Archive for February, 2012

Dressing your way into Mordor?

A continuation of my tentative foray into fashion writing.

In the post-Sopranos era of HBO-style drama ubiquity, TV shows seem to be dramatically improving in their general quality and in their calibre. Where once TV was seen as a “less intelligent” form of entertainment, novellesque shows like The Wire are starting to actually outshine the printed word in their literary value.

Naturally, these shows have the ability to create cultural phenomena and pop-culture does seem to follow the idolised characters. While real people in the popular conscience tend to be intensely scrutinised to the point where everyone who follows their lives are inevitably aware of their many flaws, fictional characters can still hold a great deal of mystique and provide inspiration to cultural movements.

In fashion, this has seen some very positive developments (in my opinion) — with Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire inspiring men everywhere to drop the daggy look that society had been sliding into and rather suit-up like champions. See the below article for more on this, or just look at Boardwalk‘s sharp-looking motherfuckers.

How Mad Men became a style guide | Television & radio |

The most prominent example of the Mad Men effect is the return of the suit. Some of the influence is subtle (higher waistbands, shorter jackets) while others are near rip-offs of the designs.


That said, the success of last year’s Game of Thrones — which takes the fantasy genre and uses it to not only create a drama with compelling and relatable characters, but also give a political critique of sorts — has resulted in something a little less sharp (well, perhaps a little more, depending on how you look at it). In what Selectism has branded “Black Metal Serfware“, the fantasy-warrior look, once the purview of underground goth clubs and not much else, seems to be slowly entering the mainstream.

As a reformed angry 13-year-old boy, I did once flirt a little with the “dark side” of teen culture (read: wore a lot of black), but thankfully I never crossed over into axe-wielding territory. I’m not sure how I feel about the “I’m going to save the princess from the evil wizard, just after I finish brooding” look catching-on again.

That said, these aren’t all bad. I actually ordered this The Only Son shirt because I really liked what was going on around the collar, even if they have the worst UI that I have seen on a website for a while.

Also, Lars Andersson definitely got something right:

Rochambeau on the other hand… well, nothing that can be described as “part Matrix, part Wild Wild West” could ever be good…

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A lesson from Finland? Something for Gonski to chew over

It seems that I’m not the only one to notice the huge disparity in education outcomes between countries spending roughly the same amount of money on teachers’ salaries (amongst other things). Diane Ravitch has written a two-part essay in the New York Review of Books contrasting the which-achieving Finnish education system with the retrenched American one.

Her argument was compelling overall, although there were one or two things that I take issue with. I’ll start on a positive note:

Schools We Can Envy by Diane Ravitch | The New York Review of Books.

In recent years, elected officials and policymakers … have agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation.

Much of her essay is on this theme: everyone in the US — Bush and Obama, State and Federal — are far too focussed on standardised test scores as a means of determining the proficiency of both students and teachers. Having suffered the NSW HSC, I can definitely relate to the problems created by forcing teachers to “teach to the test” with an extremely inflexible syllabus. As regular readers will know, I am also highly in favour of holding both district leadership and elected officials to account.

That said, Ravitch may be overlooking the most important distinction between the USA and Finland: culture. In fact, she actively argues against Finland’s homogeneous ethnicity being a determinative factor in its academic performance.

Detractors say that Finland performs well academically because it is ethnically homogeneous, but Sahlberg responds that “the same holds true for Japan, Shanghai or Korea,” which are admired by corporate reformers for their emphasis on testing. To detractors who say that Finland, with its population of 5.5 million people, is too small to serve as a model, Sahlberg responds that “about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland.”

Firstly, Japan, Korea and Shanghai are not exactly struggling -– especially compared to where they used to be. Also, the ethnic homogeneity of Finland may have a lot to do with what Ravitch does identify as a very important factor in education outcomes: the esteem in which teachers are held.

Finland’s highly developed teacher preparation program is the centerpiece of its school reform strategy. Only eight universities are permitted to prepare teachers, and admission to these elite teacher education programs is highly competitive: only one of every ten applicants is accepted. There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license. Those who are accepted have already taken required high school courses in physics, chemistry, philosophy, music, and at least two foreign languages. Future teachers have a strong academic education for three years, then enter a two-year master’s degree program…

In the second essay, Ravitch argues that were the US to impose similar standards on their teachers, this would improve the public image of teachers and so would improve the quality of applicants and the culture of teachers into one where teachers teach because of their “intrinsic motivation”:

How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools by Diane Ravitch – The New York Review of Books.

Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning.

It seems to me that Ravitch is confusing cause and effect. The ethnic and cultural homogeneity of Finland is a key factor as this is obviously a culture that takes great pride in education. I would hazard a guess that in a country like the USA that clearly does not do so overall, there are still areas and communities with a Finnish-like attitude to educating their children and these communities show disproportionately strong outcomes despite functioning in exactly the same system as everyone else. That is certainly true of the Jewish community in Australia.

She unwittingly presents more evidence in favour of this theory, both when arguing for more Union involvement in education and when arguing that education does not solve poverty:

Finland’s success confounds the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) theorists, because almost every teacher and principal in Finland belongs to the same union. The union works closely with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of education, and it negotiates for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions for educators.

… Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty.

