Surrealism will make America great again

I was intrigued and then dismayed and then intrigued again after I read this week that 'surreal' had been named Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year. It's a word associated with the early 20th century intellectual movement that gave artistic expression to Freud's theory of the unconscious.

It turned out that the popularity was more about finding a word - any word - to describe the astonishing nature of Donald Trump's election win in November. 'Surreal', it seems, has been hijacked as a stronger alternative to words such as 'bizarre' or 'oddball' that were considered inadequate to describe the unprecedented nature of the Trump victory.

Salvador Dali The Melting Watch 1954

It's true that it has tended to be used in a grasping or dismissive manner that diminishes the precision of the original meaning. That was the source of my dismay. Also it is obviously a publicity stunt by the American dictionary company, based on nothing more than statistics of the volume of word lookups on its website.

But I was curious to explore further and went to The Conversation, where I found an excellent explainer article. It was from February and predated the spikes in lookups for 'surreal' on the dictionary website.

The article depicts surrealism as a 'revolution of the mind' that freed the mind from rational and utilitarian values and constraints, in favour of the 'transformative possibilities of the imagination'. It has surrealism 'reconciling the contradictory states of dream and reality into a more potent form of reality'.

This does ring true for me, and indeed it is very exciting. It could be used to introduce compassion into Australia's asylum seeker policy. But I am more disturbed that it is being exploited to affirm the Trump victory as a good thing.

According to the new logic, America and the world are freed from the odious system that Clinton represented and have entered an imaginative transformation that will reconcile the dream of 'making America great again' with the fearful reality of a civilisation that lost the War Against Terror instigated by Trumps opponents. That is surreal.

My traumatic memory of Davao City gun violence

Last night an SBS TV news report on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte triggered for me a difficult memory from my own stay in Davao City in 1983-84. Duterte was quoted telling business executives that he personally killed people while he was serving as mayor of Davao City several times from 1988.

The memory is consistent with Duterte's narrative about the lawlessness that existed in the city at the time and is now fostered by Duterte himself. It is from my stay with a poor family in a squatter area of the city as part of a three month exposure or immersion program that I did as part of my Jesuit formation.

President Duterte - I was looking for an encounter so I could kill

The family lived in what I recall was a two room hut that was one of many built on a wooden platform over a swamp next the Jesuits' Ateneo de Davao University High School, the school Duterte had earlier been expelled from for misconduct. One of their sons had been killed days before in gun violence. I remember noting that he was about my age (23), or perhaps younger.

I vividly recall seeing the body laid out in a glass top coffin in one of the two rooms. I remember thinking that it looked peaceful and dignified even though he would have died in violent circumstances. It was only the second time I had seen a dead body (the other being my father four years earlier). For the duration of my two day stay, mourners would come by to pay their respects, as was the custom.

I guessed that the family must have agreed to having me stay, some time before this tragedy occurred, and felt that they could not withdraw from their commitment. But they did not seem particularly embarrassed or concerned about this circumstance of my visit. They played it down. I'm not sure if that was because they were embarrassed or in some kind of denial, or if - unthinkably - it was nothing out of the ordinary.

It could not have been true, but I couldn't help thinking that they regarded my visit as more important than the need to honour their own son in the wake if his killing. There was so much I did not know about what had happened. They did not give details and I did not ask.

In fact I was struck dumb by it and did not want to know any more. After saying goodbye to the family, I did not mention it to anyone. It was an experience unlike any I'd had before, and I could not process it. The Jesuits in the university community where I was based would have offered me good support, but my instinct was to repress it. It was something that I just put in a drawer like other souvenirs of my three month experience, and I have never spoken about it since.

There was another experience that I did talk about frequently because it involved a minor shock that I could handle much more easily. I even used it as an anecdote to report generally on my Philippines experience after my return to Australia. I was staying with somebody elsewhere in the country and observed a pistol in the drawer of his bedside table when he opened it. He saw that I noticed and was shocked, and explained that it was necessary to have a gun handy. That was a memory I could process and in fact dined out on it.

