Wednesday 30 January 2013

Conservative premier stumbles on climate change question

O'Farrell yesterday.
The tropical weather that has been meandering down the east coast of Australia and dumping rain on communities from central Queensland to the NSW central coast has another casualty - the credibility of conservative state premiers. Last night NSW premier Barry O'Farrell was constrained to wrap up a press conference on the flood situation with a snarl at a journalist who took the liberty of linking the extreme weather with climate change.
"If the question is about climate change go and ask me another day," Barry O'Farrell said.
"Let's not turn this near-disaster, this episode that has damaged so many properties and other things, into some politically correct debate about climate change. Give me a break."
Unfortunately, the weather is not giving residents of small towns like Bundaberg and Grafton a break.

Queensland residents are far more aware of how the weather is changing than their cousins south of the border. In 2011, Brisbane was flooded along with extensive tracts of land dotted with townships up along the Lockyer Valley. That was supposed to be a 1-in-100-year event but it's two years on and the same thing is happening again. But don't expect the state premier, Campbell Newman, another conservative, to start blaming climate change. Conservatives are flailing about like inflatable tube dolls in the face of this summer's weather, which is just making them look out of touch and stupid. O'Farrell's aggrieved rejoinder to the eminently intelligent question from the journalist yesterday just shows how out of touch governments can be in the age of the New Normal. Get with the program, O'Farrell!

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Xi's corruption crusade doomed to fail in the absence of a free media

Everyone knows that "Mao" - as in Chairman Mao - means "cat", and it appears that China's fresh-minted head honcho, Xi Jinping, had this in mind when he announced recently that he would "crack down on both "tigers" and "flies" – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats – in his campaign against corruption and petty officialdom". If we can rely on the Guardian's translation, of course. Of course we can! Corruption and poor behaviour by state functionaries is a corrosive agent on the body politic, as Xi admits. Given his new crusade, though, it's a wonder that he has been so assiduous in blocking access to the New York Times, the paper that has in recent times exposed extraordinary levels of corruption at the highest levels of China's leadership. Because of course if Xi really wanted to crack down on criminal bureaucrats, lazy police, corrupt officials, thieving politicians etcetera he would allow the media to operate freely. We remember that it was bad behaviour by police in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring in early 2011. No doubt Xi has this in mind. His wariness viz-a-vis the media is the loathing for disclosure too close to home, however, which is why China continues to exert fearsome pressure on its journalists to conform to the Party line. The zombies of one-party rule continue to eat the living flesh of China's people. Long live the undead!

Online activism and online theft are two different things

Part of the fallout from the death of Aaron Swartz is a slew of news stories critical of US laws dealing with theft of digital property and the way they are applied by the US administration. Two days ago Crikey's Bernard Keane got his light sabre out for a bit of mortal combat with the Man, telling us about the "exemplary punishment" being meted out to people like Swartz and Assange - Keene glibly ropes together true activism such as Assange has practised with the far more humdrum theft that Swartz had his hand well-and-truly in - and asserting that "authorities are wildly overreacting to the threat posed by online activism". Again, Keene talks about true activism such as Assange practises, and the bogus kind of activism that Swartz foolishly dabbled in, as if they are the same thing, when they're not.

Comparing Kim Dotcom with Julian Assange? Madness. The loonies in the Pirate Party might spin the tale in this way but more intelligent and discerning observers can see that stealing digital copyright material such as academic papers, pop songs, or news stories is as unlike the service Assange set up to facilitate the activities of whistleblowers, as chalk and cheese. Or an orc and a hobbit. Or whatever.

But it doesn't stop there, and likely won't, as bleeding-heart journalists (such a soft-centred bunch of idealists, they are, really) come to do battle against the forces of evil. Today, we've got Fairfax economics journo Peter Martin in the Sydney Morning Herald warning us that "[Swartz's] suicide should ring alarm": "Legal anvil hovers over the unwary tech user," Martin yells, as though those in geekdom, like Swartz, were merely "unwary" rather than actually very determinedly working to steal information from an online repository. Kim Dotcom was also hardly "unwary".

These people are thieves, unless you subscribe to the fuzzy kind of thinking that seems to be rife in geekdom, where corporations that own digital property are a kind of hellish vampire intent on sucking the lifeblood out of innocent consumers. Believe me, I've come across this kind of thinking on numerous occasions. Copyright holders such as Disney are irrelevant "middlemen" who add nothing to the final product and whose services, therefore, may legitimately be dispensed with by heroic geeks on a crusade to free information from such damned shackles as publishers and entertainment companies apply to work they help produce. It's such a load of hogwash, and you shouldn't shed too many tears over those who openly flaunt good laws, such as the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that Martin points to, and which was used to prosecute Swartz.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

On the death of Aaron Swartz and the death-throes of the mainstream media

There must be some Minoan tale, so old
As to sidestep any disagreement,
A tale of hubris punished, like that bold
Samson. But to guard the polis who’s sent

Against the Anatolians, to fight
Their power, when his massive strength is spent?
As if Achilles were slaughtered at night
By the surveyor guildmen, fairly bent

On building a temple whose weathervane
Must be in the shape of a poor spatchcock
After he said that that would be profane.
Iconoclasts have always sought to shock.

