Friday, June 26, 2015

Review of Ruth Morgan's Running Out? (The Weekend Australian, June 2015)

'I take a bath every month,’ Elizabeth I is purported to have said, ‘whether I need one or not’. Clearly, hygiene standards change, and it is very honest of Ruth A. Morgan to confess, in her preface to Running Out?, to her ‘love affair with the washing machine’ and ‘penchant for long, hot showers’. But, like many Western Australians, she is also afflicted by a sense that these luxuries sit uneasily with the environmental reality, the geography and climate, of ‘the western third’. The diagram at the start of her book – a graph showing water consumption in WA over the past century – follows roughly the trajectory of a motorcycle stunt-ramp. And yet Perth, the fastest growing city in Australia, is bounded by ocean to its south and west and by desert to its north and east. As for its weather, that’s not much help either. Even as new Perth suburbs are reticulated, the run of bad seasons in the Wheatbelt region – part of a general drying trend – is entering its sixth year. [More here.]



The 'gay cake' controversy (Online Opinion)

In July 2014 a gay rights activist named Gareth Lee ordered a cake from Ashers bakery in Belfast. The commission was for a large square sponge bearing the legend ‘Support Gay Marriage’ and the logo of an organisation called QueerSpace. It was also to feature Bert and Ernie, the Sesame Street characters whose sexuality is the subject of much affectionate innuendo in the LGBT community and beyond. Two days after taking the order, Ashers contacted Lee to inform him that they would not be fulfilling it after all. A cake bearing a slogan in support of gay marriage was, said the owners, at odds with their beliefs. As Christians, the McArthurs could not reconcile themselves to expressing in icing a sentiment that they knew in their hearts to be contrary to God’s plan. [More here.]

Friday, May 15, 2015

Disciplined Hope: A review of A Voice Stii Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe (The Sydney Review of Books)


In the long and laudable history of left-wing schism and self-inspection, this year’s winter issue of the progressive US magazine Dissent, which was founded in 1954 by a group of prominent left-wing intellectuals that included Irving Howe, constituted something of a ‘shirtfront’ moment. It carried a piece by the political philosopher, and co-editor of the magazine, Michael Walzer, accusing the left, or a significant portion of it, of turning a blind eye to Islamic extremism. The left, said Walzer, had allowed its hatred of neoliberalism and economic imperialism to colour, and to temper, its ideological response to the rise of Islamic extremism as a global power. Declaring his intention to join what he called the ‘ideological wars’ against such extremism, and taking aim at the left’s cruising anti-Americanism, Walzer set out his case against the left in terms designed to prick its conscience: since Islamic extremism despises the very values of liberty, democracy and gender equality (‘universal’ values, not ‘Western’ ones) from which liberals and progressives claim descent, any left that declines to confront it, or tries to find excuses for it, is turning its back on its own best traditions; and, in turning its back on those traditions, preparing itself to march against them. [More here.] 

Also in the SRB: an exchange on PEN and Charlie Hebdo


 

Breathing the haunted air (The Monthly)

The surprise election of Victorian GP and relative political newcomer Richard Di Natale to the leadership of the Australian Greens has caused a certain amount of consternation in Canberra: in the press gallery because the transition was achieved with a minimum of fuss, and amongst the party faithful because it was achieved with a minimum of discussion. But while the media discuss the lack of fuss and the rank-and-file fusses about the lack of discussion, the question of what Di Natale’s election means for the Greens, and for Australian politics more generally, remains unclear. The sense is that the transition from Christine Milne to Di Natale is a development of greater political consequence than the transition from Bob Brown to Milne in 2012. But as yet no very firm idea of what this development may entail has materialised. [More here.]

Monday, February 16, 2015

Cirque du Zizek (The Weekend Australian, January 2015)

It fell to US journalist Adam Kirsch, writing in The New Republic in 2008, to encapsulate in a single phrase the disconcerting experience of reading a book by Slavoj Žižek. Kirsch called Žižek ‘the deadly jester’, a description that managed to bring together the Slovenian philosopher’s showmanship with his extreme political stance (he is as far to the left politically as he is to the right alphabetically), while also suggesting that these two sides are related: that this ‘dangerous’ philosopher is all the more dangerous for his reputation as ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’. According to this popular view, Žižek’s philosophy is a Trojan horse – a gaudy offering to which the threat of violence is, as he might say himself, ‘immanent’. [More here.]

