Australia Day 2016 – a servile, shame-based culture

Cringe on the beach

Whoever made this image has a feeling for dialectics.

A castle on the beach (white Australia’s holy of holies), topped by the white Australian flag, itself topped by the flag of its parent nation and first master.

A vertical red strip from the cross of England’s patron saint balances on a white Antipodean star. The emphatic rays of the former drown those twinkling from the latter.

A block of monochrome certainty, a fortress sans entrance floats on a pale yellow expanse, equally uncertain.

The ideal sands of laid-back, nature-loving egalitarianism? Or indistinguishable hovering hordes eyeing paradise at the arse-end of the earth?

The castle, clearly a symbol in its simplified starkness appears to utterly contrast with its ground, yet it is built from it. Moisture maintains its fragile form.

What appears most certain is threatened, even in its building, with uncertainty and destruction.

Will it be kicked down and disappear, or will the next tide (of whom? from where?) wash it away?

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Image: The Sydney Morning Herald 26.01.16

Shame and the need to shame – a nation of little spirits

In the mid-1990s, Ansett painted a Waltzing Matilda mural on the side of one of its Boeing 737-300s

In the mid-1990s, Ansett painted a Waltzing Matilda mural on the side of one of its Boeing 737-300s

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Email sent to Phillip Adams 02.12.04

Dear Mr. Adams,

I listened to your interview of Peter Conrad a couple of weeks ago with interest. I particularly appreciated not only his dismissal of ‘Gerald’ Henderson, but the way in which he did it, making it perfectly clear that for Conrad, Henderson’s sufficient descriptor is ‘pompous non-entity’ – and I would add, ‘in a provincial pond’. That Henderson should be given regular airings in the Herald and particularly on the ABC’s Radio National is sad evidence for the second part of my assertion.

I have also read the text of Conrad’s first three Boyer lectures. And they are, as I expected from an academic in the humanities, very frustrating. They barely move beyond a cascading display of learning, a preening of feathers, facilitated by a telling of tales, through the soft-focus of history. Charming and informative anecdotes follow upon each other. Bitterness – yes, material to work with – yes, but Conrad has so far given no indication of engaging with the depth of meaning and content that exists in the subject. His lectures sketch an interesting stream leading to our provincial pond, but the exposure and analysis of the destructiveness of the pond and how that destructiveness functions runs very weakly.

Nothing that Conrad has said so far can explain, e.g., the depth of cultural sickness in this country as displayed in that part of the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics when a song ‘celebrating’ the suicide by drowning of a failed petty thief, as he ran from authority, was sung by ‘candlelight’ by a packed stadium – as a hymn. Contrast this song with that of ‘John Brown’s Body’, a song of the U.S. Civil War which justifiably celebrates the courage of a man who stood against both authority and prejudice in the defence of black rights and was hung.

When one speaks of ‘Australia’ rhyming with ‘failure’ one speaks, essentially, not of what others have done to us and have told us about ourselves, but of what we have done and continue to do to ourselves and to each other. Although progress has been made and is being made, particularly as a result of immigration, Australian culture has shame and therefore the need to shame – this is where ‘tall poppy syndrome’, ‘nation of knockers’ come in – at its heart and coursing through its veins.

Our culture is built around the ‘celebration’ of (‘nobility’ in the face of) loss, failure and defeat. You are one of the very few people I have heard raise this and show interest in examples: Burke and Wills, Kelly, Breaker Morant, Dad and Dave, the heroes of Paterson and Lawson, Lasseter, Phar Lap, Les Darcy, Haines and Whitlam. Roy and HG’s savagely titled ‘The Dream’ (as Doyle said ‘If it rises above a blade of grass, cut it down.), the ABC’s Australian Story…

And in particular, Gallipoli. In 1990, when the inevitable letters from Private Jones to his mother began appearing in the papers, ex-pat Phillip Knightley argued that if we, as Australians, are going to ‘celebrate’ our involvement in the First World War (the first capitalist world war over areas of exploitation), rather than celebrating a defeat experienced on behalf of a dominant power, we should celebrate the victories of the Australian troops, e.g. on the Western Front. The ABC’s Richard Glover responded with a most bizarre article in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat’, (SMH 20.04.90 – I emailed him about this) arguing that we celebrate Gallipoli, as with our other failures, precisely because it was a defeat.

What is the sickness that runs through the above? More than that they focus on defeats and failures, it is that these are made a cause for celebration. The message in these ‘celebrations’ is the dark side of the myth of Australian egalitarianism, a myth cultivated in affluence and sunlight – the cultural imperatives ‘Thou shalt be laid back!’ and ‘Thus far and no further!’ Dream to (or worse) go beyond the cultural limits and you will be broken.

