Chasing the Norm

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

Month: April, 2009

Meet the Drovers dog

With NSW Labor in such a pitiful state, broken transport promises, poor economic management, and the popularity on par with swine flu, many ambitious minds within Sydney must surely be wondering if they could be parachuted into the coalitions leadership, and secure the easiest election victory since Saddam Hussein last held an election. With that in mind, Peter Holmes a Court’s piece in this morning SMH makes for interested reading:

I spent 16 years living overseas, but in 1999 my wife and I chose to move from New York to Sydney. We didn’t do it on a whim. We thought long and hard, and chose Sydney for its beauty, relative convenience, low pollution, business opportunities, weather, and, of course, its football. I am here because I want to be, because I believe in NSW….
drovers-dog
I have some small experience of what it is like to undertake a process like this, with a rugby league club known to arouse the strongest of passions in the most unlikely of people. Like NSW, the South Sydney Rabbitohs had been No. 1, but their premierships were a distant memory. Like NSW, we had fallen behind the competition and needed to make changes across the board. We can recognise the progress: from effectively bankrupt wooden-spooners three years ago, to having a competitive team roster, the proper infrastructure and a growing membership. The team is by no means first, but it is clearly heading in the right direction.

Like the work done by the team at the Rabbitohs, reclaiming first for NSW will require us to do the boring stuff. It will take many years to complete the transformation and let our state match its performance with its great history and natural advantages, and give the people of NSW what they deserve.

Now is the time to do it. We can reclaim our natural position as the premier state, and as someone who has chosen to live here, I am ready to contribute and encourage you to as well. But I am just one of 7 million members who has a stake. If we are going to return to being the best, we have to do it together.

Demonstrate allegiance to group & proclaiming of loyalty: Check
Write about group issues whilst entirely using the personal pronoun ‘I': Check
Show involvement with popular local cause: Check
Claim of demonstrated success & competence: Check
Call for unity around a joint cause: Check
Final line humility & re-demonstration of allegiance to group: Check

NSW Coalition leader Barry O’Farrell will fight like a wounded mother to protect his spot, but don’t be surprised if we get a stream of such pieces through the daily rags; all professing their loyalty to the state and the cause: Themselves.

P.s For any who didn’t get the title reference: On the morning of Feb 3rd 1983, Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as leader of the Labor Party. At Lunchtime Malcolm Fraser called a snap-election (which he was to lose). That same afternoon, Hayden made the famous statement that ‘a drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory at the present time’.

Image by Broken Simulacra, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Promoting Criminals

Since when were potential War Criminals given space in the Sydney Morning Heralds opinion pages to justify their crimes?

Former and current Politicians and Bureaucrats have a lot to offer the public debate via media commentary. But surely at some point, when their motive switches from public debate, to private defense the benefit to the public of such pieces is sufficiently reduced to fall below the threshold of being worth publishing. Particularly when, the piece offers such reasonable analysis as:

“The suggestion that we are safer now because information about interrogation techniques is in the public domain conjures up images of unicorns and fairy dust”.

Which is a complete fabrication of the administrations claims, and a childish inversion designed to ignore the claim that the US using torture made it less safe. Stopping your car from going in reverse does not mean you are actually going forward, but it might help you stay away from the cliff.

Or

“Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquessof Queensberry. “Name, rank and serial number” does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this Administration wants us to ask”

This from a man who wont call it torture, but instead “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Apparently in Porter Goss’s world, you can only have “enhanced interrogation” or none at all.

But the greatest crime in this article is the constant invoking of Al Qaeda to imply the torture was conducted so as to prevent terrorist attacks. Indeed Goss twice drops the name of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who planned and originated the idea of the 9/11 attacks. Yet as we learnt recently, KSM was waterboarded and was waterboarded 183 within a single month. Was this immediately after capture you may ask? Or perhaps was this in connection with a ‘ticking time bomb’ that this evil terrorist knew the where abouts of?

Nope: It was in August 2002 and March 2003, when the Administration was looking for information to justify its public claim that Al Qaeda was working with Saddam Hussein, and therefore justify its forthcoming invasion of Iraq:

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document.
“There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” he continued.
“Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn’t any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies.”
Senior administration officials, however, “blew that off and kept insisting that we’d overlooked something, that the interrogators weren’t pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information,” he said.

The US didn’t torture to keep itself safe. It tortured because it could, because it wanted to. As Andrew Sullivan puts it (and his blog has been invaluable in documenting and describing what has happened to America)

“The problem with torture is the enormous damage it does to the possibility of finding the truth. Torture forces a victim to tell his interrogator anything to stop the pain. There may be some truth in the confession but there is also untruth – and no way to tell the two apart. Every experienced interrogator knows this, which is why governments that are concerned with getting at the truth do not use it … The reason totalitarian states use the torture techniques that Bush did is to produce false confessions to create a reality that buttresses their ideology.”

Goss is not contributing to the public debate with todays piece in the SMH. He is trying to protect himself from war crime prosecution. He no more deserves the space in our national newspaper than Ivan Milat or Martyn Bryant ought have it.

Liberals and Markets

I’ve blogged before on my disagreements with Classical Liberal/Libertarian types. Whilst we seem to have read the same great texts, and decided such ideals and principles were for us, most modern ideologues who claim the labels Classical Liberal or Libertarian seem to have but one solution to every single policy option: Create another Market. Yet much as markets are rightly praised as a necessary basis for a free people, I don’t see why what is essentially a means, should have become the default ends for every single policy debate. Take a recent debate on Andrew Norton’s site as he works through the implications of his political survey:

Commenter Robert suggests, regarding my post suggesting Milton Friedman influenced views in favour of competitive curricula on government not delivering school education, that

It could just be that better read classical liberals tend to favour freedom in education (and perhaps freedom in other areas) and it’s not Friedman specific. Is it worth testing whether the effect from Friedman is greater than having read other liberal thinkers?

