Friday, 31 August 2012

I Don't Know

I'm not a very politically motivated person. As such, I tend to notice things that annoy me about politicians rather than their achievements. The first time I remember being truly flabbergasted by a politician  was during The Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Brisbane in the late 1980s. Under oath former Premier of Queensland Joh Bjleke-Petersen was asked whether he understood The Separation of Powers under The Westminster System.

Clearly he didn't. But instead of saying 'I don't know' or 'I'm not sure', he instead stalled for time with his patented double speak until someone finally explained it.

The Separation of Powers under the Westminster System basically means that the branches of legislature, executive and judiciary must act separately and not be allowed to encroach on each other. It's a pity Sir Joh apparently didn't understand this because it is exactly what his government were being accused of breaching.

As part of my job I have to listen to a lot of political commentary and it amazes me how difficult it is for politicians to answer a question directly. One of the great question-avoiders in interviews I encountered before she became PM was Julia Gillard. She would always turn questions back to the official party line rather than risk drifting off topic and making a controversial statement, especially when it came to rumours of a leadership spill.

Maybe this skill to confound rather than enlighten is something that has helped politicians such as Sir Joh and Julia Gillard (strange that they are at polar ends of politics) gain power. I can't blame Ms Gillard in a way, because when she went to the last election with a promise not to introduce a carbon tax she was labelled a 'liar' when Labor introduced one. No politician wants that!

This week Federal Coalition Leader Tony Abbott accused the carbon tax of being a reason why BHP pulled out off the Olympic Dam project before admitting on national TV that he had not even read the report. Later he retracted this statement. I'm still unsure whether he has read it or not but it does undermine his claim to be able to have an informed opinion on this issue. Here Abbott admitted he 'didn't know' which is to his credit I suppose, but his shrugging 'aw shucks - you caught me out' persona following his gaff and subsequent spin was equally annoying.

It seems that all political commentary is spin these days and having to listen to it can be very frustrating. I often feel as frustrated as this British interviewer Jeremy Paxman ,who asked the same question 'Did you threaten to overrule him?' a dozen times in this brief interview with conservative politician Michael Howard and still didn't get a straight answer.

Paxman later admitted that he asked the question so many times because his producer told him to pad out the time, but maybe Paxman himself was doing a little political spin, because no politician would dare come on the show in future if they thought they would be bullied. 

Of course it's not just politicians that have their own agendas. Interviewers do also. Politicians need to be defensive, but often caginess on the side of interviewers and politicians as well as the desire to push their own agendas results in never engaging properly with real issues.

In my mind the classic polarising and seemingly-unwinnable debate is climate change. Journalist Andrew Bolt makes no secret of his disbelief in the science of climate change. He would often scoff at listeners who would call up his talk-back show on now-defunct radio station MTR citing scientific evidence for the existence of climate change. Bolt had his own selection of climate change-denying scientists that he would quote back at them, even though their numbers are far fewer than scientists who think climate change is real. Incidentally, one of Bolt's favourite sources Professor Richard Muller has back-flipped on the issue and now concedes that climate change is a probable threat.

Bolt further undermined listeners by refusing to engage in any debates that go beyond the confines of climate change into other issues he sees as tangential such as pollution, population growth and economics. To me the climate change debate is linked to all these issues and ties into the one fundamental question: What kind of world do you want to live in?

This question unfortunately goes beyond the grasp of politics. I'm no scientician, but I'm able to make my own assessment of the world through my own stray observations. Surely stopping factories spewing smoke into the atmosphere, people dying from poisoned water and ever-encrochaing desert and populations wearing gas masks to stop from choking to death in major urban centres is a good thing? To (mis)quote a popular climate change scientist, I believe that 'even if climate change doesn't exist then by acting to stop pollution we would have simply made the world a better place for no good reason'

I think political parties seem to have their priorities wrong these days. They seem to be too concerned with winning leadership challenges, opinion polls and on-air political debates and forming policies on-the-run to appeal to the most constituents before lastly trying to justify these policies with the party's political ideology. In my opinion, they should start with their ideologies and build from there. 

Sometimes ideologies are more important than politics but we do live in a cynical age where it's not popular to be ideological. To me Labor's Peter Garrett represented something more important as the singer from Midnight Oil than he does as Federal Minister for Education. Anybody can tow the Labor-Party line, but as an agitator in Midnight Oil he stood for something beyond political muck-raking and was free to speak his mind. He's gone from being Batman to settling for Commissioner Gordon. 

