Thursday, October 13, 2005

Adams/Orwell fallout

Well, my post on Harry’s blog of my Adams/Orwell satire (see also my earlier post on this) seems to have struck a chord, albeit a dissonant one. It drew the following comment:

Damn right you should apologise to him [Orwell].

Dumb arse.

Comparing an economic liberal to a ficticious [sic] stalinistic socialist...

Posted by: Cory, Olsen - October 12, 2005 at 17:35

Wow! It wasn’t my conscious intention to compare or equate our Prime Minister Howard with Stalin, but rather to satirise the epiphany and entry into Grace of the hitherto notoriously anti-Howard Adams. However, I guess it’s quite possible that my choice of literary metaphor was somewhat influenced by my deeply held Howard-scepticism.

But, hang on! I was as sceptical towards Mr Howard’s predecessors – Keating, Hawke, Fraser. (I had no opinion on Whitlam or his predecessors, as I was an apolitical teen/preteen during that period.) Well, almost as sceptical but not quite, admittedly, however my particular assessment of the Howard Government’s performance is underpinned by reasons I’ll openly defend.

Aren’t I entitled to “an opinion”, just as Cory comma Olsen is entitled to his reverence for his alpha “economic liberal”? Isn’t it in the so-called Aussie “larrikin” tradition to be sceptical of authority? Why should Howard be any different? Who conferred his halo of inviolability?

And why is it that the merest whiff of criticism of the man draws fire such as the spray from Mr comma Olsen?

It seems that the more elections Mr Howard wins, and the more he consolidates his ascendancy (the Senate being now virtually his), the more shrill and paranoid become his defenders. Curious!

Anyway, I posted a brief response to Mr comma Olsen:

Touchy! Actually I was satirising Adams’ epiphany.

Dumb arse.

Posted by: Jacob A. Stam - October 12, 2005 at 18:07

I do regret calling Mr comma Olsen a “dumb arse” (however I do applaud his good Aussie spelling of the epithet). Having descended to that level, I felt soiled and in want of a piping hot shower. Blog rage is an insidious phenomenon.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Calling for war is an easy option, too

Bugger them then... I submitted the following as a letter to the editor of The Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia) in response to an article by Pamela Bone on October 5, headed “Calling for peace is the easy option”. Well, okay, maybe there were other responses to Ms Bone's piece that had merit. And, sure, it’s possible those responses were more meritorious than my effort. But bugger them, I’ll post it here anyway. That’s one of the empowering aspects of blogging (even if no-one ever actually reads the thing). By the way, I have enormous respect for Ms Bone, despite differences with her on this and other matters.

The anti-war left has not explained how tyrants should be stopped, writes Pamela Bone. Rather, it may be that war proponents on the left and right have failed to convincingly explain why this war should have been prosecuted at all.

Francis Fukuyama wrote recently that, rather than pursue war, the US “could instead have chosen to create a true alliance of democracies to fight illiberal currents coming out of the Middle East. It could also have tightened economic sanctions and secured the return of arms inspectors to Iraq without going to war. It could have had a go at a new international regime to battle proliferation. All of these paths would have been in keeping with American foreign policy traditions.”

Thus Fukuyama hints at a spectrum of alternatives to a bloody and wasteful war that, one can only suspect, were not pursued because the decision had been made to assert US supremacy and credibility – sadly through the usual means by which a mafia don asserts his credibility.

Pursuing strategies such as those sketched by Fukuyama likely would not have delivered an ideal outcome. But has the war option? “You can only hold your breath and hope,” Ms Bone concludes. For what it’s worth, I will hope along with Ms Bone and everyone. But what a predictably pathetic outcome for such a savage, blunt instrument, whose legacy of trauma and animosities may be generational.

Applied Herme-what?

Hermeneutics is the science or art of interpretation. It occurred to me that this is a suitably open-ended concept to use in a name for an open-ended blog such as this.

her·me·neu·tics \-tiks\ n pl but sing or pl in constr (1737) : the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)
- Webster’s Dictionary.

hermeneutics [n] the science of searching for hidden meaning in texts; exegetics, exploration, interpretation, investigation, literary criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, revealing, unmasking
- Roget’s Thesaurus.

