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Saturday, 21 July 2018

The left-right tango is a dead end

The problem won’t go away. Even if Trump is defeated in 2020 by a Democratic candidate, the Democrats will certainly lose another election at some point in the future. Then, who will the GOP bring out to furnish material for their party’s chances at government? If we are being primed for fascism with Trump, how much worse will be the next person who wins the party’s nomination for president?

The internet is becoming increasingly shrill on both sides, with people on the left and on the right reacting with hyper-partisan fever to things that are published to furnish material for the debates that rage online. It’s not quite an echo-chamber, but it does involve narrow-casting by politicians keen to reach their target audiences. What is incontrovertibly true however is that the quality of the discussions online is mostly very low-quality, with people digging into entrenched positions and using sarcasm to make points, and often releasing ad-hominem barbs, rather than dispassionately addressing the issues at hand.

In this environment of claim and counterclaim there is no quarter given. People reward the figures in the public sphere who take the most extreme positions possible, and unthinkingly share their productions as they strive to defeat their enemies and create cohesion with others who have similar views as them. Rewarding extreme views on both sides just serves to further polarise the public sphere and the people in the middle are ignored or shouted down. Like Narcissus at the pond in the forest, people only admire their own image, and give recognition to others if they conform to a single, narrow stereotype. It’s a world as chaotic as the one foretold by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his now-famous lines, published in 1920:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The best are the people with moderate views who are ignored in this frenzy of consumption, where the most execrable junk food, laden with carbs and sugar, is devoured with the same relish as some rare delight from a fine eatery located in the swanky end of town.

This is no way to conduct debate, and it will just result in governments that make poor decisions in order to fulfil election platforms that take form in a maelstrom of extremist rhetoric. We need a better way, a slower pace of news, and more considered development of informed opinion. But people don’t share stories that ask them to think for themselves. They just react to idiocy and sensationalism, like a leg when the doctor strikes under the kneecap with a rubber hammer: a reflex action. No wonder so many people are unhappy.

In the US, generations of poor decisions, privileging the elites over ordinary workers, due to idiocy inspired by the Cold War, have hollowed out the left to a point where it is quite ineffectual, resulting in the sort of entrenched inequality that readily finds solace in xenophobia and other artefacts of nationalistic exceptionalism. Overseas, conservative think-tanks and politicians take infantile ideas bred within this crucible of neoliberalism and wrap them in notions of “progress” in order to sell them to their electorates in the months and years between elections. And every eight years or so they get a chance to implement them as law.

A story by Owen Jones that appeared in the UK on the website of the Guardian on 19 July said that the only antidote to the rise of the far-right is to have more radical left political solutions. He applauded the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn and regretted the demise of the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders in the US.

But you need angles to achieve anything lasting and useful on the policy front. When I lived in Queensland looking after mum she told me one day that a man had climbed to the top of her garden wall. The wall is about ten feet high and is made of Besser blocks that have been rendered with cement and painted. But it’s not perfectly straight. At one point in the middle of the street frontage, there are two right-angles made where the wall has been built to accommodate a planter space on the footpath side. The man had used the soles of his sneakers on the angles created by these perpendicular sections of wall to leverage himself up to the top of it, where he had sat, looking in. Mum told me that she just happened to be at the front window at the moment he appeared out of nowhere at the top of her wall. She shooed him away with her hand, she said, and he dropped back into the street and left her alone.

Getting to the top of the policy wall that separates the left and the right, so that productive policy decisions can be made for the benefit of everyone living in the community, and not just those who have paid lobbyists looking after their interests, should be the goal of politicians, the media, and the electorate that supports them. That means compromise rather than the endless left-right tango that we usually favour. Because the next iteration from the right might be bigly challenging.

Friday, 20 July 2018

African gangs: must be something in the water

On 15 November last year I wrote about the results from the marriage equality postal vote. In that poll, 17 electorates voted ‘No’ when asked if they thought the law governing marriage in Australia should be changed to allow people of the same sex to marry. Of those 17 electorates, 12 were in the Sydney metropolitan area. Of those, nine electorates had large concentrations of people who had stated in the 2016 Census that their religion was either Islam or Hinduism. These were the electorates of Barton, Blaxland, Chifley, Fowler, Greenway, McMahon, Parramatta, Watson and Werriwa.

Of the remaining five electorates that voted ‘No’, two were in Melbourne’s metropolitan area: Bruce and Calwell. Both electorates have significant concentrations of Muslims.

The other electorates that voted ‘No’ were all rural seats in Queensland.

If you look at the 2016 Census figures that show ethnicity, Sydney has more people born overseas.
  • Both parents born overseas: 60,420
  • Father only born overseas: 150,269
  • Mother only born overseas: 108,726
  • Both parents born in Australia: 798,863
For Melbourne the figures are similar but not as large.
  • Both parents born overseas: 47,126
  • Father only born overseas: 136,637
  • Mother only born overseas: 99,278
  • Both parents born in Australia: 779,973
So it seems that in Sydney the heavy concentrations of migrants in specific areas (go to Lakemba or Auburn for Pakistani or Lebanese food; to Hurstville or Ashfield for Chinese; to Harris Park for Indian; to Blacktown for Filipino or Punjabi) serve to give people a more solid sense of identity that sustains them in their daily lives. In Melbourne, migrants tend to be more evenly spread out in the broader community, and seem to be less concentrated in small enclaves. That might be the reason for the African gangs panic. Or else there’s something in the water in the southern capital that makes the place prone to unwarranted panic. It should also be noted that the numbers of Africans in Australia is so vanishingly small that the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not even single them out for counting in their figures unless they were born in South Africa. In which case they are more likely to be white.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Book review: Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata (2018)

This gentle comic novel yet contains trenchant social commentary aimed at the core of the contemporary Japanese urban experience, dealing as it does with sex, marriage and children. It was originally published in Japanese in 2016 as ‘Konbini ningen’ (“convenience store people”) and won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in the author’s home country. This is her tenth book but the first to have been translated into English. I read the book in one afternoon. It is quite short and a ripping yarn that keeps you turning the pages.

Since the asset bubble burst in 1992, Japan’s economy has performed sluggishly and its population is actually shrinking as there is virtually no immigration to speak of. Poor economic performance has meant that for many young Japanese only part-time work has been achievable. It is hard to save money to buy a house and start a family when your income is limited and you have little job security. In the post-war period of rapid economic growth prior to 1992, Japanese men had traditionally entered employment and stayed with the same company for the whole of their lives before retiring on a pension furnished by the employer. This compact between employer and employee is a rarer commodity now than it had been previously.

It is in this context that the book should be read. The strange Furukura and the lazy sociopath Shiraha are also broadly analogous as types to the disaffected, dreamy young men who muddle through life in the novels of Haruki Murakami.

For women in Japan, finding a job and working was always something that you did before getting married and settling down to perform the essential role of looking after children and a household. For many it still is and often women are expected to quit their jobs after they marry. But the long period of economic weakness that has burdened Japan since the bubble burst has disturbed conventional patterns of living for many people in the community.

Keiko Furukura (“furui” means “old” and “kurai” means “dark”) is single and 36 and works in a low-status, temporary job as a convenience store sales clerk. As a child, she had been impetuous and unconventional and the life of a worker has given her existence a structure that fulfils her even though other people think she is strange not to have a “proper job” or a husband. But she thinks that the store “fixed” her when she had been broken. People’s prying questions trouble her although she doesn’t know what to do about them until she meets a new employee named Shiraha (“shiroi” means “white” and “ha” means “tooth”).

During the day, Shiraha goes about performing the tasks of stocking the shelves and serving customers with a lacklustre attitude that grates on the conscientious Furukura. He has a chip on his shoulder and believes that the world has treated him unfairly. He starts to stalk a customer after he is fired from the store and Furukura finds out that he hasn’t been able to pay his rent. She invites him to her home and he takes up residence there, sleeping in the bath and coming out to eat when he is hungry. He has an idea for an internet business but is not interested in getting a job. Shiraha convinces Furukura that his living there is good for her, and she finds when she talks with friends and family that they agree. They are curious about the new guy in her life and she begins to see benefits from having Shiraha around.

The way that convention determines how people conduct their lives is essentially the lesson that this book conveys. Peer pressure and pressure from family are so powerful in determining whether we feel satisfied with the choices we make as our lives progress, especially, the author wants to say, in conformist Japan. The book moves inexorably toward its crisis as the leech-like Shiraha manipulates the oddball Furukura for his own selfish purposes, and the denouement is very funny. It is laden with echoes of what many Japanese really think deep-down: that work serves an essential role in furnishing the individual with important facets of his or her personality. The stresses that the fraying of the fabric of the traditional worker-company relationship has put on salary-men has been difficult for many to navigate.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Book review: and my heart crumples like a coke can, Ali Whitelock (2018)

There’s an ABC sports newsreader named Catherine Murphy who has a Scots accent. What is she doing here, in Australia, telling us about ALF and soccer? And how did a Scot come to have an Irish name? And haven’t we already got Katharine Murphy (the political correspondent for the Guardian)? Did we really need another one?

