America, you have a problem…

America, we’re glad you’re here.  Come in.  Sit down.  Make yourself comfortable. Can we offer you a drink?  Sorry we’re all out of Kool-Aid. Russia was here earlier and they drank us clean out.  We’ve laid out some of your favourite snacks for you.  Don’t worry they all have high-fructose corn syrup.  We know you have a sensitive stomach.

So America, we need to talk…

America, there’s no other way we can say this.  You have a problem.  As your friends we can’t in good conscience hold our tongues any longer.  We tried to be patient with you, we really did.  Each time you spiralled out of control in some self-destructive moment of madness we all thought okay this time America has hit rock bottom.  This time America will realise that something has to change.  But we’ve seen it happen too many times now.  And you never change.

First, let us confess something of our own.  The rest of us, we talk about you when you aren’t around.  We do it quite a bit actually.  And look, it’s not something we’re terribly proud of.  So it feels good to finally admit that to you.  We realise now that we have kept our feelings to ourselves for too long, snickering and whispering behind your back at your recklessness, shrugging our shoulders saying, “crazy America, what you gonna do?”  But now we understand that we have just been enablers.  And that has to stop too.

So, the first thing we need you to do is admit you have a problem.  You are completely out of control.  You are an addict.  That’s right.  You’re addicted to guns.  I know you don’t like hearing it, but it’s the truth.  This is an intervention.  It’s so long overdue, if it were a pregnancy it would be leaving the womb with osteoporosis.

Now we know what you are going to say, so don’t even try to give us any of that Second Amendment baloney.  THE SECOND AMENDMENT DOES NOT GRANT YOU THE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS.  Sorry, we’ll stop yelling now.

We know this is a tough one for you to accept so let’s step through it.  The amendment says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  You adopted it way back in 1791.  Do you remember what the deadliest weapon on the planet was back then?  The cannon.  That’s right, that old thing you fire off every now and then to salute things.  When cannons were the most advanced tool of warfare, militias were indeed necessary for national security.  But times have changed.  You have grown up.  We all have.  Now you have a stockpile of some 2,000 nuclear weapons, fighter jets that fly faster than the speed of sound that can take-off and land on ships, and drones capable of killing targets thousands of miles away via remote control.  In 1791 the steam train hadn’t even been invented yet.  In the twenty-first century militias have become so redundant the English language doesn’t have a word strong enough to emphasise it.  Maybe the Germans have one?  They have a word for everything those Germans.

So if militias aren’t necessary to the security of a free state then we’re sorry to say it means that your right to keep and bear arms can be infringed.  And no, we’re not saying you have to give up all of your guns: just most of them.  You can keep the ones you need on your farms, to arm your police force, you can even keep some for hunting, though you know we don’t really approve of that, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.  But guns for self defence?  No, absolutely not.  They all have to go.  Every single one of them.  Guns in your urban centres should be about as common as chicken coops in backyards.  You don’t still do that do you?

To be honest we don’t even really understand how you became so addicted.  Sure, we all experimented with guns in our younger days.  But then we grew out of it.  You say you are a frontier country and reminisce about the days of the wild wild west; think guns are part of your DNA.  But that’s just the addict in you talking.  It’s nonsense.  Those were your teenage years.  When you had long unwashed hair and had to go outside to use the bathroom.  You outgrew all of that.  Why not this too?

And look, owning guns doesn’t make you look cool.  It certainly doesn’t make you look tough.  To be honest, to the rest of us it looks like you’re overcompensating for something.  If you know what we mean.  Let us put it another way.  When we see you standing there with all of your guns we kind of think of you as that short, fat, bald, 50 year-old doing 40 in his secondhand convertible.  You think that looks cool?  No, we thought not.  Do you really want to be that guy?

You’re always telling us that you are the ‘home of the brave’.  We sometimes laugh behind your back when you say that.  Sorry about that.  Guns are not the weapons of the brave.  They are the comfort objects of cowards.  You think its brave to have an arsenal stockpiled in your basement?  Or as you sit there on your porch, cradling your gun in your lap, cocking it half-crazed whenever the shadows move.  Sorry, no chance.

Now, we know this isn’t going to be easy for you.  So maybe just start off slowly.  Try to stop saying trite things like ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’.  They just make you sound stupid.  And, oh yes, now that we think about it, the N.R.A.: you two need a divorce.  Like stat.  We know you think they love you but they don’t.  They hate you.  They hate everything.  Well, everything except for guns.  They get off on the power they have over you; how all they have to do is snap their fingers and you come running.  Somehow they have convinced you that the right to bear arms is some universal, inalienable, fundamental right.  These rights are concepts, not possessions.

You are like a battered spouse.  They have systematically destroyed your self-esteem (hard to believe I know).  But they’ve convinced you that you’re nothing without them.  They are bullies.  They are you past, not your future.  You just need to end it.

So how about it?  Are you willing to admit you have a problem?  Everyone makes mistakes.  God knows the rest of us sure have.  No, we’re not looking at you Germany.  But America, we’re here for you.  We’re here to help.  All you have to do is ask.


