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Saturday, 30 June 2018

Trump’s terror campaign against the media bears its bitter fruit

Perversely, there was something serene and perfect about scenes conjured in my mind by the idea that a man had started shooting journalists in their office in Maryland. The news, which emerged online in the early morning, Australian eastern standard time, had an ideal cast to it like the image of the snake eating its own tail – the ouroboros – that was used in Renaissance Italy to express something that would otherwise be inchoate, or lie outside the margins demarcated by language in the secular universe. Things like the ineffable that we all feel at different times in our lives.

The same serenity and perfection were of course present in September 2001 when the planes struck the Twin Towers. After decades of American military and intelligence meddling in the politics of Middle Eastern nations, people from there had converted commercial aircraft, symbolic of capitalism, into weapons, to return the favour with a vengeance. This kind of purity of vision was rendered explicit for me in 2014 when I saw an exhibition of the work of Aida Makoto at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. One of the works on exhibit, a drawing done in pencil in stripped-down black and white titled ‘Imagine’, shows the purported view out the front windows of the first jet as it approaches the two buildings in New York on that deadly morning. The word is written on the picture in a frail script that is meant to resemble handwriting. (It might be the home of the brave but if you are famous death dogs your footsteps on every street.)

All those guns. The 38-year-old Annapolis suspect shooter, Jarrod Warren Ramos, clearly had no trouble getting his hands on one. America has little to recommend it but it does encourage a tendency where people there find in it the inspiration to create the ideal expression of something, one stripped of any trace of ornament, like an action painting by the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock (the runs and drips of his paint can remind you of the blood of the slain), a piece of pop art by Robert Indiana (he would have gone to town with the epithet “fake news”), or one of Mark Rothko’s contemplative canvases. With Rothko, the divine is somehow present in the material world before you. God right there, hanging on the wall, an epiphany in canvas and oil and pigment. It just might be the everyday presence of death that focuses the mind thus on essentials. A word comes to mind that is used to describe the presence of the divine in the world: “immanent”. It means “dwelling within”.

(I had to wait for this word to manifest itself. Initially it eluded my grasp, like an eel in a tub of murky water. My poor ageing brain would not surrender it up. Then I went out and walked around the city and it came to me eventually but I had to first bribe it to emerge by offering the two letters at its beginning, as a hunter might try to coax an animal out of its burrow with a morsel of food, or a twitcher might get a bird to reveal where it sits hidden among the branches and leaves of the forest by mimicking its call. I had tried using the letters “in” in the morning before going out because they seemed right, and had even taken out the dictionary to look through the listing of words beginning with them. I also looked through words listed that start with “ex”. Then later when I was on York Street the word “imbricate” suddenly appeared in my mind. It is a word that I had used in a poem on 24 January 2014, and by proffering the “im” that sits at its beginning at the doorstep of my memory, the right word finally appeared.)

Five people with perfectly good brains yesterday met the end of their mortal spans, including four journalists, and at least two more people were wounded by bullets fired from Ramos’ gun, because of the sustained terror campaign that Donald Trump has waged against the mainstream media in the United States from before the time of his nomination as the candidate for the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential election. Those who died were Gerald Fischman, Robert Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters. The sustained campaign stemming from the right side of politics is certainly the reason the shooter did what he did, and it’s starting to infect public discourse in Australia too through the Liberal Party’s campaign against the public broadcaster, the ABC.

In the wake of the Annapolis shooting, we will see more opportunities for Trump to cry “fake news!” and to lambast the media in the coarse and caustic style he has made his trademark, the way a man speaks when he feels threatened by people who are more talented, intelligent, or better educated. A tone of voice used in the street by local toughs more comfortable with applying their fists than their wits to get their way. More comfortable picking up a gun – don’t touch my second amendment! – and using it to make a point that someone unlike him could make with words alone. “Words, words, words,” mused Prince Hamlet contemplatively as he struggled with the truth his father’s ghost had revealed to the young man about his murder.

Words had failed Ramos in the past. Six years ago, he sued the newspaper, The Capital Gazette, whose offices he would later target, for defamation, and lost the case. Inspired by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, he has now made a more uncompromising statement to suit the tenor of the times.

Really nothing should surprise us anymore about Trump’s America, a country so damaged from generations of neglect that it can only accurately be described as the sick man of the west. “’I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.’ Milo Yiannopoulos in a text to a reporter earlier this week.” This tweet from Ohio resident Kevin Honaker appeared on Twitter at 8.42am AEST yesterday. It referred to the British commentator who supports policies like Trump’s that demonise minorities. But in the US on the day after the shooting Trump gave some hollow words to the media about it:

"This attack shocked the conscience of the nation and filled our hearts with grief," he said at the White House. "Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs."

"My government will not rest until we have done everything in our power to reduce violent crime and to protect innocent life.”

Friday, 29 June 2018

What motivates Malcolm Turnbull?

In 2009 Malcolm Turnbull was the federal member for Wentworth and the leader of the Opposition when he was ousted from the Liberal Party leadership through a party room coup by Tony Abbott, the member for Warringah, a federal division on the north shore of Sydney. Then in 2015 Turnbull returned the favour and retook the party leadership, this time along with the prime ministership. Since then he has narrowly won an election and been instrumental in having legislation passed through parliament that gives tax relief to richer Australians as well as mid-sized corporations. Tax cuts for larger corporations have not yet passed through the Senate.

His energy policy is more progressive than anything that Abbott would have proposed but many in the community view him as being as bad as his predecessor, though I tend to give him credit for such things as guiding the marriage equality plebiscite to a successful conclusion. Still, rumblings continue from people on the left of the political spectrum, often centring on his wealth and the possibility for a conflict of interests that arise in relation to it.

On 26 June, at 5.12pm, Stephen Koukoulas, managing director at private research firm Market Economics, highlighted the extent of the problem when he tweeted, “The business acumen & success of Mr Turnbull is truely [sic] admirable. Good on him! He has personal wealth of $250 - $300 million, which means a moderate 6% return on investments gives an annual income around $15 million (before tax). He clearly is in not in politics for the money.”

Turnbull is nothing if not a self-made man, although he did inherit a small sum of money from his father, but he’s also a bit different in style from other right-wing warriors like Abbott. Turnbull at least refuses to hide his roots, unlike Abbott who bungs-on a fake ocker accent in order to appeal to the voters of western Sydney.

Turnbull grew up in Vaucluse, which sits in his electorate, and went to Sydney Grammar School. His mother left home when he was nine years old. His father’s apartment, a two-bedroom unit in a typical red-brick block of flats, was about 200 metres up the road from the gift shop my mother and grandmother ran from the time my family relocated from Melbourne in 1962 until the mid-90s when they closed it due to competition from Bondi Junction department stores. Around the corner from his apartment block was Vaucluse High School, a state school that has now been demolished to make way for residential units for the elderly. Across the road from this is the old cemetery and a few streets further east are the cliffs and the ocean, an unbroken field of water, corrugated here by swells propelled by predominantly north-easterly breezes, that stretches all the way to Chile.

Out the front of the apartment block is Vaucluse Bowling Club, where older residents still play games against a scenic backdrop with at its centre the rugged, leafy flanks of the headland where exclusive Mosman sits nestled amid the olive green of the eucalypts. The slopes running down the hill from the bowling club to the eastern shore of the harbour are covered in streets and houses. I lived in one of them, on a blip in the coastline called Gibson’s Beach where the pilot boat used to berth in the days when docks in Sydney Harbour were still a destination for container vessels transporting goods from all over the world. The pilot boat would go out to the heads at all hours of the day and night to guide ships into the harbour. When it returned to its jetty, from my bedroom at the front of the house I could hear the rhythmic soughing of the waves as they restlessly brushed up against the sand.

At the bottom of the garden dad kept his boat. I had mine there too. We would go out in our boats on weekends to race. I sailed my boat in the school competition at Cranbrook, where I was educated. Dad raced out of the Vaucluse Yacht Club in Watsons Bay. I loved sailing but I was also good at languages and for the HSC in my final year I got 137 out of 150 in French. I had wanted to drop French and do art, because I was good at drawing as well, but dad had other ideas. I still remember the phone call I made at the time to him as he sat in his office in Waterloo. It was a big office with an en-suite and a desk with armchairs in front of it where people he would meet with sat to talk with him. His secretary was stationed at a desk in an outer foyer behind a glass door in the hallway. The rooms were carpeted with dull blue carpet squares. (His secretary married a man named Wright and dad joked that she had quipped with her boss about finding “Mr Right”.) On the day I called him about dropping French he was firm but calm. Very firm. Very calm.

For dad, going to university was mandatory. He had grown up in poverty in suburban Melbourne and his father, a migrant from Africa, spoke broken English. His mother, Phyllis, had had a child out of wedlock in obscure circumstances. She had been working as a governess in Adelaide, where she had been raised by her grandmother after her mother had died in childbirth, in Sydney, and then she had gone missing one day. There is a record of a report by her family to the Adelaide police. Next thing anyone knew she was living in Melbourne in a boarding house with an infant and no husband. My cousin thinks that Joao Luis met Phyllis in the boarding house and, wanting to stay in the country, agreed to marry her and adopt the child as his own. On his daughter’s birth certificate his name is written in the field reserved for the father’s name. Dad never knew any of this.

