Hey, Wikipedia and I are on the same page for once.

Hey, Wikipedia and I are on the same page for once.

Jul 06

Each national culture has a point about which it is most defensive, because on that point it has its own most serious doubts. You can’t provoke most Americans by pointing out that the country has had a very warlike record for a very long time. Many Americans view this heritage as an achievement rather than a failing, and even those who don’t aren’t likely to feel insulted or personally threatened by this critique.

Yet let a foreigner tell an American that the country is “declining,” and there will be a reaction. Denial, assent, an argument that there’s still hope — something. The intensity of the reaction obviously underscores the point that this is one of Americans’ longstanding sources of self-doubt. Other countries — Japan, Germany, England, Russia — have similar points of defensiveness. What is most deeply concerning to a culture (as for most individuals or families) is often the most difficult or infuriating for outsiders to bring up.

James Fallows, China Airborne (2012)

As Jim suggests in his still wonderful 2010 essay, “How America Can Rise Again,” this isn’t a new insecurity for the United States. I connect it to the nation’s exceptionalist roots — Winthrop’s City Upon a Hill; Jefferson’s self-evident truths — which create not just an ideal but also its negative: if America is the world’s last best hope, that means that hope might fail. To consider America to be the world’s one indispensable nation, we must imagine a world in which America has been dispensed with.

I’d add to the fear of decline that America’s other insecurity is the notion that it might not be united. I say, not infrequently, that to discern a country’s deepest anxieties, one must look to its name: Democratic Republics Of Wherever are usually not, and such. And the United States is so insistent on its unity because it fears so deeply that, unlike other nations, which are built on ancient ethnic bonds, its polity, built on ideology, might not be able to endure.

This is why the spectre of extreme partisanship is so important to American political discourse, why George Washington feared party politics, and why every president who comes along promises to mend the electorate’s divides. It’s why region is so important to Americans, and why the national bonds between Northerner and Southerner, or Easterner and Westerner, or between black and white, that appear so obvious to the outsider can seem so fragile to the insider. It’s why the Civil War is always so central to America’s understanding of itself and the way it shapes its future: this is the moment the country came closest to disunity, but was also its most forceful affirmation of its unity.

Jim goes on:

In modern China, one of these always sensitive subjects is the idea of China’s full “equality” or maturity in modern international society, especially to the white Western nations that for centuries have been in economic and political control. (Competition with Japan is a separate and equally tangled political question.) This is the significance of the phrase “Hundred Years of Humiliation” to describe China’s period of subjugation to foreigners and the repeated insistence by Chinese spokesmen on full dignity, equality, and respect in international dealings.

And later, on Chinese concerns of “splittism”:

Chinese people who are familiar with American history point out the many similarities between the current Han attitude and the drive toward Manifest Destiny thinking in the United States from the nineteenth century onward.

As for Australia’s national insecurity, I’m tempted to suggest something about fairness, but that might be too myopic, too concerned with current political disputes, and too ignorant of our underlying paranoias, the sort I can’t easily grapple with because, like all my countrypeople, I’m captive to them. So perhaps the correct answer is the question of whether Australia matters: are we influential, do people care about us, does the world realize that we are as important as we think we are? Or, to ground that question in familiar terms: has the tyranny of distance defeated us?

(I don’t know enough about Japan to guess at what its point of national defensiveness might be.)


Today’s look is patriotic normcore.
(Not smiling because selfies are too complicated for smiling.)

Today’s look is patriotic normcore.

(Not smiling because selfies are too complicated for smiling.)

[T]he Supreme Court has become a frequent refuge for religious conservatives rather than just their reliable bete noir, is itself partially the result of liberal gains in the political and cultural sphere, which have reduced religious traditionalists to making the kind of defensive appeals to liberty and pluralism and minority rights that tend to end up adjudicated in the courts. And such a liberalism would take ownership of its own ascendance and take more responsibility for (and pride in!) its own aggressions, rather than perpetually crying “theocracy” whenever its advance is interrupted.

