Tuesday, October 17, 2017

You're Right May8

Aware that it is not May, and not Australia day let me assure you, this post has been on the back burner for quite some time. My general attitude to public holidays is: I'll take them, and if I don't actually take them off, I will take the penalty wages they afford me and take another day off, of my choosing.

In my opinion though, Australia has only 2 public holidays that mark causes worth celebrating. One is Labor day. The other is the Grand Final weekend. Being non-religious, the religious holiday's don't make sense to me in terms of celebrating something, but they are traditions worth keeping around. Especially given that even when our societies were unquestionably religious most of these feasts were actually about end of harvest and changing of the seasons - they made sense in agrarian communities.

But if you say that Labor day is a celebration of labor, Christmas is of course, a celebration of Capital and hence the biggest holiday and the Queen's Birthday public holiday is a celebration of land holding and economic rents - then you'll see why I elevate Labor day in my preferences.

But there's a public holiday that is contentious in Australia and that is Australia day. Earlier this year a media company called Junkee released a video designed to 'go viral' and appeal to an audience that is a mere fraction of the people you'd need to convince to get something done.

Here it is.

Things to notice are that Junkee media's site is plastered with advertisers, that Junkee is a media company, not an NGO, the video itself contains every minority but Aboriginals, doesn't actually use the words 'Aboriginal' or 'Indigenous' and more than anything else is proposing a shift in the public holiday to May 8th just four days after May the 4th or 'Star Wars' day.

If there's anything more egregious than having a national public holiday that commemorates the arrival of a colonial power that is willing to commit mass genocide to seize lands and has to this day not signed a treaty nor paid reparations to the pre-existing occupants decendants, it is having a national public holiday to commemorate a meme.

Worse than that though, is a holiday to commemorate 'Mateship'.

Allow me to establish myself, perhaps, as a cultural elitist - but occasionally my regular paycheck job requires me to speak to men in Queensland between the ages of 17-50, and thus I'm exposed to the phrase 'You're right mate.'

This is a phrase I use myself, most typically when I am running or riding and a ped gets startled to discover they wandered into my path and I had to evade them and they apologise. I say 'You're right' or the full 3 syllable 'You're right mate' to indicate 'no need to apologise, I was aware of your presence and trajectory, no harm done etc.'

Or alternatively as a casual and abbreviated way to say 'please, you're clear to proceed.'

So as a cultural elitist, it took me some time to learn that the men I was speaking to in (but not limited to) Queensland were actually saying 'no.' or 'fuck off' in a passive aggressive manner.

Part of what made it confusing were exchanges that went something like:

me: 'can you help us out?'
man: 'you're right mate.'
me: 'thanks for that so...'
man: 'I said you're right mate.'
me: 'sorry, does that mean yes or no?'
man; 'you're right mate.'
(call disconnects).

So it turns out, 'Mate' while being unquestionably a source of Australiana cultural cringe, is also sufficiently flexible as to be a term of affection and derogation.

Much like the proposal to move Australia Day from Australia Day.

Some of you may remember as far back as 1999 when Australia had a constitutional referendum part of which was to append a preamble that included the word 'Mateship'.

Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.
That was the proposed wording that was eventually dropped when the Democrats in the upper house blocked it. But John Howard was pretty insistent on the word being included which should be a red flag - to Junkee Media's target demographic at least.

Because mateship by any other name starts stinking pretty quickly. Like 'cronyism' the generally corrupt practice of favoring your mates. It stinks of unquestioning in-group loyalty, more so than say... the Greek concept of Xenos - being a friend to the stranger.

You could argue that 'mateship' is about treating anyone like they are your mate - but there are less ambiguous terms to use than this, and certainly used in practice - like Good Samaritan, Charity or Kindness.

Mateship points more truly toward Australia's casual racism, it is very much a you are okay because you are a mate, but I don't know your fucking friend so he can fuck off. I imagine bouncers use the term 'mate' a lot, and I notice in my limited experience of indigenous communities in Melbourne that Aboriginals tend to use familial terms of affection - even for outsiders like me - like 'brother', 'sister', 'uncle', 'aunty' and 'bub'.

And here by comparison, language tends to fail, because I'm reporting emotional states. Sure, at worst one could object to a complete stranger calling me 'brother' for example, and then immediately asking me if I've got any coins to give them - as manipulative. I've just never felt that way, I've also had the experience of being greeted, introduced and then further introduced to the community elder in a way that made me feel safe, valued, and included which is extra impressive given that I was literally just walking along smith st.

