31 October 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 2:54 pm

Respected medical journal The Lancet estimates that the war in Iraq has caused 100,000 additional deaths—that is, additional to the deaths caused before the invasion by the stiff UN sanctions, the ongoing effects of the last Gulf War, and Saddam combined, and not including the bloodbath in Fallujah:

This survey indicates that the death toll associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq is probably about 100 000 people, and may be much higher. We have shown that even in extremely difficult circumstances, the collection of valid data is possible, albeit with limited precision. In this case, the lack of precision does not hinder the clear identification of the major public-health problem in Iraq—violence.

It may be worth treating these figures with caution, since they are a lot higher than any other count so far (which have stayed between 10,000 and 37,000) and are extrapolated from samples rather than overall reported deaths. On the other hand, it’s very likely that a significant proportion of deaths go unreported. And, still on that same hand, The Lancet is a respected medical journal (everyone says so) and they reckon they’re being conservative.

Even if the figures are out by a lot, they’re still appalling. But our ever-reliable defence minister Senator Robert Hill had only this to say:

Unfortunately there will always be… some civilian casualties. The removal of Saddam Hussein, somebody who has contributed to have killed at least 300,000 innocent Iraqis, is… of great benefit to future generations of Iraqi people.

He didn’t mention that Saddam took 30 years to kill that many civilians, whereas according to the estimate he (Hill) was responding to the invasion has racked up a third of that number in only 18 months. The Lancet estimates that the risk of death has increased by around 250% since the invasion, compared to the period immediately beforehand (though this falls to 150% if Fallujah is excluded).

Now, I fully believe that Saddam was a terrible guy and that removing him from power was the only good reason for the war—or would have been, if it ever was an actual reason. But we’ve got to ask—as a lot of Iraqis must be asking—whether it was worth all this. It seems like we’re coming dangerously close to the old “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” line, which, however apocryphal in relation to Ben Tre, seems increasingly well-suited to Iraq.

It seems to me that if the protection of the Iraqi people had been a real ex ante reason for the invasion, we’d be making more of an effort to actually protect them. There had to have been a better way to remove Saddam from power than the way we went about it. I don’t know how—maybe by doing things the internationally-legal way, marshalling more support and if necessary more troops to make sure that key positions could be taken without just bombing the hell out of everyone. Maybe by spending more effort convincing more Iraqis that they’d be better off in a democracy and this whole insurgency thing wasn’t necessary. We must have been able to do it better than this.

30 October 2004

Jeepers creepers

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:20 pm

chdal.jpgRight now I’m recovering from laser eye surgery, although perhaps “recovering” is the wrong word. I thought it would be like this scene from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s stoner fave Un Chien Andalou (you can see more screenshots, including the nasty one, here) and take weeks of stumbling and Lear-type cursings. And although this still does approximate one important step in the LASIK procedure, in fact the whole thing was almost painless and almost instantly effective, and now I’m going around recommending it to all of the myopic types among whose number I used to count myself.

I was first prescribed glasses when I was about 11 and could no longer read the blackboard for all my squinting and guesswork. It was an ambivalent relationship, best summed up by a sequence of whispered comments by a couple of fledgling babes in my first high-school maths class, which I always suspected was deeply sarcastic. “I think he’s cute without his glasses,” said one. (I wasn’t.) “Yeah, but his glasses make him look older—more mature,” said the other. (I’m sure, if they did, the effect was negligible.) You can imagine the paralysis to which a pubescent dork might be reduced by such a pair of conflicting appraisals.

I got some contact lenses but kept losing/ripping/letting ocular crud accumulate on them and soon gave up on the whole business. For a long time I embraced my glasses as a reflection of my personality, almost as a kind of nerd battle-scar—that’s what you get for reading Ulysses, for writing a thousand sonnets, I thought, and tried to find frames that went well with skivvies and God knows what else. I quite liked being able to take my specs off and let the world fuzz up a bit, let us retreat from each other. I felt slightly morally superior to, and slightly betrayed by, the contact-lens crew and the squinter brigade, with their fragile self-worth, their pitiable vanity. I always kind of fancied girls with glasses, and I don’t think that’ll ever change.

But at bottom, not being able to see unaided is a real pain. Carrying around regular glasses and prescription sunglasses, swapping them every time you go in and out of somewhere, not having anywhere to put them all; trying to see in the rain; getting involved in almost any kind of sport. If you want to get into a fistfight—which I always kind of did, in a secret and not-very-well-thought-out way—you can’t really do it, you can’t muster the necessary abandon. Even these miraculous disposable one-day contacts, which I’ve recently sworn by (“Fuck, these are good—and relatively cost-effective,&#8221 I always said to myself, when putting them in)—even they come out when you’re swimming, or disappear up behind your eyelids when you jump into water from something high above the water, giving you all sorts of concerns about your optic nerves and so on. Plus, they dry your eyes out.

So once a couple of friends had had this diminishingly-newfangled procedure done, I started getting interested. And I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s gone. There were disturbing noises and burning smells at the time, and for the afternoon and evening of that day I could hardly open my eyes—you know how it is when you’re chopping fresh chilies and you accidentally rub your eyes (which by the way is far from the worst thing you can do when you’re absent-mindedly chopping fresh chilies)—but by dawn the next day (4:58 or something ridiculous) I could see clear across the room, for the first time in a long time, and it felt like some kind of miracle. It really did. Twenty-four hours after the operation I had near-20/20 and was ready to get out and look at things. I think I got off pretty lightly, as some of my friends had a slightly rougher time for slightly longer. But they all say it was the best thing ever, and I’d have to agree. Things are a bit bright during the day and haloed at night, but getting better already. There are risks, of course, but if I can keep from rubbing my eyes for the next while I think I’m out of the woods. It is an amazing thing. I may miss the glasses, and whichever high-school maths-babe claimed to prefer them, but really we’d been growing apart anyway.

So how many wrongs do make a right?

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:54 pm

The senator’s willingness to trade principle for political convenience makes it clear that Senator Kerry is the wrong man, for the wrong job, at the wrong time.

Yes, it’s George W Bush’s snappy response to John Kerry’s claim that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time&#8221—but what the hell does it mean? Surely you want to say that your opponent is the wrong man for the right job—you know, the job of being president of the US. If he’s the wrong man for the wrong job—I don’t know, facelift-spokesmodel, or president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—then maybe he’s the right man for the White House? Just not now, of course.

If W really is wired, he needs a new team. They should pull Eddo Brandes in, for a start.

27 October 2004

More endorsements

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:56 am

In other news, the New Yorker has also broken with tradition and offered an endorsement for the first time in its history. It backs Kerry. Its account of Bush securing control in the Senate is particularly foreboding for us, depending on how the count’s going:

September 11, 2001, brought with it one positive gift: a surge of solidarity, global and national—solidarity with and solidarity within the United States. This extraordinary outpouring provided Bush with a second opportunity to create something like a government of national unity. Again, he brushed the opportunity aside, choosing to use the political capital handed to him by Osama bin Laden to push through more elements of his unmandated domestic program. A year after 9/11, in the midterm elections, he increased his majority in the House and recaptured control of the Senate by portraying selected Democrats as friends of terrorism. Is it any wonder that the anger felt by many Democrats is even greater than can be explained by the profound differences in outlook between the two candidates and their parties?

The Bush Administration has had success in carrying out its policies and implementing its intentions, aided by majorities—political and, apparently, ideological—in both Houses of Congress. Substantively, however, its record has been one of failure, arrogance, and—strikingly for a team that prided itself on crisp professionalism—incompetence.

As you’d expect when anyone backs the new guy, most of the pro-Kerry endorsements spend a lot of time giving Bush a well-deserved hammering. They all say that Kerry has more going for him than not being Bush, but it doesn’t sound quite so convincing—or comprehensive. I’ve got a bad feeling that things will turn out the same way as they did here, and the new guy won’t get up. Bush is much worse than Howard, of course, domestically as well as internationally. Also, Kerry’s been a senator for 20 years, if a low-profile one. But the US election seems much more about international issues (well, terrorism) than ours was, and I can’t help suspecting that in that context enough Americans will be scared enough to keep Bush in power.

Those who can’t wait for Tuesday can get an edge on the result by watching the Washington Redskins play the Green Bay Packers on 31 October. Ever since the Redskins formed in 1936, their last home game of the season has accurately predicted the election result. If they lose, so does the incumbent. It’s true! So for Sunday: go Packers!


by Matt Rubinstein at 9:38 am

Editor & Publisher magazine is keeping track of who the US newspapers are endorsing for next Tuesday’s election. So far Kerry is ahead by 142 papers to 123, which blows out to a circulation of 17.4 million to 11.5 million since W is more popular in smaller—not to say hick—markets. These guys reckon that newspaper endorsements have some influence on 5% to 10% of voters, and so could be a factor in the swing states.

The New York Times was one of the first majors to weigh in, and predictably enough endorsed Kerry—or, more accurately, spectacularly disendorsed the incumbent. It’s worth a read if you want a good summary of Bush’s failings:

The Bush White House has always given us the worst aspects of the American right without any of the advantages. We get the radical goals but not the efficient management. The Department of Education’s handling of the No Child Left Behind Act has been heavily politicized and inept. The Department of Homeland Security is famous for its useless alerts and its inability to distribute antiterrorism aid according to actual threats. Without providing enough troops to properly secure Iraq, the administration has managed to so strain the resources of our armed forces that the nation is unprepared to respond to a crisis anywhere else in the world.

But more interesting is this spray by The American Conservative magazine—in favour of Kerry. It manages to look beyond ideological alignments and suggest that Bush is bad for the tories as well as the (strong language warning) liberals—he’s bad for everyone:

Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations. The launching of an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the U.S., the doling out of war profits and concessions to politically favored corporations, the financing of the war by ballooning the deficit to be passed on to the nation’s children, the ceaseless drive to cut taxes for those outside the middle class and working poor: it is as if Bush sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing cliché about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy.

