Thursday, April 09, 2020

Living in the Time of COVID 19





COVID 19 they’re calling it – 19 for the year it first raised its ugly head. But this virus has all but destroyed 2020 – the first half of it at least. Or has it?

As the world practices self-isolation and social distancing there are stories of people in Wuhan, we’re it all began, saying that they enjoy being at home with friends and family and would prefer not to go back to the normal routine of work and busyness. They say the skies over China haven’t been this blue for years. An online colleague posted photographs of an unusually smog free Haifa - Israel's main port. A friend in Berlin is enjoying a comparatively pressure free life with no work commitments and is riding his bike through forests and doing yoga and feeling physically and spiritually more whole.
Me? I was watching something on the UK on television and was immediately conscious of the fact that I couldn't just go there if I wanted to. All my adult life I've had this strange definition of freedom. I think sometime in my early 20s I realised that all you needed was about $3000 in the bank and you could get to anywhere on the planet at a moment’s notice.  I have consequently always had that 3G in the bank! Now obviously I haven't spent my whole life travelling, but knowing that I could get to any point on the planet anytime was an integral aspect of how I felt about being alive. Now for the first time in my adult life that freedom has been taken away. As some wise person noted, many of us are for the first time feeling the kind of oppression that many endure every day of their life. Can’t leave town? Go interstate? First World problems. Situation normal for millions…..
I’ve decided to adopt the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra of ‘one day at a time’ for as long as this period of societal shutdown lasts. I do miss getting out of town, jumping on planes, seeing grandchildren and playing live music together, but there’s no point dwelling on what cannot be. It is indeed a time to reflect, write, clean the bookshelves, and live a slower life. Make it a daily quest to recognise something beautiful – easily done if you live near nature.  
On the macro level it's already a cliché that this pandemic will change the world forever, and it is highly likely that some things will change forever, and that will be fascinating to track as we re-emerge back into something like normal life. Will we shake hands less? Will less people fly? Will there be fewer airlines? Will the forced switch to online education realise some unexpected advantages that will be preserved in a post-Corona world? Will many more people work remotely? Will the standard work meeting go online forever? Will we as a species simply spend less time together socially out of fear of further infection?


Right now I feel fine. Like a good little frog adjusting to the gradual increase in temperature I have found a new daily routine that occasionally has me smiling as I realise that I’m quite enjoying myself. But I’m fortunate to live in a house with a garden; I have a car and can drive to any number of beautiful places and go for my 'government sanctioned daily walk'; for many years I have sought out interesting places for photo walks  where there are few people - social distancing in public has been part of my daily life for a long time. Walking on spacious beaches, expansive parks, riverside tracks and even empty industrial vistas are all within easy reach.
Myponga, Moonta, and Mumbai can all wait – they’ll all still be there when this is all over. I just hope I will be as well.  


Saturday, March 14, 2020

WOMADELAIDE 2020 - A VIEW FROM THE SMALL STAGES (Days 3 and 4)

 Company Archibald Caramantran 


Day 3


I began my Womad day 3 later in the day with a reprise of Spanish medieval music from the masterful Artefactum. Such a pleasure to hear once more, and observe them having fun with each other as they attempted to translate their jokes into English. As a fellow reviewer from another publication said, “they just make medieval music so accessible.”
The Kids Zone was at its busiest this afternoon with an incredible array of activities – face painting, dancing, dress-up parades, craft activities, building huts – the place was packed with active children and content looking parents.
I was tempted to stop by a larger stage when I heard the female mariachi tones of Flor de Toloache from Mexico resonating from  Stage 2 but headed for a smaller stage to hear Tami Neilson from NZ. This may have been a rare programming logistics error. She was way too popular for the small Moreton Bay stage – it was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen there. She was just a speck in the distance but she sounded wonderful. She has a loud and soulful voice that belted out a mix of soul and country with ease. Commercial, but really catchy, slick and solid. As Simon Hackett, one of Womad’s founders said in a recent interview, “One of the joys of this event is … walking up to a random stage and being blown away by some artist you’ve never heard of.”
I was curious to see if the Woshop still just sold CDs of performing artists. It’s getting harder and harder to play CDs as CD players disappear from computers and car stereo systems. The vast majority of the music available was only in CD format. Just one artist had a digital version available. It kind of hurts to say this it but it’s time for Womad artists to sell their music in digital format.

