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the eighth day

Reflections "outside the frame"

September 11, 2011

9/11 ten years on

It remains one of those events that we can all recall where we were and what we were doing the moment we learned of it. Ten years on from those tumultuous events known popularly as 9/11, it is hard to identify any winners: Osama bin Laden is dead, and the vulnerabilities of the United States have been exposed in surprising ways. But the ramifications have been much more widely felt than in some artificial divide between so-called Islamic extremism and the democratic West. We do well to revisit that dramatic day and analyse afresh the symbolism of the event - something which has so far been difficult to do because the political sensitivities attached. Whether the distance is enough to fully appreciate the events is still a matter of conjecture, but the symbolism is so powerful, and the ramifications felt across the symbols so profound that we dare not take the opportunity for some fresh reflection.

For good reasons, the focus of 9/11 has been firmly upon the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers which dominated the New York skyline, and which tumbled so dramatically before our eyes. It is too easily forgotten that there were two other targets on that day: the Pentagon and the White House, the former suffering severe damage, but in a limited part of the building, while the attack on the White House was averted by the actions of some brave passengers aboard Flight 93. Together, these three buildings stood as symbols - pillars - of American world domination at the turn of the millennium - the political (White House), economic (World Trade Centre) and military (Pentagon) - underpinned America's status as the sole superpower of the time. The attack on these three buildings was intended to send a strong message, distorted by the total destruction of the towers and the terrible loss of life. An important symbolism is to be found in the method of these attacks: using commercial aircraft - a symbol of American freedom and mobility, turned against its three pillars with catastrophic effect, and all taking place on the date which represents the number which Americans dial in case of emergency - 911. The method employed suggested that the greatest threats to the American way of life lay within - that decay lies within - rather than externally.

Reflecting upon the changes affecting those symbols of American supremacy provide some pause for thought. America's original response was swift, and somewhat perplexing, drawing on its military supremacy with telling effect. The USA plunged into two wars, taking along other nations with it - wars from which it is finding great difficulty defining victory and thereby extracting itself; wars which were widely regarded at the time as having been pursued on dubious grounds. The long-term effect has been to stretch American military capacities to the margins, limiting their ability to respond in other areas of need. And yet perhaps the greatest effect has been felt economically. The effect of the trillion-dollar plus cost of waging these two conflicts has been to stress American financial resources to the limit, leaving the nation with limited capacity to respond not only in the immediacy of the global economic crisis of 2009, but in seeking to rebuild itself in its wake. In ten years America has moved from a healthy position of a sustainable budget in surplus to a point where both its total debt and per-capita debt ranks amongst the world's highest, with little potential for finding agreement as to how to rectify the problem. One legacy of flexing of its military might in response to 9/11 has been a significant, though not fatal, erosion of its economic might.

If the military and economic capacities of the USA have been wounded, more profound has been the impact on politics. One consequence of 9/11 is that we have inherited the black-and-white view of the world which the West generally rejects in Islamic extremism, and by which the terrorists justified their actions: the death of "infidels" being morally justified in their binary view of the world. The rising and almost unshakeable suspicion of refugees and asylum seekers has only grown in the last ten years and become an almost unquestioned tenet in political thinking. We have effectively learned to demonise the "other." A second, perhaps more far-reaching consequence has been the elevation of fear as the primary informant in debate on matters of public policy. No longer does informed debate appear in the public arena as we face global challenges of asylum seekers, or climate change for example. We find ourselves informed by slogans and accusation - reflecting the black-and-white view of all policy matters.

As much as one might find the emergence of the Tea Party in the US and its approach to public policy to be disturbing, one can empathise with their lack of confidence in existing political processes, which feeds their suspicions and fears. No longer do we find reasoned debate and consideration of the best interests of a nation paraded in its public forums, but fear, innuendo and blind partisan politics determining outcomes, to the point where the world's most significant economy is brought to the brink of defaulting on its debts without consideration of the gravity and complexity of the situation or its consequences. The increased prevalence of minority governments in Australia and around the world reflects a deep disillusionment with the partisan approach to politics which has become more prevalent in a post-9/11 world.

