The Stigma of Elitism

On worth, judgment and discrimination

Ever since the term ‘Republican’ has been known, another word ‘elitism’ has been used an insult – meant to revile the Wall Street bankers, presidents-the-sons-of-presidents and other glitterati, a class insulated by their money. Out of touch, alienating, with connections like spiderwebs. They carry the odious shine of silver spoons, and the whiff of privilege. But what of another type of elitism, that which is closer to home and considerably less moneyed?

How about the elitism of selective high schools and universities, and of higher education? This sort of elitism is less apparent but no less real. After many a biting discussion over this, a dear friend suggested that I should write a personal account about local, undergraduate elitism. He may have thought it would become a self-realisation of sorts, but secretly I’m not so sure I’ve reached it yet. I won’t pretend that this is a topic I don’t feel self-conflicted about from time to time. (And I will try not to let this run like a rambling, indecisive monologue).

The question at hand is an uncomfortable one: how elitist are you?

Have you ever poked fun at other, lower-ranked universities? And by extension, the students of those universities? I’ll admit I have, chuckling at my fair share of university memes and obsessing over grades and qualifications; the opportunities I’ll have.

In spite of this no doubt lighthearted banter, do you believe you really are better? Or at the very least, more intelligent? Now, depending on whether you say yes or no, there are implications for what your answer means. And I think we have yet to take a deep, long look at this.

If your answer is no, it probably means that you do not consider intelligence to be the best measurement of human worth. Rather, you prioritise qualities like kindness, honesty, loyalty and morality (however, it is sadly clear that in our world, at least currently, these are not appropriate measures. Throughout history, humans have obstinately set about building hierarchies based on wealth and dominance). Social class and quality of education may not matter one whit to you when it comes to choosing friends. But here’s another thing to consider: even if morality rather than intelligence is your yardstick, one’s ethics and morals are widely accepted to be a product of one’s social environment and norms. Discrimination by moral calibre will often, but not always result in you selecting from a pool of well-raised individuals anyway.

Or perhaps you are (rightfully) of the belief that all humans are equal, regardless of moral intent or education. In the humane sense of the word, this is of course true. All humans should have the same basic civic rights and freedoms – to be safe, to learn as much as one desires, and to be free from hunger. The question is from there, is it still wrong to sort people apart from each other? And if so, then why has it been done and still is, today? The Commons from the Upper Classes. The proletariat, bourgeois, the ‘makers’, the ‘takers’, bogans, dolebludgers, ‘fobs’, is there not an accepted judgment inherently there, acceptable racism, even?

And if your answer is yes? If you say hold on, why should I be guilty of having worked so hard and for so long to get where I am today? Of course I wanted to go off and play with the others when it got too boring or too painful, but I didn’t. I kept at it, and now I don’t see why those others should shame me for my success and perseverance. Just substitute ‘study’ with training or exercise, and you’ll see why we call them ‘elite’ sports.

Behavioural economists tell us that search-and-compare is a perfectly rational thing to do. Humans aren’t born with an ‘internal value meter’ that can tell us what any one thing is worth (Dan Ariely explores human relativity in his book, Predictably Irrational). In an arbitrary world, there is no way for us to know the absolute value of a wide screen plasma TV – the only determinants we can use are figures we’ve encountered in the past, prices that we’ve seen in catalogues, prices paid by our friends. This is called price anchoring, and its relevance to our question here is that just as it is necessary to know how much a smaller screen TV costs in order to gauge the value of a wider screen TV, so too is it natural to determine the worth of others relative to our own self-worth. Relative worth is just how we see the world, and lately I’ve been kept up by this thought: I should try more to appreciate qualities in absolute rather than relative terms, hard as it may be.

It can be dangerous to place too high a premium on intelligence. The elite theory of the Fascists clearly did, above even moral concern. Said William Pareto: ‘to the clever rascal who knows how to fool people and still keep clear of the penitentiary, we shall give [a score of] 8-10 according to the number of geese he has plucked; to the sneak-thief who snatches a piece of silver from a restaurant table and runs away into the arms of a policeman, we shall give 1.’

Perhaps it all comes down to preference. If so-called elitists choose other well-rounded, highly educated people to be their friends, is this because they are being elitist, or because they wish to be friends with people who have common interests and therefore have more to talk about with?

I refuse to believe that pride in oneself is direct evidence of elitism. It’s true, the desire to succeed sets the brightest and most strong-willed apart. I respect everyone under the standard of humanity, but I have most admiration for those who refuse to be chained down by their initial circumstances. I respect social mobility and those who are self-made. Perhaps my view of ambition has been too narrow. Often I have gotten carried away with issues of social change. If I wonder, ‘why don’t people care about these things?’ the natural conclusion I come to is, ‘in this age of information, ignorance is a choice.’ I worry that there have been occasions in which I have acted condescending with superior airs; if so, I am ashamed and deeply humbled. If you have the desire to do good and get forward in the world, it doesn’t matter where or how you are educated.

I do know that I started off wanting nothing more than to learn greater empathy, to hear the stories of anyone who had anything to say. Perhaps I’ve lost my way once or twice in being so quick to judge. I cannot hide behind journalist-wannabe critique any longer when casting hasty opinion on the wrinkles of society. All I wanted was to listen and to write; and this is still what I want.

