Sunday, August 10, 2014

Free Speech: The Path to True Equality (New Matilda)

This May, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I was lucky enough to be asked to take part in one of the ‘Coffee and Papers’ sessions. Designed for the festival early birds, the purpose of these gatherings was to bring together local journalists with one of the SWF’s invited authors, whose work, it was hoped, would throw fresh light on some of the stories in the news that day. Since my own work was on the subject of offence, and since Winkgate had just exploded into the news cycle (complete with analysis and slow-motion replays), I was confident we’d have plenty to talk about, even if my ability to talk about it at 9:30am was open to question. [More here.]

Anne Manne explores the cold, hard facts of narcissism (The Weekend Australian)


In the wake of the 2011 Norway massacre, in which Anders Breivik killed 77 people (69 of them on the island of Utøya), a small and unseemly argument broke out amongst the commentariat about whether or not the killer’s actions constituted terrorism. For commentators of a conservative persuasion, the killing spree was the act of a lunatic; not sanctioned by any recognised group, Breivik’s slaughter of his fellow Norwegians was largely without political significance. For others, however, Breivik’s motivations, as set out in his sprawling manifesto, were plainly ideological and any suggestion to the contrary was an act of political mystification. Breivik was the herald of a resurgent far-right; a ‘lone wolf’ he may have been, but howling mad he wasn’t. [More here.]

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The ABC is biased. Get over it. (New Matilda, July 2014)

Richard Salant (1914-1993) hardly deserves his reputation as the source of the silliest thing ever said about media objectivity. President of CBS News for most of the 1960s and 1970s, he expended much time and personal courage resisting the encroachment of political power into US news and current affairs and also warned against the now-ubiquitous melding of journalism and entertainment. Nevertheless, his assertion of neutrality has become a standing joke in media studies, and one doesn’t have to be a post-structuralist (or cease to share in the popular opinion that media studies is itself a joke) to appreciate its self-satirising quality. For surely it would take a Joseph Heller, or an Onion, to do better than this: ‘Our reporters do not cover stories from their point of view. They are presenting them from nobody’s point of view.’ [More here.]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Our newest national sport: the race to obliterate Rolf (New Matilda)

The bicentennial heritage trail through the quiet Perth suburb of Bassendean is dotted with the names of local worthies, not all of whom, I have to admit, are well known to me, or known at all. In fact, of the various dignitaries, sportspeople and religious orders whose names are embossed in oxidised bronze and set into concrete paving slabs I have heard of only two or three. But there is one name everyone in Australia knows – and everyone in the UK knows as well – and which, in recognition of its fame, used to mark the start of this stroll along a beautiful north-south stretch of the Swan River. Now it’s gone – purloined in the night after Bassendean’s council voted to remove it and place it in indefinite storage. Whether it’s been vandalised, or sold to a collector, or is being held as a grim memento, nobody knows, or very much cares. Nor does the dirty square of pavement that is left in its stead seem inappropriate. Rolf Harris’s name, it would appear, is mud. [More here.]

Saturday, July 05, 2014

No Honour in Killing Debate (Online Opinion)

The organisers of the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas have made two mistakes in the last week. The first was to call an upcoming talk ‘Honour Killings are Morally Justified’; and the second was to cancel it. The first mistake shows a lack of judgment; the second shows a lack of nerve, plus an almost Neville Chamberlain-like faith in the power of conciliation. For if the organisers thought that by cancelling the event they could also cancel out the controversy surrounding it, they have since been rudely disappointed. Far from having silenced their critics, they now find themselves assailed from all sides. [More here.]

