Friday, October 30, 2009

Time to define the scope of media and lawmakers

The role and scope of issues proper for politicians to pursue will doubtlessly always be problematic. However history and real needs clearly question the role of legislators on questions related to moral values. When the world is facing crisis such as economic meltdown, climate change, various open and covert conflicts with the fallout of refugees, the broad ‘moral values’ arguments are increasingly suspect.

My short list on these would include:

  • Physician-Assisted Suicide (euthanasia)
  • Same-Sex Marriages/relationships
  • Legalization of Marijuana
  • Abortion
  • Censorship

These are perhaps Church-State issues, but social/demographic changes really put that concept into yesterday’s news. The marijuana issue is a case in point. While the laws in Australia still proscribe the substance the police and courts will not act against users unless there are more serious issues involved. I short, the laws has simply become irrelevant.

The same can be said of most of these personal choice issues, though economics enters the same-sex issues and assisted suicide seems to have an emotional stranglehold. I am on record for my opposition to censorship, particularly when it equates to ‘saving people from their own stupidity’. The ‘nanny-state’ is expensive in more than money terms; it further dilutes concepts of personal responsibility.

Diversions Vs real issues

As an avid proponent for an Australian republic, even I have to concede that the energy expended ridding us of an anachronistic monarchy will not show any great return in resolving real issues. All to often the moral or even constitutional issues serve merely as diversions from addressing the thornier questions.

We do need to focus on a range of vital social issues, but they are corporate rather than personal:

  • Broad economics
  • Universal Health Care
  • Education
  • Immigration
  • Affordable Housing
  • Climate change
  • Law & Justice
  • Human Rights
  • Poverty

These are the issues our politicians, and their partners in crime the media, should be focusing on. These are issues which should be dealt with free of histrionics and emotional language. But politics and the media slip easily into the cynicism of power, and by reneging on our duty of personal responsibility we allow them to lead us where they will.

Defining the terms

In part the problem is even understanding the words we use. In discussing this recently I had a young woman assure me that ‘women’s issues are political!’ Yet on further discussion she conceded that she did not mean in the sense of lawmaking. I expect, in broad terms, she meant that legislation needed to consider women’s issues. I agree, but not to the exclusion of equally or even more needful situations.

The problem will most likely always devolve to sectional and emotional interests. That is why we need a media and body politic evolved beyond the greed/power dynamic. These are of course personal reflections, so while I’m at it I can dream of a post-feminist, post-racist et al language. One where words and definitions unemotional, clear and concise. I don’t expect to find that in my Christmas stocking.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Great frauds of our times

The Economics of Innocent Fraud - J K Galbraith – 2004 – Pocket Penguin

Second hand bookshops are one of my great delights, something I have obviously passed on to my son. He recently picked up the most exciting ‘slim volume’ I have seen in ages and I have tripped over some fairly exciting tomes among used books. Galbraith, himself, described this book as an extended essay, I would add a meaty essay.

Despite the title, not all of these frauds are regarded as entirely innocent. Some like the ‘myth of two sectors’ and rebadging ‘capitalism’ are cited as intentional efforts to put a positive spin on the excesses of the corporate world. The first ignoring the increasing use of private sector resources in pubic sector activities; the second simply trying to escape the negative connotations of corporate behaviour.

On nomenclature Galbraith does concede the change in the nature of modern corporations, from the absolute control of the owner/founder or main influence to a more anonymous and devolved bureaucratic style, yet even in that reality he perceives a fraud. It might be a small book, but one that draws the reader back again and again.

Sentiment and Applied fraud

Judging from incoming Google search terms there is a great curiosity around the world as to why Australia escaped much of the fallout from the global economic crisis. Doubtless sound economic underpinnings from previous governments helped enormously, but the Rudd government have capitalize on that dynamic while capturing solid voter support beyond anyone’s dreams.

The Rudd fraud, which I endorse, solidly links the economic dynamic with social policy. But the question continually raised is; are they doing anything? As the least radical government for a generation the answer is possibly no. We a qualified no, their strong point is sentiment, the feel good factor which serves to drive a society.

Australian media commentators and the ubiquitous TV comedians, are working overtime to burst the Rudd balloon, to expose the essential fraud. Kevin Rudd’s ‘magic’ is language, simple and repetitive. His public words echo his public’s desires and his more harsh private words seem easily accepted as just and proper.

While Rudd drives positive sentiment, in the electorate, with his judicious, respective assurance words the corporate and public sector are powerless to stop much needed reform and regulation. In the end the power people all have the same customers and at the moment Kev owns them.

While the sentiment is riding high, the right words are hammered home, this great fraud seems to be a positive for Australia. I’m sure Galbraith would approve. Even so, Rudd is a social conservative and not really inclined to the listen to the arguments of sectional interests. Unfortunately for me, my opposition to internet censorship can be easily ignored as arcane and beyond the ken of Kev’s masses. Win some, lose some; but I will continue to be a thorn all the same.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Medicinal words

Having only recently relocated to Melbourne I was delighted when fellow blogger, Lindsay's Lobes, invited me to an all day Life Writing conference at La Trobe University. A delight, I should add, slightly marred by mention of biography and autobiography, perhaps my least favourite genres.