It is a slippery slope to hubris and arrogance. These can be particularly hard to resist for those with have achieved notable success. Who can we blame? Globalisation, for making us ever more connected and able to share our achievements, joys and sorrows? Capitalism, for letting us indulge in conspicuous consumption, to showcase our triumphs with the accumulation of material possessions? Or ourselves, for always wanting more, being more, the relentless pace of success and failure, acceptance and judgment? We have ourselves drawn the lines by which we stand and fall.

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The sanctity of the criminal confession

The Gillard Government’s move to launch a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse has been met with overwhelming congratulation. However in the weeks since, the Commission has been clouded by the much battled and loaded question of whether Catholic priests have the right to confessional silence (Julia Gillard has called this a ‘sin of omission’).

While the Royal Commission is not a criminal investigation, in the wider scheme of things it seeks to better enable institutions to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. Of the Commission’s listed objectives, ‘identifying impediments within institutions and organisations to the proper notification, investigation and prevention of child sexual abuse’ has indeed struck a chord with the Catholic Church and its followers. Under this recommendation, confessions of child sexual abuse by the penitent would have to be reported to the police. At present, a priest’s ‘confessional seal’ is unbreakable: the inviolable confidentiality exercised by the priest in the name of God goes hand in hand with the religious absolution granted to ‘sinners’ in the confessional box. This right is guaranteed by freedom of religious belief as promised in the Australian Constitution.

At the heart of this discussion lies a choice that must be made between the conflicting human rights in this situation: the right of the victim to better protection from sexual abuse, and the right of the priest to his fundamental religious beliefs.

Voices in politics and media have been quick to turn the Catholic Church on its head, with Independent Nick Xenophon slamming the confessional seal as ‘a mediaeval law that needs to change in the 21st century’. It’s easy to see how easy it is to condemn a religious practice in a secular, politicised environment, especially when there are factors such as horrific child crime involved – but that’s because religion is one of the biggest dividers known to man. It is almost impossible for the secular to understand the motivations and fears of those who are deeply faithful: breaking the confessional seal means excommunication for priests, that is, complete exclusion and exile from the Catholic Church – the priest’s institutional connection to God. And even if you don’t believe in that kind of stuff, it can be dangerous to forcibly take it away from other people, with unintended consequences.

Sarah Joseph from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University reminds us that these religious ‘rights cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant, out-of-date, or irrational. Notions of freedom of religious would have little meaning if they only apply to manifestations of rational beliefs shared by the majority: the very nature of religion is to buy into leaps of faith beyond the objectively provable. The human right to do that is an important one.’

While debating this issue, it’s important to remember that everyone in society wants the prevention of child sexual abuse (except for the perpetrators). It is useless to think that members of the Catholic Church belittle child abuse because they resist these laws. Rather, I imagine that it is because that they believe that for criminals who confess, the availability of religious absolution given by God matters more than penal justice given by men.

But does this amount to one institution selectively isolating itself from common law? Absolutely. The law is written by and for everyone: to challenge its universality is to challenge the legitimacy of the entire judicial system and the original social contract that binds us to it. Prison exists as a deterrent for crime and therefore helps prevent future crimes from being committed. So theoretically, priests should be subjected to the same statutory duties as say, teachers or therapists who hear of crime (but not lawyers or journalists yet, it seems).

But we aren’t working with theories here. We’re here to work with what works. And rational voices emerging out of the cloaked stigma of the confessional box are suggesting that criminal confessions are better than nothing at all. To take a crime to a priest requires a modicum of remorse and conscience. If a priest is able to take advantage of this to persuade the paedophile to take up treatment or turn himself in, then the outcome is better than no criminal confession at all, is it not?

If, on the other hand priests are forced to report all confessions of this nature, and it is unclear whether or not the identity of the paedophile or victim would be known, it will dissuade other paedophiles from confessing in the future, beyond certainty.

Says NSW auxiliary bishop Geoffrey Robinson of a treatment centre run by the Catholic Church, ‘If you ask me whether the number of new offences will be significantly less if 100 offenders receive serious [religious] treatment, then yes, I can give that guarantee.

This is a question that society must face. Do we wish to adopt only a single solution of punishment for all cases of sexual abuse? Or do we wish treatment as another option? If we can have both, so much the better, but on many occasions that is not possible. Sometimes we have to choose between punishment and prevention.

In gaining information on one single client that may or may not have been useful in securing a conviction, the price to be paid would have been that no offenders in the future would receive any treatment.’

Whether or not to grant absolution is up to the religious discretion of the priest, but Bishop Robinson stresses that absolution is conditional on a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ given by the penitent, that is, the intention not to offend again. But how can a priest have the confidence to as such? If every priest can ask for ‘serious and concrete practical steps to ensure that [he] would not offend again’, such as seeking out treatment, this could go a long way in preventing further abuse – albeit in an unconventional way that circumvents the legal system in place. But as I said, it’s better than nothing.

Satellite issues that have been raised such as the albatross of Catholic paedophile priests (5-7 percent of priests in Victoria are estimated to have sexually abused children) are irrelevant in discussing the sanctity of the confessional. Paedophile priests simply not go to confession. Bishop Robinson puts this down to the ‘distorted thinking’ of these priests, in that ‘they have convinced themselves that what they are doing is not wrong.’ Another disincentive to confess is the fear of a harsh absolution if identified as a priest.

All things considered, there simply seems to be disagreement on how prevention of child sexual abuse ought to be achieved. This is a moral challenge that we must talk about and address openly and honestly.

