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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

A Defence Of Intellectual Elitism

I often wonder if calibrating the world for the use of the stupid has been the biggest mistake of the modern era. The democratisation of discourse and political participation is usually accepted as being the shining apogee of what has otherwise been a very dark and bloody few centuries, but it strikes me that rather than being the redeeming feature of an epoch of violence and hatred, it might actually be a contributing factor. Basically, I wonder if our strange compulsion to dumb everything down to concussed jellyfish level is the root, rather than the result, of all our more recent struggles.

How would it have been possible for the Nazis, for example, to garble Indo-European theory into the hateful master race doctrine if all materials on the subject were written in language they would have had no hope of either understanding or taking an interest in? Or for later racists to use Darwin and 'common sense thinking' to argue for black segregation if no-one had had the bright idea to summarise his theories in words of one syllable? Or for evangelicals and Puritans to so hideously twist and misinterpret The Bible if nobody had ever translated it into English?

If complex concepts were only really accessible to people with complex understandings, I strongly suspect the world might be a much better, or at least quieter, place. Of course I'm not advocating for some totalitarian Gattacca-like state where people have to pass an IQ test to be given access to information. My thinking would be decidedly more 'free market' than that. I'd just suggest that we stop talking down to idiots who don't even really care what we're saying anyway, and then see how that goes. In fact, I'm not even talking about intelligence, but rather about effort. How would it be if we lived in a world where people, in order to participate in complicated debates about high concepts and the fates of nations, actually had to learn how to talk and think first as a sort of earnest of their status as stakeholders?

I know there are many valid points to be made here about time, money, and basic human rights, but I'm not talking about restricting intellectual discourse to an idle moneyed class a la the mediaeval period. It's not the mediaeval period, and access to education is currently quite broad, and should certainly be broader. What I'm more talking about is a world where an article entitled, "Political and Racial Ontologies of Gender Constructivism" isn't automatically and inevitably paired with one called, "What It's Really Like to be a Black Transexual". Because the thing about the second one is that it's useless. First and foremost, it is not going to be able to tell me what the title claims it will – nothing can. And secondly, there are ideas so complex that simplifying them doesn't so much clarify them as it utterly warps them. If we're really going to get into it, converting big complex ideas into the currency of "tradeable facts", as I like to call them, negates the possibility of actually knowing or understanding them at all. 

I'm also not saying that education/intelligence and evil are mutually exclusive. But I am saying that having every discussion dominated by clueless, mindless reactionaries is not just unhelpful, but positively harmful. And it's not as if most people are invested in these big issues anyway. I don't think your average householder would give a toss about racial or gender politics if they weren't living in a world so weirldy insistent on their participation in debates they don't understand, and the outcomes of which don't actually affect them. Kate McCulloch is a prime example. It's abundantly clear that her position on Islam and immigration is largely derived from a complete ignorance of what the words 'Islam' and 'immigration' actually mean, combined with a social epistemological framework which more or less demands that she have an opinion on these things she knows nothing about and has no actual practical stake in.

The result of this nonsense in Kate's case is typical of the general political and social malaise we currently live with. Complex ideas and issues are dumbed down so that unwilling members of the public are required to process them, almost always incorrectly, and then white out the channel of discourse with their dim-witted, uncomprehending rambles and rants. Why don't we stop trying to explain this stuff to these idiots? Why not just let people who aren't either interested in or equipped for these discussions just opt out, as I suspect they'd rather do anyway? Just leave complex ideas in precise and complex language, so those who wouldn't otherwise be bothered with them have the perfect excuse not to. Then perhaps the intellectuals of the human race, freed from the onerous and time consuming necessity of braking for morons, might finally be able to think and talk productively for long enough to break the cycle of reaction and actually figure some stuff out.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Orwell And Irony

It is a persistent source of amusement for me that so many of the people, left and right, who revere Orwell today have not only never really read him, but are also the kind of people he held in utter contempt.