The lesson from Finland’s union is not that Unions are necessarily beneficial for education, but that everyone in Finland is more or less of the same mindset. Similarly, the anti-education culture in impoverished communities could go a long way to explaining why children at the same school will have worse outcomes if they have impoverished parents. However, as I have often lamented, culture is off-limits for criticism.

The final point I will raise is on the subject of teacher conditions. Ravitch observes that there is a very high turnover in the teaching profession, leading to a lack of experienced teachers:

The teaching profession in the United States is a revolving door. It’s easy to enter, and many teachers leave—up to 40 to 50 percent—in their first five years as teachers. The turnover is highest in low-scoring urban districts. We do not support new teachers with appropriate training and mentoring, and we have a problem retaining teachers. No other profession in the United States has such a high rate of turnover.

… corporate reformers have shown no interest in raising standards for the teaching profession. They believe that entry-level requirements such as certification, master’s degrees, and other credentials are unrelated to “performance,” that is, student test scores. They also scorn seniority, experience, tenure, and other perquisites of the profession. Instead, they believe that a steady infusion of smart but barely trained novices will change the face of teaching.

Ironically, while Ravitch is condemning American “corporate reformers” (actually public servants pretending to take a corporate approach) and praising Finnish Unions, in this instance the Australian Unions have gone the way of the American pseudo-corporates:

Old-school ideas not on the money | Institute of Public Affairs Australia.

Here, as elsewhere throughout the world, teacher unions wield enormous power … Their power has had three effects on education.

The first is the bulk of additional funding for education has gone into hiring more teachers instead of paying existing teachers more.

The second effect is that … in Australia the starting salary for teachers is relatively high by world standards, but salaries for experienced teachers relatively low.

The third effect of a heavily unionised workforce has been that up until the past few years there was minimal accountability and performance measurement of teachers.

Those first two points seem to be exactly what Ravitch is discouraging – incentives for young people to go into teaching for a few years and then leave to pursue other ends, meaning that smaller and smaller classes are being taught by increasingly poorly trained and inexperienced teachers.

Maybe Australia does need to take some lessons from Finland:

  • Stop concentrating so hard on getting more teachers and focus on keeping the ones we have.
  • Stop adding new education courses at uni and improve the ones we have.
  • Start looking into ways to combat “tall-poppy syndrome” in schools. If there is one thing leading to underachievement in Australia, it’s this – can we at least talk about it?
  • Throwing money at a problem does not solve it.

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The Middle East trust deficit

Don’t you love it when someone succinctly puts exactly what you feel? Gershon Baskin using the “both sides” equivalency, but being right:

Encountering Peace: Q&A on the fu… JPost – Opinion – Columnists.

Q: The Palestinians breached every agreement they ever signed with Israel, how can we trust them?

A: Israel and the PLO, representing the Palestinian people, signed five agreements. Every one of those agreements was breached by both sides. Neither side fulfilled its obligations, and the breaches were substantive in all of the agreements.

…Breaches upon breaches piled up and created a total breakdown. The failure of both sides to implement in good faith and to repair the damage in real time led to a total collapse of trust between the parties. The basic idea of an interim period (of five years) was to develop the trust that would be required to negotiate the main issues in conflict.

That trust never developed – quite the opposite. Today, objectively speaking, there is absolutely no reason why Israel and Palestine should trust each other – they have completely earned the mistrust that exists between them.

… There is no possibility for progress without negotiations, yet while both sides recognize this truth it seems that the complete absence of trust, what I call the “trust deficiency,” is more powerful than the desire to reach an agreement at this time. This is enhanced by the complete belief on both sides of the conflict that there is no partner for peace on the other side. Both sides say that they want peace, and both sides blame the other for lack of any progress.

Yup, that’s pretty much the situation. Abbas doesn’t trust Bibi; Bibi doesn’t trust Abbas; neither of them trust Obama; Obama is sick of them both; Obama, Abbas and Bibi all don’t trust Hamas and Hamas’ leaders don’t even trust each other, let alone anyone else.

The Israelis don’t trust the Palestinians because Israeli concessions are just met with violence and condemnations; the Palestinians don’t trust the Israelis because no one in Israel can agree on anything and the same government seems to have 5 different policies; the Palestinians don’t trust each other because every second person is an informant for Israel or secretly working for whichever of Hamas/Fatah the first person is worried about; the Jordanians don’t trust the Palestinians because Arafat tried to overthrow King Hussein in the ’70s; the secular Egyptians don’t trust the Palestinians because Hamas is too close to the Muslim Brotherhood; the Israelis don’t trust the Egyptians because they think they’re all Muslim Brotherhood; The Muslim Brotherhood don’t trust Fatah because they’re against Hamas…

I’m going to stop here, you get the picture. Anyone see a way out?

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Human Rights Watch and letting Muslim states have the rulers they want but don’t deserve

A whole long list of NGO officials have come out in criticism of Human Rights Watch and its CEO Kenneth Roth, slamming Roth for his hypocrisy in supporting Islamist regimes that are serial abusers of human rights. As usual, my bold:

Women and Islam: A Debate with Human Rights Watch | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books.

You say, “It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name,” but you fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights—the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.

