Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Academia

Book Review: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan

burning_bookThere is an undeniable charm to those whose contributions to fields of human endeavor whilst just amateurs. History is littered with philosophers whose greatest contribution came whilst in their early 20’s and nearly everyone can recite the story of Einstein working as a patent clerk whilst inventing theories that outsmarted the professionals. Politics has its own sacred story of the outsider whose distance from the levers of government is their very qualification for office (See Palin, Sarah). The internet too has given millions a new voice and opportunity to contribute and communicate (this blog being just one example). We are in the era of the amateur. The stultifying demands of professionalism which serve to restrict are being torn down in favour of amateurs can say anything, in any way they desire. Often this is of great benefit, breaking down groupthink and exclusionary norms, and challenging elite control of information. But what about when this means we are exposed to ignorance, prejudice and invention, masquerading as a serious contribution?

In ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ ($35.99 Profile Books Ltd) Margaret Macmillan sets out to document the many ways in which historical knowledge is mis-used by governments, politicians, writers, amateur historians, and indeed even her professional colleagues. Given a thorough thwack for their deviations away from big political history, the professionals however come out looking the best of a very sad and sorry list of popular engagement with their history. History, Macmillan notes has had something of a renaissance in recent times. People are far more literate, have more disposable income and leisure time, and our media, -much like a shark- needs to keep moving and consuming in order to stay alive. Not only is it easier to make and access history, but there’s something in the modern secular culture that makes us value history as a higher good. Something firm and unshakable from which we can stand:

History with a capital H… restores a sense not necessarily of the divine being but of something above and beyond human beings. It is our authority: it can vindicate us and judge us, and damn those who oppose us (p20)

Given this immense power, is it therefore something we are willing to trust into the hands of amateurs? While civilization created universities to refine and restrict those who sought to have a public impact through their dissemination of history, the mass education of the public, along with the many self-inflicted wounds professionals have inflicted on their field (as McMillan demonstrates clearly) have destroyed much of the authority of advanced education. In making it cheap, it has come to be treated as cheap. Technology has allowed almost in the first world to call themselves a historian and contribute to the debate. But where our natural impulse is to champion on those contesting the popular view, we should also be careful about automatically granting higher virtues and morals to those who contest from the bottom as against the top.

In all societies, but particularly those who pride themselves on the freedom available, it is impossible to stop the flow of information from amateurs. But given that we have made it so easy for this to occur we can at least change the attributes we give to those who undertake this task. We have erred in assuming that because the professional is corrupt the amateur is pure. We have erred in believing that because the professional is biased the amateur is unfiltered. We have taken virtue and authority from being a reward for decades of work, and given them to the fresh and the new as playthings. In this mixed up climate we have made the underdog the default superior in any competition.

By and large the opening up of history to the entire public to either consume or contribute is a very very good thing. At its best, History is a learning process that saves us from sloughing and sweating to make fresh tracks when clear paths already exist. It gives us a grounding and sense of awe at what has been achieved and what could be achieved (It is my knowledge of History that makes me a progressive instead of a conservative). But ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ makes abundantly clear the destructive power of this knowledge and the risks and perils of amateur engagement with it. With the fire man learnt how both to improve his own life, whilst destroying his enemies; history is no less powerful, and unless handled carefully in this era of ridiculously easy dissemination threatens to cause the whole world to burn.

Ending the Slave Trade

A large part of my scholarly work is examining the role of norms in International Relations. Norms are the social rules which tell you (or your country) how to behave and view the world. Some of these are unwritten, like saying please, thank you, or shaking hands. Others are written down, such as recognizing others private property. At an international level, Norms drive countries to respect each others sovereignty, to be concerned about environmental destruction or to not have slaves. Well, that is the case in most places, but not all

A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania. Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.

And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.

That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.

Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.

Sadly for the hopes of people everywhere, the election has declared the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the ex-military and 2008 coup leader as the victor with 52% of the vote. His challengers including Messaoud Boulkheir have called the result an ‘electoral masquerade’, though western diplomats at the scene seem content with the process.
Slave_Mauritana
Mauritania is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, but which has remained mired in poverty, military challenges for power (most recently in 2008), and large area’s of the country where life has remained almost unchanged in centuries (outside better guns, clothes and phones). Yet it presents a stark reminder to the world that whilst the British pushed to end the slave trade in 1815, and the US came into line with the Civil War in 1865, almost 150 years later, some places in the world still have not come to accept these ideas. Whilst I, and most of humanity see this as an obvious stark moral issue, norms like slavery are better understood in practice as a contest of persuasion, influence and coercion. What is most significant is not that in “this modern world” that slavery exists, but that having had a dominant idea in place around the world for so long, it has not quite managed to drive out competing norms. Take this taxi driver from the capital Nouakchott:

A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”

Moral outrage in such cases is a necessary motivator, but it also blinds us to seeing what is needed to stop the practice. Better ideas, like the economically productive potential of free human beings, and free societies are stronger weapons for the non-slave trading countries than condemning ‘backward’ sins. This also needs to be coupled with financial and national incentives to lead the elites to recognize their own potential to benefit.

