that Avenatti has gotten at least six other women, victims of Trump (Daniels isn’t quite a victim in that she seems to have willingly had a sexual relationship with the Trump, pretty vomit-inducing in itself), to add support to his lying, bullying nature. A class action of some sort might help my case, just to highlight the fact that there are false allegations out there, some of them quite egregious in their nature and their impact.

I have no real way, though, of reaching out to others in my circumstances, and as a hapless loner, I doubt if I have the wherewithal – though I think I could act effectively as a spokesperson once a group was formed. Of course, given the moral panic about child sexual abuse and given the Me Too movement, it’s not an easy time for pleading innocence and victimhood as an ’empowered male’, but we should be pushing to at least get our stories (or non-story in my case – or a story about my accuser) heard, something which was never vouchsafed me during my court process.

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2018 at 1:33 pm

the secret world of DCSI’s Screening Unit unrevealed

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the black box that keeps the Screening Unit’s processes hidden from the public

Jacinta: Ok so let’s do a deep dive into the screening unit, the processes involved, the law that’s being followed, the staffing, the numbers of people being processed, time frames, consequences, pushback, serious possibilities of redress, anything else we can think of.

Canto: So here’s the situation as it stands. I received the letter from the DCSI screening unit on October 30 last year claiming that I ‘pose a risk to the safety of children’. I filed an application for a review of this decision on October 31, and the review is registered as having been commenced on that day. As a result of that DCSI decision, I was suspended from my teaching position, without pay, on November 10, the day my five-week contract was completed. I’ve been working from contract to contract, like most of the teaching staff where I work, or worked, though I was given ‘priority’ as a teacher about two years ago.

Jacinta: So you’ll get your job back if the DCSI’s decision is overturned.

Canto: I don’t know if there’s any guarantee of that. I was told, too, by a lawyer from the Legal Services Commission (I’ve called the LSC three times so far about all this) that I should have a right to some pay even as a casual, but I’m feeling cowardly about making any demands upon my employer, because I really really don’t want to lose my job.

Jacinta: So today is March 6, and it’s been well over 4 months since your appeal was lodged.

Canto: Yes and I’ve written two emails of complaint to the screening unit, and I’ve made an official complaint to the Ombudsman’s office. A rep from the Ombudsman has emailed me twice since, and now my review has been given ‘priority’. Last week a woman from the screening unit rang me, asking me to resend information that I’d already supplied. She explained that attached materials often got lost in the to and fro of emails within the screening unit – which didn’t inspire me with confidence. She also assured me that, once I’d resent the materials, she would quickly shunt me along the line to the next assessor in the process, because I was now a ‘priority case’. This, after four months! I’d hate to think of the wait for those who aren’t given priority. Six months, a year, two years? It’s a very destructive and demoralising process.

Jacinta: For the innocent, which of course you are. So while you’re waiting, I suppose you’ll want to find out more about this screening process. It has become more rigorous, it seems. What triggered this more rigorous screening process, and when was it established? Has the screening unit been bolstered, in terms of resources and staffing, to deal with this more rigorous and time-consuming screening process?

Canto: Yes I’ll try to find out more about this online, because again I’m again a little cowardly about approaching DCSI directly. They’ll think I’m a trouble-making nuisance.

Jacinta: Good god Canto, you’re an innocent man who’s been dealt pretty shabbily, first by the police, than the DPP and now the DCSI, and you’re worried about raising a fuss?

Canto: Well, also, to be honest, I don’t think DCSI will be very co-operative.

Jacinta: There’s really nothing online about this. Nobody appears to be protesting apart from yourself, not online at any rate. There’s nothing negative at all about the Screening Unit, The ‘Me Too’ movement is featured strongly, and there’s a lot of irritation online that false allegations are given a lot of attention when under-reporting of real cases of sexual abuse, harassment and so forth, is more of a problem. So it’s not a good environment for bringing all this up. I suppose at least it wasn’t a female that falsely accused you. Females are considered more reliable.

