To live is not enough


A few days ago, I searched out the obituary of a man I’d never heard of until the day previous. I’d read a piece he wrote that stirred and resonated with me – not a story, but a piece of nature writing that was familiar to me because I’d experienced similar in my own past. It was beautifully written, and by itself, that was enough to mark it out, but what really hit home was a point of view that I could share with all my heart. I believed as he did and, as he wrote, felt as he did, too. The piece of writing was called The Gift, by Richard K. Nelson. It contained pure grace.

As so often, when I come across something that takes my attention, I want to know more. Probably half a dozen times a day I’m tapping at a device or in my browser searching for more information on this or that. I discovered that Nelson was an eminent anthropologist and writer who had passed away just a couple of years before. I read about his life and recalling the piece I had read formed an impression of him – confirmed by the picture shown of him, a pleasant-looking guy with longish blonde hair, a red-tinged moustache, and a look in his eye as if to say, okay, take my photo then.

He was a man who had an evident passion for his work and believed in an almost metaphysical version of nature if the piece I read was any guide. He’d written about heading out in a canoe to an island with his dog. His family was back on the mainland in a secluded home. He was on the island to hunt for deer, which was their sustenance when winter came. The descriptive writing is rich, but it’s the mind and attitude that hooked me. I don’t want to simplify it, but it was the perspective of a man who felt himself a part of nature, and not above it. Too many are oblivious to it, or view nature and all its bounty as a right to be exploited (an attitude that is ruining our planet, and our mentality). He saw it as a gift and was careful to pay it the respect due to it – as he learnt from the Inuit.

Yes, he gets a deer. Then on the following day has an encounter that is lovely, and he’s sensitive enough to know how lovely and rare it was. I could feel it, too.

There’s a couple of things in this that I unpacked in my mind in the days that followed. I had a visceral reaction to it, to begin with. I could feel it in my stomach, like something that was meant to remind me. When I thought of it, I felt in a heightened state of grace. I could understand it. I could believe it. I was sure that his take on the nature around us was as true as a thing as I could conceive of. We are a part of nature, and it has wonders in it, if only we open ourselves to it. The other side of this, unfortunately, is that the rapacious way of the world as it is leaves me increasingly bruised. Maybe things should be a certain way, but they’re not, and I doubt they ever will be. In the meantime, what we have taken for granted slides away from us…

The other thing I felt was raw envy. That was how to live: to be in life, to feel it trembling around you like a gift, and to be passionately involved in what you believe in. His work had substance. It meant something. He’s gone now, but reading his obituary, it was clear his life was well-lived. That’s what you aim for.

But once more, I found myself examining the life I’m in now. I’ve always been restless and curious, and always keen to see what was around the corner. I had a lot of fun because of that and learned much, but I’m at a stage of my life that what I’ve done before feels inadequate to what I need now. What I need is to feel engaged and my work worthwhile. I want substance, I want meaning, I want to feel as if I’m achieving something worth doing. To live is not enough.

This is not new, and it’s far from the first time I’ve written about it. I feel as if that if I do nothing, the conveyor belt will carry me forward through dull comfort until one day it comes to an end. It may well be pleasant enough in its way, but that’s never been enough for me.

I had a project go-live last night. Most of it went fine, but I was on my computer last night and this morning and sending emails and messages because a few things were off. I was frustrated that it should be left to me to discover these things when the vendor should be doing QA before ticking it off. It occupied about 5% of my mind. It will get sorted. I’ve given directions, set deadlines, and etc. It’s what my life is now though, even when it all adds up to some supposedly great thing for business. Mayhap, but there’s no grace in it.

I was watching a program during the week set in Berlin in the fifties, and the thought occurred, why don’t you just take off to a place like that and make something happen? I like Berlin, but could equally be another place. Shake it up and see what comes of it. Maybe. I don’t know how practical it is – I have no money. And I don’t know in the end if a metaphysical problem can be resolved geographically. But at least it would be different.

I got told yesterday that I’m back FT starting next week, and that will make things easier financially. Stick around, and it will probably get better. I still have the issue of a two-speed perspective when it comes to working – not caring about it in the same way and ready to cut it some slack, until my ego intrudes and starts making demands, and that cycle again and again. But it’s just my ego – I can do that better, I should be doing that, why won’t you listen to me – while I don’t really care that much.

Like everyone who has a yen to look, I just need to find what’s right for me – what will fill and satisfy and give value to the days I have left. That’s all.

 

Edit: thinking about this, what I seem to be describing is a classic mid-life crisis. Because I’ve had so much shit go down I tend to ascribe so much that’s happened to that. It’s easy to blame irregularities on that, but maybe it’s time for me to let that go. Shit did happen. Residual shit exists. It’s legitimate to ask questions. There are things. But, maybe I should accept things for what they are rather than blame them on things I can’t change. I don’t resile from anything I wrote above – but maybe I should accept it for what it is and deal with it as it is, and not the shadow I imagine.

I despair


The other night I spat the dummy and posted a rant to Facebook. What tipped me over the edge was the most recent round of cuts inflicted on the ABC by the government. There have been cuts just about every year since the Coalition came into power, despite the explicit promise back in 2013 by Tony Abbott that there wouldn’t be any – a brazen lie. The national broadcaster, ingrained in our culture, cherished by many, and lauded most recently over the bushfire season because it ‘saved lives,’ has been the subject of an ideological battle because they fear the combination of good sense and balanced reporting is damaging to their brand. And, to a degree, they’re right. They accuse it of being bias towards the progressive side of politics, but the truth is the ABC has been bending over backward (too far) to appease an unreasonable government. The real damage done is that most people who watch the ABC are educated, intelligent and reasonable – and what educated, intelligent, and reasonable person is going to look upon a corrupt government but with disdain?