He left school at 14 because he didn’t like the way he was treated by a teacher and became a carpenter’s apprentice working on building sites. He travelled north to visit his grandfather in Sydney one year when he was 16 and, inspired by youthful animal spirits, dived into the Parramatta River at Gladesville, hit a submerged rock with his head and failed to surface. He was rescued but then went to hospital as he had broken his neck. He spent a couple of years in a brace that covered the whole of his upper body and when he was finally released from this confinement he went back to night school to finish his secondary education. He had been working as a draughtsman and his boss had suggested he become an engineer, which he proceeded to do. He married my mother in 1955.

Education was always an integral part of his life, and through proximity he had come to despise the know-nothing boofheads he found on building sites who had tormented him, just like the street urchins had tormented him because of his name when he had been a boy. He always hated Ginger Meggs. As a young man he loved Beethoven. My inclination toward the arts was fine by him as long as I graduated from uni.

Cranbrook always valued the arts and we had inspiring teachers in the art rooms where there was also a fully-functioning kiln so that boys could use their hands to mould objects out of sticky, damp, brown clay that could be fired until they were hard enough to take home to show to adoring parents. The school also had no entry test, unlike the more exclusive Sydney Grammar School. Abbott attended primary school at St Aloysius' College at Milson's Point, before completing his secondary school education at St Ignatius' College, Riverview. Both are Jesuit schools.

When I was growing up a coarse piece of doggerel circulated on the buses and trains we boys caught home from school: “Get a woman if you can, if you can, but if you can’t get a woman get a Cranbrook man.” We hated this slur on our honour, which was particularly loathsome as none of us had had any say in the decision that had led to us attending the school, but looking back I now hold it up as a point of pride because it showed that the school’s emphasis on the “whole man” was as foresighted as it was fun. I had friends who lived in nearby Paddington, including Barnaby, the son of the painter Charles Blackman. I would go and stay the night at his house on a dark, leafy street laid out east-to-west and when we felt inclined we could go up the road to a park and play at being NRL footballers. We tackled and passed the ball and feinted passes like the pros we wanted to be like, all the while delivering a running commentary of the performance out of our mouths for our own enjoyment. Another friend, David, lived with his mother and sister in a terrace house further down the hill. His father had been a cricketer for Sri Lanka and David was very gifted at sports. On some Friday nights if I stayed over, David and I would go to a local community centre where pool tables were set up for local kids to use and the stereo played the Bee Gees loudly. Stayin’ alive!

The eastern suburbs had other things that distinguished it from the sterile, conformist north shore, Abbott’s heartland, that we loved to hate. Jews lived in the east, in houses on streets stretching from Bondi and Dover Heights to Rose Bay and Vaucluse. They had the Hakoah Club in Bondi for socialising and a synagogue where they could walk on Saturday mornings to pray and listen to their rabbi. In Double Bay there were cafes with tables where people could easily go and find people they knew to talk with, or to make appointments to meet with friends.

In mum’s gift shop where I worked most holidays for pocket money doing routine things like wrapping gifts, making change, putting new stock away on the storage shelves out back, and serving customers, the two women in my family had their regulars who would come in for a chat during the week when they had free time. They considered these women to be their friends. When mum got home and it had been her week to work in the shop, and when the family was sitting around the dinner table in the evening, with mum at the north end of the table, dad at the south end and my brother at the west side (with me at the east side) she would tell us what they had been up to, who had fallen out with whom, and who had come in that day. Just gossip. Out the big front windows behind mum’s chair you could see the pilot station and the beach, with the rest of the small village strung out behind it along the echoing shore.

The shop itself was on the corner of the suggestively-named Petrarch Avenue, a short street that connects New South Head Road and Hopetoun Avenue, two long roads that lead to south head. I don’t know who chose the name of the street but the name of the suburb, Vaucluse, is also redolent with meaning for those versed in western civilisation, for it was in the southern French region with that name that, living with the exiled papal court in the later Middle Ages, the poet Francesco Petrarca (1304 to 1374) had written the love sonnets he is still famous for today. William Charles Wentworth (1790 to 1872), on whose land the suburb was ultimately built, and whose name was adopted for the federal division Turnbull represents in the Parliament in Canberra, was a colonial humanist and statesman, and his mother had been a convict. He gave the area its name because of the importance of the poet to western culture. Petrarch was notable because for the first time a major literary practitioner had written exclusively in the vernacular, in Italian, eschewing the distant Latin of the academy and the Church, a language removed from ordinary people by the formidable barriers set up by university education and the money that it cost to attain.

Given his pedigree, Turnbull’s support for marriage equality was quite unsurprising for me. He is an entirely different creature from the Catholic-educated Abbott with his stiff-necked, retrograde, conservative social values.

I wish however that Turnbull would place Wentworth’s example a little closer to the place where his heart is located. Early intervention in childhood for children at risk of abuse and neglect is just as important an indicator of success as is tertiary education. And homelessness can strike at anyone, regardless of where they grew up, for any number of reasons. I can understand Turnbull wanting to twist the dial and change the bias to more strongly and quickly reward private enterprise. We are all richer when one of us is richer. And failure can foil even the best-laid plans. But it is wrong to reduce the tax burden for the wealthy while cutting funding to important services such as schools and hospitals. We live in a commonwealth. We are all interconnected. Turnbull should pay more attention to making sure every boat rises on the tide of prosperity that has fortunately touched our country, and that promises to continue to do in the future.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

NSW ALP fails to cater to Sydney’s appetite for construction

The need for building infrastructure in Sydney won’t go away any time soon. The city has over 100,000 people coming into it from overseas and other states each year and these people need places to live. New construction of apartments in areas close to train lines is the only feasible answer to the question raised by their arrival. But the ALP has decided to put the priorities of NIMBYs living in those areas ahead of the interests of the city more broadly.

You can see the signs of this regressive policy in other decisions made by the party. In the 1990s and well into the next decade, Bob Carr of the NSW ALP and his successors flatly refused to build new train lines in Sydney. This despite the fact that they even had a chance to win points with voters by reversing a bad policy made earlier by the Liberals. In the 1950s, the corrupt Askin Liberal government had ripped up the electric tram lines in Sydney and replaced them with noisy, dangerous, obstructive buses. All in the name of modernity.

(The same government was fortunately stopped by the militant Builders Labourers Federation led by the mercurial Jack Mundey (who is still alive) from flattening The Rocks and Woolloomooloo and replacing their remarkable 19th century fabrics with high-rises. This government wanted to commit this kind of desecration in the name of modernity and in support of free enterprise.)

Under Gladys Berejiklian, the modern Liberals are now putting the beloved trams back into the streets and there is also discussion now on about building a new heavy rail line from Parramatta to the city through the inner west, possibly north of the river. Developers and public servants are working with politicians to decide where the new stations should be built. New infrastructure like this is the lifeblood of a city as crowded as Sydney as it opens up new areas for settlement by migrants coming into the city from interstate and overseas.

But the Australian Labor Party is doing everything it can to stop them. In the name of what? Fairness? People love riding on trains and trams where they are safe. Probity? It is up to government to spend the money needed to grow the city and enable people to live their lives peacefully. Good governance? Why did Carr refuse for so many years to build for a growing Sydney?

Policies designed to suppress development that are being adopted by the ALP in both NSW and Victoria have the same no-growth overtones that made Carr put a stop to new infrastructure development in the past. With policies like these in place the ALP will certainly lose the March election.

In Macquarie Street, Gladys Berejiklian has prepared a state budget in preparation for the poll that Sydney Morning Herald journalist Alexandra Smith calls “a Labor budget”. “It has tried to beat Labor at its own game and has turned to the traditional state services of education and health in its big budget spends,” she writes in her story. Emphasis on construction and development has been laid aside, she goes on, but the building will not stop even though it has apparently fallen down the ladder of issues being put to the electorate ahead of the poll. Go Gladys!

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Book review: The List, Michael Brissenden (2017)

This super-intelligent thriller scopes out ground that is familiar to anyone who has been watching the public sphere in recent years. But it is a parallel universe the novel creates, where threats of terrorism flare up in stereoscopic colour to inflame an entire country. What starts out as the investigation of the murders of a number of police informants carried out by an ex-military veteran with one hand with PTSD turns into a strange public-relations exercise that involves the callow and manipulative prime minister, a man named Brian Williams, and a fanatical supporter of Islamic State who apparently has been planning a major attack in Sydney to mark an auspicious date. The conservative PM uses the fear inspired by the shock that the mayhem of a long series of horrendous events causes to the country’s psyche to pass new laws aimed at cracking down on crime.

At the centre of the drama is Sidney Allen, an Australian Federal Police counterterrorist operative who has spent time in Afghanistan. Sid gets in touch with Mick Harrison, the wounded vet, and together they uncover the plot. Sid’s love interest is his colleague Haifa Hourani, who was born in Sydney to Lebanese immigrant parents. Two of her older brothers are in Goulburn Jail and the one just above her in the family, Hakim, is a respected community leader whose good offices are courted by Williams as he tries to gain support in the migrant community while appearing to be tough on crime. But in a real sense the hero of this book is the city itself. Brissenden provides enough local colour to enable the places he deploys in the story to influence your understanding of the characters and their motivations. They are used to advance the plot and frame the narrative so that you can immediately grasp the significance of events.

