In the news … October 2020

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Halloween’s not as American as it seems

31 October 2020: The news media is awash with little colour pieces about Halloween, and what it means.  Yet most explanations are shallow and short on detail.  My own reading leads me to believe that only the commercialization of Halloween is intrinsically American, but the origins are Gaelic and Celtic.

The Gaelic festival of Samhaim marked the end of the harvest season with celebrations beginning after sunset on 31 October, and into the following day.  Similar celebrations are thought to have been observed in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and northern France.

The supernatural link comes from the belief that the darker, winter season brought the world of people closer to the world of the Aos Si (‘people of the mounds’, meaning burial mounds) with its spirits; dead relatives are welcomed back with an extra setting at feasting tables.

Trick or treating–going from door to door, in costume, reciting verses in exchange for food–appears to be a much modern custom, dating to the 16th century all over what is the UK and Ireland today.  By this time Samhaim was fully absorbed by the Christian calendar of observances as All Hallow’s Eve.  The actual phrase ‘trick or treat’ wasn’t common until the 20th century.

I remember still, as a boy in Germany, the parallel festival was Fasching, beginning at 11:11 on 11 November, and ending on Shroud or Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday in February each year).  When I was very young, this would be marked with ‘Laternelaufen’–primary school kids walking in procession at dusk or after sunset, holding out paper lanterns on short sticks, illuminated from the inside by little candles.  We would sing:

Laterne, Laterne (lantern, lantern)

Sonne, Mond und Sterne (Sun, moon and stars)

Brenne auf, mein Licht (burn up, my light)

Brenne auf, mein Licht  (burn up, my light)

Aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht (but not my lovely lantern)

Paper lanterns catching fire because of crookedly set little candles was common, hence that last refrain.  Spares were on hand by accompanying adults to avoid excessive crying and tantrums.

I’m told the custom commemorated St Martin, and that some processions actually sang semi–liturgical songs about him.   But I don’t recall ever doing that.  I do remember one bitterly cold evening–in Hamburg, I think–marching in such a procession and thinking it was quite beautiful to see the trail of lights moving through the snow and frosty night.  Like a big glow worm.  There is something every solemn about a moonlit snowscape and the contrasting warm glow of yellowy lights.

When I was older, Fasching was all about dressing up.  On that first day, 11 November, we’d all go to school in costume.  The supernatural was a common theme, yielding many witches, goblins and ghouls.  But I went once as a pirate, once as Winnetou (the noble red Indian chief from Karl May’s westerns), and only once as a vampire.  We used plenty of theatrical make–up (‘Schminke’) and spent hours on sourcing costumes; you could buy tacky ones in shops, but most of us used old clothing from our parents and grandparents, with a new hem here, and new pleat there.  We didn’t ask anyone for food, or threaten any mischief (well, not more than usual for children, anyway), but I remember there were always plenty of delicious sweet pastries and other fun things around at that time of the year: marking the fat of the harvest.  I had my first beer on one of these occasions.

It’s fair, then, to argue that Halloween is an Anglo–Celtic tradition quite as at–home in Australia as in Britain and the USA, by dint of the Irish and Scottish diaspora.  The extreme monetization of the custom, though, is probably an undisputed 20th century American corruption of the observance.

PS: A Texan friend reminds me that for Hispanic Americans there’s also Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), falling on 31 October (and celebrated until 2 November in the USA), 2 November for Mexico, and All Hallows or All Saints Day in many other countries with Spanish Catholic traditions.

The celebration can be like a costumed carnival, or more solemn; it’s about remembering and honouring dead friends and relatives.

Politicians ‘politicizing’ euthanasia?  Surely not …

31 October 2020: The SBS reports a façet arising from the ‘leadership debate’ between Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and opposition leader Deb Frecklington on election eve: euthanasia!

The Premier promises a conscience vote on the issue if re–elected.  The opposition leader calls that politicizing the issue to appeal to voters in Currumbin and other LNP marginal seats with high numbers of older voters.

