Disunited Kingdom

Another interesting few weeks in international politics. Trump gets nearer and nearer the precipice, though if anyone ever gives him a push is anyone’s guess. Then there’s the UK. Jermy Corbyn gave Theresa May an almighty scare in the general election, to the point that to form government the Conservatives need to enter into a coalition with the uglies of the Irish Unionists, who don’t believe in same-sex marriage or abortion, and in general have a range of retrograde policies – and they hold the whip hand. Then came the awful Grenfell Tower fire in London. Last I heard there were 58 reported deaths, and bad deaths too – trapped in a burning building and succumbing to smoke or flame. The firestorm has spread far beyond the building though.

I don’t see how Theresa May can survive this. She got a very shaky mandate from the electorate after running a poor campaign. Her conduct and behaviour after the election inspired little, but it’s the Grenfell Tower fire that is her death knell. But let’s start at the start.

It’s not long ago that Corbyn was deemed unelectable, and May called an election in the expectation of a landslide. Corbyn improved his game, and May was diabolical on the campaign trail, and these in combination were a catalyst for reconsideration by the electorate. The elements were already there though – general cynicism, disenfranchised voters searching for something to believe in, and those disenchanted in general with the party system and the rhetoric that goes with it. Much has been made of the Conservative mantra throughout the campaign of strong and stable government and I agree it played a big part in the outcome – as a negative to the conservatives.

That’s not always the case. As mindless as these slogans may seem, it’s apparent that by the perpetual repetition of them something gets through to the electorate. In the past it proved a positive for like trained monkey’s we (well, never me) came to associate the proponents of the slogan with the message. That was in simpler times.

These days it’s a rowdy crowd. They’ve come angry, unwilling to be appeased by mindless drivel. Had May been better that sense may never have been activated in the electorate. As it was she was unwilling to engage and came off as being evasive and untrustworthy, while Corbyn was campaigning on simple sincerity. Get a load of this the punters thought, and just listen to the bullshit she’s spouting! The electorate became aware, at which point the repetition of empty phrases became a negative.

The move towards Corbyn was a rejection of political party machinations. All over the world voters have become jaded by cynical politics, faceless and cruel bureaucracy, and an utter absence of sincerity or ideals. May embodied that and in comparison Corbyn’s homeliness and home-spun wisdom was positively attractive. In the end I think the English electorate were drawn to Corbyn and what he represented, but were unsure whether they wanted him to govern. That was then.

Now it might be different. The disaster at Grenfell Towers is almost biblical in what it means. It feels as if a message from on high sent to expose the inequity and utter poverty of the Conservative movement. What is a human disaster has been proved to have been utterly preventable if not for corruption and shortcuts being taken by the ruling Tories. Added to that was the deplorable conduct of Theresa May in the aftermath – a more out of touch leader you won’t see.

Where do we start? Well, Grenfell Towers is public housing in a posh area, Kensington. The victims were working class strugglers. They had complained about the risk of fire and were ignored. The building itself had no smoke alarms or sprinklers – unimaginable (and illegal) in Australia. The cladding added to the building during a recent renovation was proven to he highly flammable, but chosen to save money. Then of course there were the cuts made by Boris Johnson when he was mayor to the fire service. And so on. Then, to add insult to injury, after this barely comprehensible tragedy Theresa May turns up shielded by minders and talks only to the firefighters – the homeless victims are ignored. (In comparison Corbyn, and even the Queen, showed normal human compassion. Corbyn has really shone throughout this).

May copped a lot of criticism for this, and rightly so, but what I see is a woman totally out of her depth. She’s not a particularly attractive character, but this misjudgement I suspect is borne of complete confusion – not that that’s an excuse.

A government has yet to be formed in Britain, and Brexit looms. After Grenfell Towers great swathes of the population are outraged. If they had an election today I think it’s Corbyn who would win in a landslide. That’s not going to happen though. What will happen is hard to know. I think May’s leadership is now not sustainable; and I think there are too many questions about the proposed coalition which, after Grenfell Towers, contradicts entirely the mood of the nation.