Reaction to Chris Gayle’s overt sexism proves that all hope is lost…

For a pessimist I have always thought of myself as pretty optimistic.  I kind of assume that most people are good and want to do good, that most of us want to live in a world where we all get along and respect each other.  I’ve always believed that at some point in my lifetime sexual discrimination would be a concept consigned to history books, that men and women would be accepted by society as equals.  But after the past few days I’m starting to think that this is an entirely hopeless cause.

After days of high profile revelations about the sexist behaviour of our frat-boy politicians we turn to the nation’s sporting fields for our next dose of high-profile sexist behaviour.  On primetime television on Monday night, Network Ten sports reporter Mel McLaughlin was propositioned by player Chris Gayle in a post-match interview, all while her (all male) colleagues giggled along from the commentary box.  As stomach churning as the interview was, and I must add it is impossible to understate how brilliantly McLaughlin handled the situation, the interview itself is not the cause of my disillusionment.  It isn’t even that the network’s sports twitter feed briefly promoted Gayle’s performance as ‘smooth’ (the tweet was quickly deleted when someone at the network remembered that sexual harassment was not ‘smooth’).  Rather, the source of my disillusionment is the voluminous internet commentary that followed the incident; the deafening hordes leaping to defend Gayle’s obnoxious behaviour.  ‘Just a little playful flirting’, they tweet.  ‘He was just having some fun, no harm was done.’  I can’t disagree more.

To defend Gayle’s comments is quite simply to condone sexual harassment in the workplace.  McLaughlin was interviewing him as part of her job.  She is entitled to turn up for work without being propositioned by a man and for it to be televised to millions.  It is that simple.  But for the (mostly but not entirely) male commentators who denounce those offended by Gayle’s behaviour as the PC police, any outrage is just an overreaction.  They then rely on all manner of stale tropes to defend their ignorant posturing.

The favourite example used to justify Gayle’s comments is a classic case of false equivalency.  These harassment supporters argue that if the roles were reversed, if Gayle were a woman and McLaughlin a man, no one would be offended.  I am not sure who was first to suggest it but an interview with Maria Sharapova conducted by Lauchlan Wills during last year’s Australian Open is the cause célèbre for proponents of this point of view.  Of course the two things are not even remotely the same.  Wills is a man, working in an industry run predominantly by men in which most of his peers are men.  McLaughlin is a woman in that same industry.  The power dynamic couldn’t be more different.

Others claim that Gayle was just having fun and meant no offence.  Unfortunately Gayle’s pathetic attempt at humour was at McLaughlin’s expense.  If it were a joke, then McLaughlin was the punchline.  But much more sinister than that, it isn’t much of a leap to interpret Gayle’s behaviour as analogous to that of a dog pissing on a tree.  He was establishing his dominance in the relationship, and making it clear that McLaughlin was on his turf and should act accordingly.  He was reinforcing the anachronistic belief that the sporting field belongs to men, that it is no a place for an easily offended women.

In some desperate attempt to reverse the blame, some commenters even claim those who seek to condemn Gayle’s behaviour are themselves undermining McLaughlin, using the twisted logic that we think she needs protecting only because we see her as some helpless damsel in distress.  It is pretty clear to anyone who saw the interview that McLaughlin is perfectly capable of looking after herself.  She certainly doesn’t need my help.  But the issues at play here are bigger than just McLaughlin and Gayle.  It is about all situations where a woman tries to establish herself in what has traditionally been a man’s world and then been subjected to harassment.  As a citizen I feel a duty to speak up and say that this kind of harassment is unacceptable.  To say nothing is akin to endorsing this abhorrent behaviour.

As troubling as all this is, the thing that really gets me down is that it is pretty obvious that those who don’t get ‘it’ aren’t even close to getting ‘it’ and I don’t think ever will get ‘it’.  So that means that I will live out the rest of my days in a world where sexual harassment is funny, and harmless, and just a bit of flirting.  And I just find that completely depressing.  So much so I think I need to binge watch Making a Murderer again, just to cheer me up…

Beginning to see the light?

Daylight saving time in Queensland is strangely emotive topic.  Those passionately either for and against its permanent reintroduction seem forever holding station in pitched battle positions, breaking ranks occasionally to lob some re-hashed argument into the ether, before retreating back into the stalemate.  The state government last canvased the views of the voters in a referendum in February 1992.  The outcome was that 54.5% of voters said they weren’t in favour of daylight saving.  Seven days later residents turned back their clocks for what would be the last time, after three summers of daylight savings trials.  Since then daylight saving has neither disappeared from the spotlight, nor has it gained any real traction among the state’s leaders.  But each year, with Groundhog Day regularity as the southern states turn forward their clocks, many Queenslanders are left scratching their heads, asking, what makes us so different?

This aversion to daylight saving appears to be some quirk unique to the people of Queensland, or more specifically perhaps, the people of regional Queensland.  It is routinely reported that the opinions of Queenslanders are largely split along geographic lines.  Daylight saving is popular in the southeast and largely unpopular across the rest of the state.  Suggestions for split time zones along this divide have been shot down by successive state governments, unwilling to see the state divided in such a manner.  It’s a reasonable position to take.  But these calls for a divided state seem born mostly from the frustrations of those in the heavily populated southeast with the reluctance of their rural counterparts to come to the daylight savings party, rather than any real desire to create any ‘us and them’ scenarios.