It accords with a general theme of this government, sponsored by the hard right and the diabolical IPA. I’m utterly convinced that the primary goals of this government are to maintain power by any means and to reshape society to ensure that they stay in government for years to come. To do so they must disarm their natural foes – the intelligentsia, the educated, the progressive. To achieve this they diminish the channels in which their foes can express or be heard. They manipulate university funding so that quality will inevitably decline, and tilt it away from the humanities subjects that teach critical thought and historical perspective. They’ve long been an enemy of science, ignoring it altogether in the case of climate change, and sidelining it generally – the CSIRO, our peak scientific body and an absolute treasure trove of invention, had further cuts inflicted this week as well.

It’s all about dumbing down the nation and making it compliant so they can say and do what they want without scrutiny, and so that their mates get a free ride. You might think I’m overly paranoid and cynical, but the existence of a Donald Trump as American president shows anything is impossible – and much of this is right out of the Trump playbook. (The government even gave a job to the former head of Trumps border force last week).

Anyway, this is what I said:

I don’t know where to start. The government’s been after the ABC for years, and the latest cuts might have terminally gutted it. This is on top of more cuts to the CSIRO today, and the farcical changes to university funding last week. I’ve had it with a low-brow government that devalues science and learning, and hobbles diversity of expression. Don’t tell me it’s not political. It’s a fucking disgrace, and I haven’t even started on the environment and climate change. I’m calling it out. This will kill the society we cherish and I’ve had enough.

It was a bit more emotional and less measured than usual, but it stacks up.

It’s funny I put it on Facebook, where it’s more common to post cutesy memes and photos of nights out than it is anything too political. Twitter is the home of the crackpot rant, but that’s probably why I didn’t post it there – I don’t want to be just another Twitter crock jumping on my soapbox, and something like this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow there. On Facebook, it has more impact because it jars more and because the people who’ll read it know me personally. Many of them agree.

I’m seriously concerned about what’s happening to this country. Many of the things I love about it are being eroded by government and a mendacious media. Much of what I value and believe is being trashed by an anti-intellectual government more concerned about their wellbeing than the wellbeing of you and me. The fabric of this place is being frayed by constant snips to it. Disgracefully, these most recent cuts come under cover of the coronavirus and in a time when services like the ABC and CSIRO are most needed, and when we should be investing more – if only for the good of the economy – not less.

I was willing to hope that the government and Morrison might have learned something in this crisis but, to be honest, I never really believed it. I was right to doubt. Now’s the time for the opposition to throw away the rulebook and stop playing nice. This is the future of the country we’re talking about; there are no second chances. It won’t happen though because they’ve lost their purpose as well as their cojones.

From history


After dinner last night I was in the mood for a long movie I could immerse myself in. I scrolled through the films on my hard-drive searching for one that would resonate with me at that moment. It’s a peculiar chemistry. Sometimes, obviously, you feel like one sort of movie over another, according to mood and biorhythms – say a comedy over something too serious. Sometimes the opposite. Even so, they’re broad categories, and it takes something more to decide you (though there have been times nothing has spoken to me). I go on gut-feel, instinctive reaction. It’s like looking into a woman’s eyes and sensing possibility there, or more – and nothing at all.

Last night’s winner was Lincoln, the Spielberg movie on the president. I’d watched it before and enjoyed it well enough without it leaving too deep an impression. That was not long after it came out, and maybe it felt time to review it again. It suited my mood in any case, and the need to engage with something that might stir the mind. I wasn’t looking for distraction, I wanted to think. It was only much later did I realise how apt a choice it was given the BLM rallies in recent times. If that had any influence on my decision, then it was purely unconscious.

I had only a dim recollection of the movie. though I knew the general thrust of it. Watching it this time, I was struck by a couple of things I don’t remember feeling the first time around.

This time I found myself admiring Daniel Day-Lewis’ seamless performance. It may as well have been the true Abe Lincoln on-screen because there was nothing visible of the actor. I imagine that takes a powerful gift of humility and dedication. You see actors who always ‘play themselves’, and to some degree, that is true of most. Most actors have their idiosyncratic ways – gestures, tics, habits. Most of them absorb it into the performance, but some never transcend themself. The great actors are different. They become the character they portray. To do so must take imagination and the rare ability to subjugate oneself to the art.

To admire the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis was, in a way, parallel with admiration of the man he portrayed. Now, I don’t know how true a rendering of Lincoln we see on-screen to how he was in life, but there’s plenty of history and commentary that give us a fair idea of who he was. We know he was a monumental figure in American life. We know what he looked like, and we gather his folksy, wise ways. We know he was a man of fortitude and persistence. And we know that his death was mourned by thousands of Americans, unlike any president until Kennedy. Even many of his opponents mourned him.

In this movie, as portrayed by Day-Lewis, he is a man of great humanity. We know that to be true, I think, though it never stopped him from prosecuting the war against the south. What drove him to do that was his innate sense of justice. As cruel as the war was (and it was more terrible than most), it was necessary to bring justice to his country. We see that in the movie,He had a clear-sighted determination that most of his advisors and contemporaries lacked. He navigated his way through party politics and bigotry and ambition, knowing what must be.

Earlier I spoke of acting and how ego plays a part in it. I think Lincoln probably had a decent ego, but it was in balance within him. Most of the battles with ego occur inside us, striving to be ourselves or to prove it. Lincoln had no need to prove anything, and so his path is gentler, willing to be open and humble and ever-sensitive to others, but never veering from the course of action set himself. It feels as if he takes in people with his folksy manner and home-spun stories, but he is cleverer than any of them. Gradually they come to realise that. He was a great man and a wise leader, and you wonder what further difference he might have made had he survived the assassin’s bullet.

As always, when I see portrayals like this, I feel wistful. Oh, to have such leadership now. I can think of no-one in the world today, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, who approaches greatness in any regard. Many have gone the opposite extreme – more terrible than we deserve.

Remembering Lincoln now given the tumult of BLM is timely. It was an education to watch and listen last night with knowledge of how it is now, and what’s been happening. What would Abe do about it? He would act with generosity, grace and wisdom – i.e. the opposite of what we’re getting.

These are times we can take lessons from a couple of great American presidents.

