A Proud Nation Should Not Be Bashful Of Its Past

Our Foreign Minister can be very emphatic. Bob Carr told an audience last month it was “too risky” for Australia “even to glance in the direction of talk of an Anglosphere”.

That is, to even think about talking about the deep relationship we have with the English-speaking world would be international relations suicide – like using the wrong fork at a dinner party. We would offend our neighbours and lose our friends.

It was clear who Carr was criticising. His speech didn’t mention the Opposition Leader, but Tony Abbott is a big fan of the Anglosphere. Earlier this year, Carr’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was explicit: Abbott’s belief in the Anglosphere is one of the reasons he must be kept out of government.

But Abbott is right. It is obvious and important that we are part of the English-speaking world. Our heritage is not something to be ashamed of. It is not a coincidence the oldest surviving democracies are in the Anglosphere. Or that the Anglosphere harbours the wealthiest countries. Or that a tradition of liberty, stretching back to the Magna Carta, has given English-speaking nations a greater protection of human rights and private property than anywhere else. We ought to be proud, not bashful.

Sure, it’s more fashionable to talk about the Asian Century; the rise of China is fodder for white papers and airport non-fiction. But, for Australia, the Anglosphere will still shape our social, cultural and political views over the next 100 years. It’s a shame only conservatives feel comfortable talking about it.

To accept that old relationships should endure isn’t to close us off from the Asian Century. Instead, the acceptance will allow us to engage that future more confidently.

The Anglosphere is not about the English language. It is about a collection of values – individual liberty, the common law, parliamentary democracy, and open markets – we share with Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the US. It recognises that different nations are joined by a common political culture. Carr and Rudd can protest all they want: the existence of that common culture is beyond question, and we are part of it.

Yet in his recent speech, Carr threw every barb he could against the Anglosphere, even dragging up the spectre of Pauline Hanson. This is a standard trope when anybody raises our English-speaking heritage – a suggestion, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, that conservatives are not so much interested in the Anglosphere, per se, but the Anglo-Saxon race.

That charge is total nonsense. The English-speaking world includes the most successful multicultural nations on the planet. All but Britain and Ireland are built almost entirely on immigration. And their success is entirely due to their institutional heritage – a liberalism which says all people, regardless of background, can peacefully coexist under a legal system that treats them neutrally. It is thanks to our Anglosphere inheritance that Australia’s multiculturalism functions as well as it does. We must not forget the former while we pursue the latter.

And spruikers of the Asian Century ought to be cautious. Forecasting the geopolitical future is tough. A highly praised book was published in 2005 titled Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. That didn’t work out. Likewise, the Asian Century may turn out very different from what our best and brightest predict.

For instance, if China’s economy takes a dive, the region may well be led instead by India – a country almost as big, certainly more free, more closely integrated with Australia, and a former British colony to boot. India may now have the largest number of English speakers in the world. Even in the Asian Century, the Anglosphere is expanding.

Geography is less important than ever. And regions are less important than ever. Australia no longer suffers under the yoke of the tyranny of distance. Globalisation, technology, and near-zero shipping costs have taken care of that. The 21st century will be about relationships and ideas, not proximity.

So there’s an irony here. When Australia was an outpost of the British Empire, we were isolated. It took months to deliver a letter to the mother country. Now, as an independent nation, Australia is closer to other English-speaking nations than ever before. Global interconnection makes shared cultures and institutions more significant. We can communicate with the rest of the Anglosphere in a second, and travel there within a day.

The Labor Party’s intellectuals have been saying for decades Australia must assert its independence. You know the drill. We must not play deputy sheriff for the US. We ought to pursue a strong and self-sufficient foreign policy. We must be confident in our identity.

So it’s bizarre to hear our Foreign Minister claim that Australia should downplay its historical relationship with the English-speaking world – not because that relationship doesn’t exist, but because simply stating it might offend our neighbours.

You would think that was the opposite of what a confident nation should do.

Let The Cult Begin

The Olympic Games are creepy. Sure, their creepiness isn’t immediately apparent. We have grown familiar with the pageantry that surrounds this sporting carnival. But there’s more to the Olympics than swimming, shot put and badminton.

The Games are steeped in ritual, all of which is designed to promote an unsettling ideology. They are unlike any other international sporting event. Games officials talk of an Olympic movement, an Olympic spirit, and an Olympic ideal. Its five-ring logo is imbued with a quasi-mystical significance. It even has its own ceremonial calendar: an Olympiad is a period of four years. It’s hard not to conclude that the Olympic Games are a religion, and a bizarre religion at that.

