Public interest research is what people won’t pay you for, everything else is advertising.

I’m thrilled to have had Sarah Ison cover how the proposed changes to UWA’s Social Science program are going to impact my public interest research. However, the article also over-represented some blatant mis-direction from a ‘UWA spokeswoman’ that I had rebutted with Sarah.

I suspect that West Australian editors have decided to protect the interests of UWA (a major advertiser in that paper) and cut much of the story. So, I’m taking to the interwebs, where people can – at least for the moment – speak freely, to rebut the empty claim that research in areas such as ‘health, social care, the environment and media and communications – would “continue to be developed and supported through nationally competitive resaerch grants and industry funding”‘.

That statement is misguided and specious. The proposal suggests that our research and teaching contracts will be replaced with teaching focus. There is no actual statement in the proposal about supporting existing or future research projects for teaching focused academics; even in the event of successfully gaining nationally competitive research grants and industry funding. So what they are saying here isn’t even clearly ‘true’ or part of the proposed change. The only statement in the proposal is that we ‘will continue to have access to research time in line with workload allocation for activities, including, where relevant, for the supervision of HDR students’. That is an incredibly vague statement that does not even match what they have said above. It means I ‘might’ be given 5 hours a week to supervise the research of my 6 PhD students, it certainly does not spell out that if I won a grant I’d be able to buy out of teaching.  If that were the case, they might have mentioned it in the proposal (they didn’t).

But even beyond that, what they are doing is making grant success impossible for teaching ‘focused’ academics, particularly in Media and Communications which, along with Asian Studies are the ONLY disciplines to lose all research positions. I’ll explain why:

Gaining nationally competitive research grants and industry funding depends heavily on a criteria called ‘research environment’ – meaning ‘is your research taking place in an environment that actively supports and adds value to your research’. If the university does not foster research in our area we will forever be structurally disadvantaged in that category and unlikely to succeed in those grants.

Also note that when writing these grants, budgeting for teaching relief is shunned and requires ‘significant justification’ (see – precisely because the review panel don’t expect teaching focused academics to be in a strong enough research environment to get these grants. Being ‘teaching focused’ is a red flag that you are not in a strong research environment.

Simply writing up a nationally competitive research grant generally takes more than 100 hours of work just to do the writing (recommended time: at least 6 weeks) – and then only around 15-20% of grants are ever successful. Grant success is a product of time investment in the writing plus a wealth of work on previously published research to prove your research strength (which is most commonly understood in the form of ‘previous grant success’). I will need to spend my entire annual leave writing an application that is almost bound to fail because of the impoverished research environment the university is creating for us as a ‘teaching focused discipline’.

So they are saying ‘here, sign a contract that states you will no longer research, and will be given a massive teaching load that literally takes up every hour of your working week but trust us that if you manage to somehow do the impossible and find the time to write a grant, and then despite the structural disadvantage of your research environment  you make it through to the 15% of successful grants and actually secure grant funding we MIGHT let you buy out of some of your teaching duties’. (but of course we would discourage you from asking for teaching relief in your grant if you want it to be successful).

I am actually on more than $400,000 of grants for the Coronavax projects at the moment – but none of that budget is allocated to buy me out of teaching. The money goes to software, administrative support, advertising and simply to ‘the university’. When we last requested that the next grant buy me out of some of my teaching for next semester the Head of School responded that the School couldn’t afford to lose my teaching duties (as it is important for student experience). So how they expect us to ‘trust them’ that in the future it will somehow be different (after I’ve signed a contract that commits me to just be a teacher) is again, a leap of faith that I would have to be stupid to make. This statement elicited here in this story is the most concrete suggestion I’ve seen that there might be some way to protect my research time but even then, they are attempting a whitewash to suggest what they are proposing is plausible or a ‘solution’.

Finally, there is also the argument that grant research IS NOT the only form of valuable research and not the only research that ought to take place at a publicly funded univerity. The process of deciding what research gets grants is really problematic and presents huge barriers to first time applicants, or people with novel or challenging research projects. It has also been highly politicised – with Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan interfering with the process by blocking successful humanities grants they didn’t like. While it might seem fair to block research funding for ‘mens fashion in the 19th Century’, consider that this is just the interference the government is happy to brag about because doing so wins them votes. If they are happy to brag about this interference, they are also clearly willing to interfere on more sensitive research topics.

So NO, I don’t think the Morisson government will support grants into issues such as violent misogyny, political corruption or the bungled vaccine role out (all projects I’m currently working on). While Industry partnerships can be promising, these are not a case of ‘public interest research’ but rather university subsidising research industry would or should otherwise pay for. Industry partnerships can produce really efficient and important research. HOWEVER, it should not be the case that research in a G08 university should only happen in areas that ‘industry’ wants it too. Research into the huge problems our society faces will simpy never take place under that model and the question is, if it doesn’t take place in a privileged and advantaged university such as UWA – where will it take place?

