Robert van Krieken

Research, writing, translation

Robert van Krieken - Research, writing, translation

The revenge of the pseudo-event

Maybe now we’ll start taking celebrity seriously.

Donald J. Trump has snuck up on most of us, spending a lifetime building up his celebrity identity, refining Brand Trump, accumulating not just cash, but a huge pile of attention capital that he has cashed in at just the right time, when the discontents of globalisation reached fever pitch.

In looking for the historical origins of the Trump Republic, one could pick different starting points. George Monbiot, for example, thinks we should start with 1975, the year that Margaret Thatcher became leader of the British Conservative Party and declared her intellectual allegiance to the neoliberal economist, Friedrich Hayek. Another possibility, though, is 26 September 1960, the day of the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, and the beginning of a profound shift in how politicians, votes, and the mass media interact.

Trump has been described as a master of the pseudo-event, but what is a pseudo-event? The concept was introduced more than half a century ago by the American amateur historian, Daniel J. Boorstin. His book, The Image, originally had the subtitle “or Whatever happened to the American Dream” (in the 1992 edition it became “A Guide to Pseudo-Events”), which is significant because of Trump’s own claim to be breathing new life back into the American Dream.

It is worth taking a closer look at Boorstin’s arguments because they cast light on the deeper historical roots of Trumpism in the workings of the modern mass media, but also because the differences tell us a lot about what’s changed in the meantime, and how much more volatile and powerful the celebrity, as the human pseudo-event, is today than back in 1962.

Boorstin is best-known for his account of celebrities, who he described as ‘human pseudo-events’, entirely manufactured by public relations and the mass media, to be contrasted with genuine ‘heroes’ – someone who did ‘great’ things or displayed ‘great’ qualities. Once a celebrity entered public consciousness via some pseudo-event, they then became well-known just for being well-known, a formula that became popularized as ‘famous for being famous’.

Boorstin’s book had a broader focus, though, on the illusory character of American social and cultural life, on the influence of the mass media on how people think and feel. He thought it was important to distinguish between real, authentic, actual events, and the illusory, manufactured ‘pseudo-events’ – ‘publicity stunts’ – that had become so widely used by the mass media to manipulate public opinion in the course of the 20th century. Boorstin recognized Edward Bernays, who explained both how pseudo-events are manufactured and their place in modern politics and social relations, as probably the first important theorist of the central role of public relations in a complex, modern society. Unlike Bernays, however, he adopted a critical stance towards the ever-expanding role of public relations techniques, what would today be called ‘spin’.

The world created by public relations and advertising was so much more interesting, dramatic and consistently novel than reality. For Boorstin, the American people appeared to be hopelessly captured by that artificial world of fake images and characters, to a large extent because their insatiable hunger for ‘news’. Celebrity was a product of ‘the machinery of information’, but it was fed by the apparent desire among ordinary Americans to be ‘seduced’ by advertising.

He saw the historical origins of this characteristic of American society in ‘the Graphic Revolution’, by which he meant the period following the mid-nineteenth century, when there was a massive expansion in the capacity to create and disseminate images as well as information. There were, he wrote, increasingly ‘new machines to make accurate and attractive replicas of face, figure, and voice, of landscape and events, and by new machines to disseminate these images, by newspapers, magazines, cheap books, telephone, telegraph, phonograph, movies, radio, television.’

Boorstin identified PT Barnum as ‘perhaps the first modern master of the pseudo-event’, whose extravagant techniques as a showman had become a normal characteristic of American society. The machinery of information has only become more and more sophisticated and effective, and this increasingly powerful capacity to generate images, thought Boorstin, had actually transformed human perception and imagination, altering the general conception of truth and reality, with increasing emphasis placed on the representations or images of reality, becoming more and more independent of that reality itself.

This dynamic extended to individuals, so that the synthetic, celebrity person becomes more captivating than the real one, the hero, and the figures that populate our consciousness are increasingly ‘products’ of the Graphic Revolution. It’s important to note that the event which prompted Boorstin’s book was the first presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, and it was the role of television in Kennedy’s win in that election that he regarded as an important example of the pseudo-event’s hold on public consciousness. He felt that politics had become organised around images at the expense of ideals, and that political success had come to revolve around how well imagery was projected and manipulated.

