State of Hate

It's everywhere. It's a great time to be hating, and if you identify as Right-wing, or have neoliberal economic aspirations, which is to say you mix pathological narcissism with some nutty ideas about how markets do work and governments should work, then you're living in a golden age of unbounded hating, unleashing on everything that's difficult, doubtful, and you just don't goddamn like. On the Right, the key yardstick is how unhinged you are, how much you're willing to pervert all sense and logic to winning the favour and attention of the Tribe of fellow-travellers. It's a wheezy, contradictory blend of violent rhetoric about the Individual and how selfishness "grows the pie" and some earlier, prelapsarian-lite vestige of still desperately wanting the approval of an omnipotent overlord.

So we see these useful idiots, outdoing each other in raving about Muslims and non-white foreigners, hating renewable energy for god's sake, hating and despising science for pointing out where market mechanisms haven't solved problems, hating poor people and young people having the same vote as they do,  hating shifting social hierarchies, hating feminism and anti-racist work and pretty much anything that says we're all the same bloody species entitled to the same respect and a fair-go. They hate that. In their guts, the haters think that the rich and powerful are just better people, that their hating is a defence of the faith that immutable laws of humanity decree the divisions they benefit from. The hating is a feel-good drug, a badge of belonging, a nah-nah-nah-I-can't-hear-you against society becoming a better place for more people.

The haters aren't going to listen to reason, to patient arguments guiding them through the consequences of their hating. The haters are loud, and the amplification factor of their hatred is turned up to eleven right now.

Adrian

On Friday, it will be ten years since my dear twin brother took his own life, at the age of 36. 

How many times I almost see him walking on the street, standing at a bar; almost hear him talking in long, clausey sentences; catch a glimpse of the back of his head on a bus. Dreams, always popping up in dreams, still alive, still full of life, his blue-grey eyes directing beams of life all over the dreamscape.

How many times am I asking him what he reckons, showing him something that'd tickle his humour bone, sharing a thought and wearing his withering or agreeable response. But the atoms he was made from are all broken apart and scattered over the earth, and he can only re-assemble in the iffy memories of the people that knew him, on the long slow fade that follows us all.

His death is shocking in ways you can't know for years after he dies. Your children never know him, never know you through him, the alternate you. You never grow old together. And you never know why he decided he couldn't live anymore. Part of the deal he made with himself was that he'd leave out words, and let his death speak for him, telling you all he wanted you to know. You have to live with great unknowable things, and feel them acutely and in your bones, and they'll never leave you.

You failed him; the world failed him. I failed him. "Alea iacta est", he may have wryly surrendered, more Roman in spirit, single-minded about living the right life, than anyone I have known. But no truck with divine whims, he took from the story of how humans ended up the way they did deeper solace and richer respect for the better part of human nature than a selfish, inward culture could allow. And if he felt paralysed, a reeking choking mist descend on him for unbearable periods of time, unable to make the zeal real, then he wanted out. No phoney sentimentalist, not trading on the love of others he hated himself for and imagined betraying, there seemed no other way. We all loved him, he was not alone from us, but he was alone in the place that mattered, between his ears, for years and years, day after night after day.

Wind back the clock, go to him, cradle his head in your hands. Show him your tears, let him hear how hard it is to breath, how hard your heart beats. Be weak for him, laugh for him, be the love that he needs to have come spearing though his dark forest of despair. We have all felt this, those he left, united by being rent apart in grief and regret. But also with a rich cupboard of memories, overflowing with times spent with him, great times, hilarious, comforting, bountiful times. Everything I knew in the world as a child, bound up with him, bound together, then apart, then together again, always coming back together again. We struggled and strained, but always, we cared and consoled, and knew each other in ways unknowable to anyone else; there was someone that knew me like that, I was lucky, the lucky one, to have him at all. For 36 years.

