Wednesday 31 July 2019

Book review: Webtopia, Peter Lewis (2019)

If you’re going to be writing a book about things that people will likely already know even before they open the front cover, you have to think about including some original insights. But Lewis’ disappointing book appeared to have nothing like this in its pages although one favour the author did me is to show me some of the ideas of Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian. People I know had suggested to me that I read Harari but I had never got around to doing so, so Lewis’ inclusion of some passages from one of his books here constituted something of an educational episode for me.

Lewis goes back to the early days of the web and chronicles his own engagement with it. As he does so he includes for the reader’s education some interviews with people he has met online as well as the occasional quote from nonfiction books. Overall, this was for me a boring work that intends at its outset to give a rational account of how “things went wrong” after the early promise of the web. Take it from Lewis: they went wrong at some point and now we are stuck with the results.

I skipped frantically through the bulk of this production on the lookout for some stray indication that the author had cottoned on to what had really been happening, but it was in vain. Harari had shown him that people use language in order to increase the functional capacity of their societies, and Lewis had cloned that idea by introducing some personal reminiscences from his adolescence growing up in Australia, in order to show how this mechanism can happen in real life.

But he never took the matter to the next step, to consider how people weaponise, for example, news stories, or how they create community by sharing links to things that they think are notable or that warrant comment. He stopped short of showing how social media, on its part, has changed the nature of the public sphere. For Lewis, the failure of the web is all the fault of the corporations and of Donald Trump. He can, it seems, only see the failings of people on the right, and has missed seeing the awfulness that often characterises the ways that people on the left use social media.

Lewis frames his study of the web in its early stages by giving a bit of personal history: his time working for Australian Associated Press in the 80s covering the decline and fall of the Soviet bloc. This kind of locus of meaning, freighted as it is with colour and interest, dots the narrative. In the end, though, I didn’t really see how this book warranted the purchase price or the time required to read the parts of it that I got through. Even skipping from section head to section head in search of things of interest took some time that I now feel might have been better put to other uses.

I can’t see the way out for someone like Lewis, however. In a real sense, his personal brand of politics limits his ability to discern the truth among all the appealing substitutes for it that can be found out there, in the ether. And it’s not as if no-one has ever thought of writing a book like this before.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

“Aussie” posters with photos of Chinese people, Cleveland Street

The photo in the “Aussie” poster on the right-hand side of the building wall in this shot is well-known in Sydney. I have seen it in various places around the city, including on the railway bridge over Wattle Street next to Wentworth Park. This photo shows an Afghan, one of the many men from his country who migrated to Australia in the 19th century during the colonial period (when the place wasn’t even called “Australia”). These men operated camel trains across the outback. There are today tens of thousands of feral camels in central Australia as a result of this commercial practice.

What was different in this shot (above) which, on Monday, I took out the open window of my car as I was waiting at the traffic lights on Cleveland Street just before turning north onto Abercrombie Street in order to make my way home, is the presence of the two Chinese people in the other posters. I have not seen a variation on the theme like this before and thought it noteworthy.

Chinese people started coming to the colonies in the 1850s after gold was discovered in NSW and Victoria but the flow of migrants from China was curtailed severely in the late 1880s due to xenophobia, which influenced government policy. Locals didn’t object to the Chinese workers due to laziness or anything like that. They objected to them because they were too hard-working and were considered to offer too much competition. The depression of the 1890s might have been alleviated by migration but it had been all but halted, and so for the next 50 years the economy struggled in low gear – a situation made worse by the Great Depression of the 1930s – until migration started up again when WWII finished in 1945.

What these posters do is ask us to interrogate the past. The old-fashioned visual aesthetic is deliberate and points in the direction we need to take if we want to understand ourselves better. The person who made the designs for these posters (if it was one person, and not more than one; I cannot say for sure) also wants us to look at who we are as a people. What do we stand for? Where have we come from? And where are we heading?

The ad for the Brazilian martial art “capoeira” that is visible in the frame I thought a nice addition to the theme of migration embodied in the three posters, as the ad attests to the diverse nature of Australia in our day: a place where hundreds of thousands of people come to live each year. Migration constitutes the single largest component of the country’s population growth, which is among the highest in the world.

After I got onto Abercrombie Street, with a red light on Broadway, a guy came up to the line of cars to clean windscreens and I let him do mine, passing him, through the window frame, a $5 note in return for the service.

Monday 29 July 2019

Book review: The Angel Esmerelda, Don DeLillo (2011)

This collection of nine short stories was a revelation for me, although it’s possible that I had read something else by this author earlier in my life. For the life of me I couldn’t remember if I had done.

The stories here are not all of the same quality but that’s hardly surprising when you consider that the earliest of them, ‘Creation’, dates from 1979. The book is split into three sections and the stories are published in the order in which they were completed: 1979, 1983, 1988, 1988, 1994, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011. Part three starts on page 103 and there are 211 pages in the book, so it comprises almost exactly half of the whole. It has four stories in it, the most of any of the sections.

The stories are good even from the earliest days but they get better and better with time. DeLillo is a careful craftsman and a deep thinker who uses minute observations about the world to give substance to his creations, which are stories however that, like many art-house movies, want a certain degree of forward movement. The denouement arrives quietly, in many cases, such as in ‘Hammer and Sickle’ (2010), ‘Midnight in Dostoyevsky’ (2009), or ‘Baader-Meinhof’ (2002).

In order to conserve a degree of brevity I’ll restrict my comments to these three stories as they appeared to me to be, of the ones I read, the best in the collection. I didn’t read the final story before writing this review.

‘Hammer and Sickle’ is about an inmate in a kind of low-security prison, who lives among men most of whom have been placed there due to financial crime. It’s not at any point clear what the protagonist, Jerold Bradway, did to deserve his incarceration but there are strong and compelling hints thrown out in the course of the story. Some of them are delivered by Jerold’s two daughters, Kate and Laurie, who have been compelled by their mother to put on a program on children’s TV in the episodes of which they talk about the financial crisis. Their mother had specifically told Jerold to watch the series of programs. The punchline is devastating and it comes well before the final paragraph, which contains a moment when Jerold contemplates himself in the world as he stands on the overpass of a motorway looking down at cars moving in the darkness. Jerold had told his roommate about his daughters and it’s not clear if this news spreads to the other residents of the camp but by the end of its run the program, which no-one had been interested in at first, draws a crowd to the TV room.

‘Midnight in Dostoyevsky’ is about two university students – Todd and Robby – who are studying at a small-town institution. One of their teachers, a man named Ilgauskas, who takes classes in logic (so the two young men are studying the humanities), becomes enmeshed in a fantasy that the two dream up on their walks around the town that concern a man in a parka (or anorak; they argue about what the correct word should be for the garment) who they see from time to time walking on the streets.

This story, like the other one already discussed, does a number of different things. One of these is to highlight something that I have often thought myself: that people are always telling themselves stories in order to make sense of the world around them. Todd and Robby try to understand their teacher and he becomes linked to the man in the parka through the agency of a girl named Jenna who met with Ilgauskas one day at the town’s diner. Ilgauskas told Jenna that he was always reading Dostoyevsky. Hence the old man becomes Ilgauskas’ father and they end up being Russian (although the name Ilgauskas is probably Lithuanian) in the minds of Robby and Todd.

‘Baader-Meinhof’ is another strange story that, again, has a certain heft and weight. It deals with a woman and a man who meet at a museum where there is an exhibition of artworks to do with the German terrorists whose names appear in the story’s title. There is a reticence about the way that the man and the woman talk and the matter of sex is not far from either of their thoughts, although how things turn out would not occur to anyone reading the story in its early pages. The matter of violence that is implicit in the history of the terrorists arises also in the relations between the two people, who eventually end up back at the woman’s studio apartment.

The degree of ambiguity that DeLillo includes in his stories and their sometimes vanishingly slight plots will mean that he will probably always remain an author prized by a minority. Unless he wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, of course, which is something a friend of mine thinks possible. In fact it was the recommendation in this form from this friend that led me to take this book down off the shelf of the op shop in Waverley where I saw it last week. Going by the strength of the stories in this collection, such an accolade seems deserved but, having said that much, not all Nobel winners turn out to be the best representatives of their era.

People who value reading and who aspire to think deeply about the world will gravitate to DeLillo. He’s not ever going to be mainstream, is my estimation of this work. It’s too complex, too difficult. One thing that did put me off about these stories is DeLillo’s tendency not to properly mark out the identities of people involved in the conversations that he includes in his writing. You often struggle, with his stories, to work out who is speaking because he just puts the quote, and mostly leaves out the marker to say which character is speaking. I wonder why he does this, it seems so unnecessary. It might be due to his belief, as with many American authors, that you have to concentrate on style more than on plot and character.

This continental bias goes back as far as Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. In many cases it leads to the production of brilliant literature (and the first and second stories discussed above most certainly contain nods to Nabokov) but in others it can lead to dead ends. DeLillo’s work is definitely not in this category.

Saturday 27 July 2019

Train trips: One

This is a new series of posts with a single theme. I’m not sure how long this series will go for but you can let me know in the comments how you like it.

16 July

Got the train back from Newtown. I waited nine minutes on the platform for the train, which was heading to Town Hall and Circular Quay. A woman who had somehow caught my eye moved to the edge of the platform and got onto the carriage first, going downstairs. I went upstairs and sat down on the seat nearest the aisle, one of three on the bench. A young guy who had been sitting on a seat in front of me got off at Redfern. He wore a hoodie and wheeled a small suitcase. I got off at Central and went to the light rail platform.

A tram came but didn't stop to let on passengers so I sat down at about 7.45pm to wait for the next one, which came after about six minutes. After I got on an Asian guy who smelled strongly of alcohol sat down next to me, but then stood up and moved to a different seat before the tram started moving. A transport company staffer, a woman who might have been Indian, spoke in her native language with another staffer, a man, before he went off toward the front of the train. The woman, who wore a hi-vis vest, hung from a strap and played with the heel of her right shoe with the toe of her left shoe.

Next to me a woman wearing a white sweater and blue jeans sat down and started using her mobile phone to talk with someone via a messaging application. I could see her reflection in the window as by this time it was dark outside. I got off at the casino and walked home, stopping at one of the pubs on the corner of John Street to take some cash out of the ATM. A young man and a young woman were eating dinner at a table in the front bar.

20 July

Caught the train back home from Newtown. Arrived on the platform of the station and there was about a minute for me to wait. It was crowded and I had to find an unoccupied area where I could sneeze into my hands.

I sat down in the mezzanine area of one carriage near the front of the train when it arrived. Two women opposite me were using their phones during the trip but one of them stopped and put her phone in her black handbag. Both of the women who were using their phones got off the train at Redfern. Then, from the next carriage toward the back of the train, another woman entered my carriage and when she sat down she started using her phone as well. She sat in the same seat one of the women who had got off at Redfern had used.

