Archive for February, 2011

Who is condescending who on Arab democracy

The opinion pieces dealing with the Arab world this morning from The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald come from complete opposite viewpoints, but each accuse the other of being condescending and helping to stereotype the Arab people and so perpetuate their dictators. In the SMH, New York Times commentator Nicholas Christof writes that anyone who doesn’t assume that these protests will create democracy is applying a “crude stereotype”:

Arab World In Turmoil | Civil War In Libya.

Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people – Arabs, Chinese and Africans – are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that ”people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.

That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?

I’m not too sure I like the way he backs-up his argument:

The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the front lines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?

In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed towards security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Can anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?

I can dare say that. These examples no doubt show tremendous courage, but why is that the same as being able to handle democracy? I don’t understand how a man rolling his wheelchair into the front lines shows that he understands democracy. If Kristof can write for one of the leading newspapers in the democratic world and not understand democracy, why is understanding assured for a brave, somewhat handicapped, Egyptian protester?

Maintaining a functional democracy requires voting rights for all citizens; the rule of law; an independent executive, legislature and judiciary; the ability to criticise those in power; a free press with which do to so and an army/police force that will maintain the rule of law and protect all of the above-mentioned rights. How exactly this relates to marching unarmed into a massacre I’m not entirely sure.

David Burchell in The Australian explains this kind of viewpoint very eloquently:

Libyans failed by Left orientalism | The Australian.

What seems obvious about the young Libyans in the streets of Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli – like young Iranians and Egyptians, and quite possibly many Syrians and Saudis too – is that they no longer want any truck with those miserable self-serving fantasies of Arab victimhood and Zionist sorcery. Instead, they merely want to live – as Said was lucky enough to do – in a “normal” country, where their persons will be treated with dignity and their views with respect. But about how to create such a country, beyond toppling statues and setting fire to police stations, they have been left almost totally in the dark – partly through the agency of their own rulers, and partly by us.

The “miserable self-serving fantasies” he is referring to specifically come from Arab-American intellectual Edward Said, who created the theory of “Orientalism”, which basically explains that the West in the present day continues a patronising, colonial attitude towards the Orient, despite not actually colonising it anymore, meaning that we feel the need to impose our values and mindset on a people who don’t want or need them.

Said presented a political perspective of almost child-like simplicity: the West, in its domineering ignorance, was forever doomed to “other” the Orient, and to treat it as its inferior, even while Said and his disciples blissfully “othered” the Middle East themselves, as a sepulchre of Arab suffering, in a mirror-image of those they deplored. Said’s acolytes are probably less familiar with the articles he wrote over many years for the Egyptian state press – articles devoid of the criticism of any existing Arab government; (least of all Mubarak’s); and which reduce all the problems of the Arab world to the actions of those two familiar pantomime villains, the US and Israel. You will not be surprised to hear that Said had nothing whatever to say about Libya’s absurd Mussolini imitator, Gaddafi – except to heap abuse upon the US when it responded to the colonel’s various terrorist provocations.

Said reserved special contempt for brave Arabs who criticised the region’s political, economic and social backwardness. As he wrote, in his customary lachrymose tones, in Egyptian state weekly Al-Ahram in 2003: ‘I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about their people, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas: we lack democracy; we haven’t challenged Islam enough, we need to drive away the spectre of Arab nationalism.’

So according to Burchell, Said and his “acolytes” attach a baseless romanticism to Arabs, meaning that they support everything that they do and assume that they can do no wrong and always know what’s best for themselves, without any need of Western intervention or values, because the West only ever does harm. Ironically, Kristof (and Paul McGeough) seem to fit this description exactly. In fact, it explains why, as I wrote yesterday, Western NGO’s refused to investigate the Taliban for war crimes and only wanted to scrutinise Western forces in Afghanistan.

These dictators are facing criticism now, but I only remember these commentators blaming Israel and the US for all of the Arab woes in the past. At the time, they followed Said’s point of view that Western ideas like secularism and democracy didn’t need to apply to the Arab people. I tend to agree with Burchell – our desire to be optimistic and tolerant is glossing-over the very real changes that these countries need in order to create functional democracies. Hopefully our leaders at least can see this.

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Human rights abuses? The Taliban? Really? But I thought the US was the evil one?

Christopher Hitchens said it better than I ever could:

Taliban war crimes: Human rights groups finally notice. – By Christopher Hitchens – Slate Magazine.

