16 October 2010

decaffeinated liberalism?

Another provocation from Mr Žižek - the Salvador Dali of contemporary pop philosophy - in the Guardian of 3 October 2010 -
Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by ... populist racism. However, a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect of differences share with those who oppose immigration the need to keep others at a proper distance. "The others are OK, I respect them," the liberals say, "but they must not intrude too much on my own space. The moment they do, they harass me – I fully support affirmative action, but I am in no way ready to listen to loud rap music."
Contrary to Žižek's claims, that desire and right to be left alone is not necessarily a sign of a "new barbarism" or a totalitarianism that is peculiar to liberal democratic states. I suspect that Slavoj would be upset if I appeared, unannounced and uninvited, in his bedroom and proceeded to strangle a cat or do a hip hop version of my dissertation at 3am.

Žižek goes on to state that
What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late-capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the right to be kept at a safe distance from others. A terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented belongs in Guantánamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologist should be silenced because he spreads hatred. Such people are toxic subjects who disturb my peace.

On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex? The Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare? The contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics? This leads us to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness – the decaffeinated Other.

The mechanism of such neutralisation was best formulated back in 1938 by Robert Brasillach, the French fascist intellectual, who saw himself as a "moderate" antisemite and invented the formula of reasonable antisemitism. "We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; ... We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual antisemitism is to organise a reasonable antisemitism."

Is this same attitude not at work in the way our governments are dealing with the "immigrant threat"? After righteously rejecting direct populist racism as "unreasonable" and unacceptable for our democratic standards, they endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures or, as today's Brasillachs, some of them even Social Democrats, tell us: "We grant ourselves permission to applaud African and east European sportsmen, Asian doctors, Indian software programmers. We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable violent anti-immigrant defensive measures is to organise a reasonable anti-immigrant protection."

This vision of the detoxification of one's neighbour suggests a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face.

15 October 2010

Elron has left the building

Skimming Beyond the Scientology case: towards a better definition of what constitutes a religion for legal purposes in Australia having regard to salient judicial authorities from the United States of America as well as important non-judicial authorities (2007) by Ian Ellis-Jones.
The aim of this thesis is to formulate a better definition of religion for legal purposes than the formulation arrived at by the High Court of Australia in the 1983 decision of Church of the New Faith v Commissioner of Pay-roll Tax (Vic). In that case, known in Australia as the Scientology (or Church of the New Faith) case, two of five justices of the High Court of Australia considered belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle to be an essential prerequisite for a belief system being a religion. Two other justices stated that if such belief were absent it was unlikely that one had a religion.

There are major problems with the High Court’s formulation in the Scientology case. First, it does not accommodate a number of important belief systems that are generally regarded as being religious belief systems, even though they do not involve any notion of the supernatural in the sense in which that word is ordinarily understood. Secondly, the Court provided little or no guidance as to how one determines whether a particular belief system involves a supernatural view of reality. The guidance that was given is ill-conceived in any event. Thirdly, it is philosophically impossible to postulate a meaningful distinction between the “natural” and the supposedly “supernatural” in a way that would enable the courts and other decision makers to meaningfully apply the “test” enunciated by the Court.
Ellis-Jones comments that his dissertation
combines a phenomenological approach and the philosophical realism of the late Professor John Anderson with a view to eliciting those things that permit appreciation or recognition of a thing being “religious”. Ultimately, religion is seen to comprise an amalgam of faith-based ideas, beliefs, practices and activities (which include doctrine, dogma, teachings or principles to be accepted on faith and on authority, a set of sanctioned ideals and values in terms of expected ethical standards and behavior and moral obligations, and various experientially based forms, ceremonies, usages and techniques perceived to be of spiritual or transformative power) based upon faith in a Power, Presence, Being or Principle and which are directed towards a celebration of that which is perceived to be not only ultimate but also divine, holy or sacred, manifest in and supported by a body of persons (consisting of one or more faithxvii based communities) established to give practical expression to those ideas, beliefs, practices and activities. The new definition is tested against 3 very different belief systems, Taoism (Daoism), Marxism and Freemasonry.

