A Thousand Ships

12

The most significant woman in the World in the last 20 years was a very young White House Intern. No, not the best, or the brightest, or the most powerful, woman in the world, but the most significant, the one whose existence changed history the most.

Look powerful male leaders have always taken advantage of their power (that “powerful aphrodisiac” as Kissinger put it, and I guess he knew) to take advantage of young women. But there have also been many extramarital relationships for leaders apparently based on equality of personal power. Millions of both kinds over the centuries, including Kings (and two of the Queens) of England.

So why do I single out the Clinton-Lewinsky “relationship” [hard to think of word here] for special mention? Two reasons.

Going back through time many American presidents have had extra-marital relationships. Even in relatively recent times of course we have Kennedy (and in very different way perhaps Eisenhower, though before he became President) and perhaps Carter (though he seems not to have inhaled). None of the other recent presidents seem to have (and most seem very unlikely to have, but who knows the mysteries of human attraction?) as far as we know.

Recent British political leaders? Seems not. There was of course Profumo (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?), though that’s about all.

And Australian leaders, senior politicians? Well, there was Hawke and D’Alpuget, and presumably Gorton and Gotto. Then there was Cairns and Morosi (did I imagine it being said recently that it was young John Howard, of all people, who discovered them in a broom cupboard or something?), and Evans and Kernot, and that’s about it to my knowledge.

But the thing about all those is that little or nothing was said about most of it in the Press at the time, no front page compromising photos, no salacious titbits read out by radio shock jocks. Nor great political capital made, presumably on the basis that those in the glass houses of as yet undiscovered indiscretions probably better pull the blinds down. Oh there was some “Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink” but then it was “Say no more” and that was that.

But with Bill Clinton it all changed and the political world would never be the same again. His “indiscretion” with young Monica Lewinsky was turned into a weapon to smash his Presidency, impeach him for heaven’s sake. Look, sure, it was inappropriate use of power in workplace, no question, bad behaviour. Should have been punished, and steps taken to look at the structures of the White House in terms of sexual harassment and how to prevent it. But the reaction was far out of proportion, and it seemed clear Ms Lewinsky was being used by powerful forces who hadn’t the slightest interest in sexual mores.

Soon made obvious by the trotting out of a whole lot of more mature and non-White House ladies, all apparently called Gennifer (having the same names may have made things confusing, or simpler, I guess), though my memory may be faulty, said to have had relations with Clinton. And on and on. So effectively that the business of government was badly impacted, paralysed, as lawyers and committees proliferated, and shock jocks pontificated. Which was of course the aim, the start of the new tactics by the Right in America to make it impossible for a Democratic President ever to effectively rule again, as Obama has now discovered.

You could argue that taking private lives from off-limits and into the Blitzkrieg Politics that Attwater and Rove introduced meant that nothing would ever again be unthinkable as a political tactic. Swiftboating, Birtherism, Filibustering, Sequestering, and just plain Racism all were legitimised in a sense when Monica’s red dress, and descriptions of Clinton’s genitals, were accepted as legitimate political discourse.

And it only got worse. Clinton was so politically damaged by the unprecedented all-out assault that in turn he was no use to, in fact counter-productive for, the Gore presidential candidacy. Instead of being able to build on his role in a succesful and productive presidency, and use the once very popular Clinton in the campaign, Gore was effectively forced to campaign by cutting loose from his history, his actual qualification for the top job. Ms Lewinsky’s red dress had stained Gore’s campaign, and the stain could not be removed. The result, as we know, was to end in the tears of the hanging chads (in itself another development o tactics in the absolute lust for power of the Right), and, incredibly, the election of the most foolish and incompetent man ever to hold the Presidency.

And the result of that, of course, was 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the rise of terrrorism and the mad-brained “war on terror”, loss of political freedoms for Americans and others who copied them, trillions of dollars in unfunded expenditure compounded by tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of banks, the eventual virtual collapse of the world finances, and the continuing failure of American action on climate change as the world slowly melted.

So, a major shift in not just American history and society, but that of the whole world, a shift that has continued to resonate for twenty years, and goes on. And a big influence even on the fate of the actual planet we all live on. A thousand consequences launched, unexpectedly, at the first time a vivacious young lady walked into the Oval Office.

Helen of Troy? Pffft!

Although, wait a moment, wasn’t it actually Bill of Arkansas who launched the thousand war ships, Clinton himself who pulled the temple down?

