Premonitions on the Upcoming NSW Labor State Conference

Several hundred metres down from the Sanctuary Hotel, that favoured watering hole of UNSW Commerce students, about 200 men and women sat in front of two projector screens in a basement.

The Labor Centre-Unity Caucus took place today, in an auditorium beneath the Trades Hall building off Sussex St in the Sydney CBD. (Facebook event) It was a gathering of the Right faction of the New South Wales Labor Party, to identify areas of contention to their delegates before their show of scripted unity before the cameras at the State Conference tomorrow. I am told these faction meetings take place regularly – but I wouldn’t know.

Addressing the crowd, the party Secretary and Great and Venerable Ruler Of All Things, Kaila Murnain, joked, “the left have so thoroughly abandoned the ideological debate that they are arguing whether the best lattes are in Surry Hills or Newtown”. That contempt, I think, encapsulates the relationship between the factions in the Australian Labor Party. Also present on the table facing the crowd was Wayne Swan, recently elected as the Right faction’s preferred candidate for party President following his departure from federal politics. Such senior figures as the Bob Carr and Tony Burke had suited up for the occasion, and were having furtive conversations on the sidelines. No doubt there were numerous state MPs, councillors and union representatives also in attendance – I spotted Jihad Dib, but I’m not yet in a position to recognise all the warriors by their faces.

That morning, the federal finance team – Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers – had fronted the media in a park in Perth to announce a critical policy backdown. The Labor Party would no longer reverse company tax cuts for companies with a turnover between $10 million and $50 million, as Shorten had promised a week earlier. A few weeks earlier, Anthony Albanese (a stalwart of the Left) had made a speech that seemed to criticise Shorten’s approach on businesses. Addressing the crowd, Tony Burke said the media would be looking for signs of disunity and conflict, and that “we need to shut that down, we need absolutely to shut that down.” He flagged that the Left faction would attempt to bring an urgency motion on requiring Parliamentary approval for declarations of war, as is required in the US and the UK. Whilst acknowledging the policy debate that individuals in the Right were having on this issue, Burke pronounced nonetheless, “this is not the weekend to engage in that particular indulgence”.

In their totality, the policy suggestions debated at Labor Conferences sound like a wish-list of the UNSW Law Faculty. In drug reform, the Left will push pill testing and safe injecting rooms – two points on which the Right say they are still waiting for evidence, including the results of a review into pill testing at the Groove in the Moo festival in the ACT. Why, then, weren’t these professors – Luke McNamara, and so on – at the caucus? And where were all the thousands of politically engaged young people who place their stock in identity politics and social liberalism? Indeed, what about all those people in that hotel up the street? The lawmaker in this country is neither the Australian Law Reform Commission, nor the vicissitudes of social media. It is the Parliament.

bob carr book

Carr was there to flog his new memoir, ‘Run for Your Life’. $35 for a signed 300-page book – and all copies were gone by the end of the evening. I admit was surprised to see, at this Machiavellian caucus filled with red Centre-Unity banners and balloons, that pale blue UNHCR tablecloth at the door. If I had had more presence of mind, if I had been braver, I would thought to take a photograph. It turns out that the iconography was there because Carr will be donating all his author proceeds to children victims of the Syrian Civil War, through the charity ‘Australia for UNHCR’. Carr said to me that he chose that charity, over UNICEF, because Australia for UNHCR delineated concrete actions to which the funding would contribute. I hear he’ll be doing another book launch of the University of Sydney in early August.

I’ll have to end it there, it’s 11:30pm; I’m to be at Sydney Town hall at 6am to help with setting up for the conference. I confess I’m still working through what it means for something to be off-the-record. I haven’t yet figured out what information, gleaned from conversation, is admissible, and what will turn a rickety wooden bridge into a matchstick inferno. Funny, isn’t it, how Bob Carr can write about how Paul Keating once said to him, “Listen, Robbie, journalism is a rat-shit profession. You’ll be coming down here, feeding off the Labor Party, all your sources will be in the Labor Party, you’ll have none in the Coalition.” (p. 35) Apparently, Carr also made a stir by revealing Malcolm Turnbull’s desire to become the Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union!