I’m sorry to report it, as I like and admire Friedman rather than just admire Hayek, but a test comparing Friedman readers and Hayek readers (Hayek being the second most popular classical liberal writer among classical liberals, after Friedman) suggests that Robert is right. Hayek readers are slightly more likely to give the ‘correct’ classical liberal responses to questions on school curriculum setting and funding.

Note the terminology shared between Norton and his commentator. Private education and having states compete in delivering curriculum is a position that “favour’s freedom” and is the “correct” response. (To get the full context you might need to read these two blog posts 1, 2)

Yet whilst robert, andrew and myself all hold individual freedom as the primary goal, I don’t see how that is best achieved through encouraging a market in education. To wit:

1.The options for parental choice are limited: People are limited geographically and to a certain extent socio-economically. And whilst ideally parents may move to good schooling area’s when their children begin school, the ability and likelyhood of moving again to facilitate a better educaiton is almost non-existent. Parents simply make do out of limited choices. Markets can work with only a few choices available, but the selection between then at relatively low cost is critical, and in education non-existent (a factor no government intervention can really overcome – at least not in a private system, more on this later)
2. For children, there simply is no choice. Not only do their parents dictate their education, upon turning 18, people cant and simply wont go and repeat parts of their education should they decide that other vendors are better equipped, cheaper, whatever. They will instead go into another industry, such as choosing between tertiary education providers, or simply leave behind the education market altogether.
3. Together these two points dramatically work to limit the cost or benefits to schools for adapting to the market in issues such as ‘best practice curriculum’. Schools have significantly lower need to be efficient or cutting edge than any business in a real market.
4. Norton presents this debate in the context of choosing between having a nationally delivered curriculum, a state delivered curriculum and ‘competitive curriculum’. Here, the ‘freedom’ of having schools compete in what curriculum is seen as the highest principle and therefore the ‘correct’ approach. Yet the group who benefits from this freedom is a very limited selection of the general public. That is, school teachers and administrators who can implement a variety of curriculum’s that they feel best benefit the students (or suit their own skills/interests) and a limited selection of students who do indeed receive the ‘best practice’ available at the time. As with points 1-3, the actual flow of information and therefore new curriculum will be limited, not to mention the difficulty and cost of implementing new curriculum’s each year; hence even students whose parents have sent them to the ‘best’ school may still miss out on the highest standards due to implementation issues/unlucky timing.

What this presents is an idea of a market which ticks some of the basic liberal box’s (markets, freedom) the market would be inefficient and the freedom limited and largely superficial. Meanwhile the social effect (again a Liberal concern) would be that some students within the system would largely miss out on even an acceptable level of education due to either flawed curriculum (ie an experiment gone wrong), or more likely stay stuck with a consistent, but lagging curriculum chosen by only a handful of local professionals years before and kept in place by tradition and the static effect of the costs of transition.

All this becomes even more apparent when you look back and read the classical liberal thinkers, and not the modern economists who have championed their ideals. Education has always been at the heart of the Liberal ideal because it is perhaps the primary means in which individuals can better themselves and in which they can be prepared whilst children to become independent, responsible, self-fulfilling members of society. Freedom within the liberal context is based upon the individual being aware of their choices, of having knowledge of the flow of information in order to make educated choices between competing options. None of this is available to the illiterate or the educationally deprived. As such, this Liberal would argue that the greatest freedom is delivered not in schools choosing between curriculum, but in individuals being the best possibly prepared to engage the modern world as adults. That is, the short term cost to schools in losing that competition (and to some extent to parents), is offset by having the end product individuals significantly better prepared to independently engage society and exercise their individual freedom in a range of industries.
Given this, the argument for a national curriculum to ensure individuals are well prepared, with such a service delivered by both public or private schools (who have the option to add additional subjects such as religious education), seems a pragmatic but ultimately more profitable approach.

Yet none of this seems to even register in the debate that occurs within ‘Classical Liberal’ and Libertarian circles. That the market is the primary way in which Liberal principles are to be achieved is held without question to be the ‘correct’ answer. Dissenting views from this ideal are almost not engaged with. Now there are several reasons that could be attributed to this. First is the traditional benefits of markets in other areas to provide liberal ideals, along with the general ‘siege’ mentality that seems to lead some liberal/libertarian thinkers to think they are still facing great statist forces as occurred in the 20’s, 50’s and 80’s, and not within a very market orientated culture. Likewise is the effect of the economist’s who became the primary public advocates for liberal/libertarian ideals during the late 20th century (Hayek, Friedman etc).

But either way, it makes for a strange experience to engage people who share very similar principles and ideals, and yet be able to predict without reference to circumstance the policy prescription they favor. Its not that I disagree with them in all cases, and Norton deserves credit for being an intelligent voice advocating an alternate solution within the Australian education context. It’s just that it’s ‘correctness’ and correlation with liberal principles like ‘freedom’ is simply expected due to the means advocated, rather than a more hard headed analysis of the actual ends to which such a system would deliver. Like the statists within social democrat ranks, marketeers within the classical liberal/libertarian ranks have managed to convince their fellow ideologue that the means are actually the ends. Odd.

Ideology and theories of Human Nature

There’s a good piece over at TNR discussing Obama’s move to embrace whats termed ‘Behavioral Economics’, rather than the more traditional models as a way to seek out his agenda. And whilst a good read of a growing field, this paragraph really stood out:

Barack Obama has the type of mind–orderly, analytical, well-read–that takes naturally to the study of ideas. But he’s always been uncomfortable describing himself in ideological terms. Is he a liberal? During the campaign, Obama would mock those who applied the label to him: “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics,” he’d say. “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home.”…

Rather than force markets to conform to his wishes, he shapes their calculus so they conclude (on their own) that their interests coincide with his wishes… In the mid-’70s, Charles Schultze, Jimmy Carter’s top White House economic adviser, sketched out a version of the conceit in a book called The Public Use of Private Interest. Schultze favored “harnessing the ‘base’ motive of material self-interest to promote the common good”–say, by taxing rather than outlawing harmful activities. A generation later, the behavioral theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both informal advisers to the Obama campaign, hatched a descendant of this approach. In their own book, Thaler and Sunstein suggested that the government inculcate desirable habits like saving and philanthropy through a series of gentle “nudges.”

