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Category Archives: intellectual spot

Reading several books at once may do your head in…

… or it may set up a rather interesting and unexpected harmonic.

The three books in question are:

All three are well worth reading. 

I give Armstrong five stars more as a history than as a work that is entirely convincing theologically – it is if you agree with her, which I am inclined to do, but even so I still take the Axial Age hypothesis with a grain or two of salt. What is good in this wide-ranging work is the fresh insight it has afforded me into unexpected and often hitherto unexplored parallels in the thinkers and prophets of the ancient world in Greece, India, the Middle East and China. Armstrong is no fundamentalist; her very respectable scepticism on the historicity of much of the Bible as “fact” bears witness to that. On the other hand, her opposition of mythos and logos will not appeal to everyone, even if I think there is much to be said for it so long as one realises it has the weakness of all such dichotomies. Religion to Armstrong is not well served by being treated as logos. Paradoxically that is what fundamentalists tend to do. Mythos reminds me more than anything of John Keats and “negative capability.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

More on Armstrong: Heavy-hitter stands up for God and religion; Richard Dawkins vs. Karen Armstrong: "Where Does Evolution Leave God?"; Man vs. God – the Armstrong/Dawkins “debate” which was reprinted in The Australian this weekend: it mostly shows two contrasting sensibilities, in my opinion.

I repeat: Armstrong is an excellent historian of ideas.

D Michael Lindsay is an excellent ethnologist of religion. I very much agree with this review.

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America – politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay’s essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don’t necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay’s documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don’t always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result…

It is “thick description” – far more subtle than the standard rant pro or con religion in US politics. I found it fascinating.

SONY DSC                     Timothy Clack is far younger than I thought! He is “[St Peter’s] College [Oxford] Lecturer in Archaeology and Director of Studies in Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim is an anthropological archaeologist with diverse research and teaching interests. Themes with which he is currently engaged include: archaeology of experience, archaeological mediation, syncretism and religious fusion, anthropology of conflict, and memory and cultural landscapes. He has been fortunate in being able to conduct archaeological and anthropological research in the UK, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Borneo. Timothy is an elected fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is also holds associate membership of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.”

He has, however, not been well served by proof-readers – there are quite a few clangers in Ancestral Roots. For example, I am sure Dr Clack knows that T H Huxley is not the same as Aldous Huxley, though they are related.

The book is in the evolutionary biology genre, but ranges much more widely than most. According to Alan Bilsborough in The Times Educational Supplement: “Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author’s preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don’t. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don’t take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.”  I didn’t mind the preaching, personally. Loved what he says about ethnocentrism, religion, and co-operation – just to name a few areas.

 

One fiction, one non-fiction

Two good reads for the last July 09 book review.

star30star30star30star30  1. Gary Bryson, Turtle, Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2008

I am not overfond of some of what passes as magic realism, but in this case the magic is really magic and the realism gritty and true. This is a wonderful first novel from Bryson, who works as a radio journalist on Radio National’s Encounter. From the title link above:

Mandy Sayer interviews Gary Bryson

Mandy Sayer was Gary Bryson’s creative writing lecturer when he was writingTurtle. She calls the book ‘one of the finest debut novels I have read in years’ and says Bryson’s storytelling is ‘quite simply, enchanting’. She spoke to Gary for Readings on the eve of Turtle’s release.

What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?

You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.

So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?

When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians…

star30star30star30star30 2. Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

Sounds dry, doesn’t it? But is really is a most interesting book. As the reviewer in the title link says:

This is a real gem of a book – especially if you’re a translator. Eco does a great job of exploring the complexities of the translation process and the problems faced by literary translators in particular. Translation is not just "typing in a foreign language"; translators are forced to continually analyze, interpret, evaluate and – as Eco puts it – negotiate with a text in order to craft a translation that conveys not just the "meaning" but the intent of the original. As both a translator and a "translatee", Eco has a unique insight into translation, and he provides numerous intriguing anecdotes relating to how the trickier passages in his own books and the books of others have been dealt with successfully – and sometimes less successfully – by translators. Being a translator myself, I couldn’t help but nod and smile in agreement all through this book…

The Guardian reviewer exaggerates the book’s difficulty, though there are indeed some knotty passages. On the other hand very many of the anecdotes and examples are highly amusing as well as instructive, such as the passing of the opening of Genesis through several languages in a computer translator by which the Spirit turns into alcohol…

 

The hidden power of language

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

I am storing a copy for future reference: Edge_ HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE pdf.

 

June review catch-up 1

Yes, I know how long I have been promising a string of reviews on that “sticky” above. ;)  Well, now to get started…

star30 star30star30star30star30 1. Simon Schama, The American Future: A History (2008).

Rather snooty review by David Brooks in The New York Times: “His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.” When you actually read the book you do get the title: historically “The American Dream” (the phrase itself, if not the idea, first appeared in 1931) has been very much about possibility and the future – witness the ending of The Great Gatsby. Beginning each chapter with vignettes of the 2008 Presidential Election, Schama traces a series of themes back through a number of intelocked and fascinating profiles. The result, in my view, is one of the most subtle portraits of the USA and its evolution that I have ever read. Nothing puerile about the title or the book.

