Saturday, November 30, 2002

The State of the State of SA: No. 2

Greg Kelton, the State political reporter, wrote a piece in Saturday's Advertiser called, Report card on economy based on a report prepared for BankSA. This warned of 'storm clouds brewing' over the state's fragile economy. The economy is not only under performing in 8 of the 10 fastest job-creating sectors in the nation, but the 'albatross of a fast-ageing population weighs upon SA's longer-run growth potental'. And to make matters worse, war in the Middle East could reduce SA car exports whilst the double-dip recession in the US could hurt wine exports.

So, though short-term trends are promising the long-term ones are threatening. The Report Card scores the economy, economic growth, industry, budget and debt. The Rann Government passes the exam as it scores a B overall. Of course, there is no mention of setting the policy compass to ecological sustainablity. Nor is any consideration given to the need to exam the Government on its integration of the economy and the environment. After all, this a Big Bank reporting---what has the environment got to do with the economy or economic growth? Is that to do with dolphins and sealions, salinity, water and drought management?

So we have to give BanKSA an F for their report and ask them to repeat Ecological Economics 1 yet again. They just do not get it conceptually. Its a mindblock thing. Alas, our unversities have been so dumbed down that Ecological Economics 1 is no longer taught.

The Report, and its interpretation by Kelton, basically says risks lie ahead on our journey and the cars motor needs some attention. The car's mechanic----ie., Treasurer Ken Foley---was reassuring. His message to the state's citizens was reassuring. It is a familar tune and we are going to hear it played often. 'We know about the risks ahead in a globalised world. That was one of the major reasons for the establishment of the Economic Development Board. The Rann Labor Government is doing its bit. As the car's driver we are holding our nerve. We are seeking medium to long-term solutions to our economic problems. We are not attempted by politically quick fixes, which governments have tended to do in the past.' (Is that a reference to the supposed benefits that will flow from the Adelaide-Darwin Railway line?---do check out the great post by Ken Parish Develop the north.

The political message from the Rann Government is 'rest assured we are shaping the policy'. Now I have little confidence in the policy direction of the Economic Development Board since they too failed Ecological Economics 1. See, The State of South Australia posted on Friday, November 08, 2002. The very idea of ecologically sustainable development seems to be an alien one to them---too left of field to take on board?

How do we citizens interpret this 'rest assured we have things under control' message. All the signs are that the Rann Government is trying to integrate economic and social policy whilst avoiding a soft health/education line in the name of sound economic management based on efficiency, productivity and investment. It is not trying to integrate economic and environmental policy---that is too hard. But it will be humane on detention centres and be mindful of pensioners and superannuates.

What we have is a reforming Rann Government that is modernising South Australia with a touch of green wash and the state acting as a wilderness protector. This involves an inching towards of an ecological modernisation that evaluates large bureaucracies and corporations in terms of them managing their resources with some reference to local ecological circumstances (its called environmental protection). Despite these hesitant steps towards the institutional reform in the ESD process, the Rann Government has little vision of what an eco-SA might, or should, be. That has to do with the radical edge of green politics of the environmental movement in civil society. What we still have with our sound economic managers is a zero-sum clash between economic and ecological imperatives.

It has no vision of a habitable Adelaide that de-emphasies the car and the streets have become domesticated. See the post, Adelaide Watch, on Friday November 22nd.

There is little understanding about the quality of life in Adelaide as it increasingly becomes an urban jungle ruled by the car. There is almost no grasp of the need to reinvent the city as a place for people to shop, stroll, meet and live. We could, for instance, start by returning Victoria Square and North Terrace to the people for walking and so connect up the different bits of the people city.

The car mindset is deeply entrenched. Opening up the streets and squares for people? Why that destroys business. Our small business traders are the backbone of the economy. They keep it ticking over. We need more urban space to be given over to carparks. We just love the car in Adelaide. If it weren't for the car manufacturers we would be an economic backwater. But we will plant some trees on the main arterial roads to change (soften) their character. As for considering the urban street as a living space invaded by traffic snarl---well, that is a preposterous idea. The car stands for freedom.

Friday, November 29, 2002

G. Reynolds & M. Kingston---The Media & Democracy
I want to return to the kerfuffle in ole Sydney town over the meaning of the Bali bombings for Australians between Bob Carr, the Labor Premier of NSW, and Margo Kingston, a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. There is an aspect of this event that troubles me and which needs to be highlighted. It is democracy, or rather the lack of it, and the media's silence about it. I want to try and put my finger on what I find troubling, and then look at it from different angles by bouncing off a few people's ideas.

The event is Jack Robertson, as an ordinary citizen, trying to take an 'Open Letter to Australia' to the same NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery bureaus to which Bob Carr's staff hand-delivered Mark Steyn's Spectator article following his criticisms of Margo Kingston's remarks on the Bali bombings. See In which Jack is repelled from the citadel for a blow by blow account of this event.

The tight security at Parliament House in NSW and elsewhere is in place to keep the nutters and bombers out. But this story also indicates the way that citizens are blocked or kept outside the parliamentary system of power; the way that citizens public attempts to engage with their Premier or express their dissent are suppressed; and the way that the Press Gallery media are an integral part of the system of political power. This media has a nice cosy relationship with the politicians and they do not want to stop being on the political drip feed. Who can blame them? After all, they have to get their daily stories in, and desire to be a success. So they are obliged to work within the knowledge/power system.

What Jack's visit to Parliament House highlights is that the current broadcast media technologies do very little to foster public deliberation, civic participation and a political culture where politics is shaped by citizens rather than being something that happens to them. It indicates that politics is not shaped by citizens. Hence Jack's 'Open Letter ' was an attempt to open up a citizen's space or drive a citizen's wedge between politicians and journalists. I presume he is doing this to counter the way governments and journalists collude to manipulate the presentation and revelation of information to achieve the same basic goals as a policy of secrecy and obfuscation.

