Saturday, October 20, 2007

O is for Orwell

Hobbit women are often named after plants and flowers, says Tolkien in the LOTR Appendices, and it was vague memories of Keep the Aspidistra Flying that led me to name my hobbit rogue Aspidistra, was back in 1991. While young her nose had been cut off by a mage looking for spell components, but eventually she managed to source a golden one. In LOTR Online, you cannot make up characters with no noses, but I have reconstituted an Aspidistra:

Figure 1: Aspidistra under the constellation Menelvagor

‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps towards it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record about one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.’ – George Orwell

On November 24th, I expect Labor shall win the federal election. The sudden convergence of policy on everything between the two parties is in one way disappointing, but in another way is a refreshing sign that our country is more or less sane. It would be much worse if the two sides were being dragged along by their lunatic fringes, which seems to be the case in certain other English-speaking countries.

The public pronouncements of Rudd have tracked ‘right’ on Iraq to such an extent that I think it will make absolutely no difference to the U.S. alliance which party wins. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister has tracked ‘left’ on Anthropogenic Global Warming to such an extent that he is no better than Labor. He has also frightened me by promising to enshrine ‘Some Australians are more equal than others’ in the constitution, and I am irritated by the prospect of him handing over to Costello because I know this would mean another time-wasting constitutional debate.
I don’t expect I shall mind Labor winning overmuch, given this convergence. A Labor government will provide a good opportunity for people to remember that mandatory detention of asylum seekers, gutting higher education, and privatising everything that stands still long enough to slap a price tag on it were policies initiated by the last lot of federal Labor governments.

I have read fewer of Orwell’s essays than I ought, but the ones I have read say something clearly and logically, and the something that they say is always sane, and usually something I can agree with. This is unlike any essays that are written in newspapers or magazines nowadays. Even this celebrated fragment has a good deal of truth in it, and an important message for me to remember:

‘Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.’

The protagonist in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, whose name escapes me, has an attitude to birth control which one now expects to find only among extreme religious believers. I am pretty sure from things I have read elsewhere that Orwell shared this opinion. In fact, from where I stand now the similarities between Orwell and Chesterton are far more important than the differences.

I was reading 1984 after school on the afternoon when my sister was being born, and my maths teacher walked by, not knowing my sister was being born just then, and said ‘Big Brother!’.

This is included as an example of an anecdote that has no point.

The only longer work of Orwell’s that I have read and re-read is Animal Farm. In the introduction to the edition I have it suggests that the subtitle ‘A Fairy Story’ relates to the arbitrary nature of success in fairy tales. In fairy tales, there is often no logic to choosing a successful course of action. Anyone may succeed in a fairy tale, no matter how unpromising their beginnings, but for everyone who succeeds hundreds fail. Think of all those knights who try and fail to rescue the princess, leaving their bones to litter the landscape, before the hero succeeds for some arbitrary reason.

Chesterton makes a similar point on the arbitrary nature of morality in fairy tales. In fairy tales, there is often no logic to what is stated to be good or bad. Happiness hangs by an irrational thread. Chesterton shoehorns the arbitrary nature of fairy tale morality into an argument that fairy tales are moral after all.

But I am not entirely convinced.

I have a bad habit of not paying enough attention to things. And I rarely forget instances when I have been stupid. (This is why I keep getting ‘Running out of memory’ errors). So I can remember my father showing me something with the quote ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ on it and me breezily, stupidly, saying that I had seen it before. Of course my father would not show me something that was not worth looking at. It had been misquoted as ‘All people are equal, but some are more equal than others’. It had been misattributed, to- I think- ‘Animal House’ rather than ‘Animal Farm’-and it had been, worst of all, cited approvingly to illustrate the importance of education, since by education we could be one of those animals who are more equal than the other ones!

I have felt very bad about not paying attention at that moment ever since. I’m sorry, dad. :(

This is included as an example of an anecdote that has a point.


Marco said...

Re: Election. I am fighting a lonely political argument still. The Howard government has unwittingly taken away the biggest advantage small businesses had over medium-large businesses. AWA's have advantaged businesses (and their employees) with a functioning beaurocracy outside the scope of most small business. Thus, they have been able to offer higher wages to employees at a lower risk than can small enterprises. This has bled the best employees from small businesses and they have also lost their comparative flexibility advantages. The only way to reverse this situation is to wreak havoc on the economy to push up unemployment. This will restore small enterprises' comparative advantages (at other people's expense). The only way this can happen is with a Rudd government. This is why I am voting Labor and I urge you to do the same.

Dr. Clam said...

Aren't you be a little disingeneous, since you have said before that the changes to unfair dismissal laws have been good for small business? If Labor rollback the one, surely they will roll back the other. If you are going to reject the government for imposing inequitable demands on small business, you should have done so a long time back- note my subtle use of the word 'rollback' in the last sentence.

Tangentially, I am peeved at Rudd's education tax incentive scheme, as it is yet another piece of middle-class welfare making the tax system more complicated and placing highly disorganised people such as myself at a comparative disadvantage. I spend a lot of money on work-related activities, for instance, but never claim anything back in tax because I can't trust myself not to lose the receipts. He should put the money into schools, or into raising the tax free threshold.

