Friday, December 21, 2012

“Not a racist”

I have mentioned before, I think, that my father – born in the 1920s – was a creature of his time, who tried as long as he could to change. His views were set hard, but I had the good fortune that he didn’t teach them to me.

In the 1980s, Japanese tourists in Katoomba might ask him for directions to Echo Point, politely and with hand-clasped bows. It would make him weep: "I might have killed their grandfather!" (He was on board ship in the pre-atomic-bomb bombardments of Tokyo).

And: he understood symbols.

He was a civil engineer, and if you look at Australia Square, shop in Bankstown Square or Carlingford Court or Penrith Plaza, his fingerprints remain.

He also served in the Royal Navy in World War Two – as a good Aussie, but Australia didn’t have enough ships, so some of our Navy volunteers were placed on English ships.

Enough. This is a story about racism, not World War Two.

When Oxford Square – corner Riley and Oxford Streets – opened, Stanley Chirgwin conceived an idea that was odd at the time. He somehow conducted a census of workers on the site, and worked out their nationality.

For the opening, he decided that every country represented on the site should see its flag flying (and the hardest to obtain was the Dutch flag, amusing since the building was in the hands of Civil & Civic, then owned by a Dutchman, Dick Dusseldorp, “Duss” in our household).

Asian flags weren’t excluded – even though my father “fought the Japanese”. His idea, in spite of an old-style Aussie racism that died hard, was inclusive. Every flag had its place.

Oh, and by the way, the Hurstville he grew up in had its fair share of Chinese market gardeners in the 1920s and 1930s, because that was the Sydney of the time.

So: when the @WeAreAustralia Twitter account makes this complaint:

“I do live in Hurstville and I think it's turning into a bit of an Asian ghetto.”

… I call bullshit and racism.

Let’s see.

My first Asian work colleague crossed my path in about 1982, and dammit, he’s good management material in a telecommunications carrier and I’m a hack! (Well done, Nguyen!)

In the subsequent 30 years, Asia has been part of my Australia.

And what have I learned in those 30 years, apart from food?

We’re all people. Really. Superficial distinctions don’t matter a damn. Asians visiting Australia as far back as the 1970s were willing to forget World War II and ask Australians for directions.

Anyone who thinks there’s a meaningful distinction that needs a lament is a sad individual.

And as for Hurstville? It wasn’t pure merino in the 1920s: why should it be now?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Government wants to mine your data, for your own good of course

If I remember my Nietzsche correctly, which I might not, one paraphrase of an aphorism runs “’for your own good’ is an expression of the will to power”.

That’s apposite in the flood of “for your good” stories that surround the world of so-called “big data”. Including this one:  from Peter Martin, writing for Fairfax.

There’s a good reason that Peter Martin is no Ross Gittins: Martin is so easily blinded by the light, as he has been in this profile piece. In the name of “your own good”, Kim Carr – whose ministerial duties have been whittled down (presumably because nobody wants anyone like him to be the smartest person in the room), has discovered A Cause: Big Data in the Service of Citizens.

For a start, I’m wary of powerful people with catch-phrasey causes. I do sling personal money at causes from time to time, even if people who know me may consider the Rural Fire Service and SES to be merely self-interest. But when someone with a position of power gets fired up, I worry, because they downplay downsides.

Identifying the downsides is one of the handful of roles that journalists can still rightly claim: “Here’s someone with A Plan: what’s wrong with it?” is one of the most legitimate questions any journalist can ask.

Peter Martin fails.

The gist of the Fairfax story is that Big Data will let governments do a better job of identifying those who need help, before they ask for it.

I can’t argue with the idea that people need help. Without the Australian health system, my wife would now be dead AND I would be bankrupt. An American friend of mine, watching our progress through a serious, severe and chronic immune-system disorder that needs ongoing chemo and has required three surgeons this year (one involving replacing about 40 cm of artery), tells me we long ago passed the million-dollar-patient mark, were we in America.

But mining their interactions with government?

A thousand times no.

Prove to me that Senator Carr has only the purest motives; prove to me that no Australian government in my lifetime could ever have motives other than Senator Carr’s; demonstrate that his ideas will save lives or families; I will still say no.

It’s not only the Philip K Dick “pre-crime” associations that the idea brings. It’s a simple matter of corruption.

There is no way on earth that the Senator, the government, or all the functionaries employed to protect the data, can guarantee it against misuse. Anybody needs only to see the information on a screen, and they have a lever to use against an individual.

Some of them will.

And there’s no way to guarantee that the future of Commonwealth data mining will be benign – because agencies like the Tax Office are helplessly in love with Number 5’s statement: “More data! I need more data!”

And it’s always with the excuse “for your own good” – as it is in the Peter Martin article.

Nietzsche was mad, possibly syphilitic, and certainly contributed to a world view that is odious in the modern world. He was crap as a physician of the psyche, but very good as a diagnostician.

“For your own good” is merely a way to exercise power. It's the price, to descend into the scatological, for which your arse is sold. Ask yourself: is the lube worth the pain?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remember Smith’s Weekly? (I don’t): the lesson for “player journalism”

While I endorse much of what Drag0nista says in this blog post, I disagree with one piece of her argument: that the player journalist looks like a recent development.

Somewhere in this book-burdened household, in which nearly two dozen shelves groan and the books that don’t fit sit on stacks on floors or tables, there is a book called “Remember Smith’s Weekly?” It’s a chronicle of the rise and fall of a patriotic tabloid of mid-20th century Australia.

Among other things, it’s a rag that helped establish the Packer dynasty. But that’s not germane to this argument.

The chronicler in “Remember Smith’s Weekly” recounted its role as a player tabloid in a much more racist pre-war Australia, campaigning against Jews. I recall a cartoon whose captions read:

“May I remove my bicycle before we burn the shop, father?”

“No, son! We must be honest!”

…which was a typical racist “Jews as insurance fraudsters”

The historian telling the tale, one G Blackie of whom I know little, considered the anti-Jew campaigning of Smith’s Weekly to be important in its downfall: its attitudes were hateful during the lead-up to World War II, and during the War.

But it retained some shred of integrity: when the horror of the Holocaust emerged, Smith’s Weekly retracted.

That retraction put the magazine on the skids, and in 1950, it closed.

Pre-war, Smith’s – like many organs today – was a player. Its favoured venue was the immigration debate, its obsession “keep out Jews”. And its lessons are drear.

If you admit error, you alienate readers, and die.

What does this tell us about today’s “player journalists”? – the ones who believe their commentary agendas are right in spite of any evidence that they’re wrong?

Their bosses have learned Smith’s lesson. Never stop, never pull back, never retreat a step. If you do, the readers that believed you last week will hate you, and leave.

The problem for publishing, an activity distinct from journalism, is this: when you’re constantly acting like a complete idiot in public, your responses to a reader exodus are limited.

Look back at Smith’s: one part of its readership started drifting away when they resented its attitudes; the rest drifted away when it admitted to undeniable facts.

And now look at the vice that Fairfax and News have devised for themselves: on the one hand, readers departing because they resent the denial of facts; on the other, the inevitable loss of readers when facts will no longer be denied.

It’s a vice unique to the “player”. If you merely write facts, you won’t be burned this way. It’s when you decide that you no longer want the world of reality-based constructs, but want to – as a journalist – create your own reality, that the bill arrives, and you find that you can’t pay it.

Remember Smith’s Weekly?

The only way a journalist can RISK becoming a "player" is to know that ALL his/her facts are right. Because the player-proved-wrong is merely a dupe of others.