Philosophical tradition concerned with the nature of understanding and interpretation of human behaviour and social traditions. From its origins in problems of biblical interpretation, hermeneutics has expanded to cover many fields of enquiry, including aesthetics, literary theory, and science. The German philosophers Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer were influential contributors to this tradition.
- Hutchinson’s Multimedia Encyclopedia.

At one time, I’d entertained the idea of calling this blog, “Such As It Is”. Thus I might refer to it as, “My blog, ‘Such As It Is’”. And others might refer to it as, “Jacob’s blog, ‘Such As It Is’”.

Other names considered included “The Echo Chamber”.

For no particular reason, I went with “Applied Hermeneutics”.

Phillip Winston Adams

Yep. It’s happened. Veteran writer, columnist and broadcaster Phillip Adams has found a few good words to say about Prime Minister John Howard.

True, the positive appraisal was made in the context of a comparison with US President George W. Bush. But there it is, in black and white. Harry Heidelberg has helpfully distilled the relevant passages on his blog:

Hence his reforms - whether of the economy or media - will be cautious, careful and comparatively calm. Praise the Lord that he’s not born again but a practising pragmatist.

Once in a while, John Howard has been forced by circumstances to be very bold indeed. In the wake of our biggest terrorist attack - Martin Bryant at Port Arthur in 1996 - Howard changed our gun laws. This in the face of implacable hostility from the Charlton Hestons in the Coalition.

More spectacularly, the PM sent our troops to East Timor in 1999. More courage? Or capitulation to the community view? Either way, there was little support from Washington, and it remains Howard’s finest hour.

Read Bob Woodward’s backstage account of the decision to invade Iraq, informed by long discussions with Bush, and you see Howard as a powerful influence on the President. Go for it! Yet Howard was careful to keep our involvement to a bare minimum. Symbolic, tokenistic. Share the limelight but not the casualties.

Howard ... cautious, careful and comparatively calm. Praise the Lord that he’s not born again but a practising pragmatist.

For some reason, the closing passage of George Orwell’s 1984 suggested itself to me. So I posted a slightly revised rendering of that passage as a comment on Harry’s page. With copious apologies to Orwell and his estate, here ‘tis again:

He gazed up at the enormous face. Many years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark eyebrows. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved John Howard.

For comparison, here's the original of that passage:

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

‘Auntie’ bashing: a real piece of work

For those unfamiliar with the Australian social landscape, “Auntie” is an epithet used sometimes affectionately, sometimes ironically, to refer to our national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – ABC for short. So, anyway, there was an article by Paul Gray in the national daily newspaper The Australian on Monday, October 10, which advanced the thesis:

The problem with the ABC is that the majority of its staff hates the values of ordinary, conservative Australians.”

A monstrous, indeed vicious, generalisation and slander, to be sure. For better or worse, here’s my take on Gray’s little diatribe, which I knocked together based on a response in another forum. I recommend you read the subject article to get an appreciation of the truly paranoid-delusional tenor of that sinister piece. For the record, I have no connection with the ABC or any of its employees. I’m just an appreciative consumer, ok?

I take it that we’re intended to shudder when we read of “an effectively self-governing work culture” at the ABC, as previously when the bogey was “a staff-captured organisation”.

It’s not unreasonable to suppose, however, that there may be nothing inherently scary about a “self-governing work culture”, if the values of the organisation are reasonably effectively instilled within the staff. Indeed, various management gurus and pundits actually defend such a culture as an optimal environment for the flourishing and maximisation of the talents of “information workers”, which ABC journalistic staff certainly are.

