Australia…

oz_flag I’d be a liar if I said the Australian flag did nothing for me. It’s evocative of good memories from a childhood with just a few.

Memories of my Australian-made bathers from the 1970s, and a barbecue at a beach in Port Lincoln that now hosts expensive townhouses adjoining a marina, are frequently summoned by the sight of my nation’s flag. My father, being a fisherman, wasn’t always home, and when he was home he was frequently moody, especially as the years wore on. But at the beach, he was in his element, and the barbeque was as close as he had to a sacred rite. Southwark Bitter, in a longneck with a green label was the communal wine.

It’s a pretty stereotypical image of Australia, but it’s not one that was inculcated into me via advertising or viral memes, and obviously, it predates the popular hooliganism of flag-capes, vandalism and race rioting that’s been in the ascendant since the 1990s. But it is what it is; bathers, barbeque, beach and booze.

I’ve always been in favour of Australia becoming a republic, although I’m ambivalent about the issue of the flag. I don’t view it as so sacred that I’d oppose it being changed, and yet I’m not motivated to see it go.

Maybe, if I wasn’t as emotionally numb as I am, I’d get up in arms about it. Maybe, if I had a better grasp of my own emotional state, I’d anticipate feelings of loss at the prospect of it going away. I can’t say I know for sure.

The most I can muster from this introspection, is a realisation of how folks more emotional than myself may also be more invested, either way.

Other folks surely see the flag differently, even if only in degree.

More broadly, the concept of Australia isn’t objectively bound just to things that are popularly cherished. It’s not just slabs, thongs, zinc cream and shorts. Australian culture is anything that Australians can experience it as, and that includes the snake bites, the road accidents and the racial violence.

You don’t get to expect that people’s subjective experiences are recounted in a manner identical to your own. Reality doesn’t work like that.

When people complain about Australia on account of their experiences, there always seems to be at least one defensive patriot who’ll attempt to cast such objections as mendacious. Don’t complain, you’re ruining our party! That’s Australia you’re talking about!

It’s a pity that it often doesn’t occur to these people that the solution to this problem is to have an Australia that produces less avoidable, undesirable experiences.

Possibly the pinnacle of irony in all of this, is when people complain that other Australians should “like it or leave”. Clearly the people making this complaint don’t “like it” themselves, and yet they don’t pack their bags.

Where would they go? How would they get there? (If only it was feasible to send them off on rickety fishing boats, the irony would be resolved…)

If you’re going to have a debate about whether Australia is worth celebrating, or if you just want your celebrations to be more authentic, you have to get used to the idea that Australia isn’t just what you make of it from a casual glance. You need to be more outwardly exploratory, and more self-reflective than that.

As I write this, Australia Day 2015 is fading into yesterday. Caricatures, and narrow cultural cross-sections are standing at ease, resting in preparation for their deployment on ANZAC day.

A thousand and one lost identities will drop the clichés until ads for lamb and the like demand their deployment again. The fetishists will take a break from paying superficial homage to the outward appearances of sub-cultures they couldn’t really care about.

Memories of Australia will go unchronicled, their owners partitioned from the story telling – whole facets disappearing with time to the detriment of us all.

And those of us with more acceptable narrative elements will have our reflections reinforced by the presence of Australian flag flip-flops and bikinis – bromides for the comfortable Aussie.

~ Bruce

(Photo Source: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

Signs of the alien…

hockey It’s been just over a month since the loveable, cuddly, Shrek-like-grump otherwise known as Joe Hockey, apparently outed himself as an elitist jerk through the simple act of smoking a cigar. Apparently, cigars are the hallmark of fat cats, investment bankers and the like.

This narrative isn’t particularly convincing, and seems to me, more like a facile inversion of former Prime Minister John Howard’s out-of-touch remarks about lattes and chardonnay. I found it just about as convincing when Republicans in the US too, speculated about the dining habits of Al Gore and John Kerry.

In order to be petty enough to both appreciate, and to find confirmation in these kinds of damnation-by-commodity associations, people have to first be pretty well polarised for one reason or another. Welded-on party loyalists, haters, the politically humiliated, the desperate and the short-term-angered.

Which is to say, once you can sell this kind of thing to an electorate, you’ve already got them. At best, this stuff’s for shits and giggles, or for preaching to the choir.

At worst, which is often the case, its abject foolishness. (I include in this category, marketing-driven “analysis” that merely capitalises on the political resentment of a target audience in order to sell subscriptions and draw advertisers).

***

Now the budget that Hockey has delivered; that’s doing a lot of the left’s campaigning for it. If there’s anything that screams “Elitist Bastard” louder than cigars, lattes, chardonnay and Perrier ever could, it’s fiscally pummelling the stuffings out of the poor and the aspirational.

This, rightly, has pissed people off. Parents don’t want their kids living with them until thirty, much less are they happy to continue feeding them if fairly paid work isn’t available. Few Australians are willing to be targeted to take the brunt of the current account deficit, much less the many who can’t, or are less likely to be able to afford being weathered by austerity measures.

This is before considering education cuts, and fee hikes, and repayment scams, which a cynical elitist government could conceivably pass off to some extent, as Making Those Educated Folk Pay Their Way. A good raft of the fiscal restraints of the current budget are like this; potentially passable with old-school conservative guile. But a good few also, are clearly not.

