An ideal world

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Eden from The Garden of Earthly Delights, between 1490 and 1510

In an ideal world, before I communicated anything, I would first ask myself:
i) what is the meaning I wish to convey?


ii) how might my words be understood?

The two could be very different.

Still, a two-step consideration worth aiming for.


Whites rule. Got it?

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Ruby Hamad, ‘White nostalgia: when “timeless” fantasies turn out to be incredibly racist’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 07.09.15

Two years ago, a lengthy Financial Times essay predicted that the discovery of some disturbing colonial-era photographs would signal the imminent end of “colonial nostalgia.”

Unearthed in what was once the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia, they included many “timeless” images associated with the bygone days of empire; young girls in flowing white dresses, men riding elephants, women tending out-of-place flower gardens.

But alongside these representations of “lost white paradise,” were gruesome pictures of colonialism’s less pleasant side. In one, Dutch soldiers smile for the camera shortly after gunning down an entire village. Dead bodies are clearly visible in the frame.

Europeans (and Australians) have long regarded colonialism with romanticism. But images such as these meant the “western emotional memory of colonialism is [finally] changing”, wrote Simon Kuper in the Financial Times essay.

As it turns out, Kuper’s optimism was premature. Colonial nostalgia is back and Taylor Swift is the latest artist to immortalise it in her new video ‘Wildest Dreams’, where she plays a glamorous Old Hollywood movie star falling for her (married) leading man on location in Africa.

‘Wildest Dreams’ is a homage to old films like ‘African Queen’, which were themselves a love letter to colonialism. As such, while there are lions and giraffes aplenty, there is little room for black people. Unsurprisingly, many Africans are unimpressed. Writing for NPR, James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa explain why:

“(Swift) should absolutely be able to use any location as a backdrop. But she packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanised and traumatised millions of Africans.”

The video’s director, Joseph Kahn, who pointed out the multi-racial makeup of the video’s crew, said he limited the number of black extras for purposes of historical accuracy. “This is not a video about colonialism,” he protested.

Translation: this is not a video intentionally about colonialism. Nonetheless, Kahn has “accidentally” perpetuated the colonial interpretation of Africa as nothing more than a dry landscape of magnificent animals and dramatic sunsets. It’s not so much that there aren’t enough black people in it, it’s that they’re regarded as utterly inconsequential.

Local populations don’t have to be omitted entirely for colonial nostalgia to be in effect. The 2013 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, consisting of mostly white models in exotic locales, did include people of colour but they were used interchangeably with animals and landscapes. One model poses with a spear-wielding African man, another reclines on a raft while being chauffeured by a Chinese peasant.

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It’s as if people of colour serve no role other than to highlight the individuality of westerners. Whiteness is centralised and the colonial myth lives on: that colonialism was really not so bad after all, and that it had the blessings of locals who did little more than stand around in colourful costumes smiling beatifically.

This is the power of colonial nostalgia – it has allowed the west to completely reimagine its own history. When the truth is too inconvenient, it is simply ignored.

‘Banished’, a BBC mini-series about the First Fleet that screened earlier this year famously included not a single Aboriginal person. Producer Jimmy McGovern claimed it would have been too difficult to get the portrayal of Aboriginal people right given the two-week timeframe of the series.

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Translation: Aboriginal people had to be left out because including them would mean telling a completely different story – not one of unlucky convicts and plucky explorers braving the treacherous ocean to find “nothing but bush” on the other end, but one of Aboriginal resistance and the beginnings of genocide.

Of course, it’s not surprising that artists neglect to portray the full truth of colonialism. They take their cues from a society that has, in general, proven to be nothing if not adept at absolving itself of any need for truthful recollection of its own brutal history.

