Friday, November 22, 2002

From Margo & Bob to National Security State
One of the characteristics of blogging that makes it so different from being a scholar writing books in the old liberal university is that you get sucked into the interactive aspect of it. This is the charm of the bloggoworld, but the unpredictability of the interactivity does make for complex, intertextual relationships. Sometimes you end up going down trails in the dense forest that you'd rather not walk down. Who knows what you may find there?

And so it has happened to me. The few, passing comments I made yesterday---ie., 'the Tampa-style political strategy that was being deployed by a state government in an election mode' have been picked up and turned into an issue and my insight rejected as untenable. The comments refer to the ruckus in Sydney between Bob Carr, the Premier of NSW, and the high profile Margo Kingston, a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald. Alas, the material on romanticism, environmentalism and religion and neo-liberalism has been ignored. Such is the anarchic way of the blogging world---it just does not function like a good, old fashioned academic seminar. So I am faced with either ignoring the pickup altogether or taking a very hesitant steps down this particular pathway of the national security state. If I go down this pathway do I continue to dip a philosophical toe in the water or do I stick my neck out?

I will take the latter, toss something into the ring and see what happens. For the background to the spiff/standoff/fallout between the politician and the media, see Margo Kingston; for the blogpickup, see the Ken Parish post Carr doing a Tampa?. For commentary outside Australia, see Angie Schultz Margo Kingston in Carr Wreck.

I'm not interested in the battle between Carr and Margo per se, since Adelaide is too far away from the battlefield to see what is going on. What I am interested in is 'the Tampa-style political strategy that was being deployed by a state government in an election mode'. I can smell it from Adelaide. Now as Ken so rightly points out, Carr is not doing a Tampa in a literal sense. He is just having a go at a lefty, gadfly journalist asking him irritating questions---ie., Margo scratching the back of democracy where it itches. This 'having a go a journo' is pretty much along the lines of Jeff Kennett throwing sand at the ABC television camera. The difference between the two is that Carr's was more an off-the-cuff performance, whilst the Kennett performance in a carefully-orchestrated publicity stunt (political theatre/entertainment).

My concern is with the political strategy being deployed to retain power, not the antagonistic but symbiotic relationship between the media and politicians in which each uses the other to get their job done. Ken is a great help here as he puts some good content into the phrase 'a Tampa-style-political strategy', and so he usefully gives us some idea of what this means. He says:

'Tampa was a carefully orchestrated large-scale stunt designed to press emotional "hot buttons" and create a major election issue favourable to the Coalition from what was in rational policy terms a tenth order problem. There's no sign that Carr is using his confrontation with Margo in this way.'

True. But, if we drop 'large-scale', then I reckon that Carr is pressing the emotional hot buttons. It was played as a stunt---politicians are long practised in the art of this 'politics as performance', and the good ones can make a stunt not look like a stunt.(Howard is very good at this, eg., in the Federal election Howard farewells the troops who never actually sailed until much latter.) And the confrontation is continuing to be played as a stunt or theatre In which Jack is repelled from the citidel by the political strategists. It is all a bit obvious. That doesn't matter. It's pressing the emotional button that matters.

The hot button is the same as Tampa ---national security--- and it is entering a new phrase of frightening the public with unrealistic warnings of danger. The new foreign policy is one of the public within the nation-state being threatened by an outside "axis of evil". This axis, in reality, is several pitifully weak states that the US could easily bomb into submission. Carr was looking for a hook to give him some street cred on national security. Why? because the Libs (ie., Howard) has a stranglehold on national security; and Howard skillfully uses it to punch political holes in the federal Labor boat to such an extent that Labor is taking on water and the crew are having to man the pumps. What is the Carr strategy? The Carr Labor Government is trying to counter the damage the Liberals can do by pressing the same emotional hot button. The strategy is also designed to negate their leftwing opposition ---both within the Labor Party and outside, eg., the Greens.

In this strategy the fears and anxieties of national security are emotionally fused into another hot button---Law & Order--which the Carr Government has been running very, very hard on that one from some time now. So instead of Howard's political strategy of national security and economic management to concentrate and retain political power, we have national security + law and order deployed by the Carr Government to consolidate their hold on power. So the immediate political questions are: Can Carr play the hand dealt to him? Or will Howard whip the ground from under Carr's feet?

However, I want to step beyond this electoral horizon to a broader one. National security and law and order is a pretty potent emotional button in Sydney. It is used to create an atmosphere of vulnerability, fear and loathing that requires security, or being protected from danger. The danger to our common life is now everywhere and it requires extraordinary measures to fight the 'war on terror' (see the page headline on p. 9 of The Weekend Australian) that is both inside and outside our national territory. On November 21 security authorities were on a 24-hour terror watch since this week's warning of a "credible" threat of attacks in Australia; the day before 'authorities across Australia were on high alert after new intelligence reports warned of the threat of an al-Qa'ida-linked terrorist attack on home soil in the next two months.' For the security response see Cops to get covert terror powers.

An awareness of this political construction of security can be found in Heather Gibson's, Security Paranoia, and in Tim Dunlop's, Die on your feet or live on your knees - with your ear to the door. It is to their credit that they have begun to raise it, placing it into question, and the beginnings of a contestation of the newly developing practices and discourse of the national security fortress. What is being raised is the possibility that while national security policies allow our governments to achieve their political ends they will, in all likelihood, actually curtail our freedoms in the name of protecting them. For similar US considerations with a historical perspective see the posting on Wednesday, November 20, 2002 neo-McCarthyism. This is a comment on a link to a text by Prof. Thomas Spencer called LESSONS OF MCCARTHYISM on 11-20-02. (Sorry, I cannot get link to article to work. It can be accessed through previous link).

My argument is that the hidden goal of all this is that of maintaining power within the state. The new security powers are being developed at a national and state level to protect us citizens in the Australian nation-state from the threat and dangers of international terrorism now inside our homeland. It is also the case that it is the power of particular governments that is to be secured through the deployment of extraordinary measures. To put it bluntly: conservative governments are using the terrorist threat to national security as a way to retain power and to push through a right-wing political agenda.

Thats what I had in mind when I wrote the off-the-cuff remarks yesterday. Let me quite clear what this does not say: it does not say that there is no terrorist threat, that these threats are not real, or that we should hug terrorists or turn the other cheek. What I'm talking about, and trying to put my finger on, is the political construction of reality in terms of knowledge/power of the national security state.

What I want to add today is that the strategies and tactics of the security state work within the simple dualities of inside/outside and us/them discourse. The language has become very simple: Australia as a national security state has to do everything it could to destroy terrorists organizations, which have proved to be so ruthless, so bloodthirsty and so callous. That is the bellicose language of Alexander Downer (no link) quoted in Thea Williams,' PM rejects plea from Sari victim's father ', (The Weekend Australian p.9). The language of Paul Wolfowitz, US Deputy Secretary of Defence, (no link) as quoted in Roy Eccleston, 'US caught between Iraq and a hard place', is similar. He says: "I know people say we're being simple minded, but it is a struggle between good and evil.' (The Weekend Australian p.12). This is the black and white langauge of the national security state. For a contestation of the US Republican Bush Adminstration language see the work of Elton Beard, especially A fundamental misreading of this book of history.

Security is a function of power and the more power our governments (ie., the federal state) has to shape social life to suit their ends, the more secure they will tend to be. Security is firmly in the clutches of the sovereign nation-state in this form of knowlege/power. Globalization has upped the anti, since the traditional concern for national security from external aggression by the Other (eg., the Asian Communists scenario of the late twentieth-century, a barbaric Islam in the early twenty-first century) through military strategy is harder to control given the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the sophisticated nature of terrorism. What we are not getting is a democratic security based on liberal principles.

