March 10, 2008
LEFT HOOK: July 05, AU Edition
Now’s your chance, Mr. Howard: Go, Johnny, go!
Australian politics is entering unfamiliar territory in that, for the first time in a quarter of a century, the government of the day now controls both Houses of Parliament. Having spent the duration of the Howard Government arguing against their agenda, I guess their Senate majority is a cue for me to redouble my efforts and do what I can to critique and resist what already seems to be a bad bunch of policy options.
But I realise that this moment actually offers me a chance to give John Howard a piece of gratuitous, though sincere, advice. Believe me, my inclination is not to do him any favours, but maybe I’m just homesick enough – I’m about to head back to Oz after three years in the United States – to see what maybe we should all see more clearly, namely, that sometimes politics offers us opportunities.
People argue that history is bearing down on Mr. Howard and that he shouldn’t waste the opportunity of his Senate majority in the way he himself believes Malcolm Fraser did after 1975. I’d like to suggest
another historical possibility.
The fact is, like no prime minister in recent history, Mr. Howard is on the verge of greatness.
Indeed, he is in the rare position of being able to implement change that would not only honour the liberalism that underpins his party philosophy but that would end some of the most divisive and intractable debates since the Dismissal. Plus, it would undermine his opponents such that there would be virtually no challenge his government couldn’t undertake.
In short, the prime minister would so reek with political credibility that all would wilt before him.
The first step would be to offer an apology to Aboriginal people for past injustices. Think about it. He would in one stroke provide the basis for the sort of symbolic recognition that he himself admits is needed, without for one second undermining his insistence on ‘practical reconciliation’. His opponents would be blind-sided and could offer nothing but praise.
Second, he could embrace the Georgiou reforms on immigration and asylum seekers and end the utterly illiberal policy of indefinite detention, freeing children and their families, without at all undermining his government’s basically sound stance on border protection. Once again, his opponents would be floored.
Finally – and admittedly, most difficultly – he could ignore the special interest calls for a ‘more flexible’ workforce and publicly recognize that a worker is not just another factor of production, but that work itself is the basis from which people find a sense of personal identity and through which our society builds a stable and prosperous nation. He could level the playing field without at all damaging the economy.
Having thus transformed the political landscape, he could even do what so few political leaders get to do: retire gracefully at the top of his game.
It should be obvious that any one of these options would be personally difficult for the prime minister – though far from politically impossible – and that any attempt to do all of them would require an almost transcendent sense of duty and will power.
But that’s what greatness demands. A willingness to defy expectations. If he chose to grasp the moment, Mr Howard could seal his place in history as the most audacious leader of the modern period. Probably of any period. Johnny B. Great.
Tim Dunlop is a homeward-bound writer and author of Australia’s most widely-read left-leaning blog, www.roadtosurfdom.com
LEFT HOOK: Nov 05, AU Edition
Schools can play a bigger role promoting democratic values
The last 30 days or so have seen Australians come to grips with a diverse range of challenging images. We have been traumatised by scenes of bomb victims in Bali and intrigued by reports of asylum seekers recanting core claims. University students demand change and industrial relations debates create new coalitions of interest amongst old enemies. Claims that non-compulsory voting is bad for our civil society contrast with champions of choice seeking freedom in social behaviour or consumer purchase.
It is no wonder that most primary school children I talk to, and I have visited an awful lot of schools for my work, are bemused by the idea of democracy. They seem to think it is a ‘good’ but are unsure what it entails.
The Constitution Education Fund – Australia, CEFA for short, has gone to the trouble of researching the ‘five pillars of Australian democracy’ for the purpose of getting primary school aged kids excited about this thing called Australian democracy. The research has come back and the results are clear: neither fashionable words like ‘multiculturalism’ or conflict-orientated ideas like ‘class struggle’ mean anything to today’s youth.
What young Australians aged 10 or 11, from the 350 student sample involved in our pilot programs this year, seem to identify with democratic values are both obvious and simplistically sensational. They talk about ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ in the same breath as they discuss what their parents talk about regarding the evening television news.
Rights and responsibilities are ‘cool’, whereas dopey adults with ideas about changing the world are suspect unless or until they gain young Australians trust. Traditions are a fluid concept: a girl with a Greek surname is just as likely to be into Scottish Highland dancing as the boy with the Chinese surname is to be into surfing.
In 2004 a study commissioned by the government found some interesting things: only about 45 percent of 17-year-olds intend to register to vote, whereas about 85% of 18-year-olds would vote if enrolled. Less than 60 percent of young adults believe that they have the knowledge to understand political issues and only about 41% of female first-time voters say they have the knowledge to make decisions when voting.
