Saturday, 23 May 2015


Sometimes you get an itch on the edge of your awareness, moving slowly toward your consciousness, where it will eventually get enough steam for you to be aware of it, to attract your notice to a wound you were previously oblivious to. A small cut on your finger, perhaps, or a scraped elbow you hadn't noticed when you bumped into something. The pain wasn't noticeable before, & it isn't noticeable now really, but you have an awareness you didn't have previously. You've been injured.

You were injured before, the entire time since you nicked yourself on a ragged bit of metal, or got that tiny slice from a piece of paper. You were always injured, you now realise, but now you know. That changes things. Even if you shrug it off & continue doing what you were doing before, that slight pain has an origin, it has a reason. Now it's real, not just a dim awareness you didn't pay attention to. You weren't aware you weren't paying attention to it at the time, but now, in retrospect, you can remember how it happened. Something small, that any other day wouldn't have broken the skin, but now you're bleeding just enough to call it "bleeding" but not enough to do anything about it.

So you push it out of your mind & keep doing whatever it is you need to do, only now with a slightly irritating discomfort. It starts to burn, rather than itch, & you're annoyed that such a small thing could be causing you so much annoyance.

Some time passes, & you again become aware that the pain has somehow worsened. It's still not a serious thing, but you look back to the injury, & it's slightly discoloured. It's a bit swollen - it hurts a bit when you poke it, which you do. You keep poking it, in fact, the oil & whatever else from your finger getting in it, no doubt. What if it gets infected? It won't, it's small.

But it does. It does get infected, & it starts to ooze a bit. It's become sort of disgusting, & you no longer want to touch it, & you're pretty sure if you did it would hurt. It needs some kind of treatment, but just looking at makes you anxious. It'll heal on its own, if you stop messing with it.

But it doesn't. It gets worse, & people start to notice. "Hey, are you alright?" Yes, I'm fine, it's just a scratch don't make a fuss. It comes out harsher than you meant it, but they should mind their own business anyway. You'll deal with it when you feel like it, when you feel up to it, & not before. "No, I really think you should-" Yeah well I think you should worry about your own shit! Asshole. You know you'll have to do something, though. You'll put a bandage on it.

You go home & put a bandage on it & it feels better, the pain isn't so noticeable now. It's fine. You go back to work, & people nod toward the bandage & you awkwardly apologise for being such a dick. They forgive you, everything's fine now. You feel sort of silly for being so obstinate about it in the first place. You're relieved to put it all behind you.

A few days later you're feeling woozy & sweaty. You develop a fever. Blearily, you get yourself to a doctor for some medication. She looks you over, nodding & clicking her tongue while you stir impatiently. She asks if you have any injuries, but you've forgotten all about the bandaged wound. You say no, & she frowns. After looking at you for slightly too long with an insufferably thoughtful expression, she asks about the bandage. That? That's nothing, it's fine. She wants to take a look. You push down a momentary, irrational urge to say no. She's a doctor! She can look at it, right? It's no big deal, it's probably healed by now.

But it hasn't. In fact, it's so bad now you don't even recognise it. She draws back, a sharp intake of breath, but it's drowned out by your own. You stare at it in horror. Why didn't it hurt? It hurts now, though, making up for lost time. You can feel it throbbing under the unnatural swelling & colour palette that only be described as "sickness". The doctor says something you can't hear. What? "You need to go to a hospital," she says again. Your heart is thudding in your chest now. Hospital? It's just a scratch! It's a bit out of hand, sure, but can't she just give you something? No, she's very insistent. But you had things to do that evening, you were really looking forward to ordering some food & watching a few episodes of...whatever it was you'd wanted to watch. Not go to a hospital. You hate hospitals, they're full of sick people.

You thank her, & get up to leave, but she blocks your path. Suddenly, the world is different. You're trapped, now. You know that the longer this goes on, the harder it will be to get out. You move to step around her, put she puts her arm out. The movement is gentle, but now to leave you'll have to escalate the situation. Now violence exists in a way it hadn't before. You lock eyes with her. You only have a second to decide. If you hesitate, your life is no longer your own. You're a patient. You're a problem that someone else is going to fix. Decide, now.

This is what "crashing" is like. Some small thing someone says to you, or a mistake you make, or an awkward interaction, a harsh word, some small thing not panning out the way you'd hoped. You don't even notice it among the hundred things that happened to you that day, but it does something it shouldn't have, & it sucks away your positivity, like a tiny hole at the bottom of a jug of water. A slow trickle at first, but the draw starts to affect the entire body, slowly transforming it into a whirlpool that drags everything downwards.

It's something so small you can't really explain it, like someone explaining they're in the ICU for a papercut. It just sounds stupid, & doesn't call attention to the actual problem. Worse, the person who handed you the piece of paper will inevitably try to blame themselves for your predicament - the plight of the patient is that their agency is removed. Something as innocuous as handing someone a piece of paper causes guilt, which isn't what you want. You wish you'd done something about it sooner, but you didn't even realise it was there, how could you have fixed it? By the time you recognised the harm, it was already too late to do anything about it.

Worse still are the people who insist that it "must have been something else." Something so harmful can't be from such a tiny injury. They, & everyone else, deal with that sort of thing all the time. So do you, you insist, just this time it- they don't really listen, though. They assume your incompetence so abnormal you must be oblivious to the more obvious cause. Or they do listen, & suddenly you're the guy who can't handle a papercut. This is why you didn't want to deal with it in the first place, & you know what, you were right not to, in a way.

So the next time you get some small wound, something not really worth noticing, you're even less inclined to deal with it. You just want to get back to normal, back to the way things were. You push it out of your mind & keep going, back to normal, back to normal. Next time it happens, you're more careful to hide the wound from people. Don't want a repeat of last time, gotta get back to normal!