The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics is this Friday. The official protocols dictate it will feature a sacred torch, which will carry a sacred flame, which will light a sacred cauldron. The flame is supposed to represent purity – flames come from the sun and are untainted by our material world. When the Olympic torch was lit in a Greek temple in May, there was a ceremony of dancing priestesses and men dressed as heralds performing feats of strength.

The flame ritual will be preceded by a symbolic release of pigeons. An Olympic flag will be raised. A hymn will be sung. There will be oath-taking. These rites are all very purposeful. The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, said its basic idea was to convert athletics into “a religion, a cult [and] an impassioned soaring”.

So the entertainments and frills of the opening ceremony obscure just how odd all the Olympic rituals are.

It is really only when totalitarian states host the Games (Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, and Beijing 2008) that the cultish elements of the Olympics are fully assimilated into the opening ceremony.

For instance, what we call the ”parade” of athletes around the ceremony would really be better described as a march. Coubertin was explicit about the militaristic elitism of the Games. He wanted to showcase ”an army of sportsmen”. Olympic athletes are the peak physical specimens of all the world’s nations. They are young, fit and virile. In Coubertin’s view, physical perfection was a sign of moral purity. He wanted athletes to devote themselves to sacrifice and an “ideal of a superior life”.

No surprise when the Nazis hosted the Games in 1936, Coubertin embraced them. Berlin was the culmination of his life’s work. It was the ultimate display of ceremony and strength. Olympic ceremonies still combine a sort of fascist symbolism with Cirque du Soleil-style choreography.

Yet the International Olympic Committee is proud of Coubertin. Our Australian committee even has an award in his honour, handed to the secondary school students who best epitomise the values of the Olympic movement.

No doubt the students don’t understand how strange those values are. Presumably they believe the Olympics are focused on peace and global harmony. Because if there is one thing Olympic officials do well, it is soaring speeches about all the good they are doing for the world.

Jacques Rogge, the current Olympic president, told the United Nations in 2007 that “in a world too often torn apart by war, environmental degradation, poverty and disease, we see sport as a calling to serve humanity”. An earlier president, Avery Brundage, pronounced in 1968 that “the essence of the Olympic ideal maintains its purity as an oasis where correct human relations and the concepts of moral order still prevail”.

Their words are cheap and self-serving. Brundage made his lofty claim just five days after the Tlatelolco massacre, where the Mexican government killed dozens of students protesting the Mexico City Games. Rogge gave his speech in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, described recently by the dissident Ai Weiwei as nothing more than propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party.

Their words are so cheap that in 1995 the Olympic committee even tossed “sustainability” into their charter. Not content with saving humanity, they wish to save the planet. It’s not clear how flying 10,000 athletes around the world every four years will achieve that goal. The sustainability platform is almost like a deliberate joke. And it reveals just how vacuous the Olympic ideal really is.

The Olympics do nothing to achieve global harmony. They arguably work against it. If harmony was the goal, athletes would compete as individuals, not on behalf of nations.

Do the Olympic ideologists honestly believe the nonsense they spout? The Games are a taxpayer-funded cash cow for all involved, and that’s probably motive enough for many. Yet Olympism offers a sense of mission. It’s not like the World Cup or the Commonwealth Games. The Olympics is a cause. It is a full-blown belief system.

Rogge said in his UN speech he wanted to place “sport at the service of mankind”. Maybe he does. But right now, sport is serving the weird ideology of the Olympics much more than humanity.

Schools Might As Well Tell Students Who To Vote For

The draft shape of the National Curriculum’s ”civics and citizenship” subject was released last month. It is blatantly ideological. It displays its progressive, left-of-centre politics like a billboard.

The National Curriculum was announced by Julia Gillard in 2008 and is forecast to be implemented in Victoria and New South Wales sometime after next year. The curriculum authority is rolling out one subject at a time.

But from the start, the curriculum’s politics were obvious. In its own words, the National Curriculum will create “a more ecologically and socially just world”. The phrase “ecological justice” is rarely seen outside environmental protests. Social justice is a more mainstream concept, but it’s also solidly of the left – it usually refers to “fixing” inequality by redistributing wealth.

Civics is a small subject in the curriculum, but a crucial one. The National Curriculum wants to sculpt future citizens out of today’s students. So the emphasis civics places on certain political ideas will echo through Australian life for decades.

And when a group of education academics try to summarise the essential values of our liberal democracy, we should pay attention. After all, they hope to drill them into every child.
So what are our nation’s values? According to the civics draft, they are “democracy, active citizenship, the rule of law, social justice and equality, respect for diversity, difference and lawful dissent, respect for human rights, stewardship of the environment, support for the common good, and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship”.