KermesK a L’est


Day 4

Pakistan’s Ustad Saami called his 2019 album, God is Not a Terrorist. He is clearly on a mission to promote the music of his region as an instrument of piece. His performance with his 4 sons consisted of one 75 minute meditative piece. Based on the twin drones of harmonium and tanpura, it built ever so slowly to a fully vocalised musical conversation between him and his sons and we the audience. I’m sure many were expecting it to eventually reach the frenetic heights of another Pakistani singer, the legendary Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan but this music is much less theatrical. Though, like other forms of Pakistani devotional music (Qawwali, Sufi) much is expressed using the hands as they dance and weave with the vocals to convey extra meaning. This piece was dedicated to the lapsing of summer into autumn and with plenty of grey cloud in the sky it felt appropriate.
As daylight faded down by stage 3, a group of mad Belgians took the stage. Looking like punks and ratbags, KermesK a L’est filed on stage through a back curtain and launched into a strange and infectious brand of brass based Balkan music. With no one band member having a fixed on stage position they wandered around constantly – even their two drummers were forever on parade around the stage.  A great sound and a totally original presentation. The giant puppets from Company Archibald Caramantran enjoyed it too and enthralled the crowd with their giant dance steps.
France seems particularly blessed with a range of these bizarre and lovable festival acts. For several years now Womad has featured a quirky French act as part of the roaming program, and they add as much value to the whole spectacle as the music.
I spent 10 minutes or so in the Taste the World tent enjoying the laughs associated with cooking in public from Gelareh Pour and friends, before spending my last musical moments listening to some dreamy slow dance tunes from local act Oisima. They followed me as I slipped away through the Frome gate back into the real world.
It was a great decision to just focus on the small stages this year. It took the pressure off feeling like you had to see everything. I think there has been a welcome change in the program direction. Maybe it was because I only attended the small stage events but without counting up and comparing with recent years there did seem to be fewer big bands based around big percussion and the ubiquitous and overused concept of ‘fusion’. A majority of the acts were quieter and stayed closer to their ethnic roots, and in the process Womad reclaimed something of its original identity and purpose.


WOMADELAIDE 2020 – A VIEW FROM THE SMALL STAGES

Artefactum (Spain)


Day 1

Womadelaide’s small stages have always hosted the more niche like acts. They’re more intimate, quieter, and tend to feature more ethnically pure music of the kind that was much more prevalent in Womad's early days.
So I spent my first evening going from Ghana (Moreton Bay stage) to Reunion (stage 7) to Rumania (Frome Park Pavilion), and finally to medieval Spain (back at the Moreton Bay stage).
King Ayisoba and his band hail from Ghana. The band is a 6 piece and 5 of them play percussion – draw your own conclusions! The only non-percussive instrument, which King himself plays is the kologo, has just 2 strings and is played mostly as a percussive instrument as well so the primary effect is rhythmic.
King has a growling and gruff vocal style that at times feels quite intimidating but the rhythms are strong and the crowd is up dancing and there is mercifully no electronica interfering with the traditional rhythms.
Down the other end of the park on stage 7 Destyn Maloya from Reunion was offering a more varied repertoire of melody and rhythm.  Reunion is not far from Madagascar and Womadelaide has previously hosted the beautiful polyphonic melodies of Justin Vali, and some of their material had that similar feel. But like so many African groups their happy place is rhythm based and Destyn Maloya soon had the malleable crowd jumping like rabbits and joining in a Conga line.
Nearby in one of Womadelaide’s newer venues an Australian based group who play Romanian music and who curiously call themselves SuperRats gathered around their featured instrument, the cimbalom. The cimbalom is large dulcimer with 145 strings and sounds like a cross between a piano and a xylophone. Apparently the pronunciation of the words Super Rats sounds like ‘the irritated ones’ in the Romanian language. This music is relatively low brow in its original context – played in bars and cafes where people drink and do shady deals - but in the context of a Womadelaide performance there is nothing shady about this music. The pieces are tight, rhythmically complex and driven by a dominant double bass. Accordion and fiddle are great accompaniment for the cimbalom in these entertaining traditional dance tunes.
So then back in time to the Middle Ages. Artefactum (pictured above) play Spanish music from the 12th -14th centuries and it is exquisite. Led by the drone like sounds of one of the strangest instruments ever made, the hurdy-gurdy, this music is full of delicate melodies and intricate vocal harmonies. Music from Medieval times has such a beautiful melodious quality. It’s almost as if music was breaking free from the confines of a restricted past and celebrating a wondrous joy,

