Sunday, August 22, 2010

Election 2010, final thoughts until the actual result

And so, after an election in which we often heard about the unfairness of a Prime Minister being chosen by backroom deals rather than the majority of the Australian people, the election itself has not produced a government chosen by a majority of the Australian people, but chosen by whoever manages to offer the sweetest deal to the independent and Green members who hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

I'm greatly tempted to just ignore all Australian political coverage for the next few days, since I can pretty much guarantee that most of it will be a lot of bluster and trash talk about why one party should gain the support of the minor members and why the other party shouldn't get it under any circumstances, with little actual substance behind them. A few final comments for this election, then, before I switch off until we actually have a result...

I can hear the echoes of British and American elections gone by in this Australian election. The UK 2010 election was described to by me as one person that it showed that the UK public wanted Labour out, but didn't want the Tories in. I think a similar result can be read here: The Australian Labor party was voted out, but the public has not voted the coalition in. I am reminded also of the pain that occurred when the split between Bush and Gore in 2000 resulted in a victory for Bush by judicial ruling, which I suspect has greatly contributed to the hyperpartisanship in that country which persists even 10 years later. I doubt the result here will be decided upon by a judge, but I suspect the process of forming a minority government will be messy enough that some people will be sore enough to consider the declared winner illegitimate.

But in any case, there is no way that the government - whoever that may be - will be able to have things all their own way the way Bush and the Republicans managed it during their run. Even if the minors in the House of Representatives don't keep the minority goverenment accountable, come July 1st 2011, the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. Issues-wise, that's probably the most interesting thing that's happened in what has been, issues-wise, an extremely uninteresting election. The implications of this have yet to be felt, by I expect them to be quite far-reaching when they finally do become clear.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The 2010 election and the illusion of reality

In this election, if there's one word that has really stood out for me in the sheer amount of its use by political parties of all types, it is this one: real.

The Liberal party slogan is "stand up for real action". In my local area, the blurb on handouts from the Greens in my area is "Let's really move Australia forward". The blurb on the flyer for sitting Labor MP for Grayndler (my electorate) is "real solutions". And of course there was the emergence of the "real Julia Gillard" a few weeks in after the Labor campaign was well under way, an open admission of the fakery that routinely goes on in election campaigns if ever there was one.

Why has the need to be "real" become so important in this election? It would be nice to think that this standing up for "real" whatchumacallits is a reaction to a public that's fed up with all the stage-managed spin and PR that is the basis of so much of what passes for political presentation these days. But it seems to me that what we're seeing in this election isn't a triumph of truth over political PR, but political PR that's trying to present itself as truth. As a very cynical aphorism puts it: "the key to success is sincerity - once you can fake that, you've got it made".

The act might be more convincing if so many of the political attacks by these clamants to truth weren't about things of highly questionable reality. Julia Gillard just claimed on ABC TV that if Abbott became Prime Minister on Sunday, WorkChoices would be back on the agenda on Monday. Um, not really: the Liberal party won't commit political suicide a second time, certainly not as quickly as within a single day, and the chance of WorkChoices-style legislation getting passed through what will probably be a hostile Senate is basically nil. Then there's the supposed "disaster" of Labor's economic record as claimed by the Liberal party, a record that's seen Australia get through a global financial crisis in a way that's the envy of the developed world. These exaggerated claims aren't the actions of people truly concerned with being "real".

So we have political parties insisting that they stand for something "real", but the behaviour suggests that this claim is just more spin. I guess that makes this the first truly post-modern election in Australia, where even trying to be real is just another illusion spun through the media. No wonder there's a feeling that this election isn't really about anything.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The origins of anti-gay sentiment in Western civilisation

A small snippet of writing by one of the earliest Christian writers suggests that many of the modern negative beliefs about homosexuality have a much older provenance than I previously realised.

