Thursday, August 31, 2006

OSE Chapter 24. The Revolt Against Reason

“The conflict between rationalism and irrationalism has become the most important intellectual, and perhaps even moral, issue of our time.”

This is a big chapter, 26 pages, as befits a topic that has generated such a mountain of literature, much of it confused and confusing due to (a) the numerous meanings of “reason’ and ‘rationality’ and (b) the many and varied arguments and objections that are raised against the idea of using evidence and discussion to improve our plans and practices.

Section I spells out the kind of rationalism and rationality that Popper is prepared to defend, “an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions”. In case people get the idea that Popper had no time for the emotions it is helpful to note his comment (in this chapter) that a life without emotions such as love would hardly be worth living. Further, he suggested that a deal of passion is required to make an impact in any field of human endeavour, including science.

Section II scans the long history of the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism. Section III explains why Popper considered that the choice is not just an intellectual matter, or a matter of taste, but a moral decision, and section IV is his moral counter-attack on irrationalism. Section V is a critique of some modern thinkers who Popper regarded as major and influential promoters of irrationalism.

For some people this is the best chapter in the book, especially those with a practical turn of mind and a desire to solve problems, without much interest in the debates that go on about Popper’s interpretation of Plato and Marx.

Rationalism and irrationalism
Since the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are vague, it will be necessary to explain roughly the way in which they are used here. First, they are used in a wide sense; they are used to cover not only intellectual activity but also observation and experiment. It is necessary to keep this remark in mind, since ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are often used in a different and more narrow sense, in opposition not to ‘irrationalism’ but to ‘empiricism’…when I speak here of ‘rationalism’, I use the word always in a sense which includes ‘empiricism’ as well as ‘intellectualism’; just as science makes use of experiments as well as of thought. Secondly, I use the word ‘rationalism’ in order to indicate, roughly, an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to reason, i.e. to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions.
It may be better to explain rationalism in terms of practical attitudes or behaviour.
We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.’ It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach — perhaps by arbitration — a compromise which, because of its equity, is acceptable. to most, if not to all…
The decision to consider the argument rather than the person arguing has many significant consequences. For example it means that we need to accept that anyone we communicate with can be a source of information and ideas, regardless of the level of agreement between us. It establishes what Popper called the ‘rational unity of mankind’. It is a highly egalitarian stance, quite unlike the elitest Platonic idea that reason is a kind of ‘faculty’ that people can have and develop in different degrees.
Admittedly, intellectual gifts may be different in this way, and they may contribute to reasonableness; but they need not. Clever men may be very unreasonable; they may cling to their prejudices and may not expect to hear anything worth while from others. According to our view, however, we not only owe our reason to others, but we can never excel others in our reasonableness in a way that would establish a claim to authority. Authoritarianism and rationalism in our sense cannot be reconciled, since argument, which includes criticism, and the art of listening to criticism, is the basis of reasonableness…
The irrationalist attitude may be developed along the following lines. Though perhaps recognizing reason and scientific argument as tools that may do well enough if we wish to scratch the surface of things, or as means to serve some irrational end, the irrationalist will insist that ‘human nature’ is in the main, not rational. Man, he holds, is more than a rational animal, and also less. In order to see that he is less, we need only consider how small is the number of men who are capable of argument; this is why, according to the irrationalist, the majority of men will always have to be tackled by an appeal to their emotions and passions rather than by an appeal to their reason…Leaving aside the lower aspects of human nature, we may look to one of its highest, to the fact that man can be creative. It is the small creative minority of men who really matter; the men who create works of art or of thought, the founders of religions, and the great statesmen. These few exceptional individuals allow us to glimpse the real greatness of man. But although these leaders of mankind know how to make use of reason for their purposes, they are never men of reason. Their roots lie deeper—deep in their instincts and impulses, and in those of the society of which they are parts. Creativeness is an entirely irrational, a mystical faculty ...
The moral dimension
The choice before us is not simply an intellectual affair, or a matter of taste. It is a moral decision. For the question whether we adopt some more or less radical form of irrationalism, or whether we adopt that minimum concession to irrationalism which I have termed ‘critical rationalism’, will deeply affect our whole attitude towards other men, and towards the problems of social life. It has already been said that ationalism is closely connected with the belief in the unity of mankind. Irrationalism, which is not bound by any rules of consistency, may be combined with any kind of belief…
Popper described in chapter 5 that evidence and arguments cannot determine fundamental moral decisions but choices need to be informed by arguments and often enough by some conception of the alternative outcomes.
Whenever we are faced with a moral decision of a more abstract kind, it is most helpful to analyse carefully the consequences which are likely to result from the alternatives between which we have to choose. For only if we can visualize these consequences in a concrete and practical way, do we really know what our decision is about; otherwise we decide blindly. In order to illustrate this point, I may quote a passage from Shaw’s Saint Joan. The speaker is the Chaplain; he has stubbornly demanded Joan’s death; but when he sees her at the stake, he breaks down : ‘I meant no harm. I did not know what it would be like .. I did not know what I was doing .. If I had known, I would have torn her from their hands. You don’t know. You haven’t seen : it is so easy to talk when you don’t know. You madden yourself with words .. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then—then—O God, take away this sight from me!’ There were, of course, other figures in Shaw’s play who knew exactly what they were doing, and yet decided to do it; and who did not regret it afterwards. Some people dislike seeing their fellow men burning at the stake and others do not. This point (which was neglected by many Victorian optimists) is important…an analysis of the concrete consequences, and their clear realization in what we call our ‘imagination’, makes the difference between a blind decision and a decision made with open eyes; and since we use our imagination very little, we only too often decide blindly.
Popper pursued some of the consequences of irrationalism.
The irrationalist who insists that emotions and passions rather than reason are the mainsprings of human actions is likely to refer to the weakness of ‘human nature’, the limited intelligence of most people, their unwillingness to learn more about complex problems and their obvious dependence upon emotions and passions.
He has some thought-provoking things to say about love and imagination. Flower children of the sixties and seventies may recall the vogue of saving the world by love – a la Beatles, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving etc.
I do not overlook the fact that there are irrationalists who love mankind, and that not all forms of irrationalism engender criminality. But I hold that he who teaches that not reason but love should rule opens the way for those who rule by hate. Those who do not see this connection at once, who believe in a direct rule of emotional love, should consider that love as such certainly does not promote impartiality. And it cannot do away with conflict either. That love as such may be unable to settle a conflict can be shown by considering a harmless test case, which may pass as representative of more serious ones. Tom likes the theatre and Dick likes dancing. Tom lovingly insists on going to a dance while Dick wants for Tom’s sake to go to the theatre. This conflict cannot be settled by love; rather, the greater the love, the stronger will be the conflict. There are only two solutions; one is the use of emotion, and ultimately of violence, and the other is the use of reason, of impartiality, of reasonable compromise. All this is not intended to indicate that I do not appreciate the difference between love and hate, or that I think that life would be worth living without love. (And I am quite prepared to admit that the Christian idea of love is not meant in a purely emotional way.) But I insist that no emotion, not even love, can replace the rule of institutions controlled by reason.
There are other argument against the idea of a rule of love. For example loving a person means wishing to make him happy, but, as Popper pointed out, the idea of trying to make people happy by means of political reforms is a road to ruin.
It leads invariably to the attempt to impose our scale of ‘higher’ values upon others in order to make them realize what seems to us of greatest importance for their happiness; in order, as it were, to save their souls. It leads to Utopianism and Romanticism. We all feel certain that everybody would be happy in the beautiful, the perfect community of our dreams. And no doubt, there would be heaven on earth if we could all love one another. But, as I have said before (in chapter 9), the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. It leads to intolerance. It leads to religious wars, and to the saving of souls through the inquisition. And it is, I believe, based on a complete misunderstanding of our moral duties. It is our duty to help those who need our help; but it cannot be our duty to make others happy, since this does not depend on us, and since it would only too often mean intruding on the privacy of those towards whom we have such amiable intentions. The political demand for piecemeal (as opposed to Utopian) methods corresponds to the decision that the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends. In their case, we may perhaps have a certain right to try to impose our scale of values—our preferences regarding music, for example. (And we may even feel it our duty to open to them a world of values which, we trust, can so much contribute to their happiness.) This right of ours exists only if, and because, they can get rid of us; because friendships can be ended. But the use of political means for imposing our scale of values upon others is a very different matter. Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the ‘agenda’ of public policy (as Bentham would have said). The ‘higher’ values should very largely be considered as ‘non-agenda’, and should be left to the realm of laissez faire. Thus we might say: help your enemies; assist those in distress, even if they hate you; but love only your friends.
He then proceeded to another shibboleth that is put about by enemies of reason, namely that there is some kind of affinity between imagination and emotion, so that rationalism tends to promote unimaginative dry scholasticism.
I do not know whether such a view may have some psychological basis, and I rather doubt it. But my interests are institutional rather than psychological, and from an institutional point of view (as well as from that of method) it appears that rationalism must encourage the use of imagination because it needs it, while irrationalism must tend to discourage it. The very fact that rationalism is critical, whilst irrationalism must tend towards dogmatism (where there is no argument, nothing is left but full acceptance or fiat denial), leads in this direction. Criticism always demands a certain degree of imagination, whilst dogmatism suppresses it. Similarly, scientific research and technical construction and invention are inconceivable without a very considerable use of imagination; one must offer something new in these fields (as opposed to the field of oracular philosophy where an endless repetition of impressive words seems to do the trick). At least as important is the part played by imagination in the practical application of equalitarianism and of impartiality. The basic attitude of the rationalist, ‘I may be wrong and you may be right’, demands, when put into practice, and especially when human conflicts are involved, a real effort of our imagination. I admit that the emotions of love and compassion may sometimes lead to a similar effort. But I hold that it is humanly impossible for us to love, or to suffer with, a great number of people; nor does it appear to me very desirable that we should, since it would ultimately destroy either our ability to help or the intensity of these very emotions. But reason, supported by imagination, enables us to understand that men who are far away, whom we shall never see, are like ourselves, and that their relations to one another are like our relations to those we love. A direct emotional attitude towards the abstract whole of mankind seems to me hardly possible. We can love mankind only in certain concrete individuals. But by the use of thought and imagination, we may become ready to help all who need our help.
In the last section of the chapter Popper selected A J Toynbee as an example of a brilliant scholar who was capable of exemplary research in his chosen field but lapsed into irrationalism on larger topics beyond his area of special expertise.
I wish to make it clear that I consider Toynbee’s A Study of History a most remarkable and interesting book…I do not accuse him of irrationalism in his own field of historical research. For where it is a question of comparing evidence in favour of or against a certain historical interpretation, he uses unhesitatingly a fundamentally rational method of argument. I have in mind, for instance, his comparative study of the authenticity of the Gospels as historical records, with its negative results; although I am not able to judge his evidence, the rationality of the method is beyond question, and this is the more admirable as Toynbee’s general sympathies with Christian orthodoxy might have made it hard for him to defend a view which, to say the least, is unorthodox. I also agree with many of the political tendencies expressed in his work, and most emphatically with his attack upon modern nationalism, and the tribalist and ‘archaist’, i.e. culturally reactionary tendencies, which are connected with it.
Toynbee’s irrationalism is demonstrated by his cavalier attitude towards arguments and his tendency to identify, instead of arguments, deep and irrational motives, a process which Popper called “socio-analysis”.
As an example of the refusal to take serious arguments seriously, I select Toynbee’s treatment of Marx. My reasons for this selection are the following. First, it is a topic which is familiar to myself as well as to the reader of this book. Secondly, it is a topic on which I agree with Toynbee in most of its practical aspects. His main judgements on Marx’s political and historical influence are very similar to results at which I have arrived by more pedestrian methods; and it is indeed one of the topics whose treatment shows his great historical intuition. Thus I shall hardly be suspected of being an apologist for Marx if I defend Marx’s rationality against Toynbee. For this is the point on which I disagree : Toynbee treats Marx (as he treats everybody) not as a rational being, a man who offers arguments for what he teaches…
Regarding the points of similarity between Toynbee’s and my general views of Marx, I may remind the reader of my allusions, in chapter 1, to the analogy between the chosen people and the chosen class; and in various other places, I have commented critically upon Marx’s doctrines of historical necessity, and especially of the inevitability of the social revolution. These ideas are linked together by Toynbee with his usual brilliance.
Toynbee wrote:
The distinctively Jewish .. inspiration of Marxism, is the apocalyptic vision of a violent revolution which is inevitable because it is the decree .. of God himself, and which is to invert the present roles of Proletariat and Dominant Minority in .. a reversal of roles which is to carry the Chosen People, at one bound, from the lowest to the highest place in the Kingdom of This World. Marx has taken the Goddess “Historical Necessity” in place of Yahweh for his omnipotent deity, and the internal proletariat of the modern Western World in place of Jewry; and his Messianic Kingdom is conceived as a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. But the salient features of the traditional Jewish apocalypse protrude through this threadbare disguise, and it is actually the pre-Rabbinical Maccabaean Judaism that our philosopher-impresario is presenting in modern Western costume ..
Now there is certainly much in this brilliantly phrased passage with which I agree, as long as it is intended as nothing more than an interesting analogy. But if it is intended as a serious analysis (or part of it) of Marxism, then I must protest; Marx, after all, wrote Capital, studied laissez faire capitalism, and made serious and most important contributions to social science, even if much of them has been superseded. And, indeed, Toynbee’s passage is intended as a serious analysis; he believes that his analogies and allegories contribute to a serious appreciation of Marx; for in an Annex to this passage (from which I have quoted only an important part) he treats, under the title ‘Marxism, Socialism, and Christianity’, what he considers to be likely objections of a Marxist to this ‘account of the Marxian Philosophy’. This Annex itself is also undoubtedly intended as a serious discussion of Marxism, as can be seen by the fact that its first paragraph commences with the words ‘The advocates of Marxism will perhaps protest that ..’ and the second with the words : ‘In attempting to reply to a Marxian protest on such lines as these ..’ But if we look more closely into this discussion, then we find that none of the rational arguments or claims of Marxism is even mentioned, let alone examined. Of Marx’s theories and of the question whether they are true or false we do not hear a word.

