Sunday, April 26, 2015

War and memory

War and memory: reflections on a week

I teach about war and memory. I work in the area of International Security, Japanese politics and history and Australian politics and history. There is an intersection, the place where all the venn diagram circles meet and that tends to happen around Anzac Day. 

When I started my studies about Japan, I really didn't imagine I would end up doing so much work on the topics of war and memory. But it is important.
Our lecture images

Last week's lecture in my course about Japan was just about this topic. It coincided with the week when one large supermarket chain, --OK, Woolworths-- was pilloried for launching a marketing campaign which many considered crossed a line in exploiting images of Gallipoli and its marketing slogan. 

I put it next to a Gold Coast landmark covered in poppies made by local schoolchildren. The poppies were recycled and reshaped bottles. The response to the poppies was positive; the ad campaign...negative. 

When I asked students to articulate the differences, it would be fair to say that beyond the idea of 'it's just wrong' (the ad), the class found it challenging. 

Coincidentally, I saw a play today, called Brisbane, about Brisbane in 1942, perhaps the closest this city came to war. Plenty of talk about 'yanks' and 'japs' and Curtin sending prostitutes to Brisbane to save the good girls of the town. It was mightily uncomfortable in places.

The same thing arises when we talk about Japan. The soldiers who perpetrated horrendous acts of torture versus the victims of Tokyo firebombing and Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Japan as aggressor versus Japan as victim. It is a dichotomy that underpins much of contemporary Japan: those who oppose changes to the constitution to permit forces, versus the present prime minister and his supporters who would seek to re-arm Japan. 

The issue came to a bit of a head today, albeit on twitter. A sports journalist on SBS was sacked today, publicly, on twitter for making comments contrary to the Anzac story, our Anzac 'memory'. His comments referred to the bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and included a picture from the Hiroshima blast, one of a person's shadow on the stairs of a bank. 

I've been troubled by the twitter incident for a few reasons. The journalist's twitter bio indicated he had some connection with Japan. I can kind of understand where he was coming from then. Visiting Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum two decades ago, and speaking with Aust POWs since, was formative in my career as an academic and finding ways to ensure this kind of thing should never happen again. In introducing related topics to my students, I speak to them of the impact visiting this city has had on my work and career. 

It doesn't mean I ignore the atrocities that happened in the name of the Japanese state (and the Emperor). War is atrocious. I've listened to former soldiers and POWs speak of it this way. I've heard them say it should never happen again. I heed their experience. I've also spoken over the years with victims of the atomic bombings--those who lived for years with the injuries and sickness, those who nursed those who were sick, those who lost family. I've also spoken with people who survived the Tokyo bombings. These experiences have taught me much and compelled me to understand human nature, the human condition that seems to sometimes struggle with what is right and what is wrong; what is history and what is memory? It is why I read Kant and Arendt. I'm still trying to understand. 

One of the places where some serious scholarship goes on is at Japan Focus. Some years ago, they published an article on Hiroshima, especially its images by elin o'Hara slavic. I was reminded of it today when the image of the Hiroshima stairs was tweeted by the now former-SBS journalist. I saw the stairs at the museum, I recalled it being the shadow of a man sitting on the stairs, the journalist said it was schoolchildren, another report suggested it was a woman waiting for the bank to open...



I understand the journalist wanted to temper the Anzac memory with what he saw as another kind of truth about war. I was surprised at the degree of opprobrium which rained down on twitter. I was also interested in the way others rallied in support. I'm sure it will be Storified somewhere. 

I don't think he deserved to be sacked. War and its memories--real, or constructed; fact or mythology--are always contentious. But we need to talk about them. Not just as history, as I have learned. But from our elders. I'm yet to meet one who lived through a war who wants to go through it all again. 

It's probably no coincidence that both Prime Ministers Abbott and Abe are children of the post WW2 era and appear to want to lead their respective countries back down a glorified war path. We need to sort our memory from myth. Sometimes a truth is unpleasant.

This post is written as a brief response to events of the past week: poppies and ads, my lectures, Anzac Day, a play and a twitter storm. I continue to work on these issues in greater depth as part of my research and teaching and publish in peer-reviewed journals. I have a couple of book manuscripts in draft that address these questions as well. It never really goes away. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

On ending the death penalty, everywhere

Is there a right to decide to kill another person?