Helen of Troy? Reinstated.

Never the Bride

2

Has been often said that Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevin was the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had, and no one could argue with that. However I can’t think of any other Post War British Opposition Leaders who didn’t win election as PM about whom you would say that (can any of you dear readers?).

Got thinking about that when a reader responded, on Twitter, to the previous post with a question as to whether I agreed Kim Beazley was the best Prime Minister Australia never had. I do agree with that (with some reservation about religious influence) – his background, intellect, education, experience and big-heartedness (or is that “big-tickerness”?) made him ideally suited to instantly fit into the job. As he has into the role of Australian Ambassador to America.

But beyond that it’s difficult to think of any others that would have been a gain. I suggested Bert Evatt, but you’d have to restrict that to his earlier years in his prime. Probably not (with all due respect) Simon Crean, although he would certainly have done a highly competent job. And not John Hewson, but I’ll come back to him.

Any of the other possibilities are farcical – Sneddon, Peacock, Downer, Calwell (although Arthur would certainly have created a different Australia, by no means necessarily a bad thing) – why, you might as well suggest McMahon as foreman material. What? Oh.

But what about Hewson, you ask? Well, certainly a smart man. And since losing the unlosable election of 1993 has been solid on climate change. But he is what he is, something of a Malcolm Turnbull twin. Uncomfortable with the Billy Tea Party no-nothings of the Abbott Liberal Party, but at the same time big business to his conservative boot straps.

So my gut feelings at the time of Keating’s “Sweetest one of all” 1993 victory were mixed. I think I sensed instinctively that while the Left had won a battle it had lost a war. Keating and Labor were encouraged to believe that Liberal-Lite was a recipe for continuing success. And then were swamped so badly in 1996 when John Howard’s Liberal-Heavy Brigade rolled in that they would be out of power for a political generation of 11 long years of backwards clock-winding.

A Hewson victory in 1993 would have let people see what the modern Liberal agenda really is (as in Newman’s Queensland more recently), and Hewson couldn’t have carried off the Howard Battler vote, nor the dirty pool, of people like Reith, in order to stop the public strongly rejecting neoconservatism in 1996 for a win by Kim Beazley. Ah, these what-ifs of history are intriguing, are they not?

But mentioning Kim Beazley brings us naturally back to America. If Australia, like Britain, only had one great PM who never was, how has the American public treated its candidates? Well, remind yourself that this is a country that voted in Nixon, Reagan and GW Bush NOT JUST ONCE BUT TWICE! Giving Eisenhower, Clinton and Obama two terms goes nowhere near balancing those appalling decisions. And while it’s pleasing that Dewey, Goldwater, Humphrey, Dole, McCain and Romney never got to stand on the bully pulpit, a country which didn’t have Presidents Stevenson, McGovern and Gore (not to mention killing Robert Kennedy as well as his brother) is a country far more wasteful of leadership talent than the UK or Australia.

And all that of course is to leave aside the absence of potential female leaders who never got above the glass political ceilings. Just one each in UK and Australia. The one-off force of nature that was Thatcher couldn’t be held back, and Julia Gillard only made it in unusual circumstances. In America Geraldine Ferraro was restricted to number two behind the unimpressive Mondale, and Hilary Clinton just failed at the last barrier against the Obama unstoppable force for “change”, although hopefully she will get a chance to win in 2016. Sarah Palin of course was chosen as a token, not of her femaleness or intelligence, but of her ability to grunt speeches at the equally nutty Tea Party wing of the Regressive Republican Party. But how many talented women in all three countries have never had a chance to even seek the top job?

Now that’s a lot of best prime ministers (and presidents) we’ve never had.

Patchwork

5

Here we are, back in the world of oncology. Two days of actual “hooked up to the beeping machine” treatment (over 8 hours total, they were taking it very very slowly and carefully because I had the adverse reaction last time), followed by a week or so of feeling like crap (mainly I think due to the bastard steroids), followed by slow recovery, trying to pick up the threads of normal life, as you get ready for the next beeping machine appointment. Which is where I am now.