There is no doubt that the 9/11 attacks have left enduring scars on the political, economic and military foundations not only of the USA, but on many Western nations. Unwittingly we have opted to fight the battle on the terms dictated by the terrorists, rather than calling to a higher ideal, and a higher principle. It makes for great headlines and sells more newspapers, but at what cost in the longer term? The challenges presented to us by the events of September 11 have not been overcome ten years on. It is hard to see where the catalyst to change the present tide will emerge from.

Posted by gary at 09:28 PM | Comments (0)

September 05, 2011

Why I Support Putting a Price on Carbon

Four years ago, both major political parties in Australia presented themselves to the electorate indicating that they would institute a carbon pricing scheme. Since that time there has been much more heat than light in relation to the issue. There are good reasons and benefits to introducing such a policy which is lost in the argy-bargy of political debate at the moment. These are the reasons I support a price on carbon.

Because it is the smart thing to do
Politicians wax eloquent about the years of coal supplies which are buried beneath the surface of Australian soil, but few lament the untapped sources of clean energy which are wasted every day. Solar, wind, thermal and tidal sources of power are much more plentiful and offer a sustainable way of powering our lifestyles than the use of brown-coal-fired electricity generation. Whether you believe the climate scientists or not, it is much smarter to develop renewable and sustainable forms of power generation, and to encourage a shift in our economy towards more sustainable forms of living.

Because it is the just thing to do

That Australian action to reduce carbon emissions will only result in a miniscule reduction in overall carbon emissions in the world is an oft-cited mantra for doing nothing, while China’s rapid increase in carbon emissions is regarded as an indication of greater blame. It is forgotten that Australia remains per capita the worst emitter of carbon pollution in the world, and tenth on the list of overall polluters. While our own efforts at reduction have minimal impact on overall production, it is patently unfair to shift the responsibility to other nations whose equivalent rate of emission is much lower than ours. The flip side of defending our overall production levels is a tacit approval for other nations to raise their per capita emissions to levels equivalent to Australia. Such an approach is diabolical. We cannot expect the burden of this to fall on those who are not responsible for its production, and who are often less capable of meeting the subsequent costs.

Because we all pay anyway
There is already a cost attached to the levels of carbon emissions in our world whether it be in the decline in the air quality across our cities and into the country, in the impact on the fertility of our soil and its capacity to grow crops, or in the more catastrophic impacts of extreme weather events which appear with increasing regularity. It is barely a generation past when it was considered appropriate for companies to discharge their water by-products into rivers and waterways – a practice we rightly abhor in this day, but which seemed natural at the time. To continue to release carbon into the atmosphere changes the chemical structure of the environment, for which we are already paying the cost. To charge it at the source rather than the fruit seems more equitable. An ounce of prevention…

Because we need a catalyst for change

Many corporations (and consumers) only begin to change their behaviour when the impact is felt in the hip pocket or on the bottom line. The cost of carbon pollution is presently being paid by a more vulnerable and less responsible group of people than those whose actions directly affect it. Making such decision-makers account for the impact of their actions, or at least their contribution to the impact, is a sure way to begin the behavioural change which is necessary. At the moment the system works like a lottery, where those who pay just happen to be in the path of a major weather event. A price on carbon brings this cost back home to its genesis, and provides not only a catalyst for change, but an incentive for innovation.

People either don't seem to understand that the point of the system is to encourage behavioural change, or don’t want to acknowledge that a change is needed. The opportunity is before us now to take action which, even if it makes a miniscule contribution to overall carbon emissions in the world, can make a significant difference to the way in which our lives in Australia interact with the land on which we so much depend. It’s time to swallow some medicine which will only serve to make us all the better for it.