A perfect end to the day. It seems there may have been a drift away from the ubiquitous ‘global funk’ that has tended to dominate the Womadelaide program in the last few years, but it’s early days….

Iberi (Georgia)


Day 2

Day 2 dawned sunny and gentle. The Planet Talks venue has gratefully moved into a larger location – a tent called the Frome Park pavilion. The first session for the day focused on the Wreck of Tech and was insightful and depressing. All 3 speakers, Julia Powles, Peter Lewis, and Robert Elliott Smith, have written books or papers questioning the role and authority of the tech giants in our daily lives, and there was fairly solid agreement that they have not made our lives better. They reflected on the fact that rather than bring us together the new technologies have collapsed any notion of collective or commons where we might come together to solve problems. Google and Facebook’s business models serving personal echo chambers have actually driven us apart. I left the session close to tears.
L Subramaniam gets the tag ‘the Paganini of Indian classical music'. After some short information about the structure of the music they were about to play Subramaniam and his group, together with the help of some very audible bats (it was good to see they survived the summer heat) launched into what he called a ‘short’ raga – a beautiful slow building piece of musical meditation that was 30 minutes long!
Gelareh Pour is an Iranian now living in Australia. Her high-pitched dreamy vocals (it was hard not to think of Kate Bush) floated towards you as you approached the Zoo stage. Accompanied by traditional instruments (Iranian versions of fiddle and lute, plus more conventional drums and electric guitar) her songs had a plaintively beautiful tone and slowly pulsating beats that were quite alluring.
One of Luisa Sobral’s songs won Eurovision in 2017. In my view that does not nothing for your musical credibility but this Portuguese singer-composer is something special.  Her singing is classy and smooth as silk, and her original songs are full of passion and sophisticated melodies. Unlike many Womad performers from lands where English is not the first language, she chatted away confidently about her life and how she was not going to let the Corona virus stop her from achieving her lifelong goal of coming to Australia. The arrangements of her material matched the quality of her songwriting. She was accompanied on guitar by her ‘Portuguese musician’, and a trio of fine local musicians on cello, woodwind and brass. Just gorgeous music and as great original music so often is – very hard to categorise.
Iberi (see above) are from Georgia in the former Soviet Union, and appeared in monk-like costumes with daggers. Their music now apparently drifts around in space on board Voyager 2 as an example of the beauty of the human voice.  Their material is mostly acapella, and sounds quite monastic. Intricate harmonies and a stylised vocal style from old Georgian folk tunes may make this music an acquired taste for some. I was reminded of the deep resonant tones of the Sardinian Tenors many Womads back.
Every Womad festival has a Celtic group to lead the fiddle and pipe charge and this year the responsibility falls to Rura from Scotland. Their frantic and frenetic start drew the flock like Celtic lemmings to front of stage but I stuck to my guns and went to the next offering on the smaller stages – Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita down on stage 7.
It was only a matter of time before a kora (or chora) player hooked up with a traditional harpist, and it has happened in this wonderful partnership between Senegal and Wales. Kora music has  enchanted Womad audiences from the very early days and that has not changed. Seckou Keita is a griot, someone who has inherited his musical tradition through his family, and he plays with flare and joy. It’s a little harder to be physically engaged when you’re stuck behind a harp but Catrin Finch does a lot of smiling at Seckou’s antics and the wonderful sounds these 2 multiple stringed instruments make together. It’s a perfect harmonic blend with some entertaining rhythmic interplay between the two musical cultures they represent.  Again the bats, just waking up now after a day hanging around upside down, joined in and it seemed entirely appropriate.
Such is Womadelaide 😊                                     