The top sources of information that young people declare they trust about voting or elections are parents, the media, and school teachers. Religious groups and the internet fall at the lower end of the scale.
When asked if people in government can be trusted to do the right thing about half of 18 year olds agreed. When asked if the people running government are smart or clever, ‘yes’ answers fell to around 35%.
What these and other sources say to me is that the five pillars of democracy are: the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, federal power sharing, rights and responsibilities, traditions and opportunities. They are not foreign to what older Australians understood from their schooling.
If teachers and the school experience are so critical to students, what are we doing as a society to make their transition to adult political life worthwhile, effective and smart? These questions are being examined around the country today. The answers to these challenges may shape the effectiveness of our responses to terror, trauma and tedious global economics.
Noel Hadjimichael is Director of the Governor-General’s Prize Program. More information about CEFA can be found at www.cefa.org.au.
LEFT HOOK: June 05, AU Edition
Australian energy policy is far too crude
President George Bush has asked Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to reduce the pressure on oil prices. It is a short-term, politically expedient solution to the problem and demonstrates a lack of understanding of one of the most serious economic and development issues of our time. Managing the decline of oil must begin now and our leaders need to pull their head out of the sand and start talking about it. The short-term political issue may be the price at the pump, but the medium to long-term issue is the lack of oil into the future.
Keeping prices low is not going to help anyone. Even motorists who demand lower prices will only face more dramatic increases in the future. The oil markets are doing us all a favour.
Australia has very low energy prices, yet we have the audacity to complain about them. A government legacy that future generations would look back on and appreciate would protect the future economy from more dramatic falls would be to encourage less consumption of petrol and conserve it for future generations.
As much as President Bush would like to think increased global production would bring the price of oil down, it may not. Even the current $50-plus dollars for a barrel of crude is based on speculation, not availability. Currently, there is enough oil to go around, but buyers and analysts are not sure for how much longer. Some suggest the price is over-inflated by over $20 dollars. This is a naïve view.
The market is actually protecting us because like it or not, we are running out of oil. We have been running out since we started extracting it from the ground. Oil is a fossil fuel and by its nature there is only a certain amount.
The British Oil Depletion Analysis Centre predicts the Earth’s original oil holdings were around 2000 to 2400 billion barrels. About only half of this is left. And, it is only in the last 30 years we have really become serious oil users. This is what peak oil is all about and what the markets are waiting for.
Peak oil refers to the point in time when extraction of oil from the earth reaches its highest point and begins to decline. We won’t be able to say when we have reached peak oil until after the fact.
Kenneth Deffeyes is a geologist at Princeton University and an expert in the work of Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert. Hubbert successfully predicted peak oil production in the US almost 15 years before it occurred in 1970. Deffeyes has used Hubbert’s work to analyse global oil supplies and estimates that global peak will occur sometime this year.
This is what is keeping the markets on edge. With more experts coming forward and predicting we are close to peak oil, prices are starting to reflect nervousness about scarcity.
When peak oil kicks in it, the decline will become obvious. We are on an exponential curve where oil consumption is concerned because the oil supply is decreasing and demand shows no sign of slowing.
At a federal level politicians need to start discussing the impact of oil decline on our nation. They need to begin debating what alternatives are required and where investment should go to support those alternatives.
Prices can’t be kept low, but our consumption can be changed and alternatives can be sought. But we need to start acting now.
Daniel Donahoo is a fellow at OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank
LEFT HOOK: May 05, AU Edition
How does the right win? By aping the worst habits of the left
One of the problems of war is that you inevitably come to resemble your enemy. Nowhere is this more true than in the battle of the American right, and its Australian derivatives, against the ‘politically correct’ left of the 1980s and 1990s. The PC left, never a group with much in the way of numbers or influence, have long since been routed, but they have been successful in having most of their main ideas adopted by their erstwhile foes.
First, there’s the famous obsession with ‘correct’ language. This was the subject of both justified criticism and innocent amusement when leftists tried to reclassify fat people as ‘gravitationally challenged’, and so on. But now it’s the right who are most keen on this kind of thing.
As an example, I can’t count the number of articles and blog entries I’ve read insisting that unauthorised asylum-seekers must always be called ‘illegals’. The writers, many of whom bewail declining educational standards in their spare time, don’t seem to be worried by the fact that this is an adjective masquerading as a noun. And they appear to be unaware that the same term was used in apartheid South Africa to describe people who broke the various migration and residence laws there.