(Sunstein is now head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama)

But whats striking in this, is that this idea of harnessing the self-interest of the individual towards the common weal is precisely what makes a Liberal. Along with beliefs in freedom and the sanctity and primacy of the individual, Liberalism is distinct as a political theory for its inclusion of Self-Interest as the basic nature of humanity, and a force to be utilised for what public benefit that could be found, rather than turned inward or repressed. Unlike Conservatives and Social Democrats who see ills and flaws in human nature that need to be educated out and controlled by prohibition, Liberals seek to leave human nature, but seek outlets for it to flow in positive directions. This is why liberalism has always been the political ideology primarily tied to the market. Markets work to filter our private self-interest and desire for domination, into a form of profitable exchange that is peaceful, and prosperous. The more self-interested we are, almost the better in our engagement with the market (such as drive for competition that seeks out new markets, reduces prices, invents new products or services and drives out inefficiencies or failing businesses).

For me, it is this acceptance of human nature as neither good nor evil, but as a essentially constant that ought to be funneled for public and private good, that makes it at once the most pragmatic and sensible of political theories and worthy of being called by such a name. It does not seek to harness humanity towards some great goal, but merely identify common tools for interaction, instituted and maintained through good governance that enable the great and glorious seething mass of humanity, with all its contradictions, foibles, and beauty to make good on its promises to protect the poor, give freedom and dignity to the individual, and protect the society at large from the inevitable barbarians at the gates.

Obama doesn’t seem to like the word, his training is after all law not politics or philosophy, but in his endorsement of such schools of thought he is, however unconsciously more true to the ideal of a liberal than perhaps any number of his left wing colleagues who gather under such a banner. Human nature can’t always be shaped for positive purposes, but we have many benefits to be gained, many social ills spared, and many laws and restrictions that could be removed if we were to once more and forthrightly make such a principle at the heart of our understanding of how to govern humanity: Like a great carpenter, by going with the grain of humanity, not roughly against its form, no matter how great our final visions may be.

Sensing the political winds

Via Matthew Yglesias today comes news that both Rudy Guiliani and Newt Gingrich are gearing up to become the new fervent defenders of marriage. As followers of US politics will know (or if you follow through the links) both men have been married multiple times, with long standing accusations about infidelity following them to. Yglesias makes the obvious & easy case of the sheer hypocrisy of such men trying to defend the institution of marriage. But there’s a more interesting question at play: Given both come from the much more socially liberal wing of the Republican party, and neither are that religiously observant, why are both choosing to help remake themselves by becoming just one more right winger to rail against the supposed civilization destroying evil that is two people of the same gender wanting to get married.
us-flag
Both are looking at a return to politics, fearful their best days are behind them. Gingrich perhaps just to maintain his standing as a commentator, but word is Rudy wants to run for Governor of NY (Where current Governor David Patterson is currently introducing a new bill to allow same-sex marriage, a move which already has 53% popularity.Both also seem much more comfortable with homosexuals in their own lives than say Pat Robertson, so given this move is entirely political, wouldn’t the smarter political move be to come out in favor of homosexual marriage?

Such a move would be bold and cause a lot more attention to be paid to them and their opinion on the full gamete of issue (For instance much like Meagan McCain, daughter of the failed presidential candidate who is steadily building a career as a republican commentator in part by supporting equal marriage).
Likewise, as the polls indicate, in their area’s Rudy & Newt frequent of NY and Washington such a move is already quite popular, and critically that number is sure to rise. The biggest split on the issue of marriage is generational, though you can also expect an effective socialisation to ripple through the public body, as people come to see that Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa & Connecticut have not sunk into the sea, or turned into wild cesspit of immorality by allowing people to commit themselves for the rest of their lives to each other in a legally and morally binding ceremony. In short, the case against Gay Marriage is a losers cause, and whilst it will be a long time before it’s uncontroversial (and so currently is useful for riling up the republican base), the public mind is changing and the direction it is changing is perfectly obvious for even the dullest political minds to see.
Which raises my final point, perhaps the best days of these two men really are behind them, by challenging their party on such an issue and help leading its change, homosexual marriage presents a great legacy issue for both. Whilst everyone forgets the names of the souther states democrats who challenged and held back the civil rights movement for as long as possible, those who came to see the need for change and acted are remembered as hero’s. Lyndon Johnson’s record whilst smeared by Vietnam and the end of the Great Society project, will always be tied with his great acts on Civil Rights. In the face of his party, and perhaps some of his own opinions too, Johnson made the changes which were necessary, and forthcoming, and tied his name indefinably to the cause. For that, he will always be remembered, and forgiven his other sins. Leading the charge to allow equal marriage would be a similar (though smaller) cause for both men. It would guarantee that they would always be associated by history with having lead on an issue their party resisted, as having courageously stood up (one shouldn’t underestimate the controversy this would bring), but end up ensuring both men end with a much more positive record for history, and for having been no more foresighted than to have read the polls and known which way the ground was shifting.

Both want to stay relevant and listened to. Both have vaulting ambitions (not least of all to end the careers in the oval office), and yet here they have both taken the dull and predictable move of re-branding themselves as strong opponents of homosexuals getting married. Coming out in support of such a change however would get them noticed, make them much more acceptable to the young voters they would need to win back from Obama, lets them re-claim their parties tag as concerned with liberty, and whether it works or not, ensure they go down in history as leaders not followers on a major issue.