And the cultural limits are those of capital (I understand the words of Waltzing Matilda were shaped by the requirements of advertising) – you can dream, but only the small dreams of consumption – 1/4 acre block, $60,000 + p.a., 2 and 1/2 kids etc. The celebration of defeat is still not the fundamental issue, it is the celebration of a lesson. Will Conrad address this basic issue of shame as a means of class control. I doubt it increasingly as his lectures progress. He is too much the comfortable gentleman.

On the global stage we relate shame-based – both servile to a dominant power – first England, now the US (cultural imperialism only partially explains our dilemma) – and bullying in our region (Asia and the Pacific). That the ‘Deputy sheriff’ won’t sign a non-aggression pact with ASEAN is entirely consistent. What is not licked should be kicked. Our need for approval has led us into a closeness of relationship with the US as a result of which, I believe, serious consequences for this country are yet to happen.

The same need for approval (this time, awarded by ourselves) has been used by the government to cover its purpose for ‘going to the aid of’ the East Timorese – after 25 years of silence by Liberal and Labor governments and the deaths of 400,000. What else could explain such sickening, back-slapping hypocrisy, so many white, beaming faces, such an absence of geopolitical and economic analysis? The on-going corporate attempt to rape this poorest nation, even as it was declared a nation is the clearest pointer to the reality of Australia’s ‘rescue’ of East Timor.

Our self-loathing lies at the heart of the kicking Hanson got, and continues to get, even after she departed from politics. That those competing to sink the boot into Hanson the hardest were, without exception, the ‘educated’ middle-classes indicates how deeply shame and self-loathing run in our culture. Hanson was a test of how successfully we have dealt with our shame and the need to shame – and we failed that test – spectacularly. Her treatment by our ‘intelligentsia’ shows how deep and powerfully the current I write about flows. It is to her credit that Kingston showed Hanson some understanding.

That this nation has failed the test of national confidence, both internally and internationally is proven by Howard. He is in no way an aberration. He has risen from the heart of our culture and understands its meanness, shame and therefore the need to shame, intimately and instinctively. He has exploited this with absolute consistency to win four elections in a row. There could never be a clearer pointer, despite all assertions to the opposite, to how little this country has progressed in dealing with its cringe than this man and his government. Even Bush bases his meanness and aggression on his perception of the greatness of his nation, on its ‘right’ to impose itself on the world.

The greater one’s perceived capacity to achieve intellectual excellence and particularly one’s commitment to intellectual excellence, the greater the determination in our society that you should be broken, the more subtle, insidious and poisonous will be the range of devices employed against you – by family and friends. Ian Thorpe, recognising this, has assiduously (and successfully) cultivated a persona that bows to this Australian viciousness.

White, too, saw this nastiness and destructiveness – and to disguise the hurt of one who both loved and loathed what he saw and experienced, specialised in paying that nastiness back in kind. I don’t think he ever rose above that fundamental tension.

Australia will always be a servile nation until the shame – and the need to shame – that lie at its heart are named, focussed on and rooted out.

Phil Stanfield

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It’s safe to come back Jørn, we’ve changed!

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N.S.W. Premier Gladys Berejiklian has instructed the Sydney Opera House to allow its sails to be lit up with colours, numbers and a trophy to promote next Saturday’s Everest horse race.

“This is one of the biggest events of the year. Why not put it on the biggest billboard Sydney has?” Prime Minister Morrison said.

“I come from a tourism background, these events generate massive opportunities for the state, for the city.”

From this

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‘Amazing clouds, brilliant moonlight, and the fabulous Sydney Opera House make a spectacular trifecta (sic).’ Photo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation website

to this

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‘The Racing NSW advertisement will be beamed onto the Opera House from Tuesday.’

Come back Jørn! Now we understand what ‘big picture’ means and how important vision is to culture! Honest!

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Why Utzon fled from Australia and would never return

Carbine_wins_the_1890_Melbourne_Cup

This morning I listened to two presenters on a Sydney radio station talking about the naming of houses. They began the discussion with ‘Emoh ruo’ and invited their audience to call in with their own examples.

One gave that of the reverse lettering of a person’s name. Another said her home was named ‘St. Anne’s’ after the boarding school she had gone to in England. Another explained that his house had been named by a police officer some time ago and that he, too, was in the police force.

All of these callers were treated with respect and interest was shown in their stories.