If the cycle repeats itself enough times, it becomes banal as any other routine. You start to expect it, and you stop trying to "get back to normal." In fact, you're pretty sure there never was a "normal" for you to get back to. This is just life, now, a constant rise & fall of mood where every period of "normal" is inevitably punctured, that same whirlpool forms in your consciousness, draining away your joy. It's boring, now, the process unfolding with a tedious inevitability, becoming more & more refined until the turnaround is measured in months, then weeks, then days.

Eventually, you learn not to try to be "too happy," because the better you feel, the harder you're going to crash. Life stops being about achieving your dreams, following your high hopes, being all you can be, it becomes about managing your next crash. It becomes automatic, like any boring thing, you don't even need to think about it. Don't hope for things. Don't be happy about things. Don't fly too high. Everything you achieve or attain for yourself is dangerous. People wonder why you never seem happy, tell you to cheer up, & you smile & nod enough for them to leave you alone.

"Cheering up" is for other people.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Vani Hari & the social responsibility of scientists

This is a response to this fantastic take-down of Vani Hari, aka The Food Babe, which you should definitely read.

First off, it should go without saying that this woman is a charlatan & a liar, & I hope she gets fired out of a cannon. That said, as is my tradition I'm going to take a non-obvious approach and say that her idiotic productions are actually kind of good.

How is it good to exploit unfortunate morons? Some might be tempted to take a kind of schadenfreude from seeing idiots get exploited. I'm one of those people, but this kind of smug privilege should be resisted at all costs. Not everyone has the good fortune to be educated in science, not everyone has the background to know why scary-sounding chemicals aren't that scary. You, as someone who DOES know this stuff, have a RESPONSIBILITY to help other people understand it, not stand at the sidelines like a smug asshole grinning at poor shmucks who buy into hucksterism.

So why is it good? Well, it goads scientists into lowering themselves into the slums of the common people, again. This piece is a FANTASTIC take down, not because it marshals facts & whatnot, but because it's well-written, accessible, & carries the appropriate level of sneering disdain. THAT is how you communicate with a general audience, not with the lofty, authoritarian tones of the ivory tower, or the stale, purified jargon of the laboratory. Those dialects have their place, but when it comes to the RESPONSIBILITY of the educated to inform the uneducated, you aren't doing charity. You're doing your duty, and part of that duty is ensuring you're understood. This Gawker piece is understandable, it's approachable, it's entertaining & it feels like it's worth reading. It does talk down, but not to the reader, it talks down to the unethical slimeball it's refuting.

What irritates a lot of people about the scientific community is its sneering, exasperated elitism. I have a LOT of affinity for sneering AND elitism, but after a few years of painfully listening to idiots I understand where they're coming from, and they have a point. They're basically trying to impart what I've said above, that leaning on your privileged education & expecting it to automatically convey authority is bullshit. Saying a bunch of words you know damn well your audience won't understand, then rolling your eyes and snapping "VACCINES GOOD. CLIMATE CHANGE BAD. Let me know when it sinks in you fucking idiots" doesn't let people know you're an expert, it lets them know you're a fuckwit.

So, what's wrong with expecting to be taken seriously as an expert? Science is a profession, one that takes many, many years of intense study. If you decide to eschew that kind of labour in favour of doing some half-assed bullshit like learning a TRADE, or raising a FAMILY, why should hard-working scientists have to learn to dilute their knowledge so it can be effectively communicated in populist terms? Don't people have a responsibility to educate themselves, if not to the level of actual scientists, then sufficiently so they can at least understand them?

No, they don't, and part of the reason why is excellently demonstrated by Vani Hari here, which is why this whole thing is kind of good. In short, the language of science is so steeped in exclusionary lingo that it's almost impossible for the under-educated to distinguish good science from bad. "But science is extremely precise!" I hear the scientists opine, & they're right. I believe science needs its complicated, extremely precise terminology & methods. Scientific inquiry, after 1000s of years of compounding development, needs to be exhaustively detailed & precise.

So there's an impasse here. Science is inaccessible, and into this uncertainty creeps assholes like Hari, who put on the veneer of popular science language to basically make shit up, trading on that most popular of human emotions, terrified aversion to the unknown. The unknown quality of science, NO MATTER HOW NECESSARY, is the responsibility of the scientific community to address. Science is done on the behalf of our entire species, that is the conceit the scientific community has adopted for itself, and I applaud it without reservation. It is the proper comportment for a scientific community, and indeed for any community. It is a truly inspiring brand of humanism.

However, saying it is one thing, actually doing it is another. Actually DOING science for humanity's sake means ensuring your insights are actually accessible to humanity, including the pesky humans that aren't scientifically literate. This means work, difficult work that scientists have spent their careers not learning, and in fact dismissing as an irrelevant distraction. It means writing well, it means debating, it means (and this is the most galling part) PERFORMING. Making people believe something means making it understandable, making it plausible, whilst maintaining your authority. This Gawker piece is an excellent example of one way to do that.

Another way to do that, which I do NOT like, is the semi-religious grossness of productions like Cosmos, or books like Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show On Earth. These productions are steeped in the elitism of scientists as lofty geniuses, as truth-givers from on high, bedazzling us with spaceships & fascinating but totally irrelevant insights about bizarre distant environments & abstracted materialist philosophies about the nature of matter. It's fucking prestidigitation, an insulting spectacle of graphics & sound designed to make scientists look like wizards rather than the dedicated, often working class professionals they actually are.

Aside from how insulting it is, it's ultimately not functional for what it needs to do. The spectacle of the "gentleman scientist" like Dwakins or DeGrasse Tyson is easily replicated & turned to any ideological mission, as Dwakins himself has demonstrated with his one-man theological religious crusade against traditional spirituality. He's no different from Vani Hari, using the language of science to sell books to the gullible. Fuck that noise. It's little wonder that this language is appropriated by accessible, actually LIKABLE people such as Vani Hari. It's little wonder that people are more than willing to take heed of a "scientist" who doesn't ooze elitist smarm or constant exasperation with the ignorance of the morons around her.

