Fascist extremes

The very notorious Milo Yiannopolous visited Melbourne the other day, and very predictably there were demonstrations and conflict at his appearance*. I rolled my eyes and sighed when I saw it on the news, knowing it was inevitable, but hoping for a more meaningful response.

Milo passes for a highbrow among the lowbrow right. In reality he’s just a bunch of re-hashed slogans and reactionary posing – posing it what he does best. It’s enough to excite and incite the easily excitable and often combustible right wing loonies. It does much the same for the left.

More than anything else Milo is an agent provocateur. I suspect nothing delights him more than riling up the ‘snowflakes’ and soft edge of the left. He targets soft options such as feminism, and Islam, using extravagant language and often extravagant gestures. It’s enough to give his hangers-on a leery hard-on, and to whip the left to a frenzy.

This is the pity of it really. Milo is best ignored. He’s not an intellectual. He has no original thoughts. He is a persona. He is a poster child for a position, a provocative and slightly outrageous character designed to stir the pot. That he does very well, and unfortunately, as we saw this week, it’s rare that the left he so despises doesn’t fall for it.

Being of liberal disposition I’m disappointed that so many of similar disposition are so gullible. Starve Milo of oxygen and his message goes no further than a few grubby types. Turn up waving placards and chanting slogans and dead-set that will draw out the fascist element only too eager for confrontation. Once that happens it becomes news, and Milo’s poisonous little message gains traction. It’s dumb, and he aint worth it.

There’s something else about it which troubles me. We live in an age of extremism. Outrage comes easy. Those sort of things are generally dumb, and it’s no different now. One lot yells yes. The other yells no. That’s pretty well it. There’s no intelligence in it, no reason.

So okay, maybe reason is a bit much to ask for, and while I understand and support there are occasions when a stand must be made, when a demonstration is necessary, the best that can be hoped for from it is that a point is made. I wonder what the point was the other night.

In this case I find myself agreeing with something Milo said: that this was an attack on free speech. Unlike others, I don’t believe that free speech should be unfettered – there are limits, and boundaries that should not be crossed. Though I have varying faith in the application of such ambiguous laws, I’d rather rely on them than the skewed perspective of those for and against.

I think Milo is a fool, and his followers worse than fools. I think most of what he spouts bigoted claptrap. As a general principle, however – like Voltaire – I support his right to espouse his views as long as he doesn’t cross those lines. This is what we call democracy. The moment we deny him that right and try and shut him down we become the fascists we’re so busy deploring.

It is a time of extremes, and so often the extremes join at the end of the loop. It’s all reaction and outrage, all personal offence, and no intelligence.

There was an interesting survey the other day about the government we want. People are sour on politics, no surprise there. The surprise was that 20% of respondents were open to a dictatorship – benevolent, I presume. That was a shock to me, though I imagine many have no real conception of what it means. But then, I presume, those who responded like that are open to a dictatorship that accords with their political leanings, either left or right. As long as we’re running the show it’s all good.

This marries up to the behaviour we see at these events, the lowbrow left battling the lowbrow right, the socialists doing battle with the brownshirts, chanting slogans and throwing rocks. There’s nothing democratic in it, and little sense.

* This was a pretty lame event, as are so many events like it. It only ever becomes something more when the drama begins to seethe. In this case the drama of left wing anarchists confronting right wing idiots was elevated by the presence of a large (riot) police contingent, guaranteeing good air time on the nightly news. Not worth reporting, but, how much ‘news’ these days is really worthy of the term? But that’s a rant for another day.

It’s pretty ordinary and depressing, even banal, which is fine until it hits our TV screens and becomes a thing.


Wise words

I always think that hot weather in Melbourne has a different nature to hot weather in other parts of the world. A classically hot day in Melbourne is a heavy thing. It sits upon the landscape pressing it down. When you’re a part of that landscape you feel it keenly. It has a sharp and incessant quality. Shadows are clearly defined, and the sun is as painted in the corner of the sky, ever shining, ever beaming like a heat ray. It seems inescapable and static. The only difference is when the north wind blows, which is wicked and hot; and those moments of relief when the weather finally breaks.