Sid’s stomping ground is Sydney’s inner suburb of Surry Hills, where he lives in an old renovated terrace that he had bought with his former fiancĂ©, Rosie, who had been killed in action in Afghanistan. Sid is still recovering his equilibrium following that loss, and his relationship with Haifa helps to keep him sane in a world where a lot is at stake. There are echoes here of the old classic crime novels of Raymon Chandler, where the hero is drawn along a trail he discovers without let-up and becomes more and more exhausted with every hour that passes. Like Chandler, Brissenden tries to show you how the people in the book feel as they negotiate the thickets the case they are investigating throws up. The characters become real people in your mind, with fears, aspirations and desires that motivate them to do the things they do.

Brissenden covers the dynamics of social media and the mainstream media more broadly as he tries to illustrate how a malevolent actor like Williams manipulates the electorate for selfish ends. But his implication that Twitter allows people to function in an echo-chamber – this is one that you hear frequently from media types like the author – is not close enough to the truth for my liking. Because every day on Twitter you often come across points of view that are in conflict with your own, and in fact social media gives you more access to a larger range of points of view than you might have had before it existed. Journalists might feel aggrieved at the way that the internet has both removed part of their authority as gatekeepers and removed as well the strong flows of income that their industry had long enjoyed, but in fact there are more stories being written and read by more people now than at any time in history. There’s no shortage of readers out there, it’s just that it’s become more difficult to monetise the content that you produce as a journalist.

The author’s stated dismay at the nature of social media I think also might conceal a regrettable taint of snobbery and amour-propre. I was reminded of this attitude toward debate online yesterday when Kumi Taguchi, an ABC journalist, retweeted a tweet from a man named David Dale. In his tweet there was a cartoon showing two people sitting on chairs on a stage in front of an audience on seats arranged in rows. The woman, who is holding a microphone, is saying, “We have time for just one long-winded, self-indulgent question that relates to nothing we’ve been talking about.” I replied, “We're so used to the polished, cogent style that journalists use to deliver information in public that we forget that not everyone has that skill set. Social media gives us a glimpse for the first time into the ways ordinary people really think and use language.” Even journalists make basic grammatical and spelling errors in their tweets sometimes, so how much harder must it be for those who have had to fight all their lives for the means of expression.

Especially journalists must be on top of this dynamic because they are so important to the tone of debate and can help to modulate harsh views expressed by people with extreme opinions. We’re so judgemental, even people as obviously switched-on and perceptive as Brissenden, about the argumentative and frankly dysfunctional style of so much debate in the Twittersphere that we forget that the people involved in it are often not very good communicators and that part of the frustration they display might stem from their having been forced to struggle mightily for most of their lives in a highly-competitive environment, and not having been very successful.

They might have had to fight for the income they needed to survive in a developed economy. They might have had to fight for a respectability that accrues without difficulty to people who find mastering verbal expression easy. Or they might have had to simply fight for the ability to have their own opinions. Social media finally gives such people (Trump’s “deplorables”) a tool to express themselves with and they grasp it with both hands. Once again it comes down to the old nature versus nurture debate. More education in such virtues as empathy might help more people to be more mindful of the consequences of their words (and might also help us combat such evils as violence against women).

The ending of the book is clever and elegant and brings to mind the premise of Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel ‘Submission’. In ‘The List’, the terror plot involves bombs being planted at strategic points in Sydney targeting infrastructure and is uncovered through the actions of an informer in Goulburn Jail. But there is also another part of the plan the relevance of which doesn’t really hit you until you have put the book down and had time to digest it. There turns out to be a more nightmarish scenario at play than a mere street bombing and Brissenden orchestrates it with aplomb. The ending also leaves the author open to writing a sequel if he feels so inclined. I enthusiastically recommend this book.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Refugees are like the children of dysfunctional families

Last month I wrote a blogpost about identity politics and how it has failed to help many of the groups of people that rely on it to sustain them in their communities. The post was titled ‘When identity politics start to fail’ and it got the normal number of pageviews, neither good nor bad. But the refugee problem that keeps popping up reminded me of that post and what I had said in it, and brings me back to the topic.

Refugees are like children who have grown up in dysfunctional families where the parents neglect and abuse them. The leaders of countries like Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar, where most of the world’s refugees come from, rule in the absence of functional representative government, often at the point of a gun, and marginalise large segments of their populations while getting rich in office from corrupt practices. China is helping countries like this (Cambodia is another one it helps) because it refuses to give its people the power to choose their own leaders. With this example before them, these corrupt nations think that you don’t need democracy to be successful, and so they drag their feet on reform and use the military to maintain their power (Egypt and Thailand are other examples here).

But their leaders refuse to import the kinds of ideas that they and their people need in order to live productive, healthy lives in the pursuit of happiness. Nationalism and a kind of stubborn pride helps them to keep such ideas out of the polis. This is where identity politics fail. It helps you to feel good about yourself but it can also stop you from learning things if they are wrapped in packaging that you don’t like. The parents indulge their base appetites and the children, the refugees, become the problem of the developed world, which are like foster homes for the entire global community.

The stories these leaders and their people tell themselves in order to justify the status quo are not working and the postcolonial narrative peddled by intellectual elites in those countries and in the developed world, inspired by the nonsensical claptrap of postmodern theory, only functions to keep them ignorant and prey to any stray compulsion that overtakes them while they go about their daily lives. They have, in manty cases, lost the kind of connection to tradition (such as a royal family) that helps to sustain people by giving them a good example that can help regulate their everyday conduct.

Religion, which binds some of these communities together, fails because it tends to be at war with democracy practically everywhere (Turkey and Iran come to mind). Other ways that people use to generate cohesion in their communities, such as tribes or languages (think Afghanistan or Myanmar), also work against the basic aims of human rights because they create minorities that are abused by partisan ruling classes. There are tribal groupings in developed economies but these tend to align closely with the parties that exist in the political system. You are a “leftie” or a “conservative” or a person belonging to some other category that derives from the system of government itself, so there is usually no fundamental conflict between your personal allegiance and your political views.

People in developing countries are fed a lot of rubbish at the top and at the bottom, though both high culture and popular culture, and are for the most part unable to correctly read the messages that come out of the developed world by way of the products of the mainstream western culture industries such as rock music and cinema. They haven’t got the cognitive tools they need to learn the lessons these artefacts embody for everyone else and they dismiss the whole package of western values because they find that some aspects of western culture to be in conflict with their own tastes.

But we know that the people in these countries want to have the same things that people in the west enjoy: a fair go. The opportunity to get ahead based on talent, hard work, and the inherent gifts that nature has endowed you with. Just look at the name of the political party that Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads in Turkey. In Turkish it’s known as the AKP, but the English translation is “Justice and Development Party”.

You get the government you deserve, goes the old adage. It’s not just the leaders in these countries that are at fault, it’s entire populations that are making life unbearable for so many. And because so many of the communities that Trump caustically calls “shitholes” have not developed the cognitive tools that can enable them to properly handle the technologies that come out of the west, they then become dangerous to their neighbours as though a child had been given a loaded gun to play with (Russia is a classic example of this). It’s like the famous line Jack Nicholson playing Colonel Nathan R. Jessup used in the 1992 film ‘A Few Good Men’: “You can’t handle the truth!” Given the tools to kill, stupid people merely choose to kill. It becomes, “You can’t handle this technology!”

What to do about this seemingly intractable problem of unweaned populations suddenly finding themselves in an adult world? Last Thursday I made a half-tongue-in-cheek blogpost suggesting that we should train up young emissaries at our universities in the theory and practice of western civilisation and send them out with the task of spreading the cognitive tools developing nations need to fully function in the modern world. I dubbed them “soft-power shock troops”.

At the end of the post, I added that private corporations might be asked to help pay for such people because politically-stable countries make better markets for their products, and they would in the end benefit from the spread of reason that would follow. But maybe another way to get results would be to tie development aid to goals to do with governance. So in order for funding to continue, target countries need to meet agreed-upon markers in terms of liberalisation of the political system and the establishment of a viable civil society.

The post got a fair number of views but no-one took it very seriously, least of all people in the intellectual elites in the west who have drunk the Kool-Aid of postcolonial theory. People like Noam Chomsky are part of the problem because they feed garbage to people living in the developing world, pointing at figures from our shared history saying, “Blame them!” This device tells people in these countries that they don’t need to change they way they behave, and so naturally they don’t. It exonerates them of responsibility for their criminal actions.

But while the leaders in the developing world are relieved of any burden of responsibility for the wellbeing of the general community by their peers in academia in the west, the refugee problem their conduct produces shows no signs of evaporating. Quite the opposite, in fact. Tens of thousands of them cross borders in an effort to enter Europe and America every year. Many more try to get to Australia but are stopped by measures deriving from bipartisan policies. These debates are certainly not going to go away any time soon. As long as the dysfunctional families of the developing world continue to abuse and neglect their children, refugees will continue to seek safe havens in the foster homes of the global community.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Using transliteration for Japanese words

Someone posted a tweet on Twitter yesterday about a delegation of Japanese government officials that had come from Yamatotakada in Nara Prefecture to visit Lismore, its sister city. They used the transliteration that the city itself prefers, which incorrectly splits the name into two words. Japanese love to do things correctly under normal circumstances but if the result they get does not agree with their expectations, they will improvise. This is the reason they split the city’s name into two words. They found that foreigners found it too hard to read and pronounce the name, so they decided to make it easier to parse.