This excerpt is from the writings of a man named John Chrysostom. Writing in the fourth century AD, Chrysostom reflects two of the beliefs about homosexuality that are a mainstay of anti-gay sentiment in the West even today: that only humans perform this "unnatural" behaviour, and that there is a real danger that homosexuality could realistically displace all heterosexual behaviour in the general public. From the excerpt:
A certain new and illicit love has entered our lives an ugly and incurable disease has appeared, the most severe of all plagues has been hurled down, a new and insufferable crime has been devised. Note only are the laws established [by man] overthrown but even those of nature herself. Fornication will now seem a small matter in the reckoning of sexual sins, and just as the arrival of a more burdensome pain eclipses the discomfort of an earlier one, so the extremity of this outrage [hubreos] causes lewdness with women, which had been intolerable, to seem so no longer. Indeed to be able to escape these snares [in any way] seems desirable, and there is some danger that womankind will become in the future unnecessary with young men instead fulfilling all the needs women used to..

Also of interest is the complaint from Chrysostom, also heard today, that it is the opponents of homosexuality who are the ones that are actually suffering because of the anti-gay stance they have taken:
And this is not even the worst, which is that this outrage is perpetrated with the utmost openness, and lawlessness has become law. For no one fears, no one any longer shudders. No one is ashamed, no one blushes, but, rather, they take pride in their little joke; the chaste seem to be the ones who are unbalanced, and the disapproving the ones in error. If [the chaste or disapproving] happen to be insignificant, they are beaten up; if they are powerful, they are mocked, laughed at, refuted with a thousand arguments. The courts are powerless, the laws, instructors, parents, friends, teachers all are helpless. Some are corrupted with money, and some are only out to get what they can for themselves. As for those more honorable, who have some concern for the welfare of those entrusted to them, they are easily fooled and gotten around, for they fear the power of the debauched.

The contemporary myths and lies about homosexuality that exist in Western culture are very, very old. I had no idea just how old until now.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Julia Gillard's first interview, my first impressions

So we've established that Australia's new Prime Minister is both a woman and a ginger, but might it just be possible to go a tiny bit deeper than that? Prime Minister Gillard gave her first interview on the 7:30 report last night. It's hard to get much more than stylistic impressions from these things, but two pertinent factoids did seem to stick out.

First, the style: Gillard seemed, for a politician, relatively straightforward about her answers. She didn't answer some questions but in each case that she didn't answer she made it clear that she had no intention of answering, usually saying something like "I'm not going to disclose the contents of private conversations with my work colleagues". She was also fairly forward about challenging the editorialising that from time to time came from Kerry O'Brien's questions, eg Kerry: "So after working with Kevin Rudd for so long, was it hard to stick the knife in?" Julia: "Well I certainly don't accept that characterisation of events, Kerry...". Her technique at taking questions as input and then massaging the meaning into one that offers Labour talking points like "our Government has been good for health, for education" as output, was also fairly good, without coming across too much as trying to dodge questions. Gillard talks slowly, which could get slightly annoying over the long term

More substantively, the new PM flat out stated "there will be an election this year". So the government will be calling an election before they would be required to in March/April next year.

The second more substantive point is on refugee policy. Gillard sort of danced around the question, stating that "Australians want to ensure that the borders of this country are well-managed", without actually ever stating what "managing" the borders effectively would entail in her government. She also stated something along the lines of "I understand that the Australian people are anxious to know that the country's borders are being managed, but it's irresponsible for the Opposition to increase those anxieties for political gain".

She didn't exactly accuse Tony Abbott of fear-mongering on the issue, since that would entail the politically risky move of claiming that the fears Abbott is tapping into are groundless, and no voter wants to hear that their concerns are not taken seriously. She doesn't like the politics of fear on boat people, though. Gillard seems to be walking a fine line here, and my initial impression is this is the thing most likely to give her the most trouble the soonest.

I haven't checked the headlines today to see what else has happened, so this is just my initial impression based on a first look at our new Prime Minister in a press environment. I'm sure impressions will change at a fairly quick pace, how ever they may do so.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The value of privacy

I've been reading a book by Daniel J Solove called "The Future of Reputation: gossip, rumor and privacy on the Internet". With the privacy concerns around Facebook now making mainstream news, it's interesting to take stock of just what it is that makes privacy important. Solove has helped clarify that for me.

I would put it like this: privacy is an acknowledgement that humanity - both individuals and society - is imperfect in many ways, and it is a means by which people can cope with that imperfection.

