Monday, June 30, 2014

Missing episodes

According to Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews, mental illness is “episodic”, rather than permanent – and so it makes sense for people to work during the “good” times, at least.  Why set the default for the “bad” times; i.e. pay the DSP in both sickness and in health? Yes, but is this quite a glass half full/empty situation?

To answer this, let’s look forward at what happens when the next mental illness “episode” occurs during a work spell.  Quite possibly, the person will be unable to continue working.  Even if the ill person wants to continue working, the employer will likely want them stood down (to use a vague term), for the duration of the episode, at least.

And there’s the rub.  Generally speaking, it is illegal to sack, or otherwise penalise an employee on the grounds of ill-health.  So the employer will dread the prospect of a mental-illness prone employee becoming unwell – they will then either have to be paid for not working, or surreptitiously cut adrift, in a usually prolonged process which just scrapes in on the side of what is legal. 

The former means that the insurance aspect of the DSP is outsourced to the employer.  Which is a win for taxpayers, I guess, but a huge disincentive for employing anyone with a mental illness – the employer knows that they may be writing a blank cheque, that is, underwriting the employee’s wages during their episodes of illness.

The latter means that the employer gets to shift – eventually – financial liability for the person’s support back to the state (after all the paperwork has been done, and the waiting periods served, of course).  The biggest cost here, however, will be borne by the person with the mental illness – having lost their job on vague and/or technical grounds (but well knowing why they really lost it), the “episode” will almost certainly be deeper and longer for this experience.  That is, the end of the “health” phase – which is generally foreseeable as, for all concerned, a nasty HR process – adds greatly to the accumulation of “sickness”.  Put another way, if the person had never got that job, their total “sickness” most likely would have been less.

So what’s the answer? Clearly a person with a mental illness needs an income, from the DSP and/or employment.  Losing the DSP, even if in seamless association with a new job is likely to leave the person much worse off  upon the happening of the next “episode”.  There is nothing that will be seamless about this unravelling.  Perhaps part-time work at most – that keeps DSP eligibility – would be a wise compromise, but this doesn’t appear to be what Kevin Andrews and Patrick McClure really have in mind.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A great deal of warning

The year 2040 as the date when the 70 [qualifying age for the age pension] would kick in was speculated on, but there has also been talk of 2029.  Of course, for us oldies, it is neither here nor there because these new arrangements will not affect us.

The point of giving the youngies a great deal of warning is that they can think about their retirement plans now, about how long they should stay in the workforce and how they might structure their assets”.

-          Judith Sloan, “Age-old question needs answers, and soon”, Australian 26 April 2014

Five years ago, when the increase in the qualifying age for the Australian age pension from 65 to 67 was announced in the May 2009 budget, I predicted that this would be an interim increase only.  Sure enough, a further increase to 70 now appears certain.

There are two kinds of demographic reality at stake here. One is objective reality – we are living longer on average, and that the boomer wave in retiree numbers will be cresting for another 15 years or so, and only break c.2030, when the oldest boomers hit their mid 80s.  

The second kind of demographic reality/“reality” is Boomer-Think – that they are not the problem, and therefore the solution need only slightly involve them.  The generally unspoken corollary to this is that the problem just needs to be moved on by a few years, to become a hangover for the next generation.  How this naked blame-shifting has become an entrenched reality is a whole separate essay, however . . .  

Judith Sloan, who I presume is a boomer (i.e. born before 1/7/1962), has been unusually candid in her above choice of words.  Her gloating that “for us oldies . . . these new arrangements will not affect us” may seem somewhat misconceived, as the 2009 qualifying age increase, phased in between 2017 and 2023, affects those born between 1952 and 1957, so leaving the youngest boomer cohort still subject to an older qualifying age.  But this is small bikkies, or as Sloan says, “neither here nor there”.

The boomer pain is inconsequential because the main pain – as always – falls on us Xers.  Not that Sloan quite needs to spell this out; it’s easier just to forget our existence.  Hence, straight after reassuring her boomer cohort, Sloan clinches her case by pointing out that the “youngies” can hardly complain either, as they’ve got plenty of notice to get their house* in order, so to speak. I assume that Sloan, if she thinks about it at all, lumps in Xers as “youngies” – but as someone turning 50 this year, I am more disgusted than flattered at her dismissive labelling.

If you think about it, financially planning a late retirement is very simple.  You will work until you can afford not to.  But setting even an approximate date for this, decades out from the actual event, is ludicrous for most individuals, as it will depend on well-into-the-future income levels, asset prices, and tax and superannuation laws (which are currently ridiculously generous to over-60s, and so, I would suggest, have zero chance of still being in place when Xers start turning 60 in 2022).  All that a far-forward announced increase in the age pension qualifying age actually means for now is another signal to Xers that their lifetime tax dollars are already spoken for.

Not getting back what you’ve put in seems to me to be a dangerous thing to be legislating, en masse and in advance.  Recent debate around upping the pension age has had its useful distractions. (Manual workers will be worn-out by age 65?  That’s what the DSP is for. On average, Xers are going to live to our late 80s, at least?  That’s why compulsory superannuation was introduced, more than 20 years ago.)  But these skate around the much bigger issue – that the tax dollars of ageing Xers will, for the next two decades, be all used up in subsidising the retirement lifestyles of boomers who are, on average, much richer than the Xer worker bees.  When this party starts to end, c.2030, Xers will not – and could not – look to the next taxpayer generation to write our retirement cheque.  If then we don’t have enough super to be self-funded retirees (and most won’t, see sidebar below), then we’ll have only ourselves to blame, using Sloan’s logic of being a 50 year old “youngie” in 2014, pondering “how long [I] should stay in the workforce and how [I] might structure [my] assets”. 

So do your own math here, Xers – and if you also conclude that you are getting shafted, then it’s time to make some noise, if not revolt. Otherwise, the boomers are relying on you not to even notice what’s happening here until the late 2020s:

“Lifting the pension eligibility age further from 67 to 70 by 2034# [I predict 2035; see table below] appears tough, and may be prudent, but it will have no impact on the budget, or any voter, for more than a decade”.

-          Adam Creighton, “Audit commission prescribes some harsh medicine”, Australian 26 April 2014 (emphasis added)

Sidebar:  Compulsory superannuation is an abject failure

Judith Sloan also notes:

“At the moment, more than 80 per cent of those aged 65 or older collect the age pension, in full or in part.  On the current projections, this proportion is not expected to change much at all, although there is a change to the mix of full and part recipients.

Amazingly, the projections do not envisage much change to the proportion of those 65 or older who receive no pension by 2050 — which is nearly 60 years after the introduction of compulsory superannuation”.

I assume that these figures are adjusted forward for the currently confirmed retirement age (i.e. 67, from 2023), but if not, the real figures are even more damning – or “amazing”, if you’re a by-standing boomer voyeur looking at a demographic car crash, like Sloan.

