Saturday, January 14, 2006

Simply Rotten

I didn't make any New Year's Eve resolutions this year, unless you count "First thing Tuesday I'm getting something done about this bloody tooth" which would make this year my first 100% success for keeping New Year's resolutions. A marked contrast to that disastrous resolution I made in the early eighties (I was totally shit-faced at the time) that "This year I'm going to get a lot more of the other". 100% failure on that one - it brought on a drought of El Ninõ proportions. The fact that I started cleaning up at the regular Friday evening office poker game was little consolation.

One resolution I have made recently is, once again, to cut back a bit on the on-line time but that has nothing to do with this being the first Year of the rest of my life; it's about the exorbitant amount I'm paying for all the time I spend on the web. That resolution got a bit dented when I got around to actually reading the Age I picked up this morning, after watching Thunderbirds on Channel 9 - insomnia again. I went to bed last night thinking that the phantom tooth pain was going away at last - instead, it underwent a weird mitosis and migrated into the two teeth adjacent to the gum crater. They were busily jostling to take possession of the vacant space before one of those poncy ceramic prosthetics moved in and their familiar tumbledown neighbourhood got all gentrified.

After ten days of enduring the world's most trivial agony, I'm feeling pretty pissed off. So I think I can finally produce that post on Phil Ruddock that I've tried to write, on and off, for several months. Our hollow, stuffed Attorney-General, his headpiece filled with straw, his shrivelled conscience pinned to the lapel of his jacket for all the world to see. I despise him.

I've tried, at least occasionally, to look on him as a man of principle who kind of lost his way but it's simply impossible. The first time was when I read an op-ed in The Australian, where the writer bemoaned how the Phil Ruddock he used to know had been ruined by his tenure as Minister for Immigration. Another time was when I saw the story of the split in Ruddock's family over his handling of the Immigration portfolio on Australian Story. I'm still tempted to look for something redeeming about the bloke when I see him interviewed on TV news and current affairs. But it's bloody impossible - he went to dinner with the devil and forgot to take his own cutlery. Just how low he's sunk showed up in this report on page 3 of today's Age:

THE Federal Government has moved to obstruct gay couples wanting to get married in countries that recognise same-sex nuptials.

The Attorney-General's Department last year told at least two of Australia's embassies in Europe to refuse help to citizens requiring proof of their single status for a same-sex marriage...

This comes on top of news on January 7, that:

... After shutting the door on gay nuptials, the Federal Government is clamping down on heterosexuals who deviate from a traditional wedding script.

In a series of edicts to civil celebrants that overturn at least 30 years of accepted practice, the Attorney-General's Department insists couples must exchange vows only as "husband" and "wife". Celebrants must also remind everyone that "marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman".

(Julie Szego, The Age)

It's worth noting that, in both cases, Ruddock comes up clean under the current conventions on ministerial responsibility; it was the Attorney-General's Department, rather than the Attorney-General, which blocked consular assistance to gay couples seeking to marry overseas and issued the edicts to civil celebrants. In both cases, the Attorney-General's view on the actions of his department came via a spokesperson. On gay marriages overseas, the Attorney-Generals spokeswoman:

... said one purpose of the certificates was to certify a proposed marriage would be valid in Australia.

And on the instructions to civil celebrants a spokeswoman said:

... the Government is simply ensuring the country's growing number of civil celebrants understand their legal obligations ...

There's a couple of statements of principle delivered with all the ringing conviction of Pontius Pilate sending for a handbasin and towel.

I won't deny that these spiteful, petty intrusions into the lives of ordinary Australians can be justified - they are reminders of the legal basis of marriage in Australia and the tradition that underlies them. In their mean little way, both are defences of that tradition. So is the new policy requiring married couples to undergo three hours of compulsory counselling before heading off to the family court. Whether the last will amount to anything more than a gravy train for the organisations that win tenders to run the counselling centres is moot. All three of these defences of the tradition of marriage in Australia are idiotic.

Ruddock's willingness, on behalf of the Government, to accept his Department's obstruction of gay marriages overseas is of a piece with his equal willingness to accept more serious infringements on the rights of Australian citizens who just happen to be offside with government sponsored mainstream opinion. I refer of course to Mamdou Habib and David Hicks. It's of a piece with the willingness he showed, as Immigration Minister, to dump "criminal non-citizens" on countries they had not seen since childhood - a practice that was recently found unlawful by a couple of Federal Court judges (in the Nystrom case). A High Court challenge to this decision is still pending - it would be interesting to see what happens if the High Court upholds the Federal Court's ruling.

Because then we would have as Attorney-General, a man who will have been found by the highest court in the country to have acted outside the law in several cases where he exercised his Ministerial discretion to get rid of one of those "people like that" that we don't want in Australia. I like to think that his position as Attorney-General would become unsustainable. In wildly optimistic moments I imagine him being replaced by either a Burkean conservative or a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, either of which would be an improvement. The trouble is, off the top of my head, I can't think of any candidates who fit either bill.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Questionable Consolations of Philosophy

257. "What would it be like if human beings shewed no outward signs of pain (did not groan, grimace, etc)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the meaning of the word 'tooth-ache'." - Well, let's assume the child is a genius and itself invents a name for the sensation! - But then, of course, he couldn't make himself understood when he used the word. - So how does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone? - but what does it mean to say that he has 'named his pain'? How has he done this naming of pain?! And whatever he did, what was its purpose? When one says "He gave a name to his sensation" one forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone's having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word "pain"; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.

665. Imagine someone pointing to his cheek with an expression of pain and saying "abracadabra!" - We ask "What do you mean?" And he answers "I meant toothache". You at once think to yourself: How can anyone mean 'toothache' by that word? Or what did it
mean to mean pain by that word? And yet, in a different context you would have asserted that the mental activity of meaning such-and-such was just what was most important in using language.

But - can't I say "By 'abracadabra' I mean toothache"? Of course I can; but this is a definition; not a description of what goes on in me when I utter the word.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

And then 'abracadabra' might be a good enough name for the sensation you're left with after the source of a toothache is gone. For what it's worth, Wittgenstein pays a lot less attention to the philosophical issues raised by headaches:

314. It shews a fundamental misunderstanding, if I am inclined to study the headache I have now in order to get clear about the philosophical problem of sensation.

I reckon he's on the money there but it would be a different story had he suffered from migraines.