11 December 2012

Could I please speak to Kate please

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:41 am

FisherkingMy favourite film in the 1990s was probably Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, which stars Jeff Bridges as radio cult personality Jack Lucas, whose offhand incitement to class warfare prompts a lonely caller to open fire on a yuppie watering-hole, killing seven people and then himself. Jack is dancing around his penthouse, rehearsing a catchphrase for a new TV vehicle, when he sees the news on his three televisions. In Richard LaGravenese’s draft script, Jack is finally silenced by the unfolding report. In the filmed version, he manages a manifestly inadequate, and yet somehow perfect, “Fuck.” You can see in his face that he’s not just worried about his career or the public recriminations: he’s devastated because the world has just revealed to him that he’s an arsehole.

Like most people on this side of the world, I heard the news of Jacintha Saldanha’s death hours before Mel Greig and Mike Christian woke up on Saturday morning. I could only imagine that their reactions were something like Jack’s here. I have no doubt that they’re as shattered, gutted and heartbroken as they say. But their near-identical interviews with A Current Affair and Today Tonight are a little off-putting in their repeated insistence that (a) they weren’t responsible for putting the prank to air, and (b) nobody could have expected or foreseen the consequences. I believe that both these things are largely true, and also that the presenters were lawyered out of expressing anything that might be mistaken for actual remorse—as opposed to being “sorry that this has happened”—for the usual reasons. But it doesn’t hurt to admit that you were an arsehole. And if you ring up a maternity ward and ask to speak to a woman who’s having a difficult pregnancy and pretend to be her relatives by putting on silly voices—I’m sorry, but you’re kind of an arsehole. You don’t need to take all or most or even much of the blame for what ultimately happened, and you don’t deserve death threats or invitations to suicide. But you can’t expect much sympathy either, because you were kind of arseholes, and you might as well just own that and try not to be such arseholes next time. If you have to prank call someone, call someone who could conceivably be argued to deserve it. If things go wrong—or horribly right—maybe bail out of the call. Have a think about what you’re doing, and don’t just rely on “processes” you don’t understand to decide whether it’s a good idea or not. Little things.

In the old tellings, the Fisher King’s wound comes to blight the land around him, so that nothing can grow or thrive until he’s healed by a noble fool asking the right question. The actual question varies, but the most poetic one is simply: “What ails you?”. In Gilliam’s film, the land is blighted already—by rubbish and drunks, violent preppies, heartless yuppies, corporate indifference and empty cults. And Jack is wounded long before the loner opens fire and ruins his life—he just doesn’t know it yet. 

It’s hard to imagine a more blasted land than the one now occupied by 2DayFM and its barrel-scraping competitors. I don’t know who the afflicted king might be in this scenario—I have a horrible feeling it’s Kyle Sandilands, though Southern Cross Austereo chairman Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton makes an intriguing candidate. But Mel and MC might suggest that their cancelled Hot 30 Countdown be replaced by a Noble Fool segment where they just call people up and ask what ails them, and how they can help. They can’t be blamed for the state of commercial radio, but they might be inspired to help fix it. Or maybe that’s just in stories.

26 April 2012

The Clive James A Current Affair “affair” affair

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:50 am

Not Clive James's House

This blog only occasionally traffics in gossip and salacity, and I don’t want to make a bad situation any worse, but I’m so appalled by A Current Affair‘s appalling interview of the appalling Leanne Edelsten by the appalling Martin King that I am compelled to express my horror and outrage (why doesn’t appal have a noun?) the only way I know how. 

I’m not going to link to the report just in case that would even minutely increase some financially-relevant metric for that execrable program, which frequently tempts me to turn in my passport or at least disguise my accent, but never so much as now. 

Ms Edelsten is the ex-wife of disgraced “medical entrepreneur” and former owner of the Sydney Swans Geoffrey Edelsten, and also of Edelsten’s lawyer, which isn’t the least bit relevant. The other night she clambered down into the ACA cauldron of slime and announced that she had been involved in a long affair with a mystery figure who was revealed after a minute to be Australian writer and media commentator Clive James, who is a friend and neighbour of this blog (though this blog has never met him). There followed about fifteen godawful minutes of Martin King pretending disapproval of Ms Edelsten’s home-wrecking ways without even trying to contain his prurient glee, while Ms Edelsten repeated his every schoolyard question two or three times before answering in coy tidbits like someone trying to teach a dog some abominable trick. All this was padded out even further by cutaways to the places in Sydney they allegedly met and hooked up, with archive footage of every leer or knowing wink James ever delivered on television. 

ACA then apparently brought Ms Edelsten to Cambridge and filmed her dropping in on James at the “squalid flat” where he has allegedly been banished. As we know, Clive James is now in his 70s and is (we hope) recovering from leukaemia. In the footage he looks pretty bewildered as he tries to have what looks like an intimate conversation with Ms Edelsten, who is leading him around by the arm like one of those nurses who kill all their patients for their pensions. It’s very hard to watch. 

“It’s not very nice for Leanne to discover where Clive is now living,” Martin King intones. “From this – to this, a dingy basement apartment in Cambridge.” The first this is the house pictured above, which is supposed to be Clive James’s house, but it isn’t. His house isn’t far away, but it’s not in this picture, or any of the pictures. The defensively shuttered windows shown in close-up aren’t his windows. Not that I think people’s actual houses and windows should be shown on television, but I’m not sure that showing the houses and windows of other people entirely is much better. Plus, if they’d shown the right house then I might have been able to see my own house on TV. On A Current Affair! But it wasn’t to be. 

If rest of the story is more accurate than the local geography then I’m not too thrilled with Clive James either, partly because his wife of four decades is by all accounts awesome and accomplished and is very movingly—if obliquely—described in his memoirs, but mostly because Ms Edelsten comes across as quite an objectionable person and the relationship as she describes it is toe-curling and hideous. But what standards of integrity and taste can we demand of our poets and critics, let alone the people who help us laugh at Japanese game shows? In short: why is this on television? No, don’t tell me, I know. 

24 April 2012

Copyright infringement is more like trespass than theft

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:06 pm


In the wake of the Australian High Court decision in Roadshow Films v iiNet [2012] HCA 16, though not entirely apropos of it, Prof Stuart Green of the Rutgers School of Law tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that illegal downloading is more similar to the crime of trespass than of theft:

“To say that there was a trespass is traditionally understood to mean that there was a temporary use of someone’s property without permission,” he said. “If someone trespasses on your property it means that they’ve come uninvited but they haven’t deprived you of use. They haven’t deprived you of the basic possession of the property.

This is something I’ve been arguing in pubs and such for some time, so I’m glad to have at some academic support. If you copy my movie or book or whatever without permission, you’ve enjoyed something for free that the law says I can exclude you from or else charge you for as I see fit. What I hold is something like a property right, but it’s not so much like a right in tangible personal property—which can be stolen, destroyed or used up—as like a right in real property, which I own up to heaven and down to hell and come what may. 

Say I’ve got some land on a hill with a beautiful view. I might charge people to climb my hill and have a look—and if trespassers sneak in at night they’ve acted contrary to my right to charge or exclude them, but it’s a stretch to say that they’ve stolen anything from me. So it is with copyright infringement. It’s not the same as stealing a DVD off a shelf, where a retailer has paid for that DVD and now won’t be able to sell it to anyone else. It’s more like sneaking in to see a movie without paying, where the loss suffered is more amorphous and harder to quantify.

One difference between copyright infringement and trespass to land is that it’s not likely that literally millions of people would sneak up my hill at night, perhaps vastly outnumbering the people who paid, with almost nothing I could do to stop them. But I’m not sure that the empirical consequence of many repetitions of an individual act should be allowed to affect the legal nature of that act, or to call it anything other than what it is. 

Does it matter? I think it does. Intellectual property is valuable and the people who develop it deserve to be paid. But punishing breaches of copyright is never going to be as effective as persuading people not to infringe in the first place. And we won’t persuade them of anything by presenting them with bad arguments whose premises they instinctively feel to be false. Rather than the simple-but-wrong equation of copyright infringement with theft, I think it’s worth making slightly more complex and much more sustainable arguments. As Green has said previously:

So what are the lessons in all this? For starters, we should stop trying to shoehorn the 21st-century problem of illegal downloading into a moral and legal regime that was developed with a pre- or mid-20th-century economy in mind. Second, we should recognize that the criminal law is least effective—and least legitimate—when it is at odds with widely held moral intuitions.

Illegal downloading is, of course, a real problem. People who work hard to produce creative works are entitled to enjoy legal protection to reap the benefits of their labors. And if others want to enjoy those creative works, it’s reasonable to make them pay for the privilege. But framing illegal downloading as a form of stealing doesn’t, and probably never will, work. We would do better to consider a range of legal concepts that fit the problem more appropriately: concepts like unauthorized use, trespass, conversion and misappropriation.

This is not merely a question of nomenclature. The label we apply to criminal acts matters crucially in terms of how we conceive of and stigmatize them. What we choose to call a given type of crime ultimately determines how it’s formulated and classified and, perhaps most important, how it will be punished. Treating different forms of property deprivation as different crimes may seem untidy, but that is the nature of criminal law.

I’m looking forward to the anti-piracy ads to come: You wouldn’t sneak into a movie. You wouldn’t dodge a bridge toll. You wouldn’t just have a picnic in someone’s field. Downloading pirated films is conceptually a lot like trespass. Trespass is against the law. Piracy. It’s a crime. Just not that one. 

13 July 2011

Raymond Chandler in Hollywood

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:12 am


Raymond Chandler went to Hollywood in the 1940s and wasn’t too impressed by the studio system, the way it treated screenwriters or the films they produced together:

An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon. An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer. The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.

It’s a terrific angry read and fantastic that a piece written for The Atlantic in 1945 is again available in full on the Internet. It gives us a great chance to see how things were back then—expressed in full throat by one of the writers most important to film as well as literature—and think about what’s changed. Certainly it’s still true that a screenwriter can’t expect to maintain much purity of vision through the long and collaborative process of getting a story to screen; though film is now at least seen as a director’s medium rather than a producer’s medium, whatever the financial reality might be. And it’s still almost always true that:

On the billboards, in the newspaper advertisements, [the writer’s] name will be smaller than that of the most insignificant bit-player who achieves what is known as billing; it will be the first to disappear as the size of the ad is cut down toward the middle of the week; it will be the last and least to be mentioned in any word-of-mouth or radio promotion.

…though there have been a handful of reasonably famous screenwriters and television writers since 1945. It’s still true that many movies are being made from terrible screenplays and terrible stories—even though one of the main things Chandler blames for this state of affairs has changed almost completely:

If there is no art of the screenplay, the reason is at least partly that there exists no available body of technical theory and practice by which it can be learned. There is no available library of screenplay literature, because the screenplays belong to the studios, and they will only show them within their guarded walls. There is no body of critical opinion, because there are no critics of the screenplay; there are only critics of motion pictures as entertainment, and most of these critics know nothing whatever of the means whereby the motion picture is created and put on celluloid. There is no teaching, because there is no one to teach.

Well, now there’s plenty of technical theory and practice, there are plenty of teachers, and thanks again to the Internet you can get various drafts of just about any movie you like. Has it made us better screenwriters? I’m sure it has. Has it led to better films? That’s a bit trickier. Everything I’ve learned about writing suggests that there are few if any shortcuts, even with all the best tools and techniques you need a lot of time to rework and refine, and that kind of support is hard to find.

The Falcon Takes Over was the second sequel to RKO’s 1941 B-movie The Gay Falcon, and was the first adaptation of Chandler’s work: in this case Farewell, My Lovely, the second Philip Marlowe novel, replacing Marlowe with the titular Gay Falcon. This kind of thing still happens all the time, of course, most recently when Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides was shoehorned into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, earlier when Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes became Die Hard 2, and probably a lot of others. Luckily Farewell, My Lovely was adapted twice more with Marlowe restored to the lead, and Chandler’s series became its own film phenomenon after Bogie in The Big Sleep. I don’t know whether anybody else’s novels ever became screen Marlowes—that would have been poetically just, though no doubt appalling.

6 February 2010

Amazon wounded?

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:28 pm

Amazon.jpgIt didn’t take long for Amazon to cry uncle in The Macmillan Impasse (worst thriller title ever), and since then both HarperCollins and Hachette have indicated that they’re moving to a similar agency model, under which each publisher will set the retail price of e-books and share a percentage of revenues with its selling agents; rather than the old sale-and-resale model, under which the publisher would only set the wholesale price and the retailer had control over the price you and I had to pay.

Nobody has missed the fact that all three of these publishers were listed up there on that big screen behind Steve Jobs at the iPad launch, and few expect that the remaining two (Penguin and Simon & Schuster) will be far behind. Again, I have to wonder whether the publishers’ commitments to Apple include at least an attempt to renegotiate their existing deals in order to protect the iBook Store. And again, it’s not like Apple would be twisting any arms here: this is clearly something the publishers think they want.

Amazon has copped a bit of ridicule over the terms of its surrender:

We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles

…particularly from people who think Amazon has a pretty tidy monopoly itself or is trying its best to establish one. Through its sorrow and betrayal Amazon hasn’t expressed itself very elegantly, but it’s getting at something interesting, I think: something that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

After all, Macmillan does have a certain kind of monopoly over its own books: it’s the monopoly provided by the copyright system. That’s not the kind of monopoly recognised by microeconomics or competition law or even by everyday usage, which is more to do with the ability to control and dominate markets. But the two aren’t unrelated. Books and other cultural goods are different from other kinds of commodities, have fewer true substitutes, and may come a little closer to forming the elusive single-product markets that are often argued and never accepted.

In any case, it’s clear that if Amazon ever had a lot of market power in the distribution of electronic books, it doesn’t now. It’s always had competitors and now it has Apple, in this market probably the most chilling competitor imaginable. The publishers have a good deal of countervailing power since everyone knows that to survive as a mainstream bookstore Amazon has to carry all the books, electronic and otherwise—and to survive as a product the Kindle definitely has to have access to all the e-books (ask HD DVD).

Many have argued that Amazon is only in the business of e-books so it can sell Kindles, pointing to the fact that under the current model Amazon makes a loss on most Kindle books. This is thought to be nefarious and Microsoftine, but really it’s only a problem if Amazon already has a monopoly in either market. Otherwise it’s just a competing value proposition: Kindles are expensive but you get cheap books, and it’s up to you to decide what’s more important. It’s like buying a printer that’s going to need refills, or a mobile phone that needs a cellular connection. It’s not always easy to know which is the best deal in the long run, but it’s good to have a choice.

I don’t have any problem with the graduated pricing model proposed by Macmillan, where books may start out more expensive but become cheaper over time. That’s the way it’s always been in conventional publishing, and it’s the way it should be: everyone has either time or money, so everyone gets to read the book sooner or later. But you don’t need an agency arrangement to achieve that: if the retail market is competitive, adjustments to the wholesale price will be reflected down the line. And an agency arrangement forecloses the possibility of a competitive retail market—especially if you apply it across the board, as at least Macmillan and Hachette say they’re doing.

Back when the Internet was first commercialised there was a lot of talk about disintermediation or “cutting out the middleman”. But middlemen have their uses; they have more power against suppliers than we have, and we have more influence on them than we would on suppliers. Even in disintermediated industries like travel and insurance, new middlemen have risen up to help us compare all the options and save time and money.

The bookseller is, of course, the world’s most important and beloved middleman—in the real world, at least, and why not online as well? Is an electronic book so different from a physical book? I would have to argue that it’s not: the book itself, and not what it’s made of, is the essential thing. And I’d prefer to see all of them sold in different ways by different people at different prices. Otherwise Macmillan and the others really might as well have their own monopolies.

31 January 2010

e-books and iBooks

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:29 pm

Publishers.jpgThe day before the iPad launch, the Wall Street Journal reported some quite detailed rumours about Apple’s negotiations with publishers:

Apple is asking publishers to set two e-book price points for hardcover best sellers: $12.99 and $14.99, with fewer titles offered at $9.99. In setting their own e-book prices, publishers would avoid the threat of heavy discounting. Apple would take a 30% cut of the book price, with publishers receiving the remaining 70%.

This is quite a bit higher than the $9.99 Amazon charges for most of its mainstream Kindle titles. The WSJ’s Walt Mossberg had the chance to ask Steve Jobs directly about pricing, with interesting results:

Why should she buy a book for $14.99 on your device when she can buy one for $9.99 on Amazon on the Kindle or from Barnes & Noble on the Nook?
Well that won’t be the case…

You mean you won’t be $14.99 or they won’t be $9.99?
Uh… the prices will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they’re not happy.

Optimistic pundits took this to mean that iBooks would sell for $9.99, even though the one featured most prominently in Steve Jobs’s demo, Ted Kennedy’s True Compass: A Memoir, seemed to be priced at $14.99, and some of the other books cost $10.99 or $12.99.

But it now seems more likely that Jobs’s first answer means what Mossberg was clearly worried it would mean: the prices will be the same because Amazon prices will be forced up.

A couple of days ago Amazon stopped directly selling the print and electronic editions of all Macmillan titles, though you can still buy the print versions through Amazon Marketplace. Macmillan CEO John Sargent explained yesterday that Amazon had dropped the titles in response to Macmillan’s new distribution deal, under which if Amazon wanted to offer electronic editions at the same time as print editions (without “extensive and deep windowing of titles”), it would need to adopt a new “agency” model of distribution:

Under the agency model, we will sell the digital editions of our books to consumers through our retailers. Our retailers will act as our agents and will take a 30% commission (the standard split today for many digital media businesses). The price will be set the price for each book individually. Our plan is to price the digital edition of most adult trade books in a price range from $14.99 to $5.99. At first release, concurrent with a hardcover, most titles will be priced between $14.99 and $12.99. E books will almost always appear day on date with the physical edition. Pricing will be dynamic over time.

Traditionally, publishers have been prevented from controlling the retail price of books by the prohibition against resale price maintenance in many jurisdictions. Resale price maintenance hasn’t been per se illegal in the US since 2007’s Leegin Creative Leather Products v PSKS 511 US 877, though it will still be illegal if it imposes an unreasonable restraint, and is still per se illegal in places like Australia. But an arrangement of agency, rather than sale and resale, can avoid these restrictions and give the publisher full control of the final price to consumers.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that Macmillan is one of the publishers featured in the Apple keynote address, and the alignment of prices and rumours terms makes it pretty clear that at least the following has happened: Macmillan found that it could get a better deal selling through Apple, and is now looking for the same deal for all of its electronic books. There’s no evidence that Apple encouraged Macmillan to increase its prices through Amazon—Macmillan wouldn’t need any encouragement—but the increase would certainly benefit Apple for the reason Walt Mossberg identified right away, and the whole thing makes Steve’s response a little prescient and creepy.

It’s a pretty screwy situation where the introduction of a new competitor has the effect of increasing prices, and as Macmillan author Cory Doctorow points out it’s a problem of concentration at the levels of both production and distribution. Books (and movies and music and so on) are economically a little weird anyway, since in some sense every book occupies its own market and has no close substitutes: if you want True Compass you’re not going to buy The Golden Compass just because it’s cheaper. Since there’s only muted price competition between books themselves, we rely on price competition for each book at the retail level.