I was initially surprised to learn of Kant's support of capital punishment and much has been written about that. My other great influence, Hannah Arendt's views were informed by the horrors of World War Two. I am caught traversing their thinking.

I have written previously in this blog how transformative my time working as a senator's staffer was as far as influencing my present career direction. Seeing politics working 'from the inside' drove me to ask questions that hadn't been in textbooks or in the media. It tentatively set me on the philosophical path as I wondered and marvelled at the very 'rawness' of human nature as it unfolded before my hitherto world-weary, yet clearly still naive, self. Naive to the blunt machinations of power as played out in the corridors of Parliament House. I'm still seeking, if not answers, then explanations.

I was employed initially for a period of six weeks although it ended up being two and a half years in the end. Along the way, there was a media roller coaster, protective/defensive mechanisms, politics good and bad, Telstra and so on. But I haven't said much about that first task, the reason I was employed--researching and writing a speech on one of the Senator's passionate causes: the International Transfer of Prisoners Treaty legislation. It has come to mind as we are bombarded daily by the fate of two of the so-called Bali 9, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who, as I write, sit in cells on an island awaiting, and waiting, execution. By rifle. Awful.

For a first assignment as researcher/speechwriter this was a challenge. I believed myself sufficiently cosmopolitan to be against the death penalty as a general rule. Just prior to my joining the office, the Parliament had debated euthanasia legislation. Euthanasia was something I could support. I was disappointed it was defeated at the time. My now boss, was one of the parliamentarians, in a conscience vote, who voted against it. His speech for that was one I was to read to begin to develop my craft as speechwriter. I recall thinking at the time, glad I didn't have to write that--something I couldn't agree with. 

Indeed, it was one of those questions I had to often ask: is my writing the speech merely a job I must do regardless of my view? Did I need to have a shared view in order to write the right speech? Could I have written the euthanasia speech? It remained hypothetical but planted a seed of challenging my conscience which continues today in my work.

Back to that first job though. What was this about and why the boss's particular passion? He wanted me to draft a speech which would support the exchange of prisoners, returning Australians to jails in Australia from jails overseas. It was largely aimed at Australians on drugs charges, facing life imprisonment or in some cases, the death penalty. And mostly in Asian countries. 

I recall as a university student, the plight of Australian pair Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, convicted drug traffickers, hanged in Malaysia in 1986. It was big news at the time. I was probably of the view at the time that although it went against my opposition to execution in general, perhaps it is not for us to interfere in the law of other states. It was an uneasy position but...

Five years later, in the early 1990s when I worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs, I was to learn quietly that one of my colleagues in the same branch had in fact been one of the consular officials in Malaysia at the time. It had a major impact on him personally and my chance to 'see the other side' effectively had a profound impact on my thinking too.  

Back to the days in the office of drafting the speech. Let's just say that while my views weren't rock solid, I initially took a little persuasion to come around to the Senator's thinking. A little bit of research, a little bit of discussion, a little bit of recollection...I met and spoke with people who had returned to Australia under less formal agreements. Their rehabilitation was real.

It didn't take long for me to review my 'do the crime, do the time' position, in flagrant contradiction I suppose of my strong anti-execution views. Likewise, were not the Senator and I in different ways, contradicting a base logic in our opposing views of euthanasia? Who chooses when and how a person's life is to end? 

Many of these thoughts and memories and challenges have misted through my mind these last few weeks. Could not Chan and Sukumaran (and the remaining Bali 9) be transferred home under the legislation (which eventually passed)? Turns out, Indonesia is not a signatory (some 60 or so countries have signed). More work needs to be done. I join with many in the public sphere who argue that Chan and Sukumaran have rehabilitated and taking their lives by firing squad will simply be a waste. To watch the abuse of force and trumped up securitisation of this matter as the two were transferred simply defied commonsense. It is yet another example of nations contriving an overt security environment where one doesn't exist, for domestic political gain. And yes, I am critical of the Australian Governments of recent history for this too. 

