Personal Reflections

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Train Reading - preliminary musings on Furtado's Histories of Nations

One of my Christmas presents was Peter Furtado (ed) Histories of Nations: how their identities were forged (Thames & Hudson, compact edition 2017). In the book, 28 historians and writers provide their own short perspectives (around 3,000 words) of the history of their own nations with a short introduction by Furtdado. The contributors were asked  “to step outside their usual frames of reference and write about how history is understood in the culture of their homelands at large,”

Jerry Brotton's 2012 review on the BBC's Historyextra provides a good overview of the book, concluding
Overall this is a collection that goes too far (why so many European nations?) and yet not far enough (why so few east Asian or African ones, why not every single nation?). The writing is not consistently good enough to make it more than an intriguing curiosity.
I can see why he reached that conclusion, the standard of writing does vary, but its also a little unfair. Even as an intriguing curiosity it's worth reading, but there is more to the book than that.

To begin with, the book reminds us of just how much the frames within which we think and write are determined by culture and history. As analysts or historians we do try to break out of this, but it's remarkably difficult because we cannot always see are own blinkers. It reminds us, too, about the fragility of national identities, about the way that history is put to the service of creating or preserving identity.

Some of the writers are very frank. On India, writer and journalist Mihir Bose suggests that India's problem is that it has never existed in an historical sense! It is "the civilization with no home-grown history". As I read this piece, I thought that it was a pity the Indian Empire broke up rather than transforming as it might have into a new nation. That, I thought, was one price of the Second World war.

As I read, I found that the multiple stories were causing subtle shifts in my own perceptions. I am reasonably well read, but there was material and perceptions that were new to me.

I could wish the book had more African material. Egypt is the only country covered on that country, and Egypt's history is not African. I think that a similar book focused on the national history and historiography of African countries might provide some real insights - and correctives.

Overall, I thought that while the book is flawed, it is actually a very interesting work and well worth a read.  

  

Monday, February 19, 2018

First reflections on the opening of NERAM's permanent exhibition of the Hinton collection


Opening of the permanent exhibition of the Hinton Collection at the New England Regional Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Paul Barratt.  

Part of the reason why I have been so quiet here is that I have been busy preparing a public lecture I gave Saturday as part of the opening ceremonies of the permanent exhibition of the Hinton collection at the New England Regional Art Museum.  

Starting in 1929 and continuing until his death in 1948, Howard Hinton gave over 1,000 artworks plus 700 art books to the Armidale Teachers' College. The result is one of the greatest art collections in Australia seen through the eyes of a single collector.


The concentration of such a large number of artworks in a small space is quite sumptuous. This is an exhibition you need to savour. Photo courtesy of Paul Barratt. . 

The sheer size of the collection makes it impossible to exhibit all pieces. So the gallery has chosen 230 or so pieces that can be rotated from time to time.  This number of paintings makes for a concentrated hanging in a small space. The impact is overwhelming. If visiting, you need time to enjoy the works,

In mt talk, I focused on the early days of the Armidale Teachers' College, while art historian Micheal Mignard focused on Hinton. This was a fascinating talk, telling me much I did not know.  As summarised by Paul Barratt:
Mike observed that the Hinton Collection is the best collection in the country of the Heidelberg School when they moved from Heidelberg to Sydney. It is also an important insight into what was going on in the Sydney art world in the 1920s and 1930s. Hinton knew the artists, and his standing as a collector was such that he would be granted early access to new exhibitions and would have first chop at buying the ones that caught his eye. The majority of these ended up at Armidale Teachers College, which also received the paintings in his personal collection when he died.


The New England Conservatorium of Music's Dixie Six at the exhibition opening.  Fabulous jazz. 

It will take me a little while to write up my notes from the trip and do the necessary follow-up. Each time I go to Armidale I end up with more action items than when I began! 

Friday, February 09, 2018

Barnaby Joyce and the question of public versus private morality

In my 16 December 2017 round-up, A chaotic three weeks in Australian politics!, I wrote in part:
Saturday 2 December saw the New England by-election. This had been a nasty campaign. 
From the social media feeds, I learned far more of Mr Joyce's personal life than I ever wanted to know. I kept wanting to say stop. Mr Joyce is a public figure, but what you are doing is not fair on anybody else.
I deliberately did not provide details. However, over the course of the campaign the twitter feeds provided accumulating material and detail. Not all this material was correct. An apparent example is the story that one of Mr Joyce's daughters drove down Tamworth's Peel St in a car with “Barnaby Joyce” branding, yelling at people not to vote for him through a megaphone. However, core details were fleshed out at interminable length. As the campaign proceeded, the tone became increasingly angry with anger directed in part at the mainstream media for not reporting. To drive this point home, many of the tweets were copied to journalists. If you just scroll back through the #NewEnglandVotes twitter feed you will get a feel.