Anyway, while that has been going on I have been taking my mind off it by watching “The Wire” on DVD. Been seeing glowing reviews of it for years of course, “Best tv series in the universe” and so on. Had reservations after the first series, but from the second one onwards it’s certainly right up there with Six Foot Under, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Sopranos, West Wing (not to mention Angels over America, Boys from the Blackstuff, Brideshead Revisited, Carnivale, Edge of Darkness, Forbrydelsen, Forsyte Saga (original), Grass Roots, Hamish McBeth, Have gun will travel, Hill Street Blues, Jewel in the Crown, Northern Exposure, Pennies from Heaven, Sea Change, Singing Detective, Talking to a Stranger, The Bridge, This Life, and Twin Peaks in my all time top 25).

A couple of observations. First I don’t know if anything much has changed in Baltimore, but the city (and, allowing for poetic licence, I am assuming the series was not a million drug deals removed from reality) would have to appear on most people’s “Anti-Bucket-List” of places you would NEVER want to visit. It looks like the kind of hell to which all roads in the world of laissez faire capitalism and libertarianism lead. Followers of Grover Norquist should be sent to live in the slums of Baltimore for a year before being allowed to pontificate on government and the economy and taxes and regulation and free trade and all the rest of the neocon economic garbage.

Second I kept trying to think of a way of describing the overall structure of the series. Then I got it. They have created a giant tapestry from which many loose threads are hanging, with new ones being added all the time. The loose threads tantalise and tease you until suddenly one gets sewn into the backing and reveals itself as part of a pattern. Then another. And gradually the whole picture is slowly revealed. As I write there are still threads hanging and I don’t know what picture they will be part of. A remarkable creative achievement.

All a bit like an individual life itself really. As you go through your life some threads become incorporated into a pattern, new loose threads are added. They in turn eventually resolve into the picture of your life. Ultimately the story ends, the last threads in place, THAT’S what it was all about.

And a bit like what the newsreels used to call the “Passing Parade” of life on this warming planet. Everywhere it seemed, as I coped with my “Chemo Brain” (yes, a real thing with real biochemical causes), loose threads kept merging around the world, as they have for several thousand years since recorded history began.

Many loose threads (again as they have for several thousand years since recorded history began) in the Middle East. Israel back to killing Palestinians in big numbers. Then resisting the UN vote (this country established by a UN vote) attempts of Palestine to merely gain observer status in the UN. They have successful resisted this for years, but failed this time. And the very next day gained revenge by announcing another 3000 Israeli houses to be built on Palestinian land.

Elsewhere Syrians continued to massacre each other in big numbers while both sides claimed the moral high ground. In Egypt, to no-one’s surprise, an Islamist government, elected by the people, immediately set about turning itself into an Islamist dictatorship. When you have the one true religion on your side you sure don’t want that silly democracy stuff, do you?

In England Lord Leveson finished sewing his threads and concluded, as everyone knew, that there is a cancer at the heart of the British media, and it needs much more effective “self-regulation”. David Cameron, supporting for a year the need to do something, suddenly, within minutes of receiving a 2000 page report, decided that absolutely nothing needed to be done to rein in Rupert Murdoch, stop his minions unravelling the threads of people’s lives. as long as he was reliably pro Conservative.

In America the Republicans kept right on in their quest to smear Obama at every manufactured opportunity, pulling at old Birther threads, and adding new ones like Benghazi . And even newer ones like pretending that his victory, bigger than that of George Bush, somehow, unlike George, gave him no mandate, no legitimacy at all. And most recently to a thread attacking him for taking an occasional vacation, for unravelling the ragged sleeve of care of the Oval Office occupancy, in the pretence that no Republican President had ever taken a holiday, and that George Bush in fact hadn’t spent most of his presidency on holiday.

And in Australia the Opposition pretended to keep picking away at the twenty year old threads of the Prime Minister’s once brief legal career, pretending to find, in the most ordinary pieces of legal correspondence and action, and in the sleaziest of “witnesses” imported for the purpose by shock jocks, evidence of “criminality”, an accusation they were careful not to make outside parliamentary privilege, but which the media was happy to add its bully megaphone to day after day.

And on the biggest tapestry of all, the climate change threads kept revealing their grim picture as the ice caps and glaciers melted ever more quickly, storms created havoc and enormous cost, and droughts reduced food production in a grim foretaste of things to come for 7 billion people. It is now absolutely clear, if any had doubted, that Climate scientists and biologists, had in past restricted themselves to pale pastel threads, not wanting to be accused of alarmism, had muted their predictions to the cautious lower end, had even expressed optimism about this or that minor political development. Time now, they have realised, in the face of continued inaction, and ever rising CO2 emissions and temperature projections, to start using bright red threads, create a big bold warning sign. “Stop, environmental cliff ahead”.

