Music Relativism and Ten Good Things - March 4, 2013
My last couple of posts can be found over at journalisnt.net - enjoy!
My last couple of posts can be found over at journalisnt.net - enjoy!
Thankfully, the Prime Minister of Australia has made a demonstration that it’s okay to talk about feminism again – it’s been a hushed public topic for too long. The prime minister has always had a role in directing public discourse, and Julia Gillard has finally been moved to speak up about routine misogyny in her own workplace.
With all of the offensive tripe tumbling from the maw of Tony Abbott over the years, what gets to me the most is the suggestion of some shadowy “physiological differences” making women inferior candidates for leadership positions or occupations comprising any form of intellectual capital. However, Abbott’s view also demonstrates the problem of articulating contemporary feminism: as in select corners of the globe women’s participation burgeons in the workforce (and I stress we are only at the beginning of a long road to equality; there are plenty of statistics available on current inequities), the problems faced by women move to the less quantifiable realm of attitudinal disadvantage – which is notoriously difficult to scientifically analyse. But it is possible: recent research into our concept of women scientists shows how far we have to come.
So it is important not to shirk conversations of women’s involvement in leadership roles and the obstacles they face, despite difficulties in perceptibility, which may have made it harder to present the case of gender bias.
However, here’s what I have to say: there’s a grander narrative at work here, and in a way a more urgent one, which is a global issue. I’ve turned it over in my head and no matter which way I look at it, women’s involvement in working life seems to be the greatest contributing factor to some of our foremost measures of “progress” per se.
First of all, women’s participation in government is undeniably correlated with a reduction in global violence and warfare, the reasons for which were recently outlined by Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature“. It may or may not be directly causal, but a relationship is clearly observable; beyond theorising interminably about causes and effects, it does seem to be a good idea to keep ahead with anything that appears to be working to reduce war worldwide.
But then there’s global population increase also, which is at least partially responsible for our climate change dilemma.
I have good news: women in the workplace are solving this one too. One of the grand narratives of the last century has been the colossal change in lifestyle that comes with mass urbanisation. Humans are now predominantly urban, and as the world is urbanising, the total fertility rate (or the rate of population growth) has also begun to decline. It’s a continuing story in the developing world, where we still find the highest population growth: as people move to cities, they begin to have less offspring. Apparently, access to superior education, labour pooling and its attendant variety of working opportunities and environments, changes everything.
So the education of women and workplace participation in parts of the world lagging in gender equality – as well as those on the vanguard – can be thanked for a great many improvements to the lives not just of women, but everyone. We all gain from this process. Check out even more correlations between women’s rights and human development markers.
Calling for or justifying any kind of exclusion from this process, as has Abbott, woefully protected by other members of his party, is in part a call to slow down mutual human progress toward a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world for everyone. And this is to say nothing of the sense of purpose and meaning brought to the lives of those women who are simply good at leadership, and experience the flow of working in an occupation they were born to enjoy.
Having set up journalisnt.net as a site for alternative journalism, the observant observer would note the absence of any New Journalism or even a humble travelogue – until now, I have held the “I” aloft in my jottings.
Today I’ll offer that travelogue, then. Having returned from a couple of weeks spent in Hong Kong compels me to write a few lines in wonder at an astonishing metropolis both fast and garish, wild yet condensed, exhausting and energising at the same time. Hong Kong has the second longest life expectancy in the world (after Japan), ranks high on the Human Development Index, has superior corruption perception according to Transparency International and at the same time retains singular economic freedom and is unattached to any Western democracy since the handover in 1997. It’s a confounding place.
It’s also geared toward families, with all generations out on the streets at night – that is, safe. Coming into the city, nestled in the hills, it looks like a science-fiction paperback jacket from the 1960s minus the flying cars and multiple moons hugging the horizon.
But what I find most striking, and what I want to write about, is the lack of cynicism in the people. This is not something so easy to quantify, but coming en route between Australia-London-Scotland, it is evident. When you talk to someone in Hong Kong, the conversation starts from a place of mutual trust; at the same time, Hong Kong is saturated in media and commercial interests which seem less questioned.
I’d like to clarify my doubts here, before I go on. I spoke to a friend employed in Hong Kong as a schoolteacher – she suggests there just isn’t the same emphasis on coaching in critical thinking (although I noted protests before I arrived, some of which had to do with resistance to China’s injection of jingoist doctrine in the school curriculum). My friend, who has also lived in New Zealand and Australia, says almost exclusively when the kids hit their teens, they don’t do traditional outbursts and question authority (teenagerdom as we know it), they just retreat inward. She describes this as difficult to watch.
Another friend whose extended family resides between Australia and Hong Kong describes the way most families – including her own – will not speak openly of familial disputes, preferring instead to pretend they are not happening, suffering in the process. She posits this as a kind of local custom – family enmeshment reigns, but healthy questioning of family bonds does not. Many in her family refuse to speak to one another.
At the same time, the openness and honesty, the lack of ingrained irony and constant questioning I encountered – and have encountered in others I’ve met from Hong Kong – as well as abundant honour- and trust-based social and commercial transactions, all came as such a relief that I began to ask myself some hard questions.
Although I’m pretty much hardwired now to uphold the virtues of critical thinking in education – an irony in itself when you consider how spuriously targeted a value this “critical thinking” is – I had to note that its absence makes for a refreshing point of view. There’s a lot lost in a world where it is necessary to mistrust every message as you receive it, to always start from a critical position with all communiqué.
There’s the problem: it is necessary to do this kind of questioning. The culture of critical thinking didn’t come out of nowhere – I’ve devoted a lot of time here to encouraging readers to consider not so much the values embedded in specific media, but the sociology of the effects of mass media; what is happening to us the more time we spend engaged with mediated reality? One thing we need more than ever are the tools and the minds to question whether or not pretty much every communication we encounter has our best interests in mind, given that the majority of messages we receive are now commercially driven and often harder to detect as commercially driven. Working in PR, I have witnessed with some distress the drive to integrate commercial interests with our most intimate, local and trusted sources.
Naturally, this emphasis on critical thinking has to become habitual and attitudinal in order to work – but as this happens, it increasingly has to spill over into all our interactions, ever the more so when our social interactions are mediated through devices which add adds to them, and all manner of sneaky distortions of our sociality to direct our attention through trusted media. It has become necessary to mistrust everyone, and it shows in the attitudes of successive generations – if Gen Y communicated in a protective nudge-and-wink irony, wait until you see Gen Z and subsequent iGens at work!
For communication to mean something, it needs at least occasional trust. But with good reason, that trust is harder to find.
The relative absence of this familiar attitude may have made Hong Kong refreshing to a traveller like myself, but subsequently Hong Kong is an almost blindingly commercialised city. Every surface seems covered in advertisements of some kind – and considering the amount of buying and selling and intensive consumption of planetary resources happening there, some of it is surely internalised…
How do we do this then? How do we achieve a workable level of trust and not become driven by those with the capital to exploit it?
Of course, this is just one question weighing on my mind. I also regretfully left behind such wonders as the MTR, providing the mobility of which my hometown Sydney can’t possibly see for decades, at least. Why? Because in our version of democracy, we value critical debate 4eva and live in the moment – how long have we been debating long-term public transport plans? How long, despite clear future gains, has no one been willing to pay for it?
Yet another friend elucidated the economics of the transport system: the government built shopping centres above the land under which the MTR was developed. The shopping centres partially fund further transport investment. But then you’ve got more shopping centres, of course…
So I come to wonder, so grandly, whether democracy is only a means to begin separation of powers – once this is achieved, how on earth do we get on with the job of long-term planning? How did Hong Kong plan such a great city, with its tumultuous political past, swapping hands and enduring occupation? After the Japanese left and the war ended, the United Kingdom did put a lot into development of one of their final colonies, at this point with no opium gain in return – perhaps at pains to make amends and rebrand colonial heritage, make it look good. After the unpopular handover, it seems to have kept developing at speed. Hong Kong fans are fond of saying it’s the best of the east and the best of the west combined – I’m inclined to tentatively agree. “Tentatively” – must be that westernised cynical streak in me.
About a decade ago, when the internet had so recently transformed our homes and offices, sociologists spent a lot of ink worrying about the broader effect all this computer time would have on the way we associate with each other. There were a lot of fears of de-socialisation; the resonating picture of us sitting in isolation on our computers and mobile phones, pretending to engage with each other but having our discourse mediated beyond recognition through digital and cellular networks. What if we weren’t getting the real social connectivity we needed?
That dialogue died down swiftly as we came to accept our lot – the IT “revolution” (replete with scare quotes) couldn’t be stopped. So we discussed the minutiae of day-by-day developments in digital culture. While we may have missed the point earlier – the many more hours spent in mediated reality seems chiefly in aid of social pursuits, even just organising face meetings – we shouldn’t stop considering the effects of over-mediation. Within a generation, we have adapted to a world where much more of our surroundings are mediated by other people; tailored reality, tamed, commodified, distilled from the complexities of the world around us, subject to the tyranny of consensus and groupthink &c, &c. Plus, there are plenty of timely warnings about the attention-stunting effects of screen time on early brain development.
Now we talk about the me culture. Rising narcissistic personality disorders, encouraged by marketing gurus with their “my” this “i” that. What’s happening, can we blame the technology?
Thomas De Zengotita argues it’s not that simple. A cultural analyst foremost, he’s been arguing that celebrity culture and the media we spend so much of our time engaged with is about us rather than the content itself – and we’ve become obsessed with analysing content as though it meant something. He is not as interested in minutiae or incessant close readings of pop culture: he’s looking at the accumulation. What happens when we have so many screens, so much advertising space, so much targeted content all addressing us? All flattering us by speaking to us all of the time, paying us attention – as all media does. Screens pay us attention, not the other way around.
This has to have changed the way we think about ourselves.
Zengotita is concerned that it’s made self-interested performers out of everyone. But there’s something else at stake here – and it has to do with innovation.
Here’s the deal: the quickest to figure out the parameters of the mediated world in the playground – and replicate it – receives the dubious honour of being the schoolyard trendsetter, head of the “cool group” if you like. So we grow up taking cues from one another as to how to behave, and it is dictated by who learns the language first. We have to learn the pop culture references, accepted quick dialectic exchanges, or die a social death. Perhaps there is no greater torture for an adolescent.
We spend years learning the language of media content, and being driven by those who understand it best – or at least who understand how to replicate it.
Imagine how betrayed you would feel if it turned out all of that learning was smoke and mirrors. We defend to the death the assumptions we’ve grown up with, and that’s how media influence spreads.
It’s also how our cultural references get narrowed. We’ve been told through this flattery that we already know what’s important. We must demonstrate to others that we already know it (preferably implicitly, as if it were so real it were a part of us). Imagine if someone came along and said: you don’t know much beyond a media-distilled vision of the world, here’s a new idea.
What an insult! They’d get laughed down. That’s just not possible.
This is why we are in a culturally dead age – no one’s even trying for a new idea. It’s why we have a number of genres, time periods reduced to a few fashion image-symbols, tropes and stereotypes to select from when we choose to create something new. This is why when someone releases new art into the world, they choose from a list of pre-determined influences – references been and gone, genres long-set, agreed on. Even “experimental music” is a genre now, with its few ideas repeated over and over.
So we’ve got these cultural handles: if we didn’t know about it already we wouldn’t “get it,” and not “getting it” is the death of the social self.
But it gets uglier. Seen youtube? Of course you have. Youtube humour trends are very revealing about what we like to engage with, and so many online phenomena that aren’t just reiterating these pop culture handles are about laughing at those who don’t comprehend them, like ‘Dot Dot Dot.’ Funny, yes, but also flattering – cause where the object of ridicule doesn’t get it we do.
But it also broadens to general knowledge. Consider the rainbow videos: a guy excited about seeing a double rainbow, and worse, a woman obviously suffering from paranoid schizophrenia freaking out about a rainbow in her backyard. They’re funny because the subjects don’t understand basic things that we all should know. The publicly pilloried for not “getting it” have become as famous as public figures creating culture. At least we’re not them.
Why is that important to us? To locate people who don’t get it and laugh at them? Why is this what defines current “counter-culture” as well?
I posit it’s because we’re reaffirming all this learning we’ve done online, on TVs, through ads, through rhetoric disguised as arts and information, in the playground; reaffirming that it’s valuable. And real. We are in the in-group because we understand – they are in the out-group.
Thus our narrowed perspective – we just can’t encounter anything new without it being a threat to the self.
Nor does it help that in the culture of media competition, everyone is reaching for the jugular – the quickest way to grab attention. It’s like once we spent so much psychological analysis discovering the formula for generating interest, that’s all we could do. We simplify to the attention-grab, selling out the potential for deeper meaning in the process. And this is becoming the norm, like a 4/4 dance beat thrumming away until you can’t conceive of another rhythm.
Culture is one thing, but think of what this means for innovation and new ideas in other realms – such as politics. How do we find a place of real ideas exchange, how do we allow public figures to have bold, unrecognisable ideas again without shouting them down with our own self-protected knowledge of what is knowable?
And how will we adapt to this attention-seeking and attention span-lacking, flattered and mediated culture?
Ideas welcome here.
The Australian media inquiry is currently taking submissions until Oct 31 2011, and I urge everyone to get involved.
You might consider the following points:
1. Media ownership: do we need to break up New Ltd’s 70% market share and cross-media control, and how? What benefit will this bring?
2. Media regulation: will our media benefit from more independent regulation? Can the ACMA and Australian Press Council be improved to this effect, or do we need new bodies with greater regulatory power and a better understanding of the regulatory problems presented in the changing online media landscape?
3. Workplace relations: it is apparent that the News of the World scandal which sparked this debate has a lot to do with the working culture in Rupert Murdoch’s organisations, as well as other struggling media outlets. In an environment of dwindling staff, pay cuts and increased workplace competition, journalists have to produce more content with less time to do their work, and many are afraid of losing their jobs, adopting unethical practices to get ahead and prove themselves to their employers. This encourages undesirable journalism. Can we regulate the workplace rather than the content to ensure a safer, fairer environment, and thereby achieve a better product overall?