At the time of Hockey’s supposed cigar transgression, Australians’ rage over the budget was starting to boil. A month later and it’s now spilling over. But the cigar had nothing to do with this.

***

Policy points are squidgy things. Ordinary folk don’t always vote on them, because they often don’t keep the details in working memory for long before something else in their busy lives comes along to distract them.

This budget of Hockey’s may be an exception though, much as was the Work Choices legislation during the last Howard Government. But if we’re talking about signs of elitism, other than in pure policy terms, and if we’re not talking about whether politicians prefer Iced VoVos over Biscuits Roses de Reims, what else can we turn to for a diagnosis?

***

On Wednesday, Treasurer Joe Hockey told The Sydney Institute that “…criticism of our strategy has been political in nature and has drifted to 1970s class warfare lines, claiming the budget is ‘unfair’ or that the ‘rich don’t contribute enough”, and that “…only in a closed economy, based on old style socialism, can a government hope to deliver uniform equality of outcomes”.

There’s a lot you could say about this purely on the basis of policy points; a mixed economy has been part-and-parcel of the New Left since there was a New Left; the Hawke-Keating government opened the Australian economy to the world more than any other, and few-to-none of Hockey’s mainstream critics actually seek to reverse this, or, one could point out that there is a vast multitude of possible fiscal platforms more equitable than Hockey’s that don’t even approach being socialist.

In short, in terms of policy points, you could point out that what Hockey is saying is unequivocally false; that it’s horseshit.

But being tricksy or false hardly signifies that he’s being an elitist dirtbag. Rather, what it does show us is that he’s either or both foolish, or dishonest. This wouldn’t be telling us anything that we don’t already know.

Currently, opposition leader Bill Shorten is hounding Hockey for his dividing Australians into a cynical dichotomy of ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. With little doubt this is something worthy of criticism, the banal outrage element amongst consumer-reader markets not withstanding. Indeed, if only Shorten could be more the media darling on this, that he was during the Beaconsfield Mine collapse in 2006.

What this particular language doesn’t do though, is highlight the very real division between Joe Hockey, and “Average Joe”; that he is not one of us. Hockey’s divisiveness, in this case, is pure demagoguery of the Alan Jones, or 1990s Current Affair variety, and like the politically dishonest and the foolish, the political demagogue experiences little difficulty blending in with us commoners.

Indeed, wealthy demagogues are particularly adept at passing themselves off as battlers or hard workers; it’s a good part of what makes them so politically dangerous.

***

No, it’s Hockey’s remark about 1970s socialism that does the trick, more than cigars, foodstuffs or demagogic bloviation ever could. Outside of the sheer wide-ranging cruelty of this latest budget, it’s this arcane and somewhat abstract point that Hockey makes that best signifies that he is alien to us little people.

Labor could almost be forgiven for not realising it. Almost.

Oh Labor

Despite the achievements of the Hawke and Keating governments, there’s still a fiscal insecurity lurking at the back of the minds of many an ALP member; The Spectre of Gough. Beating back the Global Financial Crisis under Rudd may have exorcised this anxiety to some degree, but I’m sure it’s still there in no insignificant measure.

So when the Liberals concoct an imaginary “Budget Crisis”, and the Australian public reject a perfectly fiscally competent government, you can expect that folk in the Labor party are going to worry about their party’s (allegedly) long-standing reputation for these things.

Only, outside of the political classes, nobody really gives a rat’s posterior about this anymore. The public’s interest for political history isn’t as great as the average party wonk, and is easily subsumed by urgency and practicality. The “Budget Crisis” was such an urgency, and the in-fighting that made Labor appear impractical, was clear, apparent and immediate.

This had nothing to do with the hauntings of The Spectre of Gough.

Similarly, and to my point, aside from the party faithful, and the welded-on, the Australian electorate couldn’t give two farts about Hockey’s venture into the shortcomings of “1970s socialism”. Aside from being factually dubious, which many a wonk will be tempted to address, and aside from alluding to fiscal ghosts, which many a Labor-type may be baiting into defending, it’s just too alien.

Talk of historically closed economies, and the alleged unattainability of attempts at absolute and uniform equality, are at least for the time being, too far removed from the electorate’s immediate concerns, which thanks to Hockey’s callousness, are now many.

If Labor want to take full advantage of the way Hockey has alienated the Australian public, it needs to jump on the arcane and abstruse qualities of his ideations, and use them to portray him for what he is; out of touch with most Australians, and utterly unconcerned with their welfare.

Hockey is far too busy chasing ideological spectres of his own imagining to be worried about us plebs.

A stark, alternative approach, would be for the ALP to continue overlooking openings like these, instead remaining distracted by their own flirtations with the abstract and the tenebrous, thereby opening themselves up to fair speculation that they too, are too busy with other things to care about the little folk. It shouldn’t need saying that I don’t think this is a good idea.

Shake off the fog, the ghosts and the long shadows, Labor. A strong opposition is needed.

~ Bruce

Phraseology for the nervous wonk

Ever had to interview someone politically charged, controversial and intimidating? Do your pals expect you to adhere to a particular political standard? Do you wish to sit amidst controversy all while being kept safe from criticism?