Ali Whitelock comes along with her stream-of-consciousness narratives like some sort of improved version of Molly Bloom made real in the world, complete with a laptop, a dog and a house by the sea. In his foreword to the book, poet Mark Tredinnick works very hard to get us to like her, comparing her favourably to Charles Bukowski, the American poet who found popularity in the 80s and who still seems to have a readership despite some unpleasant rumours. I’m not sure the analogy quite fits the case, although Whitelock strikes me as being as observant of society’s foibles as Chuck was while he was alive. Her satire and deadpan delivery frequently made me smile.

Some of the poems, furthermore, are quite perfect, such as ‘o fair and gentle leek’, ‘please do not pee in the sink’, and ‘the shit we are in’. In these, the story rumbles on comfortably like any old stray set of diurnal thoughts until it reaches the end, and then stops just at the right moment. Not all of the poems have this degree of precision and focus, but all share a down-home sagacity of a kind that we certainly need more in the public sphere. Whitelock might be a marooned Scot who has touchingly made a home for her mortality in the ungainly sprawl of Australia’s feckless suburbia, but she is not without a healthy strain of snark that she deploys to noticeable effect when occasion demands.

This reliance on the day-to-day to help create meaning does however kerb the poet’s ability to isolate larger truths for the benefit of the reader. There is a stubborn domesticity here that works very well to furnish trenchant material for social commentary, but that yet means that the poems for the main part are tethered to the mundane. They are hymns to the everyday that will suit any denomination or creed, but more rarefied truths are infrequent visitors to the lovely sallies contained in this slim volume. Even the book’s title serves to gently link the spirit tightly to the secular realm, but you wonder if Whitelock might one day reach past the drink container, the commercial forces that support its existence, and the social relations that are influenced by them, to ponder things lying beyond the margins of the world as it appears in newspaper headlines. I wanted to say more in this vein, but I had second thoughts. It’s not that I want to pull my punches, but I want to wait for more evidence before making bald statements.

To finish up, I almost whooped when she flagged the Robbie Burns statue that sits optimistically on its granite plinth near the Art Gallery of New South Wales, between an Angel’s trumpet to the south and the Police Service Wall of Remembrance to the north. The Latin name for the tree is Brugmansia. It’s a poisonous introduced species related to the tomato and the potato. On sunny weekdays, joggers who work in offices in the towers situated just past the western edge of the Domain run past the statue of Scotland’s favourite son, complete with its plough, as they take time out from their busy schedules to get some air into their lungs and to work the kinks out of tired muscles. But few people notice this bit of civic art, a relique of a simpler time, the age of Henry Lawson and the White Australia Policy, although many certainly wish that we could turn the clock back and make the country conform to its values again. It would be nice if we could just keep the good bits, though, without the nationalistic exceptionalism and all the other disreputable baggage that went along with it.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Book review: District and Circle, Seamus Heaney (2006)

Heaney loves the feel and sound of words, there’s no question about it, and he has a certain fluency with them, along with a distinct breadth of vocabulary at his command, but I found this collection obscure and disappointing. It’s the first time I’ve ever read any poems by the Nobel Prize-winning author.

He has trouble with his referents (the things he’s actually trying to talk about) and this seems to me to be a critical kind of failing for a poet, whose work ultimately floats or sinks on its ability to convey meaning. But in these poems meaning evades your grasp. It’s sort of like the feeling you get when, out walking, you see a car approaching on the carriageway but there’s a pole on the footpath ahead of you. The distance between you and the pole, and between the car and the pole, and the speeds at which the two of you are moving, mean that you never see the car, just the pole. That’s how I felt reading this collection of mature poetry (Heaney got the gong in 1995). There was always something getting in the way.

With the prose pieces in this book you find the same threadbare quality as with the verse. In the section titled ‘Found Prose’ there are a number of pieces, ‘The Lagans Road’, ‘Tall Dames’ and ‘Boarders’. In these, even though the poet has all the room in the world to work with because it’s prose not poetry he’s writing, the referents still evade your grasp. Unaccountable! And where you can make sense of what he’s writing about in these prose pieces, the poetry is thin and unsatisfying. So even where there are enough words to convey the meaning the poet has in his mind, the effect of the ideas contained in the language is pale.

It furthermore never escapes the bounds of the wonky, haphazard syntax that is placed by the author on the page. And the very physicality of the language, which is meant to be a feature, makes the words resist the type of suggestive sense-making that flares up like ideas in some contemporary poetry through the material of the language itself. As you find for example with the excellent work of the Australian poet Les Murray, a contemporary of Heaney’s who is still with us.

When it comes down to it, Heaney’s work is simply just not very good. Certainly not good enough for a Nobel Prize for Literature. The apposite word in Japanese is “gutai-teki”: “physical”, “of this world”. I use it to mean that things here are shackled rigidly to the material world. No chance of anything escaping the tug of gravity and flying up into the air. Nothing abstract or theoretical to upset the punters, although there is a certain cloying nostalgia that like a cranky uncle inhabits some of the poems in this collection.

What most forcibly cemented the idea of the materiality of the poetry in my mind was reading ‘The Harrow-Pin’, which is about a part of an agricultural implement that is towed at the back of a tractor, and that intrudes into the earth to help farmers break up clods in order to prepare the soil for sowing seeds for crops. The tool is made of iron and is large and hard. I had to look up “harrow” on the internet in order to understand what the object is used for. Here, at a glance, rest the poetics of Seamus Heaney.

He savours his words, rolling them around in his mouth like a piece of hard candy as he sucks the goodness out of them before offering up the consequence, like a thin trail of spit sent up against a wall, for the appreciation of the reader, as though he were offering the viscera of a slaughtered goat to be read by a soothsayer. “See how far it goes!” you can almost hear him shout as he checks out where his latest gob has started to run down the vertical of the painted surface toward the horizontal of the patient dry ground. (“Use the hose next time you want to water the plants.” You’re only being helpful.)

Heaney desperately wants to sing, you can feel the passion inside him, even in his dotage, but he just chants like a tired old monk. Much better, from a slightly earlier generation, is R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Book review: Crudo, Olivia Laing (2018)

This refreshing roman-a-clef is one of the best things that I have read for many a long day. And like the Australians Maria Tumarkin and Melanie Cheng, who are both from migrant backgrounds, and whose books about Australia I reviewed recently, Laing is British and so here an outsider’s point of view is brought to bear on the political scene in the US.

‘Crudo’ is focalised entirely and thrillingly through the character of Kathy Acker, the 1980s punk novelist and popular culture icon, who is here transported to a later era – she is 40 and about to be married in the northern summer of 2017 when the novel takes place (13 May to 22 September), although Acker herself died in 1997 and was born in 1947 – so that she can glom onto the logic of social media and the debates that are happening in this particular historical moment. It’s a deeply humorous premise betraying the girlish elan buttressing the whole enterprise.

A novel with bite. Like a Shakespearean sonnet, it is full of allusive energy. The way the prose works brought to my mind the way Hideki Gondo, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki in Juzo itami’s outstanding 1987 film ‘A Taxing Woman’, described what it was like to enjoy the wealth that he had accumulated in his lifetime. He said that consuming it was like sipping the excess liquid from the top of a cup full of water, that is held there by mere surface tension. You sip and you sip at the water’s convex top but the glass always remains full because the drops of water keep falling into it from above. Laing’s prose is like Gondo’s metaphorical cup. You read and you read and you are always presented with a full cup no matter how much of the whole you consume. There is a rich plenitude here that in its poetic adequacy defies even the most deft analysis. The words simply do not run out. (Itami of course was the brother-in-law of the peerless Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe.)

The pace of Laing’s novel reminded me of ‘Helter Skelter’, a song from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ of 1968. A full-on rushing tempest of a tune that carries you along with it on an unhinged trajectory to the very core of human experience, a place where the seeping tempers of the vital organs meld organically with the inner-most thoughts of the outcast individual, a woman alive on the cusp of the future.

In the novel, Kathy empties out the apartment she has lived in alone and moves all her stuff to the home of her husband-to-be. It is a liminal moment rendered all the more poignant because of the age at which it is accomplished, a moment in a woman’s life when she has cause to contemplate from a rational distance the outlands of the human span, places where people don’t always voluntarily go in the daily round of business. It is a moment that comes close to the period when the menopause intrudes, a point in time that threatens to bring changes and unique burdens, things that promise to test the integrity of a woman alive in the world. A moment full of exquisite promise.

There is something elemental about Kathy in this novel so that she stands for the eternal feminine, one prone to irrational rages and sudden enthusiasms, with a fierce certainty of her own intelligence along with a devouring scepticism at the stupidity of the age of Trump, and furthermore a consuming tenderness when confronted by the weakness of the marginalised who dwell with us in the world. A person for whom a husband is a necessary part of being alive, although whether you agree with everything that he says or not is another thing entirely.