There is an old saying about journalism ‘news is what someone doesn’t want you to print, everything else is advertising’. The same can be said for research. While industry and government can (and should) fund much worthy and critical research, there is by definition a critical deficit in such research. Quite frankly, they don’t fund research that might make them look bad, they fund research that bolsters their own positions and moves them toward their own goals. (See for instance, this announcement about $1.3M being awarded to UWA for defense industry research).

What is missing in this model is research that specifically helps the the disadvantaged and the marginalised, that protects the interests of the broad public that shares the experience of being led to a bleak future by an political elite in the pocket of big business. Research that criticises mistakes made by government and industry and points us to a better world for everybody. Research that encourages critical and challenging thinking as a worthy end in and of itself. It is gone under this model of the university.

Public value research is what industry and government doesn’t want to fund, everything else is advertising.

A proposal for a wealthier, friendlier, more secure Australia,

The Morrison government has recently made two announcements about extra funding for defence to the tune of $270 billion dollars, and an increase of numbers of students in the tertiary education sector for no extra funding (a move which essentially amounts to less funding per student across the board in tertiary education).

In what follows I’d like to address the value proposition implied in those two decisions, presenting the argument that the government gets far more ‘bang for its buck’ from education than from military spending. I’d also like to present an alternative proposal that would achieve the goals of making Australia more secure, resilient and wealthy than the government’s current plan.

The alternative is this: we would have a more secure Australia if we sunk $270 billion dollars into funding community gardens than we will if we buy new planes, missiles and submarines. It also makes a lot more sense, and this post explains why.

The case for education

Just to be clear in his recent announcement education minister Dan Tehan spelled out that the Australian Government already subsidises universities to the tune of $18 billion dollars a year. TAFEs and other tertiary education entities appear to receive the remaining $20 billion. That’s no small change but the amount the government spends on education as a whole (including schools, and early learning) is still less than defence.

Now while some people go on endlessly about how education is always the best investment, I’m more than aware that such wishy washy arguments aren’t likely to sway Scott Morrison, who likes to base policy on facts . (that is, unless these facts suggest that his party used sports funding to pork barrel the last election or that coal use leads to climate change, which contributes to increased bush fires).

But what I think does make a compelling argument for university education is that the $18 billion dollar investment generates around $37 billion of income for the Australian economy. Critics point out that only about $15 billion of that is direct income for universities in the shape of international student fees – the rest comes from the contribution international students make to the economy. However, I think it is fair to argue that if it wasn’t for Australia’s world leading university sector (Australia has 7 universities in the top 100 in the world, with more than China (6) and only fewer than the US and UK – an impressive result for a small country), these students would not be in Australia spending their money.

While COVID has clearly undermined the income universities receive from international students, the government could, with a little strategising around quarantine, use Australia’s relative COVID-free status to promote Australian universities globally and turn this into a massive windfall for our economy and our society. How many international students would jump at the chance to move to Australia to study considering we are the only country with world class universities that remains COVID free (well us and the University of Auckland)? This could also encourage immigration of the best and brightest from overseas, helping address Australia’s population decline in the best possible way.

But that’s not what they’re doing, choosing instead to defund the industry at its time of greatest need. To paraphrase Rove:

Wtf GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

The case for military spending

Let me just say at the outset that I have massive respect for the people who serve in this country’s armed forces. As I’ve commented on before, I’m the first male of my direct ancestors for four generations that hasn’t served in the Army. I had great grandfathers on both sides of my family in WW1, both of my grandfathers served in WW2, with my mother’s father actually being shot in Borneo. My father did national service during Vietnam; my uncles also both served, with one spending his entire career in the Army. I appreciate the courage and the sacrifice they made – along with every other person who has dedicated themselves to defence.

That does not mean, however, that defence is above or beyond critique, and that we shouldn’t carefully consider how we spend our money in that capacity. We don’t honour our heroes by endorsing militarism, we honour them by creating a world that is good enough to justify their sacrifice.

And with that in mind, I don’t think that the Morrison government’s decision to spend $270 billion dollars over the next decade on new military equipment makes any sense. It doesn’t make sense financially, it doesn’t make sense militarily and it also doesn’t make sense in terms of the strategic goals of Australian people.

Morrison justified the expense by pointing out that the post COVID world was likely to be more mean spiritied, less compassionate and more ruthless. Of course, with people like him in charge, maybe that is the case. But I’d like some explanation as to why, after humanity has been so united as a species in working together to beat this virus, why does he think we will suddenly devolve into trying to kill each other? More to the point, isn’t avoiding conflict, not creating conflict, one of the key skills of leadership? With a massive failure of leadership and imagination, Scott Morrison has fallen back upon the idea that more and bigger guns are what will give Australia security.

