Reunion blues

1B 1960

Last weekend I flew down to Sydney partly to attend the 50th anniversary party for the Class of ’65 from Harbord Primary School on the northern beaches. Many old school photos were exchanged, including the one above showing me (circled in red) at the age of seven.

The function was at Manly Bowls Club in the heart of Tony Abbott territory and the night went pretty much as I imagined it would.  Some of us have lived fairly happy and prosperous working lives, others less so, and a surprising number are dead.

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[T]he great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. . .  A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”.

William James, The Laws of Habit

“Taste” is a word and an idea that comes from another time. But I think it’s loss is a big deal. First there’s some good news about its demise. The idea of taste was freighted with class superiority. Good taste is typically taken to be associated with the upper and upper-middle classes. There’s also the idea of taste as setting some bounds on public discussion – which doesn’t have much going for it. So in some ways we’re good to be rid of it. But the upside of taste – the thing we’ve lost – is the idea of a desire that’s not a simple ‘preference’ but somehow an enlightened preference – and one that’s typically acquired. It’s an ability to see a little beyond simple appearances, to allow experience to speak of something deeper than appearances. An object in bad taste typically appeals to the untutored. Before megalomania overcame her, before she became a mega-star, Edna Everage’s schtick involved satirising bad taste by referring to the art-work she liked to have around. Ducks flying across the wall, a picture of Chinese girl with a beautiful green face. She would demonstrate her sense of taste by advising her audience “You can always tell an original. The eyes follow you all around the room”.


A Google n-graph of the use of the expression “good taste” at its height in 1930 and leading up to 1960 as you can see.

And here’s the thing. The death of taste as a cultural resource is killing us. Fast food tastes yummy. It’s scientifically optimised to allow you to mainline unmediated yumminess. When I was a kid and first encountered Kentucky Fried Chicken and then saw McDonalds restaurants I remember thinking that McDonalds would never beat Kentucky because Kentucky was so, so yummy – so rich as all that salt, sugar and oil and those secret herbs and spices made the chicken taste unbelievably good. My fish and chip shop just wasn’t close. Anyway, I was wrong. McDonalds, slightly less in-your-face yummy to my juvenile palate seems to have won that battle. Perhaps Maccas were optimising for my adult palate. Today I find the oiliness of KFC off-putting but I do wolf down a very occasional Maccas hamburger when travelling. I enjoy the utter accessibility of Macca’s scientifically optimised yumminess. It’s not hard to see how I could crave them – well I do crave them actually – but only very rarely.  Continue reading

Italian Film Festibule 2015

Palace presents the Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2015As ever, here are the highlights of the Italian Film Festibule showing in a city near you with Melbourne times in the timetable below. There are even some five star movies. That’s right five out of five, which is ten out of ten when you think about it in a sufficiently abstract fashion. These are films that cannot be improved upon. Tony Abbott confessed earlier today that, not being a God, he can be improved upon. That is not like these films – at least in the opinion of those who gave them five out of five.

