Monday 31 December 2012

Is literature spiritual in the way that community is?

Caravaggio's painting of St Jerome (1605?).
At this time of year there are many people who celebrate along with families and friends, but there are others who are alone and it's because of all these Eleanor Rigbys that I started to think about ways to describe the meaning of spirituality. When Christians go to church they attend holy communion, and they also enter into a type of fellowship with each other, a type of community. Church could be a saviour for Eleanor if there's noone from her family around during the festive season. But it's not just Christians who find solace from the difficulties and frustrations of everyday life by communing with a Creator. Ceremonies in all religions and sects enable people to get close to the Divine, and even in, say, Japanese Shinto it's the communing with trees, rocks, and streams that rewards the participant by helping him or her to slough off the desperate loneliness of material existence, and gives them an opportunity to establish a more satisfying relationship with the world and everything in it.

I chose a painting of Saint Jerome for this post because Jerome, the man who, in about the 4th century AD, translated the Christian Bible into Latin, obviously had to work mostly alone. And I want to think about this image alongside the logo for the publishing company Elsevier, which was founded in 1880 but which took its name from an older publishing company, Elzevir, which dated from 1580. The part of the logo that is most relevant for me is the motto, Non solus: "Not alone". Because it was the loneliness of the individual scholar, often working in a hostile environment against significant material obstacles, that also typifies St Jerome in his study back in Rome before the Goths invaded, not long afterward.

There's Jerome, in Caravaggio's lovely painting, sitting quietly trying to work out the best way to translate from the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin the words of the precious book that lies, immobile and daunting, before him on the desk. His hand is stretched out, and it holds upright a pen. Near the hand is a symbol of mortality, a human skull. It's a bleak image, and one that well illustrates the problem of scholars that Elsevier, the publishing company, acknowledges in its corporate logo. In fact it's problematic, because clearly Jerome is completely alone in Caravaggio's painting, although it must be - mustn't it? - that God is looking down benevolently on his labours from that high perch way up above in the blue Roman sky.

Those who sought community and communion in church certainly would have been unaware of Jerome's work, although at one point or another they would have benefited from it as it allowed them to enter into that precious state of existence under the tutelage of words spoken in their native language. Jerome's job was in media, in fact. He created a text to mediate between God, on one side, and the congregation, on the other. But he doesn't look as though he is participating, personally, in that ritual.

Religious observance is full of rituals. They are the means by which we enter into communion with the Divine, and the place where we enjoy community in good fellowship with out neighbours. And rituals are common to all types of religion. They are designed to facilitate - or to create, you might opine - that spiritual connection that we occasionally seek to establish with the world. They provide for a type of relationship with the world that does not depend on constant, unremitting struggle, which is how daily life usually plays out for us. Rituals are observances that let us enjoy, for a short while, the good things in life along with the people who are most important to us. They take us away from contention and disagreement, and let us enter into that state of communion and community that we all so much enjoy.

Compare the image of a man sitting, reading a book, with one where a thousand young people are standing, listening intently to a rock band and dancing together to the beat of the music. But reading is this unique undertaking that can bring us into contact with another consciousness, another mind. Of course, there is a type of ritual happening here, too. Not everyone can write a book, after all. It takes a writer's discipline and skill to achieve the right balance of novelty and the recognisable; the text cannot go too fast or else the writer will leave the reader behind, nor too slow in case the reader loses interest. But reading is a unique and singular activity that can stand in for the feeling of community that we associate with the spiritual because it allows us to contemplate the world in tandem with another person. So can reading be classed as spiritual? I don't know. I do know, however, that when I see Jerome bent starkly over his massive Bible I think of the rewards that this type of mental activity can bring to the scholar.

It's a conundrum, though. We seek spiritual nourishment by finding community with our fellows in good fellowship, especially at this time of year. For those people who are unable to engage with the world in this way, however, it might just be that reading can provide the kind of spiritual nourishment that others achieve in community with their family and friends.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Conflict and synthesis are embedded in the European psyche

Craig Waddell, The Painter (after Titian), 2012.
Last night I went to bed early but woke up near midnight and came back online for a peek. It was then that I came across a post in which an online friend expressed dismay at a kind of reverse discrimination, complaining that Westerners are blamed for everything that is bad in the world. To counter that unpleasant feeling I suggested that it might help if Westerners could be more aware of what their civilisation had achieved over the centuries, and pointed to my own habit of singling out prominent individuals who lived in the past, for acknowledgement.

Art and literature are two platforms that enable us to acknowledge gains achieved in the past, that have gone on to inspire others to achieve other things and even establish powerful new orthodoxies. So I have decided to single out for notice here a living Australian artist, Craig Waddell, whose works I have purchased in the past because there is something really interesting, I feel, in the way he handles his subjects. The painting inserted with this post illustrates this, showing how Waddell has used the approaches initiated by Modernist masters of the 20th century such as de Kooning and Soutine to render subjects purloined from great painters of the distant past, in this case the Venetian Titian. The layered meanings that inhere in a painting like this one establish a sort of mental harmonics that involves conflict and synthesis, and produces aesthetic pleasure.

Conflict and synthesis turned out to be elements of the discussion online that emerged after I made my comment, when another person suggested that the reason why, for example, the appearance of printing resulted in such innovation in the West while it had not done so in China, where it had appeared earlier, has to do with geographical imperatives. Here's what he said:
The most striking feature of Europe is its segments - Iberia, the British Isles, Italy, Scandanavia - these all form visible chunks (the important exception is the north European plain, which gave rise to the French-German-Polish-Russian struggles). This makes Europe focus on clusters, and when unity has been achieved (Rome/Carolingians) the impact was not politically permanent.
China, on the other hand, is one large landmass. This facilitates an easier unification (as under the Chin).
So conflict and synthesis of different viewpoints is a characteristic embedded in the fabric of Europe, whereas single-law rule and cultural orthodoxy held sway in China. I like this explanation because it avoids the less pleasant forms of European exceptionalism, which can deteriorate and turn into a kind of snobbery. I think that rather than celebrating cultures or civilisations, furthermore, it is more appropriate to celebrate the achievements of individuals, who often worked in antagonistic environments while doing the things that have since made them notable. These approaches can help Westerners, who can be rightly proud of what European civilisation has achieved, to avoid sounding superior, a stance that is sure to result in mockery and dismissal from people who come from other parts of the world.

So then what about China? For their part, the Chinese can be rightly proud of the sheer beauty manifested in their culture, and the strength that this beauty demonstrates. Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other cultures responded at different times to the overwhelming beauty that Chinese artists, scholars, writers, statesmen and artisans produced, and adopted many of its elements in their own ways of doing things. There is certainly something grand and striking about Chinese civilisation, something that indeed embodies the idea of "civilisation" itself. It's just that it's different from ours. And that's probably a good thing. It's in the meeting of different ways and means that we can further develop our cultures and societies so that they more perfectly accommodate the diversity of individuals who inhabit them.

