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On climate change sceptics and qualifications

Among those patently unqualified to evaluate the science of climate change I would include myself, Senators Fielding and Minchin and Miranda Devine – but that doesn’t prevent any of us from having a say. I am not sure what tea leaves Senator Fielding consults, but I am sure Senator Minchin and Miranda Devine enter the fray on ideological rather than scientific grounds. As for myself, I leave it to the much more qualified people referred to in the appropriate item in my side bar.

I am prepared to concede that climate change is not entirely anthropogenic, and I do fear that not all the suggested remedies will actually work. You will find some very interesting ideas on the subject if you buy or subscribe to November’s Monthly Magazine.

November2009 “On the morning of 19 December, we will likely wake to read the results of the United Nations Climate-Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The meetings will be … the most important to have occurred since World War II, and whatever their outcome they will have a lasting effect on our planet.”

– Tim Flannery

In “Copenhagen and Beyond”, Tim Flannery, John Gray and Peter Doherty provide a range of insights into the issue of climate change and our political and social responses to it. Flannery discusses the conference itself – what it hopes to achieve and where potential conflicts lie; Gray argues it is vital we recognise the gravity of our predicament and embrace more drastic policy; and Doherty considers the role scepticism has to play in the ongoing debate, highlighting the need for rigorous critical dialogue, but warning of the dangers of unreflective denialism. Despite their differing concerns, each essay emphasises the urgency of a reassessment of our response to an impending crisis.

“No technological fix can fully resolve the world’s climate crisis, which is a result of the excessive demands humankind has made on the planet. Even so, technological fixes will be indispensable in navigating the rapids that lie ahead; the technologies that may prove most useful may well include those that are most commonly demonised.

– John Gray

Peter Doherty’s essay is particularly good because it remains good-tempered while being most incisive.

As for Miranda today, I take Marcellous’s recent advice.

Miranda is a professional stirrer. Unless directly attacked, I’ve decided it is best to leave her alone. She thrives on attention.

On Senator Minchin, see what emerged from his own mouth when interviewed on Four Corners.

Meanwhile last night Kerry O’Brien was “leading the witness” somewhat when he interviewed Sir David Attenborough:

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH, WILDLIFE FILMMAKER: That one is about the polar regions of the planet, of how the North Pole and the South Pole and the lands around it, the sort of life that exists there now. And what is likely to happen to it. But primarily it’s about the animals that still live there. There are very few things more fascinating than penguins and polar bears up in the north and seals and sea lions, and sea elephants and so on. And albatross. There’s lot of things to see.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Will it have relevance to the global warming debate?

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Yes, it will do. And of course if you’re cynically inclined or not optimistically inclined you may think this is our last chance to make such a series.

KERRY O’BRIEN: What did you think?

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: I think without any doubt at all that the Arctic is going to change quite profoundly. How much it loses and how much it gains, who knows.

It’s too early to predict and too complicated. Down in the south it’s different in as such as the Antarctic ice cap is so huge and so thick – miles of ice thick – it’s going to take a long time before that moves significantly or as great a significance as the north.

KERRY O’BRIEN: You’ve tended not to get caught up in political issues in the past, but over 50 years you’ve probably seen more of the world close up than practically any other human being and you’ve revisited many of those places. Have you witnessed dramatic change in that time?

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Environmental change – not.

Change certainly, change that has been brought about by the increasing human population on the earth, the number of people on this planet has tripled. There are three times as many people on the planet now as when I first made television programs…

Not entirely what Kerry may have hoped for, I suspect, and one sentence in particular will no doubt be quoted in certain circles. One should however consider this from 2006:

 

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.”

 

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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The American Dream – Vanity Fair, Howard Fast, and some right-wing flummery…

Very late on Sunday night ABC1 ran an old documentary on US communist writer Howard Fast, best known these days for his novel Spartacus, on which the movie by Stanley Kubrick was based. Since Fast died in 2003 the doco had to be quite old; it included extensive interview material. Fast left the US Communist Party – which he had been in and out of – in 1956 following Kruschev’s revelations about the Stalin years and other events of 1956 in Europe. He was quite a man though, first published at the age of 19 and last published in 2000. His life is a neat alternative history of the USA. There is a good site on his work. Until seeing the documentary I hadn’t realised Howard Fast wrote crime fiction under a pseudonym – especially during the years of internal exile in the Cold War days. And during World War II – while a communist – he virtually was the Voice of America.

When I was a boy, I developed a passion for Howard Fast’s novels, and read all I could find in my school library. Then, one day, I no longer found his books. Fast was blacklisted for being a member of the American Communist Party…

"…in May 1952 The New York Times reported intimidation of librarians across the nation by Legionnaires, by Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, by Minutemen in Texas and California. School texts showing city slums, UNESCO material, all books by such threats to the free world as Howard Fast were purged from school libraries."   (Victor Navasky, "The Social Costs," in Naming Names, Viking Press, New York, 1980)

Citizen Tom Paine, formerly used as a school text, was banned from use in NYC schools. In 1956 Fast broke with the Communist Party, and published his rationale in 1957 as The Naked God. His 1990 memoir Being Red goes more deeply into the issue.

So with that in mind I read with interest (via Arts & Letters Daily) Rethinking the American Dream by David Kamp in Vanity Fair. It is a good example of the introspection going on post-Bush.

…Whatever your opinion of [Norman] Rockwell (and I’m a fan), the resonance of the “Four Freedoms” paintings with wartime Americans offers tremendous insight into how U.S. citizens viewed their idealized selves. Freedom from Want, the most popular of all, is especially telling, for the scene it depicts is joyous but defiantly unostentatious. There is a happily gathered family, there are plain white curtains, there is a large turkey, there are some celery stalks in a dish, and there is a bowl of fruit, but there is not a hint of overabundance, overindulgence, elaborate table settings, ambitious seasonal centerpieces, or any other conventions of modern-day shelter-mag porn.