I experienced the hot Melbourne weather standing at the bus stop in Frankston yesterday waiting to be picked up. I watched the comings and goings: the buses stopping and starting up again, the locals passing by or entering into the station concourse, some with their shirts off, and others waiting, like I, to be collected. I was the odd man out, not just in the heat, but in Frankston in general, dressed in a suit and with a silk tie with scarlet flowers on it.

I was picked up by a friend and we drove the short distance to the chapel where the funeral of my friend’s father was about to commence. On the way we chatted, catching up on old news. It was cool in the car with the air-con going full blast. Driving down the beach road we looked out over the beach and the distant escarpment at Mt Martha, both of us commenting on how idyllic it was. It’s like a painted scene, I said, the colours rich and deep, the sea blue, the sand a rich beige, and the trees atop the escarpment a dusty green. Later it reminded me of something Rupert Bunny might have painted, a timeless, eternal landscape where ladies might once have promenaded with parasols in their hands, while today yachts scud across the water and boys in board shorts cavort.

The chapel was full. Later I was told they had double the crowd expected. The overflow spilled into another room where the service could be watched by video link. We stood at the back of the room overlooking the seated heads. It was an elegant scene, different from the sterile chapels I’ve attended in the past. It was an old house with high ceilings. A modern chandelier dangled brass orbs. A row of windows let in the light from outside. Across the road and through the trees was the beach.

As funerals go it was a good funeral. I had my own memories of my mate’s dad, a kind and considerate man with a spark of wit. He had always seemed so robust. In my memory I saw as a kind of Harry Andrews type, salt of the earth, though with a bit more levity. Whatever my thoughts of him were it was clear he was held in great esteem by very many. My opinion of him seemed validated by the crowd: he was a man of quality.

I listened as the celebrant gave the conventional eulogy, before one by one his sons got up to share their memories. This was incredibly moving. It was clear he was a much loved father. The memories shared were vivid, sometimes funny, and often poignant. Their grief was articulated in different voices, and at times it threatened to overcome them.

It’s funny, I felt glad to be there to witness. It was real and true. It was sad that he was gone, but wonderful he had existed. I felt a kind of pride at being part of the human race he had been part of. But then I couldn’t help but feel envy too. I listened to the stories of these grieving sons and wondered what I could say on behalf of my own father. I had nothing to compare, not even the smallest thing. Once more I felt a sense of being deprived. How might it have been had I a father like that? I wished I could feel so deeply, could love so much – and yet, timely as it was, when I contacted my father by SMS the other day to tell him I had to record him as a next of kin I didn’t even receive an acknowledgement. That bus has long departed.

We ended up at the Dava hotel next door. You relax. It’s a different vibe, the tie is loosened. It’s an open bar and you share a cold beer with people you haven’t seen for years. The stories flow, memories are recalled. I had forgotten some, but remembering them again they seemed just like yesterday. How does time fly? Was that really twenty years ago? There seems something strange and wonderful about it. You look around. One of your friends is unchanged. You yourself are little different. But others are older, greyer, bigger. Men now, not boys, but when did that happen?

Here we are in a funeral though. If that was behind us, then ahead was this. I stood in the chapel thinking that I will be here again sometime, and one of my friends I share a beer with today might be in the casket – and one day it will be me. But that’s in the future, now is remembrance.

It’s the nature of funerals that while it is a sad occasion we celebrate by remembering. The connections that have dissolved or disconnected by time and distance in that brief period become real again. Moments are shared and recalled, laughter blossoms, stories are told.

I caught up with my mates younger brother, a lovely, knockabout bloke (they’re all lovely, a great family). He had struggled in giving his eulogy. When I shook his hand after the service he was still grief stricken. Now, at the reception, we shook hands again and with a smile said “as soon as I saw you H I had to laugh, you remember…” and off he went recalling a moment I had forgotten altogether (from my mates wedding) that I remembered again and laughed with him. Fancy that, we thought.

I threaded through the crowd, catching up with the eldest son, and then my mates mum, while being introduced to others. Outside the sun blazed down. The sea could be seen from the upstairs bar where we stood. As it had in the chapel the air-con struggled.