Even in a week that concentrated all eyes on the magnificent courage and maturity of the people of Cairo, a report from Kabul began with what must surely be the most jaw-dropping opening paragraph of the year. Under the byline of the excellent Rod Nordland, the New York Times reported:

“International and local human rights groups working in Afghanistan have shifted their focus toward condemning abuses committed by the Taliban insurgents, rather than those attributed to the American military and its allies.”

The story went on to point out that the Taliban was culpable for “more than three-fourths of all civilian casualties” and informed us that some human-rights groups are now so concerned that they are thinking of indicting the Taliban for war crimes. “The activists’ concern,” Nordland went on, “would have been unheard-of a year ago,” when all the outcry was directed at casualties inflicted by NATO contingents.

I encourage all of you to read the whole article. It seems that the turning point was a recent bombing of an up-scale supermarket that killed a high-profile aid worker. It wasn’t even the kidnapping and murder of 8 aid workers last year. Or, you know, the violent reign of terror, applying 7th century morality with the stoning of adulterers, cutting hands off thieves and pouring acid on little schoolgirls’ faces to scare people away from educating women. Or the random roadside bombings and suicide terror.

Or, for that matter, the attempt to systematically exterminate the Shia Hazaras. One would have thought that little things like that would have tipped them off, but apparently glaring evidence is not enough to get through that thick veil of post-colonial guilt.

No, this taps into what I’ve written about Paul McGeough and the rest of the Western hard left. These people have such a warped view of the world that they’ve spent 10 years investigating Western “war crimes” and driving the rules of engagement to become harder and harder and putting our soldiers more and more at risk, while showing nothing but sympathy for the Taliban and their allies, despite the fact that they cause 3/4 of all civilian casualties.

But no, all civilian casualties are naturally America’s fault. After all, who started the war? Right? And don’t say Bin Laden, because you’re wrong! America just wanted an excuse to colonise a backward, dirt-poor, sectarian nightmare of a country with a long history of defeating the toughest armies in the world and no particular influence or importance in global affairs. You know, for their imperialist agenda…

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Why Paul McGeough was keeping Geddafi and Mubarak in power and supporting Bin Laden

As usual, Paul McGeough’s weekend missive left me seething for about 30 minutes on an otherwise beautiful Sydney Saturday. It actually wasn’t so bad for a few paragraphs, until, naturally, he started blaming America for everything that went wrong in the Middle East

The Middle East: A region reborn after the dictators

But Gaddafi had oil – lots of it. From time to time, leaders in the West would pay lip service to gross human rights violations in the region, but as long as Gaddafi and his ilk kept the oil flowing and were willing to act as Western proxies in fighting extremism, they could do as they pleased.

The West would buy their oil and arm them, asking for little more than a darkened room out the back, where ”enhanced interrogation” techniques that are frowned upon in the civilised salons of the West could be carried out on the QT.

He even figured that Council on Foreign Relations director Leslie Gelb “entirely ignored the nature of the revolutions” because he observed that the new Arab leadership will probably need to be more anti-Western in order to cater to various groups in their constituencies. McGeough’s quarrel with Gelb is that Gelb “missed the price that the Arab rank and file has been paying under Washington’s and the West’s deal with the dictators”.

That man’s ability to attribute every evil to the “puppet masters” sitting in the White House never ceases to amaze me; neither do the facts that he is still employed and people keep reading his work. He ends his “analysis” by condescendingly dismissing everyone who has doubts that Egypt and Libya are about to turn into Sweden, quoting analyst Fouad Ajami, saying:

”Grant the Egyptian people their right to swat away these warnings,” he writes. ”From afar, the ‘realists’ tell the Arabs that they are playing with fire, that beyond the prison walls there is danger and chaos. Luckily for them, the Arabs pay no heed to these ‘realists,’ and can recognise the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ that animates them.”

So apparently expecting that after thousands of years of dictator after dictator, a series of protests is not going to create a democratic haven overnight, is “soft bigotry”, but then expecting them to hate the rest of the democratic world is just common sense. After all, think of the “past crimes”. Luckily, not everyone shares this opinion. Israeli diplomat Dore Gold has pointed out that these revolutions may actually moderate the Arab world.

Protests Across Middle East Leave Israel Shaken – NYTimes.com.

“For years, Arab leaders who thought they had legitimacy problems because they were not elected played several chords to the populace — Arab unity, Islamic solidarity, and most important, the struggle against Israel. So if you have regimes legitimized by democratic elections and accountable governance, then they will depend less on the conflict for their own internal standing.”

