Archive for category Musing

How’s this for ‘echo chamber’?

Politico, 2012:

The GOP’s media cocoon – POLITICO.com Print View.

Facebook and Twitter feeds along with email in-boxes have taken the place of the old newspaper front page, except that the consumer is now entirely in charge of what he or she sees each day and can largely shut out dissenting voices. It’s the great irony of the Internet era: People have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views.

“The Internet amplifies talk radio and cable news, and provides distribution for other sources like Newsmax,” said Trey Grayson, 40, the former Kentucky secretary of state and the current head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “Then your friends, who usually agree with you, disseminate the same stories on Facebook and Twitter. And you assume that everyone agrees with you!”

Grayson continued: “It’s very striking for me living in Cambridge now. My Facebook feed, which is full of mostly conservatives from Kentucky, contains very different links to articles or topics than what I see in Cambridge. It is sort of the reverse up here. They don’t understand how anyone would eat Chick-fil-A, watch college sports or hold pro-life views.”

“Social media has made it easier to self-select,” added 45-year-old GOP strategist Bruce Haynes. “Who do you follow on Twitter, who do you friend on Facebook? Do they all look the same and say the same things? If so, you’ve created a universe for yourself that is wedded to its own self-fulfilling prophecies.”

John Stuart Mill, 1859:

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and largeminded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age.

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Apologies: thought for the season

For those readers who aren’t aware (I’m pretty sure at least one of you isn’t Jewish), we are currently in the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which Jews are obligated to remember all our sins and apologise so that god will give us a nice mention in the Book of Life, or something like that.

What has got me writing is an experience that I had recently where a few people let me down  and then asked me to forgive them — which seemed like a rather appropriate thing to do given the festive season (I will not go into the specifics because some of them may be reading this).

At this point, it is worth noting the difference between the Jewish concept of ‘atonement’ and the Christian concept of repentance. In Christian theology, Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, which means that we need to just turn to him and repent and our sins are absolved. It is a very black-and-white idea — sin and you go to hell, repent and you go to heaven.

For Jews, it is not quite so easy. We are required not just to repent, but to actually make amends for things that we have done wrong. Our bad deeds are weighed-up against our good deeds and we are judged on that basis. We are supposed to spend these 10 days atoning, which means delivering sincere apologies to all those whom we have wronged over the past year.

I came across a useful example in an article about teaching kids to apologise, which directed me to this poem:

This Is Just To Say

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I have a feeling that I’m plagiarising some great Jewish thinker whose name escapes me, but I see three components in a sincere apology:

1) I was wrong. This means expressing regret for actions and not just consequences. It is the difference between saying “I’m sorry that I ate the plums” and not “I’m sorry that I upset you by eating the plums”. Notice that the second does not actually admit that eating the plums was wrong, it actually makes the quite hurtful implication that it is the person who was saving the plums that is at fault because they are overreacting to something that was not itself wrong.

2) I won’t do it again. This is just as important as admitting fault. There is no real point in expressing regret for something if you would just do it again next time. If you cannot commit to not repeating whatever you are apologising for, it is telling the person to whom you are apologising that they are less important to you than whatever you gained from the conduct for which you are apologising.

3) I promise to make it up to you. This one is not always possible, so only applies to some situations. While it is very possible to replace the plums that you ate, if you were cheating on your spouse, there’s not much that you could do except to promise never to do it again.

The last stanza of the poem contains what some might call an apology, however it is more a plea for forgiveness. The protagonist is not actually sorry for eating the plums and does not fulfil the steps outlined above. The only regret is that whoever they are talking to now cannot have the plums that were being saved for breakfast, and so is probably upset. It’s a classic disingenuous apology — “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings”, instead of “I was wrong,  I won’t do it again and I will do what I can to make it up to you.”

From my perspective, it is not worth apologising unless you are actually willing to change your behaviour in accordance with the apology. Doing so is worse than not apologising at all, because it is dishonest. Your goal is to placate a person’s response to actions that you do not in fact regret. You would be better-off just accepting the consequences of your actions.

