The bastards and other unwelcome visiting forces

This year one of my Melbourne University student nieces has been living in a house in Park Drive, Parkville, not far down the street from where I lived in 1980-81 while a student myself.

I have fond memories of my house companion Father Arnie Hogan, an Irish Jesuit moral theologian who'd made his life in Australia. In facing the demands of his religious superiors, he had a battle cry - Don't let the bastards get you down! - which he'd sometimes express in Latin to give it elevated status.

His sense of self-preservation came to mind a few days ago while I was listening to an interview with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in the podcast On Being.

She urges us to have compassion for ourselves. She was speaking about 'equanimity', which is the capacity of our hearts to stand back and see what we're being put through, by others and ourselves. It's the ability to hold these things at a distance in an attempt to avoid having them cripple us. It's keeping in check 'visiting forces' such as greed, hatred, jealousy and fear. The bastards in our lives.

Over the years, my visiting forces have included Catholic guilt and other forms of self-loathing. Fortunately they have substantially fallen away and these days I care about different things, such as respecting the people around me, and the cultural and environmental heritage of the world I live in. These sound like motherhood statements but they're real for me.

If I want to, I can catch a glimpse of my past self-loathing by going to my bookshelf and picking up one of the diaries from my tormented teenage years. However I choose not to do that. Instead my meditation is on the equanimity of my life now, even if my 'inner city elite' state of privilege puts me out of touch with many of my fellow human beings.

Respect as a crowd pleaser

In August, my mother's cousin Bill contracted the coronavirus and quickly died in his Melbourne aged care residence. I'd met him only once, when I paid a visit while passing through Melbourne on my way to Gippsland last February. In fact I got to know him only in recent years, when he started reading and responding to my Tiny Letters.

What struck me was that he never took issue with any of my commentary, even though I was sure that my opinions were not his. He'd been a career public servant in the Department of Finance and remained a keen follower of news and current affairs until the end. He was a contemporary of Cardinal Pell at school and, in his emails to me, never sought to distance himself from the cardinal.

When I was young, I would make sure I knew which side of the political fence a person stood, and then judge them accordingly. But if I judge somebody these days, it's much less likely to be about ideology than the degree of respect they hold for those with opinions different to their own.

I remember spending time with an Opus Dei representative at a religious media conference some years ago. Afterwards it was disarming to admit to myself that I liked him and enjoyed his company even though we must have been poles apart ideologically. I felt respected by him and I respected him in turn. I found myself wondering what made him tick and was consciously determined not wish him ill, even if I still loathed what Opus Dei stood for.

I cherish the moments when rival politicians show empathy for each other, in comments they make or in their exchanges during media appearances.

On yesterday's ABC Insiders, Federal Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek expressed solidarity with the besieged NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian. She said: 'I feel actually, as a human being, very personally sorry for the premier... It is hard to form and maintain relationships in our line of work.'

She rebuffed the interviewer's repeated attempts to have her endorse an attack dog newspaper commentary against Berejiklian that was written by Plibersek's Labor colleague Kristina Keneally, even though it was well argued and she probably agreed with it.

Recently I've started listening to podcasts of Ben Fordham's interviews from his 2GB breakfast radio program. Fordham replaced legendary shock jock Alan Jones earlier this year with a brief to wind down the offence levels in order to avoid public protest boycotting of the program's advertisers.

While Fordham maintains an uncompromising shotgun interview style, he manages to treat his interview subjects with respect. This is how he ended his interview with the local MP about the troubled plan to move a heritage building to make way for construction of the new Powerhouse Museum: 'Geoff Lee, the member for Parramatta. Good guy, bad idea'.

It's pleasing that the recent audience survey showed that Fordham has maintained Alan Jones' ratings dominance. This suggests respect can be just as much of a crowd pleaser as bullying.

Neighbourhood bonding in a time of social isolation

A few weeks ago, I was sitting outside my front door when a passer by smiled and said: 'You live in the best street in Sydney'.

She had a point. The street is known for its beautiful canopy of trees. It's also wide and quiet and five minutes walk to a sought after inner city alternative culture and shopping precinct.

