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Why? See All hands on deck to bridge the indigenous reading gap.

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Notelets

1. Dr C has gone to Fiji for a week’s holiday. That could be interesting as a coup seems to be in progress.

2. A couple of (reconstructed) bits of conversation with coachees this week.

Coachee 1 (14): Yes, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 4.

Me: Really? That’s a bit much for a four year old… Did you read it in Chinese or English?

Coachee 1: In Chinese. (He was in Shanghai then.)

Me: Have you read it since in English?

Coachee 1: Yes.

Me: Do you still read a lot?

Coachee: One book a week.

Me: English or Chinese?

Coachee: Mostly in English.

********

Coachee 2 (17): I’m having some problems with Keating’s Speech on the Unknown Soldier. (One of seven set for the HSC unit on speeches.)

Me: What problems?

Coachee 2: What is mateship?

That led to an interesting discussion.

 

Who are you calling an ideologue?

I get very cranky about the way something as important as the teaching of reading is framed by some in the media and out there (consequently?) by the public. It really ought not to be framed as a white hats versus black hats conflict. Anyone who sees everything in terms of left-wing conspiracy and thus sees literacy teachers as mindless idiots pushed around by “ideologues” really doesn’t deserve any respect at all. Certainly such right-wing ideologues don’t deserve to be listened to, but unfortunately they too often are. They cash in on our tendency to think someone has been conning us.

I have argued this case again and again for several decades, let alone on this blog, and am rather tired of it all. However, I enter the fray again prompted by this letter in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

As one who taught many a struggling child to read, I bridle at Miranda Devine’s denigratory labelling of Brian Cambourne as the "godfather" of whole language learning ("The crazy politics of learning to read", March 21-22).

Cambourne has produced a wealth of impressive evidence to substantiate his advocacy of holistic approaches to literacy. He is one of many dedicated literacy leaders who rightly emphasise the centrality of meaning in learning to read and that excessive emphasis on fragmented decoding achieves only limited results. Such reductionism can produce "readers" who are able to decode print, but who seldom go near a book.

Whole language advocates are not averse to teaching phonics; they teach embedded phonics as one strategy among many necessary to help children with reading problems. How many times must it be said that almost all schools teach phonics thoroughly?

MULTILIT, or Making Up Lost Time In Literacy, is a program aimed primarily at low progress readers. It is demanding in terms of time and resources and there are question marks about the persistence of some reading gains made. Like more holistic approaches, it also recognises the importance of reading interesting material to and with children, building up sight word competence, linking spelling and writing with the reading program and so on.

To characterise whole language advocates as those who think "children learn to read naturally just by being exposed to books" is insulting. It fails to recognise the wide acceptance of whole language emphases on skills being taught in context, literacy across the curriculum and quality literature at all levels of the reading experience.

Well-implemented whole language approaches, far from being discredited, are preferable to those that treat reading in isolation and splinter the complex process of becoming literate.

Ron Sinclair Bathurst

How about we look at what Brian Cambourne has actually said? Then we might consider what reading teachers actually do, which has been well characterised in that letter.

One articulate exponent of whole language has been Brian Cambourne who emphasises the crucial role in literacy development of what he called conditions of learning (Cambourne 1988) which may be summarised as follows:

Learners need:

a) immersion in appropriate texts.

b) appropriate demonstrations.

c) responsibility for making some decisions about when, how and what they read and write.

d) high expectations about themselves as potential readers and writers.

e) high expectations about their abilities to complete the reading and writing tasks they attempt.

f) freedom to approximate mature and/or ‘ideal’ forms of reading and writing.

g) time to engage in the acts of reading and writing.

h) opportunities to employ developing reading and writing skills and knowledge in meaningful and purposeful contexts.

i) responses and feedback from knowledgeable others which both support and inform their attempts at constructing meaning using written language.

j) plenty of opportunities, with respect to the written form of language, to reflect upon and make explicit what they are learning.

When Whitfield examined the practices of reading teachers K-12 in the Botany region of Sydney in 1993 he found this to be the dominant approach, aside from a minority who favoured such skills-centred, bottom-up approaches as the Macquarie Probes, for example. However, many teachers were taking up the genre pedagogy advocated by the various Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools projects on literacy and the then developing English K-6 syllabus document, the final version of which has recently been published. In very many cases the genre pedagogy was deployed in a whole language framework. Typical of this blend of approaches is this STLD (support teacher learning difficulties) teacher in an Infants School:

We work within a framework of a Whole Language Classroom, which reflects also a Naturalistic Approach, and by Naturalistic Approach we mean that the conditions which are operating when a child learns to talk can also be applied to the classroom. Within that Whole Language framework we also do the Genre Writing Approach based on Halliday’s Systemic Functional Model of language and learning. What we are actually talking about is that children have a purpose or a social goal and an audience in mind. So we work with all these frameworks, so I guess we’re a bit eclectic in the approaches and methodologies that we actually use. (Whitfield 1993:4.)