Do these thoughts make you quiver with a nervous smile?

Allow me to furnish you with a few turns of phrase one can use to help defuse such anxieties.

 

Etiquette…

‘You’re obviously very intelligent…’: Translates approximately to ‘please don’t make me look like a fool, I’ll flatter you if you flatter me’. Try to under-emphasise the implicit ‘…but’, so as not to lose the desired effect. May leave a substance of a nutty flavour on your tongue, or the tip of your nose.

‘People say…’: Not to be used as a weasel-word. Do not use with anything inflammatory, or people will want to know who ‘people’ are. This is only a throw-away line used to draw attention away from the fact one was out drinking with the wonks, instead of obsessively researching their article/essay/interview/etc (see ‘fetish’ below).

‘That’s a [any logical fallacy, preferably in latin]…’: To be delivered with the utmost sarcasm when addressing those who loathe analytic philosophers, scientists, engineers, rationalists, et al. Also helpful in the company of friends when the group doesn’t want to admit they feel they’ve been ‘pwned’ in an Internet debate. A morale booster.

‘They’re tone deaf…’: Means exactly, ‘you don’t think they realise that was an in-joke? Oh shit…’

‘Everyone knows…’: Means exactly, ‘I slept in, don’t ask me…’

‘X isn’t a team player’: Translates to ‘X fact-checked my stuff after I published it’. It’s a wise tactic to deploy such a rumor when sympathising with other victims of such ‘fetishized’ behaviour. A bonding strategy.


Culture wars…

‘I have sympathy with the concerns behind the Sokal hoax, but Sokal and Bricmont should have submitted their epistemic criticisms to a peer-reviewed journal.’: All you’ll ever need to know about the Sokal Hoax. Nobody you want to meet will know any more than this.

‘They have a fetish for error checking. They don’t see the bigger picture.’: Which is polite code for, ‘Fuck! They know stuff! Don’t let them work near us! We’ll look bad.’

‘The history wars in Australia, like the science wars…’: They are the same, apparently. Otherwise, if this weren’t true, Australian academics would look a lot less cosmopolitan.

‘Culture war Group X is just like Group Y’: Translates to ‘our group is better than Culture War Group X, or Culture War Group Y, so we didn’t need to read any of their shit.’ Further justification for spending time drinking with fellow wonks.


Oz Politics…

‘Well, I’m not ideologically opposed to a mining tax…’: In using this phrase, one wants to emphasise the non-existent ‘…but’ before the point of accidentally committing to anything. No, you do support a mining tax; you’re not any kind of opposed to it. It’s just that the rabid dude with the misogynistic Juliar placard gives you an incentive to sound uneasy about what are your true convictions. It’s either that, or finding a bucket of water to help shoo the spittle-flecked rage zombie away from your car.

‘Kids are smart. They can see through stuff. I’m an atheist/secular christian/modern Muslim/etc, but why not teach creationism in public school science classes if they’re curious?’: This isn’t advocacy for creationism – don’t worry about that. It’s not like you want alchemy taking up time in chemistry classes, climate denialism eating away the hours in Earth Science, or astrology cluttering up SOSE either. The approach is a delaying tactic. It’s a conditional statement. You can always at some later point, claim that the kids aren’t curious, and that way everyone else looks more confrontational and unreasonable than you; both the people who opposed it up-front, and those making creationist demands once The Science of The Flintstones isn’t delivered.

‘I was for the ALP conscience vote over marriage equality.’: Be a person of conscience while also not comitting yourself! No anxiety there. Nobody will notice. Honest.

…relatedly…

‘We need to be bi-partisan about this.’: It may be a white-hot issue where one side is clearly, as a matter of fact, in the wrong, but never underestimate how much time bi-partisanship can save for you to catch up on lost sleep. Let the consensus builders on the ground labour over the details. You’ve got a bender to sleep off.

‘Well, I’m glad you have such an ability to read people’s minds’. Now, you’re supposed to be sarcastic about this. Your expressed concern is that you don’t like people making baseless accusations about motive. Your actual concern is that the person you’re dealing with may know something you don’t. If you passive-aggressively have at them in small cuts, and if you can get others in on the act, perhaps you can wear your opponent down before they get the chance to show how they’re more cluey than you. All of this, while you appear to be acting responsibly. Nice, huh? (Trust me, nobody will realise you’re an asshole for this).

 

Terminology…

‘Secularism’: How religious people are suppressed. To be shunned.

‘Secular Christian’: Someone causing cognitive dissonance best projected back at them.

‘Fundamentalist Christian’: A target, if you’re going to criticise religion, best suited to your ability. A replacement for Stephen Fielding needs to be established for precisely this purpose, but preferably not in a position to start fights this time around. One doesn’t want to have to deal with interested parties with inflamed emotions.

‘Muslims’: All alike. In a good way of course. Flatter them without considering what you’re actually implying by flattering them. Awkward to ask the opinions of – use the smallest possible sample of their opinions. Avoid the accurate polling of. Avoid any polling of. Just say things you guess will sound nice. Pretend to listen when they speak (they’re used to it).

‘Islamophobia’: Something nobody is ever entirely sure what anyone else means by it, yet still something not to be accused of. Play it safe by not disagreeing with anyone using the term. Nod your head when you hear it. Pretend to understand.