You see, most Arab dictators tended to use Israel and the West as distractions when their people began questioning why exactly these rulers were stealing all of their money. This policy has been very successful, creating a strong anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment that is perpetuated hugely in the Western Left, meaning that a certain Sydney Morning Herald journalist and his ilk were ultimately helping to prop-up Arab dictators by re-enforcing the idea that it was really the US and Israel causing all of their problems and not the evil asshole sitting in the palace up the road.

In fact, this was the ideology that initially separated Al-Qaeda from the rest of the Islamist extremists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has always been focussed on overthrowing the “un-Islamic” regimes in Muslim countries and introducing Islamist regimes instead. Bin Laden, on the other hand, had the bright idea that the problems of the Muslim world were really a “Zio-Crusader” conspiracy, so attacking the Jews and the Christians wherever they were was the real way to “liberate” the Muslims. This is the ideology that eventually led to the terrorist threat that we in the West face.

So to sum-up, through his decades of embellishing the myth that the problems of the Arab world are solely caused by the US foreign policy and Israel’s undue influence on it, Paul McGeough has kept Arab dictators in power and supported terrorism. Good going McGeough…

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Gillard holds her own against Jones

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was interviewed on 2GB this morning by Alan Jones and he went above and beyond his regular “shock jock” style. She was 12 minutes late to the interview and he berated her about this pretty aggressively. He continued being disrespectful the whole interview, addressing her as “Julia” or “PM”.

Even with this, Gillard managed to hold her own. She managed to actually shut him up a few times and speak over him, which is no mean feat, not many people can do it.

I encourage you to listen. It’s pretty spectacular.

2GB Media Player – Julia Gillard on the carbon tax.

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NSW Labor and Arab Dictatorships

 

By Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist Cathy Wilcox.

I don’t know what I like more about this; that it kind of compares the Keneally government to Qaddafi, the contrast between the fat Aussies on the couch with the brutalised Arab peoples or the way all of our problems with transport, water and power look next to people living in extreme poverty under a cleptocrat who is not above carpet-bombing his own citizens to stay in power.

That said, if you listen to 2GB in the morning you are likely to want to get out there and protest Keneally’s cleptocracy…

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Well looky what the UNSC has done…

Yesterday, I wrote that:

I fully expect the UNSC to issue a particularly angry statement, calling for the killings to stop. I then expect absolutely nothing whatsoever to change.

Today, the UNSC (UN Security Council) released a statement.

Security Council Press Statement on Libya.

The members of the Security Council expressed grave concern at the situation in Libya. They condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators, and expressed deep regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians. They called for an immediate end to the violence and for steps to address the legitimate demands of the population, including through national dialogue.

The members of the Security Council called on the Government of Libya to meet its responsibility to protect its population. They called upon the Libyan authorities to act with restraint, to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, and to allow immediate access for international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies.

I’ve said something like this before, but if this wasn’t so sad I’d be laughing…

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The shit hit the fan: massacres in Libya, allegations of genocide and the UN is useless as always

This stuff in Libya is really getting serious. Qaddafi does not want to quit, there are reports of soldiers firing on protests from helicopters and warplanes, missiles being fired into crowds and soldiers being burned alive for refusing to kill civilians.

Qaddafi is rumoured to have hired mercenaries from other African countries to come and help slaughter his people. It’s all hard to really tell, because there is not much communication going in or out – the internet and mobile phones have been shut down, as have the regular phones in most areas, and people risk their lives by stepping out of their houses. Most of the reports come from relatives of Libyans, who apparently have managed to reach their families.

Of course, this means that most reports are not confirmed and no one really has a clear picture of what’s going on.

Dozens of bodies reported on Tripoli’s streets after Gadhafi crackdown – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

Ali, reached in Dubai, and the Tripoli resident say forces loyal to Gadhafi shot at ambulances and some protesters were left bleeding to death. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

At least 233 people have been killed so far, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The difficulty in getting information from Libya made obtaining a precise death toll impossible. Communications to Tripoli appeared to have been cut, and residents could not be reached by phone from outside the country.

The most amazing thing is that, even in the face of this, the people apparently are not giving up. I’ve been watching the Facebook page of a Libyan friend as he posts updates and calls-to-arms.

We have just heard that the military ships are bombing an area in Tripoli and many people have been killed although we don’t know how many at the moment because people have just called to tell us it is happening.