I was reading about FDR during the week, and how he came to power with the depression in full swing. The election that year was him against the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who had presided since before the depression started. Hoover was of the austerity school of economic theory. He believed that private industry would drag America out of the depression, and steadfastly refused hand-outs or economic stimulus. Come the election the American people had enough of that and booted him out in a big win to Roosevelt.

FDR set about doing just about the opposite of Hoover. He’s famous now for the New Deal, which dragged America – and possibly the world – out of the great depression. What dd he do? He spent money by the barrel-load. To the millions unemployed and living in poverty, he gave hope, as well as the means to survive. He ploughed millions of dollars into great stimulus activities, the most notable being the Hoover Dam. In effect, he gave the economy a financial transfusion that got it up from its deathbed.

What’s less well know is that a few years later he reckoned the economy was safe, and at the Treasury’s insistence it was time to balance the books, and spending was cut. What resulted was something that came to be called the Roosevelt Recession in 1937-38. The reduction in government spending and investment led to a sharp economic downturn. It was only when Roosevelt defied treasury and launched into a new spending program that the economy began to recover. Money creates activity which makes more money.

This should sound familiar to anyone following the economic discussions today in light of the pandemic, though it’s a conversation that has raged since the 1980s. This is what we face now.

In Australia, JobKeeper and other stimulus packages are like a mini-version of the New Deal, but already the government is threatening to turn it off. If history is any guide – and most economists – then we know what will happen if they do that. This is not something we can risk for ideological reasons, or because our leaders lose their nerve. Go hard and keep going until we’re through.

The new puritanism


It’s hard to argue that the world hasn’t degenerated into absurdity. Nincompoops like Donald Trump get elected, followed by characters like Boris Johnson. The US lurches from one embarrassment to the next, while England commits virtual suicide by voting to leave the EU. Climate change accelerates while half the world denies it, or seeks to build more coal stations. Australia burns while the PM holidays, a pandemic the like of which none of us has seen for a century cripples the world economy, kills thousands, and turns our lives upside down while nincompoops keep on nincompooping. Then, a noble cause erupts on the back of a tragedy. The Black Lives Matter rally’s take off, not just in the States, but across the world, and there’s hope that it might drive real change, but even that is hijacked by the absurd and the ridiculous.

As I was discussing with a friend the other day, it’s been a tough two years for the thinking person.

I’ve held off commenting the last few days because what’s the point? But some of this just needs to be recorded for posterity. These things really happened.

So, where do I start? I guess the tame end of it is the ongoing controversy about historic statues across the world. Some of it is perfectly reasonable, and high time at that. One thing revealed through this is how many complete cunts there’ve been in history, and damn the context. King Leopold II of Belgium, for example – hard to imagine a more evil bastard than him. Then there’s sundry slave traders and small fry racists and dickhead characters here and there probably not worthy of commemorating, and no loss.

But it’s the nature of these movements that they’re broad and indiscriminate. They’re ruled by outrage and emotion, not by sense. They get carried with a sense of overweening virtue matched by historical necessity. The combination negates anything reasonable, and the cause loses shape, control is lost, and statues are defaced on principle, regardless of notoriety. And the problem with all this is not just that it’s pretty mindless, but that it threatens to trivialise what are worthwhile goals, and possibly even discredit them.

You may not like it in your seething, hot mess of emotion, but the fact is that you’ve got to win the hearts and minds. That’s your battleground, not the politicians – they’ll go where the votes are, and if you sway the hearts and minds of the middle-class, you’ll drive change. And the middle-class want to believe.

Through this period, society has woken up to what’s happening and reacted to it. A lot of it is opportunistic and almost laughable. Some may be sincere, but there’s a lot that is ridiculous. Take, for example, the Fawlty Towers episode Don’t Mention the War, which hit the headlines last week because it was pulled from TV screens in Britain. Now, the point of shows like this is actually to poke holes in the shallow aspirations and behaviours of the Basil Fawlty’s of this world. It’s a farce with a big slice of satire. It’s not promoting bigotry in this case; it’s exposing it. Predictably, John Cleese reacted in horror to the news, and ultimately the program was returned to the screen.

The classic movie Gone With the Wind is not so lucky. That was withdrawn from screening also because of its depiction of slavery. Where does this end? It may be a work of fiction, but the civil war, and the slavery they fought over, is a matter of historical fact. And if that movie what about the hundreds, thousands of movies – and books! – that portray unsavoury facts. It may be an unwelcome reality for many living today, but most of history is full of things to disapprove of, but you can’t just go and ignore it. The ancient civilisations – Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc., all had slaves. Serfs were a thing until a few hundred years ago. Then there are countless wars and oppression and violence perpetrated throughout this time. Where does the line get drawn? On what principle? On whose?

There’s talk of returning Gone With the Wind to the screens with a caveat before it starts. I assume that would count for hundreds of other programs also. Fine, if they must, but I wonder how much of that is necessary? Who watches GWTW as a how-to guide to slavery? Or to celebrate it? While acknowledging that we’re living through the stupidest time of the modern era, few people are so dumb as not to realise what they’re watching – a representation. And this is the danger of censorship – for this is what we’re talking of here – it’s anti-education when what we need is more education.

How are people to understand if they don’t see the context? How are they to appreciate history if we don’t represent it to them? I may be an idealist, but I reckon the best education is when one sees and learns for oneself. Knowledge comes when we make up our own minds, not when a popular construct is thrust down our throats.  Deny us that, feed us some politically correct codswallop, and we learn nothing.

I expect some common-sense to emerge out of all that, but just as I was beginning to relax, the latest news hit me. A preening bottleshop owner in Melbourne chose to signal his divine virtue that he would no longer stock the beer made by the brewer called ‘Colonial’. Get it? Colonial! We’re against that here.

For fuck sake, it’s just a fucking beer, and there are other interpretations of the word anyway. This brewer is innocent. Not racist. He just makes a decent beer. Now he’s the victim of this nonsense.

There’s been a predictable backlash, but the brewer is in a no-win situation. Either he continues trading as Colonial, and cops abuse for it, or he changes the name to something more politically acceptable and gets canned for giving in to the bullies. How did we ever get to this point? Because everything is one extreme or the other.