It’s quite a list. Some of the values, such as democracy and the rule of law, we all should agree on. But most are skewed sharply to the left.

Where, for instance, is individual liberty? The curriculum describes Australia as a liberal democracy but doesn’t seem comfortable with what that means: a limited government protecting the freedom for individuals to pursue their own lives.

Conservatives should be troubled that ”tradition” is absent from the civics draft. Our democratic and liberal institutions are the inheritance of centuries of experiment and conflict. To respect tradition is to value those institutions. Yet tradition only pops up when the civics draft talks about multiculturalism. It’s part of “intercultural understanding”. In other words, we are merely to tolerate the traditions of others, not value our own traditions.

And liberals should be appalled at the emphasis on ”civic duty”. The curriculum could have said that individuals and families living their own lives in their own way is virtuous in itself. After all, people who do things for others in a market economy contribute to society as much as the most passionate political activist.

But instead the civics subject will pound into children that they should work for international non-profit groups in order to pursue “the common good”.

This may be uncontroversial to the left, but it is political dynamite. Liberals are sceptical of the common good because throughout history it has been used to justify nationalism, oppression, militarism, intolerance and privilege. It’s one of the reasons liberals support small government. But the common good has been tossed absent-mindedly into the civics draft, alongside that other vague and loaded concept, social justice.

It gets worse. The suggestion we have a duty to be “stewards” of the environment comes straight from green political philosophy. It reduces humans to mere trustees of nature. This directly conflicts with the liberal belief that the Earth’s bounty can be used for the benefit of humanity.

Politics drenches the entire curriculum. Three “cross-curriculum priorities” infuse everything from history to maths. They are: sustainability, engagement with Asia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

Perhaps on first glance the priorities don’t seem too political. But the history curriculum will offer perspectives on “the overuse of natural resources” and “the global energy crisis”. The English curriculum will teach students how to “advocate … actions for sustainable futures”. The ideology here is so flagrant teachers might as well just tell the kids who to vote for.

And imagine the priorities were, instead, material progress, the Australia-US alliance and British culture. There would be an uproar. Progressives would line up to condemn the curriculum’s reactionary politics. Remember the outrage over conservative bias in John Howard’s citizenship test? And that was just for migrants. The curriculum is for every Australian child.

The irony is that this iteration of the National Curriculum wasn’t Labor’s idea. The Howard government set the ball rolling. The Coalition was unhappy about how terribly left-wing state curriculums were.

So people who are pleased with the curriculum as it stands should think how it could be when an Abbott government takes over. We may hear again the same dark warnings about ideologues taking over the education system that we heard during the Howard years.

In theory, teaching all students the virtues of liberal democracy is a good idea. But if educationalists can’t do so without imposing their own political values, we may be no better off than when we started.

Just Be Grateful Airlines Can Feed You At All

Nobody, it seems, is happy with the food served on planes. But it may surprise you to learn that it’s our own fault. The customer is to blame. Biologically, humans just aren’t designed to fully appreciate flavours while travelling 800 kilometres an hour, 36,000 feet in the air, enclosed in a pressurised cabin, partly dehydrated and breathing in less oxygen. (Flying, never forget, is bloody awful.)

But just as importantly, we don’t appreciate just how amazing it is we get food on planes at all.

Flight catering is one of the most complex businesses in the world – it is 90 per cent logistics and just 10 per cent catering.

In an episode of MasterChef last week, the contestants were overwhelmed by the task of feeding 450 guests at an Indian wedding. Poor them. A single Boeing 747 can carry more than 500 people and all the food is heated and served from a tiny galley by flight attendants who double as passenger safety co-ordinators.

An airline catering firm has to supply dozens of those flights. The typical industrial airline kitchen produces more than 40,000 meals a day. The world’s biggest, Emirates Flight Catering Centre in Dubai, does 115,000 a day. Inflight food is a huge task, and one which we pay no attention to – unless we’re complaining about it.

This is capitalism’s big public relations problem. If it is working properly (if products are exactly where we want them, when we want them, at a price we are happy to pay), we don’t notice how much human effort and ingenuity goes into even the smallest things.

Inflight service wasn’t always this complex. The first meals were sandwiches, made on the ground and served in the air with tea and coffee. In the 1920s Imperial Airways (an ancestor of British Airways) had 14-year-old cabin boys in monkey jackets serve passengers. The boys had to weigh less than 40 kilograms. The planes were small and underpowered. Forty kilograms was all the extra load they could carry.

The first proper flight attendants were hired in 1930 by a predecessor of United Airlines. They were all qualified nurses. The flights were bumpy and there was no pressurised cabin. It’s been estimated one in four passengers were physically sick on each journey. The nurses took the food out, then cared for the diners when it was brought back up again.