Top Picks

Luciano, the eldest of the three Carbone brothers, has turned his back on the drug operation that provided the family’s stature and wealth. Having washed his hands of the family, he now seeks a simple life with his wife and 20-year-old son Leo raising goats in their ancestral town of Africo in the Calabrian hills. The problem is that the bored and restless son Leo idolises his two charismatic big-shot uncles who are still deeply involved in the narcotics trade and is determined to make his mark. One night young Leo’s impulsive reaction to a trivial argument changes the course of all their lives, pulling all three brothers into a simmering feud that threatens to explode.
☆☆☆☆ Eye For Film
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆ The Telegraph
It’s the last weekend together for three men and two women who for years have studied and lived in the same house in Pisa. University is over and each of them is about to embark on a new path: some will stay in Pisa, some will return home to their parents, and some will move to another city or even country. That protected period of their life in which infinite opportunities awaited them, is fading away-now is the time for decisions and responsibility: love or a well-paid job? Have a child or wait for better circumstances? Follow your dreams or be happy with whatever comes your way? Once thing is certain: their carefree university days are over and nothing will ever be the same again.
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Diego, Fausto and Claudio are three down-on-their luck men. When they meet by chance looking at a property in the country none of them are able to afford, the three men decide to combine forces and risk everything to start a Bed and Breakfast. They invest everything they have, physically and mentally, into the project, but the financial pressures mount and are made even more stressful with the local mafia demanding regular payments and threatening to suffocate their venture! It seems that only a miracle will bring them back on track. Indeed, the miracle they need arrives in the most unlikely of forms. But is it enough?
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Fresh from its official selection at Cannes Film Festival, director Matteo Garrone delivers his first Englishlanguage feature with this unmissable festival experience: a triptych of fairy tales for adults inspired by the stories of Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, centering on the rulers of three neighbouring kingdoms put to the test when magic enters the picture. The result is a delicious dream-like visual feast brimming with imagination and mischief featuring an all-star cast as royals headed by Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel and John C. Reilly. A serpent’s heart, a giant flea, a world where sweet dreams quickly curdle to swirling nightmares, Garrone cuts between the three strands as he delves into the world of kings, queens and ogres. These gory and gorgeously shot stories are not for the faint hearted as they delve into the depths of the human psyche and explode with luxuriant colours, elaborate costumes and fantasy décor, accompanied by the Baroque architecture of Sicily, Apulia and Lazio.
☆☆☆☆ Cine-Vue
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB

The United States of Germany?

The Germans have surprised me by eagerly welcoming a million migrants originating from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere. They seem to invite many more to join them in years to come. Why are they doing this?

From the perspective of my Dutch upbringing, the Germans were the aggressive tribes of the East, speaking a coarse Dutch dialect, drinking beer made just like it was 500 years ago, too serious for their own good. ‘Blut und boden’ (blood and earth) signified their adherence to German ancestry and their connection to their land. To be German meant having 20 generations of German ancestors, even if that included Bavarian Catholics and Protestant Prussians.

Their experience with millions of migrants from within Europe has been very mixed. Economic refugees from Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe and Greece have been welcomed and have fitted in quite nicely. But millions of ‘gastarbeiters’ from Turkey who came into Germany in the 60s and 70s have still not integrated well. Letting in a million migrants now from decidedly non-German and non-European regions will surely encourage millions more to follow suite, turning Germany into the kind of country that the US was in the 19th century, and that Australia was after WWII: a country that took in the desperate, the poor, and the strange.

Judging from the popularity of this openness, the pronouncements of the politicians, and the touching scenes of hospitality shown, the Germans also seem to realise the historical significance of what they are doing: they are embracing the change in their culture that will come with newcomers from other cultures. The stories of the Grimm brothers will cease to be the story of German ancestors and become the stories of Germany. Goethe will cease to be a Germanic poet and will become the poet of Germany. Christianity will cease to be the religion of most German ancestors and become a contentious inspiration of German culture. German beer and sausages will cease to be the food of all Germans and become the food of the majority. Etc. To be German will cease to be about ancestors and become something connected to a passport and a German education, something that one can attain within 20 years rather than within 20 generations.

What a turnaround! Why on earth? Continue reading

Unions, neoliberalism and the royal commission

The furore of the last few days over the Trade Union Royal Commission and revelations about serious and illegal underpayment of workers (especially foreign students) by 7-Eleven, Australia Post and others have brought into sharp focus a wider political question.  This article deals with the first of them, and I’m aiming to write a post about the second over the weekend.

It is increasingly clear that neither the political nor industrial wings of the Labor movement have come to terms with the full implications of the neoliberal revolution that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating embraced and set in motion from 1985 onwards.  Labor is far more interested in discrediting Royal Commssioner Dyson Heydon at just about any cost than in confronting the evident systemic problems that its hearings have revealed.

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Hayek – left right and centre

My friend Martin Stewart-Weeks points me to this piece by Simon Griffiths which argues that “an engagement with Hayek does not mean a capitulation to the market”. Quite. Indeed it’s always struck me that it’s a pity that Hayek pursued his ideas in such a tendentious way. He had a great critique of the necessary foibles of central planning and he won that debate, even if it took until the fall of the Berlin Wall to really drive the victory home.