14 October 2010

adios, pyewacket

Elsewhere on this blog I've questioned pseudoscience claims about reincarnation, telekinesis, remote healing, precognition, the brain as a 'quantum field transceiver' and valve radios as devices for reception of messages from the dead - nonsense that would be deliciously funny if it wasn't taken so very very seriously by people who should know better.

Nonsense on occasion leads to real suffering, a suffering that is not obviated through reference to 'quantum holism' and the Akashic Field. I continue to be saddened by the ease with which quantum mysticism fans embrace notions of remote healing but elide any recognition that the same 'holism', if real, might enable remote harming. Presumably the evolving cosmic consciousness - 'intelligent design' for people who want a bit of sufism and interstitiality with their cornflakes (and who were alas AWOL from discussion of the Sokal Hoax) - only involves good, rather than evil. How very convenient ... and so much less distressing than similar mumbojumbo from the faux-science of L Ron Hubbard.

I was reminded tonight of the consequences of belief in spookies when reading a Guardian item on African witchcraft.

That paper reports -
Dozens of people in Malawi, most of them elderly women, have been jailed for up to six years with hard labour for practising witchcraft.

Campaigners say they will call on president Bingu wa Mutharika to release the 86 prisoners since witchcraft is not a crime under Malawian law.

Most of the group are elderly women accused by children of teaching them witchcraft. Belief in the practice is widespread in the impoverished southern African country.

George Thindwa, spokesman for the Association of Secular Humanism, called for the women to be freed immediately because they had committed no crime.

"We are intervening in this matter because we are concerned we still have prisons in Malawi [with] people being accused of being witches," he told the BBC's Network Africa programme. "The courts were wrong 100%, [and] the police, to actually accommodate cases."

Thindwa said the women were vulnerable and their convictions had taken place with undue haste. "The problem is that our police and our courts, most of them are witchcraft believers and this belief is very strong here in Malawi."

Last year the government bowed to public pressure by setting up a committee to investigate criminalising the practice.

Malawi's public prosecutions office told the BBC that 11 cases were brought under the witchcraft act in the last month. This led to the conviction of 61 elderly women, seven elderly men and 18 younger relatives of the other accused. They received prison sentences of between four and six years.

Justice minister George Chaponda has claimed that a person can only be found guilty of practising witchcraft if they confessed to being a witch. But the BBC reported that the records showed all the suspects had pleaded not guilty.
Oh well, at least the elderly witches and their young acolytes weren't drowned, barbecued, buried alive or stoned to death.

I invite the good folk at World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution and GlobalShift University to put aside, just for a moment, their immensely important contemplation of 2012 (the year when, according to guru Ervin Laszlo, there's a change in cosmic consciousness ... as predicted by the Maya!) and fund some legal aid for the Malawi grannies. Devotees of the Akashic Field might even spring for a few air tickets to rescue those bad bad wiccans!

the order of things

From the Chronicle of Higher Education -
In God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, the latest in a number of recent books critical of the modern research university, the influential Irish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that "neither the university nor philosophy is any longer seen as engaging the questions" of "plain persons." These questions include: "What is our place in the order of things? Of what powers in the natural and social world do we need to take account? How should we respond to the facts of suffering and death? What is our relationship to the dead? What is it to live a human life well? What is it to live it badly?" Now in his 80s, MacIntyre is among a small group of philosophers who have sought to address such questions. Other members, about the same age, include the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and, perhaps especially, the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose life both in and out of philosophy is on display in his just-published autobiography, Little Did I Know (Stanford University Press).

In his book, MacIntyre indicts the university for its lack of integration, the disconnections among the disciplines, and the intellectual disregard of one discipline for another. He writes: "In contemporary American universities, each academic discipline is treated as autonomous and self-defining, so that its practitioners, or at least the most prestigious and influential among them, prescribe to those entering the discipline what its scope and limits are. And in order to excel in any one particular discipline, one need in general know little or nothing about any of the others."

