Category Archives: culture wars

TV lately, the Floating Life archive, Australian history

That will seem an odd combination! But bear with me.

The Floating Life Apr 06 ~ Nov 07 archive

This was in fact my first WordPress blog, now “replaced” by the Floating Life/Ninglun’s Specials pair. Top all-time individual visits there are as follows:

  1. Friday Australian poem #17: Bruce Dawe, 3,539 views
  2. Two Australian poems of World War II 2,680
  3. Assimilation, Integration, Multiculturalism policy and Practice in Australia since 1966 2,637
  4. On the awkwardness (and fatuity?) of discussing religion 2,506
  5. John Howard: bullying expert extraordinaire 2,055
  6. Bill Heffernan! 1,929
  7. Book and DVD backlog 1,907
  8. 3 — Indigenous Australians 1,764
  9. Does Tim Blair still do global warming jokes? 1,611
  10. Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth and segue into Mardi Gras 1,468

TV lately, Australian Indigenous history

Note the two entries I have highlighted; I refer you to them rather than mount a detailed argument about last night’s episode of SBS’s The First Australians which took Pastor Doug Nicholls as its biographical focus and extended to the assimilationist policies which prevailed for much of the 20th century and the rise of an Aboriginal identity/reform movement. There were more issues raised than you could poke a stick at, and the presentation – especially from Marcia Langton – was sometimes confronting, even bitter. However, balance against that the fact the inspirational Pastor Doug was brought to the attention of a new generation who may well not have known about him. There is a critical paradox here too: the somewhat conservative Christian Aboriginal man as culture hero and champion – and that’s where I would leave it, as a paradox we all need to contemplate. He remains a great humanitarian and a hero of his people, and he is not the only one. The singer Jimmy Little comes to mind. Go back too to Episode 3.

It is a fact that assimilation as a policy tended to be a one-way street: THEY should assimilate; WE don’t have to. That was one of its great flaws. It is also a fact that we had more in common with South African policy than we currently find comfortable – except in South Africa the “Native Question” was even more pressing. “We” were no longer a minority here.

It is right to counter some of the thrust of some elements of last night’s program with counter-examples, no doubt. On the other hand those darker elements – no sad race pun intended – must be included in any honest portrayal of Australia in the 20th century. That is where I had no patience with the prevailing orthodoxy of the Howard years. I found it tendentious and dishonest. The whole “black armband”/”white blindfold” thing is a waste of space, I believe. A full picture includes both.

So provocative as some may have found last night’s First Australians, I welcome it for, in fact, being provocative.

A much more recent part of the ongoing history of Indigenous – indeed all – Australia is aired in a coming ABC program: Tom Zubrycki’s The Intervention is sure to attract praise and flack both, but should be worth seeing. It’s on Thursday night on ABC1 at 9.30.

TV lately: other

It has been a good season for Australian history, with the series The Prime Ministers going for a couple of weeks now. We have already had Harold Holt (and the unspeakable Billy McMahon) and now we have Menzies and Churchill, and next week Chifley. They are Thursdays at 8.30, despite what the linked page says!

Then there was last Monday’s Four Corners: Good Cop, Bad Cop on the Australian Federal Police, noteworthy for further revelations about the Dr Haneef travesty. Surely it was no accident that this was an election year…

Finally, coming up on Monday 17 November is The Howard Years. I will be watching, but not out of nostalgia I assure you, imperfect in many respects as the current Rudd government may be. Howard never made me feel relaxed or comfortable – more often the reverse of both!

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Posted by on October 29, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, culture wars, current affairs, History, Indigenous Australians, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, media watch, memory, multiculturalism, TV


One of 2008’s top reads: Tom Perrotta “The Abstinence Teacher”

abstinence_teacher_jacket I borrowed Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher (NY St Martin’s Press 2007) on spec from Surry Hills Library and have found it a delight, but more than that – aside from perhaps being a bit didactic. It is comedy of manners 21st century suburban US style rather than satire. It isn’t cruel enough to be satire. (I have in mind there, for example, Evelyn Waugh’s classic The Loved One, which really is rather bitter and supercilious, though laugh-out-loud funny.) There are very funny moments in The Abstinence Teacher, but the humour is more often wry and kindly. Even so, the novel exposes utterly the mindlessness that is fundamentalist moral thinking, especially but not only in the area of sexuality. It is also quite a frightening expose of the curriculum programs proposed by the Religious Right, showing that to regard such programs as “education” is a travesty.