4. Should we have more publicly funded journalism? Should the ABC receive an enhanced budget? Should an independent, peer-reviewed body, like the Australia Council, be set up to incentivise good journalism practise and that which has gone missing in much of the mainstream media: investigative journalism? Can we provide grants and awards for investigative journalism and alternative media outlets which are doing good work with little pay? Is it the government’s role to use public funding to provide essential common benefits to our democracy that the marketplace is failing to provide, such as reliable information and investigative journalism?
Good luck with your submission!
Not long ago I sent the following interview questions to some friends and colleagues who are all in some way engaged with countercultural music-making in Australia. The questions were my way of attempting to understand what was going on in our heads when we thought about the role music has and could have in our lives, as well as how music is evolving and why… or if it has temporarily stopped evolving, and why. What follows are the answers I received from alternative music radio host Angus Cornwell and Sydney singer-songwriter Bud Petal.
Some of the following I find rousing; some of it I emphatically disagree with; all of the responses are interesting. Likewise, the respondents seem at times both buoyed and annoyed by the questions – which I suppose means I’ve done my job, after a fashion. If you’d like a stab at answering these questions, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at wyatt [at] wyattmosswellington.com – if they add to the debate, I will upload them below.
[Update 9 August 2011: Tony Wellington's answers have been added below, forwarded to me with the fatherly proviso, "here are some responses from an old fart"; see particularly his answer for Q6, articulating one of the most important aspects of contemporary music production and consumption.]
Q1: At some point the abbreviation of “independent”, i.e. “indie”, became marketable as a sound and an aesthetic rather than having anything to do with independent production. Does this bother you at all?
Angus Cornwell: No. Certainly, it has created a lot of confusion amongst people who don’t know better and think the ‘indie sound’ represents more of a claim to the totality of music than it really does; and sometimes industry watchers who should know better conflate ideas of independence from the mainstream musical establishment and originality and resistance and solidarity and counterculture, &c, &c.. As a teenager I was a subscriber to the second category. Then, I would have thought indie music embodied all those confused ideas in my head and thought ‘wow – it sounds good (saccharine) for something that does all that.’ These days maybe I’d think ‘wow, it’s kinda disappointing for something that can do all that.’ But does it bother me? No.
Bud Petal: I’m not sure I’d say it bothers me. I realise that such a phenomenon exists, but as an artist the way my music is manipulated by marketing trends is something over which I have little control. I don’t feel a part of the music industry in the sense of a career musician making his living only from music (mainly because that’s not possible due to the nature of the music industry). I think that from the perspective of a music lover/consumer/buyer of records/etc. (i.e., someone who does not create music), marketing “independent” music and the nature of the music industry is more bothersome because the access to good, creative, unique, independent, etc., music has become very difficult.
The “indie” marketing phenomenon is a marketing scheme – it bothers me in the same way that watching a Pepsi commercial telling me how to be trendy or whatever bothers me. People who actually know what independent music is won’t be bothered per se because the same has happened to the terms “grunge” and “folk” and “blues” and “disco” and “surrealist” and “dada” and “absurdist” and countless other music and art movements that have been appropriated by the commercial and marketing companies. It just so happens that a significant amount of money available to artists resides in multinational corporations who have interests pertaining to market share and profits (there are interesting exceptions, but even in those cases the money comes from the same source). If artists want money from these companies, they are going to have to abide by the rules set by these companies. I don’t mean this to sound defeatist or fatalistic; artists for at least a couple of centuries have had to deal with the problem of making a living out of their art (I haven’t looked this up properly, but I suspect that the artists who had a steady income paid for by a wealthy philanthropist or by a government body were either in the minority or had similar issues as those artists signed to, say, a major record label these days). There’s a problem with how our culture and society values artists, though I think there is a disconnect between what the general population values and what the government and corporations value (the same happens with any political issue).
Tony Wellington: Back in the late 60s and early 70s there existed a genre widely known as “underground music.” This included anything that wasn’t mainstream, radio-friendly and pushed by the major labels. But the term has now been broken up into subgenres (psychedelia, progressive rock, space rock, etc.) and the useful moniker “underground”, with its connotations of grass-roots revolution, has completely disappeared.
I suspect the same will occur with the term “indie”. Originally it was designed to refer to non-mainstream music artists in the same context as “underground”. But, thanks to modern technology, music is continually heading well beyond the sweaty grasp of the corporate music industry. This is both a good thing (more variety) and a bad thing (lack of quality filtering). But in the end, “indie” will increasingly become meaningless as a useful catch-all. Like “underground” its days are numbered simply because its catch-all usefulness is waning.
Q2: The “indie” phenomenon still lays claim to a kind of authenticity of individual expression – this can mean anything from use of light acoustic or toy instruments, to lo fi recording qualities. Are we mistaken to hear these sounds as being any more authentic than highly “produced” sounds?
AC: Yes. But here’s some food for thought. Let’s play ball with lo-fi for a minute (I don’t care much for toy instruments myself).
Triumvirate reasons why some lo-fi is aesthetically appealing to me (in general, rather than making reference to the particular style of poetry that has grown symbiotically with it):
a) It entails a different set of values to highly produced music. In some ways the overhaul of conventional ‘sounds good’, and the secession from artistic control (an object of hi-fi production?) is liberating, easy. This can be a cheap way out. It can also open the door to new ways of thinking about music and new ways of listening to it. New priorities, new possibilities.
b) Beauty of ambiguity.
c) Hypnotic effects of distortion.
Some people are also interested in the technical side of distortion and the acoustics of this music. I don’t know much about it, but I think that’s a reasonable angle on lo-fi music, too. And we can’t forget that it’s associated with lots of desirable, romantic images in counterculture.
BP: I don’t exactly understand the term “authentic” in this context. If it means these works were created by a human using only their own skills and ingenuity, then everything is “authentic” and the term is meaningless. If it means the work is not derivative, then that’s a different and (probably moot) philosophical discussion because everyone has to start from somewhere. I’m guessing the marketing departments don’t want people to have a clear understanding of the term because it actually has no serious content to it. Countless other examples include: “the king of pop”, “album of the year”, “best song”, “the voice of a generation”, etc.
TW: Getting back to my “underground” reference above, the notion of lo-fi harks back to the prototype metal/garage sounds of, for example, MC5. Back in the 60s it was considered radical and revolutionary to produce an album loaded with distortion and grit – something the major labels would never consider (until they finally realised they could make a buck from it with the arrival of punk). It seems to me that modern lo-fi is seeking the same imprimatur of radicalism. Being non-mainstream in the music business is much easier today. Trying to stand out from the morass of non-mainstream music available is much harder. If your primary purpose is to demonstrate that you wish to break with convention, then listeners need to understand the conventions that are being broken. Trouble is, conventions have become increasingly slippery, and radicalism harder to pin-point. Personally, these days I prefer to listen to people who can wring new life from old conventions rather than those who eschew conventions for the sake of it. But I’m old, and younger people still need to feel they are rebelling against something – even if it’s harder to define what that something is.
On the notion of “authentic”, real authenticity can be generated using conventions no more or less than spurning them.
Q3: Obviously these sounds have roots in a couple of identifiable genres – punk and folk seem to be common reference points. Any reason why these genres appealed more to young musicians looking for influences to inform their own music?
AC: Easy chords to quirkiness of melodic structure ratio? Perhaps a culture within those movements which had certain values in common with the musicians? Punk and folk are both egalitarian at their core. That’s maybe the clearest thing they have in common. With that, inherent acceptance in these traditions of the plurality of ways to enjoy music?
It’s easy to be cynical. There is some good music being made by this new wave of musicians, IMO.
BP: I don’t think anyone can give any clear answers to why certain styles of music or musicians were selected as influences whereas others were not; it’s too complicated and unpredictable. For what it’s worth, I think a lot of it has to do with the values and interests a person has. A person who is a fan of the latest pop star obviously has completely different values and cultural interests to someone who owns the entire back catalogue of an early twentieth century minimalist composer. Some of it has to do with training and leisure time (one may not understand minimalist classical music or have no leisure time to explore the aims of such composers, or one may be baffled by the difference between the number one pop hit on the charts of last year and the previous year).
TW: Folk music has been around as long as humanity. Punk is a modern fad. But both have their roots in the fervent expression of social conditions. Woody Guthrie was lambasted for being a communist (though he never joined any communist organisation) and Johnny Rotten was labelled an anarchist (though he probably had no idea what that really meant politically). There will always be music which seeks to exemplify the heartfelt oppression of certain social groups – even when, in the case of punk, that cohort was disaffected, self-interested western youth whose “oppression” was really just indulgent teenage angst.
Q4: All of this has also meant less emphasis on musicianship and often exclusion of any need for virtuosity, which is looking increasingly old. Do you think the fading emphasis on musicianship is a reaction against something culturally endemic, and if so what is it rebelling against?
AC: It is easy to react to an artifact of the establishment where one is identifiable. The need for virtuosity may be considered as one, and this dialogue has been had at length on many fronts for about fifty years. I would like to think that these days alternative music is tending toward some happy medium where virtuosity is desirable, but it can be acknowledged that it is not entirely necessary in all domains.
In the wave of electronic music that has stormed Sydney in the last eighteen months (Gold Panda, Jamie XX, et al), virtuosity seems to be celebrated. An overconfident young DJ who played a set on Fbi Radio on Friday, 15th July observed that this new music could be seen as an adaptation of the scattered, glitchy, highly technical and… virtuous underground electro of the 1990s, finding a new home for itself in the mainstream.
Musicianship is not dead, people just don’t understand it. It’s like drinking sugar when you’re first starting to drink coffee – you need trainer wheels. Gold Panda, for example, brings the best of the inaccessible and resets it in a tolerable – even enjoyable – format, without compromising its complexity.
There is an increasing complexity and elegance (and new culture of experimentation! Gwen Stefani, I’m looking at you in particular) of the production that lies under mainstream pop of late. Mainstream pop is supposed to appeal to everyone. This borders on conspiracy theorising, but I think that even in popular gangster rap, there is a dog-whistle effect. For a sophisticated audience it has quirks of production, subtexts to read and honestly a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek irony, emotional intelligence and drama. Often there is an interesting, embedded cultural or political statement being made, too. Kids from Mt Druitt will covet the blingin’ lifestyle and the escape from suburbia, and the rest will soar over their heads.
N.B. Orthodox western musicianship’s values, the worship of originality, the beauty in authenticity, the requirement of virtuosity, the appreciation of people attempting something that is difficult: all just values – not universal!
BP: Whose emphasis? The record labels’? If so, I don’t think their emphasis has changed because their structure and aims have not changed. They aim to increase profits, and that has unfortunately meant taking advantage of unknown artists and forcing them into a mould and tying them into a contract. That can’t be so easily done to a virtuoso because they have the upper hand (assuming of course they are not just, say, guitar-playing machines but rather artists who wish to create their own artworks). A talented musician is less likely to be swayed by the major labels’ promises of making them a star, though there are exceptions of course. The record labels’ emphasis is only on increasing profits (to varying degrees of success and ferocity); whatever brings them to that end they will pursue. So I don’t think that the record labels’ emphasis on musicianship is a reaction to anything – the emphasis wasn’t there in the first place (I also think this is true objectively; it would be interesting to see a study on what kind of artists record labels have supported in the past in comparison to now, as I suspect there has been little change in the last few decades at least).
Or maybe you mean the emphasis of the public or music fans? That’s a different question. Maybe it is true that there is less value now placed by our culture in artists. Though I’m sceptical because it seems to me that the roots of such values are intertwined with many other factors. Cultural values can change very drastically within a short period of time, even when the actual practices of artists changes very little in the same time frame. A drastic example is Weimar Germany, which was the peak of European civilisation in the arts and sciences and seen by many as perhaps the period with the highest level of intellectual production in human history, and within less than a decade Germany sunk into the depths of human depravity in the Nazi era. So it’s difficult to say whether an emphasis has faded and whether it’s a reaction to a cultural zeitgeist. It’s too complex. People are affected by many outside factors and it takes constant vigilance to remain close to ideals of cultural values and respect for artists and human rights and a myriad of other values and ethical principles that can be erased without hard work on the part of the population.
TW: Punk was a direct reaction against the requirement for musical ability. Garage likewise. Rap similarly. These genres sought to return music from the grasp of commercialism back into the control of ordinary people.
Unfortunately, thanks to the commercialisation of music during the last century, plus globalisation generally, music critics and music consumers are driven to make comparisons at a world-wide level. Contrived hierarchies are flaunted proffering the supposed best-of – whether it’s a rock guitarist, sousaphone player or scantily clad dance/performance artist (Lady Ga Ga, Kylie Minogue, etc). That’s a pretty daunting set of exemplars by which to judge one’s ability. Musicians are today forced to live up to impossible standards as they are continually compared to the world’s best.
Here’s something to mull over. Before music was recordable, it was a more utilitarian, participatory art. Extended families and friends would gather around (with or without accompaniment) to sing together. As soon as it became marketable through recordings, the simple pleasure of music performing was taken from the hoi polloi. Music suddenly needed an audience (i.e. paying consumers) to justify its existence. I have read that, back in the early 1900s, one in every 3 Australian households had a piano, and many had zithers (which were sold door to door). These instruments weren’t used for money-making, individual expression, or even showing off. They were used for simple communal pleasure.
Today many houses have a guitar. But they are rarely used to bring people together as in the pianos of old. Rather they are strummed by those who tend to fantasise about performing before an audience. Today music doesn’t serve a function unless it has an audience.
Q5: Another element which seems important to many listeners is to hear a unique personality behind the music – which often seems to translate as highly apparent eccentricity, especially an eccentricity which appears genuine. Why do we value locating eccentric art-makers?
AC: See “Brands, Fakes & Authenticity” by David Boyle.