Much nearer the mark is Carmela Ciuraru in The Christian Science Monitor.

William Faulkner once famously wrote that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” a quote that aptly describes the perspective of Simon Schama’s latest book. In The American Future: A History, the eminent British historian and Columbia University professor offers a kaleidoscopic view of our national identity – by way of examining war, immigration, religion, and prosperity.

He sets off these themes with the 2008 presidential election, “impregnated with history,” an event that Schama likens to Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural in 1801, when Jefferson similarly spoke out against divisive rhetoric, proclaiming that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Weaving in original reportage, analysis, and historical events, Schama investigates where our nation of boundless appetite and ambition might be headed. The book (a companion to his BBC documentary series) is both a celebration and a wake-up call. “The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation,” he writes. “The American past is baggy with sobering truth.” The author is particularly harsh about our country’s recent past, notably “the woeful performance of [former president George W. Bush] and his hapless maladministration.” …

He isn’t striving for objectivity; this book is part history, part polemic. As a scholar and an outsider in his adopted country, he views the Bush administration as an unmitigated disaster. Yet the author is smart enough to (mostly) keep his opinions to himself, and let others do the talking – whether through contemporary interviews or quotes from historical figures…

He’s especially adroit at studying our historical ambivalence toward immigrants, and how religious ideology has shaped our identity. (He notes that American evangelism has always puzzled “habitually secular, skeptical Europeans.”)

American history is endlessly rich and fascinating, but Schama’s travelogue makes it come alive in a wonderfully accessible way. Sure, some of his pronouncements seem a bit obvious, but he includes so many surprising moments (an amusingly candid off-the-cuff encounter with George W. Bush, for instance) that all is forgiven. Schama happens to be a marvelous storyteller, too. Never condescending, his portrait of America’s complexities and contradictions is entertaining, provocative, and above all, hopeful.

The chapter on religion — “American Fervour” – is particularly valuable. It is a nuanced corrective to the polarised and polarising views of the subject one so often sees.* Let’s face it, too much we see and hear about the USA is at the level of cartoon thought, whether it be mindless patriotism on the one hand or subscription to the idea that the USA is at the bottom of all that is wrong with the world on the other.

You can read Chapter One here. Some idea of the TV series may be seen here. A definite Best Read of 2009!

* See also Caspar Melville “Free Market Faith”, New Humanist May/June 2009.

star30star30 star30 2. Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (2007)

I really have mixed feelings about this one.

"Many US high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife."

The book is written for a popular audience and serves several good purposes. It contains a useful “encyclopedia” of relevant religious movements and ideas that really does encapsulate much that we all “need to know” to make sense of the world around us. These entries cover most of the main world religions. They are sane on Islam-related matters.

On the other hand much of the historical section is, to my mind, quite odd – a nostalgia for contexts and situations that even the author eventually admits we can’t return to, and probably shouldn’t try.

star30star30star30star30 3. June 2009 Monthly Magazine

I particularly enjoyed Waleed Aly “Patriot Acts”, Fiona Capp “In the Garden” (about Judith Wright and Nugget Coombs) and Peter Sutton “Here I Stand” – a very insightful profile of the undoubtedly brilliant if controversial Noel Pearson: “Peter Sutton reflects on the many facets of Noel Pearson’s thought as it appears in Up From the Mission, the Cape York leader’s comprehensive new collection of writing.”

The blurb for “Patriot Acts” follows.

“American patriotism does not celebrate a country that exists or has ever existed. It is a celebration of the idea of America: of possibility, what Barack Obama calls ‘America’s promise’. Where we may look upon America as the country of slavery and racial segregation, Americans see a country that overcame these things … This is a concept alien to those whose sense of patriotism has an older, more European flavour. The message of Australia’s staunchest patriots is that ours is a great country with a great history and no need for change.”

In “Patriot Acts”, Waleed Aly looks beyond the cheering and flag waving to provide a unique and compelling analysis of American patriotism, its history and complexity, and the lessons Australia can draw from it. “The secret to America’s unique brand of national identity,” Aly says, is that it “coheres principally around not a social culture but a political one”; it is this, he argues, that allows American patriotism to be embraced by even the most marginalised in US society.

“The demands America makes of its minorities are less trenchant than those preferred by anti-multiculturalists. Its demands are civic demands. If Australia has lately had a message for its migrants, it has been, ‘Fit in’. America’s message is, ‘Participate’. The two are worlds apart. The latter expresses a national identity that is dynamic and open, and that offers citizens a belief in their own freedom of conscience and the opportunity to contribute something new. The former expresses a national identity that is comparatively fixed, that makes its demands without inviting input and that, as a consequence, inspires little fidelity.”

 

Substantial food for thought on Radio National

Given the trivia and infotainment and sometimes unbalanced ranting that characterise too much of the media, it can be refreshing – and challenging – to tune into Australia’s Radio National. I probably should do so more.

I was struck particularly by some recent episodes of All in the Mind.