Well there you are. Sorry not my usual tapestry of a post, more of a patchwork. Still, on reflection, a patchwork quilt of rags and patches is a better representation of most lives than a well organised tapestry. And indeed a better representation of the world.

The currency of democracy

16

The thing capitalists hate most of all is competition. The aim of good business practice is to destroy or absorb competitors.

Where competition does survive it is not based on giving better and more efficient service to customers. Instead it is based on increasing profits.

Banks, petrol companies, supermarkets, all make sure they are doing same things, charging same prices, cutting same costs, in order to ensure they have the same profit results. Whatever one does the others will follow in case that one somehow gets a break. That is they would rather do something they don’t really agree with than run the risk that being different might be the wrong choice. All a bit like a bunch of runners in a marathon, all watching each other, scared to drop back or make a break.

One garage drops petrol price, all others do in case they lose custom. One raises price all others do in case they lose profits. A bank lowers interest rates, all others do in case they lose custom, one raises, others do in case they lose profits. Same with supermarket prices, cars, restaurants, you name it. In a capitalist society competition between companies reduces the variety.

“Now journalism”, I can hear you say, “journalism is different, represents in pure form the capitalist ideal of nature red in tooth and claw producing excellence and variety”. Journalists all out there trying to get the best story. Well, um no.

These days journalists behave like banks. All move together. You don’t get 100 stories, you get one story 100 times. When one journalist breaks a “story”, no matter how puerile, the rest hurry to reproduce the story identically so that none may gain an advantage. Investigating a different side to the story, or, heaven forfend, finding a different story, is far too risky if the rest of the journalist mob doesn’t follow you. There you would be, all exposed, not doing the consensus thing.

Furthermore, where once journalists would check, analyse, investigate the sources of another journalist’s story, in the process producing a different story, now they will not. There is a one for all and all for one mentality, in which you don’t challenge the work of another journalist because they might challenge your’s.

The result is a media which just runs with a single, unverified, story each day. Every story, no matter how poorly founded, becomes “reality” because every media outlet is carrying the same story. Reality quivers, shakes, finally shatters, as the parallel universe of the media constantly runs stories that have at best a tenuous link with the real universe.

And Thomas Jefferson, quivering, shaking, and finally rolling in his grave keeps muttering “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty” alternating with “information is the currency of democracy”.

Twist and Shout

10

The other day, stepping out of my car in a car park, I heard a male voice screaming loudly. Looking around I spotted him yelling into a mobile phone clutched in his left hand while his right hand waved around in the air. Occasionally he kicked the tree he was standing under, or a car nearby, as he twisted and turned.

The language was, as they used to say, purple, though in his case it had moved beyond that into the ultraviolet. It very quickly became obvious that I had inadvertently arrived in the middle of a, shall we say euphemistically, domestic disagreement being conducted by phone in public. So much in public that, if the partner lived anywhere within a 100km radius, the phone was superfluous – she could have stepped outside her house and heard him roar. He was broadcasting to the world.

And roar in the nastiest possible way. The gist of his side of the conversation, repeated, with variations, over and over was “Why are you doing this to me you f#cking bitch I’ll kill you you c#nt?” Had any of the curious listeners, variously situated, unobtrusively, at safe distances from him, attempted to approach him it was on the cards he would have tried to kill them. Conversely, if he had been physically with his wife/partner, in a shop or restaurant, or indeed at home, and had been behaving the way he was, domestic violence charges of some kind would have been on the cards. Merely broadcasting to listeners in a car park left him safe.

Anyway, I went into the shop, glad to get away from the virulent misogyny, and when I returned he had gone. The end of one of the eight million stories in the Naked City. Except that it had left me thinking.

It came in a week when our Opposition Leader, and probable future leader, had told delighted right wing think tank cadres that in government he would be repealing the Racial Discrimination Act so as to prevent any restriction of “Free Speech”. Didn’t those wide-eyed Libertarians applaud until their hands ached. Standing ovation? I’m thinking yes.