Q: Do you know what would give Australia more security than more and bigger guns?

(the answer I want is not ‘anything’, but that is also correct)

A: One of the great stories to come out of COVID is the resurgence in urban farming and communities sharing food. This is something that has happened worldwide and in many senses replicates the emergence of ‘victory gardens’, planted by Aussie communities during the first and second world war, to ensure food security. What a wonderful idea – apparently beyond Scott Morrison – to imagine that a challenge could actually make a community stronger.

Because when you think about armed conflict in the past 50 years, no invading army has been able to subdue and control a country which has a population that resists occupation. Think about Afghanistan (both US and Russian versions), Vietnam (French and US versions), Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands and Iraq. In all of these cases, a far more ‘advanced’ and EXPENSIVE armed force was unable to successfully exercise control over a population that was motivated to resist the aggression.

Conversely the only example I can think of where an armed invasion ended with something like success would be the Russian incursion into Crimea, which is both far from over and is also a situation where a near majority of people in the region (apparently) welcomed the intervention (as was the case in places such as Austria and Vichy France in WW2). So the determining factor in successful defence over the past 50 years seems to be the desire within the invaded population to resist the invading force.

Why then, when history clearly shows this, do we remain so steadfastly focused on buying more and ‘better’ military technology (when having more and better military technology has not led to military success for the US, French, Russians etc)? Funding community gardening programs would do more to increase community unity and resilience in the face of an external military threat. And at much smaller cost.

And when I say much smaller cost, I mean much, much, much smaller. Leaving more tax payers’ money for community inclusion initiatives, combatting domestic violence, toxic online culture and for funding more innovation and community resilience through education.

At this point I just want to point out that I’m not a hippy, I am fascinated by military aircraft and military power in general. There’s something about its potency that is intoxicating. I get it. I made a 1/32 scale model of an F4-J Phantom II during COVID because I think jets look cool. When I was a kid, I wanted to design military aircraft.

looks pretty cool huh?

It’s just that I’ve reaslised that something looking cool, or feeling powerful, shouldn’t determine policy, or truth (sorry Nietzsche).

I know that as an adult that has to look after kids.

But the entire ‘defence’ and international relations sector continues to carry on as though the ultimate purpose of the national economy is to have the best toys. Not education. Not health. Not community prosperity. Not security understood assafety from violence and repression. Not managing global warming and the ecological disasters its bringing.

Just having the coolest new technology that can be used to kill people more quickly, from further away.

So I could talk about the cost of the new attack class submarines (12 at $80 billion dollars), which are replacing the 6 collins class submarines (6 at $5 billion in the 1990s) that never fired a shot in anger. Or I could talk about the cost of invading Iraq (over $5 billion). But because I like jets let’s look at Australia’s procurement of the F-35 – an fighter/attack aircraft (72 aircraft at $9 billion or only $126 million per plane).

For $126 million dollars per plane, the Australian government has bought a plane that can’t fly above the speed of sound without losing its stealth paint coating. According to reports, it has numerous issues with avionics and the cannon can’t shoot straight. In fact the plane still has more than 150 registered design flaws and the patch up job has become so bad that Lockheed Martin have decided just to reclassify ‘deadly’ flaws as less severe. That may be why they keep crashing. And why it is already 10 years behind schedule.

Despite this, the F35 has had it’s share of backers and even now, journalists who will spruik the plane are provided with fully funded ‘fact finding’ trips to various air shows and factories where they can get ‘the facts’. Take this rallying cry about the plane published in Forbes, and note that the author is a heavy hitter in the defence industries and military, and that Lockheed Martin paid for him to gather information on the piece he wrote.

Tom Scott isn't a huge fan of journalism - GIF - Imgur

The lobbying power of the defence industry is phenomenal, hardly surprising when you look at the billions poured into the industry. The industry also enjoys the stewardship of ex-ministers such as former Defence Industry minister Christopher Pyne, who left his role as defence industry minister in the Morrison government to join Saber Aeronatics, a company that have been awarded $2.7 million in government defence contracts.

Nothing Suss - quickmeme

Think of the political influence that hundreds of billions of dollars buys.

And again, for all that spending, we are not necessarily any safer for having a fleet of F-35s. Even our own Defence chiefs have suggested that the aircraft will not serve our needs (whatever they are) when it arrives.

And dear reader, I don’t know what work you do – but I know in my industry if I was so ineffective at my job that I was constantly over budget, late on deadlines and then not coming through with the goods, I’d be out of work and destitute. Why is the defence industry like the rich kid who can’t be relied on to do anything but somehow still gets promoted because his dad is a billionaire (and either owns the company, or owns the guy who does)?

