Monday, May 19, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Liberal Party: What Does it Stand For?

In many ways, the Liberal Party has become a victim of its own success. Led to four consecutive federal election victories under John Howard, the party began to believe that the hard-conservatism he championed during this time was surely the best, and perhaps only path to electoral success. As a consequence, power within the party at the federal level was essentially ceded to the NSW right under his stewardship and the Young Liberals - the breeding ground for many of this generation's politicians - watched itself become hijacked by the same, far-right elements (watch). The electoral success of the Howard government can scarcely be called into question, but is there compelling evidence to suggest that such hard-conservativism genuinely resonates with the majority of the Australian population and should, as such, be retained by the current Liberal Party?

During the unbridled triumphalism of the Howard years, it became easy to forget the good fortune that facilitated his eventual legacy. Howard lost the popular vote in 1998 and was trailing in 2001 before he was handed the September 11th attacks and the Tampa scandal on a plate. Even the increasingly erratic Mark Latham had them running scared for a while, before his inevitable annihilation at the 2004 elections. As successful as Howard was at winning the support of "middle-Australia", his policies never really had the genuinely broad appeal that many in the party must have come to believe (compare the popularity of Howard's conservatism with the popularity of Reagan's conservatism, for instance). Conservative commentators - I'm looking at you Janet Albrechtsen - fanned the hype, gloating over middle-Australia's embrace of Howard's (and therefore her own) core (and non-core) values.

But is that really what was happening? Was Australia voting Liberal because it is a population of committed social-conservatives, or did a strong economy and a weak, fractured Labor Party merely paper over a broad skepticism that existed concerning the party's direction during these years?

The fortunes of the Liberal Party at the state level must surely shed some light on this question. Over the past decade, the Liberals have lost an unfathomable twenty-one consecutive state elections. This includes NSW last year - surely the state with the highest receptivity to the values of the Howard-era Liberal Party? - against a Labor Party severely weakened by a parade of public scandals. In Queensland, the party is facing a merger with the Nationals to stay afloat. In WA - the only state to vote Liberal in the federal election last year - they apparently can't produce a more popular leader than the bra-snapping, chair-sniffing "larakin" Troy Buswell. And in Victoria the party is being torn apart by factional in-fighting. The situation here, more than anywhere else, is illustrative of the current woes facing the party.

Incensed at the direction the party was headed under leader Ted Baillieu, the right-wing of the party fought back the only way right-wingers know how: with hysterical, vitriolic smear. For deigning to give in-principle support to such issues as the legalisation of abortion and euthanasia in the state, Baillieu was deemed "Red Ted" by the authors of an annonymous blog, now known to be Liberal Party staffers Simon Morgan, John Osborn and Luke Dixon. They also trashed other moderate Liberal Party politicians on the blog, including federal MP Petro Georgiou (one of the few during the Howard years to make a conscientious stand against the xenophobia that had begun to take hold in the party) who was described as a "waste of space" and senator Judith Troeth, who they described as "stupid" and as "having a face" like a "workhorse" (who said that high-brow political debate was dead?). But this is amateur stuff compared to the more forthright sentiments of campaign manager Susan Chandler, who was separately exposed as describing a candidate for her own party as a "greedy fucking Jew".

But the one that really got to me was sentiment of an email authored by the aforementioned Simon Morgan, in which he said: "Can someone... please fucking remind him (Bailleau) that this is the Liberal Party - the party of business". Is it though? Is that all the Liberal Party is now to its right-factions, the party of big-business (with perhaps some xenophobic nationalism thrown in for good measure)? The members of the right would certainly like to think so, but the imperitive for electoral success would tend to dictate otherwise: they've had their chance over the past decade and they have failed miserably. While the state Labor parties have comfortably occupied the soft-conservativism of the political middle-ground, the state Liberal parties have been led off the precipice of hard-conservativism by those who were themselves just following the lead of Howard.

Despite an endless sequence of electoral routs delivered at the hands of this philosophy of positioning the party further and further to the right of the ALP, Liberal party members like Jeremy Browne continue to peddle the delusion that "the public desperately wants a genuinely conservative choice", that self-identified "conservative Victorians" are in "the majority" and that the adoption of moderate policies makes the Liberal Party "unelectable". Thanks to the successes of hard-conservativism during the Howard years, apparently not even a decade of chronic obscurity at the state level can get these people to believe - even for a second - that their views represent no more than a small (albeit noisy) minority of the Australian community.

Australia is, of course, mildly conservative in disposition, but not to the extent that people like Jeremy imagine. We support border-control, but not the brutalisation of refugees. We support a unified nation, but not the homogenisation of our culture. We support the right to economic prosperity, but not at the expense of the rights of workers. So there is clearly a market for this brand of soft-conservativism, but the trouble is that the ALP - at state level for the past decade and now at the federal level too - have it completely cornered. As I have already said, the solution that the Liberal Party have offered up until now has simply been to move further and further to the right, but it's a path that increasingly few Australians have shown themselves willing to be led down. Given that, what is the solution for the Liberals?

Let us recall the foundations that Menzies founded the party on. In a speech given in October 1944, Menzies argued Australia should be country "in which there is free thought and free speech and free association", "in which no consideration of wealth or privilege will determine the education of either child or man" and "in which citizens are free to choose their own way of living and of life", along-side arguments for economic liberalism which - unlike the preceding arguments - have actually been preserved in the party's current ethos. The question is, why not return to these values? If the ALP is espousing a position of social conservativism and economic centralisation, surely there is room for a party that advocates liberalism, both social and economic? If the conservative right-wing of the party has failed to deliver it electoral success, surely it's time to give the moderates a chance?

Surely, to put it another way, it's time for the Liberal Party to become a liberal party?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

THE Endorsement

Obama / Edwards '08. Has a nice ring to it.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

13% of Clinton Votes in Indiana Came From McCain Supporters


Pretty damning.

I'm not sure whether we can attribute this to Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" or the success of Clinton's recent attempts to appeal to socially conservative rural voters, but either way the conclusion is clear: Clinton only won Indiana (by a paltry 14,000 votes and closing) because of the votes that came McCain supporters. Fully one-eighth of people who voted for her in Indiana have no intention of voting for her in November!

What does that say about her electability?


Apparently Limbaugh is now encouraging Republicans to vote for Obama. What the fuck is with this guy?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Town Called Gary

At 11pm USEST yesterday, the results of tonight's primaries were looking dismally familiar. Obama was winning one state, Clinton the other. Obama had failed to deliver the knockout blow, Clinton had failed to do enough to bring her back into the contest. Another primary day where both candidates had met expectations and succeeded in producing yet another indecisive result. Ho-hum.

But then the results from Lake County - a small, suburban center in northwest Indiana - began to trickle through. Like many other industrial cities in the northeastern states, the city of Gary - the largest in the county - has been in a state of gradual decline for decades. Since the steel-plants here began to close in the 1960s, the largely African-American population have watched helplessly as unemployment and poverty set in around them. As a consequence of the slow-down in industry, the population of this once bustling city entered terminal decline, nearly halving over the past 4 decades. The per-capita income here is just $15,000pa and over a quarter of its residents - including 40% of its children - live below the poverty line. Few cities have been hit harder by the changing American economy than this one.

But tonight, if only for a night, something happened here to warm the cockles of the heart. Due to a quirk of daylight savings and the large number of absentee ballots to be counted, Lake County - home to 8% of the state's population - was among the last to report its results. Before the numbers had begun to come through, Clinton was enjoying a comfortable, if underwhelming, lead in the state and had already delivered her victory speech, declaring that her campaign was moving "full speed ahead to the White House". By barely meeting expectations here, she looked primed to have enough oxygen to carry on her campaign to the primaries in West Virginia and beyond. That soon changed.