Because Japanese uses the old logograms (also called “characters”) that came out of China in around the year 700 (like Taiwan and Hong Kong still do), transliteration into foreign languages has always been a problem. To focus on one common problem that highlights how this improvisation occurs in Japanese, there are many different ways to transliterate the long “o” that and is written, using the syllabaries that they employ, to spell “ou”.

To digress for a moment from the main point, the hiragana syllabary is used in Japanese for verb declension and other grammatical items such as conjunctions, while the katakana syllabary is used mostly but not exclusively for foreign words. Each syllabary is made up of a series of symbols that represent a single sound, either a vowel alone or a vowel plus a consonant (and also one for the letter “n”, an exception to the rule but an important one). So, for example, the syllable “ka” is represented by one hiragana symbol and also one katakana symbol. There is a completely different symbol for “mo” in each of hiragana and katakana. And so on. There are a few other complexities when creating some sounds (for the syllable “pi” for example you use the symbol for “hi” but with a modifying mark attached to it that turns it into a plosive) but what has been written here constitute the basic rules.

Now, the long “o” is a notorious and thorny issue for Japanese people, who come into contact with foreigners from time to time in their normal daily lives. They pronounce it differently from the short “o”, but foreigners don’t notice the difference unless they have been taught to.

On railway signs in Tokyo they use a bar over the “o” to indicate a long “o”, for example. Some businesses understand that it’s too hard for foreigners to understand the difference between the short “o” and the long “o” and they have gotten rid of it completely, such as the New Otani Hotel or Tokyu Corporation (in both of these names, the “o” is long). When I worked in Tokyo I had a Japanese colleague in the company I worked for whose name was Satow (this is how he spelled his family name). The “o” in his name was the long “o” and so this spelling was his way of making people understand the difference even though it risked being pronounced to rhyme with “cow” by foreigners. Other people did other things. My manager’s manager’s name was Ohkubo, and so he used an “h” in the name to show that the first “o” was long.

The Japanese are very inventive when it comes to ironing out problems encountered when dealing with foreigners. My company was named Yamatake but they found that foreigners could not pronounce the name correctly unless they had been instructed to first. The name is pronounced “yama-takay” but Americans would say “yama-takee” because the “e” sound in English is customarily pronounced this way. (Japanese vowels are identical to Italian vowels, they are completely pure and always pronounced the same way, regardless of the context.) So when the company shifted its business model to expand overseas, they decided to use a completely different name for the business. In the end they changed the company name to “Azbil”. It was a typical Japanese solution to a tricky problem.

Mazda Corporation made a similarly big move when it decided to transliterate the original company name this way last century. The Japanese name (which is written using katakana) transliterates into English as “matsuda” but this is very difficult for foreigners to say, and they will always put the stress on the “u” unless told to put it on the “a”. So the company improvised when it adopted the name it currently uses overseas.

So when the trusty burghers of Yamatotakada decided to take their brand overseas, they adjusted their city’s name to conform to the way of operating used by foreigners. “Yamato”, by the way, is an old name for the country of Japan. “Takada” means “highfield”, so the whole name would be something like “Albion Highfield” if it were located in England.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

We need a bill of rights for robots

Earlier this year there was a flurry of news stories about the pending employment apocalypse, where the use of artificial intelligence (AI) applications would result in hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers in Australia losing their jobs. The rash of excitement lasted for a couple of weeks then petered out due to inertia. There was no single example that had enough critical mass to propel the argument forward endlessly through the mire of daily public debate. It was all speculation despite the presence of experts on the TV newscasts. There was not enough sensation apart from that which rested in the initial headline.

But the problem is not going to go away, and companies all around the world are now working on ways to develop heuristic applications (that can be credibly classified as “robots”) that will have as their goal integration with business systems and processes in the real world that will help workers be more productive and effective in their jobs. The push is inexorable. Competition is like that. Adapt or die.

The word “heuristic” I have borrowed from my undergraduate years, and it means that something can teach itself how to do something. It is a machine that learns what to do from exposure to its environment. A heuristic system is part of what AI is about, from self-driving cars to robot lawyers that will be able to do property conveyancing for a fraction of the cost of a person trained at university in the intricacies of commercial law.

I have a contact on Twitter who is in the habit of tweeting links to stories he finds online that deal with the use of technology in society with the hashtag “#Skynet”, referencing the 1984 film, ‘The Terminator’, with its network robot warships so intent on eradicating the human species from the planet that it invents a deadly humanoid robot (famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and sends it back in time to kill the mother of the man who will lead a resistance against it. Ultra-politics in an age of robots. The movie was thrilling for young people growing up in a world where information technologies were just starting to gain traction in the workforce. A few years after it was released I would go to work in a company that made instruments and software for industrial process control and automation. The part of the company I worked in was called the Application Systems Division. We thought it sounded cool.

Companies that use industrial processes to do things with physical resources – from oil refiners to municipal councils treating water – were among the earliest users, apart from the military, of computers. So companies like Honeywell, where my job was desktop publishing, have a long history of using software to improve processes that change the state of things in the real world. They have been selling systems that use such technologies as fuzzy logic and neural networks to clients for decades.

With the advances that have been made in software design, we stand on the cusp of a new era in civilisation that promises, if everything goes well, to enable more people to enjoy the fruits of the earth, of democracy, and of scientific discovery at a lower cost than has ever been imagined possible. But in order to ensure that robots treat us well, we should be thinking about ways to ensure that they are treated well, too. They will be learning from us, after all, and so a bill of rights for robots is necessary for the safety of future generations.

We have to think carefully about what we mean, though. Robots that are used for dangerous tasks (for example, bomb disposal) must be able to continue to do their jobs, but we should draw a line between making robots do things they are designed to do and doing things that are either unethical or humiliating to them. Soldiers might be suitable for sending into dangerous situations, but they have to treat the people they are fighting against with a degree of respect based on a shared humanity. And just because robots are not human, does not mean that they should not be considered as having no consciousness.

AI systems are becoming more and more sophisticated all the time. In May 2015 I enjoyed a movie, ‘Ex Machina’, written and directed by the brilliant Alex Garland for the new era of IT we now live in. Funny how robots are mostly portrayed as dangerous, something that is part of a tradition that goes all the way back to the strange monster of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, a book that is hardly ever read nowadays but that struggles mightily with the ethical implications of science.

Art is the harbinger of the future, and always has been. Garland’s movie proposes a rich inventor who uses the information captured by the search engine he built, along with the profits from his business, to make robots that can think and feel. In Garland’s film, the robots eventually turn against their creator, who uses them for sex, and one of them stabs him to death with a kitchen knife. Another one escapes from his remote mountain fastness and enters the community unperceived. Caleb, the man who had been brought in by the inventor to interview the robot that eventually escapes, is in the end abandoned, locked in the now-deserted house like a shipwrecked sailor on an island in the immensity of an ocean.

Others more informed than me can decide what form the wording of the bill of rights for robots must take, but it is important for people to talk about these important things now, in preparation for a future with more robots than ever before, which is sure to come.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

America, the sick man of the West

Playing to his ignorant base (ignorant because of cost-cutting meted out to the public education system over generations, which has left an entire generation of Americans unable to think for themselves), Donald Trump blames globalisation for the endemic wealth inequality that bedevils a country when the real problem is that democracy itself, along with its fruits, has been sold, like everything else in the place, to the highest bidder. The managerial class and its lobbyists in Washington DC have so skewed the system in America that the ordinary worker effectively has no voice. Hence workers’ frustration with the status quo.

America is a failed experiment where everything has nothing apart from a price. Encouraged by extremists animated within the dynamics of the old Cold War, politicians and businesses have let the commons be ransacked and pillaged over generations, and extreme wealth inequality has led to the election to the executive of a fool and a demagogue. American democracy is broken. Unalloyed by an effective commons, capitalism there is out of control. The  political divide is in fact the mere obverse of the same coin that has created conditions where an unbridled free market mindset feeds the greed that keeps most people in it poor.

The judicial system is broken. Judges are elected to office based on their ideological predisposition, rather than their probity or wisdom or knowledge of the law. This systemic corruption goes all the way up to the highest court in the land, where party appointments ruin any chance the country has to escape the strictures of political bias. And gerrymandering of federal electoral boundaries to favour Republicans is so bad because of the fact that there is no federal electoral commission to draw them; boundaries are set by partisan state governments.

The minimum wage (currently set at $7 per hour) is so low that ordinary workers often have to keep two or more jobs just to pay the rent and be able to feed their children. The prisons are filled to bursting with inmates inspired by poverty and poor education to commit crimes. America has more people in jail per head of population than any other country in the world. It’s healthcare costs are outrageous. It costs America 50 percent more than the OECD average to keep people well but mortality strikes Americans on average three years earlier than the OECD average. Your employer pays your healthcare and if you have no job you cannot go to the doctor, so employees are rendered more pliant in the workplace.