Friday 28 December 2012

Movie review: The Dark Knight Rises, dir Christopher Nolan (2012)

A scene from the movie.
After the interesting opening scenes where a group of terrorists hijack and destroy a CIA plane in mid-air, this film gets bogged down in stodge. A wounded and unwilling Batman has all the cards in the deck stacked against him, a sure sign of a weak script. Massively compounded adversity is one way to describe this phenomenon. Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne has a bad knee, for a start. Then there's Catwoman who is after Batman, the Gotham police are trying to arrest him, Wayne's butler leaves him, and there's a group of terrorists led by a man with a Russian-sounding name who cause Wayne Enterprises to tank by way of a stock market scam. How much worse can things get for the Caped Crusader? Not much worse, of course, and how he gets out of this mess is supposed to be the best way the filmmakers can think of add some lustre to what must surely be an entirely stale franchise. To me, theirs a mere ploy to elicit sympathy, and it reminds me of how hard John Le Carre worked to elicit sympathy for his dead heroine in the utterly unreadable The Constant Gardener. So this new Batman film stinks. The maudlin replaying of Batman's backstory in the film sucks any life that might remain out of it. I did not watch most of the movie.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Movie review: The Bourne Legacy, dir Tony Gilroy (2012)

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross
in The Bourne Legacy.
A leak via Congress of information about a secret US government program causes the authorities to begin killing the agents the program spawned. Using genetic technologies, the program caused the genetic make-up of selected individuals to be enhanced, intellectually and physically. Fear of embarrassment due to the leak causes the shadowy figures in charge of the program to shut it down before an even bigger scandal emerges. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the program participants, is due to be eliminated but escapes unharmed.

Meanwhile, at the lab where the gene work is carried out to develop the drugs used to generate the genetic changes the program requires one of the technicians runs amok, shooting a number of people then killing himself. One who survives the rampage is Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) but her safety is compromised when a posse of CIA agents arrives at her house and try to kill her, attempting to make it look like a suicide. Cross intervenes, despatching the CIA operatives efficiently and going on the run with Shearing. Cross wants Shearing to help him receive an injection to ensure his survival and make the changes that the program had always caused using pills, to be permanent. To get to the drugs Cross and Shearing must travel to the Philippines.

Retired colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) and his team assume control of the crime scene that Shearing's destroyed house has become, picking through the rubble to learn who helped Shearing to escape. Using all of the resources of the most secret state Byer and his colleagues track down Cross and Shearing to their aeroplane flight. Not content to rely on the local constabulary, they summon another product of the program, Larx #3 (Louis Ozawa Changchien), who moves in on the fugitives in Manila. A long motorbike chase ensues. The ending is indeterminate, with Cross and Shearing fleeing on a small fishing boat into the hazy distance and to freedom.

With this ending there is plenty of scope for the film-rights holders to produce further episodes in the Bourne franchise. Jason Bourne, who gave it its name, does appear by name only in this film, and it's this ability to evade capture, or worse, at the hands of the US authorities that makes for the franchise's appeal. These rogue operators like Bourne and Cross are given seemingly insurmountable tasks to achieve in open conflict with the secret state, and film watchers eagerly consume the plotlines that result from this scenario. There is something so abhorrent about the secret state, and something so noble about elite men who flaunt its strictures and come out on top.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Morsi failing in task of drafting a constitution for Egypt

Despite doing so well to help Israel and Hamas reach a ceasefire that seems to have held up over time, Egypt's president Mohamed Morsi remains under international scrutiny due to his efforts surrounding the drafting of a constitution for his country. Weeks of street protests in Egypt by a range of different people, including Muslims, have led to continued attention from outside Egypt - much of it probably unwanted. Morsi has been ruling by decree since the first Parliament convened following the overthrow of Mubarak was dissolved by the courts. The protesters object to a decree from Morsi placing his decisions above the rule of the courts. They also object to the words of a draft constitution that has been drawn up by an assembly dominated by Islamists. Protesters say that it contains provisions that are too close to sharia, and that these provisions will work against free speech. A New York Times story published yesterday contains quite a lot of details.

It's pretty clear that Morsi is acting for the short term. Pushing through a form of constitution that favours one political party over any others is hardly in the national interest. It's also short-sighted. Given this display of power from Morsi, what is to stop a future government of a different political colour from taking advantage of its power to further amend the constitution? A constitution is a statement of parameters, and should not contain words that limit the way people behave. Rather, a constitution should take a form that envisages the maximum amount of freedom to speak, to work, to organise, or to live. It is not a place where you specify how media outlets should be formed - that's to be done through a law specifically for the media, for example.

Morsi is being pushed to alienate parts of Egyptian society by his party platform, and these biases are entering into the creation of a document that must assist - not hinder - the enjoyment of independence of the largest number of Egyptians possible. Morsi's supporters might say that winning the presidential election gave the Islamists the right to take the steps they are taking, but this is untrue. Morsi will always rule under a cloud if he continues to take the avenue he is going down, and for many Egyptians the founding document of the country's polity will always remain tainted by association with one particular political party.

What Morsi should do is to assemble a representative assembly that can objectively draft a constitution that would accommodate the worldviews of the maximum possible number of Egyptians. Instead, it seems that the important task of forming a constitution for Egypt is becoming a political football. This kind of thinking will surely fail in the long term, and Morsi would be advised to step back and think a bit more soberly about the real significance of a constitution in the history of any country. In the current climate, and if ratified, Egypt's new constitution is certain to last only as long as his term in office lasts. Given current popular sentiment, that might be quite a short period of time indeed.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Strong language in the House preferable to street violence

What's with all these headlines about politicians behaving badly? It started yesterday but it's still going on. Look, the kicker for one story on one of the major news websites reads, "The good news for most Australians is that Federal Parliament has risen for another year." And just take a look at the cartoon the Australian has featured for the past two days: Opposition leader Tony Abbott and prime minister Julia Gillard slinging mud at each other on a background made to look like the new, and hated, unbranded cigarette packaging that came into force yesterday. "Warning," the cartoon reads, "politicians may make you sick."

Mudslinging in Parliament - what's new? Is their behaviour in 2012 any worse than it has been in earlier years - I don't think so. These kinds of popular expressions of disappointment in politicians is itself very disappointing. It shows that most people refuse to understand that the public sphere is a highly contested space. Everyone - including you, dear reader - has an agenda. How can politicians be any different?

The battle of "ideas" and of policies must continue - the alternative is death when it comes to the moment to change government. I prefer a proxy battle of words any day to the way that other, less mature polities decide who holds power, and who does not. I dote on the forms of Parliament, the spectacle and the traditions. We all should, because such forms shield us from violence.

When a new Speaker is selected by the government, for example, there are always two sitting members who go to his or her seat, grasp the successful member by the arms - one on either side - and escort him or her to the speaker's chair at the front of the room. An old form, dating back to the seventeenth century in Britain when being speaker in that Parliament could be a dangerous business - in those days the king or queen still had enormous powers, including the power to cause death - but one that lives on, today, because it symbolises the fact that we inherited a successful political system from another country. (Emphasis on 'successful'.) There are many traditions that have relevance at different times during the life of our Parliament, and it is those traditions, as much as any new-minted statute, that cause Australian democracy to be so robust.