I still, almost daily, on Twitter & elsewhere, hear scientists bemoaning the hubris of the humanities for trying to explain the social role of science to scientists. These are the same people who also whine endlessly that their warnings about climate change & GM crops & vaccines & 100 other things fall constantly on deaf ears. They also take umbrage at people like Vani Hari appropriating the veneer of their disciplines to make a few bucks at the expense of people's ignorance. Well, their ignorance is your responsibility. If your science is merely a way for you to get paid, that's fine, but then you're no different to any lawyer or other career professional, and people have no greater cause to treat your work with automatic respect. If it's merely a personal labour of love, then it's a hobby, and again is of no automatic relevance to anyone else. If it is a social DUTY, an undertaking for the betterment of all mankind, then that lofty ideal carries with it responsibility. A responsibility to communicate truths effectively, to educate the uneducated, and to protect your authority from appropriation by charlatans.

This means, like it or not, expressing yourself in a way that can be understood by those without a science background, eg most of humanity. That is a responsibility the trappings of scientific endeavour are bound up with. Either take it seriously, even if that requires sullying yourself with the concerns of the humanities, or abandon it entirely & join the ranks of the working class professionals, & leave the determination of truth to the democratic populism of politics. Just don't start fucking moaning when nobody heeds your dire warnings, because I don't know if you've turned on the television lately but EVERYONE has a dire warning about some shit or other. The word of scientists carry automatic weight, and that's the way it should be, but the word of scientists is only useful if it can be understood. If you don't know how to do that, I've got some good news: I know a shitload of underemployed humanities graduates who would just love to help you guys out.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Atheist Reformation

My short but violent road to renouncing my ideological commitment to neo-atheism was not an easy one. I didn't like it for a long time, & then once my experiences & education forced me to accept it, I sought some way to make a compromise, but there was precious little compromise to be had. Ultimately, I had to abandon it wholesale. My atheism is now nothing more that a shallow grave where the part of me that could have had faith in something is buried.

Neo-atheism isn't just a disavowal of the currently-popular organised religions, any more than being an anarchist merely requires not voting for major political parties. It is a repudiation of the very possibility of these ideas, in much the same way an anarchist resists the very possibility of centralised government. Neo-atheism is a reaction against the very notion of faith, the possibility of extending possibility to anything that isn't physically measurable. I never understood the hold-outs who expressed some kind of "agnosticism." I regarded it to be some kind of ideological or metaphysical bet-hedging, but in reality it's just atheism without the zealotry.

Now I'm left with faith in nothing but the measurable, the visible, & the narrowly possible. In essence, the domains of the physical sciences. There is no wonder here, no possibility, no real cause for hope. "Maybe there's something wondrous out there?" The atheist ponders, staring into the vacuum of space in a crude aping of spiritual rapture - seeking hope in the most hostile, anti-human environment outside of an active volcano - all the while unavoidably reflecting on their own inability to think beyond such a limited scope of potential, & pretending this limitation makes them superior. This is little different to the priest who take a vow of celibacy, & fashions this lost element of their humanity as a sign of superior dedication. And it is! It is a symbol of their dedication to God, & the ideals that He represents. What is the atheist sacrificing their faith in service to? What kind of dedication are they enacting?

For me, I guess it was mostly that I wanted to be dedicated to something, but faith is embarrassing when you've the limited imagination of the materialist. Things that don't make material sense are, after all, "magic" - stories for children. I didn't want to be a children. Also, as a reactionary progressive by nature, the stale conservatism of Christianity was a serious turn-off. Community itself was also never an attraction to me. Nevertheless, I longed for metaphysics, without even knowing what the concept meant.

Unfortunately, "more physics" is by far the least uplifting, enlightening, spiritual, or interesting form of metaphysics humanity has come up with. Only the dustbowl marriage of liberal capitalism to its corpse bride of scientistic Enlightenment could birth such a bankrupt understanding of the universe. And sure enough, as explained by James Hennessy in this Jacobin article more expertly than I could have, the interests of liberal capitalism & neo-atheism align almost in spite of themselves. What matters is not that Sam Harris is a bloodthirsty sociopath, or that Dwakins is a simpleton, or that Hitchens was as eloquent an apologist for imperialist authority as Kissinger. What matters is that their core beliefs - their total lack of faith in anything grander than dirt - is like a waterslide that, scrabble though they might, inevitably dumps them into a materialistic brutality.

Whatever good intentions these men might have, whatever the good character of ideological neo-atheists or militant anti-theists or whatever you want to call them, your metaphysical beliefs - what you place your faith in - is what protects you from the brutish & hollow realities of a universe governed by selective forces, by energy reacting to simple laws, by meat things rubbing up against each other.

I no longer have much truck with criticising the fundamental metaphysics of others. Their politics, sure, but even when I can see those politics stemming directly from their metaphysical assumptions - as is the case with Hitchens, Dwakins, et al - challenging those beliefs is a waste of time. Beyond that, a war over metaphysics is a permanent war, it's a war on a certain type of person, not a particular belief or a resource or some political grievance. I prefer to keep conflicts as specific as possible. Political struggles are difficult enough without expanding their scope outwards to include more or less everything of substance about a person.

So then why am I doing so right now, in this very post? Because these are my beliefs. Atheism, for better or worse, is my metaphysic - an empty hole where my faith should be. It is my religion, & I will criticise its doctrines as I see fit, with the righteous zeal of any True Believer. Not merely because I'm allowed to, but because to do so is my responsibility. No one properly understands the hollow emptiness of atheism without fully accepting it into their heart. Without living it, without letting it form the basis for your understanding of every thing, you have no basis to critique it to the depth that I can. It is, at its core, utterly nihilistic - it preaches that with our deaths, everything about our selves will be permanently extinguished, that we are nothing more than animated meat, following a series of biological impulses, chemical reactions, & physical laws.