It is not just Indonesia as a nation in Australia's orbit which continues to use the death penalty. Japan and the United States of course also persist with the death penalty. 

There ought to be a moratorium, with a view to a total ban. It occurred to me today that a moratorium, like that in my other area of research, whaling, might go part of the way to drawing to a close such brutal practices of another era. (There is much more work to be done there though.) 

In that speech I wrote eighteen years ago, we appealed to humanitarian issues and people's ability to rehabilitate and rebuild. I've also learnt, read and thought much more about life in those eighteen years since. I simply cannot reconcile the ongoing use of the death penalty under any circumstances. I also hope for the mercy of these two young men. 

I shall continue to reflect on Kant the man who gave us Perpetual Peace and his view of the justification of public execution. Time and tide. Time. 


Postscript: A copy of that speech from May 1997, can be found here

And as a second postscript, the senator not long after the euthanasia debate, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a particularly aggressive and painful one which contributed to his death some years later. One night, in the office between divisions when we used to talk about many things, I asked him not long after the cancer started eating away and the pain and illness began to take over, how would he vote if the euthanasia legislation returned to the Senate? It changed his mind, he said he'd vote for it. Time. Tide. Time...we don't always have.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Our mental health, we need to take care

...we need to be mindful.

To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know
Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1971. 

Welcome back to Psephy's~ologies. That's more a welcome for me than the readers I guess. I've been working a lot behind the scenes with this one--working on Hannah Arendt, updating the manuscript on the Japan-Australia security community book, lots more on our friend Watanabe from the 1893 and all that blog, and I'm soon to launch the whaling story. 

There has been much to write about politics too. We've had a change of government here in Queensland. Let's hope the commitment to a new and different politics of integrity is carried through. 

And, I'm about to recommence the teaching year and one of the purposes of this blog is to walk through all things Japan, security, university with students who take my classes. Indeed, there is so much to write, to think about, to post...and as much as the daily #project365 is a great recreational blog, the time has come to restart the writing here. 

For all the many objectives this particular blog has, another one is for those tweeting moments when, try as I might, I simply cannot tweet in 140 characters a suitable response to something I have heard on the radio. 

This morning, I listened, as usual, to Background Briefing, a Sunday morning staple for me on Radio National. Today was on mental illness, psychological injury and the toll it is taking on our workplaces. I drafted a tweet or three in tentative response, but I didn't send them. It needed a more thoughtful, less ambiguous response from me. 

The program identified mental heath issues in fields such as the law and in NGOs. It mentioned the expression 'toxic workplace'. It could have also looked at universities, for there is much there to consider as well. It made me think about why it is we are finding ourselves in this situation. 

It is the cookie-cutter phenomenon. It is a senior management imperative to knead and press everyone in the workplace into looking the same, sounding the same, producing the same things at the same rate. Universities don't actually function well when you try and apply a desiccated version of Taylorism. It has, in recent years, cost my friends and colleagues their jobs, and, tragically in some cases, their lives. When I hear programs such as today's Background Briefing, I think of them. I think about them and wish I could do more. 

But of course, I am one of the management annoyances, I am an old-school academic, with a view of education and scholarship that is vocational, intangible and a value that shall not be measured in dollars. My research doesn't bring in big dollars, I don't need them and it would be a contrivance to even pretend to do so. And yet, I'd like to think my work enriches our knowledge, our shared histories, it allows me to teach students a little more about ourselves that we knew before. I might get to publish an article or two about it, perhaps a book. It is research I do on my holidays, on leave, at 2.00am or on a Sunday. It just happens. 

Across the sector, managements are boring through academic staff, tossing them aside because they fail to fit that cookie-cutter. We have so many metrics against which our performance is measured that I suspect there are metrics to measure the metrics...oh, yes, the KPIs against which senior managements are awarded bonuses. 

The sorts of things that are happening in our higher education sector for short term gain will have long term consequences. Indeed, I doubt there will be a higher ed sector of any real meaning in the future. So many of us in professional vocations--my friends and colleagues in law, health, primary and secondary education, any of the many strands of public service--are feeling the effects of the neo-liberal putsch of the last two or three decades. We are being pushed to levels of stress and, as my doctor once made the important distinction, "distress" over matters that simply cannot and should not be quantified. We are forgetting our reasons for just 'being'. Or if we are trying to 'be', we are cowered or punished for it.

