From under the linoleum
Old newspapers show Mussolini's imperialism looked a lot like today's

I sat on the floor and picked through the tragedy of the country we now call Ethiopia laid out on the yellowing pages. It was eerily reminiscent of the current Iraq adventure.

A tale for our times
The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov

Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first people in the world to be bombed from the air.

Dispossessed all over again
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation … an Australian Palestinian returns to her ancestral home.

The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. But eventually they went to the Vietnam War anyway.

Bombing King David
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist

Some historians date the beginning of modern terrorism from the 1946 bombing by Zionist terrorists of the British military HQ in Jerusalem.

Don’t loiter near the exit
Military debacle and economic decline haunt the Bush regime

When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.


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Looking backwards, looking forwards

18 May 2000

The light of a half moon twinkled on the black waters. A clear luminous evening had descended into the crystal blackness of an autumn night as Old Possum and I rode the ferry to Manly to meet Joadja for dinner at the Café Tunis.

We leaned on the rail with the wind in our fur and soaked up the night, for life is too short to waste a trip on the Manly ferry.

A skein of crazy seagulls flew alongside. We could almost have reached out and touched them. They were using the ferry's lights to spot small prey in the water, but some of them flew all the way without getting anything. It seemed awfully futile.

"So what do you think will happen to the economy next?" I asked. "We aren't hearing much talk about 'the greatest share-owning democracy in the world' any more. A lot of simple folk who invested in things like Telstra have lost a lot of money already".

"Looking backwards, history is a cartoon. Looking forwards it's a movie running in slow motion", he said, leaning back to duck a surge of spray that came over the gunwale as we dipped into the swell.

"Looking back, everything seems simple and clear-cut, logical and obvious. The way things unfolded to the participants loses its confusion and its detail and mythologies fill the vacuum.

"History repeats itself, but not exactly, and people seize on the new features to calm their fears. You know how you hear them say: 'It can't happen again because ... ', or 'Things are different now because ... 'or even 'They know how to stop it happening nowadays'. As often as not, the things they think will crash-proof the economy are really making it more susceptible to disaster.

"So what's the mechanism? What drives a market crash?" I asked, for I have always had an investigator's fascination with the mechanics of disaster.

"There's no better example of the mechanism that the 1929 crash. The market goes down step-wise and at each slump more investors get wiped out, but a new wave of optimists enters it, thinking it's reached the bottom and they'll buy in cheap, and it'll go up, and they'll make a killing.

"But each time, the optimism is more brittle. The investors get spooked more easily, and suddenly they panic again -- anything can trigger it -- and millions more are wiped out.

"And then it feeds back into what they're now calling -- with unconscious irony -- 'the real economy'. Suddenly consumers get cautious. People decide it would be prudent not to borrow for a new car or fridge or whatever. Trouble is brewing, and it would be better to put some dollars in the bank, so shops are left with stuff they can't sell and factories lay off people".

"The thing to realise is that we are all participants in this out-of-control ecosystem we call capitalism. That applies to the market analysts and business journalists too. They aren't just neutral scientific observers of reality. Ninety-nine per cent of them believe implicitly in capitalism -- otherwise they wouldn't be where they are.

"While the market is ramping up, most don't want to look like doomsayers. They don't want to be 'irresponsible' or 'negative', so they go along with the mysticism of the boom. Some of them (it will soon transpire) are even accepting favours to boost certain stocks. Then, when things start to go wrong, they suddenly switch sides in droves. They start ringing the warning bells -- now they don't want to look irresponsible if it really is a crash -- and that feeds the general uncertainty."

"In other words there's negative feedback loop, a chain reaction downwards", I said.

The ferry slid in towards the wharf. Yes, I thought, if you hadn't been here before, you'd never guess that the great black Pacific Ocean lies just beyond this blaze of light.

• • •

INCLUDED in Whispers from the mean streets -- Best of 2000

FREE downloadable PDF booklet.