Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Culture

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onufgordon-reed_patriarch

Let us count the ways in which thou art blessed. For Thomas Jefferson, this injunction could take all night. For the book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination it is unfortunately a much shorter task.

Thomas Jefferson is a charming and contradictory figure. An ‘American Sphinx’ as one biographer described. I’ve probably read a half dozen books on Jefferson over the years in a bid to understand him; such that this task is ever possible. So I was excited to get a copy of this book, given the reputation of the authors and the advanced praise for this book.

What I find most interesting about Jefferson is clearly not what the authors do. To me, he is a man of philosophy, prose and politics. All three are occasionally illuminated through this book’s lenses of his role as a patriarch. This book brings together the latest research on Jefferson, showing just how much new we have learned in recent years. But less engagingly, most of this has to do with the more mundane aspects of Jefferson’s life.

Personally, I find his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave girl and half-sister of his late wife quite uninteresting. I read biographies to learn about the unusual and historic. That an old slave owner found comfort in and had children through a slave he owned is neither. It was common for the time, and such behaviour is common across time.

As such, it was mildly interesting for the first 100 pages or so to see this relationship —if such a word can be used given questions of power and consent— brought into the light. Annette Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize for her earlier works demonstrating the truth of these ties. This was important for revealing a little bit more of his contradictory nature. But in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, it seemed like the book’s authors couldn’t find an appropriate balance in trying to discuss Jefferson’s many sides.

The book is nominally about his approach to home life, and the importance of having a domain he was master of, in shaping his world view and life. Thus many topics such as his daily routine, the construction of Monticello and his views on gardening (much more negative than commonly presumed) are discussed.

But few of these topics get the space they deserve, before the subject gets dragged back to his ties to Hemmings and the unwillingness of his white family and white Virginia to recognise them in any way. Often this occurs with little warning, with book jumping around, going back and forth, rather than methodically trying to peel back the layers.

The chapter on Jefferson’s time in France is a welcome exception, giving the period a sustained analysis. They reveal how Jefferson’s embrace of French society, and his role as advocate for America helped him see what was most distinct and valuable about America, its people, environment and culture.

Many of Jefferson’s biographers write huge tomes in the hope that the sheer space they cover will provide a large enough net to snare their slippery catch. Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf make do with just 320 pages, and at times you feel they have indeed brought some of the real Jefferson to the surface.

But just when they do, they let him return to the depths he found of most comfort, with ponderous and repetitive writing. Or rather, overwriting. The authors seem unable to simply state that Jefferson tried to be a good host. Instead they must tie it to the contradictions of human society and his vision of a grand American republic as an inspiration for all mankind.

For those fascinated by Jefferson, there is value in this book. The parts have value, if more than the sum. The authors are masters of their fields, and learning the latest discoveries in the scholarship is engaging. But its gems are hidden by waffly language and a confused focus. The task of trying to fully count Jefferson’s many blessings and oddities therefore continues.

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum
Nussbaum - Notforprofit

One of the main arguments of our era on behalf of public funding of education is the economic benefit it will produce. In the current 2016 Australian election, the Labor Party has argued its education spending policy will add up to 2.8% to growth. US President Barack Obama made a similar case a few years ago that ‘For every dollar we invest in these [education] programs, we get nearly ten dollars back’.

In ‘Not for Profit: Why democracy needs the humanities’, Martha Nussbaum argues this is a fundamentally impoverished view of the role education plays in the functioning of a democratic society. Instead she provides a compelling ‘manifesto’ for a larger role for humanities (arts, literature, world history, religious studies and economic history) in the education of democratic citizens.

Nussbaum worries that in many countries around the world, and increasingly in the West, a ‘teach to the test’ model of rote and repetition seems to be gaining control. Professional skills are the demand, and opportunities for play, curiosity and questioning authority are reduced. While a digital world does require specific skills in science, maths, and technology, I would agree with Nussbaum that such skills will not solve or even salve our contemporary problems unless accompanied by an education in philosophy, politics and history.

It’s easy to see why centre-left parties have however moved to argue for the economic benefits of their desire for higher education spending. They must feel this is sometimes the only safe ground on which they can defend anything anymore. But it’s a poor argument any way you look at it. The economic benefits are likely to be far less than claimed —especially if diverted into the ‘fads’ of the day— and because very few voters will thus conclude that the left are strong on the economy because of this argument.