Posted by gary at 01:19 PM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2011

New technology - New Language

A response to Bill Keller's concerns about communications technology.

Anyone who has received a message which reads "Tnx. CUL8r" or been rebuked for yelling in an email written in capital letters knows that new communication technologies are more than a simple medium of communication: they are a new language altogether. And, as Bill Keller points out, this new language brings with it a new culture, with its own mix of skills and rules for engagement. While Keller rues the loss of familiar skills (some long since diminished), his half-glass empty response fails to embrace new and demanding challenges to which this new language will be required to respond (and for which we will require some new language!)

For those who grew up in earlier eras and now thrive on skills which were the bread and butter of their time, the diminution of emphasis on selective skills is often lamented. But good analysis tells us that today's children will be working in ten years in occupations which are not even thought of as yet. And they will be facing challenges of which we presently have but a hint.

Developments in technology and in science have laid many challenges at our feet over the last twenty years with which we are still grappling. DNA, Assisted Reproductive Technologies, cloning, stem cells, and genetic engineering are just a handful of the technologies which have birthed a new language and a new set of moral, ethical and cultural issues which previous generations could barely imagine. Throw into the mix the potential of cybernetics, nanotechnology, transgenics and artificial intelligence, the fundamental question of what it is to be human is laid bare before us alongside the challenging ethical and social challenges, echoing Keller's final (and perhaps most important) concern. The ability to gather information and synthesise insights of disparate and rapidly-evolving fields will be a far more valuable skill than the capacity to recite entire texts.

It is easy - and almost traditional - to deride the younger generation for their apparent shallowness. Blaming short attention spans associated with digital technology may be an easy target, but we do well to remember that the exponential rate of growth in available knowledge - generating more information in the past 18 months than has previously been available in the entire history of humanity - demands that new thinking require quick assessment and assimilation/rejection. We should also ask ourselves whether is it realistic to expect teenagers to gather the sufficient combination of information, experience and worldview to fully comprehend and shape the environment in which the world now finds itself. Sixty-five years on from Hiroshima and we still haven't resolved the nuclear question, yet we are prepared to deride a generation's learning in relation to technology which is less than a decade old. Are we being fair?

Assuredly social media has changed the rules of engagement. No longer do we meet people face-to-face as often, or for as many reasons as previous generations did. On the other hand, social media enables interaction with a larger and potentially more culturally-diverse group of people than when we were limited to neighbourhood engagement. Granted, much of what transpires as "updates" is meaningless dross and faux camaraderie, but in this year alone we have seen significant social change - the so-called "Arab Spring" - largely facilitated by this very media.

But Keller has hit on an important point, every step of progress is accompanied by a sense of loss, whether it be loss of ability to recall large reams of data, loss of community as we once knew it or, more simply, a loss of innocence. The challenge for educators and community leaders is to evaluate the trade-off, and provide support for values and infrastructure which needs to be retained or reshaped. We cannot turn back the clock, or seek to close off access to such technology. Education, society, and its laws is forever chasing technology into the future.

We need to be clear about what we expect from different forms of media. I do not complain when a comic book contains no deep political or social analysis, nor when I fail to gain a laugh from a serious work on psychology or technology. Keller's expectations of Twitter are - in part - a case of unrealistic expectations. In noting that serious responses to his tweet "TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss" utilised a different media to respond, Keller highlights the limitations of Twitter, rather than the stupidity of its subscribers, or the impact of using it. Were it the only form of communication available for serious discourse, we might have cause for concern. In a similar way, its penchant for being a distraction is something to be noted. It is a mark of maturity that we learn as users to control the technology, and not be at its constant beck and call. Early indications of the impact on brain structure and function, while a pointer to change, still presents us with uncertain implications, in the same way that its social impact is still seeking understanding.

It is an easy thing to fear that which we do not know - and we do not know where this revolution in social media will take us - but that has never stood in the way of exploring new ways of being, and new ideas for development in the past. We feel and think our way into a future which is only partially able to be predicted, and for which the consequences of present actions are never fully clear. But as long as the questions are able to be raised - in whatever form of media available to us - the prospects are improved.

