Thursday, December 2, 2010

The case for civil rights

If there’s one mistake that gay marriage advocates have made, it’s to separate the issue from the larger narrative and debate it independently. Perhaps they’ve simply allowed the opponents to do this and gone along with it. Regardless of the reason, I propose we stop talking about ‘gay marriage’ as a separate issue and instead site it squarely within the larger scope of civil rights where it belongs.

One of the civil rights that has been held as fundamental by every generation in historical record is marriage. In modern times, this has become read as the right to marry the person of your choosing. Historically, marriage has been between men and women. Times, however, change.

Christopher Pearson (quoted by Ben-Peter Terpstra) notes that many proponents of this civil right fail to give very good reasons why they support it. The reason for this is simple: we live in a liberal democracy. In liberal democracies, actions are legal unless there is a compelling reason to make them illegal, not the other way around. The default position is permissiveness; there must be reasons to bar civil rights, not the other way around.

No more argument need be mounted in favour, only counter-arguments dismissed. The principle for this one area of civil rights is the same as any area in the field: that there is a right (in this case, the right to marry the person of one’s choosing) that is permitted to the majority but denied to a minority and that this is a harm that must be addressed. Do we allow the majority to decide what is right for the minority? Democracy, as Benjamin Franklin observed, "must be more than two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner."

The American founders referred to this as ‘tyranny of the majority’; the great danger inherent in democracy. The rhetoric that speaks out most strongly against such tyranny is this: that the civil rights that are in most need of defence are those that are unpopular. Those possessed by minorities. Popular views will always be heard; unpopular views require support. The rights of majorities will be defended at the ballot box every time; the rights of minorities will be crushed unless the majority sees its own tyranny for what it is. Therefore, a ‘right’ is possessed only if it is defended for all. Not just the popular, not just the majority, but by all. If it is not possessed by all, then it is not a right.

While we do not have Constitutional rights in the same vein as the United States, we do talk about rights extensively. There is a common belief that none are enshrined in law; this is false. We have Common Law and customary rights; these differ from Constitutional rights in that they can be overridden by parliament. We cannot mount a Constitutional challenge in favour of gay marriage as they have in several American States.

This does not, however, mean that these rights are absent. The law offends these rights and our remedy, rather than the courts, is through fora such as these. To speak our mind, to persuade, cajole and exhort.

We do this because we understand a simple truth: that everyone has civil rights; or no-one does. All we have in Australia are those things that we are currently permitted to do by society. They are not rights; just things that not enough people object to right now.

Of course the opposition will rise against us. They mount arguments that we’ve all heard before: that marriage is between a man and a woman, that marriage is fundamental to our society. In fact, we have heard those arguments before: decades prior to this, when interracial marriage was discussed. To many people of that generation, those same arguments were trotted out almost verbatim. If we were to re-write Ben-Peter’s words and substitute ethnicity for sexual preference, almost none of the content would need to change. “Not all black people want to marry whites! Why should we change the definition of marriage to satisfy a small minority?”

It is pointed out that some homosexuals have no wish to get married, or don’t support the proposition. So what? I have no doubt there were non-whites who were opposed to letting any of their own people marry outside their ethnicity, too.

In Australia, we never banned such marriages in law. We didn’t have to; societal pressure was enough. We did neglect to count our Aboriginal population in the census, barring them from taking part in the democratic process. When the census to correct that came for vote in 1967, every single State approved it by over 80%. We came together as a nation and declared that this violation of civil rights, even though it did not affect them, was too much for them to bear.

This may not seem as fundamental as disenfranchisement of an ethnicity, and to many reading this, it won’t be. Those who seek the right to marry the person of their choosing, however, may disagree. We all have rights, or no-one does. Mount your arguments against gay marriage, therefore; but leave out the claims that you ‘just don’t believe it’s right’. Whether you would like it, or even approve of it is irrelevant. Show harm, or you have no basis to deny civil rights to all.

This article was published on Online Opinion.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Autotune the whatever

I don’t like autotune. This much I’ve known for a long time. I agree with all the conventional arguments, saying that it makes singers sound robotic at higher settings, or even at lower, making it just a little fake.

However, I’d object to it even if it were able to be done perfectly. And indeed, it can be done with minimal interference – we just don’t notice when it is, unless the listener has a very good ear. Some vocalists have made it part of their style. I can sometimes even like that. My main objection to it is the very reason it was invented: that it smooths out flaws in a singer’s voice. That is what I feel is its main threat. As autotune and similar technologies are attacked for how fake they make singers sound, they’re developed to become better and better. To do precisely what is intended, making singers sound perfect.

Personally, I love listening to a great voice. I also like watching great runners, brilliant actors, or a well-executed dance number, regardless of the genre. I watch team sports not because I barrack for a team (I detest sports culture), but because watching teams act in unison is magical. I like being witness to the human ability to do great things; just like steroids ruin sport for me, auto-tune ruins my enjoyment of song.

Perhaps I should compare this to painting. Anyone who’s been to a gallery and seen oil paintings up close has seen the brush-work on the canvas. This can be subtle, achieved with fine brushes, or it can be extreme, applied with a knife rather than a brush, creating a textured surface. At a distance, the ridges and brushes blur together, making a more unified picture; up close, the details stand out. Compare that to seeing only a print of the painting; a whole dimension is missing.

An auto-tune for painting would be designed to make people paint like prints.  The richness and messiness of the brush-work would be lost, the paintings produced just so would have no texture. They would be beautiful, but distant, lacking character. Perfect.

Human beings are not perfect. Human beings are flawed by definition; the creations of humans are no exception. It is that very flawed nature that makes our artwork real. The mistakes in an hour-long orchestral recording that remind us that the performers really did do that all in one take. The cracking of a voice at the end of a hard live concert, the last rally as the final number of the night is belted out.

Auto-tune threatens that. It approaches looking like a democratising tool; making anyone capable of singing in tune. I’m not so concerned about autotune making things ‘too easy’; I worry about it making things too perfect. Beautiful voices, like Freddy Mercury or Dame Joan Sutherland, are celebrated because they are rare... but also because they’re human. Real human beings produced those sounds. I care about a perfect autotuned voice about as much as I do a steroid-influenced world record. Or perhaps as much as a print compared to the original art. It’s an achievement, and might even be pretty... but it’s not what I want to hear. Give me a flawed, real human voice, as imperfect as it comes, over that same voice smoothed to artificial perfection.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Game as Art

You wake up, no memory of your past, no idea where you are now. Your body is covered in scars of a long life, but you can’t remember where any of them were earned. Before you have a chance to adjust to your new surroundings, you are greeted by a floating skull, who proceeds to talk to you...

Over the next twenty or so hours of gameplay, Planescape: Torment continues the sense of wonder, foreboding, mystery, threat and revelation present in the opening minutes. Along the way you meet colourful characters, explore a world utterly unlike our own, engage in the obligatory battles... but what truly sets the game apart is its exploration of identity.

Your character, you see, is immortal. His body is, anyway. Each time he dies he regenerates, the cost is the loss of his memory. All his actions, his experiences, everyone he’s ever met all fade from his mind and he’s left a blank slate. While the body is immortal, the game posits, is the individual in fact immortal, or just as mortal as anyone else? When the memories are gone, is that individual in fact dead and gone, despite the fact that their body is still walking around?