Mining the work of a 'national resource' (The Weekend Australian, January 2015)


It is a principle of Raimond Gaita’s thought that one cannot separate moral truths from the manner of their articulation, and that the manner of their articulation will depend on who is doing the articulating. In other words, what we say about morality is deeply connected to the way we say it, which is connected, in turn, to who we are. For Gaita, moral truths are to be tested, not on the page, but in the world; values have to be ‘embodied’. It is for this reason that Romulus, My Father is so central to his work as a whole. That memoir of his childhood in Victoria, with all its attendant griefs and wonders, is significant not just for the morality of its ‘characters’ – the ‘summer-coloured humanism’ of Romulus and his best friend Hora – but for the author’s relationship to that morality, a relationship that is at once intellectual and emotional, and no less ‘real’ for being a combination of the two. Put simply, Gaita is a moral philosopher whose work depends on openness to others. [More here.]

Friday, December 19, 2014

How to have your coke and snort it too: a review of Russell Brand's Revolution (Sydney Morning Herald)

In 2013 the comedian Russell Brand, who is known for his rock-star garb and hyperactive stage performances, guest-edited an issue of the New Statesman and declared in his editorial that he had never voted in a general election. An interviewer on the BBC's Newsnight wanted to know why, and also, given the comedian’s apathy, why anyone should care what he had to say. As he put it, rather more pointedly, ‘Why, if you can’t be arsed to vote, should we be arsed to listen to your political point of view?’ [More here.]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Invisible Censor (Online Opinion)


Confessing one’s ignorance is not, perhaps, the ideal way to begin an article, but the recent debate about whether or not Grand Theft Auto V is misogynistic is not one to which I’m able to contribute. The last video games I played regularly were Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner, and, frankly, I was terrible at them. (I do occasionally tune in to Good Game, but only in order to stare wistfully at Stephanie Bendixen, aka ‘Hex’.) Certainly GTA5 looks quite nasty. From the promotional clips I’ve seen on YouTube I would even go so far as to say that the principal characters are up to no good. But that’s as far as I’ll go on the matter. [More here.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Strictly speaking, grammar nuts have a point (The Australian)


It is easy to laugh at ‘Grammar Nazis’ – easy and, frequently, necessary. People who obsess about beginning sentences with conjunctions, or ending them with prepositions, are to be studiously avoided at parties, while those who object to the use of ‘which’ in restrictive clauses are only marginally less irritating. As for the empurpled nitwits who complain loudly about split infinitives (an invented rule, and the crowning stupidity of nineteenth-century prescriptivism) – those who haven’t died of natural causes should be, for their own sakes, humanely put down. [More here.]

Friday, November 28, 2014

We Can't Leave Our Genes Behind (November 2014, The Weekend Australian)

At some point in the 1990s, a poster began to appear on the London Underground. It depicted four brains, three of which were identical and one of which was much smaller than the others. From a distance, it appeared to be a crude taxonomy of the kind that one might associate with a nineteenth-century phrenologist. But closer inspection revealed a political message. Set out in a line, with the small one last, the brains were labelled, respectively, ‘African’, ‘European’, ‘Asian’, and ‘Racist’. [More here.]

'The Adolescent Country': A Peculiar Meld of the Obvious and the Obviously Untrue (New Matilda)


As someone who is always in the market for irony, I’ll admit to having felt slightly giddy when I first read that the Abbott government had utilised Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council to formulate a recovery mission to Ukraine in the wake of the MH17 disaster. After all, it was Tony Abbott who, six months in to his stint as opposition leader, described Kevin Rudd’s bid for a seat on the Council (costed at around $13 million) as a vanity project and a waste of money. (That was in mid 2010, at which point Abbott was getting into character as his alter ego ‘Dr No’.) That he would utilise the seat in such a statesmanlike manner was thus a rather neat reversal. A shame he had to spoil the effect by threatening to ‘shirtfront’ the Russian President. But hey, you can’t have everything. [More here.]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

More shade, please, in 'the burqa debate' (New Matilda)


There used to be a convention at the seamier end of the pornography market whereby models would be de-identified by way of a dark strip across their eyes. The aim of this strip, presumably, was to protect the honour of the featured models – these being the days before the internet had made us all a little less chaste. Its effect, however, was strangely brutalising: denuded of her eyes – ‘the windows to the soul’, as Professor Marcus has it in The Ladykillers – the woman became, even more than before, a plaything of the male gaze: a piece of meat, in other words. [More here.]