Forcing priests to break the confessional seal for the sake of extracting tenuously useful investigative information will dismantle the religious faith of the Catholic institution, and avoids the problem of preventing child sexual abuse in the first place. This is us scrambling for, but failing to focus on the right enemy.

Further reading:

The Age Full Coverage

PM Media Release

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India, sentimentality, bandwagons and other conflicts

2002, Summer.

How ironic that at a time of great spiritual bankruptcy personally, I found myself in the bowels of India, dumped unceremoniously at the fringe of the great bustling city of New Delhi…

It goes some way to explain that at the time, I was in love with my best friend and would’ve crawled across broken glass to be near him. He didn’t know. For a while now he’d told me about his plans to move to a third world country for a few months. While the exact nature of this trip – a holiday? A tour? An experiment in philanthropy and self-discovery? – was never decided upon, I knew why he wanted to go. It would provoke everything he loved about being human: adventure, compassion and spontaneity. And he asked me to come with him.

Three weeks walking or cycling alternately in the crying, dying slums of outer West Bengal and it was clear that I was not suited for this. The locals were interested but only tangentially. They had other things to do than gawk at the sunburned white foreigner, like feed hungry mouths and tend to anorexic, weeping cows. I did not feel like I was helping anyone by being there. I wanted to go home.

In line for the only bus in the village, a child approached me. I resent labelling him as a child, because this is not what children should look like. I thought, born in the great blue land of the West, a child should be healthy and happy, not with huge eyes white and rolling, ribs you can count and scraps of ragged clothing dragging in the dust.

Faced with such a sight, I did what any self-respecting, desperate Westerner would do: I reached into my backpack, dug open my wallet and gave him all the notes I could spare save my bus fare: rolled up in wads, crumpled, flat, I stuffed all those little pieces of paper into the child’s faltering hands. I wanted the money to do what I could not.

Then I took my deluded sentimentality of making a difference, and of getting him to ever love me, and I went home.

Does this story surprise you?

It shouldn’t. This is the emotional trajectory of sentimentality, the special place that burns with intense empathy when you read about North Korean gulags, or watch Kony 2012, or Hurricane Sandy, or injustices of every other variety, stripe and colour.

The writer Oscar Wilde once said, ‘the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence, and it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.

While I am reading news of these terrible, terrible happenings, thinking to myself: ‘I must do something to help. I must write about it and tell as many people as I can,’ Oscar says inside my head: ‘You’re doing it again. You’re being sentimental.’

‘That might be true,’ I say back, inside my head. ‘But how can I not?’ To me, it’s not sentimentality; it’s just part of being human.

‘You’re right,’ Oscar concedes, ‘Wanting to help isn’t a sign of blind sentimentality. But have you thought about what the best way to help is? And how do you know that is the best way?’

And here another novelist, Teju Cole enters the imaginary conversation inside my head.

‘There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference”, Christine.’

‘So please Teju, tell me what more there is.’

‘There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.’

I think this over. Have we been ignoring this, every time we call for IMMEDIATE ACTION, or Down with The Man, or share the same, uncritical video campaigns on Facebook while wanting to ‘make a difference’?

Teju leaves me with a sobering one-liner: ‘All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need’, before vaporising into thin air.

In his absence, the fallacy of hasty action has just begun. When we latch onto slogan-friendly, assertive messages, ideally able to be plastered on bumper stickers and badges and to be crisply delivered in a single Tweet: Occupy Wall Street, GetKony, Ditch the Witch (Julia Gillard), etc, we are forcing massive, complicated problems through the bottleneck of communicative ease. By fixating on a single oversimplified interpretation of the cause (or more often than not, just the solution to a perceived cause), we ignore the wider constellation of factors underlying the root of the problem.

Then we take this ‘solution’ and multiply it, as social media has gratuitously allowed us to do. In this reality, even the most uninformed, pop cultured young person can do something. Everyone has something to offer, some way of helping, because everyone matters. This reality is the most important, if unspoken, commodity that our social-media-information-technology culture has sold us. It is also this culture’s greatest achievement – that of true democracy. Social media is a democratizing force that diffuses the power over the flow of information from media organisations and the state to individuals and groups.

Said of Jason Russell, founder of Kony 2012:

He gave people the excuse to act via two clever techniques; scarcity; act now or miss out, social norming, this is the new world order, act now everyone else is. He’s also ensured other well known popular celebrities are involved, modeling the appropriate behaviour so others follow.

But sheep mentality is not true democracy. Leaping from one bandwagon to the next without understanding the structural background of the causes we support is not enough – that is a dissemination of ignorance, and it can be harmful.

Perhaps the fear is that we are all hopelessly helpless. Unable to change the rules in Parliament, unable to march in there ourselves and rid whatever situation of whatever villain – we can only sit behind our computer screens, fuming and agitated with sentimental zeal.

Perhaps enthusiasm is but another way of expressing desperation. And a crowd of enthusiasts – well, that speaks of a culture raised on finite attention spans, while all the time social media ‘thunders indiscriminately, fecklessly from one glitzy cause to the next.’

For most of us, our only tools are our youthful idealism, the internet, and our sheer numbers – all of which, when used well can do good. Forget villains and guns. Changing the system first requires understanding of the system.