Within the weft and weave of parliamentary process in Australia we see  - it's a very open, transparent process, after all - a proxy battle for supremacy every bit as passionate as an armed insurgency or a running street protest. The difference is that there is no violence. Since democracy began to function in Australia in 1856 - with elections for the NSW lower house - the country has navigated through many, many stormy issues accompanied by passionate debates. But there has been little violence. Think about it: Australia's is the fourth-oldest democracy in the world but we have been spared assassinations, riots, bombings and other plots that might cause loss of life. As always, it's in the media that public debate takes place, while in actual fact the person you might most vehemently disagree with lives just around the corner. But you wouldn't know. Our passions and our aspirations are enacted for us bloodlessly in Parliament and in the nation's media. We are shielded from sectarian hatred, physical assault, and casual misadventure by this process of democracy that we then turn around and lambast for being, somehow, unpleasant.

Why are a few angry words in Parliament more annoying than deaths in Syria are dismaying? What's wrong with our domestic form of proxy warfare? Rebels have taken over the major cities in the Congo and we don't care, but let a frontbencher make a fiery speech in Parliament and we talk about nothing else!

Saturday 1 December 2012

Surveillance state Australia?

There's that clicking sound on the line again as you're talking on the phone. It kicks in a few seconds after you make the connection and there are other audible clicks that occur during the phone call. When did it start happening? You can't remember, but it has been going on for months. It could be something quite innocent, of course, but the fact remains that there are thousands of telephone intercept warrants issued to police under federal law in Australia each year. According to the Age there were 3755 telephone intercepts authorised in 2011-12. In total, NSW police have 103,824 telephone intercepts operating now. There are tens of thousands more being managed by police in other states.

A judicial warrant is required to open an intercept but the figures show that once it's on, it stays on. Only nine applications were refused or withdrawn nationally in 2011-12. All renewal applications from police were approved in the same period of time.

Beyond telephone intercepts there are other items of data that you generate all the time and which can be monitored without invoking a judicial warrant, but merely on the command of "senior police or officials". Officials?
The data available to government agencies under federal law includes phone and internet account information, outwards and inwards call details, phone and internet access location data, and details of Internet Protocol addresses visited (though not the actual content of communications).
Such data was accessed in Australia over 300,000 times in 2011-12, meaning that "agencies obtained private data from telecommunications and internet service providers 5800 times every week". Statistics for ASIO are security classified and are not published; presumably that goes for telephone intercepts as well.

The Greens have complained about the scope of this huge data haul - Scott Ludlam is quoted expressing his reservations in the story - but Labor is now pressing to further expand the surveillance powers available to agencies of government including "a minimum two-year data retention standard for phone and internet providers". Agencies who access such data can even include local councils and Australia Post.

So you don't know who's monitoring your internet and phone call data. You don't know if a telephone intercept has been established for your phone. But given the scale of the data access activity that the Age story exposes, it's likely that at some point your communications will be monitored by some agency or other. It could be ASIO, it could be the police, it could be the tax office. Once they start looking at you it's likely that they will continue to look at you. So what kind of country are we living in that government needs to so closely surveil the activities of its citizens?

Further, what kind of reciprocal oversight opportunities do Australians have? Occasionally there's a story in the media like the one linked to in this blog post. But all this does for us is show us something about the scope of data access operations. Stories like this never reveal any details about the kinds of data that is accessed by government authorities nor the reasons why such data is accessed. So how are we to judge whether such data access is warranted? We cannot. It all comes down to trust. We must trust that the government will only request data access when there is a pressing reason to do so. And we must trust that data monitoring will cease once suspicion has abated.

Do you trust the government?

Friday 30 November 2012

My beef with former MI5 chief

I keep hearing Stella Rimington - spy novel writer and former MI5 supremo - lashing out at WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. This troubles me. Anyone who's read Rimington's memoir about her time in the spy business knows what kind of obstructions she had to fight in order to attain the lofty position she reached during her time in the agency. And she worked to open up the agency to the public. Witness the recent publication of the enormous history of MI5 which was written by an Oxbridge don. In Australia, ASIO is set to follow suit with a history to come out next year. In her memoir, Rimington applauds the statutes enacted in the mid-90s for both MI5 and its overseas cousin, MI6 (of which the British government had refused to even admit of the existence until that time!). And she worked internally to moderate the suppressive force operating within the organisation that prevents information from getting out. But when it comes to WikiLeaks, she totally caves, saying that this new type of organisation makes spying more difficult, if not impossible.

Protecting the identity of sources is essential, we're told, in the spy business. And this holds for eternity. Even a document that I got hold of through the National Library that dates from the 1950s in Australia, prepared by ASIO, contains redactions so that the names of sources are not made public. If source names are publicised, the logic goes, then in future it would be impossible to convince people to cooperate with a spy agency. Without people's cooperation, further, the spy business is impossible. Under this logic, WikiLeaks is an existential threat to spy organisations, even more dangerous, it would seem, than the terrorists or subversives it is supposed to be against.

So Rimington throws her lot in with the authorities globally who are trying to shut down WikiLeaks. For a liberal like me this is problematic. I admire Rimington's books because they're more interesting than most other spy novels. I also admire what Rimington achieved in her professional life, and condemn the forces that obstructed her rise through the ranks at MI5. But I equally admire Assange and his organisation, WikiLeaks, because I believe that there is too much secrecy in both government and governmental administration (the two must be considered separately). Of course there's less secrecy in government itself because we have laws that force publicity upon politicians, and anyway politicians are always eager to get their messages out into the space where the electorate can consume them. Spy agencies are not part of government per se, however. Secrecy in governmental administration is the journalist's bane, and I would say in the majority of cases where journalists have been denied access to individuals in the public service or to documents produced by the public service, the public interest is being ignored.

We need more oppenness. We also need equality for women and a high lever of professionalism in the public service. We need both. I applaud Rimington for bringing her talents to bear in order to achieve two of these goals, but I condemn her for condemning WikiLeaks, which is a new type of organisation that channels unauthorised document releases into the public sphere. If that happens, government has only itself to blame. The public's appetite for concealed information - like the plethora of (mostly) trashy books written about spies - is testament to the unsatisfied curiosity of this enormous and important demographic. You cannot run government for the benefit of politicians or of government departments. Government is always - and only - to be undertaken for the benefit of all the people.

Leveson report: It's early days yet

The report by the UK's Lord Justice Leveson into the conduct of that country's press is making headlines but, as usual, his recommendations are not being explained adequately. It's a 2000-page document and it recommends "that a statutory body such as Ofcom should take responsibility for monitoring an overhauled Press Complaints Commission", according to the Guardian. Over at the Sydney Morning Herald it's reported that the Leveson report recommends that "An independent watchdog should be established by law to regulate newspapers", and in another story on the same website, we find:
He proposed expanding British regulator Ofcom's legal remit so it became a "verification" body, able to recognise an independent regulator that had "credible" rules and powers to enforce them - such as huge fines.