I’m fascinated to see what will happen now. There must be victims – sacrifices – which is all a part of the political culture. May is dead, and I think Boris is terminal now too. Admission must be made, the sacrifices made public, and a conciliatory leader who promises to ‘bring the nation together’ will be found. How they resolve the political stalemate I don’t know.

As for Australia, if we’re watching then there’s a lot to learn – but I’ll get onto that another time.


Can’t ignore any longer

I can’t go on writing of trivial things when about me in the world momentous events occur. I think of Kafka who in his diaries made mention of WW1 commencing, followed up by a note that he ‘went swimming’. I understand that. A diary is personal, it’s not intended to reflect on the great moments of history. There comes a point though when those moments become personal, and to continue to disregard them is just impossible, and vaguely immoral. My issues may consume me, but in a time where innocents are targeted for brutal execution they are small things indeed.

Of course over the weekend there were terrorist attacks in London, a couple of weeks after the terrorist bombing in Manchester. On Saturday amid widespread panic and disruption 6 people were murdered by jihadists. It may well have been much worse. By memory 22 died in the Manchester bombing, most of them children and young people, and all of them much loved by friends and family. The damage goes far beyond a simple list of dead.

It might sound callous, but it’s not the lists of dead that I find most horrifying, but rather it’s the incomprehensible ideology that exults in this violence.

When the bomb exploded at the Ariana Grande concert I wondered at the mentality of people who set out to wreak destruction on the most innocent and vulnerable of our society. The audience for an Ariana Grande audience is always going to be predominantly junior – kids and teenagers for whom Grande is an idol. To attend a concert of this type should be the most innocuous and joyful of pastimes for people who have yet to hurt anyone. Yet it was these people who were targeted. How can you understand that?

The attacks over the weekend were more normal in the sense that there have been similar attacks in France, Germany and Denmark in recent times. The method was to create panic and terror, and in that it was a complete success. London was virtually shut down and all the news services carried it for hours on end. The death toll was modest considering the impact, but the tactical objective was achieved.

In the aftermath of these attacks there is widespread and justified outrage. It’s hard to deny that, but it serves ISIS objectives exactly. I cannot comprehend the ideology, but the strategy is clear. The death of infidels is a bonus, it’s the terror, fear, mistrust and violent reaction these attacks provoke which is the real purpose of them.

The people who commit these crimes are commonly described as evil. It’s an easy label and it seems an easy fit at first blush. Certainly these are evil acts, but I suspect that the schmucks who sacrificed themselves for this misplaced ideology are a mix of fools and tragically misguided, the easily led and readily corrupted. In the absence of anything more meaningful they have been drawn to the exotic appeal of the extreme, and a purpose in death they could never find in life.

The true evil is the corrupt ideology that justifies such heinous acts, and the cruel and sadistic leaders of this ideology who seek to manipulate, enslave and murder. They claim to act in god’s name, but that too is a corruption – no just god demands the death of unbelievers; and no true man of god demands – and so exults – the murder of so many innocent. This is a false ideology, the god they clamour to is not the true god of their faith, and those who seek to destroy will themselves one day find themselves called to a violent judgement.

For now, it’s a hard thing to get your mind around. It is so big now, and seemingly unending – and just so terribly wrong. For a moment you wonder what it is that allows this – but then you recall all those movements through history who have had a similar urge to righteous murder. It’s just the most recent form of extremist reaction, this time Islamist, but it’s nothing new, regardless of what the other extremes will tell you.

There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been better said by others, but I can’t stay silent any longer.

Our day

I took Rigby for a walk down the beach earlier today and overhead the Roulettes flying low zoomed by in formation, twice. It’s Anzac Day, always significant, and always a big day. Like I’ve said many times before, it seems the truest of our national days. Just about everyone has some kind of personal connection with it in a way not possible with Australia Day.

