Pages

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Extreme views get all the attention

This blogpost started as a reflection on what happened to journalist and academic Peter van Onselen on Twitter earlier this week. It started with two tweets, one from Sky News presenter Paul Murray, who, at 10.43pm on 15 August, displayed zero understanding of history when he tweeted: “The modern culture doesn't understand WWII. Too many of this generation want socialism and don't understand what their relatives fought for and that's why we speak up about it.”

Australia of course fought in WWII an alliance that included the USSR, which practised a brand of socialism. Realpolitik in the years following WWII led to a turn-around in the priorities of the US, Australia’s ally, and also to the Cold War, which saw the USSR and the US conducting proxy wars all around the world in an effort to counteract the viability of their adversary’s political program. So Murray was sort of half right but probably just seriously misguided due to general ignorance.

Then van Onselen joined the conversation at 9.34pm on 16 August: “There have been plenty of criticisms of Paul I've been reading on social media, pointing out Hitler was a fascist not a socialist. Nazism is national socialism which is considered a branch of socialism.” The reaction from the public was swift and decisive and included learned contradictions pointing out the historical fallacy at work in what van Onselen had tweeted. It did seem strange that a person who occupied the positions he does could be once again so ignorant of basic facts of history, but there you go. In response to the reaction, van Onselen tweeted that he was overwhelmed by the negative response and said he would no longer interact with people on social media.

At 9.06am on 17 August, van Onselen tweeted to Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley: “Yours is the only tweet I’m responding to, I said I’m no longer using twitter [sic] for more than posts [because] the vile abuse I’ve received has stunned me. The left right spectrum is more of a curved U leaving extreme left & right with much in common. That’s all I was saying. Signing off.”

On 6 July, I published a blogpost about politics titled ‘People outsource their critical faculties to political parties’ in which I developed ideas about the way stories are deployed on social media, that I had started building the previous month. And it’s true. The van Onselen debacle shows us that people are highly partisan and aggressive when riled to action. They don’t like being made to think. Only the most extreme expressions of opinion are rewarded by attention, and the public sphere is different now as a result of this dynamic.

The appointment this month to the Canberra press gallery of the second journalist associated with ‘Independent Australia’, a partisan, left-wing news outlet, tells us that things have changed forever. In related news, The Guardian announced in July that it had earned more from online revenues than from print ads and events for the first time ever. The company says it will break even by the end of next year. Both of these outlets espouse left-wing views in their journalism.

The sensible centre is being hollowed out as people take sides and reward the outlets that buttress their personal biases with their cash. But partisanship is not good for democracy. What we need are outlets that look at individual policies and judge them based on their merits, not on the basis of whether we support the political party that espouses them. The old left-right tango is a dead end (as I posted on 21 July). If Labor win the election in 2019 they still have to go to the polls again in 2022 and, if they win that contest, again in 2025.

We need to find a way to privilege policies, not pick winners. The old method of newspapers taking sides at election time and backing one horse over the other is a paradigm associated with the bad old days of the past. A new model of journalism and a new type of debate is needed that allows people to dissociated themselves from the policy-making machines that are political parties, and to think for themselves. It is up to each of us to choose our own destiny or else choice might be taken away from us by some demagogue coming at us from the extreme left or the extreme right down the track.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Book review: Confessions of the Fox, Jordy Rosenberg (2018)

This ambitious experimental novel presses all the buttons in the progressive control panel, the one that generates soundbites for public “debates” that take place on social media. (They’re not debates, they’re actually pile-ons and slug-fests for the hyper-partisan who otherwise live peacefully in our communities.) The author is a transsexual academic who has done a lot of reading for this book and his erudition shows. The bulk of the work is fantastically realised and you actually feel as though you are living in 18th century London, with its smells, sounds and residents all powerfully realised in the author’s flexible prose.

But the ideological bias that informs the work is actually also the cause of its downfall. I got about 45 percent of the way through the book before becoming disillusioned. If only the author had tried a little less hard to make his points, I thought glumly as I decided, one morning, to write this review rather than pick up the book again. If only he’d been a bit less “correct”.

The problems start with the way that Jack Sheppard (who is actually a girl her mother commits to indentured servitude with a London carpenter in October 1713) is treated by his master, whose name is Kneebone. The man shackles the girl to her bed at night so that she won’t escape, and this poor treatment inspires Jack to flee one night, having picked the lock on the device with a file she normally uses for her work. On the run, Jack meets up with a prostitute, Bess Khan, who is from the subcontinent and serves customers out of an establishment where she hides Jack. The romance between the two is at the core of the book and it is a credible device.

There is a supernatural component in the book as well. One night when he is robbing a toy store (the personal pronoun used in this review for Jack from here on in is “he”), Jack’s ears are assaulted by the sounds that are made by the products on sale in the darkened store. They cry out to him as they sit unused on the shelves. This gift makes itself felt again, later, when Jack enters a lighthouse on the Thames where fees paid in kind on account of official customs charges are kept. In the place, Jack comes across boxes of opium that let out a desultory cry, underscoring the misery that the production and consumption of the stuff in the interests of the monied classes made. The monied classes are fulsomely ridiculed by the author, who has Jack under Kneebone making tuffins for them (a product I tried to find a definition for online, but could not).

The feelings that inspire this artifices the book deals in are no doubt good and praiseworthy in themselves, but from me they fail to convinced because there were too many of them pointing in one direction. I had the same problem when watching Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’ at the cinema earlier this year (my review is dated 27 January). When you screw down the narrative to such a degree that movement is impossible without upsetting the dramatic tone of the story, you fail to give the characters the freedom they need to exist as credible entities within it. Thornton, a black man living in contemporary Australia, had a point to make with his film, just as Rosenberg does with his novel. It’s all about making your enemy as grotesque as possible, regardless of the damage such a campaign can have on the quality of the stories you want to tell.

The same problem infected ‘Mary Shelley’, the biopic that was released this year that was directed by Haifaa al-Mansour (my review was published on 10 July). Her imagining of Mary Jane Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepmother, was unnecessarily negative, and the imbalance that this piece of characterisation set up in the narrative threatened to unsettle the structure of the movie. Poetic justice might seem attractive to artists who have borne grudges for decades before they are finally able to give free expression to an animus, but you have to be careful that you don’t upset the apple cart by loading it too high with talking points that belong to the partisans on your side of the argument.

And if ever a book had to have been promoted with a rider saying that the Kindle edition doesn’t work, this is it. The novel is full of footnotes that, accessed using the links provided in the text in the Kindle edition, take you to another page. After reading each note at the end of the chapter, you then have to tap your way back to where you were in the text so that you can continue reading the story. A paper copy of the book would have been much better. I ended up skipping all the footnotes and just reading the main text, which does damage to the narrative because the footnotes contain a story of their own.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Book review: One Hundred Years of Dirt, Rick Morton (2018)

This memoir by Murdoch journalist Rick Morton is slippery and filled with drama but in the end the allusive, tangential method used shattered my patience and I only got to 25 percent of the way through the book before putting it down.

Morton tries to elicit meaning through the deployment of elaborate rhetorical devices but in so doing he often misses the opportunity to use the correct noun to name the thing he wants to talk about. Instead, he relies on a sort of privileging of the negative, where you create the outline of the object you want to talk about by carefully filling in the background and leaving a blank space in the middle. He does this to create dramatic tension but it just rubbed me up the wrong way. It was often like a join-the-dots puzzle where a significant number of dots were missing, so that you just couldn’t make out the subject of the sentence. I kept on feeling the urge to say to him, “Just tell me what it is!”

The story of his grandfather, a sadist who ruled his family home on the remote border of Queensland and South Australia, is probably the best part of the book. Where I stopped is where Morton's brother got burned. Another one of those cases where the author avoids telling you what happened for as long as possible, all the while your blood pressure is building up and building up. Some might find this kind of storytelling gripping, I just found it irritating.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

“Integration” when used to talk about migrants is racism

Do a Google search with the words “Alan Tudge” and “integration” and you get a few News Corp stories applauding the minister’s stance as well as one from the Guardian dated 20 July about an idea put forward by the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to introduce a “values” test for migrants. The first three paragraphs of this last story contain a lot of material:
Australia will consider adding a “values test” for those considering permanent residency in order to protect its “extraordinarily successful” multicultural society, Malcolm Turnbull said. 
The prime minister confirmed what his citizenship and multicultural minister Alan Tudge told the Australia/UK Leadership Forum overnight, where he floated the idea of a “values” test to fend off “segregation”. 
Tudge told his London audience “our ship is slightly veering towards a European separatist multicultural model and we want to pull it back to be firmly on the Australian integrated path”.
The notion that Australia somehow borrowed multiculturalism from Europe is just plain wrong. Multiculturalism was first introduced in Australia as official government policy in 1973 under the ALP of Gough Whitlam. To his eternal credit, the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser, who succeeded Whitlam as PM, kept the policy in place. When Whitlam made that historic decision Australia was only the second country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as official government policy. The first had been Canada. Europe copied Australia, not the other way round.

