Friday, September 04, 2020

Roses are red … but all Australian broadcaster’s Jonathan Green sees is foliage fascism

If you listened to ABC Radio National’s Blueprint last Saturday, you would have learned of an alarming development at the highest level of American government. In short, President Donald Trump intends replacing the republic with an absolutist monarchy. How do we know this? Well, according to host Jonathan Green, it is to be found in First Lady Melania Trump’s recent revamping of the White House Rose Garden.

“This once colourful and exuberant and shady space has been replaced by a far more formal and severe planting,” said Green. “We wonder what that might say about – perhaps this is to elevate it beyond its significance, perhaps not – the direction of American democracy.” It is a tad ironical that Green used the royal ‘we’ when decrying the president’s supposedly monarchist ambitions, but I digress.

You might be wondering how the garden in question was altered to give it authoritarian overtones – the installation of a moat, the planting of Honey Locust and Prickly Ash trees along with tropical Manchineels, the toxic sap of which causes the skin to blister, perhaps? No, the most significant changes were merely the removal of a dozen crabapple trees, the replacement of the previous roses with pastels, the installation of a few boxwoods, and the addition of a limestone walking path bordering the central lawn. Oh, and there is the improved drainage as well as providing better access for people with disabilities. Terrible I know.

The changes were all too much for Green, who spoke of a garden which had provided a “shady, friendly sort of space” when the Obamas had occupied the White House. All that had apparently changed under the Trumps. “The trees have gone as well,” lamented Green. “I mean this is quite a bold statement to pull out trees that date back to the Kennedys”.

Likewise, it was quite bold of Green to make a statement that was, well, balderdash. The original crabapple trees were planted during John F. Kennedy’s presidency; however, as confirmed by Marta McDowell, author of “All the Presidents’ Gardens,” they have been replaced three times since. As for the current crabapple trees, they will be planted elsewhere on the White House grounds given they were overshadowing the roses.

But Green was not alone in seeing this as a case of foliage fascism. His guest, Amir Alexander, a UCLA academic, saw parallels in the garden redesign with – wait for it – that of the Sun King. “As it is now it is entirely open, every corner is visible from the Oval Office … all the parterres, all the lines of bushes, the lines of flowers and now also that framework, those aligns of the pathway that line along the sides of the garden, that all of them converge and all of them lean to the West Wing and the Oval Office,” he said. “The language and the implications are directly derived from that style that was invented in Versailles.”

Responding to Alexander’s assertion that the White House now featured a “power garden”, Green was eager to attribute messianic traits to the President. ”What does that kind of garden say about its owner; what does it say about the powerful personage that in its way represents,” he asked.

In response Alexander claimed that previous occupants of the White House were careful to ensure the design of the gardens reflected the appropriate checks on executive power. “Those elements of power, projecting power in that garden, were always tempered by other elements and made sure that even the great power of a President is never compared to the absolute power of a monarch like Louis XIV,” he said. Sacré bleu.

Let’s put this in perspective. The Gardens of Versailles comprise 800 hectares. The White House Rose Gardens is less than one hectare. The former took 40 years to construct, the latter was transformed over three weeks and funding was met by private donations. Do we need any more comparisons to refute these ridiculous analogies?

Noting the White House announcement in July that the revamp of the gardens would be modelled on that carried out during the Kennedy presidency, the Guardian was in full Jacobin mode. “The First Lady’s attempts to restore the past seem to be working, albeit not in the way she may have intended,” sneered Arwa Mahdawi, adding that ‘Marie Antoinette’ had started trending on Twitter after the renovations were announced. “While Melania T may be attempting to channel Jackie O, it looks as though she can’t help giving off strong Marie A vibes.”

“The geometry of the revised garden, the equality of its pavers, belies the inequality of our time; seemingly mocking the chaos wrought by the Trump administration,” wrote Wendy R. Sherman in USA Today. Author and former New York Times senior reporter Kurt Eichenwald, who has numerous times accused the President and his supporters of racism and xenophobia, angrily tweeted the First Lady was a “foreigner” who was trying to “wreck our history”.