AFI #77 – All the President's Men | The Confusing Middle

So then I think of Pyne, Morrison and Dan Tehan and how they think they can make decisions like taking money from universities and using that to buy more over-priced and ineffective jets from the trillion dollar international arms industry. And I realise that if another country was to come invading the state they have created, I’m not sure I would be that upset about that. I can’t get passionate about defending the version of Australia they are creating. Because they aren’t creating it for us, they are creating it for the trillion dollar international arms industry.

If they were spending $270 billion dollars on community gardening initiatives, I would fight who ever came here until they were thrown back into the sea. I’d have a sense of community, access to food, strong local organisations and local knowledge – and most importantly an Australia I could believe in.

But in Scott Morrison we have a PM who has not just defunded education while boosting military spending. He has also sanctioned the gagging of journalists, he has supported the collection of metadata to spy on his own citizens, he has used taxpayers dollars to illegally secure an election win, he has defunded our most trusted source of news during a fake news crisis and he has continued to celebrate burning coal while his nation burns to the ground, and gone on holiday while it does so.

Tell me this: Who is going to invade Australia, and why would they be worse than Scott Morrison’s government?

If we truly lived in a democracy we would get rid of him.

Spleen venting about the proposed changes to tertiary education funding (and defence spending).

The Australian minister for education Dan Tehan’s recent proposed changes to tertiary funding are, quite frankly, the stupidist policy move that Australia has made since it’s overenthusiastic approach to invading Iraq in 2003.

I typically live and let live in terms of policy but when something this stupid is actually suggested, I like to make a point of making as public statement about it as possible, so that history recognises that I was not stupid enough to believe in these things. I’ve been having it out with my local MP and I will also take this up with various senators as the reform bill moves through parliament.

The reason I oppose the reforms so strongly is not simply because I disagree with them – I do – but I also disagree with a lot of what the government is doing and yet let them get on with things.

The reason I oppose this bill is because it is stupid, it makes no sense, it is unjust and even if it overcame these impediments to achieve its goals (which it won’t) that would still only produce something worse. (Does that sound a little bit like John Howard’s prompting for the US to invade Iraq)?

Just for context, the new legislation will open an extra 38000 places for university students across Australia, with no extra funding provided for those places. So the take away here is that the tertiary education sector is getting less money per student than before.

That’s in the context of the sector currently suffering from a profound COVID-induced crisis. Tehan’s announcement has already seen major lay offs, such as UNSW’s recent cut of almost 500 jobs. For some reason (the Morrison government has given none), employees in the sector were not allowed job keeper or job seeker during the COVID crisis, singled out as pretty much the only industry that did not.

And let’s be clear, while Tehan and Morrison have failed to find any money to save those jobs, they have earmarked $270 billion MORE dollars for defense over the next 10 years. So they do have money for some things (killing, hostility, hatred, the ex-minister for defense industry’s military aircraft company), but not others (education, progress, critical thinking, Australia’s third biggest export industry).

Abandoning the world leading Australian tertiary sector now, at it’s time of greatest historical need and peculiar COVID inspired weakness is – in all ways – a stupid policy.

Wondering why digital everything isn’t the answer?

I really do hope that this COVID-19 event does make us rethink everything, and part of that has got to be a reconsideration of what we can and cannot do digitally.

Generally, I’d say we could do a lot more digitally, and while there are reasonable questions about whether digital activity is environmentally clean, there are clear advantages when it comes to things like saving on travelling time and energy for meetings and conferences.

I am currently attending a digital conference for the first time, and I have to say the flying time and hotel costs are brilliant. However there are some things that we cannot yet do digitally, and the happenstance interactions and embodied awareness experiences are severely missing from the digital experience.

This paper covers some of the ways in which digital experience fails to recapture lived experience, somewhat inevitably. I think its time has certainly come, as an argument, and i guess I’m just saying that if we really want to do something like live music, or a conference, well as a digital experience, we need to make sure that we are addressing some of the aspects of cult value, iteration, and interaction that digital tech often leaves behind.

Don’t get me wrong, I think doing things digitally offers up huge opportunities but we ought not neglect our humanity, our connections and our need for true public engagement and recognition in the process.

Sports has shut down, so here’s a new League Table…

Go to: 

Go to the ‘Total Cases’ column and order the countries from largest to smallest number of total cases. Right, this is the new league table. Whoever has the smallest number of total cases wins.

I know this might seem inappropriate but I’ve been trying to think of ways to get people I know to care about Coronavirus. For me, the idea that we have a collective goal is really important. A national campaign is hard to get behind when the notion of a real ‘Australianness’ is quite foreign to us. But a league table and a team speaks to everyone.

As a team member for Australia I’m up there, within touching distance of Brazil and Sweden (see?), which is a source of real motivation to work together to keep away from the worst names like USA and China.