Bad Faith: A review of Ronald Dworkin's Religion Without God (The Sydney Review of Books)

For all that he tried to extend the scope of human sympathy in his influential oeuvre, Professor Ronald Dworkin, who died last year at the age of 81, was a divisive figure. To his critics, the US philosopher and scholar of constitutional law was the theorist-in-chief of ‘rights culture’ and the poster boy for an anti-democratic (and always progressive) judicial activism. To his admirers, he was a liberal hero, a standard-bearer for justice and fairness who stood up to demagogic politicians and the tyranny of the majority. To this extent his work was a shibboleth, or a fluid from which the litmus paper would emerge as decisively blue or red: whether or not you approved of it was a good indication of where you stood on such issues as abortion, gay marriage and school prayer.[More here.]

'Radical' just moonlighting in moccasins (The Australian)

In the political debates of the 1980s, one common (and very irritating) rhetorical manoeuvre was the Conservative Appeal to Human Nature. More conversation-stopper than debating point, this nifty ideological clincher was ever on the lips of smooth-talking Tories for whom politics was reducible to a question of self-interest aggravated by prejudice. Certainly the shtick wasn’t hard to master. ‘Well, socialism is fine in theory,’ it would be said, ‘but of course it could never work in practice.’ Asked to justify this lofty generalisation, and eager to avoid any more limp-wristed chatter about the need for an activist, redistributive state, one’s opponent would then go nuclear. ‘Because humans’, he would say, ‘are naturally competitive.’ [More here.]

Review of Only the Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey (The Monthly)

The title of Ceridwen Dovey’s second book comes from a quote by Boria Sax: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.” Sax is an author and academic with a particular interest in anthrozoology, which is the study of the relationship between humans and animals throughout history and across cultures. Only the Animals takes up that task but gives it a poetic twist. The result is a strange and beautiful work that turns Sax’s rather sphinx-like aphorism into something like the Great Sphinx itself: a literary equivalent of that hybrid with squashed human features and chunky paws. [More here.]

Monday, April 07, 2014

Here I am on Free Thinking, chewing the rag with Philip Dodd

On Offence: The Politics of Indignation ... Media update

On Offence is on the shelves in the UK. Sam Leith gives it a very nice review in The Guardian, while the panel on the final edition of The Review Show are (characteristically) underwhelmed. Nick Cohen has some nice things to say about the book, and my head to head with Philip Dodd, on Radio 4's Free Thinking program, attracted its own mini review in The Guardian. Guy Rundle, in the Sydney Review of Books, gives the most negative (and in some ways the most interesting) review to date. Finally, this article, 'The Age of Outrage' appeared in The Independent newspaper.

The Flame of Power (The Weekend Australian, March 2014)

For Plato, the ideal city-state was one in which ‘philosopher-kings’ would take charge; ‘Unless philosophers bear kingly rule in cities,’ he has Socrates say in The Republic, ‘there will be no respite from evil.’ In reality, however, the history of intellectuals in power has not been a happy one; indeed, it seems that theoretical acumen and practical ability are often at odds. Neither Alexis de Tocqueville nor John Stuart Mill was particularly effective in political life, while Edmund Burke endured barbs from contemporaries for neglecting his inkwell for Westminster. As for Max Weber: the great sociologist failed even to gain nomination as a candidate for the German Democratic Party in 1919. [More here.]

For the Love of Sharks (The Monthly, March 2014)

On the morning of 6 November 2000, Ken Crew was finishing his regular swim off the popular, and usually placid, beach of North Cottesloe, a 500-metre stretch of sand in a well-to-do western suburb of Perth. It was around 6.30, and the 49-year-old Crew, a businessman and father of three, was wading in waist-deep water, when a 5-metre great white shark sped south along the beach, slicing through a crowd of bathers. According to witnesses, it went straight for Crew, whom it circled for several minutes before attacking. The shark tore off Crew’s right leg and then turned to face Dirk Avery, one of Crew’s friends. Avery mounted a reef, where the great white risked beaching itself if it continued to pursue him, and managed to fight it off. He escaped with deep cuts to his legs and feet. Crew, despite furious attempts to save him, died just minutes after the attack, in the arms of his friend Brian Morrison, a priest. [More here.]