It was freedom from want, not freedom to want—a world away from the idea that the patriotic thing to do in tough times is go shopping. Though the germ of that idea would form shortly, not long after the war ended…

…what about the outmoded proposition that each successive generation in the United States must live better than the one that preceded it? While this idea is still crucial to families struggling in poverty and to immigrants who’ve arrived here in search of a better life than that they left behind, it’s no longer applicable to an American middle class that lives more comfortably than any version that came before it. (Was this not one of the cautionary messages of the most thoughtful movie of 2008, wall-e?) I’m no champion of downward mobility, but the time has come to consider the idea of simple continuity: the perpetuation of a contented, sustainable middle-class way of life, where the standard of living remains happily constant from one generation to the next.

This is not a matter of any generation’s having to “lower its sights,” to use President Obama’s words, nor is it a denial that some children of lower- and middle-class parents will, through talent and/or good fortune, strike it rich and bound precipitously into the upper class. Nor is it a moony, nostalgic wish for a return to the scrappy 30s or the suburban 50s, because any sentient person recognizes that there’s plenty about the good old days that wasn’t so good: the original Social Security program pointedly excluded farmworkers and domestics (i.e., poor rural laborers and minority women), and the original Levittown didn’t allow black people in.

But those eras do offer lessons in scale and self-control. The American Dream should require hard work, but it should not require 80-hour workweeks and parents who never see their kids from across the dinner table. The American Dream should entail a first-rate education for every child, but not an education that leaves no extra time for the actual enjoyment of childhood. The American Dream should accommodate the goal of home ownership, but without imposing a lifelong burden of unmeetable debt. Above all, the American Dream should be embraced as the unique sense of possibility that this country gives its citizens—the decent chance, as Moss Hart would say, to scale the walls and achieve what you wish.

On the same page of Arts & Letters Daily was one of those insufferably humorous pastiches of social “analysis” some on the Right seem so fond of – rooted in a superficial knowingness, in impregnable smugness and snobbery masquerading as “conservatism” but really just marking and confirming territory – or “Aren’t I glad I’m not a prole, and neither of course are you!” You know the genre. Here in Oz we have a number of practitioners, not all of them named Tim. The case at hand is a slash at Facebook, and it gives itself away a bit by using the term “sheeple” for those who inhabit the site. Oh, and it’s in the Weekly Standard – of course. See Down with Facebook! by Matt Labash.

What nobody bothers to mention about the social-networking site is that it’s really dull–mind-numbingly dull.

Look at the outer shell–the parachute pants, the piano-key tie, the fake tuxedo T-shirt–and you might mistake me for a slave to fashion. Do not be deceived. Early adoption isn’t my thing. I much prefer late adoption, that moment when the trend-worshipping sheeple who have early-adopted drive the unsustainable way of life I so stubbornly cling to ever so close to the edge of obsolescence, that I’ve no choice but to follow. This explains why I bought cassette tapes until 1999, why I wouldn’t purchase a DVD player until Blockbuster cashiered their VHS stock. Toothpaste? I use it now that it’s clear it’s here to stay.

So I’m not inflexible. But there is one promise I’ve made to myself. And that is that no matter how long I live, no matter how much pressure is exerted, no matter how socially isolated I become, I will never, ever join Facebook, the omnipresent online social-networking site that like so many things that have menaced our country (the Unabomber, Love Story, David Gergen) came to us from Harvard but has now worked its insidious hooks into every crevice of society…

…the reason to hate Facebook is because of the stultifying mind-numbing inanity of it all, the sheer boredom. If Facebook helps put together streakers with voyeurs, the streakers, for the most part, after shedding their trench coats, seem to be running around not with taut and tanned hard-bodies, but in stained granny panties with dark socks. They have a reality-show star’s unquenchable thirst for broadcasting all the details of their lives, no matter how unexceptional those details are. They do so in the steady, Chinese-water-torture drip of status updates. The very fact that they are on the air (or rather, on Facebook) has convinced them that every facet of their life must be inherently interesting enough to alert everyone to its importance.

These are all actual status updates (with name changes): "Maria is eating Girl Scout cookies. … Tom is glad it’s the weekend. … Jacinda is longing for some sleep, pillow come to momma! … Dan is going to get something to eat. … Anne is taking Tyler to daycare. … Amber loves to dip. I can dip almost any food in blue cheese, ranch dressing, honey mustard, sour cream, mayonnaise, ketchup. Well, I think you get the point." Yes. Uncle. Please make it stop. For the love of God, we get the point…

Well OK, the article really IS funny, if also silly. What Facebook is like for you really is up to you. You don’t have to use all those gizmos it offers, nor do you have to accumulate “friends”.

You may as well rail against the telephone – and I am sure there were conservatives who did.

On the other hand – and Jim Belshaw has succumbed I see – you’ll never catch me Twittering! 😉

 

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

 

Rudd in “The Monthly” – but there really is more

Just about everyone in this country must know by now that Kevin Rudd has been doing some homework — writing an essay indeed — and  the result is now on show. First off, there is a note at the end suggesting it isn’t entirely K Rudd’s unaided work. I rather think Andrew Charlton, among others, may have had some input at the very least.

Now to be offensive to some.

After a century and a half* of playing at Marxism in one form or another we ought really to be totally disabused of that blind alley. May as well base Chemistry on the phlogiston theory. It’s still good (like Freudianism or Neo-Freudianism) for some spectacular academic performances, but otherwise has gone the way of all grand theories. I have met so many ex-Marxists – it seems to be the inevitable outcome – who nonetheless remain Left, though you do get weird exceptions who polarise in the opposite direction. Then on the other hand there is the equally touching faith and mysticism masquerading as scientific economics and politics under the banner of Hayek. Pox on both, I say.

Now with that out of the way, you may see why I found the Rudd essay to be actually rather good – in fact, very good. I suggest reading it is much better than reading about it. Just $7.95 at the newsagent, after all, and even on my pension I could cop that just this once.