But it was not until the wave of airline deregulation in the 1970s and 1980s that serious attention was paid to the great problem of inflight food: we can’t really taste it. The low humidity and high altitude make taste buds 30 per cent less effective. So all meals served in the air are what we’d describe on the ground as heavy and rich – cream, pasta, stews and lots of sauce. The wines are full bodied. There’s no prize for subtlety inflight.

Cooking in such volume, airlines can certainly save large amounts of money by skimping on ingredients. And in an effort to wrestle prices down further, many airlines now charge for food. Still, it’s not heartless neoliberal bean-counting that makes the food so unappealing. It’s our frail human palate.

The dishes are better in first class and business, but even in economy plane food isn’t anywhere as bad as we imagine.

Most great innovations in the modern world are completely out of sight. They concern not the products we buy or the services we use, but how we get them.

When politicians try to describe progress they talk of tangible things such as iPhones and synchrotrons – things that can be manufactured and photographed. But they ought to talk of supply chains, digital inventories and logistics.

Complex supply chains are behind the success of Amazon.com and Walmart. One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century was the humble shipping container, which allowed the rise of just-in-time production. Now even modern manufacturing should be seen less as a “good” and more as a “service” – products are the end result of taut lines of supply.

What we eat in the air is a perfect example of our modern logistical genius. Dishes such as “Italian-style braised beef with pumpkin” are refined to within an inch of their life. They are made not so much according to recipes as blueprints.

The marvel of inflight dining is not its taste, but how it got there. Airline food is a sliver of modern capitalism we consume quickly and, just as quickly, forget about.

Politics Of Contradiction Mean Democracy For Me, But Not For Thee

Only 60 per cent of Australians think democracy is preferable to any other form of government, according to a Lowy Institute poll published last week. It gets worse. Just 39 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds favour democracy.

This anti-democratic scepticism seems to have taken everybody by surprise. But it shouldn’t, because we live in a profoundly undemocratic age.

The key is a follow-up question which asked whether the right to vote is important to the poll respondents – 98 per cent believe we personally deserve the vote. There’s no contradiction here. Many Australians think they should have a say on how the country is run but other Australians shouldn’t. We could dismiss this as the famed arrogance of Generation Y, but it’s more troubling than that.

Democracy requires a belief that all Australians have an inherent right to decide the future of the country. Every person can help choose the government, regardless of their background, wealth, intellect, or knowledge about public policy and current events.

Democracy won’t inevitably result in the best decisions. That’s not why it’s valuable – it’s valuable because it says we all have an equal right to participate in collective decisions.
The results of the Lowy poll show a rejection of that value. This is the fruit of a long process. We’ve been undermining political egalitarianism for decades. We no longer have any faith in the capabilities of other Australians.

Critics of the modern world claim Australians act contrary to their own best interests. We’ve apparently been brainwashed into buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have. We work too long and too hard for wealth that doesn’t make us happy, but we’re too miserable to stop.

Naturally, these criticisms are never self-applied. They’re faults found exclusively in other people.

If we’re all hopeless in our private affairs, no wonder we are second-guessing voting about public affairs.

There’s a psychological bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after its authors, which says that incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent. In February, David Dunning told the science website Life’s Little Mysteries that this has consequences for democracy: “most people don’t have the sophistication to recognise how good an idea is”. His comments were reported around the world as meaning science has proven democracy “doesn’t work”.

So this is a great time to be an expert. Elected politicians cannot possibly steer the ship of state by themselves. As Laura Tingle shows in her new Quarterly Essay, Great Expectations, Australians want government to solve almost every problem. Governments likewise want to be in control. And fulfilling our limitless demands requires technocrats, not democrats.

Policymakers often talk about regulations being administered “at arm’s length” from government. This is to ensure they are not subject to political interference. If we’re going to regulate, that’s probably a good thing. But we should be clear about exactly what “arm’s length” means: outside the control of the democratically elected representatives of the people.

Nothing illustrated our technocratic age better than Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, where the ”best and brightest” were assembled in Canberra to set policy agenda. The new PM said he was “throwing open the windows of our democracy”. But Rudd had just won a landslide election and had all the democratic approval he could need. The symbolic purpose of 2020 was not democratic at all. It was to hand the reins over to experts.

The cohort most sceptical of democracy is also the cohort that most votes Green. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. The sympathetic author of the textbook Green Political Thought, Andrew Dobson, writes of the “palpable tension between radical green objectives and the democratic process”. The public opposes much environmental action. Anybody with radical politics will be just a little bit disappointed by democracy’s results.