Both of these memories are consistent with the violence and lawlessness we are now hearing about during the Duterte presidency. I spent quite a lot of time visiting tribal peoples with the articulate and outspoken Irish Columban missionary Father Sean McDonagh, who would generously and helpfully interpret Philippine society and politics for me. Central to his narrative was the refrain 'life is cheap' in the Philippines.

Another socially aware figure who would share his analysis with me was a young Jesuit Joel Tabora. I noticed from a Google search this morning that he is now 69 and currently President of the Ateneo de Davao University. He has a long and very balanced interview from six months ago in a national newspaper, in which he goes a fair way towards justifying what Duterte is doing.

The interview does add some perspective to what is occuring in the Philippines. I took it as a suggestion that our rush to criticise Duterte's encouragement of extrajudicial killings requires more nuance than we as outsiders tend to give it. It helps me to begin to make sense of my freshly triggered memory of the slain son of my 1983 host family.

To care or not to care about the political process

Today is the one month anniversary of my almost daily TinyLetter and its publication as a blog at

The first blog was written soon after the shock election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. I criticised those protesting against the election result as doing exactly what Trump vowed to do if he'd lost, which is to cry foul at the 'rigged' election.

My blog had been passed on to a friend in the US, who reluctantly admitted Trump had been democratically elected, 'like many despots'. But he defended the protestors, suggesting that Americans would be 'in deep trouble ... If [they didn't] resist [Trump's] behaviour and someone who does not respect the constitution'.

Trump thumbs up
Today I look at it a little differently. The protestors are not so much sore losers as engaged citizens who honour the nation's democratic conventions and are not willing to tolerate anyone riding roughshod over them, even if that person is the democratically elected president-elect.

Every day we are seeing evidence that this is exactly what Trump is doing. Overnight we had confirmation that the new secretary of state will be oil chief executive Rex Tillerson, who has no government experience and is compromised by his close personal ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. A few days ago he named climate skeptic Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

So the question is whether to fight or despair.

My American friend, who is a priest, mentioned that he'd just presided over a liturgy for the Thanksgiving holiday and had led the congregation in singing 'We Shall Overcome'. This followed the recitation of a prayer written by Sister Joan Chittister that pointed to 'deep commitment to the common good' and praised leadership that respected the 'unity of differences' that eludes the nation at this moment.

Yesterday I was speaking to another friend in Australia who was disappointed with the cynical attitude to politics of a former colleague who'd proudly voted 'donkey' at this year's Federal Election as a sign of his despair.

I now consider that such donkey voters are unwittingly doing more harm to democracy than the protestors who cried foul at Trump's democratically legitimate victory. In ceasing their engagement with the political process, they are lending support to the unworthy candidates they despise.

Earlier this week, I had another conversation in which I reflected upon my own engagement with politics, in the sense that I have recently started to spend less time listening to audio podcasts about politics and more time listening to music. I would like to think that this is a sign not of my own despair with politics but an introduction of more perspective in my life that might lead to less one-eyed and more creative ways of engaging with politics. It will hopefully make me more curious about the 'unity of differences' that Sister Joan Chittister refers to.

My perspective on Marcos' reburial as a hero

If I was dead I would roll in my grave. Current cowboy President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has allowed the remains of the country's former reviled corrupt dictator President Ferdinand Marcos to be reburied in the Heroes' Cemetery within Fort Bonifacio in Metro Manila.

This has occurred 27 years after his death and 23 years after his remains were flown to the Philippines from Guam. He died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, three years after public outrage had led to the snap elections of 1986 and the People Power Revolution in February 1986, which removed him from power.

The turning point had been public reaction to the assassination of his rival Senator Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino in August 1983, just a couple of months before I travelled overseas for the first time, to the Philippines for three months, when I had just turned 24.