During the course of the game, you meet the psychological remnants of several of your past selves; each turned out so very different to the others. One is scheming and left enough clues to your identity to try to trick later selves to restoring his mind. Another was driven mad by the revelation and destroyed many of those same clues, seeing the past and any potential future selves as ‘thieves’ who would steal his body from him. One felt terribly guilty at the atrocities of some of his past selves and killed himself after obscuring many of the clues to spare future incarnations the pain of his discovery.

All of these individuals came from the same body, the same neurochemistry, the same physical form as the others. The monsters and angels, the madmen and saints, they were all the same physical person... but their identities were so very different. A question is echoed throughout the game: “What can change the nature of a man?”

No single answer to the question is ever supplied by the authors. Rather, it is left to the player to determine it. Different characters have different ideas; some say that nothing can, others that anything can – one answer is that only the man can change himself. (My apologies for the exclusive language.)

Art is a matter of debate; no matter what the creation, there will be someone who denies that it is art. The one definition that I really like (and tries to be at least a little objective) is that art is whatever illuminates the human condition. Here we have a computer game that is about that aspect of humanity central to our selves: identity. I put Planescape: Torment forward as art. A Game As Art. If one game is art, then games can be art; let the floodgates open. Games can be art.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Commodification of Green

A couple of years ago, I bought an electric kettle. This kettle advertised itself as ‘eco-friendly technology’. I was buying a lot of things for a new house at the time, so I thought I may as well get it – eco-friendly is good! It must be more efficient or something. When I got home, I discovered that its secret was that it had a water reservoir from which you could feed water into the boiling chamber, ‘so you only boil what you need’. This, instead of simply filling it only to the level you need. For that, you get a kettle with two chambers, moving parts including a water pump capable of moving water from a nearly-empty chamber into a nearly-full one and a lot more plastic than a regular kettle. The carbon price on that would outweigh any energy savings created by being too lazy to carry the kettle to and from the sink a little more each day.

This line of thought crystallised more recently when I had one of these home energy efficiency checkups. One of the items on the advice list was to ‘sell your desktops and buy laptops.’ I do agree that laptops are more energy-efficient. On the other hand, how would this save carbon? The lower energy usage of the laptop would not compare to the energy cost involved in creating the laptop, let alone the environmental cost of certain components (namely those involving gold – whose mining is still quite toxic environmentally – and the battery). The true answer should have been to use the computers less, turn on power saving settings, and when it came time to replace them, to then buy laptops instead of new desktops.

All around us we see the industry that has grown out of Green. Unfortunately, for everyone actually doing good work, there are ones who exist only to peddle the image of Green; the warm happy feeling of ‘doing good’ rather than the hard slog of actually helping. It stands to reason; the climate problems facing us are massive and the difficulty of dealing with them is high – it’s very confronting, which is part of what drives climate scepticism. On the individual level, what is our best response? For everything we think of doing, there’s some cost attached. It’s just easier to go out and buy something, get some product that solves our problem. It’s what our consumer culture has taught us, after all.

We know that what we have to do is to simply use less energy by changing our lifestyles to be more efficient. To use the car less, to turn lights and computers off; but changing lifestyle is a hard thing to do, as everyone who’s ever been on a diet knows. It’s so much easier to get a lap band or take diet pills, or to complain that ‘those doctors don’t know anything about weight’. We’re daunted by the prospect, so we reach out to consume.

And so we are sold hybrid-electric cars, even though the battery manufacture is toxic and none of the parts are recycled. The old line is that the most cost-effective car you can possibly drive is the one you currently have. These days, you can adapt that line about carbon efficiency – the carbon cost of manufacturing a new car, especially a hybrid, is nothing that will be made up by its increased fuel efficiency. The electric component is not without carbon cost, either; but in that case, it’s out of sight, out of mind. If it’s not spewing out the tailpipe, the drivers think they’re helping. If you were going to replace your car anyway, that’s one thing; but those celebrities who buy a new model of hybrid every year are being fashionable, not environmentally-conscious.

We are sold carbon offsets, even though many of them are ineffective (and in some cases, counterproductive; planting trees in latitudes too far north can change white tundra into dark forest, thus trapping more heat and making the situation worse). This practice has been compared to medieval indulgences, those ‘permission slips for sinning’ handed out by the Catholic Church of years past in exchange for favour. They give people cover to continue living as they are. Green has been divorced from the environment; it has become simply another commodity we can buy at the store.

Ultimately, this is a global issue and must be addressed on a global level. As individuals, we have very little power to change the climate; but we can do our own little part. Even if we don’t manage to halt global warming, at least we’ll be spending less on energy ourselves, seeing the sun more from walking instead of driving, and enjoying cleaner air in our cities, if those around us follow suit. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a problem you can just throw money at to make it go away.

This article was published on Online Opinion

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Frank Miller’s best known work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was written at a turning point in the comics industry. It was 1985, the start of what has now been called the ‘Iron Age’, a period where the stories became darker, more violent and (sometimes) more skewed towards a mature audience. Deconstruction of characters was common; the better of these took characters apart to explore how they worked and then put them back together again, the more ham-fisted just tore characters apart and left them wounded.

The Dark Knight Returns revitalised interest in Batman. It brought us many of the modern Batman tropes, most importantly the link between Batman and his villains (positing the idea that without Batman, the villains wouldn’t exist), Batman as sociopath acting out against legitimate targets (not directly supported by the narrative, but this can be read in) and The Joker becoming a mass-murderer (with successive writers each trying to top the atrocities of the previous). All of these ideas have been used badly in successive years, but we can’t blame that on the original, which has become a classic.

A classic which I re-read recently in order to re-examine the ideas it raised. I’ve long felt that it was a piece of flawless quality which has been tarnished by its poor imitators. I have since revised my opnion, first of him, now of it. My attitude towards Miller has soured over the years; I found 300 to be not only objectionable, but boring. The follow-up to Dark Knight Returns, titled Dark Knight Strikes Again, I found virtually unreadable drivel from start to finish. Upon re-reading the original, among the genuine insights, I found poor writing, woeful stereotyping and precisely the sort of juvenile, ego-charged power trip that has marked Miller’s later works. I still found it to be a good read, though certainly not flawless. Part of this is due to his characterisation of Batman: in particular, the pleasure the man takes in inflicting harm on criminals. While he refuses to kill, he is not averse to injury; in fact, he takes actions that result in injury to his opponent even when other options are available, and expresses no remorse when criminals die, even in painful ways.

All in all, what struck me most is the same thing that occurred to me while reflecting on Saving Private Ryan. That, too, was a piece that deconstructed the war movie. It showed the gore and violence that affected and twisted soldiers and was purportedly about finding humanity in the midst of war. What it utterly failed to do was extend the same courtesy to the enemy. The Nazis remained the same faceless, unknowable, implacable enemy that they have been in virtually every other World War II movie ever made. The one Nazi who gets anything like a persona is a prisoner they allow to live... and who returns to kill Tom Hanks and is later executed by the peaceful war correspondent. For a movie purporting to be about keeping one’s humanity amidst atrocity, it certainly went out of its way to justify atrocity.

In The Dark Knight Returns, the criminals are interchangeable. Most of them wear goggles or other facial adornments that render them impossible to tell apart other than colour scheme (the one criminal who wears anything different is, ironically, a neo-Nazi). While Batman and his personal nemeses are deconstructed, the ‘criminal’ is presented as a faceless enemy to be despised and crushed. They have no redeeming features, no individual personalities. They are caricatures of humanity. They are not to be understood, not to be empathised with. They are to be hit until they stop moving. There is no problem in Batman’s crusade that cannot be solved by hitting it hard enough and the only thing that stops him from cleaning up Gotham is the Government, in this case represented by Superman (who is little more than the President’s stooge).