Until now, the main demographic motif with compulsory superannuation has been that it came well into the working life of most boomers, and so they couldn’t be expected to have as much (and/or “enough”) retirement money as younger generations.  Here, older Xers like myself fell into a similar – if much more silent – boat, having also started our working lives pre-1992.  But anyway, now it matters barely a jot whether you’ve had compulsory superannuation for some, most or all of your working life – YOU ARE STILL GOING TO NEED THE PENSION, in part at least, and ASSUMING THAT IT’S THERE, after the boomers are gone.

For Xers, this is a dirty little secret indeed.   Compulsory superannuation was (and I remember this vividly) sold to my generation in the early 1990s on the basis of our expected higher longevity.  Set originally at a modest 3% of income, the magic of compounded returns was spruiked so that it plausibly seemed a viable vehicle for self-funded retirees, en masse – at least when perhaps supplemented by some voluntary contributions in late working-life, when we had money to spare**.  While the delusion of high returns over patient decades has long since gone (in 2008, if not before), and the compulsory percentage rate has gone in the other direction (“compounded compulsion”, anyone?), compulsory superannuation still has an aura of thrifty benevolence around it.  As though someone older and wiser is finger-wagging at us Xers:  “You may not appreciate the forced saving now, but you sure will when you’re 80”. 

That is, our (mostly) modest nest eggs are going to spare us, at least, from the ravages of needing the full age pension c.2050.  But they will have to, as I’ve pointed out above, and the prospect of even a part age pension c.2050 is looking like a 1980s Moscow supermarket – the shelves are bare, whatever the commissars’ bright rhetoric and stern compulsions may be. 

The bottom line is that Xers will be financially-strapped in retirement – I am talking much worse off than the current generation of full old-age pensioners – because they mistook, until it was too late, the state’s compulsion as some sort of guarantee of a comfortable retirement.  On the contrary, compulsory superannuation is a cynical double tax-grab – a means of ensuring Xers pay for boomers’ comfortable retirements while impoverishing our own future, as we meekly add fresh tokens to our steaming token piles – our token futures.

Update 4 May 2035

Told you so; re the pension age of 70 starting in 2035.  No report, that I have seen, has filled in the blanks, aka the taper, between the 2009 changes and the latest ones - thereby implying that (only) the post-1965 born will now have a particularly high pension-age hurdle to leap.  In reality, this age qualifier is only six months older than the 69.5 years that applies to the cohort 18 months older, and so on.  But "sticker shock" headlines, regarding quite distant dates, usefully hide the real story - that ALL Xers are getting shafted by these changes, whatever specific 18 month cohort they fall within.

*  House – Xers’ home-ownership rates are much lower than boomers’, so there is intended irony here.  The role of home ownership in a financially-secure retirement is also a whole other essay.

** Money to spare.  Since PM John Howard created the loophole, every middle or high-earning working boomer aged over 59 has furiously money-laundered as much of their income as legally possible (generally $50,000), by channelling it into voluntary superannuation “savings”, and then immediately withdrawing it, tax free.  Neat trick, eh?  You don’t actually lock a single dollar away, but you get more spending money now, and for free!  And not a loophole that will be around much longer, I am quite sure. But the putrid (bi-partisan) stench – of voluntary superannuation contributions being a transparent tax-dodge, and not a nest-egg builder – will linger long after, for Xers.    

# Here’s my projection of what the 13 May 2014 Budget will bring, if it continues the taper set in 2009 – the age of 70 won’t be bedded down until July 2035.  Note that the first six-months for each taper increase are “downtime”, when no one will actually become eligible.  Hence, the lucky Xers born on 1 January 1966 will become eligible for the age pension (if it still exists) when they turn 70 on 1 January 2036.     

Pension age for those born on or after 1 July 1952

Affects those born (both dates inclusive)
Pension age
01/07/1952 to 31/12/1953
65 years and 6 months
01/01/1954 to 30/06/1955
66 years
01/07/1955 to 31/12/1956
66 years and 6 months
01/01/1957 to 30/06/1958
67 years
01/07/1958 to 31/12/1959
67 years and 6 months
01/01/1960 to 30/06/1961
68 years
01/07/1961 to 31/12/1962
68 years and 6 months
01/01/1963 to 30/06/1964
69 years
01/07/1964 to 31/12/1965
69 years and 6 months
01/01/1966 to  . . . ?
70 years, then . . . ?

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Songlien (n.) A songline bought on the never-never.

Songlines (n.) Title of a 1986 Bruce Chatwin book that depicted a romanticised, present-day Central Australia.

Never-never (n.).  The sparsely-populated bulk of the Australian landmass, in which a few urban areas and mining settlements aside, the Indigenous population will outnumber the settler.  Also, to buy something on credit, when it is improvident to do so, or it entails paying an excessive interest rate.

I love a good secret business story, particularly when most of the real drama is at the heart of my own culture – educated, urban, predominantly white Australia.

Such is the backstage story behind Nicolas Rothwell’s (itself a backstage) double-story in yesterday’s Australian.*  The about-to-open SA Museum “Ngintaka” show is not something I have any direct familiarity with or stake in.  But its divisiveness, as chronicled by the clearly partisan but factually meticulous Rothwell, is like a newly-installed public sculpture in a prominent place – a cultural disaster ripe for the picking.  I’m aware of how white-fella unceremonious this may appear; when the “unveiling” has yet to happen, it would ordinarily be polite to suspend judgment, particularly on the eve of the opening (which for “Ngintaka” is Friday 29 March).  But it is only the full-frontality of Rothwell’s spoiler that makes it a “long and complicated”** white-fella drama; a post-opening “review” (meaning an opinionated, timely backgrounder) would mostly be just a tale of two Pitjantjatjara factions and which way the white-fellas were lining up.

Reading Rothwell’s double-story, I get the feeling that it was the latter, less incendiary path that was actually his intention, until quite near yesterday’s publication deadline, with his main story apparently written to run on the day after opening, Saturday 30 March, but his accompanying page 1 splash story written later (or if not, just sub-edited) to expressly run six days before the opening.  Some secret white-fella business here then, just for starters.  Maybe Rothwell was corralled by the powers that be pointing out that a Saturday 30 March print date would still be more pre-emptive spoiler than loose “review” – and that since the gloves were going to be off, anyway . . .

Dates are an odd feature of Rothwell’s story, particularly in its cannibalisation of a May 2012*** Stuart Rintoul story (that itself has a large trace of Nicolas Rothwell authorship within it, although Rothwell is not formally credited).  The plot thickens – did Rintoul simply lend his name in May 2012, in order for some flak, at least, to bypass Rothwell – a remote Australia specialist, with apparently impeccable access credentials?

Either way, Rothwell’s recycling of Yami Lester’s May 2012 words seems lazy and uncharacteristic.  Mind-you, some of the recycled words are choice indeed:

“White do-gooders among us need their boundaries defined.”

Ouch!  And rather masterfully, Mr Lester doesn’t say by whom – if you need to ask this, you need to go back to clearer bounded territory, perhaps. 

