I am one of those people who has a list of ‘rules’ about how to construct a story. I think about structural things and the way we use shortcuts to convey meaning. I think about how the audience fills gaps in what they’re being told and how they mapped what they saw to intuitions about bigger issues. And then I use all of these thoughts to compile a list of rules about what works and what doesn’t.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 largely breaks all of the rules. Nothing about this film should work, and yet it really does.
I really like Australia. It is a great country. It could be better. Sure, it’s better for me than it is for many others, but I’d rather live here than anywhere else in the world.
The Left struggles with patriotism. It smells too much like racism. It whiffs of conservatism. It looks too much like a relic of a colonial past where we cared about the Mother Country or the Fatherland, a concept which made people fight pointless wars in foreign countries and steal resources. Isn’t it just irrational jingoism about the place where you were accidentally born?
The issue has raised its head in public policy again due to the Turnbull Government’s decision to tinker with the Citizenship Test: ‘Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia‘.
So let’s do a quick tour of the policy questions and the underlying philosophy of patriotism.
In the red corner, Prof Margaret Somerville, a professor of law and bioethicist. In the blue corner, Nikki Gemmell, a columnist and author (mainly of the fluff-piece for Baby Boomers variety). ABC’s Q&A thought that this would result in a constructive discussion about euthanasia. It didn’t.
It is worth exploring why it all went wrong, because it reveals something about our intuitions about the role of experts in public debate.
I spend far too much of my life thinking about the control of Executive power (70% of this is due to me having eleven thousand words on the topic due in a week so I am procrastinating hard). It is an extremely complex question that ultimately boils down to our basic intuitions about the relationship between the community and the State. That sounds more simple than it really is: the way you express that intuition in language affects the way you think about it.
Jeremy Waldron gives an example of this: should we talk about limiting the State, or should we talk instead of empowering the State? Well, that depends on what you think the State is and whether it begins its life omnipotent or impotent. Reasonable people can disagree on this point, and it’s not mere semantics. Back to Waldron: we can frame constitutions in ways that restrict the lawful use of State power or we can frame constitutions in ways which compel the State to use its power in particular ways.
I spend far too much of my life thinking about what the Executive power is and how we can control it. Every school child is taught the Separation of Powers like they’re taught triune theology. There’s God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God the Father is the angry one from the Old Testament. God the Son is Jesus the hippy who liked fish. God the Holy Spirit is… the… other… one… maybe. Similarly, there’s the Legislature (which creates the law!). There’s the Judiciary (which interprets the law!). And there’s the Executive (which… administers the law? Whatever that means).
And then people map these three branches directly on to particular institutions. The Legislature is the Parliament, full of parliamentarians who create laws by passing legislation. The Judiciary is the Courts, full of judges who read the legislation and tell us what it means to resolve disputes. And there’s the Executive who is… like… maybe the public service… maybe?
Anyway, this all gets me to what a shitfully bad idea MiVote is.
It has been alleged — not unfairly — that I’m routinely more critical of conservatives than I am of progressives and radicals. One person has suggested that this is because I’m after a pat on the head: the vast majority of my friends and colleagues are progressives, so it is socially profitable to go after conservatives than the alternative. This greatly underestimates what an atrocious dinner guest I am.
The answer is less sinister. I have more invested in an improvement in right wing politics than I do in the left. I am like the theologian who wants to improve understanding of Christianity regardless of how many atheists I convert.
So why am I conservative?
For about ten years, there has been a spectre haunting pop-conservative rhetoric: the spectre of conservative punk. The rise of the alt-right and the desperate attention-seeking of pop-conservatives has returned the phrase ‘Conservatism is the new punk rock’ back into circulation. In Australia, this rhetoric seems to be anchored with Daisy Cousens, whose entire schtick is saying outrageous things for the lulz.
Needless to say, I’m far from impressed by pop-conservative dominance in Australia, and my kind of conservatism is distinctly more art rock.
But if our current crop of pop-conservatives did release a punk album, what would it look like? Here’s my guess at what their first album — Are You Triggered? — would look like:
Imagine that you’re a soldier fighting in a war properly authorised by the United Nations. You find yourself face to face with a soldier from the other nation and you are legally allowed to shoot them. As you’re about to shoot the enemy soldier with your ordinary gun with lethal bullets, a magical goblin appears and offers you a different gun: one that will not kill the other soldier, but will incapacitate them with searing pain.
Which gun should you use?
If you haven’t had a chance to read Richard Cooke’s ‘Alt-Wrong: The Australian right is startling for its incoherence’ on The Monthly, get into it. It spans a few different subjects and is an extremely satisfying read.
I put together a few points on Twitter but, on account of me having a locked account, I thought it might be productive to jot them down here.
The worst sort of political analysis currently in circulation: ‘You use the phrase [X] to mean A, but the phrase originated with this group that you hate to mean not-A. Therefore, you are wrong.’
It’s an analysis that ignores contemporary usage in favour of some demented form of originalism. Who cares if the phrase was first used by the Convention for Freedom for Whales in 1918 or by the Association for Libertine Porpoises in 1932? Who cares?
And yet we see this analysis wheeled out with such regularity. ‘Politically Correct’ actually means the opposite of what you think it means! ‘Neo-liberalism’ was invented twelve different times to mean fifteen different things! Whoooooo caaaaaaares?
There are a few analyses of this kind which are worth undertaking. The first is how profit motives incentivise changes in meaning. It is worth tracking how concepts like ‘freedom’, for example, take on distinctly pro-market interpretations. Concepts which maximise profit for vested interests are the ones which proliferate. This is also true for counter-market narratives. Consider, for example, Katy Perry’s new song, Chained to the Rhythm, which is all about how too many people are just going along with the trends, a narrative which is itself a trend and a kind of identity that can be purchased on iTunes.
This all gets me to the concept of ‘virtue signalling’.
Over on his Cultural Policy Reform blog, Ben Eltham has put forward an argument for an organisation to employ writers in the same way that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra employs musicians:
[T]he Sydney Symphony Orchestra is a very important provider of salaried jobs for artists. This is an economic difficulty for the orchestra, because musicians’ wages are a significant cost. But it is a wonderful outcome for the musicians employed, who have steady jobs with salaries paid every fortnight, plus superannuation, sick leave and all the other normal conditions of full-time employment.
There is no comparable organisation that pays writers in this way in Australia. Why not?
It was circulated with praise among the arts writers, but would it work?