Sunday, 30 August 2009

Sense, and nonsense, about US politics

On women in combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan: a pleasingly realistic, as opposed to ideological, piece of reporting — perhaps because it's being prepared during wartime. However, it must be said that some other articles in this series have been much less reasonable.

Meanwhile Ross Douthat has some sane remarks on the health-care-reform debate in the US, and on agency in US politics.

Speaking of the legislature: in memoriam Ted Kennedy, Gail Collins and David Brooks discuss being boring, building human capital, and getting things done. And I have to agree: it is encouraging to see that someone could find their place so completely, relatively late in life, after such previous failure. How to be a good Senator was something he understood quite early, although it seems to have taken seniority, failure as a Presidential candidate, and his second marriage, to free him to become truly good at it.

The ABC in Sydney, of course, is still tone-deaf. A year ago I complained that it was speaking stupidly about Senator Kennedy's illness, and reactions to it, and tonight's reporting of the memorials was no better. There was no mention — not one — of something that has been unavoidable in American discussion of the late Senator's life: his excellence as a Senator, as a legislator, as someone whose business it was to write, to negotiate, to compromise, and to act in concert with others. And if even a quarter of what is said about him in this area is true, then Teddy was superb at it. No-one else in this era is even mentioned as a rival in effectiveness and influence in the Senate; he was the Democrat with whom Republicans — Republican legislators, so they say, without a single exception — most wished to work.

That so thoroughly liberal a figure (and someone routinely demonised as such) could be so respected by the other side of politics, is worth noting, and worth discussing. It's a reminder that the partisan gridlock of present discussion is not the whole story, and is in some ways a declension from an earlier, more civil state. But to even notice any of this is to accept that Americans are not only different from us, but different from our understanding of them, and different — sometimes, dare I say it, they can be better — than their understanding of themselves.

If you're my age, and especially if you're Australasian, you can't help but think of America's quasi-royal family via the Shona Laing song (Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy, although what the late Senator was good at was the workaday business of government, rather than the inspiration one associates with his brothers. Nonetheless, among the pieces of soaring JFK rhetoric that graced the 80's song, there's one that will serve for Jack's baby brother, redeemed sinner that he was:
When a man's ways please the Lord, the Scriptures tell us, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.
Proverbs 16:7

Friday, 28 August 2009

Hilary Mantel on 1974

What sort of judgment was the community social worker making when he swore the stepfather was a nice feller? Was he frightened of the man? That was possible; but more likely he wanted to be his mate. The young social workers of the time, coming up through university courses – postgraduate training after a sociology degree – thought it a sin to be judgmental. In fact they were making judgments all the time. Uneasy about their own middle-class backgrounds, and always feeling vaguely uncool, they believed they should not ‘label’ clients or assess ‘working-class’ people by their own middle-class criteria; so they treated them as if they were dogs and cats, not responsible for their actions. They had a whole set of interesting beliefs about the uneducated and the poor. They didn’t see that they were being grossly condescending, while pretending to be the opposite. Aspiration was a middle-class trait, they thought; the working classes preferred to muddle along. The privileged had their ethical standards, but it was unfair to universalise them. The workers had their own amusements, bless them, and should be allowed their vices. Their houses were dirty, but it was petty bourgeois to worry about grime. And if they were drunken or semi-criminal, and beat each other, wasn’t that their culture? These young graduates took as typical the malfunctioning families with whom their case files brought them into contact. Worse, they wanted their clients to like them. They dressed in recidivist chic and roughed up their accents. Their heads were full of Durkheim, their mouths full of glottal stops. They were occupied in creating a moral vacuum; theirs was a world safe for theory but profoundly unsafe for any child who needed them to shape up and go to work.

I wrote down the details of Ruby’s case and put it in the files. Soon after, I left my job. The chest hospital closed its doors in 1982 and, the National Archives says, ‘no records are known to survive.’ I don’t know the end of the story...
Hilary Mantel, from a brief memoir of her time as a social work assistant, in an issue of the London Review of Books from earlier this year.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Jim Webb, on holding one's nose and getting real

Second, the United States needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the nondemocratic world. Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy. We must talk to Myanmar’s leaders. This does not mean that we should abandon our aspirations for a free and open Burmese society, but that our goal will be achieved only through a different course of action...

