Friday, January 29, 2010

Democracy American-style: Recipe for Chaos

Americans ought to just stop lecturing the rest of the world about democracy.

Even though the Democratic Party in the US has an historically huge majority in both the Congress and the Senate, as well as a Democratic president, the political system is virtually in lockdown. It seemingly is incapable of passing legislation that delivers much needed reform, for example on health. 

There is no such thing as party discipline. Moderates and conservatives on both sides of the aisle just do want they want to do and vote how they want to vote. They answer to popular opinion in their home state, or, more accurately, opinion as whipped up by shock jocks.

If an Australian political party had the sort of majority in both houses as the Democrats enjoy in the US, they would be in seventh heaven. Reformist and bold legislation would be passed by both houses without drama, and the government would face the verdict of the people if it got things wrong (as happened to Howard on Work Choices).

It's a ruthlessly efficient numbers game. Legislation gets through. Reform gets done. No bullshit necessary. If the Opposition doesn't like it, tough. Appeal to the people and get yourself elected next time around.

In the US however, Obama faces almost impossible odds. Because he has, after the Massachusetts election, only 59 (yes, 59) out of 100 Democratic senators, he is highly unlikely to be able to get his health care reforms through. He is forced to appeal to bipartisanship, that is, appeal to angry Republicans who hate him and everything he stands for. 

I'm no expert on US politics. But I do recognise systemic failure when I see it.

Americans - no more lectures to the rest of the world please. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apocalypse Never

Over the last nine months or so I have been spending a lot of time and energy trying to get some intellectual clarity on what is patently the most overwhelming issue of our time - climate change. 

I have read 13 books, two Quarterly Essays and numerous articles, watched half a dozen videos and visited three or four well-regarded web sites on a regular basis. I have explored the scientific, environmental, social, political and economic dimensions of this complex issue.

I have tried to be open-minded, and valiantly tried to come to grips with the science behind it all. I've been like a dog with a bone, trying to pin it down until even the most abstruse stuff became reasonably clear to me. That's how I've always worked. I don't sleep too well unless issues I'm wrestling with are sort of resolved.

Most importantly I have read both sides of the issue in roughly equal measure - the consensus view and that of the sceptics.

Previously in this blog I wrote about sceptic Ian Plimer's Heaven+Earth and how good I thought it was. Having read much more now, including a good sprinkling of very negative and dismissive reviews of this book, I have to agree that Plimer got a lot wrong, mainly in the details, due to a general sloppiness that should simply have been avoided. Hopefully, if he produces a second edition, which he should, a lot of this will be corrected. His basic vision however, the reach and depth of it, is overwhelmingly persuasive.

Three books I've read over the last few weeks (all published just prior to Xmas) are also essential reads: James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren; Christopher Booker's The Real Global Warming Disaster; and Peter Taylor's Chill.

Hansen is universally recognised as perhaps the world's leading climate scientist. He is certainly the most well known, having been a key player in bringing global warming to the world's attention since the 1980's. He was instrumental, for instance, in bringing Al Gore into the frame. Storms of My Grandchildren is, remarkably, his first book, and I say remarkably because it is so well written. Literate, passionate and very persuasive, Hansen has that rare and natural talent for making difficult scientific concepts very clear and digestible for the non-specialist reader. 

Christopher Booker is on the other side of the argument well and truly. He originally founded the satirical magazine Private Eye and has in recent years, through his weekly Sunday Telegraph column, become the most conspicuous global warming sceptic in Britain. It would be fairly easy to dismiss Booker as a right wing nutcase, as many critics have (that is the usual fate of sceptics unfortunately), but that would be a profound mistake. His book, in my humble view, in the way it marshalls an enormous amount of detail and constructs its absorbing narrative, is one of the best of the bunch. Like in the Naked City, there are many stories about the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) and how it goes about its business of constructing consensus, and this is just one of them. For the history, politics and economics side of this debate you couldn't do any better than Booker.

Chill: A Reassessment of Global Warming Theory by Peter Taylor, is the one book I would advise you to read if you had no time to read anything else. Taylor is a highly regarded science analyst and has been an advisor to European governments on environmental issues for over 30 years. The beauty about Taylor's book is it reviews the scientific literature that has gained prominence over the last five years or so (post the IPCC reports), and that presents a new and critical perspective on the consensus view articulated by the IPCC. Whereas sceptics traditionally assault that view with claims of conspiracy, corruption and politicisation, Taylor allows the emerging and confounding new science of solar and ocean cycles to effectively demolish the 'establishment' naturally. Not that the world should be complacent. But we should be focussed on the real environmental problems not the illusory ones.

If a side has to be taken, then I've certainly ended up a sceptic. But, hopefully, an intelligent and well-informed one.

We are all familiar with the ancient and medieval literary device known as 'Deus ex Machina', which referred to the common practice of dramatists and poets of introducing a new character or event into the plot that magically resolved the story and brought things happily to an end. 