The horses have bolted out of the gate.
Saving the media - is it too late?

First draft written 21 January 2013

Sunday 20 January 2013

Aaron Swartz as knight-errant? Wrong crusade, buddy

It's late and I'm tired but this question of what Aaron Swartz's death means continues to preoccupy me so I can't sleep. Before trying to do so tonight, I read a new article published in Australia by the Global Mail, one of my favourite websites. The article was written by Suelette Dreyfus, who is probably known to some people as the author of a book about Julian Assange's hacker days. It's a great book, and so Dreyfus is someone that I need to pay attention to. In the article, Dreyfus tells a story about Swartz when he met a US politician, and it's a gripping tale. She also points to SOPA and does a bit of probing about how that law would have functioned as a kind of censorship. Censorship of the web is certainly a big issue, one of far greater import than the kind of undertaking that Swartz was prosecuted for, which was the stealing of academic papers. Censorship should be a concern for everyone, and Dreyfus makes a great case for continuing the effort to ensure that it doesn't happen today.

Now, I spent a fair bit of time looking at SOPA early last year, and this is what I deduced, from reading stories about it, that it meant:
What the law is about, in effect, is distributing responsibility for breaches of the law of copyright. At the moment, the copyright holder holds all of the responsibility. What the entertainment companies are saying is: we want the middleman to also take on part of the burden of making sure that the law is not broken.
What might happen in the real world is that a copyright holder might tell a middleman, such as YouTube or Twitter, about an offending video or an offending link. The middleman would then immediately take it down – not wait until it had confirmed that a breach of copyright had actually taken place. Because of SOPA the middleman would act quickly, fearing that its entire domain could be taken offline. It seems to me that SOPA giving this kind of muscle to copyright holders is not such a bad thing.
Personally, I didn't find anything in those stories to alert me to censorship, so I have to take Dreyfus' word that this is what the US government intended to achieve. From my point of view, the law was a protective measure designed to stop people stealing their product. This, of course, continues to be a problem not only for big companies but also for individual creatives, many of whom work with big companies in the production of their work. Many do not, also, but online theft is also a problem for these people. Getting back to Swartz, many people in comments to my earlier blog posts made a fine distinction between the kind of material Swartz was targeting - where the public funding of reserach had made the publications he targeted essentially public domain, if you like - and the kind of work I'm talking about here. The problem is that I do not think that the majority of people are able to make this distinction. It's either "All theft of all material is ok," or "Theft of material should be prevented using the law". Most people do not even register the name Aaron Swartz on their mental radar. Hackers stealing information are either cool or they're criminals. Making a fine distinction an important part of a case to defend Swartz is, I think, unworkable given the nature of the public sphere. That's just the way it is.

Ok, so there will be people in the world, especially those in the geek community, who will be really revved up and ready to go on the back of what I've just said, but I want those people to just hold their horses and wait until I've finished. The way I've framed the issue is both credible and realistic. Your nice distinctions do not get through to the majority of people and that's all there is to it. Get over it and listen.

I also want to just gently grasp those enthusiastic geeks by their shoulders and turn them so that their attention is pointed away from the big companies that have been so active in trying to defend copyright material using laws like SOPA. Don't start telling me that copyright is too long or too onerous, for a start. Copyright is designed to protect the individual creative, so leave that one alone. And don't start telling me about middlemen in big companies who add no value and who are just vampires sucking the blood out of the poor consumer. Publishing and entertainment companies are free to organise themselves as they see fit, and it's just hubristic of anyone outside the industry to start to make judgements about their corporate structure. When a bunch of geeks successfully puts together a movie, a play, or a novel that people want to read, and fund and develop it themselves, then I'll start to listen to their views on the value that production companies can add to any particular work of art.

Now that I've steered those enthusiastic people away from the publishing and entertainment companies, I want them to look outside the glass box that they sit in alongside the individual creatives. Outside the box are lawmakers, public servants - a lot of them with very senior rank - and other people who are attached to government. Take a look at them because they're of a different order to the executives who work at publishing or entertainment companies. Those people out there are the ones who you need to focus on because the power they wield is many orders of magnitude greater than that which the CEO of Disney has at his command. I want you people to look at those guys and try to find ways to keep them accountable. They are the problem, not the execs in Mercs with 2-million-dollar houses in Malibu. And that's what Julian Assange was focused on.

On the point of Julian Assange, I wonder if more cannot be done by people in the geek community. As far as I can see there has been no appreciable effect from the efforts of Anonymous or any other vigilante hacker group, in terms of liberating Assange, setting up another WikiLeaks, or helping WikiLeaks to receive payments. The rival group that was talked about some years ago, to include people who left WikiLeaks, has not eventuated. Assange is still stuck in a ridiculous London apartment building. And Mastercard and Visa are still preventing individuals from donating money to WikiLeaks. Why?