1. Child soldiers: the Art and arts of healing (Part 1 of 2). “Born into the bloody horror of war, Sudanese rap artist Emmanuel Jal was 9 when he was recruited into the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army as a child soldier. Incredibly he survived, and his music reaches a generation of Lost Boys.”

2. Child soldiers: the Art and arts of healing (Part 2 of 2). “In Sierra Leone, child soldiers committed acts that words can barely describe. At the war’s end, ravaged communities responded to them with terror and stigma. A minority of former child soldiers, many orphaned, have access to reintegration programs. Dance and movement therapist David Alan Harris describes an extraordinary project to respond to the traumatised psyche through engaging the body.”

You can listen, or read the transcripts. It is strong stuff.

Then I enjoyed A tribute to Isaiah Berlin on The Philosopher’s Zone.

John Gray: Although he thought each of these conceptions, negative and positive liberty were in some ways legitimate and authentic developments from a basic core, which is common to both, he preferred negative liberty to positive liberty in any of the versions that it had had throughout history, and there were several. I mean I think what he feared in positive liberty was paternalism, and even a type of authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism….

I should make one very important point though. I think it’s a great mistake as some people do, to assimilate Berlin therefore to certain types of narrow or extreme liberal or libertarian thinkers who argue that what states should only do is to protect negative liberty. And he himself certainly did not take the view that the purpose of government was only to protect and promote negative liberty. As I mentioned earlier he wasn’t a tremendously political person; he was never actively involved in politics but if I had to describe his political outlook it would be that of a Rooseveltian liberal or in British or Australian terms of a moderate social democrat, and of course being that, meant that negative liberty could and should be tempered and constrained and supplemented by other important values such as social cohesion, distribution, equality and so forth.

Nonetheless he was strongly critical of positive conceptions of liberty because they assumed within individuals and between individuals and in societies as a whole, an actual or a potential harmony which he thought was delusory.

NOTE: The transcript for the second All in the Mind program goes up later this week. You may listen though.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2009 in Africa, Australia, Australia and Australian, faith and philosophy, human rights, humanity, inspiration, intellectual spot, radio

 

China, the USA, the car, and the environment

Two good items from Monday’s Arts & Letters Daily.

1. P J O’Rourke, The End of the Affair. Provocative and ironic as usual…

The phrase “bankrupt General Motors,” which we expect to hear uttered on Monday, leaves Americans my age in economic shock. The words are as melodramatic as “Mom’s nude photos.” And, indeed, if we want to understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics and turn to melodrama.

Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It’s a tragic romance—unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses…

The American automobile is—that is, was—never a product of Japanese-style industrialism. America’s steel, coal, beer, beaver pelts and PCs may have come from our business plutocracy, but American cars have been manufactured mostly by romantic fools. David Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Robert and Louis Hupp of the Hupmobile, the Dodge brothers, the Studebaker brothers, the Packard brothers, the Duesenberg brothers, Charles W. Nash, E. L. Cord, John North Willys, Preston Tucker and William H. Murphy, whose Cadillac cars were designed by the young Henry Ford, all went broke making cars. The man who founded General Motors in 1908, William Crapo (really) Durant, went broke twice. Henry Ford, of course, did not go broke, nor was he a romantic, but judging by his opinions he certainly was a fool…

2. Jacques Leslie, The Last Empire: China’s Pollution Problem Goes Global.

…The emergence of China as a dominant economic power is an epochal event, as significant as the United States’ ascendancy after World War II. It is in many ways an astonishment, starting with the ideological about-face that enabled it, the throwing over of Maoist values for plainly capitalist ones starting in the late 1970s. So thorough is the change that the 19-foot-tall portrait of a stolid, potato-faced Mao Zedong that still looms over traffic-choked, commerce-suffused Tiananmen Square looks paradoxical, even startling, in seeming need of an update in which Mao winks—or sobs—in blinking neon. Meanwhile, inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, the heart of old China, buildings with such intoxicating names as Hall of Preserved Harmony and Palace of Heavenly Purity bear signs reading, "Made Possible by the American Express Company."

The grander astonishment is the most massive and rapid redistribution of the earth’s resources in human history. In a mere two and a half decades, China has awakened from Maoist stagnancy to become the world’s manufacturer. Among the planet’s 193 nations, it is now first in production of coal, steel, cement, and 10 kinds of metal; it produces half the world’s cameras and nearly a third of its TVs, and by 2015 may produce the most cars. It boasts factories that can accommodate 200,000 workers, and towns that make 60 percent of the world’s buttons, half the world’s silk neckties, and half the world’s fireworks, respectively.

China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world’s biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world’s steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world’s new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month. And the Chinese are not just vast consumers, but conspicuous ones, as evidenced by the presence in Beijing of dealers representing every luxury-car manufacturer in the world. Sales of Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis have flourished, even though their owners have no opportunity to test their finely tuned cars’ performance on the city’s clotted roads…

 

Notelets for end of May

Personal

  1. By sheer chance my current batch of my little pills is lactose-free! I get the generics, and thus far have never had the same brand twice. All so far have lactose as a filler, except this lot. This is a shame, as I (like many others) am lactose intolerant, and the lactase tablet antidote only works so far. I’ll try to make sure future batches are the lactose-free ones.
  2. Another grand-nephew has become a friend on Facebook. 🙂
  3. My story will be in the June South Sydney Herald and I have a feature coming up in July.
  4. No stats today as the end is nigh – of the month, that is.