The problem or issue raised by this event is a significant one: how can we ordinary citizens speak in public in our liberal democracy? How can we drive a citizen's wedge between the politicians and media so that different citizen voices are heard in public? How can we change the political culture of liberal democracy so that the public is more than a phantom public? This is an issue that is rarely discussed in the media, despite the screeds of commentary that is written on parliamentary politics by journalists.

However, this issue is addressed by the Information Society Project at the Yale Law School in terms of digital democracy. This digital democracy project 'aims to promote democracy by studying how new technologies can promote democratic deliberation, participation, and decisionmaking.' This democracy in cyberspace initiative is interested in realizing technology's potential to improve civic life and help citizens take and active and informed role in their own governance'. Do the new communications technologies improve citizen participation and deliberation?

The recent Revenge of the Blogs Conference hosted by the Information Society Project provides us with an opportunity to see how the big name bloggers saw the role of blogging in relation to the above. The keynote address was given by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame. He has one of the most widely read blogs with a readership larger than a regional newspaper. He is number 1, a media celebrity.

Reynolds says that the Internet is not an echo chamber where people only link to people they liked or agreed with; or people would only read sites they liked or agreed with, and so the conversation would soon cease. Reynolds says that though this happens blogs are different because they link to more disagreeing sites than to agreeing sites. Blogs are more akin to dynamic conversations than to lectures, whilst their linking accounts for much of their popularity.

This indicates the openness of the Internet. It describes the dynamic conversation that is commented on in Australia. I doubt that many journalists or politicians read blogs. I suspect that though the bloggosphere has found a way to organize and distribute information for reasoned deliberation, it is still very isolated and basically ignored in the mediascape rather than being interlinked with parliamentary politics and journalism. We bloggers may passionately criticise our favourite preening and presumptuous journalists because of their ability to reduce complicated political issues to five-word sound bites---but we are never noticed nor acknowledged.

So how do we link this conversation in cyberspace to democracy? Well, Reynolds disappoints. Its all a bit thin in connecting this conversation to digital democracy even though he makes some good points. First journalists and politicians read blogs, which is why they have disproportionate credit and impact on the "real world." Secondly, blogs can get ideas out in terms of quick reactions to political phenomena. This helps minority groups in large organizations by organizing outside support and helps promote transparency in organizations, since bloggers tell people how things work in a constant stream, not in discrete chunks. Thirdly, bloggers, unlike academics, are aware of the intelligence of the general public and how smart they are.

Reynolds disappoints since he does not link these observation to the digital democracy project of the conference hosts. The word 'citizen' does not appear in his nor does 'democracy'. Nor does he build on these remarks about deliberation and participation in a civic conversation by linking them decision-making. Nor indicate he indicate how this conversation improves civic life or help citizens take an active and informed role in their own governance. He adds nothing to his talk in his November 22nd comments at Instapundit whilst at the conference.

In a recent post Don Arthur Don goes mad--a correction and apology indicates that Tim Dunlop has charted a pathway in terms of the shift from public intellectual to citizen intellectual. Tim says in his piece, The Other Side of 1984, that the term 'public intellectual’, attempts to lasso the elitist intellectual (from the university) to the egalitarian, less educated public by making the former's ideas more accessible to a wider audience. It is an elitist model, since there is no sense in which the intellectuals might actually listen to what the public itself had to say on matters of concern to them. A 'citizen intellectual' , in contrast, is engaged in a society-wide conversation, which implies both sides listening as well as speaking. There is room for expertise and specialist knowledge, but those with such expertise can no longer presume to tell the rest of us citizen's what is in our own best interests.

This puts the missing political language around the Reynold's observations. Blogging creates the public space for citizens to voice their public opinions and to engage with other opinions in the media flows. So how do we move from citizen intellectuals engaged in a conversation to a political culture where politics is shaped by citizens rather than politics continuing to be something that happens to us?

That's the issue that Jack raised by attempting to gain entry to Parliament House to distribute his Open Letter in the Gallery Press boxes. If we are to address the issue raised by Jack's actions, then we may need to turn our gaze away from seeking to be a part of, or be accepted by, the parliamentary institutions and the big media. If we to address the issue raised by his actions, then bloggers will have to carve their own space.

Update: Bloggers have to carve their own space? This is certainly what I take from James Cappozzola at The Rittenhouse Review in his fine pieces of writing(Monday, November 25)The Mean Girls and the Media and The Blogging of Sally Smith. These are sections in a long, excellent piece called AL GORE AND THE ALPHA GIRLS, about the conservative US media's obssession with Al Gore. It is a superb piece of writing. Go and read it. What I take from it is that there is little point in trying to be wannabe journalists who are let into the media ring by the gatekeepers or aspiring to be an part of the media’s highest echelons. It is possible you adopt a policy of becoming a brazen, self-propelled climber and aim to be the media industry’s most desperately scheming and self-promoting parvenu. But who wants to be a “suck-up” ? Surely blogging along the lines of Sally Smith is far more healthy.

To get noticed, ie to have influence, OZ bloggers may have to do what Don Arthur suggests in 'Krugman and the 'conceptual scoop'. This suggests that we create fresh interpretations of the political landscape by producing a new way of connecting the dots into big pictures. Bloggers can do what our drip-fed journalists so dislike doing and probably cannot do: contradict the tacit narratives that crystallize around particular politicians or policies and create new narratives that strike the intelligent public of citizen intellectuals as making more sense than the old ones.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Oh no, not more on postmodernism

In his blog POMO RIP Tim Dunlop buries postmodernism with little in the way of funeral rites. He does so with the help of some friends. One of them, an English friend at The Philosophy Magazine Online, has written a piece called Postmodernism R.I.P, which kills off postmodernism with little ceremony. It is worth considering in the light of the recent kerfuffle about postmodernism in the OZ blogworld.

This article says that postmodernism has a negative thesis and a positive thesis :

'Negatively, postmodernism rejects the idea of the "grand narrative", the all-embracing philosophical system which can explain the whole of human experience and history'....