Following the by-election, the matter rested until the newscorp media decided to run the story. Mrs Joyce confirmed basic details but asked for privacy. Fat chance. Now the barrier has been breached, the story has run and run. I don't know what the Joyce family is going to do, although their Tamworth home is reportedly for sale. It's hard enough managing a deeply personal thing like a marriage breakdown, harder still in the withering glare of national publicity.

The local media in particular were placed in a difficult position, something covered in part by Jamieson Murphy's piece in the Northern Daily Leader. They had to balance questions of proof, the right to privacy. the question of public interest in a frenetic campaign. I'm not sure how I would have handled it had I been an editor. I would have been conflicted.

Some of those who oppose Mr Joyce are arguing that the failure to report affected the election outcome. That's possible, although I'm doubtful. The matter was widely covered on social media and was the subject of considerable local gossip. Press coverage might have cost him some votes, but might equally have gained him some from those believing that this was part of an already perceived campaign against Mr Joyce.

While reporting might not have affected the election result at the time, I do think that the current controversy will have some adverse political effects on Mr Joyce and the National Party. Of more importance, however, is what the case might mean for the dividing line between public and private morality. Are the Daily Telegraph and  the other newscorp outlets in their role as "defenders" of public morality taking us down the path previously followed by the British tabloids with their sometimes salacious coverage of moral, generally sexual lapses, by British public figures? Alternatively, will Australia follow the route that the US seems to be going of outright bans on  sexual relations between elected officials and their staff? Or maybe both, since the second is likely to lead to the first anyway?

I don't know. I can't answer these questions. The current sometimes febrile debate around relationships suggests a continuing shift in attitudes towards morality, the emergence of new views on what constitutes acceptable behaviour, new views increasingly enforced by various forms of social and legal sanctions. The effect appears to be a progressive widening of the scope of public morality at the cost of private morality.  

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Sidetracked by Armidale families past and present

I have been trying to focus on moving main writing projects forward. I like some of the coverage I have been getting, Madeline Link's  Take a trip down memory lane, here's what Armidale once looked like is an example, but it has narrowed my focus.

That's not helped by my discovery of new sites, Armidale Families Past and Present is an example, that constantly distract me: I know her, I went out with her, is that what happened?, I remember him, I remember that corner store, we did that and so it goes on.

For every one person who lives in Armidale now, there are 3+ who used to live there. The site has suddenly exploded in membership as those living elsewhere like me return to share memories of times' past. It's like a drug, the sudden discovery of people who share memories and experiences. Often our memories are wrong or partial, but that is corrected.

This you tube newsreel is of the 1960-61 Scout jamboree at Lansdowne. I was there! Comments follow the video.


In the discussion thread I wrote for Zivan Milanovic who was a mate and there with me.
Memories of the 1960-61 Jamboree follow. This is part one.  
We were young compared with some of the other troops, with a few of us just going into Senior Scouts, Those were the red shoulder flashes on the scout uniform Zivan put up. I say this because I was just so impressed with the marching and discipline of the New Zealand scouts who just seemed so organised and sophisticated, able to do things we could not. That may have been the opening ceremony, but there was also some form of combined concert or display.  
I can see our camp in my minds eye. We had a central campfire surrounded by tents. I think that we were given rations to cook or eat, including tins of jam. They blew up if popped into the fire to create an explosion. In our case, this left jam fairly widely spread over the tents! I know that I had a small portable aluminium camping set with a fry pan on the bottom, a small billy and mug that sat in the middle and a plate that clipped over the top.  
There was some central area where we could buy drinks and ices. There were banks as well trying to encourage thrift. I remember opening multi accounts with small sums of money just for the hell of it. I don’t know where we washed. I suspect we got a bit smelly. I do remember putting hot coals into an enamel mug to try to iron some creases out of my uniform! 
This is part two. 
At least once we were allowed to go into town via train. 15,000 scouts on the streets of Sydney make quite an impact.
We went to Luna Park, the first time I think I had been there. This was fabulous. We had some form of multiple pass allowing us to go on many things like the rotor many time. Girls and uniforms! Somehow we managed to collect a girl in, I think, the ghost train! 
As part of the Jamboree there were various walks available. Some longer ones struck me as hard work, but I did go on one overnight down into the Grose valley. On the way down a scout fell and was hurt. Some of the bigger seniors or rovers were sent back running to stretcher the wounded warrior to the top.  
We camped in Blue Gum forest, a beautiful spot. That night we all gathered around the camp fire and sang and played various games. Next day back up the side of the cliff on a different path. It was hot, I was out of water, so flung myself down and lapped up some water from a shallow pool. The more experienced scout leaders lit a small fire and made themselves a cup of tea, a lesson for me. 
Overall, it was fun, fun, fun.
Zeke, Zivan, posted some memorabilia from the jamboree. The scarf on the right, the NSW scouts received this, I still have.