It also makes the point that the US isn’t doing itself any favours by alienating the rest of the world, an idea that seems to be ignored if not scorned by most of the population. Thanks once again to Nick, this time channelling his mother-in-law, for the article.

For all that we may consider the US a caricature of democracy, with its dopey electoral college system, its ridiculous commercials and fundraisers, its goose-shoots and wolves-at-the-door, at least over there they’ve got a lot of newspapers and they go different ways. Here in Australia, only The Canberra Times and Fairfax giveaway The Melbourne Times stuck up for Latham; all the rest were more or less virulently pro-Howard—except for The Sydney Morning Herald, which broke with tradition by not endorsing anyone, getting on its high horse about independence and non-partisanship. Interestingly, Fairfax management (in Sydney) was accused of telling The Age to endorse Howard, but staff in Melbourne insist that they decided all by themselves.

All the Murdoch papers trumpeted Howard unequivocally and unapologetically. Or just bashed Latham, like the Sunday Herald Sun did:

Mark Latham, an ill-disciplined man, who as Labor leader is still to fully take shape, heedlessly said he wanted the troops “home by Christmas”.

Every Australian wishes for that. Just like the mums and dads of the boys at Normandy and Tobruk and Ypres and Villers-Bretonneux and Gallipoli and Inchon wished their kids could be home for Christmas.

But they had a job to do, which they did and which our nation proudly celebrates every November 11 and April 25. That generation won then and we must win again. Once more we are on the right side of history.

To rashly bring the troops home by Christmas might mean somewhat fewer Christmases for many of us. The Sunday Herald Sun believes all Australians need to keep that in mind as we cast our vote for our future next Saturday.

It sounds better if you read it in the voice of Philip Baker Hall as library cop Lieutenant Bookman in Seinfeld. Gratuitous quote:

Yeah, ’71. That was my first year on the job. Bad year for libraries. Bad year for America. Hippies burning library cards, Abby Hoffman telling everybody to steal books. I don’t judge a man by the length of his hair or the kind of music he listens to. Rock was never my bag. But you put on a pair of shoes when you walk into the New York Public Library, fella.

See? But the point is what we already know: that the Murdoch papers are by and large awful, and that there’s a terrible lack of diversity in the Australian media—we’re much worse than America here. On the 7.30 Report last night, media analyst Roger Colman argued that left-wing polemics like Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism misunderstand Murdoch’s motives: he doesn’t care about Bush’s right-wing policies, Colman says—he just wants to sell papers to right-wing audiences; he’s following the market. That may be true in America, but it doesn’t hold up so well here, where Murdoch has been such a significant part of the game for so long that he can make his own market—especially in the many cities where he is the market.

And even if it is true: surely there’s more to running a newspaper than just telling people what they want to hear—what they already think they know? Isn’t there?

25 October 2004

Any other name

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:25 pm

The long search for the most beautiful German word is finally over, and the clear winner is habseligkeiten, which means, broadly, “stuff&#8221. Then there’s daylight (tageslicht) before geborgenheit, which apparently means “a feeling of security&#8221, and finally good old lieben. Honourable mentions include augenblick, which means “moment”; and my favourite, rhabarbermarmelade, which is “rhubarb jam&#8221, and which I choose to pronounce with seven syllables, all of which assonate.

Some might say that looking for the most beautiful word in German is like trying to find the most progressive member of the Liberal party, but I don’t think that’s fair (to German). Certainly je t’aime and te amo—or even mi amas vin—will sound more appealing to most ears than ich hab dich lieb, depending on who’s saying it. But German has its own chewy appeal, and can in fact sound very beautiful, as I hope I have suggested in my superficial treatment of Rilke.

So the Herald has asked everybody what their favourite English word is, and there are some good answers, as well as predictable smartarse ones. My favourite suggestion was maelstrom. Someone has trundled out “cellar door&#8221, which was referred to in Donnie Darko and in fact was first nailed by Tolkien:

Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is “beautiful&#8221, especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.

Of course Tolkien was famously into linguistics and is said to have got into the whole Middle-Earth thing primarily as an excuse to use all of the languages he had compulsively invented since childhood. I think the staggering popularity of the books has had little to do with their plots (which are kind of plodding and repetitive) and much to do with the languages the worlds are described in, all the Lothlorien and Mithrandir and so on. Tolkien used roots from Celtic and Norse languages, which gave his coinings these remarkable resonances and connotations—and made them sound like real words. It’s great stuff.

I personally can’t see how cellar door loses anything through its association with cellar doors. As usual, the signifier and -fied are comparably beautiful. Words like mellifluous and tranquil and gossamer always get a run in these surveys, while ones like crepuscular and gargoyle tend to come in last—suggesting that it really is strikingly difficult to separate the meaning from the sound.

James Joyce does it, reportedly nominating “cuspidor&#8221 as his most beautiful word. But most of the time I think the Simpsons were right when they pole-axed Juliet’s famous assertion so effectively:

Lisa: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench-blossoms.
Homer: Or crap-weeds.

23 October 2004

That’s a lot of watermelon

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:24 am

cat.jpgI can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t be excited to learn that Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is now 35 years old. As more of my friends are contributing to global overcrowding (but combating the ageing of the population (and they’re so cute)) I can attest to the continuing popularity of this voracious grub. The thing’s got legs! I loved it as a kid, although I must say that while I thought I was a pretty good reader, I missed the Marxist connotations completely:

Muoy You, director of the Seametrey School in Cambodia, explains: “I try to teach our children that you can always become better, but greed is not the solution. When the caterpillar is greedy he gets sick. When he is reasonable, and works hard, he feels better. In Cambodia we need this kind of message.” Eric Carle, on the other hand, remembers the words of a young East German librarian. “She said, ‘This book would never have been published here. The caterpillar represents a capitalist. He bites into every fruit, just takes one bite and he moves on, getting fatter and fatter. He’s exploiting everything.'”.

Now I wonder whether the book has anything to do with this newish problem of obesity in children. The caterpillar starts off pretty well, getting in five serves of fruit; then strays into the chocolate cake; and from then on it’s a nightmare calorie-jag of ice cream, salami and cherry pie, topped off with a self-deluding slice of guilt-melon. I know people who eat exactly like that! And I wonder whether the apparent implosion of the ALP has anything to do with the insoluble conflict between Latham’s read-to-your-kids policy and his keep-your-kids-thin policy that this book represents.

20 October 2004

Everybody wants something

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 pm

degrassi.jpg So I’ve finally caught up with Degrassi: the Next Generation, which has been showing for a few weeks on the ABC and is of course the latest tilt by the loveable overwrought Canucks who first turned up in The Kids of Degrassi Street, found their edu-melodramatic form in Degrassi Junior High and then Degrassi High, and disturbed a lot of nostalgic 80s-survivors when they returned briefly to shag and maim each other in Degrassi High: School’s Out, but have been pretty quiet since. Until now!

These four are the only ones left from the old days, apart from the long-suffering Mr Raditch—and guess what? They’re all teachers now, guiding a new cohort of eh-sayers through their awkward phases.

Tonight’s episode was a pretty faithful reworking of one of the first Junior High outings, where some 13-year-old decides she’s had enough of being a wallflower and decides to be a skank instead, winning instant popularity and dismaying her bookish best friend, who is charged with jealousy when she expresses her concern, and so on… only last time it was eye-shadow and boob tubes; this time it’s low-riders and outrageous T-bars. Voula’s turning in her grave, I just know it.

Also, Joey Jeremiah now has a step-son, and he’s in a band (the stepson is), and they’re all really good until Joey forces them to join him in a long-awaited rendition of The Zit Remedy’s (Everybody Wants) Something. Then they’re instantly crap. Caitlin lands a well-placed sledge about how could Joey, Wheels and Snake ever think they’d make it as a band when they only had one song? Definitely one for the last generation, who still remember how Shane knocked Spike up at a party, then took acid and fell off a bridge and got brain damage, and thereafter hung around the school being creepy and telling people they should be kicked in the head; how Wheels’s parents were killed in a car crash and he reacted by growing a mullet and becoming a dickhead, and wound up in jail for vehicular manslaughter (irony?); and how Caitlin kept doing weird things with her hair but was always hot, and should never have let Joey wear her down, especially when he was boning that blonde chick!

It was a good show. Let us never speak of it again.

The clash

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:46 pm

Thanks to Nick for this very interesting article by this year’s Erasmus Prize winner, Sadik Jalal Al-Azm, about the supposed war between Islam and the West.

For those who came in late, this whole thing was sparked off by Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 essay The End of History? predicted that the end of the Cold War marked some final chapter in the history of ideological struggle, and that, occasional skirmishes aside, history itself was in some sense over:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Samuel Huntington soon struck back with his 1993 essay The Clash of Civilisations, which asserted that what Fukuyama called the end of history was in fact just the end of Western history—that, now that it had sorted out its internal ideological divisions, the West was ready to return to the main game: the clash of civilisations. He said:

The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington’s thesis suggests that we’ve actually just been distracted from history—that the old battles between Islam and the West going back to the Crusades, and between all the other civilisations going back forever, will more or less take up where they left off, if in fact they left off. Huntington gives many examples of the old divisions between civilisations transcending more recent ideological and economic issues, and of course the old clashes have that flavour of ancient and implacable hatred, of bad blood and zealotry that we’re all so familiar with from history and literature and the movies—they do seem deeper and darker than our modern disagreements. It sounds frightening. Huntington’s is not an apocalyptic scenario, though. He concludes:

In the short term it is clearly in the interest of the West to promote greater cooperation and unity within its own civilization, particularly between its European and North American components; to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West; to promote and maintain cooperative relations with Russia and Japan; to prevent escalation of local inter-civilization conflicts into major inter-civilization wars; to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states; to moderate the reduction of Western military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia; to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states; to support in other civilizations groups sympathetic to Western values and interests; to strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests and values and to promote the involvement of non-Western states in those institutions.