And the policy is a cornerstone of the peaceful society that we all enjoy, despite attempts by the Liberal Party to disturb the peace. Our security services rely on good relations with minorities in order to properly do their jobs. Without the trust that goes with tolerating (for example) the burqa in public, their work would be impossible and we would be having more people killed in the centre of Melbourne instead of just one by crazy ideologues in cars.

Once more the Liberal Party shows just how far away from “liberalism”, the ideal held out for the scrutiny of the people of the Commonwealth in the 1950s when the name was adopted, it has travelled. The 1950s and 1960s were a kinder, more tolerant era. The university library at the ANU in Canberra is named after Robert Menzies, the politician who made the name change. It is a building that is unapologetically Modernist in design, much like the Reserve Bank in Sydney, which was built at around the same time.

Such buildings were meant to say something about the new political settlement that ended WWII, a settlement where migrants were welcomed regardless of whether they could speak the language, so that they could lead meaningful lives and provide for the children the government wanted them to have in order to support the economy.

Words like “assimilation” and “integration” are codewords for racism, put out there in the community by cowardly Tories in order to appeal to the baser instincts of the outliers on the loony right. You put the thumb screws on migrants and stupid people applaud. It’s pure dog-whistling.

The address that Fraser Anning made to the Senate yesterday during which he called holding a plebiscite to limit immigration the “final solution”, was part of a play for power. Anning represents a small party with its base in far-north Queensland. Queensland is a funny state where the regions have a large degree of influence related to their distance from the state capital. People in FNQ call Brisbaneites “Mexicans” because they come from south of the border (which they want to draw at Rockhampton).

Anning’s carefully-chosen words are aimed at rustling up support among his base by riling the hated elites in NSW and Victoria. It’s exactly like Leyonhjelm’s attack on Senator Hanson-Young: it is designed to garner support and he has achieved his aim beautifully. There’s no way not to cover this kind of dog-whistling but if you do cover it you are doing just as much harm as good.

The regions are crying out for migrants, who usually settle in the big cities, and don't care where they come from as long as they settle down in town and get jobs. And the crowning irony of all of this of course is that it was rural Queensland who were as much against the marriage equality ‘Yes’ vote as were the migrant enclaves of western Sydney.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

What are the aesthetics of social media? That would be kitsch.

At about 8.30pm on Saturday 11 August, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) presenter Kumi Taguchi tweeted, “Hello Twitter. Can't get a picture out of my head. It's a cabin on a prairie, surrounded by wildflowers & wide blue skies. I think it's in America. Where would this place be? Idaho? Oregon? Montana? #dreaming”

We all know the feeling we want to encapsulate but we might lack the pictorial vocabulary needed to fulfil the desire. Something lies just beyond the confines of our consciousness that beckons, enticingly. What picture was that? I think I’ve seen it before. We share an inability, let’s celebrate that for a moment. Here …

Twitter is full of these moments of unthinkingly sharing something that cannot otherwise be put into words except through suggestion, a meme, an image, or a short verbal construct that neatly encapsulates a feeling. People reach around inside their bag of tricks looking for that thing that will be shared as many times as possible. It’s a popularity contest, so the things that we share have to be easily communicated. In this dynamic, nuance, subtlety and irony get lost in the full blare of midday.

What it produces mostly in the aesthetic realm is kitsch. The ambiguity that good art relishes has been rubbed off in the process of manufacturing the shareable soundbite, in finding the exact, ideal moment that says, “This is how I want people to think I feel right now.” (Regardless of how they might actually feel.)

It might be news of a new restaurant opening down the street that makes you suddenly the happiest person in the world. It might be the sight of a group of puppies swamping a child on the floor with their soft muzzles and floppy ears. It might be a painting by an Impressionist (Van Gogh is popular because as well as being a genius he was a tortured genius). Whatever it is, people have to instantly recognise it so that they can then share it with their followers. It is that moment like a clap of thunder, a complete realisation, that characterises perception of aesthetic objects (such as words, pictures, sounds) on social media.

An example of how complexity can however be accommodated is found in this tweet on the morning of 12 August from English journalist Simon Rickets, “I used to know a guy who would say, cynically: ‘Why do homeless people have dogs?” I think this clip is the perfect answer. For love.” The tweet contained a video that had been made by the BBC showing a homeless man named Andy talking about his dog, Bailey. It is only with longer pieces like this video that might grab your attention with an easily-recognisable hook (like the tweet that accompanied it) that the complexity and nuance of art can be brought into the tweetstream. But to comprehend that complexity you have to pause and sit back and read or listen or watch the product being offered to you. It takes time.

Threads on Twitter offer another way to incorporate complexity in social media. (To make a thread, you have to reply to yourself in the tweet that came before, in the second - and subsequent - tweets, so that people can easily view the whole series of tweets it involves.)

The type of poetry that functions best in social media is the “haiku” (which is made up of lines with five, seven and five syllables) or at a stretch the “tanka” (which is made up of five lines; lines one and three have five syllables each, the other lines have seven syllables). Anything longer than this and it becomes impossible to include all the lines in a tweet. I have never seen a threaded poem on Twitter. Most of the poetry I have seen on Twitter however is not very good. I follow a couple of people who declare themselves to be poets.

There is another special category of content that attempts to include complexity and that is the historical photograph. There are a number of dedicated accounts on Twitter that only post old photos taken at different times over the roughly 150 years since the invention of photography. Some of these photos are quite interesting, and they buck the general trend that I am putting forward here by delivering the sort of nuance and subtlety that are in the province of art. Historical photos usually get shared a lot by people on Twitter but two other types of image that are involved in artistic sense-making get fewer shares, in general. These are photos of plants and animals.

Social media is about the “now”. Rather than the historical photograph, more representative of the norm on Twitter is one that was put up on the morning of 12 August by Australian comedian Shaun Micaleff that came with the comment, “BREAKING NEWS: If you put glasses on Spinoza, he looks like Woody Allen.” The photo that accompanied the tweet showed that what he said was true, but the general thrust of the tweet was to create humour at the expense of someone else. It was part of a campaign that has been launched among certain parts of the politically progressive to belittle the filmmaker because of his domestic arrangements. The tweet was basically cruel and insulting.

The process can work in exactly the opposite way, of course. On 11 August a tweet appeared on Twitter from a person with the handle @breanna1500 that went, “so my brother keeps getting made fun of at school for having earrings and blonde hair. rt this if you think his earrings and blonde hair is super cute” The tweet came with a photo of a boy aged about 13 with dark skin and blonde hair standing in front of a house. He wore a T-shirt and boardshorts, and had earrings in his ears and a smile on his face. The tweet had been ‘liked’ over 16,000 times and shared over 10,000 times by the next day. It is an interesting case of meta-commentary as it used othering to other a group of people who had been othering someone else, who in the tweet was being embraced.

For the most part the message on social media has to be immediate and unambiguous so that we can just gulp it all down, the good and the bad, the worthy and the trite, the perfect and the flawed, in our eagerness to create community. We other our enemies and embrace our friends. An example of the kind of trite sense-making I’m talking about is a tweet that appeared on the morning of 12 August from ex-ABC journalist Marcus Kelson, who lives in Canberra: “Person in front of me at coffee shop, half strength almond latte with cinnamon - this is why Donald Trump is leader of the free world.” It’s a variation on the old “hipsters are wankers” trope and it ideally fits the bill of othering a segment of the community in order to create cohesion in another part of the community. (Although with Marcus it’s often hard to tell: it could be ironic.) People love this sort of thing, and share and ‘like’ indiscriminately when they see it in their streams.

Another example of community creation was the tweet that was put up on 11 August by an account named ‘f thot fitzgerald’ (@dracomalfoys) which describes itself only as “incoherent ramblings galore”. The tweet went, “one of my favorite parts of art history is the depictions of lucifer morningstar made by people who clearly Really Really wanted to fuck the devil” The tweet had four images of men with sculpted bodies with wings like angels, two of which dated from the 19th century, one of which showed a bronze sculpture, and one of which showed a marble sculpture. All of the images were realistic depictions with the exception of the wings that came out of the backs of the men in them. The tweet had 44,000 ‘likes’ and 18,000 shares and had been shared into my tweetstream by Australian journalist Benjamin Law, who is openly gay.