As an historian, I am fascinated by this stuff.

Armidale is not a big city but is divided by the creek, by where people went to school,  by religion, by our parents' interests and roles.

I did not go to the pool room although I walked by it; I did not play hooky to go to the Blue Hole, although I do have some of my own stories there in a different context; I was Methodist while others were Catholic;  I went to TAS, an all boys school, and was too shy to sometimes talk to let alone chase girls.

So there were divides.But as an historian, the detail of local life is fascinating. As a person, it's even more so.  I am sucked in, waiting for the next installment.

This will ease. But for the moment, it's totally sidetracked me from my main writing themes. I'm not complaining, mind you. It really is fun.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Monday Forum 5 February 2018 - as you will

The first Monday Forum for 2018 and indeed the first one for a while. With lower posting, both traffic and comments are down, but the Forums do provide an opportunity to raise and discuss things that I have ignored.

This Forum is again an open one. But first, a few brief comments, reports.

The latest public opinion poll shows a marginal improvement in the Turnbull Government's position. Is it too early to suggest that the Government's position is stabilising?

Lyle Shelton, previously managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, has stepped down to join Senator Bernardi's Australian Conservatives. ranks.

The Australian Conservatives are quite well resourced. Accepting this and that they are really only targeting a niche vote, I cannot see them having much impact. Is this view right?

My Canadian cousins have now left for New Zealand. At drinks, they expressed some incredulity at the Australian citizenship row in Federal Parliament. Cousin Diana, a Canadian citizen, was born in London while father Cyril was doing his PhD. This makes her eligible for UK citizenship plus New Zealand because both parents were born there. Daughter Eleanor has the same mix plus I think Austrian (or is it Swiss or both?) through her father.

The citizenship row continues with the resignation of Labor's David Feeney. The ABC's Matthew Doran has quite a useful summary of the present position, including the down stream effects.Youngest continues to argue that in most cases the problem is due to sloppy housekeeping, but also thinks that Section 44 of the Australian constitution should be changed to better reflect modern Australia.That is my view too. But what form might the amendment take? And could we get it through?

Unlike marcellous, I am not an especially musical person. I am not a good singer, and there wasn't a lot of music around. Now marcellous is  Pissed orff at changes to ABC classical radio. These are, I think, part of a broader set of ABC changes that do imperil Australia's cultural history.

Finally, and this is an opening shot, how do we reconcile the conflict between models of representative government and corporate government in areas such local government, universities and medical colleges?

These are just some rough topics. Over to you.

Update 6 February on the continuing citizenship imbroglio

Over on The Converation, Professor Hal Colebatch provides a useful summary ( How the Australian Constitution, and its custodians, ended up so wrong on dual citizenship) of  the history of Section 44 of the Australian Constitution. In an earlier piece that I missed, .Joshua Gans reports in Opinions on High that the High: Court may no longer expedite MP eligibility referrals.

In a related matter, the High Court will today consider whether the Jacquie Lambie Network's number two candidate in Tasmania, Steve Martin, should be allowed to take Ms Lambie's former Senate seat despite holding a position as a local mayor. The SBS report notes that case will test part of Section 44 that forbids those who hold an "office of profit under the Crown" from being elected to the federal parliament.

In a comment, Neil also pointed me to this piece by James Boyce.  

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Saturday Morning Musings - The Beetoota Advocate

"Local Restaurant Now Successful Enough To Have To Worry About Rich People Allergies"  The Beetoota Advocate
When  I first came across The Betoota Advocate I was almost fooled. The story in question was just so plausible. Then I thought, hang on. This can't be right. It cannot be the oldest newspaper in Australia as claimed. Further, I know Queensland well, and if  Beetoota was an inland centre with that population then I would know it.

When I looked up Beetoota, I found that it was a ghost town with then zero population in Queensland's Channel Country. Digging into the Advocate itself, I found that it was an Australian satirical news website actually based in inner Sydney started in 2014 by former journalists Archer Hamilton and Charles Single and publisher Piers Grove. The site puts a comedic spin on current news topics and broader social observations.

