Friday, January 24, 2014

History 101 with Wilson and Rundle ...

(Above: the Magna Carta, unreadable, but very important, so we're told)

The pond has been catching up with a little reading of late, and most recently out of the block  was Tim Wilson sharing his views on the national curriculum with the reptiles at the lizard Oz, in Narrow focus confuses intent.

Happily the contagion is contained behind the lizard Oz's paywall - the masochistic can of course google it up - but it was notable for citing an Institute of Public Affairs' critique of the curriculum, and this sort of blather:

Apart from cursory references to the Magna Carta in Year 6 history, there's no substantive discussion about the evolution of human rights and the influence of key political movements, particularly classical liberalism and enlightenment thinking.

It turned out that the only reason for reading Wilson was to cop Guy Rundle's consequent smackdown of him in Crikey, under the header Note, Tim Wilson, speech not the only freedom worth protecting, also behind the paywall, but hey, any paywall is better than a Murdochian paywall.

Rundle began with some ritual incantatory abuse:

Tim Wilson, the small government enthusiast who is soon to take up the $6000-a-week taxpayer-funded position at a commission he wants to abolish. He has not begun there yet (or as he says in his press release, he is yet to “assume the position”; I hope to god this is a sly Animal House reference, rather than Wilson being as gormless as he looks in his publicity shots) but he’s had some things to say about the school curriculum. According to Wilson, the “human rights” component of the curriculum has very little to say about the liberal rights that preceded the post-1945 creation of “human rights” as an expanded concept.

The first sentence seems to lack a relevant verb, but the drift is clear enough, and the pond never tires of seeing the existential absurdity of a believer in small government helping expand the government at a generous stipend. (Oh go on, you don't think he'll start by downsizing his staff, and calling for a building located in Penrith and banning vehicles and insisting on travel by bus and train?)

Then we get down to the brass tacks:

Wilson says the current national curriculum doesn’t do anything to shore up “our liberal democracy” because (quoting — surprise — the Institute for Public Affairs) “there is not a single reference to the struggles for rights and freedoms such as that which occurred during the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and afterwards by American revolutionaries, [whose] whole purpose of acknowledging human rights was to protect the citizen against excessive government power”. Wilson suggests that Isaiah Berlin’s (actually T.H. Green’s, a half-century earlier, but let that pass — we’re only talking about getting history right, after all) distinction between negative liberties (restraint of government) and positive freedoms (enablement of citizens) can be applied to the contradiction between individual liberal freedoms and collective rights, as embodied in anti-discrimination laws.

Hang on, hang on Mr Rundle, pedantry aside, did Wilson really quote someone saying that about the American revolutionaries and their whole purpose? Surely not, that would be the most simplistic, reductionist, narrow-minded, in fact downright silly reading of a historical event the pond has come across in many a year of reading David Irving and Niall Ferguson.

Yes, he did, he really truly did:

As Murdoch University legal academic Augusto Zimmermann wrote in the Institute of Public Affairs' critique of the curriculum, "there is not a single reference to the struggles for rights and freedoms such as that which occurred during the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and afterwards by American revolutionaries (whose) whole purpose of acknowledging human rights was to protect the citizen against excessive government power". 

Sorry, apologies Mr. Rundle. Time for that smack down:

The United States constitution has one clause hymning “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and another counting slaves as three-fifths of a human being. The Bill of Rights explicitly protects freedom of speech, but not of association or assembly, because it was written by propertied men with access to publishing who feared “the mob”.

It would be possible of course to go on and on - in fact many Americans do quite endlessly about the circumstances, situations and motivations of the people who led the American revolution (terrorists the lot of them) and after much striving and conflict, cobbled together a constitution and later a bill of rights, and it would be a rare and singularly stupid American historian that would assert that the founders' whole purpose could be reduced to a single gob-smacking sentence of monumental silliness.

Now what about that Magna Carta reference?

The most interesting thing about this argument, which is largely a farrago, is how easily Wilson comes around to assuming a statist position regarding a curriculum — an assumption he, and Education Minister Christopher Pyne, share with Labor, even as they differ over details. Those of us who want a curriculum that teaches the actual history (while acknowledging multiple interpretations), without criss-crossing it with “themes” that are geared towards Australia’s export-led reorientation to Asian economies, would prefer the Magna Carta and the English and American revolutions be taught first as shaping historical events, then as topics for debate and argument. The obvious other side of Magna Carta is that it was a document cementing feudal power; its effect was to restrict the real freedoms of the English peasantry for centuries.

Yep, it's a double smack down with whammy - the statist Wilson demanding government be used to determine curriculum contents, which god and Godwin's Law willing, is not so far from the beliefs of Stalin, and then the matter of Magna Carta.