Monday, March 02, 2020

Scraping Photos




Dog and Fisherman

I’m writing this because I received this curious email from a stranger:
I am writing to inform you that your image "Dog and Fishermen" was used as part of the public COCO image dataset. I found it here: cocodataset.org/#explore?id=504697. COCO is a collection of 328,000 images scraped from Flickr without the knowledge or consent of the photographers such as yourself. This dataset was originally created by Microsoft and is commonly used to build algorithms and computer programs that can detect objects and people, to be used for surveillance cameras and other detection purposes. I thought it was important that you know your image was used in these efforts.

Now that you are aware of this, I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about the photo. Where and why did you take it? What was the context for it being taken? If there is any backstory, I’d love to hear it.

Additionally, I would love to know your opinions on your image being used in this regards, without your knowledge or consent.”

Further enquiries revealed that this person is working on a thesis which “looks at image datasets and the ways they are created, organized, and implemented. I am specifically looking at the COCO dataset which uses hundreds of thousands of images scraped from flickr without the knowledge or consent of the image owners, such as yourself. I'm interested in re-contextualizing these images in their original contexts and juxtaposing that with the labels and organizational aspects that the COCO researchers assigned to each image.’

CONTEXT/BACKSTORY

This photo was taken at dusk on my local beach in Adelaide, South Australia. It’s in April so getting cooler in the southern hemisphere. One of the two fishermen is completely covered, but it can’t be too cold because the other is wearing shorts.
Adelaide faces west so we routinely get magnificent sunsets. This photo is taken on an evening with pastel skies – an extra treat when atmospheric conditions are just right.
I walk along this stretch of beach several times a month, always with camera in hand. I don’t know how fruitful it is to do this kind of shore fishing – most people locally choose to fish from the nearby jetty - but in non-swimming seasons it is not an uncommon sight to see people from the shore.
I often take photographs of shore fishermen at this time of the day because they and their rods and lines often present intriguing silhouettes in the fading light.
The dog is a bonus here. As it says in the comments beneath the photo:
What was funny when I took this photo was the fact that this dog decided to stop and look like he was with 2 guys fishing. He actually belonged to someone else and wandered off to them after I took the pic!”
The sea, as is often the case here In Adelaide, is dead calm. Adelaide is on a gulf so does not face open ocean and never gets what you’d call ‘surf’.

How do I feel about my photos being used like this?

As all my photos have the least restrictive Creative Commons license I accept that they can end up almost anywhere. Really the only condition is that however and wherever my photos are used there should be some visible attribution/acknowledgement of me as the creator of the image somewhere. There is no obligation on the part of the end user to notify the owner of the image, nor ask for permission to use it, though many people do so out of courtesy – something I always appreciate. I would receive at least one email per fortnight asking permission to use a photo of mine in a book, website, newsletter, etc
I guess it would be nice if the people behind the dataset at cocodataset.org/#explore?id=504697 did notify Flickr users that their photos were being used in this way, but ultimately I’m more intrigued than annoyed that one of my images has turned up on this site

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Acoustic Tull's First Review


After going live 9 months ago Acoustic Tull finally have our first independent review – 4 stars from The Upside Review. Quite pleasing actually. I’d been thinking that if I was reviewing our show I’d give us 4 stars!
It’s been a wonderful musical ride thus far. There are many wonderful moments but I think for me it’s when I hear that flute fluttering at the beginning of The Witches Promise or that signature melodic motif in Thick as a Brick I just feel a smile inside in recognition of how good it sounds and feels. These wonderful flute sounds are courtesy of Kerryn Schofield – how lucky we were to find her!
You can read more about the group and how it came about over at our website. There are some videos there as well. There’s also an interview I did that talks more about who we are. There are a few photos on our Facebook site but if you search HERE you should find several photos of us performing.
We have about 30 songs in our repertoire now. Our next gig with our full repertoire will be at current ‘home’ – the Duke of Brunswick hotel on May 23rd.
We have just concluded two sell out shows at the AdelaideFringe – quite an achievement as many shows/venues are reporting lower attendance figures this year. Our Fringe show was much shorter (75 mins) and included some cabaret style elements to make it more Fringe suitable.
Jethro Tull have often included mythical characters in their songs and live performances and we decided to feature one of our own for our Fringe show. We had a friend dressed as an old homeless guy wander through the crowd as we played Aqualung and sit himself down on a bench in front of the stage and read the Thick as a Brick album cover (newspaper) as we played our version of this classic..
The idea was for this old Aqualung character to be totally anonymous and unacknowledged, as homeless people often are, and so we completely ignored him and played on as if he wasn’t there. It seemed this little theatrical cameo was a successful complement to our show but it did raise interesting questions about why we did it.
The questions that were asked with brief answers:

