Pointing the finger

I’ve been lax on my blogfoolery of late. Every time I felt like I had a spare moment to pen something, I found myself consumed by ennui, uninspired by most of what I saw, and that which I did would more easily be expressed in 140 characters than anything more considered.

But I have been roused. This morning, an ordinary, if stinking hot, Melbourne Thursday, I was watching News Breakfast on ABC24 as I prepared for work. They decided to cut to the pre-parliament doorstops to pad for time. First up, we were halfway through Tony Windsor, who, as always, had smart things to say about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The journalists were curious about some letter the PM had written. Windsor had nothing to say on that, instead asking if anyone had questions about the Plan. None did, so he left. Next up, waiting in the wings (quite literally) was Chris Pyne.

He had plenty to say.

I’m not going to get into the stuff he tossed around because, frankly, I haven’t paid much mind to it all, but if you want the details, Ben Eltham over at New Matilda has a good summary of all this Gillard rubbish.

Pyne finished his tear, then Adam Bandt stepped up to discuss the various reforms going up before parliament today. News Breakfast cut back to the “anchors” who then repeated Pyne’s claims.

This is why I’m riled up this morning.

Ordinarily I’m loathe to apportion blame when it comes to the carousel of bullshit that is national political discourse. Politicians have a social obligation to look after the national interest. The media have a social obligation to report honestly, and on issues that balance between the public interest and what the public is interested in. The public have an obligation, as good citizens, to pay attention to important issues of the day. The turd load is evenly distributed.

But in this case, it’s the media’s fault.

This is a non-story. Not even meritorious of ‘scandal’, ‘gate’ or even a consistent hashtag. A piece of ridiculous confection that the opposition have every reason to go to town on, given that they have an election to win, and creating the impression, however tenuous, of a corrupt government is great for them, and takes attention away from their “policies”.

The government are desperately alternating between trying to deny the issue oxygen, then having a crack at a controlled burn, in the hope that there will be no further flare-ups.

The public, meanwhile simply doesn’t care. It switched off long ago. The whole Slater & Gordon brouhaha was boring to begin with, unrelated to any issues of importance. Now, it so fiendishly convoluted that only the most tragic or partisan have any understanding of what is happening. I certainly can’t follow it anymore.

But the media simply won’t let it go. There are a million reasons for this, but I think there are two that are paramount:

  1. It’s way easier to report on. Policy is hard. It means that journalists, researchers and interviewers need to read detailed briefers, consult experts and generally get their heads around complicated issues that have real-world effects. Bollocks to that. Repeating “claims” and “allegations” is far more fun, and simply requires turning up at a Canberra doorstop before repeating the claim that the PM has ‘questions to answer’, without actually deciding what those questions are, and having had two discrete opportunities to put any and all questions to her. But that’s the minor reason. The big one?
  2. General Sherman. You may recall in the Simpsons the enormous, possibly mythical catfish that Homer sets off after in lieu of attending marriage counselling. That’s this story. Bringing down a sitting PM is the ultimate in journalistic achievement. For all the talk among partisans about bias in the media (which, of course there is, but it’s down to the individual journalist much of the time, and is usually suppressed by larger organisational biases), every journalist’s prejudice is trumped by getting a “yarn”. No matter how dyed-in-the-wool Labor, any journo would jump at the chance to be the one to break The Story of the Decade and unseat Gillard.

Rather than sit in a boat, fishing for a smoking gun that it is increasingly apparent doesn’t exist, our journalistic class would be better advised to do their jobs, sit down with Marge and explain the ins and outs of the numerous issues that should be on the front page. NDIS, Murray-Darling Plan, melting permafrost, the Kyoto negotiations in Doha, hunger strikes on Nauru, you name it.

In the end, the overall sensation for me in this sea of vacuity is one of sadness. Imagine, if you would, a world where this level of forensic research and doggedness was applied to issues of actual importance. Perhaps the public may have known how a carbon price actually works. Perhaps the public would understand the difference between the paid parental leave schemes of both major parties. Perhaps someone could explain to me how the NDIS works. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

So fuck you, media. I no longer want to see Christopher Pyne suggest there are questions to answer.

Everyone’s a debate expert

On Thursday morning, I was not glued to ABC24, watching the US presidential debate. While I share the fascination of US politics with many of my compatriots, there is something a little obscene about watching a debate between two people vying to become leader of another country. Still, I sat immobile, at the blood bank, and without a paper, was glued instead to my Twitter feed which, naturally enough, was full to the brim with commentary about the unfolding proceedings.