At Central Station I got off the train and went to the light rail platform. I had three minutes to wait and the tram soon arrived empty. I sat down near the door and waited. Other people got on, including a group of about six women in their twenties who had a lot of bags that they set down on the floor near the door. When the tram stopped at Capital Square they had to move their stuff to allow people to get on.

A woman with two teenage daughters sat down next to me and her husband and the girls stood in front of her and talked. “Is that Chinatown?” one of the girls asked when we were near Dixon Street. “Are we near the Rocks?” she asked a bit later. Then, “Is Chinatown near the Rocks?” I wanted to answer but kept my mouth shut. They were Australian but had evidently come from a different city.

A man and his wife were sitting near me and they spoke French. Earlier in the afternoon a man and a woman and three young girls had been speaking French on the street when I had left home and walked southwest. The French-speaking woman on the tram had a child on her knee, a boy who wore a hoodie. He had dark skin like his mother but the father was Caucasian. The mother put the hood onto the child’s head and the little boy used his hand to take it off it. At 4.50pm the tram stopped at Convention and then later, at the casino, I got off, as usual, and walked home up the hill and down the hill.

26 July

Caught the tram to Central from the casino. When I arrived at the casino, there were still 13 minutes to wait. After I got on the tram I sat down on a seat. The man opposite me, who was Asian, kept looking up slyly as though he were trying to catch me looking at him. I kept my eyes fixed to the Tramsheds ad on the wall behind his head. The ad had, in its bottom-right corner, a “T” cut out in a white stencil with, behind it, a selection of vegetables, including carrots, that evidently you are able to buy at the venue. The carrots were visible behind the stencil and in the “T” shape itself, where the stringy tips of some of the carrots had been artfully placed by the person who had designed the ad.

At Central I got off the tram and used my Opal card to tap off on one of the readers installed on the platform. Then I went through to the barriers leading to the train platforms and used the card again.

I went down to platform 25 but the next train was not stopping at Tempe, my destination, so I looked up the scheduled services on the app on my mobile phone. It showed that one was leaving – I thought – from platform 19 so I rushed up the escalator and up the stairs to that platform. But when I got there there was no sign that such a service was going to run so I looked at the app again and it said to go to platform 25 and that a service would leave there in about 15 minutes’ time. So I went down the stairs and down the escalator again and sat myself down in a seat on the platform to wait.

The train came after about 10 minutes and I got on and went downstairs and sat down in a seat, that was on a bench of three, next to a window. When the train arrived at Tempe I got off and walked along the platform to where the Opal readers are installed and used one of them to tap off, then mounted the stairs to get to the bridge over the tracks. The regular exit with its stairs leading down to the street had been closed off so I followed the signs to get down to the temporary exit, on Richardsons Crescent, and at just before 2pm left the station, heading northwest.

Friday 26 July 2019

A better conversation on Sydney transport would embrace both road and rail

Yesterday I was out in the western suburbs of Sydney with a friend. While there I parked the car near the Pendle Hill shopping centre and we went on foot to get some Sri Lankan food in one of the pre-prepared curry places that dot the strip. I saw three shops like this there but there might be more that serve the community. In the restaurant we visited, for $10 you can get a plate of rice with three vege toppings and one meat topping. You have a selection of different types of rice to choose from. The food was flavoursome and spicy.

There is a train station there and down the street from the restaurant was a construction site where they are putting up a block of apartments. Once we had returned to the car and started the drive home we passed another construction site for new residential dwellings, this one on the Great Western Highway. Heading east we got on the M4 and then used the new tunnel, which took us from Homebush to Ashfield.

The tunnel has three lanes for most of its eastward-bound length. Along the walls of it the authorities have painted labels telling you where you are at any point in the journey so that you can orient yourself. It is a long tunnel, much like the Lane Cove Tunnel, and it narrows to two lanes near the eastern end, after a slip road turns off to lead travellers, if they want to go to Balmain or the Harbour Bridge, toward Wattle Street.

I had a conversation with someone on Facebook about the tunnel after I returned home and it followed predictable lines. Motorways are bad and rail is good. That, anyway, was his take. There are any number of people posting things on social media who are dead against things like the M4 East (the tunnel we used yesterday to get back home from western Sydney). The larger project, called WestConnex, is polarising especially among residents of the inner west who will be affected by construction and by the presence of slip roads and traffic corridors that will be used by people using the motorway once the whole thing is finished in 2023.

Rumbling away in the background behind such big public projects are federal immigration policies, the same policies that enabled the Sri Lankans whose shop my friend ate at yesterday, to come to Australia to live and work and to do all the other things that people do while they are alive. Inner-western Sydney residents have been vocal against some residential property development in their areas, the same kinds of development that we saw yesterday while we were out driving just west of Parramatta. In many cases they probably have a point. Some parts of Sydney are being developed faster than other parts. I’ve been writing about “infill” development on the blog on and off for a number of years and such projects generally seem to cause anxiety for local residents.

Sydney will have more of this kind of development and the only question will be: Where to put it? The mountains are our western border, national parks border the metropolitan area to the north and south, and the ocean is in the east. At the moment a lot of greenfield development is happening in the northwest and southwest, where the land allows for expansion and the rezoning of agricultural land for residential purposes. But this doesn’t have to be the only way.

In fact, if you go to the west of Sydney you immediately see that there are any number of areas that would benefit from new rail lines. And circular lines are also an option: build one from Brighton-Le-Sands to Campsie to Homebush to Epping to Manly. But even within the conventional paradigm with its hub-and-spoke, which seems to define much of the rail transport in Sydney (where all lines go to Central Station) if you zoom out on Google Maps you can see vast unserved areas of the city that would become attractive destinations for migrants – in the same way that Cabramatta is for Vietnamese, Pendle Hill is for Sri Lankans, and Harris Park is for Indians – if new lines were put in. Many poorly-serviced suburbs could be linked to the existing rail system by an ambitious state government, and help the Greater Sydney Commission meet its development targets.

The guy who objected to my post on the M4 East lives, I found with a few searches, in Japan, a place where train travel is as natural and easy as going to the supermarket for a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread – though if you were Japanese you might opt instead, if it was late on a Friday afternoon, for a couple of cans of Asahi Superdry and a packet of soy-sauce flavoured “sembe” crackers. Japan has good motorways and good trains and many of the rail lines are privately-owned. It seems strange that they have worked out how to solve the transport puzzle where it continually poses problems for Sydneysiders. I won’t venture an opinion about Melbourne but, going by the recent state election result in Victoria, it seems that residents of the southern capital are just as enthusiastic about railways as I am.

People are never going to give up their cars and sometimes you need one to transport something large or to do a number of errands in one trip. Cars are an essential part of the mix in Sydney. What we don’t need to do is continually take sides: road or rail. It seems very odd that we can’t support both.

Thursday 25 July 2019

Book review: Lala Pipo, Hideo Okuda (2008)

This very strange and darkly comic novel, which was published in the original Japanese in 2005, actually resembles a collection of short stories. Each chapter is connected with the next in ways that are unexpected and each connection hinges on the matter of sex. What strikes me the most at first glance about this novel is that there are almost no reliable reviews of it online. Although it is wildly unconventional, this is unaccountable as it is a minor masterpiece.

But to understand it you really have to understand Japan. This is a country that has been almost completely misunderstood from the beginning of Western contact until today. The products of culture that have dealt in Japanese constructs and that have proliferated in the West since that time have almost all had practically nothing to do with the society that actually inspired them, and this has led to an impoverished marketplace of ideas.

One exception to this rule is the Japanese poet, played by Masatoshi Nagase, who appears at the end of Jim Jarmusch’s film ‘Paterson’ (2016). This is a man who displays an earnest enthusiasm for the artform that is typical of his countrymen, as it is one that shows what truly inspires him. In general, however, the West has yet to properly understand Japan even though the products of some of the archipelago’s most prominent creatives – from filmmaker Juzo Itami to novelist Haruki Murakami – are well-known in places like the US and Europe. The puzzle hasn’t yet been deciphered, so the number of reviewers who would be able to do justice to this book of Okuda’s is severely limited.

At its core are notions of propriety and of desire, and the ways that those two things converge in the popular consciousness. For Japanese people the high-school girls who prostitute themselves for 10,000-yen notes and the reclusive university graduate who never meets people face-to-face will be instantly recognisable, but for many Westerners such things as these, in the Japanese context, may still be novelties.

The works that I was immediately reminded of while reading this book are ‘The Exquisite Corpse’ by Alfred Chester and ‘Edge of the Night’ by Friedo Lampe, both of which I read this year. The first of these books is by a gay American man and was published in 1967. The second is by a gay man and was published originally in German in 1933, at a time when the Nazis banned it.

So the idea of transgression is central to all three of these books and sex is also at the centre of all of them. In Okuda’s book the buttoned-down Japan of popular imagining is hilariously turned on its head and we are privy to a range of commonplace deviances that lie within the realm of sensuality and that include school-girls and erotic novels, karaoke-box establishments used for illicit dalliances, and the transcription service that a young woman operates.

The book opens with a story featuring Hiroshi Sugiyama, a dropout who writes promotional ad copy but who had graduated from an elite university. He builds a relationship with a generously-proportioned young transcriber named Sayuri Tamaki who picks him up one day in a public library and who keeps secrets that, if revealed, would expose her illegal means of support. In the middle of the mix are a housewife named Yoshie Sato who starts performing in porn movies in order to spice up her life and a tout for escort bars named Kenji Kurino who approaches young women on the street in order to get them to work for him in a kind of pyramid scheme. The centre of each chapter stems from the end of the previous one as a result of a dramatic moment that transports the reader across a number of sudden and trenchant boundaries.

But the core of the novel cannot be confined within a mere fictional ploy, regardless of how elegant that device is. Ideas of authenticity and associated ideas of value are examined in this book, and in it we come up against a number of metafictional devices that turn our attention back onto ourselves, as complicit readers. What constitutes “good” art? What is the nature of “real” drama? What is perversion and what is the result of licit desire? What is original and what is a tired trope? How do we, as a community, frame such notions? In the end the narrative reveals its ultimate purpose: to interrogate the individual and the society that sustains him or her. Allied to such concerns are ideas about male and female sexuality, and so this book has some pretty profound questions to put to the reader.

Japan’s vulnerable belly is exposed to scrutiny and to critique in the serial vignettes that comprise this novel, in a way that hadn’t happened before and that probably hasn’t happened since for any community, in the archipelago or elsewhere. But the way that this fascinating and unprecedented novel has dropped out of circulation is frankly astonishing, given its high quality. Admittedly, the quantity of sleaze in it becomes a bit wearisome at times – and this reticence is part of the novel’s appeal – but the author remains in control of his material until the end, where one of the characters who furnishes part of the drama is shown going home with, in her purse, a significant quantity of cash resulting from a clandestine transaction. This book offers a wild ride and deserves to be better-known. Six stars.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Sebnem Hotel, Istanbul, final days of May

The name of the hotel translates as "dew" and it is pronounced “sheb-nem”. The staff were helpful and solicitous of our wellbeing. One night we had a chat with two of them about politics and history and learned that they were not overly enthusiastic about the national government. Young people in Istanbul appeared to mostly speak English and seemed to have relatively progressive views on things like politics.