The Information Revolution has clearly not prevented war or genocide or even given the public that much more of a say in the way their countries conduct international affairs. But it does offer the potential for norms to flow significantly faster and more deeply into countries around the world. This is often poo-poo’ed when it means everyone starts drinking coke and talking with an American accent, but it also means that the battle of ideas is radically shaken up in ways that have never before been possible. If the world is to make good on any of the high language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it is 61 years since it was signed), then we need to make causes such as eradicating slavery a true objective. Whilst some issues such as conflict, and violence in conflict are difficult to learn about when occurring, much less deal with, long term human rights violations such as slavery are one’s we can track, monitor and deal with much more strongly due to the new information at our finger-tips. If the Information Revolution is to mean anything to human rights (and it’s not clear that it does) then I’d like to predict that Slavery will be its first great victory. That day is still some time off with an estimated 20 million bonded labour slaves around the world. Of a similar note (though more talked about in SE Asia) is human trafficking which may entrap from 2.5 to 5 million people around the world.

This issue is obviously one that touches the US President Barack Obama closely, given his own status as first African-American President, and his wife’s history with a great, great grandfather who was a bonded slave in southern America. Obama raised the issue on his recent trip to Africa, and his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also held events this year to help address the issue. Yet this is as I said at the beginning a battle of ideas and influence, not one that can be condemned nor bombed out of sight. Obama has too many challenges, and his skin-colour does not automatically give him a gilded tongue for every important cause. But where other challenges of stopping war or genocide or exploitation may well be beyond us, stopping slavery is something that is surely possible within the next 100 years. We can finally peer down and track where and how many are in chains, it is then up to us to convince and coerce those in charge to finally let them be free. Morality may energize us, but it is winning the battle of ideas about the best types of behaviour and action, by both individuals and countries that will achieve it for us. We must not relent.

The virtue of forgetting history

This morning brings with it news that Israel’s Government is invoking Hitler in its cause to build in East Jerusalem

Israeli officials said on Wednesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli ambassadors to circulate the 1941 shot in Berlin of the Nazi leader seated next to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the late mufti or top Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem.
One official said Lieberman, an ultranationalist, hoped the photo would “embarrass” Western countries into ceasing to demand that Israel halt the project on land owned by the mufti’s family in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Some diplomats opposed Lieberman’s move, arguing it could earn Israel stiffer world criticism for seeming to sidestep the wider conflict it faces with the Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state, another official said.
Asked why Lieberman issued the order, a spokesman said: “because it’s important for the world to know the facts” and would not elaborate.

Winston Churchill, (a historian of great merit in his own right), once commented that the peoples of the Balkans ‘produce more history than they can consume’. The same so easily applies to the Israel/Palestine conflict. To most people it would seem that putting up such a photo is a meaningless distraction, but to Israeli’s, especially those aged 50 or so, born to parents who survived/witnessed the Holocaust then the history and historical importance of such a photo must resonate strongly. History we are often told by learned men must be learnt so as to prevent us repeating the mistakes of the past.

What they don’t mention is that reading it often incites people to try and emulate the successes too, only in very different circumstances and with very different outcomes. No better example of this can be found than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Led by a generation of men who also had parents in WW2 (only their memories are of great victory and liberation instead of brutal slaughter), George W Bush, a man with a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk, Tony Blair, living in Churchill’s house and 500m from his war time bunker & memorial, and John Winston Howard set their countries in motion to liberate Iraq from Tyranny. Whilst Iraq had made zero antagonistic moves against the west in recent years (and even half-truthfully accepted UN weapons inspectors), those who disagreed with the war were instantly labeled appeasers, ala Chamberlain’s 1938 blunder, with Saddam Hussein helpfully playing along in the role of mustachioed dictator. Here was the chance for these three to emulate their hero’s and live up to the merits of the ‘greatest generation’ who had defeated the Nazi’s and made great inroads against Communism. The weight of this history must have been heavy on these men from their positions of power to help the Iraqi people from what was one of the most brutal regimes in the 20th century.