Okay that's sticking my neck out.
Other Blogosites

One aspect of the work involved in producing a weblog is researching other websites. (Its an old habit. As a scholar I used to wander the uni library randomly looking for interesting books). The aim of the wanderings is to extend the range of links beyond those in Australia, and to use the work of others to bounce my ideas off. (It sort of helps the creative juices). Many bloggers provide these links on their webpage. I haven't, but I am collecting the odd one here and there. These are basically ones I find interesting for my work and ones that I continually dip in and out of during the week. It is what I do with many of the very fine Oz bloggers.

In the process of ' looking for new sites'---it is often done late at night when I am too tired to concentrate on writing---I come across other weblogs that are interesting, different, sophisticated, or have lots of links. Some I find interesting and make a note to return to again. I will mention them.

Today's listing is the weblog by Roger Schultz Curmudgeonly & Skeptical. Check it out. It is very, very visual. (I'm envious). I enjoyed the references to Boethius and the link to his Consolations of Philosophy. Roger Schultz's Friday posting has a link to the recent post of Oz blogger John Ray at Dissecting Leftism "Greenie Scientists". This brief piece has a go at trying to make sense of the new phenomena of a politically-engaged natural science. In passing, I don't think Dissecting Leftism gets the full story---in just concentrating on science John overlooks the crucial relationship between science and the formation of public policy, for instance. But John Ray does put his finger on the intertwining of knowledge and power that is at work here in the new science.

Anyhow check out Curmudgeonly & Skeptical. It's politics are right-wing US style and so antagonistic to my greeny leftism, but it is very good and has lots of extensive links.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

all that romantic green nonsense
At lunchtime I sat out the front of my innercity, electronic cottage. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and I watched people parking their shiny new cars before going to a Friday lunch at the various restaurants around the corner in cosmopolitan Hutt Street. I was thinking about Bob Carr's attack on Margo Kingston and how the bloggers ignored the Tampa-style political strategy that was being deployed by a state government in an election mode. Instead of concentrating on the tactics deployed by a government unwilling to relinquish its hand on the levers of power, it was Margo who was the focus of the various attacks and defences. Something really strange is happening there I thought. However, Tim Dunlop is doing a good job at diagnosing the poisons with some old-fashioned philosophical therapy. And Ken Parish weighs in with Blaming the Great Satan.

Whilst watching a grey, standard poodle slowly meander down the street to the new very fashionable bistro/coffee shop, I started thinking about romanticism, Miranda Devine and green public intellectuals. What got me going on this yet again was the fable about knowledge by Gummo Trotsky posted under Public Bloggers or Intellectuals or Even Else by Josef Imrich at Media Dragon, and the critical response by John Ray at Dissecting Leftism GREENIE "SCIENTISTS" to my earlier post about environmentalism, religion and science.

Gummo's fable----AS IT APPEARED ON THE MEDIA DRAGON SITE----was about the fox who knew many small things (facts), the badger who knew one big great thing (truth) and the jackass whose head is full of nonsense. The poor old jackass, says Gummo, is 'ugly, noisy and stupid and, sadly, it knows that it is ugly, noisy and stupid'. And that is all it really knows. 'The rest of its ideas are pleasant nonsense to distract it from this unpleasant knowledge. In the fable, as told by Gummo, the 'nonsense that the jackass thinks pleasant displeases both foxes and badgers. The fox, with its knowledge of the many small things which are known as facts dislikes its constant braying of myths and legends. The badger with its knowledge of the big thing known as truth loathes its outright lies.'

Sometimes, foxes and badgers alike are provoked into confronting the jackass with the unpleasant self-knowledge it strives so hard to ignore. The jackass will respond with a sneer and tell them that the problem is theirs, that they only say these things because they resent the superior wisdom of the jackass. Only I, says the jackass, have the courage to speak the unpleasant facts the foxes prefer to ignore and the real truth the badgers refuse to acknowledge. And for a moment it thinks itself proud when it is merely vain'.

Gummo concludes by saying 'that there are many jackasses in the world - some would say too many- but they do have a purpose and a function, which they carry out admirably. That purpose is to satisfy themselves for in all other respects they are useless.'

Though Gummo's fable WAS LINKED BY JOSEPH IMRICH to my blog on Bloggers as public Intellectuals? on Friday November 19. Gummo declined to decode this fable into the present. We won't hold his speaking in riddles against him---as he is having difficulties steering his Tugboat on the high tubulent seas of public life. His crew deserted him (to chase the enchanting sirens?), and it taking all his energy to steer Tugboat Potemkin to the blessed islands. So we will do decoding the fable ourselves based on Media Dragon linking the two texts. The foxes are media, the badgers are the scientists and the jackasses are the public intellectuals. (Where's the politicians?) Peter Garrett, from the ACF, is a public intellectual, and he was targeted for spinning myths and lies by the foxes. His environmental advocacy and philosophy was exluded from being science and is correctly identified as romanticism. Romanticism is seen as a mark against environmental politics of the green ngo's rather than a badge of honour.

An apricot standard poodle cruises my street before making his way to the coffee shopround the corner. Lunch in Hutt St looks to be a very gay affair. Were the romantics in town?

Is romanticism bad per se? No. Romanticism is best understood as a reaction agains the scientific Enlightenment and its practical consequences. It was the first stirring of an ecological impulse within modernity. Romanticism was not so much anti-science as deeply critical of the technologically-applied science of the mathematical Enlightenment. The ecological impulse Romantic tradition moved towards a science with ecological insight (it never got there) and an ecological perspective on life. It took an arcadian turn---eg.,Thoreau's Walden---a simple life based on accommodating nature, rather than seeking to master and transform nature as exemplified in the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electricity Scheme.

In 20th century Australia the ecological impulse of Romanticism is transformed in the 1980s into a critique of economic progress and hydro-electric dams. It is coupled to a defense of wilderness (eg., the wild rivers of Tasmania such as the Franklin, or our old growth-native forests) from exploitation for human use. When developed by Richard Sylvan and Val Plumwood it becomes an ethically-informed philosophy that challenges a key Enlightenment assumption, namely that moral standing is strictly a human affair, and that there is no countervailing ethos to stop human beings from treating the non-human world as if it were a gasoline station. The countervailing ethos is an ecocentrism that holds the earth is not the sole preserve of human beings.

It is this ethical philosophy with Romantic roots that is described as a religion by neo-liberals. If we turn to the intellectuals operating at the Tech Central Station site, where free markets intersect with technology, we find an article on the greens entitled Our Fatal Conceit, where the sub-theme is tyranny in a green shroud. This text contrasts a (good) practical environmentalism with a (bad) romantic environmentalism. It describes the latter as follows:

...'romantic environmentalism holds that environmental values should trump all other values. This is fundamentally a religious position. Economic arguments are discounted or ignored. Romantic environmentalists frequently urge others to renounce modernity and opt for "voluntary simplicity." Their mantra is "Live in harmony with the earth."'

After so reducing philosophy to religion of the noble savage, these technocrats put their finger on what they consider the big flaw in environmental philosophy and then deliver their killer punch.

'Those advocating romantic environmentalism ignore a key lesson from history. Namely, coercive, authoritarian political movements normally generate horrid results. Castro, Franco, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin are but extreme examples. The reality is that no society has learned how to identify Platonic despots, i.e., people who will wisely and disinterestedly safeguard the public good.

The intellectual arguments pointing out the ethical and practical problems inherent to this approach are illustrated in a 60-year-old book, The Road to Serfdom, by Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek. He noted planners can only plan for society by imposing their wishes and desires upon millions of individuals. Hayek explained how totalitarianism, despite the best of intentions to provide for the greater good, ends up enslaving humanity.