I don’t care one way or another what they call their beer, but I think it’s an unnecessary and trivial distraction from the main game. I want change. It’s overdue. We need reform and acceptance and education. That needs to happen in a practical sense – policies, laws, compensation. This other stuff is nonsense that runs the risk of alienating the cause. For many, I suspect, it’s the look of it that matters. For them, it’s the violence of expression that counts more than actual change. And if change eventuates, it’ll be derided nonetheless, or they’ll find some other target to attack. There’s a lot of look at me these days, and a lot of it’s cowardly and dishonourable.

This is what happens when you get purists – nothing is ever enough. And what we have today is a puritan class of the noble woke. If you’re not a part of their team, then you’re worthless. If you don’t agree with them, you’re obviously inferior and quite possibly wicked. They set the standards and broach no contravention of them. If you prove to be unacceptable to their cause, you’ll learn about it swiftly. Judgment is quick and violent, and a pile-on ensues. It’s nasty and unconscionable, in many ways.

Here I am – in many aspects, most perhaps, I believe in the same ultimate goals, but it’s the methods and their conduct I so often find unseemly. Yesterday, I watched online as somebody I think little of made a faux pas and then clumsily sought to extricate themselves from the mess. This was a so-called person of the left, but with some history – not someone I’d trust a lot, but then I wouldn’t care that much either. My policy is to steer clear of people like that. Everyone has an opinion. As long as it’s not too evil I don’t care much, and I can’t be bothered debating with them. That’s not the view of the mob. She was set upon as if by a pack of hyenas and torn apart, likely to never recover. I didn’t agree with her either, but gee, her sin wasn’t worthy of the punishment.

Then there was another, one of their own, excused for aberrant behaviour a few years back because he’d ‘fessed up and issued a public mea culpa and three hail Mary’s. He made himself abject, basically, and because of that – and because they like him, he’s cute, after all – he was forgiven.

I’d have told them to fuck off; I don’t need your forgiveness, you can shove up your arse. And that’s even if I did end up admitting my error. We have to live with ourselves and live up to our god if we have one, but I don’t see why any of us must kowtow to another.

Perhaps this is one reason it aggravates me so much. Not only is it anti-reason, it’s anti-individual. Many of these, not all, are not themselves. They’re a construct – a simulacrum – of who they want to be, or how they want to be seen – what is expected of them. In becoming a part of the collective something is sacrificed – an individual perspective, an independent mind. The urge to belong and to be seen as a good team player has a corrupting effect when we do or say things against nature just to join in. This seems encouraged, but it’s everything I don’t believe in.

I’m of the view, old-fashioned as it may be, that we should be teaching people how to think, not what to think. Give them the tools, the principles, the basic building blocks of knowledge, and they’ll come to understanding, and even wisdom, in their own way. And it will be much truer. That takes some strength of character, but I’m of the belief that if anyone learns right they’ll know in themselves the difference between right and wrong. That’s where it should come from – from inside. From being your true self. That’s what every person should aspire to – to be completely and truly themself.

But I digress.

The militant left is insular and hypocritical. And sickening, in a way. They demand obedience and suffer from many of the excesses they claim of their enemies. I want to believe, but I’m a moderate and believe in reason and just cause. For the priggish and shallow they’re complexities they have no time for, and they lack the self-awareness to know it. And a sense of humour, that’s rare too – but to appreciate humour you must appreciate light and shade, and that’s what’s lacking.

Craving movement


It’s interesting to chart the progress of working in isolation, especially now that most of the restrictions on us are easing. Regardless of any of that, I probably won’t make it back to the office until late August/September, and so the basic form and routine will change little.

In the early days, it was a bit of a novelty working from home, as it was for most people. It led to household experiments me as people looked to keep busy, and to explore the possibilities of being home fulltime. For a while, there were myriad social media tropes as every man, and his dog tried making their own bread or dabbled with other alternatives. Banana bread was a thing for a while. About this phase, a lot of us got into the habit of a nightly drink or two, and home-delivered alcohol sales went through the roof.

I never made my own bread – why bother if I could get a superior loaf at the local baker? I made some banana bread, though and made other cakes also given the opportunity. What I really got into was the ritual of cooking my evening meal.

I like to coo,k and I like to eat, but working in the office limits the time you have to do it as fully as you might like. I’d generally cook something up on the weekend that would be good for 3-4 meals over the next few weeks. I’d whip up lighter meals during the week, or get something out of the freezer. Much as I looked forward to a delicious meal, the keyword was convenience.

Suddenly, working from home, I had a lot more time on my hands. I used it to plan, prepare and cook up much more ambitious meals. I’d pore over my list of saved recipes figuring out what I’d cook next. I’d go out and shop for it, and generally make a start on the recipe during my lunch break. By the time I knocked off at the end of the day I’d pump up the Sonos playing Spotify, or maybe an audiobook, and I’d cook up a storm.

I ate very well. Too well, probably. The food was great, the recipes were bold, I’d make my notes and so on, but I’d be doing this 4-5 days a week, and I had to eat it all. The result was that I ate too much. At the same time, I was drinking too much. And in between, because of Easter and the rest of it, I’d have some chocolate or nibble on one of the cakes I made.

That was then. I twigged finally that I didn’t need this much food. I enjoyed cooking, but it was overkill for me. Over a period, I scaled back on my cooking. At the same time, I slowed my drinking (about once a week now, rather than every day). I cut the chocolate out altogether. Basically, I exhausted the phase and moved to the next. I’m sure it was the same for many others.

Another thing I noticed was that people became much more expansive on Facebook, particularly. It makes sense. We’re no longer able to see each other face to face and so other mediums take up the slack. There’s a fundamental need to connect and express. Facebook is an easy option because it’s right there. People who had been quiet for yonks started to pipe up online. We all began to comment on each other’s posts. There was a lot of banter, even mild and friendly abuse. I reconnected with people I’d had hardly seen or spoken to for years.

