Monthly Archives: June 2010
Grass stains and fresh fruit remind our shoes of horse glue… and the advanced skills of interpretation
For foreigners and people disinterested in politics, Kevin Rudd is our most recent former Prime Minister. Australia had a bit of a problem: it had a political reader who wasn’t engaged in the public discourse and lacked a popular narrative. To the average person, he was something of an unknown quantity. When the Government faced problems, the inability of the public to understand the Prime Minister resulted in plummeting popularity polls — from his record-breaking highs to remarkably average results in only a few months.
When dealing with historical figures, writers situate them in a context which provides a coherent picture for analysis. There’s nothing new about this: writers such as Livy and Tacitus used these techniques to provide crisp images of their subjects: what drove these people? what made them who they were? what part of them could we emulate in our own lives? what part of them should we avoid in our own lives?
In his essay, Marr took a similar approach with Rudd. What was at the core of Rudd? How could Marr ‘make sense’ of Rudd?
SPOILER ALERT: Marr views Rudd as a creature of ‘impatient rage’ and views the life and actions of Rudd through that lens. It’s an excellent article and analysis.
What baffles me is the response it’s received in the media. There are two refutations of the essay available to critics:
1. ‘Using Marr’s approach of analysing Rudd through his anger does not bear useful results. Rudd’s anger is not all-pervasive and too much remains unexplained. Using Marr’s approach, I still do not feel like I understand Rudd.’
2. ‘While Marr’s approach is good and useful, there are other good and useful approaches. We could view Rudd through … [insert another lens here].’
Instead, various people have whined that Marr’s approach is somehow illegitimate. ’No, no,’ they seem to say, ‘You can’t view somebody through the lens of their anger. Here is a Wikipedia link and here’s a poem.’
For illustration, here’s Mark Bahnisch’s article on Crikey:
David Marr’s Quarterly Essay, “Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd”, already highlighted in the weekend papers, will no doubt garner even more attention now that it’s been released.
I’m in shock. Can you imagine the sheer power of Bahnisch’s mind grinding away for a night and a day to come to the conclusion that releasing an article causes the article to attract more attention? Give this man a research grant.
Marr contends that Rudd revealed himself as “most human” when he was angry at the conclusion of a dinner he’d had with the writer, and after Marr had told him that his argument in the essay was that Rudd’s “contradictions” were borne of rage. This seems to me to be absurd. I can’t imagine anyone under the same circumstances not being angry at such an insulting, wounding and trivialising line of argument.
Marr, it seems to me, was “thin-slicing”, using one aspect of his interpersonal experience with Rudd to confirm a purported broader pattern.
In which universe is this not a complete non sequitur? So what if he can’t imagine a person who has self restraint and poise? Bahnisch’s lack of imagination does not a rebuttal of Marr’s point make. By comparison, I can imagine a person who would not be angry at ‘such’ an insulting, wounding, and trivialising line of argument: me. Does this make Marr’s point more persuasive?
Consider also Scott Stephens over at ABC’s The Drum in ‘Murder in the party room: Rudd and the martyr complex‘. Stephens rarely shies from weird babbling: according to him, electing Schwarzenegger to Governor of California is Americans ‘retreat[ing] into fiction‘ and he had an article pulled from Eureka Street for being so offensive that even Andrew Bolt agreed with it.
And he doesn’t fail to meet the expectations in his criticism of David Marr.
Some puerile resentment stemming from childhood traumas explains nothing about Kevin Rudd because it explains everything. And Marr clearly errs in seeing it everywhere, coiled around the disparate elements of Rudd’s story, providing them the artificial consistency of a mediocre psychodrama.
What does that even mean? ’Explains nothing [...] because it explains everything’? It’s characteristic Unitarian babble: waffly sentences which try to hide the lack of substance in the criticism.
But let’s look at Stephens’ alternative:
Whether it be the calmly defiant Thomas More of Robert Bolt’s The Man for All Seasons or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brave resistance to the Nazi regime or the political assassination of Gough Whitlam, martyrs seem to function as a kind of idee fixe for Kevin Rudd. They order Rudd’s political passions in much the way that Lincoln or King or Bobby Kennedy do those of Barack Obama.
And here, I think, we have the key to the Rudd enigma – and perhaps the beginnings of an answer to the question with which I began. It’s not that Rudd wants to be a martyr. Rather, he wants to see himself through the eyes of the adoring throng that venerates the martyrs.
Le whut? All the words appear to be in English, but sense has gone on holiday.
Marr’s essay isn’t perfect — there are times where the essay seems to be something of a grudge match — but to offer flimsy assertions that Marr’s wrong ‘just because’ doesn’t seem to do the essay much justice.
Over on …in the woodshed, there’s a post about seeking encouragement from the story of the Hebrews in the Wilderness.