I’ve written before on this blog about the way that people use social media to create community. It’s a tribal thing. It’s got that mob-like dynamic about it that the fascists of the middle part of last century so loved: a mobilised force of people moving down the street in one direction intent on one, single goal. The “fascio”, the Roman “faggot” (a bundle of sticks tied together), is the emblem of the movement. Fascism is not designed to appreciate complexity and judge it according to an elite sensibility. It is intent on growing, expanding, reaching out to every corner of the space as it progresses along the thoroughfare breaking windows, knocking loudly on doors, and assaulting passers-by who do not belong to it.

The Nazis of course were big collectors of fine art. They trolled through the major galleries in the cities they occupied, looting and stealing whatever they could lay their hands on and taking it back to their storerooms to keep. Twitter is a bit like this, too. It takes the best of what’s available and turns it to its own purpose (creating community) while leaving behind the difficult, the allusive, the inchoate, the inexpressible as being things of no value.

Before people on the left get too confident in their aesthetic judgement it should be remembered that the Soviets were as keen on simple, realistic depictions of the world as the Nazis. Both of these 20th-century oligarchies rejected Modernism as being degenerate and too sophisticated, embracing figurative art as the norm to aspire to, and thus catered to the baser instincts of ordinary people. Another important fact is that Benito Mussolini, the autocrat who founded fascism in Italy and who was a model for Adolph Hitler, started out in his political career as a Communist. A love of the mob and the strength it embodied was a defining characteristic of both movements. In such a space, kitsch grows like topsy.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Social media says: “It’s the MSM!”

Actually, it’s the Australian version of Donald Trump’s “fake news”, except here it’s a purely grassroots movement aimed at emasculating the mainstream media (the epithet “MSM” is parleyed about enthusiastically by these nongs on social media). The most recent target of a pile-on orchestrated by a number of prominent spokespeople was Alive Workman, the BuzzFeed journalist who broke the scandal that has undermined the career of a politician from the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Emma Husar.

Allegations that were aired in the media of poor conduct have been referred to the Department of Finance by the NSW ALP. Sexual misconduct that was alleged to have been undertaken have been set aside by the party’s arbitrator.

We know that women in politics are held to higher standards than men. You only have to look at the way that Barnaby Joyce has been gradually rehabilitated since his climbdown from the deputy leadership of the Coalition in February this year after revelations he had gotten a staffer pregnant. Joyce is due to headline the Canberra Writers’ Festival where he will promote a book later this year. Julia Baird, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) host of its weeknight panel show ‘The Drum’, wrote a book which I read about the way women are treated in politics that was published in 2004. It is titled ‘Media Tarts’. So the case of Husar must have brought back memories for her.

But the way that the media have been treated by people online is equally despicable. Workman was doing her job, reporting what had been leaked by a staffer attached to Husar. Her editors will furthermore have been involved in making the decision to publish. Bernard Keane at Crikey wrote a good summary of the debacle, showing how this case was different from that of Joyce (although there were claims of misuse of public resources in Joyce’s case as well).

But this is not the only instance of poor treatment of the media by the mob on social media. The attacks are becoming routine, and the ABC is in the firing line a lot of the time, portrayed as too right-wing by such people at the same time as it is attacked by partisan actors on the right, such as the editors working at News Corp, for being too left-wing. You just can’t win.

At the centre of the recent drama is an outfit enticingly named ‘Independent Australia’ which is anything but independent, in fact is avowedly partisan, taking a determinedly progressive line in its stories, even while it boasts to people watching that it is independent of any larger concern. The editor of this outfit is named Dave Donovan and he has over 23,000 followers. Another major player, Denise Shrivell, has over 10,000 followers. She makes a regular podcast that is broadcast online.

A person I know from back in the day when Twitter was a place for like-minded early-adopters, Jennifer Wilson, who writes for them for time to time, has 11.000 followers. She has been very vocal in condemning Workman. Jennifer changed her Twitter name following the crisis on 10 August that saw the ALP revelations in the media. It had been “Glorious Pecora” (to highlight another case of hubris by people working in politics) but when progressive commentator Van Badham had a go at her over the current controversy, she changed it to “That Sheep Person”, turning an intended slight into a badge of honour. These are the kinds of dynamics that are at play in these disputes online.

Such people are listened to by large segments of the community on social media, so their views are undoubtedly important. But they are fuelling grievances that are precisely the same as those felt by followers of Donald Trump: that the elites (represented here by the hated “MSM”) are out of touch and unaccountable and need to be brought into line. It’s an ugly populism that is being fed by people whose only interest lies in increasing the number of Twitter followers they have.

The entire episode was summed up for me by a tweet on 10 August from @Jayne73136490 that went, “OK twitter [sic] I am calling on @emmahusarmp not to resign. Anyone that agrees, and was disgusted by @workmanalice gutter journalism retweet.” The tweet had about 230 retweets by early the next morning, and over 170 ‘likes’. 

Sunday, 12 August 2018

A short trip to the nation’s capital

Exactly a week ago the countryside on both sides of the highway on the way down was dry and brown. Fenced paddocks with sheep grazing on dry grass were interspersed with stretches of forest and other paddocks where no animals stood. We stopped at Berrima and ate baked goods and chutney with knives and forks off paper plates in a cafe. As we drove south, traffic buzzed past in the fast lane, overtaking my Toyota. Crossing rivers on bridges you could see down to the flow in the riverbed and the trees on the valley sides.

Once we arrived in the capital, heading to the hotel on the campus was tricky. The location-finder app was sometimes accurate but identifying the right road ended up being a hit-and-miss affair. I parked the car in a carpark at the rear of what turned out to be the hotel. My travelling companion asked a man standing there next to his car if this was the right place and he nodded and pointed with his hand, but walking around to the front of the building there was no visible entrance. I used my phone to look up the hotel’s telephone number, and gave them a call. “It’s just a bit further down,” the woman who answered the phone told me, so we went along the road and eventually hit on the doorway. We walked back to the car, drove it to the right carpark, and checked in.

The floor of the lobby was made from a black aggregate inlaid with brass strips, some of which were organised out of straight lines in stylised designs to depict native fauna. There was a kangaroo, a crane, a sugar glider, a turtle, a goanna, a fish, and a yabbie. The building had been opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1954, and its wings were constructed around a central courtyard where, as we walked to our staircase, ducks fed on grass seeds. There was a water-filled pool alongside the low-rise section that housed the lobby and the library.

The bathroom in my suite had a heated, faun-coloured terrazzo floor and a room temperature that was higher than it was in the bedroom. We put away our suitcases and then got in the car to drive to the city centre to find some food to eat. I had the hang of the streets by this time, and getting to Civic was easy enough. I drove down a small side street looking for a parking spot but my travelling companion wanted to park at street level, not underground, so I looped back and found the right entrance. I took a ticket from the machine at the boom gate and backed the car into a bay, then we walked to the shopping precinct.

In a large open plaza a woman with a keyboard and a microphone connected to an amplifier was singing. Next to her, standing by tables laden with food, a few men were handing out their bounty to homeless people. In front of the tables, chairs had been set up on the pavement and men and women sat in them. One or two were eating what looked like sausages with bread. The smell of barbequed meat hung in the cold winter air.

We got a table in a restaurant and ordered a lot of food. A middle-aged couple sat down at the table next to ours. They were dressed in comfortable clothes that you would wear at home on the weekend. The way people dressed at the shopping centre reminded me of Penrith.

My meal was chicken with a curry sauce, peanuts, dried fish, sambal and rice. I had a sweet coffee with it that came in a glass mug. After we had finished eating I paid using EFTPOS but the paywave function on the transaction device was not enabled, so the clerk had to insert my debit card into it. I punched in my PIN and pressed the ‘Enter’ key and left the building.

We walked back to the car and a homeless man who was sitting next to the machines that takes your payment for the parking showed me where to insert the parking ticket into the machine. It was a $2 fee and I paid with a $5 note, then gave the change to the homeless man. He had a piece of clothing spread out on the pavement in front of him. The cloth was coloured grey and was folded into a neat square. We got in the car and drove to the exit where a boom gate rested across the carriageway. I tried inserting the prepaid ticket in the machine but it refused to go in. Again and again, the display told me to reinsert the ticket and after a dozen attempts the ticket was finally accepted. I imagined the driver behind me getting more and more irritated by my car with its NSW numberplates.