I give you the example of terrorism. We have spent eleven years and counting blatantly fighting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its progress can be boiled down to tracking down and defeating the most identifiable villain – Osama bin Laden. But what of the pockets of terrorism created by the invasion of the Coalition? What of the terrorism of poverty, what of the fresh grievances made against America, what of the havoc wrought upon civilians by turning the country upside down in the search for one man?

Illegal immigrants, too. The only conceivable conditions under which we can reject boat people, belittling their plight is if we are totally ignorant of the circumstances from which they flee. And equal ignorance of our role, as the U.S.’s staunch ally in the Coalition of the Willing, in creating those circumstances. There is no war fought on earth that does not have its consequences. In rallying behind ‘STOP THE BOATS’, what version of reality do we commit ourselves to? Isolationist policies and tight border security may be a popular image of Australia, but it’s only one small slice of the whole Australia.

‘Doing something’ is different from ‘doing the right thing’. To me, doing the right thing often means just changing your attitudes and understanding of the world around you. Social media is a gift of the 21st century. But you have to be careful when raising awareness via social media. These can’t just be isolated facts or arguments without context. Anyone can read about severely exploited workers in Vietnamese Nike sweatshops and feel bad, but it’s more important to understand the structures of oppression created by the capitalist world order, one in which developed Western states had a head start that changed everything. It’s easy to condemn Western corporations for their greed and their corrupting profit motive, but first you have to understand the structures of inequality as a colonial legacy. You can watch Leo di Cap’s Blood Diamond and feel moved by its very real humanitarian crises to ‘do something’, but it might also help to remember the ‘divide and rule’ partition of Africa by the 19th century European leaders that split ethnic groups along arbitrary geographic lines, creating the blueprint for conflict and poverty that we now have to pay for in foreign aid. These wars can’t be reversed by a well-put together online campaign that wants to storm in and remove just one product of its history. Treat the cause, not the symptom.

The truth is, once you know about something it’s difficult not to care. You can’t ever go back to a state of not-knowing. But bandwagons are the exact opposite of this: they toy with people’s sentiments, and are quickly replaced by next seasons’ humanitarian fad. Without delving deep into the root of these problems I fear we will never care about much, for long. Doubtlessly, sentimentality is part of what it means to be human, but so is rationality. We were born with rational minds for a reason. We must use them – or we will forever be ruled by the irrational.

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Alternatives

It’s 2.45am, which gives me the itch to start writing again.

I tell many of my friends that I write optimally between 1 and 4 in the morning, but truthfully optimal writing hours are just another facet of established routine. I could just as easily write best at 2.45 in the afternoon. Of course, it’s nice to paint a little portrait of myself as some kind of nocturnal blogger, but there’s really nothing dramatically different about writing in the nighttime than any other time – unless it’s the quietness that almost every writer craves. Although, that’s probably just be another product of routine. So far, I’ve tried not to be explicitly self-aware in my posts, because while writing is an inherently introspective task – it requires you to reach inwardly to tell a story about the outside world – I worry that self-consciousness in writing is a sign of the nervousness of publishing. It tries too hard to explain itself, and to offer some of the personality behind the words, and most of all it doesn’t let the words speak for themselves.

Nevertheless, today (tonight) I’m going to write about, well, writing. I’ve always been interested in alternatives and I think writing should provide that. Not only creative fiction that produces imagined worlds or alternative histories, but the very nature of writing should be to offer up possibilities. A world without alternative ideas is dangerous – this is why it is of course important that we have people like Mitt Romney, the GOP, and communism. In much the same way that the threat of communism serves as the conscience of capitalism, to ensure the winners of today don’t overdo or abuse their successes, alternative ideas fight off the complacency of today’s hegemony. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone agrees on the way that taxes should be cut, or where no one will argue with me that Justin Bieber sucks balls. That would mean that 1. no one cares enough to argue anymore, or 2. we’ve reached some enlightened stage of utopia where everything is perfect and nothing hurts, in which case Justin Bieber wouldn’t exist anyway.

Of course, writing is unquestionably tied to reading. I do a lot of reading, anytime I get a chance, at almost anything I come across that seems worthwhile, and I’ve noticed some conflicting realities that are particularly important to me. I’ve realised that journalism is a lot about criticising, and done well, by which I mean impartially, it’s about criticising everything. I’m not sure I want to be like that, but at the same time I know it’s possibly the best way you can fulfil that journalistic role – to be critical. To question everything, to be the tireless crusader, for even the slightest chance that you might open up a tiny window of alternative thinking in a reader’s head, that seems like a noble dream if anything.

Or is it better to be like a camera? To be the truth teller, to let readers take what they may and be the masters of their own thinking. To be a prism through which information passes, to be as neutral as Switzerland – this seems like another noble pursuit.

Deep down I’m still hoping there’s a way to reconcile these two despairingly different journalistic approaches, and maybe there is. Some of the best reads I’ve ever had are critical, hard-hitting, biting pieces of commentary, but at the same time wonderfully objective because its authors hate everything equally.

Because what is writing if not to challenge what the norm is? If not to break down and destroy what is known and accepted and comfortable? If not to leave people with the new loneliness of knowing nothing, which then sets them free to start their own journey of information gathering and wisdom seeking? How do we ever know what is true anyway? Is it not too much to ask of journalists to make their stories true and not too leftist and not too rightist? If we don’t know what ‘truth’ is, then why should they? Should we not make our own assessments, in spite of all the criticism and bias that is thrown at us between the lines?

