Letter to a prospective International Studies student

Dear prospective International Studies student,

First up, I want to be clear that you will have an amazing time. You will be exposed to innumerable opportunities, you need only reach out and grasp them. I’ve learned to sing, dance, and act (with varying success) in UNSW’s Law Revue. I’ve played Barnaby Joyce on stage, then met him in person during a federal by-election campaign. I’ve learned about the Yemen conflict from a UNSW academic one night, then watched him on TV analysing the Syrian Civil War for the ABC the next. I’ve debated in the Moot Court in the Law Building and in the Legislative Assembly on Macquarie St. No doubt your journey will differ, but these are the kinds of things you will get to do; the stars really are closer than you think.

But there is an immense pachyderm in the lecture hall, whose presence we may neglect no longer. One of the first things you will notice when you enter your first Arts lecture is how Marxist the place is. Feminists and post-colonialists are everywhere. Everyone likes to criticise capitalism. Objective truth is a thing of the (pre-1989) past, which may come as a surprise if you have just come out of a Physics exam.

In high school, I despised the way that English teachers would seek “sophistication” in essays, as if obfuscation were a skill in itself. But I also wasn’t very good at maths. I care about the ramifications of ideas; I’m a Peter Singer fan. That’s where I’m coming from; to use the Arts jargon, this set of biases is my ‘positionality’ that can be ‘problematised’, or observed ‘critically’. Since starting my degree in February, it took me eight months to come to the following conclusion:

The reason why academics in the social sciences love to reject objective truth and undermine the mainstream is because they were bad at maths tests when they were 17.

Few scholars in the social sciences openly identify with classical theories of neoliberalism and economic growth. In the social sciences, it’s cool to be critical. It’s cool to use hesitant formulations like “I identify most strongly with…”. But then again, declaring openly that you are a realist is like declaring that you are an atheist or a Muslim. Someone has chalked an outline of a man on the ground, and you have chosen to go along and lie in it.

But there are some people out there who have real work to do, and are happy to lie in the chalk outline to resolve the preliminary questions quickly. There is a group of neoliberals at UNSW, maintaining the assumptions of economic growth as development, working to deepen theoretical and empirical understandings of the field. They are called Commerce lecturers.

It all comes back to the humanities/sciences divide. It begins in high school, when students decide which subjects they want to study. This is the heart of the divide between conservatives and progressives, between objectivity and post-positivism, between economists and anthropologists. Academic disciplines themselves are not value-neutral: the demands of economics render the field more amenable to universal proclamations, whereas the demands of anthropology invite cultural relativism.

Academic disciplines are bell curves gradually moving further apart from one another. They have branched off into different directions, determined by the questions they ask about human behaviour. If, when you enter university, you feel that the dominant paradigms in the discipline you enter differ from the orthodoxy you have known in broader society (for instance, from print media and government policy), you are probably correct. The centre of the bell curve of Development Studies, for instance, lies to the left of the bell curve of the dataset containing every discipline.

Additionally, there is indeed a school of classical liberal thinkers (my own crowd) out there. Steven Pinker, a linguist and psychologist, is one. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher, is another. So is Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist. But notice how these disciplines are all peripheral to core Arts interests like Development Studies or International Relations. And there is a backlash: in a 2015 response to Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the political philosopher John Gray condemns (apparently without irony) “the sorcery of numbers”.


Gray has written an impressive summary of Pinker’s ideas – that is, the presentation of statistics showing a decline in violence, along with arguments for state power and Enlightenment rationality as the causes. In that respect alone, I would recommend the article. But Gray’s contempt for statistics reveals how blinkered his Arts worldview is, as does the refrain “I never was good at maths” of each person whose lips it has ever escaped.

We need interdisciplinarity, not merely in the sense of sharing knowledge between Sociology and Anthropology, or between Politics and International Relations, but in a far more fundamental sense. We need to knock down the partitions that have calcified in the minds of people who upon leaving high school breathed a sigh of relief at never having to do Maths (or English) ever again. Because this partition is not merely one of childhood aptitude or interest. It has political consequences, and it is a contributing factor to why political partisans seem no longer able to understand each other in our divided age.

Lawyers should learn how to code. Social scientists need to learn to do maths. And yes, economists will learn something from reading the voluminous body of critique that Development Studies has heaped on them.

All the best,

A soon-to-be second-year UNSW International Studies student.


Flinders Street attack: what on earth is the Sydney Morning Herald up to?

At 9:19 am on 22 December, John Silvester penned an article for the Sydney Morning Herald entitled, ‘This was an act of terror – designed to kill, disrupt, and create mass panic‘. The sense of the article was the opposite of the headline’s implication. In the body of the article, Silvester distinguishes between ‘terror’ (fear on the streets) and ‘terrorism’ (political violence). The former is often used as shorthand for the latter, enabling the Herald’s spicy headline.

