Archive | Clippings & Commentary

What to do with taboo

Daniel Barenboim at the New York Review has written a thoughtful piece on Wagner as a Jewish taboo. That Wagner was a vociferous anti-Semite is well-attested. Hitler regarded him as a great German prophet and a personal hero. Nazi ideology borrowed liberally from Wagner’s mythology.

Nevertheless, Barenboim goes there:

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, who as a successful journalist was confronted by increasing anti-Semitism in Austria and France, was initially in favor of complete assimilation of the Jews. Interestingly, Herzl’s choice of words was not fundamentally different from Wagner’s in describing the situation of Jews in German society. In 1893 he wrote that “to cure the evil” the Jews would have to “rid themselves of the peculiarities for which they are rightly reproached.” One would have to “baptize the Jewboys” in order to spare them excessively difficult lives. “Untertauchen im Volk!”—disappear among the people—was his appeal to the Jewish population.

Richard Wagner also spoke of Untergang, or sinking: “consider that only one thing can be the deliverance from the curse that weighs on you: the deliverance of Ahasver,—sinking [der Untergang]!” Wagner’s conclusion about the Jew- ish problem was not only verbally similar to Herzl’s; both Wagner and Herzl favored the emigration of the German Jews. It was Herzl’s preoccupation with European anti-Semitism that spurred him to want to found a Jewish state. His vision of a Jewish state was influenced by the tradition of European liberalism. In the novel Altneuland (1902), he describes what the settled Jewish community in Palestine might look like; Arabic residents and other non-Jews would have equal political rights.

In other words, Herzl had not overlooked the fact that Arabs were living in Palestine when he developed the idea for an independent state for the European Jews. In 1921, at the Twelfth Zionist conference in Karlsbad, Martin Buber warned that politics would have to take on the “Arab question”:

Our national desire to renew the life of the people of Israel in their ancient homeland however is not aimed against any other people. As we enter the sphere of world history once more, and become once more the standard bearers of our own fate, the Jewish people, who have constituted a persecuted minority in all the countries of the world for two thousand years, reject with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under which they themselves have so long suffered. We do not aspire to return to the land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties in order to suppress another people or to dominate them.

The Israeli declaration of independence of May 14, 1948, also says that the state of Israel

will devote itself to the development of the country to the good of all its residents. It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace according to the visions of the prophets of Israel. It will guarantee all its citizens social and political equality regardless of religion, race and gender. It will ensure religious and intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, education and culture.

The reality, as we all know, looks different today.

Even today, many Israelis see the refusal of Palestinians to recognize the state of Israel as a continuation of European pre-war anti-Semitism. It is, however, not anti-Semitism that determines the relationship of Palestinians to Israel, but rather resistance against the division of Palestine at the time when Israel was founded, and against the withholding of equal rights today, for example the right to an independent state. Palestine was simply not an empty country (as Israeli nationalistic legend has it); it could in fact have been described at the time as it was by two rabbis who visited the land to survey it as a potential Jewish state: “the bride is beautiful, but she is already married.” To this day it is still a taboo in Israeli society to make clear the fact that the state of Israel was founded at the cost of another people.

Barenboim caused a stink when he performed some of Wagner’s music with a German orchestra in 2001:

The pieces were played as an encore following a forty-minute discussion with the audience. I suggested to the people who wanted to leave that they do so. Only twenty to thirty people who did not want to hear Wagner’s music left the hall. The remainder applauded the orchestra so enthusiastically that I had the feeling we had done something positive. Only the next day did the dispute erupt when politicians called the performance a scandal, although they had not been present themselves.

Whether or not such a move constitutes something positive is a fascinating question. How do you heal deep, ugly wounds? Is it just a matter of time, as the old adage would have it? A look at race relations in the United States, or indeed Australia, would suggest we have some while to wait yet if so. Barenboim’s thoughts on this are worthy of some reflection:

The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish Israeli identity have not been taken. All concerned continue to cling to past associations that were absolutely understandable and justified at the time. It is as if they wanted, by so doing, to remind themselves of their own Judaism. Perhaps this is the same fact that does not allow many Israelis to see the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights.

