A call for universality

The early 21st century has witnessed the rise of powerful reactionary movements that have claimed to act on behalf of the people, the down-trodden majority. This political reaction has taken various forms, from religious fundamentalism to the rise in nationalist and ethno-exclusivist politics. It is becoming increasingly apparent that more and more people are becoming discontented at the state of politics; a solution must be found elsewhere.

As the neo-liberal agenda, combined with a New Right strategy, began to unravel in the 1980s, with it spread a sense of unease, and many felt threatened and exploited by a process that seemed to deliver its benefits to only a fraction of the population. To “post-colonial” societies, the free world seemed increasingly limited to the West and the free movement of goods; in particular the outward movement of resources with little or no compensation for local people.

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Why would a levy be wrong?

A poll quoted by Seven News on Thursday affirmed that 82% of Australians were against the Gillard flood levy. Leaving aside the issue of the obvious bias in polls generated on the internet, the seemingly unanimous resistance to the levy seems very out of place for many reasons.

First of all, it is worth noting that this levy will cost a grand total of $250 at most to the wealthiest Australians. What is $250 for people earning more than $100,000 a year? There are many people who, while earning less than the $50,000 threshold, willingly give this amount of money to various NGOs every year. Without conducting a poll, I am also certain that most of us would welcome such an initiative if it was us that had been struck by this disaster. If the wealthiest Australians are not ready to put this proportionately small amount of money towards the reconstruction of Queensland, we have reached a despairing degree of selfishness. Moreover, this levy is a one-off. Some might say, and indeed various news reports and analyses have said, that Australians have already been very generous and donated a lot of money. True, although the money donated barely reaches $200 million and is therefore far off the $5.6 billion needed. This leads to the conclusion that Australian generosity is in fact quite limited, even in disasters that take place in our own backyard. It is not surprising that the massive floods in Brazil and Pakistan, floods which have left millions of people in tragic conditions far more dire than in Queensland, have not resulted a vast outcry here.
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Nuts and Bolt

Many of the people I know would argue that it is beyond understanding that a journalist such as Andrew Bolt can gather such a following and that his political analysis can be trusted by anyone. While the intrinsic value of Bolt’s work is undeniably close to nil, his skills as a propagandist and polemicist are to be acknowledged.

Bolt’s writings are the epitome of populism in the news today. He will talk about anything and everything, with no particular import given to knowledge of the topic at hand. At the same time, he will masterfully comfort his audience into narrow, ethno-exclusivist views by flattering their ‘common sense’.

Rather than relying on generalities, as Bolt himself tends to do when crafting his pamphlets, I’ll focus on something I can safely say I know something about. On 25 October, I wrote an article for The Age on the recent French strikes which protested pension reforms under Sarkozy. This article put forward the point that more than demonstrating against the reforms themselves, the French were demonstrating against their government, and in particular against the politics of Nicolas Sarkozy.

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La fin du populisme sarkozien?

Il y a trois ans déjà, Nicolas Sarkozy promettait aux Français une rupture. Cette rupture allait prendre plusieurs visages de façon à satisfaire le plus d’électorats possible. Le 14 novembre, nous avons assisté à un retour en arrière, à une ‘contre-rupture’.

Au début de la campagne présidentielle de 2007, la rhétorique de Sarkozy était constante avec celle qui lui avait valu de devenir le candidat de l’UMP. Il poursuivit donc ses violentes attaques contre certaines minorités ‘visibles’. Celles-ci étaient jugées de façon manichéenne responsables du sentiment d’insécurité que de nombreuses campagnes électorales avaient ancré durablement dans l’esprit de certaines catégories de la population, notamment celles sensibles aux sirènes du Front National. Puis, quand la politique plus douce de Ségolène Royal prit le dessus sur sa politique virile, Sarkozy retourna sa veste et affirma une dizaine de fois dans un discours qu’il avait ‘changé’. La rupture devenait une ‘rupture tranquille’ oxymoronique. Sarkozy devenait celui qui rassemble, celui qui pourfend le capitalisme, celui qui cite les héros de la gauche, celui qui défend la liberté d’expression. De la même manière que le discours de Jean-Marie Le Pen avait changé dans les années 90 sous l’influence de la Nouvelle Droite, le discours de Sarkozy pris un tournant toujours plus populiste. Il ne se contentait plus d’attirer à lui les électeurs du Front National, mais ceux du centre et ceux de la gauche déçus par le Parti Socialiste.