We crave originality in some respects, and there’s nothing more compelling and MORE ACCESSIBLE than authenticity. Maybe it’s our socialisation, maybe it’s some inbuilt biological mechanism that mistrusts contrivance – in the same way some compulsion in our nature prefers symmetry, the appearance of simplicity, etc., we prefer authenticity. It’s easy to understand, it’s easier to get into. It feels safe. And it’s hard to contrive something convincingly.
Music is mostly an escape. Would you prefer to escape into something that is real, beautiful, tried and true, or inhabit some synthetic structure with infirm edges and uncertain hospitality, and maybe a hole in the bottom?
BP: Eccentrics might be valued because they represent to others what human ingenuity is capable of; maybe people find them interesting in the same sense that the Freak Shows and circuses used to be valued; maybe people value eccentrics for their bravery in standing up to the mainstream culture. People search out eccentric art-makers because people are looking for something different – they feel unique, important and smug in the fact that they alone sought out and found these artists that few people know. Though at the end of the day (and especially in the current explosion of new music via online sites) only very few artists will be superstars and known worldwide in the same way The Beatles were in the 1960s. I think the media and tabloids focus on eccentric personalities because there is so little to distinguish between mainstream pop stars signed to major labels. The music-listening public know the differences. They may not care or ignore the facts but they are aware of them. So I guess people seek out eccentric art-makers because they are aware that what they see on the major television music channels is not all there is and that there is better and more important music being created. Though I don’t think people seek out eccentrics as much as they seek out the music they know exists but is not represented in the mainstream tabloids. That’s not eccentricity per se.
TW: We are overrun with music choices. In my teen years, it was easy to make oneself aware of every recording artist available. Today that would be impossible. Spoilt for choice, we live in decadent times. It’s no wonder some music consumers seek a hint of underlying personality – because that’s some guarantee of interpersonal connection between listener and musician. But I agree that, in a world of advertising artifice and contrivance, affectation is often mistaken for individualism.
Q6: What role has the digital revolution played in determining the kind of music countercultural artists are making now? (i.e. ease-of-acquisition of recording equipment, ability to disseminate music online and the subsequent passing of power from music labels to libraries like iTunes)
AC: I don’t think I know the answer.
The digital revolution has opened ample avenues for production and dissemination. Equally, the digital revolution has made people lazy, stupid, complacent, uninquisitive, bored, boring, and more s**thouse than ever before.
It is easy to generate content. It is easy to get heard. It is easy to connect with your audience, if someone else already cultivated one. It’s still just as hard to break up the dirge.
BP: The digital revolution has allowed many people to make music much more easily. It’s a wide spectrum ranging from using a beat machine and looped vocals to a whole band recording an album in their lounge room playing only acoustic instruments. Both were not possible until the last couple of decades or so. The former was not possible at all until electronic music, the latter became much cheaper and thus now allows many more artists to record in high quality and relative ease. Though the question of how the digital revolution has changed the kind of music people create is difficult to answer apart from the obvious truisms that it is cheaper to make music and disseminate it worldwide and that certain kinds of music were impossible to create before the digital revolution. I think more people are making music now than in previous decades, though that’s due not only to the digital revolution but also, among others, due to more leisure time available to people and a reduction in instrument prices (acoustic, electric, and electronic). I wonder if the claims that significantly more music is being made these days than in past decades have more to do with the availability of the music online, rather than actually more music being produced. A lot of music would never have been recorded were it not for the cheap home recording devices now available; so it’s probably more accurate to say that more recorded music is now available.
TW: The digital revolution has resulted in more music being available, as more people have access to recording facilities (in their own homes). This is both a good and bad thing. But its most important impact has been on listening habits. The easier it is to access (i.e. download) music, the less the consumer invests of their time and effort in its consumption. Instead, a sort of off-hand, almost disconsolate listening habit has evolved.
In the analogue era, I would save up my money, make a special trip to the record store, and very carefully choose my purchase – often based on prior research. Then, at home, I would sit down and play the LP from side one through side two, listening intently. In other words, I would give every music purchase my undivided attention. That’s because of the level of effort required to choose, purchase and consume the music.
I don’t see that attitude in today’s music consumer. Instead they are inclined to have lots of music available, but played (often in compressed form) as audio wallpaper to other activities. Today’s younger music consumer rarely devotes significant time to simply listening to the music. Invariably the music fills an audio void whilst they do something else.
Today songs and tracks are downloaded, compiled, played randomly etc. There is no longer the sense that an “album” is a discrete, complete work of art in itself (including LP cover). There is no information about the musicians, instrumentation or recording available. It is no longer easy to follow the careers of studio and supporting musicians, let alone music producers. Music has devolved into a mass consumer item that is disposable and ubiquitous. As a result, its social relevance has significantly diminished.
Of course there are still people who care enough about music to listen attentively and to treat it as the skilled art form that it is. But overall, the decadence of overexposure inevitably leads to contempt, and I sense that attitude creeping into the consumption of music. Thus today many consumers simply assume that all music should be freely available, that musicians don’t automatically deserve payment for their efforts, that the quality of the recording is less significant than its availability, etc. Perhaps, eventually, after years of downloading compressed files from Russian websites, some folk will feel the urge to seek out a genuine hi-fi listening experience – and be prepared to pay for it?
Q7: It appears increasingly difficult to make money off any kind of intellectual property now. Does this disincentive matter at all?
AC: I don’t know. Probably. It’s not easy to be a career musician – to specialise. But it never has been. The landscape is just different now. There’s probably a clearer path to success, but at what price?
American-dream style, today pretty much any competent, intelligent person *could* become a successful mainstream musician. But what sacrifices would they have to make?
There is this interesting problem that affects me as a barista as much as it affects any musician worth their salt: simply, what do you make? Do you give them what they want? Do you give them what you want? Do you give them what’s good for them? Do you educate? Do you insulate? Do you masturbate? Everyone has a different purpose.
Some people just make music for themselves. Some people want to be famous and rule the world cause they have daddy issues or something. No two people are not on fire. But anybody can be on fire. That’s what’s important.
BP: I think the prior questions should be ‘to what extent was it ever possible to make money off intellectual property – and who was making that money?’ Like I mentioned above, I don’t think there is much difference in the financial status of artists in, say, the last 50 years (that statement has to be defended though). The intellectual property of artists seems to be the least valued in our culture but I don’t think it will be a disincentive to many because money is not the reason why artists do what they do. The same goes for any creative pursuit; there’s the classic story of Einstein who was working full time as a bank clerk and in his free time was working on his relativity theory that would revolutionise physics. That of course does not mean that since artists would do what they do anyway, they should not be paid for what they enjoy doing, but it does mean that the difficulty of making money off intellectual property will not be a disincentive. (Though as a side note, this difficulty does not exist in, say, the biotechnology industry, where intellectual property is a multi-billion dollar industry.)
TW: The internet has seen a massive shift in popular attitude regarding intellectual copyright – not just in music, but also film, writing, photography, etc., etc.
Humans will always be driven to be creative, either from some deep inchoate drive (e.g. ancient cave paintings), or, more often today, from a desire to be noticed. We are tribal creatures suddenly thrust into urban conglomerates. The result is attention-deficit, because we are surrounded by strangers rather than familiars. Individualism is one means of coping with the loss of familiarity. It is therefore inevitable that the arts draw people who seek both attention and personal validity. This is the real payment that most artists seek.
It is a genuine shame that artists are now struggling to maintain control of their creative endeavours, and to be paid adequately for them. If artists seek validity, then surely payment and respect are two key means by which they get their fulfillment?
I imagine that, in the future, governments and arts bodies will end up finding further means to assist artists to continue their work – particularly as direct artist-consumer transactions continue to dry up. We have already seen this intervention with the introduction of public/educational lending rights fees to authors, and the more recent introduction of money being paid to visual artists each time their artworks sell at auction. In the end, it is only through a better understanding of the value of arts to society that such measures can be put in place.
As a footnote, it is interesting to sit here in Australia and contemplate the social standing of the arts. Compared with cultures that enjoy long histories of artistic endeavour, we in the New World are incredibly dismissive of the role of artists. In Europe, for example, being an artist is a valued profession, with society at every level appreciative of the importance of the artist’s role. Here an artist is more often viewed as being a skiver. Sportspeople generally enjoy higher social standing than artists. Artists and intellectuals are too often viewed with suspicion in a culture founded in rural colonialism. Still, I’d rather be undervalued and living in the Lucky Country!
Angus Cornwell also offered some final words: In sum, I sometimes wonder whether the payoff would be greater if I were simple. I look at Victor Oatmeal (my mostly imaginary nemesis). I look back at myself (imagine I have a mirror). In my youth I bought the Indie Dream, but I did it wrong, or the dream wasn’t working like in the manual or something and I ran square into its glass walls. I wonder if I could reverse back out and keep flying with more flying skills and experience and buy it back and live simple and be happy. Mr Oatmeal is not happy, but there’s one thing he doesn’t have to worry about. There’s one thing he can believe in.
Nah – I’d rather f**k with the ether.
It’s expensive to keep anyone in detention, especially the remote, grim detention centres found on Christmas Island, so it is worth asking why our government would want to squander so much money locking up asylum seekers for such limitless periods – what are we getting in return?
Obviously we are getting psychological abuse of a handful of desperate individuals, but that can’t be enough for today’s politicians: there must be some sort of gain for them. Let’s look at the process.
So we lock up boat arrivals as per criminals – although in the past couple of years roughly 90-95% of them turn out to be genuine refugees, and even if you are not a genuine refugee, applying for refugee status is not illegal or we would have no refugees, and thus be sending everyone home, many to be executed. We lock these people up for indefinite periods of time – a torture unlike even convicted criminals must endure – in the expensive and ineptly-run jailing service provided by the company we outsource to, Serco. We keep them in these jails where they are treated like criminals under circumstances that would lead most people to suffer mental health problems, are surprised when they exhibit mental health problems, and then respond by threatening to take away even more legal rights – even shooting at them. Controlling this process becomes more expensive. It would be much cheaper to process all boat arrivals in community housing within a few weeks, just as plenty of other countries manage, to everyone’s benefit (Norway is just one example). So what are we paying for?
There’s no reason on earth to give one person different legal rights to another, no matter who they are or where they come from. The only reason to do so would be to appeal to a minority of Australians who like to see ethnic suffering, not because they are sadists, but because it misguidedly makes them feel safe. So are we trading the psychological harm of others and a wad of cash for the false sense of security of a few Australians? Yes. Who benefits from that? A few politicians looking to win them over.
Thus, it seems we are paying the company Serco for a very expensive – expensive in taxpayer costs and human costs – political campaign. It is paid for not by the beneficiaries of this despicable service – mainstream political parties and Serco – but by Australians with their wallets and moreover asylum seekers with their lives and their health.
Ergo, locking up asylum seekers is an expensive political campaign.
At the end of the year, I like to pull my writings back from the brink of chronic complaint and challenge conventional news’ negative bias by listing “ten good things” about the annum at hand. To wit:
1. Wikileaks has greater presence and influence thanks to news audiences’ appetite for martyr heroics. Nothing could have been better for Assange’s branding than an over-the-top sex-by-surprise case, whatever the wobbly plop that is. And he will be defended to the ends of the earth by the majority of media outlets, as Wikileaks is doing their job for them. It’s fundamentally a large part of what investigative journalists used to do, but media outlets don’t have to pay for the information anymore, as well as Wikileaks absorbing associated legal costs for them. It’s just alarming that effective and widespread investigative journalism is now so foreign to us that Julia Gillard and ilk can pretend it may be illegal.
2. I released my album “Gen Y Irony Stole My Heart”!
3. In lieu of good product on the silver screen this year, I rewatched “The Graduate.” It is still excellent.
4. At Cancun’s climate cavalcade, a Climate Fund to assist developing nations’ adaption to the Torrid New World has now been agreed upon.
5. I just found Queenslander Stuart McMillen’s picture blog, Recombinant Records.
6. “Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.” Robertson Davies
7. The marvellous tome “What Are You Optimistic About?” provides fodder for anyone in search of reasons to be grateful for life in 2010.
8. My house is quite clean at the moment.
9. The Yes Men.
10. My partner Louise. Nuff said.
Alright, I give in to the lulzcats too: an honorary mention goes to Maru, Hero of the Internet. Happy holidays, y’all!
Those words “cost of living” keep coming up. While the phrase is ostensibly a political cheap-shot, appealing to voters who feel they aren’t getting enough of what they want (that would be everyone), it does reflect our expectations about what should be provided for us in this country.
Besides which, it’s true, comparatively to other OECD nations we work longer hours for our pay, and living essentials such as housing (not just home-owning) are expensive when rated against other developed countries we use as a yardstick. But that’s exactly the problem: Australia is a completely different place, so can we be using Europe and the United States as a yardstick?
Although appropriate wealth distribution should concern us all, as it is an indicator not only of stability but also an economic situation more realistically reflecting the consumptive options available to the populace, the current level of conversation skirts a longitudinal study of Australia’s geographical challenges, as we speak about managing our wealth and expectations of that wealth within its borders.
The time has obviously come to remind ourselves that Australia is not a European country. Although we like to think we’ve shaken off the cultural heritage, if not the royal heritage of our colonial ancestors, a brief look at our daily habits will suggest a different story. Take, for example, one of the most palpable symbols of cultural inheritance: cuisine. In Australia, we consume more beef than our country can handle. In fact, to cease eating hoofed animals is probably the single most important consumer choice we can make if we really care about environmental sustainability.
But we defend our right to these activities because they are what we’ve done for generations.
It’s not just what we eat, however – we need to revise our broader expectations of what the country can offer. We still want to maintain a consumer economy like that of Europe or the United States. We want to produce and buy and have as much stuff. When we speak of cost of living, are we defending our right to the norm of, say, buying a new television every year, as does one in four Australian households? By this average, we seem to be doing alright.