I’ve heard that pejorative accusation quite a bit recently: one politician accusing another of politicising an issue.  Are we to believe that this isn’t exactly what every politicians does?  By their very definition, politicians politicize everything.

The accusation, then, is an ambitious attempt to get us ordinary mortals to suspend our disbelief that the accuser is not also playing politics, but actually has some higher purpose in mind.  What nonsense!  The very accusation itself could be seen as politicizing an issue to drum up publicity.  PM against WA and Queensland premiers; Liberal senator against Liberal Deputy Premier; Liberal party against ethical banking, and so on.

For Frecklington, the issue is much worse.  It plays once more to the hardened, recidivist, extremist prejudices of the Protestant right: the supposed sanctity of life, even if the same pious types then ensure that some lives are miserable, impoverished, disease–ridden, and painful.

The last census found the biggest single religious denomination reported by Australians as ‘none’, albeit that the various flavours of Christianity are still in a majority.  However, this still means any law based on nominally Christian tenets is open and unapologetic religious discrimination.  To maintain euthanasia, along with abortion and other forms of religious prohibitions, as criminally proscribed is therefore a no–win situation in an increasingly non–religious Australia.

Frecklington’s stance on such issues demonstrates how careful she must be not to offend powerful forces in her party who adhere to such anachronisms.  And that, of course, means the LNP has in fact been hijacked by Protestant extremists.  Not a good look outside redneck electorates.

If you add to these woes the party’s continuing reliance on property developer money, with all the potential for corruption around that, and the enormous influence of figures like Clive Palmer, the LNP begins to look like the party of a mercenary radical right with not a remote intention of governing for the benefit of the state, rather than for and on behalf of a few self–appointed elites.

I suppose LNP leaders could argue that the ALP has its own cross to bear in its close affiliation with the union movement, which has not been conspicuously saintly.  Yet unions are democratic bodies, electing their office bearers, and still the champions of working class Australians.  They are not closed little fiefdoms, like billionaire corporate structures or evangelical congregations.

It’s too late now to play on any of these issues.  Polling stations in Queensland open even as I write these remarks.  But it’s worth keeping in mind while observing federal politics in the next few months.

Right wing extremist gets pasted by SA Minister

30 October 2020: It’s not often that I find reason to compliment a Liberal on a policy position, but the sheer joy of reading South Australian Deputy Premier and Attorney General Vickie Chapman’s take–down of right wing extremist Alex Antic, Liberal senator for SA, is worthy of congratulations.  Read the full story in Jane Norman’s comment for the ABC, but skip to the bottom to read the actual letters before the commentary on them.

The public spat illustrates just how beholden the Liberal Party is to antiquated, socially reactionary, and right wing extremist positions, not to mention the distinct flavour of a misogynistic, patriarchal attitude in a government already widely criticized for misunderstanding the economic impact of pandemic and recession on women, mainly because the PM and Treasurer are … men who don’t have much time for women other than as chattel and necessary baggage.  At least that’s the image they portray.

The SA party branch spat began as an undergraduate attempt by Antic to create a media profile for himself, in language that unmistakably emulates the Liberal dissident and failed head of the Australian Conservatives, Corey Bernardi.  The latter was a hardline right wing radical, advocating bigotry and social divisiveness, particularly in terms of some favoured racist, sexist, xenophobic rhetoric.

Antic’s strategy was to write a letter to Chapman on 26 October with the intention of ‘leaking’ it to the media, in which he berates his much more experienced and senior colleague in unreconstructedly patronizing language, questioning her ethics and conscience, and proposing the Liberal Party as a bastion of extreme right wing Protestant opposition to abortion.

Chapman replied in a scorching rebuke on 28 October, addressing a youngster not educated or bright enough to recognize the Liberal Party cannot be opposed to public sentiment or progressive policies if it wants to win votes.  Teaching him the Liberal Party cannot be tethered to inflexible ideological positions (and win government).  And, especially, that it’s not electorally defensible to portray the Liberal Party as a bastion of patronizing and sexist white male attitudes about state control over women’s bodies.