Naturally, I disagree with the post in the strongest terms. That’s not the interesting bit. The interesting part is this:
Yet after a couple of days in the desert, the Israelites started grumbling to Moses: “Would that we had died!” It reminds me of that story about Holocaust survivors, liberated by the Americans one day, and complaining the next day because they got tomato soup instead of chicken soup. The problem was that their hearts were still enslaved to Pharaoh, the principle being that you can get the people out of slavery, but you can’t get the slavery out of the people. At least, not without a long, loving process. Israel failed to see that they were free, but their hearts and minds were still in bondage to the oppressor. – …in the woodshed.
I hear sentiments like this a lot regarding people who’ve had a rough trot having the audacity to complain about something trivial. In the analysis given by …in the woodshed, the trivial complaints are caused by a psychological enslavement: they complain because they are still oppressed in their hearts.
The reality is quite different. We are lucky to live in an age where we have quite a considerable amount of research about all sorts of behaviour: complaining is but one of those. Research into complaining put on its grown up pants back in 1992 with ‘Complaining Behaviour in Social Interaction‘ by Alicke et al. in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The article inspired quite a bit of further research, including a particularly good article which I can’t find online. I suck.
The general idea is that it’s not always the content of the complaint which is the relevant aspect. More philosophically, in situations where the content is relevant, the trivialisation of the complaint is a defence mechanism of the empowered protecting their self image as rescuers (they expect to see gratitude for their actions and the complaints are seen as negating the gratitude: by rescuing, there is a social dynamic of the rescuer to the rescuee, even if the ‘rescuer’ in the dynamic is not the person who physically performed the rescue).
Complaining is a means of controlling the environment and rebelling. By making a complaint and having it acknowledged, the complainer has demonstrated to themselves and others that they have the ability to make complaints: their opinions matter. It’s why old people write letters of complaint to the newspapers disproportionately more than anybody else: they’ve lost their social power and attempt to regain it through complaining in print. This also goes for self victimisation: racists, for example, who complain because — despite having all the social power — they feel they have become subject to the authority of other people (‘Political correctness gone mad’). By complaining, they control the environment by asserting that they are worthy of consideration. See also references to ‘silent majority’: by complaining, they become a hero of everybody else who secretly believes everything that they do but haven’t got around to telling anybody.
By trivialising the content of the complaint (‘Boohoo, you got tomato soup instead of chicken. It’s better than Nazis. Would you prefer Nazis?’), the dominant culture fails to recognise the social elements of complaining. In that situation, can you imagine how a helpless group of people must be feeling? After being at the mercy of Nazis who controlled to the maximum degree every aspect of their lives, they’ve been rescued by a group who are telling them to eat what they’re given. Despite no longer being in danger, they still can’t control their lives. Thus, they can attempt to control their lives by complaining about ‘trivial’ things.
While trivial to us, it represents more to them.
A few people have told me that they feel sorry for Kevin Rudd.
For the life of me, I can’t work out why. His political career appears to be a less eloquent version of Macbeth – except Rudd played both the title role and the role of the three witches: ’All hail, me, I shall be king hereafter!’ All the character flaws play their role — the arrogance, the rage, the inability to maintain relationships — and then he’s toppled (interestingly not by a man of woman born… though the execution of this part makes Rudd seem more like the Witch-king of Angmar than Macbeth).
I have found it interesting that some are arguing that Kevin Rudd was elected by the people to be Prime Minister. Somehow, Julia Gillard is an illegitimate ruler of the country because the people didn’t elect her. It’s a strange argument and feeds into the conceit of people in democratic countries — the truth is, we don’t elect leaders; we elect parties.
The Prime Minister is whoever leads the party with the most seats in the lower house. If the party chooses to change its leader — which it can do at any point it likes — the Prime Minister changes accordingly. There’s no direct link between an election and the identity of the person who leads the country.
It’s this point which has fuelled a significant amount of hot air from the Republicans (those who want to do away with the monarchy; not the American political party). For some reason, Republicans want Australians to elect a single person to wield supreme executive power in Australia. This creates a certain link between the democratic process and the identity of the ruler of Australia. But that’s a discussion for later.
What Gillard did was appropriate. Rudd was a Prime Minister without a Party.
What should concern us more is the role of polls and the media in all of this. Rudd used the media cycle in order to become leader of the ALP. When he found that he couldn’t control the media cycle, the polls turned against him and toppled him. The media is not a neutral playing field: like the mining industry, the media is run by a group of very wealthy and self-interested white men. The media is also keen to protect its status as an essential organ of democracy and pumps out significant amounts of propaganda to sustain that image (see, for example, Balibo).
