Six Places – Learning to Walk Away from Proselytising

This week I have had six different experiences, sat in six different places and I have felt as though they sum up where I am in life but also have taught me about the exhaustion of being a proselytiser.

When I started writing this blog and was developing my political twitter direction, I had the zeal of the proselytiser.  That person very keen to encourage others to consider another point of view in so many directions.   Part of me was even hoping to convert people to a different way of thinking.  Right now, however, I am exhausted by that effort.  Right now, I am wondering whether the work of the proselytiser is pointless because it’s very hard to change the paradigms of other people – and really, who am I to tell people that there’s a “better” way to do things?  Those six places told me all.

Place One – The City Recital Hall – Stephen Hough Piano Recital

I was listening to the first half of the piano recital being entirely bored – not because of the performance, it was beautiful.  It was about me – what kind of life experiences I had been having, the politics in which I had been involved, work.  And here I was, listening to Chopin Ballades that were really making me itch in my seat, wanting to be OUT.  I even rang my wife at half time, ranting about Chopin. I didn’t leave, however – it was Stephen Hough, who is my favourite pianist.

Then, after interval, a transformation occurred. The music had changed, but it was me that had changed the most.  I enjoyed the other Chopin Ballades, the Children’s Corner suite was beguiling (though I did reflect on what people on Twitter would think of the “Golliwog’s Cake Walk” that ends the suite), The Joyous Isle was glittering with the inner voices that Hough was bringing out of the music.  Suddenly, I remembered what it was that I loved about classical music recitals.  And then Hough did something remarkable (in my eyes, at least) – the last encore was a Grieg Nocturne that I used to play A LOT as a teenager.  I thought it was a great piece to both express teenage romantic yearnings and impress people (i.e. women)

It was a night that sang to me beneath all the layers I had built around me.  All the blogs, the tweeting, the engagement on social media platforms, all rendered irrelevant and without access to that part of me that will always love things that not all that many my age and younger are “into”.  It also occurred to me that I have spent a chunk of my time trying to proselytise classical music to people around me and through Twitter. It’s time for me to stop that. I love the world of “classical” music and it means something special to me. But it doesn’t serve any useful purpose to push that view towards others.  There’s worlds of music that mean all sorts of things to other people.

The twain doesn’t have to meet and we can go into our different music silos – or mix them up – whatever makes people happy.  It’s taken too long for me to realise that, and a lot of wasted emotional energy.

Place Two – Education Forum, Penrith

I attended a forum run by the AEU, NTEU and NSW Teachers’ Federation about the education cuts being made by the Federal Government and the NSW State Government. It covered the potential future of education, with deregulation in the university education potentially giving students a lifetime of debt. It also covered state governments wanting to make money that used to go to TAFE colleges into being “contestable” funding that could go to private companies running colleges.  It was a stark, worrying future laid out by the presenters, showing how conservative governments seem to want to make high education something for children of wealthy parents, rather than for all.

It struck me, however, that the room was filled with public sector teachers and politicians – after all, the aim of the evening was to empower fighters for the cause. To help those who wish to proselytise to the people in the middle in Australian politics just what will happen to education.  That’s a worthy cause but I can also sense the exhaustion that could occur with people trying to make their case yet again in the same ways of the past.  It occurred to me also that the room was missing a group – teachers in independent schools, many of whom (me included) are also wary of university deregulation and the degrading of TAFE colleges.   However, the false dichotomy built between public and “private” school teachers continues to exist in the realm of education.  I hope that the campaign to create awareness will work – but I have my doubts.

Place Three – Year 12 Farewell Celebrations

Away from Twitter and blogging, away from being accused of being “broken”, “butthurt” and the rest of the macho braggadocio shown by people pretending to be something they really aren’t, I am a teacher who tries my best at teaching students at being the best students they can be – as well as help them realise their potential as people.  One of the best guides for a teacher as to their impact is the Year 12 Farewell week.  Hearing from students as to where their lives are heading.  For teachers who have had a Year 12 class, it is usually an emotional week. Some of the nicest things a teacher can ever hear are said in this week. It’s also a fun week, with the formal coming around and getting a chance for a dance and a laugh or two.  Weeks like this make me realise that there’s life, the real stuff, the things one does in their every day has the real impact.

It made me reflect on my life away from this, taking on the role of proselytising for the western suburbs of Sydney.  This may have been presumptuous and I’m sure people are sick of me highlighting examples of poor pigeonholing and stereotyping of people from the west. I get sick me doing it, mostly because the coverage and representations hasn’t changed.  Journalists still rely on lazy stereotypes, stories in the metropolitan dailies focus their attention on Sydney.  So, really, the exhaustion factor has reached its zenith. Trying to change the way western Sydney is perceived is a waste of energy and time.  The attitudes towards the “racist housos of the west” remain and as does the reality, which varies from those attitudes and representations in so many ways.  I and others know what the area consists of and that should be enough for us. To try to change those attitudes is to make a useless effort.  In the process, though, I have made great friends.   But  Twitter and blogging is, for the most part, a curious hobby and an endless Beckett play that you need to walk out on from time to time.

Place Four – Colleague’s Place over a cup of tea

Sometimes one’s involvement with politics needs to be discussed with a deeply respected colleague who is outside that world but understands it completely. One should always get such opportunities.

Place Five – The AFL Preliminary Final at ANZ Stadium

I have been trying to proselytise the cause of AFL football in the western suburbs for some years now, encouraging people to just watch it, give the code a go.  I have heard these phrases often:

“I just don’t understand the game”, “I don’t understand the rules”, “I’m not interested – I just like rugby league”, “It doesn’t look good on TV”, “It’s not tough”, “I don’t know anyone else who watches it” – etc, etc.