This is a sector by and large turning on itself, chewing on itself, swallowing itself and regurgitating the unspent. Like a dog, many of us have little choice but to return to eat it up and so the cycle begins again. 

So much of what I heard in today's program could be said about the university sector. 

I hope, ultimately, that I am wrong. I hope that one day, universities can return to be places of higher learning, experiments, challenges and failures, and all without fear or favour. Right now, for those without favour, there is much to fear and we shall all suffer for that. Those of us who choose 'public service' do so for all sorts of reasons. Many more reasons than you will find in a packet of Arnotts Family Assorted. The cookie-cutter just won't cut it.

When all the efficiencies have been dividended (as is the current predilection of those who pull the budget strings) there will be nothing but a dry husk left. We will be the poorer for it. And I'm hoping for a much more pithy epitaph than 'I told you so'.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Australia-Japan 2+2: opportunity lost?

Australia and Japan and what might have been

The photos from Tokyo that streamed through my twitter feed yesterday have inspired this brief preliminary response to the Australia-Japan 2+2 meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries. As a long-time observer, an active one at that, of the Australia-Japan relationship, yesterday's meeting and subsequent press conference marks a shift in the relationship and the Asia-Pacific security environment. In short, did it have to be so?

The full set of photos can be found here on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website. But two that struck me as interesting for their symbolism included these:

Source: DFAT
Source: DFAT
Now, a disclaimer is required before we proceed. I am not a part of the Australia-Japan establishment, I have missed that boat and work somewhat independently of the groupthink in operation there. I have looked on with concern as the security relationship has developed in this way. And, it should be noted, I am currently completing a manuscript on the East Asia security community...a concept premised on the ending of war, not the enabling of it.  I am a supporter of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and the groups which aim to maintain its integrity.

These developments in the Australia-Japan relationship come at a time when a robust nationalist agenda is being pressed on both sides. In a way, it is an agreement for the times and the Australian government's actions will go a long way towards legitimising Japan's strengthening of its 'collective self-defence' aspirations in the region. It is the (almost) culmination of developments building since the 1990s when I recall the then Foreign Minister declaring that Australia supports Japan's incremental shift to a stronger defence posture.

Much commentary will pass on the 'positives' of this development. There will be a lot said about Japan emerging finally as a 'normal nation'. I discuss this in more depth in my forthcoming book. But as one whose work has been driven to find ways to strengthen cooperation and end war, I am concerned that, having reached the aphoristic fork in the road, we may have chosen the wrong path. 

Since 1946, or more properly 1947 with the promulgation of the new Constitution, Japan has been a nation which might have pursued a truly peaceful path. Article 9 in its original intention, might have held to that. I have suggested elsewhere that we might imagine a world where all constitutions included the equivalent of Article 9. But as students of Japan, we are aware that the interpretation of that Article has been stretched and stretched until breaking point. Each year I teach Japanese politics and each year I tell the students I don't think it can be stretched any further...each and every year. I think I need to change my description. 'It's broke, we need to fix it'.

In Japan, the present prime minister is seeking support to virtually dismiss the legitimacy of Article 9. Although Japan's Constitution, like Australia's, includes an article that does require a national referendum to seek amendment, there are moves afoot to circumvent this process. That is not surprising since any number of opinion polls do not support wholesale change to the intent of Article 9. The declaration of support from the Australian government in the last day or so will help Prime Minister Abe's cause.

I sometimes worry that history seems to be the preserve of academics and interested observers these days. The shift in the development of this element of the Australia-Japan relationship has been incremental and, for the most part, has been cheered on as a positive development. It is also done, it should be remembered, in the shadow of the overarching US security network. It might be different, under other circumstances. 

I am presently immersed in researching the development of the Australia-Japan relationship dating back to the 1890s, as Japan was an emerging nation, Australia a collection of colonies. I'm viewing the 'softly, softly' steps of the 1890s and drawing some interesting parallels in the 2010s. If we are to learn from history, we can seriously reflect on our past, in order to determine the steps we want to take for the future. 