And of course, without SMS, how would I ever know what brand of cereal I was meant to buy!? Many an opportunity for marital disharmony has been averted... but perhaps this only serves to prove Keller's point about memory.

Posted by gary at 02:45 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2011

The Sound of Scratching in the Ceiling

As I sat in the kitchen supping a late-night hot drink, the sound of scratching overhead announced the unmistakeable presence of a possum in the ceiling. I pause long enough to acknowledge the sound and announce its presence to the family before returning to the drink and the book I was reading. It was an experience not unlike the previous week's budget and the reply speech - I lifted my eyes long enough to acknowledge them before resuming what I was doing. The distinct lack of any narrative, let alone an inspirational or aspirational one, relegated the budget speech and the reply to the recycling bin and the back of our minds before the week was out. All that remained was that unmistakeable scratching in the ceiling, annoying but ultimately meaningless.

The budget was delivered without any connection to a narrative, failing to ignite passion, resonance or ownership through a story about who we are as Australians, or who we are becoming. I took a quick mental survey of Australian history and brought to mind a sample of narratives which are deeply engrained in our national psyche, which our political leaders could have drawn upon for inspiring us to their grand plans.

Much of our early Australian iconic imagery is marked by the willingness to rise up in the face of adversity - often in the face of the establishment - to bring about change and the emergence of a fairer society. The Eureka rebellion is an enduring image of a small band of Australians standing up for an important principle, leaving a hallmark of justice which still stands as a powerfully evocating symbol in our day. In a different way we similarly look back with romance upon many of our Bushranger legends, preferring to lean on the side of fighters for justice and equality against an unfair establishment over against the lawless rebels they could so easily be painted. Over time this morphed into the loveable larrikin image, epitomised in, but not limited to movie character Crocodile Dundee, whose knockabout and casual approach, with its running commentary on establishment, takes the world by storm. Without taking ourselves too seriously, we can still show the world a better way of being and doing.

The turn of the twentieth century brought the enduring narrative of a nation riding on the Sheep's Back, resonant in the ballads Click Go the Shears, and the enduring Waltzing Matilda. These stories remind us that we are a nation born of the land, and built with blood sweat and tears. We overcame the obstacles of the land, in particular its harsh and often unforgiving climate, to forge a new nation.

The legend of the ANZAC, born on the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 has endured as one of the most important symbols of our nation, adapting to new generations and new situations. That it was a moment of defeat on the battlefield is less important than its capacity to represent enduring and key qualities to succeeding generations: sacrifice, and mateship, and boldness as we seek to forge our identity as individuals and as a nation. The ANZAC legend has risen to a place of pre-eminence among all Australian narratives in recent years, but its focus remains squarely on history - to remind us of the need for gratitude for those who have gone before.

As the post war years of building and construction unfolded, the dream of owning our own home was symbolised in the Quarter-Acre block, often partnered with the Hills Hoist and Victa motor-mower. These symbols - paraded at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics - became emblems of our egalitarianism. The Great Australian Dream came to be regarded as the right for all, a story which has faded and now directly challenged in the pursuit of higher-density housing, and as the impact of negative gearing pushes the dream out of the reach of many.

One of my favourite narratives is the much-maligned Tall Poppy Syndrome. I believe it to represent one of our most precious attributes. Popularly understood as our capacity to pull down successful people, it proves itself to be much more selective and strategic. Not all successful people find themselves subject to this, as memorials to Lionel Rose this past week have attested. The Tall Poppy Syndrome represents the Australian capacity to bring back to earth successful people who have lost touch with their roots - or worse - turned their back on them. Australians have never resented the success of its own on the national or world stage - unless and until we sense that the individual has lost contact or turned their back on their heritage. As we have moved away from the ideal of an egalitarian society, we see this characteristic less.