Sterility

Sterility defines the built places we live in. The homes people build and renovate, the overwhelmingly dominant style of arranging living space in the homes of modern, Western people, is sterile, flat, free of context, safely anodyne and without risk or thought. It's lazy, all thought and independence abandoned on the alter of the factory-made, assembled on site, joyless and ordained by bloodless legions of trim people with trimmed minds. Rooms have no texture, nothing surprises, you are no longer aware of any detail after walking through them two or three times, there is no nourishment for joy and discovery and reflection. Our living culture, thousands of years old, now idealises the literal nothingness of the places we live in, demanding adherence to an emptiness that deadens the soul, and I can't bear it. If I see another house, clinical, proudly, unashamedly bland and expensively devoid of anything human-made, original, actually though-about in an intelligent way, I will scream. How can you live like that? You are not safer. There is no merit or purpose in feeling the approbation of the zeitgeist. You are no closer to solace or rest or grace. You have only surrendered yourself to laziness, to sterility, to meaningless, futilely groping for an easy, painless cure for doubt and difficulty and decisions. Do not fear those things, do not fear your self, be unafraid to risk and to try to build yourself a place to be that lifts and sustains and intrigues you. Do not give in to sterility.

Brief thoughts on gun culture in the USA

Another massacre of the innocents in the US by a deranged gunman. I’ve been travelling to the US on and off for 20 years and I’ve had many conversations about guns with Americans. Here are some thoughts I have.

There are many gun cultures in the United States.

There’s a long-standing hunting culture, passed on from generation to generation and these people regard it as a deep, core part of the way they see themselves and how they experience nature. There’s an argument about killing animals and “sport” but it’s not unique the US, and any attempt to curb it will be met with ferocious resistance. There are numerous criminal enterprises heavily dependent on gun-based violence to do what they do and there are no viable alternative technologies that wouldn’t force a massive change in the way they do business. There’s the military, and in the US the military is simultaneously a weirdly fetishised object of secular worship and a major component of the welfare system, so it can certainly act as a magnet for gun enthusiasts and nutters, but over the long term it should do a competent job of weeding those people out.

The interesting gun culture in the US is urban and exurban. Mostly, but not exclusively, male. And it’s grown mightily since the era of de-segregation and white-flight to the suburbs, and probably forms the majority of the US’s gun-owning, Second Amendment invoking, believers in the right to own any gun they damn well want. And that’s not a coincidence. The legacy of the US’s segregated past (and all of it was segregated along “race” lines, one way or another, and much still is) burns into so much of how the country operates. Guns are “protection” against those others, those desperate people who are out to tear you down and take what’s yours, a simple, feel-good symbol of resistance to any attempt to push your society in a more equitable direction when deep in your guts you fear being pulled down to the level of those you despise and regard as inferior. Guns are a salve for resentment. And living standards for most Americans have been going backwards for four decades now, and those uppity folk who used to live on the margins, invisible folk, they don’t seem to have gone as far backwards. Reality is irrelevant - guns are part of the politics of hate and envy that has utterly animated the Right of American politics since the Carter years and which the Right seems largely unwilling to question. This is the hysteria of US gun culture. It wins votes.

What can be done? Is the aim to remove non-sporting, non-farm-use firearms from circulation as happened in Australia? In Australia, gun homicide was fairly rare and while its incidence went down, and massacre incidence decreased to zero, statistically it was never significant. Also, there simply wasn’t anything like the hysteria around guns in Australia that there is in the US - they were never so deeply embedded in non-rural culture. And the government simple made licensing difficult and bought back firearms, turning a blind eye to irregularities. A buy-back in the US might cost up towards half a trillion dollars if the widely touted figure of over 300 million guns in circulation is to be believed. Certainly in excess of 100 billion dollars. Nothing remotely like that expenditure would ever pass Congress, not to mention the colossal nuttiness such a proposal would flush out of the creaky political woodwork holding the country together. Could the traditional hunting gun owners be brought onside with a licensing/buy-back scheme focused on automatics and semi-automatic weapons? The evidence would suggest not. Could the Second Amendment be repealed? Would any President want to spent his political capital fighting that fight? And while horrific gun massacres, requiring high rate of fire auto and semi-auto weapons, seem to happen regularly in the US, the annual body count is only, say, around 100 people a year. Any actuary will tell you that’s not worth 100 billion dollars. The vast majority of homicides, many thousands a year, are simply shrugged off as poor or non-white folks' business, or criminal-on-criminal, and simply carry no political weight. Massacres do, cop-killings do, and the occasional act of celebrity or political gun violence does, but most killings are sloughed off by most. Do you think that’s likely to change? Nope. So, nothing will be done, horrific massacres will continue from time to time, and the deep seated racial and economic anxieties of a country unable and unwilling to deal with the legacies of its past will continue. Hysteria runs too deep.