Iraq of course had very little actual military might and was thoroughly defeated in less than a month. And far from the ease and praise of post-war Europe and Japan, Iraqi’s quickly soured on the invasion and began to attack their supposed liberators. That the analogy of 1939 had failed in every single way possible in helping understand the circumstances western governments found themselves in at the start of 2003, has not stopped similar conservative forces today declaring that Iran is the new Nazi Germany and cannot be appeased. As Fareed Zakaria points out, (again bringing pesky current facts into the debate), far from being Germany 1939, Iran who has 1/68th of the US military, is more like Romania. Indeed some US Senators have even taken to calling their own country “about where Germany was before World War II”. So long as the Baby Boomer Generation, born to fathers of the Second World War -with all its myriad and contradictory lessons- have power, analogies from that distant moment will continue to have an impact on our current political discussions. As Andrew Sullivan wisely noted in his 2007 essay for the Atlantic Magazine ‘Goodbye to all that’ the true radicalness of Obama for the USA is not in his policy (he is largely a cautious moderate) but rather that he is beyond the debates of the baby-boomers that have ripped America in-twain over the last 40 years. On race, gender, abortion and war Obama offered the US a chance to let go of its history and begin to build something new.

History it seems far from granting us wisdom seems time and again to be preventing us from seeing the world as it actually is, rather than in patterns of the past. One cause of this perhaps may be the staggering rise in popular histories amongst the reading public. Recently released, though yet to appear here in Australia, is Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games:
The Uses and Abuses of History
which charts the many ways in which history is mishandled, distorted, politicized and mis-used by historians. After this great catalog of sins, the author, (a professional historian herself) poses this question:

MacMillan ends by asking whether we would be worse off not knowing any history at all…. “I think the answer would probably be yes,” she writes, a sentence that is unlikely to serve as the historians’ manifesto.

MacMillan argues that history’s greatest tool is to provide us with humility. To learn how often wrong and misguided past generations were in their efforts, and perhaps how we can use it to begin to doubt the basis of our own certainty. But in a hyper-connected and digitalized world, if anything history will be more and more with us. Where pub disputes about a past war or politician were forgotten with the purchasing of the next round, now someone invariably whips out a internet connected phone and checks that holy source Wikipedia for an answer. As more and more key moments are captured on film (witness the outpouring at the 40 year anniversary of the Moon Landing), the more history will be brought into current media streams to supplement and fill in time. Former Prime Minister John Howard may for this reason soon get his wish that young students are better exposed to history, but whether this is equal to an education in history is a completely different matter. Whilst memories imparted from books and film are never quite as strong as those gathered whilst sitting at the knee of a parent, this upcoming generation will likely not be able to escape the onslaught of history in their everyday life. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future. Looking these days to places such as Israel/Palestine you can’t help but feel the people there also desperately need an act of wide scale amnesia, if they are ever to find peace.

The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.

On Academia

For most of my adulthood I’ve entertained myself reading biographies of politicians. English, American and especially Australian. Biographies let me chart and compare my own practices and see the way some of the best have approached the career’s I envisage myself as holding. But as I spend more and more time in Academia and enjoy it’s practices more (Teaching is the greatest job I have ever had), I’ve also come to read some of the (rare) biographies of academics, most recently Brian Matthews ‘A Life’ book on Manning Clark. And yet, whilst I can read on the 19th century english political giants Disraeli and Gladstone and find instructive lessons despite the different environments even country, reading on academics from just 30 years earlier era’s seems a different, alien world..
Academic_doll
Inside is of course the anguish, worry, guilt, pride and vanity that lie behind all who want to have something to say and commit it to paper. Since Clark was writing his great works Australia’s population has become far less homogenized with great competition for jobs, housing, education and a growing rich/poor gap. Today however, as Gregory Melleuish writes in his 2009 anthology ‘The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian Politics & History’ “Certain groups such as Academics have lost both in terms of status and wealth”. Clark was appointed Professor of History at the Canberra University College (what was to become ANU) at the age of 34, without any significant publications under his belt or doctorate. Today you need a PhD just to be appointed to the lowest of academic positions, and even then the competition is fierce. I see this as a good thing overall, but whilst there was great controversy over Clark’s writings, few doubted that academics had a role to play and deserved respect and recognition for their study, work and contribution. It is the sudden abandonment of this which is the most confronting for a new academic. Again Melleuish is worth quoting, only this time he is less reflective than leading the charge:

‘Howard has been regularlly vilified by many in the media and academia as a substitute for intelligent analysis…it turns politics into a punch and judy show in which the supposidly intelligent and sophisticated spectators are called on to boo and cheer accordingly …this is largely because of what David Martin has called the ‘special licence’ of academic and media commentators and their capacity to ask questions ‘without needing to answer them’ and ‘demand apologies without ever having to give them’. Put simply they have power without responsibility and are unable to understand the sometimes awful responsibility that comes with authority’ – Melleuish, G 2009 ‘The Power of Ideas’ Melbourne: Australian Scholarly publishing Ltd.