It is very easy to apologise for something that was genuinely an error, because you will not intend to repeat an error. What is far more difficult is apologising in situations, such as eating the plums, where you did something for your own benefit that hurt another person. For that reason, doing so is all the more meaningful — it says to the person “I was selfish, but I value you and in future I will be more considerate of your feelings.”

If your apology was not sincere, you are in effect admitting that the person to whom you are apologising is less important to you than whatever the benefit was from what you did. I find this quite insulting, I would much sooner know where I stand with someone than have them pretend that they care about how I feel.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that little drosha. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll write something smartass and political soon enough.

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Ivory tower watch: we don’t need free speech protections when we have vague ideas instead

We’re doing well this week – the last ITW even had a response from the actual academic in question. Since I’m on a high, I figure I’ll let it ride – especially as I have just had the rather painful experience of trawling through ‘What to do about hate speech:
 an “institutionalised argumentation” model’ by Kath Gelber.

Gelber doesn’t believe that free speech protections are needed in racial vilification legislation, mostly because she has a magic formula to find out if a statement should be unlawful. First-off, I’ll highlight this passage if only because it re-affirms my general issue with social scientists trying to talk about law. The law faculty can’t be that far away, you would think that she could walk on over and ask about some of these issues before presenting a paper on them.

[I]t has been claimed that the public interest exception was necessary because Australia lacked specific constitutional protections of freedom of expression, although no evidence is provided to support a direct link between the lack of a constitutional free speech protection in Australia and the inclusion of the public interest exception in the legislation. Except for very general comments in parliamentary debate, very little concrete evidence exists that the specific terms or breadth of the exemptions were discussed in detail before the racial anti-vilification legislation was enacted in NSW. [references omitted, my bold]

How is this for evidence of a direct link: if there were a constitutional free speech protection, having the public interest exception built into the racial vilification provisions would be completely redundant as it would just be replicating protections that already exist. The US does not need to include free speech protections in any of its legislation because they are already covered by the first amendment.

But the paper is really about hate speech – Gelber thinks a theory by Jurgen Habermas is all that we need in determining whether a statement should be proscribed hate speech. The statement she chooses as the sole test example?

The incident concerns a woman who was the target of the following comments from occupants of another vehicle at a service station: “You black slut”, “You’re nothing but a coon”, “I’ve shot worse coons than you”.

Using Habermas’ theory, Gelber spends 7.5 pages determining that this statement is, in fact, discriminatory. I hope that comes as a shock to you, because I was certainly blown-away by the revelation.

To summarise her application of the theory:

  1. On one level, it is objectively determinable, and probably untrue, that the woman was, in fact, a ‘slut’ or ‘nothing but a coon’ (short for ‘racoon’) and whether speaker had actually shot any ‘coons’ before.
  2. The statement reinforced the idea that the black woman was inferior because she was black and a woman.
  3. We can’t really know why the person made the statement, but they are probably a racist.

I’m glad we sorted that one out. To me, that statement is pretty clear-cut racial vilification. In fact, it would probably be harassment even if there were no racial undertones. Maybe Gelber could have chosen something a little more ambiguous to test her theory on?

How, for instance, would this test apply to very black Aboriginal activist Bess Price saying to a very European-looking Aboriginal man, “Look, I didn’t know you were a blackfella as well because I’m sitting here and you look totally like a whitefella to me”? Or for Chris Graham, the Founder of the National Indigenous Times and another pale-skinned Aboriginal, calling Price a ‘grub’ in response?

A little more difficult, no? Let’s apply the formula to the first:

  1. Price probably did assume that the man was not Aboriginal.
  2. She was affirming a norm that does exist where appearing black is linked with Aboriginality. Society has a lot of difficulty in determining if this is valid, but it is hard to tell someone who looks like Price that it is not. This criterion is a little vague.
  3. Both Price and the man knew exactly what Price wanted to say.

And the second:

  1. Price is not, in fact, a ‘grub’.
  2. Well, Graham is technically Aboriginal, however there does seem to be something racist in a white-skinned man calling a black-skinned woman a ‘grub’.
  3. His intent was pretty clear: he found it offensive that his Aboriginal appearance was being called into question by Price.

Should this be proscribed conduct? Not so sure now, are we?