I did my bit in all this. I began to say more in general, most of it light-hearted. Then I started my sandwich of the day/week post in which I’d make a fancy sandwich, take a picture of it, and then add in my comments and description, much of it tongue in cheek. That inspired many to respond in the same manner. It was very good-natured and enjoyable. To a degree, that continues – I posted about the chicken katsu sandwich with tonkatsu and wasabi coleslaw just last Friday – but I sense it’s starting to trail off a bit now.

I sense that what was a pure need before has been diluted since as we’ve found other alternatives to posting things online – that is, we’re out and about more and meeting face to face.

And yet, it’s still quite foreign. This is where I’m at now. I’m doing more, but what is lacking in my life is the real spontaneity you get when you set out each day to go to work. The opportunity for chance encounters and unexpected conversations is greatly reduced, and I miss that. Everything is pretty predictable and routine. It’s rare still that something happens off-plan.

I miss women, and the pleasures of flirting, and moments of delight and wonder, and even possibility. When nothing is different, there’s no real hope because what you have is what you have. Hope is about what you don’t have and the yearning possibility of attaining it. Until the time returns when I have the opportunity for different things, hope will remain – more or less – absent, or at least, no more than generic. This is the picture, and here I am in it. Things need to start moving to make things happen…

 

Without judgement


So, the latest is that Winston Churchill is being brought to heel by the woke forces of the earth. Revisionist commentary now has him classified as a racist and his statue duly defaced. How much that actually means is an open question. In Bristol, the statue of an eminent slave-trader ended up at the bottom of the river, and good riddance to him. But then, so too was a statue of Gandhi – Gandhi! – vandalised because he too – and who knew? – was a racist. I guess that sums up the collective mentality of the mob in heat.

I’m not here to defend Churchill – he doesn’t need me – but rather to deplore the recent practice of dragging down significant figures. It’s mindless and simplistic and bloody arrogant, too. It’s symptomatic of an era when critical thought is barely a concept, and it’s all about the raw feels.

Churchill was racist, much in the same way as many of his generation were. That’s not to excuse it, but it places it in context. The younger Churchill had something in common with Boris Johnson, I reckon – a gift for self-promotion, high self-regard, and a tendency to put their foot in it. That’s where the comparison ends. Even on his worst day, Churchill had more class, wit and intelligence than Johnson on his best. And anyway, the young Churchill matured.

There’s no doubt that Winston said some awful things, and made some stupid mistakes. Some of them were pretty racist, certainly by today’s standards. But, you know, he did some pretty good things, too.

What man is without flaw or fault? Look hard enough, and there’s always something to find. I’ve no objection to a fair appraisal, but to be fair it needs to embrace the man as a whole. That doesn’t happen a lot these days. Individuals are picked apart and every flaw magnified under the social media spotlight. It becomes fashionable to join the throng laying into the victim of the day – as if no-one else has ever erred, and regardless of the legitimate achievements of the victim in question.

In this era of extremes, every misshapen part is taken as the whole. There’s no nuance or critical judgement. To transgress one more invalidates every achievement, or so it seems. Churchill is a racist, and therefore a bad man – never mind that he stood alone against the forces of fascism. Never mind that he uplifted a generation by his example and by his rhetoric. Never mind that he actually opposed the bad guys doing evil racist things. No, in the new accounting it comes a distant second to the evils of his person. Wait until they hear he was a misogynist as well!

Anyone with any sense knows that Churchill was a great man. The world would undoubtedly be a different place today without him, and possibly quite radically so.

I’m not excusing Churchill, and I’m certainly not downplaying racism. What I’m calling for is a bit of balance and common sense. We need to learn how to see people in their totality, as once we did.

None of us is faultless. If you want the truth of it I’m probably a little racist myself (though I tend to think much of what is called racist is actually rooted in cultural difference), not by intention, but by instinct. I’m sure I’ve made racist comments in the past or looked upon someone differently because they were different from me. Again, it’s not who I mean to be, but I haven’t always been as virtuous as I am now. I know in places far distant that I’ve gravitated to my countrymen on occasion because we came from the same place, which is perfectly understandable while clearly showing a cultural bias. I guess that makes me imperfect, but human – hands up who isn’t?

We’re complex beings formed by our experiences and torn in conflicting directions by the forces around us. We absorb and deflect. We submit, and we defy. We develop and grow. If we are to accept that as true then we must also accept that people make mistakes, they act without judgement sometimes and sometimes without knowledge, they change.

We love pulling down tall poppies. There’s joy in exposing their feet of clay. It makes us feel grand. It’s cheap and nasty, though. Who among those tearing at Churchill could hope to do half of what he achieved? Wiser to understand none of us is perfect – and to measure the man on his actions.

 

I’m adding this addendum a day later after thinking about it overnight. I don’t retract anything I wrote yesterday, but in and amongst this mess I think there’s a great opportunity to come to terms with our past. We can’t disavow history, but we can hope to better understand it as something more than written down in books. I commented yesterday that Churchill was a man of his times – and it’s his time, and other times, that bear consideration.

If we are to take Britain as an example, for all their rich and storied history, for every victory, there was a loser. Many of those losers were weaker civilisations and peoples – weaker militarily, that is. That is the story of the times, of colonisation and imperial might, and the subjugation of the many for the economic benefit of the few (some things never change). It’s time that Britain – and other nations – to acknowledge that past, which includes slave-trading. You can’t change history, but you can face it square on (without prejudice – we can’t go down that path). This is what happened, this is what we did. It’s an exercise often proves cathartic for individuals, and may do also for nations. Certainly, the victims of this would applaud it.

Australia has wrestled with similar questions for many years now with regard to the aboriginal people. There was a breakthrough in the early nineties when the Federal Labor government pushed through Mabo, which was a landmark case of recognition. More symbolically, the Rudd Labor government issued a long overdue apology to the aboriginal people for the ills done to them by successive generations of white Australia. Nothing has happened since then, largely because we have a Liberal government who believes in little of this, unwilling to admit to fault or responsibility. It’s time now for formal recognition of the indigenous people in the constitution by way of a treaty. In this time when the headlines scream Black Lives Matter and myriad stories of violence and mistreatment, addressing these matters to put in place legal protections to prevent and redress is overdue.