On his own site Tom Perrotta describes the novel:

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It’s got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It’s the kind of place where parents are involved in their children’s lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.

Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth’s younger daughter’s soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn’t approve of Ruth’s style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn’t applaud The Tabernacle’s mission to take its message outside its doors.

Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value.

The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.

Yes there are soccer moms (and dads), and a wonderfully drawn gay couple… I would seriously suggest Christians read this one; they may think again afterwards – at least I hope so. The book just may prove subversive in the benign way good literature often is. If you are not a religious person you will enjoy it anyway, so long as you don’t mind a book that is really quite suburban, but better and more believable than soap opera; many of your fears about the Religious Right in America will be confirmed as you read, but you may find yourself empathising more with people you might not otherwise consider… That can’t be bad.

This is a very wise, and often funny, novel.

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Posted by on October 24, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, Christianity, culture wars, education, faith, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, pluralism, reading, religion, right wing politics, Top read, USA


For citizens and friends of the USA: an important article in Education Week

I had an email alert from Education Week just now and it is important enough to pass on. Read Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’.

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge, chaired from 1995 to 1999 by Barack Obama, is being portrayed by John McCain’s campaign as an attempt to push radicalism on schools.

The project undertaken in Chicago as part of a high-profile national initiative reflected, however, mainstream thinking among education reformers. The Annenberg Foundation’s $49.2 million grant in the city focused on three priorities: encouraging collaboration among teachers and better professional development; reducing the isolation between schools and between schools and their communities; and reducing school size to improve learning.

The other eight urban projects that received money from the foundation under the Annenberg Challenge initiative, launched in 1993 by the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg, pursued similar aims…

Last week, the campaign of Sen. McCain, the Republican nominee, posted a Web ad asserting that “Ayers and Obama ran a radical education foundation together” that distributed more than $100 million to “ideological allies.”

Mr. Ayers and Ms. Hallett, who was then the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, led a citywide group called the Chicago School Reform Collaborative that met frequently throughout 1994 to write a proposal to secure Annenberg funding.

“They are taking what was a very positive civic undertaking to improve public schools and characterizing it as something it was not at all,” Ms. Hallett said of the bloggers, commentators, and TV and radio hosts who for months have been discussing Sen. Obama’s association with Mr. Ayers. (“Ayers Controversy First Smoldered, Now Flares Bright,” Oct. 15, 2008.)

Critics have focused not just on Mr. Ayers’ involvement in violent opposition to the Vietnam War, but also on what they see as his espousal of a radical “social justice” approach to education…

The context for the Chicago proposal to the Annenberg Foundation was the 1988 decentralization of the city’s public schools by the Republican-controlled Illinois legislature, a response to frustration over years of teachers’ strikes, low achievement, and bureaucratic failure. Among other changes, the law set up “local school councils” at all district schools and gave the panels, which included community representatives, the power to hire principals…

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Posted by on October 16, 2008 in America, culture wars, current affairs, education, Teachers Who Change Lives, teaching, USA


Revived interest in Henson and his work

sper200a Honestly, I am not over-fond of Bill Henson’s work. It is too arty and contrived for my taste. Nonetheless, I do note that the posts and pages I did on the subject a little while ago are drawing, and have continued to draw, quite a lot of attention. Lately, of course, this has been generated by David Marr’s new book and articles on the Henson Affair. The Sydney Morning Herald even has a multimedia presentation narrated by Marr. This report summarises events to date:

Controversial artist Bill Henson has yet again come under fire from the nation’s “outraged” and “revolted” politicians, this time following revelations he went to a primary school to search for suitable subjects for his artwork.

In a book by Herald journalist David Marr, Mr Henson said a Melbourne primary school principal agreed to let him wander the playground at lunchtime, accompanied by the principal, in search of subjects for his artwork.

“If the report is accurate, I am disgusted by it,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters in Sydney today.