We may be doing alright, but we refuse to pay for it – Australia just won’t support the same kind of consumer culture. There is a historical reason Europe fostered the civil societies it did over the past millennia and the United States prospered after colonisation: the geography suited the lifestyle. Meanwhile, Australia’s geography suited the lifestyle employed by its Aboriginal inhabitants. Now we’re forcing the island continent into the wrong shoes.
Besides the obvious – and pressing – Ozzie dilemmas of irregular fresh water supplies and soil salinity, there is also the distance to conquer. As nations become urbanised, they pool labour (including access to education and health services) and naturally become more “wealthy” – that is, they experience an easier quality of life courtesy of proximity to goods and services that rural inhabitants would otherwise need to provide for themselves. It has been a beautiful, instinctive shift in the contemporary human experience – and it works. Urbanization is also responsible for the declining rate of global population growth. But Australia is big, and we have to pay for that.
Infrastructure costs more. If we decide we want a national broadband network, it’s going to cost us more than it would in a smaller country. We may encourage our growing population to move out of the clogged, mismanaged cities to de-crowd them, but the associated costs with supporting rural Australia go unmentioned.
We don’t have the opportunity to farm right next to our major cities, as in a condensed Europe (or dig coal close to cities, either). The costs associated with distance will have to be picked up by all of us together, yet some of the expense will naturally appear on the price tag for the consumer to shoulder.
In the dumbed-down creed of “economic growth” our last few decades have been cursed with, we can forget that economics, at its best, should reflect what is realistically available to us. To a certain extent, the process occurs organically as we independently decide the worth of goods and services, although to work optimally this requires extensive regulation and assistance for those who are subject to Australia’s increasingly fickle weather patterns. These have associated costs too. So does the highly necessary regulation of quality in consumer goods, which in many cases prices Australian produce higher than imported produce.
There is an upside to all this, which is of course that consumer culture doesn’t necessarily make anyone happier. So let’s enjoy this beautiful country we’ve been blessed with sans the pressure to buy more hoardable items this Christmas. The baby boomers ended the age of having anything we wanted. As global population hurtles toward a peak, we’re not going to see all our desires fulfilled again for a good few generations.
Besides, if we’re really upset that we can’t maintain our vision of materialism as life-enrichment, there’s always investment in science and art…
There is reason to hope about the future of journalism, despite digital blows dealt to its standard operation over the past decades.
Earlier this week I attended a meeting with a number of my peers, independent media practitioners and supporters including Jane Lee of The IF Project and Claire Connelly of Social Scapegoat. Both Lee and Connelly also work at news.com.au.
While we riffed on matters concerning independent media and its audience – namely, how do we transform these projects into an economically viable business model? – it occurred to me this wasn’t such a bad position to be in. Connelly told us that often the stories rejected by her employer would end up fleshed out on her Social Scapegoat site, and were among the most popular stories she published.
Everyone at the meeting was gainfully employed, most of us in a journalistic capacity, if not in communications roles. In the meantime, because we care, we fill out the truths not covered in our workplace elsewhere, under our own banner. In the end, independent media often retains the meaning in its title – standing independent of advertisers, sponsors, or the need to sell anything other than the integrity of its content. On the flipside, this means we are less likely to see any revenue for our efforts. However, if there are numerous journalists employed within the Australian media duopoly who are also willing to do this additional hard work, we can’t be doing too poorly.
Furthermore, as the evening came to a conclusion, Lee intimated to us that she had now come to understand what she is tasked with at news.com.au – her expertise is to recognise the devious methods by which PR agencies and their clients attempt to manipulate their way into media presence, and separate this from real and valid news. With new journalists gaining wisdom at the rate Lee manages to, we all win.
So the rest of us can take solace in the fact that the media industry will continue to attract people who care about the quality of media output, and care enough to find a way to place truth on the table and still be employed. Thank goodness for them; such a tough and fiscally thankless job, but an altogether necessary altruism.
December 4, Venue 505 @ 280 Cleveland St, Surry Hills 2010. Doors 7:30pm.
The media and Hollywood remain in a stalemate. Hollywood can keep playing loose with the facts, rewriting history for an audience without the time to check the evidence, but members of the mainstream media have no steam left to call their bluff. As soon as the press cry false, it’s hypocritical, isn’t it?
Thus it is with “The Social Network”, a movie sustaining Mark Zuckerberg’s image as the Face of Facebook. It attaches the traditional boy-genius antiheroic tropes to his slippery public persona: he is the guy who disinterestedly knows the answer to every IT brainteaser in his Harvard lectures, the guy who intuitively knows exactly the right creative decisions to make to sell his product. But who believes he was really more than just one of the programmers at the beginning of the Facebook corporation, one they needed to keep for their PR campaign? Every IT business needs a nerd hero to sell the brand, like the forgotten Tom from the forgotten Myspace.
The creativity of Facebook was the product of many computer programmers working to deliver a bug-free and attractive package, and Zuckerberg was probably just smart enough to keep his finger in the pie, simultaneously becoming the obvious choice for the requisite Great Story, easily and simply sold – to be the Face, distracting our attention from the many merry sins of Peter Thiel et al. It’s like auteur theory for a consumer’s concept of IT creative process – perhaps what attracted director David Fincher?
The film’s thesis reveals it’s our longing for social acceptance – especially that of the opposite sex – that drives us to do big things. But those big things, hand in hand with fame and wealth, never satiate us, cause it’s the closeness of others we’re after. Although not new to Hollywood, the social critique is fair. Reviewers and audiences are right to be moved when they identify the shortcomings of their own fantasy life in “The Social Network”. I did.
Nor is the irony lost that it is social media Zuckerberg is building and social alienation he is selling, whilst being beholden to these flaws himself – in fact the film hinges on it. Ultimately the film has a nagging parent quality, though, telling us our generation is misguided – it’s still BS. Facebook itself works for many different people in many different ways, but mostly it organises urban social life through events and reconstructed events (status updates), fostering the creation of the villageless communities we need in order to live together in cities.
By tracing the steps of Zuckerberg’s rise to the social alienation of fame and fortune, I can’t help but think: it looks neat, but are they telling the right story here?
The film cleverly purchases the attention of the generation it lampoons early on with a blast of hip production values. Jeff Cronenweth, ASC’s camera stylizes mythical Harvard party scenes with contrasty auburn glows, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall show their hand by cutting to the pulse of social media ADHD, and the bizarrely digi-retro score may inappropriately represent noughties computer audio, but it taps right into gen y’s Sonic the Hedgehog nostalgia zeitgeist.
No one knows how to sucker gen y into a sense of intellectual superiority like Fincher, the man who brought us vogue nihilism in the different guises we required as we grew: the coolness of screen violence with “Se7en” when we were prepubescent, the faux-philosophical plot twist of “Fight Club” when we were disaffected teens and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” when we began to emerge from partying and were born again into a quarter-life crisis, worrying about getting old because our guiding star of hedonism had retreated. Thank goodness we’ve graduated to talkative dramas, it can only be up from here.
Thus it’s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s film, quite helpfully wrenching politicised dialogue back into the cineplexes, and our homes. Fincher hasn’t quite graduated past genre and into maturity, as he still can’t keep himself from shooting ludicrous scenes such as Eduardo Saverin seriously spooking Sean Parker by lifting a fist to his face, with security guards idly flanking the action. Yet surely the kind of concerns this film has (wondering about the effects of our idealised social fantasy life, played out through unregulated digital social discourse) can only do good, even if the truth is skirted to get there.
Which is the question we should be asking: can truth in art be skirted like this, especially when it is dressing itself up as a true story? Sorkin did it before, more eloquently, in collaboration with director Mike Nichols with “Charlie Wilson’s War”. The film rewrote Wilson’s place in history, but Sorkin got the inciting incident right that time around – not some boyhood misshapen romance, it was real experience of witnessing human devastation that drove its amoral, nearly apolitical antihero to carve a colossal shift in the world’s development. Even the conclusory exposition of his impotence to change the world for the better rung truer than the simplicity this movie becomes – I encourage everyone to watch “Charlie Wilson’s War” again before seeing “The Social Network”.
But this is a game Hollywood has been playing forever. Even Nichols was guilty of retelling history through hysterical conjecture in Silkwood. And now when Karen Silkwood is remembered, we see Meryl Streep’s hero, just like we see Julia Roberts in place of the real Erin Brokovich. Hollywood, critical media, audiences: that is a mighty responsibility if you care about the truth.
But who is caring about the truth anymore?
Dick Smith, making a poignantly-timed splash on Australian broadcast airwaves, is highlighting the population dilemma facing Australia, although in part ignoring Australia as a microcosm of a global demographic. Smith can take heart: although the global population is still rising, the rate at which it is accelerating is in rapid decline, so that a peak global population is now visible within our lifetime. Then, with an urbanised and developed and significantly less violent globe, we might have another problem on our hands – who will be reproducing?
I used to think that Australia was underpopulated. I bleated it from the rafters as an answer to our countless woes. I was suckered in by the Australian government’s conventionally economic call to upscale the amount of babies we produce (branded by many as another White Australia Policy). I thought: but we have so much space. (In part, that space is the problem.) I thought: we all drink bottled water and then dispose of its container; how can we be complaining of lack of fresh water, surely we just need to be more frugal? I thought: surely, to many resource-starved countries where lack of fresh water is a leading cause of death, our complaints must sound frustratingly selfish. So comparatively, are we underpopulated? To answer that we need to look at the rest of the world.
At the moment there are three factors we can certainly say are leading the decline in population acceleration: education of women and their concurrent migration into the workforce, the lifting of large numbers of people out of poverty, and mass urbanisation. In fact, urbanisation is the driving force behind the other two factors. Cities make people wealthy as they move in. Witness how the developing world is developing of its own accord, due to the resourcefulness of inhabitants seeking a better life – rural dwellers are moving to the city and building squatter towns on their outskirts, with their own self-suficient economies, which are eventually subsumed into the rest of the metropolis. Thus is the success story of most Asian nations over recent decades. It makes sense – pooling labour via proximity to others’ expertise means better access to everything which provides quality of life, including education and health. Education by turn leads to women empowered to decide whether they will have children or not.
So in order to alleviate environmental and related growth pains in the meantime, we want more of these, right? Urbanisation, lifting people out of poverty, and education?
Smith complains, presciently, of addiction to economic growth as a false god. Again, he can take heart: I truly believe we are on the precipice of a great change of values. It’s a matter of necessity, as ever. Our mass consumerism will slowly erode our habitat (the entire planet), which we will discover – surprise – is necessary to maintain a comfortable standard of living. We will realise disposable objects and other markers of consumer society haven’t improved our quality of life, and we will adjust our wants and needs accordingly.
But in the meantime, before we fully come to terms with the soiling of our own nest and before population peaks and declines, there is still the problem of managing the proliferation of people across the world.
I agree that countries like Australia now require independent commissions to be assembled, to make a realistic proposal for the distribution of people around the globe and adjust their own immigration policy accordingly. While it is not possible to devise a perfect matrix taking into account every factor from the humanitarian to the geographic, we still need a proposal based on the capabilities of each nation.
This calculation would analyse the available water and farming capacity of the nation, taking into account its ability to produce fresh water through recycling and water management. It would take into account the distance between metropolises and within metropolises as well as the amount of infrastructure present and the amount of infrastructure required. It would take into account the standard of living of the citizens as opposed to other nations, and their access to financial security… There’s more to add, and it’s already a lot to work with. But we have to do it.
Here’s the other thing: obviously we want to lift people out of poverty and urbanise as swiftly as possible, to mitigate the overpopulation the globe must endure. In this case, it makes sense to see Australia increasing humanitarian intake, as a developed and relatively secure nation capable of lifting people out of poverty. This brings us to the root tension our hypothetical population sum most seek to solve: we have to measure our capacity to aid population decline against the capability of Australia’s geography to provide an equally good life for its inhabitants.
The problem in Australia isn’t answered merely by pushing people into rural areas, as is regularly suggested. Based on the evidence of urbanisation, that could impede the time it takes to recover from population growth and be more expensive than necessary in the meantime. Nor is it (exclusively) poor infrastructure management in the major cities. At the rate the Australian population is growing, urban planning can’t keep up, as political bungling and corruption will happen and have happened – the time that takes must be taken into account.
Consider the fact that Anna Bligh’s government is now funneling 33 million litres of recycled water into the Brisbane River every day. We really have to hurry up and get over our irrational fear of recycled water – how can we be broadcasting our “lack of fresh water” but failing to address our own entitlement to reactionary rather than rational solutions to water management?
Looking at the rest of the globe tells us there are other nations capable of handling greater populations in coming years. Obviously places like Russia and Japan could be in another kind of population trouble soon, and need to be be taking more people. But I have a feeling Australia might have to bare some of the burden and accept the dues for living in such a geographically difficult area of the globe. Yet first it makes sense to sort out water, food and infrastructure problems or we won’t be offering much to elevate anyone. It is obvious that the Australian population is growing too fast and our resource management can’t keep up – but this doesn’t mean we won’t be able to manage our resources or that we won’t have an obligation to take more people over coming decades while the population storm passes. Before anyone does mount an independent commission, we cannot definitively know the answer for Australia.
Dick Smith is offering a young Australian a million dollars to come up with a solution (really he’s using the dosh to spotlight the issue). Okay, as a means-based response, I will offer $2 – that’s three games of pinball – to any old citizen who can come up with a realistic algorithm to let us know how many people Australia should be taking over the next term of government.
The current Australian federal election is such a depressing race to the bottom, such an abandonment of any interest in the wellbeing of others stuffed full with such colossal missings-of-the-point that I haven’t wanted to write about it.
But I will take time off from recording my latest studio album (2 weeks to go!) to say one thing: whoever came up with the now ubiquitous media and marketing policy that “if it can’t be reduced to a soundbite, it is too complicated to publish or promote” has doomed us to an extended political wilderness and lack of intellectual fulfillment. They have taken the truth and our hope for a sense realism about our world, and thrown it right out of the field.