This is a slightly strange book. The title suggests a much more post-captialist mumbo-jumbo style than it actually offers. And at times the argument could have been prosecuted much more strongly. While I agree with Nussbaum’s arguments on the need for empathy and imagination through teaching art and literature, the most invigorating part of this book for me was the focus on Socratic dialogue. Explored via the work and careers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Rabindranath Tagore and John Dewy, Nussbaum argues that reasoning, debate and argumentation are foundational skills in the citizen body for a democracy to survive.

I’ve long admired the notions of civic republicanism with the emphasis on having citizens who are expected to participate in the decisions of a society, being both trained to engage, as well as having the responsibility to do so. This is a tradition which has been perhaps richest in the modern world in America —a self-proclaimed republic— and Australia.

Chief among its 20th century advocates is a man many have mistakenly seen as a one-sided liberal or conservative. Instead Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies was —as a colleague and I have argued — a civic republican at heart.

Menzies worried in his own day that if ‘‘our view of education is ‘how much can I get for myself out of it . . . in terms of financial advantage or social position’ that we shall see the material advancement of the nation matched by moral decay, and ultimately destroyed by it’’. Universities thus had the role and honour of training ‘‘the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary’’. (quotes from article)

Rather than treat education as economics policy —as many critics believe liberal capitalists must do— Menzies firm support for liberal capitalist economic measures to grow the economy provided him with the resources and space to fundamentally expand the university system in Australia and stress the importance of civic virtue.

Nussbaum has since provided an afterword to ‘Not for Profit’, written two years after the books’ initial 2010 release. In it she relates the global response to the book, and her travels since, including to places like Australia. While she is reassured that liberal arts courses remain vibrant in the USA, she worries that Australia is one of the weakest western states for this style of teaching. Not just because of the funding issues, but more fundamentally due to culture:

“Australia, like Britian, has long thought of education as commercial and instrumental, and there is a further issue in that profoundly egalitarian society: people have grown used to thinking of the humanities as elitist” (p.153)

Returning to a democratic citizenship model — with a commitment to equality and the questioning of authority — is thus a move Nussbaum feels may have a fundamental appeal in Australian society. Indeed we already know it does, given the long and proud history of civic republicanism in this country.

It would be tempting therefore to conclude with another kick at our politicians for their misguided notions. But ultimately, the education and democratic training of a nation is far more reflective of the community than its leaders. So rather than bemoan today’s small politics which is a consequence of a shrinking notion of democratic citizenship, let me pledge here to encourage its return wherever I can.

In my own behaviour in the public space, in the behaviour I encourage to my classes on Australian foreign and defence policy at University and over the coming years in the behaviour I teach my son. A commitment from us all to do so, would truly be to our national profit.

Talking To My Country


Talking To My Country by Stan Grant

The ideal book review is written by someone who knows more than the author. They set the story in context, they point out missed connections, and tie it to a broader story. This is not one of those reviews. I know precious little of what Stan Grant speaks, and understand even less. Not only in the history spoken of, but in some ways how the author connects to that history is also foreign to me.

Talking to My Country is part memoir of his family, part plea to understand what his people have been through. Early on I found myself somewhat arguing back, treating this as a politics book and looking for him to provide policy answers. But the quality of Grant’s writing soon calmed that impulse and by the end, I was grateful for having had a chance to simply listen to the experiences of his family and how he and his people have felt about Australia.

What fascinated me most in this powerful book was the relationship between the author and history. Grant escaped Australia for many years, yet felt compelled to return and re-immerse himself in the culture and history of his people. He knows this history is painful and enraging, and yet feels it vital his son truly understands. He feels Australia has moved on, and yet incidents like the booing of Adam Goodes make him fear nothing has changed. And despite being a highly successful man of the world, he finds himself in the land and practices of his family long before.

Grant’s desire to escape is perhaps the one thing I best understand. In the face of generations, centuries of hurt and humiliation for indigenous people, who wouldn’t want a future elsewhere? You don’t have to be in pain to take that approach either. For children with even a reasonable start to life, the future is often the only focus of merit. It represents an opportunity to make something of yourself, to create an identity and record worthy of respect. To be free of history is both the desire of those most weighted down, and those most at liberty to wander.