Nor do you point to the one of the clearest threats to rights—particularly to women and religious and sexual minorities—the threat to introduce so-called “shari’a law.” It is simply not good enough to say we do not know what kind of Islamic law, if any, will result, when it is already clear that freedom of expression and freedom of religion—not to mention the choice not to veil—are under threat. And while it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been in power for very long, we can get some idea of what to expect by looking at their track record. In the UK, where they were in exile for decades, unfettered by political persecution, the exigencies of government, or the demands of popular pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood systematically promoted gender apartheid and parallel legal systems enshrining the most regressive version of “shari’a law”. Yusef al-Qaradawi, a leading scholar associated with them, publicly maintains that homosexuality should be punished by death. They supported deniers of the Holocaust and the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, and shared platforms with salafi-jihadis, spreading their calls for militant jihad. But, rather than examine the record of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, you keep demanding that Western governments “engage.”

A side note, but the term “sharia law” is a tautology – Sharia means “Islamic law”.

Meanwhile, the parts in bold are very important. All across the Muslim world, horrible acts like honour killings become the norm not necessarily because they are official state policy, but because regimes will publicly condemn these acts whenever they are criticised while not actually taking any steps to prevent them.

In fact, they often condemn with one arm while encouraging with the other – as the letter above pointed out.  Qaradawi is not a fringe radical, he is a celebrity cleric with his own show on Al Jazeera Arabic and one of the most prominent spiritual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood; yet he encourages violence, terror and intolerance with impunity.

This is another example of the “third-worldism” that I wrote about recently. HRW are refusing to listen to the Muslim Brotherhood when they say that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, Jews are a plague on humanity and should all be killed, Christians should be expelled from Egypt and women should be not seen and most definitely not heard. All it takes is for Muslim Brotherhood members to say “we are committed to the rights of women” and HRW believes that they must be “moderate”. Remember that the “rights” that they speak of are not what our Western minds think when we hear “women’s rights”.

HRW replies

The HRW response is also very revealing:

In the introduction to Human Rights Watch’s most recent World Report, released on January 22, Kenneth Roth wrote that Western governments cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well. That was the hypocritical stance of the West when, for example, it acquiesced in the Algerian military’s interruption of free elections that the Islamist Salvation Front was poised to win and then in the brutal suppression of that party in the early 1990s, or when President George W. Bush cut short his “democracy agenda” after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2005.

Western governments should reject this inconsistent and unprincipled approach to democracy. Human Rights Watch called on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect rights. As rights activists, we are acutely aware of the possible tension between the right to choose one’s leaders and the rights of potentially disfavored groups such as women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. Anyone familiar with the history of Iran or Afghanistan knows the serious risks involved. However, in the two Arab Spring nations that have had free and fair elections so far, a solid majority voted for socially conservative political parties in Egypt, and a solid plurality did so in Tunisia. The sole democratic option is to accept the results of those elections and to press the governments that emerge to respect the rights of all rather than to ostracize these governments from the outset.

Notice that they pulled the “Bush card”. This is an argument reminiscent of the Reduction ad Hitlerum fallacy, a corollary of Godwin’s Law, whereby anything that George W Bush did is considered to be wrong by virtue of the fact that he did it. It’s an argument used by the kind of idiots who genuinely think Bush was comparable to Hitler, not to mention the kind of idiots who would assume that something must be bad just because someone they don’t like did it. That said, Bush was wrong – HRW just don’t understand why.

Bush was not wrong to reject Hamas after they were elected, he was wrong to let them stand for election in the first place. Hamas was always very open about what it was: an organisation that opposed democracy, advocated Medieval morality, called for genocide and committed violence – hell, you can learn all that by just watching their TV channel:

What Bush and HRW do not understand is that the mere fact that a government is “elected” does not make a for a democracy. This is a historical fact that actually can be proven by a Hitler comparison: the Nazis were elected into power in Germany. A measure of whether a government is democratic is not how it comes into power initially, but how it stays in power.

Elections are the last step in forming a democracy, not the first. The single most important component of a democracy is the rule of law – the rulers must be under the law, there must be some kind of peaceful mechanism for removing them from office. In order for that to happen, the society needs a separation of powers – the rulers must be accountable to the legal system and not the other way around; the use of physical force (i.e. army and police) must be separate from both. There also has to be some kind of mechanism for the legal system to find information about the rulers’ activities to see if they must be removed from power and the rulers must be unable to stop this information from getting out: you need freedom of political communication.

Even a society with: the rule of law; free speech; and an independent judiciary, army and government; is not ready for popular elections. For the people to elect their leaders, they need to be informed enough about the different options to make a decision; there needs to be a well-established media and at least two realistic options to vote for who can scrutinise each other, otherwise any election will automatically go to whoever has the most widespread networks (i.e. the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood).

Also, it is perfectly acceptable to exclude parties who are openly anti-democratic. Israel has banned “Jewish terrorist” Meir Kahane’s party from running in the Knesset for that exact reason.

Finally, the most important thing to realise is that democracy does not happen overnight. Rushing into elections is stupid, it will only put revolutionaries into power and if there is anything to be learned from post-colonial Africa, it’s that revolutionaries do not generally make great rulers.

Let Islamists be Islamists and treat them like Islamists

Tragically, while HRW are (I believe genuinely) trying to avoid imposing Western morality onto the Arab people, they are in fact doing something arguably worse. Rather than openly trying to change Arab societies into something resembling Western ones, they are approaching the Arab peoples with an entirely Western mindset and just treating them as though they are Western, no matter how much they themselves reject Western values. This attitude is extremely destructive, it will result in more Afghanistans and less Indonesias.