I tried to proselytise in the beginning because I wanted people to go with me to games back in the days when the Swans were the only team in town and it was a slog to go to Moore Park.  That changed with the creation of the Giants, so the proselytising goal changed. I had become a fully charged proselytising machine in my workplace and out and about in the community.

What has happened, however, is that I have made great friends who are Swans supporters (despite me coming up with a few sledges about their team as a part of the emerging banter between the clubs).  I sat with them for the first time at the preliminary final and it was wonderful to see their passion for their club and their excitement in regards going to the Grand Final next week.   I will always have a big soft spot for the Swans – they were my club, even if I couldn’t get to too many games.  But I have also made good friends in the Giants’ cheer squad and around the club – it’s a group of hardy souls from other states who want the Giants to work, to connect with the community.  They are far from the description I have heard of cheer squads that they are filled with “broken people”.  No, they are people who enjoy being part of something bigger than themselves.   There was also a mysterious, overwhelming feeling of pride and being at home when I first pulled on my first Giants guernsey.  As much as I still like the Swans, that feeling will never leave.

It is past the time, however, for me to proselytise the AFL, to try to convert people to liking it, going to it.  As far as I can see, people will like it if it’s good, if there’s something in it for them.  And it’s all good if people want to stick to what they know.  As I see the pride emerging in Penrith in the rise of the underestimated Panthers, league is the game of choice in the western suburbs for many and they get a sense of something being bigger than themselves in that code.  The atmosphere at Penrith Park during a home game is intense and positive and that will remain for the years to come.  Over the next decade, however, there will be a shift in the balance of the codes, especially with the work being done by the AFL and Giants to show the kids of the west how AFL works – though that will never “kill” league and that should never be the goal.   What the AFL is doing in the west is the real proselytising, not me with a keyboard, a blog and a Twitter account.  Knowing that, I can sit back and enjoy the football.

Place Six – 1st Wedding Anniversary Lunch

Today is the 1st anniversary of the best day of my life – our wedding.  The marriage of minds and hearts, the wedding to the only person I know who truly understand me. I don’t need to proselytise anything to her (which I did feel I have to in my first marriage – never a good idea).  So, my priority today is not proselytising, trying to convert people.  Mine is to be happy, to be in a happy marriage – really, just be. And with that, off I go.

(Our wedding waltz song – but it wasn’t this Barry and Pav version)

Put Down the Graphs, Wonks and Pick up the Megaphones – WonkyTips in the Guardian

There was a time when the focus of posts on the Preston Institute was craziness and nonsense from the press gallery. Indeed, the absurdity of Mark Kenny praising Tony Abbott’s foreign relations skills could receive such analysis – but it’s a piece that’s so beyond reason that it could almost be a satirical version of Abbott press gallery love. However, there was a Comment is Free piece in the Guardian by Jason Wilson that I found quite strange in what it was advocating – for experts to put their graph making equipment and pick up their megaphones. As ever, the original in italics.

Graphs are no longer enough: it’s time wonks and experts joined the fight

Thomas Piketty. Neil Degrasse Tyson. Ezra Klein. Celebrity wonks are everywhere. Their popularity coincides with increasing attacks on scientists and experts – here’s why

“Celebrity wonks”. Ok.  Sounds like a bit of a joke being attempted there. But here’s Wilson’s words

Political deference to experts is disappearing. Economists are popularly derided for their role in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, that resulted in huge wealth transfers to the rich. Scientists who warn about climate change are accused by denialists of outright political conspiracy. The claims of public health experts on the effects of cigarette smoking are contested by lobbyists and PR shills, and by columnists in the pages of respectable newspapers .

IS disappearing.  Not appears. May the virtually unsupported assertions begin (and quoting from the Australian is not exactly proof of very much).  Hence the central tenet of the article begins – that dispassionate, academic experts in various fields are being ignored by politics and decision makers – that a respect for their papers and views that used to be there is disappearing and not coming back.   The rest of the article then deals with a phenomenon that, for some on Twitter and in the media, perhaps these academics are being listened to. Such as…

The rise of celebrity experts might seem to run counter to this. In economics, Krugmania has given way to Piketty-mania. Fact-checks and explainers are everywhere. “Quants” and “wonks”, like Nate Silver andEzra Klein, are new media rock stars. Pop science communicators likeNeil Degrasse Tyson have become pin-ups.

Celebrities! Pin Ups! Media rock stars!  Maybe they are to people who are frequent Twitter users or frequent media consumers.  That certainly seems to be the audience for this piece.  As a twitter user who doesn’t generally exist in the same circle as the author, most of these “rock stars” are a bit of a mystery to me – as they would probably be to most people in the community.  Again, they aren’t the audience of this piece, who are probably Twitter insiders.  I know of Silver because of his prediction of the US election result and various sport results.  The rest, not really.  I am still yet to see someone actually provide an explanation of Piketty, for example, that didn’t involve some kind of agenda proving didacticism being held by the writer. But perhaps the twitter circles in which the author exists considers that Pikettymania is actually a “thing”.  Even this piece in the Guardian, which calls Piketty a “rock star” doing “sell out gigs” in theatres that contain 1000 people doesn’t do an explanation of what he’s talking about. (1000! Economics wonks! Wow!)  What I do sense, however, amongst people who mention Piketty is a strong whiff of jealousy that perhaps they aren’t a “wonk rock star” either.  To call Piketty a “celebrity” due to the best selling nature of his books is to attempt to belittle that success and liken him to figures in our community who are generally considered celebrities, like the members of One Direction.  Being best selling doesn’t make one a celebrity – it makes one with ideas people want to read.  But back to Wilson, who think that this whole “rock star thing” really isn’t a sustained trend towards people being interested in those who analyse economics and culture.