There's a profound self-hate to this doctrine, an automatic misery that applies to all aspects of life that most of us cope with by simply pretending it isn't there. Some take solace in their intellectual superiority, like a priest taking pride in his willpower to abstain from sex. Others use what I call the YOLO Doctrine, which is to simply live this life to the Max & pretend that when death comes, they won't be gripped with the Fear. This is no ordinary fear, either. This is the despairing, immiserating Fear of oblivion that moved Lovecraft to write his Cthulian horrors - implacable & unknowable, a direct repudiation of the rationalist order that the Enlightenment respected above all else, & which justifies the neo-atheists in their lack of metaphysical imagination. The absolute nothingness of non-material existence.

No matter how much you learn about the materials of the universe, no matter how far you look into the cosmos, no matter how deep into the space between particles or into the possibilities of mathematics you go, you can never reach beyond the Cthulian nightmares occupying the darkness beyond What You Can Know. They represent oblivion, the inescapable final destination for the death-cultists of the New Atheism. Dwakins derides the Christian God as a "god of the gaps", as it were, as the convenient filler explanation for any uncertainty. Because Dwakins is an idiot, & his fellow atheists are also idiots, we fail to understand: as you stare into the nothingness of those gaps, the nothingness stares back into you. Christians aren't afraid of ignorance, they're afraid of becoming monsters. They're afraid of becoming Atheists.

Nietzsche foretold our coming, & he saw in us a chance to rise above the weaknesses of Christianity's compassion & privileging of the weak. So far, as the guiding metaphysicians of Western imperialism, we atheists have done our job well. We chase child-molesting pastors with an Inquisitorial glee, all the while indifferently dropping cluster-bombs on children & drowning refugees in the ocean, knowing full well no higher authority will ever hold us to account. It is no coincidence that Sam Harris' atheism lets him talk calmly about turning Saudi Arabia into a bowl of glass - that is what his beliefs have conditioned him to do. For the atheist, death is the great equaliser, its inevitability divorcing it from any possibility of tragedy. It is an escape from responsibility, not an arrival at judgment. It is also, perhaps most distastefully, what allows our leaders to commit these atrocities with their mouths full of scripture. In a secular society, there is nothing to fear from religious heresy.

With no God to judge us, nothing is true, & everything is permitted. So we sit in our tiny secular universe, devoid of wonder or possibility, reflecting on horrors from the mechanised hell of the Holocaust, to the destructive wizardry of nuclear weapons, to the clinical terror of long-range missile strikes, to the detached banality of drone assassinations, and we wonder - why are things so awful? Why can't we address climate change? Why do all these religious people hate us so much? Why am I so depressed even though I did everything I was supposed to do? There are holes in us that no amount of sugary foods or internet pornography or exquisitely-produced melodrama can fill.

The most chilling part of this ignorance is its genuineness, which I can attest because I feel it too. I don't feel like, in order to be moral, I need the guidance of some higher being threatening me with punishments or tempting me with rewards. The thing is, though - and this is something Christians can't really say, so I'll say it for them - you do. You clearly do, because your behaviour is monstrous beyond anything committed in the history of time. The scale on which we deal death is quite literally without parallel, and it scarcely seems to register with us at all. For the atheist, death is a terrifying inevitability, & we don't want to think about it, so we don't. For the atheist, killing an "insurgent" via a video game attached to a killer robot is, ultimately, just turning a clock forward 10, 20, 40 years. Death comes for us all - you'd like it to be later rather than sooner, but beyond that...we're all just dust, on a long enough timeline.

It takes concepts like ensoulment & divine judgment to make us think of anything beyond that, and these are concepts that you can't internalise simply on the basis of utility. Sure, they might be useful from a cultural perspective - I pontificate as my democratically elected leader sends my fellow Australians to Iraq to kill brown people I know nothing about - but that doesn't restore my ability to be spiritual or whatever. That nerve cluster was long ago severed & cauterised in the searing-hot rhetoric of the neo-atheist writers who oversaw my intellectual awakening. So what am I supposed to do now?

I honestly don't know, but at the very least we need to confront the reality: secular atheism has left us morally bankrupt, entirely at the mercy of imperialist forces of capitalist materialism & scientistic rationalism. The wonder is stripped from our lives & replaced with plastic toys & bright murder simulators, & anything more meaningful than negative gearing is met with the weary disinterest of people who truly believe they are headed to an inescapable oblivion either way, where everything they care about will vanish to such a totalising extent they can't even imagine it. It's time we confronted, honestly, the reality of our terrifying death-driven metaphysic, & give some serious intellectual effort to a Reformation of our own.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Political Reality

I've been talking about "winning and losing" in politics, which is a concept I understand intuitively. For many, that seems very abstracted & too simple. How can such an understanding of political struggle translate into actual events?

Let's hear from Adam Brereton, who's forgotten more about Australian politics than I'll ever know. He wrote this amazing piece after the last election, about the function of Cory Bernardi's ridiculous tome "The Conservative Revolution" as a victory cry for Australian conservatism. If you want a copy of the book to read for yourself, paperbacks on Amazon start at 38 cents, but you can get the gist from Brereton's column.

The habit I've observed in many of my fellow Australians - of viewing ideological conflict as a side-show that plays out on the margins of things that actually matter - strikes me as the greatest asset of our era's revolutionaries. The policies of government, even at their most obligatory or banal, are more important than you, your career, your safety, your assets, & your relationships. Whether you voted for them or not, every decision that gets enacted is the focused will of 27-odd million people. These decisions create the world we live in, in a more profound way than has ever been true before.