Defend your principles not your actions

One clear rhetorical difference between Right-Wing and Left-Wing politicians, is that so often the right when attacked, tends to step back and defend its principles (which are almost impossible to overturn) whilst the Left tends more to want to discuss the context and defend it’s immediate actions. In fact, despite the importance of principles to motivate anyone into politics, especially those seeking social change, you much much more rarely hear them defend their policies on the basis of such principles. If pushed I’d trace this back to the late 1970’s, when the Liberal project began to falter, and the focus turned more to defending what had been won (cultural, racial and gender liberalisation, welfare, workplace rights etc). Not only does this end up re-framing Liberalism as boring defender of the status-quo and coldly technocratic in orientation, it often leads to an opportunity to attack liberals as supporting -in principle- action that is in truth only endorsed because their is no other viable alternative (such as the massive corporate bailouts of Banks and institutions in the USA).

A clear example of this popped up this afternoon, as the Australian Rudd Government sought to defend its self after there had been a small increase in asylum seekers this year, and several were killed just a few days ago when one of the boats carrying people over blew up.

Evans denies seeing report

The Federal Government has denied receiving a report by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) warning the nation’s border protection policies were soft and would increase the number of illegal asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans said his Government had the full support of the AFP.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says people smugglers can ‘rot in hell’ as the Opposition accuses his Government of a ‘soft’ asylum policy.
News Ltd has reported the AFP had delivered secret briefings to senior ministers weeks ago, warning that softer border protection laws would attract more unlawful arrivals.

But Senator Evans said he had not received it.

“I haven’t seen such a report and clearly as the minister responsible I wouldn’t report on such advice,” he told reporters in Perth on Saturday.

“I was at a conference in Bali earlier this week that focused on people smuggling and I was briefed by AFP officers and they say we are making good headway in breaking up people smuggling gangs.”

First note the overblown and childish language from the PM that people smugglers can “rot in hell” so as to defend himself from charges of being weak. PM’s shouldn’t talk like that, and certainly not to defend themselves politically on what is very much a 5-minute issue.

But more important is Evan’s reaction. Even assuming he is telling the truth and had not seen the report, it’s not hard for the opposition to make the case that they had argued this already, that the government had already been told by other sources that these changes were potentially going to increase the number of those who seek to come to these shores. In short, it’s a no win situation for the government, and denying now only delays, and potentially compounds later accusations.

It would have been far better for Evans to simply come out and state the principles which led the Labor party to shut down the abject and inhumane failure that was the Pacific Solution. Evans should have simply re-iterated to the public that ‘There are some lines in the treatment of people who come to these shores, that Australia will not breech’, that ‘Australians expect that their government will treat asylum seekers in a humane and decent manner, and this is far more important than quibbling over how more guns & barbed-wire could have kept a handful more asylum seekers away.’ etc.

By defending the principle that Australian refugee policy ought to be humane in its treatment of applicants, Evans would have returned within the walls of an unbreechable rhetorical castle. Not even Hanson advanced the argument they should be brutalised, and the Liberals under Turnbull wont go anywhere near it. In which case the Opposition would be left trying to meekly argue that tiny minor policy details (like shifting from the navy to customs) are instead the most important issues. Points which will fly over the head of most of the public and be easily open to attack from the Rudd Government. Instead Liberal staffers are this very minute combing every piece of public advice given to the government on this issue, and every opposition statement before the fact suggesting similar results. And heaven help Evans if it turns out that AFP report somehow ended up on a staffers desk in his office and never quite fell before the ministers eyes.

This is a lesson Conservatives like Reagan knew intuitively, and Liberals ought to learn quickly. It makes for better ‘grabs’, it is much harder to argue against, and keeps reminding the public of the link between the politician and the principles they advocate. So defend the principle, not your actions.

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.

Letting the Market be the Market

One of the fundamental principles handed down to us from the modern birth of democracy was the imperative to separate church and state. Having had well over a thousand years of church dominated political life, thinkers in the west came to recognize that such cross-over harmed both. Government failed the people physically and the Church spiritually as both were corrupted from their primary purpose. It is also no co-incidence that America is one of the most religious places on earth due to giving the churches wide space to act outside and away from the grasp of state-doctrine & man-anointed leaders.

This principle is well ingrained, and now as we end the first decade of the 21st century I’d like to advocate another similar principle: The separation of Corporation and State

Lindsay Tanner writing in the Age this morning makes the point well in relation to health-care:

Australia has been fortunate to avoid the most extreme form of this phenomenon, where individual companies became vehicles for social welfare policy.

American car manufacturers are threatened with bankruptcy partly because they are burdened with enormous health and pension obligations. China is struggling to build a social safety net as it can no longer afford to force companies to provide services such as health care and housing.

This is something that has always intrigued me, in watching apparently pro-market forces condemn government paid health-care services. Even some of the most thoughtful tie themselves in knots trying to justify the massive costs forced onto business, all the while charting those for whom the recession has meant not just the loss of their job, but their health care too. But in spite of this burden on business, and great risk on the individual, the idea of universal coverage paid for by taxation (and lets face it US rates arn’t that much lower than anywhere else in the developed world, and such costs pale next to the defence budget) is anathema and must be rejected out of hand.

Yet why should business’s already struggling to compete as efficiently as they can, be forced to provide for the healthcare needs of their employers. They only pay for their education when it comes to specific business related learning, so why cover their general maintenance and well being too? If business’s want to add an extra incentive to attract workers thats great, but most business’s offer it only because they know they have to (in some cases are forced to) And so issues related to hiring and firing and workplace flexibility become infinitely more complex and emotionally tied up due to the link to the health of both the employee and their family. Given business’s already pay taxes, why are they forced to become a secondary social welfare vehicle ?

