Archive | Feature Articles

Unhobbling Democracy

Politics is failing. The public square in Australia, like so many other Western countries, is a broken and desolate place. Danu sifts through the wreckage looking for clues, and wonders how committed we really are to democratic citizenship.

It is now de rigueur to make the observation in Australia (and numerous other countries) that faith and trust in politics and especially our political leaders has deteriorated to what must surely be an all-time low. That the only box voters are prepared to tick is the one marked ‘None of the Above’.

This will either resonate with you or it won’t. In any case, plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject elsewhere, especially in diagnosing (and misdiagnosing) its causes and effects and I feel no urge to expend much effort arguing the proposition further here. I actually want to talk about democracy, but it will help to keep this disillusionment in mind.

It is interesting that Australia’s current government in particular should be especially pilloried — the object of a pitch and tenor of grumbling and derision not seen in some time. Whether this is because of the unfamiliar minority governing arrangements, the indelible sense of illegitimacy surrounding how the government came to power, its lack of clear vision, purpose and moral courage, the unpopularity of its policies, the scantily-clad sexism towards its leader or simply its sheer ineffectiveness, is hard to say. There are interesting things to be said about all these claims and in my view they all have some merit, but that is not our subject today.

Rather, I’d like to consider just what it is we want from our political institutions and what exactly we expect them to do. Continue Reading →

McUniversity: I’m Learnin’ It!

Today’s universities offer increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience. Rob charts some of the origins and outcomes of these developments and asks just how healthy it all is.

Today’s universities offer large and increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience.

In 1993, American sociologist George Ritzer wrote a best-selling book called The McDonaldization of Society. As Ritzer saw it:

… McDonaldization … is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.

Ritzer’s point was simple. McDonalds provides a basic model for providing goods and services in increasingly ‘rational’ ways. Let’s not worry about the word ‘rational’ right now—it is economic-speak for extracting as much profit or getting as much done for as little outlay of resources, time, labour (or whatever) as possible.

Central to Ritzer’s argument was that all sorts of businesses and organisations have emulated what Ray and Jim Kroc ‘invented’ when they established the McDonalds model in the late 1930s. Think of toy stores (Toys R Us), home hardware stores (Bunnings), taxation accountants (H.R. Block), bookstores (Borders), car repairs (Midas) newspapers (USA Today), child care (ABC Learning Centres) and so on. Each mimics the logic of the McDonalds chain. That is to say, McDonalds is the epitome of efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased managerial control, and the replacement of human skill and ingenuity by rational systems, many of them automated. To spell out precisely what that looks like in practice, let’s consider a number of ways in which McDonalds works.

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Saying The Unthinkable

The idea that the language people speak controls their thinking is a recurring theme in intellectual life. Do society and culture create language experiences, or does the creation of language dictate society and cultural experience? Amanda steps into the world of linguistic relativity, armed with plenty of research and a healthy dose of common sense.

In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’ – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Anybody who has read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will remember that the government in this novel has such faith in the power of language that it assumes political dissent will be eliminated if it removes all of the offending words. It’s a tantalising idea and Orwell’s book continues to have deep political influence. But while language is powerful, it isn’t a prison. It might well be a political weapon, but we are not trapped by language. The beauty of language is in its flexibility.

I recall learning, in high school, of a language that had the same word for grey and brown. The language we were discussing escapes me now, but I do remember wondering at the time if the native speakers of that particular language could actually differentiate between the colours. If there isn’t a word for something, does it still exist?

If there isn’t a word for something, does it still exist?

The idea that the language people speak controls their thinking is a recurring theme in intellectual life. Pinker says it best, ‘we all know when drawing on common sense that thought can’t be pushed about by words, (but) many people hold the opposite belief when they intellectualize.’ Whilst writing The Stuff of Thought, he had to stop telling people that the book was about ‘language and thought’ as the only relation between the two that people could see was how language shaped thought. Language must, of course, in some way affect thought. If somebody’s words didn’t affect another person’s thoughts, what would be the point of communicating? But there is far more to it than the shaping.