When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means, in a certain respect, that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.

This view is unworthy of Jewish listeners. They should rather be influenced by such great Jewish thinkers as Spinoza, Maimonides, and Martin Buber than by half-baked dogmas.

Perhaps finding identity in a negative leads to a hollowing out that is ultimately self-defeating. This certainly seems true of fundamentalist Christians whose entire Christian identity appears to consist in being against gays and government. Or those Whitlam supporters who are still maintaining the rage over the Dismissal rather than identifying with the merits of social democracy. Or, lest it need to be said, those whose entire defence of voting for the ALP is that it can’t possibly be as bad as voting for Tony Abbott.

It’s an easy trap. Until quite recently, I was someone who Doesn’t Like Sport, unreflectively (and happily) finding a part of my identity in that. Sport had always been an enemy of sorts — a source of hurt for a gangly intellectual, both personally and because of the fact of it itself and the resources it draws from pursuits that I care about. But as I came to be more satisfied with the positive identity developments in my gangly intellectual life, it occurred to me that to adopt such a position about sport is not only pointless, but silly. New worlds have opened up to me since.

But if such personal hurt and blindness over something relatively trivial is difficult to notice and overcome, how much harder is it to address the legitimate hurt of entire peoples? For all its flaws and controversy, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Australia’s Apology to the Stolen Generations were genuine attempts at this, with some measure of success. It certainly suggests that such things are best talked about than left in darkness, even if the talking is only a necessary first step to be followed up through ethical action, and not as a replacement for it. Perhaps it is insensitive to draw such comparisons as I have at all. But surely it is better that we talk about that than to nurture pain that we don’t talk about at all.

Shaking it up

Guy Rundle has a good article over at The Monthly on the new Wikileaks party set to contest this year’s senate election:

What position will WikiLeaks take on industrial relations, macroeconomics, social policy? Asked about this, Samantha Castro, the party’s Melbourne campaign manager and co-founder, has said that the party will develop a full slate of policies over time, rather than simply bud them off pro forma. That is wise, but it may also lead to complexity in the future: although Assange is seen by many as a standard-issue anti-American under false cover, he is no knee-jerk leftist. His distrust of the state is so great as to ill dispose him to the large corporate–state entities that make left-ish social programs possible. After all, WikiLeaks sprang out of the “cypherpunks” group – the mailing list and network of ’90s hackers, alarmed by an increasingly surveilled global state – and more than a few of those have seen their cyber-anarchism lead them towards the right. The WikiLeaks Party’s campaign director is Greg Barns, a one-time John Howard staffer, who in 2002 was disendorsed by the Liberals in Tasmania over his views on asylum-seeker policy. Barns’s position on social issues has always been left-liberal, but he remains oriented to laissez-faire policies in matters economic. Yet the majority of those who have flocked to join the WikiLeaks Party come from groups like the Occupy movement, whose leftism is undoubted. Should the party fall short at the election, all of this will be a dead letter. Success will bring with it some interesting conversations.

The Wikileaks perspective doesn’t really have any representation in our current political makeup, which is what makes it worth paying attention to. In the end it may end up posing the largest threat to the Greens. And we could certainly do with some more interesting conversations. Like this one, as Rundle points out:

In June 2012, foreign minister Bob Carr went out of his way to deny that Assange was under any threat of prosecution by the US, despite journalist Philip Dorling having revealed statements by the Australian embassy in Washington that indicated media reports of a secret grand jury charged with considering indictments against Assange were “likely true”. Should the returns on the night of [the election] produce a Senator-elect Assange, then such blithe evasions will no longer suffice. Any threats made will be against an elected representative of the Australian people: the insult will not be to one individual, but to our sovereignty.