Understanding Orwell is not a simple matter of reading 1984 and Animal Farm. This is really only a way of accessing his literary persona. Orwell was a highly intelligent, emotionally conflicted, and politically and philosophically very complex individual. Unlike so many commentators of his and our time, he sought first hand and active experience of the things in which he took an interest. As a journalist he spent months living with tramps and the Parisian demi-monde, as an activist he literally put skin in the game in the trenches of the Aragon Front, and as a political philosopher and commentator he attracted controversy, hatred, and even government oppression by the simple means of deciding to tell, unflinchingly and completely, the truth as he saw and felt it.

This is revealed more in his essays than anywhere else, and it's typical of the way he was treated in life that his final wish that they be burnt was not honoured. Orwell first and foremost believed in The Revolution. He was intelligent enough to understand that this could come in many forms, but one of the many parts of the great man's memory we gloss over today is the fact that he was cheerfully resigned to the possibility that change might in fact involve the murder of the bourgeoisie and blood in the streets of London. His attitudes to homosexuality (possibly formed during a childhood at Eton, where he was miserable), women, the free market, and race would horrify the intelligentsia and insipid latte socialists of our times. And his bitter hatred for the compound word 'onto' would be simply confusing. But what I really want to zero in on is his attitude to Stalin and Soviet communism in general.

It's hard for us to imagine nowadays, but Joseph Stalin was quite a popular figure in the years just after WWII. Hollywood has re-written history in the popular mind to cast the USA as Europe's white knight, but before this process was complete, it was Stalin's Russia who wore that laurel. Popularly referred to as 'Uncle Joe' (Big Brother, anyone?), Stalin was the darling of a surprisingly broad range of British social classes and affiliations. The 'Soviet Miracle' was often gushed over in leftist circles, and what can only be understood as a deliberate blind eye was turned to the rumours and hints of horrific atrocities that were leaking out of the Eastern Bloc in those early days.

Orwell, being a revolutionary socialist, was surrounded by people eagerly participating in the lionisation of one of history's most appalling mass murderers. As a journalist and veteran of Spain, he knew at first hand what the Soviet regime was actually like, and he frankly and fearlessly spoke out against it. Animal Farm and 1984 were his literary reaction, but it's in his essays and journalism where we see the most direct and unflinching attacks on the Russian state. Of course, the result of this was to alienate him from his natural leftist allies, even while his undiminished enthusiasm for social revolution kept him firmly in the sights of the establishment and the right. One critic describes him as "a permanent political misfit", and this is very apt. But if we think about why that is, I think we get to the core of why Orwell should be the example every one of us tries to follow.

Orwell never made the mistake of conflating political right and left with moral right and wrong. He never once made the mistake of conflating that which was popular with that which was good. Not once in his life did he confuse taking a political position with joining a political tribe. He was guided solely by his conscience, his beliefs, and the gnawing sense that any slavish adherence to any pre-fabricated ideology was simply a louder and more annoying way to reinforce the existing hierarchy - to slot oneself neatly into current power structures and connive at maintaining all their present injustices, immorality, and inequalities. This, more than anything, is what separates him from the obtuse and mindless evils of both his times and ours.

Monday, 5 February 2018

For Absent Friends

I'm writing this for those of our friends who could not attend Kyung's service.

The Macquarie Park Cemetery Complex is large. There's sections for all faiths – a niche wall for Jews, the curious obelisks and broken pillars favoured by Protestants, angels and crosses for the Catholics, and even stelae and burrows for Daoists, Buddhists, and so on. The grounds slope gently down to the discreet main gate, and all around the parklands are dotted with pavilions, fountains, and stately mature gum trees, a ring of which also cuts off the whole complex from the noise and ugliness of the industrial parks and main road. Apart from the formal monuments, there are little personal acts of devotion everywhere. In random trees, on the footings of graves, there are small, handmade tributes – a paticular bouquet, obviously renewed daily, a carved bird, a hand crocheted heart with the single letter 'M'. It is a nice place to sleep for a while.