And even though retail physical bookselling is also fairly concentrated, it’s still the most competitive part of the supply chain, and with up to 40% of the cover price going to the retailer there’s a lot of room for different business models, improvements in efficiency, and real bargains for readers who want to shop around. With electronic books it’s a slightly different story, since the cost of distribution is very low (and the marginal cost of distribution is zero), but there’s still a lot a retailer can do to differentiate itself: offer a subscription model (like Amazon offers through Audible), bundle e-books with your 3G data plan, and other things I can’t think of because I don’t have an MBA. Publishers should demand and receive a fair wholesale price, but consumers need choice and competition at the retail level. It seems to me that insisting on an agency model threatens to foreclose this competition and could stifle innovation right when the emerging industry needs it. It’s only one publisher so far, and only one territory, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

20 July 2007

Words, words, words

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:11 am

jack.jpgI did a lot of talking in June, and it wasn’t all about myself (though a lot of it was). At the Sydney Writers’ Festival I spoke about digital books and copyright with Sherman Young and Michael Fraser. Sherman gave a very provocative talk about how books have to go digital or else:

The bottom line is that in 2007, books must embrace the possibilities of digital. Sure, there are issues to be discussed and hurdles to overcome, but unless it happens, books are dead. Weighed down by printed objects, the unique qualities and virtues of books will be sidelined in an increasingly irrelevant part of the cultural universe.

It’s exciting stuff, though I think that for most books the hurdles are maybe a bit more significant than Sherman reckons—which is both good and bad: we can go on doing things the way we’re doing them for a while longer, but we could be doing things a lot better. Anyway, my speech is over here. Michael’s doesn’t seem to have turned up online, but he made some important points about why we need copyright (though I don’t think we need quite as much as we’ve got).

Anyway—while I was putting up the speech I thought I might as well do the other ones. So here’s my talk about literary mysteries, and the one about zines and blogs.

27 June 2007


by Matt Rubinstein at 5:25 pm

ukvellum.jpgThis week I got a big literal sackful of the UK edition of A Little Rain on Thursday, which for cultural reasons is spelled (and pronounced) as Vellum over there. Of course, the book was first called Vellum and was runner-up for the Australian/Vogel Award under that name; “A Little Rain on Thursday” used to be the name of the first chapter. So I’ve always been torn between the two titles, and now I don’t have to choose. Would that everything were that simple.

Now the name of the first chapter has been replaced by a word in the book’s mysterious alphabet, and your guess is as good as mine. (Perhaps not quite as good.) I hope having two titles doesn’t confuse too many people. It didn’t seem to do Harry Potter and the [Philosopher/Sorcerer]’s Stone too much harm, though those names are admittedly more similar. Maybe a better example is The Sun Also Rises, known in the UK as ¡Fiesta!— let’s not think too hard about what happened to Hemingway.


I quite like the idea of the book having different titles. After all, it’s about a manuscript that everybody interprets in their own unique way. It’s like the mysterious infinite book that can never be read the same way twice in Borges’s The Book of Sand—which also would have been a good name. Maybe for the US edition.

This version looks great—hell, they all do—and feels even better; it’s got a rough texture that suggests old parchment, it really wants to be picked up—and maybe even taken home. The mysterious alphabet has been redrawn and looks terrific, and the whole thing is pleasantly scuffed and charred. The book’s classic (or else newfangled) title lives on in the UK release date: next Thursday, the 5th of July. You can pre-order it from Amazon if you’re in that part of the world.

20 March 2007

Sucks to be Hicks

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:36 pm

hicks.jpgABC Radio National’s Lingua Franca has been running a series of programs on the language of the law in the David Hicks case—that’s “case” in the generic sense, of course, not in the sense of a legal action decided in a properly constituted court. All three programs are well worth listening to, even if you already suspect that certain ancient legal precepts shouldn’t just be tossed out without a thought even if these are the Last Days. Each is only fifteen minutes long and they’re all available online: there’s Julian Burnside QC on habeas corpus and hearsay, and Peter Vickery QC on ex post facto or retroactive legislation. Transcripts are available for the first two and should be up for the last one soon, but listen to them if you can: they’re as concise and persuasive as you’d expect.

Burnside comes to some particularly frank conclusions about our various leaders. On habeas corpus, the idea that nobody should be detained unless the reason for their detention can be assessed by a competent court:

The principle of legality carries with it the assumption that the lawfulness of executive action is examinable in the courts. Liberty is one of the most fundamental and cherished of all rights. Where a person is deprived of their liberty, habeas corpus is the device which enables the lawfulness of the detention to be examined.

Stripping away the habeas right for detainees at Guantanamo is a step of such awesome significance that it is tempting to think that President Bush has lost his mind.

And then on the admission of hearsay evidence and evidence obtained by coercion:

An Australian citizen, held by our ally America, is about to be subjected to a trial in which hearsay evidence and evidence produced by coercion is permitted. A trial of this sort offends the most basic principles of our justice system, but Philip Ruddock says he is satisfied it will be a fair trial. If he actually believes it, he is not fit to be attorney-general.

There was a time when only refugees were terrified of Philip Ruddock: now we all should be.

A Newspoll last December found that 70% of respondents wanted David Hicks returned to Australia, and another in January found that 56% were against the way the Government had handled the case; only 27% were in favour. The usual nutcases continue to marvel at Hicks’s ongoing popularity despite the overwhelming evidence that the guy is at best a dickhead and at worst really wants to kill a bunch of us. They think we’ve been persuaded by lawyers in snappy uniforms or we can’t believe that a top bloke like Terry Hicks could have a son who’s a terrorist.

It shouldn’t need repeating, but for the benefit of the professional trolletariat: we are not gay for David Hicks. We don’t think he’s dreamy. Few of us even think he’s a harmless idiot. But he is an Australian citizen being denied fundamental human rights, and the fact that our Government is doing so little about it is shameful and terrifying.

Burnside can’t resist quoting Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons—as many others have done, but damned if it doesn’t still send a shiver down this old lawyer’s spine:

This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast…and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Burnside leaves out the last bit, though, which is really the whole point:

Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

There are many poor wretches out there who are less guilty than Hicks and are treated worse. But Hicks is our wretch. We can influence his treatment more than we can anyone else’s. And if we choose not to, then we give up a lot of credibility that we might use to suggest that other countries treat their own unfortunates better. You know, if we were into that sort of thing.

Bring the bastard home!

16 January 2007

The Doctor and Romana

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:42 am

dawkins2.jpgThis is the preposterous debating chamber of the Cambridge Union Society, and those blobs in the middle are incomparable troublemaker Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, who as many nerds of my vintage will remember played the regenerated Romanadvoratrelundar in Doctor Who at the turn of the 1980s.

Dawkins came to read from his new book, The God Delusion, with help from Ward. I finally got around to finishing the book this week. Actually, I listened to the two of them reading the whole thing on my music player, which was a fun way to experience it. Dawkins really gets fired up, and having Ward speak sternly into my ear reawakened some dormant early-teenage thing, especially when she said things like “virile penis” and “sexual pleasure in women” in that Romanadvoratrelundaresque way. Sorry, but it’s true. You Internet weirdos can keep your gold bikinis as far as I’m concerned.

As everyone knows by now, Dawkins’s latest is a polemic against religion. I was looking forward to it, as I’ve always enjoyed his pugnacity and his unflinching views on the subject. Here he is back in 1999, smacking down Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion can peacefully coexist in the non-overlapping magisteria:

In any case, the belief that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is dishonest. It founders on the undeniable fact that religions still make claims about the world that on analysis turn out to be scientific claims. Moreover, religious apologists try to have it both ways. When talking to intellectuals, they carefully keep off science’s turf, safe inside the separate and invulnerable religious magisterium. But when talking to a nonintellectual mass audience, they make wanton use of miracle stories—which are blatant intrusions into scientific territory.

Convergence? Only when it suits. To an honest judge, the alleged marriage between religion and science is a shallow, empty, spin-doctored sham.

This is expounded at greater length in the book, and I find it convincing. It does seem to me that a God that doesn’t encroach at all on the world of science can’t be said to be doing very much, and doesn’t sound like the kind of God many believers—who pray for miracles, who think there’s a meticulous divine plan—believe in. It also seems that the idea of non-overlapping magisteria is really just a way out of thinking too hard about the nature of religion or the implications of science, and is a failure of nerve. So while everyone else was fawning over Pope John Paul II’s 1996 endorsement of evolution, Dawkins pointed out that His Holiness <a href="http://www Continued.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2843/is_4_23/ai_55208056/print”>hadn’t really said anything. Which was kind of a downer, but needed to be done.

I also have a lot of time for Dawkins’s argument that we tend to be too solicitous of each other’s religious beliefs, to the extent that we feel unable to argue against them or their real-world consequences. I chuckled over his HL Mencken quotation:

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the same sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

The issue came up here recently, when a bunch of religious groups tried to get the House of Lords to annul new regulations under the Equality Act that prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In November, a group calling itself Coherent and Cohesive Voice and claiming to represent hundreds of thousands of Christian voters took out an ad complaining that the regulations would:

Force all schools to actively promote homosexual Civil Partnerships (from primary school age) to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage.

Force a printing shop run by a Christian to print fliers promoting gay sex.

Force a family-run B&B to let out a double room to a transsexual couple even if the family think it is in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their own home.

Make it illegal for a heterosexual policeman, fireman or member of the Armed Forces to refuse to join a Gay Pride event promoting the homosexual way of life.

Clearly great legal minds down at the CCV. Their solution to these horrors was to suggest an amendment to the regulations providing that:

Nothing in these Regulations shall force an individual to act against their conscience or strongly held religious beliefs.

You can see the problem. You couldn’t refuse a double bed to, say, a mixed-race couple in order to preserve your racist beliefs, no matter how strongly you held them. Why should religious beliefs be any different? It’s not conscientious objection; you’re not saying you don’t like the idea of killing people, you just want to stop a couple of blokes from having a good time in your B&B. Shame on you! (Polly Toynbee says the regulations don’t prevent discrimination against the transgendered, so embattled Christians can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to defending their B&Bs against all those transsexual tourist couples.)

Anyway, Dawkins does a good job on these kinds of beliefs. And all you gay-sex promoters out there will be glad to know that the Sexual Orientation Regulations were confirmed, so get on down to your local Christian print shop right away. Make sure it’s in Northern Ireland, though, because that’s the only place these regulations apply. (Similar ones are expected to be introduced for the rest of the United Kingdom by April this year, so we can expect to do it all again then.)

Dawkins also argues that we don’t need religion for morality. He is especially persuasive on the idea that none of our moral sense actually derives from scripture, since the moral lessons of those old books are often unpalatable or contradictory and we pick and choose among them on some basis other than the Word of God itself. This might just mean that our morality is decided by the church or by religious commentators, but there’s no reason why secular moral philosophers couldn’t do just as good a job. Religion might be good for enforcing morality, of course; but everyone who says that a morality secured by threats and bribes is inferior to one based on personal reflection is surely right. I suspect that the alignment between morality and religion is historical but not necessary, and I look forward to more discussion about the forms that secular morality might take.

Overall I thought the book was brave, thoughtful, and important. There were a few things I didn’t like so much, but I’ll leave them for next time.

21 November 2006


by Matt Rubinstein at 6:10 am

whoops.jpgIt feels like everyone around here smokes. In fact only 26% of men and 23% of women in the United Kingdom are regular smokers, compared to 19% and 16% in Australia—and to 42% and 24% in developed countries and 48% and 12% worldwide. But there sure feels like a lot more smoke around than there is back home.

Part of the reason is that in England, at least, you can still smoke in any cafe, restaurant or pub. There might be a couple of non-smoking tables, but especially in winter these places are pretty airtight and there’s always a fog of smoke reaching almost to the floor. It takes some getting used to after Sydney, where smoking has been banned in restaurants since 2000 and is being whittled away in pubs ahead of a full ban next year—and plus where there’s a bit more fresh air generally. Scotland and Ireland have implemented their ban and England and Wales will go the same way in the middle of next year, so maybe everyone’s just smoking up a storm while they still can.

So I’m sitting in a cafe watching everyone happily smoking away and I notice that all the cigarette packets have those “SMOKING KILLS” warning labels on them. As you know, these and similar government-mandated frighteners have been getting more dire and widespread for many years now, and some have to be vastly more effective than others. The nasty colour photos of lungs and gangrene we have in Australia must work better than text alone; similar ones in Canada are said to have made a difference, and the UK is introducing its own “hard-hitting pictures” next year.

But I suspect that if pictures work it’s not really because they remind smokers what they’re doing to their bodies; it’s simply because they’re gross. Smoking is widely perceived as cool, and everyone knows that thumbing your nose at danger is also cool. That guy with a “SMOKING KILLS” pack feels good about taking it out and leaving it on the table. And it has to be the same with almost all the other warnings, no matter how detailed. The only one that I think stands a chance is the one that says “Smoking may reduce the blood flow and cause impotence”—you don’t see that one lying around nearly as much.

But if the warnings are going to work, they need to be even more direct—and more shameful—than that. They need to take away smoking’s cool, and they can’t be restricted to things science tells us are true: that’s never going to work. They should say, in big letters and on every panel, “I’VE GOT HERPES” or “MY ARSE IS ENORMOUS”. The National Health Service is on the right track with its “fags make girls ugly” and “~ boys impotent” campaigns (the latter pictured, and you can see a TV spot <a href="http://www.youtube order levitra online cheap.com/watch?v=6biz85fUv04″>here), but these things need to be right there on the packs: “I’M A CRAP LAY” on the Virginia Slims and “I LIKE COCK” on the Marlboros. Photos shouldn’t be of stroke-affected brains but of running sores or even Goatse—then we’d be able to moblog anywhere.

11 November 2006


by Matt Rubinstein at 11:04 pm

The good thing about the US election result isn’t that anything’s going to change soon: even if the Democrats had any discernible legislative agenda, and a mandate to enact it (rather than a mandate just to not be Republicans), the President still has his veto power and–probably more importantly–his infamous signing statements, which purport to reserve the right to interpret new laws however the Prez sees fit, which knowing what a respecter of plain English and other institutions the guy in the big chair at the moment is… Plus if the President does it, that means it’s legal, and other neo-Nixonian horrors.

No, the good thing is that it suggests that Americans were paying attention after all. It did look for a while like they weren’t, and that they were spooked enough by the threat of terrorism or still comfortable enough in the propped-up economy that they’d let the administration get away with pretty much anything. No doubt that apparent indifference contributed to the government’s arrogance and encouraged it to treat its citizens and the Constitution with the same contempt. But enough now seems to be enough.

It’s hard to say what made the difference. Certainly things have been going badly in Iraq for a long time now. They may be getting worse, but not catastrophically so: they were pretty bad to start with. Maybe it’s just that the US is a big country; it can’t just turn on a dime, it has to lumber on for a while before you notice anything’s happened. But the Midterms suggest that even if people aren’t kicking up an immediate fuss, they still might be changing their minds about you. I hope that lesson isn’t lost on everyone who’s left.

23 May 2006

You say tomato

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:29 pm

puff.jpgContinuing our analysis of dopey advertisements for things that might kill us, we turn to the recent launch of two 60-second spots by the Competitive Enterprise Institute encouraging us to relax about global warming because carbon dioxide is, among other things, “natural”. Here is a transcript of the first one (italics very much implicit):

There’s something in these pictures you can’t see.
It’s essential for life.
We breathe it out. Plants breathe it in.
It comes from animal life, the ocean, the earth and the fuels we find in it.
It’s called carbon dioxide: CO2.
The fuels that produce CO2 have freed us from a world of back-breaking labour, lighting up our lives, allowing us to create and move the things we need—the people we love.
Now some politicians want to label carbon dioxide a pollutant.
Imagine if they succeed: what would our lives be like then?
Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life.

The authoritative Urban Legend Reference Pages give no indication that these advertisements are any kind of hoax or hi-jink. CEI is a real institute with annual revenues of about $3 million; it describes itself as “a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government”. The ads were produced by Next Generation Advertising, who somewhat ominously claim to be “pioneers in non-traditional advertising” and earlier this year ran a controversial campaign pimping the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act to viewers already half-terrorised by the explosive new season of 24. But the CO2 campaign was reportedly scripted by CEI’s lawyer Sam Kazman, who should know better.

The idea that everything that comes out of us must be good is, of course, very easily rebutted. We don’t need to resort to low-brow comparisons with other by-products of human life; we can consult Shakespeare on this very issue. He says:

And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

This is just the kind of attitude adopted by the global-warming scaremongers who want to stop little girls blowing on dandelions—who might point out that CO2 is an asphyxiant, too much of which is always bad news. Even the ad’s image of a geyser spraying “natural” carbon dioxide very unfortunately recalls the sudden eruptions of CO2 from Lakes Monoun and Nyos in Cameroon that killed almost 2000 people in the 1980s. Of course, the big problem for us isn’t breathing in carbon dioxide; it’s global warming—which isn’t caused by the gases we personally exhale but by the ones we release by burning stuff to create the people we love (I’m not exactly sure how this works). Though only if you listen to scientists.

16 April 2006

False naturalists

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:43 pm

Troy.jpgLast month, Meat and Livestock Australia launched a series of advertisements that use evolutionary arguments to promote the consumption of red meat today. The cornerstone of the campaign is a 60-second television spot featuring antipodean actor Sam Neill banging on about how red meat was responsible for human intelligence and how, accordingly, “we were meant to eat it”.

The advertisement is so reminiscent of the meat propaganda flick in the award-winning Simpsons episode “Lisa the Vegetarian” that the geniuses at The Campaign Palace must have had it in mind. You might remember it: presented by the (fictional) Meat Council as part of its “Resistance is Useless” series, Meat and You: Partners in Freedom has perennial B-grade actor Troy McLure making spurious appeals to science (“Ask this scientician!”) and other non sequiturs. You can download a copy of it here: it’s long, but it’s worth it.

The MLA campaign also includes a couple of print ads, the most random of which shows a hot girl in a singlet drinking a glass of water and asks, “Is eating red meat as natural as drinking water?”. All of them emphasise the importance of red meat in human evolution and conclude that we should now all eat it three or four times a week.

There is a fair amount of current discussion in scientific circles about what prompted the apparently rapid evolution of the human brain, which is about twice as heavy as the Homo habilis brain and loads heavier than the brains of other animals about our size. There seems to be a complex interplay here between the how and the why: our brains expanded to accommodate the increased demands of social interaction and language, including keeping track of our friends and enemies and cooperating to track down food; but to do so they needed a new and dense source of energy, a new kind of food; and whatever that was, it required more intelligence and bigger brains to secure; and so on.

The MLA’s claims seem to derive most directly from UC Berkeley anthropologist Katharine Milton‘s theory, published in Evolutionary Anthropology in 1999, that our ancestors introduced red meat into their diets as the African forests receded about two million years ago, and that this new source of energy and nutrition kicked human evolution along significantly. That sounds plausible enough. But Dr Stephen Cunnane reckons it wasn’t red meat but littoral foodstuffs like clams, frogs, bird eggs and fish that gave us our enormous brains. Richard Wrangham writes in Current Anthropology that it was cooked tubers, though it’s not clear that proto-humans were using fire at the relevant time. Simon Mead et al say we all used to eat each other whenever we got the chance, and this widespread anthropophagy had significant health benefits including resistance to prion diseases like mad cow. More on this later.