Spotted on Arts & Letters Daily.

Very interesting review article: Free market faith by Caspar Melville on New Humanist.

Another day, another denunciation of Dawkins and Hitchens and their fellow New Atheists. No sooner have we absorbed Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008), Tina Beattie’s The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (2008) or David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions (2009) when along comes God is Back: How the Revival of Religion is Changing the World, by Economist journalists John Micklethwait (pictured right) and Adrian Wooldridge.

But this "God book" is of a rather different order. Unlike its rivals it contains a wealth of fact and subtle argument, empirical evidence and expert witness. As we might expect from The Economist its perspective is global – it sweeps comfortably from the corridors of the Pentagon to a front room church in Shanghai, and speaks authoritatively about events in Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt. Altogether it lays down a very serious challenge to any of us who had waved God a not-so-fond farewell…

Secularists might find some of the arguments in this book hard to swallow, though they should welcome the opportunity to sharpen their own against them, but as a clear and convincing case for the separation of religion and politics, it counts as a considerable, and unapologetically secular, achievement.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2009 in health, intellectual spot, personal, religion

 

Three thought provokers

These have come my way via Arts & Letters Daily.

1. "The Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan" by Nicholas Schmidle (Foreign Policy March 2009)

After eight years of a White House that often seemed blinkered by the threats posed by Pakistan, the Obama administration seems to grasp the severity of the myriad crises affecting the South Asian state. The media has followed suit and increased its presence and reporting, a trend confirmed by CNN’s decision to set up a bureau in Islamabad last year.

And yet, the uptick in coverage hasn’t necessarily clarified the who’s-doing-what-to-whom confusion in Pakistan. Some commentators continue to confuse the tribal areas with the North-West Frontier Province. And the word lashkars is used to describe all kinds of otherwise cross-purposed groups, some fighting the Taliban, some fighting India, and some fighting Shiites.

I admit, it’s not easy. I lived in Pakistan throughout all of 2006 and 2007 and only came to understand, say, the tribal breakdown in South Waziristan during my final days. So to save you the trouble of having to live in Pakistan for two years to differentiate between the Wazirs and the Mehsuds, the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, I’ve written an “idiot’s guide” that will hopefully clear some things up…

2. "Human Nature" by Mark Dowie (Guernica Magazine May 2009) — in the paradox and unexpected consequences department.

Is modern conservation linked with ethnic cleansing? In an excerpt from his new book, the investigative historian explores the concepts of wilderness and nature, and argues that the removal of aboriginal people from their homeland to create wilderness is a charade.

"One way to guarantee a conversation without a conclusion is to ask a group of people what nature is." —Rebecca Solnit, University of California…

3. "Fear masquerading as tolerance" by Christopher Caldwell (Prospect May 2009).

This article has resonance for Australia, but I suspect our experience with immigration and multiculturalism has been different from Europe’s in significant ways. Nonetheless I add this to paradox and unexpected consequences too.

…The Europe into which immigrants began arriving in the 1950s was reeling in horror from the second world war and preoccupied with building the institutions to forestall any repetition of it. Nato was the most important of these institutions. The EU was the most ambitious. The war supplied European thinkers with all their moral categories and benchmarks. Avoiding another explosion meant purging Europe’s individual countries of nationalism, with ‘‘nationalism’’ understood to include all vestiges of racism, militarism, and cultural chauvinism—but also patriotism, pride, and unseemly competitiveness. The singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags became, in some countries, the province only of skinheads and soccer hooligans.

Prompted by the US, which was addressing its own race problem at the time, and with the threat of communism concentrating their minds, Europeans began to articulate a code of ‘‘European values’’ such as individualism, democracy, freedom, and human rights. These values were never defined with much precision. Yet they seemed to permit social cohesion, and their embrace coincided with 60 years of peace.

Europe was an attractive place for immigrants. But attraction and admiration are not synonyms. The Ottoman empire and China both had a ‘‘power of attraction’’ for westerners in the 19th century. But it was not out of any admiration for their systems of government or their ideals of human rights that Europeans signed treaties with, settled in, and disrupted the national lives of those two countries. It was because they were rich places too weak to look out for themselves.

The EU was not dreamt up with immigrants in mind, but it wound up setting the rules under which they were welcomed. Postwar Europe was built on an intolerance of intolerance—a mindset that has been praised as anti-racism and anti-fascism, and ridiculed as political correctness. Our interest here is neither to defend it as common sense nor reject it as claptrap. It is to understand, first, what Europe was thinking when it welcomed immigrants in such numbers—something it would not have done at any previous moment in history—and, second, what grounds Europe had for dealing with newcomers in the often naive and overindulgent way it did…

 

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Friday intellectual spot 7: Tobias Ziegler on perceptions of ideological bias in research

If that sounds like a recent post by Bruce, it’s because I took my cue from that post! I commented there: “I may steal this for my Friday Intellectual Spot (or should that be in my case ‘Intellectual’?) — a really good find, Bruce.” Now I have stolen…

Tobias Ziegler has a blog, Not a Hedgehog, on WordPress.com. The item Bruce cites appeared on a Crikey blog, Pure Poison, on 24 February: Pure Science: Seeing ideological bias in research findings. So I have tagged this “meet a blog” as well, since you have now met several so far!