The issue at stake is a Bill before the SA parliament to remove abortion from criminal law.  This is a catch–up measure already, with public sentiment outstripping legislation in Australia by decades (see for example, The Australian Medical Journal, or Children by Choice).  That is to say, a nominally conservative government in SA is representing community attitudes rather than narrow, ideological considerations.

Both letters are reproduced in full by the ABC, and are worth reading in themselves, without commentary.  But I can’t resist.

Antic’s correspondence wastes no time, talking about a ‘radical’ change under the ‘pretence of decriminalization’ while legalizing termination until the day prior to birth.  The Bill proposes no such thing. One has to wonder whether Antic read the legislation, or was merely spoon–fed rhetoric by some misogynist radical right Protestant group.  (Chapman rightly pings him for his ignorance about the actual legislation.)

Antic goes on to say: ‘The Liberal Party which I know would reject the Bill.’  The mark of an amateur.  Never paint yourself into a corner you can’t come back from.  The Liberal Party he claims to know would never vote for same sex marriage either, but it did.  So he clearly doesn’t know his own party, or understand politics, all that well.

Ours is the party which stands for the proposition that family life is fundamental to the wellbeing of our society.

A remarkably tone–deaf statement in times in which even the PM doesn’t unnecessarily condemn people’s ‘alternative’ lifestyles.  And somewhat at odds with the claim for the Liberals to stand for the protection of the interests of all men, women, and children.  What if many of those people just don’t agree with Antic’s mediaevalist position?  Must they be forced to obey an arbitrary rule, or should politicians instead seek to represent their views?  Antic is saying he is entitled to be an autocrat, imposing ideological and other arbitrary rules.  Some amateur Great Dictator.

Antic fulminates about the Liberals not being the ‘party of the radical left’.  Indeed.  There is no such party in Australian parliaments.  But the implied claim for the Liberals to be a party of the radical right is pretty clear when he claims the Bill offends against the party’s ethos.  Really?  I keep hearing the party is a ‘broad church’ that represents a variety of community attitudes, not just those of Protestant fundamentalists.

I understand that the Bill will be dealt with as a conscience vote which means that you still have the imprimatur to reject it.

I write to you to appeal to your sense of decency to now vote against the Bill.

What an odious lout Antic must be.  He declares that his own opinion should replace Chapman’s conscience.  A man who says that to a woman in this context is either trying to be offensive, or show himself up to be a tone–deaf, crude, patronizing imbecile.  I think Antic succeeded painting himself as both.

Talking about decency here is like admitting he doesn’t understand the meaning of the term.  What he means to say is: ‘Know your place, wench, and obey.’

As an aside, the word ‘imprimatur’ originally referred to Church permission for a third party to write on a matter it deemed to be in its power to censor or control.  But even in its modern meaning, he says Chapman’s conscience and sense of decency are his to determine for her.  You couldn’t possibly mistake the patronizing, sexist overtones, and therefore the imbecility of his intention.

It’s not like Antic isn’t an easy target.  In fact, I picture him as an intellectual midget to have so grossly misinterpreted political sentiment.  But Chapman really gave him a spanking in her reply, first by lecturing him on a history of the Liberals, of which he seems ignorantly oblivious, and then by putting some facts around abortion, letting him know what a political junior and incompetent amateur he really shows himself up to be.

You will never need a termination.

A priceless sentence that summarizes all that is wrong with the Liberal Party: you will never know what it it’s like being a woman while bigoted right wing white men dominate policy, places, and opinions in the party hierarchy.

… I congratulate you on receiving press attention.  I concede it must be difficult as the junior member of the federal team.  Next time – just for something different – perhaps it can be for something other than baselessly attacking Liberal Party women in the State Parliament.

And that’s a message even Scotty from Marketing can’t ignore: keep your rabid dogs on a leash, because women are fed up with being patronized this way.  Scotty’s no mastermind, but he understands the political reality that he needs women to vote for him.

I recommend again reading both letters in full, before reading any commentary.  It’s the most entertaining insight I’ve had into Australian party politics I’ve had in weeks (I actually laughed out loud for real several times reading these letters).