We must be honest with ourselves and we must be willing to take Arab parties at their word. We want an Egypt that does not oppress women, homosexuals, Jews and Christians; we want an Egypt with democratic institutions where people are not persecuted for anti-government or “un-Islamic” activities. The Muslim Brotherhood do not want this Egypt and they say that openly – why do we refuse to believe them?

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Why I care about fashion and so should you


My little description on the right of the page mentions that I may blog about fashion, but I don’t find myself actually doing that so often. Well today may be that rare exception.

I recently came-across a guest post on Kill Your Darlings by fashion blogger and PhD student Rosie Findlay, who runs the aptly-named Fashademic. Findlay made her point very eloquently, so I will quote two paragraphs in full with some lines bolded and then comment after:

On dressing and being dressed | Kill Your Darlings.

When we dress, we dress for pleasure, work, warmth, need or, as in my case today, because we feel a certain need to mirror our sensibility, and we reach for the garments that best encourage these aspects of our selves. Even those who reject fashion take part in its system. Fashion is a mode of visual communication that ‘speaks the self’ both externally, as it presents you as clothed and appropriate, and internally, as it resonates with you in the feel of fabric on your limbs, the pinching of shoes on toes, the rough itch of wool on skin, the desperate sweating underneath denim on an unexpectedly warm day. At an everyday level, clothing speaks to us, and helps us make sense of one another and of ourselves. In other words, what is superficial is not only superficial.

So here I am to state that it is not trivial to take an interest in clothing – to do so is to accept that there is pleasure to be found in dressing, in wearing, and in finding another way to express something of who you feel you are. I reject the notion that to do so is to imply that you are a superficial person or, in the words of English professor Emily Toth, that ‘if you look like you spend too much time on your clothes, there are people who will assume that you haven’t put enough energy into your mind’. I pitch my tent instead with Virginia Postrel, whose book The Substance of Style makes a compelling argument for the importance of aesthetics, writing that they are of fundamental value to human beings and a source of deep pleasure – not the most important thing, but still important. I find this stance incredibly liberating: it acknowledges that there is room to enjoy dressing and being dressed, while not elevating that practice to utmost importance. It means I can enjoy the interplay of these jeans, this shirt and these heavenly boots with my self, and appreciate how this process colours my day as I go forth into other considerations.

Most people with the same general interests as me would not care about fashion – in fact, I know more than one person who say they actively avoid it, generally accompanied with the sentiment that they “just wear whatever”.

This perspective saddens me. I feel it is based largely in the ideas that Findlay identified, that caring about our physical appearance is “superficial” and that it is a waste of time to worry about such superficial matters when there are more important issues out there. I also suspect that the attitude develops as a reaction to the types of people who become involved in fashion on the highschool playground; as any nerdy teenager would know, no one who wants to be seen as intelligent would associate with a culture dominated by air-headed Hollywood actors, vapid trust fund babies and ignorant musicians who just do what their management tells them.

The operative word in that sentence? They want to be seen as intelligent. The corrollary is that there is a way to look intelligent. If Emily Toth (above) thinks that spending too much time on clothes implies not spending enough time on mind, then she is clearly showing a value judgment based on appearance: fashionable means vacuous, those of us with substance are unfashionable. She is looking at the conscious choice that a person has made of how to dress and drawing conclusions from it. The “intelligent look” is one that does not require much time.

Ms Toth must spend some time on her clothes, but obviously minimises this to some extent in order to spend more time on her “mind”. She sees the amount of time she takes as sufficient to look acceptable  and then any better than acceptable, she deems unnecessary.  She is making a choice about how she looks. As she well knows, when we meet someone, their appearance is the first impression that we get. Other than their body language, everything that we notice is in their choice of fashion – what clothes they wear, how their hair is done, any makeup etc. By choosing to rush her wardrobe she is consciously projecting an image to the world, saying: “I am intelligent, I am a woman of substance, I don’t care about fashion.”

Her reasoning is flawed. She clearly cares about fashion, enough to let it influence her perspective of others and to at least be conscious of how it affects her image. In reality, fashion is not something that can be avoided. You care about fashion, everybody cares about fashion. If you choose to cover yourself with fading polyester shirts and shapeless jeans made from paper-thin denim fom KMart, you are revealing just as much about yourself as someone wearing a hand-tailored bespoke Italian suit.  The difference is that the person in the Italian suit is conscious of this and has spent time thinking about what message they want to convey; I know which of these seems more intelligent to me.

When you get up in the morning and look through your clothes, the question you should ask yourself is not “how should I dress today?” but “what will I look like today?”. Why would anyone want to answer that with “cheap, lazy and uncoordinated” when they could choose “damn fine”?

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A warning for Arab women, hope from Palestinians but in spite of everything, Israel still way out in front

In an article that I will probably discuss later, Israeli academic Eyal Gross rebuts a theory by another academic that, in his words, “what he calls the ‘racist’ narrative of gay-friendly Israel versus homophobic Palestine confirms Israeli perceptions of the collective others by representing the queer Palestinian as a helpless victim of Palestinian homophobia in need of the benevolence and protection of the Israeli state.” As Gross notes, the reality is that this is true: there are a lot of persecuted gay Palestinians who would find some kind of solace in Israel. Of course, Israel does harbour some intolerance and it is not fair to stereotype all Palestinians as homophobes, but it is equally true that mainstream Israeli society is against homophobia, whereas Palestinian society is a very difficult place to be gay – openly gay Palestinians are quite literally risking their lives.