Publications would not be obliged to sign up to the new body but would be subject to harsher punishment if the courts found they libelled people or breached civil law.
It appears that the Leveson report contains a lot of detail that even the New York Times, which also reports on the publication, has been unable to cover adequately, although it does a better job than most:
In the current system of self-regulation by a body called the Press Complaints Commission, newspapers effectively regulate themselves. The report urged the creation of a new independent regulatory body with powers to fine offending newspapers up to $1.6 million, made up of people who are not serving editors and should not be either lawmakers or figures from the government.
What these stories now mainly come down to are statements of position from prominent politicians for or against Leveson's recommendations. This kind of politicisation of the issue is really not helpful, and newspapers should be putting more effort into explaining exactly what the almost-2000-page report contains. Just getting party leaders to make a pitch is not enough, and the media is failing its readers if that's all they can manage to offer us.

For example, it appears that one thing Leveson is recommending is something like a First Amendment in the UK to guarantee press freedom. This would obviously be a good thing - it's certainly something Australia's pussy-footed pollies have long resisted doing, for fear of actually increasing press access to government information (imagine that!) - but this part of the report has been overlooked by most media outlets who have, of course, a vested interest in seeing Rupert Murdoch's corporate interests publicly attacked.

There's little doubt that the "anything goes" attitude at swashbuckling Murdoch tabloids in the UK led to the abuses that incite Leveson's most trenchant comments. And it's no wonder that the UK's prime minister, David Cameron, a Conservative, should want to do as little as possible to encourage statutory measures such as Leveson suggests implementing. A free market, for a Tory, is better than government regulation - the nanny state, Leftie bothersomeness and all that - for someone like Cameron. We get the same thing in Australia with the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, backing Murdoch against Labor's Stephen Conroy, the communications minister, who is also due sometime soon to put forward a law for the media for debate in Parliament.

But what it comes down to is that bravery, initiative and striking headlines, attached as they are to increased circulation and hence higher advertising rates, and therefore increased income, were the real culprits at the now-defunct Murdoch tabloid News of the World. Murdoch is an independent spirit, to be sure, and has been successful in his chosen field by taking new avenues. It's no wonder that his employees are rewarded for the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit. But Leveson points out that this kind of corporate culture led to a breakdown in corporate governance at Murdoch vehicles.

If private corporations are not able to effectively ensure that they do not abuse the power that they carry then it is incumbent on government to step in. The same lesson arose in the wake of the GFC, where we saw rampant abuses by private corporations intent on maximising income with the result that millions of people globally have suffered significant material hardship. It is incumbent on governments to take legislative measures where corporations signally fail to protect individuals from abuse.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Credit to Egypt's Morsi for brokering peace

Credit where credit's due. In a short six months, Egypt's Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has emerged as a statesman of international significance, most recently helping to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel following a week of aerial hostilities during which there were deaths on both sides. Morsi was declared the winner of Egypt's first presidential elections in mid-June. His decision to act as a man of peace must be widely welcomed and Morsi must be credit given for doing so. The ceasefire involved many regional actors, as well as the United States, and serves to curtail aggression that threatened to spiral out of control leading to a reenactment of the three-week Gaza War of 2008-09.

Hostilities between Hamas and Israel poison the relations between countries internationally.

When the current hostilities opened I felt disgust and regret, and promised myself that I would pay no attention. If the Israelis think that it's OK to perform extra-judicial killings using US-sourced technology, I said to myself, then they deserve everything they get. And if the Palestinians think it's fine to commit suicide by sending rockets over the border from Gaza into Israel, I thought, then they deserve whatever the Israelis throw at them. In these situations the innocent suffer and on both sides the traumatised young again are left to grow up full of hate.

There are so many people involved and the mutual distrust and hatred runs so deep. When I think of the web of interactions that work on relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis I think of a huge machine. It's as if there is a machine that is operating globally but that brings its force to play in one, small corner of the world, along the borders between Palestinian territories and Israel. As in any functioning machine there is also a feedback mechanism that relays outcomes of events at those pressure points to the farthest reaches of the globe. The message from the world must be that killing is not the solution, and in regional actors like Mohamed Morsi we at last have a credible peacemaker willing to put his reputation on the line to further the message of compassion. In men like Morsi we see a reliable conduit for the wishes of the virtuous of the world.

Saturday 17 November 2012

New ideas drive investment in remote ag project

Northern WA farmer Christian Bloecker.
The long-term risk associated with large agricultural projects is not, it seems, everyone's cup of tea, but WA's Christian Bloecker, whose immigrant parents Wilhelm and Gabi came to Kununurra to farm in 1982, sees plenty of potential in northern Australia. Bloecker was just one of several people the Australian's Sue Neales spoke with to write a story on the recently-announced Chinese investment in the Ord land stage 2 expansion project (paywalled) being sponsored by both state and federal governments. The development involves native title owners the Miriuwung Gajerrong people, who have cooperated with the governments to progress it, and who are already seeing new employment opportunities stemming from it. The newspaper has form in promoting private investment in Australia's outback because of the capacity of such projects to improve the lives of indigenous people living there.

Bloecker is something of a poster boy for smart ag. His alma mater, the University of Western Australia did a long piece on him in 2009 when he graduated with his double degree (Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and Bachelor of Economics), and it's a story element Neales highlights too. No doubt many farmers will prefer this kind of image for Australian farmers compared to the bog-standard "bogan" image that has been used recently to promote dairy products here. Indeed, Bloecker's attitude is nothing short of inspirational. In the movie that can also be found on the news web page, Bloecker doesn't just talk about how the Ord stage 2 project can create economic opportunities for farmers and local jobs for indigenous Australians, he also talks passionately about how the arrival of more farmers in the area can lead to the development of new ideas.

As Neales' story shows, new ideas were at the bottom of the decision by Chinese corporation Shanghai Zhongfu to go for ag in the remote region.
The company is a private, family-based firm founded by chairman Wu Pui-ngai, who is a permanent resident of Australia, as are the rest of his family. Mr Wu is from Shanghai but has connections with Taiwan.
The firm's core activity is land development - not only construction but also, for instance, obtaining sites and landscaping them for private cemeteries, a particularly successful venture. It also has a science and research arm.
The company started visiting Western Australia about 18 months ago with a view to diversifying, as have many other Chinese land developers - in Zhongfu's case, originally into iron ore. The principals alerted the state government to their interest in investing, and were invited to the Ord region, where they saw a prime opportunity and shifted their attention from the crowded iron ore field.
It was an economic reason that drew the company away from investing in iron ore, a field where returns have dropped due to lower demand from Chinese manufacturers and also a possible glut of capacity as a number of new projects in Australia have reached the production stage, to investing in agriculture. As I pointed out in an earlier post, foreign firms often see potential in large-scale agriculture projects where local firms do not. It's not just the Ord stage 2 project that has Chinese and Singaporean firms interested in ag in Australia. It's their long-term view of how their capital will be used, rather than a demand for immediate high short-term returns. And it's also no doubt also because these companies are able to bring into play efficient marketing arms that can create business opportunities in the developing markets where the end product is destined to be sold.