The nation is a pretty empty signifier, but unfortunately it remains the best we’ve got as far as current statistics are concerned.  I believe there’s real potential in localising statistical analysis of new cases and creating local league table. Imagine if you could set Primary school communities, or Suburbs, against each other? Harness the feeling that you could actually contribute to the success of your team by being more vigilant and helping others to do so. The collected data could also be really helpful in tracing the progress of COVID 19.

Of course the game will disadvantage the underprivileged but it will also bring attention to those areas which lack adequate healthcare (USA I’m looking at you) or transparency (ahem, China). And after all, it’s just a game.

Nobody wins but some do better than others. It simply invites reflection on your choices and a way to positively orient your community thinking, you’re doing it for the team.

Thoughts on the coronavirus

Well there are quite a few things that this virus is bringing to mind and, while I listen to my workplace’s ‘townhall’ about how we’re going to deal with this, I’d like to get some of them down.

Nationalism is an embarrasment

Maybe I’m just speaking from an Australian perspective but I find that one of the most interesting things about COVID-19 is that it makes clear that we are a global community. While the recent bushfires indicated that decisions made around carbon production could effect us here in Australia, via global warming, that ‘problem’ was localised and rendered within the Australian nation, and confounded by the inability of our conservative government to honestly assess and act on the situation. COVID effects everyone, it will eventually become ‘part of the furniture’ and its spread indicates how intrinsically connected we are as a planet and a species; just as with global warming.

John Stuart Mill once said that ‘nationalism is a pox on humanity’ and I think that COVID has illustrated how humanity must deal with such poxes collectively. Moreover I am more than a little ashamed of how ‘Australians’ have reacted to the virus. Brawls over toilet paper, hoarding and general self indulgent panic is behaviour that is one million miles away from the national self image. Whereas I was raised thinking that the qualities that made Australia great were courage, community support and primarily ‘mateship and a fair go’, COVID has shown that the national character is now one of profound individualism and selfishness. I believe this has changed. I believe that Australian culture is not as Australian as it once was. When my Nana lived through the depression in Coolgardie they allowed families to share their house and camp on their verandah indefinitely; simply so they could help. Our ANZAC stories are replete with tales of soldiers who would not leave the battlefield without their mates, regardless of their own peril. I know COVID appears to be a slightly different situation but for people to be hoarding toilet paper in a city where there are yet to be any cases of community transmission does NOT speak of courage, mateship and a fair go. It speaks of profound selfish individualism and a cowardly panic inspired by global media. Overall it reflects upon an inability to think of your community or yourself as somehow distinct or different from the individualistic global order.

The neo-liberal world view is dangerous and inefficient

Which brings me to my next realisation. We have all become Americans, at the worst possible time. There is a global culture that has replaced Australian culture and it is that of small state, big individual, responsibilisation that suggests that community is meaningless, the individual matters. It’s here and it rules this place, I suspect it rules everywhere.

I feel very sorry for the US at this time when people’s inability to fund sick leave combined with their incapacity to pay for medical attention is liable to make COVID a particularly thorny problem. This system works to develop herd immunity as quickly as possible (because of, not despite, it’s terrible inefficiency) meaning the sick and the old die quickly and production can return to profitability. A strong social health system would only slow this process, allow more ‘weak’ people to live and be far more expensive. The economic value of refusing to care (in the most literal sense) cannot be refuted. It doesn’t shock me that the US government has taken this route; what shocks me is the extent to which their ideology has become ubiquitous and that the US population can’t see the value in spending some of their trillions on universal health care rather than junk for a military that is, like its health care, already far more expensive than everyone else’s.

Traditional gender stereotypes are still propagated in the most horrible ways

The Australian government is yet to close schools and one of the justifications for this is that they don’t want health care workers to have to stay at home to look after children. Now I can’t for the life of me imagine WHY health care workers would have to take care of children? Surely these health care workers have partners who could perform caring roles?

So the underlying issue is that health care workers are thought of as female and that family caregives are also imagined to be female. Here are the women in our lives being asked to double shift in quite the most impossible way. Of course, not all health care workers are female and not all family caregivers are female; but that’s sort of being forgotten, and ‘by and large’ these traditional gender roles remain unproblematic. Which is such bullshit.

Here’s a revolutionary idea. When the health of the entire community depends upon it, the CEO of BHP can take time off to care for children while their partner, who works in health can continue to do the health work that remains a priority to save lives. Gender is and should be irrelevant.

Are we seriously saying that we’ll endanger the health of our families and communities because we can’t imagine a man taking time off work to look after the kids? The fact that this statement is plausible speaks to the fact we really need to look at how we propagate gender roles, as well as how we underpay and underappreciate care work!