The victim mentality was another unappealing feature of the postmodern left. No group, it seemed, was immune to oppression of some kind, except perhaps for dead white males. But nothing in the campaigns mounted by the left can be matched by the whininess of right-wingers (led by former whining lefty David Horowitz) complaining that they are under-represented in academic (and media) jobs. By definition, those excluded from academia must be highly educated, and in most cases therefore on above average incomes. Most likely, they have no desire to earn much lower salaries as academics. But, in the classic logic of victimology, explanations of this kind are illegitimate. If a group is under-represented in any field, discrimination is the only possible explanation.
At the same time all the old complaints about ‘hostile climates’ that were once made by lefties are now being resurrected by the right. The Florida legislature is currently debating legislation to stop biology professors hurting the feelings of creationist students by telling them their beliefs are false. And any academic who doesn’t support Ariel Sharon all the way down the line had better keep his or her mouth shut if they don’t want groups like Campus Watch on their back.
Finally, and most revealingly, there’s the postmodern disdain for objective truth. While there was a lot of evasive talk on this point, there’s no doubt that the postmodernist left was eager to cast doubt on the idea of objective truth and to argue that truth, particularly scientific truth, was a socially constructed concept.
Most of this was harmless nonsense, spouted by underemployed literary critics. But to many on the right, it seemed to spell the end of Western civilisation.
Now, however, the right has learned the lessons of postmodernism better than its proponents, who failed to make the obvious point that, if all truths are equal, the truths of those with money and power are the ones that will prevail.
There was a time when rational leftists were embarrassed by their political allies. Now, it is the minority of those on the right who still adhere to old-fashioned notions like scientific truth who have to blush constantly for the absurdities uttered on their side of the debate.
LEFT HOOK: Apr 05, AU Edition
Respect for women will go a long way to preventing AIDS
There are said to be between five and six million AIDS cases in India, which makes it amongst the Asian countries worst hit by the virus. Whilst still far from Zimbabwe’s infection rate of 40%, countries like
Cambodia are getting up around 10% - an alarming figure for a country which only ten years ago had no known AIDS deaths. According to Time magazine, 6,000 people contract AIDS worldwide per day.
We all know that the disease is spread through prostitution and intravenous drug use, which is certainly true. But one could also say it is spread by husbands who visit prostitutes, then carry the virus home to their wives, who then get pregnant and pass it on to their next child.
An unknown, but probably very high, percentage of Asia’s prostitutes are stolen away from their homes and taken to a city or another country and enslaved into prostitution. These disappearances are common in Nepal, where I currently live. Girls frequently disappear from villages. They are seldom traced because villagers know these girls are irretrievable, and even if they are retrieved, they are outcasts in their former home because of their defilement.
Less talked about is the reality that many of these girls are not stolen, but sold by their families into the sex trade for a small amount of cash and to relieve the burden of another mouth to feed.
I have not met any parents who have disposed of their daughter in this way, and while it sounds barbaric, it first has to be understood that there are different forms of morality in operation here. To illustrate, I use the example of Nepalese culture’s response to an incidence of rape. When a rapist is caught he is “punished” by being forced to marry his victim.
I read the Himalayan Times every morning and frequently learn of such marriages, and yet have never seen the question raised of whether the victim is keen to marry her violator.
The moral concept seems to be that a man cannot have his bit of fun with a woman without taking on the responsibility of her whole life by becoming her husband. The moral concept for the woman concerned is a little harder to phrase, but it seems as if the penalty for being a victim is the same as for being a perpetrator.
I have some good Nepali friends who run a trekking agency with whom I discuss these things.
I expressed my wishful idea that Nepal seemed different to other Asian countries, more innocent somehow. They took me across the road to what I thought was a restaurant. In fact the restaurant was a front for a brothel in which girls around 12 to 14 years old sat waiting in ‘booths’, partitioned only by a curtain.
I was then taken for a walk through central Kathmandu and shown numerous such ‘restaurants’. It seemed every second one was a brothel. The girls were so young, I asked what kind of men would seek sex with such children. My friends answered with a sweeping gesture to indicate the entire street scene in front of me.
At about the same time I met a man from South Africa who for twenty years owned an auto parts shop which hired mostly black employees. Several times over the years a woman would show up at his door and plead for employment. Being generous-hearted he would create a job for them, but to his horror every time there was a woman employee on the premises she would be group-raped by his male staff. I immediately wanted to know if he fired all his staff and called the police. He laughed at my stupidity, saying that the men’s replacements would probably be worse, and that you would be hard pressed to find a black female in Africa who hasn’t been raped. These men saw sexual access to a woman as their right. The women didn’t want this to happen, but expected that it would.