I came across The Betoota Advocate very early an knew enough to check. In 2015, Brisbane radio station 4BC was not so lucky, taken in by an outlandish moral tale about three junkies, a home invasion, and a plucky 78-year-old retired boxer!
Report: Sunday Roast Easiest Way To Get Adult Children To Visit Home. A year-long study into the most effective way to make adult children revisit the nest has concluded this afternoon and the results are quite telling. 
I think that one of the reasons that The Beetoota Advocate has become Australia's most popular satirical site is that it pokes fun at many current social and cultural tropes in a straight faced way preserving a news format instantly familiar to readers of the Australian press and especially the regional media.

Many of the popular satirical shows play to particular slices, mainly progressive, of social and political views. The Gruen Transfer's Will Anderson is a case in point: he often achieves laughs by savaging a slice of views that he and his audience already consider wrong or silly. It is very one-dimensional.

Of course this happens in the Beetoota Advocate too, but the scope is broader and less savage. I think that most Australian parents would smile at the thought of a report that tells them that roast dinners are a way of bringing children home to dinner. We know that.

Not all the Beetoota stuff is really funny. This is partly a matter of output, but also reflects the difficulty in maintaining a light touch to avoid spinning over into too heavy handed parody.

On a final note, I think at first the good folk at The Beetoota Advocate though that someone was taking the mickey out of them, but the Beetoota pub is re-opening, restoring the town's population to one.      

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The remarkable case of Australia's cabinet files

I have been working on the follow up post to my first post on surviving in an age of outrage, this one on survival in the public space, but this has taken longer than expected. While it's a reasonably long post, the delay reflects my difficulty in sorting through issues in my own mind. I hope to finish it soon, but in the meantime I wanted to make a brief comment on the remarkable story of the suddenly discovered Australian cabinet papers.

By way of background for international readers, the ABC reports that the story began at a second-hand shop in Canberra, where ex-government furniture is sold off cheaply.Among the items on sale were two heavy filing cabinets to which no-one could find the keys. They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill. Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files. The thousands of pages reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and span nearly a decade. Nearly all the files were classified, some as "top secret" or "AUSTEO", which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.

Following discovery, the files ended up in the hands of the ABC who are reporting on some of the documents (link above). Others were deemed by the ABC to be too sensitive to reveal. I wondered how this might have occurred.

It is now thirty years since I last dealt with highly classified material. Then my top level security clearance allowed me to see sensitive documents including top secret and code word protected. However, there were quite strict rules about those documents. Some I was given, but had to return once I had read them. Others could be stored in a secure heavy metal filing cabinet. A small number had to be stored in a safe. I did not have, did not want the hassle involved in having, such a safe, so these documents had to be returned once I had absorbed them.

When I switched jobs or the area was restructured, the cabinets would remain, with the keys handed over to my successor.

Against this background, I found the discovery a little surprising. I don't know what the filing cases looked like, whether they were just key opened or required a combination as well. I don't know where they were originally located, although from the sound of it it has to be in Prime Minister's and Cabinet, Finance, Treasury or a former minister's office since these were the only places that would have had access to the particular combination of cabinet documents involved.

The only way that I can explain the whole thing is that the filing cabinets in some ways became orphans. This might happen because an area was abolished or a minister lost position, leaving the cabinets behind with no-one responsible. Then they sat there sans keys until someone wanted to clear space. Even then, it's surprising with a disconnect between whoever shifted them and the person authorising the shift. They may have been seen as empty, but they were obviously heavy.

All hell is breaking loose, so we will learn more. One thing to be cautious of is the argument that the breach justifies abolition of paper files or copies. This was an error, not a leak. But if you really want to protect records from disclosure in whatever form by whatever means, keep them paper. Single disclosures of electronic records actually dwarf the total number of leaked written documents across human history.