Germany and France for renewed lockdown

29 October 2020: The news from Germany and France, heading into renewed lockdowns as daily infections in Europe reach record numbers, left me quite emotionally affected.  I couldn’t help but think: ‘How do you come back from 15,000 new infections a day, and the reality that 75 per cent of cases are now impossible to trace to a point of origin?’

I remember only once before feeling such an emotional response to news from the country in which I was born.  It was Thursday, 9 November 1989, or the Friday following.  Not sure now which.  I was a fresh graduate from Curtin University, but on campus, waiting for someone in the student common room in the humanities building.  It was after dark and few people were around, so it was silent enough for me to hear a radio somewhere down the hall.  I could make out that it was a breathless broadcast describing crowd scenes in Berlin.

So I walked into the corridor and to the tutorial room where the radio was being played.  The door was open, and I stood in the doorway, looking at an unnaturally silent class listening intently to history in the making.  The tutor, I think it was Jennifer Garton Smith, looked up and fixed me in a long gaze.  She knew about my ethnicity, and guessed at my reaction, with sympathy in her eyes.

I probably didn’t show any emotion, but I became quite choked up as I listened to the journalist on the ground describe how crowds were spontaneously tearing down the Berlin War.

After some minutes I walked away.  Not a word was spoken by me, the class, or the tutor.  But we all knew we were witnessing history: the end of the Cold War.  Germany’s peaceful 9/11 in the 1980s.

Chancellor Angela Merkel heads a nominally conservative government.  But that actually means something there: conserving at the same time as promoting moderate reforms aimed at addressing poverty and the services seen necessary for a civilized liberal democracy.  It is not the solely nominal conservatism in Britain, the USA, and Australia, which is more a euphemism for extreme right wing radicalism, dismantling protections for the poor as well as the institutions of civilization and liberal democracy.

Under Trump’s tenure, Merkel is the real leader of the free world.  A genuinely capable, intelligent, educated, insightful person.  Yet I wonder now whether Germany can do anything other than to hope herd immunity won’t come at too steep a cost in human lives.

The news from Europe is probably a boost for the local narrative about Victoria having done the right thing to impose such harsh restrictions for so long.

I’m sure the Coalition will continue its mean–spirited anti–Labor politicking on the issue.  The best argument it can use to counter the apparent Victorian success is to refocus on Australia’s much lower infection rates, and the mantra about ‘small businesses’ and ‘jobs’, as if these were divorced from the people that make them real things.  The people whose health and lives are at risk if we move too quickly to ‘restore’ the economy.  If anyone actually believes we can restore, rather than reshape our economy.

Abortion, homophobia re–emerge as LNP embarrassment

29 October 2020: Shortly after the badly timed pre-selection contest in Groom, falling right into a state election campaign finale, and offering up endorsements for a homophobe, anti-abortion, Christian extremist, the LNP has done it again.

Extreme right wing SA Liberal senator Alex Antic has publicly berated two state Liberal colleagues for moving to strike abortion out of criminal law.

In Brisbane, the former seat of Cleveland, now named Oodgeroo, sees an independent taking a polling lead over sitting member, the born-again evangelical Mark Robinson.  Robinson employs former head of the Australian Christian Lobby, Lyle Shelton, who is very active in disseminating homophobic and anti-abortion propaganda.

Robinson has held the seat since 2009, lately with a 5.5 per cent margin considered quite safe.  But a local environmental issue relating to the development of a boat harbour and residential complex might just blindside him, and his attempt at repositioning himself from extremist nutter to a populist position will not help him in that regard.

It would be very reassuring if he lost his seat.

So, the LNP is in the press again, with evidence that it simply cannot let go of menacing right wing extremism and corrupting property development entanglements.  It is not evidence of the kind of discipline you’d have expected from a state party in deep trouble.

Coney–Barrett confirmation: sinister overtones for liberal democracy

27 October 2020: why is the confirmation of Amy Coney–Barrett to the supreme court of the USA an issue for Australians, or anyone else in the ‘free world’?

