Advance Australia

There was a report in the newspaper the other day about some graffiti found in an outer suburb: “Fuck Australia Fair”, it read. I doubt the person responsible for this did so with irony in mind. Most likely it was an angry, perhaps even bitter, riposte to the great Australian dream. Perhaps it was scrawled by a disaffected migrant who has discovered the reality does’t match up to the dream.

As a reasonably patriotic Australian I might have felt some umbrage at the impertinence at the comment. I didn’t. In fact I was happy to see it reported. Today is Australia Day, and amid all the well founded celebration it’s good to be reminded that all is not pristine, we are not a perfect society, and that there is still work to be done.

I’ll celebrate like most Australians, might have a drink or two, and every chance will find myself at a barbecue this long weekend. When I reflect it will be with some quiet pride. Notwithstanding angry graffiti I believe Australia is a great place to live, that we have much to be proud of, and that, most importantly perhaps, the common Australian is a decent individual who wants a better world.

What I don’t like is cheap jingoism. I have no patience with mindless celebration. Slogans and addled notions of ‘what it means to be an Australian’ should be disavowed. I think it should be practically illegal to drape yourself in an Aussie flag (uncouth as it is), and that the bogan hijack with its chauvinistic overtones should be rejected outright. I’m just one member of this society, but that’s not my Australia, the Australia I know and love.

I read an interview this morning with Micky Arthur, the South African coach of the Australian cricket team. He spoke of how impressed he was with the spirit of community in Australia, and the tradition of ‘active citizenry’. He cited as an example the selfless volunteers all over the country fighting bushfires and working to salve the distress and loss of the poor victims of it. It’s a good example. I think every Australian looks up to the CFA, and other organisations like that, but we also take it a little for granted. We laud it, but we expect it also, because it has ever been that way. There is that tradition of service, of helping out, of mateship, that I think on the one hand is a central component of our culture, if not identity; but at the same time is overlooked. It is not seen as being as unique as what it is.

It takes a foreign eye sometimes to report back to us the differences they see. We live immersed in this, and fail to see anything unusual. It’s such a common theme though over many years – remember how the volunteers were lauded at the Sydney Olympics? – that perhaps we should own up to it. We have something special there, particularly when the chips are down. As a nation we’re healthy and wealthy, more so than we’re prepared to admit, and enjoyed good fortune foreign to so many other societies in the world. There is a lot that annoys the bejesus out of me, particularly politically, but I’ve had no reason to doubt that this is the best place in the world to live as a citizen. And more now than ever before.

It’s remiss, however, to accept only the good, and refuse the not so good. Perhaps Australia Day is not the time to dwell on those things, but I hope that if we are to continue to thrive and grow that we don’t neglect to work on the things we can do better. That’s why a piece of graffiti in outer Melbourne is so important. It reminds us that we are not there yet, and that there are many still who have yet to enjoy the fruits of our society. There’s a lot to do, but foremost heading into the years ahead is to bring those others into our embrace. To be inclusive, to listen, be compassionate, above all, to be honest and up-front. Isn’t that an Australian virtue?

Legal mysteries

The concept of justice is pretty well always contentious. Everyone’s got an opinion, and often it’s hysterical. It’s a situation that isn’t helped by the political football it becomes every time there’s an election, and the gullible flibbetygibbets who choose to get outraged.

I don’t think I’m a flibbetygibbet, but I have an opinion. In general my opinion is that justice should be based upon the prudent application of law. I understand how people get emotional, but justice should not be based on emotion. It should be based on facts, and the process by which those facts are assessed and ultimately adjudicated on. It’s not as simple as that always. There are grey areas, which is when we must rely upon the wisdom and experience of our independent judiciary.

Having said that, or perhaps because I’ve said that – I’m not sure which – there have two legal developments in the last 24 hours that leave me confused.

In the first Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s murderer, was denied parole for the seventh time. He has been in prison for 32 years. The reason given for denying his application is that to grant it would be to ‘trivialise’ his crime.

Now I’m a Beatles fan, and love the music of John Lennon. The day he died is one of those rare days that will stick in my mind forever. Chapman was sentenced for the crime and sent to prison. Now though, he seems he can’t get out.

Now I understand parole being rejected for those criminals who show no remorse, or give every sign that they will re-offend. Lock ’em up. From what I gather though that doesn’t apply in Mark Chapman’s case. Reading between the lines it seems that Chapman is being punished over and above his sentence because the person he killed was famous. Had he murdered a relative unknown dead-set he’d be home free by now. Hell, I’m sad that Lennon got killed, and distraught at all the great music denied to us by his death, but I’m not sure his murder should attract a premium simply because he was famous and much loved. Surely the rule of law is beyond such considerations, independent of popular clamour? In other words, isn’t Chapman entitled to the same treatment as anyone else in his situation?