Fair enough. I would make such an argument, for instance, against the mathematical system of neo-classical economics that is built up from a few metaphysical axioms. (It is too Platonic). The article then continues:

'The question then arises as to what comes in its place. For many philosophers this is a serious question that requires an answer. For the postmodernist, it is a foolish question that fails to take seriously the terminal nature of the loss. Redemption does not come by seeking a surrogate for objectivity, it comes from celebrating its loss'.

Being a philosopher I would agree. If we destroy what has been built by previous generations, then we generally replace it. We are generally interested with what is going to be put in its place. The exception is those who are called postmodernists---though I thought that many of them were now moving into ethics. So it all depends on who we mean here. We need names. What we can say at this point is that not everyone wants to build theoretical systems (nature as a machine) or models of the economy. They may want to work in a lighter mode---say write literature, criticism, comment, weblog. There are many different kinds of writing and philosophy. Thank goodness. Presumably, postmodernists work in this lighter ironic mode. So let us become the postmodernist for the sake of the argument.

The article then mentions Baudrillard, who argued back in 1991 that the Gulf War did not happen. As you can imagine Baudrillard took a lot of heavy hits for that one. The article is sensible on this. It says:

'We know that this is not a statement to be taken at face value, but nonetheless it illustrates the extent to which postmodern thinking requires us to live at an ironic distance from events in the world, lest we be fooled into thinking they are events in a 'real' world. However, few would be prepared to turn around today and say, however ironically, that the attacks on the World Trade Centre never happened. On that date, the "real world" stamped its imprint on the collective consciousness of the west.'

Fair enough. Few would disagree. The world has shifted. We now live amidst a war on terrorism. The scare quotes around 'real world' are a bit of a worry. At this stage it is probably a literary device. But it may indicate the ground on which the argument is going to be staged. The article then shifts gear from scene setting into its argument. It says:

'It [the attacks on the World Trade Centre] demonstrated phenomenologically what had previously been argued by post-modernism's critics: that to blithely deny the existence of objective reality and celebrate that denial is politically dangerous and intellectually lazy. The ironic distance of postmodernism was revealed as the luxury it was, something that only people far removed from the harsh reality - no apologies for the word this time - of the world could indulge in.'

Pardon me. Like millions of others (including many Americans) I wasn't there in New York on September 11. I watched it unfold on late night television like millions of others. (Same with the Gulf War). Nor was I there at Kuta Beach in Bali when the bombs went off in the nightclub and in the van parked in the street outside the nightclub. I saw the effects of the explosions and heard the interviews on television. So the 'objective reality' of these terrible events was mediated by the mass media. eg., the tabloid journalism language of Channel 9. It would seem to be very sensible for me to live at an ironic distance from this television coverage of these events, lest I be fooled into thinking that what happened on A Current Affair actually mirrors the events in Bali or New York. I know from long experience that Channel Nine interprets events not mirrors them; and these interpretations are often strong ones at that, given the conservative politics of A Current Affair. Lets not get precious here. Conservatives mount a similar argument against the left-liberal bias (ie., politics) of the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald and the New York Times and they are quite right about the politics of this media. The broadcast and print media play hardball politics whilst adopting an official pose of 'nailing the facts'. Irony is one way to engage with this disparity.

The next two steps in the argument are killers. These state that, because I deny that the electronic or the print media mirror objective reality, so I am supposed to 'blithely deny the existence of objective reality and celebrate that denial'. And whats more, this denial and celebration is what makes me 'politically dangerous and intellectually lazy'.

Excuse me! I have no intention of denying that the Bali bombings happened or that highjacked airplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. These events happened for sure. But I saw these events on the media flows of television within layers of interpretations, commentary, judgements, speculation etc. I do not not see how 'celebrating' the end of media positivism means that I 'blithely deny the existence of objective reality.' What I am denying is the mirrroring thesis: ie., the crude version of the correspondence theory of truth. And I do so because it just doesn't make sense of how the broadcast media operate. In many ways the language of the media help to construct our reality. We see events like the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre through their frames and images that have constructed that event as starting the war on terror.

I also have real trouble following the inference from this ironic stance to the ways of the broadcast media to me being 'politically dangerous and intellectually lazy'. Something---a big something---is missing here. Am I politically dangerous, because in questioning the interpretations about the war on terrorism that currently circulate on television, I am being unpatriotic. Really? I love my country. Is that not a form of patriotism? Is it my nationalism that makes me intellectually lazy? I cannot make sense of the inference.

Maybe it is a joke? An attempt at humor? Or a bit of writing in the ironic mode?

The article then ends with the claim that: 'The ironic distance of postmodernism was revealed as the luxury it was, something that only people far removed from the harsh reality - no apologies for the word this time - of the world could indulge in.'

Well, I was far reformed from the harsh reality of the bombings in Bali or the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. I was in my electronic cottage in the inner city of Adelaide, Australia at the time. And as for irony being a luxury; well, on the contrary, what has happened in the mass media since, has affirmed the need for irony----eg. the recent US remembrance of the human suffering caused by September 11 as interpreted by the wall-to-wall US media coverage. I found it over the top and self-indulgent. I felt that this was an America that had become so turned in on itself that it was blind, if not indifferent, to the human suffering in the rest of the world. Ony Americans counted. Certainly not the many Africans who die daily. And I could understand why---the trauma of the attacks on the World Trade Centre was very great. But I am not an American. I can but sympathise with the suffering whilst adopting an ironic stance to what I see on US television.

Now for that phrase 'the ironic distance of postmodernism was revealed as the luxury it was' by the attacks on the World Trade Centre. 'Reveal' is an interesting word. It means disclosing knowledge by cutting through the appearance of things to the fundamental furniture that lies behind. It discloss what is hidden. Its our old friend the correspondence theory of truth at work here in 'reveal.' So the guts of the argument is all about truth, correpondence and mirroring. It says that bad things happen when we call these into question----we embrace idealism---so we need to stay with this mirroring theory of truth. This is where you have to draw the line in the sand.

Honestly, it is hard to take this sort of stuff seriously. Nor is meant to be taken seriously. It is a churning out of the cliched chatter found at cocktail parties of the advertising crowd in provincial cities; after they have become serious and concerned due to the threats and risks posed by terrorism. Television, advertising and publicity was reality to them. They saw otherwise after September 11.

