Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Culture

iPads and the changing nature of reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a doctor in the country?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why I love Test Cricket

Mike Hussy during his match winning century

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

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

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

Respect goes both ways: Rudd’s error on White Ribbon

The other day whilst responding to a Dorothy Dixer on White Ribbon Day, the Anti-domestic violence iniative, the Prime Minister began to get rather worked up: (Hansard in PDF. Page 53)
whiteribbonday

The survey reveals that the two strongest predictors for holding violence-supportive attitudes are being male and having low levels of support for gender equity and equality. This demonstrates very abundantly the significance of White Ribbon Day and the role of White Ribbon Day ambassadors. It is our gender, the Australian male gender, that is responsible; no-one else. It is men who are responsible and we must show leadership in stamping this out in the future.

Any man who hits a woman is scum in my opinion, I’ve never hit a woman, and I hope my girlfriend would dump my sorry ass in a second if I did such a thing. Equally I don’t think anyone could disagree with the intention of the PM’s statement.

But not all domestic violence is just male on female, it also goes the other way

New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics figures show that over the past eight years, the number of women charged with domestic abuse has rocketed by 159 per cent.
In 2007, 2,336 women fronted court on domestic violence charges, compared to around 800 in 1999.
Preconceived ideas of gender roles have led a lot of people to believe it would be virtually impossible for a women to physically abuse a man.
But co-director of Men’s Rights Agency Sue Price says it is exactly this stereotype that leads to battered men hiding in shame, fearful of being ridiculed, or even prosecuted.Despite the many domestic violence support services available to women victims, Ms Price says there is almost no practical and legal outreach for men.

(I can’t find nation wide figures as most states havn’t released detailed breakdowns)

Equally, while 3/4 of domestic violence and especially disgusting sexual violence is against women, men are actually far more likely to experience physical violence than women in our society at all ages. According to the ABS’s 2005 Personal Survey Saftey:

Since the age of 15, there were an estimated 3,065,800 (39.9%) women who experienced
violence compared with 3,744,900 (50.1%) men.

In the 12 months prior to the survey, younger women and men experienced violence at
higher rates than older women and men.
! 12% (117,000) of women aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 6.5% (97,900) of women aged 35–44 years and 1.7% (42,100)
of women aged 55 years and over
! 31% (304,300) of men aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 9.4% (138,700) of men aged 35–44 years and 2.8% (62,500) of
men aged 55 years and over

Obviously this trends as well into straight crime (ie aggravated robbery), but it also includes significant cases of physical assault in bullying and social troubles (from cases where people are well known to each other, to violence against random strangers). A related issue is that of suicides where of the 1800 people who took their own life in Australia in 2006, 1400 were male. This number has also dropped over the last decade (however over 20 times that number tried to).

This is not an argument about equivalence, obviously there is none. Rather the problem I have is that the way in which we are dealing with the problem isn’t effective and ignores if not exacerbates other social problems.

In overall statistics violence as a social problem is dropping. We are getting better at dealing with these issues, more people are reporting them to the police. But these social changes come about in response to how each gender is viewed and respected within society. Those who lack any social status, or find it difficult to establish a basis for their own self-respect are going to lash out. Against others, random and well known. Many may present a false display of confidence, or seek to bully and harm those weaker than themselves (such as their partners) as a way of regaining that status. Equally, some also turn inwards and harm themselves.

I shouldn’t even need to say it, but none of this is to excuse or justify those who harm others around them because of insecurities or weaknesses inside themselves. But as a society if we are going to deal with the issue of domestic violence along with other forms of violence, then we also need to recognize that simply insisting on better behavior isn’t going to fix it. Worse, the demand “All Aussie Men Must Swear” seems more akin to having men swear their innocence lest they be judged guilty, with all the likelyhood of binding of an abstinence ring. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the White Ribbon campaign, and yet I find myself personally insulted by the PM’s tone (which the Hansard doesn’t quite reproduce) and the quest to have all men swear:

“never to commit violence against women,
never to excuse violence against women, and
never to remain silent about violence against women.
This is my oath.”

I’m all for symbolic actions, but this isn’t like having someone finally take responsibility for past wrongs as Rudd has done. Instead it blames all equally, ignores the causes or reasons, and will be only enacted by those who already reject the problem outright. Equal and tolerant treatment begins and ends with respect. If we want to end violence by men on women, and by women on men, then we need to build up the respect we have for all. Both for women, and for men. The White Ribbon campaign, however well intention seems to betray that.

The financial benefits of a R18+ rating for games

This is our culture and our economy:

CALL of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has racked up more record sales of $US550 million ($593 million) in its first five days, but the publisher Activision Blizzard is still concerned about weak consumer spending.
The game, a first-person-shooter that lets gamers play as elite soldiers hunting down targets from South America to Afghanistan, beat the record set by last year’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV in its first week.
Last week it said it sold 4.7 million copies for a total of $US310 million ($333.3 million) on its first day in the US and UK alone.
Activision said five-day sales for Modern Warfare 2 topped the $US394 million ($423.6 million) earned at the box office by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in its first five days.
The video game bested Batman film The Dark Knight, which had held the record for the top opening weekend ever by taking in $US158.4 million ($170.3 million) in July 2008.