The little wooden desk in my room was suitable for quickly writing blogposts. There are 41 files in the 'ME 2019 trip' folder on my PC now, which is where all the document files for the Middle East trip are stored. The photos are stored in different folders, and sometimes there are two copies of each photo depending on how many posts I used them in.

There are three series of blogposts that derived from the trip. Most of the posts in the first series were made while travelling, the exceptions to this rule being the final two. The second and third series were made once I had got back to Australia. This is me in my hotel room fiddling with my laptop's power cord.

The first series, which went up mostly in May, constitutes a set of daily digests. The second series went up in June and is about food and drink consumed on the trip. The third series went up in July and is about history in the Middle East. For the daily digests, I usually wrote using the laptop at the end of each day, using notes I had recorded on my mobile phone. Sometimes I posted the day after the events described. Sometimes a mobile hotspot was necessary (using my mobile phone) in order to connect to the internet, and sometimes the hotel's wifi was sufficient for my purposes. 

On the shelf above the desk is a warm can of beer that I had not drunk the night before. I got the beers from a local convenience store that stayed open late. They also sold gifts for tourists, such as Turkish delight. A beer normally cost 10 lira (about A$2.50) but bigger containers like this one cost a bit more, as did bottles of imported beer.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Expressions of incredulity that Australia voted conservative

This is a completely unscientific survey. For those, like me, who like to know what’s been happening online since the May federal election, however, this will contain some insights. I started the survey on 13 July and it ran for about 10 days, ending on 23 July.

I have separated the tweets into categories, as is my wont, to make the piece more readable and easier to understand. On some days there were more tweets that caught my attention than on others, and this might have had something to do with the issues that were being discussed by people on the #auspol hashtag, which a lot of the tweets below contained. This survey is a lament, if you want to find a genre to classify it among similar kinds of articles. The overriding emotion was sadness and there was also a fair bit of confusion. If you want to read another, similar, account of political crisis, I can recommend Bret Easton Ellis’ brilliant ‘White’ which was published this year and which I reviewed on the blog early last week.

In his book, Ellis recounts a number of conversations that he had with different people following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. His book goes up to 2018, where the stories stop due to the requirements of publication. So the book finishes with a kind of study of futility as people responded in various ways to Trump’s election. Many of Ellis’ friends are progressives, but not all of them. For his progressive friends he had difficulty discussing politics because of the extreme polarisation that Trump embodies. Ellis’ boyfriend at the time was, basically, almost catatonic with frustration and despair and it looks like he stopped bathing or going out of their apartment.

You see some of the same kind of emotions expressed in what follows. This is by no means as rich in detail as the passages in Ellis’ book that deal with the election outcome and its aftermath. This is, to be frank, quite a poor version of the same thing. But I hesitate to apologise for this shortcoming, having at least gone to the trouble of finding tweets to classify. The categories I have used are:
  • General resignation and regret
  • Blaming Shorten
  • Link to current issues
  • Blaming Murdoch
  • Scapegoating Peter Dutton on account of his increased majority
General resignation and regret

At 9.12am on 13 July a Perth account with 111 followers tweeted, “Dumb Australians voting for a dump Australia. To [sic] many old self-centred, self-focussed neandertals [sic] in [sic] voted for stupidity.” Another account, one with 447 followers that is based in Melbourne, retweeted that tweet plus added this comment: “Why progressive politics (keep) losing, in a nutshell.”

On the same day at 9.37am an account with 296 followers tweeted, “We really do need to stop blaming the politicians. We elect these idiots. It is our fault. They win because their message has majority appeal. People would rather believe the lie than engage with the harsh truth.” I responded to this person with this: “Precisely. But then they start blaming the community for electing the ‘wrong’ people to power.”

On 17 July a Sydney account with 1654 followers tweeted, “Can we wind back to 18 May and rerun the election.”

On 19 July at 9.24pm an account with 4084 followers tweeted, “When will Australians start using their brains you reckon they have? Voting in a happy clapper is not demonstrating intelligence.”

Blaming Shorten

On one day in mid-July at 11.55am an account with 1679 followers tweeted, “People are going to rue the day they voted for the Liberal Party simply because they didn't like Bill Shorten.” This tweet included a retweet of a tweet from the same person that had gone up a minute earlier that said, “’[But] I just wonder if maybe what happens – at a deeper level sometimes – a country sometimes makes a judgment about people over time, and I just wonder if they just decided ‘we are not electing Bill Shorten’,’” This quote came with a link to a Guardian story by Amy Remeikis titled, “Alastair Campbell on the 'populist virus' and why Bill Shorten lost.”

Link to current issues

On 13 July at 9.06am an account with 373 followers tweeted, “And yet half of Australia voted for these monsters....shame on this govt.” This was in response to a tweet that had gone up five hours before that said, “Aged care funding for nursing homes cut by $1.2bn in federal budget.”

At 7.14pm on 13 July an account with 209 followers tweeted, “I do not recognise Australia right now. I'm finding it hard not to look at some ppl & wonder how they voted & how they feel now.” This tweet came with another tweet from an account with 139 followers that had tweeted, “WELL FANCY THAT! The only Journalistic Outlet to actually attempt to hold this #CorruptCoalition @LiberalAus accountable, get TAGGED as the ENEMY. Congratulations AUSTRALIA you nearly have what you voted for [:] a FASCIST Govt.” This had an image with it that showed a story headline from an ABC website. The journalist was Felicity Caldwell and the headline read, “ABC described as ‘enemies’ of the LNP at state convention.”

On 14 July at 9.59pm an account with 63 followers tweeted, “The French proletariat on a national holiday sing 'anticapitalista!' In the streets. Australians drown their brain in piss and elect pentecostal [sic] evangelical morons to government. Such a contrast.” The link was to the French national day, 14 July.

On 15 July at 8.10pm an account with 191 followers tweeted, “Retirees have also remember [sic] that they believed the lies #SloMo and Palmer spread before the election. Seems all the bad things the Government promised Labor would do, have been done by our Penticostal [sic] PM. You voted for this shit.” The tweet referred to the government’s announcement the day before about the deemed rate of interest for part-pensioners, earned on savings, which is used to calculate their payments as the pension is paid in full only to people with no savings. The government calculates the amount of money to pay to such people by assuming a certain return from investments, but this was considered by experts to be unreasonable since real interest rates have gone down in recent months due to the Reserve Bank’s cutting of the cash rate to a record low. Returns from term deposits had gone down as well in this climate of low interest rates.

On 15 July at 10.11pm an account with 90 followers tweeted, “Just because the nation was ready for change doesn’t mean the government they so ignorantly re-elected was ready to change a god damn thing in respect to indigenous recognition! @ScottMorrisonMP has made himself very clear.” This tweet related to the issue of the Voice to Parliament that had been requested by the Referendum Council in 2017.

On 19 July at around 7pm an account I follow with around 39,100 followers retweeted a tweet from the ABC’s ‘The Drum’ program that had gone up at 6.33pm, that said, “’It's disgraceful. The policies are woefully inadequate. They are not in line with what the experts recommend they need to be. It's terribly unfair the next generation of people are going to be left feeling the true impact of climate change.’ (2/2) @AnikaMolesworth.” The guy I followed added with his own tweet, “And yet the population continues to vote for these policies and the myopic politicians who peddle them.”

Blaming Murdoch

On 13 July at 6.25pm a Gold Coast account with 922 followers tweeted, “"The simple truth is that we are being outgunned by the brute power of billionaires. And the same can be said for democracy." Extremely familiar, Sally! Eg: #Murdoch's #LNP #IPA strategy to ‘Kill Bill’ & outright #lies about #Labor policies pre-election!”

The same day at 6.49pm an account with 56 followers tweeted, “These #Murdoch stooges will never be satisfied until they get a PM they can bend to their every will. What they did to Turnbull, they will do to Morrison. They want Spud, already a useful idiot for corporate media.”

Scapegoating Peter Dutton on account of his increased majority

At 6.55pm a Melbourne account with 1058 followers tweeted, “’When something's before the courts, like when ppl take Peter Dutton to court, you...respect legal processes.’ Set in his ways: flogging a dead horse on Dutton, over whom ppl were so outraged they re-elected him, + the govt, w a bigger majority.” The tweet came with a link to a blogpost by Tim Blair on the Daily Telegraph website.

On 18 July at 5.27am an account with 15,503 followers tweeted, “The principles & values of a democracy are not the principles & values of this Govt. This has been clear to anyone looking for sometime [sic]. Just think how they won re-election - anything but democratic.”

This tweet came in response to a series of tweets that started on 25 July at 4.25pm when John Lyons, the ABC’s executive head of news, tweeted, “AFP/HOME AFFAIRS: Timeline of a remarkable week. Monday June 3 an official from Home Affairs Dept calls 2GB’s Ben Fordham demanding to know a source; Tuesday June 4 AFP raid @annikasmethurst home; Wed June 5 AFP raid ABC; Thurs June 6 AFP was planning to raid News Corp Sydney HQ.” In response to this, journalist (and now academic) Peter Greste tweeted on 16 July at 7.11am, “How did one of the wold’s great liberal democracies come to this? Is this REALLY the kind of state we want to live in?”

The tweets were in relation to a pair of raids by the Australian Federal Police targeting journalists that had caused a great deal of commentary in public by journalists and citizens. Peter Dutton is the minister for home affairs, the organisation that oversees the AFP. The problem with a lot of the commentary that appeared in the wake of the raids is that accusing the government for the actions of the AFP is actually more than a bit paranoid. There was no indication that the government knew about the raids before they took place and, in fact, after they had taken place the prime minister said publicly that his government supports a free media. And to suggest that there was anything undemocratic about the government’s election was just laughable.

Sunday 21 July 2019

“The military-industrial complex” and other slogans

People demand simple answers. This is why Trump was elected. People need and therefore produce reductive slogans that they can rally around. "Send them back," "Australians are racist," "Make American great again," Israelis are Nazis." This kind of short, potent message gets thrown around to produce effects in the public sphere, and to further arguments. But reality is more complex than this and resists this kind of characterisation. Reality contains nuance and subtlety and cannot be easily embodied by slogans and labels. Do people care? No, they only want their side to win. Truth is not important to most people, but if you tell them this they will most likely insult or ignore you.

The slogan that sits in the title of this post was put up on Facebook by man – a middle-aged lawyer who lives and works in western Sydney – I have since unfriended on the site. We had got into a discussion about the US and its relations with Iran, and he had optimistically thrown out this old clunker in an effort to support his arguments. Other people who are Facebook friends of his applauded his stance and laughed at mine (with the laughing emoji that Facebook offers people to use to respond to comments) and I felt fed up and excluded, so I cut ties. He had been abrasive and idiotic on other occasions as well, using similarly tired arguments drawn from the standard arsenal of the social-justice warrior and I had always found him unwilling to compromise and, indeed, sometimes offensive with his comments. So, no loss.