So we are told AIDS spreads through prostitutes. Captive,
enslaved, child prostitutes, often hooked on the drugs that are also forced upon them. Various AIDS agencies and international aid organisations are intently targeting the Asian AIDS outbreak, and their primary tactic thus far is to distribute free condoms and syringes.
This is as clever an idea to my mind as is distributing free cigarette filters to children we wish to discourage from smoking. I can see the motive of the handouts is to minimize deaths and stem the spread of the disease, but it is a double-edged sword which also encourages the very activities that generate the epidemic.
At the root of this kind of approach lies the demoralisation of science. Because AIDS is transmitted through the blood, we treat it scientifically by protecting the organs and instruments that infiltrate body tissue. Why do I see this as being almost completely pointless? Because it is modern medicine yet again treating the symptom, as if the whole concept of a ‘cause’ is outside its realm, in the Darwinian realms of randomness, of nature playing its endless game of chance.
When plagues, typhoid and leprosy were our major health threats a few hundred years ago, we learnt the hard way about dealing with our waste products, the incubus for disease. It forced us to clean up our acts, to desist from throwing our toilet waste into the street below. These diseases are now largely erased from developed nations and new foes face us, forcing us to take a look at other disease-causing aspects of our behaviour.
Medical science has spent a century trying to convince us diseases are essentially random when it comes to whom they find as a host. Once, so frustrated at contracting two, three or four bouts of serious influenza every winter, I approached my doctor and asked what I could do to improve my condition so that I was not so susceptible. I was told the ‘flu virus is random, that one cannot protect oneself. A second opinion from another doctor confirmed this professional view.
Ten years later, I have had neither cold nor ‘flu for at least five years, due to spending several years slowly learning about my body, my diet and my immune system.
I could cite countless examples of what we in the West would call depraved sexuality on continents like Asia and Africa. Is calling such things depraved a judgement? Do I have a right to claim that making a woman marry her rapist is depraved, or the selling of a daughter into prostitution? Maybe not, but I certainly have a right to blame the wildfire spread of AIDS on such practices.
People need to change, as we once needed to change our behaviour in the Middle Ages to stop the spread of disease. Giving long-distance truck drivers free condoms is not going to stop the spread of AIDS. These truck drivers are free to use as many roadside women as they wish, but they are also free to die of AIDS. Apparently a commonly held belief in Africa is that males do not contract, carry nor infect with AIDS: it is a woman’s disease. Western medical missionaries call this kind of belief ignorance, easily rectified by education. But myths such as these are not founded in mere ignorance, but societal malice. Education of the mind will not fix something that is a problem of the heart.
Such beliefs and their concomitant behaviours are at the root of the AIDS epidemic. Until women are honoured, loved and respected, and men and women are raised with a healthy approach to sexuality
in great continents like Asia and Africa, AIDS will have its way, and no amount of medical intervention will stem the tide. AIDS is about attitude.
Left Hook, Mar 05, AU Edition
Freedom of speech? Sure – just don’t mention the war
I am not a racist. In fact, I’m something of a sensitive multi-culturalist: the more complex the cultural stew, the better. But a vile bigot I may turn out to be if, in the eyes of the Hu-man Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, I’m found guilty of “repeated racial vilification” for dissing, of all people, Germans.
The accusations have been levelled by a German-Australian in a document that as hysterical as it is histrionic. Yet the commission regards it as grave enough to have written me demanding a response and threatening sanctions.
And so I find myself in a free-speech trial. The complainant asserts that I’ve maligned the German people by uttering “extremely disturbing and racially offensive remarks” in several articles written for the Weekend Australian magazine.
Now, I’m enough of a sensitive centre-leftie to believe in the notion of racial vilification as embodied in the Racial Discrimination Act. On the other hand, I’m enough of a realist to want the law’s purview restricted to races (not nations) that may be tangibly harmed by acts of repeated vilification and manifest “hatred”.
