No soldier in that gallant band hid half as well as he did… When offensiveness is the point

Jimmy Carr is no stranger to controversy or outrage.  The most recent regards a joke made on his Netflix special His Dark Materials in which the punchline was that the genocide of Romani was a ‘positive’ of the Holocaust.  Most reasonable people were offended by the joke because the joke was offensive.  Nothing in this argument is a defense of the joke.

I instead want to flip the debate a bit to look at an aspect of the ‘freedom of speech’ debate that doesn’t get a lot of attention: what happens when people are trying to be offensive?

Continue reading “No soldier in that gallant band hid half as well as he did… When offensiveness is the point”

Put your fate in your hands, take a chance, roll the dice… The Australian Research Council is not worth saving, @ARC_Tracker

[This is a heavily redacted version of my original draft]

Australian academics were given a free kick in the research funding policy debate recently.  The acting Minister for Education, Stuart Robert, rejected the recommendation from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to fund a handful of research proposals.

Unlike nearly everything in research funding policy, it became headline news.  People from beyond the academy had more than a passing interest in what was going on, and it was an opportunity to bring the public on board for extremely overdue reforms of the ARC.

Instead, we blew it.  Describing the decision as a use of a ‘veto’ (which it isn’t, but poetic licence for advocacy is forgivable), Australian academics began describing the Minister’s decision as using ‘God-like’ powers, a violation of the separation of powers doctrine, and–most surprising of all–a threat to liberal democracy.  It was embarrassing, and academia made itself look unnecessarily feeble, pathetic, and precious.

If making decisions on funding recommendations is a ‘God-like’ power, we truly have reimagined the Lord as a mere conjurer of cheap tricks.  And if deciding funding outcomes is a ‘God-like’ power, do we really want the ARC making those calls instead of an elected official?  More importantly–as I’ll argue here–do we really want either Ministers or government panels telling universities how to spend research funds?

Continue reading “Put your fate in your hands, take a chance, roll the dice… The Australian Research Council is not worth saving, @ARC_Tracker”

We be the colours of the mad and the wicked… Are we becoming scared of protest?

Last year, I argued that Australia was developing a new standard for political protest: the ‘Theatre Kid Threshold‘.  If you rocked up to a political protest with a gallows that looked too good, you were no longer protesting but, instead, advocating violence.  I argued that this was a bad intuition, radically expanding what we understand to be a death threat and the apprehension of harm.  I also argued that–let’s be serious–what was driving a lot of the discussion was opposition to the message of the protest.  Which is fine and I agree with that intuition, but we might want to use other legal methods for achieving that end instead of inflating what counts as advocacy for violence.

I touched very lightly on the idea that the protest was a form of terrorism, an idea that gained some traction in the week surrounding that protest.  It’s an idea that has gained significantly more traction in the past week following the protests at Old Parliament House.  Perhaps more interesting from my perspective is the Othering of the protestors: right wing commentators have described the protesters as left wing; left wing commentators have described the protesters as right wing; there have been very disturbing denials of the Indigeneity of some of the protesters; there was one very incorrect use of the term ‘stochastic terrorism’ by an author who recently wrote a book about the alt-right.

A boring version of this blog post is me patiently working through the relevant law to explain why the protest at Old Parliament House wasn’t terrorism.  A slightly less boring version of this blog post is an argument that we should use ‘terrorism’ as a label of last resort and that contemporary popular uses of the term are missing the ‘terror’ element.

But I want to start 2022 with a blog post that really gets the blood pumping.  I’m going to sledge Sami Shah.

Continue reading “We be the colours of the mad and the wicked… Are we becoming scared of protest?”

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’.

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

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:

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.