Canto: Well, I’ve received an update from the Ombudsman’s office. Here’s the most important part of it:

As you are aware I have been assessing the processing of your application for a child related screening clearance. I have been provided with updates from the department and your application is still with the Assessment Team. I understand your initial application took 7 months to process. In the department’s  assessment you would be aware that the department is considering such information as your disclosable court outcomes from 2006 offences. The department should have advised you that your review is being managed by a team of people who process your application independently from the initial application  process. I would anticipate given the current backlog of applications the department is processing that your application may still take some weeks to finalise. This office has met with Screening Unit Officers and the Ombudsman has also met with the Chief Executive of DCSI, Mr Tony Harrison, about the delays in the processing of more complex applications. The department is considering strategies to counter the delay and our office will be advised of their progress. At this stage I do not think it is reasonable for this office to continue to monitor your individual application and I will now close your file. I understand that you are anxious to have your application finalised and invite you to recontact our office in approximately four to six weeks if your application is not finalised.

I’ve put the expression ‘2006 offences’ in bold because the expression was offensive to me, they were of course alleged offences, which were never even tested or explored in court let alone proven. But I don’t think the woman meant to offend me, it was inadvertent.

Jacinta: But wording matters hugely to the innocent, I understand. Anyway the letter provides useful information – you now know that the CEO of DCSI is Tony Harrison, and you learned previously that Kelly Tattersall is the director of the Screening Unit. Above all you’ve learned that there is in fact a backlog of applications and that they’re ‘considering strategies’ to counter the delay. It’s a very slight glimpse through the opacity of the Unit’s workings…

Canto: Another quibble I have – and you’re right, wording matters hugely to the innocent – is the reference to my case as ‘complex’. I don’t see it as complex at all, it’s extremely straightforward, but it was made complex by the behaviour of the police and the DPP.

Jacinta: I’ve found Tattersall on Linked-in. She’s been director of the Screening Unit since May 2013, so she would definitely know something you want to know – whether this ‘rigorous’ screening has been going on for the whole of her period in office, or whether it’s new, and exactly how new it is. She would also know, of course, just how many of these ‘complex cases’ there are. It’s so effing difficult to get any information.

Canto: Another person, who would know, of course, is this Tony Harrison. Just searching on him leads me to the ‘about us’ section of DCSI online. The department is overseen by the state minister Zoe Bettison. The website lists the Screening Unit as one of its assets, but I’m blocked from accessing it. It’s quite literally a black box!

Jacinta: Well I can understand the need for privacy of course, but the lack of public access to its general processes is a problem, to put it mildly. Sunlight is the best…. you know.

Canto: For what it’s worth, I’ve downloaded ta copy of the state’s Children’s Protection Act 1993, updated only last month, and we might look more deeply into that next time.

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2018 at 9:47 am

why Obama’s warnings about dictatorship are more than justified

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Watching one of the cable news networks, either CNN or MSNBC – I’ve become interested in the USA’s parlous political situation as a diversion from my own probs – I listened not so attentively to two opposing views on a recent speech given by Barak Obama in which he warned against complacency with regard to creeping dictatorship. This speech has apparently inflamed Republicans, or members of the alt-right, whatever, I’m not too keen on knowing all the distinctions within that country’s disturbing polity. I got a sample of this ‘indignation’ when a right-wing pundit on the show launched into Obama for his example of Germany in the thirties – all those millions of Jews and Enemies of the State gassed, all that racist ideology and disgusting craziness, how incredibly offensive to make such a comparison, right? Obama really showed himself to be the most shameful opportunist, who’d stoop to anything, and how can you possibly compare this Trump administration with such a maniacal mass-murderer and his henchmen, etc etc.

Then the leftist speaker got to respond and it quickly degenerated into a shoutfest. Of course I felt like shouting too, but then I thought of a more dignified response.