Education is for life

All I want for my kids, education-wise, is that by their late teens they have an interest in something, and that something comes with a reasonable possibility of making a living at some reasonable point in the future. School, in the institutional sense, may or may not contribute anything at all to that.

The chances are that they’ll get and develop their interests outside of any formal education process, but if the schools they go to can help, that’d be great. Similarly, the attitudes and inner feeling they have about learning will come mostly or entirely from their home life despite the considerable effort of the institutions they’ll spend many years at. I don’t care one little bit for the infantile infatuation with scores and credentials that obsess so many parents, students, and professional educators, not only because a child’s potential still has many years post-school to come to fruition and is poorly correlated with measured school performance - but because they are a wasteful diversion from the main point of education, which it to foster an actual interest in something that will be useful and meaningful in the student’s post-school life. Schools can and do provide plenty of instruction in the tools that kids need to discover their interests, but always it’s with a view to the measurable and assessable.

Evidence that this is not a widely held view, or thought-out desire for what it means to get an education, abounds. In Australia, by way of diverting attention from what seems to me the self-evident point of education, there’s the all-consuming politicised fight about how to fund education, with very little discussion about what a desirable outcome from it may be. There’s a ham-fisted debate about final test scores versus the family socio-economic background of the students processing through the system, and the dollars that are the primary input into the education system. Nothing, of course, about how it all plays out in the long run, say over the first half of the students life. But the funding issue drives the way the education system is diverted from achieving anything like what it could achieve according to my measure of a successful outcome - fostering a strong interest in something that the student can aim their life at.

Some observations here are essential. In this country, like all others, education has always been tied to caste and status. It’s only fifty years since free universal secondary education has been guaranteed by the state, starting from the late 19th century, but varying from state to state, and even by location within each state, and since finishing high school has been a requirement to go on to tertiary education, and because your family wanted you to be a doctor or lawyer or other profession, or wife suitable, then you had to go to a private school, typically with a religious taint. Religion itself might even be a reason to go to a private school - a century long program that managed to produce this most irreligious of countries. If your family has been middle class for more than three generations, chances are somewhere along the line private schooling has become a marker of social status - something that folks cling to, to distinguish them from the unwashed masses. Shame on anyone who falls for that crap, but many have. With smaller families and therefore more to spend per child, the illusory prospect of conferring status and prestige must be overwhelming to many people and seemingly more affordable, though it’s pushed an inflationary escalation in private school fees and enrolment numbers to record levels. Private education is big business and big marketing. And parents are too easily led into believing a lot of nonsense about their own teenage years, over-crediting their surroundings with fermenting the rich emotional world they first encounter as puberty kicks in. The same inner world would have developed hauling hay bales in a barn as marauding the sandstone cloisters of some tax-exempt pile with a gang of other pimply youths in clip-on ties. Some inner conviction, or worry, that parents can and must perpetuate this cycle lest their children fall from grace runs deep.

