Friday, January 28, 2011

Are You Really Sure That You Want To Be a Luddite?

It's not easy to quite Facebook completely. It's easy enough to de-activate your account but deleting it is another matter completely. You have to apply to have your account deleted and that takes 14 days. 14 days during which what you'll see if you decide to log in to Facebook so that you can let all your erstwhile Facebook friends that you've decided to quit Facebook for good is this screen:

In Praise of Ern

I know very little Australian poetry, beyond that stanza of Dorothea Mackellar's My Country. That's because, back in the mid 1960s, I got a traditionalist Australian education of the kind advocated by Dr Kevin Donnelly and other education conservatives. Australian literature - especially poetry - had only a token presence in the curriculum. I gather little had changed by the 1980s and I hope things have improved one hell of a lot since then. Maybe, finally, senior high school students are getting more than the token presence of one Australian book a year on their reading lists. You'd think that the number would have at least doubled by now.

There's one Australian poet who I reckon every Australian student should know about by the time they finish high school: our most internationally famous poet Ern Malley. Ern and the scandal he created would make a great case study for achieving the goals specified for the Literacy strand of the National English Curriculum in Years 11 & 12:

Quick Link - The New Neurosexism

Wandering wombs, an anatomically conferred destiny of penis envy and masochism, smaller brains, smaller frontal lobes, larger frontal lobes, right-hemisphere dominance, cross-hemisphere interaction, too much oestrogen, not enough testosterone – all have been invoked to explain why women are intellectually inferior to men, more emotional, less logical, better at asking for directions, worse at map reading, hopeless at maths and science, and ever so much better suited to jobs involving finger dexterity, nappies and dishes...
There's more good writing from Cordelia Fine where that came from.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Flood Levy - A Complete Failure of Political Will

Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has almost but not quite fulfilled the expectations of a lot of pundits who were predicting that she would fund the Federal Government's contribution to recovery from the Queensland floods through a special levy. One third of the Federal Government's contribution to Queensland's recovery will be funded through a levy. The other two thirds will come from spending cuts. I think my opinion of this decision is quite clear from the title of this post.

In olden days, before first Bob Hawke & Paul Keating and then John Howard & Peter Costello established and propagated the Cult of the Surplus it would have been quite acceptable for a government to respond to a disaster like the Queensland floods by extending the budget deficit. But that was then, this is now. Now things are different: if Australian governments aren't keeping their budgets in surplus so that the funds obtained by overtaxing the populus can be invested in a "Future Fund" managed by merchant bankers in the United States there's something very obviously wrong. Our national economy must be run at a profit or, at worst, on a break even basis. Borrowing money to get through hard times - something any private business would at least try to do - is no longer an option for Australian governments.

(US governments have it better than ours - they can, and have, cranked up enormous deficits to fund the indulgences of the USA's ruling elites. According to some commentators sooner or later they'll have to face up to things and change their ways. Don't bet on it happening any time soon).

Here's the thing - according to the canons of economics, the justification for governments accumulating surpluses (and then investing them through merchant bankers either here or overseas) is so that when times get tough - and a natural disaster on the scale of the Queensland floods makes for a pretty tough time - the government has funds in hand to cope with the tough times. That's what surpluses are for: not proving that the government can run the country like a well-managed private business which consistently returns high dividends to shareholders but so that, like a prudent householder, it has something set aside for the proverbial rainy day (pun unfortunately unavoidable). The function of a budget surplus is to provide insurance, not profit.

Particularly galling, from a personal point of view, is that the two thirds of the Federal Government's contribution to fixing up the flood damage that comes from program cuts includes cuts to the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS). Coming at the end of a day when I've just come home after being told that I might have to wait for years before I can get housing through the Office of Housing in Victoria this news is really unwelcome - further evidence that this Federal Government won't even try to walk and chew gum at the same time.