Friday 16 November 2012

Welcome to His Xiness, Top Dog of All The Things

Xi Jinping, top dog of ... um ... all the things.
China's leadership transition has taken place and the new leader of ... um ... all the things is ... Xi Jinping! (But no surprises, we knew this since 2007.) Unlike Hu Jintao, his predecessor in the position of top dog, Xi apparently also takes control of the military during this transition, which makes him ... um ... more biggerer than Hu. His Serene Xiness (see picture, right) sort of coasted into place like a duck at a shooting gallery, except with the complete absence of public debate, politicking, and a combative press corps, there's noone holding the gun. Instead, His Xiness and the other six Standing Committee members, the guys who call the shots for the next 10 years, or five years, or something, appeared, unruffled and perfect, ideal leaders in this ideal and perfect nation as it forges ahead on its ideal and perfect way into an ideal and perfect future.

And we get pissed off because Fox News says things we don't like, or whichever media outlet you tend to disagree with. Live with it, baby, because the alternative is pretty scary. His Xiness would never tolerate the kind of verbal sledging that goes on day-in-day-out in the public sphere in a country with such a flawed and contested political system as the US or Australia. Want to ruffle my feathers, you bastard? Go to jail.

So reading the coverage of China's leadership transition in the New York Times is interesting, but not very illuminating. The top dogs are all died-in-the-wool conservatives, good ol' boys who have mouthed the Party line for the past 40 years, firm in their support of a system that they will no doubt proceed to exploit, now they are top dogs, so that they can feather their own nests with a bit of the ready stuff, just like all the others who came before them. But it's not really important. What's important is that future leaders can also cruise into place in unruffled sereneness, unencumbered by any embarrassing need to solicit votes (how undignified!) from a fractious electorate. Serenity, a Buddha-like smile on your face, is the main prerequisite for these top doggies, going forward.

His Xiness had a few words to say, however, and some pundits aver that the man will have to try to find ways to make sure the economy continues to grow. This might, we're told, require some political liberalisation. But who the fuck knows? The tea-leaf readers in the Beijing press gallery might have some inkling, but they're not in any hurry to inform the plebs. What we get instead are a few choice quotes from China-watchers placed in foreign institutions - universities and the like - who spend a good deal of their time, presumably, checking to see which way His Xiness combed his hair this morning and whether that is going to be a factor in the likelihood of economic liberalisation, establishment of the rule of law, or whatever MAJOR ISSUE appears likely to be addressed. Byzantine does not adequately describe the operations of the Chinese Communisty Party.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Calling child sexual abuse "evil" is counterproductive

17th Century English woodcut.
Expect a lot of this kind of useless language over the coming days, weeks and months, especially from politicians hoping to make political mileage out of the suffering of the innocent. Child sexual abuse is not "evil". The concept of evil is ancient, the stuff of fairy tales and old stories told by the fireside to amuse and terrify. It's a concept that the major perpetrators in the current scandal, the established churches, have a lot invested in. But how useful can it be if the very people who use that word to arrogate to themselves the privileges of authority are so apt to abuse the power thus conferred? Clearly, the concept of evil has failed its remit. It's time for a rethink. What child sexual abuse is, in brass tacks terms, is abuse of power.

In human historical terms the 17th Century woodcut that accompanies this piece was not made that long ago. But the churches have for the past decade been braying their frustration at the diminishment of religious observance, blaming it on the rise of "materialism", a concept that means, in this context, the vacuous pursuit of things in place of their preferred object of the "eternal" and the divine. But what materialism really is is to agree that there is no divine influence in the universe, and that there is a physical explanation for everything. Such a view clearly sets out to reject such notions as evil. Instead of relying on old wives' tales to explain why people act the way they do, it falls back in a rather cumbersome fashion on far more difficult sets of ideas contained, for example, within the realms of postmodern discourse theory, psychology and brain science. But because these things are far more difficult to easily explain, we continue to publicly use terms such as "evil" to talk about behaviours that go counter to our best intentions, such as child sexual abuse. They fit into headlines far more easily than some of the abstruse terms that can better explain why people do some of the terrible things they do. Nevertheless, the abuse of power can surely be better explained with reference to exact sciences, than it can by whipping out such an old saw as the Devil, Lucifer. Watch out, Dr Faustus!

It's a matter, for people such as Julia Gillard, of "othering". Calling child sexual abuse "evil" is her way of bringing the majority - who do not sexually abuse children - onto her side of the debate. But how useful is it really when she exploits terminology preferred by the very institutions that her royal commission will seek to unmask? Abuse of power when it refers to children and sex acts is surely abhorrent, as well as illegal. But abuse of power is not something that is foreign to everyone. Far from it. If we want to effectively address the root causes of this problem then it will be necessary to start talking about the issues in more appropriate terms. Othering the minority, making them outcasts, is counterproductive because it ignores the potential for further abuse in other contexts and by other parts of the community. It is surely easier to take this line than it is to fully understand the motivation for child sexual abuse, but in the long term the latter will be more useful because it can help us to really understand, as a community, where this kind of behaviour has its roots, and how we can make the kinds of changes that are needed in order to ensure that it never happens again.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Righteous address by a young tyro at a community consultation session involving the secret services

I don't really know why we love those scenes in movies where counsel addresses a jury passionately, employing all of the rhetorical resources he or she possesses in an attempt to divert the course of justice in favour of his or her client. There's something essentially theatrical about a court room. It has drama. Things are at stake. There is an audience - because justice must be seen to be done - in the public gallery. Anyway, what follows is a righteous tirade from a young student at a community consultation involving the secret services. It is purely imaginary.

I beg your pardon, sir, but democracy is not pie-in-the-sky. Elections are not unfortunate formalities that must be tolerated every few years so that organisations such as yours can continue to operate unmolested by the political apparatus. Elections are the end goal, inasmuch as they enable regular, law-abiding people to enjoy their privacy in peace. Those laws were made by the representatives of the people, chosen by the people, in order to preserve the right of the people to their property, their dignity and their privacy. And in order to effectively choose who represents them in the nation's legislatures the people have a right to information about the operation of the state. In this way, your organisation comes second to the media in the national respectability stakes, I'm sorry to say. The media stands between the state and the people it serves, and informs the people about the workings of the state. Without this mechanism democracy is simply not possible. So your organisation has an obligation to be as transparent as possible, and to inform the media of your activities in as complete a manner as is humanly practicable.

Indeed, your organisation is absolutely the glaring aberration in a just democracy. The state has an obligation to operate transparently, otherwise it cannot be judged by those it serves, who are the people. Every woman and man aged 18 years and over has a right to the national franchise and in order to effectively exercise that right he or she has an equal right to information about the state's operation. As far as is possible, your organisation should work toward a reality where it ceases to exist because your organisation does not rightly meet the criteria for the just functioning of the state. As soon as it can be managed your organisation should make itself redundant so that the proper balance of transparency and justice can exist in the nation. For this reason, your organisation must content itself with always coming among the last, and not among the first. It must be happy with accepting whatever the people choose to give it, and must never engage in bureaucratic empire building with an eye to furthering its own, anomalous interests.