The converse of a “self-governing work culture”, of course, is a top-down command structure. Mr Gray’s characterisation of the ABC board as “largely tame” may simply be indicative of his jaundiced view of a board that is willing to work co-operatively with its staff. Perhaps the idea of diffusion of democratic principles within organisations causes Mr Gray, and presumably his employer Mr Murdoch, not a little anxiety, and I suspect our Prime Minister Howard would take a similarly dim view.

On immediate reflection it’s quite unremarkable that Mr Gray identifies “the narrow middle-class values of the secular left” as a particular bogey that influences “ABC staff culture”, as this represents a sector of the middle-class that the Howard Government and the Murdoch consensus have neither been able to completely capture nor neutralise. Mr Gray makes repeated reference to “ideological bias” within the ABC, of course, but fails to demonstrate its supposed entrenchment within, and debasement of, the organisation.

I can’t comment on Mr Gray’s criticism of the ABC’s supposed left-leaning “lifestyle” programs because I’ve barely ever given them much attention, indeed I wish the ABC would do a little less of them and – you betcha! – a little more drama, like Power Without Glory of blessed memory.

What’s most sad about Mr Gray’s piece is that, having by and large identified himself with the Government, he identifies “the enemy” as “the ABC itself”. Sad, because it’s yet another example of how discourse in today’s Australia seems so often expressed in terms of unremitting conflict. (It might be argued that it has always been so, however the “culture wars” and the excessive divisiveness they engender seem to me a relatively recent phenomenon.) But sad, mostly, because the Government and its supporters seem unable to work with the ABC to inform, and reflect the diversity of, its citizens as intended under the ABC Charter.

Here’s another passage indicative of Mr Gray’s tiresome pro-Government disingenuousness (yea, I hate the word too, but can’t think of another polite enough that would apply):

Anxious to defend its own decision to go to war, the Howard Government has prosecuted numerous complaints against the ABC’s reporting of the war. Like the war itself, this may prove to have been a tactical error by the Government.

Further along he notes that “Whenever a minister attacks the broadcaster for ‘distorting’ the truth on Iraq, [the Government] lays itself open to the same accusation in return.” The implication is that the disgraceful Iraq debacle – significantly according to Mr Gray, a “tactical” rather than a moral failure – should be swept under the carpet even further. Thus, don’t mention the war (War is Peace!) because we wouldn’t want to further reinforce the perception that the Government is “mean and tricky”, would we?

As for ABC bias being “a problem of class sociology”, which Mr Gray inexorably leans towards defining as “a hatred of the Australian masses and their conservative values”, he like his preferred Prime Minister (again, unremarkably) would seem to favour a good wedge, rather than addressing the decline in democratic values that characterise attacks on a unique and vital institution.

It’s remarkable that although Mr Howard likes to debunk the idea that class conflict could ever exist in Australia – in the perpetual attempt to authenticate his illusory relaxed-and-comfortable Australia – here we have his proxy Paul Gray pushing the idea of “class sociology” being behind “the problem” of the ABC. Well, there either is or ain’t class conflict in this country. Perhaps the expression “class sociology” is just a high-brow term for a more mundane phenomenon called base snobbery, which is an inevitable feature of any social dynamic anyway.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Bakhtiari brothers used again

On Thursday, 6 October, The Australian published an article with the screaming headline:

Bakhtiyari boys sorry for the lies

The article was based on a transcript of an interview in Islamabad on the ABC’s AM program the previous morning, in which 16-year-old Alamdar and 14-year-old Montazar, the two teenage sons of the Bakhtiari family (who became Australia’s best known Immigration detainees before they were deported to Pakistan earlier this year), apologised to the Australian Government, with Alamdar apparently saying, “It was all caused by our lies.”

It emerged soon enough that the interview had been erroneously transcribed – the transcript has since been corrected – and that Alamdar had actually said, “It was all caused by our lawyers.” That is, it was the lawyers and sundry other supporters, say the boys, who had dragged out the process of the family’s asylum application and led ultimately to their deportation.

The logic of what the boy’s had to say seems a little awry. Alamdar was quoted: “I don't blame the Australian Government for all this” – presumably for deporting them and their family. Well then, case closed.

