Fifty feet tall and revved up too high… Should there be a legal response to those gallows?

In 2012, there was a protest in Sydney inspired by the film, Innocence of the Muslims.  The most notorious image from the protests was of a child carrying a sign that said ‘Behead those who insult the Prophet’.  There was political condemnation and calls for the child to be taken into protection from the parents.  To their credit, NSW Police largely deescalated the topic.  They checked that the kid was okay and mostly left everybody alone.  To the best of my knowledge, no counter-terrorism offences were made at the protest; just the usual biffo with cops.

We all know this dance.  Protestors protest.  One side of politics calls for cops to crack down on the protestors; the other side tries to argue that the protest isn’t that big a deal.  The cops usually do the right thing, and then we all swap sides for the next protest.

Continue reading “Fifty feet tall and revved up too high… Should there be a legal response to those gallows?”

What’s thrown over the fence and into the garden every day? … Is the paranoia about Murdoch unhinged?

Do you want to hear about how Rupert Murdoch lactates black oil for politicians to suckle?  There’s a podcast for you.  Are you currently subscribed to News Corp news but don’t know how to cancel your subscription?  The Chaser set up a service to cancel your subscription for you.  Do you think that Rupert Murdoch has too much power over The Australian media?  Well, former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and previous GetUp! campaign director, Sally Rugg, have a campaign to establish a Royal Commission inquiry into Rupert Murdoch just for you.

At some point we should ask if something that looks like an unhinged, irrational obsession actually is an unhinged, irrational obsession.  After all, holding inquiries into media companies that say things that we don’t like is usually more familiar in repressive autocracies rather than liberal democracies…

Continue reading “What’s thrown over the fence and into the garden every day? … Is the paranoia about Murdoch unhinged?”

In a passion it broke, I pull the black from the grey… Skip @Atlantic_Ctr’s ‘A Descending Spiral’

John Johnson was a shy child.  He was doing well at school until his father lost his job and became a violent alcoholic, and then his mother died of tuberculosis, and then the local saw mill closed down, pushing the entire region into an economic depression.  As Johnson grew up, he made friends with the wrong kind of kid, and he self-medicated his shyness with drugs and petty thefts.  Then, one day, Johnson was walking along the road humming a jaunty tune, when he accidentally tripped over, tied up eight people, and shot them all in the back of the head.  He was sentenced to death.  The appellate court refused to mitigate the sentence, noting Johnson had previously been convicted of a string of aggravated sexual assaults and two other murders.

If the above paragraph convinces you that the death penalty is wrong and should be abolished, then you are going to love Marc Bookman’s A Descending Spiral.  Anecdote after grisly, unrelenting anecdote about absolutely horrible crimes motivated by the unexamined assumption that the stories show that the death penalty is wrong.  For literally everybody else in the world, this is a frustrating, irrational, and emotionally exhausting series of stories written in a ‘true crime podcast style’.

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There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame… Sales is right about Twitter, but it’s not the full story

It is difficult to disagree with Leigh Sales’ opinion piece.  The hostility on social media is out of control:

[T]he bullying and harassment now comes, not in an occasional phone call from a real person, but at a furious pace on social media from politicians’ acolytes, lackeys, fans and proxies, mostly — but not always — operating anonymously. It is non-stop, personal, often vile, frequently unhinged and regularly based on fabrications. It has the effect of an angry phone call from a politician magnified thousands of times over.

Sales complains correctly that ‘it is overwhelmingly left-leaning Twitter users who are targeting ABC journalists for abuse’, and queries ‘if whether the treatment of journalists, in particular female journalists, on its platform is acceptable’ to Twitter.  The sort of abuse that female journalists suffer on social media is deplorable.  It is disgusting.  We need to think about how we can improve the quality of public discussion.

Sales’ opinion piece about the atrocious quality of discussion on social media was posted at 4.57am.  Twelve hours and one minute later, imagine everybody’s surprise when the Institute of Public Affairs Tweeted:

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Blackened roar, massive roar, fills the crumbling sky… No, Australia was not offered ‘millions of doses’

The Federal ALP lodged an FOI request to obtain the documents relating to meetings between the Commonwealth Government and the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer.  There had been reports in the Press–all stemming, it seems, from the ABC’s Norman Swan–that Pfizer had offered Australia a sweet deal to be an early trial site for Pfizer.  The story made absolutely no sense, and everybody from the Commonwealth and Pfizer denied that the story was true.  Despite that, it lived on in folk memory among the extremely online crowd.

The documents obtained by the Federal ALP under FOI were provided to Nine and News Corp media outlets (scroll to the bottom and then work your way up the documents).  Pfizer asked for a meeting with the ‘Minister and/or Departmental leadership’.  The public servant in charge of the whole of government strategy, Liza Schofield, attended the meeting as requested.  After accepting the invitation, Pfizer asked for a non-disclosure agreement to be signed.  Generally (and I speak from a lot of experience here) the practice is not to sign up to non-disclosure agreements for fairly obvious reasons (they can conflict with duties of public servants).  Pfizer said not signing the NDA would be fine: they’d modify the meeting to be at a lower level of confidentiality in response.

Nothing so far is unusual or odd here.  What is unusual is that the word ‘millions’ does not appear in the documents released in this package.

Apparently, in a letter dated 30 June–right at the start of the exchange about having an exploratory meeting–Pfizer wrote to the Health Minister and said:

We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021.

And this has caused journos to lose their minds.