“I think parents would be revolted and horrified if this were true.”

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull said he was outraged by the report.

“There are very big issues here relating to the protection of children, their privacy and informed consent,” he told reporters in Sydney.

“The matters that have been described in the media are totally inappropriate and unacceptable and I share the outrage that has been expressed by many people at these events,” he said.

“I’m astounded by the reports.”

Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan said it was the ultimate betrayal of parents’ trust and someone ought to be sacked.

Mr Marr said Mr Henson was accompanied by the school principal at all times and he did not tell the children he wanted them to model for him or take any photographs…

It is certainly true that various agencies representing advertising companies or film and TV interests regularly scout schools for talent; there are strict guidelines on this process. I have seen it done. It seems to me the guidelines were probably followed in the case of Henson, but as you can see outrage is again the order of the day.


Coney Island1945

This and the image above right are from The American Museum of Photography

I thought I would remind everyone what child abuse actually is. There is absolutely nothing wrong with opposing child pornography or any other kind of child abuse, but I still can’t help thinking that the plot is really being lost in this current furore. It may also be said that I have doubts about the tactics, even the motives, of David Marr — not in terms of child abuse, obviously, but in terms of what may be seen as self-promotion, and in terms of a sometimes less than helpful superciliousness.**

** UPDATE —  live blogging 11pm: I am watching David Marr on Lateline at the moment. He is making a very good serious case for his position, and even more so about the panic now surrounding photography, which he is linking to fear of the Internet, and to other agendas, very convincingly. He has also avoided arrogance and has not discounted the genuine concern some have in this for the welfare of children. What he said has been very insightful.*

I am also impressed by the testimony on behalf of the school principal involved in this latest Henson story, a solid and very strongly worded bouquet for her integrity and quality as an educator from one of the parents at the school in question — Australian Olympic flag bearer James Tomkins. I think Kevin Rudd’s response on this one — and all who have followed suit — has been ill-considered.

* Extract:

…LEIGH SALES: Why do you think that’s come up now?

DAVID MARR: It’s the Internet. The Internet has changed the way we view photography. There is a sense in which no photograph can actually be corralled anymore. Everything is potentially available to anybody anywhere in the world, once it gets on the Internet. We still have to deal with that, that apprehension of the Internet, because it’s changing the way we consider art, photography, all sorts of things. Part of the purpose of my book is to look at the history of that fear of the Internet, and try to work out whether in fact we need to be so afraid. I don’t think we do.

LEIGH SALES: Presumably that fear of the Internet comes at a time where there are particularly sharp fears about the safety of children. You talk about this convergence of fears all coming together in this one case.

DAVID MARR: Yes. And I try to distinguish between real children who have the real need to be protected and the kind of forum in which children’s, the fragility of children is being used frankly exploited, by people who have always been trying to have a more modest society, a better behaved society, a more sexually conservative society. Those people aren’t listened to any more at all by anybody unless they’re talking about children, unless they’re talking about the safety of children.

LEIGH SALES: But in this particular case do you think the mums and dads out there who were appalled by it think in that sort of an ideological fashion or are they just thinking these photographs crossed the line and I don’t want my child…

DAVID MARR: Leigh, of course they don’t think that way. They’re thinking with their guts, their concern for their kids and they’re fearful. My job as an analyst and reporter is to try to disentangle those fears and give them names and explain why this is happening…

[WARNING!] The images over the fold are disturbing. Each is linked to its source. They are icons of some aspects only of a sad and complex problem, but I hope they give food for thought and restore a sense of proportion in the current climate.

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Posted by on October 6, 2008 in Australia, culture wars, current affairs, human rights, humanity, media watch


Revisiting The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Why did that Milan Kundera novel come to mind as I thought about yesterday’s Vice-Presidential Candidates Debate? You will recall I was not much impressed by it. Janet Albrechtsen in today’s Oz finds Sarah Palin “charismatic”! My own view is that anyone who finds either Palin or Biden charismatic needs a new dictionary. And again, what debate? You may read the transcript and judge for yourselves. Sure, we had a number of exchanges of views, but we also had one participant who refused to engage time and again.