The results suggest that research findings which support liberal approaches to public policy are more likely to be regarded with scepticism, and that this scepticism seems to be associated with concerns about the ideological bias of the researchers. These perceptions of bias are more likely to come from those who are conservative in general, or who hold conservatively-aligned attitudes on the specific issue the research looked at. These findings seem consistent with a lot of the reactions to research that we see in conservative columns and blogs, and in responses from the commenters on those sites. And although they were explicitly artificial, the descriptions of research findings are similar to what we typically see presented in the mainstream media – brief, superficial and lacking the detail needed for critical evaluation. Under those conditions, there appears to be a tendency to see Leftist influence on the research endeavour – and the source of the research becomes the focus, rather than the integrity and quality of the research itself…

…We regularly see scientific research and academic institutions criticised as having philosophical and/or ideological motivations to conduct research that supports certain outcomes (e.g., anthropogenic global warming). This study provides evidence for one type of bias in judgment that may contribute to these types of claims.

But that doesn’t mean those of us who lean to the left can sit back with a smug sense of self-satisfaction. Liberals still appear to be more suspicious of findings that contradict their existing beliefs. It’s good to be sceptical, but that scepticism needs to be applied equally, without being influenced by the nature of the findings. And as the authors of this study note, the proneness to see liberal but not conservative bias might be because researchers are more likely to be liberals.

Rigorous, objective research should be able to serve as evidence in the debate over public policy. Rather than dismissing any research on ad hominem grounds, everyone involved in that debate needs to focus on the research itself. If the findings are genuinely affected by ideological bias, point to the evidence of ideological contamination in the study. We need to avoid this natural tendency to point to the researcher just because the findings don’t fit with what we believe.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, intellectual spot

 

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Friday intellectual spot 6: Alan Wolfe on liberalism and New Scientist on religion

Again I have picked two that appeal to me from the past week on Arts & Letters Daily.

K Anthony Appiah reviews Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism on Slate.

Alan Wolfe is the sort of social theorist who would rather be plausible than provocative. Eschewing the lunacies of the left and the right—avoiding even their slighter sillinesses—he hews to a sensible, if unexciting, center. We must be robust—even militarily robust—against genocide everywhere, but recognize the limits of our armies as instruments of democratization overseas. We can encourage religious engagement in the public square but insist on freedom from religious imposition and the widest workable range of religious expression. Let us also welcome immigrants in a spirit of openness while accepting that we cannot absorb all who want to come and asking those who do come to open themselves to us. Wherever there is a reasonable middle ground—as here, between nativism and multiculturalism—he finds it unerringly. And, despite the Polonius-like platitudinousness of my simplifying summaries, he is attentive to the complexities of actually bringing these thoughts to practical life. If professor Wolfe had a coat of arms, its motto would be "On the one hand, on the other." And though he may have only two hands, they are permanently occupied: He has many balls in the air. He is, as my British uncles might have put it, impeccably sound. If liberalism were just a temperament, we could agree that he has it in spades.

But, as he argues himself in this engaging new book, The Future of Liberalism, liberalism is more than a temperament; it is also a political tradition with substantive commitments—a body of ideas—and it has, as well, a dedication to fair procedures, impartially administered, legitimated by the consent of the people. Temperament, substance, procedure can all be liberal, and understanding liberalism requires a grasp of all three and of the connections among them. Wolfe’s distinctive claim, however, is that the key to liberalism is a set of dispositions, or habits of mind—seven of them, in fact, each of which gets its own chapter.

Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: "a sympathy for equality," "an inclination to deliberate," "a commitment to tolerance," and "an appreciation of openness." We’re used to the portrayal: liberals as talky, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarians. It’s not surprising, then, that these types are at home in the garrulous world of the academy—or that bossy preachers, convinced they have the one true story, do not care for them much. But Wolfe’s sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: "a disposition to grow," "a preference for realism," and "a taste for governance."…

In New Scientist (4 February) Michael Brooks explored Born believers: How your brain creates God. I found this fascinating; looked at another way it may have also been called “Why it’s hard to be an atheist.”

WHILE many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance.

This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. "It’s not that religion is not important," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, "it’s that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress."