We are all subjected to so much information these days and it seems everyone (including myself) is an armchair expert. Perhaps all 20-million plus of us need to admit that we simply 'don't know' and try and think less about 'what's in it for me?' and more about 'what is right'.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Taking Back the 'N' Word

I’ve never been to war but I think I know how some old veterans feel when they return home to an apathetic country and years later have to witness younger generations taking for granted the freedoms for which they fought and often died. 

It is simply wrong for young, attractive people with carefully considered tattoos, flawless complexions, angular yet urgent haircuts and promising careers in some form of fulfilling yet computer-aided industry to refer to themselves as ‘nerds’.

A nerd is a term of derision applied to someone who is universally mocked. The lowest rung on the social food chain. An outcast. It is true that at one time having an interest in computers and any form of hobby outside the mainstream would label you a nerd, but since then the cultural paradigm has shifted and now there is no singular mainstream. It has shattered like a vase on a concrete floor. The nerds have had their revenge but they have forgotten the heroes that went before them.

Before the internet in a distant time called the 1980s there was no way to even know that there was a world-wide group of intelligent yet socially awkward young people that could share their stories and their singular obsessions. Nerds clustered by themselves in small groups with no singular defining looks like those portrayed in the movies. Sure there would be the odd person with dandruff the size of cornflakes or breath that would scare away a grizzly bear; there may have also been a guy with wire-rimmed Health-Department-approved glasses who carried a briefcase to school. The thing that most nerds shared, however, was a lack of self-awareness.

The defining tool of the nerd is the computer, but back in the 1980s they couldn’t even be used for much. Most computer games involved waiting about half an hour for some text-based adventure game to load on cassette so that you could briefly imagine yourself in some fantastic realm battling goblins. If sporting types had known in years to come that pornography would be readily available on computers then they may have looked differently upon the humble nerd.

The closest thing you could probably get to pornography would be to tirelessly type in some BASIC code from the back of a computer magazine such as Australian Personal Computer in the hope of being able to play a game of strip poker. Unfortunately, if you typed in just one wrong number, the whole game would crash and say something like: syntax error line 40. Even if you did get it right and managed to win a game against an imaginary computer component, such as pioneering internet porn  queen Sam Fox (above), then there would be inevitable disappointment when you finally got her naked and revealed her nipple to be the size and shape of a Leggo block, except in a monochromatic green colour.

No aspiring graphic designer would have even bothered to use programs like Logo in which you could order a turtle around a screen which would leave a trail and create shapes that you could fill with different colours. I suspect the whole program was devised to teach geometry rather create art, but the resulting images hardly inspired a sense of wonder or helped to justify the effort spent on creating it. 

Computers are an essential tool in music creation these days and programs like Pro Tools and Logic are industry standard, but back in 1984 when I first became interested in music this is the best that Commodore computers had to offer:

I suppose the real nerd heroes are people like Steve Jobs who could handle the jibes and see potential in this (at the time) limited technology. Other nerds fell through the cracks. These nerds were brainwashed into thinking being smart and curious about the world was a liability that they were not willing to be humiliated for. Those who lacked the courage to face their detractors ended up just hiding from them and trying to fit in with more ‘normal’ activities that would not attract any attention towards their more socially abhorrent interests.

The result is these people missed the boat when the world turned and finally embraced their secret shame. Perhaps it was a case that they were born too soon: Like the football star that was afraid to pursue a career in professional football and ended up a real estate agent, so too the nerd who subjugated his nerdish tendencies also lost out.

Perhaps this proto-nerd ended up a public servant; whiling away his days in a dead-end middle-management job. One of the invisibles. The sort of guy you might see outside a model shop in a cheap polyester suit gazing longingly at the trains and the model airplanes inside, groceries in hand and comb-over blowing gently in the breeze. If you see him, don’t look away - because there for the grace of god go you.

Lest We Forget.

Friday, 17 August 2012

George Saunders: The Brain-Dead Megaphone

Sometimes it can be fun to travel down the rabbit hole.

I was listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast a while ago and one of the guests was actor Michael Cera. I'm not a massive fan, but he was talking about his favourite books and I noted that we had similar tastes in post World War II American authors and essayists. One writer he mentioned that I hadn't heard of before was George Saunders. I couldn't resist checking out his collection of non-fiction essays - especially with a title like 'The Brain-Dead Megaphone'.