If we are to make progress returning the environment to its bipartisan roots and continue protecting and improving it, we must recognize the danger of romantic environmentalism for what it may become - tyranny cloaked in a Green shroud'.

There's the guts of neo-liberalism on this issue. It is this impoverished stuff that is being endlessly replayed in Australia to target both the CSIR0 scientists and the ACF activists and advocates. It makes no sense with respect to the former --see yesterday's post Cliched thinking and Tuesday's post Here we go again. It is also hard to pin the Platonic despots label on the AC, as this organization is into ecological modernization, and it works collaboratively with big companies (eg. the wine industry and the National Farmers Federation (NFF) to help green their production processes. The ACFor CSIRO are hardly Platonic planners that can only plan for society by imposing their wishes and desires upon millions of individuals. Is this not the role the Federal Treasury played in the 1980s?

That this US stuff is being automatically replayed by journalists such as Miranda Devine and Allan Wood shows the impoverishment of current neo-liberal thinking in Australia. It is too impoverished to engage with what the "green establishment" is actually doing to shift the policy compass to a sustainable Australia. So it is a form of mudslinging or staged-managed evasion that has the appearance of public debate. What we get is not argument by public reason. It is simply assertion that aims to convinceThe Australian'saudience---us---by persuading us that we should agree with them because we “respect” how they passionately feel.

Let us come back to Gummo's fable as it was juxtaposed by Media Dragon with my question about bloggers being public intellectuals. I agree with Gummo that philosophy is indeed useless---it makes no money. But a philosophy in political life, which wears the mask of the jackass, is far from being vain or solely concerned to satisfy its own desires. It articulates a defence of place as home in the river country in opposition to the abstract, economic flows of the free global market; and it counters the avant-garde illusion that the only worthwhile mode of being is the nomadic one of being homeless on the high seas. This new localism in our global world shows that it also possible to dwell sustainably on the land in the river country.

Aaah, the poodles have returned from their lunch in Hutt Street. They look pretty pleased with themselves. What have they been up to? What nonsense have the romantics being telling them?
UPDATE: Gummo has just emailed me and informed me that he never ever gave permission for Josef Imrich at Media Dragon to take his fable and link it to my post on public intellectuals. The fable had nothing to do with public intellectuals. To so link them changes the meaning of both texts dramatically. See Some might call this Flattery. I Don't. And Gummo's dead right. There are conventions governing public discourse in the blogging world.
Adelaide Watch

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald was picked up by James Russell at Hot Buttered Death (Tuesday November 19) and listed under the heading, Adelaide and Sydney express their love for each other. This article said that Adelaidians believe Sydneysiders have the worst lifestyle in Australia. But the contempt appears mutual, with Sydneysiders naming South Australia as the nation's most boring state. Those from Adelaide said their city was "relaxed" and "easy going"; those in Sydney said their city was "vibrant" and "exciting". Disregarding money concerns and other obligations, 45 per cent of Adelaidians named their home town as their preferred place to live and 42 per cent of Sydneysiders said the same. Apparently, the opinions were revealed in a survey of 200 people in each city conducted for the business and promotional group SA Great.

It nice to see that we Australians are so relaxed and comfortable about our differences: regional cities and global ones. SA Great needs to do more than roll out the publicity machine: it should think strategic policy. Adelaide still has the opportunity to become a people-friendly, European-style city. It needs to reinvent itself and create urban spaces for people to gather and mix. This means rolling back the space given over to traffic flow by yesterday's engineers. SA Great should get behind this reinvention of Adelaide.

Adelaide is not relaxed and comfortable about the reinvention to become a postmodern, liveable eco-city.

A simple proposal to block east-west traffic through Victoria Square along the Grote/Wakefield Street axis has made the Adelaide City Council dysfunctional. Three Councillors, (Crs Harbeson, Moran & Hayward) opposed the plan in the interests of the Grote Street Traders. This defacto car lobby faction (anyone got a better name?) walked out of the council chamber at the last council meeting. No further council business could be conducted because there was a no longer a quorum.

And the Property Council of SA bought in Phil Ruthven, IBISWorld Chairman, to remind Adelaide that it was going backwards if it complacently sat on its laurels. It (along with Hobart) was going to lose population by 2051. It would lose 70,000 people in the next 50 years. The state was going nowhere. Though Adelaide was currently in the top 10 most liveable cities in the world, its future was one of living in the past and sliding into genteel poverty. It needed a long-range vision, courage and sacificing selfishness. A viable city depended on its businesses needing to embrace world's best practice and boosting its population. It needed to grow and develop.

What do these two events suggest? More of the same. Increasing the population to prevent a slowly growing and aging population, increasing economic efficiency and and more space given over to cars so we can go shopping. Increasing thesize of the economic pie will increase the quality of life in Adelaide. The focus is on consumption and wealth, with no mention of health or the environment; nor of lifestyle, community relationships, personal identity or self-worth. All of these, especially the latter, are what the hard-headed economic policy advisors routinely call the warm fuzzies. But they are central issues in our everyday lives--eg. balancing work and family; nurturing our intimate relationships; finding the meaning of our lives. These often are our priorities for well-being, and they should be those of SA Great, which is about being positive about SA and confident in its future.

What we have been getting from policy makers is economic reform that sacrifices social capital, lifestyle, community relationships and personal identity in order to boost economic growth. And by all accounts it looks as if it is going to more of the same. Thats why the fight over making Victoria Square more people friendly by rolling back the dominance of the car in our daily lives is important.
An Environmental Levy?

In reading the comments about the Victorian state election I notice that many commentators are deeply anxious about the roll of the green bandwagon. Their fear is that the Greens are going to take Victorians backward to an economic backwater not forward into propserity. As an illustration consider the articulate case put forward by Allan McCallum at Amax Weblog in his post on Tuesday 19 November.

Allan is commenting on the Victorian election. He says:

"But the worst scenario would be a hung parliament controlled by a greenie. With a green-controlled nightmare I can easily imagine the state in its worst decline since WWII as businesses are forced offshore because of unilateral and over-the-top Kyoto-type pollution controls. Sports fishers could kiss their sport goodbye as the entire coastline is declared a "national park", and if you like open fires you should think very carefully before you vote, as the firewood collecting ban, now realised by Labor eejits, was a sleeper for years. The evils of polluting open fire heating will be next, trust me. And 4WD owners might as well trade the vehicles in now because it is not hard to imagine punitive taxes and complete bans on driving in the bush. Ridiculous you say? Not at all. The green agenda is well-known, but of course they will not be highlighting any of these issues at election time.

IMO greenies are the biggest threat to Victorian prosperity since the communist takeover of key unions in the fifties. As an example consider basket case state Tasmania where green "initiatives" must have had an impact on that state's economy. The last census had Tassie with -0.7% population decrease since 1996 when the Oz National population increase was about +6%. This means that a population deficit of about 6% was either Taswegians voting with their feet, or new arrivals to Oz saying Tassie? Thanks but no thanks."

What Allan does not say in outlining his nightmare scenario is that the part of Victoria which inside the Murray-Darling Basin is not in good shape, eg. its rivers are unhealthy, its landscape is salinised, many of its irrigators (eg., in the Goulburn Valley) are doing it very tough, and a lot of the open channel irrigation infrastructure (eg., the Mallee-Wimmera pipeline) needs to be piped.

It is quite clear that some current land use is unsustainable; that so much degradation has occured that a substantial repair program is required; and that making the transition to an ecologically sustainable land management and land use is beyond the financial capacity of many landholders at the present time.

From a South Australia perspective several things need to be done. Water-wasting dams (eg. Lake Mokoan) should be taken out of action, the poorest farm land should be taken out of production, returned to the bush, the farmers compensated, and retrained to manage their property's in a sustainable way---ie. by providing environmental services (such as tree planting, fencing rivers, enhancing water quality, restoring biodiversity). The water saved can then be returned to the rivers (eg, the Glenelg and Murray) as environmental flows.