Far from representing the triumph of disinterested expertise, the success of the wonk-industrial complex is a sign that their affluent audience is resisting the messy return of politics. The veneration of the graph-makers is no more than a spasm of nostalgia.

“Resisting the messy return of politics”. “Nostalgia”.  These assertions raise a number of questions. The Return of politics?  Did it ever go away?  Is nostalgia people wanting to hear new ideas?  That’s a curious concept.  It reminds me of the American music professor who said young American servicemen who enjoyed listening to Rachmaninov for the first time were being “nostalgic”.  It said more about the modern music biases of the music professor than it did about the music. The idea of people actually liking things because they are interesting and well supported by graphs is not exactly new or “nostalgic”. It’s people who like new ideas supported by evidence. But let’s go on with a truncated political history lesson.

Credentialled experts started taking on a central role in politics from the late nineteenth century. In America, a new kind of urban, middle class activist began marching under the banners of expertise and efficiency. The progressive movement were appalled by the inequalities, unrestrained capitalism, and corrupt politics of the guilded age of the 1870s. Equally, they were terrified by radical working class politics.

Progressives sought to tame politics by subordinating it to professional, scientific expertise— the kind that the urban middle classes were themselves best placed to offer. Like their contemporaries in Britain, the Fabians, they carried their reformist program forward in a political alliance with other social movements, including moderate elements of organised labour.

Their ideas were new and not at all natural when they were introduced. They depended on a fundamental separation between the domains of factual, objective, scientific social knowledge and the kind that was seen to be tainted by subjective or political values.

This separation of expertise from mere politics by the progressives became common sense throughout the developed world after it was institutionalised. Management, public administration and universities became professional, and the social sciences more quantitative. They were entrenched more deeply when journalism — once a disreputable condition — itself became a profession.

The reign of expertise also ushered in an unprecedented era of ideological convergence throughout the west. Governments around the world adopted similar programmes throughout the 20th century, seeking to constrain the power of capital, mount campaigns for public health reform, respond to calls for women’s suffrage and racial equality, and implement plans for food and territorial security. The interventionist state and newly-credentialised knowledge professions legitimated one another. The language of the social sciences — in particular economics — merged with the language of policy.

This part was interesting as a history lesson.  It makes a number of assertions that would have support in one of Wilson’s academic pieces but we don’t see here. In this context, it’s being used to support his assertions about the relationship between experts and government.  It is difficult to see, however, where these ideas apply specifically to various nations that have wide variations in the relationships they have developed between experts from universities and the pragmatism of politics.  There are some in the community, for example, who would like to think that Australia has developed a kind of unity between ideas and politics that the West Wing so enthusiastically spins about the US.  Though, there would be many who would suspect that the West Wing is as accurate about the core realities of US politics as House of Cards.  But let’s go on.

This form of political life, pervasive in the west for much of the 20th century, is now coming apart. Growing inequality is one factor that has led to questions about who benefits from expert economic consensus. It has also fed into a growing polarisation of political views. (Comment threads and social media give us plenty more evidence of that.) Political parties are also cutting experts adrift, crafting policies not for rational median voters, but for micro-targeted constituencies – or bypassing rational processes altogether with neuromarketing. Amid these changes, expertise has been re-politicised.

Growing polarisation? Repoliticised? This assumes that polarisation of political visions is new, which would news to the political historians of the Australia of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, for example.  The same goes for expertise being politicised by warriors of a bipolar political framework. None of this is new. Nothing that Abbott is doing at the moment, is new. It’s going back to the practices of reactionaries of eras past because it serves their purposes. The idea of governments having pet house academics and ignoring the rebel ones outside the gate is older than any of us.  For a more recent example, does anyone remember Keith Windschuttle?

On the centre-left, many are bewildered that expert policy prescriptions are no longer accepted as authoritative. The political campaign against an overwhelming consensus on climate change has frustrated scientific experts and their supporters alike. On the other hand, experts still have trouble getting their hands dirty. Thomas Piketty offers a more rigorous, wonkish version of the criticisms made by the Occupy movement but stops short of explicitly recommending radical solutions. The mystery of how democracy can reassert itself against capital is left unsolved, and his book will never persuade those who think inequality is a feature (or even a benefit) of capitalism, rather than a bug.

If people are bewildered, it’s because they have spent most of their lives duped into believing that expertise that spoke against the status quo or whatever agenda held by a political group was being observed and respected by all political parties and governments.  People bewildered by our current climate change denialist government, for example, should have a look at the views of the man who ensured Abbott was made the leader of the Liberal Party – Nick Minchin and realise how much Abbott and his government are in step with Minchin’s philosophy.  The actions hence should therefore not surprise anyone.  As for whether Thomas Piketty should “get his hands dirty” and suggest changes in society – that’s not the job of a dispassionate expert in any field. Their job is to gather material, analyse and present conclusions as a result of the analysis.  To suggest otherwise is to have academics just becoming the same kind of partisan warriors that Wilson is criticising for not listening to experts.  It is the job for those listening to Piketty, reading his work, to apply that work to various contexts and explain his work in a way that is easily consumed by a wider audience.   Maybe by people like Wilson. But let’s go on…

The graphs, data visualisations and statistical modelling that now proliferate across new media outlets can enrich the arguments we can bring to public debates, but they can no longer resolve them. Whether we like it or not, the raiments of disinterested expertise have been spattered with the mud of politics. More and more frequently, expert knowledge is read as being situated and framed by particular assumptions or interests. It would be senseless to say that expertise is empty, or without value. But it may be that the social and natural sciences need to be more open about their political entanglements, and more comfortable with signalling them.