Because the people are not allowed to possess any information about the operations of your organisation, your staff have a moral obligation to act ethically. This obligation places a superhuman burden on your employees, and those who are not content with both accepting this burden and with always coming among the last should pack their bags and find employment elsewhere. Noone is forcing them to work in your organisation and they can leave at any time. The ethical burden that weighs upon each and every employee in your organisation is a professional matter, and your organisation should constantly work to ensure that its employees are able to function effectively under such constraints. The people tolerate your organisation's existence because their representatives judge it to be a necessary evil. Do not make the mistake of believing that your organisation or any employee inside it is above the law. Do not imagine for an instant that there is any priority of greater moment than the citizen's peaceful enjoyment of his or her privacy. To do so would be to pervert the very structure of society, and to forever damage the standing or your organisation and of the politicians who support it.

In fact, it is largely too late for such warnings because the people even now barely tolerate you. Their justified curiosity, acting via the media, is not something that you should consider to be an unnecessary intrusion into your privacy, because you should be entitled to none. In a just democracy, the right of the people to know essentially outweighs any consideration that your organisation might deem proper to arrogate to itself. It is, as it should be, that you exist on borrowed time. Use it wisely.

Men in packs not the best way to find adventure

Anything could happen.
I've been reading Stella Rimington's memoir, Open Secret, which chronicles her years working for MI5 beginning in the 1960s. Rimington would go on to become head of the organisation but in the early days it was a place with clearly demarcated roles for men and women. Women were considered unfit for the "tougher" aspects of the work, such as agent running, and were relegated to clerical and support work. The organisation was also dyfunctional, with a lengthy cohort of ex-Foreign Office employees who liked to take long lunches and who often did little actual work. It was a cosy arrangement for the blokes at MI5 until the efforts of people like Rimington to achieve more equality paid off and the service began to professionalise. Merit, rather than just your gender or your friends, became the rule by which promotion was awarded.

Dysfunction in male-only institutions is evident everywhere, not just in the rarified haunts of British spooks, however. Year after year, month after month and day after day the news is filled with stories - often only surfacing decades after the fact - of abuse, violence, bastardisation and sex crimes. In the Catholic Church, in exclusive university colleges, in the military. The story is the same, even though the locale may change. If you put men together within a hierarchy and exclude women anything can happen, and probably will. The dynamic is different if women are present. The tone changes. Things get better.

I grew up in all-male institutions, from my primary school through secondary school to a year spent living at an all-male university college. I had some great friends, often foreigners like the talented sportsmen Pipi and David, and the well-read and articulate Anthony who introduced me to the Beatles. I gravitated to the unusual, often the exceptional. There were wonderful teachers and fabulous friends. When I went to university I started to change how I related to the world, and the school tie was exchanged for a blue glass bead in the Greek fashion, to ward off the evil eye. Given the enhanced access to knowledge that university naturally afforded it was hard to sustain the fiction that an all-male institution could supply what I actually needed to develop and after a year at St Paul's I left to go and live in a studio apartment in Glebe. Thus began a fruitful period, a time characterised by the sound dictum of Virginia Woolf, that the creative soul requires for its fulfilment a room of its own.

I had never participated in the long, sodden drinking sessions that the men at St Paul's used to create the bonds that they wished for, so I did not miss that part of college life. In fact, there was not much about the college that I missed once I went off on my own to live the bohemian life. Outside the college I got involved with a small publishing venture for poetry written by young people. I also met new people, such as Tony and Michael, Neil and Paul. There were girls, too, of course. Why not? But the important thing for me is that things started to happen at university that could not have happened elsewhere. Things remote from the ritual hazing of freshers and the prolongued consumption of strong alcoholic beverages. Things that brought me into contact with interesting people who had radically different views of the world from those of my parents, or of my teachers and classmates at high school. This was intoxicating stuff in its own, unique way. All those hours spent rummaging through the shelves of Fisher Library looking for the unusual, the odd, the curious. And those visits to the bookshops which resulted in finding things that you could actually buy and take home to keep, that were made in the USA, in Europe, in the UK. Famous names made more so by one's fond regard. Bukowski and Miller, Michaux and Faure.

I lived in an all-male household of one surrounded by my mates who spoke to me through the written word. Names grew off the back of names. Titles spawned yet more titles as I read my way through the 20th Century pantheon of the amusing, the intelligent, the wise, and the just plain different. Solitary communion with other minds from other times did not stop me from graduating and it did not even stop me from going out after study was finished, to find paid employment. Sticking with the pack is not the only way to get the most out of university, in fact it may just be the least interesting way. There are other voices and, for me, when they called, I answered.

Friday 9 November 2012

Persistance gives a win to Aust net freedom supporters

In a major industry development, Australia's communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has announced that a long-debated move to use a secret list to filter the internet in the country, has been scrapped. It's an interesting back-down, which Conroy spins as a "successful outcome", presumably coming at the end of lengthy discussions with industry organisations, his Labor Party's partner, the Greens, and possibly others. It seems to me, from reading the story, that this decision to scrap the contentious secret list was made following discussions but the story does not say whether that is the case and, if it was, who the key discussions were held with.

Instead of a secret list of proscribed sites that would block access to material online ("The government argued that laws governing material on the internet should be no different to those that applied to printed content") the government will pass requests to ISPs via the police so that only child exploitation material will be blocked from access by Australian web users. There is pretty much universal agreement in the community that access to such material should be impossible. Not only is the material abhorrent due to the fact that, in order to make it, children are being abused around the world. It is also undesirable for such material to be accessible to Australian web users due to the fact that it is illegal to view it here, and has been since 2005. The new regulation removes the ability from the majority of Australians to view such material, and thus also distances web users in the country from the risk of accidentally stumbling upon it. It is easy to find such material without deliberately looking for it, so the government's shift removes a potentially life-changing risk from people's lives. This must be welcomed.

The secret proscribed list debate dates back to when the previous Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd, reached the prime minister's office in 2007. One other thing that has long characterised the debate has been an almost-universal rejection of mandatory internet filtering by the IT industry, and by serious infotech users. Those close to the industry have aggressively campaigned against mandatory filtering for years and years, making the issue potentially toxic for the government, which has now gingerly moved away from its original plan. The plan to issue requests to ISPs to block child abuse material is a compromise, there is no doubt about it, and as the Fairfax story linked to above shows, some of the organisations involved in the debate, specifically those aligned with the Christian lobby, have expressed regret at the government's new stance.

So what this episode shows is how prolongued resistance from both the IT industry and the vocal, informal IT lobby that is active online, can cause governments to alter even the most solidly-backed legislative plans. People who work with infotech or who admit to a keen interest in it have consistently expressed a deep distrust of a government-held secret list of proscribed sites. There were even leaks showing that sites containing completely innocuous content had been included in the list, which further eroded the government's credibility in the matter. I think that this whole episode shows that, in Australia as in the US, there is a deep-seated suspicion of government intervention in the workings of the internet. Serious web users are committed to ensuring a free web and are very aware of international rankings on net freedom that appear from time to time. The resistance of such people to the government's planned secret list has certainly been a factor contributing to Conroy's announcement today.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Obama's win reflects US electorate's confidence in him

So now it's rainbows and unicorns for many people who cared who got to be US president. If you don't agree with the result then please cut us progressives a bit of slack because a lot of people woke up today as after a nightmare due to imagining what the alternative could have looked like. In fact, we needn't have worried because the result wasn't even that close. In the closest state - Florida, where counting apparently continues - Obama leads by 47,000 votes. To include that state in Obama's electoral college total, he won by 332 to 206 which is a pretty significant lead by any reckoning. The final result was declared within a matter of hours after the polling stations closed on the west coast. It was not really a close-run thing.

