A festival of books


Greetings from Flight 575, heading south from Colombia across Ecuador and Peru along the earth’s longest fold, the Andes.  I’m en route for Chile, and tomorrow across the colder part of the South Pacific Ocean to Australia. We are just passing another complex of mountains, their separate snow tops so brilliant they are almost blue. Between them are tremendous gorges, with slim rivers far in the depth; I can imagine how cold the water is, even here near the equator.
I am coming home from a Festival of Books. In fact I have been a minor Festival attraction, speaking (via Spanish translators) to several hundred people, at a couple of sessions. Two of my books are on sale.  Perhaps mercifully, I haven’t heard if anyone bought them.
At the fair: the entrance to a book pavilion
The annual Bogotá Feria del Libro really is a festival, a fête, a fair. It’s held on a fairground, complete with sideshows, one featuring early Chaplin movies in black and white flickers. There is fast food, a brass band, young lovers strolling, and hordes of kids.  The kids are mostly teenagers in groups wearing their school uniforms. For the younger ones there is a display of dazzlingly-coloured books and toys in a big space in the main pavilion. Catch them young!
But the main thrust of the festival – a really mixed metaphor there, folks! – is the books. There are displays of everything from Spanish versions of Harry Potter, to local fiction and poetry, to treatises on agricultural hydrology, regional history, and the rest. There is a fine Book Bus, showing how to take them to the people. Through the day, through several weeks in fact, runs a continuous programme of book launches, talks by authors, interviews, debates on current issues, and more.
Go, the Book Bus! NB a naval officer considering his literary choices
I’m impressed by how many university presses there are in Colombia. There are broad-spectrum lists on display from the Universidad Nacional (public) and the Universidad de los Andes (wealthy private).  There are a lot of others, offering rather more restricted fare – religious universities, secular universities, technical colleges, and so on.
What I definitely didn’t expect among the university displays was a booth for the publishing arm of the Escuela Superior de la Guerra – the armed forces’ War College.  This offers to the public a few titles giving the military’s interpretation of the recent armed conflict. (Doubtless they also print manuals on how to kill efficiently, not for sale to the public.) Full marks to them for exposing themselves to the fête. They were having a couple of book launches, attended by a platoon of officers in parade uniform. I spotted a full Colonel and possibly an Admiral, unfazed by the swirling crowds of high school kids and young lovers.
The military were of interest, because after the Feria I visited the Caribbean coast for a few days, and spoke there with organizations involved in the peace process. The long civil war in Colombia, which has roots in land struggles fifty years back, has been deadlocked.  It produced massive trauma in the countryside, not least because local power-holders and right-wing activists have recruited private armies, known as ‘paramilitares’, who can be more brutal and erratic than the regular army.
The armed political groups sometimes overlap with cocaine networks, which are also armed and violent. The scene is enmeshed with the U.S. war on drugs as well as the U.S. war on communism.
Recently a comprehensive peace deal was signed between the national government and the main guerrilla group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). But the agreement was opposed by other forces, including right-wing politicians from the ruling class, and the conservative churches. The churches objected to the deal because it included gender equity and sexual rights. They succeeded in defeating the referendum that was called to approve the peace agreement.
(Why would the religion of peace try to sabotage peace? It’s one of the mysteries of modern life why so many churches have recently become obsessed with gender and sexuality. From Catholic circles in particular has come a weird campaign against “gender theory” or “gender ideology” – a topic which troubled none of the Four Evangelists, as far as I remember, nor Saint Thomas Aquinas. Some early stirrings of this politics were heard at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. It is now a coordinated international campaign against feminism and gay rights. We have had doses of it in Australia, in the vicious political attacks on the Safe Schools programme, and then in the failed attempt to block marriage equality.)
Back to Colombia. The peace process has gone ahead. Alongside disarmament, land rights, regional development, and political incorporation of the guerrilla forces, it does include some measures concerned with gender equity.  A complex structure of courts, agencies, councils and consultative bodies, both national and regional, has been set up to implement the peace. (Too complex, some of my colleagues think.) The difficulty is to make this structure work in practice. The elite-controlled political system, and the long insurrection, have left a great deal of injustice, loss, displacement and fear.
I had the great privilege of meeting three groups involved in social change at the local level, and holding long discussions with them. Their key current issue is to broaden participation in the peace process. This means involving groups normally outside the Colombian political system – especially, groups of women.
At a meeting with women's group
There are obstacles in plenty: lack of money, lack of know-how, husbands opposed to wives’ adventuring outside the home, and local power-brokers defending their turf. There is a continuing threat of violence. This is not a small matter: since the peace accords there have been at least a hundred murders of community activists, probably by contract killers.
But something is stirring.  In the groups I met, the discussions were engaged and lively, sometimes humorous, with a lot of sharing of direct experience.  They covered background issues, on which I was able to offer some information. But above all they were concerned with practicality – what should we be doing now? What will actually work?
Where these discussions will lead in the long run, I cannot guess. Yet I felt I was getting a glimpse of a real democratic process, growing in the most difficult of conditions.

Shaking the Milk


A week ago I was in my kitchen at breakfast time, opening the refrigerator door and getting out a bottle of milk.  I turned around and began to walk back to the bench, shaking the milk bottle up and down.

And stopped.  I had been shaking the milk without thinking.  But now thought.  It must be thirty years since the milk at the grocer’s – I mean the mini-mart – has all been homogenized, and needs no shaking.  My hand had remembered.

Milk used to come in glass pint bottles, with foil tops, which you could either tear off quickly – usually a bad idea – or remove by a kind of twist-and-wriggle.  This made the top come off whole, so it could be parked on top again when you put the bottle back in the refrigerator.
Source: Adelaiderememberwhen

There were two colours of foil top, gold and silver.  Our family always got the silver.  I think the gold had more cream.  This was Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s; I believe the colour coding in other places was different.