“Spattered with the mud of politics” – if that is happening to the work of experts, it’s not the fault of the experts, it’s an inevitable part of being in the world where politics tends to seep into everything.  Again, it’s not the job of experts creating analyses to resolve political situations – that’s the job of people in the community, political groups, whoever it is that in our polity.  We don’t need dispassionate experts to become yet another compromised partisan, just speaking to one side to attack the other.

Tom Bentley argued recently in The Guardian Australia that the work of wonks at the “independent centre” of our political life needs to be supplemented by new voices, and a renaissance of civil society. The moment for this may have passed. In Australia, and other polarising liberal democracies, there is not much centre ground left to stand on. Experts might instead need to pick a side, join the fight, and accept that their claims to knowledge and authority will always and everywhere be contested.

May have passed? This is one of the more extraordinary claims in this piece, that there’s not much centre left ground to stand on – for whom? Where?  This seems to be an assertion based on the observations of Wilson of Twitter, news blogs, whatever it is he watches, whoever it is he engages with. We don’t know – we are left to guess at this point.  This leads Wilson to suggest that those in the centre of political life should leave behind their dispassion and “join the fight”, “pick a side”, like anyone on the playground or the sporting field.  He may have well said “get on the megaphones and shout”. It’s a strange suggestion for experts to stop patiently analysing and remaining removed from the minutiae of daily partisan battle and just becoming one of the crowd.  We need experts to continue to be removed, so they can provide conclusions that challenge the status quo that someone, somewhere, may pick up on and use at some stage.  We need people in universities and other places to be removed, also, from the daily chatter of people on social media getting caught up in the daily spin cycle.  Otherwise society just becomes an endless sporting contest, both inside and outside of wonkish circles.

 

The Budget – WhatsinitforWesternSydney? Not as much as people might think.

There’s probably a fair few people who are aggrieved with the western suburbs of Sydney this week. Not only are we credited with a desire to continue the inhumane offshore detention system – now the region is one of the few to be provided with new government money from Tuesday’s budget, in the form of funds to build two road projects – the WestConnex and the widened roads to Badgery’s Creek Airport.

It looks at this stage that there’s a belief underpinning it that building a couple of roads through a semi rural area to an airport that will be finished in 10 years or so and widening a road into the city that will attract a toll of up to $7.35 will stimulate the economy and have people continuing to vote Liberal. That won’t necessarily be the case, however, in the face of the other measures in the budget.

Families losing various payments such as the FTB Part B for children over the age of 6, having to pay $7 for a GP co-payment as well as paying increased fuel costs in a region with sparse public transport options is just the start of the grievances that will be aired and heard outside the cheerleading pages of the Daily Telegraph.

Parents with children finishing high school – a significant number in the west –will be facing some significant fears in regards their children.  Not every person between the ages of 18 and 30 can build roads and airports. For those with children going to university – and there are many – the removal of caps on tuition fees will force parents into difficult decisions. They will have to consider how they can help their children both through university and afterwards, as the spiraling costs of the fees will have to paid by their children starting their independent life on top of other costs. This is assuming that a university degree will guarantee the graduates long term employment, which is a considerable assumption to make.

For those parents with children who are not going to university, the “earn or learn” mantra would not bring much comfort. Youth unemployment is high in the outer suburbs, as is the number of casual, contract and temporary jobs. The possibility of having their children go half a year without the Newstart allowance until the age of 30 will have some parents realising that they will either have to start a contingency fund in order to help their children, or have them live at home while they have a stop start beginning to their working lives.

This is assuming, of course, that parents will be wealthy enough to be able to continue helping their children. Or that the relationship between parents and their children won’t be strained if the children have to stay home until they are 30. Or that there are considerable problems between parents and their children and it would be good for everyone if the children move out of home at age 18. These 18 year olds who want to start a new life away from home face a much more difficult future, especially if these promised magic jobs from projects such as Badgery’s Creek don’t materialise.

Another problem area for the Government is the withdrawal of support for growth in solar energy generation, with the Million Solar Roofs rebate system removed. Many in the region have been busy installing solar panels – as this piece mentions – because they know that the energy cost savings long term will be greater than any repeal of the carbon price.  The main barrier for some has been the issue of generating power during the day and feeding it into the grid and not getting proper compensation for power drawn from the grid at night. With that being addressed by improved battery storage technology, the possibility of the growth of solar in the west is considerable.   As people look at the cost savings experienced by those around them who took advantages of past incentive schemes, there will be frustration for many who will note that the Government seems to be against people wanting to save energy costs in this way.  They may start thinking that the cutting back of renewable energy support is a sop to the miners who donate considerable amounts to the Liberal Party.

I can understand why people suffering under the yoke of what is a punitive, mean spirited budget would dislike Western Sydney for the money being spent on it. Hospitals, schools, unemployed people, disabled people and so many more deserve government support than a toll road and some roads to an airport that is more than 10 years away.