But the worst part really is the ‘policy’ that Gelber puts forward at the end:

Might there be mechanisms other than apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs that might respond more effectively to hate speech?

One alternative is to provide a hate speech policy which allows for the generation of speech which aims to counter the claims of the hate speakers. This means providing an assisted response to those who would seek to contradict and counter the effects of hate-speech-acts. This means that victims and victim groups would be empowered to respond to, and to seek to contradict, the impact of and the discrimination embodied in, the utterance.

She then spends a while explaining the benefits of this idea. The problem is, this is not really a ‘policy’ – it is a goal.

Apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs are policies – they are things that can be implemented in the event that the Act is breached. Allowing the oppressed person to counter the claims of the speaker is not a policy. A policy could be, say, forcing the abuser to sit down with the abused and have at it – although I would question the effectiveness of this.

What I do know is that these vague alternatives have not convinced me that we can get rid of free speech protections in our racial vilification laws.

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Sunday quote: on tolerating intolerance

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Outwitted, by Edwin Markham. I came across this little epigram somewhere recently, liked it enough to Google it and then completely lost the source that I got it from.

Markham highlighted something that seems obvious, but everyone who claims to fight intolerance constantly seems to miss. Intolerance cannot be defeated with more intolerance, convincing people to be more tolerant of you requires being tolerant of them. The debate will not be won until you understand where the other side are coming from and recognise that they are not bad people and they have a valid perspective.

The best way to not win a debate is to start shouting “BIGOT! RACIST! SEXIST! HOMOPHOBE!” or whatever it may be, based solely on their being against a policy that you are in favour of and without actually listening to what the person is saying.

Don’t draw your own circle and shut him out the way he shut you out, draw the circle that takes him in.

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Gina Rinehart and how self-styled “progressives” are keeping the boardroom male

This is the first of two posts on Gina Rinehart,  resulting from a few debates that I have been having over the past few days, mostly on Facebook. The other one will consider her Fairfax bid and press freedom.

IN MY line of work, I get to spend quite a lot of time in high-level boardroom meetings with people who all sit on corporate boards. I also have a few relatives who have sat on various boards in their time and my extended networks include quite a number of others. This means that while am not on any corporate boards, I am not a stranger to them either.

I still remember the first time I was at one of said meetings and a female colleague muttered to me, “do you notice anything particularly… male about the room?” The truth was that I hadn’t. While I had definitely noticed that I was the youngest person in the room by at least a decade (two if you didn’t count her). Until she pointed it out to me, it did not occur to me that she was the only woman there.

That incident jolted me into awareness. Since then, I have been paying attention to the gender balance when I am in corporate settings and a lot of observations have struck me that anecdotally support the mountains of research showing that the boardroom is simply not a place for girls. Not once in the last couple of years have I ever seen anything that even comes close to gender balance. Several times, there have actually been no women present. I also find that the “higher-level” the meeting, the less women tend to be invited.

That said, there are other observations that I can make about people in boardrooms than merely their gender. They are generally very sure of themselves – often manifesting as arrogance, but always including a calm and confident demeanour. They are hard-working, ambitious and persistent to the point of obsession, they know what they want and they make it happen. They are uncompromising – they expect the best and will not accept anything less. They are often very blunt and straight-talking. They can be friendly and charming when they want to, but they can be aggressive and intimidating when they have to.

I note these things not as a criticism of the corporate world and certainly not as an affront to the people that I am writing about. I have a tremendous amount of respect for most of them, they work harder than anyone else I know and they do amazing and under-appreciated (if not under-paid) work, without which our society could not function.

I MENTIONED those character traits is because of a common thread running through them: they are generally “alpha male” traits, they are not things that women are “supposed” to be. Women are loving, conciliatory, family-oriented and selfless. Women are neurotic and emotional, they doubt themselves, they shut-down and cry when bad things happen and they panic when they are stressed. They are not confident, ambitious, persistent and aggressive. When shit hits the fan, they are the ones panicking and screaming, not the ones who take-charge – at least in most sitcoms. [UPDATE: as the comments show, apparently this paragraph was not interpreted correctly by everyone, so I need to give a disclaimer. The previous paragraph was not intended to be a true and accurate reflection of how all women behave, it was supposed to be illustrative of a stereotype.]