International cooperation is necessary. It is where and how you choose to direct that cooperation that matters. Japan and Australia in their joint cooperation in the 1980s and 1990s in aid and development assistance, the precursors to a model of 'human security', for example, proffered 'another way' for international roles and actions. We've stepped back from innovation  and originality in international cooperation and fallen for realpolitik orthodoxy. A shame, it was promising while it lasted. 

One more photo doing the rounds in my Japanese twitter timeline really summed up what might be possible, if leaders were courageous: 

Tokyo Shimbun 'Desk Memo'

Essentially, it says that people, win or lose war, will bear grudges; whether through invasion or self-defence. Any country that has the time to argue for constitutional interpretation to allow war, could also have the diplomatic strength to be a country that can avoid war. Of course, these are sentiments that can be interpreted several ways, but let's face it, it takes more courage to stand up and prevent war, rather than ease its passage. 

I continue to write, in hope. And there will be further posts.

The joint media release can be found here in English (DFAT, Australia) and the Japanese one will be posted here shortly when available (MoFA, Japan).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thinking, thinking 1.1

Future Tension in Past/present tense: Thoughts on the way to a posthumous memoir

In May 2014, I put pen to paper finally after mulling for some months, some years. For most of this year I have been out of the classroom. I was ‘owed’ some non-teaching time. I have three months to produce research outputs in order to maintain my position. In the second half of 2014, I will be taking long service leave, the first such time I’ve been in a job long enough to earn long service stripes. I will probably continue to write (I may visit Finland briefly).

I am a retiring academic. Or I am being retired. Basically, having reached fifty at the end of 2013, my race is run, I am no longer a bright young thing; I shall not qualify for ‘early-career research’ advantages. Indeed, given my research, I am no longer considered a research prospect. What I do is not worth supporting according to the researcher zeitgeist which determines these things.

What do I do? I teach, think and research in the area of northeast Asian security but not in ways that generate dollars, or yen. I think and I write about why it is human beings continue to make decisions about going to war. Those who fight—who do the actual combat— and return, it seems are overwhelmed by war’s futility. I’m trying to nut out that problem.

As these posts unfold, I shall discuss the ways and means I arrived at these questions. For many years now, my work has been about politics in all its dimensions. I find it a compelling and intriguing way to ask ourselves the big questions about life, the human condition and the universe. I’ve decided to put it all down now because I have reached a point I feel I must.

My thinking is influenced by many. In recent times, I’ve reached settlement on four key people: Immanuel Kant, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt. These four are at the centre of a complex web of contributors however and over time, many other will appear in this two-dimensional stage play. My key themes are politics and education, thinking and political philosophy. The boundaries are very porous though and aspects of my other lives will weave their respective ways in and out of the main road. These might include, but not be limited to, music, art, photography, sport, politics (oops, mentioned that already), friends, life and death.

But to order the work in some way, I have opted to mimic the collection of essays by Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future. The essays in the volume she wrote are exercises in thinking and ‘their only aim is to gain experience in how to think’ (BPF, 14).
Arendt’s eight essays by and large resonate today and I have decided to follow most of these, but with perhaps a modern refurbishment. Most of these essays, as I read them, could have been written today. For me, this is one of the questions I keep returning to as I take a more philosophical route in my research…why do we continue to ask the same questions and seek the same answers…years, decades, centuries later? From the table of contents, her titles are:

Preface: The Gap Between Past and Future
1.     Tradition and the Modern Age
2.     The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern
3.     What is Authority?
4.     What is Freedom?
5.     The Crisis in Education
6.     The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance
7.     Truth and Politics
8.     The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man

Arendt was a German/Jewish émigré in the United States having left European world war two began to emerge. My circumstances couldn’t be more different. I am Australian, I sit here in a Brisbane suburb having lived a reasonably fortunate life. And yet, I have been most affected by the very questions Arendt asked in her later years…these posts will be my responses.

From the point of view of 21st century Australia and the so-called Asian Century, I think I can address these broad topics as well. What follows will certainly be prognostications on History, Authority, Freedom, Education, Culture, Truth and Politics. Rather than Space, however, I think I need to think about War/Peace…I’m not sure if I will have a Modern Age to describe by the end…we shall see.