Thursday 17 January 2013

Fracking in the 'burbs? All this started years ago

A gas well.
Environmentalists are up in arms again this year as plans for coal seam gas development near existing suburbs in southwest Sydney emerge. And AGL, a major gas supply company, is shown up in the media having gone back on earlier promises not to explore in the area. This year's protest effort has so far been mild compared to the outcry that occupied our attention last year, before people forgot about the issue as they went on holidays. It all seems a bit cyclical, and somewhat futile considering the enormous stake held by the federal government in ensuring that gas development continues in Australia's eastern states. Not just the federal government, either. State governments want to realise royalty payments. And in the case of Queensland there is the added weight being applied by the humungous export-facility construction boom in Gladstone, and the already-signed commercial supply contracts that underpin those large investments. Gladstone is gearing up to start sucking gas out of the eastern states market (Qld, NSW, Vic, SA, Tas) starting in a year's time, or thereabouts. Nothing, bar nothing, can stop Gladstone from going ahead. Nothing, bar nothing, will prevent the Queensland government from enabling the free supply of gas from wells already producing, or planned for production, in the eastern states. The federal government has made it quite clear that it will help to ensure that those supply contracts are honoured. States like NSW and Victoria are faced with the prospect of gas shortages as Gladstone vacuums up gas into its refrigeration plants, and companies like AGL are well aware of the reality of shortages. It's a veritable steamroller with government and business firmly on the same side. It will happen. All of it. Resistance is futile.

So how did all this start and why weren't we told? You'd have to go asking questions of the federal department that gave Queensland the green light to start construction of the Gladstone plants. The federal government of course knew exactly what would happen once Gladstone started to take shape, and it also knew that gas prices in the eastern states market would eventually rise as a result of Queensland linking our gas market to the global gas market via those refrigeration and export facilities. They knew all of this. There would have been white papers, studies, regulatory changes, a whole slew of activity in Canberra leading up to the decision to enable Gladstone to go ahead. But the media knew nothing about it or, if they did know, they did not give it the prominence it deserved.

The current suburban development fracas is nothing compared to what is going to happen once prices start rising in the eastern states, especially in places like Victoria where the winters are very cold and where gas heating in homes is common. People were warned, but the mainstream media did not pick up on the signs - which started appearing in June with a story I wrote for The Global Mail, and which have been echoed in New Matilda and, briefly, in The Age, since - and promulgate them adequately. Three stories by three different journalists over a period of six months or so. Winter is still far off, but that's when the outrage will start to become audible. Some of it will be aimed at the carbon tax, but the carbon tax is not the issue here. The issue is the extraordinary industrial development underway in the small Queensland seaside town of Gladstone, a mechanical nipple on the body of eastern Australia through which gas will pass on its way to energy-hungry Asian markets.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

New progressive news site to launch this year

A lot of people will be watching expectantly for the launch of Guardian Australia, a venture partially backed by the legendary UK newspaper and Australian businessman Graeme Wood. Wood seems to have a taste for publishing, having funded features vehicle The Global Mail, which launched early last year. It seems that with the new venture, unlike in the case of his first project, Wood has "a view to generating a commercial return from launch".

"Katharine Viner, the Guardian's deputy editor, will be relocating to Sydney to head up and launch the venture later this year," the UK site's story tells us, and an ex-ABC director, Paul Chadwick, will join the venture from prior to the launch.

Most keen observers of global events will already know the Guardian well. Founded in 1821 in Manchester to protect "the liberal interest in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre and the growing campaign to repeal the Corn Laws that flourished in Manchester during this period", the paper is owned by the Scott Trust, the sole responsibility of which is the newspaper. So it's a socially progressive vehicle and Wood, the Australian internet entrepreneur, is a progressive as well, having in the past given significant amounts of money to the Greens.

The Guardian is expanding globally, and set up a US website in 2011. Wood is emerging as a rival in the eyes of Australians to Melbourne property developer Morry Schwartz, whose publishing ventures include The Monthly magazine, the Black Inc imprint, and Quarterly Essay.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Tired partisan clap-trap on dairy industry from superannuated Lib

On Twitter, there were some wide eyes and words of surprise when Peter Reith's op-ed piece appeared this morning on the ABC's The Drum website. A regular on the TV show that goes by the same name, Reith is a true ideological point-scorer, and his column, which blames the Labor Party for all the evils besetting milk producers in Australia, checks all the usual boxes. "It was almost like finding a barrow to push that had the LNP ideas in it," remarked an agriculture sector worker who read Reith's piece. "But it's so obviously nutty that it's like a spoof," added a dairy farmer who runs a useful blog.