Update Friday 2 February 2017

The photos I have now seen of the cabinets, assuming that the photo is real, show them with combination locks. At least one is labelled "Cab subs"! ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) has now retrieved the files. It has also been confirmed that the material came from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In an opinion piece in the Fairfax press, Cabinet files reveal a dispiriting truth about how governments work, Waleed Aly expressed concern about the light thrown on the internal workings of government.
Put simply, we're seeing snapshots of governments that either ignore or bury independent advice they don't want to hear, that are prepared to mislead the public about the advice they receive, and that are quite prepared to intervene to politicise processes that masquerade as apolitical.
The first case he cited concerned release of cabinet documents at the time of the Pink Batts Royal Commission. There Mr Aly wrote in part:
And now we know just how belligerent prime minister Tony Abbott was in pursuing Rudd on this. We've known that when he set up the royal commission, he took the stunning step of ordering that confidential cabinet documents be handed over in violation of a century of convention. This, we were told (after it was initially denied), was based on the advice of the Australian government solicitor. 
Now we learn that this very same solicitor in fact gave the opposite advice, saying this would be unprecedented and inconsistent with "legal practice and principle". That advice was reinforced by the secretary of Abbott's own department. Perhaps there's some other legal advice out there taking the opposite position. Or perhaps we were misled.
I am not totally sure of the accuracy of the this part of the comment: "This, we were told (after it was initially denied), was based on the advice of the Australian government solicitor."  I wrote on the release of the documents to the Royal Commission at the time: - The principle of Cabinet confidentiality, Saturday 24 February 2014. If you look at the post, you will see how it evolved in light of comments and further information. This is not such a simple issue as My Aly's comment would seem to imply. 

The second case involved a request by then immigration minister Scott Morrison that ASIO go slow on its security checks of asylum seekers so the government could squeeze through changes that would deny these people permanent protection in Australia. This case made me very uncomfortable because it involved an apparent misuse of due process, of a Government determined to do whatever required to maintain its position regardless of convention. This has been a consistent pattern in the border protection arena, but has not been limited to that area.

In an apparently disconnected story, current Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton has called for public input into the selection of judges and magistrates. This formed part of his current law and order campaign. While he refused to comment on whether or not he supported adoption of the US system, his comments did seem to be going down that path. This led me to wonder if Mr Dutton understood the principles and history of our system of government. Perhaps not, or perhaps he considers them to be unimportant or outdated.

Whichever way, it is a worrying development considering his position in charge of the new mega Department of Home Affairs. To quote the Department,  this "brings together Australia's federal law enforcement, national and transport security, criminal justice, emergency management, multicultural affairs and immigration and border-related functions and agencies, working together to keep Australia safe."  With this combination of activities, Australians are heavily reliant on the willingness of the Department and its minister to follow due process and to temper what can be done with what should be done. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Surviving in an age of outrage - the personal space

We seem to be living in an age of outrage. I know from reading history books or old newspapers that outrage has always existed. However, we appear now to be outraged about so many things and so strongly! And heaven forbid if you choose to disagree. Unless, of course, you are a cultural warrior from the other side when it all becomes grist to your particular mill!

A case in point is the current wave of sexual harassment allegations and the #MeTo movement, something that Neil tiptoes into with Christos Tsiolkas speaks my mind.

I note that, like many, the on-going discussion has caused me to review and question my own past behaviour. That is a good thing, but it's got to the stage that I say not another one, where will this end? I feel tarnished. I know that I'm not alone in feeling this. Some of my female friends feel likewise, that the movement has gone over the top.

There are just so many angry issues now.

At a purely personal level in personal conversation, I used to try to argue counter viewpoints. I do enjoy and argument and also like providing balance. Few issues are wholly black and white. Now where the other person has strong views and especially in a group with similar views, I find it best not to become involved, to listen. Life is too short and relationships too important to risk them over a difference in opinion. I also value having friends with a variety of views.

Mind you, this type of self-censorship is not new, nor do I apply it universally. There is an old saying never discuss money (or sex), religion and politics in polite company. I used to think that that was really fuddy duddy, old fashioned, but it was intended to preserve social cohesion in particular groups or societies by limiting discussion on key topics that divide, that are likely to put people against each other. While I am still of my original view, I am a little more sympathetic. Today there seem to be many more issues that divide.

I think that the problem is compounded by the echo chamber effect combined with diminished diversity in networks. I grew up in a smaller community with multiple, varying and often strongly held views. Survival in that community, the achievement of collective objectives, required a measure of self-discipline. I may violently disagree with X's views on Y, but I needed X's support to achieve a particular community objective. In most cases, best to shut up about Y unless Y is so important that it absolutely requires a response.

I mentioned diminished diversity in networks. I have to be careful, here. Is it just me? Have my own networks just shrunk? At one level that is true, for I see or mix with fewer people in a direct day to day sense. But I don't think that is the case, for I still mix across groups especially in the on-line world as well as in geographic space. I'm actually very lucky here, for my views are constantly challenged.

That said, I am conscious of growing uniformity in group views, of a decline in community cohesion and activity. Again I need to be careful here. I am no longer involved in certain activities such as school that provide a common base. Still, I do feel that people mix less, are less aware of and less accepting of alternative positions.

That's a personal perspective. For the moment and in the personal space, I suppose the key thing that I have learned in surviving in this age of outrage is that you don't have to play. Just respect others views and shut up!