Being a small country in terms of population, it has always given us great joy to see one of our own leading the world on the sporting stage. Black Caviar's catapulting itself onto the top of the world rankings has raised the interest of many Australians in the sport, bringing to mind the feats of another great horse, Phar Lap. We have all held our collective breath with Greg Norman in his quest to conquer the great golf tournaments of the US, and when Australia II finally lifted the Americas Cup from the US. The feats of The Don are legend, not just as a cricketer, but as an Australian icon, his domination against all comers. Sporting heroes remain an enduring symbol of our ability and perseverance.

Donald Horne's The Lucky Country birthed a mantra of good fortune which paradoxically undermined the challenge he articulated. In popular terms it articulates the belief that we are destined for good fortune, in contrast to Horne's warning that we not squander the opportunity afforded us by the riches of our land. It has, in many ways, inspired a lethargy and complacency which, in times like the present, allow us to be satisfied with what we have and not strive for even better.

And herein, perhaps, lies the core of the problem facing our political leaders: we have never developed a sustainable narrative of success. Our celebrations of triumph on the international sporting stage have that mark of the upstart about them - that we a young nation with a small and remote population are able to triumph over seasoned adversaries reminds the world of our presence and capabilities. The celebrations still have that air of the younger child beating an older sibling in the back yard… less a sense of we have made it, but that we are capable of punching beyond our wait. In a similar way the Lucky Country imagery retains a deep sense of Horne's irony, even though we deploy it in denial of that.

But the last two decades have taken Australia on a long ride of economic growth and success. Even as the rest of the world ground to a long and deep pause, our economy merely slowed, retaining a resilience and resourcefulness which gave flexibility to respond. And now that this moment has passed, politicians find themselves unable to articulate a story to carry us - to inspire us - on to the next stage. Some might point to the single moment when Kevin Rudd lead the parliament in an apology to the stolen generations, but it withered on the vine as a symbol of the future. It is with a deep sense of angst that the only narrative we find lingering is one we would rather deny - the xenophobic Australia, encountered most keenly by early immigrants from non-English background, who endured the cruel taunts - and more - of early Australians. In the dog-whistling which accompanies political posturing on refugees (more accurately, refugees arriving by boat) there is a not-too-subtle nod and wink to the racist tendencies which have long marked the experience of new immigrants, and of Indigenous Australians, conveniently masked by the relatively harmonious nature of Australian society. We celebrate many of the benefits of this cultural diversity whilst still managing to impugn the character and motives of many recent immigrant communities. There is a good story to be told here which is drowned out by the dog-whistling.

And so we find ourselves mired in the present moment. Our political leaders apparently aren't able to fashion a story to lead us into the future - it surely can't be obtained through opinion polls and group samples. It requires an ability to lift the eyes of the people to a future worthy of our aspirations and energies, one which is attractive enough, and within the realms of possibility that we can all be motivated towards paying the price of achieving it. As long as we continue to think small, and seek only to offer small targets (which are quickly fired upon), the hope of such a narrative emerging are small, quelled and quenched by a media and an opposition which reward point-scoring in relation to minor things - of which they are being supplied in plenty.

Many of the narratives outlined above have periodically found their way into the political narrative. Some of them were historically more readily associated with one side of the political spectrum or the other. But they have all, bar the ANZAC legend, largely disappeared from our political discourse. Narrative itself seems to have disappeared. Both sides of politics seem to have given up on the idea of a unifying story which leads us into the future.

Can such a dream be born in the midst of plenty? Is there someone who can raise our eyes to a future which fulfils our sense of destiny and purpose? Or must we wait for such moments of injustice that inspired Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech? Or times of desperation such as inspired Churchill's "We shall fight them on the beaches" oration. Only JFK's vision of putting a man on the moon stands out as a narrative born of possibility and hope - of attaining something significant out of prosperity. Without a vision and a narrative which calls us to be what we CAN be we will find ourselves wallowing in the mire of petty nitpicking and naysaying. For which we will all be the losers. We wait to be inspired to lend our full creativity and ingenuity, along with a preparedness to pay the price to a future worth striving for. Until such a passionate cry emerges, the sound of budgets and leaders will, like the possum in my roof, distract me for a moment before I return to what I was doing, to what we have always been doing.