There are a number of elements of Boorstin’s analysis of pseudo-events and celebrities in 1962 that are worth returning to in understanding what is and is not new about the dynamics of the world of Brand Trump today. The power of pseudo-events derives from what Boorstin called the ‘extravagant expectation’ of constant novelty, almost a desire to be sold some new idea or product, as long as it is new. The poisonous charm of the pseudo-event ‘tastes so sweet,’ he complained, that ‘it spoils our appetite for plain fact’. The world of pseudo-events was also founded on a desire to have feelings confirmed, rather than any concern with what was ‘true’ or ‘false’. ‘For everybody,’ Boorstin wrote, ‘it is more important that a statement be believable than that it is true.’ He also noted the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy, of how saying something often enough makes it, effectively, ‘true’. In effect Boorstin was suggesting we were already in a ‘post-truth’ society in 1962.

Without using the term ‘Chinese finger trap’, he noticed the same mechanism of marvellous circularity at play: the harder we try to unmask the pseudo-event, the more intriguing it becomes, and the more attention it attracts. This was why the fact-checking of Trump’s constant flow of untruths not only had no traction, but seemed to add to his appeal.

Even critiques of pseudo-events end up becoming pseudo-events themselves, the insatiable appetite of the PR apparatus knows no limits. ‘By the law of pseudo-events,’ he wrote, ‘all efforts at mass disenchantment themselves only embroider our illusions’. Boorstin’s own book is good example, in turn also becoming yet another product of the marketing machine. So, too, is Trump’s strategy: his claim to be authentic is itself the product of a long history of manufacturing his identity in the mass media, and organised around a constant flow of pseudo-events. As PT Barnum understood so well, the fact that it is trickery, and that people know it is, can only add to the appeal, if the performance is done right. Boorstin noted the multi-layered and self-enclosed complexity of the ways in which people’s relationship to reality was constructed through the mass media: ‘The citizen-consumer,’ he wrote, ‘enjoys the satisfaction of being at the same time the bewitched, the bewitcher and the detached student of witchcraft’.

Equally important, though, are the points where Boorstin’s analysis does not resonate all that well with what is happening today, where we can start to see what is genuinely new about the Trumpist world. To begin with, there is in any case a problem with the term ‘pseudo-event’ itself, because in suggesting an essential falseness, this also implied a certain lack of substance in the real world. But pseudo-events are very real, and real in their effects, so the concept of being ‘manufactured’ or ‘produced’ might be more useful.

Related to this, Boorstin saw the illusions of the world created by the mass media as a distraction from reality, a kind of opiate, rather than as a substitute for or an essential part of reality. This was why he devoted so much attention to celebrities in popular culture. But his own example of John F. Kennedy ought to have alerted him to what is wrong with this understanding, because the whole point was that the world of politics and government – the real world – had become organised around the production of images and illusions, that it was in fact becoming impossible to distinguish between an image on the one hand, and a genuine ideal on the other. At one point he spells out the character of ‘a peculiarly American menace’, describing is as ‘the menace of unreality’ and ‘the threat of nothingness’. In the process he distinguishes this menace from a number of other, excluding class war, ideology, poverty, demagoguery and tyranny.

What Trump signifies, however, is precisely a coalition of these menaces, so that the unreality of a Celebrity Apprentice President aligns itself with the ideology of the Tea Party, the class war between winners and losers of globalisation and the poverty accompanying that conflict, and the demagoguery of a President who sees America as just another Trump Organization. What has changed since 1962, and what Trump embodies, is the fact that new channels of connection have opened up between different categories of celebrity, in popular culture, the world of business, and politics, so that attention capital can be converted not just into either economic capital (Trump before 2015) or political capital (Bushes, Clintons, Obama), but into both at the same (Trump after 2015), and indeed into political power (Trump after 2016). The pseudo-event has suddenly become reality as well as illusion.

