Society

Tall Poppies is an addition to the literature of ‘women of achievement’. Susan Mitchell’s slim paperback, with its pretty cover photograph of Iceland poppies, is deliberately written in a ‘simple and conversational’ style because, she says, she wants to reach ‘as many people as possible’. But her audience is women only; this is a tract for our times. The nine tape recorded interviews with ‘successful’ women set out to celebrate what they have achieved in spite of the oppression of society, and to present inspiring ‘role models’ to women who read them. One wonders whether the effect will not be daunting rather than encouraging. Mary Breasley disclaims in a foreword that ‘the whole notion of women of achievement implies elitism’; but it must. These women have been picked out. We are asked, predictably, to notice their determination and persistence; but we can’t help seeing too their exceptional energy, talent, inventiveness and flexibility. And they are successful. Quite what this means is not considered. Most of the women have well-known names, they are women who ‘have the media on their backs’, as one of them, Beatrice Faust, says. Some are ‘Top Girls’, in Caryl Churchill’s phrase: they hold top jobs in the professions. But what constitutes success in that woman’s life who chooses to devote her energies to two (or more) goals: her family and her job? Women who don’t make it to the top are not necessarily failures, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick points out in her contributions to The Half-Open Door.

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On his first day at St Patrick’s, East Melbourne, Vincent Buckley was ‘flogged and flogged’ by a Jesuit priest in ‘an incompetent fury’. It is an experience that many of his readers will easily recognise, though their remembered lambastings were more likely to have been incurred at the hands of the Brothers and, unlike Buckley’s, would have been a continuing feature of school life. 

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In Conformity: The power of social influences, the renowned constitutional scholar Cass R. Sunstein acknowledges that social conformity can provide the glue to bind a society together. As he makes clear, there are many particular norms – legal or moral – that we would do well to follow for the sake of the common good. At the same time, he argues, conformity can facilitate atrocities, destroy creativity, drive out nuance, conceal valuable information, and crush free-thinking individuals.

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News deserts: A worrying portent for our democracy

Johanna Leggatt
Friday, 20 March 2020

During my first month as a trainee journalist at The Sun-Herald newspaper in Sydney, I went on strike. It was the year 2000, and the newspaper enjoyed a full roster of reporters and photographers dedicated solely to one edition each Sunday, yet even during this well-resourced period there were inklings of the headwinds to come. 

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On 15 March 2019, the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history took place at the Al-Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch. Fifty-one people were killed and forty-nine injured as they gathered for Friday prayers. Sickeningly, the gunman, Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed the event on Facebook. A manifesto written by Tarrant quickly surfaced, full of coded language and references best understood by the alt-right community on online platforms such as Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan. In court, as he waited for charges to be read out, Tarrant flashed the ‘okay’ signal, once an innocuous hand gesture, now transformed by the culture of the alt-right into a symbol of white supremacy.

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Suzy Freeman-Greene reviews 'Beauty' by Bri Lee

Suzy Freeman-Greene
Monday, 16 December 2019

My local shopping centre has seven nail bars, two waxing salons, and a brow bar. A cosmetic surgery clinic touts ‘facial line softening’ and ‘hydra facials’. A laser skin clinic offers cosmetic injections. Three other beauty temples offer ‘cool sculpting’, ‘eyelash perms’, and ‘light therapy’ for skin. I live in a gentrified, working-class suburb in Melbourne’s inner west. I’ve never set foot in these beauty shops, but they’re replicating like cells.

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It was what Lawrence Durrell described as ‘the flickering of steel rails over the arterial systems of Europe’s body’ that steadily transformed nineteenth-century Europe into a cultural and social unity that would last until the outbreak of World War I. Not everyone was happy about this. Rossini, who was terrified of trains, stuck to coach travel, while others, including the German poet Heinrich Heine, took a sort of reverse-Brexit view, writing: ‘I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries are advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea breakers are rolling against my door.’

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In Future Proof, Jon Coaffee, professor in urban geography at the University of Warwick, asks readers to imagine ‘a typical day’: radio reports of an impending cyclone; public-transport posters encouraging the reporting of ‘suspicious activity’; the path to an office (especially in a CBD) protected by hostile-vehicle-mitigation bollards. At work, computer systems will be tested for security from cyber attacks. The train home will be delayed due to a network complication, and the evening’s television will show the cyclone’s impact, discussing the relative ineffectiveness of hazard mitigation.

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Cass Sunstein, a noted American constitutional scholar, once lamented: ‘The notion that the government may control information at its source is at odds with the idea that the purpose of a system of free expression is to control the conduct of representatives.’ In a liberal democracy – supposedly of the people, by the people, for the people – political opacity is inconsistent with the central premise of government.

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If it is the case that we can no longer avoid the effects of living under conditions of globalisation, then increasingly that spatial dimension governs our lives. Look not, therefore, deep into the history of our individual nations or localities to explain what is going on, but lift your eyes to the horizon, and beyond, where a devastated city may be smouldering. Within minutes, a local politician will be warning us that we may be next.

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