There is always a lag between capitalism and culture, though inevitably the dollar wins through. However it takes some time for societies to integrate in and accept certain cultural artifacts, regardless of sales. The rise of evangelical literature/music/films (such as the Left Behind series) is one example, another that suffers is video games. While you will see the occasional article in the papers about them, their coverage pales into comparison compared to films, despite computer games being a bigger industry for films, both in Australia and world wide. Indeed according to the Canberra Times (p6 Monday Nov 23 2009) this morning (no online copy) most Australian’s are gamers:

Computer games are set to be an bigger part of Christmas entertainment than ever this year, with strong growth for an industry now worth $2 billion in Australia….“The average age of the gamer in Australia is 30 and another key figure is that almost half (46%) the gamers in Australia are actually female”… Dr Jeffery Brand, the head of Bond University’s communications and media studies school, said most Australian homes had a game device.
“We have roughly seven out of 10 Australian’s playing computer games at some point in the year” he said. “Most of those, the vast majority of that 70 per cent, are playing daily or every other day”.

All this makes it even stranger then that in Australia, we do not have an R18+ rating for computer games. The Federal Classifications ACT was set in 1995, a lifetime ago in the industries view, with only limited consultation since. The biggest hold up it seems is the gentleman’s agreement that Australia has uniform laws on censorship via COAG. Despite the fact that this isn’t the case in videos (The ACT sells X rated videos, whilst other states have banned them), the convention has given South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson an effective veto power over such a large industry. In the last year some of the biggest computer games released including Fallout 3, GTA IV and Left 4 Dead 2 have all been refused classification (ie banned) or major changes forced on the overseas producers. That means lost sales, as people either dont buy, buy overseas, or simply pirate the game. When such contempt for the laws is commonplace, it is the laws that must change.

Yet these loses pale in comparison to the loss and harm the restrictions place on the development of a local Australian computer games industry, one in which Australia has some key niche advantages. The industry requires highly trained professionals which we produce in droves, it is an industry that depends on quality not quantity (meaning it can’t be outsourced to asian factory workers) and it is green and high paying business, returning nice tax benefits to the country. Yet both the Howard and now Rudd governments have ignored the industry, much as they have almost all high-tech industries. Australian governments it seems consider it a core business of theirs to spend billions of tax payer dollars to protect already dead industries (parts of our manafacturing and agricultural fields for instance) whilst not only ignoring but hampering the rise of new industries that seem well suited to our demographics and skills. The loss could already be measured in the billions (I know of 2 ACT games manufacturers that have closed and gone offshore in the last few years) and with video games set to grow, will be worth tens of billions in years to come.

From my reading of the Classification ACT’s it seems it would only require a change in the Federal law, and the compliance of one state or territory for video games to be classified at a R18+ rating by the OFLC and sold only in those states or territories that changed their law to accommodate it. (If there’s something I’m overlooking in my reading of the act, please email me or post a correction below.) For the loss of uniform laws on the issue, each state and territory could choose to encourage or restrict the industry in their territory. South Australian voters could continue to ban the sale of R18+ games, whilst those in the ACT or Victoria allow it. This would be competitive federalism at its best, something the constitution writers were very keen to encourage.

The potential sales revenue for any state which was the first to move would be immense. They would become the only port of call for the sale of these games, dramatically reducing overseas sales of games, and likely enticing video game production companies to consider moving their business to those cities in order to be able to freely develop their products. That reassurance would be a big boost for an industry that thanks to increasing photo-realistic graphics is having to continually re-account for why its material is classifiable as only MA 15+. What was assured of passing 5 years ago, might not today, without any significantly different levels of gore, just a more natural depiction of it thanks to better technology. Equally potential games producers (which need be only a professional working from a home office developing a game for phones as much as the multi-million dollar blockbusters like Bioshock 2 (produced in Australia) could be enticed to start their own businesses once the laws are expanded and clarified.

Despite massive tax payer funded handouts, Australia has lost much of its manufacturing industry and some of its agricultural as well But in high tech and value adding areas, such as the original idea’s, design and marketing, Australian workers and companies are almost impossible to beat. I don’t know who coined the phrase (I suspect Paul Keating), but the claim Australia needs to become the brain to Asia’s brawn has always struck me as very good economic sense. By not having a R18+ rating we are not only continuing with laws that do not reflect community sentiment, but are actively denying Australia billions in lost revenue in both production and sales in what is is fast becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world. We simply can’t afford not to make the necessary changes and get Australia’s computer games industry into action.