It is a depressing reminder of how far activist journalists will go to construct a narrative, irrespective of its implausibility. Perhaps we should have a competition for the silliest appraisal of presidential policy based on a horticultural perspective. I will begin with an edition of The Queenslander dated April 15, 1905, which notes: “A window opened into the White House rear gardens, and gave an excellent and uninterrupted view of the lofty Washington monument about 300 paces distant.” This was during the era of Theodore Roosevelt. Had political commentators observed more closely at the commencement of this presidency, they would have correctly inferred from this seemingly innocuous construction of the gardens that he favoured the Isthmus of Panama as the site for a canal and would support secessionist movements in Colombia in order to realise it.

Then there was this from The Advertiser edition of April 19, 1930, noting the reminisces of the White House’s official gardener, Charles Henlock: “In his long connection with the White House he has seen the conservatories grow from a small glassed-in section of the mansion to thirty greenhouses, twelve of which are wholly devoted to flowers”. My conclusion is that this was a sign of President Herbert Hoover’s inability to respond effectively in the early stages to what became the Great Depression. Also, this surfeit of flowers is indicative of GOP insouciance.

And let’s not forget that on 11 June 1973 the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported that President Richard Nixon was photographed strolling in the White House Rose Garden. Two days later Watergate prosecutors found a White House memo describing plans to break into the office of Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Coincidence? I think not.

Do not laugh, for there are academics in western universities who would consider these examples worthy of a PhD thesis. As for the ABC, the fact Green views the relocation of a dozen crabapple trees as ominous gives you an indication as to how balanced the national broadcaster will be in its coverage of the upcoming presidential election. The White House Rose Garden is to Versailles what ABC is to Australia, you might quip.

But in fairness to Green, the triggering of journalists over goings-on in the White House grounds over absolutely nothing goes back a long way. Writing for Brisbane’s Sunday Mail on April 16, 1950, British journalist Don Iddon told of the alarm and terror he experienced in the US capital.

“When I went for a walk towards the White House, I was startled by what I took to be a burst of machinegun fire,” he wrote. “I thought thugs had moved in with sawn-off shotguns and were wiping out Cabinet members along Pennsylvania Avenue. However, it turned out that the noise came from the pneumatic drills of workmen in the White House gardens.” Iddon survived his scare and went on to live and write for another 29 years. Who knows, maybe there is hope for Green yet.


NSW to demand borders open for farmers

When National Cabinet meets on Friday, NSW will propose borders across the country are reopened for farmers, who face financial ruin as a result of the strict closures.

Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the situation was “at the 11th hour” for producers across NSW, who needed an adequate workforce for the fast approaching harvest season.

“We cannot stand by and watch farmers, crops and businesses face ruin due to the border closure with Victoria,” Mr Barilaro said.

“Agriculture is an essential industry. Our farmers feed and clothe the nation and we must do everything to ensure they can continue to operate as smoothly as possible.”

An Agricultural Workers Code will be presented and considered at the next meeting of National Cabinet on Friday, and at a meeting of Agriculture Ministers on Tuesday.

The code would see new requirements introduced to ensure the safety of farmers and communities by having a COVID Safe Plan in place, the use of PPE by workers and robust record keeping to allow for contact tracing.

There would also be regular voluntary testing for workers under the new code.

Agriculture Minister Adam Wallace said the current situation was unworkable and would further harm primary producers, who are still working to recover from the drought.

“Our farmers have had a gutful of these senseless border restrictions and so have I,” he said.

“As Agriculture Minister I am not going to stand by quietly while our primary producers face failed crops and animal welfare disasters due to well-meaning but impractical road blocks.”

He said the current permit system, which he describes as “cumbersome” restricts the movement of agricultural workers across the NSW/Victoria border beyond 100 kilometres.

“While we have been able to introduce a new permit which has allowed more primary producers to access exemptions, the time has definitely come to remove these restrictions altogether,” he said.


The COVID-19 panic is unnecessary — it is much less threatening than we think

Deutsche Bank analyst Tim Baker was perplexed on Friday, highlighting in a research note to clients the “extent to which Australia and New Zealand stand out for a heavy response to a relatively mild problem”.

“Put simply the Antipodes have coronavirus caseloads at the bottom of the pack but lockdown stringency at the top; governments have chosen to respond with extreme caution,” he said.