W
 
here did this idea come from?

Tull has a history of using mythical characters in song, on stage and in videos. Reference to the vulnerable and disenfranchised is a recurring theme in Ian Anderson's writing. So the old man character was to reflect what Tull have done for years.

·         Is it merely for visual accompaniment to the song? NO
·         Is it meant to confront the audience with their own prejudices and stereotype notions of the homeless and destitute? YES
·         Is is designed to elicit emotions of sympathy - YES
·         Do you want the audience to be chuckling and sniggering, or squirming in their seats with discomfort?- NEITHER; JUST WONDERING WHY
·         How many of the audience I wonder would have gone away with a different (sympathetic) attitude to the homeless? MOST HOPEFULLY
·         Would the song be better served by a shocking slide show that portrays the injustice of the poor and abandoned? NO. THAT WAS NOT TULL’S WAY. TOO DIDACTIC
·         Was this just playing a practical joke at the expense of the disenfranchised? DEFINITELY NO

Greg Champion Review

Perhaps Greg Champion’s biggest claim to fame is being part of an ABC radio show that has been running for 40 years - the Coodabeen Champions. Author of one of many contenders for what couldabeen the national anthem – I Made A 100 In The Backyard At Mum’s – he’s a very funny man. Raised on the Hectorville tablelands (que?), he left Adelaide sometime in the distant past to seek fame and fortune with Adelaide band The Fabulaires, but somehow stumbled into the growing new field of musical sport comedy and has been there ever since. Or actually, he might have invented it!
40 years of live performance on radio and stage has yielded a performer very much in command of his quirky genre. His forte is writing satirical lyrics to well-known tunes – whether it be poking fun at Port Adelaide fans (something he does quite a lot of!), or the clichés coaches use in talks to their players. Another odd but considerable talent is the ability to play with the sounds of language in song – tongue-twisting Australian place names for example, or stringing together French words and phrases stolen by English.
Though he’s been living in Victoria for decades he says he still calls South Australia home and of course he has a song about it! Lots of wonderful local content that wouldabeen useless performing in any other state. He draws material from some of the more whacky listeners to Coodabeen Champions over the years that sometimes have better memories of songs he has done in the past than he does, and have also provided snippets of wisdom that occasionally made sense, or even if they didn’t were funny anyway.
This was a delightful show. Despite what he said, there were several people in the audience under 85 and we all laughed a lot. I don’t know why there weren’t more people there – there shouldabeen. Maybe they’re too old to get out? Or dead? Perhaps the audience for someone who makes jokes about football is too small? No matter – their loss.
And besides, it’s not just about football. The finale featuring several alternative versions of the National Anthem didn’t mention football once and was still hilarious. No couldabeen about it, he’s a comic champion.

(This review also published on The Clothesline)

Friday, January 10, 2020

Guts and Vision?

In regard to the current Australian political climate a friend asked, "
So who are these leaders of guts and vision? I'm failing in my attempts to spot any within the political class after that bloody dual citizenship stunt knocked out some of our brightest and best. Some of the fire bosses are shaping up well, but. Genuinely interested in your view, Michael.