I want to create alternatives. I want people to think about the alternatives that exist, and to think up of new ones. When the time comes, I hope that this will happen no matter whether I am writing as a critical bitch or as a camera.

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The problem with conservatives

The beating heart of modern conservatism is its visceral appeal to anxieties and fears of white Christians. … Once you understand this, you can see that the Republican Party’s problems are deeper than, say, opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. … Policy opposition is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. The deeper issue is that for conservative politicians and conservative networks and conservative web sites, there is simply too much to be gained by feeding the sense of persecution and siege that many white Christians feel down to their toes.

Up with Chris Hayes, Nov 10

The Technology of Nostalgia

Recently I wrote a whimsical, almost-political rant about change and our aversion to it. Today I refute all my arguments and present to you a people who love change. We chase it, we desire to own it, and with money, we can – I’m talking about our relationship with technology.

The appeal of technology is akin to the seasonal hype that surrounds fashion. Designs and functions are delightfully sprightly and sensitive to our needs (or so we like to think). They are fresh and invigorating when our own lives are dull and tired. Progress and technological genius is rebirth, and stagnancy is death. Through our mobile phones and gadgets, we can see real change.

Even the food we consume is deliberately new and fashionable: from processed snacks like Easy Mac and packeted TimTams to real, modified food like deep fried chips, deep fried anything. It’s like a ‘fuck you’ to the traditional staples of fruit and veg, and it tastes awesome.

At a time in history when information technology development promises a shining future of endless invention and improvement, some people might say that form has begun to take precedence over function. I would argue that having achieved function quite well already, developers have turned to form, to achieve perfection of design. However, this is not to the extent that the product cannot be added on or revised – a concept neatly encapsulated by the term ‘planned obsolescence’. Perfection implies an end point, a finished product that fades to uselessness in the eyes of innovators. Capitalism has no place for perfection – it requires the endless churning out of new products to create the changing demands of consumers. Quite simply, the ideal of simplicity has been replaced by the ideal of the multifunctional. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

But technology is just another addition in an economic and political system that is by definition unstable, characterised by periodical elections and the bust and boom cycle. We are in continual flux and our material possessions are no different. Daily existence produces much to discard: newspapers, wrappers, lunchboxes, cups, memos, train tickets, cigarettes, batteries, face wipes, take-out chopsticks. The more we have, the more we throw away. Even objects that are not necessarily time-sensitive must be seasonally replaced, like iPhones, cars and laptops.

Facebook is a weird anomaly. Every change they’ve ever made has been met with annoyance if not pure outrage. Having taken a piece of the virtual interface into our personal identities, change that comes from an external source is inevitably a test of the human nature of resistance. But change inevitably wins. Zuckerberg reminds us that the introduction of the Newsfeed (which didn’t exist in the first chapter of Facebook) got everyone riled up, but today it’s where users spend 90 percent of their time.

Perhaps it’s to do with the link between technological change and nostalgia. It shouldn’t confuse anyone if I make a reference to the Nokia phone – everyone’s beloved, outdated wireless mobile device. I contend that everyone’s obsession with the Nokia is in equal parts genuine appreciation and nostalgia. The Nokia phone is a symbol of childhood and the hazy excitement of the technological change in the nineties, bottled in a brick. It harks back to an earlier, irreplaceable era of our lives – not just irreplaceable, but gleefully exclusive. Inaccessible to those born after 2000, the Nokia can never be appreciated by oblivious, tweenage iPhone owners today. Perhaps we desire to carve out an identity for our generation that is meaningful and unique. The Saturday cartoons of childhood, and later a metropolitan culture and education, the privilege of choice – this is our place in history. It belongs to us. We may not have need for the wartime tropes of heroism, sacrifice and servitude, or the activism of rampant political upheaval in the sixties, but we exist here, now, and our priority of choice is quite clearly pleasure. Profit is but a well-tested strategy.

I feel that the culture of technology is a drug. It blunts the edge of the robotic efficiency of our system and the inefficiency of human workers; it is the fruit of our progress since the days of Adam and Eve that unlike the forbidden apple, is most definitely meant for consumption. Technology is a narcotic designed to treat modernity; a painkiller for the diagnosis of historical irrelevance.

Perhaps we are always behind, always catching up in a shifting era. We have commissioned the engineers of the future to build us a bright new era, but when we go to inhabit it we always find ourselves having trouble adjusting. Perhaps we are becoming more like the elderly person we see seated next to the girl with the iPad, a world of difference in knitted sweaters and battery life; anachronistic; out of place.

No matter how great our love for Snake 2, the truth is that we still want the new and the exciting more than the stable – like natural selection, the fashion mantra of technology is Adapt or Die. So buy the iPhone 5. The iPad mini. The Samsung Galaxy SIII, if that’s your preference. Buy it all. One day the children reading the history books will wonder what we contributed to the walk of mankind. And we will have something to give them to oggle at in museums. We will have created the technology touchstone. It was us.

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Never stop changing

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life

In light of recent events, it seems to me that human nature has braved yet another test.

Throughout history, the natural order of things has been change. We know this because our ancestors had to adapt to survive. Adapt or die. Times pass. Seasons come and go. No single place can look the same given ten or twenty years. Growth and development is the unlocked promise of our DNA. People age and die, and events fall out of relevance and into history books.

So my post-election question is this: are we truly happy, or have we simply grown complacent?