Again, I am not trying to say that it is a bad thing for someone to put others first, display their emotion and focus more on relationships than outcomes. I am trying to say that doing this is unlikely to get you ahead in the corporate world (or in other areas of public life). If you doubt yourself, the person who believes in themself will get the pay-rise or the promotion. If you shut-down and cry or panic, someone else will take charge. If you compromise, someone else won’t and they will have the better result in the end. Potential alone can only get you so far, there is not a lot of room at the top and to get there requires hard work, sacrifices and, above all, wanting to be there more than everyone else.

The public image of most successful women in Australia does not fit the stereotype of a high-powered Director. I say “public image” because, from my experience, the women who get to these positions do have most of these traits in private, but are able to create a persona that comes across as more “feminine” when they want to.

I refuse to believe that the corporate exec described above is actually gender-related. I know plenty of men who do not act like that. That character is simply how a person needs to act in order to reach the top of the corporate ladder – possibly the most competitive position anyone can aspire to reach (except maybe professional athlete). Other high-profile positions (rockstar, politician etc) require a huge amount of luck as well as hard work, becoming a CEO or company chair is about nothing except ability, attitude and work ethic.

THERE IS one very notable exception: Gina Rinehart. Here is a woman who is overweight and unattractive, but clearly not too concerned about her appearance and uninterested in the world of glamour and fashion. She is abrasive, intimidating and even a bully. She is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants, without regard to the way it makes her look or the people she is offending. She is ambitious, single-minded and dedicated to the point where she supposedly goes without any of the frills that other billionaires afford themselves so that she can re-invest all her money into her company.

She is also not a “loving mother” figure by any stretch of the imagination. She is reportedly quiet and reserved in person and she keeps her personal affairs completely private. What did leak last year was that, having judged her children as inept for running her company, she offered them each $300mln a year in return for signing-away their shares. When they refused, she fought them all the way to the High Court – becoming estranged in the process.

Meanwhile, her achievements are incredible. She inherited a floundering, debt-ridden mining company that was making its money from a lucky break and transformed it into a hugely profitable, gigantic operation – becoming the world’s wealthiest woman in the process. She is now in the process of planning the biggest Australian-owned mining development in history and is funding it entirely on her own.  Yes, she was born into some wealth due to a lucky find by her father, but many people born into wealth spend their lives turning a large fortune into a small one. She turned a small fortune into a gargantuan one.

And yet she is being punished for this – not by the Andrew Bolts and Alan Jones’ of this world, but by the very people that would generally be the first to jump to her defence if she hadn’t made the unfortunate mistake of being a Conservative and one of the mining magnates vilified by Wayne Swan. Oh, as well as committing the awful sin of giving jobs to people who weren’t lucky enough to be born in Australia.

The best (but not the only) example was the abuse she received from David Marr and Miriam Margolyes on Q and A last month:

Note: I did not criticise the others as Barry Humphries was playing a character, Tony Jones was trying to defend her while still maintaining his “distance” as chair, Jacki Weaver seemed a little stunned and John Hewson later said he regretted not arguing but felt overwhelmed. Also, Marr and Margolyes were the two noted “feminists” on the panel.

THAT INCIDENT did receive fairly wide coverage – in News Ltd papers. It was all but ignored in the ABC, Fairfax (well, aside from the SMH’s balance columnist), New Matilda etc. Some good responses were written that I could find in more minor leftist publications, however it was generally her political allies that were jumping to her defence. More anecdotally, the people on my social networks who would normally be concerned about this kind of thing have been completely silent.

Why is this such a problem? Because it shows that this kind of abuse is acceptable for women that the left don’t like. It sends the message that the only reason anyone complains about comments aimed at Julia Gillard or Christine Milne is that they are on the left and not because this kind of discourse should be unacceptable. It reaffirms the idea that women shouldn’t act like CEOs, which discourages women from acting like CEOs, which in turn means women won’t become CEOs.

To some degree I think that it may be that people who hold corporate leaders in contempt yet think they want to see more women being corporate leaders were somehow expecting female corporate leaders to be more like “women” and less like “businessmen”. The issues inherent in that assumption should speak for themselves.

