Self-driving enlightenment

Stranger Country, Monica Tan, Allen and Unwin

Monica Tan is a 30-something journalist, a Sydney-dwelling, inner-city leftie with a frank, earthy vocabulary and a liking for a drink after work. Feeling fried from her fast-paced position at the Guardian, she quits her job, buys a white 4WD, stacks it with camping supplies and heads off for a year beyond the continent’s rim, into the red-stained interior to experience Country with a capital C.

She’s a city-slicker, alright. Although she learns a lot – how to make fire, negotiate country roads, gut a fish – she thinks wheat is harvested in bales, confuses meteors with comets, and refers to check shirts as ‘plaid’ shirts and utes as trucks, these Americanisms no doubt a product of her savviness with the latest media. But she ‘awakens’ to bird-watching, getting up early and infrequent showering.

It might be a cliché, but she hopes her year on the road will also awaken her to the land and its history. And, indeed, as soon as she hits Lake Mungo in outback NSW, she is reoriented to the Indigenous way of looking at time elastically, as well as initiated into unsettling questions about unreconciled cultures, perpendicular viewpoints. Here, for Indigenous people, bones in the sand, no matter their age, are not archaeological curiosities, but family members to be cared for.

She contrasts the prevailing Indigenous attitude to the land with the plundering attitude of mining companies, especially in the Pilbara, a Tolkienesque dystopia of flame-belching towers and gouged earth, where rock art sites have been destroyed, even though companies are mostly forced to protect areas such as the extraordinary Burrup Peninsula where there are thousands of petroglyphs spread across acres of iron-red boulders. She notes our hypocrisy when we deplore the Taliban’s iconoclasm while ignoring the same in our own back yard, though she misses the irony of criticising mining companies while burning tank after tank of fossil fuel for her self-driving enlightenment. As she notes elsewhere, there are no easy answers, complicity is rife.

As an Australian with Chinese background she is keen to find out about the Chinese contribution to Australian history, and muses that Australia’s lingering tight cultural connection to Europe is odd, considering Asia is so much closer. She wants to test the Chinese Australian city-dweller assumption that country people are racist, and feels comradely with Indigenous people because of a shared history of being discriminated against. But Indigenous and Chinese experiences differ. She is surprised and pleased to learn that the Chinese were so prevalent in Darwin that they experienced little racism, but she discovers the ‘uncomfortable truth’ that Chinese immigrants helped displace Indigenous people, and in our modern cities today Chinese Australians are simply part of the larger scramble for wealth so dissonant to much Indigenous experience.

At the mouth of the Murray River she thinks the mingling of fresh and salty water could be a metaphor for cultural harmony, and notes that the Chinese concept of ying and yang has resonance with Indigenous belief. But then again, she realises, things are not that neat.

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Not laughing now

Humour, Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press.

With hindsight it seems inevitable that Terry Eagleton would write a book on humour, since all his books are laced with it, and also because of its relationship to culture and politics. (The recent result of the Ukranian election perhaps confirms the link between politics and humour.) For Eagleton it has a serious purpose, though like other topics he has covered recently (sacrifice, culture, hope) humour is a loaded term, encompassing a range of forms and outlooks. It can be subtle or raucous, subversive or conservative.

Because, he says, humour feeds off the paradoxical, absurd and socially dubious it can challenge the status quo. It often pries into areas left unsaid in serious conversation (which is why sexuality is so often a topic of humour) and can prick the pretentions of the elite and egg-headed. Humour is a leveler.

This is why in centuries past ‘gentlemen’ were suspicious of it. The English middle classes cultivated a tradition of quiet humour that was often contrasted with bawdy working class humour, though some theorists have suggested that a general love of quiet humour unites the English, bringing together bourgeois and proletariat. (Eagleton’s humour is in the English genteel tradition even if he is politically radical. He uses humour as a means to charm in order to disarm, and it is a natural corollary of his disposition of hopefully pessimistic subversion.) Conversely, humour can convey superiority, as in racist and sexist jokes, which thinly veil contempt, as did the upper class celebration of wit in the eighteenth century. Yet it can also cultivate camaraderie, even when, and sometimes especially because, the objects of good-humoured derision are one’s friends.

Freud unsurprisingly emphasized humour’s ability to release tension, but this can have politically conservative effects. It can diffuse righteous anger, meaning unjust situations can go unchallenged. And a cynical brand of humour (so dominant in our own time) can suggest there is nothing we can do about things anyway.