The other big legal news is the sentencing of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer. In the last 24 hours he was declared sane and sentenced to 21 years in prison. This seems the opposite extreme to me. Breivik killed 77 people, and celebrates it still. 21 years? That seems a ridiculously pitiful sentence for the crime. I don’t know the Norwegian legal system, but it’s hard to believe in this case, or in Chapman’s, that justice is being truly served.


Somebody stop me

The Mask (film)

The Mask (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night I dreamt about a girl I used to know, and was friendly with. In the start of the dream we were good mates, if not more, and she was a happy, funny, individual and all-round captivating person. It made me remember what she was like, and wonder why I ever let her go out of my life. In the dream I was thrilled, I felt lucky, but some of this reality dribbled into the dream so that slowly it morphed into another version.

In version 2.0 the dream much closer reflected the reality of how we left it. We worked, or were pretty much in the same proximity as each other. We were polite when we had to be, but generally had nothing to do with each other: a barrier had been erected between us. I had a similar relationship to the others, as if I was a tolerated outcast. Surprisingly I did not feel despondent about this. I went about my things, a curious observer who still harboured hopes of a reconciliation. I felt, in the dream, very much a focus of her mind still, and as if occasionally I could discern a spark of life in our brief meetings. From there the dream went off in extravagant and richly imaginative directions, like a very entertaining Fellini movie at his most absurdly creative.

The dream – or dreams (though they seemed continuous) – were fun. It was good to recollect this girl in her glory, and to remember that actually once we had been pretty close, and that the dream was not that distant from the reality we once shared. All the same, I knew the dream wasn’t about her. She was a symbol I guess, representative of something else. What? I could speculate on that all day and come up with half a dozen different variations. I won’t bother with that, but somehow it leads me to other considerations.

I’ve written often in these pages about what I see as being two fundamental and opposing aspects of my self, restraint and excess, the ascetic and the bacchanalian. Right now I have a ascetic lifestyle imposed on me and it’s rubbing me up the wrong way. I itch to break free, to live a bit, to stretch my muscles and indulge my senses. A so-called balanced lifestyle should be the object of most people I guess, and though I think I’m different to most people mine seems seriously out of whack.

Perhaps because I am feeling this so starkly my mind has wandered into deeper matters. Traditionally I have framed these opposing ways in terms of lifestyle – drinking, eating, wenching to my hearts desire, and not (or perhaps, in moderation). I’ve twigged, much too late, that there is an underlying component of this which mixes philosophy with psychology. I am torn between different ways, and conflicted by the battle. That conflict has become a central part of my life. It’s time for me to own up to it.

Fundamentally I think I’m a decent man. I’m generally kind to strangers, I have a concern in the issues that affect us all, and I have a strong ethic towards ‘doing the right thing’ – whatever that might be. The responsible citizen in me wants to settle down with wife and children, wants to build a home, imagines a lifestyle much as I grew into as a kid – the dull, but cosy existence of being a homemaker, tending the garden, planning renovations, picking up kids from school, going on family holidays, et al.

There is another side of that though, what a shrink might call the shadow. This is the fun side, the Mask against Stanley Ipkiss. Back in the day I might have termed this the excessive half of my persona, the invitation to live big and don’t shirk the details. Over the years I’ve greatly enjoyed this life, and gone hard at it. At some stage always I tend to grow tired of it. It seems ultimately shallow, living for livings sake without any real sense of permanence or future. It’s all today, all now in fact, and so I drift back to the kind of aspirations that dull Stanley Ipkiss dreamt of.

The fact is I get a little guilty. I remind myself I’m getting older, that I should be more responsible. I tell myself that some of my excesses are unseemly, and betray a need to be still youthful. Truth be told there are occasions I wake up after another banal episode remembering that mostly reality doesn’t measure up to expectation. So, why do it?

Actually, there are many reasons. I love to be social. I love to drink, to eat well, to flirt, to fuck, to dare myself and others towards the edge. None of this is new to me, but they seem like facts I’ve tried to deny, or at least subvert, for many years. That middle class conventional side of my self thinks I should be Stanley Ipkiss or some variation of him. The other side yearns to be Hank Moody, or to slip on the mask and go for broke (“…somebody stop me.”). If I continue in this conflict I’ll end up like another classic cinematic character, Lester Burnham. That’s not what I want.