Romney totally failed to gain the trust of the electorate and his concession speech included indicators as to why. The main points of Romney's speech were his emphasis on religion as the basis for American values and on his reliance on the "principles of the nation's founders" as a guide to the running of the country. (The backdrop on the stage where Romney appeared even included a picture of a square-rigged sailing ship, presumably like those which brought the Pilgrim Fathers to the shores of colonial America.) The scary stuff started over a year ago, with people like Michele Bachman promising to institute a Christian Caliphate (my post, 28 Aug 2011) and Rick Santorum spewing out his homophobic hate across the airwaves during the Republican primaries (my post, 5 Jan 2012). Instead of this garbage, yesterday's poll gave us two more US states legislating for gay marriage (Maine, Maryland) and Colorado opting to legalise marijuana. So US voters decided they didn't like the nutty taste of Tea Cakes and rejected the whole gamut of them, including those Republican congressmen who think that women who are raped should not have access to abortion.

But noone knows how the wind will blow on polling day, which is why the sense of universal relief among liberals. It's been over a year to wait, after all, and that has made for some jangly nerves.

In pure financial terms, the result looks to have been wise. On the Australian stock market, the bellweather index called the All Ordinaries jumped sharply as soon as the networks began to declare for Obama. Romney's promised fiscal discipline would likely have caused share markets globally to drop as he cut spending and government jobs. We've seen the same thing happen in Queensland, where the premier, elected in March, has made good on his promise to cut 14,000 government jobs. As a result, the unemployment rate in this state is well above the national average. A busy wag recently defaced Campbell Newman's electoral office by painting its front with the word "Tyrant".

For Obama, of course, it's not all about roses and rainbows. He's still got the reality of a hostile House (the Senate remains majority Democrat) to contend with, so pushing through reforms and budgets will continue to be problematic. Then there's the issue of climate change, which Hurricane Sandy brought home to east coast voters in such a violent way just days before the election was held. I listened to much of Obama's victory speech and it felt good to hear the word "Hope" uttered once again but, for me, the word which most readily comes to mind when contemplating Obama's win is "Confidence". The Tea Party flared bright and briefly but America was unswayed by its baroque promises and chose, instead, to go with a man they trust to both run the economy and to set the tone for progress across the spectrum of portfolios for the next four years.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Book review: Term Limits, Vince Flynn (2000)

The plot device that kicks off the story in this dystopian thriller is the assassination of three congressional members by a group who lay down a list of demands to the government of President Stevens that includes one that says the budget must be balanced. If their demands are not met, more elected members will be killed. But Stevens is a mere puppet in the hands of his chief of staff, Stu Garrett, and his national security adviser, Mike Nance, and his response, that the United States will not negotiate with terrorists, only serves to spark another killing. When this measure by the group of ex-commandos again fails to achieve their aim, they directly threaten the president's own life. Eager to consolidate their own power, Garrett and Nance then organise the killing of two additional congressmen using the resources of an ex-CIA operative named Arthur Higgins. Things spiral out of control and martial law is imposed in Washington DC.

As the book cover says, "The nation needs a hero ...", but it's not clear who that is, exactly. Is it FBI special agent Skip McMahon, tasked with investigating the murders? Is it ex-Marine and congressman Michael O'Rourke, whose own animus against the ineffectual Stevens is clearly evident from the moment he appears in the novel? Or is it ex-Navy SEAL Scott Coleman, the leader of the killers? What's for certain is that noone who is compromised by their links with the system - apart from the law enforcement officers - is able to act justly. But look at the book's date. It was published in 2000, a year before 9/11, at a time when confidence in government was at a generational low. Just how low government had fallen in public opinion can easily be felt from the excessive venality of those in power in this book; the relationships between Stevens, Garrett and Nance guarantee a violent response from those - like O'Rourke and Coleman - who have lived by a strict code of honour rather than by the demands of popular accommodation.

The idea that subverting the processes of democracy can be justified is not new. What is striking in this book is the depth of the underlying cynicism expressed in the plot and in the main characters. Not only Stevens, Garrett and Nance but also the four congressmen who are initially killed are shown up as fundamentally corrupt, so far have they fallen in thrall to the process of compromise implicit in a democracy. In effect, the book asks us to contemplate at what point a military coup is justified in a country such as America.

There is a lot of action in this book, and while these passages are very good those passages that refer to intimate relationships are schematic and flat. Essentially, the book efficiently draws the outline of a conflict in which every character is a proxy for one of two sides: justice or order. Living on the margins between these two imperatives is Michael O'Rourke, the Minnesota congressman whose girlfriend, Liz Scarlatti, is a reporter. Interestingly, the media does not come out of the book looking too bad. The main actors use the media on occasion as a form of threat in order to acieve their goals, but essentially the media is not judged as harshly as government is. And while the use of spin to maintain secrecy in government is condemned by the author, the existence of secret government agencies like the CIA, is not.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Clark Kent hands in press pass, heads for mother's basement

Clark Kent (left) in the latest Superman issue.
It's just too funny. In the latest issue of the Superman comic, the writers have written a plot where Clark Kent quits journalism in disgust at the low tone his editors are encouraging him to adopt. Apparently "the Daily Planet's editor-in-chief has soured on Kent because he is not getting enough front page scoops on his beat", according to the Fox News story on the DC Comics move.
“This is really what happens when a 27-year-old guy is behind a desk and he has to take instruction from a larger conglomerate with concerns that aren’t really his own,” Superman writer Scott Lobdell said to USA Today.
“Superman is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but how long can he sit at his desk with someone breathing down his neck and treating him like the least important person in the world?” Lobdell said.
In a written statement to the website, DC Comics pointed to  a number of contemporary issues that sparked the crisis for Kent: "the balance of journalism vs. entertainment, the role of new media, the rise of the citizen journalist, etc." So Kent quits because his cash-strapped editors and the newspaper's proprietor are dumbing down the news? Lobdell goes on to suggest a career as a blogger on the model of Ariana Huffington or Matt Drudge but I wonder if Huffington's business model might offend the scrupulous Kent (Huffington Post contributors are not paid) and if Drudge's conservative politics might put him off. Perhaps a better model would be for Kent to set up as a publisher of long-form journalism sold via ebooks, as Charlotte Harper has done with her new business, Editia. After all, long-form journalism offers the depth that Kent seems to think is missing from his work on the Daily Planet. It also allows writers to be properly paid for their work, and avoids a party-political cast along the way.

