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Monday, 23 April 2018

Homeless man, Cross City Tunnel exit

Today on my way to lunch in Darlinghurst I saw a tent set up in the concrete space next to the ramp leaving the Western Distributor where the Cross City Tunnel exits underground in an easterly direction. The eastbound exit to Bathurst Street and Harbour Street is located here as well. The homeless man in this picture is the one wearing the hoodie, I think. Soon after taking this photo I saw the same group of men walking north across the mouth of Bathurst Street toward a white van parked on Day Street where the Park Royal Hotel is located.


Friday, 20 April 2018

It’s easier to do democracy than to do literature

Miles Franklin is to Australian letters what Washington Irving is to American letters: a competent practitioner with more than a little talent who nevertheless failed to set the world on fire. In America, the fire was first lit and nurtured by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1830s. In Australia, it wasn’t until about 1940 when Patrick White started to publish the novels that would lead to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Democracy began to be practiced in Australia earlier. In 1856, the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales was for the first time filled with elected representatives. In America, of course, we mark the beginning with the signing in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence. After these events, it took a generation or two in these countries until substantive works of literature were to be published that would cause the world to pay attention. White’s Nobel has already been mentioned. For Poe, the gauge of his importance is to be found in the fact that Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, translated his works into his native language in the middle of the 19th century.

Why is literature harder to do than democracy? Well, it’s not always the case that it is. Take Egypt, for example. Just as one example in the modern era, they have produced Alaa al-Aswany, a novelist of some talent whose family has been connected to politics for generations. They also have Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. But they haven’t managed to negotiate a settlement that takes into account the demands of religion in the country. The elected president Mohamed Morsi was in power from 30 June 2012 to 3 July 2013 before the generals deposed him.

I think it has something to do with culture. When Jurgen Habermas, the Frankfurt School thinker, wanted to find the origins of the public sphere he went to the English coffee houses of the 18th century. I would qualify that finding myself and extend the notion back a century to the 17th century, a time in England when public discussion of politics was animated by the demands of religion as people fought for supremacy in a struggle for domination that finally ended with the installation on the throne of William of Orange in 1688. Religion would continue to be a distinguishing element in the realm of personal identity for a long time after this, but never again in England would so much blood be spilled to prove a theological point.

Australia inherited its disputative culture from England after London agreed to allow some NSW residents to elect representatives so that they could make decisions about the collection and expenditure of public money. Just as American settlers in the years after 1759, the year Montreal fell to the British, were vocal in demanding the same rights as natural-born Englishmen. The reason for their disagreement with George III was the same as that which had animated Parliament in London in 1649, when Charles I lost his head: no taxation without representation. Charles had prorogued Parliament but then had gone ahead to raise levies on the people to replenish the Treasury.

New Zealand pipped Australia at the post when it came to demanding suffrage for its residents, which was granted in 1852, even though the jurisdiction continued to be a colony until the following century. New Zealand is notable also as being the first place in the world where women were granted the franchise. And Australia became the first place where women could be elected to public office.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Book review: The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey (1989)

This book suffers from so many deficits that it’s hard to know where to start. Initially positing the beginning of modernity in the era of Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, the book then twangs back optimistically to the Enlightenment in the 18th century and talks about “reason” with the same credulity that Steven Pinker does in his ‘Enlightenment Now’, a book I reviewed in March. This book suffers from the same problem as Pinker’s, assuming that what a person living in the late 18th century meant by “reason” is the same thing that we understand by the word today. I say that this is a complete fallacy.

Harvey twangs between 1848 and 1776, then scoots along to the first decades of the 20th century as though nothing had happened in-between. Let alone the major writers of the Victorian era, which Harvey seems, from an ideological position, to be set on ignoring (there is not a word about Dickens, for example). He also totally ignores the achievements of such artists as Turner, Swinburne and Hopkins. Jane Austen gets no mention, nor Mary Shelley, and the Romantics of either the first generation (Wordsworth and Coleridge) or second generation (Keats, Shelley and Byron) are almost completely ignored.

The starting point for the author seems to be 1848, when a number of revolutions took place in continental Europe in aid of the aspirations of the working classes living there. But there’s no mention of Chartism in England, which along with the Reform Act in the Parliament there saw the franchise expanded more broadly. Bounding enthusiastically to the period after WWI might make it easier to make the rhetorical points the author has in mind to make, but it ignores a lot of real history that actually took place. The likes of Tennyson, Thackeray and Trollope never get a showing in Harvey’s view of history.

The spastic trajectory of Harvey’s historical view is entirely unconvincing, and unnecessarily so. For a moment or two he plays with the idea of “unreason” foregrounded by the Romantics but avoids the implications, and therefore gives himself leave to overlook entire generations of writers who were producing interesting work in an age notable for the devolution of real political power. Harvey feels more confident when he gets to the post-WWII period when he can point to the deleterious effects of Nazism, a form of government that worked in close cooperation with Capital, but totally ignores the birthplace of fascism in the Romantic era of 140 years earlier. The blood and soil of nativist Nazis had a lot in common with the irrational leanings of the early Romantics, but Harvey entirely ignores the connection, content to move ahead with his precious plan and into the post-war era where it’s easier to grasp the importance of referents, and to analyse the significance of the contracts that people made with the popular cognates they used in their daily lives.

I found this book entirely unsatisfying and disingenuous. While I am aware of the danger of resolving everything into the so-called Whig version of history, I think that what is important is the relationship between the governed and the government. Such matters were very much front-of-mind for the early Romantics, who lived in England in the era immediately following the American Revolution. The discoveries in narrative form that were achieved in the years following 1776 were surely germane to Harvey’s project. But he lets them alone and seems intent on pursuing an entirely continental model, entirely ignoring the achievements of generations of English writers and artists, for no other reason than that they belonged to the dominant global political apparatus. It’s just sad.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A celebration of the most determined philistinism

At first blush, the BBC’s ‘Cunk on Britain’, a spoof of mainstream TV history programs featuring Philomena Cunk as host, seems to make gentle fun of British exceptionalism but deep down it celebrates the philistinism that Cunk embodies. I felt like screaming when she sat down, in the professionally-sculpted surrounds that are used to make the program, with one historian or another and asked them idiotic questions. This is how scientists must feel when they get on Twitter and engage with the great unwashed in “debate” in the modern public sphere.

Cunk revels in her stupidity and the high production values the BBC uses for the series underscore how important the producers feel the people she represents are. This is a progressive attempt to humanise the dumb, the uneducated and the merely unintelligent who live unseen among us and with whom we interact every day, often quite unsuspectingly. As such, the series has a dual function. One is to poke fun at British nationalistic exceptionalism (Americans will love this aspect of the show) as illustrated by such TV programs as 'Antiques Roadshow', which has been screening for over 40 years. The other is to put a face to the countless ignorant participants in the public sphere who animate social media every day. This is a very modern and knowing production.

I think that someone like Simon Schama, whose ‘A History of Britain’ screened on the BBC from 2000 to 2002, would look askance at Cunk and what she represents. Or the late Robert Hughes, whose ‘Barcelona’ (1992) initiated the fashion for deep-dive studies of popular subjects. But what we have to understand is that this is who we are as a society. We are no better than Cunk on Britain, torturing the specialists who work in academia with our jaw-droppingly misguided questions and showing no ability to intelligently synthesise the information we are given in order to come to grips with the complexities of different branches of study, such as history. Cunk throws up a mirror to who we are today. And we all get to vote. Cunk is the comedic doppelganger of Donald Trump.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Jane Austen and the invention of the modern novel

This blogpost draws on an earlier blogpost from 12 September 2015 on this blog and expands it in the light of recent conversations with friends. I apologise for the undergraduate language used in this piece, but I have forgotten most of the literary theory I read for my first university degree.

When I first read Jane Austen, back in 2002, her novels quickly came to represent for me a point of excellence for the craft. I was struck by how mature they seemed despite having been published 200 years ago, and I came to the conclusion that she had discovered something new. What that was, was at first not entirely clear, but I had the inkling that it had something to do with the even tone she employed throughout her novels to describe every kind of emotion experienced by her characters from the greatest joy through to the deepest sorrow.

In my readings around her work I came a across a lot of books published prior to hers that lacked this sort of authorial disengagement. In epistolary novels, for example, which became popular in England in the 1830s, you can get some very strange orthography indeed when the writer is trying to express extremes of emotion experienced by his characters. The sentences break up in a cascade of dashes as the writer of the letter loses control of her emotions and they go careening off into the realm of the inexpressible.