This is the attitude I find disturbing. It’s what lowers Dark Knight Returns from a serious deconstruction to a power fantasy. ‘What if we just beat up criminals?’ it asks, with the answer being: ‘It would be AWESOME.’ If this attitude were isolated to this work, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, the criminal element is similarly-portrayed in other works (including much of modern Batman) and, unfortunately, real life. People in reality call for the execution of violent offenders, justifying their statements by saying: ‘They chose to be criminals, screw ‘em.’

While in fiction, power fantasies are relatively harmless, in real life, they are damaging. Crime and poverty are societal ills, but cannot simply be dealt with by hitting people. Increasing sentences tends not to reduce crime; it just makes us feel better as we take a proxy revenge against anyone who’s hurt us in the part. We empathise with Miller’s Batman because there is a part in the human psyche that enjoys being a bully. We cast our enemies as faceless evil because that justifies our actions, turns them from bullying into some form of a noble crusade against the criminal infidel.

Simple answers are attractive. We naturally prefer simplicity in our explanations. But Occam’s Razor tells us which explanations are preferred, not which are correct. Sometimes the simple answer is right. Sometimes the complex answer is right. There are indeed some problems violence can solve. In this case, I’m afraid of the people who think that hitting people solves everything.

And the comic? Well, I still think it’s pretty good. It has a glaring flaw, but Miller hadn’t quite descended into the madness that characterised his later works. A lot of it is there – the violent, hyper-masculine protagonist; the two female characters in the story were a tough lesbian (who hates Batman) and the former Catwoman, who runs an escort agency; the equating of optimism with naivete – all of which were magnified in his future pieces. As it is, it really is one of the best Batman stories. I just wish that while he was deconstructing Batman’s relationship with his named villains that he put some effort into Batman’s relationship with the criminal element.

(Yes, I'm a comic nerd. Amid the posts on politics, expect some on comics, books, movies and TV from time to time.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Faith vs Trust

There is a particularly insidious attack on science, one which attempts to undermine the whole basis of rational thought. This is one that has appeared in many avenues, including normally science-supporting, left-wing arenas. It is this: that science, like religion, requires faith. That to believe in the big bang, or evolution, requires you to hold that belief with faith, just like believing in the God of the Bible.

I want to state this very clearly: this is false. I fear that all too often, this idea is adopted by those who either have religious faith in order to defend their faith from rational inquiry, or by those who wish not to offend the religious by subjecting their faith to such scrutiny and feel that a statement of ‘Hey, we all require faith’ eases relations.

Truth, we may say, is more important than sophistry.

First, the definition I will use from here on is ‘scientific inquiry’. By this I mean observation and analysis of phenomena and the search for rational explanations which can illuminate our knowledge of the world and also be used to make predictions. I include not only the traditional sciences, but also the ‘soft’ or social sciences. This form of inquiry requires evidence. If there is no evidence for a claim, then that claim cannot be made with any form of authority. ‘I do not know’ is not an excuse to fill in the gaps with something for which there is no evidence. In short, simply because we do not know for sure where the universe came from, there is no rational basis for assuming it was created by a deity (especially a particular deity). Claims such as ‘God made it so’, ‘water has a memory’ or ‘it must have been magic’ do not help us to understand the world around us. Statements such as ‘disease is caused by germs’, on the other hand, allow us to investigate these things called ‘germs’, find out why and how they create disease, and how we can prevent that. It leads us towards further knowledge. Claims of supernatural intervention prevent further investigation.

So when Stephen Hawking claims the universe’s origins can be explained via natural means, he isn’t simply making things up. He isn’t saying that, for certain, the universe began this way. He is speaking out of knowledge – knowledge that telescopes can see a very long way away; that relativity and the speed of light mean that seeing a long way away is the same as seeing far back in time; that the indications are that at one point, the universe occupied a single space. Could he be wrong? Of course; any self-respecting scientist must admit that. But he is not exercising faith. Rather, he exercises his reason.

Now, the situation is different for non-scientists. We read books (or opinion blogs) and accept the conclusions in them. How is this different to reading the bible, or a book on acupuncture, and accepting those claims? The difference is that science has the best track record of success in terms of analysis and prediction. Alternative medicine has yet to produce significant results from the vast majority of treatments, homeopathy remains nothing more than water, dowsing has failed every test assigned to it. The history of religion is filled with failure of prophecy and a view of the physical world that has proven to be incorrect in every case that has been able to be analysed. Scientific inquiry has brought us effective medicines, weather monitoring, communication. It increases our understanding of the world on a daily basis.

When comparing the track record of science and other philosophies or beliefs in their ability to illuminate the natural world, we need look no further than this track record and ask whether science is worthy of trust. The answer is clear – it is. When evolutionary theory predicts that particular fossils should be found in a particular area, there they are. When analysis of those fossils suggests a particular lineage, DNA analysis backs that up. When the theory of relativity predicts time dilation and increase in mass as objects increase in speed, experimentation proves this (in fact, GPS satellites would be inaccurate without an understanding of relativity). Religion, of course, is not denied by science; there may well be a God out there... though certain aspects of various faiths are explicitly denied by scientific inquiry. This may be the true root of dissatisfaction with science from some areas of the community; not only religion but also homeopathy, chiropractic, astrology and the coal industry.

So when I say that I accept evolution, the big bang, relativity or climate science, I don’t do so through faith. I do so because science has the record to back it up. It has a power to bring understanding to the natural world that is possessed by no other philosophy or institution. I trust the scientific community when it makes bold pronouncements, because it does not do so if the claims are not justified. If a book tells me that the world was created in seven days, or that by drinking this pure water I will cure my insomnia, I ask: ‘where is the evidence?’ Science does not require faith, it requires understanding. To those who lack that understanding, the trust many of us have in science looks indistinguishable to faith. This does not change the essential character of our relationship with science: that it is rational and justified, requiring no leap of faith or logic to accept and trust its conclusions.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Clive Hamilton, the Greens candidate for the Higgins By-Election last year, has concluded a series of essays at The Drum concerning the anti-science nature of climate change denialism (that term being used for those who are against climate change on an ideological basis –rejecting all evidence for and embracing all evidence against – as opposed to those who are genuinely skeptical).

I could go further into the issue of climate change. I instead link to his articles, the website Skeptical Science, and the video channels for Potholer54 and Greenman 3610 which lay out all the issues for and against in excellent detail. In short, don’t believe the backlash: the issue is settled science, the scientific community has spoken. It’s up to the non-scientific community, and particularly the political community, to decide what to do about it; but simply denying the science is not a reasonable option.

I will instead broaden the discussion to include all anti-science brands out there. This trend is limited not only to the climate, but any area where science tells people that what they believe isn’t true. While certainly not the first example, the most famous is, of course, Galileo being forced to recant his findings in front of what was effectively an inquisitorial court. His reputed utterance ‘E pur si muovre’ proved to be more durable than his public statement and science won out in the end: the old Church model of the heavens as the perfect heavenly abode ended. It is important to note that in centuries prior, the Church had been the bastion of learning and research. Roger Bacon, one of the most-cited figures when discussing the origin of the scientific method, was a Franciscan. The Church supported research, copied books and extended as well as preserved knowledge. It was only once science began to show that certain church teachings were wrong that the power of Holy Mother Church was turned against the scientists.