But this man wasn’t the only person I unfriended on Facebook at that time. On Thursday the Adam Goodes documentary ‘The Final Season’ screened on Channel Ten and it garnered a lot of attention in the community. I made a comment on a post of a Facebook friend (who, like the other man, I had never met in real life), a middle-aged PR officer for an industry peak body. I said that I thought the show had actually only shown half the story and that there are many other things to say about what it talked about, things usually ignored by the community because the people who can speak about them are usually not Aboriginal. One of the man’s friends started being stupid and aggressive, completely dismissing my views, and when the man himself eventually commented in a way that made it perfectly clear that he supported his friend’s aggressive stance, I unfriended him.

I had had enough of the kind of narrow-minded sloganeering that often passes for debate on social media. Now, there are certain hot-button issues that lead, on social media, to this kind of blank, black-and-white exchange. Aboriginality and reconciliation are one but another is Israel. People usually leave their brains behind when they venture into discussions surrounding these issues, and they stick to the approved line without actually responding to the arguments that the person they are talking with puts forward. In this kind of environment, unfriending, blocking, and other kinds of deplatforming are often resorted to either because one party finds the tone of the discussion too hard to deal with, or else one party finds that, their arguments – which they think are entirely reasonable – going nowhere, no other solution is available in order to adequately express their frustration.

The thing about social media that marks it for special consideration is not just its popularity – although most people seem to have at least one account in operation – it is the way that using it rewards people for their views. The chemical response the brain registers when someone acknowledges a post or comment in a positive way, in a way that helps to create a feeling of community, actually works against meaningful discussion because even if you just disagree with something someone says they might take your comment as an attack. You have deprived them of a hit of dopamine and so they lash out and personally attack you in reply, causing the discussion to be aborted amid feelings of anger and frustration. So even reasonable remarks that are opposed to what a person has said can easily be construed by them as unreasonable. It is their brain talking without thinking rationally. They are on autopilot and are unaware of what they even feel.

Even if this has never happened to you on social media (which I think unlikely), you can see examples of this dynamic if you take the time to look. On 15 July the Toronto Sun newspaper published a story with the headline, “Polarizing free-speech activist Lindsay Shepherd banned from Twitter.” The story was about Lindsay Shepherd, a student and free-speech advocate, who had got into an argument on the social media site. The story says:
Monday’s banning of the Wilfrid Laurier University grad student came after a heated exchange where Shepherd says Jessica Yaniv — a transgender woman with whom she’d had previous arguments with — began hurling insults towards her and her infant son, and making remarks about Shepherd’s genitalia.
You can see less extreme examples of this kind of argument on social media all the time, and in fact the two conversations described above that happened to me conform to this mould, just in a less extreme form. In conversations on difficult and important subjects hackles get raised by the way opposition is construed by one party or the other, or by both parties, and that’s when things can be said that should not be said.

Here’s another example. On 19 July at 6.20am an account belonging to a US man who calls himself a lawyer and a Trump supporter, with 350 followers, tweeted:
Donald Trump has been a public figure for as long as I can remember, he had a bestselling book, was a frequent guest on virtually every talkshow on the air, and was given a prime-time show on NBC for years. No one called him a racist until he announced his campaign for president.
This was in reply to one from a Republican senator named Lindsay Graham who had complained that Republicans running for office always get labelled racists. In reply to the lawyer, a Baltimore resident who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a TV writer and author and journalist, and who had 231,454 followers when I looked at his profile, tweeted:
Have you ever been to New York City? Really? Did you roll into the Lincoln Tunnel on a turnip cart and roll out again without your turnips? Because New Yorkers have been calling that asshole a racist, grifting shit since the name Trump first showed up on apartment leases.
Racism is a terrible thing and it should be condemned wherever it appears but is sarcasm really the best way to respond to it when it does? Is insult a good way to proceed? Do you really want to hurt someone’s feelings just for saying something you take exception to? Are these the types of conversations we want to be having in 2019?

It is precisely in relation to difficult subjects that, in actual fact, we need to be having the most detailed and comprehensive discussions we can. We are failing ourselves when we resort to sarcasm, to belittling comments, to ad-hominem attacks (attacks on the person you are talking to, rather than on the points they are making). Such rhetorical ploys erode trust in the public sphere generally and encourage the rise of demagogues such as Trump, Duterte, and Bolsonaro. For many people, giving support to this kind of politician is their only way to respond to what may have been decades of insults thrown out by people on the left in their efforts to steer the polity in a direction conducive to achieving the goals they personally identify with. Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment probably won the US election, which in 2016 was very close, for Trump. If you push people far enough, eventually they will push back.

A demagogue is a kind of amplifier of popular discontent. They mobilise grievances in the broader community and weaponise them for use in debates with political opponents who, like the media, often have trouble responding to the kinds of things the demogogue says in a reasonable or effective manner. You can't argue with stupidity. If you do you just risk looking out of touch and at odds with the broader community. This is the demagogue's advantage. The only way to neuter the demoagogue is to play nice and to allow real discussions to flower on social media. Without this kind of meaningful exchange, it will just become easier for people with dishonest motives to take power. What else we allow them to take remains to be seen.

Many people compare the situation we find ourselves in today, when the number of populist demagogues is on the rise and when democracy itself seems to be under threat in so many places, with the situation in Germany in the 1930s. It’s purely a rhetorical device, though. The realities on the ground in Europe after WWI and the realities on the ground in the US after the Twin Towers are radically different. There is no communal humiliation to overcome, for a start, and there is now also no economic crisis (although there were a few sluggish years for the global economy after 2007).

And anyway I don't think Orwell is a good source of wisdom if people today are looking for historical analogues for popularists and demagogues. Orwell lived at a time when information transmission was, by today's standards, sluggish and meagre. The game has changed and the problems we face today are different in nature from those that Orwell's generation faced. There were no trolls in Orwell's day, there were no social-justice warriors. The number of people, in his day, who participated in the public sphere of any country was, compared to today, infinitesimally small. And how information is distributed now compared to then is, furthermore, so different that the information itself is different in nature from what existed in the 1930s or 1940s. We live at a time for which there is no roadmap, there are no reliable guides, there are no established rules for conduct. People are freewheeling down a long incline and I suspect that we haven't yet reached the bottom.

Saturday 20 July 2019

Complaints about social media on social media

This is a very meta post but it’s something that you find every now and then. What you see is that people who make comments like this are aware of the ways that some of their friends and colleagues and acquaintances – or absolute strangers with views that might agree with their own, or else random folk who have differing views – use the sites (Facebook and, especially, Twitter). These are ways that set these places apart from a more usual site of community engagement, such as a pub or a party. There are no consequences online for poor behaviour and people’s identities are not as visible as they are in real life, so people say all sorts of things that they would never say in other, more traditional, contexts.

What the tweets contained in this post show is that there is an awareness in parts of the community of the rabidly partisan posting (on social media there is even a word for it: “shitposting”), especially from people on the left. What the frequency of the comments tells us is that people are generally unwilling to talk about it.

But despite this reticence about criticising fellow-travellers the bad behaviour is being noticed and the people who regret it, it is immediately clear, tend to be better-educated professionals. Such people have good expressive powers when it comes to written English, and they can do such things as use punctuation correctly, and they can spell. So the people whose comments appear below are different in certain ways from many of the people who are the worst abusers of Twitter, especially. In any case I have anonymised the comments.

There is another side to this survey however, and that is the feeling that despite the popularity of social media it remains a fairly superficial place due to the kinds of things that people post. This approach to SM has been around as long as people have been complaining about posts on Facebook showing what people ate for lunch. In fact, it is remarkable for its longevity. Of course, if you think Facebook is bad then you probably haven’t used Twitter much.

This survey started on 25 June and ended on 19 July, so it covers just under a month in time. I could have continued for longer but I decided to set limits and, in any case, I needed a post for today. This post follows one published on 12 July that was about complaints about the media on social media. But without any further ado, here are the complaints …

On 25 June at around 9am, a little-known Australian author, who wrote a book I had reviewed about an endangered species of bird, tweeted, “Good morning Twitter! I hope you’re all excited for another day on this hellsite. Let’s all try to have a positive outlook today:  just remember, it’s CANcelled, not CAN’Tcelled.” A minute later he added, “Ahh, there it goes, my worst tweet yet.” At the time these tweets went up, he had 1562 followers and was following 627 people and had made just over 48,400 tweets from his account. I had reviewed his most recent book in 2018 and at that time he had not responded to my tweet with a link to the review, which was mixed.

On 29 June at 9.27am, a man who used to work for the ABC tweeted, “Shout out to tweeps who treat social media as the ‘tumble dryer of ideas’ and conflate totally unrelated subjects, keep it linear like Le Corbusier.”

On 30 June at 4.42pm a journalist I follow retweeted a tweet from a US-based journalist (who had a Middle Eastern name) that said, “Twitter in a nutshell.” The tweet came with a video attached that showed two fish, each of which had its burrow in the sand on the bottom of the sea. One fish would collect some sand and rocks in its mouth and swim over the its opponent’s burrow, then spit out the rubble so that it dropped on top of the other fish. In the video, which ran for 33 seconds, the two fish exchanged a number of these rubble dumps. The original journalist’s tweet had had 4000 “likes” and 1000 retweets.

On 6 July at 11.26am a New York IT professional I follow retweeted a tweet that had gone up a couple of minutes before from a San Francisco resident who used to work at Amazon. The tweet said, “People on Twitter when they see someone else trying to claim the moral high ground.” It came with a short video that showed a high-definition computer-generated animation sequence. In it, a man carrying a spade runs across a field and approaches what looks like a wooden ramp that leads up in the air. With his spade he strikes the supports of the ramp and it flies up into the air and dissolves in a whirl of smoke and flames.

On 8 July at 3.34am a UK novelist with 26,931 followers tweeted, “Don’t delete your old tweets. They can be recycled and sent to parts of the world where there is a desperate shortage of ill-informed opinions.” The tweet was retweeted by a Sydney man with 1328 followers the next day at around 5.35pm.

On 10 July at 7.40pm an account run by a man named Tim with 9581 followers tweeted, “’Media freedom’ now means silencing voices that UK [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] does not agree with? Those of us still able to exercise freedom of thought and expression ought to use this and speak out. Truth comes from allowing, not suppressing, a plurality of views.” The tweet came with a story on his own website titled, “Should Universities Care About The Truth?” The next day at 10.13pm I saw the tweet and replied, “A plurality of views is exactly what most progressives on Twitter hate. For them, there is one correct view for every issue. Expressing a different view will just attract scorn and hatred.” The person (a Melbourne account with 79 followers) who had retweeted Tim’s tweet replied to me, “They are faux-gressives. The real progressives are opposed to censorship and tech dictatorship.”