Privacy enables people to hide character defects from others. This sounds like something that shouldn't be done, but it's actually necessary to some degree if we're ever going to make friends with anyone. As Solove says (p66-67): "When intimate personal information circulates among a small group of people who know us well, its significance can be weighed against other aspects of our personality and character. By contrast, when intimate information is removed from its original context and revealed to strangers, we are vulnerable to being misjudged on the basis of our most, embarrassing, and therefore most memorable, tastes and preferences". Privacy prevents us from being judged by people unfamiliar with us solely on the basis of our sensationalistic flaws.

Even if people have perfect information about us, this is no guarantee that their judgements will be fair or accurate. People are irrational beings, by and large, and privacy enables people to hide information about themselves that might lead to stereotyping and prejudice - sexuality and mental illness are some historical examples. Even in cases where a judgement might be accurate - employers discovering if a potential employee has a greater predilection to a fatal illness like cancer is the example Solove gives (p71) - then it's still possible to view this judgement as unfair. Is it fair to deny employment to an individual because they're statistically more likely to get cancer? Should disclosure of such medical information be protected by law? I suspect that in many if not most cases it already is.

Privacy permits violation of social norms. Again, this sounds bad but isn't necessarily so. It is an acknowledgement that there can be conflict between what society demands of an individual and what an individual desires for themself, and a recognition that sometimes the desires of the individual should take precedence. Solove puts it thus (p72): "Most of us desire a limited realm where we might have reprieve from the judgment of others, which otherwise might become suffocating".

Finally privacy helps us to overcome our individual imperfections and grow as human beings. It does this firstly by providing the opportunity to hide our pasts, giving us the opportunity to break free of them, in essence letting us have a second chance at life. Solove again (p73): "Protection against disclosure permits room to change, to define oneself and one's future without becoming 'a prisoner of one's recorded past'".

It does this secondly through group privacy, or the opportunity to have different identities among different people. This is not dishonest, but simply an acknowledgement of the complexity of human beings, that "when you play various roles you're not being artificial or phony. These roles let you accentuate different aspects of yourself" (Arnold Lugwig quoted in Solove, p69). This roleplay enables personal growth, because "people even play roles in which they seem improperly cast, hoping to grow into the part. One plays a role until it fits, becoming transformed in the process." (Solove, p68) This is not possible without privacy.

It would be very easy to go through this list and point out instances where privacy should not apply, and Solove recognises as much, explicitly calling for a balance between the benefits of privacy and the benefits that disclosure of information about others can bring. But in a time when it's not uncommon to hear the claim that privacy is dead, I want to point out just what is being lost if privacy is lost altogether, and question whether our society, and the people within it, can cope.

Is there any society in which nobody has any imperfections that they legitimately do not want disclosed to others? In which nobody ever judges anybody else in a way that is unfair or inaccurate? In which people never have any need to violate the existing norms of society in even the mildest, slightest way? In which nobody ever needs to develop themselves personally beyond the labels already placed upon them by the society around them? I don't think there is. And I don't think there ever will be.

As long as humanity is imperfect, we will need something that performs the functions that privacy currently performs. If we are indeed losing our privacy, then we need to do one of two things. We need to come up with something that currently does for us what privacy had done for us in previous years, and fast. Or else we need to get our privacy back. And fast.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Nick Minchin on tobacco addiction, 1995

It came up on the ABC show Qanda tonight that Senator Nick Minchin (he of the "climate change is a left-wing anti-industry beat-up" view) allegedly claimed in a government report that cigarette smoking was not addictive and that passive smoking was not real. Minchin claimed on Qanda that his statements were taken out of context, and that this was part of a larger argument that people should be free to smoke or not smoke as they see fit, without government interference.

The report in question wasn't hard to find: The Tobacco Industry and the Costs of Tobacco-Related Illness. A final section starting on page 119 entitled "Dissenting report by Senators Nick Minchin and Sue Knowles" does express a lot of disagreement with regulatory proposals out of a desire to see less government interference in general life. However, a comment on page 120 by Nick Minchin (and it is explicitly made clear that this opinion is only the opinion of Nick Minchin alone) reads as follows:
Senator Minchin wishes to record his dissent from the Committee's statements that it believes cigarettes are addictive (1.25) and that passive smoking causes a number of adverse health effects for non-smokers (1.34).