Kyung was farewelled in the Magnolia Chapel. I'd been there before. It's a nice enough space, with a curtained area at its head for the catafalque, screens all around, and those curiously uncomfortable seats peculiar to funeral homes. When the service started I immediately learned two important things. One was that I have never over the course of our decades of friendship pronounced Kyung's name correctly. And the other was that Kyung's family had no idea just how many friends, or just how well loved by so many, their only son was. I like to imagine Kyung laughing mischievously about both those things.

The service was pretty well entirely in Korean. It was clear that the family really only expected it to be themselves. It was also deeply Christian. All the while when the pastor was asking Jesus to take Kyung into his arms, I thought about how my militantly atheist friend would have reacted to that. Part of me thinks he would have hated it. But then, he loved his father, and I think he would have wanted them to do the thing which gave them most comfort. Either way, I think that once he'd thought it through he would have found it hugely funny – I never met another man capable of enjoying irony quite so much as Kyung was.

The service was open casket, which meant that we were all able to say our last farewells face to face. When the family invited us to do so, it was with real satisfaction that I noted that the queue went down the aisle and practically out the door. A mourning band fitted in size in some small measure to the size of his soul. I think his family were pleased too. I hope they were. They'd laid Kyung out in his finest. They didn't shave him, but just trimmed the Fu Man Chu he loved to sport. I liked that very much – Kyung will go to his long home fitted out as he always wanted to present himself to the world.

I ran into Jezza in the queue afterwards, when a long long stream of people lined up to pay respects to his dad. Jezza talked about Kyung's presence of mind, and his consideration for others. "Only K-Dog," he said, "would have had the kind of presence of mind to pull safely off the road." He was right.

When all was done, we all went our separate ways into that bright Australian sun. Some went to The Ranch, to pour a libation and remember. I suspect many, though, were like me – forced to re-enter the living stream of the day and work. But either way, you all should know that Kyung was sent off in real style, by dozens of people who loved him. I think he would have wanted all his friends to have the satisfaction of knowing that.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Vale, Kyung Un Kim

I was teaching this morning when I got a message telling me that my old friend Kyung had died. Kyung had been a big presence in my life during what I think were very dark years for both of us. We met in the midst of a mild bender in Manly, introduced by a mutual friend, and hit it off immediately. Back in those days, both Kyung and I were living on the ragged, bleeding edge of excess and self destruction, and one tragedy of his death is that I think the reason we hadn't seen each other in years was because together we tended to enable each other's bad behaviour. We seemed to be both going through a largely unspoken process of getting ourselves right, and I think we both knew we needed to be apart to get that done. It looks as if Kyung had pretty well got there, which makes his passing doubly unfair. And the other tragedy, this one for me alone, is that because of the way we interacted I don't believe anyone who loved him would ever wish to see my face, especially not at his funeral.

So this is my act of remembrance.

When I think of Kyung, what I mostly remember is his anger. He was furious – at his ethnicity, at everyone and everything that snubbed him for it, at all the world's injustice, the greed and mendacity of humanity, and at himself. I guess that's a big key to why we got along so well. I remember when we'd talk, solving the problems of the world, the incandescent rage and hatred which would flame in his eyes as his jaw muscles suddenly jumped out the side of his head, his fists and shoulders balled and rolled like he was preparing to physically rip evil from the world with his bare hands. I remember times when we'd be talking politics over a beer and staff would be shooting us concerned glances, edging towards us as if expecting a fight to erupt between us at any moment. And then suddenly we'd both stop, one of us (usually Kyung) would drop a gag and we'd be laughing like crazy donkeys and agreeing to disagree. I remember that laugh. It was a kind of high powered machine gun cackle, like his laughter was the steel capped emergency relief valve on a nuclear reactor gone critical. And I suppose it was.

