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.]

Geoffrey Robertson and Michael Kirby: On Australia and Gandhi (The Weekend Australian, February)

‘Although an expatriate, I am not an ex-patriot’, writes the human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson in his introduction to Dreaming Too Loud, a collection of essays spanning thirty years and touching on subjects as diverse as drones, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Julian Assange. It’s a point on which he insists more than once, perhaps because, as well as living in the UK, he sounds as if he was born and raised in one of its posher stately homes. (The satirical magazine Private Eye once described him as ‘an Australian who has had a vowel transplant’.) Nevertheless, his patriotism is sincere, and all the more interesting for being based, not on jingoism, but on a love for Australia’s best traditions of fairness and social democracy. [More here.]

A Dangerous Cynicism (Sydney Review of Books, February)

It is now almost exactly a quarter of a century since history – or rather History – ended. No doubt you remember the occasion well. The year was 1989. Amidst the collapsing scenery of the Soviet Union and its European satellites, a political scientist called Francis Fukuyama stepped forward to declare that liberal democracy was now the only game in town. His essay, ‘The End of History?’, was published in The National Interest and foretold a future in which the human species, though still at the mercy of mere events, would cease to engage in ideological struggle. Liberal democracy, imperfect though it was, was not a phase through which humanity was moving; it was the system on which humanity was now compelled, whether it liked it or not, to settle. All other options having been exhausted, societies based on free and fair elections – and, no less important, free markets – would from now on dominate the geopolitical terrain. [More here.] 

Review of David Whish-Wilson's Perth (The Weekend Australian, December 2013)

The object of travel, wrote G. K. Chesterton, ‘is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land’. David Whish-Wilson returned to his own country, Australia, at the age of twenty-nine, having spent a decade ‘bumming around’ in Europe, Asia and Africa. I’ve no doubt he could have written travel books of the common-or-garden variety; but what he has actually written is a book on Perth that attains at times to the status of poetry. Indeed, so rich and lyrical is Perth, so acute in its insights and adept in its composition, that Chesterton’s paradox would appear well-founded. [More here.]