If we look elsewhere in the world to see how they manage keeping time across large longitudinal differences it becomes clear there is absolutely no need to divide the state into separate summer time zones.  While Queensland is indeed vast in terms of area, it is not significantly wider than New South Wales to the south.  Nor is Queensland any wider than the time zones of the United States or Europe.  If we look at one of the most extreme longitudinal differences in Queensland, the difference between Brisbane and Mount Isa, it is comparable to the longitudinal difference between Nashville, Tennessee and Amarillo, Texas in the US.  Both these cities are located in that country’s Central Daylight Time zone and both are in states with daylight saving (Arizona is the only mainland US state to not turn its clocks forward each summer).  In Europe, Warsaw and Madrid are both located in the same time zone, despite being almost 1,000 kilometres farther apart, longitudinally speaking, than Brisbane and Mount Isa.  If two such distant cities, in separate countries and each with populations of well over a million people can coexist within the same time zone, it seems absurd to suggest that Brisbane and Mount Isa should ever need to be treated any differently.

One of the main arguments against the introduction of daylight saving in Queensland is the state’s supposed tropical climate.  Daylight saving is rare among tropical cities for the simple reason that they experience little difference between the lengths of their days throughout the year.  Singapore essentially has twelve-hour days year round by virtue of its equatorial location.  Introducing daylight saving in such places makes absolutely no sense.  However, Queensland’s largest tropical city, Cairns, is not Singapore.  In terms of the delta between the longest and shortest days it has more in common with sub-tropical Brisbane than its tropical cousin.  The difference between the longest and shortest day in Cairns is just over two hours, while in Brisbane this difference is just under three-and-a-half hours.  Thus the tropical climate argument, when applied to Queensland at least, seems a dubious one.

So why then is daylight saving even a thing?  There are so many arguments trolling around both for and against daylight saving that they range from the thoroughly complicated to the sublimely ridiculous.  But essentially, the core purpose of daylight saving is to move daylight from the early morning, when most people are sleeping, to the end of the day when most are awake.  Humans are diurnal creatures.  If we weren’t slaves to artificial constraints such as time we would have no need for daylight saving.  We could rise with the sun and sleep whenever we so desired.  But time is an inflexible, rigid construct, unable allow for the seasonal variations in the length of our days.  For a Brisbane resident who begins work at 9am the sun will rise less than two-and-a-half hours before their work day begins on the shortest day of the year, and more than four hours earlier on the longest.  The purpose of daylight saving is to simply reduce this seasonal gap.  Once you consider it from this point of view, daylight saving itself isn’t some artificial imposition but rather it is the correction of one.  Daylight savings normalises the year, reducing the summer/winter differences between the sunrise and the start of the traditional working day.

There are plenty of arguments pro-daylight saving proponents use to bolster their case, from lifestyle to environmental, but the benefits of daylight saving become most clear when we look at the changes in sunrise and sunset times across the year.  Table 1 below contains the current sunrise and sunset times for the 15th day of each month for Brisbane, Cairns and Mount Isa, i.e., without daylight savings.  Table 2 contains these times adjusted for daylight saving, assuming the same start and end dates as currently used by the southern states.

Without Daylight Saving Time
Brisbane Cairns Mount Isa
Sunrise Sunset Sunrise Sunset Sunrise Sunset
15-Jan 5:06 18:48 5:55 18:57 6:13 19:29
15-Feb 5:31 18:33 6:11 18:50 6:33 19:19
15-Mar 5:48 18:05 6:20 18:32 6:44 18:58
15-Apr 6:04 17:32 6:25 18:09 6:53 18:31
15-May 6:21 17:07 6:33 17:53 7:04 18:13
15-Jun 6:36 17:01 6:43 17:51 7:16 19:09
15-Jul 6:37 17:11 6:47 17:59 7:19 18:17
15-Aug 6:19 17:26 6:36 18:08 7:05 18:28
15-Sep 5:47 17:41 6:13 18:12 6:39 18:36
15-Oct 5:13 17:55 5:49 18:17 6:12 18:44
15-Nov 4:49 18:16 5:35 18:28 5:54 18:59
15-Dec 4:47 18:39 5:38 18:46 5:55 19:18

Table 1

With Daylight Saving Time
Brisbane Cairns Mount Isa
Sunrise Sunset Sunrise Sunset Sunrise Sunset
15-Jan 6:06 19:48 6:55 19:57 7:13 20:29
15-Feb 6:31 19:33 7:11 19:50 7:33 20:19
15-Mar 6:48 19:05 7:20 19:32 7:44 19:58
15-Apr 6:04 17:32 6:25 18:09 6:53 18:31
15-May 6:21 17:07 6:33 17:53 7:04 18:13
15-Jun 6:36 17:01 6:43 17:51 7:16 19:09
15-Jul 6:37 17:11 6:47 17:59 7:19 18:17
15-Aug 6:19 17:26 6:36 18:08 7:05 18:28
15-Sep 5:47 17:41 6:13 18:12 6:39 18:36
15-Oct 6:13 18:55 6:49 19:17 7:12 19:44
15-Nov 5:49 19:16 6:35 19:28 6:54 19:59
15-Dec 5:47 19:39 6:38 19:46 6:55 20:18

Table 2

When we look at the data the benefits for Brisbane residents are abundantly clear.  Daylight saving works to normalise the gap between the earliest and latest sunrises across the year, almost halving the difference.  This is in addition to moving wasted summer daylight from before 5am, when most of us are still sleeping, to after 7pm, when most are still awake.  Although certainly not as pronounced as in Brisbane’s case the introduction of daylight saving would also slightly reduce the seasonal sunrise variation for both Cairns (5 minutes) and Mount Isa (20 minutes).

