Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Uncategorized

Site Re-Design

After 13 months of posting, involving 273 posts, and at least 200’000 words written, the site has been looking a little run down. Let me know what you think of the new format (such as drop down expansions of most posts) and general ease of use. It’s still a bit of a work in progress but should be all in place soon.



This is why I love Test Cricket

Mike Hussy during his match winning century

Who could have imagined with Australia bowled out for a humiliating 127 on the first day, or dead for all money in the late evening of the third day, that they could win by 36 runs at 5:15pm on the 4th day.

Everyone can see the action excitement of 20/20’s and one dayers, but the real beauty of cricket is the psychological battles, the swaying of advantage back and forth between the teams, with victory always possible if the right strategy is pursued.

Cricket does seem to have lost some of the luster of previous era’s, this article on cricinfo makes a lot of good points, and I was willing to agree, but these last two days of play have re-affirmed all my faith in the game. Even had Pakistan squeeked home I’d say it was a great test, with an Aussie win, even sweeter. Congrats to Ricky and the team.

Merry Christmas

I’m going offline for a week to detox after a hectic year of writing PHD chapters and blogging. Thank you to all who have visited and read my site or posted comments.

Have a very merry christmas, and full service will resume in the new year.

– Andrew

Email Change

Just a quick housekeeping update: I can now be reached on I thought a email relevant to the site was a better fit for the continued email correspondence. For any comments on my site, please feel free to email me, or post in the comments below.


Rhetoric and Morality

If you watch much US politics, although some similar elements can be found here in Australia, you’ll notice that the major political players arn’t really talking to each other anymore. Though socratic dialogue on the great issues of the day has never really occurred (or been needed) within modern western democracies, the extent of the gap between the meaning and intent of the language used by the competing groups is stark. There are many reasons for this gap, but perhaps the most critical of them comes down to the issue of morality. Or rather where you seek to measure morality, and the implications that flow on from that. Those in power tend to take morality as a result of outcomes. Those in opposition tend to take morality as a question of intention. The difference between these two is often at the heart of the controversies of modern society, though as shall be noted later, the groups are increasingly hardening around particular takes, the Religious Right around Intention, the Liberal Left around Outcome.

During the time of John Howard or Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Left wing critics of both governments used to point to the cuts in welfare spending, tightening of requirements, stronger support for private services (like health and education) and harsher penalties for those who are seen to be breaking the rules, from ordinary criminals to ‘queue jumping’ refugees. In each of these cases, the government could usually turn around and argue that whilst this looked harsh, that harshness was both needed (like a disciplined parent) and more importantly in the moral stakes, that the outcome of these policies was improved social conditions. Less people dependent on welfare, more money available for social spending, or parents choosing educations in line with their own personal beliefs, and a stronger sense of personal responsibility within the community. Howard and Thatcher both saw themselves as highly moral individuals, but it was demonstrated by their outcomes, not their intentions. Their critics however would rage most strongly at the announcement of individual policies that seemed to offer a harsh intention, within the sometimes counter-intuitive logic of economic liberalism that a lack of control of the market affords greater support for the needy and the wayward. While there are numerous cases of the market and indeed these individual policies causing great immoral harm, their critics were eventually silenced by the clear and successful outcomes. Neither is well liked, but their moral victory rests in the adoption of similar policies by almost all of the mainstream Center-Left (The GFC has given some of the last holdouts a hope of resistance, but its a fleeting one)

Today a similar pattern is evident in the US (and increasingly in Australia) as the Right wing critics attack the government more and more for what they perceive as wrongful intentions, rather than any great concern with outcomes. So Obama’s healthcare policy is dismissed out of hand because it represents a move to big government or away from individual choice, (as was his stimulus package). Torture is seen as perfectly acceptable, because the intention is to protect the homeland, the way this protection occurs of almost no interest. When Obama removes missile defence policies, closes Guantanamo or seeks to negotiate with Iran over Nuclear weapons, the potential outcomes are not a part of the debate, rather they are seen as simply pointers for the troubling moral intentions which are applied to his character. Though 100% of those against him would also be against him where he a white democrat named Bob Jones, or Joe Charles, the difference of his skin colour and background make it easier to apply such devious intentions to his moral character.