Unhelpful cynicism

Over at The Stump Bernard Keane notes Turnbull is again accusing the PM of misleading parliament, this time over whether the 78 on the Oceanic Viking recieved preferential treatment. He then goes on to say what is probably common sense in the press and public:

Who cares anymore about misleading Parliament? Do voters care? Does anyone outside Parliament and the Press Gallery? Given the way in which Question Time has devolved into a cross between a particularly dire amateur theatre performance and your most boring Economics 1 lecturer’s greatest hits, does the whole supposed sanctity of telling the truth in Parliament mean anything any more?John Howard didn’t resign after being forced to admit he misled Parliament about his meetings with Dick Honan in 2002. That was an open-and-shut case of misleading Parliament, but hardly the grounds on which any Prime Minister should have had to end their career.

On the other hand, remove Parliamentary accountability and one of the critical bulwarks of accountable government is ostensibly lost. The right of Parliamentary privilege also surely is accompanied by the responsibility of truth-telling. And yet those notions look curiously old-fashioned in an era when the truth is only one available narrative, and not necessarily to be regarded as any more useful than others that may be available.

The point is, it should matter. Everyone recognises that the public are the true barometer of the PM holding their job, and it would probably do more harm than good for the PM to be forced out over such matters, whether Howard with Refugees and Businessmen or Rudd in 09 over well Businessmen and refugees. (Just what is it about those two topics?) But it should be a matter that draws parliamentary rebuke and it should be a matter of embarassment to the PM and all members of parliament to be caught out. Yet when Australia’s most scathing mainstream outlet Crikey, and indeed perhaps their most Alan-Ramsey-throwback journo Bernard Keane is willing to let the government off the hook, then how are we going to hold politicians to standard. Indeed its misplaced to ask ‘why arn’t the public outraged’ and see that as a sign, when in all likelyhood they don’t even know because the press largely hasn’t covered it.

The days are long gone from the Whitlam era, where even accidental misleading of parliament caused ministers to resign, taking the blame for mistakes of their department. During the Howard years it became a veritable competition for Ministers to see how many times they could mislead or shirk responsibility for their own departments and keep their seats, a history that hasn’t yet been fully accounted (Kelly for instance ignores it). Rudd is somewhat better, but if the press keep giving him a free pass then he’s only going to get worse.

Someone needs to switch Keane’s chai latte for some bitter black coffee and start poking him with a stick untill he gets back into form. He’s one of the nations best political writers when having a go at our politicians, but this is the sort of issue that shouldn’t just be given a free pass.

Why we need to forget WW2

This is a rather unique use of the far-too-commonly invoked analogy of Hitler’s Nazi Germany to modern times:

The [proposed WA] legislation would allow police to search people for weapons and drugs in areas such as Northbridge without having to prove grounds of suspicion.
Last night Liberal backbencher Peter Abetz spoke in support of the legislation and used the example of Hitler.
He said the dictator gained support because he provided people security in a time of anarchy.
“When it comes to the crunch, people prefer to be safe than to have freedom,” he said

I didn’t want to post this on the 11th, as it is important that every society set aside at least one day (Australia also has ANZAC day) where they pause to remember and honour those who served their country. Whether they spent only a few months on the home front, or years if not the last moments of their life in the horrors of battle, we owe it to them and to those in uniform today to do so. If anything this was made even more poignant by the senseless murder of 13 US servicemen by a man whose day job was to heal their wounds. This November 11th marks 64 years since WW2, a fight which is the most wrongly but commonly invoked analogy in western political dialogue and political thinking, and one we urgently need to move on from.

Comparing current events to The Nazification of Germany, the appeasement of Hitler, and of course the horror of the Holocaust is the nuclear option of public discourse in the west (especially the Anglo-sphere). But more than just odiously affecting our dialog, and dividing us internally, it affects our strategic thinking, putting us at risk externally. Since the turn of the century, there have been four major comparisons of current events with Hitler’s Germany, all factually inaccurate, and all to the greater harm of the society.

1) Bush is like Hitler in pushing the Patriot Act in response to 9/11

Unlike the Reichstag fire, 9/11 most certainly wasn’t an inside job. Terrorism was a very real and still present threat to the USA. Similar legislation to the Patriot Act was introduced in many other Western states around the world, though even that didn’t prevent terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. Bush’s acts were certainly invasive and the argument can be strongly made that it was an over-reaction, but it was a legitimate response to help protect his society. Something that has evidently worked in that there have not been any terrorist attacks inside the USA since 9/11. The left instantly delegitimised itself by making the analogy and destroyed it’s capacity to sensibly contribute to and moderate the legislation.

Net effect = Less political influence, stronger public support for measures they rejected. Legislation is still in place.

2) Iraq/Iran is akain to Nazi Germany and ought not to be appeased.