Austen, who was born in 1775, critiqued such writing in her juvenilia, in the form of a series of short comical sketches written for domestic consumption during the 1780s and early -90s. In these sketches, she experimented with tone while also playing in a very critical way with the kinds of novelistic tropes - as she saw them - that fostered the emotional highs and lows she had grown suspicious of over years of novel reading.

She objected to the excesses of secular power implicit in the clunky plot devices that such writers used. Kidnapping, rape, elopement, murder, disinheriting, withholding of wages. The literature of the 18th century is full of democratically-minded writers using high-toned events in their narratives to achieve certain fictional outcomes, essentially to help to civilise a still very unfair era. They wanted people to be better, kinder, more empathetic. The political and legal structures that gave shape to the lives of people living in the broader community to which Austen herself belonged favoured a narrow ruling class. Austen, it has to be remembered, was a Tory, a backer of the king against Parliament, and so she found a lot of what was being published politically alien.

However she wanted to retain the psychological drama that Samuel Richardson had introduced into popular culture. It is notable nevertheless that her favourite Richardson novel was ‘Sir Charles Grandison’, which is about a good man with power and how he conducts himself in the world. Richardson wrote the novel because his readers were getting a bit tired of the venal male characters he was used to using in his books. Like Austen herself they wanted a bit of variety.

It should be remembered that the Austen family were great readers. Everyone from the youngest daughter to the head of the family read novels for pleasure, so young Jane had a wide audience for her hilarious sallies into the genre. Those were also the days of visiting, and a sheaf of papers would no doubt be taken along down the country lanes when the women went to pay a visit on a friend or neighbour.

What Austen came up with in order to support the kind of emotional registers that would allow the development of the psychological drama she sought to generate for readers like her immediate family was something that also enabled her to incorporate a quantity of humour into her novels.

This was to flatten out the expressive register of events throughout the novel. If everything was described with a delivery at a regular level of tone she would also naturally produce humour because what was something that in the realm of the novel was actually quite high-toned for the character would be uniform within the locus of description regulating things between the characters and the reader, in the fictive space itself. In this space, the author’s unique voice could be deployed effectively.

Austen manipulated the dramatic texture of her novels and introduced the irony that people nowadays still find so refreshing. The two things happened in tandem. In order to effectively introduce her authorial voice, she had to have realistic characters being driven by a realistic plot, a plot that your average reader could personally relate to. And she was quite aware of this quality of her books. She once in a letter described her work to a correspondent: “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” You level out the dramatic fabric of the novel and this allows you to do other things, such as deploy humour and investigate the psychological processes the characters are going through. Character development is something that Austen uses with great skill, and it is another aspect of her writing that sets her above most of her coevals.

The writers Austen herself admired came closest to doing something on the same level that she herself attained. I have already mentioned one novel by Samuel Richardson. There is also Maria Edgeworth, the Irish writer who was just a few years older than Austen herself but whose fame at the time was far greater than hers. And then there was George Crabbe, the naturalist-parson-poet whose short stories in iambic pentameters, like Austen's works, belong to the Augustan stream in the Romantic river.

Of course, everyone would agree that Austen tends to limit the scope of her novels by concentrating with such dedication to such narrow concerns as marriage and sex, but others would go on to furthering the reform project, such as Charles Dickens, in whose novels you get a much wider set of experiences and types of characters involved in the dramas the author invents. I think that Dickens is a wonderful writer, but I have to be honest and say that what he achieved would never have been the same without the example Austen offered.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Periodisation and reform

Someone put up on Facebook the other day an article about our habit of periodisation: giving names to different generations of people coming through in society. So we might talk about Baby Boomers or Millennials with the same familiarity as we talk about the music of the 1970s or of the 1990s. We do it with ease and facility. It’s almost second nature in fact. And so some people are asking whether it is still useful to use such labels to classify people despite the existence in their character or education of attributes that might clash with the stereotypes we hold about them.

And it made me think about periodisation in general and what purpose it serves, and has served in the past. It occurred to me that the big categories that we use to segment recorded history – like “Renaissance” and “Enlightenment” – were first developed in the 19th century by scholars working in academia. This was a time of important reform movements in Europe inspired by the American Revolution of the previous century. The English Chartists of the 1830s through to the 1850s pressed their government for electoral reform so that a larger number of people could receive the franchise. The British establishment also took steps to remove the Test Acts, which had for centuries excluded Catholics from holding public office, from the statutes. Big changes were afoot, so big in fact that they served to ensure in the long term the stability of the constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom, while kings and princes on the continent would lose their crowns over the ensuing years as communities pushed to take power that was not voluntarily ceded to them.

Queen Victoria appeared at the beginning of this period in the UK, and her reign has become emblematic for the reform movement for many writers. Also notable at the time was a man named William Morris, who with a group of friends in 1848 formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the first art movement. The Romantics who inspired Morris and his friends had not applied that sobriquet to themselves, and as often as not it had been used as a form of opprobrium by critics. The difference this time was that the Pre-Raphaelites applied the name to themselves quite openly.

It was done in a spirit of reform and in opposition to the industrial economy with its machines and poverty, that surrounded them. The painters in the group admired Medieval stories and took as their model in painting the early Renaissance painters of northern Italy, such as Giotto and Mantegna. Morris would go on to convert his interest in manufacturing to found the Arts and Crafts movement, a group of thinkers who wanted to tame the excesses of design in the industrial age. They felt among other things that the form of an object should follow its function, and this impulse would in later generations inspire the continental thinkers who founded the Bauhaus, which led to what we know now as Modernism in architecture.

This process of critique and synthesis that is characteristic of modernity started therefore during a time of intense change as technology altered the delineations of people’s lives in Europe and America. We still live in the shadow of such men and women today. Essential to the process is the ability to talk about what you are interested in, and it is in the context of this need that periodisation appears. If you cannot name something you cannot discuss it and therefore you cannot improve it. Making names to measure time and segment it through the use of manageable and widely-shared semantic referents is essential to the process of reform and improvement, which should always be out goal as we move onward tied to that crazy arrow, Time, which despite what we are told by scientists seems only ever to travel in one direction.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Book review: In Search of Mary Shelley, Fiona Sampson (2018)

This flawed biography attempts to describe the talent that led to the appearance in 1818, 200 years ago this year, of ‘Frankenstein’, a novel that has entered popular consciousness through many different vehicles, most notably through the cinema. The novel’s author was a young woman with an august pedigree and her childhood is trawled by this biographer for intimations of existential disquiet illustrated by the novel that would end up being written.

Shelley’s mother was the famous feminist and polemicist Mary Wollstonecraft and her father was the famous polemicist and novelist William Godwin. She fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the second-generation Romantic poet, and went travelling in Europe. It was during one exceptional evening with her husband and Lord Byron, the poet, in Switzerland, that the idea for the novel came to her.

Shelley’s childhood was blighted by the fact that her mother died in the days immediately after she was born. Her step-mother is painted as a scheming woman eager to nab the hand of the widowed writer but real evidence, it seems, is scant. Shelley’s diaries and letters went missing in the years after she eloped with Percy.

Sampson doesn’t let this handicap fetter her imagination, however, and she sprinkles the narrative with vividly-drawn assumptions as to what might have happened at any one time that would lead to the appearance of the famous characters of the inventor and his monster. This kind of teleological approach is frankly unnecessary and hampers the transference of true information that might otherwise be useful in illustrating aspects of Shelley’s character. I found the book tiresome and banal. It told me more about what Sampson thinks of creative people than it told me about Shelley the novelist. I managed to get about 15 percent of the way through the book before giving up.

I wanted to like this book and I gave it a good go because I had heard the author participate in a Radio National program about Shelley hosted by Phillip Adams that I had enjoyed. But relying on surmise and inductive reasoning to justify decisions made in the absence of hard evidence was constantly frustrating from a reader’s point of view. The author time and again stakes her professional and artistic credibility on the flimsiest of evidence.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

We need to study Western civilisation again

This month on the news we heard that a number of African athletes in Queensland come to compete in the Commonwealth Games had gone missing, presumably with an intent to seek asylum here. In Australia, the word “refugee” is a term as politically loaded as it is in Europe, where tens of thousands of people embark on the risky business of crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa in frail boats every year, landing on islands in Italy or Greece. Here, we patrol the seas between Australia and Indonesia, where refugees come by plane to buy passage on flimsy boats, and turn them back.

People just won’t stop coming unbidden to countries in the developed world, and you have to ask why. John Keane in his 2009 book on democracy goes some way toward explaining such notions as the idea of disinterested “office” pioneered by the Medieval church, in order to understand how government can be conducted in the interests of the community, rather than for reasons of private gain. And what is the meaning of “reputation”, and why is it so important to protect yours? Why will some people still not swear oaths in official contexts? Such issues are germane to any discussion about the teaching of Western civilisation in schools.