Who can write such stuff in a philosophy magazine? What does it say about the state of philosophy? My guess is that it is about fighting shadows and demons in academic life. It is done by people who no longer have the skills to argue. What is buried by this chatter stuff about the demons of academic life is philosophy. What Tim Dunlop calls 'the coup de grace and the rotten corpse' of postmodernism----actually refers to the sickened body of English philosophy. This poverty of philosophy is the legacy of the dumbing of the universities by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair's New Labour.

Its a fair warning for Australia, as many of its universities are now third rate. Even its best ones are now second rate. Expect to see more of this chatter stuff.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Populism and Democracy
In his blog on November 26 Tim Dunlop at Road to Surfdom raised the issue of who 'is able to contribute to public debate' and 'the techniques, practices and institutions that either encourage or discourage participation by certain groups.' One of these techniques he says is those 'places that are considered to be in Australia but not of Australia'. The example Tim gives is the way Australians divide the nation into the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra triangle versus the rest.

Since I live in Adelaide I do feel cut out of the loop within the triangle. South Australia, just like Tasmania and Western Australia, is becoming increasingly marginalised, whilst Brisbane is increasingly trying to force its way into the triangle. It is difficult to make our voice from Adelaide heard on the national stage----this is one of the problems of SA's currrent 'Save the Murray' campaign----and it limits the democratic discussion about how to make our working rivers healthy. This is why the former SA Olsen Liberal government was so strident and angry: it's rhetoric had to go over the top in order to get River Murray issues onto the national policy agenda. They had to make the policy makers in the triangle sit up and take notice.

Tim says that in contemporary politics those outside the triangle view those inside negatively. He says that 'if' If you live or work in the triangle you are deemed to be out of touch, elitist, or unAustralian, not part of the “real” Australia'. The "real Australia' is characterised by populism, which ritually denigrates the political, economic and cultural elites who live in the triangle as being out of touch, and aloof from, the concerns of those who live outside the triangle.

Since 1996 John Howard has been able to tap into this populism with his talk about governing the fallout from economic reform to ensure that ordinary people are 'relaxed and comfortable'. He says he understands what they are going through and has sympathy with their hardship and views. In a political sense, Howard has worked very hard to stay in touch, and address the concerns of the battlers.

I've had shocking problems trying to post. Its been a nightmare.

An example of this scenario being played out in Australia was the negative regional populist response to the neo-liberal economic reforms and social policy (republicanism, multiculturalism and aboriginal reconciliation and land rights of Paul Keating. The populist negativity to free market reform deepened with the recession of the early 1990s and broadened into the populism of Pauline Hanson's One Nation after 1996. John Quiggin in his piece, How Power Elites Work in Australia, says:

'With the election of John Howard, and his advocacy (punctuated by occasional backflips) of the social agenda represented by Pauline Hanson, positions hardened. Today, the Australian elite is divided in much the same way as the population as a whole, between a right-wing group which favours both free markets and a conservative or reactionary social agenda, and a left-wing group which supports republicanism and reconciliation, and opposes free-market reform.The main difference between the elite and the population as a whole is the absence of any group corresponding to the One Nation support base, opposing both free-market policies and social liberalism.'

This is certainly one political fault line. (My judgement is that there are deep contradictions between free markets and a conservative social agenda; and there is a large group which favours both free markets and republicanism, multiculturalism and reconciliation---these are becoming cosmopolitans).

Tim Dunlop says that the elites usually respond to the charge of being out of touch with ordinary people by calling their opponents ignorant, and they use their knowledge to marginalize or the exclude the populists voice from the public conversation. Hence we have a conflict conducted in the unfruitful terms of the anti-intellectualism of the populists and the anti-democracy of the elites. Tim then says that the anti-democracy of the elites is the biggest problem.

I agree with Tim on this. The anti-democratic stance of the elites was, and is, premised on their assumption that both populism and demagoguery place liberal democracy in jeopardy by their divisive schemes. The elites hold that the populist leaders cultivate popular legitimacy in the name of 'protecting the people', with this appeal couched in terms of protecting a vulnerable section of the population (eg., blue collar industrial workers) from the actions of privileged (economic ) elites or the outside threats of the global market to their way of life. The populist leaders are demagogues because they gain a following by appealing to the people's passions and by promising them some benefit when they get their hands on the levers of power. Populism is deemed reactionary by the enlightened elites because it defines itself as a reaction of the emotional many to the hegemony of the reforming enlightened elites; and it mobilises a political faction against the professional political elites who have their hands firmly on the levers of power.

What we have here is the old liberal (eg., John Stuart Mill) fear of the tyranny of the majority and the need to keep democracy safe from the people. This is the blue thread running through the neo-liberal economic reforms of the last two decades. The neo-liberals twin concerns about freeing up the market (freedom of contract) and rolling back the state (freedom from state interference) was connected to mocking their opponents as ignorant fools in the public sphere and constraining democracy in the name of strong leadership.

I give up. Its proving too dam difficult to post I was going to come back to eco-populism and anti-intellectualism.

Update: As Tim points out the charge of anti-intellectualism against populism is a misleading one. It is seen as not reading books and holding that people who go to university go mad. This is how Don Arthur read it-----ie., know-nothings who sneer at elitism, who assert that the lessons of real life matter more than the incestuous chatter of ivory tower academics and who hold that elitism and book learning are just a waste of time. Don defend this in terms of intellectuals needing to turn their capacious minds to finding ways in which the informational obligations of citizenship can be fulfilled with less effort and more pleasure. Recent trends toward "infotainment" news broadcasting (more programmes like Channel Nine's 'A Current Affair'?) and "fire alarm" political institutions (sex and scandal???) are promising possibilities. They make politics more fun. This is better than the politics of intellectuals in political life, which is a politics that is dull and overly rationalistic.