The explanation was always an appeal to the ADHD info-skimming jumpiness of internet-revved generations y and under. But that’s BS. The real reason is that it makes the job of media and their bed-buddy marketeers easier and cheaper. Complex stories covered with complexity are expensive. Politicians, in an era of believing the less their constituent knows the better, are so pleased to be let off the hook they are certainly not going to be doing anything about it. So are all of the subjects of media scrutiny, most especially the corporate sector who rely on our awareness of their self-interest rather than public interest to stay in check, and not exploit our easily bought trust. So we end up with an election based on nothing, and we complain about it.
What a horrid excuse this soundbite is – it amounts to, “you won’t understand so we won’t bother telling you.” But judging from the amount of people I see on the train home from work reading MX every day, we just may have bought it. Perhaps we truly believe we are attention spanless and defend our right to choosing this distractedly vacuous identity, because questioning it would be hard work. Then we complain about the election.
But it is simply not true that we prefer to be treated like idiots, and I’m certain the days of hush hush reductionist communications strategy are numbered. Ironically we can look toward the entertainment industry for a recent example. The nihilist-flirting of-the-moment director superstar of Hollywood, Christopher Nolan’s latest feature Inception is a prime example. The film treats its audience as if they were – get this – actually smart. While it may be dogeared narrative formula disguised beneath four layers of deamworld fantasy setup, and deep inside the conscious mind of Nolan may be a derivative action sequence, at the very least the film treats its audience like they are capable of following complex patterns of thought, like they will be inquisitive rather than passive, like they won’t mind doing the work to understand. And young audiences especially are rewarding the endeavour.
My time as a professional manny also taught me a Golden Rule about young people: even on the rare occasion when they don’t understand, if we treat them like they are capable of understanding, they will reward us. And they will try to understand, even if it takes a while. Assuming someone is intelligent makes someone proud to be intelligent.
It would be nice to have a media who wants us to be intelligent again. All we need to do is ask for it.
I've been hearing it everywhere, from friends and relations, critics, the blogosphere, newspapers, even the Guardian: TV has surpassed film as a storytelling medium. Everyone from Newsweek to the Encyclopedia Britannica blog has circulated the opinion.
What's going on here? Why are we choosing to value television above film? By what measure?
Usually the discussion is introduced via the dubious assertion that escalated television production values have bolstered its worth. This echoes our assumption that slicker production values correlate with greater work. Not necessarily - as the old adage goes, you can polish a turd, but it's still a turd. No matter how much money you throw at a project, no matter how large a crew you employ to frame its beautiful imagery, you cannot insure against an ineffectual piece of storytelling.
As everyone in the business knows, it starts with the script. Director Ken Loach once said, "The most important person in the whole process is, I would suggest, the writer. The word that appear on that blank sheet of paper are the creative heart of everything that follows. No writer - no film and certainly no director."
So it is subject matter we must be talking about when we compare the value of TV and film, and indeed, the superior scriptwriting is the point that always follows.
When we say we value television more than film, we usually mean we derive more entertainment from it. I read the argument as: we spend more time engaged with television than we do film, it keeps us engrossed for longer, so therefore it is better at doing its job.
This assumes that being engrossed for longer is a good thing. "Wow, I'm so entertained" could in fact be, "Wow, I'm so addicted to this story." Addiction would mean that the TV show has achieved its objective, but to assign value to our televisual dependency assumes that TV programming objectives should be our own, and simultaneously misinterprets the reason for storytelling.
Storytelling exists for societal cohesion. It is likely that the true value of storytelling is to promote empathy for those in different circumstances, a fair reason for us to evolve with such an appetite for it. However, on the flip side, if we stay too long in a ceaseless story, do we mitigate our chances at applying this empathy to reality, possibly even expecting our lives to replicate our small-screen experience?
The TV over film argument is specific to serialised television. Serials are what pro-TVists are invariably talking about - I have yet to hear a claim that sitcoms are the height of media value (although I find a lot more to enjoy in, say, "Roseanne" or "Frasier" than any interminable serial broadcast). Serialised television exists to keep us baited, hooked, but not satiated. By never reaching a conclusion, it is powerless to do anything but hold us aloft from true understanding or revelation. TV is limited in the truths of life it can reveal - the characters must remain as unenlightened as we to continue their torturous journey, so it never gets round to saying anything of value.
Watching slick productions like current highbrow favourites "Mad Men" or "True Blood", we are consuming nothing more than glorified soaps. Many people have done beautiful work on these programs to make them deliciously appealing, but the beauty has one pivotal objective to which all other narrative meanings must bow: serialised television does not exist to teach us anything, challenge us too deeply or offer ideas on how else we could live our lives - indeed, most of the time that would contradict its objective. The aim is merely to keep us wanting more, forever mystified, as if the non-existent answers we sought were only around the corner. Just like advertising.
It is absurd to say TV's value has surpassed film, as we are misjudging our addiction as value. TV can be a great means to play out our very human need for storytelling, but we are misinterpreting its power, too trusting of its inbuilt self-advertising.
Buying into this - the cliffhangers and self-perpetuating dramas - the balance of our real lives to our fantasy lives comes askew. We are still watching way too much television, and submitting our children's developing brains to the potential damage it can do - whatever happened to the anti-TV campaign? It's gone awfully silent.
The internet did not kill our appetite for inactive vegetation in front of television screens. A small amount is healthy, but TV is consistently invested in offering us the opportunity to be stuck there, and thus avoid reality.
Let us not forget the true value of television: it is common ground for communities who may otherwise be strangers. Most of us know about these shows and these characters, so we can chat with strangers about them, or acquaintances - with TV, we are never too far from the village community still lingering in the collective subconscious, an echo of longing from our history together, when we knew every face we would pass in the street. We want to be able to know the same people everyone else knows.
Meanwhile, film offers a different experience. Film is obliged to help us understand the world as it requires conclusion, and if the conclusion yields no revelation, we feel cheated. Film is not obliged to be didactic or prescriptive - this can be equally irksome - but it is obliged to come up with an end which satisfies our longing for meaning. No such pressures are placed on television.
Film by comparison offers a chance to receive our storytelling fix over a couple of hours, after which it often feels unpleasant to remain in a fantasy world (slumber party movie nights aside).
There is still some truth to the inflammatory old saying: TV is the ass end of the film industry.
New Matilda, my favourite news commentary site in Australia, has gone under. Shortly after they announced the impending closure of their online publication, I asked my friend Jane, who is launching a magazine called the IF Project, if it was possible to introduce new media models in the current resource-starved media climate, without subsequently selling them out to the existing – broken – mainstream giants.
That’s a scary thought. Here’s a simplification of Margaret Simons’ subtext to this sweeping remark: there’s a market glut in opinion now that anyone can self-publish inexpensively, and thus all opinion is devalued.
There’s a note of alarming acceptance about this.
Looking at opinion writing in isolation misses the point though: all written content has lost value. News reportage has traditionally been rewarded financially at odds with opinion writing, and this has not changed. It does not, however, alter the fact that the monetary value of all writing has reached rock bottom, news or otherwise.
Then again, looking at writing in isolation also misses the point: anything intangible has lost value, because it is distributed for free on the internet. Even a paywall cannot bridle the reverent believers in free content who will redistribute the same content illegally. This legislative impotence has been discovered by most arts industries: the music industry discovered it, for example, and the film industry is undergoing similar growing pains.
It is the contemporary dilemma that all things intangible have lost value, but all things intangible, as we increasingly learn in the consumerist age, are the most valuable things we can have in life; including thoughts, opinions, wisdom and other artistic expressions of our experiences. It can be summed up as: sharing knowledge.
You can download that, though – but you can’t download a sofa, only the Ikea catalog. To me, this spells disaster.
The music industry provides a fine analogy here, as it suffered this uncomfortable transition very publicly and early on in the history of the popularised internet. Indie bands now often make more money selling merchandise than they do selling their music. Once again: you can download their music, but you can’t download their t-shirt. Seeing as money is our mutually upheld system of ascribing value, the value of music itself (rather than musical brand names) has been invariably tarnished.
Here’s another look at what can happen when we don’t value music with money: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a record cost a considerable amount of one’s income, but not so much that it was inaccessible to young people. If anyone bought an LP, the investment was substantial enough that they would be compelled to really try to enjoy it. If at first they were turned off by the music, chances are they would keep trying because an alternative wasn’t readily available. This led to more experimental and adventurous music being viable, which lay the groundwork for a lot of the music we still find appealing today. This was the time when progressive music flourished. Many have questioned why this artistic advancement hasn’t happened in the same way since – money could be the reason.
Now there is so much free music that we are encouraged to click through it and hear as much as we can as fast as possible. We don’t have the time to appreciate the subtlety of longer or more intricate musical statements. We don’t pay for it, so we aren’t as invested in needing to enjoy it.
The same thing has happened with words.
This is a travesty. It may be temporary, but for now we need to understand the gravity of the situation in order to care enough to locate real and lasting changes: our method for determining value – the financial system – has got it wrong.
So what is the future of new publications like the IF Project?
Jane’s post in part reads like a defence of her aspiration to corporate sponsorship. This is fine, it is necessary for her right now, but there are some sobering points to be made here. A new publication doing the same thing as the rest cannot correct the imbalance toward consumer-targeted and sponsor-lenient coverage that has become so damaging to our understanding of the world.
Although it is necessary for new publications like this to continue striving, until we can figure out how to financially maintain publications with integrity, we need a constant stream of new media offering various perspectives, even if they eventually cannot continue publishing. It is also worth noting that journalist entrepreneurs have only cropped up for publicity purposes. Entrepreneurs always populated our media, but they have adopted more and more celebrity status in order to appeal to consumers who ask for celebrities by which they can recognise the attached brand.
It is a misnomer to herald the cessation of New Matilda as “the end of independent media as we know it.” Mungo MacCallum provided a very relevant retrospective of the revolving door of independent media outlets he has worked for. The pretty much systematic opening and closing of alternative media has been in place for a long time. Independent media is used to running on the smell of an oily rag; mainstream media is not – therein lies the difference. We are fast ending up with NO reliable media.
Thus I hope that Jane can break the mould of short-term independent media and I hope that I can help her in some way to make a difference with her new venture.
So what does journalisnt.net offer? I very much appreciate the gesture of calling the site a “media revolution”, but agree with the popular concern: a nation of bloggers does not a media make.
Journalisnt.net never claimed to correct the balance or plug a hole in the news industry – or indeed be viable as a corporate interest at all. In my opening post, I explained, “Journalisnt.net can’t provide what the world really needs right now: a colossal injection of funds for unbiased investigative reporting, in addition to editorial decision-making unbound to audience prejudice.”
I’m more interested in identifying poisonous assumptions and the kind of media negligence continuing to produce the mass urban legends by which many of us make our political decisions – and doing this on a human level, never losing sight of the motivations of people behind the ideas. The ailing media system with its grotesque abuse of our trust needs as many antidotes as it can get.
For now, many of us content providers understand we are doing this for love not money. Nor are we doing this for other markers of value, such as prestige or acknowledgment – at least until we discover the means to direct value back into that which matters.
Simons gets it right when she says, “While some people may do some of this work for free some of the time, if you want it done consistently and well, then ultimately it has to be paid for.” However, she goes on to assert, “The Crikey model suggests people will pay to be told news.” Perhaps they will pay a bit more for news than they will for opinion, but when the news we pay for doesn’t have the resources or inclination to tell the truth, when it is still increasingly beholden to its audience’s own bias just to survive, this is still no answer. Our experiments online have yet to yield a realistic direction.
Having seen David Hare’s latest play, “The Power of Yes” this week, I have decided it is time to get my head around the last global financial crisis and explain it with my pen, in a way I can understand, after some sort of linear fashion.
One of the most fundamental causes attached to the GFC is that the banks thought they had found the answer to risk; investments could be made without risk attached. Many pinned it on a formula. They also prolonged the usual period of economic growth by avoiding the necessary fall: the answer was for the banks to skirt the consequences of debt by subdividing, buying and selling it amongst each other, insuring against it, then buying and selling that too. With each step, each subdivision, each resale, the problem had been poked a little further away. And they thought this was an answer.
The concept of “eliminating risk”, of course, should have been foolish to anyone on the outside looking in, but their reasoning was craftier than that, and the banks were offering us anything we wanted on credit, so we were happy to go along with the ride.
As the economic ebb and flow – while ever unpredictable – usually happens in tides of six to seven years, and this one had gone on nearly two decades, it was hard to resist the idea that the answer to limitless market growth really had been found. The reason? When everyone is making money, you can’t do anything wrong, and if you’re a banker, you feel like it is because of your greatness at predicting the market and capitalising on it. Wrong.
What the banks had actually done, of course, was to stave off the eventual financial collapse for an ever increasing period of time. They staved it off, and inadvertently made the end a whole lot worse.
The banking sector (like every other pack of fallible humans) ignores the fact that regulation exists for the good of everyone including themselves – it is the process of learning from past and trying to predict and avoid the same mistakes in future. They managed to convince all of us, consumers and governments, that because they had found the “answer” to risk, they didn’t need regulation. They would self-regulate. A massive bystander effect happened across the globe. No one wanted to be the one to regulate the banks in fear of being financially left behind.
When you self-regulate, you can do and have whatever you want at the expense of anyone you want. You can live on 20 million dollars a year, with all of the resource exploitation that may involve. Problem is, the more you offer everyone whatever they want, the more you realise it is not possible.
To do this, they had to convince us of a number of things: first, that they had eliminated risk and could do no wrong. They also had to convince us that what they were holding was worth more than anything else. And what they held was debt. This is where one begins to realise that global economics are really no different from playground bartering, and that you can convince yourself and others of the worth of anything, be it a baseball card or trillions of dollars of debt.
Is it not absurd, however, that we believed the absence of money, money in deficit, was worth more than anything? That debt could generate more wealth ad infinitum?