Later on he goes on to attribute this anger due to the end of the ‘bureaucratic state that had plenty of employment opportunities for the commentariat and their friends and came to mean wealth creation, even if the people who performed that task did not possess a university education’ (p22). This is a world which a fragile and self-doubting character like Clark could perhaps not long survive. Or at least so you would believe if you read and listened to the media daily. I do not mind Melleuish’s comments, he is a quality academic and I intend to return to his very interesting book in a future post, and as an academic he has well earned his right to give his colleagues a whack over the ears when and where they have failed. (Likewise for John Hirst, another Australian historian begins his recent essay collection ‘sense and nonsense in Australian History’ with similar sentiments on battling left wing views amongst academia). Yet these voices are rare and the authors usually open to debate. However have you ever noticed that those who talk most about academia, who go on the most about the power, influence and corruption of academia are those who hate it the most and largely have had the least to do with it?

Sarah Palin, like the radio-hosts she most clearly emulates (to call her a politician is a misuse of the word) has made a career on damning the entire education process. When she failed, it was instantly attributed to the role of education elites condemning her, (despite the facts being otherwise). Back at home, John Howard made it a part of his public persona that he disavowed the worth of academics. Howard’s government so significantly reduced the funding for higher education that in 2004 this exchange occured in his party room:

unreported at the time, (Liberal Senator George) Brandis rose in the Coalition’s joint party room to ask plaintively whether it was true, as claimed by the then employment minister Gary Hardgrave, that the Howard government now viewed a hairdresser’s qualification as equal to a PhD. Brandis was howled down, and Howard laughed in response that at least a hairdresser’s qualification held the chance of making some money.

Yet whilst the media and political elites seem to have largely turned on academics (or cowardly abandoned rather than defend should they hold different views on the role of education and the academy), this picture is not one I find as I meet people in this country. From taxi drivers to waitresses to strippers (yes really), whenever I say I am looking at becoming an academic and doing a PhD I get only impressed nods and wonderings of how hard and how much work that must be. Of course they may be smirking behind their back, and certainly I think my friends all under thirty and yet working on incomes up to double the national average must wonder about the wisdom of my choices. Yet whilst this is not a country which turns our academics into rock stars, I do think it is one which recognises and respects the role of academics and higher education. When conservative commentators and politicians adopt anti-academic (sometimes anti-intellectual or anti-education) approaches and lines as a populist weapon, I think they are misreading much of this countries outlook. People may not be publicly supportive of academics, but they still are privately.

Times have certainly changed for academics. The profession is in need of a revamp and overhaul in many senses. It has lost a lot of respect and some of it very rightly so. But the anger and regular venting against academics and educated elites that conservatives adopt does not reflect the general public or appear to have influenced their decisions. Australians are still wary of theory and intellectuals, but they respect the achievement if not the results. This is the challenge for the young academic, to re-connect the work of the profession to its role as aiding and educating the entire country. It will take time, but I am confident that the new generation of academics, escaping from the Vietnam era debates that still divide baby boomers (witness the vitriol in the obits against Robert McNamara –another elite by education-) can regain the public respect for their profession and work. Look for them in blogs, seminars, and publishing great and (easy to read!) work, and keen to earn public respect rather than take it for granted or bemoan its loss. After all that, it’s time I get back to my own study.

Photo by Tim Ellis used under a Creative Commons Licence

Free the books!

I missed it initially, but over at Catallaxy, Sinclair Davidson has put up a well researched post on the move to allow parallel imports:

From The Australian: When the Howard government removed import restrictions on compact discs in 1998, it was accused of gutting the music industry and jeopardising the income of musicians. But industry data shows royalties increased from $81.8million in 2003 to $108m in 2007, and the number of performers receiving royalties also increased. Meanwhile, the average price of a CD album has fallen by 32per cent.