In this country, as in most, votes can be bought by the tried and true method of creating anxiety before subsequently, and with a knowing nod of the head, announcing the solution. In the scheme of things, education is cheap, with none of the messiness and open-endedness of health spending, or invisibility and massive cost of, say, military spending. Subsidies are key. It’s so easy to set the media loose with a thousand stories about “our failing education system” and tell the baying mobs we’re gonna fix it, and your aspirations for Johnny and Jemima to only associate with the kids of other like-minded, sensible-minded parents, with subsidised places at private schools. Oh, and we are going to allocate that tax-payer funding to schools where there’s already a huge financial barrier to entry, so wink-wink, we’re spending tax-payer money to subsidise schools that many of those same tax-payers could never afford to send their kids, to privilege the financially privileged. It’s plainly taking from the less well-off, giving it to the better-off, and attempting to engineer a mindset that perpetuates this inequality into the next generation though a manipulation of status anxiety and parental confusion, all predicated on the unquestioned belief that superior school educational outcomes can be bought for cash. It buys votes though, and voters top up costs with their own money, thereby ensuring their own confirmation bias is a sure thing and they’ll be reluctant not to claim full value and wasn’t it all just marvellous. Few ask themselves if they would have or could have paid the full whack had the tax-payer not been so generous. Doesn’t matter, they are in the club. It’s egregious and rightly pisses off anyone interested in social equity and who believes that a major roll of government is to break down barriers to social mobility and intellectual enrichment. On the latter point, governments will argue that low and middle income people are making good use of private subsidised education, but it is very poorly directed public policy that requires huge subsidies be paid to the well off in order to benefit less well-off folk. Funding the health system does not work that way, nor does public infrastructure policy, but education policy is so tied to the politics of vote buying and the great un-said of social snobbery that we turn the other cheek to its crass iniquities.

For an added paradoxical twist, much of the argument over public funding of public and private schools is hamstrung by that old economist’s bug-bear: only measuring inputs. Comfort or angst is drawn from how much money is spent going into the system, but little to no meaningful analysis happens to students on the way out. There is progressive assessment and there are final exams, but that’s not a measure of the success of the school in improving the students potential, only of where the student’s level is at that time in their cohort of students. Some reference can be made to socio-economic background, but it’s tenuous and makes for statistics with poor predictive quality. No tracking research, outside of the criminal justice system, is done on how the student is going, say, three years and ten years after leaving school to analyse what benefits their education may have imparted—to answer the fundamental question: what was the effect of the student’s education on the trajectory of their life? But a lot is known about the money spent and resources consumed on the way through—inputs—as though they are a good predictor of success, a deeply irrational assumption. It’s a tremendous conceit and must surely stem from the conviction that no stake-holder in the system actually wants to know lest the whole edifice come crumbling down, that the claim that private schools in and of themselves guarantee better outcomes is demolished. Certainly not the private schools benefiting from parental anxiety, status consciousness, and ratcheting political cynicism. Even worse, the funding formulas used to dispense public money place an emphasis on easily and instantly measurable outcomes, so schools are pressured to “teach to the test”, and the notion of encouraging a child’s genuine interests is given short shrift.

Coming back to the point made at the start of this piece, how has the rattle-and-hum of education funding going to make any difference to my kids reaching adulthood with the knowledge to pursue what interests them? I think it’s unlikely that my kids’ school experiences will strongly influence what they want to do with themselves or who they’ll be at the age of thirty. There are children for whom that is not the case, who come from abusive or malfunctioning family lives, where school, for all its faults, is still a far better option. But sticking with the case of kids who come from typical families with parents who want the best for them and work hard to help them, what could be done so that these kids see more options? For many kids, in the long run, not much. School is terrific for their socialisation and developing a sense of how social systems work, but then so are many alternative arrangements such as village life, or even a child-labour factory if it was run under enlightened operating conditions, and I do not suggest that as a alternative. The point is, school as glorified day-care is a reality for many kids no matter what the school, and while seemingly a big deal at the time, its lustre dims rapidly after leaving. And pity the child who is hammered by parents and school into a deep conviction that they must perpetuate their educational experiences on their own children—that they must seek meaning in some imagined institutional conferring of values and life-possibilities, where no such claim can be scrutinised. But what if education funding, a finite resource, could be used to improve life-long outcomes for children of all backgrounds?

If parents are so convinced that a private education that conforms to their particular prejudices is so important, let them pay the full cost, hire the teachers, rent the buildings, and if the school is run for profit, pay the taxes. Let those schools compete with each other on whatever grounds they choose. Let universities take into account the high failure rates that closely shepherded students suffer when the props are kicked away. Let the workplace decide the utility of lazy staff fixated on self-entitlement. Let these students cling to caste and type and see how well that works for them in a world grown less impressed by these things. Perhaps they’d also come around to the view that using education to preserve and reinforce social segregation, rather than as a means of personal and societal improvement, is nuts.