When I arrived 27 years ago, there were still factories and warehouses. Many of the now gentrified residences were workers cottages. That's what they'd been for the hundred years or so since the street was constructed on a creek bed in the late 19th century.

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My first house was a small semi towards the top of the street. Then eight years later, I upgraded to a larger living space in a terrace twelve doors down.

During the lockdown earlier this year, I replaced the dead pot plant at my front door with a chair. Then I started sitting there most days. Like the old timer I have become while living in the street.

I didn't think it out too much. However I sense the chair placement was partly out of a desire to luxuriate in the tree canopy that I'd largely ignored all these years. But it was probably more that I wanted to be part of a neighbourhood, and it was a means to that end.

Somebody has probably written somewhere that a neighbourhood doesn't exist unless those living in it do something to make it happen. That's true.

I'm sorry to say that I spurned the neighbourhood making initiative of some people a few doors from my original house when I first arrived in the street. They invited me for a cup of tea but I politely declined out of shyness.

In the years since, that shyness has deprived me - and by extension my neighbours - of a sense of genuine neighbourhood.

But earlier this year things began to change. A couple from across the road left a packet of small Easter eggs and a nice note in our letterbox.

Then we reciprocated a month or two down the track by leaving some rhubarb compote at their front door. A while later, they accepted our invitation to afternoon tea. Now I often wave to them when I'm sitting on my chair and they're walking their dogs.

The chair has facilitated nods and eye contact and sometimes conversations with other neighbours, as well as passers by from other streets, and residents from the more densely populated warehouse conversion apartment blocks at the bottom of the street. I like to think that this year of necessary social isolation has also been for me, a time of social bonding and neighbourhood making.

Canberra gazing

Yesterday I did a day trip by train to Canberra. That is something I get to enjoy a few times a year. I have the time and the means and the desire to get out of space-poor inner city Sydney, to an urban setting that is culturally alive but offers fresh air and open space in a bush setting.

Like capital cities in many countries, Canberra is an indulgence that all Australians are entitled to use but most don't. Its cultural institutions attempt to define the nation, which is important for social cohesion and the sense that we all belong. It's about continuing education, and encouragement to specify what we like and don't like about professional curators' ideas of Australian identity.

On my visits to Canberra, I sometimes catch up with a friend of nearly 40 years, which is what I did for the first couple of hours yesterday (he told me he regretted the infrequency of my Tiny Letters, hence this one). We walked nearly 10km around Lake Burley Griffin and the Molonglo River reserve, which is a nature and recreational reserve reclaimed from dairy farming. Then I spent the rest of the day at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia.

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These two institutions, along with the National Library, are the ones I visit most, as they are a convenient 40 minute lakeside walk from the Railway Station.

The Portrait Gallery is probably my favourite. Currently there's the 'Pub Rock' exhibition of images of popular musicians from five decades from around 1960. There are depictions of groups such as Sherbet (pictured), which were very much part of my teenage years, and others such as Midnight Oil, which were less part of my formation, as their heyday was during my years of religious life rebellion against popular culture.

But there doesn't have to be a special show for me to come alive studying the regular collection's photographs and paintings of Australians whom the curators have judged notable. I guess they have to focus on the rich and famous, but the images I like most are of Australians I've never heard of. Yesterday's visit inspired me to imagine the photos from my collection I'd put in a portrait gallery of notable people from my own life.

The National Gallery is preparing for a larger exhibition opening next month, but there's the main collection and several small exhibitions. I saw some of them last time, but one titled 'The Body Electric' was new to me.

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I thought it was going to be about the female gaze at the male body as an antidote to image-making's dominance of the male gaze at the female body. It was. But it was much more than that, exploring androgyny and gender fluidity, and also ways of subverting sex consumerism.

Polly Borland (image pictured) is an Australian artist who has lived and worked in the US for many years. She has some artfully ugly images that are 'resistant to easy consumption', and - in contrast to regular pornography - they deliberately 'refuse to satisfy'. She likes to subvert the marketers' hold on our sexual desires, where '[sex is] controlling us, we're not controlling it'.

The question of toppling statues

One of the readers of my last Tiny Letter emailed with a question she thought I might answer in my next. She gave me a reason to write another Tiny Letter. Perhaps others will do the same.
 
