Category Archives: politics

Cause and effect

I haven’t been too impressed with ethanol fuels for a while. My concern back then was “that if governments make emotional knee-jerk reactions, the cure may be as bad as the disease it is designed to alleviate.”

In that context, the current food crisis is a salutory reminder of the nature of cause and effect.  Food riots have occurred in Egypt and Haiti and other countries, and the World Bank has warned the increased cost of food will push 100 million impoverished people deeper into poverty.

As this Washington Post article makes clear, the causes of the crisis are many, including the Australian drought, high oil prices and world economic trade barriers which obscured the rising food prices, preventing the market from making gradual adjustments.

However, another cause is the move in the US to plant crops for biofuels. Apparently one-fifth to one-quarter of the US corn crop will go to the production of ethanol for biofuel, which has contributed to the rise in global corn prices. And one must question how efficient biofuel is, according to these statistics stated in a New York Sun article

“It takes around 400 pounds of corn to make 25 gallons of ethanol,” Mr. Senauer, also an applied economics professor at Minnesota, said. “It’s not going to be a very good diet but that’s roughly enough to keep an adult person alive for a year.”

Some environmental and charity groups have now turned against biofuels as a result of the current crisis. It just proves that there’s no easy solution, and that proper and considered thought needs to be put into alternative fuel sources. This is why I hate scaremongering; it leads to irrational responses where the outcomes can be disasterous. Hopefully this will cause some thought about other options instead of biofuel.

But more than that, I hope that people will not starve as a result of the heightened food prices.

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Filed under climate change, Economics, environment, ethanol fuel, food, politics, society, USA

God’s law and the law of the State

What happens when you have a particular group in society who are not minded to follow the law of the State, but prefer to follow God’s law as they interpret it?

Recently this question has come up in relation to Sharia law, particularly after the Archbishop of Canterbury said that some aspects of sharia law would inevitably be adopted in Britain. But the question doesn’t just arise in relation to Islam. Many religions have a group within who prefers the laws of God to the laws of the State. For example, orthodox Jews in Australia may take some disputes between one another to the Beth Din, a religious court where rabbis hand out judgment. And some indigenous Australians may prefer that a dispute be dealt with under traditional law rather than “whitefella law”.

My personal opinion is that as long as the law of God does not transgress fundamental human rights, then parties can consent to that particular law binding their actions. It is rather like an agreement to arbitrate in a contract where any disputes are referred to a mutually agreed arbitrator. The problem occurs when a particular practice or punishment which is said to be required by the law of God or tradition is illegal under the laws of the State: eg, stoning, spearing through the leg, promise of child brides etc. My personal opinion is that such things should not be allowed. The issue is slightly more vexed with indigenous tradition than it is with other religious laws because indigenous people didn’t “choose” to move here and to be subject to our laws, they were imposed upon them from colonisers. Nonetheless, as I have explained in one of my very early posts, as a feminist, I just cannot countenance the assault and rape of a teenage “promised bride” by her tribal husband, for example. Cultural relativism be damned.

It is a difficult question however, because it is a balance between religious tolerance and universal human rights (which should apply to all, regardless of race or religion or anything else).

Consequently, I was really interested to read this article in Slate about the American legal system and the Amish and the Mormons. I hadn’t really thought deeply about the conflict that would arise between State law and the traditions and laws of these two groups.

Amish are Anabaptists of Swiss-German origin who live in separate communities. They dress in conservative dress, do not use much modern technology and do not educate their children beyond 8th grade because of the “worldly values” they might learn. Study is focussed on the Bible, and children are expected to work in the fields with their parents once they leave school. They do not believe in Social Security, and do not either make payments or accept payments from the government. The educational practices and expectation that children will work in the fields has brought them in to conflict with US education and child labor rules. In Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972) three Amish parents were fined by the Wisconsin authorities for taking their children from school before the age of 16, but the US Supreme Court ultimately upheld the right of the parents to do this. Amish refuse to participate in wars, and their conscientious objection has also gotten them into trouble. As the article in Slate observes, the Amish have been given a fair degree of latitude, in part because they are peaceful and because they have managed to broker compromises with the State.

Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. They believe in the Book of Mormon. The Church of the Latter Day Saints officially abandoned polygamy after pressure from law enforcement in 1890, but some other fundamentalist groups continue to practice polygamy. The practice of taking multiple wives and taking child brides has brought the Fundamentalist Mormon Church into conflict with the law. In the last few weeks, Texan authorities raided a Fundamentalist Mormon compound after a 16 year old girl called authorities to say that she had recently borne a child to her 50 year old husband. Other US States are concerned that this raid may ruin their efforts to make Fundamentalist Mormons trust them and cooperate with them. As the Slate article outlined, a large raid on a Short Creek Fundamentalist Mormon community in 1953 was ultimately counterproductive. The Slate article concludes that the Mormon groups are in a different situation to the Amish:

But the fundamentalist Mormons groups are in a state of evasion. The ban on bigamy functions as a zoning ordinance: Plural marriage is fine in isolated communities, but not in Salt Lake City, and certainly not on TV talk shows, as Tom Green found. So long as the fundamentalists remain in hiding, the extreme ugliness of conducting raids creates a form of tolerance. They are thus in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” state of legal limbo that could break open at any time. They are outside the law in a different way.

It will be interesting to see whether the Texan raid is counterproductive or forces the Fundamentalist Mormon church into submission.

These situations remind us that the conflict between God’s law and the law of the State has many facets, and there are different ways of resolving the issue. Have a read of the Slate article and see what you think.

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Filed under children, christianity, feminism, human rights, indigenous issues, islam, judaism, law, marriage, politics, religion, society, tolerance, USA

Fitna

The other day, I watched the film Fitna on YouTube, a film about Islam by Dutch right wing politician Geert Wilders.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had read some interesting reviews by Skepticlawyer at Catallaxy, Pommygranate at Australian Libertarian Society Blog and Saint at Dogfight At Bankstown.

I must say that I felt considerable ambivalence about it. I’ve waited over a week to write on it.

On the one hand, I support freedom of speech. Furthermore, there is no denying the fact that there are extremist Muslims who in the world who advocate terrorism or jihad (as I’ve argued previously). I think this kind of behaviour is unacceptable from anyone of any religion, and should be condemned.

But on the other hand, I wonder what this film will really achieve other than deepening the divide between the West and Islam. Among other things, it extracts news, film and photographs of all the worst instances of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and juxtaposes them against sura from the Qu’ran. It has a scaremongering feel which I do not like at all – it makes broadbrush generalisations and depicts the worst of a particular group. As I have said in a previous post, I find scaremongering propaganda to be problematic, regardless of whether it is on the Left or the Right, or from the West or Islam. It makes people behave in an irrational manner.

As Pommygranate noted in a post at the Australian Libertarian Society Blog, there is a rather odd dichotomy in this film – Wilders preaches Western values of tolerance and free speech, but he is essentially calling for intolerance of a certain religion. Pommy says:

He [Wilders] is essentially a hypocrite as on the one hand he champions Holland’s proud history of tolerance and freedom, yet on the other, seeks to introduce discrimination back into the Constitution (by banning further immigration of Muslims), wishes to ban the Koran as a fascist book comparable to Mein Kampf, and wants a complete ban on the wearing of the headscarf. 

The ironic thing, as with the Danish cartoons, is the way in which various Islamic groups and countries are claiming that the film is offensive and inaccurate for saying their religion is intrinsically violent and intolerant, but radical Muslims are also making death threats against LiveLeaks for posting the video… Don’t those guys who make the death threats have any sense of irony whatsoever? Any violent retaliation against Wilders will prove his point rather nicely.