But, as ever, I haven’t read up to that bit yet.

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An Update: Words Are Cheap

Computer Keyboard Keyboard Laptop Keys Notebook

I miss writing. I’ve suddenly looked back and realised that I haven’t touched this blog in five and a half months. To be fair, they were productive months. I’ve learned how to do admin for university societies, organise events, use Adobe InDesign and put together websites. I feel like I’ve been at capacity for at least the past two months – my sleep cycle pushed to its limit, enough sacrifices made. The trouble has been that a lot of my thinking relating to this has been utterly unshareable. I’ll write down my own notes and reflections to make sense of what is going on, but that material can’t come out here. It wouldn’t be possible to remove identifying details from the hundreds and thousands of words of raw reflection.

But the thing is, not everyone sees the world this way. Not everyone is so cautious; I’ve wrapped myself in a kind of online introversion. It seems that the favoured approach among the rising stars is to write quickly, efficiently and carelessly. For trendy entrepreneurs writing in business media, this is an application of the Pareto Principle – the idea that 20% of the work will produce 80% of the results. Elsewhere, the internet personality Hank Green has described only fulfilling 80% of any creative vision as “the secret to [his] productivity”.

I need to blog more, and I’ve got a model for it in an affair that has been one of the sources of my sleep deprivation, and that I’m all too eager to put to bed. After seeing the opening night of one of the university revues, the editor of the student magazine self-published an article on the magazine’s website putting forth his opinion that the revue contained racist jokes. I’ve thought about this episode from a dozen different angles, and for quite some time. Relevantly for present purposes, the article was sloppily written. It was needlessly emotive. It contained unjustifiable assertions that had a tendency to mislead. I honestly believe that, if it came to it, the article would not survive a libel suit. In other words, it encapsulated all the marvellous characteristics of professional journalism expounded by our friends at the Daily Mail. Jokes aside, this careless churning is a frequently-used style with merits that I do need to learn if an article is to appear on this blog more than biannually.

In online writing, it is depressingly easy to throw firecrackers and then waltz away as the forest burns.

At the time, I could have torn apart the article with an extensive comment on the Facebook post. It was one article written by one person – anyone could have easily countered it with the same. But I remained silent as the story spread, both because I didn’t want to rock the boat and because, having twice written for the magazine and being privy to its circulation troubles, I truly didn’t think the article would get very far. And now I’ll have to fight on this front for years to come. To be fair, it’s a battle I’ll be fighting anyway, because this debate around identity politics and policing speech fascinates me. This question, of the relative importance of identity politics in our common life, is the single issue that delineates the political divides on the Left in this country. The atheist communities that I identify with have spent a long time in this war. But I will always regret not shutting the article down at the source. In online writing, it is depressingly easy to throw firecrackers and then waltz away as the forest burns. But inaction in the face of the firestorm is even less forgivable.

I’m still looking to go into journalism, and I still don’t know how to. I originally chose International Studies because, as a bright-eyed first year attending Open Day information sessions, I was concerned what I perceived as a lack of rigour in the UNSW Media courses. I’ve just had another look at the course content, now that I know how to read the handbook, and I maintain my belief that the courses can be divided into either writing skills (which can be developed elsewhere) or the theory of interactions between media content producers and audiences (a narrow and rarefied academic field of study).

But I don’t know where the interviewing experience integral to the profession might come from, nor from which demonic pit stories flow. I know that data journalism exists, that universities put out media releases, and that police and government departments probably do too. And of course the tabloids love to trawl social media for stories. But for the life of me, I can’t understand how Kate McClymont gets her leads. This isn’t even about having connections – her reporting on Eddie Obeid and Ron Medich borders on police detective work. I suppose tip-offs must become a source of information once a journalist becomes prominent enough to be player in the public arena. Journalists, much like the electorate offices of Members of Parliament, are the final point of call for citizens in need.

And there we are. I intended for this to be a short 10-minute update, and I’ve gone and poured my heart out. Whoops.

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”.

The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature

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.)