I thought of Kundera because of the erasure of what has really happened in Iraq since 2003, when John Howard put forth The Line so well that the current Canadian PM, then Opposition Leader there, used it verbatim, as we now now; and John stuck to that line as reality dissolved around him year after year. See for example some posts I put up along the way: John Howard on Iraq (October 22, 2007) and Want a cheap and nasty debate? Visit the Senate…  (December 5, 2006) lead you in turn to others back to 2003.

Palin wanted to forget everything older than six months in the Iraq story. She didn’t want to concede that the current problems in Afghanistan and on the Pakistan border areas might conceivably be as they are because Bush chose Baghdad as prime target and did not commit enough to Afghanistan. I am sure the idea that Al Qaeda had minimal interest or participation in Iraq before the US-led invasion may not pass muster with her, or her supporters. And yet it is true. To go even further back, of course, the idea that Al Qaeda itself, and the Taliban, are not unrelated to US policy towards Afghanistan in the later years of the Cold War would also be inscribed in the Book of Forgetting.

Renegade Eye has a good post on Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is talked about in a metaphysical manner. Stratfor presents an assessment that can be used, no matter what your viewpoint, to at least talk on the subject, with reality.

I am glad that there are promising signs in Iraq, after so many have died and so much has been ruined. I hope it works; having made a bum choice, Bush and the rest of us are stuck with the consequences and really do have to make the best of it. But it is hardly cause for patriotic chest-puffing…

As for the bail-out and what led to it, that may not be the world’s best idea, but a lot of wise heads say it has to happen, that money from The United Arab Emirates or China really is needed to save the US financial system from complete meltdown. We can but hope and pray, I guess.

But there has been an air of unreality about talk about this too. That was brought home to me by something Tony Delroy said on ABC’s Night Life last night: the figures mean that 70,000 US households per day — that is families, men, women — have been losing their homes! The numbers are simply staggering, and the human cost is also hard to conceive. This story helps.

As the vice-presidential candidates talked about the financial crisis gripping this country and the House and Senate sparred over the $700 rescue bill, the crisis got a little darker for at least one family as CNN reported that a 90-year-old woman shot herself in the wake of an eviction attempt. The woman, from Akron, OH, survived, and has become a flash point for the debate — she was mentioned on the floor of the House on Friday.

Foreclosures have all sorts of victims and we’ve been reporting on them since the beginning of the crisis, but the stories of real people may have gotten a little lost over the past few weeks as the banking crisis has spiraled out of control. How do you process the plight of one woman losing her home against the backdrop of a $700 billion rescue plan? Both are impossible to fathom. And this woman has not been the only one to come to national attention for attempting suicide — there was a case back in July of a Massachusetts woman who committed suicide as she faced eviction.

Perhaps as Congress considers the big picture of the financial crisis, it’s important that they are reminded of the very real human costs of our economic condition.

George Soros saw it coming, I should add. See The Age of Fallibility (2006) pp. 144-5 and 159-161.

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Posted by on October 4, 2008 in America, culture wars, current affairs, globalisation/corporations, right wing politics, terrorism, USA


Catching up on the October "Monthly" and a couple of other items

Marcellous has already referred to one of the items in the October Monthly, the thinking person’s Quadrant. 😉 It is a good issue, and you can read it all online for $40 a year, or buy it from the newsagent here in Australia.


Click for details.

Meanwhile at no cost to us the Arts & Letters Daily — despite a tendency to over-represent right-wing or neocon views? — has offered some excellent things as usual over the past week. For example:

  1. Stephen Hawking, The final frontier.
  2. Christopher Shea, Against Intuition though I distrust excesses of empiricism myself, on the grounds that much that really is relevant is often ruled out. Call that literary training, perhaps. Neatness is not all…
  3. The American Future: A History by Simon Schama – The Sunday Times review. A book I would like to read!
  4. Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads by “Agnostic” on Gene Expression. While reactionaries would be drawn to this, the article is not as reactionary as it sounds. It is a neat bit of textual statistics, demonstrating a decline over recent years of some of the more turgid “theoretical” writing — or at least of certain buzz words — by statistically analysing the frequencies of certain expressions in a corpus of academic writing over a ten year period. For example, the occurrence of “social construction” looks like this:

  5. Ha Jin, The Censor in the Mirror. Interesting to me as M’s older sister, a journalist and literary critic/editor in Shanghai, once fell foul of the conditions Ha Jin describes.