I have had calls from people in towns and cities all across Libya. Those in the east can not get out but those in towns and cities in western Libya, everybody is saying: “We are going to Tripoli.” The plan is to come from everywhere and go to Tripoli to sack the city, for the finish.

– Salem Gnan National Front for the Salvation of Libya

This makes what happened in Egypt look like a playground scuffle. For all his eccentricities and funny titles like “mad dog” and “king of Africa”, Muammar Qaddafi is a serious dictator, a genuinely evil person.

Leading on to my next point, here is another status update from my friend:

In Libya more than 500 shot dead in the protests against Gaddafi’s 42 years dictatorial regime, they use live ammunition, machine gun and last night security forces started using anti aircraft guns Jet fighters flying over and tanks on the ground! they even brought snipers and foreign mercenaries to kill people! internet is down & no foreign media allowed, it’s a genocide!

Again, this is terrible, but it is NOT a genocide. The use of “genocide” here actually came from the Libyan mission to the UN:

“We find it impossible to stay silent,” Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told reporters. “The Libyan mission will be in the service of the Libyan people rather than in the service of the regime.” He accused the regime of “genocide.”

I take a huge issue with every inhumane act being referred to as a “genocide”. Genocide’s greek roots mean “genus murder”; it is a very specific crime, with a very specific meaning:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Qaddafi is not trying to destroy any group based on nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. He is trying to destroy a group that pose a threat to his rule. That is definitely a crime, but it’s not genocide.

The UN in general has gone through all the usual motions when a “crime against humanity” is committed.:

LIBYA 11:45 p.m. ET, 6:45 a.m. local: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on Libya to immediately stop the “unacceptable” attacks on anti-government demonstrators.

“Like you and many others around the world, I have seen very disturbing and shocking scenes, where Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from warplanes and helicopters,” Ban said from Los Angeles. “This is unacceptable. This must stop immediately. This is a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

LIBYA, 11:22 p.m. ET, 6:22 a.m. local: At the request of Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations – who earlier today called the crackdown in Libya a “genocide” – the U.N. Security Council scheduled a Tuesday morning meeting on Libya. This will be the first time the council has held consultations over any of the revolts that have swept Arab nations since January.

If there was anything funny about this situation, I’d be laughing at this. Particularly Ban’s tone, it sounds like something a school teacher would say about a student who had been chewing gum.

I fully expect the UNSC to issue a particularly angry statement, calling for the killings to stop. I then expect absolutely nothing whatsoever to change. And if Qaddafi does manage to cling on to power, the UN and the Arab League will most likely forget about this whole “business” overnight, once oil prices start dropping again. I mean, it’s not like the UN had an issue with the last few massacres Qaddafi committed. In fact, they rewarded him for it – apparently, he was worthy of sitting on the peak human rights body…

The UN’s Libya failures

In 1996, an estimated 1,200 prisoners, mostly opponents of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime, were rounded up and gunned down in the space of a few hours in Tripoli’s infamous Abu Salim prison. The victims’ bodies were reportedly removed from the prison in wheelbarrows and refrigerated trucks and buried in mass graves. To this day, the Libyan authorities refuse to disclose the whereabouts of these graves. It wasn’t until 2004 that Gaddafi admitted that the massacre had taken place.

…The HRC [UN Human Rights Council] has in the past five years issued some 50 resolutions that condemn countries; of those, 35 have been focused on Israel, and not one has been issued against Libya. Even as of Monday evening, as protesters were being shot down in the streets of Libya, no emergency session of the HRC had been called by its members, which include the US and the EU.

Indeed, instead of being condemned, Libya has been lionized. In May 2010, Libya was, absurdly, elected as a member of the HRC, a move that was not blocked by the Obama administration (as Iran’s bid for membership was). This was the culmination of a steady ascendancy to every important diplomatic body at the UN – including the African Union chairmanship, the UN Security Council and the presidency of the UN General Assembly.

So much for “international human rights law”. This sums it up quite nicely:

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Extreme left view on the Middle East

 

My last post received the following comments on Facebook:

  • SN: But that would involve admitting that they’ve got it all wrong; that Arabs are subjugated not by Israel but by the leaders that the far left have supported, actively or tacitly, for the last 4 decades. And admitting they’re wrong isn’t something they’re known for…

  • XW: I’ll turn my Facebook profile photo to a celebratory green square the day Gaddafi is knifed.
    I wonder how many Trots that supported the Gaddafi-funded second flotilla to Gaza will also cheer his downfall?