‘Jains’: Objects used to show how religion isn’t violent, despite such use implying that non-Jain religion is more violent. Emphasise the former, ignore the implications. Like Muslims, don’t actually ask for their opinions – just talk about them in their absence.

‘Agnostics’: Approachable, non-confrontational, respectful, open-minded atheists.

‘Atheists’: Close-minded scum. Best dismissed. Do not admit you are one (see ‘agnostic’).

‘New Atheists’: What Guy Rundle said. Never disagree with this definition.

‘Deists’: Something from history books you don’t want to read.

‘Equal time’: A media strategy to be avoided in matters of uncontroversial fact, except when you don’t want scary people calling you close-minded, and sending you dead cats in the mail.

‘Science’: To be rallied for, until someone calls you an imperialist. Then rail against.

‘Statistics’: A great way to debunk misconceptions about asylum seekers, amongst other things, up until the point where you’re accused of being ‘reductionist’. See ‘science’.

‘Reductionist’: Shit involving numbers and squiggly lines, but not feelings. See ‘science’.

‘Fetish’: When someone does something you don’t like, once, it’s annoying. Any more than once, and its a fetish – to be written off as such.

‘Left-wing’: A grouping best not defined until you want someone excommunicated.

‘Right-wing’: The grouping of people you disagree with, including disagreeable people who call themselves ‘left-wing’.

‘Libertarian’: A sin-bin for people kicked out of, or not wanting to be, in either the left or right-wing.

‘Civil libertarian’: Someone who fights for equal rights. Alternatively, a scapegoat for the Global Financial Crisis when one is intimidated by more radical wonks.

‘Free-market fundamentalist / liberal absolutist’: Normally of the far right-wing, but when convenient, a term applicable to ‘civil libertarians’, irrespective of their actual views.

‘Non-political person’: A political person, only when they can’t hear you talking about them. Someone to be humoured in-person.

‘The status quo’: Something not to be criticised in the proximity of ‘non-political persons’.

‘Foreign correspondent’: Someone having earned the right of entry to more wine bars than you.

‘Ethics’: Either the name of a nit-picking department, or a field of study it is polite to suggest people, of all persuasions, are equally good at.

‘Homophobia’: Hating, or desiring to repress gay, lesbian or bisexual people. Unless done by the right kinds of religion, or done in the name of thinking of the children.

‘Misogyny’: Something other groups do more than your own. You were only kidding.

‘Racism’: A conventional word there’s little confusion about, leaving little room for colourful interpretation, or equivocation. Avoid using when you anticipate having to defend an accusation. Instead choose something more exotic and vague so you can never be wrong, or called upon to present evidence.

‘Social Justice’: When your lecturer’s, or favourite radical columnist’s enemies, get their comeuppance. Alternatively, only when not contradicting this, when the disadvantaged get a leg-up in life.

‘Multiculturalism’: The only model ever devised to help people from different backgrounds get along. Only one version of this model exists. Somehow, somewhere, someone smarter than you must know what this one model is, and what it means, and you defer to them in all things multicultural, except when making accusations. Any attempts at the nuanced discussion of, are to be viewed with suspicion, and interpreted as categorical attacks upon. Invoke liberally in defence of your views, and the views of others agreeing with you.

‘Orientalism’: When people represent the interests, aspirations and cultures of the East, and the Middle East, without consultation with the media and/or persons of these cultures. Except when saying something patronising about them. Don’t be an ‘orientalist’; be patronising.

‘Media literacy’: Something you always have the good fortune to be at the pinnacle of. A continuum by which to judge everyone else.

‘Dog-whistling’: Something a political journalism goddess like Annabel Crabb would infer only after observing a politician long enough to couch their rhetoric in the relevant contextual details. Something you allege to conveniently dismiss people smarter than you, out of hand. Anything can be dog-whistling. ‘Some Christians like ice-cream.’ – Why that’s code for people to marginalise Christians! Egad!

‘Annabel Crabb’: The lady whose effigy sits atop your Christmas tree. *Sigh*

‘Hipster’: People other than you, who ironically believe they were listening to Daft Punk before you. Have a substantial cross-over with political wonkdom on Venn diagrams of inner-city types. Used Venn diagrams before they were popular with mathematicians, including John Venn.

‘Irony’: Anomie.

‘Sarcasm’: Any form of snark not unintentionally ‘ironic’.

‘Camp’: Kitsch.

‘Kitsch’: Camp.

 

Conclusion

Now you may have noticed this advice puts you in a position to contribute approximately zero new analysis to the political scene. Screw that. The point is that you don’t come across as a trouble maker (even if you are one). This is good for your career, and it’s your career that matters, isn’t it?

Of course, after you’ve established a niche, you may need to break from it once you’ve tapped all it has to offer, in order to go on to greener pastures. If this happens, consider that you would have by then, put yourself in a wonderful position to capitalise on a conversion narrative, decrying all of the above.

Some think-tank would want you, somewhere. It’s all good.

Relax, and don’t take things too seriously. Merry Christmas.

~ Bruce

Lumpentour #3

Sorry to keep you waiting for so long since the last leg. People kept asking me for a light. Long story.

You didn’t get mugged or nuthin’, did you? Good. Let’s get moving then.