13 October 2010

St Don, St Mary and St P of Flemington

First St Don of Bradman, now St Mary MacKillop.

The Prime Minister has announced that the national Government will -
provide special legislative protection to control the use of names associated with Mary MacKillop, who will become Australia's first Saint on 17 October 2010.
One might hope that Phar Lap will be canonised, alongside other 'national icons' such as Gary Ablett, Fred Hollows, Weary Dunlop, Joan Sutherland, Nellie Melba and Steve Irwin, and suitably protected through changes to the Corporations Law regulations in the near future. (The 2002 ACIP report [PDF] on protection for national icons highlights some issues. I of course jest, as is my wont, about canonisation, in a reaction to the hyperbole about St Mary.)

The PM's media release indicates that -
The decision to grant additional protections reflects the significance of the canonisation of Mary MacKillop for millions of Australians.

The Corporations Regulations 2001 will be amended so that requests for use of a company name, or part thereof, that suggests a connection to Mary MacKillop will be prevented, unless Ministerial approval is granted.

A name need not include the text "Mary MacKillop" to suggest a connection. For example, a name including "Saint MacKillop" would be prohibited. A name including "Our Mary" might be blocked, depending on the circumstances and the rest of the text of the name sought.

This amendment will reduce the extent to which an entity may hold itself to be associated with Mary MacKillop.
The release goes on to boast that -
the new measure would provide the highest level of protection currently provided for any individual Australian's name.

The only other individual Australian's name with similar protection is Sir Donald Bradman.

In addition, existing laws will continue to offer a range of protections against the improper use of Mary MacKillop's name, including the Trade Marks Act 1995, Trade Practices Act 1974, equivalent state laws, and the common law.

The Prime Minister said the new measure was further recognition of the significance that Mary MacKillop's life holds, not only for the five million Australians of Catholic faith, but for all Australians.
All Australians?

The ability to express national joy in the form of federal funding is less than miraculous -
The amendment complements the Government's election pledge of $1.5 million to assist in the commemoration of the canonisation, which includes support for a delegation of youth and indigenous representatives attending the canonisation ceremony in Rome, and the inclusion of the Mary MacKillop Canonisation Gift Fund as a specifically listed deductible gift recipient.
We might better have spent the $1.5 million housing some of the local homeless or providing support services for the truly needy.

More broadly, we might ask what is the "significance" of Mary MacKillop's life "for all Australians". Was she an archetype of the 'little Aussie battler'? Does significance lie in the way that she has been appropriated by particular interests and in contestation regarding her image, with suggestions for example that she become the patron of victims of clerical abuse. Do we need a change to the Corporations regulations (which restricts use of terms such as 'bank', 'university', Red Cross', 'RSL', 'Made in Australia' and 'building society' and which restricts corporate names that suggest a relationship with a member of the House of Windsor) in order to protect the new saint?

Credit profiling

From the 'fierce bad rabbit' speech by Home Affairs & Justice Minister Brendan O'Connor at the Australian Institute of Credit Management National Conference in, but of course, Surfers Paradise -
I am aware that there is a significant amount of debate about whether there is a need for a statutory cause of action for privacy in this country, or, to put it another way, an enforceable "right to privacy". But there is at the very least an expectation in the community that individual privacy is to be respected and that personal information is to be appropriately protected.

In the main, that expectation has been met by successive Governments in this country. Indeed, the preamble to the Privacy Act acknowledges Australia's accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and refers, in particular, to Australia's undertaking under that Covenant "to adopt such legislative measures as may be necessary to give effect to the right of persons not to be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence."