I’m still constantly amazed by the extreme left’s ability to actually bypass any sort of logical thought process but still have such strong opinions on everything.

Apparently:

The West are hypocrites for propping-up dictators in the Middle East so that worse dictators don’t take over, especially since the protests are about freedom and democracy, so the Muslim Brotherhood won’t take over. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood are actually really nice people and if they do take over, they’ll be a free and democratic regime and not like the other Islamist revolutions in Afghanistan and Iran.

But the Taliban and the Iranians aren’t really as bad as you think, and really it’s the US and Israel that created the problems in those countries by propping-up the Shah and supporting the resistance to Russia. It was also not the USSR’s fault that Khomenei turned-out to be a brutal theocrat or that they left a huge power vacuum in Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict so that the Taliban could take over, because we don’t criticise left wing regimes, even ones as far gone as the USSR, and let’s face it, we can blame the US.

And George Bush’s policy of pro-democracy initiatives in the Middle East like supporting education and free press was colonialism at its worst, besides the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and his support for Israel, of course. However when the Middle East then rises-up, it’s democracy at its best and Obama is displaying colonialism at its worst by not doing enough to support democracy through initiatives like education and free press.

And when the democratically-elected Iraqi government is sending planes to evacuate its citizens from an unstable Egypt, because they feel safer in Iraq, we need to pull all the remaining troops out of Iraq now so that they can rebuild their country free of colonial influence. This is what they were trying to do a few years ago before that Nazi Bush introduced his “Surge”. [Editor’s note: at the time, they were blowing each other up in massive sectarian violence, killing dozens of people each day].

And of course, when Netanyahu is concerned about who will take over in Egypt because Israelis are worried about maintaining the peace treaty that has prevented war for 32 years, Israel is supporting dictatorship and anti-democracy. But when Israel congratulates the democratic movement in Egypt, they are lying and just angling to oppress the Palestinians more. And when an angry mob tries to beat-up and rape a non-Jewish American reporter screaming “Jew! Jew! Jew!” and when the Muslim Brotherhood call for war with Israel, they’re just kidding really, because they’re nice people after all.

I just can’t understand how they don’t see the holes in that whole theory. Particularly when they win prizes for writing this kind of crap. Paul McGeough, I’m looking at you

 

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They say Mubarak was bad, but look at Iran and Libya

There’s no doubt that life under Mubarak wasn’t pleasant. His security forces were notoriously brutal and like all good dictators, he crushed any opposition with force, including arrests without charge, and he wasn’t averse to a little torture either. That said, he obviously didn’t have the material that allow real autocrats to hold onto power despite being despised by their public. Remember how the Soviets used to do it, before soft leaders like Gorbachev took over. Stalin and Khrushchev would burn food supplies and let millions of their own people starve to death just to prove a point. Back in Tienanmen, the Chinese had no qualms about letting their tanks run-over anyone brave/foolish enough to keep standing there.

Unlike Egypt, other regimes in the Middle East have got this kind of thing down. Wanna protest in Iran? Better be ready to get trampled. Trying to take the centre of Tripoli away from the ruling regime? I hope you don’t mind some indiscriminate firing into the crowd.

Protests in Tehran Are Stifled by Security Forces – NYTimes.com

Anti-government protesters gathered throughout parts of Iran on Sunday, most concentrated in the capital Tehran, to mark the deaths of two men killed during demonstrations last Monday. The government mounted a stultifying security presence in the capital, with the police making arrests and using tear gas to try to prevent the unrest from escalating.

There were reports of indiscriminate shooting here too, but can we confirm them? No. Why not? Well you see, Iran’s autocrats are smart enough to not allow foreign journalists into the country. They also shut down the internet and mobile phones and jam all satellite TV, so no pesky “Twitter revolution” happening there.

Same deal in Libya. Qaddafi’s been around the block a few times, he knows the score. Shut down the internet and then just fire away. Look at what the information that does get out sounds like:

Libya protests: gunshots, screams and talk of revolution | World news | The Guardian

“I’ve seen violent movies and video games that are nothing compared to this. I can hear gunshots, helicopters circling overhead, then I hear the voices screaming. I can hear the screeching of four-by-fours in the street. No one has that type of car except his [Gaddafi’s] people,” she told the Guardian by phone, occasionally crying. “My brother went to get bread, he’s not back; we don’t know if he’ll get back. The family is up all night every night, keeping watch, no one can sleep.”