It’s all well and good to conduct research and then complain about the lack of women at the top, but unless there are a lot of ambitious and competitive young women willing to fight to get there, nothing will ever change.

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UN Steps-up Syria Intervention

Now Kofi Annan AND Ban-Ki Moon have issued a JOINT STATEMENT, condemning Syria in the “STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS”. Hold onto your seats guys, this shit just got serious!

Fighting Assad one strongly worded statement at a time | Article | The Punch.

The Secretary-General and the Joint Special Envoy condemn in the strongest possible terms the killing, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of El-Houleh, near Homs.  Observers from the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria have viewed the bodies of the dead and confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighbourhood.

It seems that the UN observers are doing a great job observing more things for the UN to condemn, and the UN leadership is issuing condemnations right on cue. As Tory Maguire said in that rather aptly titled post that I linked to, “well that ought to do the trick.”

I think Jeffrey Goldberg had the best critique of this devastating strategy being employed by the UN, the US and the rest of the international community:

Obama Hits Syria With Brutal Blast of Adverbs – Bloomberg.

Almost 10,000 people [now over 13,000] have died in the current Syrian uprising, and each passing day brings the killing and torture of more civilians, including many children.

Some critics say the U.S. has shamed itself by not intervening aggressively on behalf of Syria’s rebels and dissidents.

They’re wrong. The Obama administration hasn’t helped to arm the rebels, nor has it created safe havens for persecuted dissidents. But it has done something far more important: It has provided the Syrian opposition with very strong language to describe Assad’s various atrocities.

The administration’s unprecedented verbal and written sorties against the Assad regime have included some of the most powerful adjectives, adjectival intensifiers and adverbs ever aimed at an American foe. This campaign has helped Syrians understand, among other things, that the English language contains many synonyms for “repulsive.”

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Sunday quote: expert opinions

Experts who venture “opinions” (sometimes merely their own inference of fact), outside their field of specialised knowledge may invest those opinions with a spurious appearance of authority, and legitimate processes of fact-finding may be subverted.

– High Court of Australia Chief Justice Murray Gleeson in HG v R (1999) 197 CLR 414.

These kinds of legal principles apply well beyond the courtroom. What Gleeson said rings true in everyday life and the media especially. It is precisely this phenomenon that results in crackpots like Noam Chomsky being listened to when they spout conspiratorial, pseudo-historic nonsense.

Being a decorated expert in linguistics or any other discipline does not mean that someone has any authority to speak about politics. Similarly, being a top geologist does not necessarily mean that someone will have any expertise in climate science; and being a climate scientist is not the same as being an economist.

We all need to be a little bit more skeptical about “experts” speaking outside their field of expertise – particularly when they are saying the opposite to what people who are genuinely experts in that field are talking about.

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Beitenu is a socialist party and the difference between racism and the right

Liam quoting Neve Gordon quoting Menachem Begin. Both followed the “oh, what a surprise that the former doyenne of the Israeli right was using rhetoric that you think is left wing compared with the Israeli right now” kind of shtick:

Who said that Zionist quote? (You’ll never guess) – Liam Getreu.

“We do not accept the semi-official view … wherein the state grants rights and is entitled to rescind them. We believe that there are human rights that precede the human form of life called a state.”

“We have learned that an elected parliamentary majority can be an instrument in the hands of a group of rulers and act as camouflage for their tyranny. Therefore, the nation must, if it chooses freedom, determine its rights also with regard to the House of Representatives in order that the majority thereof, that serves the regime more than it oversees it, should not negate these rights.”

Here’s the thing: this does not show how the Israeli right has moved further right. For all the moralising against Begin for being some kind of proto-fascist, he was the one who gave away the entire Sinai peninsular in exchange for peace with Egypt. He was right wing in the classical tradition and he followed Jabotinsky’s strong secular, liberal tradition. As evidenced by these quotes, this was not just a nationalist movement, it was a fervently democratic one. In fact, Jabotinsky was the first Zionist leader to recognise Palestinian nationalism and the first to call for Arab residents to play a role in Israeli society.

