Thursday, July 17, 2003

Word of the Day: Community

The Macquarie Dictionary records several usages of this word, but there's one in particular that seems to get Shadow Prime Minister Peter Costello's goat:

3. a group of people within a society with a shared ethnic or cultural background, especially within a larger society: Sydney's Chinese community.

Here's what he had to say on this usage of the word "community" in his recent speech to the Sydney Institute:

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher famously declared: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

This is an extremely individualistic view of the world. And she received a lot of criticism over this statement.

At the other end of the spectrum are the collective views of the world usually held by politicians of the left who want to submerge individuals into groups of one kind or another. One clear giveaway is the tendency to put the word "community" after everything. Joan Kirner was a classic example of this. She was forever talking about the "Victorian community", the "artistic community", the "ethnic community", the "Greek community", the "business community" etc., etc. In this view of the world there are no longer individuals who are artists or Greeks or businessmen. There are a series of groups into which individuals are divided and treated together. It is assumed that they have a uniformity of opinion because they share a particular characteristic even though they might never have met, have no desire to do so, and have very different perspectives.

You'll note that the habit Mr Costello objects to is that of putting the word "community" after everything. There's one significant exception, which the following examples ought to illustrate:

JOHN HOWARD: Well that's just Peter Beattie. I mean, Peter Beattie is running a very political campaign on this. Let's call a spade a spade. I mean, I don't, I mean, Peter Beattie, that's, he's running a political game on this. It's an appointment made by the government of another political stripe. He really is running a very political game on this, and using parliamentary privilege to attack Dr Hollingworth.

I'm not going to get into that game. Dr Hollingworth has given an enormous amount to the underprivileged in the Australian community and I think people like Peter Beattie forget that in their zeal to traduce the reputation of a person who has in the past given a great deal.
[my emphasis]
John Howard talking on AM, May 14 2003.

The Government strongly believes that the decision it's taken is right, it is legal, it is directed towards the protection of the Australian national interest, and [I] ask the Australian community to support it. [my emphasis]
John Howard again, this time announcing his decision to deploy Australian forces in Iraq.

Did I say one significant exception? Here's another:

I wish her well, I thank her for all the joy and thrills she's brought to her sport and to Australia and particularly the credit that her dignified performances have brought to the indigenous community of our country.
John Howard again, commenting on Cathy Freeman's retirement.

Bugger me, here's another:

JOHN HOWARD: The threat of North Korea is real, but like all threats it has to be dealt with in a careful and sober fashion, through a combination of steady diplomacy, and those nations that can most influence the behaviour of North Korea are speaking with a common voice, expressing a common view and a common exhortation to North Korea that her best interests lie in returning to the world community and to an acceptable mode of behaviour so far as nuclear weaponry is concerned.
John Howard on PM, 16 July.

Could John Howard be a closet lefty, a fellow traveller with Joan Kirner? Or is Peter Costello talking through his fundament? Tough call, isn't it?

Hello There!

Since I added Sitemeter to the blog, I've been having a little fun back-tracking through the referrals to see who's linking to my site. And making the obligatory additions to the blog roll.

Anyway, an overdue "Hello There!" to everyone who's been coming here from Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Electrolite and a less overdue one to readers of Jeremy Osner's READIN. Also to the person who cam via the link at Brad De Long's Semi-Daily Journal, and the person who came via the Sydney Morning Herald breaking news page - although every time I go there looking for the link to Tug Boat Potemkin, it seems to have disappeared again.

And an extra special Hello if you came here from a Google search for "tug boat". I'll bet you're really pissed off right now, especially if you've taken the trouble to get this page translated into Spanish.

Update: I should have known that someone was going to ask what Tire Del Barco Potemkin looks like. Anyone know where I can hunt up a good English to Russian translator?