The response to the Lowy poll was telling. Some said it showed how badly we teach civics. Others flocked to social media to complain darkly about how intelligent the poll respondents were (“these people vote!”).

But ironically, the complaints show why Australians have come to be sceptical about democracy in the first place. Do we really want people who are too uninformed or too stupid to trust democracy to vote? Talk about reaping what you sow.

The Politics Of Projection: There’s A Reason We Can’t All Just Get Along

Politics is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder. Obviously conservatives, libertarians, progressives and environmentalists have different ideas about government. But their clash goes much deeper. Political disagreement isn’t really about politics. It is about competing worldviews; different conceptions of ethics, morality, relationships and communities.

With that in mind: how polarised do you think Australian politics has become? Have Australians really bunkered down into bitter, warring camps on issues such as climate change and refugees?

How you answer says a lot more about you than anything else. According to a fascinating paper just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the more radical your politics are, the more radical you imagine everybody else’s politics to be. As the authors find, “people project their own polarisation onto others”.

Projection is a basic human trait. We believe others share more of our attitudes than they do. If we like dark chocolate, we assume others like dark chocolate. If we like walks in the park, we assume others like walks in the park. Humans are social animals: it’s important that others validate our preferences.

In politics, this doesn’t necessarily mean we think everybody agrees. (Although psychologists have found we imagine a false consensus about everything from animal rights to nuclear energy.) But it does mean we assume everybody is as passionate as we are. So when radical partisans encounter disagreement, they see aggressive conflict and polarisation.

Projection confuses virtually every aspect of politics. It makes us assume a greater degree of consensus on the big moral questions than there really is. When that consensus is shown to be an illusion, it breeds hostility.

In a book released in March, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, the American academic Jonathan Haidt explains the psychological basis of our political divide. Using thousands of interviews, Haidt discovered that progressives had three moral foundations for their political views. But conservatives had twice as many.

Progressives are driven by compassion, fairness, and liberty. Conservatives share those ideals, but they add group loyalty, respect for authority, and “sanctity” – that is, a sense that some things, like marriage or the flag, should be sacred and untouchable. Both sides have to manage trade-offs between their ideals, but conservatives have more ideals, and have to manage more trade-offs. This explains a lot about why left and right are at loggerheads.

Haidt argues that conservatives cope best: when they project their own moral beliefs onto progressives, they recognise compassion, fairness and liberty, and identify that loyalty, sanctity and authority are missing.

But when progressives look at conservatives, they get bewildered. Projecting their moral framework onto conservatives doesn’t seem to explain much. So the progressives offer different explanations: conservatives must be selfish, heartless.

Kevin Rudd famously wrote that free market conservatives dressed greed up as economic philosophy. He might just as well have said he was completely mystified that anybody could disagree with him. Rudd could not reconcile his moral philosophy with the beliefs of others. His projection failed. And people attack what they cannot understand.

Rudd’s successors are no better. Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan claim they represent the ”fair go”. Perhaps this excites Labor’s base, who can smugly fantasise that if the left like fairness, the right must like unfairness. But conservatives like fairness too. For them, fairness manifests as an interest in working hard and not relying on charity – or welfare.

When progressives look at their opponents, they don’t realise the right has a different and legitimate moral framework. And when radical partisans of all stripes confront their opponents, they imagine a great political divide, and become more radical in response.

When we believe our values are the only possible ones, we make politics more hostile than it need be. We’re angry not because we think we’re all different, but because we think we’re all alike.

Secular World Has A Christian Foundation

The contemporary atheist movement has a scorched earth strategy – chop down Christianity, root and branch. I don’t believe in God either, but this strategy is entirely counterproductive.

Not satisfied to point out that elements of Christian belief are historically implausible, or that religion is scientifically unsubstantiated, the New Atheist movement wants to prove something more. That Christianity has been a force for bad, that there is something fundamental about religious belief that holds back progress, approves of oppression, and stokes hatred.

Yet virtually all the secular ideas that non-believers value have Christian origins. To pretend otherwise is to toss the substance of those ideas away. It was theologians and religiously minded philosophers who developed the concepts of individual and human rights. Same with progress, reason, and equality before the law: it is fantasy to suggest these values emerged out of thin air once people started questioning God.

Take the separation of church and state – a foundation of the modern secular world, and a core of the political philosophy that atheists should favour above all else. It was, simply, a Christian idea.

Early Christian philosophers thought seriously about what Jesus’s words, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” meant for the formation of political society.

St Augustine, writing as Rome fell, saw the City of Man and the City of God as clearly separate. For Augustine, the religious and secular worlds were disinct. The long conflict between the papacy and medieval European kings over the ensuing centuries reinforced this division.