The classical Revisionist doctrine has not been entirely lost, it can still be seen in the old generation of Likud — the likes of Bibi, Reuvlin et al. The anti-liberal activity that Liam/Gordon are railing about come from the left of politics — parties like Yisrael Beitenu, who are pretty much a group of racist socialists. Bibi is blocking Lieberman’s antidemocratic reforms as Lieberman blocks Bibi’s free-market reforms. Lieberman is demanding more public housing and social welfare while he busies himself with depriving Israeli Arabs and curtailing the judiciary.

In any country that didn’t define “left” and “right” according to how willing a party is to trust Palestinians, most of Likud’s “right wing coalition” would be firmly on the left. I am completely opposed to this characterisation of Beitenu as “right wing”. They are possibly the most socialist, interventionist, big-government party in Israeli politics today. Being racist does not make someone right wing, as anyone who has seen the bile that the far left spout about Jews and Israel will know, the left is not exactly lacking in racists.

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Blind Sparrow won’t save Aussie literature

Overland editor Jeff Sparrow is one who has often flirted with the lunatic fringe. But then, I guess that’s to be expected from the editor of the self-proclaimed “most radical of Australia’s long-standing literary and cultural magazines”. Interestingly, the Overland website indicates that the journal is supported by – you guessed it – public money. The key sponsors are: the City of Melbourne, the Federal Government, the Victorian Government, Melbourne University and – oddly – UNESCO.

Let me dwell on that last one for a second. The UN body tasked with promoting education and social/cultural rights throughout the world is spending money every year supporting some crackpot quarterly journal whose website, according to Alexa, gets less Australian hits than this one (which, by the way, gets substantially less funding. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to fund Major Karnage, I’m very open to the idea…). Don’t they have better things to spend their money on, like recognising Palestine as a state? Oh, never mind.

Point is, given the amount of public funding flowing into Sparrow’s journal and thus allowing him to keep his job, it is not surprising that he is so devastated at the idea of public funding for the arts in Australia being cut:

Note: I feel the need to “fisk” the article a little.

A new defence of literature is urgently needed – The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

When right-wing parties win elections, arts administrators generally repeat to each other a piece of consolatory folk wisdom, along the lines that conservative governments fund culture more generously than their Labor counterparts. But if that were ever true, it rested upon a patrician sensibility in which certain manifestations of high culture (opera, ballet, etc) were understood as ritualistic reinforcements of class power: thus an orchestra, say, might be subsidised because its performances featured on the social calendar of those people who traditionally bankrolled the Liberal Party, even as experimental poetry might be allowed to wither.

What is “experimental poetry” anyway? What findings come from these experiments? Can experimental poetry pack opera houses full of people? Because if it can’t, I can definitely understand why an orchestra would get funding instead.

In any case, Tony Abbott’s a politician of a different stamp. … Like many of the new generation of Liberals, he’s spent his career chasing the Left out of what he sees as its institutional footholds. That seems to be at least part of the reason why Newman shut down Queensland’s awards – as the Oz helpfully reminds us, they “attracted controversy last year when former al-Qa’ida trainee David Hicks was shortlisted for the non-fiction award for his Guantanamo Bay: My Journey.”

Remind me again why Hicks’ book was shortlisted for the non-fiction award? By most accounts, it was a horribly written and only arguably a work of “non-fiction”. I’m extremely uncomfortable with this glorification of Hicks anyway. Even accepting that he was mistreated, he is still a man with an extremely racist and hateful worldview who supports the use of violence against innocent people (who aren’t him).

But he is hated by Bush and Howard, so I guess what does a little support for al-Qaeda matter? We can put aside the odd call for the slaughtering of the “Jews, non-believers and Americans”, right?

We need to build popular support. That seems obvious, but too often the responses to looming cuts in the sector begin and end with attempts to convince those making the decisions. What we need, instead, is public recognition of the value of culture, sufficient that ordinary people will rally to defend it.

That might seem like a tall order but there are reasons for optimism. Reading is, according to the ABS, a favoured leisure activity for about 60 per cent of Australians over the age of 15. The recent Books Alive survey claimed that in the week before the research, some 67 per cent of adults had read for pleasure. Writers’ festivals draw extraordinary numbers and are popping up all over the country, while creative writing courses are one of the biggest growth areas in Australian universities.