Likewise, this view of morality as a question of intention over outcome reflects significantly on the movement that takes on this view. Articulated principles become the guiding lights to the faithful. Not only is it far easier to communicate via principles than complex circumstantial outcomes, intentions as a moral basis allows for greater enforceability as tests can be applied almost any time, to any communication past or present to check for consistency. Morality at this point becomes a question solely of identity. Sarah Palin’s many outright lies have absolutely no impact on the high moral status awarded to her by the Religious Right. She could have an affair and see no damage, but should she endorse anything Obama does, the glass would shatter and she would be seen as immoral and unacceptable. As such you see a far greater willingness to exclude those who come anywhere near agreeing with the chosen enemy, for such an act, even if utterly consistent with one of the principles desired, is taken to be an acceptance of a wayway intention. So while Noel Pearson was of the left and believed in the same social justice ideals as the left, he was instantly discredited for working with Howard (Likewise Frank Brennan for his helping Brian Harradine on Wik). In the US any conservative who gives even mild support for Obama’s healthcare (which will reduce overall costs, and increase the healthcare for all, regardless of income) is ostracized and discredited. If Obama has bad intentions, the thinking goes, only someone with similarly bad intentions could justify supporting anything they do (or at least has lapsed on this cause).

This is a common pattern, Oppositions center around intentions, Governments around outcomes. However, I think we are seeing an increasing hardening of current patterns. That is a big call given Obama has only been in power 8 months, but this is a 30 year change. I had deliberately excluded Ronald Reagan from my first set of examples, because he was a for runner to the Intention driven politics you see in the US. Big government was the enemy, but even as supply side tax cuts sent the budget into deficit, his intentions were seen as still being more moral than his opponents. On the left, the grudging acceptance of capitalism ‘because it works’ has been occurring almost since the early 1940’s when communism lost its sheen, but especially over the last 20 years, as massive economic liberalisation and privatisation has not resulted in a Randian struggle for survival, but increased prosperity, increased support for the disadvantaged, and a more free and tolerant society. The outcomes have forced their change, many may not like capitalism, but there are few arguments from intention (the contest of the market place) replaced mainly by ones of outcome (how to get the poor and disadvantaged the same opportunities the rich are afforded). There is also the increasing social liberalism of those who champion economic liberalism (such as in Libertarians), which is dividing the Religious Right from the vast mainstream of Western Political thought.

In a world where the political divide is seen as a moral one. And a moral divide based not on issues but on how and where you draw your morality, actual civic communication becomes increasingly difficult. One of the primary tasks of all leaders is to communicate how the elites are dealing with the problems faced, and why this is the right course of action for the times. When John Howard was talking economics he was excellent at this type of explanation, and many a left-winger (myself included) would admit to the guilty secret of being swayed by his explanations on economic issues. But when it came to cultural or social issues, he was hopeless, retreating to boilerplate lines about the guiding principles, whilst effectively ignoring them in policy. Obama is much better at this, for he seems to have a clearer vision of the future country he seeks, but he also faces an opposition significantly less inclined to listen than even Howard faced during the Wik or Tampa controversys.

So next time you encounter someone you just can’t reason with politically, or a figure who confuses you in how they could possibly advocate such an immoral position, ask yourself from where they may be seeking to draw their morality. And when communicating with others seek to offer as an explanation the origins of your own morality as an important point of common ground. You probably wont even agree, but recognizing each other as equally worthy moral beings, just utilizing different calculus’s is a vital first step to true public dialog and political engagement.

Speaking ’bout my Generation

On Friday night I had the pleasure of attending the Big Bang Ballers launch here in Canberra. They’re a new type of NGO, one trying to allow kids in developing countries to be kids for a while. That is to live as we all take for granted, without having to also be income providing responsible adults as well. They aim to, (and already have in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines), bring together different social classes, religions and ethnicities, all through the great game of Basketball. And set in play by a local Canberran I have the honour to call a mate:

Take a look at their website for more details if you are interested:

Tales of the Freaky

I had been happy with company including Bertrand Russell, Pope John Paul II and Tina Fey as fellow May 18th Birthdayers. But now it turns out way-to-sucessful-for-his-age- uber-Blogger Matthew Yglesias also shares this birthday. Hmm guess that gives me 2 years to go to Harvard, write & publish a book and get a job with a major magazine so as to catch up (And add about 50’000 readers to this blog!) (Although he published a book at 26, meaning I now have 364 days to get one written).

Growing up is hard…

Laying the contradictions bare

I’ve remarked before on this blog that I think we are seeing the end of the Reagan Coalition. That is the alliance between social conservatives and economic liberals. Theoretically it’s a mess, but usually the practitioners have been able to keep those divides from being public. Well most of them at least:

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) – Republicans can reach a broader base by recasting gay marriage as an issue that could dent pocketbooks as small businesses spend more on health care and other benefits, GOP Chairman Michael Steele said Saturday.
Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.