And more: Kathy is here like a female Leopold Bloom of ‘Ulysses’. A remarkable analogue if you tjhink about it a bit since the original model for Bloom was the Modernist author Italo Svevo, who Joyce had tutored in the English language during his Trieste years before WWI. Acker and Svevo: twins busy in a single enterprise. The interior monologue reimagined in 2018, this time with a feminine cast. In Joyce’s case, the two men, the Irishman and the Italian, had been brought together by pure chance but nevertheless in the meeting lay submerged within the loam of humdrum reality the seeds of one of the great fictional efflorescence’s of the 20th century.

There are furthermore echoes in Laing’s novel of the eye-opening promise of the revelatory definite article as used by Joan Didion, a chronicler of another moment of change when two historical continents rubbed together for the first time to create a new sound. Coming down fast!

Whereas Didion chronicled a time when mores and laws were changing to adjust to the demands of the big post-war baby boom, with its new ideas about how to organise society, Laing chronicles the passage at the terminal point of the period of broad consensus that followed from that modulation of the parameters defining both the good and the bad, at a time, now, when the right has finally found its collective voice. In our age, the pendulum risks swinging back to fascism.

But the American people appear to be oblivious, and still don’t know that what Trump wants to do will make their situation even worse than it is now. Draining the swamp in the way he has in mind will just deepen the inequality that shackles the lives of so many in that country. The movie ‘Solo’, the most recent in the Star Wars franchise, was, like this novel, an artefact of the era of Trump, a time when everything has nothing but a money value. It is in this light that this novel has to be read. Appeals by contemporary politicians to the ugly xenophobia simmering beneath the surface of society in the US are a ruse designed to distract voters’ attention from the true purpose of the government: to further entrench inequality in favour of the few at the expense of the many. Laing shifting the dates to situate Kathy within the locus of public debate in the era of tiki torches and Pepe the Frog is an inspired move.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book review: The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016)

This rather tendentious speculative thriller posits a world where women are endowed with a mysterious power that gives them a physical advantage over men. Starting with a scattering of girls, women start to realise that they have the power to generate electricity from their hands. Some older women are shown how to use the power by the younger ones. In some women, the power is stronger than it is in others.

The plot develops as women use the power they have been given to change the political settlement in countries around the world. It is driven by a handful of major characters – Tunde Edo, a male Nigerian reporter who disseminates news of the phenomenon using the internet; Allie Montgomery-Taylor, a young woman who lives in the American south, who hears voices in her head and who launches a cult, adopting as her own the epithet “Mother Eve”; Roxy Monke, a young British girl whose father is a gangster and whose mother is killed by thugs one day; and Margot Clearly, the mayor of a city in the USA.

The narrative courses along at a breathless pace and the characterisation is good. You get to understand the people whose lives are being laid open to your scrutiny and you can empathise with their stories. The pathos embodied in the story of Allie is thick. Sexually assaulted by her adoptive father, Allie kills the man one day at the beginning of the spate of electrocutions that proliferate suddenly throughout the world, just as things start to escape the control of the authorities, and flees her house, ending up in a convent. It is here that she is able to build her reputation as a woman who has been touched in some way by God, a being that she formulates in her utterances as a female, but one whose essence lies beyond the conventional categories used to classify people in the secular world.

The way the novel works reminded me of ‘Blindness’, the 1995 novel (translated from Portuguese and published in English in 1997) by Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, which when I read it I also found to be tendentious. That novel also deals with an unexplained phenomenon that afflicts a large number of people, in its case when a number of people in the community suddenly go blind for no discernible reason. The political process in the society being described is impacted as the government takes steps to contain what they think is a contagion.

But you feel cornered by the inexorable flow of events, events that restrict the area within which your imagination has available for movement, and as though there were only one way that things are able to be interpreted. Allegory can be airless and claustrophobic like this: this is an entirely artificial place, the world of this novel, where the author seems to have autocratic control over people and events that are depicted. If you screw down the story so tightly, the imagination has no place to wander. The language itself has to provide places where the reader can roam free like a lion on the veldt. I’m a big fan of Saramago but this novel of his I consider be a failure.

Another failure (in my opinion) this book reminded me of is J.M Coetzee’s ‘The Childhood of Jesus’. There’s the same strangulation of hope and a sense of futility that pushes aside a sense of impending disaster the author wants to convey, because you feel as though the cards are completely stacked against the hero from the outset.

The internet and social media get some play in this novel by Alderman, who is British, but more could have been done in a similar vein. The author is on Twitter but for whatever reason she didn’t see fit to use it as a device in the novel for advancing the plot or for developing character.

‘The Power’ is a competent novel but it’s one that is probably more interesting for women than for men. I read about a third of it before putting it down, bored with it. I felt a little exploited, and in the end came to resent the underlying narrative where men are forever complicit in the abuse of women, despite the undeniable fact that there is no doubt that this is true in many cases. But more than this, the novel’s entire premise lies in the fact that the interests of women and men are somehow inimical to one another. There is a great scene that offers a counterpoint to this theme that takes place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the women start to take over the streets vacated by the suddenly powerless authorities. Here Tunde meets Noor, who takes him to witness what happens and at the end of the day leads him to an apartment where they make love.

So there are moments when men and women complement each other in ways that are elemental and that in normal daily life underpin the coherence of society. But these moments are vanishingly rare in the context that the book maps out for us. For the most part, the book visualises women and men as inhabiting separate spheres of interest. This is what I found a bit alienating, because the logic of this structural device is all-encompassing, affecting every part of the book in the same way, I imagine, that a woman’s whole life is impacted by the need to look after her safety on the streets and at home, in any place where she is likely to encounter a man.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Book review: The Agonist, Shastra Deo (2017)

This prize-winning collection contains a few good things: ‘Honestly’, ‘Road Trip’, and ‘When I Think of My Brother’. Otherwise, the substance of the work is rather thin, much like a piece of cloth with not enough weft to support the fabric for the purpose of making clothes out of it. Certainly, little of what I mentally tried on that I found here fit my experience of what good poetry is, although there were echoes at times of something published by a female poet in the middle of last century. In this vein, much of the collection regrettably brought to mind T.S. Eliot’s later poems, where any quality that might have survived the complacency brought on by his dotage is replaced by verbiage added by someone who has not been told often enough what is good.

Deo’s good poems are full of life and are animated by memory. They have a clear focus, easily-comprehensible referents, and a satisfying narrative structure. ‘Honestly’ is a love poem and the other two good ones are about the poet’s childhood (although it’s not clear if ‘Road Trip’ is a non-fictional account of an event or a fabrication).

In many of the poems the word “palm” (the body part) recurs with a frequency that has something disconcertingly deliberate about it, as though the poet were repeatedly trying on a favourite eyeshadow, in search of ways to generate a broader set of meanings encompassed by the totality of the poems in the collection. There is a lot of medical language that the average reader will not understand without the notes. This is a shame, as it impedes the process of comprehension. In fact, it is not only alienating it is quite unwarranted, there being no effort made to balance the burden these words make on the integrity of the poems by giving any other (ordinary) words the kind of weight and substance that good writing can impart. The words “blood” and “tendon” also appear a lot. One poem in particular, ‘Concerning Divination’, has more incomprehensible words per line than an obscure medieval theological tract. And is about as good.

The love poetry could have been better but the subject is often mixed up with things that lack any specific gravity and seem introduced into the narrative merely for the purposes of poetic effect. Meaning tends to get lost in the onrush of words. The person who is her love interest - I presume it is a man or men - has no discernible personality, and the play of feelings that these complicated poems should elicit is absent. If her lover remains largely faceless it’s hard to decide whether you agree with what the poet writes, for a sense of the poet’s own feelings is also so qualified and questioned that it is indistinguishable from journalism.

I felt reading the book that Deo is a young woman with a lot of good words and some sophisticated ideas who hasn’t sufficiently lived the things she cares about most, and so finds it difficult to encapsulate a vision in understandable verses. There is a rawness here that might have been leavened through the deployment of passion, but that emotion is missing too, the poet being an intelligent and educated young woman with opinions. You feel as though she probably belongs to the tribe who believe that recorded history started in 1848, and who like reading postmodern theory.

Reading the undercooked poems in this book made me sad and my mind involuntarily reverted to an image of the pathetic Senator Leyonhjelm in his contretemps with feisty Senator Hanson-Young: what right do I have to critique such things?

Friday, 13 July 2018

Unfettered capitalism is suboptimal

I find people who stick to a rigid party line tiresome. People on the left are mostly gung-ho about redistribution of wealth through taxation and welfare. People on the right are mostly gung-ho about the wisdom of free markets. But I think there is a third way. In fact, most successful countries use this third way to run their operations.

The title of this blogpost should remind people of the sermon given by Bishop Michael Curry at Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle, that took place back in May.