Before I answer the question, I will say that the idea of a question for the blogger reminds me of how the musician Nick Cave writes his blog The Red Hand Files. 
 
Each of his blogs is an answer to a reader question. In the most recent, a New Zealander asks: 'Do you ever look back at your anthology and wish you had been more overtly politically outspoken?’ In the previous one, there is this from the UK: 'Would you consider compiling a list of 40 books you love?’
 
The question about books had me thinking about the bookshelves in the front room of my house, in a way that answers my friend's question. 
 
As I get older, I am becoming aware that each book on my shelves is in some way a memorial to a person or moment in my life. I think this was always the case, but now it's a thing I dwell on.
 
I sometimes reposition a book to give it greater or less prominence. Authors or subjects I feel warmly about get pride of place. Those at the other end of the spectrum are relegated to a less desirable spot. 
 
There is one particular book that also has its spine reversed, to hide the title and author's name from view. Its author is my former brother in law, whose actions caused significant suffering to members of my family.
 
Why didn't I just toss the book in the bin?
 
My answer to that is also the answer to my friend's question, which incidentally was: 'I would be interested in your views re statue-toppling’.
 
It is that I want to avoid erasing all knowledge of people's misdeeds from my consciousness, because it amounts to a denial of history. 
 
In other words, it's best to preserve some memory of the anti-hero. Future generations need to know about bad deeds as well as good deeds.
 
Two years ago I visited the town of Stalin's birth in the Republic of Georgia. I was impressed that the locals refrained from toppling his statue when he fell from grace, or when they were celebrating Georgia's regaining independence from the Soviet Union. They simply moved it to a less prominent position.
 
My opposition to erasing the memory of anti-heroes also applies to place names. I have been following calls to rename Faithfull Street in Nick Cave's north-east Victorian home town of Wangaratta. It was named after a pastoralist who was involved in Aboriginal massacres in the 19th century.
 
Rather than removing Faithfull's name completely, I would prefer to see some kind of creative reversal of his honouring, such as renaming it Faithless Street.
 
What to do about Faithfull Street could be a question to put to Nick Cave.

The only kid in the class without a TV

These days I enjoy reconnecting with my media rich childhood in Albury-Wodonga, by reading the Border Mail newspaper online and watching the Prime7 local TV news. 

Yesterday’s paper included an obituary for Olgamary Savage (née Whelan), who was the first on air presenter at the TV station then known as AMV4. 

AMV4 commenced in 1964, when I was four years old. However my family did not purchase a TV set until 1966, I think because our mother wanted us to become devoted to reading rather than television. In my first year at school (1965), I was the only kid in my class whose family did not have a TV. It was clear to me that my mother was quite proud of that particular instance of child neglect. 
I never saw Olgamary on AMV4 because she got married and ended her mainstream career in 1965, before my family had TV. But I did know her as a colleague in the mid 1980s, when she was an interviewer and I was the production assistant on the Catholic Church’s niche current affairs program Sunday Magazine. We were given facilities and airtime on Channel 7 in Melbourne as part of their licensing agreement with the Federal Government.

Olgamary's life resonates with mine to the extent that it embraced both popular media culture and a keen sense of social justice and - importantly - an ongoing attempt to connect the two. This was the focus of Sunday Magazine, and also her political involvement on the NSW South Coast later in life.

Reconciling popular culture with social justice was also on my mind yesterday after reading a Q&A in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum supplement. It featured the perspective of 23 year old Greek-Australian popular culture archivist Michael Alexandratos, who has just released an audio compilation titled Before the Boomerang Came Back - Musical Aboriginalia (1949-1962).
The collection contains mostly kitsch appropriations of Aboriginal culture by white artists. I was listening to it on Spotify, and reading his fascinating academic paper on cultural appropriation, at the end of a week that saw continuing Black Lives Matter protests and streaming services banning content that includes blackface and other representations deemed to be offensive.

The paper, which is published on his blog Amnesiac Archive, refers to ABC Radio's 2015 banning of My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, a 1961 recording by English comedian Charlie Drake. Alexandratos argues: 'Although it may be an embarrassing legacy for some, it is also an important resource that Indigenous creatives and musicians can use to resist, re-purpose and de-colonise – on their own terms.’

