Monthly Archives: October 2012

Talking to Asia in the 19th and 21st Centuries

The response to the new white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, just released by the federal government, has been underwhelming to say the least.  Which is a pity.

There’s little doubt that the 21st century belongs to Asia (however that murky geographic concept is defined), and most of the recommendations of Ken Henry’s panel seem worthy, if uncosted.  During the next century, most of the world’s middle class will be Asian, and Australia naturally wants to tap in – in trade, education, tourism and cultural exchange.

So far, so motherhood.  But one issue the report raised, and the PM emphasised in launching the report, has come in for a lot of criticism.  “All students will have continuous access to a priority Asian language – Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese.”

Over the years there have other attempts to persuade our Anglophone kids to knuckle down and learn an Asian language, but apart from a few ambitious nerds (Kevin Rudd, anyone?) most high school students baulk at the difficulties, especially when their matriculation results depend on how they go in a variety of subjects.  Dean Ashenden nails the problem here – and goes on to point out that

To the extent that we do need Asian-language speakers for business or other purposes, why on earth get schools to produce them?  We’ve already got them.

According to the census, we have 330,000 Mandarin speakers, 111,000 Hindi, 56,000 Indonesian, 44,000 Japanese, 80,000 Korean, 233,000 Vietnamese and 37,000 Thai.

But if teaching the next generation Asian languages is a flawed endeavour, how did earlier generations of English-speakers deal with the problem of talking to Asia?

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Should the European Union have won the Nobel Peace Prize?

Within a day of the award being announced, I was hearing jokes about the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize going to the European Union.  Could they use the prize money to bail out Greece?  How would they stop arguing long enough to choose someone to accept the prize on their behalf?  And the killer, an acceptance speech that begins:

Firstly, I would like to thank Adolf Hitler, without which none of this would have been possible.

The Nobel Peace Prize is often contentious.  For every Aung San Suu Kyi or Desmond Tutu, there is a Henry Kissinger or Yasser Arafat.  The Committee often uses the prize to try to tweak current events, because its prestige lends clout to the recipient – Jose Ramos-Horta, for instance, became much more widely recognized as a result of winning the prize, and this probably helped the cause of East Timorese independence.  But the risk is that it’s hard to pick winners before they have done anything: Barack Obama got the prize for not being George W. Bush.

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Gender Wars

During the 1990s, I spent a lot of time researching the world of ‘first wave feminism’ for a biography of a woman called Maria Rye.  Maria was one of a number of middle class women who come together to campaign for women’s issues in the 1850s.  They started a club at Langham Place in London, published the English Woman’s Journal, and lobbied for improvements in women’s conditions: better employment opportunities, property rights for married women, access to higher education, and the right to vote.

The Langham Place group were gradualists; they didn’t throw themselves in front of horses or go on hunger strike, but argued their case rationally through public forums, petitions and the press.  There’s an essay on them on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website, for those with access to the site (outside the UK, it is only available to subscribers).

One of their leaders was Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925).  Bessie’s father, Joseph Parkes, was the editor of the London Morning Chronicle and an ‘election agent’ for the Liberal Party – essentially a political fixer.  Like most men, he loved his strong willed daughter – but he was not a feminist.  His letters to her, now in the Bessie Rayner Parkes collection in Girton College, Cambridge, are wonderful: juicy with political gossip, lively accounts of a happy father-daughter relationship.  He treated her as his intellectual equal, supported her in many of her campaigns – but he drew the line at political equality for women.

I can’t find my notes from nearly 20 years ago, so I can only summarise, but the gist of his concern was to warn Bessie not to go too far on the path to equality because, he said, ‘You don’t realise how much men hate women.’  Decent men protected and cherished women, he said, as long as they stayed outside the public sphere, but if they ventured into it, those constraints of decency would fall away, and men would make women the objects of their hatred.

In a week when the Taliban in Pakistan have shot a 14-year-old girl because she wanted an education, it’s important to calibrate levels of misogyny.  But in terms of civil and legal status, the position of women in 1850s Britain was not greatly different from that of women in the Swat Valley today.

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Political Partners

In June 1951, Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition, had a massive heart attack in his rooms at the Hotel Kurrajong.  The Hotel Kurrajong was essentially an up-market boarding house, built at a time when Canberra was still a country town without many places for its floating population of politicians and public servants to stay.  Chifley was moved to Canberra Hospital, but died later that night.  He was 65.

L. F. (Fin) Crisp was the professor of political science at Canberra University College.  He was working on The Australian Federal Labour Party, 1901-1951 (1955), and was fascinated by the story of Chifley, self-educated and rising from extreme poverty in the 1890s to become an engine driver, then a union leader, and finally Prime Minister.  Crisp was already gathering materials for Ben Chifley: a biography (1961).

Crisp knew that a lot of papers dealing with Chifley’s early union and political work must be in Bathurst, where Ben and his wife Elizabeth still lived in the house they were given as a wedding present by her parents, back in 1912.  Crisp desperately wanted to look at this material, but he didn’t want to impose on a grieving widow, so he waited a week before he arrived at the Bathurst home.

He was already too late.  During that week, Elizabeth Chifley had burned all her husband’s papers.  According to the story I was told many years later (and which I freely admit, was by then well polished) the smoke was still rising from the backyard incinerator when he arrived at the front door.

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How will we write history when the data disappears?

Like a lot of people at present, I imagine, I have a little red dot hovering over Settings on my iPad and iPhone, inviting me to download an upgrade.  Despite the lure of little red dots, I’m ignoring it, because the upgrade would mean replacing my Google Maps app, which is fine, with Apple’s own Maps – which is apparently hilariously bad.

This is fine in the short term, just irritating – but what about the long term?  What about all the stuff – content, programs, operating systems, a perfectly good Google Maps app – that disappears?

‘Our online history is disappearing at an astonishing rate, creating a black hole for future historians,’ says Tom Chatfield on the BBC Futures program.  He gives examples from last year’s revolution in Egypt – photos, tweets, blog posts – that have just disappeared in the last year.  Chatfield points out the irony that it’s now possible to read online virtually any book or pamphlet printed during the 17th century English Civil War – but not similar communications from last year’s Arab Spring.

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