The film makes me think of a book by Chester Porter called The Gentle Art of Persuasion. He argues that using fear to get your point across is not an intelligent way to put an argument. I concur. The central message I got from the film was “Muslims are terrorists, intolerant people, anti-Semites, bashers of homosexuals, genital mutilators and oppressors of women’s freedom.” But I am still wondering: what was the point? How are people (Muslim, Dutch and others) meant to respond to that message? How does this film fix anything?

If this film’s central message is that Muslims need to rethink the violent and unpleasant aspects of their religion, which is one of the film’s claims, then I don’t think a vehicle such as this would be the way to achieve it. It would immediately make even a moderate Muslim defensive of his or her religion, rather than open to reasonable criticism.

I suspect there were two responses Wilders wanted – to provoke a backlash among Dutch people to Islam (or at least, some extreme practices of some Islamic groups), and to make a point that the response to films or writings which criticise Islam is often violence (although I note that the Dutch Muslim population seems to have sensibly decided that the best response is to be moderate).

I’ve noticed in blog comments threads that a common response to the film is that “Christianity is just as bad” (see for example the comment thread which has developed at Iain Hall’s post). Yes, one could do the same with Christianity and find some nutbag Bible bashers who wanted to stone homosexuals or whatever, and intersperse it with Biblical quotes (particularly chapters like Leviticus). But I think that misses the point of the film. As Skepticlawyer has indicated in her post at Catallaxy, I think one of the particular concerns Wilders is focussing on is the interaction between Muslim immigrants in Holland and the mainstream Dutch culture, which is tolerant of homosexuality, prostitution, drug-use etc. Thus, it’s obviously not relevant for him to make a film on the shortcomings of Christianity, because the Dutch Christian attitude is generally tolerant; or at least, most Dutch Christians turn a blind eye to those things in Dutch culture which they disagree with. If a whole slew of US Southern Baptists emigrated to Holland and started questioning Dutch values, it would obviously be relevant to question Christianity, but that’s not the particular conflict he has in mind.

And ultimately, so what if you can do the same with Christianity? It doesn’t make the conduct of Islamists who espouse the same views right. It cannot be denied that there are a proportion of radical Islamists who believe many or all of the things in this movie. A plague on all the houses of those who seek to convert by the sword, kill and persecute those of different religions or oppress and use religion to justify violence towards women and homosexuals.

What is the best thing to do about Islamist terrorism and intolerance? I’m just not sure that this movie is a constructive solution to the problem: it may just make things worse. Yes, it is important to be honest about the problems of Islamist extremism, but it is also important to find ways to solve those problems rather than to inflame them.

Postscript

Incidentally, I heartly agree with Skepticlawyer that many Muslim commentators, politicians and imams need to get over calling anyone who disagrees with Islam’s tenets “Zionist”. A Jordanian media coalition described Wilders as “extremist and Zionist deputy Geert Wilders” in a press release. Wilders is not Jewish, and I don’t know if he supports the establishment and/or expansion of the State of Israel or not. Even if he does, that wasn’t the point of the film anyway. As soon as I hear insane frothing at the mouth about Zionists such as this, I start to doubt the credibility and sanity of the source.

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Filed under blasphemy, christianity, freedom of speech, islam, judaism, politics, racism, society, terrorism, tolerance

Ideology, law and teaching

As I am a university lecturer, I was interested to read about the Young Liberals’ campaign to “out” left-wing lecturers. That seems to miss the point to me: it’s a bit unpleasantly reminiscent of a McCarthyist witch hunt.

I have to say that in law school I had a variety of lecturers, from open Marxists to known advisers to the Liberal Party. I had no problem with that. One of my best friends at high school was a neo-Marxist, my other best friend was a Tory. They didn’t like one another much, but I liked them both a lot. I’m still friends with both.

The problem is not that a lecturer has a political leaning. The real problem arises in two situations:

  1. When a lecturer is sarcastic and vicious to those who disagree with his or her point of view.
  2. When a lecturer allows his or her particular view to skew what is taught away from the curriculum.