Lake County turned out overwhelmingly for Obama. Clinton's safe result in the state soon become too close to call. The pundits who had earlier seemed prepared to give Clinton a pass on the night watched as the margins narrowed and dutifully shifted their narrative as a consequence. As it became apparent that Clinton was not going to get the result she needed to justify her continued presense in the race, the pundits turned. Declarations rang that Obama was now the presumptive nominee and many suggested that it would be prudent for Clinton to extricate herself from the race now, lest she suffer any further indignities. The shape of the race was sharply turned on its head, thanks almost exclusively to the late results that came through from Lake County.

Forgive me if I find just a bit of poetic justice in all this. Few in the country have found themselves quite so abandoned by the US political system as the people of Gary, yet few have wielded so much influence on its future. If only for a night, the people of Gary were given a say in the trajectory of their own destiny. Thankfully for those of us watching from half a world over, they made the right choice.

Stick a Fork in Her: She's Done

Another Tuesday, another set of primary results to pour over.

No question that Obama exceeded expectations here. A draw overall on the day probably would have sufficed, so to emerge with the result he did really is a crushing blow for Clinton.

The (nearly) final results for the day:

Delegates: Obama +12 (Al Giordano at The Field thinks it could go as high as +19)
Popular Vote: Obama +210,363 (with some Obama friendly counties still yet to report 100% - Clinton will likely win Indiana by < 20,000 votes as a result)
Superdelegates: ?????

Really, the pledged-delegate deficit has been insurmountable for Clinton since the Ohio and Texas primaries, so she has since been pinning her hopes of winning the nomination on coming out ahead in the popular vote count (only possible if the votes cast in Florida and Michigan are counted) and keeping her head above water for long enough to inflict the damage on Obama that she needs to in order to win the backing of superdelegates (as the "electable" candidate).

Both of these hopelessly optimistic scenarios were surely extinguished by the result tonight. The 14% deficit in NC - the last "big" state left - obliterated the ground she had made up in the popular vote in Pennsylvania. The narrow victory in Indiana (she 'squeaked by' according to CNN, which is typical of the media narrative at the moment) does not give her the breathing space she needed to convince the superdelegates and the DNC that it's worth their while to let her continue.

Tim Russert sums up the state of play at the moment:

I see this contest limping to West Virginia (where Clinton can expect a big victory) and probably all the way to the final contests on June 3rd, but none of the remaining states are large enough to give her the momentum she needs to carry her to the convention (where she had hoped to exercise her "nuclear option"). The superdelegates will begin to sharply break for Obama in the next few weeks, especially once Obama's delegate lead becomes mathematically insurmountable after the May 20 primaries (her lead in the superdelegate count - as small as it has become - has been one of the few factors keeping her in the race this long). The media will continue to push the narrative that the race is over (except for Fox News, of course) and her funding will doubtless dry up further.

So it's over, she's finished. Within four weeks, Obama will officially be the Democratic candidate for the presidency. Not a moment too soon, either.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

And So It's Come to This: Curfew

Well it's official: starting June 3, no-one will be allowed (re-)entry into a Melbourne city club after 2am. The rationale is to reduce the number of drunk people wandering the streets from venue to venue late at night and thus, hopefully, to reduce the number of violent acts committed, which have apparently increased by 17% over the past year.

Ignoring the leap in logic inherent in this proposal that even Evil Knievel would struggle to clear, I want to focus on that number: 17%. That is not a statistically insignificant number. It surely cannot be explained as mere statistical noise, nor as some random, self-correcting fluctuation. There must be an underlying cause for such a sharp increase in crime.

Perhaps Melburnians have become 17% more violent over the past year? Perhaps they are drinking 17% more, or consuming 17% more drugs? Perhaps there has been a 17% increase in the number of violent, sociopathic disorders diagnosed over this time? Maybe some horrendously unlucky, statistically unlikely combination of all these factors?

Perhaps, but I doubt it.

There is only one event from the past year, that I can think of, that could possibly account for such a significant increase in violent street-crime: the new smoking laws. The merits of these laws aside, they have forced scores of drunk punters out of pubs and clubs around the city and out onto the streets, where the watchful eye of venue security no longer has any influence. Drunken congregations, without any moderating influence on behaviour, are traditionally quick to descend into violence. Is it any wonder the streets are less safe when we're essentially mandating that drunken groups of people form outside every licenced venue in the city?

That is why I'm struggling to understand the rationale of this new legislation. The hope ("hope" is the right word) is that keeping people who have been drinking out of licenced venues will encourage them to go home early, but if that fails to happen (and it doubtless will) all you're acheiving is forcing scores of drunken punters out onto the streets, making them angry (have you ever seen a drunk person try to reason with security when they've been denied entry to a venue? It is truly a thing of beauty...) and sending them off to wander the streets unsupervised, doubtless to congregate with all the others that have been turned away in the only places they are permitted to: fast food restaurants, the casino, suburban bars and clubs and so on. At least we'll be keeping the smokers inside venues for longer under this new plan, but surely - especially considering the vioation of civil liberties it engenders - they cannot possibly think that violence will be significantly reduced by keeping drunk people away from safe, secure venues?

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Herald-Sun Sucks (Part #4): "Global Warming to Blame for Teenage Binge Drinking"

From last Sunday's Herald-Sun (April 27th):

I especially like the use of the word "experts" in quotation marks. Yes, those "experts", with their "degrees" and their fancy "scientific literature" and their "years upon years of rigorous empirical inquiry" - what the hell would they know?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why Obama Will Be The Next President

With no chance of winning the pledged delegate count or the popular vote, we've recently seen the Clinton campaign forced into making arguments of increasing specificity (and declining comprehensibility) to justify her continued presense in the race. One of the most popular - predictably trotted out again after her win today in Pennsylvania - is the accusation that Obama is incapable of winning the "big" states and will therefore struggle to win the election in November. Putting aside the remote likelihood of states like California or New York ever going red, today's events demonstrated precisely why she is wrong and precisely why Obama is likely to be the 44th president of the United States.

The demographics in Pennsylvania are tailor-fit for the Clinton campaign. The people here are white, working-class and old (Pennsylvania is the 2nd oldest state in the country): but for the sparsity of Hispanics here, this is Clinton's base to a T. After the last major primaries in Texas and Ohio, she carried a 19 point lead in this state, with some polls even putting her lead in the mid-high 20s. During this time, Obama has had to face continuing recriminations over the nature of his relationship with the Reverend Wright, a sharp backlash (completely out of all proportion) over comments made about the "bitterness" of the Pennsylvanian people and was forced to endure a televised debate that served no other purpose, it seems, than to give undue prominence to these and other similarly trivial issues. He fought the political juggernaut that is the Clintons (who are not used to losing at the best of times) on their own turf, on their own terms and still - despite all this - was able to erode their lead by ten points. Although we are now almost conditioned to the idea of Obama overcoming massive deficits in a matter of days just by setting his foot into a state (a rare gift, it must be said) the trend in Pennsylvania is still remarkable.

Clinton quite rightly claims to have already been vetted by the Republican noise machine: she has faced the irrational swarthes of self-serving vitriol that the GOP fuels itself on and - like her husband before her - she has consistently emerged standing and victorious. For Obama, though, it is difficult to see how the Republicans can hit him with anything in the election that he hasn't faced during the primaries already. Every hint of weakness in his character (his inexperience, his personal relationships, his loquacity etc.) has already been exposed and paraded by Clinton to no avail: by the end of all this, McCain will have little original left to work with. In a way, the adversity he has faced in Pennsylvania (the demographics, the scandals, the negative campaining) is a microcosm of the sort of adversity he his likely to face in the general election.

The fact that he was able to come out of Pennsylvania not merely holding his ground but having halved his substantial deficit there, demonstrates quite plainly the kind of political clout this guy has. After Pennsylvania, the prospect of going up against McCain must seem almost a doddle.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 2020 Summit: Good Idea, Bad Ideas?