Back at the hotel, I lay down on the bed in my suite and scrolled through Twitter. We went for a walk a bit later on and passed a tree with a possum in it that made a small sound with its mouth, making me look up. In another tree a brightly coloured parrot with red feathers landed among the foliage. A brazen magpie stood on the grass as we walked past. Near the university’s library I took photos of the building. It had been named after a famous conservative prime minister and was constructed in the Modernist style. It had elaborate 1960s copper sculptures affixed to the façade on its front. The campus resembled a park.

On the way to dinner, after parking the car there was a young man dressed in a sloppy joe and board shorts walking barefoot on the street carrying a paper bag that presumably contained food. In the restaurant the young man at the table next to ours wore tan slacks and a grey T-shirt. After we had eaten our food, I paid using EFTPOS and once again the paywave function on the equipment was not enabled. As I approached the cashier, I asked her if I could buy two bottles of Tsingtao and she said it was ok. She gave me a white plastic bag to carry them in.

Back at the hotel, I asked the desk clerk if there was a bottle opener in my suite and he said there was not. I asked if I could borrow a bottle opener but he wasn’t able to find one in the lobby. But he walked with me to the café, unlocked the door in the dark, and showed me where a bottle opener was attached to a wall behind the counter. I opened the two bottles and he gave me a serviette to clean up foam that had come out of one of the bottles as I opened it.

In the morning, we left our suites and went to the café in the hotel for breakfast and chose the more expensive option, rather than the Continental breakfast. I spooned eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon and cocktail sausages onto my plate. The bacon was dry and hard and it had a sour taste as though it had been cooked just before the expiry date had been reached.

It was raining and after breakfast I moved the car to another carpark to avoid getting fined. We checked out and sat down in the hotel’s library at the end of a hallway that had lithographs made in the 19th century showing different Australian cities from a vantage point located in the air above streets and buildings. The library had a smell like a second-hand bookshop. A middle-aged man sat reading at a table near the back of the room. The books on the shelves were all out of date, with some published in the 1950s. Each book had a number printed on a label affixed to its spine. A card catalogue stood against the wall of the room near the door. The books were catalogued and in order but I guessed no-one ever read them.

Later, we went to a small café on the campus near the hotel and drank coffees. I ate a sandwich that had salad and a slice of cheese in it. The sandwich was packaged in a triangular transparent plastic box with a description of the contents written along with the price in black felt marker on its long side. We went back to the hotel to use the toilets in the lobby and then returned to the café where my companion ate half of a tuna-and-salad sandwich. We got in the car and made our way to the city and I dropped off my companion at the office where she had her appointment arranged.

Then I drove to Braddon, the suburb in which we had had dinner the previous night. As I drove north along the street, a car pulled out of a parking bay and I immediately manoeuvred the car so that I could back it into the vacant space. The spot was right outside a carwash which had a commercial radio station blaring noise into the street. I paid the parking fee with my credit card and it cost $5.40 for two hours.

In the café I entered, I ordered a flat white and sat down at a table, using Twitter for a while. Then I got a book from the shelf at the back of the room and started reading it. It had been published about 20 years earlier and had been written by a food critic. I marvelled at how dull it was, then reminded myself that the man was still employed producing restaurant reviews for a leading Australian daily newspaper. I read one piece about a Roman offal restaurant, and another one about the craze of celebrity chefs. The stories had dated badly.

My companion called me on my mobile and I answered, then left the café and walked to the car. I drove it to the office building she had been in and picked her up, then we headed north out of the city, stopping at a service station on the outskirts of town to put petrol in the tank. The clerk behind the counter was a huge Islander woman with a tattoo on her arm. She asked me in a high-pitched voice if I had a Woolworths card and I said, “No” then paid using EFTPOS. The transaction machine had the paywave function this time and I used it but when it made its sound to indicate that the transaction had been successful it was different from the normal, sweet tone that machines in Sydney use. It was a flat, metallic “Beep.”

On the road, we drove past Lake George and saw the shadows of clouds interspersed with patches of sunlight on the lake bottom where sheep had been grazing when we had arrived the day before. Now, the sky was thick with clouds coloured grey and white. Further north, a large cloud had a stream of rain like a curtain of mist leaving its bottom and falling onto hills stretched out in the countryside. When we arrived at that location, the blue sky was reflected in patches of moisture that had been left on the roadway, but it was clear the drought would continue. Driving in the left lane the whole way back, I toyed with the audible lines marked on the road. We talked about humans becoming extinct.

At the highway exit leading to Exeter we stopped at a service centre and I ate the other half of the tuna-and-salad sandwich that had travelled with us in the car boot, then used the toilet. We bought coffees at Macca’s. On the return journey, we drove past a dozen or so carcasses of dead kangaroos that lay on the road’s shoulder. There were also a couple of dead wombats. As we neared the city, the pristine bush, with its brown grass and olive scrub and low escarpments of ochre dirt were replaced by grassy verges where rubbish had been thrown heedlessly out of cars entering Leviathan.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Book review; Insomniac Dreams, Vladimir Nabokov (2018)

Subtitled “experiments with time” and edited by Gennady Barabtarlo, this odd little volume is quite possibly the most opportunistic piece of preciousness I have tried to read in a long time, taking as it does the name of a major 20th century author and slapping it on a mediocre piece of scholarship performed with a remarkable lack of competence.

The book is so bad, especially in its first part, which is supposed to explain the interest that the author, Nabokov, had with the theories of dreams of an engineer and polymath named John W. Dunne, that you come away with no more understanding of the proposition than you had upon purchasing the book.

It’s easy to see how Dunne’s ideas might have been of interest to Nabokov, who plays with notions of time in his post-‘Lolita’ novel of 1969 ‘Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle’. The notion that you could see the future in your dreams was part of the appeal of Dunne’s ideas to the Russian author. But if you were looking for some insights into Nabokov’s thinking, for any new information about his ideas when conceiving that largely misunderstood novel, you will be disappointed with this book.

The preface, furthermore, is conceited and borrows rhetorical tropes from the subject of the book, as some commentators on Nabokov do on occasion, believing that proximity with the font of genius somehow gives them licence to adopt an similarly Apollonian posture, mimicking the stiff-necked style he adopted when confronted by members of the press. This kind of pose was tiresome in Nabokov and it’s just ridiculous in his acolytes.

The good things about the author have nothing to do with the fact that he retired, after the unforeseen success of his 1955 novel, to a luxurious Swiss hotel to live out his days in the kind of comfort that he would have expected to enjoy had the October Revolution not dislodged his family from their estate in 1917. The good things are still in the novels and they are available for anyone who bothers to go looking for them. Sadly, these days few seem interested in doing so.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Book review: The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley (2018)

This work of speculative fiction started well but it ultimately reminded me of a book by another woman author that I had started to read: ‘The Natural Way of Things’ by the Australian Charlotte Wood. Wood’s book won the Stella Prize in 2016. It opens with a woman who finds herself in some sort of institution that she cannot understand, let alone get out of. There is a guard whose good offices she relies on for her wellbeing. The claustrophobic feeling I had reading the book bid me put it down before getting much further than this. It felt like I was being railroaded. There was no freedom for my imagination to roam in this circumscribed world where only misery beckons from the interior of the book.

In Dahvana Headley’s book, you are given the American version of the same kind of suffocating impasse. Americans lap up anything that has in it a solitary rogue, so in ‘The Mere Wife’ the author gives us Dana Mills, an ex-soldier living with PTSD who escapes from enemy captivity in the desert pregnant and then is somehow able to get out of the US military institution she is being held in. She takes herself back to the town she had lived in as a girl and gives birth alone inside an abandoned railway station in a mountainside. The “mere” of the title is a kind of small lake that’s also in the mountain. She raises her son Gren by herself, subsisting on nuts and trapped animals. When the book opens the boy is aged seven years.

The author also gives us Willa Herot, who lives in a gated community next to the mountain where Dana and Gren reside. Willa is married to a plastic surgeon who is also part of a family that runs a retail store that supplies goods to the town, and probably much else beside. You can literally see the wheels turning in the author’s head as she juxtaposes the two mothers in overlapping sections of the narrative, depicting the rugged, individualistic existence of the heroic Dana and the cosseted, mundane existence of the suburban Willa. I got about 15 percent of the way through this book before giving up.

The gears grind the characters relentlessly in their crushing motion and any poetry is absent. Why would any mother want her son to grow up illiterate and barely able to speak or unable control his own emotions because he’s been deprived of social interaction during his formative years? And how could a mother and child live within hearing of local residents and still remain hidden for seven years? It’s a con job. The cinematic analogue of Dana is of course Sarah Connor in the Terminator films: a single mother struggling against incredible odds to save humanity. Baloney.