When the father of liberalism, John Locke, argued for religious liberty, he noted there was no such thing in the gospels as a “Christian Commonwealth”. The Bible insisted on states “with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled”.

So, by the time Thomas Jefferson devised the formula of a “wall of separation between church and state”, he was drawing on 1500 years of Christian thought. The basic philosophy of modern secular democracy – that religious belief is a matter of individual conscience, not government – is a Christian idea. Even more central to our modern identity is the idea that all individuals have human rights, that simply by virtue of being human we have basic liberties that must be protected by law.

This idea too has a deep theological origin. Such mediaeval philosophers as Thomas Aquinas and his follower Francisco de Vitoria married biblical study with classical philosophy.
By doing so, they developed the concept of rights as we understand it today. For these Christian thinkers, “natural” rights originated from God. Humans formed societies in order to defend those rights.

Yet many modern human rights activists seem to believe that human rights sprang forth, full-bodied and with a virgin birth, in United Nations treaties in the mid-20th century.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The idea of human rights was founded centuries ago on Christian assumptions, advanced by Biblical argument, and advocated by theologians. Modern supporters of human rights have merely picked up a set of well-refined ethical and moral arguments.

Of course, it could not be otherwise. The modern world is shaped by 3000 years of philosophical evolution. And for half that time the dominant moral philosophy in the Western world has been a Christian one. For most of our history, all the great thinkers have been religious. So our secular liberalism will inevitably owe a huge amount to its Christian origins.

Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. If we imagine they were invented yesterday, they will be easy to discard tomorrow. So why are modern atheist agitators so eager to shed Western civilisation’s Christian legacy? Their reasoning – that atheism is attractive not only because it’s accurate but because religion is morally bad – ironically resembles the simplistic good-versus-evil propaganda of history’s most dangerous religious fanatics. Yet many Christians defend their faith by simply citing the good works of their co-religionists.

Not only does this prove little (of course, some people are good, and some people are bad) it almost always ends in the tit-for-tat, your-team-killed-more-than-my-team debate. Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? Would an answer be at all meaningful? Both sides do this. Richard Dawkins claimed on ABC’s Q&A last Monday that Christians were missing in action in the fight against slavery. This is clearly wrong. Has he not heard of the Christian abolitionist movement or William Wilberforce? But it’s a revealing error.

Surely, to argue for atheism, there is no logical need to denigrate past Christian accomplishment.

The anti-slavery argument that all humans were of equal moral worth won the day, and this was, to all concerned, a Christian argument. To acknowledge the religious heritage of the modern world is to say nothing about religious “truth”. But while our age may be secular, it is, at the same time, still a deeply Christian one. If atheists feel they must rip up everything that came before them, they will destroy the very foundations of that secularism.

Westerners Consumed By Tech Toys Wallow In Misplaced Guilt

Nothing demonstrates how self-absorbed Western moral sensibilities are than the recent controversy over working conditions at the Chinese manufacturer Foxconn.

Foxconn makes Apple products. And culturally, Apple’s iPad and iPhone are no mere gadgets. They symbolise high-tech consumerism. Apple’s brand is like a squeaky-clean combination of Greenpeace and Scientology. So criticism of Foxconn has been as much about popping Apple’s otherworldly bubble as anything else.

At least it was until this month, when the radio program This American Life was forced to retract a major “expose” of Foxconn it aired in January. In a special episode, reporter Mike Daisey admitted he had fabricated the worst stories. Daisey had never met under-age workers, never met poison victims and never saw armed guards at Foxconn factories.

But by then, the anti-corporate activists had already moved on. A petition with 250,000 signatures had been quickly delivered to Apple. (That petition was, of course, promoted by our own opportunists at GetUp!) Technology writers around the world had called for a boycott of Apple products. Yet Foxconn has better working conditions than comparable workplaces in China. Apple conducts more inspections and audits of its supplier than any other electronics company. By Western standards, most Foxconn jobs are repetitive, boring, the workers’ accommodation cramped, and there have been well-reported OH&S incidents. But by the standards of Chinese industry, they are still highly desirable jobs.

But the Foxconn story has had enormous resonance because it fits neatly into a moral tale of Western guilt. You, with your white earbuds and leather-covered iPad, are the direct beneficiary of a nightmarish, Victorian-era sweatshop. Foxconn’s 1.2 million workers suffer so Australians can play Angry Birds. It’s an alluring tale, perfect for sermons and email forwards. But think what this tale excludes. That is: sympathy for those who have failed to acquire a job at Foxconn. Sympathy for those who lack the skills to get a desirable factory job at all. Sympathy for those who produce goods not destined for First World boutique retail outlets.