In my family, there are the seeds of both free-market and redistributive traditions close to the surface. My mum’s dad, Harry Dean, was a card-carrying Communist. He would say if asked that Communism was “living Christianity” and spent his life giving things to people, including the love he gave to his daughter, who adored him. She married a man who would vote Liberal all his life and who said that his family was his “favourite charity”. I’ve written about my father on this blog on a number of occasions. I’m a bit of a chameleon when it comes to ideas about economics and inequality. I prefer to take the best words from the lexicons used by people on both sides of the political fence. My background means that I am more flexible than many other commentators who participate in debates in public.

Capitalism is good at distributing resources for the purpose of feeding the community but unfettered capitalism is suboptimal. A rational quantity of government intervention enables the community to find the coherence it needs for all members to thrive. We all benefit from living in healthy communities that are free of crime and pollution, so regulation of behaviour, either by corporations or individuals, is necessary to ensure the wellbeing of all people who live in them. None of us can survive alone, so quarantining all wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many is dangerous because it is not only unfair, it incites people to break the law.

We all need clean water, clean air, and safe streets to be able to enjoy the freedoms that the earth and human ingenuity embodied in technology and democracy have bequeathed to us over generations. These things can only be provided through government and taxation. But we know from experience that centrally-planned production systems absent private enterprise cannot compete with free markets. Texas has a population about the same size as Australia’s, but its economy is measurably larger. But to what purpose? We need the best of both worlds in order to live good lives.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Book review: Tilt, Kate Lilley (2018)

This slim collection of poetry and prose makes for good reading. Many of the poems in it are autobiographical in nature, and some of them talk about the author’s adolescent experiences. She has written about them elsewhere. The man who she has previously named as a sexual predator was progressive author and speechwriter Bob Ellis. Lilley says that her mother, the poet Dorothy Hewett, knew about the abuse but said nothing at the time. Ellis died two years ago. Hewett died in 2002. Lilley herself teaches at the University of Sydney.

But the poems about these experiences, while they might constitute an interesting chronicle about growing up in the 1970s, fail to completely engage the reader’s imagination. All the words are there and they are in the correct order but the spark that should animate the images they want to convey fails to ignite when you read them. At Gleebooks where I bought this volume, the sales clerk I spoke with told me that their initial stock of the book had sold out, and they had had to order new copies in for me, so I know that Lilley has a readership. But I was not moved by the writing in the book, not by the poems.

There is some journalism in here as well, however. It deals with the gay screen idol Greta Garbo. To write this piece, Lilley visited the archives in the United States where Garbo’s papers have been saved for posterity, and did extensive original research. It is a valuable piece of work that many people will be curious to read because Garbo was so famous for such a long time, over decades spanning both the silent- and the early talking-picture eras.

The cover image for the book is a photograph by Brian Bird dated 1948 that is titled ‘Luna Park lighted windmill’. The title of the book refers to the mechanical locking mechanism that is built into pinball machines to halt operation if excessive violence is employed when using them. Players would bump the machines they were on in a stabbing motion using the heels of their hands as they manipulated the buttons controlling the flippers, in order to gain high scores and keep the ball in play for the maximum amount of time possible. If a machine tilts, then its flippers stop working and you lose the ball down the chute in front of you.

The title of the book and its cover image bring to mind the work of the Australian artist Martin Sharp, who spent years making screen prints and paintings that used images of Tiny Tim, a British vaudeville singer who had a distinctive falsetto voice, and Ginger Meggs, an Australian newspaper cartoon character, a street urchin with read hair. He also made images of Luna Park and was vocal in support of the entertainment destination when it went through a rocky period in the late 70s and 1980s after a fire in the Ghost Train ride led to the deaths of seven people. His artworks are collectibles of pop now, but it recently came to light that, like Ellis, he had had sex with underage girls in the 1970s.

In the title poem in the book, Lilley talks about an entertainment destination she worked at in the 70s on Oxford Street. The piece underscores the distance that might lie between anodyne myths about an idealised past and the more confronting realities that can sometimes reside beyond the borders policed by the daily newspapers.

But knowingly signalling approval for tropes that are familiar to subsections of the community is not necessarily the same thing as writing worthwhile poetry, although the two things may sometimes appear to share things in common. A poem is not an ad, although people who in past eras might have written and published poetry these days do work in the advertising industry. To be fully realised, poetry must flame up in the imagination at points, usually at the end of the piece, and convey new awareness the reader didn’t have before. In exchange for the cost of the book and the time spent reading it, a poet owes us at least insight, if not revelation or a guide to attaining some sort of transcendence. But Lilley’s poetry seems to concentrate on narrow concerns in a way that suggests they lie wholly within a space circumscribed by the outlines of her public persona, or her identity. There might have been more space set aside for the expression of the individual’s perception of things that come before the reader and the feelings they provoked.

The poetry here is sometimes predictable but rarely really edifying. Poetry has to be stimulating in a way that prose does not have to be. A poem without its own quotient of energy, without some fire, cannot honestly be said to be good.

I had many concerns about writing this review after I had read a number of the poems in the book, because Lilley chose one of my own poems to be included in Southerly, the literary magazine that her university publishes four times a year. That poem appeared in 2014. So I had qualms about writing a negative review of her book. But I had only last month written a blogpost about the incestuous Australian literary ecosystem, so I felt it incumbent on me to be completely open and honest in my dealings with this book, for the ultimate benefit of my readers.

If reviewers hold back their true opinions about work that is published and made available to the wider community, then people who live in it are deprived of valuable information that might help them to purchase work that is really worthy of their dollars and time. Pulling your punches might give a temporary fillip to a writer but ultimately doing so corrupts the entire literary ecosystem because then you are skewing it to favour people you know rather than people whose work truly deserves to be read and shared. Reviewers have the same responsibility to be truthful as the media does. Truth is morality. A biased newspaper is corrupting the political process and should be shunned. Biased reviewers should also take a long, hard look at themselves before writing their next piece for publication.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

People misunderstand the nature of government

Last week, news arrived that the head of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, Asahara Shoko (who was born Matsumoto Chizuo), had been hanged to death in Tokyo with a number of his followers. In Japan, the TV news coverage was extensive, and included news that there are still 1600 people in the renamed cult (it’s now known as Aleph). Authorities in the country are still watching its activities, fearing a repetition of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack that killed at least 12 people and injured a further 50. I remember the attack vividly as I was living in Japan at the time.

The event combined in my imagination with experiences interacting with people on social media in recent days to bring home to me the unmistakeable fact that most people don’t understand the nature of government in a democracy.

The idea that you must assume absolute power and impose your will by violent means on other people in order to achieve a world that matches your desires, signifies that you think that this has been what secular government has always done to you. You feel victimised and powerless and you resent those who you think have power over your life. This dynamic makes it easy to attack politicians and, by extension, the media, both of whom you believe belong to a distant elite whose motives you distrust. Your life is an unbroken series of reactions to events that inspire fear and loathing in you. Living such a life must be terrible. It is not my experience.

In fact everyone is responsible for the quality of government in a democracy. The word that is used to describe the existence of the divine in the world is “immanent”. It means “dwelling within”. The given name “Immanuel” comes from this root. Merriam-Webster tells me that the word comes from Latin “immanens”, the present participle of “immanere” to remain in place. This word comes from the Latin preposition “in” plus the verb “manere” which means “to remain”. The word is thus related to the word “mansion”.

Power that is exercised by the state is immanent in the individual and his or her conduct determines the direction the state takes as time moves forward. Just as consumers determine through their purchases at the supermarket what farmers grow, how they grow them, and how they treat their animals (where consumers are given accurate information), holders of the electoral franchise in democracies determine the policies that are implemented by the governments they elect, and they way they are implemented. It’s not just through official polls like federal or state elections that these views are expressed, either. In the periods between these events, there a constant series of opinion polls is taken by private companies that do nothing but this. These polls tell us about the inclinations of the electorate on a regular basis and politicians give the results as they appear eager attention.

The media is a critical part of this articulated process because it communicates down, from government to the people, and up, from the people to government. And now, with social media, people can also communicate with their leaders in a way that is unprecedented in human history.

Everyone has responsibility for the government that steers a country through the complexities that manifest in the forest of time. Secular power dwells within each of us. Use it wisely. You get the government you deserve.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Movie review: Mary Shelley, dir Haifaa al-Mansour (2017)

This competent biopic tells the story of the appearance of the novel ‘Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus’ 200 years ago this year. Its pacing is very fine and the characterisation in it is for the most part solid. The young Mary (Elle Fanning) gives a good account of the way a woman would have felt about romance and love in the first decades of the 19th century. There are a lot of strong close-ups where her face speaks volumes as the viewer sees the drama unfold. I’m still not sure about all the passionate French kissing (that’s what we called it when I was a teenager, in the 1970s), which seemed to me to be unjustified and also a little outre given the era being portrayed. I think 2009’s ‘Bright Star’, about John Keats, another second-generation Romantic poet, is more accurate in this regard. It was directed by New Zealand’s Jane Campion.