On 11 July at 10.38pm a history academic with 29,373 followers, tweeted, “as a woman on this hell-site I am concerned that apparently we're not *currently* playing in dark mode.” The tweet came with an image that showed a screenshot of Twitter’s online ad for its new interface.

On 13 July at 1pm an account with 416 followers tweeted a cartoon with the comment, “Me on Twitter.” The cartoon showed two people, one of who says in the first frame, “Let’s not talk about politics anymore, I can’t bear it.” Her companion says, “Same.” The next frame shows them sitting in silence. In the third frame, the first person says, “The thing is though ..” and the second person says, “Those fucking idiots ..”

On the same day at 8.15pm a tweet came from an account with 19,277 followers that is owned by a Scot who is the chief marketing officer with a company that provides products for subsea wireless automation. The tweet had a meme in the form of an image with four frames showing the same man in four different scenes, as though he were a movie actor. In one photo he is shown eating snacks in his living room. This photo is labelled “In real life.” The second photo shows the man with no shirt on looking masuline. This photo is labelled “Instagram.” In the third photo the man is shown with a Hawaiian shirt on and red marks on his face as though he had been in a fight. This photo is labelled “Twitter.” The fourth photo shows the man in a uniform looking decisive. This photo is labelled “LinkedIn.” 

The morning of the next day I saw a link to a news story that had come in a tweet with a photo of the same man, so I was able to know that this is the actor David Harbour who acts in the Netflix program ‘Stranger Things’. The Hawaiian shirt reference in the “Twitter” frame is to what Millennials think is Boomer men’s preferred form of clothing. Personally, I only wore Hawaiian shirts when I lived in southeast Queensland, where the climate is very warm. The use of the Hawaiian shirt in this frame is both ironic and deprecating, and au fond constitutes a kind of oblique compliment to the older generation.

There were a lot of amusing contributions to this survey, including a tweet on 14 July at 10.53am from an account with 58,903 followers that tweeted an image containing text. The text read:
At first she thought something happened at Trump International Hotel and tower, she said.
Police officers waved people out of the Columbus Circle subway station around 7:30 p.m. The Shops at Columbus Circle was evacuated shortly after.
Police officers and civilians worked together to direct traffic while fire trucks and ambulances screamed down side streets. Two young women posed for a selfie in the middle of 46th Street before an officer rushed over and chastised them, saying, “Ladies, this is not the time.”
The tweeter added, in a comment, “American civilization circa 2019, the social edition.”

To finish off on a positive note, on 15 July an account I follow with 4599 followers tweeted, “The hellsite blessed me with one of the most sage, kindhearted and insightful friends IRL. Scientists need to clone [Twitter handle erased] ASAP and what better day to start the process than on his birthday today. Hope you have the very best day mate!”

Friday 19 July 2019

Book review: Acute Misfortune, Erik Jensen (2014)

It’s hard to know how to label this work of nonfiction but for the sake of brevity and of accuracy I’d say it’s a kind of biography. The subject is the Sydney painter Adam Cullen who died in 2012 aged 46 as a result of substance abuse.

As a piece of journalism Jensen’s narrative is well-crafted and you don’t get overloaded with unnecessary detail. On the other hand some parts are not as clear as they should be, for example the part of the book that deals with Cullen’s half-brother’s girlfriend Katie. I couldn’t work out why so much time was being spent on her. Had she tried to come on to Cullen? Was there a small indiscretion?

Apart from this, the story is engrossing and useful rather than revelatory. If Jensen is trying to emulate Helen Garner in this work there are some things missing. Jensen completely avoids talking about his own reactions to Cullen, even when Cullen started getting frisky, with the exception of some faint remarks on the question of whether the artist was a homosexual (it’s not clear from the book or from what I could find online if Jensen is gay). Cullen’s expressions of affection for Jensen make Jensen think that Cullen had been in love with him, but as for any information about Jensen that might help the reader to make sense of any of this: there is nothing. Zip. Zilch.

Jensen also strangely misspells the name of the Sydney suburb where Cullen’s father Kevin Cullen first came to live when he (Kevin) moved from rural NSW to the big smoke. In the book it’s spelled “Bellfield” whereas in reality it should be “Belfield”. (There is a “Bellfield” in Melbourne.) Belfield is Bulldogs country, as Cullen, who grew up in Collaroy on the northern beaches, would have known. But Jensen doesn’t seem to know the area and if you try to find out any information about Jensen online you will be disappointed. He worked as a critic for the Sydney Morning Herald from the time he was a teenager and then was employed by the paper, but I couldn’t find any information about where he was born and grew up, where he went to school, and what his parents did for a crust.

Sydney is a self-conscious town so this kind of information in this kind of book, where the relationship between the subject and the author is so close, is material. But it’s completely missing. It should hardly need to be mentioned that including the author in the narrative when writing journalism is so common it’s not even remarkable anymore. In fact, one of Cullen’s heroes, Hunter Thompson, made his reputation out of exactly this kind of writing. To leave out who you are and where you are coming from in a book like Jensen’s smacks of the kind of elitist remoteness that Cullen found so abhorrent during his life. He wanted to have contact with people, he craved it, and he suffered when it was not provided.

Cullen encouraged him to write, and Jensen is very willing to open the record books wide to display Cullen’s character and motivations – he even says outright that Cullen is not just a fabulist but a flat-out liar, and this happens more than once – but when it comes to giving the reader the information he or she needs to make sense of the story, he clams up. It seems from the information available that Jensen now lives and works in Melbourne. He has an editorial role with the left-leaning The Saturday Paper, which is backed by progressive property developer and publishing company owner Morrie Schwartz. It’s hard to know from the evidence available what kind of person Jensen is, and whether he has the depth of character and the intellectual honesty you need to do justice to a person as complex as Cullen in a book of this nature. Is Jensen a typical inner-city latte-sipping luvvie or does he have some meat on his bones? From reading the book and from what is available online it’s hard to decide either way, although I have my suspicions.

Having said these things, his book is not completely baffling, although it read a bit drily at times. I learned a lot about a man who came to prominence in the nation’s art world and for this I am grateful. Adam Cullen had something of the mongrel about him and he reminded me in some ways of Nick Kyrgios. He experienced strong impulses that he had trouble controlling, and this is not uncommon for Australian men generally. (I wonder idly what Tim Winton would think of this book.) There was something unhinged about Cullen, but in the end he came to be seen, as is the way of the Sydney cultural establishment when it comes across a difficult and creative rebel, as emblematic of the city he grew up in. Cullen craved recognition but at the same time pushed people away.

So this is a very Sydney book. The city is nothing if not needy of recognition as well as more often than not elusive when you ask it for solace. There is, furthermore, not a word in the book about football of any kind, which would have been unthinkable if Cullen had been brought up in Melbourne where Australian rules clubs are like churches. Cullen responded strongly to art from an early age. He had a good relationship with his father, whom he loved. He had a complex relationship with his mother. He struggled at school. He rebelled against the art establishment when he turned away from conceptual art and started making paintings that were largely figurative; Cullen’s embrace of this kind of painting was part of a return to figurative painting in Australia generally and it is now, for example, easy to find contemporary Romantic landscapes in commercial galleries.

Cullen was a better painter than Whiteley but both artists put their stamp on the culture that formed and nurtured them. As for Jensen’s book, I think that it does the job it set out to do but, in the end, I felt a bit let down by the author’s reticence. The extraordinarily talented Cullen warranted a more passionate and engaged approach from his first biographer. We’ll have to see what others produce down the track; it is extremely unlikely that this will be the last book on Cullen’s life and art.

Thursday 18 July 2019

Book review: Belief, Les Wicks (2018)

If I was still in the game and trying to publish poetry, as I was a decade ago, I would use the label “dun school” for the kind of irony-driven, flat-toned poetry that Wicks produces in this collection, which is very small physically but which is ambitious poetically.

The basic unit of meaning-creation in this book is the line, but there are also competent – even expressive and brilliant – narratives such as what are found in ‘Hopeland LA’ (about Los Angeles), ‘Go Fish’ (about an unsuccessful suicide), ‘Birthed’ (about childbirth), and ‘A Nike Size 5 White Jogger Beside the Pacific Highway’ (about a discarded sneaker lying by the side of the road). In these poems pathos is the dominant theme and the forward movement of the story in each case is strong and confident.

But what I thought about after buying the book in Glebe as I was walking back from the cafĂ© where I had eaten lunch (which was a haloumi sandwich made with pesto that came with chips on the side, and an iced tea), having read a few of the items in it, was a cactus. A type of plant that survives on little water but that can give out beautiful flowers. A cactus is not lush as Wicks’ language is not lush. Often it is aphoristic and it is always precise. The line “decay eats the awful eternity of its rhythm” was especially memorable.

I think that the kind of effect that Wicks achieves in this collection has value. Certainly, this is better poetry than a lot of what is (optimistically) published in Australia. Did it move me? I felt as though I had come across someone who has spent a lot of time trying to achieve minimal effects with a careful, caustic brand of language. I also thought of Tennyson and Rexroth.

The causal reader can find good things in this book but most people don’t bother with poetry. Possibly Wicks might do better to try to use the narrative form more and rely on the cogent line less. Stories remain popular and bookshops are doing quite well despite the ravages of Amazon.

The things that stood out for me apart from the four poems named above are the ones about military personnel. In these poems, Wicks shows himself able to reach out beyond the narrow concerns of the Australian inner-city elites and find poetry in uncommon places. In those verses, he reaches a point that is a kind of justification for the whole collection.

With many of the poems in the book there is a payoff that is foreshadowed, and if you can reliably deliver this kind of experience then you deserve to be read. On the other hand I didn’t really understand the book’s title, nor the section labels.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Book review: White, Bret Easton Ellis (2019)

This tour de force is not without its flaws but it is timely. Trust a novelist to deliver the axe blow that serves to destroy the credibility of a whole generation of progressives. I almost wrote “a stunning tour de force” but remembered that I found the parts about what Ellis calls “Empire” a bit hard to follow.

This part of the book could have done with a bit more editing and there are other oddities (“Gen Xer” is capitalised but “boomer” is not, and “Tweet” is even, strangely, capitalised at one point; I couldn’t work out how the publisher’s style guide worked). The bits about “Empire” (or, the 20th century from the 1950s until the Twin Towers were struck by the jets) are confusing and while the narrative might make perfect sense for Ellis I couldn’t work out if Charlie Sheen was “Empire” or “post-Empire”.

With the exception of this section, the book is clear and stylish. The prose flows effortlessly and you take in Ellis’ interpolations along with his recounts of events, often involving what was said by different people on Twitter. The book contains a lot of this kind of well-crafted narrative and also a good deal of it relies on pure recall. The author’s recall of his childhood watching movies in Los Angeles is very detailed and made me wish I had a memory like his. And while his childhood adventures are not central to the book’s message they make sense in the context of the larger story, which ends, delightfully, with a gripping meditation on Kanye West.