Some argue that while the introduction of daylight saving will benefit residents in the southeast, it will unfairly disadvantage those in the north and west of the state by somehow necessitating large changes to their daily routines.  This argument isn’t supported by the data.  Without daylight savings the latest sunrise in Mount Isa is currently 7:19am.  With daylight saving this time would extend to 7:44am, just 25 minutes later.  For Cairns this change would be 37 minutes.  It is hard to fathom how a 30 minute delay in the sunrise for any city would dramatically alter the lifestyle of its residents.

Even If we take the pessimistic view that the net benefit of daylight saving in regional areas such as Cairns and Mount Isa is negligible, surely the obvious benefit to those living in the southeastern corner of the state is sufficient to see its introduction state-wide.  Especially as this is where the vast majority of the state’s residents live.  If regional centres are no better or worse off with daylight saving, it seems entirely churlish for them to oppose it for the southeast where there is an obvious benefit.  It is the civic equivalent of it’s my ball and I’m going home, perhaps.

As soon as you look to the actual impact of daylight saving on sunrise and sunset times across the state, almost all of the arguments against daylight savings dissolve into the emotive and the trivial: it’s too hard, too confusing, why do we even need it anyway?  Maybe, just maybe, the state’s rejection of daylight saving is the one remaining legacy of the head-in-the-sand Bjelke-Petersen era, when Queensland was insular and stubbornly unwilling to admit it ever got things wrong.  But when it comes to daylight saving we were wrong, and now after more than 20 years in the dark, maybe it is time we started to see the light?

The Ghosts of Everest

Everest.  May 10, 1996.  When it comes to disaster folklore the date itself has an Everest-ian awe about it.  The storm that shook the mountain that day, and its immediate aftermath, were propelled into the spotlight by John Krakauer’s utterly compelling book Into Thin Air, which evolved from an article on guided ascents he had been commissioned to write for Outside magazine.  This legend was built upon, sometimes contradicted and debated by Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb, Beck Weather’s Left For Dead and a plethora of subsequent books written by survivors or observers.  What happened behind the drawn curtain of those black clouds was further parsed, argued and questioned in documentaries like The Dark Side of Everest and Storm Over Everest, debated in on-line mountaineering forums, and was even the instigator of fiery showdowns at book festivals.  Nearly 20 years have passed since that devastating storm and much of that fractious dust has now settled.  Time heals wounds.  Though, it must be said, only some of them.

Into this now dormant fray steps the British-American blockbuster, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest.  The film tells the story of friendly rivals New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and their quests to guide paying clients to the top of the world’s highest peak.  Hall is the methodical Kiwi, thoughtful and precise; Fischer a somewhat enigmatic and ephemeral character prone to bouts of contemplative drinking and impulsive decision making.  Both team leaders never return from their ill-fated summit attempts as a ferocious ex-cyclone engulfs the mountain on the afternoon of May 10, 1996, with members of the two climbing teams strung out across the mountain’s death zone, struggling to descend to the (relative) safety of their tents, still perilously high on the mountain, at camp four.

The film focuses predominantly on the futile struggles for survival of the two leaders and the (almost) death and resurrection of amateur climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin).  Weathers is left for dead as he lay just a few hundred metres away from camp, face down in the snow, gloveless, the exposed flesh of his face and hands already dead and blackened.  Weathers’ story is one of perseverance and the indomitable nature of the human spirit.  It is the optimistic counterpoint to the hopelessness of Hall’s predicament.  He is trapped high on the mountain, still communicating sporadically with those at base camp via radio and even, through some low-fi ingenuity, with his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home in New Zealand. But he is too exhausted to descend, having spent a night exposed to the full force of the storm and lies beyond the reach of any rescuers.  “You might as well be on the moon,” is a phrase Hall used hypothetically to describe such a situation, unaware of the prophetic nature of his own words.

For those familiar with the story the events depicted are inevitable.  Ill-fated decisions form a kind of disaster checklist as the storm races towards the mountain from its origins in the Bay of Bengal: Fischer allowing guide Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurõsson) to climb without supplemental oxygen; Hall not turning back client Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) despite missing key deadlines; Weathers insisting on waiting for Hall to return before beginning his own descent.  Each one a Harbinger of doom.

Kormákur is successful in pacing the events leading up to the storm, steadily building tension like a slowly quickening drum beat.  But as the storm hits, its chaos is translated chaotically to the screen.  Things happen.  Some live, some die.  The action feels routine and superficial and by the time the credits are rolling somehow unresolved and unsatisfying.