I was looking into the teaching of Western civilisation and came across an article published in the New York Post, a populist rag that caters to people living in that famously creative city. Apparently, the teaching of Western civilisation in universities in America was popular until the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s resulted in many institutions dropping such courses from their curriculas in favour of courses on world history. But I think, along with some people in the Liberal Party in Australia, I am afraid to say, circumstances have changed and it is time to revisit the policy.

The reason is complex. Originally, everything came from the arts. Schools of applied sciences, such as medical and engineering departments in universities, didn’t start to appear until the late-19th or early-20th centuries. Before that, people who wanted to study “natural philosophy” or the mechanic arts would enrol in special schools set up in the regions in England, often run by people affiliated with radical Protestant churches, to learn what they needed to know to run the machines that animated the industrial revolution. But the sciences had flourished since the Renaissance because many minds had participated in scientific debate in the public sphere.

In the 18th century and continuing into the succeeding century, miscellaneous journals that people could subscribe to that contained articles about new scientific discoveries alongside reviews of popular works of poetry and fiction, were being published in England. The novel as we understand it today emerged in the same era and was finally perfected by Jane Austen in the early-19th century.

What is certain is that all scientific discovery, from the time of the earliest vernacular translation of the Bible out of its originary languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) around 1520, occurred through the process of nominalisation. You take a sentence or phrase or clause and your form a new word to mean that same phrase or sentence or clause. You think of a word like “implement” or “sect”. And then you allow it to be deployed in other sentences with qualifying adjectives in order to create meaning and to further an argument. Or else you coin a verb like “evolve” and you allow it to be used in sentences with qualifying adverbs where it can be used to do the same things. In such ways, the progress of knowledge occurred, fuelled by the new technology of moveable type (invented in Germany around 1440), which brought down the costs of books to affordable levels, allowing ordinary people to accumulate libraries and become active participants in the debate. All knowledge that we have today derives from this simple cultural mechanism. It was an accretive progress, that occurred across many generations and involved whole communities participating in various ways in the debate. But it was primarily a process of discussion of ideas.

In the last century, the author CP Snow talked about the “two cultures” and regretted that people versed in the arts had little knowledge of the sciences. Today, the problem is the reverse. People who understand the technological implementations of fundamental science lack the background they need in the fine and literary arts to allow them to meaningfully negotiate the future. How do we use the technologies that we are inventing? Can you divorce high technology from the democratic process? Do we need a bill of rights for robots? Such questions are immediately pressing but it’s not clear where the answers will come from.

Added to that the continuing decline in importance of religion in the lives of ordinary people in all developed countries, and you find that the fine and literary arts can be positively useful in filling in the gaps that appear in the framework of learning about ethics and morals.

We know that reading novels, for example, helps to bolster feelings of empathy in people who do it. Literary and fine arts education can help to form an important bridge in forming the mental infrastructure that ordinary people need in order to navigate the complexities of modern life. The novel itself is a relatively recent innovation, dating from the 17th century. But it would help us to understand how this dominant form of literature developed and prospered in our cultures, and how has it been viewed at different points in its progress from a novel (literally) form of entertainment, to the main game. And what happened in the meantime to poetry? When did popular culture separate from high culture, and why? Such questions and other similar ones could be covered in a course of study dedicated to Western civilisation, as well as courses designed to show how the process of nominalisation helped to foster scientific progress.

We see the importance of such study all the time. When we read a tweet lie “Suicide Is A Society-Wide Problem That Needs A Society-Wide Solution”, we can understand that what is needed is an educative process that helps people across the whole of the community to find a solution to a pressing social issue. Where do you start to teach such ideas? In secondary schools, because secondary school education is mandatory in all developed economies.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Human head graffito, Market Street, Sydney

This graffito has been on this place sign at the entrance to the pedestrian bridge leading to Darling Harbour for some weeks. The tall, red street sign has big, white letters placed vertically down the length of it. It is in a very heavily-trafficked area, with people walking past this point to and from the city across Darling Harbour on the Pyrmont Bridge, which leads to Glebe and other inner-urban suburbs located immediately to the west of the city.

The graffito shows a head and it is done in a simple outline with a thick, black marker pen. The design reminds me of website design elements that have been used in recent years to indicate that there is an individual involved in something. A symbol like this might be used for a link to click to go to the user profile page of a website, as it does on the Twitter website. Facebook uses a similar design with two concatenated busts of individuals for the link that leads to the ‘Friend requests’ page of its website. I wonder who painted this design that displays such personality and flair?


Thursday, 12 April 2018

Demolition of brutalist building on Martin Place

This photo was taken today on Castlereagh Street. It shows a mechanised jackhammer demolishing the building at 39 Martin Place, a building that I wrote about on the blog in December. This elegant brutalist pile will be replaced with something that gives easy access to the train station underneath. When the building was being planned, in 1969, the Eastern Suburbs Railway was still being designed, so the integration of the new building with its underground concourse was not properly realised. But it’s a shame that such a lovely Modernist artefact is being casually demolished merely in order to realise more profit from a tony central site. When does the endless cycle of demolition and construction stop?

If you want to read the whole post on the building, go to 30 December last year on this blog.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it online

The tone of debate in the public sphere in Australia took a dive when Leigh Sales, the ABC 7.30 program presenter, tweeted a comment that she had seen on Twitter aimed at her, following an interview she conducted on her program with the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten. Ed Hunter (@EdwardJWHunter) had tweeted in reply to someone else online:
Absolutely, Any interviewer is supposed to be impartial, but Sales virtually goes down on her knees to give any [Liberal Party politician] an on-camera blow-job, she gives them such an easy time.
Hunter’s Twitter bio reads like this:
Leftie; ALP member, I support unions, Guardian (Aus, UK, US), independent media, #renewables, Federal & Victorian Labor governments and enjoying a happy life !
Hunter is a fairly prolific tweeter and covers a range of issues in his feed, from energy policy to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s US Senate committee appearance.

Sales tweeted a screenshot of Hunter’s tweet, which was timestamped 6.28am, 11 April (the tweet has now been removed), with the following comment of her own:
Another morning, another bit of casual misogyny & abuse - basically a daily occurrence for high-profile women on social media.
Fairfax journalist Kate McClymont retweeted Sales’s tweet, with the attached screenshot, and included her own comment:
This is NOT okay. If you would not say something to someone's face, don't think the anonymity of social media makes it [in] any way acceptable to put such vile things in writing. Think before you tweet.
This whole episode is symptomatic of a wider negative animus aimed at journalists, who many in the community believe are (depending on the journalist) biased either in favour of the right or the left of politics. The whole community thinks in terms of “us and them”, in the same way they support a sports team during the Saturday afternoon football game. This kind of animus has its eloquent exponents, such as Andrew Elder, a forceful and stubborn critic of the media in Australia (Andrew and I used to work together a decade ago), but it also animates people whose command of the language leaves some things to be desired, or who, like Hunter, don’t know where to draw the line when it comes to phrasing or expression.

I wrote about the polarisation of the public sphere because of social media earlier this month, and the events of the past day or so demonstrate that things are if anything getting worse. We need to always be respectful and appropriate in our expression on social media, lest the debate become harassing or even form cause for legal redress. How to do this when people have such different abilities is the question. Perhaps we should follow McClymont’s suggestion and hesitate to say anything to people on social media that we wouldn’t say directly to their face.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Book review: The People Vs Democracy, Yascha Mounk (2018)

At first glance the thesis of this German-educated Harvard academic appears fruitful. Mounk says that there are several engines of change that are affecting the texture of democracy, making it less pluralistic even in countries where liberal democracy had seemed to have achieved undoubted supremacy. He links this to globalisation and the neoliberal consensus that has animated democracies in both the developed and in the developing world. He points especially to inequalities in income and wealth in these places. And he adds that social media arriving on the scene has further destabilised the institutions we rely on to safeguard our freedoms.

All well and good, but again and again Mounk talks about North America and Western Europe. Again and again he points to such bastions of liberal democracy and expresses dismay at the way things are turning out as populist parties rise to prominence in election after election. But there’s nothing about Australia or New Zealand. Or even not much about Japan, which is surely one of the world’s great democracies.

