Sunday, August 17, 2008

Howard no coward: the eyebrows have it

john howard Former prime minister John Howard believes he would have been seen as "a coward" if he had stepped down voluntarily for Peter Costello but would have quit had a delegation of senior ministers demanded him to. Mr Howard's views and those of other key figures are contained in a recent essay by Sydney Institute executive director Gerard Henderson.

John Howard has been described by some as “Australia’s greatest Prime Minister”. History might well see him in a different light. Despite almost equaling Sir Robert Menzies record as the longest serving Prime Minister, the Howard years have left a string of bad memories. Among them: the draconian 1998 waterfront dispute lead by then industrial relations minister Peter Reith, the infamous ‘children overboard’ Bob Hawkecontroversy (later found to be untrue) which secured Howard the 2001 election, mandatory detention of illegal immigrants and their children and the wrongful deportation of Australian citizens and of course the ‘Work Choices’ debacle which put the final nails in Howard’s coffin. Voters might have forgotten many of the previous sour memories but were not so easily fooled when their working conditions and pay came under attack. Perhaps Howard never really realised that a wholesale attack on unions was not just an attack on the Labor party but an attack on Australian workers themselves.

Staying on as leader might well have been described as “a courageous decision” by Sir Humphrey Appleby (of Yes Minister fame). In actual Edward Gough Witlamfact, it is unlikely that after Work Choices anyone in the Liberal party could have done any better than Howard. In fact, Peter Costello might well have incurred even more wrath from voters as the principle architect of the highly unpopular Work Choices policy. Current speculation about a Costello return from the backbench is unlikely to worry the Labor Party very much either. Memories of the Work Choices betrayal are much too fresh in our minds. Having lead his government to a landslide defeat and the ignominious loss of his own (formerly blue ribbon) seat does little for the Howard legacy.

Perhaps John Howard’s best claim to being a great Australian Prime Minister is his development of a fine set of owlish eyebrows in the Sir Robert Menziestradition of other notables like Menzies, Whitlam and Hawk. Such a fine set of eyebrows seems to imbue a Prime Minister with an air of knowing wisdom. Howard’s eyebrows may well go down in history as his greatest achievement.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Paris Hilton's bid for The Pinkhouse

view the Paris Hilton parody John McCain has released a television commercial that likens Barack Obama's celebrity status to other celebrities like Paris Hilton. The comparison was not meant to be complimentary. It targets Obama's youth and inexperience with the catch phrase "Is he ready to lead?" Paris Hilton has released a commercial in response. Her parody calls McCain 'the oldest celebrity in the world' and likens him to figures such as the Golden Girls, Colonel Sanders, Larry King and Yoda from Star Wars.

view the original McCain adParis Hilton states that she is not from 'the olden days' and that she does not stand for change; she's just hot, "so thanks white haired dude". She does actually put foward an energy policy involving tax incentives and limited offshore oil drilling. She ends saying that if elected she might paint the Whitehouse pink.

McCain's response is that Paris Hilton has a better energy policy than Obama. It's quite surprising that Paris Hilton has actually made a coherent political statement, albeit inadvertently. John McCain's age, the perception that he is rooted in 'the olden days' and out of touch with the future is at least as much of a negative than any doubts about Obama's youth and inexperience.

In fact, it may well be much more of a negative than he realises.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Sport and Politics: The Beijing Olympics

aryans, berlin olympics 1936 Rene Roch, president of International Fencing Federation (FIE), said in Beijing Friday that the Olympics should not be mingled with politics. "No one should capitalize on the IOC to boycott the games," Roch told Xinhua in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the 2008 FIE World Championships, which kicked off in Beijing on Friday. "We should look ahead in a long term and avoid conflicts," he said. source: Xinhua

Many commentators have echoed this sentiment; wouldn't it be nice if we could just enjoy the games and avoid all the political unpleasantness. If only the issue was so simple. In May 1931 the IOC decided that the 1936 Olympic games would be held in Berlin, Germany. This was a great moment for Germany; it gave them a chance to show the world how great and powerful they believed they were. For some people in Germany, like the rising Nazi party, this was also a chance to show the world that the Aryan race was superior to all other races. (Hitler was incredibly annoyed when Jesse Owens' achievements contradicted this). While the Chinese can't quite be compared to the Nazis, their motivation is similar; to increase national prestige and to promote trade. source: Bloodshed and Politics Over the Olympic Rings

hitler, berlin olympics 1936During the rebel cricket tours of South Africa in the 1980s, most players used the 'let's keep politics out of sport' excuse to justify their involvement. The South African government's involvement in the tours was politically motivated. The matches served a propaganda purpose, helped to split the solidarity of the international campaign of isolating South Africa, and satisfied white South Africans' desire for international sport.

The fact is that involvement in international events and politics is inextricably linked. Involvement tacitly supports the policies of a regime. The decision to award the 1936 Olympics to a country with a human rights record like Germany now seems highly questionable. A more politically aware approach to such decisions is essential. Boycotting the games might not be the answer, but raising human rights issues is a moral responsibility.

Anyone who watched the coverage of the opening ceremony would realise that the olympics is indeed not about politics, or sport. It is about the sydication of television coverage. Athletes have to pass through media cordons before reaching events and there are more commercials than action.