In the longer term other measures would be called for. Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilizations will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines and weapons that are part of being modern. They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will increase. Hence the West will increasingly have to accommodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West. This will require the West to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilizations. It will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.

Huntington’s argument seems to have been extraordinarily influential, at least on the West, and particularly on the US. We’ve already seen most of the short-term responses listed above implemented in the last ten years—even the strengthening of institutions: obviously not the UN, but NATO and the international institution that the US and its ad hoc coalitions are fast becoming. The attacks of 11 September 2001 seemed to many people to be irrefutable evidence of the clash of civilisations Huntington had highlighted.

Except that the newly-terrorised West could not envisage “a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others&#8221—it exploded the tension between civilisations into a great last battle that would result in one side wiping out the other. There’s so much a paranoia around now—they hate us, they want to destroy us all, it’s us or them—and these are otherwise intelligent people saying this stuff, usually prefacing it with “make no mistake” or “have no illusions&#8221. It’s fed right into the US campaign to ignore entirely the long-term implications of the clash of civilisations (ie: we’re going to have to learn to live with each other) and stamp itself all over the world (ie: like hell we are).

But Al-Azm characterises the conflict somewhat differently. He subscribes to Joseph Conrad’s view that “terrorism is an act of madness and despair&#8221—and a quickly self-defeating act—and suggests that the September 2001 attacks marked the end, and not the beginning, of the clash of civilisations:

Despite current predictions of a protracted global war between the West and the Islamic world, I believe that war is over. There may be intermittent battles in the decades to come, with many innocent victims. But the number of supporters of armed Islamism is unlikely to grow, its support throughout the Arab Muslim world will likely decline, and the opposition by other Muslim groups will surely grow. 9/11 signaled the last gasp of Islamism rather than the beginnings of its global challenge.

Islamic terrorism, says Al-Azm, is an expression of fury and frustration that things aren’t going that well for Islam, that Islam’s rightful place in the world has been usurped by the West. Islamic contributions to the world have been significant—in science, in mathematics, and so on—and the West has taken these gifts and run with them, all while “history took a nap&#8221. Islamists believe—as many others do—that their civilisation is the best and brightest and deserves to spread to every corner of the world, that they deserve to be running things:

When this unexamined, unexorcised, highly potent, and deep-seated self-image collides with the all-too-evident everyday actualities of Arab-Muslim impotence, frustration, and insign
ificance, especially in international relations, a host of problems emerge: massive inferiority complexes, huge compensatory delusions, wild adventurism, political recklessness, desperate violence, and, lately, large-scale terrorism of the kind we have become familiar with all over the world.

So both paranoid Americans and reckless Islamists believe that there is a last-days kind of battle unfolding, which they have to win at all costs. But, says Al-Azm, that doesn’t mean there actually is one:

The two supposedly clashing sides are so unequal in power, military might, productive capacity, efficiency, effective institutions, wealth, social organization, science, and technology that the clash can only be of the inconsequential sort. As one literary metaphor says, If a stone falls on an egg the egg breaks, and if an egg falls on a stone the egg breaks too. From the Arab Muslim side of the divide, the West seems so powerful, so efficient, so successful, so unstoppable, that the very idea of an ultimate “clash” is fanciful.

This has to be right. Maybe radical Islamists do want to destroy us all. But so what? Does anyone really think they can? There are hardly any of them. Yes, they can hurt us. No, we don’t have to stand there and take it. We have to protect ourselves. But we don’t have to wipe every Muslim from the earth to achieve that; we don’t have to install little Americas throughout the Middle East, even if we could. It’s not that kind of fight.

Since the attacks, the US has pretty successfully painted itself as a victim, as a country besieged by evil. It doesn’t take a moment’s reflection to see how ridiculous that is. John Kerry got in loads of trouble for calling terrorism a “nuisance” (in fact he said he wanted to reduce terrorism to a nuisance), but let’s face it: in terms of the actual damage it can do to American civilisation, terrorism hardly is more than a nuisance.

That’s not to question the devastating human impact of terrorism. But Western civilisation has always had far more to fear from itself than from Islam. We’re all killing way more of ourselves than terrorists do. And it’s not to say that we shouldn’t respond to attacks from outside—but we should respond effectively and proportionately, and not hysterically. But nobody ever won an election by whipping voters into a calm, did they.

19 October 2004

On the sauce

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:51 am


I just love this—5,000 words on good old tomato sauce, though of course they call it ketchup. I’m a big fan of the dead horse myself—I’ve got friends who don’t like it, who’ll eat a bucket of chips absolutely naked, but I can’t understand them; there’s always going to be this distance between us. I think sauce is just as worthy of attention as these things like salt or mauve or zero or whatever, which have books written about them and their histories. Listen to this, it’s heady stuff:

Tomato ketchup is a nineteenth-century creation–the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in late-nineteenth-century condiments. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science.

A renegade band of ketchup manufacturers who spurn benzoate and put their faith in culinary science! It’s brilliant. For the record, the best sauce in the world is South Australia’s Beerenberg Hahndorf Tomato Sauce. You can get it in the David Jones Food Hall; I highly recommend picking some up.

Cutting; running

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:04 am

So Australia has just rejected a UN request for more troops in Iraq:

The Government says it has been informally approached to help with security for the UN assistance mission in Iraq.

But a spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the Australian Government has already made a substantial commitment to Iraq and it will not be sending more troops.

Instead, we will be training Fijian troops to protect the UN mission, whose chief function is to oversee the elections scheduled for January 2005.

Something about that really gets my goat, but I’m not exactly sure what. Maybe it’s the mileage the Government got out of Latham’s promise to withdraw our troops by Christmas, the moral high ground they claimed. Is cutting and running so much worse—so much less Australian—than not pitching in a bit extra where it’s needed? I’m not that sure it is.

Perhaps it’s this sneaking suspicion that Downer’s spokesman might have said something different if the request had come from the US instead of the UN. And it makes me mad to think that we’d support the lawless crusade of an arrogant imperialist, and ignore multilateral attempts to facilitate democracy—and then complain that the UN is useless and irrelevant.

But maybe it’s just this: it seems to me that you’re either in a war or you’re not. I don’t think the war should have happened the way it did; and I don’t think we should have lent it our support. But now that we have, I think we’ve got some responsibility for cleaning up afterwards. And even if that’s not right, even if we should bring the troops home now—since we’re not going to, since we are staying in it, we should do it properly.

We have about 900 non-combat personnel in and around the Gulf, and by all accounts they’re doing a bang-up job. But the ADF has about 50,000 troops on active duty, and although they’re busy all over the place, perhaps we could in fact spare a few more—if they’re really needed, and it sounds like they are. Someone’s got to give the UN some support as it tries to get Iraq towards the point at which it can run itself, and if we’re so committed to this whole operation then we should do what we can to make sure that happens. Shouldn’t we?

Otherwise it just sounds like we’re having too many bobs too many ways. Of course I don’t want to put our troops in harm’s way—but sending Fijians instead? That doesn’t sound very Australian.

18 October 2004

Rock spirits

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:45 pm

mimih.jpgI’m reading Germaine Greer’s provocative Whitefella Jump Up at the moment, but it seems to be pretty well represented by her extract here.

People dismiss Greer for a lot of reasons. She keeps banging on about Australia but hasn’t lived here for years and says she never will again. She may well be bonkers. But there are some interesting ideas in this book, and I think that allegations such as The Spectator‘s that all her ideas are derivative and clichéd are unfair. I think some of these ideas are new and important.

The thrust of the book is that we could solve or bypass a lot of our problems by acknowledging that Australia is an Aboriginal place and that we are all Aborigines. Greer admits that the first thing is much easier than the second thing. And the whole thing may sound a bit loopy at first. But read on.

It seems pretty clear that Europeans in Australia have done things the hard way by trying to remake the country in the image of, say, England, instead of taking it as we found it. For example, my sympathy for the struggling farmer is always tempered by a kind of: what did you expect? Greer goes further (of course), with a pyrotechnic piece of hyperbole:

In Australian literature, the Europeans’ corrosive unease expresses itself in a curious distortion of the pathetic fallacy, which characterises the land as harsh, cruel, savage, relentless, the sky as implacable, pitiless and so forth. The heart of the country is called “dead&#8221. Vicissitudes of heat and cold are interpreted as a kind of punishment, and the physical world itself given the role of an avenging deity. The vegetation is described as “stunted&#8221, “warped&#8221, “misshapen&#8221, another example of projection of a presentiment of evil within to the countryside without.

It was not the country that was damned but the settler who felt in his heart that he was damned. His impotent cursing, which has left a legacy in the unequalled degree of profanity in Australian speech, was a classic piece of transference. We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts’ core that it is not ours.

There’s a lot wrong with any idea that conflates Aboriginality with environmental saintliness, stewardship of the land and so on. Clearly it tends to disenfranchise urban Aborigines, who may never have been to the bush or may not care about it particularly, but aren’t any less Aboriginal for that. There’s also some evidence that the first Aborigines completely altered the character of the landscape when they turned up, wiped out a bunch of the megafauna, and managed to sustain themselves so well for so long because there were relatively few of them. Also, it just feels a bit old and mush-headed, this whole “noble savage” thing.

But they have been here for a bloody long time, and the stuff they’ve picked up over that time is just staggering. I don’t just mean knowing how to get around or what plants are good for you—I mean all of the paintings that mean things about the land, and all the interlocking stories, and this business with the songlines. And I think it’s absolutely essential that we find out as much about all this as we’re able to. I don’t think you can begin to understand a place on your own: you need all the different views of it, all the metaphors and images, all the poetry that other people have used, just to get a handle on it. And these guys have been describing the place for such a long time and in such detail that I think there’s a lot of sense in calling it an Aboriginal country, and we’re the poorer for not listening to them. Maybe you can understand Aboriginality (or one can, or someone can) without reference to the land, but I don’t think you can properly understand the land without at least some of the Aboriginal references to and through it.

