Society

Subtitled ‘Encounters with love, death and faith’, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Believer takes on big themes. In this work of creative non-fiction that combines memoir, journalism, and philosophical inquiry, Krasnostein details her meetings with people whose beliefs she finds unfathomable but whom she is driven to understand. Her own guiding faith on this journey is that ‘we are united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that separate us’.

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Open Minds: Academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia by Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone with Jade Roberts

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April 2021, no. 430

Across the Anglosphere, academic freedom is in crisis. That, at least, is the conclusion one draws from reading conservative newspapers and listening to right-wing politicians. Boris Johnson’s government, concerned about ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses’, recently announced plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ for British universities. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech on campus, describing it as a ‘historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege’. In February 2021, the Australian government amended higher education legislation to redefine academic freedom, amid shrill calls from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) about the ‘free speech crisis at Australia’s universities’.

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David Kemp, formerly professor of politics at Monash University and minister in the Howard government, has a fairly simple thesis about Australian politics in the years between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s. Put crudely, Australians were offered a choice between socialism and liberalism.

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A reviewer’s summary of this book’s first theme could be accused of political prejudice. That is one good reason for preferring its author’s summary:

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Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly & Sydney (Second Edition) by Delia Falconer

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March 2021, no. 429

Poor old Sydney. If it isn’t being described as crass and culturally superficial, it’s being condemned for allowing developers to obliterate whatever natural beauty it ever had. Is it doomed, will it survive, and if so, what kind of city is it likely to be?

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Late January 2021 brought a moment of anger and anguish for many liberal Australians. Margaret Court, the erstwhile tennis champion turned Pentecostal Christian preacher, had just received Australia’s top honour. Court may have won more grand slam tournaments than any other player, but her record cannot erase a history of derogatory comments about gay and transgender Australians. And yet, I wonder if most Australians didn’t just mentally check out of this latest chapter in a thirty-year kulturkampf over sexual identity. This is a country increasingly willing to live and let live – but not obsess – over such matters.

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Liz Byrski’s introduction to Women of a Certain Rage is, among other things, a homage to second-wave feminism and a lament that feminism, ‘originally a radical countercultural movement’, has been ‘distorted into a tool of neoliberalism’. While there is no doubt that strains of feminism have been co-opted by neoliberalism to debilitating effect, this narrative – that feminism has become ineffectual since the 1970s – is one that erases many contemporary feminisms, as well as broader feminism-informed political movements and the work that they have done and continue to do.

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Long before Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook, a company called Simulmatics Corporation sought to predict and control human behaviour through the analysis of big data. If Then tells the story of that company, from its humble beginnings in a tiny office on Madison Avenue to the hallways of political power in Washington, DC.

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Disaster movies tend to follow a similar arc. Our band of heroes not only has to survive flames engulfing the skyscraper or sea water flooding the cruise liner, but must also triumph over the calculated selfishness of others who are also scrambling for salvation. The implication is that, with few exceptions, Thomas Hobbes was right. Amid the upheaval of the English Civil War, Hobbes declared that our natural human condition is a war of all against all, and that order can only be secured by a powerful ruler, a Leviathan, that keeps our naked urges in check. The social contract of considerate behaviour and thoughtfulness towards others is a thin veneer. Under pressure it peels away, and we are soon at one another’s throats in a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

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A detailed timeline prefaces Fire Flood Plague. Stretching from September 2019 to September 2020, it charts events so momentous that Christos Tsiolkas describes them as being ‘imbued with an atavistic, Biblical solemnity’. Sophie Cunningham, the book’s editor, notes in her introduction that many of the contributors (herself included) have found themselves drafting their essays ‘once, twice, thrice, as we’ve progressed from bushfire and smoke-choked skies, to the early days of the pandemic … and into the exhaustion of what is becoming a marathon’.

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