It’s still a live issue—as is the question of what exactly our forebears ate and when. Many have argued that we are adapted to eat a more or less meat- or vegetable-rich diet, and most have had their own reasons for doing so. Congenital smartypants Cecil Adams summarised some of the arguments to and fro in a Straight Dope column back in 1990, and concluded that we have evolved to be more or less omnivorous: relatively bad at chewing and digesting meat compared to full-time carnivores like wild cats and dogs, also pretty crap at eating vegetables compared to ardent herbivores like cows, but able to make some sort of fist of either. The best part was when Cecil said this:

Not all anthropoid apes are exclusively vegetarian. The primatologist Jane Goodall established more than 20 years ago that wild chimpanzees kill other animals once in a while and eat the meat with relish.

In response to which one Guru Singh Khalsa of Los Angeles for once out-smart-arsed Cecil with this brilliant rejoinder:

In reading through your column “Vegetarians Go Ape,” I noticed an unusual fact that you seemed to expose with great confidence. You stated that “Jane Goodall established more than twenty years ago that wild chimpanzees kill other animals once in a while and eat the meat with relish.” I question the accuracy of this. Where would wild chimpanzees obtain relish?

That’s all by the by, of course. And, in fact, so is the whole argument. What early humans ate is entirely irrelevant to the question of what humans should eat now: from a health perspective, and particularly from an ethical perspective. Even if they’re spot-on about our climb down from the trees, Sam Neill and friends are wading hip-deep in the naturalistic fallacy, which falsely equates what is historically true with what is morally right. (I know that this isn’t exactly what philosopher GE Moore meant when he coined the term, but the term has come to embrace this additional fallacy, which turns out to be more pervasive than the one he originally identified, which by the way I have no idea what he was talking about.)

If Simon Mead and friends are right, then cannibalism “made us what we are” about as much as anything else did. We don’t like to admit it, but we shouldn’t care—it happened two million years ago; there’s no need to apologise for it now (two hundred years would be a different story). But there’s no way Sam Neill—or even Sam Kekovich—are going to get on the box and tell us we should be taking bites out of each other. And nor should they: we’ve decided independently that eating people is bad.

A less far-fetched example. We know that our close relatives among the great apes are absolute bastards to each other. Chimpanzee society, for example, is an orgy of assassination, infanticide and gang rape—and many other animals get up to similar kinds of no good. It seems safe to assume that early humans had comparable tendencies: I mean, look around. You could easily argue that rape and murder are natural: our ancestors did it, and won a selective advantage by doing it; we probably still carry the same instincts for it. Does that mean we should do it? Of course not. We’re intelligent, reasoning creatures—however we came to be that way—and we don’t always have to be ruled by our instincts; we can make a choice.

There are many ways to choose: you might want to try deontology, which considers your duties and the rights of others; or consequentialism, which is concerned with the
results of a particular action. They’ve all got problems, but they’re almost all better than looking to our distant ancestors for guidance, or just doing whatever is instinctive. Everyone knows that, don’t they?

This amusing editorial in The Age pits Sam Neill in a celebrity food-fight against this website’s unwitting patron, Missy Higgins, who recently appeared in a PETA ad holding a pig. No meat tray for guessing whose side I’m on.

16 February 2006

A curly one

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:06 am

Leunig.jpgThis is the cartoon that Michael Leunig didn’t submit to the Hamshahri competition we spoke of earlier. Someone else submitted it for him, and the cartoonist is ropeable:

“I have gotten used to dirty tricks, dirty tactics, from the pro-war lobbyists” Leunig said. “It’s a very personal attack against me. They want it proclaimed for all to see that Leunig is a friend of Muslim terrorists. They want to further caricature my position, to distort my position.”

The prankster—today revealed to be Richard Cooke, who writes for The Chaser and is not famous as a pro-war lobbyist—forged the following note, purportedly from Leunig:

As a show of solidarity with the Muslim world, and an exercise in free speech, I would like to submit a cartoon to you… I have had some difficulty getting this work published in my own country, and I believe it would help highlight the hypocrisy of the West’s attitude to free speech if you were to publish it.

Again, we should emphasise that Leunig didn’t submit the cartoon to the competition or write this explanation. However, he did submit the cartoon to The Age in 2002, and it was rejected by editor Michael Gawenda. Media Watch ran the story in May of that year, including Leunig’s response:

I think Michael Gawenda just didn’t get it. I think the drawing is sympathetic to all Jews who ever suffered but sympathy is not always expressed with sugar.

Gawenda maintained that the cartoon was inappropriate, and challenged Media Watch to test his position with its audience. Perhaps predictably, 85% of respondents thought The Age should have published the cartoon.

There are at least two ways to interpret Leunig’s cartoon. One is that the Jews, who were confronted with the blatant deception “Arbeit macht frei”—work brings freedom—as they passed through the one-way gates of various concentration camps, are now perpetrating similar violence under comparable falsehoods in Israel. Parallels of that nature are frequently drawn in anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli literature—including in cartoons, which often equate Jews or Israelis with Nazis, plastering them with swastikas. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Michael Gawenda thought that the cartoon was inappropriate for The Age, or that some clown thought it was entirely appropriate for Hamshahri‘s cartoon competition.

That interpretation doesn’t really make sense, though. If you look closely, it’s a Jewish bloke fronting up to both gates; he is the focus of both panels. The suggestion isn’t that Jews are guilty of the same atrocities they suffered in 1942; it’s that they are being sold another lie—perhaps as brazen and certainly as deadly as the first one. They are still victims, this time not of the Nazis but of the intransigent Israeli government. The cartoon certainly takes sides in the conflict, and it uses provocative imagery, but it’s not anti-Semitic and doesn’t abuse the Holocaust. It’s about the misuse of language and rhetoric, perhaps the commonest of all governments’ crimes against their citizens.

In a way, it’s a shame Leunig didn’t submit this cartoon to the current competition. It seems to comply with the terms of entry, vague though they are; it has already run up against issues of freedom of speech and cultural sensitivity. It’s a lot more thought-provoking than the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad were or the other Holocaust entries are likely to be. It doesn’t share the competition’s violent overtones, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t hijack the competition to demonstrate what freedom of expression is actually about.

Weapons drawn

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:02 am

comp.jpgIran’s largest daily newspaper has announced a competition for cartoons depicting the Holocaust. The call is a response to the caricatures of Muhammad published by Denmark’s and newspapers around the world.

“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” says Hamshahri’s graphics editor, Farid Mortazavi.

On one view, this is a complete non sequitur. Although the Nazis and their offsiders targeted many groups during the Second World War, their attacks on Jews were particularly virulent, and most people recognise the special significance of the Holocaust and its memory to Jewish culture. It is not an obvious vehicle for retaliation against Denmark or the other European countries that published the cartoons.

Certainly very few Danish citizens died in the Holocaust. Even the country’s Jewish population was almost entirely saved; most were smuggled across the Øresund to Sweden, and the few sent to concentration camps received food and medicine from the Danish government. Only around fifty perished, and Danes must reflect on the Holocaust with at least a little pride. Denmark’s population of 5.4 million includes around 8,000 Jews; it is not clear that any of them were involved in the publication of the cartoons. In all of Europe there are fewer than two million Jews, and they approach 1% of the total population only in France.

The Holocaust competition seems to rest on the old conspiracy theory that Jewish interests control the Western media, if not the Western world; cartoons printed in Arabic newspapers suggest that this idea has some currency. Otherwise, it would be more pertinent to attack what is sacred to Europe’s largely Christian population – though that might be difficult, since Jesus is also venerated by Muslims.

Hamshahri’s point may be that the Holocaust is sacrosanct to all Europeans, Jew or Gentile. Europe is certainly sensitive about the subject, and public denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence in most of the countries that have published the Muhammad cartoons, though not in Denmark. For that crime Roger Garaudy was fined in France, Gaston-Armand Amaudruz imprisoned in Switzerland, and Siegfried Verbke convicted in Belgium; David Irving is in custody awaiting trial in Austria. Holocaust denial is generally directed against Jews, but it is so condemned by the wider community that it attracts legal prohibition.

Many Muslims also feel that anti-Semitism itself is singled out for reproval. Many countries prohibit incitement to racial hatred or vilification; fewer prohibit incitement to religious hatred. As a result, more protection may be available to Jews—an ethnic as well as a religious group—than to Muslims, who are united only by religion.

Is there a relevant difference between race and religion? Perhaps More Help. Religious beliefs are susceptible to choice—and debate—in a way that race is not. Most religions are at least partly incompatible with each other, so that practising one will often involve questioning or denouncing another. But religion now seems to divide people the way race once did; extremist elements within and without Islam are selling us a clash of civilisations defined not by ethnicity but by belief. It is hard to distinguish religious hatred from old-fashioned racial hatred by its intention, its content or its effect.

One answer is to criticise the beliefs but not the believers; that will sometimes be an illusory distinction—to portray Muhammad as a bomb-wielding psychopath is hardly to flatter his devotees—but it is still worth making. Perhaps the best solution is to apply racial and religious incitement laws consistently but very sparingly, against only the most loathsome and gratuitous expressions—and to subsume Holocaust denial into these laws; it would often though perhaps not always breach them.

Should the European newspapers who stood by the Jyllands-Posten also reprint the Holocaust cartoons? It depends. Prosecutors investigating the Muhammad cartoons found no likely breach of Denmark’s laws against blasphemy or religious insult. If the twelve winners of Hamshahri’s gold coins are significantly more offensive in their portrayals then there is no need to publish them, even if local laws would allow it; there is no hypocrisy in drawing a line. Flemming Rose, the mastermind of the Jyllands-Posten initiative, said that he would run the Holocaust cartoons; his editor-in-chief promptly overruled him. Both decisions seem hasty; we should wait and see.

In the meantime we have the cartoons of the Arab European League, which has made a promise similar to Hamshahri’s. “If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines, we certainly do not want to stay behind,” says its website. Two of its cartoons involve familiar Holocaust denial; one has an undeserving Peter Jackson turn down Steven Spielberg’s new “Holocaust script” with the excuse, “I don’t think I have that much of imagination Steven, sorry”. The most shocking shows a post-coital Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank—killed by the Nazis when she was fifteen—and crowing, “Write this one in your diary, Anne!”

As soon as these cartoons appeared, the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel lodged a criminal complaint with the Dutch public prosecutor; it is easy to see why. They are as senseless as the Muhammad caricatures, and more insulting. They don’t just conflate a prophet with the excesses of his adherents; they accuse a race of fabricating for its own gain the most horrific events in its history, and do violence to the memory of a murdered girl whose relatives are still alive. It is a simple matter to distinguish them from the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, though other cartoons may be more difficult to separate.

The Holocaust was long considered an inappropriate subject for any but the most sombre depiction, an injunction almost as firm as Islam’s against images of Muhammad. In 1980, Art Spiegelman began to serialise his comic Maus, which told of his father’s experiences as a Jew in wartime Poland and in concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. Spiegelman softened his portrayal by drawing the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Americans as dogs and so on. Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 but was at first suppressed in Germany for its treatment of the Holocaust; it is now taught in schools there. Last year, Joe Kubert’s Yossel and Pascal Croci’s Auschwitz—comic books dealing with similar themes without Spiegelman’s anthropomorphism—were translated into German and received a cautious reception. “Can you really show the savagery of the Holocaust as a comic?” asked Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild; many Jewish leaders thought that you couldn’t.

During the early stages of the war, American cartoonists drew attention to the plight of Jews in Europe and urged governments to give them refuge in the United States or Palestine. But most cartoon depictions of Jews have been outrageously insulting. Propaganda in Die Brennessel and Der Stürmer from the 1920s onward portrayed them as hook-nosed, unshaven and avaricious, as spiders sucking the livelihood from Germans, worms in the German economy, pimps luring women into prostitution, murderers draining the blood from children; they showed strapping Aryans pushing them off cliffs and having at them with swords. Many Muslim newspapers now work in the same tradition: their cartoons depict Jews drinking the blood of babies, playing puppet-master to the world and particularly the United States; they draw them as snakes, pigs, octopuses, devils, and frequently Nazis.

These unflattering portrayals are not relevant to the way the Western media should treat Islam, or the laws that should apply to racial or religious vilification. The fact that some Muslims incite hatred does not mean that other Muslims should be vilified, and the fact that some Muslim countries make hypocritical demands for religious accommodation does not require our hypocrisy. On past form the Hamshahri cartoons are unlikely to challenge the European media’s commitment to freedom of expression, because they are likely to be of a different nature to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons; we will know soon enough. But cartoons, however offensive, are a much better response than threats and firebombs, and are certainly to be encouraged.

15 February 2006

And we’re back

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:45 pm

dinoblog.jpgEagle-eyed readers will have noticed that there hasn’t been any activity here for several months, for which many apologies. There are a few reasons: I was very busy wrapping up a rewrite in time for Christmas; most of the website database got deleted during a server upgrade, and after restoring what I could (sorry to everyone whose comments were lost) I felt a little despondent about the transience of all things; and so on.

Another reason is that I’ve been taking some tentative steps into the print media, something I’d always meant to do after using this blog to hone my sense of outrage and perhaps develop something of a personal style. On 30 September last year I published a piece called “A Bad Example” in the Review section of the Australian Financial Review; it was about the Commonwealth Health Department’s petrol sniffing information kit and the unfortunate things Tony Abbott said launching it. It began like this:

Steven Uluru made front pages across the country in August when he appeared with a can of petrol under his jumper before a coronial inquest into the deaths of three other petrol sniffers. It was impossible not to be affected by the picture and its contrasts: the resort guests enjoying sundowners on the bright side of Australia’s most celebrated rock while the rock’s namesake, and one of its custodians, shambled dead-eyed through its shadow.

The coroner, Greg Cavanagh, immediately adjourned the proceedings, held in the small town of Mutitjulu, some 20 kilometres from Uluru. He later explained that he hadn’t been distressed by the sight but had been frustrated by his own inability to help. “I was angry with myself at my impotence to stop what was going on,” he said. “No one, not me, white lawyers, uniformed police, Aboriginal men and other community members, did anything.”

If only Tony Abbott had been there. The federal Health Minister invoked—perhaps milked—the scene when he launched his department’s new petrol-sniffing information kit last Friday.

“That was a terrible thing, and getting the message out that petrol sniffing kills people and it can kill them fast, that’s important if communities are to do their bit to end this dreadful scourge,” he said. Although Steven Uluru won’t be able to read the flipchart himself, “the people who love him hopefully will, and rather than permit him to wander sniffing petrol all day, they will insist that he attends some kind of rehabilitation program”.

Of course Steven Uluru and everyone he knew had tried every kind of rehabilitation program available to sniffers the Northern Territory, but the facilities have been famously lacking. It was difficult to see how much good the information kit would have done in his case, and it was satisfying to be able to point that out. The article went over reasonably well, so last Friday I published another one, again in the AFR‘s Review section, this time called “No Laughing Matter” and about the Danish cartoon controversy. I concluded that both sides were to blame for the whole thing getting out of hand.

Of course freedom of speech is critical to any non-dystopic society, and its interaction with religious sensibilities must be debated. But these issues need the right cause, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are hardly up to it. There is much to be said about Islam’s relationship with violence, with women, and with other faiths, and much of that might be blasphemous but worth defending; these cartoons attempt none of it They are empty provocation; they express nothing beyond their own mischief. And, fatally, they’re not funny. Freedom of expression covers worthless as well as weighty expressions, of course; but to defend such a gratuitous exercise with so much righteous bluster seems itself gratuitous. It appears to be driven by the same moral panic—the fear that Islam threatens our most cherished institutions—that prompted the Jyllands-Posten’s ill-fated initiative.

It is true that many protesters are now demanding government intervention of a kind that would seriously deform the boundaries of our freedom of expression. They are free to ask it; we are free to refuse. As a corollary to religious freedom, most Western democracies have abolished their laws against blasphemy or allowed them to atrophy. Some Muslims have asked how Denmark’s Lutheran majority would feel if Jesus were given the Muhammad treatment; doubtless many would be outraged, but it is unlikely that legal sanctions would result. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the public reading of James Kirkup’s poem suggesting Christ was gay attracted plenty of protest but no prosecutions, exactly as it should be.

At the same time, many democracies have strengthened their laws against racial and religious vilification and incitement to hatred. Some critics argue that it is hypocrisy to prosecute extremist Muslims and neo-Nazi propagandists while allowing cartoonists to draw Muhammad however they like; but these arguments ignore critical differences. Blasphemy is not vilification: it is not committed against people but against God, who hardly needs our protection. We have to understand that many Muslims are deeply pained by portrayals of or disrespectful references to Muhammad; we need to use our freedom sensibly and not gratuitously. But until mockery becomes incitement to hatred—until it turns from God and threatens people—it is a matter of personal responsibility and cannot be the subject of legal proscription. That is where we have placed our line, and it is a reasonable boundary.

I’ve already learned a couple of things about writing for newspapers—which Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur strip calls “dinosaur blogs”—as opposed to the writing straight to the Internet. The first was that whatever personal style I had developed here was of little use in print, partly because space limitations preclude the kind of rambling delivery I prefer, perhaps also because of the need to mask suspicions of personal inadequacy with an authoritative-sounding tone. The second was that links really help in presenting an argument: they save you having to summarise everything and reduce your responsibility for accurately putting someone else’s case—readers can simply see for themselves, if they’re interested. In a newspaper you can use quotes, but again space constraints limit their effectiveness. When consumer-grade electronic paper becomes popular, it’s likely that many of these differences will disappear as newspapers embrace the advantages of hypertext.

On the other hand, newspapers’ editorial oversight gives them more credibility than most weblogs out in the anarchy of the Internet. They also have a proven financial model (for now) and so tend to pay their writers better. So I’m going to try to do more dinosaur blogging, but will continue to post here when I wind up with something that doesn’t fit anywhere else. I will also try to restore the hundreds of comments on Missy Higgins: lesbian?, because they’re brilliant.

19 September 2005

Bloggers for Broggers

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

No, of course I’m not in favour of former NSW Liberal leader John Gilbert Brogden MP—I’ll just do anything for a rhyme, as anybody who’s still reading Equinox will already know. But I’m not 100% against him either.

On Monday, when news of his foolish, boozy night first broke, I was naturally appalled but mostly surprised: I’d always found him an unconvincing opposition leader, numbingly reliable in his appearance after every government announcement to carp on about how that proved once and for all how evil Bob Carr was. But he always seemed very controlled, which didn’t make me like him any better, but made his meltdown seem somewhat left-field. Then on Tuesday, when I heard he’d resigned, I almost felt sorry for him. Here was a guy who never even sounded like he believed he had a chance to beat Labor in NSW—no matter how shrill and frequent his protests—until Carr checked out, giving him at least a fighting chance against the low-profile Member for Lakemba (see?). And the first thing he does when that happens is pound a couple of celebratory beers and shoot himself immediately in the foot (not so bad until you remember his foot was lodged firmly in his mouth). It’s almost tragic.

