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.