Never one to miss an opportunity for a scolding chime-in, if I may suggest a coda – one more pedantic than profound – to Mr Lester’s edict: “and white sub-editors among us need their photos of me, Yami Lester, more transparently captioned”.  If you look up the 10 May 2012 story, you’ll see a picture captioned “Yami Lester, in wheelchair, and Mike Williams yesterday at Wallatina, in the far north of South Australia”.  Fast forwarding to 22 March 2014, a strikingly similar photo was captioned “Yami Lester, in wheelchair, and Mike Williams”.  Both were by Kelly Barnes.  While yesterday’s photo didn’t say that it was a recent one, most readers would assume that it was, and it is a puzzle why the caption couldn’t have just added “in May 2012”.  In the body text, Yami Lester ironically invokes Indigenous intellectual property rights; shabby captioning of Indigenous subjects, while not a serious violation, is still a point on a continuum of abhorrent practises, in the recent past, regarding film and photography of Indigenous persons and material culture.   

As I’ve previously written in another context, there is a big problem in how to contain, and then possibly physically dispose of and mentally forget, a mountain of visual (and textual, to a smaller extent) material, the capturing, storage and/or publication of which it can be presumed no informed consent was given to.  Some of this material may be obvious, captioned “secret ceremony” or similarly, and if so, often be found in only in specialist academic, rare, and/or quasi-banned publications.  Most such content, however, is found in generalist publications, and with non-controversial captions.  We (meaning white and Indigenous Australians both) need to do something about this, or, at the very least, talk about it.  Funnily enough, I have a strong hunch that what’s at the bottom of the SA Museum “Ngintaka” show being claimed as a serious cultural violation concerns one chapter of just such a generalist book, and perhaps more particularly, just one photo within.

Certainly, yesterday’s story is oddly unspecific about what the actually offensive “bits” (to use an inelegant term) were (the May 2012 story was also unspecific, but then it was presumably early days as to what might actually end up on display).  I recognise that naming and shaming particular paintings, objects etc may potentially be counter-productive (by attracting a prurient interest), but a couple of clues suggest that it is the attention that the “Ngintaka” show may give to a particular 1948 book that is the biggest problem, rather than the show’s primary content (I am assuming the show makes no more than guarded references to the 1948 book).  If so, I think that this source of contagion has to be identified, despite concerns over attracting prurient interest.

Ominously in hindsight, I think, in May 2012, one of the lead white-fellas said: “[Anangu/Pitjantjatjara] people wanted to tell the ‘open story’ that had been documented”.  The trouble with this approach is that uncontestably “open” stories are, I would have thought, already told to death – or at least would be thin pickings for an expensive major museum show.  “Documented” stories, on the other hand, can be many things, but it would be a clear breach of Yami Lester’s “boundaries”, I would have thought, to conflate “documented” with “open”.

Rothwell yesterday picks up this thread:

“They [the lead white-fellas] pointed out the Ngintaka story had long been public; it had been recorded by an amateur anthropologist in 1948”.    

As well as not naming the particular white “do-gooder”, Rothwell – curiously, I think – chooses not to name the “amateur anthropologist” despite his identity being obvious to anyone with a slight acquaintance with mid-20th Century publications on Indigenous Central Australia. In a probable over-abundance of caution, I am not going to name him either.  I will note, however, that in my opinion he does have a chequered reputation at best, with his magnum opus being a quasi-banned book (that I have held but, duly warned, never opened).  To base the “openness” of an exhibition’s broad premise on the foundations laid by this ethnographer/film-maker/photographer 65 years ago thus seems ludicrous – or a prosaic greedy quest to the Oodnadatta area for fine flour**, at least.

Speaking of Oodnadatta, I recognise that geographical precision is another fraught zone – just as paintings can be sold with their inner meanings encrypted, stories can be told with GPS co-ordinates withheld, as it were.  I would hate to be the putz who naively name-dropped Oodnadatta as a cultural site of significance for anything more than the Pink Roadhouse – and the 1948 book has specific Ngintaka sites only way back west, in the tri-state conurbation.  

Zooming out to the bigger picture, I do think that the Western Desert may have been “sung” enough in recent decades for white-fella edification, clean through to the Indian Ocean, and that going south-east from the beating heart would be a nice change of songline direction, if you like.  Which is to say, a paying back of the songlien.  If the damage of obscenity in the stored visual record is to be undone, first we take Oodnadatta – then we take CM.

Update 1 April 2014 – Ngintaka exhibition off, then on again, and “OMG, I’ve turned into ‘Gym Bore’/‘Kidder’”

Diana James, in a terse reply to Nicolas Rothwell, defends the thorough consultation processes of the Ngintaka “Project Partners”.  But Rothwell  had already conceded that there was an exhaustive such process over recent years – and for all this, for a handful of dissidents at least, still not enough; or perhaps too much.  More interestingly, James details a chain of events, going back four decades, to assert the openness of the Ngintaka  story in general; or in industry-speak, its provenance.

Just as Subhash Kapoor had to invent pre-1972 ex-India provenance for his looted antiquities (from that year, a blanket export ban was imposed by the Indian state), James is aware that there is a time-frame into which her “openness” provenance must not cross.  While the date here is not hard and fast, plainly she can’t go back to the problematic 1948 book.  Neatly, she fixes 1974 as the earliest date in the chain of “good” title – a year by which the Bad Old Days of cultural expropriation by anthropologists and others were implicitly over, and a nascent fine-art industry in Central Australia was giving Indigenous artist-custodians the power and finesse to disclose their stories to whatever degree they chose.   From her 1974 jump-start however, James seems to have to clutch at straws:

This version of the [Ngintaka] story has been used by Anangu to document their artworks in gallery exhibitions since 1974. The story and song have been taught at the [sic] Angatja in the Mann Ranges to tourists and school children since 1988 and is still taught today to Indigenous and non-indigenous children. The Angatja experience is championed as a flagship of reconciliation by Catholic Schools who include the trip in their Leadership for Reconciliation programme.

Thus, many people, mainly schoolchildren, have already seen and heard the story; indeed, it is something of a set-piece.  This should not be taken to mean that the cultural content is relatively trite, although the SA Museum publicity does emphasise that the exhibition is intended primarily for children.  The bigger problem here is the Project Partners’ seemingly reckless presumption of scalability – that a remote community’s in-situ “experience” can be respectfully and meaningfully recreated in a prestigious big-city venue.  The acute danger, of course, is that extra “sizzle” will be needed in the greatly-enlarged version, sizzle of which the SA Museum has plenty in its vaults, including a large number of secret-sacred objects, photos and films that came to it via the “amateur anthropologist”.   

Rothwell’s article made it clear that the SA Museum’s role in the exhibition was mainly as a room for hire, so perhaps there is some consolation in this fact.  Nonetheless, the fact that it is Rothwell, rather than James, making it, speaks volumes.  As do these strong words from a lawyer for the pro-exhibition faction, referring to an unsuccessful last-minute legal challenge# to the exhibition going ahead:

“SA Museum has been accused of ‘caving in’ to the demands of the tribal elders by Graham Harbord, for Johnston Withers lawyers representing Ananguku Arts. Mr Harbord said SA Museum should not even be involved in the dispute”.