By comparison I have plenty of experience with white people, and particularly, big white men, calling me 'mate' in a way where I could feel the intent was to try and establish me as the inferior in the dynamic. I have no real experience of any idealized shared ordeal moments when anyone has said 'thank's tohm, you're a real mate.' or even some toothy surly old bastard in a pub giving me the nod of approval and saying 'you're alright mate!'

It just doesn't happen. Which doesn't mean there's anything wrong with simple pleasantries like 'G'day mate' or what not. But pleasantries don't mean much and aren't really worth celebrating, even in international tourism campaigns. When you think of taking a holiday in Indonesia, is the big selling point that locals say 'Selamat datang' a lot? Probably not. It's probably some combination of cheap booze, surf and beaches, cuizine, pancakes, temples, culture etc.

And how about the 'mateship' between Liberal party members and Gina Rinehart? Or the mateship between Rinehart and Andrew Bolt? Or Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and Coal? Even the Labor MPs' and Trade Union bodies and treasurer positions?

'Mate' is a terrible concept to be celebrating - cronyism, collusion, rigging, favoritism, anti-competitive, anti-trust.

The only way to make it worse is arbitrarily deciding May 8 embodies this crappy concept because it's a crappy wordplay like Sk8r Boi.

And that's just half the equation. The second half is much more interesting:

I was in Columbus' hometown, and while his hometown's claims to fame are probably daily realities for you - it cannot claim many famous renaissance figures. So naturally Columbus gets some statues and permanent exhibitions in it's maritime museum and aquarium and so forth.

And I was perusing one of these exhibits when it occured to me: of course.

Of course they fucked it up. Columbus, the Spanish Empire all those fools. The knew the world was round sure, they didn't know there was a massive continental landmass between them and the east coast of the Indies.

I do not deny that Columbus was a particularly bad governor, and human being. His incarceration indicates that he was bad even by the standards of his time. His release though testifies to his economic value to the Spanish Crown.

But consider that Columbus' fleet sighted an island now known as the Bahamas on October 12th 1492. Another Italian, Lazzaro Spallanzani discovered that fertilization required the fusion of a sperm with an ovum to create a zygote in 1784 - almost 200 years after the discovery of the New World.

English Physician John Snow displaced the Miasma theory of disease with the germ theory of disease in 1855 after the 1854 London Cholera outbreak. The point being that western civilization figured out how to make Trans-Atlantic voyages almost 200 years before they figured out how babies were made (even though they made a lot of babies before the discovery) and almost 300 years before they discovered that pathogens caused disease.

Columbus' voyage among others made Darwin's voyage on The Beagle possible, but there was no chance Columbus or King Ferdinand or any other decision maker in 1492 to know they were the same species as the people of the New World.

Consider how racist your Grandma is, and then go back about 20-30 generations. It was never going to work out well for the people who had Europeans land on their shore.

It's not an apology for the crimes of Columbus, that include slavery, mutilation, cruel and unusual punishements, larceny... he was a bad dude, but even if he was nice he more than likely would have wiped out the indigenous people of the Bahamas through disease alone.

The observation simply is that it happened, and it was bound to happen. It turns out that we can sail off into the unknown much faster than we can figure out how to deal with the unknown.

There's a psychologist I'm a fan of, Dr. Gordon Livingstone who had a chapter of one of his books titled 'the trouble with being a parent is that once you are qualified, you are unemployed.' Which is to say most people learn (and have to learn) all the skills requisite to be a good parent through trial and era in the experience of raising a child.

I feel this same unfortunate paradox also deals with exploration and colonization - we become capable of exploring and colonizing far quicker than we can learn the lessons of colonization. By necessity.

Run this thought experiment in your head - is humanity ready for faster-than-light-travel? Now imagine that we figure out faster-than-light travel. Perhaps a warp drive, a gravity engine or wormhole travel. Maybe even an energy efficient cryo-stasis process... do you feel the technical discoveries necessary will take more or less time on the time line than it would take for humanity to figure out how to peacefully and prosperously interact with an alien culture?

Personally, I can imagine interstellar journeys beginning while there are still wars on earth, and poverty, and disease. And sure, you may think we've learned about disease by now, but what about diseases of the mind? aka dumb ideas.