My response:

Let’s cut to the chase – I don’t know. I could chuck a few names into the ring. I like Tanya Plibersek. Preferably we’d be led by women. But there are far bigger issues than which individuals may have guts or vision. I was intrigued (and saddened) to read the commentary of recently retired public servant, Martin Parkinson on current political life. In a nutshell he believes that our governments are now populated by people who have little or no experience of the affairs connected to their portfolios. There are too many career politicians who have scant understanding of the complexity of issues relating to health, environment, education, or any other portfolio. And this is he says is happening at the same time that the public service is being sidelined. Once he argues, governments would rely on the public service to do the research around policy issues and advise government accordingly. He says politicians now tell the public service to do as their told and implement whatever policy they send along.

He adds that the wheeling and dealing of current political life means that any MP that makes it into cabinet is unable to actually do anything substantial because they are too encumbered by the deals they have made to get them to where they are.  Everybody is in everyone else’s pockets. He suggests the whole system is broken and needs rebooting with an entirely new political class that come into parliament with a view that they are there to collaboratively govern and improve the quality of life for their constituents. He believes this was a reality not so long ago but that this shared overarching bipartisan principle has been replaced with blatant tribalism.


About a year ago a nationwide poll asked thousands of Australians if they believed what politicians said when they spoke in the media and a staggering 90% of Australians responded no. So, 90% of our population acquiesce in the fact that we are run by people who lie and deceive and then insouciantly go along at election times and vote for these very same liars. Que??? It makes no sense.

Our democratic system is broken.

Add to this the fact that both major parties (the root cause of most of these problems) have lost any deep connection with their traditional voters. This is particularly so of the Labor party. Their whole raison d’etre of existence – the working class, class struggle, unions – has all but disappeared. The working classes have merged into the ever-expanding middle class and have become part of the so-called ‘aspirational voter’ bloc. They’re not interested in class struggle anymore. And the Liberal party is no longer a liberal party but a deeply conservative entity that has shifted a long way to the right.  The result of all this? Vast numbers of the Australian public no longer feel that either of the major parties represent their views.

When I lived in Holland many years ago I was puzzled by the proliferation of minor parties that made up the government. I see now that that is a better system – such coalitions represent more points of view, everything must be achieved through debate and compromise, and the cult of the individual is much reduced. (They don’t vote for Morrison, or Shorten, or Hanson. They vote for parties that represent their views.)

So perhaps searching for leaders with guts or vision is the wrong way of approaching our current malaise. Politics has to return to something that will appeal to and attract those who have good ideas, want to work in harmony with all elected representatives, and have no interest in personal power. Sadly I can’t see it happening anytime soon, but that is the subject of another post – how does one retain a spark of optimism among this dysfunction and the relentless 24/7 bombardment of the population with fake and bad news 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Myall Creek

Myall Creek Memorial

I started to tear up from about 20 kilometres out. I started looking at the landscape as it may have been in 1838; tried to imagine how it might have looked then. I tried to imagine Aboriginal people wandering the land as it was and was just overcome with the realisation that it was THEIR land. In a way I had never really grasped before. And it has been taken from them. So I was already filled with a deep sadness before I arrived at the Myall Creek memorial.
Happily (for me) there was no one else there. Just a dusty carpark with a sign pointing down a winding track. I reached the monument and just let it all wash over me …..
Off and on over the years I had heard tales of Aboriginal massacres. Like many Australians I imagine I just somehow pushed the information aside with thoughts like ‘it was a long time ago’ or ‘it wouldn’t  have been that many people’ or ‘it was just the same as what happened in many places where the New World met ancient cultures’. An inevitable consequence of progress or something. It didn’t really have much impact on me.
But I have now read Henry Reynolds’ work. (The Other Side of the Frontier, This Whispering in Our Hearts). Reynolds lays bare a tale that has been ignored for more than 200 years. And the most recent research reveals that at least 6,000 and up to possibly 70,000 Aboriginal people were killed during the first decades of white settlement. We will never arrive at a finalaccurate figure; suffice to say it was in the thousands.