Both of my grandfathers fought in WW2 and I grew up watching the parades down St Kilda road. Later on, I was in Gallipoli for the 2004 Anzac Day commemoration, and about 7-8 years ago marched in it with my nephew, wearing my grandfather’s service medals. That was a great occasion. It’s always been a big day for me.

We had bucketloads of rain last night. It kept the crowds away from the dawn service, but there were still 30,000 there, which is damn impressive. By now as I write all the old diggers and their families will have finished marching and will be off having a beer somewhere, or else be playing two-up with mates. I love this day.

To honour the occasion I cooked up a batch of Anzac biscuits this morning – pretty good, though next time extra oats and extra golden syrup.

I’m not going to the footy this afternoon. I still can’t afford to go to most games. I’ll be watching it from my couch though. I’ll crack a bottle of red and unwrap some cheese and indulge myself while the mighty Bombers make a mess of the pies. The sun is out and while I’m not tipping against further rain, reckon it will be largely fine for the game. Can’t wait.

Bryan Dawe breaks his silence on the death of his friend John Clarke

The news of John Clarke’s death wrenched Bryan Dawe back 54 years to the worst day of his own boyhood.

Source: Bryan Dawe breaks his silence on the death of his friend John Clarke

This is an outstanding piece. I wrote about John Clarke earlier in the week, but this is more eloquent than anyone could write. This is remembrance, funny and sad and deeply felt, by the man who was John Clarke’s straight man.

Besides everything else, it’s a very moving description of friendship, respect and sorrow. 

The limit

There’s been a few things in the public forum in the last week that have roused comment and controversy. As always I’m a keen observer of these disputes, even if it makes me feel a bit sick at times. These two issues relate to free speech. This time I need to add my voice to the fray.

The first relates to quite a stupid and clumsy promotion by Cooper’s Brewing. They were releasing a special edition beer to celebrate the centenary of some religious group they had an affiliation to. To mark the occasion a couple of federal ministers were brought together over a beer to discuss the merits of same sex marriage.

This is always going to be a fraught topic, and this is not the forum for it. It was all very amicable with one minister for and the other against, debated with a beer in hand. It was pretty silly and given that the sponsoring body – The Bible Society – is anti-same-sex marriage, is easily viewed as a political piece. Naturally it drew outrage.

All of a sudden social media was lit up with commentary, most of it condemning the piece, and a lot of it pretty violent. Within moments there was a movement to boycott Coopers products, which in the way of our times quickly gained momentum. Everyone wanted to be in on the act.

But not me. I reflected on this deeply, but my instinct right from the start was to recoil from such drastic action.

There’s no anger management on social media. Just about everyone goes hard, and much harder than they would dare face to face. There’s a red hot need to express outrage and support. One way or another commentary heads for the extreme. It’s the signs we live in, a binary age where one is either for or against, a snowflake or a RWNJ, where is little subtlety or sophistication in discourse, and only rarely any real insight.

This is why I can’t support a boycott. It’s a purely reactive, knee-jerk reaction to the situation, and as such is mindless. Never mind free speech or the right to have an opinion, the prevailing mode of discourse is to punish anyone who disagrees with what we believe.

Whenever I begin making statements like this I feel obliged to affirm my position in general. I hate having to do it as I consider myself first and foremost as a thinking individual, but lest I’m accused of being bias let me lay it out. I have a very strong liberal bent who believes in the rights of the individual – be they man, woman, black, white, gay or heterosexual – or even if they journey here by boat from far away. I’m for equality in general and a strong supporter of marriage equality.

I disagree strongly with the sentiments of The Bible Society, but I must defend their right to have them. We are a democracy. Free speech is a cornerstone of that. In fact, debate and discussion is a good thing – though rare these days as inevitably it degenerates into rabid name-calling. As a thinking man, I can’t support a response which is mindless reaction, which is why I’ll continue to enjoy a Coopers every now and then. It happens also to be a very good beer.