But we seem to be reluctant. White people’s acknowledgment of traditional owners—at conferences, performances and such—is seen as a bit of a wank. Indigenous renaming or dual naming of places is greeted with a suspicion or outrage that clearly goes beyond the letter-writers’ professed concern with logistics or tokenism. Is it cultural theft, are we pillaging the traditions of people we’ve taken too much from already? Or is that just an excuse? I don’t hear too many complaints from the indigenous corner. There’s a lot we can’t know, of course, but there’s also a lot we can, and should. We’d all get a lot out of it.

Calling ourselves Aboriginal might be pushing it. But one thing we can say is that our Australian identity, whatever that is, probably has a lot more to do with Aboriginality than we generally admit. Greer says:

It is my contention, diffidently offered, that the Australian national character derives from the influence of the Aborigines whose dogged resistance to an imported and inappropriate culture has affected our culture more deeply than is usually recognised. From the beginning of colonisation, the authorities’ deepest fear was that settlers would degenerate and go native. In many subtle and largely unexplored ways, they did just that. Indeed, they may already partake in more Aboriginality than they know.

She cites our directness (and willingness to dispense with meaningless niceties); our egalitarianism (and indifference to asserted but unearned authority); our conversational reticence; our yarns and tall stories; our sexual segregation (women in the kitchen with salads, blokes outside around the keg); and even our accents:

Australian English is studded with Aboriginal words; the unmistakable intonation and accent bear the imprint of Aboriginality. The Anglo-Celt settlers came with Scotch and Irish brogues, and the burrs of provincial England. The Australian accent bears scant resemblance to any of these. When I first heard blackfellas speak, I stupidly thought that they were imitating the way whitefellas speak, which just shows how upside-down gubbas’ assumptions can be. The transfer must have happened the other way about; the broad flat vowels, complex diphthongs and murmuring nasalities of spoken Australian English must have come to us from Aboriginal languages.

Some of this seems a bit of a stretch. But many’s the barbie at which one of the blokes turning the snags has jerked his head towards the kitchen and muttered “secret women’s business, eh?” to general murmurs of approval—the opposite may be happening as well—and who knows? That bloke may be exactly right.

I would also nominate our sense of humour. Australian humour must be the driest in the world, full of understatement, ruthlessly iconoclastic, layered with irony, available in the face of the worst excesses and injustices, and never afraid to work blue. All of the Aborigines I’ve met—admittedly not many—and most of those I’ve seen or read about have had exactly that sense of humour. In spades. Have a read of this, from Gillian Cowlishaw’s Blackfellas, Whitefellas, and the Hidden Injuries of Race:

And then on some days they’d ask every kid, “Now we want you to write down what you all had for tea last night. Who had a lovely tea?” These bastards were having roasts and plum duffs and plum pudding and ice cream and jelly and all this shit. We were lucky to have some bully beef and curry. But I used to lie about it. I used to get those things, but not all the time. When these days came up I might have just had a bit of salami and salad or just a rough feed that mum would get together for us. I’d bullshit and say, “Oh yeah I had that too&#8221. ‘Cause Mum was a really good cook. If she had money she could put a go
od Christmas dinner on every meal. She used to cook for a living. It was hard you know, it was a hard camp. Stuff like that I was lying about, I was saying “Yeah I had that too.” I was fucken dreaming. “Strawberries, yeah, fucken oath, yeah.” Probably had bread and fat!

It’s a guy called Jake King talking, and there’s so much going on in there. It’s a terrible story; you know how kids are, with each other—but Jake’s made a big joke out of it, and now it’s something he can be proud of, can enjoy telling. That seems fantastically Australian to me, and maybe it’s something else we have the Aborigines to thank for.

I’d like to see an Aboriginal film comedy. There’s been a great run of dramas—my recent favourites are Australian Rules and The Tracker, but I also liked Yolngu Boy on SBS last night—but not much in the way of comedy. We’re crying out for it. Do people think we’re not allowed to find Aborigines funny, that it means we’re not taking them seriously? Come on. They’re bloody funny, we’ve got the same sense of humour, so let’s get to it.


I was lucky enough to see David Gulpilil’s one-hander Gulpilil at Belvoir St on Friday night, and it was fantastic, and it was hilarious. Not in a stand-up kind of way, but like a long conversation with the funniest friend you’ve got. And everybody loved it, and they were laughing probably even harder than they should have—not to patronise him, but I think because they were all just hanging out to have a laugh with a blackfella. It’s all been so serious for so long—and of course it is serious, but that’s no reason not to joke about it. That’s not the Australian way.

The picture above is by Edward Blitner and is of the Mimih spirits, who live in the rocks and taught the Aborigines everything. To the left is David Ruddy’s Gulpilil, Two Worlds, which won the Archibald Prize this year.

16 October 2004

Wake me up

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:25 am

go-gos.jpgRage remains one of the most important public services our ABC provides. Not only does it keep us company in the lonely hours as we try to get through as many glasses of water as we’ve had standard drinks—it’s there when we wake up again, confirming that we’re as old as we feel with its often-bewildering but always-fascinating ARIA Top 50.

I usually check in at about #20, depending on how many glasses of water I’ve had. Since I don’t do a lot of driving it’s really my only opportunity to keep up with what The Kids are listening to. And of course all the Old Geezers hate The Kids’ music so I won’t go on about it—I mean, everyone hates the Top 50, don’t they? (In my day, it was called the Top 40, and we all hated it as soon as we were cool enough.) Except that I will say that I hate R&B more than most other things in the universe, not least because it appears to disclose neither R nor B. I wish it were called something else.

No, what I find really interesting is how much of the Kids’ music is just recycled Geezer gear. Of course a fair chunk of this is due to the ominous rise of the Australian Idol alumni (I can’t link to that, either). This morning at #33 we have Paulini covering Jeff Healey’s Angel Eyes; at #22 is Cosima with Cold Chisel’s When the War is Over, and I don’t think anyone’s recovered from Shannon Noll’s slavish but soul-destroying retread of Moving Pictures’ What About Me? (apparently the famous corner shop was in Annandale, not in bloody Condobolin).

But it’s not just them. The first thing I ran up against this morning, at #17, was a version of Belinda Carlisle’s Summer Rain, performed by a trio of Russian hookers called Slinkee Minx (who are in fact from Melbourne and are not, as far as I know, involved in the sex industry). Geezers of my vintage will know that Carlisle (real name: Kurczesky or possibly Kurchinski) sang in 1980s girl-group The Go-gos, whose big hit Our Lips are Sealed (popular mondegreen, and name of Spiderbait’s cover: Alex the Seal) was—wouldn’t you know it—next up at #16, as brutalised by tween sensation Hilary Duff and her sister. Who would have thought back then that the Femme Fab Five would cast such a long shadow? Was any of this stuff really so good the first time round?

Anyway, Jessica Simpson scrapes into the charts with Berlin’s Take my Breath Away, Duran Duran is back in its own right with (Reach Up For The) Sunrise—how 80s are those parentheses?—and JC Chasez has a new track called All Day Long I Dream About Sex, clearly based on what everyone in my high school knew the name of the popular running shoe stood for, with an extraneous “L” dropped in, doubtless for legal reasons.

I do like spunky Melbourne singer/songwriter (shock!) and Unearthed find Missy Higgins and her very hooky Scar. I reckon she could teach Slinkee Minx a thing or two. Guy Sebastian doesn’t like her, though.

I’m still watching, and here’s Britney Spears with hairstyle-trailblazer-and-Whitney-Houston-abuser Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative… but I think we’ve all got the idea.

14 October 2004

Two disses

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:05 pm

8-mile.jpgI just found this picture on the Internet and have no idea who put it together, but it’s eerily close to my Heckler tilt earlier this year, which—what the hell—I’ll fully extract below, because the link may not last much longer.

Recently I was watching Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket on DVD with a friend visiting from Trinwillershagen, a village in Pomerania. Her English is very good but there’s a lot of fast talking in the movie so we turned the German subtitles on. We’d got to the part where Payback is telling Rafterman about the “thousand-yard stare&#8221, the look Marines get when they’ve been in the… unpleasantness too long.

It’s a great expression, the thousand-yard stare: that gaze that cuts through the world’s fabric. But I couldn’t help noticing, and Kerstin confirmed, that the subtitle had called it the “900-metre stare&#8221. Now I’m sure there are strict EU directives compelling the use of the metric system at all times, but come on: couldn’t they have rounded it up?

Before we make too many derisive comments about German literalness, we should look closer to home. Like at Another Paper (No, Not That One) whose weekend magazine tells the story of a contented pig farmer from Nottinghamshire, who declares that he “Wouldn’t give it up for a million quid ($2.5 million)&#8221. Well, thanks. While over at Yet Another (Possibly Made-up) Paper, environmentalists are complaining about the latest American SUV, which “gets, like, one mile to the gallon (235 litres per 100 km)&#8221.

What kind of nickel-and-dime ($0.21) operation are these people running? Yes, it’s often useful to have foreign measurements converted for us; we don’t always have access to the latest exchange rates and I suppose there may be folks out there who don’t know that a 5’11” woman is pretty tall unless they also hear that she’s 180 cm. But to say you wouldn’t touch something with a 3.05-metre pole: that’s a whole different league (5.56 km).

And it gets worse. When surreptitiously “adapting” a feature borrowed from an overseas source, they’ll sometimes make the conversion without even leaving in the original to give us the flavour of the idiom. Yes, give these people 2.54 cm and they’ll take 1.6 km. In for 2.5 cents, in for 450 grams, they think. And so they go the whole 8.23 metres; they leave no 6.35 kilograms unturned.

English in all its forms is a wonderful, illogical language, full of useful measurements with interesting pedigrees. Imagine the awful puns we could make from knots and fathoms, roods and firkins, scruples and troy ounces — if only space permitted.