Dairy farmers have been voicing their anger on Twitter about the predatory pricing of the retail duopoly, Coles and Woolworths, for months. They have even set up an online petition designed to gather support from the broader community in favour of their cause. The Big Two drop milk prices as a loss leader to entice customers through the doors of their stores around Australia, and aggressively advertise on the back of that. The losers are milk producers, who find it difficult because of a closed whoesale system to sell their milk elsewhere. What dairy farmers have been talking about is exactly what Reith avoids: collective organising. Through collective action, some dairy farmers feel, they might expect to force the Big Two to price milk fairly.

Superannuated ideologues like Reith sometimes say the most outlandish things in order to express support for the old cause, but in this case the trusty workhorse has truly jumped the shark. Just ask a dairy farmer. You can, they're on social media, and they are passionate about their business. It's just that they want a fair price. To stop the price pinch pushing more dairy farmers out of business, sign the petition and talk to your retailer to let them know that the status quo is unsustainable. We're lucky in Australia because our vast landmass and efficient farm practices mean that we have year-round access to low-cost, fresh and nutritious food. But the Big Two do not always play fair, and can use their massive commercial power to distort prices away from the point where they accurately reflect the cost of production. You can read more about the petition on this site.

Why Swartz was not Assange; Or, the real business of news

Chalk and cheese.
I got into a lot of discussions about the unfortunate death of Aaron Swartz after my blog post of yesterday. The most extensive of these was with my brother, an intelligent, technically adept and articulate man who works in the geek community. But I felt that we were talking different languages. Today is day one following the announcement of Swartz's death and the mainstream media is silent, except for one story on the Guardian website about attacks on MIT websites by Anonymous. My brother and I got to comparing Swartz and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy building in London. My brother suggested they were doing the same thing, but that the prosecutorial effort expended in Swartz's case was far greater, leading to his suicide. But to compare Swartz - taking on an academic publisher, a publisher of journal articles that few people would read anyway, if they had been released into the public domain - and Assange is to betray a lack of real insight, because they were chalk and cheese in reality. Hence the silence in the mainstream media. And hence the caution I pointed to yesterday evinced by Stilgherrian, a famously iconoclastic and irreverent tech journo who works as a freelancer in Australia, when discussing Swartz. Swartz was essentially a hacker, Stilgherrian wrote.

Now on an aside I want to point briefly to the relationship between geeks and creatives, and especially my own attempts, at the beginning of last year, to understand SOPA, the proposed anti-piracy law that failed to pass in the US Congress. My take on this subject is that companies that produce digital content have a right to protect their product, and I suggested that the complaints from the geek community were overly partisan and extreme. There's this feeling in the geek community that certain types of organisation that are involved in digital content production do not merit respect, and are therefore fair game for ingenious hackers. The funny thing is that I don't hear any of the creatives who work with those companies complaining about poor treatment. There were no writers, sound recordists, scriptwriters, poets, musicians or other creative individuals complaining about SOPA. Not as far as I know, anyway. And I think that's meaningful. Aaron Swartz got caught up in this type of shitstorm and it looked like he would lose, but it's also interesting to note that for most people his suicide was the first time that they'd heard of the prosecution against him. Is that because it was just not newsworthy?

Everyone likes to think their own priorities are important, and they react with delight when they find people with similar views. When Julian Assange began to release classified information publicly his relationship with the media was solid and productive. They were best mates. Hale fellows. But Assange made the mistake of treating the media like just another module in his plan to change the world, and he overreached. You don't verbally assault the editor of one of the world's leading liberal dailies like he was some n00b code monkey. You respect his priorities and work with him. You keep the liberal media onside because they can save your skin when the shit hits the fan. But iconoclastic, self-confident, driven Assange rubbed the media up the wrong way and when he needed help they remained silent. They spoke different languages. They did not communicate. Words were said that would later be regretted.

As for the law, journalists have long experience with it because there are specific elements of the law that touch on the occupation. And danger? Journalists die every year in their hundreds for doing their jobs. What about changing the world? Yes, journalists are acquainted with the sensations attached to this idea, and daily search for the story that will cause the government embarrassment, reveal corporate malfeasance, or even lead to a change in the political makeup of the country. This is why Assange was - and remains - of such interest to journalists, and it's partly why Swartz has simply dropped off the radar in the mainstream just one day after the announcement of his death. The techniques the two men used may have been the same, the fire that drove them might have been similar, but to the rest of the world they are just chalk and cheese.

On a final note, none in the geek community paid any attention to the call I put out in yesterday's blog post to try to find ways that can cause writers to be paid. Wouldn't it be great if creatives and geeks could start talking the same language? The stuff creatives produce is as popular as ever - more so even in the era of social media. Our stories are shared in millions of links every day by people who want to communicate with each other in the context of larger narratives. But we're not benefiting much financially from this increased exposure. Our employers are strapped for cash and the first thing to go is the freelancers. New websites that deal in news appear but they set their rates too low to be of any use to a self-respecting journalist. Hacktivist geeks are trying to free up more information but in many ways that's damaging the people who so successfully inform and entertain the world. Why can't we put our heads together and find a way to ensure that the people who do the work that the world values so highly are paid adequately for their labours. That's a game-changer.

