Bunnies vs bilbies

In Australia, as Easter approaches, the big question is: Bunny or Bilby? To give as fair and balanced a presentation as possible of the main issues, the rabbit is a voracious alien pest[1] marketed in chocolate form by greedy multinationals, while the bilby is an appealing, and endangered, native marsupial made available for Easter celebration by public spirited Australians, helping to raise both awareness and much-needed funds. We report, you decide.

fn1. Matched only by the fox

Word for Wednesday: contrarian

At the suggestion of James Farrell, I’m reviving this regular feature, beginning with a word I’ve used critically on a couple of recent occasions. The following is an extract from my review of Cristopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian You can read the whole thing, including a review of Mark Lilla’s Misadventures of Reckless Minds here

Of all the awkward squad, none is more awkward than Christopher Hitchens. His recent Letters to a Young Contrarian sets out his credo

Hitchens reflects both the best and the worst of the Socratic gadfly. On the one hand, there is the temptation to cynical sneering and the desire to epater le bourgeois. It is almost impossible for a contrarian to avoid this temptation completely, particular since it is often necessary to treat the conventional wisdom with derision. Hitchens himself concedes that he is particularly prone to this vice, noting that ‘a beloved friend once confided to me that my lip — I think he said the upper one — often has a ludicrious and sneering look, and my wife added that it takes on this appearance just when I seem to be least aware of it’. This unattractive tendency also mars the writing of Gore Vidal, whose contribution to the blurb of Unacknowledged Legislators nominates Hitchens as his ‘successor, inheritor, dauphin or delfino.’. But anyone who contributes more to the public debate than reiteration of one of other of Orwell’s ‘smelly orthodoxies’ will recognise this fault in themselves to some extent or other.

A more serious version of the same fault is found in the tendency to pursue intellectual vendettas. One does not need to be an admirer of Bill Clinton to feel that Hitchens’ attacks on him (and Hillary) went way over the top. Clinton may have been venal and sleazy, but he was far from being America’s worst president and he ended up on the right side of most of the issues Hitchens cares about, notably including Bosnia and Kosovo.

On the other hand, the great Socratic virtue is the unwillingness to accept easy answers. Hitchens rightly denounces, for example, the evasions with which many supposed advocates of free speech responded to the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The same insistence on hard truths, is evident in a fascinating essay, originally presented as a Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, defending George Orwell against the attacks made on him Williams. Since Hitchens clearly admires both men, it would have been easy for him, not to mention his audience, to pass over this topic in a few sentences, and devote his time to aspects of Williams’ work for which he felt more sympathy.

The popularity in Australia and elsewhere of the term ‘pseudo-intellectual’ echoes the ancient frustration of the Athenian courts that condemned Socrates. Like the Athenian demos, the talkback commentators of today are aware that intellectuals are important, and are keen to find examples of the genus worthy of their respect. All that they want in return is that they should not be asked to think.

Socrates would have been a pain to live with, and it is difficult not to feel that his allegedly shrewish wife Xantippe had the worst of the bargain. Nevertheless, as these books show, we need Socratic gadflies to protect us both from bourgeois complacency and from the pretensions of Platonic philosopher-kings.

Coming out of this, I have a question as to the best collective term for critics of the global warming hypothesis. I used “sceptic” for a while, but decided it was inappropriate since, with a handful of exceptions, the people I’m talking about are anything but sceptical when it comes to anything that supports their preconceived views. Then I switched to “contrarian”, but that suffers from many of the same problems. I toyed with “denialist”, but that comes too close to a violation of Godwin’s Law for my liking. I suppose I could just say “critics of the global warming hypothesis”, but that seems clumsy and “global warming critics” means something else altogether. Any suggestions?

Happy hooker ?

I’ve been nominated as hooker for the Crooked Timber First (and only) XV .ct-lineout
So far my suggestions that we switch to Australian/Gaelic rules, consistent with the most prominent ethnicities in the group have been ignored, but I’m still hoping to be rover. But until that happens, I need some suggestions. With ten years as a columnist and two as a blogger behind me, I’m naturally familiar with the squirrel grip. But presumably there’s more to the position than that. Can anyone give me any advice?

A minor gloat

I hope readers will indulge me in a minor gloat regarding the defeat of Michael Lee, the Labor candidate for Lord Mayor of Sydney, despite rule changes designed by his mates in Sussex Street[1] to guarantee his success. Fortunately, the voters didn’t feel like being dictated to and went for Independent Clover Moore instead.

Lee wasn’t the worst Communications Minister in Australian history (no prizes for guessing who was), but he certainty didn’t cover himself with glory in this or any of the other ministerial positions he held. I crossed swords with him in the early 1990s over his claim that it was a good thing for Australian to have two (incomplete, but almost exactly duplicate) optical fibre cable networks, rather than one network with proper coverage – perhaps the high point of microeconomic reform-related stupidity in Australia. As far as I can tell his only qualification for public life is that he looks good in a suit, but that seems to be enough to ensure that his patrons keep on promoting him.

fn1. NSW Labor state headquarters and base of the rightwing machine ( the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ have little ideological significance in the ALP these days, so the word to focus on here is ‘machine’).

Birthday bash

The (slightly apocryphal) tradition in our dojo is that the birthday boy or girl gets to spar with everyone else in succession. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. In deference to my advanced years, however, we all did 48 squats at the end of the training session last night,

The Zarqawi scandal

As Richard Clarke’s unsurprising revelations continue to receive blanket coverage[1] around the blogosphere and elsewhere, I’ve been increasingly puzzled by the failure of the Zarqawi scandal to make a bigger stir. As far as I can determine, the following facts are undisputed

* Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of the group Ansar al-Islam is one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorists currently active. He is the prime suspect for both the Karbala and Madrid atrocities and the alleged author of a letter setting out al Qaeda’s strategy for jihad in Iraq. Although he has become increasingly prominent in the past year, he has been well-known as a terrorist for many years
* For some years, until March 2003, Ansar al-Islam was based primarily at Kirma in Northern Iraq, in part of the region of Iraq generally controlled by the Kurds and included in the no-fly zone enforced by the US and UK. In other words, the group was an easy target for either a US air attack, a land attack by some special forces and/or Kurdish militia or a combination of the two
* Nothing was done until the invasion of Iraq proper, by which time the group had fled

These facts alone would indicate a failure comparable in every way to the missed opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden before S11. But the reality appears to be far worse.
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