The stories that Americans tell themselves to distract their attention from the fact that they are being exploited by a governing class that uses a narrative of individual effort to justify its manipulation of the political process to benefit a tiny elite!

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Heart palpitations led to a trip to the hospital

On Saturday, I walked out the back of my building on the way to the bookshop and the shopping centre, and as I was walking across the park my heart stared to hammer with heavy beats interspersed with a regular rhythm. The irregularity of my heartbeat continued for a good minute or two and I was so concerned that I turned back. I started to feel light-headed.

Going back into the building I calmly went upstairs in the lift and entered my apartment. Seated at my desk, my palms sweating, I called triple-zero to summon an ambulance. An operator answered my call and asked me which serviced I required and I told her. When the ambulance operator answered and asked me where I was calling from, I told him and he then asked me a series of questions to ascertain the nature of the complaint. I confirmed my address and telephone number twice and told him I would go downstairs to the building’s lobby to wait for the ambulance to arrive.

In the lobby, I sat down in the armchair that is located there and waited with my hands resting on the chair’s arms. Within a minute, I started to hear a siren, and so I got up from my seat and went out the front doors onto the street. The ambulance came around the corner followed by a station wagon with ambulance markings. Both vehicles had their beacons flashing. The ambulance stopped further up on the road, and I walked to where it halted. The front door opened and a young woman with dark hair in a ponytail wearing a paramedic’s uniform got out onto the pavement. She said, “Are we here for you” and I said, “Yes.” She asked me my name and I told her, then she opened the back door of the vehicle,

As we stood there on the pavement she told me that there was a crew making a TV show about paramedics that was filming and asked if I minded being filmed. I told her it was ok. She brought down the folding steps. Inside on the seat a man sat with a video camera held to his face that was pointed at me and the paramedic. He got out of the vehicle holding the camera in his hand. The paramedic with dark hair told me to get inside.

I sat down in the chair the videographer had used and the paramedic got into the ambulance and started to ask me questions about what had happened, as well as details of medications that I take. She got me to open the top buttons of my shirt, and applied sticky pads to the skin so that she could connect me to the electrocardiogram machine mounted in the vehicle. She used a blue disposable razor – which she dropped on the floor, and picked up again – to remove hair from my chest so that the pads for the electrodes would stick to me.

The driver had come around in the meantime and she used a small device with a pin in it to put a hole in my finger so that she could take a reading of my blood sugar level. The pin pricked the skin at the end of the index finger on my right hand, and the driver used a strip of cardboard with a wicking element to sample the blood that appeared as a result. She saw the reading and told the paramedic with the dark hair what was displayed on the device with the cardboard strip attached to it. “Seven point nine,” she said.

Then she stood next to the ECG machine looking at the black display with its green wavy lines like little mountain ranges that moved across the screen from right to left. The lines represented my heartbeats and the first paramedic I had spoken with told me that everything was looking fine. A sheet of paper spooled out of the machine with wavy lines printed on it. I asked her if I could go but she said she wanted to take me to the hospital where they would be able to carry our more tests. She motioned for me to get onto a gurney that was installed in the back of the vehicle. I lay down facing the rear of the ambulance and she strapped me in with seat belts across my chest and legs. We started driving through the streets in the direction of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown.

When we arrived there, the driver opened the rear doors of the vehicle and the dark-haired paramedic manipulated the mechanism on the gurney and pulled it out onto the pavement in front of the building. She pushed the gurney around to a door where several more gurneys were lined up waiting for admittance. A number of paramedics were milling around the entrance. A woman with a uniform came over to me and asked me to fill out a form she gave me that was attached to a clipboard. A pen was attached to the clipboard by a cord.

I started filling out the form and at one stage had to get my mobile phone out of my pocket in order to find the phone number of an emergency contact in case it was needed.  I asked the paramedic if she could undo the strap across my chest so that I could move my arm, and she helped me but also said that I could fill out the form once I got inside. The driver used an automated blood-pressure machine to take my blood pressure (the other paramedic had already taken it while we were riding in the ambulance).

In any case, I did complete the form standing up by my bed just after the gurney I was on arrived in the emergency ward, and I had been installed in an unoccupied bay facing the middle of the large room. The form asked for your Medicare number as well as details of your private health insurance.

A nurse told me to take off my shirt and put on a hospital gown. I went to put it on the normal way you put on a shirt, with the opening at the front, but the nurse motioned with her hands and mouthed some words, making me understand that the opening had to go at the back. After putting the gown on I lay down on the hospital bed and soon people were busy connecting me to another ECG machine. The doctor came and started asking me questions about what I had been doing that morning, my medications, and about any history of illness in my family. He had short, orange-dyed hair and was in his early 60s and was slim. He wore a purple shirt and glasses.

The questions went on for a while and I answered them all, then he went away but came back to ask a few more things that had occurred to him. A nurse put a catheter in my left hand to take a blood sample. Later, another nurse, wearing a light-blue uniform, wheeled my bed through some nearby hallways to another room and made some X-rays of my chest. She got me to stand up, place my chest in front of a plastic-coated rectangular apparatus, and hold my breath while an image was made. She took one from the back and one from the side, with me using the same breath-holding procedure each time.

While I waited for the nurse to get ready to make the images, I watched her talking with another nurse wearing a different (dark-blue) uniform. The second nurse was also young and was also from an Asian background. My nurse soon returned to take me back to the ward, where she left me and I lay there for a long time waiting and scrolling through Twitter looking at recent messages. I made a couple of retweets and sent a Facebook message to a friend who I had agreed to meet the following morning.

The bay next to mine was soon filled by a Chinese woman who had heart problems, her husband, and someone I assumed was their son. The woman was born in 1937 and spoke in Mandarin and the Asian nurse who had connected me to the EGC machine came over to talk to the group, telling another nurse there that she spoke Chinese. The young, blonde nurse who was sitting there asked the Asian nurse what languages she spoke and she replied that her father was from Taiwan and her mother from Vietnam so she spoke Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese. And sign language. The blonde nurse was impressed and said so.

An orderly came around with a trolley that had food in triangular plastic packets sitting on it. One nurse told the orderly to come to my bed (bay four) and I was asked if I wanted a cheese sandwich or a beef-and-tomato sandwich. I chose cheese. She also asked me if I wanted some apple juice and I said, “No’ but she asked ma, “Are you sure you don’t want some apple juice?” and I assented. She handed me the two plastic packets and went away.

I watched the other people in the bays in the ward. Opposite me just to my left was a man in his sixties who at one point said to someone within my hearing that he had been in the Navy. He was wearing a hospital gown and had blankets covering him completely as he lay sleeping, before he awoke and ate a sandwich (cheese). To his right was a young man who had been shivering when I arrived but later woke up, and a young man wearing casual clothes arrived to visit him. This man worked on a laptop in his lap as he sat in his chair next to the bed. Next on the same side was a young woman in the bed who was sleeping. When I had arrived there had been a nurse sitting cross-legged on a chair next to her bed watching her sleep. Later, two policemen arrived to visit her.

To the left of the ex-Navy guy was an older man who had three family members visiting him during my stay. An orderly came over to his bed at one point and washed his hair. Another orderly came around each bay emptying the rubbish bins and putting refuse in plastic bags from the bins next to the beds into a canvas container that was set on wheels. He used a dustpan and a long-handled brush to sweep up things from the floor, which was mostly spotless.

Lying and waiting, I was visited by the same Asian nurse who spoke Chinese, and she connected me to an ECG machine again. It took her a while to get all the contacts to sit snugly on my skin so that an accurate reading could be taken. When she ripped a pad off my left ankle I said, “Ouch!” and she said, “Sorry mate” before putting a new pad there with one of the wired contacts attached to it. Not long after that the doctor came by and gave me a letter to give to my GP. He said they could see nothing wrong after all the tests but that I might want to have an ultrasound taken of my heart. He said if I needed help again I should come back.

A nurse came by who had a beard and he took the cannula out of my hand, undid the band that had been repeatedly taking my blood pressure, and took off the remaining ECG contacts. He told me I could go so I got up and put on my shirt and jacket, which had been put on the bed frame in the space behind the raised mattress. I couldn’t see my shoes so I asked another nurse who was standing there where they had been stowed. He activated a mechanism on the bed to raise it up and took my shoes out from beneath the mattress. He put them on the floor for me to put on my feet.