It is infuriating. Australia is the world’s fourth-oldest democracy. Elections for the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales started to be held in 1856, a good 11 years before the Act of the parliament in the UK proclaimed the new Confederation in Canada and just four years after the Act of the same parliament that granted colonial self-government to New Zealand. You ignore Australia at your peril. South Australia was, furthermore, the second jurisdiction in the world to allow women to vote, in 1895, following New Zealand. And Australia was the first jurisdiction where women could run for elected office. The roots of democracy run deep in Australia and it just makes me very irritable when prominent pundits like Mounk ignore its achievements. Second-tier democracies like Germany and France can learn a lot from studying what has been achieved in places like Australia and New Zealand.

In fact, borrowing from Mounk’s ideas, the United States is manifestly undemocratic, if you compare it to Australia. Even the party of the left in the US, the Democrats, tolerated the problems deriving from a fundamentally flawed healthcare system for generations before finally moving under Obama to do something about it. And even then, it was done using the same private insurers who had been ripping off the people for all that time! Not even the Democrats have been able to fix the minimum wage – currently set at about US$7 (it is over A$17 in Australia) – demonstrating that the party of the left is often more right-wing than the party of the right is in Australia. The GOP – the grand old party – in Australia is the Australian Labor Party, the party of the centre-left.

Mounk makes much of the rise of populist right-wing political parties in Europe. But even here his chosen graph shows support for them flatlining in 2017 at just under 20 percent. In Australia, populists struggle to get more than 15 percent of the popular vote in the lower houses where legislative agendas are set. The Australian Greens have been sitting at about 15 percent for over a decade and have been able to influence legislative agendas only through their participation in the upper houses, or houses of review, in the jurisdictions that have them. They do this by making deals with the governing party when a vote on a piece of legislation is tight.

The anti-immigration party is called One Nation and it was established in the late-90s (predating Trump by a generation, mind you). It only managed to secure one seat in the Queensland Parliament in 2017. And Queensland is the home state of the party’s founder, Pauline Hanson. In South Australia, the much-vaunted Nick Xenophon and his party only managed in the 2018 election to secure about 14 percent of the vote, giving them no lower-house seats.

So populism is a fringe element of the political process in Australia. Let’s turn now to look at immigration, which is currently running at a level of about 200,000+ individuals annually. Most of these new immigrants move to Sydney and Melbourne because that’s where the jobs are. There are also homogenised enclaves in the cities’ fabrics, especially in Sydney, where immigrants can find the solace of the languages, shops and places of worship that they can rely on to support their particular lifestyles. What animates the mainstream in Australia when it comes to discussing immigration are things like infrastructure (roads and trains) and the cost of housing (either rented or purchased using a mortgage). Neither of the major parties says anything to alienate those parts of the electorate that identify with immigrants.

The number of people who have at least one parent born overseas in Australia totals 49 percent of the population. Australia has the highest overseas-born percentage of a population in the OECD, at 26 percent, and also the highest immigration rate in the developed world. It is, as the prime minister says when he wants to take credit for strong security policies, the world’s most successful multicultural nation. Multiculturalism was adopted first in 1973 by the ALP’s Gough Whitlam and was endorsed after Whitlam lost power in 1975, by the conservative Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser.

Which brings me to the matter of terminology. Mounk uses “liberal” and “illiberal” where I prefer “pluralist” and “homogeneous”. The reason for this choice is because in Australia the term “liberal” has been appropriated since the 1950s by the conservative party, skewing the tone of debate and shoe-horning ideas into words that were never meant to hold them. When we talk about what North Americans term “liberal” party policies here we talk of “progressive” policies.

One more thing needs to be emphasised. In Australia public education was first made mandatory in 1880 through an Act of the New South Wales Parliament. The policy meant that children had to go to school when they were aged between six years and 14 years. Those parameters have subsequently been expanded. In his book, ‘The Architecture of Victorian Sydney’, architect Morton Herman (who died in 1983) reflects on this government decision, which led to a bout of construction in the city’s earlier history.
Sir Henry Parkes brought down his Education Act [sic] in 1880, to counteract the condition whereby twenty-six per cent of children of school age were illiterate. Nowadays, of course, conditions have changed and nearly everyone can interpret the cryptic print of the sporting pages of the newspapers. Though there had been many schools before this time, now their number was to be increased so that each centre of population in New South Wales was to have its State school. To the horror of little boys, attendance was compulsory.
Finally, I want to finish by talking about a bugbear that grated as I read the six percent or so of this book that I managed to complete. Democracy originated in England, not in the United States of America. In 1649 Charles I was killed for the same crime that caused the Atlantic colonists to declare independence: taxation in the absence of representation. The colonists wanted nothing more than the rights of natural-born Englishmen, in fact. Louis Harz, an American anthropologist, has written in an admittedly highly rebarbative style a book about a theory of culture which he calls the “fragment” theory. If Mounk had paid a bit more attention to such ideas he might have written a better book.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

We have internalised the partisan habits of the elites

On the ABC’s 7.30 program this week former PM John Howard was interviewed and he made a comment about the troubles that political parties are having these days keeping leaders in place for any length of time. Naturally, he is concerned about rumours that Tony Abbott will try to destabilise Malcolm Turnbull, and he regretted the Liberal Party’s poor showing in the polls. He added that the next federal election, which is due in 2019, is winnable by the governing party but said that it was important for everyone in it to pull in behind the leader and show loyalty. Howard famously became the second-longest-serving head of an Australian government before he was unceremoniously ditched by the electorate in 2007 in favour of the Australian Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd.

But then Howard made a comment that seems to have become accepted wisdom these days, although it was not so even a few years ago: social media has changed the nature of debate in the public sphere. This was the main reason he gave for the turnstile that party leadership has become now in Australian politics, and I think the comment represents an important change in the way we are now talking in the mainstream about public debate and commentary. No doubt Donald Trump’s attachment to his Twitter account has had something to do with accelerating this change, but there are other things in play as well.

I wrote about social media last month, in a post that quoted Ev Williams, the founder of Blogger and Twitter, talking about how the platform had changed in the years since it was founded. It has become more like the world, he said, whereas previously it had been characterised by the participation of an elite cohort of early-adopters most of whom had progressive political views. Now, he said, it is less clubby and more closely resembles the broader community. There are people who cannot spell, people who don’t know how to use apostrophes (or even commas), and people who do not know how to structure their thoughts in a logical form. It is messy, cantankerous, potentially dangerous, and also often violently partisan, a place where people nail their colours to the mast of party policy platforms as they engage in a battle for supremacy. A battle of ideas with clear outcomes: to be with the party of government or to be with the party of opposition. We staunchly back our teams.

Especially with Twitter, where you don’t have to have people follow you back in order to see their posts, you are also exposed to a wide variety of views, both those of your own side and those of the opposition side. It’s certainly a truism that social media creates homogeneous communities (echo chambers) where people are only exposed to views that agree with their own personal views. I think the opposite is true, especially when you think of how hashtags are used to aggregate related information. Hashtags, which can be used to create tweetstreams in second-level apps like TweetDeck, were an innovation introduced not by Twitter the company, but by people in the community that used it. Using hashtags, you can easily see comments by people whose views are ideologically different from your own. But even without them, people you follow are continually posting comments by people whose views they disagree with, in order to make a rhetorical point, or to stimulate discussion. That is how social media works, as has been shown in studies.

One thing that is remarkable however is that people are less temperate, more partisan, and more brittle in their dealings on social media, than they were even five years ago. Political parties are the architects that establish platforms of belief that people cleave to as they negotiate the high seas of commentary, as issues are debated furiously as soon as they are announced in the media. Whereas politicians used to have days or weeks of free air to refine a policy once it was announced publicly, now there is practically zero time free before the idea that has been released has been dissected, discussed, and given over to damnation or to celebration by the thousands and millions of active participants online.

The role of the media has also changed. As news organisations participate in the relentless news cycle, they are awarded points, even to the level of individual journalists, who accrue thousands of followers in their journeys online, for objectivity and thoroughness or they are given discounts for perceived bias. It doesn’t seem to matter which outlet you work for – right wing for the Murdoch press, left wing for outlets like the Guardian – there will be people out there who will excoriate you for your perceived failings and others who reward you with public praise for getting the story right. People such as the managing director of the ABC get a lot of play in this environment. Rupert Murdoch’s name has been used to launch dozens of distinct anonymous Twitter handles critical of the opinions of his editors and reporters. And journalists retain their Twitter handles as they move from organisation to organisation, so they accrue benefit from their work and reap the rewards well into the future.