***

It’s slicker than I remember (2011)

Elizabeth Shopping Centre! I can remember when it was John Martin’s instead of Myer, but alas, John Martin’s went belly up at the end of the 1990s. They were one of the better employers in retail, too.

Of course, they’re all up against the wall now, about to be shot to bits by online sales.

(Dear upper management; it’s service provision that’s the issue, not the employees, nor the things you’ve been obsessively tweak-and-squeezing for the last decade).

How this place has changed… It’s all so shiny.

I can remember an episode here once after work, in ’97 or ’98, when public smoking restrictions were first being implemented. In the thickest, most nasally affected Strine, Miss Bogan announced to all and sundry, ‘The Sissem wun stomme frumm smokin’ wereawanna [fark fark fark!]’. And it didn’t, or at least it didn’t for as long as I watched her light up and puff her fumes indoors.

Who says you can’t fight The Sissem?

Never saw her again, mind you. Maybe she’s hidden in an abandoned bank somewhere, pickled in a barrel. Continue reading

Lumpentour #2

Okay, I’m back. You didn’t get into any trouble since I left you last time?

Maybe you did… Stiff bickies. It’s Elizabeth. Let the tour continue.

***

High Voltage! (2011)

And some people leave their kids playing next to this…

I could hear something arcing while I was taking this photo. And I could have sworn the sound was closer to the gate than anything else.

Anyway, this being bogan territory, if you’re going to continue this tour of the way I used to walk home from work, maybe you’d like to pop in some earphones and strut to something suitably ridiculous. High Voltage!

Continue reading

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism

The Australian Book of Atheism, edited by Warren Bonett.

Publisher: Scribe.

The answer isn’t self-evident; ‘what need is there for a book on atheism with a distinct Australian perspective?’

With this question in mind I made my purchase via the editor’s bookstore, Embiggen Books. Not because I was sure of an answer, but precisely because I wasn’t, the purchase was mandated.

With the various Otherings; the specter of the ‘New Atheist’ monolith; the fearful Easter sermons and the often boilerplate News Limited response, there’s clearly utility in compiling an anthology of varied atheist views, even down under in laid-back Australia.

But why Australian atheists? Being Australian doesn’t make you any more or less of an atheist, and vice versa.

***

Some way from the introduction, nestled away at the end of the discussion on politics, the editor makes his case proper; the inappropriateness of Australia’s apathy toward religion – particularly where sectarian interests are embrangled with tolerant secular politics – is what demands the expression of particularly Australian, godless perspectives.

But Australians are laid-back about these things, automatically providing us with tolerant, secular pluralism, right? Atheists elsewhere in the world look to Australia with envy!

If The Australian Book of Atheism has anything to teach you about this, the answer is ‘no’: Taking it easy, and taking ‘taking it easy’ for granted as far as religion is concerned, can permit if not precipitate sectarian politics.

Bonnet rightly highlights the absurdities opined by apologists like Prof. Tom Frame and Paul Kelly, who hysterically re-cast criticism made in good faith and fair humour, as catalysts for the erosion of religious rights and an eventual decline into secular moral nihilism, and even the bogey man of social Darwinism. This is truly Glenn Beck territory, yet a book from an atheist perspective pointing out how wrong it is to see this paranoia running mainstream, risks being marginal.

Anyone who pays serious attention to human rights will know that the affinity for outlawing blasphemy usually finds expression in the repressive treatment of minorities, often accompanied by a self-pitying assumption of victim status by the majority. The latter attitude, majoritarian self-pity, which Bonett identifies in Frame and Kelly and justly describes as the ‘endangered species fallacy’, is again, Glenn Beck territory. While the degree of this repression may not be as much in the developed world as elsewhere, particularly not Australia, Bonett’s book still manages to position itself on high moral ground against popular moral panic.

Many examples given elsewhere in the book are less abstract and are all the more confronting because of it.

While you may debate the emphasis, and question some of the facts given by Max Wallace, and similarly the interpretation of points of contention raised by Clarence Wright, early in the reading you’re palpably confronted with historical and social truths that must shake secular apathy to the core. Thanks to Wright, I’ll never look at S116 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution the same way again, nor take for granted its (flawed) capacity to grant rights equally. (Nor for that matter, the long grasp of Thomas Aquinas).

Of course, none of these facts occur in a contextual vacuum.

The role of religious apathy, and affirmative irreligion in shaping Australian history (not just the roles in our history that happen to have been filled by the godless) has been overlooked, according to Chrys Stevenson.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Historically, serious academically-minded Australian religiosity has woven its way through much of the middle class; the section of society that’s penned much of the nation’s history. Rather than being a peccadillo of well-off naturalists as it’s often portrayed, Australian atheism has, according to Stevenson, a rich working-class tradition. Perhaps this could be why it doesn’t see due representation in the narrative.

Identifying more strongly on the grounds of class than religion, I like to think that all else being equal, I have more in common with working class Christians than, middle-class atheists. I find Stevenson’s contribution, and her call to further investigation, an invitation to have this self-identification refined, if not challenged.