Ross Douthat, “The Culture War’s Sore Winners,” The New York Times, July 1, 2014

Douthat channels Christian victimhood, which understands freedom of religion as not the freedom of anyone to practice his or her faith, but the ability to impose that faith on an entire society. (He makes reference to  another recent post, in which he’s less candid but refers to conservatives “looking to the courts … for protection" — my emphasis; protection from what?)

According to this outlook, Christianity can only be freely practiced if it is inescapable; if its prayers are conducted within public schools, if its moral proscriptions are written into law, if public money goes toward its festivals and institutions. For religion to be merely a personal practice is for religion to be under attack — and this is a vaunted moderate conservative talking, a reformist. An America that does not exist under the authority of Christian diktat, Douthat says, is one in which Christianity is under assault. He puts pluralism on one side and Christianity on the other, inextricably opposed forces.

Over, at the other blog, I have a post arguing that Hobby Lobby is the Supremes’ worst decision since Bush v Gore:

[A] craft shop can’t have a religion. A corporation can’t have a religion. Belief requires consciousness, and whatever our strides in artificial intelligence, corporations aren’t conscious.

Particularly since Citizens United, liberals have frequently expressed my philosophical objection by mocking the idea that “corporations are people.” Yet, as Matt Yglesias explains here, there is nothing wrong per se with the idea of corporate personhood. “Forming corporations wouldn’t make much sense unless corporations had many of the legal rights of persons, including most notably the right to own property and enter into contracts.” The ability of people to create legal entities that can act as people has been of great benefit to our society.

But corporations should be considered people with rights and responsibilities only to the extent that they pertain to corporate practise. This is why I think Hobby Lobby is worse than Citizens United. Speech is a valid part of corporate activity — think, for instance, of advertising. Religious practice has absolutely nothing to do with corporate activity, and hence it’s completely illogical for a corporation to be considered a person with religious beliefs.

There’s more.

Reality TV inspires a great deal of invective but one thing it has managed to do in Australia, other than consistently achieve incredible ratings, is to portray the wonderful diversity that exists in this country.

Whilst the overwhelming majority of local productions seem to have instituted their own White Australia policy, reality TV and in particular talent programs display the true face of modern Australia with its multitude of colours, creeds and races.

One look at The Voice, The Voice Kids, X Factor and their predecessor Australian Idol and you can’t help but notice the varied backgrounds of the contestants. Not only is every skin colour represented but the backstories often reveal the rich diversity and interracial backgrounds of those taking part.

That is the real Australia: a colourful, and for the most part cohesive, melting pot rarely represented on national television. Local productions are tired, uninspired and typically vanilla white in not just their storylines but the faces of the characters. A few programs have thrown in a token ethnic here and there but they’re not fooling anybody.

Rita Panahi, “Australian TV’s Anglo obsession challenged by reality programs,” The Herald Sun, June 30, 2014

This (h/t Erin) is a really good piece. For all the ways the US can be lousy on race, it’s far ahead of Australia in terms of understanding the importance of representing diversity in media. Australia seems happier to have Chris Lilley dress up in yellowface (or blackface!) or to pretend to be Tongan than to put actual non-white folks on TV.

oh hell yes.

oh hell yes.

(Source: fiercegifs)

The times, they are a-becoming quite different

I am suspicious of arguments that rest on the author’s personal observations of cultural change over time. It involves trying to describe shifting mores that have only been observed by someone who has himself changed over the period. There are things I think that are true of, say, the 1990s that are not true now, but how do I separate changes in society over time from changes in myself over time? I can only ever have observed the 1990s as a teenager and I can only ever observe the 2010s as a 30-something year old. What if my interpretations of events are because of who I was and not what those events were?

Morrissey at least asked “has the world changed or have I changed.”

I mean, we have no way of understanding the world that doesn’t involve pooling our subjective interpretations together, but maybe I like arguments better if they acknowledge better how dependent they are on assuming highly personalised experiences can be universalised. (Lord don’t let me be foolish enough to argue for the supremacy of abstract data above all else.)