I’m not trying to make light of the suffering of the Egyptian people at all, I sure as hell would not have wanted to be one of them, but I do have a point here – when push came to shove, Mubarak was not as brutal, vicious and unforgiving as many other leaders in his position. Maybe he does deserve that $64bln that he ran-off with…

[Well, probably not]

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Why books are dying (and it’s not just the Kindle)

In a funny coincidence, a whole pile of books from www.bookdepository.com arrived in my letterbox yesterday, then today I read in the newspaper (yep, paper! Crazy huh?) that the biggest chain of bookstores in Australia, Angus and Robertson, who also own the Australian Borders stores, are being forced to hand over to a corporate recovery firm.

Naturally, they blame the internet. And as someone who rarely buys books in bookstores anymore since they are so much cheaper online, I can see why. Book prices in Australia are driven up by some irresponsible government protectionism over our domestic publishing industry, the fact that overseas purchases are currently GST-free, as well as the usual issues of high salaries and high rental costs for retail properties.

To explain the protectionism, for any new title, if an Australian publishing firm secures publishing rights to it within 30 days, Australian retailers are forced to sell the domestically-produced book and are not allowed to import foreign editions. This forces the prices up firstly because of the small scale of Australia’s industry and secondly because it means that the domestic publishers have no one to compete with besides each other.

On a Global Level

The other internet story, of course, is ebooks. Since Amazon’s Kindle, Borders’ Kobo, Sony’s Ereader and all of their competitors have been becoming increasingly popular and sophisticated, ebook sales have been picking-up. This is also fuelled by Apple’s iPad and the iBook store. Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore writes on CNN that Apple and its competitors (particularly Google) have already defeated the publishing industry. As he points out, publishers are at Apple’s mercy, allowing Apple to charge a 30% fee on every ebook that it sells without the publishers having any say over it at all. The only way Apple could be overcome is if Google’s new One Pass store, which charges 10%, starts out-competing Apple’s.

Reviewing Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson in the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein sheds some light on how the publishing industry missed the boat on the digital revolution. He even notes, very humbly, that he originally conceived of the business model that could have saved them, but it was instead taken by other entities:

Books: Onward to the Digital Revolution by Jason Epstein | The New York Review of Books.

In the mid-80s I proposed to my collegues at Random House that we create a direct mail catalogue comprising 40,000 or so backlist titles selected from the list of all publishers, to be ordered by readers over a toll-free number. The internet had not then been commercialised but digitisation was in the wind and disintermediation had become a buzz word. I argued that with retailers increasingly unable to stock our backlist we should now sell our backlist to readers directly. I was, of course, proposing the opportunity that Amazon eventually seized.

…Early in the new century book publishers, confined within their history and outflanked by unencumbered digital innovators, missed yet another critical opportunity, seized once again by Amazon, this time to build their own universal digital catalog, serving e-book users directly and on their own terms while collecting the names, e-mail addresses, and preferences of their customers. This strategic error will have large consequences

Epstein paints a very bleak picture of the publishing industry, chronicling his 52 years as an editor at Random House. He notes how when he began his career, the editors were given free-reign to choose books for literature’s sake, then how this slowly morphed into what we have today. Small, urban booksellers gave way to commercialised chains, which gave way to the Borders, Barnes and Nobles and Dymooks that we see today. The great casualty in this process was the back catalogue, where the increasing commercialisation of the bookshop world, as a result of the increasing number of other forms of entertainment for books to compete with, led to a market dominated by recent bestsellers and a few best-selling authors, at the expense of past greats and smaller writers.

But it’s these competing media that are really the story here. As Chauncey Mabe says in the Open Page blog,

The problem with the way Epstein, Thompson and others analyze the digital revolution is one of perspective. They look at the ways technology is likely to affect books, but the real impact is in the way digital technology is going to alter people.

After all, how many people do you know who actually read whole books anymore? I made a new year’s resolution for 2011 to read at least 1 book every month; so far, I’m failing. There’s just too much other material out there.

Our generation may be the last to read books at school, have textbooks at uni and have to hand-write exams. Bookshelves are becoming decorative and nothing more. I’ve said this to people who reply “but I really like going to bookshops and I like holding something in my hand!” Sure you do, but do you like it enough to pay for the paper, printing, shipping, store rental and staff salaries that let you get there? For most people, probably not. And so ends the book, may it rest in peace.

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