Then a woman rang in and said with obvious feeling ‘I call my house “Wildfire”‘. She explained that she looked after wild animals.

The presenters, unprepared for this display of emotion and imagination – of idealism – mumbled words of compliment even as they looked for a way to ‘cut her down to size‘ (an Australian expression) – which one of them found in literally two seconds.

Delivering poison in a gel of innocence, he quietly and smoothly, without a sense of humour (thereby revealing his intent) said ‘That sounds like the favourite in the fourth’. He ended the call with those words.

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Murder, theft, cultural cringe and tall poppies

Professor_Lyndall_Ryan

Frances Letters, ‘The truth behind Aboriginal massacres and the laid-back Aussie image’, The Sydney Morning Herald 07.07.17

Down the road when I was growing up in 1950s Armidale there lived a community of Aborigines. In shelters built of corrugated iron scraps and nailed-up potato sacks. At the dump. I barely noticed them. But one thing we were told. They were not warlike. Unlike the Maori, who at least had earned respect as fearsome warriors, Aborigines hadn’t fought for their land. They’d just let us take it away. Candy from a baby. Of Aboriginal attacks on early settlers we heard little. Of frontier battles we heard far less. And of massacres of Aborigines we heard nothing at all.

Not one word. I was 19 before I stumbled on the truth. I heard it in a way that shocked me to the bone.

One afternoon in 1964 I was drinking coffee in the University of New England cafeteria with a bunch of young men from well-to-do grazing properties. They were rowdy and effortlessly good-natured. In those days Australia still rode on the sheep’s back; they took for granted that they were the natural aristocrats of the campus, and of the nation. We were laughing a lot that day. The conversation had turned to our old family eccentrics; we’d been vying to cap each other’s wacky stories.

Then, a wealthy landowner’s son took a turn. Sunday afternoons had been the fun time for his family, he announced. Presumably after church, and a good heavy Sunday dinner. His grandfather would go hunting on horseback with dogs and a posse of mates. Whooping. All armed with whips and guns. The quarry was Aborigines. They would be chased through the bush, cornered, then shot. Or driven over a mighty precipice to their death. Stunned silence fell around the table. The brutal declaration, so breezy and lighthearted, so shockingly new to my ears, threw us completely. I stared down into my coffee. Someone guffawed uneasily.

I’ve often wondered why the young man blurted out those words. I remember he laughed as he spoke. Was it bravado to cover shame?

Myall_Creek_Massacre

The chilling thing was that, despite our shock, in the end the social niceties prevailed. We would ignore the indelicate faux pas. Besides, how many others among those young grandsons of squatters sitting around the table had similar dark secrets walled up behind their homestead facades?

In the end someone came to the rescue with another jolly tale about a madcap grandad. Gratefully we joined in the laughter. Then one by one we gathered up our books, excused ourselves, and, polite to the end, slipped away to our classes…

So at last the unspeakable had been spoken. It is being spoken again this week – more loudly, more widely – as Professor Lyndall Ryan’s research documents for us the extent of the massacres of Aboriginal people in the colonial era. Some academics put the death toll from attacks on Aborigines at more than 30,000 from 1788 to the 1940s. Henry Reynolds talks of “the forgotten war of conquest”. Aborigines, of course, never forgot. For them the murders, with the dispossession and despair that followed, must have been a daily thundercloud casting its shadow into every corner. A thundercloud that in some silent way has darkened life for the rest of us too.

Like children after an old, long-concealed family tragedy, we’ve all been left subtly bruised by the history we’ve repressed. I’m not the only Australian to sense that the brash, cocksure, sun-bronzed Aussie image we love – so easygoing, so delightfully laid-back – also comes with a paradoxical hint of dryness, emptiness, blustering adolescent uncertainty, in our national psyche.

Why the cultural cringe? The tall poppy suspicions? The strange timidity that has us creeping under the wing of one great and powerful friend or another? Our nation was built on a silent quicksand of wrongs. Aborigines; convicts; White Australia. We’re yet to crawl completely out; yet to turn into fully mature, proper grown-ups. But things are changing. Despite sneers at the “black armband view of history”, most of us now admit that terrible deeds were done, then hidden. Government apologies have elated almost everyone. And where now are those shrill massacre denials?

One truth, though, is still wincingly hard to face: that most Australians owe our comfortable living first and foremost to the fact that Aborigines used to own the precious land, and now we do. None of us is guilty of those old wrongs: but we have benefited prodigiously from them.

Unknowingly – and reluctant to probe too deeply – we’ve all lived well and thrived on the proceeds of crime.