Yes, I am Whitfield (1993) and those with access to university libraries or the State Library of NSW may find that old work of mine: Whitfield, N. J. (1993), Best Practice in the Teaching of Reading, 1993 DSP Action Research Project, Metropolitan East Region, Botany Cluster, Erskineville, Disadvantaged Schools Program. You see, the nonsense was being promulgated way back then and it is just as silly and harmful now as it was then. The extract above comes from 03 — an essay from 1998: Literacy on Ninglun’s Specials. While that essay is aging it is still relevant and is supplemented by links to the latest resources in the area.

In that 1993 project I had access to Infants, Primary and Secondary reading classes in about a dozen schools from La Perouse to Mascot, from Maroubra to Eastlakes. Some of those schools were challenging places to work. I ended up admiring the dedication and intelligence of the teachers involved, and certainly found very little evidence of dumbos swept every which way by airhead lefties. Further, in the course of that project I did extensive reading on the subject going back to the 1890s, and also had the benefit of conversation in the past with my grandfather, a reading teacher from 1906 through the 1940s, and my aunt who had taken up the role in the 1940s through to the 1970s.

Perhaps you can see why I get cranky.

Further thoughts

Jim Belshaw addressed some issues suggested by this post in his Problems with words and measurements.

…Here I want to use an example from Neil. Not, I hasten to add, to attack Neil, but because he has actually brought out an example of what I see as sloppy thinking.

I suggest that you read first Who are you calling an ideologue?. This post deals with a debate in Australia about the teaching of English. Without going into the details, this debate links to Australia’s own unique culture wars, a clash of ideas enveloped in political venom on both sides.

If you look at Miranda Devine’s article, and assuming her reporting is in any way correct, then Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine’s response falls to the same class.

Neil, an experienced English teacher, is sympathetic to Brian Cambourne’s position, but also believes the whole debate misses the point – there is no single solution. Neil is right. I think that I can show quite simply and clearly that the debate is misdirected….

Jim then goes on to say some very sensible things about the standard complaints about literacy emanating from some academic and business circles – complaints I recall hearing for the past forty years and more. (I take that up in my 1998 essay.)

I have had another look at Miranda Devine’s article after reading Jim’s post. I am sure much she says is correct, but it is also very selective. (By the way, the Redfern Multilit program is run by Ashfield Uniting Church’s Exodus Centre in premises owned by South Sydney Uniting Church of which I am a member. I am sure it is doing a lot of good, but then most intensive programs with small groups tend to.) “Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine’s response falls to the same class.”  True enough, but I think 1) Cambourne has been a bit silly in his emails and 2) reporting has distorted his purpose. What Cambourne is talking about in statements like "When you rely on evidence, it’s twisted … We rely on the cognitive science framing theory, to frame things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true." – which out of context does sound bizarre – is Sociology 101 rather than “a postmodern justification for obfuscation.”

For example, see Framing explained from Values Based Management, hardly a site of rampant pomo.

Framing (F) is focusing the attention of people within a field of meaning. Tversky and Kahneman should be seen as the founders of framing theory, although Fairhurst and Sarr actually coined the term.

Contrary to the central concept of of rational choice theory (people always strive to make the most rational choices possible), Framing theory suggests that how something is presented (the “frame”) influences the choices people make.

Frames are abstract notions that serve to organize or structure social meanings. Frames influence the perception of the news of the audience, this form of agenda-setting not only tells what to think about an issue (agenda-setting theory), but also how to think about that issue.

F is a quality of communication that leads others to accept one meaning over another. It is  the process by which a communication source defines and constructs a political issue or public controversy.

F is an important topic since it can have a big influence on what people think! Try the first example on the right to test if you can withstand framing…

Framing is not per se a bad thing and in fact is an unavoidable part of human communication. We find it in the media as events are presented within a field of meaning.  We find it in politics as politicians attempt to characterize events as one thing or another; we find it in religion, and we find it in negotiating when one side tries to move another towards a desired outcome. Finally it can also be used by leaders of organizations with profound effects on how organizational members understand and respond to the world in which they live. It is a skill that most successful leaders possess, yet one that is not often taught.