In my second post in this series, I will look at the question of survival in the public space.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reflections inspired by Nick Brodie's family history "Kin: A Real People's History of Our Nation"

I find that my brain has been slow to re-engage after the Christmas break, especially when it comes to serious stuff. To a degree, that's still true. I haven't made any new year resolutions beyond a desire to attempt to work less and to read and relax more.

One of the difficulties with working from home as I am at present lies in achieving real separation between work and leisure. I feel I should be doing something all the time and as a consequence become very inefficient. I  know that I should fix this, but its quite hard. Still, I have picked up my reading.

Looking back over my blogs, I have written a fair bit about family history, my own and family history as a craft or discipline. I mention this now because one of the books I read over Christmas was Nick Brodie's Kin: A Real People's History of Our Nation. This is a really good book, a yarn, and I encourage you to read it.

One of the challenges in family history is to find a way to avoid becoming lost in family trees. Each generation you go back in the tree expands the number of names and possible further connections. This makes some family histories effectively little more than lists with some commentary.

The long running BBC TV series Who Do Think You Are, the start of a global franchise, solved this problem by selecting only what they saw as the most interesting bits, the Australian program even more so. This plus the sometimes breathless imposition of current views and sensibilities on the past became somewhat annoying with time.

Nick has chosen a different route by taking portions of the family tree and telling the story in discrete blocks, effectively making each a stand-alone story. This means that you don't have to remember the entire family tree, although I sometimes found myself a little lost and had to refer back to the main tree at the front of the book. But that's just me. You can read the book as a series of stories without worrying to much about that.

He has also consciously tried to place the stories in the context of the time, trying to avoid or at least minimise the filter created by the present.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had finished, at least for the present, my Express series on New England's built landscape and architecture. Inspired Nick Brodie, I decided to do the next series of columns on the Belshaw family.

The first column is here. The photo shows walking day, Platt Bridge, Wigan 1900. I promised Cousin Cyril a long time ago that I would write a full history of the Pacific Belshaws and added it to my list of books. As you might expect given my already existing list of books, this has lagged. Still, its a start in sorting out themes. .  

   

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy - interpreting Donald Trump revisited

It's been a while since I said anything about President Trump. There seemed to be little sensible that I might say that would add value to such a polarised discussion.

Looking back over the little I have written, in  Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy - interpreting Donald Trump (18 January 2018)  I suggested that the writing of Tom Clancy might be used as a framework to interpret President Trump. I said:
I am not equating Jack Ryan with Donald Trump. They are very different people. However, Clancy did capture accurately certain aspects of US right wing populist thinking (I am using that phrase in a descriptive not pejorative sense) including distrust of those within the Beltway and of career politicians, a belief in bureaucratic inefficiency, a belief in the people, a belief in US military power and a somewhat mercantilist view of trade.
I also noted that in bringing about change, President Ryan has to deal with a media and political establishment that constantly tried to interpret his actions against existing models, paradigms, of thought and action. I thought that this was important, for that's what people were trying to do, judge Mr Trump against existing models that didn't quite fit. I thought that we would have to watch and wait to see what it all meant. I really didn't know! At the end of this post, you will find the new President's inaugural speech. That's worth re-reading, for it does provide a framework for President Trump's subsequent actions.

Clancy wrote rattling good yarns and I still enjoy them. However, I always thought that there was a certain naivety in his view of the world, one that became more pronounced with time. This included a belief in and fascination with the application of technology in a military environment allowing the US to win wars despite an over-stretched military. .

Jack Ryan is not Donald Trump. In Executive Orders (1996), Ryan becomes President unexpectedly after a Japanese pilot crashes his airliner into the Capitol building during a special joint sitting killing nearly all members of the Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. That's cleaning the swamp on a large scale.

Ryan inherited a fully functioning White House staff. This included Arnold van Damm as a Chief of Staff, a key figure with extensive political and Washington experience who guided the President through those first turbulent days. Ryan also picked highly competent replacement figures, especially in Treasury and Defence. They may be stereotypical of that belief that private sector figures are best, their attitudes may reflect prevailing orthodoxy about the inefficiencies of the public sector,the need for tax reform and redeployment of Defence spend, but they were highly competent, able to manage the re-emerging Congress without involving the President. In turn, Ryan gave them a wide degree of freedom.

Unlike Ryan, President Trump came to office after a very messy election campaign. Unlike Ryan, he faced a fully functioning if somewhat dysfunctional Congress. Unlike Ryan, he had to create his office from scratch. President Trump also faced a problem in that he did not have a lot of real depth to draw from in setting up that office and in making Executive appointments.