Given this and given the role it played in the Rudd Phenomenon, it might be a good time to have a public debate about the role of the media. Personally, I suspect it’s either time to start regulating the industry more carefully or it’s time to provide more resources to the ABC in order to have the very best news source in the public interest.
My car broke down last night during the rain. I was about a fifteen minute walk from home and I had a brolly, so off I went.
The path home is not always particularly well lit and I’m a quick walker. I’m also a quiet walker. While overtaking a woman who was walking along the same road, she decided to confront me.
‘Are you stalking me?’
So much went through my mind when I was challenged with that. On the one hand, personal security is a reasonable consideration for a woman walking home at night in the dark and wet. On the other hand, what could I have done differently to stop this situation from cropping up? My car had broken down and I was walking home; I had no idea that it would be unreasonable for me to use the footpaths in order to walk home. And how do you escape from this Gordian Knot of social interaction?
As I wasn’t stalking her, the answer to her question would be ‘No.’ If I were stalking her, I wouldn’t admit it, so the answer to her question would be ‘No’.
So I figured the answer would be to make my actions predictable and let her know where I was going. That way, she would know if I were an illegitimate traveller if I deviated from my established path.
It all seemed fairly reasonable. She apparently didn’t seem to think so.
Is there a way out of this problem? Or do guys have to decide between taking a cab or risk being accused of stalking?
A few years ago, I had cross words with a friend of mine when she indicated to a black guy that she was uncomfortable with him using the same footpath. She thought it was great that he apologised and crossed the road. I thought — and still think — that it was a crappy thing to do: in order to escape the stereotype that ‘All black guys want to attack white women’, he had to stop using the same footpaths as them.
This doesn’t seem like a reasonable outcome.
There’s math and there’s dealers and players and me… oh, and there’s submissive women in Disney movies
While it’s been around for a while, I highly recommend this post about Disney princesses.
The problem isn’t a new one: Disney does not always promote positive images of women. It was a problem they inherited from the source material: folk stories do not always promote positive images of women.
While the Disney princess is all very terrible, not a lot of attention is placed on the Disney villain. The default position is: if they’re male, they’re English; if they’re female, they’re hot. This was particularly the case in early films: Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) and Grimhilde (Snow White). Both evil, both smoking hot. There’s a bit of deviation, but not much.
What’s interesting is that these female villains are very overtly sexualised. They’re powerful and attractive, thus they’re evil. The objects of the prince’s desire are cute, innocent, and require protection.
In recent times, Disney has changed its focus. Instead of presenting princesses as an ambition for young girls (‘This is who you could be when you grow up if you shut up and look pretty’), it now presents teenagers as peer ideals to teenagers (‘This is who you could be right now if you buy enough cosmetics and seek the attention of the opposite sex’).
Not a lot is positive coming out of the culture machine, but raising consciousness inspires a very useful dialogue without having to dismiss the source material entirely.
Also, this image is awesome:
Running around, robbing banks, all whacked on the Scooby Snacks… Wait! Hippies robbing banks?! Isn’t that socialism?!
Far be it from me to besmirch the mighty boffins at the Institute of Public Affairs –
Wait. You haven’t heard of them? But they provide such excellent opinions, such as
- Ken Henry should resign as Secretary of the Treasury because he said that economists should ‘put down their weapons and join a consensus’.
- Australia is a ‘Nanny State’ and only ‘outsiders’ notice this.
- Australia is a ‘Nanny State’ in ten entirely different and extremely awful ways.
- Your kid is a wuss.
- Australia is a ‘Nanny State’ and your kids are fat.
– but there comes a time when you have to scratch your head and ask: ‘In which libertarian wet dream are you living, Chris Berg?’
In an article for The Drum, Berg takes a vague and pointless swipe at ‘growth sceptics‘. The assertions ranged from the absurd to the crazy.
Growing richer means getting healthier. People in wealthy countries live longer - this graph, which compares GDP per capita with life expectancy demonstrates that clearly enough. — Berg.
The graph is worth a look. It charts life expectancy at birth against the GDP per person adjusted for purchasing power. Take a look again and notice the x-axis.
This isn’t a straight line correlation at all. Check out how close together 1,000 and 2,000 are compared to 5,000 and 10,000. If you tease out the numbers with a consistent x-axis, you note that everything goes all over the shop and that beautiful line vanishes.
What the graph actually shows is that there are no high life expectancy countries which are poor. What it doesn’t show is that growing richer means getting healthier. If it did show that, there’d be a straight line correlation and countries like South Africa and Equatorial Guinea would be placed higher on the y-axis.
Further, it seems rather arbitrary to pick life expectancy as a measure. There are, for example, other measures. If I wanted to be like Mirror Universe Chris Berg, I’d say something like:
Growing richer means giving birth to more dead babies. People in the wealthiest countries have higher infant mortality rate that people in moderately rich countries. Just check out the top ten countries by GDP versus their positions in the infant mortality ranking. — Mirror Universe Berg.