So it is today with evolution. While the modern Catholic Church has no problem with evolution (as is true for most Christian churches around the world), there exists a surprisingly large fundamentalist, literalist backlash against the theory, both Christian and non-Christian; since while there is nothing stopping anyone from both accepting evolution and believing in a liberal interpretation of various holy texts, evolution does explicitly oppose strictly literal readings. We end up with public figures making fools out of themselves in their ignorance, showing their misunderstanding of radiometric dating, fossil records, thermodynamics and even the meaning of the word ‘theory’. They oppose evolution because they must; because to eliminate the cognitive dissonance they feel when their beliefs oppose reality, they decide to deny reality instead of adjusting their beliefs.

So it is also with homeopathy, along with much of the rest of alternative medicine. Homeopathy is focussed on specifically because it is to utterly anti-science, so opposed to scientific inquiry and rationality that it beggars belief. More on homeopathy can be found in this article and this video. The synopsis is that homeopathic remedies are simply water sold at enormous volume. Yet the defenders will insist that they work, based on anecdotal evidence and a lack of understanding of the placebo effect. When science tells them that they don’t work, that the benefits they feel have other explanations, they reject science. While homeopathy itself is rather harmless, it can lead to the sick not seeking competent medical care, or even rejecting it outright, as in the case of not only homeopathy but (more importantly) AIDS denialists or anti-vaccine campaigners. These two are deadly serious concerns, fuelled by general anti-science sentiment.

One simply cannot attack science on one of these issues without weakening it overall. The arguments used against science in each of the above areas (and others) are precisely the same: misrepresenting the state of the research, seeing debate as evidence of uncertainty instead of science’s greatest asset, dismissing science as not having all the answers, claims of conspiracy and suppression... to use any of these arguments against climate change is feeding into the arguments of those who oppose it on evolution. By opposing science on homeopathy, you give power to those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS.

If science is to have any place in the modern world, then we as thinking human beings must accept its findings regardless of whether or not they are convenient to our beliefs or ideologies. This is not to say that science is always right; but it is the institution with the greatest record of accuracy in the history of human inquiry. This is because it has no central organising theme or aim other than the search for truth. It does not ever claim to have found The Truth, either; science does not ever rest, even a ‘settled question’ (even climate change) is open for debate and will be overturned should new evidence contradict the dominant theories.

Most importantly, it is made up of people who advance their careers not by mindlessly repeating what luminaries in the field say, but by proving those luminaries wrong. If there is an angle to attack popular theories, they will be attacked. If they fail, they fail regardless of how popular they are or how well-regarded the scientists behind them: in science, theories are given prestige because they are right, not because they say something comforting.

We should follow that same ethos.

Euthanasia and choice

An example of what I was talking about in my last column has cropped up in the national media; very kind of them. The euthanasia debate has centred around rights – the right to life versus the right to choose to end it. The pro-euthanasia side, mostly on the Left, has been sounding very much like the right on this one, talking about the individual right to make one’s own decisions. The Right, meanwhile, has been... not so much sounding like the Left, but certainly putting societal interests ahead of individual. They do it for different reasons: in the case of the right, it is fear of what the change will bring and traditional concern for the sanctity of human life.

In a perfect illustration of why the ‘the Left cares about society, the Right cares about the individual’ meme is wrong, we see the Right putting forward slippery slope arguments (on The Drum (20/9), Tom Switzer used that term no fewer than three times in fifteen minutes) leading inevitably to the downfall of society. (Make no mistake, slippery slope arguments have their place; but that place is when outcomes are indicated by evidence such as historical trends, not simply as ‘if this happens, this other thing might happen!’)

Further, the arguments of the more-or-less Left show that indeed, the Left is concerned about the individuals; it’s just which rights they’re concerned about vary from the Right. Nor is it purely about government intervention: in this case, the government is already intervening and the Greens bill is trying to get them to stop. It’s a complete inversion of the conflict set up by the meme, extreme enough to be the exception that disproves, rather than the exception that proves.

This is because it is not an abandonment of principles by either party; the Right, which in Australia is actually genuinely conservative to some degree, is opposed to change, while the Left seeks a more just society, in which we do not force people to live who do not want to, at least in particular circumstances (a cancer patient in the final stages of the disease is a very different case than a teenager who is convinced that her life is over). These are the true colours of each side of politics; the ‘individual vs society’ meme is a cover for social conservatism and tyranny of property, not the actual motivating factor.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Freedom vs Capacity

A companion meme to ‘The Left wants to expand government’, and one more commonly seen in Australia, is: ‘The Left cares about the State and Society over the Individual, the Right defends individual rights.’

Again, at a simplistic and superficial level, this is appealing. The Left does traditionally put more emphasis on social programs, welfare and laws that protect minorities from prejudice. This includes laws that infringe on property rights, such as not allowing shop owners to bar individuals on the basis of race, or telling tour companies they have to allow women (or men).

Not exactly the way I’d put it, of course. As is often the case, the simple explanation is superficially pleasing but not the whole story. Here’s my version: that the Right is, traditionally, concerned with increasing freedom, yes. Freedom as defined as the theoretical ability to act in any way one chooses; the lifting of formal or legal barriers to action and choice. The Left, meanwhile, prefers to act to increase capacity: that is, the actual ability of an individual to make the choices he or she is theoretically free to.

This is a narrow distinction, but an important one. I feel it’s one not given sufficient attention in mainstream political philosophy, though sociology has written extensively about it. The basic premise is that even though we might be theoretically free to follow a particular path, there are usually obstacles in our way that prevent us from doing so. These could be personal (such as natural ability, emotional issues, drive and motivation), situational (access to resources, location, time and place, socio-economic status) or cultural (notably prejudice). In short, an Aboriginal man from Redfern is less likely to ascend to the highest level of politics or business than a white male Christian born into a wealthy family.

In an ideal world, both would be entirely free to achieve their every ambition; on this, Left and Right agree. The difference between the wings of politics is rather what they see as barriers and which barriers it is appropriate that government deal with. For the Right, the government must necessarily concentrate on economic issues; to the Left, the government has a more proactive role in shaping the cultural and social agenda.

And so we see that neither Left nor Right is more concerned about the individual than the other. Neither can really claim that they are ‘The Party of Individual Rights’. What differs, rather, is which rights they see as the most important: property rights or social equity. The former relieves formal or legal barriers to advancement, while the latter removes practical barriers.

In the future, I will expand on what I perceive these barriers to be, and what the responses to them are.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Media Burning

There is a clear difference between ‘old media’ (traditional print and televised news services) and ‘new media’ (blogs, YouTube channels, social media). Our thinking as a culture is still very much stuck in the ‘old media’ mindset – that things don’t happen unless the cameras are turned on. If we examine thethe  timeline of the development of the recent story about burning of the Qur'an by Pastor Terry Jones, this point is clear. According to The Guardian, traditional media outlets only took up the story after it had already started rolling.

First, I would like to modify our understanding of ‘old’ vs ‘new’ media. There have always been sources of information other than formal print and televised journalism. In the 1980s, when journalist John Pilger wanted to talk about things that he couldn’t broadcast on television, he turned to alternative media. In this day and age, he might have started a blog, but in his case he wrote books: books about events that were insufficiently covered by traditional media, books about the media industry itself. In a different context and time, when political organisations wanted to talk about the suffering of the black population of South Africa, they used traditional media, but they also organised protests, wrote pamphlets to be distributed at events, held talks at universities.