There are many ways in which humour can seem contradictory. It can lighten a mood, but it also depends on mood, just as a disposition towards kindness can be encouraged by going out and doing kind deeds while sometimes kind acts have to be motivated by a suitable disposition. (Eagleton is attuned not just to humour’s many faces, but also how they tie into other social elements, especially regarding the welfare of others.)

Eagleton notes that Christianity has a mixed relationship with humour. Monasteries often forbade it, but Thomas Aquinas thought lack of humour was a sin, clergy often use it to engage, some theologians think it puts us in a more benevolent state of mind, and the Bible contains much humour, albeit often dark.

Humour is not an uproariously funny book, though it amps up Eagleton’s usual chuckling style with some good (but sometimes risque) jokes sprinkled throughout, including a delicious example from Bob Monkhouse: ‘They laughed when I told them I wanted to be a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now.’ (Close analysis reveals this joke’s clever use of paradox, self-referencing, self-deprecation and upending of a familiar phrase.) Typically, on display is Eagleton’s use of vivid phrases, quirky examples and theory reconstituted into palatable form. But also in typical Eagleton style, the attempt to illuminate humour’s many facets can blind; he can sound like a thesaurus or a bibliography. In outlining humour’s various forms, there is a danger the term becomes so multifarious as to be meaningless, a danger Eagleton acknowledges. And there are elements of self-plagiarism, such as when in a discussion of clergyman philosopher Francis Hutcheson he compares kindness to a dish of prawns, a passage lifted almost verbatim from an earlier book Trouble with Strangers, giving the impression that he is a cultural theory recycling plant. But in going over old ground (perhaps a necessity in our amnesiac times) and seeing the topic in multifaceted terms, Eagleton is keen to reinforce how attending to subtleties and their implications can help us steer such cultural forces towards helpful ends.

Using the word ‘should’

For the Life of the World: Theology that Makes a Difference, Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, Brazos Press.

For those outside the Church, theology, if they even know what it is, is as redundant as phrenology or the telegraph, or at least as specialized and impenetrable as quantum theory. Even those within the Church can see theology as somewhat irrelevant. Ministers, alarmingly, are often too busy to read the stuff, or favour pop psychology or business management books instead.

There are a number of reasons for theology’s perceived lack of relevance, say Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, including the decline of mainstream Christianity. When they say ‘theology’ they mean ‘academic theology’, and indeed part of the problem is that theology has retreated into the university where it has become a victim of postmodern relativism (on the progressive side) or (on the conservative side) nostalgia and the interminable restating of old, abstract doctrines. The hegemony of the sciences too has meant that academic theology has become descriptive rather than prescriptive, afraid of the word ‘should’. Subsequently, the authors say memorably, theologians ‘stutter’ over theology’s purpose.

Volf and Croasmun aim to combat this with their ‘manifesto’, which argues that God doesn’t need theology; rather, theology is about us. Of course this is provocative, as the very meaning of the word suggests theology is about God. Volf and Croasmun fudge this slightly by suggesting that while God is theology’s subject, its purpose is the betterment of humanity (in the same way perhaps that agronomy’s subject is farming but its purpose is feeding humans).

If theology is about us, we may assume its main purpose is to articulate our spiritual rescue, but Volf and Croasmun ask, what have we been rescued for? Christian life is not just about repentance and accepting Christ so we are allowed into heaven. That would suggest merely an individualistic faith, and God’s rescue of a minority. Rather, the point of theology is that God sends Jesus so that all people can live well, starting in the here and now (much as the point of exercise is a healthy body). Volf and Croasmun describe this as human ‘flourishing’ (a term Volf has used extensively elsewhere), and it is the central concern of theologians across the ages (including, they add, Martin Luther). It also means that rather than think the Church is the only site of goodness, Christians can recognize signs of God’s goodness elsewhere (the whole Earth is God’s, the authors note) and can work with others who share their concerns for the redress of injustices, the cultivation of community, responsibility for others and the like.

This flourishing is not flourishing in the sense of wealth or fame, which generally work in contrast to the inevitable belittlement of others. This may seem obvious, but churches can be infected with such thinking in subtle ways – just look at the books dedicated to how Jesus’ successful training of his disciples can be used by business leaders to motivate their staff (despite the fact that Jesus’ disciples constantly misunderstood him and ran away when he was arrested), or the books on biblical principles for increasing your happiness. (Does the Jesus of the Gospels sound happy?). Neither is it just a version of postmodern ethics. Rather, flourishing is encompassed by the biblical phrase ‘the kingdom of God’, which involves a vision of the way things should be more than just the critique of injustices.