Journalists are as likely to block people who are intemperate as are other participants in the public sphere. Some commentators might gain a reputation for blocking anyone whose views differ from their own, or else they might be more benign and relaxed about the slings and arrows of casual interaction. Some of the language can become quite heated on Twitter as people debate the intricacies of one policy point or another, and people tend to treat enemies as deserving criticism if they see someone, whoever they are, disagreeing with them. It is remarkable how easily we have internalised the habits of politicians as we debate policy in public and as we each try to sway broader public opinion.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Monash would have promoted renewables

There has been recent discussion about a “ginger group” of politicians who label themselves the Monash Forum asking the government to invest in a coal fired power station or two. Members of the group include Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews. In other words, the more conservative members of the Liberal Party. I tried to find an etymological definition of the term “ginger group” online but nothing came up that was definitive. It seems the term has been used in different jurisdictions starting in the first half of last century, and it means a subset of party members who want to further a specific agenda within the polis.

The Monash family and the Returned Services League (John Monash was a general in WWI) apparently objected publicly to the adoption by the group of the name of the esteemed public figure, after whom Monash University in Melbourne is named, but characteristically the politicians involved have said they will not back down.

Monash was an engineer and, according to his Wikipedia entry, was involved in introducing reinforced concrete into Australia in the last decade of the 19th century. The technology had only just been invented in Europe, independently by a number of different men in different countries, specifically Germany, France and England, and use of it was defended by independent patents. Monash was involved in introducing the Monier system to the market in Melbourne. It wasn’t until the 1920s that calculation tables for the use of steel reinforcing bars in concrete were developed after the patents expired, to ensure loads were properly supported by the construction.

Americans had been building high since the 1880s but they had relied on steel girder construction methods until they finally moved into the European markets in the aftermath of WWII. (Steel buckles and distorts under heat, so steel-framed buildings are not safe against fire, whereas the concrete in reinforced concrete acts as an insulation, preserving the structure in case of fire.)

After WWII when the combined effects of the Depression and the war had retreated, businesses started to build high throughout the world. Building high is expensive, as is the process needed to make the cement you need to make concrete. In Sydney, height restrictions that had applied to buildings since the beginning of the century were finally removed in 1957, and presumably other Australian cities followed suit soon after.

What is certain from this little excursus is that Monash would have been very adaptable and innovative in his thinking, and would most definitely have welcomed the cost savings, combined with the environmental benefits, that renewables combined with battery storage enable today. I can’t see by any stretch of the imagination see Monash putting his good name behind a plan to build a dirty coal-fired power plant in Australia.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The songs might endure but the singer has gone away

Before Easter one morning I noticed that the original café that operated in the square where the light rail station is, had not opened. I thought it strange because the man who operated the café was very vocal. At any hour of the day, from early in the morning until the late afternoon, when he would normally close his café, he could be heard singing along to songs that played on the stereo that was set up inside his shop.

The songs were popular tunes from any period you might choose to name from any of the past 50 years, the kinds of songs that you routinely hear on bog-standard AM radio stations in the city. Nothing difficult or aggressive or grungy or particular, just regular songs that anyone might like to listen to. And the café owner would be going about his business serving customers, making cappuccinos, heating up focaccia, tidying up the mess he had made, all the while singing at the top of his voice in the most joyous way, as though singing were the most natural thing in the world to do and anyone who wasn’t singing was somehow missing out on something elemental and good.

Sometimes, the café owner would be seen sitting on a small plastic stool in the square underneath the colonnade, quietly smoking a cigarette. He might also be seen sitting there talking on his phone when business was slow or if there was a period when customers didn’t normally arrive.

Some six months or so ago another café had opened up next door to the singing café owner’s café. This new café is operated by a Chinese man and he usually has two staff members helping him. One person stays in the kitchen making the wraps and sandwiches that are listed on the café’s menu, and the other person stays at the expresso machine making coffees for people as they come out of the lift that leads from the rail platform up to the street.

The singing café owner usually coped with the demand from customers by hiring one other person, who might have been his partner. I heard them arguing with each other loudly one day and thought it a bit odd to hear a shop owner criticising an employee where customers could hear them. I did from time to time also see a woman who lives in my apartment building working in his café.

Sometimes when I am busy and there is no food in the fridge for breakfast I will go up to the square and buy something to eat. I used to buy focaccias from the singing café owner’s display cabinet, but I found that for one dollar more I could get a bacon-avocado-egg-and-hash-brown wrap from the Chinese café owner’s kitchen. They know me there now, and when I appear at the till to order, my order has already been entered in the point-of-sale terminal without a word having been said. I have my wrap made without sauce.

For a change, I might buy a focaccia from the singing café owner’s café, but that won’t happen anymore because it looks as though he has shut down his café permanently.

The folding glass doors don’t open in the morning and you no longer hear the sound of his voice filling the small square where apartments have balconies overlooking the space where the food outlets are located. Even though I would normally go for the breakfast wrap rather than the focaccia, I miss hearing the sound of celebration that animated that intimate quarter of the city. The songs might theoretically endure but you wouldn’t know any more because the singer has disappeared.

UPDATE 3 April, 12.36pm: I went out after publishing this piece and on the door of the cafe I saw a sign saying that the cafe is being updated and will reopen after Easter.

UPDATE 23 April 2018, 2.47pm: (Shakespeare's birthday.) The cafe opened again for the first time today. It was open for breakfast when I went up this morning and when I went past at about 11am, when the stereo was playing something from the Rolling Stones.

Monday, 2 April 2018

What I have been doing this week

This past week was spent writing stories for a US-based non-profit, the Urban Land Institute. This is the third time they have asked me to cover an event in Sydney. The first time was in November, when I went to a forum for young leaders they organised. Then in December they had another event which I attended but the sound quality wasn’t good enough to do a transcript, so that gig fell through. This time, they organised the event at a different venue and the sound was crystal clear because they had lapel mics attached to the shirts of each of the panelists.

The event was on Wednesday and I took home about two hours of voice recordings to transcribe, which took me a few days. I wrote three stories based on the transcripts as well as offering the organisation a fourth piece, which is an edited transcript of one of the presenters’ deliveries.

The organisation focuses on property development, which at first blush sounds like a pretty dry subject but in fact it is very diverse in scope. The longest story I wrote, which has been submitted before being loaded to their website, is about Sydney’s transport troubles. The delegates heard from experts who have been involved in urban development for many years, so the discussions were very engaging and thought-provoking.

The event brought together people from different countries, too, and part of the schedule was a welcome to country conducted by a man named Clarence Slockee, an Indigenous Australian. What struck me is how his delivery to the gathering was understood and appreciated by the delegates to the event, a dinner on the night before the forum took place in the CBD. There is an appetite for this kind of cultural material in the international community, and people are primed by such events to listen to what they are told in such sessions.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Moschino takes a leaf out of Jeff Koons’ book

These posters I saw on the railway viaduct over Wentworth Park in Pyrmont. There were other posters of the same type in Newtown on the railway bridge over Enmore Road. They show a new brand of scent for men, but the marketing people are here advertising consumer products using tropes made popular in the art world, first by the pop artists of the 1960s, then by Jeff Koons starting in the 1980s. Sublimating a consumer product such as a floor cleaner and repurposing the packaging to sell a high-end product is a part of the cycle of reimagining and borrowing that has been going on in the art world for the past 50 years. You can now buy a bottle of fragrance to use when you go out to bars and restaurants that is packaged to look like a cleaning product. The reverberations of this innovation are endless. "Clean up your image!" "You wouldn't let your new girlfriend see a dirty floor, so how can you go out tonight without scent on your body?" "Get spick and span!" Everyone is familiar with these floor-cleaner bottles, so the new brand is immediately democratised in the marketplace, despite carrying a high price tag. I saw a 50ml bottle being advertised online for over $130.


Wednesday, 28 March 2018

AJ English foists a lame “gotcha” moment on the world

A video produced by Zab Mustafa and presented on-camera by Tabish Talib appeared on the social graph yesterday and was gaining some support of people opposed to Australia’s offshore detention policy. This is a very emotive subject and people take extreme views without much concern about the truth of the information they deploy to support their positions.

This dishonest video provides the media company with what it thinks is a classic case of the “gotcha” moment, but ironically it also serves to underscore the strength of Australia’s claim to be a major mid-level global power. If you want to be taken seriously out there, you have to be prepared for some untruths being told about you. Americans no doubt find this to be true a lot of the time. With Australia it often comes down to the issue of racism.


The video aims to criticise the Coalition government, and especially Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, for extending a hand of welcome to white South African farmers who are apparently suffering persecution in their home country. In order to claim that Dutton is being motivated by racism, the AJ English team contrasts his offer with his treatment of refugees who have been locked up by Australia’s Border Force in prisons on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, and on the Pacific island of Nauru. (The PNG refugees have now been released into the general community.)