There isn’t an easy answer.  Complex issues need to be unravelled and understood.  The first of these is a long–term commitment by right wing radicals in the USA to stage their own ‘long march’ through the nation’s institutions.

Historically, the ‘Long March’ was a period of interregnum in China, preceding Mao’s rise to power.  That terminology was adopted by American conservative commentator Roger Kimball in his 2000 book, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America.  This was a long and detailed condemnation of 1960s counter–culture and its alleged infiltration of public institutions to the detriment of … White Anglo–Saxon Protestants (WASPs).  Better known today as the white supremacists openly endorsed by Trump.

Without understanding what Kimball was talking about, the majority of the American political right wing, adopted as its mission a counter–long march.  The self–named conservatives are better described as radicals for wanting to overturn rather than preserve the institutions and practices of civilization and liberal democracy.  Education is a left wing conspiracy that must be ended.  Women are not to be trusted with sovereignty over their own bodies.  People of colour are all criminals.  And if people don’t like it, rule by heavily armed militia to intimidate or murder opponents is encouraged.

One very powerful weapon in this right wing long march is a supreme court stacked with ‘conservatives’, meaning right wing radicals, who can then be relied on to overturn even long–standing legislation on grounds of one or another re–interpretation of the constitution and bill of rights.  Since confirmation of a supreme court judge is a lifetime appointment, a court dominated by right wing extremists can cause damage to American democracy for decades to come, regardless of election results and public sentiment.

Coney–Barrett is a protégé of the late Antonin Scalia, known for theatrical but spurious condemnation of liberal democratic norms, practices, and institutions.  She has previously argued for overturning the Roe vs Wade legal judgement that confirmed the right of American women to abortions.

Coney–Barrett’s nomination and confirmation immediately prior to an election is in itself a display of Republican contempt for previous liberal democratic practice–not to appoint new judges before an election.  Especially not after blocking much more timely nominations from the Obama administration for its entire two terms.

The supreme court thus becomes an unaccountable mechanism to overturn any law on any pretext.  Or to defend any alleged breaches of the constitution and bill of rights the same way.

Why does this matter to the world?  Because the USA has been seen as the model of free liberal democracy since WWII.  A currency devalued strongly by the tyrannical, illegal, and incompetent actions of the Republicans under Trump.  Further erosion of democratic principles by the supreme court, even if the Democrats controlled the White Houses and both chambers of congress, would hasten the decline of the USA, and speed along a dangerous new period of international relations instability.  One likely to be resolved by the further ascendancy of China.

What about Australia?

Just last week the ‘Christian Soldier’ candidate for LNP preselection in Groom, Dr David van Gend, was quoted from his own letter to preselectors, referring to homosexuality as an illness, and ‘another kind of sickness: the cultural sickness that has been brought about by the long march of the left through our institutions’.  There’s that long march reference again.

Groom is based in and around Toowoomba, in a region sometimes referred to by jaded Queenslanders as ‘god’s own country’.  Plenty of pious talk not backed by recognizably Christian principles of mean-spirited selfishness.

Just as American right wing radicals and reactionaries believe they must destroy a real or imagined ‘left’ bias in our institutions, so too do Australia’s right wing radicals, who are marshalling the power of religion to push recidivist policies.  Like the LNP’s internally divisive bigotry and misogynism.  Destroying an independent ABC.  Securing a virtual media monopoloy for Rupert Murdoch to shut out any but LNP viewpoints.  Anti–abortion legislation is once more on the LNP agenda, with less clear ambitions for homophobic measures.

Van Gend had vocal support from the symbiotic LNP front, the IPA, from media commentators Miranda Devine and Rowan Dean, and, not surprisingly, from LNP senators Eric Abetz and Matt Canavan.  Yet, sensitive to public sentiment, which runs against the bigotry supported by this bunch, and mindful of a state election very close at hand, the LNP in Groom chose another candidate: Guy Hamilton, labelled a mining engineer, but also a right wing extremist, xenophobe, climate change denier, and opportunist Christian with apparently limited intellectual faculty.  This from one of his Spectator articles:

Mixing Western ideals with others does not result in raising the standards of those who trail us, neither does it even us all out. We become pray for any nation that dares ignore the rules.