The weakest character is probably Mary’s stepmother (nicely played by a tight-lipped Joanne Froggatt), a shrewish and unpleasant woman with a tendency to unfairly scold her husband’s daughter. The bookish intellectual William Godwin (a suitably dishevelled Stephen Dillane) often looks stupid as a result of this well-intentioned but tendentious bit of writing by Emma Jensen. The woman could have been just half as abrasive and still have contributed to Mary's leaving her father’s house. The example provided by her unorthodox mother was unquestionably one of the main reasons Mary quit the place, and I will talk more about this dynamic in the society of the time later in this review. Godwin’s dour and worthy nature comes across well enough but with his wife causing so much turmoil in the household, as a father he appears somewhat incompetent. In her 2018 biography, ‘In Search of Mary Shelley’, British author Fiona Simpson tries to make a similar case against the woman. Simpson admits however that all of Mary’s diaries and letters went missing in the years after she eloped with Percy, so documentary evidence about her treatment at the hands of her step-mother is likely scant either way.

Overall, the functional (rather than inspired) script is predominantly humourless, and so Claire Clairmont, Mary’s bubbly and naïve step-sister (played by Bel Powley) has a lot of weight to carry. She is the one of the only light-hearted things in this rather correct drama that works hard to tick off all the right PC dot points.

And there’s an unfortunate shortage of poetry here too (troublingly ironic in a movie in which poets play such important parts). Some of the mood scenes, such as those at a stage near the beginning of the film showing the highlands of Scotland, where Mary is sent by her father to get her out of her stepmother’s hair, present some relief, and Mary’s face does a lot of work in conveying buried emotion and dramatic nuance. Given the louche nature of both Percy Shelley (a voluble Douglas Booth) and Lord Byron (a rebarbative Tom Sturridge), the plain-speaking and frank John Polidori (Ben Hardy) is a breath of fresh air. A little salad on the side to offset the rather high-toned flavours of the two poets’ questionable mains. In the film, normality is often called for as the young men struggle with their task of combating the entrenched injustices of the time and the young women struggle to keep their relationships intact.

I read one review that lambasted the movie where the writer seemed to mostly take exception to the character of Percy, but I think that a bit of backgrounding is necessary to fully grasp the scope of what the two men were trying to achieve with their writing. And their lives. Britain at the time Mary’s novel was published was a democracy but the electoral franchise was very limited. There had been a push to extend it in the wake of the 1789 revolution in France but, fearing revolution at home, the authorities in London cracked down on dissent in the middle of the 1790s in light of the chaotic and bloody purges that were taking place in Paris. Some of the London protesters who were subsequently convicted of treason were even sent to New South Wales as punishment. It would not be until 1832 after a concerted campaign by British workers, intellectuals, and Whig politicians that the franchise was broadened to give more people the vote (men only, naturally).

In the absence of effective representation, many people suffered at the hands of a selfish elite and the powers in charge of government, including the king. So, when Percy met Mary many things were actively being reimagined by writers and other radicals (the word dates from precisely this period). It was natural that the institution of marriage would also be up for renegotiation. It is in this context that Percy asked Mary for freedom to take to bed anyone he wanted. In this regard, the decision behind the casting of Storridge, who looks a lot like Freddie Mercury, as Byron, was sensational. The kiss Byron plants on Percy’s lips when Percy, Mary and her half-sister arrive by horse-drawn carriage at Byron’s Swiss chalet is a dramatic emblematisation of the types of questioning of roles that men and women were performing in their mental lives at the time.

The arm of the American Revolution was long, and it found a way into the most intimate parts of the individual’s life. I feel I have to hasten to add that this short summary of the politics of sex as it functioned at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century should not be read as a justification for Percy’s callow philandering. It might however help contemporary viewers understand what was happening in the young men’s heads.

That Mary resented Percy is completely comprehensible, of course. There’s even an accessible user guide for this film, in the form of Jane Austen’s novel, ‘Mansfield Park’, that people now can read if they want to know how the average woman of the times thought of the progressive ideas that were gaining traction in those decades before Victoria ascended the throne. These days, Austen readers often complain about this 1814 novel, comparing it unfavourably with others the author wrote, but it’s always been my favourite. In it, Austen introduces two young people, Mary and Henry Crawford, who arrive at the Bertram’s house to keep its occupants company as the two young people spend some time in the country. They are an engaging young brother and sister, and Edmund Bertram (who the heroine Fanny Price is secretly in love with), falls for Mary. Fanny keeps her mouth shut but her eyes open. In the end, she is vindicated. Henry elopes with one of the Bertram daughters and there’s a scandal. Finally, Fanny gets what she wanted all along: to marry her cousin.

In the novel, Austen examines the consequences of the liberal views that were being aired in her day. Henry and Mary Crawford might look bright and talk an engaging line but they are fundamentally corrupt for the same reason that viewers of this film will find the character of Percy to be a dickhead. Austen was a solid Tory all her life and her novel is a commentary on exactly the kind of person Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were in real life. Rumours spread even to the remotest parts of rural Hampshire, where Austen lived for much of her life. The portrayal of the two poets in the film is therefore to my mind entirely realistic. But it’s too easy to complacently tut-tut about Percy’s poor morals and caddish behaviour as they appear in the film. The times were different in those days. It’s only now, in the 21sty century, that we can see that constancy and reliability are just as important in a man as brilliance and talent. At the time, many didn’t see this. Sharp-eyed Austen, however, knew what was what.

As an aside that yet remains on point, Fanny is sometimes talked about in the same sentence as Mary Wollstonecraft. There is something so heartrending about Fanny’s situation and her steely yet subterranean curiosity that brings to mind the constant series of dramas that was Wollstonecraft’s life. Fanny’s yearning for the transcendent and her devotion to Edmund despite his shortcomings have about them some poignant echoes of the writings of Wollstonecraft as she tried to remain linked with the peripatetic father of Fanny Imlay, their daughter. (It’s not clear what happened to Fanny Imlay in the movie, as she grew up in the Godwin household with Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont and suicided in 1816.)

Austen also has an antidote to the bitchy Mary Jane Clairmont, Godwin’s second wife. In the novel already mentioned, Lady Bertram, the matriarch of the family, is an utterly indolent and dull creature whose life revolves entirely around her pet pugs. With her wicked sense of humour, Austen lanced one of the boils she saw infecting the novels she grew up with (including Godwin’s), and made the evil stepmother into a running joke. And a benign one. Lady Bertram nevertheless manages without too much fuss to oversee the upbringing of her four rather stupid children as well as look after her husband’s house.

If only Mary Jane Clairmont had a bit more of Lady Bertram in her! The film would have been a better product if she had done.

The real kicker in the end however is that few people read Mary Shelley’s novel any more apart from university students who have it set as a text to read for assignments they have to submit to their teachers for assessment. This is a pity as the novel in question raises questions about science and progress that we are still struggling with today. New artefacts of popular culture, movies such as 1984’s ‘Terminator’ and 2014’s ‘Ex Machina’, lead us to similar questions as Mary was asking all those years ago: what is the right use of the knowledge that we have gained through research and publication over the generations since the Renaissance?

Austen’s novels on the other hand are still read with pleasure by large numbers of people who are entranced by her epigrammatic wit and the stylish sophistication of her characterisation and plotting. But during her lifetime, Austen’s novels appeared without her name on the title page. The first one was put out as “by a lady” and the second one, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, was put out as “by the author of Pride and Prejudice”. After she died in 1817, her brother published the two of her novels that had not yet gone to print, and for the first time her name was attached to her printed work.

The makers of this film enjoy today liberties and rights that Mary’s mother could only dream about even as she desperately fought for them. What is remarkable about both writers furthermore is the way they were nurtured in their passion for words by the vibrant reading culture that existed in Britain then. Austen’s father was a great reader of novels, and encouraged his daughter’s adolescent sallies (which you can read today, they are called her “juvenilia”). Lending libraries scattered throughout the country fed a strong appetite in the community for works of fiction and non-fiction. You might not have the money to buy the set of books that many novels appeared as (paper was relatively expensive at the time, comparted to today) but you could afford the subscription price at your local lending library, giving you access to the most recent publications coming out of London and Edinburgh.

This film has strong links to Australia, by the way. Director al-Mansour studied film-making at the University of Sydney and Jensen, the screenwriter, is originally from Brisbane.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Book review: On Disruption, Katharine Murphy (2018)

This fascinating book is way too short. It should have been written as part of a PhD thesis, with interviews conducted with media practitioners included to flesh out the points that it wants to make. That might have given them more force and substance. But Murphy is a working journalist and she didn’t have time to dedicate to the work away from her job. Time is of the essence. And, fittingly, the economics of journalism in the internet age is the true subject of this work. Time is money.

