Political virtue

Don Watson writes an ode to retiring independent MP Tony Windsor over at The Monthly:

A good bloke lost as collateral damage, people are saying. If that is all we can make of it, we will only deepen the folly. You could be the dead-set best bloke in history and be no loss at all. What matters is that you were a good politician: good enough to be the measure of what’s missing in modern politics.

I mean the qualities that the media no longer much values or, in its more extreme and youthful forms, even recognises, and which the major parties only sometimes reward. Not “the vision thing” – though I suspect you have one – but the dependable, intelligent, worldly, unbreakable, character thing, on which democratic politics and our faith in it depend. This is more than “good blokeism” – or “good sheilaism”. It is having good judgement, including the judgement of others’ character. It means hearing and representing the people, but neither aping them nor manipulating them; nor being only for them, whatever the broader interest; nor telling them only what they want to hear, or only the messages that your spin doctors reckon they must hear to the exclusion of both the demands of intellect and the refinements of civilised discourse.

Good character and good judgment. If politics is the way we resolve our differences and find some way to live with one another, what else can it come down than this? The focus-group-driven machine ‘politics’ we all know and loathe doesn’t deserve the name. Surely it’s about time we reclaimed its proper meaning.

Mind the Gap

What can public transport tell us about a city’s character? Danu makes an unlikely comparison of the public transport experiences in Melbourne and Singapore and thinks through how to make sense of the differences.

Melbourne-Singapore Transport

I have what many would consider to be a peculiar fondness for public transport. Sometimes I will catch trains and buses just to see where they go. The logic and layout of a city’s public transport network, it seems to me, reveals a lot about the character of a place. Thus, whenever I find myself in a new city, I make a point of getting to grips with its public transport system.

In the course of my travels I asked myself an innocent question. Why is it that in Singapore (one of my favourite cities) I can get from the airport to anywhere in the entire city in a clean and comfortable train that leaves every 6 minutes, for less than $2, while in Melbourne (also one of my favourite cities, and where I live) I have to get a $17 bus that connects to an unreliable, expensive and often filthy train network where I have to spend another $3.70 using a different ticket that may or may not work? Melbourne is, after all, the second most populous city in one of the richest countries in the world. Singapore is now a rich and developed country also, but this is a comparatively recent development. To put the comparison another way, Melbourne’s last new suburban train line (Glen Waverley) opened in 1930. The last major work was the city loop, completed in 1985, whereas Singapore’s entire 150km island-wide rail network was constructed since then.

Without quite doing so consciously, I now realise I have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to find good ways to make sense of this. Among other things, this has included taking a course in contemporary planning issues as part of my postgraduate policy studies, as well as relocating to Singapore and working for a time as a researcher inside the country’s Land Transport Authority to get an inside perspective. Not to mention a lot of time riding road and rail in both places.

A large part of this search for answers has consisted in deciding what terms of understanding are appropriate to the situation. Many people would reject a comparison between Melbourne and Singapore out of hand, given that one is a city and one is a nation in its own right, or on the basis that one is a liberal democracy while the other is perceived as an authoritarian state. Would it not make more sense to compare Melbourne to somewhere like Berlin?

Rather than rejecting the comparison on such a basis, this to me seems an excellent reason to pursue the question. What if the different political arrangements are not merely incidental factors, but part of the explanation? What would be the implications of this? In any event, the comparison I want to make is based on experience and conceptual rationality rather than demographics, so I have deliberately chosen Singapore as an extreme, or limiting, case. That is to say, I am mostly interested in what it is like to experience public transport in Melbourne and Singapore as someone who uses it, and how the city’s respective attitudes towards public transport result in that kind of experience. Continue Reading →

Why would a religious scholar write a book about a religious figure?

From Buzzfeed:

Reza Aslan, a religious scholar with a Ph.D. in the sociology of religions from the University of California and author of the new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” went on FoxNews.com’s online show Spirited Debate to promote his book only to be prodded about why a Muslim would write a historical book about Jesus.

This video is amazing. Most people, after asking a thoughtless baiting question and receiving an unfazed reply refuting the basis for asking it, would back off, or at least change tack. But this ‘journalist’ is not to be deterred. She just keeps going. And going. It’s awful but I couldn’t stop watching it.

Review: The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest
The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yochai Benkler’s brief and approachable book takes issue with the founding premises of many of our institutions that humans are in general not to be trusted and that we need strong authority and incentives to keep us in line lest we run amok. He seeks to show us that our basic nature, though far from perfect, is far more cooperative and altruistic than is commonly thought.

Benkler makes his case using a range of detailed examples, many of which will be familiar to readers of other work of this nature. In fact, The Penguin and the Leviathan can be regarded as something of a synthesis of Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ and Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s ‘Practical Wisdom.’ In my opinion these are all better books in their own right, but the value of Benkler’s offering is that it puts together many of their disparate insights in a sustained and focused way. That this book is coming from a business/economics/technology background in itself makes this a worthwhile and encouraging contribution.

Benkler seems alive too to the darker side of cooperative behaviour, though this is not sufficiently developed in my view. Overall though, The Penguin and the Leviathan provides a measured, accessible and persuasive take on the age-old problem of how to design organisational systems that bring out the best in humanity. It’s a great, up-to-date starting place for anyone with an interest in this question.



View all my reviews

Toxic promise

Over at The Guardian, David Marr has taken a similar line on asylum seekers to my off-the-cuff piece from the weekend:

The shame goes way back. But Kevin Rudd has taken Australia lower than it has ever gone before. He had the relentless encouragement of Tony Abbott. But then beating up on boat people has always been a bipartisan business.

From the time that first boat arrived – the Kein Giang with five Vietnamese men on board – in April 1976, both sides of politics have made the same promise to the nation: to stop the boats, every single boat. There are too many coming now. Too many people are dying on the way. But we are not going to get anywhere while that toxic promise stays on the table.

It has licensed brutality towards boat people for nearly 40 years. When all this began, there was a constituency in this country for dealing decently with asylum seekers who came by sea. But the White Australia policy was barely cold in its grave. The fearful demanded fresh reassurance. So the decision was taken on both sides of politics to play to fear.

Food for thought.