According to Fairhurst & Sarr (1996) F consists of three elements:

1. Language,

2. Thought, and

3. Forethought.

Language helps us to remember information and acts to transform the way in which we view situations. To use language, people must have thought and reflected on their own interpretive frameworks and those of others. Leaders can and should learn framing spontaneously in certain circumstances. Being able to do so has to do with having the forethought to predict framing opportunities. In other words, leaders must plan in order to be spontaneous.

Fairhurst and Sarr (1996) described the following Framing Techniques:

a) Metaphor: To give an idea or program a new meaning by comparing it to something else.

b) Stories (myths and legends): To frame a subject by anecdote in a vivid and memorable way.

c) Traditions (rites, rituals and ceremonies): To pattern and define an organization at regular time increments to confirm and reproduce organizational values.

d) Slogans, jargon and catchphrases: To frame a subject in a memorable and familiar fashion.

e) Artifacts: To illuminate corporate values through physical vestiges (sometimes in a way language cannot).

f) Contrast: To describe a subject in terms of what it is not.

g) Spin: to talk about a concept so as to give it a positive or negative connotation.

Miranda’s columns are usually classic examples of framing or filtering an issue through an ideology – hence the title of this entry.

The theory is known and used by many linguists worldwide, including this Indonesian blogger. In the world of linguistics the theory is often associated with George Lakoff.

Lakoff acknowledges that both academic and political cultures are slow to change. But he is optimistic, pointing to the way in which the growth of cognitive psychology has undermined the rational-actor model that long dominated economics. In his own field, Lakoff predicts that "brain-based linguistics" will soon become the new standard — indeed, eclipsing Chomsky.

And despite his setbacks, Lakoff is not giving up on politics. He is still confident that his ideas can make a difference to Democrats. When he wrote Thinking Points, his handbook for progressive activism, he sent the first copy to Barack Obama. "I don’t know if he read it," Lakoff says, as a wide grin flashes across his face, "but a number of people have observed that if you look through Thinking Points, it is the Obama campaign.

Since, unfortunately, the gurus at Macquarie University (or their enthusiastic supporters) seem to frame promotion of their product at $349.00 a kit as a negation of Cambourne’s reputation and life work he was drawing on framing theory to determine a counter-strike. Whoever persuades the people with the purse strings is likely to prosper of course, though Cambourne isn’t actually selling anything – except perhaps his reputation, that of his department, and the potential for research grants. Further, the conditions of learning – the concept he is most famous for – outlined above really apply whatever one may think of phonics, a point made in the letter with which I began.

And you will note, won’t you, how I have been deliberately framing that paragraph. It does work. Ask Barack Obama.

Miranda ends on a grand irrelevance, except it is part of her framing of the issue: “This has been as futile and damaging as the notion that we cannot prevent catastrophic bushfires unless we stop climate change. It is using the tragedy of illiterate children as the means to achieve an ideological end.”

 

The nitty gritty of English

I have one coachee in Year 12 doing Advanced English for the HSC who presents with a considerable problem. It isn’t lack of intelligence or insight, but rather a level of English that makes it hard for him to demonstrate what he knows effectively. He arrived in Australia from Hong Kong in May 2007. While he had some English language instruction in Hong Kong, he is very much a Cantonese native speaker.

Here is a small example.

In the movie Australian, Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea that an outsider Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidmen), is trying to fit in to a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding the aboriginal’s thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in to them. With the introduction of the rough cow’s drover (Hugh Jackman) as an assistance of Sarah Ashley, the drover help her to save her remote cow station. In this case, Sarah not only fit in to the aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also affect by the drover, she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society. Her we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and in Australian, both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of the lack of understanding to the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understand and accept the Aboriginal culture then finally she is truly belong to the continent which is different to all the white people who live in the continent, they just physically belong to that place but not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie, that Sarah Ashley release and let the Aboriginal kid goes back to his grandpa his root this is a acceptance to a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

Here is the work in progress; I have left a section untouched* because I need to discuss it further with the student. Anything in square brackets is to be deleted.