There are many things to be learned from the rise to power of Donald J. Trump. Even if studies in Trumpology is the only field of work where he does in fact create jobs, it will be a significant boost to the employment figures. The significance of Twitter for political communication and the links between processes of globalisation and authoritarianism are just the first two on the list. The historical roots run deeper still than 1960. Boorstin himself had already commented on the significance of radio in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932 in the shift from dealing with ‘the people’ to engaging with ‘public opinion’. You can hear the echoes of Trump’s twitter campaign in Boorstin’s comment on Roosevelt’s radio campaign, when he wrote in 1955, that ‘never before has it been so easy for a statesman to seem to lead millions while in reality tamely echoing their every shifting mood and inclination’. One could go back to 1851, when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France in 1851, for as Karl Marx observed in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in 1852, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup was executed in opposition to all the established political groups, the working class, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy, in alliance with the peasantry, the petit-bourgeoisie, and the lumpen-proletariat, similarly drawing on ‘bitter and witty invective’. But the implications of Boorstin’s account in The Image, in particular, adds a number of significant layers to the analysis.

Boorstin’s own conclusion about the purpose of his intervention into public debate, why we were not doomed to dissolve in a sea of ever-more seductive advertising, public relations ‘pseudo-events’ and meaningless celebrities, appeared at the end of the book. He suggested that if we are at least aware of the mechanics of PR and the artificial creation of pseudo-events, this could make it possible to make a clearer distinction between reality and illusion. Although he had undermined this idea himself in pointing out that being a student of enchantment was no barrier to enjoying and going along with enchantment, he also noticed that ‘pseudo-eventfulness’ did not always elicit a positive response, and that there can also be a yearning for authenticity and sincerity. Trump has shown how even this desire can itself be harnessed to his own pseudo-eventfulness, so there are no guarantees in that respect, but Boorstin’s analysis still provides a number of important insights into the rise of Trump.

First, it shows that, in terms of Boorstin’s original contrast between illusions and ideas at least, Trump as the PT Barnum of the 21st century cannot possibly embody the American Dream, and constitutes precisely its antithesis, the world of pseudo-events. Trump only narrowly won the election, Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote, so with just a little more focus on what was concerning voters in the rust-belt states, she’d probably be the President-elect. So although there’s been a lot of talk about a post-truth society, and it seems as though the fact-checking made no difference, I believe it did for many voters, and it will remain important in the future. We must not forget the PT Barnum principle: it is possible for people to know they are being sold a fake, but it does not always bother them that much, in fact they get a kick out of knowing it, so the problem becomes not how to expose the fakery, but how to address the pleasure people get from the show.

Second, Trump is not that new, he is drawing on characteristics of the role of mass media in politics that have been present at least from the introduction of television, arguably from the appearance of radio, and for Boorstin from the spread of mass-circulation newspapers in the mid-1900s, even if he is also taking things in new directions. When you think about it, the slogan ‘yes we can’ was no more meaningful than ‘make America great again’, so emotion and enchantment is clearly always going to be a large part of the process. If Donald Trump is a great salesman, that is clearly the game that we are in, and the challenge becomes how to outperform figures like Trump. The public relations theorists like Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman are basically correct in their understanding of how the public sphere works, so that opposition to pseudo-eventfulness requires a mastery as much as a critical understanding of its techniques.

Finally, and this is where we need to diverge, having learned from, Boorstin, it is important to recognize the enormous political potency of celebrity. Celebrity is not mere mindless diversion, or distracting illusions, under certain conditions its attention capital can be leveraged to link up with various other sorts of economic, social and political capital, to create a perfect storm of world-altering societal transformation. There are many other examples, all unique in their own way – Berlusconi and Hitler are two examples that spring to mind. It is important to remember, for example, that it was the media coverage of Hitler’s 1924 trial following his failed putsch which turned him a celebrity for right-wing nationalists, one of the factors launching his career as a political superstar.