 

“It was a Meaningless By-Election” – The Spinning of the Green Result in WA

The week before the Senate election in WA, out came the anti-Greens, especially from the journalist Mark Kenny, who seems to be turning more into a blatant anti-Green warrior, which we can see in this Punch article and article in the Age.  He even went past the level of anti – Green usually invoked by Paula Matthewson (such as in this Guardian piece from June and another piece predicting the demise of the Greens, after the Tasmanian election).  With the result in WA for the Greens, I am boldly predicting what will be written about it, with the help of Eric Abetz and Julie Bishop on the ABC’s coverage.

Spin 1.  It’s a By – Election. This was a Protest Vote.

In by-elections, voters often vote either for the main opposition or for a protest party. The Greens were the protest party of choice. (Even though Palmer United got a bigger swing towards them.) This doesn’t explain, however, the drop in the Labor vote as well.  The question in that regard is – What has Bull Snooten done to deserve that?

Spin 2. The Greens Bought This One

The Greens spent significant money and resources on a Senate only campaign and that’s how they managed to buy online ads that swamped the spends that would have been done by the Liberals and Labor (Oh really?)  For example, I can see much comment about things like this:

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I would have thought the Liberal and Labor parties’ spends would have been far more significant than the Green one, as it is in every election.  In addition, I am not holding my breath to wait for the spinners to discuss the idea of targeted spends and employment of resources in an innovative way.

Spin 3. The Greens had More People on the Ground and On the Phones

It would be interesting to see if this spin – which will emerge soon enough – is actually supported by any empirical evidence. I would have thought Labor, for example, had a lot of phone calls and “ground game” happening for a while, even if Joe Bullock is a hard sell.

Spin 4. It Was a Low Turnout. That always favours smaller parties. 

This is Bolta’s spin (along with the protest vote). Not entirely sure that there is much evidence from past elections to support this contention.

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 8.40.57 am

Spin 5. Scott Ludlam’s Hair

I think this will be a Twitter explanation – that the cult of personality that gathered around Scott Ludlam was a significant factor.  The Speech, they will say, Went Viral.  This was despite many saying at the time that Ludlam’s speech was vacuous and pure self serving politics – and would have little impact.  That will be turned around now and probably spun as “an example of how social media was harnessed in a one off election of a personality, not a party”.  The “People Voted for a Personality, Not the Party” line will be, I suspect, one of the most popular.

Spin 6. This Was a One Off. The Greens Are Still in Decline

This will be the theme of many of the pieces we will see this week from those in Canberra and elsewhere that have a thinly veiled loathing of the Greens and the type of new politics they represent.  They will cite Tasmania, September as examples of the Greens In Decline and then turn around and say this was a one-off due to Personality, Protest, Low Turnout, and so on, so on.

What you won’t hear from media outlets will be these ideas of why the Greens went well in WA -

1. Intelligent, targeted campaigning

To do online advertising and some phone banking might be evidence of intelligent, targeted campaigning aimed at the core swinging voter, which is evidence of good election tactics from a campaign that still would have been outspent by the majors and certainly by Palmer.

2. Selection of a good Senate candidate.

Our media outlets almost never feature them in general election coverage – they are too fond of staying with the pre-ordained election caravan that follows the Leaders and a few other. If they did cover the Senate election properly, we’d never have candidates like Joe Bullock trotted out. And we wouldn’t have Mr. Motoring Enthusiast in the Senate.

3. The Greens Have a Positive Message

As much as you’ll hear about Ludlam’s speech slamming Abbott, the main thrust of the Greens’ philosophy is about building positives – renewable energy, Green jobs, sustainable, balanced development.  Ludlam is a representative of that positive approach to politics – he’s not a cynical representative of the political machine like Joe Bullock, David Johnston and the Assistant Minister for Immigration, Michaelia Cash.

And there’s many more actual reasons. Let’s see how many we see. Probably something or nothing to do with this…

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Or this… BkfXFBECMAEbcRC.jpg-largeOr this…

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Or this…

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Dinner Party Warriors – A Poem for Friday

Dinner Party Warriors

Amongst the inner city burrows there’s a stir

The moderately wealthy are texting and tweeting

There’s a dinner party to be had

The food and the wine will be flowing and organic

Better still, the political discussion focused and manic.

 

The dinner party warriors know their history

Their Marx, Engels and E. P. Thompson understood, ticked

Australian History? No, it’s all beards, hicks and sheep

The world outside their quinoa

Is under a European microscope while they drink the noir.

 

“Who is to blame?” is the question they ask

“It’s the Right, of course”, they’ll start

“Who would be attracted to a promise of individual liberty?”

They know what would be best for all

And it’s not shopping in an appalling suburban mall

 

“Who is to blame?” the question hovers in the air

“It’s the media, of course” comes the swift reply.

“It’s all about celebrities, sportsball and preening.”

Rocketing around the room comes “Did you read the post on my blog?

It was a sparkling riposte against the Media Watch Dog.”

 

“Who is to blame?” the question asked again

“It’s the Left, of course”, they’ll continue

“They have become captured to the evils of pragmatism.”

They used to be the power of the “left”

Until the neoliberals indulged in wholesale theft

 

“Who is to blame?” the question comes with a story

“It’s the corporate world of course” they will thunder

“They do terrible things in other countries, sometimes our own.”

Get out the boycotting signs

Take the iPhone photos of the angry ex-customer lines.

 

“Who is to blame?” the question continues

“It’s the political class, of course”, the answer almost complete

“They have no connection with the people outside their office.”

One of them remembered meeting people Out There

It was brief, “they” didn’t listen, even said he was a patronising lair.

 

“Who is to blame?” comes the dessert question

“The working class, of course”, the answer comes with final blow

“They vote that way because they are all easily duped.”