Twelve days after that first post I wrote Monday Forum - the administrative competence of the Trump Administration.That post began:
I think that the thing that most surprised me about President Trump's Executive Order "PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES" was the apparent administrative incompetence involved, something that may be becoming a feature of the new US Administration at this point in its life.          
This was an initial analytical, not political; observation. I said something very similar about new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd very early.The weaknesses and features displayed in the immediate period after his election would ultimately bring Mr Rudd down.

It will be twelve months Saturday since President Trump's inauguration. It's been a roller-coaster ride. If we look at a policy level, I think that President Trump has broadly tried to stay true to his original campaign pledges sensible or not. But then we have twitter and off-the-cuff Trump. Not only has this created uncertainty, but it has continued an almost existential debate that began prior to Mr Trump's election, one in which different world views collide in ways that may not have a lot to do with what is actually happening.

One unfortunate result has been a coarsening of the political rhetoric on both left and right as they talk past each other and try to relate beyond.. I listened to an example of that this morning from Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo.

Australia is engaged in a trade dispute with Canada over wine. In describing this this morning on ABC Radio National, Minister Ciobo used Trumpian language about Australian jobs and Australian first. I'm not sure he used exactly that last phrase, but that was the message.

This is a trade dispute. Australia believes, correctly to my mind, that Canadian restrictions are reducing importation of Australian wine in a way that is in breach of World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements intended to prevent restrictions on global trade.. Australia is therefore taking action against Canada under the WTO rules  to try to reduce the perceived barriers.

The way that Minister Ciobo phrases it plays into the current trope about the dangers of globalisation and free trade and the need for countries to to adopt them first attitudes regardless of the broader consequences. This began on the left and has now spread to the right and to the left and right populist parties. To my mind, it is one of the most dangerous sides of Trumpism.

This cartoon presents the results of the me-first policies that helped create the Great Depression. I could not find the Low cartoon on autarchy that shows each country eating their own legs in the interests of self sufficiency. 
At present, my train reading is W K Hancock's Argument of Empire (Penguin Books, 1943). Keith Hancock is arguably Australia's greatest historian. I will write about this book properly later in my train reading series. For the moment, the book reminded me of the Great Depression and its aftermath.

In 1930,  The US Congress passed the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act. This was an America first measure designed to protect American jobs at a time of global downturn. It lead to other countries adopting or increasing protectionist measures. The result was disaster, a collapse in world trade, that turned a depression into the Great Depression. As the results were recognised, countries began to reduce tariffs and sign free trade agreements, a process brought to a sudden end by the onset of war. However, the lessons learned led to a new series of agreements including Bretton Woods (1944) and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (1947) that created the structure for a new rules based economic order.

This structure laid the base for economic expansion in the Post War period, but is now under severe threat. How President Trump responds on trade issues is one of the two critical Trumpian things I will be watching in 2018.

The second can best be described as insecurity. For much of the time since the Second World War, Australia has operated within a relatively stable international relations and security framework. The American Alliance has been central to that. New developments such as the rise of China posed a challenge to that framework, but few Australians (me included) expected a situation where instability and uncertainty in US foreign policy itself would become a significant challenge.What do Australia and all US allies do now?

I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing, but it is unsettling. It's unsettling for the US too in ways that I'm not sure are properly recognised there as yet. The US is used to doing its own thing, used to being in the lead with others following. As the US withdraws  from certain activities such as the agreement on climate change or the TPP, other countries step up.

We simply don't know how the Trump administration will evolve over the next twelve months, we don't know what changes in defence and foreign affairs will be made as a consequence. We just have to wait.     .

Saturday, January 13, 2018

January round-up of my other writing - Historic changes in climate and sea levels, more on hominin history, architecture and the built environment, Airbnb

Today's post is another of those update rambles through my recent research and writing in other places..

Historic Changes in Climate and Sea Levels

I am still seeking to increase my understanding of the enormous variations in climate and sea level over the last 100,000 years, something that affected all human species.  If Aboriginal people arrived on Sahul 65,000 years ago, they would have been affected by multiple changes including especially the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum and the subsequent arrival of the Holocene. The last two saw sea levels fall by 120 metres below current levels then rise to perhaps 3 metres above current levels before stabilising. The climate fluctuated from relatively benign to very cold, windy and dry to hot and moist to today's climate.

These are huge changes. Generally, they would not have been noticeable within any generation, but sometimes sea level changes were so fast that entire hunting ranges could be lost in a single generation. That's a very fast change, one that appears to have been recorded in Aboriginal oral traditions.