First of all, let me say that I think that Kevin Rudd's two-day conference - notionally involving the best minds in Australia - was a terrific idea. After 11 years of exclusionary, "mandate"-driven government, it is refreshing to see the political branches of this country re-engage with the nation that they have been elected to serve. Many good ideas were offered this weekend in Canberra (i.e. the creation of a centralised body to oversee carbon-trading schemes, the creation of nationally consistent transport laws, automatic voter-registration, etc.) and many old ideas (the republican movement, contitutional acknowledgement of the country's aboriginal history, a national charter of rights) were given fresh impetus. Given the eristical, contrarian nature of this blog, however, some of the - how can I put this? - shitty ideas from the summit also deserve airing.

Some of these less than luminary proposals (as published in Sunday's Herald-Sun and Monday's The Age) include:

  • "A smoking ban for all Australians born after 2008."

Controversial and oppressive in itself, ludicrous when contrasted with the other suggestions that tax revenue from cigarrettes be used to fund a national health agency and that all other drugs be legalised as a harm prevention measure (I look forward to the day when smoking crack is deemed more socially acceptable than smoking cigarettes).

  • "An annual national fitness test where citizens would receive a financial incentive if they pass."

"Fitness? Longevity? Looking attractive to the opposite sex? Nah, who wants that? Oh wait, you'll give me $50 for not being such a fat fuck? Sweet, let me get my Reeboks on!"

  • "Increased education about how death could be a 'positive experience' to avoid patients panicking."

Well I sure found my death to be quite a positive, life-affirming experience at least.

  • "Women would make up 50% of MPs."

Because a democratic system where the majority of voters are women must be inherently sexist.

  • "Installing women in a third of senior positions in the public and private sectors, including a female prime-minister and an aboriginal woman president."

Which is not too specific a request, but I think it does pretty much narrow down the field down to Cathy Freeman and that big girl from The Secret Life of Us.

  • "Setting aside certain seats in parliament and spots in government for indigenous people."

... actually, while we're at it, why not just abolish democracy altogether? Sure it may have seemed like a good idea in the past, but I find it hard to lend my support to any political system which deems John Howard worth keeping in a job for 30-odd years.

  • "A statement from the prime-minister on the creation of a non-violent society."

Which apparently narrowly beat out an opposing suggestion for the creation of a blood-soaked dystopia.

  • "As a broad theme, it was decided that by 2020 Australia should be known 'throughout the world for its diverse, fair, compassionate and respectful society'."

Good idea. I'll send out an email to the other countries and let them know they have it all wrong.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Publically commenting on the vague claims raised by the Intelligent Design (ID) / Creationist movement can pose a difficult dilema. On the one hand, these claims, such that they are (that life exhibits a "complexity" too great to be accounted for solely by the process of natural evolution) are palpably false, or at best completely unsupported by available evidence. Ideas espoused by the ID movement, such as "irreducible complexity", which show themselves to be incongruous with reality should not, I think it is prudent to say, be allowed to propogate themselves uncontested. On the other hand, when prominent scientists do engage with these claims, it can lend undue credence to the widely held belief that there is some ongoing controversy about the role of evolution in biology: to the uninformed, this often one-sided conversation gives the illusion that there is a legitimate debate to be had here.

To be fair, there are legitimate controversies in the field of evolutionary biology that deserve attention. Is the progress of evolution uniformly gradual, for instance, or do periods of rapid specication punctuate bouts of extended equilibrium? Is evolution driven by strict genentic determinism, or is it a more stochastic process, mitigated by exogenous environmental factors (epigeneticism) and developmental factors (ontogenic plasticity)? These are, as yet, unanswered questions that cut right to the heart of the theory of evolution and therefore the discpline of biology itself, but one thing remains certain: if these questions are to be resolved, then they will be resolved by the scientific method in reliance of the available evidence. There will be no need to resort to supernatural explanations to paper over the cracks in our understanding. No legitimate existing controversy in the field of biology casts any doubt on the idea - supported by all the available evidence in fields as diverse as biology, geology, cosmology etc. - that the complexity exhibited in life on this planet is a consequence of random genetic mutation and non-random natural selection. It is disingenuous and above all wrong to argue otherwise.

Enter Expelled the movie. While I'm basically piecing the premise of the movie together based on the few snippets that have been released in advance (including the extended trailer available here) and the various reviews floating around, it appears to center on the "controversy" (in the loosest possible sense of the word) surrounding the treatment of "scientists" (ut supra) who have dared to speak out against the theory of evolution (or, as it is more sinisterly - and inaccurately - referred to in the movie, "Darwinism").

As Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptical Enquirer magazine, explains in his rather unflattering review of the movie:

Stein's case for conspiracy centers on a journal article written by Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow at the intelligent design think tank Discovery Institute and professor at the theologically conservative Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University. Meyer's article, "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories," was published in the June 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, the voice of the Biological Society with a circulation of less than 300 people. In other words, from the get-go this was much ado about nothing.

Nevertheless, some members of the organization voiced their displeasure, so the society's governing council released a statement explaining, "Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The council, which includes officers, elected councilors and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings." So how did it get published? In the words of journal's managing editor at the time, Richard Sternberg, "it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors, I chose myself."


Meyer's article is the first intelligent design paper ever published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it deals less with systematics (or taxonomy, Sternberg's specialty) than it does paleontology, for which many members of the society would have been better qualified than he to peer-review the paper.


Stein, however, is uninterested in paleontology, or any other science for that matter. His focus is on what happened to Sternberg, who is portrayed in the film as a martyr to the cause of free speech. "As a result of publishing the Meyer article," Stein intones in his inimitably droll voice, "Dr. Sternberg found himself the object of a massive campaign that smeared his reputation and came close to destroying his career." According to Sternberg, "after the publication of the Meyer article the climate changed from being chilly to being outright hostile. Shunned, yes, and discredited." As a result, Sternberg filed a claim against the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for being "targeted for retaliation and harassment" for his religious beliefs. "I was viewed as an intellectual terrorist," he tells Stein. In August 2005 his claim was rejected. According to Jonathan Coddington, his supervisor at the NMNH, Sternberg was not discriminated against, was never dismissed, and in fact was not even a paid employee, but just an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term!

A major theme in the film appears, along the above lines, to pertain to the sanctity of "free-speech" in American society and how it is somehow being threatened every time blatant charlatans like Meyer and Sternberg (who both feature in the extended trailer) experience ostracism from the scientific community for, you know, deliberately undermining the spirit of the scientific endeavour*.

There is much that I can (and will) say about this premise, but the first and most important thing to note is that science is not a democratic process. No-one involved has the inherent right to demand that their voice be heard. If the ID movement wants to be taken seriously by that devious, clandestine cabal referred to in the film as "big science" then they need to put in the same hard yards that everyone else participating in the scientific process is required to put in. They need to propose a theory with testable claims, proceed to rigorously test those claims empirically, then fianlly publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal of science. Intelligent Design, with its deliberately vague premise (which can essentially be pared down to "some being did something, somewhere at some time, for some reason"), hasn't even passed that first step yet. Contrary to the theme of this movie, science is not inherently hostile to new theories that seek to challenge the status quo, but it is hostile - as a matter of process - to theories that do not lend themselves to testing or falsification.

So this appeal made to "free-speech" is naive in itself, but it takes on a more overtly disingenuous edge when you consider the somewhat contradictory attitude proponents of ID have toward this freedom when ensconced within their own little clique. To use just two examples, Meyer's aforementioned Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University requires, as part of it's guiding principles, "that all those who become associated with Palm Beach Atlantic University as trustees, officers, members of the faculty or of the staff, must believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; that man was directly created by God; that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin; that He is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior; that He died for the sins of all men and thereafter arose from the grave; that by repentance and the acceptance of and belief in Him, by the grace of God, the individual is saved from eternal damnation and receives eternal life in the presence of God". The sort of freedom of thought and expression that Meyer and the producers of the film are demanding from scientific institutions certainly don't seem to apply at PBAU!

Secondly - and more directly related to the film itself - was the explusion of prominent biologist and atheist PZ Myers from a preview screening of the film: a film that, it should be pointed out, he fucking appeared in! To quote Myers from his now famous blog:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled! It was kind of weird — I was standing in line, hadn't even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested.