I once had a lecturer who savaged those who didn’t agree with the particular brand of ideology he followed. As it happened, he was very, very left wing, but that’s not the issue: I don’t care whether he was left wing or right wing. The issue is that he silenced and mocked those who disagreed with him. Certainly it had an effect on my own experience in that class. I said barely a thing during class, and I definitely did not enjoy the subject. A lecturer cannot help portraying things from his or her own viewpoint to an extent, but I think he or she should be open-minded to different ideas and viewpoints.

The other issue occurs when a lecturer allows his or her viewpoint to skew classes away from what is set down in the curriculum. This need not be a political point of view – it could also be a particular research bug-bear which interests the lecturer. Particularly with core law subjects, the object should be to give students the ability to deal with problems in practice. My own attitude is that I must focus on getting the law across and not indulge myself in personal enthusiasms too much. Of course my enthusiasm is part of what makes my teaching engaging to students, but not if I just concentrate on those topics which I like to the detriment of other topics. I actually suspect that my students find my own personal biases amusing and somewhat bizarre. (On the one hand I have a deep hatred of the notion of “fusion fallacy”, for example, and a dislike of the narrow-minded Sydney Equity Bar. On the other hand, I love restitution and resulting trusts. Yum, yum!)  When these things come into issue I always try to fairly present the opposing point of view, and I flag my own personal prejudices, with a rider that it is by no means necessary to agree with me to do well in the course, and indeed I welcome and enjoy good argument to the contrary. Of course, I do highlight ways in which I think current laws are unfair or could be reformed, but again, I say that students are welcome to disagree, and that they won’t be marked down for doing so. I also say that I don’t care what line they take, as long as it is well argued and justified. I suspect that scary lecturer who savaged people who disagreed with him has made me very, very conscious about never doing that to my students.

My friend’s brother told me that one of his university lecturers doesn’t teach to the curriculum at all, but rather speaks about things which interest her. As far as I’m concerned, that is appalling. Teaching is not a personal soapbox – she should make her own soapbox blog if that’s what she wants to do. That’s a private affair. Indeed, one of the reasons why I am anonymous on this blog is because I don’t want my students to know my political views and to feel constrained by them in some way.

So perhaps what is needed is not a McCarthyist witchhunt, but a clear policy that students come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse points of view which should be encouraged by teachers, whatever their own personal leanings. After all, part of the way in which we learn is by taking into account opposing views and criticisms, difficult and painful as that may be sometimes.

(I have to repeat that last sentence to myself lately: I suffered a particularly vicious review of my recent attempt to submit an article to a prestigious journal…waaaah! Well, I guess if you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to learn to play rough – they are mostly boys too, by the way.)

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Filed under academia, freedom of speech, law, law reform, legal education, politics, society, tolerance, universities

“You have to die, so that I can live.”

Last night, I watched a rather depressing documentary on SBS called The Anatomy of Evil. It was about people who perpetrate genocide. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this question for a while now, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how people could shoot/gas/blow up an innocent civilian.

This documentary consisted mainly of interviews with former members of the Einsatzgruppen and Serb paramilitaries, each of whom conducted ethnic cleansing of villages by lining up people and shooting them at point blank range. Some interviewees were unrepentant, and said they’d “do it again if it was necessary”. Some still regarded the people whom they had shot as sub-human. A few regretted their actions and felt less than human.

The director, Ove Nyholm, concludes that the trigger which compels ordinary people to behave like this is anxiety and fear of a threat. In such circumstances, people put aside normal feelings and become ruthless. This is a survival mechanism, and can actually be a positive thing. People can survive in terrible circumstances through sheer willpower. But in the scenario where a group of people who live alongside you are identified as the threat, there is a risk that you will become ruthless towards those people and cease to see them as human. Add to that a wartime context where violence and killing is condoned and people are forced to follow orders, and the results can be deadly. And there’s the notion of retaliating for past wrongs. One of the most unpleasant interviewees featured in the documentary cited the fact that his family had been driven from Kosovo by Albanians in the past, and that he felt satisfied and a sense of righteous revenge when killing villagers and burning down their houses. Another interviewee said that he became a member of the paramilitary group after his own parents had been brutally killed.