South Australians would be prepared to lend a hand to do this. It is in our interest. We know the social and economic consequences that will arise if the environmental problems in the Murray-Darling Basin are not addressed. So how do we pay for it? This needs to be asked because the repair and restoraton work that is needed won't come cheap---the estimates range from between $20-$60 billion. One way of financing the repair is through an environmental levy and it would work like a medicare levy. It has been mentioned off and on, and recommended in the recent report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage called Co-ordinating catchment management.

It was briefly raised again on Thursday by the former ANU economist John Quiggin, in his advice to the ALP in the Australian Financial Review. In a piece called, 'Spending a way to victory', (link requires subscription, but see Alex Robson's post How the Liberals will Win the Next Federal Election:Persuade the ALP to Hire John Quiggin as an Economic Adviser) Quiggin says this:

"Taxing and spending are the two main functions of modern governments...

The only way that Labor can offer domestic policies substantially different from those of the government is to spend more money, and that means raising more revenue. Increased taxation is not the only way to finance higher expenditure...In the end however, more spending means higher taxes.

...Labor should be taking this opportunity to point out that an increase in the proportion of national income allocated to health, education and other services funded by government is both inevitable and desirable. The government's difficulty in cutting spending reflects this.

Rather than scorning the government's reliance on levies, Labor should exploit this precedent. A Medicare-style levy at a rate of a per cent or 2 per cent could fund substantial new expenditure on education and the environment, while allowing the ragbag of existing levies to be scrapped. Unlike the spurious idea that the sale of asset can be used to finance current expenditure, the revenue from a levy would provide Labor with a genuine war-chest for financing election promises, and one that the government would be unable to match."

Alex Robson does not adddress the environmental levy proposal for public good conservation. (I presume he is opposed to the former but not the latter). An environmental levy would be one way to kick start the public good conservation process. It would to ease the burden of public good conservation for landholders experiencing considerable hardship. Many of them do not have the financial resources to carry the restoration/repair woks required, and they are only derive indirect benefits for the public good conservation activities they undertake. Consequently, we need a comprehensive approach to addressing environmental degradation and shifting to a more ecologically sustainable use of Australia's natural resources.

This is a different scenario to the nightmare one about the green pathway leading to Australia becoming an economic backwater. It is a scenario that focuses on broadly sharing the cost of policy initiatives and strategies for public good conservation programs and it explicitly acknowledges that repairing the past damage is a shared responsibility.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Whats Hot in Adelaide
For those whose radar screens miss Adelaide, there is big political news. Most of the news up to now has been about how poorly the Liberal Opposition was doing. It was in disarray and it had spent its time, energy and money chasing the Independent Peter Lewis for enabling the Rann Labor Party get its hands on the levers of the power. The payback failed. Now the talk is about leadership change.

Yesterday, the big news was the Rann Labor Government finding an insurance policy for stability over the next three years. The trick was to seduce Rory McEwen, a conservative independent from Mt Gambier, to become a Minister albeit an Independent Minister. It was done to negate the ever-ready threat of Peter Lewis, the Independent Speaker, pull the plug from under the minority Labor Government.

Does this mean that the Rann Government will now set the policy compass to a sustainable South Australia?

The big political news today was the decision of Mike Elliot, the Leader of the SA Australian Democrats, to resign as Leader, quit Parliament and chuck in politics. Politics was too much hard work and the hours were too long. One can work unreasonable hours and survive, but it breaks up families and makes you sick. Mike Elliot said ' for the sake of my family I need a new job that doesn't have me working most nights and over the weekend'.

The implosion of the Democrats continues. Will The Greens now be able to get a toehold in the Australian Democrat heartland and make politics in SA interesting? Instead of 'keeping the bastards honest' will we now get 'keeping them on their toes'? Or will the moral/social Conservatives make a play for another upper house seat?

Does this political news mean that the Rann Goverrnment will find the courage to trangress the policy limits of the national public policy vacuum and drift in which both the major parties continue with economic reform as a way to engage with the global economy whilst casting a caring eye to those suffering through the never-ending process of structural adjustment? Will SA lead the nation in developing new policies that will green the levers of power? Will the eyes of the nation be on SA?
Cliched thinking

One of the tired old cliches that is endlessly recycled in public debates is the assertion that the greens are anti-science. It was explicitly stated by Alan Wood in his commentary piece entitled Green faith abuses the spirit of science earlier this week in The Australian. (For my deconstruction of this, see Here we go again). In following the traces of the Greenhouse debate I notice that greens as anti-science is treated as a truism.

Consider this remark from the thoughtful and informed Man without Qualities in a piece called ARNOLD KLING REPLIES on November 8 2002. 'As one commentator put it: The environmental movement does not defend "science," as editor Rennie would have it. Rather, it uses science as a weapon to advance the cause, as Charles T. Rubin put it in his Weekly Standard review'.

Who is the commentator? It is rural cleansing. The article is a book review of the 'Sceptical Environmentalist' by Bjorn Lomborg called Green with rage. (File #101068899 02.21.2002). So environmentalism is an ideology that uses science as an instrument to further its politics. This, says Aaron Oakley at Bizarre Science, is pretty much what he has been saying for years: that the greens have abandoned science in favour of ideology.

This is hard to take seriously in Australia. Consider two recent events: The intervention by the Wentworth Group of Scientists called Blueprint for a Living Australia in the turning the rivers inland debate around the sale of Telstra. This group includes economists and CSIRO scientists) and it is an example of an ethically-informed and politically-engaged science. There should be more of it, since the vitality of a democratic public discourse relies on such interventions.

The other event was the government commissioned CSIRO Report Future Dilemmas: Options to 2050 for Australia's Population, Technology, Resources and Environment which focused on the physical economy. It was criticised by Alex Robson in the Canberra Times 8 11 2002 (no link) because it ignored economic realities, not because it was non-science using science as an instrument to further a political cause.

So the tired old cliche that is endlessly being recycled in public debates in Australia is just that: a cliched way of thinking. Is it any wonder that the federal politicians who have to make tough decisions treat this sort of journalism with scorn as they grapple with the tradeoffs to protect Australia's natural resources.

How does this cliched thinking retain a toehold in public discourse? My guess is that its friend/enemy conception of politics is directed at environmental activism. It targets the environmentalism of the non-government organizations in civil society, as illustrated by the 60 Minutes show debate between Bjorn Lomborg and Peter Garrett of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). This text is entitled The Great Green Lie, and it defined itself as attacking the "green establishment." The ACF is taking us down the wrong path into a dark future.

Bargarz had an interesting non-cliched comment on the debate, entitled Too little. He also usefully lists the above article by Wood, but he makes no comment on it. There the debate stalled until Miranda Devine read the omens in the television debate. They were, by all accounts, good ones that bode well for the future. She weighed into the debate with her Slaying the green monster.

This text has all the standard cliches: Garrett's incoherence v. Lomborg's cool analysis; logic winning over emotion; the loopy ideas of environmentalism v statistics;using rational reassessment to demolish the myths which form the basis of the green pseudo-religion; eco-fundamentalists saying the world is going to hell; environmentalists as eco-fascists; the one-sided doom-and-messages of the environmental movement.

The good omens that Miranda divined are that we are on the brink of a New Enlightenment. Lomborg represents the New Enlightenment of the West. He is fighting the Romantics represented by Peter Garrett. And fighting right along side Lomborg, Miranda says, are Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens.They have switched sides.