There are plenty of statues being pulled down which don’t deserve to stand, but the bigger picture is not the individual, but the society that made that individual and allowed for them to flourish. It’s not about denying that history – it’s done, it can’t be changed – but understanding it and the context in which it belongs. This would be a healthy outcome.

Heeding the call


For the first time in months, I went out for dinner last Saturday night, this time to the Cheeses. Notwithstanding it was months since we’d done this, it was pretty typical. We had dinner – home-made pizzas (their kitchen – house – is completing renovation), a beer, a bottle of wine, then another, some cheese and some chocolate. We talked and shared stories and laughed and finally sat down to watch a movie together.

The movie we settled on was the latest version of Call of the Wild, this one starring Harrison Ford, and a CGI Buck.

This is based on a classic story by Jack London, and one of my favourites (another of his stories, To Build A Fire, is one of the best stories ever). It’s set in Alaska during the gold rush in the 19th century and basically is about a dog that gets abducted from his safe suburban home and taken to the Klondike to become a sled dog. It’s all about his trials and tribulations, about the bond between man and dog, and ultimately about Buck giving in to the ‘call of the wild’. It’s a beautiful, occasionally harsh, tragic, but heartwarming tale that anyone who loves dogs must love.

I’ve watched several versions of the story made into movies, and the best are those who keep it simple and let it speak for itself. I’m a fan of Harrison Ford and, though he’s older than the original protagonist in the story, he’s the right type. I found it an entertaining hour or so, but much diluted from the essence of the story. (Let me warn of spoilers ahead).

This is a Disneyfied version of the story, right down to Buck not even being a real dog. He’s CGI, and pretty good, but obviously so all the same. It makes him a bit cartoonish and robs the character of the spontaneity a real dog would bring. It’s now a family movie, which means some of the harsher elements have been taken down a notch or two, and even a basic part of the story changed.

There’s a vindictive and quite foolish character who is integral to the resolution of the movie. He doesn’t exist in the story, and when the main human character – here played by Harrison Ford – dies, it’s quite different. In the story there’s a clean and simple brutality to it – he’s murdered by Indians and Buck, discovering the body, wreaks his vengeance. In the movie there are no Indians – perhaps they’re the politically incorrect option – and instead, the deranged character fatally wounds Ford. Buck arrives in time to kill the murderer (indirectly – no blood, no violence) and in time to comfort his friend and master before he dies. It may as well be in soft focus.

Buck then goes out into the wilderness to fulfil his destiny.

The movie is a long way from the direct and uncompromising language of the original story. I understand what they’ve done and why they’ve done it, but as a purist who loves the story, it seems pretty lame. It’s counter to the essence of the story also – that this is a harsh and deadly environment that only the tough can endure. Even for them, it can be brutal, but that’s the simple truth. In the end, it’s an environment in which Buck finds meaning because it awakens in him his primal self, and he ‘returns’ to the wild in which once he came from.

It’s a noble message and reading the story it’s uplifting. You’ve been devasted by the parting of man and master – they had a great bond – but the payoff is that Buck returns to nature, that great and wild thing we’ve civilised out of our life.

Walking home from the Cheeses afterwards it reminded me of a quote from Seneca:

Show me that the good life doesn’t consist in its length, but in its use, and that it is possible—no, entirely too common—for a person who has had a long life to have lived too little.

Basically, it’s not how long you live, but how you live while you’ve got it. I guess we can all choose to live our life according to our desires, but for me, it’s always been a simple question. From very young, I was aware that just to be alive was a rare gift, and that one day it would end. The trick, as I figured it, was to live as well as possible in the time I had.

I was the adventurous type, and so for me that meant an enquiring life – travelling and reading and asking questions and trying things out and never backing off. From my current perspective, it feels that I’ve led an interesting life that at times has been challenging, and at times deeply rewarding. I don’t regret much, though I sometimes wonder how things might have been different. The life I have is a result of trying things, of plunging in and testing things out. It’s how I wanted to live and though there are notable gaps, I think I’ve lived a full life.

Most people are more cautious and conservative than me, and each to their own. I get impatient and restless. Others don’t. What seem to me lives that are happy but dull are perfectly adequate to the people who own them. Sometimes I find it hard to comprehend, but sometimes I’m envious too of such simplicity.

I wonder how much they have asked of themselves, or what their expectations of life were. Did they dream once, or never? Did they quest and give it up one day because it was too hard? Or not sensible? Or was it ever thus? We’re all different, but until we test ourselves, we don’t really know what’s inside us. So I reckon.

So it was with Buck. His life was set. He was happy and pampered. Then he was taken from comfort and thrust into the wilds of Alaska. There he found his strength and used it. There he found true companionship on the brutal edge of existence. And there he found the wild calling to that part of him deep inside and hidden from everyday view. In the end, he responded to the call to be himself truly, and to be amongst his type.

If that’s not a metaphor for human lif,e I don’t know what it is. For most of the time and for many of us, we’re happy and pampered and living in relative comfort, and that’s where it stops. Hopefully, the time comes when we hear that call, and respond to it. And maybe that explains something of what we’re seeing in the States at the moment. The moment has come to step out of the comfort zone and make a stand. It’s a worthy cause, and it’s good for our soul.

On-hold


It’s another crisp, blue-skied morning. Today is my rostered day off, and without meetings to attend, I was out the door by 9.30 for my morning walk. On the way, I stopped for a takeaway coffee and a loaf of sourdough. I continued on for my walk, over the railway line, and this time walking down towards the beach at Sandringham before turning around to head back towards home. That’s when I bumped into Mrs Cheese out walking the dog.

We stopped to talk for 6-7 minutes. I hadn’t seen her since the lockdown began, and I was surprised to find how much I welcomed the chance to have a meaningful conversation again with someone face to face. Thinking about it there has been bugger all I’ve done that with over the last few months – her hubby, on our weekly walks, and a couple of times when I’ve run into acquaintances around the shops. She invited me over for dinner tomorrow night, so even better.