“Now all of a sudden I’ve got someone who wasn’t a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for,” Steele told Republicans at the state convention in traditionally conservative Georgia. “So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money.”

Steele is claiming here that by showing that gay marriages cost business extra money*, they might be able to turn the young against gay marriages. But anyone with a seconds thought realises the argument actually shows that ALL marriages cost money and under Steele’s reasoning this is enough to oppose them. In short the party of business just became anti gay marriage.

Now the RNC is in a pretty awful place right now, with their few rising hopes such as John Huntsmen suddenly off to work for Obama as Ambassador to China, leaving also ran talent like Michael Steele to lead the party. I’ve poked fun at him before, but this piece was worth highlighting if only to show the contradictory elements at the heart of modern conservatism laid bare by the man who is tasked more than any other in the US with helping its revival. Only he doesn’t actually notice that. Nor does he seemed to have gaged just how politically unsellable such an idea. Even the most money hungry of Gen-Y’er will not turn against gay marriage (or even all marriage as his argument more logically extends) simply because they know it costs them more money*

* I assume Steele is referring to the cost of health insurance which is often born by businesses, and extends to cover spouses and families in some cases. This could of course be solved by Steele supporting universal healthcare which would free business from acting as a social provider too, but the Republicans are dead against lifting that burden from business… Or maybe Steele really does think married people are more expensive anyway, you know, demanding to actually be allowed to go home and not do endless overtime or caring about their OH&S in the workplace because they have someone who wants them to come home alive un-maimed. Who knows….

Of Liberals and Stem Cells

The debate over stem cells is one that ought of course be left to the scientific community. There great public can no more know the exact nature of what the research is (should they want to stop it) than their open support can ensure its success as a field of research (should they want to encourage it). We wont know what we turn up, until we do, that’s why it’s called research, and why so much of the ethical debate related to stem cell’s is so misguided.

But whilst the conservative position is clear and has its own moral logic (that life must not be consciously tampered with), there’s a certain amount of confusion about the Liberal position. As such you get -fair minded- criticism’s of the Liberal approach such as this occurring regularly in the press:

the comments I’ve received from readers about Obama’s stem-cell decision worry me. Many people on both sides seem ill-informed or self-deluded about basic scientific questions. Liberals are denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people. Conservatives are pretending that adult stem cells are more powerful than embryonic ones. If ordinary people want to govern science policy, they need to educate themselves so they can govern well.
Third, Levin describes the moral question this way:
If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.
I cringe at this interpretation of the Declaration. Levin believes that equality means a five-day-old embryo has the same right to life as a 5-year-old girl. I just can’t buy that. I’m a gradualist. I value the five-day-old embryo because it’s on its way to becoming the 5-year-old girl. But it’s not there yet. It hasn’t acquired the sentience and cognition that characterize a full-fledged human being.

If we don’t draw moral lines against the exploitation of embryos, we may end up obliterating respect for human life generally. But if we’re so afraid of that prospect that we refuse to draw lines permitting the use of any embryos under any conditions, we may end up obliterating the moral difference between embryos and full-grown people. Liberals should think seriously about the first scenario. Conservatives should think just as seriously about the second.

Yet despite the author ‘cringing’ at such an interpretation, he still returns to it in adopting wishy-washy words to describe the Liberal position. Liberals are accused of “denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people” without any discussion of just what “the beginnings of people” means morally. Billions of women have had miscarriages which have dumped similar stem cells, many before the mother was even aware of the pregnancy. This is a simple fact of life.
Likewise other key cells sperm cells are in their way the beginnings of people, just as are ovarian eggs. Yet these are naturally and regularly are dumped by the human body, and even the churches have largely given up the fight to stop it. But this is still claimed to be a “simple fact” that Liberals somehow deny in their view of stem cells as just that: Cells.

Likewise as we come to the end of the piece, Liberals are warned that this encouragement for research on certain cells (as opposed I guess to studying how heart valves are repaired, or skin cancer cells removed or foot fungus manages to affect the skins cells growth) risks the apochalyptic sounding risk of “obliterating respect for human life”, as if the Nazi’s eugenics program came before and led to the rhetorical demonisation of entire peoples, instead of the other way around.

In both cases whilst the consequences of the conservative effort are clear: No research that may benefit the well being of the living, efforts to legislate against practices which occur daily in human beings and are discarded naturally, the consequence of the Liberals position is unknown. So we get treated to such claims as it will cause the human race to stop caring about the human race, or bromides about “simple facts” of the moral universe that are anything but.

