Society

How effective is a voice of reason in a climate of fear? In his introduction to this book, Professor Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University says that he is ‘incorrigibly optimistic’ about the role of education in assisting us to make wise decisions about our future. Over the past twenty years, he has written twelve books, including A Big Fix: Radical solutions for Australia’s environmental crisis (2005) and Living in the Hothouse: How global warming affects Australia (2005), forty-five book chapters, more than thirty journal articles and six hundred columns for various publications. That work has been written for the general public, not just the scientific community.

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When Malcom Fraser was prime minister, he was generally thought of as a hard and ruthless man of the right. In part this was because of the role he played in the removal of Gough Whitlam; in part because of his fiscal prudence; in part because of his orthodox Cold War foreign policy. Following his defeat in 1983, an alternative picture of Fraser gradually emerged. Under Labor, Australia embarked upon a program of economic rationalist reform. For his failure to anticipate this programme – to be wise or, as some would say, unwise before the event – Fraser was caricatured, especially by his former political friends, as a do-nothing prime minister. His time in office was ridiculed as Seven Wasted Years. After 1996 Fraser became one of the most influential critics of John Howard’s new brand of populist conservatism. The portrait of him was once more redrawn. The left saw him as a principled humanitarian; the right as an incorrigible Wet.

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In 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that ‘gay rights are human rights’. This statement, which would seem uncontroversial to most readers of ABR, was widely attacked as a symbol of Western neo-colonialism. Combined with the 2015 US Supreme Court recognition of same-sex marriage, gay rights were seen by many religious and political leaders as a threat to tradition, culture, and religion, even when, as in many parts of Africa and the Pacific, laws proscribing homosexual behaviour are the legacy of nineteenth-century colonialism.

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It began with a request to overturn a controversial bill that would have allowed people to be extradited to mainland China. According to the bill’s many detractors, this was but the latest example of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. By June 2019, millions of Hong Kong’s residents had taken to the streets. August saw sit-ins at Hong Kong’s International Airport, and by October clashes between police and protestors were characterised by violence and chaos – tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, and prosecutions, the norm. This was summer in Hong Kong, a city dominated by increasingly violent upheaval with the world watching on.

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It is curious the way certain books can insinuate themselves into your consciousness. I am not necessarily talking about favourite books, or formative ones that evoke a particular time and place, but those stray books that seem to have been acquired almost inadvertently (all bibliophiles possess such volumes, I’m sure), and taken up without any particular expectations, books that have something intriguing about them that keeps drawing you back.

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What could be more timely than an argument for the humanities? They are poorly served in our schools and universities, and badly need champions. Martha Nussbaum, a distinguished philosopher at the University of Chicago, is well placed to affirm their importance. I read her book with eager anticipation and mounting disappointment.

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During the lead-up to the 2008 United States presidential election, I found myself waiting for a train at the Princeton railway station with nothing to read. I picked up a copy of the student newspaper. Much of it was standard Bush bashing, intermingled with unrealistic expectations of what Obama might achieve. But one sentence in an editorial caught my eye: ‘It is time to end amateur hour at the White House.’ One of the great failings of George W. Bush’s presidency was the neglect of expert advice on the complex issues that faced America during his two terms. Ideology, prejudice and vested interests trumped properly informed judgements based on good research.

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Imagining Australia collects nineteen essays from a 2002 conference on Australian literature and culture at Harvard University. Of course, as the proceedings of a conference, it is on occasion hard work. There is something about conferences – the dedication of their audiences, perhaps, or the vulnerability of their speakers – that encourages a somewhat defensive formality. That said, almost every essay in this collection repays a reader’s investment with interest: in describing the history of Australian literary journals; offering a new direction for Australian pastoral poetry; providing surprising perspectives on popular Australian myths; or looking at how contemporary poets use form.

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The way we organise our deaths offers insight into the meanings and significances we attribute to life. The sidelining of organised religion has allowed Australians to voice our own ideas about the muddles of existence through the choice of music for funerals. The regularity with which ‘I did it my way’ is heard at wakes is a reminder of how much more pertinent that song is for individuality than are newspaper columns by Bettina Arndt or Hugh Mackay, still less from Andrea Dworkin or the late Christopher Lasch.

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All authors who are releasing new books during the global pandemic are at a disadvantage, but some less so than others. It helps to have a title that speaks to the moment, which The Better Half, with its central thesis that women are ‘genetically privileged’, certainly does. The coronavirus, we have learnt, tends to affect men more severely than women. Some have attributed the discrepancy to men being more likely to engage in risk-taking or health-compromising behaviours, while other experts have advanced a genetic explanation.

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