Always causes difficulty for the Left, this “free speech” meme exploited so ably by the Right. The mere whiff of a hint of a possibility of a reservation about some of the effects of hate speech and Libertarian Think tanks and their political and shock jock friends are pouring shit on you from a great height as a hater of freedom and liberty

So effective has this tactic been that the rise and rise of hate speech, mainly but not only in America, and mainly but not only supported by Rupert Murdoch, has been a major factor in the rise of neonazi groups (under various names) everywhere, and the success of right wing political parties.

This strident garbage provides, like the first blowfly maggot hatching in a sheep’s wool, the perfect environment for the Right to flourish. In nurturing racism and misogyny (like our friend in the carpark) and anti-science, it promotes the steady drift Rightward of public discourse. So effective has this been that it is noticeable, unremarkable, that social democratic parties like the US Democratic Party, Australian Labor and other Labour parties, have policies and attitudes that would have once upon a time placed them far to the Right of conservative parties of the past.

The Libertarian proponents of absolute freedom of speech might sometimes stop short, like a fist almost reaching a nose, at the point of considering whether shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre (a metaphor taking on a new edge after the massacre at the Batman movie) should be allowed.

But the hate merchants (also applauding Abbott’s speech loudly) are not just shouting fire, they are providing matches and petrol, blocking exits, removing light fuses, cutting emergency phone lines. The classic case of the effect of this sort of thing was the terrible shooting and near killing of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the killing of half a dozen people she was with, after the Palin camp produced a map with gunsights painted on a map showing offices of politicians who had dared to have a different political view to the appalling woman once a Diebold voting machine away from being a heartbeat away from the presidency.

In effect all shock jocks and populist politicians are painting targets on people who do not share their views. In Australia the people who said the Prime Minister was a “witch” or a “cheap prostitute whoring herself” who should be “drowned in a sack” or “kicked to death” were inviting violence in a way that should not be permitted in a civilised society whether applied to the prime minister or the unfortunate woman who was the partner of Car Park Man.

Bullying, in home, school, workplace is rightly taken very seriously these days. And it is clearly recognised that verbal bullying can cause as much distress and psychological damage as physical actions.

Yet we facilitate, protect, applaud, the bullying and incitement to bullying that takes place every day in out media. Target after target of helpless and/or vulnerable groups (Aborigines, gays, single mothers, unemployed, refugees, public housing tenants, environmentalists, unions) are chosen day after day by bully boy and bully girl shock jocks and politicians. And day after day there are attempts by the same people to denigrate, delegitimise, degrade, political and philosophical opponents. Day after day words are twisted, lies told, rage consequently incited.

This is not a political discourse that, say, Eisenhower, Menzies, or Churchill would have recognised, let alone accepted. It is however one that Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot would have felt very comfortable with.

We have laws to try to protect people from poisons in water, air, food. Time to try, however difficult it might be in practice, to reduce the amount of poison in our airwaves.

And in our car parks.

Charade

4

My apologies for yet another lacuna in what should be a regular stream of blog posts. Sick again (and this blog now more resembles a series of House than a series of West Wing!) although only flu this time. Which seems to be going around, I caught it on twitter, apparently.

Any way, while suffering from “just the flu”, wrapped in blanket, huddled on the lounge, sneezing and coughing, I watched some DVDs. One, for about the fifth or sixth time in my life, was of that ultimate comfort food movie “Charade”. I originally saw it as a new movie, just out (a staggering 49 years ago. It was made fifty years ago, a fact, like so many fifty-year anniversaries including the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys, and my starting university, I find impossible to believe. Why it was only yesterday … But yesterday’s gone, back to the story). It starred of course, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and some lesser lights, a marvellous pairing. After a silly beginning (I mean, who is going to believe that the husband has really left Hepburn for another woman? Yeah, right) it turns into this terrific kind of murder-crime-mystery-game, where the murder and crime are just kinda cartoony and incidental. Both the hero and villain (yes, ok, Walter Matthau is in the movie too. And George Kennedy. And a young James Coburn) change identities, in opposite directions, as the movie progresses. Grant has 5 different identities, if I didn’t lose count, each one perfectly believable, and the transitions logically explained. Even the glittering prize, the stolen money, is hidden in a quite different identity (no, I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it). And the wonderful, insanely addictive theme (yes, Mancini of course), also suggests shape-shifting identity in the way that a piece by Bach does. So there you are, if you haven’t seen it, get hold of it, do. Oh, it has the odd clumsy moment that reminds you it was indeed made half a century (gulp) ago, but just drift along in the stream with it and you will be rewarded.