-          Tim Lloyd, “SA Museum decides to proceed with opening of Ngintaka dreaming exhibition despite legal threat from some tribal elders”, Advertiser 28 March 2014, 4:35pm

Ah, “caving in” – an English figure of speech that may, I suspect, have an unfortunate (if unintended) set of other meanings in the translation.  But that’s white Australia’s trouble with keeping Indigenous secrets; we feel trapped and suffocated inside that black box.    

Meanwhile, onto Bruce Chatwin’s provenance.   Re-reading Songlines after posting the above (and about 26 years after I first read it), my mind followed a quite different track from my late 1980s self (who would have been on “team Bruce”, all the way). The character of ‘Gym Bore’, or ‘Kidder’ – who Chatwin apparently based on the real-life Phillip Toyne – stood out, and for reasons opposite to the petty-villain role he plays in Chatwin’s book. 

But first, let’s start with Kidder’s rap-sheet:  he’s a rich young man, originally from Sydney – rich enough to have his own plane, the use of which as an (presumably) unpaid taxi to and from remote communities is apparently the only reason that Kidder is tolerated (by white or black) in his job in the Aboriginal land-rights industry.  Kidder’s crass departure from a party at a private house in far south-eastern Alice Springs in February 1983 – in an over-large and new 4WD, shining harsh headlights over all and sundry – is possibly the earliest confirmed appearance of the Yuppie Wanker in a 4WD (in 1983, a species far from the plague proportions they were later to assume).  It may help here to know that Chatwin and “Arkady” had walked the 5km or so from central Alice Springs to the party house, almost in eerie anticipatory negation of Kidder by their most un-Kidder like (and un-Alice in general also, I would suggest) behaviour. 

Chatwin’s basis for calling Kidder a “Gym Bore” is similarly loaded; nowhere in the book does Kidder talk or behave like a vain or body-obsessed man, but we definitely know that any deliberate act of fitness or muscle-building is Not Something That Bruce Would Do.  Chatwin admits to going for a pre-breakfast jog in  Alice Springs once – but he takes care to inform us that this was only because his motel did not start serving breakfast until 8am.  Personally, I would not have forever after condemned Chatwin as “Runner Bore” on the basis of a single instance of a jog, however egregious, but Chatwin has much higher standards than me, obviously.  Such high standards, in fact, that his unnamed motel’s breakfast start time of 8am would make it completely unsuitable for most tourists doing bus-trips out of town (in my experience, which albeit is in recent years and not c.1983, almost all bus-tours will be on the road by 8am).  But no doubt having a breakfast without the clamouring tourist hordes would have been all the better for Bruce’s erudite and considered notebook jottings.  That morning, as Chatwin tucked into his post-jog repast, he may well have thought about how fortunate he was to be naturally lithe – and “Arkady” naturally hunky – in contrast to that horrid, artificially-sculpted colonial, Kidder.  And thus been inspired to write this note for himself:  “Important:  explain that my jog was only because of compulsory late breakfast, and that I normally spend my mornings as languid as Sebastian Flyte”.

Early in the narrative, “Arkady” sums up Kidder as “bad news”.  Unusually for a romanticised “faction” book, there is no later big pay-off to this standard plot device – a single instance of being a Yuppie Wanker in a 4WD is as bad as Kidder ever gets to be.  Other than Kidder’s (possibly drunken) words about Aboriginal intellectual property, that is.  These offend Chatwin to the core, for some genuinely strange reason – they are indeed left-field, and may be impossible to achieve in practice, but their idealism cannot be faulted, I would have thought.  So why does Chatwin so despise Kidder’s idealism, or was it really just what he (Kidder) was wearing (grey marle) that infected his whole persona?

Anyway, I’m going to put up my hand to get me some of Chatwin’s deepest contempt myself, by agreeing with Kidder’s ideas about Aboriginal intellectual property (this may also mean disowning my late 1980s self, but if the grey marle fits . . . ).  The entire corpus of presumptively stolen Aboriginal intellectual property in non-Aboriginal hands, on my guesstimate, could be bought back for a few million dollars (or even better, just donated).  This is small bikkies in comparison to land rights.  This figure does not include physical tjuringas, etc, the repatriation of which are often – for good reason – dealt with under a loose heading of intellectual property.  But there are also meaty issues of proper custodianship to do with any physical property, and, in deference to Chatwin, I prefer to keep the issue here naturally lithe.

Chatwin’s provenance for his best-selling “Central Australian Anthropology for Dummies” is difficult to fault, as befits a man who previously worked in the high-end art trade.  Most of his insights come second-hand, from impeccably credentialled whites like “Arkady”; thus side-stepping the who, why, and for how much issues of the supply of the original story.  Chatwin is no pre-1970s anthropologist, greedily vacuuming up content from the source, and making only token payment for this.  He airily, and in 2014 presciently, takes his content from the “cloud”, and not the cave.        

Further update 2 April 2014

It turns out that earlier media reports that the Ngintaka exhibition opened for business as usual on Friday 28 March were incorrect (or at least my reading of them was).  In fact, due to an injunction, the exhibition opened on a partially-closed basis.  Most of this injunction was lifted yesterday, but “two videos, featuring song and dance” remain off-display, for now.  See Mark Schliebs, “Aboriginal Exhibition to Go Ahead”, Australian, 2 April 2014.

My guess is that these two "videos" are pre-1970s film footage, possibly taken by that ubiquitous “amateur anthropologist”.  The legal proceedings are ongoing, it seems: “Arguments over the consultation process will continue in the Supreme Court tomorrow” (ibid).

* Nicolas Rothwell “Songlines suffering: desert men in pain when secrets on display”, and “Culture war”, both Australian 22 March 2014.

** Quote from 1948 book, Ngintaka story chapter. As ever with this author, “famous first words”. [Second reference is an element, hopefully innocuous, of the Ngintaka story, as recounted in 1948 book]

*** Stuart Rintoul “Songline at heart of secret men's business”, Australian, 19 May 2012 [Note that 22 March 2014 “Culture war” story wrongly dates this as 20 May 2012]

Verity Edwards, “Songline show on after legal assurance”, Australian 29 March 2014

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Andrew Bolt pulls a sickie – SCOOP!

I usually don’t bother reading Andrew Bolt’s opinion columns in the Herald Sun.  They are predictable and, in any event, not at all what I am seeking on the Herald Sun website – which is colourful snapshots of an exotic Other (viz, a Melbourne that I nominally live in, but actually have little or no cultural affinity with).  The Hun is, then, an armchair “holiday” for me, one that will usually produce a wry chuckle or to.  It is necessarily a brief holiday, though, due to the strictures of the News Ltd paywalls.  This morning, however, I accidentally clicked on an Andrew Bolt opinion column (“I swear, M’lud, I thought from the headline that it was genuine, colourful news article, about a suburban battler wronged, or some such”).  And rather surprisingly, the Darth Vader-omniscient paywall then let me through past the headline teaser, despite my full quota of freebie clicks being well and truly spent for the week, by my count.

But anyway, who’s actually counting, out there in Bolt-world?  His is a time and place of what I’ll call the “Dreaming”, for want of a better term.  I suspect that a therapist could actually locate it in Bolt’s childhood, as an Australian-born child of Dutch immigrants, growing up in the backblocks/outback of SA, c. 1970 (Bolt was born in 1959). 