Censorship in China is a powerful field of force; it affects anyone who gets close to it. Four years ago, I signed five book contracts with a Shanghai publisher who planned to bring out four volumes of my fiction and a collection of my poems. The editor in charge of the project told me that he couldn’t possibly consider publishing two of my novels, The Crazed and War Trash, owing to the sensitive subject matter. The former touches on the Tiananmen tragedy, and the latter deals with the Korean War. I was supposed to select the poems and translate them into Chinese for the volume of poetry. As I began thinking about what poems to include, I couldn’t help but censor myself, knowing intuitively which ones might not get through the censorship. It was disheartening to realize I would have to exclude the stronger poems if the volume could ever see print in China.

As a result, I couldn’t embark on the translation wholeheartedly. To date, I haven’t translated a single poem, though the deadline was May 2005. The publisher publicly announced time and again that these five books would come out soon, sometime in late 2005, according to the contracts. But that spring, the first in the series, my collection of short stories, Under the Red Flag, was sent to the Shanghai censorship office—the Bureau of Press and Publications—and the book was shot down. So the whole project was stonewalled. A year later, I heard that the publisher had decided to abandon the project. In the meantime, numerous official newspapers spread the word that my books had no market value in China.

The office that Chinese writers, artists, and journalists dread and hate most is the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. In addition to its propaganda work within the party, this department, through its numerous bureaus, also supervises the country’s newspapers, publishing houses, radio and TV stations, movie industry, and the Internet. Except for the Military Commission, no department in the Party Central Committee wields more power than this office, which forms the core of the party’s leadership. Its absolute authority had gone unchallenged in the past, though even the Communists themselves understand the sinister role it has played. Luo Ruiqing, who was the first to head the Propaganda Department after the Communists came to power, once admitted: “To let the media serve politics means to tell lies, to deceive the above and delude the below, to defile public opinions, and to create nonsensical news.”…

Just a sample of quite a few good articles.


Recidivist bore now writing for the Sydney Morning Herald

I refer of course to Miranda Devine, who cites in support of her diatribe about English teachers, and the NSW English Teachers Association in particular, just two people: Sophie Masson, one of Quadrant’s better writers whose son seems, from what I can tell, to have had a bad HSC English experience, and, of course, Kevin Donnelly who gets all sentimental about the admittedly superior Western Shane — the book not the movie. From this, with a catch-all almost cliched allusion to Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and a few very selective and occasionally distorted quotes* from two submissions the NSW ETA made to the Board of Studies warning against narrowing the range of English Studies and assessment, Miranda asserts English teachers have lost the plot. I can’t be bothered rebutting her or even quoting her further. She’s been here before. See for example The HSC English moanings of Miranda… — a post from January 2007.

I am prepared to quote the Bible though: As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so is the fool that repeateth his folly. That’s Proverbs 26, and I thought the 16th century Catholic translation most apt for Miranda’s case.

Go to Posts Tagged ‘Miranda Devine’ in Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07, and also for a wider view of English Studies go to the Archive for the ‘English studies’ Category here on Floating Life.

Treat Miranda’s ranting with great caution. It is a tissue of prejudice and opinion from end to end with hardly a fact to fly from. It is journalistic laziness of a rather obvious kind, concocted over a cup of coffee after a chat to a couple of mates.

Instead, read the ETA’s submissions for yourself. I thought them worth uploading. They are far superior to Miranda. At least they seem to know what they are talking about. So it seems to me anyway, but what would I know? I only taught English for around forty years…

  1. The NSW ETA response to proposals on Australian content
  2. ETA on HSC exam and assessment proposals

* For example, Miranda mocks the ETA for only having 43 submissions to back their proposal, neglecting to mention that some, perhaps many, of those submissions were from English Departments, not individuals.

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Posted by on September 20, 2008 in awful warnings, culture wars, education, English studies, literacy, literary theory/criticism, right wing politics