Society

Grandmothers are not what they used to be, as Elizabeth Jolley once said of custard tarts. It’s a point made by several contributors to Helen Elliott’s lively and thoughtfully curated collection of essays on the subject, Grandmothers, and it partly explains why these two books are not as similar as you might expect.

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Spare a thought for the other existential crises. Remember climate change? Wealth inequality? The rising tide of fascism? Then there’s our newest apocalypse: bad technology. When we look back, the three years from late 2016 to early 2020 will go down as the time the scales fell from our eyes. Maybe the devices we have insinuated into nearly every moment of our lives had their own aims for us all along – our time, our attention, our outrage. In 2018, the runner-up for the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘techlash’: ‘A strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley.’

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John Keane is Australia’s leading scholar of democracy, with work that demonstrates an impressive command of global sources. Keane’s most widely cited book, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), included new research on the origins of public assemblies in India many centuries before the familiar democracy of Greek city-states. Keane located the origins of democracy in non-European traditions, in part by tracing the linguistic origins of the concept.

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I was operating when it arrived. Between patients I read the email hastily. It concerned an article from surgeons at Stanford University. Along with colleagues in the United States, Italy, China, and Iran, they were reporting an increased risk of death from Covid-19 among otolaryngologists, neurosurgeons – and ophthalmologists, like me. Surgery around the nasal passages or other mucous membranes of the face seemed to release a potentially lethal aerosolised load of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Among the casualties were surgeons in their thirties.

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Whistleblowing has a long history. The Ancient Greeks had a term for it: parrhēsia, or fearless speech. In the seventh century, a British king introduced the world’s first whistleblowing law, encouraging his citizens to report those who worked on the Sabbath. Ever since the phrase ‘whistleblower’ was coined in the 1970s, the concept has gained renewed salience. In an era of widespread fraud and corruption, those prepared to speak up perform an essential service to society.

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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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