The Australian voices telling Australian stories argument is simply rent-seeking and doesn’t stand up to empirical analysis. We’ve heard these arguments before

As a keen book buyer (I sometimes fear I like buying books more than I do reading them), seeing an end to the ban on parallel imports would be a great step forward for this country. There is no reason why I need to wait longer and pay more for an Australian version of the book I desire. When your stock reading is the latest non-fiction quasi-journalism, the delay on new books as they wait to see if an Australian publisher will pick it are infuriating and tend to actually reduce my willingness to buy these books. Those who suffer from it most are poor students (especially post-grad!), forced to pay heavily to import foreign books, or simply denied access to the tools of their trade. In education, and encouraging a reading public, the book ban has been an ongoing disaster. And as we enter the era of digital books, a direct link can be drawn between our book ban and the lack of digital readers emerging in Australia. If the ban on parallel imports was removed, Amazon.com could add a .au and begin selling Kindles at a viable cost. In fact as we begin to see the outlines of a digital era in books both distribution and display, the idea of country based barriers becomes simply laughable.

Meanwhile, as much as current authors may fear losing even their meager returns from the status quo, those with talent have nothing to fear from the contest. Their fear of losing local voices telling local stories seems based on the absurd assumption that book buyers who pick up Australian content, do so only because there is nothing else on offer. That their allegiance is so weak that when stories of life on the Mississippi or Thames flood in, everyone will abandon the Peter Carey’s, Bryce Courntey’s and Matthew Reilly. If this is not the case, and book buyers are choosing based on an actual interest in the material, then they have nothing to fear from the competition and perhaps a chance for wider exposure, distribution and breaking away from the horribly monopolistic and talent squandering process that is the publishing industry.

The sooner the Rudd government moves on this the better.

The revolution will be blogged

In a distant time and place, I began a PhD looking at how the internet and related technology was affecting our conceptions of politics and the public sphere. Eventually given the morass and confusion inherent in such a debate at present times (and the chasm between boosters & degrader’s) I eventually, and reluctantly gave up on the project. There is much there to write in the future, but for the time being, simply taking note of how the internet and related technology is shaping politics (particularly in non-democratic societies) is a passing interest of mine. So here’s a few links if the issue likewise sparks your fancy (and as an excuse for my light blogging today as I work towards the deadline for handing in chapters)

Moldova’s Twitter Revolution

The protests began after a conversation between Ms Morar and six friends in a cafe in Chisinau, Moldova’s tiny capital, on Monday, April 6, the day after the parliamentary elections. The elections brought a larger-than-expected victory for the incumbent Communist Party.

Suspecting vote-rigging, “we decided to organise a flash mob for the same day using Twitter, as well as networking sites and SMS,” she said, speaking at a secret location. With no recent history of mass protests in Moldova, “we expected at the most a couple of hundred friends, friends of friends, and colleagues”, she said. “When we went to the square, there were 20,000 people waiting there. It was unbelievable.”

The demonstrations continued into Tuesday peacefully. But later that day, with no response from the Government, angry protesters swept police aside to storm the parliament building and the presidential palace opposite. Fire broke out in one wing of the parliament, and the protesters vented their fury by wrecking computers and office furniture.

“Not only did we underestimate the power of Twitter and the internet, we also underestimated the explosive anger among young people at the Government’s policies and electoral fraud,” Ms Morar said.

And closer to home:

Blogs continue criticism in Fiji

Fijian bloggers have mounted an online tirade against the military regime as the government pushes on with harsh media censorship and wide-ranging reforms.

Frank Bainimarama’s government has silenced Australia and New Zealand’s radio transmitters in Fiji, thrown out international media and imposed tough reporting constraints on domestic media, leaving an information vacuum in the beleaguered state.

In the latest reports, international freelance journalist Pita Ligaiula has been detained and two Fiji Times newspaper journalists were summoned by government officials to explain “negative” coverage.

The censorship has pushed voices of dissent underground, onto several active blog websites that deride Bainimarama as an illegal leader.

What mainstream media there is, has been forced into printing non-news like ‘Man gets on Bus’, rather than just blank holes in protest of the governments censorship.

Whilst there are many out there in the developed west cheering on the downfall of the MSM (mainstream media) and urging bloggers onwards, it is in the developing and third world that the most interesting and democratic use of technology is to be found. The big daddy of them all currently is the site Global Voices online which gives a great overview of develops around the world. If you prefer a more personal voice in blogging (as I must admit I do) then take a ganger at
Ethan Zuckerman’s site ‘My hearts in Accra’. Zuckerman has spent a number of years in africa and the third world assisting the spread of the technology and integrating its use in these communities, and regularly updates with fascinating links. Whilst not always directly on topic, another must link is to Andy Carvin who whilst not blogging much anymore, has been going since 1994! and one of the best sourced writers.