In his review in The New Yorker Anthony Lane argues the film suffers from the same overcrowding that the summit attempt itself encountered.  I agree with that sentiment.  In attempting to tell such a broad story the filmmakers are forced to condense too much of the unfolding drama.  The huddle on the South Col, an epic struggle of a group of hopelessly lost individuals forced to come to terms with the perilous fragility of their own mortality, is given only a cursory treatment.  People are lost, and then they are found.  Others are left to die.  As a result, only the agonisingly drawn-out demise of Rob Hall is really properly fleshed out.

Paradoxically I think the film’s biggest shortcoming is that its narrative is too narrowly focused.  The story of the 1996 storm is epic not just because so many died, but because so many escaped their own brushes with death.  In making the choices they have the filmmakers have delivered a film much like the experiences it depicts, lost in a no man’s land, neither here nor there.  Ultimately such an epic tale is just too big to fit into the restrictive mould of the feature film.  For anyone familiar with the real-life story, the filmmakers’ omissions are too resounding to be ignored, and as a result work to detract from the film’s pathos.

For me, the most disconcerting of these omissions is the almost complete whitewashing of the Taiwanese expedition from the story.  Gau Ming-Ho’s (Makalu) survival story is every bit as harrowing and remarkable as Weathers’ is.  When you consider that he was actually stranded higher up on the mountain than any other survivor, it is perhaps even more so.  Such was Makalu’s condition when the survivors reached camp two, he was the first to be evacuated from the mountain by helicopter.  In the film only Weathers is evacuated.

Like Weathers, Makalu lost large parts of hands his to frostbite (he also lost all of his toes).  While I understand that filmmaking is about choices and that perhaps the filmmakers considered Makalu’s story too similar to that of Weathers, I find it hard to shake the belief that Makalu would have featured much more prominently in the film had he been a westerner.  It seems inconceivable to me that the person trapped higher than any other survivor speaks but two words in the film.  And that was while back at base camp.  Even though he was not part of the Fischer or Hall teams his story is so inextricably linked with the storm, and the characters portrayed in the film, his absence is deafening.

As a popcorn movie Everest is certainly entertaining enough.  Visually stunning, its greatest achievement is in showing us these brightly coloured, down entombed specks, as they inch their way towards the top of the earth. I’ve read some describe the film as inferior to the Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger or its even more dreadful imitator Vertical LimitEverest is certainly vastly superior to such cartoonish and blustery films. But as a record of what happened on Everest during the 1996 storm it is superficial and flawed.

As such, Martin Breashear’s brilliant 2008 documentary Storm Over Everest remains the definitive filmic record of the 1996 disaster.  The events of that day are told through the recollections of many of the survivors of that storm: the left for dead Weathers and Makalu; guides Neil Beidleman and Michael Groom; paying climbers Charlotte Fox, Lene Gammelgaard, Sandy Hill Pittman, Lou Kasischke, and John Taske.  The sense of confusion and helplessness felt by so many in the storm, which is missing from Everest, is almost palpable when told firsthand by those who were there.

This misplaced emotional connection is perhaps best epitomised in the last images of the film.  The filmmakers’s decision to show a short home movie clip of Hall’s now teenage daughter Sarah is jarring, completely out of context, and feels like a phoney, cynical feel-good tactic.  It cheapens what had been to that point the film’s strongest emotional content, the heartbreaking final conversation between Hall and his wife.  The filmmakers successfully portrayed this real-life conversation without resorting to melodrama.  But maybe much as the climbers themselves are mysteriously called to the mountain, in the end they just couldn’t resist the lure of melodrama’s siren song.

And That Makes Two…

Okay so I wrote the following piece all the way back in March 2013. It feels somewhat relevant to post here now, despite it’s decided lack of up-to-dated-ness…

Last week’s ridiculous shenanigans by the Labor Party junta in Canberra have exposed two critical failings in the current state of play on the Australian political scene.  First, it again highlights just how farcical our pseudo democracy really is.  And second, it is another resounding reason why this country so desperately needs a credible small ‘l’ liberal alternative to the Labor Party.

So first things first.  That we have made our representative parliamentary democracy system of government work for the past hundred plus years says a lot for our loyalty as a people.  Like a battered spouse we have stuck with it even though it has treated us very badly in return.  But we deserve better.  We know we deserve better.  We just haven’t quite figured out our escape plan.

At the most fundamental of levels our brand of representative democracy doesn’t even adhere to a central tenant of governance that dates back to the origins of democracy in Ancient Greece: the separation of powers.  Any claims that the Australian system possesses the three independent pillars of an executive, a legislature and a judiciary are spurious.   The party that controls the House of Representatives controls both the legislature and executive branches of the government, effectively leaving us with just a parliament and a judiciary.  Because of this the Australian people are ultimately burdened with a leader we do not elect.  Gillard has been installed Prime Minister by an apparatchik of faceless men and factional party hacks, not the Australian people.  Our only alternative to her leadership is to wait until September and vote for a local representative of the Liberal Party who will then install the loathsome Tony Abbott, another leader we the people do not want, as Prime Minister.