At the end I felt enlarged inside. I had awareness. Life was bigger than I remembered and it ends with death. It had boundaries, but the boundaries gave it meaning. I had commented to one of the sons he must be proud at the turn out and the testament it was for his father. He told me his father lived by the precept in 7 Habits of Effective Men – live like you want be remembered at your funeral. Yes, I thought, wise words – but what would people remember of me?

Art vrs artist

On Friday night I sat down to watch American Beauty again. It’s a really good movie, but I was curious to see how I would respond to it in light of the sexual harassment accusations levelled at its star, Kevin Spacey.

It’s always an interesting question, even if a little cliche these days: can you separate the art from the artist?

By inclination, I prefer to view – or respond – to art purely. The reason for that is that so much of our response to art is personal and individual. That’s not to belittle the inspiration for the art, it’s just recognition that once it leaves the artists hands we are free to respond to the art as our nature dictates. That’s unique to every one of us because we have different eyes and ears, each of us brings different histories and perspectives to the encounter, we appreciate it differently. Art by its nature is subjective.

By itself, that’s a purist take on something which is not nearly as simple as that. While our responses are our own, some art does not lend itself so easily to a personal interpretation, and in reality, there are occasions when knowledge of the artist must inform our reaction to his art.

Take, for a broad example, a painting by that well-known, would-be artist, Adolf Hitler. If you look at it purely as art it’s mediocre. He seems an accomplished draftsman, but there’s no inspiration or insight. But then who looks at a Hitler painting for its artistry? That piece of ‘art’ is no more than novelty. In fact it is the artist who gives meaning to the art, and the result is banal, if not disturbing.

But then you have someone like Wagner, a well-known anti-semite, but who was the composer of dozens of much loved operatic tunes. I’m not a particular fan of Wagner, but I can’t help but be roused occasionally when I hear something of his in passing, and it never occurs to me in listening that he wasn’t a particularly nice man.

These are, as I say, very broad examples to demonstrate very broad principles. What they do is illustrate the point that there is no clear-cut, unambiguous answer to this question. Our reaction to this question is as individual as our reaction to the art itself. As such, I can only speak for myself.

I love artists, and some artists more than others. I’ll binge on particular artists, which is recognition that there is something in that artist that resonates with me as a consumer of his art. There is a connect of sorts, of which the art is the interface. I cannot deny the primacy of the artist, but equally I know that when I engage with a piece of art it is an intimate thing, just me and it in the same room, the same headspace as such, the artist elsewhere, tapping his foot perhaps anticipating my reaction. I am unaware of that. I am unaware of him. It’s just me and the art, and the worlds the art opens up in me when it’s truly great.

It only ever becomes a thing when I walk out of that room. I become conscious. I may stop to analyse what I was so busy feeling. I might wonder and question. My mind will go to the artist. I’ll reflect on them, their personality, their history, I’ll wonder what they were trying to say, and will ponder their life’s work. (I can get very caught up – I’m on Wikipedia at the drop of a hat). That’s the time when I might reflect upon my reflection, but it’s after the fact. The experience, more or less, is untouched.

What it can do is raise interesting questions. There are a lot of dubious characters who have created great art. The question to me is not if I should support that art, but rather how can the mind that conceived of such greatness also be capable of such wickedness? It’s not a moral question, but a scientific one. Is it because, or in spite of? What occurred in their life to make it so? What does it mean?

I think one of the things you understand is that there are few, true absolutes. Creating great art does not make a man great. Doing something wicked does not necessarily mean the man is wicked. There is a world in between, complex and rich and often contradictory, as human nature is. We don’t run on straight lines. We’re not programmed, nor are we even rational much of the time. We are mysteries, and contained in that mystery is both greatness and frailty. (I’m not a believer in ‘evil’, as I think it much to simplistic, two-dimensional an excuse to explain away things we don’t understand and are fearful of facing. I think what we think of as evil is human frailty, much corrupted, to the point sometimes that very little human remains.)

It’s one of the things that troubles me through this epidemic of sexual-harassment accusations. I’m shocked and horrified to realise that these practices were so widespread, angry that there wasn’t someone brave enough to do anything about it, and sad that there wasn’t somewhere for these victims to go where they could have felt safe. This has been allowed, enabled even, because no-one wanted to deal with it, and because those in power were happy to believe it was normal. In the moral outrage these allegations have provoked some of the loudest voices are those organisations that for years likely knew and turned a blind eye. They blow with the prevailing morality, and are hypocrites.