More academically speaking, I would be remiss not to link to Clay Shirky whose book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is a must read for scope and insight on the coming impact of technology on society. Whilst more socially than politically concerned Shirky has emerged as one of the sharpest new voices on the impact of the new technology, without coming across as merely a dot com booster as so many other young writers on the subject inevitably end up. (In fact part of the reason I abandoned the field was the depressing number of utopian pieces that from even the 1980’s predict the coming democratization and liberalization of society due to this technology. Even 30 years later, with blogs and twitters and the like proliferating it still isn’t anywhere like such a scope, and one must imagine, given human nature, never will be.)

But Shirky also (via Carvin) relates one of my favourite episodes above, one immediately brought to mind by the Moldovian case at the start of this post: Nothing Says Totalitarianism like arresting kids for eating Icecream
belarus_icecream

By Andy Carvin: In many countries, flash mobs are often seen as communal practical jokes or even performance art, with hordes of participants suddenly showing up in a public place, doing something irreverent, then vanishing without a trace.

In Belarus, young people are employing flash mobs to push the boundaries of what the government will tolerate in terms of free assembly. Last Friday[May 2006], flash mobbers descended upon a public square in the capital Minsk to gather together and eat ice cream. No rally, no speeches, no sit-in nor march – just standing around and eating ice cream:

If this were almost any other country in the world, standing around eating ice cream wouldn’t even cause the local authorities to bat an eyelash. In Belarus, though, it was treated as an organized public assembly, so plainclothes government agents broke up the event, arresting some of the young participants:

In the west flash mobs are a fun joke. In other parts of the world it can be taken as a serious challenge to the authority and control of the government.

Politics still operates essentially as it has for the last 300 years in the west. Parliament, the Executive and the Courts set the laws and the people form as various mobs pushing and pulling society in an ever expanding bubble past modernity and across the entire globe. The new technology has not changed, nor will it likely change such a pattern. No robot presidents will emerge. But it is at the very least a powerful tool for the dispossessed, the minority and the forbidden to advocate their cause. Like hitting jelly with a hammer, those using the new technology will often find a way around, though as in the first case I linked to, it doesn’t guarantee the safety of any just yet. But we can hope.

Mapping the Australian political psyche

Andrew Norton is running a short survey on Australian political philosophies and identity. It shouldn’t take you long(<10 mins), and is better designed than most pol. surveys (though is focused around his own classical liberal attitude). Go help him out if you have the time.

The Economics of Peace

There’s some interesting new research out on an idea which is as old as the idea of free trade economics: More Trade = Less chance of War

In a recent paper (Lee and Pyun 2008), we assess the impact of trade integration on military conflict based on a large panel data set of 290,040 country-pair observations from 1950 to 2000. Results show that an increase in bilateral trade interdependence reduces the probability of inter-state military conflict between the two partners. If bilateral trade volume increases 10% from the world mean value, the probability of military conflict between the two trading partners decreases by about 0.1% from its predicted mean probability, other variables remaining constant. The peace-promotion effect of bilateral trade integration is significantly higher for contiguous countries that are likely to experience more conflicts. For example, an increase of 10% in bilateral trade volume lowers the probability of military conflict between two contiguous states by about 1.9%.

More importantly, our study finds that global trade openness also significantly promotes peace. An increase in global trade openness would reduce the probability of military conflict as it leads to an increase in bilateral trade interdependence. However, when the level of bilateral trade interdependence is held constant, the effect of increased multilateral trade openness on the probability of bilateral conflict is not clear. Countries more open to global trade may have a higher probability of dyadic conflict if multilateral trade openness reduces bilateral dependence on any given country, thus lowering the opportunity-cost of military conflict. In a recent paper, Martin, Mayer, and Thoenig (2008) find that an increase in multilateral trade raises the chance of conflict between states (see their Vox column). In contrast to their findings, however, our study finds that multilateral trade openness in fact lowers the probability of dyadic conflict with the bilateral trade partner, and by a larger magnitude than bilateral trade does alone. An increase in global trade openness by 10% from the world mean value decreases the probability of the dyad’s military conflict by about 2.6% from its predicted mean.

The most interesting point here is that multilateral trade reduces the chance of war far more than bilateral trade. Which seems slightly-counter initiative if we look at this as a pure economic consideration, as going to war with a bilateral only partner risks the entire trade relationship, whilst if they are just one within many in a multilateral deal, their importance to you is significantly reduced.