It occurred to me too that this analysis can also help explain other wars and ethnic and religious conflicts which do not involve genocide as such, but where innocent civilians are killed.

Take, for example, terrorist attacks. The way in which terrorists become galvanised to kill innocent people is by considering wrongs done to their own people, and desiring to take revenge. I recall that during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, someone forwarded a Powerpoint slide of dead Lebanese civilians, including a young boy. The purpose was obviously to provoke outrage against Israel. If I was a radical Hezbollah supporter, I am sure that such pictures would be used to whip me into a state of righteous indignation and revenge. And I am sure that an Israeli defending the incursion into Lebanon would ask me to consider Israeli civilians injured or killed by Hezbollah rockets, or Hezbollah terrorist bombs. They might also point to the suffering of Jewish people in the past in Europe as a reason as to why Israeli territory should be staunchly defended. Personally, I consider the loss of life on both sides to be tragic. Neither side can be said to be blameless, but by the same token, the natural human propensity for revenge makes the outraged response of each side understandable. This is why I am so reluctant to “take sides” in discussions on the Middle East, although I am a firm believer that the State of Israel has a right to exist in its original boundaries.

Conflict is fuelled by the notion that the other group represents a threat to the way of life or security of the group. Sometimes, as in Israel, Northern Ireland or Cyprus there are settlers and occupying forces. Sometimes there are competing claims to the same piece of land, or the same holy site (as with some mosques which are targeted by Hindu militants in India). Sometimes the particular ethnic group wants to be separate from the rest of the country, as with Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere and Tamils in Sri Lanka, because they feel that their way of life and culture is not adequately represented by the government of the particular country of which they are a part. Sometimes, the victimised group is a minority who have been made a scapegoat for a nation’s ills (as with Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, who were targeted because they were different).

When terrorist attacks are mounted, there are retaliatory attacks, often by armed forces. So the US felt justified in attacking Afghanistan because its innocent citizens had been killed by a terrorist plot which had been planned from Afghan territory. One can understand this. The perpetrators had been sheltered by the Taliban regime. But the problem with attacking terrorist or guerilla groups with military force is that they tend to blend back into the normal population, so when you attack them, there is a risk of killing and wounding innocent civilians, which further fuels the fires of righteous outrage.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, I just know that we should be wary of those trying to whip up moral outrage, whatever side they are on. Take the Cronulla riots in Sydney. Those organising the rally whipped up moral outrage against young men of Middle Eastern background who had been harrassing beachgoers. Yes, it’s true, harrassing innocent people at the beach is a bad thing. As a result of the rally/riot, several people “of Middle Eastern appearance” were beaten and attacked. Bashing people who happen to look like they come from the Middle East is also a bad thing. Then young men in Lakemba whipped up moral outrage to fuel a retaliatory attack. Attacking the houses and cars of people in Maroubra is another bad thing. The thing is that it’s all bad, and it’s mostly innocent people on both sides who suffer.

Perhaps it’s just instinctive that the “ruthless” switch is tripped when we feel that our safety, territory or way of life is under threat. Perhaps we need to recognise that it’s all just part of the way we’re hardwired. Of course one is outraged by injustice suffered by one’s family, friends or compatriots. How much worse would it be if someone in your family or friendship group is killed by a particular group? I’m not sure how I would cope in those circumstances. As Nyholm said in the documentary, he had to acknowledge that he had doubt as to how he would behave. I don’t know either. I’ve never known how I would behave if I were in the Milgram experiment, although I hope that I’m ornery enough to disobey orders. I do hope that if my “ruthlessness” switch was tripped, I would be able to recover my reason and morality. As one of the interviewees said, the scary thing is not that man becomes a beast, but how long he remains a beast.