Saunders is a an amiable writer and has a great sense of humour. He's not as self-effacing as someone like David Sedaris, but then he wasn't blessed (or cursed) with the same bizarre family life. Saunders has a more 'journalistic' eye and is a little more outward-looking. His stories can mostly be divided into two camps: The personal and political.

The title story 'The Brain-Dead Megaphone' is a particularly scathing political summation of the effect the media has on (to borrow a Noam Chomsky term) 'manufacturing consent'. It posits the scenario where media discourse is like a party. There are several groups having perfectly reasonable low key discussions. Suddenly, someone bursts into the room speaking through a megaphone - It doesn't matter how boorish or enlightened the words coming from the megaphone are, because everyone's conversations will suddenly be attuned to that discussion. Saunders suggests this is how nations become involved in wars like the one in Iraq, because the megaphone proclaimed a blatant lie to be the truth. What ever happened to those weapons of mass destruction?

This story was written a few years ago and I wonder if Saunders could revise this story somewhat. My own cynical opinion is that with media fragmentation, internet pay walls, the demise of broadsheet journalism and the News of the World scandal that the volume of the megaphone seems to have been turned down. Soon governments will not need popular consent before embarking on some hostile venture, because less people will be interested in political discourse and instead be checking their Buzzfeed to see whether Kim Kardashian has had bum implants or not.

Saunders' views are left-wing but at his core he's more of a humanist. In a story about border protection on the Mexican-US border, 'The Great Divider', he spends time with law enforcement, vigilantes and Mexican illegal-aliens and manages to humanise all parties involved, while pointing out the futility and ridiculousness of trying to enforce an often imaginary divide.

Similarly, in a story about the city of Dubai, 'The New Mecca', Saunders is self-aware enough to accept that it is something of a jounalistic cliche to be looking for a negative spin on a city where there is a massive rich and poor divide and he is surrounded by such opulence. He ponders his own hypocrisy, while contemplating a man who is thrilled to have a much-coveted job of cleaning windows at a hotel who earns as much in a year as Saunders was paid to write his travel story.

Saunders seems to be especially enthusiastic when discussing other writers. I was happy to note that he held one of my other favourite writers Kurt Vonnegut in high regard. In 'Mr Vonnegut in Sumatra', Saunders discusses how Vonnegut could be more truthful and personal about the brutality of war by delivering his stories in the form of fiction rather than non-fiction.

One of his most personal and touching stories, 'Thank You Esther Forbes', involved Saunders' love of the book 'Johnny Tremain'. He was given this book as a child by a teacher he had a crush on. Tragically, his affections would never be reciprocated - She was a nun! It all ended happily, however, when Sister Lynette unwittingly began Saunders' love affair with literature. Thanks sister!

In 'The United States of Huck', Saunders discusses his divided feelings about 'Huckleberry Finn'. Saunders considers it an American classic, but has some qualms with the overt racism in the book, as well as an unsatisfying ending that relies too much on coincidence. Ever the diplomat, Saunders rationalises Mark Twain's racism by putting it in the context of the time and explaining that Twain's views were quite progressive - especially considering Twain was the son of a slave-owner.

Saunders didn't convince me to want to read Huckleberry Finn. It seems just too embedded in the public consciousness to be able to be read from a fresh perspective. His comparison of post modern short story writer Donald Barthelme's 'The School' against the classic narrative structure, 'The Perfect Gerbil', made me actually want to read Barthelme's work, which otherwise would have left me confused and dismissive if I hadn't read Saunders' interpretation. I've managed to get a copy of Barthelme's collection 'Forty Stories' so that will be a further trip down the rabbit hole (thanks Michael Cera).

The penultimate story in 'The Brain-Dead Megaphone' is called 'The Buddha'. It touches on something that Saunders seems reticent to discuss - spirituality. In the story he flies to Katmandu to investigate a supposed 'miracle' where a boy has sat under a tree meditating for seven months without drinking or eating. I found this story especially touching as Saunders opens up about some of his own fears, such as the realisation of the love for his wife and the finite time they have together, as well as his daughter's well-being following a recent car crash.