We spend so much time, effort and money trying to preserve the status quo. Obama spent over 2 billion USD worth of campaign funds just to fight for a tomorrow that will be the same as today when we woke up. Senate unchanged, House of Reps unchanged. Business as usual. We listen to centrist skeptics tell us voting for Obama was right because he is the lesser of two evils, and if we hear it enough we might even believe them. But is being the lesser of two evils really the best we can do? If we admit that there are things we don’t like, such as the drone wars, or extrajudicial killings, or unilateral war, actions that we don’t feel represent our values as a nation, then why can’t we be faithful to those beliefs?

Why do we wait for other people to tell us the change we need? When did we become so powerless as to need someone else to point it out when something is wrong? When did we become backseat drivers, agreeing (or not) to change but never, ever conceding on the terms of change?

Are there really no alternatives? Are we really so defunct, as a democracy, to produce anyone, anything, that really shoots an arrow to the heart? When was the last time you watched a politician speak and felt a conviction that made your heart flush with white heat, thinking ‘Yes. This. This is what I believe in’? Or have we become so educated that we’re all on the same page, rendering reasonable discussion unnecessary?

In the new order of things, people are resistant to change. It’s as if we’re bickering over roses or magnolias when none of us are willing to admit that the garden isn’t to our taste anymore. In fact, we fucking hate gardening. And meanwhile the weeds are still eating their way through.

Time moves forward but we remain stuck in inertia, jerking like marionette puppets to the relentless progression of minutes, hours, weeks, years. But there is a very sharp, very striking difference between waiting with patience on the side of the road to change, and wilfully avoiding making those first steps.

And Government at home?

Well, this is funny because apparently the problem is too much change. Apparently we can’t handle a shotgun election and we’re also too in love with the past to accept a female prime minister who doesn’t care about her coat choices, and did we mention that she’s in a de facto relationship?

Julia Gillard’s biggest crime is breaking her promise on the carbon tax, if not replacing Kevin Rudd himself in the first place. Let’s think about this for a second. What does the promise of a politician even mean? No – what does anyone’s promise mean? That we won’t ever think differently – even though we will? Come now. We all know that forever means forever only in that moment. Forever means forever only so long as your beliefs don’t change. Forever means forever until you change your mind, for better or worse. The law of nature dictates it. Now, do I want my prime minister to believe the same things today that she believed three years ago, no matter what has transpired in between? No matter if those beliefs are now proven to have been quick-footed, naive, reckless, wrong?

Yes, domestic politics has major commitment issues, but at least it’s willing to change its mind. Admit that it made bad choices, take risks on better ideas as they come.

But there it is again, the half-scared, half-righteous plea: today is not the day for change. Well, neither is tomorrow by the looks of it. Somehow we feel too betrayed (by what?) to be hopeful. We shouldn’t. I believe that people should be naturally optimistic. We are so tiny and fleeting in the history of the universe, and so unable to understand the vastness of our existence that it is hopeless to know what to feel about the future, let alone feeling bad about it.

And if in fact the new decisions of governments are even worse (it happens), then we should be quick and firm to call them out.

I guess being scared does make sense. The human condition is incredibly fragile. It’s hard to look forward to change when some politicians tell us it’ll hurt, even as others tell us we have to bear it for the sake of the future. Who are we supposed to trust? How do we even know what the future looks like?

But we have to remember this. The future may not belong to us, or even to our children, but we are its custodians. I believe we can do the right thing, even if it will not benefit us directly.

Picasso’s art didn’t save him from dying without ever knowing his fame. Beethoven did not compose the greatest symphonies on earth for the pleasure of his own deaf ears.

Do not wait for time. It will always be there: behind you, in front of you, plunging right ahead whether you wait or not.

Attend those rallies. Sign those petitions. Cut that hair, quit that job, drop/date that person, finish that degree, write that book, run that race, create that future.

Tomorrow’s a new day.

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The Secret Life of Birds

This morning I threw a half-eaten apple out onto my backyard. Two birds immediately landed near it; one began eating ferociously, the other stayed back and twittered. In my half-awake stupor, I stayed at the window a little longer than necessary watching them.

Bird 1: Do you smell that?

Bird 2: Yes, there’s a sweet fruity fragrance..? What is it..? Oh, an apple!

B1: No, it’s rain…

B2: Look Grandpa, it’s so fresh and juicy! (CHOMP, CHOMP)

B1: Be careful son, smell it first. Remember what I told you? If it’s white it could be poisonous. You’ll be pooping all over the electricity wires in no time and you know how your mother hates that. She won’t be able to hang clothes off it for weeks. (Hang on…clothes..?)

B2: Don’t worry Grandpa. It’s so delicious! I can’t wait to tell Mom about this!

B1: Where are your manners? Don’t bite like that! Peck, for godssake! And this isn’t our turf, it belongs to the pies. Hurry up with that apple, I’ll make sure they don’t come too close.

B2: I wish we could take this home to Grandma, she could make baked apple on the red chimney! (CHOMP, CHOMP)

B1: Aish, it’s raining (indeed it was). Come on son, time to go. You know it’s dangerous learning to fly when it’s wet.

B2: But can’t we bring this with us? (gazes forlornly at the apple)

B1: No, you know we can’t bring anything we can’t fit in our beaks with us. We have to go now, your mother expects us home for supper.