The dominant perception was that the idea of a reality TV star and real-estate tycoon becoming President was a joke, but nobody’s laughing now Trump has understood and harnessed the forces running through the formation of collective consciousness that for too long have been treated as peripheral and trivial. If we do not understand the pseudo-event, we will only be at the mercy of those who do.

References
Bernays, E.L. (1928). Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How, American Journal of Sociology, 33(6): 958-971.
Boorstin, D.J. (1955). Selling the President to the People: The Direct Democracy of Public Relations, Commentary, 20: 421-7.
—. (1962), The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Atheneum.
—. (1992) The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Vintage

Mother, we never knew you

My mother, Lena van Krieken-Rens, passed away on 26 September 2016, at the age of 93. This was my eulogy for her at the memorial service on 4 October.

The time came for Mum to shuffle off this mortal coil Monday last week, after about a month of struggling, really, on the border between life and death. It was a much more ‘confronting’ process than it had been for Dad, because she was conscious in one way or another most of that time, and it turns out she was made of stern stuff. The nursing home staff were as surprised as I was at how resilient she remained. I suppose it’s possible to go less gently into that good night, but she was pretty impressive on that score nonetheless.

All during that time I was grieving for her passing, but I had to think about what I was actually mourning. It wasn’t her, really – for Mum it couldn’t have come any sooner, in fact she’d been ready to check out for quite some time. As Dad was lying asleep and dying in 2011, she said she felt envious of him, perhaps jealous, and many ways she’s been waiting on leaving this world ever since. That doesn’t capture all of how she’s been in the last 5 years, there were moments when she would recover much of her old, sociable self. She remained keen on her glass of wine until close to the end – I knew she was going seriously downhill when she no longer felt like a glass. She’d try, but wine just didn’t do it for her any longer. She loved going to the hairdresser, she’d always liked that, and thought the one around the corner was very classy. But like the wine, there came a time when she just couldn’t do even that anymore.

So she remained contradictory to the end, both tired of life, but still with a powerful survival instinct, unable to resist the siren call of her “party girl within”. When I look back over the photos and think about what she was like over the years, I think that she was possibly most comfortable as a party girl, and that this was what she missed most about the move from Hong Kong to Australia. That and having an Amah to do the housework!

She’d lost control over most of the basic elements of being a human being, and she hated that. So if being able to stop with this living business was actually a relief for her, if life wasn’t fun anymore, if I’m not sad for her, I must be sad for myself, and so the problem becomes figuring out what I’m actually grieving for. A few possibilities have run through my mind.

When your mother dies, especially when you’re not that young yourself anymore, it’s like losing your childhood in a particularly definitive way. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, because of course you’ve left it behind a long time ago, but somehow while your mother is still alive, it hasn’t entirely gone, it’s like she still preserves it in some way. It’s like wanting your parents to keep childhood things stored somewhere in their house, in the attic, the basement or the garage of one’s life, and being upset when you find that they’ve been disposed of. Of course it’s really a good thing to leave childish things behind, but ‘it’s complicated’.

There’s also a few Freudian points about your mother’s death. Freud thought that ultimately nobody believes in their own death, saying that ‘in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality’. There’s a part of us that simply doesn’t compute the passage of time, and certainly not the idea that it can come to an end. Even if we imagine our own death, we’re observing from the outside, rather than experiencing it happening to us. Watching Mum die over those four weeks, in addition to feeling empathy for her struggle between life and letting go, also confronted me with the reality that, sooner or later, I’ll be going through that process, and Freud would say that one of the things causing me distress was being confronted with my own morality. Another way of putting this – I can’t recall if it was Freud or one of his followers, or perhaps even Groucho Marx, but it’s still a very Freudian idea – is that there is an unavoidable implication attached to the death of one’s parent – you’re next.

It’s hard to avoid feeling sad about the missed opportunities in her life, the times when she was unhappy and couldn’t find a way to restore her sense of being content with life. A lot of that had to do with her difficulty in adjusting to the move to Australia, which was much easier for my father because of his work and his identity as a professional. I remember often saying to her something along the lines of ‘but Mum, you need to find your own life here, what makes you happy’, and that just wasn’t very easy for her. Just like children often feel responsible for whatever happens in family life, I’ve found it hard to resist that infantile reaction, of feeling guilty about not having been able to solve her problem of who she was in Australia. It makes no sense, because that’s not something I could have done, even if I didn’t have my own life to lead, but still, there it is.