Obama spoke calmly and thoughtfully, and yes certainly he was referring to the Trump administration without naming it. And his comparison with the rise of Hitler might have been controversial but what other choice did he have, seriously? What other dictator would’ve meant anything to most Americans? Obama had a choice of dictatorships subverting democracy. In other words, recent dictatorships. He also would’ve known, consciously or unconsciously, that your average American knows less than zero about the history of any country other than their own. So is he going to talk about Franco’s Spain, or Tito’s Yugoslavia, or Suharto’s Indonesia? Not bloody likely, that would be like talking Swahili to an American audience. Hitler was the obvious, really the only choice. And I have to say, I’ve long been pissed off by the ‘never mention Hitler’ taboo in political discourse. He should be mentioned regularly and often, and then again.

Trump has clear and obvious dictatorial tendencies. He rarely if ever has anything positive to say about democratically elected leaders, but he’s passionately in love with Putin, a petty dictator who’s turned his country into an economic basket case, with a GDP almost exactly the same as Australia’s in spite of a population six or seven times the size. Putin tortures and murders his opponents, or steals their money and sends them into exile, where they live in constant fear for their lives. He has likely destroyed any possibility of democracy in Russia for decades, though I try to still be optimistic about that. I have no doubt that Trump is only curbed by the institutions he lashes out at – the media, the courts, the FBI, the Department of Justice, etc, and would love nothing more than to be monarch of all he surveys, with statues and banners devoted to him everywhere. Then he wouldn’t be reduced to empty threats of suing the many women he’s abused, he could simply eliminate them – a much more permanent, and cheap, solution. He wouldn’t have to humiliate himself by begging support for the Roy Moores of the world, he could simply appoint them, as does his great love Putin.

So the point is that today’s joke can become tomorrow’s reality. Recently, Trump has expressed his ‘disappointment’ about not being able to control the Department of Justice, clearly referring to the Mueller investigation. Privately, we hear, he’s apoplectic with rage about it. We hear also about his ‘administration’ trying to set up an alternative CIA, and his lawyers suggesting he can’t obstruct justice by virtue of his position. You want to laugh, but how many of us were laughing at the very idea of Trump’s candidacy?

All of this, it seems to me, results from a political system in which way too much power is invested in one man (hopefully there will be a female Prez some time soon). In this respect, the USA appears to have far less checks and balances than other western political systems. For example, it appears that the US Prez has veto rights over decisions made by the US congress or senate. This would be unthinkable in any other western nation that I know of. There’s also the apparent fact that the Prez is seen as the representative of justice in the country, which is why past Presidents such as Nixon have seemed confused about their relationship to the law – whether they’re above, below or adjacent to it. It’s a farcical but disturbing situation which just doesn’t occur in other western democracies, in which roles and power are more diversified and the leader is very much first among equals. The fact that legal experts are actually debating whether the American President can be accused of obstructing justice is a perfect example of the craziness at the summit of US politics. If the Prime Minister of Australia, or Great Britain, or the Chancellor of Germany tried to argue that they were above the law, they wouldn’t be just thrown out of office, they’d be laughed out of office. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; the US President’s power isn’t absolute, but it’s certainly too far on that side of the spectrum.

So Trump is currently pushing an envelope that’s already too large – the envelope of Presidential power. But there are positive signs. Certainly there’s no chance of him being re-elected, with his popularity waning and no real chance of it rising again, with a profoundly serious criminal investigation moving inexorably closer to Trump and his family, and with local elections moving against the Republicans. The tragedy is – and this is yet another problem for the US political system – that when Trump is pushed out of office, which I predict will happen next year, his administration won’t be dumped at the same time, as would happen in just every other democratic country, with fresh elections held. Instead you’d have an entirely discredited administration, led by the super-imbecilic bible-basher Mike Pence or the generally supine Paul Ryan, limping along for another two or three desolate years.

I may have made some mistakes about how the political system works in the USA, as I don’t like to get too close to it (I don’t find the odour appealing), but I do find it tiresome if not laughable when I hear American pundits talking about theirs as the greatest democracy, or their country as the cradle of democracy, etc. I am finding it entertaining at the moment though, with due deference to the poor and the struggling who are truly being done over by their absurd President and his horrendous policies.

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 10, 2017 at 11:09 am