This is a slight change of direction for this blog, or perhaps this is where this blog was always going to go. Perhaps, in 2015, it will be a book. It will not rate at all next to the magnitude of Arendt’s works but it will nonetheless, be an exercise in practicing thinking, and I hope she might appreciate that.

It is the reason why I have sought to tentatively call this set of writings:

Future Tension in Past/present tense: Thoughts on the way to a posthumous memoir

Posthumous only in the sense that having been an ‘academic’, a professional thinker, for some years now, I ought to leave something behind, eventually. I’m not going anywhere just yet, nor will I die with a clean sheet of paper in my typewriter as Arendt allegedly did. One of my favourite little aphorisms in Japanese is the expression

‘There are too many things I want to say’

I shall explain this over the next few posts as well. I am at heart, a teacher and writer, challenging the present norm that your value can only be measured by the size of your grant…it’s time I wrote some more.

I am inspired by these writers and thinkers. I do not pretend to be like them. I do not pretend I will have their levels of philosophical sophistication. I just want to say some of the many things I need to say…


Friday, April 25, 2014

...the other 364 days of the year...

Anzac Day, 2014. 

For the Fallen

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest We Forget

--from a poem by Laurence Binyon, 
first published in 1914, in The Times

Anzac Day, 2014. And so it is with today, a day where we commemorate the ill-fated landing at Gallipoli in 1915. It involved Australian and New Zealand soldiers. It has come to stand for all Australian (and New Zealand) deployments to theatres of combat, war and peacekeeping operations. Next year will be the centenary. The country is gearing up for a big event next year, here and at Gallipoli. 

Readers of the #project365 blog will know I attended a special live broadcast at the 612 ABC studio yesterday, where Rebecca Levingston co-hosted a special program with Matt Wordsworth. An edited version of the show will go to air on the Queensland 7.30 program this evening (25 April). It was a thought-provoking evening and I've been giving it some thought for most of the day. 

I always have mixed feelings about Anzac Day. I'm in the business of ending war. I teach an area of international relations, security studies, which is underpinned by political philosophy and thinking which questions the validity and necessity of war; even more difficult: it constantly questions the notion that war is inevitable, 'it is human nature'. It is the subject of philosophical questioning since Aristotle was lad. In 'modern' times, it manifests itself in the debate between Thomas Hobbes who wrote Leviathan (1651; and who is characterised as saying war is inevitable) and Immanuel Kant, author of Perpetual Peace (1795). It is where I am engrossed in my research at present...I don't believe it is necessarily 'human nature' that states must go to war. It is a tough argument to make, the alternative is so much easier. Nonetheless...

When I set out on my academic career, I never envisaged working in this area. Japanese politics was my interest and while I had come close to the sensitivities around Japanese and Australian engagement in the Pacific War in the first half of the 1940s, it was not something I felt I could add to with my work.

In the 1980s, during one of my early sojourns in Japan, I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima Peace Park: the museum as monument to the destruction of the atomic bomb and the iconic dome, the remnants of one of the buildings left behind. I think it has had a major impact on the direction of my work.

Gallipoli veteran from the 75th commemoration

It brings me to the mixed feelings about Anzac Day. Sitting in the studio last night we saw serving defence personnel stating their positions. We saw retired and discharged personnel, stating their contrary and sometimes painfully articulated positions. We saw, overwhelmingly I think, exactly what the 'other 364 days', as the show was subtitled, mean when we take away the hero status, the nationalism, the pride of Anzac Day. This is not a criticism. Although I have my views about the futility of war, I nonetheless respect those who seek to commemorate it in important ways, in ways that matter to them. Indeed, as a community band member, I have played in bands on Anzac Day, whether part of the dawn service, part of the march or the dance band in the sub-branch later in the day...(provided I kept my Japanese-speaking, republican feminist ant-war views to myself (^_^*)...)