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Sex, Love and Marriage

Growing up in a strict religious family can do strange things to a young boy’s concept of sex and sexuality. In this moving personal reflection, Sean offers a powerfully candid account of his sexual development through adolescence and into adulthood. Now a husband and a father, his story raises some difficult questions about relationships, religion and the institution of marriage.

It was never mentioned. Period. Sex transcended taboo in my upbringing. My earliest recollections of sexuality are being introduced by my marginally older cousin to OzBike magazines at his local paper shop, and finding Hustler magazines and a pornographic novel under my eldest brother’s bed. I recall that the Hustler magazines were encountered in my third year of school, when I was roughly eight years of age. The OzBike magazines predated this by perhaps twelve months at most.

Ever since I saw the tattooed, large breasted, high-heel booted biker models draped provocatively over Harleys in OzBike, I developed an instant and lasting fixation. Not for motorbikes, mind you. I was preoccupied by these goddesses and my thoughts were often consumed—with scant capacity left for more wholesome stimulation. Almost every afternoon we would visit the shopping centre on the same block as my school. Why we were there so often escapes me now, but every couple of days would find my mother, middle brother and I at the news agent where mum spent what at the time seemed like forever browsing, or being attended at the counter. This freed me to beetle off to the back section, where OzBike and other ‘adult’ magazines were kept. I would furtively, extremely furtively, riffle through magazines looking for stocking-clad legs, leather-bound bottoms and creamy white boobs. The thrill was intense and the risk palpable. Terrifying, yet delectable. People would come into the aisle with little warning and I was under the unshakable belief that they were ‘onto me’. Unaware as I was, the foundations underpinning a prominent, confusing and often debilitating pillar of my life were being laid.

The thrill was intense and the risk palpable. Terrifying, yet delectable.

Once, and I think only once, the lady behind the counter at the news agency called out to me from the counter in a shocked or affronted tone stating something along the lines that I shouldn’t be looking at those magazines. I downed whatever it was I was ogling and ran. No repercussions followed me. You must understand, being the moral flagship that I misguidedly thought I ought to at least attempt to be, that my ‘furtive’ and ‘ran’ are not to be imagined in the Dickensian, Artful Dodger sense. Rather, they were polite, dignified and at the same time nonchalant. The kind of attitude you wish to slap out of anyone arrogant enough to think they’re better than you. Reflecting now, I can only assume it highly likely that my mother was alerted to my infraction. It was never mentioned. I believe with every confidence that the truth would not even now, twenty years later, be divulged–even if pressed at length. Conveniently selective amnesia is endemic in my family.

The magazines under my eldest brother’s bed (he is ten years older than me), which he swore then and still swore when last I asked as an adult, belonged to a teenager (someone who tragically died when the rescue chopper he was a paramedic on crashed off the coast of North Queensland en route to a rescue several years ago) who visited from Tasmania with an ex-neighborhood friend. The magazines were, naturally, quite graphic. I know now, without question, that there was no penetrative sex depicted in those magazines. But at the time, and in my memory, I must have filled in the blanks. The farmyard barn loft setting featured a cowboy-booted stud and a basket-laden, seemingly innocent, and I assume devoutly Christian (if not explicitly Amish) country girl. During the photo-shoot she progressed from initial meeting to wildly uninhibited clandestine congress, aided by a sex-swing apparatus. I’m not sure why a barn loft would contain a sex-swing, but I could almost taste the arousal which I was sure coated the lucky bales of hay upon which the girl was spread.

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When Google Isn’t The Answer

For most people, Google is their home on the internet. While the ubiquitous search engine is indeed powerful, there are other ways to tap into the rich vein of knowledge the internet has to offer. In this article, Steve shares his life-shaping experience with one online community.