Toynbee’s anti-rationalism is prominent in many other places. For instance, in an attack upon the rationalistic conception of tolerance he uses categories like ‘nobleness’ as opposed to ‘lowness’ instead of arguments. The passage deals with the opposition between the merely ‘negative’ avoidance of violence, on rational grounds, and the true non-violence of other-worldliness, hinting that these two are instances of ‘meanings .. which are .. positively antithetical to one another’…
I do not wish to be misunderstood. I feel no hostility towards religious mysticism (only towards a militant anti-rationalist intellectualism) and I should be the first to fight any attempt to oppress it. It is not I who advocate religious intolerance. But I claim that faith in reason, or rationalism, or humanitarianism, or humanism, has the same right as any other creed to contribute to an improvement of human affairs, and especially to the control of international crime and the establishment of peace. ‘The humanist’, Toynbee writes, ‘purposely concentrates all his attention and effort upon .. bringing human affairs under human control. Yet the unity of mankind can never be established in fact except within a framework of the unity of the superhuman whole of which Humanity is a part ..; and our Modern Western school of humanists have been peculiar, as well as perverse, in planning to reach Heaven by raising a titanic Tower of Babel on terrestrial foundations ..’ Toynbee’s contention, if I understand him rightly, is that there is no chance for the humanist to bring international affairs under the control of human reason. Appealing to the authority of Bergson, he claims that only allegiance to a superhuman whole can save us, and that there is no way for human reason, no ‘terrestrial road’, as he puts it, by which tribal nationalism can be superseded. Now I do not mind the characterization of the humanist’s faith in reason as ‘terrestrial’, since I believe that it is indeed a principle of rationalist politics that we cannot make heaven on earth. But humanism is, after all, a faith which has proved itself in deeds, and which has proved itself as well, perhaps, as any other creed. And although I think, with most humanists, that Christianity, by teaching the fatherhood of God, may make a great contribution to establishing the brotherhood of man, I also think that those who undermine man’s faith in reason are unlikely to contribute much to this end.

OSE Chapter 23. The Sociology of Knowledge

This chapter signals what Ian Jarvie later called Popper’s “social turn”, his recognition that whatever objectivity and rationality we can achieve cannot be attributed to special qualities of mind but to the give and take of criticism in a community.

Two dangerous ideas were emerging in intellectual circles at the time: one was the idea of controlling social change by means of largescale central planning, the other was the theory of the social determination of scientific knowledge.
In our own time of still more rapid change, we even find the desire not only to predict change, but to control it by centralized large-scale planning. These holistic views (which I have criticized in The Poverty of Historicism) represent a ompromise, as it were, between Platonic and Marxian theories. Plato’s will to arrest change, combined with Marx’s doctrine of its inevitability, yield, as a kind of Hegelian ‘synthesis’, the demand that since it cannot be entirely arrested, change should at least be ‘planned’, and controlled by the state whose power is to be vastly extended.
Moving on to the subject of this chapter, Popper refers to the Marxist doctrine that our opinions, including our moral and scientific opinions, are determined by class interest, and more generally by the social and historical situation of our time. The main target is Karl Mannheim who apparently anticipated by some decades the strong sociology of science that came later in the wake of T S Kuhn.

