13 November 2009

Chatterboxes

Read Arthur Schlesinger Jr's Journals 1952-2000 (New York: Penguin Press 2007) on the bus back from Sydney on Monday. Not a pleasant experience: too much preening, self-congratulation regarding association with the enlightened or eligible, and infatuation with the Kennedys, dead or alive.

Schlesinger notes a review of his memoirs by Jonathan Yardley that indicts him as "a name dropper, social climber, celebrity hound, Kennedy toady etc etc". That might have been true enough to sting. Maureen Dowd's NY Times review more kindly argued that
It's hard not to like a book that expounds on Marilyn Monroe on one page and the Monroe Doctrine on the next. When Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ruminates on the realm of hemispheric affairs, the transition from one Monroe to the other is seamless, as is the slide from Bosnia to Bianca Jagger and from Alexander Hamilton to Angie Dickinson. His diaries are a Tiffany’s window of name-dropping. This is not history so much as historical trail mix.

The old-school, bow-tied liberal and Kennedy courtier had a weakness for cafe society and Century Club martinis served by Arthur the Barbadian drinks waiter. He was just as happy talking about NATO enlargement or celebrity enlargement, fastidiously jotting down when Elizabeth Taylor, Norman Mailer and Robert Bork — and himself, "alas" — looked a bit fat. And heaven help poor John Kenneth Galbraith's wife, Kitty, the night she showed up amid the "notables affably circulating," as our diarist likes to say, "dowdily dressed."
I've noted Isaiah Berlin's 1952 comment to Schlesinger in Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960 (London: Chatto & Windus 2009) that
I generally think that everything I do is superficial, worthless, glaringly shallow, and could not take in an idiot child.
Exactamundo.

Having escaped from a seminar with Chinese bureaucrats about value-adding in the processing of agricultural commodities - much eye rolling when I highlighted concerns regarding contamination (the 'melamine milkshake' problem discussed by Marion Nestle in Petfood Politics) - and the Faculty's 'mission statement' meeting I'm now reading The Rule of Law Under Siege: Selected Essays of Franz Neumann & Otto Kirchheimer (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1996), Khaled El-Rouayheb's Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2005) and Vernon Bogdanor's The New British Constitution (Oxford: Hart 2009).

The El-Rouayheb is worth sighting just for the delightful picture of nubian goats on the front cover.

12 November 2009

Collingwood's Ghost

I confess to being perplexed by Fred Inglis' History Man: The Life of R G Collingwood (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 2009), a work that at times strikes me as confused - or perhaps merely eccentric - as Collingwood himself.

Inglis writes that
I am arguing for a view of Collingwood's life that retrieves him, as surely he would have wanted, from the parlour gaming prison-house of philosophy, and resituates him in a history, necessarily a history of private life and its presence in public thinking, a history also of how metaphysics may glow in the light of an ill-kept schooner in the Mediterranean as the gathering storm rolls in, on the face of a tombstone 1,800 years old, in the recollection of a mother's lovely face as she sang to a listening household, in the swift accumulation of pages of handwriting piled up towards a finished book, a set of answers to some sharp and pressing questions.
Collingwood's biographer unfortunately, it seems to me, isn't going to answer some of those questions (why did he skip out on his wife? Did he launch clockwork mice at his tute students in a successful effort to disconcert them, as an effort to thaw the chill of his lecturing or just because he thought it was a fun thing to do and the thing one did when a poker wasn't available?).

Instead, he repeatedly bludgeons the reader with prose such as
However this may be, Collingwood moved perforce to London, rented a room at 69 Kensington Church Street, and every morning walked to work past the splendours of Kensington Palace and into Kensington Gardens. On his right was the bulbous magnificence of the Albert Hall, ahead of him the shining surface of the Serpentine and, as he took the Flower Walk past the Queen's Gate he braced himself daily for the shock to his system rendered by the Albert Memorial, with the great consort seated beneath his spindly, overdecorated, and towering shelter, rather on the lines of the giant candle extinguisher carried by the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Inglis claims that
Finding room for these things in the house of biography is then to limn the outline of the fable. In the case of a philosopher whose first precept directs us to the identity of theory and practice, not only are thought and feeling indissolubly linked, they take both form and content in tension with mere eventuality, transfiguring those events into experience, where that rather blank (but venerable) concept turns out to mean events-that-signify, significance being given by the collusion of our best thoughts and the best feelings that may inform them.
Quite; one can't have too much limning or brightly-coloured blancmange.

apparently

Globocop

High profile media specialist Geoffrey Robertson QC has criticised UK 'defamation tourism' in a short speech reported [PDF] by the Guardian.

Robertson claims that
We do not have free speech in Britain, we have expensive speech. Any statement which "lowers a person in the eyes of right thinking members of the community" is defamatory, and is therefore presumed to be false, although it may very well be true. Defending a libel action in Britain is vastly more expensive than in any other European country – lawyers will rack up a million pounds in fees for a short trial and our cash-strapped media is increasingly choosing to settle rather than to fight for its freedom – which, after all, is its reader's freedom to receive information.
He argues for "one simple and necessary reform", ie
to abolish the arcane presumption of falsity and require libel claimants – like claimants in any other branch of the civil law – to prove that the statement was false. Placing the burden of proof on media defendants has produced innumerable miscarriages of justice in libel trials. It is the reason why US courts refuse to enforce English defamation judgments and why US newspapers are now threatening to withdraw from London, known as 'a town called Sue'.
Robertson notes that
the British media is partly the author of its own misfortune. It has never much cared to fight for free speech in recent times, notwithstanding John Wilkes and those courageous book sellers who, two centuries ago, went to prison for publishing Tom Paine. Instead, our media funds the Press Complaints Commission - a confidence trick that has ceased to inspire confidence. Newspapers deceive their readers when they pretend that PCC decisions have any significance. In these days of conditional fee agreements, the Council no longer functions as a 'poor persons libel court'. It has abjectly failed to halt the advance of a vague privacy law, based on incoherent Euro-prosaic concepts and which denies the media the right to jury trial.
Much the same could be said of the Australian Press Council (APC), a body that gives self-involved and indolent tabby cats a bad name.