The unresolved issue?  Little Andrew, I suspect, could and did pass for “ordinary” (meaning Anglo-Celtic) white Australian, in places where the colour bar, at the time of his birth at least, was a rigid as any, ever, in the American South.  Of course, young Andrew was always going to be on the right’n’white side of this colour bar, but his home life (and school life, to a lesser degree) must have caused some angst. 

On one hand, he and, especially, his parents were so different from the others (in my experience of Dutch-born people - not so much their Australian-born children, though - they are, and I use this phrase with affection, the “woggiest wogs” of all).  Yet on the other, in outback SA, young Andrew would have been remorselessly assimilated, without any choice in the matter, into the Anglo-Celtic cultural bloc.  No doubt this culture-denial sometimes hurt, and especially so when young Andrew would have felt – with some justification, I should say – that he actually had a fair bit in common with the black kids in this regard (but that said, there was no practical possibility of a consequent Bolt/black-kids alliance, under the mores of that time).  Both were outsiders to the smug dominant culture, but only Andrew Bolt could pass for one of them.  And pass he did – but yet he had to.

His column today you can read for yourself (paywall permitting, of course):  “It feels like I have lost; do I run or resist?”. And sorry, my “sickie” headline is – I hate to admit this, but anyway – a trick of the trade; a teaser.  What Bolt actually details is that he was so upset by comments made about him on ABC’s “Q & A” on Monday evening, by Marcia Langton and others, that he was unable to go to work on Tuesday.  I don’t doubt that he was genuinely unwell when he woke up that morning.  My evidence for this is indeed the very fact that he mentions it at all, when he knows (presumably) that his readership will mostly snicker “diddums” (so meaning that he was still apparently a bit “sick” when he wrote the column, but good on him for soldiering on, like a true Aussie).  And equally, Bolt forgot to mention whether or not he got the medical certificate that is a fact of life these days for many Australians taking a single day’s sick leave (but snarky me for bringing this up, like I was the Herald Sun’s HR-and-payroll killjoy!). 

But you’re OK, Mr Bolt.  It no doubt has been a source of lifelong annoyance to you that “Dutch” is an adjective used in a diverse array of phrases, but with an insulting, if not downright racist thread connecting them.  But I didn’t invent the “Dutch X”.  And by coming up with a new coinage of “Dutch X”, I am not trying to add fuel to the fire (“I swear, M’lud”), but hoping to help you to reconnect with your presumably painful childhood, in which your Dutchness was stolen – yes, stolen – by a xenophobic, steam-rolling Anglo-Celtic outback mainstream, painfully aware that they were outnumbered by their taciturn Indigenous neighbours on the fringe (a stark demographic fault-line that the Bolts no doubt waltzed into, unawares).  So here it is:  “Dutch sickie” – the sick day you spend mulling over the newspaper column you will write about your sick day. 

On a more healing note, to make it better for all concerned, one bright day I am hoping that an Anglo-Celtic (or Indigenous, for that matter) PM will make a brave speech, one that will have tears streaming down many a cheek, containing this historic – and dare I say, overdue – line:  “WE took your Dutchness . . .”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On being a high-hanging fruit

The High Court decision earlier this month on gay marriage was all that could be expected – a firm and prompt (but not hasty in an unseemly way, mind) “no”, in response to  an ACT marriage proposal cooked up more in present desperation than in the hope of a considered long term future together. 

Some would say that the High Court could have consented to the engagement, at least, at then let the rest harmlessly unravel in its own way (the Commonwealth can strike down any piece of Territory legislation it so wishes).  But this would be against the laws of symbiosis – and the High Court is necessarily ever the forlorn pre-fiancée here.  That is, a marriage between parliament and judiciary would be an indecent proposal, so the two must simply live together in messy ambiguity, or “in sin” as they used to say.  In any event, the never-to-walk-down-the-aisle High Court, while trying its best not to come across as overtly bitter, is structurally an institution which could not possibly be sympathetic to other forlorn brides, in the literal sense.

That’s my reading of it, anyway.  If you prefer to see the High Court as a fallen woman, with the Commonwealth parliament conspicuously chaste in contrast, read Geoffrey Luck’s “Rush to judgment has hidden agenda”, Australian Op Ed  27 December 2013 and
David Flint’s prim letter to the editor, in the following day’s Oz.  They both seem to believe that the 2004 Howard amendments to the Marriage Act needed no constitutional basis, and that the High Court is showing temerity, if not minx-hood, in suggesting that they do (see also Nicholas Ferrett’s letter next to David Flint’s).   “Can no one rid us of these turbulent judges?” asks Geoffrey Luck, possibly rhetorically, but certainly with his hands flapping oh so dramatically, in our minds’ eyes.


In any event, cheer up, Brides of Canberra (now there’s a horror film title, just ripe for the plucking!).  The consolation prize is symbiosis – nature’s grand pairing of the straights and the gays. 

I love this time of year, for its abundance of sweet ripe fruit.  Or, if this ever crosses your mind, the seeds of a parent tree, lovingly packaged up as to be temptingly both removable and consumable, so that the parent tree can spawn far away from its small fixed orbit of reproduction.  Gays, rejoice in being fruit! 

We can start with the boast that we’re highly pluckable – some of us, anyway. (I’m a high hanger, or so I like to think.  Which leaves my plucking: (i) for the birds, or (ii) for the intrepid).  And some fruit – citrus comes to mind – has thorns, but you can always choose scurvy (a straightly-named disease if ever there was) instead.

Not worth dwelling on, perhaps, but still needing to be mentioned, is another sort of pointy end – how the seeds, or the fruit’s payload (from the parent tree’s perspective) get delivered into the soil, so they stand a chance of taking root in a faraway fresh territory. 

We fruit must thus usually be (ahem) spat out or shat out.  Of course, modern rubbish-collection and sewerage systems rather disrupt such natural payload delivery.  Which is possibly why, in a very roundabout way, gay sex came to be viewed as deeply unnatural in Victorian toilet-obsessed times.  That is, c .1870 fruit fruit became divorced from its symbiosis of a reproductive inner and attractively packaged outer, while gay “fruits” similarly fell out of  symbiosis, and into singularity.

So that’s gay reproduction for you – how in unlikely outer suburbs and country towns, far away from the base of the tree, as it were, a new generation is seeded.   Sexuality, if not also marriage, can spring from even “the poorest Methodist chapel”, as Geoffrey Luck so quaintly puts it.  


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Canberra man founds world’s lamest gay sex ring

If success has many fathers (while failure is an orphan), spawning a “gay sex ring” seems to be a shotgun marriage where any convenient groom/father/founder will do – and all the better for such a lifelong lock-in should the metaphorical bride’s pregnancy turn out to be mere abdominal bloating.  

Daniel McDonald, one of the two ADFA “Skype cadets”, has been found guilty of some pretty nasty acts, which I don’t want to defend in any way.  However, some salacious pre-sentence reporting around a June 2013 incident in a Canberra nightclub, one that almost dare not speaketh its details – and at which Daniel McDonald wasn’t even present – seems misguided, to put it mildly.