We effectively live in a bitalitarian state, one controlled by two parties.  That Tony Abbott even has a chance of leading this nation is an unwelcome consequence of this.  Neither he nor Gillard would have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a presidential style election.  But as it stands we are beholden to the machinations of the kingmakers of these two parties.  We have no other viable choices.  As a consequence of Kevin Rudd’s limp surrender it is now virtually certain the coming election will see the rejection of a woman whose judgement and leadership the majority of the Australian people find so appalling that we are willing to trust the stewardship of the country to a man whose current approach to win our favour could be likened to Dr Frankenstein’s monster in a straightjacket.  When elected the straightjacket comes off.  Whom do we fear less?

So what is the alternative?  What we need is a truly independent executive branch of government; a President who is head of state and head of government.  We need a head of government who is actually elected by the people, not some coven of faceless men.

The American system is not perfect but in many ways it is vastly superior to our own.  It is easy to point to the recent gridlock in Washington as an example that it is a flawed model.  But that stalemate is much more a consequence of large swathes of that country being populated by idiots with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other, than a function of bad design.  They get the government they deserve.  And so should we.

That the Republican movement has failed to have the conviction to call for anything other than an expensive change of letterhead by renaming our Governor-General a President speaks volumes about why we still have a Governor-General.  But the American media’s recent fascination with the exploits of William and Kate tells us that we can have our cake and eat it too.  We can ditch the ineffectual British Royals as heads of state and still plaster them over the cover of Woman’s Day.  Two birds with one stone I say.

Moving on to my second point; that a majority of Labor MPs are willing to commit political hari-kari rather than remove Gillard from the Prime Ministership shows us just how dysfunctional the Labor Party has become.  Lorded over by union heavies and stooges, the party has been crippled by factional bastardry, ego and irrelevance.  The alternative party of the left, the Greens, have their place, but are they are incapable of governing.  What this country needs is a credible left wing party that isn’t burdened by its dependence on the anachronistic union movement.  Just 18% of Australian workers now belong to unions.  The glory days of the union movement are long gone, but the Labor Party bureaucracy is so fundamentally cemented to its roots in unionism that reform seems impossible.

This country needs a party of true social liberalism; Labor’s failure to support gay marriage and its reactive asylum seeker policies are shameful.  Gillard’s recent rhetorical forays into class warfare and her cynical campaign against 457 visas are politics at its worst.

Change of the magnitude I suggest is inevitably painful.  And it easy to dismiss such systematic reform as impractical and unnecessary.  But failure to embrace change when it is needed is fatal.  For too long we have shrugged our collective shoulders, stuck our heads in the sand and said if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But it is broke.  Very broke.  In a year where our only two viable choices of Prime Minister are Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, the system is so fundamentally brok’n it is in dire need of fix’n.

Laura Banks’s Sharknado

I mostly try to avoid all exposure to the Murdoch press.  Much like I try avoid things of that ilk: petty ignorance, rampant stupidity, the bubonic plague.  The kind of things that either kill you or just leave you feeling dead inside.  I broke my own rule on Tuesday and I have been paying the price for it ever since.  Struck down with an aching head, fluctuating exasperations, extended bouts of screaming at inanimate objects, general malaise.  You know, the usual symptoms of exposure to the Murdoch press.

I’d like to say it wasn’t my own fault.  But it was.  I’ll admit it.

They lured me in with this sentence: “The ocean is our domain and sharks have no place destroying lives and livelihoods; these predators are lurking out there ready to cull humans and we as a community must find a permanent solution.”  I thought it to be a brilliant piece of satire.  Oh, how wrong I was.  The journalist, Laura Banks, had instead written a pathetic diatribe, a call of arms of sorts, for us humans to exact revenge against these murderous sharks for the guerrilla war they are waging against us.  As ludicrous as the statement ‘the ocean is our domain’ is, it was written without a tongue in cheek.  I nearly bit my tongue clean off.

It seems Ms Banks has covered several cases of surfers being mauled by sharks recently and decided to do some mauling of her own.  I have no issue with engaging in a sensible discussion about minimising the risks for both sharks and humans where we share the water.  What I do find appalling is her sanctimonious fractured logic, her ridiculous hyperbole, her rampant ignorance.  If I were to highlight every example of her idiocy I would have to quote 90% of her article.  Instead I will just mention a couple of my favourites:

“Tourism is slowing. The people are not coming. Surfers are not surfing. If this continues into summer, the seaside towns of Lennox Head and Evans Head, even Ballina, will be no more.”

“Would you still be keen to cuddle up to a great white at night?”

I don’t even have to comment on the absurdity of her opinions.  She does a far better job of showcasing her own stupidity than I ever could.

So, if we are to believe Ms Banks these monstrous sharks spend their days lurking, 50 metres offshore, just waiting for some innocent surfer to happen past so they can destroy their life.  Unless we act now, towns will die.  The sharks will win.  Do we want to lose to a bunch of mean nasty sharks?