Now, far too late, it really is time to get out those black armbands. And above all, to listen.

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Aussie kulcha, convict kulcha

Trump humiliates Turnbull (Spicer repeatedly called him ‘Trumbull’) in their first phone conversation. So what does Turnbull do?

He goes into parliament and, from behind parliamentary privilege, tears strips off Labor (note the American spelling of the name of Australia’s oldest political party) opposition leader Shorten. The Australian media, stung by Turnbull’s humiliation – their humiliation – make him out to be a big man. Wow! Can’t Mal dish it out!

Then Turnbull goes to the US and meets Trump (who keeps him waiting – the meeting was already to have been as short as ‘decently’ possible – mutter, mutter). Turnbull’s obsequiousness towards him is truly repulsive – his comments through a frozen mouthful of teeth facing the cameras, his body almost climbing out of his chair as he leans towards Trump (who clearly couldn’t have cared less), his hand thrust out desperately for the approving touch of great power (see second video). This time Turnbull degrades himself.

Now, with the scoreboard at 2-0 (one of those an own goal), he bides his time, waiting for a good excuse, then goes for Trump (full steam ahead lads!) behind his back, in ‘fun’ mode – true Ozzie style (‘Maate! Only jokin’!’). Remember, this is the leader of Australia publicly mocking the leader of another nation.

Listen to all the Aussies lapping up his performance in the second video (you’d swear it was canned laughter dubbed onto the Ozzie Oscars) – before they all fall back into line to lick the arse of the next American after ‘Harry’ Harris and ‘Send in the drones’ Obama only too willing to use their land and federal parliament from which to threaten China (the Ozzie media’s recently been awash with another round of dark, dire warnings about those scheming Chinese).

Yet again, what does this say of the attitude of the US capitalist class to Australians?

And much more importantly, what does it say of Australians?

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This is how laid-back Aussies and their government operate folks, whenever they see the least opportunity

John Flanagan

John Flanagan

Sue Williams, ‘Man sues television archives after it lent equipment to competitor’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 07.01.17

An Australian TV buff has been squeezed out of the picture after equipment he gave to the government to help preserve historical shows was used to undermine his film archive business.

John Flanagan organised the donation of highly specialised program transfer equipment from Channel Seven to the government’s National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, so that they could back up rare footage of TV shows and films on to DVD.

But he was horrified to find the archive then lent the equipment – at no cost and with its maintenance and spare parts also paid for – to one of their former employees who set up in business against him.

With this back-door subsidy, the rival company was easily able to undercut him on cost, Mr Flanagan said, and as a result, he lost his business, accrued hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts and finally his health suffered as he fought the archive over the matter.

Now he is suing the archive for $250,000 in compensation for losses and damage.

Michael Loebenstein, its departing chief executive, said this happened before he was appointed to head the organisation. “That arrangement around the loan of the machine which is the cause of all of John’s grievances was done before I was on board.

“But, in brief, the more I looked into the issue, the less I liked what I saw. We don’t loan out the machine any more and won’t do so in the future.”

That’s cold comfort for Mr Flanagan, 63, who had set up his own business, Broadcast Transfers, transferring quadruplex videotape programs on to modern digital formats, after buying, transporting and installing the most up-to-date machines. When he started, Broadcast Transfers was the only commercial company in Australia doing such transfers.

But after being assured he’d be given work by the archive, he was then told a former staff member, Joe Kelly, had set up a new company called DAMsmart and been given an indefinite loan of the machines that Mr Flanagan had given to the archive on behalf of Seven, his former employer.

DAMsmart then tendered for work at around half the cost Mr Flanagan was charging.

“Effectively, they created a competitor for me by loaning him a machine so he had few of the costs I had in setting up my machines,” Mr Flanagan said. “So he had a company that was being subsidised financially by the government.

“I was the only person in Australia doing this work, with assurances from the archive that they’d use my services. And then my competitor could do the same work much cheaper by using the machine I’d given the archive. It’s incredible! This has ruined my finances, my health and my life. I don’t know that I’ll ever recover.”

Mr Kelly, the general manager of DAMsmart says he entered into a legal, binding contract with the archive, approved by the Attorney-General and, as far as he is concerned, there was nothing wrong with it.

“We donate equipment to archives, galleries and museums but you can’t then dictate what the recipients do with it,” he said. “The [archive] was trying, I guess, to come up with a flexible new commercial arrangement that enabled them to do more digitalisation work in an era of lower budgets and dwindling funding.