For many years the Privacy Act has protected individuals from the arbitrary and unlawful misuse of their personal information. However, there is a perception the laws have not kept pace with the attitudinal changes experienced since the Act was originally passed.
That perception is, of course, correct and has been expressed for example by Australian academics, privacy advocates and representatives of the European Union. It is reflected in perceptions that the 'co-regulatory' ethos embodied by the Act has in practice meant regulatory capture.

The Minister went on to comment that -
There are also valid questions about how the Act should deal with certain new and emerging technologies. There is a compelling argument for the laws to be updated for the twenty-first century. ...

I would like to provide a brief overview of the credit reporting reforms the Government intends to pursue. I don't intend discussing the broader suite of privacy reforms, except to say that the Government's intention is to create a robust and adaptable privacy framework.
The robustness of that intention is contestable and it is regrettable that the Minister did not refer to the more far-reaching reforms canvassed in Victoria, including recognition of a tort of privacy (something consistent with the ostensible recognition of privacy as a human right).

Mr O'Connor indicates that "new credit reporting provisions are an integral part" of the Government's changes to national privacy law -
Perhaps the most significant reform is the introduction of more comprehensive credit reporting.

The ALRC recommended that any new statutory framework should permit credit reporting information to include five new positive sets of data, including: the type of credit accounts opened by an individual, the dates the accounts were opened and closed (if they were closed), the limits of each open account, and certain details regarding re-payment history over the past two years.

The new positive data would be additional to the existing data sets currently permitted under the Privacy Act - that is, information about a credit provider having sought a credit report in relation to an applicant for credit, and the amount of credit sought in the application.

Subject to sufficient privacy protections being put in place, the Government has accepted this recommendation from the ALRC.

The extra information will allow credit providers to undertake a fuller assessment of an individual's credit risk and lead to increased competition in the credit reporting market.
We might hope that, amid the self-congratulation, the "sufficient privacy protections" are indeed devised - the weakness of the current protections induces some scepticism - and that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) takes an active role in enforcing those protections, in contrast to the Privacy Commissioner's history of savaging offenders with all the ferocity of a three-legged, blind and toothless sheep.

Never fear, it seems, as the Minister offers reassurance -
I should note that information about an individual's repayment history will only be listed and accessed by credit providers that are subject to responsible lending obligations under the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009. The obligations contained in that Act will commence for a majority of credit providers from 1 January 2011.
he went on to comment that -
Credit providers and credit reporting agencies will be able to deal with the other four data sets irrespective of whether they are subject to the responsible lending obligations.

I should also note that it will not be mandatory under the new legislation for credit reporting agencies or credit providers to collect, use or disclose this extra information.
Little comfort is provided by the Minister's closing statement that -
Understandably, there will be sections of the community concerned about the extra information available through these reforms. But as I have said, the Government has accepted the ALRC recommendation on the basis that sufficient privacy protections are in place.

Under the reforms, there will be enhanced notification, disclosure, data quality and dispute resolution requirements, which will act to prevent the misuse of this information.

For example, the Government will move to clarify and strengthen the pre-existing "notification" principle to provide notice to individuals about not only the credit providers own information handling practices, but also specific practices of a credit reporting agency. Notification should occur at or before the time the personal information is disclosed (and therefore collected) by the credit reporting agency, to ensure that individuals are fully aware of how their information will be used in the credit reporting system.
There's more ...
In addition to legislative reform, the Government considers that a clear and transparent industry code of practice should be developed between the credit reporting industry, consumer and credit advocates and the Privacy Commissioner.

Without seeking to override or apply lesser standards than are outlined in the Act, the industry code will outline how the credit reporting provisions and related issues (such as access, data accuracy and complaint handling) should operate in practice. The re-drafted Privacy Act will act as a guide by outlining the matters
the code should cover.

The industry-agreed code will replace the current Credit Reporting Code of Conduct developed by the Privacy Commissioner. It will ensure consistency across the industry, and should strike an appropriate balance between the privacy needs of individuals and the needs of industry to have efficient and effective credit reporting.
It is difficult not to laugh on reading the statement that -
I am encouraged by the fact that the Australasian Retail Credit Association [ARCA] is giving consideration to the issues involved in developing the Code and to that end is undertaking consultations with significant stakeholders.