In a followup story today Ms Banks has taken offence at the vitriol that has come her way since the article was published.  This seems a bit rich.  If you throw a hand grenade out, you should expect a few to come flying back.  Now I certainly don’t condone the threats of violence that have come her way.  I will leave the threats of embarking on killing sprees to her (though I will confess to finding the irony of the hashtag #KillLauraBanks somewhat amusing).  The unfortunate thing is that Ms Banks is now able to use these extreme and ridiculous reactions to switch focus.  They give her a convenient exit strategy.  Instead of the cruel, stupid woman calling for the mass murder of sharks, she becomes the helpless victim of the unrestrained id of the internet.

Part of me suspects this was her original intention.  Her original article was just plain dumb.  So dumb I wondered what editor would publish it.  Then I remembered she writes for Murdoch.  Writing a dumb article is the easiest, laziest way for a journalist to stir up a bit of controversy.  Her tweet this morning telling people to have a think about themselves was accompanied by a delightful picture of Ms Banks.  It kind of feels like her version of an actor’s headshot.

If Ms Banks ever truly wanted to participate in a reasonable discussion about the dangers sharks pose to humans she went about it in the worst way possible.  But that is the Murdoch way.  And so I am left to lament that moment of weakness that left me vulnerable and exposed.  I knew the risk. And still I entered the water.  Next time I wilfully expose myself to such a menace hopefully it will be to something much less dangerous to my health.  You know, like the plague.

Is Reading Go Set a Watchman Like Looking at Revenge Porn?

This is probably the first time you will read the words ‘revenge porn’ and ‘literature’ in the same sentence.  There is a pretty good reason for that.  Revenge porn is a modern phenomenon; a product of seedy juvenile locker rooms of the Internet.  These misogynistic forums and noticeboards aren’t usually the kind of place one tends to engage in high-minded discussions on the merits of the imaginatively written word.  Though revenge porn is rightly receiving a lot of mainstream publicity at the moment. Slow-to-act governments around the world are regularly being called to account for their failure to protect their (almost exclusively female) constituents in neglecting to update archaic pre-internet privacy laws.

I think most fair-minded people would agree that the act of sharing intimate pictures of another person without their consent is reprehensible.  It is an extreme act of betrayal.  Our abhorrence at the idea of revenge porn stems from our shared cultural belief that an individual has the right to determine how much of themselves they share with others; we believe a person should have the right to control the dissemination of their private photos.  It is an issue of control as much as it is an issue of privacy.

Of course, our belief in this privacy principle extends well beyond images of our scantily clad selves.  Revenge porn is just a modern subset of the broader issue of privacy invasion, of denying an individual the right to control what they release into the public domain.  For people with a public profile it also becomes an issue of controlling their legacy.

Now, if I were presenting this argument in some Hollywood courtroom, this is the part where the opposing attorney leaps to their feet and says, “Objection your honor.  Relevance.”  The judge peers down on me with stern eyes and furrowed brow saying, “Where are you going with this?” Me, sheepish: “It will all make sense, your honor, I swear it.”  He/She: “You’re on thin ice attorney, this had better be quick.”  Me, stammering: “Yes, your honor.”

Discovered in writer Franz Kafka’s desk soon after his death in 1924 was a letter addressed to friend, and executor of his estate, Max Brod.  It read in part: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me… in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread….” It was the second time Kafka had made this entreaty of Brod.  Famously, Kafka’s executor did not comply with his wishes.  Instead Brod championed Kafka as one of the early 19th century’s greatest writers.  Over the next three years Brod edited and arranged the publication of Kafka’s three unfinished novels: The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927).   At the time of his death little of Kafka’s writing had been published, just the novella The Metamorphosis (1915), three collections of short stories, and barely a handful of other short works of fiction.  I think it is reasonable to argue that had Brod complied with Kafka’s instructions, in all likelihood, Kafka’s tremendous legacy would have been lost to those flames.

So precisely because he defied Kafka’s wishes the literary world owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Brod.  Kafka is now a giant of twentieth century literature.  The Trial was listed third in Le Monde’s (unsurprisingly) French language-heavy 100 Books of the Century.  The Metamorphosis is a staple of university curriculums around the globe.  We even use the word Kafkaesque to describe the nightmarish and the unexplained.  Today few, if any, question the ethics of reading Kafka’s posthumously published works.  Should we?  But why is it okay to completely disregard an author’s instructions because what they seek to withhold from the public is a thing of particular importance?  Have we become so entrenched in a post-structural literary culture that we not only deny an author ownership of their ideas, but also the right to decide what they do and do not publish?

Brod justified his refusal to accede to Kafka’s request by recounting a conversation he’d had with Kafka about his final instructions.  He claimed to have told Kafka, “In case you ever seriously think of doing such a thing, let me tell you now that I would not fulfill such a request.”  Brod argued that if Kafka had been serious about his desire for his works be consigned to flames he would have appointed another person as the executor of his estate.

Now, we have no way of knowing whether this conversation actually took place or of it was just a convenient invention on Brod’s part to in order to justify his contrary actions.  However, we do know that Kafka had written to Brod in September 1922 advising him that he had abandoned work on The Castle (the posthumously published novel ends mid-sentence).  So, it does seem somewhat disingenuous for Brod to subsequently claim Kafka had wanted this discarded novel published.  It also calls into question Brod’s supposed mandate for defying Kafka’s request for his other literary works.