One of them recalls his own background of being working class

Not him, his grandfather, who used to grumble about management sitting on their arse.

The UnStrayan Australian Olympic Hero / AntiHero – Dale Begg Smith

It’s always interesting to see how sport journalists in Australia cover the Winter Olympics – we can expect plenty of patronising comments about Australian athletes “punching above their weight” as well as faintly clueless comments about overseas athletes who are champions of their various disciplines. And let’s not forget reports on “plucky little Tonga” and the like.  One of the more recent repeating themes is the Un – Strayan Dale Begg Smith, internet millionaire and mogul skier.  An example of this has come to us from the head sport writer for the Herald, Andrew Webster – a journalist best known for his rugby league pieces. Here it is.

Dale Begg-Smith, our international man of mystery?

Should Dale Begg-Smith win gold in the men’s moguls, will the nation back home stand in its slippers on Tuesday morning, with a lump in its throat as the national anthem plays and the Australian flag is raised?
Begg-Smith is Canadian-born. He lives in the Cayman Islands. He has visited Sydney twice in the last two years. He’s an international man of mystery, although he’s more Ocean’s Eleven than Austin Powers.
The article starts as it finishes – as a piece about “us” as Australian sport fans, desiring a “typical Aussie hero” story to be part of our athletes’ background. So, this isn’t going to be about sport, it’s about defining what is “Australian” and what is not.  He then moves to a weird reference to Ocean’s Eleven – a film about a group of criminals robbing from a casino. What exactly is Webster saying here about Begg – Smith?

But he’s our international man of mystery. Or is he?

 

Intelligent. Outrageously talented. Private. Enigmatic. Mysterious. Aloof. These are some of the many words attached to Australia’s most successful Winter Olympian, and they still don’t come close to solving the riddle of Dale Begg-Smith.

 

It is why there’s every chance you won’t have a lump in your throat should he add gold in Sochi to the gold he won in Turin in 2006 and silver claimed in Vancouver in 2010.

He’s apparently a riddle to all of “us” – more specifically, to journalists. To be solved, clearly, by our journalistic sleuths like Webster. Personally, Begg Smith isn’t a riddle to me. He’s an independently wealthy sportsman who likes to compete, not engage with the media.

After initially giving the media the slip at Sochi airport last week (although this was later explained as the fault of officials, not the man himself) the 29-year-old was specifically asked if he considered himself Australian.

 

“I view myself as Australian but I live in different areas and move around without trying to get locked down to one place,” he said.

 

But no matter how far, or how wide, Dale Begg-Smith roams, he still calls Grand Cayman Island in the Carribean home.

 

I imagine this fact is here to build the case that living overseas makes you less Strayan and therefore you get a less lump in your throatiness quotient.   Not mentioned is the fact many Australian sportspeople live overseas – Adam Scott, Greg Norman, Mark Webber to start with. Torah Bright is another. In terms of the Mormon who has lived overseas since the age of 15, Webster didn’t mention the fact she lives overseas in this touching and supportive piece about her.  Clearly in Webster’s world, you are a good overseas Australian, or a bad one. It is probably because Bright doesn’t mind a chat with journos.  Begg Smith also has another black mark against his name – how he makes his money.

Begg-Smith and his brother Jason came to Australia in 2000 when he was 16, not because of an abiding passion for the great southern land, but because the smaller ski program allowed them to concentrate on their lucrative internet business.

 

Not only has it made them rich, it has attracted unwanted publicity.

 

On the eve of Begg-Smith’s gold medal-winning performance at the 2006 games, Fairfax Media revealed his two main companies, called AdsCPM and CPM Media, were associated with spam, pop-up/under ads, spyware and adware.

 

We can see how the Strayan quotient needs to be built. You need to be born here and not own businesses that don’t do things like annoy us.  And in Webster’s logic, it’s better to be a Mormon, with their various questionable beliefs and activities, rather than make money on the internet.

How Begg-Smith makes his money then and makes it now is his business.

 

But when he’s representing the mogul-loving people of Australia, they have a right to question whether he is one of us.

 

Our Dale, so to speak. Aussie Dale. Given how much grief we’ve given England over selecting South African-born Kevin Pietersen in its cricket team, we have to make sure he’s the real deal.

 

Who is “us” and “we”?  Because a subsection of the population made inane references to Kevin Pietersen not being from England during the Ashes, then that justifies not being behind Begg Smith for coming from Canada. I wonder if Webster feels the same about Fawad Ahmed, for example.  As for the “mogul loving people” of Australia – it is probably pretty certain that journalists like Webster had not even heard of moguls before Begg Smith started being successful at it.  Indeed, Begg-Smith has made moguls more popular and well known around Australia due to his success.  That’s not important to Webster, because Begg-Smith is not fulfilling his criteria of being one of “us”. But let’s go on, with Webster showing himself to be a journalist with a healthy sense of entitlement.

Those at the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia are said to be overly conscious about shielding the intensely private Begg-Smith from the spotlight.

 

His decision to come out of a three-year hiatus to compete in Sochi wasn’t shouted to the heavens, but included in the last paragraph of a press release on the institute’s website.

 

OWIA boss Geoff Lipshut did not want to talk to Fairfax Media about Begg-Smith. Requests to speak to Begg-Smith and his long-serving coach, Steve Desovich, also led to a dead end.

 

It’s clear here that in Webster’s view that every sportsperson must give access to journalists, even if they are intensely private and need space in order to prepare for an Olympic Games.  In other words, the story is more important than the sport.  It is from here where Webster’s full level of snark is employed.