In France, about 5000 cases a day are being diagnosed, yet the French government has vowed not to lock down the country again. Indeed, if my friends’ social media accounts are anything to go by, Europe rapidly is getting back to normal. While the flow of cases has rebounded a little, death rates have collapsed.

Meanwhile on Monday, after another 73 new cases were announced in Victoria, Australian Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth said it was unlikely the second six-week lockdown would end on September 13.

What can explain such extreme behaviour, and the extraordinary contrast in attitude, well into a pandemic that has been much less deadly than feared?

A Roy Morgan poll last week found 72 per cent supported Victoria’s 8pm to 5am curfew and 5km restriction. Three-quarters said restaurants, cafes and pubs shouldn’t be able to serve food even with social distancing. Almost 90 per cent wanted masks to be compulsory “when leaving home”. Almost 60 per cent wanted it to remain illegal to visit immediate family. Until this year, the World Health Organisation and senior disease experts advised against all of these actions to combat viral epidemics.

From the perspective of those halcyon days, our response to the coronavirus would be a story befitting Charles Mackay’s classics Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. Masked solo drivers are now a common sight in Sydney.

Perhaps Victorians’ authoritarian tendencies have arisen from extreme — and unjustified — fear of the coronavirus. Even in nations that didn’t mandate tough lockdowns, such as Sweden, economic activity and movement collapsed.

In Britain and Sweden the public thinks 6 per cent to 7 per cent of the population has died, which would be 3.6 million and 600,000 people, respectively. The figures are 41,500 and 5800. Interestingly, Sweden’s overall mortality for this year, adjusted for population size, is barely distinguishable from previous years.

Franklin Templeton, a US investment manager, recently conducted a survey of Americans that left its chief investment officer stunned. About 70 per cent of all age groups said they were worried about contracting “serious health effects” from the virus, a “staggering discrepancy with the actual mortality data”. “For people aged 18 to 24 the share of whose worried about health consequences is 400 times higher than their share of total COVID deaths, for 25 to 34 it’s 90 times,” Sonal Desai said.

“The misperception is greater for those who identify as Democrats and for those who rely more on social media for information.”

As growth of cases slows, as it has everywhere, many Victorians will attribute the decline wholly to the lockdown, to the wisdom of the state government, a classic logical fallacy but politically powerful.

Looking at data from 23 countries and 25 US states, economists from the US Federal Reserve and the University of California last month found growth rates of coronavirus deaths surged and dissipated rapidly everywhere, not­with­standing government policy.

“Given that transmission rates for COVID-19 fell virtually everywhere in the world during this early pandemic period, we are concerned that studies may substantially overstate the role of government-mandated shutdowns in reducing disease transmission,” they wrote.

Humans spontaneously took action to avoid viruses, whatever government said, they reasoned, and “unexplained natural forces” also accounted for the decline in transmission. Seven of the eight influenza pandemics since 1700 fizzled out without any government action. “Unfortunately, each of those seven had a second substantial peak approximately six months after the first,” they did add, somewhat ominously. “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence clamorous to be led to safety,” American journalist HL Mencken wrote.

Fear might be helpful in eliciting compliance with public health measures — and for attracting clicks to online news articles — but it’s a disaster for economic activity and the livelihoods of swathes of the population who would like to get on with their life.

If most people significantly over-estimate the risk of coronavirus in a year’s time, they will not travel or consume in anything like the way they used to. Life will be a lot less pleasant. For now, JobKeeper and JobSeeker have papered over the economic damage wrought by lockdowns and fear.

George Orwell worried that man’s future was a boot stamping on his face. If the government doesn’t rectify such misplaced fear, it may end up being a mask.


Our universities would fail any basic ethics test

Leading up to and during the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, some high-profile university academics weighed into the debate.

Appalled by what they regarded as egregious conduct by a number of financial institutions, the argument was put that a royal commission was needed and stiff punitive and regulatory action required to deal with the misconduct.

Last week, Professor Ian Harper delivered a lecture in which he queried his views on financial deregulation. (He had been a panel member of the Wallis inquiry that recommended deregulation subject to light-handed rules and compliance.)