Apart from taking my mind off the viruses, identity changed since the last flu outbreak my immune system adjusted to by the inexorable force of evolution, seeing Charade again made me think of modern politics. Once upon a time, says Old Man Watermelon (just keeps rollin’ along), you knew where you were with politicians, what you saw was what you got. Think of the presidents from Roosevelt right up to and including Bush 1. Agree or disagree with them, allow for their secret activities (especially Nixon of course), but you knew what they were. Take Eisenhower’s mask off and underneath he was Eisenhower. Ditto the others. Same with British and Australian politicians up to about the same time.

But starting with Blair and Clinton we saw the new “Third Way” (Blair) or triangulation. Billed as seeking an intermediate path between left and right extremes, this approach led to even more identity changing than Cary Grant. Both Blair and Clinton tried to be all things to all people, shifting identity depending on the audience, and consequently were nothing to anybody. GW Bush was both a compassionate conservative and a gung ho warrior, Obama was an agent of progressive change and a saviour of the big banks (as are they all, secretly, hiding that identity). In Australia first Rudd and then Gillard followed the same recipe. In Britain Cameron and Clegg seemed to morph into each other, separated only by tie colour, as they sold the most conservative government since Thatcher as being soft and caring. In the current US election year Romney went all the way to the Tea Party and beyond in portraying himself as the worst right wing bastard in the Republican Party (against stiff competition) while pretending he had never been a relatively progressive governor of Massachusetts, and now, having won the nomination, is sliding back again. Obama, one day launching predator drones to kill mostly innocent poor people, the next is talking health care to save other innocent poor people. In Russia, spared by the Russian equivalent of Diebold from having to do much to win elections, Putin and Medvedev don’t bother changing personalities, but actually change personnel as they waltz through the decades taking it in turns at top and second top jobs. At least this is an honest version of what happens elsewhere.

The US, Russia, UK and Australia, just like China and North Korea are not going to change much as President Tweedledums and Prime Minister Tweedledees revolve through the top jobs. But in Europe at least the chance of change, the chance of choice, seems to be at least partly active in the Mediterranean fringe of democracy. The removal of Berlusconi and Sarkozy from their respective countries seems to have had some impact in changing the identities of those countries. Greece recently had an opportunity to make a change but squibbed at the last minute and finished back at the place where they had begun. The danger for all those countries in financial trouble is that they have become places in which there is government of the banks, by the banks and for the banks. In fact it would be easier if the “financial markets” simply allocated banker technocrat leaders to each country. I guess they have been doing that for years anyway.

Hiding it under multiple disguises like the characters in Charade. Hiding the money trail as cleverly as the ex-husband hid the loot. But, in the end the bankers are revealed as the ones in charge in every country these days.

And democracy is the charade.

The Right Dishonourable

4

At the height of the Ottoman Empire the method of succession was that as soon as the old Sultan died the eldest son of the chief concubine had all his half brothers killed so they could never be threats to his rule. England had a slightly more indirect process – the Wars of the Roses, for example, went on until there was only one possible king left, and there were numerous other battles, invasions, murders. In most countries indeed, at various times, potential kings battled it out with each other until the rivals were dead. And many of their subjects, especially if they had picked the wrong side. Same true for some countries after disposing of kings and becoming republics, notably Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union – jails full and bodies disposed of.

You could easily argue that while the emergence of democracies was a means of letting first the rich, then ordinary citizens, and finally women, vote to choose their leaders, an even more important advance of a democracy was in establishing a permanent structure of government which included a legal opposition (“His Majesty’s loyal opposition” in England to make it really official), an alternative government. Well and good, until some of the leaders elected by the people began to think that they should rule, in the interests of the people of course, forever, and in that circumstance having an opposition, an “alternative government” was not only unnecessary but might confuse the voters.

So in parts of the world governments began killing, jailing, demonising, silencing, opposition parties and leaders. Originally in countries including Germany, Chile, Argentina, Soviet Union, Indonesia, China. More recently in countries such as Malaysia, Russia, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Ukraine, Burma. Not democracies – a democracy could be defined as one which has free and fearless opposition parties, alternative governments in both name and reality.