Next to these decisions, your individuality is meaningless. Many are awed by the vastness of space, but that empty vacuum is of vanishing importance in comparison to the focused intent of that many human beings. Framing the individual as sovereign, painting politics as childish wrangling among idiots, presenting the movements of capital as mysterious & explicable only to experts, these idioms allow your will to be directed - along with everyone else's - to serve the interests of a powerful few. They are all misdirection designed to maintain power, not for evil, or for good. Just FOR those who can control it. This isn't a conspiracy, it's just governance.

Contrary to what our discourse encourages you to believe, you don't have to sacrifice everything to demand what's right. When a white man tells you that your way of life is threatened by a few hundred asylum seekers wanting to live on a continent with an average of less than one person per square kilometer, you know that's a lie. An intelligent mind asks "but what if I'm wrong?", and a clever leader uses that self-reflection to paralyse moral reasoning. After a lifetime of this, you can barely recall what a moral imperative is. Your fearful self-doubt is a security blanket - it's never led you wrong before, and the consequences for a wrong decision could snuff out everything you've worked for. You're merely being cautious, patient, even-handed, waiting until the facts are in. In reality, you're making excuses for your indifference, while others suffer. A parking fine you didn't earn will throw you into a rage, but an innocent man dying in jail at the hands of police is just a harsh reality of life. Some part of you knows these things don't add up, but it must be reality, because it's What's Always Happened.

It isn't you who gets harmed by your inaction. You're rewarded for it with security, stability, comforts. All you have to do is remain too uncertain of yourself to draw a line, to say "you will not do this. We demand it, and you will comply."

I'm not trying to move you to some dangerous radical activity. Like me, you'll only take risks when you need to. What would you do, anyway? Throw a bin at a cop? Write an angry letter? Donate to a political party? I don't even know, but I'm not interested in whipping you into a frenzy anyway. All I want you to do is pay attention. Know what's happening, teach yourself to exercise your own moral principles, to react with disgust & outrage; the most primal human responses. Do this, so that when your friends & family ask you "does this seem wrong to you" instead of automatically falling back on "who knows" or "I'm not sure" or "I don't really care about politics," you can guide them, behave like a citizen of a nation, instead of being yet another example of the normality of ignorance & apathy, cowed by condescending talk of complexity & dire consequences.

Don't mistake the comfortable continuity of your own life for a lack of change in the nation, or the world. Things are are changing more quickly than they ever have. Revolutions used to play out in gutters red with the blood of patriots in the capital, while everywhere else life continued more or less as normal. Now, a momentary failure of political will in the capital (safely removed from major populated areas, as it was designed to be) sees drastic changes across the entire continent. These changes take hold in a matter of weeks, not decades. No marching armies, no pockets of resistance, no messages carried across country on horseback, no communal bonds of shared history telling you you have every right to resist. Just a handful of white people raising their hand, and people go to jail, can't register their car, are deported from their country, can't get food, can't pay rent. You can no longer opt out of society like our ancestors could. Now, all politics is for keeps, and every change matters to everyone.

History is written by those who show up. Cory Bernardi has written his version of history - do you know what it is? Do you care? You don't like Tony Abbott's decisions, but do you know why he makes them? Could you tell someone why they're wrong? Why not? What is happening in your life that you think is more important than understanding these issues? When you dismiss someone like me who swears & shouts & calls for change, as being unhinged & unstable & lacking perspective, why is that? Why don't you care as well? What makes your calm indifference wiser than my insistent attentiveness?

When you read history, it's a history of politics. That's what in the books - who fought whom, what treaties were signed, who got assassinated, who won the election, where the borders were redrawn. Our lifetime won't be any different. What makes you think you're in a position to ignore these changes? At what moment in recent history do you think these things ceased to matter? Was it around the time telecommunication allowed changes to be enacted remotely, instantaneously? Or was it the time everyone became instantly connected to the minutia of everyone else's life, 24/7? Was it when wars started being fought via remote control from the other side of the world? Was it when we discovered that every inch of the globe had finally been revealed to us, that there were no more worlds to conquer? Perhaps it was it when we realised our very presence was ruining a planet that for our entire history was assumed to be infinite?

Politics is real, it's for keeps, & it's happening every day with a frankly miserable relentlessness. Cory Bernardi knows this, & it fills him with a revolutionary zeal. It doesn't matter than he's a sniveling immoral idiot - he turned up, he joined the winning team, he wrote the version of history that suits him. You can't be bothered reading 2000 words, meanwhile he wrote 200 pages intended to motivate & direct a new generation of political agents. And if he's lucky, 50 years from now, school children will read some version of it.

Everything around you compels you to go to work, to keep your head down, to buy the things you like because you deserve them. Everything around you compels you to avoid the morass of politics that is 90% boring & 10% horrible, & seemingly too massive for you to influence. What are you, compared to 27 million? You misunderstand - Australia doesn't exist to serve you. You exist to serve it, and in so doing, hopefully have the privilege of seeing your will reflected in the world around you. That's what gets Cory Bernardi out of bed every morning. But you don't have a lifetime to dedicate to leadership, like Cory Bernardi does. You have other priorities, so all you can do is pay attention, make demands, be informed, and don't look the other way when someone says or does something wrong.

You'll lose friends, you'll get upset, you'll have a bad time. None of that matters. Nothing you ever do will matter as much as one of the decisions these unqualified sociopaths make every time Parliament is in session. The matter deserves your attention - indeed, your emotional investment. No one's asking you to go to jail, or fall on a bayonet, or burn down a building, yet these are all things men & women have done throughout history for countries lesser than ours, sometimes with the stakes much lower.

All you have to do is pay attention, and treat politics with the respect it deserves. You just have to care about it, because it matters. You don't even have to read Cory Bernardi's nauseating book, & contrary to popular belief, you don't even have to vote.