Being Friday, I’m left to do my own thing, and it means I try and achieve something on the day. One by one, I’ve been going through the rooms of my house, sorting them out – cleaning, tidying, sorting, and throwing things out. I’ve done the kitchen and bedroom, the lounge and bathroom. The study was the first room I started on but, like a lot of homes I reckon, the study is my junk room and has twice as much to work on. I’ve done about half – the other half comes today.

Otherwise, I aim to do some writing this afternoon. And right now I’m trying to chase up the rent relief that hadn’t come through yet – probably a futile quest as I was disconnected when I got down to fourth in queue, and now can’t even get onto the queue (the phone rings out).

I was thinking the other day that while I’m enjoying working from home, there’s a sense of not really going anywhere. That’s true in a literal sense, and it makes it real in a metaphorical sense also because there are no reference points to suggest movement. I can decry the soulless experience of the commuter catching the same train to and from work every day, but at least there is a sense of something happening because you transition from one location to another. Add to that the people you come into contact with and the chance encounters along the way, and you tend to overlook that nothing’s really happening. You’re so busy doing that it’s not a thing – not until you stop to think about it.

Right now, all I’m doing is working at my desk at home, going for my walks, shopping, cooking, etc., and catching up with Cheeseboy each week. That’ll change soon when the restaurants and cafes open proper, but that’s how it’s been for the last few months. I quite enjoy the base elements, but I miss the social aspects we’ve been denied. It’s a phony, slightly unreal period (did I say slightly?), and there’s a sense of being between things. Life is on hold.

I’ve experienced this before, and I hated it. Looking back, I still feel bitter at the wasted years when I was either unemployed or homeless and all the things that were denied to me then. It was worse then because I experienced it alone. Everyone else was living their life, but all I could do was look on. That was 5-6 years of my life, and it came at a time when I was set to change things up – so the narrative I tell myself goes. I was ready to settle down, fall in love, etc., but that’s probably a tale I understand in retrospect. Regardless, once I hit the iceberg, none of that was an option, not even ordinary life. I don’t think I’ve returned yet to anything like normal as I knew it, and probably won’t now.

It’s easier now, but while we’ll soon come out of lockdown a lot of things will have changed. It’s going to be a while until international travel is in full swing again. Back in the day, back ‘before’, an overseas trip every year was one way of convincing myself that there were movement and progression in my life. I was lucky like that, and the absence of that has bit hard in recent years. I haven’t been away since 2013. Except for a few days down Wye River, I haven’t had a holiday since then.

I can cop things being on hold if I know it’ll pass. I’ve endured it before. And this will pass, and there’ll probably come a time we look back with bemusement. It just reminds me though, that it’s high time I got back to living more fully. Time passes, and the trick is to make it meaningful. That’s the challenge.

 

The rebound


I’ve been setting myself to write a post looking ahead to when we get out of lockdown, and everything returns to relative normality, though the normal will be different from what we knew before. I wanted to anticipate what the opportunities might be, tempered by what I thought the Australian government might do. In truth, I wasn’t looking forward to writing it. I feel I must because it’s so much a part of me, but I felt fearful that the opportunities might be squandered by the usual dumb fuckery we saw before. If I didn’t write it I didn’t have to face it – but you can’t live like that.

I’m glad I delayed writing because late yesterday a huge, somewhat unbelievable, government update reached the news services.

Way back in March the government committed $130B to help us through the pandemic in the form of support and subsidies, mostly in the form of Jobkeeper. Lo and hold, the government let it slip yesterday that thanks to some sort of accounting error the amount required was only $70B – a full $60B had been removed from the books.

How this actually eventuated is a bit of a mystery. The government claims the forecasting was off, blaming in large part how forms were filled out. It doesn’t add up, in terms of the sheer amount of dollars, or in common sense. The story is unlikely and, even if true, would account for only a fraction of the absent dollars. In any case, they should have had a much better of what was needed long before now. As the opposition has pointed out, this is something that could have been seen from space.

Not surprisingly, the Treasurer has framed this as good news – a windfall, as such. Normally you’d say a saving of $60B was great news, the problem, in this case, is that money needs to be circulating in the economy to stimulate activity in depressed times like these. You can’t just stick in the bank and thank your lucky stars because we’ll be worse off.

Now, if they play it right, it can be a good news story. The obvious thing to do now is to right the wrongs of the original policy and extend job keeper to casual workers, students and universities, foreign nationals. They were excluded for all sorts of reasons that were ridiculous as well as unfair. Now we have the dollars, let’s plug that hole.

There’s a reasonable clamour to do that, but I’m sceptical the government will respond. It has a tendency to dig its heels in once it’s made a decision, especially when they’ve done it on ideological grounds, such as on this occasion. What so many commentators fail to grasp is that for the most part, this government – and Morrison especially – make decisions based on politics, not the common good.

The exception to that has been the response to the pandemic, and many have chosen to believe that might be the new model going forward. I’d like to believe that too. The problem is that it was the state premiers that forced the federal government’s hand, and a huge dose of pragmatism when they realised that ideology wasn’t going to win the day (we can be thankful for that – Trump’s America is the other side of that). Credit where it’s due, Morrison made sacrifices, and though the package was deeply flawed, it was much better than doing nothing, and we’re better off for it.

None of this convinces me that they’ve changed their spots. There’s plenty of evidence already that they intend to return to the neo-liberal agenda of before, even though it’s discredited rubbish. (I should write on that one day – the torrid, nonsensical economic doctrines of Friedman and Hayek that have ruled the world for too long). There’s talk, as always, of reducing taxes – that is, company tax and to the top tax brackets, and not to those where it might make some economic good, the people who’ll spend it. There’s talk, as always, of labour reform – basically making it easier for companies to hire and fire and negotiate. That’s very IPA, though of course, the business council go on about this like a broken record, regardless of economic circumstances.