This sort of thing didn’t happen in western democracies of course, including our own (although the aftermath of the Qld election is worrying). Governments didn’t like oppositions, but generally treated them according to the old adage “be nice to people on your way up because you will meet them again on your way down”. But more recently in America, quickly followed by here, the opposition parties decided they would turn the tables. Allowing for different systems, Republicans and Liberals have blocked as much govt legislation as possible, blocked appointments, attacked public servants, put gunsights on pictures of opponents, called for killing, tried to delegitimise the leaders of the governments, set up fake protest groups, screamed abuse and disrupted parliamentary proceedings, and, recently here, have tried to destroy the careers of the Speaker of the House, and one of the MPs, in order to bring down the government.

Same approach, in reverse, as from those dictatorships. Just as damaging to a democracy.

I have a dream

4

One of the consequences of the various items in my apothecary’s materia medica cupboard has been an increased richness, frequency, intensity, activity of dreams. Not, I hasten to add, either bad nightmares (or very rarely) on the one hand, or anything really nice on the other, just frantic activity of a mundane and apparently real kind. Usually I can’t remember anything about the five or six each night longer than it takes to go back to sleep, or have breakfast at the end of the exhausting proceedings, but every so often one sticks.

I am reminded here of one of my favourite James Thurber stories (a tautological phrase). It concerns a married couple where, over time, the wife takes to correcting, in more and more detail, the anecdotes her husband tells at parties. Eventually it gets to the point where he can no longer tell a real life story because of the interruptions and corrections, so he takes to telling invented imaginary dreams. This works briefly, but then she starts correcting the dreams. He finishes up in an asylum, reduced to telling one invented dream over and over, getting it “wrong”, and being corrected by his wife who sits by his bed.

Not that that digression has anything to do with me, I hasten to add, it is just that, having a lot of dreams to deal with, the story came back to me.

So, where was I? Ah yes, remembered one from the other night, perhaps because it was so different from the usual sort of running through an airport late for a plane, or trying to get a car repaired, or almost playing cricket for Australia. Not even sure what triggered it, usually I can spot something that has been in the news etc. Anyway, I was visiting North Korea. Yep, I know, I knew it was odd too. But it was nothing to do with the new leadership or bombs or massed gymnasts or goose-stepping troops. Nothing at all. I was somehow visiting a small village. I was made really welcome, invited in to a house for a meal, given presents, given hugs on parting, told to come back soon. Told that I had been adopted into their village, was one of them now, part of the family, and neither they nor I could understand why their country and mine and America etc were bitter enemies. I was really touched, looking back, thinking what normal people they were, just like me, must come back and see them etc, then suddenly woke up, and poof it was gone.

Look when I say I don’t know what triggered it I probably do. It came during yet more weeks of sabre rattling everywhere – of Benyamin N. and the Republicans wanting to bomb Iran back to the stone age, Hillary Clinton lecturing North Korea, the Germans lecturing Greece, America lecturing Syria, China lecturing Tibet, England lecturing Scotland, and so on. All of it done by presidents and prime ministers and foreign ministers, standing at podiums in front of massed flags, talking to their counterparts in the country being lectured. Talking also to the elites, the military top brass, the bankers, the businessmen.

But not talking to the people in my dream – the peasants – nor to the poor villagers, the farmers, the factory workers, the labourers, the public servants, the students, nurses, teachers, mothers, children. Furthermore these grand lecturers have never met any of these ordinary citizens of the countries being lectured. UN should have a rule, you are not allowed to bomb, or turn the IMF loose on, a country until you have lived for a year with some of its ordinary citizens. You listening Hillary, Angela, Benjamin?

Then see if you can bomb my dream North Koreans.

Aux armes, citoyennes

7

The other day a storm erupted on Twitter and in blogs about an article in a magazine. The argument was about little*, really, a storm in a teacup, but it raged for several days. The even odder thing was that it didn’t pit right against left, but consisted of feminists, female and male, arguing with each other as if enemies.

The popular mythology is that feminism has triumphed, men and women equal in society. A great symbolic photo in November showed President Obama being greeted on arrival by female Governor-General, Prime Minister, ACT Chief Minister. Women head major corporations, institutions, public service departments; succeed in all professions (including the military).

