in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, May 19, 2008

Melbourne: the world’s most liveable city (under siege)

If I said ‘city under siege’, where would I be talking about? I might be talking about somewhere like Baghdad, Khartoum, or Harare, all places where different kinds of curfews have been imposed as a tactic of martial law. What about Melbourne? Could ‘the world’s most liveable city’ be described as a city under siege? Hardly, you’d think, but then again, the state government has just taken a step in this direction with the 2am lockout. I have no doubt it will bring some positive side-effects in its wake, but I’m not going to talk about those here. Nor do I want to argue about the effective impact on us punters, which might actually be milder than a lot of alarmist (business-owning) commentators have suggested. All I want to ask is why has an issue – binge drinking – become a crisis?

No doubt you remember the ban on smoking in bars and pubs last year. A reasonable move, you might say, justified on the basis that it was a public health matter. We’ve been experiencing the direct benefits (less cancerous air) and the side-effects (toiletty smells, empty, empty dancefloors and smokay corrals) ever since, but the reason that I draw the comparison is that, as with the smoking ban, the government pushed through an agenda by framing an issue as a ‘crisis’ –‘cos crises, as we know, require immediate and exceptional action, which these days usually goes by the name ‘intervention’. In the case of the lockout, a second (but not secondary) argument has been tacked on: not only is binge drinking causing a ‘health crisis’, it’s also a ‘security problem’. And if a health crisis requires immediate action, then a security problem necessitates that an intervention be made ASAP using whatever force necessary.

We should also remember that governments never claim that there’s a crisis without talking about how it’s going to be managed by the experts… who are, surprise surprise, the government, its agents, or people authorised to do the work on their behalf. You gots to remember, folks: in politics, any claim of a crisis is also a play for (even more) power.

Under the Howard regime, the ‘crisis’ to be managed was immigrants, an issue that was connected with the spectre of Islamist terror, thanks to the opportunity presented by 9/11. It’s a textbook classic of politricks: create an internal enemy; demonise it in the press for a few months; wait for a crisis/event in order to declare ‘war’ on it; request exceptional powers; crackdown; appear tough, decisive and effective. Oh, and if the opposition says anything? Wedge ‘em, denounce them as unpatriotic, or even suggest that they’re on ‘their side’. Stay on message, and watch your numbers soar in the polls. There’s nothing voters love more than a spectacular crackdown by a government who appears ‘tough on [insert enemy object]’, which is why all effective politicians these days love (and need) jackboots as often as rubber stamps. Politics is all about stamping.

Thankfully for Australian Muslims, the Rudd regime appears to have substituted stamping on stigmatised minorities with stamping out alcopops. At the very least, this change of direction might prevent a re-run of the Cronulla ugliness (or, at the very least, confuse some bogans), and surely this is a good thing. But nonetheless, two things are striking: the first is how quickly any PM can galvanise one of many issues into the Problem that all Australians must be concerned about. The second is how quickly most people will bend over and accept whatever measures the self-appointed ‘problem managers’ suggest.

But, going back to the beginning, does it really make sense to say that binge drinking in Australia has reached crisis point? Lest we forget, almost exactly 200 years ago in wild colonial Sydney, the government was overthrown in the Rum Rebellion. According to legend, the Rebellion happened because Governor Bligh interfered in the enormous profiteering going on among NSW Officer Corps, who were running a tidy informal economy with rum as the currency. In actual fact, it wasn’t a matter of rum, although this was the view that Bligh tried on, and one made popular retrospectively by Christian historians hell-bent on portraying the ‘evils of alcohol’ and ‘the bad old days’. There was a lucrative business going in bootlegged rum, sure, but it wasn’t the cause of the rebellion, which was actually all about… guess what? Turf wars and power plays between the interests of business and government. Michael Duffy wrote this about it in the Sydney Morning Herald two years back: “The early governors wanted to keep NSW as a large-scale open prison, with a primitive economy based on yeomen ex-convicts and run by government fiat. In contrast, a growing number of entrepreneurs wanted to build a vigorous economy, and sought political influence for themselves… the rebellion is important as the first major crisis in the fight between government and capital in Australia.”