The sort of cognitive dissonance that must be required to facilitate this degree of shameless hypocracy truly boggles the mind. I will soon make another post exploring some of the more specific claims of the movie, but for now I'll leave the final word on the matter to PZ himself, in a chat he filmed about the movie with Richard Dawkins:


* As Ronald Jennings, a UK paleontologist, noted in his lengthy critique of Meyer's claims:

"Rather than trusting in the ability of science to make progress, as it always has, Meyer is willing to throw up his hands in bewilderment, and exclaim miraculous intervention of an intelligent designer. That's not the spirit of science. Meyer's paper was neither deep nor comprehensive enough to merit being called an adequate review by any standard, certainly not in view of his profound conclusions."

(Cribbed from Chris Mooney's "The Republican War on Science", (pp. 187-188))

Friday, March 14, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Clinton's Delegate Situation

As I write this, Barack Obama leads Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries by 135 pledged delegates. Presuming Hawaii's 20 delegates are distributed more or less according to the popular vote (i.e. Obama's way by a ratio of more than 3 to 1 with 68% counted), he could break the 150 delegate lead by the end of the day. Given the way delegates are distributed in the Democratic race (proportionally, rather than winner-takes-all) Clinton now faces an extremely steep challenge to recover the lost ground.

As I described in my earlier post, after mixed results on Super Tuesday the Clinton campaign decided to focus their efforts primarily on winning Texas and Ohio on the 4th of March, effectively conceding all the races in the month until then. While lack of finances are as much a reason for this move as poor strategy, it is undeniable that the past two weeks have seen a sharp shift in momentum towards Obama. During this time, he has won ten consecutive states for a net advantage of 113 delegates (not including Hawaii) and has now won the popular vote in exactly half the states in the union (including Hawaii). The basic maths now tell us that this race is almost beyond Hillary's reach.

In Texas and Ohio, Hillary now needs to win big. Even if she wins 60% of the delegates in these states (a net advantage of 59 delegates) and ties the others on the day, she will still trail Obama by about 90 delegates. Even if we include present pledged superdelegates in this count (who, remember, can change their vote at any time they wish), Obama still comes up on top. This is bad news for Clinton in itself, but it gets worse.

First of all, the polls don't indicate that she will win Texas or Ohio by anywhere near this hypothetical 20 points. Leaked Obama internals put the margin in Ohio at just 7 points and two indpenedent polls in Texas suggest that the race there is a dead heat. It's also worth keeping in mind that these numbers were taken before the Wisconsin and Hawaii primaries (and so don't reflect any momentum that might have gained from his wins there), were taken before he had set foot in these states (he has generally been successful in states where he has been able to campaign at length) and don't reflect the fact that support tends to break for Obama in the last week or so before the primaries. Wisconsin was a statistical dead-heat a couple of days ago, remember, and Obama ended up winning by 17 points!

Texas especially presents a challenge for the Clinton campaign. Firstly, although the specifics of the process are completely mystifying to me, part of the primary is caucus-based. Owing in no small part to his superior grass-roots organisation, Obama has destroyed Clinton in the seven caucuses held up until now. With the exception of American Samoa, Obama has so far won every caucus (in terms of pledged delegates won) by a ratio of at least 2:1. As if this and the lukewarm poll-numbers weren't enough to give Clinton cause for concern about Texas, it now emerges that the manner in which delegates are distributed there is likely to favour Obama as well:

Supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are worried that convoluted delegate rules in Texas could water down the impact of strong support for her among Hispanic voters there, creating a new obstacle for her in the must-win presidential primary contest.

Several top Clinton strategists and fundraisers became alarmed after learning of the state's unusual provisions during a closed-door strategy meeting this month, according to one person who attended.

What Clinton aides discovered is that in certain targeted districts, such as Democratic state Sen. Juan Hinojosa's heavily Hispanic Senate district in the Rio Grande Valley, Clinton could win an overwhelming majority of votes but gain only a small edge in delegates. At the same time, a win in the more urban districts in Dallas and Houston -- where Sen. Barack Obama expects to receive significant support -- could yield three or four times as many delegates.

Everything in this key state - if not the race itself - seems to be breaking Obama's way.

Given all this, if Clinton is to get anywhere near the nomination it is clear that she will be heavily dependent on the votes of superdelegates. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Clinton camp has already suggested that she "will not concede the race to Obama if he wins a greater number of pledged delegates by the end of the primary season, and will count on the 796 elected officials and party bigwigs to put her over the top, if necessary". Apart from the reprehensibly undemocratic nature of this push, the numbers tell us - yet again - that this is not a particularly viable strategy, especially in the long-term.

Put simply, many of the superdelegates who pledged support for Clinton early in the race are starting to switch to Obama. There have been many recent examples of this published in the press. Clinton once had a lead of around 100 superdelegates, that number is now below 80. Up to date numbers are available here, but the trend is clear:

So it doesn't look like superdelegates can help her either, but that still doesn't exhaust the questionable methods the Clinton campaign may employ to get her elected. This next, last-ditch victory strategy should offend the sensibilities of anyone who supports the integrity of the democratic process and is clear sign of the desperation in Hillary's camp at this point in time.

Are you ready?

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign intends to go after delegates whom Barack Obama has already won in the caucuses and primaries if she needs them to win the nomination.

That's right. Clinton's campaign intends coerce Obama's pledged delegates - delegates that have been democratically selected by voters in primaries and caucuses all over the country to cast a vote for Obama on their behalf at the DNC - into voting for her instead. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Essentially, Hillary is willing to completely subvert the democratic process if it helps her to get elected. She is willing to ignore the will of the people if it results in her ascension to a position of power. The superdelegate policy was sketchy enough as it is, but this one - if genuinely reflective of her intentions - really does take the cake. If even the suggestion of stealing delegates doesn't make the bile rise up in the back of your throat then I really do question the orientation of your moral compass.

But still - for all there is to get riled up about at this stage in the primary process - I think it's all probably moot. Yes, that's right. At 11pm, Wednesday 20th February I'm ready to make the call:

Barack Obama will be the Democrats' nominee for 2008

Bring it on, Mr. McCain!

(With credit to Goons For Obama.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Howard's End

Anyone catch this last night? (Available to view on the 4 corners website if you missed it.)

The interviews were refreshingly frank, and by the end of it all I could only wonder what on earth must have been going through Howard's mind during that last year in power. The accusations that he had lost touch with the electorate proved to be understatements: he'd completely lost touch with his own party as well.

In many ways, he orchestrated his own downfall in the same manner that he conducted his politics: with completely incorrigable stubborness. His reluctance to be engaged, for instance, on the issues of climate change and reconciliation - even as his approval ratings plummeted as a consequence - is a good example of this. Just eleven weeks later, his passionate resistence to these issues appears increasingly obsolescent and largely unfathomable. But in the broader context of his defeat at the 2007 election, it makes perfect sense: his snowballing hubris wouldn't allow a backstep, no matter how small or inconsequential. As petty as this makes him seem in hindsight, his unrepentant intractability must have presented as an endearing quality to many voters during his time in power, and must surely be one of the main reasons for his long-term poltical success.

But the idea of a man being undone by his greatest strength is one of the oldest recurring themes in Western literature. John Howard's story in this regard could be lifted straight from the pages of Sophocles or Shakespeare: a man of great power and growing hubris destroyed by the very quality that made him great in the first place. Although he always publicly maintained that the length of his tenure would be dictated by the best interests of the party, the interviews in this program made it quite clear that he never had any intentions of leaving. The revelation that he had lost the support of his cabinet but decided to stubbornly persevere anyway, almost as if to prove a point (to quote Downer: "John Howard’s view was that he wouldn’t just stand down, he would not just stand down and run away from a fight and be seen by history as a coward") probably shouldn't come as any surprise. As petulant as Costello sometimes appears during this interview, it's hard not to sympathise with him on this issue at least.