I wonder how much this is actually typical of many political philosophers. They start with some ideological intuition they want to support and then produce a set of considerations that tend in that direction. Still I think Hayek’s ideas and sensibilities have plenty of implications that don’t point particularly clearly to the right, implications that Hayek, and sadly, so many of his followers show virtually no interest in. Continue reading

Forging a more encompassing politics: solving the Greek crisis – a thought experiment

greece-v-germanyEveryone is charging into print on the smoking ruin that the Europeans will be leaving Greece after the latest barely believable debacle in which the newly elected government Syriza, after receiving the overwhelming support of its electorate to reject the punitive terms of the payday lending it was being offered went back to Brussels and asked where to sign.

Jeff Sachs makes a good case that the root cause of the problem is insufficiently inclusive institutions. He offers the excellent analogy with the American Articles of Confederation: Continue reading

The Iran nuclear deal: a new détente between the Shi’ites and the non-Muslims of the world?

The Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s meant a huge shift in Middle-East politics and the relation between Islam and the rest. Within a period of just a few months, the ancient civilisation of Persia went from a strong ally of the West, to a committed enemy of Western interests. In the next 35 years, the US became the Great Satan; fatwas were pronounced on Salman Rushdie; and Iran got involved in conflicts from Afghanistan to Lebanon. In reaction, Iran was isolated and economically crippled with sanctions.

Now there is an accord between all the 5 permanent UN security members on the one hand and Iran on the other hand. It is thus not merely the US, but also Russia, China, and Europe that has wanted this deal, which involves a lifting of economic sanctions in return for UN inspectors going to suspected nuclear weapons production sites and Iran getting rid of its stock of enriched uranium.

Looking beyond the nuclear issue, this re-alignment with Shi’ite Iran makes perfect geo-political sense. The non-Muslim world, including Russia and China, finds itself in conflict with predominantly Sunni fanatics in a large number of countries. The Chinese authorities worry about their Muslim Uygur minority which is turning increasingly violent. The Russians are battling Muslim minorities in the Caucasus and in the South-East Siberian rim. France and the UK battle Muslim fanatics both at home, in Africa, in Afghanistan/Pakistan, and in the Middle East. The US pretty much fights Islamic militancy everywhere, cheered on by pretty much every non-Muslim power block.

‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, a well-known Arab saying goes, which makes Iran the natural ally of the whole of the non-Muslim world as Iran’s friends have come up against Sunni enemies too in recent years. Continue reading

The Grexit deal, Varoufakis, and anti-greek sentiments

The deal yesterday morning between the Greek PM and the Eurozone Finance ministers is an agreement to reform before talks. By tomorrow evening, the Greek parliament has to accept 4 pieces of legislation on a large range of issues (pensions, labour markets, taxation), after which the other 19 Eurozone countries will start negotiations on another bailout. The European Central Bank has refused any loosening of the conditions for more loans to banks, meaning that Greece will have to keep up its end of the deal whilst its banks are essentially bankrupt and the rest of the countries take their time to negotiate and decide whether they agree with the outcomes.

Any negotiated bailout will need unanimity to go ahead. So the Fins, whose government is dependent on the ‘Real Fins’ who are adamant that there will not be more money going to Greece, would have to agree. The Dutch liberal party PM, who brought a long list of broken Greek reforms to the attention of the Eurozone meeting (backed up by the Slovenians and others) would have to break an election promise not to send any more money to Greece. The German parliament, which is being inundated with stories of Greek corruption in the German press, would have to agree. The Baltic, Irish, and Portugese governments would also have to agree to more money for the Greeks, when the Greeks failed to push through the reforms that they did implement the last 6 years.

Forget it. Not gonna happen. Discussions on whether the reforms are useful or whether they would push Greece into another recession are beside the point: the outside money has dried up and Greece will have to live within its means whilst its government and its banks are bankrupt, so you should see the agreed-upon reforms as the first step of Greece outside the Eurozone. A tragedy for the population of Greece. Continue reading