Warning signs: “People X these days…”; “People don’t X anymore…”

Perhaps a lot of The Way We X Now is just The Way You X Now Because You’re Older And Look At The World Differently.

Jun 30

For the best part of a century from 1788 to 1868 a total of 157,000 prisoners were sent from Britain to Australia. Only 25,000 were women. By 1833 male convicts accounted for 80 per cent of the recorded east Australian population. Among convicts the ratio of men to women was 8 to 1. Over time the ratio in the general population settled down to 3 to 1.


In the parts of Australia that had the highest male to female ratios, women were the most likely to get married, the least likely to be in paid work and the least likely to work in high paying occupations.

Grosjean and Khattar’s shocking finding is that those differences persist today. They’ve digitised maps in each of the state libraries to match up the results of Australia’s first censuses with the results of the latest census broken down by postcode.

Women in those postcodes today are less likely to work in high-status high-paid occupations. As they put it: “Historical gender imbalance still explains 5 to 10 per cent of the variation in the glass ceiling effect.”

Peter Martin, “It’s reigning men. How our convict past explains our glass ceiling,” The Age, June 27, 2014

Interestingly, the authors of the paper point out that Australian gender-ratios in the 19th century matched those of the American west, which I’ve always figured was more progressive on gender than other parts of the country. However, that’s mainly in regard to political representation and participation, something it shares in common with Australia. Here’s some info on the current pay gap by US state, but I’d say you’d need much finer data to draw useful conclusions — Nevada, for instance, has the third smallest gap while Wyoming has the largest. (I guess this is me admitting that my five minutes of Googling are vastly inferior to two trained economists’ highly rigorous statistical analysis.) 

Anyways, welcome to prison island. The original Oz.

Oh, one more thing. Here are some out of context quotes from the paper:

Conservative gender attitudes are like the peacock’s tail. Like the male peacock with the big tail, which is so attractive to the female but makes him unable to run away from predators, the man who defends conservative gender roles may still be attractive to the woman but he is not happier as a result.

And, while we’re on tails:

Adopting cultural norms is faster than growing a tail, easier, and cheaper.

hndrk said: Whoa whoa whoa whoa WHOA! Charli XCX like "a less accomplished version" of Sky Ferreira!?? *emergency brake noise* (Just no.) ;)

I mean, this just doesn’t seem like it should be controversial to me! OK, Exhibit A: “Everything is Embarrassing.” Exhibit B: “You’re Not the One.” Exhibit C: “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay).”

The defense rests. ;)



[insert rebloggable John Green quote here…]

Jonathan Bradley: The Jukebox has reviewed seven previous Charli XCX singles for an average score of [7.18], and I haven’t found myself with anything to say about any of them. Neither objectionable nor striking, her songs strike me as the pop equivalent of a photo shot through an Instagram filter: a lot of alluring haze and allusive artefacts overlaid on to something not inherently remarkable. The result is almost compelling, and artful enough that, for me, criticizing it has seemed as forced a task as praising it. “Boom Clap,” then, is the first time I’ve really felt anything about a Charli XCX song, and I feel that I like it — a lot. It punches with the force of the titular onomatopoeia, and Charli delivers these exhortations with the same spirit she did her hook on Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” The undulating waves of electro still seem designed to call back not to synth pop in its original incarnation, but to contemporary music that seeks to invoke those older records, but here the recursion properly aches with the romanticism of forced nostalgia. This is from the soundtrack to a movie based on a young adult novel I haven’t read, but the song feels like the best kind of young adult novel: urgent, vital, and overwhelming in its immediacy.


[Read, comment and vote on The Singles Jukebox ]

In an entirely non-judgmental way, I’ve been baffled by my Jukebox colleagues intense admiration for Charli XCX — she’s always seemed to me to be, in her gothy electro-romanticism, a less accomplished answer to Sky Ferreira— but I like this one. Perhaps appropriately, the Jukebox consensus seems to be that this is a pop move missing what it is that makes Charli genuinely exciting.

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