The producers found two refugees, including one on Manus Island, Behrouz Boochani, who has been vocal in the past addressing the Australian community through articles in newspapers there. He is a Kurdish journalist. The other person the producers found is living in captivity on Christmas Island, which is located in a remote sector of the Indian Ocean.

At no point did the producers mention the reason for the offshore detention facilities, and neither did they say that the policy that funds them is bipartisan, meaning that both of the major political parties in Australia, the Coalition (Liberal-National) and the Australian Labor Party, own it. This is a damning aspect of the story and represents serious journalistic failure. Once upon a time, I subscribed to the satellite channel that carried Al Jazeera English but I would never go to them for information these days. They have no editorial standard for truth, and merely rely on sensationalism to achieve their editorial goals.

Because the offshore detention policy is bipartisan (actually it was introduced by the Keating ALP government in 1992), it is certain that the majority of Australian citizens agree with interrupting the business of people smugglers, who sell their services to desperate people flying from the Middle East to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, and put their lives at risk in unsafe boats on the high seas. I have written about refugees on the blog before, most recently on 14 August last year, when I suggested establishing a refugee processing centre in Jakarta.

Australia is a welcoming nation and has immigration at levels now that its people have never seen before. From the Australian Bureau of Statistics website:
The Census shows that Australia has a higher proportion of overseas-born people (26%) than the United States (14%), Canada (22%) and New Zealand (23%). What about the United Kingdom, you say? Not even close (13%).
Forty-nine percent of Australians have at least one parent born overseas. The country welcomes over 200,000 every year people (with a total population of 25 million) through its immigration programs, including the refugee program that the AJ English video attempts to criticise.

In fact, immigration levels are so high that there are now debates in the community about their sustainability. What those debates rarely focus on, however, is race. The major independent party that includes racism in its policy platform, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, only got 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 Queensland state election. Queensland is Hanson’s home state. They got one seat in the Parliament there. The issues most people talk about when they think about immigration these days are overcrowding on roads and on trains, and the high cost of residential accommodation (both rented and purchased).

These are much bigger issues for average Australians because they have to cope with them every day, and they are things that Australian cities, particularly Melbourne and Sydney, where most immigrants end up living, will have to deal with.

They go there because that’s where the jobs are. Ironically, in Sydney, it is the “small city” policies of the former ALP premier, Bob Carr, that are making the current Berejiklian Coalition government look so good. In power from 1995 to 2005, Carr had plenty of chances to build new rail lines to serve the city’s growing suburbs but failed each time. Even after he had stepped down as party leader in NSW, the party did not change its policies with regard to public transport. Now, the Coalition, the party of private enterprise, is doing what the ALP should have done all those years ago: build more public transport.

If you want to vote for a party that wants to close down the detention camps, you can choose the Australian Greens, although their support has never got beyond about 15 percent. In the 2018 Tasmanian state election, the Greens won just over 10 percent of the popular vote, and that brought them two seats. The result was down from almost 14 percent in the 2015 election. In South Australia, the 2018 state election brought the Greens about 6.6 percent, again down a couple of percent on the previous election. In the 2017 Queensland state election, the Greens won a seat in the Parliament with 10 percent of the vote, which was up a percent-and-a-half on the previous state election. In the federal Parliament, the Greens have controlled the balance of power in the Senate and that is currently their point of greatest influence in federal politics, which is where immigration policy is decided.

As for South African farmers, if they want to come to Australia, we should welcome them. South Africans have been coming here for years, most notably immediately before and after the dismantling of Apartheid-era government. But they should have to join the queue just like everyone else who wants a better life in a pluralist democracy.

Claims of racism are often still aimed at Australia because of the historical settlement that dated from federation in 1901, when the originary British colonies finally decided to come together as a single country with a single name. One of the first laws passed in the new Parliament that year was the so-called “White Australia” policy, and it remained in force until it began to be dismantled by Coalition governments in the late 1960s. It was finally expunged from the statutes in 1973 by the ALP’s Gough Whitlam, who brought in multiculturalism to replace it as official government policy. The subsequent Fraser Coalition government decided to keep multiculturalism on the statutes, making the policy bipartisan from the very beginning. Australia was only the second country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as official policy.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Book review: The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirahk (2015)

This is a strange book, part comic masterpiece and part fantasy novel, that explores the roots of nationalistic exceptionalism and the forces that power it in society.

The book turns on the life of a forest-dweller named Leemet whose uncle Voortele teaches to speak the language of snakes, which is s skill passed on to most forest-dwellers. At the time the novel opens most of the people living in the forest have left to live as peasants in villages, but Leemet’s mother goes the other way, bringing her two small children back to the forest to live. Her husband is killed by an amorous bear and she raises Salme and Leemet by herself.

Because the history opens at a liminal moment in the proposed historical time, things are changing and Leemet’s life is filled with strange events associated with the exodus of the foresters of Estonia to the towns, where they adopt Christian names and learn how to grow crops to make the bread that they need to survive on. In the forest, on the other hand, the denizens use the Snakish language to immobilise animals that once made docile can then be killed for meat.

One of the forest people who leaves early on is Leemet’s friend Partel, who has already learned Snakish but who abandons all trappings of forest life once he has been welcomed into the village. Leemet will also end up involved with a villager, after Leemet’s wife Hiie is killed, but things never seem to turn out well for the hero of this tale. He is unfortunately haunted by the animist druid Ulgas, who had tried unsuccessfully to sacrifice Hiie to propitiate the forest sprites. Both in the village and in the forest, Leemet is bedevilled by religious types who want people around them to conform to strange rules and practices and to go against their own rational instincts. Leemet has a healthy scepticism for the likes of both Ulgas and the monks in the monastery he listens to while courting Magdaleena, the daughter of a village elder.

The age we inhabit in the book can credibly be approximated to that of the Middle Ages. The German knights have taken over secular government and the monks are in charge of the spiritual lives of the people. Against this backdrop, the few holdouts among the people of the forest enjoy their peaceful lives, untroubled by wars and sacraments, unaffected by taxation, and supplied plentifully with venison and goat. But the old ways have their illogical die-hards as well, and trouble dogs Leemet and his family despite their mastery of Snakish, which allows them to talk with animals.

The book provides a formally complete portrait of a fictional world, in which people occupy certain stations and carry out their tasks in cooperation or in opposition to others. The very nature of history is furthermore examined in the book, especially in the way certain rules – bears are a bit stupid, are amorous, and are greedy, for example – are deployed to further the plot and to furnish material for characterisation.

Leemet’s good relations with the adders of the forest, for example, is used to advance the story at different points, and also serves to underscore how mythology can serve to provide the materials out of which religion is made. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world, and eventually those stories start to guide our actions. In his book on democracy John Keane looks at the extensive tribe of ancient Mesopotamian gods and the way their interactions inspired the people there to concoct originary stories that could be used to explain their world. One thing that Kivirahk does well is to show how such stories are used by the ruling classes in the societies that use them to maintain the status quo, the power structures that favour them personally, rather than to actually provide useful information to the people. This is certainly the case for the village dwellers Leemet meets and we could find any number of such notions in our contemporary world to substantiate the author’s views in this regard.

Kivirahk’s artistic accomplishment is to show how mythology functions but is also itself part of an ongoing conversation that Estonians, you imagine, have about their own cultural roots. The unashamedly self-conscious nature of the narrative is a tonic against the effects of the broader institutions it critiques.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Book review: Saudade, Suneeta Peres da Costa (2018)

Although unfortunately marred by some proofing errors, this is a lovely little novel about an Indian girl brought up in Angola during the colonial period. With a richness of insight and recall that belong to someone beyond her years we are introduced at the beginning of the book to the circumscribed world of a girl aged about three or four, and in successive chapters accompany her through life at different stages of it.

There is the age when she discovers that she is a separate being to her mother. There is the age when she first has to go to school. There is the age when she has her first period. There is the age of her confirmation. There is the age when she finds a boyfriend and makes love with him. And there is the age when political change will take her away from the places that were filled with so many memories.

The book is vanishingly short – I finished it in just a few hours – but the art involved in the telling is rich and deep. You are at one and the same time reading a book and living in the world of a small girl, brought up a Christian, with a father who is a colonial functionary and a mother whose second child, a boy, miscarries. It appears that the mother never recovers completely from this event.

The author is sure of her artistic vision and the way the stories emerge is perfect and absorbing. The imaginative world of youth is given scope to realise many things that otherwise might have been hidden, so that the child can make a credible story out of mere conversations with a school friend, or a chance encounter with a soldier in a cinema can become a source of later experience.