Metric makes sense but there’s no poetry in it, and few of its units correspond to the things we need to apply them to. (One exception may be the proposed millihelen, the amount of beauty needed to launch exactly one ship.) It sounds unwieldy and it hasn’t worked its way into our idioms the way imperial has, and probably never will. Sometimes we need help in translation, but usually we get it just fine. But this obsession with conversion will only get worse, dollars to donuts ($1.42s to, I don’t know, lamingtons).

Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth (1.1 eurocents, 0.7 pence, 1.6 yen in late trading).

Sure, it’s an obvious point, but you can see how the picture above made me feel for a moment like I might have some kind of strange double life in which I Photoshop movie posters for my own amusement in my sleep.

Anyway, the idea was to illustrate a couple of lame examples of dissing that have arisen in the last day or so. Some of you might remember the blistering verbal battles that studded 8 Mile like prize fights in a Rocky movie, the best of which was Eminem’s tour de force, which won him the day and possibly the girl, I can’t remember:

This guy ain’t a mother-fucking MC;
I know everything he’s got to say against me:
I am white, I am a fucking bum, I do live in a trailer with my mom;
my boy Future is an “Uncle Tom”;
I do got a dumb friend named Cheddar Bob,
who shoots himself in the leg with his own gun,
I did get jumped by all six of you chumps—
and Wink did fuck my girl,
but I’m still standin here screaming, “Fuck the Free World!”
And never try and judge me, dude:
you don’t know what the fuck I’ve been through.
But I know something about you:
you went to Cranbrook—that’s a private school!
What’s the matter, dawg: you embarrassed?
This guy’s a gangster?
His real name’s Clarence!
And Clarence lives at home with both parents,
And Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage.
This guy don’t wanna battle; he’s shook,
cuz he knows there ain’t no such thing as half-way crooks!
He’s scared to death;
he’s scared to look in his fucking yearbook—
fuck Cranbrook!

Now, I don’t know what half of this means, but I tell you, you didn’t want to be Clarence when this was going down. So it was a shame to hear about Eminem’s most recent offering, Lose It, which seems far from his best work, even though its video has upset Michael Jackson:

In it, Eminem appears, dressed as Jackson, on a bed surrounded by young boys and singing: “Come here, little kiddie, on my lap. Guess who’s back with a brand new rap?”

“And I don’t mean rap as in a new case of child molestation,” Eminem adds.

See? It’s just not as good. And I felt a similar disappointment reading about the Bush v Kerry battle, which is obviously the last climactic one and should show the best they can do:

“There’s a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank,” President George Bush said in the final debate of a close and contentious campaign for the White House. “Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.”

That’s a dis? These people just aren’t trying. More debate (perhaps) when I’ve read the whole transcript.

The kids aren’t all right

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:42 am

To my considerable surprise, I seem to have mellowed slightly towards right-wing Herald columnist Miranda Devine in recent times. Of course I find her politics repellent and her smugness baffling and infuriating, but she writes well and canvasses all the relevant issues—she just manages somehow to come to these inexplicable teeth-grinding conclusions.

For example, after reading that first sentence in disbelief and sudden self-loathing, I went through a bunch of her recent columns and found that this one on Family First has a lot in common with my spray of a couple of days ago—except, of course, that I’m all for godless secularism. Her big crusade right now seems to be to prove that religion and conservatism are on the rise, and so—I’m trying to summarise the thrust of her argument here—ha!

I do think that every paper needs a diversity of well-expressed views and so I have come around to the view that perhaps Devine enriches the opinion pages of our Herald after all. But then she comes up with something like this article, provocatively subtitled “He might be 65 but John Howard understands how younger people are thinking&#8221:

The story of Howard’s historic landslide is the evolution of conservative support since he won government in 1996. The strong-minded, grey-haired stalwarts of the Liberal Party have made way for a new generation of conservative under-30s who admire the Howard reviled by the baby boomer nostalgics of Gnashville. Howard has presided over a “youthquake” of conservatism not dissimilar to Ronald Reagan’s in the United States in the 1980s.

If you observed each of Howard’s four victory parties at the Wentworth Hotel, that evolution was evident. Each year the crowd has been getting younger, rowdier and more patriotic as the food improved, from sparse plates of triangle sandwiches in 1996 to the tempura prawns and Peking duck wraps abounding this year.

First let me pause to say: puke. Now for some figures. Roy Morgan research from late September appears to confirm what we all think: that people get more conservative as they get older. On a two-party-preferred basis, 63% of 18–24-year-olds said they would vote for Labor, compared with 53.5% of 25–34-year-olds, 51.5% of 35–49-year-olds, 48.5% of 50–64-year-olds and only 39% of those aged 65 and over.

Trying to compare this to 2001 is complicated, because polling back then didn’t give a two-party-preferred result. However, assuming (dangerously) that total preference flows that year were the same for all age groups, my calculations give 64.5% of 18–24-year-olds preferring Labor, 57.2% of 25–34-year-olds, 57.9% of 35–49-year-olds, and 48.4% of the 50+ brigade.

We know that overall there’s been a swing of about 2.1 percentage points to the Coalition this time round. Now, on my guess 18–24-year-olds only swung by 1.5 points, making them slightly less reluctant than the rest of the population to abandon their idealism; whereas 25–34-year-olds swung by 3.7 points, suggesting that there has in fact been a greater-than-proportionate shift in the youth away from bleeding-heart concerns and towards tempura prawns.

If anyone’s still listening, that’s about 100,000 under-35s who’ve jumped the fence since 2001. You couldn’t fit them all in the Wentworth Hotel (though on Friday nights it sure feels like someone has) but at around 2.8% of total voting youth I’m not sure you’d call it a “youthquake&#8221.

Of course that’s only over three years, and there’s no doubt that young people are becoming somewhat more conservative—or, rather, that somewhat more young people are becoming conservative. There was a time when you just couldn’t find a contemporary who’d voted for Howard; now… well, I don’t know any, but I know someone who knows one.

It’s a disturbing trend because young people should be idealistic. We should be revolutionary. We should in fact be more left-wing, more green, more activist than is sensible; we should be passionately committed to demonstrably unworkable ideas. Because politics is about compromise, and you’re not helping that process if you’ve already caved. You don’t see the right-wingers getting any less rabid: they’re doing their bit, propagating insane fascist opinions that surely nobody wants to see implemented. We need to counter that.

Young people need to be left-wing for the same reason as the media needs to be biased against the government—it should always be critical of the government in power. The reason is that someone has to do it. And of course there are older radicals, including the apparently limitless hordes of ratbag baby-boomers Devine keeps warning us about. But this is our core competency—this is our thing. So when you hear about these earnest young Liberal-voters it just doesn’t sit right; and when you read these journalists kow-towing to the government, crowing about how they were right all along: that’s a bloody disgrace.

OK, seems I hate Miranda Devine again. That’s better.

12 October 2004

A plague o’ both our houses?

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:39 pm

ants.jpgThis is getting weird. I don’t know what kind of shady preference deal the Greens cut with Labor, but it can’t have been much good if it didn’t include Victoria, where Family First candidate Steve Fielding looks like bagging a Senate seat (and probably the balance of power) despite his ticket pulling 1.9% of the primary vote, while the Greens are out in the cold with 8.64%. It’s tempting to blame the Australian voting public for not bothering to fill out all 78 boxes below the line, but I think I’ll blame the Labor Party.

Maybe “blame” isn’t the word. I don’t think anyone should have control of both houses. But I’m pretty nervous about Family First, so it was with great interest that I watched the Lateline interview with Party Chairman Peter Harris last night. It didn’t help.

Tony Jones went in hard, trying to expose the god-bothering tendencies of the party (emphasis added, but reflects Jones’s delivery):

TONY JONES: Do you see the hand of God in this election result?

PETER HARRIS: I don’t know if I see the hand of God in the election result. I mean, we worked very hard and planned our strategies and implemented them to the best of our capacity, and at this current stage of the game, it seems that some of our strategies are playing out very strongly.

TONY JONES: Now, Stephen Fielding appears very likely to become a senator and indeed he could hold the balance of power in the upper house. Is that an outcome that you and your supporters will indeed be praying for?

PETER HARRIS: Well, I think that we have an opportunity still in four States.

Finally it came out that (as everybody already knew) most if not all FF candidates and executive are members of Assembly-of-God or other churches. The party fielded 126 candidates and some of them were clearly—uh—loose cannons.

It seems that McMillan FF candidate Paul Harold was responsible for posters warning “A vote for [ALP candidate] Christian Zahra is a vote for Satan” (the Lateline transcript calls him “Christian Disarray”, which makes it kind of funny). Victorian Senate candidate Pastor Danny Nalliah called on followers to pull down mosques and temples. Harris distanced himself and the party from these excesses, not entirely convincingly. It was a FF campaigner, and not a candidate, who said that all lesbians should be burnt to death, but Queensland Senate candidate John Lewis did admit that the party had withheld its preferences from Brisbane Liberal candidate Ingrid Tall because she’s gay.

On the other hand, as Harris said, Party Leader Andrea Mason is the first female indigenous leader of any party in Australia and the FF voice on Aborigines would be especially valuable now that Aden Ridgeway is on his way out. They want reconciliation; they want the Government to apologise. Harris also says they’re against the full sale of Telstra and the relaxation of the cross-media—but not the foreign media—rules. According to their website, they’re compassionate on asylum-seekers, interested in mental health, pretty bland on Iraq and terrorism, and predictable on stem-cell research.

This is what drives me crazy about these church types. So many of their principles are admirable and true, so many abhorrent and weird. They do a heap of good around the place, particularly with the homeless and other disadvantaged. But you get the feeling that at some stage they just stop thinking—at some point in the argument they back up against the orthodoxy, which is in many cases pretty scary.

So now we’re looking at a balance of power held by an apparently quite zealous party that’s some way to the left of Labor on some issues and to the right of the Coalition on others. Or, carte blanche for the Coalition. I don’t know what to hope for.