What sets Myall Creek apart is not the fact that a group of Aboriginal people were killed there in cold blood. That, it turns out, routinely happened all over the land – but in this case witnesses came forward and at least some of the perpetrators were tried, convicted, and hanged. So while the simple monument at Myall Creek was created to honour the memory of the 28 people who were killed there, in the shameful absence of memorials for the other tens of thousands who suffered a similar fate, it also stands as a de facto monument for all of them, and is a stark reminder of the fact that white Australia has yet to fully reconcile its past.


The fact that white Australia has yet to confront and accept this part of our past is sickly ironic in the light of our obsession with the “Lest We Forget’ mantra for soldiers who fell in wars.
As far back as I can remember I heard about ‘the Aboriginal problem.’ As I grew older and lived longer I came to understand the complexity and depth of this ‘problem.’ I don’t know the answer but I still see evidence of an ongoing, persistent trauma that has reverberated down through the generations. As Stan Grant says in his recent documentary, TheAustralian Dream, it’s hard not to inherit the DNA of trauma, and as long as that trauma persists there will be cultural breakdown.
And I have a longing to quieten the whispering in our hearts that Henry Reynolds speaks of. To once and for all reconcile our past with our present, and publicly acknowledge what we did to indigenous Australians. Perhaps this kind of meaningful reconciliation just might act as a circuit breaker and lead to Aboriginal Australians once again feeling like they belong in their own land. Feel as if they are respected. Valued.
Right now I suspect many of them don’t feel any of these things.
Australians need to talk about this stuff. We need to know the truth of our past. I taught Australian history in schools in the 80s and found no reference to the events that Reynolds writes about. These materials – letters, newspaper articles, public notices, church correspondence, reports to the British government, all documenting decades of atrocities, have lain hidden and ignored for two centuries.

Gradually I experienced the central truth of Aboriginal religion: that it is not a thing by itself but an inseparable part of a whole that encompasses every aspect of daily life, every individual, and every time – past, present, and future. It is nothing less than the theme of existence, and as such constitutes one of the most sophisticated and unique religious and philosophical systems known to man. (Richard Gould, American archaeologist, quoted in Deep Time Dreaming.)



Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Eclipse of Liberalism - Australia 2019