Interesting how prey becomes pray in this ‘culture wars’ diatribe.  Freudian slip?

Yet the LNP thinks he is a more acceptable face for Australia’s radical right than van Gend.  How far we have travelled along the American long march already.

We don’t have a supreme court to use as a reliably compliant activist tool.  But the LNP is quietly being re–populated by the same kind of pseudo–religious right wing radicals.  And the Coalition government has been energetic in stacking every institution it can with its own right wing nominees.

That will just accelerate in a world reshaped by America’s flirtation with a dangerous, mediaevalist, nominally but not sincerely religious, right wing of patriarchal white supremacists.

PM never stopped being Scotty from Marketing

27 October 2020: In themselves, two reports this morning about spending shenanigans by Scott Morrison probably don’t mean much to most people.

It seems no money had been spent since a $100 million recycling industry election promise in 2019; and $1.1 million in public funds were awarded as market research contracts to Liberal mate and former Crosby Textor pollster, Jim Reed, to help sell the PM’s pandemic recovery strategy.

I have no doubt the market research contract was illicitly funded with public money as a blatant party–political promotion for the Liberals … and Scott Morrison as the Trumpian narcissist, compulsively claiming credit for invented good news, while steadfastly denying all evidence of corruption and incompetence in his party.

That’s what the market research fraud has in common with the $100 million never spent on recycling initiatives (it was probably never intended to be spent, just like 2019 bush fire relief and recovery funding).  The common link is ‘announcements’.  Publicity stunts.  Like free television advertising, by dressing up vacuous propaganda as newsworthy initiatives.

To keep Morrison and select cronies front of mind, particularly through TV coverage.  All the PM has to do is to spin his narrative fiction without sounding too much like a garrulous Arthur Daley.

No need to follow–through with anything concrete.  The announcement itself is already the substance of the ‘initiative’: hot air.

It’s all just scripted talk in a political reality TV show in which mainstream news organizations collaborate, as if to formula, displacing journalism with the production values of Master Chef or House Rules.  With a predictably crude and grubby bias in favour of all things LNP.

What a farce.  Morrison must hold us all in great contempt to think we can’t see an ‘announcement’ from him for what it is by now.  But mostly for what it has never been: evidence of leadership and sound policy.

Those barbaric Qataris!

26 October 2020: Politicians falling all over themselves to condemn an 8 October incident at Qatar’s Doha airport: after finding an abandoned new born baby in the airport, security staff herded all women passengers from at least one flight off the plane to subject them to an involuntary gynaecological exam.

Why are we at all surprised?  We know the Arab world is dominated by powerful mediaevalist, misogynist elites that regard women as little more than property and breeding stock.  The way we think of cows and sheep.

Any expression of shock is hypocrisy.  We know about those barbaric political realities, but are quite happy to trade with cruel regimes, and even call some of them strategic allies–mainly because our foreign policy mandarins are US puppets in that regard.

Worse than all that, we condemn, rightly, what is probably the legal equivalent of rape, but we seem to have forgotten that we condone invasive cavity searches at our own airports and at music festivals.  The rape of search victims by the fingers and other implements of private security personnel and police officers.

[PS 2 November 2020: The Guardian reports that NSW police strip-searched 96 children in the past year, some as young as 11, with 21 per cent of the total being indigenous.]

Maybe the sole lesson to come from the Qatar incident is to remind us how close we are, ourselves, to a mediaevalist barbarism.

To the Qataris, what they did was probably little different to a veterinary examination. Women are like livestock there. But to us, the haughty civilized people, legalized digital rape is … what? War on terror by finger-poking people’s anuses? Law and order by the perverted violation of teenage boys and girls by coppers not at all policed about enjoying that sort of depravity just a bit too much?

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