What has escaped notice, however, is that it isn’t a one article magazine. There is an excellent dissection of Baz’s Australia by Peter Conrad.

A paragraph of introductory piffle in Australia defines the outback as a place where ‘adventure and romance were a way of life’. Nothing could be less true. Hardship, privation and dying remain a way of life on our unromantic frontier, where adventures are as scarce as trees on the Nullarbor Plain. We know that the land we only marginally occupy will always be indifferent to human incursions; we also ruefully acknowledge our lack of moral right to possess it, since earlier settlers evicted its traditional owners…

Wanting his characters to be mythical embodiments of the land, Conrad organises a continental orgasm when Kidman and Jackman make love. Hot monsoonal rains drench them. The sky splits open, the earth heaves, and the camera giddily skims across Australia as rivers overflow and waterfalls froth. Back at the desert station it is suddenly Christmas, with wild flowers blooming from the fertilised earth. I wouldn’t dream of impugning Jackman’s virility, but I can’t quite imagine that one man has the capacity to irrigate and inseminate the whole drought-parched nation…

There’s a generous account of Professor Ian Harper by John Hirst, which you may read online:

Ian Harper’s free-market friends rib him about his job: what’s a liberal economist doing setting a minimum wage? Better a liberal economist, he replies, than anyone else. But he is rather bemused by how little Australian employers of the low-paid believe in the market. They rely on him to set and alter their wages. They are mostly happy to pay a decent wage but they want to be told what that is and they don’t want to be undercut by a rogue employer; nor do they want to be ahead of the pack in the wages they pay."…

Harper is a good talker and performer; he tells of his work in public policy as drama, playing himself and all others verbatim, with full inflexion and gesture. He calls himself an academic economist but the skills he most enjoys using are political. He likes settling conflict, hearing both sides sympathetically, prodding antagonists to see a common purpose, finding a route beyond an impasse. He is an economist but not a labour economist, yet he was charged with fixing a minimum wage where he could use his skill in reconciling employers and employees. His work on the Melbourne Town Hall organ was in the same way political …

I was delighted to find a free-market economist who was so ebullient and warm-hearted, and chastened, as an old social democrat, to discover that his free-market principles made him highly creative about the proper use of public goods.

There’s also a photo essay on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper. And much more…

So if you don’t happen to like the Rudd essay (unlike me) you will probably find something more to your taste…

* Dating from The Communist Manifesto (1848).

 

Lots to think about – international, national, local

Back in July 2008 in Reset – Dialogues on Civilizations | Essays: Benjamin Barber I presented the then latest from the author of the excellent and prescient Jihad vs McWorld. Now the Arts & Letters Daily has pointed to Barber in the US progressive magazine Nation: A Revolution in Spirit.

As America, recession mired, enters the hope-inspired age of Barack Obama, a silent but fateful struggle for the soul of capitalism is being waged. Can the market system finally be made to serve us? Or will we continue to serve it? George W. Bush argued that the crisis is "not a failure of the free-market system, and the answer is not to try to reinvent that system." But while it is going too far to declare that capitalism is dead, George Soros is right when he says that "there is something fundamentally wrong" with the market theory that stands behind the global economy, a "defect" that is "inherent in the system."

The issue is not the death of capitalism but what kind of capitalism–standing in which relationship to culture, to democracy and to life? President Obama’s Rubinite economic team seems designed to reassure rather than innovate, its members set to fix what they broke. But even if they succeed, will they do more than merely restore capitalism to the status quo ante, resurrecting all the defects that led to the current debacle?

Being economists, even the progressive critics missing from the Obama economic team continue to think inside the economic box. Yes, bankers and politicians agree that there must be more regulatory oversight, a greater government equity stake in bailouts and some considerable warming of the frozen credit pump. A very large stimulus package with a welcome focus on the environment, alternative energy, infrastructure and job creation is in the offing–a good thing indeed.

But it is hard to discern any movement toward a wholesale rethinking of the dominant role of the market in our society. No one is questioning the impulse to rehabilitate the consumer market as the driver of American commerce. Or to keep commerce as the foundation of American public and private life, even at the cost of rendering other cherished American values–like pluralism, the life of the spirit and the pursuit of (nonmaterial) happiness–subordinate to it….

Then here in Oz The Monthly hits the newsagents today with Kevin Rudd’s The Global Financial Crisis.

From time to time in human history there occur events of a truly seismic significance, events that mark a turning point between one epoch and the next, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place. The significance of these events is rarely apparent as they unfold: it becomes clear only in retrospect, when observed from the commanding heights of history. By such time it is often too late to act to shape the course of such events and their effects on the day-to-day working lives of men and women and the families they support.

There is a sense that we are now living through just such a time: barely a decade into the new millennium, barely 20 years since the end of the Cold War and barely 30 years since the triumph of neo-liberalism – that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time.

The agent for this change is what we now call the global financial crisis. In the space of just 18 months, this crisis has become one of the greatest assaults on global economic stability to have occurred in three-quarters of a century. As others have written, it "reflects the greatest regulatory failure in modern history". It is not simply a crisis facing the world’s largest private financial institutions – systemically serious as that is in its own right. It is more than a crisis in credit markets, debt markets, derivatives markets, property markets and equity markets – notwithstanding the importance of each of these.

This is a crisis spreading across a broad front: it is a financial crisis which has become a general economic crisis; which is becoming an employment crisis; and which has in many countries produced a social crisis and in turn a political crisis. Indeed, accounts are already beginning to emerge of the long-term geo-political implications of the implosion on Wall Street – its impact on the future strategic leverage of the West in general and the United States in particular.

The global financial crisis has demonstrated already that it is no respecter of persons, nor of particular industries, nor of national boundaries. It is a crisis which is simultaneously individual, national and global. It is a crisis of both the developed and the developing world. It is a crisis which is at once institutional, intellectual and ideological. It has called into question the prevailing neo-liberal economic orthodoxy of the past 30 years – the orthodoxy that has underpinned the national and global regulatory frameworks that have so spectacularly failed to prevent the economic mayhem which has now been visited upon us…

Some of the critique offered (predictably) by Gerard Henderson is worth noting, despite the predictability.