I also feel as though there’s so much about her that I never got to know, and now I never will. It’s possible that this is a good thing, perhaps there are things I wouldn’t want to know, but it seems a pity that she never spoke about her childhood or her youth, how she really felt about all sorts of things. I’ve always attributed that to the fact that she just wasn’t the talkative type about deep and meaningful things, or that it was typical for that generation – my father was the same. But it’s another aspect of what’s gone definitively now.

The challenge for me, then, is to turn those various dimensions of sadness into something else – I guess gratitude. What I like to work towards, I’m not there quite yet, is just being thankful to Mum for all that she’d done in her life, especially bringing me and Walt into the world, which made it possible for many of us here in this room today to exist at all. She took especially good care of me while I was sick when I was very young, and I know she always wanted the best for Walt and me. She was always – well, mostly – kind and generous, even though her taste in gifts was sometimes somewhat different from that of the grateful recipient. I remember she used to buy shirts for me, that I could never wear, except perhaps on a visit back home.

When Walt and I gave her a hard time about something – say, her enthusiasm for the wrestling on TV – here comeback was ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone”. Being callow youth, we’d think ‘yeah, yeah, whatever’. She was right, though, she will be missed, but not forgotten, she’s part of all of us here, in one way or another. She left the world a better place than how she found it, we can’t ask more than that from life. Rest in peace, Mum….We’ll raise a glass to ‘the party girl within’ you whenever we drink white wine.

Australian higher education

Peter van Onselen claims (The Weekend Australian 10-11 Jan 2014) that deregulation of university fees, one way or another, is inevitable, because the only alternative is to reinstate caps on university places, which he thinks is politically impossible. 

There is no reason why we should accept either of these propositions.

Why not recap university enrolments? A university degree is meant to improve a person’s earning capacity, but clearly the value of a degree declines the more people have one. Oh, no, wait, if those competitive dynamics force them to do a second, postgraduate degree to get their increased value, we can make even more money out their fees, and reduce Commonwealth support even more.

Why not simply increase HECS fees? Because competition is such a good thing, it will close down the ‘uncompetitive’ universities, and enable the sandstone universities to be as good as Harvard and Yale. Never mind that the regional universities will be the ones to close – no problem says van Onselen, we’re a mobile lot. Doesn’t matter that comparison with US Ivy League universities is just silly – they’re private universities, they have a tenth of our enrolment – and that we’re already punching well above our weight in the global rankings.

Why not increase, instead of decreasing, public investment in higher education? Because so many policy-makers want to live in this nuff-nuff land where there are no taxes, there is no government, and everyone is ‘free’.

The problem is that universities have come to be seen as a good little earner rather than an investment, by all of us, in our shared future. Instead of just accepting that public investment in universities is doomed to keep falling, perhaps we could put down our copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and read Josephy Stiglitz instead.

Open Letter to Dr Michael Spence about Pyne’s proposed changes to higher education

This is a letter that I have just sent to Dr Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, about the de-regulation of university fees.

Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor
29 August  2014

The Pyne Higher Education proposals

Dear Michael,

I am writing to express my concern about the way in which the prospects currently facing Australian universities are being portrayed in the public debate, but most especially by yourself as the representative of the University of Sydney, in Senate discussions, in the media and in your account of the Town Hall suggested by Senate. My apologies for the length of this letter, but the issues are complex.

You’ve said on a number of occasions that the current system of funding universities is ‘unsustainable’, but coupled to the idea of fee de-regulation in a way that suggests that deregulating fees is the only way to restore sustainability. The basic premise seems to be that a demand-driven system, with significantly increased student enrolments, necessarily requires only one possible change to the funding system: allowing universities to set their own fees at whatever level the market will bear.