Winston Churchill, who once said that Arabs have no more claim to land in Palestine than dogs, and who presided over some shocking atrocities in the colonies, has somehow been recast as a loveable old bear who went to war “for the arts.” Lachlan Macquarie, NSW’s fifth governor who has a city street named after him, is remembered as a great “colony builder.” He was reasonably nice to Aboriginal people – as long as they didn’t show any inclination to independence. This is what happened when they did:

“In 1816 Macquarie’s paternalism was tested when hostile Aboriginal people attacked settlers along the Hawkesbury–Nepean River. His reluctant response was to send a punitive military expedition with orders to take as many prisoners as possible, shoot any who resisted or attempted to flee and hang their bodies in the trees as a warning to survivors.”

Hostile Aboriginals. Attacked. Reluctant. Exactly whose land was being invaded here?

This is the reality that white colonial nostalgia obscures. Whether or not Swift, or Sports Illustrated, or the BBC intended to glorify colonialism, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Massacres, exploitation, and enslavement were not unfortunate by-products of colonialism – they were its modus operandi and what made the western world as we know it possible.

This uncomfortable truth must be reckoned with if we are to have any hope of putting the past behind us. You cannot isolate the “good parts” of colonialism from the brutality, and then expect people of colour to accept this romanticisation of a period in history whose impacts we are still reeling from. Not in your wildest dreams.



Reply to Jason – what is idealism? 2

Pieter Claesz, Still Life, 1643, oil on panel, Saint Louis Art Museum

Pieter Claesz, Still Life, 1643, oil on panel, Saint Louis Art Museum

Hi Jason,

You have motivated me to reconsider my definition of ‘idealism’.

By ‘inspiration’ I refer to a heightened emotional state that is conducive to creative activity in some way.

If I was lying in bed and heard something on the radio that motivated me to get out of bed (an ethical speech, music I think uplifting…), it would be to get up and do something productive – to ‘get on with the day’, to ‘get things done’.

Inspiration is an intensification of that feeling, hence the urge to productivity becomes more concentrated, more creative – I might start on that painting I had been thinking about or enrol in a photography course…

Idealism, as well as having a spiritual focus (a focus on ‘connectedness’, however one thinks of that – it may be to one’s team, to ‘God’, to the flag, to nature, to one’s community, to the world community…) is an orientation and commitment to a prolonged state of creative potential, realised to whatever degree.

The expression ‘felt to be “higher than”’ does two things – it points to and emphasises the emotional nature of what idealism is and leaves the manifestation of idealism open – it specifically avoids the containment of what idealism is by linguistic thought.

That linguistic thought both gives it direction and, in the case of philosophical idealism, appropriates it through definition, is secondary to this.

An improved definition of ‘idealism’ would then be that it is ‘the inspiration to that which is felt to be “higher than,” manifest as a prolonged and creative emotional state with a spiritual focus’.

Definitions, while most important in philosophical discussion are deceptive. Cusanus believed that our ‘minds’ (try defining ‘mind’ – after you’ve defined ‘reason’!) are the image of Divine Mind, that how the latter functions is modelled by ours.

He believed that just as we can never fully know the Divine Word and embody a complete knowledge of it in our ‘mental’ words, because the Divine Word is infinite while we are finite and therefore limited to perspectives, so too the words of the sensory world cannot fully ‘know’ and express the words of our ‘mental’ world.

And in the latter part of this, having been ‘stood on its feet’, he has a very good point.

I can give you a ‘working’ definition of any word, but there will always be much more in our thought (including memory) regarding what that word symbolises for you and me, which completes our perspectival definition of the word.

Of ‘cat’ I can say that it is ‘a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws.’ But my experience of cats inevitably completes my perspectival definition of the word.

Words dealing with the emotions further complicate the issue. Exploring what lies beyond a ‘working definition’ of words and how those perspectival ‘definitions’ inter-relate is fundamental to poetry, just as exploring what ‘lay beyond’ the material reality of a madeleine had so much potential for Proust.

Logical atomism took the drive to define and control in philosophy to a ridiculous extreme (for which Wittgenstein was well-suited).