For the authors, this is obvious in Pauline theology, where Paul argues not only for a theology of God’s grace, but also for peace and joy as the goals of the Christian life, meaning that Pauline theology travels into the weekdays, an exercise in practical theology rather than historical theology. Paradoxically, working for peace and joy may mean peace and joy are challenged in our own lives, but this is a part of the now-and-not-yet nature of the kingdom, and the Christian focus on the other at our own expense.

In Paul’s theology, articulating the theology and living it out by trial and error go hand in hand. Volf and Croasmun argue for the importance of theology and theologians’ engagement with life – an outward focus, in other words, and one for which Volf at least has been recognized in previous work. Unfortunately their language could be less theologically academic, meaning that other theologians might need to do as they say rather than as they do.

Also, their snapshot of theological academia, and the state of seminaries, might be somewhat crude, in the process blaming academics for the Church’s lack of surety about what the purpose of seminaries are. And it might be somewhat unfair to drag historians working with the Bible or church history under the label of theology and then reprimand them for not being engaged in making their theology related to human flourishing (even if the authors state that the cultivation of knowledge can be good in itself). A remove from the practicalities of everyday life is not restricted to theology either but is a danger for all areas of academia. Nevertheless, Volf and Croasmun’s act of bringing to theologians’ attention how this danger specifically affects theology is helpful. And their insistence on the centrality of flourishing in the Pauline sense, rather than rescue only, speaks to the wider church.

Bucking trends

Factfulness, Hans Rosling, Hodder.

The positive side of Factfulness, from the late Hans Rosling, a book that revels in positivity, is that it reminds us that assertions should be based on facts not assumptions, and that things aren’t always as bad as they seem. Indeed, in many ways the world is getting better, with improvements in hygiene and medicine, for example. The media, especially the media on the political right, loves bad news, because it keeps us fearful, which in turn helps legitimise draconian laws and military spending, and helps promote the numbing effects of consumerism. And bad news sells newspapers. Who will keep reading or watching the news if we are told everything is fine? But Rosling (and his familial co-writers) provides plenty of statistics to suggest things are on the improve. In some areas.

When we are focussing on the bad, it’s important not to overstretch, over-dramatise and make tenuous connections. These days climate change is linked to everything. But climate change is simply part of a wider problem with pollution, extinctions, dwindling resources. Yet lumping problems under the climate change banner gets them noticed. Rosling, who is well aware of climate change as a problem, suggests that although we have information at our fingertips like never before, we operate on assumptions, prejudices and outdated data. But sticking to the numbers rather than rhetoric without basis is good.

Of course. But statistics can prove anything. They can be manipulated. And they speak to general trends which can turn into generalisations. I am wary about a few things in Rosling’s supposed fact-based optimism. The middle class is growing, he says. And there is less inequality between countries. Fine, but he neglects the Picketty argument that inequality within countries is growing. Homelessness is increasingly becoming a problem in a supposedly affluent country such as Australia.

And of course with a growing middle class comes consumerism, which Rosling says, apparently straight-faced, is good for global corporations. Indeed it probably is, but it creates more waste, more pollution, more strain on resources, and contributes to the climate change he is genuinely worried about. Work is more unstable, corporations have more reach into personal liberty, there is social disconnection. Rosling’s idea of improvement is not everyone’s, and sometimes amusing. Are more new movies or more guitar-ownership improvements exactly or just results?

He is silent about some things. He sees global warming as a problem, but does not have much to say about pollution from plastics, a direct result of increased consumerism. He thinks we talk about population problems because we erroneously project current rates of population growth into the future, and, rather, population growth is projected to taper off, but in many areas population is a problem now, and is linked to environmental problems. And the problem with equating technological progress with the rise of living standards everywhere encourages the view that we can keep middle class living standards because somehow the technicians, wherever they are, will fix any problems we have, with technology.

Attention to statistics and generalisations encourages its own assumptions and a blindness to particular instances that may be anomalous. (This is, incidentally, why Ludwig Wittgenstein was wary of an exclusive focus on facts. It can lead to a kind of utilitarianism and lessens the priority of the individual.) If statistics prove things are getting better generally, I am less inclined to worry about a particular cause of pollution, or that homeless guy at my shopping centre. It’s probably his own fault he’s bucking the upward trend.

Monument to mediocrity

Tiberius with a Telephone: The Life and Stories of William McMahon, Patrick Mullins, Scribe.