The essential problem with Rudd’s essay is that it is ahistorical. The fact is that what he terms neo-liberalism has not prevailed in Britain, the US or Australia. Moreover, if it did, then the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Britain, Bill Clinton in the US, and Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in Australia did nothing to turn it back. The conservatives in these three nations did not substantially cut regulation or taxation or spending (along with the welfare state that it underpins). Indeed, in Australia, it was Hawke and Keating who started the economic reform process in the early 1980s. Rudd mentions this briefly in his essay but does not seem to appreciate that this reality undermines his thesis….

Whether the thesis is undermined by the somewhat partisan history given by Rudd is itself open to question. He may have sought to minimise the bipartisan nature of the problem, but that does not mean the problem is not pretty much as diagnosed. Paul Keating skated around the issue of bipartisan blame on Lateline last night, though I have to say I do like (in contrast to so much we hear) Keating’s folksy idiom. Keating rightly cautions against seeing the USA as the fixer in this mess. And there doesn’t seem to be much joy in substituting one partisan reading of history for another, which is perhaps all Henderson has done.

Kind of related: I commend Ross Gittins this morning:

… It’s important to understand Mr Rudd is not talking about a $115 billion decline in budget revenues from where they are now, but rather that they will grow by $115 billion less than formerly expected.

The $115 billion is spread over the next four years – that is, it averages less than $30 billion a year – which means it hasn’t happened yet and is just an estimate of what may happen.

The actual figure could be more or less than $115 billion – Treasury’s record on accurately predicting budget figures isn’t too flash – and we have known about $40 billion of it since November.

Given all that, Mr Rudd could be accused of making it sound both bigger and scarier that it is. If so, he’s adding to the gloom and doom.

Why on earth would he do that? Because he’s anxious to ensure the blame for the slide from budget surplus to deficit goes to the global financial crisis, not to him and his Government.

Who’d be silly enough to blame Labor for a budget deficit at a time like this? The Opposition…

And very local: the February South Sydney Herald is out today: ssh_feb09.

And it’s a big, 20-page issue, with stories on climate justice, tax justice, public housing and the dangers of tasers.

There’s much more — there’s the ABC childcare debacle, Yabun 2009, a feature on reskilling older workers, a feature on Tanya Plibersek MP, and reviews of The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke, The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville, and the new record by Howling Bells. Soul-folk singer, Itu, talks about recent inspirations, and you’ll also find details about St Jerome’s Laneway Festival on February 8 and Family Day at the Block on February 21.

I’ve been commissioned to cover Mardi Gras Fair Day on 15 February – I and the Casio, that is. Should be fun.

 

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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. 🙂

 

Friday intellectual spot 1

Here you will see some real thought because I have not written what I post in these spots. Sometimes I will harvest something from the Arts & Letters Daily, which is very good even if it favours the Right somewhat, but it does seek a degree of balance and almost always offers at least one post per day that is worth a look. 3 Quarks Daily is also an excellent source, but I have that in my Google Reader picks. The poems on 3 Quarks Daily are especially good. They always feature in my Google Reader.

Today it’s from New Yorker.

…This rejection of inwardness, so constant in Arendt’s work, from “Rahel Varnhagen” on, is the key to what is most valuable in her legacy, and also what is most questionable. No one has argued more forcefully than Arendt that to deprive human beings of their public, political identity is to deprive them of their humanity—and not just metaphorically. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” she points out that the first step in the Nazis’ destruction of the Jews was to make them stateless, in the knowledge that people with no stake in a political community have no claim on the protection of its laws.

This is the insight that makes Arendt a thinker for our time, when failed states have again and again become the settings for mass murder. She reveals with remorseless logic why emotional appeals to “human rights” or “the international community” so often prove impotent in the face of a humanitarian crisis. “The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments,” she writes in “Origins,” “but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.” This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and what is happening now in Darfur. Genocide is a political problem, Arendt insists, and it can be solved only politically.

Yet the supreme value that Arendt places on individual pride and aristocratic distance, on intellect and excellence, also sharply restricts the human understanding that must be the basis for any confrontation with political evil, especially the evil of the Holocaust. Too much of life and too many kinds of people are excluded from Arendt’s sympathy, which she could freely give only to those as strong as she was. If, as she wrote, “it is the desire to excel which makes men love the world,” then our love for the world actually makes it harder for us to love the people who inhabit it. This is the dilemma that runs through all Arendt’s writing, demonstrating that what she observed about Marx is true of her as well: “Such fundamental and flagrant contradictions rarely occur in second-rate writers; in the work of the great authors they lead into the very center of their work.”

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2009 in faith and philosophy, Holocaust, human rights, humanity, intellectual spot, magazines, politics, writers

 

2009 book notes: 1

jan06 The current Surry Hills Library crop has thrown up two excellent novels (Best Reads of 2009), one just short of that but still very good, and one ordinary novel with a good plot line.

Cormac Millar, The Grounds (Penguin 2006/7) – crime fiction ***** Best Read of 2009

This is just delightful in every way: witty, stylish, intelligent, and a good story as well. It’s up there with the best in crime fiction, social satire, and sheer enjoyment. The author is clearly conservative, but then this has never been unusual in satire. Among the targets are the sacred cows of university “reform” and international eduspeak and corporate jargon.

‘…My new system is going to let the academics do their work, and give us all something to celebrate going forward.’

The contagious phrase ‘going forward’, used at the end of a sentence, denoted a positive mental attitude and was obligatory in all statements and interviews given by managerially minded persons.

See: Cormac Millar’s Home Page and Book Review: The Grounds by Cormac Millar. That reviewer wouldn’t know good writing if it bit her on the bum; what she deplores I revelled in!