The sociology of knowledge argues that scientific thought, and especially thought on social and political matters, does not proceed in a vacuum, but in a socially conditioned atmosphere. It is influenced largely by unconscious or subconscious elements. These elements remain hidden from the thinker’s observing eye because they form, as it were, the very place which he inhabits, his social habitat. The social habitat of the thinker determines a whole system of opinions and theories which appear to him as unquestionably true or self-evident. They appear to him as if they were logically and trivially true, such as, for example, the sentence ‘all tables are tables’.
Along with social determinism comes the idea of unveiling hidden motives, a ploy that is usually used as a weapon against opponents without noticing that the same approach could just as well be used in reverse!
In a previous chapter, when dealing with ‘Vulgar Marxism’ I mentioned a tendency which can be observed in a group of modern philosophies, the tendency to unveil the hidden motives behind our actions. The sociology of knowledge belongs to this group, together with psycho-analysis and certain philosophies which unveil the meaninglessness’ of the tenets of their opponents. The popularity of these views lies, I believe, in the ease with which they can be applied, and in the satisfaction which they confer on those who see through things, and through the follies of the unenlightened. This pleasure would be harmless, were it not that all these ideas are liable to destroy the intellectual basis of any discussion, by establishing what I have called a ‘reinforced dogmatism’. (Indeed, this is something rather similar to a ‘total ideology’.)
Popper objected to the tendency for sociological determinism and the sociology of knowledge to subvert the process of critical give and take that is essential to make progress by detecting and eliminating error. For a few paragraphs he played around with the idea to demonstrate what fun it could be to use apparently esoteric concepts to baffle opponents and would-be critics.
But, all joking apart, there are more serious objections. The sociology of knowledge is not only self-destructive, not only a rather gratifying object of socio-analysis, it also shows an astounding failure to understand precisely its main subject, the social aspects of knowledge, or rather, of scientific method. It looks upon science or knowledge as a process in the mind or ‘consciousness’ of the individual scientist, or perhaps as the product of such a process. If considered in this way, what we call scientific objectivity must indeed become completely incomprehensible, or even impossible; and not only in the social or political sciences, where class interests and similar hidden motives may play a part, but just as much in the natural sciences. Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring…
Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them : they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes. (I may remind the reader that I am speaking of the natural sciences, but a part of modern economics may be included.) They try very seriously to speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues. In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more 'private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it. In order to avoid speaking at cross-purposes, scientists try to express their theories in such a form that they can be tested, i.e. refuted (or else corroborated) by such experience…
To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science.

But it certainly has to be admitted that, at any given moment, our scientific theories will depend not only on the experiments, etc., made up to that moment, but also upon prejudices which are taken for granted, so that we have not become aware of them (although the application of certain logical methods may help us to detect them). At any rate, we can say in regard to this incrustation that science is capable of learning, of breaking down some of its crusts. The process may never be perfected, but there is no fixed barrier before which it must stop short. Any assumption can, in principle, be criticized. And that anybody may criticize constitutes scientific objectivity.

Scientific results are ‘relative’ (if this term is to be used at all) only in so far as they are the results of a certain stage of scientific development and liable to be superseded in the course of scientific progress. But this does not mean that truth is ‘relative’. If an assertion is true, it is true for ever10. It only means that most scientific results have the character of hypotheses, i.e. statements for which the evidence is inconclusive, and which are therefore liable to revision at any time. These considerations (with which I have dealt more fully elsewhere11), though not necessary for a criticism of the sociologists, may perhaps help to further the understanding of their theories. They also throw some light, to come back to my main criticism, on the important role which co-operation, intersubjectivity, and the publicity of method play in scientific criticism and scientific progress…

The only course open to the social sciences is to forget all about the verbal fireworks and to tackle the practical problems of our time with the help of the theoretical methods which are fundamentally the same in all sciences. I mean the methods of trial and error, of inventing hypotheses which can be practically tested, and of submitting them to practical tests. A social technology is needed whose results can be tested by piecemeal social engineering. The cure here suggested for the social sciences is diametrically opposed to the one suggested by the sociology of knowledge.

Sociologism believes that it is not their unpractical character, but rather the fact that practical and theoretical problems are too much intertwined in the field of social and political knowledge, that creates the methodological difficulties of these sciences. Thus we can read in a leading work on the sociology of knowledge : ‘The peculiarity of political knowledge, as opposed to "exact" knowledge, lies in the fact that knowledge and will, or the rational element and the range of the irrational, are inseparably and essentially intertwined.’ To this we can reply that ‘knowledge’ and ‘will’ are, in a certain sense, always inseparable; and that this fact need not lead to any dangerous entanglement. No scientist can know without making an effort, without taking an interest; and in his effort there is usually even a certain amount of self-interest involved. The engineer studies things mainly from a practical point of view. So does the farmer.

Practice is not the enemy of theoretical knowledge but the most valuable incentive to it. Though a certain amount of aloofness may be becoming to the scientist, there are many examples to show that it is not always important for a scientist to be thus disinterested. But it is important for him to remain in touch with reality, with practice, for those who overlook it have to pay by lapsing into scholasticism. Practical application of our findings is thus the means by which we may eliminate irrationalism from social science, and not any attempt to separate knowledge from ‘will’.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Another public event...

For any locals who read this blog or Catallaxy, I'll be speaking as a guest of Rockhampton City Council on Thursday night from 7pm. Location is Northside Library, 154 Berserker St North Rockhampton. Once again drinks and nibbles are provided, although you'll need to RSVP to 4927 0955 for catering purposes if you want to attend. I'll be talking about the role of blogging in undermining traditional requirements for a physical cultural centre (a big city, that is) and how people in regional Queensland can go about joining the growing conversation.

Interview with Tim Foster

This is an interview I did with Tim Foster, President of One Nation Victoria. Tim stresses that he wishes to end the ‘racist tarnish’ against the party, and hopes that the interview will be read in that light. It was conducted via email. Some spelling/grammar mistakes have been corrected while most are left as they were.

What is One Nation's policy on the preference deals that go on in Australian politics?

One Nation prefers to preference on policy of other parties as opposed to backdoor deals. One Nation Victoria especially chose to give preference to other minor parties that we trusted above the two major parties. The two other major parties seem to take too much advantage of the fact that they are the two major parties and this doesn't appear to help with the Australian community’s respect, pride and admiration of their government. This of course can only be achieved when and at what time the Australian people stand together, rid the two party deadlock and vote in a group of people that would do no more than make them proud of their own heritage, or new found heritage for New Australians (We at One Nation prefer to use the term New Australians as it gives what everyone else likes to call immigrants, an open door to become a part of and more importantly, feel a part of the Australian people and culture.)

Does the public know enough about the backdoor deals – like Labor's preferences going to Family First in the last federal election – that go on?

No way, I don't think that the Australian people know a lot about anything that goes on in that House in Canberra. It comes down to the fact that politics in this country is like a product and whichever manufacturer has the better sales pitch, then that party is sold to the public. It might not be a good product, but who cares as long as it sells? A perfect example is the fiasco with the kickbacks for wheat. Man, that is the most disgusting lowlife act that I have ever heard coming from what is meant to be the pride of our Nation. Corruption at its pathetically highest pinnacle. This isn't honourable behaviour, it is most certainly not knightly behaviour, and people are so apathetic in this country that they don't seem to care that John Anderson pulled the pin for a reason. Why pull the pin on being National Party leader just when you won your seat? Even us in One Nation heard last year before the election that something sinister and big was going to come out of Canberra this year. It disgusts me. At least we in One Nation have managed to hunt out a lot of the potentially corrupt. I can sit as State President and say, 'well, we might not have a big membership in Victoria, we might not have a big State Executive, but at least we know that those that are still here, love this Nation, love being Aussie and are not in it for the money.'

Australia's two-party system seems embedded with little scope for change. What do you believe to be the role of minor parties such as One Nation?

To open people's eyes, stay clear of the corruption and give people a more honest alternative. The more smaller parties pull together, the bigger the dent that they will make in the two party deadlock. The role is basically to support each other. We at One Nation are willing to do it, but they (the other smaller parties) still live with this fear that if they are seen to be siding with One Nation then they are supporters of racism, which is entirely unfair, especially considering the facts that an Italian man with are very strong accent comes to every One Nation meeting that I have attended myself in the past 12 months, as so does a Filipino girl. Why? Because they love being AUSTRALIAN. Nationalism and Racism are two completely different things and it is frustrating to have a community and a media that continually try and mold the two together.

What will be One Nation's presence in the upcoming Victorian state election?

Unfortunately Sukrit, it will be small. The fact is that we honestly don't have anyone willing to stand at the moment. At the most we might have one or two stand for Senate seats, but I am not in the habit of lying to people to make us seem bigger than what we are. We lost a lot of membership, mainly white supremacist types, which has left us a small group in Victoria, but at least I can sleep well at night knowing that I am the State President of a political movement that is living to every letter of its platform, 'Equality for ALL Australians, NO division, ONE NATION.' As simple as that. All in all we need more youth in the Party in Victoria. Nonetheless, the other states are going quite well.

In your experience, how often do you witness the 'political apathy' some commentators claim exists in Australia?