I guess we’ll wait and see.

And it didn’t know it

Brian Rees at The Daily Beast discusses automatic poetry:

Sampsa Nuotio, a former tech entrepreneur living in Finland, stumbled upon the beauty of machine-generated poetics late last year. He had been mid–Google query when the phone rang, leaving “Am I a …” sitting there in the search box as he answered the phone. When he returned to the screen, ready to complete the search, the machine had created the following quasi-lyrical text:

am i an alcoholic
am i fit to drive
am i allergic to dogs
tell me, Andrew, am i

“It was like a really bad and funny poem,” Nuotio says. Immediately, he wanted more. The 37-year-old tested different lines, generated more poems, and, eventually, collected his favorites on Facebook, where they were met with enthusiasm. He also put together a Tumblr blog titled Google Poetics.

We seem to have a great need to humanise technology. Except Clippy the Paperclip. Screw that guy.

Then it’s agreed: she won’t be allowed near the phone again

Jonathan Green, assessing the new election contest, is on the money as usual:

Some strange sense of normalcy has been restored; it is has a lot to do, as Katharine Murphy observed yesterday in The Guardian, with an almost subconscious sense that an office left neglected through the Gillard years has been refilled.

The incumbency factor is what psephologist Peter Brent is always going on about — he has always said the 2010 election was fought between two Opposition leaders, without the authority of an incumbent government. I’m inclined to agree with that.

With irony turned up to eleven, Green observes the change in the political climate since Rudd came back:

Somehow it lifts the tone; it takes personal denigration and demeaning abuse out of the equation. It is days now since anyone called our prime minister a bitch or a witch; criticised the prime ministerial dress sense, or body shape; drew obscene caricatures; wished anyone drowned in a chaff bag; sniggered at her “big red box”; or pondered her dead father’s lingering sense of shame.

Much has changed: misogyny has done its worst and the big-arsed bitch is silenced; pure vengeful politics has had its day too and the numbers have tumbled toward Rudd, in self-preserving rush for electoral survival and hope.

Meanwhile, everything is back to normal:

There were “Kochie’s angels” on the Channel Seven morning show, the lissom sidekicks of our fish-eyed host presenting a segment featuring Laura Bush and Michelle Obama titled “Women on top”, because, hey, how could you talk about women of dignity and accomplishment without wrapping the whole thing in entendre?

Onya Straya, we bloody love ya.

Would you like another recount?

Another instalment of asylum seeker limbo:

Bob Carr told Lateline’s Tony Jones that when asylum seekers arriving by boat are being granted protection under the Refugee Convention at a rate of nine out of every ten then the assessments are obviously “coming up wrong.”

Someone should play this video to Bob Carr on loop:

Incidentally, the quote is from an excellent article by Peter Mares on how little has changed in the thinking about asylum seekers.

Unscheduled departure

I’m sad to hear of the passing of Paul Mees, who was one of the rare bright spots on the Australian academic landscape:

While working as a lawyer, Mees became involved in public transport advocacy through the Public Transport Users Association. As the association’s president from 1992 to 2001, he became one of Victoria’s most recognised spokespeople on public transport planning and management issues. In the 1990s, Mees launched a legal challenge against aspects of the Victorian government’s CityLink infrastructure project, which eventually went to the High Court. In the early 2000s, he helped to establish the Public Transport First Party, which sought to put transport issues on the agenda in key electorates. He was also a member of the community reference group for the Melbourne Metropolitan Strategy.

He was only 52. Sadly, there are not nearly enough academics who take their job seriously in the way Mees did.

While undoubtedly a notable academic, it was Mees’ capacity to engage in public debate that set him apart from many of his scholarly peers. For nearly three decades he shared platforms with politicians, activists, journalists and commentators, developers, planners and designers, bureaucrats, researchers and concerned citizens. He was arguably Australia’s highest-profile authority on public transport planning and development, demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to canvassing issues in the public arena.

