Category Archives: political comment

ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR…

All that is solid melts into air

….so Marx famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto(1848). He was describing the experience of modernity. With the collapse of the old institutions and traditions and the ever-increasing and quickly superseded products of the new age, life itself was shot through with contradictions and uncertainties. What to hold on to in such times of rapid change? Marx’s answer involved seizing the means of production in the new age of mechanisation.

We are still in the throes of modernism. Our age is characterised by fast-paced change at every level: global, national, local, inside the office and inside the home. Contradictions and uncertainties abound; we hardly know where we’ll be next week, much less next year. Mechanisation has given way to automation; work is no longer a certainty, the solid presence of friends and family can no longer be relied upon. The only presence we have, the only object we have is the self, or rather ‘myself’, as current speech would have it. (When did the word ‘me’ become obsolete, to be replaced with the more emphatic ‘myself’?). Our own individual self. It’s solid.

Descartes’ I think therefore I am has become in the contemporary age, simply, I am.

But how solid is it really, this self? With the various digital platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on – we are able to tweak the self, promote this bit over that, skim this, shave that, show our best side, our most interesting side, show brains, show beauty, skewthe self several times daily. This self, this individual which is all I can rely on, I am constantly reshaping and remodelling, undermining and usurping, this self that we reach for in our age of flux, this self that could be solid is, in our treatment of it, no more solid than air.

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Millions of Australians of voting age and younger looked forward to a change of government on May 18th, 2019. We were not naïve enough to think that all the wrongs would be righted, but we did expect a more compassionate approach to refugees and asylum seekers, a more proactive approach regarding climate change, a redistribution of public monies to strengthen health and education services, and a greater independence from the US. When the conservatives won another term, the loss I felt, as did many of my friends, was the loss of a better Australia.

I hardly recognise my country any more, this Australia that imprisons innocent refugees on Manus and Nauru for years, that holds on to coal when the rest of the world is giving it up, whose tricky maths has the nation meeting climate change targets, whose efforts to dampen independent and open surveillance through a free press are counter-balanced by covert surveillance into the private lives of its citizens. I hardly recognise my own country and I certainly do not want to embrace it. Following the election, I talked with like-minded citizens in a sort of collective venting of sadness and disappointment, indeed, I seemed unable to talk about anything else for several days. And then I did what so many people do in times of extremis, I reached for books. Solid and enduring books.

I was tempted by Jane Austen. The complete novels would keep me cocooned for several weeks during which time I would accommodate to the situation (like accommodating to chronic pain). That would have been the easy solution. But I needed to understand what had happened, because without understanding it will happen again and again.

So I reached for the work of progressive public intellectuals, writers with a good serving of humanistic values: Timothy Snyder, Zygmunt Bauman, and through Bauman to the Canadian, Henry Giroux, whom I’d not read before. Tony Judt would have made up the foursome but I’d read his last (Thinking the Twentieth Centurywritten in conjunction with Timothy Snyder) and with his death there were no more.

The titles of the books were a promise of better things to this heavy heart:

The Road to Unfreedom. Timothy Snyder.
Liquid Eviland Retrotopia. Zymunt Bauman. (Retrotopiais Bauman’s last book published in 2017, the year of his death.)
Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalismand The Violence of Organized Forgetting. Henry Giroux. (Several of his lectures are on Youtube.)
All that Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall Berman (from 1982, and still a rich read, particularly for those with a literary bent).

I’m still reading these books, I’m still adding to my understanding of what is going on in Australia and elsewhere. Through these books I feel connected to a mode of being in the world, one in which critical discourse still prevails, the false lures of nostalgia are rebuffed, the destabilising effects of non-stop consumerism are revealed, individualism is shown to be bereft and self-destructive, and the loss of community is deplored.

While there is much more to be found in these books, it is not my intention to provide synopses here, rather I want to emphasize what books have always done. Yes, they provide comfort and confirmation and a community, but as well they illuminate and question and debate, and most particularly, when all seems futile and the forces marshalling against all that you hold dear are simply too great, you can connect with great and generous minds, feel as if you’re not alone AND find answers.