The truth is that I believe that there is a lot of political apathy in this country, and it is reflected in political party membership. People hate politics by and large. This comes back to what I was saying before; corrupt, lying, deceitful governments do nothing to counter attack this apathy. People are not interested in being apart of something that does not make them feel good in spirit and these sorts of low life attributes to politics are not welcoming spirit fuels.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

OSE Chapter 22. The Moral Theory of Historicism

It is this moral radicalism of Marx which explains his influence; and that is a hopeful fact in itself. This moral radicalism is still alive. It is our task to keep it alive, to prevent it from going the way which his political radicalism will have to go. ‘Scientific’ Marxism is dead. Its feeling of social responsibility and its love for freedom must survive.
Given that Marxism cannot provide either reliable prophecies (nothing can) or advice on the piecemeal reforms that might achieve desired outcomes (Marx regarded that as Utopian) what accounts for the power and impact of Marxism?

It seems that Marxism surfed at least three “waves” of thought. Each was immensely powerful in its own right, and working in synergy the combination was practically overwhelming. One of the “waves” was the immense authority of science among educated and progressive people 150 years ago. The other was the Judao-Christian moral imperative to promote justice and especially to help the poor and the weak. A third wave was the economic illiteracy of radicals and conservatives alike. This meant that the positive function of free markets (especially for the able-bodied poor) was never understood by enough people to resist the manifold interventions of the state which almost invariably aggravate the problems they are supposed to ameliorate.

Near the end of the previous chapter Popper wrote that “in Marxism the religious element is unmistakable. In the hour of their deepest misery and degradation, Marx’s prophecy gave the workers an inspiring belief in their mission, and in the great future which their movement was to prepare for the whole of mankind.”

In this chapter Popper outlined the moral theory that underpinned Marxism, a somewhat paradoxical situation given the official line on materialism and determinism which at least theoretically ruled out any attempt to think our away towards an improved social order by organized reforms. So how do we find the moral theory in Marxism?
But although Marx was strongly opposed to Utopian technology as well as to any attempt at a moral justification of socialist aims, his writings contained, by implication, an ethical theory… By laying such stress on the moral aspect of social institutions, Marx [implicitly] emphasized our responsibility for the more remote social repercussions of our actions; for instance, of such actions as may help to prolong the life of socially unjust institutions. But although Capital is, in fact, largely a treatise on social ethics, these ethical ideas are never represented as such….
Far from promoting an explicit moral theory, Marx excoriated those moralists, especially churchmen, who were in favour of the system that he regarded as the cause of misery and exploitation. Furthermore, the Marxist scheme did not provide for autonomous or freestanding moral principles.
Marx and Engels preferred to look upon their humanitarian aims in the light of a theory which explains them as the product, or the reflection, of social circumstances. Their theory can be described as follows. If a social reformer, or a revolutionary, believes that he is inspired by a hatred of ‘injustice’, and by a love for ‘justice’, then he is largely a victim of illusion (like anybody else, for instance the apologists of the old order). Or, to put it more precisely, his moral ideas of ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ are by-products of the social and historical development. But they are by-products of an important kind, since they are part of the mechanism by which the development propels itself. To illustrate this point, there are always at least two ideas of ‘justice’ (or of ‘freedom’ or of ‘equality’), and these two ideas differ very widely indeed. The one is the idea of ‘justice’ as the ruling class understands it, the other, the same idea as the oppressed class understands it. These ideas are, of course, products of the class situation, but at the same time they play an important part in the class struggle—they have to provide both sides with that good conscience which they need in order to carry on their fight.

Marx’s moral theory is, of course, only the result of his view concerning the method of social science, of his sociological determinism, a view which has become rather fashionable in our day. All our opinions, it is said, including our moral standards, depend upon society and its historical state. They are the products of society or of a certain class situation. Education is defined as a special process by which the community attempts to ‘pass on’ to its members ‘its culture including the standards by which it would have them to live’, and the ‘relativity of educational theory and practice to a prevailing order’ is emphasized. Science, too, is said to depend on the social stratum of the scientific worker, etc.
In contrast to that rigid position on the “social determinism” of our ideas, there is usually a diversity of views available (at least in an open society as opposed to a closed or tribal society) and that diversity provides scope for choice, for critical discussion, for the opportunity to choose between options and, more important, there is space to create new options and opportunities.

Marx’s determinism was in conflict with his activism and his moralism, so the end result is that people who try to take on board the whole package are reduced to confusion and contradiction on moral issues. They cannot offer any way to think our way through moral problems, especially the most important task of all. That is the critical appraisal of the basic ideas that guide our efforts at social reform, just in case they are false with the result that the practical applications of our ideas produce the opposite of the intended outcomes.

Principled and humanitarian Marxists would have to be apalled at the outcome of the social revolutions that have been achieved under the red flag, but they seem to have huge problems in coming to grips with the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of radical reforms. The rascals!

OSE Chapter 21. An Evaluation of the Prophecy

The arguments underlying Marx’s historical prophecy are invalid. His ingenious attempt to draw prophetic conclusions from observations of contemporary economic tendencies failed. The reason for this failure docs not lie in any insufficiency of the empirical basis of the argument. Marx’s sociological and economic analyses of contemporary society may have been somewhat one-sided, but in spite of their bias, they were excellent in so far as they were descriptive. The reason for his failure as a prophet lies entirely in the poverty of historicism as such, in the simple fact that even if we observe to-day what appears to be a historical tendency or trend, we cannot know whether it will have the same appearance to-morrow.
We must admit that Marx saw many things in the right light. If we consider only his prophecy that the system of unrestrained capitalism, as he knew it, was not going to last much longer, and that its apologists who thought it would last forever were wrong, then we must say that he was right. He was right, too, in holding that it was largely the ‘class struggle’, i.e. the association of the workers, that was going to bring about its transformation into a new economic system.
That is a serious misreading of the historical play: I don't accept the fundamental premise of exploitation and it is likely that militant trade unionism only slowed down the rate of growth in productivity and creamed off benefits for powerful unions at the expense of the unemployed, the low paid and community at large.

Since I am criticizing Marx and, to some extent, praising democratic piecemeal interventionism (especially of the institutional kind explained in section VII to chapter 17), I wish to make it clear that I feel much sympathy with Marx’s hope for a decrease in state influence. It is undoubtedly the greatest danger of interventionism—especially of any direct intervention—that it leads to an increase in state power and in bureaucracy. Most interventionists do not mind this, or they close their eyes to it, which increases the danger.

Popper considered that the most robust parts of the Marxist prophecy concerned increasing productivity and the potentially disastrous consequences of the trade cycle (boom and bust). He did not claim to know enough to improve on Marx’s analysis and he was left with the need for a theory to explain why the institution of the free market does not prevent depressions

Why it is that “such a very efficient instrument for equalizing supply and demand, does not suffice to prevent depressions, i.e. overproduction or underconsumption. In other words, we should have to show that the buying and selling on the market produces, as one of the unwanted social repercussions of our actions, the trade cycle.”

The answer is that the free market will minimize (or tend to correct) overproduction and underproduction, and will ensure a fairly rapid recovery from busts (for example the 1920/21 bust in the US). The crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930’s do not demonstrate the failure of free markets, they demonstrate what happens when many and varied constraints are put upon free markets, especially the market in labour.

Roughly speaking, Marx shared the belief of the progressive industrialist, of the bourgeois’ of his time: the belief in a law of progress. But this naive historicist optimism is no less superstitious than a pessimistic historicism like that of Plato and Spengler. And it is a very bad outfit for a prophet, since it must bridle historical imagination.

A faith like the progressivist optimism of the nineteenth century can be a powerful political force; it can help to bring about what it has predicted. Thus even a correct prediction must not be accepted too readily as a corroboration of a theory, and of its scientific character. It may rather be a consequence of its religious character and a proof of the force of the religious faith which it has been able to inspire in men. And in Marxism more particularly the religious element is unmistakable. In the hour of their deepest misery and degradation, Marx’s prophecy gave the workers an inspiring belief in their mission, and in the great future which their movement was to prepare for the whole of mankind. Looking back at the course of events from 1864 to 1930, I think that but for the somewhat accidental fact that Marx discouraged research in social technology, European affairs might possibly have developed, under the influence of this prophetic religion, towards a socialism of a non-collectivist type. A thorough preparation for social engineering, for planning for freedom, on the part of the Russian Marxists as well as those in Central Europe, might possibly have led to an unmistakable success, convincing to all friends of the open society. But this would not have been a corroboration of a scientific prophecy. It would have been the result of a religious movement—the result of the faith in humanitarianism, combined with a critical use of our reason for the purpose of changing the world.

But things developed differently. The prophetic element in Marx’s creed was dominant in the minds of his followers. It swept everything else aside, banishing the power of cool and critical judgement and destroying the belief that by the use of reason we may change the world.

Tampering With The Price System

One of the most valuable gifts of economics to libertarians has been an understanding of how the price system transmits information in order to bring about efficient market outcomes. At its most basic, the theory is that people respond to the incentives (disincentives) created by higher or lower prices to change their patterns of production and consumption. In the realm of economic behaviour, while challenged from time to time by arguments relating to market failure and monopoly power, this is a fairly well held orthodoxy.