So here is roughly the Liberal thinking on Stem Cells
1) The relieving of pain and suffering is our supreme moral agenda.
2) The well being of conscious humans is far superior to that of cells which neither feel, think, or act.
3) Nothing alive should be disrespected, even though it bears less authority than that of the life of a Human Being (It’s no surprise Animal Welfare groups sprung from Liberal thinkers)
4) We don’t know the potential benefits or risks of each decision until we come to actually encounter it. The allowance of stem cell research doesn’t automatically mean we will later be faced with issues of human cloning or human eugenics. Such steps may never be possible, just as potential benefits (greatly extended life, cure for cancer, AIDS or something else wondrous) are also unknown. The moral weight of our decision is only known then, when potential outcomes come into focus, not now when they are entirely shadowed and impossible to see.
5) Following on from that, we are no more likely to justify moral abuse tomorrow than we are today, simply because we have made one decision now on the facts to encourage research or action in a certain direction. The briefest study of politics, especially within democratic societies will show the self-correcting and pendulum nature of human debates. Debates that are usually only ended when such a great mass of evidence occurs as to make it near nonsensical to object. (Ie that Communism is an immoral practice) There is no slippery slope. We can climb off at any point in time, and regularly do.
6) There is little way the general public can understand the complexity of such issues and whilst society certainly ought to make it’s general moral principles clear, it is not something we can asses that directly and certainly one’s we cant assess whilst still hypothetical’s.

But here’s the kicker: Stem Cells arn’t a matter of Liberal ideology, or moral theory. They were unknown until recently, and once we know more about them (or discover ways to replicate the results with artificial cells) may never be a point of contention in the future. They are simply a scientific opportunity that offers the potential to relieve and overcome significant human suffering, and we are dealing with material that is not, and never could be a human being, despite being alive. Just as the fly buzzing around your room is, or the 80’000 bacteria that cover your skin right now are, or those floating in through your window.

Liberals no more want human cloning or depraved eugenics than conservatives do. But they are at least willing to make a decision based on the actual facts before us (is anyone hurt by using stem cells:no, can research stem cells help: yes) than on hypotheticals far down the road (could human cloning result from mad scientists). That is the difference between Liberals and Conservatives on the issue. One is dealing with the current facts, respecting that future generations can also make informed moral choices if they do not like the path taken, the other claiming a moral foresight and knowledge that both is far greater than that of any future generation is capable, and one which knows before the research is done what path and outcome will result.

Ross Douthat (who is due to become the NYT’s next conservative columnist) take a new twist in response to similar arguments instead arguing that the Conservative position here against Stem Cells despite the loss of similar entities naturally and regularly in nature/fertility clinics/ is a democratically driven compromise position:

pro-lifers have done what you’re supposed to do in a democracy, which is to meet the general public where they are. This doesn’t make them insincere; it makes them sensible. (By Kinsley’s screwy logic, a supporter of universal health care in a country where half the country’s uninsured and there’s no chance of passing single-payer would be “morally unserious” if he concentrated his energy on, say, mandating health care for newborns; after all, what about the millions of people who aren’t newborns?)

But here Douthats comparison here doesn’t work, running on the simplistic logic that half a defense is still better than nothing. Yet unlike the clear benefit that would be benefited from mandating healthcare for newborns despite the millions who arnt newborns in his coutner example, there simply is no benefit in stopping the legislation against stem cells, either practically or morally. They arn’t half or a comprromise between respecting life and being willing to use it callously, they dont even qualify as a object of definite recognition. Which is why all the moral outrage has to be directed at hypothetical and potential moral problems such as cloning. As Michael Kingsly writes “There is NO “medical ethical quandary” involved in the decade-long dispute over stem cells”. The debate is over the potential for future research, rather than anything currently engaged. But apparently defending something that isn’t worth defending, on the basis of hypothetical potentials, all the whilst your intention is effectively to legislate against something that occurs naturally anyway by the millions.
That is, the anti-stem cell position is one that since it cant defend it on the current circumstances is explicitly based on a deliberate leap to future possibilities in a universe where consent for immoral practices is already presumed), and a position that is effectively legislating against something that occurs naturally and regularly in the world. If none of this impresses you as sensible, then it’s claimed to be valid in its own right simply as a compromise position held within a democracy (which is a pragmatic not a moral argument, which by invoking allows in a whole host of other pragmatic arguments (such as the benefits the research could have to alleviate pain and suffering amongst the sick) that conservatives have desperately tried to avoid talking about by claiming this is a moral issue to be decided on moral grounds alone. And all this filed under a post Douthat actually labels “Stem Cells and Moral Seriousness”.