Eco-populism is based on a tacit, practical knowledge, gained from our habitual experience of coping with everyday life. This form of knowledge is frequently called common sense, given a conservative twist, and placed in opposition to science. So we the old hurdy gurdy song of the bigotry and prejudice of common sense v the truth of an enlightening science. This account is very misleading as it implies that common sense is not critical of many popular views about the importance of money, status or reputation, anger, revenge or prejudice.

The tacit, practical knowledge of the eco-populism of 'Save the Murray' has an ethical core. It has a practical ethical goal of making human lives better; its goal is the good life. It is bounded by human experience and by what human beings consider to be worthwhile. So it rejects those conceptions of the good human life that strike us as making a life not worth living (eg. work is life; a life without friends; a life in a dead landscape). Its approach to ethical health is achieved through a process of winnowing and sorting of people's ethical opinions and values about our ethical life, and a responsiveness of ethical scrutiny to the complexities of particular cases.

If we come back to Tim Dunlop's November 26 blog about geographical correctness in Australia and the U.S, he celebrates the democratic role of the blog in public discussion. Weblogs, he says, provide a forum for people who otherwise would not have one; they provide a way for specialists or experts inside the triangle to speak in a much more straightforward way; and they equalise the debating territory between expert and lay person and bring them into contact in a way that is rarely available in other forums. I would add that weblogs allow a practical ethical voice to be heard in the public forum,and that this provides a counter to the scientific, professional voice of the expert enamoured of model building and the cynical voice of the world-weary journalist on the political drip.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

John Rawls
I returned from my few days in Victor Harbor amidst schoolies week (that fun world of sex, booze and parties; and graffiti, rubbish and stripped cars on the main road to Adelaide ) to the news that John Rawls, the Anglo-American political philosopher, had just died. (For links to some recent profiles of Rawls, see Kim Weatherall).

Like David Bertram at Junis (he has links to some obituaries of Rawls) I first read Rawls's key text A Theory of Justice as an undergraduate in the 1980's from within the Marxist tradition. It did not have much impact on me---I interpreted its principles of justice as abstractions from social democracy-US style. Like Bertram I also reread the text, as a graduate student and then as a lecturer. It is a long and difficult text---but a contemporary classic. I recognized that it was both a rupture from the decayed utilitarianism that underpinned public policy making, and enabled Anglo-American philosophers to do political philosophy rather than epistemology or philosophy of science. But I had little sympathy for the social contract tradition Rawls worked within and modified. Being a communitarian, I sort of let the book go without bothering to work through the textual intricacies or the detailed argumentation.

I much preferred Rousseau who subverted the liberal social contract tradition from within. That liberal tradition (it is different from the social liberal one) gives everyone their rights and property and so establishes the conditions or foundation for each person to have as much freedom as is compatible with the like freedom of others. This lets them get on with elbowing others to affirm their freedom and to make their bargains with a minimium of legal constraint and minimium government. This gives birth to a government limited to preserving an unencumbered market economy under the rule of law. Rousseau's subversion is achieved through introducing republicanism, ie., the people as a whole----all the citizens assembled together----ruling on their own behalf. This is the general will, which can only emerge under very specific conditions of a small group of people assembled together in a city state (eg., Geneva). The exercise of the general will gives us the common or public interest as expressed in laws that bear impartially on all citizens. Citizens then obey their own laws. Hence we have a link, or bridge, to the republican tradition's conception of citizens acting to realize the common good of a polity. A good overview of Rousseau is given by David Bertram at Junis.

For Rawls the well-ordered liberal society was based on consensus (an overlapping consensus from our disagreements). Philosophy in the public culture of a democratic society acting to articulate and make explicit the shared notions and principles thoguh to be latent in the common sense of citizens. When given a communitarian twig (by his much latter Political Liberalism) philosophy becomes a particular political community's project of reaching a political self-understanding about the normative basis of its common life in the nation-state. However, the emphasis on Rawls is primarily on right and not the good. This the central flaw of a rights based liberalism: we cannot reasonably talk about a substantive common good.

What I found useful in Rawls work was the idea of a public reason in the political life of a democracy that was implicit in people deliberating together about the principles that guide us in our political life. This recognized that political reason was a dialogic reason (reason is embodied in communication), and so it is quite different from an instrumental economic reason that dominates contemporary public policy making. However, Rawl's conception of public reason had a thin communitarian conception of political deliberation being grounded in, and a revision of, the ethical/political judgements of ordinary citizens within the contemporary liberal nation-state. What was also lacking in Rawls was a strong notion of political reason as a critique of our idols. So we have a sense of an accommodation to a political liberal culture and little resources to criticise the liberal way of life.

My assessment of Rawls is that his work opened up a pathway to republicanism. This is not the wishy washy Australian one of removing the British monarch. It is one that works with a conception of a substantial ethical life and deliberative politics of a particular political community of citizens concerned with the common good. This republicianism usually works in opposition to the liberal tradition's conception of the democratic process being the result of compromises among interests within rules of the game, which in turn, are justified in terms of basic liberal rights. In the hands of Hannah Arendt, for instance, republicanism directs its salvos at the civic privatism of a depoliticised public; and the production of mass loyalty through political parties that have lost their roots in civil society and become an arm of the state. This republicanism is concerned to revitalize the public sphere, foster a regenerated citizenry engaged in collective action and create decentralized self-governance.

Republicanism can be found buried in the Australian constitution---it underpins the strong federalist part that decenters or fragments political power amongst a wide variety of institutions, which is in contrast to the British heritage of responsible government. But this republicanism is rarely articulated in terms of an opposition to liberalism. Consequently most political debate takes place within liberalism.

Bye bye Rawls.

Monday, November 25, 2002

About Margo & Terrorism
I have been taken back by the vehemence that has often been shown towards Margo Kingston, who works at the Sydney Morning Herald. I can see that this antagonism is part of a battle of ideas structured around a friend/enemy politics. Margo is on the left side of politics and the conservatives don't like her, her politics or her role as gadfly in the public sphere. Fair enough, I feel the same about Miranda Devine & co. However, it is the underground violence that has taken me back; whilst the rancour and animus towards the left seems to have deepened since September 11 and the Bali bombing. Why the hatred? Why the almost instant rejection of 'root-cause' explanation of Islamic terrorism? It has all left me a bit puzzled and dejected.