And yet, for those who have suffered from history, it is precisely that weight which many find salvation in. Grant tells a remarkably similar story to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Both describe a youthful journey of finding an identity through an wholehearted embrace of their people’s history.

One example of this, though one I found slightly confusing on a personal level, was Grant’s story of his great-grandfather. Bill Grant was a man of whom he knows little except that he lived out his days ‘on a mission set up to ease the misery of the remnants of the Wiradjuri; now homeless and adrift in his land’. Grant visits the site of the mission and discovers ‘In a small book listing the names of the people of Bulgandramine mission I found something else,something that makes sense of the life I have lived. It connects me to my love of words and stories. In this book there is a listing for Bill Grant. Next to it is one word: storyteller.’

Grant is a hugely successful figure. He has worked as a leading figure in Australian newsrooms and across the globe, and is a giant of his industry. When he raised the possibility of running for political office, no one doubted that he could do it, and do very well at it. So why does he feel his life did not make sense before (or perhaps makes more sense now) when he discovers that an ancestor was also a storyteller?

Grant is not alone in valuing a connection between the tendencies of those in his family tree with his own. Many across the ethnic and cultural spectrum do the same. But I am not one of them. My grandmother tells me we are related to A.B Facey (author of “A Fortunate Life”). But I don’t feel this says anything about whether I can write, or my love of writing. I feel that information tells me nothing about me, yet for Grant a similar piece of information is vital to him.

Grant comes closest to explaining the importance of his connection with history when recounting his return to Australia, after his time at CNN and struggles with depression. “Sadness” he says “has always felt so much more familiar and so it is safer. We can live in its confines…Hapiness feels like giving in, it feels like surrender. Happiness feels like the past is over and done and I am not yet ready for that” (p164). Perhaps this gives some insight. I still don’t quite understand, but I feel I can better empathize thanks to Grants efforts to try and explain.

Like any true journalist, Grant’s writing is best when grounded. As we get closer to today, invocations of people and pain become all the more poignant and powerful. The story of his grandfather the war veteran humiliated on ANZAC day is particularly moving. Returning to his parents the second time around, deep into the book, we get a much more complete sense of their struggles, from the hard early life, through to small humiliations like being ignored for service in a café last year. There is a pounding rhythm to Grant’s writing, that when focused on specific people and moments, provides a pushing, breathless beat that has real power.

I don’t know enough about the history and situation of the indigenous people of Australia. In truth, part of me doesn’t want to know, given the terrible statistics and sense of hopelessness of seeing real change anytime soon. But perhaps more important than the general public knowing the numbers is that our society develops a greater empathy and sense of understanding of what this ancient culture has gone through. And the fact that after 115 years of history in the nation which claimed their lands, they are still trying to find a voice and be heard.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven PinkerPinker-Sense of style

I went to a grammar school. Which naturally means I am quite bad at doing grammar. I can even mangle the very word grammar, replacing the last a with e. I have always loved playing with words, but the constraints that formal education demands have always felt too restrictive. Why can’t I spell crunnnch with three n’s? That’s how it sounds! And why can’t I start a sentence with and?

In The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century Steven Pinker tries to sort out what we truly know about good writing. While much of our common wisdom is wise, there is much that you and I heard from our teachers which should be discarded.

Across 300 easily read pages, and six distinct chapters, Pinker wanders through how we think in and through English and how to use it more effectively. Most importantly, he shows that while it makes sense to choose some options over others, it is convention and convenience that should guide us. The human mind shapes particular choices to be more effective, but it is human society which ultimately determines the merits of our language.

This refreshing approach allows Pinker to defend some old wisdom while pulling apart others. He encourages infinitives to be split and mounts a convincing defence of the humble ‘the’ through its power to offer a sentence breathing space. Likewise, passive voice, which research has shown to aid a reader’s memory is also offered renewed praise.

This is where Pinker, a psychologist and linguist from Harvard shines as the author. How we think and the way language shapes and is shaped by thought have always been central to his work. Pinker shows time and again an interest not just in words as words, or thoughts as thoughts, but how they are connected.

His scientist’s eye for cognition and language is also smoothed by the clear sense of play which infuses the book. It starts with the book’s title. Having a sense of style is important, but there is sense in having a style that aids communicate. The frequent use of humour in the form of classic errors “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog” break up the analysis and let the mind rest.