None of this would be happening if the Gillard Government were prepared to face up to the facts and say "You know that 2013 budget surplus we promised? Sorry folks, we'll have to plead force majeur on that one. The budget will get back into surplus when it gets back into surplus. But thanks to the Queensland floods all bets are off." But no - they're too scared of what News Limited will say about them to do that.

Not that it's done the ALP any good - I think Andy Bolt's comments on the flood levy are a good indication of the sort of treatment they'll get from that quarter. It's always galling to find myself agreeing with Bolt on anything but I'll just have to console myself with the thought that we're not on the same side - we just happen to be facing in the same direction right now.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Vocabulary Gap

Maybe it's just me or maybe it's the English language but I found myself stuck for a word today: one whose definition is "inadvertently saying the exact opposite of what you mean". We have words for doing it deliberately - "sarcasm" for example - but I can't think of any for doing it without meaning to. I think such a word would be useful (malapropism and parapraxis don't really cut it).

Absurdity Day 2011

So here it is again - Australia Day, the day that Australians used to mark by taking a long weekend and now mark by taking a day off wherever that day falls in the week and doing whatever it is theat they would have done if it were along weekend Monday anyway. Although, now that  the Australia Day holiday happens on your actual January 26th and not on whichever Monday near it is most convenient it's widely considered proper to at least drape an Australian Flag over your shoulder while you hoe into the barbecued lamb washed down with VB.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Back to Harvester?

Until 4:00 this morning, I’d never heard of David Harvey, an “eminent Marxist geographer” from the US. As I was whiling away my nightly bout of insomnia, I followed a link in this post by Don Arthur at Club Troppo, commenting on this post by Kim at Larvatus Prodeo and found  this interview with  Harvey and then this one. Both the Harvey interviews make interesting reading, particularly this section of the second:

I was part of, or very close to, one of the first living wage movements in Baltimore back in the early 90's. They now have become quite wide spread through many jurisdictions of the United States and I think there is a push going on at the grassroots level that says you cannot have people employed at something that is below a living wage. Therefore we have to pay very close attention to that locally, and I think that local movements are likely to push more and more into the national consciousness.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ars Moriendi My You Know What

I’ve just been looking over the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” site which, today at least, features a hell of a lot about religion and very little about ethics. What drew me to the site was this article by Scott Stephens, the Religion and Ethics (but Mostly Religion) Editor for ABC Online. It’s a shocker - short on fact, long on unsubstantiated claims and portentous moralising. 

After noting the release of the Productivity Commission’s draft report on aged care, Stephens declares:

There is an ... important moral or personal dimension to the ongoing catastrophe of aged-care in Australia that demands a reform of our moral imaginations as well.

What sort of reform of our moral imaginations does the ongoing catastrophe of aged care demand? Read on and you’ll discover that we need to recover the forgotten ars moriendi - the art of dying - which was such a prominent part of the medieval Christian tradition:

We forget that the ars moriendi or the "art of dying" - of which Langland's Piers Plowman is perhaps the best literary example - was cultivated in the mediaeval Christian tradition as an indispensable part of living well. But it was never understood as an individual virtue. It was instead a communal effort, whereby the community gathers to listen with patient gratitude to lives that have finally learned to tell the truth about themselves.

Dying, in other words, was deemed the last theatre of virtue and courage, the manifestation of the bond between the living and the dead whereby what it might mean to die well is exemplified.