This suggests that fee deregulation is a solution to a problem. However, this is to misrepresent what is actually going on in the government of Australian higher education. I think it’s misleading to represent what the students were saying in the Town Hall as reducible merely to the practical problems surrounding exactly how university education is to be financed.

Fee deregulation is not the solution to a problem, it is in itself the pursuit of a particular aim, the complete marketization of as many aspects of Australian society as possible, as far as possible. It is ideology dressed up as fiscal responsibility, it is the IPA’s agenda, and it has been part of the Liberal Party’s agenda since David Kemp first attempted to deregulate fees in 1999, with Andrew Norton being its vociferous champion ever since. Earlier in this discussion our colleague, Professor Colm Harmon suggested that Christopher Pyne must have loftier aims, ideas and convictions than merely saving money. Indeed he has, and they revolve around aiming to organize as much as possible of Australians’ lives around the market, around thinking entirely in terms of private and individual costs and benefits, and around destroying utterly the concept of the public or collective value of anything – in this case, university education.

The intellectual foundation for this approach to universities, which has as much of a presence in the ALP as it does among the Liberals, can be seen most clearly in Andrew Norton’s Graduate Winners, the Grattan Institute report published in 2012. Norton reduces, as he has since The Unchained University in 2002, all the public benefits of higher education to the private return to graduates in the improvements to their future earning capacity. He’s basically sceptical about the whole idea of public benefits, but in the end it doesn’t even matter for him, because he’s confident that students will be so willing to pay ever-higher fees, that those public benefits will be generated anyway. University fees in this perspective operate as a cunning kind of taxation: you get university graduates, over time more and more of the population, to pay for the public benefits that ought to be covered from the public purse, so that those funds can be used to give tax breaks to the very wealthy and global corporations. Increased student debt? Not a problem, as long as they keep coming through the doors. Make no mistake, the aim of Norton and those inspired by him is to reduce Commonwealth support for universities as close to zero as soon as politically possible, to produce a completely marketized system of higher education. The clue is in the consistency with which Norton and Pyne praise the virtues of market dynamics, paying no attention at all to the discussions of how badly suited the market model is to the specific character of higher education. The opening of the door to private providers is a central part of this vision. In a revealing comment, Tony Shepherd said that it’s mere historical accident that tertiary education is provided by organisations like universities, and it follows from what he’s said that there’s no reason, other than sentiment, why they shouldn’t disappear altogether, to be replaced by the Walmart University.

You’ve also said, in justifying your approach, that you think it’s unfair for the university education of the children of wealthy families to be subsidised by children from families with less well-off backgrounds, and that this is the equity and fairness principle underpinning setting higher fees, offset by bursaries and scholarships. However, the concept of ‘subsidy’ being applied here is wholly misdirected, in two senses. First, it’s like arguing that because wealthy people pay the same amount as poor people for their newspaper, or their gas supply, or their internet connection, this means that poor people are subsidising the wealthy in all those areas. Although it may capture an aspect of the nature of economic and social inequality more broadly, it has no relevance for the setting of prices. Its relevance lies in completely different arenas, most notably taxation. Just as it doesn’t mean that the rich should be required to pay more for their internet connection because they are rich, it also doesn’t justify wealthy families paying more for their children’s education at the same university, sitting in the same seminar rooms, being taught by the same academics.

Second, the idea presumes that parents contribute to their children’s university education costs, that this is where the ‘wealth’ lies, rather than in the hands of newly-entered students, who rarely possess a portfolio of shares and investments. The fact is, however, that families, on the whole, don’t pay for their children’s university education: roughly 90% of university students do not receive such support from their parents, accumulating the debt themselves. The majority of Australian parents feel that their financial obligations to their children, in relation to education costs at least, end when their offspring leave school. The whole concept of ‘wealth’ that actually runs through the policy discussions refers to the prospective wealth of ‘graduate winners’, to use Andrew Norton’s ugly phrase, in their future employment, not to the background wealth of  students’ families.