The people who care about books are out there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can articulate why literature is of importance or why reading is more than simply an enjoyable pastime.

That’s the challenge for those who work in the field. There’s an urgent need for a new defence of literature, arguments that are neither philistine populism nor patronising elitism, but instead make the case why writing should matter to ordinary people.

It’s something we’ve traditionally been very bad at. We need to get much better, very quickly.

Ok Mr Sparrow, want to build popular support? Here’s my first suggestion: stop apologising for David Hicks.

In fact, there’s something deeply troubling about this whole discussion. We are treating the axing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards as if it is simply an attack on the arts, but they very nearly gave $15000 to a man who has been forbidden to profit from his conviction for supporting terror. The Sydney Writer’s Festival hosted him last year as well. What are publicly-funded institutions doing promoting David Hicks?

Yes, people who care about books are out there, but pouring taxpayer dollars into Overland is not going to help the situation. I find it incredible that Sparrow was so snarky about Conservative support for the orchestra when his journal is propped-up to cater to an even smaller group of cultural elites than the ones going to see the Sydney Philharmonic play Chopin. In fact, once a vaguely right wing government takes over in Melbourne or federally, they would have every right to axe their funding to an establishment as openly partisan as Overland. We’re not talking the ABC here, which at least has the pretence of aiming to be balanced – Overland has an agenda that it makes very clear. Why should governments fund organisations that publish anti-government propaganda?

The literary magazines that do well are not funded publicly, they have to find advertisers and buyers like everyone else. Similar for literary awards – there are a lot of people and organisations that would love to brand themselves as supporting literature to appeal to educated Australians. They would not, however, want to be anywhere near David Hicks and many of them wouldn’t touch Jeff Sparrow either. Arts communities in Australia need to start finding ways to both solicit philanthropic donations and appeal to a broader audience. This will never happen if success continues to be determined by whoever impresses the Mayor of Melbourne more, rather than whoever sells more books.

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The line between NGO and Government

Good point by Robert Merry regarding American Government-funded NGOs working to “spread democracy” throughout the world:

Commentary: Unmasking the Democracy Promoters | The National Interest.

The Times reports that the United Arab Emirates has shut down the offices of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit U.S. agency whose mission is to promote democracy around the globe. The NDI is often called an NGO, short for nongovernmental organization, which might leave some people a bit quizzical given that this particular NGO is funded to a significant extent by the U.S. government. But Wikipedia helpfully explains: “In cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding governmental representatives from membership in the organization.”

… For anyone trying to understand why this anger is welling up in those countries, it might be helpful to contemplate how Americans would feel if similar organizations from China or Russia or India were to pop up in Washington, with hundreds of millions of dollars given to them by those governments, bent on influencing our politics. One supposes it would generate substantial anger among Americans if these groups tried to tilt our elections toward one party or another. But suppose they were trying to upend our very system of government, as U.S.-financed NGOs are trying to do these days in various countries—and have done in recent years in numerous locations.

Well… that actually does happen — hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by foreign governments on lobbying the US government every year — but that’s beside the point.

This is a problem that Israel is also dealing with — foreign governments fund organisations that operate within the country and have the express goal of bringing-down the current system. This is not to say that I disagree at all with what the organisations in Egypt are doing (I disagree completely with the ones in Israel), but if they are funded by the US government, the argument that they do not answer to the government directly does not hold much weight.

Whether or not the government actually has a representative on the board is not particularly important. Any organisation is beholden to its funders. The organisations in Egypt are in a position where they can only operate because of the US government and therefore the US government can shut them if it so chooses. That means that they pretty much have to do what the government tells them, it also means that the government is effectively sending them to Egypt. It is understandable, then, that the Egyptian authorities would be a little upset that the organisations are actively working against them.

Again, I completely support trying to bring democracy to Egypt, I just don’t like this “secret” diplomacy. It’s like the US give a wink and a smile to the Egyptians and say “don’t worry, we’re still friends, they aren’t really acting on our behalf. We’re just paying them to be there, that’s all.” It’s not fooling anyone.

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