As it turned out the day was about far much more than raconteur and name dropper dressed as autobiographer, or painful self disclosures, all bordering unsavory ingredients for gossip; this was an interdisciplinary investigation of how writing, words might have powerful healing effects.

In fact it went further than text, looking into visual stimulus as well as potential triggers for the bodies inbuilt curative mechanisms. I do not intend a blow by blow account here, the day was far too intense for that. Rather I will recount a few highlights and impressions of this ongoing journey of discovery.

Take two pronouns and call me in the morning

The keynote speaker, Melbourne psychologist Doris Brett was an inspired choice. Her talk was on a research project which is showing empirical evidence of a relationship between written expression and physical healing – mind and body resolving their own issues.

Without going deeply into the methodology of the study, it was found that a specific exercise produced a measurable improvement in the subjects wellbeing. The focus was on trauma and the most effective exercise required the participants to write, without any constraints, about the facts and emotions of some trauma in their lives.

Researchers found two interesting factors here. The first is that most people can relate a very personal and moving trauma. The second is that even relating someone else’s trauma had a curative effect on the writer. That all had to do with measuring issues such as blood pressure and those other medical things which are beyond me.

It is no secret that aggressive and obscene language, generally used as weapons anyway, have a deleterious effect on health and wellbeing, for the user and receiver alike. These are the big, powerful weapons of language. Doris revealed the health giving antidote was in fact those little, seemingly insignificant pronouns. I won’t pretend to understand that, but refer as she did to a paper: Chung, C.K. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2007)

The ineffable condition

With so many speakers during the day it was not surprising, and welcome, that some were ‘boring’ It was amusing to find that one persons boredom was another’s joy. Some I spoke with found the presentation of host Richard Freadman boring, though words like incomprehensible crept. Richard’s subject was Life writing and illness in Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eyes.

I have not read the book so can only relate through Richard’s words. It is supposed to be an autobiography, though given the inclusion of chapters on broader history and actual fiction, confirms my view that the genre of autobiography is problematic at best. Unalloyed self analysis must rank alongside Alice’s six impossible things before breakfast.

In part the contradictions arose from Clendinnen’s own assertion in her book that the autobiography was in fact a lie. I admit I have been toying with a blog on the nature of the lie for some time, but really don’t understand the truth of the matter. The most complete definitions are often legal and far fall short of explanation.

Richard’s presentation layered contradiction on dichotomy and back again. In private I made one of those observations I generally regret as it emerges: “I closed my eyes to better concentrate and thought Stanislaw Lem had stepped up to the rostrum.” Thankfully he took it well, and the fact is, unlike Lem, he had not invented the situation and more importantly did not invent a solution.

Richard in fact demonstrated that knowledge is a minor part of the intelligence equation, even an ape can know things. It is curiosity and the courage to go down the road of the unknown which distinguishes intelligence. It is the in the ability to admit ignorance in the quest for understanding, to step into new realms and throw issues into the wider world for, hopefully, a collaborative resolution. I have to say I was impressed by this academic afire with questions rather than pat answers.

In Retrospect

I will happily admit that I am unused to the intense intellectual weight this day imposed. Given the number of speakers and the diversity of aspects canvassed around the central issue of writing as a curative, I simply felt like a sponge soaking up as much as possible. It was only later, given time to digest this over egged) puddin’(for me at least, salient issues emerged.

I am sure, on reflection, that Richard has seen as I now have, that the second speaker, distinguished medico and writer Tony Moore, answers some of the contradictions raised by Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eyes. I have no intention of denigrating Moore, in fact I can actually relate to what I saw with ease.

Tony is an able and engaging speaker, but a performer, and somewhat reluctant at the conference. His body language and demeanor made a lie of the words; but not immediately obvious I concede. A consummate performer. Trussed in a jacket zipped to a high collar, hands thrust deeply in pockets, Tony laughingly allowed that he would rather be back at his writing than speaking.

That was made obvious when he disappeared as soon as was socially acceptable. Again, I don’t criticise, as a writer I too suffer from a almost obsessive yearning for retreat from the world.

An issue of definition

There is a contradiction in that perhaps, writing of humanity and needing to be separate from humanity to do that. Tony made it clear in response to a question, that his writing demanded that he was separate from the subject, i.e. his accident recovery.

There were suggestions, as the conference progressed, of a problem with definition. In our literate society many people believe they can write, and of course they can to a pedestrian level. But the issue of being a writer and being able to write seemed to create an unnecessary conflict. The potential medical use of writing is vastly different from writing as a skill. The fact is writing, regardless of creativity, is a craft much like a blacksmith of old perhaps.

The noise in a writers head excludes, or needs to exclude, interference as much the noise from the smith’s hammer blocks others. Simply sorting that noise into an understandable narrative is difficult enough. Knowing that if the message is not understood by the reader there is no message is overriding. Little wonder the writer craves a solitary environment, and not as an antidote or curative.

I thank Lindsay and all the participants at the conference for the opportunity to be part of an exciting concept which I look forward to participating in at some time. Words and language must never be underrated. I expect the 'craftsman' writer does have a role to play in this program, but possibly more to do with communication than writing skills.