It’s a completely nonsensical thing to say. There’s more to wealth than just GDP. I’d need to play around with Excel a bit, but I suspect — intuitively, and I could be incorrect — that there is more correlation between countries ranked by gap between rich and poor and countries ranked by life expectancy.
But that’s just my bellyfeel guess. I’d need to check.
The drive for wealth involves the drive for competitive efficiency. There is nothing less efficient than waste and pollution. — Berg.
‘There’s nothing less efficient than waste and pollution’? Oh, so nuclear reactors which create radioactive waste is just inefficiency? If we’d let factories continue their drive for efficiency, they would have stopped pumping sulphur dioxide into the air? Oh, wait! We had to regulate both of those, didn’t we? The Invisible Hand was fisting the environment and we had to get the State to come in and lay down the law.
If we powered down to a motionless “stable” economy, as growth sceptics believe we should, we’d be discarding our biggest incentive to invent green things. – Berg.
I invented new drive mechanisms to create a more accurate orrery. Why? Because I, like hundreds of thousands of inventors throughout history, get weird little fixations. Benjamin Franklin — the archetypal inventor — wrote:
[A]s we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously. – Benjamin Franklin.
When I was in my teens, I wanted to be a gentleman scientist. How marvellous to live in a society where a person could pursue academic endeavours for the benefit of his fellow man without having to worry about the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy! I wonder what killed off that wonderful society? Oh, that’s right.
Yes, many natural resources are limited, but our capacity to innovate – given the incentive to profit – is unlimited. – Berg.
It is? I guess that’s why we’ve moved beyond oil-dependent industries, isn’t it? You know, to cheaper and more efficient energy sources, yes? Like how we’ve been saying we would since the 1970s, hmmm?
The developing world might be poor, but it’s wealthier than it was. And healthier. – Berg.
This is Mexico today:
This is what Mexico was creating under a dictatorship:
Gosh, thanks modernisation and liberation! Further, most of these countries were healthier before we colonised them. Sure, the survivors are generally more resistant to smallpox but that wasn’t really so great for their societies. Special Economic Zones in China were infamous for the exploitation of workers for the benefit of industry owners. It didn’t make them healthier: the workers subjected themselves to it in order to benefit their families. This appears to be the world Berg fantasises about: an invisible underclass gets exploited so that wealthy white guys like Chris Berg can live until they’re 100.
The point Berg seems to have missed is that nobody is saying that economic growth is itself terrible. We’ve had a boom of economic growth and we should now consider reaping the benefits of that growth by shifting the focus on to other things: improving the quality of life, for example. Sharing the wealth so everybody benefits, for another.
But this is all anathema to the libertarian — especially one who performs no labour — who can only associate improvement with economic improvement.
Okay, I haven’t updated this in a while because I’ve been fairly solidly buried in work, study, and play. I am procrastinating and, thus, we get an update.
There is a legal principle in common law systems that people — generally and normally — behave reasonably. The idea is that every person is rational — or ought to be rational — and that they behave in a generally rational way. Those people include legislators and, when they write up statutes, it’s presumed that they did so in a reasonable way. Those people also include parties to contracts and, when they form contracts, it’s presumed that they did so in a reasonable way. Those people also include people who are criminals and, when they perform some criminal acts (the ones involving mens rea), it is presumed that they knew that they were performing some act which a rational person would condemn.
It’s called the objective test and it posits some hypothetical person — ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus/Bondi tram’ — and asks ‘What would he think?’
What’s curious about this reasonable person is that he is invariably white, male, and educated. This is due to a wonderful feature of our thinking called ‘normativity’. It’s where we consider the default — ‘normal’ — position to be that which is most dominant in our social framework. In common law countries, this is invariably white guys. So the default perspective is that of a member of the hegemony.
In a lot of cases, this doesn’t cause too much hassle. It’s not unreasonable to think that in the vast majority of instances, what I consider reasonable and what a member of a minority considers reasonable will overlap considerably. But what about instances where they don’t overlap?
Consider one of the historically interesting aspects of contract law: consensus ad idem. Literally, ‘agreement about the same’. It’s often parsed as the bit of a contract which involves a meeting of the minds. The idea is that a contract is formed by voluntarily agreeing to be bound by a promise.
If it later seems that there’s disagreement about the terms of a contract, instead of extending consensus ad idem to its logical conclusion — that there was no consensus because there is clearly disagreement — Australian courts appeal to the man on the Bondi tram to explain what the terms mean. No longer is the contract a voluntary assumption of responsibility, but it’s an obligation placed upon you by acting in a way which an hypothetical third person would interpret contract-forming.
And that’s weird.