Love, hate, fury, and laughter. These were the major components of Kyung as I knew him. He so hated evil and injustice. He was one of those rare – all too rare – people for whom the dichotomy of good and evil was a source of actual, physical distress. And his hatred of the perpetrators of evil and discrimination was an equally physical force. Everything about the way he reacted to the world was writ so large it was impossible not to see the immense love, generosity, and care for humanity which drove and animated him. And this wasn't confined to the abstract, either. He was a loyal, dependable, entertaining, and absolute friend. Kyung practiced total friendship in the way some nations practice total war. He would literally go several extra miles for anyone he counted as a friend. He never once failed me, and it is with bitter regret that I remember the times I failed him – failures I will now never be able to scrub out or repair. Kyung was the sort of friend you could call, tell him you were bored, and half an hour later he'd be at your front door with a case of beer, a cheeky grin, and a furious determination not to accept any money or thanks for either. Such a trivial example to illustrate such an enormous reservoir of generosity, kindness, and concern for the people in his life doesn't seem to do him justice, but it's the thing I remember most vividly.

I remember our long and heated political arguments, our twenty four hour gaming marathons, our weird and hectic night-time missions through empty, darkened streets, our clenched, angry existences seeming to be in tandem as we ate up the miles of road beneath our wheels. But I mostly remember laughing. Kyung loved to laugh, and not least of all at himself. For such a serious, intense soul, he was ever ready to laugh a great fat belly laugh at any or all of his own foibles. Another way in which his largeness of spirit outstripped my own. I remember Kyung as a man on fire, lit with profound, intense, and above all selfless concerns. A being constructed in proportions of greatness. I'll miss him, and I regret bitterly the failure of my half-thought plans to one day, older, wiser, and weirder, reconnect over a beer and laugh again about all the stupid, brilliant, and just plain hilarious stuff we'd done.

Vale, my friend. Sleep now, and be at peace.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Star Wars – You Are What You Eat

In spite of what the critics have been saying, I enjoyed the new Star Wars. Quite a few commentators panned it for being "meaningless", but without the eye of love and nostalgia, the level of meaning they expected was never an intended or actual part of the original franchise.

This made me think about the reverence in which we hold A New Hope and Empire. I first experienced these films when I was about six, and thought they were the most fantastic, unbelievably earth-shaking things I had ever seen. But then, I was six, and the list of things to which I attached the same value also included a random naked woman in some manga, my neighbour's dog, and the dead lizard behind my cupboard. In later life, I discovered that having seen these films made me a member of some kind of culture club which seemed mainly concerned with casting those who had not into social outer darkness. This was in my teens - that era of insane crushes, obsessions, and psychological cruelty. We would watch these films over and over again, reassuring ourselves and each other that they were the apogee of human creation. This reassurance became shriller and more urgent, of course, as repeated viewings exposed the real, significant, and manifold flaws of both films. They drag. They're heavily derivative. The acting is, in places, ridiculously bad.

A fair bit of my time in particular was spent desperately trying to ignore what thematic messaging there was. The franchise as a whole has a starkly conservative and practically mindless world view. The magical 'Force', a kind of re-chewed and regurgitated compound of poorly understood Zen mysticism and Protestantism is actually kind of toxic. It's deism. Or animism. Or maybe panpsychism, or spiritualism - it's really too vague and changeable to be clear about exactly what it is, but in any event it is clearly the element of the divine. So, this story element panegyrises adherence to ancient religion. We have The Empire, and The Rebel Alliance, with The Empire being evil apparently because it's an empire and for no other discernable reason. And the rebellion is in support of a dying or dead republic. Hmmm... a republic struggling to overthrow an empire - sounds strangely familiar. It's almost as if some Americans were re-imagining their own revolution, interleaving it with the history of Rome and painting it all over with a thin veneer of science fiction. With magic. And god. So the idea is that it's important to be a republic and, if we look at the way the two forces are represented, the more uniform, organised, and well equipped you are, the more evil. And then there's the basically moronic binary imagining of morality represented by the dark side and the force. The dark side is all negative emotions, which must be defeated - repressed, basically - whereas the not dark side is all about floating rocks and pashing your sister. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but the silliness of the binarism is still real.