OK, rants over for now. As you can see COVID 19 has bought up a few beefs and I am hopeful that we might learn from this experience. Anyone who reads this, please stay safe and if you need anything to help you through this difficult time, please don’t be afraid to ask. I’ve got enough TP to share.

Being woke; or identity politics destroys my mind, pt.2

So a few things have happened lately that have bought my issues with identity politics back to my mind.

First, I had a student complain that I used the N-word in a lecture.

Second, the UWA student guild made a motion to stop the Dalai Lama (or his representatives) from speaking on campus, because it might offend our Chinese students.

Third, I went to see Jonathan Pie – an excellent comedian who somewhat echoed my concerns about where this was all leading us.

Finally, this:

Kendrick Lamar’s Onstage Outrage: Why Rap Should Retire the N-Word for Good

So to deal with the first issue first, before you stop reading because I am such a horrible racist.

I was conducting a lecture on how language carries power through discourse. We were discussing Ed Sheeran as a group (funny how he keeps coming up in these discussions). He had just toured and a lot of the students had just been to the concert at Optus stadium, so I knew that his ‘power’ would be tangible for them. But I asked ‘is he really any good?’ and then (after fielding some yes and no answers) offered this unwise and unnecessary perspective which I will quote at length to ensure that you get the context:

I thought it was interesting because the music editor from The West panned him and said ‘well his music is all a bit same-ish’. And I have to say that I think within the frame of discourse he’s a fine musician and clearly a nice and sincere person but I don’t think that 20 years ago he would have been successful as he is.

He only sticks out now because so much of contemporary pop music is facile and horrible, and talks about ‘bitches’ and ‘niggas’ and whatever I’m buying; and he doesn’t do that, and so he sticks out.

By saying this I offended someone and was reported to the faculty.

Now let me say I am a little mortified that I offended one of my students – that was -hopefully clearly – never my intention; and I didn’t think that my use of the N-word was derogatory, inflamatory or even capable of creating offence.  But it was, and for that, I’m sorry.

But I do think that I have every right to say the word. Based on the idea that if anyone can say a word, then I can too. The word was on my mind because I had been conducting a rhetorical analysis of Kendrick Lemar’s ‘Humble’. Which is peppered with the ‘N-word’ and the ‘B-word’. That’s why this issue was on my mind and I do think this kind of language is culturally toxic. But I discussed the lyric to ‘Humble’ in the following lecture and received no complaints. So from that I can only deduct that it’s ok for a rapper to use the word, just not ok for me to use it. And I’m not ok with that.

It is not about being free to spout my racist views, or being free to use language to perscute people; I don’t want to do those things and I’d happily be censured on the grounds of offence if I did that. It is about my freedom to use a word which others are allowed to use. I was not directing it at anyone, I was not calling anyone the ‘n-word’, I was discussing the fact that this is a word that was proliferating in popular music. It is happening, so I think I can defend my right to use the same word to describe what’s happening.

Do not give me the ‘only a ginger can call another ginger “ginger“‘ defence. Kendrick is not a woman and yet he is allowed to use the word ‘bitch’; despite the long and horrible history of female oppression and the continued use of that word to segregate and demean a group of powerless people.  So, where’s the consistency Lemar? Maybe he self- identifies as a woman? great, but can’t I identify with a black person then?

The only way for Lemar to defend his position is to suggest that because he is black he is marginised and therefore can speak for/as/on behalf of all marginalised groups. Whereas I am white, so I can never know what it means to be marginalised. I’ve never heard make that argument but that’s the only possible way to defend it.

But there are problems with that argument, because why are race and gender the only things that matter in terms of judging marginalisation? They are facile elements of identity and, I would argue, while they do invite summary judgment (because they are apparent on surfaces) they are actually less determining that just about every other aspect of identity (because they only manifest at the level of surfaces).

Now, in saying that I’m not saying that being black/female and being oppressed have nothing to do with each other. What I’m saying is that there is actually nothing innate about being black or female that contributes to that oppression. The long history of African slavery did not happen because of blackness, blackness was used as a reverse justification for the economic exploitation of a human resource. It was the system of slavery that created the racism and the N-word, not blackness.

Yes a large number of black people are poor, marginalised and powerless (and a large number of women) – but so are a large number of white people, and a large number of men. Do you know who is not poor, marginalised or powerless? Kendrick Lemar. That’s who. He’s also famous, he’s beautiful. He has a freaking Pulitzer Prize. These are the things that are determining.

Black people, women (along with white people and men); they do all kinds of things, have a wide variety of experiences, they suffer, they succeed, it is almost impossible to tell who they’d be or what they’d be interested in based upon their gender or their race.

However, if you are born poor, you are likely to die poor, and your poverty is likely to determine (and limit) your education, your employment prospects and your experience of the world.