I’m biased, of course. For four years in the 1980s I went to a Christian primary school in Adelaide that was attached to the same kind of revival church as FF is (Guy Sebastian later taught at the associated high school). I didn’t like it. Every year they made us perform American evangelical musicals called things like Ants’hillvania, which always involved a lot of tights and polystyrene, terrible puns and not-at-all-disguised religious pedagogy. Now I’m a staunch atheist and hater of musicals, but I think the picture of Antony (he wanted to be independ-ant, but he was soon repent-ant, you get the idea) expresses pretty well how Steve Fielding must be feeling now.

11 October 2004

Is it ironic?

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:50 am

Alanis MorissetteAnyone still confused about irony should read the brilliant piece Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian last year. It goes through all the different kinds of rhetorical irony and charts the evolution from (i) a fairly straightforward Socratic technique; to (ii) a means of discovering the truth; to (iii) a way to communicate a particular meaning different from the literal meaning; and finally to (iv) a way communicate precisely nothing in a way that’s supposed to be cool.

Williams notes in relation to this “fourth age” of irony:

So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front—and it’s ironic because it appears to be saying “women are objects”, yet of course it isn’t saying that, because we’re in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying “women aren’t objects”, because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it’s effectively saying “women are neither objects, nor non-objects—and here are some tits!”

Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Charlie’s Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope—”I’m not saying what you think I’m saying, but I’m not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I’m not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits.”

I still think there are a couple of different things in here. I can see how the established meaning of rhetorical irony can extend beyond verbal communication and into things like dress and perhaps even pole-dancing, but so far all these forms of irony reside firmly in the communication. It seems that all the Eurovision-and-Big-Brother crew are doing is purporting to enjoy entertainment products in ways not intended by their creators—who presumably couldn’t care less. I suppose by their watching they may be trying to say to the world “These are excellent singers and compositions” or “This is really compelling interpersonal drama” in an ironic or at least sarcastic way. But what if nobody’s listening? It seems to me that taking the communication out of irony is as damaging to the concept as taking the meaning out of it.

And anyway, most of the time it’s obviously just a big lie (as Williams points out, a lie has things in common with irony, but clearly isn’t irony). You can try all you like to enjoy FHM on an ironic level, but you’re obviously just reading it for the tits. A lot of this talk of irony is just trying to have your cake and eat it too. (Interestingly—but hardly ironically—the original expression was “eat your cake and have it too”, which makes much more sense. I wasn’t about to attempt some metaphor to do with tits.)

Of course Alanis Morrissette was trying to tackle situational or cosmic irony, which is like the universe playing a joke on you. Williams explains:

[W]here rhetorical irony can be as simple as saying the opposite of what you mean, cosmic irony is not simply experiencing the opposite of what you thought was going to happen. For instance, if I was having a party, and I thought my dad was going to come, and he didn’t, that wouldn’t be ironic. If, on the other hand, I was having a party and I didn’t want my dad to come, and I spent three weeks working on a brilliant cover story for why he couldn’t come, and then my sister accidentally blew my cover, so I had to invite him anyway, and then, on the way here, he got run over and died—that’s ironic.

So there you have it. Irish Comedian Ed Byrne has a pretty reasonable riff on Alanis’s song:

No, there’s nothing ironic about being stuck in a traffic jam when you’re late for something. Unless you’re a town planner. If you were a town planner and you were on your way to a seminar of town planners at which you were giving a talk on how you solved the problem of traffic congestion in your area, couldn’t get to it because you were stuck in a traffic jam, that’d be well ironic: “I’m sorry I’m late, you’ll never guess.”

“It’s like rain on your wedding day”—only if marrying a weatherman and he set the date. I could go on and I will.

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break, that’s inconsiderate office management. A no-smoking sign in a cigarette factory—irony. It’s not a difficult concept Alanis. It’s very rare you see a ironic no-smoking sign, although if you ever see one of those that say thank-you for not smoking and you are: fairly ironic.
Astute readers will wonder who the young woman pictured above is. No, it’s not Alanis Morrissette—it’s British Alanis tribute artist Kerry Jay, who, according to her agent, “has the gift of the looks, mannerisms and above all, the distinctive voice of Alanis”. Is that ironic? No, not really. But surely it’s better than nothing.

And but so then

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:06 am

I haven’t yet read David Foster Wallace’s new collection of stories, Oblivion. But he’s one of the writers whose new work is irresistible—there’s no way I’m not going to read it as soon as possible. Others off the top of my head would be Haruki Murakami, Martin Amis, I suppose Salman Rushdie, our own Elliot Perlman, and Peter Carey, who we now share with New York.

Some people might say that all these guys—yes, they’re all guys, but I’m sure it’s just a coincidence—keep on writing the same book, except Carey: you couldn’t say that about him. Murakami’s is about disappearing cats, girls with nice ears and Western music; Amis’s about violence in Cockney accents with dysfunctional sex; Rushdie’s about tangled subcontinental dynasties, puns, and Western music; Perlman’s about the kind of social justice agenda items that Webdiary‘s gloaters delight in telling us are demonstrably outdated; and DFW’s as below. Well, maybe—but they’re bloody great books, and they’re not being rewritten like some of the formula hacks’ books are, but more extended, and so I’ll read them until they’re done. You might also say that some of these guys are more interested in style than substance, which I think is in every case unfair, but may reveal a personal weakness.

Anyway, Malcolm Knox reviewed Oblivion in this weekend’s Spectrum, but there doesn’t seem to be an online version (yet?). It was a good review, and as a fellow adherent I can understand the faint outrage that prompted Knox to backhand a couple of lower-shelfers in his opening:

It says something about the book trade when David Foster Wallace is blurbed by Zadie Smith. True, Smith makes herself scarce in Smith’s shadow, saying, “It is a humbling experience to see him go to work” and “He’s in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us”. But buying a Wallace book on Zadie Smith’s recommendation is akin to noticing, say, Stevie Wonder because Guy Sebastian says he’s worth a listen.

Zing! The other good thing about Knox’s review is that it resists entirely the temptation to mimic the more obvious hallmarks of DFW’s prose. These include discursive footnotes, nested brackets, starting sentences with as many conjunctions as possible, and refusing to let a possessive pronoun pass without interposing its (the possessive pronoun’s) referent. See, it’s contagious, and Knox is a better man than I am.

But there is a lot more to DFW than that, and I wholeheartedly recommend his work to date, particularly the comprehensive novel Infinite Jest, the short-story collections Girl with Curious Hair and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, as well as any other short works you can get your hands on. (I know the done thing would be to link all these titles to Amazon.com, but I just can’t do it. That’s not even a real link!)

All this talk has reminded me of one of my favourite DFW pieces, called The Nature of Fun and included in the 1999 collection Why I Write. It starts like this (almost everything, but not everything, DFW writes is long):

The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction-writer in the middle of writing a long book is Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” where he describes the book-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (i.e. dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction-writer feels for something he’s working on. The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it—a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception—yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect. And yet it’s yours, the infant is, it’s you, and you love it and dandle it and wipe the cerebro-spinal fluid off its slack chin with the cuff of the only clean shirt you have left (you have only one clean shirt left because you haven’t done laundry in like three weeks because finally this one chapter or character seems like it’s finally trembling on the edge of coming together and working and you’re terrified to spend any time on anything other than working on it because if you look away for a second you’ll lose it, dooming the whole infant to continued hideousness). And but so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it—hate it—because it’s deformed, repellent, because something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page; hate it because its deformity is your deformity (since if you were a better fiction-writer your infant would of course look like one of those babies in catalogue-ads for infantwear, perfect and pink and cerebro-spinally continent) and its every hideous incontinent breath is a devastating indictment of you, on all levels… and so you want it dead, even as you dote and wipe it and dandle it and sometimes even apply CPR when it seems like its own grotesqueness has blocked its breath and it might die altogether.

Or perhaps it was being in the middle of a rewrite that reminded me of this.

10 October 2004

The main game

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:22 pm

I think it was always clear that upcoming US election will in many ways have a greater impact on Australia than yesterday’s punt—except in relation to interest rates, of course, which John Howard works out on the backs of old tasting notes in the cellars of Kirribilli House. So let’s move on and worry about Bush v Kerry for the next three weeks.

The debates seem to be a bigger deal in the US than here, where the contempt with which our soon-to-be-second-longest-serving-prime-minister has treated the electorate is equalled only by… well, by a lot of other instances of his contempt, I suppose. Anyway, the US candidates have three debates this year, with different topics and formats. Transcripts are here. Consensus seems to be that Bush lost the first one on September 30, and Kerry won the second one on October 8.

Kerry did come across well in Friday’s stoush. He had a lot of information handy, which you might expect since—as Bush kept pointing out for some reason—he’s been a Senator for 20 years and seems to have played a significant role in important decisions. He made Bush look like someone who’d just been hanging around the White House for the sandwiches. But my favourite part was when Kerry called Bush on his environmental policy and more broadly in these terms:

The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about, it’s one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky, slap it onto something, like “No Child Left Behind” but you leave millions of children behind. Here they’re leaving the skies and the environment behind.

It’s only tenuously a literary reference but we’ll take what we can get. And these goddamn dopey names Bush keeps giving to his bills really would be ridiculous if they weren’t, as Kerry suggests, so sinister. There actually is a No Child Left Behind Act, also a Healthy Forests Act and of course the appallingly-entitled (and downright appalling) USA Patriot Acts. We’ve sailed pretty close to this particular wind with the A New Tax System Acts (which you just can’t convincingly say—try it), and we occasionally partake of irony as in the Native Title Act, but we’re yet not as bad—or as Orwellian—as the US. But it’s a disturbing trend here as there. Law shouldn’t be propaganda.

Bush made some lame jokes and at one stage called his opponent “Senator Kennedy”. I hope he doesn’t win.

Happy never after

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:17 am

scream.jpgShe woke up and couldn’t open her eyes. It wasn’t just her hangover, which felt tectonic—she could feel new mountain ranges and ocean trenches crumpling her skull. There was also a presence in the bed, a black hole distending the universe of her mattress. She heard his amphibian breath; she felt his humidity. Her heart flattened as her memories of last night cooled and found their orbit.