In the entrance I went to the toilet and remembered that I had forgotten the letter from the doctor and so I asked a nurse who was in the waiting room if she could help me get back in. Just as that moment someone came out of the automated doors to the ward pushing a wheelchair and the nurse I was addressing said, “It’s open” and I walked past the woman entering the lobby and went through the doors, then entered the emergency ward, passed by its front desk, walked by the two policemen who were still standing next to the young woman’s bed, and picked up the doctor’s letter that was sitting in its envelope on the bed. I put it in the pocket of my jacket then left the building and went to the street and hailed a cab, which took me home. The driver said nothing and we sat in silence listening to a radio station taking a signal from the south coast of NSW that was broadcasting club rugby league.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Intemperate language on social media can land you in hot water

Last month I wrote a blogpost about incivility and intolerance on social media and the response to that was good. This time, I wanted to talk about a correlate of that: use of intemperate language online. In the earlier blogpost, I mentioned that the most extreme views are the ones that are shared the most. People unthinkingly share tweets and links that contain content that most closely conforms to their own views, and if the expression in them is high-flavoured and persuasive then it gets shared even more.

To illustrate how this can work in real life, though, I would like to point to the experiences of two commentators (Osman Faruqi and Asher Wolf) who complained last week about trolling, threats, late-night phone calls, confrontations in the street, and messages left at doorsteps.

Both Faruqi and Wolf have a lot of followers. Faruqi in the latest case was prosecuting arguments in favour of banning single-use plastic bags in supermarkets. He said early one morning that people had called him on his phone in the middle of the night and said things that had disturbed him. He didn’t know how his phone number had been discovered and shared. Then Wolf entered the conversation and detailed the things that had happened to her over a period of time.

While I in no way condone the types of actions that these trolls are perpetrating in their effort to silence people whose views they disagree with, and think that they are criminals, it doesn’t surprise me that these two commentators would be faced with these kinds of responses from people in the community. The follower count tells part of the story. But the other part of the story is not necessarily what they have been saying, but how they have been saying it. Use of intemperate language might lead to more followers, shares, and retweets, but it will also most likely lead to trolling, threats and late-night phone calls.

It's a paradox. The nature of Twitter itself determines to a certain degree the type of language that is used by people who have accounts. The more high-flavoured and extreme the expressions used, the more likely that other people will reward the author by sharing what they write. This dynamic is pre-determined by the platform’s architecture.

We need a new consensus on the kinds of language that we use on social media. The current method of using strong language, sarcasm, taunts, dismissals, threats, belittlement, and denigration is not working. The result of using this kind of language is that the conversation actually gets shut down before any information can be shared.

Here’s an example conversation that happened recently online. One person put up a tweet that went like this:
FARMERS CAUSE CLIMATE CHANGE! scream people who live in a concrete box, surrounded by bitumen, tearing down trees to plant lawns, letting their animals run wild & killing native animals while eating imported foods & burning coal to power their tv, internet & air conditioners.
I replied to the retweet with this:
Not sure that's an entirely accurate characterisation of the metro-rural divide. One big problem that urban voters have however is the socially conservative positions of National Party politicians, who stand in for people living in the bush, in the public sphere.
The retweeter and I had a bit of conversation, which I won’t relay here, and then I brought to his attention the fact that the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program had aired three special episodes about the drought in rural Australia. I said that this kind of programming helps governments to take steps to give financial assistance to farmers during droughts. He said:
I think you are spot on, that we need to connect rural and urban with stronger links. By articulating different perspectives we can bring ppl together.
Prosecuting arguments using strong and persuasive language is part of the democratic process. Good policy emerges from the contest of ideas in the public sphere. Our leaders in Parliament often use intemperate language when making their points on the floor of the chamber in order to persuade people to agree with them. So we are not given good role models to follow. But I think that the online world is a place where the rules are slightly different from the House of Representatives or the Senate. In those places, there are strict rules and conventions that determine the order in which people can speak, what they can and cannot say, and even whether they can be taken to court for saying things that defame people living in the community. It is a highly artificial environment, but even so the language used there is often unworthy of the nature of the debates taking place.

Online, we only have the dictates of our own consciences to follow when participating in public debates. We are all responsible for the nature of debate. I was reminded of this when I was walking to the city along a busy street in the morning one day recently. There is a bike path where cyclists coming into town from the western suburbs ride. A woman was on the carriageway crossing the street against the signal when a bike approached where she was walking, heading east at speed. As he rode closer, the cyclist yelled out, “Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi! Oi!” Each syllable more expressive than the one that preceded it.

I thought it was meaningful that there were nine syllables in his delivery. In English the natural line of traditional poetry has ten syllables, so the number ten has special significance in our language when used for rhetorical purposes. The final syllable was set aside for the physical impact that threatened to take place, or for the thoughts of the pedestrian as she went across the road. When she had got to the footpath unscathed I looked at her. She was well-dressed, had brown skin, and wore earrings and makeup. She could be any woman going to work in the morning and minding her own business. But she had contravened a convention and in fact broken the law.

If we use strong language, then we have to expect that people who disagree with what we are saying will also use strong language. If we are disrespectful, likewise. Discussions can very quickly spiral out of control into a mutual slanging-match. We have to watch our tongues if we don’t want the way we talk to be turned back on us in turn. A corollary of narcissism is violence. (Because it fosters disrespect against ideas, against language, against people.)

I thought about the way social media really looks when I was walking back from the city on the same trip that morning. Near my house is a large construction site bounded on all four sides by streets. The streets are not busy but you still have to watch your step, especially with the noise of the excavation machines working in the pit behind the flimsy plywood fence that has been erected around the building site. A metre beyond where you are walking if you walk along any of those streets, there is a deep pit which is being hollowed out for the purpose of building an underground carpark for the apartment building under construction. But when you are on the footpath you never think of it. It’s still there however, with the machines at the bottom working away to take the floor of the space even lower all the time. You wonder when they will have finished going down.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Book review: How Democracy Ends, David Runciman (2018)

From the beginning of this book I was annoyed. My annoyance started as I watched a Cambridge academic archly seeing on TV the swearing-in of Donald Trump in Washington DC in February 2017. The majority of the first part of the book, which looks at the ways that democracy has failed in the past, was engaging and well-written enough and contained concrete examples of dysfunctional polities. This part of the book also elencates the ways that coups can be carried out, including ones that are carried out by stealth (which is what is happening in America today).

But the next part (I stopped at about 30 percent of the way through the book) is too well-written by half. Runciman has a slick, effortless, rhetorically-sophisticated style that might be tremendous for the purposes of talking with other well-educated specialists, but he doesn’t know how to nail down ideas for the trade market. Things slide around and fail to get purchase, with clauses and sentences glibly slipping in new ideas all over the place. It’s like someone herding cats. I have two arts degrees and I found this book baffling. I felt like I had shoved my arm into a barrel stuffed full of eels. It was infuriating and pointless.

The other thing that is infuriating is that he’s written the wrong book. He should have written a history of democracy in Australia to show how to do it properly. But like everyone else in the world he seems to think that everything that comes out of the US is newer and shinier and better. It’s not.

In fact (and Runciman hints at this at one point in the book) the US is not actually a democracy at all, but rather an oligarchy. And the political right there is always working to further limit access to the democratic process to exclude people living in the lower-socioeconomic strata of society. Look at recent efforts by Donald Trump to make having photo ID mandatory when going to vote. It’s all about trying to make sure the elites are the only ones who can cast a vote. So to fix this problem here are a few things the US should do in order to become a true democracy:
  • Make voting at all elections mandatory
  • Establish a statutory body to run elections and to set electoral boundaries
  • Stop preventing ex-convicts from voting
In addition to these things, there are a number of other things that the government there should do that would mean making America fairer for everyone who lives in the country, not just the few at the top of the pile:
  • Establish single-payer healthcare (while cutting the private health insurance companies out of the loop)
  • Triple the minimum wage
  • Properly fund public secondary school education
  • Give power back to labour unions so that they can organise in workplaces
  • Fund a public broadcaster with a national reach
  • (Oh, and gun control)
The comfortable Runciman is however more interested in sophisticated argument and its elegant expression than in seeing what is plain before his face. In Australia, we actually started the global run of right-wing populist xenophobes with the election to Parliament in 1996 on the Liberal Party ticket of Pauline Hanson. In the most recent Longman by-election (held last month), One Nation, her party, got about 15 percent of the popular vote. So we know how to marginalise crackpots before they become dangerous demagogues bent on usurping control of the polis. We don’t need someone from a remote ivory tower telling us how to do democracy.

But this is always the way. The US gets the attention, the funding and the trade. People in other countries are left scrambling to recover their balance each time some new “improvement” is imported from America to cause havoc in their political processes by out-of-touch neoliberals touting each grab for power from the ordinary people that they try to legislate under the guise of “progress”. America is broken. It’s as simple as that. It’s exactly the wrong place to start from when you are writing a book about the future of democracy.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Book review: Happy Never After, Jill Stark (2018)

This memoir was written after this successful journalist found she was experiencing anxiety, and after she had suffered panic attacks and had sought help from a psychologist. In the therapy sessions, Stark sought to unravel the maze of emotions and memories that had led to her current impasse, and discovered events in her past that she says were their cause. All the while being guided by her therapist.