And so the argument that ‘new media’ is novel is itself a false narrative. Rather, the already-existing informal media dynamic has changed. The resources required to create a video or informative pamphlet have changed, now that a webcam can be used to upload a video to YouTube, or a site such as Blogspot can host your words for free. Therefore, the volume of informal media has increased. This is not new, just different and bigger than before. It’s far easier for a single individual or group to get mass attention, especially when the message is inflammatory.

It’s interesting that the people who fed the story about the Korna burning were not proponents of the event, but people opposing it. The facebook comments were overwhelmingly negative; even the first semi-mainstream (where?) report was negative. The outrage sparked a buzz, and that buzz increased in volume until the traditional mainstream media outlets simply could not ignore it.

So while many comments have been aimed at Big Media for pushing this story, I think those are mis-aimed. Big Media took it up only when they had no other choice. My advice would be aimed instead at the people who stormed in outrage: Don’t Feed The Trolls. The power the individual holds in the current media environment puts an onus on the individual to be at least a little responsible.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's all about context

Stephanie Rice is in trouble for using A Bad Word. She’s been dumped by her sponsor and under fire for being homophobia as a result... but a teammate, who is gay, defends her by saying she isn’t. How can these be reconciled?

It’s easy if you understand one thing: it’s all about context. Offensiveness always is. Absolutely anything, no matter how innocuous normally, can be offensive in the wrong context... and absolutely anything offensive can be passable in the right context.

To expand on that: I use the word ‘faggot’ with some frequency. Other words, too. The context in which I use them is one where the people who hear me know that I mean them as parody more than seriousness. When I call my friends ‘faggots’, they know that I am making fun of the sort of people who use the term, not of the people who are usually targets.

However, if I used the same word in the same way in public, the context would be different. The people around me might know what I meant... but many would not. Not only would some of those who hear take offence, but they should; because some of those who hear and do not understand what I mean would be emboldened by hearing me. They would not be offended because they like using whatever word I just came up with. The more people they hear using it, the more likely they are to have their views reinforced and not only use that word, but act in a way consistent with its mainstream intent.

Too often, our discussion of racism, sexism and homophobia focus on the words we use instead of the ideas we express. This is why ‘Dr’ Laura Schlessinger was attacked for using ‘nigger’ 11 times, when the far more offensive statement she made was to tell her female black caller (who was complaining about her husband’s friends using the same word) that if she was so easily offended, she shouldn’t have married outside her race. She got away clean from that truly repulsive statement because most of the onlookers (though fortunately, not all) were too distracted by ‘The N-Word’. This gives her clearance to say that she was attacked for simply using a word... when she was actually attacked for being horribly racist. She probably wouldn't learn anyway, but this would be a good moment to talk about the attitudes in society that lead people towards racism... instead it was just about the Word.

I say: words, by themselves, are not offensive. The ideas they conjure and the contexts in which they are uttered make them offensive. Words to put down women, homosexuals and minorities are offensive not simply because they are designed to put people down but because they reinforce cultural memes of inferiority. They are a means of propagating not only prejudice, but prejudice that results in unequal access to society for those targeted by it.

For this reasons, I find nothing truly offensive about terms like ‘cracker’. The word might betray some crassness in the speaker, and I might decide I don’t like that person on some principle or another, but it lacks the sting that ‘nigger’, ‘kike’, ‘boong’ or ‘faggot’ do, because there is no societal prejudice leading towards unequal access to society for white men like me. Or rather, there is... but the inequality is in my favour. So the least I can do is to be a big man and suck up the occasional insult.

So I can understand where Stephanie Rice is coming from. I’m willing to believe her teammate and accept that she was tone-deaf rather than prejudiced. I think she should refrain from using certain words in public, but also that we should talk about why offence is caused, not simply use ‘That Is Offensive!’ as a politically-correct fire blanket.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Country Independents

This afternoon, we’re promised, we will find out where the three Country Independents will jump. Personally, my money’s on Labor. Only two of them have to go to Labor to guarantee another Gillard government, but they have been talking about wanting to move as a bloc, so it is possible that they’ll all lump in with the Coalition, giving them the 76 seats they need.

Thus far, Labor has been more responsive to the trio’s demands on costings and reform; the Liberals’ $11 billion budget hole didn’t help matters at all. Katter naturally aligns a lot better with the Coalition (in fact, he’s far to the right of them, being a Sir Joh man himself), but he has admitted that during their 12 years in power, the Coalition didn’t do squat for the country. I’ll point out that in the last Queensland state election, the Liberal party was routed – they ended up with so few seats that the Queensland Nationals actually dissolved the Coalition in that state. I wouldn’t be surprised if Katter held the federal Coalition in similar regard. The federal National Party certainly doesn’t seem to hold any sway in policy.

Meanwhile, seeing where Oakeshott and Windsor will jump is sort of like reading tea leaves. I said before that my money’s on Labor; this is just a sense I’m getting from them. Labor’s responsiveness and what the two (mostly Oakeshott, Windsor has been a bit quieter) have been saying. It’s just the impression I get, really.

If both of those go to Labor, you can bet Katter will follow. He’s been setting this up, with his comments about the Coalition failing the bush. You can also bet that he won’t want to be the useless 74th seat on the Coalition minority. Much better to get in with the side in power. Labor, meanwhile, might be better off without him, but they can’t exactly say no to him without annoying the other two, since they have wanted to move as a group. I do worry about someone so stone-age and what he’ll do to the party’s political stances.

Fortunately, all three have been immune to the barrage of ‘Beware the approaching Left-wing dooooom!’ that came out over the weekend. A chorus of current and former Liberal Party voices echoed the same claim, that the next Labor government would be ‘the most Left-wing in history’, thanks to the alliance with the Greens. At no point did they illuminate us on exactly why this would be a bad thing. Yet again, it’s the importation of an American meme: “Barack Obama is the most liberal member of Congress,” voters were told, despite the fact that his voting record put him at centre-left compared to other members of Congress, and actually slightly to the right of the population. Again, in both cases, nothing was said about exactly what would change, or why a left-wing government would be necessarily so terrible. Just vague warnings of: ‘Doooom!’ that might have come from any bad fantasy-novel oracle.

So we’ll see what happens this afternoon. Cross fingers, everyone.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Big Government

Another meme that has seeped through from the US to Australia is one of ‘the Left wants big government, the Right wants small government.’ This is a particularly easy one to fall prey to, because when you see Australia’s left wanting to mount big social projects, it looks accurate. There was a lot of focus on the competing National Broadband Network plans for precisely this reason, because they accorded to this narrative: Labor wanted to spend $43 million and get a government-built-and-owned network, the Coalition wanted to spend $6 billion to encourage private investment. Labor big government, Coalition small government.

That’s the small picture, though. It’s also confusing cause and effect. If all the left wanted to do was to expand government, it wouldn’t need the NBN as an excuse. No, the left wants to expand the ability of government to combat social problems. The latter is the cause – the former is the way of dealing with it. Sometimes this leads to an expansion in the bureaucracy. At other times, it means simply becoming more agile, more capable of dealing with problems that exist today instead of those that existed twenty years ago (or, in the middle of a financial crisis, even more rapidly).