By and large, people are right when they say only the deranged care about politics, but this should alarm you rather than move you to idle indifference. Politics is not beneath you, you are beneath politics. We all are, and if we don't take part meaningfully, it'll roll right over us and build us a future we spend the rest of our lives despising.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Inherited Entitlement Brings Out The Worst In Us

[This article is an experiment in writing in a particular style, one which I don't especially admire. It shouldn't be taken as representative of my views necessarily, & certainly not of how I write.]

As a child, my white anglo-saxon protestant grandparents served as an excellent counter-point to my white anglo-saxon parents. However, as I grow older and the time approaches for me to have children of my own, I lament the new generation of grandparents as they increasingly fail to live up to the high bar set by the Greatest Generation.

They weren't always perfect, with their casual racism and gender essentialism, but they were colourful characters, possessing a kind of black-and-white morality mixed with almost pagan ideals about virtue. World War II gave them a strange mixture of optimism and pessimism - anything was possible, but at the same time the entire banking system could collapse at any moment. They were stoic, no-nonsense people who taught me the value of respecting my superiors and of unfailing politeness, yet would frequently have a couple of whiskeys at the senior's bar & start singing bawdy songs at the top of their lungs. These contradictory attitudes and behaviours helped me understand that nobody is ever one thing, that even the most white-bread battle-hardened patriot was a patchwork of virtues and flaws, jostling each other to create people who always focused on doing what was right for their family and country. Their approach never made much sense to me, as a child more interested in my Game Boy than stories of the horrors of war, but I learned from them all the same.

I look at their replacements, the so-called " Baby Boomers", and despair. Gone is the world-wearied wisdom of their predecessors, replaced with an endless, high-pitched narcissistic whine about negative gearing and the cost of immigration. Don't get me wrong, my grandparents' generation could be racist as hell, but their racism had a purity to it - a genuine belief that some people were just Better. I never thought I'd come to view this kind of prejudice with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, but the Boomers have found a way: by framing their own particular brand of self-aggrandising racism in economic terms.

Non-white immigrants, for Boomers, aren't a problem because of differing cultural beliefs, or even an absence of Good Breeding, but instead by presenting an imaginary economic burden. Immigrants are stealing jobs, costing valuable tax dollars, having anchor babies all over the place. This self-interest is the most tiring kind of racism I can think of. Gone are the spurious virtue-based justifications for xenophobia, replaced with the cold, detached greed of the bean-counter. What kind of example is this going to set for my own children? Reducing people to mere economic inconvenience? For my grandparents, the threat presented by the Other was existential. For the Boomers, they're an unacceptable dent in the bottom line.

How can these Boomers be trusted to offer my children a useful counter-point to my own values, as my grandparents did for me? While us sorry Millenials struggle with the tribulations of actual economic difficulty, of a depressed job market and skyrocketing rates of mental illness, how can these self-interested martyrs be relied upon to teach a new generation the harsh lessons of history? My grandparents' generation derived their understanding of suffering from tank warfare, from the Kokoda Track, from the Depression. Boomers are haunted instead by the spectre of The Youth failing to surrender their seat on the train, or having their headphones turned up too loud. The Greatest Generation taught me that unimaginable sacrifices could be made in the interests of safety and prosperity, that you could survive the most lethal circumstances and go on to live an exciting life where every moment is a miraculous gift. The Boomers, inheritors of this hard-won prosperity, will teach my children that even if you have three investment properties it's an unacceptable affront for unemployed youth to expect the kind of free education they enjoyed in the '70s.

If this is the kind of example my children can expect, I despair for the future. Boomers have no concept of responsibility, no concept of hardship. They're softened by technology, with one hand out grasping for middle-class welfare while the other taps an email to The Australian demanding we close our borders to those suffering overseas. The Greatest Generation understood all too well the realities of war, but these Boomers consider refugees nothing more than a cost-benefit analysis that doesn't weigh sufficiently in their favour.

My grandparents didn't teach me to be a racist - my own parents were on hand to put that particular nonsense in its context. They did, however, teach me spiritual lessons. What it means to be an Australian, what it means to pay the cost for prosperity in blood and suffering. What are the Boomers going to teach their grandchildren? To view people as economic inconveniences, to treat young people with scorn for failing to enact the same courtesies their parents earned, and they expect to inherit with no effort? This concept of inherited entitlement is at the core of the Boomer ideology: a constant, justified fear that their own example has failed to garner them the same respect their parents earned the hard way. The Greatest Generation died in droves to ensure their children would have safe access to free education, but Boomers balk at merely paying their taxes. This isn't the example I want set for my children.

I see little reason to hope for improvement. Boomer entitlement is a pervasive influence in our national media, and as my children grow up and use their technology to access their national discourse, I fear they'll be wired-in 24/7 to a narrative of petty economic wrangling and political self-interest. They won't be fooled by the smokescreen of endless think-pieces about public transport etiquette and the ways sharing photos will somehow un-make our presumably excellent national character, but the underlying message will seep in: Australians are greedy, self-absorbed narcissists, inheriting an unearned prosperity that exists only to be squandered, while ensuring none of it is shared with those experiencing real hardship.

My message to these Boomers is simple: grow up, and start taking your responsibilities seriously. Put down your stock portfolios and cease this empty-headed staring at the Murdoch press. Your country is decaying under your sorry influence, and your grandchildren deserve the same kind of gravitas and depth I was fortunate to absorb from my grandparents' generation. Worry less about where young people sit on the train, and more about how they're going to retire after a lifetime with no job security. Stop talking about selfies, and start talking about a lifetime of student debt.

And for crying out loud, stop being suckered by chain emails. You're embarrassing everyone.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014


I want to highlight a popular mode of contemporary double-speak, exemplified in this short Guardian piece by one Peter Preston. He's bemoaning that John Oliver airs his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on the US' HBO, rather than on a British broadcaster, from which political satire apparently originates. That's fine. He then suggests this came about because British broadcasters have no stomach for "digging the boot in" & speaking truth to power, which is also fine.