The general thrust, from observers here and abroad, was, to paraphrase, “Romney is handing it to Obama.” Great, fine, but why?

“Obama looks tired, listless, angry, irritated.”

“Romney is more upbeat, likable, his zingers are really landing”

“Looks presidential”

And so on.

Really? This is it? It is at this point, it feels like an actual explanation of the purpose of debates is in order. Debates exist so that undecided voters have an opportunity to see the candidates for whom they may vote offering their policies, ideas and personalities under the microscope of opposition from their fiercest rival.

There is no media intervention. There are no press advisers. The candidate can’t call the event short if things aren’t going well. It’s unvarnished, open and even. Voters can see for themselves who makes the better case for election.

Instead, we get assessment from the media about who ‘won’. And who ‘won’ rarely won on the basis of policy or substance. Ordinarily, this would be fine, but for two things.

First, it’s undoubtedly leached from American politics to here. As the post-mortems continue to tend towards the vacuous, as have the policy pronouncements of the candidates. This is terrible for everyone involved.

Second, and far more insidiously, the public have absorbed these lessons, and now also view the debates as a discussion about ‘who won’, rather than ‘I saw a policy position that I was unaware of and it has changed my thinking about the election’. In all of the media reports I saw about the US debate, interviews with Jane and John Q. Public involved them offering the same pat dissertations on who won and why.

“Obama looked listless,” “Romney really took it to him, was more assertive,” etc.

Ad bloody nauseum.

Assessing who won a debate as a means of determining who won a debate is ludicrous, bordering on the Kafkaesque. Oh, for one person to say something to the effect of “I felt that, irrespective of body language, I felt Romney was convincing that he’s not out to gut the middle class and hand money to the wealthy, so, yeah, he was good.” Just one. But because they don’t, there is need for the speakers to say anything of value.

When ordinary punters are viewing debates through the lens of the media to this extent, let’s just call the whole thing off, because it has officially become another campaign event, rather than a ‘debate’.

Troll (n): ?

First things first: I in no way endorse, condone, support, or even tolerate the kind of hateful bile that fucktards on the internet spill at those they take a perverse fascination with. The misanthropic, hyper-aggressive, frankly insane tripe that people post on the web disgusts me no end, and I broadly subscribe to many of the arguments made about it.

But when Catherine Deveny is invited back to the Age to write about trolls, I feel like there is something that needs clarifying. As the phrase ‘troll’ has migrated from the discussion boards of Reddit and tech blogs to the mainstream (primarily as news websites have embraced comments as a means of increasing pageviews), so has it been distorted to mean, well, almost anything.

Originally – and frankly, presently, as far as I’m concerned – a troll has a fairly narrow definition. It is someone who, for whatever reason, says or writes things with the express intention of starting a blue.

Not knowing anyone who has admitted to being a troll, I can’t speak with any certainty to their motives, but chances are they’re a little sad, a little lonely and feeling a little irrelevant. So they thrust themselves into other people’s discussions in a manner that basically insists on their being attended to. If a well-behaved child doesn’t get attention, they chuck a tanty.

I wrote for Things Bogans Like for years, and most of the time, was the chief comment moderator, and saw this kind of behaviour first-hand. We had only a few of the kind of hateful ‘I’ll punch your eyes out and fuck your skull’, and they were easily blocked and deleted. Far more common, and harmless, were the trolls. The queen of which was a guy (we assumed) posting as ‘Fiona of Toorak’, who stalked our pages for some time needling other commenters, intentionally dragging their discussions (which could sometimes tend to the highbrow) into the gutter. Any time others took her on, she simply gained strength and fervour. She was a classic troll. The kind who should not be fed, according to the online truism.

What Fiona wasn’t was violent, aggressive or threatening. Simply playful and deeply irritating. Yet today’s debate about trolls entirely overlooks this fact. It simply takes people who are clearly unbalanced, and dedicate themselves to the destruction of those they irrationally decide to hate,  and applies a pat term to dismiss them.

A classic example of ‘trolling’ is right there in Deveny’s piece (quelle fucking surprise). Six paragraphs in, she turns her gaze to the sexism in the whole thing.

Men speak, women are outspoken. Men have opinions, women are opinionated. Men are passionate, women rant. Men have mouths. Women are mouthy.

Having the misfortune of being born with an opinion and a vagina, I am no stranger to these trolls who try to get my attention on an hourly basis.

She is trolling. Taking a debate about behaviour online and giving it a volatile gendered slant. She’s riling people up. It’s why The Age gave her a gig in the first place.