He cites La Trobe University academic Liz Conor’s 2018 article in The Conversation - ‘The politics of Aboriginal kitsch’ - which savages cultural appropriation. He then quotes Wiradjuri elder Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s reaction to Conor: ‘She [Conor] attempts to convince Aboriginal people and others to think the same way that she does that we shouldn’t like Aboriginalia or have anything to do with it. How dare she!'

Obviously Conor was following the instincts of her own academic culture. She later updated her original article to say that she was ‘mortified’ that her attempt at respect turned out to be insulting.

That is a trap I’m sure I’ve fallen into more than once, and it is unwitting prejudice. I’m moved by the approach of former colleague Catherine Marshall, a travel writer whose adventures have schooled her in relating to cultures other than her own. A few days ago she published an article titled ‘How travel has changed me’ in the women’s travel magazine Travel Play Live.

Describing ‘[her own] face glow[ing] like a ghostly lightbulb amidst this communal flow of brown-skinned people’, Marshall sees herself as 'an obvious interloper … forced to adjust the viewfinder, to refocus as the telescope’s prisms invert the known world and subvert [her] place in it’.

Perhaps that’s how I felt as the only kid in a class of five year olds whose family didn’t own a TV.

Blind obedience and the Pell trial jury

While I was training to be a Jesuit in the late 70s, I learned about, and practised, ‘blind obedience’. I recall being told that if something appeared black but the superior said it was white, we were to put aside our own perceptions and reasoning and believe that it was white.

Rightly or wrongly, what I learned about blind obedience has informed my understanding of how juries work in the court system. Once a jury is properly constituted and successfully reaches its verdict according to the rules of the judiciary, we are to put aside our own opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused, in order to accept that the jury verdict represents the truth.

There will always be arguments to counter the jury’s conclusion, but we must either accept the truth of its verdict or keep our contrary reasoning and opinions to ourselves and our inner circles, out of respect for the rule of law that underpins the social order.

That is why I was dismayed last year when several prominent church related legal experts, and one archbishop, went public with their opinions contradicting the jury verdict. They all had the added authority of being respected community leaders, so I felt that their undermining of the credibility of the jury was especially threatening to the social order.

I thought that the right place for them to air their views was behind closed doors or within legal circles. I imagined that their opinions about the evidence of the witness might find their way into the minds of appeal judges in a manner that was not public, and I felt there was no harm in that.

I could appreciate the logic in their assertions, but to my mind it was not their place to raise doubts that would undermine public confidence in the rule of law.

In line with the principle of blind obedience, we all try to align our thinking with jury’s conclusion, again for the sake of the order of society. I remember writing the following while processing and reaching a positive assessment of the Pell jury verdict in my own mind:

The more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony.

Convinced as I was of my own opinion, and that jury verdicts are sacred, I’m now struggling to bring my mind around to conform with the judgment of the High Court, in the spirit of blind obedience.

Self-isolation to avoid the coronavirus

The coronavirus has changed the plans of many. I was to depart for Paris tomorrow, but now I’m staying put here in Sydney.

The decision was taken out of my hands by the the airline, which cancelled my flight. But in any case, I’d all but decided to abandon the trip after seeking personal advice from four doctors. Three of them said I should be OK to go but the one who said don’t go was the most persuasive.

I have a friend who travels to Paris several times a year who told me about his own fatalistic approach. If I hadn’t been somewhat fatalistic in the past, I would have missed a lot of the interesting travel I’ve done. But now I’m older and wiser and the circumstances are different to anything I’ve experienced before.

In recent weeks I’ve been consumed by opinion and media coverage relating to the coronavirus. I’ve noticed quite a divergence between views influenced by politics and those of medical experts able to speak freely.

One morning last week I heard the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan listing the deficiencies of the American response. He argued that Australia should be requiring quarantine from incoming US travellers ahead of those from any other country. Hours later, our PM followed Trump’s lead and did the opposite, restricting travellers from Europe.

In reaching my own position, I was most persuaded by the fearless passion and well-argued stance of Sydney immunologist Dr Dan Suan, whose Facebook post I read this morning. He said: ‘It is possible I will get into trouble for saying all of this. But now I do not care’.