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Spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up… I’m an expert; here’s my Patreon

If you feel like NSW Government was negligent in its handling of the pandemic, there’s an expert to confirm your view.  If you feel like Victoria is too heavy-handed in its approach to the pandemic, there’s an expert to confirm your view.  Neither expert will point to any actual data or evidence, and they certainly won’t acknowledge that other viewpoints are rational or reasonable.  It’s a frictionless environment in which the experts proclaim their views and never, ever let anybody see how they formed their conclusion.

Why is it like this?  There were books to sell, there was attention to be farmed, and–in at least one case–there was a political career to launch.  We had a problem in the marketplace of ideas: everybody wanted to buy the diesel-guzzling, toxic-fumes emitting, turbo hot take generators and didn’t really care about the impact on the environment.  The marketplace wanted the ideas that were spicy and sensational; they didn’t want ideas that made them feel like they couldn’t bellyfeel their way out of the problem.

I want to shift the lens here a little bit.  Above, we could see the problem in terms of institutional media entities picking and choosing its experts based on their availability to comment, willingness to say sensational things, and the amount of audience engagement they encouraged.  I want to say–in the least defamatory way possible–that there were also individual incentives to behave like this: attention, book sales, political careers.

When we ease back from the institutional media entities and look at the concept of ‘expertise’ more broadly across different topics, I think we see something similar that has emerged over the last decade or so: market-selected expertise.

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Quick post: Facts, public debate, and emergency powers…

YouTube provides really great analytic information about the videos you upload.  I am genuinely amazed that I can get people to stay engaged with a legal topic for an extended period of time.

Two interesting things that I’ve noticed.  First, if I have more than one topic in a video, the point at which I change topics is a moment where I lose audience members.  This makes sense: if you’ve come for the main meal, you’re not likely to be that interested in the minor notes towards the end.

But, second, there are certain facts that some audiences really, really do not want to hear.  The greatest audience drop-off I’ve had in any video is in the one I uploaded yesterday, and the critical point is when I drop the fact that, under our federal system, administering quarantine is a State responsibility and the Western Australian Government dropped the ball with regard to the passenger who returned from India.

Public debate often characterises this as a left-right issue.  We got wild electoral outcomes (Trump, Brexit, re-election of Scott Morrison) because rightwing and centre-rightwing voters were playing with a different set of facts.  But this video is a pretty good indicator that maybe this is just a general feature of the electorate at large: people who invested a lot of time in the debate about whether or not the Victorian Government should have prevented people returning home from NSW and who then went on to claim that the Federal Government was responsible for the recent ‘outbreak’ in Western Australia really are resistant to information which contradicts those viewpoints.

While your feet are stomping and the jam is pumping… Conservatism in 2021 and Power as a Game

About two decades ago, there was a highly popular television show called Game of Thrones.  After about four or five seasons, they weirdly just stopped making new episodes, leaving it up to fans to discuss how they think the series would have ended.

In the first season, a major character explains the underlying philosophy of the plot: ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die–there is no middle ground.’  Over the remaining seasons, the audience never really got a chance to challenge this assertion.  The show was infamously cynical about the nature of political power, subscribing entirely to the view that lawful authority was little more than the threat of greater violence.

Within a few years, we had a resurgence of political drama.  House of Cards was adapted from an old UK series.  We had a half dozen shows about fictional White House intrigue that made American democracy seem more like a soap opera than a system of government.  We had historical drama set with contemporary political norms, such as The Crown, Reign, and the one about the Medicis that I kept meaning to watch but never bothered.  We even had shows that adapted ‘political drama’ to other domains, such as the music industry (as in Empire) and media industry (as in Succession).

Sure, there is some variance in those shows, but overwhelmingly political power was presented in terms of personal drama.  Cersei doesn’t have a political ideology to represent: she just wants power.  Danaerys articulates a political ideology about emancipation… but ultimately just wants power.

And while that might be fine in the world of fiction, what happens in the real world when democratic processes become little more than a game of who can win elections every three or four years?

Continue reading “While your feet are stomping and the jam is pumping… Conservatism in 2021 and Power as a Game”

I got purple hat, cheetah print… Gender, Fairfax, and Opinion Writing

On 13 December, the Sydney Morning Herald published an anonymous opinion piece complaining that it’s simply ‘too easy’ for children to undergo gender affirmation or reassignment.  It was a shockingly poor article for all the reasons that everybody has already pointed out.  It cites absolutely no evidence; it states things that are manifestly untrue; it will obviously encourage parents in a similar position to make these issues more fraught; and, perhaps worst of all, it was published shortly after the death of a prominent trans person in Victoria.  It was a transphobic article; there’s no debate about this.

The article is a clear demonstration of what I see as the structural problem with how opinion writing works.  On one level, we can (and should) dismiss and criticise the article as just garbage.  On another level, we can (and should) ask why this sort of thing happens regularly and what we can do to fix opinion writing.

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It took the light forever to get to your eyes… We need better academic freedom cases

Back in 2016, Judy Wilyman was awarded a PhD by the University of Wollongong.  This upset a large number of people as her PhD thesis — a study of how the Australian Government’s vaccination policies were developed — included tangential remarks about the validity of studies into vaccination itself.

Unlike most people commenting on the thesis, I actually read the damn thing.  The bulk of it was fine; the tangential comments were embarrassing.

But the pop-science community was out for a scalp.  The University of Wollongong was inundated with vexatious complaints about Wilyman, but the University stood by Wilyman.

The controversy resulted in an article in Vaccine: ‘Public Health and the Necessary Limits of Academic Freedom?‘  Durrheim and Jones argued that the ‘principle of independent scholarship should continue to be prized but in our view it cannot be entirely unfettered. Academic autonomy must be balanced by ethical accountability and responsibility, particularly in the field of human health.’

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