Jose Luis de Juan, This Breathing World (Arcadia 2007; first published in Spanish in 1999) – crime fiction, pomo to the hilt **** Best Read of 2009

Imagine a scribe/amanuensis in post-Augustan Rome channelling Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You can’t? You will if you read this. Yes, it’s all a bit Borges, but it is very cleverly done and there’s much lovely writing. The other setting is Harvard University in the 1960s where crimes committed in Ancient Rome seem to be resurfacing. Plays with your head, it does. Intertextuality on steroids. It is also very gay and quite amoral. So be warned. Personally I loved it, and learned along the way a lot about how authorship and writing were seen in Rome.

See: This Breathing World, where The Guardian reviewer likes it rather less than I did.

Magdalen Nabb, Vita Nuova (Soho 2008) – crime fiction **** Best Read of 2009

Synopsis (from the publisher): Daniela is a quiet single mother studying for a doctorate in chemistry. She rarely goes out, so her murder in her bedroom at the family’s new villa seems inexplicable. It is true that her mother, who appears to be an alcoholic; her younger sister, who has had mental problems; and her father, who has made his money running nightclubs and is probably involved in the international sex trade, are not your average home-loving Italian nuclear family, but what can she have done to be singled out for slaughter? And why has the prosecutor asked specifically for Marshal Guarnaccia to head the investigation?

I took that from Vita Nuova by Magdalen Nabb (Mystery Book Review). Very strong on characterisation and spirit of place, yet I was a little disappointed. That’s not to say it does not merit the “best read” tag.

Published posthumously. English-born Nabb died in Florence in 2007 aged 60.

See: International Noir Fiction: The last Magdalen Nabb.

Aline Templeton, Lying Dead (Hodder 2008/hb 2007) – crime fiction ***

OK, the writing is very ordinary, even at times pedestrian. The plot takes ages to take off, but once it does it is really very well executed.

See: Interview with Aline Templeton.

Quadrant: a footnote

While I have not always slammed everything that appears in John Howard’s favourite mag Quadrant, as searches here and here will show, I am underwhelmed by it in its various post-Robert Manne manifestations. Even so, there are good articles there from time to time, and some good stuff in the literary area. But I have spat at the mag more often than not in recent years: for example — How Martin Krygier ambushed the Quadranters…; Three magazines and an amazing AIDS story… (“You will all be overjoyed to discover that HIV does not cause AIDS. Lord Malcolm will be especially pleased, I should think, as this means he isn’t really sick at all and must have been in hospital all those times for work experience, or a vacation, and all that pain he suffers must just be imaginitis… I look forward to ‘Why the Earth is Flat’ in some future Quadrant; I think we have already had articles on why climate change is a left-wing fantasy…); Vilifying Australia – The perverse ideology of our adversary culture :: Keith Windschuttle (“Windschuttle is to the study or History what the Visigoths were to Ancient Rome. He is the hired assassin of the Culture Wars.”) A bit strong that last one, perhaps, but it rolls off the tongue well.

Now we have a story I first saw on Arthur’s blog: Keith Windschuttle has Sokal on his face. The second link takes you to the original Crikey post:

Margaret Simons writes:

Keith Windschuttle, the editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant, has been taken in by a hoax intended to show that he will print outrageous propositions.

This month’s edition of Quadrant contains a hoax article purporting to be by “Sharon Gould”, a Brisbane based New York biotechnologist.

But in the tradition of Ern Malley – the famous literary hoax perpetrated by Quadrant’s first editor, James McAuley – the Sharon Gould persona is entirely fictitious and the article is studded with false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes.

(Bloody ads on Crikey!)

The Sydney Morning Herald has David Marr on the matter:

The hoax was beautifully done. Provoked by Quadrant’s embrace of global warming sceptics, the unidentified hoaxer concocted the article early last year and sent it to Windschuttle. The aim was to "employ some of Quadrant’s sleight-of-hand reasoning devices to argue something ludicrous", the hoaxer later wrote. "Something like the importance of putting human genes into food crops to save civilisation from its own ills, and how this sort of science shouldn’t be scrutinised by the media because, you know, it’s empirical."

Skeptic Lawyer comes in on the defence team with Quadrant Demidenkoed. That is all. I think she misses the point and I commented rather tartly on my Google Reader: “Given the crap Quadrant has published on things like HIV in the recent past, it deserved all it got. The magazine has been unmasked as ‘new political correctness’ rather than serious intellectual enquiry.”  This note expands on that.

I was a Quadrant subscriber in the late 1960s.

Update

On Quadrant see Club Troppo: Who is Sharon Gould?

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, magazines, reading, weirdness

 

From Surry Hills Library: Griffith Review Winter 2008 – Cities on the Edge

This excellent magazine has much of interest:

For the first time in history most people in the world now live in cities. This is an enormous change of profound importance. The sheer pressure of numbers will test the old adage, that cities are the heart of civilisation. Many already teeter on the brink of chaos.

Climate change is the great new challenge confronting cities and the billions of people who live in them. The lead essay by outstanding urban planner Brendan Gleeson examines this and other stress points and suggests solutions to make cities better places to live and work. His expansive essay sets the big agenda for a new generation of thinking about the increasingly complex nexus with Nature. Making cities more liveable, more sustainable and more fun is one of the great new global tasks.

The human, cultural and environmental implications of the global drift to cities are evoked in moving essays by outstanding writers including Margaret Simons, Robyn Davidson, Sally Breen, Nadia Wheatley and Creed O’Hanlon. Award-winning short fiction offers an intimate feel for city life.

Highly-functioning cities are inspiring places – they allow creativity to blossom, cultures to flourish and communities to thrive. Getting this mix right is crucial to a viable future for Cities on the Edge.

Other writers include:
James Woodford, Peter Meredith, John Kinsella, Wendy Steele, Kate Fitzpatrick, JT Glazebrook, Gabrielle Gwyther, Adam Aitken, Marcus Westbury, Chris Womersley, Hamish Townsend, Brett Caldwell, Tony Barrell, Jorge Sotirios. Poems by Gregory Day and Geoffrey Lehmann. Photo essay by John Wright.