Donald Phillip Verene countered this:

‘…we have so little experience in taking metaphorical speech seriously as a carrier of philosophical meaning that we read right past it. …we have become so accustomed to the monotone hum of the abstract concept and the category, the fluorescent buzz of the argument, that we have lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language. We have forgotten its secrets and cannot recollect its manner of eating bread and drinking wine.’ (Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1985, 34-35)





Reply to Jason – what is idealism? 1

Adolf Hitler makes keynote address at Reichstag session, Kroll Opera House, Berlin, 1939

Hi Jason,

thank you for your interest. I define ‘idealism’ as ‘the inspiration to that which is felt to be “higher than”.’

My definition places emphasis on the emotions and brain functions ‘below’ (possibly more primitive than) conscious thought because I think of idealism as an emotional orientation (‘Sarah is an idealistic girl’) or potential (just as we can love or hate), without a specific focus.

That focus is given to it – it could be spiritual, religious (organised spirituality), political or in a personal relationship (‘I love you absolutely’).

The Nazis (German capitalism in extremis) exploited it with skill (appealing to a primal mythology) as other governments aspire to do and those who achieve power.

The manipulation of idealism is essential to the practice of power.

In the US, developing on Winthrop’s ‘We shall be as a city upon a hill’ speech, idealism came to be focused on the flag. In Australia, because of the convict origin of white domination (Phillip’s words after landing reportedly included the instruction that ‘Men are not to go into the womens’ tents at night’) it has been very difficult for the bourgeoisie to find that focus, as they search and stumble from one symbol of loss, failure and defeat to another.

The military disaster at Gallipoli in the first world war – in a far-away country and in the service of the dominant power has finally been turned into some success, ideologically. The requisite amount of gore should silence all criticism.

Idealism is the source of an immense and immensely creative energy (Plato and Plotinus fully understood this) and large amounts of it (together with many of those who embody it) are consumed in every revolution, after which there is the slow but inevitable re-accumulation of its depleted reserves as idealism, having attained far short of perfection, goes into retreat to lick its wounds and prepare to dare again.

And this is my point – we are animals, and idealism is an expression of our animality.

Philosophical idealism’, beloved of cobweb-spinning academics, is the appropriation of idealism by and to linguistic thought (what is known simplistically in academic philosophy as ‘reason’) – ‘philosophical idealism is the belief that…’ It is the harnessing of, the attempt to control and constrain, the horse drawing the chariot.

Philosophical idealism is not simply the placing of consciousness and its products before objective reality – one never has to go looking too far in its manifestation before one comes upon ‘God’ or another expression for ‘higher than’.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Best regards,




Question Authority: The Need for Anti-Authoritarians in the Medical Profession

Hello Michael,

I actually posted a long comment before I reblogged your excellent post but when I clicked ‘Post Comment’ my modem crashed and the comment was lost.

Given the worth and importance of your post I will do that comment again.

A few weeks ago there was a show, ‘At Their Mercy’, on Australia’s ABC Four Corners, on authoritarian abuse in the medical profession in Australia.

Young trainee surgeons spoke about the vicious bullying they had experienced from senior surgeons and of that behaviour being endemic in their profession. One spoke of having been pushed to the brink of suicide.

Another (then) trainee female surgeon told of her supervising surgeon inviting her back to his office and once there, inviting her to go down on him (sic).

She reported him and immediately found herself faced by a wall of authoritarianism. She took action against him and won compensation but she will never be able to work in a public hospital again.

When she spoke on the show (and I think this was now some years after the above events) she was still clearly deeply offended by his betrayal and behaviour and clearly traumatised.

She is also highly respected and valued by her patients, several of whom spoke about her.

A senior female surgeon (a few weeks before the Four Corners show) was reported in the media as having said that if she had been advising the young surgeon, she would have told her for the sake of her career that she should have given him a blow job (sic). Can you believe that?

That senior female vascular surgeon was interviewed on Four Corners and came across as shell-shocked, saintly and hurt by all the criticism she had got for her comments. She was praised by the male head of one of the doctors’ organisations – who gave no praise to the young surgeon for her courage.