Don’t believe the hype: it wasn’t about booze then, and it isn’t about booze now. Just as the 1808 Rum Rebellion wasn’t really about rum, the 2008 lockout has precious little to do with alcopops, and a lot to do with tussles between political power and business interests. The government needs to stay (alco)popular to keep power; publicans need to sell booze to stay in business. Any of you goddamned cocksuckers thinks otherwise? Please watch Deadwood and report back. Basically, Australia has always had to deal with the hangover of its alcoholic romance, but if you ask me, it’s one problem among many, and certainly nothing like the kind of ‘crisis’ that the government, the Hun, ACA and TT would have you believe. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t pissed idiots occasionally picking fights and generally causing mayhem on the otherwise liveable streets of Melbourne. There are arseholes out there – it was always thus. Some of these arseholes are the ones stumbling pissed witless in the CBD of a Sunday morning. Then again, some of them are respected business owners and popular politicians. And if you ask me, it’s the stampier of the two groups who are the ones besieging our good city in this case. Perhaps it’s time we rose up and repelled these barbarians? No? Too pissed to care? Yeah, me too.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Good Neighbours, Good Friends

As odd as they may seem, the weirdest thing about Tokyo is not the locals. No, it’s the ‘people like you’ that you’d better watch out for. When you discover that ‘gaijin’, the local term for someone like you, means ‘alien’ and ‘outsider’, you take umbrage; but the bristles subside when you meet a few living, (mouth-) breathing gaijin and realise that, however offensive the term may be, it was probably the most appropriate choice. At the extreme end, ask the Friedmans, or anyone of the poor sods discovered in that unspeakable Austrian basement: it’s always those you’re closest to who are the real monsters.

Take our old neighbour in Tokyo (no-one else will). From our first day in Toko flat A #101 we were convinced that we were living next door to a very, very odd German. I will never forget opening the door to our flat to have him say, just like Herr Lipp from The League of Gentlemen, ‘So it is true you are my neighbour, ja!’ before suggesting we start swapping sci-fi novels. I politely declined the swap offer, and thereafter Herr Lipp was noticeably colder toward me. I put it down to fussy ‘German’ sensibilities, or some other half-arsed stereotype. Nine months later, he was gone, never to return. About three months after the departure, we asked our other (local) neighbour –a maniacal greenfingers we nicknamed (imaginatively) ‘Flower Lady’ – about Herr Lipp, his whereabouts, and, frankly, his oddness.

‘I suppose he’s gone back home – tell me, do you know if he was Austrian, or German?’
‘Heeeeh…’ Flower Lady responded in that ascending bray peculiar to J-ladies, ‘He was from England.’
‘Are you sure? He always spoke with a thick German accent.’
‘Hontou, hontou’ [I’m sure, I’m sure], she replied, ‘He sent me a postcard from England – hora.’ And she went and got it to prove the point. Sure enough, he was from Cornwall in Britain. But had he lied to us gaijin, or to Flower Lady? Were we all a victim of his naughty, sneaky dissimulation? Germans, eh? Can’t trust em…

But what about neighbours: who the hell are they? And what do they want with us? As papa Freud once said, the phrase ‘love thy neighbour’ is both the hardest and cruellest of all the commandments: why should we? How could we? And what good would it do us? Love is valuable – why would you throw it away on Herr Lipp, or even Flower Lady? If you love someone, they must be worthy of it in some way or other – how are you supposed to love somebody who is not just a stranger, but also really, really strange? A stranger than strange sci-fi buff, one who would fake being German in order to set up an elaborate joke ending in a punchline with an audience of one?

Or what about snowdroppers, those neighbourly types who poke their business into other people’s underpants, after lifting them by moonlight? Last week, I talked about ‘hanky Pops’, my next-door neighbour with mucous and anger management issues. A week ago, Pops may have been merely repulsive – this week, he’s a potential perpetrator. That’s because, over a course of days, weeks, or even months (until we realised), some smelly little nonce had been lifting my lady’s smalls. After the discovery, we told all our neighbours about the theft, and, as it turns out, all of the women in the building had experienced their very own snowdrop. How long had this been going on? How much is it going to cost all of us to replace our lifted smalls? And how many pairs of knickers does a pervert need to get their jollies?

Thing is, I doubt the snowdropper is Pops – unless he’s using panties as hankies… but no, I don’t think so – he’s slow-moving, and I’ve never seen him out at night. Being snowdropped is expensive and inconvenient: to the replacement cost of the underpants is added the inability to comfortably hang out your washing of an afternoon ever again. And this connects to the worst aspect of the whole thing: the breakdown in trust. Every person who passes by my window is now a suspect, and seeing the world of my neighbours through such squinty, suspicious eyes is enough to get your knickers permanently in a knot. All it takes is one arsehole with peculiar masturbatory habits and the idyllic, na├»ve vision of a happy, sunny neighbourhood is wrecked.