At the same time, I’m troubled because, as I write this, of the litany of accusations announced day after day none as yet have been proved in a court of law. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m certain that the majority of accusations are true, and that ultimately the courts will mete out some long-delayed justice. Equally, I’m sure some are fabrications or exaggerations. Regardless, trial by media is rampant, and everyone accused is seen as guilty until proven innocent. I understand the anger and outrage fuelled by years of oppression, but this is not how a lawful society works. There are whole destinies threatened.

In the media hysteria attending these accusations the alleged villains are being painted in lurid, shocking terms. It’s how the media works, and more and more it’s how society reacts, in purely binary terms. It’s crude and unsophisticated, and most importantly, it’s false. A man like Weinstein, for years using his power to prey on those more vulnerable (allegedly), is easily portrayed as a monster. Kevin Spacey (who has lost his job and been written out of another movie on the strength of the accusations brought against him) is painted as a deviant of some sort (because his alleged victims are male?).

If these accusations are found to be true then I hope that the alleged perpetrators are punished in accordance with their crime. No more, no less. We take on these things as if they are absolute values, when they are not. Nor is art. A man may do terrible things and still create sublime art, and that’s the way of human nature. One does not pre-suppose, or negate, the other. Nor are they such polar opposites as we tend to view them in the bi-polar world we have become.

Ultimately it comes down to individual choice whether your appreciation of art is tainted by knowledge of the artist, and that will be more difficult with some artists and fields of art. It’s not easy, but nor should it be absolute.

For me, having watched American Beauty again Friday, I still think it’s a great movie, and indisputably a great performance. And I still like Lester Burnham.

What do we learn from this?

I figure this might be one of my more controversial posts, or at least one of the more misunderstood. Misunderstanding comes easy these days.

In the last week there have been a series of revelations about legendary Hollywood movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein. Daily one after another woman has come forward alleging sexual harassment, and even rape. Many of the women are high profile actresses and models. It’s been an eye opening and shocking litany of offences, making clear that Weinstein is a pathetic and obsessive serial offender. At one point I wondered if I was the only person who didn’t have a Harvey Weinstein story.

One of the aspects most disturbing to me is the realisation that so much had been swept under the carpet. I’m no innocent, and tend to cynical view when it comes to the wielding of power. That multiple organisations would choose to view these offences with a blind eye came as no great surprise. What was surprising was that there were so many seemingly influential ‘names’ who had been victim of these offences, but had chosen to remain silent till now.

It’s a regular tale told of how many victims of sex crimes either choose not to report them, or do so and are humiliated by the experience, or disbelieved. It’s a fundamental societal issue, particularly as it seems that sexual offences are far more common than I would have believed. I understand how difficult it is to confront the judicial system after being victim of this, particularly when you have little faith in the process. Unfortunately, by failing to report it makes it harder for the next woman, and it vindicates the actions of the perpetrator, potentially allowing him to go again – as clearly has been the case with Weinstein.

I believed, falsely as it turns out, that high profile actresses would not have the same fears. Even if behind the scenes I thought something would be done, but until the bombshell last week no-one had really spoken out. It’s a sorry tale, and in the wake of it there are thousands of women coming out with the #metoo hashtag admitting to being sexually harassed, or worse. If there is a positive out of this it’s that it has been put under the spotlight, and perhaps with strength in numbers more women will come forward, and the low-lives committing these offences will be properly punished. Only then can we hope to stamp this behaviour out.

As a man, I’m horrified. I’ve wondered if I’ve ever done anything that might be construed as sexual harassment. I can’t think of anything, and there has never been an intention to do anything like that – but who am I to judge?

So, Weinstein, and this is the controversial bit. It’s shocking what he has done, but I can’t help feeling some pity for him. In the first place there is obviously something wrong with him that he should be such a repeat offender. There’s something pathetic about it which speaks to the nature of his psyche. What craving did he seek to satisfy, and why? Many of the stories about him are similar, with Weinstein making unwelcome advances, either verbal, or physical such as walking in naked. For the women it is disgusting, but looking at Weinstein from afar there is something pitiful in it. How does this happen? Where have we gone wrong?