And then on Wednesday, when it came out that he’d tried to harm himself, of course I really did feel sorry for him. I think he did the right thing by resigning, though he did it because he found himself suddenly unelectable rather than for reasons of remorse or honour (otherwise he would have resigned as soon as he sobered up and remembered what he’d done, not when it was reported). But he didn’t deserve to wind up in hospital over it.

The circumstances of his disgrace have prompted some interesting responses. Anne Summers wonders whether the “mail-order bride” slur really was racist, or at least whether it was more racist than sexist:

The stereotype of the mail-order bride in this country is of an Asian woman, often from the Philippines, whose economic circumstances are so dire that she feels no choice but to enter into a so-called mail-order marriage. Such women these days are just as likely to come from Russia or Eastern Europe. In other words, what characterises a mail-order bride is not that she is Asian but that she is poor. Oh, and that she’s a woman.

Brogden might have had in mind to racially slur Helena Carr, and his comments have been described by her husband, Bob, as a “cruel insult against all Asian women” but let’s not forget that they were also deeply sexist. A smear of Helena Carr will of course risk having racist overtones because she is Asian, but she is also a woman and entitled to equal respect as such.

Now this strikes me as perhaps a bit opportunist—everyone wants to be outraged by Brogden’s behaviour for their own reasons (Australia Post has also complained about the slur against things ordered through the mail). Yes, Helena Carr is entitled to equal respect as a woman; but not every insult levelled at a woman is sexist. This one is in the same way that “soccer mom”, “gold-digger” and “princess” are: sure, kind of, since they refer primarily to women, but they’re all more directly about other things. And Brogden’s comment in particular was, I think, overwhelmingly racist.

Of course his real intention wasn’t to insult Helena Carr but to insult Bob Carr—by implying that the former premier lacked the mettle to find himself a wife through the ordinary channels. And that’s deeply sexist, the idea of reducing a woman to a symbol of her husband’s masculinity or whatever, but that doesn’t seem to be what Summers is getting at. And but the only reason Brogden could even try to marshall an insult to Helena into an attack on Bob is that she’s from a region stereotypically associated with that kind of postal arrangement. He might even have tried it on if she were Russian, I don’t know. The unifying characteristic of mail-order brides might be that they’re poor, but the trait that Brogden latched onto is that some of them are Asian, and so is Helena Carr. You can’t say that calling someone a “lazy Abo” isn’t racist because plenty of other people are lazy. Once you’ve implied something insulting about someone based on the person’s race, or insultingly attributed a characteristic to the person’s race in general, that’s a racist insult.

Which also makes it weird that people are running around pointing out that Helena Carr is highly educated and intelligent and a successful businesswoman and lived in Australia for years before she met Bob—that’s all entirely beside the point. In fact it comes very close to buying into the underlying racism. If someone tells you that Herschel is a cheap kike, the answer isn’t to list Herschel’s contributions to charity and generous tipping practices and insist that he’s not one of the cheap kikes; the answer is, “You racist fuck!” Here, Helena Carr doesn’t need defending: there hasn’t been a serious suggestion that she personally is or was a mail-order bride; there’s only been a racist remark, which is to be condemned but not engaged with.

Of course, Brogden did other bad things that night at the Marble Bar, and Summers correctly points out that the racial slur has been seen as much more damning than the propositions and groping. Sun-Herald journalist Angela Cuming was one of Brogden’s targets, and she told her story this week, partly in response to his later claim that he was joking and didn’t mean to hit on her:

I said: “Hi, John” and started to ask him about his chances of taking western Sydney Labor seats. He then stopped me by raising one hand.

He slipped one arm around the small of my back, leant down and said: “Enough of that. Are you available?” I must have looked startled, as did my colleague.

I stumbled out some reply on the lines of: “No, I have a boyfriend, thanks very much.”

Brogden certainly comes off as a sleazebag here, but I still can’t help feeling that the racism was worse. Maybe the reason is somewhere in here:

I, like every other girl in Sydney, is used to the odd drunken suit throwing out a dodgy pick-up line in a bar on a Friday night. It makes me feel uncomfortable any time, as I believe women have a right to a night out without being harassed.

Yes, they do: but people go out to pubs in large part to be around other people, and these other people aren’t just wallpaper—there’s a chance they might want to talk to you. For every group that just wants to be left alone, there’s a group that wouldn’t mind interacting with the other humans and is maybe a bit disappointed that everyone’s so damned unfriendly around here—and it’s not easy to tell the two groups apart. Human interaction is a difficult thing, and the rules are complicated (hey, just like grammar!) but the underlying premise is a reasonably sound one: we’re all trying to get along, and at least some of the time we’re trying to pick each other up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone respects the rules (again, like grammar).

John Brogden has a family, and so his behaviour was rotten. The public has long been tolerant of politicians’ infidelities but I think they probably shouldn’t be: honesty and commitment are important to high office and it does
seem to be one of those jobs where the quality of your personal dealings is relevant to the discharge of your duties. Brogden also broke the rules: you’re supposed to ask a woman whether she’s available before you grope her, not after; that’s just common sense. But this was a social setting, not a workplace, and Brogden never had any power to abuse—as a journalist, Cuming probably could have mopped the floor with him. So his sleazy behaviour might seem more like the perversion, or even just the inappropriate manifestation, of a fundamentally acceptable drive to social and sexual interaction, and perhaps if not forgivable then at least understandable given the minefield that that can be.

Whereas racism is just nasty to the core, and racist remarks can really reveal something deep-down wrong with a person. It can’t be interpreted as over-enthusiasm; there’s nothing defensible about it and so perhaps it should be judged as more serious than some other excesses. I’m glad that as a country we have so little truck with explicit racism; certainly there is systemic and underlying racism all over the place, but at least we’re not cheerfully racist in the way that some cultures are or have been, and we won’t tolerate it in our elected (or repeatedly non-elected) leaders. That may not be much, but it’s something.

Which brings me to the end, I promise. Many people have asked whether Brogden’s transgressions were so much worse than those of John Howard, and further afield George W Bush and Tony Blair, who keep on getting elected despite their unwavering perfidy. It’s a reasonable question. Certainly nobody has died as a result of Brogden’s big night out; no countries have been invaded. He may have made racist comments but he hasn’t promoted a nationwide culture of xenophobia. I don’t know why he’s been pinged while the rest have got off without so much as a warning. Perhaps it’s because people believe that Howard et al really have their best interests at heart, and don’t mind if they blatantly lie about some or all of the details; whereas it’s not possible to conceive of any end to justify Brogden’s behaviour. Who knows. The answer, of course, isn’t to let Brogden off the hook but to hold the others accountable too. I’d like to think that Broggers’s resignation will usher in a new age in which politicians are punished for their outrages, but I’m not a complete idiot.

13 September 2005

Hands off Coopers

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

coopers.jpgThere can be very few brands to which I am as loyal as I am to the Coopers family of ales, lagers and stouts. These guys can do very little wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, they could have kept the apostrophe, but since it’s their trademark I’m willing to let them do what they like with it—and imagine if we had to write “Cooper’s’s marketing strategy” and so on. Even their light beer isn’t too bad—for that matter, even their alcohol-free beer is drinkable, if you’re a space-shuttle pilot or stuck on a desert island (or both).

Many are the reasons for my loyalty to this fine selection of what may generically be called beers. One is that I learned to drink beer in South Australia, where the Coopers is as bountiful as the Tooheys and VB are here, and often cheaper. You can get it all on tap everywhere, magnificent beer fonts bristling with every kind of Coopers spigot from draught to stout. It’s great.

Now that I’m in Sydney I’ll still always go for a Sparkling or a Pale if they’re on tap, and usually if they’re in bottles—particularly now that the Hospitality Industry is catching on to the benefits of rolling. They’re great-tasting full-bodied beers and they’re made without additives or preservatives. Some people complain about the sediment but I think it shows that you’re drinking a real drink that results from natural processes. The marketing has been clever—particularly the brilliant “Cloudy but fine” tag—but understated, and the old-school packaging gives the impression of substance over style.

Beyond all this, I must say that in recent years my devotion to Coopers has been deepened by the fact that it is not owned by either of the regional beverage giants Foster’s Group or Lion Nathan Limited.

Now, I’m not one of these people who think that a corporate structure or stock-exchange listing is an automatic short-cut to global destruction and a place in the newly-constructed circles of Hell. But I do think that, particularly in the case of food and drink, concentrated ownership tends to encourage a certain homogeneity, a kind of blandness; whereas diverse and independent ownership allows more character and more innovation. The chilli sauces made by Masterfoods are kind of sweet and bland, for example; but Beerenberg’s chilli sauce can kill you. Yes, there are some fine products made by big corporations—those chilli or wasabi Kettle chips ultimately attributable to the Campbell Soup Company are pretty good, though I swear they’ve been toned down lately—but you can almost always get something tastier, more interesting, and certainly better for you up the road.

As well as the beer that bears its name, Foster’s Group now produces such brands as Victoria Bitter, Crown Lager, Carlton Cold, Carlton Draught and Cascade Premium Lager. It imports Corona and Asahi and makes loads of wine under the Penfolds, Rosemount Estate, Lindemans, Wolf Blass and Wynns Coonawarra labels. Lion Nathan owns all the Tooheys, XXXX, West End, Southwark, Hahn and James Squire brands, and brews Heineken, Beck’s and Kirin here in Australia. Its wines include Petaluma, Tatachilla, Knappstein and St Hallett. And now it’s after Coopers.

Yes, on 1 September 2005 Lion Nathan announced an off-market offer to buy all the shares in Coopers Brewery Limited at $260 each, valuing the company at $352 million. Coopers has something like 117 shareholders, most of whom are somehow connected with the Cooper family. Lion Nathan acquired 19.9% of the shares through its 1993 purchase of the South Australian Brewing Company, but gave them up in 1995 in exchange for some pre-emptive rights, which have been the subject of several legal stoushes since. Now it wants to buy the lot.

Lion Nathan reckons their bid of $260 per share is pretty reasonable, considering the Cooper family priced a buyback at $45.01 just two years ago. The Coopers Board, bless it, has recommended that shareholders reject the offer, for reasons that will become clear when Coopers files its target statement with ASIC. It has also announced that it might match Lion Nathan’s offer, which it has the pre-emptive rights to do, and is getting the Takeovers Panel and probably the ACCC involved. Unfortunately, there are reports of various divisions within the now-fifth-generation Cooper family, which could result in a bunch of shares winding up with Lion Nathan.

It will be clear to all of you by now that I personally would prefer that this didn’t happen. Coopers claims to be the only surviving family-owned brewery in Australia; certainly it is the most significant. There are some brilliant small brewers around the place, like Scharers of Picton and even the Lord Nelson in the city. But since J Boag & Son was acquired by San Miguel in 2000, there hasn’t been a widely-available independent domestic beer apart from the best beer of all: Coopers. Does it matter? I think it does. If the takeover does go through, I’m going to have to buy up all the family-brewed Coopers I can and drink it for as long as it lasts. And after that I’ll only be able to drink at the Australian (which has Scharer’s), the Lord Nelson (which has Three Sheets) or the Royal Oak (which for some reason has both). Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if socially limiting.

Would the takeover of Coopers by Lion Nathan affect your drinking habits or even just make you nostalgic for better days? Let me know.

6 September 2005

Leave Bush alone

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

bush2.jpgAs has been widely reported, when US President George W Bush was interviewed by Diane Sawyer on American’s ABC last week he made the following excuse for the appalling situation in New Orleans:

I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will.

Now some freedom-hating nit-pickers have argued that certain lunatic-fringe doom-and-gloom–merchants had in fact anticipated something vaguely reminiscent of the present disaster. For example, some socialist street-rag called National Geographic ran the following story in October 2004. I’ll extract this quite extensively so you can see how far off these guys were:

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn’t—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

Way back in June 2002, regional daily The Times-Picayune ran a five-page special on various threats facing the Big Easy, and never came close to anticipating anything like we’re seeing now. All they said was:

[1998 Hurricane] Georges, a Category 2 storm that only grazed New Orleans, had pushed waves to within a foot of the top of the levees. A stronger storm on a slightly different course—such as the path Georges was on just 16 hours before landfall—could have realized emergency officials’ worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.

That would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles.

Like coastal Bangladesh, where typhoons killed 100,000 and 300,000 villagers, respectively, in two horrific storms in 1970 and 1991, the New Orleans area lies in a low, flat coastal area. Unlike Bangladesh, New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. Though providing protection from weaker storms, the levees also would trap any water that gets inside—by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour—in a catastrophic storm.

“Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail,” [Louisiana State University engineer Joseph] Suhayda said. “It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.”

Now it might seem from these extracts that some people did in fact give some thought to a hurricane of around Katrina’s magnitude causing widespread flooding, destruction and even death in and around New Orleans, owing to the levees either overflowing or failing. But Bush is still right: nobody anticipated it.

Because of course everybody knows that, despite prevailing contemporary usage, “anticipate” doesn’t mean the same thing as “expect” or “predict”; to anticipate something is to expect or predict it and then to bloody well do something about it. Even the busted-arse dictionary that comes with Microsoft Word lists the following primary meaning for anticipate:

1. To imagine or consider something before it happens and make any necessary preparations or changes.

President Bush, as one of our most proficient users of English, knows exactly what “anticipate” means (although he sometimes pronounces it “ancipitate”), and so his explanation to Diane Sawyer was spot-on. Sure, some people knew that NOLA would go the way of Atlantis, but they didn’t anticipate it—they couldn’t, they were only scientists and such, they didn’t have any money. And Bush knew that because he’d taken all the money for the War on Terror.

I must say that when I first heard about Bush’s protestations I thought they were outrageous, but having consulted some old style and usage handbooks I now realise the President was exactly right. And now I’m convinced that all the other so-called Bushisms can be parsed into perfectly legitimate—nay, brilliant—truths. Though I’m still having a bit of trouble with:

“Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat…”

“You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

“I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.”

“We want results in every single classroom so that one single child is left behind.”

“It will take time to restore chaos and order—but we—order out of chaos.”

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says: Fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can’t get fooled again.”

19 August 2005

Journalist’s apostrophe?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

apostrophe.jpgI promise not to let these pages slide into a punctuation witch-hunt (though would it be so terrible if they did?), but it now seems that my relaxed attitude towards misplaced apostrophes of last week may have been dangerously naïve, judging from the opening paragraph of this story on the front page of Wednesday’s The Australian. Now journalists are under pretty constant time pressures and it’s easy to slip up, especially when you’ve just typed a couple of legitimate apostrophes and feel like you’re on a roll. But they do have copy-editors and you’d think that the front page would deserve some special attention. I had to read this paragraph three or four times to confirm that it really was a mistake and that there wasn’t a noun I’d forgotten to read somewhere in there.

Which is why apostrophe abuse in this kind of case is much more damaging than the proverbial greengrocer’s apostrophe. By mapping eye movements during reading tasks, clever science-types have worked out that we generally don’t read a text letter-by-letter or even word-by-word: we skip all over the place, backwards and forwards, and sometimes don’t even look at particular words at all, instead preferring to fill them in based on our knowledge of the patterns of language. Newspaper articles are designed to be read quickly, with guidelines for the order of sentences and paragraphs to allow the reader to extract his or her preferred level of detail in the shortest possible time—which is why, for example, they usually start with a single-sentence summary paragraph. Fast reading involves a certain amount of word-skipping and loads more work onto the predictive parts of our brains. My theory is that when you scan a word with a possessive apostrophe in it you expect a noun phrase to turn up pretty soon afterwards, and when one doesn’t the wheels come off; the fluent reading you were enjoying seizes up and you have to limp back and pick through each word like a jerk to work out what’s actually going on, and it’s a total pain.

Back down at the letter-level, I’m sure you’ve all read this by now:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

But aoccdrnig to Matt Davis, who actually is a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, this isn’t exactly true: in fact, the scrambled words in the example are rather uniquely easy to decipher due to the words themselves (which tend not to have ambiguous anagrams) and the ways the internal letters are scrambled (often simple transpositions of letter-pairs). Language patterns above the word-level must also play a part here; for example if you’ve unpicked the hardly-scrambled “Cmabrigde” it’s much easier to predict the more-thoroughly-mixed “Uinervtisy” that follows. But it’s all very interesting.

9 August 2005

Desperate broadcasters

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

teri.jpgI’m tempted just to let this go, because any kind of comment is sooner or later going to involve admitting that I watched pretty much the whole season of Desperate Housewives on Seven. At least, I had the TV on while the show was on, which is all the ratings measure anyway—not that I’m counted in the ratings; if I were we might still be watching The West Wing. But so there it is. It had its moments but was overall pretty lame; Gabrielle was kind of hot, though clearly awful; and the “big mystery” story arc progressed at about the rate of a Phantom comic.

Of course Seven milked the show for much more than it was worth, doling out new episodes as if they (the new episodes) were pellets of rat-food doled out by first-year students of operant conditioning trying to confirm that the variable ratio schedule is indeed the most cruel and diabolical and difficult-for-rats-to-shake of all the schedules of reinforcement, padding these new episodes, or rather “all-new” episodes, with simply unwatchable “behind-the-scenes&#8221–type featurettes and other dross and filth, or just pre-empting them for other less-valuable programs during non-ratings periods. Not to mention the dubious technique of wedging each episode into the hitherto-undiscovered 8:40pm–9:40pm timeslot, thereby manipulating the ratings in ways I can’t even begin to understand; and the erratic ADD/ADHD-type repetition of the first few episodes already covered back when it all started.

But in screening last night’s series cliffhanger, which was generally better than most of the intervening episodes because one or two things actually happened in it, Seven reached a new ebb in its attempt to sucker some of its inexplicably massive Housewives audience into watching some of its other programming. The deal was: if you sat through the debut of Grey’s Anatomy—an apparently charmless medical comedy/drama offering nothing that Scrubs didn’t deliver every week in half the time with exponential levels of humour and pathos—you got to see a “secret additional bonus mystery scene” that had been excised from the first season of Desperate Housewives for undisclosed reasons. The implication was—I think the teaser actually said—that the hidden scene would solve some outstanding mystery that the final episode was just too solution-packed to manage.

Now I’ll tell you what the actual scene contained in a moment (ha!), but first I should explain that in fact I was watching all this stuff through the intermediary of my new personal video recorder or PVR, which quite ingeniously records a perfect copy of the digital broadcast signal on its roomy hard-drive for later playback. It can record two channels at the same time as playing back a previously-recorded or even currently-recording program, and it has buttons that instantly zap forward two minutes or 30 seconds so you never have to see any commercials. The networks hate them because of their potential to reduce advertising revenue, and try to reduce their usefulness by not transmitting information about upcoming programs (which would make setting timers etc so simple that why wouldn’t you) and increasingly screening ads in weird and unpredictable configurations.

