November 21, 2014

The life of Bryan

"Is 'Dead Bryan' a real person?" No one in our group in this Melbourne bar seemed very sure. Freedom of information request! Or DuckDuckGo search.

"Dead Bryan" is the near-affectionate name for the guy in the photographs on Australia's plain cigarette packaging, required by law since 2012. Liberally framed in black health warnings, branding is limited to olive green lettering giving the manufacturer's name. The most eye-catching feature is the twin pictures of a healthy young man and what purports to be the same young man, six weeks later: Bryan, dead at 34. He looks terrible. Besides being dead, I mean.

This deterrent packaging is an example of the troubles a country faces these days when it's the first to adopt a new idea that takes square aim at the interests of corporations and other countries. It's costing Australia millions to defend its plain-packaging law against lawsuits brought to the WTO by Philip Morris and five tobacco-producing countries: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, and Ukraine, which claim the packaging violates trade and intellectual property law by interfering with their ability to promote their premium tobacco products. Suddenly there is a new twist to intellectual property laws as a public health issue.

If the TTIP and TTP treaties come into being, we can expect many more suits like this case under the treaties' ISDS provisions. These Investor--State Dispute Settlement rules that make it easier for companies to seek legal redress against the actions of democratically elected governments. In the plain packaging case, even if the principle didn't matter, probably the cost of defending the lawsuits is dwarfed by the cost of medical care for generations of smokers.

Dead Bryan comes from the this is your brain on drugs school of deterrent advertising. "I don't really like looking at him," says one of my companions, noting that at A$26 peer pack of 25 he really can't afford to smoke. And yet, a few minutes later he's lighting up. Ingrained addictions are hard to shake.

Aside from the three absurd kangaroos bounding across a Victoria field the other day, much of the landscape I'm encountering is familiar. The morning news this week has been featured Julie Bishop, the minister for foreign affairs, who could be auditioning for Theresa May's job as the British Home Secretary. Early in the week Bishop warned the UN of the dangers of the young, modern terrorist. Like the UK authorities, Bishop talks about the dangers of social media's being used to recruit and incite disaffected young people. As in the UK, there is talk of not allowing the back into the country if they leave.

I'm not clear on the logic of such proposals. "We don't want terrorists living in our country" is simple enough. Butt do you really want to create a class of much angrier, even more disaffected individuals who are now stateless? Sending misfits somewhere else worked when Australia and the US were viewed as empty continents; unless climate change warms up Antarctica by a whole lot we don't have that option any more. As things are, these we-won't-let-them-travel ideas are reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the US, when people believed to be Communists were denied passports. I knew several on the folk scene who were harmless unless you hate banjo. When we see the same proposals coming from such disparate places and party affiliations it's natural to ask: are Bishop (and her prime minister, I'm not a tech head Tony Abbott), Obama, and Theresa May all facing the same problems - or being briefed by the same security agencies and technology vendors?

And yet the Migration Museum in Adelaide shows the commonality of thought goes some way back. During World War II, when the US was interning Japanese-Americans in camps, Australians were doing the same thing with its German immigrants. One of the profiles the museum publishes notes that after the war, destitute, one such internee begged the government to revoke his naturalized citizenship and send him back to Germany.

The contradictions and subtleties of a newly-met country are always hard to grasp: Australia is famous for loud, hearty matiness - and yet you can be fined $240 for swearing in public in Melbourne. I'm told the current government doesn't believe climate change is a real thing, and yet Australia is the poster child for the effects. The temperature today in Sydney is expected to hit 100 degrees (40C) - and it's only November.

The best analogy I can come up with is to the landscape: the English brought roses, lawns, and sculptured gardens; the Italians (and probably Greeks) brought olive trees, which actually do fit the climate; the Scots brought gorse, which here is a weed in need of pest control. Similarly, Adelaide's distinctive look is European housing styles built out of local stone and decorated with 150-year-old iron lacework. I suppose it's unreasonable to expect the country's laws to be any different.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.