She thought she’d made it this time. She thought she’d found someone else, someone who made her laugh and didn’t embarrass her at parties, someone with a heart as big as hers once was. She’d had suitors over the years; she’d flirted with some, given others the cold shoulder—but this one was different. She’d thought for a moment that they might have a future together. Even if she was on the rebound, so what? It was the same last time, and here she was, eight years later. She was finally feeling good about herself; she thought she’d had the strength to get out.

But he’d been wooing her again for six long weeks, buying her pretty things, making all the old promises. He’d cut down forests for her; he’d build her a fortress. There was heady talk of interest rates—he’d seduced her all over again with his deep, resonant voice; he’d swooped down and taken her in his arms and given her about a thousand margaritas. He’d worn her down. She knew it was wrong, but she felt her strength ebbing, and at last she thought to herself:

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

But now she felt a darkness in every corner of her body; and she opened her eyes to let the light in but all she saw was him: he was squatting at the corner of the bed, and he was happy to see her… he’d been a bit listless recently, but success hadn’t just gone to his head.

“Ah, you’re awake,” he said. “Good. We might only have three more years of this, so let’s get on with it, eh?”

There was nothing she could do. This wasn’t Las Vegas, after all. It was much worse. Three more years, and all she could do was lie back and think of… well, of herself, she supposed.


9 October 2004

Here we go

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:34 pm

binky2.jpgIt’s a beautiful election day across most of Australia, which they say can make a difference. The sun’s shining, people are walking around in shorts and singlets, surely the new guy couldn’t do anything to ruin this… why don’t we give him a chance?

That’s the theory anyway. According to this meteorologist, the weather has a huge effect in the US, due in large part to the non-compulsory voting system. It might not be enough to make a difference for us.

I like election days. Everyone’s out in the streets, running the gauntlet of how-to-voters and diverse charitable collectors. Up the road the PCYC is having a sausage sizzle, the Sea Scouts are selling raffle tickets, a 12-year-old is playing convict shanties on a recorder, and the Green Left ratbags have set up a sort of tent embassy complete with pool room. I even saw one of the local homeless guys lining up to vote—hats off to the AEC if he makes it.

When the sun’s shining you get the feeling that democracy is a wonderful thing and maybe it should be forced on people through bombing and puppet governments. No, that’s going a bit far. But I do like election days. It’s just election nights that get me down.

8 October 2004

Medicare Black?

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:52 pm

Phil Glendenning from ANTaR makes a telling and terrifying point about the most shameful health problem in Australia:

It’s tragic that Labor’s health centrepiece, Medicare Gold, is targeted to a group, the over-75s, which effectively does not exist among indigenous people, because their life expectancy is 20 years lower than other Australians. Fewer than 25 per cent of Aboriginal men are likely to live to 65, compared with 87 per cent of other Australians. These figures are worse than just about every country in the world, including Nigeria and Bangladesh. For the same reason, few indigenous people get superannuation and the age pension.

If you were Aboriginal you’d be forgiven for thinking you were being discriminated against. And maybe not for the first time!

Cos Duncan’s me mate

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:38 am

On the recent NT tour our intrepid leader insisted on playing a battered old tape of Slim Dusty’s greatest hits (there are more than you’d think), which drew a small but patriotic chorus from the Australians and a lot of baffled muttering from everyone else. A highlight was, of course, I Love to Have a Beer with Duncan, which goes (sing along everyone):

I love to have a beer with Duncan;
I love to have a beer with Dunc.
We drink in moderation,
And we never ever ever get rolling drunk.
We drink at the Town & Country
Where the atmosphere is great—
I love to have a beer with Duncan
Cos Duncan’s me mate.

The Herald now reports that the legendary Town & Country Hotel in St Peters is up for sale.

The Town & Country is the hotel imortalised in the song I Love To Have A Beer With Duncan, made famous by Slim Dusty but written back in 1976 by a bloke named Pat Alexander.

Years after it had become a hit, Alexander revealed the genesis of the song. “At that time I was trying to sell life insurance and the only good thing that came out of those two horrible years with AMP and CML was Duncan.

“One day I was knocking on factory doors in Sydney’s southern suburbs and this fellow who owned a heat treatment factory invited me in. His name was Duncan Urquhart and he was a civil engineer and suggested we might talk about my product in the pub round the corner—the Town & Country at St Peters. I went back to see Duncan three times before I realised he had no intention of buying life insurance—he just enjoyed the yarn.”

True-blue Australians will know that if Duncan isn’t around the singer doesn’t mind having a beer with Colin, Kevin, Patrick or Robert either. The owner of these feet suggests that in today’s multicultural Australia the song could profitably be extended to the Rakeshes, Nguyens and Hosans with whom we also love to have beers. Does anyone else love to have a beer with a mate who may have been overlooked in Slim’s version? Leave your extra stanzas here.

Now is the time

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:30 am

Binky.jpgHere’s a thought: do Coalition-voters have election-night parties? Don’s Party was of course a bunch of lefties, and all the parties I’ve been to have been along the lines of Binky here… but then again they would be. I don’t know if I’m going to one this year, but I’m afraid it won’t end well if I do.

More trees

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:03 am

I’d be surprised if much turned on the whole Tassie forests issue in the end, but it’s certainly shaping up to be one of the more interesting theatres of the campaign. Watching John Howard trying to choose between the greens and the trade unions, then somehow claiming to be right behind both of them, is priceless.

The problem with the whole issue is that nobody seems to know what they’re talking about—or they know, but they’re not telling. Like on Lateline last night, Tony Jones valiantly but vainly tried to get Actual and Shadow Environment Ministers Senator Ian Campbell and Kelvin Thompson to explain what parts of Tasmania their policies covered. The Coalition is promising 170,000 hectares of new reserve; Labor will commission a review of 240,000 hectares. Nobody seems to know whether these areas overlap, how much of them would be subject to logging anyway, or even how big the Tarkine is. And these guys are meant to think about the environment all day.

Well, maybe they do know. According to the Wilderness Society, there are 450,000 hectares of Tarkine, which makes the Coalition’s promise to protect 76,100 hectares of the Tarkine, the Hewan and the Well valley combined look a bit stingy. Interestingly, this guy says that the Tarkine is just a recently-invented construct and that much of it doesn’t have a great deal of conservation value. Which may well be true, but when people start banging on about protecting the Tarkine they should at least be able to answer questions about what proportion will be protected and why.

And far be it from me to make personal comments about any of the candidates, but neither of those two gave us much else to work with, so I can only say that Senator Campbell looked kind of lop-sided the whole debate, and Thompson seemed to have the hiccups or to be about to throw up. We know of course from talkback radio that Bob Brown is a drug-addled communist paedophile, but I always think he presents as a pretty reasonable bloke. He went on a bit too much about the chainsaws at the ballot boxes for mine, but often his statements contain traces of content, and they almost never rhyme, which has to be a good thing (in politics, at least).

The more beautiful, the less faithful

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:26 am

rilke.jpg I was talking to a couple of well-read German citizens at Liam’s opening last night when the conversation turned, as it so often does, to überpoet Rainer Maria Rilke. Now Rilke is a great writer but of course as a lifelong ignoramus I’ve only read him in translation, which understandably shocked and saddened the Germans. They said there was no comparison, and this has to be true.

For example, when I was called on to read at a wedding a couple of years ago I chose the Rilke poem that goes like this:

Weisst du, ich will mich schleichen
leise aus lautem Kreis,
wenn ich erst die bleichen
Sterne uber den Eichen
bluhen weiss.

Wege will ich erkiesen,
die selten wer betritt
in blassen Abendenwiesen—
und keinen Traum, als diesen:
Du gehst mit.

There are a couple of translations of this awesome mash note floating around, and they’re quite different. One is:

Understand, I’ll slip quietly
away from the noisy crowd
when I see the pale
stars rising, blooming, over the oaks.

I’ll pursue solitary pathways
through the pale twilit meadows,
with only this one dream:
You come too.

And another is:

Do you know, I would quietly
slip from the loud circle,
when first I know the pale
stars above the oaks
are blooming.

Ways will I elect
that seldom any tread
in pale evening meadows—
and no dream but this:
You come too.

In the end I kind of pushed together a few of the translations, because “loud circle” is better than “noisy crowd”, but “no dream but this:” is an absolute cracker. Which no doubt offended the moral rights of various translators and may well have had poor Rainer spinning, but the alternative was learning German and there wasn’t time before the wedding.

Interestingly, Google translates the poem like this:

You, I know want to creep
quietly from loud circle,
if I only those bleach
Stars over the oaks
flower white.

Ways wants to erkiesen I,
those rarely who enters
in pale evening meadows—
and no dream, as this:
You go along.

…which isn’t that bad, all things considered.

Conversation then drifted to Vladimir Nabokov, who must be the best non-native writer of English. My theory is that Nabokov is so good because he has a staggering and fearless ability with language, but never learned the cliche-laden and worn-down English the rest of us did—he had to make everything up. I’d be surprised to find a single unoriginal phrase in any of his writing, and it really helps.

Relevantly, Nabokov was among other things one of the many translators of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, which of course inspired Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate which in turn was a big factor in my Equinox. The interesting thing is that, unlike many fine translations of Onegin, Nabokov’s didn’t stick to the verse form of the original—it didn’t rhyme, even though Nabokov was probably the person most qualified to turn in an authentic rhyming version.

Perhaps to explain why not, and perhaps also to prove that he could have if he’d wanted, he wrote this:

On Translating Eugene Onegin

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose—
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

Reflected words can only shiver
Like elognated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana’s earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man’s mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task—a poet’s patience
And scholastic passion blent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.

Fair enough I suppose, but I still would have liked to read his rhyming Onegin. That would have rocked.

6 October 2004

Go see this

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:30 pm

liam.jpg…if you’re in Sydney and want to see some good non-representational art. This is a friend of mine who’s a landscape architect but takes time off periodically to do more interesting things (much to the despair of many of us who think landscape architecture sounds interesting enough already).