For the record, I liked the article. It was a nuanced take on the strength of the silent understandings that make civic life possible. But this was a controversial opinion: the Facebook comments contained a barrage of hate at the premature use of the word ‘terror’. This was a sociologist’s goldmine – by merely looking at the comments, you could tell the Facebook users who had read the article and picked up on the terror/terrorism pun, from those who had not.

But at 4:13 pm today Silvester struck back with an article entitled, ‘My comments on the Flinders Street attack managed to offend those of left and right‘. Right now (midnight of 23-24 December), this is the most popular article on the Herald’s website, with 463 people currently reading it. Silvester parodies the snark of social media in a manner that might be generously termed bizarre: he dishes out insults like ‘even as a smart arse with a tin ear you got it wrong’. But the intent (if not the delivery) of the article seems reverent, and Silvester rightly pays respect to the off-duty police sergeant whose bravery prevented further harm.

So imagine my surprise when I looked back at Silvester’s article, and found that all the heartwarming references to civic strength had disappeared. The article that Silvester was defending was not the one he had originally written. Somewhere in the interim, the historical record had been manipulated, with no mention of these changes in the original article or in Silvester’s response.

John Silvester_internet archive 22-12-17

This is the original article. John Silvester, ‘This was an act of terror – designed to kill, disrupt, and create mass panic’, Sydney Morning Herald [online] (at 22 December, retrieved through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine), images removed, differences highlighted. Link.

John Silvester_SMH 23-12-17

This is the article as it appeared when Silvester’s response was published. John Silvester, ‘This was an act of terror – designed to kill, disrupt, and create mass panic’, Sydney Morning Herald [online] (retrieved 23 December), images removed, differences highlighted. Link.

The differences between the two articles are highlighted in yellow. While some of the changes seem to be editing for style, substantial alterations have been made. The passages praising civic strength and slamming Noori’s ‘mediocrity’ have been replaced with anecdotes about preventing jaywalking through visible police presence.

Numerous assertions have been deleted – that police said the act was ‘not terror-related’, that police said Noori had a ‘history of violence’, that Critical Incident Response Team police were ‘at the scene within seconds’. A mental health note has been inserted. Generally the tone is far more cautious, with the removal of references to Noori’s ‘bizarre fantasies and the alleged poor treatment of Muslims’.

If not for the surreptitiousness of the alterations, this saga may have just been a few honest fact-checking mistakes on Silvester’s part. Granted, these consecutive deletions contradict Silvester’s contention that ‘I wrote what I thought was a perfectly reasonable report on the events at Flinders Street’. Yet not only has the Sydney Morning Herald published his defensive response, they have also attempted to rewrite history.

In broad terms, Silvester has produced a valuable argument for what holds our society together, in spite of the ill-advised headline for the social media age. But that the author may have received a stern dressing-down from the police media unit or from Fairfax’s in-house lawyers does not excuse the secret alteration of the public record. Ah, there are times when I wish that Media Watch weren’t on their Christmas break. (Incidentally, if you’re reading this, consider this a tip-off.)


Meditating on Meditation

The point of meditation is to notice the state of being lost in thought, a state in which we are perpetually trapped. You close your eyes and sit comfortably, you focus on your breath and notice how your legs feel against the ground. When a thought comes by, instead of grasping it as you normally would, you observe it, and then gently push it away. If you are lucky or experienced, you will be able to escape this state for a few moments – or so the experts say. But the entire premise here is not to think.

Remarkable, then, that the word ‘meditate’ has traditionally meant the opposite – to think. One might, for example, meditate on a mathematical problem in order to solve it. The (apocryphal?) stories of Archimedes in his bath and Isaac Newton beneath his apple tree spring up, along with the image of Sherlock Holmes in his deerstalker hat, smoking opium. Continue reading

Review: If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, by Jackie French

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

Full disclosure: I didn’t read every word of this book. If Blood Should Stain the Wattle is a 537-page tome, and the sixth book in a series of such tomes – Jackie French’s Matilda Saga. French re-imagines the history of Australia through the eyes of generations of women, from the oft-forgotten 1891 shearer’s strike on which Banjo Paterson’s song Waltzing Matilda was based, through all of the iconography and landmark events that have made Australia the country it is today. She takes a few liberties with the facts behind these myths, conceiving of Matilda as a child from the city in 1894 in her first book A Waltz for Matilda, now a 90-year-old woman directing affairs in Gibber’s Creek. Continue reading