The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30)

The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. "I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion," he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

An alternative being put forward by Atran and others is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works…

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2009 in faith, intellectual spot, magazines, politics, religion, web stuff

 

Friday intellectual spot 5: 3 Quarks Daily and Dissent

On 3 Quarks Daily recently is an essay that fits neatly with my own strong leaning towards pluralism (not exactly the same as relativism): Being Liberal in a Plural World by Namit Arora. His conclusion:

… Three things come to mind: (1) I would do well to realize that when it comes to values (such as those that inform secularism, social ethics, or human rights), the quest for objectivity is chimerical—I am in the realm of metaphysics and have no recourse to scientific verities. Indeed, even the idea of ‘human dignity’—to which we widely subscribe and upon which is built every edifice of human rights—is nothing but a useful fiction. (2) I should understand that the source of my actions has to be my own liberalism, which includes my own subjective view of our common humanity, the values we share, and the ideas and policies that I think will make the world a better place. (3) I have to take seriously at least what I hold to be the core values of my liberalism, such as a commitment to try and understand others and to modify my opinions in light of new discoveries.

Indeed, the only path open to me as a pluralist and a liberal is to try to persuade others of my subjective values, and to put my weight behind ideas and policies that appeal to my liberalism. Like everyone else, I come into the world, inherit ideas and traditions, project myself in time, and die. Cultures and traditions are not given but made; social values are contingent and agonistic. My liberalism may come to see some things as universally true—for instance, that abuse of power and public trust are universally bad, or that the right to free and fair trials tap into a universal value for justice, and so worth supporting in all contexts. Even if I think a value is not universal today—say euthanasia, basic literacy, or tolerance for consensual adult sex before marriage—I may believe that with effort it can become universal, and the world would be better for it. On other issues like school prayer, labor laws, censorship, or social welfare, I may require a lot more local context before taking a stand. Some other values I may be indifferent to but might (or might not) recognize their importance to others. Imperfect, but that’s all we have: one language game vs. another, though with real human consequences.

Last but not least, I should try to persuade others without being self-righteous or hypocritical. Nor is pomposity, railing at others, or calling them irrational or stupid the best tactic. Better to seduce via exemplary action. Know thy interlocutor. Successful persuasion may require any combination of ordinary human techniques: pleading, arguing, requesting, reasoning, illustrating, cajoling, praising, challenging, respecting, appeasing, sharing facts, bargaining, dining together, and so on. Alongside, I must remain flexible to revise my belief in my values, given new findings. I must also accept that, at times, open confrontation is unavoidable. That’s all there is—my belief in values that I think will lead to a better world, and trying to get others to see it my way on issues I care enough about. A sense of humor always helps.

Brilliant essay!

Over on that fine leftish US magazine Dissent are so many things! Of interest to me especially is China: A Threat to or Threatened by Democracy? by Edward Friedman. 

How can one know whether China will or will not democratize? In general, as Karl Popper showed in The Poverty of Historicism, political futures in even the middle distance are unknowable because of the inherently uncertain and contingent dynamics of politics. Therefore, an analyst should focus on the multiple factors that make different futures more or less likely.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Haleb shows that in the post–Bretton Woods age of unregulated financial globalization, an extraordinary volatility is ever more likely. Thus, practical wisdom suggests a need to hedge against the unknowable and gargantuan risks of sudden booms and busts. Not even the hedge funds know how much to hedge. Unless one can create new international institutions to regulate the new monies created since the dollar floated in 1971 and since new instruments (non-bank banks) were invented in the middle 1980s, the global forces at work will produce unimaginable futures.

The almost impossible problem is how to imagine China’s democratization potential in relation to the out-of-control and unpredictable workings of the new global economy. Are there ways to conceive the issue that might be more fruitful than others?

Despite the conventional wisdom, China is not a market-Leninist system in which the economic imperatives of wealth expansion are in contradiction with the political imperatives of control-oriented, anti-market Leninist institutions. China has already evolved politically into a non-Stalinist authoritarianism. Somewhat similar transitions occurred in nineteenth-century Imperial Germany and Imperial Japan…

Again, a really good essay, informed by a sense of history – which helps a lot.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2009 in Chinese and China, faith and philosophy, human rights, intellectual spot

 

Friday intellectual spot 4: Jerry A. Coyne

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His new book, Why Evolution Is True, has just been published by Viking. That information comes from The New Republic, which has just published a review essay by Coyne: Seeing and Believing. He reviews two books — Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller. Again I owe Arts & Letters Daily.

How opportune too after my previous post!

… Together, Saving Darwin and Only a Theory provide an edifying summary of the tenets and the flaws of modern creationism, the former dealing mainly with its history and the latter with its specious claims. If these books stopped there, they would raise a valuable alarm about the dangers facing American science and culture. But in the end their sincere but tortuous efforts to find the hand of God in evolution lead them to solutions that are barely distinguishable from the creationism that they deplore….

…the most important conflict–the one ignored by Giberson and Miller–is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science–every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason–only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful–those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths–fall into the "incompatible" category.

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a "middlebrow" book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Statistics support this incompatibility. For example, among those thirty-four countries surveyed, we see a statistically strong negative relationship between the degree of faith and the acceptance of evolution. Countries such as Denmark, France, Japan and the United Kingdom have a high acceptance of Darwinism and low belief in God, while the situation is reversed in countries like Bulgaria, Latvia, Turkey, and the United States. And within America, scientists as a group are considerably less religious than non-scientists. This is not say that such statistics can determine the outcome of a philosophical debate. Nor does it matter whether these statistics mean that accepting science erodes religious faith, or that having faith erodes acceptance of science. (Both processes must surely occur.) What they do show, though, is that people have trouble accepting both at the same time. And given the substance of these respective worldviews, this is no surprise.