Yet the point is obvious in other areas too. In politics our politicians are ever more having to account for who they met and interact with, less they be revealed to have dined from the table of Lobbyists (and to which President Obama has, -at some cost to the progressive movement- banished from the white house staff)

Even more transparently, corporations and states rarely mix for a beneficial outcome to the public, from dodgy deals in no-bid contracts, to the vast extent of corporate welfare which burdens out budget and distorts our policy, particularly in primary industries such as Agriculture and Manufacturing. And whist the prophets of the free market warn darkly about the return of tariffs, the single greatest force encouraging such protectionism is the very corporations who are idolised by these same figures. Individuals and towns are often ignored by governments, but put a big corporation before a government to plead it’s case and more often than not tax payer money seems to flow their way. All for the good of the people we are told.

This was also one of the great faults of the Howard Government, which claimed to be pro-market, yet was more accurately pro-business. What major companies began at the start of its time in office, it put in all viable resources to see them continue. As I outlined a while back, the Howard government was relentless in its efforts to protect the major corporations in Australia from competition and the forces of the market, even when it hurt it’s own electoral base. That is those who advocated the most about preventing government distortion of the market to benefit the social welfare (such as in opposing regulation or taxation) were often the first to embrace their own distortions when it helped corporate welfare.

Of course no complete seperation is possible, nor should it be advocated. Just as we would lose out if we tried to ban religious arguments from our public sphere, we should not try to stop corporations advocating their case or playing their role before the public. But where possible, government should see that their mission is quite different to that of corporations, and too close a link (however much it might help in promoting wealth and prosperity) is likely to corrupt both away from their actual skills and constituency.

After the experience of the middle ages, new political thinkers realised that seperating the church and state benefited both. After the experience of the depression, fascism and the new market crashes, we should realise that separating Corporation and State will also benefit both. Unleash the market to compete as vigorously as possible, and restrain the state to keep as focused on individual freedom & well being, not business bottom lines as possible. In short, let the market, be the market. It’s a lesson those who profess to love it most, will find the hardest to accept.

He aint running

Most aspiring Politicians would maim staffers and passers by to get a regular column in the newspaper. A chance to showcase their ideas, to educate the public to their opponents incompetence, or simply project an image of themselves as a future great thinker and leader. Peter Costello on the other hand seems to be using his chance to road test material for a stand up comedy tour:

I’ve been feeling sorry for Belinda Neal. Neal, you will recall, is the Labor MP who let fly at a waiter when he asked her to move tables at Iguana Joe’s a restaurant/night spot on the NSW Central Coast. “Don’t you know who I am?” she demanded.

Soon all of Australia knew who she was. Kevin Rudd stepped in, reprimanded her and ordered her to undergo anger management counselling.

I’ve never been to this sort of counselling but I can imagine how it operates. A therapist gives you a tricky case and questions you on how to respond. The idea is to keep your anger under control.

Here’s a case study for Neal. You are flying on your private jet when the flight attendant brings you the wrong meal. Do you (a) eat it anyway; (b) point out you ordered something else and ask for an alternative; or (c) shout at the flight attendant and reduce her to tears?

Sure it’s an insiders political joke, but he’s kind of funny; the man always was (though his biography is weirdly lacking in well written lines. They’re in there, but almost all are direct quotes from his hansard performances). But the obvious conclusion that must be drawn from such a whimsical use of the space is that Peter Costello is not, and will never run for the leadership of the Liberal Party. This is just about having fun, either tweaking Turnbull or Labor and rounding off his time in Parliament. He may even be having such a good time, he will nominate for a return act. Perhaps with comedy glasses & a fake nose next time…

First do no harm

This is a welcome rebuff to the recent spouting’s of pure ignorance by the Pope, and echoed by Australia’s own Bishop Pell

The East-West Centre in Hawaii has estimated that if condom use had not been widely promoted and adopted, today 8 million Thais would be infected rather than the 550,000 now living with the virus. That’s more than 7 million lives saved. And have these condoms encouraged promiscuity? Five years into the campaign, in 1997, only 12 per cent of Thai military conscripts reported visiting a sex worker, down from 60 per cent five years earlier.

Similar success stories can be found in Cambodia, India, and Brazil where rates of HIV infection have steadily declined as a result of education about HIV, safer sex and the provision of condoms. In the West African nation of Senegal, the government began promoting condoms in the late 1980s and this has helped to keep HIV prevalence below 1 per cent to this day.

The rest of the story is filled with many more stats & examples.

I’m normally not one who buys the line that there’s a divide between religion and science. I think it’s too artificial, too simplistic and cuts out too many interesting discussions. Questions such as abortion can not be properly answered without both science and religion (or a deliberately secular ethics system in place of).
But given the influence that men such as Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop George Pell have, they ought to be vigorously engaged when they make claims that are simply false, and likely to encourage dangerous behavior.

Personally I don’t really understand the church’s objection to contraceptives. They arn’t mentioned in the holy texts (for obvious reasons), the knowledge & use of doesn’t change teenage promiscuity rates (if anything it makes it riskier), and most critically, contraceptives prevent the creation of a human life, which all major faiths hold starts at conception, and not possibly before hand. (Not to mention that 13% of female deaths during pregnancy are caused by abortions(67’000 women & 20 million abortions), with the legality and religion of the country having little effect)

In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus only on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate was 54 per 1,000 women in 2003, more than twice the rate in the United States, 21 per 1,000 in that year. The lowest rate, 12 per 1,000, was in Western Europe, with legal abortion and widely available contraception.

So already living human beings will be safer, healthier, no morally worse, and alive, and far far less unborn humans will be brought into existence only to be later destroyed. If in any way your moral system has to do with the actual lives and well being of people as they are here and now then contraceptives are a no-brainer.
Anything less is not a moral system, but mere political doctrine for human behavior, dressed up as being ethically motivated.

It’s for reasons like this that I suggested a little while ago, that as a basis for a new left wing political philosophy, it had to begin with an acceptance of human nature as a constant. I deliberately didn’t link this to a utilitarian moral system, but anyone familiar with the philosophy would have seen it’s imprint on my words.

