Caution on social media

Before I went away for Easter, I was at a gathering at the ABC and having the typical conversation about the future of the ABC. The person I was speaking to suggested the ABC was 'becoming very one-dimensional'.

I was not entirely sure what she meant. But I think it might have been a comment on the influence of ratings on programming decisions. However it could also be said that it is the ABC's job to reflect Australian society and that we are becoming a very one-dimensional nation.

Herbert Marcuse  - One Dimensional Man

This is self-evident in the present blowback against our celebration of diversity and our tolerance of those who are not part of the white Anglo Saxon heterosexual majority.

The dominant political culture now regards multiculturalism as a dirty word. We're also seeing the cancellation of initiatives such as the Safe Schools program, which seeks to educate young people to understand and respect gender diversity. The NSW education minister announced this during Easter.

I was curious to know more about where the 'one-dimensional' critique originated, and I came across a summary of the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse's 1964 classic One-Dimensional Man. The essence of his argument was that consumerism was becoming a form of social control that was taking away our sense of individuality.

I have a sense that if Marcuse was writing today, social media would be the main target of his criticism.

Although I've always been an enthusiast for technological innovation, my gut instinct has been to minimise my use of social media, even though I knew it would be detrimental to my career.

Because it works hand in hand with the advertising industry, social media forces us to commodify the various aspects of our lives. It pigeon-holes our identity and diminishes the multi-dimensional nature of our own particular human existence.

Facebook graphic

Crucially it takes away our privacy, which is the sanctuary that fuels us to spring into life as our own person rather than a clone of some media celebrity. In addition, I think social media can leave little for others to imagine and discover about us, making it less likely that they will be more than superficially captivated by us.

This accords with the argument I read in an original 1964 New York Review of Books article on Marcuse's book:

'The concept of "one-dimensional man" asserts that there are other dimensions of human existence in addition to the present one and that these have been eliminated. It maintains that the spheres of existence formerly considered as private (e.g. sexuality) have now become part of the entire system of social domination of man by man, and it suggests that totalitarianism can be imposed without terror.'

I think it goes without saying tht we should be concerned that social media is becoming the lifeblood of the ABC, even though it is a necessary part of engaging audiences.


False intelligence on Assad alleged chemical attack

There were a few reactions to what I wrote yesterday about my dream for a 'mass movement of peace'.

One friend who worked in aid and development in Africa wrote: 'I confess to liking the idea of pacifism, but being very happy to have an AK47 in my room when the Lord's Resistance Army were close by - and [I was] willing to use it'.

Another argued for a just war: 'I fully support Hiroshima/Nagasaki [because] I'm convinced by the scholarly research that the number of lives likely saved by reason of the two bombings way exceeds the lives lost and the other consequences'.

The key to this is that it was justified by the scholarly research. That's not what was used to support the US missile attack on the Syrian air base last week.

Idlib Assad alleged chemical attack

In that case it was information about the Idlib chemical weapons attacks passed on by the White Helmets humanitarian group, which has made it clear it wants to see Assad gone.

Prominent US journalist Max Blumenthal wrote in AlterNet last year that the White Helmets were 'created by Western governments and popularised by a top PR firm' and that they are 'saving civilians while lobbying for airstrikes'.

If that's true, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Russians are correct when they claim that the Idlib attack was a false propaganda event staged by the White Helmets.

The former diplomat Tony Kevin wrote on the Australian Institute of International Affairs website on Monday that 'well placed observers' say there was 'zero US intelligence linking Assad to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib and Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian air base was taken entirely on the basis of the White Helmets' audiovisual material'.

Another friend who wrote to me yesterday - Justin Glyn - has an article in Eureka Street titled 'No easy judgment in Syrian chemicals attack'. He provides a long list of reasons to doubt US claims about the attack, which may even have not involved chemicals. 'The pictures released show the rescuers apparently unharmed... If it was a sarin attack, the rescuers would be as dead as their victims'.

Yet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists it was 'chemical weapons' and says 'there is no doubt in our minds that ... [Assad is] responsible for this attack'.

This could be the kind of false intelligence that led the US and the 'Coalition of the Willing' to blunder into the Iraq invasion in 2003 that has arguably precipitated most of the trouble we have in the Middle East today. We all remember the 'mobile [chemical] weapons laboratory' that was used to justify the invasion and was later found not to exist. Now we could have a war against Russia based on false intelligence.

 

A Trump strike on North Korea

Yesterday I was with the travel agent collecting my e-ticket for travel to Europe in two weeks from now. I'm flying Korean Air, with an overnight stop in Seoul.