There is indeed another side to Magna Carta, in that it was a shake-down by feudal lords of the king, and an arrogation of rights to them so that they might better screw the peasants, dressed up in high falutin' language that gave it a small window dressing of "rights".

During the pond's provincial "Eating People is Wrong" university days, one of the most searing encounters was with a university lecturer who poured scorn on the geese who kept on cackling on about Magna Carta without understanding the document's historical context and therefore its real significance.

You can, thanks to the full to overflowing intertubes see the document in its original form, here, and read it in modern English,  here or at the BL here.

The best that can be said for it as a rights document is that it later provided a model for other parts of society to shake down the ruling class, in the same way the feudal lords shook down King John.

If we revert to the BL's introduction to the work, we can read:

Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated documents in English history but later interpretations have tended to obscure its real significance in 1215. This iconic document was not intended to be a lasting declaration of legal principle. It was a practical solution to a political crisis which primarily served the interests of the highest ranks of feudal society by reasserting the power of custom to limit despotic behaviour by the king. 
The majority of the clauses in Magna Carta dealt with the regulation of feudal customs and the operation of the justice system, not with legal theory and rights. It was King John's extortionate exploitation of his feudal rights and his ruthless administration of justice that were at the core of the barons' grievances. 
All but three of Magna Carta's clauses have now become obsolete and been repealed, but the flexible way in which the charter has been reinterpreted through the centuries has guaranteed its status and longevity. (here)

And in support of the pond's theory of later shakedowns, though in more formal language:

Only three of the original clauses in Magna Carta are still law. One defends the freedom and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous: 

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled . nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. 
This statement of principle, buried deep in Magna Carta, was given no particular prominence in 1215, but its intrinsic adaptability has allowed succeeding generations to reinterpret it for their own purposes and this has ensured its longevity. In the fourteenth century Parliament saw it as guaranteeing trial by jury. Sir Edward Coke interpreted it as a declaration of individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings and it has resonant echoes in the American Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 
But the real legacy of Magna Carta as a whole is that it limited the king's authority by establishing the crucial principle that the law was a power in its own right to which the king was subject.

Next step, limit the power of the lords? What's that you say, they still have their own house and the class system continues strong in Britain? Oh well, maybe next year ...

But it is worthwhile noting that the various reinterpretations (and misrepresentations) of the document did lead to considerable advances in more general representation of the wider electorate, a development which would to this day have been resisted by the profoundly stupid originalists who currently infest the Supreme Court of the United States.

It's probably a little too late to preen about the pond scoring an A+ for its paper, but surely Wilson could have attempted to sound a little more studied, a little more measured, a little more informed?

Alas, as an ideologue, all Wilson can do is wield a free speech hammer, and attempt to nail liberal attitudes by pointing out apparent contradictions. This usually involves gays, women and blacks, and sure enough, what do we get?

...there is tension between "positive" non-discrimination and "negative" human rights. 
 It's impossible to protect the integrity of "negative" human rights when, as the Victorian Charter argues, "every person has the right to enjoy his or her human rights without discrimination" while also protecting the right of women to join gyms that exclude men, gays to have nightclubs that exclude heterosexuals and indigenous groups that require members have indigenous heritage. 
Arguably, the whole point of free association is the right to discriminate in associating with some, but not others.

You never get someone like Wilson arguing how splendid and right it was for the Melbourne Club to blackball people of a Jewish persuasion:

..."ladies" fare well, compared with other groups. 
The Melbourne Club admitted its first Jewish member in 1931 when Sir Isaac Isaacs accepted, as Governor-General, the traditional honorary membership. Melbourne's Jewish community, however, remains bitter about the club. In 1953, the late Ken Myer was blackballed; in 1970, it repeated the snub to the family by black-balling his younger brother Baillieu ("Bails"), although there is no actual rule barring Jews. Though the Myers are not of the Jewish faith, they have Jewish antecedents. (here).

Rundle knocks this sort of superficial "impossible" contradiction out of the park, but Wilson's argument is of course part of the relentless ongoing campaign against the Victorian Bill of Rights, and any notion of a Bill of Rights in Australia, which verges on the bizarre when you remember how equally relentless the IPA are to celebrate the American right wing, which in turn relentlessly celebrates their bill of rights (well at least the bit about the right to shoot someone in a darkened theatre if the popcorn and the texting get out of hand).