For the rest of us, what is essential to motivating students to foster and follow viable interests, to spark within them, every girl and boy, insight into where their lives will lead them and to begin acquiring the skills they’ll need? The answer is the same as it’s always been, that if it is not the students’ home life, then surely it is quality teachers, human beings trained to open doors for students that may have been left shut. Teachers paid a salary commensurate with their awesome responsibility, trained and retrained, resourced with the tools they need to bring the world into the classroom, this is where to spend the education dollar. With courses designed to bring out the best in students, not to simply and robotically assess the easily assessable, but to show a little courage and draw the student into the wider world and show that with effort and will, a good life is possible. And study what happens, get data on students’ life trajectories, and test all claims for education outcomes.

Diverting resources into some bizarre competition between schools and education systems and how to fund them sucks any possibility of reform straight into the sinkhole and demeans us as a society, defaulting to the “teach to the test” attitude and perpetuating a mean and capricious view that school is a place where kids get marked for life according to some social scale that is really a proxy for wealth and ignorance. The point of education is missed and we are all the poorer for it. It’s hard to see the status quo buckling to any arguments or evidence when the values of so many people depend on not acknowledging any arguments or searching for any evidence. It needs to be said that education funding is a mess and that by buttressing the private school sector with subsidies, and thereby enlarging it and the votes it can deliver, the public sector is drawn down to the same obsession with short term outcomes, with little acknowledgment of students’ long term interests. I don’t expect private schools to reform - they are in the business of convincing parents they’ve spent wisely and that’s entirely about short term results, mythologizing, and deceptive marketing, but the public sector could do more, and with improved funding, could make a big difference to a great many students. Maybe.

Gillard drops the retro stick on marriage equality

Astonishingly, this government ad campaign script has come into my possession. Here it is, in full.  

[Rt Hon J Gillard, Prime Minister, seated at her PMO desk. Looks directly to camera.]

Dear fellow Australians,

I want to talk to you about the subject of marriage equality. Put simply, marriage equality is the notion that any two people, provided they are legally of age and not married to anybody else, may marry each other in accordance with the laws and traditions of Australia. Marriage in this country is a public declaration between two people of their devotion and commitment to each other, and while marriage is not a necessary condition for devotion and commitment, it is the path many people choose to express these very human feelings. With that in mind, my government has come to the view that no people should be excluded from marrying because of their sexual orientation, and that to exclude people on the grounds of sexual orientation is simply contrary to the principle of marriage equality and the rights of all people to express their commitment and devotion to each other in the same lawful manner. 

We understand that not all Australians are of that view. But just as we, as a nation and a people, have come to accept the notion of universal suffrage, freedom of speech, and that the law ought to apply equally to all, we can also allow for marriage to be between any two people who love and care for each other. At soon as it’s practical, my government will introduce into federal parliament amendments to the Marriage Act, to alter the definition of marriage to conform to the notion of marriage equality. Marriage will not be defined as between a man and a woman, but between two adults for them to express and declare their love and devotion to each other. We urge all Australians to consider this issue with the utmost seriousness, and to communicate to their parliamentary representatives their heartfelt views on this matter should they wish to. My government views marriage equality as continuing the long and proud tradition in Australia of improving the nation’s social landscape, for all Australians. 

Thank you for your time.

[Campaign to start July 29, 2012]

Australian Media's Wapping Week

Today the axe dropped on Fairfax, twice, with a massive restructuring plan announced, and the somber news that it's now certain the odious Gina Rinehart will seize effective board, operational and editorial control of the company. Or what's left of it. Because Fairfax is over, its journalistic culture extinguished. Restructuring, of course, means downsizing and hoping for the best.

But let's not be too nostalgic for Fairfax. For most of its life it was an ardent supporter of the conservative status quo in Australian life, a dreary monochrome reflection of moneyed interests and social stratification. A generation of post-Whitlam editors and journalists saw, and felt, some value in tackling the pompous and powerful, reflecting social changes, pitching the broadsheet newspapers as progressive and enlightened, if only to an educated and, again, socially stratified reader base. It sold off or hobbled its tabloids and lived off classified advertising. Its culture bred its own myth making which blindsided the true believers to what was happening to how information is spread and consumed. A retiring, declining generation pumped it for all it was worth, and now it is near dumped.