Curious to see his response, I showed him the 'Trump poised to strike N Korea' headline that I'd just noticed on my phone app. I asked him to tell me what happens to my flight if Trump does strike North Korea. He was understandably evasive.

Trump poised to strike North Korea Headline

The truth is that I'm not really worried about the flight being cancelled or even coming to grief. What will be will be. Even in these circumstances, it's probably true that I'm more likely to die in a road accident some other time than in a plane falling from the sky or missiles hitting Seoul on 26 or 27 April.

But I do fear for the people of South Korea and Japan who are without the options I have. They are the ones who will really suffer because of Trump's choice to use military rather than diplomatic means to solve political conflict.

Undeniably there's method to Trump's madness. It will play well at home among those who are deluded enough to believe he's just honouring his election promise to 'make America great again'. But talk about evil empires!

US Military Presence in the Pacific

When I was in King Street Newtown on Saturday afternoon, I saw a man with a Japanese face walking the street carrying a sandwich board promoting peace. Some people averted their gaze because he was just an eccentric elderly man making a futile gesture. I'm pleased that I was able to look him in the eye and nod and smile supportively.

Momentarily I wondered what it would take for him to have conferred upon him the coolness and respect associated with the legendary Arthur Stace. Stace was the reformed alcoholic who walked the streets of Sydney for 35 years spreading his message by chalking the word 'Eternity' on the footpaths in his distinctive script.

Years after his death he became a cultural icon. His message featured in the 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony and it lit up the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of New Year celebrations that year.

Eternity Sydney Harbour Bridge NYE 2000

The question is how you lift Australia and the world out of its complacency and start a mass movement for peace. We are now are a crossroads, which I think is evidenced by the feeble and unconvincing nature of Malcolm Turnbull's endorsement of Trump's cruise missile strike on Syria following Assad's acid attack on his own people.

Does Australia really have that much to lose by remaining silent on this (like New Zealand)? Or even adopt a critical posture and advocate directing resources towards diplomacy rather than building the war machine. The possibility is open.

The alternative to ambition

I spent last week at a men's group retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. One man I got to know said something about a friend of his that had me thinking about my own attitude to competition.

He said his friend 'works in a factory and lacks ambition' and could do much better for himself.

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Years ago I had a colleague who would stop at nothing to get ahead. He was very inexperienced in his profession and with mixed aptitude. Since then he has capitalised on his not insignificant strengths and risen to the top.

If necessary, he's pushed others out of the way, as you do in a sporting competition and most corporate work cultures. It's his thing, and I respect that. Good on him.

But as for me, I've always avoided competitive sport and have considered myself lacking in ambition. Looking back, I'd say that instead I had - and still have - more of a sense of enjoyment of the moment.

I'd talk about getting to a particular place, but essentially I'd enjoy doing what was within my grasp and 'felt right'. At my best, I'd land somewhere congenial and then I'd play at things and involve myself in a particular project I'd enjoy and - importantly - believe in. When I'd exhaust possibilities, I'd move on to something different.

One of the retreat facilitators mentioned a book which I subsequently purchased to read on my Kindle. It was Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by British-American poet David Whyte, who runs an institute dedicated to what he calls 'conversational leadership'.

Consolations- The Solace Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

What he writes about ambition accords with my own philosophy of life and work. He says ambition 'takes willpower and constant applications of energy to stay on a perceived bearing'. This is set against a serious vocational calling that 'demands a constant attention to the unknown gravitational field that surrounds us and from which we recharge outselves, as if breathing from the atmosphere of possibility itself'.

He concedes that it's good and natural for youth to be ambitious. But holding on to ambition for too long 'makes the once successful into an object of pity'. The only object becomes 'the creation of larger and larger empires of control'. The more ladders you climb, the more ladders you discover that need to be climbed to get to what will inevitably be a lonely destination.

I'm quite sure that my friend at the retreat does not wish this on his friend when he says he would like him to be more ambitious. I imagine he means that he hopes he will be moved to energetically inspect the menu of the possibilities that his life has to offer.

Honest History credits Mark Latham's 'prescience'

One of my aspirations is to be outside the country on Anzac Day. I have never quite made it, though I will go close this year with my departure for a month overseas on 26 April, the day after Anzac Day.

I've always felt that it was an odd celebration. My skepticism was heightened by the politicisation of the Anzac Legend under prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. I have been frustrated by what I see as the brainwashing of Australian school children, particularly from the time of the Howard Era, when funding was made available to arrest the long-term decline of the Anzac Legend.