In the movie Australia Baz Luhrmann is dealing with the same sort of idea: that an outsider, Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), is trying to fit into a country that is completely new to her. The way she belongs to the new continent is by understanding [the] Aboriginal[’s] thought and accept the way they live and try to fit in with them. [With the introduction of] The rough cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) assists Sarah Ashley, [the drover] helping her to save her remote cattle station. *In this case, Sarah not only fits in to the Aboriginal society because of her acceptance and understanding, but also is affected by the drover. she as an English noble is not really standing on their side, one of the reason is the drover doesn’t want to join the English noble group but there is another important reason base on identity that is when a person belongs to a group they will understanding their thought and support them, which is in this case, the aboriginal kid is being accepted by her as her children in the white man society.*

“Cow” is feminine, “bull” is masculine; “cattle” is the generic or collective noun.

Here we can see the connection between the experience of Peter Skrzynecki in “Migrant Hostel” and Sarah Ashley in Australia. Both of them experience a lack of belonging to a place because of a lack of understanding of the place. However, in Australia, Sarah Ashley has successfully understood and accepted the Aboriginal culture so that finally she is truly able to belong to the continent, which is different from most of the white people who live in the continent, who just physically belong to this place but do not spiritually belong to this place. The sense of belonging is shown in the final scene of the movie when Sarah Ashley [release and] lets the Aboriginal boy go back to his grandfather and his roots. This is an acceptance of a culture, which is a way to belong to a new culture.

In the previous paragraph I have replaced a few examples of colloquial language with more neutral or formal language.

He is, by the way, improving quite rapidly, but still has a long way to go and not much time to get there.

 

Irony (noun) – the Murdoch press thundering about purity in English Studies (see also “hypocrisy”)

Funnily enough I was talking about such things last Saturday at my Glebe breakfast – and we didn’t have latte or chardonnay, nor were we weaving baskets. I was asked what I thought of the current (“new”) HSC course. The questioner, a writer and academic, had also been singing the praises of Flaubert’s sentences, savouring them in French as well as in English translation. How much more a literary tragic can you be? (And I say that with respect.) He went on to say he was rather impressed with the “new” HSC English, watered down as it is in terms of theory, because he was finding students much more open to thought and better prepared than they used to be. Depends who you ask, doesn’t it?

The worst thing you can do in my opinion to English studies is to pickle it in brine or turn it into a nostalgia museum.

So I find the discussions going on between the National Curriculum people and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English appropriate, well-informed, and intelligent. They are in that respect opposite to today’s editorial in The Australian which I find plain dumb and very badly informed.

Like most Australians, we thought the point of English classes at school was to teach children to read and write properly and to understand literature. Alas, we stand corrected. As Justine Ferrari reports today, the organisation representing Australia’s English teachers’ association, in responding to the national English curriculum, recommends that "meaning making in and through language, across a range of forms, media and expressions, should be the core organiser of the curriculum."

Quite. Read it again – it gets muddier every time.

In our view, and undoubtedly that of most parents and students, the national curriculum did a good job defining literature clearly as "plays, novels and poems … cinema, television and multimedia … poetry, picture books, multimodal texts, short stories and drama, and a variety of nonfiction forms such as biography."

The English Teachers Association of NSW, alas, sneered at the definitions as "nebulous". Instead, they suggested "the term culturally valued texts as a definition of literature."

Culturally valued by whom? Teenagers at the lower end of the class who prefer Big Brother to Oscar Wilde? Or, more likely, progressive teachers who find it easier to play films than take students through the themes and characters of Pride and Prejudice?

The NSW teachers want the national curriculum to be about "other models of English such as personal growth, cultural studies and critical literacy as that is how teachers understand and have operated within the subject". The best English teachers are happy to focus on their subject, but those who want to be social engineers and cultural warriors dominate these teachers’ associations, which are becoming irrelevant.

Teaching grammar, which promises to be a vital improvement in the national curriculum, was dismissed by the NSW teachers as having "no influence on either the accuracy or quality of written language development for 5 to 16-year-olds". As grammar has not been taught widely to Australian students in a generation, that claim is dubious in the extreme.

The papers also push hard for assessment that is "inclusive of the full range of students" and for teachers to be given wide scope to select materials to be studied in the interests of "equity".

However worthy the teachers believe this approach to be, it is precisely students from disadvantaged and non-English-speaking homes who have most to lose from such a defeatist system. Many disadvantaged students, and some from affluent homes, do not have access to good books and are not encouraged to read by parents.

English teachers who truly value their professionalism would encourage a rigorous curriculum, taught with expertise, that provides all students with the best possible written and verbal communication skills and an appreciation of literature. This is the best way to set disadvantaged students up for life.