Tiberius with a Telephone is a biography of William McMahon, regarded as one of Australia’s worst prime ministers. (The title of the book comes from Gough Whitlam’s description of McMahon who, notoriously, was glued to the phone at all hours.) He was a victim of the Australian public’s weariness with the tail-end of the Menzies era and hunger for change, but also shot himself in the foot, with multiple blasts of narcissism, duplicity, rampant ambition, dishonesty, dithering and bombast.

One journalist described him as having ability but not character. Even his political allies were scathing. Menzies thought he was ‘dreadful’, ‘characterless’ and untrustworthy. A colleague said he tried to be statesmanlike but was more Machiavellian than any other politician. The Department of Foreign Affairs, which he headed, thought him ‘vain and silly’ and the least intelligent politician they had tolerated. When he travelled to the US as PM, the trip was, in the eyes of the Australian press, ‘gaffe-laden’, and he appeared ‘pedestrian’. His biographer Patrick Mullins notes that every achievement was counter-balanced by ‘muddles’ and unnecessary problems of his own making.

But a friend said his snappy dressing hid drive and persistence. Politically he did try to steer Australia in a more modern direction. He wound down Australia’s involvement in Vietnam and increased spending on childcare and education. But in the end he was outdone in progressive policy by Whitlam, and his time in office was overshadowed by the dramatic Whitlam election win.

Mullins reports on how in 1982 McMahon planned to set the record straight in a multi-volume autobiographical masterpiece and hired an editor to polish the edges. McMahon said readers would not believe all that he had to put up with. But, rather, the editor was amazed at what he had to put up with from McMahon and eventually gave up, calling McMahon ‘undeserving’, ‘unpleasant’ and worse. The editor would condense McMahon’s sprawling prose into new drafts only to find McMahon had returned to earlier ones or was adding still more diversions which would meander off into forests of details. McMahon had little sense of chronology or connection and would forget that speeches he’d delivered were not his own work but the work of speechwriters.

According to many, he had a sense of unreality. He was indeed persistent but couldn’t admit fault. His initial publisher gave up on the memoir and other publishers passed. McMahon nevertheless still believed it a masterpiece. Even his loyal staff were aware that if it were ever finished it would be in large part fantasy.

Born into a wealthy Sydney family, McMahon nevertheless suffered family tragedies which, along with school, instilled a certain energy, if not a thick skin (he was famously prickly at any criticism). He studied law but considered ballet, having a lifelong interest in the arts. He fell into candidacy for parliament when he was asked by a friend to fill in at the last minute at a Liberal function. He had a quick rise, partly due to backstabbing and self-boosting. He loved both detail and ideology, at times to the frustration of long-suffering colleagues.

When Harold Holt died, McMahon quickly saw opportunity, but Country Party leader John McEwen, a lifelong antagonist, ‘vetoed’ McMahon for the leadership. He undermined Holt’s successor John Gorton, and by the time McMahon did take the leadership, he had alienated half of the cabinet. As PM he complained about the press’s misreporting of government policy but refused to hold press conferences. He took power away from his ministers and into his own portfolio, which they took as an insult, then complained he had too much work. When Whitlam won and McMahon lost government, he blamed party disunity rather than any fault on his part, especially the wheel-spinning that had been occurring in his own office.

He was an Anglican because, he said, he saw the obviousness of original sin and the need to combat it, but it is contestable as to how much of the sin he saw in others he also recognized in himself. Mullins certainly doesn’t portray him in a light McMahon would have wanted. The book catalogues not only McMahon’s unenviable character traits, but also his unwavering capacity to be blind to them, but there is also grudging respect for McMahon’s tenacity in the face of the unlikelihood of his success. The book is a significant work, exhaustive and considered. While we might not have needed quite all the detail, it’s a remarkable effort in making an uninspiring political career into an engrossing read. From McMahon’s mediocrity Mullins has made a monument.

Everything’s fine

As someone with a (some might say perverse) interest in the Nixon presidency, I couldn’t help but notice Scott Morrison’s reference in his acceptance speech to the ‘quiet Australians’ (in Queensland) who helped re-elect him and his government, which echoes (maybe consciously, maybe not) Nixon’s famous reference to the ‘silent majority’ who elected Nixon. In both cases this is a somewhat fictionalised and idealized but supposedly oppressed section of the population, implicitly contrasted with a supposedly disproportionately vocal fringe element skewing the national discourse. The idea that the minorities are making too much of a racket was used against, amongst others, the American civil rights movement, of course. The (dubious) idea of an oppressed majority tempering the liberal excesses of the minority had currency in Nixon’s day, and does still in Trump’s America.