From a purely rational point of view it seems silly to deny who you are, but then human beings are generally irrational. I’m rationality personified in things external to me, but all bets are off when it comes to my self. Could I live that deeply domestic lifestyle I described above? Probably not – not in it’s entirety in any case. And though I love the sensual abundance I sometimes partake of I couldn’t live that way all of the time. The time’s come to be perfectly honest with myself.

I love to eat well, to drink, and I love to fuck a lot, and that’s not something that’s ever going to change, and god forbid that it does. This I have to own up to and quit denying. I’d rather have a warm breast in my hand than a pair of garden shears. That may well be my destiny, but there remains the hope in me that I come to experience some variation of the domestic scene I described above. I do want wife and children, and though I protest I’ll happily do some work in the garden and around the house – but I want more too. For me at least both ends of that spectrum are without soul if that is all they are. The trick is not to alternate between personas, but to integrate the two into one. That means owning up to the shadow without judgement, and applying some of the abundant pleasures inherent in that to that other, domesticated* side, to make them one.

What does that mean? It means I’ll continue to wench to my hearts content, and without judgement. I’ll stop when I feel it. One day hopefully it means I’ll wench and live some of that sensuality with my wife. I’ll mow the lawn sure, I’ll pick up the fucking kids from school, but I also want to indulge myself – ourselves – in the pleasures of being a physical being. Too much dear, is never enough.

*That’s a word, or inference I hate actually: domestic, domesticated, etc. It feels much like a horse being broken in, or a dog being neutered. It’s a collar around your neck. I don’t ever want to be domesticated, not all the way through. I think there’s a sense of wonder that is part of being undomesticated, and too easily lost otherwise. I want to be irrational and irresponsible sometimes, to go with raw instinct rather than measured intellect, to recall I come from primitive stock. I don’t want to fit into anything but my own skin. And I want to go as I feel, to colour in outside the lines as I get there. Part of that is to remember that nothing is pre-ordained, that there is nothing that I’m ‘meant to do’. There’s nothing wrong in digressing sometimes, or being selfish occasionally, and refusing to play the role others want you to. Wild is fun.

The quality of mercy

Watched another great episode of Mad Men last night. It’s been a season of many great episodes. Last night it was the episode where Don confronts Lane about him embezzling funds.

Like so many times watching this show it ended with me feeling invigorated, stimulated and buzzing with ideas. The best episodes cram so much into them, so much that seems both relevant and very authentic at the same time. I’m sure many people feel they have a ‘personal’ connection with their favourite TV shows. Through the nineties I used to think that Seinfeld captured the attitude we – my friends and I – lived by. We would go to work and meet socially and discuss the latest episodes with a knowing laugh, and still to this day will often find ourselves referring to scenes or using the famous phrases from the show as a kind of humorous and telling shorthand.

Mad Men is a very different show from Seinfeld, but for me it captures – somehow – so much that seems true to me now and for the last decade. I’ve written of this before, how the character of Don Draper reminds me of my father, and also how I feel sympatico to him. I feel as if a lot of the blood that runs through Don – lusty, ambitious, ruthless, compassionate, occasionally amoral, sometimes cruel – runs through me. More than anything though it’s the events that unfold through the course of the show that resonate with me. There is drama and controversy, conflict and sorrow packed tight into the program – more so than in real life perhaps, but with a ring of reality. There’s a motley collection of characters both good and ordinary and things between that reflects my experience of the world, and particularly working life. The things that happen on screen are different to what I experience in my life in the detail, but the moral perturbations and contradictions, the striving and struggling, the rampant desires and regrets, seem so true to my experience of life – as probably they do for many. That’s why I get stirred up, because I’m taking the same strife torn and uncertain path with precisely the same ambitions.

I watched last night as Don took Lane aside and got straight to the point about the money Lane had taken. Lane blustered and feigned outrage while Don remained firm and straight. I thought: that’s the way to do something like that. If something difficult must be faced it’s a lot easier approaching it face on rather than dancing around it, as so many people do. Far better for all concerned to just say it, simply and without drama, than to sidle up to it. When Don, despite Lanes desperate protestations, demanded his resignation I thought that was right too. He was not vindictive, perhaps inside he understood it in some way, and so sought to make it easy on Lane by asking him to resign, to keep the matter private, and to make up the shortfall himself. He cops a lot of flak Don, but – and this the beauty of his character – there is a strong streak of decency and justice in him. There was no getting out leaving though for Lane, it was a matter of trust as Don said, and that was that. And I felt myself agree.