The headlines about the Canberra nightclub incident refer to male-to-male sex acts, which, if such acts occurred in a (presumably) public place, are indeed newsworthy.  Occurring in a public place, they are criminal, even if fully consensual (of which more about soon).  The first hole in this story is thus that, rather surprisingly you may think, no criminal charges have arisen from this incident.  My best guess for the reason here is that the reported “sexual acts” are at the lowest, ambiguous end of the scale.  The only reported details here that I am aware of are:

Umm, I would have thought that the dirtiest word here was “forced” – and that if the above acts were in fact consensual, to label them “sexual” seems a bit of a stretch, in my opinion.   The lack of any subsequent criminal charges strongly suggests that the participants were not “forced”, so all we are left with is some pretty standard straight boys’-night-out sort of stuff.  Oh, except for the possibly pregnant insinuation that other, much gayer/sexier, stuff may have happened, by virtue of the word “includes” in the above quote, and also the widely reported allusion that the Canberra nightclub incident was just the public exposure of a nine-month long rampant sex ring, one with an obviously ironic (I would have thought) name, “Love of My Life”.

Oh please.  If Daniel McDonald was the 'founder' of a footy (rugby) gay sex ring – as the Australian’s headline breathlessly put it yesterday – he has failed abjectly as a sexual entrepreneur.  His product is mundane – the least-actually-gay “gay” activities I have ever heard described as such – and he wasn’t even present at the supposed crowning debauchery, the Canberra nightclub incident in June.

I don’t see a “sex ring” at all, in fact – rather, I detect a rather more vicious, and obscene, ring of managerial blame-shifting.  There is clearly something wrong with the culture at ADFA.  But dressing-up a rather ordinary para-sexual incident as “disgust[ing]”, and lauding the “moral courage” of the ADFA students who dobbed-in the supposed gay sex ring as “demonstrating a good culture that’s developed in ADFA at the moment” is a plain and simple witch-hunt – a desperate act of/by a sick culture, rather than something that is going to fix it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Four article stubs and a funeral

Sorry about the lack of posts for the last two and a half months.  I’ve had a lot on – including some serious “sorry business”, which I won’t be writing about, as such.  But I mention this because you may see some subtext and allusions in the following four snippets.

The connection I want to mention is that they’re all topics that I’ve been working on for a while, and it’s time to get them (partially) off my chest – not to mention give this blog some needed oxygen.  I know that I promised one expectant reader, in person, the finished version of “Four – the Timor-Arafura Gap”, some weeks ago – but sorry, due to recent events, the full article here is still a while off.

One – the opiate underdose* 

Two years ago, I had day-surgery on my ankle at a private hospital.  Discharging me, they sent me off with some serious painkillers, including a box of the opiate, Endone (without any request by me, and adding the cost of the prescription to my bill, which I rather groggily paid). 

I didn’t need any of the take-home pain medication – I tried the less strong one, a couple of times, but it didn’t seem to do anything. But my pain wasn’t really painful, anyway, if you know what I mean.  So I stashed the Endone in my bathroom cupboard, possibly for a rainy-painy day.  Which never came.

Recently going through my pills, I saw that the Endone was out of date.    So following the directions, I took it back, unopened, to my pharmacy for disposal.

There are, I think, three classes of reader response to the above bare facts: (i) “So what?”, (ii) “You fool!”, and (iii) “You’re weird – but in a good way – to be writing about this, and it tickles something in me”.

To the first group, you can stop reading now, and to the third, thank you for joining my tiny club.  But it is to the second group that I must – reluctantly – admit, yes, I am writing to talk to – sorry, I mean torment – you.

I was and am well aware that a black market exists for Endone et al, and for a millisecond I admit that I thought I could have made a tidy sum here.  But it wasn’t morals, or affluence (if only), that made me stoically take my booty (in your eyes) to the proper receptacle – it was the necessary culmination of my two-year underdose.

“Underdosing” doesn’t seem to have much Google traction in non-medical literature, and in that, it seems to be a bad thing.  On the contrary, I reckon that it is high time we underdosers came out loud’n’proud, and reclaimed our “thang” from the contemptuous labels of the medical profession.  Pain, schmain, I say.

Seriously though, underdosing has to be a necessary corollary, in the great Newtonian zero-sum universe, to the opposite – we all hear about overdosing ad nauseum, of course.  Opiates are therefore always – and lopsidedly – regarded as goods in severe shortage.  Well, dang, I’ve just had a two year opiate surplus – I didn’t ask for the stuff, and the hospital pharmacy billed me for it, anyway.  And I’m sure I’m not the only one with an unwanted opiate surplus (although, per my first group above, I am that sure I’m in a tiny minority of people who choose to highlight this). 

Ah, the dormant potential accumulated in my sweet little opiate hoard – as somehow perfectly balanced by someone else’s (or even many others’?) lethargy and longing.  I hope that you opiate-big-spenders miss, nay weep over, my late pack of Endone – but for me, it’s simply gone to a better place.

* This is a complete article, masquerading as a stub for the sake of a cute title.

Two – Bill Harney’s Anzac Day (stub)

A gifted story-teller, Bill Harney (1895-1962) penned only a handful of words about his 1915-18 WWI service.  Were it not for Harney’s 1958 ABC radio interview, which formed the basis of the posthumous book Bill Harney’s War (1983), Harney’s reticence on this topic would be unmistakable.  But “reticence” may not be the right word – arguably, it was a calculated, and liberating omission.

War-writing cannot be elegantly autobiographical – the young soldier must always loom large, so lop-siding the remainder of the author’s lifespan, if he lives, and chooses, to tell of the decades that followed those few formative war years.  Commonly, of course, the autobiography is truncated – either by the author’s death in combat (leaving a scant, beautiful oeuvre, Wilfred Owen style, if not also a beautiful corpse) or by the tale ending, or shifting down a gear at least, as the author’s normal civilian life resumes.  Otherwise, some kind of balance can be struck by authors who want to tell seamlessly of both their war service and the remainder of their lives, but the formula for this is constricting:  lashings of workaday modest heroism, both during and after the war, a la Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life (published in 1981, nine months before the author’s death). 

Some might regard Bill Harney as indeed a modest hero, or prototypical Aussie battler.  But this would be an under-estimation, a careless averaging of the peaks and troughs of a life mythological in scale.  Most of all, it would ignore Harney’s keen and sardonic prescience – he was an eyewitness to, and pithy commentator on, the actual founding of many twentieth-century Australian founding myths, including Anzac Day and the “half-caste” Aboriginal child-removal policy (now more generally known as the Stolen Generations); albeit he used a pseudonym [to be revealed in the full article] in the latter case.

Bill Harney, writer, thus begins in 1919, upon returning to civilian life.  If you do not know Harney’s 11 published books, they are more or less one elliptical autobiography, often told as filmic flashbacks, and with tragedy never far from windfall, and vice versa.