Beijing haze

beijing birdsnest stadium in smogBeijing Olympics organisers have denied manipulating pollution statistics as thick smog worsens in the Chinese capital during the lead up to the opening ceremony. Climate change sceptics may quibble as much as they like, images like this one of the birdsnest stadium in Beijing are surely evidence enough for anyone that the environment is in a great deal of trouble.

While humidity has undoubtedly played a part in the recent build up of smog, air pollution levels have been more than twice the level considered acceptable. According to World Bank statistics, outdoor air pollution in China causes 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths each year. (The World Bank also reports that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.) For a lifelong Beijing resident, to look at a building whose edges are blunted by smog is, in effect, to consider your own mortality. China and India, the only two countries to have a population greater than 1 billion, together possess more than a third of the world's population. China is now the world's biggest carbon emitter ahead of the US. Considering the booming economic growth of these countries, levels of pollution are hardly likely to decrease any time soon. Whether climate change is real or not, the fact remains that we are poisoning the planet at an alarming rate.

Climate change sceptics seem very reluctant to acknowledge their own scepticism. They are aware that considerable numbers of people are very concerned about damage to the environment. Environmentally sceptical politicians are all too aware that scepticism has become electoral poison and now couch their inaction and stalling tactics in terms such as 'getting things economically right'. John Howard described himself as a 'climate change realist' and didn't fare too well. In the longer term, no one will profit from a poisoned planet. People are now accepting that short term sacrifices are the price we must pay for future survival.

I doubt too many athletes are looking forward to competing in the Beijing haze. The whole world might soon be competing to catch a breath as it engulfs the planet.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Dalai Lama's Olympic handshake

The Dalai Lama's Olympic handshake is circling the world, headed for Beijing. Click below to see more and join the call for dialogue!

As the Beijing Olympics begin, the world looks on with mixed emotions. It's a moment which should bring us closer together, and Chinese citizens deserve their excitement - but the Chinese government still hasn't opened meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama, or changed its stance on Burma, Darfur and other pressing issues.

Even worse, extremists in China are promoting the view that Olympic activism is anti-Chinese. We can't stay silent, but we also can't let our efforts be abused to divide people. So what can we do? The answer comes from the Dalai Lama himself, in an unambiguous gesture of Olympic spirit and friendship: a handshake.

It began in London, passed hand to hand by thousands of us - now the handshake has gone online, and is criss-crossing the globe on its way to Beijing. All of us can join, Chinese and non-Chinese, and it comes with a promise: to hold ALL our governments accountable where they fall short, in Tibet, Iraq, Burma or beyond. We'll deliver our message in a bold media campaign in Hong Kong and around the world: Click below to see how the Olympic handshake started, sign up to join in, and watch it circle the globe:

The worldwide outcry has produced a little progress, but much resistance from Chinese officials so far. If we are to see advances not setbacks after the Games, we need to show both that our voices will never fall silent, and that our challenge is a positive one.

We have one last chance to reclaim the spirit of the Olympics, with the message of friendship and dialogue we share with the Dalai Lama. The more people join the global handshake, the more powerful our message will be when it hits the Chinese and international media. So let's forward this email on, encouraging everyone to join in. "One World, One Dream" is an ideal that's bigger than the Olympics - it's time for citizens around the world to take it back.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Oral History

Oral history can be defined as the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information, based on the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker.
It often takes the form of eye-witness evidence about past events, but can include folklore, myths, songs and stories passed down over the years by word of mouth.

Source: Wikipedia

Oral history is a developing field and an increasing amount of importance is ascribed to it. Most major museums now employ a director of oral history. Schools include an increasing amount in teaching programs. While the thoughts an feelings of common people undoubtedly do allow a valuable insight into the way events effect people, placing undue weight on personal accounts has the potential to undermine a true understanding of history.

I recently supervised a modern history Higher School Certificate (final year) exam on the First World War. To relieve my boredom, I read the exam paper. I was surprised to find that most of the questions dealt with the role of women on the home front, rationing etc. Only one or two questions actually dealt with what actually happened in military terms. It seems that a politically correct agenda has highjacked the history curriculum, as it has in most other areas.

During my first week at teachers' college, we were all asked to give a presentation on a topic we were familiar with, to practice presenting to an audience. Having studied Fine Arts, I chose to talk about the Renaissance. Five minutes into my presentation, it became clear from the blank looks that no one knew what I was talking about, and these people were all university graduates. None of them had heard of the Renaissance; I was astounded.

Another case in point is the acclaimed TV series, The Civil War. This was an excellent series, 11 hours in length. Much of the 11 hours was taken up by accounts of soldiers at the front.

"Dear mom, we are really miserable here. Laying in a muddy ditch being shot at is not much fun. Gee I hope we're home by Christmas..."

Accounts like this consume much of the series, always accompanied by the same sickly violin music. How much do accounts like this really tell us? It really comes as no surprise that laying in mud being shot at is not an enjoyable experience. All I really wanted to know was what actually happened. I gave up watching the series and read a book on the subject with much more satisfying results.

In Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith talks to an old man trying to find out about life before the revolution. He was frustrated: "The old man's mind was a rubbish heap of details". The oral history presented by the old man was evidently not very useful.

It is something of a cliche to to say "those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. We might wonder how well the Bosnian Serbs under Slobodan Milosovic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic understood the all too recent Nazi holocaust. Hardly a recipe for social improvement.

While the insights provided by oral history might be interesting and valuable, allowing it to predominate at the expense of a balanced understanding of facts and events might well have dangerous consequences.