So let us talk religion and science, let us educate & inform children about religion and it’s possibilities and wonders, lets encourage those of faith to participate in the public debate and discussion, and let us then remind them of the responsibility they have to be honest and place a care for human well being ahead of their own prejudice and impulses. A hippocratic oath for religious leaders: First do no harm.

So good to see the papers running such a story, but it really should have appeared several days before. It’s no exaggeration to say lives depend upon it…

Taking Your Beatings

Being in opposition is never a fun time. One of my first clear political memories was of Paul Keatings concession speech in 1996, and were it not for the outrages I felt at the Howard Governments actions, I may never have found my way into politics or academia. But, whilst the impulse is to get back into power as quickly as possible, there is much to be said for the benefit of accepting your loss, and keeping your desires restrained whilst in this doldrum period. Take Thailand where the overthrow of one government is predictably leading to a similar challenge against the new one:

Protesters have been defying a state of emergency announced by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Sunday, one day after violent supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra forced the cancellation of a 16-nation Asian summit meeting.

Shortly after the emergency announcement, protesters attacked Mr. Abhisit’s motorcade as he left the Interior Ministry, injuring several people in the cars, but the Prime Minister reportedly escaped through a back door of the building.

Speaking to protesters by telephone link, Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, called for a revolution and said he was prepared to return to join them.

It’s this kind of back and forth that makes me uncomfortable seeing scenes such as the tea-bag protests in the USA. If you havn’t been following the story, following Obama’s election win, passage of a stimulus package, a tax cut for 95% of people, and a return of taxes for high income earners to 1990’s Clinton levels of 39%.

So this April 15th, at events across the nation (Google Map here) people will be emulating the Bostonians who in 1773 rejected taxation without representation. What is the new mob’s concern this time? Well it’s rather hard to tell:

In late February, I attended a tea party in Lansing, Michigan, and will be there again next Wednesday. While there, I spoke with several people, and, while everybody attended for the same “big picture” reason, many had their own reason to be there.
For some it was wildly excessive and confusing tax laws. Others were there out of concern for their children and grandchildren. Some were there because they’re maddened that the same glorious policies that have made Detroit look like Bangladesh after a garbage haulers strike are being introduced on a national level, a few were upset because the same people who created these massive problems are charged with fixing them, others don’t want their country sold out to some global entity, and one man I saw had a sign that said “‘Government job’ is a contradiction in terms.” Many were there for the reason of “all of the above.”

Obama’s sins are not great or even significant, and the justifications claimed for the event are wide and varied. So what is really leading these protests ? Largely it seems a general anti-democratic discontent with the idea that Republicans and the right wing is now out of power. This of course can’t be admitted publicly, but it is pretty clear that the real object of hate here is not the taxes of Obama, but the votes in 2008 of their compatriots that put him in the White House.

Even more dangerously than just some fringe rants, is the clear evidence that Fox News, the largest Cable news channel in the USA has decided to support this anti-democratic movement

Fox anchors Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto boarded the bandwagon first by signing on with tax day tea parties in Atlanta and Sacramento. Now Glenn Beck will be broadcasting from the Alamo in Texas and Greta Van Susteren will party in Washington, D.C., amounting to hours and hours of rotating live coverage of the anti-tax, anti-spending events.

“This year Americans across the country are holding tea parties to let politicians know that we’ve had enough,” Beck said yesterday. “Celebrate with Fox News.”

Whilst i’m not alledging violence Thailand style is imminent, an instructive lesson can be drawn from Venezuela. Whilst Chavez is an incompetent, possibly deranged leader, who makes up policy on the fly, and has wasted the equivalent of a few dozen Marshall plans in oil revenue without any substantive improvement in his countrymen’s welfare, he is well served by his opposition. Despite all his follies and flaws, the fact that the opposition media routinely calls for coup’s against him (and assisted a failed attempt in 2002), has essentially helped consolidate Chavez as the sane and moderate one. Instead of an acceptance of their position and re-orientation towards addressing the primary concerns of the Venezuelan people (poverty, regional relations & developing industries beyond oil) the opposition have confirmed their status as boosters and sycophants for the ultra elites. There’s many other issues of course, but it’s an instructive case study.

For these reasons, it was therefore pleasing to this unaligned political observer to note that Malcolm Turnbull has stepped back from his shadow treasurer’s reckless threat to block supply after the may budget.

Mr Turnbull said the opposition would reserve the right to oppose measures in the May budget it considered misconceived or poor policy.

“That’s been done in the past on many occasions by every opposition over many years,” Mr Turnbull told reporters in Terrigal, on the NSW central coast.

Any suggestion the coalition would block supply or block the budget was completely wrong.

“We will not block any of the appropriation legislation, so we won’t block supply bills.”

Such a move brings to mind Fraser & Kerr’s 1975 coup against Whitlam. And whilst the historically illiterate on the right are comparing Rudd to Whitlam (A true apples and oranges comparison), it was Fraser as much as anyone who suffered for the illegitimate means by which he obtained power. As Peter Costello writes in his memoirs:

‘An elected government is, or should be, entitled to expect that its money bills will pass… If Malcolm Fraser had not deferred Supply but let parliament run, he still would have been elected, probably in an even greater landslide. What is more, he would not have had to face the argument – which he always had to face – that somehow he had got into office through illegitimate tactics. I believe Fraser felt de-legitimised by this tactic and this is one of the reasons he was cautious in office and later began to court progressive opinion’. – Peter Costello The Costello Memoirs, 2008 page 24

In short, opposition is about as bad a time as you can have in politics. Your job is always on the line, your colleagues will end up doing more harm to you than your opponents as they either seek your job or want to put an acolyte into your seat. The media ridicules you and the public ignores you. After a decade, perhaps an entire career spent knowing power, the desperation to make it all go back to how it was, by means fair or foul must be overpowering. But such strategies almost never work, and de-legitimize you when they do. And, whilst I’m sure all the tea-party goers are loyal Americans, they need only look back to the history of the Roman Republic from Marius to Caesar to know the damage they could wreck on their young republic. One of democracies greatest strength is giving space for ambitious individuals to compete, but that only applies so long as they remain within the system, however great the temptation for ultimate conquest may be. They should like their wounds and rebuild. After all in 2004 everyone was talking about an eternal republican majority, and now look where the democrats are. The rights time will come again, until then such actions look at best foolish and arrogant, at worst anti-democratic and potentially treasonous to the very institutions and traditions of their own society.