Early on in the book Pinker implies that a reader’s inability to follow is the writer’s fault. So let me attribute two issues which, with his injunction in hand, I can clearly lay at the foot of the Harvard-professor-as-writer, rather than this Canberra-lecturer-as-reader.

For those who have not followed some of his earlier work, the use of tree strings can seem a complication without much contribution. I have a vague memory of them from his earlier works like The Language Instinct but still found them difficult to learn from. Maybe more visual readers will gain more than I did. Still it is remarkable that encountering these strings was about the only time I had to ask myself ‘Do I really understand this’.

The other concern I had was that after 187 delightful pages of analysis and discussion, the book switches gear to become a list of 100 common problems and rules. While Pinker continues to rebel against the forces of pedantry, the change is still jarring. It almost felt like a different book, as if I’d been tricked into reading a style manual.

The advantage of this easy to look up section however is that I’ll now leave a copy of The Sense of Style close to my desk for future reference. Rather than sending it back to the shelves to gather dust, the book has gained a second life beyond the reading. In turn this ensures the book will be far more visible to those I work with, which is a subtle but genius act of marketing by the author if intended.

I should end by noting it has been more challenging than usual to pull this review together. Not because I have difficulty organising my thoughts about the text, but because I was much more (greater? further?) self-conscious about the quality of my writing. The first page of “The Sense of Style” says ‘credible guidance on writing must itself be well written’. While Pinkers’ work easily meets this test, does this also apply to those who are claiming to have read it?

To write badly so soon after digesting it would suggest a lack of attention and care on my part. If I’m reviewing a book of history or politics, then displaying a mastery of the dates and names I’ve encountered within its pages takes next to no effort on my part. But displaying a mastery of language after reading about good writing?

So in the tradition of cautious writers everywhere let me acknowledge the help Pinker has tried to provide my penmanship through his excellent little book, recommend you also seek out his help, and declare him free of any responsibility for the errors in this review and any future ones to come.

The Right and the Bill of Rights

In (yet another) back down, the Rudd Government recently abandoned its call for a bill of rights. Instead it is introducing a ‘Human Rights test’ for all legislation, leading to much rejoicing by many liberal and conservative Australians (which I’m labeling here right wing, with left wing liberals tending to support Rudd’s -original- push for a Bill of Rights as I do). Yet their joy is somewhat surprising given that the Australian Right wing tend to define themselves (rhetorically at least) by their desire to restrict the reach & power of government and encourage individual freedom. Which is exactly what a bill of rights is designed to do, hence its position at the heart of the US constitution, the most liberal document in history.

Andrew Norton helpfully tries to explain this apparent contradiction in a good post over at his blog:

In a democratic system, classical liberals will tend to be more sceptical than social democrats and the median voter of actual and proposed regulation by the state. But I don’t think this is inconsistent with believing that classical liberal freedoms should be achieved within the persuasion-based, evolutionary and open democratic system. Even within a pro-freedom perspective individual rights and freedoms can conflict – let alone all the conflicts with other values that people hold – and there is little reason to believe (as many opponents of bills of rights have argued) that courts will do a better job of deciding on the trade-offs than democratic politics.

a distinction can be drawn between an in-principle opposition to constitutionalising some rights and a tactical judgment that the bill of rights we would end up with would not support the classical liberal conception of individual freedom. I think this does help explain the lack of enthusiasm for bills of rights among classical liberals, even where they might support constitutionalising a limited list of rights or freedoms. Aided by the various UN treaties, the concept of ‘human rights’ has expanded way beyond what classical liberals have ever supported, to make them the basis for big rather than small government.

While the arguments about risking giving too much power to the courts are valid, and one should always be skeptical if modern politicians can reach the wisdom of political philosophers such as Jefferson & Adam’s, Norton’s comments still seem to me somewhat partisan. His main concern seems the content of a Rudd/Gillard(or Abbott?) introduced Bill of Rights, rather than the concept as such. That it is, had a classical liberal Prime Minister introduced a bill of rights, I expect he would be significantly more inclined to support it. Which leaves me wondering why none on the right are proposing to write their own Bill of Rights?