In a related piece of irony, Marieke Hardy posted on her blog, suggesting that there is a distinct difference between the kind of biting insults that she and Deveny have been guilty of in the past bear no relationship to the kind of evil nutcases that the debate is dealing with now. In one way, she’s right. But in several others, it’s deeply disingenuous.

First, she differs greatly from Deveny. Deveny is a provocateur. She tosses of insults with the intent of riling her readers. Hardy always gives the impression that she simply means the insults quite deeply and personally. Not exactly trolling. Hell, I wrote exactly such a piece only last week.

Still, it feels like so much arse-covering for Hardy to disavow any relationship to this week’s events. While trolling and bullying are hardly linked, they do rest at different points of the internet behaviour spectrum, the far end of which we saw leaving a TV personality checked into a psych ward.

When anyone writes on the internet, they need to be aware that if they want to use some fiery language and imagery, they are in some way contributing to the general lack of civility everyone complains about. And anonymity has nothing to do with it. Just look at Bolt, Blair, Deveny, Jones et al. Bloody hell, Graeme Morriss called one of our most respected newsreaders a cow live on radio the other day.

Trolls, as they should really be termed, are harmless. Deveny, while often supremely irritating, is causing no real damage, and is available to retract, clarify or be sacked if she oversteps. Hardy, who I tend to find far wittier and more charming (and less needlessly provocative), is also relatively harmless. We should include them in a discussion about online civility, which would help in dealing with nasty Tweets. But while they need to be aware that they’re in some way involved in the culture of harassment, they’re not closely linked to what the MSM is calling ‘trolls’.

Likewise, the people who harried and harassed Charlotte Dawson to the point of breakdown are not trolls. They are awful, evil people who in all likelihood are not right in the head.

So let’s talk about taking care of these people. But let’s not give them a name that makes them seem harmless. They are not trolls. Trolls were so named, at least in part, because of the dolls that are quite gentle and cute. The word perfectly captured the irritating, but anodyne nature of online irritation. The people we’re talking about a c-nts. Stalkers. Abusers. We need to be vigilant against them.

We should stop calling them trolls.

‘S’ approaching

Straight up; I’m something of a diligent grammarian. A language Nazi. A pedant. Not in the ‘fuck you how dare you split infinitives’ mould, but am more of the ‘please please please don’t use “impact” as a verb’ variety.

What I’m really trying to say by this is that I understand that I have a problem. The only thing I find more infuriating than people referring to a relaxed and calm individual as ‘nonplussed’ is the fact that I desperately want to consider myself a ‘descriptivist’ in the long tradition of the language wars that take place in ridiculously pretentious magazines.

I understand that if someone says that “the carbon tax will impact upon families, otters and unicorns equally on 1 July”, people know exactly what Tony Abbott means and that it is stupid irrespective of the malapropism.

Likewise, I’m surprisingly OK with txt spk. Aside from the fact that Prince has been rocking that shit since 1984. Everyone knows what it means, and it ceases 2 b usfl wen ppl can’t read it.

So reconciling these conflicting feelings is difficult. I’m certain I’m not the only one out there. I am also aware that this post alone no doubt contains a multitude of minor errors that would raise the hackles of those even more pedantic than I.

But there is one point that I think rests as a universally acknowledged failing. Misplaced apostrophes. Not necessarily because an apostrophe crime conceals a word or sentence’s intended meaning, but because it demonstrates, accurately or not, that the author is an idiot. And to my mind, there is no better, clearer and more satisfying indicator. Take, as exhibits A through Z, some comments from the ever-helpful @boltcomments:

An apostrophe is not intended to signal an approaching ‘s’, yet the bile spewed by the most idiotic, unbalanced and hateful is replete with this seminal error.

And this is why we must stand for correct language, I have decided. Attempting to write correctly means learning to think correctly; that is, considering how a sentence will read before writing it works in much the same manner as considering whether a thought is reasonable before saying it.

The worst among us tend to have the worst written language. The apostrophe could be the saviour. Make errant punctuation the mark of a feeble mind, and perhaps those minds will start to work a bit harder.

If, like me, you find this kind of thing unhealthily enjoyable, you’ll certainly love this grammar quiz from the Wall Street Journal. I missed one – bloody ‘he and I/me’ always gets me.

#fakeshowideas

This morning, I wound up reading through the latest Lowy Institue poll, from which I learned that two-thirds of Australians don’t want the ‘carbon tax’ (even though other polls show they want to act on climate change and to charge polluters for polluting, but hey) and that fully 40% of Australians feel that we could come up with a better form of government than boring ol’ democracy.