It was an 'exposure' experience that was part of my Jesuit training, and certainly a formative experience at a time when I was impressionable. I visited the Australian priest Brian Gore, who had been jailed for advocating for the rights of sugar workers. I spent time living with a destitute family in a squatter area in makeshift housing in a swamp in the southern Mindanao city of Davao.

Anti-Marcos protest Davao City 1983

But for the most part, I lived in comfort in the Jesuit Ateneo de Davao University while I did a kind of internship at the Mindanao Development Centre, which was a Jesuit work devoted to social action on behalf of the poor.

I was very happily and fervently caught up in the people's power movement that was prompted by the Aquino assassination believed to have been ordered by Marcos. I participated in events such as the 'yellow power' march through the main street of Davao every Friday. I am pictured in one of the marches, second from the left.

These days I follow developments in the Philippines through the excellent writings of Fatima Measham in Eureka Street. She migrated to Australia about ten years ago after completing her degree at the Ateneo de Manila Jesuit university.

After the reburial of the anti-hero Marcos in the Heroes' Cemetery, she wrote this week that 'young Filipinos, observing recent political disorder, had begun wondering whether Marcos was really that bad'. But predominantly 'the mood that prevailed throughout Philippine social media that day was one of intense disgust'.

The presence of millennials in the protests also demonstrates that protecting the truth matters... There had been real concern over the past few years that the distance of time, the lack of a definitive account in textbooks, the fact that Marcos' children hold political office, that not enough people were punished for embezzlement and human rights abuse — that these would lead to distortions and erosions of memory.

I am interested to explore possible parallels with protest in the United States following the election of Donald Trump as President. In a blog two weeks ago I castigated the protestors there for undermining democracy by refusing to accept the result. They were calling the election rigged in the way that Trump himself was expected to had he lost as was almost universally anticipated. A Jesuit I know in California reacted to my opinion, insisting that it does not represent the full story. I am interested in the full story and intend to write about it within the next few days.

A morning with the Doddery Diplomats

This morning I went to a gathering of an unnamed group of around ten retired Australian diplomats at the Glover Cottages meeting place of the Australian Institute of International Affairs at Millers Point in the Sydney CBD (pictured).

There were presentations and discussion over three hours around the topic of what should happen to Australian foreign policy during the Trump presidency. The focus was on whether the ANZUS alliance does and should have a future.

Glover Cottages

The convenor is a friend of mine and I think he asked me along to help make up the numbers. I was more than happy to attend, even though I knew I would be the only participant without foreign policy expertise. Fortunately they made me feel very welcome and I did not feel out of place.

He self-deprecatingly referred to the group as the Doddery Daiquiri Diplomats. In fact it included a lot of sharp minded individuals with energy and determination and a strategy to play a part in the shaping of Australian foreign policy at a time when it is at the crossroads.

The consensus was that it is time to let Australia's 'insurance policy' ANZUS alliance fade into obscurity. It was suggested that the costs of the insurance 'premium' - including Australia's commitment to the conflict in the Middle East - are not worth the questionable benefit.

In other words, there is little certainty that the US would come to Australia's aid at a time of crisis, and indeed the alliance with the US could well draw Australia into a nuclear crisis. Specifically, America's heavily reliance on the Pine Gap defence intelligence facility in central Australia is such that it would probably be an early target in the event of a nuclear conflict involving the US. The nuclear fallout would impact Sydney and Melbourne.

In considering whether politicians would be willing to listen to the Doddery Diplomats, it struck me that the group was too principled to play its strongest card in its lobbying for exiting the alliance with the US. That is the fear card.

We've seen how politically effective it has been for party leaders to cultivate and exploit people's fear of asylum seekers arriving by boat. It's easy to imagine politicians acting to end our reliance on the US if it is brought into the minds of ordinary Australians that a cost of this alliance is the very real prospect of a nuclear attack on Pine Gap.

I hardly think the Doddery Diplomats are going to propose some kind of Grim Reaper fear campaign. They are not politicians. They favour education and cultivating strong and effective diplomatic relationships over playing with the insecurities of the Australian people. The unfortunate reality is that it has been demonstrated that fear is more likely to get results.