It would seem that only by making a clean break post-WWI that Harney became a writer – first tentatively and anonymously in 1928, and then a decade later, with the encouragement of anthropologist Professor AP Elkin.  And when Harney wrote, the stories flowed, interwove, and at least once, vertiginously dropped – from a small boast in print to a searing tragedy in the same year, at the Alice Springs Old Telegraph Station “Bungalow”, that would take 16 years to write about, in Harney’s last book published in his lifetime.  Writing looking back on his WWI service would have been sterile, and straight-jacketing, in comparison – and again, Harney’s prescience in somehow knowing this from the start of his 34-year writing career is singular.

Three - Bill Harney’s Alice Springs impedimenta (stub or self-contained sorry business (?), loosely linked to previous stub)
Childhood is long and linear; adulthood is wide and …. moving sideways?

I reckon that “accumulating stuff” could well replace “taxes”, as that other certainty of life, alongside death.  It’s a stage of life, that if prolonged and “wide” enough, is called hoarding – but even at its “skinniest”, the accumulation of stuff is still naked, animal, accumulating stuff.  There is a reason for it, of course – to defy death, that great rubbish-bin into which all and us (and all stuff) must ultimately be pitched.

Bill Harney lived most of his adult life as a Top End beachcomber, but towards the end of it (c. 1957 to c. Aug 1962), he settled down in Chewings Street, Alice Springs (while also living at Ayers Rock for part of the year, as inaugural ranger in charge during the tourist season). 

Somehow, moving down from the Top End to Central Australia, Harney seems to have gone from carefree beachcomber to owner of a lot of stuff, rather suddenly, c. 1957.  My own hunch is that this phenomenon might be connected to Harney’s c.1946 personal tragedy, during his (relatively short) previous period of residence in Alice Springs – the move back to the scene (well, 2km away) of the tragedy came with “baggage”.  Otherwise, I’ll leave it to Harney’s own words to explain (or not) this, but first, you should know that Harney didn’t die in his Chewings Street House of Stuff.  He retired to the Sunshine Coast c. Sep 1962 – AFAICT, unencumbered by the same lot of stuff at his new home – and died at his modest home in Mooloolaba a few months later, on New Year’s Eve. After those necessary few years of learning, or defying, to die; a beachcomber once again.  RIP Bill.
“. . .  I bought a small place in Chewings Street, east of the Todd River, in Alice Springs, and around it I built a house for a man who was growing old, a house which, like a bird’s bower, would at least accommodate the junk I was acquiring, even if it never accommodated me. 

Throughout my life, to the age of about sixty, I had lived by the precepts of primitive hunters.  I had owned nothing and wanted nothing, regarding all the trivia one finds in collectors’ homes as impediments to free movement at any moment.

I had always wanted to be able to roll my swag, jam my battered hat on grey thatch, and start walking . . . [BH’s ellipsis] knowing that I was leaving nothing behind, that I could return tomorrow or never, and it wouldn’t matter.  But now! Goodness me, I had pictures on the walls, crates of books, beds and chairs and other furniture, and I was even cultivating a lawn.  

In the past, my nearest approach to cultivating anything had been at Two-Feller Creek [on the coast of the Cox Peninsula, west of Darwin] when one night I threw out the seeds of a water-melon.  I’d had a glass or two of wine and my friends tell me my mood was expansive; so much so that so that as I threw the seeds I talked to them.  ‘Grow, you bastards!’ I said.  ‘Or die.  I don’t care.  It’s up to you’.  Now I was not only planting a lawn; I had an electric mower.

The house in in Chewings Street, I now realise, was a compromise, neither a nomad's windbreak nor a semi-detached brick veneer, but a place to put my head and the accumulating feathers and stones of civilisation until I had resolved what to do with the years that remained to me.  For one thing, there was no tree in the yard, and that worried me, for without a tree I was without a shade.  On hot days I was forced to sit inside this cell.  To a man who had spent his life in the open, that was a refined form of torture, and I doubted whether I’d be able to get used to it, although I knew that many people did.”

-          Bill Harney and Douglas Lockwood, The Shady Tree (1963, Rigby) pp 27-28 – note that paragraphing has been added to the original, but it is otherwise unchanged

Best left behind then, by beachcombers in the end, Alice Springs is the “sorry business” capital of Australia. Or in Harney’s pregnant words, a place he lived in in transit between life and the countdown to death, “until I had resolved what to do with the years that remained to me”.  Transit passengers aside, Alice Springs is on a permanent, tight toggle loop – if it’s not a grief-numb 8 August there, it’s always a brisk and busy 9 August.   Either way, the flag is only ever briefly at full mast before the next death. And that’s how the south-easterly winter winds like it – there’s no time for mid-cycle countdowns to death.  And Harney’s “years that remained to me” post-Alice were, of course, an optimistic estimate of his lifespan – although not of the “sorry business” still to come, business that could and would never leave Alice Springs.

Four – the Timor-Arafura Gap

-          Bill Shorten, Aug 2013

Quite.  But sadly, Bill Shorten is not talking literally about Australia’s near north (which I’d define as PNG, West Papua and the south-east Indonesian/Timor islands (say, south of latitude 3ºS, and east of longitude 123ºE) – but about the far north (or more accurately, from the main population centres, the far north-west).  If Indonesia gets even a look-in in Shorten’s world view, it apparently goes no further south-east than Bali/Lombok.  Overwhelmingly, though, Bill Shorten’s “Australia’s near north” is north of the equator, and the colonial/northern-hemisphere notion, say, of India as “south Asia” would not be inconsistent with it.

Anyway, I want to move beyond these clichéd north vs east, and colonial vs modern dichotomies.  Newsflash:  Asia has a south-east, a far south-east, in fact (Tenggara Jauh).  Yes, it’s obscure, particularly the central (yes, central) parts of it that I’ll be focusing on here.  But this is where it’s at – where the backyards of Australia and Asia meet, 300km apart. 

The 19th C history of either side of this 300km gap is poignant (but, cue the boys’ own sidebar, it also contains pirates!).  But most of all, it is deeply confronting to many of Australia’s colonial founding myths – which is no doubt why the events of 1825 on a new (and thereafter, doomed) British colony on Melville Island and the Dutch-occupied (sort-of) islands to its immediate north have until now, never been properly told, let alone analysed for their present-day ramifications, which include Australian policies re immigration, China trade, and settler/Indigenous relations.
But first, to home in on the “far south-east” area I’ll be talking about.  I’m excluding Indonesian (West-) and East Timor, and the islands to their north and west.  In the other direction, I’m excluding PNG, West Papua and the Kai and Aru archipelagos, which are firmly in the orbit of Papua.  In turn, Papua is arguably more anchored in the south-west Pacific than in south-east Asia.  What’s left over, then is south of latitude 6ºS (and north of present-day Top End Australia), and east of longitude 127ºE and west of 132ºE. 