A recent, popular ‘solution’ to the existence of snowdroppers and the fear of worse is the erection of walls and the flight behind them into gated communities. In a gated community, so the story goes, each of the residents is carefully vetted, while each visitor must pre-arrange a visit with a resident in order to be admitted. Gated communities are screamingly successful in the US, and they’re gaining popularity in Australia – Sanctuary Cove, our very own Truman Show on the Gold Coast, is the most well-known example. But here’s the rub: according to a recent study, you’re actually no safer living in a gated community. Sure, the walls are high, the lawns are cut – if you’re lucky, the guard is even awake. Problem is, gated communities are based on the flawed assumption that the criminal/devo/madman is an outsider, when in fact, the perp is more likely to be a neighbour, or even a family member. Crime rates are at least as high, or higher, inside gated communities than they are in the free-flowing neighbourhoods in comparable places – in a gated community, the weirdos aren’t locked out, they’re locked in. Unfortunately, there are freaks – I wish it were otherwise. But at least if the doors aren’t bolted you can escape. If it’s a choice between bricking myself in with those I think I know so well, or taking on the risks of strangers that I don’t, give me the fear of the unknown any day. That, and an indoor drying rack.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Blear Glut? Less, please.

Remember the TV test pattern? Back in the olden days, there wasn’t even enough TV to fill up twenty-four hours worth of programming. That, and the people who worked at the station had homes to go to, families to see, lives to lead. Likewise with Saturday trading: time was, shops would close on Saturday afternoons, and not open again until Monday morning. Trading hours were 9–5, the pubs closed at ten, and on Sundays the high street was a ghost town. There was no broadband, no Google, no mobile phones, no EFTPOS; credit cards were a luxury, and crystal meth was only available in the military. How boring, you say. Yes, perhaps, but…

Look around you: everywhere you look there’s too much too much. It’s a blear-making blur, enough to make you squint. Hell, keep eating and your cheeks will rise to the occasion on your side-bottomed behalf. There might be a world food crisis going on, but you’d be hard pressed to see it through the fog of abundance (of all kinds, not just food) in this neck of the woods. And that’s because, while the lack attacks elsewhere, Melbourne is ‘suffering’ a blear glut.

As always, if you want to see the most ‘Melbourne’ evidence of this, you need to go to our CBD laneways. That’s ‘cos Melbourne’s alleys are apparently full of culture and cool little bars. Sure, on Friday evening. Come back on Monday morning (as the fug of blear is lifting like those notes from your fat-ass Friday-night wallet) and there’s more than the vibrant world of cool bars and underground culture. There’s also the sticky residue of puke and piss, the crystal spalls of broken glass and stinking piles of waste.

What ever happened to portion control? We’ve replaced it with control briefs and expanding appetites. I freely admit I’m as guilty as anyone here, but there’s something really grotesque about Melbourne’s blear glut when people in Port au Prince, Dakar and Cairo can’t afford rice. There’s too much, too good, taken too lightly in this city. Australians have a strongly entrenched culture of ‘gettin’ yer money’s worth’, and being at the pointy end of the global shitheap means that we can usually put this mother-load where our overstuffed mouth is. Of course, we’re the ‘lucky ones’, and I think that most of us would fight tooth and nail to retain our privilege (if we could be bothered getting off the couch). But we should also remember the reap that comes with the sow: a huge part of our blear glut has been financed by paying it forward – and you can only keep borrowing from the comfort of the couch before a man comes to take it away. Live beyond your means for too long and sure enough, the repo depot will come knocking. But does it have to get that bad?

Maybe ‘The Big Problem’ is so big, so systemic, that it’s beyond anyone’s control now. When people talk about the great extinctions, they usually mention three models: the dinosaur, the house of cards, and the runaway train. Well, picture a dinosaur building said house on a speeding caboose – that’s us! Is it? Well, we can just keep on partying like it’s 1999 and find out. But for ourselves, each other and the decisions we have some influence over, I’d say that one of ‘the problems’ (our little problem, if you will) is an inability to appreciate the quality of our quantity, and to really savour the flavour. When I was in high school I would devour the latest album by my favourite artists with lust and relish. When the new Fugazi album came out, for example, I would spend an hour a day with it for days, weeks, even months, working through and savouring every single detail. I feel like maybe we could start to get rid of our glut by applying something like this to the way we eat, the way we drink, and the way we listen to music.

Maybe we can heed the implied threat of the card playing train commuting dinosaur, avoid the reaper and the repo depot, and turn this into an opportunity to enjoy less – and by doing so, to enjoy it more. Why not stay home, do the dishes, or ride your bicycle to the park and read a secondhand book? Or how about having a slow conversation with somebody you like, over tea. Turn off your mobile for a day. Have a month off downloading. Go for a long, leisurely walk. Think about it: in a country where the blear glut is also an enormous source of profit (for businesses) and tax (for governments), taking a quiet stroll is actually one of the most subversive things you can do.

The Author

[almost nothing] about me

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.