Stark takes the reader on a journey of discovery that leads through some contemporary thickets where social interactions sometimes go less well than we often desire. These passages on the difficulties and benefits of social media are instructive but I felt a bit disappointed by this point because of the distance between the broader claims being made in the book on my behalf and the evidence being proffered to support them, and gave up reading it.

I also felt that the things that Stark was telling me about social media were hardly novelties, although what she wrote did sometimes confirm things I had thought myself. In the end, I just got bored because the material had become simply not challenging enough for me. I had admired the honesty of the passages that dealt with her emotional crisis, and observed her seeking help from qualified professionals. But now it all just seemed a bit too simple.

Which is a pity because the book starts out well. However the idea that you can trace the origins of present mental distress back to events that happened in a part of one’s life (early childhood) seems to me to be just a tad convenient. The brain, Stark tells us however, is plastic, so happily such detriments can be ameliorated. But in my experience the rationale being put forward misses a few glaring realities: mental illness might just have been caused by a sudden, traumatic even in the present, or may have its roots in a genetic predisposition.

Pat theories about early-childhood trauma rang in my mind as something approximating pop psychology. But that might just be because in my case there was, in fact, a sudden, traumatic event when I was aged 39 that turned my world upside down. There was never anything in my childhood that did it. The reason why it happened is as clear to me as the screen in front of my face.

So, different strokes for different folks. But Stark doesn’t package her message like this. In her book, the pattern she sets out is offered as the primary cause of mental ill-health in adults living today. I hold this might sometimes be true, but not necessarily in all cases. A sample of one (one psychologist, one person living with mental illness) is not really enough to reliably generalise for all people living in the community.

But with this new industry of confessional literature, people tend to generalise from the particular, and then imagine and rationalise in print all sorts of special insights founded on what is in fact often a debilitating constraint that dominates their waking lives, and can make life a living hell. I guess you always try to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy it every time.

I think that some people will get a lot from Stark’s gently humorous book. With my track-record, I probably see things differently from the way most people do, and the neat conclusions Stark draws from her experience and her treatment don’t mesh with the complexities of mental illness that I have experienced in my own life. I was glad to learn however that therapy had helped in Stark’s case, and sincerely hope that she will be able to enjoy a “normal” life in future.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Book review: No Friend but the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani (2018)

This curious production comes complete with introductions by a number of people who evidently thought that a gloss with expert commentary on the text might make it easier to consume. I passed over these bits, including the one written by Australian author Richard Flanagan, and cut straight to the chase.

What the text reminded me of (at least that part of it that I managed to finish) were the sound trucks that roll down busy Tokyo streets at all hours of the day. With huge speakers placed on their roofs, the trucks, bedecked in flags, ride in convoy through the traffic in busy business districts blaring out patriotic music and exhortations to action in the name of a resurgent motherland as workers and children in the areas they travel through go about their daily tasks, oblivious to them except where they intrude by dint of pure volume at the periphery of their consciousnesses.

The emotion embodied in the trucks is evident. The warping and distortion of sound carried by their speakers is sort of ecstatic. The people riding in them truly believe in what they say, and that the people of Japan are chosen for great things. But the weird quality of the sound and the mismatch between the sentiments being conveyed and the lives of ordinary people going about their business on the pavements, is stark. Most people think that the men in the trucks that go around spewing out their ultra-conservative views are lunatics.

From the outset, the volume on the emotional register in Boochani’s book is turned up to the maximum available setting and it stays at that pitch throughout despite the actual dramatic tone of the event being described at any given point in the narrative. As a result, it is quite exhausting trying to keep up with what happens to the people in his story, which starts with a group of people sitting in the back of an old truck that is motoring through the jungle in Indonesia. They make it to the beach, get into the boat that is to take them to Australia, and set out on the ocean. Then the pump motor cuts out and the men have to use buckets to bail water out of the hull because there is a hole in it that lets the water in.

That’s as far as I got before putting the book down out of concern for my psychic eardrums. All that screaming, all those overwrought expressions, all that bad poetry interspersed with the high-flavoured prose. Like kitsch, it’s just too much. All emotion, all the time, forever. Reading it was sort of like walking through a room in the disco lit by a strobe. Normal movements become jerky and strange. Boochani really needed a better editor. A Kurd who says he was a journalist in Iran and who writes in Farsi (this is a translation), it’s not clear from what I read why Boochani was leaving his homeland on the journey to Australia.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Book review: The Rapids, Sam Twyford-Moore (2018)

I feel almost ashamed to give this book a negative review, but there’s nothing for it. Reading it was like watching an articulated truck backing from a busy city street into a narrow laneway. Lots of beeping and shouting but not much movement.

The author wants to talk about his mental illness and he frames his narrative within the finicky structures of a simulacrum of Joan Didion but there’s little of real substance and none of the subtle insights that his model achieved in her journalism during the post-war period. Didion’s specialty was the ability to look at things sideways so that they suddenly appeared to be quite different from what you had learned to expect. It was a type of “making strange” that we usually go to poetry to find.

That she managed to make this style credible in the normally unimaginative world of journalism is nothing short of phenomenal and she is right to be hailed as a pioneer. But the ways that people use the discoveries she unearthed can often fail, as in this case, to provide the same wisdom she delivered in her published pieces.

But Didion was writing in an era when high art still provided subtlety, irony, and nuance. The author Vladimir Nabokov said that art should never be made to be in the service of ideology, and given his background (his family were dispossessed of their land after the October Revolution and he ended up living in Germany in a community of emigres) that is not a surprising thing to hear from him. His brilliant 1938 novel ‘The Gift’ (which was finally translated into English in 1963) has a long chapter about a Russian writer, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who was said to have been Lenin’s favourite author. Needless to say, Nobokov ripped into him with a vengeance for his use of literature to push an ideological line. The novel when it first appeared was so controversial in the community that this chapter of it was omitted in the publication the rest of it appeared in, even though the émigré community was largely politically against the Soviets.

But now Nabokov’s dictum has been forgotten and we are constantly reminded of the utility of art in blockbuster movies based on superheroes adapted from children’s comics, where different characters “stand for” something or “represent” a certain set of values.

We live in a humourless and black-and-white era where your work if you are an artist is put to use in larger public debates in order to achieve well-defined policy outcomes and, if possible, the implementation of legislation that favours one sector of the community or another. And online the debates that are carried out are characterised by intolerance and incivility as people declare their allegiance to one team or the other in the never-ending battle for ideological supremacy that threatens to undermine the very foundations of pluralistic democracies everywhere they exist. The most extreme views online get the most shares and people will unthinkingly share views that agree with their own. This is the age of demagoguery.

Getting back to the book, it seemed to me as I was reading it that the author hadn’t understood his own illness or properly imagined the best way to write about it. The content of the book is undercooked but the delivery is over-thought.

I felt like sitting him down and talking to him about my own mental illness. You don’t have to imagine that the average person will not “get it”. People understand. You just have to be truthful. Don’t pussy-foot around, just tell people what it’s like.

And the work is everything, its likely reception immaterial. The frame around the work is just content for lame author interviews in glossy magazines that people read on weekends over smashed-avocado-on-sourdough. You don’t pitch your work to readers so that you look good on Instagram. You have to write with an eye to the centuries if you want to be a good writer.

Twyford-Moore came across as to me too well-educated for his own good. He aimed so high that it was impossible for him to orient his payload so that it could find a stable berth in the rocket he wanted to launch. A few sparks flew when he lit its fuse but the bloated thing never got off the ground and the whole shebang just sputtered fruitlessly until it fell over and the taper went out ingloriously with a fizz.

The other day as I was walking back down the street returning home from the city, I saw a child holding the hands of two adults, one on either side of him. As he walked along the pavement in his black-and-white jacket, he clung to these supports and danced with his feet, flinging one foot after the other out in front of him and making exaggerated steps, pretending to be a big person. It reminded me of Twyford-Moore and his borrowed armoury of stylistic devices. The ambition is enormous but the experience, knowledge, and artistic vision mean that the execution is defective.

I managed to read to page 19 when the choice between pulling my hair out or putting down the book became urgent. There are 280 pages in the printed book. Including a blessed bibliography.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Book review: The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon (2018)

It’s hard to know where the model for the prose in this ambitious experimental novel lies. The author is an Asian-American, a woman, and the book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ (2013) (which I thought was a dismal failure).