As I write these words, a copy of the HREOC complaint lies open on my desk. It includes three photocopies of the offending articles, incendiary passages underlined. The first contains the line: “The Germans have always had the gift of killing to music.” I wrote this on May 29, 2004. Or, rather, I cited it. The line is a quotation by the Austrian writer-journalist Joseph Roth in a 1938 essay in which he warned of “the political terror that Hitler contrives to exert over his European colleagues”. The beauty of Roth’s “killing to music” phrase is that it goes to the paradox of National Socialism: how does the Nazi killing machine sit with the culture of Bach and Mozart, heir to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment? I’d defend his use of it in this historical context, and my re-use of it in the same context, a thousand times. How have we come to the point where a writer risks drawing down upon himself the weight of the Racial Discrimination Act by quoting a 1938 article about the rise of the Hitler machine? The questions raised by Roth in this taut and elegant phrase will plague mankind for eternity. And yet the Canberra bureaucracy appears sympathetic to the view that they should not be uttered in public.
The other claims in the dispatch from HREOC are based on overheated and neurotic misreadings of my articles, including one in which I refer to “German shame” in the context of a war cemetery.
This is the problem with any discussion of Germany’s behaviour during the war. Hitler was voted into office by 37 per cent of the population and his plans were carried out with alacrity by many ordinary Germans, as illustrated by Daniel Goldhagen in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. A nation, a race, a people were involved both explicitly and tacitly in the Nazi machine. The historical facts lead one to consider a degree of collective German shame: to do otherwise is to not have the discussion.
Recently I had reason to write again about Joseph Roth as I was reviewing a collection of his journalism (1925-39). Roth was a fierce opponent of Hitler and his writing foreshadowed the disaster. I found myself drawn to his reflections on Germany and the Germans of his time (reflections that draw on the memories of World War One and of Prussian militarism). I stalked them warily, and moved on. I had been bullied, finally, into self-censorship.
LEFT HOOK: Sep 05, AU Edition
Why do conservatives hate this Western success story?
Since September 11, the right has been at pains to argue there is no such thing as root causes for the jihadist terrorism that currently plagues us. To even mention things like US foreign policy as a source of grievance for criminals such as al Qa’ida was to invite ridicule. To this day, John Howard and his supporters attack anyone who dares suggest the invasion of Iraq makes us more of a target. The argument was that these terrorists were simply evil, that their actions were a personal failing that needed no reference to any socio-political context to explain.
But it seems times are changing. Conservatives have decided to embrace the notion of root causes, and a recent spate of op-ed pieces inform us that all our problems are down to (wait for it) multi-culturalism.
Yes, folks, mention that blowing up thousands of civilians in cities like Fallujah might tend to get some Muslims off side and you’ll get called a traitor. Put forward the notion that Western acceptance of religious and cultural practices from around the world in a spirit of liberal democratic tolerance is the problem and you’ll be hailed as an intellectual.
I suspect conservatives like Janet Albrechtsen and others are drawing on The West and the Rest, the recent book by British conservative, Roger Scruton. I’m actually a part-time fan of Scruton’s, but the thrust is the same as Albrechtsen: we have been far too tolerant and all our ills can be traced to progressive social innovations that have undermined ‘our way of life’.
The thing that strikes me about these conservative screeds is that although they purport to be defences of Western culture against the corruption of the so-called postmodern left, they actually glow with their own Western hatred and a blasé dismissal of genuine democratic achievement.
Scruton speaks (correctly) of the need for society to ‘renew itself’, but fails to notice that that is precisely what multiculturalism was: a successful exercise in which the West managed to accommodate the post-WW II changes forced upon it. It was a sign of supreme cultural confidence and generosity which we should be proud of, not looking to scapegoat.
But scapegoat it they will. Australian conservatives also manage to combine a sense of colonial cringe with the dispiriting view of Western achievement they share with Scruton.
Pundits like Albrechtsen wish to abandon Australia’s success because of British difficulties, while Mr Howard takes his lead from Tony Blair rather than having the confidence to suggest that maybe the Brits could take a page out of our own book.
The fact is, conservatives have never liked the idea of multiculturalism, and you can draw a straight line from Enoch Powell, through Margaret Thatcher, to John Howard and Pauline Hanson as indicative of the sort of opposition that has been mounted against commonsense, pragmatic measures that have actually worked very well. The truth is that these attacks on multiculturalism and other social policies are opportunistic and have nothing to do with fighting terrorism and everything to do with gaining domestic political advantage. Why else do they blame Western progressives rather than Islamic terrorists?
In amongst all this ranting from conservatives it is interesting to note the case of Matthew Stewart, a Queensland kid who went to a Lutheran school, loved surfing, joined the army, quit and joined al Qa’ida, and who is currently suspected of being the masked jihadist in a video tape promising to destroy Australia.