All of this exemplifies for me the thinking and behaviour of a band of power-crazed, primarily male authoritarians for whom viciousness is one of the tools in their kit bag and who are, in my view, virtually out of control.

At the cost of her career, that surgeon stood up to these pretentious, cunning primitives and I think if more people on the receiving end of similar behaviour could do so, those thugs might begin to think twice about how they behave towards decent people.

You have an excellent blog,

Best regards,

Phil Stanfield


Disrupted Physician

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Anti-authoritarians question whether an authority is a legitimate one before taking that authority seriously.  images-24To evaluate the legitimacy of  an authority it is necessary to:
1. Assess whether they actually know what they are talking about.
2. Assess whether the authorities are honest in their intentions.  When anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they challenge and resist that authority.
There is a paucity of anti-authoritarianism in the medical community concerning groups who have gained tremendous sway in the regulation of the medical profession.    There is an absence of anti-authoritarian questioning  of  what is essentially illegitimate and irrational authority.
images-26In order for these organizations to maintain power it is necessary that their authoritative opinion remain unquestioned and unchallenged.  Consciously manufactured propaganda has persuaded regulatory and public opinion of their value and to maintain power it is necessary that this authority remain insulated from outside evaluation because the entire system is based…

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Kim Williams on creativity, Australian culture and education

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Edited text of his speech:

The richest and most energetic societies acknowledge the centrality of creativity to their health and wellbeing. Creative endeavour has never been more fundamental to developing a modern society. One open to change, flexible, energetic reinforcing and celebrating the intellectual capacity, capability and originality of its citizens. From a national commitment to creative endeavour; invention, employment, debate, national confidence and good social values follow. History provides the body of evidence.

In a set of impressively argued recommendations, the Gonski report said that funding for schooling must not be seen simply as a financial matter but, rather, about investing to strengthen and secure Australia’s future. Good education develops a capacity and confidence to think. Thinking begets thinking, encouraging a capacity to observe and offer comment and criticism, and to become a capable citizen.

Finland is a pretty good example of a remarkably well educated society. Ours increasingly is not. The Gonski Report demonstrated many alarming trends which have been extensively described in the media.

I think our society is increasingly governed by several sustained characteristics which are each profoundly unhelpful, indeed destructive of committed improvement and clear direction in national public policy formulation. Consequently that much abused term the public interest is serially disrespected – no more than in education at all levels. And major negative beneficiaries are literacy, the arts and sciences.

There are four dangerous trends with manifest impact on policy formulation.

First – Money is treated as the measure of value in all things rather than as one of many measures. This creates weird misalignments which result in simplistic thinking.

Second – Politicians and their bureaucracies increasingly through neglect and disengagement, debase creativity and intellect as the vital crucibles of the national future. Too much policy is a cut and paste of disparate unrelated contributions with little internal logic or coherence.

Third – the media often is unable to disconnect discussion of science and the arts and their centrality to national innovation and expression from rigid ideological positions and populist or personal ranting.

These three elements coalesce in a fourth where our society is adopting a perilous course to celebrate the anti-intellectual resulting in the triumph of ‘general ignorance’ over considered respectful debate aimed to test ideas and assumptions and arrive at evidence supported outcomes.

These forces are readily apparent in the two arenas which empower creativity and innovation like no other – the arts and pure science. Support has declined, policies are malformed on the altar of populism and ‘dumbing down’ to an ever lower common denominator, and short term devotion rules the policy day. This is allied with a fearsome trend which denies and rejects considered knowledge based debate, replacing it with dogmatic assertion.

I would describe this process as the ‘infantilisation’ of Australian cultural and science policy. Unless a different, informed, caring and activist policy stand is adopted then stagnation, declining education standards and a marked talent drain will inevitably result. Without early correction we will have a poorer society and it will become ever harder to rebound.

I would contend that in this century a society which loses contact with and commitment to respecting and appropriately resourcing pure science and the arts across many domains, will decay.