This fundamentally comes down to a scare tactic. ‘Big Government’ is scary – it conjures up images of 1984’s police state. When we’re asked if we think more government bureaucracy is a bad thing, we can all remember times (usually in the recent past) where we’ve run afoul of bureaucratic red tape, providing a clear confirmation bias in such a question. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Centrelink knows how this works. It also relies on the confused meanings of ‘bureaucracy’ – a term that can apply to a smooth, well-functioning body but carries connotations of waste, mismanagement and of existing only to serve its own ends.

This of course need not be the case. Nor is it in fact a clear distinction between Labor and Liberal. The NBN aside, comparing proposals side by side, it’s really hard to tell whether either would actually ‘grow’ or ‘shrink’ government.

In short, this is not a meme based in Australian political reality; it’s an imported tactic, one which has found a lot of purchase in the US, where the Left is repeatedly hammered with charges of expanding government power, even though the Republicans were the ones who were pushing a true expansion of Presidential power, giving Bush’s Presidency a near-Royal scope.

Yet another thing I’d like to see squashed before it gains much more purchase on the political landscape here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Policy and Faith

There is, of course, no way to keep religion out of politics altogether. Representatives will of course be influenced by their moral stances, and in the case of religious representatives, their morality will be (at least in part) drawn from their religion. Not only can this not be avoided, but I see no real reason to attempt it. We all bring our own biases and preconceptions to debates, with none ultimately really worth excluding.

What I do object to – and what we’ve mostly managed to keep out of in Australia for the past 20-30 years – is the tying together of policy and faith. That is, the explicit assertion of faith as a driver behind particular policies or bills. Such a stance inevitably binds the object to religion and, this being the important part, the authority of religion.

I was always a bit uncomfortable when I saw politicians referring to their own religion. I didn’t quite know how to put it until I read the quote of Aristotle’s that I used previously. Here it is again:
A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious... they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.
Simply referencing religion is not tyranny, of course. But it is inherently authoritarian. It is an attempt to bring the power of faith behind one’s opinions, instead of letting the arguments stand on their own merits. It is, in short, anti-democratic.

Personally, I don’t care what religion politicians belong to. The fact that someone is ‘christian’, ‘atheist’, ‘hindu’, ‘muslim’ do not inform me how well they’re going to govern and whether they’ll make the country a better place. That’s what’s important. I’d much rather have someone who’s going to do a good job than someone who shares my religious convictions. Or, in my case, my lack of them.

There are, however, people out there who do seem to prefer to elect someone who shares their beliefs. In Australia, this probably isn’t too bad. The picking on Gillard for her atheism aside, religion seems to be largely absent from Australian politics. Certainly, overt claims such as Abbott’s Catholic pronouncements around the abortion pill debate were met with blank stares. No, the subtle is a better weapon here than the overt.

Again, we can look at America. George W. Bush used religion as a weapon. He gained die-hard fanatical supporters among the religious right by using the right language and professing their ideals. Voting for him became a matter of faith, not just politics; in a handful of churches, attendees were even told that they had to vote for Bush or they could not return. When he won in 2000, it was said that ‘God won the Presidency’. The Iraq invasion was justified in part by his claim that God told him to go there. Meanwhile, the meme of America being a ‘Christian Nation’ re-emerged, and Bush’s father’s claim that atheists cannot be considered real Americans was echoed.

And once you have someone who has cloaked himself in religion to that extent... he must be supported by those who believe. Opposing the political leader is tantamount to opposing God. And at that point, as it was in 2002-2003, the political leader has become Aristotle’s tyrant. This is quite apart from the question of whether or not the policies and laws are bad or not. A tyrant need not be evil, only grasping.

In Australia, we might have been heading in this direction in the 60s and 70s – the last great uprising of the Democratic Labour Party. I’m actually not sure what ended that. I suspect it was the combined efforts of Whitlam and Frazer, neither of whom seemed to have much time for religious fervour. Whitlam, through his social programs, managed to provide more actual hope and aid to those who needed it than any number of church programs; while my perception of Frazer’s government is that he didn’t provide many places for theocrats to ensconce themselves. I am making claims without much justification there: this is based on perception of someone who wasn’t around at the time, not actual knowledge. If anyone does know better how this happened, please leave a comment.

Fortunately, one way or another, there is no alliance between the Political Right and the Religious Right in Australia, as there is in the US. This can only be a good thing for the democratic process.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mosques and Immigration

I expect most people here will have heard of the controversial 'Ground Zero Mosque' (in quotes because it is none of those things) in New York. If you haven't, the quick version is that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has plans to open an Islamic community centre in an abandoned coat factory two blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre. This community centre, called Park51 (name changed from Cordoba House after that reference was wilfully misunderstood) will contain pretty much everything you'd expect from most American community centres, plus a prayer space. A prayer space is not a mosque... but that, and its proximity to the WTC site, was enough for it to be referred to as the 'Ground Zero Mosque' and kick up a nation-wide rain of hellfire.

The arguments against it boil down to it being 'insensitive' or even outright 'offensive'. The more bigoted people go so far as to say that it is 'Islamic Triumphalism', that it is a monument to the Muslim 'Victory' of 9/11. The more quiet criticism says that the intense emotions felt around the issue are in and of themselves a reason to rethink the project, perhaps move it. That it wouldn't be right to cause the anxiety and force victims to re-live the horror. This is the position of the Anti-Defamation League, in a widely-criticised decision. To quote:
The lessons of an earlier and different controversy echo in this one. In 1993, Pope John Paul II asked 14 Carmelite Nuns to move their convent from just outside the Auschwitz death camp. The establishment of the convent near Auschwitz had stirred dismay among Jewish groups and survivors who felt that the location was an affront and a terrible disservice to the memory of millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Just as we thought then that well-meaning efforts by Carmelite nuns to build a Catholic structure were insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation, so too we believe it will be with building a mosque so close to Ground Zero.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of 'offensiveness'. There is a point to thinking critically about this, as the mere fact that something is 'offensive' is, in my opinion, no reason to ban it or even decry it. There will always be someone who will be offended by any given thing. Neither can you reason by majority; that is, you cannot say that something can be banned due to offensiveness because the majority deems it necessary -- this will leave minorities without a voice. While individual action can and should take care of issues of sensitiviety and offence, offensiveness in and of itself is a poor metric to govern society.

Far more important -- and the real rub -- is harm. We do not frown on racism because it is offensive -- we find it offensive because it causes harm. Real, measurable societal harm in the way that it keeps particular social groups from full and unconditional acceptance in society. Racist language is a marker of racism and thus offensive. So the offence can be tied back to a particular harm. Meanwhile, if we are to call on people to adjust their behaviour due to this harm, we enter into a complex policy web. Rights and freedoms must be balanced against the harm and ultimately, we must choose the path of least harm. This frequently involves there being no law imposed, only social sanction. In all cases, we must carry out this balancing act.

In the case of Park51, I can fully understand how it can be offensive. That is no secret -- Islam is widely seen as responsible for the 9/11 attacks, so the building of an Islamic community centre (much less a Mosque) is of course able to cause offence. However, does this offence mean that it is wrong to build Park51 where it is? Should it be moved? We should carry out the balancing of harms.

At one level, the harm in moving is minimal. There are many other sites the centre could be moved to, including one that was made available specifically as an alternative. However, those other sites are not suitable for the purpose of the centre. It is, first and foremost, there to serve a community. At its current location, it is in the middle of a large Muslim population, one that has few places to pray. It serves a legitimate community need, one that would not be served by moving it away.