How are to understand this battle of ideas? Amanda is crystal clear. It is in terms of stark dualities that are in conflict. On the one side we have the Vulcans:

"Lomborg is a quintessential Vulcan - named after Star Trek's alien race which relies purely on logic, not emotion, to make decisions. Vulcans rely on empirical evidence and established facts to prove their arguments. They believe there is such a thing as absolute truth".

On the other side we have the romantics:
"Garrett is a good example of a Romantic. They are postmodern thinkers, skeptical of all facts, and all texts, believe truth is relative and everything is political. They often give equal credence to fact and opinion. They believe in noble causes.

The Vulcans worship the god of logic. Romantics worship the god of good intentions." [Shouldn't that be the god of emotion Miranda?].

In terms of this great battle Miranda would cast me on the dark side of the Romantics. See the previous blogs in the archives Lexus and the Olive Tree (November 1, 2002) and Against the Flow (October 26 2002).

How is the battle going? Miranda is in no doubt. "The good news is that the Vulcans seem to be winning the battle for hearts and minds. It's not just the influential defectors like Singer and Hitchens who are seeing the light. In 60 Minutes' on-line poll asking: "Do you agree with Bjorn Lomborg or the Greens?", the Danish Vulcan won hands down, with 70 per cent of the vote." Angry passion lost out to cool logic according to those who watched 60 Minutes.

Miranda's text makes for good copy but not good public sense, especially for South Australians who live downstream at the end of the River Murray. The day before The Advertiser ran a story about Murray lifeline inches towards mouth (Tuesday 19 November 2002). South Australians know that there has being no River Murray flow over the Goolwa barrages since November 2001. They are are confronted bya future of rising salinity levels in the Murray River that will eventually making their drinking water unhealthy by 2020. As they understand it, the ecological lifeline of their way of life is under threat. So they would hardly see themselves as going into battle to slay the green monster. On the contrary they would see the green movement, including Peter Garrett and the ACF, as fighting with them to restore the health of the River Murray and its wetlands. Theirs is an intuitive or tacit ecological politics that gives a high priority to public funds being used to ensure sustainable environments rather than debt retirement.

Nor would South Australians accept that their concern about the health of the River Murray amounts to a pseudo-religion; that their passionate caring for their river has no rational basis; that the illhealth of the river is a loopy green idea; that their case that more water for environmental flows for the River Murray needs to be found is an incoherent one. Nor would they accept that things are better with the river now than was the case a couple of years ago; or that their belief that things have got worse for the River Murray flies in the face of all the evidence. Nor are they sceptical of all the facts and texts and rely on emotion not logic or reason to state their case to the eastern states. Nor do they see themselves as eco-fascists.

In short, Miranda Devine makes no public sense in Adelaide at all. What we see Miranda dishing up is the crazed dance of the bloodless categories of yesteryear. And she constructs her big picture account by reading the omens in a television text! By contrast, we South Australians prefer to observe and interpret what happens in the world we live in. Our feet are firmly on the ground in our place. This may be localism or regionalism from the perspective of those commentators living in a global city, but it is a regionalism that sees the new Enlightenment as an eco-Enlightenment that defends a more sustainable mode of living. Miranda's demons are not ours. Our big concern is the indifference of the eastern states to our plight----so brutally reinforced by Miranda Devine. We South Australians interpret Miranda's text as an indication that the Sydney is willing to sell us down the river.

Miranda wake up from the nightmare and shake off the cliches. Its only a nightmare after all. Even the Howard Government has identified sustainable environments as a key policy issue and a central strategic priority. Did you miss the news that it has an active sustainable environmental committee? Take a look at Mark Davis, Howard outlines nine-step plan Miranda.
Universities & Public Discourse

The recent commentary on the universities that has been spun out by the Oz bloggers from the Robert Manne piece Opportunity written in sandstone mainly focused on the lack of funding of public universities and the impact of the further deregulation of fees. Manne explored the implications of the Coalition’s proposed education reforms, which would allow universities to increase fees by up to 25 per cent, and to increase quotas for full-fee paying students. But he also gestured to an intellectual crisis.

Few of the oz bloggers moved on to consider the intellectual crisis of the university as a cultural institution, which both facilitates the public discussion of ideas and sustains the cultural traditions that enable the interpretations of what is happening behind our backs. Few considered the implications of the university as an ethical institution continuing to sustain critical and cultural interpretation as this public institution is transformed into a production system of commodified knowledge regulated by intellectual property law.

In his first post on Monday, Death of a thousand fee increases, Ken Parish says that the most compelling fact mentioned by Manne is that "public funding of teaching and learning at universities has fallen from over $12,000 a student in 1977 to about $5000 today." His judgement is that we cannot expect much from either the main political parties by way of substantial increase in public funding. He has a think about it and in his second post,
Living with the quarter-nelson, he addresses the implications of deregulation. He says:

"The "big 8" "sandstone" universities will be able to command much larger partial "top-up" fees than regional and other unis and will inevitably attract the lion's share of qualified students able to pay those fees. Consequently, those not able to afford substantial up-front tuition fees on top of a HECS debt will be relegated to regional and other universities who decide not to charge them (or to charge relatively low "top-up" fees). Standards at the latter will inevitably continue to decline through lack of funds. We will end up with a system providing good education for the wealthy and a second class product for everyone else".

True enough. This account accords with Manne's judgement that 'the Nelson reforms also seems likely to accelerate the movement towards a new kind of hierarchy in Australian higher education, between an Australian version of the Ivy League, fashioned from the Group of Eight, and a minor league, made up of all the rest, drifting towards an approximation of the state colleges of the US.'

This process is happening. As Kim Weatherall says Australian universities are currently acting more like the US state colleges. In Adelaide Flinders Uni is an exampleof a regional university being downgraded by the market. Flinders, in Manne's words, is increasingly 'dominated by undergraduate teaching; less and less able to conduct or supervise cutting-edge research; increasingly less able to attract the most promising young scientists or scholars to their staffs; increasingly dedicated to teaching courses that train students for participation in the information-services economy.'

In commenting on the Nelson reforms Kim Weatherall also focuses on funding. She says that Universities are simply not a priority 'and have not been for some time. Mind you, there could be some really interesting debates about funding. As someone who teaches in a course that is very much in demand (Law at the University of Sydney), we'd likely be at the front end of any moves towards fees. Universities already depend on fees to a significant extent (whether from postgrad offerings, or full fee undergraduates).'

In his comments on Manne HERE COMES THE NUMBER-CRUNCH Stephen Hill draws out an implication of an educational market. He says:

'Over the last twenty years there has already been an increase in the range of professions requiring an undergraduate degree as a point-of-entry to a career, e.g. nursing, secondary school teaching, journalism. While this leads to greater skills in the practitioners in these professions, universities have close to monopolistic powers in providing such opportunities for a range of Australians. And in professions like nursing, where the earning potential is hardly spectacular, there is an enormous disincentive to inherit a 5-figure debt to pursue a low-paying career choice – this is one of the contributing factors in the current nurse shortage.'

So funding is the chief focus in this commentary. What was overlooked is the intellectual crisis in higher education. Manne briefly mentioned this when he talked about 'the liberating experience of what a genuine university education in the humanities or sciences can mean', and 'one possibility of the Nelson reforms may turn out to be a retreat of the traditional disciplines to the sandstone universities.' But he lets the implications go. We wonder: what is a genuine education? Getting students to think for themselves? Should yesterday's scholars become tomorrow's entrepreneurs as a response to the decline of the traditional disciplines?