As a respected commentator, a provocateur and a campaigner, Mees will be remembered for his candour, integrity and tenacity. In recent months, despite being seriously ill, he continued to participate in public debates. Questioning the Victorian government’s plans for an east-west tunnel system across Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, he argued there was little substantial research behind the project.

If you have deep specialist expertise on a matter of public import, the best thing you can do is act as a translator and facilitator who helps others harness that expertise to the public good.

Gunning for Manning

Meanwhile, the fourth estate seems in good shape, according to Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone:

Is Manning a hero, or a traitor? Did he give thousands of files to Wikileaks out of a sense of justice and moral horror, or did he do it because he had interpersonal problems, because he couldn’t keep his job, because he was a woman trapped in a man’s body, because he was a fame-seeker, because he was lonely?

You get the press and the rest of America following that bouncing ball, and the game’s over. Almost no matter what the outcome of the trial is, if you can convince the American people that this case is about mental state of a single troubled kid from Crescent, Oklahoma, then the propaganda war has been won already.

Because in reality, this case does not have anything to do with who Bradley Manning is, or even, really, what his motives were. This case is entirely about the “classified” materials Manning had access to, and whether or not they contained widespread evidence of war crimes.

This whole thing, this trial, it all comes down to one simple equation. If you can be punished for making public a crime, then the government doing the punishing is itself criminal.

Taibbi’s tone is often one of outraged exasperation, which is on display in his book on Blackwater and in his frequent TV appearances. Can you blame him?

Little-read dot

Singapore’s media system is highly unique. To people who take the press’ status as the fourth estate for granted, it is deeply offensive. I’m not going to defend it here, but I will say that it’s more complicated than it seems.

People have been wondering for a while how the Singapore media environment would cope with the emerging implications of the internet. Here is the beginnings of an answer, as reported by ABC:

The Singapore government says the new licensing framework is not intended to curb internet freedom, but to make the rules more consistent with those governing traditional media such as newspapers.

Under the rules, selected news websites which report regularly on Singapore would be licensed, and a performance bond of nearly $US40,000 placed with authorities.

Any story deemed objectionable by authorities would need to be taken down within 24 hours.

If you take the idea of value pluralism seriously, as I do, then the important question here is not so much how we judge this approach by our standards, but how they judge it by theirs. That’s very much an open question, as dissatisfaction with Singapore’s ruling party is running at an all-time high, but that may be about the details rather than the basic assumption of their non-adversarial media.

Value pluralism is a difficult idea, but it is not the same as moral relativism. More on this later.

Redo from start

Steven Poole at Aeon Magazine takes up the question of machine automation vs human judgment:

What lies behind our current rush to automate everything we can imagine? Perhaps it is an idea that has leaked out into the general culture from cognitive science and psychology over the past half-century — that our brains are imperfect computers. If so, surely replacing them with actual computers can have nothing but benefits.

This again highlights the importance of the metaphors that undergird our thinking. The mind is not at all like a computer, but if we adopt the metaphor that it is (because it sounds intuitively cool, right?), suddenly all sorts of logic becomes available.

Human judgment is indeed ‘flawed’, but only if we insist that there are ultimately correct answers to every question for which we might seek a judgment. This has been a popular view since the Enlightenment and the ensuing scientific revolution, and ‘progress’ has been thought to consist mainly in discovering more and more of this perfect picture.

But why should there be correct and ultimately settled answers to everything? It would be nice if things really were that simple, but to truly believe this is really nothing more than a childish fantasy. Things ain’t that simple, and we need to get over it.

In the human world at least, there are no right answers — only better or worse ones. Unless you are the most committed of moral relativists, to invoke the idea of better or worse means we must have some basis for evaluating what is ‘good’. This is properly the role of ethics, which relies on human judgment.