“Having championed disclosure as a strong deterrent of unethical behaviour in financial markets, I was dismayed to witness the litany of shameful behaviour uncovered by the Hayne royal commission. Had I thought more about the need for strong ethical foundations, I might have been more circumspect about the need for ongoing regulation.”

But, given that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, it is a bit rich for academics to be picking on financial services when it is very clear that universities operate in a larger amoral space.

The concepts of values and culture – terms that Commissioner Hayne emphasised as being crucial for financial services – are largely absent in the way universities operate.

In the long list of royal commissions, is there a case for one into the conduct of universities in order to expose instances of misconduct?

On Sunday the Morrison government announced it would launch an inquiry into foreign interference in Australian universities, but it needs to be broader than that. Obvious issues include the recruitment and treatment of international students, the dilution of educational standards, the casualisation and underpayment of staff, the feeble commitment to free speech and the selective take-up of tied funding.

International students have been the cash cow for universities and in the decade from 2009, international student fee revenue rose more than 250 per cent. On a per capita basis, we have had the highest number of international students of any country. The principal source countries have been China, India, Nepal, Brazil and Vietnam.

Most are recruited by overseas-based, essentially unregulated agents. We know little about the inducements used to secure enrolments, and little about the accuracy of the information provided to potential students about prospects for employment while studying and after graduation, or about the chances of students eventually obtaining permanent residence.

In exchange for a percentage of the fees paid by these students, these agents have strong incentives to make possibly unrealistically positive cases to them.

Some recent material related to Indian students studying in New Zealand has been revealing. It’s clear that some agents use coercive tactics and add large dollops of misinformation to secure enrolments – promises of well-paid employment and an easy pathway to permanent residence.

The reality is Indian students in New Zealand disproportionately exploited in the labour market, often by employers who arrived from India some time ago. The path to permanent residency is often uncertain and tortuous.

And there is clear evidence that pass marks have been adjusted to ensure international students do not fail. Cheating is common, with students buying assignments undertaken by third parties, as is the practice of contrived group assignments in which international students are placed in groups with able domestic students.

The dip in standards is not confined to international students. When universities admit students with low scores – it has been common for students to be admitted to teaching degrees with ATARs well below 50 – you know something is wrong. Being unsuited to university study, these students fail and drop out at higher rates. Money triumphs over principle.

Then there is the growing casualisation of teaching staff. The extent of this is unclear as senior management has an incentive to keep the figures under wraps.

In recent months, it has become clear that there has been significant underpayment of casual staff members, in part due to inappropriate classifications but also to insufficient pay for preparation and marking. Sydney University, for instance, has agreed to pay almost $10m in back pay to casual staff.

The fact that many vice-chancellors have been slow to implement the model free speech code recommended by Robert French in his review commissioned by the federal government is also telling. The commitment to free speech within many universities is very dependent on who is talking and what is being said.

Tied funding is a vexed issue particularly for some academic staff. But compare the operation of a number of Confucius Institutes at Australian universities with the debate over the Ramsay Centres for Western Civilisation.

A mixture of language teaching and propaganda, the Confucius Institutes appoint their own staff members and are essentially unsupervised. The fact that some universities have baulked at the conditions that these centres demand is telling.

Recall also the controversy surrounding the proposal for an Australian Consensus Centre by Bjorn Lomborg, the respected Danish climate change researcher. In the end, the enterprise died because no university vice-chancellor was prepared to stand up to the opposition of a small clique of staff members.

The bottom line is that much of the conduct of Australian universities does not meet the ethical standards our community rightly expects. Rather than serving the core mission of universities to provide excellent teaching and research, too many practices lack any moral basis and are undertaken to raise money.

Of course, the federal government has contributed by providing international students with easy entry and pathways to permanent residence. And international student fee revenue has also relieved the taxpayer of some spending. But the regulation of higher education is an ineffective, box-ticking exercise.

The result is extraordinarily well-paid senior university managers, growth of non-academic staff numbers at the expense of academics, and excessive investment in campuses and glittering new buildings, many of which will not be needed in the digital age.

The fact that many ordinary folk neither trust nor care about universities should come as no surprise.

A royal commission into higher education would be very revealing.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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