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A free university for Melbourne

French philosopher Jacques Rancière based the premise of his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster on a groundbreaking experiment led by Joseph Jacotot in the early nineteenth century. Jacotot was forced into exile by the counter revolutionary forces in 1815 and went on to teach in a Dutch university. While his Dutch-speaking students were eager to hear what the French-speaking scientist could teach them, language became simultaneously what prevented them from communicating and, more importantly, the inadvertent precursor to a great experiment in emancipation. To attempt to understand each other, Jacotot gave his students a bilingual version of a book, asking those truly interested in his science to come back a few weeks later, once they had mastered the French language. To his surprise, a few weeks later, many students came back with an impressive level of French. This left the teacher with revolutionary questions: ‘was will more important than ability? Was every man virtually able to understand what others had done and understood?’ This experiment proved the possibility to reverse the oppressive order present in the teacher/student relationship; it disproved the common assumption of the explanation as necessary. In fact, explanation theories were uncovered for what they mostly were: tools of domination. ‘To explain something to someone is to imply they are not able to understand it on their own.’ The explanation was the mythical cornerstone ‘of a world divided into learned and ignorant, able and disabled, intelligent and stupid minds’. Acknowledging will as the key to ability made the inherent equality of intelligence a logical conclusion. If Jacotot’s students were able to learn French, it was because they had the will to understand what Jacotot had to say, but more importantly the will to partake in a conversation, in an equal conversation. As such, ‘this method of equality was first and foremost a method of will. One could learn on one’s own, without an explanatory master, when one wanted it, by the sheer force of one’s own desire or by the constraint of the situation’.

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French protests a rejection of Sarkozy’s politics of blame

The mass mobilisation is not just a fight against tough pension reforms.

The massive strikes in France mark the failure of the Sarkozy government. Weeks of unrest, culminating in mass opposition to the raising of the pension age, show a public deeply unhappy with their government and the direction it has taken the country.

Three years ago, a few days before the presidential elections that catapulted Nicolas Sarkozy into the presidency, the hyperactive candidate promised the French he would break away from the legacy of the student uprising of May 1968…

He promised that France would again stand tall, that he would put the French back into jobs and revive the morals and values whose lack had caused a deep ”identity crisis”.

With an unabashed populist rhetoric, neo-liberal Sarkozy even promised to put an end to savage capitalism, the appearance of which he blamed on the students’ and workers’ revolt.

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A Travesty of Democracy

As the 2010 Federal election loomed, May 31 saw a debate at La Trobe University regarding what had gone wrong (or ‘right’) with the Rudd government. Respected and influential journalists Paul Kelly and Lenore Taylor and professors Judith Brett and Robert Manne offered an extremely critical account of the performance of the Rudd government over recent months. As has become common in the media, the verdict was unanimous and commentators, despite their different political sensibilities, agreed on the Labor government’s loss of credibility. From extreme popularity after his 2007 victory against Howard, Rudd had reached a point of complete distrust. Criticism during the discussion was centred on Rudd’s inability to stand up for anything real or keep even the most emblematic promises made before and after his election. The failure of the insulation scheme and of the educational revolution, the withdrawal of the Emission Trading Scheme, the failure to prepare adequately for the tax on mineral resources, the return to extremely inhumane politics in terms of refugees and many more back flips were raised in the discussion. Despite some interesting points, very little debate followed as it seemed clear to all that the government could no longer be trusted: it had gone back on most of what it had promoted and promised, sometimes in a matter of mere weeks.

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If The Truth Hurts, Campaigning is Painless

May 31 saw a debate at La Trobe University regarding what had gone wrong (or ‘right’) with the Rudd government. Respected and influential journalists Paul Kelly and Lenore Taylor and professors Judith Brett and Robert Manne offered an extremely critical account of the performance of the Rudd government over recent months. As has become common in the media, the verdict was unanimous and commentators, despite their different political sensibilities, agreed on the Labor government’s loss of credibility. From extreme popularity after his 2007 victory against Howard, Rudd had reached a point of complete distrust.

Criticism during the discussion was centred on what we have all witnessed: Rudd’s inability to stand up for anything real or keep even the most emblematic promises made before and after his election. The failure of the insulation scheme and of the educational revolution, the withdrawal of the Emission Trading Scheme, the failure to prepare adequately for the tax on mineral resources, the return to extremely inhumane politics in terms of refugees and many more back flips were raised in the discussion. Despite some interesting points, very little debate followed as it seemed clear to all that the government could no longer be trusted: it had gone back on most of what it had promoted and promised, sometimes in a matter of mere weeks.

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Knowledge for its own sake

Knowledge for its own sake seems to have lost its currency in a world where “outcomes” have become the goal of tertiary education.