And of course the free-to-air model depends on people watching advertisements, and if we all stop watching—and if they find out about it—the quality of programming may eventually suffer. But I think there are solutions. One is product placement, which I don’t object to as long as it’s done with restraint and slots into, rather than manipulating, the host program. Look at all the real-world products that found their way into Seinfeld with hilarious results: the Junior Mint, the Pez, the Jujyfruit, Snapple, Häagen-Dazs—if you do it right, there’s nothing wrong with it. The other solution might be to make commercials that people can stand to watch, rather than the brain-damaged half-attempts that befoul our prime-time viewing. Anyway, the point is that my trusty Topfield PVR5000t allowed me to swiftly track down the lost scene from Desperate Housewives—thinking only of this blog and you, Loyal Reader—without having to watch more of Grey’s Anatomy than I wanted to, which wasn’t much.

So completely unsurprisingly that lost scene, which had been likened to the Dead Sea Scrolls or at least that new Vivaldi just discovered by clever Melbourne musicologist Dr Janice Stockigt, consisted of immaculate psychopath Bree and her creepy man-friend George being busted shopping for garden supplies by her therapist Dr Goldfine, played by—and this almost makes the whole thing worthwhile—Sam Lloyd, who is brilliant as hangdog lawyer Ted Buckland from Scrubs. The scene has no bearing on any part of the plot, such as it is, and was either removed by American ABC for that reason or by Seven so they could jam in some more commercials and trick some viewers. An appalling display.

Last night’s Media Watch showed Ten’s Action News trying on two separate occasions to rope in viewers by showing tantalising excerpts of near- and actual tragic events and asking “Did they make it? Stay tuned!&#8221, which is analogous but of course even worse. The one where they didn’t make it was stretched over two ad breaks! And don’t think I haven’t noticed that Ten is still claiming that 3.7 million people watched the first incarnation of The 4400 either.

In closing, I’d like us all to take a moment to remember Desperate Housewife Teri Hatcher in her finest moment, playing the spectacularly-endowed Sidra in Seinfeld‘s fourth-season winner, “The Implant&#8221. That’s Elaine stumbling towards her in the health-club sauna, about to be saved by her controversial breasts. Look at the terror! Look at the range!

27 July 2005

Sheikh up

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

There’s something subtly wrong with everybody piling on top of cleric Sheikh Mohammed Omran for his comments in support of Osama bin Laden. Here’s what John Howard says:

Mr Howard says he thinks the Sheikh’s views would be unacceptable to the majority of Australians.

“He’s reaffirmed that he thinks bin Laden is a good man,” the Prime Minister said. “Heavens above … let’s just sit back and think for a moment.

“He says that bin Laden is a good man. Doesn’t that really prove my point?”

Now this is presented as relevant to the question of whether Muslim leaders and commentators should be allowed to express views that might directly or indirectly encourage terrorism, or whether they should more or less be compelled to actively condemn and discourage it. But what the Sheikh said actually isn’t relevant to that question at all.

What the Sheikh said is that he doesn’t think Osama bin Laden was involved in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 or since, and accordingly that he’s a good man. Howard’s “Heavens above!” assumes what almost all of us believe—that bin Laden was responsible for many terrorist attacks—and gets all bent out of shape about how could anyone think a guy like that was a good man? But that doesn’t actually prove Howard’s point, it just begs the question.

Certainly if Sheikh Omran had acknowledged bin Laden’s terrorist leanings and praised him as a “good man&#8221, you’d be justified in thinking him a potentially dangerous condoner of terrorism and inciter of violence. But he’s not: he’s just a nutcase, like the hordes who believe in UFOs and Intelligent Design.

Opposition spokesman Kevin Rudd doesn’t do any better than the Prime Minister:

“For any Australian cleric to defend the actions of Osama bin Laden is unacceptable and un-Australian,” he said.

“And I would call upon the Sheikh to repudiate his comments in support of Osama bin Laden.”

Again, the Sheikh didn’t defend the actions of Osama bin Laden; he denied them. It’s a whole different thing. Lord knows whether it’s “un-Australian” or not, but I think we’re all getting excited about the wrong issue here. Plus, of course, giving national coverage to crackpot theories that would almost certainly just sink without ripple otherwise.

19 July 2005

Not why, but whence?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

petty2.jpgThis is from a nice cartoon by Bruce Petty in The Age last week. It contrasts this thoughtful fellow with your more typical Warrior-on-Terror cowering behind barbed wire with his fatalistic but perhaps irrefutable “Not if but when” placard, and I think it’s very good. Go and have a look at it, I’ll wait here.

I’m always quietly amazed at what political cartoonists get away with: I particularly like Cathy Wilcox, who does these little editorial throwaways all through the Fairfax papers that say exactly what everyone’s thinking. Alan Moir’s stuff is good and pointed but I think Wilcox is actually funny, and I like how it’s just slipped in with the news stories. I hope that when the media-ownership laws are a distant memory and we’ve only got the moguls’ word to go on, these guys’ll be the last to go. Cathy Guisewite, on the other hand, should be first against the wall.

So obviously there’s a lot to say about the recent London attacks and I’m not particularly qualified to say it, even though I have been to London and actually rode upstairs on a red double-decker bus. One interesting thing Petty said on the “Talking Pictures” segment of the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday is that Tony Blair at least seems to be backing away from the “war on terror” rhetoric, and certainly his speech yesterday calls for Al-Qaeda’s definitive whomping without using the word “war”, which I think is a sensible retreat.

Clearly terrorism is awful, but I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favours by declaring war on it. A war is a finite conflict from which there generally emerges a winner, and there is just no way we can win this one on these terms. There will always be people who are pissed off about something and keen to express their frustration through violence. We can’t stop that by bombs or invasions; we can’t stop it by olive branches and love-ins. Even if we somehow eliminate or appease every violent dissident now, there’ll be more later: it’s not like smallpox, the war against which we did win. For as long as we have any amount of personal autonomy—and I hope that will be a long time, though I’m wondering—some of us will use it in ways that hurt the rest of us.

Tony Blair says:

The extremist propaganda is cleverly aimed at their target audience. It plays on our tolerance and good nature; it exploits the tendency to guilt of the developed world; as if it is our behaviour that should change; that if we only tried to work out and act on their grievances, we could lift this evil; that if we changed our behaviour, they would change theirs. This is a misunderstanding of a catastrophic order.

Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated. It can’t be remedied. It has to be stood up to. And, of course, they will use any issue that is a matter of dissent within our democracy. But we should lay bare the almost-devilish logic behind such manipulation.

This seems a direct attack on our reasonable bibliophile pictured above, but it makes its own—probably deliberate—mistake about the motives of the people who ask why. Nobody pretends that there’s anything we can reasonably do in the Middle East or elsewhere that will stop terror attacks tomorrow. A certain cohort of extremists do seem to be intractably opposed to us in a place beyond reason and nothing’s going to change their personal minds. But this hatred of the West or whatever isn’t just something they thought up one afternoon: it must have historical roots not only in religion but in politics and economics—in all the books our baffled hero is ploughing through—and to understand them and acknowledge our role in some of them might help foster an international environment in which fewer young people are driven to blow themselves up going forward.

It might not be all bad news from Blair. Listen to this:

We must be clear about how we win this struggle. We should take what security measures we can. But let us not kid ourselves. In the end, it is by the power of argument, debate, true religious faith and true legitimate politics that we will defeat this threat. That means not just arguing against their terrorism but their politics and their perversion of religious faith. It means exposing as the rubbish it is, the propaganda about America and its allies wanting to punish Muslims or eradicate Islam. It means championing our values of freedom, tolerance and respect for others. It means explaining why the suppression of women and the disdain for democracy are wrong.

Well, it’s hard to argue with that, and I think they should start in on it right away. It seems to me that if we’re going to have a war on terror, one way to at least make a dent would be to refuse to be terrorised: to keep on with our democracy and our human rights and liberties, to keep on catching the bus. The worst response has to be this siege/bunker mentality that drives us to throw away some of our most important Western democratic values—how is that going to help us win? Everything we’ve done so far—you know, let’s bring back torture, let’s lock people up forever without trial, let’s have a war without rules—seems like we’re storming away from victory; it feels a giant capitulation. If they really do hate us for our freedom, then they’ve got their wish.

And it’s clear that for all the fine talk about true faith and legitimate politics, it’s the security measures that actually make it into print. The British government is already pushing new anti-terrorism legislation which it hopes will be in effect by December. The Guardian describes it like this:

If passed, the legislation will outlaw “indirect incitement” of terrorism, including praising those who carry out attacks. The new offense is designed to counter extremist Islamist clerics blamed for radicalizing disaffected Muslim youth in Britain.

The legislation also would make it an offense to receive training in terrorist techniques in Britain or abroad. A new offense of “acts preparatory to terrorism” would outlaw planning an attack and activities such as acquiring bomb-making instructions on the Internet.

Well, that might work, I don’t know. But “indirect incitement” sounds pretty broad to me: the example given is “praising those who carry out attacks&#8221, but that’s almost direct incitement. What about suggesting that London basically asked for it, as <a href="http://www.smh lowest price levitra.com.au/news/opinion/violence-begets-violence/2005/07/10/1120934125013.html”>Tariq Ali did last week?

The real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Just because these three wars are reported sporadically and mean little to the everyday lives of most Westerners does not mean the anger and bitterness they arouse in the Muslim world is insignificant. As long as Western politicians wage their wars and their colleagues in the Muslim world watch in silence, young people will be attracted to the groups which carry out random acts of revenge.

Is that indirect incitement? I don’t think what Ali suggests is the real solution, but you’d certainly hope that he’d be allowed to say it. Otherwise, we’re not engaging in a persuasive democratic argument, we’re not the light on the hill. For the same reasons, I’m concerned about the Feds raiding Islamic bookshops and seizing books that allegedly incite terrorism. They’re books! Surely the best response to a book we don’t agree with isn’t to ban it but to write a better book. Otherwise it’s all starting to sound a bit North Korean. But that’s a story for another time.

24 June 2005

She so crazy

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

So of course journalists are allowed to change their minds like everybody else, and when someone has to write two columns a week for all eternity it’s never going to be that hard to track down inconsistencies. But have a read of our old favourite Miranda Devine in Sunday’s Sun-Herald. This is of course about Schapelle Corby:

The Australian public has seen what Corby’s defence team saw long ago: a transcendent grace that makes her guilt implausible. Her strength of character, not to mention the careful styling and stunning good looks, improved in recent months by jail-time weight loss, have bolstered her claim she is innocent and that corrupt baggage handlers planted the drugs in her boogie board bag.

There are enough stupid things in this paragraph to keep us occupied all day. But let us move swiftly on to Devine again in today’s Herald:

There is no point people asserting Schapelle Corby’s innocence because they “feel it in my heart” or “looked into her eyes”. Such silliness just adds to the near-mystical hysteria which plagues the case of the 27-year-old Gold Coast student beautician convicted last week of smuggling 4.1 kilograms of marijuana into Bali.

Of course the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald are technically different newspapers, and may speak to marginally divergent audiences, but this is the same writer on the same issue three days later. Yes, it’s silly to rely on Corby’s eyes to gauge her innocence—you should at least look at her waistline. Slimmed down a bit in jail? How could that not bolster her claims of innocence? And yet the panel of judges made no reference to her weight loss, her careful styling or her stunning good looks in their verdict. I’d get onto that right away if I were Tom Percy QC.

Bear in mind though that this translation is provided by Channel Nine, whose real-time interpreter during Friday’s ghastly “live verdict” special wasn’t quite up to the job, and kept blaming the judge’s excitement and the noise of the courtroom for what seemed much more like a want of fluency in the language. As a result Seven managed to report Corby’s sentence a couple of minutes earlier than its arch-rival, as gleefully recounted by Media Watch this week. The increasingly delightful Liz Jackson also gave us this hilarious exchange between John Laws and Ron Bakir, in which Crazy Ron refused to participate in Laws’s fiction that he never calls people on his show; people call him:

Laws: Hello? Hello?

Bakir: Yes John.

Laws: Yeah. Who’s that?

Bakir: Sorry, you’ve called me.

Laws: I’ve called you? Well who have I called?

Bakir: Who have you called? Well if you don’t know who you’ve called maybe try me another time. Thank you.

Laws: [laughs]

Bakir: All the best [hangs up].

Laws: And to you. What a weird person… If it was who I think it was, I think it might have been that Ron Bakir. The fellow who’s promoting Schapelle…

Hee! Anyway, we were talking about Miranda Devine. It’s obvious that the Herald keeps her—and also Gerard Henderson, though he writes less engagingly—on staff for the single purpose of giving its generally-left-leaning readership something to get outraged about. One of the least attractive things about us is how much we love to be outraged. We love our indignation; we love to write letters; we’ll blog our brains out all day. So it’s an entirely cynical move by the people at Fairfax, but I suppose they have to sell papers.

What’s more disappointing is that Devine has so wholeheartedly accepted her role as patsy—as piñata for our liberal outrage. There are many cogent and defensible arguments available to conservatives, and there are plenty of conservative commentators who try to persuade hostile audiences, who actually make you think instead of just blathering loopily on. But not in the Herald, at least among its stable of regular columnists. Because Devine is a stylistically decent writer I can’t believe she’s entirely stupid, but she argues like the stupid person she’s apparently paid to argue like. Surely she could do better. The conservative ideal certainly deserves better representation—it probably gets it in The Australian, despite that paper’s many excesses—and we cosy liberals deserve a more rigorous testing of our cosy liberal views.

For a long time in Newtown there was a building enlivened by the brilliant graffiti “AKERMAN—DEVINE—DISGRACE TO JOURNALISM&#8221. I’m sure the media-savvy tagger was venting his outrage at Devine père rather than fille, but it still makes me smile whenever I think about it.

18 May 2005


by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

When people like Deakin University academics Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke make an argument for something so controversial as the legalisation of torture, it’s hard to know whether they’re being courageous or just looking for attention. Bagaric and Clarke argue:

Torture is permissible where the evidence suggests that it is the only means, due to the immediacy of the situation, to save the life of an innocent person. The reason that torture in such a case is defensible and necessary is because the justification manifests from the closest thing we have to an inviolable right: the right to self-defence, which of course extends to the defence of another. Given the choice between inflicting a relatively small level of harm on a wrongdoer and saving an innocent person, it is verging on moral indecency to prefer the interests of the wrongdoer.

In a cameo on Lateline last night, Bagaric explained the kind of torture that might be all right if necessary to obtain critical information only your torture victim can deliver:

MIRKO BAGARIC: If you can do something which causes intense, unbearable pain in the short-term but when you stop it has no long-term consequences, certainly in terms of physical consequences, that’s the type of activity you should, that’s certainly the type of activity you should start with.

Melbourne writer Jeff Sparrow offers a good counter-argument in The Age:

In the real world, torture rarely provides accurate information. As the US expert Douglas Johnson puts it: “Nearly every client at the Centre for Victims of Torture, when subjected to torture, confessed to a crime they did not commit, gave up extraneous information or supplied names of innocent friends or colleagues to their torturers.”

This was one of the more heated points raised in SBS’s Insight instalment in early April, which was all about torture and featured a mockup of the ticking-bomb scenario so beloved of torture advocates (complete with news-flashes from Anton Enus) and a torture clip from CSI (but which could easily have come from any other contemporary US drama, from 24 to The OC—I’d like to see that!). Former US Army interrogator Mike Ritz said:

I wish that people would recognise that torture is ineffective and I think we should spend more time educating people why it’s ineffective, so that people don’t go around supporting the idea. There’s a lot smarter ways to approach interrogating a prisoner.

That said, a lot of the techniques Ritz thought were more effective—sleep deprivation, “stress positions” and such—might be borderline torture anyway. But in a way that’s not really the point: the more fundamental argument is about whether torture would be acceptable if it were a demonstrably reliable means of obtaining information. We may never need to have that argument, since it doesn’t look like torture does anyone much good, but there’s nothing wrong with having it anyway. And of course the fundamental argument has been had many times before, by people who weren’t significantly stupider than we are: that’s why the prohibition is one of the most fundamental in international law. I think Raymond Gaita said one of the best things on Insight:

It’s not as though when the laws on torture were drafted, the international laws prohibiting it without exception that people were naive about these theoretical scenarios, a ticking-bomb here, God, when I was a philosophy student in the ’60s we were always talking about that, consequentialism versus something else. But now what’s happened, I mean after quite literally in a century after millions of people were murdered and tortured, there are people who insisted and who weren’t naive, that this is one crime against humanity whose prohibition should be exceptionless. We’re now arguing about this, not because we’re suddenly interested in moral philosophy or political philosophy, because what, 3,000-odd people get killed in America, 200 in Bali, fewer elsewhere. We’re arguing this now because we’re prepared to turn the clock backwards, turn the whole world upside down in a way, because we want to know how best to save our skins. And I think we ought to ask ourselves whether we’re not ashamed of that fact.

As Sparrow says, the Bagaric-Clarke argument is the crudest kind of utilitarianism. They posit a choice between the innocent victim and the tight-lipped villain, but for any utilitarian worth his or her salt that is not the relevant calculus. Even act-utilitarians have to consider the broader consequences of an action; and any shift towards a society in which people can be tortured is surely not an appealing consequence.

There’s always going to be a conflict between freedom and security. It’s clear that many or most of the human rights we choose to recognise increase the risk that we personally may be injured or killed on any given day. The rights afforded to suspected criminals undoubtedly result in some actual criminals going free and committing more crimes—but we still endorse the rights, not only because we may need them ourselves some day, but also because we want to live in a society that treats people with respect. That’s not “verging on moral indecency”; it’s considering the consequences of our actions and decisions beyond their immediate effect on ourselves.

It’s tough to ask an innocent person to die because we don’t want to torture someone else, but that’s what we all signed up for. We all take that risk. I’m sure I’d feel differently if it were me or anyone close to me at the wrong end of the ticking bomb or the fanatic’s Kalashnikov, I might well say torture the fuckers. But that wouldn’t be a moral position; it would be a selfish position, and, yes, I would be ashamed of it. I think that as citizens—when we vote, when we discuss possibilities in the abstract, when we do whatever we can to shape the place we live in—we have to think morally, precisely because we can’t necessarily trust ourselves when it comes to the crunch. And for most of us, that means no torture.

But it also means having the argument, so the death-threats and whatnot made against Bagaric and Clarke are outrageous and appalling. I don’t think they’ve made very good arguments, but they’ve certainly prompted some good arguments in response (and I don’t mean here), and it is something we have to keep reminding ourselves about, even questioning. So, unless they’ve done this entirely to draw attention to themselves: good on ’em.

5 April 2005

Foie pas

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

This is interesting: the New York Times reports that famed chef Charlie Trotter—whose very name has become synonymous with pig’s feet—has stopped serving foie gras, on ethical grounds. And that’s not all:

He says he stopped serving it about three years ago, after becoming unnerved at the sight of farm ducks being tube-fed into obesity. He kept quiet about it, but the conspicuous absence of foie gras from his menus led to rumors in the restaurant world, and he was outed last Tuesday in The Chicago Tribune.

Don’t be frightened, foodies, but this may be a trend – another example of how far the animal-rights cause has come in from the fringe. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year banned the production or sale of foie gras in California. (The law takes effect in 2012, to give the state’s tiny foie gras industry – basically, a guy in Sonoma named Guillermo – time to adjust.) A similar bill has been introduced in New York, the country’s only other foie gras producer.