Murphy launches the narrative by talking about her early days with the Australian Financial Review in Canberra, where she started working as a journo just before John Howard won the 1996 federal election. The sedate pace of journalism of those days has evaporated in a miasma of heat and noise propagated by the WWW. The result of the digital disruption, she tentatively infers, is Donald Trump.

This sally seems to be reaching a little bit far in its attempt to grasp a truth, but the underlying narrative has some merit and so it’s worth taking more time to understand what she is trying to say. As the economics that underpin the media business have changed, the rules that moderate conduct in the public sphere have changed too. (Murphy could have talked a bit more about the hollowing out of the incomes of the American middle classes as she tries to fathom what brought DT to public office, but there seems to have been no time.)

She does illustrate how the news business has become more shouty, more polarised, and more tribal. She does underline the importance of the clash of ideologies in the process of progress in our democracies. Conflict, she says, is the very stuff of democracy. She understands partisanship but she falls a tad short when she echoes others who have complained about “echo chambers” in the online world. (In my review of Michael Brissenden’s new novel, ‘The List’, published on this blog last month, I talk about this as well.) In fact, I think that people are more aware of the things that divide them from those who have different world views than them than they have been in the past. Especially with the use of hashtags, there is more sharing of views and discussion between people from different camps now than there once was. The commentary surrounding retweets that people put up to criticise their enemies might be consistently negative, but at least you get to see exactly what they are complaining about.

Murphy does better when she talks about “community building” as the stated goal of media outfits, on both the left and the right, organisations that attempt to cultivate a reliable paying audience by regularly feeding the beast, as it were, rather than working to serve the interests of truth. I mentally applauded when Murphy took exception to US media commentator Jay Rosen’s dictum that journalists need to declare their ideological position from the outset, and agree with her that pursuing the truth, wherever it leads you, is more important than this one, single, well-intentioned aim.

When she started talking about the goal of competition between ideas in the public square being progress through compromise, I was relieved because it told me that she is a sophisticated thinker. Coming to agree to disagree and maybe settling for 60 percent of what you had asked for, instead of 100 percent, is how democracy works, and always has worked. But debate online is conducted in the same way team sports are, as a zero-sum game, and Murphy points to this dynamic in her book. It’s as though the teams were playing for keeps, instead of just control of the government for the next four or eight years.

It’s not that there is a polarised echo-chamber, it’s just that the people involved don’t care what their opponents say or think. As we saw in the case of David Leyonhjelm’s slut-shaming of Australian Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, public criticism aimed at the Liberal Democrat senator was mere water off a duck’s back. And his supporters when they hear voices from the left complaining about his words just double down and dig in deeper in their trenches, making themselves even more secure in their positions despite what other people opine. This goes back to what Murphy says about “community building” by news orgs. They use the hostile voices to strengthen their positions, saying “We’re not like them.”

But I think part of the problem that journalists and politicians have with social media comes down to aesthetics. Twitter has done us a favour in a way but for some it’s a hard lesson to learn. Twitter is full of people who can't spell, can't articulate what they want to say properly, whose views have never been taken seriously by their peers, or who have only just discovered that they have personal opinions. They might have deeply-held beliefs that are married to an incomplete grasp of the facts. People come in all shapes and sizes.

Twitter shows us the world as it really is. We are what we are. I wrote about this on 23 March this year in a post titled, ‘Twitter is becoming more like the world.’ We may not like some of the people whose tweets we read on the social media platform, but the unmistakeable fact remains that they are real people and they still get to vote. In the past their voices were only available through letters to the editor, or through gatekeepers like journalists, or through the utterances of their elected representatives, or by way of people working for peak bodies like charities. Now, we hear from the stakeholders themselves, and sometimes the style of their delivery is unlovely, if not worse.

Especially for progressives, furthermore, playing for all of the spoils of victory in the same way that a sport team competes for a silver cup, is a little strange when you think about it a bit. Progressives are always on about sharing and spreading the wealth that the community generates. It’s those on the right side of politics who talk about individual enterprise at the expense of the integrity of the community as a whole. Those on the left especially should be more awake to the benefits of compromise because their very ethos relies on it. They might get a better response from those on the right if they broke with the party line a bit more from time to time, and embraced change that is infected by ideas coming from their competitors.

But perhaps the antidote to the malaise set up by party polarisation and the 24-hour news cycle is to slow down the news process. News organisations might put aside a few journalists who can be tasked with merely examining the truth of assertions that are thrown up in the rush of debate, every day, day-in day-out. Many organisations are starting to do something like this already, with fact checkers all over the pace tasked with testing assertions that appear all the time that are repeated willy-nilly without confirmation by many people online.

But perhaps what is needed is a “slow news” movement like that has happened in the food industry. Longer, more well-researched stories on topics that are not necessarily emblematic of the current debate but that still have something to do with it. Things like wealth inequality, immigration, violence against women, youth suicide, stigmatisation of mental illness, legalisation of illicit substances. Gnarly problems (to borrow a trope from Rosen) that need a bit more thought and space to properly articulate. The rush of topical stories does add to big debates like this, of course. All news stories are in a way proxies for larger debates (even lifestyle and celebrity stories). But giving a few, select journos the room to breathe while they study all the ins and outs of a major issue, so that they can produce longform stories or a series of articles that bring more facts to play in the search for the holy grail of informed compromise, might be a way for news outfits to add value and prevent the unwanted outcome of the election in Australia of a demagogue like DT.

Crikey has done something in this vein recently, called ‘Prying Eyes’, a three-week series of stories about data harvesting. It set up a funding campaign to gather money from people in the community for the express purpose of writing stories about privacy in the online world. The way companies and political parties use the data we release in our online lives. The series editor, Stilgherrian, is an IT journo who usually writes stories for another organisation. He is a regular at cyber security conferences, which he often live blogs using his Twitter account. This is a one-off attempt by a reputable news outlet to go deeper into an important issue that most people have some idea about but probably don’t understand in all of its rich detail.

The difference between winner-takes all attitudes and constructive democracy was highlighted for me yesterday when I saw a tweet by self-declared Chinese-Australian writer, researcher and commentator Jieh-Yung Lo that went, “Jenny Macklin will forever be remembered as a parliamentarian who prioritised policies over politics. Her leadership and advocacy in a number of social policy areas have changed the lives for the better for millions of Australians. Wish we had more like her in #auspol.” Policies, not politics. So different from the hyper-partisan democracy that they have in the dysfunctional United States, where judges are elected depending on their party allegiance, and electoral boundaries are drawn by partisan state legislatures to favour one side over the other.

We don’t want that kind of politics here in Australia. The way that Malcolm Turnbull has pitched the National Energy Guarantee as being “technology agnostic” so that we get sources of energy that provide reliable baseload power at the lowest cost to consumers while honouring our Paris emissions targets, is a good example of how democracy should work. And Bill Shorten’s recent backflip on tax paid by businesses with revenues between $10 million and $50 million is another example of how good policy is formulated: by discussion in public in a respectful and moderate way.

UPDATE 9 July 2018, 7.38am: After I had posted the review on Twitter, Murphy responded with the following comments: "Thanks for the review Matthew. Few things. 1. Time isn't the reason the book is 15,000 words. That's the format. 2. Time isn't money, sadly. 3. I wanted to do interviews. Some people were reluctant to be interviewed given we're still in flux. 4. Twitter isn't representative."

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Exhibition review: John Mawurndjul at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Titled ‘I am the old and the new’, this is part of a larger project to give respectability to Aboriginal art. In the catalogue, the artist’s ancestral ties to the land are emphasised (to labour the point being made, “Country” is capitalised in the book that they sell in the gallery shop to accompany the exhibition). He has been painting for about 40 years and the collection on exhibit includes pieces that have been sourced from private collections.

It is a large exhibition with many paintings on eucalypt bark done with the traditional cross-hatched method familiar to anyone who has even the most cursory knowledge of Aboriginal art. The large paintings are best seen close-up in the gallery. In the catalogue, detail is lost because the reproductions are relatively small.

The cross-hatching (known as “rarrk” in the language used in the region, Arnhem Land) is fine and impressive, with sections of the paintings done with lines that are set at different angles to one another. The pigments used in the works are all traditional ones: red and yellow ochre, calcite (white) and charcoal (black). The etchings made on paper that are included in the show are less impressive than the paintings and reveal use of a medium that has not been completely mastered.

The bark paintings themselves are quite a different matter. Sometimes the cross-hatching they involve is set at a more acute angle, and sometimes it is done at a shallower angle. In the latter cases, the effect is not unlike what you see in 1970s abstract paintings, with the surface tending to vibrate as the lines of different colours play off against each other in your visual field. In many of the paintings, sections that are cross-hatched are separated from each other by a grid of channels made with parallel lines that contain additional pictorial elements. The lines that are cross-hatched are often drawn in gentle curves that, seen together as an ensemble, lend variety and texture to a painting. Overall, the delicacy of the effects achieved in each painting provides its subject with a rich foundation upon which meaning might be conveyed to the viewer.