However much more controversial is whether or not the prices altered by government have an effect on social behaviour. Governments alter prices two ways: by changing the reward for producing a particular good, service or kind of behaviour; or by changing the cost a particular good, service or kind of behaviour. While central planning at the firm-level has gone out of fashion, central planning at the individual-level through welfare payments, etc. has steadily increased over the past decades.

In this light, it is fascinating to read the work of Australian economists Joshua Gans & Andrew Leigh on unusual days, which showed the way that one-off changes by government in the prices of death and birth had significant effects on social behaviour as individuals altered their choices in order to maximise their wealth (or, in the circumstance of the 1979 abolition of inheritance taxes, the wealth of their beneficiaries). In summary, Gans & Leigh found that half of those eligible to pay inheritance taxes in the week before their abolition delayed their deaths until after their abolition; and that up to 1,000 couples delayed the births of their children in order to be eligible for the baby bonus when it came into effect in 2004.

Virtual seminar on democracy and peace

The democratic peace thesis (that democracies tend not to go to war against other democracies) is probably the closest thing to an empirical 'law' in political science. It has been extensively tested through empirical analysis - just type in 'democratic' and 'peace' on any reputable database for evidence of the copious amounts of literature on the topic. It is also a fundamental tenet of American foreign policy. President George W. Bush got it right when he issued the following challenge:
Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
People like Erik Gartzke have argued there is a stronger link between peace and economic freedom, rather than political freedom alone. In reality, the promotion of both are worthy goals.

Emeritus Professor Rudy Rummel, one of the strongest supporters of the democratic peace proposition, is running a virtual seminar on this topic using Second Life. Second Life is a 3D computer game, and the seminar will be held in a 3D conference hall on September 2, California time. See his blog for further details. I doubt my computer will be good enough to run the program, but if anyone else is interested in asking questions of Professor Rummel in real time, it's certainly a novel way of doing so.

Update: I have uploaded my essay on the democratic peace question.

Update 2: A transcript of the virtual seminar run by Professor Rummel is now available online.

Monday, August 28, 2006

skepticlawyer's husky

my pet!
My husky, Texas, in virtual form. He's called Texas because he's a long, long way from snow...

Introducing (post)libertarianism

I have been grappling since Sukrit invited me to join this blog with how to explain my thoughts about libertarianism. Having just finished The Beach, I thought I might try to explain a few of my thoughts by reference to the ideas expressed in The Beach.

The Beach was a high profile remake of the French movie La Plage. The essential plot is that Richard, (played by Leonardo di Caprio), a young American out to experience the world, gets given a map showing the location of a secret paradise unknown to the tourist trail. Setting out with a French girl he has the hots for and the boyfriend Richard wishes she didn't have, they find a tropical paradise inhabited by twenty or so young backpacker types from Europe and America (including the token black man, who in this case is a cricket mad Englishman) who are committed to one thing and one thing only: pleasure. Paradise is however threatened by the visitation of tragedy on the island, other backpackers who have heard the legend, and by marijuana farmers on the other side of the island. Richard is willing to kill to protect paradise, but even that is not enough, and eventually they all have to leave.

If you had to describe the society of The Beach, you would describe it as hedonistic, not libertarian. Hedonism and Libertarianism are different philosophies with different aims. One seeks to maximise pleasure, the other seeks to maximise freedom. However in reality, we often find them quite complimentary - two sides of the coin. Richard, the American, from the land of the free, uses his freedom to pursue pleasure. The libertarian philosophy of the West enables many individuals within the West to adopt a personal philosophy of hedonism.

Now freedom to choose how we live is at the core of our society. However when a large portion of our society choose to do that in a manner which sees them fail to reproduce, then freedom becomes terminal. What do I mean by "terminal"? It becomes an end point, an ending, its conclusion. And that thing which is concluding isn't just the generation in question, it's the freedom they enjoyed as well. When the free people die, and they haven't had children, haven't given someone else the opportunity to experience the world they have been enjoying, who replaces them?

What am I suggesting then? That we forsake freedom? No. That we forbid pleasure? No. Of all the political philosophies, I believe libertarianism is the least bad of them all. However the freedom sought by libertarianism is not enough on its own. Something more is needed in order to ensure not just that freedom exists in this generation, but that it is carried on into the next one, and the one after that, and after that again. That something else, that's what makes me (post)libertarian.

Postmodernists find it impossible to break away from the modernist paradism and form something completely new, so they signal both their bondage to and understanding of the weaknesses of modernism through the prefixation of "post". In the same way, I am both completely enthralled by, and acutely aware of the weaknesses of, Libertarianism. As part of this blog, I hope to share with you my thoughts, my questions, my musings, on these post-libertarian questions that occupy my mind.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

My Life as a Young Australian Novelist - Quadrant May 2006

This piece ran in the May issue of Quadrant and the Autumn issue of the Skeptic, and has attracted some attention around the blogosphere. There doesn't seem to be an electronic version available anywhere, so I thought I'd put it up here.
Three stories
1. It’s high summer; I’m 14, walking home from school. Sweat is pouring down my face and I almost miss it. There’s a furniture truck parked in the street outside my house. My first thought: oh shit, he’s done it again.

When the family lived up north, dad’s standard operating procedure was put the stuff on tic, then move before the debt collectors arrive. My siblings went to a jumble of schools as dad dodged the tallyman around Far North Queensland. One brother had eleven schools in two years.

This got harder once we shifted to Logan City, a sprawling outer-suburban development outside Brisbane. We’d see the furniture truck then – the collectors were starting to wise up, maybe by keeping better records. We’d be minus a telly, washing machine, stereo and bedroom furniture for a month or two; then dad would start the process over again. After one particularly keen lot turned up in a white pantech with the words COLLECTION AGENCY painted on the sides, kids at school started saying my old man was a ‘bum’ and a ‘gaolbird’.

2. It’s the end of year two, and I’ve failed to learn anything. Every time I write my name, it’s spelt differently. I spend my time at the back of the class manufacturing spitballs. I’m the archetypal holy terror, the kid who gives teachers blood pressure problems and makes them leave the profession. I’m an expert at both the funny (chewing gum on seats) and the macabre (massive stick insects hidden in the teacher’s desk drawers). On my report card, one young woman – first year out of teacher’s training college, equal parts terrified and fascinated by her proletarian charges – writes, ‘this child will never amount to anything’.

Some time later, I learn I’m dyslexic, and mum waits tables and cleans rich peoples’ houses to pay for one-on-one phonics tuition and occupational therapy. To this day, I’ve never really figured out how it worked, but it unlocked whatever was locked between my ears. I can still remember the eerie sensation of going from the bottom to the top of the class inside six months. Flowers for Algernon scared the bejesus out of me; I was worried the process might be reversible.

3. I’m in my second year of law school, and Suri Ratnapala, the eccentric genius who teaches us Constitutional Law A sets Polyukhovich v Commonwealth as our case study. Are you trying to set me up? I ask him after class. No, he says mildly. I’m trying to teach you that in this profession, thinking is actually a good thing.

I read the case, and find Brennan J saying things that get other people accused of anti-Semitism:

'The Act select[s] a specific group of persons from a long time past out of all those who have committed, or are suspected of having committed, war crimes in other armed conflicts.'

If the rule of law is based on general laws, impartial in their use of coercive power and supreme over all, then the danger posed by legislation that targets an unpopular minority is readily apparent.

I pour years of careful thought into that essay: the rumination that comes at night after copping a daily critical barrage. What if I’m completely wrong? What if people are right to ring their media mates up and make sure I’m not published again? What if we should prosecute these sleazy fucks, who hopped out to Australia after the war and just starting working on the Snowy, because that was deemed a Good Thing?

Brennan J’s magisterial judgment knocks me sideways. I’ve read only history and literature on this issue, never the law. I see a High Court split 4-3, with the sort of judicial bloodletting reserved only for the most famously disagreeable cases. Think Wik. Think Bank Nationalisation. I humbly learn Professor Ratnapala’s lesson. Thinking in this profession is actually a good thing.

Law is much more fun than writing, but it took me six years to learn that.

I’ve included the three stories above to make a small but important point: I haven’t lost the knack. Writing remains as easy as it was when I was twenty and producing The Hand that Signed the Paper. These snippets, although ‘true’, also employ the inevitable compression and scene shifting that characterises fiction. The year two teacher made the ‘never amount’ comment to mum’s face, rather than on paper. Professor Ratnapala gave us a choice of cases – half a dozen or so. Polyukhovich was only one. Memo to my critics: moving the furniture is a consequence of crafting and making. Even non-fiction writers do it.