If you are born unattractive by conventional standards, you are likely to die unattractive by conventional standards, and your relative attractiveness is likely to determine your social standing, your group of friends, your mate and yes, even your employment prospects. Where is the representation for the marginalisation of ugly people?

I see nothing consistent here, just a fashionable form of group think which is doing exactly what it is supposedly fighting against – perpetrating race/gender as determining categories (‘you are black so you can…’ is the same logical premise as ‘you are black so you cannot…’). Understanding the world only in terms of surfaces (the Dalai Lama is Tibetan, so he must be offensive; a white person said ‘nigga’ so we must be offended) is the best way to create a world where only surfaces matter. And surfaces shouldn’t matter.

And on that, I’ll finish with this quote from Arendt.

It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. Only the good has depth and can be radical. [1]

[1] Arendt, The Jew as Pariah, p250-251


The video of Iranian women sneaking in to watch a football match made my day

I loved seeing this story last night about 5 Iranian women dressing up like men to sneak in to a football ground and watch their team win the league.

It tickled me for a number of reasons. First, it reminded me of this:

While I’m generally all for respecting regional custom and law, the prohibition of women doing things because of their gender is unequivocally abhorrent and an aspect that needs to change in any culture it is rooted (including my own obvs). So, the fact that these Iranians flouted the law, supported by the fact that so many of the other football supporters at least implicitly enabled the act, which was then shared through the power of social media, made me really happy for the prospect of humanistic progress in the world.

Also, it made me remember how great sport and play is as a tool for overcoming social and cultural division; something I wrote about in my paper ‘The Smooth Spaces of Play’.

It is rare that I see news that makes me happy – so thanks to those five brave Iranian women!

This page has nothing to do with TAL insurance. Let me tell you why insurance is a con

So Tauel is a strage word and not one that I hear a lot. Imagine my surprise when I heard this TVC for TAL :

Nothing not to love here, right? I dig the Sia cover, the diversity of ‘Australianness’ represented, some beautiful shots and I can also see the clever messaging of starting with young people and finishing with the target market of older people. And then there’s hearing ‘Tauel’ as a brand… sort of intoxicating.

But I HATE it; because if there’s one industry I struggle to respect, it is insurance. And in this post I’m hoping to explain why.

First, a confession. I’ve actually had a lot of really bad experience with insurance companies, so I am in some sense prejudiced by my own experiences. I have repeatedly been in situations where insurance companies have done everything possible to avoid paying out on claims and employed guys in suits to come up with reasons not to pay, or to chase innocent parties up for the costs they’ve incurred.

I’ll mention a few incidents so you get the idea. When I was 18 a mate accidentally caused me to have an accident that totalled my insured car to the value of $1600, the insurance company was going to charge me $800 excess for being young, as well as the loss of my no-claim bonus; and then go after my mate legally to make him pay the full $1600. So just to recap – because they intended to recoup the money it took to fix the car PLUS my $800 excess, they stood to make $800 out of my honest reporting of what was an accident. We subsequently cancelled the claim and my mate and I sorted it out between us.

Another example was when the communal plumbing in a flat complex we were in flooded and caused damage to carpets and flooring in the adjacent rooms. The building insurer refused to pay to repair the flooring based upon the argument that the damage may have pre-existed the flood because there were cracks in some of the bathroom tiles – and couldn’t be attributed to the flooding caused by the burst communal plubming. There was, of course, no flooring damage before the flooding but the insurance company stood by the claim that if we couldn’t prove that there was previously no damage then we couldn’t prove that the damage was the result of the burst plumbing. So they maintained the position that we had tolerated a wet floor and seeping walls for however many months, just waiting for a colossal failure of the plumbing system, which we then used as convenient excuse to ask them to repair a separate problem which just coincidentally looked like being caused by the plumbing issue. That is a ludicrous claim and an ethical operation would stump up the money for repair clearly caused by the plumbing issue.

Finally, when my 1971 VW Beetle (which was in my family for 25 years) was totalled by a driver using their mobile phone, the driver’s insurance company gave me $600 compensation for the written off vehicle. When I complained that sum no way recognised the value of the car I was told that the age of the car depreciated its value… the car was almost 40 years old at that point and almost, but not quite, in the ‘vintage’ range – but no one would really claim that a 40 year old Beetle is depreciated in value because of its age. $600 was not enough to repair the vehicle and I had no money at that point in my life, so I lost my beautiful little car I’d had for 15 years.

All of these incidents have encouraged me to loathe insurance. I see it as a corrupt industry that ought to be avoided at all costs; even those insurers who ‘aren’t very insurancy’.

I also think that it doesn’t make sense financially to use insurance. Let me explain why. If you are running an insurance business then the only way you can make money is to charge your customers significantly more than the value you’re actually ‘risking’. That is, any insurance premium has to equal the net cost of insurance claims PLUS the cost of employing people to handle the claims, PLUS the cost of administration and management, PLUS the cost of advertising your company PLUS the profit your company needs to make.