Wealth works on a system of convincing others of worth. Wealth and worth don’t actually exist – they are artificial constructs. Money only has meaning because we mutually decide it represents a certain worth. This leads to all sorts of simple loopholes for those in a position of power to exploit, if they go unregulated: you can say you are worth whatever you like, as long as people believe it.
And, as long as you believe it. We’re all much more convincing when we believe what is coming out our own mouths.
It is not a conspiracy though, it is just ego. The banks, and the shadow bankers, really thought they had found the answer to risk; really, no one should go poor again. That’s how they continued to explain their multi-million dollar salaries. People upset that they are only earning $500K a year actually believe that they deserve more, because they are surrounded by others earning more than $500K a year. Consumers, banks and governments get caught in a process of one-upmanship. The whole world is keeping up with the Joneses to the point where everyone consumes beyond what is available.
Consumers wanted property, and lifestyles beyond the scope of the globe’s exploitable resources. On the face of it, everyone got a good deal before the crisis, because the banks gave us exactly that – whatever we wanted on credit. But it can’t work, because if you can have anything you want, no one stops, we just get into debt we can’t pay off in order to live like the girls from “Sex and the City” who we watch on the screen and wish we could be. We all did it, and the banks did it as well. The money may have existed, but the wealth didn’t. The paper wealth lied. Because we wanted it to, and lied to ourselves. We just weren’t realistic.
So in the end, the banks used the oldest, dirtiest trading trick in the book (all this time thinking it was something different): say you have something you don’t have. If you pretend you can give something wonderful, where your rucksack is actually empty, you can trade for anything you want. Making a promise you can’t keep is a sure-fire way to profit from the aspirations of others. The banking system promised all of us homes and unlivable lifestyles, raked it up on an unfair trade, and when they finally got around to admitting they didn’t have it, cried poor and got the injection to do it all again. Can you believe it? We’re doing it all again.
While a small degree of propping up was necessary after the banking sector fell so far, I don’t think we have stopped to ponder the investment – the seemingly congratulatory investment – that was handed to an utterly flawed system when it collapsed into its own ego.
In Hare’s play, he calls it “socialism for the rich.” That’s what it looks like. The money goes back into the community alright – but the community it reaches is the wealthiest minority. Within the U.K., banks were bailed to the tune of six trillion pounds – this is the figure Hare quotes. One of his great dramatic tricks is to write out the number, and although it can’t bring our brains near to comprehension of that colossal number, it is helpful for us to try and grasp an understanding and it is worth repeating here:
These trillions have enabled those bankers who were living a life of grossly disproportionate luxury, to go on living a life of grossly disproportionate luxury. It doesn’t work. It will happen again. The opportunity for redefining the system to make sure everyone benefits equally appears lost. It’s what we should have done.
Anyway, all these words and ever-confusing investment structures and explanations may be working in the favour of those who least need the financial help, still. The banking sector took us for a ride and have gone unpunished. If we want an answer to poverty and the financial woes blighting public policy everywhere across the developed world, look no further – regulate the banks.
Let’s get one thing straight – there is no boat crisis. Hardly anyone who arrives in Australia seeking asylum arrives by boat. Of those who do about 2-15% have their refugee applications denied. In 2008, the number of refugees who arrived in Australia by boat was 206. If we were worried about illegal immigrants, we should be worried about British, American and Chinese Downunder enthusiasts overstaying their visas. Even the word “crisis” is as much a media-driven beat-up as the insulation scandal which – later revealed as myth – caused Peter Garrett to be demoted from his Environment post.
The government talks hard on asylum seekers, knowing all the while it is the last of Australia’s problems. A few desperate people are sacrificed via simple, brash lies in a bid for power, setting the scene for Australia’s upcoming Federal elections. For it is always elections that bring up these lies, appealing to the worst in us – this is also why the Obama administration has been so soft on Arizona’s recent immigration policy fiasco.
If there’s one thing the ALP don’t have on their side, it’s honesty, and this could be their downfall. After the week-by-week scandals which concluded the Howard years, we may be getting more successfully irate about being lied to. The polls are punishing Rudd at the moment. Speak to swing voters and ALP defectors anywhere and I suspect the answer you will get will be the same: it’s the backflip on climate change.
But how much of this backflip was the ALP’s fault?
It would be hard to level accusations at Rudd that he didn’t believe what he said when he called climate change “the great challenge of our time.” He obviously wanted to at least take a tentative step towards environmental change, as he enlisted the lion’s share of Penny Wong’s time in parliament to draw up a painstaking ETS deal with the Coalition. It may have been a less-than-perfect system, but after all the negotiations they had been through, at least it was something – the best everyone could agree to.
Then the Coalition old guard freaked out at the changes afoot, and Malcolm Turnbull was soon usurped by absurdly illogical climate change denier Tony Abbott. This gave the Coalition leverage to discard all the hard work, thus setting back the date of any deal even further.
The truth is that Rudd et al probably can’t see any way in the current political climate to introduce any sensible green scheme. To be honest, now that the ETS is off the cards, there is a slim chance it will be possible to put together a better deal than the ETS, one making more sense, like a carbon tax – with a little help from concerned Australians, their pens and their telephones. But we need it sooner rather than later.
Here’s the nub: Rudd’s advisors are obviously cynical enough to think his don’t-tell-the-kids nannying style of leadership will go unpunished by voters. Wouldn’t it work to be honest with us about the process of compromise which nullified their green ambitions? Wouldn’t that make Rudd look like less of a turncoat?
Throwing in the towel until 2013, consigning to the earth and its inhabitants an even more prolonged environmental disturbance, is still unforgivable, and we are right to withdraw our support for another ALP government (by proxy acknowledging we will likely end up with worse – climate change denial in government). But perhaps if Rudd were more transparent about the negotiation, then we the concerned could be more understanding and more empowered to enter ourselves into the negotiating process. At the moment, it looks like once again there is something being hidden – and if there is, perhaps it is the shame of being so influenced by lobbyists.
It's hard to know the exact motivations of the prime minister, and I am willing to accept that, immersed in a world of ceaseless political obligation, surrounded by the powerful and wealthy, a grip on the reality most of us live could start to slide, and along with it compassion for the fate of the populace. The osmosis of values is a well documented psychological occurrence. Perhaps the corruption of power is often just due to those who our leaders are surrounded by.
The first lesson: lies don’t last – they will eventually be uncovered, and potentially, horrendously, pave the way to a government presided over by the ilk of Tony Abbott.
The second: we should look to the UK if we want to avoid a similar economic downturn. For too long the UK has relied on the financial sector for national prosperity. Relying on one source of income is always a dangerous position to be in, and the whole globe has fallen into the trap of thinking of money as value in and of itself. But as most economists should tell you, the decreased value of the pound will just create a different kind of economy relying on different income streams - international bargain hunters will turn to the UK for holidays, products, and resultantly, culture. It could be a wonderful time for Britain. Although the shift is always disquieting.
So much political effort is put into avoiding any kind of discomfort. If we allowed a little discomfort, we would be better able to plan for the future. It's just a hard sell to the electorate. A good statesman is able to take more of the initiative to be unpopular and make us look beyond our homes, our wallets, our immediacy.
Don't lie, look around the globe for other warning signs, and last of all, look back. History can tell us so much. To wit: none of us should trust the media - the mainstream media have failed us in past. Check out the coal lobby. It's all happening in the media right now. The relatively negligible coal tax currently proposed - only affecting resource company profits, which are considerable - is being bashed for all sorts of potential crimes to the electorate in the Australian media.
The coal lobby is using media influence to bluff its way through their latest scare campaign. They have threatened to discontinue their $11 billion iron ore expansion, but as Ben Eltham points out, if they were serious they would have to announce it to the ASX. They have yet to do so.
Looking briefly backwards, just a short way, would also tell us that industry investment will most probably be unaffected by the tax; there is no evidence to support this histrionic claim which has peppered mainstream opinion columns since a coal tax came on the agenda.
The government, along with the rest of us, trusted the mainstream media on the insulation issue. Why should we have any reason to trust them again? It's just dirty PR work.
Western culture doesn't look fondly on anger. It is usually relegated to safer cultural realms, where its power is nullified; loud music, horror movies. Ever wonder why teenagers have such an unparalleled appetite for horror movies? Ever wonder where all that excess anger in teenagers ends up?
There are a lot of reasons to watch horror movies when we're young; to challenge the more irrational fears persisting in us (monsters, anyone?) until they are no longer a threat, to differentiate ourselves from our more placid parents. But most importantly, the excessive human annihilation taps into our anger and abates it, albeit momentarily. Even among adults, some of the most gentle people I know are those most attracted to violent films and hard metal music.
It's important to have these avenues for release - just like a punching bag, to get rid of excess buildup of anger. But they don't get to the source, they just temporarily syphon it out of our brains, while we continue to tread the waters of our underlying ire.
Indeed, what Western culture has a problem with is the productive use of anger. Dealing with the emotion through action is the only way to exorcise the root of the anger. But that means it needs to be communicated, and to be communicated it needs to be seen. No one seems to want anger to be seen.
No one wants it seen because it's scary - it has the power to create massive change, and change is uncomfortable and often involves a lot of painful work, like compromise, sacrifice and self-awareness.
This is why Buddhism finds a natural fit in the Western mindset. The Westernised version of Buddhism often teaches anger as one of the "negative" emotions we can do without. The religion teaches a transcendence - if we get it right, we won't have to deal with the negative emotions as we will rise above them, observe them and let them pass.
Besides the possibility that this endeavour could make a shell of a human - forever avoiding feeling in case they get hurt, avoiding conflict and all the goodness and life it can bring - the concept misses the point of anger entirely. Our propensity for anger doesn't persist in the gene pool for no reason. Anger incites us to act, and action is necessary for survival.
I don't mean violent action - the conflation of anger with violence attempts to dismiss the potential for good change that anger exists to offer us. Instead, it is possible to communicate the anger and locate its resolution. In my experience, anger disappears when the angry party feels they have been properly heard, and this paves the way for diplomatic compromise, and better arrangements for living with fellow humans.
A culture that ignores this shoots itself in the foot. It’s only in the interests of a few people involved in large-scale corruption, who would prefer not to be bothered by angry citizens asking for change. By not acknowledging anger - and using it where necessary - we are doomed not to change. We are also doomed to not recognise the other ways in which we are using our anger: most of the time, turning it in. For what is depression but anger turned inward?
Anger turned inward is still helpful too, and depression can tell us that something must change within ourselves. But once again, to get out of it, the anger often needs to be acknowledged and heard.
Thus, telling people they don't have to deal with anger is counterproductive and damaging. Perhaps we should hold anger in higher esteem.
Yes, I was dragged to "Clash of the Titans" the other day. I have to admit some free will about it - I didn't have to attend, but I have some fondness for producer Ray Harryhausen's labour-of-stop-motion-love 1981 original, and I wanted to be amongst friends.
Aside from the usual dismaying sexual politics and the much-deplored makeshift 3-D art, the resulting movie was just objectionably boring. CGI battle scene fatigue would probably headline the list of reasons not to attend in the first place; I suspect many others must be suffering the same thing.
However, despite the bad press the picture received, it was far from dead on arrival. Audiences failed to reject a film slammed for its inferior visual work, yet still selling itself as escapist eye candy - at the time of writing, it has grossed $321M at the box office internationally.
Is there anything we won't buy, if we're told to? (It has long been pointed out that artists who used to run the major studios of Hollywood have been increasingly bought out by the likes of David Bergstein and branded and sold by the likes of MT Carney, who have no interest in film, only the capital it generates.)
So what is the marketing line for these films, anyway? Obviously they tell us that we will get to enjoy switching off the banality of our reality via symbiosis-like absorption in sensory distraction. They hold the promise of doing what other people are doing, so we get to feel like part of a community of people all doing the same thing (woot). But they also say something about sensory distraction that we fail to question: that it is the best means of escape, and it is thus what audiences most desire as entertainment.
Is it really? Or is it just that we've been told and we've accepted this?
Are we walking away from these awfully similar, unimaginatively storyboarded, broadly cynical pictures more entertained, more engrossed in another world of thought or ingenuity?
Escapism is defined as entertainment- or recreation-induced, temporary, perceived escape from reality. Therefore, escapism in entertainment should be measured by how convinced we are of an internal reality, and how long it resonates within our minds, both during the piece and after the curtains close.
So if escapism is measured by the amount of time we spend engrossed in this other reality, then these films are the palm oil of escapist entertainment, convincing our bodies that they are receiving what it requires, but then solidifying almost immediately in our arteries/brains. A more convincing reality with lasting emotional effects - this would include for starters some surprise and psychological challenge, perhaps even more verisimilitude - should be deemed more escapist, right?
Mike Leigh, a filmmaker I often have problems with but at least a thoughtful and surprising one, explains his reservations thus: "People say, 'Ah, yes, but audiences just want to escape.' I think, that if people see a film like "Secrets and Lies", where the stuff that's going on relates to things that they really care about, then it's more of an escape. Because you become so engaged in it and enthralled by it that you forget those things. They answer 'Well, yes, but then the audience worries about real life things,' but it's fulfilling, it's enriching, it's not like just eating candy for an hour and three quarters. It's actually really communing with something and feeling like you've been through something that comes out making you feel better able to go back and worry about the specific things that are your problems."
I agree, and I still don't think escapism should be our primary measure of entertainment. We've conflated the two. Entertainment can also include the time our brains are really working, not switched off.
Besides which, they all look the same.
3-D still doesn't do it for me. It's the studios' way around having to come up with new ideas - 3-D has been pushed on us so many times in past, I wonder why we are more susceptible to it now? Is the marketing stronger, or are we, incredibly, less marketing-savvy? Maybe it's just our truncated memories.
The greatest benefit for the studios in pushing 3-D again is that after suffering a hard recession, they have been able to charge us more for tickets. By extension, they are still able to market their own "growth" by the consumers' understanding of film value: box office takings. The only reason "Avatar" is the highest grossing film of all time is that they convinced us to pay more for admission than anyone has in past. Studio win. They get to trumpet their growth, and we, convinced that their revenue equals greater audience complicity (it's still "Gone with the Wind", folks), believe that this is the height of entertainment.