James Woodford’s article on archaeology in the Sydney area, especially on city building sites, resonated with my own recent “Looking for Jacob” series on Ninglun’s Specials, except that Woodford was looking for Weerong. Where? To quote First Fleeter Watkin Tench:

1st. January, 1789. To-day being new-year’s-day, most of the officers were invited to the governor’s table: Manly dined heartily on fish and roasted pork; he was seated on a chest near a window, out of which, when he had done eating, he would have thrown his plate, had he not been prevented: during dinner-time a band of music played in an adjoining apartment; and after the cloth was removed, one of the company sang in a very soft and superior style; but the powers of melody were lost on Manly, which disappointed our expectations, as he had before shown pleasure and readiness in imitating our tunes. Stretched out on his chest, and putting his hat under his head, he fell asleep.

To convince his countrymen that he had received no injury from us, the governor took him in a boat down the harbour, that they might see and converse with him: when the boat arrived, and lay at a little distance from the beach, several Indians who had retired at her approach, on seeing Manly, returned: he was greatly affected, and shed tears. At length they began to converse. Our ignorance of the language prevented us from knowing much of what passed; it was, however, easily understood that his friends asked him why he did not jump overboard, and rejoin them. He only sighed, and pointed to the fetter on his leg, by which he was bound.

In going down the harbour he had described the names by which they distinguish its numerous creeks and headlands: he was now often heard to repeat that of ‘Weerong’ (Sydney Cove), which was doubtless to inform his countrymen of the place of his captivity; and perhaps invite them to rescue him. By this time his gloom was chased away, and he parted from his friends without testifying reluctance. His vivacity and good humour continued all the evening, and produced so good an effect on his appetite, that he ate for supper two kangaroo rats, each of the size of a moderate rabbit, and in addition not less than three pounds of fish.

Woodford’s essay refers at length to the work of The Australian Museum’s Val Attenbrow – and see too an ABC Book Talk transcript from 2005.

Val Attenbrow was awarded the inaugural John Mulvaney Book Award by the Australian Archaeological Society for Sydney’s Aboriginal Past. A guide to Aboriginal sites in the Sydney region, the book brings together the archaeological and historical records to produce a detailed account of the way of life of the original inhabitants before and during the early decades of British colonisation…

Jill Kitson: What does the archaeological evidence (apart from what you’ve just told us) tell us about the local Aborigines’ way of life before 1788?
Val Attenbrow: I guess it tells us many different things. From my own research I’ve focused mainly on subsistence and the material culture, and I guess it can tell us the range of foods that they ate there, the fact that, around Sydney Harbour anyway, they focused their fishing on getting schnapper, but they also had a wide range of other fish species including brim and tarwhine and flathead and flounder. And that, as well as the fish around the harbour, they also ate a lot of land animals—wallabies, kangaroos, possums, bettongs and reptiles. So it provides us a lot of information about what they ate.
Unfortunately plant remains don’t survive much so we don’t know much about those things from the archaeological record, but the other things that we can find are…and again, wooden objects and tools made from organic materials don’t survive. Mainly we get the stone which would have been the blade or the point component of a composite tool. These days there are a lot more techniques available and we can look at the edge of these objects and see what sort of materials are adhering to them, and from these we can sometimes find evidence for the types of plants that might have been processed, and therefore used in their tools and weapons, or maybe foods that were eaten.
Jill Kitson: How ancient…I mean, what does the archaeological evidence tell us about the length of time this way of life had been proceeding in the Sydney region?
Val Attenbrow: I guess the earliest evidence we’ve got for occupation for Sydney is about 20,000 years in the Blue Mountains, but to my mind, obviously it went back a lot earlier from evidence in other parts of Australia and we just haven’t found that evidence in Sydney, but over that time period we can see that the stone artefacts changed, and particularly as you come down to the more recent periods where organic material survive, we get shell fishhooks coming into the record, about 900 years ago. These shell fishhooks were used principally by the women—or only by the women fishing from canoes—and that suggests that their focus in the foods they were getting might have changed, that things might have changed in the structure of the way men and women interacted in their food-gathering, their strategies changed. So from these small artefacts we can tell quite a bit that was going on in the changes in life…

Jill Kitson: You do talk about the conflicts that occurred and, of course, the spearing of Phillip at Manly in September 1790, and then when Pemulwuy, who we now think of as a resistance fighter, spearing the gamekeeper, McIntyre…that he is leading the resistance against the taking-over of the lands. But nevertheless, there is this curious rubbing along together as well, isn’t there? There’s the friendship between Phillip and Bennelong who was captured and who didn’t remain captured for all that long, who obviously had a very easy relationship with Phillip and even went to Britain with him and stayed there for three years. And I was intrigued to see that Pemulwuy returned for the big initiation ceremony at Farm Cove in February 1795. So what does this tell us about relations as time goes on?
Val Attenbrow: I found it quite complex, and initially difficult to work out what was going on…I still don’t know what was going on in that respect…but initially when I started looking at the journals, my initial interest was in finding out about the foods they ate and the materials they used and those sides of life, and the relationships between the British and the Aboriginal people were less of an interest. But then as I started to write the book they became much more pertinent, and trying to work out whether there was any change over time, which there obviously was, but there was still these differences that were…obviously different people had differing opinions…but as the frontier of the British settlement moved out, so the conflicts moved out as well. So that the people around Sydney Cove had no other way but to accept what was going on there, so the conflicts stopped there, but out in the Hawkesbury where settlement was increasing, there Aboriginal people were still trying to fight for their land. So all the time there was seeming peace in one area but conflict and aggression in another area, from both sides.
Jill Kitson: And these efforts that took place all over empires, whichever European country was trying to establish…it was the effort to try and Europeanise the indigenous people. This happened in NSW but failed, as it failed in most other places.
Val Attenbrow: Yes, there was obviously a firm belief on the part of the British or the Europeans that their way of life was to be emulated, to be taught to other people, and that the countries they were colonising, the people there had to be shown their way of life and to adopt it. But thankfully enough, people have remembered things and still retain their beliefs and have knowledge of them, and therefore, yes, we now have got quite a vibrant Aboriginal community in Sydney who come from all parts of Australia, but also come from the Sydney region as well…that there are still people here whose descendancy goes back to those pre-contact times.