The Rudd Government must ignore the push to impose the worst of current state-based systems on to the national curriculum.

Where can one start? Perhaps by pointing out that the words singled out for praise in paragraph three in fact paraphrase (and mean much the same as) the words roundly condemned in paragraph one. Nor do I find anything arcane in "meaning making in and through language, across a range of forms, media and expressions, should be the core organiser of the curriculum."

But then I wrote twenty-six years ago:

I am concerned here with theory at a fairly low level of generality; or, putting it another way, I am in search of models and procedures which might make my practice more effective, more critical, or more broadly based… In all of this I am making the following assumptions about English teaching:

1. Language creates and orders meanings, personal and social, outward and inward. Language is the primary means of creating, expressing and interpreting the self, in the context of society and history. Language is also a means of ordering and interpreting reality. While there are many difficult theoretical questions raised by the idea that language constructs the self and reality, we cannot give up the idea that in doing so language is more than merely self-reflexive.

2. Central to English teaching is the learner as meaning-maker, a participant in the network of meanings that constitute our culture.

3. In using and studying language or other means of meaning-making in a variety of contexts and realizations, the learner grows more competent, more aware, and less helpless.

Glossing that eleven years ago I said:

My own position (and that of many I suspect) has been an evolving one. Rather than earlier approaches being absolutely displaced by later ones, I have tended to keep what works from many perspectives. So when I embraced aspects of the process or whole language approaches, it was because these opened up the range of things students could do; but I continued to look at sentence grammar, paragraphing, spelling and so on. Teaching of grammar and style was enhanced by reading in the areas of stylistics and language variation in the later 1970s and 1980s, and these were in turn strengthened by the genre pedagogy of the early 1990s. An abiding concern of most English teachers has been critical reading; the meaning and scope of that has been enriched by insights from Freebody and Luke, Kress and Hasan, to name a few.

I am all in favour of teaching the classics, keeping in mind that the idea there were “classics” in English is surprisingly recent. There were no English departments in universities anywhere until the late 19th century, and very few until well into the 20th century. I am also in favour of enabling students to negotiate all the forms and media we/they confront in the real world. I think that is called “literacy”. It has also been called (by Hemingway) “crap detection.”  Very handy when reading the Murdoch press.

And that will do for now. Just as the Oz is simply regurgitating today, so I have responded to their past eructations. Check the appropriate tags and categories in the side bar. Here is just one example: Here we go again 2 (December 2007).

I get so tired of their threadbare bitching.

Read the AATE submission for yourself: national-english-curriculum-framing-paper-aate-response.

 
Comments Off on Irony (noun) – the Murdoch press thundering about purity in English Studies (see also “hypocrisy”)

Posted by on February 28, 2009 in Australia, education, English studies, literacy

 

This post has no title

Just a bit of a Saturday miscellany really.

on reading

I stumbled upon this via Stumble Upon:

Reading_Test

on Prince Harry and his vocabulary

Indigo Jo, a British Muslim, is one of the bloggers I trawl from in my Blog Picks: “In which an unemployed graduate has an excuse to use his politics degree. Religious, tech and media issues (and anything I fancy).”  I was struck by how much more sensible he was on the Prince Harry story than most people I’d read: Prince Harry and his little friend.

On Sunday, the News of the World (also known as the News of the Screws, a tabloid "scandal sheet" owned by Rupert Murdoch known for printing kiss-and-tell stories) put on its front page a story about Prince Harry, the second son of Prince Charles (and Diana) who is currently an army officer, who shot a private video of his Sandhurst comrades waiting for a plane to Cyprus, and calling a Pakistani fellow cadet "our little Paki friend, Ahmed". They also accused him of somehow insulting the Queen by giving what sounds like a perfectly normal goodbye to his Grandpa, also known as Prince Phillip (by the way: the NOTW’s weekday sister paper, the Sun, is known for supporting a republic, and responded to the Queen’s coronation by telling her she had had her fun and should abdicate the next day). Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation has called him a thug who had been trying to portray himself as being like his caring and respected parents.

When I first heard of this news, I started writing a piece defending Prince Harry, because the event happened three years ago, when he was still a cadet, and someone has decided to betray a trust and leak this video to the press for his own personal reasons – having fallen out with someone or fallen on hard times. Then I actually saw the video, and it turns out that the offending phrase – "there’s our little Paki friend, Ahmed" – was used pretty much behind his back, or at least, in such a way that Ahmed could not hear. Whether we should still consider him what we would consider someone we had just seen say that – a racist jerk – is open to question, but it certainly discounts the argument that this was just banter between colleagues.