Nurses marching, Canberra, 1990
Anzac Day has evolved to become a much bigger commemoration than I remember it growing up. This is a discussion being had in fora across the country at the moment. At school in the 1970s, the senior group each year led a commemoration at the school assembly closest to Anzac Day proper (when the public holiday was always the nearest Monday). I remember watching Vietnam Veterans finally taking their place in Anzac Day marches following their very belated 'welcome home' march in 1987. In 1990, living in Canberra at the time, I went along to the 75th Anniversary service at the Australian War Memorial, the Vietnam Vets there were still feeling awkward, the remaining few Gallipoli vets transported in jeeps. Women too, were finally marching, having their service acknowledged. 

In my years of teaching, I had encountered some returned and retired service personnel who had returned to university to study, many of them veterans of Vietnam, or 'nashos', national service personnel, and occasionally someone who had been on a humanitarian peacekeeping mission. Increasingly, I see in my classes, our new generation of veterans, people in their twenties, returning from service in a futile 'War on Terror', in Afghanistan or Iraq. I hope we we've learnt our Vietnam lessons well and these young men and women do not have ahead of them the experience so many Vietnam vets had. 

Last night, in the ABC studio, it was a mixture of these thoughts running through my mind. 'Why was I there?' as Rebecca asked the question...was some sort of voyeurism I wondered? I've not served. I don't like war. No member of my close family has been involved. I would temper, if I could, the growing nationalist sentiment I see in Anzac commemorations. In the end, it was many things. Yes, I want to continue my work on finding the causes of peace, I'd like to see a mass outbreak of it in fact. I'd like to make war redundant. 

But right now, listening to the stories last night of our returned service personnel, I want, more than most things, to do what I can to acknowledge their service and to value the experiences of those who have been, who subsequently find themselves in my classrooms--those who served, and their families who are also affected on so many levels. Their presence in the classroom changes the dynamic of the discussion when the words in the textbook are lifted off the page by one student who can say she or he was there in Timor, or Iraq or took two tours to Afghanistan. They have seen human nature at its worst, and sometimes, at its best...and in solving the Hobbesian/Kantian puzzle, that's got to count for something. 

As always, it was #ourABC at its very best. Thanks to Rebecca, Matt and everyone who was there. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

'The Life of the Mind'--Reflections on a conference

'The Life of the Mind' -- a book by Hannah Arendt, 
and an encapsulation of why conferences matter.

The expression "political philosophy", which I avoid, is extremely burdened by tradition. When I talk about these things, academically or nonacademically, I always mention that there is a vital tension between philosophy and politics. That is, between man as a thinking being and man as an acting being, there is a tension that does not exist in natural philosophy, for example. Like everyone else, the philosopher can be objective with regard to nature, and when he says what he thinks about it he speaks in the name of all mankind. But he cannot be objective or neutral with regard to politics...


There is a kind of enmity against all politics in most philosophers, with very few exceptions.
 Kant is an exception. 

Hannah Arendt in a conversation with Gunther Grass, 1964 
in The Last Interview and other Conversations, Melville House Publishing, 2013.

For the second year in a row, I have made the big trip across the seas to attend the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference in Chicago. It was, as you might expect, a bit overwhelming for an Australian used to smaller conferences here (500 participants, 300 papers sort of size) to a conference with approximately 6000 participants, that many papers and posters, spread across five sessions and three and a half days. 

I 'accidentally' ended up at my first MPSA Conference last year following an email invitation to consider presenting. As academics, these days we are inundated with rather spammy email encouragements to attend this or that conference somewhere but this was a little different. After researching a little more about the organisation I decided it was about time I explored these international opportunities. It was a good decision (supported by the fact it meant getting over to Chicago, probably my favourite US city). 

It is encouraging, in a way, to see that political scientists from around the world are dealing with similar challenges with their respective areas of research and indeed, the eternal question of how to engage the general population in what we do on a day-to-day basis. It is incredibly valuable to share our cares and concerns in an international setting. As is often the case, it is the chat over coffee in between sessions that can bear out just as much as the more formal dialogue that goes on in session. 

I teach and research across a range of areas, although I like to think there is a common thread through all. What it does mean is that I have very difficult decisions to make as far as choosing panels to attend. No matter, I think the conference could be held over seven days and you still wouldn't get to attend all you wanted to hear. 