For me, the message is one of subservience to god and a near libertarian conception of how the world should be run. This is totally unacceptable to me on both counts, and yet I spent quite a lot of mental energy on convincing myself that it wasn't so, and that these two films were the best sci fi films ever made, despite the fact that they're not really sci fi, and nor are they really good enough to justify such an assessment. It's rather like my first girlfriend. She was a nice girl, I assume (I never really knew her that well), but she certainly wasn't the paragon of all girlhood I furiously persuaded myself that she was. If I'm completely honest, she's not the one I wanted, but rather just the one I happened to get. And because she was my first, she blew my head back by relative power alone, and I spent the rest of my time with her trying to convince myself she was the best female ever begotten. Until, that is, I grew up a little and was able to see her clearly.

And it's the same thing with Star Wars. When I look at it clearly, A New Hope is a very good film. It's got so much to like, it's still enjoyable decades later, and it was clearly made with real love and care. But what it's not is a film objectively worthy of the reverence in which it's held. And it's this clear-sightedness which I think is most important. We're not just made up of what we consume, but also of the way in which we consume it. The way we respond to and absorb things like films also ripples out into the way we process the rest of our lives. The way we convince ourselves that Star Wars is the kind of masterpiece it's clearly not is exactly the same way we convince ourselves we like our jobs, can live with our partners, like our foolish and mendacious selves, and have some hope of finding meaning in our lives. We can find jobs we like, partners we love, meaning, and all the rest, but not without shedding the kind of thinking that has us desperately trying to convince ourselves that Star Wars is more than it is. Because it's this exact same thinking which, if we don't consciously attack it, we use to negotiate ourselves into accepting our own mediocrity.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Australia Day, Race, And Arguments From Non-Existence

It's Australia Day tomorrow, and the usual arguments about nationalism, the plight of the First Nations, racism, multiculturalism, and so on, are starting to warm up. I think we're all too familiar with the arguments on all sides of this often toxic and rarely productive area of discourse. Don't get me wrong - I'm not one of the Barnaby/Abbott brigade. I think it's not only appropriate but desirable, on a day meant to celebrate nationhood, to think about and discuss exactly what it means to be Australian. And I think that no such conversation can possibly be complete without considering both the miraculous prosperity of our weird little colonial project in the middle of nowhere, the horrific cost to some at which this prosperity was purchased, and everything in between.

But it's in the area of 'Australian-hood' where I think some better and clearer thinking can and should be applied. I believe that one of the reasons so many of these discussions are either distasteful or uncontrollably acrimonious is because they start from the hazy starting point of a purely instinctive and unipolar idea of nationhood. While the exact constituent elements of the concept of nationhood are debatable, it's probably not too controversial to say that the most common understanding of the term includes elements of culture, political/legal constructs, geography, and identity. Where discussions of Australian nationhood tend to spin out of control is in the areas of culture and identity.

I would argue that the vast majority of people tend to conflate individual with national or cultural identity. This is both natural and (usually) benign, but where nationalism comes into play the effects can be decidedly toxic. When we fail to distinguish the broad national ethno-cultural picture from our own culture and ethnicity, then change, dominance/growth/attrition of one sub-group or another, or any questioning or assertion of the broader national culture is perceived as a personal, existential threat to identity. A prime example of this confused and confusing kind of thinking is Pauline Hanson's inability to understand changes in Australian demographics as a phenomenon distinct from the survival of her own individual identity. What this generally creates is a furious argument over the protection or destruction of a weird national/personal hybrid territory which does not actually exist in any meaningful way.

Added to this is the vexed question of cultural memory. Australia is still very much in its formative stages, and is therefore replete with aggressively propagated myths of origin and character. I personally find that the school of thought which suggests that inherited cultural values and memory are compelling because of the fact of their being inherited is one which resonates with my own individual experience. For both native and immigrant Australians, the embrace of shared cultural memories definitive of national identity is practically universal, and these memories end up forming a major pillar of both our private and corporate identities, and one which we will all fiercely and instinctively defend. Where many problems arise is when these inherited cultural memories are not shared by all. The cultural memories of many Indigenous Australians and, to a significantly lesser extent, recent immigrants, are still very much alien to the predominant pillars of Australian cultural memory. Invasion, The Stolen Generation, White Australia, and other less than edifying episodes in our past are often aggressively excluded by defenders of conservative views of our nation from celebrations or commemorations of our nationhood.