So I have started surfing some of the US bloggers to get some insight into what was going on. I thought that I'd try to get a perspective on what is happening inside Australia by looking at it from the outside. I started reading Andrew Sullivan.The guy writes very well and the vitriol of taking an opponent out is missing. And I enjoyed his lecture on Michael Oakeshott as a sceptical conservative (I'm denied access so see the link in Media Dragon. The lecture is a fine piece of work, and the interpretation of Oakeshott to show his relevance to today's political situation of war threatening is both plausible and worth considering. Oakeshott is less the traditional (Burkean) conservative than I had thought.

Then I came across the polemical side of Andrew Sullivan. In cruising his blogspot I happened on this post in the Daily Dish archives on Tuesday November 12.

'Since September 11, this blog has been galvanized by the need to fight the battle of ideas over the war against Islamo-fascism. That means exposing the vacuous nihilism of the academic left, the poisonous isolationism of the anti-war right, the thinly veiled anti-Semitism of some parts of the anti-war movement, the incoherence of the Democrats, and the p.c. delusions of much of the media. That's also what has propelled the blogosphere into stardom - voicing what most people really think, sentiments and arguments that are routinely absent in many mainstream media outlets. '

Parts of this are fair enough and quite acceptable. The conservative blogosphere in Australia is voicing sentiments that are different from the mainstream left-liberal media, such as Sydney Morning Herald or The Age. And the conservative bloggers are galvanized by the need to fight the battle of ideas over the war against an Islamo-fascism. But 'the vacuous nihilism of the academic left'? That's pretty quick! Vacuous nihilism means that the academic left's highest values---justice, human rights, democracy, sustainability etc---have been hollowed out to such an extent that there is nothing much of substance left anymore. This is not obvious to me.

Surely the academic left would affirm the liberal values of the nation-state against the theocratic state of a militiant Islam that is currently resisting modernity with everything it has? The academic left would also reject both the authoritarian imposition of Islamic law in Australia and the description of Australia as a moral cesspool due to sexual freedom, as it is outlined in Osama bin Laden's "Letter to the American people". Or do we have the postmodern bogeyman lurking behind the bushes? Is this bogeyman the reason why the Left has become so rancid and bitter. This all strikes me as the bash bash of the culture wars. Its what we get in Australia. Sullivan, as far as I can see, makes little attempt to evaluate how far liberal values of the academic left have been hollowed out.

In an earlier post, Andrew Sullivan wrote the following in a comment on an email in the context of the Republican victory in the US elections. He says:

'It's certainly clear to me that those of us who have been consistently anti-terror and anti-Saddam have scored a huge victory. I'd say the academic left and the left-liberal consensus in the media and Washington have been largely routed by events. But that doesn't mean that many of these misguided individuals have genuinely seen the light. If and when war comes, they will still try to turn it against the West, spin every military victory as a defeat, and do all they can to undermine the Bush administration's difficult job in this war. If another terrorist attack occurs, they will blame it on Bush and the West. There is a lull now, while the anti-war camp regroups. That's predictable and understandable.'

Well I am one of the misguided who has failed to see the light. I understand that forthe Americans war was declared on September 11. But Australia is not America. I am not convinced that getting the war right (ie., regime change in Iraq) is paramount; that everything else will follow; and nothing else, in comparison, matters. I also have trouble with the claim made by Sullivan that the Left does not have a leg to strand on----'they will still try to turn it against the West, spin every military victory as a defeat' The Left is all washed up, its credibility is in tatters, and all that it can do is undermine the national security state. This is pretty one-sided stuff that closes down the debate.

So what is happening in Australia in the culture war swirling around Margo Kingston's figure is also happening in America. This cultural war is being overlaid by a war against terrorism.

What I do see is that we Australians have increasing fears and anxieties about the threat of terrorism at home; and these have been heightened by the government's announcement that there had been a credible, albeit generalised, threat of a terrorist attack on Australia’s homeland. Hence Australia cannot be left denuded, nor its capacity to deal with a terrorist attack locally and regionally compromised. We need to defend our borders and fight a militant Islamic terrorism in the region. This is a credible position, and there is a long tradition of Australia acting to defend itself by putting its own interests first, rather than those of its powerful friends. So I am not
convinced that Australia should be fighting a war against Iraq as distinct from a war against terrorism in its region.

I'm also not convinced by the "evidence" provided by the Howard Government that the Iraqi regime, has been and is, actively providing strong support for the al Qaeda network. This puts me at odds with the Howard Government, which has been using spin to disguise its position that Australia will be there shoulder-to-shoulder with the US, if there is a war with Iraq. According to Michelle Grattan in No beating around the Bush the Howard Government's stance is that an attack on Iraq should be seen as a fresh episode in a long war, rather than something completely new. Why? What is the reasoning?

The national security state's argument for regime change in Iraq is that possible war action against Iraq is required because this nation-state had "form" in using weapons of mass destruction against its neighbours (Iran presumably) and there is "a long history of Iraq assisting terrorist groups". The Government then conjurs up "the ultimate nightmare based on a 'what if' weapons of mass destruction ever got into the hands of terrorists". We have to add the last bit to clinch the argument: Iraq gives weapons of mass destruction to the al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah terrorist organizations.

This argument is debatable. See Malcom Farr Howard's worrying enthusiasm for war. It is reasonable for citizens to question and evaluate it, especially when our politician's actions are going to be governed by their nightmares. A form of mitigated scepticism does not strike me as being misguided in politics, especially when we are confronted by the rhetorical use of what if nightmare scenarios. For some actual arguments, see Machiavelli in Mesopotamia (by C. Hitchens, 7 November).