For many people these days, Google is the ‘home page’ of the internet—the jump-off point for everything. In many cases, with good reason. I’m a software engineer myself and I’m still astounded week to week at Google’s apparent psychic powers to know what exactly I’m looking for. In truth it’s a two-way relationship. Just as billions of users are ‘training’ Google’s algorithms—constantly fine-tuning its accuracy based on everyone’s clicks and queries—Google is subtly and constantly training me to use it in better ways. My job requires me to use Google all day—finding examples of code, documentation, specific answers to quirky error messages I may receive. Because of this practice and experience, I have come to be pretty good at knowing exactly what terms to punch in to get the results I want.

However, in my job I’m mostly looking for facts. Even if I’m after a relatively complicated solution to some specific software engineering roadblock I’ve run into that day, I’m still presenting a narrow, direct problem to Google. A search engine can easily find me the chemical symbol for gold, a range of online stores where I can buy t-shirts, and neatly present me with a gallery of pictures of Melbourne’s city skyline, but what happens when I want to learn how best to invest my savings, or even achieve happiness in life?

Posing an open-ended question to Google can often do more to cloud an issue than to clarify it. With a simple search one can be confronted with a deluge of information, many from less-than-trustworthy sources out to make a buck or push an agenda. The ‘instant-gratification’ mechanism of search-engine results does little to engage, inspire or encourage when it comes to broader subjects. There must be something else.

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Much would be better if we would only learn to think what we do. For Canny Outlaw’s first feature editorial, Danu considers the relationship between thoughtlessness and evil.

It has become unfashionable to talk seriously about Hitler and the Nazis. Unfashionable is of course an unusual word to apply to discussing Hitler and all that he implies. Insensitive, some might say. There’s a sense in some quarters that it shouldn’t be talked about at all because it was a period of events so horrific, so aberrant that it simply cannot be discussed or understood—nothing is appropriate. Conversely, in other places, the sense is rather that this has all been gone over too many times as it is. That it happened a long time ago. That we’ve learned everything there was to learn from it and it could never happen again. In fact, to wonder aloud if it could happen again is likely to attract the withering scorn of pragmatists and hard-nosed realists who have long since moved on and are now engaged in the serious business of taking ideology out of public life and implementing policies based on ‘what works’.

To invoke the Holocaust in discussion today is to invite simultaneous accusations of trivialising and overweening sincerity. This fatigue is best expressed by Godwin’s Law, which asserts that the longer any internet discussion goes on, the more likely it is that someone will invoke Hitler. Once this happens, the discussion is usually declared ‘Godwinned’ and shut down.

If we want to understand the world and the people in it, we cannot ignore the darkest side of humanity.

For all sorts of reasons, that period of history is a painful memory and we would prefer to acknowledge it without having to think about it. In other words, we would like to forget about it. Indeed, the process of social forgetting is well underway. We recall the symbols, the people and the numbers of course. The Swastikas. The yellow stars. Hitler. Stalin. Churchill. Roosevelt. Truman. 60 million dead. 6 million Jews. The World War II mythology lives on too in books, art, movies, stories and games of all kinds.

But how much do we really remember? For instance, it’s hard to imagine any sort of coherent understanding of the twentieth century that doesn’t include nationalism, but it is possible today in some places to be a student of the history of ideas and remain completely ignorant of nationalism as a political force. Furthermore, do we remember that eugenics was not just a Nazi fad but a worldwide preoccupation first championed in the US? Indeed, coerced or compulsory sterilisations were still taking place in the USA as recently as the 1970s.

One of the aims of this publication is to rehabilitate memory. It seems to me that we have forgotten a huge wealth of important things, and, more distressingly, ways of thinking and talking about important things.

One thing in particular we seem to have forgotten about is evil, which has largely been banished from the public discourse. One can still hear the word itself deployed fairly often of course, but almost always simply as a way of explaining away something we don’t understand and don’t want to.

If we want to understand the world and the people in it, we cannot ignore the darkest side of humanity. This it not to deny hope or optimism their essential place, it is simply to acknowledge that for hope and optimism to have meaning, both must spring from a deep awareness of the tragic aspect of humanity. Continue Reading →