This is a wonderful book that can claim some relationship with the magical realism of the second half of the 20th century, mostly by Latin-American authors. Like the novels and novellas of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, the book is thick with referents and action (Marquez was a journalist before becoming a fictional author). It also uses the ellipsis suggestively to expand the scope of the plausible in a way that reminded me of that earlier work. Here is a scene from chapter one, for example, in which the author talks about a guava the servant, Caetano, brings her mother so that she can make breakfast for the family.
Its skin was green speckled black; it felt cool and heavy and I wondered what would happen if it hit the ground, whether it would split or roll away…
In another scene, the girl is listening as her mother and father talk about a revolt among the Africans known still today as the Baixa de Casanje revolt, and about a German cotton farmer, a client of her father’s, who was killed in a reprisal.
My mother was in the kitchen, standing by the open door and I was playing just outside, turning the large, asymmetrical ears of Crio inside out, watching them flop back when he got bothered with the flies…
De Costa’s use of the ellipsis to point to possibilities that might lie just beyond the actual is suggestive and fascinating. I cannot think of another place in fiction in recent times where I have seen it used in this way. There is something marvellous about this use of a simple orthographic convention to expand the scope of the narrative in complicated and enriching ways, to make the reader think beyond the edges of the intimate story as it is being told, to imagine other possible outcomes where it is used. In the hands of an author focalising her story through the eyes of a child, it fits a pattern set by the rest of the narrative.

The use of the ellipsis furthermore fits the historical backstory of the book, which deals with the diaspora created by Portuguese exploration and global commerce beginning in the 16th century, although it focuses solely on events occurring in the 20th. Things that happen on other continents that lie beyond the horizon are real for these characters in Luanda, the capital of Angola. The family’s origins in Goa, in southwest India, are for example a point of focus in the book, which ends when the girl is repatriated there after her father suicides using a pistol he kept in his office at home.

The novel resembles the classical exponents of magical realism in that it partly relies on such things as hearsay and rumour with their associated implications for character and plot, that are hinted at within the confines of the immediate narrative, to achieve its force.

There is much that is unsaid in the drama that is nevertheless real, such as the rise of revolutionary consciousness among the African inhabitants of the colony, that relies on seemingly incidental details being told at strategic points, making up a complex tapestry of facts that form a completely realised world.

And the end of the book links up with its beginning. In that earlier place, the little girl had kept herself busy imagining the dead who her mother had said would show themselves if they came for her during the night, because they would walk backwards on turned feet. In the book, the child makes herself take care to examine people’s feet so that she will be ready for the creatures if they should appear. At the end of the book, she returns to Goa, to her father’s house, although he is now deceased, thus completing the U-turn the family’s fortunes had traced on the map from the subcontinent, to Africa, and back again.

 “Saudade” is a Portuguese word that has no exact or precise cognate in English but represents a kind of longing or sadness. For me it referred to the lost world of the girl’s childhood in the colony. When I first read the book I imagined it was a memoir but I find online that da Costa was born in Sydney. The book was published in Australia by Giramondo.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Book review: Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn (2018)

Donald Trump doesn’t care what someone like me thinks of him. He communicates directly with a narrow base of support in the electorate that is shrinking but he ignores what people on the progressive side of politics say, except to rubbish any claims of skulduggery they might make. This book will be treated in the same way.

The books looks in detail at the Russian hack of the Democratic National Convention that resulted in a trove of incriminating emails being published by Wikileaks. Trump and his camp knew about the hack a long time before it was even admitted to publicly by the White House. Trump had been involved in Putin’s arc of influence for many years dating from his time staging the Miss World competition in Moscow, and his admiration of Putin, who had long controlled business ties between Russian firms and foreign nationals, dates from that time, around 2013. The links with Trump are manifold and Isikoff and Corn document them in detail.

When you see Trump on the newscasts walking from his helicopter and shouting to reporters “There was no collusion!” this book is what he is talking about. The FBI has set up a team to find cooperation in the Trump election camp prior to the November 2016 result and the Russian government.

The book is a bit boring however, full of insider gossip and Beltway intrigue that has nothing to do with middle America where elections are decided. While the authors suggest that Russian interference in the election process gravely influenced the outcome in 2016, it’s not conclusive (and how could it be?). It’s true that Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump had more carefully scripted his appearances to coincide with the type of disaffection of the middle required to get him over the line. He also had the advantage that he was coming at the contest from the Republican side, after eight years of Obama in leadership.

But there’s no doubt Trump has been soft on Putin, one of the world’s most dangerous demagogues, and the supremo of a blind kleptocracy where money and revanchist sentiment aimed at the West can achieve almost anything. Then again, Trump is a businessman, so Putin would naturally be the type of leader he would gravitate to. They both share the same interests, and the well-being of liberal democracy is not one of them. Trump is more concerned about his private businesses than supporting progressives – noisy, troublesome nonentities – in eastern Europe. The Ukraine? Trump absolutely supports Putin’s political moves in that sphere of influence. Putin is a man Trump can understand and relate to: money talks.

While illuminating, the book is a bit tiresome for the reasons already outlined. I made it just over halfway through before giving up out of boredom.  You wonder when the penny will drop with Americans that their narrow concerns are not shared with populations in other countries in the world. With this kind of political reporting, it’s no wonder they have so many wicked problems in the States: a gerrymandered electoral system, an inefficient healthcare system (it costs the country 50 percent more than the OECD average but mortality strikes Americans on average three years earlier than the OECD average), a chronically-underpaid class of working poor, a criminal lack of concern about the wellbeing of young people, who live all the time with the threat of being shot at school. With problems like these, the influence of the Russian president in the 2016 US federal election shows up on your radar as something like a minor scandal.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Is the 21st century a promising age for autocrats?

Last year we had the 19th party congress rubber-stamping decisions already made about China’s leadership behind closed doors, and this year we have Putin’s “reelection” in a rigged popularity contest where the only viable contender was forbidden by corrupt justices from running. There were staged elections in Egypt. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, in power for the past 40 years, visited Sydney for an ASEAN meeting. In late December and early January there were widespread protests in Iran over official corruption. The only place that has been quiet has been Thailand, where the generals are still in power having ousted the elected prime minister in 2014. Yes, it was that long ago and still no elections there. I’ll have a pad see ew, thanks.

China and Russia are making it easier for petty autocrats like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and General Prayut Chan-o-cha to take and keep power. And the resurgent prevalence of autocracy is being driven by resentment. There is a French term for it: “revanchism”. The term dates from the inter-war years when the German people were mobilised by the Nazis through a democratic process they ultimately dismantled to seek revenge on the allied powers following the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, which formed the full-stop to WWI. In China and in Russia the people are powering resurgent nationalism in order that their countries can lay claim to what they see as their deserved places in the world.

You might say that something similar is happening in the US, but at least there Trump has a limited tenure, although an Australian I know who lives in the US and has done for 40 years, worries about Trump resorting in the end to dictatorship.

China justifies its power grab by claiming that Western standards in the province of human rights are alien to its culture, but the fact is that they are happy to take advantage of everything else that Europe has offered up that is constructive and meaningful, such as technology and science. Even though these things derived from the same Humanist push that resulted in the emergence of representative democracy.

In the beginning, there was no boundary separating the ideals of the researcher in the physical sciences and the struggle for individual fiat. The desire for accurate translations of the Bible from its constituent originary languages into local vernaculars combined with the rediscovery of the classics of Rome to fuel scholarship in northern Europe. The popular journals that published treatises describing new scientific discoveries for the benefit of the broader populace also critiqued imaginative fictions describing injustices righted by sublunary heroes. The men who voted for local representatives in Parliament also ran the companies that converted scientific discoveries into useful technologies. The children of those men formed communities of opinion that helped to dislodge oppressive laws from the statutes.

An ironic twist in this derives of course from the fact that the powerhouse of the Enlightenment project, the Protestant middle classes, were manifestly sustained by revanchism in their personal and professional lives. They were naturally Christians and so relied on a religion founded on a fantasy of revenge over an injustice ultimately corrected through the so-called Ascension. Being Protestants, they were doubly motivated by revanchist sentiment because their breakaway churches were founded on the back of claims of corruption within the preeminent church of Catholicism.

The working classes as well were furthermore motivated to support the leadership in countries like England through the use of othering. Although their wages barely kept them alive and infant mortality was a crushing weight on morale because of disease resulting from poor access to clean drinking water, the men of England freely gave their allegiance to an unbroken line of kings and queens and patriotically lost life and limb in war after war waged against the hated French, and for novelty the hated Dutch. The way that popular culture of the time painted national heroes in hues deeply coloured by nationalistic exceptionalism is a template for how popular sentiment in China is manufactured by the Communist Party at will against the Japanese, for example, or against the Americans in Iran by the mullahs.