Even if you don’t think modern farming practices are appalling, that lobsters like being boiled, or anything like that—foie gras is a bit gross. Other chefs are calling Trotter hypocritical, since he’s still getting rich off cookbooks bulging with gras. But the Times says leave him alone:

Fine cooking is fine art, and Mr. Trotter should feel free to use whatever materials he likes. He says foie gras is cruel, but he could have also called it boring – a cliché slurped by too many diners who, we suspect, would swoon just as easily over the velvety succulence of Spam or schmaltz on rye, if they were prohibitively priced and listed on the menu in French. By spurning an easy fix of fancy fat, Mr. Trotter is simply making his job a bit harder, and this man-eat-duck world a slightly kinder place. There is much to admire in that.

And much to admire in an article that finds velvety succulence in Spam, remembers the original meaning of “schmaltz”, and uses them both in the same clause. All the news that’s fit to print!

4 April 2005

This land is my land

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:12 am

heaven.jpgWarning: this post contains possible spoilers concerning the outcome of treaty negotiations between Indonesia and Australia.

I just watched on DVD and really enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s (or Jet Li’s or even Quentin Tarantino’s, depending) martial arts epic Hero. I loved its otherworldly landscapes, slightly overcooked colour schemes, gobsmacking fight sequences, and Zhang Ziyi. I totally dug the scene in the Go temple where Jet Li and Donnie Yen whomp each other inside their respective heads (where it’s still raining atmospherically), and all the connections between calligraphy and swordplay. That was cool. But of course there’s a but.

I’m a pretty dopey movie-watcher: I usually suspend disbelief before I’ve sat down, and never guess whodunit or see the twist coming, and always miss undertones and nods to other movies—unless they’re completely obvious, like with this movie and Rashômon, which I mention not to look clever but only to avoid looking like a complete moron—but the politics of Hero unsettled even me, a bit. You’ll remember that more or less everybody’s hell-bent on killing the Qin king for various atrocities until Broken Sword decides it’s better to let him live, because of two words. Broken Sword even persuades the nameless assassin (in the English version he’s actually named Nameless, somewhat post-modernly) to give up his brilliant and very effective and by that stage failsafe and in-the-bag attempt on the king’s life and sacrifice himself for these two words. They are clearly very important words, and we’re expected to believe in them, or at least understand why everybody in the movie believes in them.

The two words are tian xià, illustrated above, which the subtitles helpfully translate as “our land&#8221. The idea is that the war between the various nearby kingdoms are doing untold damage and that only the king of Qin can unite them into a single manageable nation. This sounds a bit questionable to our modern ears, particularly knowing the way China feels about Taiwan, Tibet and so on. But it turns out to be a very ancient Chinese principle—predating China, in fact—and more accurately translates as “all under heaven&#8221: the idea that everyone in the (known or relevant) world should be subject to one law and governed by one leader. This version doesn’t sound any less questionable, if you ask me.

The movie takes place towards the end of the Warring States Period, after the Qin kingdom had subjugated the Zhou (where all the assassins come from) but before it had seen to the rest of the great powers and unified China in 221 BC. The king is real: he is Qin Shi Huang, who as the movie says became the First Emperor of China and started work on the Great Wall. History doesn’t attest to any assassin named Nameless (duh) but the staggering Records of the Grand Historian tell the story of an assassination attempt by one Jing Ke, which contains some similarities. Jing Ke persuades a Qin general to give him his head so he can get close enough to whack the king; he has a red-hot go but the king jumps back, Jing Ke misses and the guards take care of the rest. This legend is told (with its own modifications) in 1999’s The Emperor and the Assassin. In one of the DVD’s special features, Zhang Yimou says that he consulted all of the existing sources but nothing really satisfied him, so he decided to write his own story.

Look, it’s very likely that the unification of China in 221 BC did save a lot of bloodshed, compared to letting the endless war between the states just trundle on; and that it gave the country a well-needed leg-up and allowed it thereafter to innovate and invent fireworks and spaghetti and all. Europe is now generally realising the benefits of some kind of coordination between nation-states, and all of us loony one-worlders would like to see everyone working together in harmony and at least some laws applying everywhere. But that’s not really what tian xià is about—it’s about empire. And the world’s going the opposite way nowadays, and disintegrating along various lines: look what happened to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. It’s hard not to see the resumption of Hong Kong and Macau as going against the current, to say nothing of the ongoing difficulties with Taiwan (and even less about this thing with Tibet).

And so it’s also hard not to see the tian xià angle in Hero as at least a little bit political. Which would be fine—all movies are political, and we can’t object to them just because they go against the prevailing politics—if it weren’t for the tight control the Chinese government exerts over the arts. Even if this is Zhang Yimou’s own personal view, the thought that this is the film the government wants him to make, and that nobody’s allowed to make the opposite film, the other argument—that’s what’s troubling about it.

It doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—look at Battleship Potemkin—or that Zhang Yimou’s a bad guy. But it’s weird—some of his earlier films were banned, or mangled by censors, and he himself was banned from filmmaking for a period after To Live; subsequent films like Not One Less and The Road Home were criticised internationally as propaganda and—sure enough—shown by the Chinese government in its pledge drives. If Hero is propaganda, that’s only secondary; perhaps Zhang is just trying to make good movies in the circumstances. Alan Stone has a good discussion in the Boston Review, which is perhaps too thoughtful to be quotable.

We all have our euphemisms for empire, anyway. The security treaty we’re negotiating with Indonesia will include some sort of wording requiring us to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity&#8221, which in case anyone was in any doubt Alexander Downer explains like this:

And Indonesians will be reinforced in their confidence in Australia knowing that Australia supports Indonesia’s territorial integrity and by that I mean we do not support secessionist movements in Indonesia.

Of course we ruined the last treaty by going to help in East Timor, but that won’t happen in Aceh or West Papua or any other place under heaven. Since it’s not a defence pact we probably won’t be called in to actually suppress any secessionist movements, but still. I hope acclaimed Indonesian directors are busily working on sumptuous epics to convince everybody that the Acehnese and West Papuans are better off as they are. Hell, I’m still waiting for Leichhardt Council’s film about the ill-fated Balmain secession, but Paddy McGuinness seems to have rolled over on that one, at least for now.

The other thing about Hero is that although it boasts a beautiful score by Dun Tan with haunting violin work by famed fiddler Itzhak Perlman, it completely ignores the dramatic possibilities of both David Bowie’s Heroes and Enrique Iglesias’s Hero. You wouldn’t catch a Western director passing up opportunities like those.

1 December 2004

Turnbull vs Ridgeway

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:52 am

Well, that’s a bit misleading—of course there’s no actual stoush between the new Member for “Blue-Ribbon” Wentworth (and dedicated blogger) and the outgoing Senator for Sydney. But Alan Ramsey has cleverly juxtaposed their fortunes in their respective chambers on Monday. Turnbull’s maiden speech, about waves, ducks, and Lucy, was reported like Princess Di winning Australian Idol. Ridgeway’s attempts to raise some interest in the Aboriginal death in custody and subsequent riot on Palm Island, as an example of the continuing problems between Aborigines and the police, got nowhere. Ramsey says:

In the riot that followed last week’s autopsy report, Palm Island’s 14 police, “fearing for their lives”, fled as rioters torched the police barracks, the jail and the local courthouse. “Special emergency response” police in balaclavas and with “stun” guns flew to Palm Island last Friday and “restored order”. Eighteen Palm Island men appeared in court in Townsville two days ago on various charges, including arson, assault and “going armed to cause fear”.

That day, in Canberra, Malcolm Turnbull made his maiden parliamentary speech and Aden Ridgeway asked his Senate question, while in Brisbane the State Coroner’s office announced a second “independent” autopsy on Doomadgee’s body. You read nothing of this yesterday, though listeners to London’s BBC world service were told of the “17 men and a 14-year-old boy who appeared in court in Australia’s Queensland state, charged in connection with a violent protest on Friday following the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody”.

Today, in the Senate, Ridgeway will give notice seeking an urgency debate on the issue. He might get somewhere if his name was Turnbull.

But surely this is backwards. If Aden Ridgeway’s urgency debate wanted to confirm just how terrific things are in Sydney’s green hills and golden beaches—then he might get somewhere. Sure, Sydney loves Malcolm Turnbull, as long as he’s stuffing teddybears and pandering to dog-owners. But if his maiden speech had touched on the continuing shame of race relations in this country, he might soon find himself exactly where Ridgeway will be next July.

19 November 2004

Johnny jumps the gun

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:43 am

Someone has to tell Howard that whenever he hears an exciting bit of news he should stop and count to at least ten before he blurts it out to Parliament or 2UE or whoever. Here he is retracting his earlier claim that the female body found in Falluja was Margaret Hassan’s. Meanwhile, media outlets from the UK to the UAE are reporting Howard’s scoop, perhaps scratching their editorial heads over how come their own governments didn’t have access to Howard’s intelligence and are still waiting on stupid old DNA tests.

Remember the Jakarta embassy bombing SMS? Remember a certain maritime incident involving children? (If you do, you’re a rare voter.) Howard is like the schoolyard kid who’s worked out that if he runs around going “Guess what?” he can at least get people to roll their eyes and say “All right, what?&#8221—good enough for a few moments’ attention. At least he’s taken it back this time, after looking around and realising nobody was out there with him. And even if it turns out he was right this time, that doesn’t make it any less irresponsible.

14 November 2004

Is America divided?

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:16 pm

purple-usa.jpgWe’ve all seen those terrifying maps of the US with Democrat states coloured blue and Republican states red, with a great red swathe across the whole centre and south of the country and only a few blue scraps clinging to the edges—it really looks like a divided country. There are also a few somewhat inflammatory comparisons between this configuration and the states and territories’ attitudes to slavery before the Civil War floating around, which probably aren’t helping.

This clever-clogs from Princeton has put together another map based on county data, which shows the differences masked by the state-based results. It’s a much more reassuring picture, though what it really shows of course is that the cities voted for Kerry and the rural areas voted for Bush.

12 November 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 3:31 pm

The Guardian reports that 20 affiliates of ABC in the US refused to screen Saving Private Ryan this past Veterans’ Day (officially it has no apostrophe—but whatever) because they were afraid the FCC might revoke their licences:

“It would clearly have been our preference to run the movie. We think it’s a patriotic, artistic tribute to our fighting forces,” Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns three midwestern stations, told the Associated Press.

But Mr Cole said fear of punishment from the FCC—and a belief among broadcasters that last week’s elections revealed growing conservatism in the US—had forced the stations into caution.

“We’re just coming off an election where moral issues were cited as a reason by people voting one way or another and, in my opinion, the commissioners are fearful of the new congress,” he said.

The new fears follow the FCC cautioning NBC for letting Bono say “fuck” during the Golden Globe Awards, and more recently fining CBS stations $US550,000 for showing Janet Jackson’s breast. Now I’ve ranted before about bowdlerising bad language, and I can’t in any good faith object to the occasionally-broadcast breast. And I’d normally say that both kinds of working blue are as nothing to the kids’ emotional and psychological development compared to on-screen violence and bloodshed.

(I know that the only films that discernibly affected me—once I’d recovered from Dot and the Kangaroo, long story—were psycho-violent outings like The Deer Hunter, which gutted me when I saw it much too young, and ruined what looked to be a promising career in Russian Roulette.)

But there’s something breathtakingly hypocritical about not showing a World War II film—one that is particularly renowned for the accuracy of its depiction of battle conditions—on Veterans’ Day, a day meant to pay tribute to the soldiers involved in those very battles, because it’s too violent and they swear too much. I mean, ban it because it’s schmaltzy and manipulative, fine, or because Tom Hanks is in it—but not because it shows war in some way like it is. Add to that the fact that on that same day the new generation of grunts were pounding Falluja, killing everyone in sight and even losing a few of their own, and it just seems farcical.

7 November 2004

It’s the stupid, stupid

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:11 pm

Michelle Grattan has a good bit in today’s Sun-Herald about what I reckon is the most maddening thing about both recent elections and their aftermath. I don’t think I’ve read a paper since Wednesday without throwing it across the room in mute fury at the baffling smugness of the I-told-you-so brigade:

The line quickly becomes: the winner does not just have majority support but what he has done is judged to be right by virtue of having won that support, and critics have had their case destroyed.

For example, all those who worried about alleged lies in Australian politics are being derided as not just out of touch with what drives the ordinary voter (often true) but as preoccupied with things that don’t matter (not true).

You’d think it was an obvious point, but it’s clearly lost on a lot of commentators, particularly letter-writers (whatever) and our old friend Miranda Devine, who bruises the same pages with another rant about the imagined vitriol of the chardonnay-swilling crowd that doesn’t offer enough non-non-sequiturs to string a quote out of so you’ll have to read the whole thing, or not.

I’ve had about enough of the self-proclaimed “silent majority” banging on and on about how history has now proved—twice—that the concerns of us hey-now-wait-a-minute types were always irrelevant and wrong. That’s just ridiculous. If everyone had voted for Bush, and everyone except me had voted for Howard, I might feel a few pangs. But a numerical majority doesn’t get to decide what’s right, any more than you can vote to change the value of π. That’s not elitist or arrogant, it’s just to say that you still have to listen to the other 49%, even if they do happen to be represented most obviously by people who use fancy words.

At the same time, the solipsism of the left can be just as infuriating. Like, what did The Guardian and its readers really think they would accomplish by brow-beating Clark County, Ohio voters into voting for Kerry? If they were expecting much more of a response than this:

Keep your noses out of our business. As I recall we kicked your asses out of our country back in 1776. We do not require input from losers and idiots on who we vote for in our own country. Fuck off and die asshole!!!!!
Knoxville, Iowa

…then they were as far out of touch as any left-winger was ever accused of. Perhaps even more bewildering (seeing as it involved voters in the same putative country) was the Democrats’ encouragement of celebrity endorsements such as the usual-suspects Vote for Change tour (great music, stupid politics), Ben Affleck’s first vote in a while, and Danny DeVito’s minivan. I mean, doesn’t everyone hate celebrities, deep down—particularly when they tell ordinary folks what to do? Isn’t anyone who’s likely to be influenced by what a rock star says too young to vote anyway?

1 November 2004

Good omens

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:45 am

The Green Bay Packers just pounded Washington in the Redskins’ last home game before the election, which has eerie predictive powers. Almost immediately, the Electoral Vote Predictor 2004 found lead-changes in five states, giving Kerry 283 electoral college votes, which would win him the election. Most of Kerry’s states are weakly or barely held, though, while Bush is pretty firmly wedged into his. People are already getting into what kind of meshugahs would arise from a draw. It could be worse than last time, folks!

31 October 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 2:54 pm

Respected medical journal The Lancet estimates that the war in Iraq has caused 100,000 additional deaths—that is, additional to the deaths caused before the invasion by the stiff UN sanctions, the ongoing effects of the last Gulf War, and Saddam combined, and not including the bloodbath in Fallujah:

This survey indicates that the death toll associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq is probably about 100 000 people, and may be much higher. We have shown that even in extremely difficult circumstances, the collection of valid data is possible, albeit with limited precision. In this case, the lack of precision does not hinder the clear identification of the major public-health problem in Iraq—violence.

It may be worth treating these figures with caution, since they are a lot higher than any other count so far (which have stayed between 10,000 and 37,000) and are extrapolated from samples rather than overall reported deaths. On the other hand, it’s very likely that a significant proportion of deaths go unreported. And, still on that same hand, The Lancet is a respected medical journal (everyone says so) and they reckon they’re being conservative.

Even if the figures are out by a lot, they’re still appalling. But our ever-reliable defence minister Senator Robert Hill had only this to say:

Unfortunately there will always be… some civilian casualties. The removal of Saddam Hussein, somebody who has contributed to have killed at least 300,000 innocent Iraqis, is… of great benefit to future generations of Iraqi people.

He didn’t mention that Saddam took 30 years to kill that many civilians, whereas according to the estimate he (Hill) was responding to the invasion has racked up a third of that number in only 18 months. The Lancet estimates that the risk of death has increased by around 250% since the invasion, compared to the period immediately beforehand (though this falls to 150% if Fallujah is excluded).

Now, I fully believe that Saddam was a terrible guy and that removing him from power was the only good reason for the war—or would have been, if it ever was an actual reason. But we’ve got to ask—as a lot of Iraqis must be asking—whether it was worth all this. It seems like we’re coming dangerously close to the old “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” line, which, however apocryphal in relation to Ben Tre, seems increasingly well-suited to Iraq.

It seems to me that if the protection of the Iraqi people had been a real ex ante reason for the invasion, we’d be making more of an effort to actually protect them. There had to have been a better way to remove Saddam from power than the way we went about it. I don’t know how—maybe by doing things the internationally-legal way, marshalling more support and if necessary more troops to make sure that key positions could be taken without just bombing the hell out of everyone. Maybe by spending more effort convincing more Iraqis that they’d be better off in a democracy and this whole insurgency thing wasn’t necessary. We must have been able to do it better than this.

30 October 2004

So how many wrongs do make a right?

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:54 pm

The senator’s willingness to trade principle for political convenience makes it clear that Senator Kerry is the wrong man, for the wrong job, at the wrong time.

Yes, it’s George W Bush’s snappy response to John Kerry’s claim that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time&#8221—but what the hell does it mean? Surely you want to say that your opponent is the wrong man for the right job—you know, the job of being president of the US. If he’s the wrong man for the wrong job—I don’t know, facelift-spokesmodel, or president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—then maybe he’s the right man for the White House? Just not now, of course.

If W really is wired, he needs a new team. They should pull Eddo Brandes in, for a start.

27 October 2004

More endorsements

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:56 am

In other news, the New Yorker has also broken with tradition and offered an endorsement for the first time in its history. It backs Kerry. Its account of Bush securing control in the Senate is particularly foreboding for us, depending on how the count’s going:

September 11, 2001, brought with it one positive gift: a surge of solidarity, global and national—solidarity with and solidarity within the United States. This extraordinary outpouring provided Bush with a second opportunity to create something like a government of national unity. Again, he brushed the opportunity aside, choosing to use the political capital handed to him by Osama bin Laden to push through more elements of his unmandated domestic program. A year after 9/11, in the midterm elections, he increased his majority in the House and recaptured control of the Senate by portraying selected Democrats as friends of terrorism. Is it any wonder that the anger felt by many Democrats is even greater than can be explained by the profound differences in outlook between the two candidates and their parties?

The Bush Administration has had success in carrying out its policies and implementing its intentions, aided by majorities—political and, apparently, ideological—in both Houses of Congress. Substantively, however, its record has been one of failure, arrogance, and—strikingly for a team that prided itself on crisp professionalism—incompetence.

As you’d expect when anyone backs the new guy, most of the pro-Kerry endorsements spend a lot of time giving Bush a well-deserved hammering. They all say that Kerry has more going for him than not being Bush, but it doesn’t sound quite so convincing—or comprehensive. I’ve got a bad feeling that things will turn out the same way as they did here, and the new guy won’t get up. Bush is much worse than Howard, of course, domestically as well as internationally. Also, Kerry’s been a senator for 20 years, if a low-profile one. But the US election seems much more about international issues (well, terrorism) than ours was, and I can’t help suspecting that in that context enough Americans will be scared enough to keep Bush in power.