But education without a necessary career goal should be valued, which is why on May 1, the Melbourne Free University, co-founded by Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, Gerhard Hoffstaedter and myself, was inaugurated after a year of planning.

Although the attendance was not yet enough to call it a ground-breaking experiment, the discussions had were illuminating and convinced us we were on the right track. Common beliefs have brought us together to try to offer an alternative to an increasingly “outcome-oriented” form of education.

The concept is not radical. Many Free Universities have sprung up around the world in the past few years such as the Université Populaire of Lyon, which was somewhat of a model for us. It is able to rely on more than 30 teachers and offers topics as unexpected as astrophysics.

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Reflections on Anzac Day

Julia Gillard told Australians this week that they should not be scared to say “what they feel”. Howardesque, she told them not to be put off by censorship and political correctness. Saluted by Pauline Hanson, she said that the “people” who are “anxious about border security” are “expressing a genuine view”. In short, Gillard promised to be the voice of the people; the voice of those who feel for the children in detention and those who do not. The voice of those who are aware that a few thousand asylum seekers will not endanger Australia, and those who are encouraged by our politicians to think we should turn “leaky boats” back to sea.

Is this really what the “people” think? Are “the people” genuinely concerned by the arrival of boats, or are they made to be concerned by the very politicians seeking their votes? Should politicians be allowed to wage scaremongering campaigns based on simplistic exaggeration in order to become elected as representative of the Australian “people”? This is where the crux of the matter lies and this is where Australia will have to choose between becoming a more “genuine” democracy and falling into a reactionary populism that we have already witnessed under the Howard government.

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The ‘Devil’ in Haiti

A few days after the earthquake, Pat Robertson, a sexist, racist, homophobic American preacher, declared Haitians themselves were to blame for the disaster as they had sworn ‘a pact to [sic] the Devil’. Sometimes it is hard not to believe that the ‘Devil’ has played a role in Haiti’s plight. However, no pact was ever sworn. If hell was unleashed on Haiti on 12 January, colonialism and neo-colonialism had a great deal to do with it. Hell has been Haitians’ path to freedom ever since its desire for emancipation was first quashed over two centuries ago.

Any country would have suffered from such a terrible earthquake. Even in Australia people would have died; however, it is unlikely that the death toll would have been anywhere near that of 12 January. Many journalists have implied that Haiti had failed to rise up to the challenge of modernity as, for example, their Dominican neighbours had. This argument tends to make us feel better as it reinforces a common underlying racism as to the impossibility of ‘blacks’ ever being able to free themselves from poverty and civil war.

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Our Haitian Hypocrisy

In January, in the wake of the Haitian earthquake, The Age published a piece by Chris Berg, from the Right-wing think-tank Institute of Public Affairs. Berg argued that the only thing Haitians need now is to ‘get away from Haiti’. For Berg, Haiti is a lost cause, and intrinsically unable to develop.

To prove his point, Berg cited the amount of aid wasted on Haiti and quoted the World Bank on the impossibility of making any progress due to the endemic political instability. The only solution is for Haitians to come and work (read: be exploited) in Western countries, learn our civilised ways and send money back home.

Of course, Berg is somewhat of a caricature. Most journalists did not express such narrow views. There were also notable exceptions, those who gave an informed picture of Haiti and its tragic history. Yet under the veneer of progressivism, many journalists and commentators reiterated the arguments Berg had put forth. Haiti was a failure, a doomed country that had been unable to lift itself out of poverty and perpetual political crisis. Continue reading Our Haitian Hypocrisy

On the fluctuating value of lives

First published in Arena Magazine – December 2009

Recent events have taken me back to almost a year ago. Time flies, suffering and indifference remains. What I found confirmed through these events and their reception in Australia is that we need to acknowledge equality ever more urgently.

Within two weeks last year, over 750 Palestinians lost their lives in what became known as the war on Gaza. Thousands more were wounded. While some were admittedly soldiers from Hamas, many, if not most, were civilians. A third were children. On 6 January 2009, The Australian reported that in an online poll on their website 53 per cent believed the invasion to be justified. Even if The Australian’s readers do not adequately represent the Australian population as a whole, this led me to wonder why so many people, in a country which has in fact no direct link to the conflict, could decide to support such an invasion. What argument could justify the death of hundreds and the further starvation and impoverishment of thousands? Can the deaths of a few Israeli justify such a massacre? It is a strange reminiscence of colonial times, when the slaughter of many more colonised was adequate punishment for the murder of a coloniser. Continue reading On the fluctuating value of lives

On politics, exclusion and discourse