It was left to chef de mission Ian Chesterman to answer some questions about our greatest winter athlete that few outside of the Australian team barely know.

 

“Superior intellect, superior sporting ability, and great business acumen,” is how Chesterman describes him.

 

Sounds like he ticks every box.

“Few outside the Australian team barely know” is now one of the UnStrayan crimes according to Webster – and then we see the last comment, dripping with sarcasm.

“But he doesn’t tick the box of playing the media game,” Chesterman said. “Is that a crime?”

 

Well, no, but if he’s part of a taxpayer-funded system, a few words here and there would not hurt.

 

Chesterman’s comment is spot on here – and Webster’s response speaks volumes for the journo cry “but we pay for all this – we demand to have access!”.  It sounds a bit like Chris Kenny and his #theirabc mutterers thinking that taxpayer money gives them the right to say whatever they like about the ABC.  We have seen the mutual benefit of what access to our sporting system has provided Begg – Smith and Australia – the type of success that much of our sport funding does not bring. One could hardly claim that taxpayer funding has not brought the desired results – but that’s not enough for a journo demanding access because taxpayer. Chesterman goes onto make his sensible point:

“I accept him for what he is,” Chesterman continues. “Sometimes people have forgotten that he’s been in the Australian system since he was 15 years of age. Why does Australia take great pride out of his performances? He’s been in our system since he was 15. Dale was always an exceptional talent, but he’s been developed and nurtured through our systems. We’ve got every right to be proud of him. Even the most talented 15-year-old doesn’t become an Olympic gold and silver medallist without the support around him.”

 

But because he doesn’t want to talk to Andrew Webster or other journalists, then he’s a bad unStrayan, according to the Webster thesis.  We do see some positive comments then about Begg – Smith -

According to those within the Australian team, Begg-Smith is a ripper.

 

Dry-witted, engaging company, pleasant to be around. He is quick to dispense advice to emerging mogul skiers, and other young athletes in the team.

 

He might be worth millions, but he’s always downplayed his wealth and flies economy class, not business.

 

You will also hear more than one person describe him as a “pure” athlete.

 

In other words, he’s competing for no other reason than the joy of competing, because he’s so abundantly wealthy from his business interests that nothing else drives him.

 

“He’s the purest athlete I’ve ever seen,” oozes Chesterman. “All he wants to do is produce the perfect run for himself. That’s his sole motivation. He doesn’t seek media attention. He doesn’t seek sponsorship support. All he wants to do is be a pure athlete, in the purest form of sport, and put down a clean run. That’s what makes him an enigma to everyone else, because they don’t know how to deal with this person. He doesn’t seek fame, which are so often the cues for so many athletes.”

 

A sportsperson who competes just for the sake of success in that field. A friendly person to be around for his teammates. Helpful to other teammates. Sounds like a good athlete to me. I’d rather see someone like Begg – Smith competing for Australia than a self – aggrandiser like Shane Watson – but that is not a convenient answer for Webster, who shows his disdain for Chesterman with the verb “oozes”, again, dripping with sarcasm.  It also didn’t change his conclusion.

Dale Begg-Smith competes for himself. We may never know if he’s competing for us, too.

If I was Begg – Smith, I wouldn’t care if Andrew Webster had lumps developing in his throat about me.  Nor would I care about the opinions of folksy populists like Peter FitzSimons wrote – like in this piece from 2010, where he said that Begg – Smith didn’t show enough emotion when he won silver, as well as committing the crime of offering monosyllabic answers to journalists.

No, it is probably because his whole schtick all seems so ruthlessly joyless. He is infamous for offering monosyllabic answers to journalists. And even in victory, or near victory, he offers nothing. To see him on the podium, between a wildly celebrating American and Canadian, while he looked like he had just sucked on a lemon, was to cringe. All of it might be forgivable if there was the slightest sense he has more than a walnut’s worth of feeling for his adopted country.

 

I am, you are, he says he is, Australian. And of course he has had an Australian passport for six years, since earlier falling out with his native Canadian team – though he still lives in Vancouver. But in all those monosyllabic grunts, it has been hard to ignore gaining the feeling that he couldn’t give a flying fig for Australia, and is simply flying a flag of convenience. If he doesn’t care for us, why should we care for him? I don’t.

 

I’ve always been a fan of Begg – Smith, the quiet, unassuming, skilled mogul skier who doesn’t want to help journalists fill their columns with meaningless air. The man who competes because he likes the discipline. I’m also looking forward to accessing journalism about the Winter Olympics from journalists who want to write about the sports, not parade repetitive flag waving jingoism.

 

 

Helping to Revisit the Voices of the Past – Bob Ellis’ The Gielgud Memorandum

Yesterday I headed my way on a State Transit run Parramatta ferry towards the read through at the Riverside Theatres of Bob Ellis’ new idea for a play, The Gielgud Memorandum.  As I climbed on the old, overcrowded, privately owned boat, as opposed to the excellent publicly owned catamarans of the past, it brought to mind a current public perception of Ellis – a man who has seen Sydney and Australia go downhill and isn’t afraid to let people know of his displeasure on his always entertaining Table Talk blog.

The evening, however, wasn’t about that Ellis. The play is a project dedicated to two giants of our theatre and especially that of the 20th Century – John Gielgud and William Shakespeare. To that end, Ellis has grabbed the treasures to be found in both and has woven out of them a manuscript that is at once very ambitious, enlightening, educational, inspirational, touching and funny.  It is, however, still an incomplete weave.