“They should be congratulated on doing something different, and coming up with a creative solution … This is just professional jealousy from John Flanagan.”

Mr Flanagan has already won one battle, forcing the archive to release the contract with DAMsmart which it had previously refused to do, and then only agreed to with key elements redacted and the demand he sign a non-disclosure agreement.

He refused and finally scrutiny of the unedited contract revealed that the rival company and the archive had paid each other $60,000 a year – effectively cancelling out all costs – for the loan of the machine, in return for some much less specialised transfer work.

“It was a very dodgy contract, a sham contract in a way that was used by one person to his own benefit,” Mr Flanagan’s lawyer, Alison Drayton of Drayton Sher Lawyers said. “No one else was doing what [Flanagan] was doing at that time and, if this deal hadn’t been struck, who knows what he would have earned?”

A report by the Ombudsman in 2015 criticised the archive’s contract with DAMsmart, its lack of conflict of interest protocols in dealing with its former employee, and its inadequate handling of Mr Flanagan’s complaint.

The report added that, while the Ombudsman couldn’t order compensation, Mr Flanagan could pursue legal action.

“It’s a terrible look,”  Mr Loebenstein said, who is leaving his post this month. “We would today never have entered into a similar deal because it doesn’t have the level of transparency that we aspire to. We have since improved our processes to ensure that we don’t enter into arrangement of that sort again.”

Although he sympathised with Mr Flanagan’s position, he said he couldn’t pay public money for possible losses.

“I can’t spend taxpayers’ money on what’s a broad claim,” he said. “It’s his right to pursue legal action against us but we are very happy to meet him and work through the issues with him.”

Meanwhile, others in the industry have been appalled at how Mr Flanagan was treated.

“This is something that was done in a very back-handed way, so the archive was actually helping the rival business to John’s,” said Bruce Josephs, former owner of the video digitisation business DVD Infinity.

“I think he put many tens of thousands of dollars into his equipment and building up knowledge and spare parts, and he ended up losing his business and his health and everything he’d acquired over many years of hard work because of this.”

Robert Angel, the co-owner of Film and Tape Services, probably the largest videotape digitisation business in Australia, was also surprised at the arrangement. “It didn’t seem very fair to me,” he said.

Mr Flanagan said the results have been catastrophic.

“They’ve ruined my life and they have to be held to account for this.”

The national archive was established in 1984 to store and maintain more than 2.3 million items of television, film and radio works, as well as documents, photos, posters, scripts, costumes, props and memorabilia.

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Still any doubts? Ask Australia’s indigenous people or the East Timorese (one of the world’s poorest nations) what they think about laid-back, law-abidin’, easy-goin’, egalitarian Aussies.

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What a relief

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Yesterday afternoon I listened to James Valentine on (the national broadcaster) ABC radio invite his listeners to call in with their ‘small dreams,’ which they happily did.

He said we should dream small because small dreams are achievable – big dreams deserve only to be mocked – which he did with gusto.

During the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games the ABC had a late-night show every week-night (with record audiences) called ‘The Dream’ on which the mistakes or bad luck of that day’s competitors were mocked.

One of its comperes, John Doyle, said ‘If it rises above a blade of grass, cut it down.’

After listening to Valentine, I watched ‘Marguerite’.

What a relief from the Aussie sickness.

And the acting in the film is excellent.

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How Anglo-Aussies beat their opponents – and expose the sickness at the heart of their culture

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In the middle of the current Olympics, the following article in praise of the vicious and complete undermining of one’s opponent verbally was published in a major newspaper in Sydney.

The US expression ‘trash talk’ does not capture the full, systematic intent as practiced by Anglo-Celtic Aussies, to which ‘real sport’ the author Richard Glover refers with pleasure.

Glover, also the drive-time compere for the (national broadcaster) ABC’s local radio, published an article in the same newspaper in 1990 titled ‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat’.

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Richard Glover, ‘Sledging skills everyone can use: from Mack Horton to Pauline Hanson,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 12.08.16

In all the fuss about Mack Horton’s criticism of his swim rival, Sun Yang, everyone seems to have forgotten about the British writer Stephen Potter. It was Potter who, back in 1947, first proposed the idea of gamesmanship – a more subtle version of sledging, but one which may be far more effective.

Potter’s book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship; or, The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, is packed with ideas for subtly putting off your opponent. We may need to make it compulsory reading for our Olympic team.

Potter is oh-so-very-English and would never deign to criticise his opponent outright in the manner of Mack Horton. Nor would he agree to be part of Australian cricket’s most famous mutual sledge:

Bowler: Mate, you are so fat.