Science has been waning in Australia for way too long. Maths and science streams in schools have seen alarming declines in normative performance levels and there is a dysfunctional challenge in policy and funding in research and scientific direction. The three word slogan rules policy formulation. Needs analyses with carefully defined priorities, backed by durable tested refinement, are distant memories.

The performing arts, our galleries and museums and our education system central to their health are in real decline. Resourcing is compromised and no longer a priority reviewed with forensic care.  Theatre and music companies have little room for experimentation as the financial stakes are so finely balanced. Film and television drama and documentary also have severe issues demanding change.

There are so many examples that demonstrate this era of passive neglect that I could never summarise them adequately in this timeframe. However they are changing the aspiration and destination on the part of our creators in the arts and sciences in profoundly unhealthy ways. The national impact on a culture of innovation is serious. …

We are a small country at ‘the bottom of the world’ (notwithstanding the internet). We have many parochial pillars which whilst ‘cheerful’ to some, are venomous to national ambition and achievement.

A nation of 23 million which speaks English is either profoundly advantaged or potentially disabled as a result almost entirely of its public policy settings and the outcomes they achieve and reflect.

Take arts policy as an example. The ALP has an (no doubt well intentioned) arts policy which tries to accommodate all comers. As a result it has little durable essence or meaning other than providing a recital of modern clichés. The federal Coalition has no published arts policy at all. None. …

The failure of political agendas in creative life is, I suggest, our collective failure.

The absence of fresh, relevant, compelling approaches, reflects a failure to renovate thinking where many working settings are in a time capsule – frozen in space and time from three, even four decades ago in their policy frameworks.

The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu urged audiences to listen with ‘clean ears’. It is great counsel and reflects one of many reasons to embrace changed approaches.

Learning to listen requires focus. Listening is increasingly a diminishing skill. Music study is in my view, the best way of getting there. After all music activates more of the brain than any other human activity and music demands concentration.

It is one of many reasons to abandon passive neglect and become active for education reform. Selfishly I think music and science should be at the centre.

We need to change thinking and direction. Our future demands it.


My addendum: never start with the problems (a way of ‘thinking’ that comes so ‘naturally’ to Australians – ‘Our population is too small’, ‘We’re too far away’, ‘Australia is huge, mainly desert and the distances between population centres are too great’, ‘There’s not enough money’, ‘The economy’s fragile’, ‘Our internal markets are too small’, etc., etc., etc.), start with what has to be done (i.e. what is your vision? The Americans understand this and have always drawn on it, advancing from cannibalism in their first settlement to global domination.).


Spun cobwebs, cracked fleas, smoke and flames

Ladies and gentlemen,

While searching far distant reaches of the Web for the most delicate and abstruse philosophical argumentation, I found this fine and, upon deep cogitation in dressing gown, slippers and armchair, richly rewarding piece.

Kristin, this is for you.


Models of heroism: the beachgoer and the Pioneer

Charles Meere, ‘Australian beach pattern’, oil on canvas, 1940, Art Gallery of NSW; ‘a tableau of beach goers whose athletic perfection takes on monumental, heroic proportions…the myth of the healthy young nation symbolised by the tanned, god-like bodies of the sunbathers.’

Charles Meere, ‘Australian beach pattern’, oil on canvas, 1940, Art Gallery of NSW; ‘a tableau of beach goers whose athletic perfection takes on monumental, heroic proportions…the myth of the healthy young nation symbolised by the tanned, god-like bodies of the sunbathers.’

Nikolai Yakovlevich Belyaev, ‘They are Happy’, oil on canvas, 1949. ‘A scene of joyous, patriotic children, the work is full of life and colour.’

Nikolai Yakovlevich Belyaev, ‘They are Happy’, oil on canvas, 1949. ‘A scene of joyous, patriotic children, the work is full of life and colour.’


Images: top/bottom

How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization

I have re-blogged this article because, as one of the commenters under the article processed, it raises so many questions. The thoughts by SelfAwarePatterns on the article are a good lead-in.


Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article at IO9 on early neolithic societies: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization.

Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.

…The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group…

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