So....not a denial, but it seems to me a response of "not all the evidence is in yet" on the issue. I wonder if he still feels that way?

The dissent goes on:
The Committee's terms of reference did not ask it to reach conclusions on these controversial issues, and nor was sufficient evidence from both sides of the argument brought to bear. These are medical conclusions which it is inappropriate for this Senate Committee of inquiry to reach.

Senator Minchin briefly referred to this part in his Qanda reply when he claimed that his comments on smoking should be disregarded because the Senate Committee wasn't convened to address medical issues. This seems like a half-truth: to my eye, it's only the dissenters Minchin and Knowles who took issue with the scope of the Senate report's medically-informed decisions, specifically because they didn't believe that there was sufficient medical evidence of the reality of nicotine addiction and passive smoking. In 1995.

This might be worth keeping in mind when Senator Minchin makes claims about the supposed unreliability of current climate science on the question of anthropogenic global warming.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Conroy not going to budge

Say what you like about Senator Conroy (and believe me I do), I've got to admire sheer testicular fortitude when I see it. He's refusing to back down from even the toughest opponents of his censorship scheme, including opponents as powerful US government and Google. From those articles, it looks like Conroy's gone on the attack for Google but isn't saying anything about the US government just yet. I wonder if he will?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Earth Hour: how about some REAL commitment?

Earth Hour is the annual event in which people are encouraged to switch off their lights for one hour of one day of the year. It is described by the organisers as "a global call to action to every individual, every business and every community throughout the world. It is a call to stand up, to take responsibility, to get involved and lead the way towards a sustainable future."

The event receives criticism. One is that it doesn't actually save any energy at all for that hour. The response from organisers in the linked news article to this criticism was that "Earth Hour is not about saving energy, it’s a positive inspiring event that will show the level of public concern about climate change". Earth Hour is, apparently,"an opportunity for people to show that they care about climate change and want global leaders to take action". It's an awareness-raising exercise, in other words.

I don't think it's effective. For one, we're well past the stage of needing awareness-raising for the general public. The issue of climate change is almost impossible to avoid in any form of media. Perhaps the "awareness-raising" is aimed at leaders, making them aware of a constituency that wants the issue addressed, and not a general message to the public. But if so, I think it fails.

Turning lights off for one hour of one year tells leaders that people want something done? Yes. It tells them that people are willing to accept what those leaders actually need to do? No, I don't think it does. It just tells them that people are willing to engage in a very temporary and very tiny inconvenience that's then conveniently discarded for the other 364 days of the year.

Facing climate change requires long-term commitment, and it requires sacrifice. None of those values are truly on display in Earth Hour. The symbolic message being sent to leaders, from where I'm sitting, is "we care, but we expect you to fix the problem, without inconveniencing us more than we want to be". A politician can easily exploit such a sentiment to ensure nothing gets done. Thus we have situations such as that in Australia, where the Opposition opposes a cap-and-trade scheme by basically saying "sure climate change is an issue, but this particular approach costs too much". It doesn't take much to figure out that any approach can be said by opponents to "cost too much", because any approach is going to cost.

I don't object to symbolism, nor do I object to trying to send a message to leaders. I do object to what I think is the message being sent by the fairly lacklustre effort required to implement Earth Hour for one day a year. If proponents of this approach truly want to demonstrate a commitment, they need to get people on board for more than one hour a day. Maybe they could convince people to engage in this hour a day for a month at a time? Six months? A year?

Would it be possible to get all the people, governments and countries, all so allegedly determined to see leaders do what needs to be done to combat climate change, to do engage in an ongoing "Earth Hour" every day for more than a week?

Whatever the answer, the extent to which such an event could be sustained beyond just one day would to me demonstrate just how committed people really are to making the commitment and sacrifice needed to address and adjust to climate change. And I fear the real answer to the question exposed by such a demand would "not very committed at all".

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

India and Australia, racist attacks or moral panic?

The paper ran a cartoon depicting an Australian policeman wearing a pointed white hood associated with the US racist group the Ku Klux Klan. The officer was shown saying "We are yet to ascertain the nature of the crime."