Robertson also exhorts the UK to
abolish the rule that allows foreigners to come here and to haul their foreign critics into our Courts because of internet downloads from foreign websites. We are not a libel Globo-cop and our plaintiff-friendly law is making Britain an international free speech black spot, the place where the world’s human rights violators come to sue their critics. Only if internet libels are uploaded here or are advertised or directed here should English courts entertain libel actions against their authors.

11 November 2009

Parallel Imports

The Australian Government has announced that it will be retaining restrictions in the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) regarding parallel importation of books. The announcement represents a rejection of recommendations by the Productivity Commission in July this year (perhaps influenced by uncertainty about whether the price of music CDs and computer software fell after the end of restrictions in those markets) and will encourage Australia's fragile book publishing industry.

The Innovation Minister's media release argues that
Australian book printing and publishing is under strong competitive pressure from international online booksellers such as Amazon and The Book Depository and the Government has formed the view that that this pressure is likely to intensify.

In addition, the technology of electronic books (e-books) like Kindle Books will continue to improve with further innovations and price reductions expected.
The Productivity Commission argued that Parallel Import Restrictions (PIRs) are an inappropriate barrier, noting that
for a title to qualify for protection under the PIRs, the Australian territorial rights holder must release the book in Australia within 30 days of it being published elsewhere in the world, and must maintain a capacity to resupply it within 90 days. There are some exceptions to the restrictions — consumers can purchase books from abroad, for example via the internet and, under the 'single use' provisions, a bookseller can purchase a single copy of a book that would otherwise be PIR-protected, to fill a specific customer order.

Under the PIRs, if a particular novel or textbook is published in Australia within the 30 day limit, booksellers cannot import and sell stocks of the same book from, say, the UK, the US or Asia. This enables rights holders to charge prices (or obtain royalties) in the Australian market with the certainty that they cannot be undercut by commercial quantities of imports of the same titles.

Assistance from Australia's PIRs is not limited to Australian publishers and authors. The publishers who benefit from territorial protection can be Australian businesses, Australian arms of international companies or international companies operating from other countries. Likewise, the works of both Australian and foreign authors are equally protected from parallel imports into Australia.
It considers that PIRs provide
territorial protection for the publication of many books in Australia, preventing booksellers from sourcing cheaper or better value-for-money editions of those titles from world markets.

From the available quantitative and qualitative evidence, the Commission has concluded that the PIRs place upward pressure on book prices and that, at times, the price effect is likely to be substantial. The magnitude of the effect will vary over time and across book genres.

Most of the benefits of PIR protection accrue to publishers and authors, with demand for local printing also increased. Most of the costs are met by consumers, who fund these benefits in a nontransparent manner through higher book prices.

PIRs are a poor means of promoting culturally significant Australian works. They do not differentiate between books of high and low cultural value. The bulk of the assistance leaks offshore, and some flows to the printing industry.
Given that assessment it is unsurprising that the Commission claimed that
Reform of the current arrangements is necessary, to place downward pressure on book prices, remove constraints on the commercial activities of booksellers and overcome the poor targeting of assistance to the cultural externalities.

Bloodsucking undead fiends

I'm of course talking about the legal profession, rather than academics, in celebration of despatching a co-authored (with legal wizard Bill Orr) conference paper on Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula as a legal text. (In referring to Mr Orr it is indeed a rarity to find someone who's such a pleasure to work with: analytically rigorous, witty, learned, patient.)

Dracula is a legal novel as much as it is an exposition of horror and virtue triumphant, a drama in which law and lawyers are as prominent as a tale by John Grisham or Dickens' Bleak House. It is permeated by references to law — the laws of man and the law of nature — along with depiction of characters who are either legal practitioners (for example Harker and Van Helsing), who have some familiarity with the law (for example Godalming and Dracula himself) or who deal with practitioners and legal documents.

From a contemporary perspective it features a foreign national who breached migration and phytosanitary law, engaged in theft and poisoning, committed trespass and false imprisonment, stalked and assaulted minors and adults, associated with the equivalent of an outlaw motorcycle gang and blithely ignored the traffic code. A group of vigilantes, uninhibited by their legal training, responded with offences such as unauthorised disinterment and interference with a corpse.

The paper uses characters such as the eponymous vampire and the fearless lawyer Van Helsing as a lens for understanding legal personhood, crime and responsibility in an age where anxieties about 'the alien' are proving to be as timeless as the undead gentleman from Transylvania.

Despite the passage of over 100 years most of the transgressions underlying Stoker's novel remain relevant. Assault, theft, threat and validity of contract are timeless, irrespective of whether there is an antimacassar or iPod in the vicinity. Anxieties about the permeability of borders, unauthorised imports of toxic substances (silver sand, white powder) or gangs (gypsies, Bandidos and Coffin Cheaters) are not new.

Some indeed may have a particular resonance for contemporary readers who have encountered questions about bioterrorism, genetic engineering (transducing genes from one species to another), culpability in the transmission of HIV, the determination of death (Dracula, although UnDead, meets criteria for liveness in for example the Transplantation & Anatomy Act 1979 (Qld)) or the rights of animals.