The reason I am relating this is to illustrate the unfortunate tendency in some parts of the Western “left” to reject as “racist” any criticism of non-Western (and especially Middle Eastern) societies. In their well-meaning eyes, they see all people as basically “good” and do not want to accept that, for instance, Arab society tends to be extremely sexist, homophobic and racist. Ironically, they attribute the belief that this is, in fact, the case to a “colonialist” attitude – white people thinking that non-whites are barbaric savages. Ironically, it is these “third-worldists” who are in fact taking a patronising/colonialist attitude. Even worse than stereotyping Arabs as “backwards”, they are taking their own interpretation of “good values” and imputing it onto the Arabs.

This patronising attitude has been showing-up everywhere since the “Arab Spring” began last year. As “the people” of Egypt, Libya and Syria were protesting dictators, the third-worldist wisdom was that they must want a more democratic society. Then suddenly, after decrying everyone who was worried about an Islamist takeover as “racists”, they are shocked when the Libyan National Transitional Council announce that they plan to implement Shariah. The reality is that the Libyan revolutionaries were always open about where they stood on Islamic law, the third-worldists just refused to listen to them when they criticised Qaddafi for discouraging women from wearing the veil and for being accepting of Jews and Christians.

How short everyone’s memory is. Even if you can’t think back to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, remember what happened when the Afghans became free from Russian oppression? Well if your memory could use some jogging, Morwari Zafar has written an amazing obituary for her grandmother, Massouma Esmatey-Wardak, an Afghan leader and politician who was hit as hard as the rest of Afghanistan when the once relatively prosperous and modern nation was taken over by Islamists.

Determination Defined: Remembering an Afghan Pioneer – by Morwari Zafar | The AfPak Channel.

In the wake of her successes at the helm of AWC, President Najibullah Ahmadzai appointed Massouma as Minister of Education in 1990, though she was not a part of his contentious political party. Her appointment at a post formerly held by her husband, who supported her, was part and parcel of the political reformations in the country at that time. Under the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), the country was progressing socially in a way that seemed incongruous with Islam. And more than ever, Massouma was determined to secure access to education and promote literacy for women. The efforts were condemned by most Mujahideen [holy warriors] leaders, who perceived the developments as a communist endeavor destined to obliterate Islam from the country’s core values, and promote sexual anarchy.

Women’s rights disintegrated in the chaos of the civil war … After the Soviet withdrawal, President Najibullah agreed to transfer power to the Mujahideen in an effort brokered by the United Nations. Headed by President Mojadeddi, the former Jihadists took key ministerial positions in the new Islamic Afghan Government … The Taliban dealt the final blow to the social development and women’s rights of my grandmother’s generation. The current Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan maintains a sketchy record of human and women’s rights, and yet 50 years ago, even women in some rural areas had access to education and healthcare. Neither my grandmother nor my grandfather was born to wealthy families with vast social capital. They came from modest families that understood the value of education — especially for women — as a part of Islam, not divorced from it.

Afghanistan was starting from a better position than any of the “Arab Spring” countries: Wardak was the Minister for Education there, no “Arab Spring” country ever had a woman in a prominent leadership role. The only one that genuinely seems to be showing progress towards a more free and open society is Tunisia, where the Islamist al-Nahda was forced to join in a coalition government with secular parties. Egypt and Libya do not look so lucky, and by refusing to acknowledge how serious the situation there is, the third-worldist West is damning the women, Christians and other groups to some very unpleasant circumstances.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians seem to be actually making some progress against their retrenched prejudices. Jillian Kestler-D’Amours has reported on a Palestinian female-run radio station that could signify something extremely important (my bold):

FM Radio Spells Change, Success for Mideast Women – IPS

Launched in June 2010, Nisaa FM is an almost entirely female-run Palestinian radio station based in Ramallah, West Bank and the only radio station in the Middle East devoted solely to women’s issues. Its director Maysoun Odeh Gangat says that the station aims to inform, inspire and empower local women.

“Through the positive role that the women are playing in the society that we portray, we believe that we can empower women economically and then socially and politically. It could be any woman from the rural areas or the refugee camp, or a woman parliamentarian or minister,” Gangat told IPS.

In addition to suffering from a myriad of human rights abuses stemming from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, Palestinian women face challenges from within their own society.

According to a 2009 report released by the Palestinian Women’s Information and Media Centre (PWIC) in Gaza, 77 percent of the women in Gaza had experienced some form of violence; 53 percent had been exposed to physical violence and 15 percent to sexual abuse.

The bolded paragraph is key: this fact is almost never admitted by anyone on the “pro-Palestinian” side. The Palestinian people have for decades remained in a self-perpetuated misery by blaming everything wrong with their lives on Israel and refusing to look within their own community. In a way, they have been simply believing what the third-worldists tell them; amazingly I have actually heard people blaming Palestinian oppression of women/homosexuals on Israel, in spite of the fact that the Palestinians are no different in that regard from all of the neighbouring Arab countries.