There’s two good reasons they should: First, if there was a right wing version on offer, the debate would shift from the rhetoric of angry partisans (like this) towards debating which principles and the specifics. A debate about how to code a protection of free speech, or whether the government can compulsory acquire private land would be a useful debate.
Second, if those on the right support the concept (as opposed to their concerns over Rudd’s specific version) then now is the time to propose an alternative. The campaign for a Coalition government to implement economic liberalism didn’t just spring from nowhere in 1996, but was pushed & argued over throughout the 1980’s and maintained until the time was right (whilst critically giving support to the ALP Government when it agreed with this approach). With Joe Hockey the likely candidate to take over the Liberal Party once they lose the upcoming election, liberals have a good chance to gain a leader who will at least listen to their views. Assuming the ALP stay in office for another two terms, by 2016 a Coalition Government could win office and pledge to implement a Bill of Rights which has been around for 5-6 years in public debate (removing the fear factor) whilst adhering to a strict ‘negative’ set of limits on government/society, rather than the more left wing desirer for positive rights to food/shelter/support etc.

I believe a Bill of Rights has a fundamental worth, that will unite people of all political philosophies across the left and right. Guaranteeing free speech, restrictions on discrimination, and basic rights of people who fall under the watch of the security apparatus of the state would help ensure that the ‘democracy of manners’ which rules Australia does so within confines that do not trample over the individual. For those of a liberal persuasion, both the Howard and Rudd governments have infringed individual freedom and shown little concern about doing so, in economic, social and security area’s. There are legitimate concerns about increasing court influence to deal with, however the High Court has already involved itself in these issues (such as ABC v Lange 1997 on free speech). A carefully constructed negative set of rights could infact help clarify what the public want, rather than allowing the much freer interpretation available today where lawyers and judges can draw on all constitutional and legislative documents.

Having an alternate proposal (while a lot of work) would increase the quality of the debate, let those on the right set the terms of what a bill of right should be (helping dispatch poor/unworkable ideas such as a right to an income) and far more than any comparison with UN treaties, let Australians debate and define the basic freedoms we as a people insist on for a good society. Given the move to presidential prime ministers, increasingly invasive technology options for the government and centralising federalism, sitting back and hoping all will be ok is not a sensible option.

Gallipoli, Eureka and Australia’s foundational myths

Last night on the ABC’s Q and A program, the usefulness of Gallipoli as a foundational story of Australia came up repeatedly. Many correctly noted that it is a story which is difficult for migrant Australians or even those born since 1970 to identify with. Everyone knows the strikes against the ANZAC story, they were all male, white, invading a country we had no significant animosity towards, it was a losing effort, and we were forced to undertake it by generals who cared little for our soldiers’ safety. Yet the panel members seemed to both acknowledge this, and see nothing in our history that could replace it. Peter FitzSimons even flat out asked a lady which peacetime heros she would like to replace the ANZACs/soldiers, suggesting only that another fight such as Kokoda could replace it. What surprised me is that no one brought up the story of Eureka, whose appeal is clear in the way Australian organisations from the extreme left through to the far, far right have claimed the flag as their own.

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross By Charles Doudiet

Most should know the basic story. Individual miners during the Gold Rush in Victoria became slowly more outraged and eventually rebelled at the increasing taxation (without representation) on their basic mining rights, along with their inability to vote & restrictions on private property in the face of government and police control. In early November 1854 the miners formed the Ballarat Reform League demanding among other things: full manhood suffrage (though excluding Aborigines), abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament, voting by secret ballot; short term parliaments; equal electoral districts; abolition of diggers’ and storekeepers’ licenses and reform of administration of the gold fields. All are core Australian values, and some that (such as paying parliamentarians and having secret ballots) ideas that Australia can claim as its own contributions to democratic practice and theory worldwide.

After a number of acts of provocation on both sides, the miners gathered on Bakery hill to protest & concerned about attack formed a stockade. At dawn on 3 December 1854, the military attacked, killing 22 and ending the stockade within minutes. But the colonial government finally recognised the miners concerns and changes began to filter down, protecting their rights and restricting the power of local authorities to infringe on individual rights of the miners.

Compared to Gallipoli, Eureka has something for every Australian. Those involved were fighting for a individual rights to conduct free enterprise (in effect they were self-employed small businesspeople), they banded together in solidarity to demand fair working conditions, they were democratic and seeking fair representation & capable administration, they were a very multicultural and multiracial audience (though the Chinese were absent race relations were decent at Eureka) and many women were strongly involved. It was also an episode thoroughly invested in republicanism, a strain of political thought that stretches back to the Greeks and the Romans and insists on diffused power, encouragement of civic virtues and civic education and which informs much of the practice and values of Australian democracy.

