A few of the books I read, a few of the places I went.
Posts tagged with "history"
A few of the books I read, a few of the places I went.
- Must the War Spread - D.N.Pritt (a Penguin Special from 1940)
- Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood (it reminds me of work)
- His Illegal Self - Peter Carey (it reminds me of bliss)
Why Weren't We Told, Henry Reynolds. Good history and historiography.
World Without Us, Alan Weisman. Interesting ecological speculation.
Cloudstreet, Tim Winton. Australian magic realism, that I enjoyed.
Beneath the Dardanelles, Vecihi and Hatice Hürmüz Başarin. Slapped up pastiche of the history of the AE2, not terrible but not very original.
Last week, 13 February 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia proposed that the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia make an apology, to the aboriginal people of Australia. It was a long time coming. In 1992, Paul Keating, then Prime Minister, made the "Redfern Speech" (there is also a Redfern Speech video clip complete with aboriginal images and other stuff that shows why video clips are not the same as real speeches given live by real people).
Aboriginal people, despite not being citizens in their own country until 1967, despite a claim that the British Government could own the land since in 1788 there was nobody they were taking it away from, despite mostly being herded into missions, employed in what amounted to legalised slavery within living memory, despite organised manhunts to kill aboriginals, had won legal recognition that some of the land in Australia was theirs. Not because the government, in response to the Homeland and Land Rights movement in the 60s and 70s, had been giving back bits of land, but because according to the existing Australian/British law, they were clearly the legal owners of land.
In 1995, Keating commissioned a report into what became widely known as the Stolen Generations. Basically, aboriginal children and particularly part-aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in teh care of white families, either as a source of cheap servants, or to try and breed out their aboriginality - a sort of long-term genocide - or a combination of these. When I was at school, it was common knowledge that this happened, and the reasoning behind it was common knowledge. Yet somehow when the report, "Bringing Them Home", came out (after a change of government in 1996) this was no longer what really happened at all, and Australia was suddenly not prepared to take a "black armband" view of its own history.
In other words, despite the people of Australia showing a strong predisposition to apologise, despite the State government of Victoria rapidly apologising officially, the government of the country decided there was nothing to apologise for. But then, this was the same government that changed the racial discrimination act, to make it legal to take land away from aboriginal people, in order not to deal with the issues raise by the Mabo case and Native Title.
The stolen generations were in some case already dead. But this had been happening until the 1970s, when I was a kid. So in other cases they are people my age - at that time, people as young as their 20s.
A decade later, last week, the country finally managed, officially, to say "sorry". Rudd's speech might be the most important in the fairly short history of the Commonwealth of Australia, and the most important for some time in the very very long history of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. (And you can watch him giving it on video without the extra artsy distraction). It isn't brilliant rhetoric, but it is still a great speech. because it says sorry, and why we need to say sorry, and points to a way ahead that involves doing something about healing, adding a practical side to the nice words...
For a decade, being an Australian was an increasingly depressing thing to admit to. There are still great things about Australia, there are still things that have been terrible and need fixing. But it finally feels that the country is moving in more right directions than wrong ones, after a pretty sorry decade.
Thanks Kev. I realise you didn't take the children away any more than I did. But our country did, and not being able to own up and say "sorry" was slowly eating at us. It doesn't solve the problem, but recognising that there is something to deal with is a good start.
Now I have completed thirty books in this year. No party, but here are reviews of the latest two...
The good, the bad, and the really rather ugly (one of these books I would not buy on the prnciple that such authors should not be encouraged), some of the reviews are stretching out. Having accused an author of writing repetitive drivel, maybe I should spend more time editing these reviews - but here they are...
Some thoughts, from my old dining table
Once upon a time I learned a lot of Australian poetry. One of the cooler jobs I ever had was to sit in the bush by a fire, and recite the stuff for a couple of hours. A lot of people know of "The Man from Snowy River" (a story about a plucky kid who turned out to be greater than many legendary horsemen). There is humour in nearly all the poetry I learned, from "A Bush Christening" (again well-known in Australia, about a drunk priest playing jokes) or "Been there before" (about conning conmen in a small country town) to the altogether darker "McPherson's Last Ride" (about a jockey who correctly predicts his own death in a race).
One of the more humourous, and more serious poems, is by Henry Lawson, a man who was replaced on the $10 note by "Banjo Paterson" - the author of the poems named above. Lawson was a darker character - where Paterson was a war correspondent, lawyer, racing fanatic in a racing-mad country, and city-slicker in a country which (fancifully even 100 years ago) imagined itself full of bushmen, Lawson was a boy from the bush, a poet, alcoholic, who died a broken exile in Europe.
It is called "When your pants begin to go". And it is about basic dignity, and the things that it can and cannot readily cover.
Fundamentally, unfortunately, a lot of dignity is simply bought and sold, and to play the game cash is a valuable tool. As more of the game is played that way, more people respect the rule of gold (the one with the gold makes the rules) more than the golden rule (treat others as they would be treated). It is easy to tell brave stories about casually sleeping on a floor, in a broken down hostel, or under a bridge, and if it doesn't happen often and isn't hard to deal with then it is a fine thing to have done. Being caught a few bob short and calling in a debt of favours, or borrowing a few quid in a pinch is fine. Every traveller (and many more who never had a chance to travel) has a tale of dry biscuits and water, or a bank that blocked their credit at a crucial moment.