Posted by gary at 02:11 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2011

Who won?

I cannot celebrate the triumph of violence, no matter the victim, for violence remains the only victor and humanity the perennial loser.

Posted by gary at 04:48 PM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2011

Why I can't celebrate bin Laden's death

The reported death of Osama bin Laden has saturated the news media all day. In style of this communications era, I heard via SMS. My response was minimal, if slightly saddened. I often find myself saying words at a funeral which intimate that the death of the person is the death of a part of each one of us. I'd take that one step further - our response to the death of another is indicative and formative of who we are. As I have listened to reports and responses in the hours since, I find myself ever more deeply saddened. The first words I read were those of President Obama, who lauded the American achievement. "Tonight is a testament to the greatness of our country," he said. I wondered if he really meant what he said, or even fully understood it. After all, it only took 10 years, more than one trillion dollars, the death or mutilation of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the almost complete destruction of two countries, and the sacrifice of hard-fought freedoms, but this great nation caught its one target. Perhaps we should take the president's statement with a little hint of irony, I thought.

And then I cringed at the response of our Australian political leaders. Osama bin Laden "had been brought to justice," declared the Leader of the Opposition. Really? I thought he was dead. No court on this planet can bring justice now - at least not in the way I thought the West understood it. And our PM welcomed not only the news of bin Laden's death, but the death itself. His death is one more tragedy in a long line, bringing about neither greater peace nor security.

People rightly point to the terrorist acts which bin Laden designed and/or inspired as justification for their rejoicing in his death. The use of destructive force against other human beings is rarely, if ever justifiable. We too easily overlook the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, regarded as collateral damage in pursuit of a larger cause. That this justification could readily be employed by both sides and gain a supportive hearing depending on the context is a stark reminder that the line between terrorism and pursuit of justice is an indistinct one, and is shaped by where one is born on this planet. Even President Obama recently declared - unashamedly - that resorting to violence to solve an argument was inappropriate. Such a response underlines the insanity which pervades political debate about war and violence.

Ought we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden? He was a human being created in the image of God. What motivated him remains a quandary, but in order to find the way of peace and hope, we must find our common humanity with him, and others like him. It is when we dehumanise others that it becomes easier to kill them, to regard their lives as less than our own. Al Qaeda and its supporters celebrated the deaths of those in New York on September 11. While we celebrate his death we demonstrate ourselves to be alike him in ways we would not care to admit. From the perspective of his supporters and those who loved him, such celebrations are insensitive in the same way we regarded the earlier 9/11 celebrations of his supporters.

It always intrigues me to see photos of infamous killers as babes-in-arms, innocent and hopeful, loved and embraced... it gives me pause to wonder at what transpired to shape them into cruel and sadistic killers. Osama bin Laden was such a babe-in-arms once. What life, what world, took him down the pathway which was his life? The answer to that question might give us pause for thought when we consider celebrating his death today.

Posted by gary at 08:44 PM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2011

A 6-year-old writes a letter to God. And the Archbishop of Canterbury answers

The six-year-old's letter was very simple: "To God, How did you get invented?"

The archbishop's reply:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It's a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this -

'Dear Lulu - Nobody invented me - but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn't expected.

Then they invented ideas about me - some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints - specially in the life of Jesus - to help them get closer to what I'm really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!'

And then he'd send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn't usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

Read the Times Report

Posted by gary at 02:16 PM | Comments (0)

April 24, 2011

Easter Day

Easter says you can put truth in a grave, but it won't stay there.

Posted by gary at 02:34 PM | Comments (0)

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