Saunders does not strike me as the religious type, but this vulnerability he establishes helps to contextualise what happens in the story. Saunders spends an excruciating night in Katmandu which is apparently the coldest in 70 years. His objective is to stay awake and find out if the boy is secretly being fed at night. During the entire vigil, Saunders is moving about feverishly to keep warm and is suffering from sleep deprivation, but the boy does not move an inch! In his sleep-deprived state, Saunders believes he sees lights emanating from the boy, which leads him to consider the nature of miracles. Ultimately he is unable to uncover if the boy is perpetrating a hoax or not, but appreciates the power the boy has as a symbol of hope.

The final story is a fitting counter-balance to 'The Brain-Dead Megaphone' which is called 'Manifesto: A Press Release from PRKA'. Kurt Vonnegut would approve of this story. It basically entails listing what PRKA - People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction - failed to do today: Torture people, blow themselves up taking innocent civilians with them, fly planes into buildings, set landmines or harbor feelings of hatred. Sounds like a good day's work in my opinion!

In short, these stories are the ramblings of a sane and reasonable human being, which is always a refreshing thing to read. Saunders has managed to make me a little paranoid, though. Am I also contributing to the brain-dead megaphone by writing this? Please don't ignore me - I'm not asking for your compliance to commit global atrocities - I just want you to read a book... Now please excuse me - I'm off to check my Buzzfeed!


Friday, 10 August 2012

RIP Robert Hughes

Australian-born art critic, author and presenter Robert Hughes is a lot like Mother Teresa. I'm sure he'd scoff at the comparison, but unfortunately he's not around to read this. Robert Hughes died this week in New York after a long and successful career. He was one of the most recognised critics in the world and at the time of his death had been Time Magazine's art critic for over 30 years.

I first heard about his death while watching the morning news. My first thought was that his timing was terrible, as there had been blanket coverage of the 2012 Olympics all week. Sure enough there was only a ten second tribute to Hughes while the rest of the program seemed to be dedicated to Australia's lacklustre performance in the medal tally. I instantly was reminded of Mother Teresa whose death after a lifetime of service to others was overshadowed by Princess Diana's fateful car crash. 

Of course Hughes was no saint and I suppose it is never a good time to die, but dismissing one of Australia's most famous intellectuals in favour of the Olympics seems as insulting as running the results of a swimsuit contest immediately after a memorial to Germaine Greer.

I don't know what Hughes' attitude was toward sport. I know he was a keen fisherman and wrote a book on the subject. Hughes certainly looked like a typical Australian male, and wouldn’t look out of place amongst the myriad of blustery, ruddy-faced regulars at any local pub throughout Australia. It was probably this 'Australian-ness' which made him so successful in the first place. As an outsider he had no agenda to impress the New York art world.

I first became aware of Robert Hughes when I was at high school in the 1980s. This was probably Hughes' most turbulent decade as a critic and he was very vocal in his hatred for what he saw as the commodification of art and a lot of the 'rock star' artists who were around at the time. One memorable viewing during an art lesson of one of his documentaries (probably Shock of the New) featured Hughes giving a particularly scathing appraisal of artist Jeff Koons. Koons is famous for attempting to elevate kitsch culture to the level of art. Among his most famous works are a statue of Michael Jackson and his monkey 'Bubbles' and a giant dog made of flowers. Koons was criticised for contracting other artists to create his works and for his private life overshadowing his art. His marriage to Italian porn star-turned-politician La Cicciolina probably didn't help curtail this criticism.

Hughes savaged Koons. To my astonishment in the very next segment he sat down with Koons, shook his hand and the pair proceeded to have a civil discussion. Of course, some credit goes to Koons for agreeing to the interview, but this illustrates Hughes' ability to separate his personal feelings from his professional opinions. It also demonstrates Hughes' braveness and a prized Australian ability to be a 'good sport'. Perhaps the Australian Olympic swimming team could take a leaf out of Hughes' book.

I later found out that Hughes had a lot of scathing criticism for other stars of the art scene in the eighties, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he ruthlessly described as 'the worst artist of the decade' and iconic graffiti artist Keith Haring. I don't necessarily agree with Hughes on this assessment and I particularly am fond of Basquiat, but it made me realise that to be a passionate reviewer of art (or even a passionate fan) you have to define yourself by what you hate as much as what you like. You've got to stand for something and no critic ever got famous by towing the line. Hughes had a unique ability to walk the tightrope.