Commendably, and giving hope for the future of her project, there doesn’t seem a hint of fudging for the sake of apologia, rather the opposite. The particular ugliness of much of Henry Rusden’s thought (specifically his actual social Darwinism), is brought to the fore as an example of the dark side of Australian atheist history. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

***

Tanya Levin and Hon. Lee Rhiannon would dominate the autobiographical entries, if not for the powerful way in which the powerful experiences of Dr Collette Livermore are communicated; the story of someone coming to terms with life after leaving the faith, and Mother Teresa’s order. No disrespect to Robyn Williams, David Horton or the always entertaining Tim Minchin (all well worth a read), but the competition in the personal accounts is just that good.

Indeed, the women find almost equal representation in this book, which is an improvement over many, many texts, and they certainly hold their own in the quality of their writing and argument; an appreciation of which is really mandated of the reader.

Education gets a good looking-over, with Hugh Wilson of the Australian Secular Lobby exposing the state of affairs in Queensland’s not-at-all-secular public education system. Moving along, Prof. Graham Oppy’s take on ‘Evolution vs Creationism’ in Australian Schools is a bit heavy on respect for Ian Plimer for my tastes, although yes, Plimer could amongst other things be called the ‘most spectacular opponent of creationism in Australia’ [emphasis mine].

This criticism not withstanding, Oppy’s contribution is illuminating even if you’re already relatively well-informed on the various attempts to squeeze creationism into Australian schools. Furthermore, Prof. Oppy’s analysis demonstrates true erudition on the politics of the matter as concerning the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which is refreshing and much-needed given some of the recent moral panic surrounding the authority.

Kylie Sturgess writes of her experience as an atheist employee of a religious school; the dodging of awkward, tangential points because you’ve got other things you should be focusing on; the apathy about difference that kicks in when you just need a break; the anxiety that perhaps differences if unexamined will get in the way of what you’re supposed to be doing, and the hope that the force behind the lack of conflict will effectively put an end to the issue of difference.

To me, this is familiar territory because it also describes experiences I’ve had as an atheist volunteer in religious not-for-profit organisations. Yet the author expresses these difficult concerns with such clarity, I suspect most readers won’t need similar experiences to take something away her contribution.

Australian pluralism does rely largely on the logic of the law, but reform, better interpretation and application, all require insights into political realities as well. The kinds of experiences Sturgess illustrates are I think a necessary part of any serious consideration, both when generalised and in specific settings such as education. Often the perspectives of ‘the Other on the inside’ are overlooked by simple way of organisational reality, which makes a book that publishes them all the more important.

***

Topics progress to matters social, political and philosophical, which the general reader may find more familiar.

Dr Leslie Cannold is as anyone familiar with her writing would expect, educational on the matter of abortion in Australia, and the role of religion in shaping discussion of the topic and realisation of its politics.

Dr Philip Nitschke’s ‘Atheism and Euthanasia’ is a must read for anyone seriously supporting the right to die peacefully, Australian or not, atheist or not.

Rosslyn Ives continues the contemplation of living and dying, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time looking after the disabled (Ives is a carer, in addition to being the President of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies). Her treatment of the philosophy of Peter Singer is informed and accurate, and given the context of the disabled (Ives is a carer), this is especially important; Singer’s views as they pertain to care for the disabled in particular have been routinely misrepresented by both religious and allied reactionaries.

The detail of Ives’ perspective fleshes out humane concerns for quality of life shared by many good Australians, but in ways seemingly not apt to reduction by pundits to cheap allusion. I think in this respect Ives may perform better as a spokesperson for quality of life than even Singer or Nitschke.

Dr Russell Blackford, in ‘Atheists for Free Speech’, convincingly and with an unflinchingly rational approach, deals with freedom of expression in Australia as it pertains to religious matters. This is undertaken with a welcome degree of sobriety that seems all-too-often absent from such public discussions; firm but fair, and sane.

Too often these matters are caught between hyperbolic, knee-jerk, credulous accusations of hate crime on one side, while on the other, syphilitic rhetoric is imported from foreign culture wars to frame the Australian situation as being as dire as it is in a supposedly sub-caliphate Europe. You’ll get none of this paranoia from Dr Blackford.

***

If there’s anything about the book that I can seriously object to, it’s that the implications of its perspective aren’t drawn out in sufficient detail in matters concerning Aboriginal Australia. An area of concern so substantial that any book with a broad Australian focus will be at odds to explain an absence of consideration.

According to stated and implied principles, what happens to land rights if they are challenged on the grounds of scepticism to Aboriginal religion? Does the rejection of Terra nullius as a legal fiction override this, with at least the establishment of a treaty required to grant standing to the sceptic or any other claimants?

Should, and how would, a separation between church and state coincide with a divide between Commonwealth and native title?

How would these matters have panned out in cases such as the Hindmarsh Island bridge dispute if said principles were applied?

What would a liberal, secular, Enlightenment-based treaty look like from an atheistic perspective?

According to principle, what is to be said about Christian imperialism and Enlightenment free-thought as they pertain historically to the treatment of Aboriginal Australians?

How does a non-indigenous atheist go about putting their secular hand forward in the spirit of reconciliation, with those who aren’t necessarily in all instances secular? What does a non-indigenous atheist do when such motions aren’t welcomed by the other party?

And what do Aboriginal atheists have to say about any of this (and more)?