Traditionalists say no. They define the intellectual crisis in terms of the decline of scholarship, by which they mean the disinterested, open-ended contemplation of things relating to life and its activities for its own sake. Scholarship is not research because research has a purpose. There is a crisis because there is no constituency within the hallowed walls of the traditional [liberal] university that values the ideals of scholarship or is willing to fight to preserve them. The scholars have wiped out by the entrepreneurial, fat cat managers who love to mix it with the heavy hitting, movers and shakers in government and business. The traditionalists, in calling for the university to return to being a community of scholars regulating their own activities of scholarly inquiry, are turning away from the market and pulling up the drawbridge.

But we can interpret the intellectual crisis in the university differently. The retreat of the traditional disciplines is also the disappearance of a liberal education. In becoming corporations concerned with cash flow, our public higher education institutions are shredding their ethical responsibilities to civil society. They have dumped educating for citizenship and turned their back on the hollowing out of public discourse. They wash their hands of any responsibility for these activities. Consequently, 'public intellectual' is the placeholder for the missing dissent, public debate and critical commentary about the public things that matter to us and blogging is the forum in which the debates are beginning to take place.

Those bloggging academics who have a liberal education see this, and they see it oh so clearly. But they retreat back into the debates within the decaying liberal university, rather thasn stepping out into the public sphere and mixing it with the journalists. In her excellent, incisive comments on The debate - are bloggers public intellectuals? Kim Wetherall asked:

'Are the public intellectuals missing? As someone working at a university, I know that people angst about this all the time. Should academics be out there commenting more? Probably. But there's a bit of a strange relationship between the media and the academy. Much of the time they don't seem to understand each other that much. There's definitely a debate that goes on, too, whenever someone comments "outside their field of specialisation". Sometimes it seems like the only ones "allowed" to do that are the journalists (well acknowledged all-rounders).'

She asks another question: ' should we [academics] be out there, pushing ourselves or our agendas or our views more? I guess the beginning of an answer is that for some, that's exactly what they like doing. For others, intellectual practice is different - more introverted or specialist or whatever. The good thing is there are plenty of opinionated people in the universities, and many of them are great at not shutting up. Thank god for loud-mouths.'

The academic remains behind the walls of academia, popping up every now and again to toss an incisive comment or two into the public conversation. They can't do much more because they are doing it tough: working doing double shifts without a lunch break, getting sick from the stress and even collapsing on the job. Most don't have the energy to be loudmouth dissenters any more.

However, public discourse is wider than academics being turned on by blogging and using it to push themselves, their agendas or views? There are public things that matter to us citizens in civil society that are not being discussed. We have a public policy vacuum and drift as both major parties continue with economic reform as a way to engage with global economy, whilst casting a caring eye to those suffering through the transition. This caring is articulated differently by the social conservatism of a John Howard or the social liberalism of a Paul Keating; but both aim to soften the impact of market outcomes and cushion the hardest hit and least able to cope. In spite of many beeng left behind and excluded, the policy elite reckon they are on the right track with their economic reforms and that a battered and bruised public just didn’t understand that the two decades of economic reform is all for their own good. All we need is more spin and communication of the message by the publicity industry they say.

The flip side of this kind of politics is the decline of the critical and culturally interpretative role of intellectual activity in civil society----what Senator Vanstone called the death of public discourse. I do not see 'plenty of opinionated people in the universities' using their skills or capacities to engage with this. They just angst about it and get depressed.

From outside the walls of academia it is the policy drift, or policy vacuum that is of concern and which needs addressing in the public forum. Mabybe, just maybe, the formation of blogging indicates that intellectual activity or practice has moved into the centre of everyday life in civil society. As citizens we members of the public have become tacit knowledge workers, knowledge handlers, or specific intellectuals during the long winter when the experts and elite policy advisors eclipsed the democratic public. We have yet to realize it. Speaking out in cyberspace is one way to counter the use of rights to intellectual property to enclose the information commons or to stifle debate in the public forum. See John Quiggin A roughride to freedom for information

Monday, November 18, 2002

Here we go again

A standard way many of our commentators conduct the public debate around sustainability is in terms of the dualities of ideology, irrationality v. rationality, religion, faith v. science. Thus Aaron Oakley over at Bizarre Science says he has been saying for years that the greens have abandoned science in favour of ideology. He adds that suprisingly Alan Wood over at The Australianagrees with what he has been saying. Aaron mentions Wood's commentary piece entitled Green faith abuses the spirit of science in support.

Well its not quite the same thing. Certainly Alan Wood loves working in the tired old cliches, and he is at it again in his recent piece. But his piece, as the title suggests, is about faith abusing the spirit of science not abandoning science for ideology.

The surface content of the Wood's forementioned article in The Australian was a commentary on a 60 Minutes piece on Greenhouse and the sceptical environmentalist, by the heavy-hitting, celebrity journalist Richard Carleton. But this content was a hook to re-run the depth message that environmentalism is a religion, with all its historical references to the tired old Enlightenment v religion battle. The Carleton text was a hook because Wood does not mention that it is natural science not religion that informs the global warming scenario of Greenhouse. At best we get dogmatic science v scepticism----not religion v science.

Of course Wood is not that stupid to run that line of religion v science. So he back tracks to say that 'the articles [Scientific American] published had more to do with scientists rancorously defending the green faith than with the spirit of scientific inquiry.'

So science is the handmaiden of faith. The Counter-Enlightenment has won the battle of ideas that has been going on since the 17th century; and the poor old Enlightenment is reduced to the scepticism of a lone brave figure of Bjorn Lomborg fighting a desperate rear-guard action to defend a liberal civilization based on the free market.

What nonsense. Who is Wood trying to fool? He cannot be talking to the policy makers or senior bureaucrats in Canberra. And he obviously doesn't listen to the philosophers.

The light of scepticism fighting the forces of darkness may make for a morality play about good and evil, but it has very little to do with the ongoing debate within natural science over the causes of global warming. There is a lively scientific debate going on in the institution of science, but Wood gives no account of the issues involved in the debate as understood by policy makers. Nor does he pretend to since that is not the job of a prize fighter churning out the copy.

Then lo and behold, Wood does a u turn to affirm the very liberal values he doesn't even practice in his commentary. He says: 'Unless impartiality and a respect for the truth can be introduced into the debate, there is a real risk of bad policy and worse outcomes, for the world and all its citizens'.

Wood himself does not respect truth nor impartiality---values which, presumably on Wood's account, constitute 'the spirit of science.' He does not tell us about the scientific knowledge of the Intergovernmental Panel that is behind the global warming scenario, and he himself is partisan.

Wood, as a prize fighter uses the weapons of scepticism to destroy his green enemies and block the pathway to sustainability. Thats what he is being paid to do. Its politics based on the friend/enemy distinction favoured by Carl Schmidt.

But how can scepticism treat the values of truth and impartiality as foundational? Shouldn't scepticism---even a mitigated Humean scepticism---place the 'spirit of science' into question? Or at least to raise doubts about these foundational values? Instead Wood dogmatically affirms them, thereby dumping scepticism in the process. On what then does Wood base his claim that these are the values that constitute the spirit of modern science? On faith? On prejudice? On authority? He cannot appeal to the authority of science without going around in circles. So Wood is a poseur wearing the mask of the Enlightenment.

Does Wood take The Australian's's readership for mugs? Doesn't he realize that we citizens can use our social knowledge to spot the contradictions in his text? Doen't he realise that we citizens see that he doesn't even realize that he is shooting himself in the foot in public.

Since Rupert Murdock was always into entertainment to keep the money rolling in, we have clowns wearing the watchdog mask of journalists. It all makes for a good hearty laugh.

From another perspective---the media's claim that it is a watchdog of democracy--- we have hack journalism that abuses the ethos of a democratic public reason in the name of a culture war to affirm the prejudices of common sense of the plain man. This is where conservatism takes its stand, as did Hume in his recoil from modern scientific philosophy. So Wood has dumped the rationality of liberalism.

Look ma. See how far neo-liberal economic reason has fallen. It has no clothes.