It's not. Film can be more powerful than this. Film can be more artful than this, too.
Leigh maintains, "My aim is to entertain, meaning, literally, what the word means. People forget what that word means. It means to make you stay here, to keep you in your seat ... The attention span is dreadful because -- and I submit that this did not happen in the Golden Age of Hollywood when they made movies that made you sit there and really watch the whole time -- it's boring, basically."
What have we bought? An inferior product, that's what. If only there were a way to oust the quality-disinterested executives from their lofty posts in Hollywood.
Pretty much all of the major news outlets and information gathering services worldwide have suffered increasingly severe funding cuts over the past few decades. First at the hands of Murdoch-epitomised corporate logic – the quality of the product comes a far distant second to its responsibility to shareholders and executive staff pay packets – and now with the challenge of the internet, the global media has been brought to its knees. As many have pointed out, the first to go have been investigative reporters. Along with them went our hope for knowing what is going on in our world. News isn’t news; it is sold persuasion masquerading as information, it is advertising. Information is now more than ever tailored to what we want to hear, in order to sell itself.
I’ve been wondering for some time: if information is being so woefully tailored to what its audience wants to hear, what happened to the information a left wing audience wanted to hear? As the morning pages and evening broadcasts fill up with celebrity gossip, murder stories and bigotry, are the once progressive and critically minded dwindling such that they no longer have any consumer pull? In Australia for example, my home country, the news sources which once appealed to progressive audiences, such as the Sydney Morning Herald, have moved to the centre or now bulge with faux-content and fatuous gossip. The other day I finally figured it out: the audience for these news sources got fed up, and they have turned to alternative news gathering sites on the internet.
This begs a few obvious questions, one being: has the internet made it easier to hear only what we want to hear, polarising us further and pushing the truth further away? Another: considering the internet’s ability to conceal the hand of the author, isn’t it easier to get away with lying, for those with a barrow to push who are willing to distort the truth?
Schools of journalism maintain that there is no such thing as news objectivity – the worldly experience and perspective of even the most unbiased journalist will colour every article. There is, however, integrity of the reporter – we must tell the truth we find, even when we don’t like the truth, or it doesn’t agree with our philosophy or politics.
With this most fundamental principle in mind, it is worth looking at why politically motivated news sources are still worthwhile. I have a background in arts and entertainment PR. It is a long acknowledged tactic of the atrocious variety of PR that, if you want to hide an ugly truth, you change the nature of the debate. If you want to conceal sordid facts, disguise them by foregrounding other facts; distract the media with tangential information.
Current media principles have a debate winning back door for publicists and PR agents – news coverage is expected to cover all sides of the debate. Even if “the other side” is cruelly motivated or ludicrous, it will be reported for the appearance of objectivity. It is the story of the coverage of everything from global warming to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lobby groups and PR professionals command the debate by demanding reporters fulfill their duty to include “the other side”, often being simply untrue statements of the perpetrators as victims.
This has happened to political debate as well. We have been pulled back to discussing that which we should have long since accepted. It must be acknowledged that, just because a topic or opinion is much discussed, it doesn’t mean there is any truth to be found in it. We need to be careful about which opinions we engage with, as if we report everything, news can be dumbed down to a point where it tells us nothing about the world we live in.
It is, therefore, a journalistic responsibility to be at least a little politically critical. We must have values to guide us, or we are at the mercy of those who sidestep ethics and truth.
Three principles should still guide us here: first, to understand opposing arguments, even when they appear logically bankrupt (there is no need to include them in our writings if they are logically bankrupt, but we must understand them in order to make this decision). Second, understand people and empathise with even those who seem monstrous against our most ingrained moral codes. We will get nowhere if we don’t understand and empathise with one another. Finally, if a truth displeases us, we cannot reject it.
We also need to grant ourselves more time. If we are uncertain of the evidence we are reporting, we needn’t publish it, merely because we have a certain amount of content we are obliged to publish. Slowing down the process of generating news is essential to getting it right. And this means less content – more considered content.
Journalisnt.net can’t provide what the world really needs right now: a colossal injection of funds for unbiased investigative reporting, in addition to editorial decision-making unbound to audience prejudice. Eventually we need this to return to some semblance of understanding about the world we live in. Unfortunately the few of us just don’t have that kind of cash.
But we have individual voices, and we have critical minds. If enough of us are dedicated to locating mistruths and the abuse of audience trust currently upheld by the mainstream media, if we get together and keep asking for the truth… then perhaps we will have a louder voice in favour of real news; news for understanding our world.
To me, 'spirituality' is one of those words like 'toxins', used to refer to something completely undefined, instead providing a vague idea of a ballpark of a kind of a value judgement. It suggests rather than describes. That suggestion, in the case of spirituality, is a self-condoned lapse in reason; a desire to believe in something we have no evidence of, and therefore allow ourselves to ignore any truth which is convenient for us to deny. What else could that palabra mean?
I'm godless. I tried to believe in God once, because when I was young I lived for a time with my born-again mother's parents, both deeply Christian. But I couldn't do it. It probably has something to do with the fact that, when I prayed to Him under the school library's steps for the bullies to stop bullying me, He chose to ignore me. It seemed like a reasonable request at the time.
I've since come to the conclusion that we don't know if there's a supreme being - we can't, it's 50:50 probability, as we've no evidence for or against to work with. Same goes for purpose; we have no real indication of our life's purpose, so, I say to myself, it's best to work with what we have here, the cause and effect that we actually have some experience with, rather than speculating (for reasons other than entertainment) on that which we cannot ever know or indeed change. But it doesn't stop there.
If we haven't been granted any indication of purpose, then how are we to make decisions?
This whole blog is about encouraging one another to be kinder to each other, to try to minimise suffering and maximise pleasure for the majority of people - in short, to help each other rather than to be selfish.
But ultimately, if you keep asking me the question "why?", I can't provide a good answer other than self interest.
We can do what we are impelled, what we are programmed to do: help the species survive. And that makes us feel alright. But then we rationalise how important this is - apparently not very, considering the boggling vastness of the universe, and the fact that if an asteroid wiped us out it wouldn't really matter. Knowing this, the only reason to help others and be less selfish is that it makes us feel good - and purposeful - and it makes our time on earth a little bit more bearable.
The purpose of helping others is to feel purposeful.
Is that all there is? It's a horrendous piece of self-defeating circular logic: if we are only helping each other to feel good, then what's wrong with feeling good through selfishness, if that's what works for you? It's no better or worse, as there's no higher purpose telling us to look after the interests of others.
Lately we've surrendered to this. Largely non-religious gen y in the West has accepted it with their "live in the moment" philosophy. It's ultimately a variety of Hedonism. It is surrendering to self-interest.
I'm the first to admit that self-interest is the only thing that motivates any life, humans included. But that hurts. Without another purpose, how can I be giving advice on the best thing to do? For all it matters, why don't you go ahead and rape and pillage? Cue existential crisis. I got it bad right now. Condolences/suggestions welcome in the Comments section on the website.
Everyone keeps talking about how they’re all growing up faster and faster, but it doesn’t seem to me like Carla’s going fast. For one, she’s still scared of so many things. Lately it’s been witches. She still has a snotrag, which she carries around the house. Where most kids might have a blanket they hang onto for years and years, Carla keeps one of my old pyjama shirts and walks around the house with it, every now and then rubbing it across her nose. I spend enough effort just convincing her to let me give it a wash; I don’t know how I’ll get her to throw it away. I made her throw out all Jean’s old shirts she used to use as snotrags when they were nothing more than tatty shreds of alarmingly firm cotton. I have to admit, despite how truly repulsive they were by then, I was also sorry to see them go. They were the last things in the house that smelled like Jean. That’s why Carla liked them too, I know. But that was a while ago now, and Tate has long since planted his own smell in the house – the permanent smell of one of those people who have never touched a cologne or deodorant stick in their life. It’s very different to how the house used to be, which has to be good.
Tate’s been around almost a year now. He doesn’t live with us yet, and we haven’t talked to Carla about this possibility either. But we should, because it might happen sometime soon. He’s here every other night. I do that classic Hollywood thing when I wake up now, on mornings when he isn’t there: I’m sleeping with my arm out to the side, and when I wake up I realise that there should be someone there who I’m holding, and I’m surprised there’s no one. With Jean, I used to be unable to sleep too close to her. I’ve always been like that. When sleeping with anyone I lie a fair distance away, otherwise I stay awake. But I did like to hold my arm out with my hand on her back, or her torso, so I could feel someone there. But now, with Tate, that’s changed too.
I’ve been commissioned by Carla’s school to design them a new school hall. It’s been a long time since I’ve really had to focus like this. I used to listen to the radio when I was at the drawing board, but I can’t do that anymore. Sometimes I just get up and walk around for no good reason, but usually there’s no one else here – luckily, I suppose – so I have to go back to working.
Carla’s school and I are on good rapport. I’ve been going to P&C meetings, which is also something I never used to do. I’ve got just about my only friends there, besides Tate. I do turn up late though. It’s because I like the feeling of walking through the school at night, in between all the dark buildings on stilts, and I’m moving towards the only one where there’s any light, and I can hear people’s voices. At night you can’t see the silly colours those classrooms are painted or the rust on their naff metal windowsills. Sometimes I suppose I need the space to be alone, with nothing tying me down. This is my bit of time where there are no obligations.
Carla doesn’t usually talk about school, but when we were on the drive home the other day she started telling me about what her teacher said that morning in class. I like Carla’s teacher this year. She’s a bright, curiously intense woman in her early thirties who’s been at the school nearly all her working life. According to Carla, she’d been talking about the Iraq debacle during maths time. So Carla came home very spritely, telling me about this highlight in her day and asking questions about Iraq. I was careful, always thinking how much I should subject her to. She may not have listened to any of my answers, or Tate’s few interjections. But then, kids take in a lot that they don’t seem to be taking in, even if it tends to go off into some wildly different compartment in their imagination. She’s said a few times recently that she’d like to know what it’s like to be shot. If you start really talking to her about it, or asking her why, she says, “No, I’m just kidding, just kidding.” Then she changes the topic or leaves.
It was Carla’s thirteenth birthday recently. We watched a whole heap of videos. I can’t bring myself to get out those awful teen movies they make these days. They’re vile, and thankfully she hasn’t really shown any interest in them. However I did get a copy of Fast Times At Ridgemont High to test on her. She watched the whole thing silently, while Tate and I laughed. She seemed quietly intrigued to me. She went to the toilet a lot during the movie, though. Don’t know what that meant.
“Could you shut the toilet door?” Tate kept asking Carla. I knew he was only asking her because it’s what I do. I’ve noticed a lot of that. Sometimes he’ll look over at me, presumably to measure my approval, but then what do you do? I pretend I don’t really notice. I’ve been forced to admit to myself I really don’t know what kind of role I’d want Tate to have with Carla, parenting her and all. But then, maybe it’s not mine to dictate.
After watching way too many movies, Tate and I ate some leftover food and talked. Carla didn’t want to go to bed yet, and seeing as it was her birthday I let her stay up. Pretty quickly she got bored listening to us talk and lay down on the living room couch, trying to keep her eyes open. Tate started talking about that instance of political fingerpointing at Playschool – the TV show – that happened not long ago, the episode when they showed a ‘child with two mums’ and all the Libs got mighty upset about it.
“You know I’m sick of all these arguments about whether or not children should be subjected to politics so young,” he was saying. “That’s not what it’s about, it’s just a diversion they’ve thrown in. You know, it’s as if what they’re calling politics is somehow separable from life. Everyone’s always been subjected to politics. Every decision we make is at the same time a political one and a philosophical one, and we can’t pretend it’s anything else.” He paused and picked some wood off the table, thinking. Although I considered asking him not to pick the wood, I knew I probably shouldn’t say anything yet; he was about to start speaking again. He looked up. “And this whole idea of innocence, we should let them have their innocence, let them set the pace – as if they’re asking not to know about diversity, sure guys – I mean, why do we want to hang onto this idea of innocence? See, and this idea of the family as an isolated sphere of influence, as a tiny indestructible unit… this… this romantic notion that the parents should decide when they tell their progeny about certain things, and they’ll create a person that way how they want it. You know? Why do we want to believe in that so much? It’s fiction – it’s a complete fiction. We never used to hold them back. I mean look at, say, Brothers Grimm fairy tales, not that long ago. Now we’re afraid of letting kids know anything that we don’t – it’s so backwards. So they’ve got to do it themselves. Anyway, they’re excuses, all excuses, conservative excuses. But you’ve got to ask, why do we want them?” He finished.
“I think Carla’s gone to sleep.”
“Nighthawk Eleven to Wobbly Wombat,” he said, which is just about Tate’s favourite thing to say. “Do you read me?” I still haven’t asked where that expression came from, but I think it’s peculiar to him and him only. I used to find it annoying, but now I’m used to it I think it’s cute.
“No, I know what you’re saying,” I told him. I tried to reiterate what he’d just said.
“Yes. Well, not quite, I’ll explain anyway – you have to understand – let me explain myself.”
Which he did. It was cute.
Tate has a friend (an ex-boyfriend) called Christopher who was also there earlier that evening. He doesn’t like being called Chris though – you have to call him Christopher. He says he just doesn’t like the name Chris. It took a while for me to stop calling him Chris. At first I couldn’t get the hang of it, but he just laughed at me.
Christopher’s one of those Mr Amazing guys, capital M, capital A. M for mature and A for artistic. He’s younger than both of us, and more gregarious I suppose you could say. I imagine him to be a bit of a social butterfly, and so sometimes I wonder why he spends his time around us old folks. He’s religious too. When I found that out it turned me off a bit, but then I observed how much he seemed confused about his own Christianity. Sometimes he has a hard time reconciling it with his politics. Still, he can talk anyone into the ground, and I can’t decide if he ever gets boring or not. Despite how interested I am I pretend I’m not, and I don’t ask him anything about his faith. I think he’s Anglican. I also have to admit he and Tate go well together, especially when they really get arguing.