But Alamdar continues, “I blame those who said they were helping us but they were not.” Blame them for what precisely? For, by their support and advocacy for the Bakhtiaris, hardening the Government’s stance against the family? Well, doesn’t that suggest that the Government’s treatment of the Bakhtiaris was coloured by political considerations, and was therefore by definition blameworthy.

It all begins to make sense, however, when the boys talk about their wish to return to Australia on a study visa to complete their education. One is saddened at the abject prostration of these desperate young lads before the mercy of the Australian Government.

Alamdar and Montazar Bakhtiari have been through so much already in their young lives. In particular, there was the incident at the British consulate in Melbourne in 2003, where they were manipulated by refugee activists into seeking asylum. No-one should forget the infamous images of those little kids being manhandled and jostled by the consular official as they were pursued by the media pack.

But to return to the present fiasco, The Australian compounds its lazy, if inadvertent, error by incorrectly reporting that, after supposedly apologising for the “lies”, “the boys reiterated their claim that they had never lived in the Pakistani city of Quetta.” In fact the boys don't say any such thing according to the transcript; rather it is ABC reporter Geoff Thompson who says, “The Bakhtiaris maintain they have never lived in the Pakistani border city of Quetta as the Australian Government has claimed.” That’s the only part of the transcript that touches on the Bakhtiari’s country of origin. I’m assuming that when Thompson says “the Bakhtiaris”, he’s referring to the family as a whole.

On Friday the print edition of The Australian published the following tiny and obscurely-placed article (page 2):


The ABC has been forced to make an embarrassing apology for misquoting a teenage son of Australia’s highest-profile asylum-seekers, the Bakhtiyari family.

The national broadcaster issued a transcript of its AM radio program yesterday quoting 16-year-old Alamdar Bakhtiyari apologising for the “lies” that led to his family’s deportation.

The Australian, which published extracts from the transcript yesterday, listened to a recording of the interview and recognises that the pronunciation of the word “lawyers” by Alamdar Bakhtiyari does, in fact, sound more like “lies”.

So is the Oz suggesting that maybe the kid really did say “lies”? It might save having to make a retraction, but it’s not really satisfactory to leave it hanging there, I’d have thought, given the slander implied by their article on Thursday.

The “Clarification” was placed opposite a further article on the facing page 3, which dealt with further fallout from the brothers’ criticism of some of their supporters. This article, in the print edition, refers readers to the paper’s comprehensively self-righteous editorial, but not to the clarification.

I thought the Oz’s redress of their albeit inadvertent error was somewhat inadequate, so on Friday night I submitted the following letter to the editor.

Your “clarification” in your Friday edition on the cock-up over the Bakhtiyari brothers’ interview transcript is just plain wrong. Having listened to the audio, my verdict is that Alamdar Bakhtiyari definitely said ‘lawyers’, not ‘lies’. He utters the word with an accented drawl, but the transition between syllables is discernable despite the poor audio quality.

Moreover, it’s clear from the context Alamdar can only have said ‘lawyers’. The clear intent of the brothers’ interview was to blame the lawyers and sundry supporters, while absolving the Government, for the family’s deportation. This for the stated purpose of obtaining re-admission to Australia to complete their education.

Therefore a retraction or apology, or some word of regret even, would be in order from The Australian, in view of the slander implied by Thursday’s screaming headline, and Friday’s compounding obfuscatory ‘clarification’.

It’s not such a huge climb-down, after all, since you can pass the buck to Aunty on account of the incorrect transcription.

To date, the Oz haven’t seen fit to publish my letter. Must be a reflection on the quality of my offering, I guess.

Regarding the audio of the ABC interview, it may also be noted that Alamdar a few sentences earlier had drawled what sounds to me like “the lawyers”, but this appears in the transcript as “(inaudible)”.

In the editorial mentioned above, the Oz piously stated: “The Bakhtiyaris believe they were used – they were.” And still they are – this time, to sell Murdoch’s newspaper.