Trump's death-tweet a lesson for Turnbull

One reader of yesterday's TinyLetter hit reply to the email and suggested the 'spineless' Turnbull reference could have been a bit personal [replies are always welcome]. She said she regretted doing the same to John Howard in something she wrote a few years ago. 'Better to criticise his policy rather than his character'. 

The free advice I would offer the current PM is to lose his sense of humour for a while - in order to enhance the dignity of his office - and not be too generous in assisting the media with its lazy portrayal of him as the hapless lame duck.

​Yesterday there was an element of playful self-deprecation in his trying it on with the selfie at APEC in Lima. Wouldn't it be nice for Turnbull if basking in the reflected dignity of President Obama would increase his stocks? Obama's dignity is legend, but it was too hard for Turnbull to exploit the outgoing President's star power and too easy for the Australian media to make him look pathetic.

Self-deprecation does not belong in a PM's playbook. Or at least not in this PM's playbook at this time. Rather than gift the media with opportunities to undermine his authority and trivialise the office of PM, he needed to take his cue yesterday from Trump rather than Obama.

Donald Trump was shamelessly trying it on with his calculated humourless slap down of Saturday Night Live performer Alec Baldwin's satire that targeted him. 'Totally one-sided, biased show - nothing funny at all'. Of course it was funny, but the President-elect wanted to short-circuit Baldwin's attempt to undermine the dignity of the Trump presidency before it begins.

Malcolm Turnbull is a good sport, and he would have paid Baldwin the compliment of laughing at the skit, even though the comedian was trying to trash his office. Trump, on the other hand, is an ungenerous control freak who won't give credit where it's due. But this time there's more to the death-tweet. Its gravitas is a likely attempt to make himself presidential. 

Constructive outrage

Outrage is on my mind. It’s not that I am feeling outraged. But I’m wondering if outrage can be constructive. Will it help to preserve the world that I cherish and want to see prosper?

The context is a mild mannered piece I wrote last week about the axing of John Cleary’s Sunday Night ABC specialist religious radio program and its replacement by comparatively bland lowest common denominator programming.

A friend emailed me saying that she was ‘outraged’ by ABC management’s staged dismantling of specialist religious broadcasting. What is at stake is a deeper understanding of the role religion plays in politics, culture, war and peace. This is necessary to counter the rise of religious fundamentalism.

I asked myself how I can be comfortable to sit by and let this happen.  

​I was also thinking over the weekend about the Rohingya asylum seeker who attempted to set fire to a suburban bank in Melbourne, injuring scores of customers. Many people will be citing this as a justification for Australia’s cruel policies towards refugees. In fact the incident in the bank is a result of the policies, and mental health issues caused by our treatment of refugees today will cause havoc in the future.

It makes sense. The 21 year old was anxious that he would be deported to Myanmar and his mental health had deteriorated. Refugee advocate Sister Brigid Arthur said of people in his situation: ‘They’re scared about the process itself. I know many who are just collapsing under the weight of it.’

My point is that we need such cool headed and rational explanation to complement the vocal outrage of others. Vocal outrage is useful in that it calls attention to the muted rationality that identifies the purpose of protest action. But vocal outrage alone achieves nothing constructive.

It resorts to name calling and character assassination without follow through. There’s no point in shouting ‘Turnbull is spineless’ if we don’t, acting together in an unthreatening manner, also provide a set of thought out policy proposals that might help Turnbull develop spine.

The darkened movie theatre of the post-truth world

This morning I was listening to the radio and heard a quote from Steve Bannon, chief strategist and Senior Counsellor for the Presidency of Donald Trump. He told the Hollywood Reporter: 'Darkness is good ... Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.'


There’s a lot we’re hearing at the moment that is intended to make us fearful. It’s life in the ‘post-truth’ world. People say things to get a reaction. During the election campaign, Donald Trump said a lot of things that he didn’t mean in order to get elected. It worked.