But, of course, this is all about Howard. He acheived an ignominous end and it was entirely of his own making. I can't help but look back on the triumphalism that so characterised his years as PM (adequately demonstrated in the footage spliced into the program from the tenth anniversary celebrations) and find this to be anything but a very beautiful thought.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Christian Gets Elected, Uppity

You have to feel for Christians in modern Australian society. Making up a meager two-thirds of the Australian population, they frequently find themselves exposed to the cruel tyranny of the remaining minority. New Liberal MP Scott Morrison devoted his maiden speech to the horrors of this secular oppression:

"Australia is not a secular country — it is a free country," he said.

"This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society.

"As US senator Joe Lieberman said, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion."

Lost in the ecstasy that must come with giving voice to a well-honed persecution complex, Mr. Morrison seems to have confused himself about the target of his invective. It scarcely needs to be said: "the freedom to follow any belief system you choose" is a secular ideal! For Morrison, though, there doesn't seem to be any interest in understanding the ideologies that he feels come into conflict with his. Those who believe in the separation of church and state must also, by his reckoning, believe that "faith has no place in the political debate of this country". The idea that it is possible to support religious plurality and church / state separtion doesn't seem to have crossed his mind.

But to demonstrate just how far he has missed the mark in this speech, we need only point him towards the evidence (the bane of every believer...). It is simply beyond question that those societies in the history of the world that have best preserved religious freedoms have been the avowedly secular societies. Anyone who supports freedom of religion must accept the central tennet of secular ideology: that the government has no right to make "any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion". The corollary of this is that there must be limits (legal or self-imposed) to the range of religious ideals that can be legitimately advocated or enforced by elected representatives.

As a consequence of the imposition of these limits, we facilitate not the restriction of religious freedom, but rather its preservation. In limiting the power an MP has to give leverage to his religious ideals, we are protecting the freedom of his constituents - who may hold a different set of religious ideals - to give leverage to theirs. It is only when we prevent the possibility of those in power from giving preference to one religion over another that the "freedom of religion" Morrison invokes earns any meaning. Those countries that have most successfully abolished the secular principles against which Morrison inveighs (let us say, Saudi Arabia) are not renowned, afterall, for their tolerance of religious plurality!

But I think that I am probably taking him too literally at his word, here. I doubt very much that Morrison was interested in using his speech to investigate, with any sincerity, the consequences of secular policy. I think, ultimately, that he just wanted to winge about people who disagree with him:

"In recent times it has become fashionable to negatively stereotype those who profess their Christian faith in public life as 'extreme' and to suggest that such faith has no place in the political debate of this country."

There is, I think, a legitimate debate to be had about the role of religious belief in public life. Few would argue that becoming an elected member of parliament disentitles one from the right to practise a religion, much less from the right to "profess" it. But this is where Morrison - and other Christians harbouring persecution fantasies - get misled: there is a significant distinction between believing an opinion to be wrong or misguided, and believing that the opinion has no right to be expressed in the first place. To disagree with the public statements of Christian politicians is not to disagree with the idea that politicians have the right to make public statements about Christianity!

Ultimately, it needs to be recognised that religious beliefs should not be entitled to a privilaged position in political discourse. If your religion is integral to your political philosophy, then you have to accept that those beliefs can (and should!) be made the subject of debate. To believe in the right to express religious belief is to concede the possibility that it may be met with criticism. Ultimately, Mr Morrison wants it both ways: he wants the right to discuss his religious beliefs openly, but he also wants to prevent these beliefs from being discussed critically.

And this is the crux of the matter: the often conflicting aims for religious MPs between their duties as public servants and their duties as believers. To the extent that they are fulfilling their role as public servant, they are welcome to wax lyrical about their religion for as long as they wish to anyone willing to listen. Doing so, however, should imply recognition of the fact that their seat in parliament is not a pulpit from which spiritual maxims can doled out without right of reply: it is part of an ongoing dialectic. He has the right to argue that the Christian faith can be used to establish and reinforce "the principles of our liberal democracy upon which our own nation is built", others have the right to argue that it doesn't.

And that, Mr. Morrison, is how a secular democracy works.

Friday, February 15, 2008

How Hillary Intends to Climb Mt. Improbable

It would be difficult to outdo Rudy Giulliani in the "retarded election strategy" stakes, but Hillary Clinton certainly seems up for the challenge. A recent MyDD post describes this strategy:

The Clinton campaign made clear that it planned to win Super Tuesday based on a tight four-state strategy, focusing on California, New York, New Jersey, and Arkansas, which, they frequently cited, made up 40% of the delegates assigned --- a strange strategy in a system that isn't winner-take-all. Clinton's name recognition and her general support level across the country would have to hold her up in the vast swaths of the country that she had already conceded.


This strategy of focusing hard on winning the biggest states turned out to be one of this campaign season's great blunders, and it is one that the Clinton campaign seems to make repeatedly. The Obama campaign has repeatedly found ways to get ahead in the delegate count, out-organizing rural areas of Nevada to win an extra delegate while the Clinton campaign won Clark County, and then repeating that success to run a field campaign across 22 states that kept the delegate count close in states Clinton won and racked up the delegates in states Clinton did not bother to contest.


It was not a lack of funds that led the Clinton campaign to ignore rural areas, to write off multiple states. Rather, the Clinton campaign seemed oddly unprepared, clinging to a misjudgment, counting on national poll numbers, unwilling to run the expansive grassroots national campaign that the Obama campaign had been preparing for for months.

As if to underline this, Clinton strategist Mark Penn recently came out with the following argument:

""Could we possibly have a nominee who hasn't won any of the significant states -- outside of Illinois? That raises some serious questions about Sen. Obama.”

With that kind of arrogance, is it any wonder that Obama continues to destroy Hillary in the smaller and caucus states? Does she expect to get elected in the general with that kind of approach?

But of course, even if she fails to beat Obama in the delegate count (not such a stretch given she's prepared to cede half the country to him already) she has a backup plan:

Hillary Clinton will take the Democratic nomination even if she does not win the popular vote, but persuades enough superdelegates to vote for her at the convention, her campaign advisers say.


Clinton will not concede the race to Obama if he wins a greater number of pledged delegates by the end of the primary season, and will count on the 796 elected officials and party bigwigs to put her over the top, if necessary, said Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson.

"I want to be clear about the fact that neither campaign is in a position to win this nomination without the support of the votes of the superdelegates,'' Wolfson told reporters in a conference call.

Surely not even the Democrats would be so stupid, so inclined to self-destruction as to nominate a candidate who lost the popular vote and delegate count in the primaries? Is this the sign, perhaps, of a once "inevitable" - now failing - cadidate clutching desperately at straws?

Sorry is the Hardest Word

At least a decade too late, the federal government has finally followed the lead of the states in acknowledging the littany of horrors visited by this country upon its native population. It was a simple gesture in many ways, but the reactions tell us that it was not an incosequential one. For those - like our esteemed friend, Tony Abbott - who had earlier argued that a formal apology represented nothing more than a empty gesture, a token of politically-correct symbolism, the unbridled outpouring of emotion must have come as a surprise. Try telling the grown men in the crowds across the country, reduced to tears and inspired to the point of talking openly - perhaps for the first time in their lives - about the possibility for "hope" and "healing", that this was nothing more than an empty gesture!

The genuine impact of this little word and the ease with which it was said, underlines the pettiness and cruelty of John Howard's reluctance to be engaged on the matter. How small he now looks. His curious vendetta against reconciliation has been broken and the nation has moved on without him. His steadfast reluctance to formally apologize, as head of parliament, for the parliament-sanctioned kidnapping of Aboriginal children has earnt its rightful place as a historical footnote, an archaic oddity of national policy that future generations will struggle to understand. His legacy, however, may yet die hard.

