[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?
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…
Forget ICAC and the Register of Member’s Interests, for a moment. Let us distract ourselves from questions about Gladys Berejiklian and Christian Porter. The recurrently anachronistic King Arthur sits at his round table with knights whom he has appointed for their outstanding character, noble virtues, and exceptional integrity. King Arthur himself feels that he can govern only if he maintains unimpeachable moral authority, and it is on this basis that he has been able to resist challenges from those who wish to claim the throne.
One day, a meeting of the Round Table is suddenly interrupted: a man bursts into the room and makes astounding allegations about Sir Lancelot. Should Sir Lancelot resign his position? Should King Arthur sack him?
It’s the end of the first week of lockdown in Canberra, and I have developed an unhealthy relationship with my phone. It keeps wanting to tell me things, and I now have a lot of time to be told things. It tells me all kinds of news happening in the world; news that has absolutely no utility to me except for influencing whether or not I’ll go to the other side of the apartment for a bit of a cry.
I had already started to put into place some supports to make me feel better about the world. The first was unfollowing a bunch of accounts on social media who spent every waking hour of the day spewing out partisan nonsense about the pandemic. At some point, I realised that public debate about public health had become a frictionless, zero-gravity environment: media companies publishing opinion pieces that cite other opinion pieces as evidence that the Government made a terrible error when it failed to appoint us as the Public Health Czar. My feed was overwhelmingly a few (usually Baby Boomer) voices constantly telling everybody that they should feel constantly outraged and miserable that Australia was not living up to its recently imagined expectations.
But the other thing I did was train a bunch of my websites to give me the most trivial possible news: pop culture news! Escapism is exactly what the doctor ordered to treat the symptoms of the public health directions.
This has worked too well, and I’m now deep frying my brain in a new genre of literature, steeping my mind in a new form of art, and roasting my imagination until it’s fork-tender. Rip in piece, thesis-writing day. Questions about national security law are going to need to answer themselves. Today, I have only one question on my mind:
I have been playing around with how to communicate legal concepts via video. After getting over my nervousness about actually seeing my face on things, I think I’m getting happier and happier with these.
Enjoy my quick explainer of the law underlying the question of whether the ABC identified the Attorney-General even though it didn’t name him, a quick discussion of a difference between US defamation law and Australian defamation law, a quick discussion of why the Federal Court is involved and why that might be a problem, and the social media habit of sledging lawyers based on their past clients.
The reaction so far has been surprisingly positive, and has resulted in people asking questions about other aspects of the case (like how the truth defence works), so I might do another in this sequence.
And a shout out to Dr Joe McIntyre from the University of South Australia who wants to beef up the problem of the Federal Court perception. The version covered in this video was the far more common version presented on social media (but argued at its highest so that it wasn’t a mere strawman). As McIntyre points out on Twitter, there’s a way to construct the problem so that it’s not about actual or perceived bias in this present case, but instead so that it is about perceived bias in the system overall: if, say, Jagot J presides over this case and find in his favour and then–for extremely good reasons as she is an eminent and excellent judge–is appointed to the High Court next year, won’t the public reasonably perceive that there is preferential treatment here? I think there’s an answer to this, but it draws upon theories of courts more broadly…
It’s important that people seeking justice are, to the greatest extent possible, given the ‘No wrong door’ option. It is more appropriate for Federal politicians to contact the AFP, who can then manage the details with State counterparts, than for Federal politicians to approach State police. It smells like interference, especially when you’re filing complaints about political opponents.
One reason why it was important to report these matters–even in the situation of the historical sexual assault that’s been a topic of interest this week–is that people who aren’t very across the details of the allegation don’t know if there’s more to the issue than what it says on the tin. Sure, you might not be able to establish the elements of the sexual assault without a witness, but there might be other options (subject to whatever limitations apply in the jurisdiction).
It’s like saying ‘Beetlejuice’ three times in a row. Somebody has decided to fly a swastika from their flag pole and now I get to write yet another blog post about why the freedom of speech is a terrible idea. Living my best life.
There is a game that the powerful play. If you come from a marginalised background, you’re not in a position to speak out about your experiences. Therefore, if you do speak out about your experiences, you’re not really from a marginalised background. It’s an efficient way of ensuring that the only legitimate voices are those that are born to power.
Where are all the ‘working class’ voices in media? Well, you see, there are some people who might have come from working class backgrounds, but they’re now in the media class, so they’re not really representative of those people who are from the working classes who don’t have a platform in the media. Where are all the voices from the unemployed in the media? Well, you see, there are people who might have experiences of being unemployed, but they’re now employed by the media, so they’re no longer representative of those who are unemployed and are not employed by the media.
And so on and so forth. One of the most insidious ways this game gets played is around race. Once a person from an ethnic minority is in a position of having a platform to speak out, they’re token white.
Race is central to Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special, Sticks & Stones. As such, a significant portion of the content is not designed for me — a conservative white guy — as the audience. But this opens up the largest question of Sticks & Stones: who is the target audience? When Chappelle opens his set openly mocking the audience, it’s clear that he has an idea of who is intended audience isn’t: a mainstream progressive audience characterised as both censorious and, importantly, predominately white.
And this kicks off the metacommentary about Sticks & Stones. What can Chappelle, an African American man, say? Who decides? Is Chappelle still allowed a platform as an African American man, or must he say what white audiences want him to have a platform? Is Chappelle — as some critics suggest by repeated references to his wealth — simply too rich to be an edgy black comic?
Obviously not. Everybody knows this. I mean, c’mon.
Modern Western society has a problem conceptualising attention. What is it? How does it work? If you have media companies that operate by turning content consumers into content producers, what behaviours are incentivised and what behaviours are not? Is this cultural engine incentivising behaviours that we think create good societies? What voices are drowned out that we need to hear?
When we confront the question of whether or not we should publish (or discuss) a terrorist’s manifesto, we necessarily engage a lot of theoretical puzzles that, frankly, most of the people in the media don’t like to think about. What we do know is that the media outlet that publishes a manifesto (or hot takes which, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, encourage you to read the manifesto for yourself) is going to secure an audience’s attention. We also know that these activities take place for the purpose of getting attention. A terrorist who kills a few dozen people but nobody notices is an ineffective terrorist. The terrorist does more than just kill; the terrorist communicates and finds an audience through violence or the threat of violence. Therefore, we just shouldn’t distribute a manifesto.