Talk in song from tongues of lilting grace… Why everybody should stop talking about ‘freedom of speech’

Before we get to the meat of this discussion, it is worth asking a preliminary question: Why are we all talking about Israel Folau?  It’s a painfully boring subject.  We have serious political issues happening right on our doorstep and yet our media is obsessed with whether or not a sports celebrity is allowed to say homophobic things.  Australians are poorly served by our journalists.

The problem with the Israel Folau story is that it’s taken on a level of abstraction that it doesn’t need.  If you ask the average person on the street ‘Do you reckon that a footy player should be permitted to make homophobic remarks?’ the answer would be ‘Uhhhh… I dunno. I just watch them for the footy, really.’

Australians seem obsessed with the idea of presenting sportsball players as public intellectuals.  Ian Thorpe was the white, middle class face of the ‘Yes’ campaign during the marriage equality vote.  Back when I watched ordinary TV, I vaguely remember people I didn’t recognise holding sports gear telling me various obvious things, like depression is bad, don’t do drugs, and don’t hit women.  I also remember Andrew Gaze came to my primary school at one point to tell us that basketball exists.

The point is: most people do not treat sports celebrities as topics that warrant higher level thought.

This comes with costs.  Homophobia, drug abuse, and sexism (particularly sexual assault) is rife within the sporting elite.  Given the vast amount of money involved in sport, sports teams are better seen as PR companies, trying to capture a sort of image that is palatable to the wider community.  In a sense, sports elites are being told to play their sport extremely well and, for the love of all that is good and holy, keep their idiot views to themselves.  Israel Folau could not keep his idiot views to himself and so he was sacked.

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Cause in this life you spend time running from depravity… The Press, the Whistleblowers, and the AFP

The nature and limits of State power is a complex topic.  The recent warrants executed by the Australian Federal Police to seize materials held by journalists has caused debate in the media, probably entirely due to the fact that the subject of the warrants were journalists.  There’s an inherent conflict here between publishing information about the activities of the AFP and the self-interest of a massive and powerful industry.

On the other hand, these types of incidents are a helpful opportunity to take stock of where we are as a society and what we think the relationship between the State and the Press should be.  We talk a lot about the problems of ‘Insider’ culture, with some journos relying on advance information directly from authorities in order to get exclusive scoops and background information on public documents.  Events like this let us see a bit more into what that relationship between elites is like, even to the extent of journalists wanting to do anything other than acknowledge that the relationship is sometimes a bit too cosy.

But all of this is prologue to the topic that I find particularly interesting about the warrants – and there are a lot of interesting aspects (are judges effective scrutineers of warrants sought by authorities? what powers are used to seek leaks?  what protections should be available to journalists that are not available to individual members of the public? is the ALP somehow to blame for any of it?  There’s a really good discussion about the relationship between the AFP and the Minister that I wish more people were taking up…). The topic I find really fascinating is the rhetoric about whistleblowers in the context of State secrets.

Continue reading “Cause in this life you spend time running from depravity… The Press, the Whistleblowers, and the AFP”

Once it was simple, one feeling at a time… Obligatory hot take on the election

There seem to be a lot of people who are, despite never being involved in politics, apparently experts in what went wrong for Bill Shorten.  It was barely 8pm when the hot takes started up.  People knew with extreme certainty what the ALP had done wrong.

Worse, by 9pm, it seemed as if it was compulsory for people to get in first with their accurate diagnosis of what went wrong.  Journos, especially, had this compulsion to give definitive takes as early as they could.

I’m not one of those people.  I have no idea what went wrong.  If anything, it justifies a whole lot more expenditure on social sciences research.

But I do know what the election loss means to me personally.  As a conservative, I hoped that the Liberal Party would lose, spend a few years in opposition trying to digest what it was going to do about the hard right elements in its midst, and then approach the next election with a policy platform.  Instead, Australia showed that you could win an election with next to nothing.  Worse, it feels like the Liberal Party has won the election not knowing what it would do if it won.  Most of its experienced elements had departed prior to the election, not expecting to be reelected, and the policy platform appeared to be made up on the spot.

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Oh, it’s not the potion, it’s the magic that I seek… Is it time for a Charter of Rights for welfare recipients?

One thing that the #NotMyDebt hashtag was good at was raising the profile of welfare recipients who felt like they were being treated unjustly.  The media routinely presents people on welfare as being slouchers and parasites, those who steal your hard-earned cash to live a life without work.  And although I disagree with their philosophical commitments, the Australian Unemployed Workers Union has also been performing a similar function, creating a lightning rod for harnessing the energy of people who, by all accounts, are treated badly by capitalism.

Where these platforms — #NotMyDebt in particular — were less helpful was ‘practical’ advice for dealing with Centrelink.  NMD delivered a lot of straight up incorrect information, and a number of the key voices behind that campaign are known vectors of nonsense across a range of policy areas (such as asylum seeker policy).

In this post, I want to move away from the rhetoric of activist groups and specific controversies, and into a broader problem: should we institute a charter of rights for welfare recipients?

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Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin… Problems with ‘Under the Radar’

In fairness to Four Corners, there’s not a lot of information to go on about the Christchurch incident. But instead of having the sort of discussion that I think could be constructive, ‘Under the Radar’ sought to discuss the ‘exposed deep flaws in the counter-terrorism strategies of Western nations like New Zealand and Australia’.  It, of course, didn’t.

It is worth reflecting on a few points about the documentary that are really worth critiquing because they reinforce tropes which, in my view, are counterproductive in security discussions.  Not least (and where I will start) is the fact that no women were interviewed as experts.

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Cause all we need is candlelight, you and me, and a bottle of wine… Low information responses to crisis

The Lindt Cafe siege took place in December 2014.  Was the flag of the Islamic State flown in the window?  One hostage called a radio station to criticise the response from authorities.  Had bombs been planted around Sydney?  There were fears that news agencies were helping the terrorists by broadcasting the location of police.  Was this a terrorist event?  December 2014.

The official report was released in May 2017 and, even today, there remains expert disagreement about key issues of the day.  The report took two and a half years.

It certainly didn’t stop a lot of journos and internet detectives immediately starting up some spicy takes about how they would have simply dealt with the situation.  They, somehow, knew exactly what Monis wanted, and they definitely knew who’s fault it was.  Why was Monis out on bail?  Clearly, this was more proof that everybody’s intuitions about bail were undeniably correct, and more proof that everybody’s intuitions about Islamic Australians were correct, and more proof that everybody’s intuitions about the effectiveness of ASIO were correct, and more proof of whatever people intuited immediately prior to the siege.

In a sense, the siege was unnecessary.  It was an excuse.  There were all these hot takes slowly going cold and they needed something to justify reheating them.  It was days before people were saying we needed to change laws about bail.

There is a puzzle that is worth exploring: how do we respond to situations like this (or like Christchurch) when we’re operating in an environment of very low information?

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Give me back my broken night, my mirrored room, my secret life… On sentencing and the rights of the guilty

When are we entitled to think a person guilty?  The answer is whenever you want.  The presumption of innocence is strictly confined to a very narrow set of social interactions: specifically, legal ones.

I wrote before that it’s become an article of faith that George Pell’s conviction will be overturned on appeal.  I want to move away from that specific case to discuss the concept of guilt and the rights that we afford the guilty more generally.  Do people really need to be convicted before we treat them as if they’re guilty?  And why don’t we strip the most depraved guilty people of all their rights?  Part of this is thinking not only about powerful elites who have committed unspeakable crimes, but also talking about the other end of the spectrum where the marginalised have engaged in conduct that is reprehensible.

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