It could be catastrophically harmful to meet an alien culture and mention an idea as destructive as 'private property' to a culture that lived without it. But should we make it across the vast vacuum of space to another cradle of life - I would predict it will be a messy learning experience. A painful one, and an unequally painful one.

And just as with Columbus, how much greater really is the expectation that the fucking British Empire had the choice to do much better than they did with their annexation of the Australian land mass?

It was certainly not good, especially if you are Indigenous, but it fucking happened. And it happened on January 24th 1788. Still no germ theory, Darwin wouldn't publish until November 25th, 1859 and so the crown had a good 71 years to class Aboriginals as Australian fauna and not a single lay member of the colonies being able to articulate a counter theory.

I'm not a nationalist, and generally am of the opinion that if there's no choice there's no pride nor shame to be born in one particular country or another. A migrant might have cause to celebrate Australia day with a sense of pride - but that is in themselves for making their migration. In fact the best thing to do on Australia day is go to a citizenship ceremony. I've been once and it's really great and really moving.

The other people who exert sufficient choice to be proud on Australia day, are the indigenous of Australia - for choosing to bare the continued indignity of the Australian nation put upon them. Australia has not made it easy, or pleasant for the world's oldest living culture to live on. And yet it does, that is a fucking achievement.

What's cowardly and reprehensible about 'celebrating' Australia day, is pretending that Australia's history didn't happen. That it isn't the day a bunch of British soldiers and prison overflow didn't just unilaterally move in and take over. Not to mention the wars and genocide that followed. Some juvenile need to pretend that we aren't descendant or beneficiaries of less-than-perfect and often horrible people. Hunter-gatherer nomadic cultures often lack the complexity of structure necessary to support truly horrible people and institutions, and the libraries and written accounts to document their ne'er-do-wells, but I'm sure everyone's descended from a perpetrator of fratricide, a rapist etc. most likely a bunch of them, and you don't have to believe in Cain and Abel to figure the odds are pretty high.

But moving Australia day to 'Shitty meme day' is exactly that juvenile exercise. You'll still live in Australia, be represented by the government of Australia, member of the commonwealth nations, you'll travel on your Australian passport, function somewhere in an economy that is dependent on cattle and sheep grazing, irrigation, mineral and fossil extraction. There'll still be no treaty, no reparations for the Indigenous people's of Australia. You'll just be able to celebrate a public holiday on a day that you don't have to feel conflicted about - unless you like me are disheartened by the word 'mate' and also how a slice of the population could throw in for a joke that is going to stop being funny by the time the date rolls around.

It's a gesture of hand-washing, not reconciliation. Columbus sailed off into the unknown, and discovered lands beyond the Atlantic. It's a huge achievement, just as the land-based discovery of America by the 12 families that crossed the land bridge and went on to populate the American continent also achieved something huge. Alas, one was a historical achievement, the other pre-historical. But those 12 families genes won big, and Columbus was perhaps not duly, but certainly punished for his crimes. Not only with his brief incarceration but for the diseases he contracted on his voyages that ruined his health, the stripping of his title and removal from his office. Columbus has blood on his hands, but he suffered too, the kind of pain one suffered in the 15th century because doctor's weren't worth shit.

So shifting Australia day is not the solution. I find it an odious idea. A fatuous idea. Better to do nothing, as Australia day for many young people is a good introduction into the actual history of Australia, which to the credit of my educators at least, is told pretty much how it was. Not some sugar-coated piece of propaganda. By secondary school my teachers didn't even claim Cook 'discovered' Australia, and that he probably used a Portuguese rutter.

Let's bring it back to 'Grand Final Day' the most recent public holiday in Australia. It's interesting to note that indigenous players make up almost 10% of the AFL lists, whereas they are 3.3% of the population at large. I haven't dug into pay-parity figures, but the AFL has not only been over the past few decades an important vehicle for reconciliation, it's been much more successful at reconciliation than Australian politics. Consider that the average white-afl player has more indigenous friends than the average white-Australian marriage equality activist attendee.

I am prejudiced, I feel that sport is important. But the AFL Grand Final is certainly worth celebrating - it gives us a long weekend for one, which Australia day does not guarantee. But sport also represents community - true community where all one has to do for membership is love one's team. It facilitates sharing both joy and grief with strangers, it's a vehicle for reconciliation and perhaps most importantly for progressives - it gives decisive objective outcomes in a world increasingly characterized by subjective relativism.

I mean, that Junkee video literally states as the rationale - let's change the date so we can have an unfettered good time without having to worry about our housemates feelings.