If the Palestinian Authority is now allowing a voice like Nisaa FM to start accepting some culpability and criticising their own culture for its flaws, maybe we will actually start to see progress in peace talks.  Addressing domestic violence and sexual abuse is a start, but a lot can potentially follow. That said, there is still a long way to go until they are even close to Israeli society, as was demonstrated recently. Despite all of the many issues with the ultra-orthodox and gender segregation, all three centre-left parties in the Knesset now have female leaders; this means that if anyone can unseat Netanyahu, Israel will have its second female Prime Minister by next year. Recognising the difference between the two societies is neither racist nor colonial, it is simply allowing yourself to see.

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Major Photoshop Karnage: Kevin Rudd Winning

I made a comment in a Facebook conversation that this Rudd saga is the political equivalent of Charlie Sheen being fired from Two and a Half Men. That inspired this picture.

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Reasons for Rudd’s resignation

As everyone living in the 21st Century should know by now, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has just resigned. This comes after months of speculation on his coming back to power, fuelled by and a massive media beat-up. The whole thing started when poll results started to show that more people favoured Rudd as Prime Minister than Julia Gillard. This is a meaningless exercise, asking someone that question when Gillard is the leader and Rudd is not is entirely different from asking when Rudd is the leader and is under the scrutiny that the position brings.

Nevertheless, the press seized the idea and constantly spoke about it, to the point where it seemed like Q and A panelists could discuss nothing else. Then, ABC’s Four Corners began 2012 with an episode on Rudd’s ousting by Gillard, revealing that *shock horror* Gillard had not just woken up that morning and challenged Rudd, but had planned the takeover. I suspect that they are currently investigating whether or not the Pope is indeed Catholic.

This piece of non-news was beaten-up to the point where all the media could talk about was a Rudd challenge. Columnists around Australia, from Fairfax to News Ltd to the ABC, all threw in their two cents on the matter. Some were more subtle than others; Andrew Bolt, not known for his subtlety, even seemed to be actively campaigning for Rudd.

This was all satirised brilliantly by Imre Saluszinsky this morning in The Australian.

Column to end all Rudd v Gillard columns | The Australian.

IT appears a showdown between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd is inevitable.

Three things must now occur: Rudd must openly declare if he is challenging; Labor MPs must decide who they want to lead them; and, above all, another column on the Labor leadership must be written immediately. The thousands of previous opinion columns written on this issue have only skimmed the surface.

They have resolved nothing.

Leadership tensions have escalated to a point where no column, however flippant, can afford to ignore them.

A completely new column is needed.

It is understood this column could now occur “as early as next week”.

So, in what has been accurately dubbed a ‘soap opera’, Rudd has now stepped down from the Foreign Minister role. What does this mean? One of three things:

1. Rudd is going for Gillard

This is the media’s favourite outcome as everyone loves a good soap opera and because it vindicates all of their columns. It does seem like he has been deliberately encouraging this idea, which may be because he knew that doing so would make it more likely to eventuate.

I am skeptical about this. From what I gather, his internal support in Labor is not very strong and he would have little chance of actually winning. This seems especially true as some very high-profile MPs have been attacking him tonight. Wayne Swan, for instance:

Prime Minister Gillard and I and the overwhelming majority of our colleagues have been applyingour Labor values to the policy challenges in front of us and we’re succeeding despite tremendous political obstacles.

For the sake of the labour movement, the Government and the Australians which it represents, we have refrained from criticism to date. However for too long, Kevin Rudd has been putting his own self-interest ahead of the interests of the broader labour movement and the country as a whole, and that needs to stop.
The Party has given Kevin Rudd all the opportunities in the world and he wasted them with his dysfunctional decision making and his deeply demeaning attitude towards other people includingour caucus colleagues. He sought to tear down the 2010 campaign, deliberately risking an AbbottPrime Ministership, and now he undermines the Government at every turn.

He was the Party’s biggest beneficiary then its biggest critic; but never a loyal or selfless example of its values and objectives. For the interests of the labour movement and of working people, there is too much at stake in our economy and in the political debate for the interests of the labour movement and working people tobe damaged by somebody who does not hold any Labor values.

That last part is a little rich coming from Swan, an extremely mediocre Treasurer who rode Rudd’s coattails into power. It’s amazing that everyone seems to forget that Rudd defeated Howard and brought Labor into power in 2007 – and that was Rudd, not Labor. That election victory was almost entirely down to his personal popularity. Swan had nothing to do with it, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time – a skill that later won him accolades as Treasurer.

2. Rudd is doing the right thing

Could be that he saw the damage that all the leadership speculation was doing to the Labor party and he genuinely felt bad about the fact that his leadership status was distracting Australia from the important issues, so he decided to just end it all and disappear into obscurity for a while. This doesn’t seem like him, however – last time he did something like that he (allegedly) started leaking information to the press to damage Gillard’s campaign.

3. He’s giving Gillard one last “fuck you”

This seems like the more likely option to me. A lot of accusations are coming out that Gillard had grown sick of the leadership talk and was planning to fire Rudd next week anyway. It could be that Rudd knew this and decided to get in ahead and pre-emptively quit in a manner that would really stick it to Gillard, so he decided to:

  • Call a press conference from Washington at 1:30am so that he would hit the peak social media time – just after work finishes – and be all over the evening news, without giving Gillard any time to respond before the newspapers go to print tonight.
  • Dramatically hand his Foreign Minister duties at high-profile conferences over to some officials, making his resignation really look like an emergency.
  • Give Gillard some time to sweat while he flies back to Australia without announcing what he intends to do.