Nelson's political acrobatics on the day - submitting in principle to the idea of an apology while simultaneously attempting to placate the skepticism of his conservative base - received the scorn they deserved. His attempt to charcterise the policy of reloctaing Aboriginal children (and refusing them any future contact with their families or culture) as an essentially well-meaning (and, in some cases, well-enacted) policy was particularly odious. The sentiment of this passage - and much of his speech - is the sentiment that goes right to the heart, I think, of the conservative reluctance to respect the legitimacy of this formal apology: that is, the rejection of any and all personal responsibility for the attrocities committed. I didn't take away any children, so what do I have to apologise for?

This has been a common theme, elucidated ad nauseum by rankled culture-warriors all over the country. They have, however, as usual, missed the point. Perhaps the most poignant moment of Rudd's speech was the one that addressed this issue directly:

"We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible, not those who gave effect to our laws. And the problem lay with the laws themselves. As has been said of settler societies elsewhere, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors; therefore we must also be the bearer of their burdens as well."

Without wanting to dive too deeply into the waters of post-modern thought, the notion of continuity - particularly of parliament - is essential for the meaningful existence of a country. If you want to recognise the legitimate need for countries (which, as I have outlined in a previous post, is something I have my reservations about) then it must be understood that new countries aren't formed every time a new government ascends to power. None of the individuals responsible for the policies that led to the stolen generation are still in power, but as benefactors of the nation that they helped form, we inherit their "burdens" as well. If the spirits of the Anzacs still live with us today,  as Dr. Nelson suggests, then so do the ghosts of the stolen generation.

And that is why we are compelled to say sorry.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Imagined Community: Australia and Nationalism

As Australia Day approaches, we can expect a lot of pointless navel-gazing from commentators in the media about what it means to be an Australian. Much of the commentary will take on a familiar format: rhetorical questions, for instance, about whether being Australian means going to the cricket, or holding barbecues, or drinking beer, or engaging in other similarly mundane, cliched activities - all will eventually be answered in the negative, of course.

Others will point, with saccharine sincerity, to the long-standing Australian traditions of "mateship", the "fair go" and the tenacity of the "Aussie battler" as defining the national ethos - though, if they are being honest with themselves, they will also acknowledge that the concepts of friendship, fairness and perseverance are hardly unique to Australia. Others still will opt to take a less charitable view of the country, pointing to the decline in egalitarianism and the rise of exclusionary nationalism during the Howard years. While this may well be true, these are, again, hardly social movements that one can say are uniquely confined to Australia.

Regardless of which angle these doyens choose to take on our national narrative, I can guarantee one thing: all will offer the disclaimer at some point during their insufferable musings that defining the Australian culture is "difficult". The reason for this is obvious, though few of them - I suspect - will acknowledge it: there isn't anything especially unique about Australian culture. There is nothing here that cannot be found millions of times over among the peoples of the world. There is no thread which runs through each of our 21 million citizens to the exclusion of all the other people on the planet. All that binds us is the scope of a largely arbitrary geographical boundary.

Of course, we are not unique in this regard. Defining the culture of a large, pluralistic society will always be impossible. The concept of a nation - no matter how apparently strongly defined its "culture" or "traditions" are - is still an artificial one, one created and bought into by the human beings who live within its boundaries. We are, to invoke the memorable term coined by Benedict Anderson, living in "imagined communities":

"Benedict Anderson defined a nation as 'an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign'. An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and cannot be) based on quotidian face-to-face interaction between its members. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity. As Anderson puts it, a nation 'is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion'."

The consequence of this is that the nature of national identity will always be illusory, will always be tenuous and will always be the source of internal dispute. Many gallons of ink and tons of paper will be employed in the exploration of what defines this nation, but all of it will be wasted. Besides our humanity (hence the broad themes, common to most people around the world - like fairness and egalitarianism - that have been offered as definitions of Australian culture previously) and our collective willingness to submit to an ambiguous, fractured vision of nationhood, we - as a people - share little in common. In a nation that nurtures plurality, supports the sovereignty of the individual and enforces both with the provision of liberal legislation, none of this should be a problem: regardless of our dispositions towards nationhood, societies should sustain themselves through a process of mutual tolerance. It is only when conceptions of nationality are artificially contrived and enforced upon societies that this system is threatened: we are emerging from just such an age.

To quote Waleed Aly, from Sunday's Age:

"John Howard nurtured a type of civic national religion. Within the space of a decade, Anzac Day rose to the level of sacrament. The flag, too, became sacred — to the point where schools were ordered to fly it if they wanted more federal funding. Even when drunken hordes wearing it as a cape rioted against non-whites in Cronulla, Howard could not bring himself to object to its sordid use: 'I would never condemn people for being proud of the Australian flag,' he declared, sending the discussion in a nationalist direction. A month later, a flag seller in Ringwood reported his sales at a 40-year high."

Aly then speculates on why it was that Howard found middle-Australia - normally skeptical about conspicuous displays of patriotism - so receptive to his neo-nationalistic agenda:

"Questions of culture and identity became naturally militarised in the post-September 11 era. The prevailing anxiety had everything — our cities, our lifestyles, our culture — under threat from invasion. The implication was that we had to defend ourselves. This naturally made the re-emergence of Anzac Day a perfect fit. It is instructive that the Cronulla rioters dubbed themselves sons of Anzacs. The immigrants they obviously detested, by implication, were not. It is a subtle but important indication..."

Given the fragile and contingent nature of national identity, it should be no surprise that it often manifests itself not as a positive affirmation of what we are but as a violent opposition to what we are not. This, history will show us, is the problem with nationalism. It cannot, by definition, be inclusive as a movement because there is nothing that universally binds the people of a nation or a culture: these are entirely the artifacts of imagination. In lieu of this, our only recourse is to identify that which we are not: those within our imagined communities who differ most conspicuously from those promoting the nationalistic agenda. Cronulla, then, wasn't borne from a resurgence in national identity, it was born from the frustration of not being able to find such an identity in the first place.

All this surely must bring us face to face with the question concerning the proper place of nationalism in our society. Traditionally and almost universally, nationalism has occupied a privileged position in the realm of social dialogue, almost beyond any possibility of reproach. Love for and commitment to one's nation was seen as the height of nobility. But the study of history must surely bring this conception of nationalism into question.

Recently, religion - which has traditionally occupied the same, privileged position in social dialogue as patriotism - has come under strident criticism from a number of best-selling authors. Sam Harris, among others, makes the point that the "free-pass" given to religion is no longer tenable in the aftermath of September 11th: the religious beliefs that people hold can demonstrably effect the lives of others, and it is therefore folly to consider these beliefs inscrutable. When apologists for religious belief make the point that not all religious belief is bad, that much of it makes people feel good and provides meaning to lives that would otherwise have none, Harris argues (a little too unequivocally in my opinion) that it is just such an attitude that enables radicalised religion in the first place. If people hold the a priori belief that religion is "good" and that all "bad" religions are simply corruptions of "true" faith - a phenomena that philosopher Dan Dennett refers to as "belief in belief" - then it becomes difficult to offer meaningful criticism of any religious belief until after it manifests itself violently. But by then, of course, it is too late.

The same arguments can easily be levelled against nationalism. While much of it is harmless - while much of it has a beneficial effect on individuals and the imagined communities they constitute - much of it is not. Much of it is, as I have already detailed, divisive and exclusionary. So long as we unquestioningly accept the premise that the patriot - the man who unfalteringly loves his nation of birth - is a shining examples to the rest of us, then we facilitate the kind of belligerent nationalism that has wrought only violence and division wherever it has been manifested. When we see Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots fighting at the tennis over long-standing nationalistic divisions, we cannot help but see the senseless folly in this. The question is, why can we not see the same when it applies to us? Why can't we see just how arbitrary and unnecessary our own nationalistic yearnings are?

"Arbitrary" here is the right word. Let me stress that there is good sense in identifying with those who live near to us. My compassion is, in a way, much more efficiently directed towards those in my street than towards those half a world away. There is sense, too, in a more universal identification: the acknowledgement of our common humanity and the inherently equal worth of all human life. But there is absolutely no sense - especially in an age where they are defined increasingly less by racial or ethnic distinctions - in national identification. It is an imaginary, arbitrarily drawn border that stretches local compassion too wide and confines universal compassion too narrowly. The day that the sovereignty of nations is eroded in favour of governance both more local and more global, is the day that world-peace appears on the distant horizon. Until that day we are stuck with our imagined communities: archaic, arbitrary and inherently divisive.