The other part of it is that he’s being piled into right now. Every man and his dog is cracking in. He’s been kicked out of a roll-call of heavyweight industry associations, including the production company he helped found. It’s hard not to be cynical about some of that. I’m sure his behaviour was well known, but tolerated until he got caught out. Now it’s about the optics. Not surprisingly his wife has left him as well. Everything he was, everything he identified with, has been taken from him, and you might say, so he deserves, and maybe you’re right. What is unedifying is some of the glee attached to this.

It doesn’t sit quite right with me. He should receive his just desserts, but right now it’s all outrage, much of it genuine, but a good part of it faux. I don’t doubt the stories told of him, but as it stands they are allegations. I’m not given to hyperbole. I believe in due process and justice. This should be investigated and go to court, and hopefully it will. In the meantime he has been judged and found guilty in the court of public opinion, and duly punished. It amounts to a form of bullying, and – as I said – some of it for cynical reasons.

I can’t help but wonder how he is now, abandoned by his industry, his wife, even his brother, his name turned into click-bait and subject to ridicule. These are our times, everything is extreme – I wonder though what the reaction would be if in days from now he decides he cannot go on. I’m not saying that will happen – it shouldn’t – but what if it did?

It would change nothing of the nature of his crimes, but perhaps there are reasonable questions then about our response to them.

So maybe I’m paranoid, but I don’t like being watched

I’ve just got to put on record my disagreement with the government’s request to access every drivers licence photo and ID from the states. For me it’s another step down the path towards a surveillance state. The justification put forward is obvious – to safeguard us from undesirable characters and prevent terrorist attack. To do that means that we, the citizens, will be subjected to real time facial scanning. There are many who think that’s a small price to pay, including every state government, who have rolled over on this meekly.

Me, I hate the idea of being tracked. I don’t want my face being scanned over and over again as I go about my business. It’s an infringement of my civil liberties to start with, but the practical implications are pretty scary too. The government in the past has made a big song and dance about keeping such details secure, but information has been leaked, and details shared with other government agencies. What happens when this stuff gets hacked? Where is the line drawn – who will have access to this information?

Ultimately there is an existential threat as well. Nearly 30 years ago there was an uproar when the government tried to implement the Australia Card – an ID card. That was a step too far for civil libertarians, and most of the public agreed. The idea was scrapped. Thirsty years on we’ve gone far beyond a simple, dumb ID card. With CCTV on every corner, government access to our metadata, and now this, our personal privacy has been reduced to the size of a postage stamp (not to mention Google, Facebook, tracking, etc). To a degree some of this is unavoidable, but it should be minimised.

This is how it happens. It becomes a domino effect. Once you relinquish that first right the others become further threatened. One after another you lose these things, small things often, but in totality they add up to a lot. That is what we are facing now. Once we have relinquished something we have lost it forever. Where does it end? At what point will we be asked to produce ID on the streets – as only a couple of years ago Abbott’s Border Force did on the streets of Melbourne?

We have given the government the tools to monitor and control us. In the hands of a benign government there should be little to fear, but should we degenerate into an autocratic state then there is every reason to fear that what has been wrought supposedly to defend us, will instead be used against us. In this day and age, who can guarantee that won’t happen?

Our time travels with us

I was reading a review before of a book I’d like to read. Other Men’s Daughters is a re-release of a novel originally written in 1974 by one Richard Stern. It was controversial then, but praised for the quality of the writing. In the review, it is presented as an intelligent and insightful piece of work.

Stern died, aged 84, a few years ago. This little tidbit is casually reported in the review, but to me, reading seems most relevant. I have not read the novel, but in reading the review of it the novel seemed true to another time, now past. It’s not that the themes were no longer relevant – stories such as this continue in life. Rather it focussed on something in such a way that is no longer true to this time. Perhaps more serious than others, the book appeared a part of the Roth and Updike style of writing about relationships and sex. What were probing questions then now appear settled or discarded arguments.

Updike in recent years has been decried by some contemporary critics, with the inference being that his writing about sex was archaic, juvenile and even sexist. The new guys know better. And Roth has given up writing altogether. Needless to say, I am a great admirer of Updike’s stories (not so much his novels), which are beautiful things; and have read most of Roth’s oeuvre, and think him a master. Literature should be timeless, but clearly, there are trends that come and go, and times – and mores – that are described, then lapse. Is it just me, but are Updike and Roth old-fashioned now? Could there be an Updike or Roth – or indeed a Stern – these days?