On that last point, see Family stories 4 — A Guringai Family Story — Warren Whitfield for one example.

See also Indigenous Australia, an education feature from The Australian Museum site.

Terrey_Hills_public

From Wiki Commons

To quote Woodford: “Sydneysiders have their equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids or the Lascaux Caves, only we don’t look or understand what we’re seeing when we do.” Sydney is the “rock art capital of the world.” There are around 4,500 registered Aboriginal sites in the Sydney area.

According to Woodford’s article, Sydney before the coming of the Europeans supported up to 8,000 people.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, book reviews, Indigenous Australians, magazines

 

A blog is not a book, or random thoughts on important topics

Yes, I had trouble with thinking up a name for what is floating in my head at the moment! Some blogs, as we know, have become books — Riverbend, Stuff White People Like, Salam Pax — but the truth is blogging is evanescent, personal, and in miniature compared with proper books. So important topics tend to be aired in the spirit of good pub conversation, with the proviso that quite a few blogs also closely resemble bad pub conversation. We all know about opinionated drunks…

Not that this blog or any of the blogs I regularly read are in that last category, of course.

Speaking of conversations

My coaching session with J last Monday was the last of the year and became a good conversation — well, I confess to picking his brain rather, but it was still good, and he seemed to enjoy it. Being fifty years younger than I am, and of Mainland Chinese background, though educated entirely in Australia, his perspectives are in many ways quite different from my own. I tutor him in English, but on the other hand he has, he tells me, actually read and understood Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time — a year or two ago! — while I confessed to having read the first few pages and put it back on the shelf, like most people I know. Now there are all kinds of things in this anecdote about our assumptions about reading…

J is interested then in Astrophysics. He doesn’t propose to study History, Geography or even Economics in his senior years. I will probably be on hand to help him survive English, though he isn’t doing too badly. I picked his brain on the subject of dark energy, and how our cosmology has altered so much since 1998. To him this is unremarkable…

He is interested in philosophy, but hasn’t encountered much at school to feed that, he says. This of course is my selling point for senior English! He is also a good musician.

His rejection of the social sciences/history is of course partly personal, but I probed a bit about what if anything had turned him off. Now you mustn’t generalise when you read this, but he may have been killed by good intentions. Answer: too much Australian content! Indeed too much Indigenous Australian content, presented in too repetitious a manner ever since primary school, and focussing too much on the Stolen Generation.* He didn’t deny there were interesting stories there, but it does seem, from his experience, to have entered the world of background mantras rather than being a topic of living interest.

Repeat: don’t generalise too much from this.

When I found myself dealing with the topic in a senior English class in 1997-8 it was all a revelation, and all fresh, and worked because we connected it to a number of living people as well as literary and film texts. I also made a point of accepting opinions from students that were far from PC, but not without making sure I offered stories that challenged the stereotypes behind those opinions. The result was a sharing among us that really did change some attitudes. It hadn’t hardened into a course quite, as we were all finding out new things… (A ghost of that class still lives.)

Jim and Galarrwuy

Jim Belshaw recently gave advance notice of some conversations that may soon appear on his blog. I am looking forward to the outcome. You will note the title though: "Advance Notice – failures in Aboriginal policy." Well, we would have to agree there have been failures. And successes, which (reading between the lines) may also feature in those future posts.

When I browsed the December 2008 – January 2009 Monthly Magazine — where there are many excellent articles — I was drawn to Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow by Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

I was born in 1948 at Gunyangara, a beach on a beautiful headland near what is now known as Nhulunbuy, in east Arnhem Land. My father was Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, of the Gumatj clan, and my mother, Makurrngu, was of the Galpu clan. My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means ‘the area on the horizon where the sea merges with the sky’. As I grew older my father would call me Djingarra, which means ‘crystal clear’. My elder sisters still call me this special name.

My father’s father was Nikunu. His totem was a sacred rock, an unbreakable rock – Yunupingu – a name that my grandfather gave to his son, Mungurrawuy, who passed it to all his children. My totem is fire, rock and the saltwater crocodile. The crocodile – baru – is a flame of fire: the mouth, the teeth and the jaw are the fire and its jaw is death. It is always burning, and through it I have energy, power – strength.

My land is that of the Gumatj clan nation, which is carefully defined, with boundaries and borders set out in the maps of our minds and, today, on djurra, or paper. We have our own laws, repeated in ceremonial song cycles and known to all members of our clan nation. Sung into our ears as babies, disciplined into our bodies through dance and movement – we have learnt and inherited the knowledge of our fathers and mothers. We live on our land, with our laws, speaking our language, sharing our beliefs and living our lives bound together with the other great clan nations of the Gove Peninsula: Rirritjingu, Djapu, Wanguri, Djalwong, Mangalili, Malarrpa, Marrakulu, Dartiwuy, Naymil, Gumatj, Galpu, Djumbarrpiynu, Dhudi-Djapu…

It’s a wonderful reflection, this piece.

Two Australians so close in age, Jim and Galarrwuy. Much binds them, and us, together in community, yet much also speaks of many Australias. We have each our own. And yet…

Today, almost 30 years after my father passed away, I still hold his clapsticks and I am the leader of my clan – with other senior family members I am the keeper and teacher of our song cycles, our ceremonies, our laws and our future. I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.