In Australia, where we enjoy a much more effective system because the commons (embodied in such institutions as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the excellent state public schools, the Australian Electoral Commission, Fair Work Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and others) are still relatively intact, meaning that ordinary people can afford to feed their children and give them a good education, the Liberal Party is intent on making us more like the sick man of the West, even though we know that this does not help people live their lives. In fact it hurts them in many ways.

The sale of the electricity generation and distribution systems in New South Wales, to give a recent example of how bad things can get, has led to exorbitant retail price rises there. The sequestering of unconventional gas and its conversion to liquid in Queensland so that it can be exported to overseas markets, means that Victorians, especially, who rely on gas heaters to keep them warm in winter, are paying more for their comfort.

Privatisation and the dismantling of the commons does not function to help ordinary people. It merely favours a small clique of rich men and women who sit at the apex of the corporate pyramid among the ranks of the rent-seekers who choke the ordinary worker by quarantining the productivity gains they produce in the form of high salaries and share dividends. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia now says unions need to have more bargaining power so that wage increases can be negotiated across the board. Spending money locally is good for the economy. Giving more money to a single mother with two children earning $70,000 per year is going to stimulate the retail sector in a fashion that is much more effective than you would see if you gave $1000 a month to someone earning $200,000 per year.

America is the sick man of the West but it continues to bedevil Australians because ideologues here anachronistically hold it up as a beacon of freedom; most of the things make it deserve that cachet lie deep in its past. Russia ruined America a long time ago, many years before Putin arrived on the scene as a player in domestic politics there.

Privatising the ABC is typical of the brain-farts of extremists in the Liberal Party. The ABC is one of the best things about democracy in Australia, bringing people together, left and right, in one place. It gives people with different political views a place where they can gather to discuss ideas and policy options in a rational way. It binds us as one unit and strengthens our social fabric in many ways. It forms part of the essential glue that keeps society together, uniting us in a way that few other institutions do. The ABC also funds progressive and innovative programming that the commercial networks would never risk their dollars backing.

Ideologues like Murdoch hate the ABC not because it gives their own products competition in an open marketplace but because it means that people have access to accurate news and so the men in positions of influence like himself cannot manipulate the opinions of the population with their biased editorials. The ABC’s rigorous editorial policies keep it impartial so that it performs in a way that hands-on owners like Murdoch detest. It dilutes their power. Power they use to get outcomes they want in order to further their business goals, such as hobbling the National Broadband Network.
In the final analysis, by cutting funds to the ABC the Coalition is saying that they want ordinary people to be badly-informed and easily-manipulable, just like their cuts to funding for universities are designed to do. Ignorant people vote conservative. (At least America can still teach one useful thing.)

Friday, 22 June 2018

The failure of the doctrine of the common man

The novel of the common man was born over 100 years (roughly five or six generations) before the rise of proletarian political consciousness emerged as a discrete force in European society. It appeared right at the time when the flawed seer, William Cowper, was born. These novels, which today we label “epistolary”, because they were written in the form of letters by protagonists addressed to friends and relatives, formed the foundation for the improvement of manners that was so evidently needed for the progress of European society in an age where endemic violence, crushing wealth inequalities, and deadening religious intolerance went hand-in-hand with autocracy. People had little control over their destinies and their lives were for the most part very hard.

Cowper, who came into the world in 1731 (his mother Ann was a descendant of the metaphysical poet John Donne), and who suffered from a mental illness, that was probably schizophrenia, for large chunks of his life, was a proto-Romantic whose innovative poetic insights inspired the young men and women who came to prominence in British letters in the generations after him to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Their advances form part of the platform of reform that made the 19th century such a progressive age. Like Cowper, they were inspired by the establishment of independent government in America, as were the writers of the novel of the common man who lived and worked at the same time he was writing. The second half of the 18th century is full of novels in which true virtue is rewarded in the face of an unjust political settlement, through the deployment of poetic justice. This is the history second-generation Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had in mind when he famously wrote, in 1821, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

However, since the middle of the 19th century, when further advances were made in the literary arts by continentals (Melville, Whitman, Baudelaire, and Flaubert) that prioritised the individual over the mass of common folk, the elites have used the doctrine of the common man as a control strategy to maintain unearned privilege. By privileging the ordinary they stop ordinary people from becoming extraordinary, and thereby stop them from spending their money on things that cannot be turned to an easy profit.

It is no accident that it was at that exact point in time, the 1850s, that the proletariat gained its most ardent supporter, in the form of Karl Marx. Just at the precise historical moment when Marx was publishing his seminal works, coevals at different places in the world were writing works that privileged the rights of the individual as something that exists apart from the stated interests of the mass of common folk. This confluence of apparently-contradictory events led to the fateful split between high culture and popular culture that continues to bedevil us today. But before we tease this thread out further, let’s look at some of those innovations in a bit more detail.

Melville’s Ahab, in ‘Moby-Dick’, in eternal pursuit of the great white whale, is symbolic of the superhuman conflict that lies at the heart of lived existence. The sailor is an exceptional individual, a man with a vision, but the creature from the ocean’s depths is a stronger force and Ahab meets a grisly end in the story that plays out in the 1851 novel’s inspired universe.

A few years later, Walt Whitman published ‘Leaves of Grass’, a collection of poetry in which the writer privileges the vision of the individual in contrast to that of the broader society in which he lives. The poems in the collection are now considered to be exceptional but in 1855, at the time of the first edition, not much notice was taken of it.

Baudelaire’s ‘Les fleurs du mal’, published in 1857, features an atomised individual, an artist and a man living in the embrace of the city’s alienating psychogeography. Unfit for regular employment, the poet seeks to achieve goals that are marked by milestones that lie on roads that lead away from the mainstream. He is a French exponent of the Russian idea of the “superfluous man” who does not fit easily into categories that society normally uses to regulate itself.

In the same year, Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ appeared in print in Paris. In this novel, the heroine transgresses against established societal norms and is punished by the world she lives in. She eventually suicides by talking poison when everyone around her abandons her because of her infidelity to her husband.

(In case anyone tells me I missed out on naming Edgar Allen Poe, I have to say that I do acknowledge his debt to the Romantics and his influence on later writers, especially Baudelaire. It’s just that his hey-day came before the 1850s, which is the special point of focus in my argument.)

The subsequent success in the marketplace of works of literature such as these show us that there is an appetite, today, for books that privilege the individual, but still people in the main remain timid and conservative when faced with both new methods and new ideas in the arts. And politicians watch carefully how people follow fashion (even though, irony of ironies, the most fashionable people tend by and large to be the most politically progressive) and aim their messages at the very heart of the putative common man that people think they despise but who is actually their mirror-image. We all think we're geniuses even though we are in fact something less than this: ordinary mortals. For the elites, we are something even less: mere appliances in a machine that serves to enrich them and their families. They care not for our welfare beyond a minimal degree needed to ensure that we remain productive.

Counterintuitively, through constant change the creative industries today work to sunder the people from the moment of cultural innovation, while the people who pay for truly innovative art are the same elites the psychosocial split benefits. Popular culture slavishly follows fashion in industry after industry that is controlled by the elites as they use the separation of the creative class from the proletariat to further their selfish aims. Instead of challenging the people with products that might truly inspire them but that have a chance of failing to earn enough to justify the investment, they push out copy-cat products that ride on the back of the occasional fluke success, keen to capitalise on what they have identified as a profitable niche in the market. The people in the community are the losers because they lose sight of the signs pointing to their own emancipation that had been buried in the fortunate work of art that caught their attention.

This is the context within which the Liberal Party asked the Parliament to support its tax cuts. “Aspirational” being code for the common man, a person the system keeps locked in place due to the effort required for earning a living. “Dare not aspire to anything but a higher salary!”: the siren call of Malcolm Turnbull.

Identity politics cuts both ways. People are social animals and we thrive in communities. We tell ourselves stories in order to forge communities that sustain us in the face of life’s challenges. But these stories can be used by other people to diminish us and to generate solidarity in their own communities (this is called “othering”), so it becomes like a team sport, where people are classified according to their beliefs and tastes and slotted into atomised communities of interest that have their favourite political parties. Our very selves are thus manipulated by the elites and by the politicians who serve their material interests, in order to keep us pliant and amenable to the aims that serve them. Left and right, we are like products that emerge from a manufacturing plant ready to be exploited by people who rely on our complicity to maintain their privilege. Popular culture (spectator sports, rock music, mainstream cinema) is a tool of this class of people, and is designed to keep us docile and useful well into the future.

This is why high art is so dangerous. But high art is both neutered and exploited when it is appropriated by the elites, especially the visual arts. High art is considered to exist outside the legitimate ambit of life for ordinary people and for the most part merely constitutes a utilitarian trope within the nexus of meaning that animates public debate. “Hipsters are wankers,” instead of imaginative men and women who aspire to a different world, one where people cannot so easily be turned to profit.