I think that the truth in Bannon’s comment is that real political power comes from turning off the lights to create darkness in a metaphorical movie theatre. The intention of this is to hijack our imagination and overwhelm our rational thought patterns with all kinds of grotesque images for the purpose of creating fear.

Fear paralyses our rationality. It makes us captive. It's the new slavery.

In a climate of fear, we make bizarre interpretations of human behaviour that drive us off course. Last Monday, I was walking north along Pitt Street in the Sydney CBD. There was a young man walking next to me at a similar pace who was moving his hands erratically. Suddenly he said in a slightly raised voice: ‘It’s time’.

My immediate thought was that he was indicating that he was about to unleash some kind of terrorist mayhem on what was one of Australia’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. So I discretely crossed the street and walked in a completely different direction, away from the where I was heading for my appointment.

Most likely he was talking on his phone using a hands-free device that was not immediately obvious. Probably he was listening intently to what his friend had to say, moving his hands as many people do, and exclaimed ‘It’s time!’ in response to something his friend had said.

That was the truth of the situation, yet in the darkened movie theatre times we live in, I am conditioned and compelled to fear the worst and take myself off course.     

My first Tiny Letter

I don't know how many Tiny Letters I will write. Perhaps only a handful. Or it may turn out to be something that lasts a long time. I've been retired for over a year now and it is starting to concern me that I am not doing any writing when writing and working on other people's writing was my job until a bit over a year ago. 

In a way, that's the way I want it. When I retired, I decided that I wanted to turn my life on its head and forget about sedentary activities for a while, and instead moving and exercising, for the sake of health and well-being, and change for the sake of change. 

So I've been using my Fitbit to reach my goal of 20,000 steps each day. Now I want to tweak that a little and do a tiny amount of writing each day, and perhaps let that morph into something that might strike a balance between self-indulgence and writing with a social purpose. I came across Tiny Letter in the New York Times at the weekend, so today I'm writing a Tiny Letter.  As I see it, it's a bit like The Morning Pages, but it's not private. 

I was introduced to that during a workshop I did earlier in the year, but it did not appeal to me because it was completely public, and I would like what I write to serve at least a tiny social purpose. So here it is. It's a little bit public, and potentially a lot public - or at least up to 5000 readers can sign up to the daily email. It's not my goal to be big, but to reach out beyond myself to anybody who is interested. 

It's significant that, in contrast to the thousands of email newsletters I published in my working life between 1994 and 2015, I don't care how many subscribers I have. It's a bit like, in retirement, I don't care how much money I earn. I'm off that treadmill and on another - quite literally, the treadmill in the gym. 

So what's on my mind today? It's my birthday. Normally it wouldn't be on my mind, but when I went to do a Google search, I noticed that 'Big Brother' Google knows it's my birthday and wants to rub it in that it knows it's my birthday. I don't especially like that, but it's a fact of life. I could write a lot about that, but I won't, for now. A few months ago I decided that I wanted to reduce the role of Google in my life and wanted to switch my email to Fastmail, a very robust Australian service with values that are much closer to my own. In theory 

I could have done that quite easily and kept the same email address, as I have a paid Google account that uses an email address from my own domain. But Google wouldn't let me do that without also losing all my other Google services including all the Android mobile phone apps that I had paid for over the years. So I am learning to accommodate Google in my life in much the same way that the world is having to learn to accommodate Donald Trump in their lives. 

I have a view about that which I will just touch on. It is that Donald Trump's election is not something that freedom and democracy lovers should protest against. If it could be demonstrated that the election was rigged, that would be another matter. But democracy has done its job and revealed that something is broken with the system. We might not like what it produced, but the way to react is not to slap down Trump and the 'deplorables' that voted for him, but to reach out to them in some way or another. Working out exactly how to do that is the challenge for those of us who wish that Trump was not the president elect. Protest is very much consistent with democratic principles, but protest against democracy is not.