We'll have to wait and see. The plot switch by DC Comics is both clever and interesting, and illustrates a deep feeling of unease in developed countries where the news business is struggling to fulfil its remit. Part of the romance of journalism is the public-interest function it has, which is presumably one of the reasons Kent took to the keyboard in the first place. The idea that proprietors are resorting to the production of lightweight stories aimed at securing audience attention, to the detriment of the public-interest function, is not something to be ignored. Of course, this is just one take on the current impasse for the print media. Others see a polarisation occurring, where different platforms adopt different political allegiences in order to grab audience attention. The record shows that consumers like to have their political biases affirmed by the media outlet they use. In short, the plot switch from DC Comics is part of a larger narrative designed to render Kent and his alter ego relevant for today's readers, but while it may not embody a deeply analytical appreciation of the state of the media it's certainly of interest to those who blog and those who earn a living writing journalism. A source of humour, if nothing else.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Armstrong a symptom of an out-of-control sports industry

News that the seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has been stripped of all his titles might seem to appear like something of a betrayal to some in the community. The global community, no less. After all, Armstrong is a household name pretty much everywhere. But while this failure must have hit a lot of people hard I find it difficult to see how it can be construed as much of a surprise. The sheer number of French wins should have alerted many to a trick. Apart from that, the use of every available means to extract the maximum quantity of stamina and power from their bodies can only make every rider a suspect, and the entire sport appear to be a vast con perpetrated on a trusting public by a large, wealthy sports industry.

You can see the dynamic at play everywhere in sport. I went to the Gold Coast V8 Supercars race on Saturday because I had never been to a motor race before and because I happened to be in town. The friend I went with was also very curious about the race. So we bought tickets and followed the crowd inside the enclosure. In the general admittance area you stand in the sun or under any tree you can find and eat overpriced junk food or drink cans of beer sold on-site. We waited an hour as two crashes that marred the race's start were cleared up. Once the race began the noise levels soared, with each of the 450kW Holdens and Fords completing the circuit in about 1min 15seconds. I looked around at the spectators, noting that among the men there seemed to be two types: tattooed and fit - with shirts off - or a nerdy type wearing a heavily-branded motorsports shirt. The crowd milled about within the enclosure or sat in grandstands placed at strategic points around the track. Each time the pack of competing vehicles emerged from the heat haze down the track they screamed past, the normal low burble of a classic Aussie V8 tuned to a pitch of intensity that only thousands of hours of dedicated engineering can achieve.

The idea that any of the V8s on the track much resemble a standard production Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon is laughable. But the fans don't care. Many of those tattooed youths own souped-up early-model Japanese sedans or hatchbacks that they use to make doughnut marks on local intersections. And those branded-shirt-wearing nerds own their own Commodores and Falcons but dream of owning a Beamer or a Merc, preferably one with eight cylinders and the kind of low mileage only a millionaire dreams about.

For a lot of men the idea of being able to achieve high performance in some aspect of their lives is important in terms of who they are. It's an identity thing. Some men certainly venture down the track adopted by Lance Armstrong. Go into a pharmacy anywhere in Australia and somewhere on the shelves you'll find huge plastic containers on sale for a couple of hundred dollars that are filled with dietary supplements that promise to help the fitness drone get the most out of his body. There are millions of vitamin pills in those pharmacies, too, and god-knows-what other legal chemicals, including steroids, that people consume so that they can feel good about themsleves. Such industries are probably worth billions of dollars to the national economy because they hold out a prize that is attainable only by separating oneself from a portion of the ready. Healthy men who want an impressive body shape can have their physiques airbrushed to perfection just by spending a bit of money.

In this atmosphere of desire and subterfuge it's difficult to see how athletes who compete for rich financial rewards can be blamed for overstepping boundaries that can only make sense to the most informed spectator. For most of us, it is all just part of a cycle of investment and exchange that has long been normalised by common use. Armstrong is merely a visible symptom of a culture of performance-enhancement that resembles nothing so much as the international cosmetics industry that offers to women the promise of feeling good.

Monday 22 October 2012

Politicians will protest against online voting

It was amusing to see both the foul Scott Morrison and the dim-witted Peter Garrett on the ABC's Q and A program tonight praising social media. It's a great thing, they said, before they both made reference to "shopping malls" as another great place where the opinions of voters could be gleaned for use in policy making, as colourful asides in parliamentary speechifying, or for making compost (take your pick). Shopping malls are those large, privately-operated agglomerations of stores where people in the community buy things. Sort of like Amazon but with annoying small stall operators in the hallways who try to sell you marine-based facial treatments made out of Dead Sea mud, or sign you up for a new credit card. Where you can also buy bad cappuccinos and fresh doughnuts. Places that are not yet going bankrupt, unlike free-to-air TV stations and newspapers, due to the effect of competition from the internet. Of course, the retailers know their days are numbered and have pushed for the government to introduce a sales tax on most online purchases. But they're hanging in there, like Fairfax did for about 15 years before its share price fell below 10 percent of what it was once worth. Fairfax will bring in a paywall, it's just a matter of (yawn) when. We have heard from Gerry Harvey but not yet from Frank Lowy.

Getting back to the besuited pair on the TV tonight, I say it with an overtone of irony that it was amusing to hear Morrison and Garrett extol the virtues of social media, because their tone will change sharply once the push comes for individuals to use the internet to vote on specific pieces of legislation, as will happen at some point down the track. Once this proposal is given air, and people start to try to drag away from politicians powers of influence they have wielded for centuries, their song will change dramatically. The internet will no longer be about people finding community and exerting influence in a way that the media has traditionally done. It will become an untrustworthy, emotional, and ragged locus where no useful result can be achieved. Kicking and screaming, party representatives will be drawn away from the public teat, where they have attached themselves for so long pushing their often idiotic views down the throats of a trusting electorate. The problem is not with democracy, and the problem is not with the media. The problem is that we rely on these clumsy, unwieldy things - political parties - that believe that they have a moral right to swan into office and set down decrees on a broad range of issues that affect the lives of millions of people, and only become accountable every three years.

The regular hurley-burley of parliament stops in the lead-up to the elections and, suddenly, the politicians are on their best behaviour as they front the TV cameras and the ranged mics of the assembled press gallery. They try to stay on-message. They throttle the flow of information (which happens all the time anyway, we just never hear about it because the press constantly puts up with the intransigence of government as it strives to put together stories that possess that seamless cast we associate with quality, but which is a mere gloss pasted over the facts using the quantity of often deathless information the public service allows its media managers to release). They are shaped, styled and brushed up so that we get a good impression of them, despite years of ugly, savage, and often plainly illegal actions.

The use of internet applications for voting is emerging, often taking the form of community consultation, which is sort of like those polls tacked on news stories by media companies, only less susceptible to misuse. There are companies that make this software. Some jurisdications are even allowing people to vote online in substantive elections. The next and logical step, of course, is to wave aside the traditional process of debate within the chambers of Parliament and throw open the vote on individual pieces of legislation to people living in the community, who could use a variety of internet-connected devices to cast a vote. Terrifying as this thought might be to some, the advantages are enormous. One of them might be the eventual demise of the political party, or else a proliferation of parties that are aimed at specific areas of concern, or specific demographics. We are not talking about these things right now because nothing has happened to push the issue into the public sphere. It could also be because most journalists lack the imagination required to envision such an eventuality. In any case, the talk will start soon enough. When it does, expect Morrison and Garrett and their ilk to protest long and loudly against the idea.