In my experience – and several of my best friends are of Pakistani origin, as much of a cliché as that sounds – a lot of youth of Pakistani origin don’t find the word Paki in and of itself offensive, and many of them actually use it amongst themselves. It does not have the same heat that the "N word" carries, probably because the history is different. Pakistan itself is only just over 60 years old, Paki is only short for Pakistani, the word "pak" means pure, and however oppressive the British empire was at times, Asians are not descended from people who were slaves to British masters. However, the fact remains that people do remember its use as a racist term, a way in which it is commonly used, and telling its use as banter and its use as a racial derogatory term is pretty easy: if it’s used in conjunction with other insults, or if it’s used to mean any Asian rather than an actual Pakistani, it is an insult, and if it is used by a non-Pakistani, especially a white person, most people won’t appreciate it. During the discussion of it on the talk shows last night and this morning, the presenters (Dotun Adebayo and Vanessa Feltz) insisted that people did not use the word – I suspect that this is a station policy – and even suggested that the media should not be using the word openly, particularly in headlines.

I think that his comment was clearly inappropriate, but not heinous; he used it as a student on another student, not as an officer on soldier, or even an officer, under his command. That would have brought bullying into it, which has been a serious problem in the Armed Forces. I have heard it said that this sort of behaviour should be expected from Prince Phillip’s grandson, and the history of the Royal family is not full of people like the present Queen and Lady Diana – there have been quite a few controversial figures in its history as well. However, it is disappointing to hear someone who has a possibility of being the figurehead for this country talking that way, but in general, one should not expect exemplary behaviour when looking over the shoulders of a group of male friends, let alone Army mates.

nightmarish: makes one question human ingenuity

This one is far too long to reproduce: Robots at War: The New Battlefield by P W Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution and the author of Children at War (2005) and Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (2003). “This article is adapted from Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. © 2009 by P. W. Singer.”

From this perspective, war becomes, as one security analyst put it, “a global spectator sport for those not involved in it.” More broadly, while video images engage the public in a whole new way, they can fool many viewers into thinking they now have a true sense of what is happening in the conflict. The ability to watch more but experience less has a paradoxical effect. It widens the gap between our perceptions and war’s realities. To make another sports parallel, it’s the difference between watching an NBA game on television, with the tiny figures on the screen, and knowing what it feels like to have a screaming Kevin Garnett knock you down and dunk over your head. Even worse, the video segments that civilians see don’t show the whole gamut of war, but are merely the bastardized ESPN SportsCenter version. The context, the strategy, the training, the tactics—they all just become slam dunks and smart ­bombs.

War porn tends to hide other hard realities of battle. Most viewers have an instinctive aversion to watching a clip in which the target might be someone they know or a fellow American; such clips are usually banned from U.S.-hosted websites. But many people are perfectly happy to watch video of a drone ending the life of some anonymous enemy, even if it is just to see if the machines fighting in Iraq are as “sick” as those in the Transformers movie, the motive one student gave me for why he downloaded the clips. To a public with so much less at risk, wars take on what analyst Christopher Coker called “the pleasure of a spectacle with the added thrill that it is real for someone, but not the spectator.”

There’s an account in that essay of “tiny but lethal robots the size of insects, which look like they are straight out of the wildest science fiction”. The mind more than boggles at what the Pentagon is researching.

four more from my blog roll

I was just updating the Google Reader and thought I would promote four entries here as well. There is such good stuff on my reader; I can say that because it’s no boast, though I guess I am congratulating myself for my good taste. 😉

  1. The pretty boy barber by Alex Au (Yawning Bread) is just so urbane, so intelligent. He’s been blogging since before there was blogging, and I have been a devoted reader since the year 2000!
  2. Creativity and play by Bob Leckridge (Heroes Not Zombies), the Scottish doctor. Read him to see what wisdom looks like, and the Scottish countryside.
  3. Symbolic Moment by Jon Taplin, a US writer on mostly economics issues. Today he makes wonderful use of the recent amazing bit of crash-landing in the Hudson River – and what a story that was, eh!
  4. Surry Couple by James O’Brien (who also lives in Surry Hills). James has a new template! This post is just beautiful – and local.

bonus pic: not everyone loves Clover Moore

I collected this in Prince Alfred Park yesterday. Clover Moore is Sydney’s Lord Mayor.

16jan

 

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. 🙂