I wondered this as I read the review, doubting that such a book would be written now, or even if anyone would be much interested in it now if it were – except, perhaps, to question and vilify any uncomfortable aspects of political incorrectness.

At the back of my mind is Tom Petty. Tom Petty died yesterday at age 66. He is another of those artists I grew up listening to. He is another thread from the soundtrack of my life, unravelled. And in fact, his era had passed too, though he still recorded and toured. He was mainstream once, though still critically acclaimed, his music was no longer part of the rotation, and his name no longer resonant.

It seems to me that as we pass through time we carry our own time with us. We learn to look a bit differently perhaps, our eyes take on new lens, but by and large, our perspective remains as it was when it was formed – in my argument, through our late teens and early twenties. It’s the burgeoning stage of our life full of discovery, sensation and rugged education. It can be modified, refined, it may even mellow, and rarely it may be inverted – but it is the same thing in different ways.

What it means for people like me is that I can look upon many things today and find myself weighing them against things I knew before. Nothing is entirely fresh because it is another representation of what I have known before, though the comparison is often puzzling. It means that the things that were important to you before remain true in you, even if they are no longer in vogue. Very little becomes irrelevant with the passing of time, regardless of what some critics would tell you.

That’s why a book like this resonates with me, because it was true when I was made. That’s why Tom Petty means something, never mind he hardly gets played anymore. None of this makes me old-fashioned or retro, it simply means I can see things from more than one angle, and with a lifetime of context.

Flickering moments

I slept unusually long last night, though it seems that come Sunday night the week catches up with me and I need an extra hour of sleep to make it good. I switched off the light at 10.30 and woke up a little before 7 (typically I’m lights out 11.30, up at 6.45). I woke and felt in no hurry. I give myself leeway on a Monday morning because who wants to rush anywhere then? Certainly not if it’s to work.

Eventually I get on the train and it’s a bit fuller than usual because it’s later than customary. I sit there and do the usual thing, idly watching the comings and goings while listening to an audiobook.

My eyes light upon a man a few years older than me in a suit. He seems much older than me, but that’s always hard to judge, and something I tend to think more often than not regardless. In any case he has about 10 kilos on me and is silver throughout, hair and beard. I don’t really take much notice of him but for his leather satchel. It’s a quality piece, but what catches my eye is the strap, which at one point has frayed to the point that it looks like but a thread holds it together. I wonder, why has he not replaced it, or least made some effort to mend it? I imagine when inevitably it will part. What will he do then? My mind slips into speculative mode. I wonder when he bought the satchel, and where that was? What was his life then? What did he think and feel? What has changed?

The train carries on and at Middle Brighton a blonde woman slips into the seat diagonally opposite me by the window. At first glance she is attractive, fine featured, shapely and well dressed. She has a stern countenance though, a look that discourages easy conversation. It’s probably just an unfortunate case of a harsh resting face (I know that my resting face intimidates people), but I can also see how she will age into a hard faced old woman if she is not careful.

After that first glance I take little notice of her. She spends most of the trip staring at her phone as if she is angry with it. But then she puts the phone down and looks out the window. I catch her reflection in the glass and look again at her face. She has the most striking eyes. I wonder what colour they are, somewhere between blue and green I think, but with a crystalline purity. They are just eyes, but I wonder what they mean. What does it feel like to have eyes like that? Maybe it makes you angry, but I doubt that. I want to know more about her. Like the man she has a story.

I look out the window. Richmond station has passed and we are edging into the city past Margaret Court Arena. A spontaneous memory comes to me as the train passes beneath Fed Square. I remember a moment, many years ago. I’m with a woman, she’s Italian, with lush, dark tumbling hair and a wide mouth that smiles a lot. She thinks I’m the bees knees, but I can’t recall her name. We have just watched an old French film at ACMI and are getting some fresh air during the intermission. It’s a warm night and this girl looks into my eyes and takes my hand, and presses it down under the strap of her paints and there between her legs warm and inviting.