It is here that we can usefully come back to Andrew Sullivan's lecture on Oakeshott. Sullivan also places an emphasis on us being sceptical, especially when events press upon us with such urgency as a looming war in far off lands. Sullivan's Oakeshott would argue that at such times there is a need for reflection and distance, since we are need to learn to live without certainty, to live with contradiction. Sullivan then introduces Oakeshott's famous sea metaphor, which describes political activity as akin to sailing in a boundles sea:

"In political activity," Oakeshott wrote, "men sail a boundless and bottomless sea. There is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel. The sea is both friend and enemy, and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behavior in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion."

This classic metaphor of politics, of the ship sailing into the complete unknown, with no harbor, no sky, no bottom of the sea, means that we figure it out as we go along. We do so by stepping into the flow of history, joining in the randomness of its contingency, and letting things go a little rather than attempting to master history with a grand plan. In undertaking this perilous course of action, we acquire the capacity or practical skill of defeating contingency by accepting its terms of combat. This course of action also involves a process of self-creation of character.

Is this not what Margo Kingston is attempting to do? Exercising a practical skill and tacit knowledge in trying to make sense of things after Bali, whilst living in the contingency of history? In doing so, is she not engaged in a kind of self-creation of character of the journalist, becoming a self-reliant individual in a liberal society, and developing in her life a particular diversity of character and an idiosyncratic form of living? Is she not confronted by a conservatism that seeks to suppress historical contingency and change by dictating the course of a story---that all roads lead to Baghdad and regime change?---or insisting on a plot---that those on the left are traitors and unAustralian.

Today I notice that Webdiary is out of action for the rest of the week. Another war casuality?

River Murray Flows Again?

On the front page of Saturday's Australian Thea Williams and Amanda Hodge implied that the Murray-Darling River was reopened to the sea. They wrote:' One of the world's great rivers, the Murray, was reopened to the sea yesterday morning.'

Joy oh joy!

This reopening was a result of dredging a 40 metre wide channel through the sand that had clogged the mouth on the (western) Goolwa side of the Murray Mouth inlet. . ...'the greenish water from the drought-stricken river was swirling and flowing steadily against the blue sea out into the Southern Ocean for the first time in 11 months.'

Its flowing again. The river lives.Let's break out the champagne and go sailing in the summer breezes.

Don't believe a word of it folks. This is the birds-eye view from Canberra.It misses the detail on the ground.

What was flowing was merely banked up water from the Goolwa Barrages. The river is not flowing. There is no river flow over the barrages.The River Murray is no longer a flowing river. It is a series of irrigator pools. All that we have is a bit of tidal seawater flow up to and back from the Goolwa barrages. What we have is the publicity machine at work.

Meanwhile the salinity levels in Lake Alexandrina (also closed off from the sea by its barrages) are skyrocketing---they are now more than three times the safe drinking levels recommended by the World Health Organization. (3000 ECU compared to the safety standard of 800 ECU). People on Hindmarsh Island (outside of the Marina) are drinking it because the rain water is in short supply.

And the Coorong. Well, the silver perch have gone, the catfish fish are gone, the pigmy perch are gone. And the fishermen are deeply depressed. They know that the fish need environmental flows, but with the drought and the overallocation of water licences across the basin there is little chance of these eventuating in the next year or so.

Poor old Murray. Its dying.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Other Blogsites
Here is an interesting visual site that I came across whilst exploring the background blogs to the Yale Revenge of the Blogs conference. It is a photolog of David F. Gallagher. It is an almost-daily log of photos he has taken around New York City and elsewhere. It makes a welcome change from the low-tech tedious philosophical blather, boring public policy and tedious political commentary of public opinion. Many people just can't be bothered with long bits of text----it all looks visually boring.

A photolog is what I would love to be able to do as I take also lots of landscape photos to counter the philosophical stuff. But I do not have the equipment (digital camera or scanner) or technical expertise to do so. I am very envious of this work. The best I can do in the meantime is to list the interesting visual sites when I came across them.
Comment on weblogging, journalism and public forum

In the public conversation about the significance of weblogging in Australia it is generally taken for granted that the internet can, and should be, seen as a commons that is 'owned' by the public so they can express what matters to them. See the recent Ken Parish post, Hippies in cyperspace. The academic authority in this field of intellectual property and the public domain is Lawrence Lessig. Good academic commentary in Australia on this tension is provided by Kim Weatherall.

This virtual public commons enhances the democratic forum because it overcomes a key limitation of the way the mass print and electronic media have traditionally used it. This corporate media had an elite view of freedom of expression, it has generally talked to, or rather at, the public, and it provided the public with little public space to respond to its messages. So we citizens listen to what is being said, and we converse amongst ourselves about the events of the day, but our opinions do not become public ones. They remain private. This one-way flow limits the public conversation about public things to journalists and politicians, and it means that a public conversation on the things that matter to the public is limited to one between elites.

Blogging changes all that. Whilst owning a printing press is a rather expensive outlay blogging is very cheap. This enables us citizens to have a public voice on important issues----a classic example is the OZ weblogging on the significance of the Bali bombings to Australians and are views/opinions are quickly assessed and knocked around.

The recent conference on weblogging at the Yale Law School--was called the Revenge of the Blogs. (indirect link). The conference is mentioned by Kim Weatherall in her post Blogging on Blogging on Blogging.....and.The Keynote address is given by Glenn Reynolds of Instapunditfame whilst the featured speaker was Mickey Kaus from Slate. Both speeches are listed.

The conference provides us with an opportunity consider what is now happening in the public forum after the arrival of blogging. What we have to work with are the notes on the conference taken by Jeff Jarvis buzzmachine. We can also pick up the material from the 'blog and journalism' panel.

John Hiler of the online magazine Microcontent News argues blogging as a good addiction. And blogging cuts into your consumption of other kinds of media. You watch less TV, read fewer books . . . but you read more on the Web. it is good addiction as it is a way to tap addictive powers to do good things.

But blogging is different: it's the first form of media that truly closes the loop. It's not just bloggers addicted to blogging; it's also readers addicted to blogs. Addicted writers feeding addicted readers' habits. Addicted readers providing the feedback the addicted writers crave. It's a fully-closed media ecosystem. An "engine of addiction."