Photo by Flickr user swansdepot. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Rudd and the Australian Character

The commentariat at large (both the media and blogosphere) seem to be taking a faint air of unreality towards Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers.Nielson polls put him almost equal to Hawke’s record popularity, whilst Newspoll has Rudd at 67% in the beauty contest of preferred PM. Responding to this Andrew Norton wondered if this was just a Political Bubble:

I don’t think it is just my own political biases that prevent me from seeing what so many voters are seeing. He has none of Hawke’s charisma, none of Keating’s style and wit, none (OK, little) of Howard’s Australian everyman persona. He is our first nerd Prime Minister. I’ve got nothing against nerds. I am one. But I’m amazed that 74% of the Australian public approve of a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions.

By some accounts, these numbers are amazing, Australia is in a recession, unemployment is up, and a number of big Rudd policies have stumbled (WorkChoices, National Broadband Network) or fallen over (Net Filter). So why is this nerd-in-chief well liked ? To answer that I want to use a quote from Alan Watt (one of our greatest, though now forgotten diplomats) who penned this sketch in 1967 that seems to age well:

‘The personality of the Australian could scarcely be confused with that of an Englishman by anyone who knew both well; nor was there any lack of pride amongst Australians in their own country and people – indeed, they could more justly be charged with aggressive self-confidence. But Australians, overwhelmingly British in origin, isolated in their island continent from significant contacts with non-british peoples, did not feel the urge to underline in the constitutional field the nationalism they were more than ready to assert on the field of sport. They were pragmatic by tradition, unaccustomed to and thus suspicious of theorising, preoccupied with taming a reluctant continent and with wringing from it the necessary basis for a high average standard of living for the average man, and hesitant to move speedily into new fields of independent thinking and acting.’
– Alan Watt 1967: page 30-31 ‘The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938-1965. London: Cambridge University Press.

In this way, Australia is quite often ill-served by its commentariate and academy, precisely because the type of people who are inclined towards such issues and theory, are in this and this alone distinct from the community they seek to analyse and understand. The further they remove politics from its current context, the less able they are to clearly define what is happening. This is a burden that falls much more on the progressive movement, as the spirit for change is often easiest motivated in those who want to substantially move beyond mere improvement in the average standard of living. Take H. V ‘Doc’ Evatt. Foreign minister during WW2, a man who set up the entire Labor tradition in Foreign Policy, he was also first president of UN General Assembly, critical in drafting the UN charter and universal declaration of Human Rights, a man who did more than anyone to preserve free speech & the freedom of association in this country in his courageous efforts to stop Menzies ban of the Communist Party in 1951. And twice failed opposition leader and largely forgotten by history. Evatt was a middle class intellectual, it was his embrace of the theoretical that enabled him to see further than perhaps any man of his generation (certainly much further than his great, and much more politically successful opponent Robert Menzies), and yet he was largely unliked by the public and never trusted with the keys to the lodge.

In our Prime Minister, the public want someone who appears to be focusing on the here and now, and who is seeking to deal with the problems in a pragmatic and sensible way. I’ve already critiqued some of the dangers of operating on pragmatism alone, but as a political strategy it is one much closer to the Australian character. Take the man Rudd now nearly equals in popularity: Robert J. Hawke. Hawkey may be remembered today as bobhawkethe man who could scull a yard glass, or told boss’s they were ‘bums’ if they sacked anyone for turning up to work hungover after Australia won the America’s Cup. But, despite this iconic Australiana image, his political character and strategy was of a compromiser and negotiator who would bring people together to solve issues. That was his appeal, that was his claim. It was also the basis of his great successes (such as the Accord), and the means by which he could justify his more radical economic and social reforms (from economic liberalisation, to medicare to HECS). In terms of stereotypes: It was not as a bushman, but as a diplomat that Hawke won over the Australian public.

Rudd is following a similar approach and style to the confusion and anger of his critics. Take the National Broadband Network. Those on the right attacked it as re-nationalisation, those on the left as privatisation, whilst the general public just asked “will it work?”. Rudd may get credit as an intellectual PM, but his real success (like Howard before him, who was just as much a nerd) is that he’s made most people overlook it, and judge him on his policy and approach. Indeed, I think his critics have him backwards, seeing him as an intellectual pretending to be an everyman, when really he is a smart everyman, pretending to be a intellectual. His essay’s are well written (surprisingly moreso than his wooden, boring speeches and doorstop rhetoric), but there is a certain emptyness and lack of driving conviction and argument development that would identify a real first-rate mind at work. Rudd appropriates labels and terms “Christian socialist” “economic conservative” “social democrat” and figures, both Heroes like Andrew Fisher or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or villans such as Friedrich von Hayek, represents a certain undergraduate style of intellectual engagement. At once both passionate, certain and yet single-sided and temporary. Rudd changes and shapes his ideas and idols as they pass through his readings or as suits his political needs, rather than being long term significant life identifying features of his mental landscape.

Rudd’s popularity will slowly fall, the next election will have a few close moments for Labor supporters to bite their fingers during, but if Rudd can remember to stick to the pragmatic tradition of Australian policy making he will do just fine. All to the confusion and frustration of the ideologues and men of ideas who make up the the commentariate. From both the media, but especially the blogosphere and from opponents who warn darkly of his radical moves, to supporters who wish him to get on with actual progressive change.