This isn't just a matter of national conscience, to be dismissed as self flagellating black armband thinking - it speaks to the actual fabric of the nation. I agree with Bernard Yak's assessment of nationalism, where he proposes that a major part of being a nation is the "territorialisation of memory". Mnemo-narratives like Gallipoli or The Gold Rush are cut off from their global context and annexed as the sovereign culturo-historical property of Australia. The result of this is that a particular set of inherited or shared cultural memories can then be taken to define who is and isn't Australian. Where serious problems arise is when any attempt is made to exclude valid cultural memories from this sovereign mnemo-territory - such an act is, in effect, an attempt to culturally deport those who hold and value those memories. A good but extreme example of this is Germany's decades long endeavour to excise fascism from the current identity matrix of what it is to be German.

For us, it seems that there is a tendency to attempt a similar act of deportation around issues of race and Colonialism. And upon examining the (usually conservative) arguments for doing so, it becomes apparent that there is no better justification for this than a desire to put a stop to the uncomfortable feelings this raises amongst those who, like Pauline Hanson, are either unable or unwilling to disambiguate the nexus of national culture and personal identity. I'd argue that in order to sustain and build on the unusually successful pluralism we have already built, we all need to establish more firmly in our minds what it means to be an Australian. Nuanced, non-binary, and most importantly, inclusive models for building shared and inherited memories and values need to be built at an individual as well as an institutional level.

Change the date, or don't - the issue isn't, in absolute terms, all that important. But as a young nation, still consciously in control of building our national identity, we have absolutely no excuse for weaving intellectually muddled, mendacious, and cowardly lies of omission into our DNA merely in order to spare some of our feelings.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

In Memoriam

It's just over twenty years to the day when a friend of mine was stabbed to death on the beach. He bled out, lying on the sand in the darkness, while we scuffled with people whom we supposed to be his attackers, or ran up and down shouting a lot and being melodramatic. We were very young.

It might be thought that this event would go some way to explaining why I have spent so many New Year's Eves either in lockup, throwing up in pub toilets, or throwing bottles or chairs at strangers. But it doesn't. The fact is, I didn't know him all that well. Although I didn't acknowledge it at the time, the fact is that I was in a gang of sorts, and his was just another face amongst many. There was an inner circle, of which he was a part, but I wasn't in it. And I can't for the life of me separate my memories of that night from the superimposed memories of others, or those of other bad nights I've lived through since. And of those of the core group I did know, they all, it seems to me, used their experience of that night to correct themselves, and to find a functional place for themselves within the community. It was only peons like me who desecrated his memory by using it as justification for acting out even more.

This speaks to a broader problem in the life that I've led - that of memories. To what extent are we made of our memories? And if we are, what does it mean if the majority of those memories is putrid - a series of cankers rotting away in the deepest parts of our brains? It's been a while since I decided to turn the page on the life of viciousness and futility I'd led as a youth, but there are hooks in it that tug me back to those days, regardless of what I do. Which is another lie. Those hooks are there because I won't let go. It feels like a betrayal, not only of the people who exist in that long past hinterland, but also of the self that I left behind. It doesn't help that people I talk to speak smugly of 'closure' and 'moving on', as if they have the slightest clue as to what either of those things really mean in my context. And the feeling one gets hearing those hackneyed phrases is one of deep offence. Your interlocutor assumes the universal expression of puffy self-righteousness and says, "You're not that person any more. It's time to move on." And what you hear is, "The self of your past - the one that makes up part of the you I see today - is beneath contempt."

In recent years, I've taken to staying indoors on New Year's Eve. This is partly age - a loss of faith in the perfect moments of joy we so assiduously seek out with the credulity of youth. But it's also partly a penance. All the mayhem and hurt I've caused over the years will not - cannot - be repeated if I just don't go outside. And perhaps, finally, I can absorb properly the lesson that I should have learned from that pointless, tragic death all those years ago.