While Bush was the victim of a false the Nazi analogy in early 2002, he was quick to invoke it against his enemies by late 2002/2003 as he lead the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq. Any and all who opposed, in the US, UK, Australia, and especially France and Germany were seen as akin to appeasing Hitler in their rejection of removing Saddam Hussein. Saddam was just as odious personally as Adolf, and terrorised Iraqi society, but Hitler in 1939 was a threat because of the strength of the German army. WMD or no WMD, Hussein was a contained threat. Strategically invading Iraq was a massive blunder, wasting blood and treasure for almost no comparative security benefit to the major coalition partners.
In this case, the desire to positively emulate WW2 (in playing Churchill and correctly foreseeing looming threats) was as, if not more damaging than the negative comparison, of our enemies to Hitler. This is the ultimate problem with the analogy to WW2. It can not be made positively, or negatively with good sense these days.
The more recent, though far more low key comparisons of Iran to Germany in 1939 have largely been dismissed because of the failure of the Iraqi comparison, but they refuse to go away. (Or perhaps it’s due to the fact Iran has 1/68th of the army of the US). The rhetoric used against opponents of the war (or proposed action on Iran) is ugly, however the way the comparison has damaged and perverted the way the premier military nation in the world, and defender of the west conducts itself is inexcusable.

Net Effect = 4300 dead US soldiers in Iraq (with another 300 of allies, and 50-100’000 Iraqis), and about $1 Trillion spent, with more to come. The US has wasted its perceived unipolar moment, and is very restricted in the future conduct of its troops against threats such as Iran/North Korea, and the larger strategic game of China/Russia et all.

3) Climate Change Deniers are akain to Holocaust Deniers

This comparison has popped up in recent months, including by authors I previously respected. Even if the worst-case scenarios for Climate Change are true, they do not in any way mirror the insidious nature of the Holocaust. One deliberate, the other unexpected (with those responsible now attempting to solve it). One was industrialized and clinical, the other natural and unpredictable. One has happened, the other yet to, with a possibility of preventing the harm without actually stopping the problem.

Worse, given that there already are perceptions that the horror and trouble of Climate Change has been overplayed, the decision to deploy the most strident possible denunciation possible at this time has simply re-enforced the perception advocates were not driven by the science but other unrelated factors. The effect of such a claim has not persuaded anyone to change their view, and divided the two camps, re-enforcing the energy of denialists who see this as one-more-battle.This analogy unfortunately is going to be rolled out more and more in the future. It’s bad rhetoric, bad history, and divides our society right at the time it needs to pull together to address this serious issue.

Net Effect = Nothing yet, but if (and perhaps when) Copenhagen fails to reach agreement, and cap & trade systems falter in the legislature in the UK, USA and Australia, it will be in part because supporters hyperbole managed to destroy the good will of many cautious supporters who would have given bipartisan support to this policy.

4) Obama introducing Healthcare is akain to the Nazification of Germany.

This is perhaps the most laughable of them all. The Nazi party despised the idea of social welfare, taking a strictly Social Darwinists approach to society. Hitler’s Mein Kampf demonises charity and philanthropy as evils to be eliminated for a stronger Germany. Political fixes to maintain their domestic control were of course introduced, largely along the lines of what the Weimar Republic had pursued. The party may have been named the National Socialists, but actual Socialists and communists were amongst the chief enemies of the Nazis (which is why many conservatives in the west liked Hitler). These comparisons between Obamacare and Hitler have been made by media figures, congressmen, culminating in this odious picture at a recent event, which has fortunately been rejected by at least some in the Republican caucus.

Net Effect = As I noted a few weeks ago, the debate on Healthcare turned in Democrats favour in August when Conservatives were actually at their loudest in demonising the proposal at town halls. The legislation should hopefully pass (though will be a weak compromise), but the effect has not been limited to health care. The willingness to deploy the analogy in relation to healthcare has spread to other issues as well, damaging the political fabric of the US’s democratic system. Good will has been utterly destroyed between the parties, the dialog debased, and the people cynically turned into service by people whose motives are more personal gain than anything else.

Nazi_toy_Soldiers

I was going to quote Churchill’s great line that the people of the Balkan’s had “more history than they could consume”. But such is the effect of Churchill on our western psyche that its even easy to bring to mind quotes of him to say we shouldn’t listen to him anymore! That we shouldn’t memoralise and hero-worship the west’s victory, or demonise modern enemies as like those he faced. 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

It’s time to honour, and for the good of those involved, and those yet to come, return WW2 to the history books.

Picture by peterme used under a Creative Commons Licence

Twitter as a failed (but useful) experiment

Like a lot of political junkies, I’ve been giving twitter a go, to see it’s use for political information/discussion. I’ve liked much of it, as a time-wasting tool, it is a great resource, and whilst it wasn’t a twitter revolution in Iran, the service surely had some significant effect (real or imagined it’s largely the same thing in such situations). I’ve also found it fun and exciting to be on the feed of some important people, esp journo’s who blog and so therefore usually have too many good links they want to share, or those which just have a quick wit (such as @annabelcrabb).