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

That is just an extract from a long article. Do take the trouble to read it all.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2009 in faith, faith and philosophy, intellectual spot

 

Friday intellectual spot 3: Frank Furedi

Last time I quoted Frank Furedi – almost two years ago – it was with considerable reservation: Frank Furedi: The curious rise of anti-religious hysteria.

This essay is reproduced in full in Policy, the house journal of John Howard’s favourite think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies. Frank Furedi is an interesting character, as you may see here: “founder and chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) of Great Britain. The RCP has traversed one of the longest ideological journeys in British politics, moving from the hard-left through several incarnations into a broad collection of organisations on the libertarian right wing.”

Much in the essay is good; I agree that left-wing hysteria over The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe was really rather silly. On the other hand, I utterly disagree with his ideologically driven dump on Tikkun and Michael Lerner. And unlike Furedi, I suspect, I have as you know actually read Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics…

I have reservations too about After Gaza: what’s behind 21st-century anti-Semitism? There is a trademark attitude here:

First of all, contemporary Western culture continually encourages groups that perceive themselves as victims to inflate the wrongs perpetuated against them. As a result, we are always being told that racism is more prevalent than ever before, or that homophobia and Islamophobia are rising, or that sexual discrimination is more powerful than in the past. It is unthinkable today for advocacy groups to concede that prejudice and discrimination against their members have decreased, and that the status of their community or people has improved. Such groups are acutely sensitive to how they are represented in the media, and to the language in which they are discussed and described. And this identity-based sensitivity is shared by Jewish organisations, too, which in recent decades have often been all-too-willing to interpret what are in fact confused and ambiguous references to their people as expressions of anti-Semitism.

Consequently, the charge that a certain statement is ‘anti-Semitic’ should not be accepted at face value. Statements and acts need to be analysed and interpreted in the context in which they were made or carried out…

Yes, but… Nonetheless I do commend this article. No matter what one thinks of Gaza – and I for one utterly condemn the use of phosphorus shells, for example, and the decades of failing policy and dubious actions that mark this region on all sides – it is a fact that a very virulent form of anti-Semitism, as vile today as it ever was, has accompanied some of the commentary on these matters and is also, to the great cost of peace, enshrined in the public policies of certain organisations and nations.

There is considerable evidence that in recent years anti-Semitism has acquired greater visibility and force in Europe. Over the past decade, and especially since the eruption of the conflict in Gaza, anti-Israeli sentiments have often mutated into anti-Jewish ones. Recent events indicate that in Europe the traditional distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiment has become confusing and blurred.

So recently, during a demonstration against Israel’s actions in Gaza, the Dutch Socialist Party MP Harry Van Bommel called for a new intifada against Israel. Of course he has every right to express this political viewpoint. However, he became an accomplice of anti-Semites when he chose to do nothing upon hearing chants of ‘Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas’ and similar anti-Jewish slogans. Many people who should know better now keep quiet when they hear slogans like ‘Kill the Jews’ or ‘Jews to the oven’ on anti-Israel demonstrations. At a recent protest in London, such chants provoked little reaction from individuals who otherwise regard themselves as progressive anti-racists – and nor did they appear to be embarrassed by the sight of a man dressed as a racist Jewish caricature, wearing a ‘Jew mask’ with a crooked nose while pretending to eat bloodied babies.

Increasingly, protesters are targeting Jews for being Jews. They have agitated for the boycott and even harassment of ‘Israeli shops’, but in practice this means boycotting and harassing Jewish-owned shops, such as Marks & Spencer (some of whose stores have been barricaded by anti-Israel protesters) and Starbucks (a number of whose coffee shops have been attacked in London and elsewhere). Some protesters in Italy don’t share the linguistic subtlety of those ostensibly calling for a boycott of ‘Israeli shops’. Giancarlo Desiderati, spokesman for the trade union Flaica-Cub, has called for a boycott of Jewish businesses in Rome. A leaflet issued by his union informed Romans that anything they purchase in Jewish-owned shops will be ‘tainted by blood’.

Here, there is an almost effortless conceptual leap from criticising Israel to targeting Jews…

Anyone who has lived as I have through more than six decades can only shudder at things like that and totally reject them.

I would draw your attention again to Rabbi Brant Rosen: Israel and Gaza: Speaking About the Unspeakable; Gaza: The Arrow Cannot Be Taken Back; Over 1,000 Rabbis Can’t Be Wrong. Good posts all, even if I would question the title of the last one. 😉

Might I also humbly submit that important as they may be Israel and the Middle East are merely part of the world, not nearly as important in themselves as one would think from all the attention given them – by me as much as anyone I suppose. Yes, there are all sorts of reasons for that, some of them substantive and some of them quite delusional. You can sort that one out! More people have died of cholera in Zimbabwe, for example, than died in the last month in Gaza, very much the outcome of a mindless implementation of failing remedies for what were originally just causes. Tibet is “occupied” just as much as Palestine is. Standing up for human rights and democratic values in Russia is more than a little dangerous. And so on… One could go on…

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2009 in current affairs, human rights, humanity, intellectual spot, Israel, Middle East

 

Friday intellectual spot 2

Not all that intellectual today, but two items of interest from the recent Arts & Letters Daily selections.