Monday 14 January 2013

Activist geek suicides and new-economy lads and lasses howl in anguish

I'm tired, I've been up since 4am and I'm recovering from a bad flu. But yet ... this Aaron Swartz brouhaha has got my goat. So far the best thing on it is Stilgherrian's take in Crikey, in which the well-known Australian tech journo pretty effectively distances himself from the online vigilantes now baying for blood. And why shouldn't he? Stilgherrian is, as we all should know by now, a creative, a writer who earns his living by regularly producing original copy and selling it to outlets in the media. Why should he side with the loonies who want all information to be free? That was Swartz's way of thinking. He was playing with fire and he got caught up in a type of machinery that represents interests who are sick and tired of having their property stolen. I think it's terribly sad that he committed suicide, but he should have been more careful, especially if he had a pre-existing medical condition that could become problematic under a situation of extreme stress.

Activist geeks and "information should be free" loonies are incorrigible, and they're everywhere. They are laughing out loud at the problems confronting the media - a media too stupid, in the early days of the internet, to see the apocalypse coming. They think that the mainstream media, like all big business, is corrupt and deserves to become extinct. Which is odd, because most of the links that appear in social media point to stories written by journalists who work for the mainstream media. It seems that, like the "crap" produced by large entertainment companies, these products are what people want to consume. It's just that they don't want to pay for them.

For creatives, the internet is highly problematic. On one hand it can help to build a profile. On the other hand, the rise of the internet has meant that it is becoming harder and harder to earn a living from writing. Rates for stories are coming down as mainstream outlets who used to pay well stop commissioning, and as new outlets set their fees ridiculously low; how about $100 for a story that takes two days to write? If you can live on the rates freelance journalists can expect to earn today then you are doing wonderfully well.

The young, hacktivist legionaires who often hide behind pseudonyms online can take courage from the fact that the mainstream media IS indeed in poor financial straits. But that's actually not a good thing. Outlets like Huffington Post, which seems to have done really well in the new world online, actually pays zero for the stories it publishes. Writers are getting squeezed by media outlets, on the one hand, and by their readers, on the other. There's no place to go. Many just drop out. Instead of looking for ways to steal information, hactivists might more profitably try to find ways that can cause writers to be paid, and also ensure that readers pay - a little, at least - for the stories they so avidly consume every day of the year.

The appetite for stories is unabated, but we need a new way to allow outlets to recoup a part of the cost each time a story is read. An activist geek who could come up with a solution like this would be really doing the world a favour. Aaron Swartz had a heart of gold, of course, there's no doubt, but his ideas were formed by his chosen discipline. If he had been a writer, he would have looked elsewhere for a way to stick it to the man. Empower the writer, not the corporation. There's a story.

Saturday 12 January 2013

The Passion of the Christ is a horse meme

A horse meme.
Possibly few people in the world do not know about memes. A horse meme like this is pretty ubiquitous on the internet but horse memes don't hold a candle to cat memes, which grow like topsy online. We have a strong need to look at pictures of cute animals. There is scientific evidence that doing so makes us more productive, so looking at cat memes is probably a sign of intelligence. Humour AND cute animals: a winning combination. But people have been anthropomorphising the natural world forever, it's as though it's part of our DNA.

Anthropomorphisation is so comforting to humans, we do it all the time. Cat memes are a sign of this need to both get in touch with other creatures, and to control our world. The Christian story of Jesus, the philosopher, is another example of anthropomorphisation, and the strength of our inner need in this regard is demonstrated by the staying power of that old fireside story, that has been embellished over millennia and adapted by millions of communities - and individuals - into a myriad of narratives. We do have a deep need to commune with nature, and yet on the other hand there is an equally deep need to exert influence and power over the world. These two desires bisect within the locus of anthropomorphism. What we do not immediately understand, we subsume into our own narratives, and there substitute things we do understand for those things that we do not.

Here we see the human need to tell stories operating to ensure that we both understand and can control a phenomenon that presents itself to us. Telling stories is an innate human activity, like language. We live by telling stories. In anthropomorphisation, it's the story-telling reflex that kicks in to help us to appropriate and control the thing that we see. It's a first step toward understanding, because having told the story there is then the opportunity for another person to enter into debate with us, and put forward his or her own telling of the story. As the stories multiply, our understanding grows. Finally, someone with the skills and time to know the truth will enter the frame and interject the definitive telling of the story, the one based on objective reality. We create the need for this refinement by engaging in story telling. The solution follows the debate.