Those who can’t wait for Tuesday can get an edge on the result by watching the Washington Redskins play the Green Bay Packers on 31 October. Ever since the Redskins formed in 1936, their last home game of the season has accurately predicted the election result. If they lose, so does the incumbent. It’s true! So for Sunday: go Packers!


by Matt Rubinstein at 9:38 am

Editor & Publisher magazine is keeping track of who the US newspapers are endorsing for next Tuesday’s election. So far Kerry is ahead by 142 papers to 123, which blows out to a circulation of 17.4 million to 11.5 million since W is more popular in smaller—not to say hick—markets. These guys reckon that newspaper endorsements have some influence on 5% to 10% of voters, and so could be a factor in the swing states.

The New York Times was one of the first majors to weigh in, and predictably enough endorsed Kerry—or, more accurately, spectacularly disendorsed the incumbent. It’s worth a read if you want a good summary of Bush’s failings:

The Bush White House has always given us the worst aspects of the American right without any of the advantages. We get the radical goals but not the efficient management. The Department of Education’s handling of the No Child Left Behind Act has been heavily politicized and inept. The Department of Homeland Security is famous for its useless alerts and its inability to distribute antiterrorism aid according to actual threats. Without providing enough troops to properly secure Iraq, the administration has managed to so strain the resources of our armed forces that the nation is unprepared to respond to a crisis anywhere else in the world.

But more interesting is this spray by The American Conservative magazine—in favour of Kerry. It manages to look beyond ideological alignments and suggest that Bush is bad for the tories as well as the (strong language warning) liberals—he’s bad for everyone:

Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations. The launching of an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the U.S., the doling out of war profits and concessions to politically favored corporations, the financing of the war by ballooning the deficit to be passed on to the nation’s children, the ceaseless drive to cut taxes for those outside the middle class and working poor: it is as if Bush sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing cliché about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy.

It also makes the point that the US isn’t doing itself any favours by alienating the rest of the world, an idea that seems to be ignored if not scorned by most of the population. Thanks once again to Nick, this time channelling his mother-in-law, for the article.

For all that we may consider the US a caricature of democracy, with its dopey electoral college system, its ridiculous commercials and fundraisers, its goose-shoots and wolves-at-the-door, at least over there they’ve got a lot of newspapers and they go different ways. Here in Australia, only The Canberra Times and Fairfax giveaway The Melbourne Times stuck up for Latham; all the rest were more or less virulently pro-Howard—except for The Sydney Morning Herald, which broke with tradition by not endorsing anyone, getting on its high horse about independence and non-partisanship. Interestingly, Fairfax management (in Sydney) was accused of telling The Age to endorse Howard, but staff in Melbourne insist that they decided all by themselves.

All the Murdoch papers trumpeted Howard unequivocally and unapologetically. Or just bashed Latham, like the Sunday Herald Sun did:

Mark Latham, an ill-disciplined man, who as Labor leader is still to fully take shape, heedlessly said he wanted the troops “home by Christmas”.

Every Australian wishes for that. Just like the mums and dads of the boys at Normandy and Tobruk and Ypres and Villers-Bretonneux and Gallipoli and Inchon wished their kids could be home for Christmas.

But they had a job to do, which they did and which our nation proudly celebrates every November 11 and April 25. That generation won then and we must win again. Once more we are on the right side of history.

To rashly bring the troops home by Christmas might mean somewhat fewer Christmases for many of us. The Sunday Herald Sun believes all Australians need to keep that in mind as we cast our vote for our future next Saturday.

It sounds better if you read it in the voice of Philip Baker Hall as library cop Lieutenant Bookman in Seinfeld. Gratuitous quote:

Yeah, ’71. That was my first year on the job. Bad year for libraries. Bad year for America. Hippies burning library cards, Abby Hoffman telling everybody to steal books. I don’t judge a man by the length of his hair or the kind of music he listens to. Rock was never my bag. But you put on a pair of shoes when you walk into the New York Public Library, fella.

See? But the point is what we already know: that the Murdoch papers are by and large awful, and that there’s a terrible lack of diversity in the Australian media—we’re much worse than America here. On the 7.30 Report last night, media analyst Roger Colman argued that left-wing polemics like Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism misunderstand Murdoch’s motives: he doesn’t care about Bush’s right-wing policies, Colman says—he just wants to sell papers to right-wing audiences; he’s following the market. That may be true in America, but it doesn’t hold up so well here, where Murdoch has been such a significant part of the game for so long that he can make his own market—especially in the many cities where he is the market.

And even if it is true: surely there’s more to running a newspaper than just telling people what they want to hear—what they already think they know? Isn’t there?

20 October 2004

The clash

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:46 pm

Thanks to Nick for this very interesting article by this year’s Erasmus Prize winner, Sadik Jalal Al-Azm, about the supposed war between Islam and the West.

For those who came in late, this whole thing was sparked off by Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 essay The End of History? predicted that the end of the Cold War marked some final chapter in the history of ideological struggle, and that, occasional skirmishes aside, history itself was in some sense over:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Samuel Huntington soon struck back with his 1993 essay The Clash of Civilisations, which asserted that what Fukuyama called the end of history was in fact just the end of Western history—that, now that it had sorted out its internal ideological divisions, the West was ready to return to the main game: the clash of civilisations. He said:

The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington’s thesis suggests that we’ve actually just been distracted from history—that the old battles between Islam and the West going back to the Crusades, and between all the other civilisations going back forever, will more or less take up where they left off, if in fact they left off. Huntington gives many examples of the old divisions between civilisations transcending more recent ideological and economic issues, and of course the old clashes have that flavour of ancient and implacable hatred, of bad blood and zealotry that we’re all so familiar with from history and literature and the movies—they do seem deeper and darker than our modern disagreements. It sounds frightening. Huntington’s is not an apocalyptic scenario, though. He concludes:

In the short term it is clearly in the interest of the West to promote greater cooperation and unity within its own civilization, particularly between its European and North American components; to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West; to promote and maintain cooperative relations with Russia and Japan; to prevent escalation of local inter-civilization conflicts into major inter-civilization wars; to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states; to moderate the reduction of Western military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia; to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states; to support in other civilizations groups sympathetic to Western values and interests; to strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests and values and to promote the involvement of non-Western states in those institutions.

In the longer term other measures would be called for. Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilizations will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines and weapons that are part of being modern. They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will increase. Hence the West will increasingly have to accommodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West. This will require the West to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilizations. It will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.

Huntington’s argument seems to have been extraordinarily influential, at least on the West, and particularly on the US. We’ve already seen most of the short-term responses listed above implemented in the last ten years—even the strengthening of institutions: obviously not the UN, but NATO and the international institution that the US and its ad hoc coalitions are fast becoming. The attacks of 11 September 2001 seemed to many people to be irrefutable evidence of the clash of civilisations Huntington had highlighted.

Except that the newly-terrorised West could not envisage “a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others&#8221—it exploded the tension between civilisations into a great last battle that would result in one side wiping out the other. There’s so much a paranoia around now—they hate us, they want to destroy us all, it’s us or them—and these are otherwise intelligent people saying this stuff, usually prefacing it with “make no mistake” or “have no illusions&#8221. It’s fed right into the US campaign to ignore entirely the long-term implications of the clash of civilisations (ie: we’re going to have to learn to live with each other) and stamp itself all over the world (ie: like hell we are).

But Al-Azm characterises the conflict somewhat differently. He subscribes to Joseph Conrad’s view that “terrorism is an act of madness and despair&#8221—and a quickly self-defeating act—and suggests that the September 2001 attacks marked the end, and not the beginning, of the clash of civilisations:

Despite current predictions of a protracted global war between the West and the Islamic world, I believe that war is over. There may be intermittent battles in the decades to come, with many innocent victims. But the number of supporters of armed Islamism is unlikely to grow, its support throughout the Arab Muslim world will likely decline, and the opposition by other Muslim groups will surely grow. 9/11 signaled the last gasp of Islamism rather than the beginnings of its global challenge.

Islamic terrorism, says Al-Azm, is an expression of fury and frustration that things aren’t going that well for Islam, that Islam’s rightful place in the world has been usurped by the West. Islamic contributions to the world have been significant—in science, in mathematics, and so on—and the West has taken these gifts and run with them, all while “history took a nap&#8221. Islamists believe—as many others do—that their civilisation is the best and brightest and deserves to spread to every corner of the world, that they deserve to be running things:

When this unexamined, unexorcised, highly potent, and deep-seated self-image collides with the all-too-evident everyday actualities of Arab-Muslim impotence, frustration, and insign
ificance, especially in international relations, a host of problems emerge: massive inferiority complexes, huge compensatory delusions, wild adventurism, political recklessness, desperate violence, and, lately, large-scale terrorism of the kind we have become familiar with all over the world.

So both paranoid Americans and reckless Islamists believe that there is a last-days kind of battle unfolding, which they have to win at all costs. But, says Al-Azm, that doesn’t mean there actually is one:

The two supposedly clashing sides are so unequal in power, military might, productive capacity, efficiency, effective institutions, wealth, social organization, science, and technology that the clash can only be of the inconsequential sort. As one literary metaphor says, If a stone falls on an egg the egg breaks, and if an egg falls on a stone the egg breaks too. From the Arab Muslim side of the divide, the West seems so powerful, so efficient, so successful, so unstoppable, that the very idea of an ultimate “clash” is fanciful.

This has to be right. Maybe radical Islamists do want to destroy us all. But so what? Does anyone really think they can? There are hardly any of them. Yes, they can hurt us. No, we don’t have to stand there and take it. We have to protect ourselves. But we don’t have to wipe every Muslim from the earth to achieve that; we don’t have to install little Americas throughout the Middle East, even if we could. It’s not that kind of fight.

Since the attacks, the US has pretty successfully painted itself as a victim, as a country besieged by evil. It doesn’t take a moment’s reflection to see how ridiculous that is. John Kerry got in loads of trouble for calling terrorism a “nuisance” (in fact he said he wanted to reduce terrorism to a nuisance), but let’s face it: in terms of the actual damage it can do to American civilisation, terrorism hardly is more than a nuisance.

That’s not to question the devastating human impact of terrorism. But Western civilisation has always had far more to fear from itself than from Islam. We’re all killing way more of ourselves than terrorists do. And it’s not to say that we shouldn’t respond to attacks from outside—but we should respond effectively and proportionately, and not hysterically. But nobody ever won an election by whipping voters into a calm, did they.

19 October 2004

Cutting; running

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:04 am

So Australia has just rejected a UN request for more troops in Iraq:

The Government says it has been informally approached to help with security for the UN assistance mission in Iraq.

But a spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the Australian Government has already made a substantial commitment to Iraq and it will not be sending more troops.

Instead, we will be training Fijian troops to protect the UN mission, whose chief function is to oversee the elections scheduled for January 2005.

Something about that really gets my goat, but I’m not exactly sure what. Maybe it’s the mileage the Government got out of Latham’s promise to withdraw our troops by Christmas, the moral high ground they claimed. Is cutting and running so much worse—so much less Australian—than not pitching in a bit extra where it’s needed? I’m not that sure it is.

Perhaps it’s this sneaking suspicion that Downer’s spokesman might have said something different if the request had come from the US instead of the UN. And it makes me mad to think that we’d support the lawless crusade of an arrogant imperialist, and ignore multilateral attempts to facilitate democracy—and then complain that the UN is useless and irrelevant.

But maybe it’s just this: it seems to me that you’re either in a war or you’re not. I don’t think the war should have happened the way it did; and I don’t think we should have lent it our support. But now that we have, I think we’ve got some responsibility for cleaning up afterwards. And even if that’s not right, even if we should bring the troops home now—since we’re not going to, since we are staying in it, we should do it properly.

We have about 900 non-combat personnel in and around the Gulf, and by all accounts they’re doing a bang-up job. But the ADF has about 50,000 troops on active duty, and although they’re busy all over the place, perhaps we could in fact spare a few more—if they’re really needed, and it sounds like they are. Someone’s got to give the UN some support as it tries to get Iraq towards the point at which it can run itself, and if we’re so committed to this whole operation then we should do what we can to make sure that happens. Shouldn’t we?

Otherwise it just sounds like we’re having too many bobs too many ways. Of course I don’t want to put our troops in harm’s way—but sending Fijians instead? That doesn’t sound very Australian.

18 October 2004

Rock spirits

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:45 pm

mimih.jpgI’m reading Germaine Greer’s provocative Whitefella Jump Up at the moment, but it seems to be pretty well represented by her extract here.

People dismiss Greer for a lot of reasons. She keeps banging on about Australia but hasn’t lived here for years and says she never will again. She may well be bonkers. But there are some interesting ideas in this book, and I think that allegations such as The Spectator‘s that all her ideas are derivative and clichéd are unfair. I think some of these ideas are new and important.

The thrust of the book is that we could solve or bypass a lot of our problems by acknowledging that Australia is an Aboriginal place and that we are all Aborigines. Greer admits that the first thing is much easier than the second thing. And the whole thing may sound a bit loopy at first. But read on.

It seems pretty clear that Europeans in Australia have done things the hard way by trying to remake the country in the image of, say, England, instead of taking it as we found it. For example, my sympathy for the struggling farmer is always tempered by a kind of: what did you expect? Greer goes further (of course), with a pyrotechnic piece of hyperbole:

In Australian literature, the Europeans’ corrosive unease expresses itself in a curious distortion of the pathetic fallacy, which characterises the land as harsh, cruel, savage, relentless, the sky as implacable, pitiless and so forth. The heart of the country is called “dead&#8221. Vicissitudes of heat and cold are interpreted as a kind of punishment, and the physical world itself given the role of an avenging deity. The vegetation is described as “stunted&#8221, “warped&#8221, “misshapen&#8221, another example of projection of a presentiment of evil within to the countryside without.

It was not the country that was damned but the settler who felt in his heart that he was damned. His impotent cursing, which has left a legacy in the unequalled degree of profanity in Australian speech, was a classic piece of transference. We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts’ core that it is not ours.

There’s a lot wrong with any idea that conflates Aboriginality with environmental saintliness, stewardship of the land and so on. Clearly it tends to disenfranchise urban Aborigines, who may never have been to the bush or may not care about it particularly, but aren’t any less Aboriginal for that. There’s also some evidence that the first Aborigines completely altered the character of the landscape when they turned up, wiped out a bunch of the megafauna, and managed to sustain themselves so well for so long because there were relatively few of them. Also, it just feels a bit old and mush-headed, this whole “noble savage” thing.

But they have been here for a bloody long time, and the stuff they’ve picked up over that time is just staggering. I don’t just mean knowing how to get around or what plants are good for you—I mean all of the paintings that mean things about the land, and all the interlocking stories, and this business with the songlines. And I think it’s absolutely essential that we find out as much about all this as we’re able to. I don’t think you can begin to understand a place on your own: you need all the different views of it, all the metaphors and images, all the poetry that other people have used, just to get a handle on it. And these guys have been describing the place for such a long time and in such detail that I think there’s a lot of sense in calling it an Aboriginal country, and we’re the poorer for not listening to them. Maybe you can understand Aboriginality (or one can, or someone can) without reference to the land, but I don’t think you can properly understand the land without at least some of the Aboriginal references to and through it.

But we seem to be reluctant. White people’s acknowledgment of traditional owners—at conferences, performances and such—is seen as a bit of a wank. Indigenous renaming or dual naming of places is greeted with a suspicion or outrage that clearly goes beyond the letter-writers’ professed concern with logistics or tokenism. Is it cultural theft, are we pillaging the traditions of people we’ve taken too much from already? Or is that just an excuse? I don’t hear too many complaints from the indigenous corner. There’s a lot we can’t know, of course, but there’s also a lot we can, and should. We’d all get a lot out of it.

Calling ourselves Aboriginal might be pushing it. But one thing we can say is that our Australian identity, whatever that is, probably has a lot more to do with Aboriginality than we generally admit. Greer says:

It is my contention, diffidently offered, that the Australian national character derives from the influence of the Aborigines whose dogged resistance to an imported and inappropriate culture has affected our culture more deeply than is usually recognised. From the beginning of colonisation, the authorities’ deepest fear was that settlers would degenerate and go native. In many subtle and largely unexplored ways, they did just that. Indeed, they may already partake in more Aboriginality than they know.

She cites our directness (and willingness to dispense with meaningless niceties); our egalitarianism (and indifference to asserted but unearned authority); our conversational reticence; our yarns and tall stories; our sexual segregation (women in the kitchen with salads, blokes outside around the keg); and even our accents:

Australian English is studded with Aboriginal words; the unmistakable intonation and accent bear the imprint of Aboriginality. The Anglo-Celt settlers came with Scotch and Irish brogues, and the burrs of provincial England. The Australian accent bears scant resemblance to any of these. When I first heard blackfellas speak, I stupidly thought that they were imitating the way whitefellas speak, which just shows how upside-down gubbas’ assumptions can be. The transfer must have happened the other way about; the broad flat vowels, complex diphthongs and murmuring nasalities of spoken Australian English must have come to us from Aboriginal languages.

Some of this seems a bit of a stretch. But many’s the barbie at which one of the blokes turning the snags has jerked his head towards the kitchen and muttered “secret women’s business, eh?” to general murmurs of approval—the opposite may be happening as well—and who knows? That bloke may be exactly right.

I would also nominate our sense of humour. Australian humour must be the driest in the world, full of understatement, ruthlessly iconoclastic, layered with irony, available in the face of the worst excesses and injustices, and never afraid to work blue. All of the Aborigines I’ve met—admittedly not many—and most of those I’ve seen or read about have had exactly that sense of humour. In spades. Have a read of this, from Gillian Cowlishaw’s Blackfellas, Whitefellas, and the Hidden Injuries of Race:

And then on some days they’d ask every kid, “Now we want you to write down what you all had for tea last night. Who had a lovely tea?” These bastards were having roasts and plum duffs and plum pudding and ice cream and jelly and all this shit. We were lucky to have some bully beef and curry. But I used to lie about it. I used to get those things, but not all the time. When these days came up I might have just had a bit of salami and salad or just a rough feed that mum would get together for us. I’d bullshit and say, “Oh yeah I had that too&#8221. ‘Cause Mum was a really good cook. If she had money she could put a go
od Christmas dinner on every meal. She used to cook for a living. It was hard you know, it was a hard camp. Stuff like that I was lying about, I was saying “Yeah I had that too.” I was fucken dreaming. “Strawberries, yeah, fucken oath, yeah.” Probably had bread and fat!

It’s a guy called Jake King talking, and there’s so much going on in there. It’s a terrible story; you know how kids are, with each other—but Jake’s made a big joke out of it, and now it’s something he can be proud of, can enjoy telling. That seems fantastically Australian to me, and maybe it’s something else we have the Aborigines to thank for.