This is a process that is compromised however by the poor curation that has been carried out for the show. The labels attached to each of the paintings often contain titles written in Aboriginal language, so it can be impossible to understand the meaning of an artwork. But because in Aboriginal culture the boundaries lying between art, religion and law are so narrow, or at least so imperfectly-drawn, it is important for the express meaning of the paintings to be articulated adequately to use all the available means curators have at their disposal. The signage uses some English words when trying to convey meaning but more elucidation was needed, I felt, to make the signification embodied in each painting clear for the lay-person.

The exhibition is a good opportunity for ordinary people to learn more about Aboriginal culture. Better labelling would make it easier for the viewer’s mind to gain traction in the exhibition, as without the gloss of commentary your attention tends to slide off artworks the meanings of which are obscure. A rainbow serpent or a barramundi were easy enough to con, but for many other works the meaning was harder to fathom.

Respect for sacred things that is implicit in the operation of such obscurity might be good policy from the perspective of Mawurndjul and people like him, but the uninitiated need a bit more guidance in order to make informed decisions as to the quality of the art, and about whether the things and ideas being represented are deserving of such respect. I won’t outsource my critical faculties to anyone, least of all gallery curators. So, a stubborn veil lies over the secrets the exhibition so tantalisingly invites us to ponder, one that is secured in place by a long legacy of distrust and suspicion. At least with great works of western art like Petrarch’s sonnets everything is out in the open so that anyone who can read can examine it.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In December, I drove my car to Canberra for the sole purpose of attending a talk given by a staffer of the Australian War Memorial about a painting that they had commissioned from artists living in the APY lands in remote South Australia. I stayed overnight in a hotel on Northbourne Avenue. The painting in question was titled ‘Country and culture will be protected by men with many spears’ and the staffer who appeared that morning told the few souls gathered there in the building’s lobby about the meanings that the different parts of it were meant to convey to them.  It wrote about it on 17 December on this blog.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

I’m a stupid fascist: a meditation on male entitlement

This blogpost started amid thoughts provoked by the death of the two children of John Edwards, the Normanhurst financial planner who on Thursday night used pistols to shoot them dead. The bodies of the teenagers, a boy and a girl, were found in a home in Hull Road, West Pennant Hills. I lived on Boyd Avenue, just around the corner from that house, between October 2001 and December 2005.

It is a quiet area that is located right next to busy Pennant Hills Road, which serves as a conduit for through traffic moving between the M2 and the F3. This road is full of cars that rumble along the thoroughfare at all hours of the day and night. Hull Road runs off it down a hill. Off that runs Dean Street, off which runs Boyd Avenue.

The house I lived in was unkempt and the front yard was always full of uncut grass that was untidy. In the three-bedroom house I lived with several men who had mental illnesses. We spent most of the day inside and on occasion one of us would walk up the street to the Coles on the corner where the shopping centre is, behind the secondary school. I would take a backpack I had bought to Sydney University’s Fisher Library  and fill it up with borrowed books every week or so, so that I could learn more about Jane Austen, whose last novel, ‘Persuasion’, had been in the bedroom of my cousin in the house her father still lived in in Beecroft, just down the road. Uncle Geoff had asked the Northern Area Health Service to find me accommodation after I had returned from Japan one day just before the jets hit the Twin Towers. He had put me up in his house for three weeks.

The men in the house on Boyd Avenue were generally untidy in their domestic habits and the kitchen was often a mess. Dried rings from coffee cups and beer glasses stained the glass top of the coffee table in the living room. Some of the men would hear voices because they suffered from schizophrenia. They might be up late at night walking around the living room talking to themselves. On occasion, we would sit out the back in the garden, which led down to a public park separated from the property by a wire fence, and talk. I finally got my shit together while living in that house and got a job doing technical writing for the University of Sydney.

On weekends, I had the habit of walking to Hornsby through the back streets of Pennant Hills and Normanhurst. There was a big Borders bookshop in the Westfield there that I would visit to buy books to read. As a treat I would eat sushi that I bought at a small kiosk in the food court. After I got a job, I would catch a bus on Pennant Hills Road just near the corner of Hull Road. There was a young woman with a cognitive deficit who also caught the same bus as me at the same time each weekday. She spoke to me once, commenting on the rucksack that I used, one mum had given me, saying that it looked like a woman’s bag.

So I could visualise the house where the bodies of the two teenagers were found. The clean dark there in the absence of movement off the main road. The quiet. The peace. Shot to pieces by a man with a grudge. How could you bring yourself to kill your children, regardless of how frustrated you had become with the legal process surrounding custody of your children?

Yesterday I went to see an exhibition of the works, mainly made on bark with natural pigments, of an Aboriginal artist, at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Rocks. Afterward I went to a café on the main drag and had some lunch. A shepherd’s pie, ships and salad. I also ordered some camomile tea. After eating, I went to the register to pay and I asked if EFTPOS was ok. It was fine, the young man behind the counter told me, and showed me where on the point-of-sale machine the paywave card was to be placed. I held the transaction card with its chip over the machine for a moment and waited for the display to tell me the transaction had been completed. While I was standing there looking down the young man asked me if I wanted a receipt of the transaction. I said nothing, intent on the display, which showed that the machine was still processing the request that had been put through. Then he asked me the same question again, using precisely the same words. This time, I said, “No,” and then I saw that the display showed that the transaction was successful. Sometimes you have to put in your PIN with these transactions.

The whole process reminded me how men feel entitled in their lives. If it had been a female staffer taking my money, she would not have asked a second time if I wanted a receipt, but would have waited until I responded to her first enquiry. Men get impatient and feel entitled to ask a second time if you don’t respond in a way that satisfies them. I find that women are more patient, as a general rule.

On this occasion I had reason to be grateful for this feeling of entitlement, however. After I had paid and had started to turn toward the door of the shop, the man behind the counter pointed at his top lip and said, “You’ve still got something on your moustache.” With a fluid motion, he scooped up a couple of serviettes from a stack on the counter near him and passed them to me as I stood there nonplussed. I wiped my face as I walked out of the store, and put the used serviettes in the pocket of my jacket on the street, where I turned south, walking home.

The problem really comes down to my own obduracy. I am a stupid fascist. I need things to go in order. So I was prepared to tell the sales clerk that I didn’t need a receipt after (but not before) the paywave transaction had gone through. I needed the sequence of events to go in its preordained order before I would open my mouth to speak.

Order is something that Japanese children are taught from an early age. “Jumban!” a Japanese mother might tell her child when some snacks are put out on the table for the kids to eat. It means “Wait your turn!” as much as it means “The correct order”, and people there are meticulous about observing the social niceties. Politeness is morality in Japan, where “Meiwaku kakenai you ni” (“Don’t make trouble for someone else”) is a mantra often repeated for the benefit of the young. I only wish I was more flexible. But I am stupid.

Proof of my stupidity is my inability to follow complex narratives in stories published online. I am a fan of Greg Jericho and usually give his stories a go in the Guardian, but he tends to go too fast for stupid old me. Andrew Elder, the business analyst who frequently takes the media to task on his blog (‘Politically Homeless’), is a writer of a completely different class from me. His sinuous sentences, in which he turns the material at hand to the purpose of reaching his eventual goal, are almost too sophisticated for a dullard like me to follow. So the experience I had with the sales clerk in the Rocks was not without precedent. In fact it was typical of me that I could not at the same time watch the point-of-sale machine and reply to a direct question.

Flirtation has always been completely beyond me. I have never hurt anyone though. I am a physical coward and abhor violence of any kind.

Friday, 6 July 2018

People outsource their critical faculties to political parties

Most people are lazy conformists. "Groupthink" is a term invented by the great journalist and novelist George Orwell for use in his 1949 novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. It's being talked about more these days because of the way the media and its practitioners are finally arriving at some understanding of the way social media works. The fashionable term is now “echo chamber”. In this regard, I'm reading Guardian journalist Katharine Murphy's new book 'On Disruption’.

But unthinkingly subscribing to notions that are debated in the public sphere merely because they conform to your favourite political party's official platform is harming debate. When we're challenged we should foster progress by using our reason, rather than resorting to following opinions generated elsewhere.

Many people drink the Kool-Aid and pay obeisance to their tribe’s sacred cows. This happens on both the left and on the right. One issue I find myself often at odds with when talking with other people who like me have progressive political views, is the situation that faces Aborigines in our society. The standard narrative for some parts of the left goes that colonialism never stopped, that discrimination persists in most communities, and that the authorities are complicit in rendering Aborigines a disadvantaged minority.

The other day on Facebook I had a discussion with someone with whom I went to secondary school. He put up a post about a new TV series on SBS about Aborigines and I took exception to the premise that it was telling an “untold story”. Hundreds of serious monographs on all sorts of aspects of the frontier have been written by almost as many eminent historians in Australia, so the idea that a mere TV series could be breaking ground that had not already been paved by others in print, seemed ludicrous. I said as much.