Batsman: That’s because every time I sleep with your wife she gives me a biscuit.

Personally, I think that moment – usually ascribed to Glenn McGrath and Eddo Brandes – is rather fine. I like the way the harsh accusation of cuckoldry – a more forthright term than “sleep with” may have been used – shares the sentence with the childlike delight we might all feel in receiving a free biscuit.

Such tactics, though, would have horrified Stephen Potter. His aim was to discombobulate the opponent, leaving them with the uneasy sense that “something has gone wrong, however slightly”.

Potter’s books became bestsellers in the ’50s and ’60s – and were then turned into television in the ’70s – all from the starting point of a single game of tennis.

Potter was playing doubles, partnering the British philosopher CEM Joad. They were up against two younger men and were not doing well. Joad, in particular, had just delivered a serve which had hurtled well out of court.

It was at this point Joad stopped the game and remonstrated with his young rivals: “Kindly state clearly, please, whether the ball was in or out.”

The young men hadn’t called the ball, believing it was so obviously out of bounds that a call was unnecessary. They offered to replay the point, but Joad declined – leaving the young men with the uneasy suggestion that, in dealing with Joad’s serve, they had committed some slight breach of etiquette.

His fault had become their fault.

The incident put the two young men off their game, delivered victory to Potter and Joad, and sent Potter on a lifelong course of examining gamesmanship in all its guises.

Perhaps John Bertrand, now president of Swimming Australia, is a student of Potter. Certainly, Mack Horton says he developed the idea of psyching-out Sun Yang by studying the tactics used by Bertram when he skippered Australia II to victory in the America’s Cup.

Bertrand’s gamesmanship then was classic Potter. No insults and no demeaning of the opposition. The Australia II crew merely refused to speak the name of their powerful opponents or their powerful craft. They simply used the energy-sucking sobriquet “the red boat”.

Potter would have cheered.

Some sports psychologists go further: they believe that the best sledge of all is a compliment. Jeff Bond, who has worked as an Australian sports psychologist at multiple Olympics, gives the example of a sunny sledge when playing tennis: “You just compliment the person on the other end about the way they snap their wrist during the serve. And that’s pretty much all you need to do. They’ll think ‘oh, what exactly am I doing’, and their game will crumble.”

The same approach, by the way, is highly effective in golf. Next time you play, simply make the happy observation: “That swing of yours is perfect. I really must study how it is that you are pulling it off so perfectly.” Try it on any normal human being and, by the third hole, they’ll be lying in the foetal position, howling for their mother.

But back to Stephen Potter: he has a million other tips. He recommends, for instance, offering your opponent advice, although, he says, “the advice must be vague, to make certain it is not helpful”. Always, also, present yourself as an expert. When playing chess, for instance, you should randomly make the observation: “Your castle won’t like that in six moves’ time,” even if you have no understanding whatsoever of the game.

And, when playing billiards, do feel free to approach your opponent with a kindly smile, and the offer of a breath mint – preferably seconds prior to a key shot. You can then follow up with the observation that their technique is “incredible”.

Certainly, I’d like to see the sunny sledge brought into politics, replacing all the unpleasant sledging of the recent election period.

“Bill Shorten? A genius. Some of his zingers are just hilarious. Every time he lets rip I feel so inadequate.”

Imagine the psychological impact once Malcolm Turnbull has complimented Bill Shorten in such warm terms.

“Zingers are one thing,” Shorten could reply.  “I just admire the way Malcolm has managed to gain such loyalty from his own party. It must be great knowing the whole party has your back.”

As for Pauline Hanson and her forthcoming maiden speech, perhaps someone could wander up just as she’s about to speak.

“Breath mint, Pauline?”

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How bleak is our valley

The_Lucky_Country

Graeme Philipson

May 15, 2007

I write this column from Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. That term describes the collection of small cities straddling the San Andreas fault, south of San Francisco.

The name was coined by US journalist Don Hoefler in 1971. Locals call it “The Valley”. When I first came here nearly 30 years ago, I was very excited. I had visions of some sort of technological utopia, a land where computer dreams came true and you could pick up microchips off the street.

Somehow I thought it would be something special. I was sadly disappointed. Special things do happen in Silicon Valley, but the place itself looks like anywhere else in urban America.

That means it’s a collection of shopping malls, corporate parks, warehouses, fast-food joints and the like, all criss-crossed with freeways.

Lots of people live in the Valley, although you won’t ever see their houses while driving around. They are hidden by high walls.