Likewise, I sat through some of the Jubilee speech by Prince Charles, and the fawning over Brenda from the British and idiotic breakfast news anchors alike. An ‘aristocracy is stupid’ post is likely coming, but needless to say, I spent this morning in a state of generalised misanthropy.

In order to break out of this funk, I devised a silly game. Invent Tweet-pitches for new TV shows. I enjoyed it so much I thought I’d share it with y’all. And I’ll probably have another crack some other time…enjoy.

  • Angel Cakes: an angel made flesh moves in with two hipsters and a stoner before setting up a cupcake store in a Melbourne laneway. Hijinks ensue. Channel 9
  • Seal Iron: The Voice’s Seal spends a month living with a real seal colony; at Seal Rock, near Phillip Island. Hijinks ensue. Channel 9
  • Oporto Prince: A young Scandinavian royal suffers amnesia and winds up working in a Sydney chicken eatery. Hijinks ensue. Channel 7
  • Mission Brown: The Brown family something something Packed to the Rafters. Starring John Wood. Channel 10
  • Matt’s Cravat: Matt Preston approaches kerbside diners, eats all their food, wipes his mouth with his cravat, and walks away. Channel 9
  • Bless This House: A comedy about a married couple Shane and Fiona Blessing; an Anglican minister and a Buddhist Monk.  Catchphrase needed. ABC
  • Non-stop Todd: Dancing With the Stars’ Todd McKinney aims to set a world record for non-stop tap dancing. At the end, a lucky viewer shoots him dead. Channel 7
  • Is it Lacy?: Harried producers at a public broadcaster race to meet their period drama quota for the year. With sexy results. ABC
  • Free Lin Chin: Follow SBS’ Lee Lin Chin as she solves clues to the whereabouts of the key to her ankle restraints. SBS
  • Death of Irony: Put a set of keys to a Williamsburg flat on a tall pillar in Melbourne and proceed to watch hipsters beat each other to death to get them. Channel 10
  • Doctor Kat: A comedy about a female vet who starts dating a Korean dog catcher. Racist hijinks ensue. Channel 9
  • Fido: A single-mum veterinarian learns that she’s a medium, is visited by the now-talking ghost of a pet she put down. Life lessons ensue. Channel 7
  • Celebrity Chef-Match: Australians attempt to cull the near-plague number of celebrity chefs via caged cook-offs. Losers put in the stockade. Channel 10
  • Baker’s Dozen: Jim Baker, single dad with 13 kids, tries to find love and run his struggling private-eye agency. Channel 9
  • Rupert: ABC Miniseries dramatising the ups and downs of being born into a media empire that becomes an evil empire. Starring Asher Keddie
  • Makin’ Dough: Reality show about the opening of a new doughnut franchise in western Sydney. Violent clashes ensue. Channel 9
  • Random Search: Victoria police-funded show following local beat cops as they rid Melbourne of the menace of the African community. Channel 7
  • Writers’ Bloc: Tales of a group of struggling writers who form a socialist commune in the middle of Mosman. Hijinks ensue. Channel 10
  • Oh, Shakespeare!: Ben Shakespeare writes books that eerily predict grisly murders, yet always get the culprit wrong. ABC
  • Barristar!: Follows Brett Barr, a barrister who solves crimes by posing as a barista on weekends, serving coffee to crims. ABC
  • Bureau of Mediocrity: Comedy following the hijinks of the Bureau of Meteorology as they continue to get the forecast wrong. Stars Micallef. SBS

And finally:

Being Lara Bingle: Follow Lara Bingle around and she slowly and deliberately destroys her career. Channel 10

Further suggestions welcome.

Western Australia is not Special

Andrew Probyn is one of the nation’s finest political writers; lucid, thoughtful, well-researched and fiercely impartial. But there was something he wrote on Friday which gave me pause, and raised something that has been nagging at the back of my brain for some time now.

“the EMA policy provided the Government with a golden opportunity to display it actually ‘got’ WA.”

“WA is misunderstood by the Federal Labor Party as much as it is by the rest of the country,” he wrote in a piece discussing the ‘millstone’ that the Roy Hill EMA arrangement has become for the government.

This kind of thinking has become endemic among Western Australian journalists and writers, and – I’m uncertain which – either reflects the dominant thinking of residents there, or influences it. And it suggests that there is something that needs to be said. Frankly, it beggars belief that it needs to be said at all.