That said, I have to say I think the medium is an essential failure as a next-gen social media tool. Blogging and facebook clearly have their niches, and serve a lot of people, replicating what we do normally (read articles on paper/gossip with friends in cafes) but quicker and easier via our computers/phones. Both work well for political followers, but twitter seems to be half of one, half of the other, without ever making a whole. The tiny size of each tweet means that it is not quite a blog post, at an infuriatingly short 140 characters. But equally, twitter doesn’t have the mass publishing of blogging, in that unless I know to add you, I won’t ever see your tweets (or will only see 1-2 in a torrent of mass messages, but more on that later). And unlike a bookmarks where I can visit occasionally and quickly get to know what your site is about/like, tweets are too small to be useful as coding devices for working out if someone is worth paying attention to. A few good lines and you add them. And all of a sudden you are following 200+ people and your main page is filled with around 20 messages, each with a small picture, popping up constantly on all sorts of different topics and issues, none quite perhaps what you wanted to read/hear about today. So whilst political/fashion/sport blogs generally stay on fashion, tweeters like to casually range, though only a few bring anything worthwhile to fields outside their main area.

Then there is the problem of following everyone who is talking about a particular topic. Unlike blogs/newspapers and the power of google searches, it is rather hard to find where exactly everyone is talking about a particular issue, due to a lack of clear organisation for what is the right #hashtag to join. During the Iranian uprising a lot of people tweeted that certain #hashtags were being watched by the Iranian intelligence services, sending people scrambling for thousands of different #tags. Now whether they really were being watched or not, it certainly disrupted the service. Even without such nefariousness, it’s hard to find a good channel of commentators as anyone can jump on. Other mass channels such as the “#GoodNight” channel make even less sense as a channel. No one would sensibly want to read such a channel, but it’s common use means it ends up in the top 10 channels almost every night.

Which brings me to my final problem, the sheer amount of people on twitter makes the service rather useless. If you are an Australian political junkie, it’s been a lot of fun recently to watch #qt, the channel for question time in the Australian parliament. Only with the recognition that politicians were joining in, what was a small thing for journalists and those of us who actually enjoy watching question time, has become just another channel for those with an axe to grind or a desire for attention. End result, it feels like you are just being shouted at, and only catching glimpses of the people you want, or able to check about half the links you might like to.

Though Australian tweeters problems are nothing compared to when you watch US events live in twitter. Right now, the US house of congress is about to vote on Obama’s health care bill, and everyone is tweeting on #hcr along with #tcot #pelosibill, #killbill and others. But on #HCR, I’m im refreshing about once a minute with between 200-2000 tweets a minute appearing. These include personal messages “is watching the debate with fascination” or “to my congressman Rep. blah blah – please vote for this bill” “rumor going around 35 dems voting against the bill”
etc etc. Actually finding what is happening in terms of if they are voting yet, how the voting is going, or what the major players think is simply impossible amongst all this noise.

Instead I find myself even more reliant on a good journalist, on location to give me at least some idea of how it is trending, even if they’re sometimes using rumors, they are likely to come back to it and update, and I can easily check if such changes have occurred, or cross reference against a few others I also trust. So i’ve switched to sites like TPM, The Daily Dish and NYTimes and Instapundit.

My guess is that twitter will continue to live as a social media tool, but it’s role will be less vaulted as a home for political junkies than as a stream to dip in and out, or as a side bar for people to comment or to post quick stuff not worthy of a full blog post ala on The Punch or for sporting events where it will be a fun way to follow sporting events or ultra localised events ala #tinpotcountyfair.

Twitter was certainly a useful experiment, and I expect more rather than less people to be updating via phones or pc’s their immediate thoughts/rumors on events. But it probably won’t be presented on just one site or in the cluttered torrent of tweets format that you currently see on twitter. What it most needs is a way to be filtered, sorted and organised, such as upcoming services like Geon. Then it will become a truely powerful tool. Though again, the experience for me really just proves the worth of a good journalist.
And now I’m off to post this blog, and trying and drum up traffic for it on twitter. If you’re interested or disagree, you can follow me here (@AndrewOssieCarr) and tell me why you disagree.

Rhetoric and Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light posting today

An Israeli psy-trance band I have been following for several years: Infected Mushroom have a new album out. So consequently I’m off to lock myself off from the world for a few days and give my ears an oral orgasm. Available in all good music stores.
legendalbumoutnow

In 100 years people are going to be regarding the early creators of electronic music the same way we do classical composers. I’m not sure yet who is its Motzart, but IM are their Beethoven.

Culture and Political language

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech to congress on Healthcare. The issue has been very contentious over the last few months, and Obama was hoping to push congress over the line with a vote before the year is out (My bet is that he will get his bill). However the show was almost disrupted when one Congressman, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You Lie”. This prompted shock, condemnation and Wilson quickly apologised.
joe_wilson_lie
Yet this display in decorum is set against a political environment that has been filled with people bringing guns to political rallies, frequent comparisons of Obama’s introduction of Healthcare and the Nazi’s in pre-war Germany, and utterly false lies such as “Death Panels” which are breathtaking in their dissent from reality.

