5 Apr

“I had never seen somebody fuck a kangaroo and eat it at the same time. Now I have.”

That’s what happens when your small town develops a zombie infestation.

I’ve reviewed SUDS’s production of Quack.


Government of Secrecy

3 Oct

Abbott started by not releasing real costings or substantive policy before the election.

He censored the arrival of asylum seekers. He didn’t explain that the NBN board had been sacked. He plans to delay the release of MYEFO. He illegally excluded Indonesian journalists from his press conference there, and wouldn’t explain why. Nor did he explain why he sacked senior public servants.

He censors anyone and anything that may say something adverse. The Climate Commission. A Malaysian democracy activist. Even his own ministry: he has forbidden his ministers from media appointments without prime ministerial leave. He and his ministers have not only refused for weeks to be interviewed by Leigh Sales on national television, but even feel the need to lie about being interviewed on ABC radio. They habitually run away from the press.

The fact that he constantly changes policy positions (such as on university student caps, buying boats, or paying childcare workers) conduces such uncertainty that it is itself a form of secrecy, because it erodes faith in any ostensible policy position.

Martial 7.20: Nihil est miserius

4 Sep

Nihil est miserius neque gulosius Santra.
Rectam vocatus cum cucurrit ad cenam,
quam tot diebus noctibusque captavit,
ter poscit apri glandulas, quater lumbum,
et utramque coxam leporis et duos armos,
nec erubescit peierare de turdo
et ostreorum rapere lividos cirros.
Buccis placentae sordidam linit mappam;
illic et uvae conlocantur ollares
et Punicorum pauca grana malorum
et excavatae pellis indecens voluae
et lippa ficus debilisque boletus.
Sed mappa cum iam mille rumpitur furtis,
rosos tepenti spondylos sinu condit
et devorato capite turturem truncum.
Colligere longa turpe nec putat dextra
analecta quidquid et canes reliquerunt.
Nec esculenta sufficit gulae praeda:
mixto lagonam replet ad pedes vino.
Haec per ducentas cum domum tulit scalas
seque obserata clusit anxius cella
gulosus ille, postero die vendit.

Nothing is more wretched and gluttonous than Santra.
When, having been invited, he runs off to a formal dinner,
which he has been chasing for many days and nights,
thrice he asks for the sweet-breads of a boar, four times for loin,
and both hare’s haunches and two shoulders,
and he isn’t embarrassed to lie about a thrush
and to snatch the blue-bearded oysters.
He smears his filthy napkin with mouthfuls of cake;
there, potted grapes have been positioned too,
and a few bad Punic seeds,
and the unseemly skin of a hollowed sow’s womb,
and an oozing fig and a mangled mushroom.
But now, when the napkin bursts with a thousand thefts,
he stores gnawed mussels in his warm pocket
and the body of a turtle-dove whose head has been devoured.
And he doesn’t think it’s shameful to collect, with a lengthened right hand,
whatever the waiter and the dogs have left over.
Even edible plunder is not enough for his appetite:
he fills a flask by his feet with mixed wine.
When he has carried all this home, up two hundred stairs,
and anxiously shut himself in his barred cellar,
that glutton, he sells it the next day.


Bridge by the Schweriner Schloss

29 Aug

Bridge by the Schweriner Schloss

Conflating Sciences and Morality

28 Jun

The conflation of the knowledges of sciences and social sciences with moral and social duties is an inevitability, yet we act and write as if this is not so. We pretend, for all intents and purposes, that a resolution of a science alone justifies a moral imperative. That in a secular world, virtues can be taken from science.

Take, for instance, this article on “fat activism”. The social pressure to maintain a particular body shape is a glorious example of this phenomenon. Medical advice such as being fit, not smoking, or avoiding germs is apt to quickly become a social imperative, as is evidenced by the neurotic disgust at the idea of germs or smoking and the severe social pressure not to be fat in developed societies. The article well demonstrates the social pressures not to be fat, but the most interesting part of the article is that the author herself falls victim to the meddling of scientific claims with moral claims in her defence of the overweight:

 “Overweight” carries an inherent judgement: “over”, above what you should be, thus the implication of a particular normal weight.

“Overweight” indeed carries an inherent judgement: that one’s weight is over that which is healthy. But the author uses the presence of this judgement to decry the social judgement that she perceives to exist in the word, without accepting that it could be possible to have a medically inadvisable weight while having a socially acceptable weight were social attitudes different. Indeed, she goes to preposterous lengths to try to demonstrate that being overweight is not particularly unhealthy in an article intended to address regrettable social attitudes towards being fat. All she really needed to do was show that one’s health is one’s own business and is no more deserving of scorn than not treating ingrown toenails.

She goes on to breathlessly declare that she has witnessed even feminists — of all people — eating healthily! She knows “socialist feminists who don’t shave their legs yet count calories”! This “fat hatred” and “self-loathing” is a “human rights issue”. Did it occur to the author that there might be a difference between not wanting to be overweight for the sake of being healthy and for the sake of conforming to expectations about body shape? No; for in her mind, as in the minds of most people, the two are conflated and cannot be divorced. One of the comments summarises this propensity well: “Fat has become a moral, cultural and aesthetic issue. This is what has become conflated with the health issue.”

But this habit transcends not only obesity or even the natural sciences. Across the social sciences we see a spectrum, with strict econometrics on one side, having the best claim to objectivity, albeit specious, and gender and cultural studies on the other, which makes no such representation. The same spectrum sees inadvertent social judgements arise from the first end, the most right-wing, of the spectrum, and explicitly subjective moral judgements made on the other. For instance, on the economics side, we would once have seen condemnation of excessive spending as lavish fiscal impropriety, while today excessive spending is seen as prudish in light of a focus on the mode of consumption rather than the mode of production. Conversely, the most liberal end of the social sciences unashamedly decries various sorts of prejudice.