Now, if he was promising to axe government funding to private schools, or axe the GST and return revenue-raising powers to the States, or if he just presented a list of some of the many excess useless laws introduced by this lawyer-dominated government in the past ten years he was going to axe before he thought about introducing new ones, then I would be on his bus quicker than you can say: "Von der Tweed bis an der Torres, von Fraserinseln bis Simpsonwuste, Queensland, Queensland, uber alles, uber alles in der Welt."

Dave said...

Marco - pragmatic cynicism? I don't think I've seen that particular political stance so clearly demonstrated.

For what it's worth, I agree with Clam that the (likely) Rudd Government will be much the same as the (improbable, especially after the poor showing in last night's debate) continued Howard reign.

The one substantive difference I feel I can realistically hope for from a Rudd government is a return of Ministerial accountability, implementation of a functional Freedom of Information policy and independence of the public service, all of which have been severely attentuated in the last decade. Oh, and possibly just a *little* less waste of public money on government advertising.

I can't expect much, but a little more dignity and integrity is not much to ask.

Jenny said...

I'm coming over to the opinion that it doesn't matter which party you vote for, as long as you manipulate your voting such that you live in a marginal seat. Marginal seats get more money poured into them (usually for infrastructure or roads) in the hope of either swinging them or making them safe seats. Keep it marginal, keep the money coming in.

Marco said...

ReAren't you be a little disingeneous, since you have said before that the changes to unfair dismissal laws have been good for small business?
That is not what I said. I said that changes to unfair dismissal laws have reduced unemployment. This is bad for my small business that requires a pool of qualified unemployed, eager to work. This is what I actually said:
However, as an employer, therefore, it is an advantage for our business for there to be unfair dismissal protections. This is because all our competitors are disproportionately conservative, giving us real opportunities for growth. There are also a reasonable number of qualified unemployed, with other employers being this cautious....

It is those small businesses that were overly cautious with employment that gained confidence with the changes. This does not translate to small businesses making more money, especially ours. That (The workchoices policy) which is good for Australia's economy as a whole, is working very poorly for my balance of payments, you see.

Dr. Clam said...

Aha, sorry, I thought you did claim before that the change in unfair dismissal laws were good for small business in general, only bad for yours. I still don't follow your argument that they have not been good for small businesses in general.

So, basically it boils down to you want us to vote for the outcome that is best for you, regardless of the effect on the country? What sort of bribes are you offering?
(Though more unemployment would also be good for me- More school leavers with no job prospects = more uni students = more funding.)

Marco said...

If "blinkered optimism" = "good", I would agree with you. The point is that there has been greater activity and optimism within small businesses with the changes of unfair dismissal legislation. Competition between growth-seeking small businesses for good employees not only neutralises any profit advantage, it reverses it. This big "investment" in human resources cuts heavily into the bottom line. Employees have woken up to this and are either naming their preferred job, or naming their price. The perceived legal risk has been replaced by a hiring/headhunting premium. I would offer a bribe, but as with other small business managers, I am flat stoney broke :) My only hope is that the centre left voters decide that they would forgo higher wages for a (perceived) reduced risk of being fired when they find and hold a job they like.

Marco said...

An exercise for the political scientist wannabe. How does the electoral math in Australia differ from that in the US?, and what does that mean in terms of
a)Single-issue groups and
b) marginal electorates in these countries?

Dr. Clam said...

Hmm, me comment seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Or not.
Here's an illustration of legislative district shenanigans in the US.

Dr. Clam said...

It's just as well the comment was eaten, because I have a better one:

*Preferential voting and proportional voting in the senate makes minor and single-issue groups not associated with a major political party much more important and successful in Australia. Third parties can play a constructive role,not just act as spoilers to cause civil wars. If there had been just one Democrat candidate in 1860 , that extremist yokel would never have gotten in with 39.8% of the vote.(Australia wins!)

*On the other hand, compulsory voting reduces the importance of single-issue groups associated with major political parties, which are valued in the US because they can get out the voter base. This means single-issue groups have less influence on the policies of the major parties here, and the parties better reflect the mainstream. (Australia wins again!)

* Finally, the US has been comprehensively gerrymandered on the state and federal level so that there are very few marginal seats, and parties can concentrate their resources even more disproportionately. (Australia, once again, wins!)

From this I draw the conclusion that instead of trying to change system with stupid constitutional referendum, we should be encouraging the US to adopt our system. We can pick Hawaii off pretty easily as state #7, and once we have taught the to play proper forms of football we can annex the West Coast as states #8,#9, #10, #11. We could get rid of the federation star and put a representation of Coma Berenices in the top right of the flag to represent the New Far Northern states. This will make more sense than building nuclear reactors in Australia, because they already have nuclear reactors in California.

Marco said...

Just to repeat - we've got to annex all those Pacific Island states somehow, including Hawaii. It really should have been in our free trade negotiations with the US. "Your condition to drop all tariffs? - we give you some Islands???"