That moment

Reading the newspaper (the entire newspaper) is a task few of us still endure. Subscription rates are dropping, advertisers fleeing to the internet, and upstart online tabloids like Politico stealing their readers. Still, I try to get through it, but sometimes, seeing sentences like this just makes the task impossible:

Today’s human rights cause du jour – where the rubber hits the road, so to speak – is the human right of bikies to freedom of association. Many of us may question whether the individual right of bikies to gather in drug dens and armed fortresses trumps our human right to avoid getting caught in their crossfire, but more on that later.

All who support a bill of rights and accept such thoughts have ever crossed your mind, please raise your hand. No one?
And this from a piece headlined “Crusaders rely on lies. The author, none other than Janet Albrechtscen, responding to the criticism of Human Rights Lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

This truly is the state of serious journalism in this country…

The courts and the law

Two key legal decisions in the last 24 hours, one here in Australia, the other in Iowa, USA that may have significant ramifications in time. First Australia:

KEVIN Rudd’s $900 stimulus bonus to 8.7 million taxpayers is valid and can go ahead, the High Court ruled this morning.

The ruling follows a legal challenge by academic and barrister Bryan Pape, who argued the payments were a gift, not a tax measure, for which the Government had no constitutional powers.

The payments are scheduled to go ahead from Monday.

Chief Justice Robert French said a majority of the court’s seven judges agreed the Rudd Government’s Tax Bonus for Working Australians Act was supported by one or more constitutional heads of power and that there had been a valid appropriation of the consolidated revenue fund.

Whilst the paying of the stimulus was never really in question (Pape himself has said other means were available), it does helpfully bring before the court the issue of the expanse of Constitutional powers. Though unfortunately for Pape (a committed states right advocate), the decision is likely to further centralise and legitimise power in canberra. Just like the Work Choices case, the High Court has a habit of rolling over on the Federal Governments demands, in a nearly 30 year long string of supporting the expanse of the Federal Government.

Though what this case also significantly highlights is the utter irrelevance of the constitution to the way our government operates. And whilst Australia is one of the best functioning democracies in the world, and governed more as a ‘democracy of manners’ than the law, it is still a dangerous thing. We’ve seen abuses of the constitution over time, and significant modern rights (such as free speech, freedom of association etc) imperiled by our constitutions lack of explicit discussion on such matters.

What this highlights again is the urgent need for a Constitutional convention to bring these issues back into the public domain, to properly discuss contentious though beneficial progressive changes such as adding a bill of rights, whilst also addressing a number of important (but to the general public utterly boring) issues in the federal/state relationship, such as with taxation, health and education. Having our Federal Government rely on loopholes to govern (such as signing treaties to force states to change laws as with Tasmania’s Sodomy laws), or proceeding almost to the point of payment of a critical stimulus package without a clear constitutional mandate, is unsustainable. In itself the decision was expected and will be soon forgotten, but it’s one more that indicates the need for a clear public discussion of the vast gap that exists between the way Australia operates, and the constitution it is claimed to be based upon.

There’s also pleasing news from Iowa, heart of midland America this morning:

The court first held that same-sex couples are similarly situated with opposite-sex married couples even though they cannot have children together because they “are in committed and loving relationships, many raising families” and “official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities.” The court believed society would benefit “from providing same-sex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples.” Since marriage is “designed to bring a sense of order to the legal relationships of committed couples and their families” the court believed the only reason the law could treat same and opposite-sex couples differently is their “sexual orientation.” The court held the statute classifies on this basis even though the statute does not mention orientation because “civil marriage with a person of the opposite sex is as unappealing to a gay or lesbian person as civil marriage with a person of the same sex is to a heterosexual.” The current law, the court said, prevents gay or lesbian people from “simultaneously fulfill[ing] their deeply felt need for a committed personal relationship, as influenced by their sexual orientation, and gain[ing] the civil status and attendant benefits granted” by the marriage law.

Andrew Sullivan, whose writing over the years has personalised this issue for me, where once it might have been just a dry issue of civil liberties celebrates. One day soon, people will look back and wonder how on earth our societies managed to justify such discrimination against Homosexuals, for so long. Though sadly on this, (and despite rhetoric that shows he understands) Obama has been willfully cowardly on this issue. This may not be the right political time to engage such a campaign (he already has a thousand and one more critical issues), but making his position clear would do a lot to help others do the pushing, and continue to build the consensus until such time as he is available to make the changes sorely needed, in recognising the fundamental right of everyone to marry, regardless of sexual orientation.

I prefer to see most decisions to change society reached by consensus of the people in popular elections. But sometimes the courts, freed from the status quo pressures which typically overwhelm most politicians, are needed to kick society along and counter the tyranny of the majority. In themselves neither of these two rulings will change their societies, but they do make clear the increasing need for reform in both countries, so that we may truly live up to our ideal under the rule of law, not the rule of men.

Pun-ishing the Media

It’s a favourite past-time of bloggers to attack the media. Like a rich kid on daddy’s trust fund, the origin of our wealth and entertainment is also the first target when our bottles run dry. But I wonder how many are bloggers because like me, they couldn’t or wouldn’t make it as a Journalist. So, in a slight change of pace, three cheers for all the journalists out there. From the local city press to the major metropolitan papers and gargantuan TV news programs. Journalists are regularly rated on surveys as being as trustworthy as politicians or used car salesmen. Yet, few of us pause before we take as gospel their reporting when it suits our political and social indulgences and prejudices.

Although this temporary good cheer may just be a cunning excuse to justify posting this punishingly awesome effort from todays The Australian:
couldnt_handel_drink

COMPOSER George Frideric Handel was a binge eater and problem drinker whose gargantuan appetites resulted in lead poisoning that eventually killed him, according to a study.

By the time of his death 250 years ago this month, aged 74, the composer of Messiah had for 20 years been fighting severe health problems, including blindness, gout, bouts of paralysis and confused speech.

According to David Hunter, music librarian at the University of Texas and author of more than 60 articles on Handel, these ailments were all linked to lead poisoning brought on by his notoriously heavy consumption of rich foods and alcohol.