The next thing is the premature and unexpected death of cartoonist Bill Leak. In recent years Leak had become a very controversial and provocative figure. A great artist and at his best a very funny cartoonist, something had gone off in him sometime in the last 10 years. Many of cartoons, though clever, became offensive to different cultural groups, and often engaged in gross racial stereotyping. The sort of stuff we as a society had long moved past, and which, in my opinion, should never have been published by The Australian.

Quite naturally Leak became a champion of the right wing bigots who hide behind the skirt of free speech. This is the thing – free speech cuts both ways, but it also has limits on what is acceptable. This has been the great debate behind 18C, which Leak had become an unwitting champion of (he had been charged under its auspices). The argument was that Leak in publishing his cartoons was exercising his right to free speech. The debate was whether his cartoons crossed the line. Naturally this was another violently argued issue.

He died last week at the age of 61. On Monday night at a live broadcast of Q&A a bunch of audience members stood up and shouted that they were glad Leak was dead. This has been a common sentiment on social media. I may be old fashioned but I reckon that’s ugly and unnecessary.

Not surprisingly that sparked a reaction, this time from the conservative side of the political spectrum. Among other things they demanded the ABC – the broadcaster – should be censured for the uncouth actions of their audience. Oh, the irony.

The principle tenets of free speech are frequently overlooked by champions of it when it is turned against them. They cannot claim that Bill Leak was expressing his right to free speech and then turn around and demand punishment when others exercise that same right in opposition to them. I think the people who so bravely stood up to celebrate Bill Leak’s death are low lives, but so be it. They broke a social convention, but no laws – and that’s as it should be.


No longer a bystander

A couple of days ago I visited the memorial site in Bourke street set-up to commemorate the shocking events of last Friday. On the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth street outside what used to be the old GPO, and what is now H&M, there is a growing patch given over to bouquets of flowers, teddy bears, cards and other mementoes deposited there by a grieving public.

On the day I was there a film crew was taking shots of the large crowd paying their respects. They stood on the edges of the patch taking photos of it or reading sorrowful notes left by passers-by or else they just stood there, as I did, taking in the enormity of it.

It was a solemn scene. The city still bustled about us, and behind us trams rattled by in their usual way clanging as they travelled through the mall, but the crowd at the site was separate from it all. They gazed at the scene without speaking, as if at a gravesite. In the air the perfumed fragrance of flowers mixed in with the exotic scent of burning incense. It was a sobering scene, and immensely moving.

The whole experience has been momentous for Melbourne. I have felt greatly affected by it myself. I watch reports in the aftermath and my emotions bubble up every time. A picture of one of the victims, the 10 year old girl Thalia, was published early in the week. She was happy and smiling in the photo. In the normal sense you would look at it and think what a lovely little girl. Now you look at it and feel the tragedy of the loss. More than that, I felt keenly everything she was deprived of, and her family, and the world at large. It’s an unnatural and premature ending of a life that should have been lived fully and for decades to come. What would she have become but for this? What would she have seen and done? What happiness and sorrow would she have felt, and what she would have shared and given to others? None of it will be now. She had a story, but it ended too soon.

When it’s as close to home as this it always feels much more powerful. There are events like this every week, every day, somewhere in the world. On this occasion it was Melbourne’s turn. No matter where it is it’s always tragic, but the reality of it is much stronger when it is in your country, and more so your own home town.

This is my city. I know it so well. The tragedy occurred a couple of blocks from where I work. I was on foot a block away when it happened. The people caught up in this could very easily have been people I know or work with. It could have been me. You feel the utter randomness of it more keenly. It feels close, not just geographically, but spiritually. When it’s in your home town the starting point is of shared experience. The community you are a part of has been attacked. Though you look on, you are no longer a bystander. The tragedy becomes all of ours.