Western Australia is not special.

It is not unique, it is not blessed. It comes not with humans of significant insight, or particular unique talents. It is a quarry. Much as other parts of Australian and the world have served (and do serve) as quarries for other parts of the world. About 160 years ago, Victoria was the quarry – about the same time as there was an influx of migrant labour heading to California as it experienced a similar resource boom at a similar time.

It has taken no special effort, intelligence or skill to be in possession of large quantities of rocks which one can then dig up and sell. Queensland, apparently, is in possession of several. Yet it has been some time since the Queensland premier has made not-so-vague statements in the general direction of secession.

Instead, in between assertions that WA is propping up the lazy, unimaginative ‘eastern’ states and that it doesn’t receive its ‘fair share’ of GST payments, we are bombarded with claims that the west is somehow ‘different’. And by ‘different’, they mean ‘better’. A better class of rock, no doubt.

One of Australia’s defining characteristics is its astounding homogeneity. Across Europe, Africa,Asia and parts of South America, one can drive for 30 minutes, and encounter and vastly changed accent, history culture, and sometimes even dialect. Yet in Australia, one can drive from Darwin to the Dandenongs and encounter no great change in any of these things. Sure, in the warmer climes things slow down a little, and rural Australia is, well, rural, while city folk are exactly that, but when it requires linguists to identify the difference between a Brisbane and Adelaide accent, you know it’s all much of a muchness here.

Yet, still, we hear that this state that desperately relied on the largesse of those ‘eastern’ states when iron ore prices bore a passing resemblance to Irish interest rates is unique. That it merely needs to be unshackled from the Sisyphean burden that is Victoria, NSW and South Australia and it could bound to new heights of awesomeness.

In this way, it is much like any mediocre beneficiary of inheritance. Those born into good fortune tend to ascribe their success to their own modest smarts, hard work and entrepreneurship, ignoring the hard work and smarts of those who have failed. Children of privilege, likewise, are often advocates of the ‘free market’, believing that they should not be impeded from ‘earning’ the money they receive as a return on the investment of their inherited wealth. Of course, when the house of cards comes crashing down, they are the first to stick out their hand for support, being the ‘job creators’ and ‘wealth creators’ and whatever other rubbish might shoot forth from their pampered lips.

Western Australia is the lazy, semi-talented cousin whose daddy owns an advertising firm, gets set up with a cushy job, then pats himself on the back for being so diligent and talented. Just like every other state, but with loaded parents.

Likewise; Gina Rinehart. Champion of the free market. Opponent of government interference unless it involves procuring low-cost foreign labour. She’s done little other than sit on an ever-growing pile of rocks that have simply become more valuable, increasing her ability to influence the government she claims to want out of the way. A useful enough metaphor for the success of her home state.

Off the front page

This morning, a report on ABC’s AM program detailed the release of a new report by Melbourne University, demonstrating that the past 50 years have been the warmest Australia has experienced in the past millennium.

That’s 1,000 years.

I’m not going to waste too much time going over the nuts and bolts; there are those far better equipped to do that. And besides, the article in question does more than enough.

No, the pertinent thing to consider here is how little attention it received. In essence, beyond this lone ABC report, it seems to have vanished without trace.

For example, on The Age‘s website today, it was entirely absent, while in prominent position were stories on Kim Kardashian and some fool girl cruelling her future career prospects by suing her old school for not making her smarter.

Beyond these issues is the deeply distressing decline in standards on the websites of the Fairfax broadsheets, but that’s a different day’s post.

And of course, the pièce de résistance, this:

Could this be a sign of science fatigue in the Australian media? If so, this is a fairly terrible thing. It suggests that serious, sober research has become passe unless there is a vocal opponent ready to go toe-to-toe. It’s bad enough that we have a situation that allows for only conflict-based reporting on climate change, but when fairly disturbing news such as this disappears because the public’s over all such things, it’s a worry.

If consumers are sick of reading about climate science, and only are shown it when there is ‘conflict’, it shows a massive disconnect from reality. If reports demonstrating the prevalence and dangers of climate change are so common as to no longer be newsworthy, why, then, is the public so apparently unswayed by the ‘uncertain’ science?

Then again, perhaps its best that these kinds of stories simply vanish for a while. If science isn’t in the news, and the carbon price kicks in and nothing happens, perhaps the world will simply move on for a while, and the temperature around the climate debate can lower for a while (pun entirely intentional).

At least in the meantime we can all look at hideous photos from cricketers’ weddings.