Monday, July 14, 2003

Tips for Young Witch Hunters

5. Faint heart ne'er won true confession.

But if neither threats nor such promises will induce her to confess the truth, then the officers must proceed with the sentence, and she must by examined, not in any new or exquisite manner, but in the usual way, lightly or heavily according as the nature of her crimes demands. And while she is being questioned about each several point, let her be often and frequently exposed to torture, beginning with the more gentle of them; for the Judge should not be too hasty to proceed to the graver kind. And while this is being done, let the Notary write all down, how she is tortured and what questions are asked and how she answers.

And note that, if she confesses under torture, she should then be taken to another place and questioned anew, so that she does not confess only under the stress of torture.

The next step of the Judge should be that, if after being fittingly tortured she refuses to confess the truth, he should have other engines of torture brought before her, and tell her that she will have to endure these if she does not confess. If then she is not induced by terror to confess, the torture must be continued on the second or third day, but not repeated at that present time unless there should be some fresh indication of its probable success.

The Malleus Maleficarum, Part III., Second Head, Question XIV: Of the Method of Sentencing the Accused to be Questioned: and How she must be Questioned on the First Day; and Whether she may be Promised her Life. The Ninth Action

Language, Libertarianism & Ludwig

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (?)

The trouble is that, if someone did write such a work, very few people would recognise its seriousness. Take for example, the comments on this post by John Quiggin on the subject of libertarianism, where with serious intent but flippant tone I posted the following comment:

Re: The moral argument is simply: All used things are owned (by definition).

That's a very interesting use of language. Which prompts me to pose a simple question: if I pick up a stone off the ground, and use it to break a window (by throwing it) do I acquire property rights in the stone? Or is it in fact morally wrong to do this, because I have used a thing which I do not own?

PS - for the sake of this example, please assume that the window is my own, as is the house it is on. There may be any number of reasons why I might choose to break my own windows but the simple assumption of lunacy will do for now.

This brought on a number of replies from libertarians; the upshot is that the stone becomes my property through the application of the "homesteading" principle, although it might be a little impractical to enforce. Especially if the window through which I lobbed the stone were someone else's, such as my neighbours.

I'm not going to complain about the subsequent comments missing the main point of the comment; when a point has been missed it's usually because it wasn't well made in the first place. After all, whatever can be said at all can be said clearly. Tedious as it is, I'm just going to have to put in the time to expand on the comment and raise the issues I hoped people might start thinking about explicitly, however much I might feel that this is going to be a lot like explaining to a particularly dull-witted child how to count on his fingers.

Reading the various arguments that have been offered by libertarians - whether they be moral libertarians defending the primacy of property rights over all others, or utilitarian/consequentialist libertarians defending property rights on whatever basis utilitarian/consequentialist libertarians defend property, it's difficult not to conclude that, while they might not be using a private language, they are using a demotic or dialect of their very own. Just as Marxists do. And when they attempt to translate from that demotic into the sort of ordinary language that the rest of us use, they get in trouble. Just as Marxists do. 24601's summation of the moral argument for property rights is a very good example; as I hinted in my response, the ordinary senses of the words "use", "thing" and "own" aren't up to the job of making the moral case for property.

At this point, it's usually considered obligatory to insert an extensive passage of very earnest argument on the various senses each of the words in question - "use", "thing" and "own" - might take in different contexts. I think it's sufficient to note that, in ordinary usage, language might be referred to as a "thing", just as a window or a stone might; that we use language when we speak or write; and that, langauge is the social institution par excellence. The notion of "owning" a language is patently ridiculous - if language could be made property, it would cease to function as language (following Wittgenstein, I will assert that a private language is no language at all). So, in language, we have an example of a thing that is used which is not owned, and, by definition cannot be owned. I think you'll agree that's a pretty telling counter-example to the assertion that "all used things are owned (by definition)", and that getting it across in a single paragraph is a nice piece of philosophical work.

I did have a few more things to say on this topic, but I might save those for later; right now I'd rather quit while I'm on a roll.