That was, apparently, the actions of a newspaper in India called the Mail Today, in response to the murder of 21-year-old Indian student Nitin Garg. When I found the site of the Mail Today to check, the first thing I'm greeted with is a pop-up asking for my feedback in response to the question "SHOULD INDIA PURSUE THE MATTER OF AUSTRALIAN RACISM IN AN INTERNATIONAL COURT?"

It worries me that the single biggest source of the claim of a dramatic increase in racist attacks against Indian people in Australia appears to be the sensationalist media, and that the same media is making calls for special action to address the claimed problem. I'm currently trawling for actual statistics of crimes, but in the absence of reliable, verifiable statistics demonstrating an upsurge in demonstrably racist violence against Indian people, and with the role that the media is playing right now, I have to wonder: is this a moral panic? Is "racist Australia" here playing the role of a folk devil perceived as threatening the virtuous and vulnerable youth of India?

I have found one claim of of a clear and dramatic increase of attacks against Indian students as reported in the Indian media: both the Mail Today and the Siasat Times claim that a "government report tabled in parliament" said that "The number of Indians attacked in Australia in 2008 was 17. In 2009, 94 Indians were attacked till November 20. A total of 100 attacks on Indians, including students, have been reported in Australia during last year". If true, that would be an extraordinary upswing.

Unfortunately I don't know what this report actually is, or how these claimed statistics were compiled. I would need that information, I think, before I could accept the figure as accurate. So....moral panic or genuine upsurge in racist violence that specifically targets Indian people? I'm not really sure at this point, although I do find it odd that Indian people, and only Indian people, would be experiencing such an upsurge. I think that believing such a situation to be possible gives Australian racism far too much credit - it's far too broad to expect it to be targeted solely at one non-white group.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The parenthood of Janet Miller-Jenkins

A case between two lesbians (one of whom now claims to be ex-gay) in America has been at the periphery of my attention the past couple of months.

I don't have time to get all the links together right now, but here's the situation as I understand it: Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins got a civil union in Vermont. While living in Virginia, they had a child together, with Lisa conceiving through artificial insemination from an anonymous donor. Sometime later they separated. Under the terms of the dissolution of the civil union filed in Vermont by Lisa, Lisa would have custody of the child and Janet would have visitation rights. This did not happen, with Janet being refused visitation by Lisa after just one visit. Lisa then filed a new petition in Virginia requesting that the Virginia (not Vermont) court system grant Lisa exclusive access to the child, and deny any visitation rights to Janet, on the basis that same-sex marriage was illegal in Virginia, and that Janet was not really the child's parent (this in spite of the fact that the Vermont family court had ruled that she was).

The upshot: a 2006 Vermont Supreme Court ruling claiming that Vermont had exclusive jurisdiction over the issue, based on a law called (I think) the Parent Kidnapping Protection Act which explicitly prevented attempts at "jurisdiction shopping" in child custody disputes. In 2008, the Virginia Supreme Court also ruled that it was Vermont, not Virginia, that had jurisdiction. Finally, on November 20, the original Vermont judge that awarded custody to Lisa found Lisa in contempt of court and switched custody to Janet on the basis that this was the only way to ensure equal access to the child. Upon expiration of the time allotted for Lisa to give up the child, both Lisa and child vanished without trace.

Anti-gay arguments in support of Lisa's decision to go on the lam place much focus on the claim that, as biological parent, Lisa's needs should take precedence no matter what the law says. In the more extreme version of the argument, giving the child over to Janet is described by anti-gays as equivalent to forcing a mother to give her child over to the milkman.

So, I've found the 2006 Vermont Supreme Court ruling online, available here. The relevant section on the question of parenthoood, and why Janet Jenkins has it, is in paragraphs 56 to 58:
56.  Many factors are present here that support a conclusion that
Janet is a parent, including, first and foremost, that Janet and Lisa were
in a valid legal union at the time of the child's birth. The other factors
include the following. It was the expectation and intent of both Lisa and
Janet that Janet would be IMJ's parent. Janet participated in the decision
that Lisa would be artificially inseminated to bear a child and
participated actively in the prenatal care and birth. Both Lisa and Janet
treated Janet as IMJ's parent during the time they resided together, and
Lisa identified Janet as a parent of IMJ in the dissolution petition.
Finally, there is no other claimant to the status of parent, and, as a
result, a negative decision would leave IMJ with only one parent. The
sperm donor was anonymous and is making no claim to be IMJ's parent. If
Janet had been Lisa's husband, these factors would make Janet the parent of
the child born from the artificial insemination. See generally People v.
Sorensen, 437 P.2d 495 (Cal. 1968). Because of the equality of treatment
of partners in civil unions, the same result applies to Lisa. 15 V.S.A. §