I tend to lump Hughes in with a generation of Australians such as Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer, who not only had to go overseas to achieve success, but were also spurred on by a pervasive anti-intellectualism in Australia. Watching the pitiful tribute on the news makes me wonder if this has changed. 

* * * * * 

Recently I was out op-shopping with my daughter. She wanted to buy a cheap plastic toy but I had no cash on me at the time. I needed to make a ten dollar purchase to use the Eftpos machine. To make up the difference I grabbed a copy of the nearest paperback that was of interest. It happened to be Robert Hughes' weighty tome 'The Fatal Shore'. It has sat beside my bed for the past several months. I've examined it since Hughes' death and it has made me wonder if I am any better than people I accuse of not appreciating Australian culture. Maybe I'll get around to reading it now that Hughes is gone. In death has Hughes martyred himself for Australian culture? I'm willing to concede that circumstantially his death was ignored in the same way as Mother Theresa's - but there's no way I'm going to compare him to Jesus!

RIP Robert Hughes

Friday, 3 August 2012

Mid Life Crisis

I don't know how long people are expected to live these days, but I recently turned 41. In the not-too-distant past I would be expected to have adult kids by this age or even be a grandparent. In the middle ages I would probably be dead already. Thankfully, I'm in neither of these camps, but I do have a daughter who has just turned four. Watching someone growing up does give me pause to ponder my own mortality, which is something my carefree alter-ego would not even think twice about.

My conclusion about the best-case scenario for my future is this: Before I die, after a long and happy life, I would like to have my consciousness uploaded into a vast amoeba-like cloud of pure energy that would float through space for all eternity. I would look down benevolently upon the mortals in countless star systems and perhaps even be worshipped as some sort of god-like creator. I realise this is probably a long shot, but a guy needs to have goals!

People are living longer these days. While buying a birthday card recently, I noticed a whole section of cards dedicated to people who have turned 100. When I was younger this would have seemed inconceivable that so many would reach this milestone, but now it's a common enough occurrence that greeting-card companies seem to think they can turn a profit by exploiting this fact.

So I think that middle-age is more of a state of mind than a pre-determined number. I can sense it creeping up on me like a stalker when I find myself feeling self-conscious doing things that I've always enjoyed and wondering if a man of my advancing years would appear dignified to others. Middle age is like a second adolescence with less acne and no sense of expectation for the future.

To try and find a way to traverse these dangerous waters I find it best to consider an example from  the Baby Boomer generation. A textbook example of a mid life crisis, I believe, is Bob Dylan.

Nobody captured the Baby Boomer promise of youth more fully than a young Bob Dylan and I don't think any image of Dylan illustrates this promise more fully than the cover of his second album 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan':

It's such an iconic image of Dylan wandering along frozen New York streets with his best girl by his side - smiling and braving the cold. They carry on regardless, knowing that nothing will stand in their way as long as they have each other. In short, it captures the idealism of youth and is a great precursor do a decade of turmoil and innovation on Dylan's behalf.

Things started to change in the 1970s for everybody as the music industry became bloated, excessive and complacent. Dylan was still a massive cultural touchstone but as the 1970s turned into the 1980s he started to flounder.

The 1980s could be considered Dylan's 'middle aged' period. Although, in my opinion, he still had the occasional good song, he was not making classic albums and was bogged down with the wrong producers, experimenting with synths and hokey spirituality before cruising out the remainder of the decade in 'The Travelling Wilburys'.

I would argue that this period was important for Dylan because it made him realise what his strengths were and he returned to a more rootsy sound in the 1990s. During this time he made one of his best regarded albums in 1997 with 'Time Out of Mind'. A health scare also contributed to the focus of the album as well as perhaps one of the best looks he has ever adopted:

He looks positively wretched! But I like it better than any look he adopted in the 1980s. He's like some sort of zombie-monkey-skeleton that has been resurrected as a riverboat gambler in the late 19th century.

It makes me realise that there is hope for the future. While it would seem that a mid life crisis may be important in helping you realise your strengths so you can define yourself in later life, I would rather just skip the experience entirely and just continue on to the wizened sage-like-enigma period of my life.

So, dear reader, if in several centuries time you ever encounter an amoeba-like cloud of pure energy floating through the cosmos wearing a stetson hat and a pencil-thin moustache then stop and say hello - It's probably me.