The Honest History Book

This was occurring as historians such as Henry Reynolds were revealing more about the 19th century 'Frontier Wars', in which mainly British settlers put down Australian Indigenous resistence, resulting in the deaths of around 20,000. Teaching about the Frontier Wars was - and is - downplayed or even suppressed.

A strong and reputable voice in questioning the Anzac Legend is Honest History, a Canberra-based incorporated association founded in 2013. They use the term 'Anzackery' to argue, among other things, that Anzac Day 'targets children, to the extent that their psychic health is at risk from a sentimental, misleading portrayal of war'. They stress that it is 'possible to be respectful and regretful about death in war, without at the same time sacrificing thought and judgement'.

Among their distinguished list of office-bearers and members is the president - Professor of History at ANU Frank Bongiorno - and the immediate past president David Stanley - professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy and former principal historian at the Australian War Memorial. New South Press has just published their first book - The Honest History Book - edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski.

That they are such a reputable and credible group of individuals makes it interesting that they're currently applauding as 'remarkably prescient' that prince of ratbags Mark Latham, the onetime Labor leader who was this week sacked as a commentator from the SkyNews TV channel for making one too many vile slurs against various people including colleagues and a school student.

Mark Latham as Labor leader

There's an emerging consensus that Latham's comments are so anti-social that we should not give him oxygen by talking about him. But Honest History's honesty trumps that, with one of the commentaries currently featured on its home page celebrating Latham's 'prescience' in 'questioning the tired old Left-Right spectrum' in his 2002 Menzies Lecture at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King's College, London.

Latham shows how the divide between 'insiders and outsiders' is a more reliable guide to recent politics than Left-Right. 'Insiders' refers to inner city educated elites, while the 'Outsiders' are those living in the suburbs and the regions. He argued that the Howard Government was particularly skilled in appealing to outsiders and demonising insiders.

Honest History says: 'The whole speech is worth a read for its analysis of Australian politics in the Howard era and its insights into our own.'

Current political debate in Australia may not need Latham's style of putting down those he doesn't like, but it could do with Honest History's questioning assumed orthodoxies armed with the facts of historical research.

Eating chocolate as Embodied Spirituality

I have just read Newtown Nutrition's latest blog inviting us to 'tune into food textures'.

One of their nutritionists writes about hot cross buns. She says we can enjoy their crunch by toasting them. Or we can use the microwave and savour them by appreciating their chewiness.

Hot Cross Buns

The principle applies to all foods. We can munch on raw carrot sticks with hummus or some other flavoursome dip. Or we can enjoy the sweet honied sensation that comes with steaming our carrots.

She's encouraging us to consider how we interact with food in order to maximise our sense of pleasure and nourishment in eating. It's about trying to undo the damage some people have done to their relationship with food through a long history of self-denial with dieting.

Recently I recalled some advice her colleague gave me a few years ago, which was to eat 'raw' chocolate. It happened as I was waiting at the checkout at Harris Farm Markets in my local shopping centre and I spotted a strategically placed selection of raw chocolate. So I made an impulse buy, a good one as it turns out.

Raw chocolate is minimally processed so that it offers a higher level of antioxidants. It's also expensive, with six tiny squares costing $6.49. That means you buy less of it and consume it thoughtfully over a much longer period of time. I eat one square at a time and savour its firm outside and soft interior and the flavour that endures for hours.

Raw Organic Chocolate

I find myself wanting to fit ordinary daily activities such as eating into 'the right order of the universe' by studying spirituality and remembering my past exposure to it.

I recall the Application of the Senses in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. He suggests that while contemplating scenes from the Christian Gospels, we might 'smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness'.

Ignatius also stresses the need to take time out during our day to identify moments of heightened awareness, which obviously include taste sensations.

Recently I've been reading about 'Embodied Spirituality', which focuses on bodily sensations as stepping stones towards our experience of wholeness as human beings.

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis speaks of the 'warm physical body which smells of sea, soil, and human sweat'. He then puts it in the context of Christian spirituality. 'The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I understand - when I can smell, see, touch.'

Describing the culture that produced church sexual abuse

A friend recommended I watch this week's ABC TV Compass documentary 'The Judas Iscariot Lunch Part 1', which I did. It featured 13 Irish former priests who looked to be in their 70s, speaking candidly about their training and ideals as young men and also their own humanity and experience of celibacy.

They called their lunch club after Pope Paul VI's suggestion that those who left the priesthood were betraying the Church.

The Judas Iscariot Lunch

However I didn't think they harboured any particular bitterness towards the pope or the Church. They were just telling it as it was. The Church offered them a way out of the oppressive social and economic circumstances of Ireland at the time, as an alternative to emigration.