What is more important is what Ellis has to say about the Left (he capitalises the word) and how it has become overly-censorious, immune to such things as irony (having exchanged it for sarcasm, a much lower-value commodity in letters or in any artform), subservient to a form of kitsch in such media as the cinema, and devoid of any sense of humour.

I’ve written about all these things in a series of posts on this blog since the middle of 2017 that focused on the media and on social media and how news stories are used by people to create community. I’ve also written about art and how it is used, and about the rise of the populist right in Australia. This happened in this country earlier than it did in the US; in Australia however because of the way the Senate is elected, minor parties are given more chance to win seats in the legislature than they are in the US. Many of Ellis’ observations are evident in what I have written, and it was such a darn relief to find my own best ideas reflected back to me in such a lucid and well-thought-out book.

Going by the way my own observations have been dealt with by people online, this book is going to upset people. But if you are an artist and you care about upsetting people then you are probably in the wrong profession. The bland pabulum that Hollywood produces in such profusion to satisfy the demands of Millennials is richly at odds with the strange and often difficult products that people like Ellis and I grew up watching and reading (he’s two years younger than me). With a lot of popular culture that comes out of Hollywood these days (I saw ‘Aquaman’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame’ this year) it’s as though the producers are saying, “Folks, here’s another superhero movie that pushes all the right identity-politics buttons. Now give us your money.”

If his book upsets people I suspect that Ellis will not be overly concerned. Art demands complexity and difficulty if it is going to adequately reflect reality. Captioned, glossed, and banal work that, for meaning-creation, relies on commentary that goes up on a label next to the painting, is going to fail to deliver the impact that art needs to succeed now, or in any generation. Bad art might please the social-justice warriors on Twitter, but it won’t stand the test of time.

So far I have seen one review and it was negative. It was written by a young woman. And Ellis is aware of the accusations that will be thrown at him because he is white and rich and male and therefore (by definition) out of touch, which is why he titled his book how he did. It’s all part of the author’s self-conscious package. If you fail to see the point of Ellis’ book, then I have nothing further to say that might give it the kind of meaning you need; it is all contained herein. And it is marvellous.

Sunday 14 July 2019

Conversations with taxi drivers: Five

This is the fifth in a series of posts chronicling conversations I have had with taxi drivers. The first of these posts appeared on 6 June 2018. 

23 June

Caught a cab from home to Newtown and the driver was very chatty. We talked about the elections and he told me that the media (I had told him I was a journalist) had done a bad job because Labor was supposed to win the election in May. I said that all the opinion poll companies had predicted a Labor win and that most people lie to research companies when they are surveyed. He was very open and confident and we had a long chat about the election and why Labor had lost.

23 June

On the way back home from Newtown I caught a cab going the wrong way (south) because there were no cabs going north. The driver was Bangladeshi and I told him that I had been to the Middle East recently. He told me his brother works in Dubai. I said that many people from the subcontinent work in the Middle East and he said that 20 million Bangladeshis work there. He was very polite and said he had come from Campbelltown to work. He said the taxi industry is under a lot of pressure from Uber. I said I never use that service. I told him about the problems with getting taxi drivers in the Middle East to put on the meter at the beginning of trips and he said that in his country you have to settle a price before you start the journey. I didn’t tell him that it would be very difficult for a tourist to do that because they wouldn’t know how far they had to travel and how much it would cost. He dropped me off at my place and I paid using EFTPOS.

2 July

Caught a cab from Wolli Creek to home. The driver was Indian and might have been a Sikh, I didn’t ask. We talked about real estate for a while then I brought up hybrid Camrys. Most taxis in Sydney are this type of car. I asked him if he knew of any hybrid Camrys that were plug-in models but he said something like, “No, they’re hybrids.” He seemed not to know that some hybrids are also plug-ins. I thought this conversation said a lot about the level of knowledge in the general community. If a cab driver doesn’t know something about cars then most people won’t know either …

7 July

Caught a cab from Newtown to home. I told the taxi driver about the cab drivers my friend and I had met during our trip to the Middle East, many of whom were dishonest. He told me he was Greek and we talked about Istanbul (which, of course, he reminded me had once belonged to Greece). I recounted some of what I learned about Istiklal Street and he said he had been to Istanbul several times. He said also that used to be in the military police. He had, he said, travelled undercover (that is the word he used) to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Turkey.

I didn’t know what to make of all this. He said the Australian government had brought him to this country. He said that the CIA had a plan to break up Turkey into “four pieces”, and he listed several areas. He said one part was to go to the Kurds and then he said “Syria, Iran,” but I didn’t know what he was referring to by this point. He was getting stranger and stranger with his stories. At one point he told me that the Turks try to take land from Greece 40 times every day, but that the Greek military always forces them back.

When we got close to my destination he said he had a friend who lives in my street, “A multi-millionaire,” he assured me, before asking how much I had paid for my apartment. I told him as I had concluded by this time that he was a fabulist but a harmless one. I paid using EFTPOS and he had warned me earlier, when we were driving through Redfern, that he wouldn’t be able to give me a receipt. I had assured him that it would be fine regardless, and had said I trusted him to do the right thing. I said, “Good to talk with you,” when I got out of the car and he returned the compliment. You meet all types …

10 July

Caught a cab at the NSW Art Gallery to home and the driver was Bangladeshi. He started the conversation by saying that Sydney is expensive and I mentioned that a unit I own in Campsie had not had its rent put up in over two years. He said he lived in a house in Wiley Park, which is a few stations from Campsie. When we were almost at my building I said that Pyrmont is a lot more expensive than Campsie and he said, “Yes, I know.” I told him that I wouldn’t be able to afford the unit I live in if I were to look at buying now and he asked me how much I had paid for it in 2010. I told him and he said that he thought it would be more expensive to buy now. He then said the exact figure that I had received from a real estate agent the last time I had had the place valued. Even taxi drivers in Sydney are property mad …

Saturday 13 July 2019

Responses on social media to Ken Wyatt’s reconciliation effort

On 12 July The Age reported that Scott Morrison had "shut down the idea of enshrining an Indigenous voice to parliament in the constitution in any upcoming referendum", according to Crikey.  A little time before this news appeared in the public sphere people had been talking about Morrison’s decision to allow Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians, to look at the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the related matter of how to implement recommendations of the Referendum Council, which had brought a report to the government – which at the time was under Turnbull as PM – in late 2017.

Turnbull had famously rejected the council’s idea of setting up a Voice to Parliament, which the council said would have acted as an advisory body, on the grounds that it would have constituted a “third chamber” in Parliament. In the period of time that followed that series of events no-one on the left had proven Turnbull wrong even though the Referendum Council’s web page said that the VtP was never intended to have a legislative role.

The period of time used for this survey was one day (12 July) and a lot of the comments came with the #auspol hashtag. Late in the morning the MyGov website crash became more visible as a topic of conversation on the hashtag stream, but this kind of switching tracks is common. At any one time there will be a dominant subject that most people are focused on. For the present survey this was only early in the morning on the back of the Age announcement that Crikey had telegraphed. At around lunchtime a second wave of media stories started to appear, sparking more commentary.

The overwhelming majority of the 40 individual tweets included in this survey were critical of the government for what was perceived to be a failure of policy in not deciding to enshrine a VtP in the Constitution. This was not surprising since Twitter in general and (particularly) the #auspol hashtag skew progressive. Some people offered helpful suggestions to the government about how to go about changing the Constitution to recognise Aborigines as the first occupants of the continent.

In the end the needed information was delivered to me but it only came at the final call. If someone had provided this information in 2017, I thought, a lot of anxiety and confusion might have been avoided by many people.

What this entire exercise showed me is that people tend to be irrationally cemented to their party position but if you decide to step outside of that kind of mindset you can reach a position that different parties can agree on. If people who know the answers are not approachable and instead dig in, relying on scorn to achieve their goals, nothing gets settled. People need to calm down and talk like rational human beings if you want to create a forum where meaningful dialogue can occur. It’s only in this kind of environment that any progress can get made.

I haven’t categorised the comments any further than putting them in the order in which I saw them. At some times during the day I wasn’t at my desk so I will have missed some comments; this survey is therefore not exhaustive. I think however that it is indicative of a general mood in the community surrounding this issue and surrounding the government’s performance more generally. Having said that here are the tweets …

On 12 July at 7.07am, a Queensland account with 445 followers tweeted, “Is Ken Wyatt really the man he now portrays? As he stood with the Abbott ‘Ditch the Witch’ mob, I question his ethics and underlying agenda.” At 8.30am on the same day, a Melbourne account with 259 followers responded with this: “He chose to join the Liberal Party. The same party that instigated The Intervention and that wound back Mabo gains, that is removing support from remote communities etc. He knew their history before he joined. It was a telling choice.”

At 9.55am a Lilyfield, Sydney, account with 443 followers tweeted, “Time for action rather than prayers. Essential poll: majority of Australians want Indigenous recognition and voice to parliament.” The words came with a link to a Guardian article with news of the poll mentioned in the man’s tweet.

On the same day at 9.58am a New Zealand-based Australian scientist with 37,902 followers tweeted, “Sorry just catching up here - are we back to ‘Recognition’ in the Constitution instead of implementing Makarrata?” The second reference was to a part of the Referendum Council’s request for truth-telling bodies to be set up at the state level in order to ensure that the community understood the nature of the wrongs done to Aborigines during the period white people had been dominant on the continent.

At 10.05am on the same day an Australian account with 1943 followers tweeted, “Ok here's a new definition of Privilege for Modern Australia. 1. Free speech to Vilify and descriminate [sic] for organised religion. Coupled with 2. Denial of Constitutionally based role in determining First Nations own future (because Whitefellas have done such a bang-up job).”

At 10.14am an Australian account with 4271 followers tweeted a link to a story in the Saturday Paper along with the comment, “PM to ’veto’ Indigenous voice to parliament despite popular support,” which I took to be the news outlet’s story headline.

At 10.17am the Australian newspaper tweeted a link to a story on its website with the following text: “If you ask Malcolm Turnbull, he’ll tell you a referendum on indigenous recognition was his idea and Scott Morrison is merely copying him ... or so STREWTH hears.”

At 8.47am a fake Andrew Bolt account had tweeted, “SAY IT OUT LOUD, PRIME MINISTER. NO RACE-BASED PARLIAMENT.” This was retweeted 11 times and I saw it at about 10.19am.

The previous day at 7.36pm a Melbourne account with 2042 followers had tweeted, “The proposed referendum on Indigenous recognition by this government is a red herring to distract the populace while they continue to erode public services, transfer wealth to the 1% and expand the military industrial complex.” The next day at 10.23am he retweeted his earlier tweet and added the following comment, “And so it is... they want to knock the Uluru Statement on it’s [sic] head and conjure up a ‘debate’ for three years.”

At 10.30am the Radio National account tweeted a link to a story on the ABC’s website with the following text: “The #MorrisonGovernment appears to be shunning any move to enshrine an Indigenous voice to Parliament in the #Constitution.”