I am persuaded that we are seeing a similar syndrome today, in our modern story of climate change. It could be better termed 'Homo ex Machina'. The complex threads of Nature's story can't easily or satisfactorily be identified, so Man has been thrust onto the stage to bring resolution. 

So our modern story might be an ancient one after all. What a happy thought!


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Flags and Republics - oh no, not again!

Two age-old Australian debates seem to be stuttering into life yet again, returning like the whiff of ancient and annoying farts.

I am passionately in favor of Australia becoming a republic and getting a new flag, but even if I live to be 250 years old I'll never see either come to pass.

Regarding the republic, of course most Australians would prefer it if the country sloughed off its colonial remnants, stopped borrowing the convenient constitutional machinery of another, older and more mature country, and got on with its own governance affairs like a proper, independent grown-up.

It's not the monarchists who will forever hold us back, with their insipid but dying sentimental attachments and the insidious insulting of our intelligence by implying Australians haven't got the wit to devise their own safe, secure constitution with all our current checks and balances embedded. No it's the republicans themselves who will forever hold us back with their tiresome and vitriolic debates about how the President should be chosen and what powers such a head of state should have. In 1999 the republican referendum was lost not just because John Howard corrupted the process from the word go by his framing of the question, but because a large clutch of dopey, populist, direct election republicans effectively derailed it. I see no sign of this passion abating - ever.

Walking the city streets today on Austalia Day I saw countless numbers of Aussie flags draped over the shoulders of young people, and, frankly, it made me sick in the pit of my stomach. Unlike the great majority of other countries, Australia has a flag that privileges its Anglo-Saxon, British heritage. And whenever I see young people, especially hoons and yobs, parading it about, almost thrusting it down your throat, I'm sensing the subtle but visceral message of white supremacy and Anglo superiority. It's in stark contrast to the Canadian flag for instance, which every non-Anglo immigrant could celebrate and flourish with the pride of belonging.

Once again we'll never get rid of the Union Jack in the corner, as when the rubber hits the road on these sorts of things in this country, our basest instincts unthinkingly prevail. Racism is very very subtle, which is why it is so powerful and entrenched. 

I remember about 20 years ago when I was responsible for editorial and production operations in Wiley a cover and blurb for a book about some feature of Australia came across my desk for approval, and the author was described as a 'seventh generation Australian'. I demanded that tag be deleted, much to the surprise and chagrin of the editor. She had no idea what I was talking about.

Enough said.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New movies worth seeing

The Lovely Bones is the new movie from Lord of the Ring's director Peter Jackson, and it's definitely worth seeing. It combines an absorbing, all too real world story with a rather tepid supernatural one. This worked in Alice Sebold's novel but it's irritating on film. The visualisation of the mystical, between heaven and earth, state inhabited by the murdered 14 year old girl until her plight is resolved on earth reminded me of those scenes from the Qantas commercial where the white coated kids from the choir go frolicking around beauty spots of the world singing 'I Still Call Australia Home'! Sweeping landscapes of fields, grasses, sand and sea, and nary a bitey nasty in sight. Boring as batshit. See this movie for the earthy story and the performances. Susan Sarandon as the alcoholic grannie is terrific.

With Avatar you're in typical James Cameron blockbuster territory and you'll debate with yourself whether you should really bother seeing it. If you do, go for the 3D version. It showcases the incredible technology underpinning so much modern film making. The storyline is a succession of cliches, frequently bordering on the ridiculous, eg the mineral under the sacred site where the natives live, and which the vulgar earthlings want, is called 'Unobtainable'!! The special effects are all pretty derivative and you've seen them all before,'ll have to admit it's all been superbly well put together into an exciting blockbuster package. Holiday stuff for sure!

Bright Star is Australian director Jane Campion's new one, focussing on the love affair between poet John Keats and his neighbour's daughter Fanny Brawn. The impossibly gorgeous Abbie Cornish plays Fanny. She's obviously, and for some unkown reason, been plumped up a bit for the role - by 5k at least - but the loveliness of her face, her eyes and nose particularly, which the camera adores, is mesmerising. Cornish brings alive the unbearable suffering of love and longing, and finally intense grief. The final scene where she hears the news of Keats' death in Italy, and her expression of profound grief, is rivetting, and the stuff of oscar nominations. Well worth seeing, and another triumph for Campion.

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's obsession with Penelope Cruz is once again obvious in Broken Embraces. But having seen her in 2009 in Woody's Christina, Barcelona, Isabel Coixet's magnificent Elegy, and now this one, I have become an obsessive fan as well. She has to be, in my humble view, perhaps the most stikingly beautiful woman on the planet today! This is an enthralling movie that slowly unravels a complex story of relationships, from the comic to the tragic, and grips you all the way. Lovely in every way.