These are mindless, ideological driven notions. Add to that the latest climate policy, which is all about half-arsed, recycled solutions and promoting gas, rather than addressing the issue at its root. And this is after a summer of bushfires and a plethora of really attractive renewable energy options. Play this right, and Australia might boom, as well as clean-up – but that won’t happen under a Liberal government.

Why is that? For the reasons, I said before – because most of their decisions are made on political grounds. So what makes this political? Well, the sad reality is that the hardcore of their political support and donations come from fossil fuel companies. That’s their base. You could almost say that’s their constituency. The government doesn’t govern for you or me, it governs from them because through them they have power. In that, they’re cheered on by News Limited and Murdoch, who has everyone running scared.

I’ve banged on about this for years – political donations are a blight on our democracy. They corrupt it literally, and visibly so. They’ve created a culture where glad-handing and corruption has become almost second nature. Unfortunately, what government is going to ban the hand that feeds it? What government is going to introduce the means to police and prosecute their own corruption? Self-interest rules, and maybe I sound like a cynic, but I think more accurately I’m a realist – and it kills me.

There is a hard rump of rabidly conservative ideologues in the party, most of whom belong to the IPA. The IPA is a toxic force in Australian politics. The pity of it is that they haven’t got an original idea between them. They swallowed whole the Friedman/Hayek doctrine and extended it to social economics as well. They’re a bunch of unimaginative drones who get wound up every day to spout the officially decreed propaganda. They prance around full of self-righteous confidence in their suits and none of them with the wit to consider anything else. They were lost when the pandemic hit because none of it was in their books. Here’s a bunch of paint by numbers goons incapable of colouring in outside the lines.

I despise them, as you’ve probably figured, but I’m not alone in that. They get a platform they don’t deserve and contribute nothing of value.

So, I’m pessimistic, and that feeling is accentuated knowing that we have the rare opportunity to re-make things. The public is on board with that, too. We want things to be different.

That’s my small hope, that society will have moved beyond the old ways and won’t accept them anymore. I think the old, prevailing economic doctrines have been exposed as being false, and I hope the pendulum begins to swing back towards the much more sensible, and user-friendly Keynesian doctrines. People are fed-up with climate policy that doesn’t suit them, and hardline economic policies that exclude the less fortunate. We’re living through a time of inclusion. The barriers that held us apart before have been dismantled because now we all live the same – privilege and entitlement have gone out the window. We’ve become closer to each other, and to ourselves. We’ve recognised the value of things.

I reckon there will come a change, I’m just not sure it’ll come as soon as we want it. This is the opportunity for the Labor party to seize upon had they the gumption – I doubt it. Already we, the people, are talking about different ways of living on the back of this. These are the possibilities, to remake the work/life balance, to provide better for those who need it, to set in place human-centred policies around climate and tax, to open our minds to opportunities we would never have considered before – such as a living wage.

I’m pessimistic about this government. I don’t think they have it in them to change, nor the talent to do it. I’m not over-impressed by Labor either, but they’ve got more ideas, at least. Regardless, I think the tide is turning back because of the experience forced upon us. I think we will reject what doesn’t fir anymore, and that will change the scale of our political landscape. What we need now is a visionary to lead us there – but visionaries are hard to find.

Mob rules


Very recently there was controversy when the NYT’s Alison Roman – an eminent cooking journalist – in an interview decried the efforts of Chrissy Teigen in the same area, and accused Marie Kondo of hypocrisy for selling products while espousing minimalism. They were cack-handed and graceless comments. They were particularly unfair on Teigen, because they were unreasonable, and because Teigen – an open and generous soul – had been supportive of her.

It’s the nature of things that this very quickly became an online spat. Teigen expressed disappointment and surprise but was forgiving. I don’t know of any response from Kondo. Of course, there was no shortage of people outraged on behalf of others and willing to take up verbal arms in defence – and offence – of others. Very quickly it became a one-sided pile-on, again, very typical of the online world today.

I read from afar, mildly curious and generally sympathetic to the offended parties, Teigen and Kondo. Roman’s comments were harsh and unfair. But then I felt a twinge of pity for Roman as the collective moral outrage of Twitter descended upon her. That was that, one of those controversies that pass until the next scandal happens along. But then, today, I read that the NYT had given Roman a leave of absence from her weekly columns.

The general consensus was that she had been basically sacked because of her outspoken comments. From reading the NYT’s comments on this, I might easily understand it as them giving her a break. But, anyway.

This is a very typical confrontation between free speech on the one hand and woke politics on the other. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that so many supported this ‘sacking’. Some were claiming that Roman was guilty of racism and had to go.

I’m firmly on the side of Teigen and Kondo here, but at the same time, I’d be horrified to think that Roman might have lost her job over some silly comments. I’m strong on the free speech side of this equation, because, you know, democracy, and I think it’s very a dangerous path we take when we seek to hush the voices we disagree with. And it’s bloody unfair when organisations are bullied into complying with public opinion.

Had Roman vilified either Kondo or Teigen on racial grounds, or abused them outrageously, then, of course, I think her employment would be at risk, much as mine would be if I did the same. Like it or not, we represent who we work for, and bigotry of any form is not to be condoned.

I don’t think that’s the case here. Seems to me Roman was disparaging Teigen much as a professional might an amateur. A little bitter and unseemly, but human. As for Kondo, I read that as a throwaway comment, probably hinting that she was looking to commercialise on a philosophy in contradiction to its principles.

It’s worth noting that Teigen has come out and expressed her dismay at Roman losing her job – and that Roman had made an apology of sorts earlier.

I get a sick feeling sometimes witnessing the pile-on that occurs online. I agree with the sentiment sometimes, but the outrage is disproportionate and the demands extreme. I like to think I’m a reasonable guy. I’m liberal by nature. I’m forgiving too, knowing that every one of us has flaws and all of us deserve a chance to make things right.

It seems to me that many crave the opportunity to criticise and abuse (which is often ironic). There’s a self-righteous purity that verges on certainty. It’s a sign of the times when society is effectively polarised and the extremes subject to rage and the unreason of the mob.