The development of an industry-agreed Code is a matter I encourage all interested parties to turn their minds toward in the coming period.
The wolves and foxes are giving their full consideration to the issues and can therefore be congratulated by the fierce bad rabbits? The Minister wrapped up by saying "I will also be keeping a close eye on the operation of the new laws following their enactment" ... just the reassurance I need for a contented night's sleep.

12 October 2010

cultural sensitivity

One of the delights of cultural pluralism is considering the wicked problems thrown up by disagreements about ethnoreligious values and sensitivities. (Another delight, of course, is watching a media circus.)

Under the heading 'Museum warns pregnant women off Maori exhibit' the ABC reports that -
New Zealand's national museum has warned pregnant or menstruating women to stay away from some of its exhibits or risk an encounter with angry Maori spirits.

The Te Papa Museum in Wellington confirmed it had invited regional museum staff on a behind-the-scenes tour of its collections on the condition that women who were pregnant or menstruating did not attend.

The museum's Maori adviser, Michelle Hippolite, said the condition was because some of the Maori artefacts had been used in wars and were believed to contain sprits that could harm pregnant or menstruating women visiting the exhibit.

"They may have an encounter that may be a form of communication," she told Radio NZ.

"Those of us that are accompanying the group might not see this, hear it or understand what may be happening."
That belief, which might be respected, is of course not necessarily true. Sincerity is not automatically equivalent to truth.

The ABC goes on to report that -
Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said the policy was not an outright ban, rather it was strong advice designed to protect pregnant and menstruating woman from exhibits which Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, believed could hurt them.

"Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects," she said.
A statement by Te Papa indicates that -
Ms Michelle Hippolite, Te Papa’s Kaihautū, today clarified the Museum’s guidelines for entry to its taonga Māori (Māori treasures) collection store - an area not accessible by the general public - in response to media reports today. One of these cultural considerations is that hapu (pregnant) or menstruating women (mate wahine) should consider entering the taonga Māori collection stores at another time.

‘Te Papa, as the kaitiaki (caretaker) of taonga Māori and a bicultural museum, embraces Māori tikanga and kawa when caring for those collections’, Ms Hippolite said.

‘While we inform visitors to the collection stores of cultural considerations, no visitor would be stopped from continuing the tour if they wished to.’

Te Papa worked with iwi and museum practitioners to develop protocols as to how the collections should be best cared for, including any cultural considerations that should be taken into account. Some taonga in the collection were used for special ceremonies or purposes and are sacred. Some have been used in warfare and funerary purpose and it is believed these objects retain the tapu associated with those activities. While Te Papa has been able to identify many of these taonga, there are many still for which the purpose and history is yet to be determined.
The statement continues that -
Ms Hippolite noted these kinds of cultural considerations for indigenous collections are becoming more common in collecting institutions internationally as museums begin to engage on a deeper level with their communities. Te Papa has advised visitors to the taonga Māori collection store of these guidelines since opening in 1998.

‘Our objective is to increase access to the collections and to continue to educate visitors regarding taonga and tikanga Māori associated with these collections,’ said Ms Hippolite.
One reader of this blog has commented that the brouhaha is reminiscent of problematical claims by some Australian Indigenous figures, including a prominent Melbourne academic, regarding the didgeridu (ie a wind instrument).

Particular figures, responding to the Dangerous Book for Girls - perhaps more aptly named Dangerous Book For Publishers - claimed that if a female played the instrument she would be rendered sterile or suffer another dire fate. Several anthropologists and other Indigenous figures disagreed.

As with pseudoscience assertions regarding reincarnation, precognition and other mumbojumbo questioned in past entries on this blog (eg here and here), there is no scientific basis for believing that blowing air into a wooden tube will result in infertility among women whose belief system is different to that of some Indigenous communities.