Of particular peculiarity is the notion that it is morally reprehensible not to work. Economics, like other old, conservative social sciences and humanities such as history, makes a claim to actually represent the truth of the world. It recognises the negative effects of unfavourable unemployment rates or participation rates. But this is conflated with moral judgements in a logical connexion that is not obvious in the slightest, socially condemning worklessness in the process. This is why it is strategically favourable for Gina Reinhart to “[castigate] her children for not working full time“.

Indeed, the mining rich are prone to such assertions — consider Andrew Forrest’s winging in the infantile rag The Daily Telegraph on 3 May 2012 with the headline “Work is the key to living free of the curse of welfare and shame.” He offers us such gems as “a job…leads to dignity and self-respect” and “to work [is]…their duty”. Exemplifying the way in which he treats an economic issue as a moral one, he proudly declares that “this is the biggest moral issue facing Australia”.

This attitude is a distinctly Protestant, as Max Weber explains in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Australian values, insomuch as they exist in any coherent way, are predicated on Protestantism, which permits the accumulation of wealth (luckily for our friend Twiggy) but condemns idleness and the work shy, and is eager to moralise endlessly on all sorts of economic matters. While the idea of redemption is quite religious, the idea that one can redeem oneself through work is especially Protestant. Compare this to Ancient Greece, where not working was a virtue. Employment — especially when one worked for another — was analogous to slavery; one sees a similarity with Marxism. The Greek philosophers and aristocrats disparaged working and saw work as an interference with one’s duties as a human and a citizen of a democratic polis. Aristotle explained:

A state with an ideal constitution—a state which has for its members men who are absolutely just, and not men who are merely just in relation to some particular standard—cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics or shopkeepers, which is ignoble and inimical to goodness. Nor can it have them engaged in farming; leisure is a necessity, both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity.

There was no special moral status to work and the aristoi of those societies, unlike Reinhart and Forrest, would not consider deigning to work.

Such conflations of morality and science are an inevitability; they are a simple but unavoidable association of a descriptive account of the world with a prescriptive account of how the world ought to be. But we would do well to be conscious of this tendency, for prescribing behaviour to others is a very different matter from assessing how people behave.

A Small Word

11 Jun

There is a word that seems abused by ignorance: “O”. It is unusually at once a letter and a word, much as its cousins “I” and “a”. Aside from “I” and proper nouns, it is the only word that necessarily begins with a capital letter. Notwithstanding these remarkable properties, it is increasingly displaced by the more vulgar interjection “oh”.

Now “oh” has its uses, certainly. When one is surprised or pained, it serves its common function very nicely. But there exists a vocative majesty to “O”: consider the most visceral incantation “O, god” (“o, domine”). Indeed, the ecclesiastical survival of the word is a consequence of the fact that it has been used for millennia, with the Romans addressing their peers with this interjection in classical antiquity. For who can forget Cicero’s despair: “o tempores, o mores!” And how much less spectacular it is when the orator exclaims “oh tempores” as if he had stumbled across time and was mildly surprised to find it. No, our single-lettered friend exists in our language in a special but precarious way. And we would do well to remember it.

The New South Wales Curriculum

21 Oct

Michael Stuchbery’s arguments in favour of curriculum reform are at best populist, and at worst flawed. No doubt we have a crowded and imperfect curriculum, but when one clamours to have the curriculum amended claiming it does not prepare students for the real world, one ought to at least get one’s facts right.

As a Higher School Certificate student, I can attest to the existence of misconceptions in Mr Stuchbery’s polemic. Take English, for example — despite Mr Stuchbery’s contention that students ought to study just a “few great texts” and not the swathe of texts they study now, an average HSC English student will spend hours a week for a year only three to four texts, along with a handful of texts of their own choosing studied at home. The great works of the English canon are by no means omitted. Coleridge, Keats, Orwell, Donne, Blake, Dickens, Shakespeare and Austen join Emily Dickinson, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats on the current English prescriptions as possible texts to study for the HSC. Students might also study influential Australian authors, directors and poets such as Baz Luhrman, David Malouf, and Tim Winton.

Stuchbery also seems to think that students learn only a story in history, suggesting that more historiography be taught. Every HSC Ancient History student learns about an ancient society and a historical period, each of which includes the study of “relevant historiographical issues”, as well as an ancient personality and a study of Pompeii, each of involves learning how interpretations of the historical record have developed. After a year of Ancient History, I can discuss what modern writers such as Rawson, Hoyos and Syme think of Caesar, or what Aristotle, Plutarch and Xenephon wrote about Sparta in antiquity. A shortage of historiography is a product of Mr Stuchbery’s imagination, not a flawed syllabus.

Mr Stuchbery’s suggestion that students be obliged to learn mathematics shows an understanding of what is taught far removed from reality. I am a perfectly capable student and the twelve years of maths preceding Year 12 no doubt provided me with all the mathematical skills I will ever need. Given that I do not intend to pursue a career that involves calculus, conics, or polynomials, studying mathematics in Year 12 would be hours of study wasted on student who neither needs nor wants such knowledge. In suggesting that each HSC student be compelled to study Life Skills Mathematics, Mr Stuchbery is seeking to compel students to study a course intended to provide post-compulsory schooling opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities. One does not need to explain how that is a poor appropriation of the course’s purpose.

It is fortunate how ineffectual years of political bickering over what is taught in schools has been, and how far it is removed from reality. However well-constructed the arguments from each side of the debate might be — whether objective, factual, traditional education or contemporary, progressive education is being championed — one is always impressed at how little characterisations of the curriculum represent reality.


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