At 10.31am an Armidale account with 694 followers retweeted the Guardian story as a link and added the following comment: “When was the last time a Poll got anything right in Australia? Asking for a friend who lost a $1m on the election. Are you really going to tell a pollster you are a racist?”

At 9.48am as part of an ongoing conversation about the referendum Council’s report and the Morrison announcement, a person from western Sydney with 5389 followers tweeted, “And [it was] the Howard-Abbott position. A referendum circus for symbolic recognition. Not sure they have reckoned with Voice Treaty Truth tho. It is superbly well crafted and the people power behind it is undeniable. I think the Liberals are gonna get schooled in Black democracy.”

In response a person who routinely criticises the media (and who I used to work with) tweeted, “Pee-ramble II: nobody likes it, don't bother.” The reference was to the suggestions dating from earlier in the century about changing the Constitution’s preamble to acknowledge Aborigines as the country’s first occupants. Then a few minutes later in response to that, a person from Canberra with 4679 followers tweeted, “yes, symbolic recognition is Howard Preamble Mark 2 .. #Voice referendum should be a one-liner, a non-specific head of power in s 51 under which Parliament can legislate, eg #ATSIC .. any more detail in the Constitution will not happen, but a head of power is .. powerful.”

At 10.36am in response to a story from the ABC’s ‘insiders’ program that had gone up at 8.15am, a person who lives in Australia and who had 31 followers tweeted, “Must be such a relief for all the bigots in the Morrison govt. to finally feel empowered enough to openly voice their racism. No one is buying the whole ‘3rd chamber’ [bullshit] excuse.”

At 11.33am the account for the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ TV program tweeted a video showing Annabel Crabb talking (but I can’t listen to audio on my desktop) along with the text: “#Insiders host @annabelcrabb on the last attempts to change the Constitution.”

At 11.42am the Australian Defence Association tweeted, “National unity is a pillar of our national security & sovereignty. Prof Anne Twomey, Aust's top constitutional law academic, notes key facts & concepts for a ‘debate’ largely lacking it on both sides. Repeating the divisive & corrupt ATSIC experiment can be avoided.” This tweet came with a retweet of one from the ABC’s ‘The Drum’ program of the day before that said, “'It clearly couldn’t be a third house of parliament.’ Are you confused about what an Indigenous voice to parliament would look like? Let constitutional lawyer professor Anne Twomey, who wrote the constitutional draft, explain.” That tweet came with a video taken during the screening of the night’s program.

At 11.52am a Sydney account with 3547 followers tweeted, “RT: It's so important that people have clear, factual information about an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and counter the #IPA misinformation that Morrison, Joyce & others are happy to promote #FactsnotLies.” This tweet came with a retweet of the ABC ‘The Drum’ tweet already mentioned.

At 11.53am a Canberra account with 64 followers tweeted, “Day 2 of #IndigenousRecognition referendum (?): dancing on head of pin re definitions; PM & Ministers don't agree; Indigenous (organisations) pitted against each other. All aided & abetted by News Corp. Pay close attention to the detail & background jigsaw being assembled.”

On the day before, 11 July, an anti-gambling campaigner who lives in Melbourne had tweeted, “There is no bigger enemy of Indigenous Australians than Andrew Bolt who today says an indigenous voice to Parliament will ‘wreck the nation’. The Murdoch family is disgraced by their support of this nasty bloke.” Then on the day of the survey at 11.58am a woman with 8307 followers retweeted this tweet with her own comment which said, “And I repeat what Kerry O'Brien told journalists and all Australians during his recent Logies speech: ‘And if you're told that, don't you believe it.’”

At 12.07pm a Canberra account with 56 followers responded to a tweet by the columnist Peter FitzSimons that included a tweet from the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ TV program that had gone up the day before at 8.35am and that had said, “Liberal MP @CraigKellyMP has warned he and other Coalition members could ‘actively campaign for the no side’ if @KenWyattMP pursues a proposal for constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, writes @murpharoo.” The tweet contained a link to a story on the website of the Guardian titled, “Craig Kelly says he could 'campaign for the no side' on Indigenous recognition.” FitzSimons’ tweet said, “And this is where @ScottMorrisonMP needs to step up and put his whole weight behind @KenWyattMP. LEAD, PM!” And the new tweet from the Canberra resident said, “In Australia’s constitutional preamble replace ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’ (kowtowing, irrelevant) with ‘acknowledging Australia’s indigenous peoples as first Australians’ (or similar words).”

At 12.12pm a former ABC staffer I follow tweeted a link to a story on the ABC’s website with the comment, “Indigenous constitutional recognition a difficult goal for Scott Morrison and Ken Wyatt...” that had the same text as the headline.

At 12.23pm a Queensland account with 13.902 followers tweeted, “Also, we have a third chamber. It's called the Federation Chamber. There's no reason why the person(s) tasked with being the Indigenous voice couldn't make speeches there. No legislative matters occur there. Dutton doesn't want people to have that, though.”

At 12.30pm an account with 559 followers tweeted, “So @ScottMorrisonMP not showing any love for our ATSI brothers & sisters, but weakly caving to the IPA-bred, hard right neocons. S’pose he’ll offer a prayer instead...”

At 12.32pm an account with 217 followers tweeted, “Where's the supposed new found respect & authority of PM Morrison? No leadership to quieten his reactionary rabble of hard right racist naysayers to progress. No clear statement of support for Recognition. Minister Wyatt is left to ever patiently ask. So painful. Blighted.”

At 12.32pm Gabrielle Jackson, who works for the Guardian, tweeted, “What a waste of time. Peter Dutton rules out voice to parliament, labelling it a 'third chamber', by @AmyRemeikis.” This tweet came with a link to a story on the outlet’s website.

At 12.33pm the Financial Review tweeted a link to a story on its website with the comment, “The country's first indigenous minister, Ken Wyatt, tells Lunch with the AFR he joined the Liberal party to change it.”

At 12.38pm in response to the Guardian story mentioned above, Samuel Clark, the executive producer of the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ and elections coverage programs, tweeted, “Meanwhile, Craig Kelly has just told @tomwconnell that it's not a third chamber but it could be ‘seen to be a third chamber if it's entrenched in the constitution’.” Tom Connell is a Sky News reporter. In response to Clark’s tweet a woman with 5669 followers tweeted, “Star chamber still scaremongering on this chamber.”

At 12.57pm a Guardian contributor with 3618 followers tweeted, along with the link to a Guardian story titled “Peter Dutton rules out voice to parliament, labelling it a 'third chamber'” (that had gone up at midday), a comment that said, “Sadly predictable: `Sources close to PM' (read advisors under instruction) & Dutton torpedo #Indigenous Voice before genuine political discussion. L/NP l/ship - Abbott to Turnbull & Morrison - never serious & always lied about it as '3rd chamber'.”

At 6.51pm an Australian Catholic University academic retweeted a tweet that had gone up the day before, from a man with 1572 followers, who wrote, “’The Voice to Parliament is a common feature in many liberal democracies around the world. It is a simple proposition: that Indigenous peoples should have a say in the laws and policies that affect their lives and communities.’ - Professor Megan Davis.” The tweet came with a link to an ABC story titled “The Voice to Parliament: Our plea to be heard” by a constitutional lawyer and Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous at the University of New South Wales named Megan Davis. Davis had blocked me the year before for asking questions about the VtP.

At 8.25pm a law academic from Melbourne tweeted, “Education needed on purpose of voice to parliament: @DaniLarkin2.” The tweet contained a link to an ABC radio website featuring a recording titled, “There's misconceptions around the function of a voice to parliament: Dani Larkin.” I thought this was mildly optimistic since no-one knows how the VtP will actually work, and I said something along those lines. No reply. As an aside, I can’t listen to audio on my desktop PC so I was unable to hear what Larkin had said on-air.

Later, the academic responded, saying, “How it works can be worked out, there are many different types of advisory bodies already part of the public law system, [Australian Law Reform Commission], Productivity Commission, etc.” And then Dani Larkin replied to me, saying, “We have more than enough bodies to look to (for our structuring of the Voice) to be guided by (both within and outside of Australia). This is a strength and a reform mentality for us all to be guided by.” So why didn’t anyone say this in 2017 and save us all the anxiety? When I read these comments I didn’t understand why people had been so unforthcoming over the past two years. All the confusion seemed so unnecessary.

Friday 12 July 2019

Complaints about the media on social media

This kind of tweet is so common it’s almost a meme. It usually comes from people on the left side of the political spectrum who want to object to something the government (which federally is on the right) has done. As they are doing so, they also attack the media which, many believe, has been coopted by the right side of politics. This sort of attack often ropes in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), despite other parts of the community (notably people on the right) who think that the ABC has long been coopted by the left. If that all sounds confusing, wait until you read the actual tweets.

This sample is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, and covers a period of only four days, from 8 July until 11 July (although I was looking for this kind of tweet on only 9, 10 and 11 July; the ones from 8 July were retweets that came into my feed on later days). I could have continued with the exercise indefinitely but I decided, for practical purposes, to set limits. I also decided to anonymise most of the comments but where the tweeter was a public figure or public body I have sometimes given an attribution that identifies them. Most of the comments were published on Twitter.

A lot came with the #auspol hashtag, which is not unsurprising considering their low quality and general lack of factual support. This hashtag is a rich hunting ground for journalists looking for views that come from out of left field but, on the other hand, there are sometimes enough people there with similar views that they can form collective movements in support of single ideas. This is certainly true (you will see if you read on) of people who set out to attack the media.

What follows only catalogues the complaints about the media seen by me, but during the same time period some tweets I saw were in support of the media. Some of these were about how the federal government has been cutting funding to the ABC. One I saw on 10 July in the #auspol hashtag stream was about the ABC’s investigative TV program ‘4 Corners’ and how good it was, this person thought, for the country. There were one or two about a conference on media freedom that a Liberal federal senator for NSW, Marise Payne, was attending in London at the time. And there were some tweets about the various laws that the federal government has brought in over recent years that have functioned to curtail the freedom of journalists.

So, not all comments were critical of the media: some were in fact supportive. This kind of complexity is typical of social media. About most issues there is usually a wide range of different views, not just one, single, monolithic opinion. One thing above all other stood out, however: most people who use social media read a lot of news stories. The relative visibility of journalists and the important role they play in a pluralistic democracy like Australia’s makes them a reference point when conversations get difficult as well as a target for complaints aimed at the powerful generally.