I’ve read a fair bit on mediaeval history and the one and only mention of ars moriendi I’ve ever come across was in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror - The Calamitous 14th Century. So my first reaction to Stephens’s claim that mediaeval Christianity cultivated the art of dying as an indispensible part of living well was complete disbelief. With the help of Google I found that my disbelief was quite justified :

Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying). A late medieval compilation of texts (prayers, maxims, exhortations, and so on), intended as a guide for the comforting and counselling of the dying; it was issued as a block book c.1460–5 and subsequently in various editions, including an English translation by Caxton (1491), made from an abridged French version. [Oxford Dictionary of Art]

As for the idea that Langland’s Piers Plowman is the best literary example of ars moriendi, that’s looking pretty nonsensical. How can a 14th century  poem be an example of either a social practice or a 15th century book? Finally, Stephens’s claim that dying was “was deemed the last theatre of virtue and courage” just doesn’t sit well with the muddle-headed reality of the mediaeval period. Most of the population of mediaeval Europe - the much put upon Third Estate - were, by mediaeval definition, irredeemable cowards.

Stephens doesn’t limit himself to specious historical claims that any adept Googler can debunk within ten minutes plus extra time for writing and editing. Earlier in the article he makes some pretty scurrilous claims about the current state of nursing home care:

Anyone who has had any experience of working or volunteering in aged-care facilities knows the conditions in which our elderly so often live: their clothes drenched with either excrement or the property-less mush served to them as food; cavernous hallways echoing with howls and plaintive cries for assistance; under-resourced, overworked and frequently untrained staff rushing frenetically from task to task; the ambient disdain for these frail, barely existing hominoids who are not treated as though they were alive, but simply "not yet dead".

Really? You’d think that if nursing homes were really that sordid some of those workers and volunteers would be speaking out about it. Particularly the volunteers. But never mind that - why provide the extraordinary evidence to support this extraordinary claim when you can make your case by quoting poetry and ruminating on it:

[In her poem “Old People’s Nursing Home” Elizabeth] Jennings captured the unreality - and indeed, the hellish immorality - of the nursing home as a place where past and future, memory and hope, are somehow eradicated and all that is left is the nightmare of an immutable, insipid present in which not even cups can break.

Putting our aged relations in these living hells, Stephens argues, is a moral failure equivalent to our failure to fulfil our obligations to the unborn: a moral failure born of our desire for “a kind of lived immortality sustained by unlimited choice, a freedom from obligation to others, and the delusion that we can somehow indefinitely defer our deaths.”

Stephens finishes on an admonitory note:

...if we don't allow our lives to be formed by our obligations, it is not simply our elderly that will continue to suffer. We will find ourselves, and our moral imaginations, immeasurably poorer.

I think it would have been perfectly appropriate if he had used the pronouns “you” and “your” instead of “we” and “our” in those concluding remarks. The article shows that Stephens is by no means lacking in “moral imagination”.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Not Even Dinosaurs

Last year, while Australians were reeling from the impact of the defeat of the Australian Cricket Team at the MCG - a national crisis more devastating than the Queensland floods - British actor Colin Firth made news elsewhere in the world by commissioning a study of brain differences between conservatives and liberals. In response to a light-hearted request from Firth, neurologist Geraint Rees scanned the brains of ninety students and found significant differences in brain structure between conservatives and progressives in the group.

According to Rees' study, conservatives have larger amygdalae than progressives; in progressives there is more grey matter in an area of the cortex known as the anterior cingulate cortex. The amygdala is a very ancient area of the brain, involved in learning primitive fight or flight responses. Even frogs have them. The anterior cingulate is newer, and does some interesting stuff - a typical task used to test its function is to ask someone to identify the color used to print a word, for example:


The anterior cingulate is very active when we're making a conscious effort to understand things or learn new stuff.

On the down-under parts of the internet, Rees' study hasn't had much attention. According to Piers Akerman it helps us understand why conservative voters have more common sense than left-wingers - they're more in touch with the ancient amphibian wisdom of the amygdala. And it's thanks to those same left-wingers, voting with them new-fangled cortical parts of the brain that we still have - by a small margin - an ALP government. Then there's this piece of ancient amphibian wisdom at Quadrant which is where I learnt about the study inthe first place.

If the study shows one thing, it's that it's completely inappropriate to refer to conservatives as dinosaurs. The evolutionary origins of conservative thinking are much more ancient than that..