It's even more bizarrely contradictory when you remember that Wilson is doing this as a way of urging government to get out of the business of human rights ... while at the same time demanding that government get into the business of teaching human rights. Yes, he does:

The recent introduction of the national curriculum ensures it is not responsible for the cracks that now appear in the human rights foundations of our liberal democracy, but fixing the national curriculum will help future Australians understand human rights and also start the restoration process.

Which leads to a solid Rundle smack down:

I’d like the Magna Carta, 1688 and 1776, to be taught so that a good teacher can suggest that side of them, as well as their role in expanding universal rights. Wilson wants them to be a part of nationalist propaganda, to suggest as given that we live in a “liberal democracy”, rather than debating whether a country with media monopolies, compulsory preferential voting, vast income inequality, no limits on campaign spending, no bill of rights and few implied constitutional rights can be realistically called either “liberal” or “democratic”. Maybe yes, maybe no, but the job of education and a curriculum isn’t to answer the question before it’s asked — it is to impart the historical knowledge, then teach kids to think independently about the issues.

There's more - of Wilson's superficial arguments, and of Rundle's put downs - but we'll leave readers to do their own reading, save for this final Rundle smack down, which had the pond cackling over the computer:

Still, nothing goes to waste. 
Here’s something for the maths curriculum: TW is a 30-year-old think tank hack, with no other significant work experience. Calculate his likely private sector salary. Now: (a) subtract it from $320,000; (b) what percentage of TW’s new lifestyle is being subsidised by the state? 
 Supplemental question 1: Presume TW believes the utility of his new job to be 0. What, by his definition, is the marginal utility to the taxpayer of the work he will be doing for the $320,000? Supplemental question 2: Presume TW has a child every year for the three years of his tenure. Calculate the additional cost to the taxpayer of TW, including paid parental leave and paternity cover costs above replacement salary to the taxpayer. 
Supplemental question 3: If TW uses 50% of his paid parental leave to pay for a full-time nanny, how many pamphlets (@3 months/pamphlet) can he write on the “scourge of welfare dependency” for the IPA? 
Supplemental question 4: If a portable dialysis machine costs $12,000 and extends the life of a long-distance remote renal patient by one to two years, how much is TW costing then?

Oh it's wicked personal stuff, but someone has to do it, and the pond is ever so glad that Rundle did.

You see, the other thing the pond learned while enjoying a tertiary education is that people are inclined to spout bullshit endlessly, of a rhetorical, allegedly well-meaning kind, while ignoring the practical implications of what they say and do, no matter that they're staring them in the face.

The pond once endured, for example, a university lecturer in education, explaining how exams were awful, hideous, useless and hopeless and how they exemplified the very worst of contemporary educational practice.

Uh huh. Now try scribbling "This exam is fucked" on your exam paper and walking out. Yep, you won't get very far ...

And Wilson will have to do a lot better himself if he wants to be taken seriously, instead of being paid 320k a year to bleat about how the Bolter was given a hard time ...

He'll quickly establish himself as a one note Timmy and the Rundles of the world will feed off his carcass ...

(Below: after that comedy, time for a couple of New Yorker cartoons. More cartoons here).


  1. Dorothy Jon Faine had this dick head on his show this morning and he speaks as if he has some wisdom to give the listeners but actually feeds out bullshit.
    The ABC has lost its moral compass by continually allowing these right wing nut cases on the our ABC.

    1. The wilson arsehole was on ABC NewsRadio sounding like he came of best

      An even bigger arsehole (black hole?) Greg Sheridan was also on there this afternoon spinning for murdoch's G20 man (apparently not available to listen to now). I believe the pig sincerely thought he came off best. He didn't, the interviwer merely eased off from an early poke as with Wilson above as seems to be Mark Scott's directive. These scumbags, as Dorothy so clearly shows, are at best buffoons.

  2. It's all nonsense, of course. I completed almost my entire primary and secondary education under the glorious Howard regime and we never once heard of no Magna Carta or English revolution (as far as I can remember). The American revolution we only heard about sparingly. Of course, since we had no national curriculum at the time, that's South Australia's fault, but it does make one wonder about all this spluttering about the current state of the national curriculum.

    1. I completed primary and the then customarily partial secondary under Menzies and Holt, and, it must be said, the NSW bagman. I recall the love and expressed adoration primary school teachers had for Menzies and their respect for Askin. By fourth form secondary school history I'd had a little school exposure to Magna Carta, but, of course, to neither revolution.

      A few years after leaving school with the "certificate" I moved to Queensland where in my twenties I was (am!) amazed that I knew so much more history, particularly Australian, than the Queensland school teachers I dated and those I had wider opportunity to socialise and converse with.

  3. In Kilmore in the 1950's it was
    "Protestant dogs
    sitting on logs
    eating maggots
    out of frogs"


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