And you can share your emerging understandings with others who will have their own emerging understandings. These are dynamicconversations, productive and often surprising conversations, through which it is possible to shape some changes. And these changes, unlike so many changes that impact on contemporary life in the 21stcentury, are under our control. Our Control. For all the current emphasis on individualism, we are at the whim of fads and fashions, we are caught in a social life that is non-stop busy yet leaves us empty at the end of the day. Through the solitary act of reading one can become, once more, an active participant in one’s own life, a life connected with other people.

Often I find myself recalling the last line of Tennyson’s Ulysses: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. The words give me strength, the words are a timely refrain in the strains and perplexities of today’s world. The words are solid.

 

BOB DYLAN – NOBEL LAUREATE

The choice of Nobel laureates for literature falls into three main categories:

  1. justly deserved;
  2. surely there were others more deserving, and
  3. incomprehensible and/or bizarre.

Glancing down the list from 2016 back to the first winner, Sully Prudhomme from France – a writer who has certainly not withstood the weathering of time – I would include In the first category: Doris Lessing (2007), J.M. Coetzee (2003) Szymborska (1996), Derek Walcott (1992), Nadine Gordimer (1991) Joseph Brodsky (1987), Milosz (1980), Saul Bellow (1976), Patrick White (1973), Neruda (1971), Pasternak (1958), T.S. Eliot (1948), Thomas Mann (1929), Yeats (1923), to name just a few. Indeed, the Nobel Committee gets it right, or close to right, surprisingly often.

Taste is a major factor in the second category. I am not drawn to the work of Hemingway (1954), Alice Munro (2013) and V.S. Naipaul (2001) but many readers are. As for the third category, Pearl Buck has become representative of those who were chosen to the astonishment of all but the committee. But she is far from being alone in this third group.

Many of the winning writers have been politically active both on the page and off. Alfred Nobel stated that the prize would be given to an author who has produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (emphasis added). This requirement might help explain that small group of winners like Winston Churchill (1953), Bertrand Russell (1950) and possibly Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who actually declined the prize, writers who warrant praise for so much of their work, but not, it seems to me, for any literature that flowed from their pen. Winners like Churchill and Russell have excited heated controversy. Indeed, over the 100+ years of the prize controversy has been a major player. And no more so with the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Laureate.

I think Dylan is an inspired choice.

By anyone’s estimation I would be considered a serious reader. Many of the Nobel winners figure among my favourites: Mann, Eliot, Yeats, Russell (yes, although I would not have given him the prize), Camus, Gide, Neruda, Patrick White, Eugenio Montale, Saul Bellow, the utterly essential Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Gordimer, Szymborska, Coetzee, Doris Lessing. I’ve read Proust, my comfort reading is Jane Austen, I belong to a small group that discusses a different Shakespeare play every month. I read widely in contemporary fiction, and I always have a volume of non-fiction and another of poetry on the go. People have been surprised that a serious literary person like me would celebrate the awarding of the world’s premier literary prize to a singer-songwriter.

Dylan is not a great poet and he’s not the greatest lyricist who ever lived – of the moderns that prize might possibly go to Col Porter – but I do think he was deserving of the Nobel.

The selection committee chose Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ This is a restrained, vague even coy citation, I’m not even sure I know what it means. ‘New poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ is ambiguous, and one of the interpretations is a contradiction. But leaving that aside, I think the Committee’s citation is off the mark.

Dylan was the voice of a generation. Even more than this, he provided the words to a generation wanting to break with tradition, with the past, with political leaders, with parents. This was a generation growing to adulthood under the threat of nuclear destruction, in a world where the separation between rich and poor was widening, where unions (at least in the USA) were weakening, and workers were being squeezed. Dylan burst on the scene in the 1960s and for the next decade or two his songs expressed what the alienated youth of the time were feeling. He was anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons, he protested injustice, he sang for the worker, the immigrant and the poor.

Dylan’s songs were anthems for the time. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1963-4), ‘Masters of War’ (1963), ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1962), ‘I Am a Lonesome Hobo’ (1968), ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ (1968). Dylan expressed uncomfortable truths, and he gave direction for those who no longer trusted the old leaders.

As a teenager I would sit around with friends and we would sing Dylan songs. This was not an occasional happening. Most weeks, a group of kids would descend on our house, and accompanied by guitars and bongos and occasionally the piano we would sing – folk songs, Pete Seeger, what were known in those days as Negro Spirituals (I don’t know what the politically correct term is these days), Peter Paul and Mary (who often sang Dylan), and the master himself.