¶ 57. Virtually all modern decisions from other jurisdictions
support this result, although the theories vary. See e.g., Brown v. Brown,
125 S.W.3d 840, 844 (Ark. Ct. App. 2003) (husband estopped from denying
child support where husband knew wife was using artificial insemination to
have child); Sorensen, 437 P.2d at 498-500 (Cal. 1968) (husband is lawful
father of child conceived through artificial insemination born during
marriage to child's mother); In re Buzzanca, 72 Cal. Rptr. 2d 280, 286-87
(Ct. App. 1998) (finding virtually all decisions hold husband to be parent
based on his consent to artificial insemination); In re M.J., 787 N.E.2d at
152 (mother of children conceived through artificial insemination may seek
to establish paternity of man with whom she had ten-year intimate
relationship based on theories of "oral contract or promissory estoppel");
Levin v. Levin, 645 N.E.2d 601, 604-05 (Ind. 1994) (husband who orally
consented to artificial insemination of wife estopped from denying
fatherhood of child); R.S. v. R.S., 670 P.2d 923, 929 (Kan. Ct. App. 1983)
(husband who orally consented to artificial insemination of wife estopped
from denying fatherhood); State ex. rel. H. v. P., 457 N.Y.S.2d 488, 492
(App. Div. 1982) (wife estopped from denying husband's paternity where she
fostered parent-child relationship); Brooks v. Fair, 532 N.E.2d 208, 212-13
(Ohio Ct. App. 1988) (public policy disallows wife from denying paternity
of husband where parties agreed during marriage to conceive via means of
artificial insemination); In re Baby Doe, 353 S.E.2d 877, 878 (S.C. 1987)
(husband is legal father of child where he consented to artificial
insemination of wife during marriage); see generally A. Stephens,
Annotation, Parental Rights of Man Who Is Not Biological or Adoptive Father
of Child But Was Husband or Cohabitant of Mother When Child Was Conceived
or Born, 84 A.L.R.4th 655 (1991). Some courts find the party a parent as a
result of contract theory or estoppel. E.g., R.S., 670 P.2d at 928.
Estoppel is often invoked because of the strong reliance interests that
arise from consensual artificial insemination. Other courts reach the
result more as a matter of policy, particularly stressing the adverse
consequences of leaving the child without a parent despite the clear
intention of the parties. E.g., Brooks, 532 N.E.2d at 212-13. We adopt
the result in this case as a matter of policy, and to implement the intent
of the parties.

¶ 58. This is not a close case under the precedents from other
states. Because so many factors are present in this case that allow us to
hold that the non-biologically-related partner is the child's parent, we
need not address which factors may be dispositive on the issue in a closer
case. We do note that, in accordance with the common law, the couple's
legal union at the time of the child's birth is extremely persuasive
evidence of joint parentage. See People ex. rel. R.T.L., 780 P.2d 508, 515
n.11 (Colo. 1989) ("We acknowledge that the presumption that a child born
during wedlock is the legitimate child of the marriage was one of the
strongest presumptions known to the common law."); Cicero v. Cicero, 395
N.Y.S.2d 117, 117 (App. Div. 1977) (presumption of legitimacy attached to
"issue of the marriage"); LC v. TL, 870 P.2d 374, 380 (Wyo. 1994) ("The
presumption of legitimacy is one of the strongest in the law."); see also
Godin, 168 Vt. at 522, 725 A.2d at 910 ("Thus, the State retains a strong
and direct interest in ensuring that children born of a marriage do not
suffer financially or psychologically merely because of a parent's belated
and self serving concern over a child's biological origins.").

Needs to be summarised for the attention-addled, obviously, but that's the argument. Unsurprisingly, most people that take Lisa's side in this dispute haven't even glanced at it.