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.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Atheism in politics (Letter 6)

Written only recently. Expect this to be a kickoff for a larger piece.

Aristotle wrote: “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.”

Observing the coverage of Julia Gillard’s atheism, one might observe the converse: that leaders who do not profess a devotion to religion are seen as open to attack from those who see themselves as more god-fearing. An array of snide references and dismissive appraisals work to undermine her authority – a technique which, in our nominally secular country, is actually more effective than open attacks based on religious affiliation.

Over the past thirty years, we have moved away from religion being part of policy discussions. A candidate’s personal religion – or lack thereof – is a far less important part of their character than it was in past generations. I suggest that it is important that we continue this course, taking our lessons from the political developments of the last thirty years and continue our process of keeping religion out of policy discussions. What we should not do is take our cue from the United States, where atheism is really the last viable target of bigotry.

Petty Politics (Letter 5)

This is definitely an election being fought over details. Both parties promise better deals for the disabled and carers, programs are afoot for parental leave, all the bases are being covered.

But where are the big questions that dominated many of our more recent elections? 2001’s election was overshadowed by the September 11 attacks and it, and later elections, concentrated on the question of security. These weren’t just campaigns about individual issues, they were about defining what it meant to be Australian.

Today, those issues remain, but they are handled on their own, devoid of any broader context. Leaders talk about the ‘pacific solution’ and temporary protection visas, without anyone in leadership saying a word about the humanitarian side – a human rights crisis treated as a logistical exercise. A proposed nation-wide firewall prompts discussions of its feasibility and specifics of access, rather than a debate on what free speech should mean in Australian politics or the relationship between government and citizen.

The grand ideals are gone, replaced by a ‘safe’ message designed to annoy the least number of people. Practical solutions are easy to grasp, and most of the issues grappled with are important ones to many people – but national debate on the big issues is sidelined, our political future being decided not through debate or leadership but by the petty nature of issue-by-issue politics.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Brands of science denialism (Letter 4)

More global warming denialist myths are busted: the earth is warming, has been warming for at least thirty years and satellite and surface data match. We need to stop searching for a ‘broad community consensus’ on the science and instead began to discuss what action to take.

We may as well look for a consensus on, say, evolution. The arguments raised by the denialists are eerily similar to those raised by the Creation Science/Intelligent Design movement in the United States – overstating the nature of the debate, quote-mining sources and generally rubbishing the science. The arguments against both climate change and evolution are fundamentally anti-science.

Science is best decided by scientists. Scientific debate is best held in scientific journals; it is not the job of politicians or the public to tell scientists that they are wrong about the science itself; it is our job to decide what to do about the scientific facts once they are determined.

We need to remember Mbeki’s South Africa, which balked at the cost of antiretrovirals and denied the link between HIV and AIDS. The death toll from that decision is still to be determined, but is estimated to be as high as ten million.

The cost of doing nothing about climate change will not be so immediate or so dramatic, but no less inevitable without action now.

Corporate Irresponsibility (Letter 3)

It’s not uncommon to see complaints these days about how the culture has changed into one of denying responsibility. This blame is often put on the young, who are seen as not having the backbone of our generation; or on lawsuits that allow people to blame everyone but themselves. Sometimes we even blame politicians who don’t take sufficient blame for their actions.

Perhaps, however, we take our cues from the corporate world. BP this week replaced its CEO, citing the need for a ‘new start’ after the oil spill. However, it replaced him with another board member, another individual present and making decisions when the mistakes were made. The old CEO, Tony Hayward – not fired, just transferred to another division of the company, and still blaming the media for his downfall. BP’s Vice President of Safety, Health and the Environment refusing to take any blame for the accident and the systemic failures of maintenance and safety evaluations prior to the blast that killed 11 people – still in his job, still denying any responsibility, while claiming that BP puts safety first.

Perhaps these are the people our society looks to – if we want to find a pattern of dodging blame in our society, the corporate world is where we should seek it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Aka (Letter 2)

Much has been made of the homophobia in Jason Akermanis’ infamous column which advised footballers to stay in the closet. What I see in the piece is the link between homophobia and sexism. Notably, Akermanis felt uncomfortable when showering with homosexual players – the way he described his feelings sounded as if he was feeling objectified. Why would he feel that way? Perhaps because he was assuming that the gay players would be viewing him the same way he would view an attractive woman?

He had a glimpse of what it is like to be objectified by men and he didn’t like it. Instead of using this epiphany to reform his own behaviour, he attacked the homosexual players who had done nothing to him but hold up a mirror.

The article may be in the past, but the issues are still with us. Akermanis’ piece showed us clearly how sexism and homophobia are frequently precisely the same thing. Meanwhile, the fight for the rights of gays and lesbians to live out of the closet is intimately linked to the fight for women to live without feeling objectified by men.

Climate controversy (Letter 1)

With the East Anglia climate controversy (hopefully) behind us, Sir Muir Russell urges scientists to use plain language to communicate to the public. While I agree, I would suggest a parallel track to pursue would be to examine the use of language in media. Scientists use the language they do for very good reason: clarity of communication among peers. Language in the ‘real’ world is changing day by day and from context to context; in science, definite, unambiguous meanings are essential, leading to the development of a jargon that can be intimidating to non-scientists.

This is a gap that the media is capable of filling. When the awfully-named ‘Climategate’ broke, the scientific language was reported straight, without attempts to discover what was meant by the words they were using. In doing so, many media outlets ended up misinforming the public. If the job of the media is to inform, then the plain-English publicity Sir Muir is calling for can be achieved in part by the media itself.

With all the misinformation about climate science abounding in popular culture and media, it would be refreshing to see an approach designed to reduce confusion and promote knowledge and understanding.


To start things off, I'm posting things I've written before. These are letters that I wrote for the Age newspaper and went unpublished. In the meantime, I'll look into whether I'll be able to post the one that was published, too.