But I am very happy to have a new pair of jeans, and consign my former best pair which are now very well ventilated to the dustbin of history.
The first is pretty straightforward to understand. Abraham Lincoln apparently pointed out that the right of freedom of action was fine, and covered the right to punch me in the nose. But that the right expired at thee point my nose begins - in other words, you're free to do what you want so long as it hurts nobody. Unfortunately that papers over a pretty complex question - what hurts other people?
It seems patently obvious that the cartoons (which I have only read described, not seen) were fairly childishly insulting. In Australia they would be a clear case for looking at the laws against inciting racial or religious hatred - the laws that in Europe are regularly used to suppress neo-nazis in particular. At least, it seems that way to me.
I have friends who are extremely sensitive to criticism (as they perceive it) on whatever they are sensitive about. Jews defending Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Christians who think racism is not funny. Atheists who don't like jokes where children are the butt. Muslims who are appalled by sexist attempts at humour. Men who will get drunk and swear like a trooper, about how appalled they are by women who do the same. People who, like Kevin Kline's character in "a Fish called Wanda" react violently to any suggestion they are not a genius.
Most of these people are extremely easy going about other issues. You can call one an idiot, another will make a joke that I find offensive. All of us are ignorant of some things - not always the same things. The simple answer is that I try not to deliberately offend people. There are things I will say in private company that I won't write in this (or any other) public forum. The language of a construction site is not necessarily the language of tea with my Granny, nor a mostly-women's sewing circle I know (who would make the construction workers blanch, I suspect).
By the same token, I expect of my friends that they will gently but firmly point out to me where they think I am going wrong. I may disagree, or ignore their advice. But I hope that I generally accept it as advice, and do not react with rudeness, violence, or otherwise "shoot the messenger".
When it comes to dealing with groups of people, the same rules apply. If you don't know someone well, you are likely to be a little more circumspect, and you are likely to accept a degree of frankness and even rudeness from your friends that you would not tolerate in the same way from a stranger.
One of the questions is whether there is something in Islam that means the responses are different to those one expects of Christians. I find it hard to see anything in practice. In principle Islam seems to authorise violence against non-believers in some ways that Christianity does not, but in practice I don't see any real religious justification for most violence practiced. There are obvious differences in what each religion promotes, but just as the famous argument goes against racism, the range of differences among muslims themselves is far greater than the differences between islam, christianity, and judaism, and there is not a lot more seperating various forms of animism, hinduism, buddhism, zoroastrianism, and a collection of other common religions (all of which are in principle much more different that the three great religions "ال كتب").
I was born and grew up in the era when Little Black Sambo (a story that has since been modified to tone down its racist overtones) was still posted around the walls of the pancake parlour. I went to a school where female teachers were not given a pension on the basis that they should be supported in their old age by their better-paid husbands anyway. When Steve Biko was beaten to death for suggesting that black people had the right to ask for equality in their country. When black and asian people were not allowed to immigrate to Australia because they were asian.
A lot of the problem, I think, comes from believing that people are "the other". It's not a hard belief to develop. Many people in Europe can grow up not knowing any practising muslims closely, not understanding what their hindu colleagues actually believe, or what goes on in a synagogue, in the same way that many lebanese people can grow up not knowing any actual americans or icelanders, or japanese people may not really learn what the main ideas of christianity are, let alone why anyone actually thinks they make sense.
We live in a media-dominated world. TV, radio, newspapers. And everyone seeking a little fame with their blog is a part of it. In order to sell more mass-media, many people resort to finding something more outrageous than ever before. Or at least more outrageous, more provocative, than the everyday. In journalism it is the work of an instant to dig up one person who is marginalised in their own society, and use their words to whip up a frenzy. In Australia, it was done in Sydney recently. A few well-placed idiots pandering to a few particularly nasty ideas unleashed a week of mob violence that began with a small fringe of the white majority going on a rampage against middle eastern immigrants (or people who had dark hair and a bit of a tan, at least). In a quiet, settled, free, democratic and mulitcultural society, it took a week to bring under control, and fears of a new outbreak made a real difference to Australia Day celebrations over a month later.
When a few tens of thousands of people in an already trigger-happy society ruled with a lot of violent intervention from outside burn a building or two, it is not cause for celebration. It is a step backwards. On the other hand, it is hardly representative of a culture, or even a city. Does it make more or less sense to burn a building because it represents a government that allegedly permits persecution of muslims, or to burn a building because it allegedly represents people who wear a different coloured shirt when they kick a ball around a paddock? I don't think either make much sense. Nor that they are different in any meaningful way, or representative of people.
Dialogue and consensus are extremely slow ways of getting things done. They take so long that it is almost certain that during the course of them one or more groups will do something outrageous. Something that can serve as an excuse to break off discussion if someone is looking for an excuse. Something that complicates the discussion for anyone making a serious effort to resolve things through dialogue. It is also open to abuse. Any side can act in bad faith, and use the time to stall, to get a better position when they do withdraw.