Often it seems that the people who are most reliant on the media are the ones most likely to criticise it. They find themselves in a position of dependence and they react against this situation by attacking the very people who give them the information they crave to sustain their identities. It’s sort of like a junkie blaming the dealer for his addiction except that media products, unlike illicit drugs, are completely legal. The comments included here are in four categories:
  • General complaints
  • Complaints about the ABC
  • Complaints about the Murdoch press
  • Complaints about specific stories or issues
General complaints

On 9 July at 10.48am, an account with 15,406 followers that often attacks the media tweeted, “Can anyone believe how quickly [Australian politics are] unravelling after the election? We’re now openly discussing the clear breakdown of our democracy - we’ve no Opposition - & media is focused on itself as the predictable actions of this Govt closes in on them.” At 11.19am the same day another left-wing account, which had 8282 followers at the time I took the snapshot, retweeted the earlier tweet with the following comment, “Aust's 4th Estate abdicated years ago, choosing to die as a prominent propaganda arm of a rising nationalistic authoritarian regime. The regime now turns its eye to that dead 4th Estate, & all so predictably, the ghost cries ‘help’ when there is no one left to help.” It’s possible that the reference to a ghost pointed to Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (finished circa 1602) but, in this context, what the “ghost” the tweeter wanted to refer to – presumably someone or something in the Australian public sphere – was unclear to me. Was the “ghost” the remains of the mainstream media, given cost-cutting in response to reduced revenues resulting from the emergence of the internet, or something else?

On 10 July at 10.07am a person with 177 followers who joined twitter in 2011 posted a tweet that said, “Highly relevant to the media situation here in Australia and how we're all being sold a pup by our #MSM.” The tweet contained a link to a story on Medium about two Russian news agencies being banned from the media conference already mentioned in the introduction above. The article was titled, “Government That Tortures Journalists Bans RT From Media Conference.” It wasn’t clear from this however what kind of “pup” the people of Australia are being “sold” by the mainstream media (whatever that is). The link wasn’t clear but this is often the case with Twitter. People who post there make connections between disparate things that seem obvious to them but, for other people, need more explaining.

This one’s a bit complex, so bear with me. On 8 July at 9am The Age published a tweet saying, “Federal police demanded Qantas hand over the private travel arrangements of a senior ABC journalist, a request revealing the sweeping nature of their investigation into how the national broadcaster published top-secret government material | EXCLUSIVE.” Then Sally Neighbour, a journalist who works on ‘4 Corners’ tweeted about two hours later, “This is outrageous. We should all be up in arms.” A Brisbane account with 4909 followers tweeted on 8 July at 4pm, “Only IF the whole nation is made its collective media. Politicisation of govt agencies & parlous state of federal governance happened, because it could. It’s the direct result of fourth estate’s failure to call out incremental decay, with has escalated, unchallenged.” Then on 10 July at 3.10am another account tweeted, “#msmfail are shit. Really really really shit.” And another Australian account, with 748 followers, tweeted on the same day at 9.26am, “Because 4th estate now mostly the propaganda arm of the Murdoch/IPA axis of evil.” Then (I told you this would take some time), on the same day at 10.26am another account tweeted, “Yep, & that includes #TheirABC.” All these tweets were connected by retweets and comments added on for effect.

On 11 July at 9.04pm a Melbourne account with 162 followers tweeted this into my feed: “Don't blame @AustralianLabor for the shit we're in. Labor had good policies but the #sheeple listen to the BIASED media and didn't know what they were voting for. We need to #BiasShame media in 2 reportg facts.” The woman who provided me with this piece of wisdom lives on the Central Coast in NSW and has 4331 followers.

Complaints about the ABC

On 9 July at 10.24am an Australian tweeter with 13,897 followers put up the following comment, “Oh come on, media. Please tell me you're not going to let Morrison and Dutton get away with this.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the ABC’s website that had the headline, “Australian Federal Police accessed journalists' metadata, stoking new media freedom concerns.” Considering that the media had actually written a story about the incident, it was hard, for me, to see what the objection was in this case. Perhaps there might have been grounds to complain if the ABC had not written and published a story about the incident. But, then, how would we know it had happened?

On 9 July at 6.52pm a North Queensland account with 818 followers tweeted, “Dear ABC. If your long game was for progressives to gradually tune out, you win. I refused to let you beat me, but after 6 years of LNP and another 3 to come, the country is in a massive mess and the economy in dire straits. But hey, ‘Labor, Labor Labor.’ I'm done. FU.”

On 9 July at 7.15pm an account based in Australia tweeted on the #auspol hashtag, “Stan Grant talking about 'taking taxpayer dollars ...'  what .. like #THEIRABC and then IGNORE the Charter ....   #thedrum  #AUSPOL  Ohhhh no don't mention those $Billions that we are forced to cough up to pay them.” The comment referred to the ‘Drum’ program that was on at the time the tweet was sent.

Complaints about the Murdoch press

On 8 July at 4.11pm, the Sleeping Giants account tweeted, “Just to demonstrate how Murdoch has already launched the "Kill Albo" campaign Sky News & Paul Murray actually ran with this fairy tale blaming Labor for a $2b cost to the budget. All semblance of truth is dead - its all hands print, online & TV to hold Labor underwater.” The tweet came with an embedded video showing a Sky News presenter talking. A Brisbane account with 11,226 followers the next day retweeted the tweet with a comment, “Has Paul put on a bit of weight?  I'm sure he was only a little bit huge last month. Might be wrong.” This comment was aimed at the Sky News presenter and was rather unkind, I thought, but that’s the sort of thing that happens on Twitter all the time.

On 9 July at 2.50pm an account with nine followers and lots of numbers in its handle tweeted, “Think they tried to in Tasmania, the gambling lobby threw millions into getting Labor defeated. The country is run by the mining council, gambling lobby and Murdoch. We are F******.” The tweet was retweeted by a Victorian gambling harm lobbyist with 31,746 followers at about 4.10pm.

At about 5pm on 9 July on Facebook a woman who is related to me and is a left-wing commentator who usually posts about nuclear energy, put up a photo that read, “I can’t believe Australians are comparing Rupert Murdoch to Satan. Yes he’s evil, but certainly not as evil as Rupert.”

On 10 July at 9.30am an account with the words ‘Stay angry!” in its profile and with 100 followers put up a tweet saying, “Saw two very old people intently reading The Courier Mail with Labor hate pieces prominent. Not many read it these days, just the oldies. They’ve been brainwashed but they’ll refuse to admit it. It’s not news anymore, it’s just a propaganda tool.” This kind of comment denigrating old people – especially denigrating Baby Boomers – is all-too-common on social media. There is a broad perception that Boomers are responsible for most of the problems in the world, and comments like the one shown here illustrate that feeling.

On 11 July at 8.50pm an account with 143 followers tweeted, “Unfortunately when you combine an outright crooked dominant media owner...with an incompetent, incurious, intimidated and underfunded remainder...with a disengaged, apathetic and proudly ignorant wind up with contemporary Australia.” This was retweeted by an account based in the Blue Mountains in NSW with 2936 followers at 9.44pm the same day with a comment: “This tweet below was in a thread about the NBN but is so very true of Australian politics in general.” The reference was to the suspicion that Rupert Murdoch had pressed the Liberal Party to water down the National Broadband Network as it competed with the cable TV services he owns.

Complaints about specific stories or issues

On 9 July at 10.50am an Australian account with 5701 followers tweeted within the ambit of the #auspol hashtag, “@4corners Your latest effort, posing as investigative journalism, is an insult to the intelligence. A prelude to Morrison announcing a ‘review’ of [the Murray-Darling Basin Plan] to hide evidence of their corruption. #4corners #GoneToTheDogs.” This tweet referred to the ABC’s ‘4 Corners’ show, ‘Cash Splash’, that had aired the night before on the TV. The program was about what were flagged by reporters as rorting of the system by big irrigators. Cotton Australia replied to the ABC the next morning but the fallout from the program, as usual, was considerable. This tweet, which unusually went the other way, criticised the national broadcaster for actually trying to do its job.

On 9 July at 5.15pm a Victorian account with 3749 followers tweeted, “The media's tax cuts coverage ignored substance and focused on trivia.” The tweet included a link to a story on the Crikey website that was titled “Tax cuts coverage ignored substance, focused on trivia” that was with a story by Bernard Keane, who works for the outlet. The story, which referred to the previous week’s debate in Parliament in Canberra, and in the broader community, about tax relief for Australians,  contained a lot of facts and conveyed the idea that the media coverage of the issue had been mainly superficial and skewed to support for the government. This was not surprising as Crikey tends to skew left in its editorial approach on most issues.

On 9 July at 5.03pm a journalism academic with 35,825 followers tweeted, “How the ABC once again failed to understand a complex policy issue because of a lack of dedicated policy specialists in its news room.” His tweet retweeted also a tweet from the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program that read, “How Netflix and the streaming revolution killed the NBN's dream of super fast broadband on fixed wireless.” The academic’s tweet was retweeted later on the same day by the account of a rural Australian with 3321 followers.

On 10 July at 9.08am an account I follow with 3690 followers and that makes a point of criticising the media (I worked with its holder during the time I worked at Sydney University, which was from 2003 to 2009) posted a tweet saying, “’... set to promise...’ great reporting, can't wait.” The tweet came with a retweet of one by sports commentator Peter FitzSimons who had put up a tweet about the government’s announcement about the Voice to Parliament. His tweet read, “Bravo the Government! Let's all get behind it. If the Morrison Government can achieve that in this term, it will be a great achievement, and a tangible Morrison legacy.” This tweet went with a link to a story on the ABC’s website titled, “Indigenous constitutional recognition to be put to referendum in next three years, Minister to promise.” The deprecating comment from the first tweeter was entirely typical of the person who made it.

On 10 July at 10.18am the Nation Farmers’ Federation posted a tweet that read, “EDITORIAL:  In today's @australian read @afsnsw on Monday night's @4corners & how a pattern of reporting by some quarters of @abcnews on the #MDBP points to an agenda to unravel the Plan &/or agitate for a Royal Commission, @ the expense of enviro, communities & farmers.” The tweet contained a GIF that showed a story headling on the web page of the newspaper referred to in the comment. The headline read, “Stead trickle of fibs on ABC’s Four Corners.” The Murdoch media has a longstanding policy of attacking the ABC, mainly because it competes with it and its editors think, like the Liberal Party itself, that the ABC should be privatised and not funded by the people.

On 11 July at 8.26am a Melbourne account with 10,552 followers tweeted, “Disgraceful of @theage to push this uncritical view of Morrison as a wonderful Christian while innocent refugees are tortured and persecuted under his watch.” The tweet came with a link to an opinion piece titled “PM prays with us and refuses to keep his faith in a box. Amen to that.” The piece had been written by Professor Stephen Fogarty, the president of Alphacrucis College, a Parramatta, NSW, independent school. At 9.20pm the same day, an account with 66 followers tweeted, “Fairfax always kept the balance, so sad to see @theage turn into this crap.” The reference was to the sale of the Fairfax mastheads to Channel Nine, a publicly-traded company. Neither of the people who commencted seemed to realise that the article they were complaining about was an opinion piece that had been labelled as such, with the affiliation of the person who wrote it. But this kind of unthinking criticism of the media on account of supposed bias in favour of the right side of politics is commonplace, as we have seen.