I knew what was coming. I’d read something online that ruined the surprise for me, but knowing how it was to end I watched with an absorbed fascination, as if watching the moments before a disaster in slow-motion. Humiliated, disgraced, about to be unemployed, Lane hung himself on the back of his office door.

It raised for me an important philosophical question. Should we make judgement on others simply based on what they have done? Or should we consider the consequences of that judgement?*

I’ve no doubt that Don regretted his hard line with Lane, and would have recanted if he could. Does that make his original decision wrong then? Or wrong only because Lane chose to end his life because of it? Or does it remain just – a crime was committed and Don was within his rights to refer it to the law – regardless of how Lane chooses to respond to it. In other words, is justice subjective, or purely objective? Do we adjudicate on the crime, or the outcomes?

There’s a parallel to this in the news right now. About a week ago nearly a hundred refugees seeking asylum in Australia perished when the ship they were traveling in from Indonesia sunk. This has long been a contentious issue, but this tragedy re-ignited the controversy. In the newspapers, in the streets, in parliament itself there was a clamour to finally achieve some kind of satisfactory resolution – impossible, unsurprisingly, as it turns out. You would hope that in parliament, where our laws are made and supposedly the moral probity and intellectual discourse should be paramount, that some just outcome should be achieved. It wasn’t though, and rarely is. The notion of objective justice does not exist in our government, and few, if any, worldwide. What we have instead is a debate corrupted by politics, and political gain, and subjective emotions.

The question should be about what is the just treatment of the desperate refugees seeking shelter within our borders. That is the root question, the issue that demands objective judgement. While our pollies might claim that is what they debate, for the great majority that issue is not the point.

The clamour and outrage we witness now is because so many helpless people died seeking a better life while traveling on a leaky boat. It’s not surprising that there is an outcry, but in parliament the drama is less about the causes and all about the effect. Refugees have been turning up on our doorstep for years, and while it has been a running argument it has been allowed to fester unresolved, the political battleground the parties fight over. Now it has erupted, but the debate is not about people seeking a better life and how we may humanely treat them. Except for a few sprinkled around the parliamentary benches, the debate boils down to how this tiresome problem can be removed.

I have my very firm opinions on the asylum seeker debate, and it’s mostly about opening our borders and letting more in through conventional methods. In contrast the parliamentary debate is about how to stop them from ever setting out for here, thus removing the tragedies we have just witnessed and the political inconvenience they cause. My idea will achieve much the same thing, and much more humanely, but is so politically objectionable that it is not an option. We come at things from different directions, I – and many like me – seek humane justice, they desire a convenient law. Consequences – political consequences – trump humanity, and overshadow the real issue.

So, is objective justice possible? Is it desirable?

I wonder. We can all pretend to live in a pristine, ideal world, but that doesn’t exist. No-one who makes judgement lives in a vacuum. And judgement cannot be, should not be, a matter of simple arithmetic. We are human, not robots. It’s impossible I think to achieve that perfect, objective truth, but on reflection I don’t think it is something we should aim for. Objective appraisal should be the basis of justice, but there is room for a subjective qualification.

In the case of Don in his treatment of Lane he did nothing wrong, but nor would he have been wrong to temper his judgement with mercy. In the case of our government it means finding an apolitical mechanism to seek causes rather than effects, to find an objective but humane truth. I guess this goes back to that old Shakespearean aphorism, that the quality of mercy is not strain’d. How often we forget.


*A related question when it comes to criminal proceedings: do we seek to punish for the transgression, or do we seek to rehabilitate the transgressor? I think the aim is both, but it’s a tricky balance to manage.

Acting from belief

Most people when they act with any consideration do so from their beliefs. Those beliefs may be immature or well developed. They may be uninformed and ill-considered – if at all, and subject to personal prejudice; or they may be the result of reading, observation, personal experience and deep consideration.

It’s reasonable to expect that the leaders in our society fall into the second camp. In many instances I think that is true, and historically very much the case. In general this has provided us with leaders who are nuanced, humane and of an intelligence far beyond the norm. That’s as it should be.

Though I don’t question the intelligence of our leaders today, I believe we are going through an era where raw belief is secondary to shallow jingoism. The emphasis has shifted from acting from our beliefs or ideals, from some sort of moral bedrock, to a shallow, opportunistic and ultimately transient re-action to the days events.