As one of them put it, 'a way of dodging growing up and dodging Ireland'. It's what they wanted at the time, and what they got.

So were they suggesting that they never grew up? Possibly. At least not until after they left the priesthood.

They referred to celibacy as a gift. As a priest, you either had the gift or you didn't. In other words, celibacy worked for some but not others. If it didn't, things went awry. 'People sometimes took to the drink. Loneliness became a big problem'.

Put simply, that is what happens if you're part of an institution that allows you to dodge growing up. Instead of the usual 'growing up' preoccupations that define the lives of most young people - working out relationships and sexuality - these trainee priests would be focused on listening to and obeying '12,000 bells over [up to] 12 years' of formation.

Of course the elephant in the room was sexual abuse, which I suspect they will discuss in more depth in Part 2. But in a way it was better they left that alone because it allowed the documentary to describe more dispassionately the culture of the Church that made the ground fertile for sexual abuse.

It reminded me of the term 'thick description', which was developed by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his influential 1973 work The Interpretation of Cultures. His idea was that the setting or context for particular behaviour is more meaningful than the acts of behaviour themselves.

Trainee priests

Participant observation - such as the accounts of these ex-priests - is the key to evaluating a culture. This, he argued, was what anthropologists doing field research needed to pay close attention to.

I think that it is also crucial in achieving justice for church sexual assault victims. It provides a clear answer to the question of whether the blame lies with a 'bad' culture or 'rogue' priests. The implication is that if it can be established that a bad culture that produced rogue priests, the more appropriate course of action is redress from the institution that embodies the bad culture (i.e. the Church), more than locking up the perpetrators.

Too often media accounts let the Church off the hook by demonising the abusers. They focus on the experience of the victims at the hands of the abusers without painting a picture of the particular way of life that was the precondition for the abuse.

Learning the other side of the story at the National Museum

While in Canberra on Sunday, I visited the National Museum of Australia as part of my resolve to see as many of the national capital's cultural institutions as I can while my six month NSW country train pass remains valid.

Often I visit a place and only learn about its significance afterwards. There are many stories of Australia's past contained in the Museum but I must have missed the story of the Museum itself, in particular that of its building and location.

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The Museum was established by an Act of Parliament in 1980 but did not have a permanent home until the current purpose built facility was opened in 2001. It is located on the Acton Peninsula near the Australian National University. The site was previously the location of the Royal Canberra Hospital, which was demolished in tragic circumstances in 1997.

These involved a failed implosion that accidently killed one spectator and injured nine others. Large pieces of debris were unintentionally projected towards onlookers positioned 500 metres away on the opposite shore of the Lake. This was a location unwittingly considered safe by the ACT Government, which had encouraged Canberrans to come out to bid farewell to the hospital.

Yesterday I walked past a cream brick building that I imagined would have been part of the hospital. I guessed that it was retained as a memorial to the hospital. I noticed a sign indicating that it was now the Museum's Administration Annexe.

National Museum of Australia Admin Annexe

Most people regard mid 20th century cream brick buildings as eyesores and are quite pleased to see them demolished. But I very much like them and regard them as important examples of our built environment heritage. I thought that it made a fitting historical counterpoint to the spectacular modern architecture of the other Museum buildings.

Inside the main building, I found that I was able to connect with a number of the hundreds of stories contained in the exhibits. One that comes to mind is that of the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, which begins at the town of Wiluna and takes a route north to the Kimberley.

I visited Wiluna after I drove across the Nullabor in 2003. I recall that I would have loved to have travelled through the Western Desert along the Canning Stock Route in my Hyundai hatch back, which I had driven to that point from the east coast. But common sense got the better of me and I spent an hour or so in the town before proceeding along the straight dirt road to Meekatharra.

It was only yesterday that I learned of the surveyor Alfred Canning's poor treatment of Aboriginal guides following his appointment to the stock route project in 1906. He was criticised for his inhumane practice of using chains to deprive them of their liberty, effectively using them as slaves.

The legacy of Alfred Canning

This led to a Royal Commission, which saw Canning exonerated after the Lord Mayor of Perth appeared as a witness on his behalf. The cook who made the complaint was dismissed. White Australians still celebrate Canning as the pioneering surveyor who plotted the Rabbit Proof Fence. It is good to know the other side of his story.

It was the exhibits involving indigenous Australians that I found most engaging because they unlocked for me the perspective on history that I was denied when I first learned Australian history at primary school. These included the furphy that Tasmania's Aboriginal population was completely wiped out.