Either colour, after opening you could pour off the Top of the Milk, which was heavy with cream and so a treat.  But then the next person got thinner milk, and the next person even thinner.  And in our family, that was Not On.  Everyone was entitled to their fair share of the cream.

So the first person to use any bottle had the moral obligation of Shaking the Milk, to distribute the cream molecules evenly through the watery molecules.  And that meant really shaking it.  No cheating!

Primitive socialism - a whole ethic in a gesture.  No wonder my hand remembered.

Sex, Fear and Faction: Australia's Bizarre Marriage Survey




Australia is currently in the midst of an official survey of opinion about who can get married.  It’s run by the national census office (the Australian Bureau of Statistics) - but it’s not a census.  It’s about a proposal for legal change - but it’s not a vote or referendum.  It’s about allowing lesbian and gay couples to get legally married - but lesbian and gay advocates opposed holding it.  It’s going to cost 122 million dollars - but the people who launched it will probably disregard its result.
A situation so bizarre must involve the Murdoch press and the new Right. And this one certainly does.  It comes out of a complicated series of manoevres in the national parliament, by which the hard-right faction in the ruling Liberal Party has tried to deny or delay marriage equality.
With support from the rural-conservative National Party and the Murdoch-owned media, this faction in recent years has been running a number of culture-war campaigns.  They are against climate science, against multiculturalism, and against sex education. Marriage equality joins the list.
A free vote in the national parliament would suffice to change the law. Public opinion now seems to support this. Therefore the hard-right faction has tried to prevent a vote in parliament.  One tactic was to propose a national referendum on the issue.  Other parties blocked this.
At which point the government came up with the ripe idea of holding an official postal survey, more exactly, a one-question postal opinion poll.  It could do this without new legislation, using funds supposed to be held for an unforeseen emergency (a move recently declared legal by the High Court).
No social scientist would think this is a sound way to find out what the nation thinks.  Postal surveys usually have a low response rate and many biases.  Individual opinion items have low reliability. Response patterns are strongly affected by the specific wording of poll items.
Nor would a lawyer be impressed.  The survey outcome will have no legal effect at all.  It doesn’t compel parliament to act, let alone follow the survey majority.  It’s clear that some parliamentarians will not be swayed whatever the result.
What the survey does achieve is to create a magnificent occasion for the far right to mobilize hatred and fear.  This is now happening.  The formal ‘No’ campaign has mostly tried to scare people with imaginary disasters for ‘the family’, for schools, for children, and for religious freedom, which are supposed to follow from marriage equality.  The logic is a trifle obscure, but the intent to raise fears is clear.  The informal campaign, the dog-whistling and hate speech, is where the underlying masculinity politics and homophobia surface.
This pattern is not original to Australia.  Though this is not discussed in the Australian media, for the past few years there has been a new kind of international backlash campaign against feminism, women’s sexual rights, gay rights, queer culture and transsexuality.  It is promoted by both Catholic militants and Protestant fundamentalists, who link these targets under the interesting name “gender theory”.
This movement has been particularly active in Latin America and Eastern Europe, though it has also been seen in France, the USA (remember the weird “bathroom bans” against trans people?), and elsewhere.  It surfaced in Australia in a highly abusive campaign in 2016 against the Safe Schools programme (an anti-bullying programme to reduce homophobia in schools).  It is now in full bore with the No campaign on marriage equality.
Because the No campaign can’t make a direct attack on human rights, to mobilize participants in the survey it relies mainly on creating fear among religious communities.  Some religious leaders are willing to help.  I heard one bishop on the radio making an awkward plea for a No vote on the grounds that the survey question didn’t specify protections for religious freedom.
I have known a number of bishops in my time, and most of them are competent professionals.  I sympathised with this gentleman, because if he is competent at being a bishop, he must know that marriage equality in other countries – including New Zealand next door – has not had the slightest effect on religious freedom.
This is a small example of a common problem.  Here’s another example.  In the No campaign we hear frequent claims that having gay parents is damaging for children.  There is adequate research on this question, and the claim is known to be false.
But denying the findings of systematic research is a feature of culture-wars campaigns.  What is claimed to be true is what the campaigners wish to be true.  I don’t think the campaigners are necessarily lying, in the sense of deliberate denial of the facts.  It’s more that the facts have ceased to hold much interest for them.  They construct a world via emotions of resentment, fear and hostility.
This is not so much post-truth politics as truth-free politics.  But curiously it always comes around to favouring the interests of rich, white, heterosexual men with shares in fossil fuel companies.  I wonder why that could be?

Re-making the global economy of knowledge

The latest report from our study of intellectual workers and knowledge production in Brazil, South Africa and Australia has just been published online:
Connell, Raewyn, Rebecca Pearse, Fran Collyer, João Maia and Robert Morrell. 2017. Re-making the global economy of knowledge: do new fields of research change the structure of North-South relations? British Journal of Sociology, published online August 2017, DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12294.
This has a paywall.  The penultimate text is available open access on my website, here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B7PfMzZfEk7vTmxyNkZGRDZFYms .
This paper reports interviews with experienced researchers in the fields of  HIV/AIDS, Climate Change, and Gender Studies about the dynamics of these domains and changing global relations of knowledge.  Here are the section headings, after (of course) Introduction and Method:
Making new domains of knowledge
Instituting global hierarchy in new domains
            Resource inequality
            Forming a workforce
            Intellectual structure
Tensions in the global economy of knowledge
Initiatives in the Southern tier
Reflection

Back to Top