The clever ruse at play here is the attribution of Britain's satirical cowardice to an environment of "huff-puff, humourless outrage", or what we in Australia refer to as "political correctness gone mad". The prestidigitation is to present John Oliver's success as caused (or at least enabled somehow) by American culture's more-relaxed attitude towards politically oppressive speech. He offers some examples of the "problem" at work in recent British discourse:

Jeremy Clarkson receives a "final warning" from the BBC for mumbling the n-word in 2012.

The BBC's apology for Iain Lee's casual racism on his breakfast program.

The Daily Mail lambasting Sandi Toksvig for comparing to Ed Miliband to a terminally ill child.

This is a patently idiotic position to take if one knows anything at all about the cultures of these two places, which is why he doesn't say it directly; his statements refer instead to a more-general absence of "bite" in British political satire that renders it lame next to the likes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His examples, however, all uniformly involve examples of institutional backlash against insensitive speech.

Aside from being factually ridiculous from a cultural standpoint, this shamelessly dishonest commentary paints over Oliver's total aversion to insensitive speech of exactly this sort, and the numerous examples of American satirists - such as Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report - being harshly criticised by the public for insensitive speech. John Oliver has indeed demonstrated a masterful ability to deliver timely and hilarious political satire, but he has done so uniformly without straying into the kind of casual denigration of minorities that has plagued vacuous, irrelevant dinosaurs like Jeremy Clarkson or frat-boy misogynists like Daniel Tosh.

This is the double-speak that ossified champions of lazy mainstream maligning of minorities resort to in 2014. "Look how much I love progressive, popular acts like John Oliver" they announce to establish their connection to a time post-1990, "sure would be nice if Britain allowed casual racism huh" comes the completely non-sequitur follow-up. This is not only utter nonsense when spelled out clearly, it's also a slimy attempt to "claim" John Oliver as one of their ilk of rapidly-aging buffoons. In reality Oliver obviously goes to considerable lengths to avoid speaking insensitively, despite his platform on HBO offering him an opportunity to do so.

Herein lies the actual reason John Oliver is a rising star of political satire and Jeremy Clarkson is Britain's most widely-exported non-lethal embarrassment. While Clarkson clings to a simpler age when the absence of social media protected celebs from the consequences of their toxic casual racism (along with more serious crimes), Oliver instead navigates the new age of public accountability via an ingeniously simple method: he just doesn't act like a disgusting piece of shit. While Peter Preston may share Clarkson's view that refraining from racist or sexist speech is so difficult that "even the angel Gabriel would struggle to survive with [it] hanging over his head," figures like Oliver give the lie to their shrill whine that moving with the times is impossibly difficult whilst still managing to be humorous and critical.

So now they resort to desperate co-option of those who succeed without indulging in the moral shortcomings of entertainers past. Don't fall for this rhetorical misdirection: the downwards-punching cowardice of British (and Australian!) comedy is far more detrimental to its success than the rapidly-burgeoning public insistence on political correctness. The "we just need to convince the public it's OK to be racist again!" crowd of decaying social warriors are on the wrong side of history. Disembark from their doomed bandwagon now, while you still have any credibility left! Complaining about political correctness is going to be the future equivalent of your racist grandparent who complains there are "too many black people on television these days."

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Feelings About Woodwork

My family has a long history with woodwork. Both my parents are capable furniture restorers, and my father has created several pieces of Australian history out of railway sleepers combined with his own talent & ingenuity. He makes fancy joints and uses rulers & whatnot. My mother not only restores furniture but has an astounding gift for wood carving, limited only by her refusal to acknowledge it's brilliance. My grandfather made walking sticks, when he was alive, beautiful hand-made things for men & women of assorted sizes. My other grandfather has restored houses in much the same way a very hungry person makes a sandwich - with a kind of desperate vigour, the results of which are usually strange but always reflective of a competent, if disordered, mind.

I've picked up a few things about the nature of working with wood over the years by osmosis, which gives me a profound insight into how little I understand woodworking as an activity. Dad's shown me plenty of wood-related things over the years, but in my childhood I never really understood its significance. As a truly aware child of my age, I was far more interested in computers, which in the early 90s were just starting to become routinely commercially available. My father used to build them out of parts, an activity I was enraptured by but incapable of really understanding. The notion seemed alien; objects were objects, they can't be broken down to components & rebuilt as something else. A pile of chipboards, like a pile of boards, was just stuff. The transformation of stuff into objects was dark sorcery. Still is.

I think about woodworking a lot when I read through job applications. As I peruse what must be one of the thousands of ads for jobs that aren't clear about what they involve, it's stark just how much like woodworking they aren't. There was a person, once, who in an environment made largely out of wood decided to make some of that wood be a flat surface at waist height, and that person took it upon themselves to tear down an entire tree, rip it to pieces, and endeavour to turn it into a table. I wonder often what the world looks like to that person, a world made entirely out of potential, of possible becomings. To see a forest and see an effectively infinite opportunity to create tables, chairs, clubs, rowboats, houses. I imagine what it must be like, to spend a day tearing down a tree and go to bed barely able to contain the possibilities it represents. To wake up the next day halfway out of bed already, warming your hands, ready to strip bark, cut limbs. The next day, plane the damn thing or saw it into boards or whatever other dark rituals are necessary to contort trees into furniture.