At the southern end of Silicon Valley is the city of San Jose, some way down Highway 101 from San Francisco’s dreary southern suburbs. That is one of the most congested and least attractive stretches of freeway in North America, which is saying something.

Silicon Valley is a boring-looking and overcrowded place. Its appearance hardly measures up to its worldwide reputation as the birthplace of the computer revolution.

So much for the complaining. Never let it be said that I’m anti-American. I married an American, and my son carries a US passport. My real complaint is not with Silicon Valley’s ugly appearance and unattractive highways, but with my own country.

Why is there no Silicon Valley in Australia? It’s not just the scale of the US. There are other factors.

Nondescript though they may be, the cities and towns that form Silicon Valley house many of the most interesting and innovative companies in the IT industry. The area has lost none of its allure, and it remains the Mecca of tech hopefuls around the world.

They are drawn by companies such as Yahoo and Google. They are drawn by Hewlett-Packard and Oracle and Apple and Sun, and by small hardware and software start-ups in their hundreds.

They are drawn by the world class research facilities, such as Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Centre, and IBM’s Santa Theresa labs, and by Stanford University. They are drawn by the analysts and consultancies and PR and market research companies that thrive on all this stuff.

If you want to get into films, you go to Hollywood. Advertising: New York. If you want to get into computers, you go to Silicon Valley.

The Valley has made millionaires of thousands of people. The first were Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who gave their names to what has become the world’s largest IT company. (Did you know HP is now bigger than IBM?)

Silicon Valley spawned Apple Computer, through which Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak rewrote the American dream. It spawned Sun Microsystems, which continues to prove that “the network is the computer”. (Sun, by the way, was originally an acronym for Stanford University Network).

We only hear about the successes, and some of the more spectacular failures. For every winner, there are a dozen losers. Small companies we have never heard of regularly disappear into oblivion, taking with them the hopes and dreams of thousands of intelligent individuals.

At least for a while. People in Silicon Valley know that not every good idea will translate into money. The philosophy is to keep trying until one does. And those who do succeed tend not to stop there; they get up and do it all again.

One of the driving forces behind Silicon Valley has been the willingness of these people to have a go, and the willingness of others to give them a go. There is no shortage of angel investors and venture capitalists who will take a punt on a good idea.

Try to do that in Australia: the clever country, the land of the fair go. Bankers and financiers here want to see bricks and mortar, or a warehouse full of stock, before they’ll lend you money.

They simply don’t understand, as the Americans have for years, that assets in the information age are very different from those of the previous era. Australian banks are still coming to terms with the industrial revolution, which ended some time ago.

That is why there is no Silicon Valley in Australia. Our country is littered with the corpses of companies that tried and failed to do what hundreds of companies in Mountain View and Sunnyvale and Menlo Park have done.

Some Australian companies have succeeded, such as Mincom and NetComm and Software Developments. But many more have failed, sometimes through bad management or bad luck, but more often because of a troglodytic investment climate, small-minded bankers who are happy to gamble on the promise of real estate development but who lack the foresight and intelligence to understand how the centre of balance in the economy has moved from physical objects to information.

Information is an asset, as we all know. But it is a very different type of asset than coal or buildings or iron ore or wheat. The difference is that information can be infinitely reproduced, which means its value lies not in its generation but in its propagation.

They’ve known that for two generations in Silicon Valley. But governments in Australia, and the gnomes of Collins Street and Martin Place, are still stuck in an industrial era, antediluvian mindset.

And now it’s too late.

***

Dear Graeme,

Your well titled and refreshing, important, more – necessary – article ‘How bleak is our valley’ in yesterday’s Herald lays the responsibility for what you wrote about at the feet of troglodytes who run the banks.

In The Lucky Country Horne, delicately positioning his argument between the denial of the existence of a capitalist class and the avoidance of the depth and extent of ugliness in his subject, referred to Australia’s ‘troglodyte past’. Like you, he held responsible ‘men in power’.

Peter Conrad, in his Boyer lectures a few years ago, most academic and weak, while acknowledging a provincial past, argued that Australian culture has, as it were, ‘moved into the modern era’.

Shelley Gare’s ‘the Triumph of the Airheads’ details the impact of consumerism and capitalist ‘movers and shakers’ on primarily urban Australian society.

But these men in power, these ‘small-minded’ bankers of whom you write also exist in other cultures. And Howard himself is not an aberration, an excrescence. As Judith Brett correctly argued, he not only understands this culture at a gut level, he has risen from and plays the ‘middle’ – like a Paganini.