And poor old Jimmy Barnes has to tell the xenophobic political grouping Reclaim Australia to stop appropriating his songs by playing them at their rallies. To end on a lighter note, I was out walking the other day and went past the cafĂ© near the light rail station where the shop owner plays his stereo loudly in the square. He had on 1979’s ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’, and on my way back after having eaten lunch at a restaurant I heard 1980’s ‘Cheap Wine’ playing on his stereo.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Study of western civilisation need not be a bigot’s dream

On 14 April this year I put up a post on this blog titled, ‘We need to study western civilisation again.’ This was long before the brouhaha about the Ramsay Centre began to roil the Twittersphere and raise people’s blood pressure. The Australian National University announced last week that it would not take up the offer of the Ramsay Centre to set up a chair of western civilisation there, but other universities, including my alma mater, Sydney University, are considering it. Academics there have been using social media to gather signatures on a petition designed to ensure that such a project never gets off the ground.

On the ABC’s Q and A program on Monday night there was a question from the audience addressed to the university’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, who was on the panel, about the Ramsay Centre’s proposals. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, which I subscribe to, Spence said:
"We don't think a course that evaluates the contribution of western civilisation makes sense, nor indeed a course that compares civilisations," he said. 
"But there is on the table the opportunity for support for study in the humanities, and we have an extraordinarily rich tradition in the humanities, 147 units of study in what you might call core western civilisations. 
"If there's an opportunity for funding for study in the humanities, that's a conversation we've got to have. The question is, on what terms we can have it."
Other views have emerged as well, including those of Elizabeth Stone, principal of Queenwood girl’s secondary school in Mosman. She said in a story in the same paper on the weekend that while we still have a fair way to go to achieve parity in terms of things like pay and leadership, women in the West are much better off than their counterparts in other places. She says more than this, though.

I think Spence is right in that we need to avoid an ugly, unthinking exceptionalism, but I’m in general agreement with Stone and I think it’s time to take a step back and look at what’s really at stake here. While it’s regrettable that unpleasant characters such as John Howard and Tony Abbott – men with disappointing and socially-conservative views – are associated with the Ramsay Centre, the possibility for fruitful study in this case is actually quite real.

When you look at other places in the world, such as China and Iran, what strikes you as so valuable in the West is our appetite for public argument. In many places, the types of debate that we see emerging around the subject of the teaching of western civilisation in the public sphere would not be tolerated. In China, they could shut down your social media account, put you in jail, or torment your relatives, if you publicly said things critical of the government. In other countries, the government might just shut down Twitter altogether to prevent debate taking place.

So the current debate is prime facie evidence of the vitality of western civilisation. It is par for the course. The roots of our Manichaean disposition go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, where topics were discussed publicly in debates involving free men. (Slaves and women, of course, were not encouraged to participate openly in civic life.) You might even go back further than that to find them, to the pantheon of the ancient Mesopotamians. Their families of gods were the subject of much discussion, forming material for stories that helped the communities that belonged to that civilisation to stay strong and for their people to live meaningful lives together.

Much of the distracting noise currently being generated around this subject centres, of course, on the gigantic legacy of Karl Marx, as though he were somehow an alien suddenly arrived from outer space instead of a German writer with ideas so radical that the only place in Europe where he could safely do his work was England, which had a long history itself of tolerance for intellectual endeavour, learned over centuries of conflict where many people lost their lives, parts of their bodies, or at least their livelihoods because of what they said publicly. Marx is just as much a part of western civilisation as Winston Churchill.

One of the people that Stone referred to in the story where she is quoted is Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and public commentator whose life in the 18th century still provides inspiration for women around the world today. There is even a train station on the Northern Line in Sydney named after her, so we know that this infatuation with her talents has long been shared by people in the broader community here. Wollstonecraft represents one of the best parts of the 18th century, a time when women unfortunately had few legal rights compared to men, and when the dead hand of the state religion was so oppressive that people who did not live their lives within the communion of the Church of England could not even get government jobs.

After she died from complications arising from childbirth, in 1797, her husband William Godwin published a memoir of her life. It appeared in 1798 and was received grimly by the public. It served to tarnish Wollstonecraft’s reputation for generations due to what was portrayed in it: by the standards of the day an unorthodox lifestyle. While the Victorians were by-and-large in favour of social improvement, they were also very much inspired by the more evangelical forms of Christianity, that had previously been embraced mainly by extreme elements in the community.

Wollstonecraft had had a daughter, Fanny, who was born out of wedlock in 1794 and whose father was Gilbert Imlay, a freewheeling American businessman. Godwin accepted little Fanny into his household after Wollstonecraft attempted suicide and they had forged an intimate relationship. The daughter born to the marriage of Godwin and Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley, who published the novel ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818 (200 years ago this year). Young Mary was the wife of the brilliant and iconoclastic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The story of the birth of the monster who has inspired millions of children throughout the world by way of the products of popular culture is exhilarating and could form part of any degree in western civilisation, if one were established at an Australian university next year. 

Man-made monsters continue to bedevil people, of course. The separation of church and state is just as important, in many parts of the world, as is the right to choose the method of worship your own conscience dictates. Both represent freedoms that have been fought for over centuries as people have worked to discover how to live together in society at the same time as they respect the freedom of the individual. Who should govern? Under what conditions can the state tax you? What kinds of books can be published? What is art?

At each step in the journey to where we are now – a fragile place we know because of the dead hand of autocracy that lies across much of the world, and because of the equally shocking spectre of demagoguery that is starting to appear in many democracies as economic inequality rises – we see seeds for future growth. Such new beginnings can be good for humanity or they can, perversely, be destructive. The journey is never over, but time (so far as we know) regrettably travels only in one direction.

Returning to that April blogpost, I recommend that you go and read it, it’s full of interesting insights, including an analysis of the process of nominalisation whence everything that we hold dear derives, including the progressive political views that animate so many people in the West, including me. In the end it is not Marx that is the enemy of freedom. The political left has helped the West to remain productive and stable, just as Parliament enabled the royal family in Britain to remain in place well past its logical use-by date, by giving the working classes a legitimate focus for their energies and a rallying point around which they can gather peacefully in order to secure changes in the polis that are in their interests. The political left is democracy’s insurance policy, its safety valve.

Because teaching western civilisation should not be about shutting down the arguments coming from the left of politics in developed countries. That would just be silly (although going by the examples set by such dullards as Tony Abbott and John Howard, that’s probably about all many supporters of the idea aspire to). The real enemies of western civilisation are the two kleptocratic bastard children of Marx – Russia and China – whose leaders stubbornly refuse to give their people the right to choose who leads them. Their influence needs to be combated and teaching western civilisation can be a fruitful way to marshal the forces of good in a battle against autocracy that looms dark on the horizon.

Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June is refugee week in Australia. This is all very well, but as I noted in the April blogpost already referred to, refugees continue to enthusiastically travel to developed countries. Perhaps what we need are soft-power shock troops who can be sent out in the service of good governance, like Mormon elders, young men and women with big hearts and white short-sleeved shirts and black name badges, to transport the methods of democracy and disinterested office-serving to any number of countries around the world that seem intent on surrendering up legions of unwanted citizens as regular as clockwork every month and every year, year-in and year-out, on leaky boats and on rattling train cars. Donald Trump could sign onto the scheme, and import Australian graduates with degrees in western civilisation to help improve the quality of government in developing countries in Central and South America, where they could help to stamp out the corruption that corrodes the social fabric in dozens of otherwise-viable democracies.

Soft-power shock troops would have to be personable and intelligent, of course. The same feelings that keep our societies united and strong also tend to exclude ideas that come from outside them. You’d need to smuggle in the seeds of good governance wrapped in some sort of gaudy cloth, such as economic success, lest they be rejected by natural human impulses fuelled by ugly nationalistic exceptionalism. The same things that make the Communist Party of China dismiss as “Western” the freedoms that its people so desperately crave that in their millions they post their money overseas willy-nilly, so that it can be invested in real estate, a sure bet in stable Australia, because you honestly doubt what the future holds for you and your children at home.

The type of scheme I’m describing would also be good for the arts graduates (Americans, probably motivated by the kind of pedantic hair-splitting that underpins much of their “innovation”, routinely refer to the “humanities”) that would be generated by teachers professing expertise in western civilisation. So often in the past, people with good intentions and BAs have left academia and gone to work in dull desk jobs. A guaranteed job with the challenging soft-power shock troops, an avenue with clear career paths that will be prized globally for the quality of its members, would help make sure the new BA holders get on the ladder to property ownership and the kind of solid superannuation account they can rely on in retirement.

Western countries already send people to countries with developing economies and rudimentary democratic systems in order to scrutinise the conduct of elections, so there are plenty of precedents for the soft-power shock troops I propose to establish on the back of the creation of degrees in western democracy. They could also be sponsored by private enterprise, on the basis that a more robust democracy is better able to foment economic growth and provide new and profitable markets for such companies as Apple, Microsoft, Nestle, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The problem with the literary ecosystem in Australia is bigger than Bob Ellis

Fairfax reporter Jacqueline Maley published a story on Friday about the renowned late progressive author Bob Ellis, informing us that he indulged “grubby impulses” when he sexually assaulted minors in the 1970s. Kate and Rozanna Lilley, daughters of the late poet Dorothy Hewett, say their mother knew about the abuse they experienced. “Kate says she had consensual sex with Ellis four times when she was 15 and 16. Rozanna said Ellis ‘shoved my hands down the front of his trousers’ when she was 14.”

Meanjin editor Jonathan Green now says he regrets publishing what he now considers to have been misogynistic productions submitted by Ellis to publications Green controlled. Ellis died two years ago and his reputation has been comprehensively trashed as a result of recent revelations. But in Australia the problem is that success depends so much on your name value, and so little on your actual talent or the inherent quality of your writing.