Watching this debate from Australia, I’ve been amazed that a somewhat healthy democracy like the US can have such a vile and angry debate about an issue like healthcare. To then have this sudden snap back to overtly respectful decorum is rather funny, if it weren’t also quite sad. Everyone who has visited the US seems to remark on the essential politeness of the people (esp in the south), and yet put them in a Town Hall to discuss giving healthcare to the poor and suddenly everyone who disagrees is the devil incarnate. It’s a weird mix. For while Obama should get through his bill, the inability of the US to have a reasonable conversation about technical policy issues is a worrying sign for the long term health of it’s polity and civil society. It has a media that increasingly is set to profit from increasing the divide within the society. The more they get angry, the more isolated the GOP becomes and the more angry those still within the bubble get. As Fox’s profits rise, their own side not to mention the overall level of political debate slumps – See the Graph

The other emotion I’ve felt watching the US debate has been one of growing pride that Australia manages itself in such a different manner. Whilst this morning brings a uncharacteristic whinge from the former PM (A man who rightly neither gave nor asked for any quarter and loved his partisan fights), Australians manage to be both foul-mouthed, (some would say creative) and strident in their attacks, and yet only a loony and utterly ignored few come anywhere near outright lies or claims of treason against their political opponents. Our debate is forthright and partisan, but even challenging issues like race and national identity get discussed in largely reasonable terms by our political elite and media. Had Joe Wilson been in Australia’s parliament he would have been asked to withdraw the comment as un-parliamentary, but the nation would have essentially ignored it. Though the essential difference is that what would have isolated a figure like Joe in Australia is his extreme policy, not his language.

While only a small minority in the world reject the idea of democracy as the best form of government, the greatest inhibitor is often not those currently in power who are resisting efforts, but the culture of societies that is coming to grapple with just what democracy means. Anyone can have elections, but democracy is far far more than that. In Cambodia, Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iran (to name just a few), sections of the population are happy to see a politics of division and sectarianism destroy any chance of real popular participation with government. Elites can rarely stand in control unless there is a part of the population who culturally accept the need to preface one ethnic group over the other, one religion above all else, one skin colour as superior to those around it. And in settled democracies it is culture again that goes to the heart and strength of the democratic practice. In Australia it is strong, though has at times (late 60’s, mid 90’s) been weak. In the US we are seeing it at a dangerous low ebb, paranoid and afraid and so facing a far greater political challenge in dealing with the 21st century, than the economic one people have long been predicting.

Below the fold. One of the greatest political takedowns in Australian Political History.
Read the full article »

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 changing of the guard

Warning: The contents of this post may include blogging about blogging

I’ve always been wary of following that old blogger trope of making regular posts about the state of the blogosphere. For a start I don’t feel much like a blogger, in fact when blogs first came about I actively hated the idea. I always considered myself a writer, sure, but blogs seemed hierarchical societies of the type that destroy politics everywhere. One person posts and a dozen or so laud and cat call out about how wrong their enemies are and how righteous their own efforts may be. Instead i liked getting down amongst the weeds and mud and arguing politics with anyone who would take up the keyboard, on politics forums. Indeed I even ran a forum named ‘political animal’ for a number of years, until its small size and time constraints saw me sadly bid it goodbye. The other reason I don’t consider myself a blogger is that the big difference between blogs and journalism is that bloggers spend a lot of time talking about each other, linking pieces they approve of, and piling on those they despise. As a blogger who’s contributions are yet to be regularly picked up for either purpose, I feel I am still largely outside the blogosphere as a community, and rather just a user of this medium. But it is the way this platform is used that continually interests me.

As regular readers of the (US) blogosphere will know by now, one of the most original bloggers Hilzoy has pulled up stumps. Hilzoy (an academic by profession who posted under a pseudonym) was a blogger i only started reading consistently when she took up posting on The Washington Monthly’s site. Yet her posts appeared regularly and consistently both on Australian and American websites. She mastered the art of long posts, but with enough of a concise summary style to be able to provide something others could quote, whilst not just being a link and snark machine as so many bloggers sadly are. As one who’s posts typically run to four figured word counts, I appreciated Hilzoy as one who could keep her audiences attention on this notoriously fickle medium. One of my great regrets about the blogosphere has been it’s inability (at least within the politically focused blogs) to sustain a number of literary quality writers of significant length. There is of course a good reason for that, such writers are rare, often trained, and such pieces take enough time that you’d struggle to do it whilst holding down a fulltime job and social commitments. Yet across the millions who blog on politics few writers seem to even consider going across that great barrier: the end of the paragraph. Indeed few seem to think a second sentence is a exhaustive effort, and turn their blogs into link-farms. A great service no doubt, and one that only works if you can combine insight and wit into 45 characters, and yet so often it would leave me wondering : just what does this person actually think about the issue. Are they truely supportive, do they recognise the obvious flaws of their own side’s contributions, and do they just see this an issue of sides? We’re smart,they’re dumb/we’re informed, they’re sloganers/ we’re honourable, they’re corrupt/ yadda/yadda/yadda. This type flourishes on group blogs, which to me are even more of a bane in their enforcement of group think.