The pleasure of paying for what we value

Aside from watching TV or listening to the radio, past generations had to pay for what they consumed. But the internet has given today's young people the idea that content is something you get for free.

Whether it's news, music, YouTube videos or other entertainment, it's all there at your fingertips. Why pay when you don't have to? Getting around paywalls can be very easy.

Pay Wall

My answer is that paying is a pleasure if I value the product that I am purchasing. I am honouring the producer of the product because I believe they are worthy of my vote of confidence.

This applies not only to what we get on the internet but to all goods and services. About 15 years ago I remember telling a friend that I had just bought hair clippers and would never again need to pay the barber for a haircut.

She looked dismayed and worried that I would be hurting my barber financially and also denying myself the human interaction that comes from paying for personal service.

After a few years, I did go back to the barber and discovered that handing over my cash to him was not so painful after all. In fact it was a pleasure to pay for a job well done.

That sense of pleasure in paying for a service that I value is something that remains with me.

I feel good when I pay my annual subscription for The Saturday Paper because I like their journalism. But I have mixed feelings when I pay Fairfax for the Sydney Morning Herald because their management has made so many decisions that I've felt have devalued journalism.

I pay for the New York Times but I wouldn't pay for The Australian or the Wall Street Journal.

When I am registering for a free service on the internet and they ask permission to access my usage statistics so they can improve their product, I think about it. If I like the company and the product, I say yes, sometimes with pleasure. Giving them access to my data is one way of paying for the service.

There are companies I don't particularly like or trust, such as Google. Their services are free, but often I will prefer to pay for an alternative, especially if they're a small business with personal service. That's why I pay $US5 per month to a little known company called Posthaven, for the blog platform I use in preference to Google's free Blogger.

The pleasure of paying for things we value presumes one thing. That we have the money to pay.

It is true that all of us have some money and we can and need to cut our cloth to suit our budget. But the fact remains that the generation of young people who don't want to pay for content online often find it difficult to pay because they don't have the secure employment we took for granted.

The New York Review of Books and other upstart review rags

Listening to a podcast yesterday, I heard a tribute to the longtime New York Review of Books (NYRB) editor Robert Silvers, who died on Monday at the age of 87. He had been editor since the first issue in 1963, with one of the founders Barbara Epstein as co-editor until her death in 2006.

nyrb

The NYRB is a major English language cultural institution, but in a way I would like to see it die with Silvers. I fear a giant media company such as Conde Nast will buy the title to exploit its legendary status. Its editorial decisions would then be determined by commercial considerations rather than the passions of an obsessed longtime editor.

Silvers' passions have defined the NYRB, and often a publication's story can be just as interesting as its content. For me the NYRB's wider story includes the London Review of Books (LRB) and Sydney's own Newtown Review of Books (NRB). Australian Book Review would qualify if it was called the Melbourne Review of Books, but it's not and therefore it doesn't.

Aside from the 'Review of Books' in their titles, what they have in common is that, in their own way, each of them is an upstart.

lrb

The NYRB was founded when a printers' strike shut down seven New York City newspapers, to take advantage of a gap in the market for book reviews. Similarly the LRB was started when publication of the Times Literary Supplement was suspended during the year-long management lock-out at The Times in 1979. Curiously the LRB was included as an insert in the NYRB for its first six months, in an umbilical cord kind of arrangement.

The NRB's 2012 'upstart' founding was a little different, more in the nature of fandom. Or perhaps 'taking the piss'. I'm never sure. It was the hobby of a couple of Newtown locals from the world of publishing and editing, one of whom is married to the 'Godfather of Australian crime fiction' Peter Corris, who write's the NRB's 'Godfather' column.

The editing of the NRB is very professional, and like its more wordy and worthy namesakes, it does takes itself seriously, though in a different way.

It has a tight discipline and invariably does what it says it does. That is 'to provide intelligent reviews of books people will want to read'. It covers a range of subject areas that is eclectic but excludes poetry and children's books.

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The stylistic counterpoint to the reviews is the 'Godfather' column, and it does an excellent job in filling out the NRB's 'eclectic' brief. It's always a good read. This week's is on hair. Corris, with his hairline intact, pontificates on the comb-over and other options available to balding men.

As a hobbyist online publication that cuts a professional cloth, NRB is part of a local tradition that includes the film review site Urban Cinefile. The editors Louise Keller and Andrew Urban decided to call it a day last month after 20 years and 1040 weekly editions.

I always found their reviews every bit as compelling as those of David and Margaret. But sadly the media acolades that marked the ending of their review partnership did not, as far as I can tell, extend beyond the Manly Daily.