Third, our government leaders should call on China to end its silence about the situation in Myanmar, and to act responsibly, in keeping with its role as an ascending world power. Americans should not hold their collective breaths that China will give up the huge strategic advantage it has gained as a result of our current policies. But such a gesture from our government would hold far more sway in world opinion than has the repeated but predictable condemnation of Myanmar’s military government...
US Senator Jim Webb, following his return from Burma, in an op-ed entitled “We Can’t Afford to Ignore Myanmar”. I suspect this is right as far as it goes, but our public discourse on democracy and rights has become so strident, and so little thought-through — while in many other respects, business goes on as usual — that's it's become hard to imagine what a more consistent approach would actually look like.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Hart, on challenging the question

This has not, obviously, been a book of apologetics, in large part because I still find myself less perturbed by the sanctimonious condescension of many of those who do not believe than by either the gelid dispassion or the shapeless sentimentality of certain of those who do. Neither has it been a book of “technical” or “philosophical” theology, though I have at points touched upon “technical” elements of Christian philosophical tradition (too lightly, I fear, to be entirely convincing and too heavily to be entirely lucid). Much less has it been a book of consolations. Rather, my principal aim has simply been to elucidate — as far as in me lies — what I understand to be the true scriptural account of God's goodness, the shape of redemption, the nature of evil, and the conditions of a fallen world, not to convince anyone of its credibility, but simply to show where many of the arguments of Christianity's antagonists and champions alike fail to address what is most essential to the gospel.
From the conclusion of D.B. Hart's The Doors of the Sea.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Redheads, bugs, the LHC, and all that

In praise of the spleen
On the pain of being a redhead
Olivia Judson on your microbial fellow-travellers
xkcd on intercepting asteroids heading towards Earth

Newspapers have gone pleasingly quiet on the Large Hadron Collider, since the run plan was announced earlier this month. It beat the pessimistic, “if at all” tone of reporting just three days earlier. Given previous loud public statements about scheduling, one could argue that we only have ourselves to blame — but it's pretty hard to take some of the free commentary, such as this piece of farfetching on the connection between the LHC and an abandoned Mayan temple. Really. “And like Xunantunich, the collider these days is silent, if not abandoned,” we are told. Stephen Weinberg's response as quoted in the article, “I don’t see it in quite those apocalyptic terms,” is a marvel of understatement.

Meanwhile, yet another tendentious proposal for peace between science and religion has been launched. It is not noted for its theological insight. “Most scientists and most religious believers refuse to be drafted into the fight,” the writer says. Speaking as a scientist and a Christian, I also refuse to be drafted into this sort of attempt at peacekeeping. One problem with peacekeeping forces is that they can have their own agendas; and they are prone to being tone-deaf.

Finally, a chef writes on making “organic” and other small farms more robust against disease:
Healthy, natural systems abhor uniformity — just as a healthy society does. We need, then, to look to a system of food and agriculture that values and mimics natural diversity. The five-acre monoculture of tomato plants next door might be local, but it’s really no different from the 200-acre one across the country: both have sacrificed the ecological insurance that comes with biodiversity.

What does the resilient farm of the future look like? I saw it the other day. The farmer was growing 30 or so different crops, with several varieties of the same vegetable. Some were heirloom varieties, many weren’t. He showed me where he had pulled out his late blight-infected tomato plants and replaced them with beans and an extra crop of Brussels sprouts for the fall. He won’t make the same profit as he would have from the tomato harvest, but he wasn’t complaining, either...

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Hart, on giving atheism its due

For this reason, the atheist who cannot believe for moral reasons does honor, in an elliptical way, to the Christian God, and so must not be ignored. He demands of us not the surrender of our beliefs but a meticulous recollection on our parts of what those beliefs are, and a definition of divine love that has at least the moral rigor of principled unbelief. This, it turns out, is no simple thing. For sometimes atheism seems to retain elements of “Christianity” within itself that Christians have all too frequently forgotten.
This from David Bentley Hart's 2005 essay The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? which I belatedly read today; various friends have been recommending Hart to me over the last few years — I especially enjoyed his recent reflection on Edward Upward — and it seemed high time to read his celebrated rebuke of theodicy. It's very much written to a Christian audience, and largely concerned with inept and offensive positions held by Christians, but it would be of interest and benefit to at least some other people interested in these issues.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

On becoming a politician

The question — and I have struggled with this myself — is where do you have the most impact, where do you drive most effectively. It is always changing as the world changes. I used to humiliate CEOs, and one needed to be sufficiently emotionally unaware to live with that ethical contradiction — of making leaders look bad in order to get your point across.
So Paul Gilding, former Greenpeace director, as quoted in an article about the Australian singer-turned-politician Peter Garrett [in the SMH's Good Weekend, apparently not online]. It's worth a read, although it's not always so ethically aware: the journalist wants to have his cake and eat it too, issuing cheap shots against Garrett at one remove, or maybe half a remove. The smarmiest of Garrett's critics is Bob Brown, head of the Greens, who has quite a line in moral one-upmanship. Here's a hint, Bob: if you have a former colleage, whom (as you say) you like a great deal, and feel empathy for, and yet you find yourself feeling "a great deal of anxiety for him as a person", pick up the phone, or walk down the corridor to his office, and talk to him personally. Keep your pious concerns out of the press. Or, you know, we might think it had more to do with establishing your own brand by trashing a professional rival.