Skip forward to 2015 and the literary world is in the grips of a severe case of Harper Lee fever.  The publication of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, comes 55 years after the release of her first, the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird.  However some, me included, are questioning the motives behind the publication of Watchman.  While To Kill a Mockingbird became one of the most popular novels of the twentieth century, Lee chose to maintain a notoriously low profile.  In the years since its publication she has shunned the public spotlight, refused interviews, telling friends on numerous occasions that she would never publish another novel.  For 55 years Lee remained resolutely determined that Mockingbird alone would form the basis of her literary legacy.

So why the sudden change of mind?

The circumstances leading up to the publication of Go Set a Watchman are murky at best.  Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter claims to have discovered the manuscript in a safe-deposit box at the beginning of the year, after hearing talk of the existence of a second novel by the novelist’s family and friends.  Coincidentally this ‘discovery’ occurred just a few months after the death of Lee’s sister Alice, a lawyer, who had mostly managed the novelist’s affairs.  Since the manuscript’s discovery friends of the Lee sisters have stated that Alice would almost certainly not have supported the publication of Watchman.  Thus the timing of Carter’s find seems remarkably convenient.

Further doubt was also cast over Carter’s version of events when the New York Times revealed details of a 2011 meeting in which Carter met with Lee’s literary agent, Sam Pinkus, and a representative from auction-house Sotheby’s.  The contents of the very safe-deposit box containing the Go Set a Watchman manuscript were examined during that meeting.  Carter claims to have left soon after the meeting began to run an errand.  She maintains that she was unaware of the existence of the Watchman manuscript until the beginning of the year.  However, Pinkus contradicts Carter’s version of events, claiming that all three were present in the room as they read through pages from the manuscript.

This disputed timeline of the manuscript’s discovery certainly raises questions about Tonja Carter’s motives, but it doesn’t address the question of why Lee changed her mind.  And this is where the parallels with Kafka’s final request begin to emerge.  While Lee is very much alive to see the publication of Watchman, she is reportedly severely incapacitated, near blind and deaf, suffering from short-term memory problems, residing in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, Alabama.  Publisher HarperCollins have described Carter as the gatekeeper between the author and the outside world; all communication with Lee is funneled through her.  So in this sense Carter has become a Brod-like figure, wielding executor-style control over Lee’s affairs.  If you accept that Lee’s 55 years of publishing silence represents a definitive statement about her intention to not publish another novel, as her equivalent of Kafka’s request for his papers to be burned, then just as Brod defied Kafka’s wishes, by pursuing publication of Go Set a Watchman Carter has likewise betrayed Lee’s.

If we try to understand Lee’s motives for this change of heart we have little to go on.  Lee seems to have absolutely nothing to gain from the publication of Watchman.  At 89 years-of-age and in her fragile state the money generated from novel’s royalties will be of absolutely no benefit to her.  To Kill a Mockingbird continues to provide her with millions of dollars from royalties every year.  She has no children to provide for.  But she does have something to lose: an unblemished literary legacy, that for the last 55 years she has steadfastly protected.  The publication of what is essentially an embryonic novel can do nothing to further a reputation as profound as hers, and conversely it could potentially do some damage to her well cultivated brand.

Enough concerns were flagged after the publication of Watchman was announced that officials from the Alabama’s Human Resources Department conducted an investigation into whether Lee had been a victim of elder abuse. However, that investigation focused solely on whether Lee had been taken advantage of financially.  The details of the investigation are confidential will not be publicly released, though there is little reason to doubt that Lee will make millions from the deal.  The obvious problem here is that no government department is in a position to determine whether an ailing author is cognizant enough to change their mind about the publication of a long set aside work.  Under such a strict interpretation Carter is almost certainly not committing elder abuse.  But having read numerous accounts of the state of Lee’s health, and her strident statements across many years about never publishing a follow-up novel, I find it impossible to believe she has made a cognizant decision to change her mind.

But how is all this anything at all like revenge porn?  If we accept that Go Set a Watchman has been published without Lee’s cognizant consent, then as publishers HarperCollins are showing Lee about as much respect as a jilted boyfriend who posts pictures of an ex-partner without her consent.  Sure their motives are different, HarperCollins are in it for the money, not to strike some embittered redemptive blow.  But it shouldn’t matter whether it is a nude photo or a novel that has been made public without its owner’s informed consent.  For a writer, a manuscript can be just as personal as any naked photo.  For an author as private and protective of their literary legacy as Lee I would argue that it is even more precious.  And we are in turn complicit in this act of exploitation by celebrating it as a publishing phenomenon.

As fair-minded people I argue that we should view the publication of Go Set a Watchman not as some wonderful publishing event, but as a greed fueled act of betrayal.  Though we can’t put this genie back in the bottle, as is the case whenever images of revenge porn are posted online we do have a choice.  Look or don’t look.  Read or don’t read.  So before you settle in on your couch with Scout and Atticus first ask yourself whether you respecting Lee’s intentions for how we encounter these much beloved characters.  Or are you just a voyeur, about to open the literary equivalent of a naked selfie?