There has been a fashion, long before computers, for attempting to get rid of judgment in ethics by recasting it in terms of rules and formulas. It is this impulse that leads people to question machine automation vs human judgment in this kind of way:

Suppose you are in a self-driving car going across a narrow bridge, and a school bus full of children hurtles out of control towards you. There is no room for the vehicles to pass each other. Should the self-driving car take the decision to drive off the bridge and kill you in order to save the children?

The point of questions like this (and all the stuff about trolley cars) is to test ethical rules and formulas in hypothetical situations to see if they produce satisfactory results. But why should there be an rule or a formula that works in every imaginable situation? It’s the same fantasy of perfection again.

Real human judgment takes into account context and nuance, emotion, history, experience and a whole host of other situational factors. It will never be ‘perfect’, because there is no such thing as a perfect judgment. But our ability to make judgments can improve with experience. No-one is born with good judgment — it has to be taught. It has to be practised.

To many people, human judgment seems intolerably messy. And I do not deny that the thought of relying on the judgment of some people I have met is a truly terrifying prospect. But the point is that really it is all we do have to rely on, so why don’t we spend more time and effort on teaching practical judgment? We have all met someone who we have recognised as exercising good judgment — they seem to have a quality of wisdom that we can’t quite explain or put our finger on. There’s no secret to that — they’ve just had more practice.

The alternative is the kind of treacherous mirage many of my fellows in the social sciences still persist in pursuing:

In Baltimore and Philadelphia, software is already being used to predict which prisoners will reoffend if released. The software works on a crime database, and variables including geographic location, type of crime previously committed, and age of prisoner at previous offence. In so doing, according to a report in Wired in January this year, ‘The software aims to replace the judgments parole officers already make based on a parolee’s criminal record.’ Outsourcing this kind of moral judgment, where a person’s liberty is at stake, understandably makes some people uncomfortable. First, we don’t yet know whether the system is more accurate than humans. Secondly, even if it is more accurate but less than completely accurate, it will inevitably produce false positives — resulting in the continuing incarceration of people who wouldn’t have reoffended. Such false positives undoubtedly occur, too, in the present system of human judgment, but at least we might feel that we can hold those making the decisions responsible. How do you hold an algorithm responsible?

Still more science-fictional are recent reports claiming that brain scans might be able to predict recidivism by themselves. According to a press release for the research, conducted by the American non-profit organisation the Mind Research Network, ‘inmates with relatively low anterior cingulate activity were twice as likely to reoffend than inmates with high-brain activity in this region’. Twice as likely, of course, is not certain. But imagine, for the sake of argument, that eventually a 100 per cent correlation could be determined between certain brain states and future recidivism. Would it then be acceptable to deny people their freedom on such an algorithmic basis? If we answer yes, we are giving our blessing to something even more nebulous than thoughtcrime. Call it ‘unconscious brain-state crime’. In a different context, such algorithm-driven diagnosis could be used positively: according to one recent study at Duke University in North Carolina, there might be a neural signature for psychopathy, which the researchers at the laboratory of neurogenetics suggest could be used to devise better treatments. But to rely on such an algorithm for predicting recidivism is to accept that people should be locked up simply on the basis of facts about their physiology.

Social progress indeed.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Jon Kelly at the BBC has compiled a list of 10 of the best political euphemisms:

“Final user” The carnivalesque private life of Silvio Berlusconi introduced a bemused world to the notion of “bunga bunga”. An escort named Patrizia D’Addario, who said she slept with the former Italian prime minister at a party, extended his linguistic legacy. The politician’s lawyer Niccolo Ghedini denied the claims – and said because D’Addario said Berlusconi had not personally hired or paid her he would have been the “utilizzatore finale” or “final user” of her services, and thus was not criminally liable. Despite Ghedini’s protestations of his client’s innocence, the phrase has become a euphemism for men who use prostitutes.

My personal favourite has to be ‘watching badgers’, which I had not heard before. Though I’m disappointed to see Peter Costello’s ‘one for the country’ didn’t make the list.