Many have previously advocated for Eureka to take a higher place in our history and national story. H.V Evatt (a hero of our current Prime Minister) said Australian democracy was born at Eureka and Prime Ministers such as diverse as Menzies, Chifley and Whitlam all used it heavily in their speeches. Mark Twain even called it the ‘finest thing in Australian History’. And, even the latest ALP candidate for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, contributed to a 2004 book called Imagining Australia which also calls for its revival as the basic story of Australian identity.

Much work would be required to remind Australians of the story, and to extricate it from its claimed position by militant unionists and racist nationalists. But it represents a story all modern Australians can find much to appreciate and find unity with. It deserves to be remembered and re-enter the national debate.

Remembering the ANZAC’s

From my favorite WW1 poet Wilfred Owen

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

This country did wrong by far too many who served it. We gaily sent them to war for causes not our own, we ignored their needs upon their return. If the current revival in ANZAC day spirit is worth a damn, it is in the honour and honesty we owe those who fight for this country. To the men and women who have served and continue to serve this country in uniform, in the police and in other capacities, Thank you.

iPads and the changing nature of reading

Over at Margaret Simon’s excellent blog The Content Makers, she has an interesting post up about technology and the changing way we are reading:

I suspect that the e-readers will merely speed up existing trends, rather than changing rules of the game. And the existing trends? More niche media targetting smaller interest groups, and more interaction between content providers and audience members. All this implies a more intense connection between audiences and media outlets, which may mean a greater preparedness to pay for some kinds of content – if it is good enough, and if it can’t be easily obtained elsewhere.

But I very much doubt that large numbers of people will pay for newspapers on the iPad if all they offer is commodotised news that is also freely available elsewhere.I agree that this will be the year in which e-readers become mainstream, and soon much of our reading will be done on such devices. Books will become “special” objects, rather than utilitarian.

I think the biggest shift is likely to be what we consider the activity of ‘reading’ to be. Sure we all say we ‘read’ the ingredients on the back of a cereal box, but when we use the word most of us would still conjure up images of sitting, alone, on a couch or on your bed for a substantial period of time with a book in hand.

Yet, while I still love that idea, and try to do so when I have a book good enough to compel it, I no longer think of reading in such terms. Instead I’m finding that the distinction between mediums is breaking down. When reading online it makes no difference if was written as a newspaper article, magazine article, blog post or book extract as we formerly knew them. If I am consuming written media, I am reading, and I do so seamlessly moving between short, medium and long pieces as my attention fancies. An evening reading might involve 10+ short articles, one long piece of journalism and 200 pages of whatever half-read book I need to finish soon and have closest to hand. With paper mediums, that’s a difficult task to consume so much, with digital mediums, its very very easily (especially when I have twitter and rss feeds sending it straight to me). However even that last connection to moving your eyes over written words is evaporating too. I caught myself the other day saying to a friend that I had ‘just read’ Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’. Only I hadn’t. Gladwell had read it to me via an audio book as I walked to work. I know the same amount of info, I finished the book in the usual time, and I got a similar pleasure & distraction from the real world from it. I read it, I just didn’t read.

Reading to me is becoming more like breathing oxygen than sitting down for a meal. Rather than heavy doses when I have the time, I find myself simply reading whenever I am not being forced to do something else with my entire focus (talking to others or in the shower seem about it). Books may be seen as losing their special status in such a view, but most books (esp non-fiction) are far too long anyway, and no article can ever approach the understanding gained, emotional attachment or carefully crafted prose of a top quality book. Homo litterarius has arrived.

The mis-steps of a young romeo named Tony

In many ways John Howard governed like a man with a wife (business) and a mistress (populist conservatives). This charming little solicitor from sydney was surprisingly adept at keeping his two partners happy, ensuring they were kept well apart, and each receiving equal, though carefully chosen presents. Of course his wife and mistress knew of each other (how could they not), but they forgave him, so long as he got the anniversaries right.