I became one of those strange law students who took great pleasure in Property, Equity and Trusts, the Law of Companies and of Copyright. I’m heading towards a career in Commercial law, to debt and equity markets, capital raising and tax minimisation. It fascinates me and I’m good at it. I’m annoyed I spent all those years trying to join in literary Australia’s closed conversational circle when I could have played the stock market or developed a property portfolio.

In 1995, I won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for my first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. I was 23. I wrote the book when I was twenty and 21, winning The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for it at 22. This prize, for unknowns under the age of 35, carried with it a substantial lick of prize money and guaranteed publication. I couldn’t believe my luck. It also went on to win the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal.

Despite having a good English degree, my speciality was languages and grammar, not the sort of stuff destined to make me savvy about publishing and marketing. I knew nothing about how Australian literature worked. Marcus Westbury, an unusually perceptive critic, commented that I came from so far outside the establishment I didn’t know we had one.

I’d already decided I was going to write under a pseudonym. This had been formalised with the university, which issued my degree parchments and university medal in both names. It’s always a source of amusement to me that the Courier-Mail had received a press release from the university listing all the university medallists for 1994 early in 1995. My award was under both names, and a brief profile included my Australian/Vogel win. Come August 1995, the Courier-Mail made much of the ‘investigative journalism’ involved in blowing my cover.

I hadn’t intended the pseudonym to hold for very long. It was designed to last until my main source for the novel died. At the time, he had terminal bone marrow cancer and six months to live. I promised him that he wouldn’t be prosecuted under the War Crimes Act on my account. Shortly after I won the Australian/Vogel Award, his cancer went into remission and faced me with a real quandary. I decided to keep the pseudonym, although came perilously close to letting my publisher in on the secret. I only stopped from doing so after receiving an absolute stinker of an editorial report. It accused me of racism and called my novel propaganda and a pornography of violence. They would not divulge the editor’s name to me, only sending a photocopy of her report and refusing to answer questions when I rang. In a fit of immaturity, I figured that two could play that game. I tore up my half written letter and binned it. If a custard pie hits me in the face, I figured, it’ll get you lot as well.

Even so, I couldn’t work out how a book that had unanimously won a major literary award was suddenly a piece of junk. Sure, there were prize-winning books around that weren’t my cup of tea, but that didn’t make me hate them (or their authors). I’d simply put that book aside and read another. This principle held true for computer games, RPGs and various sports. An editorial report riddled with invective was my first inkling of the ridiculous pretension and self-importance with which many of Australia’s intellectuals view their role.

Australian literature is burdened with a level of ideological conformity that would do East Germany proud. I started out in life as a leftie, albeit an idiosyncratic one – Trotsky to their Stalin, for want of a better analogy. I found myself appalled – and still am – at the anti-Americanism, the pro-Jews as victims but anti-Jews as victors, the belief that only someone from a given gender or ethnic group can write about that gender or ethnic group, and much other ideological piffle. I remember being told with great solemnity at a writers’ festival that white people who wanted to write about Aborigines needed to ask Aboriginal permission in order to do so. I nearly had chronic conniptions trying to stifle my guffaws. Watching kindly and well-meaning people attempt to apply affirmative action to literature frightened me, especially when they were dishing out Australia Council grants. It struck me as inconceivable that critics and academics were trying to control authors’ output. It was an insidious form of censorship and needed to go for six at the MCG.

So I threw myself into ‘Helen Demidenko’ with gusto. I’d grown up with plenty of people from that sort of background and had a knack for languages, which made me a natural mimic. Unfortunately, the nasty editorial report – coming as it did so early in the publication process – had a knock-on effect in other respects. When my old high school attempted to take some credit for my achievements, I rebuffed them with rudeness and contempt. This was despite the fact that I’d had some good teachers there, including one who strongly encouraged me to attend university, something I may not have done otherwise. I viewed the school through the jaundiced prism provided by some of its students. My response was very unfair to the teaching staff, something I only realised later.

My journey through the upper reaches of the chattering classes as ‘Helen Demidenko’ was surreal. I’ll never forget being propositioned by both halves of an ‘open marriage’ at one function, or being invited to join the ‘Anti-Football League’ at another. Instead of being honest and pointing out that no, I actually like sport, I made a lame duck excuse about having insufficient money on me to join. The conversation forgotten, I fronted up to a panel next morning wearing a 1991 Wallabies jersey. The two sport haters were sitting in the front row and I copped an A-grade glare.

Members of the chattering classes took potshots for the moral ambiguity of my writing. Part of me wanted to shout at the top of my lungs if they’d ever read Céline. I watched stunned as Peter Craven wrote a positive review of my novel in The Age and short-listed it for one of the Victorian Premier’s Awards, only to dump on it when the Melbourne literary establishment decided I was persona non grata. People who were supposed to know about literature went all out to conflate my views with those of my characters (does that make Bret Easton Ellis a serial killer in his spare time?) and prove that I must have had some sort of sneaking association with the League of Rights (who are they?). This made me determined to humiliate a group I considered spineless, and my invented persona became ever more over the top. It was only a matter of time before my cover – such as it was – was blown.

Let me begin with a girl, an ordinary Australian girl.

Fiona Kovalenko has an enfeebled, elderly uncle. She also has a less enfeebled (but still elderly) father. This besides the usual number of siblings, aunts and cousins. Fiona Kovelenko is at university, but unlike many of her peers is not particularly articulate. She is clever, but her cleverness does not extend into the realm of wisdom or reason. This is not because she is intrinsically incapable of these things but because she is only nineteen years old. Within her, this ordinary Australian girl carries a story incomprehensibly horrible yet eminently describable.

Fiona has known since childhood that three members of her family, a loving, close-knit immigrant Ukrainian family, were to greater or lesser degrees Nazi collaborators. She is unaware of the full import of the phrase ‘Nazi collaborator,’ is versed in neither the specific history of this collaboration nor in the history of collaboration per se. Instead, Fiona chooses to get by, largely unknowing. Missing the odd lecture. Not studying too hard. Living in one of Brisbane’s riotously tropical suburbs near the university. She smokes rollies and drinks hot chocolate. She listens to nightly current affairs bulletins and tut-tuts over the state of federal politics with her flatmate. It is only when one of her family members becomes a feature on those current affairs bulletins that she faces – is forced to face – the narrative of collaboration within her family. Her uncle is charged with war crimes, and that is news.

Australia – like many other western countries during the mid-eighties to early nineties – introduced legislation designed to allow the trial of postwar immigrants who were accused of collaboration with Nazi occupiers in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The debate that attended the legislation’s passage through federal parliament was one of the most acrimonious in recent Australian political history. Significantly, the intended targets were seldom German. Those who fell within the ambit of this legislation were immigrants from Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, for example), nations and peoples with grievous histories of oppression and genocide of their own. It is within the framework of this legislation that the fictional narrative of The Hand that Signed the Paper unfolds.

Fiona Kovalenko strives to own what she sees as her past, terrible as it is. Her older sister, organized and pragmatic, engages a lawyer and plans familial court appearances. For Fiona’s sister, Natalya, there is no doubt that loyalty resides with her family, protecting it from those who seek to do it harm. The past, for big sister, has no business haunting the present.

Fiona is neither as pragmatic as her sister nor as sure that her uncle should be protected. She has no idea how to begin the process of historical ownership so she simply asks questions. In their turn, father, uncle and aunt are badgered for narratives in a large yet intimate exercise in oral history. Sometimes Fiona interrogates the terms of these familial narratives, inserting her limited, young, late twentieth century ways of seeing. Sometimes she simply transcribes their narratives word for word into one of her big spiral notebooks. She neither judges her family nor sees her uncle as inherently evil. Implicated by her bloodtie to the accused, she simply sets the story down as it comes to her. In fragments. Compassion cheek by jowl with murderous indifference. Hope commingled with despair.

For Fiona, the received narrative of Nazism – as distinct from familial narratives of Nazi collaboration – is constructed wholly by the media of television and cinema. Apart from her family’s collection of fading black and white photographs, Nazism and its cruelties could just as easily be an episode of Australia’s Most Wanted: history based entirely on televisual re-enactment. She writes. She struggles to comprehend, but the only illumination available for her to cast on her narratives is television’s ‘cold, cathode light’. Her understanding of clarity is simply to make her narrative as cinematic as possible. If she is influenced at all beyond televisual reconstruction and appropriation, it is by trial reports that show how such-and-such a serial killer seemed the embodiment of normality to his neighbours.

The brutal, unseeing antisemitism that drove her uncle Vitaly to collaborate is scored across the narrative Fiona transcribes and inscribes. This narrative blames Jews within the Communist Party (and Jews per se) for the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-34. Vitaly describes an existence shattered by Communist and Nazi barbarities into the bleakest of Hobbesian fragments: truly ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Fiona’s aunt Kateryna, as bigoted in her own way as Vitaly, remembers Babi-Yar because she slept with handsome Hauptsturmführer Hasse, a man behind the butchery, in a nearby hotel. Vitaly liked Treblinka. During his time as a guard there he was warm and well fed. He ‘never falls psychologically outside the atmosphere of his age’. Fiona’s retelling means that she revisits – vicariously – a world where people are hermetically sealed inside the cruellest of closed systems. Since I’m uninterested in turning people into bug-eyed monsters, I took great care to make my one-time concentration camp guards recognisably human, even sympathetic. Their anti-Semitic motivations and values had substance. That said, I didn’t shy away from what they did. It’s just that to me, Osama is much more interesting if we know what makes him tick.