My own environment is made of very different stuff. My potentials are amorphous & absent, but nevertheless real. I drag myself out of bed after an hour of idleness, a vague hope that if I wait long enough, I may die for no apparent reason. Having arisen, haunted by the spectre of the disappointment of my society, my parents, my girlfriend, I try to contort my own limbs into a vaguely human shape before sitting at my computer. Still fuzzy from the small death of sleep and my mind slowly clawing its way into a full-blown despair, I begin scouring my environment for opportunities to enhance my own survival chances. Do I want to be an ADVERTISING SUPERSTAR? Am I a BUBBLY PERSONALITY? Do I have WHAT IT TAKES TO CLOSE THE SALE EVERY TIME? Perhaps I have the knack to be the BARISTA OF THE YEAR. Perhaps, if I really suppress my creative instincts, I could be an OFFICE ROCK STAR who TAKES DATA ENTRY TO THE NEXT LEVEL. I read these opportunities in my environment sitting at a desk made of pulped wood, and wonder if that first person to tear down a tree in order to turn it into a way of life for the next however many weeks it takes to make a table out of shit you found growing in your yard, ever woke up wishing he would just fucking die already.

The concept of being alienated from ones labour isn't new. That was Marx's entire schtick, if anyone's not familiar with the man's work. He was concerned that being alienated from labour would destroy the very essence of what it means to be a living being, but that doesn't sound too much like the words of a PUBLIC RELATIONS WHIRLWIND. He didn't know that in 200 years we'd all have essentially unlimited access to cheap furniture made of wood pulp, and that by that time we'd have cut down like 50% of the world's trees. He probably suspected. He was pretty canny about shit like that.

See, my parents aren't woodworkers. My Dad was an electrical engineer with a Ph.D, he worked in research and eventually moved into a management position. My Mum worked in an office at a primary school once my brother and I got the fuck out of her hair. They work on furniture as a hobby. So maybe I shouldn't be comparing my mythic woodsmith's daily grind to a career, maybe I should think instead what activities in my own life reflect this style of living, the simple abstracted action of taking some stuff & transforming into something I can use, with my own hands. Cooking came to mind first, but I don't really do any cooking because like woodwork, it strikes me as confusing sorcery practiced by people who still have their ability to taste things. There IS something, though: smoking.

When I smoke, I take a filter out of a bag, place it carefully in a paper, awkwardly pull off a pinch of tobacco (try not to spill any! That shit is expensive) and place it in the paper with the filter. Then I carefully roll it up, lick the thing, then finish it off. Ta-da! My own tiny piece of creation, my own small exercise in terraforming my environment, a sense-of-agency hobby kit. Then I set the hateful little thing on fire and absorb it into myself, imagining the essence of it mixing with whatever foul clockwork & steam forces me to keep living, doing imperceptible damage. This is my engagement with creation, what connects me to that one Noble Savage that so obsesses the white male imagination since Rousseau, I guess. That figure of legend who looked at a tree and saw a table. I look at a pile of bagged junk & turn it into a slow, painful death.

This is why, in part, when faced with job listings I desperately want a smoke, even when I've 'quit'. The nonsense of job ads makes me long for that fictional time when your job was clear to you every morning, when you invested in it every ounce of your spirit. When you could look into the eyes of your peers and say "I am a woodworker" and they would nod, the truth of that statement plainly evident from your creations. You would sit at your table, run your hands over it, remember fondly every part of the wood, every notch, every line, every...join, I guess? Whatever woodwork is made of, you'd feel it, and you'd remember the process fondly. Perhaps you'd take some solace in knowing some day your children would sit at it with their family, but even if something happened to it...shit, the whole damn world is practically made of wood! What could possibly go wrong? So long as humans have hands & ingenuity, they'd never run out of tables. I wonder what that fictional person would say to me if I told him in my time, we cut most of it down because people don't like to have to touch their own arseholes with their hands.

In our age, we've alienated ourselves from our environment to such a staggering extent that urban middle class fuckwit might as well be a member of another species. The very concept of wilderness is as an Other, a scary place Somewhere Else where there are Animals and whatnot, a dangerous land where you have to wipe your shit off with your fingers. I don't long for that place, I'm no shoeless hippy, I hate trees and I hate nature. I don't miss the Olden Days, or imagine myself as a Noble Savage, but I do often wonder, when looking at job ads, or waiting in bed hoping for death, or constructing a cigarette out of raw materials I extracted from the environment by handing a bored-looking dude some money, what it must be like to look at the stuff the world is made of in terms of raw creative potential, an opportunity not for communion with the untouched splendour of nature or some other nonsense, but as a raw material for realising the awesome power of human ingenuity. To have a Problem, and cast about yourself for the Stuff to create a Solution. Instead, I live in a world where all objects are designed. Every chair, table, computer, wall, sidewalk, power line, telephone, everything placed with purpose. There's no potential here; the potential is always already realised, there's nothing left to touch. The trees in my neighbourhood were placed there, carefully, with intent. They Belong to someone. Everything, we are told, is as it should be, as it needs to be. Even if for some reason I went out into the wilderness, if I were caught cutting a tree down I'd be arrested and hauled back into my urban origin-story & fined or thrown in jail. You can't just go...fucking with things.

So instead I sit at my computer wondering what sort of SALES GOD I've always wanted to be, how DYNAMIC I am on a scale of WIZARD to PARADIGM-SHIFT, and wonder in bafflement why I feel this compulsion to leave it all behind and destroy something & turn it into something different, something I can use, something that has meaning. Why would I want to go backwards? Do I want to wipe my arsehole with my hand? If the past was so great, why don't I go die of tuberculosis? It's because I don't want to go to the past, I don't want to leave the modern world behind. It's because I'm utterly alienated from everything around me. I didn't earn any of it, none of it reflects my cleverness or ingenuity or even just old-fashioned willpower or brute strength. Everything I own was designed by someone else, built by someone else, intended for someone else, most of it belongs to someone else.

Nothing in my world will suffer my interference with it, like a lover that will service my every need so long as I promise to never touch them.

(Inspiration from @Hoskingc & @Beliael. Thanks guys. Follow them on Twitter dot com!)