Some bloggers offer a different service however, take Kevin Drum or Ezra Klein. These guys can run posts into long chunks, but I hesitate to call either writers. They are instead policy geeks, often running on different tracks to the rest of the sphere, and only occasionally talking about the daily outrage. Instead they provide detail, great detail and lots of it. This is I think one of the best and likely longest lasting forms of the blogosphere. Long after all the cool kids have moved on, policy wonks, academics and the serious and committed who would have sent letters to the editor, or published unread journal articles in previous era’s can now have a publicly accessible place for their work. In this area of the blogosphere, merit matters. These guys (and whilst the blogosphere is largely male, Hilzoy again being a cherished exception, such straight science policy wonkery is even more male dominated), are only so good as their data and comprehensiveness. If nothing else, this type of blogging promises a great potential for future politicians to drawn in new ideas or research quickly and accessibly, and I’d like to predict such efforts will continue so long as there is an internet.

bloggingIn between these two extremes, the one liners and the number counters, lie’s perhaps the bulk of the blogosphere. Of hugely varying quality, most of these people probably consider themselves writers of some extent, but unless they can move beyond the paragraph probably arn’t. Some can write journalistic pieces of decent length and insight but feel compelled by the medium to stick to a short style such as Yglesias. Others vary like Andrew Sullivan, who unfortunately whilst doing great work link-farming the Iranian uprising has seen the increased number of posts come at the expense of the longer, more personal pieces which made his blog a daily ritual for me. Perhaps for that reason, I have this time happily sat through his two-week hiatus to work on a longer article for his employer The Atlantic, when normally his absent voice would sour my morning read-up of the blogosphere.

Most however, seem to simply not risk going beyond the short style they see emulated elsewhere. With it’s hyper links and instant updates the blogosphere is a ferocious enforcer of social norms (at least so long as you want some traffic). This not only prevents a potential talent for real writing to come out, it probably goes a long way to explaining why those declining few of literary non-fiction talent have largely stayed away from the blogosphere. It doesn’t pay, and if you don’t adapt, you probably wont be read, so why bother. Yet it is a curious absence. Every invention of better forms of printing and distribution have resulted in significant outpourings of essay type length material. Such a form seems tailor made to the internet with its limitless space. Yet instead the opposite has occurred and we have seem the wits take their work in the direction of twitter and lolcats. Such services have great potential for good (such as seen in the recent Iranian uprising, or around the developed world) but also work to actively destroy language. Such shrift communication changes language from sentences into words. It removes the role of rhythm, cadence and flow. Adjectives are a luxury rarely purchased, and word play reduced to puns that punish more often than reward readers.

Hilzoy’s contributions to the blogosphere will likely not be saved or analysed by some future researcher. In fact the trouble of most of this digital medium is that it will one day be wiped, either from decaying materials or the simple commercial decision to wipe the hardrives and turn them towards something more profitable. But even if her work was not of literary quality, it was amongst some of the best, most moving and educated to be found on the blogosphere and that is to its great loss. No doubt there are thousands if not tens of thousands of wanna be writers and journalists who are ending their education and wondering which way best to turn their time, talents and attention. Whilst the blogosphere may seem a circle-jerk (if you don’t know, dont ask), it still has significant potential as a place to publish and craft ones thoughts. In advice as has been handed down since the beginning of parchment: Writers write. And even if commercial and group blogs may slowly be sucking up the vast bulk of the readership, and veterans such as Hilzoy now moving on (joining the likes of Tim Dunlop and others in the stands), there is a lot of space for new writers to come in and perhaps begin to reshape the blogosphere towards a new style. Early enthusiasm has given way, early limits found, but as Obama said in his inauguration ‘the time has come to set aside childish things’ (taking a line from Corinthians), and perhaps now we can usher in a new adult blogosphere. One that doesn’t spend endless time bashing the mainstream media like a wayward son, and instead works to improve its strengths of real writing, real thought and real communication. Technology has provided the potential, humanity just has to live up to it.

A Culture of Life

Over in the City Journal (h/t Andrew Sullivan) Kay Hymowitz makes the case there is a generation of man-child’s emerging,

It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult! Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face—and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?
In 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.” This demographic shift has now pushed the median age of marriage for white males to nearly 28 — if they get married at all — further delaying fatherhood and motherhood.

Conor Friedersdorf argues this is due to birth control, a gender equal workplace, and an unwillingness to repeat the mistakes of their (now divorced) parents. As opposed to Ben Domenech, who thinks this generation has devalued family and culture in favor of distraction via technology.

It’s a weird thing being a member of Gen-Y (or iGen if you prefer), as we seem to be highly focused on by people who essentially arn’t in our generation. Every generation is surely analysed and dismissed by its seniors, but what was once reserved for the dining room is now spread around the world and of keen academic and journalistic focus due to the proliferation of media outlets.

So as a 26 yr old un-married male let me reply with an insiders view: Whilst the sexual freedom is nice, and we don’t have to find things for our stay home girlfriends to do to keep them occupied (like say raise a kid), the real reasons are twofold : We expect to live a long time, and it costs too damn much.