The Death of Public Discourse
The title of the blog comes from a speech by Senator Amanda Vanstone from South Australia given to the Sydney Institute in September called, 'The public death of public discourse'. The title has relevance to the Senator's home town of Adelaide where people, including hometown bloggers like the sharpeyed Scott Wickstein, often remark that there is a death of public discourse. I introduce this speech because the Senator is a neighbour (her holiday house in Victor Harbor is a few blocks from mine where I am writing this blog) and, more importantly, because she is one of the few politicians who has addressed the death of public discourse that many citizens find so depresssing.

In her speech Senator Vanstone says that 'democracy is a hollow process for choosing who governs when our citizens don't feel included in the public discourse that, in a true democracy, takes place between elections.' She adds that public discourse, 'the free and civil exchange of rational views opinions and reasoned argument, gives meaning and expression to our lives. This exchange shapes how we want to live our lives and how we want to be governed.' The Senator then adds: 'Public discourse, of course, should be just that, public. If the public aren't included in that discourse, it may be interesting, it may be in public, but it is not public discourse.'

Senator Vanstone then links this insight back to democracy. 'Where democracy is not much more than the occasional exercise of voting rights, it falls far short of its real potential. Inbetween elections there are gigabytes of information being sent out and just maybe a couple of opportunites to send a byte or two of information back.'

What we have here is a classic statement of social liberalism: democracy depends on liberty and liberty depends on both the expression of public opinion and the formation of public opinion through reasoned debate. For the social liberal, liberty is not so much the right of the individual as a necessity of society. According to L.T. Hobhouse, liberty 'rests not on the claim of A to be let alone by B, but on the duty of B to treat A as a rational being.' (Liberalism, p.66). In Senator Vanstone's own words democracy 'depends on the wild gas of liberty and without it democracy is just a lifeless process'. And she adds, ' the voice of dissent is the bell of freedom.'

The Senator then says that all is not as it should be in Australian democracy, and she implies that this is well known and much commented upon. In explaining why this is so Senator Vanstone draws a distinction between those professionals who are involved in public discourse and those ordinary folk, such as Bob and Mary Stringbag, who are not. She says that for many people, 'the limited involvement with democracy is enough. This might offend the policy specialists, the bureaucrats and the politicians. After all they provide the raw material of policy, the design advice and the final construction of the policy [by the specialist, bureaucrat and politician working together]. The professionals involved in this process often just can't understand why others do not share their interest.'

Senator Vanstone thesis is that we have is a division between between the professional policy world and the everyday community world that most Australians belong to. This is basically right and there is a great divide between the two. Presumably, the media is the link across the divide that separates the professionals and ordinary people. The media, as the fourth estate, are the watchdog of democracy. Well, thats how the media understands its role. Many citizens do not buy that story.

Senator Vanstone then says:' For the professionals politics is a rich experience. These 'lucky ones get a chance to express their views and the reasons behind them. Information comes to then in a meaningful way. They get the opportunity to understand the viewpoints of others and to have their own equally understood. For the lucky ones, public discourse, the exchange of ideas and reasoned argument, is a reality, the wild gas of liberty is a daily invigorator.'

This suggests that 'public discourse should be a very busy marketplace. Specialists, shock jocks, public intellectuals and commentators are all plying their wares. At any one point in time, they are all offering different viewpoints.' However, this public discourse is limited because almost everyday too many of these participants 'take the opportunity to shut out the very people who really matter...the normal citizens.'

So what we currently have is the phantom public and a representative democracy of elites. Many conservative politician and policy experts would be happy with this state of affairs. Citizens should not govern themselves. As a social liberal the Senator dissents from this judgement. She takes exception to the exclusion of the public from public discourse.

This exclusion is done in several ways, says Senator Vanstone. She mentions specialist exclusionary langauge (eg., economics) that conceals a failure to communicate and a desire to achieve power; drowning people in information through a conveyer belt of facts, figures and opinions; the game of politics as a gladiatorial contest in which messages are ladened with malice, hatred and invective. The result is that people like Bob and Mary Stringbag switch off, don't read the newspapers and don't bother scanning the pontificating, puffball opinion writers.

All the signs indicate the public death of public discourse. So what can be done by the professional politicians is to help revive public discourse and a healthy democratic process? The Senator says they have an obligation to recover the conversation in politics by speaking in plain language from the heart, and ensuring the battle of ideas is based on passionate disagreement rather than hatred and malice. After all Bob and Mary Stringbag are not stupid. They can see what is going on in parliamentary politics. If they are not included in the conversation about our lives that is a public discourse, then the professionals 'will end up talking to themselves and public discourse will be truly dead.'

What are we to make of this thesis in relation to Adelaide? I concur with the diagnosis. In Adelaide the professionals talk to other professionals and public discourse is pretty dead. But the Senator's medicine is not enough to fix things. What the good Senator does not mention is that liberalism has dirty hands around public discourse including Bob and Mary Stringbag. Even though social liberals hold that citizens in a representative democracy are called upon to play their part in public affairs, they are not all that happy about a substantive public opinion. Those like John Stuart Mill in his Reflections on Represenative Governmentfear public opinion as a 'tyranny of the majority' . They retreat to a defence of the educated, skilled and wise elite with their superior knowledge, and they hunt for ways to lessen or prevent the influence of public opinion to ensure that politics, public policy and public discourse is the preserve of the elites.

If democracy depends on liberty and liberty depends on both the expression of public opinion and the formation of public opinion through reasoned debate, then ordinary citizens need to acquire the virtues (capacities) to engage in a civic conversation and the resources to be able to do so. Both are lacking. And our public institutions are not educating for citizenship. This requires resources and commitment to a liberal education, but this is what is disappearing in the corporate university. And the liberal state has a hand in this disappearance. It is increasingly difficult for Bob and Mary Stringbag to gain an education that would enable them to write public commentary on our political life.

It is difficult for ordinary citizens in civil society to access what is happening in Senator Vanstone's political world, since the enormous resources of the Australian Parliament are devoted to helping Senators do their job, rather than helping ordinary citizens access and understand the debates is going on. Thus, while I write this I am listening to a largely empty Senate debate (its Karen Nettle of the Australian Greens speaking on a Democrat amendment to the Medical Indemnity Agreement. (No Senator Vanstone!). It takes a lot of work on my part to understand what this bill is about (addressing the public insurance crisis, midwives, ACCC and commercial insurance etc) as well as to figure out where the individual Senators are coming from in this second reading. This is real bootstrap stuff, and it takes a lot of time and energy to plug into the daily Senate proceedings and to become informed about the bills before it. Its just too hard. So the Senate, to all intents and purposes, becomes a closed world. Its okay if you are inside. Most citizens are outside.

The good Senator does not mention that the role of the conservative shock jocks in public discourse is to reinforce common sense, rather than to question it's populist assumptions. As Tim Dunlop indicates what these conservatives understand themselves to be doing: "all conservative talk radio does is simply validate, inform and inspire the original thought people already had." A civic conversation depends on both the ongoing criticism of the assumptions, prejudices and orientations of its participants, and a willingness of the participants to hear what is being said and to take the criticisms on board. Who then fosters this process of a self-reflection of populist commonsense? Other sections of the media acting as the watchdogs for democracy?

Well, if I am to comment on what is happening in South Australia, I have to be informed about the workings of the SA Parliament. Since it does not sit much and is not even online so I have to depend on the big media players to figure out what the Rann Government or Liberal Opposition is doing. As Scott Wickstein says 'in Adelaide that means being left pretty much in the dark. He says 'I probably know a lot more about what's going on in Melbourne, thanks to my Crikey! subscription. The local ABC isn't much chop IMHO, with the honourable exception of David Bevan and Matthew Abraham, although to be honest, I'm either asleep or at work during the rest of the day. But Carol Whitelock and Phillip Satchell are part of Adelaide's problem, not the solution- too complacent, and celebrating the past. The Advertiser is a joke, although to be honest, it's not wholly to blame for it's decline, having been run down as it has, and it suffers the complacency that's natural for a monopoly newspaper. So that's why I hardly ever comment about South Australian issues.'