B2: Can we come back for it then? Please, Grandpa? Pleaseeeeee?

Both birds fly off into freedom leaving a mangled apple behind, while I hang my head and leave to go do my macroeconomics exam.

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Australia’s District 9

Today I was doing some good old procrastination while studying for exams, so I decided to watch the movie District 9 from 2009. One of the many movies I remember wanting to go watch after seeing the trailer, only to forget about it completely or have my wallet say No.

Aliens, blood and a tearjerking story. What more could you possibly ask for in a movie? Of course, District 9 isn’t all about that. Its themes of humanity, xenophobia and social segregation easily call forth a number of humanitarian tragedies in history – colonisation, Auschwitz and the South-African apartheid leap out. A direct interpretation of the aliens, or derogatory term ‘prawns’, is made: “Substitute ‘black,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘Jew,’ or any number of different labels for the word ‘prawn’ in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue”.

And in light of the Labor government’s new bill to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone on Wednesday, I decided to take a step further and draw some parallels between District 9 and Australian immigration detention.

Aliens

District 9: The aliens aren’t just foreigners, they’re extraterrestrials from another planet. They come from another place offering no plausible reason for their arrival, subsequently taking up space in Johannesburg, and are a massive source of violence and crime among the existing community. As aliens, their physical appearances disgust us and make them hard to identify. As the command module to fly their mothership back to their home planet has been lost, it is impossible for them to leave.

Detention: In the real world, the term ‘alien’ has long been used by immigration departments to mean ‘a person who is not a citizen of the country’. That includes all recent immigrants, but especially refugees/ asylum seekers/boat people. The particular ‘aliens’ we are concerned with as a country right now are the sneaky immigrants who arrive without a visa: mostly of Middle Eastern and Southern Asian descent. We have to keep them in detention while we process them because they might be terrorists. Even the little kids. And even if they really did come to Australia out of fear for their lives, they’ll steal our jobs. Furthermore, if refugees are given adverse security assessments by ASIO they can be detained indefinitely, and such a security assessment also prevents other countries from taking them in.

The Government

District 9: The South-African government must respond to the people’s popular protests to remove the aliens from the city, and contracts Multinational United (MNU), a private military company, to carry out this process.

Detention: As of 2009, the Australian Immigration Department contracted Serco Australia Pty Ltd as the service-provider to people in immigration detention centres throughout Australia. Serco is a private government services company that also manages prisons in the UK and the only privately-run prison in Western Australia. Its Immigration Services page reassures you that it runs its immigration business in accordance with utmost professional and corporate standards.

Location

District 9: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. The alien district, District 9, turns into slums where aliens forage for food amongst rubbish dumps, and the shacks are underdeveloped, dirty and falling apart. Eventually the government intervenes to relocate the aliens to District 10, where they can live in new, white tents far away from the city and its people. District 10 is likened to a concentration camp.

Detention: The razor-wire fencing around the enclosed areas reinforce an image of criminality, that they should be locked up for our collective safety. As of 2011, there were 5733 people in immigration detention in Australia, 975 of whom were children and 97 of whom had been in detention for two years or longer. The average accommodation capacity of Australian detention facilities is in the 200-400 person range, with some immigration detention centres able to accommodate up to 1200 persons. Their forced detainment in places far removed from metropolitan society effectively fences them off from us – out of sight, out of mind.

Communication

District 9: The aliens speak in a garbled, techno-robotic voice that is largely unintelligible to the humans in South Africa. So we mostly don’t hear from the alien population, save some very spare language.

Detention: Not to mention that most refugees come to Australia speaking only their native languages, many don’t have a voice that can speak clearly and directly to the outside world from inside detention centres, like lawyers or social workers. There have been instances of asylum seekers sewing their lips together in protest over delays in processing their visa applications. 60 people did this in 2002, and last year three boys at the Victorian Broadmeadows Detention Centre did this as well. These acts of self-mutilation speak powerfully of desperation, emotional and psychological damage, even when detainees physically cannot.

State of Emergency

In a state of emergency, which is exactly what it is, the government suspends all normal behaviour – citizens are alerted to follow official instructions such as evacuation, and government agencies put into plan emergency preparations. Executive, legislative and judicial powers are usually heightened to allow the government to take whatever course of action it has to, based on emergency situations that were obviously unprecedented when drawing up the law. David Cameron effectively declared Britain to be in a state of emergency at the peak of the 2011 London riots, and the aftermath of 9/11 was certainly another, leading to increased state powers to crack down on terrorism. In fact, for 31 years Egypt was held under emergency laws that allowed authorities to detain people without charge and try them in emergency security courts.

District 9: The 20 years of the emergency of alien arrival is surely what political philosopher Carl Schmitt was considering as he first mused over the ‘state of exception’…haha. We see that the state of emergency in Johannesburg allows authorities to get away with some pretty fucked up things, like physical abuse of the aliens or just callous, inhumane references to them, such as when Wikus refers to the sound of alien eggs being destroyed as popping just like popcorn. It’s of course a little funny to speak of humanity in the dealings of very non-human extraterrestrials, but still humanity is a trait we should have, as humans. We should show humanity both to humans and to non-humans, like other animals, and especially to those weaker than us, or at our mercy. Humanity is something that describes us.