I look around me at the Yolngu world. I worry about the lives of the little ones that I see around me, including my own children – my youngest daughter is barely eight years old. I have more than a dozen grandchildren. I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders. All around me are do-gooders and no-hopers – can I say this? Whitefellas. Balanda. They all seem to be one and the same sometimes: talking, talking, talking – smothering us – but with no vision to guide them; holding all the power, all the money, all the knowledge for what to do and how to work the white world. Only on the ceremonial ground do our leaders still lead – everywhere else we are simply paid lip service. Or bound up in red tape.

And the ‘gap’ that politicians now talk of grows larger as we speak, as I talk: as the next session of parliament starts or as the next speech is given by the next politician, the gap gets wider. I don’t think anyone except the few of us who have lived our lives in the Aboriginal world understand this task that is called ‘closing the gap’.

There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things?…

I offer this with respect, both for Jim and for Galarrwuy.

And leave you to your own thoughts…

* Here is what J did in Year 9 (PDF).

 

New to read – local and national

Beginning local, the new South Sydney Herald is now available.

This month’s issue contains stories about a local activist helping a refugee family to reunite; the worrying state of public housing  (we’ll maintain a focus on this issue); Deborah Mailman’s directorial debut (in Redfern); an interview with new Minister for Redfern-Waterloo, Kristina Keneally; new councillors’ first impressions of life on Council; Mental Health Week events; the Pemulwuy Project … and more. There’s also details about the Big Bike Love and International Bicycle Film Festivals, as well as the Newtown Festival; reviews of Burn After Reading and Body of Lies; Eve Gibson talks with members of Dead Letter Chorus about their new album; Anna Christie offers advice on growing vegies in the city; Amanda Robb meets local author, Kathy Golski; and Miriam Pepper (Project Green Church at Maroubra Junction Uniting Church) reflects on the life of St Clare of Assisi in the context of climate change and the financial crisis.

Nationally, The Monthly is out. A couple of highlights:

"Before he became the Labor leader, I held in my mind three wildly contradictory images of Kevin Rudd. In the first – derived from the scurrilous portrait in The Latham Diaries – Rudd was a media-obsessed, vaultingly ambitious, duplicitous opportunist. In the second – based mainly on my observation of his near-successful attempt to prove that the foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was lying when he claimed he knew nothing about the bribes paid by the Australian Wheat Board to Saddam Hussein – Rudd was an outstanding parliamentary performer: focused, diligent, courteous but remorseless, quick-witted and intelligent. In the third – which was based on his Dietrich Bonhoeffer article – Rudd was a true believer in Christian social justice, a politician who identified not with power but with the powerless, who believed that the impending catastrophe of climate change was the overwhelming challenge of our age, who had given his life to politics to try to make the world a better place."

In "What is Rudd’s Agenda?", Robert Manne takes a close look at the Rudd government as it approaches its first anniversary. What, he asks, is its relation to the "philosophic and policy disposition of its predecessor"? Has Australia "begun significantly to change" since Labor took office? What did Rudd promise, and what has he failed to deliver?

"Rudd is committed in the international sphere to … what he invariably calls, in language borrowed from the standard Australian foreign-policy textbooks, ‘creative middle-power diplomacy’. Here Rudd is at his most ambitious or, as some might think, grandiose. It was no accident that Rudd was very keen to address the UN General Assembly; that he is keen to make Australia a player in the diplomacy leading up to the Copenhagen conference on climate change; that he has signalled for the first time an Australian interest in the international struggle to combat extreme poverty within a generation; and that he has tried to inject Australia into the current international negotiations over the financial markets’ meltdown. Rudd aspires to be the architect of a new Asia-Pacific Community – a somewhat amorphous regional entity comprising all the major Asia-Pacific powers, from the US through China to Russia, where the habits of peaceful co-operation, conversation and good-neighbourliness will somehow be learnt."

*

"The United States seems even more divided than it did two years ago: divided by race, religion, class and ideology; by ‘issues’ only partly real and partly media confection. It is as if one large slice of the population does not recognise the other slice, or sees in the other, not the faces of their fellow Americans, but their most terrible enemies. That Friday night in the hotel bar, as the stock market plunged into the unknown and John McCain felt the abyss opening beneath his feet, fear and hatred were palpable and you could have been forgiven for thinking that Doris Kearns Goodwin was right to compare the recent Republican rallies to Germany in the ’30s. "

In the Monthly Comment, Don Watson reports from New Orleans on the American election. In an area still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he finds the concerns of the locals do not necessarily accord with those of either presidential candidate, or the mainstream media.

"People looking for another reason why so many Americans have more use for religion than for politics might begin by listening to a good preacher, and then to the average modern politician. While they’re at it, they might ask where the bullshit is deepest and truth hardest to recognise – in religion or a presidential election. And then there’s the more practical reason: to quote one taxi driver, representative of the millions without health insurance, ‘As if I could afford it! God is my health insurance.’"

*

In "The Conflict Business", Peter Hartcher offers an astute examination of the history and role of Australian political books, from Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy to Latham’s dirt-dishing and the recent Costello Memoirs, and beyond. 

"Costello’s version will not go uncontested. Howard plans to write his account next year. Tony Abbott is writing not a memoir but a manifesto, under the working title ‘Conservatism After Howard’ … Abbott’s publication promises to make the manifesto-style book as important for conservative politics as it is for the progressive side. This would be no big deal in the US, where John McCain has five books to his name and Barack Obama two. But in Australia, it would be a serious intensification of the intellectual effort that goes into political campaigning. This is a happy development. For the key figures on both sides of politics to canvass ideas for our political future, rather than just settle scores from their political pasts, offers the prospect of a leadership class that is better prepared and a voting public that is better informed."

I’ll give you The South Sydney Herald; The Monthly you will have to buy, though there are quite a few free articles in the archive there.

* November 2008 South Sydney Herald (PDF 2.5 MB)

 
Comments Off on New to read – local and national

Posted by on November 4, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, curriculum, Kevin Rudd, local, magazines, media watch, reading, South Sydney Uniting Church, Surry Hills

 

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

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

October2008

Click for details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a sample of quite a few good articles.