Dylan’s songs introduced us to people, places, politics and events far beyond suburban, middle-class Melbourne. And they taught us not to take things on faith or trust. They taught us to question authority, tradition and traditional institutions like the church, the family, the military.

And Dylan’s songs also taught about love – not in a gauzy, dewy-eyed way like most of the offerings on the Top 40, but honestly. A half a century on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ remains one of the most brutally honest songs about love.

You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no,. no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for babe

(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)

Some have criticised the choice of Dylan because, they say, the lyrics cannot be separated from the music. But they can, they have a different effect, a different power when read as poetry rather than song lyrics with the music playing in your mind. The best analogy is reading a Shakespeare play as against seeing it performed. No one suggests that the plays of Shakespeare are any less worthy on the page rather than the stage. And I think the same goes for Dylan.

Others have criticised the choice of Dylan, not because he is a songwriter, but rather he was the wrong songwriter to receive the prize. These people say that Leonard Cohen should have been the candidate.

I am a lifelong fan of the work of both Cohen and Dylan, but for the politics and the history, for the courage and uncompromising gaze, for the breadth of material Dylan is my choice. This is not to suggest that all his lyrics are breathtakingly good, there are some that are shoddy and banal. But as Somerset Maugham wisely noted: only the mediocre man is always at his best.

And there are those who insist that song-writing is not poetry, in the same way that in the early days of film there were those who insisted that film was not legitimate performance like theatre. There are poets who find their calling through pop songs – Dorothy Porter was one such poet – who see the modern song-writer within the context of poetry’s fluid boundaries. The conjoining of music and poetry is an ancient coupling, witness the minstrels of old wandering from village to village in days long gone.

Are there other writers more deserving of the prize? My reading is very much in the European and English-speaking traditions, so I can’t speak for African and Asian writers. I hope one day the Polish-American poet Adam Zagajewski gets a gong; I think it was inexcusable that the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (died 2001) was never selected. But in the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I am surprised that the committee was willing to take such a risk, but very pleased they did.

MATESHIP AND OTHER DELUSIONS

In his Berlin Diary (Hamish Hamilton, 1941) the American foreign correspondent, William L. Shirer, observed that ‘for the last three or four years the Nazi regime has expressed something very deep in the German nature and in that respect has been representative of the people it rules.’ That is, the rise of Hitler and Nazism was not due to the charisma of the leader or an unusually astute political machine, in fact, nothing unique about the movement or its leader could account for the widespread support from the German people. Rather what Hitler stood for and what he pandered to was already there, in the German people: beliefs about German superiority, German purity, an essence of ‘Germanness’ which set Germans apart and above other people. Hitler identified these traits (and, of course, he shared them) and fed them back to the people in a form that both enhanced the values themselves and the people who subscribed to them.

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THE LANGUAGE OF LYING

1st November, 2012

Australia has just been removed from its own ‘migration zone’. Our country, this huge mass of land, no longer exists as a place of refuge, of sanctuary for desperate people.

‘Migration zone’: another euphemism to add to the pile that has steadily grown since the beginning of the Howard years.

One of the worst euphemisms of recent times is ‘the people smuggling business’. It first entered the public forum last year and it is still bandied around – on both sides of politics and increasingly in the wider community. Like all political euphemisms it is a form of propaganda. The word ‘model’, dangling precariously at the end of an already cumbersome phrase, has been added to suggest that if we don’t nip this ‘people smuggling business’ in the bud it will serve as the pro forma for umpteen more people smuggling businesses. And what is it about the construction of this phrase that the word ‘smuggling’ is so dominant? ‘Smuggling’ is a present participle, derived from the verb ‘to smuggle’. Verbs tend to be strong words, the most powerful and active of a sentence. ‘People’, in contrast, is a noun, and a collective noun at that, i.e. non-specific and relatively weak, but in this construction it is weakened still further by acting as an adjective. If instead of ‘people smuggling’ the phrase were ‘children smuggling’ or ‘infant smuggling’ or ‘kidney smuggling’, the more specific word would hold its own against ‘smuggling’. So when a member of the government says ‘the people smuggling business model’ the words we actually hear are ‘smuggling business’. And it sounds pretty awful, conjuring up pirates with machetes threatening innocent people – like us.

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