One of the biggest strengths of the play is in its actors.   We saw three quite different approaches to the performance of Shakespeare and had a chance to reflect on the impact of those approaches. We had the handsome, silken, confident and muscular performance of Simon Burke, who also led the singing elements of the play.  His performance gave a glimpse of a younger Gielgud wowing audiences with panache and vigour.  There was the soft, lilting, plain spoken and engrossing approach of Terence Clarke, whose showed us the ability of Shakespeare’s phrases to stand alone with gentle utterance. Finally, we had Bob Ellis, whose voice and presence lent itself to the more flamboyant and compelling of Shakespeare’s characters like Falstaff and Shylock.   In that, a highlight of the evening was the interaction between Burke as Prince Hal against Ellis’ Falstaff.   Another highlight along those lines was to hear the “Too Too Solid Flesh” soliloquy of Hamlet broken up and performed in the distinctive styles of all three actors, showing how each style could bring new insights into oft heard phrases.  One could quite happily pay to see these three actors saying these lines alone – they all captured beautifully the hues of the Shakespearean language – but that isn’t necessarily going to sustain a full production.

The ambition of Ellis seems to be that the audience can share and delight in the life and words of Gielgud framing an exploration of Shakespeare and the resonances in certain key scenes of his plays.  In essence, however, at the moment, it does have a feel of, in Ellis’ own words, “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits” – resembling those musicals with highly tenuous storylines that are really just there to lead into yet another Queen or Abba song.  That is especially the case in the first half, where the words and life of Gielgud didn’t feature as much as they should – it left us a bit muddled and confused as to the direction and unifying point of all these beautiful sounding words and phrases.  The second half was more successful in this regard – it started clearly with pieces about the life of Gielgud and then matched the Shakespeare excerpts with those pieces, speculating well upon how the texts might have related to Gielgud’s life and philosophies.

This raises the question of what this play is about, what is its purpose, other than just a night of listening to well acted Shakespeare – and perhaps how it could achieve a greater unity as a whole.  Two strong motifs emerged from play – the first being the story of an actor engaging with his society and the cultural context of the different eras in which he lived.  What makes this work is that Gielgud himself comes across as a modest, humble, proud, intelligent, slightly wicked man who could drop choice one liners and provide insight into the plays he did, as well as the vibrant life of a man who genuinely loved the life of a working actor.  The other motif that emerged was an exploration of the way Shakespeare – and play scripts in general – are performed.  We were shown a glimpse of how certain styles – such as Gielgud’s – wane in appeal, maybe unfairly.  Ellis’ excellent verbal invocation of the Gielgud style illustrated this idea well.   What helped with this motif was the choice of an excerpt from the filmed Julius Caesar, where we saw Gielgud’s approach captured through his “lean and hungry” Cassius.  Perhaps another film excerpt would help with that aim of revealing his style.

At the moment, however, the play gives incomplete glimpses of these motifs and not quite realising what meaning the evening could deliver to audiences.  After the play, actor Grant Dodwell – who was recording the production – provided two excellent suggestions for the improvement and strengthening of the idea of Gielgud as the core of the production.  One was that there needed to be reflections of Gielgud’s life in plays outside Shakespeare – especially his association with Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (If for no other reason than to see and hear Ellis play Lady Bracknell.)   The other suggestion was that there could be the inclusion of Gielgud’s dabbling with popular cinema, such as both Arthur films – which would yield some entertaining anecdotes and provide more insight into the world of actors who can’t and won’t always do the great words of Shakespeare.  Audiences would appreciate that insight – as well as the lightened tone the words from Wilde and Arthur would provide the play.  I would go a step further and suggest that there could also be mention of Gielgud’s film with Michael Caine, the potboiler spy thriller movie, The Whistleblower – in order to highlight the differences between Gielgud’s approach to the career of acting and that taken by Michael Caine.  A side benefit would be that Michael Caine impersonations are always fun for audiences.

Ultimately, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening – the play is brimming with great potential. I also enjoyed the reactions of some of the audience members, especially the group of three from Sydney who came out to Parramatta – Elle Hardy, Adam Brereton and Dan Nolan – who mostly know only the Ellis of Table Talk.   The rich and sonorous world created by Clarke, Burke and Ellis may have produced a jarring contrast with the dizzying pace of their contemporary social media world – for me, though, it was a welcoming contrast.  This was an evening of listening to the sound of Shakespeare being brought to life in a way we don’t see as often as we did in the past.  

This is why I like Ellis’ idea that the play be performed in a theatre where the patrons see the play first, then partake in a feast afterwards. That is a mode of performance and interaction that isn’t all that common and would be an ideal fit.  I also believe, however, that this could also be an excellent radio play. One of the regrets we feel in Ellis’ play is that we don’t have enough recordings of the Gielgud style and approach to theatre and giving life to the words of Shakespeare.  It would be a pity if we didn’t have recordings of the talents of these three actors breathing three different kinds of vigour into the words of Shakespeare and into the life of Gielgud.   A radio play would bring that into the homes of those who couldn’t make into Sin City. Having said that, a radio play wouldn’t have Ellis’ visible mirth at the more racy bon mots of Gielgud’s, nor the hunched figure of Ellis’ Falstaff being visibly smashed by the eviscerations of Prince Hal.  More should see and hear the fully realised version of this play by Sydney’s Falstaff.  It’s a good night’s entertainment at the moment – with some polishing though, it will also help people to see more in Shakespeare – and the life of Gielgud – than just words, words, words said in a beautifully mellifluous voice.