All the while knowing that Labor can’t afford for him to resign from Parliament completely, as they would not only lose his seat but probably the current election in Queensland.

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Revolutionising our education through funding?

The data has it: Australia is falling behind. We are losing out in our children’s reading, maths and science scores, being beaten by most of East Asia, Canada and New Zealand — and we don’t like losing to New Zealand! So what are we doing about it? Apparently, commissioning a highly respected corporate director to write a 250-page report on how we can make our system better; well David Gonski came through and the results were released yesterday. Here, in his own words (published in the Fairfax papers), was the thrust of it:

The race is on, and Australia is losing ground.

On average, socio-economically advantaged students are achieving better outcomes than disadvantaged; metropolitan students are achieving better than rural and remote students; and disabled students are falling behind their peers. This is not acceptable in Australia, where we take pride in giving everyone a ”fair go”.

… The funding system that sustains our three school sectors – government, Catholic and independent – is complex, confusing, opaque and inconsistent across states and territories, and obscures educational goals and accountability.

… That’s why the review panel has proposed Australia adopt a Schooling Resource Standard that would have two elements: the amount of per-student investment required to provide a high-quality education, plus loadings targeting disadvantage.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that the school funding system has become as bad as it is due to no planning and developing over time for less than ideal motives. However, Gonski’s recommendations are not politically viable at this time.

Politics 1, Gonski and schools 0.

His review was asked to find a way to fix school funding, state and federal, which has grown piecemeal over decades into a Heath Robinson-like contraption – a fundamentally unfair one, a product of temporary fixes and vote-buying.

… Gonski was hamstrung from the start by the requirement that any change produce no losers. Inevitably, it had to recommend that the government spend a lot more on schools to bring the disadvantaged up to the level the privileged attained long ago. Given the tight federal budget and the promise of an early return to surplus, the government cannot contemplate Gonski’s recommended $5 billion-a-year funding boost … So like a child asking for the impossible, Gonski has been told: “We’ll see.”

Sister paper The Age agreed with the Herald, but spent a lot more time congratulating itself for being agreed with by Gonski and stressing the “inequality” in the system and less time on the realpolitik of the reform.

As usual, the most sophisticated analysis came from The Australian, which praised the more “clear and transparent” system that Gonski proposed, but also noted a few other factors:

Reversing educational decline | The Australian.

As with the present system, parents of students in the wealthiest fee-paying schools would continue to carry a heavy burden — funding state schools through their taxes and paying the fees for their own children, who would receive only about 20 to 25 per cent of the “schooling resource standard” in government subsidies under the proposed model. Contrary to the claims of public sector teachers’ unions, non-government schools are excellent value for taxpayers.

Despite the intense interest in the Gonski report and governments’ responses, education authorities should focus on the need for reform in the selection, training, mentoring and career structures of teachers. Such improvements would create a far more significant education revolution than reorganising the funding system.

For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t understand the argument for Government subsidising private education, it’s really quite simple. Say it costs the Government $15k a year to publicly educate a child, it costs $30k at a private school and the parents can only afford to spend $25k. If the Government subsidises the child’s education by $5k, the child will go to the private school — which gives the child a better education and gives the Government $5k more to allocate to public education.

Also, the parents are paying taxes that go to the education system and, without subsidies, receiving no money back — so essentially, they are subsidising the education of other children while being forced to spend even more on their own child’s schooling, which hardly seems fair to them. To see this explained using a barbeque analogy, click here.

The limits of Gonski

I am not actually convinced that Gonski’s suggestions would improve the education system that radically. I will disclaim that I have not read the report, so please correct me if I’m wrong on any point.

The Australian and the Herald both cited the Rudd/Gillard ‘Building Education Revolution’ as a reason why the Gonski review may have trouble getting through Parliament, and with good reason. The BER was a very good example of how throwing money at something doesn’t make the problem go away.

In NSW at least, there are already a lot of different schemes that give extra funding to disadvantaged and Indigenous students and gives teachers incentives to work in them, yet this does not resolve the problem. Yes, these are poorly thought-out and haphazardly implemented, but the point remains. I have personally seen a school with only impoverished Indigenous students that had unbelievable facilities, including $10,000 basketball nets, yet had some of the lowest outcomes and highest drop-out rates in the state.

More important than how much money is given is how the existing money is spent, other factors also affect education. Here are a few other things we may need to think about:

Teacher salaries?

Take this graph (via The Dish):

Ignore the diagonal line through the middle, that is what us mathematicians call a weak correlation and an example of how statistics are poorly used in policy debates. There is clearly something else going on given the number of outliers. In fact, we do very well on this scaled — Finland, Australia, the UK and the USA all spend around the same amount, yet there is a clear difference in outcomes and Australia seems to achieve very high outcomes relative to dollars spent.


This is something that money cannot really change and is, to a large extent, the elephant in the room. As much money as the Government may throw at disadvantaged children, if they are not interested in learning or if they are not given an environment in which they can learn, they will not learn. To give the example, again, of the school referenced above, the parents of those children had no interest in their being educated, meaning they only went to school if they genuinely wanted to be there (not many did). Add to that growing up in a house with no books, that does not have the newspaper delivered every morning and without any kind of informative dinner table discussion (or indeed, without a dinner table) and a few thousand dollars for the school makes little difference.