It’s disappointing, then, that the debate appears to have lost sight of the philosophical and intellectual aims of these changes. As Margaret Thatcher explained in a moment of frankness, albeit grammatical constipation, ‘Economics are the method, the aim is to change the heart and soul’. What changes to the heart and soul of Australian universities are being pursued here? You seem confident that we will be able to retain all that we regard as valuable about university teaching, learning and research, but I have to say I can’t see the basis for such confidence, and neither could most of the students at the Town Hall.  Insisting on how committed one is to particular values and principles is all very well, but the salience of that is significantly undermined if at the same time one is supporting systemic changes that undermine those very values and principles.

The view that was being articulated at the Town Hall meeting, and that isn’t reflected in your portrayal of it, was that we need to re-assert the public value of universities, as well as the idea that such value should be financed publically, not privately, precisely contrary to the inclinations of all Australian Commonwealth governments since the 1980s. I don’t know if it’s true that frogs placed in gently boiling water don’t realize they’re being cooked until it’s too late, but it’s an accurate enough analogy for the situation Australian universities find themselves in now. We have been very slow to raise our voices against the systematic re-construction of tertiary education as an entirely private good, perhaps because we’ve been misled by the fact that it characterizes both major parties to a greater or lesser extent.

But it is the public value of university education that needs to be returned to the centre of the debate, and addressed, instead of being made unthinkable in favour of generating supposed problem-solutions that are in fact the core aim of the whole exercise. I would suggest that it’s simply not enough to be content with observing, as Belinda Robinson has, that Australian governments are ‘disinclined’ to invest properly in universities and that this is why we should support fee deregulation. It ought also be possible to show a bit of backbone and defend the case for precisely that adequate public investment in higher education, so often trumpeted as so essential to the nation’s future economic development.

You’ve said that you think the public debate to date hasn’t been very sophisticated. My own view is that it would enhance the University’s reputation enormously if it played a role in bringing these concerns back into the debate, including your own contributions to it, and I, together with a number of the other Senate Fellows, would be grateful if you would give these observations your considered attention.

Regards, Robert van Krieken

Submission to Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 25 Nov 2012

1. I am grateful to the Royal Commission’s Secretariat for this opportunity to provide commentary on the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. My background is in the history and sociology of childhood generally but also child welfare in Australia, and I have researched the legal and administrative contexts of the removal of Indigenous children from their families, in relation to the structures and policies of Australian child welfare agencies more broadly. I have also spent some time in Ireland where I became familiar with the various enquiries that have taken place there, and I believe there are some useful lessons that can be learnt from the Irish experience.

2. My main comment relates to the concern identified in the Consultation Paper to ‘identify what public and private organisations and institutions should do to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring’, as well as ‘what should be done by organisations and institutions when allegations are raised’, and possibly to examine ‘the need for changes to any laws, policies or practices within institutions, organisations and government agencies to better prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. The aim, then, is to identify what needs to be done to prevent child sexual abuse, what procedures ought to be in place when allegations are raised, and what policy, legal, administrative or structural reforms might be required.

3. The concern is that in order to achieve this aim, it is important to understand how and why child sexual abuse occurred in public and private institutions in the past, and what has been problematic about the institutional practices and procedures up to the present time.

4. It is clear from the experience so far In Australia but also in the course of the detailed Irish inquiries that what is at issue is as much a failure of organisational culture and institutional design, and it would be unfortunate in the extreme if the terms of reference excluded an examination of that aspect of the institutional abuse of children.

5. In my view, then, it is very important for the Royal Commission to include in its terms of reference an examination of the ways in which:
(a) the systems of management, administration, supervision, inspection and regulation of those institutions, and
(b) the manner in which responsible persons executed their functions
contributed both to the occurrence of the abuse and any deficiencies in the response to the abuse.

6. A clear view of how child sexual abuse is to be prevented and responded to adequately in the future will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve without a well-founded understanding of exactly what it was about the management and organisation of public and private institutions responsible for the welfare of children that made it possible for so many to have suffered such traumatic childhoods.

Internationalizing Sociology

Like the world generally and all academic disciplines, sociology is structured globally in terms of a distinction very roughly, between a core and a periphery, with a semi-periphery lying between them. Often the core-periphery distinction will also be termed the North-South division. The origins of social science lie in the colonial powers of Europe, Great Britain and the United States and its concerns and points of reference remain there today.