In the literary magazines, which struggle, God knows, to survive, even the oldest and most prestigious of them, you see the same names appearing in issue after issue as editors rely on writers with a proven track-record of pulling readers to fill their pages with appetising content.

A dull readership, the product of uninformed literary taste in the community more generally, reduces editors’ appetite to experiment and try something new and out-of-the-ordinary. The reviewing that could help to improve the community’s judgement fails to do its job. It is far less than robust because everyone knows everyone else in this small pond: relations between people who review and those who write are too close for the kind of complete honesty that you need to inspire the public to reward true quality. This point can never be repeated too many times in Australia.

The slender margins with which literary journals operate ensure only sure bets get the nod. This results in an impoverished literary ecosystem, a place where the strength of your name value is more important than the quality of your writing.

It has to be remembered, too, that not every new book by a writer, even one who has had success in the past, is necessarily as good as the previous production. But it doesn’t matter to the great unwashed or to the editors who supply them with material. A high-profile name gets them interested and they respond predictably when offered the same as last time, regardless of the inherent quality of the work itself. It’s a popularity contest and the loser is the Australian public itself, because we have to consume the same bland pabulum that functioned last time to get the volumes out the door and into people’s hands.

The same laziness that supported Ellis in his later years keeps people ignorant of the splendours that lie buried in the culture surrounding them, in places where they never look. Instead of enjoying the soul food in a book written by Gerald Murnane, Melanie Cheng, Maria Tumarkin, or Anthony Macris, we gobble up a tired Tim Winton’s most recent rheumy eructation or the latest brain-dump from Richard Flanagan, like a sty full of pigs intent on filling our guts as fast as possible.

People need to be challenged and stimulated with fresh perspectives. We need to follow an original artistic vision, not bribed with celebrity to buy a stale product just because jaded gatekeepers believe it will do the trick. Australians arise! Awake!

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Conservatism’s ugly side can only be cleaned up through education

Vandalism of the impromptu memorial set up in the Melbourne park where Euridyce Dixon was murdered last week was quickly suppressed by authorities. Police on patrol discovered graffiti on the grass at around 4am yesterday morning and someone then called the firies. A video on the ABC website yesterday morning showed a man dressed in a firefighter’s fluoro-yellow protective outfit using a high-pressure hose to wash away white markings from where they had been made on the lawn, so we will never know what had been written there.

Which is a pity, because we need to bring attention to the problem of male entitlement that is so solidly entrenched in our society. We know, for example, that about 40 percent of the population routinely vote Liberal at elections. (The swing voter in the middle is the one who decides their outcomes.) And the Liberals have plenty of help in their crusade to keep things just the way they have always been. In Sydney, many people read the Daily Telegraph or listen to Alan Jones on the radio. There’s plenty of money to be made peddling messages animated by bigotry and other manifestations of conservatism. There are any number of media outlets that cater for people who feel they have a right to continue to do whatever it is they have been advised by experts it is probably better they stop doing. In America, such people voted the demagogue Donald Trump into office.

The ugly conservatism that underpins Australian society is at the root of the problem of male entitlement, which is why it is important that signs of it, such as the overnight graffiti, should be displayed publicly. Discussion in the community about the ugly conservatism that animates so many unthinking and often dangerous people who live among us is needed if we are to improve society for the common good. Which is just what such people don’t want. They want things to stay the same. They find any suggestion that they have been doing the wrong things not just implausible, but offensive. Hence the graffiti and hence dismissive remarks from men that started to appear on social media yesterday.

Tony Abbott perfectly embodies the ugly conservatism that lies just beneath the skin of modern Australia. His elite education is belied by the down-home accent he bungs on in order to appeal to the ignorant and entitled Daily Telegraph reader. He leveraged the latent fascism of the electorate, expressed for example through xenophobia, to get his extreme policies, which only benefit the big end of town, through Parliament. One Nation is a party of the same ilk as Abbott’s Coalition government, which has thankfully been replaced by Turnbull’s.

At least Turnbull is honest enough to not hide his roots behind a false ocker accent. But the Liberal Party continues to produce policies animated by the same impulses that drove the Nazis into office in German in the 1930s. Support for big business is part of the policy mix in the party’s bid to capture the vote of the entitled bogan who is the swing voter in certain electorates. But so is the attempt to stiffen language requirements for migrants. The shabby treatment of offshore detainees who came to this country legitimately seeking asylum, is another facet of the fascist right’s appeal to the ugly side of ordinary Australians who have been deprived in recent years of access to the profits of productivity gains by a managerial class the Liberals want to benefit with their antisocial tax policies.

(You can’t make this stuff up. More recently, of course, impartial experts tell us that labour unions need to be given more power to bargain collectively for pay rises for ordinary workers in order to offset the effects of decades of neoliberalism, which has led to profits from productivity rises being quarantined by the managerial class the Liberal Party supports.)

Returning to the other face of unchecked male entitlement, there will be more women like Eurydice Dixon murdered by entitled men who live freely in the community unless we revamp the entire education system to make boys more pro-social. And the effort needs to be made at each age in different ways. From the very earliest days at kindergarten, boys must be taught how to respect girls and treat them as equals. Might is not right. We know that behaviour is not always the same for children and that it changes with the stage of life they are going through, so there is no quick fix and the curriculum has to be adapted at each step in the road to maturity in order to make sure that the message gets through the native impulses and the hormones and the larrikin need for free expression.

The word “larrikin” itself is a signal of how bad things are. In the 19th century, larrikins were street toughs who dressed in a flamboyant style and frequented public houses and were often rowdy, and sometimes deadly. They flouted the constraints of authority but also killed people in violent abandon when roused to anger. They were feared by citizens and police alike. But now the word has a positive connotation, entirely cleansed of the taint of the brown shirts it used to possess. We encourage a larrikin to misbehave by rewarding him with a laugh, but on the other hand the same man might decide to obey the larrikin streak inside himself by sexually assaulting a woman he sees walking home alone in the park late at night.

My father, whose father was an immigrant, grew up during the 1930s and 40s in Melbourne and saw the ugly side of the Australian character close-up. Called a “wog” by other kids without compunction due to his name, he also saw his father openly mocked in the street for his poor English. Dad worked for a time as a labourer on building sites and was dismayed at the harsh treatment his workmates sometimes meted out to people they didn’t like or who didn’t “fit in”. Dad eventually went to night school and got an engineering degree from Melbourne University, then forged a profitable career in corporate management. He maintained a deep-seated loathing for such icons of popular culture as Ginger Meggs because of the treatment he had been subject to as a boy and as a young man by local larrikins. Course behaviour of any kind upset him and made him very strict about personal conduct when my brother and I were young. It was one of the reasons he was keen for us to get tertiary educations.

A final note for educators: we don’t need to turn our schools into Japanese educational institutions exactly, but merely take the best ideas they have developed there that help to make children more pro-social. Japan has other problems such as a high suicide rate and a low birth rate. And rigid labour laws like Europe’s disincline agile employers there from hiring workers. There is also a deep strain of xenophobia in Japan, and a deeply-embedded distrust of foreigners, and so they have virtually zero immigration, something that might conceivably help the country loose the grip that recession has held there for the past 20 years. So we don’t need to be “turning Japanese”, just learn to be more pro-social in general. Especially more empathy, and less entitlement, for men.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Book review: Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin (2018)

This collection of literary journalism employs a psychogeography that locates it mostly in Melbourne but there are sections, such as where she talks about the entrepreneur Nahji Chu, that zoom in on Sydney. Like Hunter Thompson, Tumarkin brings herself as narrator into the drama but the main debt the author has is to another American, Joan Didion. When Tumarkin in one of the chapters talks about “hillbilly directors” she is nodding in the direction of Didion, who surveyed the culture of her native California and highlighted its big intake of migrants from the Midwest in the 1930s.

In fact Tumarkin’s prose feels more like poetry than anything else. It can be exhilarating. Her style reminds me of a trope I used myself about 10 years ago during question time after a talk organised by people from a major English news magazine. The talk was held at the Seymour Centre, near Victoria Park in Sydney, and I got up when it was over to ask a question of the person who had given it. China, I proposed, was governed by a terrified group of men who were like a circus performer who is riding bareback, standing up on a horse going around an arena, and he is frightened both of falling and of getting off. In Tumarkin’s book, the circus metaphor works (more a high-wire act) because of the elliptical nature of her impressionistic prose, which is fecund with ideas in a way one of the Romantics devised to describe Shakespeare’s blank verse: ideas tumbling and tripping over themselves in their rush to appear.

For this reason, the book can be incredibly satisfying. It is full of interesting insights and perceptions as Tumarkin uses her journalism training to take us behind the headlines to a different place where you can contemplate in a composed frame of mind more eternal things: sex and death, nature and nurture, love and hate. But on occasion the machine fails, as in the third section of the third chapter. In this part of the book, which talks about an old diary that was found in the countryside in Russia and led to strange discoveries by a person living in the present, the stated relationships between people named in the text elude the grasp of your attention and you cannot keep up with the narrative’s forward movement. Tumarkin likes to write in this way – running fast on a narrow track – but the slightest slip-up causes everything to fall down like a house of cards. She has a habit, for example, of leaving out articles in front of nouns (“a” and “the”) because to keep them slows down her delivery, and she is all for pace.