In the film Jurassic Park the scientists who grew the dinosaurs apparently used a technique of interpolation, where those parts of the dino genes that were not materially present in the mosquito blood were taken from amphibians and other, similar, creatures such as frogs, and these gene fragments were incorporated into the gene sequence for the dinosaur so as to create a complete animal. This is the kind of activity that we use all the time in our interactions with the natural world, and with the universe. If we don't immediately understand something, the pressing demands of narrativisation mean that we immediately substitute something that we do already know for that part of the story that is in front of us, that we do not. We make assumptions, we make educated guesses, we interpret, we intuit, and we build a complete story that we are satisfied with.

Anthropomorphisation goes along with this kind of activity. We need to do it. We desire complete, satisfying narratives that we can use to remember, understand, and deploy in the form of actions - or reactions - and so control the universe that presents itself to us. It's all that we can do, sometimes. Meanwhile, in the academy, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of researchers and teachers who hold deeper sets of knowledge. The bridge between the academy and the general population is still wide. Occasionally, their views enter the debate via the media and, hopefully, they are given the respect that their deep research entitles them to. Sometimes this does not happen, and alterior motives are assigned to them. This, too, is a kind of anthropomorphisation, where we impute motives to someone that actually belong to us, but which in reality had nothing to do with their thinking.

And so it goes on, in the public sphere. Phenomenon, narrative, interpretation, anthropomorphisation. An endless cycle of engagement conducted through the medium of language. And this is where we live. All the time. We are what we say. After death we will be what we have written. And people will not stop taking about us, that's for sure.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

A-G Roxon set to recast idea of freedom of speech

I guess this is what happens when you complain too much. Rupert Murdoch's flagship broadsheet, the Australian, has long been at loggerheads with the government over concerns that changes to media laws stemming from the Finkelstein enquiry, which played out publicly last year, would impinge on media freedom. The newspaper recaps those gripes at the end of this story on its website today. But it's what comes earlier in the piece that should worry all Australians, not just media moguls and their minions. Personally, I agree with the ideas about independent oversight that Finkelstein recommended, because there is clearly bias in some parts of the media, notably in the pages of the Australian. But what attorney-general Nicola Roxon has in mind with new anti-discrimination laws - to make it an offense to offend someone - is not just tinkering at the edges, but in fact is a wholesale redrafting of the laws in this country that enable anyone - not just the media - to perform public speech.
[Media companies] argue that satirical material, political commentary and informative programming on matters of historical or religious sensitivity might be offensive or insulting to some but are part of the national conversation that is "essential for fostering robust social and political debate, and therefore to ensuring a healthy democracy".
"Whilst these and similar topics may be offensive or insulting to some viewers, this does not make them discriminatory," the joint submission says. "No other liberal democracy has a human rights or anti-discrimination statute proscribing conduct which merely offends or insults."
This is from earlier in the Australian's story, and it's dead right. In the new age of social media, where practically everyone can publish their own speech, the ramifications stemming from this ridiculous and anti-liberal draft law will materially impact on millions. It is simply an unmitigated disaster. So, good on Roxon for poneying up to the bar and taking on the campaigning editors working in the media of the Right, but rack off Roxon if you want to overturn hundreds of years of social progress that has enabled people to speak freely and without fear - the chill factor - in public. It's no joke.
Media companies say in their submission they support the overall objectives of the plan to simplify anti-discrimination legislation, but parts of the exposure draft provide cause for significant concern, including because in defining discrimination the bill appears to use a subjective test of whether someone feels offended or insulted by published and broadcast content.
While SBS was able to successfully defend a 2006 claim under the Racial Discrimination Act that a documentary on the Armenian genocide in the early years of the 20th century was offensive to Turkish people, under the proposed new anti-discrimination laws the outcome would have been "dramatically different".
SBS had demonstrated that academic and historical experts believe the former Ottoman Empire was engaged in genocide.
How on earth Roxon thinks that this kind of law is good for anyone, I cannot fathom. Let's reintroduce the Inquisition, then, as a further step in this draconianisation put forward by the Labor Party. If it's a crime to offend someone in print then it must be a crime to even think of offending someone in private. Roxon cannot see that, if the new law passes through Parliament in its present form, not only the tone of debate will change in Australia but also the content that is allowed to emerge in public. Editors and journalists will be routinely terrified that a simple statement of fact - the Turks killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century - can be twisted around and turned into a weapon for the purpose of attacking the publication that made the statement.

And this would affect everyone, not just media companies. Media companies have resources that allow them to defend themselves in court, but not so for the millions of people using Twitter, Facebook or a blog, like this one, to engage in the public debate.

Our ancestors fought long and hard for the right to speak the truth. It's simply irresponsible of the A-G to want to overturn reasonable laws that have been tested in the community for generations, and put in their place a law that would stifle the public conversation and protect individuals, organisations and institutions that a reasonable person would want to see are able to be challenged in public.