So these consumer activism campaigns have a perverse result. We more pity the Chinese workers who have found the jobs that will lift them out of poverty than those who have been unable to do so.

Even more perverse is the implicit message behind these campaigns: that Western consumerism is to blame for the dire plight of Chinese workers. Sure, no one has to buy an iPad. But Chinese workers covet Foxconn jobs. The idea that we should boycott its products is counterproductive. A boycott would not raise labour standards but would deprive people of needed work. We don’t like to think about how the moral choices we make in the developed world could be stopping people in other countries from flourishing. That is most obvious when it comes to immigration.

When Tony Abbott announced he was considering subsidising nannies, feminist academic Eva Cox complained it could lead to calls for “cheap labour from overseas”. She was not alone. You’d think it’s pretty cruel to bar poor people from seeking better jobs for themselves. But somehow, such sentiments get wrapped up in the rhetoric of compassion. Perhaps Third World poverty just seems more pressing if it’s nearby. Foxconn makes high-profile products we use every day. Migrant nannies in Australia would no longer be in poor, faraway countries, but right under our noses. It’s an odd, repugnant and very modern notion of moral responsibility: that we must keep a respectable distance from poverty, even if by doing so we only exacerbate it. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not the developed world’s fault that some countries are poor. But it is definitely our fault if we are intentionally stopping them from seeking opportunities to get rich. And is there anything more patronising than the assumption that choices made by people in the Third World are merely the result of unthinking exploitation from the West?

Global capitalism doesn’t work like that. When Australians seek employment, we hope to get something out of it. Foreigners are no different. Foreigners are morally autonomous human beings like us, with preferences and plans and intelligence. They know if they are being exploited. They know better than us their employment alternatives.

One of the revelations of the This American Life retraction was that the long hours worked by some Foxconn employees was often entirely their choice. Just as Australian workers sometimes want to work overtime, so too do Chinese workers. Certainly, not everything is rosy in Foxconn plants. But then, not everything is rosy in the developing world. Our neurotic eagerness to blame ourselves does nothing to fix that. Worse, it could easily harm the people we wish to help.

We’re Bombarded With Swearing But Who #*@%*! Cares?

“I like swearing; I think it’s very healthy,” Ewan McGregor told a celebrity gossip magazine last week. Good for Ewan. He could have added: swearing is so common it’s mundane. It can make you more persuasive. And it’s less offensive now than ever.

No one apparently cared when actor Jean Dujardin yelled “putain!” in his 2012 Oscar acceptance speech. “Putain” literally translates as “whore” but means “f— yeah!”. And remember when the Gillard camp released that video of Kevin Rudd swearing before the federal leadership spill? Nobody could even pretend to be offended. How refreshing. How honest. But really, any other stance would have been rank hypocrisy.

The leading scholarly authority on swearing, US psychologist Timothy Jay, estimated in a 2009 paper “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words” that the average speaker of English utters around 80 to 90 swear words every day. That’s only about half as frequent as we use first person plural pronouns such as “we” and “us”.

Certainly, the offensiveness of swear words varies. Jay found 10 words dominate. Some of them are gentle: “goddamn” and “sucks”. But the F-word is both the most common and the most extreme in the top 10. So it’s entirely possible the former foreign affairs minister swears less than most people do.

Yet we seem to think people are swearing more often, and more harshly. It isn’t true. There’s no statistical evidence to suggest swearing has increased over the past few decades. Studies of recorded speech demonstrate swearing has remained steady and we’re using the same words we did 30 years ago.

But swearing is more public, more frequent in film, television, on radio and in print. It’s been normalised. The prevalence of swearing hasn’t changed, but its cultural status has.

The result, as a New South Wales magistrate noted in a ruling in 2002, is that the F-word “has lost much of its punch”.

We don’t blink at French Connection UK’s acronym “FCUK”. The name of the new snack “Nuckin Futs”, approved by Australia’s trademarks examiner in January, is playful rather than obscene. If profanity can sell nibbles and knitwear, can it be considered profane at all?

This is all surely a good thing. More swearing doesn’t mean society is becoming less polite.

One can be deeply racist or sexist or homophobic without swearing. On the other hand, we have all met friendly and well-intentioned people who pepper their speech with profanity. The former (racism, sexism) has become rightly unacceptable, and the latter is becoming innocuous. This is great. Any moral compass that treats mere words on par with malicious intentions is a badly calibrated one. That’s why the N-word is now much more offensive than the F-word – it indicates racist intentions.

Traditionally, swearing has also been governed by a double standard: men would curse freely among other men but bite their tongue around women out of patronising respect. Gender equality has eroded that anachronism.