Short of socialist revolution, it is Australian culture itself that needs to be taken by the throat and exposed, analysed and acted on for Australians to begin systematically addressing the failure you deplore.

The dominant Anglo-Saxon based culture in this country has at its heart the poison of shame – and therefore the need to shame. It has at its heart a feeling of inferiority, reflected in an astonishingly subtle servility to the dominant world power (the shifts in the pronunciation of ‘Iraq’ by Australians since the first Gulf War – notably those in the media – replicating that of Bush, not as Iraqis or Arabs pronounce it – and as all Australians used to pronounce it, is a study in how servile this culture is) while displaying a bullying arrogance in the region.

The clearest manifestation of this disease, ‘for all the world to see’, was during the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games when the packed stadium sang as a hymn, by ‘candlelight’, and repeatedly, Australia’s de facto national anthem (with its reference to prostitution – ‘waltzing Matilda’ – and possibly the first example of product placement – for Billy Tea), ‘celebrating’ (?!) the suicide of a failed petty thief as he ran from authority.

Compare this song with ‘John Brown’s Body’ and the events on which it was based. Or with another de facto national anthem – ‘Flower of Scotland’ – which, even though it refers to an eventual military defeat, is about a people who stood, and won, against a far stronger power. And of those Australians who know or sense this ‘cringe’ in ‘Waltzing Matilda’ – it fuels their meanness.

This culture that prides itself on its capacity to ‘celebrate’ has at its heart the celebration of loss, failure and defeat – from that of Leichhardt to Burke and Wills to Ned Kelly to Breaker Morant to Waltzing Matilda to Dad and Dave, to the letters in the first capitalist world war over the re-division of areas of exploitation from Private Jones at Gallipoli to his mother, to Lasseter to Les Darcy to Phar Lap to Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House to Australian Story… Noble all, in the face of loss, failure and defeat.

And of the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome: it is not that one thinks one stands above another, that one ‘looks down’ on them, it is that that other and at some level knowingly, perceiving any degree of the potential or vision of which you write, on their knees inevitably reacts – as they look up. It was not merely the Minister for Public Works who drove Utzon from these shores, it was the clash of an authoritarian culture which profoundly values ‘the ordinary,’ with a man who lived for intellectual vision.

This country continues to be, overall, an intellectually sleepy ‘paradise’, riding on the broad back of assorted resources as it clings to the coat-tails of Uncle Sam, while still clutching at the skirts of Mother Britannia – rather than, as Horne pointed out, showing responsibility and independence  – with all that those concepts entail.

When Moses strode down from Kosciuszko, he bore two weighty tablets on his hips. On one were the words which are the underbelly of Australian egalitarianism: ‘Thus Far and No Further’ – ‘sympathy for the underdog’, until the second the underdog shows even a hint of rising (during the Sydney Olympics, in the superbly titled and watched by record audiences ‘The Dream’ of H.G. Nelson and Roy Slaven, Doyle said ‘If it rises above a blade of grass, cut it down.’).

This divine rule was riveted in place by the other cultural imperative on the second tablet: ‘(As Ye Worketh Record Hours Per Week, to Consume) Thou Shalt be Laid Back’ – implicitly, ‘Thou shalt not dream’, ‘Thou shalt not be passionate for intellectual vision’, which passion is clear in your article.

Passion for dreams not motivated by consumption, for intellectual excellence that goes beyond dotted ‘i’s, crossed ‘t’s and referencing to the hilt, that truly takes one’s society forward, has at the least the same effect in Australian culture, far more often than not, as do the headlights of a ute bearing down on a rabbit in the middle of a dusty road, and at worst, the triggering of a retributive antipathy.

Fools see it, correctly, as a threat, a disturbance to their paradise, to their myopia, to their littleness – ‘If I even acknowledge let alone praise you for your dreams, for your commitment to vision – particularly intellectual – the pressure is immediately on me to face my shame, my ‘inferiority’, my spiritual apathy, and to dream and aspire beyond my narrow bounds of consumption and certainty. Too much.’

Art colleges are filled with ambitious young, eager to produce something ‘edgy.’ They should sit in any mall on the week-end and watch and learn as the couples pass, pushing their trolleys. In those trolleys, packed full of consumables, sits their child or sit their children, clinging to the bars and looking out at the world. Now that’s edgy, and without the parents even aware of it…

Culture is not the sum total of a people’s achievements, it is the attitude in a society to what is not known, to what has not been achieved. It is a basis in the present not of the past but for the future.

Congratulations on your article. May it stimulate responses and may there be many more such on this and other areas.

Philip Stanfield

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