Yet here Constructivism offers an important insight. Relations between countries are not governed by the market value of the wealth/materials traded, but by the value placed on that trade and relationship by both participants. Take the case of China and Australia. Our export of Iron Ore is worth 2.4 billion, a sizable amount, and critical for China’s development. Yet, whilst worth much less, Australia also exports 300 tonnes of Uranium to China, and has 23% of the worlds supply under our soil. Australia could harm China’s nuclear power supply, and perhaps its nuclear weapon capability one day in the future (we only export for power purposes currently). As such, China has a great interest in increasing its relationship with Australia, and maintaining peaceful conditions with us. (Of course the ANZUS alliance & EU condemnation are the main determinants against China invading Australia). So it is less the dollars or numbers, than the value placed on that trade

But this goes much further when several countries are brought in to interact: Not only is there the material value of the multilateral trade, but countries are careful to be seen by their fellow nations as acting in an appropriate spirit and character. Just as you may observe your friends offering to buy the next round at the pub, or being nice to someones new girlfriend -who no one can stand- countries interact in a social fashion and shape rules or “norms” about those interactions. Gradually those ties can bind countries together, such that the mere realist thought of pure power domination for material advantage is never even considered (Australia could for instance invade New Zealand, but i doubt it has ever seriously come up in a Cabinet discussion in this country, despite the potential advantages and the ease of such a victory).

Thus, even if countries were confident that other nations would continue to trade with them despite going to war with one of the mutilateral trade partners, they would still be dissuaded due to the socialisation that had built up between all of the countries, and brought them to think of themselves as part of a common group, with common ways of interacting. (Of help here is also the fact that most multilateral trade deals are regionally based)

As I’ve said, this is one of the oldest ideas in classical economics and seemingly a common sense one, whether we take an economic or a constructivist view. Yet surprisingly, this was also an idea that met with significant student resistance when I was lecturing a unit on International Relations last year. Whilst the classes were largely young and left wing, there was a fair amount of diversity in their midst, and realist and conservative arguments could be regularly expected to be raised and debated. Yet, in spite of even my own publicly professed support for the idea, it met with strong disagreement, through both tutorials and written assignments.

It was only when I came to look again at who the public faces for this claim were that, I began to see perhaps why such a seemingly common sense idea is rejected out of hand; and just how trashed the free trade brand has become. Whilst the student body hasn’t suddenly gone socialist let alone communist (there literally are no alternatives!), the marketing of these ideas is in an incredibly bad state. The idea’s are strong, the evidence around, but people have become very skeptical that this is anything more than the big end of town favouring its own. Despite the billion plus brought out of poverty by Globalisation (though now at risk thanks to the GFC) and the general prosperity of the last 30 years) the public tend to see such ideas purely within an individual gain/loss prism. They see it as an incentive to increase their income, participate in the stock market, or begin a business, but almost never connect these to the wider social idea. The workchoices reforms suffered a similar issue. Both the advertising for the policy, and the union response against concentrated on what these changes meant for YOU. You’ll have more flexibility/You’ll get less rights or higher/lower pay. Almost no where was there a discussion about the benefits to the economy, the increased employment, flexibility in tougher times. I’m a skeptic of the workchoices reforms, so I don’t think the wholescale benefits overcame the individual negatives, but to see the government accept such a framing amazed me. This is also something that I think many Libertarians simply do not get in their support for such ideas and bewilderment that the wider public look on them so negatively.

The evidence may be there that increased trade reduces poverty and reduces the chance of war. Yet the Baby Boomer generation has abjectly failed to sell the idea, and I dont see the Gen X’ers doing any better (if anything they are more arrogant and less capable). Instead I think it will come through members of Gen-Y who have grown up within the free trade bubble (ie Born after 1982 when such ideas were in the ascendency) and who have experienced the benefits (prosperity and peace being the mainstays). We have in short been socialised to these ideas, and thus more able to see them for the potential they are, rather than the fictions of a ‘perfect market’ vs a ‘bastardy & Greed’ meme’s that dominated past generations of ideologues thought.

The political marketplace

By now most of you have seen this hard-hitting speech by Member of the European Parliament Backbencher & Conservative Daniel Hannan.

As speeches go, it’s a nice effort, clear and concise, and whilst relying a little too heavily on common instead of economics sense it makes a few good points. It’s interesting therefore to see Hannan’s own reaction to the video going viral:

When I woke up this morning, my phone was clogged with texts, my email inbox with messages. Overnight, the YouTube clip of my remarks had attracted over 36,000 hits. By today, it was the most watched video in Britain…..Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It’s all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it’s good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible.