You can see where this is all heading. Here are aspects of European history that the leaders of China and Russia can positively embrace because they ideally fit their narratives. They say that the West has for too long humiliated their national pride and it is time to rebalance the ledger, and exact exemplary punishment. So hail to the chief!

Traditional narratives of revenge are easy to come by in any number of secular books in any case – take the fairytale Cinderella for example – and so even though they might profess unease about accusations of autocracy levelled at Putin and Xi the people in those countries still accede to the temptation to come out into the streets to support them. The 21st century promises a rocky ride unless the Russians and the Chinese can be tempted to alter the narrative and force their leaders to surrender temporal power to the demos.

Just as a coda to this little essay, it struck me the other night when thinking about this post that Francesco Petrarca, who launched the Renaissance by writing Italian-language love poetry and reintroducing the letters of Cicero to the popular imagination, had relocated his household to the south of France where he heard the French songs of the troubadours. So the Enlightenment project, from which stems everything that we prize, was begun by an immigrant.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Twitter is becoming more like the world

Facebook might be more in the news lately because of its links to big data firm Cambridge Analytica but Twitter is still chugging along nicely. Yet it is true that it is changing in important ways. In a story at The Verge dated 14 March published to coincide with the annual SXSW conference in Texas, Ev Williams, the founder of both Blogger and Twitter, said:
“Fifteen years ago, when we were coming here to Austin to talk about the internet, it was this magical place that was different from the rest of the world,” said Williams, now the CEO of Medium, at a panel over the weekend. “It was a subset” of the general population, he said, “and everyone was cool. There were some spammers, but that was kind of it. And now it just reflects the world.” He continued: “When we built Twitter, we weren’t thinking about these things. We laid down fundamental architectures that had assumptions that didn’t account for bad behavior. And now we’re catching on to that.”
I tend to agree with Williams, and have written about the polarisation that is tending to characterise social media, notably on 24 July last year. But you often erroneously hear that social media is creating echo chambers where people are only confronted by views that agree with their own. I think the opposite is in fact true. When you subscribe to a hashtag, for example, you get a wide variety of people tweeting things from a number of different viewpoints. Even people you follow will often put up views that disagree with their own, in order, as is always the case, to help create community, to stir up debate and forge conversations.

What is happening, and Williams has talked about this before, as I noted in a blogpost dated 22 May last year, is that we are now seeing a broader cross-section of the world on social media. It’s not just the early adopters any more, it’s everyone. And the quality of the text you read online betrays this heterogeneous provenance. You find people who cannot spell, who cannot use punctuation correctly, who do not know how to phrase things in a logical or persuasive way. Who are just averagely-educated. Or even badly-educated.

And on Twitter you get more of this variety than you do on Facebook, where you have to get people to follow you back in order to be connected. On Twitter, it’s more like the world than it is on Facebook. And it’s a wild place sometimes, a place where you are likely to find yourself confronted in unexpected and novel ways.

These days, Twitter is where I spend most of my time. I might refresh Facebook every few hours or so and spend a few minutes scrolling through the resulting News Feed to see what other people are saying. But most of my time is spent on TweeetDeck. I have multiple channels set up, including a hashtag (#auspol) and a second account I made which mostly follows people who just post book reviews. I can get plenty of content from Twitter on a continual basis, where I might just spend a few minutes on Facebook every two hours or so.

For the book reviews I write, which I publish most days, Facebook and Twitter both give me readers. I can see where the clicks are coming from using the analysis tools provided by the blogging platform. The tail is longer with Facebook, however, because of the way the platform times the release of content in the News Feeds of people you are connected with. With Twitter, the hit is quick and short-lived.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Book review: The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (2018)

Jaxie Clackton possesses a mouthful of a name but you have to remember that by bestowing it on his hero Winton is making a point. His creation is an unseemly young man, from an abusive family background, and he probably doesn’t know how to conduct himself in polite company.

The name is designed to fit the youth like a skin. It fills out in strange places with crooked rawness but his movements are animated by what is supposed to be an endearing quantity of honest sentiment. Never mind that when he talks to himself he sounds like a criminal. We’re supposed to give the boy the benefit of the doubt, as we would wish the cops would. The police are in the frame because Jaxie finds his father trapped and dead underneath a car the wheels of which the old man had removed, for repair presumably. And so Jaxie hits the road, not waiting around to be blamed for the death.

The book starts out with Jaxie driving a Jeep on the open road, the wind in his hair and a lamb chop that he is eating gripped in his free hand. Jaxie’s father was a butcher and on the night he had found the old man bleeding on the floor of the garage, Captain Wankbag, as Jaxie dubs him, had beaten his son senseless and thrown him into the shop’s bone box, a place for refuse to be thrown away. You can hardly blame Jaxie for skedaddling, but unfortunately the glamour of the bumptious wears a bit thin and you can’t be bothered reading about a gormless fool with an underdeveloped sense of his own worth.

Painting the delineations of disadvantage is a worthwhile task for any writer but Winton has made a name for himself doing so, ever since his first novels came out in the 1980s. His misshapen, awkward heroes live on the fringes of mainstream society and no doubt Winton feels for them with great intensity. But it’s not enough for a novelist just to have good intentions, you also have to deploy art to embellish your accounts of the lives of the disenfranchised and desperate. For Winton, the task is too much for him to muster the necessary resources, at least in this novel, to keep me interested.

There have never been so many novel ways of describing the average Australian, as we see with the ABC’s TV shows ‘Upper Middle Bogan’ and ‘Sando’, both of which manufacture humour that skirts the boundaries between the middle and working classes. The model for such productions of course were the comic creations Prue and Trude of Gina Riley and Jane Turner. These two women belong to the elites but they work in retail, and it is in the gap in their banter between their expectations and the realities of their lives that the humour arises.

Doing the working class in Australia well can be achieved, as Melanie Cheng showed us this year with the story ‘Macca’ in her short story collection ‘Australia Day’. The eponymous character is a member of the underclass and we see him in his occasional meetings with his doctor, Emily Garret. Cheng has experience working with all sorts of Australians as she is a GP herself as well as being a writer. Macca has to stop drinking otherwise the police will put him in jail, so he’s seeing Garret for help with the withdrawal symptoms. One day, he isn’t home when his case worker comes to check up on him, and she calls Garret to let her know. Garret knows that if Macca absconds, the police can pick him up. Then she calls him on his mobile and gets through. It turns out he’s on his way to the Northern Territory. He sounds positive, upbeat even. But the conversation is brief. Cheng leaves us wondering what will happen to Macca. But she also leaves us thinking about the feelings that Garret has for her patient. It’s a complex and interesting snapshot out of the annals of Australian life, an unadorned glimpse into reality of a kind that Winton is signally unable to furnish us with.

The problem with Winton’s book is one of focalisation. If you need to use a focalising subject who has a different education level or set of experiences from you, the author, in order to achieve the artistic objectives you have for the work, then you need to decide how you are going to handle such basics of composition as the use of metaphors. Since James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922) writers have been able to use stream-of-consciousness to achieve their artistic goals. The famous Molly Bloom scene in that book is a good example of how a writer can use a poorly-educated character to focalise his or her narrative to good effect. In Cheng’s case it isn’t a problem because the focalisation in the story is through the GP.

Other writers have been able to do what Joyce did, for example Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, both from the US, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian writer. They gave us credible characters who were from poor backgrounds, significantly at odds from the point of view of education and expressive power from those of the authors, and pulled off the trick.

But Winton seems to be conforming to a different tradition, an early exponent of which was Peter Carey’s awful ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ (2001), where the author used some extant historical documents upon which to base his formulation of the criminal’s verbal delivery. (The book won the 2001 Booker Prize.) Marlon James tried a similar thing in the unreadable ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ (2014) where he focalises parts of the narrative through a character who is barely verbal. The reader struggles to come to grips with reality in any form, and the attempt fails disastrously. (The book won the 2015 Man Booker Prize.)

The problem is where the author totally hands over word choice and control over the expressive machinery of the narrative to the character him- or herself. If you do that you severely circumscribe the limits of poetic scope, and it is within these that the plot unfolds. You basically give up your authorial voice and put the controls of the vehicle in the hands of an amateur. Imagine letting a novice drive a car even though they can’t get out of second gear. The car will struggle to travel faster than 30 kilometres per hour. This is where Winton, Carey and James fall down. They don’t fully realise their intellectually-challenged characters, in the way that Joyce did, for example, or Faulkner. It is a failure of art and unfortunately it is a catastrophic one.