The Australian Book of Atheism is a first-run of a new perspective, and it can be forgiven a lot for this reason. But even when not damning (I don’t think in this case that it is), recognition of the relative omission of the way this perspective views black politics warrants mention for the sake of future projects in the same vein.

***

The tone of the book is laid-back in a way one would expect of authors from a nation laid-back about religion, but the arguments and the concerns are anything but. The mode then is calm and seriously considered – an abundance of critique leveled with a quiet confidence that will have certain readers clutching at pearls. I suspect though, that its reception by the rest of us will be sober, as is fitting.

I’m left leaving Bonett’s book with a sense of its Australian qualities, but also with the realisation that it’s a first dip of the toes into new water. It gives a good kick in the complacency; a call for Australians with tolerant, secular values to wake and stop blithely assuming they know their country so well as to be so unconcerned.

It’s an excellent if not un-flawed starting point for a new discussion of an aspect of Australian identity and politics; a return to, and a clarification of, past issues unresolved that will be familiar to jaded political wonks and cultural critics alike. The Australian Book of Atheism justifies its perspective and its reason-to-be, all while heralding further debate.

I hope to see more books published along these lines.

Rating: 4/5

~ Bruce

(Photo Source: Warren Bonett).

I blame Julie Bishop

I’m pretty sure that the Liberal rank and file wish the performance of their elected representatives were better. One need only look at the polls.

Heck, I’ve got friends in the Liberal party who are disgusted with the way the Howard Government and now the Turnbull opposition is spinning the stories of refugees.

If the Rudd Government’s softening of asylum seeker laws precipitates an influx of refugees from the middle east simply by occurring in sequence (post hoc ergo propter hoc – it’s a fallacy!), then I guess it also precipitated the increases in refugees from the Middle East seeking asylum elsewhere in the world. I’m sure any time now EU nations are going to be filling up the message bank of Kirribilli House, screaming “RUDD! Look at what you’ve done! Your weak stance on immigration is filling Europe with an Islamic horde (and some oppressed Middle Eastern Christians who don’t have the same scare value)!”

In case you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic. That was a reductio ad absurdum.

Considering how stupid this line of “reasoning” (my apologies to reason for the smear) being deployed by the right wing, pseudo-intelligentsia of the MSM and Australian Liberal Party is, I feel I really need to spell these things out. Please be patient – some of the people reading this post may not be as smart or as sane as you are.

That being said, with public opinion at about 36% of Australians believing this xenophobic delusion (the last time I checked), it’s probably not a state of emergency in as far as popular racism goes. Whatever the refugees are fleeing from probably entails an emergency (if I lived in Afghanistan, I’d be trying to get my family out!) and for the blithering, bumbling, flailing, trite, vexatious, intellectually barren Australian right, it’s a PR emergency. Australians should be humane about the former and merely unsympathetically self-interested about the latter (bad opposition makes bad governance easier after all.)

I’m happy to delay judgement on the current wave of asylum seekers until more is known and due process takes its course (and for the process to be subject to critique.) The debate is in no reasonable need of being rushed, at least not from any perspective other than perhaps those of and those sympathetic to the refugees (and even then, the general public isn’t in possession of the details to have a properly informed sympathy yet.)

In Neil’s words, people should hold their horses.

I’m not happy about all the hysteria (and I guess in a way, I’m regurgitating this hysteria on to you in the form of inflamed rhetoric – my half-felt apologies.)

Getting to my actual point…

I’m a carer and aside from being the kind of guy who cares about people (which makes all this stupidity all the more offensive), I’m a guy who needs his sleep. I can be, and have been kept awake all sorts of hours and naturally, when I do get to sleep, it’s bloody important.

So when a friend, who has acknowledged my sleeping patterns twice this week and woke me up at roughly the same time last Thursday night (twelve minutes later to be more precise), gets so excited that their critical faculties give way and they just have to ring me up and raise me from my valuable slumber, I’m going to get a bit pissed off. After only one hour of sleep, with drool running down my chin, I pick up the phone to be bombarded with a few excited paragraphs worth of “I just had to tell someone”, “Q&A”, “Julie Bishop”, “stupid”, “Ha!Ha!”, “OMG!”, “P. J. O’Rourke”, “real intellectual”, “Bishop”, “desperate”, “spin”, “pathetic.”

To be honest, I knew this stuff from the moment Julie Bishop dismissed informed educational philosophy as mere leftist ideology, claimed a sensible centre (as if the shifting political centre is necessarily sensible*), hyperbolised the history of Mao into mangled metaphor and pretended her academic proto-putsche was more than just a recycling of Howard’s ideologically motivated (and woefully unpopular) attack on values education in public schools.

So you can understand then that I don’t want to be woken up to be told something I already know. It took me over two hours to get back to sleep.

But such is the resounding strength of Bishop’s bombastic brand of cynical political point scoring, that it can echo into my most restful of states via the people who get contaminated by it. This is some seriously toxic crap.

Of course, this particular breed of political point scoring is designed to get past people’s critical reasoning (presumably to tap into their fears – which hasn’t worked for the Libs in a number of years) by means of emotional excitation – which explains both the enthusiastic schadenfreude of my friend overcoming rather obvious telecommunicative sensibilities, and the foam at the mouth of uncritical consumers of fine, paranoid screed.