We can think of these patterns at various levels. At the highest level, there are widespread changes that affected the varying distribution and indeed evolution of various hominin groups. Then there is the likely pattern at the time the peoples who would become the Aborigines were making their way to Sahul. We then have the changes that occurred after arrival affected the distribution of people across the continent and might well have threatened the very survival of the Aboriginal peoples.

One of the analytical challenges is to move from the broader picture to the local. The exact pattern of climate and sea level change and its effects varied between areas far more than I had originally realised .There was also more variation over time. You simply cannot take a broader macro picture and just apply it locally.

No doubt you will hear more of all this! For the present, my most recent posts have been:
Populating the Globe

I have continued monitoring as best I can research results on early human history, the most recent post being Beringia and the settlement of North America - DNA results from Alaska.

Of all the academic fields I am interested in, I think that history is the one that has changed most over the years. While the basic canons of the discipline remain, I'm not sure that can be said of other fields such as economics, the tool kit available to historians has exploded. In many ways, history has become a truly multi-disciplinary subject.

This poses a major challenge for historians. How do you  absorb all this stuff, especially in areas outside your areas of expertise?

Architecture and the Built Environment

Architecture and  the built environment has continued as one of my major interests. A sad note first. Dreams of self-sufficiency - the Lammas Ecovillage has been one of the most popular posts on this blog in the last twelve months. Sadly, the hobbit house that featured burned down on New year's Day.

At the end of December my Armidale Express series on New England's built landscape and architecture came to an end after some sixteen columns. There was much more to say, but I thought that it was time for a break. I will bring up a post on the New England history blog providing an entry to all the columns in order and then post a link. For the present, I have created an entry point for the last four columns, The story of builder and philanthropist George F Nott, making it easier to access information on this remarkable man.

As an aside, one of the features I have noticed on the UK Grand Designs program is the importance placed on airtight houses to reduce heating costs and hence energy consumption. This included mandated rules and physical testing to ensure the house is airtight. Watching Grand Designs at a time I was writing on New England's architecture and built landscape, I was struck by the differences in perspective, between keeping heat in and Australia's desire to keep heat out. In pre-air conditioning days.this made things like breezeways, eaves and verandahs critical.

 I was therefore struck by a recent story suggesting that modern Australian air tight homes designed to be energy efficient were in fact having the opposite effect. The ABC headline captures the message: Modern homes trapping heat 'like a plastic bag".

Airbnb and similar platforms

My first post on the New England Australia blog this year, How new platforms such as Airbnb and Stayz might support New England development part 1, went in a different direction.

I have always been interested in the impact of new technologies. Most recently, the new communications and computing technologies seemed to hold out the promise of increased individual freedom, diversity and choice. To a degree they have gone in the opposite direction, encouraging centralisation, control, conformity and standardisation.

A particular effect that I have been concerned about is the impact on local activities. The vision was that the the new technologies would provide choice in location and lifestyle. You could work from wherever you wanted, access services from wherever you wanted, breaking the tyranny imposed by distance and travel costs. To a degree that has happened, but for every local job created dozens have been lost through service centralisation facilitated by the new technologies.

In a way, platforms such as Airbnb or Stayz are no different in that the markets they play to are driven by existing patterns. For everybody who knows Bingara, 100,000 plus know Byron Bay. Traffic and service supply are drawn to the existing bigger markets, reinforcing the status quo. .

All that said, I have recently spent time browsing round Airbnb listings for various New England centres. It started looking for specific places to stay but ended with a much extended and quite enjoyable browse. I was left with though that Airbnb or Stayz might actually be used as platforms to support tourist development outside the main tourist centres which automatically attract Airbnb or Stayz visitors. I want to tease this out in my second post in this series.

Update 17 January 2018

Map of Australia by Sean Ulm showing sea-level change and archaeological sites for selected periods between 35,000 and 8,000 years ago. PMSL=Present Mean Sea Level. 
Regular commenter on my history blog JohnB pointed me to this recently published paper on the historic pattern of climate change in Australia:Alan N. Williamsa, Sean Ulm, Tom Sapienzab, Stephen Lewis and Chris S.M. Turneya, Sea-level change and demography during the last glacial termination and early Holocene across the Australian continent, Quaternary Science Reviews Volume 182, 15 February 2018, Pages 144–154, published on line 12 January 2018. 

The authors provided a summary of the  paper in The Conversation, "Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before", January 16 2018. The map is from this paper.

While the authors' analysis of the past appears broadly consistent with my own analysis, there are a couple of elements that make me cautious I need to think this through and will write an analysis on my history blog when I have done so with a cross-link here. Meantime, I thought you might find the results interesting.