I’ll call these islands 300-500km N and NNW of the Tiwi Islands (and 400-600km ditto from Darwin) the “Serwatti Islands”.  They have the Arafura and Timor Seas** on their eastern and western fringes respectively, and the straits between them are/were shipping lanes on the direct route between Macassar (present-day Sulawesi) and China on one hand, and Top End Australia on the other.  However, note that there was quite possibly more shipping going through these obscure straits in the 19th C (and even 17th C), to and from and Top End Australia, than today – the wounds of 1825 are thus arguably still raw here. Certainly in 2013, without a private boat (the only airport I’m aware of is at Saumlakki on Tanimbar, which in turn is only serviced via Ambon), you cannot do the short hop between Darwin and the Serwatti Islands, and I imagine that the immigration authorities would rather frown on anywhere the Serwatti Islands as an entry/exit point for Indonesia.  
“Serwatti Islands” was a label in popular use in the 19th C, that in present-day geography  corresponds with most of the islands in the “remote” (as it is invariably described) south-western area of the Maluku/Moluccas province of Indonesia, about latitude 8º S, between and including Kisar and the Tanimbar group.  Note that I’m excluding Wetar here, which is officially in south-western Maluku, but doesn’t much concern my subject.  Also note that the Serwatti Islands, aka “Serawatti Islands”, both historically and in present-day conceptions of Maluku’s south-western islands, usually do not include the Tanimbar group.  But for present purposes, the islands of Babar and Yamdena (the main island in the Tanimbar group, aka “Timor Laut”, and also the largest single island, by far, in my Serwatti Islands grouping) are peas in a pod, as well as being only 130km apart. 

As for the 20-odd minor islands west and north-west of the Babar/Barbat group, up to Kisar, which I’m also labelling “Serwatti Islands”, these are too dispersed, and also too peripheral to my subject to be worth a separate nomenclature.  And one more clarification:  confusingly perhaps, Ambon locals (in Maluku terms, big-city folk) refer to the south-western Maluku islands as Tenggara Jauh, or the far south-east – despite some them being due south, and even slightly south-west, of downtown Ambon (at 128º E).

But in this part of the world (not to mention most of Australia, north-west of Cape Howe), south-east is destiny – and going to or from the south-west is only a Sunday ramble in a cross-wind.

** Darwin sometimes is also caught between deciding whether its harbour abuts the Arafura or Timor Seas – although the case for the latter seems geographically overwhelming, IMO.  Perhaps, in occasionally wistfully batting for Team Arafura, Darwin – ever eager to snuggle up to Asia – wishes to metaphorically bridge the Timor Trough, a rather non-snuggly natural feature running the entire length of the Timor Sea, whose eastern end is smack-bang between Babar and Yamdena – at the very middle, then, of my erstwhile, archipelagic centre of Australia’s “near north”.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gays, obituaries and evolution

Charles Darwin bequeathed us two great social constructs:  childhood and homosexuality.  Previously, they were aspects of the same amorphous lump – of being human – but evolution’s “survival of the fittest” blowtorch inevitably singled-out human states of non-breeding. 

The evolutionary role of one’s first 15 years or so being sterile seems straightforward – decent preparation for the all-important next stage of life, breeding – but the anxiety in the 0-14 (ahem) mounting yard, preceding puberty’s starting-gate, was altogether new.  Instead of childhood being a ride to adulthood, it became something ridden.  Life was a race, so natural parental qualms about their own genetic mediocrity (“nature”) led to a brand-new hothouse environment for nurture – aka childhood.  It was, I stress, a social construct founded on anxiety: parent-jockeys, all too aware that their “horse” may not have the pedigree of others in the race, trying to compensate for this in other ways, all in the ticking-time countdown of childhood.     

Homosexuality’s evolutionary role is no doubt a thing that has received serious academic pondering.  For this, and other reasons I’ll try to write on this only as someone along for ride (as opposed to being ridden).  Again, we start with the post-Darwin construct of childhood – the construct of homosexuality starts as parental anxiety crystallised, as disappointment (real or imagined).  In crude evolutionary terms, nature has fired a blank.  Then enter Oscar Wilde – the gay man whose wit the upper classes can’t get enough of, and whose homosexual predilections for the lower classes would amount to evolutionary sabotage – if only they were acts of breeding, in both senses of the word.

Gay identity (which is largely to say, gay sex) is a fantastic counter-evolutionary circuit-breaker, then.  It admixes class (and race, when miscegenation was taboo), and so keeps the breeding “fittest” (upper classes) on their toes, in more than one way.   (Oscar Wilde was arguably an earlier Bradley Manning – a shocking traitor to the class who trusted him, yet someone who leaked exactly what they needed to lose at the time, for their class’ long term survival).  In breeding, as in capitalism and the public intellectual realm (and probably any given ecosystem at all), broad liquidity is a necessary, if fraught imperative.  You might say that the micro-exchange of bodily fluids (or not) in gay sex thus ultimately prevents the whole macro-shebang from getting lopsided, and toppling over.     

Which brings me, in a slightly roundabout way, to an obituary for the late Christopher Pearson, who died suddenly on the weekend.  The shrill fundamentalism of most of the comments on this page (including many that you would call well-meaning) is a salient reminder that evolution can be a bitch, too.  

On one level, you could regard the disrespect shown to Pearson as simply the tearing down of a tall-poppy (or dim-witting of a bright wit) – with a margin of encouragement here being provided by the knowledge that Pearson has no children, or life partner (AFICT) to take close-up offence at offensive comments. 

Yet I think that there is something bigger and systemic here – the bon mots, and other gay evolutionary circuit-breakers (non-biological nepotism, anyone?) do end, more or less absolutely, with death, while breeders, in contrast, can view – and be obituarised in  – death with some consolation.  Alas, then, for gays:  evolution gets the emphatic last word – until the next gay child is born to perplexed parents, anyway.

Sidebar: Christopher Pearson and celibacy as a gay Catholic – setting the bar low

Pearson’s gradual slide, from being a gay liberation founder in the early 1970s (previous URL), into almost-celibacy from the mid-1980s (at the height of the AIDS crisis, when he was in his early 30s), is sketched out in this 2009 Oz column.  If the AIDS crisis was the initial catalyst here, his 1999 conversion to Catholicism (in his late 40s) sealed the deal, well sort of:

“Making a commitment to regular examination of conscience was unexpectedly therapeutic. It led me to trade in my double bed for something more austere, observe the Lenten fast and try, for the most part, to avoid low bars.” (emphasis added)

Ah, “low bars” – seemingly said with an Irish twinkle, but certainly not a Wildean one; Wilde rather relished setting the bar low in his sex life, and could not have mentioned “low bars” even semi-seriously.  That Pearson gets away with such a slippery euphemism (for what I interpret as an admission that he was not completely celibate, post 1999), is testament to the power of the particular sub-culture that he adopted (or vice versa), alongside – but arguably quite separate to – his conversion:        

“The welcome I got, especially from people in the Latin mass community, was a warm one. Mostly Irish and working class, its gatherings often involve shucking oysters or shelling prawns, washing them down with Guinness and singing folk noir ballads . . .”
The wholesome picture that Pearson affectionately paints of his adopted family (if I may term Adelaide’s Latin mass community that), indeed seems bigger than any occasional sexual lapses/shenanigans by Pearson.   But Christopher – and may you rest in peace – I’m not sure whether, at least for a tiny moment, you may have got carried away with your adopted family’s craic, and lapsed into kitsch – the ancient, evil, heterosexual counterpart of camp.

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