I’d like to see an Aboriginal film comedy. There’s been a great run of dramas—my recent favourites are Australian Rules and The Tracker, but I also liked Yolngu Boy on SBS last night—but not much in the way of comedy. We’re crying out for it. Do people think we’re not allowed to find Aborigines funny, that it means we’re not taking them seriously? Come on. They’re bloody funny, we’ve got the same sense of humour, so let’s get to it.


I was lucky enough to see David Gulpilil’s one-hander Gulpilil at Belvoir St on Friday night, and it was fantastic, and it was hilarious. Not in a stand-up kind of way, but like a long conversation with the funniest friend you’ve got. And everybody loved it, and they were laughing probably even harder than they should have—not to patronise him, but I think because they were all just hanging out to have a laugh with a blackfella. It’s all been so serious for so long—and of course it is serious, but that’s no reason not to joke about it. That’s not the Australian way.

The picture above is by Edward Blitner and is of the Mimih spirits, who live in the rocks and taught the Aborigines everything. To the left is David Ruddy’s Gulpilil, Two Worlds, which won the Archibald Prize this year.

14 October 2004

The kids aren’t all right

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:42 am

To my considerable surprise, I seem to have mellowed slightly towards right-wing Herald columnist Miranda Devine in recent times. Of course I find her politics repellent and her smugness baffling and infuriating, but she writes well and canvasses all the relevant issues—she just manages somehow to come to these inexplicable teeth-grinding conclusions.

For example, after reading that first sentence in disbelief and sudden self-loathing, I went through a bunch of her recent columns and found that this one on Family First has a lot in common with my spray of a couple of days ago—except, of course, that I’m all for godless secularism. Her big crusade right now seems to be to prove that religion and conservatism are on the rise, and so—I’m trying to summarise the thrust of her argument here—ha!

I do think that every paper needs a diversity of well-expressed views and so I have come around to the view that perhaps Devine enriches the opinion pages of our Herald after all. But then she comes up with something like this article, provocatively subtitled “He might be 65 but John Howard understands how younger people are thinking&#8221:

The story of Howard’s historic landslide is the evolution of conservative support since he won government in 1996. The strong-minded, grey-haired stalwarts of the Liberal Party have made way for a new generation of conservative under-30s who admire the Howard reviled by the baby boomer nostalgics of Gnashville. Howard has presided over a “youthquake” of conservatism not dissimilar to Ronald Reagan’s in the United States in the 1980s.

If you observed each of Howard’s four victory parties at the Wentworth Hotel, that evolution was evident. Each year the crowd has been getting younger, rowdier and more patriotic as the food improved, from sparse plates of triangle sandwiches in 1996 to the tempura prawns and Peking duck wraps abounding this year.

First let me pause to say: puke. Now for some figures. Roy Morgan research from late September appears to confirm what we all think: that people get more conservative as they get older. On a two-party-preferred basis, 63% of 18–24-year-olds said they would vote for Labor, compared with 53.5% of 25–34-year-olds, 51.5% of 35–49-year-olds, 48.5% of 50–64-year-olds and only 39% of those aged 65 and over.

Trying to compare this to 2001 is complicated, because polling back then didn’t give a two-party-preferred result. However, assuming (dangerously) that total preference flows that year were the same for all age groups, my calculations give 64.5% of 18–24-year-olds preferring Labor, 57.2% of 25–34-year-olds, 57.9% of 35–49-year-olds, and 48.4% of the 50+ brigade.

We know that overall there’s been a swing of about 2.1 percentage points to the Coalition this time round. Now, on my guess 18–24-year-olds only swung by 1.5 points, making them slightly less reluctant than the rest of the population to abandon their idealism; whereas 25–34-year-olds swung by 3.7 points, suggesting that there has in fact been a greater-than-proportionate shift in the youth away from bleeding-heart concerns and towards tempura prawns.

If anyone’s still listening, that’s about 100,000 under-35s who’ve jumped the fence since 2001. You couldn’t fit them all in the Wentworth Hotel (though on Friday nights it sure feels like someone has) but at around 2.8% of total voting youth I’m not sure you’d call it a “youthquake&#8221.

Of course that’s only over three years, and there’s no doubt that young people are becoming somewhat more conservative—or, rather, that somewhat more young people are becoming conservative. There was a time when you just couldn’t find a contemporary who’d voted for Howard; now… well, I don’t know any, but I know someone who knows one.

It’s a disturbing trend because young people should be idealistic. We should be revolutionary. We should in fact be more left-wing, more green, more activist than is sensible; we should be passionately committed to demonstrably unworkable ideas. Because politics is about compromise, and you’re not helping that process if you’ve already caved. You don’t see the right-wingers getting any less rabid: they’re doing their bit, propagating insane fascist opinions that surely nobody wants to see implemented. We need to counter that.

Young people need to be left-wing for the same reason as the media needs to be biased against the government—it should always be critical of the government in power. The reason is that someone has to do it. And of course there are older radicals, including the apparently limitless hordes of ratbag baby-boomers Devine keeps warning us about. But this is our core competency—this is our thing. So when you hear about these earnest young Liberal-voters it just doesn’t sit right; and when you read these journalists kow-towing to the government, crowing about how they were right all along: that’s a bloody disgrace.

OK, seems I hate Miranda Devine again. That’s better.

12 October 2004

A plague o’ both our houses?

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:39 pm

ants.jpgThis is getting weird. I don’t know what kind of shady preference deal the Greens cut with Labor, but it can’t have been much good if it didn’t include Victoria, where Family First candidate Steve Fielding looks like bagging a Senate seat (and probably the balance of power) despite his ticket pulling 1.9% of the primary vote, while the Greens are out in the cold with 8.64%. It’s tempting to blame the Australian voting public for not bothering to fill out all 78 boxes below the line, but I think I’ll blame the Labor Party.

Maybe “blame” isn’t the word. I don’t think anyone should have control of both houses. But I’m pretty nervous about Family First, so it was with great interest that I watched the Lateline interview with Party Chairman Peter Harris last night. It didn’t help.

Tony Jones went in hard, trying to expose the god-bothering tendencies of the party (emphasis added, but reflects Jones’s delivery):

TONY JONES: Do you see the hand of God in this election result?

PETER HARRIS: I don’t know if I see the hand of God in the election result. I mean, we worked very hard and planned our strategies and implemented them to the best of our capacity, and at this current stage of the game, it seems that some of our strategies are playing out very strongly.

TONY JONES: Now, Stephen Fielding appears very likely to become a senator and indeed he could hold the balance of power in the upper house. Is that an outcome that you and your supporters will indeed be praying for?

PETER HARRIS: Well, I think that we have an opportunity still in four States.

Finally it came out that (as everybody already knew) most if not all FF candidates and executive are members of Assembly-of-God or other churches. The party fielded 126 candidates and some of them were clearly—uh—loose cannons.

It seems that McMillan FF candidate Paul Harold was responsible for posters warning “A vote for [ALP candidate] Christian Zahra is a vote for Satan” (the Lateline transcript calls him “Christian Disarray”, which makes it kind of funny). Victorian Senate candidate Pastor Danny Nalliah called on followers to pull down mosques and temples. Harris distanced himself and the party from these excesses, not entirely convincingly. It was a FF campaigner, and not a candidate, who said that all lesbians should be burnt to death, but Queensland Senate candidate John Lewis did admit that the party had withheld its preferences from Brisbane Liberal candidate Ingrid Tall because she’s gay.

On the other hand, as Harris said, Party Leader Andrea Mason is the first female indigenous leader of any party in Australia and the FF voice on Aborigines would be especially valuable now that Aden Ridgeway is on his way out. They want reconciliation; they want the Government to apologise. Harris also says they’re against the full sale of Telstra and the relaxation of the cross-media—but not the foreign media—rules. According to their website, they’re compassionate on asylum-seekers, interested in mental health, pretty bland on Iraq and terrorism, and predictable on stem-cell research.

This is what drives me crazy about these church types. So many of their principles are admirable and true, so many abhorrent and weird. They do a heap of good around the place, particularly with the homeless and other disadvantaged. But you get the feeling that at some stage they just stop thinking—at some point in the argument they back up against the orthodoxy, which is in many cases pretty scary.

So now we’re looking at a balance of power held by an apparently quite zealous party that’s some way to the left of Labor on some issues and to the right of the Coalition on others. Or, carte blanche for the Coalition. I don’t know what to hope for.

I’m biased, of course. For four years in the 1980s I went to a Christian primary school in Adelaide that was attached to the same kind of revival church as FF is (Guy Sebastian later taught at the associated high school). I didn’t like it. Every year they made us perform American evangelical musicals called things like Ants’hillvania, which always involved a lot of tights and polystyrene, terrible puns and not-at-all-disguised religious pedagogy. Now I’m a staunch atheist and hater of musicals, but I think the picture of Antony (he wanted to be independ-ant, but he was soon repent-ant, you get the idea) expresses pretty well how Steve Fielding must be feeling now.

10 October 2004

The main game

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:22 pm

I think it was always clear that upcoming US election will in many ways have a greater impact on Australia than yesterday’s punt—except in relation to interest rates, of course, which John Howard works out on the backs of old tasting notes in the cellars of Kirribilli House. So let’s move on and worry about Bush v Kerry for the next three weeks.

The debates seem to be a bigger deal in the US than here, where the contempt with which our soon-to-be-second-longest-serving-prime-minister has treated the electorate is equalled only by… well, by a lot of other instances of his contempt, I suppose. Anyway, the US candidates have three debates this year, with different topics and formats. Transcripts are here. Consensus seems to be that Bush lost the first one on September 30, and Kerry won the second one on October 8.

Kerry did come across well in Friday’s stoush. He had a lot of information handy, which you might expect since—as Bush kept pointing out for some reason—he’s been a Senator for 20 years and seems to have played a significant role in important decisions. He made Bush look like someone who’d just been hanging around the White House for the sandwiches. But my favourite part was when Kerry called Bush on his environmental policy and more broadly in these terms:

The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about, it’s one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky, slap it onto something, like “No Child Left Behind” but you leave millions of children behind. Here they’re leaving the skies and the environment behind.

It’s only tenuously a literary reference but we’ll take what we can get. And these goddamn dopey names Bush keeps giving to his bills really would be ridiculous if they weren’t, as Kerry suggests, so sinister. There actually is a No Child Left Behind Act, also a Healthy Forests Act and of course the appallingly-entitled (and downright appalling) USA Patriot Acts. We’ve sailed pretty close to this particular wind with the A New Tax System Acts (which you just can’t convincingly say—try it), and we occasionally partake of irony as in the Native Title Act, but we’re yet not as bad—or as Orwellian—as the US. But it’s a disturbing trend here as there. Law shouldn’t be propaganda.

Bush made some lame jokes and at one stage called his opponent “Senator Kennedy”. I hope he doesn’t win.

Happy never after

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:17 am

scream.jpgShe woke up and couldn’t open her eyes. It wasn’t just her hangover, which felt tectonic—she could feel new mountain ranges and ocean trenches crumpling her skull. There was also a presence in the bed, a black hole distending the universe of her mattress. She heard his amphibian breath; she felt his humidity. Her heart flattened as her memories of last night cooled and found their orbit.

She thought she’d made it this time. She thought she’d found someone else, someone who made her laugh and didn’t embarrass her at parties, someone with a heart as big as hers once was. She’d had suitors over the years; she’d flirted with some, given others the cold shoulder—but this one was different. She’d thought for a moment that they might have a future together. Even if she was on the rebound, so what? It was the same last time, and here she was, eight years later. She was finally feeling good about herself; she thought she’d had the strength to get out.

But he’d been wooing her again for six long weeks, buying her pretty things, making all the old promises. He’d cut down forests for her; he’d build her a fortress. There was heady talk of interest rates—he’d seduced her all over again with his deep, resonant voice; he’d swooped down and taken her in his arms and given her about a thousand margaritas. He’d worn her down. She knew it was wrong, but she felt her strength ebbing, and at last she thought to herself:

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

But now she felt a darkness in every corner of her body; and she opened her eyes to let the light in but all she saw was him: he was squatting at the corner of the bed, and he was happy to see her… he’d been a bit listless recently, but success hadn’t just gone to his head.

“Ah, you’re awake,” he said. “Good. We might only have three more years of this, so let’s get on with it, eh?”

There was nothing she could do. This wasn’t Las Vegas, after all. It was much worse. Three more years, and all she could do was lie back and think of… well, of herself, she supposed.


9 October 2004

Here we go

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:34 pm

binky2.jpgIt’s a beautiful election day across most of Australia, which they say can make a difference. The sun’s shining, people are walking around in shorts and singlets, surely the new guy couldn’t do anything to ruin this… why don’t we give him a chance?

That’s the theory anyway. According to this meteorologist, the weather has a huge effect in the US, due in large part to the non-compulsory voting system. It might not be enough to make a difference for us.

I like election days. Everyone’s out in the streets, running the gauntlet of how-to-voters and diverse charitable collectors. Up the road the PCYC is having a sausage sizzle, the Sea Scouts are selling raffle tickets, a 12-year-old is playing convict shanties on a recorder, and the Green Left ratbags have set up a sort of tent embassy complete with pool room. I even saw one of the local homeless guys lining up to vote—hats off to the AEC if he makes it.

When the sun’s shining you get the feeling that democracy is a wonderful thing and maybe it should be forced on people through bombing and puppet governments. No, that’s going a bit far. But I do like election days. It’s just election nights that get me down.

8 October 2004

Medicare Black?

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:52 pm

Phil Glendenning from ANTaR makes a telling and terrifying point about the most shameful health problem in Australia:

It’s tragic that Labor’s health centrepiece, Medicare Gold, is targeted to a group, the over-75s, which effectively does not exist among indigenous people, because their life expectancy is 20 years lower than other Australians. Fewer than 25 per cent of Aboriginal men are likely to live to 65, compared with 87 per cent of other Australians. These figures are worse than just about every country in the world, including Nigeria and Bangladesh. For the same reason, few indigenous people get superannuation and the age pension.

If you were Aboriginal you’d be forgiven for thinking you were being discriminated against. And maybe not for the first time!

Now is the time

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:30 am

Binky.jpgHere’s a thought: do Coalition-voters have election-night parties? Don’s Party was of course a bunch of lefties, and all the parties I’ve been to have been along the lines of Binky here… but then again they would be. I don’t know if I’m going to one this year, but I’m afraid it won’t end well if I do.

More trees

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:03 am

I’d be surprised if much turned on the whole Tassie forests issue in the end, but it’s certainly shaping up to be one of the more interesting theatres of the campaign. Watching John Howard trying to choose between the greens and the trade unions, then somehow claiming to be right behind both of them, is priceless.

The problem with the whole issue is that nobody seems to know what they’re talking about—or they know, but they’re not telling. Like on Lateline last night, Tony Jones valiantly but vainly tried to get Actual and Shadow Environment Ministers Senator Ian Campbell and Kelvin Thompson to explain what parts of Tasmania their policies covered. The Coalition is promising 170,000 hectares of new reserve; Labor will commission a review of 240,000 hectares. Nobody seems to know whether these areas overlap, how much of them would be subject to logging anyway, or even how big the Tarkine is. And these guys are meant to think about the environment all day.

Well, maybe they do know. According to the Wilderness Society, there are 450,000 hectares of Tarkine, which makes the Coalition’s promise to protect 76,100 hectares of the Tarkine, the Hewan and the Well valley combined look a bit stingy. Interestingly, this guy says that the Tarkine is just a recently-invented construct and that much of it doesn’t have a great deal of conservation value. Which may well be true, but when people start banging on about protecting the Tarkine they should at least be able to answer questions about what proportion will be protected and why.

And far be it from me to make personal comments about any of the candidates, but neither of those two gave us much else to work with, so I can only say that Senator Campbell looked kind of lop-sided the whole debate, and Thompson seemed to have the hiccups or to be about to throw up. We know of course from talkback radio that Bob Brown is a drug-addled communist paedophile, but I always think he presents as a pretty reasonable bloke. He went on a bit too much about the chainsaws at the ballot boxes for mine, but often his statements contain traces of content, and they almost never rhyme, which has to be a good thing (in politics, at least).

6 October 2004

Wood, trees

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:03 am

I do feel for the Tasmanian loggers who rely on clearing out old-growth forests for their livelihood, and I don’t like the idea that Tasmania’s future is effectively being decided by mainland inner-city-dwellers like me. But at the end of the day we’ve got to accept that these resources aren’t replaceable in any relevant timeframe and that there is much more than an economic cost involved in depleting them. We’re going to have to stop logging sooner or later, and it might as well be now when we’ve got $800 million to spend on transition, as the ALP’s Tasmanian Forests Policy intends.

According to the ABS, there are about 4,000 forestry jobs in Tasmania, while the Tasmanian Logging Association estimates that almost 11,000 Tasmanians depend on the forestry industry, up to half of whom may be affected if old-growth logging is ended. The Wilderness Society estimates that less than 500 jobs are involved in old-growth forestry. Even on the worst case, that’s at least $150,000 for every person affected by ending old-growth logging, and up to $1.6 million for each job lost. Surely that’s enough to set up a viable alternative for the region. Unless they just like hacking down old trees, in which case, whatever.

Anyway, the whole thing’s got a bit shrill, and the real reason for the post was this article, in which National Association of Forest Industries executive director Kate Carnell says:

Politicians who renege on their promises are never acceptable to the Australian people.

Well, that made me laugh. Hasn’t she heard of John Howard’s “It’s never a lie to change your mind”?

4 October 2004

Oh, the election…

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:41 am

After a week in Darwin I’d just about forgotten it was on. There’s nothing in the esteemed Murdoch organ the NT News except crocodiles—there are 80,000 of them in the Territory and it’s still front-page news every time one of them gets “loose” (and I still don’t know what that means; they all seemed pretty much “on the loose” to me).

Anyway, I’m glad things have still been ticking over Down South. Many people will have seen or read about the Battle of the Tonys on Thursday night’s Lateline, but it’s worth repeating. I wasn’t sure whether the ABC was recycling John Clarke and Bryan Dawe’s always-hilarious spoof from the 7.30 Report is earlier in the evening. I mean, listen to this:

TONY JONES: Tony Abbott on another matter, have you met Archbishop Pell during the election campaign?
TONY ABBOTT: Not that I can recall.
TONY JONES: Not that you can recall, because we believe that you’ve had at least one meeting with him quite recently? You don’t recall that?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, when? Where?
TONY JONES: At the presbytery in Sydney.
TONY ABBOTT: Ah, actually now that you do mention it, I did met with Cardinal Pell. So what? Why shouldn’t I meet with Cardinal Pell?
TONY JONES: Why couldn’t you recall meeting him, I think, 10 days ago?
TONY ABBOTT: Look, whenever it was, so what? Why shouldn’t I meet Cardinal Pell. Cardinal Pell is a fine man. He made a very good statement the other day about the Labor Party’s policy, why shouldn’t I meet with him?
TONY JONES: Well, the reason we’re asking about this, obviously, because your behind-the-scenes activities in the ’98 Technicold election were quite renowned and I’m wondering is there any possibility that in your discussions with Cardinal Pell which you couldn’t recall a moment ago – Fête in those discussions did you actually bring up the issue of private schools?
TONY love JONES: Not at all?

And it goes on like that. Someone has to with be taking the piss.