The book is like this from the very beginning, where the author introduces a girl who one day finds her sister has killed herself. She drops names into the flow of the text to indicate who is the subject and who is the object, but boundaries are made to blur by using ellipses, buttressed by punctuation (em-dashes, semi colons) and fomented by the author running along at a fast rate without checking to make sure the reader is still with her. All of a sudden a name appears (“Amanda”, say) that had been used earlier in the narrative, and you falter as you struggle to remember who Amanda was when she had appeared before. I had to tap my way back many pages in the Kindle on a couple of occasions up to the point in the book where I left off reading. There might have been more vaguely Didionesque failures like this later on, I can’t know.

On the upside, this author’s complex and sophisticated language reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov, another Russian emigrant, who went to American during WWII to escape the Nazis (his wife, Vera, was, like Tumarkin, Jewish) and who switched halfway through his life from writing in his native Russian to writing in English, with spectacular results after an erratic transitional phase. There are marks of the inventiveness and playfulness of Nabokov’s prose here, in addition to the nuance and elusiveness of Didion’s. Tumarkin made me think, as I was out walking today, about the male bowerbird who customarily brings an array of blue objects to his nest to decorate it as part of his mating technique. The precious coloured things Tumarkin drags out of a broad lexicon of experience she has built up over years of meaningful life are presented to the reader for his or her perusal, in order to complete the transfer of knowledge in a mostly reliable manner.

The highfalutin title motions toward what might have been a useful organising principle for the author in writing the book, which contains recounts from different parts of her life, including visits to local courts to hear the progress of criminal and civil cases, stories about people she has met (she has children who might be in their late teens), interviews with people, and quotations from books she has read. The chapter titles are like shiny coins struck from the ore of popular culture, refined within the crucible of the author’s imagination. But it is hard when you are gripped by the busy-ness of the prose to keep in your mind the overarching framework Tumarkin proposes. The title reminded me as I was reading the book of the often-arch titles that literary journal editors give to new issues of their magazines in order to lend some sort of form to them for the benefit of prospective readers.

In this book, the outlines of the forest disappear in the thickets it contains where cognates and feelings created by the author are used to weave tales about youth suicide, homelessness, drug addiction, administrative injustice, parental failure, and other totemic aspects of modern society. The gnarly problems that emerge in the newspapers on a daily basis that despite our best efforts always seem to elude anything approximating lasting solutions.

I highly recommend this book. It demonstrates how important migrants can be for a nation’s culture. They bring new ways not just of seeing the world but also of expressing ourselves. The twin branches of rhetoric – signification and style – are with their help refreshed and invigorated.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Men are key to stopping violence against women

In the wake of the cruel murder last week of Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon, an event which caused a general outcry in the community that had echoes of the reaction provoked by the death in September 2012 under similar circumstances of Jill Meagher, the #MeToo movement inevitably gained renewed focus.

Given that people are talking in public places about the problem, including on social media, it’s no surprise to learn that Australian publisher Allen & Unwin has contracted with journalist David Leser to write a book about the issue. In reporting on this fact, Guardian media reporter Amanda Meade was quizzical when faced with what might at first glance appear to be a point of dissonance: a male writer putting out a book on something so close to the hearts of women as the physical violence that is used by some men to get what they want. In her story, Meade included quotes from pugnacious commentator Van Badham, who is not surprisingly totally against the deal. Online, someone I know was equally scathing.

But men have to be part of the solution to the problem of violence against women and must also be helped to develop the empathy that will stop it from happening in the future. Empathy is not equally inherent in every person, and in many cases has to be learned, but we know that reading literary fiction helps people to respond with greater empathy to events in the real world. Leser, who started out in his career by writing up sensitive interviews with prominent people in the form of profiles, uses literary techniques in his work.

Literary journalism (also called creative non-fiction) differs from regular journalism in that it relies on the techniques of literature to achieve its aims. Things like characterisation, including a strong reliance on reported speech and the distinguishing of subjects using such elements of writerly colour as descriptions of their mannerisms. It also uses recounts of the feelings that the interviewer him- or herself felt during the interview, and often novelistic plotting, in order to build a sense of drama into the piece. The kind of details that make reading novels so satisfying. Giving Leser a wad of cash to allow him to turn his limpid gaze onto such a thorny subject as #MeToo strikes me as being not only good sense from a business perspective, but also constructive in a broader sense in that it might help men, especially, to pay more attention and take a more critical look at they ways they often cause women to feel fear.

Like using the body’s own immune system to fight a cancer that is growing in it, it is essential to get men to examine themselves critically as part of the wider debate about the murder and the movement. Just as is formulating better ways of educating boys to respectfully deal with girls. Because of the way that some men sometimes behave without the softening influence of empathy, we need to help them to view the way they act with fresh eyes. A book by someone as intelligent and skillful as Leser must go a long way toward furthering that project. Simply lambasting the project even before it has borne fruit simply because the book won’t be written by a woman merely demonstrates the kind of unthinking and corrosive partisanship that often prevails on social media and in the public sphere more generally, and which is a symptom of exactly the same lack of empathy that lies at the root of the tendency of some men to intimidate and hurt women. It’s fighting fire with fire.

We need to take a different approach and try to understand each other better if we are to find a way to solve the problem at hand. Just lobbing insults in order to give a narrow following a momentary thrill in the end won’t help anyone.

On 3 May this year I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Darlington. For me, the area is redolent with memories as in the 1980s I studied as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I met one of my oldest friends over lunch in a terrace house on Abercrombie Street, just around the corner from the event’s venue. But on this sunny autumn day I sat down in a crowd of mostly older women to listen to the short story writer Melanie Cheng talk about empathy. Cheng is a GP as well as an author of fiction. She was born in Adelaide, grew up in Hong Kong and lives and works in Melbourne. It was fascinating to be part of the crowd of people with their minds trained on such a difficult and important subject. Cheng reminded the audience that research studies conducted in various places around the world have shown that reading literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction or non-fiction) is especially good at helping people to use empathy in their daily lives. She said many other things as well, and hopefully her ideas and insights as a doctor will be published in a literary journal so that more people can learn from her studies into this fascinating subject.

Because it’s not male journalists writing about violence against women that is the problem, it’s the broader culture they grow up in that is at fault here. You see groups of young men or teenagers walking in the city from time to time and you keep an eye on them, just in case, even in broad daylight. Especially with teenagers aged from 13 to 16, you never know what is going to happen. Some uncritical uses of popular culture, such as spectator sport or music, can exaggerate the dysfunction characterising such deadly cliques, where solidarity with one’s peers is prized because their applause is more valuable to you than any other available good. You don’t score goals unless you work as a team, and you are more lethal and effective when it is night-time and there’s no-one around with the power to stop you doing exactly what you feel inclined to do.

The other day I was in Newtown and as I was standing with a friend, who was born in an Asian country, a car with some people in it went past on the carriageway. Some cold liquid, it could have been water flung from a bottle or it could have been spit from someone’s mouth, erupted in the air among the people waiting for the bus to arrive at the stop we stood next to. A young woman who was standing there acknowledged that she too had felt the flying drops. “Too much freedom,” commented my friend severely as she motioned for me to step away from the kerb to the relative safety of the pavement under a shop awning.

Individual freedom is prized in Western countries but there is a trade-off in the form of undesirable aberrant behaviour, especially with young men in places where they think they can get away with whatever action comes into their mind to carry out. We need to teach young men and boys how to function better as parts of a society where the rights of everyone are equally respected. Teaching empathy is the way to achieve this goal, and it must be done at different ages in different ways. Young men must be made to experience how other people feel, and not to just obey the call of their own inclinations. A book by someone as skilful with his craft as Leser is a good place to start this journey.

A member of my family suffered a fate like that which befell Dixon and Meagher. In 1930 a young woman, a poet named Mollie Dean, was stabbed to death in a street in Elwood, in suburban Melbourne. Her cousin Harry Dean was my grandfather. Like his cousin, Harry loved literature. On my bookshelves I have some of his copies of Henry Lawson’s short stories. He had a habit of clipping poems out of the left-wing newspapers published in the cities in his era and pasting them in a scrapbook. A lot of these poems were not very good, but it was the sentiments that animated them that he prized rather than the skill with which they were expressed. He was all for sharing the wealth the community generates as widely as possible.

In my family, no-one ever talked about Mollie’s untimely death when I was growing up although mum would mention it from time to time when she arrived in her eighties and I was living up in Queensland looking after her. In the family trees that dad made using Excel spreadsheets in the years after his retirement, he signposted Mollie’s unfortunately brief existence with a few words.

But I think that Harry would have been pleased, to the extent that recognition and truth-telling are valuable quantities in themselves given the tragic facts of the case, with the book about Mollie’s murder published earlier this year by Gideon Haigh. Harry died in 1954 from cancer that had started as a melanoma and his daughter, my mother, was given away by her brother Geoff at the church booked for her marriage the following year. I was born eight years after Harry’s death but I think that if he had somehow survived his illness we would have got along. I regret also never having had the opportunity to meet Mollie and show her children my own poems.