But underneath the neat symbolic photos and the few excellent women at the top, things are not quite so rosy. A woman prime minister? She is the subject of misogyny, often really nasty (with threats to kill her), every day. Women’s pay is still much lower; while one or two make it to the top, most of the next management levels are still men; the battle for paid maternity leave revealed many politicians who want women back in the 1950s; equal opportunity legislation is attacked; sexist jokes flourish in “anti-pc” times; adverts openly portray women as either dumb or harridans; many women proudly say “oh no, I’m not a feminist”.

In Australia and elsewhere, gender equality, taking off like a rocket in the 60s and 70s, is falling back to Earth as the last booster fails.

The bad guys are winning, and the rocket falls with gathering speed, back to where it started. Many of us I think sense this, but don’t quite know what to do about it. Which is why, I think, the storm erupted the other day. Nerves are edgy, opinions are varied, approaches are debated, solutions hotly contested. The heat is on and temperatures are fraying.

Much the same in other areas, most notably conservation, gay rights, education, social services. Everywhere you look it seems, conservative, religious, business, political operators, with the active help of large sections of the media, are pushing back successfully against the social and environmental advances of the 60s and 70s. The political scene is like the aftermath of a battle, a battlefield where small groups are trying to fight a conservation battle here, a childcare battle there, a battle for gay marriage on the other side, support for unemployed being challenged on one hand, glass ceilings are replaced with concrete ones over the road. If we fight these battles singly we’ll lose them all.

Time I think, not just for all women to work together to change views from “I’m not a feminist” to “I’m not a feminist, but …”, to “of course I’m a feminist, want to make something of it?”, but for all progressive groups to work together. It was hard coming out of the fifties, when the conservatives were taken by surprise by the progressive movement. This time they are ready for us and have the weapons.

Progressives united can never be defeated.

* this is not to say the issue, the use of the word “hysterical” to describe a woman writer’s tv appearance, was not of interest/importance, just that by any measure it was a small issue in relation to the reaction. Although that reaction was compounded, rather like a nuclear chain reaction, by the vehemence of the opinions expressed and the increased personalising of the debate.

Note
The original article by Justin Shaw is here
Three of the major subsequent debaters have also posted on the topic (as have many others apparently):
Tammi Jonas
Ben Pobjie
Jennifer Wilson

If there are any blog readers who like what I have been doing on the blog it would be good if you could put in a vote for me in the “Shorty Awards” blogger category. Really good! You have to say, in a few words, why you are voting for me (@watermelon_man) in the blogger category. And that’s it really.

School of the Air

7

Had a book as a child called something like “The School of the Air” in which the classroom was an aeroplane which flew all over the world so the children could experience directly what life was like in each of the countries, instead of just reading about it in books. Sounded great to me.

The other day the President of the USA, surrounded by several thousand bodyguards, minders, and journalists, rolled into town past the intersection where I was sitting in my car waiting. He was whisked here, whisked there, and finally whisked right back out again and sent on his way to Darwin where some more whisking went on.

Good that he could drop in. He seems once of the nicer, and certainly one of the smarter, American presidents of the last 100 years or so. He certainly will have known that it was Australia not Austria he was visiting, and he added us to the list of other countries he had visited all of which were America’s very best friends forever. He needs to know something about a country where American troops were stationed in World War 2, visited in big numbers during Vietnam, and, for reasons that escape me, are about to be stationed again. Also good for him to know about a country that has sent soldiers off (again, often for reasons that escape me) to fight alongside Americans. And a country that still catches the flu when Wall Street catches a bad cold, and one that is in various trade arrangements with his own.

But given all that, the whisking was counter-productive.

When I said “rolled into town” above you all know I meant Canberra. But he saw Canberra almost entirely through tinted windows, and almost entirely of the airport-parliament roadsides, the only exception being the War Memorial and Campbell High school a short distance away. What if he had rolled into Yass, quietly, in a beat up old station wagon, dressed in old farm gear with stained akubra pulled down over forehead, and gone for a bit of a walk? Called into shops and talked to owners, said g’day to passers by, bought a beer at pub and sat in corner with it, dropped in at Council, sat in park with icecream?

He might I think, just might, have learnt more about Australia and Australians than he learnt in driving to and from the airport, and giving and listening to speeches from politicians. Applies actually to all the political leaders from around the world.

Perhaps we could put them all in a school of the air, learn about each other. As long as the experience included an icecream in Yass.

Might reduce the number of wars, make trade fairer, make aid quicker. There are 7 billion of us now, and you can’t learn much about them from the back seat of a limousine.