Furthermore, it would be forced to move for no reason other than offence... and offence caused by (at best) ignorance or (at worst) bigotry. The fact is the Islam did not attack the US on 9/11. The bombers were motivated as much by base human political will than religion, no matter their religious protestations, just as the Crusades were more a land-grab than a religious war. Furthermore, this particular community centre is headed by a priest from the Sufi sect, by far the most moderate of Islamic divisions. To say that this group is 'linked' to 9/11 is like saying that the local student socialist club is 'linked' to the gulags.

The moderate (or even leftist) protests all focus on that offence as if it existed by itself, as a construct that had no cause and no interest, without consiering that the offence is only there because of ignorance and/or bigotry. In reading a new article about this today, I was reminded of what I wrote yesterday about Gillard's defence of people who felt concerned about 'border security'.

To be sure, these two issues do differ in one great respect: there are reasons to be concerned about immigration in general and asylum-seekers in particular that are not rooted in bigotry, while I see none related to Park51.

However, twice now I have personally experienced the meme that immigration from non-English-speaking nations is something that causes 'concern' in the community, that the nation is not 'on board' with opening up the country to people from other cultures, because there's really no way of telling how our culture will change as a result. In these conversations, no racist terminology was used, and the speaker was calm and apparently reasonble.

In both cases, my response was the same: that such concern is by its very nature xenophobic. That if the community isn't on-board, it's because we haven't done a good enough job of getting the community behind it. That the response should be to redouble those efforts, not to curtail non-white, non-anglo immigration. That we should never permit racism or simple xenophobic 'concern' to dominate our policy discussions and that we certainly should never allow it to set policy.

As an immigrant myself (from a white, English-speaking background) I see no reason to deny this privilege to others based on their cultural background. Of course our country will change. Our culture will change. Countries always change, cultures always change. We are, I will remind, far more affected culturally by American TV and movies than we are by immigration.

I hear snippets of this argument (though not fully-articulated) from talking heads on TV... there were occasional whispers that might have been dog whistles during the Q&A Population Debate, but they were too brief to tell. I worry that this might be more wide-spread. I fear it is, given that the two people I spoke to used idential language, which tells me that it is a meme that exists in the wild.

I see it -- as I see the ADL's defence of the Park51 opponents -- as nothing more than giving legitimacy to xenophobia.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Compare and contrast

Two posts I found on my 'things you might find interesting' list provided by google reader.

One is a letter to students at Berkeley, about how the previous generations stopped 'paying it forward' with social programs and decided to keep investment for the future to themselves.

The other is an attack on California as having a 'terrible business climate' that includes, among other things, ' unnecessarily lavish social programs'.

I thought the latter was a perfect illustration of the former. The second talks about how why California is so awful:
These companies fleeing California’s horrid business climate are not alone. There has been a steady flow of businesses out of California for the better part of a decade. As California’s political morass worsens, as its budget woes increase, and as her politicians are proven incapable of making the hard budgetary decisions to take power from unions and chop unnecessarily lavish social programs, the state’s jobs are bleeding out. California is an a freefall the end of which is still unseen.
This sounds terrible! But wait, what exactly did happen in California? From the first article:
This deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves.  “My kids are finished with school; why should I pay taxes for someone else’s?  Posterity never did anything for me!”  An army of fake ‘leaders’ sprang up to pull the moral and fiscal wool over their eyes, and again and again, your parents and their parents lashed out at government (as though there were something else that could replace it) with tax limits, term limits, safe districts, throw-away-the-key imprisonment no matter the cost, smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, and a rule never to use the words taxes and services in the same paragraph.
Now, your infrastructure is falling to pieces under your feet, and as citizens you are responsible for crudities like closing parks, and inhumanities like closing battered women’s shelters. It’s outrageous, inexcusable, that you can’t get into the courses you need, but much worse that Oakland police have stopped taking 911 calls for burglaries and runaway children. If you read what your elected officials say about the state today, you’ll see things like “California can’t afford” this or that basic government function, and that “we need to make hard choices” to shut down one or another public service, or starve it even more (like your university). Can’t afford? The budget deficit that’s paralyzing Sacramento is about $500 per person; add another $500 to get back to a public sector we don’t have to be ashamed of, and our average income is almost forty times that.  Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.
Another link: to a summary of where California's budget goes and where the shortfalls are. Add to this the fact that California's legislature requires a 2/3 majority to increase revenues, but only a bare majority to decrease and you have a recipe for fiscal disaster.

It sounds to me like blaming California's 'lavish social programs' for the budget and the subsequent exodus of companies to other states is simply a missed target.

Why talk about this? Well, despite my focus so far on Australian political issues, I'm more broadly-interested than that. I've actually been following American politics more than Australian recently. Second, these memes have already reached Australia. I've said before that Australian politics are American, writ small. This is more a truism than it is true, but it works for simple analysis. Simply put, if something crops up in American politics, it'll likely find its way to Australian sooner or later, though mostly in a somewhat muted form. If nothing else, looking at America is a good way of seeing what it would be like if certain policies were adopted.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Visionary Leadership, Part 2

The problem of lack of vision is expressed well in The Drum, which makes the point that there is the impression that ‘there is no difference between the major parties’. This, the author contends, is not true. I agree. There is plenty of difference between the major parties, but given that they both have no vision beyond ‘do whatever it takes to get elected’, it’s hard to tell the difference without examining individual policies; ones that inevitably fail to draw a consistent picture of the aims and intentions of the party, neither of which has a terribly good record of fulfilling its electoral promises. (I have no doubt that Abbott’s insistence that ‘WorkChoices is dead’ convinced exactly zero people.)

In addition to the points made in The Drum, I’d like to re-iterate a point from my last post: that a guiding vision shows people how issues that do not directly affect them are still in their interests.

Take, for example, gay marriage. This is a somewhat sticky issue, one which both sides of politics ended up on the wrong side of so as not to offend social conservatives. In trying not to be offensive to the right, however, Labor managed to be offensive to the left. It proved that they were simply pragmatists. Why? Because gay marriage isn’t just about the rights of gays to get married. It’s an issue of social justice and equality, about equal access to the mechanisms of society for all. If the right of homosexuals to marry the partners of their choosing is sacrificed on the altar of political expedience, what is next?

There’s a phrase from American political history: if the least popular speech is not free, then no speech is free. The idea is the same here. If one minority group can have their rights summarily removed, then anyone can. And thus a driving vision of social equality shows voters how issues that do not directly affect them are nonetheless fundamental to the shared goal of creating a society that is worth living in. By abandoning this goal (or at least, abandoning the pretence that such a goal was theirs), Labor probably ended up alienating more of its base than they gained in social conservatives. Through this issue, the left-most of the two major parties took an uncomfortable lurch to the right.

Similarly, climate change isn’t just about the earth getting warmer. The debate at the moment is about the role of science in policy-making. Specifically, in this case, politicians feel that they can debate the science and tell the scientists that they are wrong. It’s awfully convenient to be able to point to the handful of sceptical scientists and say: “I believe them.” This is, however, a fig leaf – a way of justifying one’s own biases by picking and choosing experts. At best, it’s evidence of ignorance of the fundamental way that science works. That is, by debate – there will always be debate in scientific circles. No law or theory will ever be immune to criticism or attempts to disprove it. If it were, then science would cease to function. Political critics of global warming take the greatest strength of science and try to turn it into a weakness.