Another night a couple of weeks ago one of us three had the bright idea to all get drunk, so we gathered at my place and had dinner. Actually we didn’t even touch a drop, we just sat around talking, but Christopher had come over in Tate’s car, thus he didn’t have his own car with him and I had to drive him home. He did most of the talking, but I couldn’t tell if he was just filling the empty air so it wouldn’t be so uncomfortable. He sounded as bubbly and interested as he did most of the time when he opened his mouth. I realised I had no idea what he thought about me, or whether or not I liked him. He started asking me questions just before I reached his house.
“How’s Tate getting along with Carla?” he tried first.
“Yeah, fine,” I said. But I felt compelled to say more. I said, “It’s just I’m not sure how Carla’s getting on with other people, especially the other kids at her school.”
There was a time at the beginning of the relationship when Carla seemed fascinated by Tate, and kept asking him questions. At times I wasn’t sure if she was just using this rather aggressive sociability as some sort of a test for Tate, or a defensive gesture. But after a while she stopped talking to him so much, and now she can be quite short with him, even when he’s being extra nice to her. She still seems, at the moment, especially fascinated with Christopher. She’s started asking him all the questions.
For some reason I ended up telling Christopher that I wasn’t sure what Tate was doing with me, or why Tate had chosen this grief-stricken single dad to cling onto. Most people would run a mile. Was he thinking of staying? Sitting in the car outside Christopher’s house, he told me he thought Tate liked Carla a lot more than I probably knew, and enjoyed negotiating the responsibility of taking on a parenting role with her. I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting him to say Tate had really fallen for me, and that’s why he’s still around. I watched Christopher run across the road and half jog up the steps to his house – an old, narrow, grey weatherboard affair, packed in tightly against the others on the street. It also had a forbidding steel fence out the front, but the whole thing was kind of quaint in the daytime. All the lights were off inside, and there was darkness coming out of the windows. I wondered if he lived with anyone. He swiftly disappeared inside. I might have seen him wave from the shadows in the landing, perhaps to say everything was all right. I kind of felt obliged to watch and make sure he made it in safely. Then I left.
When I got home Tate was already asleep, so I drank by myself. I heated up some sake because it was so cold that night, and had to force myself to drink past the second. But I’ve always hated drinking alone. Drinking alone feels directionless.
I put on one of Tate’s new age music tapes that he kept for late at night. It wasn’t bad, under the circumstances.
I remember the day the last time Jean went into hospital. I was on the phone about to organise someone to pick Carla up from school when she came in through the front door. It was the middle of a school day. She was in tears. She must have noticed me looking shocked, because straight away she said:
“I’ve never punched anyone before.” Then she looked at me in anticipation, and gradually she seemed to realise there was something else going on here, or that I’d actually looked shocked before she even walked in. I put down the phone and told her straight away.
“Mum’s in hospital again. We’ve got to go, right now.” I tried to wipe my mind clean and watch her closely for just one second, but it was so awkward. We stood facing each other completely motionless. It felt a bit like we were cowboys having a showdown; only then I noticed she was looking the other way. We both began moving at the same time, quickly. “Who did you punch?” I asked, replacing the phone on the kitchen counter then picking up my keys, taking my coat off a stool, draping it over my arm. I walked over to Carla who was drawing a school jumper tentatively from her bag. I kissed her on the top of her head and walked out towards the car.
Carla followed me outside, but didn’t answer my question. Perhaps she knew I wouldn’t be able to listen to any response she gave me – I’d kind of made myself look distracted and absent so she wouldn’t say anything. I had that vague awareness that it was something important, but I had to put it aside and deal with it later. Punching someone? She was home three hours early. Carla pulled the front door closed and we both got into the car.
Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m excluding Carla from myself and what’s going on in my life. All the real problems I deal with – I shield her too much from real life. But that’s only normal, thinking that. At the time I wondered if she thought there was some private world of feeling I have and don’t share with anyone, except maybe Jean. I started the engine and backed out into the street. I knew I was totally expressionless. She probably thought I was oblivious to my own emotions. In fact, certainly she did. Kids think about these things. I wonder if she even wanted to be a part of my life?
I stole a glance at Carla while driving. I was relieved to notice she looked just as absent as me. Her cheeks had scarlet spots all over and she looked cold. I turned my eyes back to the road and told her to put her jumper on. She was obviously imagining: Jean must be pretty bad this time. But I pushed that aside too, because just getting to the hospital was enough to deal with.
I also remember being in the hospital waiting room, sharing this surreal moment with a whole lot of remote strangers, all keeping to themselves. A few of us were watching the television. In my peripheral vision, I could tell Carla had her fists clenched and her jaw locked. She was incredibly tense and a bit shaky. I stroked her back, which seemed to calm her down a bit, but I couldn’t concentrate for long, and turned to watch the TV again. Time stretched itself out real long.
All of a sudden I could feel Carla’s eyes on my back, the poor girl. But I couldn’t look away from the television. I couldn’t be certain what would happen if I looked away from the TV. I remember what was on. It was in the days after the Bali bombing, and there were still constant updates about who lived and who died, who they were looking for, and elementary background info on possible culprits and extremist Islamic groups. Jemaah Islamiah was slowly becoming a household name. I remember very clearly watching a little snippet of Alexander Downer giving some address, and I was trying to focus on him (I usually don’t) in the middle of the hospital with my daughter’s eyes behind me, and there was this tense energy emanating from us both, and all around in that room people waiting and sucking on their lips and looking worried. It was truly horrible, like in that room you had to take on everyone else’s worries, and them yours. You didn’t want a collective responsibility; you just wanted to calmly deal with the dilemmas that had been allotted to you.
It was one of those times where all of the things you can’t control in your life, and seemingly in other peoples’ lives, all come to a head, and everything you go through really sticks in your memory. That’s how come I remember it all so clearly. Jean wasn’t gone until a few months later. Plus, these days I’ve been thinking about it a lot, only naturally I suppose. I could at least allow myself that.
I did find out what Carla meant about punching someone. Apparently she had a scuffle with some boy at school, who was making sure that she couldn’t play any of the games with his ‘group’, and he’d also managed to turn all of his friends against her. He sounded like one of those disturbed bully kids who rule the roost in their playground politics. On that day they were having an argument, and she resorted to punching him in the gut, and then she immediately ran home from school. The school dealt with it really well, I was really very pleased. Instead of punishing either of them, they took part in a whole lot of mediating sessions with the two part-time counsellors there.
Sometimes I think the pollies need the same treatment, only in reverse: they need to be put back in the playground to remember the effects of their actions.
This morning I was driving Carla to school. Tate was with me, in the back seat. On the way there Carla said, “Oops – I just locked the door.” The lock on the passenger side gets stiff when you press it down, and she isn’t strong enough yet to unlock it by herself. I told her it was okay.
I pulled up over the road from the gate at the quiet side of the school. I stopped the car and no one spoke for a while. I realised I had to unlock the door for Carla. I leaned over her and as I brushed past, I noticed her trembling. I was sure she was going to tell me she felt sick. She tried to tell me she was sick every other morning. I unlocked the door and watched her as she looked out my window, over at the school playground where a few lots of kids had started to congregate in groups and spread out over the schoolyard. She stopped trembling, opened the door and got out. Great! Progress was being made.
In a display of solidarity, I got out of the car and walked her across the road.
“See ya,” I said as she went in.
“See you at home,” she said, and I watched her pick a path in amongst the groups of kids, avoiding every one of them, and then she disappeared into the library building.
I walked back to the car. Tate had gotten into the front seat, and when I climbed in, he wanted to kiss. I just wanted to break down. I held him tight for a while. He was smart enough not to say anything on the drive back home.
Film production company Calibra Pictures is suing Variety for being unable to buy out their impartial content – independent film reviews. Is it expected as a legal right now that anyone with the means should be able to buy not just advertising, but supposedly impartial content in newspapers, or buy its omission? How did we slip so far?
Then Variety showed us how much it cares about its review staff anyway, by firing all its in-house film critics. Likely their legal staff will be able to use this as an argument in court: “reviews mean nothing to us anyway.” It's actually the line they've already taken, asserting that nobody pays attention to reviews.
I’ve been arguing amongst friends about how far we’ve slipped without caring. Not just in the media, but as it’s increasingly unfashionable to point out, in caring about equality for all, and wealth distribution especially.
I’ve often heard it suggested that the baby boomers are at fault, as they've reneged on their communal ideals and settled into the simplest and most personally gratifying catch cry of the flower power epoch: do whatever feels good. And this seems to have translated into greed and hording that which the baby boomers once cared to distribute.
So while they told gen y one thing, did they do another? Was the greater message in their actions than their words: live for your own gain above all else? Is this why we’ve ended up here?
There are so many arguments when one brings up wealth distribution that we drown out the mere idea of caring for all and experimenting with new models for equality. A few: Without competition, what happens to productivity? (Where is the favoured productivity, seemingly the creation of more purchasable stuff, getting us now?) Won’t punishing high-income earners drive away our potential for growth? (What’s so great about growth if it all lands in the pockets of those who least need it?) How will we do it when we haven’t found the perfect system yet?
The fact that the ideal isn’t possible – perfect equality – has become an excuse to stop trying, to not even experiment with new economic models that may refine capitalism. Even reformist socialism is now abortive.
The funny thing is that most socialists don’t ask for much any more – just for a priority shift, so that we begin to correct the current system to look after everyone. This is a far cry from the revolutionary drum-beating of past. But even the best ideal of socialism – not utopian, but that working together rather than against each other is a good idea (and this seems to me the ideal that human civilization is based upon), is met with derision or scepticism now. The socialist begins to look desperate, and is blamed for her or his own inability to convince others, as if this were an argument in itself. Increasingly moderate aspirations are identified as radical.
So: the buying out of media and culture to corporate interests has succeeded. From there it was easy for the powers that be, that top few percentage of people who hang onto almost all the world's wealth – consciously or otherwise – to enlist us in protecting their interests for them, through newfound abuse of trust. And, as we work ever longer hours and complain about being more exhausted and care less about those around us, are we content? The evidence suggests not. And half the world still lives in poverty, which we are more likely to scoff at through cartoons than think seriously about.
We say: “It’s too hard. Why should we have to think about this? We shouldn’t, it’s unfair.” And we refuse to grow up.
So should gen y, my generation, have to struggle for equality, when we are spending so much time already in a personal struggle to earn as much as our parents? We’ve been sold and we’ve bought this as a greater priority. But can we blame gen y? Under these disempowered circumstances, probably not.
The personal struggle is a lonely and disheartening one, ain’t it friends, colleagues, comrades?
Gen y priority fail. Communal wellbeing, mutual benefit, the process of civilization and our chance at contentment through common good = pwned.
A few weeks ago I created a Facebook fan page entitled, “Can this sanitary napkin get more fans than [Australian Federal Opposition Leader] Tony Abbott?” The napkin in question is a homemade reusable pad featuring pictures of fertility deity Kokopelli on its burgundy patterned fabric.
I created the page as an ironic twist on the Facebook trend of “Can this [mundane object] get more fans than [public figure].” What with Abbott’s egregious statements on sex and femininity in the Australian media, as well as his track record of hypocritical and misogynistic policy support, pitting his social appeal against that of a women's hygiene product seemed like my idea of awesome fun. I didn’t think it would get further than a chortle from a few of my friends.
But it took off – more ferociously than I anticipated. Within two weeks the page had cracked the 2000 mark, almost half of Abbott’s fans on Facebook. Before the page gathers any more momentum, it seemed appropriate to air a few concerns here about politics and Facebook trends.
Gen y – and they are the primary audience for this kind of social interaction – often asks for a humorous entry point to any political debate. So herewith, one is provided. But from there, it would be nice to see us embrace a more analytical debate about the need for change.
There is an element of negative campaigning to these pages. It is much easier to identify what you don’t support than to step into the more difficult arena of what you do support – especially in a political landscape as dead for the Left-leaning as contemporary Australia. Yet cynicism is an easy and unfortunately powerful position to take, seductive because it validates our inaction.
Equally, righteous anger is a volatile but important societal function. If we didn’t get upset we wouldn’t make change. People often come together in rage and make great things happen, but we need to look at solutions in order to do that. This means understanding more than just how much you despise your perceived opponent.
Public figures can be an easy channel for anger that may be better used elsewhere. Indeed, politicians, in order to stand for something, must willingly become figureheads for contentious subjects if they are worth their salt. They also need to be assessed in their ability to benefit or damage the wellbeing of the people they look after, but we should be careful when directing our ire away from complex understanding of politics and into human political whipping posts.
I hope we don’t chose this easier path of congratulating our hatred of public figures. It is often employed as an effective distraction from the public’s potential for true engagement with the political process. It hinges on our need for social contact with likeminded others, and gives us an easy way to feel engaged where our actions become ineffectual – great for the politicians’ power to do what they want, bad for us. So rather, let’s look behind their grinning mug to a political system that props up their influence, to the circumstances in which their values flourish, and the real opportunity for pragmatic engagement with their power for change.
So I’m wondering what to do with this page for maximum effect – when and if it surpasses Abbott’s fan base, should it be taken to the media, and if so with what message? Should it be used as a campaigning platform, an aggregator of relevant activist initiatives such as GetUp’s and others, offering policy alternatives to government by way of public support? Or should it just aim to provide information and fortification for those wondering if Tony Abbott is, in fact, wrong about most things he speaks publicly about? I’m open to suggestions.
Stay angry, everyone. But look for alternatives to wayward social policy and try to understand why people think and behave the way they do, so we can appeal with empathy to their understanding of the world. Tony Abbott does have the ability to endorse good policy, as he proved with his support for a six month paid parental leave. Let’s ask for more of that; let’s change the nature of the debate and pull it back toward equality for all.