So, in all cases, if you’re wealthy enough to absorb the financial risks associated with your lifestyle, then you’re better off without insurance. If you can ride out the bad years, overall, you’ll pay less; among other things that’s just less administration, marketing, management and shareholder profit you’re paying for. I understand that not everyone is that wealthy but that makes insurance an even more unfair imposition upon those who are already financially precarious.

Insurers are obligated to their shareholders to do everything possible to ensure that their clients don’t ‘beat the system’- meaning they will try to ensure that every customer pays far more in premiums and excess than they ever receive from the insurer. That means jacking up premiums at the first sign of an added risk (the person is infirm, young, old etc), and avoiding paying claims wherever possible. It also means that, at the lower ends of the spectrum, there are peculiar advantages to making people feel precarious, threatened and isolated in order to motivate them to take out insurance. It’s sort of a self reinforcing system of creating bad karma in exchange for money.

So yeah, I don’t love insurance. I now avoid any form of insurance I can and generally only hold it where it is compulsory. My family has swallowed the pill of ‘if you can afford private health insurance then you should take it out because it places less pressure on medicare. But this bothers me because of the inefficiency created through having multiple private insurers. Since the larger your customer base becomes you would lower your exposure to peculiar risks, the closer your premiums can get to a median value and the fairer your insurance would be. Similarly, the larger your customer base the more efficient your management and administration could be. Similarly if there were just one insurer, there would be no need for advertising expenditure. In short – if there is just one insurer (say medicare, for instance) insurance premiums would be almost entirely used for their purpose – to pay for the claims made against the insurance – instead of used to pay for marketing the need for further insurance, or creating a new brand to appeal to a safer insurance market.

Finally, I think that the idea of spending money to protect the material wealth we already have is a form of intense conservatism which seeks to preserve the worst aspects of our current existence (commodity fetishism, reification, materialism) and inhibits some of the best aspects (challenge, responsibility, compassion). There are reasons to collectively defray the impact of catastrophe – but using profit oriented companies to coordinate that is a misstep. And yeah, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with insurance companies. So I’m certainly not endorsing TAL.

On time and drumming with Taylor Hawkins

So I went to watch the Foo Fighters on the weekend and had a few moments when I achieved a philosophical appreciation for the excellent drumming of Taylor Hawkins.

Taylor Hawkins – according to Dave Grohl ‘The answer to the question – “What if Freddy Mercury had a surfboard”? – is one of the better drummers I’ve seen live. And I think the fact that he’s clearly a Queen fan is no coincidence. Hawkins has a remarkable ability to enter into the moment and alter it both with his singing, drumming and presence more generally.

Don’t get me wrong, Dave Grohl is also a consummate showperson – every time I’ve seen him (3 times now) I’m impressed by his commitment to perform. He’s always interested in reactions, and responsive to them, 1 and I usually spend some of the show thinking about whether his musical legacy is more important than Kurt Cobain’s… and I generally answer ‘yes’, and that’s some testament to his talent and endeavour.

But with Hawkins, he is equally in control and also (at least seemingly) possessed by the performance – just like Freddy Mercury. When I’m watching him I get the impression that what he’s producing is in and of the moment. Possessing ‘haecceity’, or ‘thisness’ that makes something truly unique.

As a communication theorist the reason I find this fascinating is that communication is typically understood in our world as a process of ‘information exchange’. That is, according to both scientific and empirical theories of communication, when I’m listening to Hawkins and the Foo Fighters I am receiving information – here’s the high hat, here’s the kick drum and so on. However, the experience of being at a Foo Fighters concert is significantly more than that information. Hawkins slight altering of the tempo and beat patterns are in and of the moment and adaptive to the feeling of the music which is immanent to the crowd and the occasion.

I have previously written about why live music experience cannot be replicated and I touched on this issue there. There is something incommensurable (incommunicable) about such experiences and that is – in essence –  the thing. I also know that great theorists like Ron Bogue and, of course, Heidegger, have written about time and experience in far more interesting ways.

However, my take away, and something that I think is helping me think through these issues, is that communication (real communication) is a process, not information exchange. In identifying it as a process you come to understand the difference between information and communication. We have the ability to exchange information globally, and indeed you can even see examples of Taylor Hawkins performance on the weekend right here.

But while the information has complete parity with what happened on the weekend, it is not communicating the same thing. The reason is because there is a process involved in watching music live that is not replicated in reading a blog.

While understanding that process is important seems to replicate McLuhan’s ‘Media is the message’ what I think is really important is to understand what is not happening in ‘information exchange’… a reduced appreciation for iteration and immanence for one, a failure to appreciate our human capacity for another… and an absence of reduction to purpose, a celebration of experience in its place.