The language of Fiona’s familial storytellers is hateful and vicious. Fiona is an ordinary Australian girl, and for many years the language of her Australia has been neither hateful nor vicious. Fiona believes people can become Australian. If they ‘do the right thing’ (a slogan prominently displayed on municipal rubbish bins) in the new land, they will be rewarded with Australianness and all it entails. Fiona believes that becoming Australian means entry to an ordered polity, the rule of law and a public discourse set free from modalities that reify viciousness and hate. She can respond to the brutalities of history only in terms of lawyers, parliamentary debates and letters to the editor. This is her Australian world. Fiona comes to accept the ideal of a migratory rite of passage that reifies history but in so doing detaches it from its terrible consequences. For Fiona, immigrants shed the evils of the old country like a snake sloughing off dead skin, remaking themselves in the new country. They cross an invisible line drawn at an arbitrary point somewhere in the Indian Ocean, ceasing to be emigrants, becoming immigrants instead. ‘I’ve worked so hard to be Australian,’ Vitaly tells her. ‘I’m all Australian now’.

Journalists have a remarkable talent for behaving like kiddy-fiddlers. At least, that was the view I formed after they repeatedly staked out my parents’ house and followed my primary school aged niece and nephew to school. There were so many of them – outside broadcasting vans, TV cameras and sound booms in tow – I had to sneak into mum and dad’s backyard via several neighbours’ fences, wearing dog bite and bee stings in the process. Mum was petrified – they’d been prowling up and down the verandah trying to photograph her through her bedroom window – and dad wanted to get his gun. Dad’s habit of getting involved in petty crime was another source of worry. On one occasion a Channel 7 reporter doing the rounds realized who dad was and tried to assemble a TV crew outside the Magistrates’ Court after he was convicted. Quick thinking on the part of the duty solicitor stopped an already nasty story becoming much worse.

The phrase ‘chequebook journalism’ hadn’t held any real meaning until one media outlet offered me $160,000 for an interview – after a rival offered $100,000. At the time I knocked it back, a decision I now regret. My head was full of high ideals, including ‘maintaining my integrity as a writer’. In reality, there’s not a great deal of difference between accepting a wad of cash from a media outlet in return for telling them what they want to hear and hanging off the taxpayers’ teat in return for telling the government what it wants to hear. I still maintain the press hammered me as hard as they would have done had I taken the money.

I learnt that nearly every journalist fancies himself as a writer, complete with novel stashed away in the attic/garage/trunk. Similarly, their collective certainty that Australia is populated by a mob of racist dills knows no bounds. Every time some media commentator tees off at ‘regional Australia’ or ‘the outer suburbs’, carrying on about ignorance, racism and lack of sophistication, I take it pretty personally. Not so long ago that was me. It’s still my siblings, all of whom are trades people. Many journalists also believe they can influence the outcome of everything from literary awards to elections, hence the concerted campaign to have me stripped of the Miles Franklin Award. This culminated in accusations of plagiarism, another thing that wasn’t worked out of my system until law school – when I earned a high distinction in Copyright law. Fortunately, Dame Leonie Kramer – one of the judges – was made of sterner stuff, and told them to piss off (in the nicest possible way, of course).

Only the sports journalists were appropriately humble, acknowledging the gap between their efforts and those of Australia’s sportsmen and women. I think Gideon Haigh is the best writer in Australia: a fine craftsman, aware of his limitations, devoted to his sport. One of the few highlights of my literary sojourn was meeting him and receiving a signed copy of Mystery Spinner as a gift.

A sure sign that many of Australia’s critics and journalists don’t have a life was the appearance – in rapid succession – of four books about the cause célèbre. All were longer than my novel. Robert Manne’s The Culture of Forgetting came in at nearly twice the length, riddled with errors and laced with bile. He sent a letter begging an interview shortly before publication. My solicitor read it and shook his head sagely. ‘Don’t touch this one, Helen. He’s already made up his mind’.

Reluctantly, I cooperated with Andrew Reimer in his effort, The Demidenko Debate. My publisher was behind the book and Professor Reimer had consistently argued that my novel was good, despite the controversy. We met in my solicitor’s office in the city and I tried to answer his questions. At this point, I really noticed that I just didn’t fit into ‘literary culture’. He was passionate about literature in a way I just couldn’t fathom, speaking about it as though it had the capacity to change the world. It’s a novel, I kept thinking: what people read on the train. We were talking at cross-purposes. Whatever I said obviously wasn’t too inspiring – he didn’t use a single quote in his book. Although he was kindly and well meaning, I spent most of the interview trying to ignore his constant fiddling with a cigarette packet in his pocket. As soon as we stepped outside, he lit up.

Mark Davis’ study Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism told me – in very precise terms – why I wasn’t able to work as a writer in Australia. Before Davis’ book came out, I already had a fair idea of what was going on. Davis’ research simply confirmed what I suspected. The ‘wall out’ ranged from attacks in the press that a wealthy person would be able to fight off with a defamation suit (one commentator compared me with Martin Bryant) to senior media and critical figures ringing their mates and encouraging them not to publish anything I wrote. I couldn’t afford litigation, and came into the system bereft of contacts, so had no means of fighting back. Writers – especially new ones – are very poorly paid. I made the princely sum of $1.39 a copy out of book sales, so even the tag ‘bestseller’ didn’t mean a great deal.

As a stopgap, I went teaching and threw myself into sport – martial arts, running and cricket. Sport kept me sane in my first year out, especially when my father managed to kill himself off in embarrassing circumstances. True to form, he’d been dabbling in the criminal underworld, and managed to die on the job in a local brothel whilst redeeming a favour. According to the copper who delivered the news, the prostitute in question swore off the ‘game’ for all time. I suppose you would.

Mum had always known that he was pretty much a bum, but that didn’t make dealing with the police and the possibility of media exposure any easier. We made sure there was no media presence, which meant no funeral notice in the paper. Sympathetic doctors and coppers ensured the exact location didn’t turn up on dad’s death certificate. The Courier-Mail somehow heard about the death, publishing a brief – and false – obituary. For the first time ever, we gave thanks. Mum also insisted on the cheapest possible funeral, which meant no service and a chipboard box. She was furious, bitter and humiliated, although people not in the know mistook it for grief. My enduring memory of the whole fiasco is sitting at Logan Funerals staring at dad’s coffin while an extremely uncomfortable funeral director fiddled with his shirt collar and tried to avoid eye contact with everyone in the room. He didn’t know the story – only the police, doctor, mum and the sibs did – although I suspect he guessed.

Unfortunately, I found some people in the teaching profession had also ‘formed a view’. One woman festooned the walls of her office with anti-me cartoons; she would make a point of ostentatiously reading Robert Manne’s book whenever I walked past. Soon enough, I realised that English staffrooms were the problem, as was staying too long in one place. From then on, I did nothing but month-long supply jobs and made a point of asking for a majority physical education timetable wherever I could. This ensured I wound up in HPE or Science staffrooms, where no-one gave a stuff. Literature was in its proper place – what people read on the train.

When someone formed a view to the extent of spitting on me in a school car park, I prepared to emigrate. I’m a dual national (dad was born in London), which meant a British passport and the right to permanent residency.

Living in the UK for just over two years was immensely liberating. I earned my Shodan (black belt) in Shotokan Karate with Sensei Enoeda, proved an effective teacher in some of London’s toughest schools and made some life-long friends. Added to the mix were an outrageously alcoholic landlady, a truly barmy Scientologist flat-mate, a funky Nigerian boyfriend and the opportunity to cover the David Irving libel trial. Life was good, and I had no desire to come home until I learnt mum’s health was failing.

Mum had developed a heart condition and was taking all sorts of medication, sometimes at the wrong times. I took slightly longer supply jobs – three months each, for stability – and did my best to look after her. Much to my later regret, I again started writing for the Courier-Mail, and found the peace and quiet I’d managed to achieve in the UK incompatible with writing.

The one positive thing to occur during the brouhaha was meeting Andrew Greenwood, then a partner at Minter Ellison Lawyers. During 2005, he was elevated to the judiciary, and is now Justice Greenwood of the Federal Court. His new position did not surprise me in the slightest – he’s an adornment to the profession.

Andrew advised me with great acumen and care, and was the first outsider wholly on my side. Previously, I’d assumed my publisher or ‘friends’ I made through literature would fill this role, only to be disappointed (one wrote a ‘tell all’ book that would make Who Weekly proud). Andrew became my model, and if my decision to return to university aged 30 to study law is attributable to anything, it’s his example.