I’m sure the former wasn’t intended by Julie Bishop. Nobody likes being laughed at after all. But I do hold her responsible – as I do for all contributions to Australian culture our politicians and media outlets make.

This crap the likes of Bishop put out is toxic. Not just xenophobic-toxic but bad-faith, anti-reason, anti-intellectual, anti-human-toxic. The selfish tantrums of a political movement with a massive sense of entitlement, yet none of the qualities to earn it – naturally divorced from realising how detrimental these tantrums are to the broader culture they are supposed to serve.

I don’t actually blame Julie Bishop of course. Her conduct as an MP is the problem of Australian right-wing discourse in a microcosm and in as far as she’s been an enabler of xenophobia, she has merely been actioning un-self-enlightened, inept opportunism. That I can say “merely” is testimony to the detriment of Howard’s contribution to our culture, which Bishop can only take crib notes from.

As was the case with Costello’s appropriation of Howard’s Muslim menace, and is the case with Malcolm Turnbull’s recent dog whistle politics. Howard could sell this crap to the Australian centre in a way his impersonators can’t, in a large part because of the fact that he could sell it to himself. Watching Turnbull and Bishop try to do the same while holding on to their fleeting integrity is pathetic to watch.

I want to shake the Liberal party. To yell at them, “Look at what you’ve done to Malcolm!”

Back in the 1990s, Malcolm Turnbull was a major contributor to Australian political thought. Unconstrained by caucus, he could tell you what he thought and the man clearly wasn’t a moron. Then came talk of a parliamentary career and subsequent pre-selection (the politics of the latter still showing signs of Turnbull’s integrity.)

Then compromise. Compromise with a bickering pack of spoiled political brats who had previously kept a lid on things out of a superstitious need to keep Howard in place like some kind of good luck charm. A superstition they don’t seem to extend to their subsequent leaders – and thus any aspirational party leader had better be prepared to be embalmed in right wing bile and preserved for all history in a state of compromised integrity. Even many in the Labor party have been similarly denatured.

Of course, the bile never used to flow through Howard. He was embalmed long beforehand and like the Curse of the Mummy, to this day doesn’t realise that he’s dead yet.

No. Caught in the gastric tubing of the Liberal party like some malignant polyp as Howard was, the bile had to flow some other way. Through the Liberal apparatchik of the mainstream media. News Ltd in particular. I’m not going to speculate on what gastric orifice they represent.

I could name names of those with conveniently timed opinion pieces that were coincidentally harmonious with as yet unreleased Howard government political statements. I could even point to the right-wing recipients of conveniently leaked government documents.

Many of you can probably reel off a list of names yourself. Between The Hun, The Tele and The Ostrayun there are quite a few.

But that’s not my point. My point isn’t what they are but what they aren’t. Where is the Australian right’s P.J. O’Rourke?

The Australian left is by far the better producer of political satire, but even they would have their hands full with the likes of O’Rourke. O’Rourke is intellectually honest – he says what he thinks and doesn’t whore himself to The Party. He’s rather witty and far fairer to his interlocutors than anything the Australian right ever cooked up. That I think he’s deeply wrong on things like abortion and stem-cell research and that I can’t endorse his libertarianism, nor the inability of the Cato Institute (of which O’Rourke is a prominent member) to recognise global warming denialism for what it is, matters not a bit to this estimation.

Imagine Adams versus O’Rourke. Imagine a Chaser stunt failing to ensnare him.

Imagine debate between Marr and O’Rourke on the most polarising topic you can imagine.

Can you see Bob Ellis going toe-to-toe with O’Rourke? Do Leunig’s limp caricatures wilt even more at the prospect of competing with O’Rourke’s critique?

At best, the Australian right has produced pseudo-intellectual hacks and try hard satirists who at best may be able to convince themselves and their uncritical fans that they are some kind of O’Rourke. They are no such thing. We wouldn’t need to import American opinion if they were.

Instead we are left with a broken political right, spraying pent-up venom on all and sundry, trying desperately to score a hit on those that they feel are responsible for the loss of their entitlements.

This insipid, anti-intellectual, toxic crap has flowed from the Liberal party, through the right wing media and into almost every corner of Australian culture causing untold damage in mostly as-yet unrealised ways. We are all the poorer for it. Even those of us that agree with the specific policy positions of the Howardista of yore and the current, impotent incarnation.

People are less thoughtful as a result of it. People become less considerate when subjected to it. It doesn’t have to be xenophobic to be harmful – the sheer spite and stupidity of it is sufficient to incite people to a less than beneficial excitation.

Which is probably why and where I should leave this topic. It’s not worth my or your attention and unless you’ve had a laugh, you’ve just wasted a good part of your time reading this. It sure wasn’t worth my getting out of bed for!

Julie Bishop, thanks a heap!

~ Bruce

P.S. You can catch the Q&A action here.

* Seriously, if you had on one side, a NAZI political population that wanted to wipe out all Jews and on the other hand a political population that said that the ethnic cleansing of a single Jew is unacceptable, you would tell me that wiping out half of the Jewish population is a sensible compromise? Clearly (at least not to anti-Semites), the polar position of no ethnic cleansing is the sensible position. No centre of a political continuum can be automatically sensible! This senseless centrism and the accompanying sanctimony is really starting to annoy me.