Detention: Since the first arrival of boat people in the 1980s, Australia has more or less been in a state of emergency, at least on the border security front. Politicians have been able to bank on this to pull sizeable support for their immigration policies for decades, thanks to ghostly vestiges of the White Australia policy. As a nation we aren’t decided on how to keep them away, but we are decided on keeping them away.

No matter how much they dominate our national conversation, refugees remain a stateless people, non-citizens who are outside of the legitimate political sphere. In physical incarceration, authorities have complete sovereignty over their bodies. There is no concept of personal liberty. In mainstream media, asylum seekers are more of a human rights issue than the real people who make up the issue. They are silent subjects – faceless, hopeless – and we reject the biopolitics of their lives. We reject them.

I only fear that it may not be long before we start thinking of them as aliens, and ‘unbelonging’ turns into subhuman. That’s certainly how the Holocaust and the Apartheid started out. Foucault said:

Modern man is an animal whose politics placed his existence as a living being into question.

We are all living beings. But are all living beings equal? If you say yes, we are all equal, then does that mean we all have equal human rights, including the right as a refugee to the protection of your new country? If your answer is still yes, then please, have a think about what we are doing as a country.

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China’s Wife Drought

You may be familiar with the economics of China’s artificially low currency, but how does its marriage economy fare? Did you know that the nightmare of being forever alone is closer to reality in the Middle Kingdom? Starting with an overview of Chinese market economics, I’m going to attempt to explain the current wife drought that is gripping the Asian giant.

Since adapting Deng Xiaoping’s policies of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in 1978, essentially a hybrid of free market capitalism and socialism from the Maoist years, critics of China’s integration with the global economy still have beef with the way the country goes about its international trade.

China has less of a mixed market economy than a centrally planned one with a huge public sector of state-owned enterprises claiming 40-50 percent of national GDP. And whilst state subsidies for steel and auto parts manufacturing industries guarantee lower prices of Chinese goods around the world, instilling in us cheap expectations of anything tagged Made in China; they provide an unfair advantage against relatively expensive foreign goods and services.

Even more financially uproarious is China’s heavily undervalued currency (renmenbi). Pegged to the U.S. dollar until 2005, these days the yuan (single unit renmenbi) has been allowed to float in a narrow margin of 0.3 percent above or below the previous day’s market closing price. By keeping the value of the yuan on a tight leash, China ensures that its goods and services remain internationally competitive. Exactly how undervalued the yuan is contested from all accounts, but recent studies point to a figure of about 37.5 percent below its fundamental exchange rate. The Big Mac Index, which compares the relative prices of MacDonalds Big Macs in multiple countries, indicates an even higher gap, 44 percent.

It’s common to see Congressmen and investment bankers (it’s hard to differentiate the interests of the two) griping about the undervalued renmenbi, with Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney declaring China a ‘currency manipulator’ who doesn’t play by the rules. To modern capitalists raised with the promise of free trade to wherever the invisible hand points, it’s truly a clash of civilizations.

But China’s exchange rate isn’t the only thing that’s fixed.

Citing one of the national interest objectives – and arguably the most important, stability (he xie), the Chinese Communist Party introduced the infamous One-child policy to contain soaring population growth within the same year of opening up to world trade. Official statements justify the policy by its alleviation of national economic, social and environmental problems, and authorities estimate the policy to have prevented more than 650 million births from 1980 to now.

Looking beyond the sheer monotony and near-certain pampering of single children, disturbing trends appear. Coupled with traditional Confucian values of patriarchal male dominance, including but not confined to reasons of: sons carrying on the family lineage by name, and daughters marrying out into their husbands’ families and caring for in-laws rather than their own parents, it’s no small wonder that the one-child policy has forced couples to illegally abort, abandon or leave to die their baby girls. Each year, the recorded sex ratio at birth is roughly 120 males to 100 females. Australia’s sex ratio at birth is 106 males to 100 females. The end result is that there are more than 35 million ‘missing women’ in China.

Not only is the employment system skewed to favour men over women (women contribute only 16 percent share of household income in low-income households), the entire gender demographic has damned women from day one. To add insult to injury, couples in rural provinces are permitted to have more than one child if the firstborn is a girl.

What has arisen out of this gender crisis next is alarming, and affecting millions of young Chinese men already. Bachelors of marrying-age enter the marriage market – and many exit years later, deflated. Some are doomed to spend their lives in singledom. Projections suggest that by 2030, more than 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married – ironically a natural prevention of the uncontrollable population growth the government so fears.

The chase is on.

In the most basic of economic terms, demand for brides is in desperate excess of supply. Like the Chinese exchange rate, females are constitutionally and culturally undervalued (and males are outrageously overvalued). We can take the fundamental ‘exchange rate’ as 105-107 males per 100 females, the natural sex ratio at birth in most other countries.

At the officially set sex ratio, the quantity of males supplied outstrips the quantity demanded by the female population, creating a male surplus (unfortunately polygamy was outlawed in China by the Kuomintang in the early 1900s, although a woman taking on several male concubines would be interesting.)

The solution?

In a flexible market, increased competition for brides means that men must increase the prices of their dowries and salaries until perfect equilibrium is reached in which distribution of brides goes only to the best ‘buyers’ in the market (feminists come at me). But for now, recent policy statements and funding to offset effects of the one-child policy notwithstanding, it’s up to China to use its capital reserves to buy up excess supply of men, by catering to their pent-up frustrations with higher salary jobs and all the material comforts that (state) capitalism can offer.

May the best man win!

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