That is in extreme example, but I still have a point. To back that up with some actual (admittedly American) data, here’s Charles Murray:

The Truth About Income Inequality in America – Charles Murray – Business – The Atlantic.

The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children. Among college-bound seniors who took the SAT in 2010, 87 percent of the students with 700-plus scores in the math and verbal tests had at least one parent with a college degree. Fifty-six percent of them had a parent with a graduate degree. The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids. They are smart in large part because their parents are smart.

That brings us to the role of homogamy — interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics … homogamy has increased at both ends of the educational scale — college graduates grew more likely to marry college graduates and high school dropouts grew more likely to marry other high school dropouts. In 1960, just 3 percent of American couples both had a college degree. By 2010, that proportion stood at 25 percent.

… The bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.

That said, there is a counter-argument that a more integrated education system pulls-up the scores of disadvantaged children while not significantly affecting the advantaged. See Andrew Sullivan (again) for a summary and follow the links to see an interesting discussion around this issue. I may look into this more at some point in the future to see how good the data actually is.

Meanwhile, if the key recommendation for fixing Australia’s education system relies on funding redistribution, I am not extremely hopeful. Having had the unfortunate experience of going through HSC in NSW, even in a well-funded school, I can say first hand that there is a lot more to address.

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Israel: more on Sudanese refugees and West Bank demolitions

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

I’ll end on the positive note. Bad news first then.

Remember those solar panels in the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority-controlled media said were “circumventing” Israeli policy? Well, Haaretz — i.e. Israeli independent media — has ironically published a far more damning protrayal of what Israel has been doing. Admittedly this comes from Akiva Eldar, a journalist who has been known to make questionable claims on scant evidence (for instance, he recently claimed that Australia’s Jewish community is being turned-off by Israel’s right-wing coalition’s policies, based on an interview with one person, who happens to be a member of a left-wing Israeli organisation).

Nevertheless, Eldar makes a very valid point: the impending demolition of these panels highlights the frankly unjustifiable dichotomy between the way that Palestinians and Israelis are treated in area C. In the excerpt below, Eldar is alluding to the settlement outposts that the Israeli High Court has actually ruled illegally built on private Palestinian land and issued demolition orders as a result. Coalition partners Israel Beitenu are currently in the process of retrospectively legalising these outposts so they are not demolished.

Israel demolishes West Bank villages as Jewish outposts remains untouched – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

It happened last Wednesday. Civil Administration officer Nabil Tafsh arrived at Youssef Awad’s hut accompanied by a bulldozer. Awad told Rabbis for Human Rights representatives summoned to the site that the official informed him he had one minute to leave the hut and remove the sheep from their pen. Two soldiers forcibly removed Awad and, in a flash, the bulldozer flattened his minimal possessions into a pile of rubble.

… Around 1,500 people in 16 communities, that have been in the area since the 19th century, now benefit from energy produced by these installations, which provide lighting and electricity to their modest dairy product business. A few weeks ago, the Israeli administration – the one that arranges to run high-tension lines over their heads to supply illegal outposts – decided to issue work stoppage orders to five installations. The demolition orders expected to follow will darken the homes of 500 people. Children will revert to straining their eyes as they do their homework in the light of oil lamps, and the women will go back to churning butter and cheeses with blistered hands.

…  Civil Administration officials are busy with Palestinians’ wind turbines and goat pens. No wonder, then, they have no time to deal with a few structures that settlers are building on stolen lands. Not just stolen from Palestinian landowners, but also from the Palestinian Authority.

Two days ago, Haaretz published a list of outposts that are moving into agricultural plots in Area B, which is under Palestinian Authority civil control. A petition submitted to the High Court of Justice on Monday by a resident of the northern West Bank village of Amatin, with the assistance of Yesh Din, shows that the name of the Havat Gilad outpost was omitted from the list.

The petition claimed that people from the outpost built two houses on Palestinian land, contrary to the law and the Oslo Accords. The inspectors are in no rush to go back there. The last time, they got out by the skin of their teeth. Regarding this matter as well, there was no comment from the Civil Administration.

And the good news? Well, remember the Sudanese refugees who flee to Israel through the Sinai, dodging Bedoins who kidnap and torture them, as well as Egyptian soldiers who shoot them on sight? Well, the Tel Aviv municipality and local residents have decided that they can’t let them sleep out in the cold any longer once they reach Israel, and have begun building shelters and supplying hot meals to them.

TA city hall builds shelters for homeles… JPost – National News.

The Tel Aviv Municipality and the organization “Lasova” on Monday opened a temporary shelter for the dozens of homeless African migrants sleeping in Lewinsky Park in South Tel Aviv.

The municipality said the two metal and canvass structures will be broken down each morning and reassembled at night until the end of the winter weather.

On Monday evening, around 50 Africans lined up for free soup handed out by missionaries from a local evangelical church, who also handed out bibles in a number of languages. A number of the migrants also milled around the two shelters, each of which included around 40-50 cots covered with thin foam mattresses.

This is definitely encouraging and hopefully signals a shift in the way these African refugees are dealt with. They present a very complicated situation for Israel to deal with, the reasons why are beyond the scope of this post but will hopefully be addressed in future. That said, it could simply be that the Secular and educated Israeli society that lives on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa is growing further and further away from the rest of Israeli society.

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