In Tartt’s novel, the drama is so tight in the opening scenes you can see the explosion that rips through the art gallery coming from a mile off. The screws in the mechanism are wound down by a completely visible hand until the bone gets crushed in slow motion. You’re supposed to be moved by the clumsy artifice but the art is absent. In Kwon’s novel, too, the art is poor but the medium – clipped, short sentences, poetic asides, impressionistic mark-making that is supposed to accumulate to form a rich tapestry of meaning – is ostentatiously sophisticated.

Apart from this failing, there are also major problems with characterisation in the novel. You see Will lusting after Phoebe and his thoughts are transferred to the page in order to underscore the depth of his desire (leaving aside the criticism that I wasn’t convinced of the writer’s understanding of male desire), but there is nothing similar to show how Phoebe feels about Will. Phoebe’s earlier life living with her mother, a migrant like her from South Korea, and her obsession with piano music, are realised in some detail but Phoebe is not given a personality of her own that would justify the time spent on her. And she is central to the plot (presumably).

The plot outline that you get comes more from news articles you read about the book than from the beginning of the book itself. There’s apparently a religious Christian cult and an act of terror. These are the big bits of the plot that the characterisation somehow has to justify by filling in the gaps lying between its girders. But John Leal (another Korean-American), who survives a spell in a North Korean gulag, is distant and untouchable. The author has to make him breathe if we are to believe in his charisma and his messianic pull, but the work hadn’t been done by the time I gave up reading the book, at about the 25-percent mark.

It seems to me that you have here just another example of plain-old American myopia. In America, roughly 50 percent of the population goes to church every week. The rate in Britain and Australia is more like eight percent. There is something about the stories that Americans tell themselves that privilege the individual above the collective. The devil. The messiah. The solitary stranger who comes to town one day. In his book ‘The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia’ (1964) Louis Hartz posits a “fragment theory” to explain differences in societies that are founded at different stages in the development of the root culture.

Kwon in her disappointing novel is clearly trying to say something profound about America but her grasp of the facts, and the strength of her artistic vision, are unequal to the job of supporting let alone ferrying to the reader the weight that the project places on her talent.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Book review: Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton (2018)

I didn’t get to the end of this very fine novel because of the extreme violence in it. There’s nothing on the cover that could warn you of this aspect of the book, but you certainly wouldn’t want a minor to be able to read it. Not without some form of guidance by a responsible adult, at least. The book deals with the illegal drug trade in Brisbane during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years – an unprepossessing, bland suburbia stretching out and away into infinity – and so crime and police corruption are central for the purposes of plotting in the book and for the development of its characters.

The way that crime and police corruption infantilise sections of the community portrayed is elegantly explored. In fact, there are direct analogues between things the children in the book do and some of the violent things the adults do in the process of carrying out their nefarious trade. In the worlds of criminals and of children alike, life gets stripped back to essentials: death, love, hate, fear, honour. The hero of the drama, Eli Bell, loves reading the news because of the way it vicariously gives him insights into shadowy worlds where life is lived on the edge. (For this reason true crime is highly profitable for Australian publishers.)

The book starts promisingly, like the first few bars of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with a kind of chaos that soon resolves itself into a recognisable theme that is then developed more fully. The majority of the book that I read (up to about 38 percent of the way through) has the main character aged thirteen, but in the very earliest sections he’s younger and evidently still in the process of working out the boundaries of his own personality and how it differs from those of the people around him (his mother, his mother’s boyfriend Lyle, and his brother August, who does not speak due to some deep unwillingness to do so; Eli understands his brother and makes allowances for him, but you can see how it would be difficult for a child like August to get through life unscathed). In these earliest sections of the book, there’s a breathless forward momentum that crashes through any barriers that are put up by your ignorance and that keeps you turning the pages. This quality of the novel reminded me of the film ‘Barbarella’ (which came out in 1968 and was directed by Roger Vadim): a hellish place where threats to life and limb are never-ending and come thick and fast, one after another.

The other film that I was reminded of when reading part of the book is ‘Pulp Fiction’, the 1994 crime drama directed by Quentin Tarantino. At about 28 percent of the way through this book there is a great scene set in the house of a third-tier dealer who Lyle and his colleague Teddy are delivering heroin to. The two men have to bring the boys because the local pool, where they wanted to park them for the afternoon, is being maintained and it is closed. The dealer’s house is inhabited by a group of Maoris and one of them, Ezra, who seems like he’s in charge of operations and who is extremely fat, likes watching movies. The conversation that takes place between Ezra and Eli about movies in this scene is a kind of knowing banter that is pacey and fantastic, and it shows how you can quickly develop character with a minimal number of props. All you need is a Betamax machine and a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger acting in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982). (The movie also helps you to date the action.)

What struck me most about this wonderful book (apart from the excessive violence) was the way that poetry and romance lie buried in the lives of even the most marginalised, such as children like August and Eli whose mother is a drug dealer and whose live-in boyfriend helps her run the business. The poetry is there in Eli’s love for his mother. The romance is there in Eli’s aspiration to become a journalist for the Courier-Mail. These are fresh, and quite unlike the stale imaginings of Tim Winton’s latest rheumy eructation, ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ (which I reviewed on this blog in March). If you are a writer and you want to know how to depict the lives of the marginalised and the vulnerable, this book can be a model for you.

Just make sure people know about the violence before you take their cash. The ABC News channel always gives viewers a warning if a segment they are about to screen contains images showing surgical procedures. Similar warnings should be made on the covers of books if they contain excessive violence (especially in this case, as it involves children) that might in a certain light be construed by readers as being gratuitous.

It should be noted in summing up that Dalton is a journalist writing for the Weekend Australian, and used to work at the Courier-Mail in Brisbane. Something about the reckless confidence this book embodies makes learning of this set of circumstances seem pre-ordained.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Book review: The Football Solution, George Megalogenis (2018)

Basically a tiresome rant by someone who should know much better, this book is meant to say something meaningful about Australian rules football and Australian politics.

It contains a potted history of the sport (which the author wants to portray as the ultimate expression of the residents of the world’s most prosperous and most egalitarian society) that just didn’t do it for me. I stopped reading at about 11 percent through the book, well before Megalogenis had a chance to divulge to me his wisdom about how the Richmond football club has valuable secrets to offer to an eagerly waiting nation.

This is silly dross for empty-headed AFL fanboys.

Book review: The Bootle Boy, Les Hinton (2018)

This graceless memoir is unreadable. The author was for many years a lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch, who is famous for having made money out of publishing news for the stupid and the uneducated (sometimes readers of his papers were both stupid and uneducated). Hinton got a spot on the ABC’s Breakfast Couch to spruik his production to the supine masses.

The title points to the author’s origins in a town near Liverpool, or a suburb of Liverpool. (Honestly, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse.) It’s deliberately aimed at highlighting his working-class origins, which is a part of the boast of Murdoch’s papers: that they cater to the honest people at the bottom. (When in fact they actually promote views that are conducive to the endless pre-eminence of a greedy, rent-seeking capitalist oligopoly.)

Despite having worked in the news business for many years, Hinton has a tin ear and can’t structure a narrative to save his life. The story runs on monotonously like the endless monologue of a paranoiac in the midst of a psychotic episode, with no logical points of reference and no end to the delivery in sight. It’s truly horrifying how dull this book is. I managed to read a tiny fraction of the whole and that was far too much. A complete waste of good money.

Book review: You Jump to Another Dream, Yan Jun (2012)

Occasional bits of interesting stuff emerged when I read this book of poetry but they were rare. In ‘February 14th, Going to the Hospital with my father’ (2008) there is a solid ending and a clear focus, but in the majority of the poems the abrupt juxtapositions of images, tropes and metaphors reveal no insights worth noting. 

It’s not clear when Yan was born. The book says that he started writing poetry when he was 14 and the earliest poems in this collection date from 1991, so we know at least that he belongs to the post-Deng generation that has grown up in the new China of unfettered capitalism and record economic growth. He lives in Beijing and does other things as well as writing poetry: music critic, organiser, producer, sound artist.

The lines of poetry are often disjointed and broken off before they reach the end of a sentence. There is little punctuation. A new sentence will start in the middle of a line after the fragment of an earlier phrase has finished. All very avant-garde though ultimately pointless. In the prose pieces you get the feeling there’s an iconoclastic political identity here that might serve to explain the poet’s appeal to overseas critics, as though he represents something about an emergent progressive class in China. Perhaps this explains his appeal to the publisher. The book did nothing much for me.