America already has Trump. Australia has Scott the evangelist Morrison, and Britain has just chosen Boris Johnson as their PM. Scott Morrison belongs to a church that believes that personal wealth is a sign that God is shining on you for God’s sake!!!! The fact that such characters have risen to be heads of nations bothers me for many reasons, and I grapple with the idea that the contemporary world has made such choices.
I wrote elsewhere about how I felt about the Trump triumph, and that feeling of being on the sidelines grows stronger. My brother suggested I read up on ‘the eclipse of liberalism’ to try and put these feelings into some kind of context and I’ve begun that process.
It’s strange for someone like me to accept that my views and values are liberal. So called small ‘l’ liberal. In Australia the Liberal Party is of the right, and when someone is referred to as ‘a Liberal’ it is usually to denote someone that has conservative views and more likely leans towards the political right, and vote for the Liberal Party.
I have learned that there is an optimistic tradition within Western democracies which holds that the world is on an inevitable trajectory towards a more moral and ethical future; that we as a species would continue to evolve and come to see a kind of collective enlightenment where people are cared for, and mutual understanding of human differences would flourish. That certainly sums up how I had seen my world until recently, and that’s why Trump’s victory came as such a shock. It has been surprising to learn that me and my kind (small ‘l’ liberals in a democratic nation) are merely a type peculiar to a certain set of circumstances and that many in the world don’t see existence as an inevitable path to a collective moral and ethical betterment.  Trump voters are clearly in this camp.
To flesh this out a little more I want to list some of the issues that might illustrate what I’m talking about:
Mental health care: funding for treatment and care of those with mental health needs has been progressively cut over the last decade. The result: a health system bogged down by people with mental health needs seeking treatment and taking up hospital beds because there is nowhere else for them to go. Ditto for the prison system. It is estimated that upwards of 40% of prisoners have mental health issues and would be better treated in more appropriate facilities and not jailed. (For the record Holland has closed more than 20 prisons since 2013.)
Detention of refugees: Australia has imprisoned several hundred refugees on offshore islands for 6 years now. In the 70s and 80s Australia had a bipartisan approach that used a system of offshore refugee camps to methodically process applications for asylum and refugee status. There was an orderly and continuous flow of migrants from war zones that was humane and of practical advantage to an Australian economy that always depends on a level of migration to help it grow. The present charismatic governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le, and comedian/painter Anh Do are two who found our shores via this enlightened bipartisan approach. Now we just round boat people up, dump them on an offshore island under insufferable and (secret) conditions and leave them there.   
Levels of welfare: Australia has not increased the Newstart allowance, the primary source of income for unemployed people for 25 years!!!
Privatisation: bit by bit, little by little, our governments of all political persuasions surrender provision of basic services to the private sector. Here in South Australia we have been hit particularly hard by extreme increases in the price of gas, water, and electricity – all since privatisation. And soon our trains will go the same way. And health services. Bit by bit basic services are sold to the private sector who of course run them as businesses to make a profit and gouge the consumer accordingly.
Climate change; when over 90% of the world’s scientific community believe that, based on all the available evidence, climate change is a fact and that it is at least in part man made, the refusal of conservative governments to accept and confront these facts with proactive solutions is just monumental stupidity. The world’s leading naturalist, David Attenborough, is surprised and dismayed that Australia is governed by those who continue to deny the science behind climate change.
The Planet: nothing else matters. And yet we continue to plunder – coal. Dump plastic in the oceans. Sell our water to wealthy agriculturalists and shrug as tens of thousands of fish die in our national river system. Do nothing as foreign seals devour native species in the Coorong. Australia has the highest rate of animal extinctions on the planet by a golden mile. And we would rather open another coal mine and further endanger one of the world’s greatest natural resources, our Great Barrier Reef. And don’t believe the nay-sayers - Australia can run on sun and wind and hydro energy. Germany has committed to closing all coal plants by 2030, and nuclear power plants by 2022.
Freedom of the press: recently ABC journalists had their computers and files confiscated by Federal police because they dared investigate a story about alleged appalling behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. And now they want to finger-print these same journalists. There is an organisation called the Institution of Public Affairs (IPA) that is closely aligned with conservative forces and whose avowed agenda is to ‘privatise’ (read shut down) the ABC. These attempts to curtail a free press are the tip of an iceberg. They are coupled with a series of incremental incursions on the rights to privacy of average Australians – all in response to an undue obsession with terrorism – and are part of a slippery slope to an authoritarian state.
There are many other issues I could add but this will do for a start. I have probably conflated a number of issues here but according to my liberal values levels of public spending on education, health, and welfare should never be cut. They should be indexed against the cost of living and never become the focus of political wrangling. A humane and decent society has at its core a desire and willingness to assist and reach out to those in need. Australia’s foreign aid budget is the least generous it has ever been. We refuse to pay the unemployed a decent minimum dole, we lock up people who need proper mental health care, and we maroon people seeking asylum in offshore hell holes for years on end. Australia was not like this once. When did we get so mean? Where is our heart?
I feel as if the wheel has turned quite honestly. I feel like these small ‘l’ liberal values are no longer what drives us. I don’t see a society that cares about its weakest and most vulnerable citizens anymore. I don’t see any sense of an ethical or social responsibility that might guide how we treat the underdog and show compassion as a society. Of course there are individuals doing good deeds out there every day, but as a nation I believe Australia has lost its soul. Liberalism has indeed been eclipsed.
There are pockets of hope, and they seem to be mostly in Europe. I have already mentioned Holland and Germany; Finland is achieving remarkable things in education and is enjoying all time low recidivism rates by making prison cells more like hotel rooms – the focus is on rehabilitation not punishment. But we here in Australia have just voted for a government that eschews such liberalism and panders to some ‘quiet Australians’ who just want to ‘get on’ – whatever that means. I think it’s code for ‘bugger you Jack. I’m OK’; a government that seems stuck in past paradigms without any of the kindnesses of previous eras. And now we can sit back and watch the incompetent wrecking ball that is Boris Johnson, cheered on by his mate Donald, before he wines and dines Scomo.
It simply beggars belief, but a significant part of the English speaking world has lurched to the right.

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