There are different reasons for this. I think in general we have dumbed down as a society. Our attention span is shorter, our patience limited. Sound bites rather than informed discussion are now the norm. Our political leaders deal in bold and controversial statements, often with little relationship to the facts, tailored for the evening’s news, and tomorrow’s headlines. That often they have little relationship to the facts is immaterial, and barely commented on, which is symptomatic of our time. With some exceptions our media standards have radically declined. Bald misrepresentations masquerading as opinion have become the de facto standard, particularly in the tabloid press and radio. For way too many Australians these bitter and pre-digested ‘opinions’ are how they come to understand the ‘facts’. Their opinions are not theirs, but rather have been received from others – and generally those who make the biggest noise and create the biggest headlines. It’s all of a piece: sensation over consideration; slogans over discussion; abuse over civility. Even much of our advertising I’ve noticed has become tainted. I wonder where the standards are that should be controlling these excesses.

Given that this is the society today is it any wonder that our political leaders are what they are? The truth of the axiom that we get the politicians we deserve has never been more evident.

Our leaders are curious. As I said, I don’t doubt that either Gillard or Abbott are intelligent people in basic terms. The problem is, one is weak, and the other corrupt.

Gillard doesn’t strike me as an intellectual (a much derided term these days unfortunately). She appears like a woman who has given little thought to the broader canvas, more inclined as she is to calm good sense. She is a sturdy type, a strong nature even if she has been weak politically. I don’t know enough about her to know if she is a student of history or society, if she reads or doesn’t. She strikes me as an occasional reader, too practical to indulge in things of the past. With that though is a stolid lack of imagination. That is her greatest failing as a leader I think. As a deputy she is supremely competent, but from a leader you need qualities that will carry us forward, to follow, to lift us from the bitter rut we have fallen into. Foremost amongst those qualities is imagination. Because she has little imagination there are few ideals that colour her perspective. She acts, not from belief, but from narrow pragmatism.

Abbott is different. He is a reader, a writer, clearly a student of many disciplines. Though he has always been far to the right of where I sit I once quite liked him. In a junior portfolio I was able to dismiss his occasional extremism as harmless Abbott-isms; in many ways he seemed an affable character, and more thoughtful than he portrayed himself to be. His books are well written and well received. Somewhere inside him is a thoughtful man.

Perhaps that’s why I now so despise him. I called him corrupt before and I meant that in the sense that he has happily disregarded the ‘better’ parts of himself in the quest for political power. As an avowed Christian he does little, if anything, to embody Christian virtues, and no Christian charity. A smart man he has resorted in opposition to diss everything. He gives the strong impression that he would oppose initiatives even if he himself agreed with them. He is a man who has happily separated what he believes from how he acts. He is a leading contributor to the hostile political environment we are now subject to. Politics, and society, have degenerated together and if he is one cause of that it is because he has latched onto the tenor of the times. He speaks in violent shorthand, with dubious respect for the facts – the media lap it up, and he reaps the rewards.

I’m an idealist, but I’m not naive. I know being in power is much more challenging than commenting on it. I realise that there are pragmatic realities that must be bowed before, that shortcuts and compromises must be made. I’m also of the belief that occasionally the end might justify the means – but also that both the end and the means must be carefully weighed. The problem with Abbott is that the end for him is to be Prime Minister of this country, and any means will justify it.

It’s a philosophy that has infected our parliament, which has become a bitter and mean spirited place. Just yesterday, Joe Hockey, a fundamentally decent man I think, launched himself at the government with a diatribe that was disgraceful and borderline racist. There is no society in our politicians, and little civilisation.

Curious it is to consider the men standing in the wings on either side of the divide, the former leaders, Rudd and Turnbull are both thinkers, intelligent men with well-defined beliefs. Turnbull I would vote for in the blink of an eye – a reasonable, urbane politician of the old school, inclined to do the best for the national interest than his own – and with some sophistication and intelligence. Rudd had his chance and lost his nerve, but at least he stands for something. I’d vote for him ahead of Gillard.

I should finish by saying Australia is by no means unique in this regard. This is a worldwide phenomena I think. In Obama the Americans have a leader they seem to under-value from afar, a man decent, intelligent and acting from the altruistic desire to civil service. And he believes in things. Opposing him though are the ratbags, the Rupublicans in political disarray as the rabid extremism of the Tea Party raises it’s very ugly head. I have more faith in the good sense of Australians than I do that the Americans will be able to hold off the Tea Party. The Tea Party spells doom to the American state, but that’s an opinion for another time.