Garrett on his own situation:
And I think that's the crux of this, you know, `Peter Garrett is not the person he was before. He's become a politician.' Well, yeah, that's right. I did become a politician and I made that step into the discipline of party politics.
Garrett, currently Minister for the Environment, Arts and Heritage, is — and I didn't know this — the second-oldest member of cabinet, which is a disorienting thought. And how he has ever been able to make it through the song Beds Are Burning, given his personal history, boggles the mind.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Leaving behind childish things (and also some things of value)

A.O. Scott has written some excellent pieces recently, on films for teenagers (reflecting on the place of John Hughes' movies), as opposed to the current practice of treating the audience like kids;

a propos of which, Molly Ringwald has written a brief reflection on John Hughes as Peter Pan. It's plausible and, all things considered, rather sad. (I also note that, while she's no prose stylist, Ringwald can actually write.)

Meanwhile, in the world of non-moving pictures, photojournalism is in trouble, if not actually dying.

Re the small screen, I enjoyed this comment in the New Yorker, on The United States of Tara:
Collette is impressively convincing, even though I’m not entirely sure what I’m being convinced of.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Going off-message

On Sarah Palin and her enemies:
A Sarah Palin who stepped down for the sake of her family and her media-swarmed state deserves sympathy even from the millions of Americans who despise her. A Sarah Palin who resigned in the delusional belief that it would give her a better shot at the presidency in 2012 warrants no such kindness.

Either way, though, her 10 months on the national stage have been a dispiriting period for American democracy.

If Palin were exactly what her critics believe she is — the distillation of every right-wing pathology, from anti-intellectualism to apocalyptic Christianity — then she wouldn’t be a terribly interesting figure. But this caricature has always missed the point of the Alaska governor’s appeal ...
Over the last few months I have been enjoying the columns of Ross Douthat, the New York Times' new resident conservative: to give a recent selection, here he is offering a critical take on the US Supreme Court, and on using the Constitution to regulate abortion; giving a sane synopsis of where things stand for America in Iraq; and asserting that the basis of affirmative action (if any) will have to shift from race to class.

Meanwhile the established conservative at the Times, David Brooks — really, as a friend of mine remarked in a nice distinction, the resident Republican — found it in himself to call for Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation two months ago ... a sign of how unsupportable the Republican party line has become over the last year. (The fact that he went off-message and criticised the McCain-Palin ticket during, rather than after last year's election, was an early indicator that the game was up.) This week, less than ten of the GOP senators found it in themselves to agree.

In other off-topic news, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that people who were already poor have been hit by the downturn, even if they're not making the news;

a UN official talks about what's right with Japan;

a reporter presents a good-news story on orphanages in Tanzania;

and Matt Bai writes on Obama's sense of humour.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Reality bites, shoots, and stabs

When we talked about the first reality programs, years ago, we worried about obvious things: that in the environment of these shows, things would be broken that could not be fixed; that sooner or later, someone was going to be raped, or badly hurt; that some already-damaged person might be destroyed. The genius of Series 7 is to see that this was never really the point. The literal horror is taken for granted, and it's sadly true that it doesn't revolt as much as it “should”: people are killed all through this program, but with the exception of a particular lethal beating, none of it makes you wince. But one winces every moment at the loss of shame, of self-respect, and of any kind of restraint, not just by the contenders, but by the relentless, sententious voice-over, and the public that it's co-opted to its perspective.
From my review of the film Series 7, posted over at my Bruce's Reviews side-project. Enough has been said about “reality” radio in Sydney in recent days, but what's saddest is that it took a severe incident involving a child to get the show pulled. As if the basic premise, and the general behaviour of the show, were not bad enough. It put me in mind of a distant time when deliberately contrived dysfunction was still felt as an innovation, and could offend just by being itself. I wrote the review in '03, of an '01 film; the first stabs at reality radio and television in the nineties were still fresh in memory. But as of this writing, children who were born in that period are in high school, and have known no other world.