The conversation then got a bit heated when a friend of my friend, a woman, entered the debate and took sides against me. Although she admitted that a lot of good books about the frontier had been written and published, she gave her support to our mutual friend and made comments that I felt unnecessarily disparaged my views. I made a comment in which I pointed out that most of the advances that have been made in recent generations toward Aboriginal people achieving legal parity with the rest of the population had been due to the efforts of white, Anglo-Saxon, middle class people. The woman took exception to my remarks and our mutual friend asked me not to comment on the thread any more. My friend has since unfriended me and blocked me from seeing his profile page.

The same sort of thing happens on Twitter. Debate is often curtailed when people block your account. It happened to me last year with the journalist Ben Eltham, who did it after I questioned something he had said about refugees. The internet possesses a black-and-white palette, where people either embrace what you say enthusiastically or else they reject you with equal energy. There is little grey, little that lies in-between in the heated debates that take place online every day. This kind of dynamic I find applies also with reviews that I publish, for either books or for movies. The reviews that are read most by people in the community are ones that are unambiguously enthusiastic. They can be shared without compunction. Posts that ask for an uncritical or unthinking response from the reader are prized by him or her. Negative reviews generally do very badly. Reviews that give qualified approval also don’t fare as well as ones that give unalloyed approval to the work under discussion.

The other day I wrote about the dynamic I’m talking about here. The post was titled ‘The articulation of stories and the dynamics of progress’ and it looked at the way that people embrace issues online in the same way that they might barrack for a football team. Their attachment to the cause is enthusiastic and uncritical. They think that debate is about defeating the enemy, rather than about convincing parts of it of the truth of their assertions through reasoned argument. When you block someone you prevent further discussion, which might in future take place around a completely different issue. Or you prevent seeing how in many respects your views agree with those of your one-time enemy. Blocking someone on social media is a kind of censorship that people use to limit the extent of their field of study. It limits them and it hurts the integrity of the public sphere because it loosens the ties that bind us together.

Often people conceive of a debate as a zero-sum game where the goal is to win the prize, a scarce resource that cannot readily be shared by more than one team. In reality, the prize is how to get more produce out of the earth with fewer labour inputs, while ensuring that it will continue to yield its fruits for future generations. Our short-sighted, all-or-nothing mentality often blinds us to the real goal, which is progress for all rather than mere victory for some of us. This approach promises disaster at some point in the future. Some think that fascism is already here. Hopefully, Trump will call an election in 2020.

As far as Australia’s Aborigines go, the Voice to Parliament that the Referendum Council recommended establishing in its 2017 report that would function as a megaphone for Aboriginal people who want to participate more actively in the federal legislative process isn’t guaranteed to get the support it needs to make the change required to the Constitution unless the Liberal Party supports it.

Even with the support of both parties (broadly speaking), the 'Yes' side in the marriage-equality plebiscite only got 61.6 percent of the popular vote. But that’s the sort of margin that would be required to get changes made to the constitution to bring in an indigenous “Voice to Parliament”. In the latter case, you need to have two things. One is the approval of a referendum bill by an absolute majority in both houses of Parliament. Then you also need to have approval of the bill by a referendum. This latter provision means that it must be agreed on by a majority of electors in each of a majority of the states (that is, in at least four of the six states), as well as a majority nationwide (that is, comprising voters in both states and territories).

So just banking on the Australian Labor Party backing running a referendum if it wins control of the House of Representatives in 2019 is not necessarily going to cut the mustard. Ideally, you’d want to have the Liberal Party behind the move in order to get the change over the line in the plebiscite that is required to change the Constitution. At the moment, the Liberal Party says that the Voice to Parliament would function as a third legislative chamber and won’t support it.

The 1967 referendum that changed the Constitution to enable the Parliament to make laws for Aborigines was officially supported by both parties and the relevant amendments were overwhelmingly endorsed, winning 90.77% of votes cast and carrying in all six states.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Another brick in the wall: Liberal efforts to trash the ABC

Last month, at a Liberal Party conference delegates voted overwhelmingly to privatise the ABC, the national broadcaster. This step has for years been part of the policy platform advocated by the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that is partly funded by Rupert Murdoch. Now, the Nauru government, probably at the instigation of Australian authorities, has said it will not make a valid visa for journalists from the ABC in advance of the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum to be held on the island.

The Australian government in essence is the main source of income for Nauru, where refugee internment camps have been operated on behalf of Australia for decades. The refugee offshore incarceration policy is part of the patty platform for both the Liberal-National coalition and the Australian Labor Party, but not for the Austrian Greens. Many people in the community are angry about the government’s continued neglect of refugees who have tried to come to Australia by boat, but who have been kept in limbo in tents on Nauru for years.

In response to the Nauru government’s ABC ban, the majority of Australian media outlets have said that they will not make journalists available to visit Nauru to cover the forum, with the exception of News Corp, which has said it will make journalists available to attend. The owner of News Corp is, of course, the same Rupert Murdoch who has been pushing for years to have the ABC privatised in order to enable his media properties in Australia to more effectively influence public debate. The National Broadband Network, which would have competed with his cable-TV properties, has already been neutered by his mates in the Liberal Party.

Yesterday at 8.02pm, Peter Greste, the journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt following accusations of aiding terrorists, after he had been in touch with the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party that the country’s junta has banned because it offers unwanted competition, got online to support the ABC. He tweeted:
I urge News Corp to stand in solidarity for the sake of media freedom. No government should be hand picking only the reporters they like and blocking those they don’t to get favourable coverage. I know where that leads.
His tweet had gone up in response to another one, from the Daily Telegraph’s Sharri Markson, who had tweeted in the morning of the same day:
News Corp does not support this ludicrous ban by the press gallery on covering a PM's trip to Nauru simply because an ABC cameraman cannot go. So, you can read all the news from the trip in News Corp papers, like @dailytelegraph and @australian but no where [sic] else.
News Corp is notorious for flaunting community expectations that it finds “too-PC”. Its sister outfit, Sky News, gave airtime to disgraced federal senator David Leyonhjelm after he had publicly slut-shamed Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young in Parliament. A junior staffer at the station was stood down in the wake of public outcry after the shoe screened. The meme “Sky News After Dark” appeared on Twitter from gonzo journalist John Birmingham to characterise the TV station’s tendency to plug an extreme ideological line that is at variance with the neutral and unbiased approach that the ABC uses in its coverage. The conservative government cannot stomach the ABC because it operates to bring attention to its extreme policies.

The ABC is an essential component of democracy in Australia. It brings people on the left and right together in one place where they can discuss issues in a respectful and considerate way. This is quite at odds with the way that Murdoch properties operate with their shrill headlines and incendiary editorials that demonise minorities and turn their noses up at such things as science. The ABC gives back to the community much more than the $1 billion that it costs each year to run, and it also sponsors avant-garde drama and comedy that would be too “difficult” for any of the lame commercial networks to run.

Monday, 2 July 2018

The articulation of stories and the dynamics of progress

On 29 June at 6.49am an account on Twitter named ‘Stand For Something Even If You're Sitting Down’ tweeted the following:
Trump: The press is the enemy of the American people.
Milo: The press should be killed.
Shooter: Kills members of the press.
The Left: Trump and Milo are dangerous and culpable in this.
The Right: The Left needs to be civil.
We tell ourselves stories all the time as we strive to function as members of a community that sustains us. Such stories are essential to its proper functioning and to maintaining our ties to it. They cement us within its fabric as essential parts of it. They are the glue that binds each community together, and part of that process involves us articulating aspects of the stories that animate our social lives, to form coherent narratives. The above tweet is a symptom of this articulation, where each step in the process of meaning-creation stems from the one that comes before. We locate ourselves within this process of meaning-creation by helping to tell either the whole story from beginning to end, or just one part of it that can then be taken up by the next person in the chain.

That chain ties us to the earth, from which all wealth derives. The earth sustains us as the stories we tell each other sustain us in our various tribes. They work in two ways: to keep us together and to keep others out. While the first aim is important for our survival, the second can prevent us from learning new things. So while stories can teach people entering the tribe what it is important for them to know, so that they can help the whole function more effectively, they can also exclude ideas that might function to help the tribe survive and prosper.

In our communities, the tribes operate much like sporting teams that are competing for the scarce resource of victory. In this flawed scenario, which is a zero-sum game, only one team can win, and so each member of it works to the utmost extent of his or her capacities to destroy the effectiveness of the opposition. In this earnest game we strengthen the bonds that keep us together by helping to articulate the stories that sustain the tribe, but we might also lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is for both teams to prosper and to increase the amount of wealth the earth surrenders, for the same amount of energy expended. Sometimes we need to borrow from the playbook of the opposition, and use ideas that have been articulated and developed by that tribe, in order to strengthen the chain that binds us to the earth. This is called “progress”.