Greens' deep red heart leaves me politically homeless

This is a picture of Adam Bandt, the Greens' sole parliamentary lower house representative. Bandt represents the seat of Melbourne, which the Greens memorably won in the 2010 federal election. Because of the tenuous hold the Labor Party has on the parliamentary balance of power, Bandt has been playing a key role in Australian politics over the last few years.

Like many progressives, I cheered when Bandt won his seat, and I looked on with interest as the election result necessitated a bit of horse-trading between the successful candidates, resulting in a new model of Parliament. I watched approvingly as a key Greens policy - a carbon tax - was ushered in amid claims of duplicity aimed at the prime minister. Clearly, a new type of consensus was required, and Australians were taking their time getting used to it. With a single lower-house representative, the Greens were punching above their weight on the national stage. I also watched as the Labor Party changed its official policy on gay marriage - an issue very close to my heart - although the prime minister has ensured that a change to the marriage laws has been impossible.

But everything changed for me when some other elements of Greens policy became plain to me, as I read a statement published by Bandt on a website. While I certainly agree that corporations must be made to contribute more to building equity into Australian society, there are two things in this statement that I violently disagree with. One of these is their desire for "higher taxes for millionaires" as if private savings and private income were of the same nature as corporate profits.

This kind of redistributive animus against the concentration of wealth in private hands is very Old Labor. It's deeply red and appeals to the worst instincts of the majority of Australians, being of the same nature as the kind of rank xenophobia that makes it easy for governments here to work so hard to prevent asylum seekers from arriving on our foreshores. I have no patience with this kind of policy. A guy who has saved, say, five million dollars and who owns three or four investment properties is not "rich". He's not a plutocrat who possesses more money than he'll even be able to spend, like Rupert Murdoch or Gina Rinehart. He's just a prudent and successful man, probably with a wife and family, who has been able to squirrel away a bit of the ready to prepare for his retirement. But this guy would be targeted by a Greens government.

The thing I want to say to Bandt and his colleagues is that you do not make the majority rich by punishing the prudent and successful. What you do is help more people to be like this. I think that all governments would like to see everyone retiring with the capital assets that my man has, so that social security payments can be lower. It is prudent for governments to make changes that can help my man to acquire the relatively small amount of wealth that he has put away. A government that does not help this guy is not going to get my support.

But there's another deeply-red element to Bandt's policy statement. Bandt wants to end "the public funding of ... very wealthy non-government schools" so that more funds can be channelled to public schools, especially those which service areas that contain material disadvantage. Again, I think this is regressive and harkens back to the old days of class warfare, the type of class warfare that Mark Latham brought into play in the runup to the 2004 federal election, which he unsuccessfully contested as leader of the Labor Party. Latham notoriously imploded after that election, and it's precisely this kind of redistributive bent that led to his downfall. But the Greens want to give new life to this old corpse?

I think all schools should receive more funding, but the way to do that is not by punishing the elite institutions that have served our country so well for so many generations. You don't pull up the majority by pulling down the elite. It's the same old school thinking that turns me off Bandt's "millionaire's tax": an outdated mindset that harkens back to the bad old days when social mobility was minimal. Today's suburbs are populated by aspirational voters who all want those investment properties and who all want their kids in private schools. Bandt, and the Greens, are way out of line with the true wishes of the majority of right-thinking Australians on this one.

I will never abandon the progressive ideas that make me who I am. I will always push for human rights, the rights of the individual, and for greater tolerance in society. I will do so because to do otherwise would be to betray myself. But I cannot ignore the regressive, old-school economic policies the Greens are promoting, and I cannot stomach the popular animus they are designed to appeal to. We all need to be better educated, financially better prepared for retirement, and more open to new ideas and new arrivals. My type of Australia does not rely on the negative process of class warfare to achieve its goals, but generously includes all of the people in its broad embrace.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Fair suck, Hendo, leave off Aunty

It's a good while since his last sledge at the ABC, so this morning Gerard Henderson, the well-known right-wing commentator, pulled out a couple of juicy factlets for his customary anti-ABC spray. In his piece, Hendo reports that Opposition leader Tony Abbott had sledged the ABC in some obscure public utterance, which is remarkable in itself because Mr Rabbitt has been in the naughty corner for some months now, preferring to send out his minions to do battle in the public sphere, ever since he copped a handful from the prime minister and - well, let's be honest - just about everyone else in public about perceptions of misogyny. So good on Hendo for finding something to prove that the Rabbitt hasn't dropped off the far side of the planet during one of his charity cycling events.

But Hendo reported the Rabbitt's anti-ABC sledge as somehow newsworthy. It's not. The reason he picked up on it is because it chimes in with his own, long-standing campaign against the public broadcaster. "And look," he goes on, "did anyone notice that the Rabbitt and ever-the-bridesmaid Malcolm Turnbull had disagreed publicly on a point of opinion?" Wow, knock my socks off Hendo. Imagine.