If you can’t read the details, the exhibition is at Plisse Cafe, 113 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills from Thursday 7th October to Wednesday 10th November. Do yourself a favour!

Wood, trees

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:03 am

I do feel for the Tasmanian loggers who rely on clearing out old-growth forests for their livelihood, and I don’t like the idea that Tasmania’s future is effectively being decided by mainland inner-city-dwellers like me. But at the end of the day we’ve got to accept that these resources aren’t replaceable in any relevant timeframe and that there is much more than an economic cost involved in depleting them. We’re going to have to stop logging sooner or later, and it might as well be now when we’ve got $800 million to spend on transition, as the ALP’s Tasmanian Forests Policy intends.

According to the ABS, there are about 4,000 forestry jobs in Tasmania, while the Tasmanian Logging Association estimates that almost 11,000 Tasmanians depend on the forestry industry, up to half of whom may be affected if old-growth logging is ended. The Wilderness Society estimates that less than 500 jobs are involved in old-growth forestry. Even on the worst case, that’s at least $150,000 for every person affected by ending old-growth logging, and up to $1.6 million for each job lost. Surely that’s enough to set up a viable alternative for the region. Unless they just like hacking down old trees, in which case, whatever.

Anyway, the whole thing’s got a bit shrill, and the real reason for the post was this article, in which National Association of Forest Industries executive director Kate Carnell says:

Politicians who renege on their promises are never acceptable to the Australian people.

Well, that made me laugh. Hasn’t she heard of John Howard’s “It’s never a lie to change your mind”?

5 October 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 10:02 pm

Fleetwood to the Mac's

Now, the NRL is a long way from my favourite version of football, but Sunday’s grand final provoked a couple of emotions in me.

One was a kind of schadenfreudian nostalgia. I was at the Canterbury Bankstown Leagues Club two years ago the night the Bulldogs were stripped of their premiership points for salary-cap violations—just coincidentally; I was there to see my mate Jules sing as Stevie Nicks in her Fleetwood Mac cover band. All the news crews were clearing out, and the whole place had a stunned feeling about it; I didn’t see anybody cry, but by God they had lumps in their throats. They certainly weren’t in the mood to dance to Gypsy, let me tell you, and even Don’t Stop went down like… well, like the Bulldogs on the ladder. So when I heard that the Dogs had won this year, I hoped they’d invited Fleetwood to the Mac’s back to play that night, to make up for last time. Jules isn’t in the band anymore, though; they’ve had to find a new Stevie Nicks and are about to be shut down for apostrophe violations themselves. So that was the end of that thought.

Of course the real issue is the Bulldogs’ “troubles” of earlier this year. “We’ve been through hell this year,” said Willie Mason. “We’ve done it tough,” said just about everybody. I reckon it’s a bit much. To borrow from my preferred code, it was pretty tough for the Swans to play through head trainer Wally Jackson’s fatal heart attack in Round 21. That was a tragedy. But repeatedly getting involved in dodgy sexual practices, if not actual rape (no charges were laid) and then acting like dickheads during the ensuing investigations—you can’t really throw up your hands and curse the gods about that.

Sure, the fans did it tough—they deserved a lot better, even if their steadfast refusal to sing along with Dreams did suggest a certain lack of character. All the parents of blue-and-white-painted children who not only had to have the birds-and-bees conversation a lot earlier than they’d hoped, but also had to deal with a whole new set of bird-to-bee ratios… We might even spare a thought for the women of Coffs Harbour. But I don’t think the players have had much to complain about, and even less now.

But that whole thing reminded me of something I wrote earlier this year about Mark Gasnier’s serenading of promotions manager and DJ Hannah Toohey from a taxi in May. election… Gaz left a message on her voicemail which said:

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon
who is already sick and pale with grief
that thou her maid art far more fair than she…

No, wait, that’s not it. It was more like this (he may have had some help from Anthony Minichiello):

I know that last year on the twelfth of May-month,
to walk abroad, one day you changed your hair-plaits!
I am so used to take your hair for daylight
that—like as when the eye stares at the sun’s disk,
one sees long after a red blot on all things—
so, when I quit thy beams, my dazzled vision
sees upon all things a blonde stain imprinted.

No, that wasn’t it either. In fact, it was more modern than either of those, something like (parental advisory):

where the fuck are you? There’s
in the cab;
it’s twenty to four.
Our cocks are fat and fucking
ready to spurt
and you’re in bed.
Fuck me, fire
up you sad

I know, it’s awful. Maybe you hadn’t read the whole thing before; it certainly took me a while to find an unexpurgated version. Anyway, I wrote a short piece about these difficulties, but then didn’t know what to do with it. I tried Heckler at the SMH, but they didn’t print it. Entwürfe Perhaps because I’d already done a Heckler that week, perhaps because of media bias, to or possibly because it wasn’t all that good. Anyway, now that I’ve got my own blog I don’t need to worry about any of that anymore, so here it is, almost as relevant as it would have been in May.

Like many people, I found the recent “four toey humans” scandal bewildering. Mark Gasnier’s voicemail raises many questions that are proving almost impossible to answer. The most obvious, of course, is: what the hell was he thinking? But a close second would have to be: what the –––– was he saying?

The infamous message was so heavily censored by the major dailies that I can’t have been the only one left wondering exactly how the airwaves had been polluted early that Wednesday. I could work out most of it, but this line had me stumped: “Our ––––– are ––– and ––––––– ready to ––––– ––––– and you’re in bed”. It took me a long time to find out what those boofheads were talking about, and then of course I wished I hadn’t.

I thought perhaps these were the lyrics to a popular song that might have been special to Gaz and [Woman’s name]. Something like sulky homeboy Eamon’s recent number one, –––– It (I Don’t Want You Back) or sassy hip-hopper Frankee’s rejoinder, FURB (–––– You Right Back). Bands these days release self-censored radio-friendly versions of their songs, with these weird silences on the vocal track where the bad words used to be. In the case of these mononymous squabblers, the only lines that make it through intact are the ones that go, “Whoa, whoa, uh uh yeah,” which I’m sure is some kind of rapper Morse code for “––––”.

There’s always been a gap between the language people use in their everyday lives and what is deemed suitable for broadcast. Comedian George Carlin made this point in 1972 with his “Seven words you can’t say on television” routine, which proved prophetic by landing the radio station that broadcast it in the Supreme Court (the seven words were ––––, ––––, ––––, ––––, ––––––––––, –––––––––––– and, for some reason, ––––).

Television has loosened up a bit since then, so we’re hearing fewer of those ridiculous substitutions, those army guys saying “Fig! The fooling fiddler’s fouled!” and so on. But you can still see entire Jerry Springer episodes that play like silent films, as if Charlie Chaplin had been caught ––––––– Buster Keaton. You still see movies that you’re sure were full of dialogue but now seem like a lot of angry glances.

So the reforms haven’t nearly kept pace with the increasingly colourful expression of our frustrations and disappointments, our hopes and dreams. This used to be just inconvenient, if a bit baffling: we all knew what the missing words were, after all; we all made the substitution in our heads. But when our top news stories and most popular songs are rendered all but incomprehensible by our persistent squeamishness, surely the gap has become too wide. Surely we should just concede that most of us talk like that, and that by bowdlerising bad language we’re just encouraging it.

And if you don’t like that, you can –––– the –––– –––––’s ––––.

4 October 2004

Oh, the election…

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:41 am

After a week in Darwin I’d just about forgotten it was on. There’s nothing in the esteemed Murdoch organ the NT News except crocodiles—there are 80,000 of them in the Territory and it’s still front-page news every time one of them gets “loose” (and I still don’t know what that means; they all seemed pretty much “on the loose” to me).

Anyway, I’m glad things have still been ticking over Down South. Many people will have seen or read about the Battle of the Tonys on Thursday night’s Lateline, but it’s worth repeating. I wasn’t sure whether the ABC was recycling John Clarke and Bryan Dawe’s always-hilarious spoof from the 7.30 Report is earlier in the evening. I mean, listen to this:

TONY JONES: Tony Abbott on another matter, have you met Archbishop Pell during the election campaign?
TONY ABBOTT: Not that I can recall.
TONY JONES: Not that you can recall, because we believe that you’ve had at least one meeting with him quite recently? You don’t recall that?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, when? Where?
TONY JONES: At the presbytery in Sydney.
TONY ABBOTT: Ah, actually now that you do mention it, I did met with Cardinal Pell. So what? Why shouldn’t I meet with Cardinal Pell?
TONY JONES: Why couldn’t you recall meeting him, I think, 10 days ago?
TONY ABBOTT: Look, whenever it was, so what? Why shouldn’t I meet Cardinal Pell. Cardinal Pell is a fine man. He made a very good statement the other day about the Labor Party’s policy, why shouldn’t I meet with him?
TONY JONES: Well, the reason we’re asking about this, obviously, because your behind-the-scenes activities in the ’98 Technicold election were quite renowned and I’m wondering is there any possibility that in your discussions with Cardinal Pell which you couldn’t recall a moment ago – Fête in those discussions did you actually bring up the issue of private schools?
TONY love JONES: Not at all?

And it goes on like that. Someone has to with be taking the piss.

3 October 2004

Gotta love this

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:36 pm
Beer and Sunset

No, it doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I’m fiddling around with the image settings and this one really has it all. The beach is Mindil Beach in Darwin, the feet aren’t mine, and the beer speaks for itself.

2 October 2004

What is this thing called blog

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:48 pm

Hello and welcome to my weblog, which I am setting up to coincide (roughly) with the launch of Equinox, which the Sydney Morning Herald is serialising over the coming year and may well be the reason you’re here in the first place. If not, check it out—and, either way, let me know what you think using the comments box here. Also, props to the various other blogs that have already picked up on Equinox—thanks!

I also want to use the blog to try some new things to do with creative and factual writing, and occasionally to rant about various subjects. I’ll also be posting some samples of works in progress and also some completed works.