The first I immediately thought was another reactionary rant on its subject, but closer examination shows it is better than that. I was put off by the A&L’s intro:

Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. All in the name of progress… more»

Much better than that would lead you to expect. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.

The second is from The Atlantic Monthly: The End of White America? by Hua Hsu.

"Civilization’s going to pieces,” he remarks. He is in polite company, gathered with friends around a bottle of wine in the late-afternoon sun, chatting and gossiping. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” They hadn’t. “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

He is Tom Buchanan, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book that nearly everyone who passes through the American education system is compelled to read at least once. Although Gatsby doesn’t gloss as a book on racial anxiety—it’s too busy exploring a different set of anxieties entirely—Buchanan was hardly alone in feeling besieged. The book by “this man Goddard” had a real-world analogue: Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920, five years before Gatsby. Nine decades later, Stoddard’s polemic remains oddly engrossing. He refers to World War I as the “White Civil War” and laments the “cycle of ruin” that may result if the “white world” continues its infighting. The book features a series of foldout maps depicting the distribution of “color” throughout the world and warns, “Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”

As briefs for racial supremacy go, The Rising Tide of Color is eerily serene. Its tone is scholarly and gentlemanly, its hatred rationalized and, in Buchanan’s term, “scientific.” And the book was hardly a fringe phenomenon. It was published by Scribner, also Fitzgerald’s publisher, and Stoddard, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard, was a member of many professional academic associations. It was precisely the kind of book that a 1920s man of Buchanan’s profile—wealthy, Ivy League–educated, at once pretentious and intellectually insecure—might have been expected to bring up in casual conversation.

As white men of comfort and privilege living in an age of limited social mobility, of course, Stoddard and the Buchanans in his audience had nothing literal to fear. Their sense of dread hovered somewhere above the concerns of everyday life. It was linked less to any immediate danger to their class’s political and cultural power than to the perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness that sewed together the fortunes of the fair-skinned.

From the hysteria over Eastern European immigration to the vibrant cultural miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, it is easy to see how this imagined worldwide white kinship might have seemed imperiled in the 1920s. There’s no better example of the era’s insecurities than the 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which an Indian American veteran of World War I sought to become a naturalized citizen by proving that he was Caucasian. The Court considered new anthropological studies that expanded the definition of the Caucasian race to include Indians, and the justices even agreed that traces of “Aryan blood” coursed through Thind’s body. But these technicalities availed him little. The Court determined that Thind was not white “in accordance with the understanding of the common man” and therefore could be excluded from the “statutory category” of whiteness. Put another way: Thind was white, in that he was Caucasian and even Aryan. But he was not white in the way Stoddard or Buchanan were white.

The ’20s debate over the definition of whiteness—a legal category? a commonsense understanding? a worldwide civilization?—took place in a society gripped by an acute sense of racial paranoia, and it is easy to regard these episodes as evidence of how far we have come. But consider that these anxieties surfaced when whiteness was synonymous with the American mainstream, when threats to its status were largely imaginary. What happens once this is no longer the case—when the fears of Lothrop Stoddard and Tom Buchanan are realized, and white people actually become an American minority? ….

Do make sure you read on. It becomes even more interesting, and it is very relevant to our thinking here in Australia, despite its US emphasis, and to our own past. In fact I’ve PDFed it too: Hua Hsu article. Of course there are major differences between the US and Australian experiences, but there is common ground in some of the thinking Hua Hsu alludes to.

Putting both articles together, you might say a 21st century Tom Buchanan would be running an ultra-Right blog! 😉

The relevance to our own past? See earlier entries here: That hypothetical Year 10 lesson on “White Australia” and Updating that hypothetical Year 10 lesson on "White Australia". My contention would be that in the context of the time, given what was “normal” thinking in much of the Anglophone world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it would have been very surprising if Australia hadn’t had a “White Australia Policy”. We don’t have to agonise about it, because we have moved on since then. Sadly, not everyone has moved on, as we know, but generally speaking there has been a lot of progress, especially here in Australia.

It doesn’t hurt our international reputation though to be frank about our own past, while equally assertive about the progress that has been made; I’d go further and claim it is very desirable so to do, setting an excellent example to others less honest about their chequered pasts. That’s why I don’t accept Keith Windschuttle’s special pleading on the subject. Our White Australia Policy was indisputably racist, whatever else it may have been – protective of labour, concerned with Empire and with internal social cohesion, inspired by distance and vulnerability, and so on – all part of the mix too. But it is really not surprising that racist thinking shaped much of the rhetoric at the time.

Jim Belshaw and I have thrashed this one out several times in the past, as visiting those two posts will show. 🙂