This is certainly my experience. I rarely watch TV any more; I read more on the web; and I am concerned about the feedback. How does weblogging impact in the world of public affairs? Jeff Jarvis from Buzzmachine asked: 'Does weblog replace journalism?' Buzzmachine.com said no. The reasoning by Jeff Jarvis is interesting:

'Webloggers are, all in all, pundits; they are commentators and columnists and occasionally philosophers and even editors. But with very rare exceptions, webloggers do not gather original facts, real news. They point to it. They comment on it.' In contrast, 'journalists – real journalists, not just human press conference tape recorders – gather real facts. They are vital to a democracy.'

Certainly, weblogging is commentary and interpretation that bounces off what journalists write. But so is journalism: is it mostly commentary and interpretation with this interpretation enframing the reality of our everyday life eg., the war on terrorism that we now live. We still recall living an everyday life prior to the Bali bombings and September 11 2001 in the US, but it is getting harder with the risks, threats and being on the lookout for anything offhand and strange.

Admittedly, journalists also report. They would mention or report an event that has happened---eg., the new key issues paper that has just been released by the Economic Development Board about higher education in South Australia. Greg Kelton, a senior journalist at The Advertiser, reports to the readers by summarizing the main findings of the key issues paper-higher education. So Kelton mentions the need for stronger state government leadership, incentives to encourage cross-linkages, stronger collaboration and effective resource sharing between the three universities. The key idea is that the 3 universities retain their differences but become part of a more cohesive system. The interpretation is buried in Kelton's reporting. It tacitly says that there is something wrong with our universities and that reform is good.

But the journalist, even a senior state political one, does not critically comment on the report. That is the job of the Editorial, and The Advertiser's basically says that The Report into Higher Education is a tentative look at reform and that we need a debate on amalgation to create a super university to faciltate economic growth and get the state moving in the right direction.

The Advertiserexample indicates that the media are less interested in reporting the facts and gathering the "hard news" and more interested in backgrounds, political analysis and layers of commentary about current events. In many ways the commentary stuff is also being done by the OZ bloggers and a lot of it is much better than those of journalists who recycle media releases and publicity material.

So bloggers are not reporters nor should they try to compete in gathering news. Weblogging represents a different kind of writing, and the extensive diversity of its writing should be celebrated. As Josh Marshall observed: 'Weblogs are permanently going to be a churn medium. Journalists aren't experts. They get up to speed. Weblogs have a role to play in letting people who know something on a topic jump in.' So there is a space for the weblogger to dig deeper than the Big Media by engaging with the assumptions behind public discourse. In terms of the Economic Development Board's Report the weblog would address what the reporter slides over: eg., education as a market commodity; university education orientated to job training; acceptance of ongoing the decline of the humanities due to lack of consumer, linking university research to business; or an education for democracy.

None of the columists at The Advertiser have yet to comment on the various Reports of the Economic Development Board, nor are they likely to. So we have a vacuum in public discourse that has been called the death of public discourse. Yet public policy issues are too important to be left to a small group within our political parties.

Another question raised by Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine was: 'Do weblogs affect journalism?' The answer given by buzzmachine was:

'Yes. But not yet. First, editors, publishers, and producers have to wake up and listen. For this is a medium that is all about listening....you will find the buzz here; that is why I call my site buzzmachine.com now. The Internet takes the pulse of the audience, the consumer base, the democracy faster than anything and webloggers sniff out and edit that buzz. That is of real value to news and to the democracy.'

Another answer to the above question given by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo was in terms of blog triumphalism.He gave a bit of a talk which summarises what he means.

I've really wanted to write about for some time: blog triumphalism. What do I mean by that? I guess I mean the many folks who write blogs and live in a world in which there is a place called The New York Times populated by several dozen basically feckless and cocooned reporters, constantly outdone and corrected and outwitted and generally ground into the dirt by a few bloggers up at odd hours jabbing away at a laptop keyboard.'

Those on the journalism/blog panel of the Revenge of the Blog conference were primarily journalists who also weblogged and did it well. This is not the norm for journalists in Australia. Blog triumphalism has yet to happen in Australia. Bloggers are still overshadowed by jthe ournalists in public commentary. It is unclear whether journalists in Australia ever read the weblogs apart from Crikey.com. The politicians do not. And the Big (print and electronic) Media have ignored blogging in Australia.

What is so notable about the comments on the journalism/blogging panel at the conference is that no speaker linked either kind of writing (journalism or blogging ) to democracy in a global world. Democracy disappeared into the background to be replaced by the relationship between 'the job' (journalism) and 'the sideline activity or hobby' (blogging). Even when community was introduced by Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine, democracy, let alone democratic citizenship, failed to make an appearance. Jarvis says:

"When I lost my faith in the people, when my populism flags, I regain it through my weblog. I started after surviving September 11 at the World Trade Center. I could not let the story go. I knew and loved weblogs; my company invested in Blogger/Pyra and Plastic.com. But I didn’t create a weblog because I had nothing to say. Now I did. As I revealed more and more of what happened that day, the reaction from people, the support is sometimes startling. I made friends through weblogs. The truth is that weblogs vary from journalism and media in this way, too: They are a community, a true community in an online world where that word is overused. Weblogs make media personal.'

This is a communitarian/populism with a patriotic sense of belonging that is rooted in American-style natonalism. It is deeply at odds with US cosmopolitianism and a new global world order. Yet the relationship of trust is to 'the audience' not to citizens. There seems to be no desire to exercise democratic control or increase democratic participation to ensure the flourishing of democracy.

This is a remarkable ommission because the "Revenge of the Blog" conference was under the wing of the Information Society Project (ISP) at Yale University. The project's goals are to create vibrant public and civic spaces in cyberspace, promote democratic values in the digital age, to study how new media alter culture and society and to investigate how law and technology interact. The emphasis is on blogging as creating a vibrant public sphere in cyberspace,a the expense of promoting democratic values in a digital age. The absence of any exploration of a vibrant public sphere and democracy (eg., a deliberative democracy) indicates that the watchdog connection between democracy and media (as a fourth estate) has been severed.