Each evening, I spend an hour deliberating, deciding, wishing I could be in four places at once. I have to split my interests across international security, Northeast Asia, domestic politics and foreign policy of Japan, women in politics, politics and pedagogy, political philosophy, psephology, terrorism...not to mention all those other areas I know next to nothing about, but would like to hear and understand. Sometimes, it is a toss of the coin, knowing that choosing one means missing out on least many of the papers end up on the website, eventually.

So many highlights this year but for me perhaps sitting in on two panels discussing Hannah Arendt, one after the other and across the hallway from each other, summed up for me the richness of this sort of engagement. To meet Arendtian scholars at this stage of my own research and thinking was great. I think one of the participants summed up our feelings best at the end of the second session when she said that perhaps one of the things Arendt wanted to come through in her work is that we would do exactly what we were doing...talking about ideas and politics, how we teach it, how we understand what others were thinking. There was a real sense of carrying on a legacy there in the heart of Palmer House in Chicago, I could almost sense Arendt's presence in the room. It was indeed, a 'life of the mind' moment for me. I came away from there already with encouragement and the germ of an idea for my paper proposal for the 73rd Conference; and it was still only day one. 

With such a spread of papers and sessions, sometimes the audiences an be quite small but it allows for marvellous dialogue. It is an embodiment of quality over quantity I think. 

The other sessions which emboldened me to pursue further research were the panels and roundtables on women in politics. Some very interesting discussions on representation and empowerment which relate to my research on women's representation here in Australia and in Japan...there may be a second paper to contribute there next year too. 

There was a further discussion in which I participated, and that was the status of the blog in the academy. That discussion alone has encouraged me to return to this space, on a more regular basis, and keep on posting. There is a perfectly good opportunity here for political scientists to translate our findings and our understanding to these platforms... and I shall do it more regularly. (That is was in the famous Empire Room of Palmer House added a certain richness...)

I remain fascinated by the very quantitative nature of US political science; in other words, many of the panellists are graduate students presenting various stages of their dissertation work and it is nearly always data, dependent and independent variables, binomial regressions and other things of like type...I can see that it is a dissection of empirical evidence to support various hypotheses. As a qualitative theorist and analyst, I find it quite remarkable. I suspect there is definitely a panel on the differences in research traditions across the world too. 

A further aspect of the conference I really respect is the very sincere and thoughtful commentary that chairs and discussants take the time to convey...something I haven't myself quite caught up with...but I will for next year, I promise myself. Typically, the discussant(s) will have read the presenters' papers very closely and offer valuable critique (mostly) of the presentations. I'd like to see this instituted more systematically at our conferences here in Australia. It gives the audience a platform for discussion too.

For me, the conference is a form of professional development. It allows me to tap into research and issues for our discipline that reading journal articles doesn't quite capture. Many in Chicago were surprised I made the trip from Down Under for a 12 minute presentation and a three and a half day conference. I think, if we are to share and benefit from our work, then it is imperative. 

Last year, I was partially funded by my faculty to attend; this year I paid my own way. Universities demand tangible outcomes to all monies wasted spent on activities such as this. That should be in the form of published, refereed top tier journal articles, or enormous research grants, or similar. That might happen, but it might not. I didn't feel I could take the university's money, not knowing what the result might be. Well, not quite, the results of attending such conferences are indeed intangible too, but that doesn't pay in the short-termism of the present university environment. I know that my teaching is enriched by attendance at international conferences, and that ultimately students benefit from that. It is also valuable to see your own work scrutinised by peers on an international level. I also know that I have reached a point in my research that is going to require some time for the work I am doing now to percolate through the system in the form of articles and a book or two. It was an important point in time to attend, the discussion on Hannah Arendt alone was worth enduring 40 hours of flying in six days. Like so many other aspects of our academic life though, what we might see as professional development and what the corporate university is willing to support as such, is getting further and further apart. It is disappointing...this was so much more valuable than a day of workshopping butcher's paper which is increasingly becoming the PD standard...even for us. 

I hope to return again next year. The organisation, the venue, the city, all resound in a vitality and energy that will keep me engaged and encouraged in my work. 

Thanks to all at MPSA and Palmer House.