A related if (typically) slightly odd comment was made by Tony Abbott in his concession speech, where he said that the Liberals dealt with climate change on an economic rather than moral basis. Of course this was a dig at the rhetoric of (originally) Kevin Rudd and Labor, but the merits or not of Shorten’s explanations aside, this lessening of the moral aspect is a little odd coming from a Catholic, though of course his point was that the Liberals aren’t just going to jump into policy without proper costing. Behind this though is the idea that conservatives will deal with so-called moral issues if they don’t adversely affect the economy. Abbott’s perhaps more balanced colleague Arthur Sinodinos admitted that the Liberals must do something sooner rather than later precisely because climate change inaction will become an economic issue anyway, but this idea that taking action is only acceptable if it doesn’t affect current lifestyles is contestable, to say the least, and will continue to be heavily debated nationally.

That may be obvious, and others can make the case for why we might be obliged as a nation to look beyond economics, or put economic gain second in some cases. But what I find interesting is to make a connection between Abbott’s comment and Jesus’ famous advice about rendering to Caesar, because the former made me think of the latter, and ask what that might say about Abbott’s distinction. There is a common erroneous interpretation that Jesus was concentrating only on the spiritual, and that the economic is a separate realm, which is a separation clearly not borne out in either then-current Jewish or later Christian practice. Jesus was hardly suggesting one could be a rapacious venture capitalist during the week and a regular churchgoer on Sundays.

A close but more legitimate interpretation is that Jesus was suggesting that what God thinks is worthy is not having your head on a coin, or other displays of power, but rather justice and mercy. Yet another interpretation is that Jesus was being somewhat facetious, because everything in the world comes from God anyway, and there is ultimately nothing that belongs to Caesar, which is what he was implying without being outright politically subversive (a crime pinned on him ultimately anyway). In this view, the spiritual or religious (or moral) is not a compartment of life to which the working week is only indirectly related. In the present case, this would suggest all economic matters have a moral element.

In this case though, there may also be an element of using ‘economics’ as code for the status quo. In this outlook, radical politics is all about upending the system, and prudent economic management is code for keeping things as they are, which unfortunately tends to perpetuate inequalities and marginalisation. Which brings us back to Nixon. Nixon evoked the silent majority as mainstream Americans who had had enough of change, and calls for change, and just wanted to get on with the usual business. This majority, supposedly, thought the country was fine as it was.

Hot nights and iciness

Imminence, Mariana Dimopulos, Giramondo.

In the novel Imminence the Argentinian narrator repeats that she is ‘not a woman’ to her female friends who conspire and complain about men, meaning she doesn’t want the roles and responsibilities expected of her, that it is expected she will desire. She cultivates an icy detachment, repressing emotions by focussing on the cold logic of maths games. She and her two friends decide to avoid marriage and children, and disdain the match-making and trawling for men of other women they know.

Yet one friend succumbs and advises that ‘you’ll have a baby because you don’t want to die’. Women prolong and renew their own lives by creating life, her friend thinks. The main character does have a child but, rather than renew her life, she nearly dies from an infection and blood loss, and when she eventually returns home she has a numbness towards her child and a weariness about the simplest tasks. In this state she replays scenes from her past, and the novel’s structure is like a fever – fragmentary, looping, memories pressing.

The novel explores women’s relationships with women and men, the pressure to conform to ideals about what women should be – ideals imposed by both men and women, and what happens when these experiences dovetail down to the particular experience of postnatal depression.

Author Mariana Dimopulos depicts her character’s iciness with sensitivity and enhances her dark, oblique outlook with taut, striking phrases (which may or may not sound more common in the original Spanish) – TV is ‘tyranny’, a boyfriend has theories like other people have lice, her character’s heart is ‘dark soil’ that grows thistles. Dimopulos evokes the hot nights of Buenos Aires, and this seems to compound the oppressiveness of expectations, and the splinteriness and fogginess of postnatal depression, as well as contrasting with the coldness of her character’s emotions.

Absence is one of the novel’s oppressive elements. There is a theme of men appearing and disappearing, and the character seems to lose track of where her newborn son is at times, reflecting an absence of bond. There is a feeling of attachment being continually stretched, broken and repaired. A trip into the desert is remembered as a story of breakdown, loss and rescue.

Abandonment ‘lurks’ behind absences, says the character, and I suppose this is where the title of the novel fits in. ‘Imminence’ suggests something waiting in the wings just offstage, something which could be good or bad – Christ’s return or a volcanic eruption, say. In the novel there is the sense of constantly keeping the bad things at bay. But it is not giving too much away to say that while the novel portrays fragile, fragmentary relationships, it also points to the possibility of persistent love negotiating the darkness.