Changes at News Limited are due to be announced in the next few days, but are likely to be large. There's less myth making at News, instead a culture that editorial slant is a bombastic reflection of His Master's Voice. The old maxim that the News tabloids exist to convince the working class to vote Tory is entirely true, and their broadsheets have devolved to shameless ideological mouthpieces devoid of irony, logic, consistency, wit, or history. And they are a poor business, funnily enough, and in any case unlikely to survive the demise of Uncle Rupert, crony capitalism's best defender. His successors are only motivated by profit.

A very great deal has and will be written about where newspapers went wrong. Similar will follow when television stations wither, as well as any business which relies on some information distribution choke-point - a printing press, a transmission tower, a shopping mall - that enables a proprietor to dictate prices to customers by controlling distribution of information. And by customer, I mostly mean advertisers, with consumers the content delivered to them. Radio is faring better, being cheaper to produce and more attuned to routing through the internet based distribution medium, and easing into a more diverse role. And television content as we know it today will thrive under high demand, just not delivered or paid for the same way. This story poses a seldom asked question - if radio has been relatively successful in adapting to the internet why have newspapers failed? Worldwide. There’s a vast realm of information sites on the internet, of mind-boggling variety and every conceivable register of quality, longevity, and professionalism. And newspapers embraced that. Sort of.

Newspapers failed because they were too big and tried to do too much, to be generalists in a medium and distribution model that simply doesn’t value being all things to all people. On the internet, a printing press is a few mouse clicks, it is no longer a machine for connecting eyeballs to advertising, newsprint, and corporate PR bullshit masquerading as something anyone needs to know. There is no incentive, no point to being a one-stop-shop. Being able to search for information on the internet has killed that business model. Why would I go to a newspaper to figure out how to spend some money, how to scratch an itch? In the hope of seeing an ad someone put there that just happened to nail it? Because I’ve read some interesting articles there, so I trust the newspaper and therefore favour its advertisers? Because I’ll read something pretending to be editorial that’s placed there by some corporate or political PR stooge? Are you for fucking real? You want to base your business on hope and some statistical model of large numbers of people somehow putting a bump in your histogram? That’s old person’s thinking, Uncle Rupert thinking, Fairfax thinking. Contemptuous thinking. Inside the club, sneering at the punters outside.

The idea that somehow newspapers, either in print or online, can be saved by quality journalism is wrong. People want journalism, but no advertising is going to pay for it in this age of frictionless information. You have to charge money for the journalism, then you have to maintain good journalism, because it will be incredibly competitive. Quality journalism is beautifully ready for small groups, who know about something in great depth and passionately, to write about it, argue about it, bring us to the real people that matter to that something. Putting paywalls in front of the likes of Fairfax or News and claiming it’ll support quality journalism will last about five minutes. Anyone bright enough, energetic enough, not weighed down and financially trapped by these cumbersome organisations, will wise up and leave and do there own thing with like-minded people and get the hell out of it. The’ve nothing to lose because without the monopolistic distribution of the printing press age, what does a newspaper really offer? Any goodwill is gone, the old dinosaurs of the print age will retire, but the desire to do good journalism, to get inside an issue and expose it good and bad, remains. Newspapers, big news shops, are not necessary, relevant, or workable.

And what possible point could there be to work for an ignorant, ego-maniacal, plainly nutty misanthrope like Gina Reinhart? Who would want to stay at Fairfax for that? The old baby boomers on the op-ed pages, some drawing a double salary from the Age and the Herald - nice gig, Ross - who will be left? Who wants the hot flush of self-censorship, where no threat to decamp to News or a neutered and pathetic ABC - which lies in shame utterly naked in its abasement to Tory intimidation - can be made? Is this their Wapping moment, where the culture is crushed and the staff bluff is shown, despite all the good will and good intent, to be hollow ever after? Maybe there’s a little more in Fairfax’s market valuation to be talked up before the final dump and death throw.