I want to raise two contradictory points here, so as to really assess what is going on. First, politicians have always known that bold or controversial claims always attract far more attention, and this is what compels journalists to listen to them, and secondly, this is not necessarily a good thing.

To the first: Ever since there have been politicians, the need to say something that captures the ear and quickens the pulse of your listener has been the politicians basic requirement. Whilst legislators may themselves appoint Solon’s to fix problems, and wise elder statesmen for Head of State roles, to get into the legislature itself you need to be bold. Some like Winston Churchill just seemed to attract controversy wherever they went in life, and combined this with actual administrative and parliamentary ability. Some, develop it over time, and through sheer determination force the media to pay them attention such as former PM John Howard. And some are fools who say the first thing that pops into their head, or deliberately make outrageous claims so as to gain attention. Such as Pauline Hanson.
In short, this is not a new phenomena. I’ve been reading David Day’s biography of Andrew Fisher recently (5th Prime Minister of Australia), and time and again the mild mannered, careful and cautious Fisher had to either get a running mate who could attract attention, effectively run his own left wing paper so as to be heard, or spend most of his waking hours visiting communities so as to be head. He proved a very capable parliamentarian, and all who met him were impressed by his talents, yet as a politician he struggled in large part due to his own cautious temperament. Something that proved of great virtue when Prime Minister. A further example. Whilst probably not cut out for the Parliamentary life, and certainly not adverse to saying controversial things(letting women vote for instance), John Stuart Mill, Englands greatest ever philosopher, barely won one term. Mill’s difficulty in public stemmed in part because he did not deign to be controversial on the stump, and preferred to discuss rather than rant, and sometimes even grant the point of his opponents, so as to make his own position clearer. Voters didn’t much like this and soon kicked him out. In short, the need for politicians to say something noticeable over something sensible is as old as the profession. And whilst the argument can be made that the standard of debate and political literacy (ie references to philosophy or literature) has surely dropped, it never was that high in the first place.

So when Hannan says that finally a politician must “compel by virtue of what he is saying”, he’s not saying anything particularly new. And whilst he uses the word “virtue”, controversy, outrageousness, and deliberate hyperbole all seem a better fit. Hannan is not the first, nor the wisest to criticise Browns many economic failings, but because he was concise and willing to dip a bit into hyperbole it got attention.

Now, to the second point: is this a good thing or not? Well yes and no. The internet is clearly a wonderfully democratising tool, of which this blog is evidence. Yet as we’ve seen -and again I want to stress how over the top politics and its coverage has always been- and by adding a million new voices, both online, and now elected officials around the globe (I’m an Australian, talking about a British Member of a European Parliament, who I was first linked to by a man living in America), then the overall level at which you have to speak has to keep rising and rising. In short, I fear we are slowly drowning out the more sober and softly spoken voices, in favour of the brash and the bold. Cable TV is the all too easy example of this, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh do more to influence the political thought of Americans today than all the University Professors in the country combined. In large part, that is their own fault, and our own fault. There are no excuses for an inability to communicate. But whilst democratising, this does run the risk of debasing just as much.

For this reason, as strong as my democratic spirits are, I dont see a justification for having a popularly elected president for Australia’s republic, over someone chosen by 2/3rds of the House of Representatives. Afterall, who would the public pick, but someone who has made their name entirely outside the field of politics. Anyone who has spent their lives learning & talking about political issues necessary for a head of state role, is either too unknown (from Uni Professors to elder Community figures like Major Michael General Jeffery or Quentin Bryce) or too controversial (Hawke, Keating, Howard). Instead it would be former sports stars, or perhaps a TV news reader or former actor. In other words, the greater the number of voices involved in the decision, the more likely someone entirely unqualified will take attention and hence the position.

So Hannan is right to welcome in the challenge to the stuffy control that the political media still exercises over the political process. I can’t count how many times I’ve ranted to journalist friends at the herd like nature of the press gallery for following the same story and refusing to let new voices in. As a liberal who pushes issues outside the mainstream approval such as legalising Marijuana, Homosexual Marriage, and severely cutting down on our middle class welfare state, I know all too well the impossibility of getting such views heard.

But there isn’t always a correlation between ability to say something that will get noticed, and ability to actually govern. Winning elections is a very different skill from governing well, as George W. Bush proved eloquently. So whilst I think it’s great that Hannan’s speech got noticed, lets neither convince ourselves this is a new era of politics, nor that it is a change without its own associated problems and risks.

(I was going to put in the self-pittying point that such a conclusion is neither bold nor controversial so wont be heard, but what’s the point as no one will read that either :P)