In August 2001, I wrote my last copy for the Courier-Mail. On October 1, 2001, I wrote my final piece for the Sydney Morning Herald. This latter was in response to 9/11 and the anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism of many Australian intellectuals. I took time to put a few of the more outrageous lies told about me out to pasture, and signed off on literature. I sold my Australian Literary Society Gold Medal (another of the prizes I’d won) to pay for law textbooks and worked at supply teaching two days a week to pay my way through law school.

Needless to say, the Courier-Mail wasn’t best pleased, and spent a good whack of my first year making life difficult. This involved using Queensland’s Freedom of Information legislation in a desperate bid to obtain any and every document the University of Queensland held that happened to mention me by name. The main instigator was a single journalist, Deborah Cassrels. At that time married to Chris Mitchell, the editor (they have since split), she had a series of odd vendettas against people; I was only one. Interestingly enough, Robert Manne was another. Once Mitchell left Queensland to edit The Australian and took up with Christine Jackman (another journalist), the frivolous FOI applications stopped.

Like living in the UK, studying at the University of Queensland’s T.C. Beirne School of Law was immensely liberating. Apart from the fact that I was good at it, law suited the combative side of my personality. I liked the idea of taking sides in a case, which led to me representing the law school in mooting competitions (mock trials). That said, while I was busily collecting scholarships and prizes, enjoying having my mind stretched in all sorts of interesting ways, I’d not noticed that mum was gradually getting frailer. I simply took on a greater care burden and assumed she’d ‘turn the corner’. For that reason, her death at the end of my second year caught me completely unawares.

My mother was an outstandingly good person. She’d done her level best to provide for the four of us kids while dad dragged the family from pillar to post, got sacked from various jobs and landed in front of the beak. Mum left school at thirteen and had no education to speak of, but she made sure we respected hard work and valued education. A tireless community worker, Logan’s Chinese community in particular felt they’d lost a special friend. We resolved that – regardless of the consequences – mum would get a public notice and a good send-off. The local Buddhist Temple organised her funeral, which was almost festive. People spilled out of the chapel onto the street outside, while my sister delivered the eulogy.

The Courier-Mail’s Tess Livingstone was considerably less vindictive in her harassment than Deborah Cassrels, and although irritating, her attempts (last year) to dredge up dirt were amusing rather than destructive. She learnt through an ‘anonymous tip-off’ (someone else with no life?) that I was lecturing at the University of Queensland, and was to start in the profession as a Judge’s Associate at the Supreme Court. She at least had the courtesy to email me, and although the two articles she wrote were full of the usual faux-controversial beat-up, by comparison with what had gone before, they were anodyne.

What really irritated me was the paper’s attempt to obtain an up-to-date photograph (all it had was my by-line pic, now several years old). Chris Griffith and a photographer bailed me up outside my class, after finding the location by pretending to be UQ students who’d lost their timetables. A naïve young scholar using the university’s wireless network was their target. Fortunately, I’d gotten pretty good at ‘lawyer’s bull’ and talked them out of trying to take pictures outside a lecture theatre where students were now congregating (luckily, my students saw the funny side).

The two of them sat outside for the rest of the class (memo to Chris Griffith: you should now know the principal exceptions to indefeasibility in the Torrens system) and afterwards I took great pleasure in losing them in the mass of complexity that is the UQ campus. I can still see Chris Griffith’s shiny, bald head reflecting light as he ran after me along the corridor in front of the Prentice building.

Why Skeptics, and why this tell-all piece in a magazine better known for debunking pseudoscience, puncturing religious pomposity and investigating paranormal claims?

There are two principal reasons.

First, I believe the media is characterised by sensationalism and falsehood, sometimes on a level that parallels Answers in Genesis or the folks who believe in crystals’ healing power. It prattles much about ‘accountability’, but when Queensland Premier Peter Beattie makes mild suggestions that mechanisms for administrative review – the Ombudsman and FOI, for example – be extended to the press, he is castigated.

Using the prestigious A N Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism at Melbourne University to articulate his proposals, Premier Beattie outlined what most thinking people already know – journalists are held in singularly low regard among the wider community. In a market defined by lack of competition, he argued that it was ‘time for the media to embrace an accountability regime similar to that imposed on government, on parliament, and on other public institutions’. He stated that

'[M]embers of the public should be able to ask of newspapers and electronic media the same questions they can demand of their representatives: Why was this decision taken? Who was involved? What did it cost? What alternatives were considered?'

Few trouble to enquire whether freedom of speech and freedom of the press are cognate (they aren’t – imagine a Venn diagram with only a small overlap), or whether it is reasonable to demand a free press also be an accountable press. Media calumnies deny some people a fair trial and saddle others with false accusations. Juries are contaminated, businesses destroyed, lives ruined. There is a grim toll of those who have suicided after press exposés. Who remembers the Filipino TV repairman, or God forbid, the Paxtons? Persons who mislead and deceive in trade or commerce are caught by section 52 of the Trade Practices Act. Why is the media immune from the section’s operation? Are they some form of protected species? Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Sure, it’s easy to argue that Beattie – a celebrated ‘media tart’ – is engaging in special pleading. It’s remarkably difficult to get information out of Government owned Corporations in Queensland, partly because they have been sheltered from some of the review mechanisms available under administrative law. That said, his central point remains valid. It is true that ‘some journalists are public figures’ while ‘all journalists enjoy extraordinary access to information’. Other public figures carry the risk of exposure. Why not the ladies and gentlemen of the press?

The catalogue of errors produced by media and critics alike in my case almost beggars belief. Despite the public availability of such things as a registry of births, deaths and marriages, the press could not get my date or country of birth correct or the location of my parents’ marriage (Mossman, Far North Queensland if you must know). For some reason they seemed to like Scunthorpe, Yorkshire; I have no relatives anywhere in Yorkshire. To these were added falsehoods about my family’s financial position and professional status. Many media outlets awarded my father an engineering degree. He actually left school at 15. Andrew Greenwood once suggested that for many among the chattering classes, the idea that ‘white trash’ could do what I had done was inconceivable. It therefore became imperative that my parents be awarded degrees they did not hold and riches they did not own. Worst of all were lies about my family’s political orientation. It seemed that because I had written about fascists and racists with some degree of humanity, I must therefore be their political kin. The fact that there were public records of my involvement in student politics as a Democrat – not to mention the distinguished participation by other family members in the union movement and Labor Party – did not seem to matter.

Of course, there is defamation. As I discovered, it is a rich man’s tort. The inexpensive processes of administrative law are denied to ordinary citizens traduced by our moral guardians. Only the very rich can defend themselves, and journalists like easy targets. This means the wealthy get off scot-free, while the press inflicts its silly moral vanities on the rest of us.

Then there is the refusal to be precise in written expression, sadly sometimes ideologically motivated. A personal bête noir is the media’s failure to use the word ‘terrorist’ to describe suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel. The lawyer in me contends it is better to describe the substantive content of all such actions as terrorism. This means that the people who blew up trainloads of German soldiers, raped many French women as collaborateurs post 1945 and had a happy knack of planting bombs in cinemas were also terrorists. This linguistic clarity would then force us to confront a painful question: can terrorism ever be justified?

The media needs Skeptics. It needs people to seek the evidence, challenge the claims and oppose uncritical sensationalism. I accept the questions I ask may have answers that ultimately favour the Fourth Estate. That said, we are entitled to reasoned responses and enlightened debate.

Second, I wrote this piece as a form of thanks to the people on the QSkeptics email group who formed their impression of me based on who I am, rather than what other people – media and critics – say I am. In my experience, this is extraordinarily difficult. Most people – even the very fair-minded – allow perceptions generated by the press to feed and inform their view of a public figure. The QSkeptics discussion group is the first large body I have encountered that to a man and woman did not do this. When Barry Williams first invited me to contribute to the Skeptic, I was unsure what I could write, especially as a lawyer among so many distinguished scientists and researchers. In the end, I opted to tell the story I refused to tell when offered all that cash some years ago.

Prime Minister John Howard has made much in recent times of our collective failure to respect others – in debate and elsewhere. My experience before my encounter with QSkeptics taught me that true respect is very difficult to achieve. Despite my personal views on the matter, I’ve caught myself failing to respect others, including a local Rockhampton journalist who took the time to investigate a story about me properly for the local paper. I assumed – automatically, because of my experience with and views of journalists – he would balls it up. He didn’t, and I had a humbling reminder of the importance of that cricketing principle regarding the ‘benefit of the doubt’. QSkeptics has taught me that respect must be worked at, but is nonetheless a goal both useful and worthy. It is much nicer to live in a country where people don’t get written off as ‘mad’ for their views and values – or what are reported to be their views and values.

I have learnt equal amounts from both observing and participating in QSkeptics discussions, which are always conducted with the utmost respect. They have allowed me to rediscover something of the sense of wonder and adventure that once made both writing and learning so enjoyable. Truly, they have set me free.