So what is the answer? The very same thing that has served governments well for decades: to trust the science and decide policy based on that. Simply put, parliament house or, (sorry to disappoint you, Gillard) Citizens’ Assemblies are not where science will be decided. That battle has been fought and won in the harshest debate ground possible: peer-reviewed academic literature. It is over, the consensus is in. It’s now the job of politicians to decide what to do about it. They may choose to take the science and choose to do nothing. I believe that would be a wrong choice, but it is within the rights of a government. Scientists, after all, do not run the government, they inform it. However, to take the best scientific advice available and tell them: “No, this is wrong,” is to deny the importance of science itself. It opens up doors: if we can challenge global warming science on the political or community level, what about evolution? This is no idle question: the tendrils of the Creationism/Intelligent Design movement from the United States are worming their way into the Australian political consciousness. Without a consistent stand on the value of science in policy, expect to see politicians saying that schools should ‘teach the controversy’.

Show me a Citizens’ Assembly that is dedicated not to debating global warming science but instead to generating informed discussion about it – to increase knowledge about the science and find ways of communicating the science accurately – and I’ll support it. That’s how you get the community behind acting on the science: communication and education. The science is convincing, you just need to make sure that people actually hear it instead of merely propaganda.

A third example area is immigration. This is quite depressing as well; both parties are treating this as an issue about no more than border security and population. We see debates about the ‘pacific solution’ without any broader discussion of the issue from a global or human perspective. We have a human rights issue discussed as an administrative exercise.

Of those people coming over, how many of them genuinely needed to flee, and flee faster than the official refugee-vetting process allowed? How many faced persecution that would not permit them to wait in the ‘queue’? How desperate was their situation that they were willing to spend months in cramped conditions aboard leaky boats? I must say, I don’t know the answer to these questions. The media hasn’t been talking about it, because the politicians haven’t been talking about it. Instead, we see them referred to not as refugees or asylum-seekers but as ‘boat people’, put down as ‘queue-jumpers’ and with sideways references to the terrible criminal or even (gasp) terrorist threat they bring. Is it any wonder that people are concerned about border security, given the coverage of the issue?

The sole concession to the human face of asylum-seekers is the moaning over the children in detention. Children, after all, are not responsible for their actions. This merely reinforces the idea that the adults are responsible for theirs; that they have done something wrong that means they deserve to be kept in detention. The hand-wringing over children is needed, but it should not be restricted to the children.

Gillard tried to defend those concerned about border security, saying that it need not be based in racism or xenophobia; that it may simply indicate a genuine concern about security. Banal statements are often true; but in this case, the banality conceals the necessarily banal corollary: that people concerned about refugees as a border security issue necessarily see refugees as threats to that security. Why is this, given how small the number of asylum-seekers really is? Gillard’s statement answers nothing, it merely begs the question.

On this issue there is no discussion. There is no debate; informed societal debate is absent from the political sphere, exiled to the realms of student politics. (And who really pays attention to them, anyway?) Labor has given in to the Liberal party, treating this as a serious issue of security – and thus each new boat arrival is a blow to their credibility – instead of talking about the accurate statistics and putting a human face on all the refugees, not just the children.

On all these issues, Labor surrendered the moral and political high ground to the Coalition. In doing so, it followed the demands of political pragmatism. However, did it actually work out? While policy details differed markedly between the parties in many key areas, Labor failed to motivate its base. The number of informal votes saw a sharp increase in this election, a clear indication that people weren’t happy with any of the choices. What’s very telling is that the swing away from Labor to the Greens was larger than the swing away from Labor to the Coalition. Labor moved to the right and its base adjusted accordingly. Meanwhile, the Greens are attacked as a party that is ‘all principles, no pragmatism’.

My contention is that in the area of political vision, principle is pragmatism. Without that principle, the ‘light on the hill’, voters are left without a clear distinction between the parties. People are always more motivated to vote for a party that stands for something more than its own election; merely being ‘better than the other guy’ fails to inspire. Abandoning principles for pragmatism is a false economy. It is a siren-song, drawing parties off-course and dashing their electoral hopes. The voters ask: “Why should I want you in power?” the reply comes, from both major parties: “Because I will put more money in your pocket.” What if, instead, the answer came: “Because I will create a more fair and just society. Because I will fight inequality and base my policies in facts, not scares. Because with you, I will create an Australia that you will be proud to call home.” Who would you vote for?

I hope that Labor can learn from its mistakes. Its history in this area is not cause for too much hope. If it can see where it went wrong and return to its base instead of wooing after the social conservatives; if it can lead through example and enlightenment instead of chasing after the gutter politics... then perhaps it can win back its clear majority. Perhaps then it will deserve to.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Visionary Leadership

An article in today’s Age hits some of the same points I was making in one of my letters: that there was a lack of ‘big picture’ politics in this campaign; that it was an election season based on details, not vision. To quote from the article:
“Stage one in the campaign manual for administrations facing re-election is: choice not referendum, future not the past. The Labor strategy came nowhere near achieving this, with its relentless focus on yesterday and lack of forward vision. For parties of the left in particular, the vision thing is crucial. With the exception of the national broadband network, I struggled to discern much mention of the sunlit uplands into which Labor would lead the nation. Where was Ben Chifley's ''light on the hill''? Barack Obama's ''yes we can''? Or even Tony Blair's more utilitarian ''A lot done - a lot left to do'' that saw Blair romp to a second successive landslide in 2001.” (Martin Salter, The Age, 24/8/2010)

I want to expand on what I was saying. Many of the details being talked about were indeed important. There were issues of welfare, health, economics and immigration that were and are absolutely vital to the future of the nation. However, each was tackled individually, a piecemeal approach with no overriding vision.

The reason for this was obvious: Labor’s driving vision was re-election, the Liberals’ driving vision was dislodging Labor. The view from the top stretched no further than the transfer of power.

But of course, why is such a vision important? I see it as essential because nations are more than what they do and governments are more than the sum of their policies. Overarching visions give formation to the individual policies, allows them to fit into a larger framework. What, after all, is the purpose of increasing health care, other than the utility to those who need it? The answer is in the larger vision: one of creating a healthier, more caring, more socially just nation, one that strengthens the weakest of its citizens to increase the strength of the whole.

In order to sustain such a vision, one’s policies must fit neatly around it. If one’s policies conflict with the overall vision, then the looking-glass clouds and voters turn away (see, for example, the dwindling popularity of Obama’s post-election policies). It binds a party to something other than mere pragmatism – and as Martin Salter points out, Labor was driven purely by pragmatism this cycle.

However, such pragmatism is inherently short-sighted. It appeals to the baser nature of the community: ‘what can the government do for me?’ It forges no bond between the community and the party; the very sort of bond that led certain segments of Australian society to vote Labor time and time again. That bond is gone now, Labor has abandoned its base, which is left searching for alternatives amidst the independent parties... or the Liberals, which feed the popular media very convincing lines about economic management.

In the long run, idealism is pragmatism. While in individual circumstances one might not be able to take the most politically-prudent option, the existence of a solid, convincing, driving vision will bind people to the party that adopts it. It will inspire voters to think about the future instead of dwelling on the past. It is, in short, leadership. To paraphrase West Wing, Labor is made up of politicians who see crowds running down a street and cries: ‘There go my people! I must find out where they are going, so I may lead them.’

So what areas might I like to see such vision? In my letter, I mentioned immigration and climate change. I’ll expand on this more soon.