Friday, September 19, 2014

Comrade Tressell's Problem Novel (Sydney Review of Books)


‘The trouble with you socialists is that you don’t know anything about economics.’ The businessman – a wealthy retailer – was talking to a miner in Western Australia. ‘What you don’t seem to understand’, he continued, ‘is that every time you get an increase in your wages, the cost of living rises with them.’ 

‘So what are you saying?’ enquired the miner; ‘That if we asked for a pay cut the cost of living would go down?’ 

Taken aback by the miner’s question, the businessman had to admit that, yes – that was indeed what he was saying. 

‘All right then,’ said the miner, ‘we’ll ask for a pay cut. And then we’ll ask for another pay cut. And I suppose that in a few years’ time you cunts will be paying us to take your stuff away!’ [More here.]

Review of Stephen Edgar's Exhibits of the Sun (The Weekend Australian, September)


To say that the pace of modern life is unconducive to lyric poetry is not so much to flirt with cliché as to drop your keys down cliché’s blouse and insist upon retrieving them. It’s also undeniable. Assailed from all sides by all manner of trivia, we’ve lost the habit of sustained contemplation needed to engage with this most challenging of art forms; so many and so various are the demands upon our attention that attention itself has atrophied. Nor is it only social media and click-bait junkies who are at issue here. In an interview in 2006, the unashamedly highbrow Martin Amis admitted to feeling increasingly rushed – such that poetry had been pushed to one side: ‘When you’re reading your New York Review of Books, some piece about North Korea or the Middle East, and there’s a poem in the middle of it, you think, What is that doing there?’ [More here.]

Interview on Sunday Night Safran

I had a nice chat with John Safran on his Sunday night show. Audio here, about 8 minutes in.

Barbara Ehrenreich grapples with her youthful quest for meaning (The Australian, September)


In a career spanning nearly half a century, the US journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has sought to expose economic inequality and to critique the utopian and delusional character of the arguments used to justify it. In Nickel and Dimed (2001) she revealed how the lives of unskilled workers give the lie to ‘trickledown’ economics, while in Bait and Switch (2005) she turned her attention to the US’s shrinking middle class, noting how increasing job insecurity has spawned a motivational market populated by frauds and hucksters. A mordant critic of the American Dream, she is the chronicler of what her fellow journalist and progressive George Packer has recently termed, in his book of the same name, ‘the unwinding’: the recognition that the social contract as envisaged in plutocratic America is not worth the paper it was never written on. [More here.]

Shorten plays politics while Iraq burns (New Matilda, August)


It fell to Labor leader Bill Shorten, doing his usual impression of a hole in the air, to encapsulate this week’s mini debate around the Abbott government’s intentions (or lack of them) regarding the unfolding situation in Iraq, where, if this morning’s reports are correct, 80 men have just been massacred (and their wives and children taken as prisoners) in the Yazidi village of Kocho. Refusing to be drawn himself into commenting on ‘hypotheticals’, he nevertheless upbraided the government for failing to give Australians ‘one position in terms of their intent’. Having registered a very slight difference in tone between comments made by defence minister David Johnston, who said that he wouldn’t rule out providing military ‘back-up assistance’ to the US should it recommit ground-troops to Iraq, and foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop, who said that she did not envisage a situation in which the US would request such assistance, his political instruments flickered into life and he tottered out to meet the press. ‘I do wish the defence minister or the prime minister could clarify what the position of the government is,’ said Shorten, adding, a little pettishly, ‘Labor certainly hasn’t been consulted at all.’ [More here.]

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.]