Happy Australia Day everyone!

The Herald-Sun Sucks (Part #3): "Troubled Teens Should Be Given Guns and Taught How To Kill People"

From the Herald-Sun on Thursday 17th:

Not sure if there's much else I can add.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mercury Rising

After nearly 4 years of travel, the Messenger spacecraft has finally made its first fly-by of Mercury. Although it won't settle into an orbit of the planet for another 3 years or so (that's physics for you) it's already sending back some extraordinary images:

"On the upper right is the giant Caloris basin, including its western portions never before seen by spacecraft. Formed by the impact of a large asteroid or comet, Caloris is one of the largest, and perhaps one of the youngest, basins in the Solar System. The new image shows the complete basin interior and reveals that it is brighter than the surrounding regions and may therefore have a different composition. Darker smooth plains completely surround Caloris, and many unusual dark-rimmed craters are observed inside the basin. Several other multi-ringed basins are seen in this image for the first time. Prominent fault scarps (large ridges) lace the newly viewed region."

"As NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft approached Mercury on January 14, 2008, it captured this view of the planet's rugged, cratered landscape illuminated obliquely by the sun. This image was taken from a distance of approximately 11,000 miles, about 56 minutes before the spacecraft's closest encounter with Mercury. It shows a region 300 miles across including craters less than a mile wide. The large, shadow-filled, double ringed crater to the upper right was glimpsed by Mariner 10 more than three decades ago and named Vivaldi, after the Italian composer."

This is the first time that we've seen ever seen some of these landscapes, so it's hard not to feel privilaged. More images to come over the next few days as they become available.

On Evangelism (Part 1): The Nihilistic Meme

If you have visited youtube in the past year, you will have probably noticed two varieties of posts commonly left underneath the videos there.

The first is spam for Ron Paul's quixotic tilt at the presidency. While there is probably much that can be said about the psychology of those who are moved to advertise their allegiance to Dr. Paul on that site, it is not a phenomena that I wish to explore here. The phenomena that I do wish to explore here is the psychology of people who leave a different sort of comment: the internet chain-letter. I'm sure you're all familiar with the idea of a chain-letter, so I'll skip the definition. The question is, why are they so common?

Put simply, chain-letters are prevalent because they are designed to be prevalent. Some ideas lend themselves more naturally to fruitful replication than others, so it should come as no surprise that those ideas created solely for the purpose of self-replication should, in a short space of time, find themselves spread far and wide.

In his book "The Selfish Gene", Richard Dawkins notes similarities between the transmission of ideas in such a manner and the transmission of genes. He coined the term "meme" to describe this phenomena: that ideas, like genes, are subject to fitness and selection pressures that impact on their capacity for self-replication. The test for genes is environmental adaptation (genes that create organisms well suited to the natural environment are more likely to be replicated than those that aren't) and it's no different for memes. Put simply, those memes best suited to their environment (for memes, the environment is our brains) are more likely to be remembered and passed on (either orally or textually) to other people.

In the case of internet chain-letters, we can see clearly how these memes exploit the architecture of the brain to replicate themselves. They make claims that are likely to stimulate the emotional centers of brain, impressing themselves more forcefully onto our consciousness than the other ideas we encounter and discard without giving second thought to. They may, for instance, play upon our hopes ("If you forward this to 10 people you will feel happier!"), our fears ("If you don't forward this to 10 people you will be murdered!"), our compassions ("Every time you forward this, Microsoft will donate 10c to a little girl with cancer!"), our greed ("If you forward this to 10 people you will win $1000!") and our loves ("If you forward this to 10 people you will be kissed by you crush tomorrow!"). Having gained access to our brain through its emotional centers, the meme must then use this foothold to copy itself.

As obvious as it may seem, the successful chain-letter will therefore need to contain an imperative for the reader to forward it onto other people before the promise it makes is fulfilled. A chain-letter that makes an emotion-laden promise without a command for replication - or a chain-letter that contains a command for replication without an emotional-laden promise - will not be as successful as a chain-letter that has both. (For more ideas on the sorts of qualities that may make a successful chain-letter, see bottom of this page.)

While chain-letters are in themselves generally quite harmless, there are other examples of memes out there - with similarly prodigious rates of replication - that are not quite so harmless for the brains that harbour and transmit them. It was this post on the TA political forums that got me thinking about such memes.

The thread itself was nothing unusual: a fairly typical attempt at hit-and-run witnessing, one that we have seen many times before. The method, on this occasion, was to link us to a website about a man who claims to have spent 23 minutes in hell. Initially notable only for its atrocious design, a quick glance of this page makes the site notably atrocious for a completely different reason. After going into grating detail about the horrors he claims to have witnessed in hell, Wiese (the speaker and man in question) makes the following observation:

"The Bible is real plain, we are all sinners, and whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved."

Note the emotional hook here. Note how it plays both on the fear of hell (built up from the graphic descriptions over the preceding thousands of words) and our desire for salvation. It then makes a promise: believe in Jesus and salvation from hell is yours. A similar claim built on a different emotion (guilt) is made just a bit further down:

"... remember Jesus hung naked on a cross, in a market place, he hung there for you, He endured your shame."

The correlation between these claims (emotion-laden promises) and those of the chain-letters should be clear. But the similarities become even more striking later in that same paragraph:

"Jesus said if you will confess me before men, publicly, then I will in turn confess your name before my heavenly Father and the Holy angels."

The structure of this meme should look familiar to you by now: forward this message to others and the promise within it shall be fulfilled. The "announcer", at the conclusion of the text, puts it even more explicitly:

"I'm going to issue a challenge to you... and here's what it is. It's got two parts. One, I will no longer fear the face of man. The biggest single inhibitor to us acting like you really know there's a Heaven and there's a Hell. I will no longer fear the face of man. Two, I will talk to everyone I know, the rest of my life about Jesus, and Heaven, and Hell. That is a huge commitment. Every person I know who reached people for Christ came to these two points of commitment. Why else have a relationship with anyone, if not to share with them the glorious good news that saves their soul from Hell? It's a felony in the Spirit to know someone, to converse with them, to entertain yourselves with them, to enjoy their presence, and never tell them that, without Christ, they are going to Hell. Every relationship is to be a doorway to communicate the truth that you've witnessed today."

So there you have it. Evangelism: the ultimate chain-letter. If you want to know why Evangelical faith (or should I say "meme"?) is one of the fastest growing in the world today, this may well be the answer. But that's not the end of the story.

If Evangelism were nothing more than a memetic compulsion to talk about Jesus, then we probably wouldn't have anything to worry about - save, perhaps, for the occasional loss of time incurred from being accosted by zealots (interestingly, Wiese earlier describes the "theft of time" as a sin. Why do I get the feeling that the irony here would be lost on him?). Evangelism, however, is more than that. It comes bundled with its own unique theological baggage that makes it - in my opinion at least - far more dangerous than your average theological meme.

For me, the danger is summed up in this single sentence:
"I believe I'm saved. Not by good works, but by faith, by trusting in [Jesus]."

For Evangelicals, simply believing in Jesus marks the path to righteousness (and therefore - more importantly, from their perspective - heaven). Good works - which have an admittedly ambiguous definition in Christian theology - are no longer necessary. In theory (and I stress the word "theory", here) one could live a life defined by commitment to an endless series of unspeakable acts of horror, buttressed by the occasional invocation of Jesus' name, and still make it into heaven. This is - for anyone who abides by it - a valueless, selfish doctrine. Taken to its natural conclusions, it is a doctrine that confers no moral responsibilities or obligations upon anyone: by any definition, this is a distinctly nihilistic doctrine.