In 1998 Howard gave the big present to the wife via a GST, while his temperamental mistress flirted with a firery red-head from Queensland. Some begging on his part, and the smooth flow of cheaper petrol however saw the mistress returning to his embrace. In 2001, he shifted gears and the mistress got the big present: a gift wrapped Pacific Solution. The wife was consoled with an item that cost more but didn’t sparkle so bright: a healthy stock-portfolio and significant overall rises in migration levels. All was right in his happy little world, with three being perfect company. 2004 was perhaps the easiest anniversary of them all, as an arrogant young knight beat on the doors and stomped around outside, sending both partners running into his protecting arms. Of course, such happiness was not to last, and the once spritely charmer with lush eye-brows begun to tire. Before he left for that eternity in the members stand at the cricket, he decided to pass on the phone numbers of his two lovers & some tips to a young apprentice he had been grooming named Tony. While others desperately bid for his place, he was sure that if any man could look after his beloveds it would be Tony.

Only our young would-be Romeo, now finally able to take his place, has forgotten the old mans wise words and gotten himself utterly entranced by the mistress. Despite the old mans concern, Tony has seemingly forgotten the former wife and set off to shower the mistress with gifts. First offering her paid time off to manage any kids, and now a quieter environment with far less noisy neighbors. Meanwhile he has redoubled his efforts to keep himself fit and healthy, to ensure the mistress see’s his virility. She has, and is impressed.

But watching from the up-story apartment window, the ex-wife has noticed. She’s not quite the bombshell she once was, and the legacy of a near-stroke in 2008 still stings. But she was here first, and still to her mind is the prettiest of them all. More importantly she also has the old mans fortune and can give it to whoever she chooses.

Not that she thinks much of Tony’s rival, a nerdy suitor by the name of Kevin. She had largely ignored his early claims of fidelity, (wisely) as that too was broken in 2008, though he still claims it was for her own good. Yet as she watches a Lycra-clad Tony stretch and limber himself up, still trying to impress the younger mistress, she turns over the paper with Kevin’s number on it. Maybe she should give him a call, he after all has keys to a Bentley, and all Tony can offer her is his rotten bike. Yes, she will call him, but maybe after one more Gin & Tonic, after all, the sun is still up in the land of the lucky country.

Is there a doctor in the country?

Fewer Aussies are undertaking PhD’s, leaving the spots to international students

AUSTRALIA has become heavily dependent on overseas students to tackle PhDs in the hard sciences as locals choose well-paid industry jobs over insecure careers in research, according to a new analysis.
Working with customised official data for 2002-08, Dr Birrell showed 142 per cent growth in PhD starts by onshore international students in the natural and physical sciences (357 more students in 2008 than in 2002), compared with 7 per cent for locals (80 more students).

In engineering and related technologies, locals were down by 19 per cent (116 fewer students) and overseas students up by 161 per cent (350 more). The strongest growth for locals was in creative arts, up 39 per cent, although the absolute numbers remain small (91 more). Dr Birrell said the weakness of local PhD starts during the past few years represented a sharp reversal after healthy growth from the late 1980s through to late 90s, when economic growth and job opportunities were patchy.
But in recent times, at least until the global financial crisis, students emerging with a bachelor’s degree in some sciences and engineering could choose between decent starting salaries in industry or poorly paid entry to an insecure career as a researcher.

The report focuses on the ‘hard’ sciences, but in my own department of Business & Government, again there seems a 70/30 split of International Post-grad students over Domestic. That’s a problem when their knowledge, skills and training will leave the country upon completion, with Australia receiving only a very indirect benefit (since they pay their way and hopefully will retain & encourage good will in the region towards Australia)

It’s no surprise really, given that even if you are lucky enough to win an Australian Post-Graduate Award Scholarship, your income is effectively on the poverty line .

This is not a woe is me post, you undertake a PhD because you love the field, the lifestyle, and after graduation significantly better salaries are on offer, and I couldn’t ask for a better occupation right now. To its credit, the Rudd Government has raised the award slightly for 2010, with promised rises beyond that. But as much as money, the lack of interest by domestic students is also significantly cultural too. We no longer have a government which prefers people do hairdressing instead of PhD’s, but the current prime minister doesn’t seem too keen on them either (Rudd denied the accusations when asked some weeks back on the ABC’s insiders program, though made no effort to argue for PhD’s either). Australia likes to think of itself as the clever country, and vigorously supports university education for all and sundry. Yet when it comes to the highest level of education, there seems a sense people are bludging from life and wasting tax payer money.