Advocating strict social isolation, he contrasts the successful approach of a handful of jurisdictions including Hong Kong and Singapore - which isolated their populations early - with the costly delayed response of most other countries. He said Australia made a good start in efforts to ‘flatten the curve’, but urgently needs to take significant further steps before it is too late.

He said: ‘Hospitals are completely overrun in Northern Italy like they were in Wuhan... so many deaths. Spain is soon to follow, as are cities in America. I am deeply sad for what we are about to see unfold.’

I can now see the wisdom of rejecting the temptation to be fatalistic about my trip to Paris. It is lucky that I like being in my house in Sydney because I will be spending nearly all my time here, most likely for several months. My diary is 100 per cent clear for the next two months, the time I’d envisaged being overseas. Now, with very few exceptions, it will stay that way.

Jean Vanier and the abuse of celebrity power

Like many, I was saddened and disillusioned to hear reports last weekend that Jean Vanier had psychologically manipulated and sexually abused six women in France between 1970 and 2005.

Vanier was a French Canadian philosopher who founded the worldwide network of l’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities. He died last May at the age of 90.

I remember visiting the L’Arche Genesaret community in Canberra in 1985. I returned in 1990 to record interviews for an ABC radio documentary that won a Human Rights Commission media award later that year.

Vanier’s teaching, which was lived out in the communities, seemed to have particular resonance for me. It was that difference and diversity was to be celebrated and not shunned.

Vanier’s fall from grace does not change anything about my appreciation of his message. Instead it has me reflecting on the very human practice of idolising people whose values we like, and how our idolisation can set them on a path towards the destruction of themselves and others, in addition to bringing discredit to their message.

The US Jesuit writer James Martin said after Vanier’s death that ‘[Vanier] and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics’. In using the word avatar, Martin was referring not to the icons used to identify us in social media but rather the incarnation of gods in Hindu mythology.

Treating people like gods tends to have unintended consequences. In Vanier’s case, it seems to have made him a cult leader, complete with an adoring and unquestioning constituency and loyal deputies.

In his case, I think we have to ask why the loyal deputies did not see and report the signs that he was abusing the six women.

But we can’t lay all the blame on the deputies. I suspect we would act in the same way if we were in the shoes of the deputies because our religious and celebrity cultures ordain certain people and treat them with deference.

‘Ordain’ in this sense does not necessarily refer to religious priesthood, and sexually-abusing celebrities such as Michael Jackson are every bit as ‘ordained’ as Catholic priests who abuse their power and sexually exploit their subjects.

I think that we have to admit we are party to abuse of the power that comes with ordination if we don’t call it out when we suspect it. We are doing both the perpetrator and victim a profound disservice, not to mention the message that has drawn us in the first place.

Pushing the boundaries of sex education in 1973

Over the holidays I was saddened to hear of the sudden death of a former priest who was responsible for the boarders when I first went away to school in 1973 at the age of 13.

I understand he left the order in the early 1990s after his superiors upheld complaints from school parents relating to allegations of him pushing the boundaries on professional standards matters. Rightly or wrongly, that would have dogged him for the rest of his life.

I remember the young, not yet ordained Jesuit pushing boundaries in the boarding house one evening. This was when he gave us a spontaneous hour-long briefing about human sexual relationships.

We’d just watched a television program that included a reference which he thought required explanation. I think it might have related to syphilis.

In any case, he gave us exactly the sexual education that many today would argue we should have received from our parents and the school curriculum. At the time, if we asked our elders about syphilis, we’d usually be told that we ‘don't need to know about these things’.

In hindsight, I suspect there was an element of prurience in the young Jesuit's delivery of the information, and it's arguable that he robbed us of our innocence to some degree.

But I’d prefer to think that it was our ignorance that he took away, and that any child exploitation that might have occurred was outweighed by the benefit.

Looking back, he was prescient in that serious teaching about human sexual relationships in schools was to be one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships that was initiated by the Whitlam Government in that same year, 1973.

The final report (1977) called for programs ‘giving sex information and an integrated program covering related social and psychological matters’. The object was 'a community more open and tolerant in outlook, and better able to form meaningful relationships’.