Where life expectancy expect to live to 65 today it’s now 76. So having gained 10 years life, you’d think we might be forgiven for wanting to use 3 of those to explore the world before settling in. Afterall, on such figures (assuming similar divorce rates) this generation will spend up to 7 years more married than their parents, but we are the one’s devaluing marriage? Yet these figures also are a poor reflection of reality. Blokes aged 26 in 1979 would have been thinking they were almost half way to the box at that age, despite the figures. The current generation however secretly assumes it will make it to 90 if not beyond. With all those extra years to live in quiet marital bliss, spending them without kids if not without a partner is significantly more compelling. But returning to those figures, those extra years are seen as viable ones. We expect to have replacement hips, and be curing most minor cancers, replacing worn out or clogged hearts, and with the potentials of stem cells and others even re-energizing tired muscles. As such, the period before 30 is seen as being around 1/3 of what we might live, and therefore should be utilised to its full natural extent (even the most advanced medical science wont let us dunk a basketball or backpack around Europe when 60) rather than being our key productive years in which to provide for ourselves, family and old age. Because we can earn (and reproduce + provide for that progeny) for much longer, we have far less need to cram it all into our early adult years. Equally with this new medical technology we have no doubt that our kids will survive into adulthood and so where 5 may have been sought, only 1-2 are thought wise. Given this major change, that the median marriage age has only slipped a few years is the really stark fact.

Whilst I don’t subscribe to the view that financial history is the author of all history (as say Niall Ferguson seems to), it does play a much much larger role in the way day to day society operates than cultural conservatives would like to admit. With house prices around 6:1 or 7:1 the average wage (whilst they were almost 1:1 for our parents generation), it is simply impossible for most young males to consider owning property. Those that do (and some of my similarly aged male friends do) do so for purely commercial reasons waging that it is a suitable investment, rather than seeing it as their domestic residence for the next 40 years. Because of these cost factors, including the Baby Boomers great housing bubble over the last 20 years excluding their kids from the retail market (and here Australia is as bad as anywhere in the world), and those same Baby Boomers holding onto their jobs longer (benefiting from the same advances to aid living longer) excluding their kids from the higher/stable jobs market, this generation has sensibly turned its attention to other areas. It is a generation which is educated at far far higher rates than its parents, valuing long term investment in its career than the short term income of its parents (though to be fair, this generation has had that choice, many baby boomers were simply taken out of school to work). This is even more striking given that the same Baby Boomers who got a free education have turned around and made education a major debt burden for young adults who might otherwise use the money to pay a house deposit. All the while they continually tell us that due to their own desire for cut taxes, the pension schemes they take for granted today will have to be shaved down in the future.

Marriage is still a goal for most, although that is only so far as it represents a couple pledging to make a lifelong commitment to each other. Whether in a church or not is of no concern, whether straight or gay is equally of no concern. I doubt this generation will be anymore faithful than its parents (perhaps even less so), but it is more aware and willing to try before they buy to ensure that their eventual partnership is indeed until death do them part. Bad old idea’s being rescussitated in the name of ‘traditional values’ such as fault based divorce will however only further drive this generation from the institution of marriage. Having had a few partners already, and not seeing any divine cord drawing soul mates together, this is a generation that understands relationships sometimes don’t work despite the best efforts of both partners. Such changes would only delay marriage further, if not entirely. Far from enhancing marriage, it would relegate it to a cultural act by the religious and ignored by all else. The choices of the iGen are therefore best seen as largely reactive to greater forces, rather than representing any selfish inward turn.

Finally, I can’t help but get the sense that what really drives these concerned folk as they shake their head at the younger generation’s behaviour is simple jealousy. Those baby boomers who similarly delayed getting tied down seem largely supportive of the new generations behaviour. They had their fun until 30 and then settled, and expect their kids to do likewise. Those who instead got tied down early seem the most offended that everyone else is having fun at that age. We have (thanks to medical breakthroughs) enough years to stress and be miserable, why not enjoy the ones we can now. That truly would represent a ‘culture of life’ which cultural and religious conservatives so desire.

Monday morning funnies

Since the Australian Political world is currently venting hell and fury for absolutely no reason, result or purpose (How can corruption/”special treatment” have occurred when the car dealer didn’t actually get any funding?). I pretty confidently predict all three (Rudd, Swan & Turnbull) will still have their jobs at the end of the week and we will be onto a new scandal/debate. So on to more sensible things, and it therefore seems worthy posting this classic comedy skit by Abbott & Costello*

I was lucky enough to watch a version of this produced last night in the Jazz Garters at Theatre 3 in Canberra. Featuring songs from Chicago, charlie chaplin skits and a great variety of song and jazz numbers, it’s a great night out. Runs until June 27th, and a great credit to the Canberra Repertory society.

* Even though Pete is retiring, there should be one more MidWinter Ball potential for Australian politics own Abbott and Costello to try their hand at doing this act. Let us hope to all that is great and good in this world that they give it a run.