The south – Asia, Australia, Latin America – has  been incorporated only as sources of exotic data or as adjuncts to northern knowledge.  Raewyn Connell, for example, observes that contemporary social theory ‘embeds the viewpoints, perspectives and problems of metropolitan society while presenting itself as universal knowledge’ (2007:vii–viii).   Continue reading

The Occupy Movement

These are my thoughts on the Occupy movement, for the revision of the Sociology textbook published by Pearson:

Culture jamming and Occupy Wall Street 

One of the oppositional movements referred to by Klein is culture jamming, described by Christine Harold (2004) as a world-wide political movement which ‘seeks to undermine the marketing rhetoric of multinational corporations, specifically through such practices as media hoaxing, corporate sabotage, billboard “liberation,” and trademark infringement’ (p. 190). Most often this is done through changing an advertisement to reveal what the protestor sees as the true meaning of the ad (sometimes referred to as ‘subvertising’), but also includes other forms of protest, art and political action. The Canadian Adbusters Media Foundation, founded in 1989, describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age”. publishing the activist anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters (http://www.adbusters.org/) has been a prominent player, organizing evgents such as ‘Buy Nothing Day’, ‘Digital Detox Week’, ‘TV Turnoff Week’ and ‘Occupy Wall Street’. Its founder, Kalle Lasn, defines culture jamming as “is the art of creating a new kind of cool” A guiding concept is the importance of aesthetics in influencing how ordinary people think, and this has been mobilised by Adbusters ih the hope that the protests which emerge will “somehow change the power balance and make the world into a much more grass-roots, bottom-up kind of a place rather than the top-down Wall Street mega-corporate-driven system we now have.” (cited in Yardley, 2011) Continue reading

On the celebrification of the university


There has been considerable discussion of the ways in which universities around the world are experiencing enormous pressures, organized around a range of issues including the question of neoliberal strategies of management, the constant restructuring and deskilling of academic labour accompanied by insecurity and uncertainty, tightening financial constraints, the commodification of higher education, a global competitive dynamic which has set in motion a never-ending process of gradually ramping up the expectations placed on university academics, a process with no ceiling and no end. Unlike the builder or the carpenter who can say – ‘that looks pretty good’ – or even the academic who used to be able to say – ‘that was a good book’ – the message now is always ‘hmm….could do better’.

In universities today one can clearly see a number of facture lines that are growing longer and wider, dividing the academic community into, roughly: Continue reading

Celebrity Society: the Economics of Attention

We have an ambivalent relationship to celebrities. We are continuously fascinated by them, spend money on magazines to read about them and allow them to grab our attention in any number of ways. Celebrities are the aristocracy of the 20th and 21st centuries, or at least an important branch of the new nobility. It’s easy to lose count of the number of opinionistas moaning about the ‘cult of celebrity’.

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Surrendering to Islamophobia

Both the Wall Street Journal and Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian believe that the recent judgment of a Dutch court that the Dutch MP Geert Wilders is to be prosecuted for inciting hatred and violence against Muslims in the Netherlands constitute yet another ‘assault on freedom of speech’. From their perspective, and Wilders’ own, a bit of muscular controversy is fine, all part of a healthy democracy. The idea that Wilders may have broken Dutch law means, says Albrechtsen, that ‘the tyranny of thought police has truly taken hold in the West’. For the Wall Street Journal it’s even more than that, it’s ‘the importation of Saudi blasphemy norms to Europe’, and ‘no small victory for Islamic regimes seeking to export their censorship laws to wherever Muslims reside’.

Albrechtsen concludes that it is important that Australia learn the appropriate lessons from the Dutch experience ‘before we make the same disastrous blunders’. But have any blunders been made by the Dutch? For anyone who takes the trouble actually to read the Dutch court’s judgment, not to mention paying attention to what Wilders has actually been saying the last few years, it becomes clear how misinformed this interpretation is.

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