Senator, its hard (unpaid) work being a good citizen casting a critical eye on those things that matter to us and we feel passionate about. Our democray looks unguarded. There are so few sentinels in the watchtowers. Our highest political values have been hollowed out. I see darkening, stormy skies building up signifying troubled times ahead. What uncanny guest now stands at the door of democracy?

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Deflating Public Intellectuals
In raising the issue of bloggers performing the role of public intellectuals in last Friday's blog I more or less had in mind the online commentary, counterpunching and public journalism on public issues that is currently filling a vacuum left by the print and electronic media. This was something to celebrate.

I had Adelaide in mind when I wrote. There is very little easily-accessible, ongoing work that critically reports on, interprets and evaluates what is happening in South Australia. True, we have the commentary in The Adelaide Review once a month and the ABC's Statewide every Friday night. These do act to counter the personality politics, infotainment, journalists recycling of the media release, the media hacks who act as publicity agents for the government and the media as a lapdog. But what is lacking in the forum of the public sphere is the diversity of critical voices, the insightful commentary on a wide variety of issues and the critical appraisal/analysis of reports, policies and issues etc. If government policy settings are structured by neo-liberalism, then we have little in the way of an alternative or different kind of thinking and a death of public discourse.

This is not a problem unique to Adelaide. People across the nation are hungry for some policy difference or newness in policy thinking to help them map the rapid changes taking place in their everyday lives. But they find little of it around as there is not much coming from our political parties. The state bureaucracies tend to be secretive and to control information and of the work from academia is too disconnected from everyday events to be of much use. This is why on-line journalism matters.I t is a gap that is filled by the emerging thinktanks, public journalism and blogging.

I admit that calling those who do this new sort of work 'public intellectuals' does carry the baggage of the big time, heavyweight intellectual, such as a George Orwell or J. P Sartre from yesteryear or a Martha Nussbaum or Peter Singer today. This is Richard Posner's take in his recent Public Intellectuals. His emphasis on the iconic, independent intellectual aspect of the public intellectual market excludes most of us ordinary mortals who write. Posner sets up a deflationary response because he ignores the diversity of texts in the public conversation in civil society. (He makes no mention of blogging).

An example of this deflationary reaction is Gummo Trotsky who is sailing his Tugboat Potemkin on the high seas of public life. He says he is not all that happy with the mantle of public intellectual and that he much prefers that of "hobby-satirist". In this way, he adds, the crew at can avoid the twin danger of writing the wanky twaddle on big themes, or writing on public issues for money. This creates a space for the crew at Tugboat Potemkin to continue with their (excellent) political satire: that is, to write as citizens. The crew at Tugboat Potemkin are right: in a democracy we do want to do away with elitist notions of intellectual and to shift the focus to citzenship.

But we need to recover a sense of what citzenship means at a time when the market dominates public life and citizenship has been reduced to voting at elections. Tim Dunlop has cleared away some of the tangled undergrowth in an early post, called 'Intellectuals or public as intellectuals' (August 22, 2002. I cannot get Tim's link to work, but see Ken Parish Public intellectuals or wankers?). Tim says 'part of the problem with many discussions on this topic is the difficulty people have in defining "public intellectual"... most discussion presumes 'the public intellectual to be some sort of iconic figure, or "famous" person, or maybe an expert who either speaks in the public sphere about their specialised topic or uses the cache of their expertise to speak more generally on a range of social issues....Most accounts of intellectuals over-emphasise the role of certain charismatic individuals in defining the requirements of intellectual practice.'

This is dead right, judging from my reading on the subject. Tim then says that the pathway through this undergrowth can be found by concentrating on the 'public' not 'intellectual'. He says that by 'de-emphasising the role of these charismatic individuals who participate in the production, distribution and interpretation of ideas or knowledge, and who might through the public sphere or civil society perform a broader, public “intellectual function”, we are able to a focus on the idea of an “intellectual practice”, an involvement with knowledge—social knowledge—that is available to everyone.' This takes us to the threshold of citizenship.

Tim then suggests 'that there is a strong overlap between the idea of a "public intellectual" and an active citizen' concerned with public things. Form this perspective the distinction between "the" intellectuals and the citizens is often overstated and tends to be anti-democratic, assigning the vast mass to the passive role of spectator in most societal debates'. The significance of blogging is that it enables citizens to be active participatants in public debates in a democracy.

How so? Ken Parish at the Parish Pump says that 'a civic dialogue' is the link between blogging and citizenship in his Public intellectuals or wankers?. Ken says blogging 'allows an ongoing civic dialogue of the sort one imagines used to characterise ancient Athenian democracy' [and] 'it does seem to me that blogging has the potential to create a much more participatory democracy, with an informed and interested citizenry, than has previously been possible in a large-ish, geographically spread-out nation state like Australia.' Ken draws attention to the diversity of expertise and viewpoint, along with a willingness to engage intellectually with each other in a mostly mutually respectful way in Oz blogging. He adds that this 'is the most exciting, unique and occasionally inspiring aspect of the Australian plogosphere. There's something fascinating, and maybe even important, going on here' he concludes. Rightly judged.

We should not get too romantic here about the potential of blogging to create a much more participatory democracy. Certainly blogging places an emphasis on the forum as distinct from the market. There are constraints on blogging for academics blogging as a citizens. As Ken Parish points out in an email, "as an academic you don't get any direct credit for blogging (or mainstream media op-ed work) as you do for publishing in refereed scholarly journals. In one sense, I would be better advised to cut out blogging and spend that time on polishing a publishable journal article. However, I happen to think that blogging is, at least in some ways, more valuable than publishing in an obscure journal that almost no-one reads. I don't think it's time wasted." But the universities have yet to find a way to nurture and facilitate blogging beyond academics doing on it on their own on a part-time basis. I have little hope for reform because the corporate university is turning its back on its traditional responsibility as a public institution to foster criticism. They have lost all contact with an education for citizenship.

Similarly with the media. Few of these create a webpage that would foster a critical interpretative commentary on events, or the media being the watchdog for democracy through a public journalism that goes beyond the simplistic accounts. That is why Margo's Webdiarystands out. The media is trying to colonise the net, exploit their news and commentary for money (eg., the expensive charges by Fairfax F2 for their archival material) and use it to foster their own brand.

Lastly, blogging times lots of time, energy and the skills of a good liberal education. Most of us fit blogging around our full time jobs.How do the big time American bloggers do it? Is it part of their job? Anyone know? Few of the unemployed with time on their hands have the capabilities to write on a regular basis.

Maybe it is what is happening outside the universities and the media that is crucial in the formation of a civic discourse involving the exchange of ideas and reasoned argument. Maybe one of the consequences of the neo-liberal downsizing of the humanities in the corporate university is that those who have been downsized or denied a job through contracting job market will use their skills to blog. Perhaps the end of the old liberal university and the widespread graduate unemployment is a part of the immediate, economic causes for the blogging phenomenon. Is the irony of neeo-liberal structural adjustment the rise of the gadflys, critics and and counterpunchers. Will these flourish in a revitalised civil society? Maybe.

If I come back to Adelaide then this flourishing of a bloggger culture is what is desperately needed. We do need the gadflies and counter punchers to evaluate what is going on in South Australia because there is a death of public discourse. More public funding for the ABC and SBS will not fix things here.