They are also very difficult. They require a lot of understanding, and that can in turn require a lot of learning. When they are being carried on by representatives, there is the added burden that what the representatives are learning and doing needs to be communicated to, and agreed by, theose who are being represented.
Justice is a tricky concept to define. It is even harder to agree on - most people have some innate ideas about what is just, but very few have a really coherent idea, let alone any idea how to reconcile that with the ideas that others have, which can involve some very different and initially unknown basic precepts.
So we come to the question of deciding where my nose begins. Should it be decided by mob violence? Can it be decided unilaterally by those who have a clearly more effective, more powerful method? Should we simply extend all the barriers, and prohibit anything that upsets anyone? Can we ask an impartial observer to tell us? (What do we do if their answer is obviously wrong?)
One of the things that several thousand years of moral philosophy and legal development has done is to attempt ever more ambitious answers to the question. In the last century or so attempts have been made to deal with the question on a worldwide scale, and more recently real recognition has been given to the idea that the world includes all the poeple in it, not just the rich ones or the ones like me or the ones who believe in the right approach or philosophy. There is still a way to go, but we seem to have learned a few things on the way.
And this is before we start to deal more seriously with the question of art, the role of the fool, the ones who can question what everyone believes as sacred and obvious truth. The place of insanity in a rational society, and the way that a society defines its members.
Because if we live in a global village we had better make sure we don't declare half the village outlaws - since Sherwood forest became a suburb, we still have to live with them. And the history of Sparta suggests that declaring war on ourselves as a zero-sum game is just a fancy name for suicide.
Being slow to criticise, and trying to base that criticism on real understanding, is constructive. Reacting slowly, and positively to criticism is helpful. Trying to resolve our flaws, and remove the grounds for criticism, is a good move if we think our criticism should in turn have any effect. The big trick is balancing our freedom with respect for others, balancing a natural desire for harmony with a sense for removing the injustice that inevitably breeds discord and trouble.
There are various guidelines for it. Most religions have a set. They don't work without people applying intelligent and dynamic interpretation.
So, anyone got the perfect pavlova recipé?
I was 15, playing a soldier in a school play. The play itself was about tension, about being cooped up under stress - sort of a submarine film but without the submarine. It all took place inside a little hut actually - the kind where, walking, I had spent some time cooped up with people, but not under the same stress.
Playing soldiers, we carried guns. It isn't something I do a lot of, but the school's supply of .303 rifles from when there was an army cadet corps was duly raided to provide us with the right equipment. (It was, too - the play was set in the beginning of the forties, which is when the equipment dated from. I am not that old...)
One day when we were in "dress rehearsal" we were sitting around smoking, to make us feel like real soldiers - something that curiously was accepted as a good enough reason. Strange to think that half a life ago it was acceptable for kids to smoke in the theatre. But it was shortly after smoking was banned in University classes, and when most flights still had a smoking section.
We were poking around exploring the ins and outs of the guns. And in one of them, in the butt where the cleaning fluid went, we found a rolled up note from the late 60's. It was two boys who had been using the gun in the cadet corps, and were preparing to leave Australia and be sent to Vietnam as soldiers.
I never knew how many people went from the school, but when they read the honour roll each year of students who had been killed in wars I was always amazed that there were some in Vietnam. I often wondered afterwards if the names on the note matched the names on the honour roll, but at the time I didn't think about it.
I suspect even my reaction to the discovery has changed as I got older. It was something that affected us, but probably not as it would now. I hope we gave the note to the archivist of the school - a guy who had an archive in his own mind stretching back decades, and had a real passion for the school and the people who had been there. Otherwise I guess we would have left it where we found it. That was what we did at the time, but we talked about it afterwards.
I forget the end of the story. I don't know if it had one.
Widgets and things
Twitter, blogs, comments...
Twitter is quick, but not always great. I always wanted a blog made up of comments - and this link category is a step in making one :)
WYSIWYG Editors and HTML
Response to well-written blog explaining why "WYSIWYG Editors hate HTML5". I agree there are problems, I think there are solutions available.
WYSIWYG Editors and HTML, pt 2
Further exploration of how things really are and what can usefully be done.
JAWS got it wrong. Just handing over the keyboard is stupid - even if the role itself is not.
Entrevista con Jan Standal
Respuestas a los comentarios sobre una entrevista de Jan Standal (de Opera).
Opera Brasil na Noruega
Fotos que quero (e não)
(Muchos comentarios, un articulo)
Una conversación sobre la Web Móvil
Improving accessibility - what do we need?
It's not about one magic solution - this is a complex problem and lots of things need to be done.
Unite geolocation app
Cool ways to manage your own location data
Código abierto y Opera
Porque ser abierto no es la diferencía entre exito y la muerte.
HTML - a new standard
CSSquirrel suggests that listening to more people would make HTML better. I agree, but there are people who already influence HTML and should think about how they can do it better.
Walking in an exoskeleton, and why it isn't necessary
There is a big difference between (disabled) people achieving something, and expecting that everyone should do things "like us".