Options such as giving residency to successful international postgrad students may help temporarily. However, the number one problem across Australian education is the lack of respect it has in the community. We see less people wanting to be teachers, vast cultural groups simply ignoring education as anything more than a mandatory duty till aged 18, and many talented and bright future researchers and university lecturers leaving for the quick money and respect of industry/overseas jobs. For once, the Australian government can make a big social and future economic prosperity change without spending a cent. It just needs the courage to return the role of education to its rightful place in society’s respect. That’s a goal fundamental to both conservative and liberal ideologies, it just needs a spokesman. That truly would be an education revolution.

Understanding the world through the media

One of the thing that has amazed me over the last few years is how badly the Australian press understands America. I had thought this was a symptom of George W.Bush being in the white house, a character so unusual to the Australian mindset that we never got a bearing on him. But it continued through the2008 election campaign and through to today. This isn’t just a function of remoteness either, take todays effort by Brad Norrington, The Australian’s US based reporter:

If any proof were needed that US foreign policy, especially in the Pacific, is far down the list of priorities for Obama and his team then here it is.
George W. Bush ignored the region, say his detractors. What about Obama? The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stumbled through a prepared script yesterday. But he put the situation aptly: “The passage of health reform is of paramount importance and the President is determined to see this battle through.”
In other words, Obama’s domestic push to pass a watered-down version of health reform in the US congress so he can chalk up a legislative victory after a year of bumbling comes first. The message to Indonesia and Australia could not be clearer.

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10 Books that influenced me most

Whenever I’m at someones house, I always like to sneak a peak at their book shelf. Which books take pride of place, which lost on a bottom shelf with a book mark 1/5th of the way in, and which do they seemed to have read again and again till the bindings have fallen away. So I’ve enjoyed the posts by Yglesias and Cowen on the 10 books that have influenced their thinking the most. Given that our politicians have started to reveal their reading lists, here are my 10, and hopefully other Australian bloggers will give this a whirl: (Update: Andrew Norton and Ben Jones have posted their lists. Let me know if you post yours/know of other Australian bloggers doing so.)

1. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty : The first time I read Mill’s harm principle, via a dog-eared 2nd hand copy on a bus home was a lightning strike moment. Where I had trended social-democrat, my thinking suddenly coalesced to liberalism. The clarity, the reasoning, the humanity, both in a call for freedom & the responsibility to use that were breathtaking. One of my most treasured possessions is a large, 8 volume collected works of Mill, and while his autobiography is a gem (esp on the development & change of ideas one *should* have over a lifetime) the 130 or so pages of On Liberty are unbeatable.

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Looking North with Open Eyes

While everyone knows that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin, those watching the speeches accompanying the visit of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the last week would have noticed something else: Rudd also knows a little Indonesian too. While welcoming phrases in a guests own language are a standard part of pre-meeting briefings, the impetus was more likely from Rudd himself, for one of his major early career focuses was on making Australian’s more Asia-literate.

In 1994 Rudd delivered a report to the Federal Government on ways to make Australia a more Asia-Literate country. Though part of the wider Engagement project it was played down by the government because of populist fears that “engagement” was some sort of code word for selling the countries soul to the foreigners up north. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the concern was there. Rudd’s report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, (Of which Deborah Henderson’s paper(pdf) provides a good overview & analysis) sought to create an export culture in australia via significant investment in the teaching of asian languages and building long term links to the region in education, media and business.
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The return of the DLP

In 1954, the ALP split for the third time in its history, with communism, or rather anti-communism being the issue. Herbert ‘doc’ Evatt was not capable of leading the Labor members at that time and he had lost the support of ALP voters after their third straight election loss. Post-war re-configurations of Australian society and a range of distorted personalities (Evatt & B.A Santamaria) combined to split the ALP and keep the party out of power for another 18 years. The Democratic Labor Party while publicly influential never amounted to much electorally or in policy terms, but in a way they represented a strong strain of Australian political thought, one that in some (less divisive) ways is making its comeback today. No chance of a split exists, but it is not hard to see similar philosophical strains within both major political parties, between their conservative wings (for the ALP the workers/union base, for the Liberals a religious upper middle class) and their liberal wings (the ALP’s inner city aspirations and the Liberals business class). Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are firmly members of their own party’s conservative classes, and indeed a longer running sub-stream of Australian Conservatism which found its clearest form in the DLP. They represent in many ways the return of the DLP.
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The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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