Perhaps we need to consider that old piece of Klingon wisdom: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Seriously, its first recorded use in that form is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…the things you learn from Wikipedia!) When our moral outrage switch is tripped, perhaps we need to be aware that our “ruthlessness” switch may also be switched on at the same time, and guard against taking out our anger against anyone who is or may be associated with the group who is said to be morally outrageous. It is difficult to look into the heart of human darkness, but I am glad that I had the courage to watch this documentary.

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Filed under Cronulla riots, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, middle east, morality, Political, politics, psychology, religion, terrorism, tolerance, torture, Uncategorized, USA, war

Who’d be a polly?

Not me, for sure. I’m far too clumsy. In fact, I am known for the stories of my clumsy adventures, although I haven’t had one in a while (touchwood). Not since I dropped my office key down the lift shaft at work over a year ago.

Therefore I felt quite sorry for Julia Gillard today given the wide press coverage of her fall onto her bottom. Bad enough if you do it in a room filled with 500 people (which I once did at a wedding – unfortunately walking past the bride and groom’s table at the time, so most of the people in the room were looking at me). How bad must it feel if you do it in front of the Australian political media? Seems like she handled it as gracefully as possible, anyway.

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A mutual agenda

Well, this post is probably a bit late given the stunning victory by Labor in the Federal election. But maybe it’s good to have time to mull over things. I feel nervous dipping my toe into the political quagmire surrounding unions: but here goes nothing!

On the way home from work, I drove past a billboard which for the last month or so has a poster which said “70% of Labor’s front bench are anti-business unionists.” Or some such slogan. That got me thinking. Are unions necessarily anti-business? And are businesses necessarily anti-union? Certainly, in practice, sometimes the two seem to go head-to-head in a stubborn fashion which leaves both sides looking pig-headed and short-sighted, but I think there are ways in which they can work together.

I have never been able to understand why workplaces would want to treat their employees badly. Many of my posts regarding law firms marvel at the way in which firms treat their staff. It seems quite amazingly short-sighted for firms to put money into training staff and then treat them so badly that they have left 18 months later. On the other hand, I have never been able to understand why unions would demand so many concessions from a workplace that it becomes unprofitable or inefficient. That seems like biting the hand that feeds you, from my point of view.

So it seems to me that many of the interests of unions and businesses should overlap. Both should want the particular business to be profitable and competitive. If the business fails because the company can’t afford to pay the high wages demanded of it, or can’t dismiss incompetent staff, the union members no longer have any jobs, so it is in their interests to ensure that the business stays alive and well.

On the other hand, both sides should want the workers to be happy and secure, and feel like they have a say in how the business is run. If workers are unhappy and feel like they do not have a voice, they will be unproductive, resentful, and may leave the workplace. In the short term there may be other poor sods who will replace them, but in the long term, this is a massive drain on the intellectual and monetary resources of the business. And if employees feel like they are not remunerated appropriately (while directors and shareholders line their pockets) – well, it’s times like these that I feel Marxism has a point…never forget that there would be no profit and no business without the labour of the worker. It just doesn’t make sense to treat your staff badly or underpay them.

Therefore, a scare campaign about unions did not resonate with me at all, because if they both work properly, unions and businesses are not incompatible…as long as they remember the big picture and do not enter into oppositional game playing. And I hate the politics of fear, as I’ve said before: decisions made out of fear are not good ones.

I think the Howard government failed to understand the job insecurity which faces many ordinary Australians, myself among them. I still don’t know whether I’ll have a job next year. As a consequence, funnily enough, I joined the NTEU about two months ago. It feels better to have collective might behind you. And as a member of the union, I can agitate for collective bargaining for sessional lecturers. I know unions aren’t perfect, but otherwise I’m one little lone lecturer with very little pull or bargaining power. It feels like me versus the Giant Machine. I have a vision of a little manga me facing a giant mechanical robot, like those ones Astro Boy was always battling. Wish me luck! Like Astro, I think I’ll be okay in the end…

Astro boy

(Taken from anime.com)

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