It's a total beat-up. People like Hendo will not be happy until every media outlet in the country pulls its values out of the same, heavily-sponsored tote bag. There are, of course, some who put out their opinions publicly who think that the ABC is already too far to the Right, such as micro-blogger David Horton, whose Twitter feed constantly sounds off against various media outlets, not sparing the ABC for a moment. Not only that, but we've already got the News Limited behemoth sounding the trumpets for the Right. Owned by prominent conservative media and entertainment mogul Rupert Murdoch, News controls about 70 percent of Australia's print vehicles. As if that was not enough, we've got mining magnate Gina Rinehart who owns about 20 percent of rival Fairfax Media. Rinehart regularly makes the headlines as she tries to convert that stake into board seats, the better to be able to control editorial choices made by editors and journalists who work at the famous Fairfax mastheads.

While the print media is slowly going down the gurgler, Hendo today has seen a new chance to ensure that all Australia's media are playing from the same song-sheet. His latest go at the ABC is just another example of how culture warriors will miss no opportunity to campaign for their side of politics. Fair suck, Hendo, leave off Aunty.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Book review: The Changeling, Kenzaburo Oe (2010)

Kenzaburo Oe.
I first reviewed this book a bit more than two years ago, and in that blog post I detail the novel's major elements, so you might want to read that post as well. What I did not talk about at any length in that review, and what strikes me as most significant about the novel, now, after a second reading more than two years later, is the place that dark forces occupy in Japan and, by extension, in the world. In a real sense, the novel is "about" those dark forces and how good people are affected by them, and how they combat them.

It's not just about the signal event of the novel, which Kogito, the writer, calls "THAT", during which 17-year-old Kogito and Goro, his friend, face a severe test of character when Peter, the American, and the group of "warriors" living in the forest, try to use Goro for their own purposes. What Oe does is to tie this seminal event to the yakuza attack on Goro, the adult filmmaker, and to a series of attacks that Kogito is subject to by a group of unknown people who speak in the dialect of his home town, when they crush his big toe, periodically over a number of years, using a rusty, miniature cannonball. Goro's suicide was the result of one of these acts of violence. Kogito, with whom Goro used to, as a youth, work to translate pooetry from French into Japanese, fares better.

Japan is famous for its politeness and reserve but within the scope of Oe's novel we see a dark side of the country, a thing that seemingly has no name in polite discourse for the Japanese themselves, but that is every bit as real as the famous tea ceremony or the polite bow that is used on first encounters. And this dark side is linked with Japanese nationalism in the novel, not just through the agency of the young "warriors" who try to get Peter to give them unusable guns so that they can stage a rebellious attack on the occupying forces, just after WWII, and so go down in a blaze of glory. The urge felt by these young men to publicly oppose the American military who have taken control of Japan as a result of the victory in war of 1945, also appears among the yakuza who attack Goro with knives, which is the event that clearly leads to Goro's suicide, the event that opens the novel. The two men, friends in youth when they lived in Shikoku, an island of Japan, have somehow, by reaching outside Japan to the rich smorgasbord of global culture, offended against Japan's honour and must, these people think, be punished.

The dark forces affect Chikashi, Kogito's wife and Goro's sister, too. It was Chikashi who took in the two young men when they returned from their two-day adventure that Kogito calls "THAT" in the story, helped them to bathe, put out fresh, clean clothes for them, and laid down the futons so that they could sleep. Now, after Goro's death and after seeing how that event has affected her husband, Chikashi takes on a key role in the narrative. In a book by Maurice Sendak she sees herself figured as a young girl who combats the goblins that have taken away her younger sister, a baby. In place of the baby the goblins left a baby made of ice, and the girl ventures into their hideout to reclaim her lost sibling, the changeling. In the final pages of the book, Chikashi finds a way to reclaim her brother, lost to goblins, and help to raise a changeling in his place. It is a profoundly positive step to take, as Chikashi realises that she also can contribute to inventing a better future by taking concrete steps to help the young woman who comes to her, and who communicates with her tears the effect that the novel's dark forces are having on her.

In my earlier review I talked briefly about the "irreplicable frisson that textual pleasure alone, it seems, can produce not only in the mind but also in the body itself" and how the text produces "a thoughtful state in the reader's mind". Truly, there is something mesmeric about Oe's prose. In the book, through the agency of Goro, Oe is even able to criticise his own style, its complexity and self-referentiality. But I think that clever readers will find, here, something that cannot be found anywhere else in the world of letters. Within these pages is a grand narrative in the style of the masters of the distant past. But where those writers employed a large cast of characters to give movement to their plots - Tolstoy, say, or Dickens - in an Oe novel the action takes place amid a small band of people. We're talking depth and we're talking intimacy, and it's also about ensuring that no opportunity is missed to convey meaning. Even the disabled son who appears in many other Oe novels makes an appearance here.

Wishing merely to illustrate my admiration for Oe I will call the class the 'domestic novel of association', and leave it to another to agree or disagree. For my part, I always put down a novel by Oe with a feeling of reverence, and that, surely, is a precious and rare thing.