Nor does the “think of the children” mindset offer any clear restraint on profanity.
As Ewan McGregor said: “I like hearing my kids swear, and I’ll pretend they’re not allowed to … but actually I think it’s quite funny.”

McGregor shouldn’t bother pretending. Jay points to findings that parental sanctions have no effect on how much a child swears when they reach adulthood. The scholarly evidence tells us children learn rude words from kids, not adults.

Last year, research psychologists established that swearing can help with pain relief. A 2006 study published in the journal Social Influence even found swearing “significantly increased” the persuasiveness of an argument. As the authors wrote, “the use of obscenity could make a credible speaker appear more human”.

When the Baillieu government introduced on-the-spot fines for swearing in June last year, there was an understandable outcry. Almost everybody swears, and swears a lot. Punishing extremely common language is obviously a bad idea. Something so banal should not be a police matter. Even prime ministers do it, after all.

Free Press To Be Sacrificed For Political Retribution

Freedom of the media is too important to be controlled by government.

The Independent Media Inquiry has proposed just what was expected: an outrageous attack on freedom of speech and the press.

Its 470-page report, written by inquiry chairman Ray Finkelstein and released on Friday, concludes Australia needs a mandatory ”News Media Council” that would have coercive powers to regulate what it deems is ”fairness”, ”accuracy”, ”balance”, and ”quality” in the press.

This new independent regulator would have power to compel newspapers to publish responses from people who feel aggrieved. And it would have the power to censor: it could, for instance, force media organisations to delete stories from their websites that regulators feel aren’t up to standard.

But it wouldn’t just regulate newspapers. As if to emphasise just how radical his proposals are, Finkelstein says websites that get more than 15,000 hits a year should be brought under the council’s jurisdiction. That’s just 41 hits a day – in other words, pretty much every website publishing anything that could be described as ”news, information and opinion of current value”.

The new body would also regulate every magazine with a print-run above just 3000 copies. That would be the entire magazine industry, from the street press upwards. With such ambition, one might ask why Finkelstein excluded books, email newsletters, and Twitter from his regulatory web.

The specifics of Finkelstein’s proposals are bad enough. But they represent something more concerning: a reversal of the principle that it is not the role of governments to stand in judgment of public debate. The report may insist that this government-funded body will be independent, but in reality, it is a government body. And, when it comes to freedom of speech, the state should be subordinate to society – not the other way around.

This principle that has taken centuries to develop should not be abandoned just because some politicians don’t think they get a fair shake from newspapers. The media inquiry was obviously political retribution against critical journalism.

The Greens and the government have long believed newspapers report the carbon tax and the national broadband network unfairly (these issues are specifically raised in Finkelstein’s report). More broadly, they claim the press has an anti-government bias. Labor senator Doug Cameron said in November: ”The Murdoch press are an absolute disgrace, they are a threat to democracy in this country and we should absolutely be having a look at them.” Cameron was angry about leadership speculation printed in The Daily Telegraph. Of course the speculation turned out to be entirely true.

Recall that Bob Brown opportunistically used the News of the World phone hacking scandal in Britain to suggest that the Australian government should license journalists and newspapers. But to be fair to Brown, perhaps licensing was not as far-out an idea as it seemed at the time, given Finkelstein’s conclusions.

If Finkelstein’s proposals are adopted, all news websites, newspapers and magazines would have to sign up to and comply with the News Media Council’s standards of conduct. If they refuse, they would be taken to court and punished ”in the usual way”. This might not be called ”licensing” but it is virtually the same thing.

What happens if a blogger rejects the standards or refuses to delete something? Eventually, after contempt of court proceedings, they could be jailed. Nor are Finkelstein’s proposals unprecedented. The News Media Council would apply to newspapers, websites and magazines the same sort of regulations that at present oversee radio and television broadcasters. Problem is, those regulations are frequently used by political partisans as a weapon to attack controversial broadcasters.

Late last year Alan Jones was taken to the Australian Communications and Media Authority because he had described New South Wales bureaucrats as ”scumbags that run around preying on productive people”.

The authority, in its wisdom, decided Jones had not made ”reasonable efforts” to air other ”significant viewpoints”. And in response to a complaint by GetUp!, it is holding a formal investigation into whether Jones interviews too many climate sceptics. If we value free expression, these are not judgments any government body should be making for us.

Yes, there is good journalism and bad journalism. Newspapers should offer rights of reply and letters pages.

We should reject Finkelstein’s proposals, not to defend the media but to defend a fundamental liberal principle: no government should have power to decide what constitutes ”fair” or ”balanced” speech. Freedom of the press is just too important.