It is this nihilism - and the departure it represents from the impulsion of Jesus' teachings - that I'll explore when I next post on this subject.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Herald-Sun Sucks (Part #2): "Climate-Change Skeptics Ignorant of Atmospheric Science? Never!"

I'm not sure what I can say about this one (also published on the 13th).

I mean really, Ron? Carbon dioxide didn't exist in 1939? I presume he meant anthropogenic carbon dioxide here, but even that's not right.

The other fallacy - that short-term weather extremes can be used as evidence against (or in favour of, for that matter) climate change - is all too common. We find a similar sentiment on Monday's pages (7th Jan).

The point here, of course, is that the issue of climate change pertains to global climate trends, not local weather events. As tempted as I am to eviscerate the authors for holding such basic misconceptions on the issue (which apparently didn't make them think twice about weighing in on it), the real blame here lies with the paper.

Publishing letters of such questionable, factual import does nothing to advance debate and serves only to foster ignorance and unnecessary confusion in the community. The paper is giving undue legitimacy to climate-change skepticism and fueling common fallacies about the issue in the process. It would be easy to place the blame for the poor standard of argument in these letters at the feet of their authors (who certainly should not avoid all culpability here), but their ignorance, depending on the circumstances, may well be excusable: the loose criteria by which the Herald Sun chooses the letters it publishes certainly is not. The Herald Sun, remember, the most widely-read publication in this city by a wide margin. For many people, it serves as the primary source of news. When the paper gives legitimacy to spurious argumentation such as this, it succeeds only in polluting the pool of public information that is so integral to the democratic process. Needless to say, this is the exact opposite of what a newspaper should be doing!

I can't help but laugh at many of the opinions that are published in the Hun, but there is a serious side to this. As I said in my last post, these people vote and they are being seriously let down by the poor standard of information that so regularly makes its way onto the paper's pages. I'm presuming that the paper wouldn't deign to compromise the integrity of public debate by publishing letters that question, say, the scope of the holocaust or the legitimacy of the moon-landing, so why should it be any different for the issue of climate-change?

The Herald-Sun Sucks (Part #1): "David Hicks Responsible for the 9/11, Bali, Madrid and London Terrorist Attacks...Possibly WW2 As Well..."

As a masochist, one of my favourite past-times is browsing through the Herald-Sun opinion page, allowing myself the opportunity to reconnect with the thoughts and feelings of the common man. If you happen to hold the belief that rationality in our society is becoming more common, the belief that democracy is unequivocally a good thing, or, indeed, the belief that there is hope for the future of our species, then a daily scan of this page will quickly free you of those delusions. From now on whenever I stumble upon a particularly notable piece of correspondence, I will scan it and post it on this blog so that you too may bask in its insanely disconcerting glory. This letter published on the 13th is a worthy first entry.

It really does have a bit of everything that I've come to expect from the letters published in this paper. That neat, unambiguous dichotemy of the world into heroes (WW2 vets) and villians (David Hicks); a complete incapacity to see nuances or shades of grey on any matter; unrestrained, disproportionate and largely impertinent emotional rhetoric ("how would you feel if that was your family?"); that inexplicable use of the term "do-gooder" as a perjorative; and - above all - a complete lack of understanding about the issue that motivated the correspondence in the first place.

The letter was apparently a response to the quite legitimate question about whether David Hicks had committed a crime or not (under the Australian law at the time, of course, he hadn't), but in his stampede to the moral high-ground Mr Bloomfield appears to have forgotten to address this question at all. In fact, as if to highlight the intellectual poverty of his position, he lists for the world a series of crimes that David Hicks was not involved in. You may laugh, but his vote in this democracy is worth exactly the same as yours...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

"When We Awoke One Morning from Troubled Dreams, We Found Ourselves Transformed..."

It still doesn't feel real. During the entire election build-up, I was waiting for that moment when the forces of history would collude to disappoint me yet again. Would Howard stumble upon a wedge-issue to exploit, yet again profiting at the hand of Rovian, "fifty-one percent" style politics? Would the electorate, wary of the potential of future interest-rate rises, abandon their flirtation with the contender and again re-elect Howard on the strength of his capable economic management? Something of this sort was bound to happen, at least. It invariably does when I have an interest in the outcome.

But this time it was different. John Howard finally met his end in the most satisfying, shaudenfreude-inspiring way possible (thank-you Maxine!) and Kevin Rudd - easily the most desirable choice for PM from a pretty thin crop on the ALP side - was the man to take his place. In the aftermath, I experienced a feeling of relief that probably can't be properly appreciated by those who haven't spent their entire adult lives feeling completely disenfranchised by the political process. It was the same, sudden discontinuity one feels when waking up from a nightmare and being confronted with that first, calming sight of reality through bleary eyes. The surreal horrors come to an abrupt end and one finds oneself ready to continue as though the dreams had never happened in the first place, save for that renewed respect one suddenly feels for the banality of waking life.

Waking up from the election, all of a sudden the paths to political progress didn't seem quite so steep, the forces opposing it not quite so irresistable and the case for change not quite so hopeless. Instead of having to scrap tooth and nail for ten years just for an acknowledgement from the government that climate change exists, we now awake to find our government adding its signature to the Kyoto Protocol. Instead of having the issue of reconciliation derided as "black-armband politics" - just one battle-front in a greater "culture war" (a war that I, for one, certainly never enlisted for) - we now awake to find our PM canvassing a formal apology to the Aboriginal people. This, most assuredly, marks a new era in Australian politics. This is a nation transformed.

However, for all this, we must be careful not to overstate what has been won here. Much of the "progress" embodied by Kevin Rudd are on issues that - under normal circumstances, anyway - should have really been resolved about a decade ago. Signing Kyoto, pushing for reconciliation, implementing a fair and flexible IR system etc. - all this would have surely been achieved already had Keating won a third term. On the face of it, Australia has been living in a timewarp for the past 11 years; a period of time completely out of step with the normal path of time. It's almost like we never quite made it to 1997: after 1996, we found ourselves trapped in a dream-like, atemporal vaccuum that completely subverted chronological progression; a period of 50s-era social policies and Victorian-era economic policies. Only now, with Howard's departure, can the nation collectively wake-up, shake their heads groggily, and ask: "What the hell just happened? Is it 1997 already?"

Yes, Australia, it is and unfortunately much has happened in the decade we've spent lying in bed, periodically hitting the democratic snooze alarm ("Just three more years of Howard, then I'll get moving. I promise") between terms of troubled dreams. Kyoto, reconcilliation, the restoration of workplace rights and so on: none of these, in the year 2007, should still be on the agenda. While it encouraging to see Rudd moving swiftly to bring Australia in line with the rest of the modern world on these issues (leaving the US conspicuously behind, particularly on the issue of climate change), we have much to catch up on. During the time where the conservatives have held political hegemony in this country, progressive issues such as abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, multiculturalism, church-state separation and so on have never really had the opportunity to be heard, let alone implemented. Will Rudd facilitate this dialogue, or are we just entering a period of slightly less belligerent, slightly more sane conservativism? Remember, as much as he isn't John Howard, Rudd still essentially believes that embryos are entitled to more rights than homosexuals. The battle hasn't been won, yet: it's barely even begun.

We may have awoken from a Kafkaesque nightmare, but as Kafka showed us, the reality we awake to after a night of "troubled dreams" may prove to be no less troubling. For now we are entitled to bask in the glow of a Rudd victory, but there is still much to do and progress - I suspect - will still have to be hard won.

This is a Blog

After much procrastination, I've finally decided to join the rest of the world in publishing my own "web log" - or what we here in internet land call a "blog" for short. Here, my thoughts shall be pass through the intermediate vessel of my keyboard onto the "internet" (or "world wide web" for short), laid bare for an unsuspecting and largely indifferent world to muse over. Here reputations shall be made and lost with the click of a mouse. Paradigms shall be forever altered with the clackity-clack of a keyboard. The sacred shall be made profane upon my whim, and the profane made sacred. There shall also be youtube videos and gratuitous political commentary.

Watch this space.